Whose Are We

Whose Are We
UU Church of the Palouse · October 6, 2019

 Opening Words

The question, “Who am I?” leads us to reflect on identity, purpose, and meaning.  But make the slight change- “Whose am I?” and we have an invitation to reflect on what holds us, binds us together, connects us to something greater.  Questions of dependence, independence, co-dependence, and interdependence bubble up.  Wonderings about that which transcends, that which is beyond us but somehow still contains us, lead us to a different understanding of who we are, how we are, why what we do matters.

I invite you into the question with these words, from my colleague, the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed:

The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.  There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others.  Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.

It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community.  The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done.  Together our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

Time for all Ages

May I ask, how old are you?

What would you say if I told you that in one way of understanding, you are much, much older than that?

People are made up of cells, which are bits too tiny to see without a microscope.   The average body has about 37.2 trillion cells, all working together to do all the things people do. That’s a really big number, almost more than we can imagine.  If we were to try to count to 37.2 trillion, one number per second, it would take us more than a million years, and that’s if we never stopped to sleep or eat or even go to the bathroom.  So cells are super tiny.

Each of those 37.2 trillion cells is made up of different kinds of molecules—between 5 million and 2 trillion molecules.  Molecules are super tiny bits of super tiny cells.

Molecules are made up of atoms.  The most common molecule in the human body is…water!  Water is made up of three atoms…two hydrogens and one oxygen.  And those hydrogen atoms are as old as the universe.

How old is that?  The universe was born 14 billion years ago, with a big BANG.  Scientists believe that everything that exists was compressed into a tiny, tiny thing, that exploded!  And then things began to change.  But the hydrogen atoms didn’t change; they just combined with other atoms to form molecules.

So the hydrogen atoms in you- and they are the most common kind of atom- are 14 billion years old.  A large part of you is 14 billion years old!  Pretty cool, right?

Want to know something even cooler?  The atoms in you that aren’t hydrogen, guess how they got made?  They are by-products of stars!  As stars form and then collapse on themselves and explode, they made all the other kinds of atoms, that came together to make molecules, that came together to make planets and even people.  You- and me- and all of us- we are made of star stuff.

So I want you to imagine being outside at night, looking up in the sky.  Think about the fact that you are made up of bits of star.  Think about all those really big numbers, and how a lot of the atoms that make you up are 14 billion years old.  And then notice how that makes you feel.

How does it make you feel?

Thank you for thinking about this cool science stuff and big numbers with me.  Now, let’s sing the children to their classes…

Meditation  “City Sky”

Looking up at the half-dark sky
Seeing only the brightest of stars
There’s a sense of loss so sharp
I have to close my eyes
Tell myself
They are still there
Behind the artificial light
That turns me blind.

Far in the distance
Someone sets off fireworks
The bright colors, the wild motion, the loud noises
Seem garish, like a toddler
Putting on mother’s makeup.
Our powders and chemicals
Will never, could never,
Match the glory of the desert sky at night.

I remember the delicate shades of the milky way
(Still there)
The illusion of thickness, weight and density
(Still there)
The song that rang out
Just beyond my capacity to hear
(Please God, always there).

I want to wrap these memories around me
Like an afghan or a second skin
A robe, made of star stuff,
Just like me…

Reading  Excerpted from Rev. Victoria Safford’s sermon “Love’s Conditions.”  Click Here


My colleague, the Rev. Dr. Jon Luopa, of University Unitarian in Seattle, tells this story:

In an interfaith clergy gathering, a Catholic Priest was sharing his life odyssey.  The story he told was one of failure.  He had come of age during the heady days of Vatican II, when he and other liberal young priests were full of hope and optimism about the changes in the church.  They believed the tradition they loved was finally evolving into a faith that would feel alive, relevant, and vibrant.  He shared his deep disappointment that the transformation hadn’t happened, that if anything, the church had hardened and become more conservative than ever.

This man was quite well respected and loved by his colleagues.  They were surprised and even a little hurt to learn that he felt most of his life had been a failure.  As was the practice, colleagues had the opportunity afterward to ask questions.  One person asked this priest, how, given his disappointment, his grief, his broken-heartedness, he was yet able to do such good work?  Feeling himself a failure, how could he yet seem so peaceful and content?  The priest answered simply, “I know whose I am.”

His response touched something deep and tender in my colleague Jon, and it touches a similar place in me.  Modern Unitarian Universalists no longer owe any particular loyalty to any one prophet or messiah; we let go of our historical Christian roots in order to embrace the human potential for all to be prophets, all to be teachers.

In doing so, though, have we become spiritual orphans?  Or is there something deeper and broader than that undergirds our faith?  What have we lost, in letting go of the need for a unified theology?  And what have we gained?  Whose are we?

In this, as in every question we ponder, I want to reiterate that my answers are just my answers, and you are welcome to agree, disagree, argue, or reject.  I hope you will wrestle with the question, in whatever way works for you.  This is the difference between a lecture and a sermon.  I actually count it as a win if something I say prompts you to stop listening and follow a thread of your own thought.  This is one of those questions that has as many answers as there are people.  Whatever answer you find in your heart is the right answer for you.

I found in my heart three inter-related answers.  The first I’ve already offered, in the children’s story and the poem I shared as the meditation.

Whose are we?  We belong to the universe.

I find I don’t need there to be any supernatural forces, because the natural world inspires such deep feelings of awe and wonder.  When I contemplate things like the unlikely odds that life exists in the first place, never mind that my particular life and genetic material should be given to me as a gift, it shakes me to the core.

When I contemplate my place in the universe, I recognize that I am on the one hand inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and on the other, a necessary and essential part of all that is.  If I were to suddenly cease to exist- Decartes offers me a drink, I say, “I think not,” and poof- there would be a rip in the space time continuum.  And I’ve watched enough Star Trek to know that would be very, very bad.

The knowledge that the materials that make me up have cycled through innumerable other manifestations, as well as the awareness that someday this body will break down and become part of an unknown future- grant me a sense of permeability.    I’m made of star stuff, and someday, the atoms that make up me may become part of a star again.  It’s an odd sort of immortality, but it reassures me, somehow, anyway.

With each of my answers, I’m going to invite you into a little mini-meditation, to try it on for size.  I’ll introduce it with a poem or reading, and close it with a song.  This is, “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End” by Mary Oliver.

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing
from the unreachable top of the tree.

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.

And thinking: maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind,
or a few leaves from any old tree–
they are all in this too.

And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.
Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold fluttering around the corner of the sky

of God, the blue air.

Whose are we?  The second answer that works for me is that I am yours, and you are mine.  We belong to one another; we are bound in community.

The culture is trying to convince us that we don’t need each other.  Instead, we need things.  We need to buy things.  We need to consume things.  We need to distract ourselves with entertainment and devices and other addictions.

That’s a lie.

Human beings didn’t evolve to exist in isolation.  We are biologically tribal omnivores.  Which means that today’s trends toward greater and greater loneliness has huge implications for our spiritual, emotional, and physical health.  When we lean into our need for one another, we become stronger, more joyful, and more whole.

Not that community is easy.  Quite the contrary.  It’s messy and challenging.  All those competing needs!  All those clashing cultures!  We need to bring a lot of grace to our relationships and our communities.  There needs to be plenty of room for mistakes, frustrations, apologies, and forgiveness.  We have to make peace, over and over again, with the fact that each of us has control over exactly one person’s behavior…our own.

Once, when I was facilitating a training, I was offered home hospitality with a person who worked as a Director of Religious Education and her husband, a physician.  It was the most amazing place.  The house was so lovely, and so well organized!  I’d never been there before, and I’d never met the couple.  Yet everything I needed, I found in the first place I looked.

When I asked them about it, they explained that they both worked with people, and so in their work life, things were always messy and complicated.  They organized and re-organized their home for fun, as a form of therapy.  “Our environment, we can control,” the physician said.  “My patients?  Not so much.”

The idea that we can control or influence other people’s behavior feeds into co-dependence.  This dynamic is most clear in relationships where one or both people are struggling with addiction, but can show up in any situation where we assume responsibility for someone else’s feelings or behaviors.  How many of us identify as people pleasers?  Caretakers?  Rescuers?

The difference between a dependent/codependent relationship and healthy reciprocity is boundaries.  We can and should listen to and support one another.  But if someone is unhappy, if I change who I am to try to please them, I lose integrity, and I also disempower them.  When I’m able to say, “I can go this far, and no farther,” and “I can tolerate this much, but no more,” that leaves the other person space to do their internal work, which is going to work much better, in the end, than my trying to do it for them.

To be present with someone, to keep an open heart, without trying to fix or advise or solve their problems, can be uncomfortable.  I sometimes joke that the world would be a better place if I were actually in charge.  And maybe it would.  But it wouldn’t be right, and it wouldn’t be real.

Healthy, reciprocal relationships- interdependence- allow what you say and feel to matter to me.  I am changed, transformed, by my relationships.  But I am neither coerced, nor coercive.  Interdependence looks like a network of autonomous beings, each growing and learning, influenced but not controlled by the other nodes in the network.

We are responsible for ourselves, for our own choices, and we are accountable to one another, and to future generations.  We belong to this task:  building the commonwealth of humanity, a world with peace and justice for all, a place where every child grows up safe and loved, and every adult is able to reach his or her full potential.

To lead us into a second moment of meditation, these are words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All {people} are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.

Whose are we?  The third answer is the hardest for me to put into words.

There is something in me that calls me forward, into my own process of growth and becoming, which is somehow a part of the collective evolution of not just our species, but all of creation.

Intellectually, the closest match for understanding this something is the definition of God offered by process theology.  It’s been a while since I’ve preached on process theology…and I can’t hope to do it justice in the time we have left this morning.  But in brief, process theology begins with the assertion that the universe exists.  Then ask yourself, what is the universe made of?  Process proposes a universe made up of something called “actual entities.” Break matter up into the smallest possible particle, and look at it with an infinitely brief moment of time, and you have an actual entity.  All actual entities have the capacity to choose.  We exist in a universe of free choosers.  The actual entities that make up the systems or societies or organisms choose to work together in a specific way and in choosing, create the universe as it is.

Now, all of the actual entities and systems and societies and organisms are in relationship.  Everything has an effect on everything else.  That effect might be negligible, or it might be profound.  But we are all connected…interdependent.  And God is a word for an actual entity (that infinitely small thing in an infinitely brief moment of time) that is supreme in seeing and comprehending the complexity of all that is and supreme in imagining possible outcomes.  God is the force that keeps pulling the universe forward, pulling it toward life and love and peace and connection, keeping it from descending into entropy, stagnation, and collapse.

This is the intellectual framework that best fits my lived experience.  I feel something, here, in my chest, that knows who I am, and who I am becoming.  I could name it God, or my sense of call.  I could name it intuition, or true self, or the still, small voice.  I could call it Buddha-nature or Christ-nature.  Its motivation is love, compassion, integrity.  I struggle with how to name it.  But in me, it is real and true and trustworthy.

Often, it wants me to do things that I’m afraid of.  Sometimes, I argue with it.  But when I listen to it and follow its lead, my life unfolds in ways that feel right and good.  When I surrender- and oh, boy, is surrendering hard for me!- I feel connected and held and pulled forward by something greater than me, greater even than the universe, or the beloved community, something that encompasses all of that, but is, somehow, still more than the sum of its parts.

Is there a greater source, a creative spirit, a force that undergirds us and lures us toward the greater good?  To say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ definitively would be to board up a deep well that has nourished humankind for thousands of years.   So perhaps we can leave the question open?

This is “Of Being” by Denise Levertov.

I know this happiness
Is provisional.

the looming presences-\
great suffering, great fear-

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of the sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:

this mystery.


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