Connection at the Heart of It All

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 12/08/2013

Some of you already know, I’m sure, that one of Starbucks’ business plans has been to create what they call a “third place” for its customers. Your first place is home, and your second place is work, and then apparently there isn’t anything else – more on that in a minute – so Starbucks’ business model has tried to create a third place, a place where you can go to relax and hang out, buy coffee, of course, and maybe talk to people or see neighbors and so on.

When I was in seminary, one of my fellow students in preaching class, whose name I can no longer remember, offered a sermon about how Starbucks is different from church. Both church and Starbucks are third places, right? But Starbucks, although attractive and compelling and certainly one of my go-to coffee destinations, offers, really, at the end of the day, just a shallow and market-driven third place – not an authentic third place that meets the need that people have for one. Starbucks reminds me a lot of the story we just heard of Lady Green and the Speaking Tree (in the book "Telling Our Tales," by Jeannette Ross). It reminds me of the difference between the original speaking tree, fully alive, where everyone had a voice and a vision and whatever the message the newcomer most needed was the one that was heard, and the structure that Lady Green had made, with a picture of a tree painted on the outside and her lone voice coming out of an artificial, elevated hole.

At Starbucks, you may come to know your barista and even the names of some other customers. You might meet friends at Starbucks, and even have long philosophical discussions or get a lot of work done. You will certainly spend a lot of money there – I know I have. But a Starbucks, my fellow seminary student pointed out, is not really an authentic third place, not like church can be, should be. It isn’t a real Speaking Tree, just a facsimile. And the reason for that, I would go on to say, is because Starbucks, like Lady Green’s new building away from the tree, does not offer much in terms of connection. Starbucks doesn’t really offer a way to help people connect with the things that are important in life. At most, it offers a space where connection can happen, but no mechanism for connection, if you know what I mean.

Authors and psychologists and cultural commentators have been talking about disconnection in American society for quite some time now. I’m thinking of author David Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone, in which he points out the many ways in which we tend to do things in isolation now as opposed to in groups. We bowl alone these days, not in leagues. We eat dinner together less. We invite folks over less. We join clubs less. We commute more. We watch more TV. And this book was published before many of the additional internet options we have today. Now we have ever more screens to stare into. Now, even our relationships, when we use technology to conduct them, are experienced alone in some ways, too.

I think, at first glance, that doing things on our own and independently is appealing to us. Americans tend to be individualists, and we’ve certainly been groomed in this past generation to want to have things be the way we want them to be. We want lots of choices so we can always get what we want, what we think would make us the happiest, and sometimes having to compromise within a group setting flies in the face of that. Imagine a Starbucks where there’s just the one kind of coffee, instead of all those options, and that one kind is not the kind you like. You can imagine thinking, “Forget that third place! I’m going home where I can have coffee just the way I like it.” Having things our way is often presented as something that we deserve, in this day and age, and as I said, that can be pretty appealing. It’s even an advertising slogan for Burger King.

But being left on our own to do things our own selected way leads to a lot of being alone, even in a crowd of people. That’s called disconnection. As time has gone by, sociologists, psychologists and the like have noted that Americans have gotten more and more disconnected from each other. Maybe it’s true that there are so few “third places” left that Starbucks is actually filling a need, and actually seems like a real community in some ways, even though it has no content except to sell you things. Putnam says that joining and participating in just one group cuts your odds of dying next year in half. And apparently the number of people who participate in their necessary one group – or have even one person to share their feelings with – is getting less and less.

Not only are people dying from the effects of loneliness and isolation, or living unhappy lives, but we can see the effects of people’s disconnection on others, too, the strongest example being in the spike in mass shootings we’ve had in the past few years. There is no-one more disconnected than someone so miserable they think they’ll finally be seen if they kill others. There is no-one more disconnected than someone whose slide into violent mental illness goes unacknowledged and untreated until the worst happens. And there’s nothing more disconnecting than feeling like anywhere one might go – work, school, the movies – someone might come in and destroy you and everything that matters.

Rev. Scott Tayler, now the Director of Congregational Life for the Unitarian Universalist Association, describes disconnection as the spiritual crisis of our time. Disconnection, Tayler says, is the spiritual crisis of our time.

Churches are immersed in the spiritual crises of their time, you should know. They can’t really help but be so, because a church’s people bring whatever the spiritual crisis of the time is to the door every day. The spiritual crisis, whatever it is, that is happening out there, is the thing that the church interacts with, and hopefully improves upon, in here.

Much of Jesus’ teachings, for example, arose from the crisis of living as a member of an oppressed people in an occupied country. If you reread some of what he said in that light, such as “turn the other cheek”, or “render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render onto God what is God’s,” or, most powerfully, “Love your enemy,” it makes quite a bit of difference in how you understand it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and his church were able to respond to the spiritual crisis of their day, the embedded and ongoing racism that permeated everything around them, and that crisis inspired them to the Montgomery bus boycott and all the rest of what they were able to do.

I was just reading about a church in Mexico where the priest has been carving the names of those killed by the local drug cartel into the wooden cross at the front of the sanctuary, a way of saying that the crisis that they live in today has been noted, recorded, and is not okay with them. May those brave people be protected from harm.

Churches always interact with the spiritual crisis of their time, and, in some occasions, churches improve them. So it’s no small thing for a church or a minister to discover what the spiritual crisis of their time actually is. Identifying the spiritual crisis of your time, for a church, is like getting that message from Mission Impossible. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

Remember that “should you choose to accept it” part. We’ll come back to that in a minute. Let’s shift gears to what will seem, at first, to be an entirely different subject.

When I began my ministry here more than four years ago, gosh, from the minute I came onto the property there was such a strong sense of Sugarloafishness here. The culture here is strong. Most new members comment upon it. People are friendly and open, the location is peaceful and beautiful, our folksy worship and religious education offerings showcase what loving people can do when they offer their simple gifts to their community. People want to be here, and that’s why we’ve always drawn new people to our doors even when we were, in truth, having a rather difficult time with each other. “There’s just something about this place,” I have heard a lot, and I feel that way too. There is something about this place, this group of people. That thing exists beyond the individuals who are here at any given time, because people here come and go. I believe that thing that we are exists beyond this piece of property, too, although the land here helps illuminate and describe it. There is definitely something about Sugarloaf that is something good: peaceful, loving, compelling. I would even say, holy.

But what I didn’t hear, more than four years ago, was a clear articulation of what that Sugarloafy thing is, a description of what the thing is that makes us compelling, the thing that also makes us a Unitarian Universalist church. I did not hear a quick and decisive answer to the question, “Why do we exist?” or “What are we here to do?” I knew that having an answer to those sorts of questions would be extremely valuable to us in our work here as a congregation, as we figure out how we want to be together and what we want to do together to make our lives and the world better. But I wasn’t hearing adequate language that described what that Sugarloafyness is. What is Sugarloaf for?

I hadn’t heard that adequate language, that is, until a couple of months ago, when I brought home the stack of newsprint from our Sundae Sunday meeting with all sorts of colorful notes all over it, and pulled out one little drawing, created by who, I did not know at the time. This drawing was done up like a wheel with spokes. At the center of the wheel was a word: “Connection.” And along the spokes of the wheel were things that we connect to at Sugarloaf.

There is connection to self and connection to one another. There is connection to the outdoors and connection to the broader community. There is connection to new knowledge, and also connection to old knowledge, maybe in a new way. There is connection to Spirit, with a capital S. And there is a line that doesn’t have any words attached to it, not yet, making room for connections that are yet to be.

This, my friends, is just the sort of language I was looking for to describe our Sugarloafyness. It describes who we already are, a people who come together to connect with the things that matter. It describes who we want to be: a people who are connected with the things that matter. It tells us what we are for, to connect with those things and each other in – what? – a disconnected world. It tells us why we exist, because in a world that is having a crisis of disconnection, a place where connection intentionally happens – not the empty Starbucks promise of connection, but real, deep, ever expanding connection – a place where connection happens is incredibly potent. Connection is what we at Sugarloaf are already good at, and also what we need to improve upon in order to grow better. Connection is what we offer to the world, and also what we offer to ourselves. If we were to ask the question a million different ways What is Sugarloaf for? What do we do at Sugarloaf? the answer can always be “We Connect!”

It was by listening to Sugarloaf’s stories that I was able to see that this picture says a lot about who we are. But it is again by listening to Sugarloaf’s stories that we’ll be able to be sure we’re getting the idea right. The Long Rangers and I will be spending the next couple of months talking to groups of people here at church about connection, about this picture, and what it might mean for us here. You’ll get a chance to weigh in yourself in just a minute or two. The goal is to collect all the brainstorming that we can about this subject, all the language and stories that people can come up with, and then condense it all down into something simple and easy that we can use to remind ourselves what we’re about. Something we can use to tell new people what we’re for. Something we can use to make the world better.

Because when an organization, a congregation, decides to meet the spiritual crisis of its day with a definitive perspective that shows people another way to be, a life-giving way filled with promise and potential, then there is no limit to the good that organization, that congregation, can do.

We’re at the point of the service where I’d like you to play your part in the brainstorming. I’m going to pass out the basic picture of connection to you all for your thoughtful input and suggestions. Grab a pen or pencil. When you’ve gotten your sheet and your pen, spend a couple of minutes reflecting on it. What is missing from this picture? What needs emphasis? What matters to you the most here at Sugarloaf? Anything that comes to mind, write it down legibly as it arises. We’ll use this information as we consider how connection works for us here.
Now turn to your neighbor and tell them one way you most connect here at Sugarloaf, and one way you’d most like to connect in the future.
Now pass up the papers, and feel free to tell me more ideas later on. There’s also a few papers in the Great Room for you to make comments upon during coffee hour or in the future.

I wanted to keep this service largely story-based, because I think we connect best with all things through story, so I’ll end with a story about the sort of world we’re dreaming of when we commit to connection, when we choose to accept the mission we’ve been given. It’s a story by poet Naomi Shihab Nye called Gate 4-A.

"Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been detained four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well – one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,” said the Flight Service Person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.” I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. “Shu dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “You’re fine, you’ll get there, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.” We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her – Southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for fun. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies – little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts – out of her bag – and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo – we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie. And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend – by now we were holding hands – had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in this gate – once the crying of confusion stopped – seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost."

We can be the corner of the world where not everything is lost, where connections are made so that love and peace can grow. What’s more, we already ARE that corner of the world. So may it be and so may it continue to be, more and more, until the harvest comes. Amen.