Monday, October 3, 2011

Taking Root (October 2, 2011)

(This sermon is part of an ongoing series on the Principles of Permaculture. The 8 principles we are using come from Starhawk's "Principles of True Abundance")

It is easy for Unitarian Universalists to feel rootless. For so many centuries we have been out on the growing edge of religious, ethical, and philosophical thought. Folks hear that we are a non-creedal faith and say “UUs can believe anything they want” but for us it is not a creed that keeps us grounded, it is our principles and our roots. As one of my old professors at Seminary used to say about our movement “This wasn’t something that was born at an EST seminar in California in the 1970s.” No, we have deep roots, and as we learned in the story of the trees of Kenya, the deep roots of the trees protect the soil and the water, and keep it from blowing away in the wind and drying up in the sun. Without deep roots the land becomes a desert. This is the 3rd principle in our sermon series this year on the principles of permaculture, principles that will guide us toward a more sustainable and abundant culture for all beings on our planet. The principle is simply this: “Take Root” -- connect to our ancestors and to the local.

This principle is not only true for soil and trees and eco-systems, it is also true for our hearts and minds and spirits. For example when we proudly declare ourselves to be a welcoming congregation, welcoming to all people be they Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual or straight, that welcome has so much more strength when we realize it is rooted in our universalist theology- the idea that every single person has inherent worth and dignity, a 20th century idea rooted in our centuries old Universalist heritage which says that God is all loving, that god loves all people, that all people will be reunited with God and with one another at the end of days. All are chosen, all are saved. We draw not only on our contemporary principles and values when we protect the rights of our GLBT neighbors and friends, but I feel in me the fiery passion of our stump preaching ancestors, who called on the power of God’s all encompassing love and power to save. Like a tree drawing water and nutrients from its roots, I feel powerful and strong when I call on the wisdom of my ancestors.

The history of Unitarian Universalism is often told something like this: In the 1500s a Spanish physician named Michael Servetus, the same man who discovered respiration in the lungs, published a book called “On the Errors of the Trinity.” He believed that God was one, and that the bible did not say anything about a trinity. He was burned at the Stake by John Calvin in 1553 for refusing to retract this statement.

During this time, such ideas were traveling across Europe. Just a decade later in Transylvania [1568] a young king, John Sigismund was convinced to listen to great preachers of different sects of the Christian tradition before he name the state religion. A preacher named Frances David won the day with his ideas about how the trinity was not in the bible, and how “we need not think alike to love alike.” David advised King John that not only his Unitarian ideas but all Christian religious groups should be allowed to co-exist under an “edict of tolerance.” Now groups of Unitarians began to worship together for the first time under this name. Other strains of Unitarianism grew in Poland and in England.

But Unitarian ideas continued to be met with persecution. Joseph priestly, an English Scientist and Unitarian Minister fled to America after his laboratory was burned to the ground because of his ideas. [1791]

Many in America were responding to a powerful fundamentalist movement called “The Great Awakening.” This was revival movement that grew out of Calvinism. Opponents of this movement emphasized the importance of reason and logic, an approach to the bible that valued historical and critical thinking, and the importance of ethics. Unitarianism is one of the movements that grew out of this opposition.

But the Unitarian churches were still part of the state-sponsored church system. Universalism, which had its roots in similar ideas, believed in a separation of church and state, and were allied with radical fringe groups like the Quakers. Universalism grew up in opposition to Calvinism, which said that only a certain small group had been chosen by God at the beginning of time to go to heaven; The rest of us were going to hell.

Universalists thought that the damnation of most of humanity did not harmonize with the concept of an all powerful all loving God, and they centered their faith with the idea that all persons could be saved. It was in the second generation of American Universalists that this church was founded, that our lovely historic building was built in Sheshequin.

The Unitarian and Universalist movements grew alongside one another. Both were deeply impacted by the transcendentalist movement, which preferred the natural world over the biblical literalism on which even the old-school Unitarians built into their faith. Transcendentalists like Channing, Fuller and Emerson wanted to strip away the historic structures and teachings of the church and center their faith in the direct experience of God. The transcendentalists also introduced Eastern thought into our movement, widening the web of our roots beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This was also a great time for Social Justice as Unitarian and Universalist preachers and activists worked to end slavery, worked to give women the right to vote, and work in other areas which badly needed reform like the Prison and Mental Health systems. Pioneers like Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained into the ministry of an organized denomination in this country, paved the way for gender equality in our own Universalist Tradition.

In the 20th century, the humanist notion that one could be religious and ethical without God was a powerful one in our movement. 20th century Unitarians were atheists, agnostics and theists, humanists and Christians.

In 1961 the Unitarians and the Universalists merged into one association. Together we were allies and activists in the civil rights movement. The women’s movement lead us to re-consider how we thought about God, and searching for a concept of the divine that honored women, we encountered the ancient pagan ideas of God the mother, and were inspired by the ideas of the neo-pagan movement. We have been and still are leaders in the rights of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender persons. Today we provide a bridge between the secular and the sacred, among faiths and theologies.

But we have roots that go even deeper than that. I think of the church I used to serve in California. They had a beautiful Madrone branch as hung behind the pulpit for as long as anyone could remember. I thought about the symbolism of a branch without a trunk, without roots. I used to joke that maybe the place where that branch was cut from its tree is a symbol of the execution of Servetus -- Our break from the Catholic Church and our Protestant cousins. But it is shortsighted to consider a branch apart from the tree, and now I want to say something about the symbolic tree on which this branch grew.

Frances David and Michael Servetus were both raised Catholics, and were part of the protestant reformation that rocked the western world. The Church of England, the Calvinists, the Baptists and many other protestant movements blossomed and evolved within a generation of Martin Luther, the Augustinian Monk, nailing his 95 thesis to the church door in 1517. Luther had been upset about corruption in the Catholic Church, and had grown in his disputes with Catholic theology.

With the invention of the printing press in 1450, common people could now read and interpret the bible for themselves. The spread of the printed bible translated into the popular tongues created a grass-roots movement within the Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church had become the legal religion of Western Europe, tightly allied with political and financial power. Monastic movements, like those founded in the 12th century by St. Francis and in the 5th century by St. Benedict created an alternative to the wealth and corruption which infected the power structures of both church and kingdom. Men and Women religious took oaths of poverty and devoted their daily life to sharing work and to cultivating the spirit.

At the same time mystics like Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen held at the center of their faith a direct experience of the divine (roots of the transcendentalists). Throughout Christian history there was a perennial tension between those keepers of the church traditions and institutions and those mystics and martyrs who held themselves accountable only to God, playing at the edges of heresy.

Arius, a parish priest at the turn of the 4th century, found himself on the heretical side of the Nicene Creed when in 325 the Council of Nicaea drew its theological line in the sand. Arius had taught that God created a Son who was the first creature, but who was not equal to God. According to Arius, Jesus was a supernatural creature not quite human and not quite divine. Some call Arius an early ancestor of Unitarianism.

Though there was as yet no council to declare him heretical, many controversies have followed the teachings of Origen of Alexandria, who lived a century before Arius. (185-232) He preached the eventual return of all souls to a perfection in proximity to God (an early ancestor, some say, of the Universalists).

Before Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and issued The "Edict of Milan" (CE 313), which ended the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, the early followers of Jesus were enemies of Rome, tortured and punished by death. Paul, who is credited with forming the early church, was imprisoned and writes about his imprisonment in the New Testament. Early Christianity was a religious movement which identified strongly with its crucified teacher. It was an egalitarian movement, a reform movement both within the Jewish tradition and within the Roman Empire.

Within the Roman Empire, the Jewish people had lived as a conquered or occupied people. Many spent their lives as slaves, taken in battle. Roman procurators kept the peace and collected taxes, pocketing additional money for themselves. Roman leaders swung between tolerance of Jewish religious practices and persecution. Like the early Christians, Jews were tortured or put to death when they refused to worship pagan gods, or to worship the emperor as a God. In 70 CE the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem was the sad outcome of the Great Jewish Revolt against the Empire.

This time moving backwards to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem under Babylonian rule was a time when the books we now think of as the Hebrew Bible were canonized and began to assume their present form. This was the time when classical Greek philosophy was thriving, and the Jews were known for the strong ethics of their legal code and tradition. The last books that made it into the canon were writings of the prophets like Ezekiel and Zacharia who spoke out against the injustices of the ruling class, and of their contemporary culture as a whole.

The chronicles of Jewish history that appear in the scriptures describe a struggle of kingdom against kingdom, of the rise and fall of powerful men. (This was a patriarchal time when women rarely had political power, and were not part of the Jewish Rabbinate.) The Indian Mahabharata tells similar story. The Hindu and Greek pantheons also reflect the role of war in Classical society. And so it was throughout the world, as the Chinese warred for dynastic control of China, and the Aztecs in this continent.

Writing was also a child of these civilizations, first in Sumer and later in Egypt peoples first wrote down their scared stories and texts. Classical religions such as Judaism brought sacred writing to the center of their religious identity.

But the earliest books of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures share oral roots with the stories of Islam. All 3 religions call themselves descendants of Abraham. The first five books of the bible, called the “Torah” collect stories of a very ancient oral tradition. 20th century feminist scholars have used the stories and descriptions of the life of women to help recreate a picture of what women’s lives might have been like. We notice the presence of deities like “the Queen of Heaven” in these biblical stories. Since women were not taught to read, and in many times and places worshiped separately from men, their stories and rituals would have been passed down orally and many were lost. Scholars like Marija Gimbutas have found evidence of a time before written history when women held power in politics and religion, when God was female.

Before the written record, before the lingering stories of ancient times, we have only the archeological record to help us understand what came before; the residual tools of a Neolithic village, the sediment of an evolving earth. Before people organized themselves and their farms around towns, were the Neolithic villages grown out of small settlements. Only about 1 million humans lived on earth. Archeological evidence of the first shrines and religious art shows us that religions focused on the cycle of life, the return of the sun after winter, harvest after planting. It was the role of early religions to pass on this cyclic wisdom, and to remind people of their place in the natural world. The Great mother deity gave birth to and cared for the universe.

These earliest peoples passed on to their offspring not only their genetic coding, but a cultural coding which preserved the learning of parent and grandparent for each evolving generation. Spoken language had made this possible in a new way.
As far back as our Neanderthal ancestors, ritual surrounded burial of the dead. Evidence of such a burial is found in an archeological site in Lebanon including a thoughtful arrangement of stones and a deer killed as food for the deceased. We identify with the drive of these early hominids to find meaning in the cycles of life and death, establishing traditions for integrating such experiences in their own lives and in the natural cycles of life.

Sometimes as a UU I feel like a newcomer in this valley, with all those new ideas our open minds have grasped. But we have roots here in this valley, going back over 200 years, before even the town of Sheshequin was incorporated in 1820. We have roots in this country going back to the American Revolution. We have roots back to the earliest leaders of the Christian Church – we were cutting edge thinkers (or heretics as Arius was called) back in the 3rd century. We have roots back to the ethical teachings of the Jewish traditions, and to the primal earth centered religions before history. We have roots that bind us to all beings who have ever wondered why we live and die.

Today, on Association Sunday, UUs from around the country gather to remember the web of roots that connects to one another. We honor our roots lest we become rootless and adrift, lest our UU tradition become cut off from the channels that bring us water and nutrients, lest our souls become deserts buffeted by the winds of change. When we take root we become strong, we become wise, and we remember that we are never alone.