Monday, August 27, 2012

Sermon - "UU Beliefs From Another Perspective"

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 merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
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.


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