Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, August 2, 2020
Cooped up like this, what do we have to offer?
Most of us are living a closed-in, closed-down life. We’re waiting for this strange time to pass. And by ‘strange time’ I certainly mean the pandemic, but I mean more than that: I mean what’s been unleashed in public life in recent years: corruption, bigotry, violence. These also can put us back on our heels, sheltered, for safety. The pandemic requires me to stay apart from others, but the bigotry, violence and corruption can lead me to cower in a bunker, shut up in my house, waiting for it all to pass.
Sometimes it feels like a strange dream: this is not my country; this is not my world. But I know that it is my country and my world. Waiting it out, cowering: these are not what I should be doing, or certainly not all that I should be doing. It can feel like I don’t have much to offer – or that we don’t have much to offer. It feels like I just have to wait it out – all the bad stuff.
But on second thought I think we do have things to offer. That’s what’s on my mind this morning. What Have We to Offer? I’ve been making a list. So, six things we have to offer– and I’m sure this is a partial list.
1. Durham Friends Meeting has been important to me during this strange time, and likely to you as well. We’re all limited in how much we can spend time others. We have to stay distant from one another. But every Sunday we’re able to gather with one another, even if it has to be in this unusual electronic way. That’s one thing we have to offer: We can smile at one another. We can care for and comfort one another. We can encourage one another. We can be friends, good friends. This is something pretty much any community in the world can do, but it’s one thing we who belong to Durham Friends Meeting can do.
2. Durham Friends Meeting can do more because we are a religious community, a Quaker one. We can (and we do) reassure one another that there is more – more to life than we experience with our senses. We can reassure ourselves that that there are things we cannot see or touch that are nevertheless real and important. Life is not just selfishness and power, no matter what we see in the news. Some people just don’t see it or get it that there is something more beyond selfishness and power.
Here at Durham Friends Meeting, we can help one another develop ‘new eyes for invisibles.’ That’s a Rufus Jones phrase I’m fond of. For me and perhaps for you that awareness of ‘invisibles’ is the foundation of religious or spiritual experience. We strengthen our new eyes for invisibles better in community.
This ‘something more’ we can help one another find has to do with understanding ‘what matters’ and with ‘doing the right things.’ We do this for one another at Durham Friends. And truth be told, religious communities all over the world do this, too: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Jain, Buddhist and Ba’hai. It’s good we do this and it’s good that others do this, too. It’s hugely important.
3. Here’s a third thing we can offer: “Jesus has come to teach his people himself.” In this community, Durham Friends Meeting, we know God will speak to us if we still ourselves and listen. God will give us comfort. Even more, God or Spirit will show us the way. What an amazing thing this is that we have to offer.
We’re not alone in the bunker. We’re in this together, and we’re in it with God. This idea that God speaks to us in the present: that is a very special thing that Quaker Meetings have to offer. We should take advantage of this gift, and we do. And we should share this gift with others – as often and loudly as we can. We have a Teacher with us, always, to give us insight and courage, reassurance and encouragement. So this is a third thing we have to offer.
4. And here’s a fourth thing we have to offer, one we grasp when we truly grasp God will speak to us in the present. We can remind ourselves that the Kingdom of Heaven is here now. Of course it doesn‘t come automatically; it’s ours to build, this Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not easy and not quick; it will take persistence and courage. Still, the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t in some distant future, the Rapture or the Second Coming, something in the unknown future.
We’re not waiting; we’re building. We remind ourselves of this, and if we’re on our game, we tell other people this. This understanding that the Kingdom of Heaven is really here, now, is a tremendous gift that Quakers offer the world. If we’re really on our game, we show them this. We join with others in building the beloved community.
These second two, that God speaks to us and that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand: these are the terms on which we gather today, for worship and care of one another. So, what more do we have to offer? I’ m sure there are many more, but I have two more things on my list of six this morning.
What do we hear when we listen to God? These are where we Quakers also have something more and unusual to offer.
5. The understanding that God speaks to us in the present embraces every single one of us, not just some people or special people. We proclaim that God loves us all equally. Not that we’re all the same; we all have different gifts. But we proclaim the possibility that God can speak to and through each and every one of us. This is something very important that Quakers have to offer. What’s more: God asks us to love one another equally – or as equally as we are able.
It would be wrong to say that Quakers have been steadily forthright and always consistent in proclaiming this equality in God’s love. We have faltered at times. But when you look at struggles for equality in race and in gender, in the struggle for the abolition of slavery, in the struggle for giving everyone the vote, in the struggles for affirming the dignity and rights of indigenous peoples, we see Quakers have had something to offer. And now there’s more work to be done; we have more to offer. Lots of people speak of equality, but we know the deep foundation of equality – God’s love for us all.
6. In the way that God’s love works on us, we can find a sixth and very special something we have to offer. God doesn’t make us do anything. God never forces us. We’re free to do any stupid or selfish or cruel thing we want. And sometimes we give in to the worst in us. Instead, God works on us through love. God calls us to bring out the best in one another through love.
This, too, is a gift Quakers have to give: We proclaim that love is the way; that force doesn’t really work. Violent policing is destructive. War is not the answer. “Let Us see what love can do,” said William Penn. Let us live “in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars,” counsels George Fox.
So my quick list of six things we have to offer:
- Confidence we can comfort one another,
- confidence we can grow new eyes for invisibles,
- confidence that God speaks to us in the present,
- confidence in the Beloved Community,
- confidence that God loves us all equally, and
- confidence that love will find a way.
These are not just beliefs we have to offer. They are prompts to how we should act in the world. Our testimonies of equality, community and peace, of simplicity and integrity: these are gifts the world needs very much right now. These are gifts that have been given to us, and very generously by God. They are gifts we have to offer – and should offer in abundance.
We can take these offerings for granted. They may come too easily to us. We need to remember them when we feel like cowering or just sheltering in place. Nevertheless, we mustn’t be shy or withdrawn. We have things to offer – to one another, to our neighbors, to Mainers, to Americans, to the world.
We have much to offer. Let us be generous.