A Sermon delivered on September 27, 2015
Rev. Carol Rosine
“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must love things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
– Naomi Shihab Nye –
The poet says that before we can know what kindness really is, we must look through the window and attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of the dead Indian at the side of the road. That we are not to look away in disgust or dismissal, but imagine how this person in the white poncho could be one of us, could have had plans and dreams just like one of us. That before we know what kindness really is, we must acknowledge the suffering and the pain of our common humanity. That we are not separate, but connected. It is then, the poet says, that kindness will become part of us, as a friend or a shadow, and will go with us everywhere.
If you were listening to WBUR earlier this week, you may have heard a program that focused on the rise in Islamophobia in this country and in Europe. These past weeks we have witnessed the way in which some European countries are closing their borders to the flood of refugees escaping war-torn countries, the vast majority of whom are Muslim. We hear Europeans express their fear of what will happen to their homogenous cultures if an influx of Muslims is allowed. Even Germany which is accepting more than their fair share of refugees expresses concern that the Muslims will want to remain like the Turks did when they entered their country as temporary workers. If so, will they assimilate, they ask?
In this country we know that Muslims have been profiled since 9/11. Like many of you, I, too, glance with more suspicion at my fellow passengers as I wait to board a plane. And although I know that I should not be making assumptions based on someone’s looks, it seems that I can’t help myself. Perhaps this is what happened with the teacher in Irving Texas who panicked when she saw the homemade radio brought to school by one of her students. We can assume that if this science nerd had been a 14 year old girl with blond hair, the police would not have been called and she would not have been arrested and interrogated.
But it was the increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail that precipitated the recent program on WBUR. Especially Donald Trump’s refusal to correct the man who continued to claim that President Obama is a Muslim and Ben Carson’s comment a week ago that a Muslim couldn’t be President of the United States. One of the guests invited onto the program by the host, Tom Ashbrook, was Sandy Rios, the host of Sandy Rios in the Morning, broadcast on American Family Radio Talk. Sandy is also a Fox News Commentator. She spoke with confidence and stated that most people don’t understand that Islam is a political system that demands obedience to Sharia Law. She said that Muslims enter countries with the intention of over-powering, out-populating, and conquering so that Sharia Law can be imposed on everyone. She also went on to claim that within Islam, lies are permitted to further their agenda and so we can’t believe anything that Muslims or their religious leaders say because they collude in their lying. Islam is not compatible with our constitution she said, and therefore, Muslim cannot be Americans.
A man called in and identified himself and his wife as practicing Muslims, both of whom are in doctoral programs. What are we to tell our children, he said, when they hear things like this? Sandy Rios replied that she wasn’t concerned about hurt feelings. If Muslims want to stay here they must reject their faith and assimilate.
Another guest on the show that morning was a Sunni Cleric and professor of religious studies at Rhodes College, Dr. Yasir Quadi. After Sandy’s diatribe condemning Islam and Muslims, Tom Ashbrook asked Dr. Quadi to respond. He calmly stated that you can’t reason with someone who is this mis-informed, this delusional, this paranoid, so he would not engage with her. However he added that what was so frightening was that she speaks for a growing segment of our population that is angry and afraid.
This is a concern of mine as well: that so much of the rhetoric heard in the public square these days is grounded in misinformation and meanness. In my humble opinion, it seems that we, as a nation, are due for a course correction. One that will lead toward a greater understanding of The Other, whether it be a Muslim or the man in a white poncho lying dead by the side of the road; Others who may not look like us or worship like us or have the same family customs as us. It seems to me that it is more empathy that we need, more kindness, more compassion. It was Ghandi who said that we must ourselves become the change that we wish to see in the world. Well, we are a people who talk a lot about wanting to take part in creating a world in which there is more peace, more justice, more understanding and good will for all. And so, perhaps, one way to do this is to become more kind in the way that the poet describes kindness. Perhaps we must become more compassionate ourselves. That’s you and me.
A few years ago the Ware Lecturer at the UUA’s General Assembly was Karen Armstrong, a religious scholar who wanted to talk with us about compassion. She told us that the religious task of our time is to learn to live together in harmony and with respect. Our world has become too small for tribalism and nationalism if we are to survive as a human species she said. It is Karen Armstrong’s book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, that we are going to spend 6 weeks discussing beginning not this coming week, but the week after, on Wednesday. I’m offering it in the morning from 10-noon and again in the evening from 7-9 so that more of you might be able to fit it into your schedules. There won’t be any homework, just a chance to talk about how we can move beyond our preoccupation with ourselves which can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. We’ll look at our inner circles and ponder how much we really know about each other’s deepest fears and hopes and dreams. We’ll explore ways in which we can become more mindful of how we speak to each other, the helpful as well as the unkind things we say. And then, of course, we’ll move on to the stranger. I hope you’ll carve out time to join us. Sign-up sheets are on the side table. And oh, by the way, if you do decide to purchase the book, don’t look for one with a dinosaur on the cover. This one appeared thanks to one of my granddaughters.
You may already know that all of the world’s great religions have at the center some version of the Golden Rule: that we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The Loving Kindness meditation that we sang this morning came from the Buddha. Siddhatta Gotama, the man who would become the Buddha had studied yoga with some of the best teachers of his day. He quickly became really good at entering into the highest state of trance, what we would label a peak experience, but he found that after the ecstasy of the trance faded he was “plagued by greed, lust, envy, and hatred in the same old way. He tried to extinguish these negative passions by practicing such fierce asceticism that he became horribly emaciated” and his body almost died. But the passions didn’t. Finally he realized that there must be another way toward enlightenment.
He recalled that when he was a child sitting under an apple tree, he noticed that some tender shoots of young grass had been torn up by a plow and that the tiny insects clinging to this grass had been killed. He felt a pang of grief as though his own relatives had died. It was a moment of empathy that took him out of himself, so that he achieved a ‘release of the mind’ (ceto-vimutti). He felt a pure joy welling up from the depth of his being, sat in the yogic position, and even though, as a child, he had never had a yoga lesson, he entered into a trance.
Looking back on that experience the future Buddha realized that instead of practicing such fierce asceticism, he should cultivate the emotions that brought compassion, joy, and gratitude. Instead of trying to crush his violent impulses, he would encourage feelings of loving kindness. His insight was that to live morally is to live for others. It wasn’t enough to enjoy a religious experience and reach enlightenment. A person must return to the marketplace and practice compassion, doing everything possible to relieve the suffering of others.
Loving kindness, compassion for all sentient beings, was the Buddha’s way of expressing a Golden Rule. Confucius, almost a century earlier, had said something similar. When he was asked what his disciples should practice ‘all day and every day’ he replied: ‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ This, he said, was the thread that ran right through the spiritual method he called the Way (the dao) and pulled all its teachings together.”
And so it was with an older contemporary of Jesus’s, the great sage Hillel. It is said that a pagan approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if he could recite the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied: ‘What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go study it.’ And several centuries later Muhammad was saying the same thing. In one of his frequently quoted maxims (hadith), Muhammad says that ‘not one of you can be a believer unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself.’ (this material found in Twelve Steps…, pp 40-59)
So there we have it: all of the great religions say that we are to treat others as we would like to be treated. When I was at Ferry Beach this summer with my family, Mark Glovin, the minister of our partner church in Rockland, Maine, happened to be minister of the week. During worship on that Sunday, Mark talked about compassion and suggested replacing the Golden Rule with a Platinum Rule which would go like this: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”
I like this approach because it acknowledges that we can no longer assume that what we want is what others want. It acknowledges the vast differences that exist within our global community, and the sensitivity we must foster if we are to be in right relationship with The Other. If we are to really practice kindness. The poet takes us into an unfamiliar place, a bus filled with passengers eating maize and chicken and as we look out the window we see an Indian in a white poncho who lies dead by the side of the road. The poet asks us to see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
The poet tells us that before we can really know what kindness is, we must also know what sorrow is. You must speak it, she says, till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.
Just think what a world it would be if we could just be kind to each other. Our friends, our families, our neighbors, and especially those who are marginalized and vilified. Gandhi said that we must ourselves become the change that we wish to see in the world. So let us go forth, my friends, with this good and noble intention. To remember that it is more kindness and compassionate that is needed in our world right now.
© Carol Rosine, 2015