The words church and God in the reading may have made some of you uncomfortable. Listen to your discomfort. It can be a good thing. In the story I told the children, I imagine the person who was asked the question about the purpose of the church was more than a little uncomfortable.
So why are we here? Why are you here? Why does the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma even exist? History could be referred to of course; there were reasons this congregation was formed. We could ask some of the founding members what they were trying to do, what they dreamed, but that isn’t the whole answer. Congregations are living things, and they change over time as the members change. New people add something, others leave and we lose their continued contributions, although something of their spirits always remains. The individual members change as well. Our founders are not the same people they were when they formed this congregation. Life brings change to the world, to individuals, and to congregations.
Think back, if you will, about what you were looking for when you first attended this church. How has that changed over time, and how have you changed?
I love questions. I think most Unitarian Universalists love questions. One could even say that asking questions is a part of our free faith.
We don’t have creeds, but instead we have guidelines for ethical behavior, which is what our seven principles are about. This is not a faith tradition where everyone can do whatever they might feel like doing, whenever they feel like doing it. It is an accepting tradition; we do acknowledge our imperfection. We aspire to high ideals and know we will still sometimes fail, sometimes dismally. That is OK, but the demanding part of our faith is that we keep trying. We have goals and visions of the world we would like to create. It isn’t an easy task.
We have a mission statement here. It says what we are supposed to be doing here together, on Sundays and throughout the week.
The mission statement is on the banner behind me. “Live your sacred, transform with love, act with courage.”
It is a pretty great statement, I think. Do you all like it too?
But what does it mean? Sacred means a lot of different things to people, which is why it says “your sacred” not “the sacred.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson said,
“A person will worship something – have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts – but it will out.
That which dominated our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”
Some people worship money or success. Some are dominated by a quest for power. Some worship beauty or truth, the quest for knowledge, or simple happiness and joy.
Some people come to services on Sundays to learn how to be a better person. Is that true for you? It matters how we live our lives and how we treat each other. Character also includes other things like integrity and responsibility, practicing compassion and forgiveness, being open minded, curious, inspired to make a positive difference with our lives, both for the people we are close to and for the wider community and world. Learning to transform through love is part of that.
Some people come to enrich their own spirits, to feel whole and to experience joy and sorrow in ways that are real. A religious community needs to provide comfort to those that are hurting. Has this community ever done that for you when you were having a hard time?
Unitarian Universalism is not a “sit back and enjoy your own spiritual understanding.” We aren’t navel gazers. No, we are called to serve, and spiritual growth is what fuels our social action. We can learn to love the whole world, including ourselves – and we can learn to “act with courage.”
But why do you come here? Why do we need a congregation like this one here in this town? Why do we need a religion like Unitarian Universalism in the world?
Think for a minute about why you came here this morning. Not why you came in the past, but why you came today. You are here after all, so you must have a reason for coming.
What are some of them? Go ahead and shout them out. I know some of you are not shy.
Robin Bartlett, a Unitarian Universalist Religious educator, in her blog post from which our reading was taken, has heard a lot of people say they come to church for their children, because the children are asking questions about God, or because a neighbor or friend is trying to recruit them into a more conservative religion.
Some people say they come to church because the sermons are entertaining. The crazy preacher can be really funny; you never know just what she will say. You could find much better entertainment, however, on TV, in the movies.
Maybe you come for the music, but you can find great music a lot of places, at concerts, festivals, and on I-tunes.
Some people say they come for the intellectual stimulation, to hear words and ideas that make them think. Of course, you could attend a college level lecture for that. There are a lot of other places you can go to stimulate your brain cells.
Maybe you come because you care about social justice. This community works very hard in many ways to bring more justice, equity, and compassion into our world.
But if social justice action is your only reason, there are literally thousands of other groups you could join that are doing fabulous work for a wide variety of social causes.
If you are looking for inspiration here, for motivation, for ideas on how to live in this complex world, you could read poetry, listen to TED talks, or join a self-help group.
If you are hurting and looking for comfort or if you are trying to find yourself, you could go into therapy.
Some people come to church to make friends, or even to find a life partner. You could also do that at a bar, a health club, a bowling league, or through social media.
Some people also come to church to find God, the holy, to connect with their inherent spirituality. There are also other ways to do that. Go out in nature, watch a sunset, plant flowers, or play with your children. You will surely find the holy there.
Did I cover everything?
I did forget one, which reminds me of a joke.
It’s Sunday morning and the alarm goes off. A woman turns over in bed and groans. She turns to her partner and moans. I don’t want to go to church today. I know the sermon is going to be boring.
People will ask me to do things I don’t have time for. I’d rather just stay home and sleep in today. Her partner turns to her with a sigh.
Honey, you have to go to church today. “Why? Why do I have to go to church?”
The answer? “Honey, you have to go to church because you are the minister.”
There are many reasons to come to church, but unless you are the minister, there are many other options. Even ministers can decide on a different career choice. Almost none of us are do it for the money in any case.
But how many places can you go where all of those reasons can apply?
Robin Bartlett tells us to go to church
“for community, for learning, for solidarity, for a good word, for love, for hope, for comfort, even for salvation. Go to church because you can’t imagine not going. Go to church because (of what) your church …demands of you. Go to church because you cry in the worship service at least once a month. Go to church because you look forward to seeing the people.
Go to church because your church forces you to put your money where your mouth is–to use your financial resources to make a statement about what has worth. Go to church because you are known here. Go to church because you want to be known. Go to church because you pray for this same imperfect, rag-tag group of people all week until you meet again. Go to church because you need to in order to get through your week.
Go to church because if you miss a week, you feel like something was really missing in your life. Go to church because your church community helps you to go deeper; to risk transformation; to yank you further down a path–to ultimate reality, to truth, to God–kicking and screaming. Go to church because it is a statement to yourself and your children about what has value and meaning. Go to church to find your purpose and live it. Give yourself the gift of church.” http://uuacreligiouseducation.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/dont-go-to-church-for-your-children/
She goes on to say, specifically addressing parents who say they come to church for their children,
“If church is not a gift for you, it won’t be a gift for your children.
You know that old (line) that we borrow from (the) plane instructions we hear read by flight attendants–… apply your own oxygen mask first before you apply your child’s, right? Well, you are your child’s religious educator and oxygen mask. Not our (religious exploration) curricula. Not our volunteer teachers. Not (the) minister. You. That’s a big responsibility, and (maybe) you don’t feel up to the task because (few) of us do.
But if we aren’t getting our spiritual needs met–our religious yearnings satiated; our deepest cries in the night soothed; our need to serve and be served; our God-sized hole occasionally filled, emptied and then filled up again– then we are never going to be up to the task of helping our children do the same.”
She says, “Don’t go to church for your children; go to church for you. You deserve it. Your children deserve it. And this brutal and beautiful world needs you to.”
That last line is worth repeating, “This brutal and beautiful world needs you to.” How important is this congregation, how important is Unitarian Universalism, not just to those of us who gather here each Sunday, but also to others in our town, in our state, in our country, in our world. I think we offer a vital service by thriving as a faith. We offer hope to the young person wondering if their life is worth living because they are gay, to the man just released from prison expecting to be shunned by everyone he meets, to the recovering alcoholic, to the person who is homeless, to the eccentric thinker who everyone else thinks is just crazy, to the members of conservative religions who worry that their questions are somehow sinful, and to all the people who are suffering in so many ways from a culture that is far from accepting of differences and difficulties. Even if they never find their way here, even if they never sit in this room with us, if they know about us, we have given them some hope. We have made a difference. We have offered an alternative, a radical alternative, a community based on love.
So if you have been thinking this morning about the reasons you come here, I assume you have thought of more than a few.
I have another question for you.
How much would it cost if you went other places to get what you find here at this church? How much more would you be spending on tuition, on therapy, on concert and movie tickets, or on drinks in a bar, if you did not come to church?
What about the things that are truly priceless? How could you possibly meet anywhere else the diverse and wonderful people we have here in this religious community? Where else would you be welcomed with such open and loving arms no matter who you are and how you are feeling? Where else are tears and laughter both not only acceptable, but treated as precious?
Our theology is about life, about continual new beginnings, second, third and fourth chances. It is a life-saving, life enhancing theology.
This congregation is at a point of transition and there are some decisions to make about your future. There will be plenty of time to explore the options, but as you do so please keep in mind not only why you are here, but why others might be here, and why this faith is so needed in our world. Amen, As-salāmu alaykum, and Namaste.
Greeting means peace and blessings upon you in Arabic. Good morning!
Today, I am going to talk about Islam, but you need to know that I am far from an expert on the Muslim faith. I took two classes on Islam while in seminary. I have had a few Muslim friends and colleagues and have participated in Muslim prayer and Sufi chanting. This gave me the gift of a glimpse into a different faith, a glimpse that moved me and filled me with wonder. I hope to share some of that wonder with you today.
There are somewhere around 1 billion Muslims worldwide and as many as 8 million in the United States. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. The rate of growth of Islam in the United States is also very high. 40- 60% of American Muslims have African-American heritage.
Those two statements make some people nervous. Racism and Islamophobia can be a powerful combination if fear is what you are looking to inspire. This fear is actively encouraged by our current national leadership, but even among liberals, there is a certain almost dumbfounded lack of comprehension, a confusion even, about why anyone would freely chose a religion that is perceived as monolithic, extreme, and oppressive.
I had some of that same confusion myself before I had the privilege of working with and studying with actual Muslims. The media portrayal of Muslims tends to focus on the extremes. Women certainly were oppressed in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The so called Islamic state is frightening, but those are the extremists among Muslims, just like the Westboro Baptist Church promotes an extreme interpretation of Christianity.
It was interesting to learn that Islam, when it first began, brought many new rights to women, including education. Gay and lesbian people are still oppressed in much of the Islamic world, but it was interesting for me to learn that while the Qu’ran has the same old Sodom and Gomorrah story that Christians have misinterpreted for centuries, those ugly Leviticus verses are not repeated in the Qu’ran. It is important to not judge any religion by its extremists. The term “Progressive Muslim” is not an oxymoron.
First, a little history.
Remember learning about Christopher Columbus and his brave voyage? I do. Columbus and the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, he discovered America, right? Later I learned, as you probably did, about the Norse explorer, Leif Erickson. Still later, there was a little bit of discussion about how the American continents weren’t exactly empty when Columbus and Erickson came. I learned tidbits about the complex civilizations and cultures that flourished in this hemisphere prior to the invasion of the Europeans.
What I didn’t learn about until I took a class is that there were African Muslims who traded with the peoples of the Caribbean and Central America for hundreds of years before Columbus. It is well documented, just not well known.
It was not a coincidence that Columbus sailed from Spain, a country that had been under Islamic rule for 700 years. Trade and travel throughout the Muslim world was common in those times and Africa was a center for Islamic study. One would guess that Columbus was actually pretty darn sure what he would find by sailing west, since so many African Muslims had already made similar voyages.
Then there were the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. Estimates vary, but approximately 30-40% of the people captured and transported to the Americas as slaves were practicing Muslims.
Quite a number were literate and could read and write in Arabic and recite large portions of the Qur’an from memory.
One of the more famous Muslim slaves was Job Ben Solomon who was able to win his freedom and return to Africa in 1734. He was highly literate and knew the Qu’ran by heart.
This history shows that Islam was part of the religious landscape of America from the very beginning.
Many of you may have heard of the five pillars of Islam.
The first pillar is Shahadah, or witness. It is an affirmation. La ilaha il Allah – Muhammadun Rasul l’Allah: There is no God but God and Mohammad is the prophet of God. Muslims are decidedly NOT Trinitarians.
They believe that Jesus was an important prophet, but not the literal son of God. Sounds a lot like the original Unitarian theology doesn’t it? We could also do a bit better on witness, sharing with others what we love about our faith.
The second pillar is Salat, or prayer. A devout Muslim prays 5 times a day in praise of and in gratitude to God. There is an old joke that most Unitarian Universalists are very opposed to prayer in schools and a few are not terribly fond of it in their churches either. Still, even for a devout atheist, it is hard not to be impressed. To spend several minutes, 5 times a day, every day, focusing on gratitude and on something larger than yourself is a pretty awesome spiritual practice.
The third pillar is Zakat, or alms. Once a year, a Muslim is supposed to give 2 ½ % of his or her assets, or capital – not just income, capital – to the poor. Talk about a culture of generosity! In the Qur’an the giving of alms is associated with worship since faith in God is expressed by good deeds. Deeds not creeds. That sounds pretty familiar too, doesn’t it?
Our stewardship drive is coming up soon, so start tallying up your assets so you can calculate the 2 1/2 percent. If you prefer, you can follow the Christian practice of 10% of your income. Or maybe the UU practice of 5% to the church and 5% to other causes.
The fourth pillar is Sawm or fasting, which is done worldwide in the month of Ramadan.
Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset in remembrance of when the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed. Like the daily prayers, this is a very personal and intense focusing on God. It involves sacrificing for your faith.
The fifth pillar is the Hajj, or Pilgrimage. Muslims from all over the world gather in Mecca during the last month of the Islamic year. It is the largest annual assembly of people in the world and dates back to the days of Abraham. It is a profoundly religious experience.
It is interesting that four out of the five pillars of Islam involve a spiritual practice or discipline. It is a religion of doing and being much more than it is a set of particular theological beliefs. This is even truer for the Sufi tradition within Islam which focuses on a mystical relationship with the divine.
Let’s look now at some of the traditional theology of Islam as contrasted with traditional Christian theology. There is some overlap of course. Islam is part of the Abrahamic tradition along with Christianity and Judaism. Followers of those three faiths are often called People of the Book.
I also stress the word traditional because there is a lot of diversity among Muslims just as there is among Christians and Jews – and of course, Unitarian Universalists.
First, there is no concept of original sin in Islam. People are born essentially good and not deserving of punishment.
How similar to our Unitarian Universalist principle about the inherent worth and dignity of all! The original sin concept has been used to keep the downtrodden in their place, from the peasants in the middle ages to the slaves in the Americas. If the theology is such that people are evil then why bother to treat them humanely on earth?
Human suffering is, in fact, a very bad thing, and Muslims are called to work to end it. They are not asked to “turn the other cheek” and to suffer oppression and injustice as the cross that God has somehow sent to them to bear.
I quote from Malcolm X:
There is nothing in our book, the Koran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion.
Let me be clear, however, Islam is NOT a religion that glorifies aggressive violence.
The Qur’an is very specific in saying that violence is only justified as a defensive measure, and that it should be used at the minimal level required for that defense.
Most Christian imagery has pictured Jesus with white skin and God as an old white man with a beard. Muslims do not make images of God at all and God is described as containing all genders.
All genders and all races included. From the beginning, Islam was racially integrated. The Qur’an says quite explicitly:
Among other signs of His is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variety of your tongues and complexions. Surely there are signs in this for those who understand. All those who are in the heavens and the earth are His.
There is also an important historical connection between Islam and Unitarian Universalism.
Back in the 15th century, the Unitarians in Transylvania were vulnerable during the religious wars in Europe and so they formed a partnership with the Islamic Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire. They were brought together by their shared conception of God as one. Turkish soldiers protected the only Unitarian King in history, and supported his claim to the throne. At one point the Sultan sent a gift of 1000 Turkish prayer rugs that were hung in Unitarian churches throughout Transylvania.
The connection in Transylvania is an important and powerful one. It was a significant part of how our tradition survived in that part of the world.
So we can celebrate, in gratitude, our history with Islam.
I am not going to stand here and pretend I like everything about the Muslim faith. I don’t like everything about any faith other than my own.
That is why I am a Unitarian Universalist. And as a Unitarian Universalist, I try to learn what I can learn from other religions.
Islam got it right, from the very beginning, about racism. The Qur’an has never been used to justify racial discrimination like the Bible has.
And Islam also got it right about religious freedom. A quote on this from the Qur’an,
“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks.”
Unitarian Universalists can certainly celebrate “no compulsion in religion” as it is very close to our own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
As we are gathered today, in this religious community, we know how much it means to us to have found this space. Our religion is one of practice too. How we live in the world, with each other, with the whole of creation is what is most important to us. For many of us, finding Unitarian Universalism has been a coming home, a sanctuary from a sometimes not very life affirming world. Our principles guide us and hold us to the hope of making the world a better place, building a world community with peace, justice, and liberty for all.
For many people of color in particular, discovering Islam has been a similar coming home: a sanctuary from a racist society, a religion that affirms the humanity of all races, one that is filled with hope for a better world.
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. How can we not celebrate these principles of ours wherever they might be found?
I wrote this back in May of 2006, during the Bush years. Little did I know I would need it again.
Wheel of Justice
The wheel is rolling backward.
Listen to the voices shouting,
In anger and in rage.
The soft sobs at the end of the day
Echo through the valley of despair.
The city streets are baking,
The countryside is gray with dust.
There is a heartbeat Somewhere.
Feel it pulsing.
A small sprout of green
Rises up through the cracked pavement
A sparrow drops a seed.
If we cannot stand it
Then we have to stand.
If we cannot stand
Then we have to crawl.
Don’t wipe the tears.
Let them run
Through the fields,
Water for the crops
That we must grow.
The wheel is rolling backwards
But that doesn’t have to be.
We will feel the good ache
Of holy muscles
Working with us,
As we place
Our shoulders to the wheel
Love is more
Than a valentine
A sunset beach
Or a fancy meal
Love is more than
Than a roaring fire
On a snowy night
Or dreams of sweet delight
Love runs deep
Flows on and on
It lives in all we do
Washing the dishes
Raking the leaves
Tending the children
We sing a song
Hearing our days drift by
We pray that love
Will grow and spread
To wrap the world around
Feeding the hungry
Caring for the sick
Healing the earth
The work of love
Is just what we must do
We talk about love a lot here. Standing on the side of love is one of our slogans. It is what it says on the stole I am wearing. It is how we describe our national social justice work for immigration, for racial justice and for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights. Love is part of our tradition. It is the doctrine of our church. Our Universalist ancestors believed in a loving God, one that would condemn no one to hell, no matter what they believed or did not believe and no matter what they did or did not do.
But what is this love we talk about? That is a complicated question. Most of you know by now that this congregation is not a place to come if you are looking for easy answers.
We are doing some songs about love today. The one the choir just sang is a fun one. Some of you likely remember the Frank Sinatra song about love being a many splendored thing. We aren’t doing that one today, but it goes…“It’s the April rose that only grows in the early spring. Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living.”
The Greeks, who were quite excellent at philosophy, broke love down into four different types: Eros, a passionate and intense love that arouses romantic feelings,
Storge, (store gay) which is family or brotherly love, something you might feel for your children or your very best friend, Phileo, is the affection you feel for the people you like, and last, but not least, there is Agape, (ah gah pee) which is love in the verb form, an unconditional love that requires action.
The Greeks distinguished their forms of love not only by the qualities of the different types of love they were defining, but also about where that love was directed: to a lover, a family member, a friend, or to the world.
What they left out was love of self, which is an odd and significant omission I think. I have no clue as to why, except maybe it was just assumed that people love themselves. The Greeks were much less guilt ridden and prone to self-esteem issues than are people in our modern culture.
It is very difficult to love anyone else if you don’t love and respect yourself. Could we apply all four of the Greek forms of love to ourselves? Can we like ourselves as in Phileo? Other people like us, so it shouldn’t be that hard for us to like ourselves as well. Can we love ourselves like a close family member? After all, we know ourselves better than we know anyone else. I also don’t think there is anything wrong with self-love in terms of Eros. We are all sexual beings; passion is part of our nature as biological beings.
And then there is Agape, love as a verb, love as unconditional. Agape love directed inward is a form of radical self-acceptance.
It drives us toward spiritual health, and moves us to make the changes in our own lives that allow us to focus that Agape love on other people and on the planet.
And it is agape love that helps us love our neighbor, and we know that everyone on this planet is our neighbor. Agape also helps us feel love toward people we don’t like, and even toward our enemies. Both of those can be difficult, and it is important to remember that it is fine to set boundaries. Spiritual maturity can even mean that you decide not to be around people whose behavior is harmful to you or others. You can love them but you can also set limits on your interactions with them. Communities, and even churches, can also define what is acceptable behavior and what is not. That can be confusing in a liberal faith such as ours. We don’t judge people for who they are or who they love, and we say we welcome everyone, but we also don’t want to let pedophiles near our children. We don’t think it is ok to steal from the offering plate or another member’s wallet. We don’t think it OK to spread malicious gossip or to demonize other people.
Let me repeat that. It is not OK to demonize other people, even when their actions are really offensive. It is hard to do that when you are hurting. It can be hard not to see the other party to a conflict as having purely evil intentions. It is especially difficult when there is a serious power differential, say if someone is president of the United States. How do we love that person even as they do harm to others we love?
Agape love calls us to see differently, to remember that everyone has pain, and that most of the time, unpleasant or even evil behavior comes from pain.
Abusers have often been abused themselves. Limits and boundaries are important ways that can help us still feel some love and compassion, even for those who behave very badly.
Healing, reconciliation, restoration, is always possible. The God imagined by the Universalists loved everyone and they believed that everyone would eventually find salvation in that holy love.
So what do you think love is? Do you think it can be divided into categories like the Greeks did?
Some quotes about love:
Rita Mae Brown: “Sorrow is how we learn to love. Your heart isn’t breaking. It hurts because it’s getting larger. The larger it gets, the more love it holds.”
Marianne Williamson:”Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth.
Lord Byron: “There are four questions of value in life: What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love.”
Everyone, it seems, has something to say about love.
The minister who officiated at my wedding asked both Anne and I what we had learned about love what was then our 39 years together. This is what I wrote:
“What I have learned about love is this: it doesn’t come easy. It isn’t a happily ever after riding into the sunset with a prince or princess by your side. Soul mates aren’t magic mirrors reflecting back how you want to see yourself or them. Reach through the mirror, pay attention to the cracks. They are how the love – and light gets in. Leonard Cohen taught me a lot with that line. You aren’t royalty either, just a frog like other frogs. Life is the swamp can be lovely though. It is not necessary to sing every song in tune or dance in time with a perfect rhythm.
Marriage means so much more if you have been engaged for decades.
I know this from experience. Because engagement is the thing, one of them, that can make a marriage, a partnership work. Be real and honest and yourself. Listen carefully. Pay attention. Hold your lover’s hand, but don’t hold them back, and try to catch them when they fall. You will stumble too. Stay engaged even after you are married. I think that might be the key.
In any case be grateful. If someone really loves you, it is a miracle.
Love, like justice, does not come easy, but with enough grace, with enough effort, it comes. Engagement is the key, in marriage, in justice work, and in congregational life.
During our wedding reception, our daughter gave a toast that expressed what she had learned from Anne and I about love. It really moved me, and I am going to read part of it for you.
“Some of you might know that last summer, I hiked the John Muir Trail. It’s a backcountry trail that runs 218 miles from Yosemite, over 8 mountain passes to Mt. Whitney, all in the backcountry. This is something I would never have considered if not for the wonderful summers my mothers spent taking the three of us camping in Yosemite, in Yellowstone, in Glacier national parks.
One of the things I was thinking about as I was hiking, was my moms. I had called them from an outpost a week into the hike, and they told me that they had been officially married in California.
It’s good I had my moms to think about because while the trail was beautiful, actually hiking it was also the hardest thing I have ever done.
My backpack was too heavy; it weighed 45 pounds.
I had to clamber up these endless 10-mile inclines, up thousands of feet in elevation, to get to each peak.
And then I had to do it all over again. Those climbs were absolutely horrible.
But then, I’d get to the top.
And the top was unfailingly the most beautiful place I’d ever been, each peak more breathtaking than the last. There were turquoise alpine lakes, wildflowers, and snowcapped peaks, the whole world spread out below your feet.
And I realized, this is what I know about love. And I learned it from my moms. It is hard sometimes. It can be horrible. There are endless switchbacks and sometimes you don’t know if they’ll end, you’re not sure if you’ll make it to the top.
But you keep working at it, you put your head down and put one foot in front of the other and you make it to the top. And at the top is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been.
And then you do it all over again.”
Her words made me cry when I heard them, and they still make me a bit teary-eyed.
All of us here have known hard times over the years. Life is like that. But even in the midst of pain, we know that life is better because of love. Love can make life better.
Love can make the world better. We just have to keep our heads down and put one foot in front of the other.
The road has gotten harder lately, but perhaps we are made for these times, times where we can move and march, sing and dance our way by the light of love, by a fire of commitment that will burn within our hearts. Keep your flames bright my friends, love will find a way.
Most of us are pretty familiar with the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism. If you are not, they are listed in the front of your hymnal.
Our principles are guides for living, an ethical framework for how we are called to live our lives. They are what our member congregations have promised to promote. We care about the worth and dignity of all, about justice, equity and compassion, about spiritual growth, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, the democratic process, creating an inclusive and world-wide community, and last, but never least, we have respect for our planet. All of those things are under threat today, which is why so many of us marched or attended rallies last week.
But why do we care about those things that are in our seven principles? What do we use in our searches for truth and meaning? How and why do we work for justice?
The answers to those questions are, I believe, contained within our six sources. The sources are also listed in your hymnals. They quite literally define Unitarian Universalism’s unique place in the world of ideas and world religions. I quote, “The living tradition we share draws from many sources.”
Living is a key word here, as well as is the word tradition. Our sources are from our history; they are where we came from. But even more importantly, they are what we can use to find out where we are going.
Sometimes our sources are listed simply as a series of nouns:
- Self (or Experience)
- Prophets (or Prophecy)
- World religions
The Rev. Paul Oakley has said that the verbs are more important; that the sources are also asking us to do things, specifically to:
Renew our spirits and be open
Confront evil with justice, compassion, love
Be inspired in our ethical and spiritual lives
Love our neighbors as ourselves
Be guided by reason and avoid making idols of ways of thinking, being, and doing
Celebrate life and live in harmony with nature
Oakley says our sources are not just history, but “the wellsprings from which we irrigate our vineyards, the cups from which we wet our parched mouths.”
These sources are incredibly rich, every single one of them.
I want to encourage all of you to look at them and think about them, long terms members as well as the new folks we welcomed today. Some of the sources may have little personal meaning for you at this time. That used to be true for me. But if you pay a little more attention to those sources that haven’t moved you in the past, I think you may be surprised at what you will discover. It is a living tradition after all. We need to give it ways and room to grow. The sources are the wells from which we can draw spiritual water. Sometimes one of the wells goes a little dry. A reservoir can be emptied or the groundwater from a particular well that has been over used may no longer quench our thirst. Check out one of the others when this happens.
The first source is:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
What does that mean? Several things I think. Revelation is not sealed. We are not a faith that believes that all religious truth was written down in ancient scriptures. Mystery and wonder are all around us. We need to trust our own experiences and our own senses. If we see a rainbow and think it is a miracle, maybe it is.
Many of us have had, in our own lives experiences which some would name spiritual.
There have been times where a deep realization of an important truth has left us in awe and wonder.
It is a knowing that not everything can be understood by the simply rational. It is a sense that there really are forces that both create and uphold life, even if they are forces that are beyond our understanding. This direct experience could be a sense of having a personal connection to God, but it doesn’t have to be exclusively theistic. One of my former congregants who defines himself as a humanist tells a story about the feeling he had when he visited the Smithsonian in Washington DC. He had a moment there when he realized that everything in that fabulous museum actually belonged to him. He was part of something much larger than himself. We should never discount our own experience of the world around us. This source reminds us to think, see, and feel for ourselves. It doesn’t mean we will always be right, but we don’t have to buy into someone else’s version of reality and we can affirm what is true for us.
The second source is:
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
Who are your heroes? Who has inspired you? It could be someone famous, but it could just be someone you know. Many members of this church community have inspired you both with their words and deeds.
There are awesome role models here, both in service to the congregation and in working for justice. This source also leads us to look at our heroes and who they were as well as what they did.
Did they confront evil not only to bring about justice, but did they do so with compassion and love? No one is perfect, but those who would lead us to hate others are not those we should try to model ourselves after.
The third source: Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
It was the transcendentalists, people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, that studied world religions, especially those that valued direct experience of the divine, that brought this source into the mainstream of Unitarianism in the 19th century. They dipped deeply into this well, and so can we.
What do the religions of the world have to teach us? What spiritual practices from other traditions can give our lives more meaning?
Yoga, Buddhist meditation practice, the Hindu concept of Namaste, and the daily prayers of Islam, are only a few places we can go for help in our spiritual and ethical lives. This source is a place awaiting our discoveries. Most of us have not looked too closely at what the different world religions have to offer us. It is important to understand context, however.
If we simply cherry pick, we don’t do this source justice and may even be drawn into cultural appropriation.
The fourth source is: Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
This source is our immediate history and heritage. Both Unitarianism, the belief that God is one, and Universalism, the belief that God loves all of creation and that there is no hell; have their roots in very early Christianity, which of course in its beginning was a Jewish movement.
This history can speak very strongly to those of us who attended exclusively Christian Churches or Jewish Congregations in the past. Some of us loved the many inspiring messages contained in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Others of us fell victim to rigid and literal interpretations of those scriptures. It can help to revisit some of them with fresh eyes and open hearts
Our fifth source is: Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
This is the source that I think most helps to keep us honest. Whatever we believe and do must make some sense in the real and rational world.
Yes, we can have understandings of mystery that are beyond the realm of the scientific method, but it is dangerous ground to rely on something that is in direct contradiction to what reason and science tell us. Angels might fly, but we humans are subject to gravity.
The Bible might say one thing, but if science tells us the world is much older than 6000 years, I am going with science. Science and religion are not in conflict.
They should both be about increasing our understanding of the universe and our place in it.
That brings us to our sixth source, the last official one, which is: Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature
How can we not live in harmony with nature when we are part of it? This is the favorite source for many of us who have come to Unitarian Universalism from pagan traditions and practices. There are seasons to our lives just as there are seasons in the year. The need for harmony with nature is also in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as well as in the various world religions. Sometimes we just need to go up on a mountain and watch the sunrise.
Those are our six official sources, places where we can go for inspiration and for solace. Is anything left out?
What would you add to this list? It is not written in stone, we can add things to it, just as we can rewrite the seven principles. There is a democratic process to do that at our national assemblies.
The sixth source was added to the original five in 1995. There was also a proposal to revise the wording of the sources a couple of years ago. It did not pass, but it could have.
What would you add?
One I might add would be something about the arts, including music, poetry, and dance as well as the visual arts. Beauty, meaning, and inspiration can come from artistic creativity.
Paul Oakley said that, “We irrigate the fields not by worshiping the water but by doing something with the water.”
He is not wrong, but we also need to go back and drink from the wells that spiritual water comes from, again and again. Living is thirsty work.
We can’t afford to ignore any of these spiritual wells just because we might like the flavor of one of them a bit more.
We are an open minded and open hearted people. Our sources are rich and life sustaining. May we drink deeply and be satisfied.
The glass has shattered
But the ceiling holds
Rose colored spectacles
Are rimmed with blood
But still we can see
The sun shining
Beyond the poisoned skies
Hold my hand
My dear my love
Put on your boots
Protect your feet
As we move forward
Into a world
Of broken glass
To rebuild again
That song by Sweet Honey in the Rock (Would you Harbor Me), an a cappella group of African American women activists, almost always brings me to tears. Who would you harbor? As Unitarian Universalists, our congregations have long harbored some of the outcasts of our larger society – religious heretics and skeptics, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are the most obvious of the groups that have found shelter with us over the years. We have also provided a religious home for interfaith couples and their children.
Today is the Sunday closest to the Martin Luther King holiday, and I think it is even more important this year that we look to his example so that we can find the courage to open our hearts wide enough so that all who seek shelter can find a safe harbor with us. Would we harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew?
Our President Elect has said he is planning on having American Muslims register with the government. Will you be willing to register as a Muslim in order to help defeat this horrible and Un-American plan?
Becoming a Muslim is fairly simple, one only needs to say the Shahada, the Muslim statement of faith, twice, with sincerity. lā ʾilāha ʾillā-llāh, muḥammadur-rasūlu-llāh or in English: There is no god but God. Muhammad is a prophet of God.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with that statement of faith. As a Unitarian Universalist, my theology is grounded in a belief that if there is a divine presence in the universe; that presence is universal, open to all and loving all. Muhammad spoke of that presence as have many others that I would name prophets of that one light that guides us all toward justice and wholeness. So think, as the days before our new president takes office grow shorter and shorter, think about what you might be willing to do.
There is one thing that is, I think, critical for our survival in this new age, and that is holding onto our dreams for a better world. Our outgoing President spoke to this in his farewell address, but it is a truth that bears repeating.
Langston Hughes, an African American poet who was part of the Harlem Renaissance and also a gay man, had this to say about dreams:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
I don’t want to live like broken winged bird.
We cannot let our dreams die, no matter how long or how hard we have to work to make them real.
Faith can help, as in our responsive reading this morning, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
We have all known despair. Even after all these years, Martin Luther King’s dream is not yet realized. People still need to proclaim that black lives matter, because too often, it seems that they don’t. The last election fanned the flames of the racial hatred that has always been a part of the American story. It feels like we are moving backward, not forward into making the dream a reality.
A song we did not sing today because it was a little too challenging musically if you don’t know it well, is hymn #149. You might want to look it up and glance at some of the words. Often called the Negro National Anthem, it is being sung this morning in most African American Churches and many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations as well. It is a song of hope, but it also names the despair, the hard times. The second verse in particular, “stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died, yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers sighed. We have come over a way that with tears have been watered, we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” That verse references both slavery and the civil war, yet ends with a vision of a bright star of hope.
We are entering into hard times again, but the star is still shining if we look for it.
The Rev. Dr. King was not a Unitarian Universalist, although he and his wife did attend one of our churches for a time.
It was not an accident, however, that there were more Unitarian Universalist ministers involved in the civil rights struggle movement than from any other predominantly white denomination. Some of them gave their lives, most notably the Rev. James Rheeb, who died after being beaten by a gang of white segregationists.
Our faith tradition is one that lives in this world. If we had a Holy Trinity in this faith of ours, it would be Justice, Love, and Compassion.
Dr. King always tried to live his life guided by love. He was a visionary, an activist for justice, but most of all; he was a man of faith that believed in love.
He stood tall and he walked proud.
He faced dogs and fire hoses, and finally an assassin’s bullet, but he never lost sight of love. He reached out to both his enemies and to those that hung back on the sidelines.
Near the end of his life he also worked to end the Viet Nam war and he worked to end poverty. His life was not about a single issue.
Our faith gives us so much, a welcoming place, a place where we can feel accepted, where we can be free to be who we are, where we can follow both our heads and our hearts, where we can find a place to be whole. But our faith also is a demanding one, one that asks us repeatedly to keep learning and growing, and doing. It isn’t easy to walk our talk. It isn’t easy to live according to our values.
Unitarian Universalists worked to abolish slavery in this country. We worked for child labor laws, and for women’s rights. Many of us marched with Dr. King.
We have been in the front lines in the struggle for full equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. We are involved in immigrant rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But action can be risky. James Reeb and Martin Luther King were both murdered. Many others have also lost their lives in similar ways. But what is most important is not how they died, but how they lived.
We don’t have to be a James Rheeb, or a Martin Luther King to follow in their footsteps, to keep their dreams alive. Not just their dreams, but also our own dreams, and the dreams of our children and all who will come after them.
I want tell you some of what MLK said in a speech he gave, at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1966. It wasn’t one of his most famous speeches and it isn’t quoted often, but it was addressed directly to Unitarian Universalists and can, I think, speak to us today.
Dr King told us that the church needs to stay awake and be responsive to what is going on in the world.
“Certainly the church has a great responsibility” he said, “because when the church is true to its nature, it stands as a moral guardian of the community and of society.
“It has always been the role of the church to broaden horizons, to challenge the status quo, and to question and break mores if necessary.”
“It is not enough for the church to work in the ideological realm, and to clear up misguided ideas. To remain awake through this social revolution, the church must engage in strong action programs”
MLK changed hearts and minds. He changed the world. But he didn’t do it alone. Thousands marched with him, thousands went to jail, and many were killed, as he was, by violence.
Martin Luther King did the eulogy for James Rheeb, and in that eulogy he spoke of hope, saying he was not discouraged by the future, despite the heartache, despite the tragedy that was all around him.
He faced despair, a whole mountain of it. A system of segregation that many believed would never really change. But in his dream he climbed that mountain of despair and saw a vision of the other side. He carved a stone of hope from that mountain, one that kept his dream alive.
Many of us are in despair today. We are in despair over the state of the world, the wars, the impending environmental disasters, the racism; the massive scale of human suffering that exists all around the world.
Some of us may also be in despair over something that is going on in our own individual lives, a relationship gone bad, a health crises, a job loss, a need for housing, or for even a little bit of financial security.
We need to keep dreaming. We need to keep doing, to keep on working, making the effort, and keep taking the risks. The largest problem can be tackled, step-by-step and piece-by-piece. Work for justice. Do your part to help heal the planet. Ask for help when you need it. Dare to keep on dreaming. If we keep dreaming together we can make those dreams, those visions of a better world, of a better life; we can make those dreams come true.
I will end with these words by MLK
“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
We are part of that creative force that will find a way to keep bending that arc toward justice. May it be so.
The winds howl in outrage
As the rain pounds down in pain
Our mother sobs
As her body turns to mud.
The oceans rise in protest
The glaciers melt in despair.
We can hunker down
But we cannot hide
Umbrellas are not enough
To clean the poisoned water
To heal our wounded earth.
Our prayers may help
If they inspire us
To turn this storm around.
I know why they call it
The dead of winter
The Christmas tree still stands
But it is dry and brown
Becoming a fire hazard
Before our rusty eyes.
The presents are all gone
Nothing left to unwrap but fear.
Lights still shine in the houses
But we no longer see the star
That bright hope and promise
A newborn babe
Peace on earth at last
It seems like it was folly.
In this dread time of winter
We await the new year
Not knowing exactly
What it will bring
But it doesn’t look good.
Let’s go back to Christmas
While we can.
It is far too long to wait
For Easter morning
And Hope’s sweet resurrection
We need it now.
Such a wonderful story isn’t it? The young couple, with a baby about to be born, and they can find no room at the inn. The animals make room for them in a stable. The cattle are lowing. Mooing that is, I assume. Shepherds and wise men see a star and follow it, bringing gifts. Angels sing and fly about.
The Christmas story, as we have come to know it, is composed of two very different versions of the birth of Jesus that are told in the Gospels of Luke and of Matthew.
Mark, and scholars are in agreement that Mark is the oldest gospel, written about 70 years after Jesus died, and Mark says nothing at all about the birth of Jesus. Who knows what actually happened at the birth of this particular child?
But it is a wonderful story, one that has been added to and embellished over the years, as often happens with wonderful stories. The writers of the later gospels of Luke and Matthew added the shepherds, the wise men and the angels. All the different animals were added later. St Francis was the first; it is said, to include live animals in nativity scenes. And was there a little drummer boy there? Pa rum ba dum dum, I have no gift to bring –
The song about the little drummer boy was first written in 1958, but it is easy to imagine him there too, isn’t it? I loved that song as a child.
Placing more people at the birth site of Jesus in song and in story is, I think, a way of living out the central message that made Jesus such a remarkable teacher and preacher. God loves us all. Everyone is welcome. When we feed the hungry, when we donate clothing to those who need it, when we visit those in prison, and when we work to liberate those who are oppressed, we are doing just as he would have done. We are serving God because God is in each of us, including and perhaps especially, in those of us who are in need.
Christmas belongs to all of us. Those that would restrict it and define it too narrowly are just wrong. They don’t get it. It is too large to be shrink-wrapped into a state of mind that could even imagine being resentful of a sweet greeting like, “Happy Holidays.”
And this particular Christmas Eve is very special. For the first time in decades it is also the first night of Hanukkah. Jews and Christians around the world are all lighting candles tonight, candles of hope that sometimes burn brightest in times of great danger and fear. Muslims too are celebrating Christmas and the birth of the prophet they call Isa, born in Bethlehem, the son of Mary.
Much of how we celebrate is also drawn from ancient customs that drew meaning from what must have seemed like rebirth of the sun at the time of the winter solstice. Many people celebrated the solstice just 3 nights ago.
With all of these varied faith traditions coming together this week, I think we might be getting a message from the expansive and inclusive spirit of the universe. Jesus, during his ministry, called upon us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He was also named the Prince of Peace. Our task, my friends, tonight and in the days to come, is to keep working together toward a vision of Peace on Earth for all. With the power of the love inside each of us, we must keep the flame of hope burning brightly, so that justice will truly rain down like the waters and even the hearts of tyrants will be changed.
So, back to the Christmas story, I do think there were angels there, and shepherds and homeless folk, little drummer boys, wise men, and of course the queens. There were people of all races, gender identities, sexual orientations, and faiths gathered there together around the manger, welcoming a newborn child.
The donkey was there, and the cow, and probably even the tiny lizard like the one that attended worship here with us one Sunday not long ago.
Each of us was there too, that Holy night, for the story is timeless and unending. Look into each other’s faces and look into the candle’s flame when we light them in a few more moments.
It is up to us to keep singing the song of Christmas, the song of the angels, helping the light of truth, of love, of peace to be reborn. May it be so.