Monday, June 11, 2012

Sermon - "Every Soul is Sacred and Worthy"

“Every Soul is Sacred and Worthy”

            Last week I began introducing the worship theme for the Summer. We will spend the next three months diving into some of the core beliefs that permeate Unitarian Universalism. They are anchored in our history, but also flourish in our congregations today. I listed five core beliefs:

Every soul is sacred and worthy,
Salvation is in this life.
There is a unity that makes us one.
Courageous love will transform the world.
Truth continues to be revealed.

            Today, we are focusing on the first of those beliefs, which not surprisingly is very similar to our first Principle, respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. What I want to do today is take this little theological statement, and look at it one piece at a time. “Every soul is sacred and worthy.”

            Well, let’s start with the core of this idea. Soul. For some of us the word flows naturally. For others it has no meaning or is even offensive. So let me start with the most down to earth description of soul that I know.
            This idea of the soul comes from my best friend’s mother. She is the Superindendant of a school, but was a classroom teacher for years and years. She says that when she is having a particularly difficult time with someone, when someone just gets on her nerves and all she can feel is anger, she thinks back on teaching second grade. And she remembers that this challenging person was also once a second grader somewhere. This person was once silly and afraid and open to new ideas. And somewhere, deep inside ,whether we can see it or not, they still are that second grader. They still are a little afraid, a little silly, and open to new ideas and full of potential.  If the religious language of “soul” doesn’t float your boat, just think of it as the magic that we see resting in an eager child.
            Just a few weeks ago, I preached about how the Unitarian forefather Ralph Waldo Emerson understood the soul. One of the key ideas was about the soul being the piece of us that connects with other people and with the rest of the world. There is a spark in you that calls out to recognize the spark in another person. In your core is a quiet reminder that every other person also has a flash of the sacred in her or him as well. That piece of each of us that recognizes the humanity, the good, the soul or another person is our own soul. It’s also the piece of us that helps us feel connected to the rest of the world. Emerson was very clear that the soul was the piece of the divine in each of us that connects us to the rest of the Universe.
            Emerson was deeply influenced by the sacred text of Hinduism and other Eastern religions. It should be no surprise that we hear echoes of his idea of the soul in the common Indian greeting, Namaste.  I’ve been using this word at the end of our meditation time lately, but never bothered to explain it. Throughout much of India the world “Namaste” is 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."
            Many of us know the word as it is used in yoga studios here in the U.S. Western oriented yoga practices have extrapolated a more elaborate meaning of the word based on Hindu beliefs. 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. The soul in me recognizes the soul in you.
            Whether we see it as the humanity that is so easily embodied in a curious scared silly loving second grader, or the spark of the divine, the little piece of the Universal Truth that animates each or our individual lives, we are talking about the seed of potential in each person. It’s that core of our being that may be well hidden, but can never be taken away. Every soul is sacred and worthy. 

            What then is this soul worthy of? In our Universalist roots the answer to that question is very clear. Every soul is worthy of salvation. Universalism at its core is about affirming a love of God, and proclaiming that no God worthy of our attention would condemn anyone to eternal punishment. 
            In the face of The Great Awakening, an overwhelming American religious trend that preached hellfire and brimstone, early Universalists said no. Every person, every soul must have the opportunity to reach salvation. God does not cut anyone out of the family. They debated for a very long time about the mechanics of how that salvation happened. But from the beginning, the answer to the question, what every soul was worthy of, was Salvation.  
            The Unitarian side of our heritage was also very much in line with the sense that every soul was worthy. Like the early universalists, they fought against the doctrine of an angry God, but for a different reason. The Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn anyone to eternal punishment. But the Unitarians believed that we as humans had too much potential for good, to be condemned.
In 1819, William Ellery Channing preached the landmark sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” For the first time, he accepted the label Unitarian, and at that critical moment made a distinction between his Liberal peers and the Christian orthdox. That sermon was the catalyst that made our church the separate religious tradition that it is today.
            The thrust of the sermon was two fold. First, he insisted that we must use reason to develop our faith. After all we were endowed with this great capacity and it would be irresponsible not to apply it to religious life. Second, we as humans are capable of moral development, and this, above all else, should be the goal of religious life in America. Channing would say that every soul is sacred and worthy of the opportunity to flourish in this life, the opportunity to develop moral character, and in the process find salvation in this life.
            Throughout his short but powerful ministry, Channing railed against slavery, against poverty, against alcoholism. He advocated for the creation of hospitals for the mentally ill and encouraged progressive approaches to education. The first American minister to proudly wear the label of “Unitarian” was a committed activites. Most importantly, Channing’s commitment to these numerous causes was an undying interest in the moral potential of each individual person.[1]
            He knew that with effort, people could live more moral and fulfilling lives. He knew that we could mold ourselves into better people, and that work of improving ourselves would in turn improve the world around us. 
            From our beginnings as a faith tradition, we set our sites on respecting the possibility in each person, the potential for a soul to flourish. And we have made it our mission to protect that possibility for every person. For Channing and many other early UU leaders the battle was about abolition of slavery. Soon after was women’s suffrage and the political rights for African Americans. Access to public education, recognition of same-sex relationships and demanding a humane policy for immigration followed. Each of these political conviction comes from our deeply held faith that every soul is sacred and worthy. Every person deserves the opportunity to flourish and participate fully in what it means to be human. 

            So we have talked about what we mean by “soul.” And we have talked about what these souls are worthy of. Finally, I want to talk about what is probably the most tricky word in this whole statement, “every.” Every soul is sacred and worthy.
            Most obviously it means that everyone, even that moron that cut you off in traffic on the way to church today, even that radio news host that makes your blood boil is sacred. The stranger at the grocery store and the person sitting next to you here today, the same spark of the divine, the human potential that we celebrate without exception is in each and every one of those people. This is not small statement. Though we speak it readily, the first principle of Unitarian Universalist is a tremendous affirmation, and an even more tremendous thing to take on in our living. The challenge to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person is tremendous and could easily fill a lifetime of religious commitment.            

            Every soul is sacred and worthy. Of all these theological statements of the Summer I love this one the best. Yet it is also the one that I forget most readily. Why is this reality so hard to remember? At first glance, it comes with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. It requires that I treat people with respect. It requires that I help people who need help. It requires that my actions take into account the needs of others, all day, every day. It’s exhausting to even think of the full weight of this commitment.
            But there is more than responsibility and dread in this profound statement of faith. Every soul is sacred and worthy. More than responsibility, it is an overwhelming statement of beauty and potential. Every soul is sacred and worthy. Recognizing the sacredness that we swim in every day is inconvenient. It rips our attention from the to-do list, it distracts from our need to accumulate more stuff, it may slow down our jobs as we begin to treat others not as numbers but as human beings.  Yes, it is a burden to treat everyone this way, but even more so, opening our hearts to really experience the sacred in every person is a terrifyingly beautiful religious journey that we are called to make.
            As we live our lives we develop an arsenal of tools to avoid this reality. We manage, I manage to convince myself that I am so busy that the few moments it takes to have a face-to-face conversation is just too much. And now technology does the work for us. We no longer have to come face to face with the sacredness of each soul because we experience them only through an email or text message. We have an arsenal of tools to help us avoid what we claim to be true, lest we be overwhelmed by a sacredness that we swim in every day.
            I am convinced that what we forget that every soul is sacred and worthy, not because it is a burden to treat everyone as human beings. I think we conveniently forget that everyone is sacred and worthy because we fear our little hearts might just bust at the seams if we allowed ourselves to really experience that truth. It would make walking into any room of people like walking into a gallery at the Louvre. Every face a masterpiece, a unique expression of beauty crafted from a particular perspective.
            And perhaps even more overwhelming is the possibility of finally understanding ourselves to be one of those masterpieces. I said earlier that truly knowing that every soul is sacred and worthy is a dual commitment. It’s not just about others, it’s about ourselves as well. You are a part of every soul after all. You are a part of this holy family. I want to leave you with a quote from Marianne Williamson. You have no doubt heard it before, but I invite you to listen through the ears of a Unitarian Universalist today.

            “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

            Every soul is sacred and worthy. Each and every person we know has a seed of humanity, a spark of the divine inside. They are worthy of salvation in this life they deserve the opportunity to participate fully in the human experience, to have meaningful relationships, to find fulfillment, and the opportunity to growth. And so do you.


[1] Jack Mendelsohn, Channing, The Reluctant Radical, (Boston: LIttle, Brown & Co., 1971), 206

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