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For What It’s Worth
Jan 28, 2018

Call to worship:
As we come together in the spirit of communal worship, in this scared time and sacred space, it is our honored tradition to light our chalice. Please join me by reciting the words printed in the order of service.

Readings Excerpts from Democratic Vistas by Walt Whitman
Luke 21: 1-4The Widow’s Mite

The song gets to the point in the first stanza and the lyrics were indicative of the times. On the other hand, the lyrics are indicative of these times. Buffalo Springfield released it in 1966.

Some of you know about the sixties, some know about it first hand, others by vicariously. The decade gets romanticize, as the past often does: flower power, love-ins, sit-ins, hippie communes, sandals, love beads, bell bottoms, and, of course, the music.

Buffalo Springfield was one of those sixties groups that didn’t last that long but served as a stepping stone for artists who later made their own names-in this case, Stephen (Steven) Stills and Neil Young. Ozzy Osborne later recorded the song, and, if you want a country flavor to the song, go to YouTube and watch Willie Nelson, Cheryl Crow and Vince Gill perform it.

A few years ago, even though vinyl was making a comeback, I decided to sell my collection. It was nostalgic as I rifled through the boxes. Some had been played so often that the integrity of that singular circular groove had been compromised with shortcuts, evidence of needles bouncing over vinyl as the night went on. I’m sure Neil Young was in that pile, along with Crosby, Stills and Nash. So many memories, sold to the Inner Sleeve.

My Woodstock album was in that pile of vinyl too. I was not at Woodstock, so I settled for the movie and the album. As I opened the three-record set for the last time, I had a hearty laugh when a lonely seed rolled out of the fold and onto the floor. I said to myself, why not? So, I picked it up and planted it, right out front of our church, among the landscaping. I never followed up on its progress. I imagine someone mistook it for an ordinary weed, or maybe someone even harvested it-let’s see who has the munchies at coffee hour today.

(sung) *There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear

Some wondered in the sixties just what was happening. Some tried their best to make things happen, others tried to slow things down. The clarity of the conformity that defined the fifties was beginning to blur. The cold war still loomed over us as that doom’s day clock clicked closer to midnight. The generation gap was wide, people were uneasy, civil unrest was everywhere. War raged on in another continent, values at home were in question, and mistrust of our leaders proved to be valid.

*There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I gotta beware.

I grew up in a home with guns. They were kept out of our hands unless my father was present. We learned how to clean them, how to handle them, and how to store them. But most of all, we learned they were not toys but serious and deadly instruments, to be used for target practice and hunting or, if the need should arise, for personal protection.

Personal protection was something we didn’t worry about too much, and hand guns were rare, except in those old westerns, when having a hand gun was portrayed as normal. But the violence portrayed back then was not nearly as graphic as it is today: it was funny when the Road Runner fell from a cliff, was flatten, and rolled away like a coin; on Bonanza we saw the gun, heard the shot and saw the person fall, no blood and guts; and, as for Dragnet, I don’t even remember if Sergeant “just-the-facts- ma’am” Joe Friday even carried a gun.

Then came those well-known assassinations during sixties and those iconic photos; Jackie, next to LBJ on Air Force One, men on the balcony at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, pointing to the origin of that single shot, that young woman at Kent State, down on one knee, next to a body, that expression on her face.

But we never heard about school shootings, disgruntled workers taking revenge upon fellow workers, or mass shootings into a concert crowd.

Pro-gun, anti-gun, two very politically charged slogans that are as ambiguous as they are divisive, but such is the nature of catch-phrases and slogans.

People who want reasonable control over firearms and ammunition are not simply ‘anti-gun’. They may very well have guns, hunt, or shoot skeet. They might not even be members of the NRA. Likewise, people who are labelled ‘pro-gun’ don’t necessarily oppose any and all restrictions. They may favor limitations on automatic, semi-automatic and modified weapons. They too may not be members of the NRA.

Labelling people as “pro this” and “anti that” promotes an absolutism that leaves no room in between; it’s either all or nothing.

*Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep.

My brother, who used to work at Gander Mountain in Eau Claire, would talk about the number of people who would come in to stock up guns and ammo, claiming the government was coming to confiscate it. He and I would laugh about their distorted thinking; why stock up if it’s soon be confiscated? Do they think the government is simply going to politely knock, say excuse me, sorry to bother you, but, do you happen to have any weapons? Don’t they know, that if Uncle Sam comes, he will be packin’?
Fear is rational and serves to protect us. Paranoia is neither rational nor does it protect us. Fear is more overt, it flares up, and, unless it is continuous, we respond and move on. Paranoia is subtle, it feeds on itself, and it is difficult to defuse because it creeps into our head where it finds a place to live rent free. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference the two. But they are both popular and effective ways to sway the public.

*What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street

I remember those riots in the mid- and late-sixties, and they usually happened on hot summer nights. My grandparents lived in Detroit and, after visiting us one summer, found themselves returning to a city on fire. They were stopped entering the city and asked several questions, one as to whether they were transporting any extra gasoline.

Their neighborhood, which was then mostly ‘white’, was spared by those thousand people in the streets. We visited Detroit several times, from the late fifties to the mid-eighties. We saw dramatic changes to a troubled city, a city that seems to re-inventing itself.

Not long ago, while walking with casual friend who is conservative in her religious, political and social beliefs, the Occupy Wall Street movement found its way into our conversation. She was quick and vehement in her condemnation of their tactics. When it was my turn, I mentioned the Boston Tea Party, an event memorialized in the patriotic history of our country. I pointed out that that Tea Party included illegal assembly, trespassing, criminal damages to property, pollution, etc.
We don’t walk together much anymore.

*there’s battle lines being drawn, nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong

On the playground we used to say, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. It’s a handy retort but we know it’s not true.

Words can hurt, they can be biting, divisive, and belligerent. And when we string them together in handy slogans, we have the power to demonize others and draw battle lines.

Claiming to be “pro-life” implies that others are ‘pro- death’. Calling gay men ‘child molesters’, abortion doctors “baby killers”, and immigrants ‘rapist and murders’ is unfortunately brushed off as extremist rhetoric, but they are crafty expressions crafted by crafty people.

Battles lines are often drawn between ideological issues, ranging from religion to economics to the role of government. But the warriors on the front lines are often spurred on less by ideology than by slogans that prey on anger, paranoia and “us and them-ism”. Recall our last election and the effectiveness of “lock her up”, “build the wall” “drain the swamp”, “war on Christmas”.

During the Vietnam War many claimed, “I’d rather be dead then Red”. Clever use of language, of rhyme, and a smooth extension of the red scare of the fifties. The slogan complemented the ‘domino theory” slogan as we rationalized that proverbial line in the sand, or, in that case, the jungle.

Our song today, and I promise I’ll sing only one more time, is titled For What It’s Worth and its refrain is: *We better stop, Hey, what’s that sound, everybody, look what’s going down.

I am not sure if America is more divisive, more polarized now than at any other time, but I do see that it’s tearing at our very soul. And, hey, we better stop, or that sound we hear could be our constitutional democracy swirling down the drain.

Author Andrew Sullivan has noticed this too. In a recent article in the New York Magazine, titled “America Wasn’t Built for Humans he attributes much of this polarization to ‘tribalism”, but not tribalism as we might know it.
He reminds us that tribalism goes way back in history when it was necessary for survival; the tribe needed to protect itself; strangers were feared with good reason. He also reminds us that religion itself rose out of tribalism.
But he brings that history of tribalism into modern times, claiming that successful democracies include what he calls “healthy tribalism”, which he claims “endures in civil society in benign and overlapping ways. We find a sense of belonging, of unconditional pride, in our neighborhood and community; in our ethnic and social identities and their rituals; among our fellow enthusiasts. There are hip-hop and country-music tribes; bros; nerds; Wasps; Dead Heads and Packers fans; Facebook groups.”

He also identifies what he calls the “Über-tribe”, which he believes “constitutes the nation-state, a megatribe that unites a country around shared national rituals, symbols, music, history, mythology, and events that form the core unit of belonging that makes a national democracy possible.”

Sullivan cites three ways tribalism destabilizes democracies: “when it calcifies into something bigger and more intense than our smaller, multiple loyalties; when it rivals our attachment to the nation as a whole; and when it turns rival tribes into enemies.” He concludes that all three have converged to make American tribalism a serious threat to our system of government.

The article is extensive, and Sullivan gives many examples of unhealthy tribalism, including sexism, immigration, religion, politics, economics, etc. and I can’t do his article justice today.

But to quote him one more time, he writes “One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on. You pick up signals from everyone around you, you slowly winnow your acquaintances to those who will reinforce your worldview, a tribal leader calls the shots, and everything slips into place. After a while, your immersion in tribal loyalty makes the activities of another tribe not just alien but close to incomprehensible.”

Nathan Gardels is the editor in chief of the WorldPost. Last Sunday the Washington Post included on its opinion page an article by Gardels. The headline read, The eruption of tribalism in the digital age. I found the headline more interesting than the article, but I do believe extreme tribalism is fortified by the ease with which we can be manipulated by social media.

In his latest book Montaigne in Barn Boots, Wisconsin born and raised author Michel Perry finds value in today’s use of technology. He believes that when it is “set with proper filters”, it offers fresh thinking and a chance, as he puts it, for “the roughneck to intersect with the intellectual”.

But he is also aware of the tendency to heed loud mouth pundits from a distance, rather than connecting with people in our communities. He warns us, “listen long enough to the man yelling from a distance and you come to trust him more than the man in the boat beside you”.

A Pew survey taken last summer found that about half of Americans believe there is a connection between someone’s political party and how they live. In some areas, such as volunteering and exercising, the difference between Republicans and Democrats was slight. But in other areas not so.

The survey showed that Republicans enjoy hunting and sport shooting much more than Democrats, and Democrats like going to museums more than Republicans. Sixty five percent of Republicans, and those who lean that way, say they prefer neighborhoods with large houses, spaced farther apart, with schools, stores and restaurants miles away. As for Democrats and those who lean that way, 61% prefer smaller houses, close together, with schools, retail and dining nearby.

Political scientist Dr. Shanto Iyengar ( shăntu ee-yen-gár) from Stanford University found in a recent study that 85% of households have the same party registration. He comments “people acquire their party attachment before they go to kindergarten.”

To illustrate how blatant and intense party attachment is, he points to President Trump, who said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot someone, and it wouldn’t make a difference; suggesting that his followers would still support him.

My uncle Waldemar Marshall Olson was a navy lifer. He and I often ‘clicked’ because he had travelled the world over and that was my dream. At a family gathering in the early seventies, he had three questions for me. First, he asked me if I was married, I said ‘no’. The second question “Are you in the service?” I said ‘no”. His final question: “Then what the hell are you good for?”

It caught me off guard, and I remember it forty years later. What am I good for? What am I worth? What is worth my while?

Parables, like the one we heard earlier, are like allegory, myth, and metaphor; they aren’t necessarily true. But they help us find meaning, offer lessons, and are often easy to memorize and pass on, especially in ancient times when the oral tradition was more prevalent.

The lesson of the widow’s mite is clear. But what drives the meaning home even more is the use of two easily remembered expressions; “gave out of wealth” and “gave out of poverty”. The widow’s contribution, while not worth more in monetary value, was worthier since she ‘gave out of poverty’.

There is nothing in this parable that leads us to belief the widow even knew the value or worth Jesus ascribes to her contribution. And that makes for a universal lesson that transcends all time; we may never know the value or worth of what we offer.

The word ‘worship’, comes to us from Old English, when it meant “worthiness, “acknowledgment of worth’. I used to tell my students that if want to understand a culture, notice what they value, what they acknowledge of worth. And if you can see their budgets, how they spend their money, all the better.

So, I wonder, what would Walt Whitman have to say about our culture today? Would he say we value, we worship, iPhones, stadiums, commercialism, nativism, winning at all costs, biased news reporting? Or would he say we value, integrity, fairness, the arts, universal health care, schools, diversity, objective news reporting? What would you say?

We UUs are far from being a single-minded tribe with a tribal leader who calls the shots, and that is our strength. And I hope we use this strength to avoid the entrapment inherent in extreme tribalism; it’s one thing to galvanize our ranks to fight for our causes, but it’s another to show our loyalty by limiting contact with others, dismissing their activities as alien, and suggesting that they know not what they do.

A few months after the thirteen colonies declared their independence from England, Thomas Paine, the greater ‘thinker’ of the revolution wrote, “These are the times that try men’s soul”.

There are many “tried souls” in these times as well, probably most of you sitting here today. But the ideals and principles we UUs hold dear, the community that we have, and the hope we must always cling to, can help to center us and ease our restive souls.

Thomas Paine, along with many others, faced those trying times by holding to their principles. And we must do the same.

Our UU Principles challenge us with ideals worthy of our best individual and communal efforts. They offer us hope, hope that instead of ignoring the divide, and continuing to yell across it, we try to narrow it. They remind us of what we stand for, what is worth our while, what is worth fighting for. And they call us to do so without divisive language, without sticks and stones, without firearms or gasoline.

But, when all is said and done, and not just for us, but for all tribes, all people, no matter what we value, what we find worthwhile, what or whom we worship, we must never forget that there is nothing more valuable, nothing of more worth, than the truth in our own personal word.

Closing Hymn: #121 We’ll Build a Land

Benediction: Helen Keller
I am only one; but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do.