Opening words from May Sarton’s Well: “If one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like revelation takes place. Something is ‘given,’ and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self. We are aware of God only when we cease to be aware of ourselves, not in the negative sense of denying the self, but in the sense of losing self with admiration and joy.”
We are here to look again at the essence of life, the life each of us has been given, and the life we share, the collective human life, and the life of Nature, of which we are a part. We’re here to help revelation take place, so we can see ourselves, one another, Nature, in a new light.
We’re here for a little retreat, from the day-to-day life where we’re challenged to live up to commitments to be good, loving parents and grandparents; to be responsible members of this congregation and responsible citizens of this nation.
Our hope is that this time together today will help us to return to the day-to-day tasks with renewed energy and remind us to take time to look closely at a flower a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, a cloud to let something like revelation happen by enjoying and appreciating life.
Sermon: “Journey to the East”
“In conclusion.” That woke you up! When’s someone speaking and you ear, “And in conclusion,” you tend to wake up. Well, this sermon is the last of this season for me-a kind of ‘in conclusion.’
I want to summarize what it means for me to serve you as one of the ministers, and what I think it means for you to be a member of this congregation-for those who are new members, or long-time members, or somewhere between. I hope it will serve some undesignated purpose for those who are not members, but may be considering membership, or may be helped to clarify why they are not members.
What’s expected of each of us? What’s this place about, anyway?
The title of the sermon comes from one of Hermann Hesse’s less well-known novels.
It’s a story about the joys and trials of participating in a community like this one. It’s about leadership as well as membership; it’s about serving as a form of leading, and it’s about the busy intersection of service, leadership, membership and participation.
In Hesse’s story, which he wrote in 1932 in (with masculine gender-based language) in the form of an autobiography, about a band of Pilgrims, which he calls the League, who are making a journey to the East. The East, in the story, is a metaphor for a place of wisdom, the source of spirituality.
Let me offer some sentences from The Journey to the East, by Herman Hesse:
“It was my destiny to join in a great experience. Having had the good fortune to belong to the League, I was permitted to participate in a unique journey….
“One of the characteristics of the Journey to the East was that although the League aimed at quite definite, very lofty goals during this journey, yet every single participant could have his own private goals. Indeed, he had to have them; for no one was included who did not have such private goals, and every single one of us, while appearing to share common ideals and goals.carried his own fond childhood dream within his heart as a source of inner strength and comfort…
“This expedition to the East was not only mine and now; this procession of believers and disciples had always and incessantly been moving towards the East towards the Home of Light.
“And each member, each group, indeed our whole host and its great pilgrimage, was only a wave in the eternal stream of human beings, of the eternal striving of the human sprit towards the East, towards Home.
“It was not unusual for us to be mocked at, but it also happened often enough that priests blessed us and invited us to be their guests, that children enthusiastically joined us, learned our songs and watched us depart with tears in their eyes; that an old man would show us forgotten monuments or tell us a legend about his district; that youths would walk with us part of the way.
“The expedition did not proceed in a fixed order with participants moving in the same direction. On the contrary.each follow(ed) their own star, each one always ready to merge into a greater unit and belong to it for a time, but always no less ready to move on again separately. Some went on their way quite alone. I also walked alone at times, whenever some sign or call tempted me to go my own way.
“It was very pleasant whenever we met one of these groups, to attend their feasts and devotions and to invite them to ours, to bless and know them on parting; they went their way, we went ours. Each one of them had his own dream, his wish, his secret heart’s desire, and yet they all flowed together in the great stream and all belonged to each other, shared the same reverence and the same faith.
“I, whose calling was really only that of a violinist and story-teller, was responsible for the provision of music for our group, and I then discovered how a long time devoted to small details exalts us and increases our strength.
“Yet our goal was not only the East, or rather the East was not only a country and something geographical, but it was the home and youth of the soul, it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times.
“And so we League brothers traveled throughout the world. We had within us something stronger than reality or probability and that was faith in the meaning and necessity of our action.”
Hesse talks in this novel about ‘the law of service,’ and the central character, Leo, is a servant who carries luggage and cooks, whistling as he goes about his work.
One night Leo suddenly and unexpectedly disappears. They search for him to no avail. Soon their group falls apart and eventually Hermann, the autobiographical character Hesse uses to tell the story-eventually he arrives at his destination and is surprised to learn that Leo, the servant, is in fact the great guru, the president of the League, the person who they were traveling to the East to meet.
Hesse’s story provided me with an illustration for a brief essay I was required to write for the department of ministry on my concept of the Unitarian Universalist ministry.
Referring to Hesse’s story I wrote, “The minister is, first and foremost, a servant. The minister must be able to serve without being servile or submissive.the minister leads by serving and serves by leading.”
I wrote, “The professional minister must be a person with enthusiasm, warmth, compassion, intelligence, authenticity and an active sense of humor.”
Then I quoted Chesterton who said that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.
“The roles of minister and congregation are in some ways synonymous. Ministry is a very human and humanizing profession, and the church must be a human and humanizing place.”
Recently I was asked to participate in a workshop on membership issues at the annual meeting of our Metro District. As one of three panelists I was asked to respond a few questions. Among them: ‘Why would anyone want to come to a UU church? Why might they want to stay? Who is responsible to whom for what? What does it mean when someone is not interested in staying?
I introduced myself by reciting a poem, The Duck, by Donald Babcock:
“Now we’re ready to look at something pretty special. It’s a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf. No it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
“He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.
“He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
“But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
“He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
“Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.
“And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it! He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity – which it is. He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.
“I like the little duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.”
To the question why anyone would want to come to a UU church I said, “Because they have a belly button.” I explained that the belly button is a humble reminder that we become unconnected at birth and we need to re-connect with other people, who nurture and care for us at first, and to whom we are called to nurture and care later and we need to re-connect with an ever-changing, aging self and we need to re-connect with Nature, of which we are a part.
I talked about the etymology of the word religion-and I know there’s not a single etymology, but this one works for me. It’s from the Latin verb legare, to connect. So, re-legare is to re-connect.
Everyone needs to reconnect, so everyone needs religion, though most of the people who come and stay in a UU church do not want a pre-packaged religion.
We are the Home Depot religion-for those who want to do their own home improvements, making the world home, rather than a home with narrow boundaries.
I also acknowledged in my little presentation on membership that people come here for help-help in their marriages or committed relationships; help in raising children; help in dealing with grief, loss and separation; help in re-building some damaged self-esteem; help in finding some new direction in life.
People come here because they know they need to make a contribution, to add value to this world rather than merely consuming it.
People stay because it feels right. They stay because they like the music, meditation, sermons or other parts of the service. Sometimes they stay in spite of the sermons, or the meditation, or some particular music. They stay because they feel ‘at home.’ They feel respected.
They stay for their own private reasons, as Hesse suggested in his story. “Every single participant could have his own private goals. Indeed, he had to have them; for no one was included who did not have such private goals, and every single one of us, while appearing to share common ideals and goals.carried his own fond childhood dream within his heart as a source of inner strength and comfort…”
To the question, “Who is responsible to whom for what?” I said, “It is important to distinguish between the responsibilities of the professional leadership and lay volunteer leadership.”
“We UU’s are fond of saying that ‘everyone is a minister.’ That’s all well and good, and there is deep truth to that statement. But professional leadership assumes certain responsibilities, like preaching, that others are not necessarily expected to assume, though some may do it well, and some may even do it better than the professional leader, but the professional leader is expected to do it week after week, year after year.and do it with ever renewing energy and enthusiasm.”
Finally I said, “There’s a lot a minister can and must do, but there are things that bring people and keep people that no minister can do alone. Warm greetings must flow from the broad base of members. Lay people must initiate programs that provide an opportunity for small groups to get together for purposes of education, entertainment, fun and the deepening of fellowship so people can get to know others and feel known.”
There’s a lot I would add to these comments from the workshop on Membership, but I’ll close with only one.
The passage from Hesse’s book, in talking about those who joined the League said, “No one was included who did not have such private goals, and every single one of us, while appearing to share common ideals and goals. Carried his own fond childhood dream within his heart as a source of inner strength and comfort.”
Another way of saying that we all have ‘private goals’ is to say that we all have our own work to do; we’re all working out our own salvation, if you will. By salvation I don’t mean that we’re working toward getting a passport into the Pearly gates, but by salvation I mean that we’re trying to put all the pieces of our life together.that we all need to get beyond left over feelings of guilt, anger, resentment; that we all need to find the source of forgiveness, and we all need to learn how to forgive.
We have to do that for ourselves, but we can’t do it by ourselves. We’re here because we need one another; those needs change as we move through the chapters of the Great Novel we call our life story.
To those who are the most recent members, as well as those who are long time members, let me say that your ministers are committed to doing the best we can to make this place work for you, but we need your help. We need your feedback. We need your support. We need to know if you are feeling neglected or not connected. We need to know if your journey takes you away from here so we can learn what we need to learn.
We’re here to serve. And, with Whitman we can say:
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?