Friday, February 28, 2014

Sermon for March 2, North Kitsap UU Fellowship: Community as Communion

Community as Communion

March 2, 2014
North Kitsap UU Fellowship
Poulsbo, WA

First reading: 

"There is a deep natural holiness waiting to be unlocked in our everyday encounters and relationships. By bringing more of our attention and a clearer sense of intention to our everyday interactions, our [very] conversations can become for us a spiritual practice."
  - Diane M. Millis,  Conversation: The Sacred Art
 Children’s Time:  The rope and the knots

The  Pre-sermon Reading:

But if there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will hold no location in place or time; which will be infinite, like the God it will preach; whose Sun shines upon the followers of Krishna or Christ, saints or sinners, alike; which will not be the Brahman or Buddhist, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its Catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms and find a place for every human being [...] It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize a divinity in every man or woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its divine nature.

September 1, 1893

The Sermon

The reading today could have been penned by a Unitarian Universalist; indeed it synthesizes in a short paragraph the one great ideal that liberal religions are capable of manifesting in the world—the reality of community as communion.   Yes, I know some of you will hiccup at the word divine, split hairs over the word God.  That is what we do in the name of analysis and personal discernment of truth, but in its essence, this work of Vivekananda’s resonates deeply with the unifying and enlivening energy or intent that is at the core of a liberal religious community.

In all the religions of the world, the role of the larger community as an integral part of an individual’s spiritual path shows up again and again.  As we begin our time together, I’d like to offer you ten voices to heed this morning; I’ll be pausing just a bit between each one so it can sink in and be savored:

1.    I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha or I take refuge in a wise teacher, the ultimate Truth of Reality and the supportive presence of the community.

2.    When two or more or gathered, there I am amongst you.  Mathew 18:20.

3.    "To each community among you We have prescribed a Law and a way of life. If God had so willed He would have made you a single people, but His plan is to test you in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God...” [Quran 5:48] 

4.    “Should even one's enemy arrive at the doorstep, he should be attended upon with respect. A tree does not withdraw its cooling shade even from the one who has come to cut it.” 
Mahabharata 12.146.5

5.    “It is only when we have renounced our preoccupation with "I," "me," "mine," that we can truly possess the world in which we live.
Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

6.    “The man who wishes to know the "that" which is "thou" may set to work in any one of three ways. He may begin by looking inwards into his own particular thou and, by a process of "dying to self" --- self in reasoning, self in willing, self in feeling --- come at last to knowledge of the self, the kingdom of the self, the kingdom of God that is within. Or else he may begin with the thous existing outside himself, and may try to realize their essential unity with God and, through God, with one another and with his own being. Or, finally (and this is doubtless the best way), he may seek to approach the ultimate That both from within and from without, so that he comes to realize God experimentally as at once the principle of his own thou and of all other thous, animate and inanimate.” 
 Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

7.    The environment is everybody. It's not strictly tribal. — Jesse Urbanic, Lummi

8.    Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.— Albert Camus

9.    A person experiences life as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. Our task must be to free ourselves from this self-imposed prison, and through compassion, to find the reality of Oneness.— Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist who developed the general theory of relativity, (1879 – 1955)

10.  Intolerance lies at the core of evil.
Not the intolerance that results
from any threat or danger.
But intolerance of another being who dares to exist.
Intolerance without cause. It is so deep within us,
because every human being secretly desires
the entire universe to himself.
Our only way out is to learn
compassion without cause. To care for each other
simply because that ‘other’ exists.
-         Rabbi Menachem Mendle

Today, I’d like to suggest that we can actually understand the layers present in religious community by looking at the stages of individual human developmental.  Such a view can offer to us an interesting model about the many ways a liberal religious tradition can come together at the level of its beating heart. 
It’s important to keep in mind that while I have assigned a period in the human life span to each of the facets of community I’ve chosen to speak about today, I believe we all continue to feel the pressures and joys of each stage when we enter into community.  So while I may be putting forth a path that seems to track only forward, in truth we go forward and we go back along the developmental spiral, flowing with experience and life lessons. 
I believe that we are always circling the idea of community as deeper communion.  If we do not eat and drink the stuff of the Other, we are merely shadows moving among the living.  That very act of breaking bread and drinking wine with others will necessarily require of us a constant spiritual digestion (and sometimes indigestion).  Unlike our physical selves that seem to be born, grow up and decline, our spiritual lives are fluid—we are tidal in our emotions, sometimes deep and sometimes shallow in our thoughts. 
It’s critical, when we are in community, to be able to accurately see how some folks are "operating" at levels different from our own.  Some folks are in the "playground" while others, trying to communicate with them, may be in the crucible or transformational stages I’ll be talking about. It's also helpful internally to see where we ourselves are at any given moment.  This basic self-awareness is the way to peaceful coexistence, both within ourselves and without.  
Or at least, maybe a little better sleep at night!
Therefore, I invite you to listen into these different developmental energies of community, taking to heart that one idea that speaks most clearly to your spiritual self today. I hope you will ponder that one “take away” idea you discover and share it with another, thus making real the communion that is our birthright as living beings.

womb: infancy and early childhood
At its most basic level, the idea of the community carries with it the energy of the living womb.  This is the ideal stage of infancy and early childhood—that delightful and innocent sense that we are surrounded by people who love and support us. 
As we age, we might be able to finally label mature forms of this energy as a kind of mercy and compassion. Did you know that nearly each sura of the Koran begins with the sentence that contains these two words—rachman and rahim, mercy and compassion, one flowing inward, the other outward and both containing the root for the word womb?  It is in this arena of community where we begin to learn the emotional feeling of those words so that we can one day return them in kind. 
Rather than seeing this stage as infantile, a fully mature adult will use this energy as one of the deepest social glues to hold together their religious community, regarding the members of their church, fellowship, sangha, temple or mosque as well as their larger community and world as people to be cherished and loved.  Leaders from both East and West have said in so many and varied words that their religion, at its core, is one of mercy and compassion.  They know the deeply supportive energy of the womb.
As we enter childhood, the community becomes the playground, the place where we begin to interact with our peers, for better or worse.  We begin to contend, to measure ourselves, to laugh together and experience those first childhood emotions of anger or frustration and friendship.  The community takes on a different aspect—sometimes darker, sometimes eagerly anticipated.  Wild romps and the straight lines of classical schooling, imaginary expeditions and breaking bread in the cacophony of many voices all begin to form us into the adults we will one day be. 
Later in life, the energy of this sort of understanding of community will fuel both the church potluck and the contemplative retreat, the impulsive sermon talk-back and the comfortable companionship of an adult education class. It can also be at the root of competitiveness, perceived slights and exclusions, a sense we might not be getting our own way or that others are more powerful and heard in the church community than ourselves.  When the stranger comes to us and then sits by themselves, never approached or befriended, they are experiencing this stage of community emotional life.  And when you offer them your hand in friendship, you help to draw them into the playground of faith.
mirror: to challenge and affirm: teenage years
We begin to learn from our paired opposites of feelings in community – belonging and loneliness, acceptance and rejection, power and powerlessness, and we come to rely on the community as a mirror for ourselves.  We dress in certain ways, speak in certain ways, our behaviors becomes acceptable or, we may “try on” ways of acting out with our eye always on the mirror of our community.  We read ourselves writ large by the social groups of our peers. 
Even well into our older years, this kind of energy continues in us to greater and lesser degrees. In our religious lives, it is the fuel behind wanting to know that we are right, what to do to be a successful member of the group, what are its rules, its codes of conduct and dress, its language and acceptable forms of humor, as well as its doctrine and creeds.  We might defend this community with overreaction or brush off its importance when it does not suit our egos. It is both walking stick and prop, bowl and the side of the bowl we bounce off of in order to grow and mature in faith.
Cooking: the active adult years (Stage one of spiritual adulthood)
During our active young adult years, the community is that which provides us our living and human-populated environment of friends and work colleagues.  It is necessarily circumspect and rather rigid.  If we are tied deeply to our job and raising our family, we may feel a vague kind of isolation from the communities that nurtured us in our younger years.  I believe this isolation actually has a purpose which is to allow us to simmer and live into the deeper meaning of the womb, the playground and the mirror.
For some during this time, community in the form of religious participation, service organizations, and the like are entered into but (unless we are the professionally religious) often at its edges and rightly so.  As Richard Rohr so eloquently points out in his book Falling Up, this is a time of high external energy for us, raising families, figuring out our working selves, getting through higher education and paying bills.  We are in fact solidifying the earlier developmental pressures of community so that we are able to hold all the shadow and light of those experiences within ourselves. In a sense, this time of cooking may in some cases actually require our absence from structures like organized religion.  But the interior work of community is still going on. This is often the time we set our hearth for a vibrant and inter-relational adult spiritual flame that may externally seem to be just embers at this stage of life.
The Crucible ...transformation (stage 2 of spiritual adulthood)
For some of us, but certainly not all, the experiences of the young adult’s interaction with communities will begin to finally cook us deeply.  Womb, playground and mirror begin to bubble with the accelerant of more complex adult interactions and we begin to test the edges of our community bowls. We see with new eyes, not just ourselves but the larger world, and begin to realize life is so much more than working, eating, sleeping, playing.  We begin to glimpse behind the veil, and ask is there more?  Are there others who know that “more” and better yet, are trying to find their way forward or simply into a better relationship with the NOW? 
Scripture becomes more dynamic, no longer just rote words.  Rules, creeds, dogmas are not reacted against so much as teased apart, like sucking the sweet flesh off the pit of a pomegranate.  The religious leader is seen as suddenly human and fallible but also much more interesting to us because she or he is calling us to the same insights, devotion and way of living they should be mirroring themselves.  We sometimes name this stage the priesthood of all believers.  Community flows at this stage, one moment bowl, the next, a bowl broken open and spilling forth into new and interesting directions in our own psyches.  We find a new depth to the womb, playground and mirror, depths that ask us to care as well as be cared for, to initiate the friendship as well as allow ourselves to be friended, that shows us our tender and immature growing edges and where we are alive and wholly awake.
reincarnation and continuance-passing the best of ourselves forward through time in the sunset years
As we bubble up and over in the time of the crucible, something else may begin to rise up like a kind of steam as we age—the need to pass our knowledge, our meaning-making and experiences forward in time, beyond us.  It is almost as if the womb-understanding of community is calling to us most strongly now but in a new way, asking us to plant seeds in the form of new communities, new ideas, and with new emotional depth.  It is our generative energy, our life energy, our creative energy finding its home in community and integrating all that has come before.  If we are lucky, we begin to see beyond our own skins and minds; our hearts becomes large and generous and inclusive, and in community we finally address the question and sometimes-fear deepest in the hearts of us all—what is this life we have been given, and really, what dies? 
And if we accept the cycles of nature around us, the transformation that is all of life, we also enter at last into that dance with the larger universe in fullness and profound joy and acceptance.  As Thomas Merton said (in paraphrase) I stood in that bright Kentucky sunshine, surrounded by people and I loved them all.  I was them.  And they were me.  This is when religion begins to flow effortlessly past the institution, the right and wrong ways of behavior, the creeds and rituals and professional religious figures—religious community itself comes alive and stands up in the midst of life and death and creativity and messiness and becomes something transparent and permeable and whole.
We enter into not just community—we are in communion at last.
To finally sum up all this heady stuff this morning, a quote from one of my favorite writers:  “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”  Alfred North Whitehead

The Blessing:
May you take the wonder and communion that is community life back into your solitary ways today, feeling more alive and connected, strengthened and whole.

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