“Not My Job” by Mark W. Harris
May 22, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship – from Richard S. Gilbert (adapted)
We meet on holy ground,
For that place is holy where we meet one another.
Where lives touch,
Where love moves,
Where hope stirs,
There is holy ground.
How strong our need is for one another;
Our silent beckoning to our neighbors,
Our invitations to share life and death together,
Our welcome into the lives of those we meet,
And their welcome into our own.
We meet on holy ground,
Brought into being as life encounters life,
As personal histories merge into the communal story,
As we take on the pride and pain of our companions,
As separate selves become community.
Reading – from Round Rock by Michelle Huneven
Sermon – “Not My Job” by Mark W. Harris
The genesis of this sermon comes from a few discussions I have had this spring about our First Parish Coming of Age program. The Youth who are participating had a dinner with me and the minister of the Needham church, with whom we are collaborating on this program, a couple of months back. The youth had an opportunity to ask questions of the clergy. No one asked me, Do you believe in God, but instead voiced queries such as, Do you get paid? What do you think about Wiki leaks? And do you really like Lady Gaga? I didn’t mind not fielding the God question, and thought that perhaps it was not as relevant to them, as my cultural savvy, and their concern that I not go on welfare. However, in my discussion with the two staff most closely involved, Duffy and Rebecca, it became clear to me that at least some of the youth were confused about whether Unitarian Universalists believe in God or not. Of course some adults are also confused about that very question, but my larger concern was that the youth thought that being a UU meant they had to be theists. NOT believing in God was not an option. If they were atheists, they couldn’t grow up to become members here. Let me add the caveat that this is entirely my interpretation of events. Contrary to the some time public impression that none of us UUs believe in God, it seemed that some of the youth thought that any discussion of theology must begin with the presumption of God. In fact, the curriculum that was traditionally used by the Needham church seemed to make that presupposition. Ultimately the message I want to convey to both youth and adults alike is that Unitarian Universalism is a free faith and thus atheism, even the perceived oxymoron, religious atheism is a viable option for many of us.
A few years ago I preached one Sunday in Framingham during a minister’s sabbatical. My sermon, one I had previously given here, was from the time when a number of outspoken atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were popularizing atheism with books that were critical of religion. They often took a scientific approach that said that anyone who believes in any irrational, supernatural, anthropormorphic, or unscientific dogma is stupid. The implication is often that all of the world’s problems are caused by religion. I was attracted to some of this atheist writing at first because it expressed some of the frustration of many religious liberals like me who feel incredulous at how many people seem to accept this religious pablum so readily – God will take care of me, Jesus will save me, and the Holy spirit will heal me. After the sermon a young man came up to me, and asked me if I was an atheist. I didn’t really have to answer because it was clear that he was an atheist, and he felt like he had never been affirmed before in his faith, and he had been by my sermon. I am sensitive to the isolation some atheists may feel in our religious communities. I sometimes hear spouses say that their partner does not come to church because they feel like there is no place for an atheist. They do not belong. This was certainly true of what I found in England where everyone says, if you don’t believe in God, why would you go to church? Yet we all know that churches are made up of people with similar values who want to create a better world, take care of each other, and receive a religious education for their children. They are more interested in participating in community than they are concerned about whether someone believes in God or not. We need to make sure atheists know they have a place in Unitarian Universalist churches.
It is a tricky thing. You may remember a few years ago when I reported that a parishioner told me that there was an assumption that the minister of a church had to believe in God, even if the parishioners did not. It was almost like they were saying that it was ok for them not to believe, but if the clergy did not believe, then all the bastions of faith had been destroyed; they had lost their just-in-case safety valve. You might wonder what all the fuss is, since we are a humanistically oriented church, where the word God is infrequently used, almost like when I inadvertently say Oh my God, at some spectacular sight, and one of my boys will say, Dad, I didn’t know you were believer! BUT it is an issue if some atheists don’t feel affirmed, if youth don’t perceive that atheism is a religious choice, or that their lack of belief means church has rejected them, or if we presume clergy must believe in God, and also because many voices in Unitarian Universalism today say we need to return to a more God centered faith because they feel it reflects deeper spiritual understanding, plus they say we will attract more people if we are more theologically grounded.
I’d hate to think that believing in God is a good public relations scheme. It is worth observing that atheism has enjoyed some recent popularity, because traditionally the word has invoked the wrath of believers ever since the early days of America. When Thomas Jefferson ran for President more than two hundred years ago articles in newspapers reported on his scandalous lack of faith while implying that his perceived atheism would destroy the new nation. Any kind of heresy was often equated with atheism, and so both Unitarianism and Universalism often became synonyms for lack of belief in a deity. Furthermore, lack of belief was almost always equated with immorality. You could not possibly be good without God, and therefore all the murderers, thieves, rapists and common criminals were likely to be atheists because there was no deity leading them down the path of right living. The recent novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God reminds us of this historical equation of Godlessness equaling immorality. The author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes about Professor Cass Seltzer who professes atheist abstract ideas as a spokesperson for “the most distrusted minority in America, the one that most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.” She goes on to say, “This is a fact. Studies have found that a large proportion of Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays, and communists in ‘sharing their vision of American society.’” Atheists play the pariah role once assigned to Jews and others who harbor alien and subversive values, or have no values at all, and are more likely to be criminals. One wonders, even with the recent popularity, if this is fact or fiction.
This has been a real debate during the last decade. While I have not read Goldstein’s book yet, what seems especially pertinent is that the novelist is trying to occupy a middle ground between proofs for the existence of God, which can never be verified anyway, and are merely intellectual exercises, and the atheists who often reject God on the basis of comparing their intellectual superiority to foolish believers, who they ascertain are simply not as smart as they are, and believe in God as a crutch to get through the day, or as an arbiter and judge of moral values which would evaporate without this icon, or they merely don their parent’s beliefs like an old sweater that is now wearing pretty thin. It is clear we don’t need God to create a morally sustainable culture. One thing we might pursue, and I think this is the middle ground this novel tries to approach, is the affirmation that feelings of religious experience are natural impulses of the human spirit, and that proofs for the existence of God matter little in the way of fulfilling our personal religious needs. Does it matter if we name those religious feelings God or not?
Even though atheism existed prior to the middle of the twentieth century, it reached a more popular following after World War II. When I was a child I recall the mail arriving one day, and seeing Time Magazine with the infamous black shrouuded cover story with the question, Is God Dead? Some of this perspective arose in the Jewish community as a result of the Holocaust. Where was God, the simple query was, while six million were massacred. Because God did not intervene in history, the assumption was that there was no God, because there could be no greater crime against God’s creation than this, and it appeared that he, if he existed, did nothing. And furthermore, who would want a God, if he responded to human evil and suffering in this way? This month of May marks the commemoration of Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated in our music today.
Since then, theologians and others have tried to re-conceive of a God who they could believe in and yet did not directly intervene in the events of history, or if he/she did it was through the power of human hands, and not in great sweeping cataclysmic events like earthquakes, even if the mayor of Tokyo foolishly remarked that the Japanese were being punished for their behavior. In fact, among Unitarian Universalists belief in God or some kind of divine essence or spirit has risen in the last generation because we have begun to re-conceive God in other ways than the third grade all powerful old man in the sky tossing lightning bolts around. Yet if that old god is dead, can we believe in another one, and moreover, do we need to? This belief has to be in a different kind of God, one that we either intuit through our experiences of the beauty of nature, or know through the love we feel for another human being, I may feel a sense of abiding peace while meditating or I feel a universal human longing for justice when I participate in a rally for same sex marriage. Are these expressions of the divine that I participate in, or are they
merely the culmination of my human longing to love or care for others, and desire for everyone to feel that way? What I describe as love, you may describe as God. That feeling may help you find spiritual solace or meaning in your life, and it may do the same for me, too. The difference might be that what you and I both hear, is God for one of us, and not for the other. The modern God is not God anymore, as once conceived. For those who care to use the term, God may be the sacred spirit of the universe, or the source of universal being, or the spirit of life, but for me that same spirit may merely be the force behind evolution or the love I feel in my heart. Does it really matter?
Of course what really matters is that we all know we are part of something much bigger than us, and that we must be reverent beholders and lovers of this creation and its unfolding life, that we cannot control. Probably most of us, whether we use the word God or not, believe that a spirit of life dwells within us, and whether God’s work or ours, we know that this world demands that we care for each other, and this great planet we inhabit together. We are all part of something much larger than us that we must be reverent and humble before, and we have much freedom and responsibility to either nurture and care for the elements of this creation or destroy it. Some people prefer to use a theological term like God to help them discern and fulfill their calling to take responsibility for creating a true commonwealth where all can live in love and justice, but others of us feel that we as people can act on the spiritual essence of creation without naming it God, or some of us, even still would say that using the word God, hinders our ability to act. Whether we believe or not, use the words or not, we still cannot know, and never will, and so any words become only approximations or symbols of that which we cannot comprehend.
The simply message to our youth, to all our members, is that many of us call ourselves atheists. I have not generally used that term about myself, but it is important that we acknowledge that it still remains a term that carries a stigma, even among UUs – they are perceived as hard headed rationalists, fearful of connecting heart to heart or soul to soul, but only want to make fun of silly believers. There are many among us who have moved beyond the need to call their beliefs in a connective life force, a God, and they may believe no differently than another member who calls themselves a theist. We all find a need for community. We all find a need for love and care. We all want to work to create a world filled with justice and equality. We all want to know that life can bring love and meaning to a sometimes chaotic existence, that our lives well lived can do the same in the lives of others who are in this very room, members of this very church. We do not need God to be inspired to live a life motivated to do justice and to love mercy. We need to see the longing for care in another’s eyes. We need to hear the cries of another. We need to feel the cold that isolates or shuts someone out. Then we will connect to that person, that needs us or that could be us, and find our common origin and shared destiny
The novel Round Rock where our reading came from today is the story of people who try to reconstruct broken lives on a Drunk Farm in California. In the small town of Rito the locals claim, nothing ever goes according to plan. Despite chaotic events, and a love triangle, and the seeming looming of a disaster, the baby is born, and life continues. It is almost like a Christ child. It is yet another miracle of birth, and we all stand there and hope, “Oh God, don’t let anything happen.” And yet sometimes it does, the tragic, the painful. Often it does not. God is the word of hope, the word of longing, the silent prayer that we, you and I, and the baby will be ok. And mostly we are, despite our lives that bounce from one chaotic event to another. Even long ago, ancient prophets were aware of this scarcity of evidence for God. Yet still they all called out to the universe, to the spirit of life, and said please, give me a chance. Remember Elijah, who hid in a cave and was terrified. A death threat terrified him. All his fellow prophets were gone. He did his forty days and forty nights of travel. Then God alerted Elijah that he had to alter his thinking. God was not in a hurricane or the earthquake, or any great event. God was the gentle breeze that tickled Elijah’s face. He was still and small, barely noticeable.
This was not a showy thing. In fact it was really nothing big at all. God wanted to change Elijah’s mind in this story. You have got to be loving and gentle, not big and powerful. There is no big God anymore, never again. That kind of power, that kind of control destroys life, and you will only know truth in something different – in the baby that is born, in the small voice. In fact there is no solace for us in that kind of God. The solace must truly be felt in what we create together. James Taylor, once wrote, “Twelve step programs say an interesting thing: Either you have a god, or you are god, and you don’t want the job. Of course the suggestion is that we give ourselves over to a higher power because we cannot control life. And that’s right we can’t. I am not God and you are not God. I refuse the job. But who is going to take it?. Well we could give ourselves over to whatever is most ultimate to us and call that God, but that seems like falling back into the old trap, that some higher power needs to be in charge. We could say, alright I will take the job, or we could conclude I am not God, because there is no God.
It is all way too much semantics. Whether it is true or not, I have imagined that something holds us together, and that something may well be the life that dwells in each one of us for as long as we draw breath. We have much to work with: a heart, a mind, a beautiful earth, and others to share it with. I know two things that I learned from stories about World War II. There is a Cathedral somewhere that was bombed during World War II, and the Crucifix had the arms of Jesus blown off. The church left the statue that way, adorned with a sign. “God has no hands but yours.” Second, during World War II, a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of God’s love, and he was persecuted and killed by the Nazis. In his papers he wrote that we must live as though God does not exist. We are practical atheists. And so we must imagine a world made good by our love, and our hands. Being together and hoping against hope that life and love will prevail in the still small voices we have is all we can do. I believe it is enough.
Closing Words – “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” by Wallace Stevens
Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.
This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:
Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.
Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.
Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.