First Reading: Here Where One Stands, Martin Buber
Rabbi Bunam used to tell young men who came to him for the first time the story of Rabbi Eizik, son of Rabbi Yekel of Cracow. After many years of great poverty, which had never shaken his faith in God, he dreamed someone bade him look for a treasure in Prague, under the bridge which leads to the king’s palace. When the dream recurred a third time, Rabbi Eizik prepared for the journey and set out for Prague.
But the bridge was guarded day and night and he did not dare to start digging. Nevertheless he went to the bridge every morning and kept walking around it until evening. Finally the captain of the guards, who had been watching him, asked in a kindly way whether he was looking for something or waiting for somebody. Rabbi Eizik told him of the dream which had brought him here from a faraway country.
The captain laughed: “And so to please the dream, you poor fellow wore out your shoes to come here! As for having faith in dreams, if I had had it, I should have had to get going when a dream once told me to go to Cracow and dig for treasure under the stove in the room of a Jew — Eizik, son of Yekel, that was the name! Eizik, son of Yekel! I can just imagine what it would be like, how I should have to try every house over there, where one half of the Jews are named Eizik and the other Yekel!” And he laughed again.
Rabbi Eizik bowed, travelled home, dug up the treasure from under the stove, and built the House of Prayer which is called “Reb Eizik Reb Yekel’s Shul.”
“Take this story to heart,” Rabbi Bunam used to add, “and make what it says your own: There is something you cannot find anywhere in the world, not even at the zaddik’s, and there is, nevertheless, a place where you can find it.”
Second Reading: The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran
“And an old priest said, Speak to us of Religion.
And he said: Have I spoken this day of aught else?
Is not religion all deeds and all reflection,
And that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise ever springing in the soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend the loom?
Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations?
Who can spread his hours before him, saying, “This for God and this for myself; this for my soul, and this other for my body?” …
Your daily life is your temple and your religion…
And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles.
Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.
And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in the rain. You shall see him smiling in the flowers, then rising and waving His hand in trees.”
The old priest responds to the request to ‘speak to us about religion’ by saying, “Have I spoken this day of aught else?”
When I decided to do a sermon on my notion of what it means to be a religious liberal I thought of the old priest’s answer, “Have I spoken these 20 years of aught else?”
Martin Buber’s story points to an essential aspect of what it means to be a religious liberal: your spiritual treasure is buried within you; the task is to ‘dig it up,’ and to put it to good use, illustrated by Rabbi Eizik using his treasure to build a school for religious instruction. Perhaps the image of building a religious school is a metaphor for life-long learning, and the life-long process of spiritual development.
The story says that Rabbi Eikik had a dream that took him far from home. What does it mean to go ‘far from home?’ One way of looking at the journey from Cracow to Prague is the realization that there are times when we have to move away from the familiar—old ideas or beliefs—and to pursue a dream, or consider some new possibility or career. Joseph Campbell coined the phrase, ‘Follow your bliss.’
Rabbi Eizik got a ‘hint’ from the friendly palace guard, who didn’t realize the deeper significance of what he was telling Rabbi Eizik. He helped Rabbi Eizik to realize that the treasure about which he dreamed was under his own stove, in his own home, which is to say, ‘here where one stands.’
We need one another. We don’t always know the influence we have on one another. But something happens in the process of speaking and listening with one another—there’s a synergistic quality to our interactions…a stimulation…or a challenge.
Emerson said, “Truly speaking it is not instruction, but provocation that I receive from another soul.” Buber’s story illustrates these points.
The spiritual treasure isn’t something you dig up and discover, all at once. The spiritual treasure is discovered little by little, and over and over, in the process of living. It’s an accumulation of your own personal experience, but filtered from the depths.
This, I think, is the essence of liberal religion, and it stands in contrast to the more traditional, or orthodox notion: that your religion is a set of beliefs which are carved in stone, and come from some outside or higher authority—a Bible, or Koran; a priest, minister or rabbi; an imam, or guru, or some imagined Buddha.
Any and all of those sources may stimulate your thinking, may provide the provocation you need at that moment. But they are like fingers pointing to the moon. Liberal religion says, “Don’t confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon.” That’s like seeing a road sign that points to a place and sitting up on the sign post believing you’ve arrived!
An essential ingredient to liberal religion, as I understand it today, is captured poetically by Whitman in the following lines from his signature poem, Song of Myself:
“Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? Have you reckon’d the earth much? Have you practiced so long to learn to read, and have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…You shall no longer take things at second or third hand. You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, but you shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”
Liberal religion acknowledges that the source of all poems—the source of all the religions of the world, have come from the depths of the human experience…one might say that they have come from what we call ‘inspiration.’
The deepest truths—the buried treasure—do no come easily or automatically. This, I think, is one of the great misunderstandings of liberal religion: that it’s easy.
For the religious liberal, the Bible is a collection of poetry, mythology, history and legend, written over the course of many hundreds of years, drawn from many cultures, is a book written by people like you and me.
For the religious liberal it becomes sacred literature to the extent that we’re able to understand the myths—to see the stories as ways of revealing us to ourselves.
My friend and colleague Forrest Church defines religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”
While I appreciate Forrest’s definition I prefer to define religion by looking at its literal meaning. The world religion is rooted in the Latin verb legare, which means to bind, or to connect.
To me religion is the accumulation of the experiences that have helped me to realize and to affirm my connection to others. We call that realization and affirmation by various names: love, friendship, bonding, support, encouragement, respect, appreciation, sympathy and compassion, to name a few.
Religion is the accumulation of the experiences that have helped me to realize and to affirm my connection to the natural world—my relationship with animals—with animals in the wild and with pets; my relationship with the ocean, the moon and stars and planets, the forest and rivers, the wind and rain, the snow.
Whitman titled his book of poetry Leaves of Grass, emphasizing that relationship between poetry and spirituality.
Religion is the accumulation of the experiences that help me to feel reconnected to an ever-evolving, ever-changing self.
Forrest’s definition describes the underlying reason for the invention of most of the religions of the world—the need to deal with mortality. Most religions place a heavy emphasis on death, offering a ticket to some imagined after life, and a front-row seat for the true believers, and, I’ll risk sounding cynical by saying that the front row seat is for the biggest financial contributors. That, indeed, is what drove Martin Luther’s Reformation. He was a religious liberal because he didn’t believe you could buy your way out of hell and into heaven with indulgences—contributions made to the church in order to pay off the gods.
I am a religious liberal because I believe that all the religions of the world are right and true, but none is entirely right, nor does any religion have a corner on the market of truth.
I am a religious liberal because I believe that religious literature is poetry—not literal truth, and certainly not history, as if God intervened in time, created the world in six days, and parted the Red Sea, and so forth. As poetry, those stories help us to feel God’s active presence in the world right now as the ongoing creative energy we call love.
I’m a religious liberal because I read the story of Noah and realize that this is the ark. We’re on it, now, floating on the sea of time, and we have to be responsible mariners—environmentalists, taking care of the earth; and we have to be responsible economists, finding equitable ways of distributing the food, all of which comes from the earth and the sea; finding creative ways of helping people to find meaningful work, and so forth.
I am a religious liberal because my sacred literature is an ever-growing collection of poems and stories that speak to my heart, and when a poem or story speaks to my heart it’s as though God is speaking directly to me…because when I read such a poem or story I realize I’m not alone…I can feel my connection with other souls who were born into this world the same as I was, and who struggle to find meaning, the same as I do.
The word of God comes through sometimes in candle lighting, right in this sanctuary, and when that happens this room becomes a sacred space.
As a religious liberal, part of my task is to introduce you to some of my friends—those who have inspired me and helped me to dig up the treasure which is under my own stove. So I say, “Here’s my old friend, Walt Whitman; and here’s my friend Robert Frost and over here are Carl Sandburg and E. E. Cummings… William Longfellow, John Masefield, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver and May Sarton. And here’s Allen Ginsberg, and on and on.
I am a religious liberal because I believe we each have to ‘seek the truth.’ It’s not delivered to us with the morning paper any more than it’s passed on to us by Bibles or Bishops or grandparents. We have to marry science to religion, the sacred to the secular. “Your daily life is your religion.”
As a religious liberal I say that the big question isn’t whether there’s life after death, but the big question is what kind of life you will put together after birth.
As a religious liberal I say we have a responsibility to help one another along the way—not to convert others to our beliefs or our way of thinking—our opinions. But to be there for them, to listen, to create a caring atmosphere characterized by mutual respect rather than agreement about the Bible or what Jesus really meant.
As a religious liberal I generally avoid putting a name on God– on that which is in truth beyond my capacity to understand, rationally or intellectually. I like the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
Do you see the paradox in this statement?
On the one hand, it sounds like Lao Tze, it’s supposed author, is agnostic, saying that we can’t know. On the other hand, however, he’s clearly suggesting that there is something beyond what we can name; but not beyond what we can know or realize.
The Buddhist says, “Those who know, don’t say. Those who say, don’t know.”
Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before men…like the hypocrites who want to be seen in the temple.”
As a religious liberal I can call myself a Buddhist, without any need to practice someone else’s form of Buddhism; I can find meaning in the Jewish stories and the Jewish holidays and holy days; I can find meaning in the Christian stories and the Christian holidays and holy days; I can claim a sacred status to the poems that speak to me, that reach into the depths of my being and provide nourishment, or healing, or encouragement.
In a deeper sense, I become a religious liberal to the extent that I am liberated, so that I can take the best of the Christianity that nourished me as a child, and with a breath of comfort, blow the rest away. I can let go of the old anger or resentment I felt when I was told that I was not a ‘good Christian’ if I didn’t believe in the Apostle’s Creed—that Jesus was literally born of a virgin and descended into hell and sits at the right hand of the Father. It took me a long time to rid myself of the anger. In truth it took years before I was even aware that the anger was ‘down there where the spirit meets the bone.’
As a religious liberal I can take little gems I discover in Judaism and recite precious poems I find in Islam, like Rumi’s poem: “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there’s a field, I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.”
As a religious liberal I give myself permission to be wrong.
Indeed, one definition of a liberal (religious or political) is someone who acknowledges that he (or she) might be wrong.
I can change my mind, which is why I like to quote Emerson’s famous line about consistency: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and divines and philosophers. With consistency a great mind simply has nothing to do.”
Not long ago, the very idea of reading the Bible for yourself was considered heretical. By translating the Bible into the vernacular, Martin Luther launched the Reformation. He was a religious liberal. Like Whitman, he was saying that you need not take things at second or third hand…but you should look at all sides–read it–and filter it from yourself.
Some religious liberals are politically conservative. They should be welcome in this place.
The ideas, beliefs and precepts that once distinguished a liberal or a conservative do not remain constant. They’ve changed rather drastically during my lifetime, and will continue to change, to evolve.
One of the reasons I decided to speak on this topic today is the thorny problem that has grown up among us, here in the Unitarian Church in Westport, and in most of our congregations around the country. We have tended to assume that all religious liberals are also politically liberal—Democrats v. Republicans. That’s an unfortunate as well as a dangerous assumption.
We Unitarian Universalists run the risk of creating an orthodoxy. This was Theodore Parker’s point in his brilliant, provocative sermon, “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in 1841.
The religious liberal label does not define one’s politics.
By creating an religious-political orthodoxy we run the risk of becoming a mirror image of the religious right—a new dogmatism with a true-believer litmus test. We are here, among other reasons, ‘seek the truth in love.’
We don’t have to think alike to love alike. We agree to disagree. Such an agreement is a constant challenge, requiring us to be open to opinions, ideas and beliefs that are different from our own.
There must be room in this sanctuary for the political conservative. There are politically conservative people in our community who believe in a woman’s right to choose; there are politically conservative people in our community who respect the rights of gay and lesbian men and women to marry; there are politically conservative people who believe in a more equitable distribution of wealth, universal access to health care, food for the hungry and places to live for the homeless and work for the unemployed.
But let’s not pretend we can or should be all things to all people. Religious fundamentalists who believe that the Bible is the word of God in a literal and supernatural way will not find comfort for their beliefs here; and, hopefully, those who are racist, anti-gay, anti-Semitic won’t find comfort for their bigotry here.
Anyone who says that there must be no criticism of the President, or our American policies, that we should stand by the President, right or wrong, will not find comfort for such a belief here.
Anyone who thinks that criticism of anything our government does—who believes it is unpatriotic to criticize—won’t be comfortable here, and it’s not my intention to pretend they can.
Silence in the face of reprehensible behavior by our government is no virtue—indeed, it contains the seeds of a new wave of fascism.
Those who occupy this pulpit are free to express their own ideas, thoughts and beliefs.
Those who occupy the pews in this sanctuary have a responsibility to listen, to clarify what you believe has been said because it’s what you heard, and to be engaged in an ongoing process of thinking and re-thinking your own beliefs.
The only reason this pulpit raises the speaker up a couple of steps is to be seen in the back rows—we do not speak from ‘on high.’
I’ll close with a few more lines from Whitman:
“Listen, I’ll be honest with you. I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
those who remain behind you…
Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road — they are the swift and majestic men — they are the greatest women,
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights…
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you..
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls…
Now understand me well — it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.”
May we find creative ways to travel together and to share whatever struggle waits for us in the days ahead.