Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Living Faith

a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland Maine,
Sunday November 16, 2008

I thought I’d start out this morning by sharing one of my favorite stories from Divinity School, which I noticed that Barack Obama was also telling this past summer out on the Campaign trail.

A chicken and a pig were out walking down the street one morning when they came to a diner with a sign in the window that said “Breakfast Anytime.”

The chicken says to the pig, “you know, you and I should get together and do something like this ourselves.”

And the pig replies “that’s easy for you to say. For you, it’s just a donation. For me it’s a life commitment.”

OK, here’s another variation. A chicken and a pig were out walking down the street when they came to a diner with a sign in the window that said “Breakfast Anytime.” So they went inside and ordered French the Renaissance.... [Get it? Anytime... In the Renaissance....]

I feel very strongly that laughter is an essential element of a healthy human spirituality. We all need to be reminded from time to time not to take ourselves too seriously, to keep our grandiose pretensions in balance, and to remember that sometimes the universe surprises us in ways we can’t avoid or control, and which make a mockery of all our attempts to do so. And this is true even when (and maybe even especially when) the world doesn’t seem to give us much to laugh about. Wars and riots and earthquakes and hurricanes, a stock-market crisis and the threat of an economic depression.... So much suffering, and so little we seem to be able to do about it. Our contributions seem like only a drop in the bucket, and even if we were to commit our entire lives to the cause, it just doesn’t feel like it would be enough. Nor do we really have the option of simply walking through an open door and emerging in in a better place and time, no matter how much we may daydream about enjoying French Toast in the Renaissance.

Yet the temptation of attempting to to seal ourselves off from the unwelcome intrusions of the wider world is almost as overwhelming as the events themselves, especially in moments like this, when the entire foundation on which our society has been built no longer seems trustworthy. At times it seems to me as if our entire social economy these days is built around this seductive fantasy: that if we could just somehow acquire enough power, if we could just somehow acquire enough wealth and status and worldly “success,” we might also somehow insulate ourselves behind high walls and locked gates from all life’s suffering and the misery of the world.

Personally, I’ve never been wealthy or powerful enough to know firsthand whether or not this is true, but I kind of doubt it, and everything I’ve ever read on the subject tends to make me skeptical. Wealth (and more to the point, the power that comes with it) can obviously buy a certain degree of physical comfort and security, and perhaps even a measure of envy and respect from one’s less-fortunate neighbors (emotions which unfortunately lead just as often to resentment as they do to admiration). But the obsessive urge to acquire more and more beyond a certain level of safety and comfort might easily be considered a form of mental illness, especially if it done at the expense of the more fundamental social relationships with friends, family, and neighbors which ultimately make life itself both rewarding and meaningful.

Figuring out “how much is enough” is one of those problems that everyone should have. Yet I don’t want to make light of it either. The challenge of balancing our ambitions for worldly success with the spiritual wisdom that teaches us simply “to be the change we hope to see,” and to LIVE our faith rather than merely “believing” it, is a difficult one. It’s more than just an inability to distinguish between our “wants” and our “needs.”’ Rather, this challenge reflects a need to differentiate between our natural but often unhealthy desires to achieve, to acquire, and even to dominate, and the equally-powerful human aspirations to create, to understand, to love and be loved, to achieve inner peace, and perhaps even leave a lasting and meaningful legacy that will endure beyond our lifetimes.

These are the qualities that mark the difference between a life that is only self-serving, and life devoted to the service of others. It’s not just a matter of choosing between selfishness and selflessness. Rather, it’s the recognition that our own happiness is ultimately best served through a life that looks beyond ourselves alone to the safety and prosperity and happiness of others as well. It really is just that simple. And yet how quickly and easily we come to forget it when events in the world around us make us feel anxious and afraid, and our individual efforts to change things for the better seem futile and hopeless.

The subject of altruism -- an unselfish concern for the welfare of others -- is something of interest not only to ethicists and theologians, but also biologists. One of the reasons that 19th century evangelical Christians like William Jennings Bryan (of Scopes Monkey Trial fame) were so opposed to the teaching of evolution in schools was their belief that the philosophy of Social Darwinism, with its soulless doctrine of “survival of the fittest,” tended to undermine more traditional religious teachings about compassion for the poor. Ironic when you pause to think about how these respective ideologies have evolved in our own day, especially in terms of the blind faith so many prominent evangelical Christians now seem to place in the Invisible Hand of the Free Market.

When I was a freshman at the University of Washington, I had a biology teacher who was determined to convince us that, in the natural world, so-called examples of real altruism were merely myths, and that animals always instinctively act in their own genetic self-interest. I especially remember him explaining how one of the classical examples of animal altruism from the ancient world, the famous stories about dolphins who rescued shipwrecked mariners from drowning by keeping them afloat and assisting them to shore, was actually just an anthropomorphic misinterpretation of the natural playfulness of these intelligent marine mammals. “We’ll never really know,” he told our class one morning, “how many shipwrecked Greek sailors were almost safely to the beach when a group of dolphins swam along and pushed them out to sea again.”

But it turns out that my freshman biology professor didn’t have it entirely correct either. Many intelligent social animals -- not just dolphins, but also apes, and dogs, and even rats, for example -- demonstrate a fairly well-developed sense of empathy, and at times behave in ways that might even be considered compassionate. Yet these same abilities also make them capable of organized and premeditated violent aggression, as well as acting with both self-sacrificing courage, and self-centered cowardice. “Intelligent” animals can be both generous and duplicitous, both kind and cruel. So it would appear that the so-called “Natural” world is actually a lot more complicated than perhaps at first we thought. And the great insight of biology for theology and social ethics is not so much that human are no different than other animals in our struggle for survival, but rather that, in many ways some animals (at least) are little different from us.

But returning for a moment to the realm of human ethics, Altruism might best be described as coming in at least three distinct “flavors.” The first of these is generally characterized as Enlightened Self-Interest, in which our generous good works also contribute to a greater good from which either we or those close to us also benefit. The second consists of the proverbial “Random Acts of Kindness” where our good deeds may not necessarily benefit us directly, but they don’t really cost us much either. And the third is the genuinely self-sacrificial, that “last full measure of devotion” which we praise so profoundly as a society at times like Veterans Day, and for which we reserve our highest public praise and honor. Biologists may be skeptical, but community, society, even civilization itself, all depend upon a certain degree of altruism -- a spirit of public service in which individuals do not merely seek to serve their own self-interests (whether enlightened or merely avaricious,) but also commit themselves to serving the greater good as well. True Community is built upon a foundation of reciprocal obligation and mutual trust, and without these basic principles of altruistic behavior- “do unto others as you would have others do unto you - Civil Society truly does DE-volve into the law of the jungle, and a Hobbesean war of all against all.

The Ideals of public service and nobless oblige are deeply rooted in both the Universalist and the Unitarian traditions. The Scripture teaches that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded;” and back in the 19th century both Universalist farmers and Unitarian merchants and mill owners took these prescriptions very much to heart. Yet “Christian Charity” was not considered merely an activity for the well-to-do. The “genteel poverty” of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, with its family values of service, duty, sacrifice, and love of neighbor, reflects an understanding of “a Living Faith” which places our ability to do good for others squarely at the center of our own self-worth, regardless of our family’s net worth. But my favorite statement of this 19th century “commandment” that faith must be lived in order to become real is the motto of Edward Everett Hale’s “Lend a Hand” Club (which we read to open the service this morning). “I am only one but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
These notions of service and usefulness were also intimately connected to the idea of Character, and to the traditional religious doctrine of Vocation. The belief that every individual not only has a general but also a specific “calling” from God -- a potential, a destiny, which is uniquely our own and which it is our duty to fulfill -- is a persistent theme in American religious life, from the days of the Puritans down to our own. Yet sometimes this encouragement to “follow our bliss” becomes disconnected from the more basic responsibilities of love of God and love of neighbor. People find their identity as much in their relationship to a community as they do from the introspective examination of their own souls. Who we are and what we do not only reflect one another, they also shape and define one another, as we grow over time into the individuals our Creator intends for us to be.

In its most basic form, a “Living Faith” is one that expresses our most fundamental beliefs, values, principles and aspirations in every little thing we say and do. It sounds simple, and in many ways, it is. But it is also a challenge that can occupy an entire lifetime....

READING: [by Anonymous]

If you can start the day without caffeine;
If you can always be cheerful,
ignoring aches and pains.
If you can resist complaining, 
and boring people with your troubles.
If you can eat the same food every day
and still be grateful for it.

If you can understand when your loved ones
are too busy to give you any time.
If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,
And overlook those times when those you love
take it out on you when,
through no fault of yours,
something goes amiss.

If you can ignore a friend's limited education
and never correct him,
If you can resist treating a rich friend
better than a poor one,
If you can face the world
without lies and deceit,
If you can conquer tension
without medical help,

If you can relax without liquor,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,
If you can honestly say that deep in your heart
you harbor no prejudice
against creed, color, religion or politics....

Then, my friend, you are almost as good a person as your dog!