Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

What Fills Our Lives — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached January 13th, 2013


At the end of every Holiday season,

I find I am left in something of a malaise.

Part of it is that this is one

of the busiest times of the year for most of us,

and for those of us in professional ministry it is even more so.

I’m sure that part of it is that

the emotions of the season are draining themselves.

And undoubtedly part of it is the transition

that the winter holiday’s represents for me…

the transition into the rest of the church year,

with new Adult Religious Education Classes beginning

and beginning the planning for the summer

and the following church year.


And so, I find in early January I feel a bit empty…

a bit drained… a bit spent.

How appropriate that our theme

for the month of January is Emptiness.


There is another part of my post holiday malaise…

and that is that I always end up thinking

about identity at this time of year.

Be it the months of advertising that tells me I would be

a better/more handsome/more successful/more connected/person

if I were to give or receive this or that product

as a gift for Christmas, or Hanukah, or New Years,

or after Christmas…

or be it the ways in which this time of year

challenges us to look at our relationships to friends and family…

whether they are near or far.

I always end up spending the first couple of weeks of January

thinking about identity…

about who I am, and who we are,

and about how I decide what I value

more than I value other things.


This weekend, our church has been host

to the California UU Legislative Ministry’s

Spiritual Activist Leadership Training Program,

a group of Unitarian Universalist Young Adults

that have committed to spend a year studying and learning

about how to center their efforts to transform the world

through their Unitarian Universalist Religious Faith.

Some of them are with us in worship this morning.

They have come to Ventura this weekend

to learn about our congregation’s

Lift Up Your Voice to End Homelessness Advocacy program,

and to learn about people experiencing homelessness

here in Ventura.

Having them with us this weekend,

talking and learning about our congregation’s experience

in advocating for those in our community

experiencing homelessness,

combined with my post holiday malaise

and thinking about how we humans form our identity

led me to remember something that happened this past year.


One of the aspects of our Lift Up Your Voice Program

here at the church is that a few members of the congregation

have been trained to accompany members

of the Ventura Police, the Sherriff’s office,

and other city and county officials

during operations where the officials seek

to remove homeless encampments on public land,

often in the Ventura or the Santa Clara riverbottoms.

We do not go with the police and other officials

because we agree with what they are doing…

in fact we have said both privately and publically

that it is immoral to remove someone

from where they have found a place to sleep

if you do not have a viable option

for somewhere else they can go.

We go to be present, to bear witness to what occurs.

We go to inspire and bring some humanity

into what can be an inhuman situation.

We go to, by our presence,

remind our police and other officials

to be their best selves in this trying situation.


My heart has gone to one particular man who was homeless

whom I met on one of the first dislocation operations

that the city of Ventura conducted last spring.

His name is John.

He was camping in an area next to a tributary

of the Santa Clara river.

His campsite was back in the arroyo,

so much so that without knowing where it was,

you would never have found it.

Though city officials had come through the area three days before

posting notices about the removal,

John had not seen that notice…


And so, he was given an hour to decide

what from his campsite he would take with him

when he was removed from this piece of ground

that had become his home.  An hour.


That question has been on my heart ever since.

If someone came into my home

and told me I had to leave in one hour,

and could only take with me what I could carry,

how would I cope with that?  Could I cope with that?

What would I take?


Even when I had to flee my home on Galveston Island,

because of an oncoming Hurricane,

I remember having about 12 hours to pack the car

with all of the things I simply could not leave behind…

and to put many other things in sealed plastic bags

and Rubbermaid bins…

and I remember it taking every last moment of that time.


I would like to say that my identity

is not connected to what I own…

but that would not be true.

I am a collector of mementos,

of reminders of memories that would mean very little

to anyone else, but mean the world to me.


A stone from my first ever camping trip.

A book I will never read or use,

but that was given to me by someone I cherish.

A pen holder that sits on my desk…

that once sat on my father’s desk before he passed away.


Each bit, of little or no value to anyone but me.

To me, they mean the world.

How would I decide what bits of precious I would take with me,

if someone came into my home

and told me I had only an hour,

and could only take with me what I could carry?


As I stood with John, in his little home

cut out of the brush and cane in the Santa Clara riverbottom,

I saw him looking through his own possessions,

asking himself what bits of precious he might take with him.

Others that day, and many other days,

would look at John’s campsite and see nothing but trash.


City officials later stated that they had removed

“5 tons of trash” from John’s campsite

and the other campsites around them that day…

but as I stood with John helping him sort through

what he could take with him,

I began to see his home through his eyes.

That was not just an old bicycle tire…

it was nearly new and would fit his bicycle

when his current tire wore down.

That was not just an old television antenna…

he used it to fish with once, and had caught something.

Before he found the old broken rod

that he had duct taped a mismatched reel to.


Everything in that campsite had a purpose to John…

or a potential purpose one day.

What he was not using right then, he had hopes of using.

John saw the possibilities in all of the things

that the rest of us had discarded…

a kitty litter container that he had repurposed

into both a bathing bucket and a chair…

and made a serviceable way

to carry some of what he could leave with.


Now, I don’t want anyone to misread me…

how John was living was not safe.

John needed ultra affordable housing.

My opposition to local officials removing him

from the river bottom was not because John

needed to be living there,

but rather in that they were not offering him any other options…

which meant John just moved

to another outdoor campsite somewhere else.


John has had me thinking about how much of my life,

how much of our lives, is attached to things.

How much of who we are,

how much of our identity finds its meaning in what we own…

and how this attachment to things affects

how we see ourselves and what meanings we give to our lives.


What would happen to my identity… to how I view myself,

if the police and some city official came into my home

and told me I had an hour to take only what I could carry?


I don’t own my home, but what if I did.

A home is the largest investment

most Americans make in their lives.

Many of us raise our families in our homes,

make modifications to our homes,

have times with friends in our homes.

Our homes and what we put in them

are an outward manifestation of our inner selves.

How would it change who we see ourselves to be if,

with an hour’s warning our home were taken away?


Living in earthquake prone Southern California,

this is not an academic question…


When I thought next what I would be unable to carry with me,

my thoughts went to my books.

I love books.

I doubt there is another collection of books in the world

that is quite like mine, mixing liberal religion,

military theory, political history, and science fiction.

Of the hundreds of books that I own,

what would I take with me if I only had an hour?

How much could I carry?


My thoughts next went to pictures and mementos…

would I take the pictures of family members

who live far away, or those of family members who have died?

Would I take my old Army pictures?

Or maybe the pictures I took

when I was living in Panama and Colombia.

What would I need to take with me,

in order to continue to feel my connection to the past?


I think you all can tell… it has been a profound question for me.

If I only had an hour, what pieces of my life would I take with me?


Buddhist teachers have long taught about this question…

the spiritual question that the crisis

John found himself in as attachment.

They teach that we should let go of the things in life

that we are attached to,

for they keep our true self bound to earthly things,

and prevent us from becoming one with the Dharma.


Jesus was pointing to the same thing,

in the story that is our reading this morning…

when he told the wealthy man

that it was not enough to follow all the commandments.

To earn eternal life, the wealthy man

had to sell everything he owned,

give the money raised to the poor,

and then follow Jesus in his wanderings

and teachings through Judea.

A lot of people take this story to be about money or wealth,

but it is not really.  It is about attachment.


Both Jesus and Buddha taught that

we have to give up our attachments to worldly things

to follow the spiritual path.

Far be it from me to disagree with both Buddha and Jesus

in the same sermon… but I  think they got it wrong…

or rather I think they were both being a little fundamentalist

at that moment in their ministries.


At least Buddha had a history of setting

high aspirations and lofty goals,

and then understanding that most of us humans

(including Buddha) could rarely if ever attain such goals.


I do not believe it is possible for a human being

to live without attachments.

Human identity is such that who we are

is interconnected and interdependent with the world around us.

I am not an isolated being.

Who I am, who I have been,

who I am becoming in each moment is connected to all of you.

It is connected to this church.

It is connected to the relationships I have, to my family,

to the memories I have, to the choices I make,

and indeed to the myriad of stuff that I own.

Each of us consists in large part of the attachments,

of the relationships we form and keep.

Our self, our identity, our self view and other view

is created by all that we are attached to…


The trauma for John, as I stood with him that spring morning,

surveying what of his reclaimed possessions

he would be able to keep,

and what would be loaded up as trash

and taken to the dump by city workers,

the trauma was far more than losing his home,

or some things he owned.

The trauma was to his identity.

To his self.

It is no wonder he was lost between anger and tears.


John worked his way through it…

through re-working his sense of self and his attachments

to find a place that spring morning in which

he could leave with only what he could carry and still be himself.

He found a way to shift his attachments around

so he still knew who he was.

He thought of a new place he could camp.

He thought of places he could collect new belongings.

He thought of a way that he could reclaim what he had lost.


This is what we most often do when we lose our attachments

and encounter the edges of emptiness…

we find the same kinds of attachments to put in their place.

And for John it was what he had to do in that moment.

But what I believe that the Buddha and Jesus

both call us to is to choose the attachments we have in life.

To weigh were we want our attachments,

our defined and created self to rest.

To make choices, conscious choices

so that the external aspects of  the self

are not what has accumulated by chance throughout our life,

but are conscious choices of who we want to be.


It is easiest to think about such attachments

when it comes to stuff… to things we own or use in life.

One of the things that most amazed my family

when I went home after Christmas was me, David,

the guy who always drove big trucks

with camper tops and extended king cabs…

that I now drive and love a tiny little Smart Car.

I am quite attached to my Smart Car.


I made a choice about who I am,

and what this external aspects of my self …

and my Tennessee Family is still trying to adapt

to a different kind of David than they have known before.


But changing our attachments to things

is only the most visible form of choosing

what we are attached to.

We create the self we want to be

in the attachments we choose to form with people.

We create the self we want to be

in the attachments we form with our values and beliefs.

We create the self we want to be

in the attachments we form to our own achievements.

We create the self we want to be

in the attachments and meanings we give

to the events of our lives, past, present, and future.

We create the self we want to be

in where we choose to dedicate

our time, our talent, and our treasure.


The goal of spiritual emptiness is not to remain empty…

because it is impossible for a human being to be truly empty…

to be truly without attachment.

Rather, the goal of spiritual emptiness

is to give space for us to choose

who, what, where, and when we are attached to.

The goal of spiritual emptiness

is to give each of us the space to choose who we are,

rather than have chance and the universe choose for us.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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