May 16, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, May 6, 2018
This morning I thought I would offer you a sermon reflecting on some religious texts and stories that I have found to be helpful in my own spiritual practice. I want to share with some lessons I have found in the Chinese religion of Taoism. Or at least, the lessons I have discovered in the interpretations of Taoism offered by European and Euro-American thinkers.
One of the things that I appreciate about our Unitarian Universalist tradition is that it has an openness that encourages us to explore scriptures and practices from outside of the European cultures. This openness though should also be exercised with a certain amount of humility and respect. Religious practices develop in particular contexts. When we take those practices and place them within a different context then we change them. We change them in ways that sometimes can make people from the cultures that they came from uncomfortable. To offer an example from our own congregational life, the Seder that this congregation hosts each year is quite different than the Seders held in the homes of Orthodox Jews. I have no doubt that many of the orthodox would be quite uncomfortable with the Seder. And yet, for members and friends of Ashby’s liberal Jewish community the Seder is a meaningful ritual that is a highlight of the year.
Religion is not something that is fixed. Even the most conservative of religious traditions changes over time. To give one example, the Roman Catholic church more-or-less permitted the marriage of priests until the eleventh century. And yet, one of the hallmarks of Unitarian Universalism is the belief that despite the transient nature of religious tradition there is a certain core religious experience that persists across time and culture. There’s a line from the Hindu Rig Veda that in my reading makes a similar point. It states, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”
Liberal theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher have made a similar point when they have argued that religion stems from our experience of connection to something larger than ourselves. As he put it, we experience “everything individual as a part of the whole and everything limited as a representation of the infinite.” The experience of connection is a universal human phenomenon. Exactly how we interpret it is influenced by the particular cultures we find ourselves in.
As Unitarian Universalists we understand that there is wisdom to be gained from each particular expression of the universal experience of connection. I can learn from talking with you about your experience. I suspect that you can learn from talking with me about my experience. And I know that we can gain something by discussing the experiences that others have had in other places and in other times.
There’s a certain way in which I think that the Unitarian Universalist approach to religion might be summarized by Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Do you know it? A few verses from it read:
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
In the poem Stevens offers thirteen different descriptions of the blackbird. Each is different. Each offers a different understanding of the bird. However, despite the different descriptions there’s only one bird.
In the Unitarian Universalist view, religion is a bit like the blackbird. The world’s different traditions are all offering descriptions of something that is ultimately beyond description: our human place in the great disorder of things.
Now with that set of overly long caveats aside, I want to turn our attention to one of some of the Taoist stories that I have found helpful in my own attempt to lead a more faithful religious life and make my way on this confusing, muddy, planet we call Earth.
The first story is perhaps one you have heard before. In one version it reads, “I, Chuang Tzu, once dreamed I was a butterfly--a butterfly fluttering here and there, without worry or desire, unaware of being human. Suddenly I awoke, and there I lay, again ‘my own self.’ Now this is unclear to me: was I a man who dreaming he was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams he is a man? There is a barrier between man and butterfly. Crossing it is called transmutation.
On first reading, it is a slippery story. The point is difficult to grasp. The Chuang Tzu does not know whether he is man or butterfly. He is, however, one or the other. He is either a man dreaming he is a butterfly or he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man. I suspect that the key to the story is found in the last two sentences: “There is a barrier between man and butterfly. Crossing it is called transmutation.” Chuang Tzu can either be a butterfly or a man. He cannot be both.
The story communicates one of the core ideas of Taoism, at least as it is understood by European and Euro-American scholars. Everything is understood to have its own nature, its own way of being in the world. Butterflies flutter here and there. They lack worry or desire but instead seek milkweed nectar or quest for sunflowers. People worry about whether or not they are butterflies. The Taoist point seems to be that it does not matter which you are as long as you try to uncover your own nature. But then, it is a slippery story. Your interpretation might be somewhat different than my own.
Much of Taoism a bit slippery like that. Unlike a lot of other religious traditions, it lacks a meta-narrative, an overarching story of existence. There is no central text with a creation story like those found in the Hebrew Bible or Hindu scriptures. And there’s no salvation narrative suggesting that we are somehow flawed beings that need to be saved. Such narratives are found in the Christian New Testament or in the life of Buddha. All of this might suggest a challenge to the motto I suggested earlier, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” However, as the Euro-American scholar Thomas Cleary has argued, “Taoism is based... on the experience of... [the] universal Way, the essential reality which all derivative ways might be comprehended.”
This is quite similar to the liberal theological assertion that at the core of religion is the the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. In Clearly’s interpretation of Taoism, we are part of the universal Way (the Tao), the nature of everything. And we each have our own individual ways, or natures, that stem from it. The purpose of Taoism is to uncover or discover our individual way and live in harmony with the greater way of which we are a part.
I read the contemporary classic the Tao of Pooh in high school. Have any of you read it? It is a charming book that attempts to communicate the core teachings of Taoism in a fashion that is accessible for those unfamiliar with the tradition. It uses the characters from the Winnie the Pooh children stories to share insights its author has gained from Taoism. It has been criticized by scholars as presenting a European reading of Taoism that strips it of its original cultural context. Nonetheless, I find its core insight appealing. It suggests that the authentic religious life is about being present with the self and present to the world around the self. Or, as the text says, "While Eeyore frets... and Piglet hesitates... and Rabbit calculates... and Owl pontificates... Pooh just is."
Another Euro-American interpreter of Taoism named Alan Watts tried to express the same insight with these words, “What we are seeking is, if we are not totally blind, already here.”
Taoism itself is an ancient tradition that originated in China more than two thousand years ago. It emerged as a body of written teachings around the fourth century BCE. I say as a body of written teachings because like most traditions it had a lot of sources. If it is about uncovering what is already here then that is something that people have been uncovering and discovering for as long as there have been people.
The first Taoist text is generally thought to be the Tao Te Ching, the book of changes. It was compiled by someone called Lao Tzu, whose name translates into old master. It is debatable as to whether he was a historical figure or a mythical one. Some claim he was a royal librarian in an early Chinese dynasty. He is said to have eventually grown tired of the intrigues of court life. He quit his position and left the kingdom to seek a life of contemplation. On the way out of the kingdom he stopped to spend the night at the last gate before the wilderness. The gatekeeper recognized him and asked him to leave some of his wisdom behind. And that wisdom was the Tao Te Ching.
The other great Taoist teacher was Chuang Tzu. He almost certainly was a real person. There are records of someone with the same name that appear in the second and third centuries BCE. Chuang Tzu’s text bears his name. It is a book of stories. Some, like the butterfly story, are cryptic or enigmatic. Others make their point a bit more clearly.
I have read the Chuang Tzu numerous times and found in its advice about being who we are to be useful. One story suggests that it is good to have a healthy skepticism of technology. The story is about an old gardener and a young engineer. One day the young engineer was walking back to the capital city. As he walked he came across an old gardener, drawing a bucket of water from a well. He watched the old man. The old man walked over to the well and drew up a bucket of water. Then he walked over to his garden, some distance away, and dumped the water on his vegetables. He repeated this process many times. Walking over to the well and returning with the heavy bucket filled with water until his garden was finally watered.
All of this seemed like a lot of effort to the engineer. He approached the gardener and told him, “Hey, if you had the right contraption you could water your garden much better and with a lot less effort. Would you not like that?”
“What is the contraption” replied the gardener.
“It is a wooden lever. It is heavy in the back and light in the front. It draws water from the well, as you do with your bucket, but in a steadily flowing stream. It is called a well sweep.”
The gardener is said to have looked at the young engineer with an expression of annoyance. And then he is said to have laugh and told the young man, “I have heard my teacher say that those who use tricky tools are tricky in their business affairs, and those who are tricky in their business affairs have trickery in their hearts, and those who have trickery in their hearts cannot remain pure and unspoilt, and those who are not pure and unspoilt have a restless spirit, and those who have a restless spirit, in them Tao cannot exist. Not that I am unfamiliar with such a contraption--I would be ashamed to use one.”
Supposedly, the engineer bowed his head in shame and left the gardener to his buckets, well, and garden. The point of the story seems clear enough to me. Technology can distract us from our inner nature, the experience of what it means to be human in this wild world. Now, if that was true in Chuang Tzu’s day, it is certainly true in ours. How easily do we get distracted by all of the technological devices that surround us. I will admit that my cell phone can provide constant distraction. It can take me away from my surroundings and my relationships. It is easy to get immersed in the little rectangular screen. And when I do I frequently find myself feeling disconnected from the world immediately around me. What about you? Do you ever find technology distracting?
One way I remind myself of my connection to something larger than myself is through my own practice of foraging. It is spring and good things to eat are starting to grow everywhere. They can be found in the woods and in the roadside ditches. Collecting mushrooms and wild greens reminds me of how our earliest human ancestors found their sustenance. It gets me a little closer to the early human experience of the world.
Foraging I have learned to see the world as filled with abundance and scarcity. Viewed this way, the world becomes a place where survival depends upon connection to and understanding of the landscape that surrounds us. And this is very different from the way I inhabit the world much of the time. Sometimes when I am not foraging it does not matter if I am distracted by the glow of a screen. When I am foraging it absolutely does. There is no way I could find dandelion greens or fiddlehead ferns or morel mushrooms if I spent my time in the woods gazing at my cell phone.
Foraging helps me to be present in the moment. It reminds me that being present can be its own reward. And that being present requires me to accept what there is rather than what I desire. And that when that when I do that I can discover things that I might not otherwise discover.
I am reminded of this almost every time I go out foraging. I remember one instance when a friend and I went traipsing through the woods looking for morel mushrooms. It was a frustrating experience. We went to our favorite morel patches and found none. We found elm trees but no morels. We found an abandoned apple orchard but no morels. We looked under ash trees. We looked under oak trees. No morels. This went on for several hours. Suddenly my friend yelled, “Ramps!” And there they were, a large patch of ramps, wild leeks. There was enough for dinner, and the next day’s dinner, and dinner for the day after that.
It was a good reminder that when we are present to the moment we might not find what we are looking but we will find something. And that something is often good in and of itself and worth celebrating. Have you ever had a similar experience? Where you were looking for one thing and then found something completely different? And that thing was glorious?
This, to me, is the message of Taoism, or at least the message of Taoism seen through its European interpreters. As the scholar Alan Watts tells us, “What we are seeking is... already here.” Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church put it another way, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.” Let us say that last phrase together, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.”
We cannot be both a butterfly and a human. There is some essential nature to both the butterfly and the human that is unique. Let us accept that nature and, in doing so, open ourselves to the present moment in which we are immersed.
May it be so for each of us.
Jan 7, 2017
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, March 10, 2009
This morning I am going to talk about stewardship. Stewardship is the way in which we pass gifts from generation to generation. It is the act of preserving and maintaining the community so that the gifts that we receive from it might be available to future generations. Stewardship has four interrelated and interlocking aspects: love, money, values and tradition. The four facets of stewardship are related to each other and to our spiritual lives.
Money is the part of stewardship we talk about least often during our Sunday services. Love, values and tradition frequently appear in the Society's other sermons and services throughout the year. Money, however, generally only gets mentioned during the annual stewardship campaign. I suspect that this is because money often stands in tension with religion.
Money is, after all, one of the major ordering forces of the material world. For many of us it determines what kind home we have, what kind of food we eat, what type of clothes we wear and what forms of entertainment we can seek. Our society consistently broadcasts the message that an individual's self-worth is related to how much money he or she has.
Consumer culture has been built by trying to convince people that they will be happier if only the own certain products. Commercials promise happiness by offering us younger skin, new cars, trendier clothes, exciting food and better homes. The message is always clear. Transformation and personal fulfillment are possible through the consumption of products. What we have defines who we are.
Religion usually posits one of two oppositional messages to this gospel of consumerism. Religious communities suggest that we are either defined by what we believe or what we do. What we have is secondary to who we are. Anyone, regardless of their material possessions, can be a member of a religious community. In fact, someone's material possessions can stand in the way of their ability to participate in a religious community.
There are plenty of stories about how those with few material possessions and little money have a better chance at having a rich spiritual life. Many of you are probably familiar with a story called the rich young man found in the Christian tradition.
Once when Jesus was sitting with his disciples a rich young man came up to him and asked "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" Jesus replied that in order to have eternal life all the young man had to do was keep the commandments. He should refrain from murder. He should not steal or commit adultery. He should love his neighbor as himself.
The young man was not satisfied with this answer and so he asked Jesus "I have kept all the commandments what do I still lack?" Jesus replied "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor..."
The young man was shocked and retreated in confusion. Jesus told his disciples "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter into the kingdom of God."
This story suggests that to be a member of Jesus's community you had to eschew material goods. They actually prevented one from being a full member of the community. Jesus favored the poor and the outcast more than he favored the wealthy or even the middle class.
Christianity is not the only religion to suggest that there is a tension between the material and the spiritual world. There is a Taoist story, for example, about the encounter between a Taoist gardener and a disciple of Confucius named Zi-gong.
One day Zi-gong was traveling through the country side when he saw an old man digging a ditch to connect a vegetable garden with a well. Slowly and painstakingly the gardener would draw a bucket of water from the well and pour it into the ditch.
Zi-gong approached him and said, "You know, if you had the right contraption you could water your garden faster and with less effort. Wouldn't you like that?"
"What type of contraption?" the gardener asked.
"It's called a well sweep. It is really just a wooden lever that is light in back and heavy in front. You pull on it and it allows you to draw water from the well in a steady flowing stream," Zi-gong replied.
The gardener was not impressed. In fact, he started to laugh at Zi-gong. Then he said to Zi-gong, "My teacher says that those with tricky tools have tricky business affairs. Those with tricky business affairs have trickery in their hearts. Those with trickery in their hearts cannot remain pure. Without purity they will have restless spirits and for them Dao cannot exist. I would be ashamed to use the sort of tricky tool you suggest."
In this story there is a clear scorn for material things. What is simplest is best. Any tool more complex than the most basic one might get in the way of an individual's spiritual life. To be a member of the gardener's spiritual community one must seek simplicity and avoid significant entanglements with the material world.
There is a certain usefulness and richness to such teachings. Our material lives should not define us. When we enter into a religious community or embark upon a spiritual path what we own and how much money we make should not limit us or even be particularly relevant.
Yet our physical beings and our communities are located in the material world. It is true that when we focus too much on money and material things our spiritual lives can be distorted. It is equally true that if we do not focus on the material world enough our spiritual lives will become distorted.
We Unitarian Universalists should be particularly cognizant of this. Unlike a lot of religious traditions most Unitarian Universalists tend to be skeptical about a realm of pure spirit. The contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka, for example, argues that we can best understand our human nature by understanding our physiology. While we might have religious lives and spiritual experiences those lives and experiences are, for a large part, shaped by the material world we inhabit. Neglecting the material world can mean that we neglect the realm of the spirit. Our spiritual experiences are shaped by that material world.
"The Magic Penny" is a story that illustrates the connection between the material and spiritual realms. The story suggests that the more we give to others the more, in turn, we receive. You might remember it from the folk song by the same name.
A long time ago, a little girl found a magic penny. She and her family were poor and so she was delighted to have found some money for her own. She thought that, perhaps, she could buy herself a piece of penny candy.
That afternoon when she got home she was excited and told her father about what she had found. She told him that she was hoping to buy a lollypop. That evening her dad had to ask her for the penny. They were almost out of food and he needed the penny to buy a bag of beans so that everyone in the family could have something to eat. He told her he would repay her as soon as he could.
The little girl was crestfallen but she gave her father the penny and, filled with sorrow, went to bed. The next morning she woke-up and under her pillow were two pennies. She told her father and thanked him for giving her two pennies. He said that he didn't know where they came from.
Later that day she went to the candy store and bought her little brother a piece of candy. The next morning she discovered that her pennies had multiplied again. She continued to lend out her pennies or spend them on gifts for others. With each gift given or loan made her pennies came back to her, more than before.
After awhile she started to horde her pennies. Within a few days she noticed that her pile was decreasing in size. Every day that she went without lending out a penny or using a penny to buy a gift for someone her pile would get a little smaller.
The folk song compares the magic penny to love. The chorus and first verse of the song read:
Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.
It's just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won't have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many
They'll roll all over the floor.
Love is like the magic penny because the more love we give the more we receive. If we hold ourselves in, are afraid to engage with others, and fail to share we will end up alone and unloved. It is only by loving others and seeking love that we can find it.
The song and the story capture the spirit of congregational stewardship perfectly. The more you give the more you receive. And stewardship is not just about giving money. It is about sharing our love, our values and passing along our tradition. The song reflects this. It is part of our tradition. It was written by Malvina Reynolds, a Unitarian Universalist folk singer who lived in Berkeley, California.
I first heard the song not as child but as an adult when I was a member of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. Even though she died in the late 1970s Reynolds was still a presence within that congregation's life. People sang her songs and her family--Unitarian Universalists who attended other congregations in the Bay Area--came to do a program about her every few years.
The song was created by Reynolds as an expression of her love for her daughter Nancy. It is one way that Reynolds passed her love and her values down to the next generation. So, not only does the song provide a nice metaphor for stewardship it actually reflects the practice. Stewardship is not just about money. It is about how we pass along and share what is most important to us.
Passing along gifts between generations was a topic this past week in the Unitarian Universalist parenting group that Sara and I facilitate. As part of the class we the read the poem by Antoine de St. Exupery "Generation to Generation." The poem is about how values are passed from one generation to the next. It ends with the lines: "We live, not by things, but by the meanings / of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords / from generation to generation."
After reading the poem participants took a little time to reflect upon and share the passwords that had been handed down to them from a previous generation. Passwords help us gain entrance into secret or closed places. In the sense of the poem they are the keys that unlock our identities. They help us define who we are and what means to be a member of particular community or family.
In the class, people shared words like justice, spirit or love. These were often key concepts that had ordered their lives. Such things are worth sharing with the following generations.
The conversation was about being stewards of our religious and familial values. As members of families and a religious community we are inheritors of traditions. It falls upon us to continue those traditions.
Stewardship is the act of preserving and nurturing the tradition for those who will come next. You may not know but anyone sitting in this room is the beneficiary of the stewardship of previous generations.
Those previous generations were filled with love. They proclaimed that all of humanity is worthy of God's love and wanted to share that message with others. They believed that love was transformative and that one of the purposes of religious community was to teach us to love better.
They sought to nurture a tradition that expressed and articulated that love. A tradition that provided an alternative to more orthodox religious movements that taught that the love of God and the humanity community are both limited.
This tradition and that love gave them the values to proclaim that women and men should have equal rights, that people of all colors and creeds are full members of the human and that sexual orientation should not limit one's right to have a partner or a family. This love and tradition called them to create a religious community where there is room for many different beliefs so that we might have a congregation which includes atheists, pagans, theists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and people with other religious understandings.
And in order to share their love, nurture their tradition and spread their values they gave time and money to support Unitarian Universalism. Without that dedication and sacrifice we would not have a place to worship on Sunday. Without them we would not be able to broadcast the message that all of humanity is one family and that everyone is welcome--regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or other human divisor--in our community. Without that dedication and sacrifice we would not have a community from which to reach out to refugees, advocate for peace, emphasize the importance of our connection to the natural world, speak out in favor of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights and work for justice.
Think of all of these gifts you have received. Surely they are worth nurturing and passing down to the next generation. One of the ways we pass these gifts down is through the act of financial giving. It is just one part of stewardship but it is an important part.The money that we give to our Unitarian Universalist congregation is an expression of the love we have for each other, the tradition we hold sacred and the values that we seek to promote. Giving money to the congregation sustains it and allows us to continue spreading and sharing our tradition of love.
This year as we launch our annual canvass we are trying something new. We are shifting to something called fair share giving. With fair share giving each person or family is asked to give a percentage of their income, rather than a specific dollar amount. Fair share giving allows you to self-identify how important this congregation and Unitarian Universalism are to your life. You can call yourself a supporter and give 3% of your income, a sustainer and give 4%, a visionary and give 5% or offer a full tithe of 10%. The goal of fair share giving is to have everyone give a meaningful amount rather than raise a specific dollar amount. Fair share giving recognizes that everyone's circumstances and different and that for some even giving at the 3% level can be a stretch. The hope is even if you cannot make a commitment to fair sharing this year you might be able to work towards it next year.
Fair share giving is like the magic penny. In the end it is not the amount that is given that is not as important as the commitment. If everyone gives their fair share we will have more than enough for all of the congregation's needs and ministries.
John Wolf said, "There is only one reason for joining a Unitarian Universalist church. That is to support it with your time and money. You want to support it because it stands against superstition and fear. Because it points to what is noblest and best in human life. Because it is open to women and men of whatever race, creed, color, place of origin or sexual orientation."
I hope that agree that this congregation and this tradition are worth supporting. If you do I am certain you will receive more than you give and find, like the magic penny, your love and your pledge multiplied many times over.
May be it so. Amen.