The following is a sermon preached today by HUUMS board member Erik Resly at our first Friday Noon Service. Enjoy!
At its best it is somewhat ironic, at its worst seemingly inconsistent, that I, an unapologetic Theories and Methods enthusiast, would choose the topic of practicality as this morning’s theme – an under-theorized, or perhaps over-theorized, choice that will make more sense to first-years come Spring semester.
In a collection of ruminations entitled ‘The Finger of God,’ South African cleric Rev. Allan Boesak insists that the preacher’s ‘we’ is neither editorial nor royal. Rather, it speaks to the confessional. And so, as Rev. Gomes’ sterling silver rears its haughty head for yet another year of Crimson conjecture, I want us to pause and consider our responsibility to the world beyond these hallowed halls. I want to call your attention to our religious responsibility.
As a community, we find ourselves three days into a new semester, a new year, a new path, a new calling – and I suspect that some of us may already be praying like Lazarus for a miracle. Individually, we have journeyed to this high mountain from diverse locations. Some of us have waded through application forms; others have roamed the halls of hospital chaplaincy; undoubtedly, we all have navigated the labyrinth of novelty and uncertainty to arrive at this very place, at this very time, in these very seats. Emotionally, spiritually and intellectually, we have climbed a mountain, a high mountain, to learn, pray and dance together. This is our light, our invitation to happiness and holiness and redemption inside Mary Oliver’s bright fields. If we listen carefully, we can hear the word beckoning, the heart calling, the soul hungering for the daily bread of this community.
In the Janamsakhi tradition of the Sikh faith, there exists a story about Guru Nanak’s travels to a sacred site high in the Himalayan Mountains. Upon his arrival, he was approached by eighty-four holy men who had attained a state of enlightenment by renouncing the world and retreating to the isolation of caves and shelters high up in the mountains. They crowded around Guru Nanak and plied him with questions about the social, economic and political conditions of the valley down below. Guru Nanak replied: “The state of the world is bad. There is darkness all around. Goodness and honesty have been pushed into the shadows. The world cries out for justice.” Upon hearing these harsh judgments, the holy men clicked their tongues in righteous indignation. One man spoke out: “It is good that we have abandoned that evil world to live a pure and simple life in a world untainted by corruption.” With a smile on his face, Guru Nanak assented, saying: “by escaping to these high mountains you have indeed been able to safeguard and protect your values. In truth, however, have not renounced the world, you have run away from the world. world is on fire and you have the knowledge of how to put it out. What kind of religion is this that leaves humanity to suffer?”
In the coming days, weeks and months, we will set out on our own travels through the caves and shelters of this high mountain. We will dive headfirst into the pools of rigorous scholarship and bathe in the abstract complexities of tensions and intersections. We will light new fires with the brittle timber of classical theological tracts. We will construct new dwelling-places with the poles of spiritual practice and the thatch of fellowship. And yet, at the end of the day, we must not lose track of the valley down below – the world that is on fire with institutional asymmetries, fear-mongering machinations and the denial of basic human rights to forty-six million Americans.
The task that lies before us, as aspiring religious authorities or religious practitioners, as ministers, chaplains and scholars, lies in our responsibility to the valley – to that world almost drowning in the indigos of darkness. We must always strive to put our work in the service of human flourishing.
Harvard Divinity School is in the business of producing servant leaders.
Ours is not a call to conceit but to concern;
Not to arrogance but to altruism;
Not to boastfulness but to benefaction;
Not to cynicism but to celebration
Not to smugness but to subordination;
Not to independence but to interconnection;
Not to retreatism but to recognition;
Not to indifference but to initiation;
Not to complacency but to consideration;
Ours is a holy call to commune with, and connect to, and care for this world’s condition with compassion and commiseration and conviction.
To do so, we need to strike that holy balance, that Middle Path, between the detached asceticism of the mind and the empty ritualism of the hands. We must ground our focus on the intellect in the primacy of the will – we must train ourselves in the living out of this faith.
Let me put it in the form of a question: What does it mean to do Unitarian Universalism?
Our own Rev. John Buehrens alluded to this quandary when, paraphrasing William Ellery Channing, he asked: “Is doctrine the most important thing in religion? Or is it the way people live?” For those of us determined to live our theologies, Channing’s ‘practical religion’ of daily living makes clear demands: the high mountains of thought inform, but must never eclipse, the deep valleys of struggle.
Following Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, I submit that we must move from the fashionable floundering of uncommitment to the dangerous decision for mutuality and for moving history together. Let us lean on one another, let us reach out to one another, let us help one another, let us share with one another, let us love one another, so that we, the future of this faith, can each feed five thousand people with our baskets of bread and fish.
And so, as an unrepentant inhabitant of the esoteric, I would like to summon all of us, myself included, to the peak of the mountain with these words of wisdom:
Should we choose to wander beyond the safety and comfort of this high mountaintop; Should we choose to accept our prophetic call to participate in the divine creativity;
Should we choose to do right, to love goodness and to walk humbly with our God –
Then we must work and pray for a conversion within ourselves – so that we may send up our orange flares – so that we may have the strength, courage and kindness to run heart and hands-first down this mountain and into this world.
May we embark on this journey together.