Sunday, April 20, 2014

Roll That Rock Away

I envy Christian ministers this time of year. When Easter rolls around they can turn to the liturgical calendar and hit upon dozens of messages and images related to Jesus’ resurrection to use for Easter Sunday sermon material.

Then there is the Unitarian Universalist minister. Our tradition doesn’t have a liturgical calendar to consult and how does one reach such a theologically diverse congregation with a single message?  What about a resurrection message?  After all it is Easter -- a memorial of the resurrection since ancient times. For the past ten years I’ve reached deep to bring Unitarian Universalists a meaningful message on Easter, being careful to massage our theological sensitivities and our understanding, and sometimes, our rejection of traditional resurrection stories. I could tell you of the pagan roots of Easter that lie in celebrating the spring equinox, for millennia an important holiday in many religions. The spring equinox is the end of winter and beginning of spring. Biologically and culturally, it represents for northern climates the end of a “dead” season and the rebirth of life or a resurrection. I could offer an Easter message claiming the importance of fertility and rebirth. All around the country this morning Unitarian Universalists are hearing stories of spring, sprouting flowers, and the symbolism of the egg. I’m not discounting these stories. It’s just that as a UU minister Easter is tricky. 

I find the variety of stories and interpretations of Jesus’ resurrection intriguing and sometimes comical. Take, for example the story of one young Unitarian Universalist. His Sunday school teacher was teaching a lesson about Easter and asked her class: “Who knows the story of Easter?” The boy jumped up and down waving his hand as he knew he had the answer. The teacher called on him and he replied:  “Easter is the holiday where Jesus comes out of his cave and if he sees his shadow we will have six more weeks of winter.”

I like this story. It’s a bit misguided but downright funny! It reminds me that each of us has our own resurrection story and more importantly each of us have an opportunity for resurrection, rolling away the rocks that block our healing and wholeness and allowing the warmth and a sudden leap of understanding to happen. The rock is the obstacle between us and spiritual vision. You may share the Christian belief that Jesus died and was resurrected or you may simply see this as one of many stories.  No matter what we believe the proof of victory over death is visible and unavoidable. This season of rolling the rock away and “rising again” allows us to witness the miracles that are around us. The image of "rolling the rock away" represents the undoing of the deceptive obstacles that seem to stand between ourselves and our personal freedom. We undo these obstacles by recognizing that they are real and devastating. Rolling away the rocks that seem to seal us in a dark tomb reveals the life and love that lies beyond us. You know, all of us have rocks that block us from getting where we hope or want. Rocks of fear or pride or lack of confidence. Rocks of arrogance or anger or addiction. Sometimes it is the very little things in our lives that keep what is best in us buried in a tomb.

My colleague the Rev. Mallory LaSande tells us “My life is a series of deaths and rebirths: times when my old life is over and a new life must begin. And the awesome promise of the Resurrection is that it will begin again. I’ve talked about a time of great darkness in my life -- a time when there seemed no future. That was for me a time of hiding among the dead. I didn’t want to be noticed and I couldn’t ask for help, so I withdrew from the fullness of life and hid there in the darkness. That wasn’t the only time I have died and been reborn, but from that time on I have known that however painful it is to be reborn, I will be.” I’ve been in that place a few times. I wonder if you have hid in the darkness hiding among the dead.
Imagine that you are trapped in a tomb hewn out of rock, completely sealed off from contact with anyone or anything. You are utterly alone. It is pitch black; you cannot see a thing. You hear nothing. The air is cool and musty, and an odor of decay permeates the place. You realize that this tomb is your life: a life encased in a separate body cut off from everyone and everything, beset with problems and pain (think of some specific problems and pains that you are facing right now), and marching inevitably toward demise. We are sometimes trapped in the tomb of our lives, and it seems that there is no way out.  We have tried to escape from this tomb countless times in the past, but failed so utterly that we gave up in despair long ago.

Now, you see a faint light approaching. The light grows as it comes nearer until you are at last able to recognize its source. The light is your resilience held by the love and wisdom of true and inner self and those around you here today. You’ve struggled to recognize this light, and in the light, you see your life and your struggle. You see the entrance to the tomb is sealed by an immense rock of solid, impenetrable rock that has trapped you in this dark, miserable tomb for years. Self-compassion, the willingness to be free, have come to help you roll the rock away. You look back and that rock has disappeared and you are standing in your own light and the light of your companions.

We only need to look to the writings of our ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson to understand the light. Emerson had come from a long line of clergymen. He entered Harvard when he was 14 and became a minister at 26. He was a popular sermonizer. But he abandoned the ministry to lecture and write. He was considered one of America’s foremost orators, and his journals form one of the world’s great documents of spiritual growth. Emerson describes this experience, of light, as a state of consciousness, a state beyond the familiar states of waking, dreaming, and sleeping. That is Transcendental Consciousness. In that natural state, which he describes as “the simplest form of human awareness,” the mind has settled inward, beyond all perception, thought, and feeling. The mind becomes restful yet remains fully awake and alert. “Whenever a mind is simple,” Emerson says, it “receives a divine wisdom.” Emerson teaches us to create and to trust the light from within, relying on our own divinity versus attaching ourselves to a reliance on external energies.

A lesson of Easter is that we can get up every day and go about taking care of what is around us and in front of us. Maybe we can roll those rocks away by caring for what is real. A central teaching of all religions -- Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, paganism, Hinduism. Taoism -- all of them claim that we meet what is sacred when we give ourselves away. When I think of removing obstacles, rolling the rock away, resurrection, and living in hope, my mind and heart immediately race to the hymn We Shall Overcome.  If we pay close attention to the lyrics of the hymn we can better understand our ability to recognize, count on, and experience the hope and trust that radiates from our resilience and our being connected to one another. It is perhaps most famous for being one anthem of the American civil rights movement when both blacks and whites endured the bites of dogs, the lynching of their comrades and loved ones, the burning of their homes and churches, and the murder of their beloved leaders including our very own Rev. James Reeb, a UU minister. They lived in a tomb with no light, no companions, no way out.  They endured because they were able to trust in a turn of events. They trusted that the place they were in was not their destiny. They were able to transcend their oppression and move toward freedom using their ability to transform from within.  Oh, deep in my heart I do believe WE shall overcome some day. WE are not alone. WE shall not walk alone. WE are not afraid.  WE shall overcome someday. It is clear to us that if we rely on the strength and surety of ourselves we will rise above and triumph over the gaps in the road and deep valleys of life’s journey.  It is our understanding of and desire for true resurrection  that guides us towards trusting in being better off, healed, and free of fear. Hope.

Don’t be too sure if you’re struggling with awful certainties of depression or loss or grief or confusion or broken promises or unfulfilled promise or anything to which we humans of the flesh are heirs, or even death. Stay willing to be surprised, open, resilient, responsible (able to respond), supple…like tender green shoots…stay ready to rub your eyes in disbelief…like poet Archibald MacLeish:

Why it was wonderful! Why, all at once there were leaves,
Leaves at the end of a dry stick, small alive
Leaves out of wood. It was wonderful,
You can’t imagine. They came by the wood path
And the earth loosened, the earth relaxed, there were flowers
Out of the earth! Think of it! And oak trees
Oozing new green at the tips of them and flowers
Squeezed out of clay, soft flowers, limp
Stalks flowering. Well, it was like a dream,
It happened so quickly, all of a sudden it happened.

Miracles abound.

We are at our best when we refuse to build walls of rock and truly practice self-care and love and care for what is outside ourselves–our friends and family, our community and our congregation. When the rock is rolled away -- whatever that rock is -- we are free, positioned to be made whole. Let us be witness to the miracle of resurrection and create our own Easter story.

May it be so.

Roll That Rock Away, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor, presented at 1stUUPB, April 20, 2014.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Donkey Walk

I was asked a few months ago if I would lead a service where we could show appreciation for those in our Congregation who have served us well over the past year.  A time to recognize our volunteers and for us to remember that this Congregation and its work is fueled by its members and friends. Naturally I thought the day of our annual meeting would be a perfect day for such recognition. Realizing it was also Palm Sunday I chose Donkey Walk as our service title today.

The most famous donkey walk is when Jesus stood outside of the city walls to Jerusalem and wept because it is said that he knew that only trouble lie ahead and knew his fate. He led his donkey through the gate and into the city where he was met by crowds laying palms on the street before him. Thus Palm Sunday. The stepping down from your donkey or horse, walking, and the laying down of palms is a ritual of respect and honor. In fact this ritual and custom is still carried out around the world on Palm Sunday. Any person, any guest that is to enter and be honored, thanked, or lovingly recognized would have palms laid before them. You’re probably wondering if I am going to traipse a donkey down the aisle of the sanctuary. It was a thought.

Being devoted in love and honoring one another above ourselves is difficult to identify in today’s world. What would it be like if all were willing to lay down palms in honor instead of picking up the sword?  What would it be like if we were people focused rather than focusing on corporations, greed, oppression, and violence?  At the heart of our commitment to our Unitarian Universalist tradition and at the heart of our commitment to one another in this Congregation is being people focused. That is, the visible demonstration of valuing one another. We pledge to give honor to one another through our words and actions, and by committing to each person’s success. Acceptance, worth, dignity, compassion, justice…all plucked from our seven principles. All guide us to seek holiness in one another.

We are neither encouraged nor expected to seek honor and holiness in one another in our world. We are continuously brought back to the feeling that we are required to respond to our primal fear of scarcity and survival. Discrimination against minority voters being allowed by the highest court, eventually 4 or 5 of the wealthiest individuals in our country will control our political system, a woman is considered not equal or worth as much as a man. Fear and elitism, not honor, has set in. We are encouraged to dismiss, forget about, devalue the most vulnerable, the people who are struggling, who are denied equality. How do we honor and seek the holy in one another in this house when all around us dignity and compassion are easily tossed away?

Mark Twain wrote about a man who for one single day in his life was given an unusual gift. Upon meeting complete strangers that man could immediately sense all the hurts and burdens and pains and struggles and secret sorrows carried inside them. And the others knew that their secret sorrows were being revealed to him.

He learned that day that this world is a difficult place, not all that is seems sometimes. He learned that every life, regardless of outward appearance is fraught with its share of sorrow and burden, of sadness and challenge, of secret courage and hidden strength and transcendent, enduring and irrepressible love. And thereafter he looked upon all the he met with a deep respect and a new admiration for all as fellow children in need of God’s love.

This little tale reminded me that compassion is something that we all are in need of and that if we just pay attention to others we will feel compassion for them, we will understand not that others need our pity, or even need us to fix them, to make things right, to do anything more than just be present and with them through the struggles, challenges, sorrows and pains that fall upon all of humankind.

Though we do not require the waving of palms, the shouts, the accolades, we do require the support and love of one another as we lead our donkey down the rough and windy road of truth, justice, and compassion. We are not a people that honor one another simply because the Bible tells us so.  We believe we can save ourselves by bringing a healing to each other and to the world because it is right. Honoring one another goes beyond any golden rule, and any principle for that matter. It’s a practice. Our common UU faith is covenantal, not creedal. Our faith grows from the promises we make to each other. It is about building and sustaining relationships. It is about committing to a supportive and transforming faith community.

One way to think about a UU congregation is as a greater whole that emerges from the combination of all of our connections. We realize that we do not have to do this alone, and we make a mutual promise to commit to and accept each other. By promising to be together relationally, we agree to give one another mutual trust and support. It is in community, in relationship, and in mutuality that people awaken, thrive, and blossom. Acceptance affirms people as they are, and encouragement propels them to what they might become. Acceptance of others is more than mere tolerance. Acceptance is a living promise to liberate and empower each other.  

In 2005, a national commission identified five promises within the UU principles, that are made by committed Unitarian Universalists.

  • We promise to live relationally
  • We promise to live ethically
  • We promise to live pluralistically
  • We promise to live evangelistically
  • We promise to live globally

These are deeper promises made by a faith that is outward directed to transforming the world. We are not about what we believe, but what we do. We practice love beyond belief.

My colleague, the Rev. Jeanne Harrison, describes our faith in a way that resonates with me strongly. This closely says why I am a Unitarian Universalist:

  • In each of us, there is a spark of the holy.
  • We can know god, the spirit of life, the great mystery directly.
  • Love is the greatest of all energies. It is a primal energy of the great mystery. It holds us reliably throughout all the days of our lives. It calls us to bring our love into the world.
  • We are agents for transforming the world. We bear the promise of hope.
  • Community matters. We don't have to do it alone.
  • We are an interwoven thread in the universal fabric of all that is. We do not stand alone and apart. We are a part of the whole.

Honoring one another is indeed a practice, and I would like us to start that practice here and now.

I have chosen the chalice symbol as it is the symbol of our tradition.  A flame, a light, within each of us. A symbol that identifies us and sets us apart as a community committed to one another.

(chalice pins are distributed, first to the members of the 1stUUPB Board of Trustees, and then among all volunteers.)

Let us step down from our donkey, prepare the palms. On this day let us thank all who have given of themselves to bless this Congregation, this community, and our world.

May it be so.

Donkey Walk, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on April 13, 2014.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Rabbi Barry Silver on Passover

I (am) attempt(ing) to recapture some of my thoughts from last Sunday's sermon that I delivered about Passover.  Although it was a somewhat daunting task, since I do not write out my sermons, I could not "pass over" this opportunity to share some of my comments for those who could not attend or do not remember all that I said (including me). -- Rabbi Barry Silver
When I was a kid, we used to have a Passover Seder every night for all 7 days of Passover.  This was a lot of work for my mother.   My father used to say to my mother, "Passover means the end of slavery, but don't you get any ideas."

On Passover Jews used to sacrifice a lamb.  Bulls and ewes were also slaughtered.  Reforms have changed all this and today most Jews regard animal sacrifice as a bunch of bull (and goats).  In the old days they used to sacrifice a ewe at the altar.  Today, the only ewe we sacrifice is the "you" that you are today, for the "you" we could become if we lived up to our highest potential and our highest ideals.  We sacrifice this old "you" at the altar of change...

The word "sacrifice" means to make holy. Today, we realize that there is nothing holy about killing an innocent animal.  We still share our ancestor's desire to make our lives holy, and to approach a power greater than ourselves, but we do this differently today. Rather than sacrificing an innocent animal, we sacrifice our time, our money and our talents to make the world and our lives better.

Passover is the springtime holiday which reminds us of the miracle of nature.  Our species' rampant destruction of the planet is sacrilege, our ruin of Creation is blasphemy, and our desecration of the Earth is profanity against all that is sacred.  These crimes are far more serious than any words that come out of our mouths or any violation of ritual. 

Our species all too often treats the world in an "awful" manner, instead of an "awe full" manner, i.e. full of awe.

Passover occurs in the springtime, when we commemorate the miracle of growth and of agriculture.  To fully observe this festival, we should speak out strongly in favor of protecting the Agricultural Reserve in this county.  If we don't translate the ritual into the spiritual and the actual, then we are just going through the motions of celebrating Passover and we will have "passed over" the most important part of this celebration.  We may gain from the time with the family, and enjoy some nice food, sing some lovely songs, and participate in ancient customs, but without action, we are missing the essential element of this observance... 

On Passover, we seek freedom in all aspects of our lives, including our government. Our government has been enslaved by an influential minority so we now have a government of the wealthy, by the lobbyists and for the special interests. With the recent decision in McCutcheon, which equates money with speech, the United States Supreme Court has told Americans that we have a political system in which "money talks". All Americans should work towards liberating our government from such control at this Passover season.

On Passover we sing the Four Questions. I could not think of a better place to sing the Four Questions than before a Unitarian Universalist congregation, which is devoted to science, reason and the rational mind. I told the children that they should rejoice to be free, on this festival of freedom, from religious indoctrination and free from other types of parents who seek to brainwash their children to believe religious nonsense, and instead are raised to ask questions in an atmosphere where their rational minds are respected.

The great physicist Niels Bohr began his lectures by inviting his students to treat all his comments not as statements, but as questions, to be explored, discussed and evaluated.  If all religious propositions were treated the same way, the world would be a much more peaceful and more rational place.

From a sermon about Passover by Rabbi Barry Silver at 1stUUPB on Sunday, March 6, 2014.