God’s Whispered Urgings
This sermon was delivered by Beth Lefever to Berrien UU Fellowship on July 12, 2009.
In place of a second reading this morning, I’m using a song which I know some of you have heard before. It’s called “Pizza Deliverance” by the Chenille Sisters.
Upon first hearing, this song might be perceived as disrespectful of some religions, or of religion in general. I certainly can perceive it in that way, if I’m of a mind to. But if we look beyond any perceived offense, there is a message here that I want to discuss in this morning’s sermon.
So listen to the words, and then I’ll tell you what they mean to me.
Song – “Pizza Deliverance” [watch the YouTube video]
Connie Huber, a member of the Chenille Sisters, wrote this song, and although it is couched in humor and fun-making, the last line of the song carries an important message: “There is a little for everyone, and remember god is in us all.”
This is the story of religion in America, a potpourri of different beliefs stemming from the same core of infinite possibility -- and the freedom to express those diverse beliefs. It is the story of the human predilection to make fun of those religious beliefs of others that seem too far removed from our own. And it certainly is the story of our church, which uplifts the notion of “There is a little for everyone” in relation to the very personal nature of the religious odyssey… the whole is very large, and we each may take from it what we need for the formation of our own spiritual truth and belief-set.
It also very much captures my own panentheist - slash - humanist theological belief that whatever god may or may not be, god certainly is Infinite: in all things, in all people, everywhere; indefinable because of his and her – and its infinite omnipresence.
I am going to be talking a lot about god today, conveying my own theology which is always in formation. I am going to be telling you what I think, at this point in my spiritual journey, to be true of god, though I confess that I remain unsettled on whether god exists at all beyond the sacredness of life itself. So as I proceed, if you will, please keep that in mind.
It is my ever-evolving belief that if god exists, his or her existence is far too infinite, too vast, too inexhaustible to fathom. There is a reason we refer to the thought of god as the Great Mystery.
I also believe that if god exists, she exists so completely that contemplating her is probably fruitless and possibly pointless as well. It is like contemplating our own existence – not our purpose or the reason for our being, but simply the fact of our being. The idea of god, just like the idea of our own existence -- each dynamic stripped of all other thought -- is both too boundless and too ethereal to grasp.
That is my theology, which does not incorporate a belief in a personal god, as so many religions do. I believe that god, or what I might choose to think of as “The Great Good,” manifests in the best of human nature -- those exquisite moments of tenderness that wash over us, on occasion, leaving us feeling fragile and breathless and unaccountably blessed; our amazing capacity for compassion, empathy, and understanding; the depth and richness of our emotional faculty – god manifests in the best of human nature – great acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, and gentle acts of kindness -- with or without our belief, understanding or acknowledgement of god.
Is this power or force toward good real? I think it is.
I think that, in spite of so much evidence toward the contrary, in spite of my own dismal failings and shortcomings, in spite of the horrendous depths of evil into which we, as a species, can fall, the tug toward love -- quietly and eternally persists. And that being attuned to that insistent tug, making ourselves vulnerable to love, and resistant to fear and anger and judgment, is tantamount to answering “god’s call.”
And let me clarify the phrase “god’s call.”
I was at a summer picnic, recently, in the company of a number of people from UU Elkhart, and engaged in conversation with Ken Clayborn. Ken is a friend of Evan’s and mine, (and my brother, Dave and his wife, Susie) and with his wife, Joan, visited here at BUUF a year or two ago, although if your memory is anything like mine, you won’t remember that.
At one point in our conversation I mentioned my call to ministry, something that we talk about at seminary, but which is never really defined. I had barely gotten the words out of my mouth when Ken asked, with some vigor, “Who called you?”
I was taken aback by the question, having never been asked, and never having considered the question by my own internal promptings. I knew I had been called; that was not a question. But who, in fact, had called me?
I stared at Ken briefly, admiring the alacrity with which he had pounced on me with the question, even as I stumbled around in my own mind seeking an answer. Finally I said the only thing that had come to me as I considered the question. I said, “I guess it was my most authentic self that called me.”
He seemed quite satisfied with that response, and as I reconsidered it later, so was I.
It is as Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet: "This, above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write? Delve deep into yourself. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this question with a strong and simple 'I must' then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it."
There came a time when the answer to “Must I go into ministry?” was a simple, “Yes. Yes I must. However that might happen, that’s where I need to go.”
I did not experience that as god’s call, but rather as a profound beckoning of my own internal stirrings, which is, in fact, where god works in us. And to live authentically, I needed to respond to those stirrings; that call.
It was not a call from a personal god, though the stirrings were intimately personal. Still, it was not a call from a personal god to whom I pray and from whom I hope to receive answers.
Perhaps it could be considered a call from “the universal god,” that guiding light that resides somewhere within all of us. Or maybe we could call it godness; I received my call from the godness within, a word which my spell-check rather insistently, and perhaps rightly, tried to change to goodness:
God -- The Benevolent Being, the Great Good.
Godness – the Great Good residing in the authentic selves of each of us.
(Pardon me while I ramble; these are just a few of the rather varied thoughts I have about god.)
It is not a traditional god in which I believe -- to the extent that I do believe -- for the more traditional god of the major faith traditions seems quite contrived, to me, and highly inpatient with the human condition, which just seems totally out of character for god.
The god of the Judaic and Christian traditions, at least as portrayed in the Bible, is harsh and unforgiving, jealous and demanding, scheming and manipulative, as can be seen in his rejection of Adam and Eve from the garden, his cruel manipulation of Abraham, his brutal toying with Job, and his angry destruction of all but a handful of the world’s people in the great flood, among many other examples.
And yet the traditional god is one who demands our love and loyalty, as is clear when one considers the most definitive list of his requirements, The Ten Commandments.
Nearly half of these commandments suggest that god is small, jealous, and demanding:
1. I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.
2. You shall not make for yourself any graven images.
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
The remaining six are directives for moral living, but as succinct as they are, they ignore some pretty important stuff.
Here is what they include:
Number 5 says, Honor your father and mother.
6. You shall not kill.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness.
10. You shall not covet.
These commandments leave out some relatively obvious “thou shalt nots,” including thou shalt not maim, batter, rape, or have sex with thy children.
But they also leave out what I like to think of as contingencies. As much as we’d like to think in terms of ethical absolutes, I don’t believe ethical absolutes are truly ethical, nor do I believe that adhering to the Ten Commandments in all cases is the moral thing to do.
Should those who hid Jews from the Nazis in WW II have kept the commandment not to lie when asked if they knew the whereabouts of the Jews they were hiding? Should a starving mother (in whatever scenario one can imagine) not steal food to save her child? Should a child being molested by her father risk dishonoring him by reporting him to authorities? And in the impossibly complex moral argument, should one not kill to protect an innocent?
The Ten Commandments, so insistently touted by some as the sacred rules by which we all must live our lives, are simplistic, inflexible and incomplete. They, in fact, are not fully kept by many of those who most loudly proclaim them, for most Christian denominations are not Sabbath-keepers, choosing to worship on Sunday rather than on Saturday, the apparently true Sabbath.
Additionally, whereas the commandment not to kill is stated without exception, many conservative Christians support the death penalty and engage in war with untoward enthusiasm considering the Commandment against killing.
And finally, most of the people I know who fervently embrace the Ten Commandments, have graven images in their homes, and many churches have them, as well. The dove, the fish, paintings of Jesus, and the Apostles, and if they are Catholic, paintings of the saints and Mary… Some theologians argue that these visual representations are instructive in the faith, and helpful to worshipers. But still, God’s laws are characterized as “commandments” not “suggestions,” are they not?
It is all so very relative, isn’t it?
But here’s my other problem with the Ten Commandments – they are the negative prohibitions of a stern, joyless, and forbidding father-figure who provides no guidance in this, the core piece of Judaic and Christian religious legislation, as to what we should do in the living of our lives. They ignore what many of us have come to see as the most sacred of ethical considerations – love, compassion, mutual respect, and care for the interdependent web of all existence.
For these reasons, at least, they did not work for me as a guide to moral living. And yet the idea of having a written code of spiritual ethics did appeal to me.
We are a creedless church, believing that the religious journey is a very personal journey, and that no one path serves all. We are guided in our spiritual pursuits by the principles and purposes which member churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote, and we are prompted by our literature and our leadership to formulate our own personal theologies. This task is nurtured and nourished in our Sunday services, particularly, in which we incorporate materials from all of the major religious traditions, as well as nature, art, music, literature and our own personal experiences of the transcendent.
It is a tremendously freeing journey of experiencing the spiritual in the ways that speak most intimately to each of us, and as I grew in this tradition, and began to note that which most powerfully spoke to me, I became ready to tie it down a bit in my own list of, hmm… what to call them?
I believe that god likely more whispers than shouts, and urges than commands so I believe I will call my list, “God’s Whispered Urgings.”
This is the topic that Harvey and Tricia requested for this sermon – my version of the Ten Commandments. I had referred to it in my last sermon here, wherein I talked about the very first sermon I had ever preached at BUUF.
In that sermon, the first I preached here, I quoted rabbi and author Abraham Heschel who said “Just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.” I was very taken with that quote which had appeared in our Unitarian Universalist magazine, “The World,” and I repeated it several times: “Just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.”
That sentiment really forms the basis for my own list of Commandments, or Urgings, and underscores most, if not all, of them. They are as follows, and the first is my response to the original Ten Commandments given to Moses by god on Mt. Sinai:
- Listen to your intuitive self, for therein lies the voice of god.
- Stay in the moment, for to do otherwise is to waste the precious gift of life.
- Feel your feelings; they are your richness and your depth.
- Respect the interdependent web of all existence, of which you are a part. (Taken directly from the UU Principles.)
- Judge not, but discern wisely.
- Speak your own Truth. Never let your silence be mistaken for assent.
- Be attuned to, and honor, the diverse spiritual journeys of others.
- Release the need to control others, for such efforts deny the spiritual in them, and keep you from yourself.
- Eschew material possessions, for they divert you from your Source and your Path.
- Contribute toward Good.
These commandments work for me. And more to the point, I work for them. They provide a moral code born of my deepest sense of what is good and right, and by which, when I am able to keep them, most allow me to bring to life Heschel’s observation that “Just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.”
My list brings joy and meaning to my particular journey because it affirms for me the awesome wonder and mighty potential of the life journey, and incorporates a high regard for the human condition. Your list, should you make one, would undoubtedly differ from mine because the exquisite nuances of human thought and perception and experience so differ. But I believe all of our lists would be similar in that they would somehow uplift the sanctity of the life experience, and the inherent worth of every person, the substance of our religious tradition.
This is my last service with you until I return from my Internship next May. As I tried to consider the words I would like to leave you with today, none suited me more than Heschel’s which, in times of pain or hardship can be difficult to embrace, and yet which remain ever true, bespeaking the wonder of each of our own unique existences, and the treasure inherent in the living of our lives: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
Last Updated (Sunday, 27 December 2009 16:03)