I’m not quite sure what I said last week to generate such a rich supply of topics for this morning’s sermon, but I hope I remember in time to say it again next year. They ranged from hugely broad to specific, were theological, pastoral, ethical, the whole range of religious speculation. I will address them all, though as I reflected upon them they may have developed to the point that it may be that you will not even recognize your own suggestion when it appears this morning in the sermon.
I will begin with the broadest, the most impossible to answer, and yet the one that I address in some form in every sermon that I preach: What is the purpose of life? The whole religious enterprise is based on that question. Why are we here? What is the point of it, after all, or is there one? If we look only at the material world and accept the reality that we are animals among other animals in this teeming life on earth it would be easy to say that our purpose is simply to survive, as individuals and as a race, as long as we can, to reproduce and to die. That is all that nature seems to require of any living thing. Our natures, however, seem to require more than that, though it can be convincingly argued that that in itself is a survival instinct. Whether it is or not, and the answer to that can only be a matter of faith, whether it be no or yes, those lives that seem most fulfilled, most joyful, are most effective and most admired, are those that are lived in service to something greater than themselves — greater, that is, in value rather than strength or power or influence or self-indulgence. Service to such things as these is bribed or coerced rather than freely given.
The highest that we can know or imagine has been called many things, some of which have had so much other baggage hung on them over the generations that some of us find the names uncomfortable, such as God, or the holy, or the transcendent, but they are metaphors for that which is worthy of our service. That service is the purpose of our life. That is not to say that I believe that we would not exist without such purpose, that somehow we were invented to do this, only that without it our lives are meaningless.
How we discern what that highest value is and how we shall serve it is the question. It can’t, of course, be just one value — how can we seek justice without compassion, truth without wisdom, love or peace or beauty or any greatness without the others? It must be all that we can know or imagine of goodness and beauty, which is why we have over generations used the shorthand of metaphor. Nor can it, since we are not the same, since we have different minds and souls and experiences, be the same for everyone, not only in its essence, but in how we serve it. We find that in part through introspection, through examining our own understanding, our own comprehension of what is good and true. It is not enough — we need input from others and to test our own ideas — but it is the beginning. It is part of the responsibility of our freedom to understand and practice our religion as it seems true to us to look carefully to find what that truth is.
And perhaps that is the use of prayer in Unitarian Universalism. It is a word I seldom use as it carries the overtone of asking for some supernatural intervention in our lives, of assuming that God can be informed of something that he/she/it would otherwise not know or can be manipulated to make things turn out as we wish them to. I do not, myself, believe in the supernatural, assuming that those things that strike us as such would have a perfectly natural explanation if we wholly understood them. Nor do I simply dismiss them as untrue if I can’t explain them. Nevertheless, I believe that we ourselves must be responsible for outcomes without expectation of magical solutions to problems. However, I think the idea of prayer can be used in another way as a vehicle for the sort of discernment that we need to practice in our quest for purpose and meaning in our lives, and perhaps even as a source of strength for the quest. It is a connection with the holy, with the transcendent, which perhaps in itself can feed and strengthen our souls. I do not pray, but if I did, that is how I would pray.
Which leads me, since the need of discernment of the good rather naturally leads to the question of how we can decide what it is to one of those squirrel cage questions that if you go round and round with enough can unfocus not only your eyes but your brain. Do we need evil so we know what is good? Well, would we need to know what is good if that were all there were? In a sense, we don’t have to worry about that since there’s plenty of evil out there set against goodness (not that it’s always easy to know which is which, since things seem to get pretty mixed together in my experience). In one of the oldest stories there are, that of Adam and Eve, the knowledge of good and evil made them the equivalent of the gods as long as they could remain in the garden and therefore immortal. I have also been saying that such discernment is the first step in the religious life. It is also true that without contrast things can’t be perceived at all. Things must be of different colors or textures to be seen. Something equally white will disappear unseen against the snow. So, in that sense, yes, evil must exist for us to be able to recognize what is good in contrast to it. I think it might ultimately be better, though, if it were unnecessary to make the distinction because there were no evil to make the contrast, but we might ask, should such an impossible
In all of this I have seemed to be talking only about the individual spiritual task, but just as with the contrast of good and evil there is also the tension between individual and community. Human development seems to show that at different times in our lives, if we are maturing normally, we swing from individual to community needs. Sometimes we develop the self, while at others we work out our relationships within the various communities we inhabit. Societies seem to do the same. During the fifties conformity was the watchword and the concern was that we were draining people of their individuality. In the sixties the individual was on the rise again and the ideal was the autonomy of the individual in community, a community that we could change, make just, make peaceful. Somehow, though, it descended into the narcissism of the seventies, where all people seemed to worry about was the condition of their own psyches. It was the era of pop psychology and the beginning of the rise in solipsistic notions of our creating our own universe.
People suffered because somehow they chose to do so. In the eighties we added consumerism and a refusal to grow up, to leave the narcissism of infancy to take a mature place in the world. The pendulum swings and the call was again for community and even, perhaps especially among us social liberals individualism became a bad word. The Enlightenment and Emerson were criticized almost to extinction for their celebration of the individual. It has been, it seems to me, a confusion of individualism with narcissism. Seeing the rampant narcissism in our society, they assumed that it was based not on a refusal to grow up and take individual responsibility for oneself and the world, but on the glorification of the individual. Not self but community was important.
I think that to elevate the community above the individual is as wrong as to elevate the individual above the community. They need to be in creative tension. The language of community today speaks of it as something separate from the individuals that are its component parts. I would never deny that the whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts, but communities must have individuals that keep them from stagnating, that keep their boundaries permeable, that infuse them with new ideas, and most important of all, remind them that not everyone must be the same to be a valuable contributor. It is vitally important for human beings to be a part of a community, to form friendships and families and wider associations and governments. They need those relationships to validate themselves. It is just as important for them to be responsible for their own lives, their own thoughts, their own moral decisions. Each needs the other, but the tension will always be there, which is actually a good thing. It keeps both the community and the individual honest.
In communities the closest relationships besides with one’s family are with one’s friends. I was asked about the relationship of friendship and commitment. Nowadays the word “friend” doesn’t seem to mean as much as it used to. People have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook. And it’s become a verb. One is invited to “friend” someone else. If that’s the whole relationship there can’t be too much commitment to it. There’s a country song that says, “You find out who your friends are” when something goes wrong in your life and they come to the rescue whatever it takes. On reflection I realize that there are people who will do that for people they don’t even know — I’ve done it myself — so maybe it’s more a matter of temperament than depth of commitment. However, a true friend is committed to remain a friend. It is someone you can go to even when you mess up and be truly yourself with and trust them to remain your friend through thick and thin. We don’t really have a whole lot of that kind of friend in our lives — mostly just friendly acquaintances — but when we do they are worth more than gold. It is one of the covenants that we make with one another, but it is one of the deepest. It can be broken, as all covenants can be broken, when one is no longer willing to do the work to maintain it, but it takes a real commitment that some few can make with us and we can make with them.
All communities and all relationships can be unintentionally damaged by carelessness in the maintaining of the covenant that holds them together. I was asked about gossip and the unintentional harm it can do. Sometimes it can be intentional. We all like gossip — we like to know what’s going on with people, and we especially like it when it’s a little juicy. As long as it isn’t malicious and we realize that if we tell one person we have told the world, it can just be pleasant and pleasurable. After all, as Ogden Nash says there’s little we enjoy more than talking friends over analytically with friends. However, it can do incalculable harm if we don’t take care, if we don’t think how the person we’re talking about might feel about their affairs being widely known, and in any community, unkind gossip is destructive. One of the things that does more damage to the wellbeing of a church than almost anything else I know is that kind of parking lot gossip. Well, that’s what we used to call it. Now it’s more likely to be done with email, and it’s so easy to send unkindness with one click to fifty or a hundred and fifty people. Or maybe to your friends on your facebook page. We can hardly serve what is highest and best, in community or out, without care and commitment to our relationships and to our community.
As we reach out beyond our selves and beyond our immediate relationships into the wider community we may reflect on what makes it what it is and how it makes us what we are. I was asked to comment on the impact of the Pilgrims’ beliefs on American society today. I think it is both wide and deep and as much or more among us Unitarian Universalists who are the direct descendents of those beliefs in relation to the Enlightenment. I can’t take a great deal of time and space here, but one of those influences shows in how we react to social issues, and how we think others should react. It shows most clearly in the expectation by some, perhaps many, that the only way to serve the holy is through social action — particular kinds of social action — and the most important way to fix things, in particular the environment, is through our own self-denial and insisting on equivalent self-denial in others. We are so often so sure that we are right and that a little judicious suffering by ourselves and others will fix things. Protecting the environment is a matter of survival. That makes it pretty important. My own garbage can is much smaller than my recycle bin and never as full, so it’s not that I don’t care. I do sometimes wonder, however, how much of a moral issue it really is to use the right kind of light bulbs, and whether we have the right to expect people who haven’t enough to eat to worry about whether it is environmentally sound to eat beef.
We rightly understand that service to the holy requires us to care — to care for others, to relieve suffering or at least not to cause it if we can, to care for the beautiful world be live in. There are many different ways to care, and we need to remember that diversity is not only in skin color or religious or ethnic background but in the ways that our caring is shown. One of you asked why it isn’t recognized that the creation of jobs is one of the greatest of all charities. Certainly the UUSC has long believed, and taught the Peace Corps, in the saying that if you give people fish they eat for a day, but if you teach them to fish they can feed themselves forever — or at least till the river is fished out. There’s also such a thing as unintended consequences. The reason, I suspect that one doesn’t think of it as a charity is that so often jobs are created that are marginal and exploitative. It is said that we need these immigrants who come here illegally because they take jobs Americans wouldn’t. Their need is so great that they will take pay and live often in appalling conditions. If it were possible to live decently on the pay of these jobs, many Americans would be willing to do them. What we are really saying is that in order to get cheap labor we are willing to break our own laws and exploit and even enslave people.
Immigration law in the
Until that happens, the passions that are raised by the various ways that the present law is either spottily enforced or ignored will be answered by such local efforts as Arizona’s new law which is calling into question whether or not the 2012 General Assembly should be held in Phoenix as presently scheduled. I suspect from what I have read that it is less the law itself than the atmosphere of fear that produced it and that it is producing that is the problem. It will cost half a million dollars to move the General Assembly, and whether or not to do it will be voted on this year in