"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Sleep in Heavenly Peace" (Christmas Eve, December 24, 2012)

    One would need to be living in a total state of denial not to admit that this has become a much more somber Christmas than usual. The recent horror of horrors in Connecticut has made much of our usual holiday merrymaking seem somehow inappropriate. Singing about  “a holly, jolly Christmas” or even “Joy to the world” can ring more than a little hallow in the face of what we have seen. Our national mood might well reflect that of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow more than a century ago:

            “And in despair I bowed my head,
             ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.
            ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song
            Of peace on earth, good will to men.’”

            In a deeper sense, we might even wonder about the very relevance of that babe born in the stable in Bethlehem to this vale of tears we inhabit. Because Christmas traditionally centers so directly on the birth of a Holy Child, and because Christmas as more broadly celebrated emphasizes so persistently the innocence and dreams and joy of children everywhere, we are shaken to the core by what we have seen, and we can not even begin to imagine what those who have experienced this tragedy directly must be going through.

            So it seems as though, this year at least, the light has been extinguished, or pretty near. The angel voices have been rendered silent, or if they’re still singing, then they’re singing very softly. There might even be within us something of an urge to cancel Christmas this year, or at least postpone it, as if we could. Just forget about it. To pack up the tinsel, and put away the tree, and simply rejoin the mundane and prosaic pathway of the (so called) “real world”.

            But you see, it’s because the world, as it is, is too much with us that we need Christmas, and that we could not survive (spiritually, emotionally, holistically) without it, and without what it represents.  Because the darkness surrounds us so deeply at times, we need the light of Christmas. Because the world is mired so deeply in despair, we need its hope.

            Because this world is fallen, we need the Incarnation, the embodiment of God’s Holy Spirit with us, and among us, and within us.

Christmas shows us that when night is darkest, we can see the shining of the stars most gloriously. If there was no darkness of midnight, there could be no star to guide the wise men to the stable. When we are most empty, the abundance of God can fill our souls. When we are poorest in spirit, a divine inheritance will be ours.

At Advent, the weeks leading up to Christmas, we are shaken awake with the news, the reality, that God is on his way.Emmanuel: God’s Love—God’s Peace—God’s Hope—is coming, here, to be with us. So we must pay attention, and keep watch, and prepare a place, and attune our lives to dwell in the reality of that Presence.

This has been a rather bitter Advent, I know, and perhaps God’s angels are arriving this year more like First Responders than as sweet and airy cherubim.

But now, they have arrived, because He has arrived. It is Holy Night. That Holy Babe has been born. Now, God’s presence not only fills the universe, and swings the planets, and keeps the cosmos in order. Now, God’s presence also walks with us, here on earth.  And weeps with us, and comforts us, and allows us to believe that our hopes are not in vain.

Tomorrow, with the dawn of Christmas Day, we will all be called to be as little children again. Christmas only really works, I think, if we approach it as a child does, with a child’s faith, and a child’s hope, and a child’s love. Innocently. Expectantly. Without all of our adult agendas and issues and (all too) complexes. 

That’s tomorrow. Celebrate sweetly, then, to honor the sweet memory of those who have been taken from us, to honor all those we have loved who are no longer with us. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, is the day for childlike celebration.

Tonight, we rest. We sleep, in heavenly peaceIn himmlischer Ruhr.

            Tonight, the world sleeps in God’s embrace, like a newborn babe in his mother’s arms. And as we sleep, may we dare to dream again-- of angel chorus singing fully and confidently again, and bells ringing, and stars shining, and the laughter of all those we love, and the light in the eyes of all the world’s children, and the babe in the manger, calling us, challenging us, to follow him down the blessed pathway of God’s love.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent of the Heart (Sunday, December 2, 2012)

Well, here we are, believe it or not, with Thanksgiving well behind us already, and the year 2012 fading fast in the rear-view mirror of our lives. Looming up ahead on the horizon is Christmas, like the Hancock and the Prudential as we approach Boston on Route 93 from the south.

 We just lit the first of the four candles on our church’s Advent “wreath”. (There’s no wreath there, I know.) A purple candle--  purple, the color of royalty, traditionally used to signify that the Church meant business about something; to signify something really important in Church doctrine: this time to signify the coming—the advent—the arrival  of Christ the King. (The pink one—for joy—we’ll light in week three, December 16 this year, which is the Sunday of our Christmas pageant by the Church School, so a little joy will certainly be in order on that day.)  

            So, anyway, here we are on the threshold of Christmas again. Already. It snuck up on us again this year! I bet that most of us approach this holiday neither from an all-good or all-bad direction, but rather with some complicated mixture of joy, dread, anticipation, and resignation. Here we are, almost at Christmas, and most of us probably aren’t ready. (Oh, I know some of you are; no doubt, someone will come up to me at coffee hour and brag that they’ve already got their cards for Christmas 2013 bought—and addressed.) But most of us aren’t quite ready for Christmas, not yet. Maybe we’ve already bought a few gifts; maybe we have this year’s cards addressed already, ready to put in the mail, or at least we’re thinking about it. Maybe we stocked up on wrapping paper in the after-Christmas sales last year. But in spite of all our well-intentioned vows that this year would be different, it probably won’t be. So we become a little anxious, and then a little frantic. And we try to cram more and more in; the days leading to Christmas get longer and more exhausting, because we want it perfect, too; we want it too perfect. In the words of one Presbyterian minister, we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child as though an overly-picky mother-in-law (or mother, maybe) was coming for a visit. Deep down inside, we may likely have this fear that when Christmas finally does arrive, we won’t be ready. We’ll be like Babushka in the old Russian folk tale, who is so busy sweeping her floors and cleaning her house and making everything perfect, that the Wise Men and the Baby Jesus pass her by. We’re afraid that because we’re so busy getting ready for Christmas, that the real spirit of the holiday, this holy day, will be lost in the shuffle.

            So, Advent is our reminder to “Wake up!”-- for the King is on His way. Not “Hurry up!” so you can get all that stuff done. But “Wake up!”—and, paradoxically perhaps—“Slow down!”  Pay attention—attune your hearts to why this season is important, anyway.  Open your eyes, wake now your senses, and get ready to experience the real miracle of Christmas.
As the German martyr-priest Alfred Delp reminds us, we need an “Advent of the Heart” to lead us to a true Christmas:

to shake us awake;

to call us to integrity and authenticity;

to remind us of our deepest faith;

 to lead us to respond to the miracle and mystery of Life with reverent awe and wonder.

            We need Advent to remind us that still, in spite of everything, the light shines. Love abides. And the hope that Christmas brings still remains.

            I don’t have to tell you that we live in difficult times. Many of our young men and women won’t be home for Christmas again this year, but will spend them in service of our country, far from their homes and families. There are rumors that the economy is picking up; other rumors that it’s not; in the meantime, we seem to hover at the edge of a cliff while politicians bicker.

            The years of our lives, especially in troubled times, do seem to have taken something from us, and have sapped our energies. Our spirits can feel trampled at times. The recent election may have provided some of us with a small surge of hope (or at least relief), but there seems an awful lot of anxiety in these times in which we live.

            But we gather here this morning, and in this season, as a people of faith (a peculiar faith perhaps): A faith that the spirit of the divine lives within the heart of every person, waiting, some time, to be born; waiting for its spring, to flower, to be called forth to life. With Camus, we affirm that “Even in the midst of winter, I learned that there was within me an invincible summer.”

            There is, even in the lower depths of life, a divine hope, made flesh and blood for some of us in the life of Jesus, our great brother, teacher, and friend,  whose birth once again calls forth to us.  As it has been called forth in the words and deeds of prophetic men and women throughout history—in the thoughts and actions of countless people, famous and unknown, who have—for a brief moment of heroism perhaps, or through a whole lifetime of service—lived that way which, if lived by all of us, would truly save the world.

            Perhaps where we stand now, on the threshold of December, the threshold of winter, the days can seem all darkness. But Advent reminds us—the calendar reminds us—that in a little more than two weeks, the days will start growing longer again, and we will begin our slow and steady journey back toward the light.

            It is no coincidence, it seems to me, that our Advent journey—our journey toward Bethlehem, where some of us hope to find our Light of the World takes place now, in these deepest days of almost primordial darkness.

            Christmas is the promise that our emptiness will be filled; our hungers fed; and that the deep darkness will be flooded by divine cascade of an illimitable light. It is a promise that the sad, the weary, and the hopeless will be comforted—and that means all of us. That those who wander in a strange land, or in the land of alienation, will find a place to rest. That those who yearn for truth and meaning will find a star to guide them.

            Then it is that our Advent road will lead straight to Bethlehem. The stable at Bethlehem is not primarily a place in the physical geography of the world. It is, rather, a place in the spiritual geography of our hearts. Christmas will come--  truly come—if we prepare a place in our hearts for it.

We can not make it come. We can not force it (like the child who tries to make the flower grow faster by tugging at it). Advent is not about getting stuff ready for Christmas (or getting us stuffed already for Christmas). It’s about getting our hearts ready for the Christmas within, which is often more about clearing out, than adding to. As Meister Eckhart reminds us, “The soul grows not by addition, but by subtraction.” Or as the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka reminded us, “Sometimes, in order to see the stars, one must descend to the bottom of a well.” Oftentimes, it’s away from the tinsel and decorations and the recorded music—even away from church!-- that the true miracle of Christmas can find a place in our hearts.
            If we’re ready for it. If we plant its seeds. If we live Advent’s spirit of hopeful expectation.

            The deep and hopeful waiting which an Advent of the heart requires is not all quietness and passivity. Real waiting, in its most profound and deepest sense, is an active process. It’s about engagement with life; engagement in the living of our lives.

            The real waiting of the heart’s Advent is not about expecting spiritual blossoms if we don’t take the time to tend the seeds which God has planted.

            Advent reminds us that we need to first of all tend the seeds of God’s love planted deep within our spirits. Advent reminds us that are spiritual searchers, and not merely way-worn wanderers. Advent calls us back home. Back to the stable. Back to our true birth. Back to our simplest humanity. Forward to that man or woman whom God intends us to be.  

A poet named Angelus Silesius once wrote:

Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born,
Unless he’s born in thee,
Thou hope is still forlorn…
For Christ though a thousand times in Bethlehem be born,
Unless he’s born in thee,
His kingdom thou shalt never see…

            “This is our task,” wrote the great Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes of Community Church in New York City, about seventy-five years ago. “This is our task. To seize and hold and perpetuate the Christmastide. To live a life, and not merely a single season, which is delivered of prejudice and pride, hostility and hate, and committed to understanding, compassion, and good will. Then there will be no more Christian and pagan, Jew and gentile, black and white, native and alien, or any other division, but only one human family, one as God is one, [and all of us] heirs to God’s kingdom.”

            As Zorba the Greek put it in the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis “Life is what you do when you’re waiting to die.”

            Which, of course, sounds like such a downer for this cheerful, joyful, happy time of year.

            And I admit that thinking upon our own end times is not the most cheerful thing to dwell upon. But it is our ultimate wake up call, and a reminder to the wondrous things to which these lives of ours are called. “More, and on a deeper level than before, we really know this time that all life is Advent,” Father Alfred Delp wrote shortly before his death.

            “Life is full of suffering,” wrote Thich Nhat Hahn, good Buddhist that he is. “But it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us, and all around us, everywhere, any time.”

 Each day is the Advent of its own tomorrow. At Christmastime, perhaps, we grasp that truth in higher definition.

            So, for now, we wait. Not passively, not despondently, but in joyful hope, full of the joy that only this blessed season of magic and wonder can bring, if we let it. Not lost in frenetic activity, but with arms outstretched to life, all of our senses open wide, wide awake to the call of life.

            Wide awake, and poised on the moment—the day—the season—that is before us now: ready to hear its glorious music; see its vivid colors; taste its richness and its sweetness. Ready to wait, and live, and hope, and take our time, and seize the time, and make this time our own.

The Hope of Hanukkah (Sunday, December 9, 2012)

          At this winter time of year, when the days seem almost perpetual darkness, it is easy to bemoan the fading of the light. There is, for many of us, that certain winter weariness that starts to set in. As I have said before, I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that most of the great religions of the world have some sort of festival of lights at this time of year. We need to remember the light, and celebrate the light, when winter comes. One of the most important of these celebrations, of course, is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

            For eight consecutive nights, starting last evening, our Jewish neighbors and friends will light candles in their homes, as will members of the Jewish faith around the world. These candles will symbolize the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 137 BCE, when just a tiny bit of sacred oil burned, miraculously, for eight straight nights. “Hanukkah” is the Hebrew word for “dedication”. It is a time for joy and celebration, for merriment and gift-giving, and fun and games. It is also a time when the Jewish people are asked to remember what a dedicated few can do against a mighty empire.

            So that’s why I think that it is fitting and proper, whether we are of Jewish heritage or not, to take a little time during the rush of the Christmas season to mark the festival of Hanukkah as well. For the story of the Maccabees represents a precious legacy to all of us.

            Hanukkah is about the victory of freedom—religious freedom, in particular. It doesn’t celebrate the Maccabbes’ military skills or the might of their weapons or the tactical prowess. Rather, Hanukkah celebrates the depth of their commitment to a sacred cause, a spirit which inspired a few dedicated souls to persevere, and eventually to triumph, in the face of overwhelming odds and great difficulties. Indeed, it is a story written not just in ancient scriptures, but deep upon the human heart.

            Just as it is easy in December to bemoan the fading of the light, so it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming mired in the long, sad litany of folly and failure that litters our human sojourn on this earth. There are certainly enough stories of war and mayhem and senseless violence in history to go around.

This is, for even the most casual student of history (for even the most casual observer of life, for that matter) a hard story to ignore. But it’s too easy to come to believe that it’s the whole story, because it’s not. Perhaps this is another reason we have Hanukkah and Christmas and other days that celebrate the human spirit: to remind ourselves that the story of human stupidity and callousness and depravity is only about half the story of our human race, perhaps—maybe a little more, maybe a little less.

For, yes—only a fool can deny the face of evil in human experience. But we have seen the face of the divine there, as well. In our own lives—in our history—in our common human story—we have also seen the many blessed faces of hope. They have met us along the pathways of our existence in a fascinating and inspiring variety of shapes and sizes and ages and races. History can depress us, but hope can take our breath away, as we watch it dancing, and hear it singing, from so many unexpected corners.

Yes, though humankind walks through the darkest valley, hope abides.

In the bleakest years of experience and the grayest years of history, hope abides.

Amidst our deepest fears and our greatest disappointments, hope abides.

Hope is also always borne by men and women (and even children) who look just  like us. Who wear the face of humanity as we do—no more, but no less. Who are no less than fully human, in all that magnificent potential; no less than fully alive, completely open to the Spirit’s power moving within us, transcending the limitations of human history; transforming the often-drear and turgid prose of human experience into the vibrant, singing poetry of hope.

In spite of persecution and prejudice and pogrom and even unspeakable Holocaust, the eternal light of the faith kindled by the Maccabees still shines.

In spite of greed and selfishness and exploitation and tyranny, the eternal light of hope still illumines the path of human history.

In spite of darkness and depression and despair, the eternal light of love still burns in our hearts, and lights our days and fires our nights, and reminds us that we are created in the image of the divine.

As Vaclav Havel reminded us, in words that have become a sort of mantra for me, hope is not the same thing as optimism. Hope is not the assurance that things will be easy or will turn out well. Hope is, rather, the blessed assurance that what we are doing makes sense and has purpose, and that it is the right thing to do, whatever the immediate consequences.

The words of the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, too, echo with hope: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Parker wrote, “but it bends inexorably toward justice.”

Arrogant and self-satisfied little men might strut about the stage of history for a little while, acting like a sort of schoolyard bully. But history does not belong to them, and sooner or later, they always face a day of reckoning.

Hope is a dimension of the spirit; it is a gift from God. But it is a divine gift which bears a human face. It is a divine gift passed down by fragile human hands. Hope is a gift from God. But it only comes alive if we light the lamp, and live out hope within our lives.

Seek out and find your own angels of hope, my friends. Listen to the stories of your own days, your own stories, and ponder the deeper questions in your hearts. Discern for yourselves who it has been—which people, which men and women, have spoken words which lit up the darkness, have lived lives which reflected that deep hope?

Then remember this: The spirit that was within them also lives within you. It is within you right now, waiting in this season of Hanukkah, this season of Advent, to come alive, to bear fruit, to grow, as the perennial seed lies waiting in the ground of winter for its season of new life to come again.

There are angels of our common human history who call to us, as well. Some walk still among us now; others are long gone, except in memory. All still live in special places in our hearts; they still burn in the candles of the menorahs of our souls.

We can remember Mahatma Gandhi, his creativity, his persistence, his discipline. We can remember his commitment to human liberation, not just of the physical person, but of the mind and soul as well.

We can remember Rosa Parks who got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and took her seat on that bus in Montgomery on the first day of December in 1958, and launched a new American revolution.

We can remember Nelson Mandela, whose quiet grace and dignity led a nation away from an almost certain abyss of violence and bloodletting, and onto a road toward promise and possibility and peace.

 We can remember Lech Walesa, a simple electrician in a shipyard on the Baltic coast of Poland, who through conscience and courage and religious faith and good old Polish stubbornness alone, decided that working men and women in his country, no less than anywhere else, deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. And so, Solidarity was formed, and the face of Europe (and the world) was changed.

When we take the easy way out and despair of the sad state of our world, let us take time to remember this great cloud of witnesses that travels with us on this human journey. Remember these cherubim of the human spirit, these seraphim of hope: men and women, sometimes of extraordinary powers, but oftentimes not; all somehow inspired, either by a spark from heaven, or some spark deep within their souls, to put aside the easy, well-worn path of lukewarm living, and find within themselves a little more love, a little more courage, a little more responsibility, and little more hope.

Back in the year 137 BCE, the Maccabees could have said: “Oh, the Seleucids are too strong. We’re doomed. Our people will never be free. Let’s just worship their pagan idols.” Or, later, they just could have lamented: “Oh, there’s not enough oil. We can’t rekindle the lamp. The Holy Light will never burn again.”

But they didn’t. They fought on. They lit the lamp with the little bit of oil they had. And so, the lights of Hanukkah still shine.

Gandhi could simply have said: “The British are too strong; they’ll never leave India. But I’m well educated; I’m bright; I’m ambitious. To heck with these Untouchables; I’ll just set up a law practice for myself and make enough money to get by comfortably.”

But he didn’t say that, and so the lights of Hanukkah still shine.

Rosa Parks could have just gotten up from her seat when that bus driver in Montgomery told her to. It would have been easier for her just to get up, and walk to the back of the bus.

But she didn’t. She sat in that seat—a defiant and courageous angel of the human spirit. And so, the lights of Hanukkah still shine.

Mandela could have given into those who told him to preach violence and race war and revenge. It would have been easy to do so; it could even have been justified. But he didn’t. He chose the more excellent way of non-violence and reconciliation. So, light another candle on history’s great menorah.

Walesa could have lost himself in personal concerns. “Why should I worry about anyone other than myself?” he could have asked. “I’ll join the Communist Party instead; I’m become a careerist, an apparatchik and boss other people around.”

But he didn’t. So boldly light another candle, and let the hope of Hanukkah still shine.

There are other lights, too—small and flickering now, perhaps; but waiting to be fanned into full flame by the winds of hope.

Light a candle for Myanmar, for Burma, where the seeds of democracy planted by brave souls like Aung San Suu Kyi might truly be bursting through the hard ground of tyranny.

Light a candle for Syria, where brave men and women once again have proven (nearly 40,000 of them with their lives) that the way of hope is seldom easy, but that no amount of military force or totalitarian tyranny can quench a people’s longing for freedom.

In Burma—and Syria—and in so many other places around our world—the true lights of Hanukkah still shine.

Emma Lazarus once wrote:

Kindle the taper like a steadfast star,
Ablaze on evening’s forehead o’er the earth,
And add each night a luster till afar
An eightfold splendor shines above thy hearth.
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn:
Chant psalms of victory till the heart take fire,
And the Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

May the spirit of Hanukkah be born anew within us, every year. May that spirit of justice and freedom—and of hope—move within our hearts and hands, and resonate in our time, and illuminate the world.

Shalom. Amen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How Much Is Enough? (Sunday, November 11, 2012)


People were always asking Jesus to solve their problems for them. Bad enough he had to turn water into wine, and restore sight to the blind, and heal the sick, and all that. One guy even  asked him, out of nowhere, to interfere in an inheritance battle within a family.

“Teacher,” the man in the crowd cries out to him, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  But this is one fight Jesus is not going to get involved in.  “Friend,” he replies, “who set me to be judge or arbiter over you?” According to the rules of the day, the answer to this question was clear:  the oldest son was to receive double what any of the other sons would receive. That was the way things were done in ancient Judea at the time, and Jesus saw no reason to fiddle with it.

But Jesus was here to talk about the Kingdom of God, not mere dollars and shekels, so that’s where he goes with this conversation. The issue, Jesus says again and again and again, is the life you lead, not the things you have. And, as always, Jesus tells them a story.

There’s this rich man, he says; his land, we are told, “produced abundantly.” The rich man wonders to himself: “What am I going to do with all this wealth that I have produced?” “I’ve built all this. What am I going to do with it?” Ultimately, he decides to pull down his barns, and build larger ones, and store the crops away. Then, he’ll be all set for many, many years—“And I will [then] say to my soul, ‘Relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

But God (as is often the case) has other plans. “You fool!” he tells the rich man. “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. This is your last day on earth. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? What’s going to happen to all your stuff that you’ve so carefully hoarded, and stored away, and made plans for?”

Then, Jesus delivers the clincher: “So it is,“ he says, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” They collect and collect and collect. And hoard and hoard and hoard. But there is never enough, and what good do their possessions do them when they’re gone? Absolutely nothing. We may not be sure where we’re going when we leave this earthly realm, but one thing we know for sure is that they don’t take the American Express Platinum card there! (Or I’ll be very surprised if they do.) All our wealth will do us no good when we’re gone.

“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  The problem isn’t the man’s wealth.  Jesus doesn’t condemn the rich farmer for being successful—or for working hard and industriously—or for having land and enabling it to produce—or for renting it to people to work as tenant farmers—or for being successful at what he was doing—or for charging a fair price for his goods—or for providing for his family-- or even for putting some of his wealth aside, and planning for the future. No, Jesus seemed to have no problem with any of these things; within the worldview of Jewish religion and society at the time, he probably would have found them quite commendable.

But, here, Jesus doesn’t say to the wealthy man, “Well done, good and faithful job creator,” does he? He doesn’t commend the farmer here; rather, he calls the man a “fool”.  

A fool? But not for being successful. Not for possessing wealth or material goods, or even for using them to live a comfortable life. No, Jesus says, the man is a “fool” because he is hoarding his wealth; because he is keeping it stored away in barns, , and ignoring his responsibility for those beyond himself . He is being condemned for “storing up treasures” for himself, but “not being rich toward God”, in the words of Jesus.  

Sun and rain and soil have combined to make this man rich, along with an abundance of the grace of God, and a little luck, too, we can imagine. He has been gifted by life; he has been rewarded, and that’s fine; that’s no sin.

But what fruit does all his wealth bear? Selfishness. That’s it. Greed.  He wants more. He is going to store all that grain away in those great big barns. What does he plan to do with it? Not eat it all himself, certainly. He’s going to sell it, of course—at some point in the future; probably during a time of scarcity or famine, when the price is really high. Rather than share what he has, and help others out of their distress, he’s going to profit from their pain instead. There’s where the sin arise; there’s where his alienation from God springs. There’s where he starts his movement away from God and toward utter foolishness.

Excessive greed—and covetousness and envy—and self-centeredness-- lead us to forget about our connections—our interdependence with all life— our dependence on the greater Spirit of Life in which we live and move and have our being. When we hoard, and crave more and more and more for ourselves alone, then we forget about our responsibility to other members of our community, and our brothers and sisters with whom we share this world. We forget about God, the great Source of Life, without whom he would not even exist. We live completely for ourselves, and no amount of wealth, then, will ever be enough. We will never be full. We will never be satisfied.

The more self-occupied we are, the less self-satisfied we will be. I’m not talking about a healthy ego here; I’m not talking about a healthy sense of self-esteem. Those things are fundamental to living a healthy life in our world today. I’m talking about our need to have a sense that the circles of any of our individual lives are only made complete in union with the circles of the lives of others.

But listen to this guy in this parable: He talks just to himself; he even congratulates himself on a job well done. “I’ve built all this,” he exults. “How great I art! I’ve really done it again!” Of the 50 words we hear from this guy (in their English translation, at least), a full dozen of them are “I”, “my”, or “mine”: “my crops,”, “my barns”, “my grain”, “my goods”. His greed has led him down the road to isolation, and in isolation there is no life, just him and his greed “Blessed is he who is joined to all the living,” the book of Proverbs tells us. We can assume that the inverse is true as well, and cursed is he (or she) who is cut off from all others, who is isolated from them, who lives for himself (or herself) alone.

There are currently approximately 358 billionaires in the world. Only 358. None of us, I suppose. Each billion dollars of their wealth represents the lifetime production of 20,000 working men and women who labored to produce it.

We do not live for ourselves alone. We do not build our wealth by ourselves. We will never have enough unless we remember that truth; remember those to who we owe a debt; and share what we have with those around us.

Now, after Jesus is done talking about the foolish rich man, he goes on and hints at what a satisfied life might be.

“Consider the lilies, how they grow,” Jesus says just a few verses down in the gospel of Luke, “they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink… Instead, strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We are, each one of us, a simple flower—just a lily of the field. Maybe a day lily, or an Easter lily, or a glorious Cala lily. There’s lots of diversity among lilies, but some scholars think that the lilies Jesus would have been referring to, with which his listeners would have been familiar (and yes, there are scholars who figure such things out) would have been what we call Loden lilies today: a common flower that grew among the grass and weeds in the area where Jesus preached. A simple flower, quite plain; but pretty hardy, too, able to adjust to adverse circumstances, and which grew abundantly wherever it took root.  

Sturdy, but simple, and not especially stunning. Nothing like King Solomon in all his glory, certainly. Not like Solomon, one of the wealthiest rulers of all time; who built the Great Temple of Jerusalem; who had shields and thrones built of gold; who built his palace with golden steps and doorways. He sat surrounded by 12 great lion statues, all solid gold. King Solomon was considered wealthier than all the other kings of his day combined.

But that’s not real abundance, Jesus says. Solomon had a lot in life, but he was never satisfied with his lot in life. He was always off looking for new riches and new conquests. And ultimately, in the course of life, even Solomons come and Solomons go. But the flowers of the field continue to burgeon forth, year after year, season after season. If you want to see what real abundance is, Jesus says, then look at the lilies of the field. The simple lilies who know they are dependent on the Source of Life for their entire lives.  

If you want abundance, Jesus says, if you want to have enough, then live the kingdom of God—practice the reign of love within your hearts. That love is infinite, and that reign lasts forever. Even in good times, even in rich countries, there might be just so much money to go around; just so many fatted calves that you can slaughter; just so much grain you can hoard in the barns you’ve built.  We become “rich toward God” when we stop circling the wagons around ourselves, and caring only for ourselves, and reach out and embrace and share all we have with all creation. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where there is great love, the hungry heart is filled.  

I think Jesus would have agreed with Brad Pitt, or, actually, with Tyler Durden, the character Pitt portrayed, in the movie Fight Club [Though I don’t think he would have liked the movie very much, but maybe I’m wrong. Who am I to speak for Jesus?] At one point, Durden exasperatedly shouts at his friend, played by Edward Norton: “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not [the clothes you wear.]” {He actually uses a more colorful and explicit figure of speech than “the clothes you wear”, but it’s a figure of speech that even I can’t repeat it here.}

Or as President George Herbert Walker Bush (the elder President Bush; “Daddy Bush” as my mother calls him) said in his inaugural address:

“We are not the sum of our possessions. We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend; a loving parent; a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and his town better than he found it.”

That, very simply, is how we transform our reality, and transcend our limitations, and live out the way of the divine in this, our little kingdom of days. This is how we come to some sense of “enough” in these little, limited lives we lead. It is how we experience that profound, sustaining abundance which beats at the heart of this precious life. It is the way we bring about—right now-- if only in the holy moment we have before us, the blessed reign of the Love of God.

Monday, November 19, 2012

"We Are All Pilgrims" (Thanksgiving Sunday, November 19, 2012)


            As we heard, it was quite an arduous journey that our Pilgrim ancestors withstood, to make it here to our own particular corner of North America. Sixty-five days on the high seas, over high waves and strong storms; crammed into the ‘tween deck of a rickety wooden ship; 102 of them (104 if you count the dogs), crammed into a space no more than 75 or 80 feet long and 25 feet across (and only 5 or 6 feet high). Sixty-five days. You can bet no one said “Time flies when you’re having fun.” No-- no doubt, they felt every hour of all of those sixty-five days. But, as William Bradford said, “They knew they were pilgrims,” and, as such, they felt the deep, inner impact of the journey in which they were engaged.

            We are each on our own journey, of course; our own journey through life. A journey with at least its own share of challenges and discomfort—though, usually, thankfully, nothing like that which the Pilgrims withstood.  So sometimes (maybe even often) we do say, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Or we just say, “Time flies.” Because it does. The twinkling of an eye, and twenty years, give or take, have passed. Our journey meets one milestone, and heads toward another. Common journeys shared as one come to a fork in the road, and go their separate ways.

            It hasn’t been all fun, this journey we have shared for over 19 years now; this journey that will, slowly, surely, draw to a close over the next three seasons. Even the best vacations, the most pleasurable trips are seldom all fun. Important life journeys—like jobs, and relationships, and marriages, and raising children—never are all fun. There are always going to be challenges and frustration mixed in amidst the joy; that’s what makes them real.

            As I contemplate the conclusion of my journey as your minister here in Stoughton, my thoughts first turn to all those dear souls, dear friends, who have passed from our presence over the past nineteen years. And I am humbled by the privilege of having known such wonderful people. And humbled, as always, by the sheer privilege of having been your minister.

No, it hasn’t been all fun. Life isn’t. But I remain convinced, increasingly as the years have passed, that we have cultivated a higher fun-to-frustration ratio in our time together than anyone else in similar circumstances could have done. We have been as well matched, you and I, in temperament and disposition as minister and congregation could be. The Search Committee did a good job back in 1993. You have done a good job! Maybe even I have done a good job!

I could not have asked for better fellow-pilgrims with whom to share this part of my life’s journey.

You have been so kind to me, and to my family, over these past nineteen years. You have shown me the graciousness and hospitality that is at the heart of this dear church. Perhaps that is what we have to offer a world which needs it so very badly: a radical hospitality—a generosity of spirit—a deep sense of acceptance--  which will continue, long after I’m gone, to welcome all people, whoever they are, wherever they have been, wherever they are along the journeys of their lives, not as strangers, but as dear fellow pilgrims.

At this season of Thanksgiving, I will continue to shake my head in wonder and delight at whatever force it was (and I believe it was the grace of God) which brought me here to minister among you, and walk this road, and sail this sea, side by side with you, my fellow pilgrims.  

Thanks be to God for that.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Religion and the Presidents (Sunday, November 4, 2012)

We make a big ballyhoo about the “separation of church and state” these days, and for good reason. But back in the early days of this Commonwealth—back when we were still a colony, actually—there was no such thing. Rather, there was, believe it or not, a state church (which Massachusetts would have until 1833, the last state in the country to do so). The “First Parish” in each community was the “established” church in town—and its minister, as you might imagine, a real “Big Wig” (often literally, in the real old days). Back in the Colonial period, he was (and it would have been a “he”), the “guardian of public morals”, and even Superintendent of Schools. Neither of those are jobs I would especially want to have now.

Church attendance was pretty much mandatory back then (now that’s not such a bad idea; only kidding!) and the official Town Minister was often asked to preach (at length—what other kind of preaching is there?) at various community events like important anniversaries, and days of thanksgiving and fasting—and, on Election Day. The “Election Day Sermon” was a common aspect of community life in mid-18th century New England, and Election Day itself was observed as a sort of public festival. It started with the firing of a canon and the mustering of the local militia; then, there would be a procession of town officials, from the Town Hall to the local First Parish Church; then, there would be a church service and a sermon—a long Election Day Sermon, in which the local minister would pontificate upon the importance and meaning of civic virtue and choosing the right men (it would have always been men, back then) and while he would not have told people for whom to vote, he might have hinted, fiercely, in one direction or the other—and everyone in town would have to listen!

Well, the “Election Day Sermon” (or, in this case, the “Two Days Before Election Day Sermon”) here in Stoughton has evolved into our little gathering here this morning, and a sermon only a fraction in length of what it would have been back in 1750! So who can say there hasn’t been progress?

Still, somehow, as much as things have certainly changed over the years, in election after election there still seems to be an awful lot of influence placed on the question of the relationship of the candidates’ religious beliefs and their suitability for office. Last time around, there were questions about Barack Obama’s relationship to his Black Nationalist pastor in Chicago, and lingering doubts about whether or not he was “really” a Muslim in disguise. This time around, the questions revolve around Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith (along with those lingering imbeciles, who still think that President Obama is “really” a Muslim in disguise). We also have two Vice-Presidential candidates who both are called, sincerely, “devout Catholics”—even though they disagree on abortion, gay marriage, the social safety net for the poor, and just about everything else. As most “devout Catholics” do.

We’ve never had a President who was a Mormon, or a Muslim. Still, more than fifty years after John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, we’ve only had one Roman Catholic President (and, interestingly, since then there has been only one other major party candidate who was a Catholic—John Kerry in 2004; Michael Dukakis was close; he is Greek Orthodox).

I hope we have a Mormon President. Some day. It doesn’t have to be anytime soon.

And I hope we have a Muslim President some day, too. (Wouldn’t that be interesting?)

And a Jewish President. (With a Muslim Vice President perhaps. Or maybe vice verse. They’d have to work that out!)

I wouldn’t even mind a Jehovah’s Witness becoming President. Though the fact that they don’t vote or hold public office would make that difficult.

I wouldn’t mind any of these things, because, you see, I (like the Almighty) have this personal prejudice in favor of diversity. The wider the array of differences among people, the more glorious the world is, and the wider the variety different perspectives we have representing this great land of ours, the better off we will be in the long run. That’s my philosophy.  

It would even be nice to have a Unitarian Universalist President, someday. We’ve never had one of those either (mainly because there have, technically, only been Unitarian Universalists since the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961). Just give us time. Maybe one of the kids in our church school? Wouldn’t that be grand!

In the years before that, there never was a Universalist President of the United States. There has been, as far as I know, only one nominee of a major party who was Universalist. That was Horace Greeley, the Democratic nominee against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Greeley, a well-known journalist, who had coined the phrase “Go west, young man!”, was overwhelmingly defeated by Grant. He then had the bad manners to die even before the Electoral College met (the only candidate ever to do so), so that his electors (paltry as they were) were split among four other individuals.

The last Unitarian nominee for President was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Some people even attacked Stevenson for his Unitarian faith. They said that because he wasn’t a “real Christian”, Stevenson was unfit to be President. When asked by a reporter if a non-Christian could be President, Stevenson replied, a little tongue-in-cheek, “The problem with democracy, you see, is that anyone can become President.”

Two of the first six U.S. Presidents stand firmly in the Unitarian tradition—John Adams, our second President, and his son, John Quincy Adams, our sixth. But even though they are in our tradition, their brand of liberal religion was very different from that which we practice today.

The elder Adams, especially, was a committed Christian, in the sense that he was a firm believer in the life and teachings of Jesus. But he was also an ardent free thinker, who sided time and again with the Liberals against the Calvinists in the battle that was then splitting New England congregationalism (and which would lead to the formation of the American Unitarian Association some years later, in 1825).

“My religion is founded upon the love of God and my neighbor, on the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition; upon the duty as well as necessity of struggling with patience against the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can,” Adams wrote.

Adams attended and supported his home church in Quincy faithfully (indeed, both he and his son, as well as their wives, are buried in the crypt of the First Parish Unitarian in the center of Quincy, the “Church of the Presidents” as it is called). But Adams had little patience with the trappings and pretense of most organized religion. He once told a friend that he saw in most members of the clergy the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces.” In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, he wrote: “Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.’” As President, in signing the Treaty of Tripoli with the Muslim Barbary state in 1797, he declared in no uncertain terms: “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion.” The Religious Right would have John Adams tarred and feathered for such statements today!

The next “official” Unitarian to hold the Presidency was none other than the illustrious Millard Fillmore. Fillmore was an active member of the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo, New York, where his memory is, apparently, still held in high esteem. (You do not make fun of Millard Fillmore in Buffalo!) Fillmore enamored himself to many fellow Unitarians early in his career when, as a young lawyer, he argued in favor of overturning a New York state law which required all witnesses in court to swear an oath saying they believed both in God and in the existence of a hereafter. But Fillmore also angered many fellow Unitarians later on when, as President in 1850, he signed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act which required runaway slaves in the North to be returned to their Southern masters.

Likewise, the next Unitarian President, William Howard Taft, faced controversy within our own denomination. In 1917, Taft, a former President by then, was serving as Chief Justice of the United States, and was also the Moderator of the American Unitarian Association at its annual meeting in Boston. At that gathering, Taft locked horns with John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Community Church in New York City, and an ardent pacifist, over American entry into the First World War. Largely through Taft’s insistence, a resolution by Holmes opposing the war was defeated by the delegates present. So, it’s not just Catholic Vice-Presidential candidates who disagree about various social issues.

So, officially, there have been four Unitarian U.S. Presidents. Of course, sometimes we claim those who were “like us”, even though they were never officially “one of us”. The most notable of these, perhaps, was Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson was, officially at least, Anglican (Episcopal). But he seldom attended Anglican services, and like his sometimes friend/ sometimes rival John Adams, Jefferson had a deep appreciation for the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth—if not for his divinity. Jefferson called the teachings of Jesus “the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught.” But he rejected the Virgin Birth, all the miracles credited to Jesus, as well as the entire supernatural structure which the years had appended onto what he called “pure Christianity”.

To counter all this, Jefferson wrote a short book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (sometimes known as The Jefferson Bible), which presented Christ as a kind and gentle moral sage, freed from all dogma and superstition. An historian describes the process Jefferson used in producing his “Bible”:

“…Jefferson did most of his work [on the Jefferson Bible] while sitting in the old White House. Late into the night, he sat pouring over the gospels with a razor and a glue pot, physically splicing out miracles and pasting together a non-supernatural account of Christ.”

Indeed, as the same observer has written:

“If today, a President sat up late at night cutting passages out of the Bible, the Right would go ballistic, claiming sacrilege, while the Left would be disgusted that a President would take religion so seriously as to be tormented by a thirst to find a version of faith he could believe.”

There is little doubt, though, that Jefferson was an ardent Deist, who looked for evidence of God’s handiwork not in the pages of scripture, but in the works of nature. The references to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson authored were not mere turns of his literary pen. They were, rather, clear statements of what Jefferson and most of our other founders believed.

While he never became a Unitarian officially (indeed, there was no official Unitarian organization until two years after Jefferson’s death), Jefferson did hold Unitarian beliefs and practices in high affection. In a very interesting letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822, Jefferson wrote:

“I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priest, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.

Well, about the prospects for Unitarianism in the New World, Jefferson was a bit overly optimistic. But about his hopes for our new nation, and his faith in its liberty and freedom, he was not.

We should rejoice, it seems to me, that our Presidents have approached matters of faith from such a diversity of directions. For it is in this diversity of belief that our strength as a nation truly lies. “Religion is a matter which lies solely between [a] man and his God,” Jefferson wrote, “He owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.”

As it is for each of us, so it should be for our President. His faith is his own, and may it guide him ever toward justice and wisdom. May we judge our government’s policies not on the basis of creed, but on the basis of their fairness and efficacy and whether they serve the cause of human need and help to usher in a better and more peaceful world.

It is the separation of Church and State which keeps our state free and our churches strong.

And it is the workings of the mystery of faith within each one of us, as private individuals and as public servants, which make us complete and whole.

As President, Harry S. Truman (who was a Southern Baptist, by the way) would regularly recite the following prayer:

Oh! Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of Heaven, Earth and the Universe:
Help me to be, to think, to act what is right, because it is right; make me truthful, honest and honorable in all things; make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor and without thought of reward to me. Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving and patient with my fellowmen - help me to understand their motives and their shortcomings -- even as Thou understandest mine! Amen, Amen, Amen

There are certainly worse prayers that a President could pray. There are certainly worse prayers that any of us could pray, as we make our decision this coming Tuesday.