There’s a famous Hasidic story about the rabbi who disappeared every Shabat Eve ‘to commune with God in the forest,’ or so his congregation thought. Once they assigned a cantor to follow the rabbi on his Shabat Eve trip into the forest to observe his holy encounter. Deeper and deeper into the forest the rabbi went until he came to the small cottage of a Gentile woman, sick to death and crippled into a painful posture. Once there, the rabbi cooked for her and carried her firewood and swept her floor. Then when the chores were finished he returned immediately to his little house next to the synagogue.
Back in the village the people demanded of the cantor who followed him, “Did our rabbi go up to heaven as we thought?”
The cantor paused and said, “Oh, he went higher than that, much higher!”
We’re here today to be reminded that compassion is the most visible sign of the highest that is in us. Some choose to call it God, Adonai, Allah, Tao, The Way, Truth, Spirit, Soul. Some see it as so sacred they choose not to give it a name. We are here to gather that Spirit, to harvest that Power, to kindle that Flame and to witness the Mystery in this hour.
Reading: Famous lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like It
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy,
With his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.
Then a soldier
Full of strange paths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipperred pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything
Sermon: Dramatic Diversity
Two weeks ago I visited with my oldest brother, Chet, to celebrate his 68th birthday. He brought several old photographs to give to me, which he had recently unearthed and enlarged. One was taken in 1941, when I was a little over a year old, and in a playpen; another was taken in 1943 when I was three years old and being held in the arm’s of my Uncle Art who was in his army uniform, just before being shipped off to the war- he would fight in Germany and return with psychological wounds that never really healed; another was taken in 1946, just after the end of the War, and another when I was eight- the year of Israel’s re-birth.
Those photographs helped me to locate myself on the stage in which the great drama of life has been played out during the first five stages of my own life. It got me thinking about what was going on in the world when each of these photographs was taken: the outbreak of World War II, and the Holocaust that was being carried out by Hitler and Company…and the foundations stones of a new Israel.
An ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.”
What does that mean? What does it mean ‘to live in interesting times?’ Isn’t the opposite of that which is ‘interesting’ that which is boring- tedious, monotonous, repetitious and dull?
That which is ‘interesting’ is engrossing, provocative, engaging, riveting and gripping.
We are living in interesting times, and we often feel the curse of these ‘interesting times,’ as the ancient Chinese proverb suggests. There are things going on in the world that demand our attention and reflection, whether we can do anything about them or not.
The great and often terrible drama that is unfolding daily is not only demanding but draining- the more we pay attention to all the things that are going on, the more we exhaust our emotional resources and we can come away feeling spiritually bereft.
The war in Israel is like an unremitting series of World Trade Center attacks as terrorists taunt the beleaguered Isralis. It shocks and disheartens us.
The drama in the Catholic Church that has been unfolding for months fuels the fires of cynicism about religion as big business. The bad apples have made life miserable for the vast majority of priests who have kept their vows. The Bishops and Cardinals who moved bad apples from barrel to barrel have multiplied the damage.
The corruption uncovered in the Enron/Arthur Andersen partnership of deceit and greed has cast a pall over our complex corporate world.
Responsible corporate executives have been sent scurrying back to the books- the auditors books- to get rid of shady accounting and business practices and close the offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.
Revelations of Billy Graham’s anti-Semitism, expressed behind closed doors with a nasty Nixon, provide one more reminder of the hypocrisy of the big-business religion that fills football stadiums and huge auditoriums with a mass-marketed, instant feel-good faith that points to the truth in Karl Marx’s maxim that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses.’
Addiction to an opium-like religion is one thing; the hatred and anti-Semitism in Christianity that led to the Holocaust is another thing, and that same hatred is alive and well in the Muslim-Jewish war that’s raging in Israel today. Not that it’s all religiously based, but make no mistake about it, hatred has religious roots.
Having acknowledged some of the elephants that are sitting in the corners of our minds, I want to take a look at the topic of today’s sermon-the dramatic diversity that characterizes religion in America, and, to some extent, the dramatic diversity of religion in the world today.
The world has become the great melting pot we used to talk about to describe ethnic diversity in the United States of America. But the world is not so much a melting pot as it is a great cauldron that is boiling over, spilling its dangerous contents like lava from an active volcano.
Darwin looked closely at the evolution of all forms of life on the planet. He saw that the diversity of species was a function of competition and natural selection- survival of the fittest. Those same principles apply to humans as well as all the other struggling, competing, evolving forms of life on the planet.
This brings us to Diana Eck, who has been keeping a Darwinian eye on the evolution of religious life among humans. Recently she published some interesting findings in an eye-opening book she calls ‘The New Religious America: How a Christian County Has Now Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.
In the introduction she writes: “The religious landscape of America has changed radically in the past thirty years, but most of us have not yet begun to see the dimensions and scope of that change, so gradual has it been and yet so colossal. It began with the ‘new immigration,’ spurred by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, as people from all over the world came to America and have become citizens. With them have come the religious traditions of the world-Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Zoroastrian, African and Afro-Caribbean.”
She goes on to say, “The people of these living traditions of faith have moved into American neighborhoods, tentatively at first, their altars and prayer rooms in storefronts and office buildings, basements and garages, recreation rooms and coat closets, nearly invisible to the rest of us. But in the past decade we have begun to see their visible presence. Not all of us have seen the Toledo mosque or the Nashville temple, but we will see places like them, if we keep our eyes open, even in our own communities. They are the architectural signs of a new religious America.”
She points out that there are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians…more Muslim Americans than Presbyterians. There are as many Muslim American as there are Jewish Americans, which is to say about six million.
Muslim Americans outnumber Unitarian Universalist Americans by twenty five to one. Hindus by four to one.
I was surprised to learn that Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world: ‘with a Buddhist population spanning the whole range of the Asian Buddhist world from Sri Lanka to Korea, along with native-born American Buddhists.’ She estimates that there are about four million Americans who identify themselves as Buddhist.
There’s a Hindu American population of more than a million.
When our European ancestors arrived on these shores there was, of course, a wide variety of living religions among the Native Americans who had been here for thousands of years.
We have to wonder if the founders of this country had any notion of how the wall of separation they built between religion and politics would result in the most religiously diverse nation that has ever existed on earth.
Dianna Eck points out that American Christianity has had a major face lift. She writes about the huge impact of Latino, Filipino, and Vietnamese Catholic communities; the Chinese Haitian, and Brazilian Pentecostal groups; the Korean Presbyterians that are part of what she calls this ‘complex religious reality.’
Eck talks about the strident Christian fundamentalists who insist on calling this a ‘Christian country,’ and she writes: “I sense in some of the most strident Christian communities little awareness of this new religious America, the one Christians now share with Muslims, Buddhist, and Zoroastrians. They display a confident, unselfconscious assumption that religion basically means Christianity, with traditional space made for the Jews. But make no mistake: in the past thirty years, as Christianity has become more publicly vocal, something else of enormous importance has happened. The United States has become the most religiously diverse nation on earth.”
Religious pluralism, as Dianna Eck points out, is, for many Americans, ‘not a vision that brings us together but one that tears us apart.’ Thus the title of this sermon: dramatic diversity…a diversity characterized by the expression of powerful, often explosive emotions.
Who knows how this great drama will unfold? Increasing religious diversity in America has been stained with many incidents of vandalism and hatred. A Fourth of July editorial in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago said, “We the people of the United States of America are now religiously diverse as never before and some Americans do not like it.”
Diana Eck catalogues a sampling of incidents that have made headlines around the country in recent years- the vandalism that has been anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Hindu…and zoning restrictions meant to keep people who are ‘different’ out of town, or out of a neighborhood.
Interfaith progress is alive and well all across the country, sometimes in spite of the organized resistance, and sometimes progress is made because of the resistance, with good people realizing that they need to respond to the negative with positive action.
Two weeks from today our Westport-Weston Interfaith Council is sponsoring a concert in which most of the churches and synagogues will participate. The final piece will have clergy joining voices in song, reaching for the harmony we’re working for. The proceeds of the concert will benefit ABC, A Better Chance, and help bring young minority scholars to Westport so they can attend Staples High School and have a better chance than the schools they’re in now can offer. It will provide Staples students a better chance to be prepared for the racial and ethnic diversity they will be living and working in after high school and college, and a chance for them to be relieved of the prejudice that is too often ingrained in them because they have not had opportunity to live and work with minority kids.
We Unitarian Universalists thrive on diversity. We even beat ourselves up because we don’t have the kind of racial, ethnic and economic diversity among our members that we think we should have- the kind of racial and ethnic diversity in our membership that would be consistent with our deeply-held egalitarian views.
We thrive on religious diversity and pluralism. Some accuse us of religious dilettantism: we collect pieces of other people’s religions; we dabble; we’re amateurs; shallow; superficial; half-baked.
I respond, “We may be half-baked, but at least we’re in the oven, and we’re cookin’!”
We take a certain delight in our dabbling. We want a religion we can enjoy. We don’t want to be locked in to what Emerson called ‘a foolish consistency,’ which he said is ‘the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen and divines.’
I personally take religious diversity to another level and suggest that there’s no reason why we can’t hold belief in one hand and disbelief in the other- both believing and disbelieving simultaneously. Why can’t each of us be both theist and atheist; both Gnostic and agnostic? Why can’t we doubt some of the beliefs we hold most dear?
An atheist is simply someone who rejects another person’s notion of God. There are lots of television preachers that make me retreat to the atheist position. There are theologians who affirm my own thinking- not necessarily in agreement with theirs…people like the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, the Catholic thinker Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, the Protestant teacher Paul Tillich, the Buddhist Dali Llama, the Sufi poet Rumi, and so forth.
Narrow definitions of God create atheists.
After the World Trade Center attack I heard an otherwise rational man say that ‘America has fallen away from God, from believing in God, but He has his ways!’
He was saying that God decided to send those planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania so that we would believe in him. Such a horrible and horrifying notion is so repugnant that it would make any believer blush!
There’s a drama being played out on the stage of life- we make our entrances and exits. There are people who invite us ‘in,’ and people who make us want to make a quick dash for the door!
The dramatic diversity is within each of us, as well as part of the process of human life evolving on the planet.
The primary point is that we are a religiously diverse nation. We take pride in the fact that people working side by side at the World Trade Center were hundreds of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus as well as many who would have described themselves as atheist, agnostic, mystic…and many of those would describe themselves as being spiritual but not religious, which is another way of saying that one is kind, considerate, compassionate and thoughtful without attaching kindness and compassion to any particular set of religious creeds.
We cherish the growing diversity among the people who inhabit this land. To paraphrase Lincoln’s famous words, when he spoke at Gettysburg about this nation, ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.’ We, too, continue to ‘test whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.’
Religious diversity is one of the defining characteristics of this country, and, increasingly, it characterizes the world- not only because there are more religions in the world than ever, which there are, but because they are more visible. We know about them.
We readily admit that our Unitarian Universalist approach draws from many sources. Someone said, “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”
All of the religions have plagiarized- or, I should say that each of the religions of the world is ‘well researched.’
Part of the great drama that is being acted out on the religious stage is the result of the quick and easy exchange of information and ideas. It started with the invention of the printing press and quickly leaped to the internet.
The desire for freedom, and the spread of freedom around the world, is pouring fuel on the fires that are raging, the great drama that is unfolding in ‘the interesting times in which we live.’
It doesn’t make it any easier to understand or control the violence that goes with this great drama. Israel is a good example–we’re trying to understand the roots of what’s happening there, but we keep hacking at the branches. (Remember Thoreau’s saying: ‘There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil for every one that is digging up the roots.’)
The drama of religious diversity often has that ‘in your face,’ aspect. Guess who’s coming to dinner?!
Religious diversity is a threat to those who hold to the old, outworn notion of a God who chooses favorites, so it is a central factor in the terrorism perpetrated by religious the fanatics who believe in that kind of god. When that kind of crude religion marries into a dictatorial political system the result is deadly. That is part of the alarming reality in so many places around this war-torn world.
As Unitarian Universalists we’ve been promoting multi-culturalism, the acknowledgement and acceptance of one another’s differences, from our early beginnings in Transylvania in the 16th century.
Little by little we have seen the changes. The so-called ecumenical movement that began to take hold among Christians after World War II soon became the inter-faith movement that emerged in the 70’s, with Jewish-Christian dialogue. Ecumenism was the attempt to re-unite the divided Christian world. The interfaith movement attempts to promote understanding and respect of all the religions of the world.
The old gods die hard. Our prejudices protect us. In our infancy we feel protected by powerful parents. In our childhood we feel protected by the power of our family- our group, tribe, clan, race.
We are becoming more and more aware that it is not our tribe, clan or race that is threatened- our species is threatened.
This awareness makes us feel part of the human race, not only accepting the diversity of races among us, the diversity of religions among us…but more than merely accepting this diversity, we have been celebrating the diversity…this wonderful rainbow, as Jesse Jackson called it.
Martin Luther King’s dream is our dream- that one day the sons and daughters of former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slave owners will sit down at the table together.
We have a dream, that our children and grandchildren will live in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skins but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in 1929, the same year that Ann Frank was born. She said, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
And he said, “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
In the midst of the kind of diversity we see in our own country it is all but impossible to hold on to those old, narrow prejudices that divided us into nationalities, races and religions, all claiming to be ‘just a little bit superior.’
Our national motto, stamped on our coins, says E pluribus unum–Out of many, one. We embrace diversity. We are now the most religiously diverse nation that has ever existed on this earth. It is our responsibility to preserve, protect and defend that diversity and to work toward justice and equity for all.
Closing Reading: Prayers of Steel, Carl Sandburg
Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.
Let me pry loose old walls.
Let me lift and loosen old foundations.
Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.
Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.
Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.
Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue
nights into white stars.