We Are What We Worship: The Year in Religion 2009

January 4, 2009
Stuart Twite

THE SERMON           

So, how's the New Year's resolution going? I ask because I am an inveterate resolution keeper if only an intermittent keeper and this year I have really been asking myself why that is. Why do I, why do so many, welcome a naturally occurring chance, such as the dawn of a new year, to resolve improvement? I very much believe that this impulse for resolution making is, at heart, a deeply religious one. And that is what I want us to explore this morning.

Before going on, however, I need to make a change in the Title of this sermon as it is printed in your order of service. Instead of speaking on the year in religion 2008, I will talk about Our year in religion, 2009. One small number but a very big difference. One reason for this change was a meeting I attended on New Year's Day at which someone was passing out small cards that show a background of flames and the words: "Religion is for people who don't want to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who've been there and don't want to go back." (makes you want to know what kind of meetings I'm going to doesn't it?)

Now I understand the basic point that the card makes and I am decidedly in favor of Spirituality. I also very much know that organized "religion" conjures often negative thoughts and feelings in the minds of many in our Unitarian Universalist tradition that so resolutely refuses to promote a creed.

The more I pondered the words on this card, however, the more I found myself in profound disagreement with its premise, a disagreement based in the definition of religion. This morning I want to speak a word in favor of religion and argue that our resolution making is, in fact rooted in our deep desire to live a more religious life. Finally, I will look at how living a religious life looks to me right now.

A couple of years ago, I believe in one of our old second Sunday discussion groups, I was talking about a deeply theological and philosophical problem that I was having; namely my complete and utter inability to grow things in my garden. In the search for easy, resolute plants that I couldn't kill and that my children would enjoy, it was suggested that I place three long sticks in the shape of a tripod, plant beans, and as they grew they would work their way up the sticks eventually creating a lovely, little green leafy bean cave. That stick tripod is how I see religion. It is a framework, a context in which to grow your spirituality, which, after all, is only your highest and best self, and put it to work. It provides support and shape, and a place to join with others in the effort to grow.

Resolutions are, for me, evidence of that desire to grow. The 19th Century Unitarian Minister, and later President of Harvard, James Walker, wrote in his seasonally appropriate sermon, "On Keeping the Promises we Make to Ourselves" that taken as a whole, all of our resolutions strung together would present a vision of a good life that would resemble that of the greatest scriptures. Our lives a scripture…So to ask the question posed in our reading this morning, "What shall be written during the coming year in the diary of the soul?" What might constitute the framework for living a religious life? For me, right now, it looks something like this.

The first stick in my tripod is the idea of doing the nearest duty, the next right thing… This is one of those ideas so deeply obvious it is difficult to see. We live, for example, in difficult economic times. Many are suffering in body mind and spirit. At the same time we are very busy...before one thing is begun, we are thinking of the next and next after that. Doing the next right thing allows progress which is tonic for the soul, and mindfulness which is life itself. If we cannot live spiritual lives in the present common moment, we cannot live them at all. Caleb Stetson, who was the minister of this congregation from 1846 to 1858 once wrote, "Common virtues are more frequently wanted, and therefore more valuable, than extraordinary ones. If religion has any power in our hearts, it must be manifested chiefly in our doing little things well.

Doing little things well infuses our lives with a holiness that The 17th Century British Poet George Herbert put it this way: A servant with this clause, Makes drudgery divine: Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws, Makes that and th' action fine. So sweep the floor as if your life depends on it…it does.

The second stick in my framework for living religiously is to fully embrace uncertainty in all areas of life. This may seem a strange thing to say in a sermon urging resolve and change but I think it is vital. Bruce Springsteen had a line in one of his songs that went, "God have mercy on the man who doubts what he's sure of" I used to be fairly obsessed by that line. Surely, I felt, it is misery to doubt and question those things we think we are sure of…but I have come to see this line in a very different light. God, indeed, does have mercy on the man who doubts what he's sure of, and I would add, God protect us from those who are sure of what they are sure of.

It is in that border land of uncertainty that we realize that we are not the begin all and end all of existence. It is in that place of doubt that we find we must rely not only on ourselves, but on the wisdom of the past, the support of others, and the joy of the journey. In promoting uncertainty, I am not speaking against belief or faith. In fact, belief implies a premise of uncertainty and faith is crucial in navigating the waters of doubt. The writer of the Gospel of Mark records the passionate prayer "Lord I believe, help my unbelief." We all live in the border land of faith and doubt, its just that some of those borders are more open than others. Many of you know that in my youth, I worked in politics and in those days was decidedly not uncertain. Let's just say that my hero was Ronald Reagan though I thought he was too liberal…Of course the condition I am describing is equally shared by liberals and conservatives of all stripes. The point is that today I work very hard, though not always successfully, to make sure that the border guards in my brain are unarmed.

Certainty seems a comfortable and safe thing but what is needed to maintain it is often well nigh intolerable. And when it is threatened or attacked, well we know all to well what can result.

The writer and radio host Garrison Keillor is often pretty hard on Unitarians. One of his jibes, however, helps make my point. "What do you get" he asked, "when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah's Witness?" answer…"Someone who knocks repeatedly on your door but doesn't know why."

He was, of course, poking fun of the fact that we do not have a stated creed or an established orthodoxy. I would like to believe, however, that at our best, if we were to knock on a door, we would sit down with whoever answered, no matter their creed or belief, and try to carve out some common territory; to find a way to create a common space that is more just, more welcoming and, yes, more religious. It is in the space between knowing and doubting that such a conversation can happen. The place of uncertainty is the place where resolutions are made and the work, the nearest duty, the next right thing get done.

We now come to the final and perhaps most important stick in our tripod, living a life of habitual gratitude. A grateful heart is the deepest response we have to the universe. It is impossible to live in gratitude and still be ungenerous. Grateful hearts cannot be long in sorrow, or pain and they rarely seek to hurt others.

But what does it mean to be habitually grateful? I know of only one way in which habits are formed (for good or for ill) and that is repetition, repetition, repetition. Can we make ourselves grateful? The Dalai Lama as well as many other great spiritual teachers affirm that indeed we can. If we live as if we are grateful, we become grateful. If we consciously pause and note our gratitude even if we feel none, our hearts and minds incline towards gratitude. And as the German Mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote, If the only prayer we ever pray is thank you, that will be sufficient."

So what shall be our year in religion 2009? People will continue to live in millions of ways, sometimes living up to their own best selves, sometimes not. Despite my grandmother Orma's constant admonition to never talk politics or religion at the table, we will continue to talk politics and religion. Right now, for example, Unitarians are celebrating the (tenuous) Unitarian roots of President Elect Barak Obama and, at the same time, excoriating him for choosing an evangelical opponent of the marriage rights of Gay and Lesbian people, to deliver his inauguration prayer. People will kill and die in 2009 in the name of religion. People will find deep joy and be healed by the same name.

In the meantime, we can live everyday, try to do the next right thing, live in the borderland of the constant journey, and do it with gratitude and a sense of humor for we will fail as often as we succeed. And finally, we do all this living knowing that we don't do it alone. Walk in love and peace and joy.