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Jul 7, 2013

Sermon: The Present Now

preached at First Parish in Milton, Unitarian Universalist, July 7, 2013

This past week has been, more than anything, devoted to picking wild black raspberries. There are two large patches of them near my apartment. Each day I spend at least an hour filling a quart sized plastic yogurt container with the dark purple seedy fruit. It is a laborious process. It requires careful attention. I wear long pants and short sleeves. The pants protect my legs and allow me to step into the middle of a bramble. The short sleeves let me maneuver my arms without getting caught by thorns. Unfortunately, short sleeves offer little protection and this morning I am something of a mess of abrasions.
The effort is worthwhile. When else but during wild berry season can I eat, and feed my family, whole greedy fistfuls of delicate fruit? My mother has a delightful raspberry sauce recipe. I have made and frozen as much of it as possible. When winter comes there will be a sweet tart taste of wild summer waiting.

I am not telling you this to make you jealous. I imagine that there are brambles in abundance here in Milton. I realize that picking wild berries is not everyone’s idea of fun. You have to be seriously dedicated to gathering your own food to brave a maze of thorn induced hash marks on your skin. I am talking about picking wild black raspberries because gathering them is an activity that requires absolute presence of mind. There, through that shaded twist of primrose lie four dozen perfect fruits. How to get to them? How to navigate the rose and then the bramble? Where to put my feet? Where to move my arms? How many to pull from the stem? Is this one ripe? Does that one have mold?

Be present to the moment. It is a cliche. But like most cliches it contains more than a kernel of truth. As the neuroscientist, race car driver, particle physicist, rock star and Buddhist Buckaroo Banzai says in the cult movie of the same name, “Wherever you go, there you are.” This present moment is the only one that we have.

As you may know, I am serving as your summer minister for the next month, leading Sunday services and providing pastoral care coverage. During our time together I am going to explore the idea of Unitarian Universalism as a religion of presence. By that I mean, Unitarian Universalism is a religion that calls us to be present to the moment, to each other, to justice and to the holy. Each week the service will be organized around a question relating to one of these four kinds of presence. This week I ask: What does it mean to be present to the moment?
I do not intend to fully answer my questions. Instead, I hope to provoke you to think about them. Religious questions are not easy and in the end we must each find our own answers. What it means for me to be present to the moment will be different than what it means for you for the simply reason that we are different people. This is one of the great claims of Unitarian Universalism, that theological reflection begins with personal experience. Since each of our sets of personal experience are different the theologies that we construct out of them are different as well. How we wrestle with this relativist angel and understand that the truth we find is, at least somewhat, subjective without devolving into moral relativism is something I will attend to later in this sermon series. In the meantime I ask that you suspend whatever disbelief you may have and imagine that it is possible.

To aid in this suspension of disbelief, much of my preaching over the next month will take the form of parables. There are two reasons for this. First, people respond better to stories, and parables are a form of story, than they do to more abstract discourse. Second, I think that theology takes place at three levels. The first level is that of personal experience. We have an experience that we need to make sense of; I am confronted with an abundance of wild black raspberries. The second level is that of the parable, the stories we tell each other, and our selves, about our experiences; I describe to you my berry picking activity. The third level is that which theologians call systematics or dogmatics; I compare my narrative and experience of berry picking with the narratives of others and try to distill some religious truth from the resulting mess.

Parables are often more provocative than the systematic theology that they inspire. Parables can be interrupted variously, systematics have a tendency to appear more fixed. There is a Buddhist story that you may know that I find helpful when thinking through the relationship between experience, parable and systematic theology. Many years ago, in some distant land, a young woman came across a group of monks standing on top of a hill. They were all standing with their arms outstretched and their index fingers pointing at the sky. The moon was crystalline; the stars softly brilliant. The woman stared at the monks’ arms for a long time until one of them finally turned to her and said, “Never mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.”

The sight of the moon was the experience. Whatever words the monks might have shared amongst each other or used in their minds to describe it were parables. The finger is like the refined world of systematic theology. It can only point the way to the moon. It must never be mistaken for the moon itself. Words are symbols, they represent something, rather are something. The further we move toward pure language and away from experience itself the easier it becomes to stray from whatever religious truth we seek. This is undoubtedly why so many religious communities spend so much time arguing over the finer points of theological doctrine.

Parables, of course, are not immune to a diversity of interpretations. But because they are stories about experiences they can point us in a direction that more abstract theology cannot. The theologian Sallie McFague suggests that the “parabolic... possibility... is, not ‘do as I do,’ but ‘see what I am’ and then enter into your own soul and discover your prime direction, your master form, your center and focus.” This is undoubtedly why so much of the world’s great religious literature takes the form of parables. Great religious leaders too have long been fond of parables. Jesus was a master parable maker and the gospels—whether canonical or non-canonical—present his life as a form of parable.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is probably one of the most well known of Jesus’s parables. Here it is as found in the Gospel of Luke: “A man was on his way from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he was set upon by robbers, who stripped and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going down by the same road, and when he saw him he went past on the other side. So, too a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him went past on the other side. But a Samaritan who was going that way came upon him, and when he saw him he was moved to pity. He went up and bandaged his wounds, bathing them with oil and wine. Then he lifted him on to his own beast, brought him to an inn, and looked after him. Next day he produced two silver pieces and gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Look after him; and if you spend more, I will repay you on my way back.’”

All of Jesus’s parables, this one included, have been variously interpreted. The author of Luke suggests an interpretation of it by having Jesus tell it in response to the question, “But who is my neighbor?” Whoever wrote Luke closes the parable with another rhetorical question, “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus’s questioner answered “The one who showed him kindness.” To which Jesus replied, “Go and do as he did.”

While the parable is clearly about compassion for the stranger, I suggest that it also contains another layer. It challenges us to be present to the pain of the world that surrounds us. The Samaritan is present to the pain of the world. The priest and the Levite both try to avoid. When they see the man lying on the side of the road they cross over to the other side. The Samaritan chooses not to the ignore the pain. Rather than avoiding it he engages with it. To be present to the moment does not mean only be present to the moments of pleasure in our lives. It means to be present to all of it, the pain, the sorrow, the suffering and the joy and delight.

I would be a liar if I said that I always succeed in being present to pain. I follow the example of the priest and the Levite on an almost daily basis. Harvard Square is filled with people asking for money and other forms of assistance. I rarely engage them. It almost always seems inconvenient to do so. I am in a hurry. I have to get to class. I do not want to give someone money. The parable of the Good Samaritan stands as a rebuke to my own behavior. It reminds me that if I want to be present to the moment then I must be present to the suffering of others. And I must learn to be present even at those times when it is inconvenient.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han is one of the best known contemporary teachers of the practice of being present to the moment. Buddhists in his tradition call the practice mindfulness. Nhat Han encourages us to be mindful not only when confronted with suffering or with joy but when moving through the banal routines of life. He offers this advice about washing dishes: “If while we are washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not 'washing the dishes to wash to wash the dishes.' What's more we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes....If we can't washes the dishes, chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either.”

Occupying a mid-point between Nhat Han’s dish washing advice and the parable of the Good Samaritan, Louis Gluck’s poem “Celestial Music” is about the challenge of recognizing the ordinary suffering of nature, the truth that death and pain are all around us, and then remaining present to beauty. In her poem neither Gluck nor anyone she cares about suffers. She and her friend “sit by the side of the road” and open themselves to the world that surrounds them. Gluck admits that when faced with “a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it” she is “quick to shut my eyes.” Opening her eyes she is rewarded with “watching the sun set; from time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.” Being present brings with it the risk of suffering but it also contains the possibility of “clouds, snow, a white business in the trees like brides leaping to a great height.”

Unitarian Universalism as a religious tradition encourages us not to shut our eyes. For generations our focus has been on this world rather than on whatever may come next. Our Universalist ancestors, as you might recall, believed that everyone in the end would be reconciled with God. This led them to think, as Gordon McKeeman has put it, “We are all going to end up together in heaven, so we might as well start learning to get along now.” For our Unitarian ancestors the emphasis was slightly different. William Ellery Channing claimed that purpose of religion was to help people grow in what he called the “likeness to God.” He believed that each person is born with that likeness within and the goal of life is not to be found in the afterlife. It is to be found in this life when we come to know “the bright image of God” inside us. Channing thought that one way which we discover that bright image is by learning to be present to what surrounds us. As he put beautiful in his famous sermon “Likeness to God:” “How much of God may be seen in the structure of single leaf, which, though so frail as to tremble in every wind, yet holds connections and living communications with the earth, the air, the clouds, and the distant sun, and through these sympathies with the universe, is itself a revelation of an omnipotent mind.”

The this worldly focus of Unitarian Universalism means that one of the most important roles for Unitarian Universalist clergy like myself, and Unitarian Universalist congregations like this one, is to help people be present to this world. This means encouraging people to unplug from the distractions of the digital world, to revel in each other, to savor what the world offers and to be open to suffering. Many times I have been told by non-Unitarian Universalists that we do funerals and memorial services exceptional well. There is a reason for this. Rather than focusing on the deceased’s journey after life we direct our attention to the pain and the loss of the living.

The call to presence and the present moment is not exclusively, or even primarily, about pain. Nor is it about joy. It is rather to recognize that only moment we have is now and that we must make the most of it whatever it is. In that spirit, as we prepare to close, I invite you to think of a time when you were truly present. What was it like? What did it feel like in your body? Is that moment now? Are you recalling some other moment, some distant moment, brought forth into your consciousness through the fog of memory? How do you know when you are alive to the present? Are your senses more alive? Is your mind still? What do you need to do to be present? To pay attention to your breathing? To feel the air come in? To sense it flowing out?

I know that I am present when I concerned with only what is happening now. When I have been picking raspberries I have only been picking raspberries. I have not worried about what comes next, what I will be doing later in the day or even the topic of my sermon for Sunday. Black raspberry brambles have a delightful trick for helping me stay present. When I slip from the present to the haze of the past or illusion of the future I am rewarded with a small laceration that draws me back into the present. It is a helpful reminder that wherever my mind may wish to be there is only the now.

There is only the now. As Gluck writes, “It’s this moment we’re both trying to explain.” All we really have is this moment. May we each learn to be present to it, whatever it brings: black raspberry brambles, dishes, the suffering of strangers, our own pain, the universe’s reflection in a trembling leaf, ecstasy and joy... So may it be, Amen and Blessed Be.

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