Friday, November 25, 2011

Sermon - "Reaching out in Faith"

Reaching Out in Faith

This morning we are talking about the way our faith leads us to action, or our action leads us to faith. You see it happens in both directions. Sometimes we are filled with the spirit of compassion, hope, and love, and that spirit calls us to reach out and help improve the world around us. For other people, others of us, we find that by reaching out to help others, our faith is renewed. It is in our action that we find religious experience.

This morning’s hymns talk about both of those experiences. Earlier we sang, “One more step, we will take one more step, till there is peace for us and everyone.” Because through acting to help our world, our spirit is renewed.
And later, we will sing “Love will guide us, peace has tried us, hope inside us will lead the way on the road from greed to giving. Love will guide us through the hard night.” And indeed the love that rests in each of our hearts is the seed of hope, as it moves us to reach out and help those in need.
So I encourage you, as we sing these two amazing hymns, to really absorb them, and ask yourself, which one of these resonates with you. Which of these songs is the story of your heart? The music that we sing isn’t only about creating something beautiful. It’s also about coming to know ourselves in a deeper way.

For many of us, faith leads to action. We feel inspired from a multitude of sources, and that inspiration moves us into taking action. So we make our faith manifest in the world.
The best way I can think of to describe this understanding ourselves as a vessel, a bowl. We are an empty vessel that gets filled up with love from God, from the world around us, from natural beauty. We get filled up, like a bowl being filled up with water, until that water has to flow out somewhere. And we pour out our love in the form of action. We are moved to reach out and share some of what we have been given.
The moment I came to understand this in a very real way was doing hospital chaplaincy work. As a part of the ordination process I did a short stint of chaplaincy at a large hospital in Denver. If you ever run across hospital chaplains, they are amazing people and the work that they do is incredible.
For me, hospital chaplaincy was a mind boggling, and heart boggling thing to jump into. But I was doing it with a small group of other students. Together we shared the technical challenges of knowing what to say when, how to enter a room, how to interact with the variety of families. But more than that we shared the difficulty of being present to crisis, joy, death, hope, dysfunction, loss and love, as we visited one room to the next.
We shared these challenges with one another and we held short worship services to share our sense of faith in the process. In one of the worship services another student shared with us her sense of faith, flowing through her. And how that sense of love and purpose nourished her ability to help others. And she gave us each a small bowl that represented the filling up and pouring out of love. I brought that bowl to share with you today.
The object itself is nothing much. The bowl is from Crate & Barrel. It’s probably meant to use while eating your sushi. But the simple symbol has meant a lot to me. It sits with my other chalices, and reminds me of the flow of love in my life. It reminds me that I need to both fill up, and pour out to keep life in balance.

For a lot of people their faith leads them to reach out. For others I know, the relationship between action and faith is just the opposite. Many people find that through reaching out to improve the world, their hearts are filled and their faith renewed. For these people, for many of you I know, doing good is your religion. It’s through reaching out that faith comes into your life.
Something happens to us when we reach out to help others. Something in our heart gets cracked open a little. Part of it is that in helping others, we get to know them, and get to know ourselves a little bit better. It is reminiscent of the Sanskrit word, Namaste. Throughout India the world is simply a greeting and a sign of respect. It is basically the equivalent of “hello.” "Nama" means bow, "as" means I, and "te" means you. Therefore, Namaste literally means "bow me you" or "I bow to you."
But Western oriented yoga practices have extrapolated more from the original word. They describe it as meaning, "the spirit in me respects the spirit in you," or "the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” Maybe this isn’t totally what they mean in India when they casually use the word. It may not be the indigenous to India, but I like the concept. The divine in me respects the divine in you. That’s a big part of what happens when we help others. We get to know them in a new way, and get to know ourselves better as well. We get to see the sacred in those around us, and in so doing, we recognize the sacred in ourselves.

For us as Unitarian Universalists, salvation happens in this lifetime. In this life we learn and grow, that’s the reward for reaching out. In this life we reap the benefit of our actions. Reaching out in faith isn’t about earning a spot in heaven or burning off Karma. It’s about a sense of fulfillment and connection here and now, in this life. Part of it is feeling good about our self, but a much bigger part is feeling good about the world. When we reach out to help others we get to know them, and we come to understand that one day in our own time of need, someone will be there to help us. In reaching out to help, our hearts get filled with love.

I am thrilled to share with you today the news that just this week at their meeting, the UUFLB Board approved offering space in our building to serve as an overflow shelter for the homeless during the winter season. As you may know, our local shelter only has room for 45 people to sleep, yet on any given night many more than that are without a place to sleep in our city. In warmer weather the problem isn’t quite as bad. But over the winter, months, sleeping outside, even in Laguna Beach is not really an option. So for two weeks, we will open our downstairs space for a handful of people to stay warm over night. A volunteer from outside the church will stay over night with them. If you would like to volunteer to open the building at night to let people in, then check them out again in the morning, please let me know. We’ll tell you more as details of the arrangement unfold.
Obviously, I’m glad that we are able to keep people warm and dry. For a relatively small sacrifice on our parts, we can make a real difference in keeping people safe. But our effort is also important because it is an opportunity for us to reach out, and in so doing, to build our faith. When we reach out, or in this case, when we welcome in, we go out of our way just a little, we move just a little, making room for growth in our lives.

That to me is the key component of this question of reaching out in faith. It’s about an openness to change. We are changed by the faith that flows through us and into the world, and we are changed when we see the face of God in another human being, if we are willing to open ourselves to the experience.
That’s why that simple little bowl is still a helpful reminder today. Yes, it reminds me of a particular moment in my life. But more importantly, it reminds me of the flow of life. That sometimes we need to be filled up, and sometimes we need to pour out the love we have been given. That little bowl is a reminder about letting the spirit flow through me, rather than trying to grasp it too tightly.

Reaching out in faith is about allowing the spirit to flow a little bit. The Unitarian songwriter Peter Mayer encapsulates it beautifully in his song “God is a River.” The song begins talking about looking for a solid ground, a stone to hold onto in the unpredictable stream of life. Finding a resting place he called his savior, a divine rock. Then the chorus comes: “God is a river, not just a stone. God is a wild raging rapids and a slow meandering flow. God is a deep and narrow passage, a peaceful sandy shore. God is a river swimmer, so let go.”

Having faith is about letting go. Letting go and being moved by the torrents of our heart and mind. Letting go until we find ourselves moved into action. Letting go until we have not choice but to make manifest the love that fills us. If we are open ourselves to change, our faith can lead us to make a tremendous difference in the world.

And if we are open to change, our actions can make a tremendous difference in our faith. That’s why we do Guest at your Table every year. It’s not a huge source of revenue for the UUSC. Yes, some of you have been very generous over the years. And I’m sure this year we will raise a nice amount of money. But we could do that on one Sunday by simply asking you to write a check.
Guest at Your Table is something different. It is the kind of reaching out that is intentionally open to changing your heart in the process. The title says it all, Guest at Your Table. I sincerely encourage you all to leave this box on your table or wherever you and your family eat most of your meals for the next month. When you enjoy a meal, simply notice the box, and consider having a guest there with you, a guest who needs a little help.
All too often we think of those in need of help as sad, depressing, beggars. People who are different from us. Those commercials with Sally Strothers come to mind. There are newer versions on today. You know the commercials I’m talking about, with a totally emaciated child and flies swarming, while a well-fed American tells the viewers about the desprate need of these desperate people.
As I see it, Guest at Your Table aims to be the total antithesis of that sort of project. Rather than seeing those in need as desperate and different, Guest at Your Table invites us to understand that everyone has a story. Often it’s a story not too terribly different to our own. So we take this opportunity to reach out and give a little support, while at the same time we learn about the lives of people around the world that we are supporting. So that the divinity in us can honor the divinity in them. So that we can reach out and grow in faith.

Unitarian Universalism is an expansive faith. It calls us to go beyond our walls and to help those in need. But more than that, it calls us to go beyond ourselves, and open our hearts to the possibility of new growth. Talking about which comes first, faith or action, is a little bit like talking about the chicken or the egg. It’s a matter of perspective. What is certain however, is that neither of these things exists without the other. These two pieces of our religious life, faith and action are inseparable. Faith without action is a self-congratulatory emotional exercise. And social action without a foundation in principles of love and dignity is certain to fizzle and die.

So let us follow the invitation of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Let us open ourselves to the possibilities. So that in our acting we may be filled, and in our faith we may be moved to action.


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