Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sermon: "Disciplines of Our Church" (Delivered 8-14-11)

When I was twenty I did a study abroad program for a semester in England and I got to travel across a fair portion of Western Europe. I was tremendously privileged to be able to do this. In what I’m about to say, please don’t think for a second that I don’t know what a tremendous privilege it was to go overseas for nearly six months. But looking back, man oh man did I cheapskate across Europe! I didn’t save enough beforehand which necessitated certain decisions while traveling that are actually fairly embarrassing in retrospect. There was nothing I did that was illegal or immoral. In fact, vice was entirely beyond my budget.

I went to great lengths to save a schilling and pinch a pound whenever I could. For example, rather than pay to tour a cathedral, I simply scheduled my visit to coincide with the public worship service. If communion was served, well that was dinner and a show. My diet wasn’t exactly great either.

The Friends Meetinghouse in Norwich, England, held a mid-week meeting followed by a simple meal of cheese sandwiches. That was how I attended my first Quaker meeting. If you’ve never attended a Friends meeting, here is what it is like. Most worship in the Quaker tradition consists of what is known as an “unprogrammed meeting.” The meeting begins when the first person enters the meeting room in which chairs are arranged in a circular pattern. People enter in silence. Seating is open. Forty five minutes or an hour later two members of the meeting stand and shake hands. That is the signal for everyone else to stand and shake hands. Then you have cheese sandwiches. The entire time is spent in silence. (On occasion meeting someone will feel inspired to speak at an unprogrammed meeting. When this happens, the person who feels moved will stands and reading a short passage from the Bible or say a brief prayer. I attended nearly a dozen Quaker meetings in England and a total of three or four people spoke at all of the meetings combined. Most meetings passed in total silence.)

At the first Quaker Meeting I attended my brain was screaming after only about five minutes. The noise in my own mind was deafening. Forty five minutes felt like an eternity. It was grueling and exhausting. By the time I had attended my sixth meeting the 45 minutes of silence had become much easier to endure, even rewarding. I probably wasn’t experiencing what Quakers refer to as their “inner light,” but the time spent in reflection and contemplation was meaningful.

I admire the discipline of the Quaker meeting. It is a discipline to come together and sit, week after week, in silence. And, it is a discipline that leads to a living embrace of pacifism, that leads to simplicity and to having the humility to listen.

This month, Muslims around the world observe Ramadan. The observance of Ramadan requires all able Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset. Neither food nor drink may pass your lips for the duration of the day. Ramadan lasts thirty days. It is an impressive discipline. And, I would have to think that having the strength to observe Ramadan leads to having strength in other aspects of life.

In Gandhi’s India and in Martin Luther King’s deep South, those who took part in non-violent civil disobedience demonstrated amazing discipline. It took discipline to march, to strike, to fast, to boycott, to sit-in, to go to jail. These collective actions required what Mohandas Gandhi called “Satyagraha” and what Martin Luther King referred to as “Soul Force.” Said King in his “I Have a Dream Speech,”
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

I am of the belief that it is a worthwhile project to take religious language that makes some of us uncomfortable and to engage that discomfort, to face our uneasiness, and to extract what is of worth from a concept that is challenging.

“Discipline” is one of those words that we might have polarized feelings about. In a secular context, the word “discipline” is used all the time to talk about things that are actually quite admirable. In the world of the arts, we celebrate the discipline of the musician or the dancer. In fine arts there are entire styles that depend on mastery, repetition, and pinpoint control. Think of calligraphy. In the world of sports, imagine those Olympic athletes who’ve refined motion to a science, the disciplined form of the figure skater or archer or platform diver. In recent years the evaluation of hitters in baseball has gone through a revolution and plate discipline is regarded as absolutely foundational to success on the baseball diamond. Michael Lewis’ best-selling book Moneyball describes the approach of teams that look for players who possess the patience to wait for a good ball to hit. If someone calls your child a disciplined student, that is a great compliment.

And yet, “discipline” is a word that makes some of us kind of nervous, in a religious or a non-religious sense. If you Google “discipline” and “child” the top sites that come up are fundamentalist Christian parenting guides. A quick review of the websites shows that discipline was most commonly used as a euphemism for “spanking.” If I ask you to imagine a school that believes in discipline, you’ll probably imagine either a military academy or a nun with a ruler. If someone is described as a disciplinarian, it is not a compliment.

The word “discipline” just has these types of connotations. When I am discussing various Christian denominations with someone who maybe doesn’t know the differences between denominations, I will sometimes make mention of a denomination known as The Disciples of Christ. (Disciple and discipline have the same root.) In reality, this denomination is one of more progressive ones. When I mention this denomination, people who’ve never heard of them assume they are conservative. That’s my point: we hear “Disciple” and think “discipline” and we think “strict, overbearing, uptight, joyless.”

Now, I suppose if I continued on this trajectory I would probably wind up finding a middle road. I’d speak of the way in which discipline can be confining and the way it can be liberating. I’d call into question strict, joyless, boot-campy discipline while praising the exalted form of discipline that gives us ballet and salt marches.

But, what I want to do is take this in a different direction. I want to bring us back into this room. All of here together in this and as this church that we love. And, let me just state the obvious in case you were confused. As a church we are not about producing disciplined classically trained pianists or ballet dancers. We will not teach you how to lay off the high heat or land a triple lutz. And, for that matter, while we will gladly and open-heartedly welcome and show respect for anyone who sits for forty five minutes in silence or anyone who fasts during Ramadan, and while we will respect that dedication and devotion to practice and will say that the observance is beautiful, there are countless religious disciplines, such as translating Sanskrit, or ecstatic Sufi mystic dance, or the Japanese tea ceremony, that are just not disciplines that we teach.

They are all wonderful and beautiful disciplines. They are just not our disciplines to teach. So, what our disciplines exactly? Or, let me ask this question by making use of a real life example. Peter Morales, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was convicted recently of civil disobedience for his role in blocking the door to a jail in Phoenix while participating in a protest against immigration laws in Arizona a year earlier. He was one of 29 Unitarian Universalists arrested and those 29 UUs were among nearly 100 protesters arrested in Phoenix a year ago. So I ask, what discipline or disciplines did our UU brothers and sisters draw on to give them strength and presence while getting arrested for civil disobedience? And, this coming June our Unitarian Universalist Association will be having a justice General Assembly in Phoenix, and the plan is that our delegates will leave the sterile, air-conditioned confines of the convention center (in Phoenix, in June!) and fan out across the city and across the state to engage in ministry and action related to immigration justice. What discipline will we draw on for strength?

Does this question make any sense? I’m saying that disciplines shape how we are and that when we face circumstances that are trying and difficult and stressful and intense we recall those disciplines and they help to guide us through toils and snares and valleys of darkness.

There is a story that has been passed around in our movement for years. I think I heard it from a mentor of mine, but I don’t know where it comes from exactly. The story deals with a town or a city where there are frequently interfaith demonstrations for social justice. In this story, in this particular town, the Unitarian Universalists always turned out in force. Dependably. And, the story goes, that one day, an Episcopalian Priest who was a fixture at these rallies and protests was heard to remark, “God bless the Unitarians! They don’t know why they show up, but by golly they always show up.”

I used to not like this story very much. I felt like it was a backhanded swipe at us and an uncalled for one at that because we were the ones who did show up and do show up. Or, maybe it was a jab at our agnosticism. The Episcopalian Priest is able to say, “I’m here because I am a disciple of Jesus and I feel called to do what Jesus taught us to do.” We did not show up in response a scriptural commandment. As a Rabbi friend of mine puts it, “Being a religious liberal means being certain that the God that you aren’t even sure exists demands social justice.”

But, I want to offer a different reading of the priest’s observation that Unitarian Universalists showed up even though they are not sure why. I mean, the priest’s comment is just not true. We do know why we show up. We show up because we believe in justice. But, now I think that what the priest was asking is not why we work for what we believe. We work for what we believe because it is what we believe. I think the priest was asking about what keeps us from quitting, from throwing up our hands in frustration. What is our discipline? Why are we so disciplined about continuing to show up?

Here are a few guesses about the source of our discipline. I think part of our discipline is connected with what is known as our congregational polity, that is, that our churches are autonomous institutions that follow the democratic process. Doing democracy well requires a lot of discipline and a lot of patience. Doing democracy well also results in feeling a sense of ownership and responsibility, responsibility for your congregation or your community or your city or your state. In our tradition the members own the church. You own the church. You own the church. And, because you do, you might feel a heightened sense of responsibility for this space and this community and each other. A discipline born out of democracy.

I suspect that there are other disciplines that are ours, eithers distinctly or indistinctly. I think that an interfaith appreciation of diversity and a longing for an informed understanding of faith traditions that differ from our own is a discipline of ours. And there are more. And there are more.

You may not sit in silence for an hour. You may not fast for a month. You may not commit yourself to a daily study of Torah or to Taize singing. But I turn the question to you:

Where do you find the discipline to keep showing up?

Where do you find the discipline to face what is trying and challenging?

What holds you firm, even when another way would be more convenient?