God Talk*

Worship Service July 2, 2017

Call to Worship:

“It is a strange and wonderful fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. Rilke said, ‘Being here is so much,’ and it is uncanny how social reality can deaden and numb us so that the mystical wonder of our lives goes totally unnoticed. We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free.”
John O’Donohue


When Death Comes by Mary Oliver (abridged)

…when death comes
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular, and each name a comfortable music in the mouth

tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


God Talk: Sermon offered July 2, 2017

At this time of year, I like to preach on some aspect of our country’s experiment in democracy.  This year I want to focus on one of the greatest gifts bestowed on us by the Bill of Rights: In this country, the government has no right to infringe upon any individual’s religious freedom.  We are allowed to decide where or whether to worship.  No one can be denied the right to their religious beliefs, no matter how zany or irrational others may find them–unless those beliefs lead to criminal activity.

Here in this congregation, this freedom of religious belief is evident.  We are liberal Christians, and secular Jews; we are pagans and Quakers, Buddhists, and atheists.  We can read the Muslim mystic Hafiz one Sunday, and the next, read the Indigenous Grandmothers counsel.  This morning we heard from Mary Oliver, a favorite poet of many UU’s.  I never cease to be wowed by the range of religious and spiritual wisdom at our disposal.  I am also wowed by the variety of religious beliefs and spiritual practices right here in this congregation.

One thing we have in common is our promise to practice the principles of our faith. Another aspect of our shared Living Tradition is the 6 Sources of our Faith, the first of which reads “Direct experience of 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.

In typical UU fashion, there were 32 words used instead 3 or 4.  I would have simply used the word God.

I understand why the word God wasn’t used.  There are individuals who are drawn to our congregations because they have felt beaten up by the God of their childhoods, they have felt constricted and oppressed by creeds and catechisms.  They are desperate for our message welcome and inclusion.  “Deeds not creeds” is a saving statement for many.

But I sometimes wonder about the people I meet who still believe in God, but don’t like the churches they’ve tried.  Can I invite them to share worship with us in good conscience, knowing that God is not discussed on many Sunday mornings?  Can we open our minds to having regular God talk?

Having been born and raised a UU, I never had to unpack the word God, never had to work through all the meanings that no longer made sense for me.  I was raised in a humanist congregation by humanist parents.  I didn’t really consider the existence of God or spirit or higher power until I was in my late 20’s, and spiraled into an abyss of despair and found myself with a group of people who helped me climb out of my hell.  I found myself experiencing the transcendence and bliss that sages have been writing about for millennia. I felt struck with these moments in such powerful ways for a good 18 months, I could only believe it was divine intervention.  These experiences were so significant, I went to seminary, and became a minister.  Since then, my relationship with the God of my understanding—or more appropriately, the God of my total lack of understanding, has gone through many cycles and transformations.

Disclosing our views on God in a UU congregation takes a lot of courage and I want to thank Judy for sharing her views on the subject.  I also want to thank Newt, who bid on, and won the privilege to choose the anthem Amy (Rich) sang.

For some of us, the song that Amy sang is powerful and resonant with their beliefs.  The song describes God as the one who puts the light in the stars, who alone decides who will write a symphony, God as the one that watches over us during our lonely nights, and God as the one who finds time to hear a child’s first prayer. These are lovely images for me.  The idea of a loving presence who is personally interested in me is very appealing.  And I have felt that presence.  But I have also felt the absence.  That is different from non-belief.  The absence I am talking about felt like betrayal, abandonment.  I couldn’t have felt that way without first having had a strong and very personal relationship with God. This morning you may be sitting next to someone who has this personal relationship with God.  You may be sitting next to someone who doesn’t even like to use that word.

This range of theologies will probably always be the case with UU congregations, and can be a challenging aspect of congregational life.

We must always keep in mind that one’s person’s closely held beliefs will not necessarily jive with your own. And if you are like me, your own beliefs will change over time.

This makes it all the more important that we keep an open mind.

The first time I preached as your minister, the date was Sept 11, 2011, the 10 year anniversary of the terrorist attack on American soil, and the cause for so much bad “God Talk”. After the terrible day of 911, there was a lot of terrible theology bandied about.  We were being punished by God for all kinds of things.  Here is some of what I said to you 6 years ago:  I find it disturbing it when “ordinary citizens could say with absolute certainty that God had saved their beloved son or daughter, knowing that another beloved son or daughter working one floor above or below, one flight behind or ahead, had not been so fortunate.

Could these people have the courage to say that God had chosen their loved one in the face of a firefighter’s family who had lost father, brother, and husband?  Could these people believe that God decided who would live and who would die on that day?

It is no wonder that so many people, especially younger folks, call themselves atheists.  What thinking person could believe in a God that cruel, that capricious, and that weak?” (from my sermon, “What’s God got to do with It?”, sermon offered 9/11/11)

6 years later it seems obvious that many people believe in exactly such a God.  There are many thinking people who believe that God does intervene in the lives of us humans and that we simply do not have the capacity to understand what appears to us as random events and actions. At this point, I can only hope that God will remain a mystery to me, and that I will never feel confident to provide a definitive answer.  But that doesn’t make the concept of God less worthy of exploration.

Being with children and their serious questions about life and death and meaning and purpose has done nothing but confirm my belief that God is a question that never quite goes away.  Why are we here?  What happens to us when we die? What is our purpose?  What is love and how is it sustained?  These are theological questions and religions seek to answer them.  The fact that UUs believe that there is more than one answer makes life more interesting but also more difficult.  My colleague, Sam Teitel, asked his middle school church group to solve the problem they were having at their worship services.  It seemed that they were never able to please everyone.  Some Sundays, the word God is mentioned, and half the congregation is upset. Other Sundays, the word God isn’t mentioned and the other half of the congregation is upset. Sam asked the kids, “What should we do about this?” After careful consideration, a bright eyed middle schooler suggested that on the weeks that you didn’t hear what you wanted to hear, you get to have nachos after worship.

Problem solved.

I will continue to use the word God sometimes. I hope to be wrestling with the concept of God for the rest of my days, because it’s been used by people of all cultures and all times.  We have been wrestling with ultimate meaning and purpose since we first stood on two legs.

In the Introduction to Why Religion Matters, renowned religious scholar Huston Smith wrote: “Wherever people live, whenever they live, they find themselves with three inescapable problems:  how to win food and shelter from their natural environment (the problem nature poses), how to get along with one another (the social problem), and how to relate themselves to the total scheme of things (the religious problem). If the third issue seems less important than the other two, we should remind ourselves that religious artifacts are the oldest that archeologists have discovered.” (p. 11 Why Religion Matters).

Not only have we always been in search of how to relate ourselves to reality, as we see it and understand it, we are also a species who has been searching for Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder,… which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.

As I said, people from every culture in every age have discussed and in many cases, written about this transcendent experience.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote that human beings not only want these experiences, but need these transcendent moments, and that we seek them out.  He writes:

“To live on a day to day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see all-over patterns in our lives.  We need hope, a sense of a future.  And we need freedom (or, at least the illusion of freedom) to get beyond ourselves, whether with telescopes and microscopes and our ever-burgeoning technology, or in states of mind that allow us to travel to other worlds, to rise above our immediate surroundings….He goes on to say that  Wordsworth’s  “intimations of immortality”, can be found “in nature, art, creative thinking, or religion; some people can reach transcendent states through meditation or similar trance-inducing techniques, or through prayer and spiritual exercise.” (p. 40, “The New Yorker”, August 27, 2012, Altered States by Oliver Sacks).

Isn’t it marvelous that we are allowed to choose how we reach for transcendence?  Some of us will find our meaning and hope in the God described in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures.  Some of us will find our truth elsewhere. We are free to do this search responsibly and we are urged to do this searching in the midst of community.

Wherever your searching takes you, I hope that it will make your life richer and deeper.  I hope that when death comes for any of us, we will have lived our lives fully, genuinely, and well.  When death comes, I want all of us to have lived a life worth dying for.

It is important that your beliefs help you to attain the life you want, even if Unitarian Universalists place more significance on what we do with our beliefs, or our faith.  In the New Testament, one of the letters emphasizes action over thought.  James wrote:  Show me your faith by your works.  I hope that whatever it is you believe leads you to a sense of our interconnectedness, and therefore, a desire to seek and create justice.  We are here.  We are wildly and dangerously free.  I hope that the freedom we enjoy in this country provides you the love and happiness that I wish for all of you.

Rev Susan A Moran, July 2, 2017 ©