Greater Expectations

Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees
September 15, 2019

SERMON READING “First Lesson” by Philip Booth

Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man’s float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.


If you are searching for God in scripture but struggling to get closer, perhaps it’s time to put down your books and walk in the woods.

If you are devoting yourself to doing good and serving others’ needs but finding yourself exhausted, then perhaps it’s time to meet your own needs as you have met the needs of others.

If you are searching hard for a spiritual practice but not connecting to what makes you feel most alive, then perhaps it’s time to do what you love and discover there what you seek.

In our story this morning, the wandering teacher offers this very wisdom to those who come seeking her guidance. (adapted from “The Wandering Teacher”) Sometimes in our searching for community, God, and justice, we need to adjust our spiritual practice. Sometimes we need to change up our approach and our expectations. 

This can mean letting go a little and loosening the grip of expectations. It can mean learning to expect surprise. It can mean learning to be more trusting of our place in a larger and interconnected web of existence.

Unitarian Universalist and lawyer Adam Gerhardstein learned about adjusting expectations through broken expectations. For him, this had to do with reclaiming his beliefs. Gerhardstein describes how as a child his family called him “the count.” He counted things. All the sanctuary lights in the church, cars passing on the other side of the road, birds eating on their deck. Sometimes he would announce what he counted—how many birds were on the deck, for example. 

He came to wonder if anyone really noticed. He wondered if making these announcements mattered. And somewhere along the line he began to doubt whether he could have an impact on others by his announcements. Gerhardstein says:

I am having a spiritual crisis. I am losing my grip on my expectations. At first, I thought my life had become too segregated; I was simply surrounded by too many people like me. But I think the problem is deeper.

I believe that every person is capable of love and greatness. But somehow that belief is not informing my expectations. I have been hearing a lot of statistics lately. I have been hearing percentages of homes that are owner-occupied, percentages of students who are English-language learning or receiving free and reduced lunch, rates of diabetes and obesity among poor folks, different health outcomes for minorities and single-parent families, rates of incarceration for young black men, and that there is something called an achievement gap. I hate that there is an achievement gap! But I fear that I have come to expect it.


Gerhardstein’s spiritual crisis eventually led him to embark on a spiritual quest. His quest was to reclaim expectations–a different sort of expectations. He discovered that he wanted his expectations to match his beliefs. Because as much as he believed that every person has the capacity for greatness, he realized that he didn’t have the same expectations for everyone.

He didn’t have the same expectations for what a middle class white kid from Southwest Minneapolis and a poor black kid from North Minneapolis could do. The statistics, he knew, supported his broken expectations. But Gerhardstein decided to choose his beliefs as his guide. And for him, that meant believing and expecting that everyone has the potential for love and greatness.

Sophia Lyon Fahs says,

Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.
Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Gerhardstein became determined to expect more. He reclaimed expansive beliefs and widened his expectations. That made space for greater sympathy.

Sometimes, like Gerhardstein, we need to hold onto those expansive beliefs by reclaiming and sometimes by letting go of our expectations.

Alice Walker, a wise wandering teacher herself, advises “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.” That’s exactly the lesson Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Robin Tanner found she needed. Tanner learned that her expectations are “wholly insufficient.” An experience showed her that sometimes it’s wise to “expect nothing.”

She was traveling to Pennsylvania from New Jersey with a friend and their toddlers. They were going to visit a crayon factory. The traffic was bumper to bumper. And Tanner noticed a minivan approaching too close to her bumper. She had to hit the brakes because all the cars were slowing and the car behind her inched even closer.

Then the honking began. Then the navy minivan moved between lanes, toward the lane beside her. Tanner was preparing herself for what she thought would come next. She says:

The minivan approached. I could see the man had rolled down the window on the driver’s side and his arm was already out of the window.

I braced myself for a gesture.

As the car passed, he made a peace sign and shouted “Justice!” The man was smiling broadly. I raised my eyebrows in complete confusion. What the heck?

It took my friend … to remind me that I was driving my wife’s car with a Black Lives Matter sticker.

Sometimes, people surprise you.

Sometimes people and communities and life surprise us. Sometimes we need to be surprised out of our self-defeating and other-limiting expectations. When we focus our expectations too narrowly, we can squelch the possibilities–even our own beliefs. We can limit growth and grace and love and greatness for ourselves and each other. We can shut ourselves off from what we can’t even yet imagine. Such as someone driving behind us and applauding—well honking—in support of our deeply cherished values.

Liberal religion reminds us of both. Both the need for high expectations and the need to lie back. On the one hand, liberal religion emphasizes the power we humans have to shape reality. Our actions and our expectations give shape to how we see each other and how we see the world. This is the reason our religion teaches us to be engaged, to participate as fully as we can in creating a better world, ensuring justice, love, fairness, and dignity for everyone. We are called to live these values and beliefs in our daily lives allowing them to be guiding principles.

Yet, on the other hand, our religion also teaches us to be open, to learn to let go, to lie back and trust. Our human striving can be exhausting and can even get in the way. After all, we are not in control of everything. Even if we occasionally or often seem to forget that or act otherwise. We are part of a larger whole, interconnected.

American poet, essayist and activist, Robert Bly encourages us to,

Think in ways you’ve never thought before.

When someone knocks on the door,

think that he’s about to give you something large:

tell you you’re forgiven,

or that it’s not necessary to work all the time,

or that it’s been decided that if you lie down no one will die.

(“Things To Think”)

This means we need to allow ourselves to trust life and to create space for experiences of transcending wonder and awe. For mystery. For whatever or whoever comes knocking on the door. And even to approach experiences of pain and disappointment with open heartedness, never knowing where they may lead.

In fact, some of the most meaningful experiences we will have will be the ones we never anticipated and didn’t control. They will be the ones we might not even have wanted, might have even resisted mightily, trying to slam the door shut in their faces.

The spirit, the muse, serendipity, the universe has a way of showing up for us. If we let it. And part of our spiritual practice is to learn to make space for what shows up.

When I go to the beach, one of the moments I most cherish is when I am coming to the crest of a dune. It’s that moment just before I can see the water. I can see the expansive sky and feel the warm sand between my toes. 

I know the water is there. I can hear it. I can smell the salt air and see the sea gulls. And then there’s that moment when the water rises into my view. I like to pause then, there on the threshold of an encounter with the ocean, with the sacred source of life.

No matter how many times I look upon the ocean, it never fails to surprise me. The ocean is not predictable. Life is not predictable. As much as we try to push and pry it into just what we think it will be or ought to be.

Life, like the water, is ever shifting in color, shape, texture, size of swells, roughness and calm. Ever calling us to adapt our expectations, raising them or releasing them. Ever calling us to balance what we know with what we have yet to learn. To balance our striving with trust in something greater than ourselves. To know we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, but we are not the only ones. To know that struggles and disappointments can give way to healing.

In the words of our chalice lighting this morning,

May the . . . time we share today,
make space for greater expectation.
May the truth we learned yesterday
be changed by what we hear today.
May the fear that seems so certain
be loosened by a newfound trust.
May our doubts and disappointments
be replaced by an ever-unfolding faith
in more beauty
more trust
more joy
more goodness
more life.

(“Space for Greater Expectation” by Soul Matters Worship Team)

As a people of expectation, may we be called into an ever-unfolding openness to the forces that create and uphold life. May we be called to answer “yes” to life. To say “yes” to life. To say “yes” to truth and to love and beauty, even struggle. To remember that, as Philip Booth offers as a First Lesson:

when fear cramps your heart . . .

lie gently and wide to the light-year

stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

(from “First Lesson,” Philip Booth)

May we set our hearts to building a better, kinder world and also to trusting that none of us needs to do it all ourselves. Nor can any of us. If we were to loosen our too tight grip on expectations, who knows what surprises might greet us. Perhaps that might be the greatest of expectations.

Amen. Blessed be.

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