Monday, May 31, 2010

Sermon - Replacing Orthodoxy

Replacing Orthodoxy

I find that it is difficult to know what you believe until you have tried to explain it to another person. Unfortunately, many of us usually only really think hard about our beliefs in moments of crisis. I spoke a little about this last week and some of my beliefs. Those moments of profound crisis and joy tend to bring out the question why me? Why now? Do I deserve this pain, this tremendous joy? We don’t really think much about those things until we have to explain them.

Maybe we need theological study partners. That was the best way for me to prepare for a test in school, to study with another person. It always helped me to study with other people. First of all, if I didn’t understand the reading or a lecture, it was likely that a friend would be able to explain it in a way that made sense . But more than that, and why I think we need theological study partners, is that only when I was forced to explain something to someone else, whether it’s an algebra equation or my understanding of salvation, not until I spoke the words out loud did I know if I really had it, if it really made sense. If you learn something well enough to explain it to someone else, you really know you know it. And if you can share your deepest beliefs with someone you trust, you get a much better sense of what those beliefs are, and you can trust them more.

Unless you have spent some time in a theology class, or one of our Building Your Own Theology classes, it’s quite possible to go through life without someone ever asking you what you believe. For some reason it isn’t polite conversation I guess. I think many family members don’t know this about one another. We don’t bring it up, and it’s time for that to change. Right now.

I am going to ask you a few questions, and I want you to respond with a show of hands. These are somewhat simple questions, because were’ limited by yes and no responses, so just answer to the best of your ability in the here and now. You may change your mind once you think about these a bit, but that’s the point. Being asked, and having to come up with an answer makes you think about it.

Raise your hand if you think humanity is inherently good.

Raise your hand if you think that we are more often driven by selfish desires.

How many hold a belief in something that you call God?

Raise your hand if you find God to be either a meaningless or unhelpful idea to you.

Raise your hand if you do some activity that you call a spiritual practice.

Raise your hand if you believe in some form of afterlife.

Raise your hand if you think this is the ballgame, here and now until your heart stops beating.

Thank you for sharing with each other on those personal topics. I know forcing you to raise your hand without any nuance to the questions is a particular form of Unitarian Universalist torture. There was a resounding but unspoken, “But what about…” that I could see on your faces.

And that’s part of the reason I wanted to do that exercise, because it forces you to make some hard choices. It forces you to think about what you believe even for a brief moment, and to share it. Hopefully that got some ideas flowing in your head and may start some conversations among you, so you can clarify exactly why you were raising your hand for that challenging question.

The other reason is to make a point. We believe profoundly different things in this community. We believe different things about what it means to be human, to live and die. We believe different things about God, about the ultimate nature of reality. This is a kind of theological diversity that is not represented in ANY other faith tradition that I know of.

We are a religious experiment. Yes some liberal religious traditions embrace theological diversity within their tradition. Liberal Judsaism is perhaps the most diverse in this way. But that is because many, many people are culturally Jewish, without adhering to the theological precepts of the faith.

No one, I really think, no other religious tradition has supplanted orthodoxy for dialog the way that we have as Unitarian Universalists. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s also a responisibility. Embarking on a different trajectory is a risk. Creating a different kind of institution is a heavy load to carry. But we seem to be doing it.

And it baffles people. This is probably the hardest thing about Unitarian Universalist to explain. You can explain the history and the diversity of belief. You can even explain the various traditions that we draw from currently, and still the question comes, “Yeah, but what does your church believe about the Bible?” Replacing orthodoxy with dialog is anathema to many people. It’s inconceivable to them that we don’t have a set of beliefs that we all subscribe to.

But there is a phrase that became ingrained in my head in my youth. It’s very glib and probably not the most graceful way of describing Unitarian Universalism to someone who doesn’t know us. But it is very much a part of me. It’s the simple statement, “Churches don’t believe, people do.” Churches don’t believe, people do.

Belief is an activity carried out by people, different people, with differing life experiences, differing ways of experiencing the world, and ultimately different beliefs. In any religious tradition, any gathering of people, a diversity of opinion will emerge. Even the people sitting in the halls of the most orthodox institutions known to humanity have a variety of belief among them. It’s part of human nature. We know that, and accept is, and embrace it. And if we take it seriously, it creates a whole different kind of religious institution.

If we take this experiment seriously, if we really engage the theological diversity in our midst, it changes everything about religion. It changes from a set of rules to an exploration of how we can best live together. It changes doctrine into a personal journey into our own deepest beliefs. It changes church from a place that provides the answers, into a place where we learn and grow and challenge one another.

Nearly every week I have a conversation with someone about how the religion of their past shapes, and usually inhibits their engagement with our Fellowship. It is usually around three different words, “church, worship, and God.”

This past week the grabbing word was “worship.” And I explained to a LONG time Unitarian Universalist that what we do in worship is not bow down to a deity that some of us believe in. It’s not a veneration of God and a diminshment of ourselves as human beings.

What we do in worship is join together in community and name those things that are more important to us, and celebrate them. Those things like human community, principled living, justice, and for some people God, the amazing planet that sustains us. All these things we celebrate in worship, all these things we name as things that are worthy of our attention. We offer worship, or worth-ship, to these things that are worthy of our attention.

But that’s just one example. If we take this religious experiment seriously, If you can remember and respect deeply the variety of belief that we saw expressed earlier, it totally changes the meaning of “Church,” of “worship,” and of “God,” and of all those concepts that are deeply rooted in our subconscious. When we really come together in dialog, rather than orthodoxy, we are doing something profoundly different.

There is a question that comes up over an over again in Unitiarian Universalist circles that is a big piece of this topic. “Can Unitarian Universalists believe whatever they want?”
The answer is a resounding NO. That may be a surprise in the middle of a sermon that is all about theological diversity and supplanting orthodoxy with conversation. But no, you cannot believe whatever you want and be a Unitarian Universalist.

Because, we expect you to have integrity with your beliefs. We expect you to have sound beliefs. Just last week on the patio someone asked me what is “sound theology” and I was stumped at the time. Well I think this is a good moment to answer a very good question. Sound theology isn’t just what you expect to come from this pulpit on Sundays. Sound theology is what we all should expect to be coming out of everyone’s minds and hearts.

Sound theology, meaningful theology has only two criteria. It must make sense, and it must make a difference. That’s it, it must make sense, and it must make a difference.

What you believe must make sense. It has to stand up to some reasonable amount of criticism and engagement with other people. It’s not that you have to have a fool-proof systematic theology that covers every concern of human and divine existence. That’s not what I’m saying. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But, your beliefs should be clear enough to engage other people. You should be able to describe it, to talk about it. It doesn’t have to be beautifully articulated but it has to make sense to you, and it has to be formulated enough in your mind to say something about it.

And more importantly, that belief that makes sense to you also has to make a difference. Your belief should make you a better person, it should deepen and expand your relationships. It should encourage you love for the world. Your faith must encourage you to act out that love. Religion has a great capacity to make us better people in the world if we hold ourselves responsible to it.

So no, you cannot believe whatever you want, especially if that belief leads you to be cruel or disengaged. You cannot float through without making any claims at all. This is not a willy nill sort of religious tradition. No one gets a free ride, no one gets told what to believe. And with that freedom comes responsibility to believe something, and to live it out.

I have spent all this time talking about belief as if it’s something that exists in our head or in books alone. For most of us, our most profound beliefs come through our experience with the world. Not ideas, not theories, but experiences shape our understanding of the world, and of God. Those beliefs are important, don’t discount them because they aren’t the kind of “religious” experiences that other people talk about.
Just last week I had a wonderful conversation with one of our folks who had the yearning to really feel her faith deeply. She wanted to connect on a deep and experiential level. Not more than five minutes later, that same person described to me what can only be called a mystical experience. She was walking outside and the world was illuminated to her for the first time. The world around her dissolved into countless points of light. And in that moment she was struck with a profound clarity, an experience of interconnection because the energy that makes up the world around us, the light, is what we live and breath as well, it is us. We are fundamentally connected to a universe composed of moving energy.

It was beautiful. This is the same woman, who not five minutes before bemoaned the fact that she didn’t feel her faith more deeply. She didn’t think she had had a religious experience because it didn’t look like the religious experience that other people had talked about. It wasn’t easily categorized as an encounter with divinity.

That’s her story and her experience.But the same conversation has happened with many of you. Replacing orthodoxy with dialog means that there is room for your kind of religion, your glimpse of the divine. These stories come out in timid moments usually. One person finds a grounded connection in the redwoods of northern California, an ineffable but very real connection with the Universe. He’s an atheist by the way. Another person feels the divine every time she looks out on the ocean and it moves her to tears. Another, I recently learned has an ongoing dialog with God every day, they are best friends.

I want to close our time together by being clear that we are not engaged in an intellectual exercise here at UUFLB. Sure, we engage our world with critical thought, and use our best mental resources to understand and describe the world around us. But this is not a classroom, or a lecture hall. This is a religious institution. This is a place to feel, to experience deep within, the unknowable and ineffable spirit of life.

The end is not an intellectual exercise. It is a place of feeling and celebrating that which touches us most deeply. As we read earlier from William Ellery Channing, “In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.” This is not a classroom or a discussion group. Call it a church, call it a fellowship, I don’t care, but it is a religious institution, where we not only talk about ideas, but we hold them in the depth of our being and strive to live them out every day of our lives.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Sermon - The Limits of Democracy

The Limits of Democracy
Because my mother is here visiting today, and because it’s usually what a sermon boils down to anyway, I’ll start with a little motherly advice. The words “Everyone else is doing it,” is not a logical argument or a way to justify your actions. We have all heard some rendition of this reprimand, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” And perhaps we should hear it more often. “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?”

Because it doesn’t apply only to the teenager who wants to stay our later, or the child who engages some dangerous adventure. That reprimand applies to us on a much larger level. In fact it’s the best way that I can think to describe the limits of democracy. “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” Democratic countries including our own have perpetrated tremendous injustices, evils I would even say, because it’s what the people thought was right. Time and time again, the majority of people voted to oppress the minority. Everyone else was supporting slavery, everyone else thought segregation was working, everyone else in California thinks that gays shouldn’t marry. That’s democracy right?

Well today we are talking about the limits of democracy, both in our country, and in principle. When we talk about it in basic governmental terms, the ideals of democracy are great, but there are actually deeper principles that are the foundation of this county. They are the ideals that are written out in great detail in our Constitution, the supreme law of the land.

And in our ethical / religious life, there are also some limits to democracy. Sometimes we are called to stand up and speak out, even when the majority has made its claim clear. Sometimes we have to speak our conscience. Sometimes we have to be a prophet.

But let’s get back to the governmental sense of democracy, sense that’s what most of us think of in the first place. We are inclined to say that we live in a democratic country, that the best thing about the United States is that it is governed by the people through our ability to vote. But I want to take us on a brief civics lesson. This may be reminiscent of grade school, but it is important.

Yes we do live in a democracy, but in a particular kind of democracy, a constitutional democracy. Our government was never set up to universally follow the whims of the culture. The founding fathers knew that ethics, and therefore government must be more that a popularity contest, so they created not just a democracy, but a constitutional democracy.

In fact democracy, the concept that everyone gets a voice, is largely a tool to guarantee some more important details. That’s generally what it says in the beginning of the U.S. Constituion. There are fundamental truths, privileges, and rights, that are the real goal. The government, the democracy is brought about to attain those fundamental truths, rights, and privileges. It’s basically the preamble to the constitution.

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Am I missing anything? There was nothing in there about each person having their voice heard. There was nothing in there about equal representation.

I’m not suggesting that anything is wrong with democratic principles. In fact I think it’s the most fair way to govern our country and I feel blessed to be a part of it. However, we need to be clear, democracy is a tool, it is a means to an end. It is the form of government that we USE to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Democracy is not the goal, but the means by which we might one day achieve those higher ideals.

So what does this mean for us on the ground? It’s not just political science babble. It means that if our government were left to a pure democracy, we may never have evolved into who we are today as a society. It means that Brown V. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that ended school segregation, was based on the constitution. Without that particular document to rely on popular opinion would have held fast, and schools would have remained segregated.

Each amendment to the constitution guarantees critical rights to citizens, that even when they become unpopular, may not be denied. You don’t have to go beyond the first of twenty-seven amendments to see how critical this document is. The first amendment guarantees our rights of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of petition. I mean really, it kind of guarantees the right to be a Unitarian Universalist. It guarantees our right to stand up as a voice of dissent, as a religious minority, and not fear that the majority will simply vote to silence us. That’s important stuff, and it is anything but democracy.

This morning, we are talking about the limits of democracy. It is a particularly important topic, not as a civics lesson. It is important to us, because as Unitarian Universalis, we hold Democratic principles as one of our highest values. We read it to together earlier in the responsive reading. It’s in the fifth principle. We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

It’s interesting. I wonder if other religious institutions specify the form of governance that they believe in as a principle. We are very clear, that we think that the best form of governance for our religious community, and for our country is governance by the people, where each voice is heard equally. We believe in democracy because we believe that we as humans, are our best selves when we come together in community to solve our problems on an equal footing.

But we also believe on something else. Something that occasionally stands in stark contrast to democracy. We believe in the prophetic imperative. Each person has not only the right, but the responsibility to speak what is in their heart and act on their conscience. You may have noticed that “the right of conscience,” is actually listed as a value in the same principle as democracy. We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

That seems to me like a really nice sense of balance, the democratic process and the right of conscience. Of course I would through in our Constitution as well, as a nice guardian of rights. So what is the prophetic imperative? What is this balance to the will of the masses?
Prophetic Imperative
The prophetic imperative is a right and responsibility to speak up when we know that something is not right. And it is hard, it means standing up to the prevailing culture, often to the democratically recognized public opinion, to say “STOP, This is not right.” Ethics is not a popularity contest. In fact sometimes, it’s only a small handful of people who are able to recognize the gross injustices of a wider society. Sometimes it’s only one, a prophet.
We often think of prophets as people who foretell the future. That is one role that they play, but in Hebrew, the term is most often used to describe someone who speaks for someone else. The prophet is not an ancient fortuneteller, but simply someone who speaks on behalf of another.

The Hebrew Bible is full of stories of prophets. There are major prophets and minor prophets. Today, we read them as fairly simple stories as individuals bringing warning about injustice. But these ancient stories of prophets carry revolutionary significance for human history.

Take the story of Naboth for example. Because Naboth refused to turn over his family vineyard to King Ahab, he was framed on false charges of blasphemy. And because blasphemy was a capital crime, his property then reverted to the throne. It was an obvious set up by the king, an abuse of power to exploit his subject. When news of the abuse of power reached Elijah, we hear that “the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel. Say to him, “Thus says the Lord. You have killed and taken possession. In the palace where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also luck up your blood.” (1Kings 21:18-19)

In this story Elijah was not a priest. He had no formal authority for the terrible judgment he delivered to King Ahab. The normal pattern would have called for him to be struck down immediately by bodyguards on the spot. But Elijah was a prophet. The fact that he was “speaking for” an authority not his own was so clear that the king accepted Elijah’s command

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible created a particular role in society. Brave men and women throughout history have been empowered to speak the truth, no matter who is in official control. Prophets have risen up to point out injustice as they “speak for” God, speak for the ideals of truth and love.

But being a prophet isn’t easy. Probably the best example of a prophet that we are most familiar with is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We obviously know that in the end, King was assassinated. But long before that his home and his family were targeted multiple times, with words, with rocks, and with bombs. We glorify him today, but King’s path was no easy one. I can’t imagine the kind of pressure he must have felt, torn between the truth that burned in his heart, and the continual threats on his life.

The person carrying a truly counter-cultural message, the person who poses a real challenge to the way things are is never safe. You can say it is conspiracy, or the workings of a single mad person, or a hatefilled individual. Regardless of who perpetrates the actual act of violence, it is nearly impossible for a society to hear a message that is fundamentally opposed to what everyone is doing. It’s the story of King, of Gandhi, of Socrates or John Lennon

The power, the danger of their message wasn’t that they stand up for the rights of a particular group. What the prophet offers is much more challenging. The prophet raises a mirror to society, and points out a failure to live up to democratic principles. That was the dangerous piece of King’s message after all. It wasn’t his message of racial equality that really stirred the pot. King was a prophet, because he pointed to race, and poverty, and war, and the intersection of these injustices as a foundation for American government. He held up a mirror at a critical moment in history to show a democracy the fundamentally injustice it enacted.
You see the challenge to democracy is not made for the sake of the individual. That can easily be put aside as someone arguing on their own behalf to get their own piece of the pie. The real challenge to democracy comes when prophetic men and women stand up but for the sake of the whole, when they call society into account to actually live out its democratic ideal.

This moment of a leader, a prophet encountering God, is repeated over and over in the Bible. It is a genre or a type of story. Each of the major prophets has his moment of confrontation with his mission. In almost every case the prophet is totally astonished, frightened, and at first tries to reject the challenged placed on his or her shoulders. Yes, this occurs with women as well.

I have a particular fondness for the way that Moses understands his leadership. In this short little story, we can see some amazing symbolism for how he answers. He gives every excuse to say, oh you couldn’t possibly mean me. The people won’t believe me he says. I don’t have the right words, he says. Even Moses was reluctant to accept his calling. He knew that it came with risk and responsibility. Likewise for us, the more seriously we take an activity in our lives, the scarier it can be to jump into. Following your calling is a scary thing.

These call stories are also a part of other traditions. Muhammed was unable to read or write before he encountered Allah. In his call experience Allah required him to read the blazing writing before him and three times Muhammed said, I cannot do it, until and angel wrapped its wings around Muhammed and squeezed. Only then did he begin to speak the word of God. Only with a supportive embrace of an angel could he utter the terrifying and holy truth.

And the story of Sidartha, the Buddha as a young boy. Although his call story was not a conversation with God, there is a clear story of his discovery of his role in the world. It was a long and difficult journey for him to accept his role a teacher of different way of being.

These stories come up over and over again. Throughout time and around the world, people have been called to deliver challenging messages and to act in new and bold ways. They have been called to create justice, to question the prevailing social order, they have been called to live out what they knew in their heart they must do. And always, it is a challenge. So why should it be any less of a challenge for us?

So what does all of this talk of democracy and prophetic imperative mean for us on the ground? Well, for starters, it means that some Unitarian Universalist congregations have stood up to democratically enacted injustices and spoken out. We have even on occasion stood in opposition to the law. Just this past week I was sharing stories with some of our members about the mess of the Vietnam War. In that conversation I heard about how one of the Orange County congregations said enough is enough. We won’t send our young men to die in Vietnam. And they began a sanctuary movement. They housed these young men in the basement of the church, hiding them from the U.S. government.

More recently, we have seen the frightening force of unjust democracy in California. In 2008, a majority of California voters chose to remove the rights for gay and lesbian people to get married. Of course that proposition, and the entire issue is still in the courts. And hopefully our Constitution will hold up the rights of individuals over the whim of the majority. But I can’t think of a better reminder for us as UUs in California, than that proposition. Ethics is not a popularity contest. The right thing is not always what the people decide. And sometimes we have to stand up against what has been ordained by the system of democracy.

In closing today I want to call your attention to one more democratically created pile of injustice. And it’s happening just across our state boarder in Arizona. I had not intended this sermon to be about the situation in Arizona, but on Saturday afternoon, as emails from my ministerial colleagues flooded my email box, I realized I couldn’t not speak about Arizona.

This is AZ State Senate Bill 1070, the law, which both proponents and critics say is the broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations. It would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime. And more importantly, it gives the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. This law is an open invitation for harassment and discrimination against Hispanics regardless of their citizenship status. It is cruel, it is oppressive, it is simply wrong. And it is being enacted by democratically elected leadership.

“Everyone else is doing it mom, Why can’t I discriminate?” Well, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” Let us answer that question with a resounding NO. While we can’t cast our vote in the state of Arizona, we can cast our dollars away from it. Already the City of Los Angeles has passed a resolution to not do business with the state of Arizona. I may encourage the City of Laguna Beach to do the same.

Also, in two weeks, there will be a march in Phoenix on May 29th. UU’s from across the country are organizing to participate in this march. And I want to talk with a few of you after the service today, about the possibility of joining them. Because ethics is not a popularity contest, because there are limits to the value of democracy, and because our faith demands that we take seriously the call of our conscience, please consider how we might stand together against injustice in Arizona, and anywhere that Democracy is used to diminish equality rather than encourage it.