Monday, February 4, 2013

"Voices of Faith" - Sermon

Voices of Faith

         “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
~Reinhold Niebuhr~

         Some of us may stumble at the first line of this prayer. Some of us may stumble at the word prayer. I understand that. But exploring a little bit of how this prayer is most often used today may help us as Unitarian Universalists get a better grasp of prayer in general. This prayer, the serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, is best known today for its role in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups.
         The beauty of Alcoholics Anonymous is that it revolves around people telling their own story, and sharing with one another where they have found hope and meaning in their own lives. It’s only fair to say that a good portion of that comes in the form of religion, and faith in God. Some AA meetings take on a more religious tone than others.
         But within AA and the twelve steps, there is no test of creed. There is only a commitment to be a part of the group and try to make your life better. Does that sounds familiar? It should. Because that’s the way I explain Unitarian Universalism to anyone who asks. We have no set doctrine, no specific thing that we all must believe in, but we agree to be on a journey together as we improve our lives.
         You don’t have to believe any particular thing. But in AA they talk a lot about belief in a higher power. The second step of AA is “Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Of course for many people that power is God. But for lots and lots of others, that power is something different. It is something like the power of human community, the power of the fecundity of nature, the power of love. A number of different things are identified to help those in recovery lean on some source outside of themselves.
         And just in the way a power greater than him or her self can help a person in recovery feel supported and gain perspective, any of us can replace the word God in this prayer with whatever we hold in high esteem. Weather that is love, community, nature, God or something completely different, calling upon our highest ideals is a great place to start in our search for serenity and perspective.

         “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

         This first prayer is all about finding perspective in life. In fact all of the prayers that I will talk about hold this as a key element, hoping to keep a focus on what we value most, so the rest of life can fall into place. And who couldn’t use a little help with finding perspective in life. It is a simple, beautiful, and helpful prayer for just about anyone. And it resonates beautifully with our own religious tradition.

         Our second prayer is not quite as common as the other two prayers we are discussion today. But, this prayer from Francis of Assisi makes its fair share of appearances. I especially wanted to talk about it because it offers a pretty powerful bridge between traditional Christian prayer, and other religious traditions, like Unitarian Universalism, and believe it or not, Buddhism.
         “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light,
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console,
not so much to be understood as to understand,
not so much to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
it is in dying that we awake to eternal life.”

~St. Francis of Assisi~
         You have probably heard this prayer before. But how much attention have you paid to it? I personally had pretty thoroughly blocked this one out of my consciousness. I hear the words and my brain shuts off, because it evokes an idea of God that doesn’t mesh easily with my own. But this week I took the challenge to dig deeper. And what I found was pretty interesting.
         From the very beginning, the prayer echoes my own sense of the value of prayer. And it is, I think, why many Unitarian Universalists pray. It’s not a prayer to get something, it’s not a request to the cosmic cash machine. This prayer is about making ourselves more action oriented. It is about making the person praying an instrument for sacred peace. “Make me and instrument of your peace,” is a way of verbalizing a deep yearning to live up to our highest ideals. Of course it goes on from peace to a whole litany of values that we long to embody. But at the core, this prayer is about finding strength and courage to live out our convictions in our daily lives.
         My biggest challenge with this prayer, is that it begins to sound pretty pious near the end. It asks “grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console,
not so much to be understood as to understand,
not so much to be loved, as to love;
” Don’t get me wrong, these are obviously very noble and good objectives. But honestly, how many of us truly want to reflect these priorities in our lives? How many of us want to love others more than to receive love ourselves. It’s a very tall order.
         But there is a lens through which it makes more sense. It echoes strongly the Buddhist understandings of compassion. You see, within the Buddhist framework, life is full of suffering. It never ends. But, when we focus on the needs of others and begin to alleviate their suffering, we begin to put our own suffering into perspective. We heal our own wounded heart by healing others. That’s what the practice of compassion is about in Buddhism, in a very, very ridiculously small nutshell. It is a huge challenge, the religious journey of a lifetime, but in consoling, understanding, and loving others, we reap the fruit of those actions ourselves.

         And finally, the closing phrase is a hard pill to swallow. “It is in dying that we awake to eternal life.” This is a very nuanced statement about Christian salvation. Death, here is a reference to dying in Christ and Baptism. It’s actually quite complicated theology that is worlds away from how we might understand this line.
         But, strangely, it’s not all that far away from the Buddhist concept I was just referring to. It’s about losing ourselves to something great. When we lose our self, when we let go of ego and focus on the bigger picture, we forget our own personal needs and see our life in a wider context. We are invited to lose our self in a stream of life that continues far beyond our breath. For Christians and undoubtedly for St. Francis, it was about God and Jesus, but ultimately it is about finding hope in something larger than ourselves, especially as we face our own limitations. “It is in dying that we awake to eternal life.” These words could just have easily come from a Buddhist.
         Before we move on to another prayer, I have to share with you one really fun gem I found in preparing for this sermon. I was fascinated to find that Francis of Assisi’s life story is strikingly similar to that of the Buddha. St. Francis was the son of a wealthy foreign cloth merchant. After receiving a vision, he went on a pilgrimage to Rome where he joined with beggars at St. Peter’s Basilica where he learned to renounce luxury. His spiritual journey was about letting go of material goods. And as he found new hope and meaning in that letting go, he began to share his message and his lifestyle with whole communities of followers. They gathered in groups, in intentional communities dedicated to living out this simple way of life. If you know the Buddha’s story, it is shockingly similar.
         Through hearing this prayer, this voice of faith, we hear two great spiritual leaders sharing a common understanding of the world. Though we only have time to look at three prayers today, my hunch is that if we looked at the prayers of different spiritual teachers, we would find much more commonality than difference.

         The last prayer for today is easily the most common in the United States, The Lord’s Prayer. I know you have heard this, at the very least in movies. And I know many of you grew up saying it. “Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come, 
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive
our debtors,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for thine is the kingdom and the power
and the glory, forever.” 

--- Matthew 6:9-13
         This prayer is perhaps so common because it comes straight from the source. In two different books of the Bible, in Matthew and in Luke, Jesus is asked how his followers should pray, and this is what he offers to them. Just as interesting as the content of the prayer though, is how Jesus instructed them to go about praying. He tells his disciples, look, don’t be like the hypocrites who pray in public in; prayer isn’t a show, it’s a private conversation between you and God. You don’t need to be articulate; God knows your need. When he talks about prayer, Jesus paints a picture of a deep and intimate relationship with the Divine. It’s far different from the formal religion that took place in Temples during his time. We often forget it, but just about everything he said and did was countercultural in his time.
         That idea of an intimate relationship comes out from the very beginning of the prayer. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” For most of us, this first line drips with sexism and patriarchy. But you have to remember context. This prayer is over two thousand years ago in a different language.  I was fascinated to find this week that this may not be the best translation. The word Jesus consistently used was “Abba,” which means basically, “Daddy.”  It is a much more intimate image than the word Father tends to bring us.  It’s calling upon something on which we depend for our being. I know this isn’t an idea of the divine that resonates with all of us. But it is pretty powerful to know that when Jesus told his follower how to pray, it wasn’t to a stern and separate father figure, it was to a more intimate and personal Poppa. 
         The other piece of this prayer that is striking is that it is in the first person plural. “Our Father, give us, forgive us, lead us.” But we just heard that Jesus recommended praying alone, and that’s what he typically did. Jesus talked a lot about an individual’s faith and relationship with the divine, but he also insisted that we as individuals are responsible to a wider community in our faith. You may remember these little phrases, “Whoever does this to the least of these does it to me; who is your neighbor; feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless.” Jesus was not just interested in an individual’s faith. He was deeply invested in healthy and compassionate human community.
         “Our Father, give us, forgive us, lead us.” All of the first person plural brings us back to the beginning of the prayer, the idea of the kingdom of God. Throughout his ministry Jesus taught that the kingdom of God, the perfect community, was ours to create. It is woven and depends on human community. It can’t be done by one person alone. The saying isn’t the kingdom of God is in you, the individual. But, the kingdom of God is among you, the people.
         The most popular prayer in Western Christianity hinges on a communal religious experience. Give us, forgive us, lead us, all together as we seek a better way of being in this world. And this is the foundation of our faith as Unitarian Universalists, not the details of the kingdom of God, but the collective nature of the project. Regardless of what we believe or don’t believe about God and the Bible, we here agree that the real sacred work is not that of an individual faith life. The real work is a collective project. As we together seek nourishment, as we seek forgiveness, as we seek a right path, we do it together, and we offer these same gifts to one another.

         Today we have looked at a few of the most commonly known prayers. Because we are here in the United States, they happened to be Christian prayers. But I want us to remember that prayer isn’t something that any one person or one tradition owns. For those who do it, prayer is just something that emerges from our hearts to the Universe, in times of need, celebration and gratitude. Some of us, some of you do it. For other’s it is a curious exercise. But I want to remind you all that prayer is something that belongs to us as Unitarian Universalists, just as much as any tradition.
         I selected our closing hymn today because it has become one of the most beloved Unitarian Universalist prayers. The words reflect our common investment in the spirit of life, healing our pains and moving us toward creating a more justice. Would you please join me now in singing one a prayer from our own Unitarian Universalist community.

1 comment:

  1. Very thoughtful, Kent. Sorry I couldn't make it to the service and join in singing the hymn. All the best.