Easter Homily: The Rhythm of Life is a Powerful Beat

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?”[1] 

Underground Railroad patch

I like this song on Easter morning. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons need safe harbor, need of sanctuary, shelter, safety; need caring, love and compassion, comfort and solace, respite and rest. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons, need real help, need choices, opportunity, access, a “seat at the table,” a voice; need freedom, liberation, justice, peace. But the song doesn’t just point to needs. That’s easy enough. It also seeks to inspire in us a certain commitment. It asks everyone—those singing and those listening: will you, will I, will we be people who harbor those in need? Will you, will I, will we be people who take the side of the oppressed, who take the side of the incarcerated, of immigrants without papers, families without homes, workers without work, children in failing schools, women who’ve been battered, victims of violence, people whose land has been stolen, people struggling with addiction, people living with mental illness, people living with HIV/AIDS, and certainly people who still experience the pain of discrimination and second class citizenship because their committed, loving relationships are not recognized in law.

UUSe at the Marriage Equality Rally


Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? As much as any of us might want to answer this question with a resounding, “Yes,” it’s not easy. There are always risks. If I take the side of the persecuted, the oppressed, the victims of violence, isn’t it possible the same forces threatening their lives might seek to threaten mine? When the Roman guards were leading Jesus to his execution, when the mob had gathered to jeer at their scapegoat on his way to Golgotha to be crucified, his disciples were nowhere to be found. Just one day earlier Peter had said to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you.”[2] And yet on the day of the crucifixion—Good Friday—Peter three times denies knowing Jesus. Risks always accompany taking the side of persecuted people. Peter wasn’t willing to take them.

Underground railroad

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the whole point of the Easter story is to expose the violence people do to people—to name it, to reveal it, to show how entire communities can resort to it, as if it will somehow solve their problems. Virtually everyone in the story sanctions the murder of Jesus in some way. Only the three women—the three Mary’s—who gather at the foot of the cross are willing to be with Jesus in his suffering.

If I’m correct that the point of the story is to definitively and unwaveringly reveal the reality of violence in human communities, then the story’s message is that violence is wrong, that violence, persecution and oppression redeem nothing. The story asks its hearers and readers to consider the question, which side are you on? Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?

Golgotha

Jesus is crucified. The next day is the Sabbath, the day of rest. On the third day the women return to the tomb where Jesus has been laid. They discover the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and with slight variations depending on which version one reads, they hear the news that Jesus has risen from death: the Easter miracle.

Sunrise

I think most of you know that while I view Jesus’ execution as a largely settled historical fact—there are multiple reports of it in the Jewish and Roman historical records—I view the resurrection as metaphor—a potent and multi-layered symbol. For me, the value of this symbol begins with its unmistakable affirmation that the Sacred—however we understand the Sacred—is fundamentally opposed to and will always seek to overcome violence in human communities. In the face of violence, injustice and death, the Sacred affirms life. It encourages us not to succumb to fear as Peter did, but in the very least to sit faithfully by the side of those who are suffering, to call for water to moisten their parched throats; and when the opportunity presents itself to say, “Yes, I do know this person who is being persecuted. This person is visible to me and this persecution is wrong.” It makes available to us sources of love far more powerful than any violence any persecutor can bring to bear.”

The value of this symbol lies in its power to remind us in the deepest places of our being that though violence, persecution, oppression and injustice may at times seem overwhelming, may at times seem to have prevailed; and though the many ways in which we suffer as human beings—physical illness, mental illness, depression, loss, grief, broken dreams, broken relationships, personal failures—may at times seem insurmountable, there is nevertheless a rhythm of life and its beat is powerful; its beat never stops; its beat keeps coming around and around. Days keep dawning. Waves keep crashing. Tides keep pulling. Hearts keep beating. Lungs keep breathing. Love keeps coming. That’s the rhythm and it has the power to help us overcome; to bring us back to our true selves, back to our most authentic selves, back to life.

Sunrise

 Even after the longest winters of our lives, spring arrives—that’s the rhythm! Stones roll away. Prophets proclaim good news. Wounds heal. Communities come together, find their purpose, start to organize, build life anew. Birds, once again, sing at the break of day. Buds, once again, appear on branches. Grass, once again, grows high and green. Hope, once again, rises in our hearts. If we can attune ourselves to the rhythm of life, if we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance, create along with its ancient, powerful, undying beat that began in the heart of that one, tiny seed,[3] then we too can come back to life refreshed, rejuvenated, resurrected, filled with joy, filled with passion, filled with new-found courage to meet our challenges, to bear witness to suffering and violence, to struggle for justice, to pursue our dreams. If we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance and create along with its ancient beat then we too can rest securely in the knowledge and the faith that our pain and grief will subside in time and that beloved community is possible, a more just society is possible, a healthy planet is possible; that we are justified in being hopeful people and that, in the end, love prevails. Love prevails. Love prevails.

Sunrise dance

Oh yes: the rhythm of life is an awesome and powerful beat. On this Easter morning, as spring finally arrives all around us, may we feel its pulse. May we start to dance. May we add our joyful noise to its undying song.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] This refers to Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s Sweet Honey in the Rock piece, “Would You Harbor Me?” See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0XBXJjoXJ4. To purchase this song, find the “Sacred Ground” album at http://www.sweethoney.com/discography.php.

[2] Luke 13:37b.

[3] Earlier in this service we read Carol Martignacco’s The Everything Seed. For more info see: http://www.amazon.com/The-Everything-Seed-Story-Beginnings/dp/1582461619.

Edge Times: A Meditation on the Coming of Spring

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

We’re right on the edge. Spring has come so close. 

Diggin' in the dirt

Snow, when it falls, melts quickly now. Thermometers now read forty, even fifty degrees at mid-day. Morning bird song, though sparse, is unmistakable now. Sharp green shoots will break through the cold but thawing ground any day now. Pale, red buds will begin dotting branches any day now. Spring has come so close and so many of us are ready, on the edge, poised, anticipating, expecting, crouching as if ready to leap, ready to burst forth, ready to bid farewell to our winter tombs, ready for resurrection, ready for rebirth, ready for warm April sun on our backs, ready for dirty hands planting seeds in the dark, brown earth. Continue reading….

Really . . . What’s Real?

The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Earlier I read an excerpt from Nick Bostrum’s 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”[1] To be clear, he does not prove we are living in a simulation (had he proved it, I suspect we’d all be aware of it by now and waiting to meet our maker— or, umm, programmer). What he proves is that it is rational to think we are living in a computer simulation. Or, in the very least, he proves one can argue it is rational to think we are living in a simulation.

Simulation

One can also argue that while it might be rational to think we are living in a computer simulation, it might not be rational to preach about it. And if the minister decides to preach about it anyways, it would be rational to think it might be one of his less useful sermons. Of course, this is the same challenge I accept every year when I put a sermon up for bid at the UUS:E goods and services auction. As most of you know, every year our beloved Fred Sawyer wins a sermon at the auction and challenges me to preach on a topic or question residing at that murky yet evocative crossroads where science, philosophy and theology meet. “Are you living in a computer simulation?” is no exception.

The Truman Show

I’m not sure, in the end, that answering this question is all that useful. But the fact that some scientists, philosophers and theologians take this question seriously; the fact that there are scientists proposing experimental means to answer the question (even if they’re doing it partly for fun); and the fact that this idea that reality is not the same as what our senses perceive shows up again and again in literature and cinema—in everything from the Bible to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Whoto The Matrix films to The Truman Show—tells us something about human nature which I suspect is meaningful. [And whether or not it is, it is certainly rational to the come to the auction next Saturday evening, February 9th, from 5:30 to 9:00. It’s great fun. It’s an important fundraiser for the congregation. As always, a sermon or two will be up for bid.]

Horton Hears a Who

Imagine today isn’t February 3, 2013. We think it is, and everything we’ve ever been taught tells us that it is. But imagine today is actually a day far in the future. And imagine that some future society—Bostrum calls them “posthuman”—has developed powerful computers that can run programs that simulate human evolution. Bostrum calls them “ancestor simulations.” They would be so fine-grained that the people in them would have consciousness and would not realize they are living in a virtual reality.[2] Again, Bostrum wants to show it is rational to think we live in such a simulation. To do this he says at least one of three propositions must be true.

First proposition (what I call the gloom and doom proposition): “The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.” If this proposition is true, if human beings will become extinct before developing this level of computing power, then we cannot be living in a computer simulation, and today must be February 3, 2013.

Second proposition (what I call the ethical proposition): “Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history.” Imagine that human beings do not become extinct and successfully develop the capacity to run very fine-grained ancestor simulations. Then imagine that, despite having such capacity, they refuse to do it. Why? Doesn’t it seem logical that if it could be done, it would be done? We already run computer simulations for all sorts of things. We track the paths hurricanes; we train astronauts. Simulations are part of every industry that uses computers. We even have computers that simulate computers. If we could simulate human evolution, we could learn so much about ourselves. We wouldn’t do it for moral reasons. An advanced human society would, we hope, have an advanced morality and would recognize that in creating virtual yet conscious people, it would also be consigning them to a life of potentially great suffering. An accurate simulation would include genocides, wars, holocausts, slavery, nuclear explosions, terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, gun violence, poverty, famine, starvation, disease and so on. It would be sadistic, morally objectionable and highly unethical to create virtual people who would have to experience these things. Hence, it would be prohibited, even illegal. If that’s true—if every advanced society with this level of computing power prohibits ancestor simulations—then we cannot be living in a simulation. Today must be February 3, 2013.

Third proposition (what I call the what’s really real? proposition): “We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” That is, if the first proposition is false—human beings don’t become extinct; and if the second proposition is false—advanced societies don’t establish prohibitions against running ancestor simulations—then we are almost certainly living in such a simulation. Today is likely not February 3, 2013.

To understand why this might make sense, consider that Bostrum assumes it would not be just one society that develops this computing power. There would be multiple advanced societies, all of them running multiple simulations at once. And furthermore, at some point in the course of any such simulation the virtual people in it would themselves develop the computing power to run their own ancestor simulations. As Bostrum puts it, “we would have to suspect that the posthumans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings.” It could go on indefinitely.

Simulated Simulators

Michael Rundle, Technology Editor for the Huffington Post, UK, summed up the argument in an article this past December: “any civilization which could evolve to a ‘post-human’ stage would almost certainly learn to run simulations on the scale of a universe. And…given the size of reality—billions of worlds, around billions of suns—it is fairly likely that if this is possible, it has already happened. And if it has? Well, then the statistical likelihood is that we’re located somewhere in that chain of simulations within simulations. The alternative—that we’re the first civilization in the first universe—is virtually (no pun intended) absurd.”[3]

My gut response to all this? I think it’s absurd (no pun needed). It can’t be true. It doesn’t feel right. Something’s missing. It’s too circular. It’s a trick. But I don’t have a rational counter argument. Is it just that I’m so used to thinking I’m an original human in the original universe, that I’m deeply and irrationally attached to this assumption? After all, I’ve never been invited to seriously think otherwise until now. If we assume humans will not become extinct and will one day have the computing power to run ancestor simulations; and if we assume that advanced societies would not prohibit such simulations, then on what basis can we argue we are not now living in a simulation? We wouldn’t know it if we were. It doesn’t feel rational, but it certainly looks rational on paper.

Simulated Cosmic RaysOne rational response to Bostrum is to look for actual evidence. In a recent paper entitled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation”[4] German physicist Silas R. Beane and colleagues discuss how one might approach this problem. He says in any computer simulation there are “observable consequences” of that simulation. There are certain constraints or limits on the laws of physics within any simulation and they leave a signature. The signatures are very slight, but they ought to be observable within the simulation if one knows how and where to look. So they suggest that we begin with the assumption that our universe is a simulation and then ask: What known phenomena are there in the universe that mirror the kinds of observable consequences we would expect to find? Beane names the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin—GZK—cut off, the outer limit of the energy in cosmic ray particles. What accounts for this cut off? Why does this limit exist? He proposes this limit could be an observable consequence of a computer simulation. I haven’t had time to figure out whether he and his colleagues are just doing this for fun in their spare time or if this is their main research area. Either way, their paper, like Bostrum’s, has a wide popular following. The suggestion that what is real is not the same as what we perceive is a potent one.

Fred was interested in what Bostrum’s theory might say about God and ethics.  It says a lot. Some of you may already be making theological connections. Bostrum said, “it is possible to draw… loose analogies with religious conceptions of the world…. The posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are “omnipotent” in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are “omniscient” in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens.” This makes sense. If we are living in a computer simulation, it is fair to say that the programmer plays a similar if not the same role in our lives that many feel the God of the Bible plays. Even the idea of resurrection is plausible in a computer simulation. If the programmers don’t like that someone ‘important’ has died, they can just re-insert the file back into the simulation. Or think about incarnation—the divine taking human form. A programmer could place a file of themself into the simulation and walk among us virtual folk, speaking to us of the errors of our ways. To us it would look like incarnation—spirit-becoming-flesh. The programmer would experience it as flesh-becoming-data. But do you see what I’m getting at? This question—“Are you living in a computer simulation?”—is not a new question. It uses modern concepts. It wears the clothing of science. But it’s actually an ancient question, an ancient thought process. Because we can’t explain our origins, we conclude there must be a Creator who exists in another realm.[5]Whether God or programmer, the net effect is the same. We live at the mercy of an all-powerful entity.

Zeus

And whether we’re talking about an all-powerful God or programmer, the problem of evil and suffering remains. This is also an ancient human question, the question of theodicy: How do we explain evil and suffering if God is all-powerful? What about genocides, wars, holocausts and slavery? Why does an all-powerful God allow these things to happen? Why? There’s no good answer. Some will contend God’s purposes are inscrutable and should not be questioned, but that’s never been acceptable to me. So what justification would some future computer programmer have in creating people who feel pain in so many ways, who are exquisitely conscious of their own suffering and that of others; people who are fragile, flawed and know they must, some day, die. It seems sadistic. It makes sense that an advanced society with an advanced morality would prohibit it.

Except that if it turns out we are living in a simulation, I wouldn’t want it to be turned off. I wouldn’t want life just to end in the blink of an eye, without a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, just like I don’t want life to end any other way—though I know it must. Computer simulation or not, I still recognize in me, in you, and in so many of earth’s creatures a fierce and beautiful will to live. No matter what’s real, we’re here and these are our lives. Whether it’s 2013 or some future day, we’re here and these are our lives. And even if our lives are illusions, they feel real. As far as we know, they’re the only lives we have. The point of living has never been to avoid evil and suffering, but rather, when it happens, to respond to it as best we can: to find our sources of resilience, to remain hopeful, to bring love to bear. Regardless of what’s really real, I can find no excuse to live our lives as if they have no consequence.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in an all-powerful God or an all-powerful programmer. I believe today is February 3, 2013; our bodies are real flesh and blood bodies; and we are among the first people in this universe. That’s what I believe, but I also an open to and curious about any opportunity to connect with a reality greater than or in some way beyond this one. I recall those words of the Apostle Paul, his reminder to the Corinthians to “Look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal.”[6] I recall those words of the Sufi poet, Hafez, speaking to the Beloved Presence: “Veil yourself with every enchantment and yet I shall feel you…. You are the breathing of the world.”[7] I’m reminded that from time to time we catch glimpses of something else—some other world, some other realm. Maybe we don’t see it with our eyes—we feel it, we imagine it, we dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, peaceful moments— our mountain top moments, our walking-at-low-tide-moments—moments when we lean back from our daily lives and suddenly realize we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion—moments when we’ve danced, sung, run, whirled or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Reality is not always the same as what our senses tell us.

So many religions, folkways and spiritual practices; so many prophets, gurus, teachers, poets, guides and spiritual leaders; so many scriptures, myths, stories and dreams hint at the existence of something else: some Heaven, some Olympus, Elysium, Valhalla, Zion, Sheol, Shangri-La, Shambhala, Svarga Loka, Nirvana, some celestial sphere, some great oneness, some kingdom coming. But our glimpses are always fleeting. We may never know what’s really real. Given this, what seems most rational to me is staying open and curious. And what really matters is not whether a proposition is ultimately true or false, but whether it keeps us resilient in a hurting world, keeps us hopeful, and keeps love overflowing in our hearts.

Curiosity

Amen. Blessed be.


 


[1] Bostrum, Nick, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? “Philosophical Quarterly(2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243?255. (First version: 2001). For a detailed exploration of the various debates sparked by Bostrum’s article, go to http://www.simulation-argument.com/.

[2] Bostrum argues that, though it is controversial, a common assumption in the philosophy of mind known as “substrate independence” suggests that computers should be capable of consciousness. He writes: “It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon?based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon?based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.”

[5] I recommend Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s description of ‘The Cosmological Argument’ for the existence of God in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010) p. 348. In my view this is possibly the most common and most ancient argument for the existence of God. Goldstein convincingly dismantles it.

[6] Second Corinthians 4:18.

[7] Shams Ud-Dun Mohammed Hafiz, “Beloved Presence,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #607.

The Promise of Living: An Easter Homily

The promise of living / With hope and thanksgiving / Is born of our loving / Our friends and our labor. / The promise of growing / With faith and with knowing / Is born of our sharing / Our love with our neighbor. These are the opening lyrics from, “The Promise of Living,”[1] which is part of the 20th century American composer Aaron Copland’s opera, “The Tender Land.” The librettist is Horace Everett, which is a pseudonym for Erik Johns, which is a pseudonym for Horace Eugene Johnston, who was an artist and partner of Copland’s.[2]  They lived and worked together for much of the 1950s.

I like this phrase, the promise of living. It speaks to me on Easter morning in a very direct and simple way. It may sound initially as if what I hear in this phrase contradicts the deeper meaning of Easter, but I don’t think it does. Life is a gift, it reminds us, but life doesn’t promise us anything. This beautiful Creation we inhabit and about which human beings have told stories since our very beginnings to explain our very beginnings, doesn’t, in the end, promise us anything. This Earth which rises each spring out of the grey tomb of its winter slumber into new life—this beautiful Earth surely is a gift we receive, yet it makes no promises to us. And this springtime, like every springtime, is a gift to our eyes, our ears, our tongues, our noses, our ready hands and our bare feet—it’s a gift to our spirits; it brings us back to life—but it makes no promises.

This is what I mean: it does not promise us we will live without suffering or heartache. It does not promise us we can avoid fear and loneliness, anxiety and depression. It does not promise us we or our loved-ones will never hear a doctor’s voice delivering a hard diagnosis. It does not promise that our broken relationships will mend. It does not promise that we can somehow prevent hardship in our children’s lives no matter what we do to give them the best childhoods we possibly can. It certainly does not promise us the means to overcome death. And looking beyond our own lives, we recognize there is no promise of a more just society, a more peaceful society, a more loving society. There is no promise that shields us against incidents like the school shooting this past week at Oikos University in Oakland, CA, or the shooting in Tulsa, OK we are now hearing about from Friday. There is no promise that shields our nation from the tragic and terrible murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL last month. But despite this lack of promise; despite the very real possibility that we will encounter personal trials through the course of our lives—loss, pain, grief, disappointment—despite the many challenges we face as a people, we still must live as best we can. And therein lies the promise. As the song says, “The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving, our friends and our labor.”

There are no promises we can count on in any ultimate sense—no promise from God that our lives will turn out the way we imagine; no promise from the universe that our lives will turn out the way we imagine; no promise from the Earth that our lives will turn out the way we imagine—but there are ways we can choose to live in the midst of crisis, ways we can choose to live so that healing is possible, ways we can choose to live so that confronting hardship with grace and dignity is possible, ways we can choose to live so that a more just, compassionate and peaceful society is possible. Easter informs us that living this way is possible, that we can rise from the tombs in which we find ourselves. For me, the promise of living is born of our choosing to rise. For me, the promise of living is born of our choosing to live with love and hope in our hearts.

Easter wraps around the story of Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution on the cross—the common form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire—followed by his disciples announcing his resurrection—his rising from the death—three days later.  Many times over the years I have pointed out that this story is built on the foundation of Passover, the Jewish spring-time celebration of liberation from slavery in Egypt which began this year began this past Friday. I have also pointed out that Passover itself, in connection with Shavuot which occurs later in the spring, are built on the foundations of even more ancient Middle Eastern planting and harvest festivals.

These stories and these festivals are beautiful and compelling and provocative. They have captured the human imagination for millennia. Their power, for me, does not reside in the notion that they might somehow be literally true and that they therefore offer some inherent promise to us centuries later. Their power, for me, lies in their ability to touch deep wells of human courage, resolve and perseverance in the face of challenge.  Their power, for me, lies in their ability to touch deep wells of human caring, compassion and love in the face of suffering and violence. Their power, for me, lies in how they remind us that no matter what life brings—no matter what pain, disappointment or illness; no matter what violence, injustice or oppression—no matter what winter tomb we find ourselves in—we can choose to live a certain way. We can choose to rise up like new life in spring. Though the landscape of our lives may at times seem barren, empty, and even hostile to life, we can choose to place seeds in the Earth, to nurture and nourish our gardens, to bring forth life, to bring forth a harvest. We can choose, as the song suggests, to share what we have with our neighbor, to rely on and trust in the caring of our friends, to labor with integrity in the fields of our calling—that is, to work hard at what matters to us. We can choose to ask ourselves, in any situation of struggle or crisis, what does love demand that I do? And we can do it. Friends, we can live in response to love. Of this I am sure: If there is to be any promise in our lives, it comes from our choosing to live in response to love. May we so choose.

Amen and Blessed be.  

[1] The UUS:E choir sang this piece as part of our Easter music celebration.  John Williams’ arrangement of “The Promise of Living” is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=bLM_YTnmLto.

We Build Temples in the Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video: Here We Build Temples in the Heart

Here we build temples in our hearts. Side by side we gather. . . .  

Here we build temples in our hearts. Side by side we come. . . .

Here we build temples in our hearts—
a temple for each heart,

a village of temples,
none shading another,
connected by well-worn paths,
built alike on sacred ground.

A meditation from Patrick Murfin: poet, social justice activist, labor historian, Unitarian Universalist (and many other things) living in Woodstock, IL. I’ve been searching this week for words that offer a metaphor for what Unitarian Universalist congregational life is all about, a metaphor for what we do as a spiritual community, a metaphor to remind us of the value this congregation holds in our lives on this weekend when we kick off our annual appeal and ask each of us to make a generous financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. These words work for me. “Here we build temples in our hearts.”

What might this mean? A temple in the literal sense is a physical structure a place set aside for worship; a place where the people gather to lift up, praise and celebrate that which is most holy to them; where they commune with their gods and goddesses however they understand them; where they offer their sacrifices, conduct their sacred rituals, sing their sacred songs, dance their sacred dances; where they celebrate their holy days, keep their festivals, welcome their newly born, honor their elders and bid farewell to their dead. In his meditation Murfin references some ancient wonders: the 12th century Angkor Wat Hindu temple in Cambodia; the 5000 year old Stonehenge in Wiltshire County, England; the 13th century Cathedral of Chartres in France; and the Doric columns of ancient Greek and Roman temples.

But here we build temples in our hearts, says Murfin, meaning here in our congregations. What are we building? At our best—and let us agree: we aren’t always at our best; no human community ever is—but at our best we are building—in our hearts, in our interior lives—sanctuary.

Sanctuary, meaning a place of refuge from the storms that batter us from time to time, from the tempests that rage around us; a place of refuge from the fret and fever of the day, from the tumult and the strife that cycle through our lives; a place of refuge from the pressure and the stress that are part and parcel of our living in these postmodern times of hyper-connection and hyper-alienation; a place of refuge from our personal trials and despair; a place of refuge from the mean-spirited, hateful culture-war discourse of our national life; a place of retreat where we may go in those moments when we need some measure of comfort, when we need some measure of solace, when we long for peace in a war-torn world, when we seek rest for our weary spirits.

Sanctuary, meaning a place where we can fortify ourselves in those moments when we face challenges and crises; a place where we can access our reserves of courage; a place where we can find our resolve, our conviction, our next step; a place where we feel grounded and rooted, held closely to our foundations, where we find sustenance, where we find the strength to endure and persevere through whatever crisis may come our way; a place where we find the humility and grace to receive the help, counsel, caring and love of those around us; a place where we recognize our dependence on those around us; a place where our pride softens and we are able to ask for help; where we are able to trust that the help we truly need shall come to us, though it comes often in ways we do not expect and cannot anticipate.

Sanctuary, meaning a place for honesty and integrity, a place where we may go in those moments when the contradictions of our lives, the inconsistencies of our lives, require us to reckon with ourselves, to speak our truths to ourselves, to push and nudge and challenge ourselves, to hold ourselves accountable; a place wherein we can finally make the decisions we have been putting off for too long; a place wherein we may find the motivation, the nerve, the audacity to rise to new heights, to stretch into new postures, to reach for new holds on the sheer rock face, to grow in new directions, to allow ourselves to be transformed, because staying where we are for too long—remaining on the beaten path—the familiar path, the easy path, the habitual path—we finally see it!—is no longer viable; a place where we let go of old, unworkable ways of being, so that new ways may emerge; a spring-time place for renewal, a spring-time place for rebirth, a spring-time place for resurrection, a place to praise the breaking dawn, to praise the “life that maketh all things new,” to praise “the first dew fall on the first grass.”

Sanctuary, meaning a place where our passions reside; where, without any fear, we name our desires, our sense of calling, our sense of vocation; where our vision of our best selves and our dreams for the future all seem possible—where we can resolve to pursue our visions and dreams and make them real in our lives, express them with our words, manifest them with our deeds; a place where our creativity flourishes, where we compose the song our life sings, where we choreograph the dance our life dances, where we breathe out the poem our life breathes, where we tell the story our life tells; a place where we can pay attention to our hunches, our flashes of insight, our inklings and intuitions, that tingling up and down our spines that tells us, “yes, this is the right path, as strange and unfamiliar as it may seem;” a place where we can pay attention and respond to our passions without fear of being told we are silly, unrealistic or impractical; where we can pay attention and respond without fear of being told we aren’t good enough, that we’ll never make it, that what we desire for ourselves is impossible; a place where the suggestion, the message, the solution, the answer coming back from our own sacred depths is Yes! Try! Live!—a place wherein, even though you know failure is possible—because failure is always possible—the suggestion, the message, the solution, the answer coming back from our own sacred depths is Yes! Try! Live! Do not settle for a life in which you are not living.

Sanctuary, meaning the place where we come to dedicate and re-dedicate our lives, to commit and recommit our lives, to offer and re-offer our lives; the place where we can dedicate, commit and offer our lives: to the values we treasure, to love in all its forms, to compassion in all its forms, to service in all its forms, to learning in all its forms, to reason in all its forms; the place where we can dedicate, commit and offer our lives: to all our relations, to the promptings and urgings of the spirit, to the pursuit of a more just and fair society, to care and stewardship of the earth, our planet, our parent, our home; a place where we come to discern the sacrifices we must make—and then make them—on the altars of our inner lives, the whisping smoke of our metaphorical burnt offerings filling our nostrils, at once pungent, at once sweet—pleasing, satisfying, life giving: generous sacrifices of our time, our gifts, our wealth; sacrifices for the sake of our community, sacrifices for the sake of our values, sacrifices for the sake of our children, sacrifices for the sake of the future, sacrifices for the sake of some reality larger than ourselves but to which we are intimately connected.

Sanctuary, meaning the most holy place in the temple—the place consecrated for the keeping of sacred things—the place where the God or Goddess resides, where the angels attend—the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies—the place where the stars align on holy nights; the place where heaven and earth meet—the axis mundi, as the scholars call it—the place where we may keep and remember and hold close, hold with great tenderness, hold with great intimacy, all that is sacred to us; the place where we may drink deeply from our spiritual wells; the place where spirit moves into us and out of us; the place where we can grasp and know and trust the divinity in ourselves—our likeness to God, as our Unitarian forebears used to teach; our ultimate reunion with God, as our Universalist forebears used to preach; the place where we can apprehend and grasp our connections, our interdependence, our relatedness to the whole of life, to all that has been, to all there is, to all that shall be.

Here we build temples in our hearts—
a temple for each heart,
a village of temples,
none shading another,
connected by well-worn paths,
built alike on sacred ground.

When I use this language of building temples in our hearts, I am mindful that so much of what we do in this congregation seeks to strengthen and fortify us, seeks to make good on that promise that each of our lives tells a story, each of our lives harbors deep and abiding truths, each of our lives is sacred and worthy. But, ultimately we do not build these temple-sanctuaries in our hearts solely for ourselves. The self matters—it matters immensely—and our religion must take our selves seriously. But our religion, in the end, is not here for the benefit of the self. Our religion is here for the benefit of the world. Our religion builds our temple-sanctuaries—gives us access within ourselves to the paths of refuge, solace, rest, strength, fortitude, passion and integrity—so that we may become bearers of love and compassion into the world; so that we may become bearers of comfort and healing into the world; so that we may discern how best to share our passions with the world, all for the sake of a more peaceful world, a more just world, a more sustainable world.

I think this is good theology. This past week I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about the nature of God—one with the Affirmation students and one with the participants in our adult course, “Theology in a Secular Age.” In both conversations we’ve been naming our inability to believe in a God who somehow is able to reach into and control human affairs—the omnipotent, omniscient God we associate with the beliefs of the more traditional, conservative and fundamentalist religions–the old, white-haired, bearded God who sits on a throne and judges us. We’ve been noting our inability to believe in that God.  We’ve been noting instead that regardless of what one believes about God, whether or not one believes God exists at all, if there is to be more love and compassion in the world, human beings need to make it so. If there is to be more comfort and healing in the world, human beings need to make it so. If there is going to be a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, human beings need to make it so. Regardless of what we may believe about God, the universe or the nature of reality, our Unitarian Universalist congregation teaches us that human beings need to make it so. That is why we build temples in the heart: so that we have the power to make it so.

Hold that thought. Some of you have already made your financial pledge to UUS:E for the coming year. Thank you. Some of you have already signed up to participate in a stewardship pot luck dinner and will be making your pledge then. The rest of you will soon be hearing from a steward, asking for a face-to-face meeting to talk about the value this congregation holds in your life and to ask for your pledge. Thank you for returning their call or email quickly.

We are this year, as always, proposing increases in our budget. Much of this increase is to give our staff a cost of living allowance and to come as close as we can to paying our staff according to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. We also hope to expand our adult education and Sunday worship service offerings, continue funding our youth advisor and reduce the amount of money we need to borrow from our savings in order to have a balanced budget. As always, we ask that you pledge as generously as you can. We are hoping for a 5% increase in pledge income over last year. If we get a 7.2 % increase we will balance our budget without drawing from savings at all. I am so grateful to our outgoing Finance Chair, Patricia Wildes, and our Treasurer, Bob Hewey, who have done a masterful job preparing our budget and crunching the numbers again and again and again. I am so grateful to the members of the Policy Board who strive so hard to make the best financial decisions they can on your behalf, and who admit they have a hard time saying “no” to good ideas. We have a lot of good ideas! And I am so grateful to Stan McMillen and the Stewardship Committee who work so hard year round to encourage a spirit of generous giving at UUS:E.

They do it for a reason. And we come here for a reason. And it’s not about budgets and staff and numbers and pledges and increased 
pledges—though all of those are important. We come because we build temples in the heart. We build temples in the heart, inner sanctuaries, places of refuge and retreat, comfort and solace, honesty and integrity, passion, dedication, commitment and sacredness. We build temples in the heart so that we may live the lives we feel called to live. But we build temples in the heart, not in the end for ourselves, but for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, because we know: if there is to be a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, human beings must make it so. We build temples in the heart so that we have the power to make it so.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

Just Over the Mountain, the Peaceful Valley: An Easter Homily

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Just over the mountain / The peaceful valley / Few come to know / I may never get there / Ever in this lifetime / But sooner or later / It’s there I will go.[1]

(Thanks to the UUS:E choir, Sandy Johnson and Pawel Jura for such an amazing rendition of this song!)

Friends, I’ve been reflecting on Easter, on the story of Jesus who was executed for speaking from a place of extraordinary spiritual grounding, speaking truthfully, speaking about the conditions under which his people lived, speaking about how his people ought to live in the midst of their oppression, speaking about where their true loyalties ought to lie, where their true sustenance ought to come from, how they ought to orient their lives towards the God of Israel rather than the Roman imperial authorities. For speaking in this way—and for his profound faith, and for all the miracles of healing and exorcism that seemed to flow out of his faith—and for his love for his God and for humanity, that is, for everyone: the sick and the healthy, the broken and the whole, the foolish and the wise, the taxed and the tax collector, the Jew and the Roman, the poor and the rich, the oppressed and the oppressor—for all this speaking and healing and trusting and hoping and loving, the Roman imperial authorities and their local collaborators put him to death.

It’s not hard to imagine that Jesus’ 1st century followers whose lives he touched so deeply and who loved him so fiercely would come to believe, in the days following his crucifixion, that he was still with them in some way. It’s not hard to imagine when we understand that these people were intimately familiar with the common, ancient near-eastern cultural-religious myth that promised a messiah would come to save the people from their oppressors, to turn the world upside down, to make the first last and the last first, to usher in a new era of peace, justice and prosperity, to establish a divine kingdom on earth. It’s not hard to imagine that in their profound grief over Jesus’ death, his followers would naturally say to themselves, “He’s the One! He’s the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God, the Son of Man!” And thus it’s not hard to imagine that the people whose lives he touched so deeply and who loved him so fiercely would come to believe—and begin to tell others—that he had risen from the dead, that the one who they believed could resurrect the dead had himself been resurrected.

I don’t believe he was resurrected. That’s not my theology. But it’s not hard to imagine that those whose lives he touched so deeply and who loved him so fiercely would come to believe it with every fiber of their being.

Why is it not hard to imagine? Because human beings yearn to be free. And the idea that Jesus had been resurrected became, for his followers, a path for them to be free—spiritually free in the midst of their oppression. This is not a typical path for most twenty-first century Unitarian Universalists. For us the resurrection is largely metaphor. But Easter continues to call to us because, at its core, it speaks out of and to that human yearning to be free. Easter bursts with movement towards freedom: movement from death to life, from dark tomb to open air, from bound to unbound, from sadness to joy, from hatred to love, from winter to spring—these are all movements towards spiritual—and physical—freedom. Easter speaks out of and to our yearning to be free from pain and illness, free from sadness and depression, free from societies that perpetuate tyranny and oppression, free from societies that perpetuate poverty and injustice, free from slavery in all its forms. “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” as our children sang earlier. Follow the north star. Look for the freedom quilt. Wade in the water. Si Se Puede. Come into the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land promised to your ancestors. We want to be free to move, to gather, to speak, to express ourselves, to worship, to work, to follow our dreams. There is, in the human heart, a beautiful, compelling, urgent yearning for freedom. Easter speaks out of and to that yearning.

This morning, I want us to remember that freedom is never a given in our lives, that there are forces and powers always working to curtail freedom. Some of those forces and powers are inside us. We encounter them when we’re talking about our personal sense of being free from all the voices, all the negative messages, all the personal demons that would otherwise hold us back from becoming our full selves, our whole selves, our true selves. Some of those forces and powers are beyond us, larger than us. We encounter then when we’re talking about all the institutional and systemic structures arrayed against collective, social, political and economic freedoms. I want us to remember that those forces and powers can and do overcome us at times, that we can grow tired, that the yearning for freedom in the human heart can grow still, dormant, distant, fractured, fragmented, silent—can even appear to die. I want us to remember that so many of the great freedom fighters, the people whose lives express in word and deed the beautiful, compelling, urgent yearning for freedom, come to the mountain and climb it. They climb it with grace, dignity, passion and courage. But far too often they do not live to come into the peaceful valley. And thus Easter and this entire Holy Week are reminders of tragedy, reminders of the horror people are all too willing to visit upon people, reminders of pervasive injustice in the world. Let us remember this. Let us face full on all the challenges to freedom. And then let us resolve, each in our own way, to be reborn, to leave our tombs and breath the fresh, moist air of spring, to begin climbing again, knowing that the climbing is what gives us life, knowing that the climbing is what stirs that “hallelujah!” deep inside each of us, knowing that, in the end, the climbing is what sets us free, even if the peaceful valley eludes us again and again and again.

Happy Easter friends! There is a peaceful valley. Keep climbing.

Amen and Blessed be.


[1] Excerpt from Griffin, Patty, “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song).”
See: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/pattygriffin/uptothemountainmlksong.html
See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kh-DgLX4fVs&feature=related