Monday, September 13, 2010

Sermon: "Do That Thing You Do" (Delivered 9-12-10)

Opening Words
A passage from the Epistle of James in the New Testament:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister does not have clothes and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet does not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead… I by my works will show you my faith.
Jesus said much the same thing. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit… You will know them by their fruits.”

We come together this morning to be refreshed by the simple clarity of this message. Around us we see a world in which too many people think that purity of faith justifies acts of hate, of violence, of exclusion. We pause this weekend in solemn memory of devastating violence. We come to remember the sobering lesson that faith does not, cannot, and must not excuse destructive acts.

We come together this morning to weigh and measure the fruits of our work, of our living, and of our faith. By our works we shall be known.

Come, let us worship together.

In a few weeks I will be going to a concert in Kansas City. This band that I love is coming to town. I’ve never seen them before and I’m really excited for this show. The band is called The National and the other day I was telling somebody that I was going to see them in concert. This person had never heard of this band and asked me, “Well, what do they sound like?” And, I kind of hemmed and hawed and said, “Well, they are from New York City.” Which didn’t exactly answer the question. And, then I added on other descriptions interspersed with random facts. “The lead singer has a beautiful, deep, baritone voice. They’ve released five albums. They are kind of an alternative rock band, but their music isn’t jangly and angular. Their sound is more mature. But not boring. It is mellow, but it isn’t only mellow. Their fourth album is probably their best.”

As I was making a bunch of random statements about this band, I realized that I was in no way conveying any sort of sense of what The National sounds like. I debated as to whether I should try to sing one of their songs and I decided that probably wasn’t a good idea. [Some more information about the band The National is appended to the end of this sermon.]

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. If it hasn’t happened to you a hundred times by now, it will happen to you a hundred times. You will find yourself in a conversation about religion. You will say that you are a Unitarian Universalist. The person you are talking with will give you a blank and baffled look, and will ask you, “What do Unitarian Universalist believe?” And you will gulp. And you will swallow hard. And you will be reminded of that fact that you belong to a relatively small religious movement, one that very few people have heard of.

Nobody will ever ask you, “What do The Beatles sound like?” But, if you are a fan of a not-very-well-known, under-the-radar band, or if you are a member of not-very-well-known religion, you are going to get asked this question. And, if I were smart—and that is a very big “if”—I would carry around an MP3 player so I could just say, “Here, take a listen to The National and tell me what you think.” That would work for music, but I don’t think you can put your religion on an MP3 player. Come to think of it, I suppose you could carry around a portable electronic device and pull up an “introduction to Unitarian Universalism” video on the web, but that would be weird and awkward. Like you can’t even describe your own religion.

Talking about Unitarian Universalism is hard because we’re a small religion and a lot of people haven’t heard about us. But, it is also hard for at least two other reasons. The first reason is that we want to be respectful to others and that we tend to be private about our faith. We have had people visit our church and see someone they know and exclaim, “I’ve know you for twenty years and I didn’t know you went to this church.” We don’t go door to door. We don’t stand on street corners handing out leaflets. We don’t even invite our friends to church. During the children’s story time I engaged our children in a game of charades. It was easy to act out a gorilla. It was easy to act out an eagle. But, when I challenged us to act out a Unitarian Universalist, we were a bit stumped. [After the service, a member commented, “How exactly can you act out forming a non-profit organization to work for human rights?”] But, as the audience called out ways that I might act out Unitarian Universalism, not one person suggested that I pretend to knock on doors. I don’t think we will ever be people who evangelize by going door to door, but maybe we should invite our friends or colleagues.

A second reason that we don’t talk about our faith is that our religion, Unitarian Universalism, is different from what a lot of people think religion is like. A lot of people believe that religion involves affirming a dozen impossible propositions every morning before breakfast. That isn’t what religion is about. But most people think that it is.

Ironically, you could come up with the most impossible, incredible, and bizarre beliefs you could possibly imagine, and the other person would have an easier time understanding you. You could tell people that you believe that we were put on this planet by aliens from the planet Xyphoid 4, that the aliens will return for us in the year 2020, and that the aliens communicate with us through a secret device in our teeth, and the person you are talking with would think that your religion is weird, but they would at least think that it sounds like a possible religion because to them religion involves believing in dozens of impossible propositions.

So, if you try to explain how Unitarian Universalism is based on relationships and behaviors and not on beliefs—that we are a covenantal faith rather than a creedal faith—the person that you are talking with is likely to keep coming back to beliefs. “So, what do you believe?” “So, what do you believe?” It can sound like a broken record.

We live in the post-Enlightenment, modern, Western world. We live in a culture that is both very religious and very ignorant about religion. We live in a culture in which most people think that religion mostly has to do with what you believe. That is unfortunate.

One of the images that I use when I teach about religion is the image of the four-legged stool. To be sturdy, a stool needs four legs. Religion, likewise, has four expressions. One of those expressions is belief, what your mind embraces. But another expression, another leg on the stool, is faith. If belief is a thought, then faith is an emotion of love and trust.

So belief and faith are two of the legs of the stool. The third leg of the stool is religious practice: prayer, meditation, devotion, contemplation, yoga, singing, or lighting the chalice. As we were playing charades earlier with the children, one of the first suggestions for how to act out a Unitarian Universalist was to pretend to light the chalice.

Finally, there is the fourth leg of the stool: your life and your actions in the world. This is the most important leg of the stool. It is the values that you hold dear. It is the choices you make. It is what you decide to do or leave undone, when you decide to speak out or remain silent. This leg of the stool says that religion is about something that you do. You practice your faith when you do that thing you do.

My colleague Laurel Hallman once had this quote that I liked. She said, “You can ask a person what they believe and they might tell you something halfway interesting.” She was being very polite, very tactful and diplomatic. What she really meant was this: most people, when they start talking about their beliefs, are boring. Belief is actually the least interesting part of religion. What a person thinks is less interesting to me than what that person does in the world as an expression of the values that person holds dear. What a person thinks is less interesting to me than how that person cultivates their way of being in the world. And, what a person thinks is less interesting to me than what that person puts their deepest trust in.

In the New Testament we find numerous examples of times when Jesus was asked to make a statement of belief and refused to do so. Instead, Jesus preferred to speak in parables. He preferred telling stories over a boring explanation of belief.

And, the good news is that you can do this too. It is a lot easier to tell a story than it is to memorize the Seven Principles. It is a lot easier to tell a story than it is to try to craft an elevator speech. Here are a few of my favorite stories:

Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister in the 1800s. He served a church in Boston when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. The Fugitive Slave Act required that citizens report runaway slaves to the authorities and made it a crime to harbor runaway slaves. Parker continued to harbor escaped slaves; he even kept a pistol by his side when he wrote his sermons. He was willing, if need be, to defend the lives of the slaves he harbored with his own life.

Hosea Ballou was a Universalist minister in the 1800s. In one frequently told story, Ballou was out one day traveling by horse with a companion who was an orthodox Christian. During their ride, their conversation turned to theology and Ballou told his companion that he did not believe in Hell. His friend asked, “Well, if you don’t fear being punished for sins, then what stops you from mugging me and taking my money and my horse?” Ballou responded, “Because I am Universalist the thought never even crossed my mind.”

Not all of the stories are from a long time ago. In her meditation manual, Jane Mauldin tells a story about an older woman who had searched and searched for her dream home, a wonderful home where she could retire and be surrounded by beauty and comfort. She finally found the perfect home. Everything was perfect: the design, the location, the price. The only problem was that this dream house existed in a place where there was a “restrictive covenant” as to which races were not permitted to buy or sell the home. She agreed to buy the home on the condition that the racist covenant would be removed from the closing documents. On the day of her closing she traveled to another state to sign the paperwork, but the paperwork still contained the racist clauses. She refused to sign.

Mauldin writes, “The ripples of our actions, when we live as our conscience dictates, wash upon distant shores, and reshape our world, one heart, one neighborhood, one town, one generation at a time.”

Instead of talking about what you believe, tell a story. Tell a story about a time when you practiced your faith by following your conscience, by demonstrating your values, by standing up for what you believe. Or, tell a story about someone you admire from our tradition. After you tell the story it becomes easy to talk about what you believe. You can explain why the person did what they did, the ideas and values that influenced their actions. But, remember that what you do is far more important than anything you say. So, do that thing you do.

If you were intrigued about my description of the band The National above and want to hear what they sound like, here are a few of their songs you should check out.

“Slow Show” from their album Boxer is one of their best songs. The song features a reprise of the song “29 Years” from their first album. You can watch the video here.

“Fake Empire” is probably their best known song and is the first track on Boxer. Here they are performing the song on Letterman.

Like many of their songs “Apartment Story” starts slowly and then catches you with an amazing hook. The video for this song is a lot of fun!

“Bloodbuzz Ohio” is the first single off their newest album, High Violet.

“Terrible Love” is another great song from High Violet. Here they are performing it live.