Get it to the size of an Oreo

Rev. Meg Barnhouse
March 5, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

The sixth principle urges us to promote peace, liberty and justice. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the rights the nations of the UN agreed should be held by all men, women and children.

What I hear from so many of you in the past several months is that there is such a feeling of overwhelm. Quotations abound about never giving up, and the only people who accomplish great things are those who keep working when there is no hope, and that giving up is not an option, there is too much to be done. Yet there is too much to be done. Our sixth principle is overwhelming.

It says that we, as UUs, agree to affirm (say yes to,) and promote (try to get more people to say yes to) the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. That’s really big. It makes a person think the framers of the principles were getting tired at the end there, and that they just wrote one that was the equivalent of “well, we want the whole world to be okay, everything else plus that big freezer in the garage.” What do you do with a principle that large and unwieldy?

There is a funny short film on youtube with the title “The Man Who Ate a Car”, and it opens with him talking in his kitchen.

“A car is just the sum of its parts, and a lot of the parts aren’t that big, just a couple of inches across. 75% of the parts of an automobile are a couple of inches across and half an inch deep. That’s the size of an Oreo cookie. And the ones that are too big, you just machine down, smooth out.”

Most of us don’t have time, in the biggest part of our lifespan, to do much for the world. We are busy making a living, raising children, maintaining the relationships we choose, taking care of our health and strength or adjusting to its loss. It’s hard to find time and energy for leaving the world a better place. Ralph Waldo Emerson said a successful life was to leave the world ” a little bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you live…” Many of us do that. I am beginning to know some of the stories of a good number of people in this room and I can tell you there are many people here who will leave the world a little better than they found it. Lives have breathed easier because you have lived. What will you be known for when you are gone? What will be the elements of your legacy? I love how Emerson speaks so hopefully of “a redeemed social condition.” Just one?

Unitarians and Universalists have thrown their life energies in with the forces of change over the centuries. Unitarian Horace Mann organized the public school system Universalist Clara Barton founded the Red Cross. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was led by his liberal faith to a much more inclusive interpretation of the law. Thomas Starr King (after whom one of the UU seminaries, the one in Berkley, is named) was inspired to fight the California legislature for continued land rights of Mexicans. Jane Hull founded Hull House in Chicago, and began to professionalize social workers; moving caring for the poor from religious institutions that often pressured you to convert to get care, to non-religiously affiliated professionals. Roger Baldwin was led to establish the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). May Sarton wrote poetry inspiring her readers with truth and beauty. Susan B Anthony worked her whole adult life to get the vote for women.

Social action, politics and art are some ways we can make the world a better place. Most of us, in the ordinary course of our lives, are doing it by being loving family members, teaching our children strong values of usefulness, tolerance, open minded curiosity, kindness, knowledge, wisdom, and love. We teach the children in the church, we care for our grandchildren, we cook for people and visit them when they need company. We make the world a better place by being good friends, by trying to behave correctly and do the right things. Do those actions bring about world community with peace, liberty and justice for all? We can barely make justice within our own church, our own families. How can we heal the whole world?

This principle is over-large, and it sits there, parked in the driveway of every UU who is resolving to live the faith.

“This is a long term activity,” says the man who ate the car. “Look, it took five years. I ate my first two lug nuts on Dec 30, 1990 — finished the last piece of the clutch housing on Feb 14 1995.” Compared to a task with no beginning, no middle and no end, eating a car sounds almost easy.

World community, with peace, liberty and justice for all is too big a goal. It tells us that we are global thinkers, though. We are not “America First-ers.” That doesn’t fit our principle. We don’t say “I’m okay and my family is okay, so let the other people take care of themselves.” We have a big calling, we are called to world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. We are not individually called to that, though. We are called as a community. We’re not alone, We get to rest. We get to be ill, we get to fall back from the front lines when we are battle weary. We’re on a team. A big team with hundreds of thousands of UUs all over the world all holding this same goal.

Overwhelm burns us out. When we can’t get anywhere, when the things we do accomplish seem so insignificant compared to what we are supposed to be accomplishing that we feel they are nothing. We don’t want the sixth principle to make us feel that all our small efforts are insignificant. What I learned about setting goals is that you are supposed to make a goal from something you can control. Instead of saying “I’m going to be a catalyst for change like Barbara Jordan was!” you might say “I’m going to change one thing — about myself — this week.” That you can do, usually. Instead of saying, “My goal is to be a millionaire,” you make a goal of saving a certain amount of your income, or of living within your means day by day, or just or writing down what you spend. Goals should be measurable. Did I do it or not? They should be attainable. We can say that we have a goal to do some action every day to make the world a better place. Most of us are doing that just by living the principles, making our phone calls, supporting the lawmakers of our choice, running for office ourselves, and trying every day to do the next right thing, supporting those who are on the forefront of the work for justice.

One good purpose that can be served by an extra-large, unattainable goal, though, is that it is a measuring stick we can hold up to the various situations and decisions we face as we move through our lives. “Is this going to be more or less like world community?” You might ask yourself. “Will this make more peace, more liberty, more justice, or less?” A good large measuring stick can help as choices come up. Sometimes you still don’t know what to do. You make mistakes. That’s ok. Life is long, and there must be room for mistakes.

Let’s take that sixth principle little by little, and let’s take our time. Take a big important stand or do something small every day, or both. Just hold the goal in mind. Look at your home, your work, your church through its windshield. Machine those pieces down until they are the size of an Oreo cookie.

Podcasts of this and other sermons are also available for free on iTunes. You can find them here.

Most sermons delivered at the First UU Church of Austin during the past 16 years are available online through this website. You will find links to them in the right sidebar menu labeled Sermons. The Indexes link leads to tables of all sermons for each year listed by date (newest to oldest) with topic and speaker. Click on the topic to go to a sermon.