Homer said that Odysseus
Angered a God
Which is why
His journey was so long
He started as a prince
A wealthy man
But had trouble going home.
I think that’s right
I never read the poem.
Maybe it’s hard to start so high
That falling is a surprise.
I wouldn’t know.
That’s not my story.
I began in chaos,
My journey a hope-filled climb
As ever brighter vistas
Granted blessings on my way.
Sure, there have been dips and valleys
Times I’ve tripped and fallen.
But the trail keeps going higher
Where the sun has dared to shine.
Courage my companion
As love has been my guide.
On this stairway into heaven
A heaven here and now.
Maybe later too.
This has been enough.
I am rising like a Phoenix
From old ashes once again
Life has so many valleys
Deep dungeons of despair
Perhaps you saw me there.
Or did you glimpse me on a mountaintop
Where sunlight kissed the highest peaks
I laughed and forged a pathway
Through the storms
Rising like a Phoenix once again
One more transformation
Shedding weights that held me down
So blessed to be reborn
Once more to dance with wisdom
Swimming in that river of mystery
Where grace awaits us all.
This month’s worship theme is on covenant. A covenant is essentially a promise, but it is a deeper and more faithful promise than an ordinary one. It is not easy or thoughtless.
Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher that lived in 400 BCE is quoted as saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
I am not sure that I completely agree with him on that. Life, all life, has value. There are animals that do not have a capacity for self-reflection, but their lives are worth living. Those of you who have shared your lives with special animal friends know this to be true.
But Socrates’ point is a good one. Because we have thecapacity to examine our lives, it can be a waste to simply live them without ever thinking about their meaning.
The 20thcentury Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams took Socrates’ statement in a different direction. He said:
“An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident. A faith worth having is faith worth discussing and testing…
No authority, including the authority of individual conviction, is rightly exempt from discussion and criticism.”
Adams was also pretty blunt when he said:
“The free person does not live by an unexamined faith. To do so is to worship an idol whittled out and made into a fetish. . . . the faith that cannot be discussed is a form of tyranny.” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 48).
An unexamined faith is not worth having.
So how do we, as Unitarian Universalists, examine our faith? How do we examine our lives and learn how to follow a principled path, one that makes us feel more alive and one that can help us make a positive difference for our world?
We don’t have a common creed, a set of particular beliefs. As individuals, we have many different ideas about God, and we have a wide variety of opinions about almost everything.
We do have some things, however, that we have agreed upon. Anyone want to hazard a guess as to what those things are?
Yes, we have our seven principles.
In case you can’t remember them, they are listed in the front of the grey hymnal. It might be useful to turn to them. Note the words at the beginning, “we the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote.”
The UU Congregation of Marin is one of those member congregations. We have, as a religious institution, covenanted, or promised, to affirm and promote the seven principles.
Some people consider our seven principles a creed. Many of us when we first read them, said, “That is exactly what I believe!” I did that.
But let’s examine those principles. Note that the introductory line doesn’t say “we believe.” It says that we covenant – that we promise to affirm and promote those seven things. As Unitarian Universalists, we make promises; promises to do things. The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are not statements of belief, but rather constitute an action plan that we try to follow both as congregations and as individuals. Action plans! Don’t you love it?
What is your favorite principle? Call it out!
The majority of Unitarian Universalists are most strongly drawn to either to our first principle or to our seventh. They are certainly the most often quoted in sermons and in conversations when you are trying to explain to someone what Unitarian Universalism is all about.
And while people can certainly have favorite principles, I believe it is also important to examine them together.
Our first principle uplifts the rights of the individual and asks us to respect everyone’s inherent worth and dignity. The seventh principle, respect for the interconnected web, asks us to remember than we are all part of something much larger than ourselves.
(Holding up hands) The first principle is about the individual and the seventh is about community. Individual – community. How do we hold those two in balance? We can sometimes struggle with the tension between those two principles. I know I did as a supervisor and as a new Unitarian Universalist. I had to weigh the needs and problems of an individual employees with the needs of both the larger work team and the mission we were charged with accomplishing.
The tension between these two principles can also surface within our churches.
How does a congregation respond to an individual whose behavior is truly disruptive, maybe someone who makes racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or sexist comments? If we can’t find a way to call them back into covenant and remind them of our first principle, what do we do?
Do we ignore it, or do we find ways to encourage them to change their behavior so that we can create the warm and welcoming religious community we all want and need?
Being welcoming to all does not necessarily mean being welcoming to all types of behavior.
Sometimes the balance has to shift from the individual toward the interconnected web, or community side of the equation. It is never simple. This isn’t an easy faith.
Sometimes it can feel like there is an inherent conflict between our first and seventh principles. Maybe we should just choose one and be done with it.
It gets easier if you consider them in relationship with each other.
Isn’t part of respecting someone’s worth and dignity letting them know when they are doing something that diminishes or damages another person or group of people? Sometimes it is more respectful to speak the truth and offer the possibility of change, than simply saying, “Oh, that’s just the way they are; they always do that.”
Similarly, the seventh principle respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part is about a lot more than respecting the environment.
It says we are all connected. It says every individual with all of their inherent worth and dignity is connected to every other individual.
Sometimes we forget that we have seven principles, not just two, and that they are all interrelated. The first and seventh principles are like bookends, and we need to take the time to read the books as well.
What’s in the middle of the bookshelf? What is our 4th principle? It is OK to look it up.
Bingo. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning is the correct answer.
I would argue that the 4thprinciple is the most important one and that the other 6 lead us there, supporting us on the path of examining our lives and our faith.
Our second principle, justice, equity and compassion in human relations points to the sixth, the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
The second principle is about how we promise to treat individuals, while the sixth is what that means on a larger scale. It is the same as the relationship between the 1stand seventh. Individual — community.
The second and sixth also define the goals or mission that follow from the first and seventh principles: positive and respectful relationships between all people and all nations.
The third principle is acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations and the fifth is the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
Those two contain some of the specifics of the action plan. Accept one another, encourage spiritual growth, respect the right of conscience and use the democratic process when making decisions.
They tell us what to do as we engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Free (one hand) Responsible (other hand)
Individual – Community
Our principles contain the essence of dramatic tension. Everyone who wants to live ethically, in right relationship to other people and to the world, to examine their life and their faith, struggles with contradictions. How do we search for truth and meaning? How do we discover the meaning of our lives and what we are called to do with them?
Today is Epiphany in the Christian tradition. One definition of epiphany is a, usually sudden, perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. As we examine our faith and our lives, sometimes we are looking for an epiphany, an understanding that will help lead us on our life’s journey.
But how can we begin that search for truth and meaning?
The Buddha sat beneath a tree waiting for enlightenment. Moses climbed a mountain. Jesus went into the wilderness. They were seeking truth and meaning, wondering what their lives were really about, what their “action plan” should be.
Haven’t we all experienced that feeling? We wonder why we are here, if our life has any purpose, any meaning beyond whatever societal success we might attain or not. What is the point?
Does it really matter what we do and how we live?
To find the answers to those questions, we have to go deep, very deep, inside of ourselves. We have to look in the mirror and see our whole selves, our failings as well as our gifts. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I called to do?
Who are you? Why are you here?
What will you do with your one wild and precious life, as the poet Mary Oliver asks?
Sitting with those feelings can be scary.
Fear has so many dimensions: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of ridicule, fear of power, fear of the unknown.
But while we are sitting beneath the tree, while we are wandering in the metaphorical desert, while we are drawing in whatever wisdom we can find, we also need to be turning ourselves inside out, and finding a path into the world.
The Buddha did not stay beneath his tree, he was called by the suffering he saw around him to go back into the world. Moses came down from the mountain to lead his people to the Promised Land. Jesus came back from the desert and began casting out demons and healing the sick. Harriet Tubman went back down south to free more slaves.
Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
There is a place, deep within each of us, that knows what will make us come alive. We can follow a principled path.
I will end with these words by Leslie Becknell:
“What kind of case could be made to convict you of full-fledged whole-hearted Unitarian Universalism? What do you do when life calls on you to live out your principles? When someone’s opinion is different than yours. When someone at the committee meeting interrupts and goes off on a tangent. When your beloved doesn’t take out the trash. . . . When you request that your employer make a policy change. When you are living your life every day.
I won’t challenge you to memorize the principles. I invite you to learn them by heart and be willing to back them up with the life you lead”
From: “Learning the Principles by Heart” Leslie Becknell
Amen and blessed be
Unitarian Universalism is an embodied faith; our theology proclaims that all our bodies are sacred and beautiful, and that our physical selves matter. Our faith is demanding; we are called to stretch ourselves and to be transformed.
For much of my life, I have lived in my head and my heart, and my body was mostly a vehicle for getting things done. It was also a source of pleasure. Among other physical pleasures, I have enjoyed bubble baths, soft kittens, and delicious food. I spent time caring for my mind by studying, reading, and learning. I also tended to my heart and soul, through prayer and by opening the pathways of empathy and compassion, even when it was difficult. Despite my theology about the importance of the body, however, I mostly simply used it, ignoring what it might need to stay healthy.
I gained weight slowly over the years, and in some ways relished being fat. In my large female body, I felt like I projected a safe presence, and the hugs I gave congregants seemed to be received as nurturing rather than sexual or threatening. I did always ask before hugging someone new, however; prior trauma can be so easily triggered by touch. I was largely happy with my “earth-mother” image of myself. I did not enjoy squeezing myself into airplane seats, or enduring the indignities and judgements that society places upon fat people, but I loved myself and my body, just as it was. My dear wife also loved me, no matter what size I was.
But I forgot that my body needed my care and attention, and that just as my heart, brain, and spirit needed exercise to stay healthy, so did my body. I forgot that this faith demands a wholeness of mind, spirit, and body. I forgot these words of the 16th century Unitarian, Michael Servetus:
“It is necessary to care for the body if we wish the spirit to function normally.”
Last year, I got a wake-up call, a revelation if you will. My health had begun to deteriorate, so much so that I had to leave a ministry earlier than planned. Most of my health issues were made worse by the amount of weight I was carrying. I knew this was true this time, despite the years of doctors implying that my weight was the cause of what were completely unrelated problems. I realized that if I was going to have a decent quality of life ever again, if I was going to be able to continue to work for justice, I needed to lose some serious weight. Exercise wasn’t going to be enough; my body and I needed both physical and spiritual rehabilitation if we were going to survive.
I had never seriously dieted before and was very suspicious of the diet industry. To me, it symbolized both capitalism and misogyny, the policing and sexualizing of women’s bodies for profit and control. One can be healthy at any size; I still believe that, but it wasn’t true for me, at least not any more.
I signed up for a medically supervised weight loss program through my health plan. It isn’t easy, and has required intense concentration and focus, but the weight is coming off. It is hard, but it is what I need. I am learning to tend my body in the same sorts of careful and attentive ways that I have always cared for my heart, my mind, and my soul and spirit. My body is so much more than a vehicle; it is my home. I have no regrets about my past habits, but it was time for me to go home. I needed a revelation to really understand that our minds, bodies, and souls are deeply interwoven, and that only when they work together can we live to our full potential. Sometimes we need revelations – sometimes we need two, or three, or twenty-three. I am so glad that revelation is not sealed!
How many candles do we need to light?
Will there be enough wax
To hold the slender wicks of all our prayers?
How many tears do we need to shed
To cause the ocean to overflow
With the torrents of our grief?
I want to light a candle
For every single soul
For the children
For the elders
For all those at risk
For all those who are targeted
For who they are
Or what they believe
I want to light a candle
For all those who have not survived
Can our candles burn any brighter
With their fierce and furious love?
Can the molten wax we create
Burn through a world of hate
Of greed and blatant disregard
Of all that makes life holy?
Our prayers can flow like lava
Erupting through the darkening sky
Angel wings can beat within our hearts
Soaring high in the warming air.
So many candles of love we have
Lit by an eternal flame.
Read any good books lately? I have one to recommend, but like any good book, it is important to read it with a questioning mind and an open heart. What does a particular book tell me about my own life? Are the characters and situations believable? Most important, from a religious standpoint, is the message of the book uplifting? Does it contain something that has at least the potential for making me a better person for having read it?
Jewish and Christian scripture, the Bible, is one of the six sources from which our living tradition of Unitarian Universalism is drawn. There are references to Biblical stories everywhere in our culture, including in our music. If we don’t understand those stories, we can be at a cultural disadvantage.
The right of individuals to interpret sacred scripture for themselves, whether that scripture is the Bible or Doctor Seuss, is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.
Have you ever cried in church? I have. Sometimes the tears are good, and in times of grief or disappointment, just letting them flow can be very healing. We cry when our hearts are touched, and we can cry when we feel like we have found a place to belong, where all of all we are is welcomed and embraced. Rev. Marcus spoke about that a few weeks ago.
But people also cry in churches because their church is hurting them, telling them that they are somehow less than worthy, less than whole. They may be told that God doesn’t love them just as they are if they are gay. They may also be told that they are less than worthy if they happen to be female. All that is in the Bible after all.
This morning we are going to try and unpack some common misunderstandings about the Bible. I hope you learn something new and I hope it might help you resist anyone who may be wounding your heart with their literal interpretations of scripture. We are going to open up that good book and take another look and see if we can find the Gospel there.
The word Gospel comes from the Greek and means quite literally “good news.” It does not mean absolute fact, something that can’t be questioned.
If you study it, you will find that while the Bible may contain some good news, especially for the poor and oppressed, and much human wisdom, it is far from fact. It is not literal and to interpret that way is, dare I say it, fake news.
My Old Testament professor in seminary, a Franciscan priest, was fond of saying that the Bible is not history, it is not science, and it should never be used as a club.
The Bible, he said, is simply a collection of the stories of a particular people and their struggles to be in right relationship with the divine, with God. It is full of metaphor and full of inconsistencies. It wasn’t written down all at one time; and God didn’t dictate it.
Biblical scholars, using modern methods, have determined that the bible is in fact a collection of many stories, most of which were originally oral traditions, and almost all of which were edited and changed over time.
And there is not just one Bible, a fact that many Biblical literalists don’t know. The Hebrew Scriptures are a collection of 24 books. The Protestant Old Testament contains all the same books, but arranges them differently. The Roman Catholic Old Testament is larger than the Protestant version; containing 15 additional books. The Greek Orthodox Church includes even more, and the Ethiopian Church yet again more.
So, if someone tells you that they follow what is in the Bible, it would not be at all unreasonable to ask, “Which one?”
Most of those individual books have also been edited. Some are clearly combinations of different earlier versions.
Scholars have determined that there were originally as many as five separate and distinct written versions of the material in the Torah that were combined at a later time.
Have you ever wondered why there are two versions of the creation story in Genesis? Genesis one describes creation as happening in seven days and God creating both man and woman in his image at the same time. It is in Genesis 2 that God takes a rib from Adam to create Eve.
From the story of the flood to the tales of Abraham and Sarah, from the parting of the Red Seas to the listing of the Ten Commandments, to the genealogy of Jesus, there are both repetitions and differences in what the Bible says. So, if someone tells you they believe what the Bible says, after they tell you which version, you might want to ask, which part of that version?
You also might want to ask them, if they say the Bible is the literal truth, if they think men really have one less rib than women. Did anyone else ever try to count their own ribs and those of an opposite gender friend or sibling? I did. It was very confusing. It also wasn’t particularly easy and I don’t remember even getting a firm number.
Pull out an anatomy textbook later, or ask your doctor if you still aren’t sure. We aren’t going to engage in rib counting this morning here in church. If you want, I suppose you can do that later, in the privacy of your own homes.
It is also important to read the Bible from a historical perspective. Human sacrifice was common in the ancient desert world. First born sons were often sacrificed and sometimes murdered.
It was one of the plagues suffered by the Egyptians, and King Herod was said to have killed Jewish babies trying to murder the infant Jesus. If you read the story of Abraham and Isaac with that understanding, maybe the point wasn’t a test of Abraham’s obedience to God, but instead was a message that God values life. Don’t kill the children. Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Divine. Leave your arrogance behind. That is the message I like to take from Scripture.
There is so much in the Bible, ancient as it is, that can have relevance for our modern lives. If you grew up in a large family, or if you have more than one child of your own, maybe you know about sibling rivalry. Starting with Cain and Abel, there are so many stories about this. Joseph and his jealous brothers when he got a new coat, Jacob when he stole Esau’s inheritance, and the older brother who is hurt when the prodigal son returns and is celebrated. Those stories can help illustrate the challenges of parenting. How can we treat all of our children both fairly and as individuals? It isn’t always simple.
There are also stories in the Bible of alcoholism and abuse. Noah, of the ark fame, after the flood, was drunk and naked and his son Ham saw him and told his brothers. For telling, Ham was cursed and exiled. So many secrets we are asked to keep, and when you have the courage to tell them it is a risk and we may be punished.
Ham is the hero for me in that story. He told the truth and in fact was set free from that dysfunctional household.
Then there is the story of Judith. It is in the Catholic Bible, but not in the modern Protestant or Jewish scriptures. Holofernes was an evil and abusive conqueror who brought Judith to his tent to rape her, but he passed out drunk first. Judith then took his sword and cut off his head. I am not for capital punishment, but in those times, it was a fitting response to a drunk who wanted to commit sexual assault. Today, we seem to make them Supreme Court justices instead.
I just mentioned that the Book of Judith is only in the Roman Catholic Bible. There was much controversy in the early Christian church over what writings should be included. There was a lot of very diverse material floating around as well as some very different oral traditions.
Some writings were lost for more than a thousand years, but scholars were aware of their existence because of historical records that made reference to them.
You may have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary, from which Anne read a portion earlier. Often referred to as the Gnostic Gospels, they were discovered in 1945 in Egypt.
These writings reflect the incredible diversity of Christian belief in the earliest years.
So, when someone tells you women should be silent in church because it says that in the Bible, maybe you might want to quote from the Gospel of Mary where Levi calls Peter hot headed because he does not want to listen to Mary.
You might also ask them why Paul felt the need to tell women they should be quiet. Most likely they were speaking up and he wanted to silence them. Many men are still trying to silence women, especially those who are saying #metoo.
I haven’t gone into the whole issue of translations, but it is pretty clear that Jesus didn’t speak King James English. He didn’t even speak Greek. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows very well that translations are, at best, approximate.
When in a silly argument with someone who says that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality, I like to quote Luke 17:34 from the King James Version, the favorite translation of conservative Christians. The verse reads, literally:
“I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.”
Now, when you interpret that verse literally it is pretty clear that at least half of the gay people go to heaven, isn’t it?
I don’t suggest that you leave here today and go out and start arguments with biblical literalists. But if it interests you, do some reading about modern biblical scholarship.
But what I most want to leave you with today are some more questions. What is yourholy text, and what good news does it contain?
Do you find meaning in scripture; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or perhaps another tradition? Do you find it in poetry, in nature, in connections with other people?
Each of us must find our own truth. We find it in our own lives and in the lives of others that we come to know. We find it in the world around us. It is also helpful to read, to study, and to learn what others believe to be true.
But in the end, we must each make our own peace with the meaning of our own lives, and our own peace with whatever we mean when we say the word God.
There is some gospel, some really good news, however. We don’t have to do any of this alone. There are other souls engaged in similar journeys. Maybe we can learn from one another. Maybe people can stop using sacred texts like the Bible to justify their own bias and bigotry.
Maybe other people can stop being afraid of what the Bible says and understand that it is not literal and is not meant to be a club to beat you about the head, but is instead a collection of stories told by people trying to understand their lives and the world they lived in.
Isn’t that what we all are trying to do? Amen and Blessed Be.
I have to drag my eyes open
With sheer force of will.
Stay asleep please
In the land of dreams.
The world is too full
But like a dried
Looking for moisture
Whew! Our regular facilitator was back this week and we greeted her warmly. I flashed on the old TV show, “Welcome Back, Kotter.” We did behave rather like the “sweat-hogs” while she was gone, but who cares? (And no, I don’t want a Melania Trump jacket. I care about families and children, Muslims, black and brown people, people with disabilities, fat people, and my GLBT siblings. I don’t, however, care much about decorum). Johanna got us back on focus really quickly and all was well. Well that is except for her use of the phrase “New Normal.” She meant our permanent lifestyle changes, but I flashed on the “This is not normal” refrain of the resistance.
I was also very heartened with the warmth that the group welcomed me back after my week away. I love these people. We have grown so close in these few weeks as we try to live into this challenging lifestyle change. Our individual lives are very different, but whether they are crying or laughing, my heart is with them.
My week away at General Assembly was, as always, a way to reaffirm my faith in Unitarian Universalism as a tradition of justice and hope. This year was particularly moving as we confronted white supremacy both within our movement and in the wider world. Listen to the Ware Lecture with Brittany Packet, Sunday Morning Worship, or the Service of the Living Tradition, all of which were particularly moving, inspiring, and challenging. Ours is not a casual faith.
It was also wonderful to see so many old friends. And it was a little awkward mixing up my shakes in the plenary hall or a workshop. I did a lot of explaining of the program, and although virtually everyone I spoke to about it was supportive, I still felt self conscious at times. The plane rides were stressful, and it was hard to drink enough water on the travel days. My CPAP machine didn’t work (I stupidly did not bring the humidifier attachment and this new machine doesn’t work without it) so I did not sleep at all well. I attended a buffet luncheon/meeting, sat in the hotel bar sipping a sparkling water, and I stayed completely on plan. Hurray for me!
So hard to focus on myself, on my own health, when our country and our world is slipping into so much horror. I wonder if my marriage will stay valid, and I wonder if my friends will even survive. I weep for the parents and children who have been cruelly separated. Saturday, I will go to the Richmond Detention Center for a protest rally. Since it isn’t a march, I can bring a chair and sit while bearing witness. I must do what I can, but I also need to stay strong in my focus on my own body and health. It will be good practice for working to bring our country into a healthier place.
(My stats for the last 2 weeks – down 5.3 pounds, drank I am not sure how much water and exercised for only a total of 280 minutes. My total weight loss so far is 29.5 pounds. I am now under 300 pounds, a milestone for me in this journey. Huzzah!)
There are days
When the effort
To rise from my bed
Is almost too much
The warm sheets
Wrap me in dreams
Too sweet to leave
But the sun
My window now.
And a bird sings
A familiar melody.
So I drag my bones
Up to greet
A new day.
Sometimes the images from old poems come to me. Changed over time of course.
Dry Bones – Images from Ezekiel 37 (written in April 2004)
In the valley of the dry bones,
Fragile and hard
Spin through the dance
As the rain falls.
Bones rattling to life
Spring is coming.
These bones are old now