Harold Babcock's Sermons

January 31, 2010

Love and Indifference

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Hear the sermon

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.

And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

– Elie Wiesel

Not too long ago, a parishioner asked me a difficult question, the gist of which was this: why should one contribute money to restore a church organ when there are still people out there in our community who are going hungry?

The question has nagged at me ever since the questioner innocently or not so innocently posed it, so this morning I would like to venture a response.  I intentionally say a “response” rather than an answer, since an “answer” might imply that there actually is one and that possibly I have it.  I’m not really sure there is a satisfying answer to this question, but perhaps I can offer a response.

The question raises all sorts of other questions about how we spend our precious resources, how we prioritize our giving, and perhaps particularly, how we think about abundance and scarcity.  The question, and perhaps the questioner as well, assumes that there is only a limited amount of resources to be given for charitable endeavors, an assumption which may or may not be true, but which I suspect may obscure the reality that many of us, if not most of us, have much more than we choose to give away.

This probably sounds harsh, and I can only soften it by admitting that I know this to be true of myself.  I could probably give more than I do to many worthy causes, be more generous than I am, but for whatever reasons, among them my personal and possibly erroneous sense of the relationship between abundance and scarcity, I sometimes choose not to.  Or, one might say that I lack the “faith” to do so.

I am thankful to Peter Gomes for reminding me that “love”—or as he correctly renders it from 1 Corinthians 13, “charity”—is less about its object than it is about us.  It is about something that is called out of ourselves in response to something that we have already received.  As it says in the Talmud, “The whole worth of a kind deed is the love that inspires it.”  It is not first of all about the object of our love, of our charity, being deserving or not.  It may or may not have to do with the amount of our disposable income.

It is quite possible, in other words, to be generous without being charitable in the sense that Gomes describes.  And it is quite possible to be charitable on a very limited budget, since by definition it includes actions as well as gifts of money.  It may in fact be mostly a frame of mind.  A charitable person may well be broke, except spiritually, which is perhaps the way in which our charity matters most.  As an anonymous writer has said with truth, “One may give without loving, but none can love without giving.”

We might continue Elie Wiesel’s trope by saying, “The opposite of generosity is not parsimoniousness or even scarcity, but indifference.”  It is “not caring” that is the real problem in this world: becoming hardened or numbed to the world’s problems and needs and prospects; and it is more than just a material problem, it is a spiritual problem.  Indifference takes many forms, as Wiesel indicates, the worst but clearly not the only form of which may be indifference to human suffering.

As Michael D. Jackson has said with truth, “. . . The one hope we have in this life is that compassion will triumph over  indifference.”  Compassion, it seems to me, is a spiritual gift which may or may not become a material one.  It costs nothing to give, but makes all the difference in the world.  The ability to feel with others is perhaps just as important as being able to meet their material needs, perhaps even more so.

To my friend with the difficult question, I might respond that comparing a hungry person with a material object like a church organ is an unfair comparison, even more challenging than comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.  These are not the same kind of things, and they demand from us a different kind of response.  In either case, however, that response may be what Gomes describes as “charitable” because of what it calls forth in ourselves. Is one kind of generosity better than another, or just different?

The question suggests that we must choose one form of generosity over another because there is only so much to go around.  But I would argue that it is mainly our sense of abundance and scarcity which usually determines how we will give away our resources, and not the actual amount of them that we have to give.  What if there were enough to do both things, feed the hungry and fix the organ, too?

I know that not everyone can appreciate a church organ, but I will go out on a limb and suggest that most of us enjoy music.  I would even go so far as to say that for many people, spirituality is expressed not, or not only, through words, but also or even mainly through music.  Organs happen to be a very expensive way to deliver music, I admit, and that is a problem both for those of us who like them and for those of us who may not but who are nonetheless responsible for their care and upkeep.  But the spiritual opportunities inherent in an organ’s purpose really cannot, I believe, be denied or downplayed.

“Man [and woman] do not live by bread alone” is either a flip piece of proverbial wisdom or a cliché, but either way it contains a kernel of truth.  Freedom may be just as necessary as food, as indicated by the number of persons who have sacrificed themselves upon its altar, often by self-starvation.  And one can think of many other immaterial states of being or rights or virtues or ideals which make life worth living, which make life “spiritually” fulfilling, such as faith and art or being treated equally with others, and which when taken away can render our lives meaningless or worse.

Music may be for some just as important as food for making life worthwhile, though I realize that this is a choice many people do not have the luxury of being able to make.

The fact is that there is so much tragedy and suffering in our world today calling for our attention and generosity that we can easily be overwhelmed by it.  We know more than we have ever known before about the extent and degree of human suffering.  The danger is that, like the violence we tolerate in much contemporary television programming, we will simply become indifferent to it.

Again, it is this indifference that is the real opposite of charity, more than the decision about where we ultimately put our resources.  For it is when we become indifferent to life, to its many and diverse gifts and needs both material and spiritual, that we get in trouble.  In the end we must put our resources where our spirits lead us to put them.  If there is no actual charitable impulse, it won’t matter, for as Gomes suggested, it is more important what the giving does to us that what it does for those who receive our generosity.  Indeed, if we expect the recipients of our generosity to be grateful to us, we will often be disappointed.  As Howard Thurman has written, “Love has no awareness of merit or demerit.  It does not seek to balance giving and receiving.  Love loves.”

What I would like to finally suggest, however, is that most of us probably have enough to go around.  Enough of ourselves, that is, but even, most of us, enough resources, whether of treasure, talent, or time.  There are ways to help solve the problem of hunger in our community which don’t require giving money, but which do require our time and our talent.  It is not necessarily a lesser good to see that the artistic and spiritual needs of people are also met, just a different one, and it is our responsibility to see that both kinds of needs are.  It would after all be a much diminished world which ignored our spiritual needs for art and music, for beauty and for love.

As Peter Gomes wrote in the morning’s reading,

Charity is what is done for others because of what has been done for us.  Because [we have] been from creation onward the object of God’s charity, [we are] obliged to translate that into a care and concern for the neighbor, the orphan, the alien, the stranger, and all those in need.  Charity is an obligation . . . charity is not a response to the condition of the neighbor, but to what God has done for us.  Charity is enjoined upon each of us, not simply upon the rich, or upon those who can be said to afford it.  The widow’s mite is a telling moral of Jesus’ that charity does not proceed from abundance or from surplus giving but rather from one’s proportionate ability to respond to the need.  Just as God does not restrict divine charity to the rich but blesses rich and poor alike, neither are the poor exempted form acts of charity; and it is certainly expected of the rich.  It is to this responsibility for good works that Paul speaks when in II Corinthians he writes, “Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide an abundance for every good work.” (II Corinthians 9: 7-8)

As I was taught in Sunday School long ago, “From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.”  It was not a statement about my family’s material possibilities, but about all the gifts of life which I had received, about the skills and talents and potential I possessed, indeed, about the gift of life itself.

Half the battle is in trusting that we have enough to go round, and then in acting as if it were so.  Of course, eradicating hunger is of the first importance, but there are other human needs which must be attended to as well, and for some of us aesthetics are one of the things that make life worth living in the first place.

For myself, I have made up my mind to do both: continue to support the eradication of hunger through support of such organizations as the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, as well as to support the organ renovation project by making a leadership pledge.

The interesting thing I have learned is that after the initial pain of making a sacrificial gift to any worthy cause, one mysteriously finds oneself feeling better.  I can’t prove that this is true, rather, you must find it out for yourself.  I can only tell you that for me it has always been the case.

May we all go forth with a heightened sense not only of who we are, but of what we have.  May we give generously from our abundance to many worthy causes, but most especially may we avoid the indifference which is the enemy of everything and everyone whom we hold dear.  May we find ourselves growing in love, compassion, faith, beauty, and, most especially, in the knowledge of the gift of life, itself.  So be it.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
January 31, 2010

Readings: 1 Corinthians 13, from The Good Book, by Peter Gomes


January 17, 2010

Giving of Yourself

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“You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”
– Kahlil Gibran

The reading for the morning by Victoria Safford was a reminder, if you still needed one, of the importance of giving oneself, as she wrote, “well and faithfully to a few worthy things.”

I have thought long and hard this year about how best to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  After all, the facts of his life are very well known by now: his birth in segregated Atlanta to a minister father and a church organist mother; his education at Morehouse and Boston University; how he originally sought a quiet, scholarly life; how because of his exceptional abilities, especially his speaking ability, he was drawn into leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott; how he discovered a method of protest and of life itself in the non-violent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi; how he rose to leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and gained prominence as the spokesman of the Civil Rights movement after writing his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and later delivering his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 “Great March on Washington”; how his vision ultimately broadened beyond the Civil Rights movement to include opposition to the Vietnam War, indeed, to all war, much to the chagrin of many of his Civil Rights allies; how he made the indisputable connection between poverty and violence and thus transcended purely racial politics once and for all; and finally how he was cruelly assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee the morning after giving one of his greatest, and alas, most prescient, speeches in support of beleaguered sanitation workers there.

The facts are so well known, and, in light of the glow of the still recent election of President Obama, we are apt to downplay them, to think that they are no longer as important as they once were, but we would be wrong to do so.

The fact is that King’s life and even the mythology surrounding it remains as important to us as ever.  For me, the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he represented are among the great watershed events in my childhood and youth.  I came of age during that time, a time when religious leaders and even politicians were inviting young people like me into public service, led by President Kennedy’s plea to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It was a terrible and hopeful time, ultimately a time of tragedy, as gains in the realm of civil rights were offset by the horror of the expanding war in southeast Asia and unrest in the mean and not so mean streets of America.

For me there was a definite cause and effect relationship between those unforgettable events and the way that I ultimately chose to live my life, my choice of a religious vocation, and I have never completely lost my faith in the importance of service to others and of giving our lives to something greater than ourselves, something which will lend our lives meaning, make them worth living, and perhaps even  outlive us for a time, creating a legacy not just for ourselves but for all those whose lives we touch.

I need the yearly reminder this commemoration brings of how far we have come, and at what cost.  And this year it has got me thinking again about the importance of living a life of service, the importance, as it says in my sermon title this morning, of “giving of yourself” to something greater than yourself.  I am reminded once again of James Luther Adams’s warning about a purely spiritual religion being a purely spurious one.  As Martin Luther King wrote, “Any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and women and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that can scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”

The point here is that it is not enough simply to give of your treasure, important though that may be.  What is necessary is that each of us give at least a little bit of ourselves “to a few worthy things,” to a cause, to a neighbor in need, to an institution even, to making this world just a little bit better than it was when we entered it.  As King wrote in another place, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

For the Martin Luther King, Jr. the Christian, the most important thing was to try to live a Christ-like life.  It meant trying to help what Jesus had called “the least of these” among us, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the discouraged, what the Bible calls in another place “the stranger[s] among us.”  As King said in what turned out to be his valedictory speech, in Memphis in April 1968, he didn’t want people to remember that he had received the Nobel Peace Prize or any of his many other honors, but rather he said, “Tell them I tried to feed the hungry.  Tell them I tried to clothe the naked.  Tell them I tried to help somebody.”

King learned well the lesson of Jesus’ paradoxical statement that in order to find our lives, we must lose them.  That is, it is as we lose ourselves in helping others that we paradoxically find that our lives are made fuller, wider, more meaningful, and more satisfying, though not necessarily safer.  As one of our hymns puts it succinctly, “as we give we gain.”  The more we give away, the richer we become, not necessarily in the riches of this world, but in the less tangible riches that are the result of living a good and occasionally even a sacrificial life.  As it says in the biblical Book of Proverbs, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.”

King said, “We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity.”  This law of service, of generosity, then, doesn’t depend on us having great wealth to share, though that would be a privilege: each and any of us can share a little bit or ourselves.  In return we will find ourselves growing richer in the things that matter most, in our personhood, in our hopefulness, in our self-esteem, and in our sense of having an ultimate purpose in life.  As King implored, “Give yourself earnestly to discover what you are made to do, and then give yourself passionately to the doing of it.”

As Victoria Safford wrote in the morning’s reading, “How do you want your obituary to read?”

‘He got all the dishes washed and dried before playing with his children in the evening.
‘She balanced her checkbook with meticulous precision and never missed a day of work—missed a lot of sunsets, missed a lot of love, missed a lot—but her money was in order.
‘She answered all her calls, all her e-mail, all her voicemail, but along the way she forgot to answer the call to service and compassion, and forgiveness, first and foremost for herself.
‘She could not, or would not, hear the calling of her heart.’
How will it read, and if you had to name a few worthy things to which you would attend well and faithfully, what I wonder, would they be?

I suspect that all of us can see ourselves in these descriptions, can think of times and places when we have fallen short, of times and places when opportunities to say and show our love have been missed, of times and places when we might have served a higher calling, of chances to make a difference that have been lost either through inattention or distraction or cowardice.  The good news is that it is never too late to begin giving ourselves away; today is as good a time as any.

As it said in our opening words by Alfred North Whitehead,

. . . we live by the law of expenditure.  We find the greatest joy not in getting, but in expressing what we are.  There are tides in the ocean of life, and what comes in depends on what goes out.  The currents flow inward only where there is an outlet.  Nature does not give to those who will not spend . . . the more you give out, the more you shall receive. . . .  Our gladness is not in taking or holding, but in doing, striving, building, living. . . .  The happy person is the one who lives the life of love. . . .

I continue to believe this, and in my better moments to act as if it were true.

I think that all of us would like to look back on at least a few times in our lives when we did something truly worthy of our time and talent.  Often these are not the great and obvious kinds of things, but rather moments which took some personal courage, moments when we did something difficult and challenging and risky, something we would much rather have avoided; an hour spent by a bedside, a time when we confronted our fears of sickness and death, an occasion when we offered our love and our attention in a manner mostly selfless and unselfish.

These memories of unselfish service are the memories which we will hold most dear when we come to the end of our time, and for me, the annual commemoration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a reminder of that truth.  The gift of our self is the greatest gift that any of us can ultimately give.  In the end, it is the only gift that really matters.

Shortly after the assassination of King in 1968, the poet May Sarton wrote, poignantly,

Now we have buried the face we never knew, now we have silenced the voice we never heard. . . .  Each of us must awake, inflamed with the inexorable truth that we can earn a moment’s balm only with acts of caring and fierce calm.

Let us remember that, and go forth to give ourselves to acts of mercy, love, and justice.  It will not matter if those acts are small, for every little act of generous self-giving, every kindness extended, every word of love spoken, makes our world just a little bit better, and our lives in it happier and more meaningful.  No such act is insignificant.  May you go forth in the power of that truth, and return having received its light.  Amen, and blessed be.

-The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
January 17, 2010

Readings: “Set in Stone,” by Victoria Safford

January 10, 2010

In Aspiration’s Sight

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 7:06 pm

“Where is our paradise?
In aspiration’s sight,
wherein we hope to see arise
ten thousand years of right.”

Like many young people, I started out in life with a belief that I could change the world, and, like many people as they grow older (regrettably I almost said “most people”), my ardor cooled a bit as I ran up against the realities of that world I had once hoped to change.

Like most of my Divinity School classmates, I still believed that it was possible to change the world.  I saw the church as one of the few places where honesty and integrity still reigned, where ideals actually mattered, and where selfless or at least unselfish action was still valued.  I saw the church as full of people who cared.  I saw the church as a beacon for much that is good, or at least for much that is better, in society.

I was drawn from childhood to the “heroes of faith in every age, far-seeing, self-denying,” as it says in one of our familiar hymns.  I found comfort in the clarity of the church’s moral teaching about right and wrong, and even in its physical space.  I truly hoped and believed that the church was part of the solution, not part of the problem, in contemporary life.

And while I must say that my faith has been somewhat shaken with the passage of years—familiarity may not quite breed contempt, but it certainly sharpens one’s sense of what is possible—I admit that I still get a warm feeling when I pass by a church, almost any church.  I know this is irrational, even more so knowing what I now know, but I suppose that I am much like that character in one of Anton Chekov’s stories of whom he wrote, “He was a rationalist, but he had to confess he liked the ringing of the church bells.”

Though tragedies such as the clergy abuse scandal, the unexpected, powerful worldwide resurgence of religious fundamentalism, the discouragingly frequent poor behavior of supposedly religious people, and the increasing politicization and militancy of religion have been a deep disappointment to me, I still believe in the power of religious institutions to do more good than harm.

After all, almost all of my early heroes were moved by religious impulses or demands.  Jesus—used and abused though he may be—was and remains an inspiring model of the religious life.  Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr.–that all of these had feet of clay only makes their ultimate triumph and sacrifice more poignant.  That they and others like them made the world a little better is indisputable.

I recently was honored to shake the hand of Bishop Lazlo Tokes, the ethnic Hungarian Reform Church minister whose courage as a young pastor in refusing to be evicted from his church in the western Romanian city of Timisoara precipitated the 1989 Romanian Revolution.  He is living proof that religion can still be a powerful force for good in the world and that a single person can make a difference.

I believe in the power of this ancient institution to mold people, to transform lives and to instill positive and life-enhancing values.  And while I have lost some of my earlier faith in the inevitable improvability of humankind, I remain committed to this strange and some would say archaic, or at least old-fashioned, institution of the church.

Like a character in one my favorite author, C. P. Snow’s, books, I don’t believe in original sin, but I have to admit that because of my work with human beings I have come to believe in something very much like it.  Human perfectibility now seems to me like a long-shot, but I still refuse to believe that there is no hope for us as a species.  Being of a skeptical frame of mind, and unable to accept that there is a divine plan for my personal salvation, I still have to believe that human beings are capable of making good choices and even to some extent of controlling their destiny, and I certainly hope that my conviction is true.

This lengthy preamble is by way of saying how important it is that we retain our faith in this institution of the church and that we continue to work hard to assure that it remains true to its mission.

That mission, writ large, is to transform lives, and by doing so, yes, even to change the world.  I am thinking of what the poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry refers to as our own “small acreages of the universe.”  We must retain our faith in our ability to make a difference in this world which so desperately needs us—at least by tending the small acreages in that corner of it that we inhabit.  Any of us can make a difference in the life of another person, or even in the lives of the other creatures who share this planet with us.

Especially for the sake of our young people, it is vitally important that we not allow our world-weariness, our disappointment or cynicism, to infect our church, but that we continue to fight the good fight in whatever way we can, in the faith that it does make a difference.  Activities such as our Young Church service day and the Friendship Table are good examples of what we need to be doing more of.  This must be and remain a hopeful place, come what may.

As I have grown older I have more and more come to appreciate the comfort of familiar hymns which encourage us to keep on keeping on in this good struggle to make a better world.  (I now realize why people get so angry when the words are changed.)  One of my favorites is the one from which my title is taken this morning, and which we sang a moment ago: “Where Is Our Holy Church?”

You may have noticed that all of our hymns this morning make reference to paradise.  Though not a subject that Unitarian Universalists seemingly often dwell upon, it is important to notice how central this theme of paradise has been in our faith.  Not some otherworldly paradise—certainly not anything like the paradise which is described in the biblical Book of Revelation—but rather a worldly paradise, a paradise that already exists in the here and now, or could, if only we had eyes to see and ears to hear, if only we had the will, the aspiration, to make it so, a paradise within our grasp.

It is an imperative of our faith that we continue to strive for that earthly paradise of which the hymn speaks.  Indeed, it is the church which is charged with foreshadowing that paradise, with making the first steps toward the better world of which we now can only dream:

Where is our holy church?
Where race and class unite
as equal persons in the search
for beauty, truth, and right.

We know that we have a long, long way to go until that vision is fulfilled, but every journey begins with just one step.

Where is our holy writ?
Where’er a human heart
a sacred torch of truth has lit,
by inspiration taught.

“Revelation,” as another of our great liberal hymns puts it, “is not sealed.”  It is ongoing.  Saving knowledge is not restricted to the Bible or to any other text, no matter how sacred in the imagination.

Where is our holy One?
A mighty host respond,
the people rise in every land
to break the captives bond.

Each of us contains a spark of the divine, each of us can live a divine life.  The great religious figures in every faith and in every time have shown us how.

Where is our holy land?
Within the human soul,
wherever free minds truly seek
with character the goal.

There is not just one sacred landscape, rather a sacred landscape lies within each of us.  Any of us can go there at any time.  No one, no race or nationality or religion, has a special claim upon it.

Where is our paradise?
In aspiration’s sight,
wherein we hope to see arise
ten thousand years of right.

Hymns are theology made accessible to the common person.  If you want to understand Unitarian Universalism, or any other faith, you can do a lot worse than to look at its hymns.

For Unitarian Universalists, the faith that we can make our world more fair, indeed, that we can create a paradise here on earth, is central to our understanding of what the religious life is or should be about.  Our faith is this-worldly.  It’s about doing rather than believing.  Some might call it naïve, but as I implied at the outset, it is our job to confront the sometimes dreadful realities of the world, and to try to alleviate them.  Anyone who thinks this is an easy faith is dead wrong.  We are not sitting around here waiting for God to change the world.  It’s up to us to act on God’s—or whatever it is that we hold most sacred—behalf.

This is a heavy calling, we know, and sometimes a thankless one, but we all have a sacred responsibility to show the next generation that their hopes for a better world and a good and meaningful and even happy life in it are possible because we who are now in charge are working hard to make it so.  No matter how downhearted we may become.  No matter how hopeless the task may sometimes seem.

Just as there were those who gave us hope and courage along the way, we must now become those people.

The secret is to keep our aspirations alive.  Sometimes we shall get discouraged.  Sometimes we will fail.  But occasionally someone will come along who will restore our faith that change, life-transforming, society transforming, even church transforming change, is possible.  Maybe that someone is you or me.

These things shall be: a loftier race
Than e’er the world hath known shall rise. . . .

. . . And every life a song shall be
when all the earth is paradise.


-The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
January 10, 2009

Readings: on “church” by Tracy Pullman and Leo Tolstoi     

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