Sermon #1 (2nd August 2009 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
What do I mean by ‘Walking the Talk?’
I suppose it would be a good idea to clarify precisely what I mean when I say “walking the talk”, just in case there’s anybody here who isn’t familiar with the phrase. If someone is said to “walk the talk” it means that:
– their actions match their words
– they do what they say they are going to do
– they put their professed beliefs and values into action in their everyday life.
It is a bit like “practicing what you preach”. So, I like to imagine, “walking the talk” is something that all of us here today would aspire to… (as far as is humanly possible, anyway).
What is our ‘Talk’ – what do we say that our values are?
First things first, though… as individuals and as a liberal religious community, what is our ‘talk’? What is it that we say that we do? What are our shared values? I realise that it’s potentially quite a dangerous thing to do, generalising about a bunch of Unitarians… but I’m going to stick my neck out and try to do it anyway. At the very least, I think we share some simple, humane values. There’s evidence of this in the words that members of this community say each year as an affirmation of our membership:
“With caring and open hearts we pledge to join in making our community an inclusive and welcoming place for all people of goodwill.”
This affirmation is mainly about the way that we behave with each other within these walls… and generally I think we do a pretty good job of living up to those words. If you were to read our church leaflet you would find a whole list of things we do and we stand for… but one particularly caught my attention:
“We challenge one another to lead ethically responsible lives of conscience and compassion.”
That’s a somewhat bolder claim… it starts to relate what we do here on Sundays to what we do in the rest of our lives, the other six-and-a-half days of the week.
Our lovely minister, Sarah Tinker, carried out a study of this congregation for her MA dissertation (incidentally, I would highly recommend having a read of it sometime, as it is now freely available on the church website). In describing this very community, she said:
“There is… a morality, an ethic of right living, in relationship to one another, to all of existence and to our planet earth. People here try to care and do not necessarily require an external sense of a deity in order to remember to care and to love.”
I love the simplicity of this notion of ‘right living’. Of course, I only mean it is simple to say, not that it is simple to do. And (fellow Unitarian) Peter Hawkins beautifully summarises what ‘right living’ might mean for our everyday lives in his words on the front of your order of service. He says:
“I need to address and re-address the question: ‘How can I be and do in the world, in a way that creates less harm and does more good?’”
Applying these values to our lives is a tricky business…
This ethic of ‘right living’ – (doing less harm and more good) – is what I’m going to focus on today. In our first reading we heard about ‘great lives of spiritual integrity.’ It is good to take inspiration from the exceptional lives of heroes such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King… but at the same time we need to remember that, even if it is in a rather less spectacular way, every single one of us has got a vital part to play in making the world more just, habitable, and humane.
So… How do we go about ‘walking the talk’ of ‘right living’ in our everyday lives?
Having a clear sense of our values is a very good start, but life is so very complex, and every little thing we do (or don’t do) has consequences and repercussions we probably can’t even imagine.
I found something online by Eva Cameron, a UU minister, illustrating this point. She tried to do a simple good deed and ended up tying herself in knots about it.
“I make a tray of chocolate brownies for a neighbour who has just come home from hospital. I make them in a disposable tray, because I don’t want to leave her washing up to do while she’s recovering. Maybe I should have forgotten those brownies, if it means environmental degradation by creating extra waste… but she is very happy to see me, and we have a good time visiting. While I am there, she tells me that her medical condition is caused in part by her weight problem. Perhaps I shouldn’t have made those brownies at all, because they will contribute to her poor diet, and may even get her into a downward sugar cycle. But, she told me that she really loves chocolate, and these brownies taste “just like mother used to make.” And then I think about how my mother would have loved some brownies herself . . . and she lives just across town. I could go on and on like this… the use of non-organic flour, or non-fair-trade chocolate, being a sin… and so forth. We live in a constant battle between positive and negative forces. And many of our actions can create ripples we scarcely understand.”
If the simple act of taking a tray of cakes next door is such a moral minefield then we can see that rigorously applying this ethic of ‘right living’ to the rest of our lives is going to be hugely challenging. And I don’t think that is going to come as a surprise to any of us here today…
However, the sheer complexity of life is only one of the factors that makes ‘right living’ hard to do. Sometimes in our lives, the ‘right’ thing to do is pretty clear… but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re actually going to do it. Due to habit, comfort, convenience, or sheer lack of energy and hours in the day, we might not manage to do what on some deeper level we know to be ‘right’. It’s very easy to give you umpteen illustrations of this because I notice myself doing it every day. The example that comes to mind is this: I am not all that good at recycling. The shameful truth is that I have never recycled a printer cartridge (and I use lots of them). I groan at myself each time I throw one in the bin, because I know what I ought to do… but as yet I haven’t got my act together to ‘do the right thing’.
Another factor that makes it hard to live up to this ideal of ‘right living’ is our (inevitably limited) capacity for self-awareness. From time to time we might act in a way that directly creates harm to others… without the slightest inkling that we are doing so. I think we probably all have ‘blind spots’: habitual behaviours which are hurtful to others and about which we are completely unaware.
Another example: I personally aspire to be gentle in my own speech and careful in my listening. I intend to avoid harshness, mockery, and severe judgement of others. And yet, each day, I notice myself saying and doing things that are quite out of line with these high ideals. I wonder how many more times each day I have been casually rude, dismissive, or inattentive without even noticing? Or how many times have I just missed an opportunity to be kind?
Of course, if we go down the route of putting ourselves under such scrutiny, there is a risk that we will end up so despondent about all our small failings and those things are just beyond our power to do that we simply give up and stop trying altogether… or we might go into overdrive instead and make ourselves quite ill trying to do it all.
When we find ourselves in a tangle like this, not knowing what to do for the best, one approach is to try and see the bigger picture, the ‘God’s eye view’, as it was described in the reading we heard earlier. This change of perspective can help us get a sense of where we fit in the greater scheme of things and nudge us back into a more balanced state… on the one hand, taking the larger view: we can see the interconnectedness of all people, all creatures, the planet and the cosmos… this might lead us to greater awareness of the ways in which our actions impact on others, and spur us on to be more mindful and responsible in our words and deeds, as we ask ourselves over and over: ‘how can I create less harm and do more good?’ On the other hand, taking the larger view: we can see that each of us human beings has got limited resources of time and energy, we can’t be personally responsible for healing the world single-handed and beating ourselves up about our shortcomings is not going to do anybody any good. ‘Creating less harm’ definitely includes being compassionate towards ourselves.
Conclusion – Things that can help us to ‘Walk the Talk’
Having said all that, it still seems to me that this ideal of ‘right living’ is a worthy aim and a principle upon which to orient our lives… we can’t do it all, but anything we can do, is surely worth doing. And, to conclude, If we’re serious about ‘walking the talk’ of ‘right living’ then there are a few things that might help us all to make a go of it:
Firstly, it seems important to have a clear sense of your own highest values, the specific principles that you aspire to live by. You’ve really got to know what your ‘talk’ is before you can hope to ‘walk’ it.
Secondly, we need ways to remind ourselves (and keep reminding ourselves, over and over) of these values and principles, as it’s so easy to lose touch with them in the midst of our busy and demanding lives.Each of us must find our own way of doing this, but maybe a regular spiritual practice (such as prayer or meditation) might help to nudge us in the right direction, away from the preoccupations of the material world and back towards awareness of the bigger picture, or the ‘God’s eye view’.
And finally, I reckon it really helps to be part of a spiritual community like this one. It’s really hard to live up to these high ideals but we don’t need to ‘go it alone’. Here at Essex Church, like it says on our leaflet, we can ‘support and challenge each other to live lives of conscience and compassion’. Ultimately, we’re all in it together.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: