“Pandora’s Box” or “What, If Anything, Have We Learned?”

A Sermon by Deborah Weiner, Developmental Director – Faith Development for Children
The First Parish in Bedford, MA, Unitarian Universalist
November 15, 2020


Opening Words

adrienne maree brown, from Emergent Strategy:

EV-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G—is connected.

The soil needs rain, organic matter, air, worms and life in order to do what it needs to do to give and receive life. Each element is an essential component.

Organizing takes humility and selflessness and patience and rhythm while our ultimate goal of liberation will take many expert components.

Some of us build and fight for land, healthy bodies, healthy relationships, clean air, water, homes, safety, dignity, and humanizing education. Others of us fight for food and political prisoners and abolition and environmental justice. Our work is intersectional and multifaceted.

Nature teaches us that our work has to be nuanced and steadfast. And more than anything, that we need each other—at our highest natural glory—in order to get free.




Some of you are old enough to remember that commercial from years ago, this one:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWMyWr9_CVo (It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature!)

Yep, that takes you back! And chastened, we are all supposed to heed the warning.  At least long enough to go buy that stuff that was being hawked – filled with chemicals I might add, to give us that “sweet, creamy taste” the ad talks about – at the grocery store.

Or there’s the time-honored story of the children who – excited about Christmas – sneak downstairs to the tree in the middle of the night before Christmas, and open their presents…only to try and wrap them up again before their parents get up.  They go back up to their beds and when it’s time to get up and REALLY have Christmas, they realize that they have ruined their holiday – all because they were too curious and impatient.

The story of Pandora’s box – stretching back to at least the 6th century BC, is also at the root of the Trojan Horse story.  That one is in Homer’s Odyssey and also in Virgil’s poem, Aeneid. The Trojan Horse – such a lovely gift – holds soldiers inside, waiting for their moment to conquer their oppressors.  Once the gift horse was pulled inside the walls of the city of Troy the Greeks emerged, overthrowing the ruler and taking the city.

In the Bible – in Genesis – Adam and Eve encounter the serpent in the garden who lures them to eat the apple, thereby unleashing unpleasant surprises.  And in eastern myth there’s the Aladdin story – although it was not part of the original “1001 Arabian Nights” collection – which is where we get the Genie who escapes from the bottle.

So this idea of wanting what we shouldn’t have, or what we don’t deserve, shows up in many cultures, through many centuries.

Right now we’re living in a time where we opened up Pandora’s box.  Viruses have been around since history was recorded – we know that.  And although this unique virus may have been unknown before 2019 it has been preceded by many others over time…one causing Neolithic decline – around 3000 BCE, one around 600 in the Christian Era, and TWO plagues that struck Europe in the 14th century…plus smallpox, which dates back at least to 10,000 BC.

Similarly there have been other times in world history where societies have elected or encountered autocratic leaders – like the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – who have imposed their narcissistic and perverted views of how society should be governed. Think Ivan the Terrible in Russia.  Hitler in Germany. Pinochet in Chile.

And yes, there are even examples of autocracy in this country, perhaps the most evident being the ways in which the US government claimed ownership over Native American land and people.  Here’s a fun fact: In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized his government’s oppressive rule over Native Americans, saying the “continuance of autocratic rule by a federal department over the lives of more than 200,000 citizens of this nation is incompatible with American ideals of liberty”.  Yet despite passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, systematic oppression of native people continued until the administration of Richard Nixon – great guy that he was – and the enactment of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. Huh!

It does seem very much like culturally, we have opened up a box of decidedly unsavory and malevolent forces.  Not just COVID.  Not just the current occupant of the White House.  Add in climate destruction.  The stealing and abuse of immigrant children who may never be reunited with their parents.  The inhuman treatment of good people – including this congregation’s beloved guest in sanctuary –  who dared to seek a home in the US that might be safer than the threats they face in their own country. And of course, there’s plenty more to add to this list.

Having opened up the box, many have decided to run and hide.  That’s one response for sure…head for the spot under the bed.  God knows I have wanted to find that place, covered with a nice warm quilt, myself.  “Maybe it will be ok in this space,” my child voice says.  “I’ll just stay here, humming, and binge watch reruns of “The West Wing” or “Game of Thrones.”  (Don’t laugh:  I’m in the middle of Season Two of “The West Wing” right now).

Or we respond with disinformation, inventing our own ‘alternative facts’ (thanks, Kellyanne, for that new phrase in the lexicon).  We’ll just convince ourselves that what we observe and feel and read isn’t so – and then we can come up with a new narrative to make it go away. Or we might stir up thoughts and, science and logic be damned, come up with an entirely different answer:  Fact: The burning of fossil fuels is destroying the polar ice cap…and the attendant Greenhouse effect is leading to more hurricanes, more forest fires, species dying or migrating to different areas.  And instead, someone tells us that if we sweep the forest floors we will be ok – and poof, no more forest fires!  Great, glad we solved that one.

And so cynicism takes hold.  And with it, polarization.  I am on my side, you are on your side, and we don’t talk to one another any more.  I know that I have said, only joking a little, that pretty much I talk exclusively to UUs and those with similar progressive political views.  While that can be comforting it also means that the dialogue that might take place to bridge gaps in thinking and speaking and governing…doesn’t really happen.  Instead we have gone to the barricades and we decided that we will talk only to those who mirror our views. This is the definition of a bubble and I’m not talking about the ones you decide you can safely trust to keep you safe from a COVID infection.  All the other folks out there?  They can be damned.

I’m wanting to say this:  I do not now, nor have I ever, deluded myself into thinking that every one of you who are listening to me, share my political views.  I know that isn’t true.  And I am pretty sure that somewhere – either in this crowd right now, or in the group of folk who eventually may see this sermon, there will be at least one person who voted for someone other than the apparent winner of the 2020 presidential election.  It can be satisfying to feel like those of us on one side know better, have triumphed, are smarter than…the other people.  Smugness can really cheer one, especially after the rotten year we’ve had.  I get it.

But I wonder:  what does it get us?? The 13th century Muslim Sufi poet Rumi is too often quoted these days, I suppose, but that is so because so much of what he said, feels like it was written for us right now.  And one of his poems, “The Great Wagon,” speaks to us.

He wrote, in part:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”

“Don’t go back to sleep” is, in its way, Rumi’s reminder that maybe, uncomfortable and frightening as the prospect is, at some point we do have to come out from under the covers and more than that, start talking to one another again.

The MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough was fond of asking, near the conclusion of his Morning Joe broadcast:  “Tell me:  what, if anything, have we learned?”  And I pose that same question for us – one that we’ll have a chance to talk about following this worship service.

What awaits us now?  Do we think that, because Joe Biden was recognized by the media 8 days ago as the apparent winner of the election (remember, he has not yet been certified as the winner) it’s all going to be all right?  That we can not only exhale, but settle back into our lounge chairs and resume life as we wish it to be (if not life as we once knew it)?

Not so fast, I say.
We started our worship service this morning with words from adrienne maree brown, one of the great contemporary thinkers on systems and society and our role in being change agents.  brown understands the opportunities we face at times like the one we are living through right now.  She wrote,

“Do you already know that your existence—who and how you are—is
in and of itself a contribution to the people and place around you?
Not after or because you do some particular thing, but simply the
miracle of your life. And that the people around you, and the
place(s), have contributions as well? Do you understand that
your quality of life and your survival are tied to how authentic and
generous the connections are between you and the people and place
you live with and in?”

Yes, opportunities.  And challenges of course, as we know those two ride together. There is much that can be done, and we must do them:  demonstrating our support of our principles, supporting organizations – like Stacey Abrams’ “Fair Fight” right now in Georgia; writing postcards and phone banking – as so many of you did leading up to the general election.  And there are things that can be done, pretty much every day.  Find the black, brown and minority owned businesses in Bedford, Burlington, Lexington, Billerica, Chelmsford.  They are out there.  Give them your business.  Consider moving your banking to a black or minority-owned bank. There is at least one not very far away, in Boston: One United Bank.

And before you get into a verbal wrangle with a vendor who isn’t serving you in the ways you think it should, stop for a moment and think:  what is going on in that other person’s life, what struggles are they facing, and what are we called to do in response?  It’s called empathy, and it is my belief that it will help move us out of our bunkers to a place where connection and perhaps, understanding can grow again.  “Out beyond a rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.”  If we can re-center ourselves and move from a place of demonization… appealing as that might be… to a place of understanding that we need to meet somewhere to begin a dialogue, we might just have a chance.

The Canadian conflict management specialist Betty Pries suggests that meditation and prayer may help us to release the pain and anger we are carrying, to move toward a place of empathy and connection. “I release to the universe every pain in my cells and in my body.” Again:  “I release to the universe every pain in my cells and in my body.”   If we do not take care of our own pain, Pries suggests, we become judgmental in response to pain. Entitled to feel just the way we do, and we aren’t moving from that space. The effort to move forward calls us to start by being loving and compassionate to ourselves.  Heaven knows: it is hard to stay grounded in the moment right now – but beginning with love and care, and releasing the burdens we carry, may help us get through.

What have we learned?
We’ve learned that close to forty-eight percent of the voting population of this country voted for the other guy.  While I can’t say I understand that fully, I do know that those are all real people, and they are carrying fears and angers and alienation in some of the very same ways that we are.  And if we remain on the opposite sides of some visible or invisible line of demarcation and scream at one another, I think we’re all going to stay in a very bad place.  Telling ourselves we’re right and they are wrong may be satisfying – but it’s unlikely to change much.

The poet and performance artist Regie O’Hare Gibson – also a UU – eloquently laid out the contrasts in his epic poem, “When They Speak of Our Time.”  He said, in part:

When they speak of our time:
They will say it was a time when truth abandoned our words;
and running sores passed for a false prophet’s mouth.
When television super shrinks conducted group psychosis
and when drugged up teenagers lived in a haze of oblivion.
They will say this was when we hamster-wheeled inside
the jagged jaws of death and remarked at how it
hovered above us licking its murderous lips. …

But, let them also say this was the time we fought against a self-inflicted genocide.
That something human in us stood up to resist Orwellian Jack-boots.

…Let them say that this was when the woman stepped forward declaring “I am that I am”,
and we men began to break ourselves of the need to break women.

…Let them say that we were a people of faith in a time when faith was in crisis.
That we were a people of hope when it made no sense to hope at all.
That we still believed that love could be as simple as the images
our ancestors painted on caves— images birthing our first human songs … because even
as earth shook beneath our shoes we knew there were things that would not change.

Let them say this was a time we desperately reached through the malignant maelstrom
of electronic chaos, and the maddening invocations of the soulless who profit
from the poisonous pathology of our time, and we found others there,
with our own eyes and hands reaching back.”

—Regie Gibson, 2001


What, if anything, have we learned?

Maybe it goes back to the most basic of things:  adrienne marie brown calls to us:  “Do you understand that your quality of life and your survival are tied to how authentic and generous the connections are between you and the people and place you live with and in?”

Friends, we live now in COVID isolation. There is so much that is unsettled and we are hurting.  We are lonely.  Too many Thanksgiving dinners this year will occur this year on Zoom screens. It is so hard. Yet…yet…we are called to fight through the isolation, the pain, and once again – connect.  That’s what I have learned:  I’m headed to the field.  Will I see you there?



Closing Words: 

by Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a person aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest leader, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some people become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you.