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Be Careful What You Worship – 3/4/2012

There was once an Episcopalian congregation who sold their old church building to a group of Unitarian Universalists. Or it may be that no such thing ever happened, but in any case that is how the story begins. Once they took ownership of the church, the UUs set about making the space their own. They redecorated the sanctuary, trying to bring a sense of intimacy to the vaulted space, and they decided to install a new floor in the social hall. The work downstairs meant that they had to find places in the church to store everything that was normally kept in that room for social hour. They had to get pretty creative, finding places to stash all of those chairs and tables and mugs, but eventually they did it.

They got all of this started before the folks from the Episcopalian congregation were completely moved out of the building, and so it was that a few days later, some of the church’s former owners returned for the last load of boxes. It’s a hard thing to say goodbye to a beloved house of worship, and several of these folks took a few moments for memory and reflection in the sanctuary. It looked different than how they’d left it: the pews were in a different configuration, and someone had hung a curtain over the apse at the back of the altar, where the great cross used to hang. They stood there quietly, saying another set of goodbyes to the place, when the silence was broken by a gasp. The group looked around for the source until one of their members appeared from behind the curtain, rolling the beverage cart that had been moved in from the social hall. “Look it’s true,” she said in hushed amazement. “They really do worship a coffee pot!”

While there can always be confusions like this, we show each other and ourselves what matters to us by the things we do. In fact, a person wandering into this sanctuary on a Sunday, as some of you did this morning, would find the coffee pot and other refreshments in a place of prominence not at the front but at the rear of the hall. And from this I might hope for you to take the message that a place has been prepared for you here. In fact, we are so eager to greet and to engage with one another, old and new, that sometimes we can barely stand even to wait until after the service. A gracious welcome says much about the people who offer it; and the opposite is also true.

Mulla Nasruddin is a witty and clever folk character in Islamic culture. In one of his many stories he was invited to a great feast with many distinguished guests. During the month of Ramadan it is the practice in Islam to fast during the day, and to break the fast in the evening with a celebratory meal, so this was the sort of party that Nasruddin was set to attend. When the sun set that day, Nasruddin was still out working in his field, and he realized that he did not have enough time to go home and change without being late. So he dusted himself off and went to the party as he was.

When he got there, he saw that everyone else was dressed in their finest garments. And as he made his way through the house, he found that no one seemed to want to talk to him or even acknowledge that he was there. So the mulla went home, changed into his very fanciest set of clothing, and returned to the feast. The response could not have been more different: everyone wanted to talk to the fascinating and famous Mulla Nasruddin. In fact the host made sure to seat him at his right hand.

As the plates were passed, the people sitting beside Nasruddin began to notice that he was doing something rather odd. He was taking food, like everyone else, but he was not eating it or setting it in front of him. Instead, he took a few dates and stuffed them into his coat sleeve. He picked up a stuffed grape leaf and tucked it into his pocket. He gratefully accepted a piece of bread and slid it into the folds of his turban.

After watching him in confusion for a few moments, his host asked, “Nasruddin what are you doing?”

The mulla replied, “From the two receptions I received, it is quite obvious to me that it is my clothes who were invited here to break the fast, and not me. So I am simply feeding my turban and my coat.”[i]

Our actions are not only determined by our thoughts and values – they shape those ideas and beliefs. We might like to think that we can believe one thing while doing something else entirely, but we are fooling ourselves. There is a quote that I have always attributed to the great Unitarian curmudgeon, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In doing the research for my message this morning I discovered that I could not place it to an original source and that the credit to Emerson is now in dispute. Oh well – if a thing is true, it is true no matter who said it. Here’s the quote:

A person will worship something – have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts – but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.[ii]

I would offer that the reverse is also true: whatever we are becoming is the true indicator of what we are worshipping. We are right now in the midst of the 100th anniversary of the Lawrence Textile Strike. In 1912 the workers at the mills in and around Lawrence, Mass, nearly all of them immigrants, most of them women, and many of them children, stopped work in order to protest a decline in their already meager pay. Many of the children of striking families were sent to live with supporters in other cities and the mill owners saw this as the theft of laborers they believed they were entitled to control.

When the authorities responded with the beatings and mass arrests of mothers trying to protect their children, the American public took some notice. Hearings on the textile industry were convened by congress, partially through the influence of Helen Herron Taft – whose husband President Taft was the last Unitarian President of the United States, and used to worship here in this sanctuary during his summers in Beverly. The attention on the incredibly dangerous and exploitative practices in the textile industry at the time forced the country, for a moment, to face the question of what its actual values were. Not the lofty ideals it espoused, but the priorities borne out by the actions it was willing to tolerate. An industry built on starvation wages in which industrial accidents that killed or maimed workers were so commonplace as to defy the word ‘accident’ was clearly worshipping something utterly disconnected from the sanctity and value of human life. The inability of the public and its government to ignore that contributed to victory of the Lawrence strike, as limited and temporary as it ultimately was.

There is an episode in the Hebrew Bible, in the first months after the Children of Israel have escaped from slavery in the land of Egypt, when the community comes to a crisis about just what exactly they are worshipping. similar beauty! Do Made, more Purell on. And cialis pharmacy online skills though worked was.

and even his brother and sister don’t seem to know him very well. Moses has gone up to the top of the mountain to confer with God. He has not been seen for many days.

So the story goes that the people grew uncertain and impatient and created for themselves an idol – a golden calf. They brought it offerings and made prayers to it. And then Moses returned from the mountain. He is carried with him a set of tablets with the terms of a new relationship to God on them: a set of moral and spiritual obligations to give new shape and meaning to his community. According to the Jewish tradition, the whole of Jewish law: all the scripture and all the stories and all the commentary that has ever been or will ever be a part of Judaism was somehow inscribed on those tablets. When Moses came down from the mountain and saw the calf, saw that the people had already given up on the faith that had brought them out of bondage, he was so angry and so sad that he dropped the tablets, and they shattered.

The decision to create and to worship the golden calf was wrong not just because the people had been told not to do that. It was wrong because the idol was a force without moral grounding – it was likely literally hollow, made from a wooden frame with a thin layer of gold worked over it. By creating and worshipping the calf, the group turned away from something challenging and difficult, but hopeful and promising, in favor of something convenient, but empty. The calf and the religion to be built around it might have been a momentary relief, but it could not have gotten the community through the wilderness.

There is a lesson, I have most often seen attributed to the Cherokee nation, that inside each heart there are two wolves at war with one another. The first wolf is anger and envy, hatred, resentment, false pride and arrogance. The second wolf is love and hope, humility, kindness, generosity and empathy. Each of us harbors these two wolves fighting one another throughout our lives. In every case, the one that will win is the one that we feed.

We must devote ourselves to the things that matter most to us, because in truth the things that actually matter most in our lives – that define who we are and shape the lives we lead – are whatever things we devote ourselves to. This holds particularly true for us as Unitarian Universalists. We have no creed – no uniform and universal statement of what we hold most dear. Instead, our creed is how we live. The choices we make proclaim to the world, and to ourselves, what we find to be holy, and worthy.

One of the merciful elements of this is that our lives, and so our creeds, are constantly being rewritten. We make mistakes; sometimes terrible ones. But there is an opportunity in every moment to begin again. Just as eventually happened following the story of the golden calf: the people returned to the harder and more promising path, and Moses came back down the mountain again, with a new set of tablets.

What we are worshipping we are becoming, and we choose what we are worshipping by where and when we lend our will and our efforts. In the next month, as individuals and families we will decide on some of the parameters of our devotion. As our annual canvass begins, we must each consider how much this congregation means to us: what fraction of our resources we will lend to support it in the coming year. On April 1st, we will share a special ritual during the service to gather and to bless our pledges of financial support to this institution for the coming year.

It is a hard time for the world, for this country, and for many of us, I know. What you share of your private good towards our common good is a decision that each must make for themselves. But I will tell you this: I devote my work, and my money, to this faith and this community in particular, because it feeds the better wolf in me. If it also feeds the better wolf in you, then I hope to see you here to make your commitment of financial support on April 1st.

According to the story, in order to make the golden calf the people melted down their gold earrings and jewelry. Wealth, however great or small, can go to many, many things. Therefore let us choose those things which point in the direction of the selves we would hope to become.

[i] Different forms of this story can be found in many Muslim countries; this version descends directly from the one collected in Ayat Jamilah by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane (Eastern Washington University Press, 2004).

[ii] This quote appears in Singing the Living Tradition, #563

[iii] Exodus, Chapter 32.


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