To the Larger Good
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 8, 2015
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our ancient reading this morning is only as ancient as the 13th Century. It is a poem by the Sufi mystic poet Rumi, who was born in the region known today as Afghanistan:
"One went to the door of the Beloved and
knocked. A voice asked, 'Who is there?'
He answered, 'It is I.'
The voice said, 'There is no room for Me and Thee.'
The door was shut.
After a year of solitude and deprivation he returned and knocked.
A voice from within asked, 'Who is there?'
The man said, 'It is Thee.'
The door was opened for him."
Our modern reading is from a description of the Earth from space by U.S. space shuttle astronaut Charles Walker:
My first view - a panorama of brilliant deep blue ocean shot with shades of green and gray and white - was of atolls and clouds. Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limb of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing - I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment: no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony. Each one of us must write the music of this sphere for ourselves.
A few years back, my wife Judy and I had dinner with our son, Will, and his wife, Carissa, back before they were married. We had a very pleasant time and a wonderful visit. There was really just one somewhat uncomfortable moment. And for the most part, it was only our son, Will, who suffered the discomfort.
We'd been talking about the connections and interests that they'd found in the community where they lived. Eventually - being a minister, after all - I had to ask, "So, have you checked out the nearby UU congregation?" I wasn't really prepared for Will's answer, but I wasn't surprised by it either.
He told us that they'd gone to a few different churches and that they had found one that they felt comfortable in. "It was not a Unitarian Universalist congregation," he said uneasily. "I need something that I don't find in a UU church these days. I don't mean any disrespect, Dad, but I'm more comfortable and feel like I get what I need in this UCC (United Church of Christ) congregation that we've found," and he said that they'd gone to it a few times.
I assured him that I was pleased that they had found a religious community altogether. I was glad that he'd even experienced the desire to be involved religiously and that he'd recognized a place and a community that could provide any answers for his questions. It was the year Will was born, 1980, that I discovered Unitarian Universalism.
I did not know before being invited to the wedding of Herb and Bernice Hill at the UU Congregation in the small farming community of Stockton, Illinois, that Unitarian Universalism even existed. I did not know before then how deeply I needed and wanted to be a part of an intentional, spiritual and soulful, committed community. I did not know that such a community existed. I did not know that there was a religion in which I would not have to translate the language of doctrine and dogma in order to discern meaning in and from and for my own life experience.
I did not know that there was a religion that fit me - that I fit into - until I walked through the door of that little Universalist country church for that wedding. I was so grateful that I'd been invited, and for the experience of homecoming that came about as a result of it. And so, I am grateful that my son could have a similar experience. It doesn't matter if it isn't in the same place where I was able to find and make those connections.
I came to Unitarian Universalism because it is the only religion in which I felt, or that I feel, that my spiritual journey - through the terrain of this earthly, human experience - can be explored, expressed and renewed without compromising my integrity or the core beliefs that I hold about life, about my life, about this planet, and about how we and it are all related with one another. I suspect that Will and Carissa have experienced a similar integrity, a similar matching of their religious sensibilities with the community they've discovered. I suspect that's also true for countless millions, even billions, of others in many different religious communities.
I have to imagine that there are so many different religions in this world because there is no one path that is the right path for everyone. We each have our own journey that is born of our own experiences and our responses to those experiences. To enjoy the benefits of religious community, we need to be with others, kindred spirits who experience their path at least somewhat similarly to the way we experience our own. There are many paths, many experiences of the holy, of the mystery that brought us into and that holds us here in being. It does not suit my sensibilities, as I expect it does not suit many of yours, to have that experience defined for me. I, being a minister, am certainly not here to define it for you. To assist you in encountering it? Perhaps. To help you anticipate your responses to it? Maybe. To be with you as you struggle with it? I hope so. To define it? Never. In our liberal religious tradition, that's your job. In other traditions, there may be other ways, but in our faith tradition that is your job.
Many times over the years, I've heard the comment, especially from lay folks in my work with interfaith groups, but sometimes from clergy, too, "Well, we might all have different names for it, but really we all believe in the same God." I don't need to let theology get in the way of important interfaith work. So I often smile and nod when that's said. But if my understanding of God is really acceptable to the others in that conversation, then maybe we do all believe in something of the same God.
If I'm going to name that God though, it won't be God the Father or God the Mother, Yahweh or Allah, or any other name that might imply superhuman attributes to some sort of omnipotent puppeteer. From my experience and perspective, God is not about A being; God is about being, about a kind of energy. And if I am going to name God, the name I give it is the Larger Good. And if that God were to have a second name, perhaps it would be the Larger Love.
You can call it what you want, what you must: God, not-God; Goddess, Gaia, Mother Nature, Spirit of Life, All-That-Is. The naming is yours to do. What I'm talking about is this: "... that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life." (From the Sources of the Living Tradition.) Call it whatever we might, experience it as we will, our acquaintance with, our experience of, the mystery that brought and holds us here is our entrée to what I'm calling the Larger Good. Call it as you will, we do well to remember that our liberal religious nature compels us not to be overly sure of ourselves in our naming, anyway.
20th Century British philosopher Bertrand Russell said: "The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment." But even if, as Russell predicted they might, our experiences cause us to abandon what we once believed, it surely must be because our experience is informing us of even larger truths, of even larger possibilities of good.
It does not matter where, in what community, we find truth and good. It does matter that we are in community, where our authentic experience is affirmed and where we are challenged to grow our souls. It does matter that we are in community where we can walk and work with others in the tasks of loving, affirming and healing - ourselves, each other and our world.
So here's the thing. We are living now in an age that is rife with challenges to the well-being and the future of our civilization and of our planet. Racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, even nationalism are forms of oppression that gnaw at the foundations of human well-being. Consumerism and ecological indifference gnaw at the foundations of our planetary well-being. We might recognize that the causes of any disruptions to our planet or our civilization are likely a result of all these oppressions, a consequence of our culture turning away from the Larger Good, embracing instead ideals of insulation, isolation and greed. This time that we live in, right now, needs to be a season of mending our ways, and of turning towards loftier, more meaningful, more sustainable values.
We have already lived through some pretty tough times. And, I fear, even tougher times are ahead. The thing is though, however difficult things might get, we are called by our ideas of God, called by the largest good we can imagine, to be in awe of this wonderful gift of life, to be grateful for what we have been given, and then we are called into service of that Larger Good, however changing and evolving our ideas of good might be. The thing is, we are served ourselves, we are each embraced, when we engage in service to that which is larger. When we are holding to the ideas and ideals of the Larger Good, we, ourselves, are being held.
There are going to be difficult days ahead. You might remember, when you find yourself in them, that your old interim minister told you that there would be days like this. But remember that I told you this as well - you will get through them. We will get through them.
We are a part of something much larger than ourselves. And a characteristic of that largeness is goodness. If we dare to hold on to it, I trust it will, indeed, hold on to us. It is a matter of faith. It is a matter of intention. Within this time that is our era, I believe that this is the spiritual pilgrimage and soulful journey we are called to travel. One of my favorite contemporary theologians, Frederick Buechner, wrote: "Religion points to that area of human experience where in one way or another, we encounter mystery as a summons to pilgrimage. Our vocation or our calling is that place where our deep passions and gifts touch the world's greatest needs."
We might well note that even here in this congregation, while you have covenanted to stand and move together as a religious community, it doesn't mean that everyone shares the same symbolic or metaphoric representation of their theologies. We too have differences, as well as commonalities, in our religious sensibilities. I began by talking about my son and daughter-in-law, and the religious community where they had begun to explore, a community that offered them access to the same kind of ideals we are talking about here. There is no need for arrogance in thinking that ours is the one true, authentic religious way for everyone. There is good reason though, if my assumption is true, to recognize that this is our way - the way that works for us and that will continue to work for us in the time to come.
Our summons to the Larger Good, that meeting place of our deepest passions and the world's greatest needs, calls us beyond ourselves to that which is good in all of us, in each of us, whoever we are, however we worship. To get through the difficult times we might be in, to get through the more difficult times that may be coming, we might well do well to allow ourselves, perhaps even to push ourselves, towards an ever more intentional relationship with that Larger Good which holds us all.
Our world does not need and can ill afford religious claims of proprietary access to the truth, or of superiority, or of exclusive claims to salvation. Our world desperately needs bridges, individuals and groups who will put an end to distances that divide humanity and hinder access to truth, dignity and human development. The world needs this religious community, and all other religious associations that are meaningful models of community, to convince itself that it - that we - are indeed all part of the Larger Good.
The world needs religious communities in which the members can help one another to discover that the loss of privilege, the loss of wealth, even the loss of security, is not death. It is not the death of one's self, nor of a loved one. Loss is difficult; we all know that. And it always comes with grief. But grief comes with the possibility of healing. And we recognize that healing comes once we have accepted our losses and then have renewed our efforts in reaching out towards and in service to the Larger Good. In the weeks and months, in the years to come, I truly believe that we, all of humanity, would be well served by remembering - and helping one another to remember - the larger purposes that have brought us here together.
There is a knock at the door. How will we answer it? Will we say, you must be like me in order for me to even see or hear you? Will we be paralyzed by insulation and isolation, confounded by our greed? Will we answer that summons at all?
There is a knock at the door. Can we hear and heed the call to answer it? Can we make our way to the door, carrying with us all our losses and pains, fears and anxieties? Can we open the door, recognizing in the other, through whatever differences there might be, recognizing that which holds us in common - that which holds us together? Can we recognize that I and thou are one? Can we open the door to the Larger Good? And in so doing, can we come to experience that we, too, are held as a part of that same goodness - secure, blessed, and ready to take the next step in whatever challenge or adventure life holds in store for us?
God help us, and may it be so.