When I was a young boy, on hot summer days like this one we would go to a beach club in the Bronx, It was They had numerous sports facilities, handball was big back then, basketball, volleyball, etc. and of course various pools throughout the complex. My parents always wanted me to play in the shallow pool, so I would be safe, but as soon as their heads were turned, I would head to the center of the complex where the deepest pool was, and in the center of that pool was this rectangular Platform with diving boards, that rose high into the air. I remember the first time I had the courage to climb up the platform to jump. Even as a child, I was a risk taker.
It is one thing to dive from the edge of the pool into water, you can control the speed, and where you are jumping. But even then I wanted to experience what I did not know. But it is different looking up at the platform from below vs. Looking down at the water from high above. Not only climbing to the top of the platform, but standing there and waiting my turn, made me even more conscious of how high up in the air I was and then of course when I was up there I tried to start calculating how fast I would be moving and the depth of the water and wondering if this was how my young life would all end.
In truth the only thing that finally got me to finally jump was knowing there was someone behind me who was waiting, so when it came to my turn, I just didn’t think about it and jumped. And as I hurtled through the air, you would have thought I was shot out of a cannon, it was exhilarating as if I was flying and I held my breath for as long as I could as I sunk deep into the waters underneath, never touching bottom, it was that deep (or I was that short) Everything of course seems bigger of course when you are a child. Which is another message how we experience things when we are young, is not always the same as when we look back at that same experiences as we are older and are better able to understand. Slowly I rose up from the bottomless pool, my arms and feet working hard to reach the surface. No breath ever felt so good as the air I breathed when I broke the surface of the water, once again realizing I would live for another jump. And then I realized the real danger as I looked skyward and saw the body of next jumper hurdling straight towards me from the sky.
This story has served me well as I think back on my life. It is a good metaphor for our lives, our religious lives, our Congregational lives our lives as participants in this grand experiment called Democracy that we celebrated this July 4th. We can wallow in the shallow water playing it safe, or we can dare to go into the deep end, into the unknown, not knowing how far we can go, only to challenged by physical and mental limitations some real, some which we create for ourselves and even after succeeding, still have others challenge us. But only by going into the deep end of the pool, can we come to know our own abilities and potential. Only by risking the comfort of what is known, can we become aware of the possible. And the more we do this, the deeper we go, the easier it gets each time, but you have to have the courage to jump. And then after you catch your breath, you need to look back up and see what’s still coming, what worked, what didn’t work.
The founders of our country, almost 225 years ago, ratified the Constitution of the United States. Its preamble as many of you know goes:
“We the People of the United State, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In its writing they speak about the future, their posterity, and that one day people will look back at it with the understanding of years of experience,
And people will realize that its wording was not how we experienced the our nation in its infancy, but how we have adapted it to fit our evolving situation. For that was the greatest act of the founders of our country, in that they created a mechanism that allows the Constitution to be changed as our culture changes. But it requires the people to be engaged deeply in the process. If we put our heads down, if we don’t look up to see whats coming, it can be corrupted and we will be damaged as individuals and as a nation. From its very inception the founders were prescient enough to know that the words merely represented their dreams for America.
It starts, “We the people”, even though the Constitution was originally written by and for White Land Owners, in these words were the future aspirations of its writers. It was an aspiration of a government as Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker in 1850 (and I point out that this was 13 years before Gettysburg when Parker spoke these words) Parker called it the American idea. He stated,
“This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness' sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.”
What does it mean to be free as a country. Is the government free to spy on us? Not according to the fourth amendment to the Constitution. Would it make a difference if that spying saved us from multiple terrorist attacks. Was Edward Snowden who leaked this information free to break the confidentiality agreement? Are the people in Egypt more or less free today then they were under the democratically elected government controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood? For each person here there might be a different answer.
What do we mean by freedom. Of course freedom is a relative term, We are not totally free to do anything we please in the world. Or I should say we are not free to do anything in the world without consequences. We as a society or even as a Congregation, make rules all the time limiting our freedom. Am I free to drive 50 miles an hour down Harrison street past 35th st where I have received two photo speeding tickets (something about 4th amendment here as well), Are you free steal from someone, Are you free to murder someone. That last question is playing out in a courtroom in Florida this week in the George Zimmerman Trial for killing Trayvon Martin. Was he free to chase down Trayvon even after the police told him not to. Was Trayvon free to defend himself from Zimmerman who he saw tracking him down. Was Zimmerman free to shoot Martin. All of these questions have had and continue to have life and death consequences. Just because you are free to do something, doesn’t mean you should do it.
I think it raises a bigger question about freedom, which is are we free to be ignorant. We may be free to be ignorant, but ignorance has its consequences as well. Because many of these events in Florida were all perpetuated by ignorance. And ignorance can lead to fear and fear often leads to a limiting life, or as it did in this case leads to tradgedy. Clearly Zimmerman had a picture in his mind of who Trayvon Martin was, from the taped 911 call he calls Martin a suspicious guy, up to no good, on drugs, a punk, all this judgment just by seeing him at a distance. Trayvon Martin as well, recognizing he is being followed, purportedly said, he was being followed by a creepy ass cracker.
How and why did they come to these judgments just by looking at each other. We are conditioned in this way, sometimes through experiences, often by the media. How often do we make judgments or assumptions about people based on how they look. When we see someone walk in here with a tattoo, or piercings, or dressed in ragged jeans, what assumptions do we make? Do they feel welcomed here, or even someone walking in dressed to the tees wearing fancy clothes, or a suit and a tie, do they feel welcomed here. What assumptions do we make about them. Just because we are free to do something doesn’t mean we should do it. How much different would it have been if George Zimmerman was curious instead of suspicious.
How might it have changed his actions. Why did he assume a young black man was a thief? Imagine if George Zimmerman were more interested in getting to know Trayvon Martin, how his actions, even his posture, maybe just waving and saying hello might have changed the events of that day. I have always done that all the time wherever I live. I often just say hello to everyone I meet. It just totally throws some people off their guard, but then they usually smile. They don’t attack me. Its no different here. When we have visitors and they come downstairs for coffee and bagels, do we look on from afar suspiciously, making judgements and keep our distance, Or do we sit down with them curious about who they are, and seeing them as a unique individual, a fellow religious seeker in search of truth and meaning. You are of course free to do both, but I encourage you to be curious and welcoming. The only way to break our assumptions is to break our conditioning. I believe we as a religion, with our concept of free religious thought, can lead the way. I believe this is what the founders of our country were trying to create, a place where all people could live together peaceably.
The first line of the first amendment in the Bill of Rights reads. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
The founders had seen the devastation that state religions had wrought in Europe. They felt people should have the free expression of their religious beliefs. Due to oppression from Governments who opposed their religion, Puritans came to America. But many of these Puritans came here with the goal of setting up their own state religions. And as fizzures occurred, those who differed were forced out. The founders understood this and particularly Jefferson and Madison fought hard for separation of church and state, invoking the first amendment with their goal to protect religious minorities. We evolved as a country and adapted. But it required the people to come together and sacrifice to make it happen.
With the separation of church and state our Country has the most diverse and most active religious life of any western country. And what is it that makes Unitarian Universalism unique among the many religions of this world. One thing that is unique is our being theologically non-creedal. But the the opposite of creedal religion, is not nihilism, the opposite of creedal is a free religion, that requires us to find a deep ceded belief in the need to find meaning in our lives and in the world. The opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is indifference. We all have faith in something. Our religion, this congregation helps you find what that something is, and how we find that is the other uniqueness of our religion.
Our sources of truth do not come from some traditional authority, or some ecclesiastical or presbytery board Our sources of belief and truth come from within, from our experiences in the world, from nature, from various world religion, The evidence of all this is then tested in community and how we act in community and the world. Yes tested in community, I think that is an important part of this. When we find things that don’t work, we change them, we adapt to our current circumstances, whether it be the Constitution of the United States, ending slavery and giving women the right to vote, or the Unitarian Universalist Association recently reducing the number of trustees on the Board as a way to become more dynamic, or to our Congregation, recognizing our form of Governance was not helping us reach our vision and mission, and so a few years ago adopted bylaws by a democratic vote that is now ushering in an experiment with policy based governance.
When we know what we have isn’t working, if we keep doing things the same way and getting the same results, then we need to try a new way together. We need to choose, are we going to do things alone, or are we going to do them together. This is true in our governance as well in our religious and spiritual lives. We can do things on our own, we can do solitary spiritual practices, and those are important. It is important for us to work on our personal spiritual lives, but also to share such practices with others. And if they are meaningful to others, tested in community it will be become part of the community. I know there are people gathering this summer to see how we can expand our offerings of spiritual practices in the Congregation.
I think that is important, because if spiritual practices just leads us to improve ourselves, without moving us to improve the world, without changing our actions to improve others experiences in the world, then I think we will have failed. The child in school who hasn’t eaten in two days and comes to school, needs a meal. Is that child free to learn if they are starving, If a young adult with mental differences cant get mental health care in the Quad Cities, are they free to reach their full potential, If the veteran who comes home from serving our country, doesn’t get adequate medical care or job opportunities are they free to pursue their dreams to live in the land of the free.
If the young non violent felon having served their time comes out of jail and is not rehabilitated, and does not have the vote, are they free to be productive citizens in our great experiment of a country. No one is free until all of us are free.
Theologian, Karen Armstrong said, "Religion is not something you just read about, its something you do, like swimming. Articles on swimming don't mean anything until you get in the water." So jump in the deep end of the pool. Freedom doesn’t equate with easy. Freedom means responsibility. Responsibility for our religious lives, responsibility for our Congregation and responsibility for Unitarian Universalism, a religion that champions free religion thought.
A religion without whose forerunners, we would not be sitting here today. Let us think about our posterity, what will we do to ensure that freedom, religious freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience shall continue to grow and evolve and adapt throughout the world. What will you do? I invite you to invite yourselves, your families, your friends, your neighbors into a deeper conversation, into deeper action, as we head to that freedom land. Let us uncage our spirit, I’m on my way, and if you want to join me, you can rise in body or spirit and start by singing loudly hymn #116 I’m on my way.