Sermon In What Do We Trust?
Copyright: Sarah K. Person
Delivered: January 5, 2014 to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough
In this day and age, it may be hard to find where light and love are at work in the world – especially if we don’t accept one-size-fits-all directions. Where do we find the kind of hope we need to make our way and make a difference in the world?
A while ago, someone left us a message in our joys and sorrows book: … It may have been a visitor, it may be one of us here today. It started me thinking about why; why we need to make the world right, and make ourselves right with the world. Because we do, don’t we. That’s why many of us, depending on our particular religion, come to church or synagogue or temple or mosque or some other gathering place. We spend our day-to-day lives accumulating experiences and spend Sunday mornings or Saturday mornings or Friday nights gathering together and trying to make sense of it all, coming to terms with it or with ourselves.
Our anonymous writer yearns – that there be one Word, one Truth, that can be relied on to explain everything and tell us what to do. One word to comfort us, to help us make life predictable and fair. Our writer referred to scripture, but there can be other words, words of science, words of logic and reason. We are inundated with words and facts in our conversations, on our radios and televisions and computers. In this sea of words we are surrounded by good intentions and hucksterism. Look at how often people are trying to persuade us or get something from us. “What has happened to the nobility of the word?” says Barbara Brown Taylor. “And what is left for us to believe about the sayability of the world? What words, what speakers, do we trust to tell us the truth about our lives, and how can we listen to them with such calluses on our ears?” The sayability of the world, I like that phrase. Sayability – meaning there is an understanding that we can grasp and interpret and express.
But the Word has broken down for many of us. It doesn’t matter whether it is reason or science or scripture. The Word breaks down when, like the ancient Hebrews in the diaspora, our worlds fall apart and we can no longer hear the prophets among us. The world fell apart for many of us in times of holocaust, war and economic upheaval. It seems as if there is no point of absolute clarity that calls us by name. The fundamental goodness and godness of all things may no longer be relied upon if we believe this, or say or do that. Even in easier times for others, our lives can be difficult and heartbreaking. And yet, we still come together to try and make sense of things.
It is that deeper part of us, that uncertain center of yearning, that wants to make meaning of life. To say, okay I can take this if I can make sense of it. My teenager is driving me nuts. I can take it if I believe in karma and know that some day his kid is going to drive him nuts. I can take it if I know that his frontal lobe is still developing and he has no judgment whatsoever. I can take it if I know, deep down, he loves me and it will all turn out alright. We talk specifically about these things here at church, but we deal with it all the time.
We bump into other people all week long, and sometimes we bump into each other’s philosophies and understandings of life. It gives us pause – especially if we are not on the same wavelength. I’ll give you some examples. “I shouldn’t have to ask. If people love one another, they just know to do the right thing.” “Disaster is always waiting around the corner. Be prepared.” “Love is the answer to everything.” “It’s eat or be eaten and we all eat.” “People are basically good.” “People never say what they mean.” “People are always out for themselves.” “Life’s a mystery.” “Life is something that rhymes with witch.” “It’s all one.” “It’s all good.” When we encounter each other’s philosophies, the edges can be sharp.
Nora the realtor took me around my soon-to-be home town. We must have seen over 80 houses. Checking out one neighborhood in particular, she pointed out the fenced-in state property with barbed wire on top and told me that it was a state facility for developmentally disabled children. I turned to her and said, that is a state psychiatric hospital with the only forensic unit in Massachusetts and the fence was installed incorrectly. Without missing a beat, she turned to me and grinned saying we’re all sharks dear. How would you have responded? Would you have been outraged and found another realtor? Would you have shrugged having your opinions of all realtors confirmed? Would you have admired her? I grinned back and made a mental note to watch everything she did for me like a hawk. A shark and a hawk worked together in perfect harmony to find the perfect house. I liked her anyway. She reminded me of my grandmother, another realtor, who was a bit relentless herself. Nora and I found a way to work together even though we approach life on very different terms. I’m going to stop talking about philosophies – those things that we articulate in public – and start talking about our inner workings – about faith. We have different faiths.
This morning, I’m asking you to consider your faith. There are all kinds of things going on in the world that are challenging us, causing us bewilderment and maybe even pain. How do you make sense of them so that you can try to be whole and happy anyway? We are meaning-making creatures, and we are not satisfied until we can put our lives into context, and have some comfort and purpose from it. To put some of it in perspective, I wanted to tell you that our discretionary fund saved a young man from being forced out into the bitter cold this past week. He’d been homeless at times before, he told me. But he knew he couldn’t survive outside this time. He’s warm and safe for now, but he has a long road ahead of him. All he wants is to be able to work, get his GED, find an apartment for himself and his loved ones and get by. He’s not used to relying on anyone. It was an act of faith for him to pick up the phone at the library, and an act of faith for me to answer. What would your faith in how the world works have allowed you to do? There is no right or wrong answer here. There is only truth about who you are, and how you are in this world.
What do I mean when I use the word faith? I had to figure this out when I went to seminary. Out of a class of 90, there were only 15 or so Unitarian Universalists in the school. Most of the others were curious. They knew the joke about us, but little more. You know a Unitarian Universalist has moved into the neighborhood when someone burns a question mark on their lawn. I found myself trying to explain our faith in their terms, and it didn’t compute for them. What do we believe? What do we affirm? What do we say yes to? How can we be a religion if we don’t share those things? It wasn’t until I began to read on my own in earnest that I found a language that made sense to me, and to my colleagues.
Faith is something apart from belief or religion. Belief is the holding of certain ideas. Religion is an accumulation of traditions, creeds, rituals, scriptures, myths, symbols and ethical teachings. Faith is deeper and more personal than these. Wilfred Cantwell Smith says “It is a quality of the person and not the system. It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response, a way of seeing whatever one sees and whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension.” Faith is the foundation, the air, the background that permeates every aspect of what we think and say and do – sometimes without our even realizing it. Beliefs are the ideas that organize our basic sense of reality into a bridge between the transcendent and the world. A person’s faith that everything happens for a reason might lead her to believe that there is a god that designed creation for the greater good. A person’s faith that in true democracy might lead him to believe that he has to sacrifice his own happiness for the greater good. Religion articulates our beliefs and gives us a venue to receive and demonstrate understanding. Religion is what we do to help us validate our faith, and find a way toward clarity and community with others. Religio is literally the ties that bind. We bind ourselves to one another when we light our chalice, speak and sing together and engage in our special communions throughout the year.
We can enter these doors, looking forward to this shared experience, these religious traditions. We enter these doors secure that it is alright that we have different faiths. Each of us, ministers included, carries with us our own fundamental and essential understandings; our own orientation to how the world works, and how we fit in it. Some of us cross the threshold of our church secure in the assumption that our world is a creation of a loving and sustaining God, or a rational universe. There is a steady movement toward balance and justice and fairness. We trust in that steadiness, that steadfastness.
Or, perhaps we come into our church knowing that the universe is constantly moving and changing, becoming more and more complex to us, and more harmonious. We trust in change. That is the nature of all things, not one guiding force. Our responsibility is to discover that harmony and act on it, or just let ourselves be part of it. “What is there beyond knowing that keeps calling to me?” asks Mary Oliver. “I can’t turn in any direction but it’s there.”
Perhaps we come into our church convinced that our universe is changing, but that change is moving toward chaos and destruction. Our responsibility is to preserve what peace and order we can amidst the chaos, but ultimately the world will let us down. We trust in this, that we can accept this fate and not be disappointed in what life has to offer.
Perhaps we come into the church believing that our universe is truly random and accidental – there are larger forces at work, but they do not work for humanity’s benefit, or the greater good. Our responsibility is not to find reason and order but to survive and help others do so as well. We trust not in order, not in harmony, not in fate, but in strength.
You may not even see it, but all of us do have this fundamental sense of how things are and are meant to be. Take the time to think about your faith.
Your faith is not about who others are not, but about who you are and who you want to be. What does your faith tell you about yourself? It touches the center of your being. Your faith allows you to conduct your own fearless moral inventory. It allows you to form a moral compass as you make decisions. Faith invites you into your own darkness to find your own answers.
Second, faith allows you to develop, to make progress. Faith is not about the perfectly impossible but about being perfectly imperfect. Faith admits change. Faith allows us to learn something new, to see a new side of things, of ourselves.
Third, faith gives us reassurance. It tells you what you can expect from yourself and from others.
Finally, faith allows us to connect with others in a way that makes sense, and heals the fact that we are separate. In our denomination, we ask of each of us that we find our way to be whole and to commit to enacting that wholeness in the world, to be happy and to commit to the happiness of others, and to be kind and to further kindness in the affairs of humankind. Our shared belief, that which connects us to the transcendent, is that this is possible. That is it; that is all. We cannot do this without the faith and trust of each and every one of us whatever that might be. May it always be so.