Sermon: The Ripple Effect

2018 September 9
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Fifty years ago there was a war going on. It was called the Vietnam War and many people believed that the war was wrong and that the United States should get out of it. People led dramatic protests that made the government look really bad. The government didn’t like this and so they would sometimes play tricks on the protesters and spread fake stories about them. Like, for example, the FBI would send their agents into a protest and start throwing things and smashing things and then try to make it look like the protesters had been the ones to start the violence. The government did all kinds of bad things back then that no one would dream of doing now.


I want to tell you a story about the leader of one of these protests – someone named Michael Lerner. Today Michael Lerner is a rabbi, an author, the editor of Tikkun magazine, and a very important spiritual teacher to me personally. Back then he was a philosophy professor at The University of Washington. He had started an organization called “The Seattle Liberation Front” that was protesting the Vietnam War.


Well, the FBI played one of its tricks during a protest, started up some violence, and then accused Michael Lerner of causing a riot. Then they arrested him. He was coming out of the campus with his dog one afternoon after teaching a class and suddenly, just like in the movies, two unmarked FBI cars screeched up to the curb, one in front of him and one behind him. They took his dog and put her in one of the cars and handcuffed Michael and put him in the other car. (He was very worried about his dog, but she was delivered back home and was just fine.)


Michael got grilled in the car. The biggest and scariest of the FBI agents started asking him questions. “Why did you do it? Why do you keep causing all this trouble?” It was a long car ride and Michael figured he had nothing to lose, so he told the FBI agent slowly and in great detail exactly why he did what he did. He talked about the injustice of the war. He talked about the poor peasants in Vietnam whose lives were being ruined for no reason. He talked about the attacks on entire villages of people who had done nothing wrong. He talked about the American soldiers who were dying by the thousands and how black soldiers were being put in the most dangerous situations and losing their lives even more than white soldiers. The FBI agent sat there stony faced and said nothing.


Michael knew that by leading protests of the war he was risking arrest or even jail time. And he did end up going to court and serving three months in jail even though he wasn’t found guilty. His teaching job was not renewed and the State of Washington passed “the Lerner act” requiring that the University of Washington never hire anyone “who might engage in illegal political activity.” This law was later overturned by the Washington Supreme Court.


Michael also knew that as just one person, he was no match for the power of the FBI or the U.S. government and they were probably going to do what they were going to do anyway.  So why did he do it? He did it because he believed in the ripple effect. He believed that everything that we do, no matter how small, is like dropping a stone into a lake. The ripples travel out and out and out way further than you could possibly reach with your own hands, further than you can even see. He was and is a religious person who believed that we are partners with God in creating and re-creating this world all the time.


We never know the full effects of our actions. But every action we take changes the universe in some way – whether it’s a loving thing, a violent thing, a kind word to someone, ignoring someone, whether we use or don’t use a single straw – it matters what we do. Everything matters. There’s nothing that doesn’t matter. And if there’s anything that we can all get out of being here in a spiritual community, it’s the chance to reminded of that every single week. Each of us matters. There’s no one who doesn’t matter.


Now, we can either take that as good news or bad news or a little bit of each. It’s bad news because we can never really get away with anything.  We sometimes like to think the air is thin and we can slip through it, minding our own business, without touching anyone else. But it’s not true. The air around us is thick. It’s like a liquid and we can’t help but make ripples in it every time we move. And those ripples lap up against the shore of every other person and creature on earth. Breathe it in for a second – feel the thickness of the air. So it’s bad news because we can never really be free of our impact on others. It can feel like a lot of pressure if you think about it that way.


But it’s good news because if we let that really sink in, we can live a life that is dense with meaning. Our lives can be more rich and even more exciting when we recognize the power that we have. We can feel, like Michael Lerner felt, that we are co-creators with God; we are the wizard of Oz behind the curtain, we are the artist creating the world as we walk across the giant canvass. Wow. And so the world can kind of shimmer as we start to see, not only our own ripples, but the ripples of everyone else in our family, in our community, in our workplaces, in our schools. The ripples that combine into currents and waves that travel so far, we can’t even imagine where they end up. Here’s an example of how wonderful it can be to find out about our own power.


The story that I just told you about Michael Lerner is a publicly available story – you can read all about it online if you want to. It seemed like his action didn’t have a big effect on anything, although the Vietnam War did end soon after in part because of protests like his. But Michael’s story had a secret ending that almost no one knew about, not even Michael, until a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago, Michael got a letter in the mail – a physical letter from someone he didn’t know. He opened it and it was from a woman who said that she was the daughter of the FBI agent who had arrested Michael that day back in 1971. She said that she remembered her father coming home from work that day deeply shaken from a conversation he had had in the car with someone he had arrested. She said that the very next day, her father quit the FBI.


She wrote that it was hard on the family financially, but that it had shaped all of their lives in ways that she was ultimately thankful for. And for all these years, she had wanted to find the guy who had made such a difference to her dad and her family. Michael cried as he read the letter. The ripples of what we do reach far and wide and we never know where they finally make landfall.


Today we are going to make ripples of a different sort. We are celebrating our annual water communion – a time when we re-gather our community to a sense of shared flow, shared purpose, and shared journey. We combine our separate streams into one and make water that, to us, is holy. This holy water is water that sparkles with the energy of a little bit of each of us, a little bit of each of our stories.


We each have some water with us (if you don’t, you can easily get some from an usher.) In a couple minutes, we’re going to saturate this water with our blessing. And then we’re going to pour some of it into one of the two basins in our two side aisle chapels or into this beautiful baptismal font from 1853. The water that results will be part salt-water, part fresh water, some chlorine, billions of microorganisms. I know for a fact that there will be water from Africa today as well as water from the Jordan River at the spot people say Jesus was baptized. And I know for a fact there will be water from a kitchen faucet in Brooklyn. This water will reflect the diversity of all of us. Combined, it will be something new. And this water we will call holy.


What are we going to do with this holy water? Well, first we’re going to boil it. And then we’ll use this water to bless people. We will use it in our baby dedication ceremonies here at First U, right from this baptismal font as it was intended. When we touch that water to a baby’s head, it will transmit the blessing from each of us in this room to the baby. And when one of our gathering is ill or dying, if they would like it, they can also be touched with this holy water and receive our blessing.


Through this holy water, each of us will be able to lovingly give a part of ourselves. We’ll be able to say, “Here. Here’s a little ripple of me that can become a ripple of you. It can connect you more to your source. Because of course I am made of the ripples of everyone and everything that came before me.”


And here’s the coolest part: we’re going to add this water to last year’s holy water, which includes water from several years before. At the end of this year, we’re going to save a little of our holy water to include in next year’s holy water, so each year will also include molecules from each of the past years. If we do this for the next hundred years, your water will still be there, however diluted, taking part in making the blessing. Babies born to people not born yet will receive your blessing. Elderly people in their final days on this earth will receive your blessing. You may even receive the ripples of your own blessing back someday.

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