Call to Worship – Rev. Jay Wolin
Come into this place and time with reverence
This place of Joy,
This place of refuge
This place to discern hard truths
This place to experience compassion
This place to find inspiration
This place which doesn’t require one answer
This place – your place
This place – our place
This place – everyone’s place
Let us remember though,
This place is not a building.
For we have had different buildings
This place is an idea that we live out
Of how a world can be
Both imperfect and messy and beautiful and diverse and compassionate and forgiving
All the while learning about ourselves, each other and the world.
As we light the chalice, let its light be a symbol of the light within us
That helps us be our better selves and let its flame energize our resilience to live out our values in the world.
I start with a reading from 19th Century Unitarian Transcendentalist Minister Theodore Parker – an excerpt from his sermon…The Transient and Permanent in Christianity
“Anyone, who traces the history of what is called Christianity, will see that nothing changes more from age to age than the doctrines taught as Christian, and insisted on as essential to Christianity and personal salvation. What is falsehood in one province passes for truth in another. The heresy of one age is the orthodox belief and “only infallible rule” of the next……
It is only gradually that we approach to the true system of Nature by observation and reasoning, and work out our philosophy and theology by the toil of the brain. But meantime, if we are faithful, the Great truths of morality and religion, the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God, are perceived intuitively, and by instinct, as it were, though our theology be imperfect and miserable……
It is hard to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid, or Archimedes. The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers, one would naturally think, must rest on the truth of his words, and not their truth on his authority……
If Christianity were true, we should still think it was so, not because its record was written by infallible pens ; nor because it was lived out by an infallible teacher, — but that it is true, like the axioms of geometry, because it is true, and is to be tried by the oracle God places in the breast.” End of reading.
Today we look back on this sermon by Parker as one of the seminal readings of early Unitarianism. Ironically, considering what he wrote, this was considered heretical even within Unitarianism at the time it was written. I admit that over my life time in my search for truth, I have been fascinated when I find overlap between various religious traditions. I have to ask myself why is looking at various traditions important? First I try to understand what teachings are unique to circumstances of the time and place of that particular religion. What teachings serve the structure of the organization, But ultimately, I search for what within the teachings may be a hint at the eternal wisdom that can show us how to better live in the world.
Seeing where multiple religious ideas intersect can also point to the same issues that are common to different people in different places. Also today in our pluralistic congregation and society, it helps us understand the commonality that we all have. This commonality, it not the lowest common denominator just so we can say that see we are all alike, these similarities show that many religions are trying to deal with the same issues that humanity struggle with, but profound and profane throughout history. We as Unitarian Universalists look to find wisdom from multiple sources, and look to discern whether old truths are still true or need to be revised due to new knowledge, new understanding or new revelations. Certainly there are differences as well, and we need to acknowledge that, but in a world of diversity, we should look for truths that can be touchstone for how to live together in the world despite our differences and in the midst of suffering. In my long journey of life, I have found all people in all walks of life suffer.
I entitled the service, the Zen Teachings of Jesus because that was the name of one of the books I read over the summer in preparation this service. I didn’t find it a particularly good book either academically, spiritually or ascetically, but the title was catchy. Despite the approximately 500 years and 20,000 miles difference and from vastly different cultures, why would there be so many similarities between Jesus and Buddha’s teachings. In the Christian Scriptures there is nothing about Jesus’s life between the ages 12 and 30. Some have speculated that Jesus travelled to India and studied Buddhism during that time. There is no documentation to indicate this, and considering the gospel stories, it is highly unlikely that a carpenters son, in that day and age would have travelled that far from home. It is more likely that there was a travelling monk or teacher from Asia that Jesus encountered, possibly in Alexandria Egypt. But in my opinion, the most likely scenario, is that these certain great truths were arrived at independently. In looking at these two teachers, there are some similarities to the stories of Buddha and Jesus. Each had to leave their home to find revelation. Each had their awakening at the age of 30. Ok, so no pressure for anyone who is 29. (And for those of us who are over 30….I am sorry, I guess you are not the messiah J )
As I shall share later, many of their ethical teachings were the similar. These teachings were to help others find liberation from suffering. Each started reformation movements from within their birth religion. Buddha, from Hinduism, and Jesus from within Judaisim. They challenged the orthodoxy of their times. They didn’t see themselves as starting a new religion. Those new religions ended up being created by their followers due to societal and political issues of their time and place. Those who followed them often saw these two teachers as more then human, although both Buddha and Jesus kept affirming their own humanity.
There were also some stark differences in their lives and their ministries. Buddha came from a wealthy family and renounced his wealth whereas Jesus came from a working class family. Jesus ministry as a teacher only lasted three years before he died at the age of 33. It is said that the Buddha lived until he was 80. The Buddha developed a much more systemic structure of teachings for his followers to implement. Jesus teachings are more esoteric and at times appear contradictory and confusing. Part of this is of course is due to the shorter nature of his of ministry and as well to the political climate within which he lived having to obscure his radical teachings to avoid risking his life with the Roman Conquerors of Israel. The last major difference I will speak to is the social justice ministry of Jesus compared to Buddha. Buddha’s teaching were more about changing the individual’s perception of what is real to relieve their suffering. Although Jesus spoke to this as well, he also focused on challenging the economic and spiritual injustices that his people lived with under the Roman occupation.
Each leader through their experiences in the world, were awakened to the deeper realities of life and attempted to share that wisdom with others for the betterment of the world. Of course how that develops over the course of time cannot be planned, but the wisdom both Jesus and Buddha shared without question shapes our world today. It is up to us to shape that wisdom not in doctrines but in actions that are relevant to the world we live in today. As Christian theologian Marcus Borg states, "Jesus and the Buddha were teachers of wisdom. Wisdom is more than ethics, even though it includes ethical teaching. The “more” consists of fundamental ways of seeing and being. Wisdom is not just about moral behavior, but about the “center,” the place from which moral perception and moral behavior flow."
One of the ways we see the world and be in the world is to help others in the world. Just as Borg writes about place of moral behavior flow, I invite you to allow the money to flow from your wallet or pocket or purse to the collection plate as we take up our offering today. As always 50 % of the offering will be shared with a local justice organization chosen by our social justice team projects. Details are on the front of the order of service. Please be as generous as you can be. Once you have had the opportunity to donate, I invite you to come down and light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your life.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet they are fed. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these… Strive first for the kingdom of God and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
I admit this has always been one of my favorite passages from the Christian Scriptures. Much of Buddhist Teachings speak of living in the present moment. Now first let me back up and let you know that within Buddhism there are a multitude of sects similar to the multitude of denominations in Christianity. Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism. It started in China and then travelled to Japan. The word Zen is a Japanese word roughly translated to mean being in a meditative state, but it is much more complex then that. There are now many books written with the title of zen, the zen of motorcycle maintenance, the zen of steve jobs, the zen of parenting, the zen of dying, and…just google the zen of and the list just goes on and on. for this discussion, I will be speaking in more generalized terms of Zen tradition within Mahayana Buddhism, The Buddha speaks often of seeing reality for what it is and how suffering is caused by craving and attachments to outcomes.
You can see in the writing of Jesus that is exactly the lesson he is teaching his disciples. Be in the present moment – worry about today….Stop craving or being anxious about the future, and your material possessions. Worry about today. He is saying look at this, look at that. Seeing the world for what it is, and recognizing that what you have will be enough. There is a story attributed to the Buddha called the flower sermon. One day the Buddha was about to give a sermon in front of his disciples. He was silent for a long while just holding up a flower.
There are different versions of this which some wondered whether the Buddha had forgot what he was going to say, others who were trying hard to figure out what the profound meaning was of holding up a flower. This highlights another similarity between the Jesus and Buddha stories as to the struggle of the disciples to understand their message. Then one disciple Mayhakashyapa, just smiled and laughed and thus became the successor to the Buddha understanding the wordless transmission of wisdom. Seeing the flower for what it was, something beautiful, and not attaching other meanings to it. How often do you judge or react negatively towards others over a imagined slight. Often in our meditation practice on Tuesdays I relate the experience of hearing a car horn honking. Our inner mind can complain, that car horn honking is disturbing my meditation. But instead I encourage people to just recognize it for what it is. That is a car horn honking. And then return to meditating. Just notice something for what it is and do not attach other meanings to it.
In addition to meditation, Zen Buddhism also makes use of Koans, which master tell their students. Some famous ones are
“What is the sound of one hand clapping” or
“What is the color of wind.”
The point is not to come up with a logical answer for this. The point is to empty your mind. To learn to live with paradox, and to empty your mind, letting go of your way of understanding and to see the world in a completely new way. Jesus as well speaks to letting go and starting anew. In Luke ch 18 Jesus says “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This is followed by Jesus saying “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Again this connects with the theme within zen of beginners mind. To look at everything in the world with openness and a lack of preconceptions. So often we look at the world through our own lenses of circumstance we often blind ourselves to others’ suffering.
Beginners mind or a child’s eye helps us see the world in new ways with many possibilities, not tethered to the way its always been. As we had new members today, let us remember to try to imagine what the Congregation looks like from their eyes. And from a larger perspective, I invite you to consider what ways you can see your life and this community in new ways. A world where there is justice, where everyone is welcome, where there is enough food and clothing for all, and there is no need to hoard resources for just the few out of some primordial fear of scarcity. When people come together in community working together, not competing, there can be abundance.
More then anything else, both teachers main focus was on creating communities and lives filled with compassion for others. Both used the golden rule, with Jesus saying “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” And Buddha saying “Consider others as yourself.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” The Buddha as well says “Hatred does not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love, this is an eternal truth. overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good, overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth.” It seems counterintuitive and is easier to say then it is to live out in the world. Yet, we have seen this acted out with Ghandi, and with Martin Luther King, Jr.
We saw it with the family members of victims of the Church shooting in Charleston. I was so moved, when one after the other, came up to the microphone and said they forgave the man who killed their family member. I don’t know that I could have done that. One elderly woman who clearly was not there yet stated, I understand offering forgiveness is a process, and I am just at the beginning of that process. Even in despair, she imagined a future where she could see a better self for herself. That is something I would wish for all of us. To be able to imagine ourselves as our best selves, especially in times of despair. I could go on and on with the parallel sayings about wisdom, materialism, our inner lives, temptation, discipleship, and others but suffice it to say there were many. Peace, compassion, forgiveness and love are the touchstone truths that these teachers shared. Let us go forward and do likewise.
Closing Words – Jack Kornfield, Buddhist Teacher and Writer
‘They both taught the laws of the heart, the eternal fragrance of virtue, the path of generosity, the power of faith, contentment and compassion. They both inspired their disciples to turn from the materialism of the world and live a life of the spirit, to come to know the timeless truth,
to awaken to the undying. See and know this for yourself, said the Buddha. Jesus pointed in the same openhanded fashion when he said the Kingdom of God is within you.
That this is universal wisdom there can be no doubt.”