Opening Words: Today we are a nation in mourning. We mourn the loss of life in Iraq and Kuwait. We mourn the loss of peace. Once again we are at war, but this time it is different. Diplomacy failed. Raw and rampant power pervades. As the bombs blast away at Baghdad and families flee for their lives we should bow our heads to find that precious sense of reverence within ourselves, hoping to preserve a portion of it so that we might save seeds for spring planting. That sense of reverence is being blasted from us with every bomb we drop, every life we take.
There’s an African prayer from the small West African nation of Burkina Faso: “We call upon our Ancestors, spirit of the earth we walk upon, spirit of the universe. We have come to a crossroad, to a time when every word matters, to a time when we must reevaluate ourselves and our actions. Our heart is heavy and fragile; our body is shivering in front of the unknown, our back is heavy with past burdens, burdens we do not know how to be rid of.
We ask that you shower us once again with love and compassion; make peace rain on our heart and soul; teach us how to see each other with a brand-new eye; help us to appreciate and welcome each other.
We need your blessings to move on (from this time of trouble to a time of peace); we need your strength to make it through this time of turbulence. Ancestors, hold us in your peace and your warmth.”
May we learn to hear the voice of God in the wind; in the sounds of children laughing.crying.questioning.
May we be reminded that we are all ‘as children,’ in need of support and comfort.dependent on the natural laws.dependent on one another.
Let this reminder of our dependence save us from the sin of arrogance and pride of power.
May we walk in beauty.in spite of the brutality and the ugliness of war.
May we seek wisdom, not merely information, but wisdom which helps us get in touch with something sacred.something like love, compassion and the ability to understand one another and to affirm differences rather than run in fear.
And may we find the inner strength to fight the enemy within, the ‘greatest enemy,’ the self, so that we can hold on to personal dignity ‘with clean hands and straight eyes’ so that when life fades our spirits can be without shame.and may it be so, today, tomorrow and in all the days ahead. Amen
Some years ago I read an anecdote written by a journalist in New York Citywho was visited by a colleague for a week. Each day they went through thesame routine, taking the subway to the office of the journalist (it mighthave been Russell Baker) and stopping at the newsstand at the subway exit to buy morning papers.
On the third morning the friend said, “Boy that guy is really grumpy,”referring to the news vendor. “Yea,” was all he answered. “But every dayyou are pleasant to him, and he’s just as grumpy in return.” “Yea, that’s right.” “Well, if he’s always so grumpy why are you so pleasant to him.”
The journalist stopped in his tracks, taken aback by the question, and he looked at his friend and explained, “Because I don’t want him to determine how I’m going to be!”
Some stories stick. I’ve pondered that story for twenty-five years; it comes back to me during counseling sessions when someone tells me about living with or working for a difficult person-a grump, or worse.
It comes back to me in a more personal and direct way when I’m interacting with a difficult person-or find myself in a difficult time in a relationship.
So, here’s the question: if you don’t want grumpy, difficult people to determine what kind of person you will be, what does determine the kind of person you will be, the kind of person you are becoming?
You are here, in this place this morning, in part, at least, because you want something higher, and more positive to determine the kind of person you will be, the kind of person you are becoming.
It’s a religious thing, a spiritual thing. There are lots of factors in the human equation which give shape and direction to each of our lives: your gender; your parents; your place and time of birth; your siblings and birth order; your ethnicity; your economic circumstances and issues of war and peace in your time and place; your schools and teachers; your health, and so on.
What’s true for each of us individually is also true for us collectively. There are lots of factors in the equation that determines what kind of religious community we will be: our religious inheritance-the times and people that contributed to this place, and you can go back as far as you want. Some trace our roots to the Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhnaton, who was called the first monotheist; and certainly to Arius, who opposed the doctrine of the trinity; and to King John Sigusmund in Transylvania and Francis David who encouraged the king to issue the first edict of religious Toleration, and to the founders of this nation-people like Jefferson, who was the architect of the separation of church and state, and those who came after him, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Olympia Brown and Clara Barton.
You-each of you-is part of this equation, determining what kind of place this will be; and Ed and Barbara, Jamie, Anita and Bob determine what kind of place it will be, and Jamie, Sue and Bobbie determine what kind of place it will be.
If I were to choose a key ingredient in each of us-a word which expresses the essence of the dynamic.the energy that gives movement to this process, I would say the word is attitude.
Attitude is a state of mind; a disposition. Like the newspaper vendor’s hostility.
Arrogance is an attitude, an overbearing expression of self-importance or superiority. Justifiable pride is one thing. And excessive sense of self is another. It comes out as contempt or hubris.
The book of Proverbs says, “Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
The opposite of arrogant pride can be summed up in the term reverence.
So I want to tell you about a recent book titled, “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue,” by Paul Woodruff.
I’ll read a few passages to give you a taste of Woodruff’s essay. But first I want to return to our Responsive Reading, which is a re-arrangement of words from Whitman’s poem, “A Song for Occupations.” That gave me the title to this sermon, “The Sum of all Known Reverence.” I’ve chosen several passages from the poem, as Whitman composed it, which I want to read to you
“A song for occupations!
In the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields I
find the developments,
And find the eternal meanings.
Workmen and Workwomen!
Is it you that thought the President greater than you?
Or the rich better off than you? Or the educated wiser than you?
or that you are no scholar
and never saw your name in print.?
The wife, and she is not one jot less than the husband,
The daughter, and she is just as good as the son,
The mother, and she is every bit as much as the father. .
I bring what you much need yet always have.
There is something that comes to one now and perpetually,
It is not what is printed, preach’d, discussed, it eludes
discussion and print,
It is not to be put in a book, it is not in this book,
It is for you whoever you are, it is no farther from you than
your hearing and sight are from you,
It is hinted by nearest, commonest, readiest, it is ever
provoked by them.
You may read in many languages, yet read nothing about it,
You may read the President’s message and read nothing
about it there,
Nothing in the reports from the State department or
Treasury department, or in the daily papers or weekly papers.
The sun and the stars that float in the open air,
The apple-shaped earth and we upon it, surely the drift of them
is something grand,
I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is
The endless pride and outstretching of man,
unspeakable joys and sorrows,
the wonder every one sees in every one else he sees,
and the wonders that fill each minute of time forever,
What have you reckon’d them for, camerado?
We consider bibles and religions divine-I do not say
they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still,
It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life.
The sum of all known reverence I add up in you whoever you are,
The President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who
are here for him,
The Secretaries act in their bureaus for you, not you here for them.
All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it.
All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded
by the instruments,
It is not the violins and the cornets, it is not the oboe nor the beating
drums, nor the score of the baritone singer
Singing his sweet romanza, nor that of the men’s chorus,
Nor that of the women’s chorus,
It is nearer and farther than they.
Will you seek afar off? you surely come back at last,
In things best known to you finding the best, or as good as the best,
In folks nearest to you finding the sweetest, strongest, lovingest,
Happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place,
not for another hour but this hour.
Whitman is singing about this thing we call reverence. What is it? Wheri is it? How is it developed? Who has it? How do you know? How do you know when it is absent?
Reverence has something to do with a sense of the holy, an intuitive sense of what is sacred. It is a feeling of profound awe. That’s the word Paul Woodruff uses a lot: awe. It has to do with respect.
(Note: The title ‘Reverend’ is often used before a clergy person’s name. Actually in formal usage the word Reverend should be preceded by the word the; a clergy person may or may not be reverent, as you know.)
I chose to pursue the subject of reverence in part because we are living through a difficult time. War is the intentional destruction of life and property. To witness this destruction is an assault on our sensitivities. Be careful what you watch on television: every bomb that bursts destroys something in you, unless it allows you to weep; unless it reminds you of ourhuman capacity for destruction. Let it be a warning.
Witnessing war the way we do in our time has the potential to destroy the sense of the sacred; it has the potential to destroy our ability to feel compassion for every single person harmed by it, and the destruction of the pets-the dogs and cats and other creatures that are loved by someone.
It’s about reverence. It forces us to ask, “Is anything sacred?”
Then, when demented minds insert a religious self-righteousness and hypocritical piety into the awful bombing we are tempted to distance ourselves from all religion. The bombs dropped in so-called religious wars have the potential to destroy our respect for religion in general.Whitman said, “We consider bibles and religions divine-I do not say they are not divine, I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still.”
What kind of religion will you have? One that divides the people of the earth into the saved and the unsaved.those favored by a fabled God and those rejected by this ancient superstition-of-a-god? I’m with Whitman. I believe that the origin of the sacred books, the Bible, Koran, Tao Te Ching come from the depths of the human experience, not some distant gods; but something so deep within ourselves that touches our divine nature.our insights and intuitions.
We Unitarian Universalists assert that all the religions have come from the depths of the human experience-what it means to be human, to live a human life: to be born, to develop a sense of the self, to increase one’s consciousness, to reproduce, to age, and to be aware that you will one day die
From “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue” by Paul Woodruff
“Reverence is an ancient virtue that survives among us in half forgotten patterns of civility, in moments of inarticulate awe, and in nostalgia for the lost ways of traditional cultures. We have the word “reverence” in our language but we scarcely know how to use it.”
“Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control-God, truth, justice, nature, even death. The capacity for awe, as it grows, brings with it the capacity for respecting fellow human beings,flaws and all. This in turn fosters the ability to be ashamed when we show moral flaws exceeding the normal human allotment. The Greeks before Plato saw reverence as one of the bulwarks of society, and the immediate followers of Confucius in China thought much the same. Both groups wanted to see reverence in their leaders, because reverence is the virtue that keeps leaders from trying to take tight control of other people’s lives. Simply put, reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.”
“Hubris (is) the crime of tyrants. An irreverent soul is arrogant and shameless, unable to feel awe in the face of things higher than itself. As a result, an irreverent soul is unable to feel respect for people it sees as lower than itself-ordinary people, prisoners, children. The two failures go together, in both Greek and Chinese traditions. If an emperor has a sense of awe, this will remind him that Heaven is superior-that he is, as they said in ancient China, the son of Heaven.”
“Reverence has more to do with politics than religion. We can easily imagine religion without reverence; we see it, for example, wherever religion leads people into aggressive war or violence. But power without reverence-that is a catastrophe for all concerned. Power without reverence is aflame with arrogance, while service without reverence is smoldering toward rebellion.”
“It is a natural mistake to think that reverence belongs to religion. It belongs, rather, to community. . Reverence lies behind civility and all the graces that make life in society bearable and pleasant.”
“Another easy mistake to make about reverence is to confuse it with respect. Respect is sometimes good and sometimes, bad, sometimes wise and sometimes silly. It is silly to respect the pratings of a pompous fool; it is wise to respect the intelligence of any student. Reverence calls for respect only when respect is really the right attitude. To pay respect to a tyrant would not be reverent; it would be weak and cowardly.”
“Most modern philosophers have forgotten about reverence. But poets are aware of it, as they have always been.”
“Poets often understand virtues better than philosophers, so that the wisdom of poets over time is essential to the subject.”
“Without reverence, we cannot explain why we should treat the natural world with respect. Without reverence, a house is not a home, a boss is not a leader, an instructor is not a teacher. Without reverence we would not even know how to learn reverence. To teach reverence, you must find the seeds of reverence in each person and help them grow.”
“Religious wars are endemic in our time, which is a time with little care for reverence. Perhaps these wars are cooling down in some places, but they are heating up in others, even as I write this book. If a religious group thinks it speaks and acts as God commands in all things, this is a failure of reverence. A group like that may turn violent and feel they are doing so in good faith. Nothing is more dangerous than that feeling.”
“The voices that call in the name of God for aggressive war have lost sight of human limitations. They have lost reverence, even when they serve a religious vision”
“If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone in the world share your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent.
Closing reading: White Heron, by John Ciardi
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
Closing Words: We are a nation in mourning, feeling the weight of responsibility for decisions made in our name, as a democracy.
We must accept our portion-the weight of those actions carried out in our names.
While we may feel powerless and ashamed, we must not give up or give in to the madness.
So now, more than ever, we must say to ourselves: “If there is any good thing I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any person, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’
Peace be with you now and in the difficult days ahead