Monday, January 30, 2012

Our Good News


The heart of my sermon on January 29th.


Religious traditions are, first of all, messages to the people of the world.  Is the message that we are sending into the world good news to the people who hear it?  Is it helpful to them?  Does it speak to their condition?
We are on an errand into a world unknown to us, and all we can carry is our message.
Our message comes down to three affirmations and challenges:  
The first is "self-possession.  You are an inherently worthy person, you have a right to be here, you are welcome in the Universe -- that’s the affirmation -- what’s  the challenge?  You have to think for yourself, be responsible for how you use this good gift of life.  

How many people need, desperately need, to hear this message?  
Almost everyone... 
all those who suffer discrimination, stereotyping and racism, the poor and the "uncultured", the LGTQ people, the immigrants, all those of diminished social status.. 
And beyond all social diminishments are the personal shames and humiliations of your personal experience your family life, your social life at a young age, even high school.  There are people out there, no, there are people in here, who have had all the outward advantages in life and still feel worthless and unlovable.   

Liberal Religion’s message is an unflinching affirmation of each person’s worth and dignity. 

It is not the Calvinist message that you are, by definition, an unworthy sinner, offensive to God.  

It is also not the hyper-individualist message that you alone are the only one responsible for the conditions of your life -- that all your suffering must be your own fault.  
You are a worthy person; you have a right to take control of your life and to be a moral agent.  
And the second affirmation is that not only are you a worthy being, so are all the other people around you.  God loves all of them, too.  

And so the challenge is for you to learn to take an empathetic, compassionate, loving attitude toward them.  To become open-minded and open-hearted.  You will run into people all the time who are outside of your necessarily limited understanding of the way the world works.  You are going to be stretched all the time to try to understand another point of view.  Every one of us can point to examples in our own lives when our minds were opened.  What seemed completely unacceptable became acceptable.  Remember when you first met a transgender person?

The third affirmation and challenge that Liberal Religion makes is that “no, you are not crazy; human society is unfair.”  
I think that this is new:  in the old days of classical liberalism, the belief was that human society started out as fair and just, but unfortunately, some bad things happened since then.  That’s the thinking behind the whole social contract -- One day, a group of men who were equals to each other got together and decided to have a society.  Everybody had their rights, and their responsibilities and some people were given power for the good of everybody else.  
Since then, there’s been some bad behavior and if we just correct those problems, human society will return to be a well-run, socially stable, friendly and fair place to live.  Kind of like the hobbits at the beginning of the Lord of Rings.  Or the small towns portrayed in modern country music.  I think most people have some version of this fantasy, and it is a fantasy.  A previous time when human society worked and was just. I hear it about the church.  It is hard to hear it when someone challenges our particular version of Eden.  That the good old days were only good for some.  
Of course, the illusion of the good old days is actually oppressive to us as well.  It channels our sense of power into negative and judgmental ways, asking who is at fault?  Who ruined paradise?   Instead of seeing ourselves as powerful and powerfully moving toward justice; it only validates our prejudices and narrowness.  
So, there is an affirmation and a challenge in this third part of the message -- yes, human society is unjust AND you can do something about it, through your own power and the power of your solidarity - empathy - compassion for others.   We are potentially moving toward a better world. 
These are the core messages of the liberal church, of the liberal religious movement, of Unitarian Universalism.  They are messages which seem almost second nature to us -- they sound familiar.  Some of the time, we actually believe them and live them out, but often we don’t.  

Who needs our message?  We do.  And just about everyone else. 

So our message is needed by people of every age, and every class and every ethnicity and every sexuality and every gender expression and every nationality and every profession.  Not every wants to hear it, that’s OK.  We may not be able to communicate across all the differences to everyone, but that’s OK, too.  
Let me quote Walt Whitman now: 
This is the meal equally set, this the meal for natural hunger, 
It is for the wicked as well as the righteous, I make appointments with all.
I will not have a single person slighted or left away.
This is our message, our good news, our gospel: 
You are a worthy soul; stand cool and composed against every condition.
Around you are other worthy souls, as worthy as you, extend to them your open heart.  Before you lies a world that needs to be made more just.  You can do it. 
These are simple statements, but they are not shallow statements.  

There is a long tradition that has led us to these beliefs.  

At heart, our beliefs are a very particular distillation of the Christian tradition, a kind of simplified and syncretic Christian humanism slash transcendentalism.  It has a history of heroes and heretics, preachers and teachers, prophets and poets. A person could study it for a lifetime, just to fully understand it.
But no one has to understand the software that makes an iPod work.  All that matters to most people is that it is simple and clean, beautiful, easy to use and easy to learn.  It makes their lives better. It brings them joy and beauty.  

(Turn on iPhone and hold it to the mic.  Music playing)

 The same should be true of liberal religion -- is our message simple, clean and beautiful, easy to use and easy to learn? because it will make people’s lives better.

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