Thursday, January 07, 2010

Sermon: "To Serve the Cause of Human Need" (Delivered 12-27-09)

[Due to the ice and snow here in Kansas City, attendance was smaller than usual on this last Sunday of 2009. If you missed church on Sunday, here is my sermon.]

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Challenge - To challenge those aspects of our culture and society that diminish human life. Click here for more information.

Nine years ago, on the last Sunday in December of 2000, I stepped into the pulpit of the First Church in Boston to preach for just the third time in my life. I remember that day vividly for a couple of reasons. It was a snowy, frigid day in Boston just like the weather we have outside this morning. And, that Sunday I selected the same hymn that we will sing to conclude this morning’s service, nine years and 264 sermons later. (Not that I am counting.)

On that Sunday nine years ago two of the visitors who came to the service were observant Mormons who were students at Harvard Law School and who had never been to a Unitarian Universalist church before. That’s a story for another time. After I preached we went out for lunch and they shared their impressions of the worship service with me. Of all the things that they observed the lyrics to one of the hymns that I had chosen stood out to them. The lyrics were from the second stanza of hymn #145, “As Tranquil Streams,” with words by Marion Franklin Ham. The first verse announces that “our kindred hearts and minds unite to build a church that shall be free,” and the second verse expands on what that freedom is meant to look like. “Free from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed, free from a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need.”

It was that part about the social code that really grabbed their attention. In many religious traditions, social norms, rules, and regulations are written down in stone, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. The truth as it is set forth in scripture or doctrine is the truth for all time, immutable and never changing. In those traditions, it is our human duty to shape our living to conform to the never-changing laws of scripture.

And then there is a different approach, our approach. Our approach uses our own experiences as well as teachings from the social sciences and the hard sciences to ask, “What best serves the cause of human need?” Then we go forth and do that even though we understand that we don’t and can’t have all the information. Our understanding of what best serves the cause of human need will change and evolve over time.

If you’ve attended this church for a while, the litany I am about to repeat may sound familiar. But it is a litany that speaks to the heart of our faith tradition. In the 1800s Unitarians realized that social systems in our young nation did not serve the cause of human need. So Samuel Gridley Howe devised a new way of caring for the blind. And Dorothea Dix worked in hospitals and worked to create a much more compassionate approach to the treatment of those with mental illness. Many Unitarians and Universalists understood that slavery was a system that completely and utterly and completely failed to serve the cause of human need (to say the least) and so they threw their weight behind the abolitionist movement. Theodore Parker saw the fugitive slave act as a grossly immoral piece of legislation and decided to serve the cause of human need by defying the law and assisting runaway slaves.

Universalist Clara Barton served the cause of human need as a civil war nurse and the founder of the Red Cross. Universalists recognized that women’s needs were not served by preventing them from serving as clergy so the Universalists became the first denomination to ordain women. The cause of human need was not served by denying women the right to vote. Unitarian and Universalist women led the women’s suffrage movement.

In the 1950s – yes, I said the 1950s – a Unitarian minister in California recognized that it did not serve the cause of human need to fail to recognize same-sex relationships. He performed the first religious services of union for same-sex couples in our country. The cause of human need, not to mention human decency, led Unitarian Universalists to be the leading denomination in working for LGBT equality both in our congregations and in our society. It has been a funded mandate in our denomination for more than 40 years. In fact, the week before Christmas the District of Columbia approved equal marriage. The ceremony to sign equal marriage into law in Washington D.C. was held at the All Souls UU Church in D.C.

In the 80s, as HIV/AIDS became an epidemic, many religious groups in the United States shunned those with AIDS. Many hospitals and doctors refused to treat those with AIDS. UU ministers served the cause of human need by serving those suffering from AIDS and by being willing to conduct funeral services that treated those who had died from the dread disease with basic human dignity and respect.

Free from a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need, indeed. Time and time again, for more than 200 years, our movement has worked to change society to better serve the cause of human need. Today’s sermon is the first in a series of sermons I will deliver over the next six months. At a rate of perhaps one sermon per month I am going to take a line or two from one of the really good hymns in our hymnal and explore the meaning of that line. In four weeks I am going to give the second sermon in this series. I will be taking a line from the first hymn in our hymnal, a line that reads, “With laughter drown the raucous shout.” It will be a sermon about the power of humor to disarm hate. But that is next month. Back to today.

As I announced a week or two ago there are three themes that I am planning to make the focus of my preaching. Those three themes, the three C’s, are preaching a message that connects us on a shared life journey, preaching a message that asks all of us to commit to a distinctly Unitarian Universalist way of life, and, finally, challenging us to resist and counter those parts of the culture in which we live that diminishes human life.

Sometimes to serve the cause of human need requires that we challenge aspects of our culture. In early 2009 my colleague in Madison, Wisconsin, Michael Schuler published a book entitled Making the Good Life Last. Schuler also contributed the first chapter to my forthcoming book that will be released in about 16 days. (Not that I am counting.)

Schuler says that it is the task of our churches to be life-giving communities in a death focused culture. What aspects of the culture in which we live do you find to be life diminishing rather than life enhancing?

[At this point in the service I asked the congregation to name elements in our culture that they considered life diminishing. They gave answers that included larger societal issues such as lack of affordable health care and neglect of children but also mentioned cultural elements like violence as entertainment, a media focused on gossip and violence, rampant materialism, and the idea that you can become happy by consuming.]

In both my book and his, Schuler describes what happens when you type the phrase “good life” into Google and ask it to show images. He states, “The screen will fill with images of people lolling by the seashore, drinking champagne, driving expensive sports cars, being pampered by masseurs, skiing or skydiving. The good life is also identified with long-stemmed roses, diamond necklaces, wads of cash, [and] impeccably furnished penthouses.” Schuler comments that these are “all representations of over-the-top luxury and once-in-a-lifetime vacations.” I would just qualify his remarks by saying that for many of the people in this room the things Schuler mentions are rare splurges. For most people in the world they are never-in-a-lifetime things.

Schuler argues that the fantasy ideal of the “good life” is not only unattainable for most, but unsustainable both personally and ecologically. He refers to this kind of materialism as a gluttony that isn’t nourishing, and calls our culture a dangerous, barren wasteland in which so many cease to thrive.

I remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine not long after Schuler’s book, Making the Good Life Last, came out. My friend winced and said it was a great book released at exactly the wrong time. Schuler wrote the book before the market crash of 2008 but its release in early 2009 coincided with a time of fear and heightened anxiety due to unemployment, foreclosures, and retirement fund losses. My friend suggested a second printing with an alternate title: Making the Good Life that is not as Good as it Once Was Last. But, upon revisiting Schuler’s book this past week, it does not seem as out of touch as it did a little less than a year ago. Perhaps the keys to a good life are easier to see now even though times are more fearful.

According to his book, the keys to a good life are, “a beautiful and healthy earth home, enduring relationships, strong communities, work that contributes to the common good, and play that restores our bodies and lifts our souls.” If you actually dig into what those things entail it turns out that several of them may in fact be easier to pursue now as opposed to a few years ago.

I want to read to you a short excerpt from Michael Schuler’s book, Making the Good Life Last. In this part he turns to an idea found in Buddhism, the idea of “the hungry ghost.” Let me share it with you:
“Buddhist teachings describe perpetually dissatisfied, grasping, overanxious people as ‘hungry ghosts.’ As much as they long for happiness and the experience of true contentment, these sad individuals are unenlightened about how an abiding sense of well-being might be secured. Moreover, they haven’t acquired the tools of self-discipline to tap into these wellsprings of nourishment. The ‘hungry ghost’ subsists, therefore, on the deceptively thin fare its culture provides – easily appropriated pleasures that dull the cravings but do not satisfy them. The habit of happiness, beauty that is more than skin-deep, and trustworthy relationships all lie beyond the ghost’s reach and are usually beyond its ken…. This Buddhist metaphor is compelling; it graphically describes a condition that afflicts many Americans.”
As we approach a new year, may this community help keep us from becoming hungry ghosts. May we find the antidotes to emptiness, to our cravings for things that don’t sustain us, and to perpetual dissatisfaction. May we grow in greater intimacy, taking part in enduring relationships and strong communities. May we recall those Unitarian Univeralist heroes of old and of the present day who teach us with their lives what it means to live well. And, may we seek out ways of living that serve the cause of human need, for ourselves and for others.