Sunday, October 8, 2017 – “Generosity of Heart” Rev. Patty Willis

“Nelson Mandela’s Favorite Fable” read by Noelle Carter

In an interview with Richard Stengel, Nelson Mandela told this fable that he had been using with his followers:

“I told the incident…of an argument between the sun and the wind, that the sun said, “I’m stronger than you are” and the wind says, “No, I’m stronger than you are.” And they decided, therefore to test their strength with a traveler…who was wearing a blanket. And they agreed that the one who would succeed in getting the traveler to get rid of his blanket would be the stronger. So the wind started. It started blowing and the harder it blew, the tighter the visitor tried to hold the blanket around his body. And the wind eventually gave up. The sun started with its rays, very mild, and they increased in strength and as they increased…the traveler felt that the blanket was unnecessary because the blanket is for warmth. And so he decided to relax it, to loosen it, but the rays of the sun became stronger and stronger and eventually he threw it away. So by a gentle method it was possible to get the traveler to discard his blanket. And this is the parable that through peace you will be able to convert, you see, the most determined people…and that is the method we should follow.”

SERMON “Generosity of Heart” Rev. Patty Willis

On the 16th June 1976, with the Soweto Uprising, mass protests of Black South Africans erupted over the white government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than their native language. The image of this uprising is a youth carrying the body of his younger brother. The number dead estimated from 176 to 700. Have you ever been really angry? I’m not going to ask you to say out loud but I am asking you to remember. I want you to have some connection with the people Nelson Mandela was talking to when he said: “.. through peace you will be able to convert, you see, the most determined people…and that is the method we should follow.

Ring bell

Yesterday, I thought of the bamboo forests around our home in Japan when we took a drive on the Alpine Loop and saw the afternoon light slanting through the aspens. We lived on a cliff in the middle farmhouse—a place where we felt a strong sense of home and place. The house to our left up the steep narrow road that ran along the edge of the cliff was owned by the Nakayama family. The house on the other side by the Sakano family who had moved to the city and left it vacant. Not long after we had put a huge amount of money into re-tiling the roof and reconstructing the foundation, Mr. Nakayama decided to construct a chicken coop in the Sakano house below us and move his large Chinese roosters and their hens there. The coop was about twenty feet from the uninsulated wall next to where we slept. The rooster began crowing not at dawn—at about 3 a.m. This went on for months. When we told Mr. Nakayama, he said, “We couldn’t put them by our house because they make noise. His wife came over and said, “I hear you don’t like the chickens.” And then she laughed. We were heart broken: our paradise had been invaded by noisemakers. And, we became angrier and angrier when they woke us up at 3 a.m. and then kept crowing into the afternoon. Earplugs did not work. We wanted to kill the roosters. We’d just spent a huge amount of money not for the house itself but to replace the tile roof and the foundation. No one would want to buy the house. We were stuck. Those roosters robbed us of our peace and sense of home.
I imagine that most of you in one way or another have faced such a situation that felt out of your control—perhaps a new co-worker or boss who is horrible.

We tried kindness—bringing them presents—big bottles of sake and boxes of sweets. Nothing worked. And the feelings of anger and grief were awful—the raging stress hormones. Going to bed at night and lying there, knowing that sleep would be cut short by those roosters. The model of forgiveness I had been brought up with didn’t work in this situation.

I was taught that in order to be forgiven when I did something wrong, I had to admit it, feel truly remorseful and then never do it again. The first two parts I could do—but I tended to do the same things over and over again. And when you have asked for forgiveness (to God or your parents or teachers) over and over again the part of admitting and feeling remorseful begins to feel like a huge burden. I would have preferred being a Catholic in Italy—I could have gone to different churches each week for confession. I felt sheepish and false kneeling in prayer and saying: I’ve done it again, God, and I am sorry—I feel terrible and I bet you don’t believe me when I promise I won’t do it again. I imagined God just looking at me with a frown: “I’ve heard this before!” Even learning that Jesus died for all of my sins made it seem worse. The atonement felt like one more way to add to my burden—that I had contributed to suffering.

And then there was forgiving others for what they did. I kept the same model and became a little like that God who was hard on me. Even when my belief changed, I kept the teaching that if people did something bad to me that they needed to feel bad about it and tell me and do some groveling. The problem with this side of the model of forgiveness was that people rarely knew that they had done something wrong.

When I left a husband and my birth religion and Lou and I came out many years ago, I remember meeting someone who was a church leader and had been a friend, tears in my eyes, saying that I felt that I was in a bad dream. He said, “You are in a bad dream and you will never wake up!” I probably heard those words in my memory over a hundred times. Another kind of burden. When I wanted to forgive I was faced with the problem that he didn’t think that he had said anything wrong. And, in the model that I had bought of forgiveness, he had to at least admit he was wrong in order for me to let it go. And some groveling would be good—some acknowledgement of my pain. So, I didn’t let it go—and living here has given me a chance to run into him—twice.
That model of forgiveness did not fit the kind of revolutionary change needed in Mandela’s South Africa, Gandhi’s India, and Martin Luther King’s America either: the people who were enacting the injustice did not see what they were doing as injustice or even wrong. These three men, just like us, had to find ways to transform their anger at the injustices piled up in their hearts, in order to become leaders who could bend that arc of justice.

In The Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes how he became the leader who could be a warm sun to the white and black people of South Africa. During the 27 years he spent on Robben Island, he transformed his anger by meditating and deeply understanding the white South Africans. He learned Afrikaans, the language of white South Africans—and the language that had caused the riots in the township of Soweto that had killed up to 700 people.

Ring bell

All three of those men became saints, very human saints, and I believe that what they did was not magical—at heart they knew that this was the only way that they could lead—and it was the only way that the futures that all three of them imagined could be realized. They were highly practical saints.

Nelson Mandela led his people with something different from the forgiveness that would have required the impossible: the groveling of the white South Africans. That would have been a strong wind that would have kept all of their coats on—instead he met them with a generosity of heart. Instead of scolding and showing the face of an angry God who demanded repentance, on his inauguration day, he went up to an officer in the white security forces (that had done countless degrading things to black South Africans in the past), “You have become our peace. You are our peace.” Expecting hostility, the man wept. The man struggling to hold onto his coat was confronted with the warmth of the sun.

The work of Mandela is as true for Utah as it is for South Africa.

My recent experience with hospitals—where I have been able to have Lou with me for appointments not because she is my friend—she is my legal wife. I do not want to forget how monumental it is for her to have the legal right to be there when I woke up from surgery. We have made great changes already. And there is so much more to do—within us and without us.
Gandhi repeatedly insisted that the soul of a person who has not undertaken an inner transformation is not free. Let us be free.

Here in Utah, we need to work on transforming our anger. That is what I find deeply disappointing about the demonstrations I have participated in: the rhetoric of change often spits in the eyes of those whose help we need in order to make change.

Just as Mandela, we need to work on transforming our anger to generosity—our personal swords into plowshares. No one is good at this at first. But as Martha Nussbaum points out—that is not a good enough reason not to try. If you’re not good at playing the piano right away you don’t just say that that is how things are. Find your own Robben Island—your own way. Be warned. There are no short cuts: this is hard work and rewarding work.

Look to the future: We will never transform Utah into Vermont and we can be a state with justice for all. Can we trade in our retributive idea of forgiveness for generosity of heart? I’m walking right beside you in this work. The leaders of my former church are not going to get on their knees and apologize and I have run into that man who told me I was in a bad dream from which I would never wake up. Twice.

I have begun to feel that these are chances. If I can drop this idea of needing an apology—for simply expanding my heart—then I’m ready for the work of right now—I’m not stuck in the past carrying around my resentments.

Those of you who are new to our community, please know this: We are not perfect. I am not perfect. Just ask Lou. I often see people coming to us and thinking that we will be everything the other place wasn’t. Instead of giving up the first time you see imperfection, consider that this place might be your Robben Island—a place to transform your anger into a way of being that contributes to the future we imagine of respect and inclusion for all.
One morning many years ago, I suppressed my anger and talked with that pesky neighbor, Mr. Nakayama, and asked him what it would take to get him to move the roosters. He said, “Well if I had one of those little construction huts on my land over there, I’d take them over there.” Guess what? Lou and I found him one of those construction huts—which is a long and hilarious story because the land where he had a new hut wasn’t his land—and he moved those roosters.

Ring the bell.

Our families, neighbors, work and our community—especially our church community–are our testing grounds. And we need this testing ground to transform ourselves—for only by doing that can we transform the world.

Amen and may it be so.