Sermon: Wrestling with Faith by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2019 October 20
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Wrestling with Faith

Like so many well-meaning progressives, Paul started out his faith journey assuming that justice and compassion will speak for themselves. He assumed, as many of us would have, that it’s self-evident that poor people having homes is more important than wealthy people having parking. And that simply explaining this in a calm and reasoned way should be enough to persuade anyone who needs persuading. This is the way we all wish the world would work. And yet, it doesn’t. For reasons that are completely mystifying sometimes other people just don’t agree with us. Even about things that seem clear as daylight. And some of us bang our heads into this reality time and time again, refusing to accept it, railing about it. And we wind up embittered toward those other people who don’t see the world the way we do.


Throughout the course of this amazing story that Paul told, he wrestled with exactly this. He wrestled with his faith in the efficacy of his highest values (do they really work?). He wrestled with his faith in humanity. He had to go through the disillusionment of realizing that not only were people going to actually oppose this housing, but they were going to fight and fight dirty. Paul had to wrap his head around that first. He had to wrap his heart around it. He had to feel anger. And when the attacks got personal he had to feel hurt. And then, this person who was not a fighter by nature, had to learn how to fight back, but do it in a way that still expressed his values.


When Paul and I were talking as he was writing this homily, he told me about this anger and this hurt. He had been trying his best to advance the Unitarian Universalist principles of justice and world community and these other people – the parkers – seemed like enemies of all of that. But then he told me he realized that another principle had to be brought into the mix as well – that of compassion in human relations. As hard as it was to empathize with people’s fear at the prospect of losing their parking place, that’s exactly what he had to do. In order to survive this exhausting process, he couldn’t just be fueled by anger. He would have to tap into the renewable, sustainable, clean energy of love.


Incidentally, it wouldn’t have been too hard for me to empathize with his opponents because I am exactly one of these upper west side people who parks their car, that they hardly ever use, in a lot forty blocks north of where they live because that’s the closest one they can afford. And if I learned that my parking lot was going to be turned into affordable housing, I certainly wouldn’t oppose it, but it would not be good news. It would remove a convenience from my life. (You know you’re a New Yorker when you call a parking spot that you have to take a subway to “convenient.”)


And so with Paul’s shift in perspective, here’s the crucial thing: he didn’t just fight fire with fire. In the face of the fake news being spread by the parkers, he didn’t start spinning his own fake news. In the face of personal attacks, he didn’t hunt down the parkers’ lawyer and start harassing him. Had Paul approached it this way, he probably would have lost. He couldn’t have beaten them at their game. Instead, Paul humanized them. He chose to believe that they had an inherent goodness that could be reached. And he rallied community support to help speak to that inherent goodness. When neighbors came and spoke, that’s what they were doing – humanizing everyone in the room. The old woman who turned the tide — the people in that meeting could see themselves in her. On some level they understood that someday they too will be old and they will need a place to sleep.


It is always a stunning moment when this kind of transformation occurs – and it occurs, not just on the grand stage of city politics, but in our own relationships – when those with whom we’ve been locked in battle, whom we viewed cynically, allow their hearts to be melted. Or sometimes the transformation is when we ourselves finally allow our hearts to melt. Maybe a little late, but it happens. They say if you wait long enough, anyone will surprise you. You might even surprise yourself.


So, what’s the special sauce here? How can we coax these transformations into being? First we have to stop what the philosopher Martin Buber called, “trying to inject our rightness” into the other person. While not exactly a hardball tactic, trying to force our sense of holding the superior position onto the other side only hardens both sides’ positions and so is unlikely to melt the ice.


If we can stop doing that, then we can start trying to see how the other person might be viewing the situation in ways that make sense to them… even if it doesn’t even begin to make sense to us. People dig in their heels because they feel something important is at stake for them and it feels worth fighting for. That thing may pale in comparison to what’s at stake for us but if we can get it just enough to acknowledge it, it can soften everyone. It will at least give us a little empathy for what they will lose if we win.


And when we have to fight – and sometimes we do – it’s important to get clear with ourselves about what winning looks like. If it’s only about getting our way, then our values may be the first casualty. We’re seeing this play out right now on the world stage and it’s pretty ugly to watch. But, if winning is about an outcome that’s healing, we can be just as fierce and relentless as the other side, but we’re always reaching for the goodness in the other. If we practice respect and lift up our shared humanity, the whole process can be restorative. That’s what real winning looks like.


Not everybody’s inner goodness can be reached. Not everyone’s heart can be melted by our sharing of honest vulnerability. Some people are too deeply wounded themselves to respond to the pain of others. Some people have put up walls that are too thick to crack. Transformation takes time and tragically, sometimes a person’s whole lifetime isn’t long enough. And so we who are trying to coax change out of others with compassion, have to protect ourselves as well and take care of ourselves.


Change doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t come automatically. Goodness and justice and compassion in human relations are not self-evident, as much as we wish they were. We do have to fight for them in a way that is true to us. When Paul told us that he felt like this whole exhausting process had been like Jacob wrestling with God, that probably sounded familiar to many of us. Because in our lives we wrestle with so much – we wrestle with our faith in the people we love and people in general. We wrestle with our ideals and what they really ask of us. We wrestle with what it means to be human in a world that can be so inhumane.


Let Paul’s story remind us that that wrestling is holy. The anger is holy; the hurt is holy; the compassion is holy, and the fight is holy. It all sparkles with the essence of who we are and who we long to be. With some combination of hard work and a cosmic thumb on the scale, that wrestling can allow us to land in a place of empathy for someone who seemed like an enemy. It can show us how us to fight. It can teach us to reach for the goodness in the other. It can transform what seems immutable. And we can come out the other side with a restored faith in our values and in our shared humanity.


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