“Tikkun Olam”

“Tikkun Olam”
A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on Sunday, September 25, 2016
At The First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

To be hopeful in bad times is not…foolishly romantic; it is based on the fact that human history is a history of not only cruelty, but of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future — the future is an infinite succession of ‘presents,’ and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

—Howard Zinn


Opening Words

In Faith  By Sunshine Jeremiah Wolfe

This is a congregation that gathers in faith. Not faith in one religion or one god or any one way. We gather in faith of the power of diversity, the power of love, and the hope of a world transformed by our care. We gather in faith in ourselves and those around us. Not a faith that requires perfection or rightness in one another. Rather, a faith that in our shared imperfection we may learn to stumble and fall together. Faith that we will help one another to rise and to try again and again.



The Low Road 

Marge Piercy

What can they do to you?
Whatever they want.

They can set you up, bust you,
they can break your fingers,
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can’t walk, can’t remember.
they can take away your children,
wall up your lover;
they can do anything you can’t stop them doing.

How can you stop them?
Alone you can fight, you can refuse.
You can take whatever revenge you can
But they roll right over you.
But two people fighting back to back
can cut through a mob
a snake-dancing fire
can break a cordon,
termites can bring down a mansion

Two people can keep each other sane
can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.

Three people are a delegation
a cell, a wedge.
With four you can play games
and start a collective.
With six you can rent a whole house
have pie for dinner with no seconds
and make your own music.

Thirteen makes a circle,
a hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity
and your own newsletter;
ten thousand community
and your own papers;
a hundred thousand,
a network of communities;
a million our own world.

It goes one at a time.
It starts when you care to act.
It starts when you do it again
after they say no.
It starts when you say we
and know who you mean;
and each day you mean
one more.



With all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, repair the world. What does that mean for us as people of faith?

I was 21 years old, when I was given an extra lease on life. I was in a car crash that could have killed me but it didn’t.

I was finishing up an undergraduate degree in fine arts, and one of my professors invited our whole class to his house for lunch. A couple of us piled into the backseat of someone’s little red Hyundai and we headed across town. I was working on a clay sculpture in my lap so I was looking down and didn’t see the car that ran a stop sign and slammed into my door.  There was darkness, then a horrible metal screech, a crushing blow to my chest, bits of broken teeth cluttering my mouth, and a noise like somebody trying to draw in breath. That sound turned out to be me.

I remember so many moments in vivid detail from that morning, and almost without exception, they are moments of kindness.  The door of our car had folded around me and pinned down my left side, and the glass from the window covered us all. But suddenly in the open frame appeared my panicked professor, who must have leapt from his car and raced back across the intersection when he heard the crash. When he held out his hand to me and there was no way for me to take it, he placed it ever so gently on my cheek.  His eyes were overflowing with concern and love. I know love is a word we use all the time and it can mean so many different things, or nothing at all, but when you have felt it and it’s real, sometimes you never forget.

I felt it later too when my gurney was wheeled into a waiting area, in a cold hallway. Nearby was another gurney, and atop it was a tiny naked elderly man shaking and weeping underneath a thin white sheet. Why was he all alone? I couldn’t stand it. There seemed to be an attendant in charge of pushing me and I asked him if he would bring me closer to the crying man. The two of us held hands in the hallway, and I tried to say with my eyes what my professor had just conveyed to me.  “I see you.  I love you.”  He kept crying, and his two hands clasped mine like a rope around a mooring post.

It turned out that my jaw was broken in five places and my heart was pretty smooshed but ultimately there was really no permanent damage. They put my teeth back in their sockets, wired my jaw shut, and I had a crazy bruise from my jaw down to my hip, and no neck to speak of for a while.  I spent five days in the hospital after jaw surgery, and it was a difficult time.  But here’s what I remember most.

Someone came to visit me every morning who I would never in a million years have guessed would be the person by my side. I’ll call her Helen. Helen was someone I knew from a support group I had once been in. She was disabled, nearly blind and deaf, and as a youth she was abused horribly and then put in a mental institution when she acted out. Society generally shunned her, and she had no friends or family to speak of.  But Helen heard of my accident, got her disability regulation T pass in hand, and every morning took a bus and a subway ride to me. Every one of those five days in hospital I woke up to see her soft wrinkled face. As a child Helen had been so very alone when her family locked her away, and from that life experience she felt a calling to make life better for others who suffered. As I lay still, my jaw throbbing, Helen sang me songs from her childhood.  I’d never heard any of them, except “Daisy, Daisy,” but her companionship touched me deeply.  I needed someone, and Helen came.  Has this ever happened to you?

This sermon is about the Jewish concept of tikkun olam which means healing the world, or repairing the world. I believe we do that best, person by person, in person, side-by-side.

Rabbi Isaac Luria was a rabbi and mystic from the 16th century. He taught the following story: Before God created the world, the entire universe was filled with a holy presence. God took a breath to draw back to make room for the world. From that first breath, darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light,” lightness was created filling vessels with this holy light. God sent those vessels to the world, and if they had each arrived whole, the world would have been perfect. But the holy light was too powerful to be contained, and the vessels split open sending sparks flying everywhere. Sparks of the divine light mixed together with shards from the broken vessels. Ever since, the world has remained in a state of holiness and disrepair.  Tikkun olam, repairing the world, is seen as mending the defect in creation. It is our human task to find and gather the sparks.  When enough sparks have been gathered, repair of the world will be complete.[1]

There are many levels of tikkun, repair. Tikkun olam requires insight, compassion and justice, but each act need not be complicated.  Like Judaism, our UU faith centers around the possibility of redeeming this world, and mending this world. Healing may begin with the self, our individual bodies and souls, and continue outward to our families, our communities, our people, our country, and the world, all of which are connected.  A Jewish parishioner here once remarked to me that he sees everything he does as tikkun olam, from how he runs his business, to how he interacts with friends, family members and strangers.  “I always strive to build or rebuild,” he said.  Signing up for coffee making supports and builds the community, joining the peace and justice committee adds a voice to social issues of our time, helping teach in RE brings new values to young people hungry for hope.

Rabbi Luria spoke of shards of light being lost in the world, and a brokenness dating all the way back to creation. The truth is, there are many kinds of brokenness, more than we could ever count… in our personal lives, and more in the news this week alone, than we can stomach.  There is a brokenness upon this earth that affects everyone.  I could start anywhere: in a mall, in Charlotte, by a pipeline… Let me start there actually.

I heard a joke this week about climate change.  It’s really hard to joke about climate change.  Anyway, the setting is the arctic. Who lives up there?  (Polar bears.)  There is a group of scientists studying the bears. They are in their boat, looking for ice with bears on it. The scientist have their binoculars out.  One of the bears nudges the other, and points to the scientist, and says “look, an endangered species.”

Sometimes the only way we can call ourselves back into paying attention to that which is most important is through laughter.  And once we are more relaxed and paying attention, we need to reckon with telling the truth.  Often good art or poetry helps us do that.

Here is a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke from his poetry anthology Book of Hours.  I don’t know if he wrote it about climate change specifically, but it most certainly is about loving the earth, despairing of it’s destruction, and tapping into our longing to set things right.


Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour

and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor—let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,

before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!

I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re worthy of you and real.[2]

Brokenness does not have to be the end of the story.  As people of faith we respond, renew and repair.  At some point in recent history our leaders thought fracking would save our climate, but they were very wrong.[3]  Inspired by Bill McKibben, and our climate justice organizer Evan Seitz, many among us, on behalf of all of us – organized, wrote to legislators, protested the pipeline, painted picket signs, got arrested, got some press, taught other congregations our techniques, and told the story of our trials and successes to whoever would listen.  Our congregational Climate Justice Resolution was tikkun olam, because it empowered us to unite and act.  Educator, John Holt once said, charismatic leaders make us think, “Oh, if only I could do that, be like that.” True leaders make us think, “If they can do that, then…I can too.”  Those of you who are “mothers out front”, or who lay down in a pipeline, or gathered at the Statehouse, you are ordinary like the rest of us.  Yet your actions inspire us to take part in challenges too.  Thank you for leading us by example.  You help us gather up the light.

This week our hearts were with the people of Charlotte, North Carolina, as riots broke out all over the city in response to the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott.  We covered our gaping mouths in horror as we saw another black man lying on the pavement.  The British newspaper “The Guardian” keeps a well documented page tallying the number of people killed by police since Jan 1st, 2016 in the U.S.  As of this morning, it was at 793.  That’s about 3 deaths per day.

The Guardian reports that young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015. Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.  Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.[4]

In an NBC News op-ed piece this week, the Rev. William Barber, founder of the Moral Monday Movement wrote: “To condemn the uprising in Charlotte would be to condemn a man for thrashing when someone is trying to drown him.” … “The riots in Charlotte are the predictable response of human beings who are drowning in systemic injustice. We must all pray that no one else gets hurt. But we must understand why this is happening.”[5] His article goes on to explain how much of the outrage comes in response to centuries of black men being killed, or convicted of crimes they didn’t do, a voter suppression act in 2013 that disproportionately kept black people from the polls, a refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, reductions in funding for public schools and increasingly funneling money to private schools, causing further segregations in schools.

Seeing this much violence erupting in our country reminds me that we need to do all we can to lift up every instance of healing and hope when it comes.  Notably, it was on this day in 1957, that 1,000 troops secured Little Rock Central High in Arkansas, allowing nine black students to enter and attend school. It was a historic day in the Civil Rights movement not because it was the first school to desegregate, but because it was the first time federal intervention was used to do so.[6]  This week, in the spirit of tikkun olam, we gathered up a shard of bright light, found in the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.  Early efforts to establish a federally owned museum featuring African American history and culture can be traced all the way back to 1915.  Over and again the initiative to establish this museum were unsuccessful, until thirteen years ago, when it was authorized by congress at last, and the work began.  Covering more than a half-millennium of history while also celebrating the rich legacy of African American cultural contributions is a lot to accomplish, but somehow the museum has managed to respectfully depict the pain and pride of the black experience in America.  There are close to 37,000 objects in its collection related to such subjects as community, family, the visual and performing arts, religion, civil rights, slavery, and segregation.[7]  Dignity and resilience guide the viewer through stories that are at last being seen and told.  The African American voice will be silenced no more.

Our Parish Board met Friday and Saturday this weekend, and among other questions we asked ourselves was what would we be talking about and planning to do if Keith Lamont Scott were to have been killed here in Bedford?  Would we join the outraged citizens on the streets?  One of our responses was to reach out to our Bedford Police officers and open the door for conversation.  Bobby Bongiorno has already responded that he and others would be more than happy to come to an informal gathering in our Common Room called “Coffee with a Cop”.  Our board and ministers have also been invited to an upcoming initiative led by and for police, called Fair and Impartial Policing.  The issues are complicated around Black Lives Matter, and yet I feel in Bedford that our police force is very much motivated by a desire to heal the world.

I have always carried a sense of loss about the fact that I wasn’t alive in the sixties, when so much social change was afoot and people were bonded in the anti-war activism and the civil rights movement.  The Moral Monday movement is the first movement in a long time that has deeply encouraged me.  It is only just beginning in Boston, joining with 30 other states, following in the footsteps of quality organizing and leadership in Raleigh.  In NC, their key justice issues have been identified and lifted up by the people for three straight years, with weekly interfaith activism at the statehouse.  The goal of the moral revolution is to support state-based fusion movements to combat extremism in state and national politics, and to be a catalyst for a resurgence of political activism in order to end poverty, racial inequalities, and the most pressing issues in our country.  This last clause is to leave room for each state to make the movement their own.  In Boston we are still determining which issues are the most central for us, which issues will unite us across faith backgrounds and which will fire us up to act.  This congregation is the only one that sent two buses to the recent gatherings.  We are figuring out how to show up and follow black leadership, and how to take action together and build a coalition together.  Other UU churches are watching how we do things.  And I think our first step is to simply keep showing up.  Like Helen, my elderly visiting companion in the hospital, simply being there makes a huge difference.

In closing, I’d like to talk to you directly about deciding to go out and do big things.  There are any number of ways to join up with the movements of our time.  What constitutes a stretch for each of us, will vary.  But simply deciding to do something is very important.  There are social forces in our society that will make us feel disempowered, or not smart enough, or old enough or too old, not the right color or class, or that simply keep us too busy to be able to take part.  None of this is our fault.  Almost all of us feel pretty disconnected from some other group of humans, and so trying to join activities that link us with others we feel separate from can be a challenge.  But we get to decide what we want to take on and it’s up to us to choose to put our intention and courage behind doing that.

Many of us, myself included, feel intimidated to take on really big things.  It’s true that my own despair for the world can keep me near sighted, but joining the Moral Monday demonstration at the Statehouse recently changed something for me.  I realized that I need to be willing to let my disappointment and disillusionment take a back burner to my compassion for each individual other person whose story of injustice I hear.  Like Helen, I need to take action from my gut telling me “somebody’s hurting my sister, and it’s gone on far too long…”  It is our compassion for others that calls us on.

It can be hard to take on big challenges in our lives because in our childhoods we faced defeat many times. We’ve become used to setting our goals lower, and settling for smaller lives, for ourselves and for others.  Repair of the world will take repeated effort, new creative ideas, and staying closely connected to others.  We have to take on things that we won’t be that great at doing, and sometimes we’ll feel like losers.  The other day John and Josh and quite a few parishioners and I went to a protest at an ICE center in Burlington.  We stood near an intersection to make a statement about immigrant rights and unfair detention centers.  Then we started singing.  It sounded terrible.  I couldn’t stand it.  I wanted us to be good at what we were doing, or I didn’t want to be a part of it.  After a while I was able to tell my inner voice to sit down and be quiet, because being public about our beliefs might be embarrassing, but that’s not important.  Being public is crucial.  If we aren’t speaking up for justice, other voices have room to rally for hate, or motivate others through fear.

Most of us feel pretty alone, much of the time, but the truth is that every relationship we’ve ever made we had to fight to keep in some way.  We are struggling to keep understanding and relying on one another.  The more we leave the loneliness behind, the more we are fully ourselves, and fully able to decide to be there for one another.  Society today draws us into isolation, but every single relationship we build teaches us something.  It can change everything to show up and show someone you care.

Last night my colleague, Rev. Robin Tanner, minister of the Piedmont UU Church in Charlotte, NC, live streamed on Facebook the fifth night of the protests in Charlotte. It was the first time I’d ever watched a live video on Facebook, and I was suddenly immersed in the darkness myself.  Men and women of all races and ages streaming by, chanting.  “Who’s streets? Our streets.”  “If all lives matter, then black lives matter.”  The sound was determined, strong, proud.  I admit that I was expecting to hear only rage.  Not…dignity.  As Robin’s camera panned by a young black man, he turned to face the viewer, saying, “Out here it’s all love, a peaceful demonstration, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”  So many protestors do not want violence, they simply want to be heard.  The unrest in Charlotte is not about black people hating police. It’s about black, white and brown people rising up against systems of injustice.  A few minutes later, Robin filmed the protestors passing by a jail.  The crowd began chanting to the inmates, “we love you, we see you…”  Chills ran up and down my neck, as inside the prison, inmates flicked their lights off and on in response.

With all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, repair the world.  What does that mean for us as people of faith?  It means this:  We cannot afford to let this movement pass us by.  And we cannot leave anyone behind.  With all our boldness and frailty, misgivings and wildest hopes, we must act together.  As we venture forward through our days, may we each do our part to gather up the shards of light, bearing witness to the windows of every darkened prison, and every small flicker within.  Tikkun olam begins with us.




Closing Words

By Robin Tanner, adapted

A BLESSING FOR RISK-TAKERS and losers, and failures far and wide….

Blessed are they who fall in the mud, who jump with gusto and rip the pants, who skin the elbows, and bruise the ego,
for they shall know the sweetness of risk.

Blessed are they who make giant mistakes, whose intentions are good but impact has injured, who know the hot sense of regret and ask for mercy,
for their hearts will know the gift of forgiveness.

Blessed are they who have seen a D or an F or C or any letter less than perfect, who are painfully familiar with the red pen and the labels as “less than,”
for they know the wisdom in the imperfect.

Blessed are they who try again, who dust off, who wash up, who extend the wish for peace, who return to sites of failure, who are dogged in their pursuit,
for they will discover the secret to dreams.

Blessed are they who refuse to listen to the naysayers,
for their hearts will be houses for hope.

Blessed are they who see beyond the surface of another,
for they will be able to delight in the gift of compassion.

Blessed are they who stop running the race to help a fellow traveler, who pick up the fallen, who stop for injured life,
for they shall know the kindness of strangers.

Blessed are they who wildly, boldly abandon winning,
for they shall know the path of justice.

May it be so.

[1] https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/59368

[2] Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 61.

[3] https://www.thenation.com/article/global-warming-terrifying-new-chemistry/

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men

[5] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/editorial-charlotte-drowning-systematic-injustice-n652541

[6] http://writersalmanac.org for Sept 25th, 2016.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Museum_of_African_American_History_and_Culture