Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Nothing Else Matters

This was the second sermon of my candidating week with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (April 17, 2011)  As it turns out, it is also the second sermon of my ministry with these good people!  I am so looking forward to many, many more.

Reading: On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

~ Annie Dillard, from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Sermon: Nothing Else Matters

Well . . . it’s been quite a month since we were together here last week . . .

Only a week ago, when I stood here and told you all that none of what we do here matters in the least . . . if, that is, this is all we do; if we allow ourselves to settle for living “life that is not life” instead of continually going deeper, and wider, and higher, and discovering for ourselves “life that is life.”

I thought about how I should start this sermon this morning. I considered telling you that I believe firmly that we live in a “both/and” universe. But then I realized that that must also mean that I believe in an “either/or” universe, too, so I figured that wouldn’t really tell you anything.

And then I thought of the words my father used to tell me with some regularity, words he took originally from Walt Whitman who said in his poem Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

I also thought of the last sermon I offered to the good folks of the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine, after eleven years of being their ordained preacher. I gave the sermon my all time favorite sermon title: “Everything I’ve Said Was Wrong.” In it I looked back over all of the sermons I’d delivered over the years and demonstrated how, viewed from different angles, none of what I’d said would hold water. A humbling experience, to be sure, but a good reminder. We all – this world – contain multitudes.

So if last week I wanted to tell you that none of this matters, today I want to explain my deep conviction that nothing else matters quite so much.

During this week you’ve asked me a lot of questions, given me many opportunities to (as my mother used to say) “exercise my little grey cells.” On Wednesday night, when a group met here to discuss the topics of worship and spirituality, someone asked me just why it’s important for us to be engaged in worship at all. When Active Minds recently discussed this very topic, it was noted there that some people think that there’s no need for us to gather together in a place such as this – that a much more “worshipful” experience could be had by taking a walk in the woods, imbibing the beauty of a park. That’s true. Yet being in community, and being on our own, are two vastly different things.

I want to tell you a story. There was a Christian monk who lived in community, but was known to take long, solitary retreats to the monastery’s hermitage. He would get permission from the Abbot for a retreat, pack his bible and, perhaps, a change of clothes, and then hike down the mountain to the secluded shack the Order used for private retreats. Sometimes he wouldn’t return for a month or more.

One time, though, this monk returned the evening of the day he had set out. This was so unusual that the Abbot called for him and asked him to explain why he was back so early. The monk replied, “Father Abbot. I began my retreat as I always do, opening the Gospels at random to see what God would have me meditate upon. This morning I opened to the story of Christ washing the disciples’ feet. I settled into my meditation yet I kept finding myself disturbed in my prayer by a nagging question, one which has caused me to return to the main house.”

“What was that question?” the Abbot asked. “It was this,” the monk replied: “Whose feet can a hermit wash?’

On Wednesday night, when I was asked why we do this “worship” thing I responded that I think that there are two fundamental realities which are incredibly easy for us to forget. In fact, most of us live our lives most of the time as if they were not true, so, it is imperative for us to come together in religious community to help us to remember. Because remembering is key to living “life that is life.”

The first reality we so often forget is that we are intimately interrelated with all that is. Most of us live most of the time as if we were out here on our own; fundamentally, existentially alone. The truth, though, is that we are connected to everything that is. As I like to point out, this is true if only because we’re literally made of the same stuff – we, and the trees, and the jaguars (both the cats and the cars) are all made out of the same elements, the dust of stars. We don’t live outside of the universe; we are intimately interconnected with it. Part and parcel of it, as our own St. Ralph once said.

The second reality is that we are not the Be All and End All of all things. As one of my colleagues once put it, rather memorably, “Whether or not you believe in God, you need to realize that you, yourself, are not God.” Let me say that once again, “Whether or not you believe in God, you need to realize that you, yourself, are not God.”

These two things – that we are intimately interrelated with all that is and that we, ourselves, are not God – are apparently really difficult to remember with any kind of consistency. Nearly impossible, if we try to do it on our own.

And so we come together to remind one another.

Yet we don’t just remind one another, here, in words. Rather – and this is what I think is most tremendously exciting about all of this – at our best we remind one another because here we enact these truths, we embody these truths, we manifest these truths in how we do what we do.

We come together with others, an expression of our realization of our interconnectedness. We need one another, and here we come together with others – folks who think like us; folks who don’t; folks who inspire us; folks who irritate us; folks we know well; folks we’ve yet to meet. Yet we call one another “one community” just as we are, in fact, one with everything.

This is partly what my friend and colleague Erika Hewitt meant in the words we used for the opening: “You do not have to do anything to earn the love contained within these walls. You do not have to be braver, smarter, stronger, better than you are in this moment to belong here. . . . You only have to bring the gift of your body, no matter how able; your seeking mind, no matter how busy; your animal heart, no matter how broken.”

Isn’t that just what this place has been for many of you? Isn’t it what we all believe it can be? In a world as frustratingly fractious as ours, as foolishly fragmented as ours, could there be anything that matters more than creating beloved community like this? South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that church should be, “an audiovisual aid for the sake of the world,” showing how the world could be.

And then there’s that other thing, that remembering that we’re not the Grand High Poohbahs of Creation. That can be a tough one. And it’s probably important to be clear that I’m not talking about what a UU high schooler once called, “that buff Santa in a toga” – you know, that bearded, Zeus-like old man in the clouds who gives gifts to all the good people and an eternity of coal to the bad ones. That’s not what I’m talking about, ‘though I might use the word “God” to describe it. Or, perhaps, Spirit of Life. Or, you know, The Force – that “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” I like to call it, “The Sacred Something.”

Whatever we call it, we enact it when we come together – because all of us is greater than any one of us. When we come together in community we acknowledge something greater than ourselves, if only the community itself.

If we do it right, of course. That’s where covenants come in – promises, expectations, commitments, responsibilities, accountabilities . . . I know that not everyone is comfortable with the language of “covenant,” yet we are a covenantal people. Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors did not bind together their communities through mutually shared creeds, as have most other religious traditions. Instead, we have always formed our community through covenant – promises made about how we would be together.

James Luther Adams, one of our movement’s greatest theologians, and a fierce proponent of what he called “the free church tradition” once wrote this:

“I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence, that sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands. It binds together families and generations, protecting against idolatry of any human claim to absolute authority. This covenant is the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life. I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship, that protects and nourishes their integrity and spiritual freedom; that yearns to belong to the church universal; it is open to insight and conscience from every source; it bursts through rigid tradition, giving rise to new and living language, to new and broader fellowship. It is a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit."
That’s what we’re trying to do here, and what else could possibly matter more than that?

Annie Dillard said, in that reading I love so well, that she thinks of those of us in church as children, “playing on the floor with our chemistry sets mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.” And I said last week that this means she thinks we’re fooling ourselves if we take what we do here seriously. And yet . . .

And yet she affirms a truth, a reality to that power she says “we so blithely invoke.” She reminds us of the “sleeping god,” and the “waking god,” and tells us that what we’re doing—whether we know it or not, whether we understand it or not—is serious business. (“We should be lashed to our pews.”)

Transforming lives – your life; my life. Healing the world—this beautiful, broken, breathtaking world. How could anything else matter as much?

This week you’ve asked me a lot of questions. And many of you have shared with me your hopes, and dreams . . . and fears. This is a beautiful community you have here. And if there’s still work to do, know that that just means that it’s a human community. Know, too, that you have done, and are doing, so much so well.

This afternoon you will engage in one of the most sacred rituals of our faith tradition – the communal discernment of whether or not to call a particular individual into your community to serve in the role of settled minister. In some ways this is a totally insignificant act – you’re voting on one minister among so many. In other ways, you are considering opening a new chapter in the life of this church, a new phase in that “adventure of the spirit.”

It’s been an honor to be among you this week, and I can tell you that it will be an honor, a privilege, and a great pleasure to write that new chapter and chart that new course with you. But that’s for later. Right now I can’t think of anything better to do than sing with you all. (“The Fire of Commitment”) Print this post

1 comment:

Mike Mallory said...

The Dillard and JLA quotes are two of my favorites and glad to see them brought to light again. I like the emphasis you place on the power of (our) religion. JLA is a hero of mine because he gives voice to the prophetic power of Liberal Religion. I am concerned that in our pluralism we show too much restraint and leave too much of our potential behind. I encourage you to trust the congregation and allow yourself to afflict the comfortable.