Together We Are More

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 19th 2013.  The first service that Sunday featured a “traditional” format based around the sermon, while the second service was “multigenerational” with the three stories told interactively as bracketed by an introduction and a reflection.)

Introduction (multigenerational service)

This morning we’re going to hear three different folk tales from around the world — one from Africa, one from India and one from Japan — as well as a song based on a saying from China.  All of them provide us with some different ways to look at what it means to be part of something larger than ourselves.

Now all of us are part of something larger than ourselves, often more than one thing.  We’re part of our families, part of our communities, part of our society, part of the human race, part of life on this planet.  And all of us here this morning are part of this congregation — even if you’re visiting us for the first time, we welcome you into our religious community for the time that you’re here.

One of the reasons to choose to be a part of something larger than ourselves is that it allows us to do things that we cannot do by ourselves.  In the first story, we’ll meet Hare, who realizes he must ask others to help him if he’s to do what he promised Hyena; in return, Hare gives the others a couple of marvelous gifts.

Often we’re part of something larger than ourselves because there’s some bigger goal we’re trying to achieve together.  In the second story, when a fowler or bird-catcher is trying to trap some quail so that he can sell them at the market, we find out what can happen to a community when it loses sight of its own goal.

And our third story is short but makes a simple point about the importance of how we are together making all the difference.  We’ll go with a woman who wants to see both heaven and hell; the monks at the local temple show her two scenes that are exactly the same except in one particular way that turns one scene into hell and turns the other into heaven.

~)<

Anthem: “Where There Is Light in the Soul” by Elizabeth Alexander

Sermon

[“Hare’s Gifts”, a story from Africa, told by Kenneth Collier]

It wasn’t until I’d completed about a year’s worth of seminary classes that I realized that one of my main interests was in the subject of community.  And this wasn’t just an academic interest in building and sustaining community, I knew, but a deep, personal need to be a part of something larger.  I’ve always been a “joiner” — by which I don’t mean a carpenter who specializes in assembling woodwork but somebody who becomes a member of organizations — and where they was no organization to join, I would create one.

As a young child, for instance, I rounded up the other young children who lived on my street, starting with my sister and one of the neighbors, to form what I naïvely called a gang.  Rather than going out and getting into trouble, though, we met in a shed in my parents’ back yard and held committee meetings.  I guess I was destined for church work.

Twenty years later I was living in San Diego and had become part of an on-line community that was forming under the name of Scientific Pantheism.  I’d been attracted — in spite of the bizarre-sounding name — on the basis of a web page that asked questions such as:

“When you look at the night sky or at the images of the Hubble Space Telescope, are you filled with feelings of awe and wonder at the overwhelming beauty and power of the Universe?

“When you are in the midst of Nature, in a forest, by the sea, on a mountain peak, do you ever feel a sense of the sacred, like the feeling of being in a vast cathedral?

“Do you believe that humans should be a part of Nature, rather than set above it?”

Well, my answer to all of these questions was “yes”, just as it is for many Unitarian Universalists.  Only I hadn’t heard of Unitarian Universalism at the time.  Even though there were active, healthy UU congregations in the towns where I’d lived since moving to the United States, none of them offered a campus ministry that had reached me at the universities where I studied and worked, so I was left to my own devices to find religion on-line.

Of course, that wasn’t very satisfactory.  So, discovering that there were a number of other people living in Southern California who had also found that on-line group, I suggested we get together.  Apparently other people felt the same need for seeing one another, as I found that I was welcoming into my little apartment not only people from San Diego, but from Orange County, from Riverside, even from Los Angeles.  To give you an idea of the time and distance, that’s like someone coming here from Fredericksburg, only with much, much, much worse traffic, as well as immigration check-points.

We started meeting every month, for picnics and potlucks, for meditation and story-telling and drumming, to go hiking or to visit places like the San Diego Zoo or the La Brea Tar Pits.  We called ourselves the Pantheists of Southern California, and I even have one of the surviving mugs that I had made for us.  It was community at its most instinctive, its most informal, as is entirely appropriate for a small group of a dozen or fifteen people, but it met a real, human need — our need — for community.

[“The Fowler and the Quail”, a story from India, told by H. T. Francis and E. J. Thomas]

Even before I officially began here at the Fellowship, I received a message from someone who wanted to start what he was calling an “Interfaith Communion” to bring together liberal churches around issues of LGBTQ equality.  The inaugural event was to be held at Hilton Christian Church, with a potluck and a showing of a documentary about California’s Proposition 8.  A number of you here attended, and there seemed to be interest in more such events that would bring together Unitarian Universalists, Congregationalists and Reformed Jews as well as some of the more progressive Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists.

I suggested that it would be good for the ministers from those churches and other clergy to meet, to figure out what we might do next as well as to support one another in our own social justice efforts, and very quickly we got together and started meeting once a month.  Now after a few such meetings, the original organizer of the potluck and movie event told us about a distinguished sexuality educator he knew who’d be willing to visit Hampton Roads to do a weekend workshop for us.  We reasoned that a lot of homophobia, for instance, is rooted in ignorance about human sexuality, so anything we could do to educate people would be a step in the right direction.  We readily agreed to organize the workshop and even received a grant from the Advocacy Office of the United Church of Christ to help with costs.  Again, a number of you here attended that weekend workshop.

Not long after that, though, the group fell apart.  That’s not because we started arguing, but we did stop cooperating with one another.  Those of us who were ministers found ourselves too busy with other things.  A couple of people were ill and for some reason just about all of the Congregationalist churches in the area seemed to be having problems of their own.  We found it harder and harder to keep a regular meeting time that worked for even a few of us, and eventually the attempts to re-convene the Interfaith Communion simply ended.

[“The Difference Between Heaven and Hell”, a story from Japan, told by Elisa Pearmain]

I think that’s the difference between what I experienced with the Pantheists of Southern California and what I experienced with the Interfaith Communion: in San Diego, we figured out how to feed each other.  I’m not talking about actual food, of course — there was always plenty of that, and none of us were hindered by only being able to use three-foot-long chopsticks to pick it up.  No, I’m talking about feeding one another spiritually, something that very few people can do — or at least do for very long — all by themselves.

I’ve heard a number of ideas about the origin of the word “religion”, but the one that seems to make the most sense — at least to me, particularly as a Unitarian Universalist — is that it comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind together again”.  I don’t recommend looking it up in any dictionary, though, given that a lot of overly specific theology tends to get inappropriately included.  As I said here one sunny Sunday morning a little over three years ago, there’s a dirty little secret about religion that I learned while I was in seminary:

Religion isn’t really about belief, at least not for most people, even in main-line Christian denominations.  Rather, religion is about community.  It’s about family and friends and feeling connected with other people, being a part of something larger that gives us a sense of purpose in the world, that challenges us to be more than we are, that asks us to help make the world a better place, for our children and for one another.  It’s about feeding one another spiritually.

And here’s what happens when we do that: unlike physical food that’s consumed, when we feed one another spiritually, we end up with more, not less, and we find that we are more together than we are as a mere collection of individuals.  When we come together with our preoccupations with time and who’s responsible for what, with concern for who’s getting credit and unresolved disagreements over what we’re going to do together, it’s easy to be less.  That’s not to say that there’s never a group that’s free of such problems.  Chances are, if it’s doing worthwhile work, there’ll be different ideas about the best way to do that work.  But if the people in the group are feeding one another spiritually, those differences are a source of strength, not weakness.

As I bring this sermon to a close, let me give you an example.

The Fellowship’s Finance Committee is responsible for preparing the congregation’s annual budget.  Though the budget is actually approved by voting members at the annual meeting, as will happen following services today, the budget obviously needs to be developed before that.  That’s not something that happens in a vacuum, though.  For one thing, we can’t assume infinite pledges.  Much as our Canvass Chair cooked up all sorts of creative ways we could raise more money — though I’m not sure how fracking in the Sanctuary’s back yard was ever going to work — we can only work with the pledge commitments we actually receive, modestly supplemented by reasonable estimates of income from fund-raising events and things like the re-sale of the books that many of you donate.

On the other side of the balance sheet, we have a lot of known expenses.  Much as we might plead with them, Dominion will not keep the lights on or the air-conditioners running unless we pay our bill from them each month.  We are similarly committed to pay back our own members who bought bonds to help us pay off the mortgage on the office building.  Then there are the congregational goals and priorities for which the Policy Board is ultimately responsible, from being a “Fair Share” supporter of the Unitarian Universalist Association so that it can continue to offer programs that are of benefit to us, to ensuring that our own dedicated staff are at least better compensated than if they were employees at Walmart.  Finally, there are common-sense requirements, including that the budget should be balanced.

Now all of that can seem like a pretty tall order.  As anyone who has been a part of it can tell you, it takes many meetings, poring over spreadsheets, looking at past budgets, calculating and re-calculating estimates of this year’s actuals, moving numbers around to try to make it all work.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  In that ideal universe with infinite pledges — or, perhaps, an enormous and somehow completely non-polluting source of crude in our own back yard — it’d be easy.  In the real world, it’s not.  What’s more, it may not even be possible to satisfy all of the requirements at the same time.

But here’s the thing.  When the members of the committee are there not just to do the job, but to be in community with one another while doing that job, not just to complete a far from easy task, but to help one another bring their best selves to that task, then they are not just a committee, but are also a community of the like-hearted, lifting one another up and feeding one another spiritually.  At the end of the day, that’s where religion may be found.  That’s what makes us a Fellowship rather than a social club or an activist group or an investment bank.  And that’s how we do the work of growing the Beloved Community.

So may it be.

~)<

Reflection (multigenerational service)

So heaven and hell turned out to be pretty much the same, except in heaven the people were helping one another and in hell they forgot that they could do that.  It seems like a small thing, but even the simple ways in which we work together can make a big difference in the end.  Sometimes we think that helping one another makes things too complicated, that asking for help from somebody else is being a bother to them, that we should be able to do everything ourselves, but we can only be part of something larger than ourselves if we’re willing to help one another, and be helped, too.

Now in the story from India, do you think the quail ended up in heaven or in hell?  Yes, I think they ended up in hell, too.  And really, it was a hell of their own making.  They forgot that they needed to work together, and their own quarrels with one another became more important to them than the larger goal of saving all of the quail from the fowler’s net.  Okay, perhaps there were some quail who were sometimes working harder, either because they were naturally stronger or because they happened to be in just the right place to do more.  But those quail wouldn’t always be as strong and they wouldn’t always be in a good place, and the time would come when they wouldn’t be able to do as much to help with the net, so really they should have counted their blessings rather than complain.  Perhaps then the fowler wouldn’t have been able to trap them.

And in the story from Africa, do you think Hare and the others ended up in heaven or in hell?  Yes, I think they ended up in heaven, too.  Even Hyena, once he’d realized that Hare had done what he promised fair and square, probably had a good time at the feast and enjoyed the music as much as everyone else.  Maybe, when it was time for him to rebuild his hut, he moved into the village along with everyone else, too.  That’s not to say that nobody in the village ever disagreed with one another or got into arguments.  But keeping in mind the promise of the village — that it really is good to live together, sharing, helping and knowing each other — they’d find ways to resolve their disagreements and settle their arguments so that they could continue to enjoy that heavenly promise.

So the next time you find yourself part of a group of people with a particular job to do, think about how you can be in community with one another while doing that job.  Suppose you’re part of a class project or a team with some task to complete, try to find ways to help one another bring your best selves to that project or task.  Like the people at the feast in the temple, it’s important to be there not just as a group of individual people, but as a community of the like-hearted, lifting one another up and feeding one another spiritually.  At the end of the day, that’s where religion may be found.  That’s what makes us a Fellowship rather than a social club or an activist group or an investment bank.  And that’s how we do the work of growing the Beloved Community.

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  1. […] May 19th: “Together We Are More” […]

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