Widening the Circle

Rev. Douglas Taylor

February 6, 2022

“This is the world I want to live in.” the poet tells us. Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate 4A” is a simple piece relating an encounter, an utterly normal interaction among strangers at an airport gate waiting through a flight delay. Utterly normal, I say – and yet not common enough. Nye describes the world she wants to live in as a place where people are not apprehensive to share cookies together. That doesn’t seem beyond our reach. And yet … This experience of meeting people without walls of suspicion or fear does not come as easy as we would think.

It is a world within our grasp, a possible future of inclusion, of beloved shared reality free of bigotry and division. Nye says it is the world she wants to live in. It is the world I want to live in as well.

It is the world our faith calls us to create together. We Unitarian Universalists have ‘Beloved Community’ threaded through our diverse theologies. We have compassion and inclusion woven into our principles and our mission statements. We say God is Love, and all are welcome, and there is no bar separating us from the holy, and everyone is kin. We know the world does not actually work that way and so we are called to bring more justice, to refuse hate and division, to bind up the broken, to be allies to the downtrodden, to make the Beloved Community a little more true today than it was yesterday.

There is deep history in our chosen name as a faith tradition; but beyond that we can also say as Unitarians, we are one – a unity of who matters in this life. And as Universalists, we are all headed together into the brightness of the coming days. We are one and we are all included. Others draw circles to shut people out and we – we are called to widen the circle.

And even as I say this, even as I declare these lofty statements of our calling, even as we speak of widening the circle, I am sure you have noticed, have felt the opposite happening around us.

This pandemic has shrunk our circles of connection. Many of us lament the circumscribed living we are experiencing. Yes, love demands we care for the health of our community, I am not suggesting we stop being careful. But the reality of this pandemic has curtailed our widening work of late.

We were open and in-person for a few months this fall. But with winter, we again suspended all in person gathering for a time. It is likely we will cycle back open soon, and it is also likely we will at some point again close. We don’t know for certain, but we if we are to keep both our commitment to health and science as well as our commitment to live out our calling, we will need to keep being creative in how we do this. And so our circle of attention has shrunk

This pandemic time has been hard on our social activism, for example. We have not had as many rallies and public events since the pandemic. It is hard to organize a people who can not gather together in person.

It has also been hard for visitors. It has been hard for visitors to get a hand hold among us. We’ve had some staff transitions and we’re not paying attention the way we used to. It is hard to do the welcoming work we used to be pretty good at when we are online.

This has also been difficult for long-term members. Many of our elders and others who have been around a long time to stay connected online. It is a different kind of work to stay connected online. It is hard to feel heard, to feel valued.

Our circle has shrunk. It has been hard to DO things with this pandemic. There has been loss and isolation in this time. It is hard to not feel disheartened by this. It feels like we are not living up to our great calling to widen the circle and our mission as a congregation. And in the face of that, it is hard to not judge our community, my leadership, our faithfulness as a people when we see how we have not been widening the circle lately. So what are we going to do?

Let me tell you a story. I saw a short video recently that got me thinking. In the video, jazz musician Herbie Hancock is talking about an experience he had over 50 years ago when he was playing in the Miles Davis Quintet. The group was playing a set and (Hancock says) at one point he played a chord on the piano, and it was just wrong. It sounded bad. But there they were, live on stage playing a jazz set. He thought he had just ruined the piece, ruined the whole night.

But Miles just paused for a moment, listening, and then played a few notes on the trumpet that rescued the music, fitting the chord into what was happening. Herbie Hancock looks out at us in that video and said, “He played some notes and he made my chord right.” He said it took him years to figure out how Miles had done that. Here’s what he figured out: he said, “I judged what I had played. Miles didn’t. Miles just accepted it as something new.”

He said the gift of a good jazz musician is to take anything that happens and work it into something of value.

A wrong chord is not the end. A wrong chord or a mistake is not the last word on the matter. In religious life we say something similar – “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” God is not done with what we are going through. The spirit, the holy is still moving through every situation, even this one we are in the middle of right now.

So, what’s next? There are so many things that can happen next! A mistake, a wrong note, a bad situation, is not the end of the story. Ever!

What’s next? It can feel like this pandemic is like a massive boulder that has landed in our path, in our otherwise clear and perfect path forward! We were chugging along, we had a building renovation, we were hosting a series of interfaith meetings in the community, we were involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, we had some great youth and young adult ministry going on, we were looking to expand our partnership with a community meals program across town, we had plans! And then this boulder landed in our path. Now we have to deal with the boulder in our path. And it seems like dealing with this boulder is all we can do. Yet try as we might, we cannot push this boulder out of our path, we can’t force this pandemic to go away.

What’s next? What notes can we play to make this chord right? I don’t have the answer to that. I am not the Miles Davis of the liberal church. I have been listening and playing what notes I can. I know many of you have been doing so as well! We’re not going to turn it around in an instant the way Miles could. But when we think of the other metaphor – the boulder in our path – maybe we can imagine how we keep trying. We keep working on it. With persistence and imagination, we can find a way. This is not about the response of a few quick notes played in the moment. This is going to take some longer work to deal with this boulder.

So we ask: Can we work with this boulder? Can we build around it? Can we climb atop it to gain perspective? Can we decorate it? Can we learn it’s story? Can we use its strength? Can we incorporate even this boulder into the landscape of our loving?

I am convinced we can still live our mission and our calling with this boulder in our path. And I’ll tell you why.

It’s because we know we are not the only ones who feel like we’ve had a boulder land in their path. We are not alone with this feeling of frustration and isolation. This pandemic has hit us all. And – here’s the important part – this leads us to empathize with the difficulty and suffering of others. Our experience leads us to widen our circle of concern and care. If we will let it. This is how we deal with the boulder; we see it has landed on everyone.

The refugees fleeing Afghanistan’s horrors and seeking an opportunity to live without fear and the threat of violence in our country have experienced this pandemic’s boulder and so much more. We can be part of the community of people offering help to the refugees.

The communal trauma wrought against black lives in our country and the systemic racism haunting and harrowing so many aspects of our society can be overwhelming. We can become allies and anti-racists together to witness for a better way forward for people of color in our country and for us all.

The countless people living one medical emergency away from bankruptcy in our country and all those who have already suffered that particular injustice are drowning. We can step up as advocates for a more just and fair medical insurance system. And we can partner with those seeking to directly support people suffering in this way right now.

Homelessness and hunger are real problems in our county. Antisemitism is alive even locally. Hate crimes and violence against women, against our LGBTQ siblings, and against so many others need to be countered with messages and actions of love and acceptance and justice. We are well positioned to offer those messages and those actions because that is our calling and our mission as a faith.

He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In!

-Edwin Markham

We are called to widen every circle we are in; to reach for those on the margin and draw them into the center. I get it that doing that is hard right now. I get it that this pandemic has shrunk our circle rather then widen it. But that is not the last note of the song, that is not the end of the story. Yes, we have a boulder in our path. But we can pause and listen to the chord that sounds wrong, hear the discord and respond.

Friends, I offer you these stirring words and miss having you all here in the sanctuary with me. Consider the impact you’ve felt being excluded from this sanctuary over these past few weeks, and before during the early part of the pandemic in 2020. You didn’t play a bad chord and yet still you are impacted by circumstance. This sanctuary has been closed to you. This small example of exclusion we are experiencing leads us to empathize with others who are excluded.

This space, this room is an important part of our identity as a faith community. It is our sanctuary, the place where we come together, where we laugh and pray and think and hold sacred silence together. It has been hard not being together in this space.

As I stand in here alone this morning, I imagine you all here. I remember your presence. But in a way, this emptiness makes it a little easier to call to mind all those who were occupied this space in the past. All those through the years who came into this space before you and I were here, they too laughed and prayed and thought and held silence together. The walls hold that memory, even renovated and changed, the walls and rafters still hold the echo of those who did occupy this space before.

And before this space, they occupied other buildings. They echo through the years into our time. Our ancestors hold this space for us while we are not able to be here. And they tell us to keep working on that boulder. They had struggles of their own. This is not the first difficulty the congregation has ever faced. This is not the first time we have felt our circle shrink instead of expand. It wasn’t the end of the story then. It is not the end now.

Our predecessors knew the calling. Room had been made for them and they widened their circles over their time to welcome others in, to reach out to those in need, to serve their calling. Those who went before are with us still, echoing in these momentarily empty halls. They whisper down to us – push against the circle, they say. Widen it! Do not be confined! They say, break it if you must, but let everybody in! This is the world I want to live in.

Widen the circle and make it wider still. This is the call of our faith; this is the charge to us from those who tended this faith before us, and also the longing of those yet to come. Widen the circle, and make it wider still. Until all the world can see and know that we are one and we are all included.

“This is the world I want to live in. … Not everything is lost.” And we are all loved.

In a world without end, may it be so.