Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Renewal - My Easter Sermon

When I was a kid, Growing up non Christian, as a child Easter…well I’ll just say it. Easter seemed like a strange holiday to an outsider.  I knew it was one of the two big Christian Holidays. Christmas being the first one with Santa Claus and then Easter with the Bunny Rabbit.  Santa I thought at least resembled a human being. But a bunny, how does that figure into religion.  I would ask my friends who were Christian and they had no idea. To them it was a big celebration with special foods and gifts.   Over the years as I kept asking questions,  I came to understand simplistically that the holidays celebrated the birth and death of Jesus.  (although that didn’t really explain Santa and the Bunny Rabbit)  As I grew older and started to study religion, I actually read the Christian Scriptures and tried to put some context to the story.  Of course the concept of a physical resurrection of the dead (no matter how many zombie movies I watch), just didn’t make sense to me based on my experiences in the world.  But as I pointed out in a sermon a couple of years ago, the end of the Gospel of  Mark which we heard earlier which is considered by scholars to be the oldest of the written gospels.  If you notice, in this gospel Jesus is not physically resurrected. His body is just missing from the tomb.  That point seems to get lost in the edited versions of the gospels and in our wider culture.  Due to that we seem to reject the whole story because others have defined it as such.  I was talking to someone recently who was decrying the movie “Noah”  because it just could not possibly be literally true. They could never have fit all those animals on the boat.  And I asked them why can they could enjoy watching and make meaning out of movies like Star Wars, and superhero movies.  A story doesn’t have to be literally true to have meaning.
I think because we are often inundated with people trying to make literal sense out of Biblical Stories, that we lose track of their deeper meaning. This was again brought to my attention, when I was watching the movie Cloud Atlas. It was a very complex movie that tells multiple story lines over multiple millenniums of years. (A good movie, 8 out of 10 on the Jay Wolin movie rating scale – check my blog for more on that)  in one scene, two people from different cultures, one a more tribal culture and one from a more technologically advanced culture meet and they see a statue of the tribal culture’s God who is named Somni. And the person from the technologically advanced culture tells him “Sonmi weren't no god. she died hundreds of years ago. Her life was sad and she died tryin' to change the Old-Uns thinkin” And that is sometimes how I think of Jesus. Someone whose life was short, whose life even by the stories we tell about him was a struggle, and he died trying to change the society he lived in.  Somni when asked why she fought for justice,  even knowing her plan would fail, said “If I had remained invisible, the truth would have stayed hidden. I couldn't allow that.”
I think in his own way, Jesus was trying to teach people the truth about his vision of how to live in the world. And over 2,000 years later, Jesus story still permeates throughout our culture. I believe it permeates not just because of the previous power of the Roman Empire or the slick marketing of mega churches. It permeates because it touches people deep down in the core of our understanding of our human experience. We live in a world and society that is unjust and we often feel powerless to change it or know that to change it will cause us to upset what little certainty we do have in our lives. We all struggle with change.   We all face obstacles in life. Some more than others. Deep down we know something has to change but often we try to ignore it because we know change will cause uncertainty. Each time we ignore that deep calling, that obstacle grows a little more.  But then something or someone sparks something within us that makes us question who we are.
Sometimes, it can be a sorrow, such as the world trade center attacks, or the loss of a loved one or an illness. Other times, we are inspired by something or someone, that drives us  to explore who we are and what we are capable of.  Maybe our previous circumstances did not allow for this or encourage change.  Maybe we have been told we are not good enough once too often.  Maybe we were just unaware.  Maybe it just seems too darn hard.  But struggle, and overcoming struggle is what leads to growth and leads to change and leads to self awareness.  And sometimes, you have to let go of the things that are holding you back. Sometimes you have to let your past die so you can start a new future. Maybe it’s a relationship that you know is just not good for you but you remain in out of misguided loyalty or a savior complex. Maybe it’s a grudge that you have been holding way too long, that is closing your heart, maybe it’s a way of doing things out of habit that just don’t work anymore.  In my previous profession when I would go into a new company I would ask employees why they were doing things a certain way and I told them the one answer they could not give is, “because that’s the way we always did it”.  Sometimes I would find they were creating reports that no one was looking at anymore. “The way we always did it might still be the right way”, but if we don’t consistently ask the question, if we don’t go explore deeply we will never know. 
The world around us is changing at an ever rapid pace.  Its hard to keep up, but we need to change to meet the changing needs of our universe
And once we do know that we have to change, we have to be committed to it and keep trying, and be willing to let go of the way things always were. I think this is true for each of us individually, as a Congregation, as a religion, as a country, as a world.  I believe we come together in religious community to explore that deep yearning and that deep uncertainty so we can be intentional about how we live in the world. It doesn’t mean everything will work out perfectly exactly how you think it will. I think of myself, when I left the Bronx for Manhattan in NYC, Then I left NY for Florida and lastly I left Florida for Iowa. Each time looking for a new way of life, a new way of being in the world.  The truth is, I didn’t know for certain what would happen, whether I would be accepted, whether I would flourish, but each time, I believed deep in my soul what I was doing was necessary.  Now we don’t need to travel somewhere else to change, we just have to travel the distance between here and here (point to head).  The truth is we can change. We just have to have the belief that we can. 
Of course  It is easier to look back on my life and see the winding road I have travelled, what I have accomplished, the places I have gone, the people I have met.  If you had told me these things early in my life, I would have been convinced it was a novel and would not have known how to make it happen.  We never truly know what is still in front of us, so we can only live it out.  The only question is how are we going to live.

Are we going to live with love or with indifference,
Are we going to live hurting others or healing them,
Are we going to live lives of deceit or lives of authenticity
Are we going to live lives of quiet desperation or lives of fullness
Are we going to live lives of separateness or lives of wholeness
Are we going to live our lives closed to change or open to hearing a new way
Are we going to blind ourselves to new realities or truly see our possibilities.
Are we going to live our lives with darkness or with light.

And that is the question I think that the story of Easter is trying to provoke. This story of Easter is not so much about the death of Jesus, but about the life of Jesus, and how that life renewed others, gave others purpose in life, inspired others to see and live in the world in a different way. To live in it with a light shining from within, and shining their inward light outward on the world towards those who are in need.  Just the etymology of the word Easter itself gives us a hint of its meaning. Easter is derived from the German word Eostre, which means Dawn or even Shining.  The Easter story is a reminder for us to renew the light within us. It is a reminder that there is a time to be in the darkness, to comfort and nurture and prepare ourselves, but there comes a time when we have to come out of our shelter (or maybe I should say out of our egg shell) and risk the pain of changing.  We have to roll away the stone to realize our potential and our possibilities. By rolling away the rock, we are forced to engage with others in the world. We are forced to realize that we are not separate from others, and that any limitations we set on ourselves are often self imposed. But it is not easy,
Life comes at us hard, and when the difficulties of life come upon us, when things don’t go exactly as planned We need to remind ourselves of our light.  It is one reason I start each service with our chalice lighting words, so those words can be instilled upon our hearts. In the light of truth, truth is what guides us, and in the warmth of love, for it is love that will endure, we gather, for only in gathering with others, only by engaging with others, only by coming together can we find wholeness, as in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says “whoever is undivided will be full of light, but whoever is divided will be full of darkness” to seek, for only in seeking can we grow, to sustain, for we need each other to lift each other up, and to inspire each other.

I am inspired when I see the care you each give to each other, I am inspired when I see you struggle through difficult circumstances and stay in relationship and persevere, I am inspired when I see you seeking the answers to the deep questions. I am inspired when you reach out to welcome the stranger.  Let us not be invisible, there is too much at stake. Let us, like Jesus and so many who followed him, speak the truth to power, share our power with others, love without judgment, and heal the broken. Ask yourselves, how are you inspiring others. How are you renewing the light in others. Now before we sing our closing hymn, I do want to get back to the Bunny. If you have ever seen the movie Rise of the Guardians (its animated so probably not many families at this service) I have to say that was a different vision of the Easter Bunny than I have ever seen – he was one tough bunny. Anyway, There are many theories and factoids about how the bunny and egg thing got started. You can google it if you like.  For me though the its religious symbolism speaks to the need for life to keep moving forward, to not only survive, but to thrive, in many different colors, shapes, and designs, just like Unitarian Universalism.  May you have a Happy and blessed Easter.  May you keep your light burning bright. 

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Love Beyond Belief

Last week I talked about the various diversity we find in biology, in our Congregation, in our world. To carry on with the theme of how we find Unity in diversity I turn to Unitarian Universalist Theologian Thandeka.  We just finished an Adult Religious Education Class created by her called What Moves Us.   In this series we looked at various Unitarian and Universalist theologians and reflected on their experiences and ideas and how we experienced them and how their ideas affected us inwardly. 
What I find, from many people is a reticence to go deep, a reticence to go beyond the barriers that our intellectual mind raises for us, a reticence to touch the emotional part of our interior life.  As I was thinking of this earlier in the week, an email popped up in my inbox with the following quotation “In the process from plant to flour, the miller must separate the wheat kernel from the chaff—the outer husk of the grain. It turns out that a lot of life experiences are the same way—it takes some effort to winnow the part that will feed you from the husk that you first see.” 
Now I have to admit that I have heard this phrase separating the wheat from the chaff many times in my life, and I understood its meaning to be separating the necessary from the unnecessary, the good from the bad, the useful from the unusable.   But having grown up in New York City, I never really gave it much more thought than that.  Now living in the Midwest, my curiosity forces me to bring this to my consciousness and I have found some interesting information and connections. First I found out it was pronounced Chaff not Chafe. Like many common idioms we use today, their origins are from the Bible.  
When I started investigating this online, you would be amazed about how many Christian conservative bloggers come up when you google “Wheat and Chaff.”  Most of the Biblical references about Chaff are not very positive.  The Bible mostly talks about chaff being blown away or burned. It often equates Chaff with evil or enemies.  Like Psalm 1 “The wicked are like chaff that the wind drives away. Or Isaiah ch 29 The multitude of your foes shall be like small dust and the multitude of tyrants like flying chaff.  Or the Gospels of Mathew and Luke talk about the winnowing fork that gather the wheat into the granary and chaff will burn with unquenchable fire.
So first, I have to say that I think the chaff gets a bad rap. There is a purpose for Chaff.  It protects whatever it is covering. It keeps whatever is inside of it safe until it is ready to come out.  Now if the chaff comes off to early whatever is inside could go bad by being exposed to the elements too soon, if you take the chaff off too late, whatever is inside will wither away due to lack of exposure to outside elements. There are times in our life when we need to be protected.  When we are children we need protection.  We shouldn’t let children play in traffic.   When someone has suffered a tragedy in their lives there is a time necessary to grieve, and we need sometimes need protection.   There is no science for humanity as to how strong the chaff needs to be and how long it has to be on. But sometimes, in our effort to protect ourselves from any pain or any suffering, we keep the chaff on forever or at least we keep in on way too long.  If we do keep it on too long, or if it is kept on us too long by others our souls will wither and die.   Sometimes we become so engrained in a way of thinking or way of being that we build a chaff around ourselves and don’t let any new ideas or new people inside. We don’t open ourselves to emotions of joy, wonder, and awe, of all that is around us for fear of letting negative emotions in as well. 
And perhaps that is also a meaning of the biblical verse, that at some point we have to let go of the chaff, burn it off and live in relationship with others. So I ask you what chaff is standing in the way of your enjoying a grain of truth or meaning? What could you do that will help you remove the barriers in your life to having deeper more meaningful relationships with others.  Well I think there is another biblical clue as well.  In the Book of Job, when God is punishing Job for no legitimate reason, Job asks, “why do you count me as your enemy, Will you frighten a windblown leaf and pursue dry chaff”  Job despite his suffering asks God to grant him two things.
He asks God to “ withdraw your hand far from me. And not let dread of you terrify me”. Then he asks “Make me know my transgressions and my sin and let me speak, and you reply to me.”   Job in this case is asking God to back off without judgment. He knows he has suffered unjustly.  For most people, we realize there are circumstances beyond our control that cause our suffering. We realize that suffering is a part of life. And we have to learn how to deal with our suffering.  Like Job we don’t want to be terrified by the thought of God.  We want the thought of God to be a comforting feeling, a feeling of rest, a feeling of uplifting.
Like Job, many of us have not found that feeling. But Job as well wants to know himself better.  He wants to have a relationship that is meaningful, not one based on power and fear and coercion.  I think that is what Thandeka is talking about. Being able to be in a relationship where there is not dread to speak ones mind to the other, where we have the opportunity to speak freely to better understand ourselves and for others to better understand us. Where we can have the opportunity to learn to listen to others experiences and learn from them as well, Where we can have the opportunity to listen to our own voice within, Where we can have the opportunity to learn how to love beyond belief.  Thandeka believes there are three basic elements that make a personal experience a major source of Unitarian Universalist religious conviction. 1)A zone of doctrinal freedom that encourages theological diversity. 2) A community matrix of care and compassion 3) A personal change of heart. 
The Doctrinal freedom is the foundation of our religious tradition.  It is that freedom that allows us to explore without judgment, knowing that our search is accepted.  Now there are some people in this world, who like a more rigid structure, who like to be told what to believe. If you are that kind of person, I am sure we have people here who will accommodate you.  Our structure may not be rigid, but we do have a structure, and it is a part of human nature I think to like both structure and freedom. This tension is always with us. And that is why we need the community matrix of care and compassion. To let us know if maybe we have gone too far, to call us back into relationship, to be able to have a loving conversation with another even when we don’t agree on theological issues. Someone to lift us up when we fall, someone to inspire us, someone to share with us kindness and generosity of spirit when we need it, someone to remind us of our better selves.  For ultimately our experiences in this community should lead to a change of heart. Being together should lead us to be able to open ourselves up to feel the depth of our being.  And that takes a lot of courage.  I think about something Brene Brown said in her TED Talk on Vulnerability when she speaks of the courage it takes for people who had a strong sense of love and belonging (share on video)
She said “these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can't practice compassion with other people if we can't treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they had connection, and -- this was the hard part -- as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection.  The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating -- as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, "I love you" first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They're willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”

There are no guarantees in life. We know that. Investing time in relationships is sacred time. Too often we find ourselves distracted with time. Our lives are so full of stress and we just try to find ways to distract ourselves from our stress, distract ourselves from our suffering. We don’t spend time dealing with what causes the stress and then anxiety builds and comes out in unhealthy ways.  But consciously spending our time, intentionally looking at what we spend our time on and choosing to spend our time building relationships is courageous.   
As theologian Martin Buber said in The Nature of Man "The fundamental fact of human existence is neither the individual nor the aggregate as such. Each, considered by itself is a mighty abstraction. The individual is a fact of existence only in so far as he or she steps into a living relationship with other individuals. The aggregate is a fact of existence in so far as it is built of living units of relationships"   
What environment can  we create that allows you to go deeper into shedding your Chaff and exposing not only your shell that will be swept away, but exposing your wheat, the core of what you are.  Thandeka says that “human salvation is not a solo act”  We are all in this together, all of us, imperfect, striving, longing for connection.  That to me is the purpose of Religion, to give us a place to learn how to be together, to learn how to be authentic, to learn how love beyond belief.  We do this in a myriad of ways and it may be different for different people. For some it may be a piece of music that moves them to a change of heart, like the beautiful music we heard earlier. It may be something you hear in worship, For others as you can see on many days and nights our parking lot is filled up with opportunities for people to take the chaff off, to allow them the opportunity to be vulnerable. We have our Spiritual Sharing Groups, Our Meditation Groups, Forum, Adult Religious Education Offerings, and our Connection Circles to name a few opportunities..  We have a new Short Term Connection Starting this Tuesday night that “will  explore ideas about community, being a UU, relating to others in our midst, and what it means when we say "Beloved Community."

We need to keep coming back to the well just as a person drinks water to keep our bodies healthy, so do we need to drink from the fountain of relationships, the fountain of connections, the fountain of love, to keep our spirit  healthy.  So have the courage to have a change of heart. Have the courage to find your place here. Have the courage to choose a love beyond belief. May it be so.