As you can probably tell, just by looking, I go to the gym. I have a personal trainer, and under her guidance, I am sculpting my body into muscled dynamo of sinew and steel. Sleek strength, coiled bands like a spring, power at rest.
I am making these heroic efforts under the watchful eye of my strict and demanding personal trainer. She pushes me to the limits of my endurance. For a dancer, she is really brutal.
One of the exercises she makes me do are bench presses. I lay down on a bench and lift a weighted barbell up from my chest, 8 times, 10 times, 12 times. And near the end of repetitions, my arms turn to spaghetti, and the barbell wobbles and I don’t think that I can lift it. In fact, I have fears that my arms will give out and the weights will fall on my chest, pinning me there for the rest of the day. Coach as I call her, sees that I am having trouble completing the last lift. She steps in, saying “here I’ll help” and I can see her reach out to grab the barbell and help me make that last lift. But she does it in a way where I cannot see her hands.
“Thanks” I say.
And one time, she said, “Really, it’s just two little fingers” I just put two little fingers under the bar. you are really lifting it, but you can do it because you think I am helping more than I am.”
And I thought at that moment, wow! that’s a sermon that almost writes itself.
How easy it is to help another person !
Listen to the story -- listen to what Jesus says in the story:
for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; 36 naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Small things: a meal, a drink, some clothes, a little time visiting the sick and the imprisoned. These are not big things, but small things. Just two little fingers to help someone lift a weight off of them.
Diane Mirick and a great task force of people from this church have been hard at work creating a structure for a caring community here in this congregation. How can we organize ourselves to help each other when we need help -- help with small and large difficulties that life can deal out to us.
They will be offering up that plan and getting people involved between now and June before the summer break. Small gestures of help -- when I was hungry you brought me food -- or a casserole, visits to the sick, rides to the doctors, someone to help with the laundry or the grocery shopping for a new mom, an extra hand with the dishes. Just two fingers of help.
Why does just two fingers help?
It is not the actual muscle power that my trainer contributes to lifting the bar; I lift the bar, but she has given me the confidence to do it, because I can see that she is trying to help me. it is the appearance of her help that gives me the confidence to muster the strength to lift the bar. It is not her help but her solidarity.
Solidarity may not be the right word.
I have list of virtues that I think Liberal Religion calls us to. The first and foremost goal of any spiritual path comes down to changing people by asking them to orient their lives around some different values. A different ethical and moral approach; a different way of looking at life, with all its triumphs and tragedies, ups and downs.
I sometimes list the virtues as honest realism, humility, gratitude and reverence, open-heartedness, self-possession or thinking for yourself, service, and solidarity.
I like the word “solidarity” but I recognize that it is a “labor movement” word -- its’ roots are in the union movement. Another word for it could “compassion”. Or “empathy”. Or “fellow-feeling” or the word that Walt Whitman used: “adhesion” the love of all for all.
It is the positive feeling of seeing in another person one like yourself and emotionally moving to be on their side. To be of support, to be of help. It more than openness; it’s more than tolerance;
Last week, we heard that a young person of this church -- Katie Mandile -- had chosen to express her gender as a male: that she had cut her hair and changed her clothes and would prefer to be henceforth known as Anthony, or Tony. I cannot speak for everyone of you, but what I felt was not simply ‘openness’ -- a feeling that “well, if that is what she or he or whatever wants to do, I’m not going to argue with them, or be rude.” No, I felt a rush of fellow-feeling, for Tony, for Ken and Diane, his parents, for Ben and Olivia, his brother and sister. I wanted them to see my hands reaching for the bar that they were now trying to lift, even if all that I have to offer is two fingers and not much muscle.
What we as a congregation offered was a little signal of solidarity. we are with you. It is so easy to forget that a little signal of solidarity or welcome is the most important thing.
There is a story that goes around churches -- I heard it first about a Methodist church in seminary, but really it goes anywhere. It’s about a church kind of like this one -- one with a beautiful sanctuary and burgundy carpets and a certain formal air. And one day in the service a young man comes in -- and in the story what about changes to fit the prejudices of the times. Probably when the story was first told, the young man was wearing short sleeves, and later he had long hair and a tied-dyed t-shirt and later tattoos and dreadlocks and eyebrow piercings and pants that hung down real low so you could see his boxer shorts. Or maybe a skirt. And he comes down and sits on the floor in the front of the sanctuary. And the congregation is waiting for somebody to do something about this. And then the oldest usher, the old white-haired guy in the dark blue suit slowly makes his way down the aisle -- and it has to be slowly to draw out the suspense and he approaches the young man and then slowly and laboriously sits down next to him on the floor for the rest of the service.
He gave him the signal of solidarity; the word of welcome the high sign of hospitality.
The usher treated the young man, not like everybody else, but welcomed him specifically as he was.
For many situations in life, it is not what you think, and it is not what yo feel, it is what you show that matters.
There is that well-known story about fishing. Give a man a fish and they will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat forever. At least until the river is over-fished.
This little story comes into all sorts of discussions about social welfare and the perplexing problems of helping people who need help without creating dependencies etc.
Now, if my trainer did all the lifting that I found hard to do, I would not gain in strength. So she helps just a little, so my capacity, my strength, is growing.
But even more important, she gives me confidence - not by the amount of help she gives me, but by the fact that I can see her make the move to help me.
Whether you help somebody in the short term, or in the long term, the most help comes from the fact that you are communicating that you care enough about them to make an effort. It is not just our willingness to help that matters; it is our willingness to be seen helping that matters.
It’s our willingness to be a blessing and a help, visibly. It’s our willingness to be say our blessing out loud. It’s our willingness to go where the other one is and make them feel welcome, where they are, as they are and who they are.
It doesn’t take much to make this world a hospitable place for many many more people. A little sense of solidarity, two fingers to help, and a blessing said aloud.