Have you picked blackberries? Those sweet late summer fruits “hidden beneath leaves barbed like critics.” Sweetness that is guarded and protected. “Peril and abundance” whispered like a prayer through purple lips…
If you want the ripest fruit, you must reach in, despite those barbs. You must relinquish safety.
Don’t let your fear get in the way; don’t let yourself get in the way of love.
There are many sermons here.
A story from Unitarian Universalist minister, Robbie Walsh:
“She called to ask if I would baptize her infant son.
I said, ‘What we do is like a baptism, but not exactly. And we normally do it only for people who are part of the church family. The next one we have scheduled [is not for months]’
She said, ‘Could we come to talk with you…anyway?’
They came to see me, the very young woman and her child and the child’s very young father.
She explained that the child had been born with a heart defect. He had to have a risky operation soon. She had asked the clergyperson of her own church if he would baptize her son, and he had refused because she was not married to the baby’s father.
I told them that their not being married would not be an impediment to anything we would do, but that our child dedication ceremony [was still probably] not what they were looking for.
I explained that our ceremony does not wash away any sin, it does not guarantee the child a place in heaven, it doesn’t even make the child a member of the church. …
She waited patiently.
When I was through she said, ‘All I want is to know that God blesses my baby.’
In my mind,” Robbie writes, “I gasped at the sudden clarity in the room.
I said, with a catch in my throat, ‘I think I can do that.’
And I did.’
That minister came perilously close to becoming a barrier to the movement of love.
And, in this incident, our beloved Unitarian Universalist pre-occupation with intellectual honesty and the sometimes labored distinctions we draw between our way of being religious and the ways others are religious…those distinctions came perilously close to committing a … would you call it a sin?
Wouldn’t we call it a sin, or an evil…a failure at any rate…what would we call it, if that young couple and their child had been turned away?
Those who study comparative religions and contemporary culture point out the frequency, almost the universality of a battle between good and evil in religious imagery. It is a pervasive theme. Or as we say these days, it’s a “thing.”
Christianity has the battle between God and that rebel angel named Satan. Ancient Greece had the story of the oh-so-human gods of Mount Olympus battling the Titans. The Hindu tradition includes a centuries long history of epic battles. The entire structure of Zoroastrianism, which influenced all the Abrahamic faiths, is predicated on the struggle between goodness and the forces of evil.
The theme is pervasive in our culture as well, whether you think of Star Wars (may the force be with you), the Lord of the Rings and the Game of Thrones or you remember the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire or the Axis of Evil described by George Bush.
It is so easy to imagine the moral universe as a battleground, on which the good seems continually challenged by evil. Good may win a battle, but not a final victory.
Love and hate contest over and over again. Viewed with an honest eye, love seems to win out so rarely.
Let me pose a question. If Love is such a good thing…and here in this church we believe it is…why isn’t love triumphant?
Is there some countervailing force in the universe…that prevents love from winning?
What sense do we make of the presence of so much hate, so much greed, so much violence in our world…if the power of love is so great?
What barriers do we place to the movement of love in our world? What barriers do we place to the movement of love in our own lives?
I did my annual Question and Answer sermon two weeks ago. A question that one of you submitted, that I didn’t get to answer, was whether there is a Unitarian Universalist “exceptionalism.”
You know the idea of American exceptionalism. This is the notion that our nation is somehow uniquely gifted and blessed. That America is the “city on the hill” and we, as a people, are somehow slightly more evolved than the citizens of other nations.
This notion views the exceptional success of persons of color…Obama, Oprah…as proof that nothing is impossible in this most exceptional of nations.
There are so many problems with American Exceptionalism, not the least of which being that on most measures of well-being our nation is far down the list…life expectancy, educational performance, health outcomes… You need to shift your gaze to income inequality, social mobility, gun ownership and incarceration before we start to stand out.
But the questioner was asking if there was an exceptionalism at work, not in our nation, but in Unitarian Universalism, in our faith.
Do we believe that we are slightly more evolved than other religious people? Do we harbor the opinion that our way of being religious is not just different…but oh so much better, truer than other ways of being religious?
It is a worthy question.
I am going to invoke the founder of American Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing, once more today.
One of Channing’s most famous sermons is entitled “Likeness to God,” in which he argues that we humans, with our capacity for moral choice and increasing understanding, are akin to the divine. “God-like.” Or perhaps “God-lite” would be more accurate.
Today we say that the spark of divinity resides within each of us. That is the legacy of Channing speaking. In fact, he urged that we begin to understand God by looking inside ourselves.
“I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love…which recognizes in all human beings the image of God and the rights of God’s children…
I call that mind free which masters the senses, and which recognizes its own reality and greatness.”
It is hard to imagine a much higher opinion of human nature. And it is hard to imagine a much higher opinion of Unitarian nature as well.
The old joke had truth on its side: If Universalist believed that the God of Love was too good to damn them, Unitarians believed that they are too good to be damned by God.
Perhaps we still do.
I have had an almost life-long…”discussion” or argument…with Channing. And I want to share some of that discussion today.
You have heard me critique Channing for his social location: born into a slave owning family and married to the richest woman in New England. Channing would never have imaged me in this pulpit, or Tom, DeReau or Crystal on this Chancel… Many of us would not have been welcomed in his church.
Personally, it has always been a heavy lift for me to identify with Channing…my life experience is so different.
But, for all that critique, there is more Channing in me than I want to admit. And more Channing in us, as a faith community, as well. We do have a high opinion of ourselves. We are well educated, we love learning and we have been “right” about social issues…one after the other. It can be easy to slip into believing that we are slightly more evolved…
These days, we don’t use the language of “Likeness to God.” Our theology has shifted…considerably. But still…my argument with Channing is about keeping perspective, balancing the life of the mind with the demands of the heart, and remembering always the instruction to walk humbly that is a sermon we all need to hear occasionally…myself included.
What saves Channing’s theology for me is what he called “self-culture.” In his view, perpetual progress was the goal…for society and for every individual. At least it was a choice that each individual could make.
Self-culture, for those who chose it, was the first and foremost religious task.
Do any of you relate to this? Have you sought out one more workshop, one more Ted-talk, one more course to improve your understanding? Are you on the lookout for a more spiritually satisfying meditation? A more grounded prayer practice or another poem that can somehow help you become a better, more peaceful, more loving human being?
The religious language we use today is to “nurture the individual spirit.” But isn’t self-improvement what we are about?
For Channing, Self-Culture was the language. Perpetual progress. It relied heavily on the life of the mind. “I call that mind free that jealousy guards its rights and powers…”
But self-culture, even for Channing, was a spiritual discipline. Prayer, reading, the study of history and journaling were important for all the early Unitarians. These were disciplines designed to take the individual deeper than their intellect alone could take them.
Does this sound familiar to any of you? Reflection and regular discernment is still what our faith recommends. It is what we try to offer here in worship. It is at the heart of our Wellspring program and it is central to so many of the classes that you can sign up for today in our Serving and Learning Sunday offerings in coffee hour.
I am, and I think most of us are deeply Unitarian in our way of being religious.
But there are dangers to self-culture and the perfectionism that it can encourage.
If perfection is the goal, then we need to present ourselves as in control…able to manage the challenges of life…without breaking a sweat.
Even here in this sanctuary.
And I know, and you know because you’ve told me, that many of us come into this sanctuary struggling…needing worship and prayer to get us through the week. We need this community to remind us and assure us that our challenges are not signs of our sinfulness or our inadequacy…but simply human shortcomings in the face of life which can be so hard, so unkind and even so unfair.
We do make mistakes, all of us. We need this community to assure us that we are not the only folks who have ever failed and that there is a community here to hold us.
In addition to the Unitarian belief in our perfectability, we need the Universalist promise that we are already lovable and already loved.
We are Unitarian Universalists in this sanctuary.
Without the Universalist leaven in our Unitarian loaf, we can fall victim to shame at our shortcomings. Shame is an internal voice that can shout so loudly that love cannot be heard. “This problem is my fault. I am to blame for this.”
Shame can convince us that we are not enough.
Last weekend, I took part in the Answering the Call of Love march…riding on an electric scooter. A congregant, anonymously, donated money to rent a scooter for me. To this day, I do not know who it was.
It took some time for me to say “yes.” Isn’t the minister of First Unitarian supposed to stride confidently forward, standing tall at the front of the march? Isn’t that what you expect? Isn’t that what I expect of myself?
Perfectionism…and ableism…were plaguing me.
You know that I have some physical limitations now. You saw me begin using a cane last year. It helps a great deal. But walking long distances…well…I’ve just stopped trying to do that.
And, you know, the scooter worked out just fine.
I needed this community to correct a perfectionism that was getting in my way. Getting in the way of love.
In this congregation, we are drawn together not by a creed of belief, but by a commitment to the practice of community.
Our covenant consists of our promises about the quality of community we hope to create.
As we enter into this new church year, I invite you to recite with me the promises in our congregational covenant:
This covenant of the members and friends of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, encourages us to bring our best selves to our relationships with one another and to grow in spirit by deepening our connections with each other.
I promise to cultivate in myself:
• Appreciation of our commonalities and differences
• Joy and a sense of humor
• Trust that others have good intentions
• Generosity of spirit and substance
• Willingness to forgive and seek forgiveness
• Ownership of my actions and their consequences
• Gratitude for those who helped build our church community
• Commitment to sustaining this church for those who will follow after.
In accordance with these values and intentions, I promise to:
• Give generously of my time, talents and resources
• Be kind and compassionate
• Listen to understand rather than to judge or prove a point
• Support and nurture others
• Express appreciation of others’ efforts
• Talk with rather than about others
• Be mindful and considerate in my communications and interactions
• Respond to anger with gentleness
• Forgive myself and others when we fail to keep these promises and begin again in love and faith.
These promises are designed to prevent barriers to love from forming in our midst. To honor these promises is a spiritual discipline just as rigorous as Channing’s Self-Culture.
Our faith tradition offers great resources…the empowerment of the Unitarian side of our religious tradition and the embracing love of the Universalist side.
But the test and the measure of our faith is how we embody those strengths. Our faith is lived, lived in the face of fear and lived as witness against hate.
Love is the doctrine of this church.
Put your hand in…
and come out dripping juice,
king’s purple spread from
hand to tongue.
Abundance, [and blessing] whispered [together] like a prayer,
Through purple lips.
Will you pray with me now?
Spirit of Life and of Love.
We sense the changing of the season
The light has a different quality
We can sense the coming of the rain.
Life calls us on into these new days,
Into this new season.
Love calls us on, despite our hesitancy
And our too frequent lack of faith.
Love calls us on to resist hate.
Love calls us on to remember
Our own worth and our capacity to act
In compassion and out of generosity.
Love is somehow always calling, that voice
May we find the courage and the
Compassion, to answer the call of love.
May it be so.