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SERMON: HOPEFUL AND REALISTIC

Dr. John Young Sept. 12, 1999

I heard some hopeful and realistic millennium news lately. The author, Kurt Vonnegut, who grew up as a Unitarian Universalist and has been honored by our denomination, said this about the millennium:

"The year 2000 has actually already come and gone, and damned if we didnít survive it. Listen: the best information we have today is that Jesus was born in 5 B.C., or five years before himself. Chalk that up as another miracle. Yes, and that means that the 2000th year of the Christian era was what we mistakenly called Ď1995.í

I want to talk with you today about recognizing that people live on a spectrum from naÔve optimism to suicidal pessimism. I want to argue that we, Unitarian Universalists, are neither naÔve optimists nor hopeless pessimists. It is worth remembering that people of whatever faith or faithlessness can be righteous and even bigoted about their beliefs or lack of beliefs. Optimism suggests that everything is going to come out all right, even that all is right with the world. We know better. But we are also not cynics, assuming that whatever one believes or does makes no difference. We have chosen, like traditional Buddhism, a middle way. Our faith can be summed up as: HOPEFUL AND REALISTIC.

This makes me think of two Unitarian Universalist jokes about heaven. The first is one you have probably all heard: A group of Unitarian Universalists are faced with two roads and their signs: one sign says: This way to heaven; the other says: This way to a discussion about heaven. Naturally, all the UU's take the road to the discussion about heaven. The second joke is perhaps less realistic but more hopeful. New people are entering heaven and getting shown around. They notice that different groups of people are arranged around the heavenly throne. Some are close by and others are farther away. They discover that these are denominational groupings. They are worried about one small group that is farther away than almost any of the other groups. They ask with concern, "Who are those people, they must be in Godís disfavor?" "Oh, no, Those are the Unitarian Universalists, they are allowed to roam around freely, because God can trust them."

I included Mary Oliverís poem, "The Sunflowers," as our contemporary reading because you are still a new congregation for me, and I want you to know at the beginning how I see you. To me, you are like Oliverís sunflowers: you want to be friends; you are filled with wonderful stories. You are not afraid to ask big questions. Each of you is brimming with seeds of creativity and new life. All of us are involved in the long work of turning our lives into celebrations. In the words of another wonderful woman poet, Annie Dillard: "We are here to help creation and to witness it, to notice each otherís beautiful faces and complex natures so that Creation need not play to an empty house."

Many of humanityís religious traditions, and many individualsí spiritual paths, are neither hopeful nor realistic. Full of perfect gods or goddesses, celebrating ideal saviors or saints, they find it necessary to load people unfairly with guilt and sin, and they make life, and this world, look quite hopeless. They create some unrealistic fantasy about the after-life to try to lessen the bleakness of their dismal perspectives on this life. Unfortunately, many secular philosophies are no more hopeful. They rationalize cynicism, neutrality and despair. These people are caught in religions or ideologies that are hopeless and/or unrealistic at their core. Their visions are dark and frightening.

An increasing proportion of humanity are no longer completely imprisoned by an ancestral religious tradition, nor, in some cases, even by their parentsí or teachers secular ideologies or philosophies. Instead, amidst the busy and confusing choices of our consumer world, they launch forth on their own individual spiritual paths, trying to find the meaning of life, and the focus for their own lives. It is all-too-easy never to find the time to actually figure out what one believes, nor to ever find the space to clearly focus their lives beyond the daily necessities of home, job, and relationships. Modern life can become a series of previews and retrospectives with a spiritual vacuum at its center, an empty sense of never experiencing the main show. Modern life can lack soul, can be without the holy spaces, and times for reverence and reflection, that every human being needs, and deserves. Many modern people have no clear faith, no reliable spiritual focus, no stable sacred space and time. These people are standing on weak foundations. Falling into a vacuum is not an emancipating liberation.

We have a hopeful, realistic alternative to this dubious choice of fear and self-loathing, or confusion and cynicism. Unitarians and Universalists have, for centuries, embraced this world and this life, lifted up the individual, and used their heads as well as their hearts in discovering and living their faiths.

We reject a perfect, all-powerful, judging God, and we embrace, instead, an evolving, energetic, responsive Creation. We reject the fear of God, and, instead, experience the awe of Creation. We reject the sinless savior and the guiltless saint, and we replace them with warm, compassionate, loving human beings, exemplified by a Moses or Margaret Mead, a Jesus or Cesar Chavez, a Buddha or Gandhi, but also exemplified, in our best moments, by you and by me, by ordinary people, who also have their saintly moments, who also have their small opportunities to save the world, to help create Creation.

We reject the perversions in the great religions. We embrace a human Jesus, saying that all people are children of God, but we reject the Christ, holding himself up as the only way, condemning the world, damning most of the people he supposedly came to help. We refuse to fall into becoming Christians in this perverted sense. I use the term Jesusian, because we accept what Jesus actually was and taught, but reject what too much of Christianity has become. We embrace Buddha, who faced clearly how much we cause our own suffering by misunderstanding and obsessive craving, and called upon us to live lives of compassion, but we reject the perversion that much Buddhism has become, worshipping Buddha as a God, living in fear of the world. We embrace Islamís awe of Creationís God, celebrate Mohammedís humility and delight in knowledge, but we reject holy wars and sainted terrorists, condemn any faithís subjugation of one gender or class, one faith or occupation. We embrace the lessons of justice and activism in the Jewish Bible, and respect the significant positive impact of Jews upon human history, but we do not consider the Jews to be the chosen people, nor believe that Jerusalem is only a Jewish city. We embrace the lessons of love and non-violence in the Christian Bible, but we do not believe that everyone must become a Christian, nor that America is only a Christian country.

We passionately feel the holy spirit at work in this world. We do not put God up in heaven, and most human beings in hell. We feel Creation at work in this world. We do not make Jesus, nor any other prophet, into a savior, saving us from a hopeless world. We know that the world is a glorious, awesome place. We value and savor our lives. We have faith in the grace of this world. We celebrate this world as a holy place, and we celebrate human beings, our neighbors, and ourselves, as children of Creation, as respectable and beautiful individuals who have the possibility of living out unique, irreplaceable elements of Creationís evolution. We have not eliminated the holy, nor discarded reverence. No, quite the opposite, we have unified the holy, refused the ignorant and corrupt assumptions that separated every day life from holy places, every day people from sainthood. We are Unitarians, not just rejecting the false doctrine of the Trinity, but rejecting any dogma that creates some unrealistic gulf between the sacred and real life. We have faith not only in the holiness of life, and the reverence due each individual, but faith that every person can find value in life and will find peace in death. We are Universalists, not just rejecting the dogma that divides humanity into a few saved and most damned, but rejecting any doctrine that refuses to love this world, that refuses to embrace humanity, that cynically refuses the central lessons of love.

Like Jesus, we often highlight the holy in unlikely places. Jesus lifted up the Samaritan as the central example of his central doctrine of neighborly love. The Samaritans were the most despised people in the Israel of Jesusí time. They were worshippers of the pagan Goddess, more open in their sexual and social habits, freer in their diet, more liberated in their speech, than most of their neighbors. But Jesusí faith, like oursí, is a hopeful and a realistic faith. Who is the good person? Not the righteous people who walk away from the problems before them, not like the priest going to the other side of the road. Not the smart people who come over and analyze the suffering and then go away without helping, like the scholar in Jesusí story. No, the people who really practice religion, who actually live spirituality are not obsessed with righteousness nor with analysis but realistically decide what they can do, and, then, courageously and patiently do all that they can do. In the story, the good Samaritan does not forget his life, not does he give away all he has, nor does he try to do more than he is capable of doing, but he also refuses to allow himself to do nothing, to self-righteously walk away, or to simply analyze the situation and think that, by analyzing alone that he has done anything. The good Samaritan helped the stranger, tended his wounds, shared his garments, found him a place to stay. The good Samaritan also reached into the future, and he did so in ways that called upon the good will and love of others. He gave the innkeeper money, but he also said that he would pay more as needed when he returned. He had faith not only in himself, but also in the innkeeper, and in the wounded man. Our central doctrine, as Unitarian Universalists, often lived so well by Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, or countless other human beings throughout history: is the doctrine of hopeful and realistic love, for yourself, for your neighbor, for your life, and for this world.

Many modern people are so delighted to be free of outworn religious dogmas, hopeless theologies, and unrealistic rites that they falsely liberate themselves from all religion. They become seekers, but they never get around to finding anything much. They titillate themselves, periodically, by passing by the cafeteria of spiritual options, the banquet of religious possibilities, but they never sit down to eat, much less ever give themselves time to digest the deep insights of genuine spirituality and the cosmic wisdom rooted in religious history. Quite often, contemporary people end up replacing a religious faith with a secular ideology, a spiritual practice with a set of materialistic rituals. The 19th and 20th centuries are littered with individuals and whole groups of people caught in cults or fads, fashions or impulsive passions. A secular philosophy which divides the world up, condemns most people, which makes life feel hopeless, or which is full of unrealistic demands, is little better and, sometimes, much worse than traditional religious faiths. Secular elitism, passive cynicism, or forms of intellectual totalitarianism like scientism or consumerism are as bleak faith choices as some traditional dogmatic theology.

Human beings need a cosmic valuing community. We deserve a spiritual home. It is improbable that people can actually be good or live valuable lives alone. We need other people who use the same processes for thinking and valuing as we do. We are nurtured by being in active community with a group of people who share a faith that embraces life and humanity, that carefully considers the truth, beauty and goodness of what is happening and what we are doing, that is committed to doing justice with love, to savoring life, and to serving humanity.

Stephen Fritchman, our Los Angeles minister for 21 years, a radical progressive thinker, reminded us that our Unitarian Universalist faith is:

"a healthy pragmatism which refuses to divide spirituality from the urgent acts of mercy on oneís own doorstep, a healthy pragmatism which practices a holy materialism, where things are subordinate servants of the people. We embrace science and work to keep it from becoming diabolical. For centuries, we have built our altar to truth-seeking, the pursuit of human betterment, and the building of love and justice. This church is part of an earth wide emancipation based on the revolutionary ethics of Jesus and Socrates, Channing and Gandhi. We refuse to shift the responsibility to other shoulders, to degrade culture, or to betray our better selves. The days of the predatory cynic is ending! We trust humanity, love maturity, and despise all meek surrender to those in search of witches, or those who refuse to change."

 

In our denomination, you are offered a faith of hope and realism. We will not turn away from the genuine problems of this world, nor remain blind to the real faults about humanity or ourselves. But, realism is not hopeless, nor is it despair. We are hopeful people. We do not embrace some false optimism that thinks that the Market, or Jesus, or crystals, or even science or education, will solve all problems. We realize that there is no easy answer. Life is complicated. The world is full of beauty and ugliness, truth and falsehood, good and evil. We need and deserve a clear faith, a reliable spiritual focus, a sacred space and time. You can find them, create them, and nurture them here. We will seek the truth in love; we will do justice with compassion. We will savor the world and ourselves. We will take the time to think clearly, to live compassionately, to be loving.

OLD READING: GOSPEL OF LUKE: 10:24-37

And a lawyer asked Jesus: What shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus answered: What is written in the law? And the lawyer answered: Thou shall love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus answered: You have said it right. Do these things, and you will live. But the lawyer, then, asked further: and who is my neighbor?

And Jesus told the story of a man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among thieves. They stripped him of his clothes, wounded him, and departed, leaving him for dead. A priest came by, and saw the wounded man, and passed by on the other side. A scholar went over to observe the wounded man, and then, went on. But a Samaritan saw the wounded man and had compassion. He went to him and tended his wounds, cleaning him and medicating him. He put clothes of his own on him, put him on his beast of burden, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, when the Samaritan needed to depart, he gave the innkeeper enough money to take care of the wounded man, and assured the innkeeper that, if there were extra expenses, he would pay for them when he came that way again.

And Jesus asked the lawyer: which of the three was the neighbor to him who feel among thieves? The lawyer answered: he who showed mercy on him. Jesus said: and do thou likewise.

NEW READING: MARY OLIVER: "SUNFLOWERS"

Come with me into the field of sunflowers.

Their faces are burnished disks, their dry spines creak like ship masts,

Their green leaves, so heavy and many, fill all day with the sticky sugars of the sun.

Come with me to visit the sunflowers, they are shy, but want to be friends;

They have wonderful stories of when they were youngó

The important weather, the wandering crows.

Donít be afraid to ask them questions!

Their bright faces, which follow the sun, will listen, and all those rows of seedsó

Each one a new life!

Hope for a deeper acquaintance;

Each of them, though it stands in a crowd of many, like a separate universe,

Is lonely, the long work of turning their lives into a celebration is not easy.

Come and let us talk with those modest faces, the simple garments of leaves,

The coarse roots in the earth so uprightly burning.

WORDS FOR ALL AGES: JESUS IN JERUSALEM

Today is celebrated by Christians as Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus entered the Jewish capital of Jerusalem. For three years, Jesus, who had been raised as a Jewish carpenter, had been speaking to the people in his area of Galilee about religion, and about how to live their lives. Many people there had been enthusiastic about his wonderful stories and by the almost magic ways in which he seemed to help many people who were in trouble. Now, Jesus had decided to go with some of his followers to the capital of his Jewish faith. He went then because it was time to celebrate the Passover, the great Jewish spring festival celebrating the Jews passing out of slavery in Egypt and finding their faith and their freedom, first in the desert of Sinai, and, then, in the land of Palestine, what they came to call Israel.

The story goes that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and that his followers were so excited that they broke off palm branches from the trees and spread them before him as he went into the city. So, it was a great day for the followers of Jesus, and that is what is celebrated on Palm Sunday.

Today, I will be talking with your parents and the other adults about being hopeful and realistic. Hope is trusting that some of the good things you want the most will come true. Being realistic is seeing life as it really is.

Jesusí followers had great hopes for Jesus. Some of them thought he was going to be more than a prophet, that he would become the new king, others thought that he was actually God on Earth and would save everyone that believed in him. All of his followers thought that Jesus would confront the false ideas that some of the leaders of his Jewish faith were teaching, and would expose the corruptions that existed in the great capitol of Jerusalem, with its high Jewish priests, Roman soldiers and Roman and Jewish politicians. Jesus did not disappoint them about confronting the teachings in the temple, nor about exposing the corruptions, particularly by disrupting all the stands that had grown right up within the temple itself.

As you might imagine, this made many of the local people angry. At that time, Jerusalem was twice its usual size, filled with workers and their families, rebuilding parts of the great temple. When Jesus said that he could tear all the work that they had be doing for years down in an instant, and build it up again in three days by himself, you can guess that made many of the workers mad. So, you not only had the high priests getting mad at Jesus about changing the way Judaism was practiced, and the scholars getting mad at Jesus about his different ideas about the teachings, but you had many, perhaps most of the common people being mad at Jesus, who they saw as a prophet from the country who was criticizing what they were doing with their lives.

As you know, Jesus was condemned by the people, and killed by being nailed to a cross. At the time, most of his followers were deeply disappointed. Their hopes had not been realistic. He had not become king, and it did not seem that he was able to save anyone, even himself. Yet, as you also know, Jesus in death went on to become the most famous person in the world. More than two billion people, more than one-third of the world, consider themselves Christians, followers of Jesus.

We, Unitarian Universalists believe that Jesus was a good man, and we like many of the hopeful and realistic ideas that he taught, and love some of the stories that he told. In our UUA traditions, we say, as Jesus did, that a basis for religion is to respond to Godís love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. We like his realistic approach to religion, and we agree with him that each human being is a child of God, is a unique part of the worldís Creation. So, we may not agree with all the ideas of some Christians, but we can celebrate the realistic and hopeful teachings and practices of the good man, Jesus. Happy Palm Sunday!

We can also each benefit from remembering that even the best persons can say and do things that are too proud and make the people around them mad so that they do not listen and have a hard time loving even a good person who is mostly doing good things. Perhaps, that has happened to you when you marched into your home sometime? You came in triumph only to find that your family was having a hard time celebrating your triumphs because it felt to them like you were criticizing them and considering yourself better than them. Those sorts of Palm Sundays also happen to everyone, and we need to learn from them.

Closing Words: Please meet your neighbors, get acquainted here, and live your days with love. Hear these words by Paul Robeson [hymnal: 689]

"Sorrow will one day turn to joy. All that breaks the heart and oppresses the soul will one day give place to peace and understanding, and everyone will be free."

MEDITATION

In our rush and busyness, and in our individualistic and verbal Unitarian Universalism, we need the discipline of shared silence. We need to practice sitting quietly together. We need to learn to listen: not in order to share our thoughts, not in order to respond, react, argue, or criticize, but simply in order to listen. If we will be silent, the universe will communicate with us. If we will leave the space and time to hear and feel the cosmos; then, we will find answers in our own mindfulness. Our soul space will fill to overflowing. Our spiritís song will make harmony with the world.

I invite you to quiet down into yourself, settle into your own center, and connect your deepest center with its cosmic connections. Shed everything that is unnecessary, undesirable, unimportant. Breathe deeply of the essential, the ecstatic, the vital centers of being. Savor the silence. [Bell/Bell]

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