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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Our Third Source: the World’s Religions

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert and Ken Redd, Worship Associate, and the Choir

Our Third Source:  The World’s Religions

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

February 17, 2013

Background on Choir Anthem:

 “All Lifted Hearts” is the third of seven movements (one for each of the Six Sources from which Unitarian Universalism draws and a concluding movement) in Jason Shelton’s Sources: A Unitarian Universalist Cantata. Shelton, Associate Minister for Music at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, Tennessee also wrote favorites in the teal songbook, such as “Standing on the Side of Love,” “Morning Has Come,” and “Fire of Commitment.”  The words, spoken and sung, are by the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, MO.

The last movement is rap (talk to David if you are, or know, a rap artist!) and the others present a variety of contemporary musical genres. The choir will be singing the complete work, with orchestral accompaniment, for the annual Choir Service, this year on June 2nd, as its contribution to this year’s theme and sermon series in which we are exploring our Six Sources.  I’m SO looking forward to the performance! We will get to hear a few more of the movements as single performances between now and then, the next time on Easter Sunday.  We will raise the funds to pay for the orchestra at the upcoming Musicale on Saturday night, April 6th.

It thrills me that the our liturgical dance group, the Chalice Dancers, will also take up Our Six Sources as the theme for its annual dance service, this year on Sunday, April 28th so my thanks go to its director, Sharon Werth, for that.  And to Religious Exploration Director Erica Shadowsong, who, as I speak is leading activities exploring our Fifth Source with the children in the RE Building, and is planning the final All Ages Service of the year, on June 9th, to be the Six Sources Finale.


(Pause) I invite you to take a deep breath, close your eyes if you wish, and enter into this metaphoric meditation by the late Rev. Forrest Church [originally published in the book I recommend to newcomers, on-sale for the next few weeks in the foyer, A Chosen Faith. (A Chosen Faith, Forrest Church and John Buehrens, pp. 82-85].

Breathe in, and out, in and out…

“Imagine awakening one morning from a deep and dreamless sleep to find yourself in the nave of a vast cathedral… It is a world of light and dancing shadow, stone and glass, life and death…Look about you. Contemplate the mystery and contemplate with awe. This cathedral is as ancient as humankind, its cornerstone the first altar, marked with the tincture of blood and blessed by tears. Search for a lifetime—which is all you are surely given—and you shall never know its limits, visit all its transepts, worship at its myriad shrines, nor span its celestial ceiling with your gaze.

The builders have worked from time immemorial, destroying and creating, confounding and perfecting, tearing down and raising up arches in this cathedral, buttresses and chapels, organs, theaters and chancels, gargoyles, idols and icons. Not a moment passes without work being begun that shall not be finished in the lifetime of the architects who planned it, the patrons who paid for it, the builders who construct it, or the expectant worshipers.

Throughout human history, one generation after another has labored lovingly, sometimes fearfully, crafting memorials and consecrating shrines. Untold numbers of these today collect dust in long undisturbed chambers; others (cast centuries or eons ago from their once respected places) lie shattered in shards or ground into dust on the cathedral floor. Not a moment passes without the dreams of long-dead dreamers being outstripped, crushed, or abandoned, giving way to new visions, each immortal in reach, ephemeral in grasp.

Welcome to the Cathedral of the World.

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through.

We shall never see the Light directly, only as refracted through the windows of the Cathedral. Prompting humility, life’s mystery lies hidden, beyond knowledge’s most ample ken. The Light (God, Truth) is veiled. Yet, that we can encompass with our minds the universe that encompasses us is a cause for great wonder. [We] humbly stand in the Cathedral of the World trembling with awe.”


And now please open your eyes if you had closed them and re-enter this cathedral, our meeting house, with its lovely windows through which we look out into our quiet woods and beyond to the sparkles of glass and metal that reveal the highway not far away.

You know, recalling the wise words of Ken Redd, our Worship Associate this morning, I think that he was standing right under the Sufi window in the Cathedral of the World, letting the light stream through it and into him, when he felt, as he said, “never, ever, so inspired” as when he read that poem by the Sufi poet Rumi, given to him by a dear friend in his time of great need for hope!

And he also understood something so important about why that experience was so unique and vivid. It was because he “allowed himself to be truly touched.” With the author Forrest Church, he humbly stood in the Cathedral of the World trembling with awe. It is only that stance – open, humble – that allows us to begin to experience the world’s religions as sources of inspiration in our ethical and spiritual life. Because a merely intellectual understanding is incomplete, when it comes to religion.

Forrest Church actually critiques his own metaphor:  “As with all extended meta­phors for meaning, this one is imperfect. The Light of God (or Truth or Being Itself, call it what you will) shines not only upon us, but out from within us as well. Together with the windows, we are part of the Cathedral, not apart from it. Together we comprise an interdependent web of being. The Cathedral is constructed out of star stuff, and so are we. We are that part (that known part) of the creation that contemplates itself, part of the poem that we ponder.

Because the Cathedral is so vast, our life so short and our vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect upon the play of light and darkness through a few of its myriad windows. Yet, since the whole (holographically or organically) is contained in each of the parts, as we ponder and act on the insight from our ruminations, we may discover insights that will invest our days with meaning and our lives with purpose.”

He goes on to offer hope for our times of religious friction both domestic and international, “A twenty-first-century theology based on the concept of one Light and many windows offers to its adherents both breadth and focus. Honoring many different religious approaches, it only excludes the truth-claims of absolutists. That is because fundamentalists claim that the Light shines through their window only. Some go so far as to beseech their followers to throw stones through other people’s windows.

Skeptics draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshipers, they conclude that there is no Light.

Some people have trouble believing in a God who looks into any eyes but theirs. Others have trouble believing in a God they cannot see.

But [we Unitarian Universalists conclude] the windows are not the Light. They are where the Light shines through. [We say] [w]e shall never see the Light directly, only as refracted through the windows of the Cathedral. Prompting humility, life’s mystery lies hidden, beyond knowledge’s most ample ken. The Light (God, Truth) is veiled. Yet, that we can encompass with our minds the universe that encompasses us is a cause for great wonder. [We] humbly stand,” he says, “in the Cathedral of the World trembling with awe.”

We can move around the Cathedral, standing for a time under one window and then another, allowing ourselves to be “truly touched” as Ken said, or “trembling with awe,” and if we become attuned with the tradition and values of a window’s light, what we learn can inspire us in our ethical and spiritual lives. But I think we have to be careful.  We must not just try to see that which is already familiar to us.

While it is important to look for and lift up commonalities, it is also important to not allow the commonalities to obscure the differences between the world’s religions. For example, there are significant differences in theology, ethics, spiritual practice, ritual, values, and worship among the many that teach something akin to the Golden Rule. The similar spoken quotations in “All Lifted Hearts” might give the false impression that the faith traditions from which they are drawn are fundamentally more similar than is the case.

And it is equally important to not assume truth is proven by commonalities. By that I mean, just because we see a commonality doesn’t mean that it evidences something that is right or true. For example, all but one of the spoken quotations in “All Lifted Hearts” are actually somewhat problematic, I think. The quotations from the Talmud, the Mahabharata, the Gospel of Matthew, the Udanavarga, the Hadith of al Nawawi and the T’ai Shang treatise all seem to be variations of the same theme, otherwise known as the Golden Rule. Only the Lakota quotation, about our interconnection to everything that is, differs.

But stop to think about it, aren’t all the others presumptuous? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? But what if what you would want done to you is not what others would want done to them? Or, what about the negative version, Don’t do to others what you would not want them to do to you – again it presumes similarity. Are you sure you even know what the other would or wouldn’t want? What if what they want is what you believe to be wrong? A Better Rule would be “Do unto others as they would want you to do unto them, provided you would also want them to do it unto you.”

True interfaith understanding is complex!

It requires us to stand near enough to find out what, how and why those of another religion want. It requires us to stand underneath, to under-stand, another religious perspective and attempt to understand it from within, though to do so fully is impossible. No one can, really - nor is it wise to try to - negate their own identity in favor of another’s.

So, true interfaith understanding also requires us to know and value our own identity and perspective. Multicultural competency sees the value in our own religion, culture, race or any other aspect of our identity, even as it sees value in that of others. Just as we should neither exaggerate nor minimize the differences between communities of people, we shouldn’t value another’s as either lesser than or greater than our own.

There is good and there is evil in all of the world’s religions. We are meant to discern the differences as well as the commonalities, and allow what we judge to be wisdom to inspire us in our ethical and spiritual lives.

We are meant to stand in the Cathedral of the World trembling with awe, but we are meant to do so knowingly.

Amen, so may it be.

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