Once a year I have asked you to tell me what you would like me to talk about, and then I have tried to talk about those things. Sometimes the questions can be woven into almost a seamless whole, and sometimes it seems as if they have no relation to one another at all. And then sometimes there are just a couple of outliers that I take care of without worrying about fitting it all together. This time they were all over the place, from church structure to social justice, to world religions, to the human condition, and my answers to some of them will be so oblique that you may not think I’m responding to them at all. However, all of them have been in my mind and have had some effect on what I will say today.
Probably the question that scared me most was how I would advise the president to best sell the liberal agenda. I wouldn’t have the nerve. I suspect he is probably a far better salesman than I to begin with, and his liberal agenda may not even be the same as mine in all its details. Probably what I would do would not get the widespread support that he needs to accomplish his goals, but I have sometimes been disappointed that he has not been more firm in his expression of his values. When he has had to compromise (and thank goodness he is willing to do that) he has not stood his ground as much as I have wished about the ultimate good that needs to be achieved. Lauding the compromise is fine, but it is only a compromise rather than the best possible answer. However, on two issues recently he has stood on principle. Whether this will gain or lose him votes I don’t know, but I’m proud of his stands. Most recently he has implemented some of the goals of the DREAM act by executive order, allowing young people brought here by their parents and educated and acculturated to the United States to stay, go to school and work here. I can’t begin to imagine how anyone could oppose that, but they do. These young people are Americans in all but formal citizenship. That should be recognized, and Obama recognizes that. The other was his coming out as personally supportive of gay marriage. I was given an article in which it was suggested that the way to begin to resolve the conflict was to invoke the constitutional requirement that each state must honor the laws, contracts, etc. of the others. That seems only reasonable to me, and I have seldom been more appalled at bureaucratic idiocy than at those at the DMV who refused to accept a marriage license from another state as valid evidence of legal change of name in a same-sex marriage. Of course, that was probably the clause that the Supreme Court invoked in the infamous Dred Scott decision that returned an escaped slave in a free state to his master in a slave state.
I was asked why I didn’t talk more about Florida, being a native, a rarity in Naples, and it’s certainly true that I was here before Disney World when Kissimmee was still a cow town and Naples a fishing village, and sponge fishing in Tarpon Springs was more than a tourist attraction, but way later than the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine was built. I know which five flags flew over Florida and why, and that it’s still the biggest producer of beef east of the Mississippi. I can remember when Brazilian pepper was called Florida holly and we made Christmas wreaths of it, and when most of the anoles could turn green in an appropriate environment, and hardly anybody had air conditioning. I know all those things, but I’ve never found a way to work them into a sermon. In his “Divinity School Address” Ralph Waldo Emerson said that good preaching was life passed through the fire of thought. He was right, of course. Authentic preaching has to be based on the truth of what we know, on our experience and our reflection on that experience. However, the fire of thought burns off a lot of the detritus, and if there is not something more than the incidents of one’s life, something that can somehow be meaningful to more than oneself, more than entertaining nostalgia, it’s just sharing one’s diary. There was a question about my personal life, however, that seemed to me to lead to that something more. I was asked if there was a particular moment when I experienced a call to the ministry, and I really don’t think there was, precisely. It was very shortly after I had begun attending the Unitarian Universalist Church in Orlando that I began to say, not only to myself but to others, that had I known the job existed I would have trained for our ministry. It didn’t seem so much like a blinding revelation as a quiet recognition of something that had been with me all my life but had never been surfaced before, since I hadn’t known of the existence of free religion, and ministry in another faith would be ludicrous. I think that it is often true that truth creeps up on us so quietly, and perhaps it was Kant with his belief in our intuitive knowledge of Truth as opposed to factual data who said it, too, that when we are confronted with transcendent truth it feels like recognition of something we already knew. It is an old friend rather than a new acquaintance. It was not until years later that I began the rather onerous preparation – even more onerous now, and I am awed by candidates’ fortitude these days — but it was as inevitable as the original recognition.
There is a bit of a paradox in the piece of wisdom — and it is wisdom — that one’s own life must be the basis for preaching. When people ask me how long it takes to write a sermon, I say 20 hours or my whole life, and that’s precisely the case. The paradox lies in the fact that the most important thing to remember about leading worship is that it is not — ever — about you. It’s not even about us. It is about those values and ideals that transcend us, the “more” that calls us and impels us to be spiritual beings, doing good, living upright lives, seeking truth and justice, creating beauty — all the things that take us beyond the self-centered lives that ultimately have no meaning. Worship, I was told, is from the Anglo-Saxon worth-skip, shaping things of worth. It is about them, not about me, and not even about the congregation either as individuals or as a whole.
There is a lot about congregational growth centering on Sunday morning worship, people’s first experience of us and the center of the congregation’s life together that seems really counter-intuitive. We often expect, given the consumerist values of so much church-seeking that visitors are looking for something homey, personal and safe, that makes them feel as if they’re entering a family. One of the things this congregation does best is to welcome people and make them feel that we really want them here. It is one of your greatest strengths. But in worship what they want is inspiration and transformation more than warm inclusion, especially since what seems to us like warm inclusion is too often uncomfortable for newcomers like introductions of visitors. It is argued that after all that’s completely voluntary, but it is hardly voluntary when people are turning to stare at you or even pointing you out, as I have seen done. It is also uncomfortable for newcomers often to hear personal details of less than earth-shaking importance about people whom they don’t know or long informational bits about congregational business. A good metaphor for this is the arrangement of chairs in a circle to make things seem more intimate. For those already there, it does, but if you are a late-comer everyone else has to move in order to include you, and you feel like an intruder. Sunday morning worship is public worship. It should have room for newcomers, late-comers, and even people who are just there out of curiosity. It is about shaping things of worth, not about the preacher’s life or the congregation’s participation or even the newcomer’s needs or desires.
There is, I suspect, in each of us, some streak remaining of the narcissism with which all babies are born. Babies are not even aware of the existence of other people. They have only their own needs. It is a sign of maturing when they recognize others outside themselves. The next step is to recognize that those others have their own needs and desires and are not here merely to serve ours. Some people never even get that far, much less to the point that they recognize that others feel pain and joy and we should not increase their pain even if we do not attempt to enhance their joy. Self-interest is not the same thing as narcissism. It is normal and natural for us to be concerned with our own wellbeing. It is pathology, however, when it remains unaware that one individual’s needs and desires cannot take precedence over those of others. I understand that sociologists, taking the temperature of our society have identified a sharp rise in the incidence of narcissism. Although I suspect the full-blown incidence of it is rare, there is some of it in us all, and we have to remind ourselves that others’ wishes are more important to them than ours are. Perhaps connected to it is our expectation that other people will think what we think and want what we want. That sometimes happens here when we blithely assume that everyone has the same political or social point of view or that everyone should be involved in the expected activities, whatever their interests or abilities. It is even, I suspect, some of our remaining self-absorption that makes it so much easier to give than to receive. Again this is a bit counter-intuitive, but I suspect that it’s true. If we are on the giving end it is we who are in control, in a one-up position. When we are forced to feel a sense of obligation, we have a sense that we are in a secondary place, and it is difficult not to resent it. It is easy to feel pity for people and to give to them out of a wholly admirable generosity. Even more admirable, though, is compassion, a feeling-with, that enables us to take as well as give, and to understand that the generosity of giving is matched by the generosity of receiving.
Buddhist monks practice that, those who are sustained by what is placed in their begging bowls. They, through their willingness to receive alms, are giving the gift of a generous spirit to those who give them. I really like the essence of the Buddhist religion. Some of the practices of some of the sects are not particularly admirable, but the religion itself has much to appreciate: The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Law of Dependent Causation. I have suggested that it’s really the Methodism of the Hindu faith, since, like Methodism, it has a clear path laid out to salvation, the same salvation the Hindus seek, nirvana. Much as I admire it, however, I decided long ago that there were theological as well as cultural reasons that I could not be a Buddhist. I’ve actually referred to this quite recently in another sermon. One of the basic teachings, with which I sincerely agree, is that suffering is caused by attachment and that therefore the path out of suffering is to practice detachment. My response is that therefore we should be prepared to suffer. I don’t agree that the basic law of life is suffering. Much of it is lovely and beautiful and well worth our attachment. Some of it is even worth dying for. And it is, in a way, our very attachment that overcomes death, and our grief is small price to pay for the memories of love.
Death, of course, comes to us all, and I sincerely hope that the efforts of some biologists to extend life into eternity will fail. I think that there would be consequences to that that would be pretty dreadful, and that although the sorrow that we feel at the loss of one who was beloved can be hard to bear, ultimately death is the friend, not the enemy of life. I’m sometimes a little regretful that interments have almost become a thing of the past among us. It is far more practical, environmentally sound, less expensive, better in every way, except for the symbolism of the return of the body to the earth from which it came. When death comes too soon, before a life is fulfilled, it is devastating, and I cannot be comforted by those who speak of the suffering those who die young have avoided. When, however, it comes after a long and valuable life, it is fitting, a rounding off, a satisfying conclusion, even though the loss and sadness are still great for those who remain. And death is never the end, though we often fear it. The mere fact that we have lived is like a pebble dropped into the water. It changes, however little, everything that follows us.
There are, also, those who choose to die, and it is often thought that those who are dying can often decide the day and hour. There are those who say that one’s life is one’s own and therefore if one chooses to end it it is no one else’s business. I strongly support the right of someone with a terminal illness to end it sooner rather than later if they have taken into account the ramifications of their choice. To continue to suffer, with no possible amelioration to come should not be required of anyone. Suicide, however, is most common among the young, and I do not think they have the right to die except under the rare circumstances of unending, intolerable physical suffering. I told one young woman who was suicidal that she was not allowed to die, that if would be a selfish, cruel act. I didn’t tell her things would get better, though they did, of course. She wouldn’t have believed me. The consequences to others are too great for unnecessary suicide to be permissible.