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In Heaven and Earth – 1/29/2012

There is always more to know. The process of scientific inquiry tells us that the universe is expanding, and that it has been expanding for a very long time and will continue for a great many years to come. As the space we inhabit grows larger and larger, as the great masses of stars grow further and further apart, still new ones are being born in galactic nurseries thousands of light years from where I am standing right now. Around older, still distant suns new planets are forming, and perhaps somewhere out there in the sea of space new life is coming into being on some unknown world, far, far away. While here on our own earth, new lives most certainly are beginning each day. People fall in love, and some fall out of it. Nations rise and fall. Bodies toil in the work of the world, and souls yearn to be free. In the ancient Chinese scripture the Tao Te Ching, the poet-prophet Lao Tzu writes, “The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows. Empty but never exhausted, the more it pumps the more comes out.[i] So, there is always more to know.

When I was a student in college we used to sit on gray-green institutional carpeting and lounge on dimly-patterned couches designed to be difficult to stain. And we would talk about this thing and that thing; tiny little bits of the impossibly large amount there is to know. And we would argue – because that was the best part – about these tiny, little things like life and love and which Star Trek captain was objectively the best. Very important things, you understand.

As I said, the arguing was the best part: framing a question, presenting an answer, offering evidence, responding to a challenge. But one thing we quickly learned was that there was very little value in arguing about facts. Did Kierkegaard really say that? Is that story really in the bible? Was Kevin Bacon ever in a movie with Billy Dee Williams or not? Questions like those had verifiable answers and it only took a few moments on the internet to find them. There’s no point in arguing about something you can just look up.

Still, if you get personally invested in the issue, sometimes the facts aren’t enough. There’s a story told by one of my friends about an argument she had with her favorite professor. It really had nothing to do with their academic interests: it was all over the proper pronunciation of the word paradigm. My friend said the word “para-dime” and her professor corrected her, insisting that it was pronounced “para-dim”. My friend was satisfied to chock it up to differences in their accents and the regions they were brought up in. But her professor insisted that they go to that great settler of linguistic arguments, the Oxford English Dictionary – which happened to be ready at hand. The dictionary vindicated both sides equally: both pronunciations were correct. The professor, however, was not satisfied, saying that if the dictionary found “para-dime” acceptable, “Then the dictionary is wrong.”

This sort of stubbornness is hardly rare: it can be found in any of us. In 1633, church authorities tried the astronomer Galileo for arguing – from scientific inquiry – that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. An official apology was issued by Pope John Paul II 359 years later in 1992. Now let me be clear: I am not bringing this up as a hit on the Catholic Church. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, the correct thing to do is to apologize for it. 359 years is certainly a long time, but its also a little less than 20% of the total length of time that the church has been in existence. Consider 20% of your own span of years. That’s five years if you’re twenty-five, ten if you’re fifty, fifteen if you’re seventy-five. Think for a moment – is it possible that you’ve ever held onto something that long without admitting you were wrong? It can take that long, or longer sometimes. For many of

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us here this morning I suspect that there is something –from a day ago, or from ten years ago – where we are still struggling to admit that we were wrong.

There is always more to know. And in life we should seek to know what we can of it, to learn and to grow and to develop the particular faculties and potentials that can be found in every human being. The flowering and flourishing of the mind, body, and soul: all are interconnected, and the capacity of human beings to question and to seek after understanding is among our most beautiful and indeed our most holy traits. Some of our great Unitarian ancestors referred to this practice as self-culture; cultivating our innate capacities through our own exploration of the world and its wisdom. It is a central project of our faith, which affirms and promotes a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Not for certain groups of classes of people, not for those with particular titles or attainments, but for everyone. Unitarian Universalism declares that all people are called to a search that is ongoing and everlasting. Because there is always more to know.

Earlier, we read together this congregation’s affirmation of faith, as we do every Sunday. That text: “Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek truth in love, and to help one another,” or something very close to it is used by many different Unitarian Universalist congregations as a touchstone of who they are and how they aspire to be. It originates with a minister named James Vila Blake. He wrote the original version of it to summarize the covenant of the Unitarian church he served in Quincy, IL; it needed a summary because it was many pages long. Near the end of his tenure in 1883, the congregation held a meeting to consider a new covenant based on his poetic summary; it was approved. But then, a week later, a second meeting was held and the congregation voted again to amend the wording by adding ‘love’ to it, so that now instead of reading ‘Seek the truth,’ the second to last line would call on members to ‘Seek the truth in love.’ I am not aware of any record as to the reasoning behind that second meeting, or of what happened in the week between the two to convince the congregation to make that change. But something caused them to take a second look at the choice they had made and to change it in a lasting way that has now reached us over a hundred years later.[ii]

The ability to admit when we’re wrong, or even just to change our minds about something requires humility. And it is only when we allow love to guide and to balance our determination for what is true and right that a healthy and useful humility can emerge. The determination to know what is true and to act for what is right is complimented by a loving spirit – engaged love drives us in that direction. But holding them both in balance is challenging because it is an ongoing work: every moment offers a chance to succeed, and an opportunity to make a mistake.

There is a famous line from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet that I sometimes repeat to myself when I feel the need for a dose of humility. It is a line from Hamlet to his closest friend: “There are more thing in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The prince Hamlet is a conflicted and brooding character, and spends most of his play debating with himself about whether or not he is making the right decision. Horatio sees the world in simpler terms. Hamlet’s words remind me that my understanding of any situation is never perfect. There is always more to know.

All prejudice, all contempt, anything that would close us off from acknowledging the fundamental humanity of another person is based in hubris – the sinful side of pride, the presumption that we are right and the other is wrong, no matter what evidence may come. That attitude cannot survive the humility that love demands from us. In the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew, the prophet Jesus went to visit the city of Tyre. While he was there, a woman came to ask for his help. Her daughter, the story says, was possessed by an evil spirit, and so she came to ask the travelling teacher to make her child well. In the Gospels, Jesus’ ability to heal the sick and to drive out such harmful spirits are presented as a sign of his holiness and spiritual authority. The woman (and so her child) is called a Syrophonecian – in terms of language, ethnicity and religion, she is not a member of the same category as Jesus. Now Jesus has a very peaceful, loving reputation, but he can also be super mean, and this is one of the most striking examples of that meanness.

Jesus says to this poor woman seeking help for her suffering child, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Ouch. By this he seems to mean that his spiritual treasure, whatever of value it is he has to offer is reserved for his community, the people he is connected to religiously and ethnically. Having just received the verbal equivalent of a slap in the face, the Syrophonecian woman replies with an even more staggering comeback. “Yes, lord,” she said. “but even the dogs under the table may eat the children’s crumbs.” By this she accepts the low position he has consigned her to, because even from there she can make a claim to his help, and the wellbeing of her child is more important to her than her pride.[iii]

In the story Jesus immediately turns around, praises the woman and heals her daughter. It is a popular interpretation that he was always going to heal the child, but that he began with a cruel rejection in order to test the woman’s faith, or to teach a lesson to his disciples. And for people that need to believe that Jesus is a unique person who can never have done anything wrong or make any sort of mistake ever, that’s probably what you would have to say about a situation like this. But if the character of Jesus is to be understood as a relatably human being, someone who is near enough to you and me that they can serve as a moral example, and that their life can help us to better understand and live out our own, then there is a much simpler explanation for this story: Jesus was wrong. He was acting from an ingrained prejudice that wasn’t unique to him, or to his community, or even to the human species. It is the idea that I should favor the people who are somehow like me, and disregard those who aren’t.

All of us are capable of falling prey to this sort of thinking. And when such thought leads to action, it results in sin. By which I mean it leads us to make powerful mistakes that disconnect us from other people and from what is true and right in life. In the story, the prophet’s hubris is on display. The Syrophonecian woman points this out to him, with her own humility as contrast, and so he corrects his mistake. I find a lot of hope in that. Because sometimes I am simply wrong. There are moments when I have sunk below my own moral level and I need to be called to account for it. The story attests to the idea that sometimes even prophets are in need of being prophesied to. So perhaps there is reason to be gentle with ourselves and each other, when we, too, sometimes fall short.

There is always more to know. And so the universe confronts and graces us with its humbling diversity and complexity. Such grace can arrive in infinite forms, both within and without, but one of its most frequent sources is in our meetings with people we assume to be strange or different or other than us. So the fear and distrust that we might feel towards anyone based on their difference: in race, or in gender, in sexuality or religion or nationality or immigration status, or simply in the way they think or the choices they have made in life – that fear will lead us to sin, if it is not answered by love and a humble openness to learn more about the world and how better to live in it.

I want to leave you with this parable from the great spiritual canon of Star Trek. Far in the future, when humanity has taken its place among the stars and made many new friends among the species to be found there, a ship of exploration visits a new world. The people there are on the verge of reaching out into the galaxy, and this secret visit is to tell their leaders that they are not alone in the universe; there is a community of other beings who will welcome them when they are ready. The Chancellor of this distant world takes in the revelation that his

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people are not alone in the universe. Speaking with the human – to him, alien – captain of the visiting ship, the Chancellor explains his daily ritual. Each night, he goes home to his family, to share dinner with them. And he knows his family will ask him tonight, as they do every night, if he had a good day.

“And how shall you answer them tonight, Chancellor?” the captain asks.

“I will have to say this morning, I was the leader of the universe as I knew it. This afternoon, I am only a voice in a chorus. But I think it was a good day.”[iv]

My friends, I wish many such good days for each of you, in life. Do your best to remember to be lovingly humble in your approach to each other, to everyone you meet, and to yourselves. The universe will surprise you. There is always more to know.



[i] From Tao, Chapter 5 (This translation is near but not identical to that of Victor M. Mair)

[ii] Marshall, Frieda V. 2004. A Perspective from the Archives of the 1880’s, http://www.uuquincy.org/talks/20040118.shtml (accessed January 24, 2012)

[iii] From the Gospels According to Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28

[iv] From Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 4, Episode 15, “First Contact”

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