As I walk through the streets of this city each day, I see things that I know are wrong. Why is there nasty graffiti around? Why have people allowed their dogs to foul the pavement so that walking to the bus feels like walking through a minefield as I very cautiously take each step? Can’t something be done to stop those kids from tormenting other passengers on the bus? What about the growing problem of knife crime? Why are there people sleeping in doorways and begging for coins? Can’t something be done?
And when I take a look at the national and world news if I dare, the list of bad stuff grows exponentially. A rigged election in Iran, mutual hatred and fighting in the middle East, tyranny in Burma, terrorism, torture, horrible conditions in prisons – including the ones in this country, drug and drink abuse, rampant depression, children abused by parents or other caretakers… The list goes on and on.
I know that you see the same troubling things in your daily lives and hear about the same terrible problems around the world.
I wonder if your reaction is similar to mine. First, there is a sense of pain. Then, on a day when I’m not feeling too self-absorbed, I’ll feel a bit of anger and wonder why. Why can’t something be done. I quickly move on to a feeling of helplessness – ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’. And finally, to putting it out of my mind and going about my own business.
We develop a certain kind of numbness to all this. To some extent, we have to put the world’s troubles aside in order to focus on making it through the day. We would never to anything at all if we became completely engaged in every issue.
And yet, I know that our lives are not separated and distinct as they can appear. There is a greater web of connection that holds us all, making your pain and pleasure mine as well. Some of us may see a supernatural aspect to this connectedness – perhaps calling it God or spirit or soul. Others may simply understand it from the very practical perspective that none of us can be free from the very real effects of the misery of our neighbours. Or as Martin Luther King Jr. put it: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
And this mutuality, this connectedness, means that – whether for our own selves or for a greater sense of responsibility – we must help each other.
Well-known children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman contends that helping others is an integral part of human life. “Service” she says “is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”
I agree that service is part of our purpose, but I would argue that service is not just an obligation – not just the price we pay for the joys of life. It is part of what help to makes us whole and fully human. It is no coincidence that helping others makes us feel good. We are created, whether by God or by evolution in such a way that it is natural to provide comfort and support to one another.
George Bernard Shaw described our relationship with service in this way:
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
Finding purpose and meaning in life are intimately related to serving others. Indeed, this is part of why I eventually left a career in business and turned to ministry.
And yet I walk by that homeless man, question and feel angry, turn to pessimism, and then move on.
It is partly because I feel too busy – and busyness is a challenge all its own. But my reaction also stems from the fact that the problems seem too big and I am so very small – one little person against the world’s big problems.
Let us recall the well-known words uttered by 20th century anthropologist Margaret Mead. This woman who studied and came to know culture after culture proclaimed hopefully: “Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Yes. Any time the world has changed for the better, it has had to start somewhere.
Plenty of people will look derisively upon the Brave Little Parrots of this world who take on challenges seemingly far beyond them. And yes, many, if not most of our efforts will fail. There will rarely be a great divine eagle to swoop in and save the day.
An ancient Jewish sage responded to this age-old lament: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief”, he wrote. “Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
It is not enough to recognise the injustice and suffering around us. It is not enough to complain that someone else is not doing enough about it.
It is not easy or comfortable to take action, even though, in the end it will likely make us more satisfied with ourselves and self-aware. Goethe was right when he said: “Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one's thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.”
At least he was right for individuals. One of the reasons we come together here is that we know we can do more together than we can apart. We know that we gain strength and confidence from our togetherness that enables us to do more.
In the distant past, this congregation’s voice was heard and was influential, speaking out on issues of individual freedom and the value of democracy. Today, we have already begun to make our voice heard on the issue of marriage equality through our public refusal to conduct legal unions for any couple until we can do so for all couples. And we have now started to consider other ways in which we might continue this fight.
One person can do quite a lot individually. You can offer a kind word or a smile or a sandwich to a person living in poverty. One person can write letters, send emails, and make donations. One person can change their light bulbs to energy efficient ones, consume less stuff, and use less energy.
But we are not alone.
This congregation now has seventy members and more people become associated with us every day.
Two people can launch a small fund-raiser to help agencies working to help the poor.
Ten people can create a programme to train ex-convicts in useful skills. They can mentor ten children who will grow up to be happier, more productive adults. They can convince hundreds of people to use less energy.
Seventy people can stage a protest that would bring public attention to almost any local issue. They can write enough letters to make an MP take notice. They can change enough light bulbs to make a real difference. They can set up a programme to encourage thousands more to save energy. Seventy people can change the lives of seventy children a year through mentoring. Seventy people can quickly clean up a park or another green space so that people can enjoy it. The possibilities are limited only by our willingness to try, our ability to focus our energies, and our ability to imagine the possibilities.
We do not have the power to change everything, but we have enough power to make a difference if we dare.
The question we must answer then is whether we are prepared to take the very real risk of trying to make a difference.
Let us close with these words from 19th Century Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale:
I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
May it be so