Emerson acknowledged that sermons can be deadly dull, including, presumably, his own. His genius was in the written word – his oratory skills were limited, but effective enough to attract audiences to his lecture circuit.
So he included himself when he said, “I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in vain. There is a good ear in some listeners that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment and a sermon though foolishly spoken may be wisely heard.”
Are you listening?
Theologically, Emerson was a Transcendentalist, believing that theology comes to us through our intuition – ‘it cannot be obtained second hand,’ he said. Philosophically he was an optimist, believing in the innate drive toward virtue. He was heavily influenced by the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant who said;
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me…I see them before me and connect them immediately with my existence.”
For Emerson, as well as for Kant, religion, in general, and God in particular, comes to us unassisted through what both referred to as intuition.
Revelation, then, is the realization of the moral law within, as Kant put it. In other words, there’s something in each of us naturally that realizes our connection to the Creative Process in which we find ourselves – to Life.
To make this connection, to realize it in a personal way, we must be free to think for ourselves, unencumbered with traditional religious doctrines and creedal statements.
That’s the essence of what Emerson wrote in his poem on Self-Reliance in which he said:
I will not live out of me
I will not see with others’ eyes
My good is good, my evil ill
I would be free – …
Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Lighthearted as a bird & live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart,
I hear continually his Voice therein…
Who says the heart’s a blind guide? It is not.
My heart did never counsel me to sin
I wonder where it got its wisdom…
The little needle always knows the north
The little bird remembereth his note
And this wise Seer within me never errs
I never taught it what it teaches me
I only follow when I act aright.
Whence then did this Omniscient Spirit come
From God it came,
It is Deity.
The categorical imperative of Kant is an unconditional moral law that applies to all rational beings – it is independent of any personal motives, desires or beliefs. It is a built in moral compass – the thing in us that distinguishes right from wrong. It’s the ‘wise seer within us that knows,’ and which we must follow, like the needle on the compass, if we are to act as moral agents in the world.
The seven cardinal virtues that run counter to the seven cardinal sins are: humility, kindness, abstinence, chastity, patience, liberality or generosity and diligence.
I’m working on a series of sermons to address each of these so-called ‘cardinal virtues,’ but for our purposes today suffice it to say that what happens in this sanctuary every Sunday morning is an attempt to provide some nutriment to feed that part of us that wants to be good persons, to avoid the opposite drives that include pride (vanity or hubris), envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth – each of which has the potential to become self-destructive.
This is a reminder of a Cherokee Legend: An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, puffed-up pride.”
Then he said, “The other wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity and compassion. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win, grandfather?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
This legend summarizes human nature, characterized by forces of good and evil within each of us…creativity and destructiveness.
What feeds the good wolf? Where do we get the supplies to nurture virtue?
Talk radio often feeds anger – I don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh but I’ve heard enough to know which wolf he feeds.
Madison Avenue feeds greed and envy – ‘buy a big, bright green pleasure machine, you better hurry up and order one today,’ sang Simon and Garfunkel. There are cultural forces feeding our arrogance and pride – there are cultural forces feeding our lust, and so forth.
So where do we find ‘supplies to virtue?’
What feeds our innate capacity for kindness and compassion?
What feeds peace, joy, humility and empathy? How do we nurture a sense of appreciation in a society and culture that feeds our sense of entitlement that drives us to always want more, to never be satisfied?
Our Mission Statement is summarized in three words: inspire, connect and act, thus providing some ‘supplies to virtue.’ That’s what we hope our focus on the work of our Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office will do.
Our UU office at the United Nations is one of the ways we’re able to respond to the needs of children who orphaned by the Aids epidemic. One of the programs of the UU-UN Office is called Every Child is Our Child, bringing to mind a line from our Service of Dedication of Parents and Children:
“Our service of dedication is performed publicly because we recognize that we all have a responsibility for the intelligent care of all the children of the world.”
Millions of children in Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS – it’s an overwhelming tragedy. One response is to feel overwhelmed, but another response – an empowering response is to provide one or more of those millions of children with an opportunity to get an education, which is at the heart of the Every Child is Our Child program in our partnership with the Queen Mothers Association in the Manya Krobo region of Eastern Ghana.
The Queen Mothers Association is a women’s organization that places orphaned children with local families, and provides food and shelter and the warmth of some human kindness, compassion and the love that feeds the soul.
Because of our support of our UU UNO some of these children Manya Krobo, Ghana, have been getting an education that otherwise would not have been possible. $120 supports one child’s education for 1 year – a chance to fulfill their own potential and break the cycle of poverty that they’re otherwise locked into.
School fees are required and the foster families, or adoptive families, generally can’t afford them. Today there are 135 children are enrolled in school because of the Every Child is Our Child program. We have provided funds for eight of these children.
Last June, at our General Assembly in Minneapolis our congregation was recognized by the UN Office as a major contributor – more than 100 of us are members of the UU UNO, and our own Catherine Onyemelukwe is president of their Board, inspiring us and connecting us and helping us to act on our stated values – in other words, drawing supplies to the virtues of generosity and kindness.
Thank you, Catherine!
I also want to say thank you to those who have joined United Nations Office and contributed to the Every Child is Our Child effort.
I’ll close with well-worn lines from Rabbi Hillel who summarized it this way:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” …. Thanks for the good ear!