Sunday, October 10, 2010
Sermons from Last Year: #1 Regarding Candlepower
Delivered to First UU San Francisco
Light does not sit still. It wants to spread in every direction until it hits something to reflect off of, or to be absorbed.
But doesn’t the word “light” describe more than just matter or energy? From a spiritual perspective, light is knowledge, information, and reason—and even emotion. Light shows the paths available to us, and the light of understanding can help to dispel fear and confusion.
Candlepower is another term for luminous intensity, or how bright a light appears to be shining. The title of this sermon is also a reference to actual candles. Now, I want to start with a brief story about a candle we have at home. He’s sitting right back there with his mom and grandma, and his name is Henry. Sometimes our infant wakes up alone in the bedroom with the lights out, and starts to wailing. I’ll go in and scoop him up to my chest, get the drool towel on my shoulder, and rock him back to sleep while singing in the darkened room. His favorite lullaby is actually a variant of “This Little Light of Mine” from our hymnal. He likes it best when I sing it under water. The underwater version goes something like this: “Thbibs lbibttble lbibliblbght obf mbibne, iblbl’m gmloblbing tblblo let it shine.” As soon as he gets close to nodding off, I switch over to a steady rhythmic version that I call the “Seraphim’s Lullaby.” In Judeo-Christian lore, the seraphim are the inner ring of angels singing songs of praise night and day to God.
This lullaby echoes the last word from “this little light of mine” in a rhythm as he starts to nod off. “Shine, shine,… shine, shine, shine,… shine, shine, shine,… shine, shine, shine ,… shine, shine, shine ,… shine, shine, shine ,… shine, shine, shine , shine-shine,” which then repeats. Then as Henry’s totally conking out from the monotony, I work my way down to singing “Shine…” every eight beats, until I can finally lay him down slowly in the crib.
That to me is one example of a candle, it’s some personal information, a message that I sing to my baby, a prayer whose seeds will hopefully be planted deep within, for him to shine his light steady and strong, whatever that may turn out to be. And each of us has different messages, and different light to shed onto the world. Our light is composed of our experiences, perspectives, passions and hopes. Getting in touch with the uniqueness of our own light is a process of constant unfolding. Then when we shine out, it’s through our words and our deeds—through our life itself.
When our candles of life come together, they inform each other. By listening intently to the experiences, perspectives, passions and hopes of another, the light in ourselves grows in intensity, or changes hue. We can feel more strongly about our truths, or develop a more nuanced understanding. And when our own light is flickering, one candle can always light another, and that’s one empowering blessing of being among a community of broad-minded thinkers and compassionate feelers.
When enough people share in community, we have a rich discourse that becomes a bonfire, where we can not only have light, but also warmth, and sometimes “heat” when we come to disagreements. I’ve already witnessed that this congregation’s conversations are often energized enough to grow from words into action. And the fire turns into steady-burning coals….19th-century Universalist Mary Livermore tells a story how before there were matches, if your kitchen’s fire went out in the night, you either needed to work flint and steel together until a spark caught so you could light your tinder and rebuild your own fire from scratch (a painful proposition), or you would beg a shovelful of coals from a neighbor. A vibrant and thriving religious community like this one has coals it can offer, not just to the Sunday afternoon fellowship, the Lutherans, the Buddhists, and the other groups that meet here, but to the wider community. And they have coals that would enrich us as well.
A campfire like ours at First Unitarian Universalist is highly visible, and draws people in from further away. That’s our goal—to grow spiritually as a community, and draw people in, so that new visitors and old members alike can come here to fan the flames of their passions for justice, and become more active in the world. Here’s a question to ponder, what things have you found here that make you come to life, and make it natural to devote your time and energy here?
Yet while a roaring fire is more robust than an individual candle, even our campfires are in danger of being blown out or diminished by the rain and the wind of an environment that doesn’t know to value what we have here. It’s all the more frightful when we find our voices shut out of the mass media, and there are other voices amplifying values that run counter to ours. Our good news that God loves everyone, and that everyone is saved isn’t likely to be well-received if it can’t be heard, or runs contrary to nihilistic and damaging messages blaring through the airwaves.
Our message presents danger to some people. For some, our news means questioning their whole worldview based on a personal and everlasting life, and accepting a savior to overcome sins. For others, it means weighing their relationship to the Earth and the welfare of its inhabitants against their own self-interests. Questioning fundamental assumptions and habits like these is difficult, and when people first hear our good news—and I realize there may be some sitting right out here today, or perhaps listening online—when people first hear our good news, we are a new candle joining an existing candle, which burns differently.
So our light can attract hostilities as well as friends. Our message brings cognitive dissonance and fear to some. Our goals may run counter to their goals of maintaining their livelihood, their lifestyle, or their retirement plans, or their hopes and fears for an afterlife, so they will fight our message. From Jesus decrying the Pharisees killing of prophets in Matthew 23, to Hypatia of Alexandria, to MLK, all the way to Van Jones, the brightest luminaries have been under attack by powers with vested interests, with their light diminished, sullied, or even snuffed-out. Humanist philosopher Erich Fromm says, “Those whose hope is weak settle down for comfort or violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish all signs of new life, and are ready at every moment to help give birth to that which is ready to be born.” What light exists that can finally burn brightly enough that it cannot be snuffed out?
The Sun is one such source of light that will be constant and shining for ages to come. What would it take to get our message THAT bright? How about a compelling enough message to help draw in a critical mass of people sharing their lights on a global scale? Our message is right on: everyone’s together in this spherical blue and green boat, everyone’s included, and nobody should be left behind. Our message is one of communities rooted where they are, and extending out to any other communities who would join in common cause. The sixth Unitarian Universalist principle, states “[We…covenant to affirm and promote] the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” The thought that the sixth principle might come into reality is awe-inspiring, isn’t it? That’d be a huge change! One I hope we all learn to truly welcome.
The principle says “the goal of world community.” A goal is a dream with a deadline. We’re not about affirming the dream of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. It’s a goal. There’s got to be a deadline, or the light is blurry. If we leave the deadline unset, then that’s just a dream deferred. That’s justice deferred, peace deferred, and liberty deferred.
So, what do we envision—how will we know when the goal of “world community” is successfully realized? It requires that we establish common ground on which to speak and listen freely. We can start by all acknowledging our common humanity, and the worth and dignity to be found in everyone. Until we do that, we’re standing on different ground, not common ground. From common ground, we can freely share the lights of our myriad communities of identity. And with that common ground conversation, we can equitably negotiate shared definitions for peace, liberty and justice.
We’ll need to do a lot of work to get to that common ground. From physics, power is defined asthe ability to do work in a given amount of time. A more powerful movement can get more work done more quickly. A more powerful movement is composed of more people participating more fully.
Today’s second lesson is the story of Aten, the god responsible for the Sun. This god was represented by a bright disk in the sky, with arms reaching out of it, each with a hand bearing gifts. More hands, more voices, more lives working for common ground means more power and faster work toward our goal. Not everybody’s going to join our churches. Perhaps they disagree with organized religion entirely, or perhaps they’re happy with the worship and the people of their own faith communities. But surely they will lend their hands and co-create with us once they see the light of our message, and our goal. And our fourth principle—the one about our “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” compels us to share this light with them, pronto. For when we truly embody truth and meaning, we find we’re responsible to act on it, and share it.
Until we create a deadline that we mean to be accountable to, there’s a disconnect at work here. The “end-times” or the “last generation” has been a concept people have anticipated at least since the book of revelation was written, and probably much earlier. For many people, the end of time, or to my understanding, the end of the age, was always “just a few years away.” But it’s been that way for countless generations. It’s time to get in sync, and focus our resolve and determination to bring the end of this age, through introducing a beloved world community.
The God I know and love, who waits with a plenitude of gifts that true community brings, has been ever-restless for world community to come into being. This God is getting less and less patient, first ringing the doorbell, then knocking, knocking, knocking, then pounding at the door, demanding, “Who put this door here? And why is it taking so long for them to answer?” There’s real pressure to answer the door, to answer this call, because nature has a way of making corrections. That danger to our environment is a real-life fire-and-brimstone scenario, which I’ll reserve for another sermon, some other time. We try not to work from a place of fear, so let’s instead look at the possibilities of opening the door and answering the call.
A few weeks ago, Rev. Fitch mentioned in his homily that this community needs to go public and show the world a new paradigm for the 21st century, and I would challenge us to take that a step further. To reach our goal, we need to shine the light of a 3rd millennium community. To guide humanity’s eyes toward the horizon and see the sunrise, and know that just as our message of world community starts to shine, so too, the fire of the human race is only just now beginning to burn like the stable star of today’s first lesson.
So I’ll ask, and this is not a rhetorical question, but you need not answer aloud right now: How soon do you think this world community can be delivered? How soon will we be able to establish common ground throughout the races, beyond national boundaries, and across ethnic lines? How soon until we can establish common ground for everyone based on the fact that they love and are loved, not based on what kind of person they love? And how soon until we can establish common ground that says nobody is left behind, that when we come to the economic table, nobody leaves hungry, without an adequate piece of the pie? What if that depends on us talking and acting on our goal of world community? How quickly can our light spread?
We are not alone. We have allies. Who are they? “Anybody who will answer to the call for this world community we yearn for.” But the call is critical. It brings the power of suggestion into play. Some people have forgotten their dreams, or do not believe we can achieve this goal. Perhaps they’ve never even thought about the possibility of world community. If we who carry this torch don’t invite them, they won’t know when or where to show up, or to show up at all.
And here’s more good news: for the most part world community happens as people come to life and join one at a time, empowering each other. The people you share this message with—your friends, family, maybe even people you’re just conversing with for the first time, they might really need Unitarian Universalism.
Before last week’s service while I was talking with Claire Bohman, I shared a little about this sermon, and I mentioned how long it took me to stumble upon this religion, and how there are a lot of people in the world out there who want—who need—the gifts of our theology. She shined her light right back and said, “and they have gifts that we need.” To me, that is a reminder of the true give-and-take involved in this commission.
Some say we need to get more people in our doors, and into our congregations, but I think it’s more than that. Howard Thurman, the longtime minister at the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples just up Larkin Street, said: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." So get in touch with your passion and find or create an avenue to manifest that passion, either within or beyond these church walls, and get other people excited about it. And listen to others, and hear their passions, so they can realize their goals as well.
May the work that we do shine like the fusion of the Sun, and may this community achieve that goal of world community, with the inclusion of everyone and energy of everyone working toward it. And when you go forth from this place, may you know in your innermost heart that you carry the Sun within.
pax hominibus,agape to all,joel