I don’t know why I often begin my sermons with stories from my time at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, so forgive me for doing it once more.
In Reston, we had a process for prospective members similar to what we do here in Loudoun, with one exception. A couple of times a year we’d have an orientation program for anyone interested in joining, as we do here, but there the program would lead directly to a new member Sunday, where the new folks would have the opportunity to sign the membership book as part of the service.
During my time as church president, my favorite job was taking part in the orientations for prospective members, watching them grapple to understand this thing called Unitarian Universalism, and then on new member Sunday watching some of them sign the book, and seeing their happy faces as I welcomed them into church membership.
In one of those orientation programs, during the last session one week before new member Sunday, one woman said: “I understand what you people are against. I know what you’re not. But I don’t know what you are – what you do believe. I need a reason to bring my children here.”
I don’t remember how we answered her, but the answer obviously wasn’t good enough. She did not join on that new member Sunday. But some months later at the next new member Sunday, there she was signing the book. I greeted her with: “So you figured us out!”
“Yes,” she replied. “It happened when I went back to my Episcopalian church. There, they decide what I should believe. They make it easy. Here, I have to do that work for myself. It’s harder, but it’s worth it.”
That has stuck with me for more than 15 years – a great way to understand our faith.
Most of you know that on June 1, three months ago, my wife Carol and I suffered that loss that’s often called the worst of all – the loss of our 29-year-old son, Thomas, in an accident. In my grief, I have spent the summer thinking about, talking about, reading about, joining discussion groups about, the role of religion in our lives. Among other things, I’ve spent a lot of my free time reading, listening to and watching Unitarian Universalist sermons and hoping to find ways to contribute to the health and growth of our faith. I want to help others find the solace that good religious communities can offer.
One of our problems is that it’s so hard to explain Unitarian Universalism to others. We often start by telling people what we don’t have – a creed, a rigid mindset. The Rev. Aaron White, in a recent sermon in Dallas, used the analogy of a restaurant. He said we’re like the waiter in an Italian restaurant who greets the new customer with: We don’t serve Greek food here, or Chinese, or Mexican.
I’ve worked up my own brief elevator speech to make it positive, and with thanks to that woman in Reston, this is what I’ve come up with: In Unitarian Universalism, it is every individual’s right – or maybe responsibility – to do the hard work of determining what belief system calls them. We join in community to support each other on that never-ending quest.
I know that social action is missing from my description, but that grows out of our beliefs. Many religious and other organizations offer social action. But I don’t know a single other organization like the one I just described. In Unitarian Universalism, it is every individual’s right – or maybe responsibility – to do the hard work of determining what belief system calls them. We join in community to support each other on that never-ending quest.
In his sermon, Rev. White tells about his good luck the first time he walked into a UU church. He was a college student at the time, and here’s the three-part message he needed and received: “You’re loved unconditionally. You’ve got a lot of work to do. And we’ll help.” [Repeat] I found his sermon the best 20-minute description of Unitarian Universalism that I’ve ever heard. I’ll put a link to his video on the UUCL discussion list and Facebook page.
So that brings me to the heart of this sermon – my loose-leaf bible. I heard the Rev. Bruce Southworth of Community Church of New York talk about his in July 2014. After all, if we UUs are required to do the heavy lifting of building a belief system, why shouldn’t we each have our own bible? And why shouldn’t it be in something like loose-leaf format so that we can revise it as we make adjustments throughout our spiritual lives. Because Unitarian Universalism also calls on us to be open to change.
Rev. Southworth has his organized into sections, like creation stories, fables, psalms, proverbs, and so on. As anyone who has ever seen my desk can tell you, I’m not good at organizing paper. I much prefer pixels. So mine is not really a loose-leaf bible. It’s an Evernote bible. If you’re not familiar with Evernote, it’s a cloud-based system, like Microsoft’s OneNote, for organizing and saving notes, pictures, videos, songs, just about any kind of electronic file.
For more than a year I’ve been collecting things that resonate with me, and with Carol – quotations, stories, videos, poems, songs, meditations, that satisfy something in our hearts and souls. It has become an important spiritual practice for me, and I recommend it to you. My Evernote bible is organized into Creation Stories, Fables, Prayers, Precepts, Proverbs, Psalms, Quotations, and Sermons/Sutras.
Psalms is one of the easiest categories to fill. I have 14 items so far in mine – poems and songs. I’ve asked Christopher D’Arcy and Gina Faber to perform one of the songs for you. It reflects the teaching I’ve heard so many times from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh that the miracle is not walking on water; it’s that we are here and walk on the earth. The song is called “Holy Now,” by Peter Mayer.
This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
If you can live in each moment, if you can connect with that, then everything is indeed holy now.
It hasn’t been hard for me to find content for most of the books of my bible, and in our summer services this year you heard some of the others share about one chapter or another that might be in their bible. I did want a section on prayer in mine, a word that makes some UUs uncomfortable. Here’s the Dali Lama’s morning prayer:
Today I am fortunate to have awakened. I am alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts toward others. I am not going to get angry, or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.
Jeff Erickson did a good job of exploring proverbs, but I can’t help adding one from my collection. Mine is probably the only book of proverbs that includes one from Mae West: “You only live once, but if you do it right once is enough.” And, because I just can’t resist, here’s one from Bishop Carlton Pearson, “Life is a sexually transmitted dis-ease….It’s un-curable but not un-treatable.”
In case you’re wondering what a Bishop is doing in my loose-leaf bible, he’s a great model of the never-ending journey toward religious wholeness. This Pentecostal Bishop had a revelation one day that a loving God would never condemn anyone to hell for not going to the right church, temple or mosque. He now preaches in a UU church in Tulsa and may be the first-ever Universalist Pentecostal.
Creation stories were harder for me. I have absolutely zero interest in how the world was created or how it will end, and I’m comfortable with the Buddhist tradition that it was always here and always will be. But I did find a couple of things for my book of creation stories. My favorite so far is not exactly a creation story, but a story about original sin. It comes from the Rev. David Bumbaugh:
The fall from grace, the great disruption of primordial order, the original sin, had nothing to do with eating apples or talking to snakes. The instrument of our fall was a wooden backscratcher, that piece of wood, bent at the end so one can reach the unreachable spot – there, there, between the shoulder blades, down a little bit lower, now up a little bit, there where the most persistent itch always takes up residence.
Before the backscratcher, before that simple, infernal device, we, like all our primate kin, depended on others to do for us what we could not do for ourselves: “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Before the backscratcher, before that simple, infernal tool, we needed each other to scratch the unreachable itch. The wooden backscratcher dissolved the bonds of reciprocity, unloosed the ties of community, and tempted us to believe in our own godlike self-sufficiency.
And God walked in the cool of the garden, and saw a primate standing alone. “What have you done,” God asked, “that you stand alone?”
“I have found a backscratcher,” said the beast, “and now I need no one.”
“Poor beast,” said God, “now you must leave this garden; in Eden, no one stands alone; each depends on the others.”
And thus began our wandering, our pacing up and down the earth, scratching our own itches, pretending self-sufficiency, trying to ignore the persistent sense of loss, the vague yearning for a primordial order, a world where you scratched my back and I scratched yours. A wooden backscratcher is poor compensation for the gentle touch of a living hand.
In this holy community,
may we scratch each other’s backs,
may we help each other along our spiritual paths,
may we help each other find words of wisdom,
may we help each other find solace,
may we help each other find joy,
may we help each other find grace,
may we help each other do the dance of life.
Please rise for hymn number 311, Let It Be a Dance.
Our benediction is taken from my loose-leaf bible, and it’s from the minister who inspired the idea, the Rev. Bruce Southworth:
Whatever we can do, or dream we can do,
Let us begin it this day.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it, and
May we be bold in our living and in our loving,
and in our giving and our forgiving,
So the world awaited becomes more nearly the world attained. Amen.
Copyright 2015 Mel Harkrader Pine