With Hearts On Fire (text & audio)

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting… Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.”

This is crazy stuff.  Even the people who were there “were amazed and perplexed!” They experienced something unbelievable, and wondered what it meant. I’m sure that even as it happened, there were some in the room who did not believe their eyes – or their experience.

You know by now that I was raised in a fairly skeptical family – the idea of God, even in the untraditional sense was something I didn’t learn about until much later in life.

And even once I had learned that the word “God” meant so much more than the dude with the big pointy finger painted in the Sistine Chapel, it took me a long time to reconcile the idea of a constantly moving and changing Spirit which infuses all living things with what I had been taught in my early life.  But most importantly, I had to accept that experience is not always rational or logical.

Let me give you an example. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe that the spirit within us lurks nearby once our body has died.  As far as I’m concerned, ghosts don’t exist. Except I saw one once.  Back when I still worked in the theater, I attended a tribute concert for a much-loved gentleman who had run the box office for decades. I was sitting in the back of the theater with my friend who had worked with Charlie for many, many years, and gradually I became aware of a presence behind me.  I turned around to look, and there he was.  Sitting in the seat directly behind my friend, with a cigarette in his hand and his beloved dog Ginger, a golden retriever who had also died a few months before, at his feet.

It is a great mystery to me what that was all about – because like I said, I don’t believe in ghosts.  But as sure as I am standing here before you today, I saw one once.

The story of Pentecost is one of the great mysteries found in the world’s scriptures—and like my experience, is open to reflection and interpretation. I learned about Pentecost in my very first class in my very first year of seminary, when I had to run to the bookstore and purchase the last copy of the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms so that I could look it up! It was a class on the History of Ancient Christianity, and the professor had breezed by a reference to Pentecost, assuming that we all would understand.  But though I had heard the word before, I didn’t understand what it meant.

“Pentecost” was one of those words.  The words I thought I knew were part of a special story, one from which I was omitted at best, and more likely, actively excluded. Upon further study, however, I discovered that one of the most important parts of the Pentecost story is that it was the first time that the Spirit had been revealed to more than just a select few.

According to the story, Jesus gave the Spirit to the twelve disciples on the evening before he died. But on Pentecost, “The Spirit, once the exotic possession of a prophetic few, is now offered to all.” For me, this biblical story about one aspect of God seemed almost Universalist in nature.

We can use this story as a metaphor—calling on the idea of the power of fire to connect us to the power of the Spirit to transform.  It is no coincidence that the Holy Spirit comes down as tongues of fire. “Spirit of Life, come unto me…”

According to theologian Peter Hodgson, “Biblical and classical metaphors of spirit represent it as a fluid, pervasive, intangible energy whose fundamental quality is vitality and freedom and whose fundamental purpose is to create, shape and enliven.”

For Unitarian Universalists, the flame symbolizes the light of truth, the warmth of community and the fire of commitment… it symbolizes the refiner’s fire, the flame that transforms us, the flame that keeps us warm, the fire that lights our way and draws us home.

In astrology, fire signs are mutable—they are changeable. And just as fire is always changing—just as fire is a dancing light throwing shadows on the wall, the flame that exists at the center of our shared symbol is always changing.  It reminds us of our history, illuminates our present, and prepares us for our future.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are constantly evolving, and so are our congregations. UU history is a dance of change and continuity, not a static, fixed doctrinal deposit that must be preserved and passed on unchanged.

My friend Alison puts it this way, “Today, as a minister, I use the flaming chalice to symbolize many things on different occasions.  Sometimes it is truth, or love, or hope; sometimes the energy of a life, of one of us, that is gone but not forgotten’ sometimes I simply hold the flame up as a reminder of our good intentions…

Some days it is the chalice part we hold up, sometimes it is the flame.  But for me, I will always think of the flaming chalice as a vessel of sorts, one that can receive but also one that can share and give of itself.  One that contains the past but is open to the future. Most importantly, my chalice is a vessel that holds something significant and powerful to which it is worth paying attention.”

Today we are holding up the flame—that dancing, burning heat of the refiner’s fire—the flame that tempers steel, making it stronger and more flexible.  And that image of the flame is significant and powerful. It is worth paying attention to!

The flame we lift up today reminds us where we came from—it calls to mind people like Thomas Potter, committed to his vision, and John Murray, willing to embrace a miracle.

I particularly think of Michael Servetus, our anti-Trinitarian forbear who was burned at the stake in Geneva, all but three copies of his major written work destroyed.

This is the fire of commitment.

We must also remember the cost of commitment to the light of truth—and be willing to risk our comfort and our assumptions in order to realize our greatest dreams.  Hopefully you and I will never find ourselves making such a drastic choice as Servetus did, but nonetheless, I ask, what are we willing to sacrifice for our faith? It is possible to allow this life-changing faith of ours to enter into our hearts and souls.  It is possible that in the mystery, we might find a common understanding.

The flame also reminds us of the work it takes to create and sustain a fire: to build a strong foundation, we must begin with lots of kindling, shelter the young flames and then tend the embers. This is the warmth of community: it is work to nurture and tend our families, our communities of faith.  And yet, this work does not have to be drudgery—it can be joyous and enlivening, as dancing flames in a warming fire.

It is no coincidence, I would argue, that the first major appearance of the Holy Spirit moving on earth was first revealed in the sounds of wind and the appearance of fire.  This is the unpredictable non-rational, mysterious, playful part of the trinity.

My own experience of the divine is exactly that sort of astonishing, pervasive power that lives and moves anywhere and everywhere, most especially where I least expect it. Like the ghost I can’t explain, but know that I saw, God is inexplicable and surprising, and over the years I have learned to let my rational mind have a little break and not work too hard to understand.

And that is why I love Pentecost. Pentecost is real, it is immediate and it is miraculous. The inbreaking of the Spirit is troubling, unsettling, even scary, but it is where we find the greatest gifts, if only we allow ourselves to let go of our worries and fears long enough to give it space to move.

When the tongues of fire descended, the writer of Acts reports that the people “…were so on fire with new hope that outsiders who watched them concluded they must have been drunk on new wine…” UU minister John Nichols continues, “So much about the spiritual life is difficult to describe in conventional language. We owe it to our friends and ourselves to pay attention to a vision, dream or a thought that comes to us in a very compelling way.  Of course, it could be a delusion, but it could be a much more powerful message.”

And we are a spiritual community.  We are a Unitarian Universalist spiritual community, steeped in the historically beloved and effective trifecta of freedom, reason and tolerance. These essential historical concepts are deeply important to who we are as a faith community, but I do believe that we sometimes rely on them to our detriment.

According to a sermon by Rev. Bruce Clear, “To be rational does not mean to believe only those things which are proven to be logically true.” In order to fully live our faith, we must be open to the unexpected, the non-rational, the unproven. We must look for the mystery.  We must make room for Spirit.

Fire is part of many religious traditions: the hearth of Brigid, the angel of the Lord appearing to Moses—it is also an integral part of most any shamanic initiation.  Pentecost was an initiation of sorts, but a communal ecstatic initiation experience rather than an individual one.

How do you feel when you think about this? Is it scary? Threatening? Perhaps you are a bit frightened.  Perhaps you fear that letting go and embracing the mystery might cause things to spin out of control? Can we trust in the power of the Spirit of Life to light our way as we walk forward into the mystery, out onto the edges of our known world and step into what the future promises to bring?

At Pentecost, it was through the mystery that the people found a common understanding.  They were lost and afraid, missing the man who had inspired and led them, worried for the future of this tiny movement that would become Christianity.  And yet, they experienced the mystery of the tongues of fire, and they were able to understand one another and move forward.

As Unitarian Universalists, we do not always understand each other’s language – we have different theologies, different life experiences. But we are in covenant together, which means that we are committed to walk forward into an unknown future together with compatriots whose language we cannot always understand.

Embracing the mystery, as at Pentecost, changes us.  We are not changed so as to be unrecognizable, but transformed, transmuted, through the fire of Spirit and the light of truth into something more.  As the small gathering of disciples was transformed into something more.  Not changed into something different so much as propelled into a new stage in their development, with new energy, vision and purpose.

We have a powerful image here in the chalice, and the story of Pentecost is a powerful reminder of the importance of paying attention to the things we do not understand.

May we find our way to welcoming the unknown.

May we embrace the mystery together.

May our shared history and our commitment to the light of truth and the fire of commitment bring us to new and unimagined places.

May it be so.

Sermon from March 3: The Pebble in My Shoe (text & audio)

Rev. Michael Carter, Guest Minister–

Shortly after the attacks in New York on September 11th, a close friend of my wife Judy and I got together for a drink at our local watering hole. This friend was an educator and a very progressive thinker as well as a lot of fun to be around, and we are very close friends with him  and his wife to this day.

As we sat at the bar, I noticed that he was wearing an American Flag pin in the lapel of his suit jacket. Now, unless you were in New York City at the time, you would have witnessed the ground swell of nationalism as if all differences were forgotten and we were all Americans now that we had been attacked (granted this was temporary). This nationalism was at it’s zenith right after the Twin Towers came down.

Because I was very familiar with his political thinking and progressive politics, or so I thought, I asked him about the lapel pin. I had only seen, in my estimation, very politically conservative individuals wearing these pins as an unquestionable display of their patriotism and “America right or wrong” worldview. So, quite naturally, I inquired why he was wearing the flag on his jacket.

He said that he was wearing the flag to let other Americans know that one could be progressive and liberal and still love and care for this nation. I was shocked. I challenged him by asking, “Who is going to know your politics just by wearing the flag?  He responded that perhaps a conversation would ensue and a meeting of the minds would follow. I could not see his point, or perhaps I did not want to see his point, but we moved on an enjoyed the rest of the evening. Now, although it is not something I would have done, to wear the flag, I understand what he was saying, if only to himself. There is more than one way to be an American. There is more than one way to think about this nation and its principles.

When I left my job last April, I was not a happy camper about how the event transpired and the way it was handled. I will not get into the details, but suffice it to say that I am extremely happy to have moved on. However, I was angry about the way in which the events took place and the enormous stress I had to endure along with my family.

I have long believed that where you go in time of crisis or need is where one’s home is. When I left the hospital I went to the Bible for my spiritual comfort. Yes, I have studied other spiritual traditions and techniques ranging from Buddhism to New Thought Metaphysics. I have read the great existential books and texts from Camus to our own UU authors and ministers. I have even declared my self an agnostic and atheist at times in my life. If I am not mistaken, I may have mentioned those sentiments from this pulpit and others. The truth is, I am not orthodox or traditional in my Christian beliefs. I am a UU Christian, and more specifically, a Universalist Christian. Ironically, when I first joined this denomination, I self-identified as a UU Christian, and there were some rough times even then. I had known UU ministers who, when candidating for work, would not tell congregations they were Christian for fear of not being hired. They would often self-identify as a Theist. It was a shame. I was a minority within a minority, if you will. The words of T.S. Elliot come to mind about exploration.

We shall never cease from exploration and at the end of exploring we shall arrive at the place we started and know it for the very first time.

And yet those teachings of Rabbi Jesus have always remained the pebble in my shoe. Irritating, even painful at times but always calling me to revisit the teachings and life of this man, this Palestinian man of color from the First century C.E. And yes, you say, the teachings of Jesus and our post-modern Christianity are not the same thing. You are correct.

I asked myself how could these teachings and stories assist me in working through this anger and frustration, this lack of ethics, this racism that I was dealing with at work? How could I keep my humanity and thereby maintain theirs?  What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian in this technological world of ours, when to be a Christian today for many means to be judgmental, small-minded, bigoted, socially and politically conservative, afraid of change, patriarchal, etc? How could I wear a flag in my lapel to start a dialogue or conversation as to what it can mean to be a Christian or follower of the teachings of Jesus today? You have heard me say that the highest evolution for a human being is not from Theism or Christianity to Humanism or Atheism. There are times when it is the other way around.

First of all, I had to revisit those stories from the Bible and about this Jesus and to move from head to heart. I had to put aside the human craving for what is rational and logical and to have the courage to feel as well.

UU Christianity assisted me a great deal with this, as I could focus now on the humanity of Jesus instead of the dogma of orthodox Christianity.  You see, all of the work of theologians like Marcus Borg and Jack Spong—Jesus Seminar scholars—among others, is truly wonderful and much needed. But UU Christians were already involved in the “historical Jesus” studies back in the ‘fifties.

Ironically, the same denomination that gave me “permission” to look at Jesus as a human being, was hostile to Christianity because of the wounds its members had suffered in childhood. No problem. We’ve all been there. But I believe that if one is 40 years old and is still angry at one’s parents, one has never really left home.

Malcolm X once said that you can’t hate the roots without hating the tree. Our denominational roots are from the Judaio-Christian background. This is not to say that everyone should be a follower of the teachings of Jesus. No, not at all. But we welcome so many other paths with open arms, but our own roots we shun. There is an old African-American saying that one should never forget the bridge that brought them over. It’s okay to be seekers, but let’s remember that the goal of seeking is to find something.

In our market-driven culture which is so preoccupied with titillation, stimulation, infatuation, and fascination rather than deep spiritual empowerment, I had to decide where these teaching fit in for me. Well, first of all the teachings say that he or she who would be great among you must first be a servant to others.

These teachings have been toned down for many in our generation and culture. The courage, the audacity to be a follower of Jesus is serious business indeed. We are bombarded every day with the notion of conformity and to place a premium on this notion of being well-adjusted and complacent. To just go about one’s own business in an individualistic, isolated, hedonistic way, holding at arm’s length community, public interest, and the common good is the key to success. We are encouraged to nurture life in our own little bubbles and parochial worldviews.

I have rediscovered that being a Christian or follower of Jesus, UU or otherwise, is to move beyond dogma, doctrine, creeds, and guilt. It means having the courage to examine our hidden assumptions about ourselves and each other, the attitudes that cause us to shatter our prejudices, and that cause me to lose sight of the humanity of other people. Being a Christian resonates with the Socratic imperative echoed in line 38 A of Plato’s Apology that states that the unexamined life is not worth living. It’s about making the effort to get to know ourselves, warts and all, with all of our strengths and inadequacies. It’s also about knowing that the unexamined faith is not worth having.

Market-driven culture says be successful, gain status based on financial gain. The message of Jesus says no! Become great, and the greatest among you will be a servant. The greatest among you will keep track of “the least of these.” The greatest among you will know yourselves and learn to love your neighbor as yourself, therefore and thereby in essence loving your God. This wisdom is not only counter- cultural but counter-intuitive to our way of thinking as children of the Enlightenment and the West.

This agape love speaks to the radical Jewishness of Jesus of Nazareth, for he expounded on the prophetic Judaic thought of his time of not only loving your neighbor but also loving your enemies and those who spitefully use you as well. He preaches about the healing power of forgiveness, which makes the wisdom of this world mere folly. Giving and forgiving is the key to humanness and of his teachings.

This does not mean that I am a follower of the teaching of Jesus and everybody else is inferior or somehow less than. This does not mean that I am a UU and everyone else is somehow not as enlightened. T.S. Elliott uses the phrase, Hollow People, when referring to those who suffer from a spiritual malnutrition and/or an existential emptiness or arrogance.

For me, the message of the teachings of Jesus is boiled down to this. There is nothing you or I could ever do or be that would separate us from the love of God. Even if you don’t want the love, it is there for you. We are called to transcend our boundaries, to be the best UU’s we can be, the best Muslims, Christians, Pagans, Atheists, Humanist, Theists, Agnostics, Goddess Worshippers, Earth-Centered Spiritualist,  (or however we choose to self- identify), that we can be and to eventually transcend even those labels and boundaries to embrace one another and the world. I’m not interested in converting anyone.  I am interested in sharing my “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46) and to hear about yours as well. We share our truths with each other. This is about learning to love.  Howard Thurman reminds us that the truth found in any religion is there because it is true. It is not true simply because it is found in a religion. The Gospel news is good news because you can come as you are. All are welcome! Men and women, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Red, Democrats and Republicans, moderate Republicans and Tea Party Republicans, those for and those against new gun legislation,  all are welcome!

How is this lived out by Jesus? He was betrayed and he loved them. He was denied and he loved them. He was persecuted and he loved them; he was killed and he loved and forgave them.

It really doesn’t matter whether or not we believe that these events happened literally or historically, although I must admit that I do happen to believe that.  What matters to me is that his life was no longer concerned with survival as its highest value! Life is more than mere survival and living lives of quiet desperation. Those who do not know how to live cling to life in desperation born out of fear, but those who posses life are free to lay it down because death no longer has dominion over them. In many ways his story is not about theology for me; it is about experience. Theology explains experience, but experience gives life.

I also happen to believe that if we are to grow and to become more welcoming as a denomination, we will have to be able to accept those who treasure the Jesus story or myth. This is what we say we are about in our principles. Let’s be true to what we say on paper. We treasure King and Thurman. They were Christians folks! In closing, let me just say that for me Yehsua Ben Yoseff is the great example, not the great exception. He lived fully and loved wastefully. His life exhibits what it is to live abundantly, he speaks to what it means to be fully human. He reminds that God is not a person; God is not a being. God is being itself.  No one can know God, but perhaps one can experience God, or whatever name suits your taste. Yes, Christianity must change or die, to quote, Bishop Jack Spong.  UU Christianity can be the vehicle for this change.

Thomas Sheehan, Professor of Religious Studies, at Stanford University says,

If we perform the radical surgery on Christianity that is required, not only will certain traditional formulations of faith fall to the wayside, but also much of the presumed content of Christianity, and rightly so. Our only consolation is that if we do not intervene radically and soon, the patient will die.

Yeshua, his life, and his teachings have been the pebble in my shoe for all these many years. Universalist Christianity’s path is not the only path to truth, but it is the path for me. In hindsight, it always was, I just did not see it at the time. The Philosopher Kierkegaard reminds us that life is lived forward but only understood backwards. Jesus’s life as a human being bears witness to Dr. Thurman’s statement that the contradictions of life are not final. Indeed there would be no Christianity, UU or otherwise, without this example.  And so this morning, with great joy and relief, I can now remove that pebble form my shoe and continue on my journey. Thank you this morning for walking with me.