I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on July 26, 2020 using lessons (lightly) from the Revised Common Lectionary lessons from Paul’s letter to the Roman, and the gospel of Matthew.
Thank you for having me speak to you again, and thanks to Pastor Gatton for inviting me back.
The last time I preached was the first Sunday in June, but who can remember back that far? It feels like months have passed, rather than weeks. That sermon was a long and rolling attempt to speak to the emotional temperature of the moment, invoking themes of disappointment and loss; and asking you to rely on two pillars of Christian faith: that God’s nature is love and connects everything, and that there is a great sadness in the world that cries for salvation.
This time I’d like to talk about applied theology, namely our spirituality.
This is normal, now
Now if I had my choice, I’d like to step aside from the obvious problems of the epidemic, plus the breakdown in national governance and the withering economy. I’d also like to put aside the eerie sameness of these days and (even more) I’d like to dismiss the horrible ways the eerie sameness is punctuated by the something terrible. I would like to do away anything that’s called unprecedented, for that’s now the way to describe the breakdown of law, culture and morality. And to cap it all, I would appreciate some consistently pleasant weather: something that doesn’t threaten to kill people exposed to it.
But we have (at least) months to bear up with all of those, and perhaps much longer before we can look back and say that life has gotten measurably better in this or that way. We are in the middle of this crisis. And to be fair, if it weren’t this crisis exactly, we would have the pre-existing conditions of racist violence and climate change and much else to face. Holding our breath and pressing through is not an option. Bless those who can find a way to deal with all this, because I hear voices cracking.
We don’t know what our lifetime will be. We have this moment and standing today, we make choices about how we live the rest of our lives. We shall inherit eternity, but we live day by day. Reflective, thoughtful religion teaches us that large and small crises are a part of human life, and that we can face the one we have now.
So, failing an overaching solution, because so much is out of our control, let us build new responses. We have to find new ones because the solutions and resources we already have can only do so much, and only last so long.
For many years when I was a child, I lived in suburban New Orleans, and so got used to anticipating and preparing for hurricanes, or at least as much as children can. My family prepared, but could only prepare for so much disruption. The energy that comes from the initial threat is a kind of resource; I remember the nervous excitement of high wind and rain more than the flooded carpets, ruined possessions and swampy smell. In the same way, I was more frightened this March and April, but I also had more energy and (to be honest) more goodwill.
But back to my childhood. One of the men on our street who owned a small flat-bottomed skiff, also known a jon boat. Days after one hurricane — I must have been six or seven years old — us neighborhood kids were bored and restless. The power was out, the streets were flooded to the curb and the air was still and hot. This Good Samaritan loaded us onto the little boat and towed us around the block, him walking though the knee-high water, like it was some amusement park ride. It was the only safe way for us to get past our front steps, which we wanted to do, and in so doing gave both the adults and children a break. He couldn’t have taken us out during the storm, but that little boat ride was exactly the thing we needed as the crisis dragged on.
Likewise, our needs change today, so our response has to change. Making homemade bread isn’t going to cut it any more. And (of course) some of these new solutions won’t have anything to do with this church. But those that do, I put under the heading of everyday spirituality. We can (and I think, should) engage in everyday, practial, even homespun spirituality. But this takes a balance, and negotiating a direction between two bad choices.
It’s important that we make we distinguish good spirituality from bad, or if not bad, at least unsuited spirituality.
The first bad option is to go overboard. Religious people, and Christians particularly, are tempted to totalizing their religion. By this I mean, trying to put all parts of your life within the context of your religion, including religiously-condoned alternatives to the mainstread, often by filtering them through a cloying aethetic or constricted morality. Christian music, television and films are the most obvious examples.
From the animated series King of the Hill, Hank Hill, the protagonist, put it best to a worship leader when his son was caught up with a praise band:
"[Y]ou’re not making Christianity better. You’re just making rock and roll worse."
This totalizing spirituality avoids dealing with what it doesn’t deal with very well — I would put the Faustian bargain Evangelicals have made with the president into that category — or worse, it forces its believers either withdraw deeper into a world of their own making, or everyone else into theirs.
A totalizing spirituality doesn’t allow us to appreciate the world outside the one we interpret as being correctly religious, and so perversely makes the religion itself smaller. This leads to cramped, even fearful and undersized world that it makes me weep for those who are trapped in it.
But there is a better option: the difference is between making religion a total experience, and using your religion as a lens by which you interpret your relationship with the world.
Of course, there’s the other extreme.
When we speak of spirituality today, or see it decribed online or in books, it often comes with a large number of cultural associations. I think of candles; clean, tastefully minimalist spaces; silence or else speech in slow, low tones; retreats in the woods or desert; coded language that invests everyday words with magical significance and the like. There’s a certain forced effortlessness and breathy casualness about it all.
When critics of spirituality dismiss spirituality as so much wishful thinking, I think this is what’s being rejected. Like the other extreme, it is a smaller world than it needs to be, and smaller than we need because it stands away from everyday life.
This desire for spirituality is also a way to distinguish practices from religion, which is declining in popularity and seems old-fashioned, manipulative and corrupt. But I tend to be less critical of these expressions of spirituality. At least people are trying something new. But I think there is a better option: a spirituality that’s integrated with your life as you live it, and that moves you to where you want to be.
Different branches of Christianity have different approaches to religious life. in the family tree of Christianity, Universalism falls in the broad Reformed tradition. As such, we tend to be very practical about how we approach our religious lives, discount tradition for tradition’s sake and use a common sense approach. We tend to say, "does this work or not?" And we’re are willing to experiment to find a better way to accomplish our religious goals. (There’s an obvious downside and that we can confuse activity with development, and success with wholesomeness, so keep an eye on that.)
But it’s the reason we don’t build monasteries, and rarely if ever engage in pilgrimages. Our spirituality tends to be rather homey. Our church building is exceptional and that it is self-consciously historic; normally, it would be an plain if large room with clear glass windows. (The original UNMC plans would have given us a church that looks more like All Souls Unitarian.) The clear glass windows act as a metaphor for a clear, practical religion.
And for a number of historial reasons, we are part of an American Protestant sub-tradition that engages with with the secular world, the world of arts and letters, the world of commerce and ideas. The goal is balancing an appreciation for the world and its glories, and a healthy mistrust of its excesses and desceptions.
A word about the readings.
The lesson from the letter to the Romans is a continuation of the reading Pastor Dave Gatton preached on last week. It’s also a well-loved devotional passage, and one of my favorites. The passage from the Gospel of Matthew contains a series of teachings from Jesus that are also well beloved. The simple fact that they are so well-loved and often cited make me think that this sermon should be dedicated to the ways they might be applied.
Some mixed thoughts I had, as an example of how I respond to scripture in my reading:
We live by the grace of God, but we recognize different truths and do our best to hold them at the same time.
And so when we live by the spirit, it pulls us in different directions having us here and try to understand. Our spirituality should serve that perspective.
What is the Spirit? It is the presence of God in the world.
Paul’s puts the Spirit’s binding presence in terms of childhood and inheritance. The point? The value of our connection to God is a greater than any human honor. And it’s not just power leading us towards the great and glorious, but the fear of pain, loss and despair.
The connection to God through the Spirit empowers us.
Likewise, the passage from Matthew is also well-loved and very special.
It’s a collection of Jesus’ teaching. Parables so short and memorable that I believe that the likely came from Jesus himself.
But here in the context of the passage from Matthew, and from our own lives, it takes on a special meaning. Not heaven but the kingdom of heaven, which is to say life here on earth, among the living, governed in a divine fashion.
That’s one way to introduce scripture into your everyday life.
I’d like to leave you with four more suggestion for improving your spirituality. This isn’t homework, but they’re all free or very low-cost so what’s to lose?
Take up journaling. Use a notebook you already have, or do as I do: type it into a file on your computer. You could even email yourself notes. But the important thing is to read back in time. This will give you a better persective about your life, particularly about themes that do or do not bless you.
Reach out to someone you’ve lost touch with that you miss. These last few months show how important, but fragile, human connection is, and you have it within you to cultivate grace by reopening connections. Write someone a letter; you can use me as your excuse. Here’s a sample you can personalize and use:
The minister at church today suggested reaching out to distant friends. Since I know you don’t like email or social media, I though immediately of you. Little has changed here, except we are thinking of adopting a senior dog and that Jackie is taking a gap semester this fall. Sorry about the notebook paper and odd assortment of stamps, but it’s what I had at home, but I didn’t want to wait another day to say hello.
And send it. But be gracious if someone doesn’t want the attention.
Travel in your mind. Use the lockdown to "get away" another way. Take time to understand other people, places, ideas or times by reading about them (and this is the important part) from their own voices. And if not a book, perhaps music or some other medium. Maybe take in a religious service from another part of the world, since so many are being streamed or recorded now. The goal is a different perspective and stimulated empathy.
Sing. Singing in worship is a problem, due to coronavirus transmission, but there’s nothing but self-consciousness to keep you from singing at home, or outside alone with your mask on. Hear the words that come out of your body. For most of us, this will be a different way to communicate than we’re used to. How does it make you feel? And what does your choice of songs tell you about where your soul is right now?
Can you think of others? These skills develop over time and are shared. You may have something to offer the world.
Your everyday spirituality needn’t be difficult or arcane. It can put your life into focus, and strengthen you when you need help.
God bless and keep you.