Four people with taper candles light chalice framed by two rings

“Hints and Guesses” – December 11th, 2022

Dec 12, 2022

“Love After Love,” by St. Lucian poet, playwright and professor, Derek Walcott.

The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart. 
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life.

I want to begin by honoring your being here. I am making the assumption that most of you see the little worship blurb, as I like to call it, either in Friday’s Arbella or on our Facebook page describing in a few sentences what the upcoming service will more or less focus itself on. The blurb about today said that we are going to “consider Jesus Christ–the man, the myth, the symbol as a source of meaning and mooring this season.” So, let me say it again: I honor your being here. And for those of you ready to gather your things and bolt for the doors because you missed the memo…Thank you for staying.

This month’s theme is Wonder. And right now, you are living, breathing embodiments of it. You showed up, you show up–and this is something I’m learning about you. That you do this, even when it’s tough. For despite your previous faith traditions, religious upbringings, spiritual hurts and harms, your justified moral and ethical concerns and rejections of Christianity, maybe even your general distaste, for no real reason, for the words ‘Jesus Christ,’ here you sit.

And not all of you feel this way, so let us not make assumptions here. Many of us are more conflicted than we are resolved. Many of us are nourished by this language and symbolism and belief. Some of you identify as Christian and are starving for more of this.  And isn’t this what makes Unitarian Universalism so special and beautiful? This wide spectrum of spiritual need and longing and faith and doubt?

I first called myself a ‘Unitarian Universalist’ when I got this. I didn’t know about our faith’s history, I couldn’t name the principles, I didn’t have the affirmation of faith or even one hymn memorized. I’d never gone to a General Assembly or even knew what that was. But I called myself a ‘Unitarian Universalist’ when I got this.

It was when my first minister at the First Religious Society UU Church in Newburyport, Rev. Harold Babcock, who is now very much retired, said from the pulpit: “we Unitarian Universalists understand the religious life as ‘a way, and not a stopping place.’ We understand the religious life as a journey or quest. We understand that people join us at different places along that journey or quest. We understand religious community to be possible without theological or philosophical uniformity. And that is why we say, ‘Come as you are.’ You don’t need to get your beliefs straight first before you come. Come as you are. Come with your doubts, your hunches, your convictions, your ambiguities.” That was the first sermon I heard at that church, my first UU worship service, back in 2011–and I have that sermon pinned to my bulletin board over my home office desk to this day. I left that service knowing that I had been UU for most of my life and never knew it. Maybe some of you have that story too.

So now let me pivot back over to Jesus. Jesus Christ. The Christ.

Disclaimer. I have used his name in vain far more than I have in prayer, reverence or even study. And that says a lot considering I chose to attend a Christian seminary. Jesus was not a fixture in my childhood home. At all. My parents had no interest in organized religion or church life, having been reared up in the Roman-Catholic Church and Christian Science–with strict, devout parents (my grandparents)–they did what many of their peers did in the 1960’s: look to alternate ways of meaning-making, outside of the church. Buddhist and Hindu teachings, Carl Jung, the Transcendentalists, myth, philosophy, poetry, art, theater…This was the spiritual life I was raised up in. See, I told you I was a Unitarian Universalist before I knew what that meant.

But Jesus was never invited to the party. Neither was God. That word “GOD.”

Many of you know that my recovery from years of drug and alcohol addiction, now over 20 years ago, forced me into some good wrestling work with the word ‘God,’ but I never had to contend with Jesus. In fact, those in recovery who found their way to Jesus and Christianity, I kind of quietly bid farewell to. Like, oh what a shame, we lost another one. There was nothing cool about Jesus in my 20-something year old world and mind at that time. And that carried over for a lot of years.

When I was called to ministry and began looking at seminaries to attend, I pointedly chose a Christian one because I longed to discover in Jesus and Christianity something that might speak to my heart so that I could better understand why this faith and story and man had captured the hearts of millions and millions of people around the world and broken them too.

So, I arrived at Boston University’s School of Theology wanting to know who this guy was, and what was so darned compelling about him.

And the truth is–and I learned this well during this time of deep study–we know only a little about him, the ‘historical Jesus’ as we call him. We do not have solid evidence of the time of his birth–only conjecture around it being sometime before 4 BCE. December 25th got planted in our collective minds hundreds of years later for a myriad of offensive and questionable political reasons. The date of his death can also only be approximated. According to most historians he probably died in the first few years of Pontius Pilate’s administration around 26-29 BCE. So historical Jesus really is an enigma. We only have the Gospels to help us get a sense of who he was, and why he was so captivating. But these accounts are from decades, even centuries, later. None were written down by Jesus or even his disciples–those who knew him–despite being told as if from their vantage point.

And of course, when these accounts were written down by ancient peoples whose ways are completely foreign to us–we must know that they were people who spoke in symbols. Birthed out of the oral tradition of storytelling. Reading the bible should be akin to reading poetry, myth, literature. Text that teaches us about what it means to be a human being, through the use of metaphor and symbolism. The great Joseph Campbell, who is an authority on mythology has it right. He says: “Every mythology has to do with the wisdom of life as related to a specific culture at a specific time…” He calls myth the “literature of the spirit,” “the song of the universe,” and says that it “helps put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive.” Stories, myth, metaphor, symbols, religion, Christianity, he says–these are all treasure-troves of wondrous clues, hints and guesses that help us to find meaning, and hopefully some kind of “rapture around this thing called being alive.”

So, Campbell says that to see religion, or its sacred texts, as something that can be interpreted literally, not metaphorically, doesn’t make any sense, and secondly puts us into a lot of trouble. Oh, we know about this trouble, don’t we? A literal interpretation of the bible? The great mistake in biblical interpretation, he says, has been in “reading the words in terms of prose instead of in terms of poetry.” Prose is the seen, known and concrete–in literary terms it’s the denotation. It is what it is. Poetry gets to the unseen reality, it’s the connotation.  It is something different from what it first appears to be.

So, how to get at this now. How to move through these next few weeks, and I hope BEYOND these next few weeks, allowing for a bit of WONDER and MEANING MAKING? Clue searching? Dare I ask for the possibility of transcendence or transformation in some of us? How to encounter Jesus, whose name is now going to be bandied about through hymns and story; readings and prayers…how to come at this differently? Without just gritting our teeth and bearing it until January…

Ultimately this is up to you. Because you are your own translators. Only YOU can, as Joseph Campbell says, look for places of meaning that put your mind in touch with YOUR experience of being alive. The Season of Christmas, the story of Jesus, is just one of many of these introspective, contemplative, invitational, rich in symbolism and metaphor and meaning places. For you! At this exact moment in time in your life. So why not give it a whirl?

The religious life, as Rev. Harold said, is your journey. It’s your quest. And you are among friends and companions here while on it. We are journeying together. Me included.

But I will share with you what speaks to my heart and soul when I consider Jesus, the man, the myth, the metaphor, and this time of year. It is ever-changing, but here’s what is today, December 11th. I am being intentional about offering you a big platter of food here: each of these could and should take years to unpack. For now, consider them to be like sweet, taster bites, see what might leave you longing to come back for more–for a larger portion:

  • First, the symbolic beauty that is the birth of a baby, something new and precious, amid strife and terror and violence and oppression–the hope of life amid metaphoric death lined up precisely when night unveils its long stretch, and the light ebbs and then flows–speaks to my own lived story, and maybe yours too: that miracle and wonder and hope and healing–the possibility of a new life–can indeed meet us on the dirt floor mangers and basements of our souls. So, that’s one thing.
  • Next, the fact that the mythic Jesus Christ loved the wretches of society–the outcasts, the throwaways. These were the people he hung out with; these are the people he called prophets in our midst–those for whom life wasn’t easy. And this teaches me about loving the stranger and big-heartedness. This has also helped me know that even at my worst, when I am the most wretched, I too deserve kindness, care and love. This is my birthright, and it’s yours too. And because of this, When I hear the words ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘child of the Divine’ in word or Christmas hymn, I am reminded that I am that child too. As I am. Today. Imperfect, and utterly whole and holy. This is what our poet’s words helped us know today:

The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was yourself…

  • OK, I’m almost done. Last on my what-speaks-to-my-heart-and-soul-list this time of year. When I encounter the words “Jesus Christ” and hear the Christmas Story, I know it as a blessed reminder of ambiguity and paradox. Of humility. For I can’t ever really KNOW what the heck went on in that manger, or what these people found meaningful in its somewhat strange and choppy telling. I used to be so intolerant of ambiguity–I had to have answers and explanations. And this is the season for faith in the mysterious and unexpected. And maybe that’s all we do: change out the word Jesus for ambiguity and wonder. At the end of the day I know one thing for sure. With total certainty: we really are all just hinting and guessing at this stuff. The work is in not becoming resigned or fixed.

My prayer for us all is to move through these next few weeks just a smidge more open to the wonder of it all. Let’s not let other’s interpretations or our faith story’s–or our parents’–seal this thing. Stay in it. Keep showing up. And teach one another. Teach me! For I am here to learn and wonder with you!! The stakes are high, but this I can promise you: the reward, great.

And to this I say, AMEN.

Let’s sing now this hymn of wonder for the mystery, “People Look East” #226

Reverend Sophia Lyons
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Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.

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