“Change and Continuity” by Duffy Peet _ October 3, 2010
“Change and Continuity” by Duffy Peet
October 3, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship _ by William F. Schulz
Come into this place of peace
and let its silence heal your spirit;
Come into this place of memory
and let its history warm your soul;
Come into this place of prophecy
and let its vision change your heart.
Reading _ “Change” by Kathleen Raine
Said the sun to the moon,
You cannot stay.Change
Says the moon to the waters,
All is flowing.
Says the fields to the grass,
Seed-time and harvest,
Chaff and grain.You must change said,
Said the worm to the bud,
Though not to a rose,Petals fade
That wings may rise
Borne on the wind.You are changing
said death to the maiden, your wan face
To memory, to beauty.Are you ready to change?
Says the thought to the heart, to let her pass
All your life longFor the unknown, the unborn
In the alchemy
Of the world’s dream?You will change,
says the stars to the sun,
Says the night to the stars.
Sermon _ “Change and Continuity” by Duffy Peet
Are you able to keep up with the pace at which change is occurring? Do you ever wish things could just remain as they are for a while; maybe at least until you are ready for a change? We are living in a time and in a culture where significant changes are happening more rapidly than during any period of human history. Maybe it has to do with my age but sometimes the pace is more than I can keep up with. Sometimes the changes are greater than I find myself able to adjust to. But as much as I might want the pace to slow down or the changes to be more manageable, it is unlikely that either will be occurring any time soon.
Change, it seems, is ever present. Change has been a topic discussed by great teachers and thinkers for centuries. Take for example the following teaching of the Buddha; “Everything changes, nothing remains without change.” Our faith tradition does not originate from the teachings of the Buddha but today the faith tradition that he founded is one of the sources that we draw from. The taproot of our faith tradition traces back to Christian and Judaic teachings. If we were to follow this taproot from its earliest origins to the present, however, we would see the many other roots that are now supporting this faith we belong to. Our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes affirm; “That the living tradition which we share draws from many sources.” Today Buddhism is only one of the numerous world religions whose wisdom may “inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life.” Other sources include; “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder;” “words and deeds of prophetic women and men;” “Humanist teachings;” and “spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions.” A great deal has changed from the earliest beginnings of our religious movement to the Unitarian Universalism of today. “Everything changes” as the Buddha said, can be clearly seen by reviewing our history and by observing the world around us.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus was also contemplating the significance of change at about the same time as the Buddha. Through contemplation and observation Heraclitus arrived at the conclusion that; “Change alone is unchanging.” While Heraclitus wouldn’t be considered one of our religious forbearers, he held some perspectives that would seem congruent with our Unitarian Universalist heritage. He recognized the importance of our sense experience; our ability to see, hear, feel, smell and taste the world around us. He valued the power of human reason and our ability to utilize our minds to comprehend what our senses experience. And he believed in “an everlasting Word (Logos) according to which all things are one.” He also proposed that “opposites are necessary for life, but they are unified in a system of balanced exchanges.” In spite of this he asserts that “change alone is unchanging,” he doesn’t pose an opposite that would balance change. Putting these two ideas together would seem to indicate that he was implying that change is that “everlasting Word according to which all things are one.” While I believe that change plays a tremendous role in all that is, I don’t believe change is the “ultimate one.” I would propose there is something that balances change, something that allows change to be possible. To explain what I am asserting I will return to the Buddha’s statement; “Everything changes, nothing remains without change.” Through our senses it seems evident that something does remain throughout the process of change. Through utilizing our intellect we can recognize that in order for there to be change there must be something to change. What remains then may be a process or it may be something more tangible such as a physical object. Whether it is one or the other or even both, that which remains is as important as change. I will refer to whatever it might be that remains, as continuity. While change is constantly occurring, continuity exists concurrent with change.
As I mentioned earlier, the faith that is found today in our Unitarian Universalist congregations has changed significantly from that of our forbearers. We can be thankful to those who were willing to risk their reputations or even their lives to challenge the orthodox religious perspectives of their day. Over the past centuries there were numerous Unitarian and Universalist men and women who challenged the dominant religious beliefs of their day. There are many that could be named and many that deserve a sermon that holds up their lives and what they did. In recognition of the need to keep this sermon to a reasonable length, however, I think it wise to mention only two. The first is Theodore Parker. In the mid-1800’s he spoke eloquently to the issue of change in religious perspective that he believed was developing. The title of possibly his most famous sermon is “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” Parker used the word transient in reference to elements of Christianity that changed over the years. But he didn’t claim that everything was transient, that change consumes all that is religious. He asserted that there was also something that was permanent, that was and is continuous.
The other person I want to mention is the Universalist minister Lewis B. Fisher. He isn’t as well known as Parker. In the early 1900’s, responding to the question of where Universalists stand on certain issues, Fisher wrote:
We do not stand still, nor do we defend any immovable positions, theologically speaking, and we are therefore harder to count or to form into imposing bodies. We grow and we march, as all living things forever must do. The main questions with Universalists are not where we stand but which way we are moving, not what positions we defend but which way we are marching. Our main interest is to perceive what is true progress, and to keep our movements in line with that, and not to allow ourselves to move round and round in circles simply, like Fabre’s insects, or like a squirrel in its cage. Of course we can always say that we stand for God and man, for Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, for the Bible and the immortal soul, for redemption from sin, and for a human race that, in some day yet to be, shall learn to move on in harmony with God.
I believe it is safe to say that many of you found something in what he wrote to disagree with. He began by asserting that Universalists don’t stand still, that they are on the move seeking “true progress.” However, beginning his last sentence with “of course we can always say” seems to have undermined the message he was previously proclaiming. His statement, however, may provide us the opportunity to consider change and continuity more deeply. I have noticed that for most people change is typically easier to recognize and identify than is continuity. Generally we tend not to notice continuity since what seems to remain unchanged is familiar. We often become accustomed to and comfortable with that which is familiar. We may take for granted what remains continuous just as Fisher seems to have done. It is important for us however, to recognize what is familiar, what is continuous. It is important in order that we may call on it and depend on it in times of need. It is likewise important for us to challenge what is familiar and comfortable. Through challenging it we may test whether it is truly worthy to be perpetuated in our beliefs and actions. The challenging allows us to grow. It provides us both the impetus to move as well as the solid foundation to move upon.
I will use my own life as an example. I grew up in a small town in Michigan. I don’t recall either of my parents attending church or talking about religion when I was young. In spite of this, because of the culture I lived in and the perspectives my parents had been taught from their parents, I learned to honor Christian values and to celebrate Christian holidays. Because of my inquisitive mind and a desire to spend as much time as I could with friends I joined the youth group of the local United Methodist Church. Eventually I became a member of the church, sang in the youth choir and helped with the Sunday school program. After moving away from my small town to attend college I drifted away from the church and organized religion. There were doctrines and teachings in the Methodist Church that I just couldn’t accept. When I landed my first real job in a mid-sized city I felt the need to reconnect to a religious community. I had a need to seek answers to questions that felt bigger than I could deal with on my own. A co-worker suggested I check out the Unitarian Church in the city. It took me a few weeks but I eventually got up the courage to go. I soon began attending regularly and continued to do so for a number of years. Many of the religious beliefs that I had been raised with were challenged. Some were confirmed, others were transformed. In the early 1980’s I was introduced to the spiritual beliefs and traditions of the indigenous people of the plains, a tribe we know as the Sioux. As a youth I had spent many wonderful hours playing and exploring in the woods. I experienced a strong affinity toward the connection with nature that is foundational to the Sioux teachings and practices. I followed the spiritual traditions and teachings of the Sioux for over twenty years. Again, many of my religious beliefs were challenged. Again, some were confirmed, others were transformed. Eventually I came to realize that there was something preventing me from immersing myself in the religious tradition I was following. There was a disconnect between the culture I had been raised in and the culture that had spawned the spiritual tradition I was following. It became important for me to reclaim in my religious practices an aspect of the continuity which I had not sufficiently attended to. Continuity brought me back to Unitarian Universalism. While the return has reaffirmed many aspects of my religious perspective, it has also significantly changed some as well. I now recognize that I need to more fully integrate my vocation and my religious path. That integration means bringing my training and experience in the field of Social Work, along with my background in two different religious traditions together as I journey along the path toward Unitarian Universalist ministry.
From what I have just shared with you about my religious path I believe it is evident that change has been an important aspect of my journey. The fact that continuity has been as important as change may or may not be as evident. But I believe the significance of continuity has been equal to that of change. Without continuity I would not be on the path to becoming an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. I believe it is the synergism between the continuity and the change in my religious attitudes and actions that allows me to be where I am today.
My story, however, is only one of many. Each of us has our own very unique story of how we arrived where we are today in our religious journey. Some of you may have been raised within the Unitarian Universalist tradition. If this congregation is typical of what national statistics tell us about our UU membership, many of you have come to Unitarian Universalism from other faith traditions. There is a high likelihood that at least one other person here grew up in a home where no religious affiliation was declared. Whether you grew up with no affiliation to a religious tradition; whether you have been a life-long UU; or whether you have arrived here from another denomination or a faith other than Christianity, the faith you have today is somehow different than it was in years gone by. Your faith, like my faith, has changed over the years. It is also true that there are aspects of your earlier faith that continue. The author Stephen Covey claims: “People can’t live with change if there isn’t a changeless core inside them. The key to the ability to change is a changeless sense of who you are, what you are about and what you value.” If Covey is correct, in our presence here today we are seeking to reaffirm the changeless core inside of us; to reaffirm who we are, what we are about, and what we value. In our presence here today we are seeking to both change and to continue our faith journeys. While it might seem that what you are doing is simply sitting in church on a Sunday morning, what we are doing is actually something much more than that. We are continuing a tradition of worship that has grown over many centuries. Our presence here today signifies the embodiment of two of the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;” and “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” In gathering together in worship we are sustaining the foundation that will allow our faith as well as the faith of others to change in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. That we are here together is testimony to the power of change and continuity. The wisdom of the Buddha from centuries ago continues to speak to us today; “Everything changes, nothing remains without change.” May we find the strength and the courage to face the change that is occurring in every moment. May we be sustained and reassured by the continuity that abides within and around us. May we recognize and honor the significance of change and of continuity in the religious journey we are on and in every aspect of life. As we go forth today let us consider the words of the poet Octavio Paz: “Wisdom lies neither in fixity or change, but in the dialectic between the two.” My hope is that your journey is ripe with wisdom.”May it be so.
Closing Words _ by Barbara Pescan
Because of those who came before,
in spite of their failings, we believe;
because of, and in spite of the horizons of their vision,
we, too, dream.