Monday, February 21, 2011

Sermon: "Energy is Eternal Delight" (Delivered 2-13-11)

It is something that happens to every minister, I think. Until yesterday it had never happened to me. Yesterday I was flying home from the West Coast. I had spent the week on the Monterey Peninsula attending the first ever Unitarian Universalist Institute for Excellence in Ministry. It had been a powerful, fascinating, educational week. My thoughts were racing. The sermon was well underway on the airplane back. In fact, it was just about finished. Then, all of sudden, 35,000 feet above sea level, somewhere above South Dakota, my computer completely crashed. It won't reboot. It is in the shop. I tried my best to put a positive spin on this. I tried to see this turn of events as liberating, instead of aggravating.

What I’m saying is that this sermon is fresh. Out in Monterey we got to dine on fresh fish and fresh produce. Along highway 101 in California there are these expansive artichoke fields and you can stop right there and they'll serve you fried artichoke, a local delicacy. So, our dinners came right out of the sea and right out of the fields and right onto our plates. And, what I am trying to explain is that the sermon this morning has not been flown in from the Pacific Ocean or the Salinas produce fields. This sermon is local, organic. It has not traveled, or aged, or matured. It is, if you’ll allow me to mix culinary metaphors, a steak so rare that it is liable to moo.

So, what I am going to do here is scrap the first draft, scrap what I had planned to write about, and take things in a bit of a different direction. The preacher at our opening worship at the Institute for Excellence in Ministry was Jane Rzepka, one of the most widely respected and celebrated ministers in our movement. She noted that the promotional materials for the Institute contained some rather lofty promises. "Be changed" was a catchphrase that was repeated over and over again. In fact, the promotional materials went beyond promising change. They promised "transformation." And Jane, in her delightfully excellent preaching style, admitted that these kinds of promises made her nervous. Speaking to some four hundred of her colleagues she laid it all out. “Looking out at all of you here in this room, I like you,” she said. “And, if by the end of the week you have all transformed into something different than you are, I am going to be left feeling pretty unbalanced.”

Rev. Rzepka went on to identify what she referred to as transformations with a small "t." These are not about becoming a brand new person, an entirely changed being. Small "t" transformations are about maybe learning to become a little more forgiving or a little more courageous, a little more committed or a little more at peace. And, she connected the goal of these small "t" transformations with one of our core principles, that our church communities are places of radical acceptance and radical welcome to all who would come in. We have found a way to be together. We believe that sharing is an answer. Ours, ours, is a community that accepts and values and treasures our theological diversity, our diversity in gender and sexual orientation, and our multigenerational make up. And, the preacher went so far as to argue that we can't have it both ways. We can't be both about the notion that we are places where you are accepted for who you are and places that tell you that you are in need of transformation.

And, then what happened over the rest of the week was that other presenters and preachers began to answer. They went back to their sermons and speeches and lectures and revised and rewrote. If they were planning to speak about transformation or change, they felt the need to clarify whether they were talking about those words in their capitalized forms or not. Some preachers and presenters stated their disagreement clearly, "No. I am a big-T Transformation person. It is the job of our churches to transform both our members and our world in great big, substantial and significant ways. What about those we look to as heroes? What about Martin Luther King and Gandhi? What about all those who give selflessly and generously and sacrificially to the cause of greater human liberation?"

The supporters of big-T transformation began to talk more energetically and more urgently about places in our world where justice has for too long been denied. And, they began to talk about people in our congregations and people coming into our congregations who feel broken and burdened. If we were the spiritual equivalent of an auto-mechanic, would we specialize in tire rotations and alignments (because we all do hit a couple of potholes over the course of our lives?) Or, do we do what a member of this congregation did to both his vehicles, transforming one from gasoline to diesel and the other from gasoline to battery-powered?

The participating ministers at the Institute began to debate and divide. Were you a person who favors the big-T Transformation or the small-t transformation? Which are you? It was a question that echoed around Monterey all last week and now it is a question that I turn to you. Are you a big-T or are you a small-t person?

And, what about our tradition? I like to look for evidence for these two strands of thought in the documents and texts that tell us what it means to be distinctly UU. The question has everything to do with our third Unitarian Universalist principle which states that we affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.

In our hymnal, we find acceptance, and the small-t transformation in hymns like "Come, Come Whoever You Are" and "How Could Anyone (ever tell you, you were anything less than beautiful?)" But, we also find calls for big-T transformation as well. Our hymnal contains a poem by Stephen Spender that begins, "I think continually of those who were truly great." The poem continues, "[I think continually of] the names of those who in their lives fought for life, who wore at their hearts the fire's center. Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun and left the vivid air signed with their honor."

And, of course, I suspect that some of you are sitting there rejecting the choices I've laid out. You're saying that it isn't necessarily an either-or proposition. Maybe there is a happy medium. Maybe the text that resonates is the first hymn we sang this morning, "Love will guide us." You don't have to sing like the angels or speak before thousands to change the world with your love.

So, which are you? Are you a "Come as you are," small-t transformation person? Are you a "change the world" big-T transformation person? Judging from the 400 or so ministers who gathered last week in Monterey, or at least judging from the engaged conversations during mealtime and the sense in the room of who was grooving on what the respective presenters were saying, I would say that it was a pretty split group.

And, the more I hash over this question, the more I come to see that it is an absolutely essential one for us to understand. Not to resolve, necessarily, but to understand. Understanding is not about keeping the peace. It isn’t about agreeing to disagree. It is about understanding what others need in a church.

It wasn't here the first time it happened. I was in the congregation where I performed my Internship. That was the first time a person came up to me and told me they had quit their job to pursue their calling in a field that spoke to their hearts and credited this decision to what I had said in my sermon the previous week. They told me, "Thom, that sermon you preached last week spoke to me. It moved me. I knew right then that I had to go in on Monday morning and quit my job in order to follow a calling to make a difference in the world." Big-T transformation, right?

And, I have to admit this made me a little bit uncomfortable. I was 24. I wasn't even a minister yet, really. What was I supposed to say? You mean you actually listened to me? Oh, I didn't actually mean what I said? It happened at my internship church in suburban Dallas, Texas and it has happened here at Shawnee Mission several times. It hasn’t always been because of what I said in a sermon. Maybe it was an adult religious education class or a Covenant group, or maybe it was a sense of inspiration that came out of simply being around each other here, but I can name several times in which a person has credited, even partially credited, the experience of this church community with giving them the support and encouragement to leave a relatively safe and lucrative corporate job to pursue a much more risky venture that they feel will change the world.

Ironically, the message that you are welcome here and that we will not try to change you is profoundly unwelcoming to those who feel that they are in need of significant life changes. The message that says, "This is an accepting place where you'll be accepted as you are," is actually dis-inviting to those who feel they need to make a significant life change. Perhaps the person is struggling with an addiction they hope to break. Perhaps the person has come to feel moved by and inspired by an issue of justice that pulls powerfully at their heart strings. Don’t people come through our doors looking to make significant changes in the course of their lives?

+++

The original title for this sermon was "Energy is Eternal Delight." The phrase comes from a wild, satirical, and challenging piece called the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, by the Romantic poet William Blake. In this piece, Blake takes a not very well-disguised swipe at the dualism of Western religious thought and traditions. Blake writes:
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
So, what exactly is going on here? Body and soul, reason and energies. What does this have to with anything? I think a true story best illustrates what William Blake is saying, and what I am trying to say.

I once went to a Unitarian Universalist church where the sermon was titled, "Does Your Dog Love You?" The sermon began with the minister presenting a review of some of what biologists have learned about the physiology and neurochemistry of love. Fortunately, the sermon went beyond this, but in the beginning of the sermon the minister talked about how testosterone and estrogen activate centers in our brain that produce a rush of norepinephrine causing the ventral tegmental cluster in our brain to produce dopamine. The epinephrine causes us to feel excitement and the dopamine causes us to experience pleasure. At the same time our body produces less serotonin and blocks the neural circuits that impact critical assessment. Let me say that again: the experience of love involves our brain deactivating structures that produce critical assessment. And, over time, later, there is also a chemistry of attachment in which oxytocin and vasopressin produce a physiological response that leads us to want to cuddle and bond.

Happy Valentine's Day! Is that what love is? Yes and no, right? And, I suppose, if your dog has analogous brain chemistry patterns, then your dog really loves you. Just a note of disclaimer: As I remember that sermon from so many years ago, I do believe the preacher commented that there was an understanding of love that was missing from looking simply at the neurological and neurochemical biology of love.

But, I’ve shared this story about this sermon as an analogy to help us to better understand the kind of thinking that Blake was rejecting and to imply what is missing in the discussion of small-t transformations.

If you come into church feeling confident and comfortable and assured. If you come in feeling that you’ve got your life pretty much under control, talking about love in this way may seem interesting. You can receive it as a little divertissement. However, if you enter the church with a broken heart and a troubled spirit, these words may come across as deeply distressing. Suppose you’ve just left a difficult relationship to move to a brand new city with only your dog to keep you company as you try to make your way in a place you are all alone. And then the message at church suggests that your dog might not actually love you!

Similarly, we delude ourselves when we don’t think that there are people in our congregation who are seeking capital-T transformation. The addict seeking recovery. The person searching for a new calling and a new direction. The victim of oppression who feels a sense of urgency about building a fairer and freer world.

The believers in small-t transformations must recognize and respect those who are searching for big-T transformations. The searchers for bit-T transformations must tolerate the small-t types.