Sermon from Sunday, November 16, 2014

Looking at Things

Port Augusta is a dusty, dreary town at the top of Spencer’s Gulf, two hundred miles to the north of my home town of Adelaide, South Australia.  It markets itself as the gateway to the north. Gateway to a whole load of nothing would be nearer the truth.  Two thousand miles north to Darwin, two thousand miles west to Perth, and virtually nothing in between.  To this dreary town some years ago there came a fourth rate circus, one charm of which was a sad collection of exotic animals including an ostrich.  This circus was a ragbag affair, but if you have the misfortune to live in Port Augusta, you are grateful for any diversion.  Anyway, one day the ostrich got loose and, with the whiff of freedom in its nostrils, it made off into the scrub.  The circus folk and some of the locals gave vain chase for a while but soon gave up, and a few days later the circus moved on to ply its tawdry trade in the next dusty town and the worthy citizens of Port Augusta returned to their heat and beer induced torpor.

I knew nothing of this story when, a year or so later, I was a nineteen year old jackaroo on a sheep station a hundred miles north of Port Augusta.  Also on that station were two brothers, Ned and Dan, grizzled old bachelors who had spent their lives knocking about in the outback.  Soon after I had arrived at the station, Ned and Dan had gone down to Port Augusta for the weekend.  Six months later, they rang up to say they were ready to be collected.  I was despatched.  I found them, ashen faced and wasted from their six months in the town’s bars and brothels.  They looked and smelled terrible.  Driving back in the summer’s heat, I was leaning out of my open window to catch whatever fresh air I could.  Dan, on the passenger side, was fast asleep.  Ned, in the middle, was awake but enduring cold sweats and groaning quietly.  I had never seen anyone with the DTs, but I figured I was now.  Suddenly, out of the scrub and directly in front of us from right to left, dashed an ostrich.  I almost hit it.  An ostrich!  In Australia.  Emus, yes, aplenty, but an ostrich?  I turned to Ned.  “Did you see that?”  He was shaking, his eyes bulging.  “Thank God you saw it too,” he said finally.

Many things we get to see only fleetingly, out of the corner of our eye, as if through a glass darkly.  We think we have seen it, if only a passing glimpse, but can we be sure?  We turn for a closer look, but it is gone.

While working as a jackaroo on that sheep station, one of the best experiences of my life by the way, I learned to do something remarkable.  I learned how to see. I learned to see things to which I was at first blind.  As a novice musterer, riding around on my motor bike in paddocks of fifty square miles and more, my trusty sheep dog straddling my lap and petrol tank in front of me, I struggled to locate any sheep at all.  I would ride right past them, or even if I was stationary and staring intently at the distance, I could see nothing.  Only with practice did I learn how to see the creamy grey specks on a distant hill, or the tracks in the sandy dirt.  Back then, I had excellent 20/20 vision. Even so, I had to learn how to see things.

What do you fail to see, though it be right in front of you?  What do you need to look at differently?  Lucy M Green’s poem, Looking at Things, talks about how she learned to look at things so that she could something different in them.  Something magical, mysterious, beautiful, bewitching.

Wonder awoke in me

When, a child, I discovered feathers,

Marvelling at their softness, their delicacy of outline,

But still more at the sheen and ripple

Of changing colour, blue, and green and gold,

Gleaming across the peacock feathers I found –

Not the great eye-feathers only,

But tiny ones catching the light, to change as I turned them;

Yet never could all the colours be caught together.

The magic was in the moment, the glimpsing,

The passing enchantment,

Sweeter perhaps for the very swiftness of loss.

 

Shells with their circles of pearl

And hollowed, satin-smooth curves

Had their transient rainbows for my delight,

Shadows of rose and blue and pale sea-green;

Even the milky moonstones

Took on soft colours, like the ring of haze round the moon.

Mystery held them, as the colours were glimpsed, and then vanished.

I treasured the pearly shells, and the feathers,

Even as later in life I found joy

In the blue or gold fire of opals, caught for a moment;

Still more in the rainbow mist

Of a great waterfall, seen from afar,

Incredibly distant along a Norwegian valley;

Or the colours mingling in the flung spray of a wave.

 

It is given to us to see only one aspect in the moment,

One fact of the prism,

One colour of the spectrum.

That is enough of joy, but also enough of blindness

To bring humility, and kindle in us faith

That one day we may see life in its fullness

In the constant light of eternity.

Then may we know the whole of love blended in beauty,

Even as here on earth we see, for a passing moment only,

The rainbow with every colour alight in joy.

When you look at the world, what do you see?  Do you see loveliness and joy, radiance and delight?  Or do you see misery and pain, suffering and despair?  Beauty or boredom?  Both are there.  Which you see depends on the eyes with which you are looking; the openness of your heart; the willingness of your mind to engage; your imagination to be transfixed.

Whether we are looking for sheep in the dusty outback, or at the sheen of a peacock’s tail feather, we can learn to see that which we are seeking, however fleeting it may be.  Faith is learning to see.  We can learn to discern beauty amidst the drab, to discover hope amidst the gloom, to see cause for courage when our hearts might otherwise falter.  Faith is learning to see, to see even that which is fleeting, ephemeral, and darkly through a glass.  Even that which is not there, but which our imaginations make real.  And in seeing beauty, we are made beautiful.  In seeing hope, we are made hopeful.  The world reflects who we are.  Faith is how we see the world, it is how we see our place within the world.

What do you see?  What do you see?

What do you see when you look at Unitarian Universalism?  I confess that sometimes my eyes grow dim from having had it before me all my days.  There are days when I see only its faults and failings, the pettiness of our squabbles about things which really do not matter, when meanwhile there is a hurting world out there which needs us to be our best selves, not our worst.  I grow complacent in my familiarity with the faith which has always been there for me.  But sometimes I am glad and grateful to have the cool embers of my complacency shaken when I encounter someone who has just discovered Unitarian Universalism for the first time and who is on fire because of it.

Like the time six years ago when I was part of the faculty for a leadership conference sponsored by The International Council of Unitarians & Universalists, held in Kenya for new Unitarians from that country and from Uganda, Burundi and Congo Brazzaville.  Yes, you heard correctly.  Congo Brazzaville, a place less likely it is difficult to imagine, but where it took root because of a chance conversation in a hotel bar.  The Africans at that conference really were on fire, confident that once others heard this liberating message they too would embrace it; and convinced that it was their privilege and their duty to do all they could to let others hear that message.  Not only that, though they each were individually poor, barely able to keep themselves, they were committing a significant percentage of their meagre resources to those who had even less than themselves.  It was absolutely central to their understanding of what it means to be a Unitarian that they had to do the work of social justice, giving up to half of their income to it.  I was embarrassed, no, I was ashamed at the realisation that my eyes had forgotten to see what had been right in front of me all the time.

This faith is precious, a pearl of great price, yet it is also precarious if we fail to perceive and appreciate its preciousness, not just for ourselves but for as many others as possible.

And what is that faith?  What is the faith that has the power to transform lives, giving them meaning and value amidst the sometime sea of secular senselessness?  What is the faith that has sustained me through the many years of my bounty and particularly last year when I was given a diagnosis which rudely and unexpectedly confronted me with my own mortality, when I was challenged to take stock of my life and give thanks for it?  I mean, really give thanks for it.

It is not a faith in the weary outdated mantra of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance.  Perhaps those words resonated and inspired in previous times, but they are weak virtues today.  Freedom?  Freedom from what?  Have you been persecuted recently for daring to believe according to your own conscience?  Been to any good heretic burnings lately?  Reason?  By all means let us not be unreasonable, but are we creatures of the mind only?  Have we no heart, no passion, no enthusiasm?  Are we no better than a philosophical debating society?  Are we not meant to engage the whole person?  And Tolerance?  What a hollow word, making a virtue of what is usually mere indifference.  No, if we continue to proclaim Freedom, Reason and Tolerance as our banner cry, we should not be surprised that the world heaves a weary sigh in reply.

I offer you a new Unitarian Trinity.  Personal Authenticity.  Religious Community.  And Social Agency.

What we offer is the opportunity for personal authenticity in matters or faith.  At whichever wells we draw our spiritual water, whichever teachers we learn from and whichever path we follow, we offer the gift of being true to our own deepest selves, fearing not to doubt or to believe.  I am occasionally surprised after I have preached a sermon to be congratulated on my courage for having preached as I have.  I have never, in my thirty plus years of ministry, had to summon courage before preaching a sermon, because interpreting life as I understand it, in love and humility, is what as a Unitarian minister I have been called to do.  I might incur the displeasure or disapproval of individual congregants, but I need not fear censure from higher authorities for transgressing doctrinal instruction.  And you in the pew, you need not acquiesce meekly to my words.  Though, I can tell you, I have had some congregants in my time for whom some meek acquiescence would have been no bad thing.

We offer Religious Community.  I know it is the fashion today for people to opine that they are spiritual but not religious.  If you knew the number of times I have heard that, usually from people who have not had a religious thought since their pet hamster died.  What it usually means, from what I can tell, is that they have an occasional vague fuzzy feeling, but really can’t be bothered doing anything about it.  Unless you happen to be truly exceptional, and, I’ll wager none of you are, it is a nonsense to claim being spiritual without being religious because being spiritual requires work, practice, the repetition of discipline.  Being spiritual draws you to being religious.  That is what religious community is.  The place and the people in which and with whom to practise faith.  The genius of our religious community is it is where you are expected to be true to yourself, but to which you commit your energy, your time and your money as a real expression of your personal authentic faith.

And we offer Social Agency.  How lazy and self-serving we have become by telling ourselves that Unitarian Universalism is all about finding your own truth and nothing more.  If the world is not a better place because of your faith, what value that faith?  Yes, we are permitted, encouraged, required to find our own truth.  But we are also required to do something about it.  Last week my story was an updated version of The Good Samaritan.  Loving your God, and loving your neighbour.  Above the entrance of many Unitarian churches in the UK, and perhaps in the US also, are the words “Dedicated to the worship of God and the service of man.”  We might now quibble about the niceties of language, but the essential sentiments remain true.  We gather to be in communion with that which is divine, and the service of humanity.  To love God and our neighbour.  You don’t get one without the other.  It’s not an either/or; it is a both/and.

That is a meaningful and relevant new trinity of our faith for the present day.  Personal authenticity.  Religious Community.  Social Agency.  Through them we are connected to that which is greater than our own small selves, sustained by that which abides even as we might perish, lifted up when otherwise we might remain fallen.  It is certainly the faith that held true for me in my own dark hours.  They say there are no atheists in planes that are going down.  I thought my plane might have been going down, but more than anything, I remained joyful that I had known what it is to fly.

Having faith is not about what you believe.  Having faith is about how you see the world.  Is the world mere emptiness, in spite of all there is of beauty and charm and miracle and wonder and delight?  Or it the world precious, in spite of all there is of pain and anguish and bitterness and ugliness?  Having faith is about how you see the world.

It is given to us to see only one aspect in the moment,

One fact of the prism,

One colour of the spectrum.

That is enough of joy, but also enough of blindness

To bring humility, and kindle in us faith

That one day we may see life in its fullness

In the constant light of eternity.

Then may we know the whole of love blended in beauty,

Even as here on earth we see, for a passing moment only,

The rainbow with every colour alight in joy.