16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 10/01/2006
In the sixteenth century, Issac Luria, a mystical Jewish Kabbahlist, imagined the world as a pottery vessel that God had made to hold his divine light and energy. And as he poured this holy light into the world, the vessel was too fragile to hold the myriad divine sparks of God’s incredible love and power. The world broke into shards spilling the holy sparks across the universe until all things were bathed in light, but the world itself was broken and in need of repair. Luria used this metaphor to challenge Jews to see their mission in life to gather the holy sparks that are God’s gift to us and use them to repair the broken and hurting world who so needs God’s love.
The idea of repairing the world, called “Tikkun Olam” by later generations of Jews, asks us to not only be aware of the need for the healing of the world but also to be aware of our own brokenness and our own need of healing. Through our spiritual journey to find the sparks of divine light that we need to repair ourselves, we find that in giving and working to heal others, we find our own healing. Seeking light for our own darkness, we find the light that can help guide others in their journey.
In the Judaic tradition, our mission in the universe is to repair the broken world by beginning to renew the holy light within us and then through our deeds of loving kindness to assist the world in restoring itself to a wholeness containing God’s light.
Often when we are hurting and in pain, we shut out the rest of the world. We focus on our own difficulties, not having the energy to even be aware of other’s pain around us. We pull inward and close the door on the rest of the world. Sometimes, when something prods us to open to others outside us, we can find some healing in our reaching out.
The story we heard today about the woman rabbi who was so tired from her day’s work but was asked to help one more person tells of the kind of helping that we do in our days’ work that teaches us about our need for healing ourselves.
Another story I love about this kind of healing is about a man you may have heard about, Millard Fuller, a self made millionaire at a young age. He had had numerous successes in business. But he found himself working all the time and not having time for his wife and family. One day, he came home to find that his wife had left him and gone to New York. She left him a note that he was no longer present in the marriage so she had left to find a new life.
Millard Fuller immediately knew that he had to change his life completely. Somehow this crisis in his life allowed him to re-prioritize his life. He flew to New York, found his wife, and begged her to come back. He told her that he had already taken action to sell his companies and move much of his wealth into a foundation. This foundation would be devoted to helping others and he needed her to come back and help him figure out how to have a happy family life while giving to others. Together they found the Koinania farm in Missisippi where they developed a plan for helping poor families to help build their own homes. This eventually led to the founding of Habitat for Humanity in 1976. Through Fuller’s changing his life to help others, he was able to heal his marriage and find what made him happy- helping others to build their homes.
As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in working for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. We believe that our communities should be places where we treat each other with fairness and acceptance. The practice of tikkun olam begins with ourselves and with our own communities. We heal ourselves and we practice working on the relationships within our own community but at the same time, we also need to reach out to the larger community to offer ourselves in service.
In the church in Louisville where I completed my internship while in seminary had a very small social justice program when I was asked to work with the Social Justice committee there. I met some wonderful people who had been doing projects for the church that one would primarily consider as “charity”. They collected items for food baskets at Thanksgiving time, they had a mitten tree, then collected and sent money to various local charities. But they were at a loss as to why the congregation didn’t seem that interested in helping with these projects. I suggested that perhaps we needed to initiate a project that was more personally involving, touching people’s lives in a way that changed us as well. After looking at several types of project that involved more human contact, the committee decided that they would like to adopt a refugee family with the help of a local agency.
During this time, I noticed that there was a woman on the committee who was quiet and didn’t say much. But when she was asked to do something, she came back with more enthusiasm and energy than anyone else. Once we took our project to the larger congregation and got their backing, we began work on planning what we would need to do to make this project work. This woman, Debbie Sublett, took on the largest part of the project, the furnishing of the apartment that we would rent for the family we would adopt. We had found out that we would be receiving a young couple from the Sudan who were pregnant with their first child. Debbie seemed to become an energy boaster, getting many others from the congregation excited about furnishing the apartment for this young family whose lives we would touch.
When the couple arrived, we met them at the airport, waiting several hours into the late night since their plane was delayed. When they finally arrived, we all beamed at them our welcome. They were shy, but seemed very overwhelmed with gratitude as we drove them to their new home. Debbie and others gave them a tour around the apartment, showing them how to do things like use the stove and the can opener. These were luxuries this couple had never had and they were amazed at their new life.
That congregation grew much closer and energized by the personal relationship they developed with this family and the other three families that they brought over from the Sudan and other countries. The change in the community was noticeable by many. They had confidence and shared an inner warmth from how they saw how they had changed these families lives.
And Debbie came out of her shyness and became the Social Justice Chair. During the time we were adopting our first family, Debbie learned that her grandson had a serious disease which put him into the hospital often. We all wondered how she could do what we was doing when her grandchild was so ill. But she would say that it helped her. She needed to be busy and she needed to be helping others especially since she felt so helpless about her grandson’s illness. Helping others helped her focus on the positive changes that she could make.
Since I been gone, I’ve heard amazing things about how Debbie has created a powerful social justice movement in that church. Last year, one of their members visited an African orphanage and developed a direct relationship that led to the church directly supporting the entire orphanage. This summer, a group of 27 of then flew to Africa to build a new boy’s dormitory for them. The people who participated tell me that their lives will never be the same after that experience. Debbie Sublett received the UUSC’s Volunteer of the Year award at this year’s GA.
The Talmud, the Judaic teachings related to the Torah, speaks of deeds of loving kindness being superior to deeds of charity. Charity can be accomplished by throwing money at something and not getting personally involved. While charity is also a commitment to others, it doesn’t change us very much. Deeds of loving kindness are personally involving and always have a deep effect on our discovering who we are and how much we need to be able to give. But when we are asked to step out of ourselves and give to others doesn’t always come because we’re looking to do deeds of loving kindness. We may be caught up in our own problems at the time.
During my husband’s illness with cancer, there were sometimes moments when others reached out to us and we didn’t really have the energy to respond. But there were times when we saw others’ pain and we found ourselves moved to respond. We had decided to take a weekend away at a little island in Michigan called Plum Island. It was a weekend for just ourselves to be together without the kids and time for my husband to heal from his latest round of chemotherapy. We rented a small apartment in someone’s home on the island that we found through the internet. We’d never been to this island before.
After driving our car off the ferry, we drove around the tiny island and finally located the water front house where we would stay. We drove into the driveway and started unpacking our bags. The woman whose house we were staying in saw us and came out of the front door and started down the steps waving to us. When she got closer to our car, she stopped and her hand went up to her mouth and we could hear her kind of stop and inhale a sharp breath. She was looking at my husband’s bald head. Bald from his chemotherapy treatment. After introducing herself, she apologized for looking so intently at Scott’s head. She inquired whether she could ask why he was bald, if that wasn’t too rude. We explained that Scott had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Her eyes filled with tears and she asked what kind of cancer he had. We told her that he had lymphoma. She shook her head sadly and then told us that her husband inside the house was dying of lymphona. We knew then why we were there.
Although we had come to get away from the world, to hibernate, we knew what was needed here. We spent the evening with this very lonely and sad woman whose husband was nearing death. We just listened to her talk and we shared our story. It helped her to tell her story and it helped us both to listen and to tell ours as well. In the telling and the listening, healing was shared.
I got a phone message yesterday and didn’t get a chance to listen to it until this morning. It was from a member of Cedar Lane, Mary Gasgill. She had seen that I was preaching on Tikkun Olam today and wanted to share with me a story she had read in a magazine. The story tells of a mother of a small child who needed to get some paperwork done one afternoon. Her daughter asked if they could go to the park since it was a nice day. The mother saw a magazine with a picture of the globe sitting on the table and had an idea. She took the picture of the world and tore it into pieces. She said to her daughter, “When you get the pieces of the world put back together, then we’ll go to the park.” She thought this would give her plenty of time to get her work done since it wouldn’t be that easy to piece together the world. The daughter went off to work on her own, but came back within a few minutes with the world tapes together in a recognizable form. The mother was surprised and asked how the little girl had accomplished this so quickly. The girl turned the picture over and revealed that on the other side of the picture was a picture of a person’s face. She said, “When I put together the person, the picture of the world just came together.”
Repairing the world, “tikkun olam” has to do with discovering what people need, what we have to give, what we need to give to others to feel more whole ourselves. We are broken, hurting people and the world is a broken, hurting place. We reach out to others, offering what comfort and energy we have, and we are brought closer to a wholeness where we are healed as we heal others.