Monday, October 31, 2011

Sermon - "A Great Cloud of Witnesses"

Great Cloud of Witnesses
For the past year, Unitarian Universalist ministers have been wrestling with the question “Whose are we?” It sounds simple at first, but it actually leads to some pretty deep theological discussion. Whose are we? To whom are we ultimately accountable? One reasonable answer seems to be, that we are accountable to our ancestors. We are accountable to those people who have shaped the world we live in and who have made our lives possible.

Obviously I don’t mean that we are responsible for living our lives exactly how they would have lived theirs. You know that whole saying about history and being DOOMED to repeat it. We’re not dooming ourselves to repeat the lives of those who have gone before. But I do think we are called to live with a sense of gratitude for the way that has been paved for us, and for the way these people helped to mold us when they were in our lives. Each one of us, young and old, has been shaped by a group of people who are no longer alive. They were our parents, and grand-parents, our partners, our friends, in some cases maybe even children. They have all shaped our lives, a great cloud of witnesses who lived and died have made us who we each are today. And we honor them all today.

This expression, “the great cloud of witnesses” comes straight out of the Bible. Hebrews 12 says “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,”

This is all about early Christians having the courage to pursue their faith in the face of persecution. The cloud of witnesses here are the saints who had been martyred for their Christian faith. They were tortured to death. And the other Christians were to look to them to find courage in appreciating the sacrifices that had been made for them, and for their religious community.

Getting tortured to death is heavy stuff. And frankly I find it gruesome more than inspiring. It seems like sainthood may not be all that helpful a source of inspiration in the twenty first century. What is inspiring though, is being grateful for the lives of real people. Real complicated lives, just like our own, lives that were filled with challenges and learning and tough choices are what we celebrate today. Those are the ones we are accountable to. Along with all the heroes of history, the people we know and remember, the ones we knew and loved, form a great cloud of witnesses that inspire our own lives.

I first became familiar with these words from Rev. John Wolf, the minister I grew up with. I had no idea these words came from the bible, but I knew that he had, and we should have, a sense of respect for those people who have died that inspire our lives. Living with a sense of gratitude is one of the most important, and simplest lessons we learn in church. And it’s something we all can practice, from the youngest here today, to the oldest: gratitude for the lives we live and the world we enjoy.

I don’t know what Rev. John’s religious background was. He famously refused to tell the church when he interviewed at the church if he was a theist or an atheist. He told them, “If you are a theistic congregation, then I am and atheist, and if you are an atheist congregation, then I am a theist.” We didn’t know exactly what he thought about God, we knew what he meant about the Great Cloud of Witnesses. You don’t have to believe that Peter is at the pearly gates with a long scroll of names to celebrate the lives of people who have formed the world we live in. It’s a perfectly vague reference to a reality that we all can relate to.

Most of all, I love this phrase because it speaks of the multitude of people who make up the community of the dead. It speaks of not just one or two people that we may have known and loved. It speaks of a vast and thick body of numerous people to whom we owe respect. Today we invoke their names and their memories, all of them, a multitude of loved ones, a great cloud that blesses us.

Some might call Halloween the season for conjuring up ghosts. I suppose it is. But Halloween is quickly followed by holidays that for many of us bring us much, much closer to our departed loved ones. Memories of people we have loved and lost flood Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, sometimes in wonderful ways, sometimes in painful ways. Of course time makes a huge difference in the way we feel about those memories.

For me, memories of grandparents are most pronounced when we sit down for a holiday dinner. To begin with, we still sit at the dining table that my grandmother had made for their home, probably 65 years ago. And my uncle, the rambunxious youngest child of the family tells about grandma chasing him around that very table trying to catch up to spank him. Then, without fail, we recount the recount the story about how one Christmas dinner my grandfather caught the napkin of the dinner rolls on fire as he passed the basket over a candle. Someone quickly grabbed them and threw them outside in the snow. That was one of the few White Chirstmasses in Oklahoma. Even the recipes that we make during the holidays remind us of who would have made them decades ago. Some of you have eaten the Banana Nut Bread that was my great grandmother’s recipe. She was the famed baker of the family.

For me the holidays are packed with memories of people who are no longer in my life. And I know the same is true for many of you. It’s only natural that we remember those people who were pieces of us.

Remembering the dead isn’t morbid or ghoulish or anything negative at all. It’s something that people have always done in one way or another. Every religious tradition has some sort of recognition of the dead. Whether it’s through funerals or specific holidays. Some of our kids may have seen the Disney movie Mulan, about a Chinese girl who wants to be a warrior. Part of the tension in her family and in the village is about what the ancestors would have wanted. In that movie, they were probably Taoists. That’s a religion where paying respects to ancestors is one of the most important things you can do.

We celebrate our ancestors and deceased loved ones in a huge variety of ways. Today we borrow from the Latin American tradition of Dia Des Los Muertos. It’s probably not a custom that most of us do outside of church. I don’t think many of us have altars set up in our home. We visit graves sites, or maybe if you have scattered ashes, we remember fondly when we look out at the Ocean. Some people talk to their loved ones in private moments, especially immediately after their death. In my family, remembering folks is mostly about funny stories. We remember our loved ones and celebrate the great cloud of witnesses in a huge variety of ways.

And for us as Unitarian Universalists, one of the most important ways has to be living meaningful lives that reflect gratitude for our loved ones. We show our love and respect through actions that give life to the aspirations of the great cloud of witnesses. As we celebrate Halloween, All Saints Day, and Dia Des Los Muertos let us celebrate the lives of those we have lost, by living more fully ourselves, by living lives that honor the countless gifts we have each been given.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Sermon - "Leaving a Legacy"

As we all know by now, we are in the middle of the 2012 pledge campaign. Part of that effort is legacy giving. That’s planning to give a portion of your estate to the Fellowship after death. It has been a vital piece of our income, and we hope it will continue in the future. If you want to learn more about the possibilities, please talk with Barbara and Tom. In conjunction with the UUA, they can support a pretty wide variety of types of planned giving.

But leaving a legacy isn’t just about leaving money. In fact it’s not primarily about giving money. I think of it sort of like parenting, and more generally caring for the people that you love. One big piece of that role is providing material resources, a home and food. The basic necessities make life possible, and a range of other material resources can make life easier or open wider opportunities. In the end, those things are about providing financially. But we also offer other gifts in caring for children or loved ones. Arguably, we offer much more important gifts of guidance, love, support, patience, discipline. We offer our outlook on the world, our sense of right and wrong. Implicitly we offer our ideas about God and religion.

So leaving legacy is sort of like caring for our loved ones. There are a few different ways that we provide support. Some support is financial, and some is emotional. The financial piece you can talk about with your accountant or with Tom, our VP for fiannce. The more emotional piece is what I want to talk about today.

Whether we understand it as a financial gift, as a spiritual presence, or as an ethical / emotional legacy, there will be a continued presence after each of our deaths. We talk about it in many different terms, but something continues on.

While I have been with many other grieving families, I have been fortunate to have not lost many people close to me. My primary personal experience of death has been that of my grandparents, most recently the death of my grandmother. Time finally snuck up on this wonderful firecracker of a southern belle. After some sever medical complications she struggled and slowly declined over a couple of years.

I went to visit my grandmother in the nursing home where she was staying. We had a nice visit. Her attention span varied from day to day, but I remember her being clear this particular day. We had lunch with her friends and chatted a bit. Eventually it was time for me to go. I was leaving to go back to Colorado and then out of the country for several weeks. I knew very well that this might be our last time to spend together. “I’ll see you soon.” I said, kissed her cheek, and walked out the door.

Before reaching the end of the hallway a sinking feeling settled into my gut. Why had I allowed myself such a causal parting? Why didn’t I have the courage to end our conversation with goodbye? “I’ll see you soon,” I said. It felt like a complete cop out, a total denial in the face of death. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to let her go.

I’m not sure when this came together and made sense to me. It probably came to me the driving the car or brushing my teeth one morning. I have a sort of contrived fantasy of an epiphany as I stepped out of the nursing home and into the sunlight but I know that isn’t the case. Regardless of the time or place, I finally came to see that my last words to my grandmother were not an empty lie. I knew that I would indeed see her again soon. That I would see her in the smile of my mother, in the wonderfully irreverent family gathering at Thanksgiving, and most of all in myself.

No, I don’t have dreams about conversing with my grandmother in white robes sitting on fluffy clouds. For many people images of heaven or other notions of an afterlife provide comfort and meaning in the face of loss. They are each valid and real responses. But I find comfort knowing that she lives in me. She lives on in the fascinating and wonderful world that she helped create.

And that was her final gift to me. She gave me a clearer understanding of my place in the world and my relationship with God. Thousands of pages of theology texts and countless hours of class time and discussion could not give me the reassurance that my grandmother finally imparted. I will see you soon. I will see you forever.

My grandmother didn’t have any money to leave behind. But the legacy that she left me was invaluable, both in her life, as she helped raise and mold me, and in her death, she lives on as a symbol of unconditional love. That’s the sort of legacy that I want us to think about today. Both the legacies that we have been blessed to inherit, and the legacies that we will leave when we are gone.

If you are a reader of our newsletter, the Sealight, you may remember that I wrote about an effort that I am calling The Legacy Project. What I hope to do is to interview some of our members, to collect their stories and a bit about what their life has been about. Now this isn’t the sort of who, what, where, when interview that you may be familiar with. Yes, I’m looking for stories, but only because those stories, the ones that stick out in memory, are an example. They are an example of what is important in your life. I’ll also be asking participants about what has been most important to them over the years, and what they hope for the future of our world. Then after the interview, everything will be put down in writing and I’ll check back to make sure it is accurate and it is the message you want to share. It will be printed and bound so you can share it with whomever you want. The goal is to encapsulate to the extent possible, the yearnings and learnings of a person’s life. We want to capture those stories and thoughts for two different reasons.

First of all, it is an incredible legacy gift. This legacy isn’t about money or material things. This legacy is about documenting the hard-earned lessons, the years of joy and heartache, to pass on to another generation. It’s a gift of heart and mind, to feed the future.

The second, and no less important goal of the legacy project is that it gives the interviewee an opportunity to do some discernment, and finally get something down on paper. How many of us have half written journals at home, or the book we never wrote, or the letters to loved ones that have never been written? I’m betting lots. The idea of recording these stories and thoughts on paper is to offer some assurance that what is in your heart has been recorded. And what you most want to share with your loved ones will be there even when you are gone. It’s a chance to be sure that your memory will live on the way you want it to.

Believe me, as someone what has sat with plenty of families already in my short time of ministry, recording your thoughts on paper is one of the most meaningful gifts anyone can give to their family. It can happen with something like I am trying to do with the Legacy Project, or it can happen in a much more specific way, in something like a living will. But, I have seen way to many families wringing their hands with uncertainty after a loved one dies. Putting your legacy in writing guarantees the message you want, will get across to the people you care about. It’s that simple.

Putting down on paper the legacy that you want to leave is important, but thinking about death and your legacy isn’t something only to be done in Autumn years. Awareness of our own mortality certainly grows with time, but it comes to light throughout our lives. Just last week I heard from a young mother who was shaken to the core by the death of a peer, another mother with young children. As the reality of the fragility of life set in, she was deeply concerned for her own young children. “What if something happened to me,” she wondered? “What would that mean for my kids?” The reality of our own mortality sinks in at different times and in different ways. It can be deeply unsettling. It can strike fear into the core of our hearts when we know there is so much that remains undone. So many people to be loved more, so many goals to be achieved, so many fascinating things to be learned. Recognizing our mortality can be a very scary thing.

But it can also be an amazing piece of motivation. Not too long ago our world changed when one of the century’s most influential innovators died. I count myself among the many, many people who knew little about Steve Jobs before he died. But as many have learned, his creativity and relentless challenge to improve, were responsible for much of electronics as we know them today. He was an amazing man. And according to Steve Jobs himself, part of his unrelenting nature came from an early grappling with his own mortality.

At the 2005 commencement speech and Stanford University, Steve Jobs said, “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

I love that immediate grasp of perspective. If this were the last day of your life, is this what you want to be doing? The answer may be no, for a day or two. We have all been there. But if the answer is no for too many days in a row, it is time to change something. Thinking about the legacy that we will leave in the world isn’t just about writing a will when we are 80 years old. Thinking about the mark that we hope to leave on the world is a question for everyone, every day of our lives. Because frankly, there’s no telling which one will be our last.

For Steve Jobs, the last day of his life came long before anyone thought was fair. It’s jarring when people die young. It’s really jarring, because it reminds us of our own mortality. But the funny thing about death is that it’s the one thing that is certain. You know the old adage, the only thing that’s for sure is death and taxes.

In the average life there are so many twists and turns, so many unexpected little, and not so little shifts that we never expect. It would be impossible to plan for them all… but we try. We keep a tidy calendar and have disaster kits. We plan for college, and careers and retirement. We do our best to anticipate and plan for what comes next. Yet the one thing that is certain to happen TO ALL OF US, is something we rarely talk about.

Obviously, I don’t mean this sermon to be a big dooms day message. “The End Is Near” or anything like that. I’m not saying we are all doomed so we might as well accept our mortality and let go. NO. Quite the opposite. This is about taking an honest look at our lives, taking account, to see if they add up the way we hope. Because if they don’t, if there’s something that needs to change, then today is the day to do it.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Sermon - "Shiva's Gift"

Shiva’s Gift
Maybe for the first time since I moved to Sothern California five years ago, I feel like we are having an actual autumn last week. No doubt the Santa Anna winds will come and dry roast us in about a month, but for now, I’m reminded of jumping in piles of leaves, hot cocoa, and the always’ changing seasons of our lives.

Throughout the month of October, we will be talking about death in different ways here at church. Today we are talking about death, not in the personal sense so much as the broader, abstract sense. Today we are talking about destructive forces in the universe, whether it is in nature, in us as individuals, or in the cosmic balance of Hindu deities, death plays too big of a role to ignore.

And if we take a couple of steps back from it, we begin to see death as a necessary and amazing piece of the great cycle of life. In the cycle of the seasons the balance of life and death and renewal aren’t so disturbing. The chilling time of Autumn comes around each year. Many of the plants we love die, the leaves on some of our trees shrivel and fall. It’s a season consumed with death, followed by a cold and dark time. But the cold and darkness give way to new life in the Spring, year after year. It’s just the way it goes and we accept that.

But it’s not just in the passing of seasons where we see the cycle of destruction and renewal. Death is a big part of just about every piece of nature that we celebrate. Even the piece of nature that is responsible for our existence, evolution. Evolution is really built on a series of countless destructions, death upon death in order to bring about new potentials for life. It’s grim, but it’s true. An innumerable number of deaths occurred to make way for every single adaptation that made evolution possible.

That reality was really hammered home for me when I saw the film “Creation” that came out a couple of years ago. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it stuck with me, so it must have had something going for it. It was about the life of Charles Darwin. A huge part of the film was Darwin’s personal challenges and illness. And interspersed with this psychological drama were dream sequences. They were rather grotesque dreams of natural selection in process. They were scenes of predators devouring prey, and the death and decay of animals, and the ants and maggots that fed off of the remains. Lets just say, it’s not a movie to watch after dinner.

Initially these images were off-putting. But they were also deeply effective. Sitting there celebrating the most significant discovery in the history of biology, celebrating the miracle of evolution, is the grim depiction of what evolution really required. Death up death until one or two organisms escaped their harsh fate. For four billion years, species developed minute ways of improving themselves. Natural selection, evolution, the interdependent web of life as we celebrate it, is sustained in equal parts by and interdependent web of death.

There are other more tangible ways that Mother Nature deals in death and destruction. Just this past week a colleague who works on the issue of climate change gave me a new perspective on the storms that have begun to ravage our planet.

We were talking about how reluctant humans are to change their lifestyles and the way we impact the environment. The changing weather patterns, the melting of polar ice, and rise of sea levels, these dangers are no longer scientific supposition. They are reality.

So this colleague was talking and he said something that gave me pause. He said that Mother Nature will do whatever she needs to, until we get the message. Mother Nature, source of life, the interconnected web, will thrash the globe with storms, drowning some areas and scorching others. Mother Nature will send destruction, as much as she needs to, until we get the message. She will fight us back, and our odds of winning are not very good.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think these storms and floods are God’s message to this group of people or that group of people for their moral shortcomings. It’s not that kind of message. I don’t believe that God reaches out to smite entire communities Old Testament style.

But I do believe that the earth is crying out, and beginning to literally fight back with incredible force and destruction. Call it mother nature, call it the planet earth, call it the biosphere, it is beginning to fight back with a level of force and destruction that may be the only thing that will shake us out of our ways, and preserve life in the long run. Mother Nature’s slap in the face may be our saving grace.

Talking about death and destruction isn’t something that we do often in church, or in America for that matter. But Hinduism, with its diversity of deities and ideas, has a little gem to offer in this discussion. In fact they have a whole God dedicated to what we are talking about today.

Shiva. Shiva is a major deity, definitely in the top five. What we often see as evil: death, decay, hatred, destruction, these are all a part of the universe and part of our human experience. And rather than rejecting these hard realities and labeling them as evil, many Hindus celebrate them in one of their most significant gods.

In images like on your Order of Service, he is represented as a handsome young man immersed in deep meditation or dancing upon Apasmara, the demon of ignorance in his manifestation of Nataraja, the Lord of the dance, goodness, humility, and every good quality a human should have. It is said that He looks like an eternal youth because of his authority over death, rebirth and immortality.

I was interested to find especially with the parallels with the forces of nature, that Shiva is understood to be the same person as Rudra. Rudra is the the god of the roaring storms, a fierce, destructive deity. In fact today’s Shiva probably developed from this god of storms that was written about in some of the oldest texts of Hinduism, the Rig Veda, dating back as far as 1700 BC. Shiva was and is the God of the storm, but he is more than just destruction.

Just as I mentioned the cycle and balance of the seasons, Fall Winter, Spring and Summer, Shiva’s destructive force is also part of a cosmic balance. Lord Shiva is the destroyer of the world, following the god Brahma, the creator of all things, and Vishnu the god who’s role it is to preserves. And of course Shiva is always ready to bring back the destruction and chaos to get things moving again.

But Shiva’s propensity for destruction isn’t just about the material world. It’s also about the internal spiritual world. While Shiva is responsible for death and destruction in the universe, Shiva is also the God that yogis call on in their journey to destroy the ego. They call on Shiva, the destroyer, to come to help them destroy the false sense of self, that keeps them separated from the great oneness of being. Shiva helps the yogi, and helps us when we acknowledge death, to loosen the obsession with ourselves, with this life and all our everyday needs, to look at a bigger picture. All that has a beginning by necessity must have an end. With his reminders of death and destruction, the impermanence of life, Shiva reminds us that our lives also are impermanent, and helps us to destroy the sense of ego that distracts us from deeper connections.

Beyond destroying a sense of ego, Shiva is also helps break old habits and attachments. Just like the cycle of nature and the cosmic cycle of creation and destruction, Shiva brings helps destroy old habits to make new life possible for us. Thus the power of destruction associated with Lord Shiva has great purifying power, both on a more personal level when problems make us see reality more clearly, as on a more universal level.

Although he is the great cosmic destroyer, Lord Shiva is the Lord of mercy and compassion, because he protects devotees by destroying the forces of lust, greed, and anger. Shiva actually means auspicious, kind, or gracious one. It’s not what typically comes to mind when we think of the God who symbolizes destruction in the universe, is it. Auspicious, kind, gracious one…

We know that nature can be destructive, and the Hindu pantheon makes room for the destructive inclination of the universe. But the last kind of destructive force I want to explore is more personal. I want to talk about a destructive force that is scarier, and certainly more mysterious than seasons or Shiva. I want to talk a little bit about the destructive force that rests within each one of us. It’s in there for each one of us. For some it has been ignored and denied. For others it has been nurtured and heightened perhaps too much. But each one of us has a seed for destruction within.

It reminds me a little bit of a story that is attributed to Cherokee Indians. I don’t know how true to the culture the story is, but I have heard it several times. It goes something like this:

One evening an old Cherokee man told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One wolf is anger, jealousy, superiority, pride, aggression and ego.

The other wolf is serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, and compassion

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Well, grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee told him, ‘The one you feed.’

I love this story as an example of cultivating character traits. The more energy we invest in certain feelings, the more they become manifest in our world. We can spend our time and energy in greed and anger, or we can invest in love and compassion.

But in light of today’s topic and the occasional necessity for destruction and aggression in the world, I’m inclined to find a different way. Perhaps instead of feeding only one wolf, and starving the other, we should do our best to tame both of them. After all both of these inclinations are necessary in the world. Fortunately most of us live in an environment where aggression and destruction aren’t called for on a daily basis. But we are not so far removed from a world in which that aggression was necessary for survival. It was eat or get eaten, kill or be killed.

My point is, perhaps both of these wolves have something to offer in our lives. There is a time for compassion, but there is also a time for defending oneself. For everything thing there is a season.

I’m going to make a leap with this metaphor of the two wolves into the realm of science. It is commonly believed by evolutionary biologists today that the domesticated dog most likely evolved from the Grey Wolf. That evolution and our deeply rooted relationship with dogs occurred for or one very compelling reason, and it’s not chew toys.

Both humans and wolves are social hunters. Unlike nearly every other predator on the planet, humans, and wolves hunt their prey in groups. And there is reason to believe that wolves would gather around and scavenge the remains of human hunts, to the point that these two creatures, learned to hunt together. Both their aggressive capability and their inclination toward sharing allowed them to thrive. The balance of creation and destruction was the key to their mutual survival.

And the aggressive inclination isn’t just there for the hunters of our tribe. Women, perhaps even more than men are reluctant to conjure up the destructive forces within. No, not me. But I challenge any mother here, or any mother anywhere, to allow something hurtful to happen to their child. The emotional and physical response of a mother protecting a child can, and should evoke an untold force of potential aggression.

We do all have two wolves within us. One wolf is anger, jealousy, pride, aggression and ego. The other wolf is serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, and compassion. And as scary as it may be to face up to, we rely on both of those forces in time. Creation and destruction, a sacred balance, in the earth, in God, in our hearts.

As we head deeper into the fall, and as we head into a month of discussion death here at UUFLB, I want to challenge us to embrace some of the scary stuff. Embrace the darkness, embrace the cycles of life and death, embrace destruction and decay. Because these are part of life. They are part of us.


Sermon - "Prodigal Children"

Prodigal Children
The prodigal son is a story that is pretty embedded in Christian culture. It’s in songs and art. The picture on your Order of Service is actually Remebrant’s visual interpretation of the story. It’s a story that I didn’t know much about until fairly recently. It’s a prominent piece of a book call “Love Wins” by Rob Bell. It’s basically a treatise on Universalism. Anyway, I found the story and the layers beneath it pretty amazing and I wanted to share it with you, as we talk about forgiveness this month.

I think it’s perfect for Unitarians for a couple of different reasons. First, of all, it speaks to us at various theological levels. Now originally this parable from Jesus is clearly meant to be a description of relationship with God. It’s all about God’s grace and love, and our ability to accept that love. It’s a Christian parable from the Bible. For some of you that means good things, for others it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. And there’s the beautiful part. The story works equally well from a Humanist perspective. There’s much to be learned from the prodigal son not just about our relationships with God, but about our relationship with other people, and with ourselves.

I also love this story because it is the perfect example of Universalism in the Bible. It’s all about God’s grace and forgiveness. Remember that’s what that second U stands for in UU. Universalism, Universal Salvation, essentially forgiveness. And it’s that second U that we could use a little more of as Unitarians in the 21st Century. We Unitarians get so caught up in what we do to be good, as if love / salvation is something we can earn. If we just work a little harder, if we just give a little more, if we just learn the right words to say we will somehow be “in.” Well, Universalism and the prodigal son teach us a different lesson. They teach us that the love that we seek, call it acceptance, salvation, community, peace. The wholeness that we seek is there for the taking, if we just open our hearts to accept it.

So on to the story. This story comes up in only one version of the Gospels, it is in Luke along with a huge collection of parables. He’s telling story after story.

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

Obviously, this is not the kindest thing for a son to say to his father. “Hey, you’re getting older and I want to have some fun now. “Why don’t you just give me what I have coming anyway, and we’ll call it good?” I can’t imagine that getting a good reaction from anyone I know. But it seemed to work with this father.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.

This last piece is worth unpacking because we don’t get exactly how insulting this situation is. By hiring himself out to a citizen of that country, we put himself in that person’s care. He was not quite a slave, but he was far less than a man of equal rights in that country. What’s more is we can safely assume that those hearing the story were Jews, and they would assume the characters were Jews. You don’t have to know much about Judaism to know that pork is a big ‘no-no’. It is not kosher, it is ritualisticly unclean. So far beyond what you or I might think about the unpleasantness of livestock, this son had sold himself to work in an industry that was both physically unpleasant and morally problematic.

The story continues, “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” That’s a pretty sad state of affairs. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. So he got up and went to his father.

This is a moment of extreme humility. He didn’t say, ‘well, Dad’s wealthy, I’m sure he can take me back into the house. Of course he’ll forgive me. I mean, I’m his son after all. I may have really screwed up, but Dad will get over it.’ No. This is an important transition in his attitude, especially as we are talking about forgiveness.
The son came to a deep realization that he had made a grave mistake. He had squandered everything he had, to live in a sub-human existence. That sounds like shame to me. So he didn’t say, “sure, Dad will take me back as his son.” He thought, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

Can you imagine what it would take for you to say that to your parent. Or what that would sound like coming out of your child’s mouth. “I’m no longer worthy to be called your daughter.” “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” That is heartbreaking stuff 2000 years ago, or today.

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” And this is where it gets really extravagant. “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.” Now, killing the fatted calf is like maxing our your credit card to call in a catering company. It’s a big, big deal.

“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ the servant explained, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
Now the Bible really likes s sibling rivalry. “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

I know I can sympathize with the older son’s frustrations. We all get a little cranky when someone else gets rewarded when we were the ones doing all the work. It’s just not fair.
But this little passage to me is the crux of Universalist message, and the crux of what we so need to hear as Unitarians. The son said, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” This is the Unitarian do-gooder par excellence. All these years I have slaved… it begs the question, who asked you to slave? Certainly you weren’t forced to do this work that you are so committed to. And what were you trying to earn in the process? The love of your father? A gold star? The Unitarian of the year award?

“All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.”

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Like I said, this parable is most obviously about relationship with God in the Christian view. God’s grace is always available. Even after we commit the most egregious acts of betrayal, if we return in sincere repentance, we are forgiven and welcomed home with a celebration. That’s what this who concept of being dead and alive again is about. Over and over again there are ideas of finding a new life in faith. You know it through people being born again. But that’s actually exactly what the ritual of baptism is about. “This brother of yours was dead and is alive again.”

But this story of forgiveness isn’t just about Christian faith. It’s also about how we treat one another, and how we find forgiveness in ourselves. Especially this piece about celebrating because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again. It’s really dramatic language, but it’s practically the same thing when we have a broken relationship with any person. When there is someone in our lives we cannot forgive, we lose them. We lose another human being, with all that they have to offer. That’s a big price to pay for a disagreement. But when we are able to forgive or reconcile, it’s like that person returning into our lives is revived. It’s cause for great celebration. Forgiving is big business.

And accepting forgiveness is equally big stuff. It’s often something that we don’t do very well as Unitarians. How often do we fall into the trap of being the older brother, slaving for the cause we believe in, or always doing the right thing. How often do we feel like our noble efforts have gone unacknowledged? It’s part of our Puritan history. It’s part of Unitarianism, through and through.

But the other part of our tradition, Universalism has a much more compelling message. It tells us that love and worth can’t be bought with action. “Slaving” for another is missing the point. Enjoying a relationship with them and sharing a life with them is much more productive.

In the end, who is happy in this story? Well, the younger brother has quite the journey of adventure, hardship and humility. But in the end he finds that love is there if he knocks on the door. In the end he faces a huge challenge, the challenge of forgiving himself. Remember, he said, “I’m not fit to be called your son.” But through working on that relationship, he was able to be forgiven, and to forgive himself.

The older brother, who has slaved all his life to make his father pleased, the brother who couldn’t bring himself to come back into the family home after his lost brother returned alive, seems like he never forgave. And he found himself in a self-inflicted hell on earth. He found himself angry and separated from all that he loved, because he couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive.

Before I wrap up I want to address one big lingering question about forgiveness, and about the example of these two brothers. Is the point that we should go off and mess around and waste our time and money and not do any good for anyone until our luck runs out, and then ask forgiveness? Is forgiveness a free pass to live life as we choose?

No. If it were, I wouldn’t be talking about it. As Unitarian Universalists, we, and especially I, talk about living your faith, a lot. It comes up in just about every worship service, living our your values, making them manifest in the world.

I realize I say that a lot, “living out your faith.” But the truth is we always live out our faith. Our actions are always a reflection of how we think really think and feel. They don’t always match what we say our values are, but they do match what our values really are. Encouraging forgiveness is not a blank check to go out and live a life that totally contradicts your values. Because the question isn’t about if we will live out our values. The question is which values will we live out.

Will we live out a faith of judgment, like the older brother, where love is something we must earn, something that is meted our like a fee per service, or will we live out a faith of acceptance and forgiveness, with the knowledge that reconciliation is always waiting? Will we live out a faith of judgment or a faith of forgiveness? The outcome of the story I think gives you an indication of which side I want to stand on.

“My son, said the father, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” May we remember the fact that we are always in the midst of the spirit of life and love. And when we drift from that knowledge, which we are bound to do, let us return to that power, with an open mind, and forgiveness in our heart.