Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Reawakenings (Sermon October 7, 2012)



Scripture: 
Psalm 100
1Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
3Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Modern Reading:

Pure Beauty, benediction: you are all I gathered
From a life that was bitter and confused,
In which I learned about evil, my own and not my own.
Wonder kept seizing me, and I recall only wonder,
Risings of the sun over endless green, a universe
Of grasses, and flowers opening to the first light,
Blue outlines of the mountains and a hosanna shout.
I asked, how many times, is this the truth of the earth?
How can laments and curses be turned into hymns?
What makes you need to pretend, when you know better?
But the lips praised on their own, on their own the feet ran;
The heart beat strongly; and the tongue proclaimed its adoration.

           Czeslaw Milosz, New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001, Ecco Press

How do you be a Unitarian Universalist?  

How do you BE a religious liberal?  

Not just GO to a UU church, or BELONG to some other religiously liberal institution, or DO some particular spiritual practice, but BE a religious liberal, and particularly BE a Unitarian Universalism.  Not just support some causes?  How do you live a life that embodies a generous, open-minded, self-possessed, committed spirit.  How do you have that influence on the people around you?  How do provide a liberal religious presence? 

Just to be clear, I think that religious liberalism is one of the great American religions these days -- right up there with evangelical Christianity, and Liturgical Orthodoxy, and Ethnic Solidarity. (Someday, I will explain that to you, but not today.)  Unitarian Universalism is one particular way of being a religious liberal.  Other religious liberals are liberal Christians, many Jews, many Catholics, many Buddhists and adherents of other world religions, and many who consider themselves to be unaffiliated -- the great ranks of the Spiritual but Not Religious.  

I believe that religious liberalism is a spirituality that equips people to live in this world, as it is, with the people who are here with us, with grace and with joy and in right relationship to others.  I believe that you will be happier and healthier and more at ease if you take this simple path to heart.  I believe that the world will be more just and compassionate if more people were religious liberals.

But what is this path?  How do you get on it?  

Last week, I said, to your great amusement, that you pay me to tell ridiculous and impractical things that you already believe, but need to be reminded of....things like that Life has great meaning and purpose and that is worthwhile to do the right thing, even there seems to be no advantage in it.  

You also pay me to make suggestions to you about how to live your life that are out of left field and from outside the box.  After all, I am not your financial advisor, looking at your retirement plan, and I am not your lawyer, looking at your will, and I am not the guy who is inspecting that state of your house wiring, and I am not your doctor, looking at your blood work.  I am your minister.

Folks, here is my message for today:  you need more REVERENCE in your life.    

No, not more REVERENDS, more REVERENCE.  

Reverence is a religious word, and like all religious words, it can confuse as much as clarify.  So let’s break this down.  Some poetry might help.

Milosz again, from today’s reading: He is looking back on his own life and the spiritual journey that he has taken.  He is a Roman Catholic, yet very materialist in his way.  He, like many of the Eastern European poets of the 20th century is a philosophical poet, not a lyricist.  He is not a transcendentalist -- he doesn’t see nature as being the evidence of God -- he does not hold nature as sacred -- in fact, he is the opposite -- to him Nature is the endless cycle of birth and death and predation-- he wonders what lies beyond nature -- what is eternal and merciful to us.

But yet, he feels wonder.

Wonder kept seizing me, and I recall only wonder,
Risings of the sun over endless green, a universe
Of grasses, and flowers opening to the first light,
Blue outlines of the mountains and a hosanna shout.
   (Four lines of wonder and appreciation of the beauties of the earth)
I asked, how many times, is this the truth of the earth?
How can laments and curses be turned into hymns?
What makes you need to pretend, when you know better?
   (Three lines that ask if this beauty is all there is.)
But the lips praised on their own, on their own the feet ran;
The heart beat strongly; and the tongue proclaimed its adoration

He celebrates the beauty of the Earth -- the endless green, the grasses, the flower, the blue outlines of Mountains -- but he wonders if this is really the truth of the earth, which is as often so marked with laments and curses than by hymns.  But yet, still, almost against his will, he moved to praise and adoration, to reverence. 

There are many people who cannot see the hand of God behind the world and all its things, but still they are moved to reverence, a reverence born of wonder and expressed in hymns of praise and adoration.  Today we are singing those hymns of praise and adoration.  (The hymns of the day were "Morning So Fair to See", "For the Beauty of the Earth" and "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee."

What is it that we revere, when we are moved with wonder and delight.  

In a sense, it is not the object itself that calls forth reverence.  It is not the grass, the hills, the trees themselves.  It is something hidden within them.  

I read this poem in 1999 at my pre-candidate sermon in Littleton before I was called here .

At the Shore
Mary Oliver

This morning
wind that light-limbed dancer was all 
over the sky while
ocean slapped up against
the shore's black-beaked rocks
row after row of waves
humped and fringed and exactly
different from each other and
above them one white gull
whirled slant and fast then
dipped its wings turned
in a soft and descending decision its
leafy feet touched
pale water just beyond
breakage of waves it settled
shook itself opened
its spoony beak cranked
like a pump. Listen!
Here is the white and silky trumpet of nothing. 
Here is the beautiful Nothing, body of happy,
meaningless fire, wildfire, shaking the heart.
      

            West Wind, Beacon Press, 1999

After several lines of Mary Oliver doing what Mary Oliver does so well and so often -- carefully observing and describing some element of nature -- in this case, a sea gull, settling on the water just beyond the breaking waves, she ends: 

Listen!
Here is the white and silky trumpet of nothing. 
Here is the beautiful Nothing, body of happy,
meaningless fire, wildfire, shaking the heart.

Yes, this is reverence, but it is not the worship of birds.  It a reverence for NO THING, but the body of happy, meaningless fire, wildfire, shaking the heart.  It is the raw and powerful life force that animates the bird -- that shakes the bird’s heart, that shakes her heart.  Spirit of Life, Come unto me, one might sing.

So putting these two poems together, what do we know of reverence, this way of being in the world, that I am saying is at the core of the way of life that is religious liberalism.  A religious liberal holds life, that mysterious energy of life, with reverence.  

Reverence comes from wonder, Milosz says.  It does not come from a philosophy or a theology or even a theory about the nature of reality.  Yes, the world is full of endless green grass -- yes, they have to be green because of the chlorophyll in them, and it is a function of way light travels over long distances and how our eyes process that light that makes the distant hills look blue -- it’s all explainable, it’s all just science, but yet, almost against our will, there is wonder, and hymns of praise, and eyes wet with tears.  

It’s not grass, nor the hills, nor the waves, nor the bird, adds Mary Oliver, -- what is wonderful, what shakes the heart is nothing, NO THING, but this energy, this wildfire, this powerful energy of is-ness that is in everything, even the rocks and hills and grass.  As Long as hills and mountains last, you could sing.  

We live in a world dominated by a pragmatic materialism.  

We live in a world where men look upon verdant hills and sunny valleys laid out like a quilt and ask themselves how many McMansions can be built here and what can we get for them?  

I am not trying to go all Wendell Berry on you, but I am trying to say that we shield ourselves from wonder, and fail to see the wildfire of energy, of is-ness shaking the heart of everything, and everybody around us.  We are pragmatic -- we ask what good is this?  what is useful here? and we are materialist.  it’s just rocks and hills and dirt and some plants and some little animals skulking around in the dirt, like vermin.  Pray to God that none are endangered species, because that will complicate our plans. 

And that’s how it is so easy to treat each other as is so often done. 

Let reverence happen with you.  Treat the world with the respect and joyful appreciation as a child’s picture brought home from school and hung on the refrigerator door. 

I said last week that love puts its foot in the closing door in our minds behind which we are letting others slip into our indifference.  The three most important words of Love are “wait a second.”   So, too, reverence.  Wait a second, look again.

Another poem about reverence, this one by Mark Doty, who channels his dog: 

Golden Retrievals.

Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,

or else you’re off in some fog concerning
—tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,

a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.
      Mark Doty, “Golden Retrievals” from Sweet Machine: Poems.

Perhaps, the two most important words of reverence are “bow-wow”

OK, when should we start this up:  Today, this afternoon, Monday?

My final words on reverence -- from William Stafford:

You Reading This, Be Ready
William Stafford
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life -
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around
       (The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, p. 45, 1996, Graywolf Press.)

Nothing more to say.  Are you waiting for time to show you some better thoughts? 

and "What anyone give you greater than now, starting here, right in this room, when you turn around."  

I have nothing more to say.


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