The Loaves and the Fishes: Fixing the World 101

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 01/13/2013

In order to discuss what I’d like to discuss today, I have to use a stereotype of Unitarian Universalists.  Like all stereotypes, it has its usefulness as well as its errors, but use it anyway I will.  The stereotype is this:  Unitarian Universalists are, generally speaking, pretty well-off.

Now, those of you who are under some or even considerable financial strain may be shaking your heads, so let me explain.  The stereotype of UUs as well-off doesn’t have as much to do with whether or not we occasionally or routinely have trouble paying our bills.  It has more to do with whether or not UUs are, generally speaking, mired in such things as pervasive, persistent poverty, or whether or not we are consistently marginalized because of our race or our economic status.  The truth is that generally, UUs tend not to live in neighborhoods beset with crime or scarcity.  We are not usually in danger of being deported.  We are not often homeless.  We are, as a whole, very highly educated, and we are often paid well.  Culturally, rather than being marginalized, we tend to be pretty mainstream, aside from some theological quirks and political leanings and choices of lifestyle.  As with any stereotype, this is not true for every UU.  But it’s true enough for most of us, and it’s just as true here in this congregation as it is elsewhere.  It is to this group that I direct today’s sermon.

Another stereotype of Unitarian Universalists is that we think we might be able to save the world.  You know, fix all the things that are wrong, and usher in a new age, where things are fair and just.  After all, we are smart, educated, successful people who know how to get things done, right?  So if there’s a problem out there, all it should take is some good hearted compassion, a little elbow grease, some initiative, a good plan, and bam, the world is fixed.  We just haven’t gotten around to doing it yet.

So many UUs head out into this world that’s so filled with problems with big plans to get some stuff done, and they have done so for generations.  I often think fondly of those mostly Universalist women in the Industrial age of the late 1800s who were so horrified by tenement living and public drunkenness and children working in factories that they ushered in the social work movement, and the temperance movement, and labor laws, and nursery schools, and women’s right to vote, eventually.  Talk about elbow grease!  Those women weren’t messing around, and I imagine they were not always the most fun of people, but they had a vision for how the world could be different and they imposed that vision on the situation at hand.  And things did change. 

And many UUs kinda think, in the back of their heads, that when they enter the world and try to make it better, that’s what will happen for them, too.  They’ll be able to make everyone see the light, and things will get better for folks who need things better now.

But the Industrial Age scenario differs from what our stereotypical modern UU finds when he or she sets out to do some world-saving, these days.  When our modern UU sets out to do some world-fixing, oftentimes that UU exhibits behavior so pervasive that it was identified in print by a UU theologian and Provost Professor of Religion and Society at Meadville Lombard Theological School, Sharon Welch, in her book A Feminist Ethic of Risk . 

Welch writes that when we middle-class, mainstream types set out to solve the world’s problems and are then faced with the sheer “complexity of social problems and the inability to perceive how they might be resolved,” we quite frequently fall victim to a “failure of nerve, defined as ‘the inability to persist in resistance when the problems are seen in their full magnitude.’”  Result?  Middle-class cynicism and despair. 

Of course!  Intractable, complex social problems are really demoralizing, and can easily cause cynicism and despair, right?  Welch points out, correctly so, I think, that we stereotypical UUs, oftentimes, kinda give up when faced with these situations.  We throw up our hands and say, what can any one person do, and we go back to our regular lives. 

It is this middle-class retreat that forms the basis of Welch’s critique.  She writes that the tendency to slip into despair and inaction, the tendency towards which UUs are so prone, this slipping into inaction “is a privilege of the affluent, who can detach from the day-to-day issues of oppression. Welch writes:

It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort merely to enjoying it for oneself and one's family.”

So, to recap:  UUs tend to be relatively prosperous, culturally mainstream people, who want to do good in the world.  When we get out there to do this good, however, we are often faced with the complexity of the situation we want to fix.  And, so faced with complexity, UUs often will retreat from the good work they were planning to do.  When they retreat, they do so because they can, because their own personal lives tend to be more appealing than the situation they had set out to improve.  Who wouldn’t want life to be easier, more appealing?  The stereotypical UU makes an effort, and finds it all to be really complicated and hard and bigger than they were expecting, and so that typical UU goes home.  It didn’t go the way they wanted.  They don’t know what else to do.  And it’s not really their problem, not day-to-day, anyway.

The purpose of this sermon is to talk about taking a new approach, of figuring out how to get back out there and do some good after we’ve had the experience of being overwhelmed with despair about the situation we’re trying to improve.  Because we probably know, in our heart of hearts, that our own personal sense of despair doesn’t really get us off the hook.  We probably know that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We still need to be making an effort to make the world better – it’s just that we can no longer figure out how to do so.  Our initial impulses have failed us, and so we need some new impulses. 

Let’s talk about some alternatives to the stereotypical middle-class failure of nerve.

Let’s go back to Sharon Welch, who makes the critique that affluent people tend to retreat from social problems so easily.  Welch reflected on her own experiences as a feminist as well as her studies of how oppressed people were able to persevere for so long in the face of so much defeat.

To start with, it is “her observation that those who engage in justice struggles always do so from a position of incomplete understanding and limited perspective.” In other words, there is no such thing as a social problem with a clear solution and a clear path to that solution.  We need to go into these situations expecting them to be messy, expecting defeats large and small, expecting to have to work with others who have competing and conflicting interests, and be comfortable with getting one small bit done at a time.  Welch writes that “it is impossible to control or guarantee the outcome or success of a particular action.”  Impossible to control or guarantee the outcome, no matter what you do!  That’s also a helpful understanding when one starts out.

Welch also asks, as we ourselves might ask, "How does a movement persist in the face of partial victories and continued defeats?"  What keeps people working at it? This might be a question that only the privileged can ask, because only the privileged have the option of ignoring social problems, but it’s so important for us privileged stereotypical UUs to address it.  How can we keep on when it seems like we’re always failing?  Why bother with it at all?  Why keep going?

Welch believes that we affluent folks need to develop what she calls an ethic of risk in order to do effective, long term social justice work. 
She writes: “The ethic of risk is characterized by three elements, each of which is essential to maintain resistance in the face of overwhelming odds: [those three elements are] a redefinition of responsible action, [a] grounding in community, and strategic risk-taking.”

A redefinition of what responsible action is, a grounding in community, and strategic risk-taking, helps people continue to work for justice when things get tough. 

While the second two are valuable, it’s the first element I’m most interested in today.  How do we redefine responsible action?  In other words, how do we redefine what it is that we are supposed to do, what we are obligated as good people to get done?  If we don’t go in planning to Fix. The. World., then what are we left with to do?

Welch says this about the redefinition: "Responsible action does not mean the certain achievement of desired ends but the creation of a matrix in which further actions are possible, the creation of the conditions of possibility for desired changes." It is found in taking steps toward a desired goal, and focusing on possibilities, rather than outcomes, choosing "to care and to act [even though] there are no guarantees of success."

Responsible action isn’t fixing the world.  Responsible action is simply doing the next step needed in any given situation, as far as you are able.  Responsible action means creating new possibilities for the future, and then using those possibilities to create even more possibilities after that.  Responsible action is keeping at it even when success seems unlikely, even to you.  It isn’t your job to fix the problem, in other words, but it is your job to keep at the problem.  Even if it would be easier to go home and put your feet up.

Catholic social activist Dorothy Day once wrote the following, which I believe says the same thing that Sharon Welch does, in simpler language:
Young people say what good can one person do?  What is the sense of our small effort?  They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.  We can be responsible only for the action of the present moment.  But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes.
Her statement begs the question that I asked you earlier, of what happened with Jesus and the multitudes.  How did the loaves and fishes become enough for everyone?  Mainstream Christianity might put extra words in the text, and tell you that the simple answer is that God made more food, and leave all the mystery out of it, as well as the lesson.  But the Scripture text doesn’t say that God made more food, not at all.  It just says that they started out with not enough food, and many hungry people, and a good intention.  Jesus prayed over the food that they had, and then they started passing it out, and there ended up being plenty of it without anyone having to go to town to buy anything.  How it worked remains a holy mystery in the text itself.  And how each of our persistent, personal, one-brick-at-a-time efforts towards justice will work is also a holy mystery.  We prosperous, stereotypical UUs don’t need to worry ourselves about how it’s all going to end up.  We just need to worry about doing the thing that we are personally meant to do.

Lawrence Kushner, who told the tale of the woman on the bus that we heard earlier, puts it this way.  He writes:
You are going about your business when you stumble onto something that has your name on it.  Or, to be more accurate, a task with your name on it finds you.  Its execution requires inconvenience, self-sacrifice, even risk.  You step forward and encounter your destiny.  This does not mean that you must do everything that lands on your doorstep, or that you should assume every risk or make every self-sacrifice.  But it does mean that you must tell yourself the truth about where you have been placed and why… [t]he more we comprehend our mutual interdependence, the more we fathom the implications of our most trivial acts.  We find ourselves within a luminous organism of sacred responsibility.  Even on a bus in Munich.

My friends, what can we take away from all this?  For me, it comes down to this:  It isn’t your job to do all the world needs.  It isn’t your job to make it all better.  That is the job of the mysterious universe, to work itself out in the way it’s going to work out.  Even at your most influential, your most prosperous and affluent, you are only one person, and you will never be able to see all the nuances needed, or contain all the perspectives needed, to solve something big all on your own.  It’s not for you to do.

But don’t let this stop you, these personal failings.  In fact, stop thinking of them as failings at all.  Remind yourself that your job is simply to do the thing that you are well placed to do.  Remind yourself that you have the ability to see a few things - an injustice here, a solution there - that probably no-one else can see, and it’s your job to take advantage of that situation to make a difference.  That thing that you can do, that’s your job.  Teaming up with others to do it, that’s also your job.  And having faith that there is more out there working towards the good than you’ll ever be able to see, that’s your job too.

My favorite reading in our hymnal is one I’ve mentioned before, the one from Edward Everett Hale, and I hope you’ll consider it as you move from this worship space into the rest of your week, because I think it best sums up what I’ve been trying to say.

He wrote:  I am only one.  But still, I am one.  I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.  And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Go in Peace.