Monday, December 16, 2013

David and Goliath: Inspiration for Religious Liberals

Reading 1st Samuel, 17:38-40

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried to walk around because he was not used to them.

“I cannot go in these”, he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached Goliath.



The Story of David and Goliath: I see the story as Inspiration for Religious Liberals

We all know how that story ends with David defeating Goliath in the Valley of Elah where the Israelites faced the Philistines.  A shepherd boy felled a mighty warrior with nothing more than a single stone and a sling. And ever since, the names of David and Goliath have stood for battles between underdogs and giants. David's victory was improbable and miraculous. He shouldn't have won.  

Conventional wisdom led the Philistines to assume that the physical size of Goliath, protected by all of his armaments, would prevail over any adversary, certainly a small shepherd boy. Consider this from Samuel 7:4-7:

“4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. 5 His height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; 6 on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. 7 His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.” 

So the story of David and Goliath has been referenced for centuries as a metaphor for the weak prevailing over the strong in an unequal competition, the agile and quick prevailing over the large and lumbering. In his new book, "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants," Malcolm Gladwell says most people get this famous Biblical yarn all wrong because they misunderstand who really has the upper hand. It is because of, and not despite, David's size and unorthodox choice of weapon that he is able to slay the lumbering giant. In other words, Gladwell says, most people underestimate the importance of agility and speed.

And I would add most people underestimate the power of having confidence in your values.

For an interesting introduction to Gladwell’s book, I suggest you watch the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Talks video available online by Googling Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

So why should religious liberals take heart from this story?

David’s confidence in his ability to take the five smooth stones he plucked out of the wadi in the Valley of Elah and use only one to slay the giant, suggests we should be more optimistic about the ability of our liberal faith movement to change the world.

John Luther Adams, tells us as much in his essay on the Guiding Principles for a Free Faith. Adams has been a major force in American social ethics and liberal theology for more than half a century; important not only to Unitarian Universalist theology but other liberal religions as well.  

He was a Unitarian parish minister, social activist, scholar, author, and a divinity school professor for 40 years at Meadville Lombard Theological School, Harvard Divinity School, and Andover Newton Theological School. He wrote his essay entitled “Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism” in response to attacks levied against liberalism at the end of the 2nd World War.  

He had been a student for a time in Germany at the beginning of the Third Reich, and saw the brutality of a government that didn’t have to answer to anyone or any institution. He was appalled at the temerity of most of the established churches in Germany in remaining silent as the Third Reich began its reign of terror. He must have felt like David against Goliath at that time in world history. Thus, the metaphor of the five smooth stones: small, but very powerful weapons of a liberal theology in the face of regressive social policies.  

His writings were in response to the political reality of his day. I submit that his ideas of the power of a liberal faith are relevant today. We live today in a polarized political nation that seems bent on regressive policies and reversing progressive gains.

Let’s first parse the term liberal. In the context of theology or religion, the term “liberal” suggests openness to new truths, tolerance, not bound by tradition, authoritarianism, or orthodoxy.  

When David took off the suit of armor that the king, THE KING, had put on him, he was unbinding himself from the king’s authority. It was an unorthodox, non-traditional thing that he did. David used and relied on the tools and experience he knew best, his slingshot and his stones. He relied on his own truth in which he had great confidence. He had after all, become proficient in the use of the slingshot as a necessary and critical weapon in his role as shepherd…to kill predators of the sheep in his charge. He was a very good shot! He knew it and was confident of his aim.

Adams uses the five smooth stones that David picked up as metaphors for the five essential statements of a genuine and vital religious liberalism. They are:

1. “Revelation is continuous.

2. All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion.

3. We have a moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community.

4. We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation.

5. The resources that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism."

To paraphrase those five essential statements or stones:

1. There is always something new to learn.

2. Treat others as they would have you treat them.

3. We are obligated to make the world better than it is.

4. The work is ours to do; no one else is going to do it for us.

5. No matter how tragic life is, no matter how hopeless you feel, the gifts of grace in this world are abundant and demand that we recognize them and act on them.

Let’s examine the five smooth stones of liberal faith in more detail.

1. Revelation is continuous (or there is always something new to learn.) Truth does not reside in a singular book, no matter the number of people who say so. Revelation does not reside in a single set of beliefs, no matter what our fundamentalist relatives might insist. Revelation comes from and to each individual, and there is always something new to learn: from study, from others, and from meditation/reflection/or prayer.

Revelation is the act of revealing or communicating divine truth. In the orthodox Judeo-Christian traditions, the Ten Commandments were a revelation. They were taken as revealed directly from God to Moses. The Koran was revealed directly from God to Mohammed. The prophet Maroni revealed truths to complete the Book of Mormon. I was always confused as a boy how God revealed different truths to different people and expected me to choose one path over the other. The Orthodox tradition also holds that revelation is sealed; that at some point God stopped revealing God’s self to humankind. All truth is contained in the Bible: God wrote it, it is the revealed truth, and there is nothing more to talk about.  

But Adams begs to differ, saying that nothing is complete…ever. Creation is an ongoing process and within that process, God reveals God’s-self to us …. over and over again.  

This is a good time to point out that Adams was a liberal Christian and used the word God, even though he recognizes that the word is “heavily laden with unacceptable connotations…and may be scarcely usable without confusion.” He used the word God to mean, “that which ultimately concerns humanity”, or “that in which we should place our confidence”, or “that in which we may have faith.”  As a religious humanist, this is how I understand the word God: “that which ultimately concerns humanity.”

Continuous revelation is a concept that honors our individual experiences. Feminist theology begins with women’s experience. Liberation theology begins with the experience of oppressed people. Both of those theologies fly in the face of orthodoxy and are serious threats to it because those theologies give so much power to the individual.

For religious liberals, new revelation is always possible. All of experience adds to interpretation and understanding. We need to be open to the possibility of a deeper understanding of that which ultimately concerns humanity or that in which we may have faith. We need to be open to the possibility of a new revelation of compassion, or justice, or love. We need to be open to the possibility of transformation in our lives. There are bits of ongoing revelation that confront us every day. They are holy. They are ours.  

Ongoing bits of revelation help us in our search for inner wisdom because of their ability to elicit “aha” responses in us. When we hear or read or see something and are moved deeply, it is because the event is expressing a truth that we already knew but hadn’t articulated. Something was revealed; it was a revelation.

This notion that there is always something we can learn leads religious liberals to offer radical hospitality to those “not of our tribe”.  The “others” have something to teach us.

Adams second smooth stone of liberal faith is this:

2. All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion. Or, treat others as they would have you treat them.

Adams here is talking about free consentas a protest against government oppression and ecclesiastical oppression. It is a protest against both state and church when appropriate. It is a protest against having to obey, having to believe, having to be what someone else thinks you ought to do, believe, and be. “If we all are children of one God,” Adams says, “then all persons, by nature, have the potential to share in the deepest meanings of existence. We all have the capacity for discovering or responding to a truth that will save us, and we all are responsible for selecting and putting into action the right means and ends of cooperation for the fulfillment of human destiny.”  

Adams is suggesting that each of us is responsible for fulfilling our own destiny, and each of us is responsible for all of human destiny. There is a bit of Universalism there; the notion that it is not possible for one to be saved.  It is all of us or none of us; we are all in this together. We work both individually and corporately for the improvement of humankind.

Unitarian Universalism is based on the principle of free will. We are a non-creedal, covenantal religion. We do not require adherence to a set of rules or beliefs written by someone else in a time long ago and a country far away. Rather, we join freely in mutual respect and walk together in love to support the individual manifestations of revelation that each of us represents.  William Ellery Channing, the 18th century Unitarian minister said, “This is a universal church, from which no person is excluded except by the death of goodness in that person’s breast.”

Let’s look at the third and fourth smooth stones together.

3. We have a moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. To paraphrase, we are obligated to make the world better than it is.

4. We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation. Again to paraphrase, the work is ours to do; no one else is going to do it for us.

The third and fourth stones of liberal theology drive our obligation to create justice and the necessity of embodying justice in social structures and that, of course, includes our congregations.

Adams wrote, “A faith that is not the sister of justice is bound to bring us to grief” and that “the ‘holy’ thing in life is the participation in those processes that give body and form to universal justice.” He reminds us “freedom, justice, and love require a body as well as a spirit.


We do not live by the spirit alone,” This is our call to action as a free liberal faith.

Quoting the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, long time pastor at First Unitarian Church in Portland, OR: “I know I am preaching to the choir, but get off your butts and sing!”

This Congregation has a history of individual outreach to the community. You have fed the hungry, clothed the needy, mentored the disadvantaged, read to the young, and improved the housing of people in need. These works restore dignity in people’s lives. You are doing effective work to bend the arc of the universe towards justice.    

But of course there is much, much more that needs to be done to create the Beloved Community that we long for.

So we watch for revelatory events that will deepen our own understanding of our link to, in Adams’ words, “that which ultimately concerns humanity”, or “that in which we should place our confidence”, or “that in which we may have faith”, or God… so that we can find peace in our own hearts.  This is the peace that passes all barriers -- all understanding -- and finds us at peace with all of creation.  

This brings us to Adams fifth smooth stone of religious faith.

5. The resources that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.  Said another way: No matter how tragic life is, no matter how hopeless you feel, the gifts of grace in this world are abundant and demand that we recognize them and act on them.

Here, Adams is suggesting that we are justified in having an attitude of ultimate optimism. He does not say immediate optimism, but ultimate optimism.

Moreover, progress is not inherited.  It has to begin again with every generation -- and with every individual.  That is you and me taking responsibility for progress.  We have divine resources available everywhere we look and most importantly within ourselves.  It doesn’t happen with just one of us doing the work. It takes us all. Adams calls it “dynamic hope.”

So, to summarize these five smooth stones:  The ongoing nature of revelation; the free will and freedom of the individual; an obligation to create justice; the necessity to embody virtue; and an optimistic worldview.

James Luther Adams challenges us to embrace these five smooth stones to create a more virtuous world.  

I close with his words to us:

“We of the Free Church tradition should never forget, or permit our contemporaries to forget, that the decisive resistance to authoritarianism in both church and state, and the beginning of the modern democracy, appeared first in the church and not in the political order.

The churches of the left wing of the Reformation held that the churches of the right wing had effected only half a reformation.  They gave to Pentecost a new and extended meaning. They demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laicism — that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers.”

David, with his five smooth stones felled the Giant.  He wasn’t the underdog!  He was small to be sure, but also swift, agile, and confident of of the advantage he held.

The good news for religious liberals is OUR five smooth stones of our religion:  very powerful resources as we seek to make this world a better place.

May it be so.

May we continue to make it so.

Text of sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by UUA Moderator Jim Key, Dec 15, 2013.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Heaven on Earth

I return to the writings of Henry David Thoreau often. His ideas and the way in which he lived were radical for his time. During the last hours of his life, Thoreau was questioned about his beliefs by a concerned neighbor, who asked, “Have you made peace with your maker?” “I never quarreled with my maker.” Thoreau replied.  The neighbor persisted, “Aren’t you concerned about the hereafter?” To this Thoreau answered, “One world at a time.”

Great advice. One world at a time. We’ve all wondered about the hereafter or what most of us from the west might call heaven.  Some even claim to have been there and have returned. Some value the hereafter or heaven more than life here on earth and live and love accordingly. I side with Joseph Campbell, who says that “it’s silly to think that our little egos are constructs that will continue throughout eternity.” He believes that what we consider our individual lives are merely bubbles on the surface of life.”    Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Michael McGee tells an amusing story. He says, “ I like the “Mother Goose and Grimm” cartoon showing St. Peter at the pearly gates with a line of people in front of him going through a security check, taking off their shoes and putting their purses and laptops on the infamous conveyor belt. A big sign in front of St. Peter reads, “Expect Delays.”  He says, “That's just not right, is it? But many people believe they must delay going to heaven until they die, which is really a shame, isn't it, when heaven is right here beneath our feet every moment of every day. What a waste to wait for it.”

As a child I was raised Roman Catholic and enrolled in Catholic school. I left Catholicism without any major injuries and still find some of the rituals comforting as they connect me to my family. However, I can remember being able to recite the Lord’s Prayer before I was able to confidently read. Some of the words “our father who art in heaven” and “thy kingdom come” remind me of feeling afraid and guilty most of my childhood, looking skyward and wondering if I was being watched or if I would be struck by a bolt of lightning. You see I just didn’t recite these words. When I was old enough to understand I began thinking about the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer especially the bit about “on earth as it is in heaven.” I asked questions. I couldn’t understand a vengeful God. Coincidentally this is also around the same time the frequency of my time in detention increased, I was copying the Bible by hand on a daily basis as a punishment, and my parents were asked to come to school quite often. I was considered a behavior problem by second grade because I asked questions and refused to buy the message wholesale. How Unitarian Universalist of me!

I agree with the Rev. Sarah Schurr of Alaska, and many modern scholars, who comments on the kingdom of God and heaven on earth: “I do not think this is what Jesus was talking about at all. Jesus lived in a time and place where his homeland had been conquered by the Romans. Suffice it to say these were tough times for the Jews. The Romans, who had no respect for the Jewish God or the Jewish people, made their own rules for the land with little regard those they had conquered and kept at the bottom of the economic system.” This assessment makes sense. Jesus looked forward to the day when it would not be the Kingdom of Rome that they had to live in, but a kingdom where love and fairness was the foundation of the state. The land would have God’s laws and not the laws of Caesar. So you might think of “The Kingdom of Heaven” being Jesus’ way of saying, “The time we look forward to when our society is no longer messed up and we live can in peace and prosperity.”

The well known Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Marilyn Sewell said this in an article in the Huffington Post: “Unitarian Universalist theology is of this world, not of the next. Jesus, in fact, taught that the Realm of God is within and, contrary to most Christian practice, his teachings were centered on relationship, not salvation. Unitarian Universalists do not emphasize an afterlife. For one reason, we simply don’t know anything about it. No one as yet has come back to report. But we do know about suffering and injustice on this earth, and so we try to create the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, with real people.”

Going back to the 2nd century, the term Universalist has meant those who believe in universal salvation. Whatever heaven there is, we all get to go. Whatever happens, it happens the same to all of us. No one is left behind. Our liberal message has always been that no one, no matter who they are, has to fear going to hell. The great Universalist preacher John Murray used to encourage lay preachers to, “Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.” I think this is one of the most affirming beliefs of our faith and one that I think really helps define us. We believe that whatever positive afterlife there might or might not be, all have inherent worth and dignity. We all matter.

I remember hearing this story from the late Rev. Peter Gomes, Minister at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. It, like this sermon, is about heaven. The story begins as a man was being given a tour of heaven and hell. They begin in hell where he sees hundreds of hungry people in a room full of banquet tables. The banquet tables were filled with delicious food, with amazing aromas, and all the people have spoons. The spoons have long handles, just too long so the people in hell could not feed themselves -- they could not get the food into their mouths. So they were eternally tortured by their hunger in a room full of delicious food. The man on the tour asked about heaven. The tour guide said that heaven was much more pleasant. The room looked a lot like this one but everyone there was very happy at their banquet. The man asked, “in heaven do they have shorter spoons?” The tour guide said, “No, the spoons are the same and the food is the same. But in heaven, they feed each other.”

Of course you might know the old joke about where Unitarians go after we die. We don’t go to heaven. We go to a book discussion group about heaven. It is so often said that Unitarian Universalism is all about this life, not seeking after some future reward in the afterlife. We aren’t just marking time until after we die, when the good stuff starts. We are called on to create a heaven on earth. Here with our lives and with our own deeds. And, like the people with the longs spoons, we don’t create it for ourselves. We create heaven on earth for all to experience. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call on us to work toward a world of peace, liberty, and justice for all. If we can do that, we can fulfill the promise of our Universalist ancestors and heaven can truly be a reality everyone.

Universalist minister Hosea Ballou argued with a Methodist colleague over the issue of eternal damnation. The Methodist asserted “If I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven!”  Ballou answered, “If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you!”

During World War II the Universalist Church of America issued an “Affirmation of Social Principles” which begins as follows: “We Universalists avow our faith in the supreme worth of every human personality, and in the power of men [and women] of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God. To progressively establish the Kingdom of God; to progressively establish heaven on earth. Such an ideal does not require a literal belief in either God or heaven; rather, this is a statement that presents us with the possibility that we can truly live out our highest ideals.” The Universalist side of our tradition affirmed that everyone gets to go to heaven, based on the  reasoning that if God is indeed good, then God would not punish anyone to eternal damnation, since such damnation would be unspeakably evil. This was a radical idea in its day, but the Universalists did not stop there. Many Universalists abandoned traditional ideas of heaven, and began to wonder what it would be like if we could create a heaven on earth, here and now.

Best known as the author of Brave New World, humanist and pacifist Aldus Huxley once wrote, “It is because we don’t know who we are, because we are unaware that the kingdom of heaven is within us, that we behave in the generally silly, often insane, sometimes criminal ways that are so characteristically human.” In case you are having a hard time with the word kingdom -- let me share the word that the theologian Matthew Fox proposed in its stead the word is kindom. Like meaning we are all kin, we are all related and we need one another.

A story that demonstrates heaven on earth is told by the Buddhist writer, Jack Kornfeld, who describes a large Buddhist temple in Thailand where an enormous and ancient clay Buddha stands. Though not the most beautiful of Buddha’s, it had survived for over five hundred years. But he was showing his age, so the monks who tended the temple decided to clean him up and repair some of the cracks that were widening with the years. As one monk was cleaning and patching he came across a crack that was so big that he took his flashlight and peered inside. And what he saw amazed him: there in the middle of this aging, crumbling, great statue of the Buddha, at its very heart, he gazed at another Buddha, a glorious golden Buddha, one of the largest and most luminous gold images ever created in Southeast Asia.

The Rev. Michael McGee sermonizes using this story saying, “This brilliant Buddha is a metaphor for the essential nature of each one of us, that part of us that at times lies dormant beneath the protective layers of pretense and defensiveness. When we're able to peer beneath our roles and responsibilities, our masks and prejudice, we are stunned to find at our heart a genuine goodness and spirit, which some call our Buddha nature and others call Christ Consciousness and still others call the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Buddha's message was that all you have to do is open your eyes to see heaven; we only need to wake up to nirvana. But that's not easy; to open our eyes we must also open our hearts, and that takes practice and discipline. And we must acknowledge that life is not heavenly for many people; there is poverty, disease, death, injustice. So we must ask ourselves, does suffering prevent us from experiencing heaven on earth?

The time is now, the task is ours, the joy we feel is to be shared. We are the kindom of love and hope and courage and possibility. And we are always on a journey to build anew.

May it be so.

Heaven on Earth, a sermon delivered on Dec 8, 2013 by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB.

A Matter of Practice

I want to talk about maps. Imagine looking at a map of the world. Recognize the many different colors of the countries and  take notice of the bold lines that separate these countries. Now imagine looking at a topographical map. There are no colors identifying boundaries. There are no bold lines creating separateness. Some of you may be sci-fi fans. You might wonder if the people of another planet, millions and millions miles away, might now be on a mission to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and civilizations. If they came here, what would they see?  No lines between this spot of land and another miles away. Just a blue-green sphere, with clouds spinning in the light of the sun. And when they met the people, they would surely regard us all as one people. One species of earthlings.

They would probably be astonished to learn about the imaginary lines. They might be confused when people within these lines are suffering from a famine, while the people within the other lines over there have so much food that they are throwing it away. They might ask “Why don’t you redistribute food to where it is needed?” We’d try to explain.

Our explanations may make some kind of sense when you see the lines on a map. It doesn’t make much sense if you look at the lines on the faces. A philosopher named Emmanuel Lavinas said that “most philosophy began with the wrong question.”  It started with Who am I? But he said  “that wasn’t the first question at all. Where we begin, as we make our way through life, is by seeing another’s face and recognizing in it one’s own. More basic than the question Who Am I? is What is the relationship between me and this other, this face I behold?” It’s several months before newborn babies are interested in mirrors. But well before that, they are fascinated by other people’s faces. Sometimes even before they can focus their eyes. It is as if we know from birth that our connections to other people shape us, make us, and are us.

What is the relationship between these faces -- the faces of our guests -- and our own? Looking into another’s face, I can see laughter, age, youth, interest, anxiety, and curiosity. Take a moment to contemplate the faces. Look at the people steadily with open eyes and open hearts. To look into another’s face is to recognize the essential absurdity of those lines on the map. What does it mean that some of these faces dwell within some of those lines? What significance can it have, in comparison with all that is within those eyes and those smiles?

When Lavinas counsels us to begin with the face, he is asserting something very simple that we know to be true: we are all connected. Anything that tells us otherwise is an illusion. There is a word for the illusion that we are not connected: alienation.  Meaning someone who is foreign, someone who is a stranger, someone who is not part of the community. When we experience alienation we feel totally separate not affected by others, having no effect on them.

When we forget our interconnectedness, we separate ourselves from our community. We feel alienated, a sad and destructive feeling. One opposite of alienation is connection. Another opposite is Unitarian Universalism. Knowing that we are all unified, in unity, is part of being Unitarian. Knowing that we are universally connected and intertwined is part of our being Universalist. 

Love is the antidote for alienation. Love is the cure. The kind of love we are talking about is the kind Jesus meant when he said love your neighbor as yourself. It’s not about being in love with your neighbor, being fond of your neighbor, liking your neighbor, It’s not about feeling at all. It’s about knowing that we are not separate. The fact of our being neighbors, of our sharing this planet, of being parts of the same interdependent web, makes us one. Love is knowing that and acting upon that knowledge.  Love is also about honoring each person’s fundamental rights. And doing what we can to ensure that every person has access to those rights and harness their power to live thriving, fulfilled lives. That kind of love transcends borders and leaps over boundaries.

Our task today is to embrace the Guest at Your table program offered by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. The UU Service Committee is an organization that certainly deserves our support; they have been active on the front lines of world wide social justice issues since the days of Nazi Germany. The work of the UUSC isn’t charity. It isn’t crisis relief. The fundamental task is to show that each of us are all connected. That the barriers we erect between us are fiction and that we must work together toward our mutual liberation.

By celebrating Guest at Your Table, you are helping nurture a spirit of gratitude and "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations." Guest at Your Table fosters understanding and awareness of UUSC's human rights work. Guest at Your Table is an annual tradition in which congregation members learn about several people with whom UUSC is working. This year, we are featuring people who have empowered others to realize their human rights. These people are your “guests,” and we ask you to share your blessings with them to support our shared mission.

We're hoping that as many of you as possible will support them by becoming a member have offered you what you need to participate in creating wholeness and removing unnecessary barriers. I want to tell you about one specific table. My childhood kitchen table was routinely graced by people with disabilities, in emotional distress, hungry, homeless, struggling with addiction, or gay and lesbian folk all challenged by an inhospitable world. I watched my family welcome everyone to the table and as folks sat a while they were treated with dignity and were offered support, fellowship, and love. I witnessed compassion for others, generosity, understanding, acceptance of differences, and giving voice to the “underdog” through the behaviors of my parents and family. I easily learned to adopt these behaviors which have become expressions of my faith today and my love for and belief in Unitarian Universalism as a saving faith.

This personal reflection will help you understand why I feel I am among friends here in this Congregation. I easily identify with the culture of this Congregation that allows us to look beyond ourselves. I’ve witnessed a Haitian minister pick up donated clothing for his ministry here and in Haiti; we collect food for El Sol; we package food for hungry immigrant families; we stand beside Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists to create change in our communities; we are beginning a program that allow us to be faithful stewards of the earth; and we will soon begin our work with families that are homeless in our community.   As your minister, typically my words are a call to action, to challenge us, but today my words are to remind this Congregation that it has set the welcome table and you have welcomed and fed countless individuals and families who do not look like us, worship like us, but are connected to us. Yes our work shall continue and grow. But you should know you already understand how to reach across boundaries, how to look in the face of another and see yourself and most importantly you have the will and recognize the moral imperative to respond. I don’t doubt for a second that you won’t continue to reach and join the Unitarian Universalist service committee in widening our circle of support, of love, of courage.

I bring you a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh:

 Our true home is in the present moment.
To live in the present moment is a miracle.
The miracle is not to walk on water.
The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment,
to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.
Peace is all around us
in the world and in nature -
and within us -
in our bodies and our spirits.
Once we learn to touch this peace,
we will be healed and transformed.
It is not a matter of faith;
it is a matter of practice.

I chose these words from Thich Nhat Hanh because I love how he points out that mindfully taking the time to touch that place of connection -- that place of peace -- is both healing and transformative. And, he goes on to tell us, it is not really a matter of faith so much as it is a matter of practice! Let us look in the faces of our brothers and sisters and with the outstretched hand of human fellowship and practice and practice. Let us share our blessings.

May it be so.

A Matter of Practice, a sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by the Rev. CJ McGregor on Nov 3, 2013.


Thanksgiving may be the holiday from perdition for nutritionists and my fading waistline, and it produces plenty of war stories dealing with the fact that Aunt Martha can’t hold her gin like she used to, the newly self-proclaimed vegetarian at the table is considered too exotic for your crowd, you are no sooner in the door and your mother says, “Oh that’s how we are wearing our hair now, and a whole host of other family meltdowns. But this has recently become the favorite banquet of those studying the consequences of giving thanks. Developing an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, less anxiety and depression, higher satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others. I recently read a study from the University of Kentucky that shows that feeling grateful makes people less aggressive when provoked, which helps explain why we might survive Thanksgiving without serious injury. But what if you’re not the grateful sort? Author Alex balk tells us “When your relatives force you to look at photos on their phones, be grateful they no longer have access to a slide projector. When your relatives expound on politics, be grateful that they do not hold an elected office. Instead of focusing on the dry, tasteless turkey on your plate, be grateful the six-hour roasting process kills any bacteria.”

Our small group ministry groups have been working with the notion of gratitude this month. Working to define and understand it.  Why gratitude? Gratitude refers not only to the gratitude that arises following help from others but also the regular focusing on and appreciation of the positive aspects of life. Gratitude is foundational to our well-being. My colleague the Rev, Galen Guengerich, of All Souls in NYC, describes two dimensions of gratitude that make it fitting as our defining religious practice as Unitarian Universalists: “One has to do with a discipline of gratitude, and the other has to do with an ethic of gratitude. The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters. From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole. The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return. It is our duty to foster the kind of environment that we want to take in, and therefore become.” I became aware of the discipline, that is the practice, and ethic of gratitude around the same time Richard and I adopted our sons. I made mistakes parenting. It’s impossible not to and you weren’t trying hard enough if you didn’t. But one aspect of parenting that I am proud of is that I didn’t expect gratitude from my sons. You see, when you adopt at risk children it is sometimes easy to expect them to be grateful that you swooped in and saved them. This expectation would have been about me affecting their lives and assuming they would not change mine. If you remember in the story of Anne of Green Gables Matthew, adopting Anne, tells Marilla, who is also adopting Anne, that they could be of good use to Anne. What they discover after sharing their life with Anne is that she was of good use to them.

The ethic of gratitude demands that we care for the world that will care for us in return. These simple examples demonstrate our need to care for  one another. And so this is how my family grew. We found one another and practiced gratefulness not as a debt but as a way of being with one another and the world. We practiced in a way that we took in gratefulness, therefore becoming grateful. Gratitude becomes a way of being, a state of mind when it is practiced. And so this is how we will grow our ministry and heal our world. Practicing gratitude can be as simple as putting on the thankful coat that we heard about in our story. Mindfulness and practice.

“Unlike freedom, gratitude is a uniquely religious virtue,” Writes the Rev. Galen Guengerich. “Why is this?  A sense of awe and a sense of obligation, religion’s basic impulses, are both experiences of transcendence, of being part of something much larger than ourselves. The feeling of awe emerges from experiences of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine. We happen upon a sense of inexpressible exhilaration at being alive and a sense of utter dependence upon sources of being beyond ourselves. This sense of awe and dependence should engender in us a discipline of gratitude, which constantly acknowledges that our present experience depends upon the sources that make it possible. The feeling of obligation lays claim to us when we sense our duty to the larger life we share. As we glimpse our dependence upon other people and things, we also glimpse our duty to them. This sense of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude, which takes our experience of transcendence in the present and works for a future in which all relationships — among humans, as well as between humans and the physical world — are fair, constructive, and beautiful.”

The idea of faith as a discipline may sound like sacrilege to many Unitarian Universalists. But remember this: our faith is more than mere rational pretension. The defining element of our faith must be a daily practice of some kind. What kind of practice?  The Rev. Sam Trumbore writes that this is a spiritual discipline. He says, “For Jews, the defining discipline is obedience: To be a faithful Jew is to obey the commands of God. For Christians, the defining discipline is love: To be a faithful Christian is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. For Muslims, the defining discipline is submission: To be a faithful Muslim is to submit to the will of Allah.”

What should be our essential spiritual discipline? As Trumbore tells us, obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith, ours should be gratitude. In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude. Gratitude should be fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist theology.

Brother David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monk and one of the leading figures in a worldwide gratitude movement. Yes there is a gratitude movement. It even has its own Facebook page and claims the words of Congregationalist minister and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher who wrote “Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul”  We might be more familiar with his wife, abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe who we claim as part of our history. Long before gratitude became a hot topic of scientific research, Brother David was writing about gratefulness as the heart of prayer and a path to liberation, helping to promote the practice of gratitude as a way of healing oneself and society.

Brother Rast writes “grateful individuals live in a way that leads to the kind of society human beings long for. In many parts of the world society is sick. Keywords of the diagnosis are: Exploitation, oppression, and violence. Grateful living is a remedy against all three of these symptoms.”

Exploitation is born from greed and a sense of inadequacy. Grateful living makes us aware that there is enough for all. It leads to a sense of abundance and a joyful willingness to share with others. Oppression is necessary to exploit others. It results in competition and power. The more power you have, the more you can exploit those below you and protect yourself against those above you. But grateful people live with a sense of abundance; they need not exploit others. Oppression becomes unnecessary and it is replaced by mutual support and by equal respect for all. Violence springs from the root of fear — fear that there may not be enough for all, fear of others as potential competitors, fear of foreigners and strangers. But the grateful person is fearless cutting violence at the root. There is a willingness to share and eliminate the unjust distribution of wealth that creates the climate for violence and believes difference and diversity can only mend us and make us whole.  Grateful living takes away the main reasons for exploitation, oppression and violence; through sharing, universal respect, and non-violence it provides the basis for a healthy world with a chance to survive, a chance for wholeness.

Brother Rast tells us “It is, however, pretty evident that greed, oppression, and violence have led us to a point of self-destruction. Our survival depends on a radical change; if the gratitude movement grows strong and deep enough, it may bring about this necessary change. Grateful living brings in place of greed: sharing; in place of oppression: respect; in place of violence: peace. Who does not long for a world of sharing, mutual respect, and peace?”

I’m hoping by now you are connecting these thoughts to our principles, to the ways in which we have agreed to walk together and create change. From ancient times through modern social science and research, gratitude has been distinguished as a desirable human quality with the function for making life better for oneself and for others. So it is with a grateful heart that we are Unitarian Universalists. Let us raise up the virtue of gratitude. Let us understand that we can save ourselves. Let us create a just, compassionate world where all life is celebrated. Let this season wake our hearts and minds and guide us on our journey toward wholeness and to be bold enough to embrace the practice of gratitude.

May it be so.

Gratitude, a sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by the Rev. CJ McGregor on Nov 24, 2013.