First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Fallen

September 29, 2013
Rev. Sandra Fees

Reading: Coyote by Mark Jarman

Is this world truly fallen? They say no.
For there's the new moon, there's the Milky Way,
There's the rattler with a wren's egg in its mouth,
And there's the panting rabbit they will eat.
They sing their wild hymn on the dark slope,
Reading the stars like notes of hilarious music.
Is this a fallen world? How could it be?

And yet we're crying over the stars again,
And over the uncertainty of death,
Which we suspect will divide us all forever.
I'm tired of those who broadcast their certainties,
Constantly on their cell phones to their redeemer.
Is this a fallen world? For them it is.
But there's that starlit burst of animal laughter.

 The day has sent its fires scattering.
The night has risen from its burning bed.
Our tears are proof that love is meant for life
And for the living. And this chorus of praise,
Which the pet dogs of the neighborhood are answering
Nostalgically, invites our answer, too.
Is this a fallen world? How could it be?

 

Sermon: Fallen by Rev. Sandra Fees

“Is this a fallen world?” In his poem Coyote, Mark Jarman poses this question. 

The reality of our human existence is that life isn’t always the way we want it to be. People grow old. People die. Natural disasters occur. Then there are the things that result from cruelty, poor decisions, and greed. Sometimes people are treated unfairly. Sometimes people get injured.

Just in my own life alone I can observe plenty of fallen moments – failures, embarrassments, broken relationships, and difficult illnesses. Beyond that are the global dimensions of cruelty and war, abuse and addiction, and life’s uncertainties. It isn’t hard to convince people that there’s something deeply wrong with the world and that there’s something deeply wrong with humans, perhaps humans especially.

This is the lesson children are often taught and the message that bombards us through media and religion. Magazine ads, billboards, television ads, and the products on the store shelves suggest something is not right with us.

Much of this has to do with shame and guilt about our bodies. We are told we need to be thinner, smell better, be more beautiful, wear the right fashions, do away with body hair and cellulite, and cover the signs of aging. It stretches beyond that, of course. We’re not smart enough or wealthy enough. We don’t work hard enough or care enough. There are many ways we are taught to be embarrassed about who we are and how we are. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, “We are told from childhood that something is wrong with us, with the world, and with everything that comes along: it’s not perfect, it has rough edges, it has a bitter taste, it’s too loud, too soft, too sharp, too wishy-washy.”

Our culture is steeped in the myth of our fall from grace. A prevalent and underlying religious philosophy is that we humans have been cast into a broken world as fallen and even depraved creatures. From that fateful time when Eve encountered the serpent in the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we humans are said to have been exiled from paradise and forced to live in a hostile universe filled with suffering. And what’s more, we’re taught it’s our own fault – because we were disobedient. There’s a lot of guilt and shame, tremendous culpability, in that.

Fortunately, Unitarian Universalism does not share this theological outlook. Our religion teaches that life is a gift. Our life is something given to us which we did not earn. This gift of life is blessed and is a blessing. Our first ethical principle affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means that deep down we all carry goodness. Deep down we all have inherent worth and dignity.

Our Universalist heritage has bequeathed us the affirming concept of universal salvation, which in contemporary terms has to do with inclusivity. All people share the same origin and the same fate. We all come from the same source and return to the same source. We are all connected in a unity of life.

These are positive and encouraging messages about life and human nature. Our religion is saturated with hopeful messages – with grand ideals and big visions for humanity and for the earth. This isn’t because we look at life and each other through rose-colored glasses. We don’t think we or the world are without problems. We don’t pretend there isn’t a need for compassion and healing and a need for justice and equity.

Sometimes we’re accused of being Pollyanna’s. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, we do sometimes mistake our position of hope with a position of naiveté. Saying we have inherent worth and dignity doesn’t mean we all behavior impeccably all the time. It doesn’t even mean people don’t do terrible things, because, of course, they do. We know this, because each of us does things we wish we hadn’t done.

The reality is that Unitarian Universalism is honest and practical. And that asks a lot of people. It asks a lot more than we sometimes acknowledge. Rather than ignoring the struggles and difficulties in the world, rather than judging the world as fallen, rather than believing everything will all turn out just fine in the end because there’s someone else in charge who will set things right, we encourage one another to confront the reality of life’s complexities. We encourage each other to remain hopeful and to work to create a better world in which to live. In fact, one of the things we do as a community is to hold each other accountable.

Pema Chodron describes this level of honesty as relating sanely with difficult times. She says:

Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It’s becoming critical. We don’t need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what’s already here. It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times.

… This is the primary method for working with painful situations – global pain, domestic pain, any pain at all. We start by working with the monsters in our mind. Then we develop the wisdom and compassion to communicate sanely with the threats and fears of our daily life.

That’s what we are trying to do.

Blessing is not about perfection. It isn’t about a utopian ideal. Instead it has to do with recognizing the seeds of goodness. Each of us contains the potential and possibility for good. The world is imbued with potential goodness. Theologian Matthew Fox says “deep down we all carry goodness, we all carry our original blessing.” (Original Blessing Twenty Five Years Later, Easter 2008, Matthew Fox, www.matthewfox.org/2011/02/original-blessing-twenty-five-years-later/)

There’s a wisdom story about what this potential means to spiritual seekers. In the story, a pilgrim sets out on a long journey in search of peace, joy and love. The pilgrim walks for many weary miles, and time passes. Gradually, the young, lively steps become slower and more labored.

The pilgrim’s journey passes through landscapes that were not always happy ones. Through war. Through sickness. Through quarrels and rejections and separations. A land where, it seems, the more people possessed, the more warlike they become – the more they have to defend, the more they need to attack each other. Longing for peace, they prepare for war. Longing for love, they surround themselves with walls of distrust and barriers of fear. Longing for life, they are walking deeper into death.

But one morning, the pilgrim comes to a little cottage at the wayside. Something about this little cottage attracts the pilgrim. It is as if it were lit up from the inside. Full of curiosity, the pilgrim goes inside. And inside the cottage is a little shop. Behind the counter stands a shopkeeper. It was hard to judge the age – hard even to say for sure whether it was a man or woman. There was an air of timelessness about the place.

The shopkeeper asks the pilgrim what she would like. The pilgrim asks: “What do you stock here?’ The shopkeeper tells her, “Oh, we have all the things here that you most long for. Just tell me what you desire.” The pilgrim hardly knows where to begin. So many desires come rushing to mind. She begins to list them. She has a long list:

I want peace – in my own family, in my native land and in the whole world.

I want to make something good of my life.

I want those who are sick to be well again and those who are lonely to have friends.

I want those who are hungry to have enough to eat.

I want every child born on this planet today to have a chance to be educated.

I want everyone on earth to live in freedom.

I want this world to be a commonwealth of love.

We can all imagine our own long wish lists, can’t we? We’d eliminate suffering and war and poverty and homelessness and anger and violence. We would want kindness and fairness and love.

The pilgrim pauses, though she isn’t done with her list just yet. But when she pauses, the shopkeeper breaks in to say:  “I’m sorry. I should have explained. We don’t supply the fruits here. We only supply the seeds.” (Wisdom Stories from Around the World, compiled by Margaret Silf)

This is how the world is constructed. This is how our lives work. Only the seeds are supplied. We arrive on this planet with potential and possibility, with the seeds. The seeds are in us and in others and in the earth and all her creatures. It is up to us to make the most of these seeds, to realize their potential, and turn them into fruit. This is what we’re about as a religious community. We strive to recognize the seeds of truth, of meaning, of love, of justice, of kindness, of joy – and to grow them, to spread them.

In our opening hymn, Earth Was Given as a Garden, we sang that earth is a cradle for humanity, home to all creatures, whose intention it is to live in harmony. We sang a plea for blessing on the earth and on all humanity, that we may be made whole and be connected, that we may learn to live in peace. This is what it means when we say “earth was given as a garden.”

We’re already and always in the garden. We’re already on holy ground, in paradise. Rebecca Parker, a Unitarian Universalist minister, has written extensively on the meaning of paradise. She has sought to reframe our understanding. As she says,

this earth – and none other – is a garden of beauty, a place of life. … the problem for Western culture, is that we have become disoriented and think we are outside the garden when we are not. We are treating life here and now as if we were in a barren wasteland, but we have profoundly misjudged our location. It is possible to reorient our imagination … and to see that the garden is neither closed nor lost but rather is open and present. 

To imagine the world thus offers us inspiration and encouragement. It offers us the good news that the divine is already here. The world is already holy.

What do we do in the midst of suffering? We awaken to the beauty and the blessings of our lives and the earth. We roll up our sleeves and turn the seeds into fruit. The eco philosopher and professor David Orr said: “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” (qtd in “Hope is a Verb with its Sleeves Rolled Up,” Matthew Fox, Sermon)

When we see the earth as a garden, when we recognize the holy ground on which we stand, how can we do anything other than roll up our sleeves and plant the seeds?! Earth is home, cradle of our existence, where we can receive comfort, where possibilities are born, and where we can learn to live in peace, embracing the world.

Jarman asks, “Is this a fallen world?” Our faith calls us to answer as he did, “How could it be?”  

Blessed be. Amen.