Monday, July 30, 2012

Sermon: "The Transient and Permanent in Life" (Delivered 7-29-12)


If you were to pull back the curtain on my process of creating worship services, just a little bit, you would see that early each week I close the door to my office, open up several hymnals and songbooks, and spend a few minutes singing.  The hymn that I sung more than any other hymn this week was actually one that I didn’t select for us to sing this morning.  The hymn that I sung was the old Christian classic “Abide With Me.”  The hymn was written by a Scottish minister named Henry Lyte, and this hymn was his only claim to fame.  Lyte suffered from tuberculosis and his congregation frequently sent him to Italy for periods of rest and recuperation.  He wrote “Abide With Me” while preparing to depart for his final trip to Italy. Along the way he composed several additional verses and made many substantial edits and mailed these back home right before he died.  Aware of his own mortality and his own impending death, he composed these lines,

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changes not, abide with me.

In the midst of great impermanence, what is it that abides and remains?  I wound up not choosing this hymn for us to sing because it wasn’t quite the tone with which I wanted to begin or end, but this hymn’s consideration of permanence and impermanence is our central focus this morning.  So, I had this song in my mind all week, right up until the Olympic opening ceremonies on Friday, which included a segment that wasn’t broadcast in the United States.  That segment recalled victims of violence, particularly those who died in a terrorist bombing in London seven years ago, and included a choreographed dance while a soloist performed a moving rendition of “Abide With Me.”  I share this just to say that I think there is something universal in the message this morning.  I should point out that the interpretive dance at the Olympic opening ceremony concluded with an image of an encompassing embrace.  I invite you to hold that image.

***

Three weeks ago, the last time I preached, the topic of my sermon was the transient and the permanent in religion.  I recalled a famous sermon by the nineteenth century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker in which he argued that very few things in religion are eternal and unchanging.  In fact, Parker argued that aside from a few central commandments and ethical lessons – love your God and your neighbor as yourself; do unto others as you would have them do unto you – everything else in religion is impermanent.  The forms of religion, the creeds and doctrines, the denominations and liturgies, these are all transient.  They change over time.  And, Parker says, the fact that they change does not make them bad, or ugly, or foolish, or wrong.  Rather, we ourselves can do wrong, act foolishly, and commit error when we insist that changing things not be allowed to change, that impermanent things must be made permanent.

This morning I want to shift the focus away from religion and onto our lives.  It is one thing to accept that some of our favorite hymns may fall out of fashion or that the seven principles may one day be expanded to eight or contracted to six, but it is another thing to accept that many aspects, most aspects, of our own flesh-and-blood lives are not forever.

Forrest Church, the most well-known Unitarian Universalist minister of the 20th century, offered this definition of religion.  “Religion,” he said, “is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and knowing we must die.”  In offering us this definition, Forrest Church offers us a truth that is profound and down to earth.  Our life, our existence, also happens to be finite in contrast to a universe that is pretty much infinite, and terribly small in contrast to a universe that is larger than we can ever understand.

“Death,” Church said, “is not life’s destination, only life’s terminus.  The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.  This is where love comes into the picture.  The one thing that can’t be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”

If Theodore Parker said that very, very little is permanent in religion, only a few core ethical commandments, Forrest Church is saying that the only thing that is permanent in life is the love we make.  The fact of life’s impermanence does not make life bad or pointless or tragic.  Rather, it can become these things if we hold on too tightly to what will not and cannot last.  This is how we can get ourselves into trouble and invite in greater tragedy.  Human beings can go to great extremes to deny that our lives do not last forever, and the price of this denial can be steep.

During the time for all ages, Rachel shared with us the famous legend of the Buddha’s awakening.  The legend goes that the Buddha was born as a prince and that his father, the king, wanted him to live a life free of troubles and worries.  We are told that Prince Siddhartha passed his life luxuriously inside the royal court, with every comfort, every pleasure, and every privilege afforded to him.  In time, the prince grew restless and began to search for some deeper purpose for his life.  He convinced his friend Channa to take him exploring beyond the walled gardens of the royal palace.  According to the story, they take four chariot journeys, each journey teaching the prince an important lesson.  On his first excursion he spots an elderly man.  On the second excursion he sees a man whose body is ravaged by disease.  On his third journey he sees a procession bearing a corpse to the funeral pyre.  The lesson he learns is about the reality of suffering in the world.  But, he also learns a lesson about impermanence and transience.  There is no avoiding aging, sickness, and death.  These are things over which even the most powerful rulers do not have control.

On his fourth journey from the walls of the palace, Prince Siddhartha encounters a different type of character.  He encounters a sadhu, a Hindu holy man who has taken on the grueling life of an ascetic monk.  The sadhus have taken on a path of renunciation, renouncing family, community, sex, and ownership of property.  One of the goals of this extreme devotion is to overcome, to gain power over, and to transcend the inevitability of suffering.  In the story of the Buddha, we learn that Prince Siddhartha begins his spiritual journey by becoming an ascetic and practicing self-denial.  In fact, we are told that he fasted almost to point of death.  It is at this point that the prince rejects this extreme asceticism, departs from the Sadhus, and goes to meditate under the Bo tree where he reaches Enlightenment, becomes the Buddha, and begins to teach the Middle Way, which is a profound religious concept.  But for us this morning we can accept that the Middle Way tells us that the truth is not found at the extremes.  The proper response to suffering is not to deny the troubles of the world by secluding ourselves within the walls of the palace, nor is it to renounce our lives in a futile attempt to gain some measure of control of our affliction.  Rather, there is a middle way of living through life in spite of its transience.

Listen to these words by Forrest Church.  Church says that our lives are like stain glassed windows, rich and multi-hued, in which “each [individual] pane looks out on some aspect of life:  our vocation, avocations, our spouse or companion if we have one, our parents, our children, our health.  We often take a pane for granted when it is unproblematic, but when one starts to go dark the natural human tendency is to press our nose up against that one frame, desperately trying to see through it. When we do this, we lose all sense of proportion; our entire world goes dark.”  Forrest Church wrote these words after being diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer.  “How easily this tendency kicks in when we're dying…. With our nose pressed up against the one pane we can see nothing through, all our other lights go out. We then invest our life's remaining meaning in that which may be impossible, namely, beating our sickness. Nothing else matters. ... We may so obsess on our sickness that we lose appreciation for all those things in our life that we would dearly pray be returned to us if someone suddenly snatched them away."

This morning’s reading was the beautiful poem “The Promise” from Jane Hirshfield’s newest collection of poetry, entitled Come, Thief.  The thief in the title is none other than time.  One reviewer writes that time is "that perpetual pickpocket who nimbly makes off with everything from a few unguarded moments to entire years of our lives… What’s most interesting, though, is Hirshfield’s response to this possibility of loss: the cultivation of a prophetic voice that combines both equanimity and a quiet passion.”  Or, as another reviewer puts it, “Compassion, as [the poet] seems to imply in this book, is infinite.”  I find all of this interesting because her poem, “The Promise” basically says the same thing about the transient and permanent in life and in love that Forrest Church says.  Flowers bow their heads.  Leaves turn red.  Animals come and go.  Our bodies deteriorate.  Even the stones up on the mountain gradually erode.  But, love remains.

Several years ago, the NPR program This American Life had a program dealing with the subject of transience.  In one of the segments, we visit a woman in Houston who is a compulsive scrapbooker.  Her daughter, her only child, is four and her mother has already created some seventeen scrapbooks documenting every single day of the child’s life.  These scrapbooks are artistic feats; it can take ten hours to create a single page. And, she can’t keep up.  Though her daughter is only four, she’s already fallen so far behind that it would take her one thousand hours of doing nothing but scrapbooking to catch up.

I went back and searched and dug up this episode and listened to it again.  I should point out that the people at the radio program took this story in a direction that didn’t make fun of her scrapbooking.  Their story humanized her.  We learn that her childhood included a series of losses – the death of her grandmother, moving away from her childhood home – that made her sensitive to transience.  Her husband offers this explanation for her obsession.  “Her way to hold on to things is to create something that she can physically look at to recapture the feeling.”

As human beings, we live lives in which most everything we encounter is transient and impermanent, to one degree or another.  Like the scrapbooking woman in Houston, our days are full of fleeting, transient moments, more than can possibly be captured on archive quality paper.  Like the Scottish pastor Henry Lyte and the Unitarian minister Forrest Church, our own lives will prove transitory.  Like the Buddha, if we open our eyes to the fullness of life, we see that our efforts to perfectly control the trajectory of our lives will prove elusive.  With such awareness, may we also take comfort in the realization that love somehow remains after we are gone.  Love abides.  

Sermon: "The Transient and Permanent in Religion" (Delivered 7-8-12)


You’ve seen those bumper stickers, the ones that have the letter “I” followed by a picture of a heart followed by what it is that the person who owns the car happens to love.  I Love New York.  I Love Golden Retrievers.  You’ve seen these, right?  Well, I once saw a most unusual version of one of those bumper stickers.  I was in the parking lot of a Panera, walking back to my car, when I saw a bumper bearing a sticker that read, “I love the 1928 revised edition of the Book of Common Prayer.”

Let me give a little bit of explanation so that we are all on the same page here.  The Book of Common Prayer contains the words used in worship services in the Anglican and Episcopalian tradition.  So if you walk into any Anglican church in the world, you can open the Book of Common Prayer and you’ll be able to follow along with the various prayers, readings, and spoken responses of the service.  The most recent revision of the Book of Common Prayer came in 1979 which replaced the version from fifty years earlier, the 1928 version.  The changes in the 1979 edition included use of contemporary language as well as a shift towards a more liberal theology that reflected trends in mainline American Protestantism in the last century.

With this background information, the bumper sticker begins to make a bit more sense.  The owner of that car doesn’t like the changes that were made in 1979 and the bumper sticker is his way of continuing to protest those changes more than thirty years later.

If you look at the history of Christianity, or the history of religion for that matter, the one constant has been change.  New expressions of faith, in the form of creeds and teachings, were produced at the Council of Nicaea, and at the Council of Constantinople, and at the Council of Trent.  The Reformation gave us new theological insights from Martin Luther and John Calvin as well as so many others.  And, the last half century has given us new forms from the Second Vatican Council and the 1979 revision to the Book of Common Prayer to the invention of the praise band and the use of Power Point presentations in worship.

If change has been one constant, the other constant has been resistance to change.  Witness the Catholics who continue to decry Vatican II, more than forty later.  Witness the bumper sticker pining for the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer, and not the version that has been used for the past thirty years.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are not immune to this resistance either.  Last fall I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to guest preach at a UU church that was celebrating its 50th anniversary.  Following the service I was approached by a founding member of the congregation, a life-long Unitarian.  “I’ll tell you when Unitarianism took a wrong turn,” the elderly member said to me.  “It’s when we merged with those damn Universalists.  What a mistake that was!”  That was also more than fifty years ago.  I wasn’t exactly sure what to say to that.  I offered this reply, “Well, these things do take time to get used to.”

The one constant is change.  Consider some parts of the worship service that are most dear to us.  We’ve had our gray hymnal for less than twenty years, which means that beloved hymns like “Spirit of Life” are less than twenty years old.  And new favorite hymns like “Meditation on Breathing” are only as old as the children in our kindergarten class.  Our seven principles aren’t even thirty years old and revisions to them are supposed to be considered every decade.  The ritual of lighting the chalice originated in the 1950s.  The affirmation on the front of the order of service that we read each week was composed in 1933 by a Unitarian minister named L. Griswold Williams.  However, he took a shorter version of this affirmation from a half-century earlier and expanded it.  Of course, the version of it we use isn’t exactly what Williams wrote, but is a revised version of his expanded version.  Somewhere there may be a Unitarian with a bumper sticker that says, “I love the L. Griswold Williams affirmation of 1933.”  Probably not.

All of this is to say that change is the great constant.  If we joyfully sang “Spirit of Life” on your first Sunday here, you may not be aware that two decades ago it was considered novel and strange.  If you can’t imagine a Unitarian Universalist worship service without a chalice, try putting yourself in the shoes of those Unitarians who came to a worship service in the 1950s only to find that their religion had a new religious symbol.  Similarly, we can imagine an Episcopalian in 1928 attaching a placard of protest to his Ford Model A automobile that read, “I love the 1896 revised edition of the Book of Common Prayer.”

***

My words this morning are inspired by a famous piece of writing from our religious tradition.  That piece of writing is a sermon by Theodore Parker that was delivered in 1841 at an ordination in Boston.  Theodore Parker was the most theologically radical and the most controversial of all the Unitarian ministers of the 19th century.  His controversial sermons and his generally combative style caused him to be shunned by his fellow Unitarian colleagues.  It didn’t hurt his popularity, though.  Theodore Parker rented out the largest concert hall in the city of Boston and preached to audiences of as many as 3,000 people each Sunday, the largest audience in America.  (Just think, this was before the invention of the microphone!)  Many of the best and brightest social justice celebrities of the day attended his services, including abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, peace activist Julia Ward Howe, and women’s rights advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Louisa May Alcott.  His congregation also included many African Americans, including runaway slaves who were sheltered in homes of church members, in open and flagrant violation of the fugitive slave act.  Parker’s church even organized armed groups so that the authorities would think twice about trying to capture any of the runaways.

In the famous sermon that we got a taste of in our reading, Parker begins by looking at what is permanent in Christianity and what is transient in Christianity.  He looks at doctrines, creeds, rituals, and sacraments and finds that they are transient, that they change over time.  In looking for what is permanent, he finds that the only thing that is permanent is a few of the most basic teachings and ethical commandments of Jesus. For Parker, these eternal laws are best summarized by Jesus in Matthew 22, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  That is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Parker says that this is really about all that is permanent.  Love God, a God Parker says is present “in the first wind-flower of spring, in the falling of a sparrow, in the distress of a nation, [and] in the sorrow or rapture of the world.”   And, love your fellow human beings.  What is permanent, says Parker, is a few noble teachings, a few ethical commandments, and a few sublime hopes and dreams.  “If we are faithful, the great truths of morality and religion, the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God, are perceived intuitively, by instinct, as it were, though our theology be imperfect and miserable.”  Love of man and love to God.  Everything else, and he means everything else, is transient.

Allow me to share with you two things that Parker says is transient.  I mention these in part to show just how radical a thinker Parker was, but also to show you just how open Parker was to embracing change.  According to Parker, it is not just the various creeds, doctrines, and teachings of the church that are transient, but The Bible itself should be regarded as impermanent, or at least imperfect.  Interestingly, Parker suggests that worshipping the text, regarding it as inerrant, can get in the way of actually trying to live out its most basic and most essential teachings.

Parker doesn’t stop here.  He also says that Christian beliefs about the personhood and authority of Jesus are transitory as well.  Here is Theodore Parker in his own words, “It seems difficult to conceive of any reason why moral and religious truths should rest for their support on the personal authority of their revealer, any more than the truths of science [rest] on the [personal authority] of [the person] who makes them known first or most clearly.  It is hard see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid, or Archimedes.  The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers… must rest on the truth of his words.” 

In fact, Parker goes even farther, and says that even if Jesus was a fabricated, fictional character, the teachings attributed to him would be no less true.  The teachings of Jesus are infinitely more important than the teachings about Jesus.  That, in a nutshell, is Parker’s sermon on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity from 1841.  You can easily imagine how this stirred up some controversy, can’t you?  And, as if that was not enough, Parker went one step further and turned his message on his audience.

“Now who shall tell us that the change is to stop there?...  Who shall tell us that another age will not smile at our doctrines?... Who shall tell us they will not weep at the folly of all such as fancied truth shone only into the contracted nook of their school, or sect, or coterie?”

***

I think that it is important religious practice to be able to distinguish and differentiate and tell the difference between what is transient and what is permanent, between what is transitory and what is eternal.  This ability to discern is important because a great deal of harm can be done by taking things that are subject to change and treating them like eternal things that must not change.  This is the definition of idolatry:  giving something more importance than it actually has, confusing what is not as important with what is truly important, worshiping what is not worthy of worship, mistakenly loving what isn’t worthy of love instead of what is.

Allow me to pick on the guy with the bumper sticker on his car in the Panera parking lot once more.  “I love the 1928 Revised Edition of the Book of Common Prayer.”  The Jesus he worships commanded him to love God and his neighbor as himself.  The Jesus he worships commanded him to love the widow and the orphan, the hungry and the sick, the prisoner and the stranger.  The Jesus he worships uttered no commandment about loving a formula for Baptism, the syntax of a prayer, the use of Elizabethan English in worship, or a specific edition of liturgy.

Alas, this guy is easy to pick on.  It is much, much harder for us to realize what transient things we ourselves cling to, at the expense of being truly loyal to what is permanent and worthy of our highest devotion.  Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by desire, which is a form of attachment.  Insisting things that are transient not change is certainly one form of attachment.  It is a question of discernment.  Is that a transient thing or an eternal thing?  Weight your response accordingly.

When I think of changes in religion, and my own feelings about them, I like to take a very long view of human history.  A recent book I read contained a long section presenting a lot of research about primate behavior and the anthropological findings about the earliest hominids.  Anthropologists tell us that the first homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago.  Agriculture was invented about 12,000 years ago.  Monotheism was invented 4-5,000 years ago.  And Christianity, as we know, emerged only 2,000 years ago.

Imagine that.  The oldest and most ancient of the world’s religions have existed for one or two percent of the human story, and as you break them down into sects and texts, theologies and denominations, liturgical trends and the editions of hymnals, you begin to talk about things that have existed for a tenth, or hundredth, or thousandth of a percent of human history.

It is important to be able to tell the difference between what is permanent and what is transient.  Once we understand and internalize this, we will come to see, as Parker puts it, “The only form our faith demands is a divine life; doing the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives… All this is very simple; a little child can understand it; and very beautiful, the loftiest mind can find nothing so lovely.”