River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, October 1, 2000
Rev. Lynn Thomas Strauss
Hypocrisy, deception and cutthroat competition- these were the values that carried the day in the summer television block-buster...Survivor. America loved it...or loved hating it. Over 40 million viewers tuned into the final episode in which Richard Hatch was elected the victor and won the million dollar prize.
Did you watch? Did you come to know Rudy, Kelly, Susan and Rich? I admit I watched some, and I found it fascinating. It was plugged as reality TV, but it was all staged and contrived. It was called a deserted island, but like Gilligan's Island, the camera crew was right there the whole time. Competitors won or lost, based on democratic vote..., but is was possible to win immunity (protection from negative votes). It was called "survivor", but was nothing like real survival of hunger, disease, oppression.
As fascinating as the show itself, was the media coverage and the public's response. Like the popular show, Who Wants to be A Millionaire? few seem to question the American virtue of greed...of course, everyone wants to be a millionaire is the assumption of the day.
The final competitors in Survivor were not well liked by the audience...nevertheless, the TV viewing public admired the winner. At a survivor party in Dupont Circle reported in the Post, fans were hooked on the nastiness. "It represents how unfair life really is", said one 24 year old, Georgetown University law student. "I just admire his ability to win"...said one 36 year old loan officer..."I wish I could do the same thing. Be more successful in life. Like Donald Trump."
A 21 year old senior at Harvard University said he studied the show for its conniving plot twists, which he decided were true to life. "You have friends, alliances...and people you are wary of." One viewer commenting on the back-stabbing...concluded that the lesson he took away from the show was, "nice guys finish last." In the end the show struck a new low in immoral television programming. In the end even the appeal to tribalism failed to hold sway over extreme individualism. Greed overcame all impulse toward generosity and compassion.
(There was one episode where two teams competed for two large baskets of fruit...they hadn't had any fruit to eat for awhile, and both teams were eager to win...they practiced all day for the physical competition...and of course one team came out on top...and ended up winning both large fruit baskets. As the disappointment of the losing team became apparent I thought, surely , the winning team will share the fruit. There was plenty to go around. But no, sharing the spoils- caring for one another, never seemed to cross their mind.)
I appreciate the raw, unashamed, portrayal of one end of the human spectrum in community. A spot light was shone on the tried and true American way of competition and individual triumph. We were shown one extreme of human nature. It was awful, and it touched a certain truth about all of us.
I saw a connection in "Survivor" and its contrived drama, a connection to questions of justice in the "real", real world.
For the underlying issues and questions are similar.
How do we live together with strangers, friends and enemies?
How do we share limited resources? What is fair?
What will others think of me?
How will I exercise my power?
Social justice is at the heart about how we live our values of justice, equity and compassion in human relations. It's about how we share, how we share resources, power, love.
As a religious community, as people of faith, we are called to offer a vision and a model different from our media messages of greed, competition and individual victory.
It is of crucial importance that we try and try to live a model of justice, equity and compassion. That is the hope and power of institutionalized religion...that we can practice living in communities of love and justice.
I came to River Road, in part, because you are serious about work for justice in the world. Yet, injustice will always be with us. How we survive it...no how we live in the face of it...that is what matters. Whether it is an injustice which we ourselves suffer, or an injustice we confront on behalf of others...we all live in a world without justice.
I read the daily paper, I look at the list of social justice task forces here at River Road and too quickly I am overwhelmed. I feel helpless. I want to curl up with a good book and forget about it. What can I do in the face of so much need, in the face of so much suffering? What can I do about ethnic hatred and entrenched systemic oppression?
The big picture can overwhelm...as a person of privilege, I often don't know what to do.
Winter is coming and soon we will find ourselves walking past homeless people living on sidewalk grates, trying to get warm. One day this week, I hid the middle section of the daily newspaper, because there was a heart-breaking photograph of a Sierra Leone child, whose hand was severed by a rebel soldier. I didn't want to look at that picture.
At this very moment there are innocent people living in prison cells throughout this country and the world. At this very moment there are children dying for lack of proper nutrition and medical care in Washington. At this very moment there are teens, here in Bethesda considering suicide.
I don't want to think of these things too much...because they make me afraid. Afraid, because I feel helpless, afraid because there, but for the grace of God, afraid for my own children, and for yours. Ultimately, cries for social action make me afraid, because I will not do enough, I will not sacrifice enough. I will not make a difference. I will fail. Out of fear, we often turn aside. Yet, I feel the sympathy, the compassion that we all feel. What can I do?
How do we survive injustice? How do we live in the knowledge of such suffering? By taking to heart the words of Norman Cousins; by building the Beloved Community. "I am a single cell I am inter-locked with others in the consequences of our actions, thoughts and feelings. We are single cells in a body of 6 million cells- the body is humankind."
We survive not by competition and individual victory....we survive as the body that is humankind through knowing that we are connected in mystery and miracle. By acting on that knowledge to help both stranger and friend. We survive because our connection makes us strong.
Social Justice is not about surviving injustice, or curing it. Social justice is about living our connection with the person on the city grate and the child in Sierra Leone...it is about serving on a social concerns task force, not to change the world...but to overcome our fear by joining with others. We do not have to, we cannot do this work alone. We are all afraid. We all feel compassion for the suffering of others.
We are each one, a cell in the body of humankind. Therefore we need one another. Our values take shape in the lives we lead.
I saw evidence of these things this week. Evidence in the life of one woman named, Kate. I believe that I entered into her life through grace, not a word I often use, but one that points for me, to a power beyond my understanding, beyond my worthiness...such a power brought me to Kate. I was with her only a bit over an hour. When I left, I felt changed. I don't know everything about her. I can only tell you what I do know. I had resisted getting involved with Kate's situation. She is a neighbor to the church, but has never become a UU. She is dying and her friend called me and asked whether she could meet me, and have her memorial service here. In a busy week, I resisted. But grace also persisted.
Her friend called again, and said, that Kate seemed worse and could I come to her house. I did. Three friends were with her that day. It was clear that a close community of support took form around Kate. And I met a person of rare beauty, I could feel it immediately. She lay on her bed, her white hair thick on the pillow. She apologized for not sitting up, for not getting dressed. She began in her voice, made harsh by the cancer, she began immediately to tell me about "her children", she had never married or had children of her own, these were her "god children" -- she told me of how they visited last weekend. Of how one plays the violin and the other, the adopted one from Nigeria, brought her candy. There was a sparkle in her eyes as she spoke...she spoke quickly, sprinkling her talk with humorous asides, and descriptive additions.
Her hands rested gracefully, on the blanket, She chuckled a lot. Before too long we came to the subject of religion. She brought it up- she stopped my eager unspoken questions by saying simply, "I was six years old when I first began to doubt." She was raised Irish Catholic in Baltimore. Her mother was devoted to Catholicism. No one in her family had ever balked at first communion before. But Kate couldn't make sense of the body and blood thing. That was when she first began to doubt.
As a child, Kate's father took her with him to walk the picket lines at the steel mills in Baltimore. He took her to union meetings and neighborhood association meetings. When Kate was 13, her older sister, died of an illness, and Kate's doubt increased. She went often to the priest with her questions. She read widely in Catholic doctrine. In her twenties, the Papal encyclicals on birth control and divorce were very troubling to her. In her twenties, she began "sneaking out" to other churches. She tried many. She followed her doubt as it lead her to deeper and deeper examination of faith. My biggest mistake, said Kate, was to read the Bible cover to cover...and she laughed. And her doubt increased. Yet she carried words of Catholic scripture in her pocket for all of her adult years. She has asked me to read these words at her memorial service.
I learned other things about Kate. With her first cancer. She testified on Capitol Hill, for money for breast cancer research. She wrote letters to politicians and spoke to the media. During the civil rights movement, she worked for equity in health care, helping to integrate hospital rooms and emergency rooms. She told me that last year, before she was confined to bed, she took her God-children to Selma, Alabama, to walk the bridge. Before that, she had taken them to the Memorial service of Thurgood Marshall.
At some point, Kate came to River Road Unitarian Church for worship services. She came occasionally, she couldn't bring herself to sign the book she said, but she loved this sanctuary and found spiritual peace here.
Kate was getting tired, we had talked over an hour. I could have sat in her presence for the rest of the day, but she needed to sleep. Just before I rose, she asked her friend, who had joined us, "can I vote absentee? My doctor told me I have about six weeks, I might not make it all the way to election day, find out if I can vote absentee."
I took with me, all the prayers and readings, Kate wants read at her Memorial. I take them out and read them whenever I think of her. They are readings that affirm that we are all connected. Readings that affirm the entwined threads of faith and social justice as holy pursuits. Readings that make clear the strength of communities of love and justice and the meaning of a single life, a single cell.
It was grace that brought me to Kate's bedside. It was grace that brought me here to River Road. May our paths of faith and justice entwine. And keep us strong as we do the work of love in the world.
Let us be reminded of her in this sacred place on this our Social Justice Sunday, it's not about winning a million dollars or saving the world, it's about living a life that brings you to the person you want to be. About letting your compassion, your desire to help, overcome your fear.
The television survivor and my new friend Kate are both extremists. Heralded as a winner, he got the million, but Kate, battling four cancers, not looking at all like a winner, is the true survivor, the true leader, the true inspiration. Her quest for faith and justice led her to herself, to meaningful community and to peace.
Martin Luther King Jr, said, "The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love. Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice?"
Let us meditate on these things.
Blessed be. Amen.