The Agnostic Disciple
This sermon was updated and preached on 4/6/14 in Huntington. It looks at how one can be a disciple of a path rather than a certainty.
Have you ever walked, jogged, or rolled across the Brooklyn Bridge? One day I was planning on meeting up with a friend in the West Village for dinner, when I was still living in Brooklyn, and I decided to take a stroll. In my mind, it seemed like it was going to be quite a bit of a stroll, but it was a warmish evening and the sky was clear.
To my surprise, it took me a little bit longer to figure out how to get onto the bridge than I expected. Traffic patterns, turn signals, cement barricades and one entrance feed later – I found my way. On paper (or the internet) the bridge was pretty close to my old Brooklyn Heights neighborhood – but you kind of have to already know the patterns to join the pathway. Even with the clearest map the electronic highway can produce, you have to do it once yourself, with all the natural missteps along the way, in order to get it. And between you and me… I broke out the GPS… shhh!
So I get on the entrance ramp, for lack of a better word, to one of the world’s greatest bridges, and it’s only about as wide as I am tall. No wonder I missed where it started! Walking along the now clearly demarcated pathway, stopped traffic was only separated from me by about 5 feet and low cement walls. People’s frustration was clear on their faces, all the while I was feeling a sense of success for finding my way and the surety of knowing I didn’t have to make any more choices for a bit of time.
Then the first cyclist came clown-bell ringing his way toward me. Enough of the sight-seeing; momentum and a narrow walkway meant I had some quick twisting to do. Surviving a few encounters with fast-paced inertia; the sort where you realize unless you move differently, no one’s going to, I achieved the bridge!
It was about at this point that I recalled exactly how bad my fear of heights actually is. I’m pretty good if there’s some width, or breadth or dozens of feet between me and a down that I can’t actually see. In my head I was thinking, “There are whole car lanes between me and down. I’ll be fine.” I had forgot that the pedestrian walkway has those lovely little holes and slats that show you what’s below you. You have to face it all. No one’s going to hide the brutal reality of “down” for the feint of heart. After the initial horror, and then the wondering why no one thought to cover that up, I have to admit, it was kind of exhilarating!
After the acrophobia subsided a bit, I started to notice how I was the only person walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I began wondering if I missed the memo. In a city of 8 million, how is that no one is walking this same direction as me? The sights are awesome, and the view is energizing and scary, but I’m having that not so infrequent NYC alone feeling even though I’m around a ton of people. So many people dream of being right where I am, and I’m wondering how did I get here, where am I going … and why are those 8 million people walking in the other direction?
When I got to the midway point on the bridge, I took a breather. I reveled in the solidness of the central pillar. And by “reveled”, I mean to say, “clung” to the solidness of the central pillar. And by “breather”, I should say, “started to breathe” again. I could see how awesome the view was. There were a lot more people hanging about here. Propping cameras up in small crevices so that their timers could capture a moment between a couple. Fingers pointing toward this or that. This particular night was our first warm night despite it not yet being spring. I had a better sense of where I was, and which way to go again once I was ready. I was comforted by the peacefulness of the center’s surety, but I had dinner plans to go to. The West Village was calling, and there was a long way still to go.
And thus ends the parable of the bridge. Broadly, I see our faith, Unitarian Universalism, as that bridge. It is what I consider one of the world’s great religions. Spanning back to the reformation, Unitarianism in Europe, like many of the other early Protestant traditions, formed from the thoughts, writings and martyrdom’s of those that came before us. We have grown into a very contemporary religious expression, but our roots go deep.
Having a 400 year arc of tradition and change, how does one who is new to the faith, find their way in? How does one who was born into our religion, balance their life-path with the demands and rigors of our values? How can you live into this religious community when we all don’t have the same beliefs? It can often feel very difficult to find one’s way onto the bridge. The many traffic signals, cement barricades and the on-line maps of life tell us how to live and how to be. Sometimes they’re helpful, sometimes they just don’t speak the truth. Consumerism teaches us to be more productive at the expense of living deeply. The crush of the Metro New York area and the protestant/american/capitalist work ethic informs folks who are salaried or who are holding two or more jobs, that working less than fifty hours a week is being lazy. I’ve heard this concern enough times before and since the recession, that I think it’s crucial to point out the following value – and it is very much a value. The 70 hour work week might be a reality for some of us, but lazy doesn’t start at under 50 hours. That mindset makes us automatons, not humans.
I remember a high school education with 8 classes, no lunch period – didn’t need it since the teachers would let me eat during class time, choir, track, and theatre. Mornings that started at 6am, and homework that ended by 9 or 10pm at night during the week. And mom still sent me to church and church school on the weekend as a kid. As a teen, I began returning the favor to mom, reminding her to make it to Mass.
Cement barricades serve their purpose; they keep traffic flowing, give solidity to our way of life. They also make some of us have to walk a few extra blocks out of the way to get where we’re going. Where’s the path that lets us maintain our jobs and find time for a religious life? Homework on Sunday mornings means there’s no room to explore our values; just our facts. Are we raising our children to be pro-Soccer athletes, or are we raising our children to be spiritually mature, good people? The cement dividers are here to stay. We have to find another way. When we take out our maps, or memorize those google maps and see where the blocked paths are, we need to make the personal choice to not be surprised when the path is long. We need to manage our expectations. And when we still lose our way, and know that we will all lose our way at least at one point, the GPS of congregational life – our clergy, fellow congregants, our parents, our sons and daughters, need to be ready to help point the way.
So, look around. … This might surprise some of us, but this week, we are the ones who made it. Not everyone makes it hear each week. We’re walking up the entrance ramp. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve done so. Coming to the congregation might be the challenge, with seemingly narrow paths to joining. You haven’t seen all the activities, heard all the stories, served the call of justice-making in all its ways yet. At first the walkway may seem tight, but trust me, if you keep walking forward it will seem more open. One significant widening of our pathway is happening this month. Our Committee on Ministry has crafted a Mission Statement reflecting two years of cottage meetings from the Ministerial Search, and months of meetings this year. If you look in our Order of Service, I think on the inside cover, you’ll see the old Mission Statement. For folks who have been coming awhile, can you quote the several paragraphs by heart? (Any hands?) That’s a way in which the pathway stays tight. It’s hard to articulate our purpose when our purpose is so verbose. The new Mission Statement to be voted on at the April 27th congregation meeting is: “In Religious Community, we nurture our spirits by caring for one another and helping to heal the world.” Pending that vote, joining this community means that we recognize the value of community, and how compassion and social justice are spirit deepening practices. We matter, and how we act in community matters. And acting our values matter. This becomes what we are about – clearly.
For some of us, we’ve been coming for years and are active members. We volunteer our time, money and a ton of heart. So many folks here have given so much – and I am so grateful for your volunteer work. The teachers, the committee members, the people who keep the roof up, and the floor safely on the ground. The newsletter editors, the folders, the folks that keep our shelter safe and warm. Those who help honor our dead, and turn on our lights. The preachers, the counselors, the sound mixers, the webmaster, the youtube videographer, the pageant director. And the list will inevitable go on to at least one more role that I haven’t mentioned, no matter how many volunteer services I’ll name. Because we’re a community of many people who share many gifts.
But whether you set up your first Shelter Cot (like me last Sunday) or you’ve prepared a dozen Seder meals, in some ways we may be at the same place. We probably agree with the principles and purposes of Unitarian Universalism. And yet you might still be figuring out how to feel your way onto or up that ramp. You’re inline with our ethics and our causes, but the question of identity still seems elusive. Maybe, just maybe, the spirit in Unitarian Universalism hasn’t caught hold. The zeal of evangelism, even if it’s only to evangelize yourself, hasn’t taken grip. You might seek to figure out where our religious tradition’s values matches your own. You agree that people have value and worth; that justice, equity and compassion are imperative in this troubled world; that beliefs need not divide us in all things; that the search matters; that all voices should be heard; that world community is a goal; and that we are all related and that the natural world is inclusive in the word “we.” These principles ought to be impressive, because they are daunting and very difficult to follow.
For those of us who this describes, let me challenge you a bit, more than you already are in striving to live up to these values. In the month ahead, ask yourself what does our faith tradition ask you to do? When you catch yourself thinking, “I agree with that ethic, or value, or principle,” follow-up by asking yourself, “What can I do, or say, or consider in light of that value that I wasn’t doing, or saying, or considering before?” Consider it a spiritual self-assessment. We do all sorts of assessments in our lives – with our finances, our job performance, our buildings and homes. It may be time to perform one over what matters among the most in our lives.
I believe that’s the core of the meaning of the word discipleship. We often think of it in terms of Jesus’ disciples; men who were following a central figure. How can we be disciples when we don’t all have the same views, and many of us maintain an agnostic stance to faith? Discipleship can also be to a path, to a way of living. Our principles and purposes are not easy to maintain all the time, in all ways. Living them, intentionally, can change us for the better. Being devoted to that practice strengthens our character. For example, fostering justice, equity and compassion in human relations is not just a nice thing to do. It has implications on our perspectives and our personality. From time to time we’re all guilty of wanting to be the one to end up right and the other person to end up wrong. We get into struggles that are more about me, myself and I, rather than we and us. When we retract behind our Ego fortresses, we’re not living up to the practice of the second principle I just mentioned. We’re not living our path. We become devoted to something else – something with less substance or power.
For those of us who are ready for Advanced Lifespan Religious Education 405, take what you realize, or learn, or remember from that spiritual self-assessment and share it with your fellow congregant. Most week’s we invite a member to share how our congregation has deepened their spirit or transformed who they were for the better. Hannah Arendt once suggested that the highest form of human action is speaking amid and engaging with others. I think this point is often particularly difficult for Unitarian Universalists, not the speaking up bit, but the engaging with others about our spiritual values. We often act as if we are imposing on others, should we engage in a discussion about values as they pertain to religion.
…Raise your hand if you are easily swayed; if you do whatever you’re told; if any belief shared with you becomes your own. (Be gentle with those whose hands are up.) We kid ourselves into thinking we are being responsible by not engaging with one another over our values. Be genuine as you engage, but remember to engage. That’s another aspect of the agnostic disciple. We go out into the world and engage with one another about matters of the spirit, of the heart, of the mind. I sometimes imagine we’re helping convert people away from being automatons, away from their ego fortresses.
Be genuine as you engage, but remember to engage. Some parents here have heard me remind them that most of our religious education happens at home. One can not learn Algebra or Spanish by studying it one hour a week for nine or ten months a year – it only adds up to about 40 hours, or one week of school. Believe me, I tried that approach with Spanish, and it did not go well for me. It takes immersion. We are that immersion. If religious education ends in the classroom, our oldest youth may have as much as 12 weeks of full-time class with very little homework or 3 months – one semester – over the whole span of our religious education program. And that’s if you attend every Sunday. Our folks who joined us as adults may have but a few hours. Since we are that immersion course, I need you to help me out by practicing our spiritual fluency with regularity.
As a quick aside, just like the widening ramp, let me warn you, at some point in your religious life, you will likely encounter someone speeding toward you rapidly ringing their clown-like bell to get out of their cycling path. Whether you may feel that’s coming from the pulpit, or coffee hour, please do not take my challenge toward deeper engagement to sound like a ringing cyclist on a narrow path. Be nimble, be swift. Take what is of value, even if it turns out to simply be that cycling (like spiritual engagement) is a healthy sport, and turn to the side as you need. We control not the sounds and bells along the way, only that we continue to have a path to share. How we share it is all our responsibility.
Some of us lament the lack of neat, simple answers in our faith to the questions of belief. This is the particular challenge of the Agnostic Disciple. Like my acrophobic-induced panic attacks, we do not cover up what’s below us and around us with straight, hard, and opaque answers. There are times in life where we feel we may desperately need the certitude of truth to be known by us as clearly expressed belief. … We don’t build that way. We lay walkways and frameworks that allow us a clear view in all directions – even the scarily downward ones; yet the path is firm. Millions have walked it. And it can get exhilarating if you let it. Know that belief does not equal faith. The path we walk is our faith. We may construct that faith with varying beliefs, but the wise choice of wood, metal, solid, or porous does not diminish the path. These choices will change the view though.
Some of you may question my choice in the West Village as the destination of my little spirit-walk. Kingdom of Heaven, Beloved Community, or Nirvana it may or may not be. But it was where I was going. I just so happened to know this time which way I headed. We don’t always know that. But the path remains as firm as it needs to be. We have chosen, or continue to choose each day, to walk through this precious and rare gift that we know as life in the manner we do. Each day we see a rebirth to this life, and are faced with the most serious question we can be asked. How do we live? Knowing that the majority of our religious education comes from one another in how we choose to answer this question of living; consider how you model the role of teacher; how do you model the role of disciple? What would your students learn from you? How would they learn to live their life? Where do you connect with our values? Where do you fall short? From time to time, we all succeed and we all fall short. Each day that we see a rebirth to this life is a new opportunity to change, to grow and always and ever to teach.
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