Right Effort

Rev. Meg Barnhouse
February 12, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

In discussing this element of the Buddhist Eightfold Path, we look at what is an effective way to try to do things. How do we focus our efforts toward justice?

Call to Worship
By Octavia E. Butler

All that you touch — You Change.

All that you Change — Changes you.

The only lasting truth — is Change.

God is Change.

by Kamand Kojouri

The guilt you felt
when you were smiling
and others were suffering,
the guilt you felt
when you were petty with friends
and impatient with your parents,
when you were rude to your teachers
and didn’t stand up for strangers,
that guilt
is marvellous.
It proves that you are human,
that you want to be better.
Thank this guilt for teaching you,
for making you aware.
And now endeavour to better yourself.
It is a lifelong work to become
the person we want to be.


We’re in the midst of a series on the Buddhist 8 fold path. This morning’s element of the path is “Right Effort.” You try, you try with your heart and mind and spirit, but not too much. The Middle Way was where the Buddha recommended we live, having been an indulged prince, then a starving holy man. He taught that both indulgence and asceticism made you spend too much attention on yourself. Try, but not in a way that wastes energy, persist, rest, don’t give up. I had an indelible lesson in this concept on the New River one summer. We were learning to paddle canoes. The summer had been droughty, and the water was low. The teacher beckoned me to paddle to where she was. I paddled. Faster, faster, but there was no water to catch my paddle. She cocked an eyebrow at me and said “Why don’t you just get out and walk it over here?” She had the grace not to laugh. So I was trying hard and not getting anywhere.

Teacher Eric Kolvig says you can sum up this aspect of the path by saying “Try to do your practice, but don’t try too hard, and never give up.” Try, don’t try too hard, and don’t give up.

Now this might sound like I’m veering off the path, but I’ll bring it back around.

There were many great moments in the movie Hidden Figures. The Atlas Rocket was part of the launching system for the first manned space rockets. NASA, in the early 60’s, had human computers, men and women who would spend their days doing mathematical calculations. The movie follows three Black women who work as human computers at NASA. One of the most striking moments in the movie is a quiet one, but it’s a turning point. Katherine Johnson was promoted to work directly with the men who were trying to engineer the rocket to go up, and then to come down again in a way that would keep its pilot alive. She worked in the building with the white male engineers, but the only “Colored” bathroom was half a mile away, on the other side of the campus. Every time she needed to relieve herself, she took an armful of papers and trotted half a mile there and then half a mile back. Finally the man in charge of the program, needing to ask her a question and unable to find her, snapped at her about her long 40 minute breaks. Just what in the world was she doing for that length of time in the middle of the day?

Embarrassed, she has to confess that she’s going to the bathroom, and that her bathroom is half a mile away. One of the movies best moments was seeing the face of this man as he realized what she’d been up against, and then, a second later, realized he’d never even thought about it, never wondered, that it really couldn’t have occurred to him. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t – couldn’t think about it. As a man, he had more than likely drawn a velvet curtain over any thoughts of lady bathroom activities. You know how you just don’t think about certain things… you don’t even know you’re not thinking of them. In a blog post called “If America Were a Game of Monopoly,” the writer postulates four playing pieces, colored white, yellow, black and red. Using 2008 statistics on population, family income, and net worth, they describe the rules.

“If America were a game of Monopoly the rules would be a bit different. The following example considers race only to keep it simple. Adding class would be interesting too, but for now I leave that as an exercise for the reader.


1. There are four players: one white, one red, one black and one yellow.

2. The white player is the banker.

3. Starting amounts: Before play begins give each player the following amounts to start with:

  • $1500 white
  • $1085 yellow
  • $105 black
  • $75 red

(Based on median household net worth in 2000.)

4. When passing Go: Each player will get the following amounts when passing Go:

  • $200 white
  • $170 yellow
  • $140 black
  • $120 red

(Based on median personal income for 2000.)

5. Settling disputes: If there is a dispute between players, it is put to a vote. (See Voting below).

6. Changing rules: If a player asks for a rule change, it is put to a vote (See Voting below).

7. Voting: To win a vote a motion must get at least 5.1 votes. Each player gets the following number of votes:

  • 8.2 white
  • 1.3 black
  • 0.4 yellow
  • 0.1 red

(Based on those reporting one race on the 2000 census.)

8. Speaking: The white player can speak at any time. Other players speak only when spoken to. They are allowed to raise their hand to try to get the attention of the white player to ask a question.
(Based on media ownership.)

9. Jail:
Going to jail: Red and black players go to jail if they land on any corner square except for the Just Visiting Jail square.
(Blacks are three times more likely to be stopped by the police and have their car searched. Both blacks and Native Americans are way more likely to wind up in prison than whites.)

Getting out of jail: To get out of a jail you must pay $1000 or wait five turns.
(Prison is way more damaging than in Monopoly. Also, it is way easier for the rich to avoid prison altogether.)

10. The red player: Decisions to build or sell houses must be approved by the white player. The white player can build on any of the red player’s squares and keep all income for himself.
(Based on the government’s management of remaining Native lands.)

11. All other rules are the same.

Advice to white players:
If the other players complain that the rules are unfair, say “Get over it!” Point out that the game is fair and democratic: they can always ask for a rule change and put it to a vote. Also point out that the white player does not always win, so if they lose it is their own fault.

Personal observations:
Most white players act as if the same rules and conditions apply to everyone, as if everyone starts with $1500 and gets $200 for passing Go, etc. If anything, they think yellow players get more for passing Go, that black players get more turns and that red players are too noble to care about winning.”

So, we are in a political situation where a white nationalist is the President’s main strategist and advisor. Their policies seem to be to make sure the Monopoly rules stay as they are, or advantage the white piece just a bit more. As people of justice, while we may not be able to fix everything, we have a responsibility to see the system the way it is. We have a responsibility to wrestle with our blind spots. Those among us who are white are not wrong for being white. But it makes for some big blind spots. Those among us who are men are not wrong for being men, It makes for some blind spots. Those among us who are able bodied are not wrong for being able. It makes for some big blind spots.

Most of us are trying to stand for UU values of justice and democracy. We are trying to learn where our power lies and how to influence those who can change and enforce laws. Justice is a practice for many among us. We stand with our Muslim neighbors. We want to protect our undocumented neighbors from the aggressive enforcement tactics ICE is using in Travis County in the past few days. How do we do that? We learn what our rights are as citizens and what our rights are as undocumented residents. We learn what ICE’s powers are. We learn how to interrupt unjust interactions so that we can live to interrupt another day. We try, we persist, we rest, we don’t waste energy, and we don’t give up.

I’m the head of a department at NASA. I want to do the right thing. I want to be a good person. I’ve got my disadvantages I’m dealing with. I’m trying to build a rocket here, I can’t be thinking about what happens when someone I work with needs to go to the bathroom. I can’t be thinking about what citizen schoolchildren fear about their undocumented parents. When my mom was late picking me up from school I worried that she’d forgotten me, not that she was handcuffed in a van on her way to a detention center.

I can’t be thinking about what it’s like to be preparing my black daughter to drive across Texas to her new job, worrying her along through every mile, knowing she’s got a mouth on her and that she’s not scared enough. I can’t see all the things I can’t see.

If I am a UU in 2017, I’m called to open my imagination. I can try to put myself in someone else’s shoes, as a spiritual exercise, someone who is fighting cancer or someone who is parenting a child with special needs, to put myself in the shoes of someone who walks around in this world every day playing the game of life at a much higher degree of difficulty than I am, what are their mornings like, their afternoons, their evenings? What is it like for them to find a doctor, to find friends, to deal with plumbing problems, with legal problems? What is it like for them to get an apartment, a home loan, to pick a school, join the service, to find a job?

If you have the privilege of being a citizen, find out what you can do with that privilege. If you have the privilege of being light skinned, ask yourself what you can do with that skin color. Asking to see the manager, by the way, is one of my powerful privileges.

If I’m the engineer in charge of a section of NASA, I can’t fix the whole system of white supremacy. I’m in the game. How it’s set up is not my fault, but once I notice how it’s set up, once I notice the obstacles in the way of my coworker that were invisible to me, I have to decide what to do. Can I do one thing? Do I dedicate my life to fixing the bathroom situation all over? I have a rocket to build. I had obstacles, but people helped set it up so that it would be easy for me to be an engineer and work on rockets. No one told me “boys don’t do that kind of job, honey.” I can go to the bathroom in a white or a colored bathroom. I can’t change laws, but if I wanted an appointment with senator, he would see me. Try, but don’t try too hard, rest, persist, don’t give up.

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.