© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 9, 2012
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Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)
Has anyone else been watching the political conventions? I have spent more hours than I should admit watching both the Republican and Democratic National conventions these last two weeks. One thing I found quite striking about both conventions was that although both parties spent a great deal of time trying to convince us to believe that we belong within them, their followers cannot stop tripping over themselves to tell us who is not welcome.
Whether it be a liberal mocking those who legally own a handgun or a conservative decrying same-sex marriage, a progressive using the word redneck like a swearword or vice versa, a male republican making claims about a woman's body or a female democrat talking about those stupid republicans, the unwelcome mat is clearly on display by both sides despite their best attempts at appearing open. And just as the discrepancy between their intentions to appear welcoming and their actual actions communicating something very different is nothing new in politics, it is likewise old hat in all communities, especially religious communities.
Our Judeo-Christian heritage is founded upon the Jewish tradition, which passed membership of its tribe on almost exclusively through blood. That is, you were either born a Jew, or you were not a Jew. Not a very welcoming set-up. Very few people ever converted, and if and when this occurred, it was a very big deal and only accomplished after much hard work and time spent proving your worthiness.
Then this radical Jewish prophet Jesus came along and attempted to reform his tradition by re-interpreting its laws. Judaism has a long and proud tradition called Halakha. In the largest sense Halakha is the name given to Jewish law, as derived from the Talmud and the first five books of the first testament. But more than being a rigid set of rules, Halakha is meant to be a living tradition. Much like our country's founding documents, Judaism, through Halakha, is meant to grow and change with the times, in their case through the re-interpretation by their most learned scholars, their rabbis. Many people believe that Jesus was simply attempting to bring some much needed reformation to his tradition through the re-interpretation of Jewish law, precisely what the Halakha tradition is meant to make possible. Clearly, one of the main things that Jesus sought to change was to make it more inclusive, more welcoming then it had historically been.
For many centuries, blood had truly been the symbol of Jewish identity. The blood that flowed in a mothers veins was passed on to her children and that is what made them Jewish. But it seems that this carpenter's son had a different idea for who should be welcomed amongst the faithful.
Thus it is notable that in the moment he truly takes up the task of leading this reformation, it is water that he is marked with, and not blood, in that famous moment on the banks of the Jordan River with John the Baptizer.
This is no small decision when it comes to symbolism. Jesus would later share words that re-interpreted much of the Jewish tradition, but perhaps nothing would be as elemental to the identity of the faith as this. This move, from blood to water, was the clearest way that Jesus could quickly communicate a new direction towards the radically welcoming and open faith he believed in his heart that Judaism was. Rather than limiting its membership to those few whose blood supposedly ran back to one common ancestor, excluding the rest of the world, he chooses the most abundant liquid on earth, rather than the rarest and most exclusive.
It is no coincidence that we turn to this same substance each year as we return to our congregation and re-connect for a new year, because this is the very thing we hope to communicate: that our welcome is as abundant and free-flowing as water.
That all sounds great, but I want to talk about what that really means for a minute. Beyond the nice symbolism of today, what does it really mean for us to launch into this year, open and loving and ready to truly be that radically welcoming home we so want to be?
To begin with, we need to abandon the notion that we are all going to agree about everything. A central tenet of our movement is that you do not have to think alike to love alike.
Because we have opinions about things, often times strong opinions, we are thinkers, we are passionate, and we really care. But none of us has the whole truth, the entire and full perspective on anything. None of us, not you, not me, and certainly not the people we vote into office. The world is positively screaming at us that the stakes are very high right now. It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that every conversation, every Facebook post, every argument and vote is the most important thing in the world, and we know best! But if we truly honor our faith, it is important at those moments to take a step back and remember one very important thing: we are not always right, none of us. Beyond that, our way can be right without precluding the rightness and validity of a different way. We do not want our community to become an echo chamber, where only one way of thinking is allowed and thus repeated, with no room for growth.
This summer I was talking to a close colleague and friend who for the better part of the last decade has been the minister of a wonderful and very healthy UU congregation in coastal Maine. He told me that at every Ingathering in their church, when they are welcoming new members, he says something to this effect: Today you have become a member of the congregation. But you will truly become a member when something about this community upsets you: a decision we make, a topic we cover, an issue we do or do not choose to fight for; and you come back and continue engaging and loving us all anyway. That is what it truly means to be a member of this community.
Because it is easy to say that we don't have to think alike to love alike. It is a beautiful phrase, just like the idea that we will re-unite as seamlessly and perfectly as the water we will soon pour together. But the truth is, these goals we strive for, these people we yearn to be, this path we want to walk together is not always easy. It can be downright hard to love across a chasm of difference, it can feel close to impossible to remain in community with people who hold very different ideas about the divine or what politician is best suited to lead us. But that is our call, that is truly who we are trying to be, that is what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.
I ask that as we celebrate our annual water communion we all take some time to reflect on how we want to move within this community. I hope we will all choose the harder path, which means to assume the best of intentions, to step back and respect someone's right to an opinion different from our own, to be proud of this congregation when you see it meet the spiritual, educational and health needs of someone different than you. This year, like all years, will be one full of exciting moments, and even exciting decisions about the direction we will take. These moments and conversations are always hard, but will be made easier, and ultimately will get us where we want to go if we can just hold on to the simple truth that we are all imperfect, but that we are all here because we care so much. That is who we strive to be, and those are the values we want Mission Peak to reflect into the wider community.
May it be so this year, and always. Ashe.
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