Monday, March 7, 2011

Sermon - "Together We Share, From This We Live"

You may be relieved to hear that we are moving on from the topic of Evil. Throughout February we were talking about evil as a theological concept. Is it out there, or in us? What kind of power does it have, and how do we resist it? All that stuff. But this month we are talking about redemption. Basically redemption is the question of how we overcome our shortcomings. No one is perfect, but we seek the security of knowing we have been good enough. So how do we redeem ourselves, in the eyes of each other, in the eyes of God, and in according to our own values? How do we redeem ourselves and when do we know how much is enough?

Well the traditional Christian answer to redemption is a good place to start the conversations, probably because it’s the most clear cut answer that I know of. According to most of Christian teaching, believers are redeemed by the suffering of Jesus on the cross. His suffering roughly 2000 years ago paid for the sins of all humanity. So it is the role of faithful Christians to be grateful for that sacrifice he, and God his father made on their behalf. As an side note, that’s why the innocence and purity of Jesus is so important. Because his suffering was not for his own sins or wrong-doing, but for those of sinful humanity.

This probably strikes some of you as a little violent, or a lot violent. God the creator of all things created sinful humans. Those humans are so bad that God they would be sent to Hell for eternity at after death. So to avoid such a fate for humans, God sacrificed his only son to be tortured to death. But Jesus’s suffering of course wouldn’t save everyone from Hell. Only those who believed in this cosmic payment for sins, this redemption would be saved from the fiery depths.
Well a couple of women theologians, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker were deeply troubled by this whole idea. So they wrote a book to explore the idea of redemption through violence. It’s called “Proverbs of Ashes.” In that book they talked about the ways that that traditional Christian idea of redemption sanctioned violence, especially against women. They tell story after story about domestic abuse that is hidden by or even explicitly supported by religion. But they knew better. Violence is not life affirming, it is not holy, it is not redemptive. What is redemptive about Jesus’ death, and the important thing about any time a person suffers is the healing community that gathers in response.

They write “We have experienced life-giving communities that foster knowledge of spirit, awareness of presence. We know that, at their best, healthy communities practice the right use of the powers of life and lead people to experience wholeness, right relationship, and beauty. When this happens, such communities teach us to know ourselves and the world as sacred and sustain an ethic of appreciative care for life.” (p. 9)

That is a whole lot powerful theology in just a few sentences. But that is just the theology that we focus on today. The fact is, redemption doesn’t’ come through pain and sacrifice. It certainly doesn’t come through violence, especially needless violence within a family. Redemption comes when we join together in a community, when we create space for one another to grow into our best selves. Redemption isn’t there to be earned, it is there to be realized. And when we spend the time to reflect the value that we see in one another, we teach one another that invaluable lesson. You are good enough, just as you are.

I want to go back a little bit to talk about the way that these authors found redemption in the person of Jesus. They argued that, rather than the violent act of crucifixion, Jesus is a redeeming figure because of the community that he built around him and the relationships that he modeled. It is that community that came together to heal from the suffering of violence that is the good news, not the violent act itself.
The redemption that comes out of disaster is the community that gathers in response. We saw this reality in the wake of September 11th. Our whole country, especially the city of New York, was transformed into a community of healing and support. It was an amazing moment of clarity and solidarity. I’m not talking about the political nighrmare that took place in Washington. I’m talking about the way we as individual people cared for one another. We were suddenly tender, more gentle, and more giving of our resources. We saw our brothers and sisters were in need. It’s what we do, it’s what is right. When disaster strikes we come together. Perhaps the best point of contrast was the community of support and healing that failed to emerge after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. To this day, we aren’t all that concerned by the destruction of that horrible storm. But we remain traumatized by a national the lack of supportive response.
It happens on all kinds of scales. I often see it as families come together with a sick relative or after a loved on has died. It happened when Rep. Gabriel Giffords and other innocent people were shot. It happened in Haiti. You have your own stories of this type of healing community, maybe in a large scale disaster, or more likely within your own family.

The community that we build in response to tragedy is redeeming, powerful, healing, and holy. It’s what we do, and arguably it is what helps us survive. That instinct to come together and chip in literally saves lives. That begs the question, do we have to wait for that tragedy to come along, or can we create life affirming community here and now, every day? I am committed to the belief that yes, we can. And that’s what we aim to do as a religious community.

Every Sunday we get together here to talk about what is important to our lives. During joys and sorrows we lift up those major things that have occurred in our individual lives. During our time of meditation and prayer we commune with God and with our highest ideals. During the sermon, I do my best every Sunday to offer a core message, a message that speaks to the fundamental needs and desires, and perhaps most importantly the hopes that we share. And then there is the music of worship. The songs we sing and those that we listen to, take us to a deeper place, a place of hearing what really matters.

We build that a healing community together, not in aftermath of tragedy, but in the presence of each other’s lives. Rather than waiting for the big one to hit, or waiting for a near-death experience, we come here. Maybe some people don’t need the weekly reminder of what is most important in their lives. Maybe they are much more on target than me. But I find it helpful to have Sunday, every Sunday, to remind me of the healing power of community.

We are social animals after all. We depend on one another to survive. I’m often fascinated by how physically weak we are as human beings. Compared to just about any other animal, we are remarkably poorly suited for survival on our own in the wild. We have not fur for protection. We aren’t particularly fast or strong. We don’t dig or climb. I suppose we could gather berries, if we didn’t get eaten by larger predators first.
My point is, thank God for our big overactive human brains. Our mental capacity more than compensates for our lack of physical significance. We can use logic to solve problems and create tools, to feed ourselves.
But the real magic comes when we use those brains to work together. We organize in community to share resources, labor and skills. Humans have certainly thrived on the planet earth, some might say overwhelming way. And we have done it by helping one another.
But it’s not just food and shelter that we help one another with. We develop as individuals within community. I would even argue that we become ourselves within community. The people around us, from the time we are born to the time that we die, help form us. And their love and support keeps us going.
Obviously sharing food and shelter have sustained human community in amazing ways. But also our ability to share our emotional lives with one other shapes our lives. In some ways it is just as necessary for survival as food is. As we sing together every Sunday, From you I receive, to you I give. Together we share, and from this we live.

But I want to get back to this question of redemption. How do we overcome our shortcomings in the eyes of God, each other, or our own values. The version of redemption that we talk most about, and the version that I think most of us feel, is the redemption that comes from our Unitarian roots. It’s the notion of redemption that we can and must improve ourselves and the world around us.
There’s nothing more puritanical in us than this drive toward perfection, in ourselves and in the wider world. We will talk about this Unitarian redemption in the weeks to come as we discussion reparations and non-violent civil-disobedience. This is the type of thing that most of us jump into to feel better about ourselves. We write letters and raise money; we educate and we protest. We march and organize. But I do wonder, where does it stop. Where does this exhausting train of improvement and work finally come to the station? Where do we find solace? Because, this world has a whole bunch of problems. If I start now, I can make a small dent. And as for perfecting myself, well I’m sorry to say, but perfection just isn’t in the cards in this lifetime. I already feel tired and anxious just thinking of the work there is to get done.

Fortunately, there’s another message of redemption at the root of our religious tradition. And that is Universalism. Universalists believe that God would not condemn anyone to Hell. No one is excluded from the family. No one is left out in the rain. No one is so despised that healing is not in order.

The good news of Universalism that we need such a dose of is that Love wins out. That’s right. With all our failures and our foibles. With our inability to create a perfect earth, we are not excluded from the family of love. In Universalism, love wins. We build beloved community centered on love and forgiveness. It’s not about being good enough or working hard enough or earning our way to salvation. It’s about accepting that we are all broken and we are all whole. And we are all worthy of love, God’s and each others’.

You may have already seen this chalice. I have brought it with me to church a couple of times. Of all the ones that sit next to my desk, this is my favorite chalice, because it reminds me of this message of Universalism. You see, the chalice is both broken and whole at the same time. It actually came to me through a Christian community rather than a UU one. They use it to serve their communion. But I think it’s equally appropriate for our Unitarian Universalist chalice to be both broken and whole at the same time.

It reminds us, at the center of our religious life, as we affirm our values and what is sacred to us. It reminds us that each person, you and me and everyone we know is both broken and whole at the same time. We are flawed, and loveable.

Redemption comes in, overcoming our challenges comes in, when we remind one another of our sacred worth through building community together. Redemption isn’t so much something that we have to earn, as something we remember and remind one another about.

We have talked a good deal recently about growing our congregation in numbers. We need around twenty additional members for UUFLB to be financially healthy in the long run. Of course more would be even better. So we talk about all the things that we might do: better communications, different events, personal invitations, all sorts of strategies. But growing isn’t just about a list of things to do, it’s also abut offering our love and acceptance to the people we encounter. And I’m not even talking about being friendly and polite. I’m talking about wrapping your heart around someone and letting them know they are appreciated for who they are.
Think back about when you first came to UUFLB or to a UU church for the first time. Not just why a UU church rather than another, but why did you look for a church in the first place. Nine times out of ten, I find that it’s because people want a community. They want authentic loving community. People come here looking for a group of compassionate people to stand with them and tell them “it will be okay, you are okay just as you are.”

Let us be such a place. Let us gathered here know that it will be okay, that we are okay just as we are. Because in the end, love wins. We have inherited a tremendous gift in the message of Universalism. Let us share that redeeming message of love with one another and with a world in need.


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