“I am building a cathedral”
It takes hard work to construct a building that can last a life time. Building a structure to last for forever takes something more.
To build something like this (Point to Church)
Involves the marshaling of resources, so many tons of concrete, wood, glass and steel. This is combined with thousands of hours of physically and emotionally intensive labor, along with the commitment of astronomical financial resources.
In the grand scheme of things nothing is more improbable to occur then a cathedral. But that is exactly what all three workers in our reading where building.
Cathedrals do not simply appear out of nowhere. As with any massive architectural project they are built in standard phases, and only the ultimate phase, the last phase, involves shovels, mortar, brick and steel-frame.
In architectural speak, the first few phases are:
Schematic design (and)
Design Development phases
But, I combine the three and them the “Dream Phase”.
The Dream Phase is the vision of things, not as they are, but as they could be.
This is looking reality as it is.
Looking at the site,
is it a downtown location in the heart of the city?
is it rural?
is the site perched on a dramatic seaside cliff?
This vision sees the needs of the potential occupants, the end-users.
The needs of Physicians and Patients are different from the needs of hotel managers and patrons in obvious ways.
Although, hospitals and hotels both serve transient populations, people moving on holiday, or people moving beyond life as we know it.
The Dream phase also sees beyond present day needs, it sees the needs of the future. It anticipates some of the ways that the end-users might change and how the space could respond to the inevitable changes that occur.
This phase sees old patterns of development, environmental and demographic changes. Sometimes it even anticipates the ways that political changes will impact the site, the structure and its occupants.
Perhaps a new regime prefers green drapes instead of blue.
This kind of visioning usually means looking at how a population might grow?
“Will the structure be able to expand to accommodate the change?”
Maybe they will be able to add pavilions on the sides, or grow taller with additional storeys?
I am sure that this is the kind of conversation has occurred right here in this congregation at some point. Or perhaps you’ve had this thought on more than one occasion?
Can we carve out an extra bedroom by dividing the living room, when the baby comes,?
When mom can no longer live on her own?,
When Jim is out of work and needs someplace to stay?
This dream phase isn’t just about the fun stuff. It’s also about more mundane, some would say, the more grizzly aspects of building.
It is about building code compliance, issues with deeds and restrictive covenants.
It is about things like: “only homes of a minimum of 10,000 sqft can be built on this site” –no Nehemiah houses here!
It’s about budget controls and consulting with engineers of various disciplines, these are the people whose proud duty it is to say
“no, you can’t do that!”
The abrupt ending of every architect’s flight of fancy.
Yes, there are limits even in the dream phase, and beyond.
It can be years before the ceremonial gold shovel in shoved into the earth and the photographs of the visiting dignitaries are taken.
Seeing all of the work involved in designing a structure, it becomes clearer to see why they take so long to build.
When will ground zero, be something more than a gigantic crater downtown?
Hopefully, the 9-11 Memorial will be completed by the tenth anniversary of the tragic event in 2011?
But, know that the 9-11 Memorial has been built and torn down a hundred times over in the minds of the architects, construction managers and engineers before even one steel beam was placed in the ground.
“It has to be just so”
Structures are not designed just for a lifetime they are designed to stand the test of time. The dream phase involves planning structures of lasting strength and endurance.
Structures that can weather the tests of climate change.
And, I am not just talking about weather extremes. Lasting structures don’t just need to withstand tornadoes over Brooklyn (Queens) and flooding in SoHo.
They need to withstand that force of changes in the political climate, changes in the economic climate and all the changes that can occur in a cultural ecosystem.
It needs to be a structure with integrity that can be counted on. Values that can be trusted.
The dream phase in our architecture of the spirit, also holds the promise of the unknown that is the promise of “destiny”.
Here, in this place one not only holds on to the reality of things as they are, and things as they would be, or could be.
It also holds fast to a measure of uncertainty, Our creations are strong enough to support the known unknowns and unknown-unknowns.
We design niches to hold the humble spirit of inquiry, she that speaks, in a still small voice and says:
“leave room for doubt” (whisper)
This whisper echoes through the ages, but we must create moments in time and spaces where we can--- very attentively, very purposefully, and very lovingly hear it.
Our structures must stand the test of time. It must have structural integrity, that is, the ability--
to resist at times,
to bend at times,
to adapt at times,
but always remain true to the dream at all times.
The ancient French traveller’s name is not given nor is his destination indicated, but clearly he was on some kind of mission, he was a seeker of some sort, taking delight in his own curiosity. He asked the group of stonecutters:
Mon amis, Bon jours, Qu'est-ce que c'est?
(sa la—point to something)
Quel est votre rêve ici.?
“what are building?” , what do you aspire towards? My friends.
He went on by asking each of the stonecutters, are you making something that will just last your life time,
perhaps your children’s life time,
or are you making something for all time?
Not being satisfied with the answers he received thus far, he finally made his way over to the third stonecutter.
And, said: “A vous?”
“And you,” what do you say?
The last mason raised their dusty, hat covered, head revealing shining eyes, and the mason pointed towards the heavens, and she said “I am building a cathedral”.
She was clearly no ordinary mason, and she could see beyond the reality of the back braking work, and the heat and the sweat of her enterprise.
Some people called her a dreamer, she was really a visionary.
The traveller responded by saying: “so you are making something of lasting value?”
She said “I am creating a sacred space.”
It will be a place that will always welcome all that come through its doors.
It will be a safe space, both for those within its walls and those outside. It will be able to hold all seekers.
It will be the place where the Muslim mystic, with his band of wonderers, worshippers and lovers of leaving could join in harmonious singing with the scholarly rabbi who explained the entire Torah to a listener on one foot.
The congregation will sing songs of righteousness. They will live in a loving spirit, caring and nurturing each other and world. Here they will weave tapestries whose beauty will confound all attempts to define, and categorize them.
And, a river will flow it, and there will be a special tree in the center, and…
The stonecutter could hardly get the words out fast enough. No one had ever asked her what she was making. She went on:
They will wear splendid robes
And, they will laugh out loud.
And they will dance. The congregation will dance to the hymns, whose words are taken from the Baghavad Gita and the Christian New Testament, all while the shaman keeps perfect timing with the beat of the drum.
I am building a place that is needed in the world. I am creating a place for hope, a cathedral.
Meanwhile, the follow masons didn’t know what to make of what they hearing. One of them wondered out loud,
“I knew we should have never let this wacky woman into our stonecutter’s guild in the first place, she is clearly hysterical.”
But, the traveller stood there in amazement, he was stopped in his tracks, awe struck by the very idea of such a cathedral, and the promise it would hold.
Could you imagine the traveller standing there?
It must have been like hearing that all of your favorite holidays had arrived early and all on the same day—today.
“Hello friends, Today is “Thanks-Rama-Hanu-Chrisma-Kwanza-Ca” now prepare to receive your many gifts.”
It all must have seemed to be so fantastic, so improbable, yet so necessary.
You can see that the mason was making a structure that would need to be strong. It would have to be strengthen from within and without.
The stones she would cut would have to be just the right thickness, just the right shape to create strong walls that would support large bays for expansive windows with clear and colored glass.
The stones would have be the right integrity to create the colonnades, the archways and the vaults.
She was hard at work for days on end, cutting the stones that would become the buttresses.
Buttresses are common in the old European cities.
You’ve seen the ones I am talking about, the graceful, sometimes fanciful structures made up of pillars and half arches. They are attached to the sides of buildings, usually old-gothic style churches, but not always. Sometimes you see them on old office buildings and at universities.
Trinity Church at Wall Street, and the Iconic Woolworth Building just a few block up on Broadway are good examples of gothic style architecture and in particular buttresses. One of my favorite examples in City College in Harlem.
Buttresses usually support a building from the outside, externally supporting the structure from gravity and the weight of the walls and roof.
You don’t have to go all the way downtown to see them. We can see them right here in this room. Here our Buttresses are on the inside of our structure. Here the communal supports are internal.
Buttresses are fascinating. They are even more fascinating if you happen to be an architecture enthusiast like myself. There is a very subtle yet profound lesson in the construction of a buttress.
For instance before you build a buttress you have to start with a wooden frame to brace the stones. That frame is called a “centering”.
The stones are laid on the centering and mortar is applied where the stones meet. The mortar and stones conform to the shape of the centering.
And once everything is dry and in proper place, the centering can be removed, leaving what will appear as an elegant void and the buttress will stand on its own.
But it starts with the centering
In the end the Buttress is an architectural element that can support its own weight and the weight of others. It uses its strength to accommodate and sustain life. It allows for wide open spaces to be enclosed without too many obstructions.
What are the elements that give us support without unnecessary obstructions?
What are the buttresses in our lives as individuals and as communities?
Many years ago, in fact 12,000 years ago. Long before there was such a thing a “buttress”, a “France” or even a “Middle Ages” there was a site that is today called “Gobekli Tepe” in Southeastern Turkey, it is otherwise known as the “Turkish Stonehenge”.
I have to laugh at the not so subtle bit of European cultural imperialism that is revealed in the name “Turkish Stonehenge”.
Most of us will be familiar with English Stonehenge, with its icon grey stone monoliths.
Turkish Stonehenge, however, predates, “Stonehenge Stonehenge” by 7,000 years.
So maybe the English monoliths should be called the “British Gobekli Tepe” in honor of its more sophisticated predecessor.
(but, that really is beside the point)
The site of Gobekli Tepe is comprised of a dozen or so circles some as large as 100 feet in diameter and surrounded by rectangular pillars, each made of a chunk of solid limestone. These megaliths range from 10 to 50 tons, a piece.
Archeologists say that at least 500 people would have been required to quarry, transport and erect the pillars, each one of them, uphill! Using the best technology of the time, which wasn’t much.
The French traveller would be in heaven, he could talk to hundreds maybe thousands of stonecutters and everyone else involved in erecting the pillars every day, for years and never have the same conversation twice.
Why would so many people come together for such a purpose?
The level of complexity, and coordination, not forgetting the intensive and continuous labor involved is staggering.
It hurts my back just to think about it.
The hilltop sanctuary was a sacred place. And, archeologists there are describing it as the world’s first temple. They say it was the spiritual center of a nomadic people.
Each of the sandy colored, t-shaped pillars has carved on it, reliefs depicting an assortment of wild animals,
(all the animals were wild at this point in history)
There are elaborate representations of snakes, scorpions, foxes, cranes, ducks, bulls, boars, lions, (oh my). There are even cravings of people.
To look at the images of the pillars is to look back on a very different period in time, or maybe not?
Perhaps the carvings were understood to be a protection against the animals they depicted. Maybe they represented the hope for special powers over the natural world. The lions could represent anything from
imperialism or simply a lion.
I think the fact that humans are depicted alongside the array of creatures, suggests that these Neolithic people saw themselves as interconnected with all life, as an integral part of the natural order, without any dominion or special authority, just another form of life.
And, maybe they celebrated this understanding by erecting a hilltop temple.
But in the end all of this is just speculation. Some archeologist say that the site could just as easily been a trading center for the nomads.
Nevertheless, in the past, what you believed and how you lived your life were interwoven, you couldn’t separate one from the other.
Gobekli Tepe could be a case of both/and, both worship and trade center.
The pillars might have even been used to support a wooden roof as a shelter from the elements.
It doesn’t matter what we call them, pillars, buttresses, walls for sacred places.
We just keep building them, we can’t seem to help it.
It’s what we do
The Unitarian poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words for the hymn “All are Architects” which captures the spirit of our never ending desire to build. The hymn goes:
“All are architects of fate, working in these walls of time; some with massive deeds and great, some with ornaments of rhyme.”
The hymn ends with the charge:
“Build today, then, strong, and sure, with firm and ample base; and ascending and secure, shall tomorrow find its place.”
“Ascending and secure”
We rise from the furthest, deepest parts of the past, yet, ours is a tradition, that seeks its place in the future. The hymn ends “tomorrow find its place” we hope to get there by searching, by seeking the best and the highest values in this life.
Each us are architects, builders and archeologist. We excavate the useful relics and cast aside what is not of lasting value.
Ours is a tradition of loving, thoughtful, spiritual, holy inquiry.
A tradition strengthen from within by a faith is the big enough, strong enough to hold both hope and doubt.
This is something to be grateful for, to rejoice in and be glad in it.
“All are all Architects of fate” indeed Mr. Longfellow.
And, Thank you Mr. Longfellow. Thank you Mr. Traveller, Thank you Ms. Stonecutter. Thank you Isaiah,
Thank you Ethelred Brown and Marjorie Bowens Wheatley and Forrest Church and all those who built temples in the heart.
Thank you for building something with integrity. A cathedral house big enough for all to come inside.
I will end here with the words of Patrick Murfin who best captures our “reality phase” way of being, he says:
“Yes, here we build temples in our hearts.
Side by side we come,
Scavenging the ages for wisdom,
Cobbling together as best we may
The stones of a thousand altars, leveling with doubt,
Framing with skepticism,
Measuring by logic,
Sinking firm foundations in the earth
As we reach for the heavens.
Amen, and may it be so!
Charles Dickens in Christmas Carol
“But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Christmas time has come around again. Perhaps catching us by surprise. The balmy weather confusing us into thinking it was further away than it turned out to be.
The blooming cherry tree in front of my window is definitely confused. Yet here we are Christmas Eve!
This is a time for laying down arms, dialing down the rhetoric, forging connections among families and friends; neighbors and nations.
During this time of year I see us hungry for a chance to do good in the world and in our communities. Our church has responded to that hunger of late by saying “NO” to Islamophobia in the public discourse, and witnessing for a compassionate response to the refugee crisis in Europe. We have found ourselves saying yes to the call to provide warm gear to persons in need during the winter or providing toys to children for the holidays.
I am impressed, but not surprised by our human capacity for good. We are able to show up courageously and generously at expected and unexpected times.
To refer to our reading from Charles Dickens, here we are on the doorstep of the miraculous time of year, a good time of year, “...a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time..., a time when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people...as fellow passengers…[on the journey]
In this evening’s reading from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, we hear Fred’s speech, trying to remind his uncle, patient zero for stinginess Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge of the work of Christmas. He says this holiday has the ability to change people by reminding them of what is really important.
Aside from the more well known mythic, messianic and miraculous implications of Christmas (a virgin birth, long foretold in obscure Bethlehem, moving stars in the east, angels heard on high, wise men and shepherds watching over their flock) Christmas time somehow manages to momentarily transform US , making us kind, charitable, forgiving, peaceful.
Maybe it is the cold and dark of shorter days that triggers the ancient memory in our DNA that our survival depends on our connections to others.
That memory compels us to find the stories that celebrate those connections, like the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, one of many stories of Christmas time.
In good Unitarian Universalist style I will leave it to each of us to individually discern by what means the magic and miracle of Christmas works.
But it is enough to say that it does work, because here we are, compelled to leave our homes this cold night, bringing the gift of ourselves our children, our parents, our lovers and friends to come to church on this particular night.
Some you I haven’t seen since since last Christmas and I am so glad you manage to find your way back. I thought you might be lost forever. Others were just here on Sunday for Kwanzaa and for the Solstice celebration and haven't left yet.
The central question that I want us to consider tonight is how do we carry this momentary, transformation forward, one that moves us from hostility to peace?
And a second question which is just as important. What might our world look like if Christmas tIme was everytime?
The poet Maya Angelou in her work titled: Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem writes that Christmas enters [the world], streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope. singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air. The world is encouraged to come away from rancor, come the way of friendship...
We must make the commitment to live the amazing peace of Christmas time 365 days a year. I dont mean keep the tree and lights up all year, although some of us might do that anyways, at least until February. And if that is a way to remember this time that’s perfectly alright.
Our world seems so dangerously close to the brink at times and we can either open our hearts and come the way of friendship or we shall perish together.
Earlier I spoke of compelling stories that help us recall the ancient memory of our connections to others. These are the stories that in their way call us back to our truest nature, back to the way of friendship and peace.
I’m going to introduce you to Francis Tolliver in moment, he is a central actor in the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 is one of those compelling stories. This 101 year old tale has every bit of the miracle of the more well known Christmas stories, but so much more import to the tenuous and dangerous times we are living in today.
I want to lift up for a moment the beauty of a single instance in our global history that so powerfully illuminates something like a road map for our year ahead, maybe even a roadmap for our life times.
On that map we find transformative landmarks that have eluded so many others, we find Kindness, charity, playfulness and the open heart.
Consider Francis Tolliver from Liverpool in England and his transformation that occurred on a barren, icy field in France over a hundred years old on this very night.
His story shows us that the peace of Christmas time is possible on any day in any place even a battlefield in the middle of a war. This episode in life of Francis Tolliver is captured in the folk song by John McCutcheon titled Christmas in the Trenches where we hear the following narration:
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war.
Francis Tolliver is a fictional character used to tell the amazing true story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, an instantaneous end to hostilities and community building to occured in several European battlefields during World War I.
British and German soldiers actually came out of their trenches of their own volition, cold, tired of fighting, to exchange Christmas Greetings, sing carols, drink brandy, trade pictures and play games for the night on December 24th.
It was a moment of transformation, combatants now translated to friends, because for a brief window of time they recognized and celebrated their shared humanity. The soldiers saw that they were fellow passengers on a journey.
We can see echoes of Fred’s speech to his uncle Mr. Scrooge in the Dickens with the words of the song:
“We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well.”
In effect it is the good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time…[of Christmas time] when people consent to open their shut-up hearts.
Eyewitness accounts say that the truce was over the next day, normal fighting resumed soon thereafter. The Great War raged on from 1914 to 1918. WW II followed it. And conflicts continue to this very day all around the world.
But look at what happened for a moment. Hold that picture of comradery, beautiful, beloved community coming out of nowhere, a perfect fragment of Peace. Hold it tightly, don’t let be forgotten.
The story of Francis Tolliver matters to us as Unitarian Universalists because we are a people on fire with purpose and vision. We have that battleworn hope for the future and today.
That hope is grounded in prophetic experiences like the Christmas Truce of 1914. Our hope is inspired by our shared humanistic ideals of the inherent worth of every person and the anticipation of world community, with peace, liberty and justice for all people, in this lifetime.
The very essence of Christmas time and is written into the principles of our faith.
If our principles can be lived out in some of the most unlikely places to experience peace, like the cratered battlefields of France, the austere bank of Mr. Scrooge or the bleak and fetid stable in Bethlehem where Mary, Joseph and Jesus crowded by farm animals rested, then our principles can be lived out anywhere at any time.
Nothing is impossible, we might lack the will, the courage, the compassion or the imagination for peace in our world, but never say that Peace, the Peace of Christmas Time is impossible, because we have seen it before in the most unlikely of places.
If we believe that any night can be a holy night, especially this one, then we can make every night a holy night by returning to the better angels of our nature who are always there to remind us of the Spirit of Christmas.
Our families, friends, neighbors, our city, nation and world needs us to recall all of the miracles that have occurred on this night--everyday of the year.
Let this night be a rehearsal for the parts we want to play in an unfolding story, told over many generations.
A story of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth--our own Beloved Community.
Again we prepare the heart to become a site of healing, forgiveness, playfulness, truce.
Again we prepare a place where our own little lights come together, becoming a beacon in world so often robbed of its ability to see a peaceful way forward.
We’ve seen it before and we will see it again. Never stop believing that. Christmas is just a reminder of what is possible.
May the peace of Christmas time combine for us to form the greatest gift, a fragment of perfection that we take with us into the New Year, inserting our little bit of Peace, Paix, Freiden, Mir, Salam, Shalom, Yes! into every moment that awaits us.
When Being Right is Wrong
From the Screenplay of Philomena
A Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope Based on a book by Martin Sixsmith
Philomena: Stop it! Stop it!
I am sorry, I didn’t want him to come in here like this and make a scene.
Martin: Why are you apologizing to them? Anthony was dying of AIDS and she still wouldn’t tell him about you.
Philomena: I know! But it happened to me. Not you. And it’s up to me what to do about all this. It’s my choice.
Martin: . So you’re just going to do nothing?
Philomena: No. I am going to forgive. Sister Hildegarde, I want to you know I forgive you.
Martin: What..? Just like that?
Philomena: It’s not just like that! It’s hard. It’s a hard thing to do. I don’t want to hate people. Look at you. I don’t want to be like you.
Martin: I am angry!
Philomena: I know. it must be exhausting. Sister Clare, would you be kind enough to take to take me to my son’s grave.
Martin: Well...she’s outdone all of us
Just like that, we can rewrite the script of our lives and our relationships with others.
Just like that we can become the people we are meant to be
Just like that! But is a hard thing to do!
Today I want for us to search our souls. To go deep down, to draw from reserves that we did not know we had, to pull up something special. We all have the capacity to do the very, very hard work of forgiveness.
Our reading this morning is remarkable because “just like that” it shows in an instant the lifetime of daily work it takes to develop one of the most essential human qualities.
This fragment from a screenplay rises to the level of sacred text and source of inspiration for us, because it points us to that spacious and bright life we are all meant to live right now. When we are in balance we are just like Philomena Lee, played brilliantly by British actress Judy Dench. Just like Philomena we are able to recognize our own hurt, and our own strength, we are able to see the ways that others are hurting, and their strengths. She shows us how to name the feelings of other as she names her own feelings and makes a choice that saves her life.
Let me set the scene and give you some of the films plot, especially if you have not had the chance to see the movie which is great. Philomena Lee is a woman who after 50 years builds up the courage to seek out, in earnest a son that she was forced to give up as a teenager. In the film we are shuttled back and forth between 1950s Ireland and contemporary United States and Ireland. In the 50s Philomena became pregnant after a tryst with a young man at a fair. She was sent to a convent where she would be under the care and supervision of nuns, and this was of course to hide the fact that she was pregnant out of wedlock from her community. The nuns forcibly arrange the adoption of her son, Michael to an American family. Then nuns spend the next 50 years pretending not to know the sons fate, even though they were in contact with him. Along the way Philomena finds Martin Sixsmith a reporter who wants to help her uncover the truth about Michael’s destiny. Ok, perhaps I am giving too much away.
So this scene is where Philomena and Martin put all the pieces of the puzzle together and go back to the convent to get answers. And, Martin is pissed off; they had to travel across the Atlantic to get at the answers the nuns knew all along. Martin was ready for justice, or blood, or both, it is hard to tell.
Philomena is strangely conciliatory, which is she throughout the film, which almost makes you want to scream at her get it together, they’ve been lying to you along!
I can remember completely identifying with Martin, a character played by Steve Coogan. I was thinking, just like him, those nuns were awful people, look at what they had done, they lied took Philomena’s son away, they were hideous to her while she lived in the convent, they lied to her about her son’s whereabouts, they didn’t have any decency, mercy, even when they were presented with the evidence and admitted their complicity and delighted in their past misdeeds. They were defiant, not even a little bit of remorse for their years of deceiving Philomena and her son.
Philomena and Martin were right, they were victims, they had history and evidence and justice on their side, and no one could deny that. But, for Philomena that was not enough, because the only result of such damning evidence is evidence of damnation.
Oh and anger, endless, unmitigated, exhausting anger. One must be angry at those one condemns, even if you are “right.”
To be right would wrong because it would be insufficient, correct facts could not cope with the magnitude of challenge she lived through. Just like that Philomena chose a different way, not because it was easy but because she had to, otherwise she would be consumed by the resentment that eating Martin alive before her very eyes. She chose forgiveness to save her life.
And, by doing that Philomena, she has outdone us all.
We all have instances where need to be forgiven, where we need to forgive another person and where we need to forgive ourselves. Some of us might have been raised, or come from faith traditions where were taught that work of forgiveness is already done for us, through the expiation God’s infinite wrath towards all creation, and act of atonement only achievable through the sacrificial death of a savior who was also a son. And as a result of that kind of mythmaking real forgiveness has taken on a supernatural or quasi-magical quality that always keeps it just beyond the reach of mere mortals.
But for us as Unitarian Universalist Forgiveness is in the here and now, it is in our lived experience, both in our spiritual practices, which connect us to that Life and Love that is larger than ourselves, and in our daily practice of how we talk to each other, over the counter, on the phone, how we email each other, how we text message each other, how we interact in homes with our families and with our mates in the bedroom.
In his book, Forgiveness is a Choice, the Forgiveness scientist, Dr. Robert Enright, says that Forgiveness is simply a process to free oneself from anger and resentment. It doesn’t require that one accept injustice, or remain in an abusive situation, nor does it require that trust be restored, or reconciling with the unrepentant.
One forgives to restore their own sense of peace and well-being --and perhaps from there other good things will follow. But, forgiveness begins with you!
If you can remember only one thing that I will say today, Forgiveness frees us from anger and resentment. We deserve that kind of Freedom.
Anger and resentment hold us back from living a life worthy of the light, at our core, it holds us back from living with worth and dignity, it separates us from our humanity and our true nature of connectedness.
Even before the final scene in the film there were instances where Martin’s anger made it difficult for him to be in relationship with Philomena, and threaten to destroy their working relationship.
Most of all anger and resentment causes us to suffer and to unintentionally inflict suffering on others, sometimes in ways that are even more painful, than the harm both physical and emotional harms, that others have done to us. In a statement attributed to an ancient commentator on the Buddha, Anger is a hot coal that we gasp with the intention of hurling at another.
If you can imagine picking up a solid rock so hot that it is glowing with orange and yellow, and holding on it with your hand. Your body sometimes wiser that your consciousness, wants to let it go, wants to release the pain causing stimulus, but you trying to override that autonomic imperative by holding on, so your nervous system causes other parts of your body to jerk uncontrollably, and as you fight the need to let go of the coal, you knock down the people nearest to you, your husband, your wife, your kids appear, whack, pets whack, friends, neighbors, colleagues, whack, whack, whack, your better-self, whack, as you fight against need to let go of the hot rock, burning a hole through your hand.
Many of us are holding on to rocks, so hot, they glow orange and yellow, in a way no mere mortal was meant to. But, we can let it go with forgiveness. In our American culture, we don’t spend much time on forgiveness, that’s why I am glad we are exploring this concept today and next Sunday with Sam Gugino in the pulpit.
This is a happy coincidence that when it happens, I hear the refrain of the Spiritual sung in the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple “God is trying to tell you, God is trying to tell you something, maybe God is trying to tell you something, right now, right now.”
Forgiveness is counter-cultural, even subversive. In our society we want to talk about who is right and who is wrong.
Our culture is one where we often reward those who are right, and forget about the righteous, we celebrate the correct answer, but not always the compassionate answer.
We really want to be right. It feels good, it is treated as an accomplishment, and it speaks to the fact that we, those of us who are right, that is, are better, more worthy, more intelligent, healthier, perhaps even more good looking compared to those who have no other recourse but to wallow in the filth of their perpetual wrongness, perhaps like some kind of pig, only worse.
And, there are many who would let their right answers take them to the path of most destructive consequences.
We have an example where one of our sister churches in New Orleans was invaded by an Anti-Choice, Anti-Abortion group, who chanted slogans during the prayer taking place in the Sunday service. This group was so convinced of their correct answer on the question of abortion that they would violate the sanctity of a house of worship, in the middle of services to make their point!
Not only was this group “right” in their own eyes, but they were angry at “us” UUs for being so vocal in our wrongness. Thankfully, our friends in New Orleans handled themselves admirably with dignity and decorum; they sang hymns, loudly and more faithfully drowning out the protestors in their sanctuary, as they were escorted out of the building.
I am not quite a pacifist, but nonetheless committed to non-violence, and when I heard about what happened in New Orleans, I thought about how I might have handled such a fundamental violation of my sacred space. It did not happen to me, but even now I get angry when I think about it, I shudder to think of what I might do.
There are times when I think about what happened and I want to hurt them, the protestors, in the same way they hurt the people I care about, my people. I am sure some of you who heard about the incident feel the same way.
What gave them the right to do that, those protesters were absolutely wrong, anyone could see that.
What would our reaction be, if such a group of people came into our sanctuary today, under the pretext of being visitors and during our meditation what if they got up and started shouting: “Abomination, you are going to Hell!”
I can’t help but wonder of that group of protestors saw the UUs that Sunday as human beings practicing religion in a sanctuary, or if they only saw non-human animals, pigs writhing in the muck of their lamentable ignorance? I don’t know.
I hope we could rise to the occasion in the same way that First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans did. They give us a very good example; I hope we can follow it, if such a time were to come to Germantown. I hope we would not let our anger get the best of us. They say that Philadelphians are a tough lot, so I don’t know. But, deep down I trust we would comport ourselves as a people committed not just in word, but indeed to Beloved Community, with compassion, service and empowerment.
I understand that desire to throw the hot rock, at the perceived enemy, at the proven threat very well.
My parents bless their hearts, in one their earliest, and clearly most memorable lessons, taught me, that if someone hits you, you hit them back. And, living in an unforgiving urban environment, often demanded such an approach as a matter of survival, so I don’t fault them, even though that is probably not a lesson I would want give to my own children.
But we all learn that lesson, if not from our parents, than from our hardwired, genetic, reptilian drive to survive, or our government, acting on our behalf overseas.
I also know all too well, the impact of jerking bodies, holding onto hot stones and the unintentional harm they cause to the bystanders who happen to be perhaps in the right part of the house at wrong moment. Whack. I am a survivor of such moments.
Being forgiving never mean staying around to be a punching bag, in the physical or emotional sense, far too often women and children are told to stick around, it’ll pass, ignore it, it will make you stronger, but forgiveness does mean embracing yourself fully, your ability to be vulnerable, which is a strength and celebrating your will to survive!
I want for us to be able to stop the pattern of hurt and pain, because this Faith tradition, (if nothing else) calls us to and empowers us to do just that, to disrupt the pattern of hurt and suffering in our own lives and the lives of those around us.
Let us start by recognizing what that lingering resentment feels like in our own bodies. What it feels like in our chest, in our belly, at the back of our neck, at the top of our head, in the palm of our hands where the coal burns through, wherever we are carrying it. Let us begin to pray for those who have offended us, let’s us start by calling their image to mind and showering them with the warm glow of compassion and peace. Let us wish for them wellbeing as true evidence of how well we are living.
It is not enough to congratulate ourselves for being on the right path and still holding feelings of ill will toward others. Any named religion or philosophy that allows such a contradiction (I can be right and hate you) to live in a person is illegitimate and is not worth the cost of the paper its name is written on.
So, I encourage us begin to create the families, the culture and the society we dream of today. It is not enough to be right, it not enough to be justified, to have the laws supporting our positions or to win the argument. It is worth so much more to be in relationship when possible, to recognize the humanity, and the human frailty in the other, as well as our own humanity frailty.
The French philosopher Jean Vanier in his essay “Forgiveness and Celebration” wrote:
To forgive is also to understand the cry behind the behavior. People are saying something through their anger and/or antisocial behavior. Perhaps they feel rejected. Perhaps they feel that no one is listening to what they have to say or maybe they are incapable of expressing what is inside of them.” (94)
Forgiveness starts when we recognize the ways we all fall short of perfection. We all have unspoken needs at work behind our actions. I am not sure if reconciliation was possible or desirable for Philomena and the nuns who once cared for her. It takes truth and vulnerability of all parties, and the nuns at least how they were portrayed in the film were not ready to be vulnerable to admit where they may have made mistakes, where they were simply human.
When we recognize that even our right answers fall short of perfection we unlock the human spaciousness that lends itself so well to forgiveness. This is the spaciousness and awareness that was at work in the heart of Philomena as she looked into the eyes of the people who made a career of deceiving her and said “Sister Hildegard I forgive you.” and when she told Martin “I don’t want to hate.” This is the very hard and very holy work before us. It starts with the man, or woman, the person in the mirror.
As the writer of the Christian Gospel according Luke reminds us: may we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us and pray for those who abuse us. (Luke 6:27)
Genesis 1:1-3 KJV
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
A long time ago in the heart of Brooklyn there was once a light emanating from a kerosene heater in the cool basement of a wooden tenement building.
It was in a large room with a low ceiling. The room was also illuminating by rows of florescent lights.
There was red carpet on the floor and simulated wood paneling on what would have been bare stone and concrete walls.
It was cold and it was night, but the amber glow of the kerosene heater,
at least created in the minds of the small group of people gathered there, mostly women in their sweaters and coats and a boy, the illusion of a warm and welcoming place.
The women, all Haitian immigrants sat in folding aluminum chairs with hand made cushions.
In that basement they told stories and sang songs, and clapped their hands, became filled by the spirit and even raised their arms to the ceiling crying “glory to god” as they made their fervent prayers
for deliverance from the ordinary,
and the strange and the tragic circumstances,
that caused them to leave their homes that night and go worship at the “Assembly of God Pentecost” the first church I ever knew.
The pastor of the church was Reverend Lauraine Gregoire, my grandmother.
The kerosene heater no longer burns nor is the church there in the basement any longer. But the light somehow still glows. In later years that assembly moved up to a storefront church several miles away. And, though my grandmother died some years later with no plan for succession, the church continues to meet.
Often the services are lay lead by the very members who essentially founded the congregation and periodically they will invite guest preachers to come.
I seldom return for a visit and I struggle with my reluctance to go back.
But, whatever baggage I carry, the Assembly of God Pentecost is where my journey down the path to ministry began and in a very really sense it is where by ministerial “creation story” begins too.
This is a story wherein I imagine, I will always somehow be just at the beginning of it even after I receive my Internship,
or my 40 years commemorative plate
or my retirement,
or my eventual interment.
We are always at the beginning, (and maybe near the best part) of our life’s story.
I invite you to look at those paths you’ve take in a life as an opportunity for surprising discoveries.
Surprizing discoveries about yourself and the people who accompany you on the journey.
Experiences shape our lives:
Sunday mornings at the Assembly of God Pentecost began with the Ecole de Dimanche or Sunday school.
There was no such thing as an RE program so the children sat with the adults as they basically memorized parts of passages in the Bible and recited them, for points.
The few children there showed varying shades of boredom and distraction.
However I was very interested on one particular Sunday.
After the recitation, if anyone had questions about the meaning of the passage they were memorizing they could ask the pastor and she would offer the authoritative commentary on the passage.
One time the Sunday school’s verse was perhaps from a passage from the New Testament’s Gospel of John.
(I have always had a hard-time with John, even today and it almost cause me to fail a class at Union)
I don’t remember the exact passage but it said that the only way to be “saved”, to get to Heaven was through believing in Jesus the Christ.
Conversely not believing in this message meant that one would spend eternity in Hell, forever cut-off God and paradise.
Most people found the passage clear enough “Jesus=Heaven=Good”
“No Jesus=No Heaven” which in the end equals “No-good”.
But, one person asked what about people of other faiths. The pastor explained that the Christian message was available to all; there were churches,
and Bibles available in every language
and missionaries spreading this true message to all.
Well that seemed reasonable enough to everyone gathered that Sunday. Except me, for the most part.
Normally, I didn’t really pay attention to Sunday school and I never really gave much thought to the theological or eschatological implications of what I had then professed to believe.
Everything that I was taught was a matter of fact and I had never examined the facts until that moment, a moment that would change everything…
Agreeing that anyone alive today could have the opportunity to be “saved” by the Christian message through various means, I asked:
“what about someone living on an island before a Christian missionary even existed; how could they know about Jesus?”
I thought surely they could not be sent to Hell for their lack of knowledge of this saving faith? The answer that I along with everyone in that room received was shocking.
Those people who would live and die without accepting Jesus as their savior,
the same people who could never hope to find a Bible that might be their one and only hope
or even intone the syllables that enunciate the name Jesus, would be punished, for eternity!
I sat with that answer, I was 13years old.
I thought of my Jewish school teachers,
the Arab grocery store guy.
The Hindu girl in my class.
I thought, well they seem like nice people. Surely “my God” would not send them to “Hell”. And, what about all of those people on all the hypothetical islands who lived for generations before a kindly missionary could disabuse them of their blissful, pre-Christian state?
It just did not seem right. They were created by the same God that created me, yet they were set up, from the very beginning to fail the test and be eternally lost.
This was before I paid a lot of money to learn the term “Predestination” or the name “Calvin”
I don’t know what path I might have gone down had I not asked that question?
How might my life be different if I hadn’t considered the other lives, other worlds and other possibilities?
That experience forever changed my life and changed my faith. The journey changed.
What was your question?
What did you ask that led you here?
Where were you when you concluded that there might be more to the story then meets the eye?
At the beginning we all had that moment where there was sudden and unexpected shift in trajectory that led us down untrodden paths. It usually begins with a question, an important one.
This recalls Robert Frost’s classic “The Road Not Taken” where he concludes:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.
I took such a road, when, years later, having left the church of my childhood, and the home of my childhood.
I was living in southeastern Massachusetts, I happened upon the Universalist-Unitarian Church of Brockton.
It was a warm December and I just turned 18 years old.
The church was a curious looking, modernist building. The walls were mostly clear glass and the roof liked as though something had grabbed hold of one point years ago and has been stretching the roof towards the heavens ever since.
There were no symbols that I recognized on the outside except this kind of cup with a flame in it.
I noticed that church for a while before ever going in.
When I was riding by, in the family car invariably we would stop at the intersection of Belmont and West Elm Streets in what had once been the very fashionable part of the town. You could tell by the very large and handsome Victorian homes around the church.
The stop was always long enough for me to read the quirky messages featured in the “wayside pulpit”.
Maybe the wayside pulpit out front is what brought you in at some point. (Whenever, I see people reading the wayside pulpit here I always invite them to come on Sunday to see more.)
It was probably the combination of the unusual architecture, the wayside pulpit, a taste for adventure and an ironic desire the please my grandmother in Brooklyn that coalesced and precipitated by venture into the UU church one Sunday morning in December.
I brought my siblings, all younger that I with me.
I thought they needed something to do and might enjoy going out with me.
I mistook the main entrance and went in through the side entrance of the church.
And I was greeted by the nervous DRE who was thrilled at our arrival.
What DRE isn’t thrilled at the arrival of four new kids on a Sunday morning?
Especially when it was the Children’s Christmas Pageant Sunday.
The DRE placed fliers all over the neighborhood on light poles inviting local children to come be apart of the pageant.
I look back on that particular ad campaign and think “how strange”. I might never have come had I noticed the fliers.
Luckily I hadn’t.
My siblings, Victor, Matthew and Priscilla were nevertheless thrilled to come to a new place and get to wear costumes and perform.
So they choose to be in the pageant.
I being a teenager, had different ideas about being in a Christmas pageant. I sat in the pews which had very soft pew cushions.
I watched the pageant which featured the nativity story at a Gas Station.
Well, that can’t be right.
But I went with it.
The pageant was followed by the sermon, on a text I thought I knew, but somehow remembered there being a bit more magic to it.
There was a manger. Wasn’t there angels and special stars, and a virgin birth, there was definitely more of the supernatural in the story I remembered.
It was a story about Jesus, the same Jesus and the same God that was largely discredited in my mind, as a charlatan, a tyrant and merciless dictator/ruler of the cosmos.
I didn’t believe any of that stuff anymore. But it didn’t matter, because it wasn’t mentioned.
The minister, Rev. Peter Newport, talked about how every child is special, and each birth is an opportunity to celebrate the beauty and power and magic of life.
He spoke about people caring for each other.
This time, this story which I had heard growing up took on a new and far deeper meaning.
It was no longer a part of divine plan to reward some with a static vision of bright clouds and harps. and condemn the many to everlasting torment.
I didn’t think at the time, that would have been such an exceptional moment or even the start of a new thing that would in time become my life.
But, that is exactly what happened. I joined the congregation a few months later and became very involved.
There was something more exceptional than the message, which in retrospect wasn’t “that”, profound after all,
What’s exceptional is how did I get there in the first place and why did I stay and how did I eventually hear the call to ministry that I am following today?
All of this could not be more unlikely.
And, that was what I told the six members of the Regional Subcommittee on Ministry at Pickett Elliot House in Boston right before they conferred “Candidate for Ministry” status on me.
I said “I know that I am sitting here at this large oak table in this posh dinning room with you and I still can’t believe that I am here.”
In my wildest dreams I could not see myself here, but here I am.
I look back on the experiences of my childhood and can’t see how any of it could have prepared me for this moment.
Growing up in a working class, Haitian immigrant home, going to the segregated and under funded schools of central Brooklyn.
I said, “I could not think of a boy on my block in my generation who went to college, let alone graduate school. Moreover, how did I find a spiritual home in a predominantly white, upper-middle class denomination, coming from so different a background?”
I was really just thinking out loud trying to figure this out.
All of this was kind of like the moment on a reality game show when a contestant is making their last appeal before the judges decide whether or not they stay on the island
to perhaps win the prize or marry the bachelor,
or get sent back home with nothing to show for their efforts.
Finally, I said: “nothing could be more unlikely than this, but I am here and I believe that I am called to ministry”
There must be something to it all, even if I don’t quite understand it.
And, in the end, it is not entirely true that nothing in my childhood could have prepared be for the path that I am on.
I bring with me a rich tradition of impassioned worship, embodied love of the divine. A sense of deep and abiding faith not just when things are going well, but when life throws its most vicious and unexpected curve balls.
I have my grandmother, and our morning prayers by the bedside and her admonitions to be “good”. To be a good person.
And, like any good Pentecostal, every now and then I do get filled with the holy spirit and become overwhelmed by joy while watching the sunset, traveling over water or watching children at play.
Just like in the first Hebrew creation myth, God, had materials to work with, the face of the water, the face of the deep.
We all have materials to work with in our creation, despite the limitations of our gender, class, ethnicities, or abilities.
We are all on a sacred journey, and everyday we are at the start of it, no matter what our chronological or physiological age, or our linear understanding of history has to say about it.
We are apart of creating our own stories.
And, lets us remember the places when it all began
Lets us hold on to the important people in our lives, the friends, the mothers, the aunts, and the neighbors, the random and not so random strangers.
Let us remember the experiences that shape our faith. And, those that test our faith.
Let us remember the important decisions and the more important questions.
Go and remember we can always begin again.
I end with this classic excerpt from the motion picture the Curious Case of Benjamin Button
In it the protagonist sent a letter to his daughter reminding of her and us of life’s most important truths. He wrote:
Benjamin Button: [voice over]
For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be.
There's no time limit, stop whenever you want.
You can change or stay the same;
there are no rules to this thing.
We can make the best or the worst of it.
I hope you make the best of it.
And I hope you see things that startle you.
I hope you feel things you never felt before.
I hope you meet people with a different point of view.
I hope you live a life you're proud of.
If you find that you're not,
I hope you have the strength to start all over again.
Amen, May it be so.