May I let my voice be a clarion call. I will use these words for justice. I will use these words for truth. And humour.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Sermon: Atonement as Humanity's Present Purpose

Atonement as Humanity’s Present Purpose
Delivered to UUFLG August 1, 2010
Why are we here? Perhaps the easiest way to answer that question is to frame it within a context where “here” means “in this building at this time.” Why do we come to worship in this building? You may have your own answers to that question, and a few things come to mind for me as well.
  • We are here because we desire to be among a chosen community—not just family or work mates.
  • We are here because connecting with each other in this community energizes us.
  • We are here to dedicate ourselves toward a common purpose—a purpose that gives our lives meaning.
Having a purpose we feel good about is critical to happiness. Further, our purpose in this community need not be different than the purpose of humanity at large.
I began with the easy question of why we are here in this building. Regarding the question of why humanity is here, or even why this Earth is here, perhaps it’s just luck and there is no purpose, other than to live and to seek happiness. Perhaps there really is an ultimate purpose to this existence we find ourselves in, and we still have yet to discover it.
I do know that humanity has created a purpose for itself. Through the actions of the Homo Sapiens species, we have done immeasurable harm to the planet and to others in the same species—immeasurable harm, but hopefully not irreparable. I believe humanity’s present purpose is that of atonement for those harms. Of putting things right again, and returning into right relationship with the planet and each other.
For many people, atonement is one of those religiously tinged words, and some even call to mind the substitutional atonement, in which Jesus Christ died on the cross in order to atone for humanity’s sins. When I’ve asked people to explain how that works, almost invariably, the explanation requires a great leap of logic or faith. Unitarian Universalism doesn’t ask those giant leaps of us. We can see that Jesus (the man) died perhaps as a result of people’s sins—people in his present day, unwilling or unable to live up to the community he was trying to build. We can also see that today Christ (composed of the movement of people seeking to save humanity from its own disaster) is still dying as a result of unatoned sins, and harm brought on by powerful people and corporate forces.
I just mentioned “sin” and I realize that with our theology of people with inherent goodness, some may be uncomfortable with the word “sin,” so I want to define it clearly as “missing the mark.” And what is the mark that is being missed, again and again? Right relationship! With the Earth, and with each other.
Restoring right relationship is what atonement is about. Being “at one” with the Earth, and “at one” with the human community is the creation of harmony. The seventh UU principle upholds “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” And our sixth principle is similar, except it’s about nurturing the interdependent web of human community, specifically “The goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”
Humanity is such an interesting beast. Humans have completely dominated the planet—scraping its surface for minerals, abusing its topsoil, and poking it full of holes to find fossil fuels, continually missing the mark of Earth’s Sacredness. But that’s only part of what’s interesting. The other part is that most of humanity does not consent to this. Many would choose far different courses of action, yet the power of our collective decision-making is far from democratic. Those who benefit from privilege and positions of power make decisions based on what will keep them in privilege and in power. In its desire to acquire this planet’s resources, that system of privilege and power also seeks to acquire the planet’s human resources as well.
In the process, it oppresses the rest of humanity according to class, race, gender, and other categories, while seeking to label them as workers and consumers, not as citizens and as humans. I will also note that there is complexity here. As an example: We, the good people of UU are sometimes complicit members of this privileged class, and at the same time, we may be among the oppressed.
Without a doubt, this way of life misses the mark and begs for restoration and atonement. So how do we atone? First, we certainly can’t do this alone. If all 200,000 UUs engage with our seven principles, and get into right relationship with humanity and the Earth, we do not have the critical mass to do the trick, especially since this all is interconnected. We need to invite everyone. We will do this by living our moral lives out loud, and by inviting others to do likewise—even sharing our faith as we find the occasion arises.

We must empower the part of humanity trying to save itself. This will require a concerted effort, because it means getting a strong voice in the public sphere. Often it seems that those who work to be a voice for the voiceless against the power of oppression find their voices squelched.

Three days ago, Unitarian Universalists in yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts flocked to Arizona to protest the new profiling law SB1070. Twenty UU ministers and 63 others were arrested by the sheriff in Phoenix as a result of their intentional civil disobedience. These are people using the power of their voices and their bodies to serve justice. As Rev. Susan Frederick Gray said as she was being arrested, ‎"Love is where our future is. Not fear, and not hate." And to help draw a clearer picture, this was not just a joyless protest of shouting at police dressed in riot gear. There was also a vigil for those arrested, including singing, salsa music, and dancing.

You may not be able to travel to Arizona or anywhere for events like this. To be sure, there are justice actions that we can and ought to make happen right here in the neighborhood Los Gatos. And we also must remember that efforts like these, to be sustainable, need economic power, also known as money. It cost these protesters quite a bit to travel to Phoenix, and also there is the question of bail money for those arrested.
Most important is that we engage, that we use our bodies, our hands, and our voices to do things that further impassion our lives. I do not know what actions can and ought to happen here in Los Gatos, nor do I know which actions are the best fit for you as individuals or for this congregation. I do not know which of you could become leaders, but I sincerely hope that none of you think, “I can’t be a leader. I’m not that extraordinary.” Leaders are often ordinary people who see a need and have a passion to fulfill that need. As Howard Thurman, an author, theologian, and long-time minister at the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples says:
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."
Coming alive now is what we each must do, as it’s obvious that NOW is the time! That’s not just a handy phrase for the UUA fundraising campaign. In each of our lives, every day is a gift, and an opportunity to make the world better. Perhaps there is some longstanding unfinished conversation in your life that you’d like to have, which has been emotionally blocking you from moving forward. Perhaps there is something you’ve always wanted to try, but never have. Perhaps there’s something in your life you want to give up. Today is always the only day in which we can make changes. You can never do it yesterday or tomorrow.
I recall musician Warren ZEvon, living the last few months of his life with cancer, responding to David Letterman’s request for wisdom on life and death. He said simply, “Enjoy every sandwich.” That, to me, translates as, “Don’t waste a single heartbeat.” Uneventful days could become a habit, but we are called to make every day count, in some large or small way.
We need to be unafraid of the tremendous impact our religion can make on the world, and share it. Now is the time for us to have maximum impact. There is an angel at work here. A very large, deep, compassionate angel that spans the ages. As it arrives, the world is taking notice. The arrival of this messenger is an eschatological age-ending event, a game-changer, causing a paradigm-shift. As if it’s the rapture, but in theological terms to which we can relate, with no people magically disappearing.
More and more people are awakening to an understanding of what the leak in the Gulf of Mexico really means about our relationship to the Earth. With the end of easy petroleum resources upon us, humanity struggles to get enough oil to energize the world it’s made.
The book of Revelation, chapter 8 refers to 7 angels sounding their trumpets, and 1/3 of the Earth being despoiled and 1/3 of the sea being despoiled. I sense we are getting pretty close to that. Knowing UUs as I do, I realize many of you may be skeptical of the sacred texts of revealed religion—and perhaps rightly so—after all, we could deconstruct the text, equating angels with messengers, and the trumpets with the clarion call of what the Earth is trying to tell us. However, in our nation, there are many who live their lives based on a concrete understanding of the Bible, and they will be called on by somebody to act.
By whom? By us!—we can call on them! We are at that time, one-third of the Earth, one-third of the water. The Gulf of Mexico is just one of many oil spills, and raw sewage makes its way into our streams and oceans. Don’t forget the giant growing collection of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We are in a time of much needed change. We can either have the change happen to us, or we can shine our light and work in concert to make the necessary changes in a controlled fashion.
So what is the light we hold? Our theology of a loving God is one of real saving grace that can help people get past the guilt, shame, and anger, and onto serving the world as love and justice-bearers. We have a growing religious inclusivity that is learning to make way for the many theologies and worldviews people bring upon first entering our doors. We each carry our own copy of truth and meaning, and know to value each other’s spirituality. And we know that community and action are every bit as important as having right beliefs, if not moreso.
In fact, in religious terms, it’s safe to say that the light we share when our words and deeds are at their best is nothing less than an expression of the divine working from within us. I believe that the light of our reason is critical in our conversations, because it helps to orient and focus the lights of others like a Fresnel lens (the really bright amplifying one you find spinning slowly in lighthouses). If we hold back our light (or are unable to deliver) when it’s expected or needed, the absence of our voices will be like an inactive lighthouse, which is more dangerous than a reef. We do not need more ships running aground. We want them not to miss the mark of right relationship.

Our nation, and some of its religious bodies, tend to think in terms of war. There are the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our government has declared a war on terror, a war on drugs (which is also a war on people of color), there was a war on poverty (and now it seems there is a war on the poor). Some Christians have labeled the penchant of merchants to say “happy holidays” as a war on Christmas, Fox News has been labeled a war on journalism, and the band Wilco has even declared a war on war. It’s rare for the US government or people to declare peace on something.
The peaceable people of this country have tried to declare peace many times, but it seems their overtures have been outright rejected. Last week, I mentioned Faithful Fools Bible Stud, part of a UU-affiliated community outreach ministry in downtown San Francisco. David, a regular at the Bible Study, introduced to me the concept of declaring LOVE on someone.
When you declare love on somebody and mean it, they can’t fight you as they may be in the habit of doing. It is love that comes from the heart level. Intellectual arguments and our search for truth have their place, but the way the light we carry is going to reach people is going to be when we complement it with a declaration of love. Perhaps that’s the key to our atonement

To the glory of light! Blessed be.

pax hominibus,
agape to all,

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