Sunday, January 04, 2009

Whom Some Call God: a sermon

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Jan. 4, 2009

"Whom some call God"…..I'm not sure where I first heard this phrase, but it has stuck with me and I use it with some frequency.

It's the wording I use when I'm beginning a public prayer with Unitarian Universalists, generally. I wouldn't use it in an ecumenical or all-Christian gathering, probably, as the assumption there is that everyone is on the same page with God and folks would spend the rest of my prayer-time trying to figure out what I meant. It's more appropriate in an interfaith setting where some are pagan, some Buddhist, some Muslim, where not all use the word God.

In an ecumenical setting, I'd probably say something like "Spirit of Life and Love, God in our midst", which would be a bow to my understanding of God without jarring that of traditional theists in the room.

When Amy and Matt Cyprian chose a topic for the traditional "auction" sermon they purchased last February, we had a long conversation one day about all the ideas they had about the sermon.

During that conversation, I made a list of the possible directions this sermon might go. Here are just a few of those ideas: Who or what is God? How do we deal with religion that seems promoted by what we might call false prophets? How do we form an understanding of God or a relationship with God when we have not had a traditional religious upbringing? When the public face of religion seems evil in some ways, how do we reconcile wanting to be part of a religious community?

What are humanism and deism and how are they part of our religious faith today? And what the heck has happened to the revolution that the Baby Boomers started in the 60's?

You can see that there were a lot of possible topics raised that day. We knew that it would be impossible to address them all, but as I thought about it and considered what the underlying issue might be, the issue that touches the lives of many of us here today, I saw a theme emerge and as current events and issues interacted with that theme in my mind, I decided to address an issue that often concerns me deeply and causes me middle-of-the-night wakefulness. It may do the same to you.

This theme is implied in several of the topics raised by my conversation with Amy and Matt: God (and I use that word in its broadest sense to include all the various ways of viewing the concept of God) and religion have gotten a bad name; can we help to redeem those ideas and clarify them and free them from the evil connotations that they have absorbed? In other words, can we save God and religion from going to Hell in a handbasket? And we UUs don't even believe in Hell!

This fall, our youth did a survey here at UUCWI, asking for our ideas about God. Most of the responses fell in a few major areas. Folks could check more than one idea of God, so the totals do not reflect anything but general priorities.

Here are the major areas:
32 responses indicated that many folks sense that there is a spark of divinity in each person. 27 indicated that they think we can use Science and Reason to understand our Universe. 25 felt that there are probably as many ideas about God as there are people. 23 find God in Nature. 19 see Creation as ongoing and that humans are co-creators in the Universe. And 16 see God and the Universe as the same, with God being in everything and everyone.

Other less-chosen responses pointed out that there is no way we can know for sure whether there is "a God" or not. Others found God in relationships, in one's conscience, in Spirit form that is everywhere and always creating. Some felt a personal relationship with a God who listened to prayer. Some felt God had created the universe and left it to run itself, the theology called Deism.

Some saw motherly qualities in God; some doubted an all-powerful God because of the great suffering and evil which exists; some acknowledged Jesus as a pathway to God. Some felt that there is no such thing as God and found the word God meaningless. Interestingly, nobody indicated that God might be the source of our moral principles and that without God there would be no morality.

We can see from the responses to the survey that there are countless ways to view the idea of God or Divinity or Higher Power or Sacred Reality, as well as many names. Some of our ways of viewing that Higher Power are simple and trusting; others are complicated and highly intellectual. Some ways are anthropomorphic, that is, human-like, personal, motherly, fatherly. Some are relational, some ethics-based, some creativity-based. And some are angry.

We are no different from most Unitarian Universalist congregations in our diversity of opinion and thought about Who or What God might be. Our youth were interested in what you thought about this theological concept; they are sorting out their own beliefs and, in so doing, they look at what their elders and their peers think about big topics.

Their interest in this idea is certainly reflective of what is going on in the larger world outside these walls, where God is often presented as moralistic, legalistic, punishing and a Big Daddy who must be adored and praised and kowtowed to, in order to avoid punishment.

Yet Unitarian Universalism has always questioned and redefined the traditional theologies of God and human nature. We are in good standing in the world as reliable heretics! Many of us never use the word God, yet we acknowledge the idea of a power beyond human power, knowable through human power yet not completely understandable; expressed through science and the arts, visible in the creative force of the universe. And each of us has our own thoughts and understandings of that power.

Let's spend a few moments in silence, each of us thinking about what, for us as individuals, is the power beyond human power. (chime, 1 min)

I do a lot of thinking about "God"---what that concept means to me personally, how I am in relationship with "God", how I express my relationship with "God", how I nurture that relationship. And yet you will rarely hear me use the word----in fact I have already used it in this sermon more than I will typically use it in a month! I just don't use the word much.

Why is that? Because the word is so loaded that whoever hears me use it may automatically jump in their thinking to some conclusion about what I believe about the power beyond human power. A devout Christian, or even Jew or Muslim may assume that I am talking about that Big Daddy in the sky who judges and punishes human beings for their sins and assume that I agree with them on a lot of other things. A committed atheist may write me off as "a true believer" and discount anything else I say.

You may have had this experience: when people ask me what Unitarian Universalism is, I never know quite how to phrase my answer. I rarely want to hit anyone over the head with an answer like "well, we are a long-standing radical and heretical religion whose members may also be Christian or Jew or pagan or Muslim or agnostic or atheist or Buddhist".

I usually try something easier to swallow, like "well, we've been around for centuries, we developed out of liberal Christianity, and we welcome all who agree with our principles of how we treat each other and the planet." But no matter how I answer, some folks will always look at me blankly and, then, with a flash of hope, say "well, we all believe in the same God, don't we?"

Well, no, we don't. And that's the way it should be. Each of us has our own unique understanding of the power beyond human power, though many of us share some of the same ideas. Our understandings are as diverse as we are, as diverse as the many names of God, as diverse as the many ways we experience our relationship with the sacred.

So how do we explain our understandings to others? or is it even possible? Remember this old poem by John Godfrey Saxe?

The Blind Man and the Elephant
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant~(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation~Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, ~ At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant ~ Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here?
So very round and smooth and sharp? ~ To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant ~ Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, ~ Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant ~ Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like ~ Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant ~ Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most; ~ Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant ~ Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail ~ That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant ~ Is very like a rope!

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion ~ Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right ~ And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Each of the Blind Men of Indostan experienced the elephant in his own unique way, relating what he experienced to something else he had experienced earlier in life, whether that was a wall, a spear, a fan, a rope. And each was right, in what he likened the elephant to, but there was no way to reconcile together a whole portrait of the elephant because each experience was so different.

Let's pause again for a time of silence, taking this opportunity to reflect upon the differences and similarities between our own view of the Divine and that of others. (chime, 1 min.)

In our world today, we see the devastating effects of arguments about the nature of the power beyond human power, whom some call God. The so-called holy wars of the past and present, when infidels were tortured and killed during the Crusades of the Middle Ages, when witches were burned at the stake for being nothing more than talented or outspoken, when God was purported to advocate destruction of entire peoples, when the Bible has become a blueprint for oppression of certain groups, when, instead of the compassion advocated by true prophets, punishment and exclusion have become the backbone of traditional religion.

If this God were a human, he'd be hellbound, by all reasonable standards.

Recently, in liberal circles, there has been a great deal of conversation about how this country needs to move forward, to correct the oppressive policies of the past and to bring a sense of hope and national unity into American lives and onto the world scene once again.

Much of this conversation has been political in nature and I don't want to go there, as I am generally uneasy about politics from the pulpit. I am more interested in the deeper human issues that are reflected in political discourse and the decisions made by politicians.

As President-elect Barack Obama has begun to select his cabinet and plan for his inauguration, his supporters have had mixed feelings about some of his selections. This is pretty normal, for we all have our likes and dislikes and our opinions about who can do the job, what choices ought to be made, that sort of thing. After all, we the voters elected this guy over the other one and we figure we have a right to our opinions! And we do, of course.

It's harder for us to see the bigger picture sometimes. This country has become so polarized around social issues like abortion and marriage equality that the lenses we see our leaders through are tinged with a not-so-rosy coloring. We are afraid to trust them. And with good reason, sometimes.

One choice that has upset a great many people was the decision to have both an invocation and a benediction at the inauguration. The inauguration on Jan. 20 is not a religious ceremony; therefore it seems inappropriate to many that there should be religious elements in the occasion. Tradition has dictated that the President-elect may make that choice and Barack Obama has chosen to include those elements.

To offer the invocation, the opening words of the ceremony, he asked Pastor Rick Warren to participate. To offer the benediction, the closing words of the ceremony, he asked the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery to participate.

Politically, it's pretty clear that the choice of Pastor Warren, who is seen as an opponent of many liberal causes, is a nod to evangelical youth whose idealistic passion for the causes of poverty and environment helped to elect Obama. And the choice of Rev. Lowery, a proponent and supporter of civil rights for all, including same sex marriage, is intended to counterbalance the choice of Pastor Warren and to acknowledge the power of the liberal folks who are passionate supporters of civil rights for all.

This has been a painful moment for many people, particularly passionate supporters, like myself, of equal rights for sexual minorities.. And after I got over the shock of the political choice my hero Mr. Obama had made, I went back in my mind to what I most liked about this man in the first place---that he saw that our country was crumbling under the stresses of its polarization and felt that he could help heal some of those wounds.

Not unlike the United States in the days of slavery, our country had taken sides over new social issues of oppression and was teetering on the brink of a metaphorical civil war fueled by religious differences.

We could not continue the same path as we had in the past, fighting each other over pro-life and pro-choice policies, over hetero and homosexual rights and traditions, just to name two of the most divisive issues.

The message of this past election was that we as a nation need change, that we need to find ways to come together, to talk to each other, to consider where we are in harmony and not let our differences divide us again.

This is something we Unitarian Universalists have been learning to do in our congregations ever since the merger of the humanistic Unitarians with the theistic Universalists almost fifty years ago. We have learned to walk together, even with our differences in theology and in our views of the power beyond human power. We have learned to love each other despite our disagreements on certain issues, for we can see beyond those issues to the Beloved Community we hope to create.

As our country goes forward under the leadership of President Obama and his co-leaders, our experience as a diverse congregation can help us trust the process of bridge-building between liberal and conservative, between those who fear equal rights and those who believe in equal rights, between secular and religious, between orthodox and heretic. As one of our spiritual ancestors, Francis David, wrote in the 16th century, "we need not think alike to love alike".

Let's pause for a moment of silence, as we consider what our part might be in rebuilding our nation, our home, our community. (chime, 1 min)

To return to the question I asked early in these remarks: "can we save God and religion from going to Hell?" As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that there is no such thing as an afterlife in Hell. We tend to believe that we create our own Hell here on earth by our actions. We've seen ourselves and our nation standing on the brink of that Hell for a long time now but we believe it's possible, by our love, to redeem and reconcile those who are in danger.

We believe it will take changes on our part and that it may be a long process. We know, from our own human experience, that we cannot change other people; we can only change ourselves, which means that others must change in order to stay in relationship with us, whether that's as family members, as friends, as coworkers, as leaders.

And change is a long process, one which asks of us our best efforts, our greatest courage, our deepest love.

Let's pause for a time of meditation and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that changes in ourselves encourage changes in others. May we strive to build bridges between ourselves and those who do not understand us, those we do not understand. And may we always recall that our charge as human beings is to love one another as best we can. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


The Eclectic Cleric said...

Nice Service! And thanks for the reference to the poem; we've all heard the story many times, but to have the actual poem is fantastic. May even use it myself as the reading this Sunday!

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Tim! Your kind words mean a lot to me.