SERMON: The Edges of God

Just a quick note: This sermon was written before I read up on all the controversy at Lo-Fi Tribe. At the time it was written, I only knew that Shawn had decided to leave Unitarian Universalism. The tone and content of the subsequent conversation has only made me more convinced that religion isn’t the problem, religious intolerance is.


MEDITATION
Spirit of Life and Love,

We have gathered here because we need each other. We are tired, we are weak, we are worn. We need each other in our joy, our grief, our fear, and our sorrow. We need a hand to hold onto, and a shoulder to lean on. Help us truly be here for one another.

Today we are grieving the loss of Anne. We are grateful for her life, her unique and indomitable spirit, and her release from suffering. But we are sad too. We will miss her voice, her

smile, her energy among us. We feel the loss. And we know too, that her family is grieving. We hold them in our hearts, with thoughts of comfort and care.

We know others among us are struggling with grief and loss as well. RO is mourning her Uncle John, KL, her grandmother. Sorrow touches us all. Let us reach out to each other and hold the hands of the people among us who are in pain. Help us be compassionate and kind to one another and to ourselves.

Help us also feel real joy for those among us who are celebrating. We are grateful when one among us succeeds, when love enters among us, when anniversaries and birthdays remind us how important we are to each other. Help us express our pride and respect for the youth who spent this weekend together, creating a community of caring and service. Let us be joyful as we work together to send our contributions to the food pantry, knowing that we have done something to make the world a little better. May our joy and generosity grow.

Spirit of Love and Life, Help ours be the eyes that see, the hears that hear, the hearts that Love, the hands that give.
Help us work together to build and rebuild communities of justice and hope.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

SERMON
Sometimes I think God likes practical jokes. Not that I’m convinced there is a God, or if there is a God, that God takes notice of tiny details like what I’m going to preach about. But some days I get pretty close to believing that my life is a punch line for one of God’s great or not-so-great jokes.

You see, the topics and titles of my sermons are chosen well in advance. They all spring from our “word of the month” and when I’m working on the worship schedule for the year, I have only the vaguest idea of what each sermon might really be about. Today’s title, for instance, comes from a quote by theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, “The edges of God are tragedy; the depths of God are joy, beauty, resurrection, and life.”

When I was considering our word of the month, “brokenness,” the idea that “the edges of God are tragedy” seemed intriguing. It seemed a great idea to toy with—something we could examine objectively, a great mental exercise. But what a month it has been. If the edges of God are tragedy, then we have been bumping into those edges all month. I don’t know about you, but my heart is sore from it. We’ve seen children murdered and murdering in our schools; more soldiers killed in the Iraq war than in any other month to date; and closer to home, the loss of another dear friend, Anne.

Brokenness, grief, and tragedy are more than ideas to be considered. They are here, they are real, they are with and within us. There is no one in this room who is not touched by sorrow. We are all well acquainted with grief. It is too easy to forget, too easy to buy into the facades of strength and invulnerability that we wear. We’ve learned not to let it show. We’ve seen what happens to “the weakest link.”
Our urge to cover–to hide our sadness, fear, and imperfection—is deep, almost mythic. We’re like Adam and Eve, having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, suddenly being aware of our nakedness. Perhaps their sudden desire to cover themselves was not some kind of sexual shame, but an understanding of how fragile and vulnerable their naked bodies seemed, having become, for the first time, aware of evil. Perhaps the fig leaf was humanity’s first armor, our first attempt to protect ourselves from all these edges, all this brokenness.

Our desire to seem strong and powerful is, perhaps, the most dangerous of all human impulses. Our illusion that we are separate and self-sufficient, that we need no one but ourselves may well be the root of all evil. The fear of being known for what we are—soft, tender, human, vulnerable—is perhaps, the most dangerous kind of denial.

When I first encountered Suchocki’s idea that “the edges of God are tragedy,” I expected her words to be a kind of rebuke. I thought she was saying that unless one went “deep” into Christianity or theology, one would never find joy and life. But reading more of her work, I was surprised to find, that as a process theologian, Suchocki was trying to express that God encompasses sorrow, brokenness, and tragedy. She was trying to counter the idea that those who experience suffering are far from God and somehow deserve their fate.

I found her image, though not completely convincing, compelling in another way. I kept imagining all the religions of the world bumping up against one another and knocking into the edges of God. As I thought about the tragedies in this world, so many of them seemed to be the result of religious intolerance and misunderstanding. It has always seemed ironic to me that so much pain is caused in the name of religion, when each and every one of those religions, has at its heart, a desire to heal the human spirit and help people live better lives. It seems to me that religion is not the problem, intolerance is. It’s as though people are trying to police the edges of God—allowing only a few access to the holy and turning others back by bloodshed and violence. The edges of God are tragedy.

But religious extremists aren’t the only ones fighting at the edges of God. In the past three months, I’ve seen three of my UU seminarian colleagues leave our tradition because they felt their beliefs were excluded from our communities. None of these colleagues were pagans or Muslims or atheists. All of them were Christians. And whenever they tried to talk about their faith journeys, their hard-fought and thoughtful beliefs, or their spiritual practices, they were attacked. They were told they weren’t “real” Unitarian Universalists, even though at least one of them was born and raised UU. I have to say, the stories they tell break my heart. And they break our community. We are losing three amazing, young ministers. We are losing their unique liberal Christian perspective. And we lost touch with what we are supposed to be about—respect and acceptance of one another as we each search for truth and meaning in our own way and come to our own answers.

In his book, Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli tells the story of a group of soldiers fighting in the rural countryside of France during World War II:

During an intense battle, one of the American soldiers was killed. His comrades did not want to leave his body on the battlefield and decided to give him a Christian burial. They remembered a church a few miles behind the front lines whose grounds included a small cemetery surrounded by a white fence. After receiving permission to take their friend’s body to the cemetery, they set out for the church, arriving just before sunset.A priest, his bent over back and frail body betraying his many years, responded to their knocking. “Our friend was killed in battle” they blurted out, “and we wanted to give him a church burial.” Apparently the priest understood what they were asking, although he spoke in very broken English. “I’m sorry,” he said,”but we can bury only those of the same faith here.” Weary after many months of war, the soldiers simply turned to walk away. “But,” the old priest called after them, “you can bury him outside the fence.” Cynical and exhausted, the soldiers dug a grave and buried their friend just outside the white fence. They finished after nightfall.

The next morning, the entire unit was ordered to move on, and the group raced back to the little church for one final goodbye to their friend. When they arrived, they couldn’t find the gravesite. Tired and confused, they knocked on the door of the church. They asked the old priest if he knew where they had buried their friend. “It was dark last night and we were exhausted. We must have been disoriented.” A smile flashed across the old priest’s face. “After you left last night, I could not sleep, so I went outside early this morning and I moved the fence.”

The edges of God are tragedy. We live in a world of broken hearts, broken relationships, and broken systems. We suffer and we cause suffering. And yet, as someone wise but long since forgotten once said, “we come together not in our strengths but in our brokenness.” Even in the midst of all the pain, we can choose to move the fence. We can come together.

For me, the unexpected power of this month-long focus on brokenness has been watching people’s relief and gratitude as we let our guard down and acknowledged together the reality of our pain. It has been seeing the gratitude on people’s faces when they are able to admit that they are not untouchable, but sad and tender and in need of a place they can be open about how much they hurt because of how much they care.

Henri Nouwen, theologian, peacemaker, and activist, described his vision:

When I think of this new community, I think about people from all over the world reaching out to each other in total vulnerability. In my mind’s eye, I see a worldwide network of men and women so totally disarmed that they not only have given up the power of weapons but also religious concepts, symbols, and institutions.

I see them moving over this world, visiting each other, binding each other’s wounds, confessing their brokenness to each other, and forgiving each other with a simple word, an embrace, a touch, or even a smile. I see them walking alone or together in the most simple clothes, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the lonely, and waiting quietly with the dying. I see them in apartment buildings, farm houses, schools and universities, hospitals and office buildings as quiet witnesses of God’s presence. Wherever they are they bring peace, not as much by what they say or do, but mostly by their connectedness with those others with whom they form a new community of hope.

I could not describe it any better. I pray that we can be that kind of community of hope. UU minister, Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, wrote this on the anniversary of the September 11th tragedy:

We seek the gracious spirit of courage and endurance for ourselves. It is so hard to trust. Everywhere we look, reality contradicts our yearning to hope. It seems that we must walk alone, even through the valley of the shadow of death. We search our hearts for the willingness to walk with one another, for we know we will need to walk together if we are ever to make justice and peace real. For there are no hands on earth but ours. And our hands seem so few and our abilities so small in the face of such great need for healing.

There are no hands on earth but ours. So we come together to find again the strength to try. We know how real the brokenness of this world is, but we will not give brokenness the last word.

Hand in hand with people of all faiths, all colors, all sizes, all genders, all abilities, all kinds of families, and with Love itself, may we walk side by side, acknowledging brokenness, but not giving brokenness the last word.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

CLOSING WORDS

As we extinguish our chalice, let us carry the warmth of love with us into this cold world.

Let us carry the light of truth ever onward, illuminating kindness and courage in ourselves and in each other every day.

And let the energy of action inspire us to reach out wherever we might be of use, to make this world a better place and to give Love the final word.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

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2 thoughts on “SERMON: The Edges of God

  1. Great sermon. I also grieve the loss of such talent. If the tent is open, all should be welcome. Jesus had a message of radical hospitality to all- how more UU could you be? He is a role model for living and caring- and I am not a born again christian, but identify as a UU one.

    My protestant upbringing was in Methodist, Church of Christ and American Baptist, with very loving and warm teachers and families. They modeled love and charity and giving; what’s wrong with that?

    Our own church is doing better at respecting all beliefs; when we weren’t, we shrunk significantly. We struggle with money because all the good people, hard workers and great donors we drove away.

    Thanks for writing this.

  2. Wow, Sean, that was awesome. Your congregation’s word of the month is a good one, and your reflections on it so far could not be more apt. Thank you for sharing with us.

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