Monday, April 15, 2013

"Save Yourself" - Sermon

Save Your Self
         I think most of us are familiar with these words. They are the first ones that came to me as I stared at the title for today’s worship. “In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will deploy for the compartment above your head. Please place the yellow mask over your nose and mouth, using the loose ends to tighten. If you are traveling with small children or someone in need of assistance, place the mask over your own nose and mouth before assisting other passengers.”
         Save yourself… first. I’ve never seen this in action but it totally makes sense. If someone with you needs assistance, you have to make sure that you are getting the oxygen that you need first. Otherwise you won’t be able to help other people. Save yourself. It sounds a little selfish, but it is logical. Of course this methodology wasn’t invented with modern air travel. In fact it was around long before airplanes were thought of.
         In a slightly different version, religious traditions have been telling us to save yourself first for a very long time. In the Bible Jesus said,

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,” when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. [Luke 6:41-42]

         I imagine many of you have heard this passage before. I think of it often when I hear religious piety aimed at condemning other people. But it’s not a Christian message only. Buddhist scriptures have their own version of the save yourself message. They say:

The faults of others are easily seen, for they are sifted like chaff, but one’s own faults are hard to see. This is like the cheat who hides his dice and shows the dice of his opponent, calling attention to the other’s shortcomings, continually thinking of accusing him. [Udanavarga 27.1]

         I like all of these instructions to save yourself, not for the sake of individual enlightenment or benefit. They are not totally personally focused, they are not “spiritual but not religious,” as the saying goes. These great teachings are about embracing personal spirituality to enable you to care for a wider, religious community. It is about making sure that your own needs, both physical and mental are met, so that then we can then reach out and care for the world around us.
         This linkage of personal development and caring for others is a huge component of the Buddhist life. It is deeply understood that when we find peace in our self, we create peace in the world. And each and every person is capable of that peace. Often times the real challenge in the invitation to save yourself, is believe that you can in fact be saved.

         For many of us, the biggest challenge in the realm of salvation is accepting it. Peace is not something to struggle over. Salvation is not something that we grind through our lives for. It is just there, available for the taking, for each and every one of us, if we can bring ourselves to choose it.
         When I talk about salvation, I’m not talking about salvation from Hell, Remember last weeks worship service was “Salvation in This Life.” Which means exactly that. We can find peace and fulfillment in this life, here and now. What comes next will work itself out.  As UUs we are invested in finding meaning, comfort and peace in this life. I came across a story that so aptly describes the dilemma that many of us face in life. It come’s from Rev. Tom Owen-Towle’s book, “Theology Ablaze” as he describes and old television skit.
         A woman sits behind a table, and in front of her was a long line of people. The woman behind the table addressed the person at the head of the line and said in a somewhat bored but otherwise business-like voice: “Of course, you know that you are dead. So, all you have to do now is go through the entrance behind me on your right marked heaven or through the left one marked hell.”
         The dead man looked incredulous. “You mean, that I, uh, am to choose whether I want to go to heaven or hell? There’s no judgment or final reckoning?” he asked. “Doesn’t it count how I’ve lived, the good things I’ve done as well as the bad things?” The woman behind the table showed the first signs of impatience. “Look sir,” she said. “I can’t spend the whole day on you. People are dying, the line is lengthening. Come on, make up your mind.”
         The dead man by now was beginning to panic. “I’ve done some wrong and bad things during my life. I want to come clean, I want to confess, I want to be judged fairly; and yes, I want to be forgiven…” The woman behind the table no longer could hide her impatience. “I’m not interested in your sins, and nobody else around here is either. Just make up your mind ,that’s all I’m asking of you.”
         The dead man looked horrified. He buried his face in his hands, then he stepped forward past the table and disappeared through the entrance on his left marked “hell.”

         I love this story. It’s easy to imagine and it describes an experience that many of us face, not at the moment of our death, but every day throughout our lives. Remember, last week we talked about salvation in this life. And we are Unitarian Universalists; we believe in universal salvation. That means that salvation is available to each and every one of us, in this life. And I think it’s available over and over, if we are willing to choose it, if we think we are worthy of it. It’s sad to say, but for many of us, the biggest barrier to our salvation, or our peace, is simply not believing that we are worthy of it. Faced with the choice, over and over again we choose to walk through the door marked Hell.

         The other night I watched a movie called “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” It is a pretty great film. It’s a coming of age story set in the 90s I think.  One of the big themes of the movie was people, particularly women being involved with guys who just were very nice to them. It touched on domestic violence some, but the question was even deeper than that. It wasn’t just why they stayed with people who abused them. It was more a question or why do kind, bright, beautiful, loving people settle for partners who treat them poorly? And the answer offered by an overly wise teenager was… “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
         We accept the love that we think we deserve. Theology comes from a variety of sources, even movies about teenage romance.    
         This is precisely why I say “I love you” at the end of every service. For those of you who are new to our community, this isn’t some customary Unitarian Universalist piece of our liturgy. It’s something that I say in this particular congregation for a particular reason. It is partially about individual affirmation and a personal commitment that I try to make to you and this church family. I do love you in that way. But even more than that, this weekly statement is my way of publicly proclaiming as clearly as I know how, that each of you is worthy of love.
         We accept the love that we think we are worthy of. But here’s the secret, we are all worthy of love, worthy of comfort and healing for the pains that we face in this life.

         We are each whole and worthy souls. Even though we have flaws and we make mistakes, at the same time we are whole. It’s the first of our seven principles. We affirm and promote the INHERENT WORTH AND DIGNITY OF EVERY PERSON.  But how can it be that we have inherent worth and dignity, but at the same time have all these challenges, this pain, these mistakes? How can we be both.
         I don’t know how, but I know that we are. We are both broken and whole at the same time.  You have heard me say this before. It’s the way that I understand our human experience. We have inherent worth and dignity, and yet each and every one of us is in need of healing, we need help to hold our broken pieces together. It’s a belief that I have held deeply for many years. It is a cornerstone of my belief system. And it wasn’t until this week that I realized why it is so important to me.
         It’s because salvation comes to us in that mystery of brokenness and wholeness. We each need salvation, a salve for the wounds of this life. We are each broken to some extent and need help holding the pieces of our lives together. But we are also whole beautiful souls, capable and worthy of love. Our salvation rests in the knowledge of these two equally true facts about our self. That not only do we need salvation, but we are worthy of it.

         And in the intersection of brokenness and wholeness is repentance. No serious look at salvation would be complete without some repentance. I know this word brings with it probably as much baggage as the word salvation. It comes will all sorts of negative connotations of depraved people groveling for their lowly sins so that that they might one day be worthy.
         I want to ask you to reconsider this idea of repentance, because it is a potentially life changing idea. The standard definition of Repentance is the activity of reviewing one's actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. That’s a worthwhile thing to do. But much of the nuance of the word is lost in translation.
         In the New Testament, the word translated as 'repentance' is the Greek word (metanoia), which is a compound word of 'meta' (after, with), and the verb 'noeo' (to perceive, to think). The word combines the two meanings of time and change to literally mean 'to think differently after'. Repentance is a change of mind accompanied by change of conduct. It is a change of consciousness.
         Repentance is taking a serious account of our mistakes and shortcomings. Repentance is taking our brokenness very seriously, have opened our hearts to change. And no one can open your heart but your self. No one can save you, but yourself. In big ways and in little ways, it is up to each one of us to individually in our moments of brokenness to remember a different way of being, a different possibility for our beautiful life.
         There is a short story that comes out of the Midrash, the Jewish collection of teachings that tells us a great deal about repentance. A Rabbi tells a young man “You should repent one day before you die.”  “But I don’t know when that is!” says the man.
         “That is the point.” Explains the rabbi. We never know what tomorrow will bring. But we know that today is an opportunity to learn and grow, an opportunity to save ourselves, this day. All our lives we are called to choose growth and opportunity. Every moment of every day is an opportunity for salvation, as we hold in our hearts the fact that we are both broken and whole.

         What I want you to see and hear today is that we have to be willing to accept the moments of salvation when they come. Call it enlightenment, transformation, growth, goodness, we have to open our hearts to those moments when they come. Because; you are worthy. No matter how muddy you get, no matter how many mistakes you make, you are worthy of love and peace, here, now, and every day.


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