a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday February 8th, 2009
OPENING WORDS: The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace, that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.... --Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles”
A Unitarian from California went up to a hot dog vender in New York’s Central Park and said “Gimmie a Zen Dog.”
“A Zen Dog?” said the New Yorker. “Never heard of it.”
“You know,” said the Californian. “Make me one with everything....”
Today's Sermon is the third in a series of five sermons I’m preaching between now and Easter entitled “UU-DNA,” because they deal with topics which are so basic and ubiquitous about who we are that they can almost be thought of as part of our genome, or genetic make-up. Today’s topic in particular resides right at the heart of our identity as people of faith, and is even listed in the hymnbook at the First Source of our shared “Living Tradition:” “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” These particular words were drafted by a committee over the course of a four-year period between 1981 and 1985, when they were formally adopted by the General Assembly , along with the rest of the statement to which they belong, as part of the preamble to the by-laws of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
On the other hand, the title that I’ve chosen for my sermon today, “Mystics, Skeptics, and Dyspeptics,” has a somewhat different history. This particular phrase belongs to the Rev. John Gorham Palfrey, who served as the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School from 1831-1840, and who used these words to describe the students who attended that institution during what was doubtlessly one of the most tumultuous decades in its history, since it corresponded with both the publication of “Nature” and Emerson’s “Divinity School Address,” Theodore Parker’s famous “South Boston” sermon, and the “explosion” of Transcendentalism as both a literary and a religious movement in New England.
“Mystics, Skeptics, and Dyspeptics.” I don’t think it was intended as a compliment. And yet, in many ways, Palfrey had (and still has) it exactly right. The mystical part is easy. We don’t typically think of Unitarian Universalism as a “mystical” faith -- we are much more likely to describe it as a “Rational” Religion, a religion based on Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance; even a “scientific” faith which has for centuries placed it’s trust in “natural theology” (which is to say, observation of the physical universe) rather than revelation, and where science trumps scripture practically every time...at least on points of material “Fact.”
But “truth” is often something more than just the facts. The REAL source of religious authority in Unitarian Universalism is neither science or revelation, but rather personal experience, which leads us to several interesting insights about who we are. To begin with, Unitarian Universalists are NOT people who are free to believe whatever we wish. We are people who are COMPELLED to believe what our Reason and our Experience tell us to be true. Second, because we are only human, none of us are ever going to know the truth perfectly -- we are always developing in our understanding, as our experience grows and our wisdom and understanding grow along with it. And finally (at least for now) what is true for us as individuals is true for us as a society and as a species as well. It’s not that “truth” itself is relative; the TRUTH (in bold, capital letters), is what it is, and is going to be true whether we choose to believe it or not. But again, our UNDERSTANDING of the Truth grows and evolves over time as we ourselves grow and evolve, and it will continue to do so until that as yet unimaginable day when we too, like the God of Christian Theology, are Omniscient/All-Knowing. That is, assuming our minds are even equal to the task. It’s certainly not something I see happening any time soon.
But not all of our knowledge is rational and analytical. Some of it is emotional, some of it intuitive, and a great deal of it (especially when it comes to matters of spirituality) comes in the form of what Scientists often label as “Peak Experiences” -- well-documented episodes of mystical insight in which individuals typically feel in a very profound and visceral way that we are very, very small creatures in a vastly large Universe, whole within ourselves, yet intimately connected to ALL THAT IS, to everyone and everything that ever was, or is, or ever will be. It’s the kind of powerful insight that we associate with great truths like “God is One” (yet more mysterious than we will ever fully understand), and that all human beings are both children of the Creator, and brothers and sisters to one another.
Peak Experiences (at least in our culture) are often associated with nature (like Emerson’s transformation into Transparent Eyeball), yet they are also often associated with other spiritual disciplines like meditation or fasting, and sometimes even happen spontaneously and without much warning. We see examples in things like Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordon and subsequent 40 day fast in the wilderness, or in the Buddha’s prolonged, pre-enlightenment meditation beneath the Bo Tree. And yes, they can also sometimes seem a little silly or even ridiculous to the outsider. Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller is said to have once proclaimed in a moment of mystical insight “I Accept the Universe,” to which the poet Thomas Carlyle responded when he heard “Gad, She’d better.” And Transcendentalist bookseller Elizabeth Peabody was briefly the laughing stock of Boston when, while walking across the Boston Common deep in contemplation, she walked head-first into a tree. “Didn’t you see it?” one of her companions asked? “I saw it,” Peabody replied, “but I did not realize it” -- in other words, the mental act of noticing the tree had not quite made its way all the way into her conscious awareness.
The insights of mystics can often seem silly or obvious in this way. But they also provide the foundation for some of the most profoundly important eternal truths which exist at the heart of every authentic religious tradition. The logic of doing unto others as we would have others do unto us, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, may seem obvious enough in the abstract, despite the constant temptation to ignore the other guy and look out first for number one. But things like the Golden Rule take on a far more compelling importance when you have actually FELT that experience of common humanity and universal connectedness in a way so powerful that you can’t quite put it into words.
And yet, it is this same compelling power of the Peak Experience that also brings us to the “Skeptical” part of our formula. I mean, let’s face facts: we can’t always believe everything God tells us. That little voice one might sometimes hear whispering in their ear, telling them to shave their head, tattoo their body from head to toe, and to move to Borneo to enlighten the few surviving headhunters there about the dangers of global warming and the benefits of a Vegan diet may well belong to one of God’s angels, but before you go on-line to start shopping for cheap airfares it probably couldn’t hurt to go through a fairly rigorous period of critical discernment. Even our most cherished beliefs must be able to stand the test of this kind of scrutiny, to be spread out in all their detail under the cold, harsh light of Skeptical examination., and still hold enough water to at least quench our thirst afterwards.
Covenant Groups, like the ones we’re gearing up to launch again in the next month or so, are the perfect kind of forum for this sort of dialog to happen. A Covenant Group is such a simple program it hardly needs explaining, but let me go ahead and describe one anyway. Optimally consisting of between 8 to 12 people, Covenant Groups meet either once or twice a month, typically in somebody’s home, for a minimum of an hour and a half. There are no refreshments served, or anything like that...although sometimes the host will have available a little something to nosh on AFTER the group is over. But the focus is on being together intentionally, WITHOUT the distractions of a typical social gathering.
The meeting begins with the participants sitting in a circle, facing one another around a chalice (which is why they are sometimes called “Chalice Circles”). There’s an opening reading, and somebody lights the chalice, ushering the group into sacred space. The next thing that happens is the “Check-in” -- not the relatively brief and perfunctory check-ins we sometimes experience at the beginning of our board and committee meetings, but a “deep Check-in” of perhaps five to ten minutes per person, during which each participant has the opportunity to share in a profound and authentic way what is happening in their lives. Of course, it takes time to build up the level of trust in which that depth of sharing can truly happen. But this is also part of the on-going Covenant Group experience, of meeting together with the same group of people over a period of months or even years.
Following the Check-in comes the topical discussion, which usually consists of a series of open-ended questions and perhaps another reading or two. Ideally, the discussion is lead by a trained group facilitator, who is both familiar with the process and the content of the session, and who understands how to draw the group out and help them engage in the discussion. In groups that only meet once a month, these topics are often selected by the team of facilitators in advance, so that every Covenant Group in the church has the opportunity to discuss the same topic, not only among themselves but informally with the members of other groups; in fact, they may even hear a sermon on the topic as well. Groups that meet twice a month will typically choose the second topic themselves, either out of the literally thousands of prepared sessions that are now available, or else one or two people writing up the session themselves. Finally, the group ends with a brief “Check-out” of likes and wishes -- one sentence each about what you thought went well, and what you would have like to have seen go differently, regarding the session just completed. A few closing words to extinguish the Chalice, and the session is over...at least until the next time.
And that is a Covenant Group: simplicity itself. But where does the Covenant part come in? First, in the commitment to regular attendance. The entire group depends upon the participation of each of its members in order for the group to function. We all have times when we can’t make it to an obligation. But don’t sign up for a Covenant Group unless its at a time when you know you can attend, and you fully intend to attend each and every session offered.
The second commitment is obviously one of confidentiality. It’s OK to talk about the topic outside of the group; in fact, it’s encouraged. But don’t gossip about the confidential things that people share during Check-in, or even about individual opinions (other than your own) regarding the topic of the group discussion. Like I said earlier, it takes time to build up a level of trust that will allow the group to function at it’s optimal level, and that trust can quickly be destroyed by just a few careless remarks. So Confidentiality is a second element of the covenant, perhaps even a more important one than the Commitment to Attend.
And then finally, in many churches there is typically an annual service component, as a group, both within the congregation and beyond it. This is important simply as a reminder that each group is indeed connected to the larger church community, and to the community beyond that which we serve as well.
So, Mysticism, Skepticism, and now the one you’ve all been waiting for: Dyspepsia. This may seem a little tongue in cheek, but lets face it: there are just some things most Unitarian Universalists simply can’t swallow. We don’t like things being force-fed to us (much less being shoved down our throats); and there are lots of things as well that leave a bad taste in our mouths, or maybe even leave us feeling a little sick to our stomachs. And if this makes us “Dyspeptics,” why is that such a bad thing? The fact that we are sometimes willing to trust our gut feelings, both in terms of what we like and what we don’t like, is a powerful compliment both to our occasionally TOO rigorous intellectual skepticism, and the kind of deep and profound mystical wonder that resides at the heart of our faith tradition, no matter how well we may try to hide it.
Humility, Awe, Gratitude, Compassion, Fascination, Curiosity, Devotion, Love... Unitarian Universalists certainly don’t have a monopoly on these qualities; in fact, just the opposite; it is our willing recognition that these are Universal qualities that Transcend the boundaries of culture and tradition, that make us almost unique among the major faith traditions of the world. We are proud of our Living Tradition, because it is a Growing Tradition, which allows us to look beyond it for additional sources of Hope, Encouragement, and Inspiration, without ever diminishing the power of its original insights or underlying principles.
“Praise the source of faith and learning, that has sparked and stoked the mind, with a passion for discerning how the world has been designed. Let the sense of wonder flowing from the wonders we survey, keep our faith forever growing, and renew our need to pray....”
Our closing hymn is number 158 - “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning....”
READING: from Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1836) [adapted]
To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the [adult], but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is [one] whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of [adulthood]. [Their] intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of [their] daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through [them], in spite of real sorrows.... Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, [one] casts off [their] years, as the snake [its skin], and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how [they] should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, -- master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, [one] beholds somewhat as beautiful as [their] own nature.