Monday, March 21, 2016

Conversion to Humanity

In case you haven’t caught on just yet we have been celebrating the theme of love each Sunday in the month of February. Today we begin our official pledge drive.  That is when we ask our members and friends to consider how they will share their resources to keep this beloved community growing deeper in its values and in the number of people who have yet to find us and experience our freedom of belief, our free church.

When I think about our Congregation’s pledge drive, I instantly think of those who came before us.  Not only those who assembled and gave birth to the Congregation we love in the 1950’s, but also those who led and inspired our movement and give us our identity and heritage.  Names such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and Bronson Alcott come to mind. Those Unitarians, those Transcendentalists, ushered in loving and transformative facets to our beloved Unitarian Universalism of today.

Transcendentalists regarded the inner spiritual transformation of the individual as the central event of human existence -- a conversion. That experience of conversion involved a transcendence of the pleasures and routine miseries of everyday life, into the joy and righteousness that was to be found in a new, or renewed, relationship with the divine. The conversion took place on a personal level; and shared the belief that an individual's relationship with the divine could be, and indeed should be, unmediated -- by institutions, by history, by conventions, or by other people. And so here we are celebrating our free faith.

Following conversion, obviously, one remained a human being who continued to live and work in the material world, but conversion would have transfigured one's understanding of the world and of the relationships involving all around them. That is our goal today.

To understand that in this place we enter a conversion that holds us, inspires us and offers an opportunity to sustain this place.  I wonder, what will your conversion look like?

At the time of Transcendentalism, American denominations -- Anglicanism, Congregationalism, Unitarianism -- had lost much of their power to move the hearts of their flocks, and Transcendentalists sought to return to a purer, more visceral form of religion that derived its strength from emotion, rather than convention or duty.  The Transcendentalists can be exasperatingly vague in their prescriptions for spiritual transformation, a vagueness which derives principally from their distrust of all forms of ritual and inherited religious forms. Does that resonate with anyone here?

I offer you this look into Transcendentalism as part of our history, our faith and to help us understand that as the Transcendentalists believed, we too must believe that if we are unconverted to radical love, we will not feel in the fibers of our being a sense of connection, love for humanity, but rather a sense of alienation from a benevolent universe.

Thoreau tells us that the practical intent of Transcendental preaching was to renounce the distractions and temptations to which social intercourse or human nature expose you, and which will interfere with your spiritual development. Failing to do so will leave you lonely, without compassion or the urge for the rebirth of our humanity.

In The Oversoul, Emerson expresses the fundamental Transcendentalist belief that a higher view of reality can only be achieved by ascending above the plane of individual subjectivity. He writes:
from within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all .... And the blindness of the intellect begins, when it would be something of itself. The weakness of the will begins when the individual would be something of himself.

To convert is to change from one character, type, or purpose to another. Our bodies convert food into energy. We can convert inches to centimeters, pounds to kilograms, and dollars to euros. Our hearts can undergo similar conversions. We can change direction morally, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. The Hebrew word translated “converted” means “to turn back or return.” It is also translated as "restore," or to return to what we were initially meant to be.

Conversion begins in the heart and radiates outward to affect everything we think, say, or do. Merely stating that conversion has occurred does not make it so. Real conversion is obvious as a person switches direction, changes allegiance and moves from individuality to community.  As the heart is transformed, the actions follow until the entire life has been converted to humanity.

Episcopal priest and theologian Carter Heyworth tells us “Love, like truth and beauty, is concrete. Love is not fundamentally a sweet feeling; not, at heart, a matter of sentiment, attachment, or being "drawn toward.” Love is active, effective, a matter of making reciprocal and mutually beneficial relation with one’s friends and enemies.”  The most compelling relationships demand hard work, patience, and a willingness to endure tensions and anxiety in creating mutually empowering bonds.

What if we considered it that way? Recognize that loving in the way that Heyward describes love as a conversion to humanity, a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile…a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world is an heroic journey, one that requires a willingness to move beyond at least the pettiness of our personal ego to embrace, as far as possible, a love for others that is not weak and sentimental, not based on what  or who we like or do not like, but rather is a life and world-changing commitment we can make. What kind of people would we be then? What choices would we make?

He elaborates, Loving involves commitment.… Love is a choice — not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense. Love is a conversion to humanity — a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world or as a deity above the world, aloof and apart from human flesh."

The Transcendentalists had it right.  This is what our faith is all about -- a conversion to humanity, a rescuing life from cynicism, redeeming it from crassness, saving souls, although not in the narrow and restricting sense in which too many churches use that phrase. Many of us were reared in denominations where being saved meant taking communion every Sunday, or reciting the creeds, or confessing a laundry list of nitpicky sins. Mark Twain ridiculed that kind of religion a century ago when he defined faith as “believing what any darned fool knows ain’t so.” That kind of faith is more concerned with obedience and conformity than with changing hearts or freeing the spirit.

But that is not our faith, not the one we support with our dollars, and not the one we celebrate this morning. Religion for us is not about tithing. Not about dogma, not about ritual or living up to other people’s expectations. Rather, religion for us is an openness to the mystery that sustains and upholds life. It is a sense of kinship with the cosmos. It is an invitation to bolder dreams and more generous action. It entails radical affirmation.  Unitarian Universalism is self-transcendence expressed in service to the world.  This is not only the faith we choose, but also the faith that chooses us.

And so on this day, the beginning of our pledge drive we have a choice to choose love, a conversion to humanity -- to become a member and a partner.  A choice to keep the free church, the liberal voice of the south, the hands and hearts of this Congregation firmly standing, innovative, offering intellect, spirit, mercy and justice in an aching world crying out for us. Love as a virtue is a possibility: it is an opportunity to expand our small selves into a larger sense of self, which includes the world. It is a chance to engage others creatively and “without pretense or guile,” opening ourselves to new ways of shaping the world and our place in it.

If we approach problems like global warming, or poverty, or health- care reform, or war from a perspective of love, the whole conversation shifts. We begin to look for what needs are being met by those things we see as problems; we begin to listen to the people on every side of an issue, seeking ways to connect and respond to them, rather than merely counter their positions…we take risks and others respond with their own. Most of us have had an experience where we let down our guard and tried to love rather than defend, and were astonished by what happened next.

It can change big conversations, but of course, it’s still worthwhile to consider the impact when it is smaller and more personal. Sometimes, we change things just by helping to forge one more link in a chain of love. Choose to set aside other causes, other requests for your resources and give to this Congregation knowing that you continue to build a place that will defend, occupy, and promote the values of reason, compassion, and equity that we hold so dear.  Supporting this Congregation beyond belief will maintain what we have already built and create a center of community that honors love, not hate; comfort, not judgement; that strengthens, not destroys.

Love is a choice, a conversion.  What will your conversion to humanity, your return to what you have been created to give and support look like?  If you support one thing surely it would be this Congregation that heals, challenges, questions, offer companionship and compassion, offers a way of becoming whole.  Do other places you contribute to offer you this opportunity?  Are they able to become the center of your personal, spiritual, justice-seeking lives?  Probably not.  This Congregation can offer that to you and is asking to be part of your conversion to humanity.

Answer the call.  Be bolder, more generous and rise in support of this community that embraces you and all that you believe in and hold dear.  Together we can spark a conversion here and now, in our families, in our communities, in our state and around the world simply by making a commitment to this holy place.

I feel like I should be giving you an 800 number to call so that means I need to step back a little.  This will give you a chance to step up. May you understand that your conversion to humanity starts here.

May it be so.

Conversion to Humanity, a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Feb 21, 2016.

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