I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Another Lent Sermon

Before we get to the sermon, I would like to urge you all to take a look at Prophet Motive. It is the Weblog of Tom Schade, the Associate Minister at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, MA. I was also going to link to the church's web page but, for some reason, I cannot get it to work...

So here are my sermon notes from March 6. It was a "Communion Sunday". I tried a slightly different service than the ones we usually do. We normally rotate between three communion services (UUA, UCC, and "ecumenical"). However, we have a very simple one for our annual Maundy Thursday service. Maundy Thursday is not a "big turnout" service for us so I thought I would use it this past Sunday as well. Basically, we read a psalm and then the story of the "first communion" from Luke.

Into the Light
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

The story we heard today from the Gospel of John
Is an interesting one
It may seem strange for many of us
To think of someone curing anything
(Much less blindness)
With spit and dirt
But this is what the story tells us

The very strangeness of it
Has made many declare it to be evidence
Of a miracle/
But I will leave the truth or falsity
Of that idea that up to you
For literally true or not
The uniqueness of the tale
Points us to another truth/In fact, many truths

Now, we are not going to examine all of them today
And furthermore, today we will not concern ourselves
With the many words and teachings
Of Jesus
But instead we will concern ourselves
With Jesus’ simple physical act
And the healing it brings

That image of Jesus mixing and smearing the mud
Can serve us today as an illustration
Of the basic task of religion
Not just Christianity but any religion
Any built on a sincere foundation
For the aid of humanity and the glory of the unknown

We can say, after all, that
True religion leads people from the darkness into the light
From (not a literal blindness but) a lack of understanding
To a broad awareness and appreciation of existence

We all, every once in a while
Realize our own place in the darkness
To think that we know all and see all
May very well be our attitude
When we come into the world as babies
Unable to differentiate what is us from what is not
But that condition doesn’t last all that long
At least for those who are able to live
Firmly connected to reality

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said that
The great act of faith is when a person decides that he [or she] is not God
Now, this decision he speaks of
Can either drive us to despair
Or set our feet on the path of enlightenment
Most likely we will experience both roads
From time to time
It all depends on our reactions
When we face the enormous sea of our own ignorance

Sometimes (as we talked about when I was last in the pulpit so long ago)
The recognition of our limitations causes despair
Or, even worse in many ways; denial
Our anxiety about the unknown
Can make us cling to falsehoods
Believing that the vehemence of our defense
Will make our position true in the end
At Galileo’s trial by the Roman Inquisition, in 1633
The Catholic Church declared at that time that
1. The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures. [and]
2. The proposition that the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith.
Subsequent history has shown that you cannot dictate or legislate
Physics or the truth

Of course, it isn’t always institutions that get stuck
But individuals, too
Individuals like Ernst Zundel
The famous holocaust denier
In the news this week for his deportation to Germany

It is this kind of darkness
This ignorance,
That Jesus, (somewhat un-hygienically)
Was trying to remove
Now sometimes as in the case of the inquisition
And people like Ernst Zundel
It is a willful ignorance
But for many of us it is not
It is either imposed or a natural part of being alive
After all, Jesus said
Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind
Not knowing is a natural part of growing
For it is this very absence that makes us move
Makes us yearn to touch and experience life

Lead kindly light our hymn says
Amid the encircling gloom, Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home

The healing of our blindness
Does not come in one great and magical moment
Entering into the light
Is something we work toward our whole lives

Rev. Walter Kring once said
That for each of us, just beyond our immediate reach there appears to be a life that has much more promise, more integrity and more happiness than the life we are now living.
Our long journey out of the darkness continues to cause
Anxiety, Greed, Lust, Envy all sorts of emotions
That come from wanting to be or do or comprehend
Something else
That is when we turn to our addictions
Or, at least, to an affection for stuff
Things that we do not need but have convinced ourselves
Are necessary for our happiness
(Attachments if you will)
But they are not necessary

Our material desires, in fact, far from making us happy
Can sometimes drag us down
If we value them too highly
The author Brenda Ueland
In describing the challenge of her calling wrote that
[In writing] One great inhibition and obstacle to me was the thought: will it make money? But you find that if you are thinking of that all the time, either you don’t make money because the work is so empty, dry, calculated and without life, Or you do make money and you are ashamed of your work

So, should we give all of our worldly possessions away
And have the church auction to end all auctions?
Maybe, but probably not
Still, we need to know our desires for what they are
And keep them in perspective

So, what can we do on this journey?
How can we keep our perspective
In the face of all that we do not know?
How can we acknowledge the darkness we live in
Without succumbing to despair?

There are quite a few things
We have talked about many of them
Hobbies, study, conversation, meditation
Exercise and prayer (to name a few)
But all of these have something in common

A single dimension that binds them together
And keeps us energized
We don’t always think of it
But it is there when we get up and when we go to bed
That “thing” that unifying element is ritual

Now, often we think of rituals
As things we do in church and, of course, they are
But we do them all the time in a variety of venues
Think of all the things normal, rational human beings
That some people in this room, in fact
We Cynical New Englanders have done
Over the last 86 years to help out the Boston Red Sox

I have a colleague (a self-proclaimed secular humanist)
Who tapped his doorknob three times
Upon entering and leaving his house
During the pennant race!
(I wonder if we still need to do all those things)

Now, it is easy to see this as superstition
And certainly there is something to that
But really there isn’t anything “magical” about our need
To provide structure to our lives
Ritual makes us focus
It helps us to tell our story
Be it the one about Jesus and Easter
The one about the Bambino
Or the one about brushing our teeth
Ritual helps us to make sense of the world
Not in the future, but right now

When those baseball players
Perform their rituals
They are not expecting, really
That there will be some divine intervention
This is same in our “free church” tradition
We do not expect God to inhabit
Our communion bread any more than anyplace else
They and we are finding a way to focus
On what is important in the moment
And to connect to the experiences of those around us
Be they a sports team or a congregation

The specificity of our actions
Just like those of Jesus in our story today
Slows down time
And slowing down is often just what we need
Ueland observed back in 1938:
We have become too much driven by the idea that in twenty years we will live [but] not now: because by that time our savings and the accrued interest will make it possible. [We often believe that] to live now would be idleness.

We are never truly idle after all
When we are trying to make sense of our world
We are never, really, wasting time
When we take time out
To relax, to clear our heads
Rituals help us do that
They are actions
That mark the occasions
The often emotional, spiritual, private steps of life

The simple act of coming to church, for example
Even before a note is played or sung
Even before a word has been said
Is a powerful recognition of our place
And our participation
We need to honor these actions
(What we do as much as what we say)

Fredrick Meek, the senior minister of Old South Church in Boston
From 1946-1973, once said that
Our need is for more than we have, and to those whose lives have the dimension of eternity, the need is met
Now matter how we find the way
We, all of us, are called into the light
So may we all be able to say
Like the man that Jesus healed
Though once I was blind, now I see