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The Ocean Refuses No River – September 12, 2010

As most of you know, I am new to Beverly, and to the North Shore. I’ve spent the last month settling in and getting a feel for this place. In addition to the more obvious things: finding a new friends, a new favorite restaurant, a new grocery store, there is a process, whenever you move to a new town and decide to make it your home, of getting to know the local sacred sites and stories. What things do these people, whom you are trying to become a part of, really treasure and love? Now some of this I was already well prepared for. I feel right at home here in Red Sox Nation: as a proud product of upstate New York, I welcome any opportunity to root against the Yankees. But there were also more specific holy objects to learn about; when I first arrived it seemed like everyone I met mentioned Lynch Park – have you been to Lynch Park yet? You’ve got to take your family to Lynch Park. Oh and, don’t forget: there’s Lynch Park just down the street. When I actually did get to visit the park, it was a warm day but the air along the shore was cool and dark. I could look out at the sea and see the blue-gray sky over the blue-gray water. It was beautiful, and showed me just a little bit of what all the fuss was about.

Every place, and every community, is different, and yet: every place, and every community, is also the same. People all over the world, of many times and many faiths, have held the waters that they lived beside as sacred. The Ancient Egyptians revered the Nile – they depended on its floods for their livelihood and they believed that those who died left the living world behind by crossing its waters from East to West. In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Elisha healed a desperately sick man by washing him in the River Jordan. In the Gospel of Mark, it is that same river to which Jesus travels in order to be baptized by John. In Islam, the well of Zamzam is the place where Hagar, lost and alone in the desert with her thirsty child, found water to sustain them both.

And in the lore of Great Britain the hero Arthur is given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, symbol that he is to become King of the Britains. Now, intellectually, I think that most of us will agree with Michael Palin that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Emotionally and spiritually, however, stories like this plug into something which is common, almost universal in human cultures. It is the idea of holy waters, of rivers and lakes and seas which are particularly meaningful and spiritually important.

The Hindu tradition has many sacred waters and one of these is the Ganges, the great river that rolls from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean. It is understood as the earthly extension of the Milky Way. In one story the Ganges enters the world with such force and power that it would shatter the earth into pieces, except that it first must pass through the hair of the god Shiva, such a great, strong, knotted mass that the water is slowed and softened and the world is spared. Before it reaches the sea, the Ganges meets the river Yamuna, and at that place, again according to Hindu thought, there is actually a third river that joins them: Sarasvati, the invisible river of wisdom and abundance. At this meeting place of rivers is a city, Allahabad, a place where pilgrims come to wash away their misdeeds, where the ashes of the honored dead are spread on the water. During the struggle for Indian independence, Allahabad was a center of resistance to British rule, which required cooperation and dialogue between Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Indians of other religions.[i]

Ecologically speaking, places where two or more bodies of water meet are often particularly vibrant. The intermingling of different eco-systems can, under the right conditions, create an explosion of life: a greater number of living things with a greater diversity to match. The lesson from the natural world is that diversity is strength; an environment filled with many different animals and plants can survive even if a few of its species leave or die off. In less diverse ecosystems, the loss of just one species can place the whole system in danger. This understanding of diversity as a good in itself has always been at the heart of our faith. Earlier we sang together: “As tranquil streams that meet and merge and flow as one to seek the sea, our kindred hearts and minds unite to build a church that shall be free.”[ii] Those words were written to honor the growing closeness of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. The hymn was written decades before those two organizations consolidated into our present Unitarian Universalist Association, fifty years ago next year. But our sense of unity in diversity goes back even further. More than four centuries ago, John Sigismund, history’s only Unitarian monarch, proclaimed in his edict of religious toleration that “no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone…For faith is the gift of God…” As a religious movement without a creed, we are and have always been a varied assortment of heretics, and because of that outsider experience, we owe a special loyalty to everyone whom society pushes to the margins. Knowing the plight of our ancestors, we have a responsibility to seek to understand and support the struggles of others.

For the past several weeks, Muslims all over the world have been celebrating Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. It is a time of prayer and also of parties; when observing Ramadan, you do not eat during the day, but after the sun goes down, and folks can eat again, many people break the fast in large groups, gathered together to share good food and good company. Here in my country, though, the backdrop to Ramadan for the many, many Muslims who live here has been a very loud, very public debate about whether or not they are entitled to the same rights and fundamental respect as their fellow citizens. Almost every day I hear on the radio or read on the internet some words of anger and hate directed at my Muslim friends and neighbors. During this month, I wanted to give my mind something to meditate on to counteract those hurtful voices, and one of the first things I turned to were these words from a Muslim chant: “The ocean refuses no river. The open heart refuses no part of you, no part of me.” [iii]

Water, heated by the sun, evaporates into the air and rises skyward. Seeded by particles of dust in the atmosphere, it gathers into clouds and falls back to the earth as rain and snow. Much of that water is stored for a time at the tops of tall mountains, or seeps down into the earth, below the soil. But by and by, it wends its way into rivers and streams, pooling in lakes and ponds, and eventually making it, one way or another, out into the sea. “The ocean refuses no river. The open heart refuses no part of you, no part of me.” The words of the chant set a standard for love, for what it means to care for one another. And friends, that standard is high. It is similar to the expectation of our third principle as Unitarian Universalists: the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

So how are we to meet that same high standard that we have set for ourselves and for our religious communities. The answer is simple. Refuse no river. Refuse no part of yourself, or of anyone else. You will notice I said that it is simple, not that it would be easy. Living with an open heart does not mean that we cannot name what is wrong when it is wrong, or that we must not confront injustice wherever we find it. Rather, it means we must seek to be like the merciful ocean: welcoming all, and casting no one out for who they are. The Universalist Edwin Markham described the imperative of his faith with these words: “He drew a circle that shut me out. Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle that took him in.”[iv]

On this day, we gather together to draw our circle anew, as we reaffirm our covenant for another year. We are here to honor where we have come from, and both the pain and the joy that have shaped us, sustained us, and brought us to this moment. As we open another year of living together religiously by mixing together the waters of our lives in the water communion ceremony, there is just one prayer that I have for us. It does not come from me; I heard it by chance a few days ago, but when I heard it, I knew that it was also the prayer I had for us. This past week I was at a rally where Jewish and Muslim and Catholic and Quaker and Unitarian Universalist and other religious leaders spoke out against religious intolerance and in support of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. At the rally, Rabbi Eric Gurvis of Congregation Shalom in Newton offered his hopes for the world in the coming year of the Jewish calendar. I pray the same for us now in our coming year together as a congregation. In the year to come, may we spend less of ourselves in shouting and struggling and demanding to be understood, and devote ourselves, instead, to the goal of understanding each other. Amen.

[i] For more on the sacred rivers of India, see David Kinsley’s “Hindu Goddesses” and Stephen Huyler’s “Meeting God”

[ii] “As Tranquil Streams”, by Marian Franklin Ham

[iii] I encountered these words through some Sufis with whom I am connected (Sufism is the broad label for mystical Islam), and when I started researching their origin, I discovered that it is highly disputed. The words may come first from Islam or from Hinduism, and are possibly very, very old.

[iv] “Outwitted”, by Edwin Markham


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