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.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Sermon on Love as a Foundation

Delivered at First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, Feb 5, 2012

Love is a Source of Truth and Meaning
     On Tuesday of last week, the staff had a belated holiday lunch at the Thai Place down on Walnut Street. If you enjoy Thai food, I highly recommend the Pad Thai. At the end of lunch, we went around the table reading aloud the fortunes from our fortune cookies. Mine was about as uninformative as they come: “You will be successful in your work.” Well, I hope so, but how do they know? Eh... In my opinion, Phil, who works evening security, got the gem: “Great thoughts come from the heart.” It's been said that Unitarian Universalists can find sacred text anywhere, and I agree. There is sacred text to interpret not only in ancient cultural books, but also in novels, newspapers, remarkable experiences, plain old day-to-day experiences, and also in fortune cookies.
     “Great thoughts come from the heart.” A little research shows these words come from Marquis de Vauvenargues (vo-ven-arge). I don't fault the fortune cookie writer for plagiarism. I am only grateful to the universe for bringing these words to me, because they're such a perfect fit. “Great thoughts come from the heart.” Those words say that the heart is the source of thoughts. Not just any thoughts, but great thoughts, important thoughts that matter to our world. Thoughts that clamber their way from our minds to our mouths, thoughts that then may turn into actions or events, or even institutions!
     Last weekend, Paula Cole Jones was here to present a workshop on reconciliation and anti-racism on Saturday, and then she and I co-led worship on Sunday, so I got to hear her sermon twice. :) I was glad to see about 25 people at the workshop, and the sanctuary was pretty full on Sunday as well. This tells me there is a desire in this congregation to begin, or re-begin some heavy spiritual transformation around becoming a multi-cultural congregation. I commend that, and back in Oakland, I've been a witness to the hard work that it takes to transform. It means asking some deep identity questions about who each of us are, and sitting with it and reflecting for a while. It means identifying the context of how our cultures are set up. That hard work means getting over ourselves and the mixity of privilege and oppression (more than likely, each of us has some of each), and it means finding that still small voice within to guide us and impel us on. The heart is a source.
     More than anything else last week, what I learned from the sacred text Paula Cole Jones brought is that we as UU's have a tendency to start by thinking, and that doesn't generally get us where we want to be spiritually. In this congregation, we say the seven principles every week as a part of worship. I'll be the first to say that I believe the seven principles are wonderful. And we treat them as our foundation. There is a deeper question, however. A question that provides a deeper foundation: “Why do we have the seven principles?” “Why do we covenant to affirm and promote these principles?” I say the answer to that is Love. A desire to be in beloved community, to care about each other, and to know we are cared for. The principles work best when we recognize them as a natural extension of our desire for love. When we start from love, and stay with love, we'll be in balance throughout. Even with love, I'm sure we're going to make mistakes, people may disagree, people may misunderstand, and somebody may get hurt. Yet with a humble love as the foundation, we know that we're committed to each other and we're not going to abandon anybody, and we'll get back on that horse once we're ready again.
     Love is our reason for wanting to have truth and meaning. We want to have meaningful beliefs that lead us to good ends. Love wants us to have openness and truth in our relationships, so we don't hide from fear of what others might think. That openness also means that we make ourselves vulnerable. As beloved community grows, a feeling of greater safety develops, with more space for vulnerability. Some truths are very difficult to share even among those we're close to--there's not a requirement to open up and be vulnerable—only an invitation.
     On the prophetic side, there is often an invitation to speak one's conscience where there is not safety, and some people accept the challenge to open up nonetheless. The search for truth in human religion has been fraught with heretics who have braved contempt, ridicule, ostracism and even death to advance deeper truths into religious discourse. Unitarian and Universalist history has many such prophetic voices. For an example, I'd like to invite you to come back in time a couple centuries with me to May 5th, 1819. On that day, William Ellery Channing delivered the seminal sermon called “Unitarian Christianity” at the ordination of Rev. Jared Sparks. In his sermon, Channing boldly cemented a new clarity of what this novel “Unitarian” movement was about, claiming the name that opponents had previously used as a pejorative. Sitting in and listening to portions of the sermon, you would also be able to hear between the words a context in which the Bible was considered the only real sacred text worth considering, and there was a pretty heavy trinitarian orthodox view. I have two brief sidenotes: First, the quotes I will be sharing from Channing's sermon were originally non-gender-inclusive, and I leave his words intact for the effect of greater immersion into the culture of his time. Second, I will be offering a more in-depth study of this sermon as part of an adult religious education course beginning in a couple weeks. If you're interested, check the website for details.
     So strong was the biblical context of Channing's time that the first portion of his sermon is devoted to the full use of our faculty of reason when examining the Bible. In response to accusers, he states, “Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books. We believe that God, when he speaks to the human race, conforms, if we may so say, to the established rules of speaking and writing.” For him, context is key: “We find that the different portions of this book, instead of being confined to general truths, refer perpetually to the times when they were written, to states of society, to modes of thinking, to controversies in the church, to feelings and usages which have passed away, and without the knowledge of which we are constantly in danger of extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application.”
     From a full read of the sermon, it is evident to me that he spoke this sermon of truths not for his own ego, or to gain control, but to satisfy an underlying love he felt from God. Using the Bible as his text, he sought to clarify the unity of God, stating that claims about God being three separate persons in one were untrue and caused great confusion. Regarding these inconsistencies, he preached, “If God be infinitely wise, he cannot sport with the understandings of his creatures. A wise teacher discovers his wisdom in adapting himself to the capacities of his pupils, not in perplexing them with what is unintelligible, not in distressing them with apparent contradictions, not in filling them with a skeptical distrust of their own powers [of discernment].”
     He sought to clarify that Jesus was fully human—as we are--and that the variety of theories on his special dual divine/human nature tended to disparage his character. In answering this theory of dual nature, he states, “We complain of the doctrine of the Trinity, that, not satisfied with making God three beings, it makes Jesus Christ two beings, and thus introduces infinite confusion into our conceptions of his character. This corruption of Christianity, alike repugnant to common sense and to the general strain of Scripture, is a remarkable proof of the power of a false philosophy in disfiguring the simple truth of Jesus.”
     Channing sought also to clarify the moral perfection of God, stating, “We believe that God is infinitely good, kind, benevolent, in the proper sense of these words; good in disposition, as well as in act; good, not to a few, but to all; good to every individual, as well as to the general system.... God's justice has for its end the highest virtue of the creation.” Accordingly, he also was clear on the Unitarian rejection of substitutional atonement: “We believe that Jesus was sent by the Father to effect a moral, or spiritual deliverance of mankind; that is, to rescue men from sin and its consequences, and to bring them to a state of everlasting purity and happiness....We recollect, however, that, not long ago, it was common to hear of Christ, as having died to appease God's wrath, and to pay the debt of sinners to his inflexible justice; and we have a strong persuasion, that the language of popular religious books, and the common mode of stating the doctrine of Christ's mediation, still communicate very degrading views of God's character. They give to multitudes the impression that the death of Jesus produces a change in the mind of God towards man, and that in this its efficacy chiefly exists... It naturally leads men to think, that Christ came to change God's mind rather than their own; that the highest object of his mission was to avert punishment, rather than to communicate holiness.”
     Fast forward back to 2012. Many of these theological suppositions we UUs now take for granted, and have moved well beyond. Those following in his footsteps have brought further realities into the conversation, including rejection of biblical miracles, a greater understanding of this present life as the one that matters, and the inclusion of many other sacred texts, even including fortune cookies. Which brings me back to... love as a foundation. I believe Channing truly came from a place of love and humility, and desired for connection across theological differences. “We can hardly conceive of a plainer obligation on beings of our frail and fallible nature, who are instructed in the duty of candid judgment, than to abstain from condemning men of apparent conscientiousness and sincerity, who are chargeable with no crime but that of differing from us in the interpretation of the Scriptures.” Underneath his words was a desire for beloved community in one large family, an earlier part of an arc preceding and leading toward our principles.
     In the “Guess How Much I Love You” children's story today, the father and son nut brown hares make a game of expressing ever greater love for each other. There is never the slightest thought that they could be out of relationship with each other. It's a pretty good model for us to strive toward, for times when we turn inwards to build a stronger core community in this congregation, and also for when we are turning outwards.
     But again, the anti-oppression work of changing our collective soul—it can be difficult and consuming. Even a mantra of “just add love” means asking some tough questions as we become vulnerable to our own inner searchings, as well as to the searchings of others. If you/we step further into this work of building beloved community here at First Unitarian, and I hope we do, my prayer is that we recognize our limits, and be gentle with ourselves and each other. For we often don't know the storms and struggles others carry within, and sometimes hardly acknowledge our own.... For those times, may we foster a love that undergirds meanings and the truths we make about ourselves, each other, and our world.
     Because... “Great thoughts come from the heart.” I wonder if, rather than competing as these rabbits did, we were to cooperate in a determined outspoken love. I wonder what might this world become if we started an inclusive cooperative competition based on mindful love. I wonder if, from a base of embodied love, we can create an entirely novel meaning to this collective spirit we call life. And I wonder how vulnerable and strong we can become if we support each other side-by-side holding each other's hands and hearts, and what spirits we may be able to brave to bring our truths and meanings. I don't believe we can know until we try, and I do wonder. Amen.

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