Sermon by Rev. Diane Rolllert, 11 October 2015
This past week, our monthly short story group (Seeking the Sacred in Stories) read this haunting story by Ursula K. LeGuin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". It’s an allegorical tale, which is to say that it kind of reads like an ancient Greek myth or a classic fairy tale — the kind of real fairy tale that gives children nightmares. It begins with vivid imagery of a bold and glorious society preparing for the great Festival of Summer, its most beautiful youth riding horses to a race. Bells ring, children laugh, banners flutter in the wind. The people of Omelas are a happy people. They have no king, no slaves. They use no swords. They live without advertisements or stock exchanges. They have no secret police or bombs. These are people who have much to be thankful for.
Yet in a room far beneath the city of Omelas lives a child locked in a closet, living a horrible existence, alone in the dark, barely fed, never free. The people of Omelas know the child is there. “They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.”
They let their children know about the lone child. They take them to see this child, and not surprisingly, the children react with shock and disgust. But even the children who respond with anger and outrage quickly learn that there is nothing they can do. To liberate the child would mean the end of prosperity, beauty and happiness for the thousands of people of Omelas. With that knowledge, with the pain of that child’s existence, the people of Omelas create their most beautiful architecture and write their most poignant music. It is only at the very end of the story, in its very last paragraph, that we learn that there are those who walk away from Omelas. We don’t know where they are going, but they walk away.
The members of the story group agreed that this was a powerful story. We looked at it from the personal angle and from the global. We talked about the ancient tradition of the scapegoat. It reminded me of The Hunger Games trilogy, written for teens, which describes a dystopian world that depends upon a deadly game, played by the children of less fortunate communities, to maintain the social fabric. Our story group wondered whether Omelas was really about the inner selves we hide from the world while we let our outer selves appear bright, shiny and very false. Or was it really a metaphor for our own society, where we know that the beautiful clothes we wear, or the flowers we buy, may have been sewn or harvested by those working in horrendous conditions? Yet we keep on buying. We put aside our guilt, we forget, we enjoy what we have.
“It’s a story about integrity,” someone in the group said. “It’s about how we find our own integrity, how we find the courage to walk away from Omelas.”
Alright, so it’s Thanksgiving and this is not the most cheerful way to begin a Thanksgiving Day reflection. But as I’ve thought about the interrelationship between integrity and gratitude, my poor brain could not let go of this story. The 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, once famously said that if the only prayer you ever said is “thank you,” that would be enough. I’m often asked to say blessings, to give thanks before a meal or an event. Whenever I do, I always wonder about gratitude. How do we say thanks for all the blessings in our lives without sounding smug? You know, it starts to sound like, “Thank goodness I have what I have, because other people don’t.”
Yet if we let ourselves become overwhelmed by guilt, we can easily become incapacitated. There has to be some way for us to be true to ourselves, to be grateful for what we have and still find a way to respond to the suffering in the world.
Just so you know, the author Ursula LeGuin is now in her eighties and she’s still writing. She has written novels and stories based on anarchism as well as Taoism and she’s fascinated by Jungian psychology. Our group considered that the child in the closet might also represent the shadow side of who we are. If we are to find integrity, to be true to ourselves, to find wholeness, must we embrace our shadow side or must we confront it? Yin and yang, darkness and light, or shempa as the Tibetan Buddhists would call it — that darkness that gets hooked or triggered by the same things over and over again and forces us to shut down. Maybe Omelas is really about figuring out how to get unhooked from those shadows.
Or maybe the allegory is more direct. We might ask ourselves, as another possibility, has Canada become Omelas? Is there a child or a group that has to live in the dark closet for the rest of us to be happy and thrive?
Now, in case you haven’t noticed (or you happen to be an out-of-town visitor), we are in the midst of a federal election. No one has actually asked me, but maybe you’ve been wondering if I was ever going to talk about the election —after all, it’s only a week away.
There’s something that I need to explain here. During the last few years, a number of not-for-profit organizations have come under extra scrutiny by the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA, ou le RAC). Dying with Dignity, which has had a lot of support from individual UUs in the past, lost its tax exempt status because it was seen as lobbying for one specific political cause. The Canadian Unitarian Council, to which we and all UU congregations in Canada belong, has been undergoing an audit as well this year. This is probably routine… or at least let’s give the CRA the benefit of the doubt for the moment.
Whatever the case, we’ve gotten a very clear message. For the member congregations of the CUC to maintain their status as religious institutions, we must refrain from any political activity. This doesn’t mean that we can’t express our opinions about specific issues, or take action on specific issues, but it does mean that we as a congregation, and I, in my public role as your minister, cannot come out in support of a specific party or candidate. We could have a candidate’s debate, for example, but all parties would have to be represented, and if one party dropped out, we’d be required to cancel. (Thankfully, there have been many groups sponsoring candidate debates, or we would happily have hosted one.) Maybe there are other religious institutions in Canada who are not worried about being perceived as supporting specific parties or candidates, but when your national association is being audited, well, you have no choice but to take these things very seriously.
Be that as it may, Unitarian ministers do have the freedom of the pulpit. We speak only for ourselves and not for anyone else. I can tell you what I think, but I cannot tell you what you should think… about God, spirituality, religion or any other topic. Still, when it comes to politics, I think we Unitarians tend to assume too quickly that, despite the fact that we may have very different opinions about theology, we share the same politics or at least we lean in the same political direction. This is not necessarily the case, and we must make room for many voices here. So, I will not tell you who I plan to vote for. I will not tell you who I think you should vote for, but I will tell you to please vote! And I will promise you, that no matter what Canada looks like when we wake up on October 20th, I will be here as your minister to support you. I am grateful that no matter what happens, we will still be here for each other.
That said, I need to speak to my own integrity and my own desire to be among the ones who walk away from Omelas. As members of our story group said, “When you figure out how to do that, tell us how!” If only it were as easy as heading north, south, east or west from where we stand. But more than walking away, I’d like to imagine what I’d be walking toward.
I would walk toward a place where we take violence against women seriously, where we’d turn our attention to the 1200 cases of Aboriginal women murdered or missing, where we’d stop obsessing about the head gear of a few women and consider the plight of the many women and children living in hunger or in fear of domestic abuse. I’d walk to a place where we’d be a country of peace builders, where our communal voice would be respected for its calm levelheadedness. I’d walk to a place where we let go of the irrational fear of the other, and open our doors to those looking for a better life. I’d walk to a place ready to reconsider what it means to create a true mosaic. I’d walk to a place where we’d respect Aboriginal water rights, and where we’d see our economy as something more than a drain on our natural resources, where we’d support and respect the sciences as well as the arts, where we’d responsibly turn off the heat on global warming, and become leaders in renewable energy. I would walk toward a place that emphasized strengthening the quality of education for everyone and provided real support for the mentally ill. I’d walk toward a place that believed in trust and building coalitions.
There’s a lot I’ve left out, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. But I’d like to believe that walking in that direction would bring me to a place of wholeness.
If you have a vision of the place you need to walk away from, or the place you’d like to walk toward, whatever that vision may be, and no matter how disenchanted you may feel about politics, please vote. Consider it an act of gratitude that you have the option to say something about the future. To quote Winston S. Churchill, and I’m sure you’ve heard this one a lot lately, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Finally, what about the integrity of gratitude? After all the darkness and guilt that I’ve laid upon you, consider this. Writer and UU lay preacher G. Peter Fleck once put it this way: “…do we have a right to be thankful as long as others are excluded from sharing in the blessings we enjoy? The answer to the question lies in the realization that thankfulness, while it may relate to specifics, has an absolute character. To give thanks is a basic human need, an essential element in our relationship to the universe. Thankfulness is independent of specifics.”
We all need gratitude in our lives. It’s essential to our integrity. I know that there are days when we each face darkness. Sometimes gratitude is the only way out, the first step on that journey out of Omelas that moves you toward something greater than yourself, that enables you to act on behalf of yourself and to reach out to others. It’s the light that can shine on the way forward.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak my piece this morning — and for the freedom of this pulpit on so many Sunday mornings.
Amen. Blessed be. Namasté.
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