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Rev. Grace H. Simons
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
From the Desiderata:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars: you have a right to be here.
From the poet Richard Jeffries:
It is eternity now.
From the gospels of both Matthew and Luke:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.
From Adrienne Rich:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
Whatever our own religious upbringing, we're likely to be familiar, at least to some degree, with this popular Christian storyline: In the beginning, humankind was created in the image of God, to know and love God. In the end, each of us will "meet our Maker" who will decide whether we will be rewarded with heaven or suffer eternally in hell. Because of this, hope for heaven should be our guide and goal. The end of the world will come in a huge battle between good and evil, in which God's army, led by Christ, will defeat evil doers but lay waste to the earth. After the destruction of Earth, God will rescue the true believers, carrying them bodily to their reward - the new heaven and new earth.
In this understanding, we began in paradise, but were banished to this world of toil and sin because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Only fragments of goodness remain here, but for those who are worthy, paradise will open again. We can only hope - or work - to be among the chosen. This is the theology of Tim LeHay's novel The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series. These books have been hugely popular - and, I'm afraid, influential as well.
I imagine most of you are squirming in your seats at this point, but I want to stay with this account a bit longer. That's because this understanding has implications for our individual and societal actions. First off, this story tells us that Earth is not really our home. We got stuck here because that conniving snake convinced Eve to bite into the forbidden fruit. This earth is a place of punishment, a place to be escaped. Our true home is paradise and the challenge is to get there. In the mean time, it doesn't matter what we do with or to the Earth and its resources. That just isn't important. Some of you may remember when then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt explained that he really didn't care about the environment because Jesus would be coming back soon. That meant the Earth wasn't going to last long anyway. Now that was a while back, and many Christians have an entirely different outlook, but Watt's position is a logical outgrowth of the beliefs I've been describing.
Then, consider the nature of God in this story. Clearly God is judgmental and punishing, and we are made in his image. If God punishes and destroys wrong doers and non-believers, why shouldn't his followers do likewise? Much of Western history shows exactly that attitude. The Crusades are just one example, though a complex one. On smaller scales, the need to submit obediently to God transfers easily to expectations about hierarchal authority and who should be subject to whom. Thus we see today's Southern Baptists admonishing wives to submit gracefully to their husbands. Both here and abroad, domestic violence, especially toward women and children, is justified by perceived disrespect toward heads of households or family honor.
On the international scene, the story's predictions about the warfare and disaster predicted to usher in the second coming leads to lack of concern about conflicts, particularly in the Middle East - or even welcome of violent attacks there. It all fits into the story for those who accept it. The promised paradise may be close indeed! Fundamentalist Christians sometimes support attacking forces in the Middle East in hopes of hastening the End Times.
Finally, I believe that this story fosters dismissive attitudes to the poor and oppressed. After all, this Earth is supposed to be a vale of tears. It's only natural that many people live in continual want. After all, Jesus said, "The poor are always with you." If we're luckier than most, well, maybe it's God's will. And in the end, the worthy will be rewarded whether they were rich or poor in this life. Problems here are only momentary compared with eternity.
When I look at all this, I'm not surprised that people turn away from the churches of their childhoods, or even stay away from any institution that claims the Christian tradition. But this is not the only way to understand Christianity. Or other faiths that share parts of the story. Progressive people of faith embrace different understandings and reject many, even most, of the events described along with all of the implications. As far as I can tell, every religion has its fundamentalists, and they get a lot of press. But theirs are not the only voices of religion - not even the most numerous voices - despite the impression we get from the news media. We do well to be wary of false prophets. As the Lord reminded the prophet Isaiah, "My ways are not your ways." This is not the first time you have heard me lift up the need for humility when we speak of the mind of God.
Progressive religious traditions are based more on a realization of the abundance of earth, a focus on its good gifts and the courage to hope that gradually we can build on those gifts and achieve a world of peace and justice. Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens take up this progressive tradition in their book A House for Hope, which provides the springboard for a series of sermons I will be presenting over the course of this church year. [And just a reminder that I gave the first sermon in the series on September 26. It's A House for Hope.] Parker and Buehrens believe that familiarity with the ideas of progressive religion help us to sustain our hopes and our efforts when all our work seems in vain or we're faced with continuing opposition and threat. We know that these theologies inspired and strengthened progressive leaders before us. They may continue to do just that.
Eschatology is the theological term meaning a study of the ends. Certainly our understanding of ourselves and the meaning of our lives is at least partly bound up in our ideas about how things will come out in the end. And as I pointed out for that popular Christian story - there are implications for our living tucked within these stories. Ideas have power in our daily lives. I think we're agreed that we don't think much of the ideas and implications I've been describing. but what are some alternatives?
One of them, right in our immediate heritage, is Universalism. We use Universalism with a capital U because there was a Universalist church in America - which is now part of us Unitarian Universalists. "Small u" universalism is much older. From the early teachings of Origen, they have understood the nature of God differently. God is Love, they say, and would never damn anyone. God wants us to live together in harmony, to treat each other with justice and kindness. As one American Universalist - maybe something of a wag - put it, "If we're going to be together for eternity, we'd better start getting along now!" Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a small-u universalist, partly because she remembered being terrified by the preaching in the fire-and-brimstone church of her early years. Followers of a loving God are inspired to practice a similar kind of love toward one another. They have been compassionate to the poor and hopeless, and committed to work for justice. Universalists hold that a loving God will wait for, and transform, the last lost child to see the errors of his - or her - ways and come home. As our opening hymn said, "God's love embraces the whole human race."
Parker recounts and explains a story from the Sufi tradition that seems similar to this turning away from fear of punishment. The story takes place in the city of Basra, where Rabi'ah al-'Adawiyah, a Sufi Muslim saint, was living. She was said to be consumed with the fire of love and longing for the Beloved, the term Sufis often use for the Divine. One day, she spent hours running back and forth across the city, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When questioned, she said she was trying to light a fire in Paradise and pour water on Hell. She said she was fed up with people's focus on them rather than on what was really important - on Love. You can see the similarity.
The Social Gospel is another alternative. In this understanding, God wants us to heed the cry of the prophets. They call on us to heal the sick, feed the hungry, to care for the widows and orphans, to visit the imprisoned. Ours are the only hands God has in the world. We need to be about the business of making the world a better place, of doing God's work in the world. Social Gospel theologies hold that being concerned only for one's personal salvation is selfish. They say that focusing on the afterlife isn't consistent with the example and teachings of Jesus. The Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr articulated some of these hopes when he spoke of The Dream, the Promised Land. His dream was for this country and a future America where all races, all people, would be equal before the law and in each other's eyes as well. Some of us still hold that vision as possible. We work for that day.
Radically realized eschatology is a mouthful. It's also a third way to understand our earth and its story, our story. It can be helpful for those who find that human progress is too fragile and fragmented to be the basis of hope. It begins with the idea that the earth is, in itself, sacred ground. This position appreciates this world, in its beauty and its brokenness. It greets each day with gratitude and responds with compassion to suffering and injustice. Its responses are grounded in hope - hope for this world, and not some other place. And that response can be urgent and intense.
John Buehrens tells the story of visiting one of the members of his congregation in the hospital. Though seriously ill, as soon as she saw him, she waved the church newsletter at him. "I've got a bone to pick with you," she declared. Why, she wanted to know, was there nothing at all in the newsletter about the most important issue of our time - global warming?! She went on something of a rant until he sputtered, "It's very hard to be a good minister to you when the first thing you say on seeing me is what a terrible minister you think I am!" "Oh, No," she cried. "You're the best we've had. Which is why I'm so disappointed!" Who else, she reasoned, could be expected to keep first things first?
Actually, early Christian art shows this kind of focus on earth's gardens and gifts. Mosaics show trees and green fields with streams of water. Fruit ripens, sheep graze and birds fly across the skies. These images of earthly paradise formed the iconography of the early Christian churches. The portrayals of lush gardens reveal a love of this earth and an appreciation of its abundance. The shepherd is a common feature, showing Jesus in the familiar fields of earth. Surely life couldn't have always been easy, but that didn't dim its goodness. Images of the crucifixion, with their emphasis on sacrificial suffering came to prominence many centuries later. What a different view of the world they show!
Looking elsewhere, I'll tell you that I am no expert, but I think that what's called "engaged Buddhism" is similar in its outlook. Focusing on the gifts of the present moment and the interdependence of all being, it sees a need to engage with the world, to work for justice and compassion here and now. You may know that the goal taught by the Buddha is Enlightenment - which might be understood as a kind of realization, an understanding of the true nature of being. Engaged Buddhism honors that goal, but also responds with compassion to the pain of the world. Even while we are involved with others, we can be in touch with the beauty of this moment and the peace within. As Thich Nhat Hanh has it, this "this is not a matter of faith. It is a matter of practice."
Unitarian Universalists know religious humanism as a familiar option. This understanding steps further from any particular scripture, especially parts which describe the physical world and the relationship of human nature to it. It relies on science for these kinds of explanation, without abandoning the sense of awe and wonder at the world, or responsiveness to its problems. Religious humanism sees us as one of the evolving creatures on the planet and knows, with increasing detail, that all Earth's creatures and features are connected and interdependent. It says that this planet most certainly is our true home, and how amazing that is! Robert Weston, in a reading printed in our hymnal, writes,
Time out of time before time in the vastness of space, earth spun to orbit the sun.
Focused on this life, religious humanists urge us to use our powers to explore and understand, and also to voice the yearnings of the heart in poetry, music and the arts. Psychology, philosophy and literature lend their insights and world religions - including Judaism and Christianity - provide inspiration, though their scriptures are understood as very human attempts to understand the Mystery, the Divine.
Depending on the person's particular interests and talents, a religious humanist may be a devoted environmentalist, and advocate for peace, a tireless worker for justice and equity. They have been active in ways large and small, from personal steps like recycling or donating to a food bank, through public advocacy for equal rights, abolition of the death penalty or policies to conserve energy. I am pretty sure that Henry David Thoreau was too early in time to consider himself a religious humanist, but some of his comments sound right. When near death, he was advised to prepare for the next world. He replied, "One life at a time."
As Thoreau clearly knew, none of us can know for certain what comes after death. Though grounded in varied understandings, progressive theology agrees to focus on the life we know and how best to live it. The different eschatologies I've described give us both a theoretical grounding and heartfelt reasons to follow the guidance of love in our lives and work toward a better world. We need both the explanations and the stories to sustain us when we are weary, when our goals seem impossible. They anchor a tough kind of hope that is, in John Buehrens words, "persistent, patient and persuasive."
One of our hymns begins, "The Earth is home, and all abundant..." And so it is. Yet we know it to be both broken and beautiful. Our understanding of the world and its intricate beauty grows day by day. Our call is to recognize and savor its beauty and to help heal the broken places. May we respond with gratitude and appreciation for that beauty and may we be sustained as we heed the call of hope.
October 24, 2010
This is the second in the "House for Hope" series.
The series, latest first:
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Rev. Grace Simons left us a
collection of her sermons
when she retired in October, 2011.
We have a brief biography
of Rev. Grace, and the last edition of
a column she wrote for our newsletter.
2172 Kiernan Avenue
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Salida, CA 95368
We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.