“We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community."

Rev. Peter Raible (paraphrased from Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"The Good News" - a sermon preached on April 15, 2012

(Note: this is a rough draft version of what I preached on Sunday, April 15. Enjoy.)

On this Sunday after Easter, that reading from John O’Donohue, “For a New Beginning,” seemed like just the right one…because in the days leading up to Easter, it seems as if hope, love, and possibility are crushed and destroyed.

A great teacher, a reformer, one who welcomed all to the table, has been murdered, crucified. Despair is in the air and all seems lost. But then something happens on Easter; there’s a resurrection of the spirit, if you will.

Everything is different, but not all is lost. Hope is still alive in the world. Love, somehow, survives. 
Death does not have the final word. And that is good news.
And whatever darkness we had been entombed in, after Easter, we sense a New Beginning, a chance to, as John O’Donohue says,
“Awaken our spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk…
As our soul senses the world that awaits us.”

So it feels right to follow Easter with a sermon series called “The Good News” – and to focus on what our good news is as a faith community.

And I have to tell you, every Sunday, I meet many you in the receiving line, often guests, and the conversation goes something like this: “Welcome! How’d you find us? What did you think of the service?”

And the response to that question is almost always positive…(and maybe that’s because it’s hard to tell the preacher, straight up: “You know, preacher, that service was a C, maybe a C+”. Or, “Yeah, you know, that sermon didn’t really working for me!”)

But what I do hear is positive and it seems like there’s something about this faith community, the way we’re doing religion here, that speaks to you. This seems to be a faith that is relevant – that can hold your pain, your questions, that can speak to your life in deep ways. You seem to sense that there is good news here - for you, your family, your life, our world.  

So that’s what we’re digging into in this sermon series: Taking time to call out, to name the Good News of Unitarian Universalism.

And here’s a story that points to just a piece of our good news. A few weeks ago, I was biking home with a church member; we were headed in the same direction, and had about 10 minutes to talk with one another. She’s one of our youth advisors and she shared that the youth always have lots of questions. Good questions.

At some point in time, one of them asked her, “Ok, so you say you’re an atheist? Why come to church, then? Huh? What’s the deal with that? Why would an atheist come to church?”

Now, I know that a number of you identify as “atheists,” and that there are a variety of reasons you come to church…so there’s no one right answer to this question. But here’s what this congregant said, as we rode bikes together:

“As an atheist,” she said, “I come to church because I want help figuring out the right questions to ask about life, meaning, and purpose.” “Simply put,” she said, “church is the place that helps me focus on and ask the right questions.”
I love this. I love this.on’t you love this?!

This is a new way to do religion. Atheists, theists, Buddhists, Christians, Universalists, we all come to church because this is the place that helps us figure out the right questions to ask, that helps us learn to live with love and compassion at the center of our lives…so that despite loss, heartbreak, even death, love is what is left, love is the final reality. It’s a love beyond belief.

What we believe matters, of course, but how we are – how we live - matters even more. It reminds me of this poem from Hafiz, the 14th Century Persian Poet:

I Have Learned So much from God
That I can no longer
Call Myself

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim
A Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of itself
With me

That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel
Or even pure

Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed

Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known.

Beyond the labels, there is only love. And every Sunday, we remind ourselves of this, when we say, “In the Universalist Spirit of Love and Hope, we give, receive, and grow…”

What that means is that held by a grace, and a love that will not let us go…we are free to give our attention, treasure and hearts to needs that are greater than our own…Held by that love, we are invited to receive the blessings and gifts of this world…And held by that love, we are invited to grow into Love’s people…and we become love’s people, as we serve one another and the wider community…as we build houses in North Minneapolis with Habitat for Humanity, as we serve at Simpson Shelter and Project Homeless Connect…
as we stand on the side of love with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender brothers and sisters, in opposition to the discriminatory marriage amendment that will be on the ballot in November.  

Our “Good News” is that we really believe that God is not a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Hindu.
We believe God is love, and we believe in the gospel of inclusion.

And I think you all sense this, know this, and that’s why you’re here…Because we believe that at the end of the day, love has the power to defeat racism and homophobia; love can bind up the broken, and shape us all into new people.

We want to be a part of that story.    

And as I say that, say these things about love, I think to myself: that is a ridiculous, na├»ve, silly, absurd claim…it’s a bunch of horse hooey…and yet…and yet, I’ve felt that love work in my own life; felt that love crack me open; felt that love make me a new person. I have felt its power in my own life. 

So the essence of our good news is that love can transform us and the world. 

I’ve gone pretty deep into the good news and have gotten a bit ahead of myself here. So I want to back up, and take just a few minutes to locate Unitarian Universalism in the broader religious landscape, so we have some context for our “Good News.” So we can understand it in a different and deeper way.

So just a tiny bit of history. Hang on with me here - I’ll going to zip through 2000 years of religious history in 5 minutes. Many of you may know that for the first 300 years of Christianity, there were all sorts of different groups that had different ideas about the Trinity, Jesus, and much more. There was no set party line, no monolithic faith.

Then, by the early 4th century, the Doctrine of the Trinity – Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit - was established. Soon, the notion of original Sin become part of church doctrine. During this time, the Roman Catholic Church came into its full power, and for roughly the next 1000 years, remained in power.
Roman Catholicism was the religion of Western Europe.  But after the invention of the printing press, in the 15th Century, the Bible became available to more and more people. And as they read it and began to interpret it for themselves, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was called into question.
Before long, there were dozens of religious groups splintering away from the Catholic Church, in what was known as the Protestant Reformation. Calvinists, Lutherans, Baptists, Unitarians, and Universalists all essentially emerged out of this reformation.  

Here’s an image that might help explain this; imagine a tree; if the trunk of the tree is Roman Catholicism, then some of the bigger branches are Lutherans, Calvinists, Baptists… and the Unitarian Universalists are a much smaller branch, maybe a twig, pretty far away from the trunk…we’ve left behind popes, religious hierarchy, and dogma.

So that’s where we are in the religious landscape.

And as Unitarian Universalists, we fall under the category of “Liberal Religion.” Much of our good news comes out of being a Liberal Religion. Let me tell you what I mean by that.

James Luther Adams, a well known liberal religious thinker, and a Unitarian Universalist, suggested that there are some key characteristics of Liberal Religion. Here are the 4 key components of liberal religious:

1) Revelation and truth continue to unfold. A religious fundamentalist would argue that there is one final, ultimate truth, revealed in a sacred scripture or person. Religious liberals believe that wisdom and truth are still on folding. For example, the United Church of Christ, a liberal religious community, says that, “God is still speaking.” And we would say that truth and wisdom are all around us, in poetry, in sacred scripture, in our own lives, in the cosmos.  A final, definitive truth has not been captured…as we have new insights and understanding, truth continues to unfold.

2) Relationships between human beings are at their best when mutual love and care is present, and people are not coerced to think or believe a certain way. Freedom of conscience matters. Freely choosing one’s religion matters. This is in contrast to fundamentalist religion where you must believe certain things.
3) We have a moral obligation to help create a just and loving community, to live our faith in the world, to help create the beloved community, heaven, if you will, here on earth. We’re not waiting for paradise in some other world. We must be the hands of love and justice in the world.

4) Religious Liberals live in hope.We trust the abundance of the resources around us, both human and divine resources, we trust the resources are there that can help us change the world…and so we live in hope.

Remember this line from John O’Donohue poem:

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life's desire.

It's not always clear how we'll get there - but we live in hope.

Here’s the recap:
Truth is unfolding. Non-coercive, loving relationships matter in a religious community. We have an obligation to work for a just and loving world, and because we trust that the resources are there to help create such a world, we live with hope.

So that’s the picture of where we sit in the religious landscape and what it means to be religious liberals (and there are lots of other religious liberals in the world.).

Now, back to our good news!
In a world that breaks us down, isolates us, turns us into little consuming units, we offer good news is that there is another way to be in this world. We can know wholeness in our lives…in this religious community…as we welcome one another, listen to one another, serve needs greater than our own, always making room for one more.

Our good news is that we proclaim the supreme worth of every human being. Black, white, brown, homosexual, heterosexual, young, old, atheist, theist, agnostic…we are an inclusive faith.
Our good news is that:
Love is the spirit of this church,
And that we are here to dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.  

And as we live more deeply into that promise, that covenant, our hearts wake up, and break open to the issues of our time…homelessness, housing, racism, immigration reform, human rights. And we are beginning to deeply engage in the community, in partnership with others, willing to learn, take risks, and even fail as we serve needs greater than our own..

We take these risks because the good news is that grace (and love) are operating in our lives and in the world. What do I mean by this?

I think Unitarian Universalist minister Tony Lorenzen says it best,

"A theology of grace is built on the trust in and dependence on something bigger and beyond the individual. Call it God, Life, Love. I trust that a love, an unbounded, uncontainable, constantly available, all-accepting love will hold me up in my life’s adventure.  I trust that there is nothing I can do to earn this love and nothing I can do to cause this love to abandon me.  It gives me room to fail. It doesn’t make failing easy and it certainly doesn’t eliminate my personal struggles with self-esteem or trusting others, but it does allow me to keep going and see the difference between failing and being a failure. It allows to me to be adventurous and take risks. 
It allows me to dream big dreams and make big plans and not accept “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” as a valid reason for not loving others, especially when that love calls me outside me comfort zone.”

Our good news is that when we leave this place, held by love, we are different people – we are love’s people, “spirit of life” people, risk takers for love and justice. 

Our good news is that we “Don’t have to think alike to love alike.”
May it always be so.

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