Monday, August 27, 2012
UU Beliefs From Another Perspective
This morning’s service is the conclusion of a Summer series that we have been doing. It was an exploration of some of the central themes of Unitarian Universalist theology. While the official series is over I know it will continue to shape my preaching, and hopefully it influence the faith development of our community. As you can see, that list of beliefs includes:
Every soul is sacred and worthy.
There is a unity that makes us one.
Salvation is in this life.
Courageous love will transform the world.
Truth continues to be revealed.
To take a recap each of those beliefs today I want to use the lens of different religious traditions that exhibit these ideas. Of course a tremendous variety of faith traditions could co-mingle with our own where theology is concerned. We hole a great may beliefs in common with the world. Today we are focusing today on those traditions that are deeply linked with Unitarian Universalism today.
Many, many people understand themselves to be both Unitarian Universalist and something else. And, many of us, most of us actually, are converts from other faith traditions. So as we celebrate who we are and what we believe as UUs, we also celebrate the opportunity to bring with you the beliefs and practices of other faith traditions that have fed you along the way.
Also I should explain the title of the sermon. Jew-U and Bu-U are ways that I have heard people who embrace multiple faiths refer to themselves. Of course it’s not my intention to diminish or tokenize these faith traditions. Rather today I want to explore how we are linked together in our most central beliefs.
We share with Buddhism an understanding that every soul is sacred and worthy. From the beginning the Buddha understood that he had been given a gift in his insight. His enlightenment wasn’t something he was born with. It was something that came to him through a life journey and committed meditation. I guess you could say that he earned it, but it’s more like something that came to him, a wondering seeker, like so many curious holy men of his place and time.
It’s important to know that just like Christ is a title attached to the person Jesus, Buddha is a title attached to the person Sidartha Gautama. Buddha simply means enlightened one. It’s a title given to the first enlightened person of an era. Though the Buddha who lived around 500BCE is seen as the supreme Buddha of our era, there are other buddhas of other eras. What I’m getting at, is that enlightenment, even the highest level of enlightenment isn’t a one shot thing for one person in all of history. Quite the contrary, the journey of Buddhism is a journey of coming to know and celebrate the Buddha nature that rests in each one of us. Each and every person has that nature within, that wonderful sacred possibility to transcend the pain and suffering of this world.
One central concept that really highlights every soul is sacred and worthy, is Buddhism’s focus on compassion. We got a good taste of Buddhist compassion just a few minutes ago. The song that we just sang as our meditation comes directly out of Buddhist practice, called metta. It’s a form of meditation where you begin with focus on yourself and your own experiences of suffering in the world, and you respond with feelings of compassion for yourself. Then you focus on people who are near you, and their suffering and the compassion you feel for them. And you expand that circle of understanding and compassion wider and wider, to stretch your capacity for compassion. It is much more than a pretty song.
In Buddhist thought, every person, every soul holds the Buddha nature within. And as we come to appreciate our brothers and sisters, as we come to increase our compassion for them, we are empowered to release some of our own hurt. In this way, a key to Buddhist belief is recognizing and relating to the sacred in each and every person we encounter. Every soul is sacred and worthy.
When we think of Hinduism, we think of a great diversity of Gods and Goddesses, colors and fragrances. But at the core of Hindu tradition is a belief in a unity that makes us one. Really, the fundamental purpose of religious life in Hinduism is a journey toward accepting this exact truth.
The great task in our lives is to move beyond focusing on our personal ego to see the truer self that lies beneath. Personal ego, all of the stuff that we typically think of as our identity, our bodies, our achievements, our intellects, even our your actions toward others. All of the trappings of your personal identity actually impair you from seeing and experiencing the most important part of yourself.
And that internal part of each person, that real essence is called Atman. This Atman, or spirit is ultimately indistinct from Brahman, the divine transcending spirit of the universe. According to Hinduism, the goal of life is to recognize that simple fact that one’s own Spirit, or Atman is in fact the same as Brahman. In this way, we are fundamentally one with each other and with the entire universe. And once we each realize that interconnection, we escape Samsara, an otherwise endless cycle of rebirth. When we realize our interconnection we can reach freedom.
We are fundamentally connected to the universe and will be for eternity. The only thing that gets in our way is our misperception of separation.
I said earlier that the traditions that I’m focusing on are selected because we have a good number of converts from that tradition, or many people practice both. But the influence of Hinduism in Unitarian Universalism is a little different. The crossover in contemporary UU world is actually pretty minimal. However, in the foundations of Unitarian theology 19th century America, Hindu scriptures featured prominently in shaping theology. That’s right, the very foundations of American Unitarianism borrowed from Hindu belief. It should be no surprise that we share with them a respect for the interdependent web and an understanding that there is a unity that makes us one.
There were a couple of pieces of our theology that connect with Judaism, but this one seemed especially important. Salvation is in this life. You see this life is really the only life that Judaism speaks of. While many other traditions focus on some other worldly punishment or redemption, Judaism focuses on living right today.
The concepts of heaven and hell that are so pervasive in Christianity are residue of the Roman world-view. They are part of the culture where Christianity was first being described and argued about. Heaven and Hell have nothing to do with Judaism, and likely little to do with the Jewish man named Jesus.
At its core, Judaism is about a relationship between God and a community. That relationship is based on a covenant. If people uphold that covenant, then a level of fulfillment and flourishing will happen. In the Torah that promise was seen as the hand of God in the world. These are the stories that many of us remember about the Old Testament, God handing out reward and punishment in some pretty heavy ways.
But that’s not quite how salvation in this life is understood in contemporary Judaism. More often, today fulfillment, salvation in this life, is seen as the fruit of respectful relationship and a justice-building community. We come into salvation for ourselves and our family as we have build lives that are good, and respectful. Salvation happens for us and those we love when we build fulfilling lives and justice-making communities, and when we live in deep respect of the holy. We have far more important things to worry about than what happens next. We’re busy building salvation in this life.
The Christian tradition offers us two different models of how courageous love will transform the world. One of these models crosses borders that divide the human and divine realms. The other crosses borders of social class. But in Christian tradition it is clear, that courageous love is all about loving beyond those we are expected to love.
Christianity tells us that God, the unknowable perfection of the universe, source of all being, one day became manifest in a flesh and bone human body. Perfection decided to make itself vulnerable in the form of an average human body. And God did this to come and hang out, to learn and to teach humanity to love. God made this attempt to reach out because of love. And that effort of loving self-sacrifice changed the course of history, it changed the world. God’s love enabled a path to salvation for Christians. That’s one version of courageous love transforming the world.
But there is a second way. It’s a way that is much more in line with our understandings as Unitarian Universalists. The love that Jesus spoke of and lived out in his ministry was a revolutionary love. It’s a love that transcended class, creed, gender, and race, to bring a new vision of peace and solidarity. He brought a radically new vision of power. He offers a glimpse of this new vision in the beatitudes.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus spoke of a new kind of power in the world. His life was built around showing that the power of human kinship, a relationship that transgressed the old power structure, that lifted up those from the bottom and put them on the top. He showed the world that the power of solidarity could transcend the reign of material wealth and military force. And when it is at its best, this is what the Christian tradition continues to do, to demonstrate that courageous love will transform the world.
Finally, we get to Paganism. Paganism is a name that encompasses a huge swath of religious practices. What they have in common is that they are heavily invested in a relationship with the earth, and they are ritual based. They focus more on symbolism and activity than they do on particular written theologies. It’s a type of religion that has existed since the earliest times of human life. It is by far the oldest manifestation of religion. Yet still, today it stands for the ongoing unfolding nature of truth.
The real beauty that I find in Paganism, and the reason I chose it to highlight the idea that truth continues to be revealed, is that it creates and re creates itself. If some life event or special moment needs to be recognized, a ritual is created. If a challenge emerges or a loss experience, a ritual can be created to mark it. I am so moved by the willingness of Pagans to dive in and create religious ritual where none existed before. And, every time they perform a ritual, either by themselves or in a group, they open themselves to a new meaning, a new truth that might unfold in their lives.
Based on the most ancient of religious experiences, connection with the natural world, Pagans come to ever embrace new understandings as they are liberated to create new rituals, new religious activities and communities that explore the unending truths that unfold in our lives.
So Unitarian Universalism holds some important stuff in common with some major world religions. That may not sound like such a huge deal, but it actually contradicts much of the way I hear people speak of this faith tradition that you and I love. I hear people say it’s not really a religion. You can believe whatever you want. We believe more in shared ethics than anything theological.
But no one would say those things about the religious traditions that I just spoke of, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity or Paganism. We all understand these to be religious traditions, with profound insights about the nature of the universe and our role in it. I’m starting to see that it’s time for us to claim our rightful place as a religion.
Just like other groups of people around the world, we have some significant shared beliefs about the universe. Sure, we don’t require that everyone believe these same things. We certainly don’t require a public profession of them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
It may not be the most popular thing, but I for one am glad and relieved to find there is a core of belief here. There is religion here.
Monday, August 13, 2012
Truth Continues To Be Revealed
Several years ago the United Church of Christ came out with the advertising campaign that said “Never put a period where God put a comma. God is still speaking.” Based on that campaign, they sometimes use a big red comma as the symbol for their commitment to an evolving religious truth.
It’s a great slogan. “God is still speaking.” For us that understanding gets summed up in the belief that truth continues to be revealed. This is the fifth and final Sunday of the summer series on five core UU beliefs.
Every soul is sacred and worthy.
There is a unity that makes us one.
Salvation is in this life.
Courageous love will transform the world.
Truth continues to be revealed.
When we think of truth being reveled, it’s a pretty grand statement. But it is happening around us all the time. We all come to new personal truths, new understandings of ourselves, and the meaning of our lives. But also in the world of science, completely new understandings of the fabric of the universe continue to be uncovered. Just last month, in July of 2012 a tremendous discovery was made. You probably heard about it, the Higgs boson particle. I knew it was big from the number of headlines it got. I honestly hadn’t understood how significant the discovery was until looking into for this sermon.
Apparently this is the culmination of generations of work. Physicists have believed for fifty years that such a things existed, but they were never able to actually observe it. But they finally did it, they finally got to see this phenomenon that shapes the nature of reality. The theory that had dominated physics for a very, very long time was based on a sort of symmetry of mass between subatomic particles. They balanced each other out perfectly. This new understanding keeps in place those laws of symmetry, but adds the understanding that everything important, like the fact that matter has mass, or the very fact that we exist, all of that key stuff results from flaws, or breaks in the symmetry.
The Higgs boson is the only tangible proof of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the force field gain heft. And this unevenness and messiness is actually what breaks the balance and gives matter its mass. Without the Higgs field or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life. There would be nothing but energy and chaos.
That’s pretty unbelievable if you think about it. Scientists just last month were able to observe for the first time what gives matter its mass, and makes life possible. It’s a long awaited answer to one of the greatest questions in physics. What a relief.
But there’s more. There’s always more. With this new discovery comes the possibility that the Higgs boson may be the first of many other similar particles yet to be discovered. That possibility is particularly exciting to physicists, as it could point the way to new, deeper ideas about the nature of reality. What’s remarkable about this new discovery, this new truth, is that it opens the door to a whole new realm of possibilities to discover. It is a launching pad, if you will, for a whole new era or exploration.
Science is amazing stuff. But every time we go down the journey of extoling the virtues of science, I am reminded of the usually amoral and occasional immoral directions that science takes. Some people think of industrial arms complex and the engineering of bombs. But when I think of the challenges of science, I am reminded of a book that I read in seminary. It’s call “Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness.” The book is a painful history of the way the sciences, particularly medical science, has labeled bodies and minds that were different from those of white heterosexual males. Those labels and “scientific measurements” then, were used to reinforce the prevailing cultural stereotypes of different peoples, and then to justify substandard treatment of them. The amount of science that has been invested in reinforcing sexism, racism, homophobia and mistreatment of the mentally disabled is astounding.
Fortunately for all of us, truth continued to be revealed about all of those groups of people. Fortunately the sciences came full circle, often to be the strongest ally available to marginalized communities. And the truth keeps on revealing, slowly but surely.
I bring all this up, all the shortcomings of science to clarify what it is we celebrate in the search for truth. The power comes not really in knowing the answer, but in engaging in the process. Truth continues to be revealed, means that the truth that we think we hold so firmly in our hands today, might slip through our fingers tomorrow. As brilliant as Mr. Newton was with his apple, the nature of reality that physicists describe today is fundamentally different. Newton had no idea that his apple was made up of atoms, and sub atomic particles. And apparently as we saw for the first time last month, those particles get their meaning from being knocked off balance. He had no idea.
Whether we are talking about the development of physics, or the personal commitment to learn one new thing every day, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. In fact the assumption that we have the truth, the answer, is what all too often leads to giving up. What a sad and dangerous place that is.
One of the many things I have learned from doing ministry with this aging community, is the difference that curiosity can make in our live, especially as we grow older. Frances can tell you, she actually wrote a newsletter article about this. Learning new things, and trying new things actually strengthens your brain and delays the affects of aging. The process of learning new things preserves the brain’s ability to function in old age. It’s not the new information that is important, but the effort and the process of learning that is critical.
I’ve been talking largely this morning about science. But this idea of the unfolding of truth applies to religion as well. I know some in our community might jump on this statement as an opportunity to see religion as outdated and science as having proven those beliefs wrong.
That argument, frankly is outdated and misleading. Hopefully you will indulge me for a minute, because I’m about to vent about something that really bothers me. It’s the debate that people have in the form of plastic glued to the back of their cars. It all started with the little sliver fish that is meant as a symbol for Christianity. It’s a harmless expression of a person’s faith. Then, some atheists came up with the little fish that has legs and the word Darwin in the middle of the fish. The obvious implication is that Christianity is incompatible with evolution or science. Then came the little space ship that is made in the same materials and same size. I have no clue what this is supposed to indicate. And finally, the real magnificent cherry on top, is the fish that simply says “truth” in it.
This particular fish is so telling. The owners of these vehicles use the word “truth” as if it is self-evident which side of the debate they are weighing in on. All I know from this word, “truth” is that they are fully convinced that either their science, or their religion is the source of knowledge. And they think the other, either science or religion, detracts from their truth. Still, I don’t know if these people with the “truth” fish on their cars are pro-science or pro-religion. Maybe someone can tell me after church.
My point is, that the continuing revelation of truth is not about science disproving religion. To the contrary, in both realms of thought, our ability to understand the world is an ever-unfolding process. And we must, we must remember that the truth that we hold today will likely be deepened, enriched, or fundamentally change by the lessons of tomorrow. We must hold in our minds and in our hearts the possibility for something different and new, because truth continues to be revealed.
Our religious predecessors, especially the Unitarian branch of our lineage knew this well. On the back wall of our sanctuary is a poster of a painting called “Simple gifts, too.” The painting was commissioned by All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, to help explain Unitarian Universalist history and key concepts to visitors who came into their lobby. I encourage you to take a look when you have time. Just yesterday I printed out more sheets that explain the symbolism in the painting. On occasion I bring the picture out and invite people to describe what they see in it and, what those symbols might mean.
Some of the objects are a little difficult to decipher, but the books are pretty obvious. Those three books encapsulate what we are talking about today. In the painting, on the table rest three books. On the bottom is the Christian Bible. The next book on top of that has the name of Emerson on its spine. Then, resting there on top of the other two is a book with no name at all, except for a small emblem of our Unitarian Universalist flaming chalice.
The Bible represents our historical and theological foundation. As a religious tradition we are rooted in Christian theology and doctrine. We often forget it, but the initial arguments for Unitarianism, and Universalism, that is to say the unity of the sacred, and the inherent worth of every person, those two beliefs were first defended by a careful examination of the Bible. The Bible was our truth for a very long time, and it contains many truths that are still relevant to us today.
The second book, the book by 19th Century Unitarian Minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson represents the expansion of our theology. In his theological celebration of nature and the fundamental web that connects all of life, Emerson explained that no book could contain all God’s wisdom and revelation for all time. More than any other person, Emerson was responsible for opening Unitarianism to a wider vision.
And the untitled book, the one on top represents the ongoing development of our theology and ever-broadening faith tradition. This is the book that we have a part in writing together. This is the recognition that our journey in truth seeking is an ongoing one, one that will never be complete.
One of the most striking things about the history of Unitarianism is the pervasive sense of curiosity. The intellectual life of our early leaders was incredible. I’m reminded most of Joseph Priestley, the prominent scientist and Unitarian minister. He began his intellectual life in England, but spent the last decade of his life in America. He left his mark on every corner of intellectual life of the 18th Century and published over 150 works in his lifetime.
Priestley is most widely known for his scientific work. In his home experiments, he discovered oxygen and was able to isolate several other gasses. He also invented soda water, and wrote extensively on electricity. The breadth of his exploration and success in science is astounding, however that was only the beginning.
Priestley’s scientific background influenced his theology. As a radical for his time, Priestley aimed to fuse Enlightenment rationalism and his Christian theism. He insisted that his religious belief would not be severed from what science told him about the world. He uncompromisingly interwove theology and science in a brave project to understand the world.
As a radical, it’s no surprise that Priestley always supported the free and open exchange of ideas. He advocated toleration and equal rights for religiously diverse people. And that lead him to help found Unitarianism in England.
Joseph Priestley, and his companions were open to radically different ways of thinking. They knew that our grasp of the world is limited. They knew that the universe holds endless potential for learning. They knew that the status quo was not enough to satisfy. And so they explored.
Truth continues to be revealed. No single book can hold it. No single age can lay claim to it. No single scientific theory can fully own it. It is a journey that we are all on together, and a journey that hopefully never ends.
One of our members is fond of the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” When the student is ready, the teacher appears. With that in mind, let us be ever-ready students. Let us open our minds and hearts and prepare ourselves for learning, so that the earth, the heavens, and our brothers and sisters, our teachers, might lead us toward ever-deeper truth.
Monday, August 6, 2012
"Courageous Love Will Transform the World"
“Courageous Love Will Transform the World.” It is a bold statement, a hopeful statement, but not an easy one. This is one of the core pieces of Unitarian Universalist theology that we are exploring this Summer. We don’t have a set of doctrine that everyone must agree to, we are not a creedal church that way. But throughout the history of our tradition and the way we live out our faith today, there are some core beliefs that we seem to share. This summer we are looking at five of those beliefs. They are:
All souls are sacred and worthy
There is a unity that makes us one
Salvation is in this life
Courageous love will transform the world
Truth continues to be revealed
This Sunday we visit the belief that courageous love will transform the world. We talk about love as Unitarian Universalists. But, I want to spend a little more time talking generally about what we mean when we say love, before diving into it’s capacity to transform the world.
And what better place to start talking about love than weddings. This particular type of love, this particular symbol of loving relationship has a lot to teach us about the other kinds of love. As a minister, my relationship to marriage is a little peculiar. Because of the role that I fill, the ritual and symbolism of marriage is perhaps more important.
For many folks, marriage is about a commitment between two people. But I can tell you, as someone who has facilitated that statement, as someone who has been witness to several different marriages, there is more to it than that.
As I see it, as I have witnessed, weddings are more than a couple celebrating their love. With friends and family gathered, it becomes apparent that the romantic love that they share is the fruit of a much broader love that has nurtured their entire lives. Maybe it is from family, maybe from friends, maybe from church community, but the capacity for caring that two people bring into a marriage is cultivated throughout their lives. It’s not a spark that comes from nowhere when two sets of eyes meet one another. The public ritual of marriage is about recognizing the communal foundation of love that any couple relies on for a lasting relationship.
It’s also a moment for others to reflect on their own romantic and family lives. When we celebrate the couple getting married, we simultaneously celebrate the love found in our own lives. Weddings become not just about one relationship. They become a time to celebrate the life-giving power that connects humanity.
I bring all that up about weddings not to give you my own personal take on the ceremony. But because it is a window into one key aspect of love as we understand it. Love is expansive, not exclusionary. Whether romantic or otherwise, love is about broadening our capacity for compassion and caring to the widest extent possible. It is not about excluding others. Simply put, love expands our heart and mind, and it invites the stranger in. Love is expansive, not exclusionary.
There are endless ways of loving and endless recipients of our love. But we can essentially boil down to three basic categories. There are three major objects of our love. Love of self, love of neighbor, and love of the spirit of life.
It all begins with loving ourselves. I know it sounds cliché but it is true. If we don’t love ourselves, there’s really not much to share with others. Self love isn’t enough in itself, but it’s a necessary starting place for this whole package.
Then there is our neighbor. We are all familiar when with that nearly universal religious teaching to love thy neighbor as thyself. The commandment that so easily roles off the tongue is not always easy to practice. The implied equal sign in the middle is the challenge. It requires love in equal parts. It requires loving both yourself and your neighbor at the same time.
All to often our relationships involve a sense of sacrifice of personal worth, or diminishment of another. Loving your neighbor as yourself does not mean diminishment of either’s integrity. It means a mutually beneficial relationship that enhances each person’s being. Real love is mutually beneficial. When we engage in it, we grow as people.
The third type of love is a little harder for us to describe in words, but we have all felt it. Many would call it the love of God, but I want to call it loving the spirit of life. For some it is God, for others it is nature. I think of it as the opportunity for life to flourish, the unfolding of harmony and diversity, and new opportunities. It’s about loving our home, this planet and its co-inhabitants. But it’s also about loving the process that makes this home and this life that we enjoy possible. It’s about appreciating life and our world with a sense of awe and gratitude. Loving the spirit of life is the third major type of love.
When I try to describe Unitarian Universalism for the first time, one of the things that people are most confused about is how we UUs worship together in the midst of our theological diversity. It’s a valid question, “How do a group of atheist, agnostics, and Christians, Buddhists and Pagans, worship together at the same time?” all have tremendous reason to be grateful for this life, for the miracle of life at all. We have reason to be thankful, to offer our praise for the opportunity to be together, to thrive. This is how we worship together. The name that we put on the object of our worship differs. But at the end of the day, we are talking about a love that we share for the spirit of life, the animating force of the universe, that power beyond name or understanding that makes each of our lives possible and worth living.
What we do on Sunday in worship is about loving the spirit of life, loving each other, and loving ourselves. This is why I end every worship service with the words “I love you.” At a pastoral level I say it because we all need reminding that we are worthy and we are loved. But more than that, it is a statement of resistance to the forces of indifference and intolerance. It’s a commitment, maybe an aspiration, but at least it is said out loud. It’s a commitment to our work of building the beloved community.
Love is expansive and it is mutually beneficial. We love ourselves, and our neighbors and the spirit of life. But what does it mean for our love to be courageous? Last week we heard a sermon based on Unitarian prison reformer Dorothea Dix. In the mid 1800s she was a tireless advocate for the most destitute in American society, the imprisoned and the mentally ill. She courageously went into the depths of the problem; as a Victorian woman she ventured into putrid feted prison cells where children, criminals, and the mentally ill were caged all together like animals. She lovingly educated criminals, and advocated for the safety and well-being of every single person held in the custody of the state.
Our history is filled with a lineage of women and men who have put their compassion into action to make a difference in the world. Just take a look at the poster in our foyer of 100 famous Unitarians and Universalists. The number of social reformers on that list is astonishing.
Fortunately we don’t have to look so far into our past to see those sorts of models. There are many in the midst of our own community. Before she came to be with us, Gladys Hanes put her love on the line to advocate for women’s reproductive rights in Michigan. And there is Mark Diamond and his commitment to wage peace, Jean Raun and her commitment to enrich civic engagement and the democratic process. We have seen and felt the power of courageous love in our midst.
Most clearly, courageous love involves a degree of personal sacrifice. All of these models involve giving of themselves, their time, their energy, their heart, and their money. It’s rare to talk about it outside of pledge campaign, but giving money is a central expression of commitment to your values. Other options include giving your time to build community, literally showing up with your body as Marta and others do at Main Beach each and every Saturday to protest the ongoing wars.
Courageous love involves sacrificing a bit of yourself. It’s not a blind sacrifice, or a painful one. The sacrifice of courageous love is, more than anything a statement of faith. It is a faith that the piece of ourselves that we offer, will be received somewhere, somehow.
The real courage that I’m talking about today isn’t about braving prisons or facing personal hardship. The real courage of the love that will transform the world is a willingness to take the first step, willingness to offer love without a guarantee of reciprocity. Acting in love is often a leap of faith. Whether in our personal lives or in our commitment to improve the world around us, there is little guarantee that the love that we offer, the piece of our heart that we offer, will be appreciated. That takes courage, and that risk, that vulnerability is the most powerful thing we have.
This is the magic of the story of Ruby Bridges that we heard earlier. That little was courageous in ways that should shake us to our core. Yes, her willingness walk before throngs of bigots just to attend her first-grade class was certainly brave. But the real power of her story, the part that is revolutionary, is that her bravery went far beyond offering her body. Ruby Bridges offered her heart. As she encountered hatred, she prayed for the very people who tormented her. In the midst of their hatred she held faith in the possibility that their hearts would be changed. Sincerely praying for you adversary, not for them to change but praying for their wellbeing, that is courageous love, and that will transform the world.
Courageous love will transform the world. It is more than a political strategy. It’s a statement of faith. In academic terms, we call it eschatology, it is a statement about the direction that the world is going to take, a statement about the direction of this great journey we are on together. Some Eastern faiths posit endless cycles of reincarnation until all beings reach enlightenment, while many Christians predict a cataclysmic event that will destroy the Earth and end in divine judgment.
But for us, courageous love will transform the world. We don’t know the exact destination, or what it will look like, but we as Unitarian Universalists share a faith, and are strengthened by a faith that taking the first step, loving without guarantee of reciprocity and trusting the hearts of our fellow human beings will create change.
This is a grand eschatology, so I invite you to start with a smaller vision. It’s like that story of saving the star-fish that we have all heard so many times. Making a difference doesn’t have to mean making things perfect for everyone. Maybe we can’t individually change the course of history. But it is possible to change one person’s world… or at least their day. A small, sincere gesture of kindness can easily make another person’s day. And a big gesture, a meaningful relationship, an offering of your heart, can literally change the way another person experiences the world.
The world gets transformed every day on an individual level. I believe that there is a tremendous capacity to change the world on a global level as well, through the power of courageous love. This is the faith that inspires me. I forget it sometimes, but this is a priceless piece of hope that sustains me.
One of my biggest fears for our community and for our country as a whole isn’t environmental degradation, escalating militarism, or crumbling democracy. My biggest fear is the pervasive sense of pessimism, the sense that there is no answer for the litany of problems we face.
A core piece of our faith is a belief that courageous love will transform the world. But I fear we have lost a good deal of that faith. And when we lose our faith in the power of love, we lose with it the courage to risk. If we lose this faith as individuals, as progressives, as a religious community, we are doomed. We must have a vision, a faith that our love is worth-while. We must believe that whether we see it or not, our love will be received and it will make a difference. Because without trusting in that power, we have already lost the game.
I want to leave you with a short quote from the mother of Ruby Bridges. She said, “Our Ruby taught us all a lot. She became someone who helped change our country. She was part of history, just like generals and presidents are part of history. There’re leaders, and so was Ruby. She led us away from hate, and she led us nearer to knowing each other, the white folks and the black folks.”
May we go forth and do likewise. May we all have the courage to love, so that our world might be on day transformed.