(Minister’s note: The following is the sermon I prepared to deliver on May 4. The actual sermon, delivered from the pulpit, is available on tape and may be purchased or borrowed.)
The Roman poet Lucan asks rhetorically, “Is the dwelling place of God anywhere but in the earth and sea, the air and sky, and virtue?” That question can serve as our sacred text today.
The basic theological question asks, “What is God; who and where is God? How is God revealed?”
“The secret things belong to God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever.” Deuteronomy 29:29
In his book, The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley says, “Revelation when genuine is simply the record of the immediate experience of those who are pure enough in heart and poor enough in spirit to be able to see God.”
Robert Frost wrote a little poem he called REVELATION:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated hear
Till someone really find us out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hid-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
So, what is God? Where is God? Where are you on your theological journey?
I often point out to visitors who comment about the unusual architecture of this sanctuary that it is a theological statement: God is ‘in the earth and sea, the air and sky,’ as Lucan said. God and Nature are one and the same. We want to bring Nature into the room-the trees, and flowers, the deer, and so forth.
We also need to be reminded of our human nature. We’re here, in part, to dig into our human nature: what does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be you?
Most of us have moved through stages of theological development. Many of us grew up in traditional religions that talked about God in anthropomorphic terms. That kind of God is like a super-person, with all the human attributes: eyes to see, ears to hear, hands to create and anger that leads to destruction of what He created.
That kind of God built the universe, putting the earth at its center, and then un-built them, by sending a big flood, destroying all but Noah and his family, and two of every species. Religions explain creation with marvelous mythologies not meant to be taken literally. This is, I think, what Frost meant in Revelation: ‘Tis pity if the case require.that in the end we must speak the literal to inspire.”
Many of us have been through a stage of dismissing that kind of literal, anthropomorphic God altogether. So we have to start over, again and again.
The first church in America to declare itself Unitarian in theology-removing all references to the Trinity-was King’s Chapel in Boston. Every year I take our Coming of Age class to see King’s Chapel for themselves. It’s on the Freedom Trail.
Our young people, most of whom have only known our glass-enclosed modern structure, are fascinated with the traditional church architecture of King’s Chapel: the box pews and high pulpit, the prayer of Jesus carved in marble behind the altar rail, and so forth.
Tour guides like to tell how the original chapel was built in a corner of a cemetery in Boston because no one would sell land to the King, so he took this piece by eminent domain. They like to point out that the bell, which is used to this day, was cast by a famous Unitarian, Paul Revere.
They like to tell how the first church building was a much smaller wooden chapel that served the congregation from 1686 until 1754, when the new stone church was built.
The interesting thing about this story is that the new church was built around the old, and when the new church structure was nearly completed they dismantled the old wooden structure and passed it out through the windows, piece by piece.
I’ve been taking our Coming of Age classes there for 19 years, as well as taking other groups. So I’ve heard the story of passing the old structure out the windows of the new many times.
It finally occurred to me what a perfect metaphor this story is to describe what we Unitarian Universalists do: we build new, larger structures around the old, so we’re not spiritually homeless during re-construction. Then we have to dismantle the old, piece by piece, and pass it out the windows of our enlarged thinking.
Many Unitarian Universalists carry pieces of the old wooden structures around with them, often hurting from splinters that stuck, sometimes angry at things they were taught or told there. To dismantle is to come to terms with the old-to pass it out the windows of the new by talking about left-over feelings and unfinished business. To be truly free is to move beyond that old wooden structure, carrying the good memories and lessons and letting go of the rest.
“I think I am a verb”
Another well-known Unitarian, Buckminster Fuller, said, “I think I am a verb.” We think of ourselves and God as nouns. Fuller was suggesting a new, dynamic way of thinking.
We humans are always in process. We build new structures around the old, but we never completely leave the old ideas, beliefs, practices and habits. We hope that a new structure will allow us to pass the old, piece by piece, out the windows. But the old will sit in the back yard, providing the material that memories are made of.
We dismantle, and come to terms with the old, by building trusting relationships that allow us to talk about ourselves. It takes courage. Risk. But we need to take a closer look at ourselves: our beliefs, attitudes and ideas, to see where they came from, so that we can understand ourselves, now, and move forward.
We form meaningful relationships characterized by trust so that we can come out of hiding, the same way a gay or lesbian person is said to ‘come out of the closet’ by telling someone about that heretofore hidden or secretive part of him or herself.
It’s a risky thing to do, but the reward is real-it is freedom, liberation.
I took a risk like that forty years ago when I ‘came out’ to my Congregational minister who was encouraging me to go to seminary. I told him that I didn’t believe in the Trinity, that I thought the Apostle’s Creed was metaphor, and that I didn’t think anyone really believed, in a literal sense, all those things about Jesus being born of a virgin, descending into hell, rising from the dead and sitting at the right hand of God, his Father, in heaven.
With those brief and bold assertions I dismantled the religion of my childhood, which has served me well, and which I assumed would provide a spiritual home for the rest of my life.
The only problem was that I hadn’t thought of building a new stone structure around the old, small wooden one. So I was spiritually homeless, though my Congregational minister told me in the direction of a shelter for religiously homeless when he said, “You sound like a Unitarian!” It was more accusation than encouragement, however.
It took a few years for me to make it my home. I knew it was there, and I kept it in mind until I was ready.. As Robert Frost said, “Home is theplace where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
It’s easier to dismantle the old wooden gods than to build a new solid stone structure. The big cathedrals were never finished in a single lifetime, so maybe that’s a better image for us: we’re always building it a bigger, better faith system.
God’s Hiding Place
Where is God hiding? In which virtues do you find God? In courage, justice, mercy, gratitude, humility, tolerance and love?
It takes courage to dismantle the old wooden-structure with the anthropomorphic god.
What does courage look like? Does it look like a firefighter running up the stairs in the burning twin towers?
Courage is certainly one of the cardinal virtues. Courage is what we do in the face of fear. Without fear there can’t be courage. Courage is the virtue of heroes, and we’ve been talking a lot about heroes since 9-11. We all admire the heroic act.
But wait: did it take courage to crash the planes into the World Trade Center? Voltaire said, “Courage is not a virtue, but a quality shared by blackguards and great men (sic) alike.”
Is the courage to do an evil thing still an act of courage?
Andre Comte-Sponville, in a book he titled, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues-a book he wrote published in 1996, asked this question about a theoretical terrorist. He wrote,
“I take it proof that the fact that whatever sort of respect (certainly mixed) we might have for him would diminish, indeed might vanish, if we
learned, in reading his diary, that his infamous act had been performed in the conviction that he would stand to gain-as is the case with a religious fanatic-much more than he would lose, namely, eternal happiness if the afterlife. In this latter scenario, selfishness would again or still be the motivating factor. What we would be dealing with is merely someone who is prepared to sacrifice innocent lives for his own happiness-in other words, your garden-variety bastard, devoid of any moral value.”
So, what is courage that is morally worthy of respect? Comte-Sponville says, “Glory is not morality nor is virility virtue.”
“In short, whereas courage is always respected from a psychological or sociological standpoint, it is only really morally estimable when at least partially in the service of others and more or less free of immediate self-interest.”
In order for courage to be present there must be fear, but for courage to be a virtue it presupposes some form of selflessness or generosity.
Comte-Sponville suggests that courage is the precondition of all the other virtues.
“What We Choose is What We Are”
“The choice is always ours. Then, let me choose
The longest art, the hard Promethean way
Cherishingly to tend and feed and fan
That inward fire, whose small precarious flame,
Kindled or quenched, creates
The noble or the ignoble men we are,
The worlds we live in and the very fates
Our bright or muddy star.”
Feeding on Fear
Like all animal life we humans live with a certain amount of anxiety or fear. We know that there are real dangers ‘out there.’ We make choices
about diet and exercise. We make choices when we’re driving. We make choices about school and work, and about where we spend our money, or where we invest money-where we spend time, and with whom we spend our lives, and to what we devout our lives. Values.
It’s prudent to be cautious. Prudence is a virtue. But it’s possible to be over-cautious. It’s possible to be controlled by our fears.
We live in a fear-based culture, magnified by terrorism and the dastardly deed we refer to simply by a date: 9-11.
Politicians feed on our fears. People who are afraid are more easily controlled. Led. But that kind of leadership is no leadership at all.
There are other names for it, perhaps best left unsaid in this statement.
Last week I saw the Donald Marulies one-act play, titled July 7, 1994. Dana Reeve, a member of our congregation, played the lead role, a doctor
volunteering at a free clinic. She sees patients all day-an Aids victim in denial, a Latin-American woman whose anxiety and depression manifests as a heart problem, a man who crosses the line by expressing his love and lust for her, and so forth.
She goes home to her husband and child and they talk casually about their day. He tells her about his time with their two-year old son, and then he asks about her day. She says it was a ‘typical day,’ and then she breaks down and cries.
The things about which she is crying are the every day things. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, but something ‘broke through’ in her which touched the core of all our fears.
I was reminded of an extremely dramatic moment in my life, 32 years ago, when I heard the screech of breaks, turned and watched my seven-year old daughter hit by a car. It was in Maine at Ferry Beach, our Unitarian summer camp, where I was working as the manager for the summer.
I ran toward her, not knowing if she was alive, screaming what may have been a silent scream, and a voice came into my head and spoke to me just as clear as any voice I’ve ever heard. The voice said, “It has happened. This is what you were afraid of.”
In the several seconds it took for me to race to my daughter I had an argument with this voice, saying, “No I didn’t,” meaning I had not consciously been afraid of this. The voice answered back, “Yes you were!”
My daughter survived with a broken hip and contusions. I survived, with something broken in my mind. I realize, in retrospect, that the voice that came through was my unconscious mind where a free-floating fear about my daughter’s safety, and all those I love, is protected by a kind of membrane that protects me (and, I suspect, you) from being conscious of all the things we fear all the time.
Yes, we live with free-floating fears, so I’ve come to realize, more and more, that it takes courage simply to be a person. It takes courage to get up in the morning. It takes courage to face the day. It’s not easy being a person.
Courage, then, is required of each of us. Courage is the first virtue, and it’s a pre-requisite to all the other virtues.
Those who hold a traditional idea of God often talk about feeling ‘held in the arms of God’ as a kind of protector.
This is what I saw in the Roman Lucan’s assertion that God is found in the virtues.
Every act of kindness says something about the nature of the God I have in mind. Not an anthropomorphic God, but a living God who acts through you and me. This is the God who is hiding in virtues like, fidelity, prudence, temperance, justice, generosity, compassion, mercy, gratitude, humility, simplicity, tolerance, gentleness, humor and love.
May we find ways to help one another to dismantle the old wooden structure of racism, homophobia, sexism, narcissism, greed and anger, to build a solid structure where the virtues reveal the Divine Spark that lives as the potential within every person.