“Rationale for UU Ministry”
Rev. Don Reidell
March 17, 2002
My conviction to become a Unitarian Universalist minister did not come from any revelatory “call”, but rather arose from a rational and deliberate consciousness that made me resolve that it is in the office of the ministry-specifically the Unitarian Universalist ministry-that I could best take up direct service for humanity. But before one ministers to others, he must have a strong belief and faith, and he must verify to himself the solidarity of that faith, for I believe that theological integrity plays a major role in bringing wholeness to a minister. It must be real and organic to him first before he assists others in developing their own spiritual convictions. I have sought and I have found that faith in Unitarian Universalism, and I have an invincible belief in its goodness.
Therefore, in order to best present any promptings and reasons for wanting to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, and why I am a UU, and to grant as much clarity as possible for my conviction, I shall first declare my religious credo, followed by a delineation of the various functions and roles of the way of life of the Unitarian Universalist minister. For it is through my faith and my understanding and knowledge of the various ministerial duties that compelled my decision to enter the ministry.
As every life is born from another life, so also is every freedom born from another freedom. Similarly, I maintain, in the domain of beliefs, every faith is born from a previous faith. As Unitarian Universalism emerged out of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, my avowal to Unitarian Universalism sprang out of my foundations in the Lutheran tradition as I began to assert my belief in the free use of reason and ethics to reinterpret my faith, and as I began to assert my belief in the vitality of active and fearless thought. I believed that one should worship God in spirit and in truth, and the form is as inconsequential as the language we use to worship God in. The forms are only means. They are valuable or valueless only as they lead to the goals, which are the love of truth, the spirit of Jesus, and the service of mankind.
Therefore, I began my search for a liberal approach which would allow a bedrock on which to construct a meaningful faith for me, built from my own being, experience, and character. It was at this time that I found Unitarian Universalism. For me this faith is marked by spiritual freedom, by the use of the rational mind, by faith in the dignity of all men, by the continuance of man’s potentiality, by the spirit of Jesus, by the universal truths taught by all religions and exemplified in the Judeo-Christian heritage, and by the desire to serve.
These characteristics flow together in Unitarian Universalism and reinforce the propensities within us for goodness and human decency. It means an experience of religion which is the constant seeking for values which each person continually develops as he creates for himself a religious way of life through the development of character and conduct.
Therefore, Unitarian Universalism means to me the granting of freedom to pursue a religion of my own. There is no finality in the religious quest for those who have reason, free-mindedness, and inquisitiveness. Unitarian Universalism gives me the inspiration, the fellowship, and the society to continue my experiments with truth; and it grants me that inward receptivity to new investigations essential to these experiments.
I do not see my faith as a rival of any other established faith. Rather, I see them alike in that they are all expressions of man’s religious consciousness. However, I see in Unitarian Universalism the freedom for inquiry, for exploration, for hope, for expectations.
It is my hope that my religious credo continues to evolve, to merge with the current of change in my personal history, as my reason is illumined by faith and my faith by reason. Unitarian Universalism continues to give me the freedom for this. It is this faith that has given me the revelation and the conviction that the simple doctrine of the essential worth of man, however humble he may be, may prove to be our greatest liberating force. These tenets of Unitarian Universalism, along with those of the exciting traditions of the free pulpit, the free pew, and congregational polity, were the initial prompters for me to wish to become a UU minister. That was 29 years ago. Once I made that decision, I wanted to know as much as I could about the operations and organizations of the church; but, above all, I wanted to know the people. I have had opportunities to plan worship services and preach, both in my own church and in surrounding UU churches and fellowships. Each and all of these experiences over the years have increased my certainty and deepened my compulsion of the UU ministry so that I may work with people and help them by assisting them in affirming life and by awakening in them a consciousness of their own spiritual nature and destiny. This then, in brief, presents the foundation of my Unitarian Universalist faith, a faith which will perpetually develop and emerge and continually imbues me with the desire to serve.
I wished to become a UU minister because I believe that the finest worth in life is that I could do my best in the work I have to do in the world. It was my desire to put my faith to work, for I know that it involves my living schedule as well as my mind and heart. I have taken a position affirmatively about life; I wished now to proceed to act upon my affirmations by doing my part in the exacting task of making the ideal of togetherness work, and in doing so to deepen my own wells of inspiration. I wanted to associate myself actively with people, unequivocally asserting that I am responsible for the present and the future in the world of humanity, that if I do not play my part beyond the role of self-interest and survival there will be no better world. I desired to assist in making my religion continue to come of age, for it is the force of religion which makes people desire the good and which moves the will to achieve it. I wished to become a UU minister because my faith ties my life together into a meaning that will absorb all my energies and hopes. I believed that would make me a part of that process of nature that unites my own inner spirit with that of my neighbors.
I am aware that the UU ministry is no easy position, for it is committed to the espousal of ideals which very often are in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of contemporary society. Surely we are a world-conscious generation, and we have the means at our disposal to see and to analyze the brutalities which characterize individual’s larger social relationships and to note the dehumanizing effects of a civilization which unites people mechanically and isolates them spiritually. Therefore, it appears inevitable that a compromise be made between the rigor of the ideal and the necessities of the day.
It is not an easy task to deal realistically with the moral confusion of our time. But it is perilous to entertain great moral ideals without attempting to realize them in life; they must be brought into juxtaposition with the specific social and moral issues of the day. I wanted to be a UU minister in order to make concrete my ideals by agonizing about their validity and practicability in the social issues which I and others face in our present society. It is this which gives the ministry reality and potency.
I entered into the UU ministry firmly believing that only by giving unreservedly to the work of advancing practical goodness can positive change be effected. The type of ministry which I desired, for it offers greater opportunities for both moral adventure and for social usefulness than any other office, is the parish ministry.
At the outset of this sermon, I stated that besides having a clear and unified theological base out of which grew my desire to become a UU minister, there is also a knowledge and understanding of the ministerial roles and functions that I have gained from my observations and experiences; and that it is also because of my cognition and acquaintance with these varied roles that I wanted to become a minister. It is because I have had direct experience both with ministers and with work in the church that have served as a process of trial and entrance, of getting to know what the profession involves so far as work, knowledge, and responsibility are concerned. I feel that this experience and close observation had removed any idyllic or romanticized notions of this office from me. Illusions must be removed and reality forced in order for the ministry to take on form and purpose and accomplishment. Rather, one should enter the ministry of the church with the consent of all his faculties-mind, heart, and conscience. It is not enough for a person to want to be a minister; that want, that compulsion, should be tested against some inventory of the person’s abilities and the needs of the church, the denomination, and the society.
Inasmuch as it was by observation and awareness of the varied ministerial functions that were of import as part of my decision to become a UU minister, it seems appropriate to present a brief view of how I perceived each role.
Administration is a necessary part of any human institution, and I would place the administrative task high on the list of useful aspects of the role of the UU minister. In smaller congregations, such as Albion’s, the Board of Trustees carries this role. The job of being responsible for a church today appears to be one of the hardest jobs anyone is called to do. In my experience, being an administrator takes much patience and in many ways more time than doing the job myself. Yet this extra time must be taken because there are religious values in this task and the one-man show never serves the purpose of the church as well as the organization under a skillful administrator. Administrative work puts the minister into close, meaningful contact with many people. The process of making real decisions and working with committees who work out the decisions offers a chance to be involved in real dynamics in the all important function of working with laypeople.
I believe that the minister as administrator must keep in mind certain propositions which will assist in the operation of the church. First, that each person can do something. Secondly, each person wants to do something. He may not know this exactly, but a good deal of criticism and unhappiness in a church comes from people who are on the outskirts and not actively engaged in some part of its labor. Thirdly, each person needs to do something; it gives them a sense of purpose and meaning. These are the religious values inherent in the administrative role.
One of the things that impressed me most is that the church as an institution is not very different from the educational institution with which I was acquainted, or, for that matter I suspect, any other institution so far as the procedures and principles of administration are concerned. Therefore, I see my own administrative experience related to that of the needs of the church.
I wanted to become a UU Minster because I believe in the art of the sermon and I wish to preach it. The word for this art is simplicity. Yet back of the simple speech there has to be a love of words and of language and long hours of careful preparation. But the minister must know the difference between a sermon and an oration, and this is known only when there is direct personal contact with the congregation. He must be saturated with the needs of the people, and this comes only by close association with them.
The social and the personal elements of our religious faith must be combined in every sermon. The sermon is an existential event; it is the one great moment of experience between the preacher and the congregation. There is a facing of this great moment after hours of preparation, knowing that in about twenty minutes it is over. Yet, I know that in that brief time great issues may be faced and decided which may influence and change lives.
I continue to be excited by the UU tradition of the free pulpit, which allows me to preach what is in my heart and mind. Surely, we should speak of current events, of things relevant. But above all I believe that every sermon should speak of the deepest spiritual faith that my heart holds. I believe that the deeper and ultimate values are what people wish to hear discussed. It is what they need and want today more than ever before. In such a role, I have desired to touch the lives of the congregation.
I see preaching as commingled with that of teaching. Both are to supply the spirit of inquiry. Part of the task of the minister is to be a teacher of the people, for teaching is an essential part of equipping and sensitizing individuals and groups both in facing the center of life and meaning and in facing one’s responsibility to the larger community. But teaching is not a one-way proposition. The minister needs to learn from the people as much as they need to learn from him. The art of teaching is the art of struggling through all kinds of complex propositions in order to come to a solid conviction upon which a person can stand.
The area of the pastoral ministry that includes counseling and visitation is of great importance in achieving a balanced ministry. I wanted to assist in ministering to those terrifying human conditions of anxiety, despair, fear, and loneliness. Marital crises and the problems of youth and age are ever in need of counseling and psychological skills. The ministry would allow me to touch lives at crisis points, to assist in binding up the wounds of the sick and injured and disturbed, to help the dying patient and his family move toward an acceptance of death as an integral part of the wholeness of life. I believe that if the minister cannot give these people a solution to their problems and anxieties, he can surely listen; it is amazing how often this simple function heals and encourages.
I see the religious education role of the minister as that of a facilitator, one who is a leader and teacher and learner, one who serves to leaven religious education for the total church community, not only for the children, for surely religious education is a life-long process. This education is not concerned with a particular class of subjects in which a person may or may not be interested, but rather is an overall response to life in which every person is inextricably involved. Religious education is the individual’s response to what he has thus far learned in life and what life further offers to him. Religious education provides opportunities for further learning, and will help each person clarify and interpret his/her experience of life. It should be a shared enterprise of the congregation, and home and church should interact. The object of religious education is to give persons the unity of truth where the elements of humankind-the intellectual, the physical, and the spiritual are brought into harmony.
In closing, there is one more thing to say. There are millions of Unitarian Universalists in America today, but not in Unitarian Universalist churches. There are millions of Unitarian Universalists who do not know that such a church exists. They do not know its history. They do not know its basis. They do not know its purposes. They do not know that they themselves are Unitarian Universalists. If a true religion is to shape the world to peace and freedom, these people should be joined together to advance its cause.
Religions with worn out creeds cannot do it. Irreligion cannot do it. Confused and cultic religions cannot do it. If the strength of a free person’s faith is to be the under girding of the world tomorrow, a world so full of dangers, yet so rich in opportunities, and if the people of America must rise to take their place within this venture, then there must be growth, and multitudes of pioneers.
This will come about partly if Unitarian Universalists will preach their faith, for there are many who are ready to hear it. But it will come about most surely if Unitarian Universalists are willing to live their faith–live it into aim and purpose, fearing nothing but the reproach of conscience–for such a faith lived into actual life would be the power of God himself–invincible.
It is my prayer that each of you continue to find this church meaningful to your life. That this your church here in Albion serves to enrich your faith.
RETURN TO INDEX
Rev. Donald Reidell
Theme: Modesty is the ingredient for on-going revelation.
1. The clergy, especially, must have humility.
2. Religious liberalism depends on the principle that revelation is continuous. Ultimate meaning has not been captured.
3. Service is a parallel to this concept.
Charles Hartshorne drew a circle – The empty space was the given knowledge of science. Ten dots were then added around its’ circumference, representing the new questions of science. The larger circle was drawn around the first, assuming successful answers to the questions, and on that placed 20 dots. Etc.
In other words, the more science knows, the more it wants to know.
But this is not he model of orthodox religions. They claim absolute truth!! All of them believe in a single revelation:
a. Hindu tradition claims the eternal truth in the Vedas.
b. Hebrews have a special privilege of being born Jews.
c. Buddhists have the Dharma.
d. Islam has Mohammed as the “seal of the prophets,” and the Koran as the highest authority.
e. Christians have Jesus Christ as God in human form and as Redeemer.
Each religion assumes superiority. And they all breed tribalism and suspicion.
When revelation is frozen, the mind is frozen as well.
4. No one has all the answers.
5. Courage is required to continue to search, and to resist the temptation of finality.
6. The mood and the core of liberal religion is to strive to find new answers. To continue to doubt and to challenge.
7. Yet the search is a refinement of understanding. The God of Abraham was not the God of Jesus, and the God of Paul is not the God of the 21st Century.
8. And it is the same in our personal lives. We need not apply revelation only to religion. Who would close the book on their own development as we move through life?
9. It is a joy to discover. Our minds are ever expanding if revelation is not sealed.
“Sermon on Blaise Pascal”
Rev. Don Reidell
November 17, 2002
The opening words come from the works of Blaise Pascal:
“What a shimmer then is man; what a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy. Judge of all things, imbecile, worm of the earth, depository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error, the pride and refuse of the universe.”
(…just in case we think highly of ourselves.)
Blaise Pascal was a highly prominent French scientist. Acutely religious and trained to be a keen observer, he then turned to theological musings. In 1660, he wrote the following reflection on the human condition, though I should caution it is a hard and realistic portrait.
“ Our senses perceive no extreme. Too much sound deafens us. Too much light dazzles us. Too great distance or proximity hinders our view. Too great length and too great brevity of discourse tend to obscurity. Too much truth is paralyzing. First principles are too self evident for us. Too much pleasure disagrees with us. Too many concords are annoying in music. Too many benefits irritate us. We wish to have the wherewithal to overpay our debts. Extreme youth and extreme age hinder the mind, as also too much and too little education. In short, extremes are for us as though they were not and we are not within their notice. They escape us or we them. This is our true state. This is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere ever drifting in uncertainty, driven form end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it waivers and it leaves us and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition. And yet most contrary to our inclination, we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation where on to build a tower reaching to the infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks and the earth opens to abysses. Let us therefore not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows. Nothing can fix the finite between the two infinities, which both enclose and fly from us.” -Blaise Pascal
Everyday I, like you I am sure, am influenced by ideas and beliefs and actions and touched by various forces and objects and conditions; possessed by various hopes and dreams and emotions which I really have to interpret and keep on interpreting in order to exist. Sometimes I am skeptical or convinced, cynical or trusting, optimistic or pessimistic, rational or incoherent as I often shift through those moods to cope with the realities of the world. Occasionally, however, I fall into a mood, which pervades everything. It is very heavy, complex, significant and at bottom it involves a serious question which I ponder intensely until I feel almost as if I should give up on it.
What is real?
What is real, not ideal, not alleged, not imaginary, not artificial, not irrational, not self-serving, but what is real? Such a question is itself extremely unnerving because it disrupts our defense mechanisms and it challenges our artful fictions and it threatens to sow disillusionment. Thomas Stearn Elliot observed, “We cannot bear to much reality.” Nonetheless, I know a figure whose entire life was engulfed by the search for reality. Totally devoted to perceiving existence in its essence, to fully understanding things as they really are, to painfully describing the actual nature of the world with no need to deny, no need to dodge or to rig the evidence in some kind of favorable direction but always pursuing the literal truth and permanently caught in the realistic mood; Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont, France in 1623. A sickly, precocious child, he was educated entirely by his father at home. At the age of eleven, he accurately applied the first twenty-three propositions of Euclid and only five years later he published a paper on geometry, which shook completely the mathematical world. By the age of twenty-six, Pascal was the leading scientist in Europe. And, along with his theories in calculus and acoustics, he devised a barometer, a hydraulic press, and a calculating machine, as well as a bus plan for traffic across greater Paris. Never marrying, he died in his thirty-ninth year in 1662. Pascal was a very rare combination. He was a scientist with an unerring objectivity. He was a fanatic for precision, but he was also a person of deep feeling, with a profound sensitivity to human suffering. He was a mathematician, a highly respected expert in the field of abstract numbers, but he was also a poet, with a very vivid style, one who contributed to the renown and the improvement of the French language. He was an outwardly cheerful individual, able to socialize easily, but he was also a loner and he could spend long, long hours in the study with a microscope and with God. Now true, he matured early and he also wore himself out quickly, but perhaps no one was better prepared to look into the face of reality. As a genius with multiple skills and a passion for truth, Pascal could not abide any deceptions or abide any illusions. In the privacy of the study, he felt the agony and some brief notations in a journal reveal the barren soul.
“Self is hateful. We shall die alone. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”
But he never surrendered to the fear. Pascal was raised a Roman Catholic, and unwilling to swallow the teachings of the church or accept the widespread corruption present at that time, he attacked the major authority. He says, “ The Pope hates and fears the learned who do not submit to him at will.” Along with members of the family, he joined the Jansenists, a splinter group within the church that called for reformation. And yet, Pascal was always wary of organized religion, of its destructive excesses and he consistently issued warnings: “ People never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” How true. Though a committed Christian, he was a fierce individualist, carrying the torch for personal freedom. In 1616, Pascal began to plan a book. It was originally going to be a carefully constructed analysis of the human condition. Uncompleted, since he died within two years, it has survived as a series of disconnected fragments of thought. Still, it is one of the classics of religious literature known today as Pensees.
What is real? According to Pascal, everything exists in a dialectical tension. His perception of reality is that of banging, of clashing, and contradictory situations, I suppose much like modern physics. Human beings are the judge of all things and the imbecile worms of the earth. The universe is a wondrous miracle and a wretched stink-hole of torment. Life is joy and love and adventure and also anxiety and boredom and death. Ultimately, there is nothing to know and there remains an infinity to know. Now seen by the realists, our state is one of contrasts and paradoxes and uncertainties and insecurities and disproportions and inexplicable incongruities. But that’s the beginning of wisdom in Pensees. Good and evil, pain and pleasure, pride and humility, faith and skepticism, knowledge and ignorance, security and disintegration, all of them receive equal billing because each of them is real. He considers the dialectic of the mind and the heart; he believed that thought is wonderful and an incomparable thing. But he also believed there is an infinity of things that go beyond it or pure logic cannot penetrate the emptiness, the impotence and the afflictions of life. Pascal believed that the heart has its reasons which reason does not know, but he also believed that the unguided passions are always a guarantee for destruction for they lead to error and vile superstition. And thus, sound reasoning must be combined with a sensitive feeling in order to avoid the damaging extremes. “We seek the truth,” he wrote, “not only by the mind, but by the heart.” And similarly, with doubt and dogmatism, am I to doubt everything, to doubt whether I am awake, whether I am being pinched or burned, to doubt whether I am doubting or whether I exist? On the other hand, should I say that I am the possessor of truth when at the slightest pressure I fail to prove the claim and lose my grasp? And so neither doubt nor dogmatism can be strictly defended as it is not certain that anything is certain nor certain that anything is uncertain.
And so armed with a very brutal honestly, Pascal searched for the evidence of God, that elusive ultimate reality. Nothing helped. The proofs of God are so remote from the experience of people that they make little impression and an hour afterwards, they fear a mistake has been made. Prior to him though, no confessing Christian had seriously questioned the existence of God. Pascal, hearing no heavenly voices, scoffing at the creeds, knowing the discrepancies in scripture, and refusing to abandon integrity, became the very first to concede that a belief in God was only a matter of personal decision. And when asking himself the question, “does God exist”, he followed, I guess you would call it, the instincts of a gambler, though Pascal was an expert on the laws of probability. God is or is not. Reason cannot decide this question, for infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of the distance, a coin is being spun which comes down heads or tails. How would you wager? Pascal chose to believe. Now one might argue that he succumbed to illusion, in effect bailing out of the realistic mood, but the decision was based on the merits of very keen observation and devoid of apologetic theology. On the wager, as I interpret it, since there is an unequal risk of loss or gain and if you lose there is nothing to give up, while if you win there is everything to collect, then why not bet on God? And if the result is a transformation, becoming more honest and humble and grateful and full of good works, then you have acquired a significant fullness from the gamble.
So, a faith in God is within the bounds of pragmatic realism even though he states it is a leap in the dark. No school was founded to honor the teaching of Pascal, and while he influenced Voltaire and others including the existentialists of the twentieth century, he has never attracted any organized following that I can determine. But in reality it is quite understandable. When he writes with a realistic pessimism, the last act is tragic. However happy the rest of the play is, at last the little earth is thrown upon our head and that is the end forever. It points to the darkness and futility of life. It appears to some to be a very gloomy and depressing and unappealing discovery. But when he writes with realistic optimism, not withstanding the sight of all of our miseries which press upon us and take us by the throat, we have an instinct which we cannot repress, which lifts us up and points to the hidden God. It appears to others to be a retreat, a surrender and a wishful vision. And in his own defense, Pascal replies, “Truth is so obscure in these times and falsehood so established that unless we love the truth, we cannot know it. If there is ever a time to make a profession of two opposite truths, it is when we are reproached for omitting one.” And he continues to swing in the dialectic of existence.
In the end he did not achieve a comprehensive synthesis. His legacy is left on half pages and on slips of paper and notes in the margins, only fragments of insights that are bumping into each other, but perhaps too, it is the nature of reality. He did say, “ I should do too much honor to my subject if I treated it with order since I want to show that it is incapable of it.”
And so, is it possible to bear reality? In American religion, the predominant tendency is really in the opposite direction. The best way to attract a large audience is to offer an escape, a mind numbing revival, a claim of miracles, a magical scripture, a positive thinking theology and the promises of wealth, health, and salvation. Clearly, the majority prefers the mistress of simplicity. Imagine a preacher saying, “ I want your whole being to be open to reality – To be honest. To strip down and think deeply, to feel the universe and even more, to stop the lies and face the facts and confront the fears, to shed the deceptions and sense the chaos and concede the disorder, to accept the uncertainty, to dwell in the midst of paradox. And if so, could you dance in the empty spaces? Obviously, that’s why the realistic mood is a very rare occasion. It seems that only the brave and the foolish and those caught in a sudden moment of disclosure tend to see the essence of being. The light really is too bright, and we need the shades for comfort because few can stand in the glare. But when the rays sneak through, however, there is an illumination of faith, of truth, of humility, of candor, of awakening, and of sympathy toward the human condition. Even the slightest beam of light, a little glow through the cracks of the barricades, can change our lives forever. Reality is a sobering thing. Having read Pascal since the days I was in college and going back every so often to comb the material, I recently discovered a new piece of advice, which is appropriate in the present situation and a real good reminder to the clergy. He said, “Do you wish people to believe good of you? Don’t speak.”
“The Sermon on the Mount”
Rev. Don Reidell
It was a warm summer day in 33 AD as recorded in the gospel according to Matthew. Large crowds followed him from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan. Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain and his disciples followed him and he began to teach them. The Sermon on the Mount became the most influential discourse in the history of Christianity. Only 25 minutes in length, it has survived 2000 years of evolution.
The speaker was an earnest young rabbi named Jesus. Born in a small village, he spent his early young manhood as an artisan. Called to preach, he began to roam the countryside attracting a group of disciples, gaining a reputation among the rural population. Drawn into the politics of his time, his ministry would end in a bloody.
Jesus spoke in the vernacular of the village people. He related to those who lived outside in the open air, to those who pondered for long hours of silence in the fields, to those who did not study books but knew by heart the Jewish religious traditions. They were hearty peasants, rough fisherman, a far cry from the dry intellectuals of Jerusalem. Accordingly, each phrase was a very familiar picture ultimately bound up in the texture of their lives. “. -You are the salt of the earth- Behold the birds of the air- Consider the lilies of the field -A good tree beareth good fruit – Cast not your pearls before swine – Beware of false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing.
It was a colorful figurative language which could not always be taken literally. He was not a doctor of law or a professor of science, but a poet of human spirituality. And moreover, Jesus was an eastern figure. It’s usually forgotten that he was born in the east, he lived in the east, he taught in the east – and the east dearly loves earthly wisdom and inner knowledge and tricky parables, winding proverbs and stimulating allegories. Indeed the style and content of Jesus’ teachings have more in common with Buddha than with John Calvin.
In the Sermon on the Mount there is a wide variety of themes – the legal system, domestic life, marriage ties, fasting and prayer, appreciation of nature, radical ethics, judgment and forgiveness – and even the construction of a house which leads many to believe it is a collection of sayings strung together by an editor rather than given as a single discourse. Whatever the truth, however, there is a central theme which gives unity to the sermon. It is the good news – it is the greatest joy. Here is the supreme effort of Jesus to describe a profound personal experience – something overwhelming, something earthshaking, something that will promise a new era in humanity. It is called the kingdom of heaven.
When reading the sermon, I urge people to dispense with everything they may have learned about Jesus. Start fresh. Throw out all the catechisms, throw out all the tortured theologies. There is no creed, there is no dogma, there is no magic, there is no superstition, there is no supernatural savior or ecclesiastical authority. In fact the sermon itself is an indictment of almost everything that is popular in Christendom. It is the absolute opposite of any orthodoxy.
What is the kingdom of heaven? It is feeling God- it is a sense of union, it is a state of being, it is higher way of life. Jesus is promoting a spiritual presence – a spiritual presence which filled his own soul to overflowing. But it is also in the midst of all humankind. He said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”. It is already present. It is not an alien thing or something mystical. It is not above the earth or after death. It is not only in the past or only in the future. It is here, right now, available to all.
If grasped, it is a way of living at peace among all the pain and sorrow of this material world. He said. “The kingdom of heaven is within you”. It’s lodged inside – a condition of the heart. It’s beneath our feet, under our noses. It springs from an inner disposition we possess – not from any rules, not from any doctrines or pious observances – and if grasped, it is like floating in the womb of the universe with a sense of unutterable joy.
Certainly it has nothing to do with material possessions. As he said, “lay not up for yourselves possessions on earth where moth and rust destroy or thieves break through and steal – but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” – for the rich are possessed by their possessions, addicted to their personal power and bewitched by their social prestige. Letting go, letting go of base desire becomes a major prerequisite. That’s why Jesus also said to be born again – which means to jettison the mental claptrap and spiritual baggage of the past. “ Be like a little child”- which means to recapture the trust and the innocence of original creation. “Be as perfect as God in heaven is perfect” – which means to grow into the image and likeness of the highest ideal. Yes, narrow is the gate and few be that find it but one only has to knock and it shall be opened to you.
Basically the Sermon on the Mount is a commentary on character. What are the greatest values, what are the standards of human behavior, what the requirements for an authentic religious existence? What kind of individual is actually a candidate for the kingdom of heaven? Jesus is not shy or obscure in providing the answers – for the beatitudes describe the qualities of character. (1)The poor in spirit are loyal and staunch and deeply devotional. (2) Those who mourn are sensitive to the pain and suffering of life. (3)The meek are gentle with all creatures and they revere the earth. (4) Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are aware of injustices. (5)The merciful reach out with empathy and compassion towards others. (6) The pure in heart display honesty and integrity and sincerity. (7)The peacemakers promote good will and encourage reconciliation. Overall it is a portrait of a humble, unselfish and integrated personality who is acutely conscious of the wounds of creation and who is stirred to engage in a healing process. – a partner, if you will, in the work of God.
And then the parables illustrate the influence of character. It is like the salt of the earth preserving society from stench and decay. It is like the light of a lamp pervading the darkness with a bright beam. It is like a city on a hill exuding strength from a very high and firm foundation. And as the kingdom of heaven grows like yeast or a mustard seed, it becomes a pearl of great price or a treasure in the field until the entire world is redeemed.
No doubt the audience was stunned at such a sermon. It was radical statement. It was delivered with confidence and a challenging alternative to conventional piety. Jesus said worship is not a mechanical authority or ceremony, but a divine communion. Prayer is not a vain repetition, but a heartfelt longing. Forgiveness is not only between friends, but a command for enemies. Love is not an anemic, feeble sentiment, but an heroic commitment. Religion is not any sectarian province, but an all-inclusive realm. Spirituality is not any pious posture, but an act of benevolence. A believer is not praised or feted by others, but often reviled and hated, often slandered.
Even in the wilderness of Israel where prophets multiplied like rabbits, it was not the usual Sabbath fare. Quite possibly there were those who scrambled down the mountain for an early exit. For there was no mistaking the message of the rabbi – empowering the poor to be their own religious authority, without bowing to any earthly throne. Jesus concluded the sermon by drawing attention away from himself. “Don’t worship me, don’t pray to me, don’t appeal to me – only do what I say – for that is the kingdom of God – that is the kingdom of heaven”.
Then Matthew recorded, “and it came to pass that when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished by his sayings and teachings”.
In the early years of Christianity, the Sermon on the Mount was a source of great inspiration. For a minority religion, it provided conviction in the midst of wavering, fiery energy in time of disillusionment, purity in an age of immorality, community in a disintegrating society and rare courage while confronting persecution. And the Christians were well known for their noble way of life. Even later in time, it would inspire St. Francis, Tolstoy, Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Ghandi with its high ethical and moral horizon. Each of those pointed to the sermon as a major religious influence.
But it is generally ignored in Christianity’s Christendom. When Christianity itself became official, successful and powerful, the Sermon on the Mount was conveniently shelved. And soon after the 3rd century, magic and superstition appeared – re-appeared actually. The rabbi was made divine – God became institutionalized- and dogmas replaced character- and worship became ritualized -and the “good news’ was bought and sold. Ethnic rivalries erupted and force determined the truth – and heretics were executed. Popularity was enshrined and the kingdom of the heaven was lifted from the individual human heart to a far-off neurotic vision of hate and violence at Armageddon. Every insight of Jesus was violated, as the mighty stream of a dynamic faith was whittled down to a thin trickle of public morality. The victory of Christendom became a desecration of its founder.
Today the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount is a left-wing inheritance. But perhaps that is where it truly belongs. To those who oppose military aggression with its nationalistic fervor, he affirms, “ love thy enemies”. To those who oppose virulent racism with its desire to humiliate, he affirms, “love thy neighbors as thyself”. To those oppose economic equality with it hunger and its homelessness, he affirms, “ you cannot serve God and mammon”. And so it really is a sermon for those on the fringe – the nuts, the flakes, the subversives, the bleeding hearts who are widely despised by polite society – and that too was the preacher’s prediction. But it will never die. As long as the species survive, the Sermon on the Mount continues to make its demands on human character. For the rabbi tapped into something eternal and something sovereign and something that will always transcend the petty and expedient by calling for the very best and the highest within each of us.
Appropriately, it was John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, who captured the essence of that discovery. You just sang it – “O Sabbath rest by Galilee, O calm of hills above, Where Jesus knelt to share with thee, the silence of eternity, interpreted by love”. Amen
Rev. Don Reidell
February 16, 2003
Once upon a time some water sprang up seemingly out of nowhere. No one had ever even considered the possibility that there might be a spring there, but there it was: Water, free flowing, clear and beautiful water. People came from miles around to see the water and then to drink of it. And a few of them said “This water is so precious we need to put a fence around this place.” And so they did and then they thought, well now we can charge a little something. And the water saw this and the water saw that they had fenced it in and were profiting from it. And the water was offended. And it went somewhere else.
And in another place then a spring came up and the people in that place were glad to see this new spring and the water was so free and clear and beautiful that and other people came from miles around to see and then to drink. And the water was good. It was very good. In fact they thought that we had better put up a fence around this place. And so they did. And once they had the fence up it was easy to charge admission. So they did that. And once again the water was offended and it went somewhere else.
And the people there were delighted with the stream in this new place that it had never been before. And they were glad to have everyone drink from it. But then they began to think this spring is so precious, so beautiful, “We had better put a fence around it. Maybe we can charge a little for it.” Well you can see where this is going.
Water has long, long been a metaphor for the spirit. And like spirit, water can be calm or water can be stormy. Water gives life, a necessity for each day. And as any sailor knows it can give death as well. It is within us, making up most of our body weight, and yet also it is beyond us in oceans, lakes, fountains, rain, snow, and hail as well. And apart from water as we know, there is no life.
And neither is life apart from the spirit. And yet in so many ways it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that the spirit can fenced in; that it can be set apart; that it can be specialized. It is easy to think that spirit exists here and that you and I exist over there. I think that even clergy people fall into that fallacy. I know a preacher who entitled a sermon “Life in the spirit.” as though it were possible to have a life, out of the spirit. What a foolish title it seems, foolish perhaps, but compelling. Because if we think on some level that there is a way to be outside the spirit, then we get to divide the world into really two kinds of people, those who live in the spirit and those who don’t. Then those of us who think we might live in the spirit, get to feel, well I suppose mildly superior. Only mildly now mind you because we know you really aren’t suppose to feel superior to anyone else, if you live in the spirit. And those of us, who think that we do not live in the spirit, get to feel like there is perhaps some hope for us.
If only, if only we could achieve that perfect balance, that inner seclusion or that inner space certainly that beautiful joy. If only we could live in the spirit. And often we go to the various books in the libraries and bookstores searching for a book that would help us achieve that. Like I said “Foolish, but compelling” The truth is that, we all of us live in the spirit because all of us live. There’s no way to fence in the spirit metaphorical stories not withstanding. As we have heard the spirit blowth, where it listh make all persons free, the old quote. The old hoary quote from the bible. That is just another way to say that you and I aren’t in charge of the spirit no matter how hard we try. It’s there. And there is a multitude of images, and a multitude of metaphors for the spirit.
Spirit is best explored I think through images and through metaphors. Spirit resists any dictionary definitions. Is it the source or is it the essence of life? Is it an aspect of God or is it God? In trying to pin the spirit down in this way is enough to make our head spin. And so instead I think it is easier to acknowledge that there is always some mystery involved. When we speak of life and there’s always some mystery involved when we speak of the spirit, and really to move on from there both in mystery and in metaphor.
To think of the spirit as being like water, where does that lead? If you remember your bible, the bible is full of water images. From the very beginning of the first creation story which begins in the Hebrew “In wild and watery waste.” and to the last chapter of the book of Revelations in which a river of the water of life, bright as crystal flows from the throne of God upon the city of God’s people. Within the bible, water is present in various guises from threatening storm to cleansing pool. Water signifies an untamed and untamable wildness. It is in this wildness that we have really the first creation story. In the flood which destroys all but Noah and his family. In the Red Sea which threatens to hold back the Israelites as they flee Egypt to safety.
But water also signifies blessing. And hope and grace and the Israelites are given water from the rock in the wilderness And Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan before beginning his ministry. In free flowing water we find the chance to begin again. And if we turn to the Bibles images of water as we craft this metaphor, then we discover that spirit is really a wild grace, an untamable beauty, an unquenchable hope.
I think of all of the Bibles images of water, the one that intrigues me the most lately is the passage from the gospel of John which we heard this morning. The somewhat cryptic conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan women. She comes to the well because she is thirsty and she comes to the well thinking about nourishment for her body not for her soul. And who does she find there but a thirsty stranger. A stranger that we know as Jesus. And he asks her to give him water and she is shocked that he even talks to her at all. After all he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan. Almost arch enemies. And in the normal course of events even if she offered him water he would take offense that she even dared speak. But here he is asking a favor. Exposing vulnerability. Putting her in a position that she can say no, and giving her really some unaccustomed power.
And then they get into a brief conversation and in that conversation the women realizes that Jesus has moved, has moved from waters literal meaning to a metaphorical meaning. And when he talks about living water, he is talking about that wildness and that blessing. He’s talking about spirit. And he said that those that drink form the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give them becomes in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. What does he mean by this? He says that I can put you touch with the source so that you don’t have to depend on others for water or spirit anymore. That your can relate spirit yourself. Without any fences, or without any admission fees in the way. And you can experience that untamable presence, you can experience that blessed refreshment if you will.
It isn’t just for the priests or just for the powerful. It is for every person. Samaritans as well as Israelites, slaves as well for free. Women as well as men, children as well as adults. Spirit in its many guises belongs not just to the people that are called teachers and leaders but to every living soul. That is really what Jesus was saying to the Samaritan woman. And I think that he would be horrified to discover that all of the fences that have been put up around the spirit in his name. He knew that it isn’t a matter of doctrine or dogma, or being in or out of a certain group.
Every person lives in the spirit, if only we can open our eyes and our hearts to it. And I don’t think you hear that message too often. You don’t hear it preached from many of the traditional orthodox pulpits, certainly. And you certainly wouldn’t hear it from the nightly news. We don’t live in a world that acknowledges the presence and the power of the holy. We live in world that has relegated spirit to organized religion. And organized religion has been happy to grab a hold of the spirit as if it could be managed, as if it could be owned. Our world has forgotten that spirit comes really in many disguises. We think that we can fence the spirit in and we think that we can charge admission or that there is a particular priority to it and only a select few or the chosen know. And so we live in a world that does not recognize the pervasive presence of spirits wild grace.
Listen to national public radio. Lately it seems that almost every time I turn it on I am unwittingly entering a combination memorial service and a hall of horrors. Now certainly I feel that this sensation began on Sept 11, but it is continued. It continued throughout the never solved anthax deaths, through the bombing which killed almost two-hundred people in Indonesia. It continues through every suicide bombing in Israel and else where. Through the armed takeover of a theater in Moscow, through two men murdering others at random. It continues every time someone uses the gift of their life and the breath of their body to kill other living souls. As we know that this has been happening much too often lately. So whenever I turn on the news, I expect to hear of tragedy and heart break on a level that was certainly previously unimagined. There’s a threat really that weaves its way throughout each these terrible events. It’s a theological thread and it is this that those who murder, hurt and terrorize do not have a sense of the spirits presence here in this world, in every living being. They do not see this life as a precious experience of the holy.
Two men killed people at random and left a note which said “I am God.” Well I don’t think that is the god here that many of us recognize. That God, whatever name you wish to call it, is that persuasive wild spirit known as Love. And no random murder was ever caused by that force. And as for the suicide bombers who kill in the name of religion, well we know that the religion that they embrace is one that sees this life as nothing and life after death as every thing. And their lives then become dispensable and so by extension then are the lives of those they kill. They don’t have a sense of the spirits presence in the here and now, the sense of spirits presence even in their enemy.
By the way, though the religious terrorists that show up regularly in the headlines claim to be Muslim, this theological position is not representative of Islam. One reading that we may come across is this. Cloak yourself in a thousand ways and still I shall know you my beloved.” From Islam. And the writer is aware of the presence of the spirit in all of the earth and all who live and so must we be if we are to make an appropriate response, to the tragedy and the heartbreak and the evil in our world today.
The situation that we find ourselves now in the dawning of the 21st century is really multifaceted. It has a political effect and a historical one, an economic one and others besides, but the cruel aspect that I submit to you is this theological problem, this lack of connection. This lack of connection with spirits wild grace here, in the here and in the now.
There’s no way that a government, or an agency or even the United Nations will be able to address the theological problem at the root of the killings that we are witnessing. These are human issues. They are religious issues and how they are resolved will be up to human beings. To religious people of all world traditions, and this is where liberal religion has it chance. Because the gospel that we have is the one I feel that the world needs. The world need to hear that spirit cannot be fenced in by doctrine or by dogma. The world needs to hear that spirit is presence in every living soul. The world needs to hear that this life is part of eternity. And that this moment is a window into the presence of God. And its essence, and that’s our job and we have to do it.
Certainly conservative religion can’t do it. Any religious organization that puts up a fence of doctrine or dogma around God isn’t going to be able to do it. And certainly it needs to be done. Don’t you think that young children are waiting for someone to come along with some view of life that honors every world religion and that accepts scientific discovery and still can celebrate the experience of the spirit? Don’t you think that this particular church and free religion in general may in some way been dormant long enough?
Don’t you think that it’s time to preach and to teach the presence and practice and the beauty of the earth? And the beauty of the spirit and to present it as much as we can to every living soul instead of maybe often times reserving it for ourselves? Not with just words but with action and service. And love made visible beyond the walls of the church. I know that this is done occasionally, as it is with most churches. Don’t you see that if people grasp this at the very depths of their soul that they will be unable to harm and to kill and to terrorize because they will understand that spirit is within all who live. It may seem insurmountable.
There’s enormous theological and practical work to be done. And certainly we think that we can’t do it alone and we can’t do it even together. But there are many others who are willing to join this effort but in many ways I think our faith is here to take the lead. I don’t think the Unitarian Universalist Churches in spite of the fact that they know that they are there to take the lead has yet lived up to its strength after the crisis of the last few years. When it is and it will be.
I think that our impact will be greater than it has ever been. Because we can unabashedly teach and preach that spirit is present in every living soul. Because we know that these are the days which the Lord had made if you will. And we can rejoice in them and be glad. And we can open our eyes to the blessings of this life and the capacity to see and to feel and to hear and to understand.
And we can show the people the spirit, within the ties of the human love in those ties which do give dignity and meaning and worth and joy to all of our days here on earth. The purpose of the church is ministry. And ministry is the work of all of us. Not just those few which who wear the robes or in this case do not. And stand in the pulpit.
It takes each of us and all of us uncover the presence of spirit in the world today and it takes each of us and all of us to do the work of Love. And let us begin to unleash the streams spirit to be the balm for a hurting world. Let us by our ministry be a witness. Be a witness to the world of the spirits presence, in the here and now. That wild grace which can never be fenced in, which lives in every soul. So be it.