Do I Have to Love Everyone? (2)

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Do I Have to Love Everyone? (2)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
9-5-21

Link to video of sermon: https://youtu.be/cWJ-KWHi8p8

“Do I have to love everyone?” A Valentine’s Day sermon by Rev. Douglas Taylor. Part I

Yes!

(Turn and walk away from pulpit as if sermon is over; turn back to pulpit and continue.)

“Do I have to love everyone?” A Valentine’s Day sermon by Rev. Taylor. Part II

Yes. Because love, love will keep us together; love is a many splendored thing; love makes the world go ‘round; all we need is love; and love hurts. And Valentine’s Day has come upon us as the ultimate Hallmark holiday celebrating this romantic fancy we call love. I read somewhere that roughly 145 million cards will be exchanged this coming February 14th. One could almost suggest that we as a culture are love-obsessed.

The origin of our modern Valentine’s Day comes from the Roman festival “Lupercalia,” a day in mid-February when each young man in town drew lottery for the name of the young woman who would become his ‘sexual companion’ for the next year.

Around 500 C.E. Pope Gelasive decided that was not a good custom and swapped the Lupercalia festival for the feast day of a minor Christian saint – a common practice used to win over the local pagans. So, instead of drawing the name of a young woman, the men were supposed to draw the name of a Christian saint whom they would emulate for the coming year. For the life of me I can’t imagine how the Christians were so successful using strategies such as this.

They must have been experts at the ‘hard-sell,’ especially considering the full legend of the saint the church chose to host the day!

St. Valentine was a priest in the third century (or maybe a composite of several priests.) The Emperor Claudius had outlawed marriage for young men because he instead wanted to conscript them into the military. The priest Valentine continued to marry young couples in secret. Discovered, he was sent to jail and sentenced to death for disobeying the emperor. The legend continues that he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and wrote her a note, signed “from Your Valentine”, prior to his beheading on February 14, 270 C.E. (From Rev. Debra Haffner)

Then, over 200 years later, this defiant priest who lost his life to help young lovers is enlisted to be the poster boy to reign in the promiscuous habits of young lovers!

And so, our modern Valentine’s Day has gravitated away from a day to emulate saints but not entirely back to the original pagan custom. Arguably we strive on this day to emulate St. Valentine, I suppose. It has settled into our culture as a day of rejoicing for Romantic Love. And we teach our children, as Blanchard demonstrated in our reading, that indeed we need to give a Valentine’s Day card to everyone. But is this suggesting that we are to affect a romantic love for everyone we know? That would be ridiculous. You don’t need a degree in the humanities to know what a disaster that would be! That can’t possibly be what is suggested.

Perhaps the word ‘love’ is too broad a word to use with the assumption of clarity. Love is a much misused and misunderstood word. A friend once suggested we ban the word from the pulpit because it has grown meaningless and impotent through excessive exhibition. Indeed this is a common practice among Unitarian Universalists it seems. Great words like God, Peace, and Love can be overused and misused and worn-out to the point of either cliché or idolatry. One remedy is to throw the word out for a while, let it cool off, then later pick it up again, dust it off and discover again its depth of power. So allow me to do some dusting.

What first excited me about preaching on the topic of Love again was a scientific article in the National Geographic from 15 years ago about the Biochemistry of love. (National Geographic, Feb 2006: pp 32-49.) The description reads, “Scientists are discovering that the cocktail of brain chemicals that sparks romance is totally different from the blend that fosters long-term attachment.” This is another area of study where the hard sciences of biology, chemistry and physics offer corroborating evidence for what the soft sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology have been saying for decades; and which theology and philosophy have been saying for centuries!

The article begins with the story of Anthropologist Helen Fisher who is “looking for love, quite literally, with the aid of an MRI machine.” She and her colleagues look for couples who have recently fallen in love, pop one of them into the MRI machine and show them a neutral photograph and then a photo of their sweetie. Then the scientists watch to see which parts of the brain light up! (For the record – that would be the ventral tegmental area and the Caudate nucleus.) They note that the ‘madly in love’ areas of the brain are linked with the reward centers and the pleasure centers – a lot of dopamine spreads from those spots. Thus, “falling” in love is like an exciting amusement park ride. But, be warned, the figurative rollercoaster can make you sick, same as the literal one!

Another break-through demonstrating this is found in the work of Donatella Marazziti, a professor of psychiatry from Italy. Professor Marazziti has been studying what she calls the biochemistry of lovesickness. Not surprisingly, she has found similarities in the serotonin neurotransmitters and the chemical profile of both love and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I can’t stop thinking about you; night and day, you are the one; only you can make my dreams come true; I’ll sleep on your door step all night and day, just to keep you from walking away. Yeah, having a crush on someone comes out your neurotransmitters like OCD.

So, that is interesting, but the best stuff comes later in the article. While novelty triggers dopamine in the brain and thus feelings of attraction, it is a different chemical entirely that stimulates attachment. “Oxytocin is the hormone that promotes a feeling of connection, bonding.” Oxytocin is released in abundance when a mother nurses her infant, when you give or receive a massage, and when a couple makes love. Attraction and attachment happen in different parts of the brain with different sets of hormones. The chemicals in the brain that conspire to bring you together are not the same ones that work to keep you together.

So far, this indicates there are at least two forms of love expressed in the biochemical levels of brain function. Typically a serious philosophical or theological exploration of different forms of Love will consider at least three forms of love. The three categories are typically developed to follow the three significant Greek words that are generally translated as love: Eros, Philia, and Agape.

Romantic or sexual love was called Eros; this is easily linked with the production of dopamine and serotonin. ‘Friendship’ in Modern Greek is Philia, which in Ancient Greek denoted a love for friends, family, and community distinguished by loyalty and familiarity. Certainly this sounds like the sort of bond-strengthening love that is associated with oxytocin production in the brain. Well, this leaves me wondering if they could find the biochemical signature of Agape love. Which neurotransmitters are firing in the Dali Lama’s brain or in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Brain? Which bio-chemicals flooded the brains of Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr.?

Agape is a type of love where the object to be loved does not need to possess any particular qualities such as beauty or familiarity. It is unconditional love. The New Thayer’s Greek to English Lexicon of the New Testament describes Agape as: “to love, to be full of goodwill and exhibit the same; to have a preference for [and] regard for the welfare of others; of the benevolence which God in providing salvation for men, has exhibited by sending His Son to them and giving Him up to death; of the love which led Christ, in procuring human salvation to undergo sufferings and death”

When I was in seminary I had a Methodist professor of New Testament say to the class of mostly Christians that the difference between Unitarian Universalists and most Christians is that Christians focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection while UUs focus on Jesus’ life and teachings.

The teachings of Jesus, in particular the ethical sayings found in the Sermon on the Mount, have stirred the souls of Unitarian Universalists through the centuries. It is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-48) that Jesus says to love your enemies. He asks “If you love only those who love you, what good is that?” The Greek word in these verses is Agape, not Eros or Philia. The most famous discourse on Agape love is found in Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude … It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In this letter from Paul, the word he uses is Agape, the same word the gospel writer used in writing down Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek – so I can’t tell you that Jesus was steering at this particular interpretation of Love, only that the authors of the gospels intended us to see it as such. Though, in fairness to them, the context of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies does fit with the Greek concept of love as defined in the word Agape.

Agape love is not a feeling, it is a choice. Perhaps that is why we haven’t uncovered the biochemical signature of Agape love yet: it is a choice, a decision. If it were a feeling it would have a hormone linked to it. Instead it is a choice to be concerned for the well-being of others, to treat them with dignity and respect. A person may be difficult, obnoxious, and completely undeserving but you can still choose to offer this form of love to her or him by extending respect and a wish for that person’s well-being. With a modern global perspective, we might translate Agape using the Buddhist concept of loving-kindness. While loving-kindness is not quite synonymous with what Agape is meant to convey, they both carry the tone of unconditional regard.

And that, I believe, is the aspect of love that we are called to offer to everyone. Are there difficult people in your life? Are there folks you find “irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, disturbing, or some alarming combination of the aforementioned attributes.”? (Blanchard.) Perhaps there are people from work or school or in your extended family you would fit in this category. Maybe there are certain politicians or celebrities for whom you’ve taken a particular distaste. Perhaps some of them are members of this congregation with you. Who would you balk at sending a Valentine’s card to? Do you hate anybody?

Our faith calls us to treat all people with compassion, to recognize the inherent dignity of each person, and to discern the ways in which our individual lives are interdependent with all life – including the life of that irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, or disturbing person you have to deal with. This largely stems from our Universalist heritage that says we are all accepted, we are all loved – even the irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, and/or disturbing people. Especially them, if for no other reason than that you may be one of them according to another person’s perspective.

Universalism since its inception has rejected not only the eternal punishment of hell, but also the reason for such a punishment in the first place: the concept of original sin. Hosea Ballou, an early leader in the Universalist denomination, said that the consequences of sin are manifest in this life alone; that “hell is not a place of punishment, but a state of rebellion against God and against the unity of humans and God.” (Robinson, David The Unitarians and the Universalists, p 65) The implication here is that we choose to make of life a heaven or hell. This is not exactly free will as the Unitarians would see it, but it does leave in the hands of humanity the capacity to respond to the love of God by loving one another or by making of this life a hell. We hold that power, and that responsibility!

When you withhold your Valentine from some people, you are in rebellion against the unity of humans and God; you are in rebellion against the interdependent web of existence; you are in rebellion against the nature of life; you are in rebellion against your better self – whatever theological framework you need me to set this in the outcome is still the same: Yes, you do have to love everyone. That’s part of the work. We have the capacity and the responsibility to respond to God’s love by loving one another. That is what life is all about: to further the human venture, to help each other and all life to become the beloved community.

So look through that list of names I know you’ve begun while I’ve been preaching. Make a choice. Find one that is really bugging you. Send them a Valentine’s card. Go ahead, give it a try. Take that step toward ushering in the beloved community.

In a world without end          

May it be so.

In Our Image We Create Them

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In Our Image We Create Them

July 18, 2021

Rev. Douglas Taylor

https://youtu.be/FfYJPQOIiLM

“God is queer”

The interviewer followed up, asking, “Would you care to elaborate on that?”

To which the person responded, “no.”

I looked all over the internet to find the source of this exchange. It would be good to provide a source for this quote; but alas, I have none. Instead, I will pick up the thread and offer an elaboration of my own. God is Queer. Let me explain.

First, let me acknowledge the word ‘queer.’ It may feel out of place to hear it in the pulpit, it may not. There was a time when it was used as an insult, as a slur against LGBTQ+ people. There was a time when it was not a kind term. You may remember such a time and find it jarring to hear me say it even though you know times have changed and our uses of words and language evolves. It has been a few decades now that the term queer has been used for self-identification. The way people are using the word queer to describe themselves is the way I am using the word to describe God.

God is not locked in a descriptive box or label. God does not always line up with our expectations. God is not what we would call normal or ordinary. God is changing from one day to the next and what we thought we knew about God last week may not be quite accurate anymore this week. That’s what it is like for people who identify as queer. That’s what it is like with my experience of God. God is queer.

I remember some radical conversations a few decades back asking what if God was a woman? Why were people always talking about God in the masculine? And it wasn’t just pronouns, it was the cultural valuing of men over women because God was a man, or at least that’s what we were reading in the books.

So, the Feminist Theology of the day said ‘Let’s do away with the he/him pronouns for God. Let’s say she/her instead.’ It was pretty cool. It was a way of reclaiming holiness for women. It was a way not only of challenging a theological idea, it also challenged cultural expectations and values of what it meant to be a man or a woman.

It was wild stuff to reject the masculine dominant version of the divine. Of course, I was in seminary around the end of the 90’s and feminist theologies had been raging for several decades by then. The conversations were not whispered by people in fringe groups. The conversations had arrived in the Mainline and middle-of-the-road communities. Feminist theology was respectable.

In fact, by the time I was paying attention in the late 1990’s, the conversation had begun to shift. Some people were still very strong advocates for using female pronouns for God. But I was not the only one at that time to refuse to ascribe masculine or feminine pronouns to the divine. I did not think of God as female any more than I thought of God as male. Putting a gender on God just did not fit my experience of the holy.

Early in my spiritual growth I decided God was non-binary, certainly in terms of gender and now that I consider it, likely in every other binary I could imagine. For such is life.

But let me drift, for a moment, into some interesting Biblical commentary. There is this moment in the Bible, right at the front in that first story, that has caused confusion and consternation to scholars throughout the ages. In that opening poem about creation, the one that happens over the course of seven days, there is a moment when the text has God say these words: “Let Us create humanity in Our image.” This is verse 26 of the first chapter of Genesis. In the very next verse, it says “So God created humanity in his own image.” The pronouns shift quickly back to the masculine singular, but for a brief moment God was plural.

There have been some interesting interpretations of this moment. If you were raised in a Christian church, you likely heard the interpretation that the ‘we’ is the trinity; that this is a hint way back at the beginning of Jesus. I don’t find this argument compelling. This bit of scriptural revisionism is untenable for anyone who will acknowledge Genesis as Jewish scripture instead of merely a pre-Christian text.

If you were raised in a Jewish community, you likely heard the interpretation that the ‘we’ is the celestial court of angels who accompany God in the creation of everything. This second explanation is also a little hard to take in given there is no mention of angels anywhere nearby this text.

A third possibility I’ve heard is the idea that God is using the ‘royal we’ that kings and queens will eventually start using around the late 12th century. This third option is only possible if you think God fancies themselves to be a 12th century European monarch. So, no.

A non-sensational option is that the author of this passage used the Hebrew word Elohim for the word God, which loosely translates to a generic role rather than a name or title – and according to the grammatical rules of that language, the 1st person plural pronouns were required; grammatically. I actually like this explanation best. The delightful stumbling block in this ancient text is not a hint or vague clue to doctrine and theology. It is a matter of little-known grammatical necessity.

Anyway, even though I am comfortable with the interpretation that says it’s a simple grammatical glitch, I can’t help but wonder about God’s pronouns. What if God is transgender and people just didn’t know how to talk about it back then? What is God is genderqueer and folks simply did not have words in the language at the time to say that?

Consider with me the context of this whole poem right at the top of the scroll of Genesis. The creation poem is filled with binaries and dualities. But when we really consider the world and how we experience it, these binaries are not as rigid as we think. Yes there is the binary of gender ‘male and female he created them,’ and I’ll get to that part in a minute. But first let me start with light.

And here I want to quote to you this elegant analysis by a non-binary Christian on Twitter named Michaela Nicola. https://wordsfrommichaela.blogspot.com/2021/06/a-little-reflection-on-genesis-1.html

God made “day and night.” this sounds like a binary, similar to “male and female,” right? but that isn’t quite all we experience in 24 hours. sunrises and sunsets do not fit into the binary of day or night. yet God paints the skies with these too.

On the second day God separated the sky from water. seems like another binary. yet the clouds hold water for us in the sky, the condensation and rain cycle refreshing our earth constantly. the sky, separate from water, contains and releases water.

God also said “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” that isn’t the full story, either. consider marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens. not fully land, not fully waters. there is such glorious variety in God’s creation.

That’s pretty cool, yes? Our experiences of the world reveal such binaries and divisions to always have blurring and blending at what some think of as the edges. But what if those are not the edges? What if the words we’ve been using to describe our experiences were simply the best words we could find at the time? What if those lines we drew were just our attempts at understanding, at figuring this all out?

I have found that’s what it’s like for everything. We draw a line between land and water. There is either land or there is water – and yet, as Michaela Nicola put it “That isn’t the full story… consider marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens.” Nicola continues to reveal the binaries of that creation poem. The creation of the sun and the moon are written as if they are a binary, when in truth they are merely the closest bright objects in a vast multitude of “planets, asteroids, black holes, supernovae.”  They continue to unpack the next days of creation with the creatures of the sea and winged birds of the air. To which Michaela directs our attention to the reality of the penguin; “definitely a “winged bird,” they write but do not fly and instead walk and swim.”

I love that they mention penguins. I love penguins. Consider all the other flightless birds and all the diving birds. Consider the amphibians and those creatures that transform from land to air like a caterpillar to butterfly. These are not exceptions and anomalies. We live in the blended experience of these so-called binaries. We are not limited by them.

So, when we come into this conversation of gender non-binary, of trans and queer people – how can we refuse to see this blending and blurring of this binary! The world is bursting with examples of how this works.

“Male and female he created them.” Sure, that’s what it says. But we live in a world of sunsets and penguins. How can we pretend God is so creatively limited as to not allow a profusion of ways to be people in this glorious world?

Michaela Nicola wrote their post to honor God and to honor those people who don’t fit into the boxes of “male” or “female.” It just means there is more to the story. They conclude saying: “and so we worship the God of more. The God of the marsh, the penguin, the God of the sunrise, the cloud, the supernovae. The God of the nonbinary.” 

Nicola names God as “God of the nonbinary.” And I work my way through this argument to say that God is nonbinary. God is love, and is in all things. God must be queer. I know that small textual curiosity in Genesis where God uses ‘we/us’ pronouns is not God revealing their non-binary status. I know. But I still believe that the rest of the story points toward a God not contained by either/or binaries.

Scripture is a form of seeking. What we have in this Good Book is the earnest efforts of people seeking to understand the worthy mysteries of God and life and our wonderous experiences of the universe. It is not a book of answers. It is a book of seeking. We are all just trying to figure this out. And life does not line up evenly. How can we conceive of a God that lines up evenly when most things in creation do not? When things that do line up evenly are considered note-worthy rather than normal?

And when we give such value to God, we will, by extension, give such value to people who live in the blurring and blending of the binaries such as gender. All of creation sings of this blending. If you don’t feel like you fit – consider the sunrise and the beauty of that blending. You are beautiful, you are part of God’s love.

As my colleague Rev. Leslie Takahashi wrote in our reading for today,

The day is coming when we will all know that the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome. That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static stubborn rocks in its course. That the margins hold the center.

Following this wisdom, I say God is in that river with us, ebbing and flowing over the stubborn rocks of ignorance, injustice and exclusion. I say, God is in the margin; God is in the rainbow and the supernovae, God is queer. And everyone is included. If you think you don’t fit, if you have been told you are not right – hear me when I say, you are included and God’s love is not bound by our small boxes and expectations.

Let us all learn to love the blended beauty beyond the binary

In a world without end,

May it be so

Wisdom of the Woods

Wisdom of the Woods

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Installation Sermon for Rev. Aileen Fitzke

6-6-21, 4:00 pm

Two years back I attended and participated in Aileen’s Ordination Ceremony in Ithaca, NY. I recall well the sermon our colleague Rev. Darcey Laine had offered. It was a sermon filled with lessons about faith and community through the topic of mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms. Knowing I cannot measure up to that, I offer a message focused on really big trees. This afternoon I offer what I hope might be a descant to that elegant sermon from two years back. I offer some wisdom of the woods. I begin with a parable – well, it’s not really a parable because it is entirely true and historically accurate. I offer it as a metaphor and a teaching story for it reveals the wisdom of the woods. And the story I share is from the life of John Muir.

John Muir, some of you may know, was the great naturalist from the late 1800’s.  He is the “Father of our National Parks” and founder of the Sierra Club. He was also a bit of a thrill seeker. He loved to really get out into nature and experience it as fully as possible. He would climb trees, scramble up rocky inclines, and he got out in all manner of weather to experience nature. I offer remarks from his own journal to reveal the teaching story I present this afternoon.

“One of the most beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed in the Sierra,” Muir wrote in A Wind-Storm in the Forests, “occurred in December, 1874, when I happened to be exploring one of the tributary valleys of the Yuba River.” 

He was on his way to visit a friend that day, but when he noticed a fine wind-storm brewing he decided to instead push out into the woods to enjoy it.  I don’t know about you, but when I see a wind storm coming, I like to have some shelter.  John Muir was led by a different impulse.  “For on such occasions (he wrote) Nature has always something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof.”  After spending a good while walking around the woods in the midst of this great windstorm it occurred to him “that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook.”

So he hunted for a good choice.  He found a stand of tall Douglas Spruces growing close together. He knew that the wind was strong enough to uproot a single tree standing alone, but a dozen or more trees together served to protect all the trees in the copse.

“Though comparatively young, (he writes in his journal) they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion.”

He clung to the high slender tree as it bent and swirled in the storm.  The tree bent from 20 to 30 degrees in arc but he trusted the companion stand around him to keep his tree rooted and upright throughout the experience.  He describes it as exciting and beautiful.  He felt the wind in his pulse.  He described light and wind sweeping across the valley spread before his eyes as if he were watching waves on the open sea; the trees undulating and swaying in concentric circles, lines of wind chasing each other in a water-like flow from one end of valley to the other.  “I kept my lofty perch for hours, (he writes) frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past.”

This experience was a seminal moment for Muir’s sense of connectedness with all nature.  “We all travel the milky way together,” he wrote, “trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings–many of them not so much.”

I wonder if you can relate? Perhaps not to the thrill-seeking element in John Muir’s character. But perhaps to the experience of being tossed about in a storm? Perhaps you can relate to the experience of seeing trouble brewing and making your way to a safe spot. John Muir’s idea of a safe spot may be different from yours.

Religion, through the ages, has offered its adherents shelter in the metaphorical storms of life. Religion offers assurances and safe harbor. People speak of clinging to their rock, holding fast to their sure anchor. But what if this is not the best analogy? What if this religious metaphor is off? What if we could embrace the experience and still be safe, or at least safe enough? What if we were to seek out not a firm and immobile stone but a fine copse of trustworthy trees in which to weather our storms?

I suggest Muir’s experience in the wind-storm could be a parable for what our congregational life could be. In our hymnal there is a reading #591 if you like to take notes (“I Call That Church Free”) in which Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams says, “I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence, that sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands.” This reading clarifies the theological and covenantal nature of our gathered religious communities. Adams says “I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship.” And he goes on to describe it as “a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit.” And then he closes quoting scripture saying, “It aims to find unity in diversity under the promptings of the spirit ‘that bloweth where it listeth (John 3:8) … and maketh all things new. (Rev 21:1)’”

My story about John Muir in the wind, my parable is not about you as an individual clinging to your own safe place. My story is about the free church. It is about how we create communities that can serve as trustworthy places in which we can weather our storms. Tis grace that brought me safe thus far … James Luther Adams described the Free Church as a body of seekers freely joined in a covenant of loyalty to the spirit of love. 

John Muir clung to the top of a tall pine to feel the wind blowth where it listeth. It is not an insignificant piece of the story that the tree was a good and safe choice because it was a copse of trees – a community of trees supporting each other. Or to read it metaphorically, “a gathering of individuals in a caring and trusting fellowship!”  For our theology of the Spirit to be made real in this world it is best enacted in community. 

Yes, trees do fall down, by age, by ax, by storm. But the forest continues. The community of faith still thrives in the face of plague and illness, through the winds of political turmoil and insurrection, despite the scourge of racism and bigotry – our faith communities are strong because we are not alone; I am not left to rely on only my own strength to persevere. We are like a trustworthy copse of trees. Our roots are strong and deep. Our shelter does not stop the wind and the trouble, but it does keep us secure all the same. You and I bend in the wind and the community bends too. Let the cares of the world blow across the face of your deep souls and know that you thrive because you are connected in a trustworthy copse of fellow travelers.

Let the wind blow – the winds of trouble and the breath of Spirit both. Listen to the wisdom of the woods. Let trouble come and go. Let the Spirit move among us. Stay present and stay relevant, for the world needs strong communities of truth and trust, of hope and healing, of compassion and action. Our world needs communities such as this one. But it is not just the world who needs this, you and I need such communities as well. And you and I participate in the creation of such communities.

Let the wind come. We will persevere and and even be renewed. Together we will build the beloved forest of faith that will always be our home. We create this together and in partnership with the Spirit ‘that bloweth where it listeth (John 3:8) … and maketh all things new. (Rev 21:1)’”

In a world without end, may it be so.

Every Mind Is Made for Growth

Every Mind Is Made for Growth

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Ordination Sermon for Ann Kadlecek

6-6-21, 10:00 am

Sermons | Rev. Douglas Taylor

Reading – “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon “I am from clothespins, from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride…”

Sermon – Every Mind Was Made for Growth

We are from “God is Love” and “There is no God.” We are from “Deeds not creeds” and “Black Lives Matter.” We are Unitarian Universalists. We are from New England steeples and cushioned pews and coffee urns. From radical theology and congregational polity. From arguments over doctrine and discussions over potlucks and activism over unjust systems of oppression. We are from an interconnected web and a free & responsible search. We are from questions and curiosity and love, dear ones. We are from love. 

It is said that an ordination sermon should be about ministry and about 10 minutes. I will endeavor to satisfy on both counts. This morning let me share with you a key piece of where we are from, of the threads that are woven of our past which still shimmer in our present and point us toward the future.

The Unitarian side of our merged religious family in America began as a theological argument. We are from a good and righteous theological argument. Our Universalist side of the family is also pretty cool, but I only have 10 minutes, so humor me. William Ellery Channing is considered the founder of American Unitarianism for his landmark sermon, “Unitarian Christianity” in 1819. He brought forth a new identity.

Channing delivered that sermon “Unitarian Christianity” in Baltimore during an ordination service. He spoke for over an hour. Ha! I’m still only going ten minutes. In that sermon, Channing outlined the radical beliefs that were coalescing within a number of liberal religious communities in New England. He delineated the theological rejections and affirmations that characterized the group of people who soon after became known as Unitarians. 

The heart of the arguments he offered then were around the trinitarian doctrines of God and Jesus:

In the first place, (he preached) we believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God, and only one.… [Secondly,] We believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly we are, and equally distinct from the one God.  We complain (he continued) of the doctrine of the Trinity; that, not satisfied with making God three beings, it makes Jesus Christ two beings, and thus introduces infinite confusion into our conceptions of his character.

And while this is the heart of why we have the word Unitarian in our name today, this is not the heart of what has carried forward through the decades as our religious identity. Modern-day Unitarian Universalists are not locked on to the theology of God’s unity – or any other belief about God. We have a plurality of beliefs about the nature of God – or even the lack thereof. That is not the important part for us. What has followed through as a thread to today is the theology William Ellery Channing elucidated about what it means to be human.

Channing railed against the prevailing theology of his day that spoke of humanity as being totally depraved and bound to sin with no power by which to change the situation without the salvific grace of an angry deity.

Channing declared God to be our model of goodness. We, he said sensationally, are beings who do good because we have within us the image of God, who is “unutterable good.” We are not disobedient sinners, flawed creatures, depraved souls. No! Channing said, no. He said “Every mind was made for growth.” The sensational part of that hour-long sermon was the stuff about God and Jesus, but the best part – the part we still carry today – is what Channing declared about what it means to be human.

He said “Every mind was made for growth.” Our capacity for spiritual and intellectual growth was central for Channing. That is the theological thread that has woven through the decades into today. That is the ground upon which our faith tradition has been built. That is where we are from. I’ll offer an example:

“What does God sound like?” my oldest child once asked me.

It is always a delight to get a question like that from a child. So, of course, I dragged my then 5-year-old child outside and sat with them in the grass and said, “Listen. What do you hear?”

“Wind.”

“Good. What else.”

We were quiet for a moment. “Chirping.”

“Yes, that’s birds and squirrels. What else.”

Silence stretched as we listened. “I hear insects buzzing.”

“Good. Yes. All this is what you are listening for.”

“So, God sounds like nature?”

“Yes.” I replied, “But is there anything else you hear”

“Well, cars out on the road… And you and me talking.”

I grinned. “Yes. All of that. Everything.”

I don’t remember exactly what prompted this conversation between us. I do not remember what we talked about next. And honestly, I only remember the conversation because my now-young-adult child reminded me of it recently. It was part of the sense of wonder they picked up as a child which still feeds their sense of what it means to be part of the universe, what it means to participate in the holy, a starting point from whence their sense of the holy has matured as the years have gone by.

Our conversation then is representative of my theology now. That last answer my child offered – “I hear you and me talking.” – Yes, that’s one way the Holy can sound. Channing would likely be baffled by that idea if he were to hear it. But it was never a certain belief or doctrine about God at our center. Those particulars have been allowed to change. It was always our capacity to wonder about life and explore meaning and to choose the good – that is our center. “Every mind was made for growth.” That is our divine inheritance.  

How was it for you? When did your spiritual mind begin to grow? What opened you up to awe and wonder as a child? Maybe it wasn’t questions about God, maybe you were opened by questions about mortality or morality or meaning. Maybe you were not a child when first you were able to truly question and grow in this way. Is there a moment or a topic you can recall that serve as a launching point for your intellectual or spiritual curiosity? This is where we are from. This is what our congregations are for.

When Channing said “Every mind was made for growth,” he was declaring that to be our precious inheritance as human beings. It is not sin that we inherit, but our capacity to grow and become closer to that which is holy. This, dear ones, is where we are from.

We are from “God is Love” and “There is no God.” We are from “Deeds not creeds” and “Black Lives Matter.” We are Unitarian Universalists. We are from New England steeples and cushioned pews and coffee urns. From radical theology and congregational polity. From arguments over doctrine and discussions over potlucks and activism over unjust systems of oppression. We are from an interconnected web and a free & responsible search. We are from questions and curiosity and love, dear ones. We are from love. 

The journey continues. Let us move forward boldly. 

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Embracing Risk

Crater Lake | Crater Lake | Andy Spearing | Flickr

Embracing Risk

Rev. Douglas Taylor

6-20-21

(Here is a link to the video of this sermon delivered) https://youtu.be/qGa1ouh1Ew8

I’m preaching about risks and how it is good to take risks. My spouse looked at me. “You?” she asked a little incredulously. “You are not a risk-taker.” Okay, that’s fair.

If you asked around you would hear from others about some of my better qualities but ‘thrill-seeker’ would not be on that list; ‘risk-taker’ is not the descriptor that comes to most people’s minds when they think of me. I’m okay with that. I’m still going to preach about embracing risk this morning.

I’m talking about risk in a slightly different, but still authentic way this morning. I am never going to jump out of an airplane or go cliff diving or rock climbing without safety lines. That’s not the sort of risk I am drawn to. But those are not the only kinds of risks there are in life.

I will share this story to seal my non-risk-taking bona fides. While still in seminary, I was looking for a congregation in which to do my internship. One congregation in a Chicago suburb gave me an interview but ended up not giving me the position. I later learned they felt I was too trepidatious during the interview, too fearful. I had shared with them my concerns about moving to the Chicago area. I’m not a city person, we had two young children and almost no financial resources. I knew it would be a hard year. I shared this during the interview. They heard that as fearful on my part. I would interpret it as realistic and honest.

A year later I reapplied to that congregation and was given the internship slot. One of their questions during that interview a year later was: what has changed since last time you applied. I had lived for a year in Chicago for my last academic year of study and it had been a hard year. I had been right. One thing I learned is this: perhaps I should not have shared with them my concern for living in a big city as a young poor family. I would have appeared less trepidatious, I might have gotten the job the first time around. But here we are. And perhaps I did not learn this ‘don’t share your fears’ lesson because I just told all of you about it.

Here is why I shared this story, however. I was fearful. I did see moving to Chicago as a risk. I still did it. I was correct in my assessment of the risk – it was a very hard year. Just recently I found a great story that explains the experience I’d had those decades back.

Two children are at a public pool. One child helping their younger sibling learn to jump into the water. The younger one kept hovering at the edge, “but I’m scared,” she would cry. Her older sibling would try to comfort her, “You’ll be okay. I’m right here. You don’t need to be afraid.” But nothing worked until an older lady at the pool swam by and said, “It’s okay to be scared. Do it anyway. Do it scared.” That proved to be helpful advice. Instead of ‘don’t be scared;” “Do it scared.”

I moved to Chicago. I took the risk. I didn’t fall in love with Chicago. I didn’t overcome my discomfort with big cities. They are too crowded, too frenetic, too distanced from nature. I would be trepidatious if faced with the situation again. But I did it. I did it scared.

A Shel Silverstein poem offers a cautionary version of this:

Barnabus Browning

Was scared of drowning,

So he never would swim

Or get into a boat

Or take a bath

Or cross a moat.

He just sat day and night

With his door locked tight

And the windows nailed down,

Shaking with fear

That a wave might appear,

And cried so many tears

That they filled up the room

And he drowned.

The difference is not about who is scared and who is not. The difference is about what you do with your fear. I’m preaching about risks and how it is good to take risks. I will not lie and say I have no fears in my life or that I am a great risk-taker. Instead, I will tell you about the overcoming of the fears we have. This is about taking risks and having courage. I am not talking not about the courage to jump out of an airplane, but of the courage to live your life faithfully and openly.

People talk about fear and faith being opposites. Fear will hold you back and faith will set you free. And that is certainly true, but it’s more complicated than that too. The spirit is diminished when we let our fear rule our actions. But having faith in a situation doesn’t make the fear go away. The fear is just outweighed. Learning to take good risks is an important part of life.

Growing up, I had a very high level of skill at assessing risks. Knowing the risks is not the same as taking risks, of course. Growing up in the chaos of an alcoholic household gave me a keen ability to see the risks, to understand potential consequences. As a child I usually chose to not take the risks. As I matured into a young adult, I worked my way into learning how to jump in the water even though I was afraid – to use that little swimming pool story metaphorically. As an adult, I began to ask not if it was risky, but is the risk worth taking?

One of the teachers I have found to help me clarify this, to help me learn to jump in the water, if you will, has been Brené Brown. I want to share this clip of her in an interview in which she talks about vulnerability and the relationship between vulnerability and risk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkDaKKkFi6Y&ab_channel=Inc.

Dr. Brown says “Vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” The risk, in the middle there, is the key piece. There is a cost to being true. There is a risk in reaching out, in wanting to be better. Brené Brown says we need to risk being vulnerable to live more fully. That’s the risk I am talking about.

She talked about difference between the sign language for ‘vulnerability’ rooted in ‘weak in the knees” vs “opening yourself.” There is little risk in being weak in the knees. The good stuff is found in the risk of opening up and reaching out.

We have an old anonymous piece in our hymnal simply entitled “To Risk” (SLT #658)

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool

To weep is to risk appearing sentimental

To reach out for another is to risk exposing our true self

To place our ideas – our dreams – before the crowd is to risk loss

To love is to risk not being loved in return

To hope is to risk despair

To try is to risk failure

To live is to risk dying

When we put it like this, I am a high-end risk-taker! I have shaped my life around risking failure and despair, looking foolish and appearing sentimental, putting my ideas before the crowd – that’s my thing! My ministry is brimming with this sort of risk-taking: with laughter and weeping, hopes and failures, vulnerability and love. 

“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” Author C. S. Lewis warns us. “If you want to keep it intact,” he continues, “you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable.”

The question is not: is it a risk? The question is: which risks are worth taking? Which risks are you taking, have you taken in your life? Which ones were worth it? What have you gained and what have you lost? There is always more to risk.

Will you risk associating with people on the margins? Will you risk being an ally? Will you risk telling people they are important to you? Will you risk telling a friend that their off-color jokes are offensive? Will you risk giving shelter to someone in need?

Maybe you don’t want to jay-walk or bungee-jump off a high bridge. Maybe you are scared of heights or large crowds or public speaking. Maybe you are not comfortable getting the vaccine given your immune issues or are unwilling to risk arrest at a protest.

Where is the line for you? What are the issues or situations that are on the edge in your heart? I encourage you to push yourself. Poke at the edges. Just because we are afraid of something does not mean we need to overcome it. Most of the time, fear is a healthy warning; giving us useful information about ourselves and our world.

But there are times when our fear gets detached from what is really going on and we get stuck in our fear. In such cases it is worth it to take some risks. The Spirit will not abide being stuck. You cannot grow when you are stuck. And the good stuff is found in the risk of opening up and reaching out.

So, embrace risks, I say. Live. Care. Try again. Let yourself be vulnerable. Reach out and be loving. It’s worth it. We will get hurt and we will fail and we will surely sometimes lose. But that is not all that will happen. Because the risk is worth it. Follow the spirit to reach beyond your fear. All the good stuff in life is found in the risk of opening up and reaching out.

In a world without end,

May it be so