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A Sermon About Nothing – 1/27/2013

I often begin with a story or quotation from one of the world’s religious traditions; this morning I want to open with something from the history, or at least the mythology, of science. Ernest Rutherford was a pioneering physicist and chemist from New Zealand. After already winning a Nobel Prize for chemistry, he and some collaborators conducted the experiment for which he is most famous. They fired particles at a very thin sheet of gold, and based on how many particles bounced off, and the direction they flew, and how many they observed making it through to the other side, Rutherford deduced certain things about the nature of atoms. Basically, that almost all of the stuff inside of them was concentrated into a tiny mass in the center – the nucleus – with a varied number of other particles (littler bits of stuff) moving all around that center.

This demonstrated an idea that most of us who’ve taken high school science are at least familiar with in passing: every physical thing that we can see and touch is made up of lots and lots of incredibly tiny things called atoms, which are themselves made up of even tinier things. Inside those atoms are mostly empty space, which means that everything in the universe – the floor of the sanctuary, the pew it is resting on, or you yourself sitting in that pew – is mostly made up of nothing at all. So the story goes that on the morning after Rutherford demonstrated this in the lab, he couldn’t bring himself to get out of bed. He had the irrational fear that he would fall through the floor. Every morning up to that point he had gotten out of bed without that particular problem, and he had slept through the night without falling through the bed. But now that he knew that there was so much nothing inside of everything, he felt a powerful sense of dread.[i] It sounds a bit like the old cartoon in which the hapless Wyle E. Coyote chases the road runner off of the cliff, and only falls when he looks down.

There may be no idea so frightening to us as human beings as the concept of nothing at all. The total absence of being is something that many people – and many of the world’s religious traditions – shudder to consider. The book of Genesis, the first entry in the Hebrew and Christian bibles opens with a line that may be translated, “In the beginning, all was formless and void…” It is out of this emptiness that the God described in that first chapter of Genesis calls everything into being, and pronounces each creation – each thing made to replace nothing – as good. The horror of nothingness is a theme returned to repeatedly in the biblical tradition. In Deuteronomy, the Holy Voice speaks of the disloyalty of the Israelites by calling them “a nation void of counsel”.[ii] Isaiah describes the power of God by saying, “God brings potentates to naught, makes rulers of the earth as nothing.”[iii] Job warns not to trust in emptiness, for emptiness will be our payment.[iv] And the Christian evangelist Paul is reported to have written in his first letter to the Corinthians,

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to die, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

The place that is void, the soul which is empty, the person who is nothing; the Jewish-Christian biblical tradition views these things with foreboding and dread. One possible explanation for why this is such a common theme comes from the physical predicament that the ancient Hebrew-speaking people who wrote these documents found themselves in. The strip of land they inhabited at the eastern end of the Mediterranean was bounded on one side by the sea and other the other by desert. For an agrarian people with little skill at sailing (and few natural ports), they may have looked both east and west and seen only a vast emptiness; barren of the ability to sustain lives like their own all the way to the horizon’s edge. Conquering armies might surge across the desert at times, and storms sweep into the sea; but little good would have seemed to come from either place.[v]

Some years ago, there was a certain popular television program – it ended 15 years ago, which makes me feel very old – that was said to be a show about nothing. In one episode Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza are chatting over lunch at the neighborhood diner, discussing the growing popularity of salsa as a condiment and the easy confusion of the words salsa and seltzer. Jerry is trying to think of an idea for a new tv show to sell to the network, but coming up empty. George, inspired by their conversation, proposes that the show should be about what they are doing right then: a show about nothing. Given that their dialog is really about a show within a show, they have, for the moment at least, become a show about a show about nothing. But still, the crazy scheme is followed through to its natural conclusion: the new sitcom is a flop; who wants to watch a show about nothing, anyway.[vi]

Seinfeld was actually a show about many things: friendship, family, betrayal, ridiculous and yet somehow fitting twists of fate, the banality of evil, and the lives of well-to-do, morally oblivious and often deplorable white Manhattanites. But its most consistent subject was the small, seemingly mundane events of life: one of a million forgotten conversations, one of a thousand tiny victories or defeats. Visiting a restaurant, and having trouble getting a table; losing a job, and having trouble finding a new one; celebrating the profit made by returning a load of bottles for deposit; agonizing, endlessly, about the etiquette of telling another person something they don’t want to hear. So much of the world tells us to think of these moments as worthless, as empty, as nothing. But while we must be wary of self-flattery with the idea that these minor events are more important than the moments, major or minor, in the lives of others, our tradition affirms that these minutes have meaning too. It is possible to learn, to love, to struggle and to hope in every second of existence.

It is not just that there is a popular fear of nothing in our culture; it can be difficult even to speak about it, or to hold onto it in our heads. As many of you know, in my household we celebrate the festivals of Judaism. My family and I are glad to be a part of a community in which we can be different, in some respects, from others, and still share a sense of religious identity and purpose with the larger congregation. Yesterday was Tu B’shvat, a somewhat more obscure holiday that people outside Judaism rarely participate in. Tu B’shvat is “the new year of the trees”, and there is a practice associated with it that involves eating particular types of fruit. Each category of fruit is sometimes described as representing one of four mystical levels of existence: the realm of only matter, the realm in which spirit begins to infuse matter, the realm in which no matter remains, only objects formed of spirit, and the final level of the uttermost heaven, in which nothing resides but God.

Each year, it seems, when my partner and I start to plan a celebration for Tu B’shvat we remember that there are four categories and start to make up a mental grocery list. We’ll need fruits or nuts with a hard or inedible outside: almonds, say, or oranges. We’ll want to pick up some fruits with a hard pit like peaches or plums. And we’ll also want to have fruit which can be eaten whole – figs or strawberries. And then we scratch our heads and look at each other trying to remember what the fourth fruit is. Shell, pit, neither and…And then one of us, usually Sara, remembers that the fourth category is not something that can be represented with a physical object. The fourth fruit is no fruit – nothing at all.[vii]

In some religious traditions, nothing is held in a somewhat higher repute; it is less a thing to be feared and more a subject to grapple with, and try to understand. The Buddhist tradition has a concept called Sunyata, which might be translated as “nothingness” or “emptiness”. It is the quality, or absence of any quality, that defines all things. All things are empty, defined by nothingness, because no thing is essentially itself : everything is impermanent and changeable, and can be understood or not understood in a different way from a different perspective.

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In one illustration, a monk was talking with a king who was very proud of his fine royal chariot. The monk described taking the chariot apart, asking at what point it would cease to be a chariot – “When the wheels are removed? When the axle’s disassembled? When the paint has peeled off and all the nails taken out?” At some point its chariot-ness ends, and so “chariot” cannot be said to be its truest and deepest identity. [viii] So the teaching goes, that this is true of all things, including each of our selves – everything I might call my self, everything that I think makes me me is just as temporary as the identity of the chariot. So all identities, all categories, all things are defined by sunyata, by emptiness, by their non-thingness.

Now that is a tough nut to crack for a lot of people. Particularly for we Unitarian Universalists, who are so adamant about the worthiness of all people, the sacred and abundant meaning inherent to our lives and the lives of every person. It’s a dimension of Buddhism that I’ve struggled with personally. Our tradition draws wisdom and inspiration from many sources, among them the teachings of Buddhism, but this was a teaching that did not sit well with me. And then, a friend of mine pointed out that emptiness does not mean purposelessness; if it did, there would never be any reason to take or not to take any action. A cup – a temporary, imperfect, never truly defined by its cup-ness, cup – gains its purpose from its emptiness and the fact that it can be filled by many things.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to attend a series of lectures by Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. Reb Zalman sits at the intersection of religious identities: he is a Rabbi and a Jewish scholar of considerable standing. He is also an initiated shaykh of a particular school of Sufism, the mystical current in Islam. His work as a teacher has brought him into dialog with leaders in Christianity and Buddhism, and he also has a history of friendship with us Unitarian Universalists. The lectures I attended were sponsored by the Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary where I received my theological education. Incidentally, the course which First Parish member and ordained Unitarian Universalist minister Karin Peterson will begin teaching this Wednesday – “Being Older and Wiser” – that course was developed from a training she received from Reb Zalman some years ago. For those of you who are at least 50 years old – the only course requirement – I recommend that you look into joining the class if you haven’t already done so.

During the course of his talks, Reb Zalman told a story about the time just after his father died. Jewish practice places a lot of importance on the prayers recited for the dead, particularly when a parent is being mourned by a child. And to really observe the fullness of the ritual, you can’t do it alone; you need a minyan, a quorum of other Jewish people to join you in the practice. Now it happened that in the place where Reb Zalman lived at the time, most of the other Jews he knew were practicing Buddhists. They had all grown up Jewish, they knew the prayers, some of them may have still kept the practice, but the teachings of Buddhism had come to be central to their lives as well. This wasn’t a particular problem; Reb Zalman thanked his friends for coming to his aid, and they began to pray together so the Rabbi could honor and remember his father.

Now, in the traditional prayer service, there are a few lines about how great we are – we, the people praying – and how foolish and bad all the other religions of the earth are. It’s a sentiment that unfortunately can be found in a lot of religious traditions – not one to which we Unitarian Universalists are always immune, I would point out – and many modern liturgies remove it, or try to balance it out or get around it somehow. But they came to this place in the service, and recited together: “For they bow down to emptiness and void, and we bow down to the King of Kings.” How embarrassing: to welcome guests into your home, who have come to show you a kindness, and then to say, even to ask them to join you in saying, words that denigrate them.

But, in that moment, that is not how it felt. Surrounded by Buddhist practitioners – they happened to follow the Zen school, whose religious practice is so much defined by reflecting on the emptiness of all things – Reb Zalman read these words in a new light. Now they seemed to say, “For they bow down to emptiness and void, and we bow down to the King of Kings,” and both of those acts are pathways to holiness. Even if we do not have the same thing in mind as we bow, we still may bow together.

This same insight is particularly important here in this place. For our community includes both theists and atheists: people for whom the existence of God is essential, and people for whom the non-existence of God is assumed. People who believe in an afterlife that we will share in together, and people who believe that what we share is the here and now. And of course, many people who exist somewhere between these points, or off the scale entirely. But all of us bow, literally or figuratively, to the source of purpose in our lives. It is not the presence or the absence of the thing which is so important, as the meaning of that presence or that absence. We are all upheld by the same earth; even if it is mostly composed out of nothing at all.



[i] Read (or listen to) Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson telling this story as part of his criticism of how we usually make pictures and sculptures of atoms: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/atoms-electrons.html

[ii] Deuteronomy 32:28

[iii] Isaiah 40:23

[iv] Job 15:31

[v] Credit for this idea should go to Fr. Michael D. Guinan O.F.M., my instructor in Hebrew Scriptures when I had the privilege of cross-registering at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, CA. Any mistakes are my own.

[vi] You can watch the scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQnaRtNMGMI

[vii] This is a small anecdote about one of my spiritual home practices. Those wishing to learn more about Judaism’s festival of Tu B’Shvat should consult resources more knowledgeable than I. To begin, I recommend Paul Steinberg’s Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, The Jewish Publication Society, 2007.

[viii] A story of Nagasena from the Milinda Panha, a text from the Burmese edition of the Pali Canon.

The Church That Doesn’t Matter

[This slightly poetic, more-than-slightly tongue-in-cheek piece was inspired by a recent conversation with a colleague which reminded me that often the things that can feel uncomfortable or irritating in the moment are the things we would never want a congregation to be without. –Rev. Kelly WAJ]

In the church that doesn’t matter, there are no quarrels, no arguments, and no one ever says anything they regret at the meeting to discuss the sanctuary’s new paint color. There is nothing to inspire such passionate intensity because none of the decisions of the church touch anyone’s heart, and no one lives or dies by its choices, or even feels for a moment like they might. Everything is easy as pie.

In the church that doesn’t matter, no one has to ask for money, or even talk about it much: there is always enough to go around. There is always enough, because no matter how much there is, there is always less to do with it than that. The vision always shrinks to under-match the means. So canvass season is always a breeze.

In the church that doesn’t matter, no one ever disagrees with the preacher’s sermon. The music is always just fine. There is never a fight about the liturgy, not even if they do joys and sorrows (and not even if they stop doing joys and sorrows). There is never any controversy because no one ever says anything they really care about, and no one else ever seems to care. Because of this, the service is always equally inoffensive at both 9 o’clock and 11.

The sounds of children during worship, the recruitment of Sunday School teachers, the compensation of professional religious educators and the size and condition of space dedicated to religious education; none of these things are ever talked about, or thought about, in the church that doesn’t matter. Those issues just seem to take care of themselves, somehow.

No one ever has to clean up in the church that doesn’t matter. Or figure out the old electrical system, or consult the building codes, or climb a ladder. If no one bothers to make coffee on Sunday, no one complains, and if no one greets the visitors, no one seems to mind. Everything is easier in the church that doesn’t matter.

The total solution to all the frustrations of congregational life requires no consultants, manuals, or webinars. Simply avoid, at all costs, meaning and purpose and anything that might lead you to either or both. Whatever you do, do not let yourself care about the people around you, or the covenant you share.

Yet, knowing this, we still decide again and again to ask tough questions, to take real risks, to do work that needs doing, and to tell the truth. We get out of bed on Sunday morning, we answer that email, we make something imperfect but still sweet for the bake sale and we give our time and attention to a meeting every third Thursday. We ask each other how we’re doing, and mean it, we make phone calls and craft projects for the first grade class – we offer our gifts, both humble and great. And we do these things, sometimes in joy, and sometimes not in joy, because they are done in the service of a church that matters to us.

Risking Your Life – 1/20/2013

I would like to begin this morning with a story from the Buddhist tradition. The story is about a king who lived long ago. He was a great and powerful king, he ruled over many lands and peoples and he had a great number of servants and soldiers. When this king went to war, all of his neighbors were afraid of his mighty armies, and his own people feared him as well, for in times of peace he would make a great show of his skills as a hunter. He would go out into the countryside and find the most powerful and dangerous animal and kill it. Then he would bring it back to the city so that his subjects could see how powerful and dangerous he was, and know that he was their king, and that they should fear him.

And so, one day the king set out into the mountains on one of his hunting trips. He was riding with his soldiers and his servants and up on a ridge ahead of them the king saw it: an ibex. An ibex is like a super-charged version of a mountain goat. This one stood as tall as I do, and it had great long sweeping horns that were gnarled and dangerous. And the king saw the ibex and thought to himself, “That is the thing that I will kill to show how powerful I am.” He set off towards it on his horse, quickly leaving all his retainers behind. And the ibex saw him coming and it turned and fled. And it galloped over the mountains and led the king on a great chase, for it knew the landscape very well.

Eventually the ibex came to a place where it knew there was a chasm – a break in the earth – and knowing to expect it, it leapt high into the air and clear across to the other side. The ibex kept right on running and behind it, the king was taking aim with his bow. He was almost ready to fire his arrow when he and his horse came to the chasm as well. His horse saw the danger ahead and stopped short, but the king was unprepared and he flew out of the saddle and over the horse and into the rift below.

The king fell so hard that he broke both of his legs and he lay there in a lot of pain and he thought “This is it; this is the end of me.” But the ibex turned and saw the riderless horse, and so it returned to the chasm and hopped down into the valley and stood face to face with the king. And the king looked at the ibex and said, “O mighty ibex, you have beaten me, for I will surely die here. You have proven yourself more powerful than the king.”

The ibex looked back at the king, and in that moment the king could have sworn that he heard the ibex answer him back, “Is there no other way to prove my power, than by taking a life?” And then the ibex turned around and got down onto its knees, and let the king climb up onto its back. The ibex hopped back up out of the chasm and helped the king return to his company.

When the king had gotten home to his palace, he thought for many days. And after thinking he gathered all of his servants and soldiers around him and he said, “I have made a decision that I will not go to war any longer. That I will not go hunting any longer.” And the people were confused and they asked the king why he would make such a declaration, and all he would say to them was to ask, “Is there no other way to prove my power, than by taking a life?”[i]

This past week held the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The national holiday that honors him will be observed tomorrow, and it has been widely reported that the Presidential inauguration, also scheduled for tomorrow, will include a bible which belonged to Dr. King. So we find ourselves at a particular hour and time of year when Martin Luther King’s words are most likely to be read and his memory most likely to be invoked.

This time of public remembrance and veneration comes with a certain peril, however. Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University described this problem a few years ago as the Santa-Clausification of Dr. King. King was feared by the established order and by agents of the status quo throughout his life, even unto the point of that life being stolen from him. But today he is routinely appropriated into the mainstream: former radical agent of change becomes a generic symbol, sanitized and unthreatening. America’s most famous “outside agitator” of the 20th century becomes just another thing for school children to sing about, another reason – and I wish I were making this up – for a sale at the GAP. As Dr. West says, “celebrity status operates in such a way that it tries to diffuse all the threat and to sugarcoat and deodorize what actually is rather funky.”[ii]

Dr. King was an activist for racial justice, as well as a strong opponent of the war in Vietnam and a campaigner for broad, transformative economic justice throughout this country. He managed to survive numerous threats to and attempts on his life in the fight for voting rights, integration of schools and businesses and other basic human rights for African Americans. It was the economic justice campaign that was actually his focus when he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King’s ideals and ideas all mattered a great deal. But what he accomplished in life, and what his memory still accomplishes after his death, ultimately hangs on what he was willing to risk in order to follow his values. He was willing to risk more than comfort or convenience, more than his good name or his worldly possessions: he was willing to risk his life, for the work in which he believed.

It happens that two people from our own tradition connect to Martin Luther King’s story through that same willingness to risk dying, and the same tragic price that he paid. In the late winter of 1965, American attention turned, in fits and starts, towards Selma, Alabama. It began in February, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by a state trooper there. His crime was protesting for his right to vote and to register other black people to vote. In the natural outrage that followed, a march was planned from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Dr. King was among the organizers, and he issued a national call for people of goodwill to come to Selma and join the marchers. The story goes that Unitarian Universalist

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ministers and lay leaders were among the first folks from outside of Alabama to answer that call. We do know that nearly 50 of our ministers arrived there as requested, and among them was Rev. James Reeb. He was 38 at the time, and just like nearly everyone else there, he had a family – in his case, a wife and four children. Everyone who took part was risking their life; they were largely repeating, after all, the action for which Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed.

On March 9th, 1965, Jim Reeb had been in Selma for a few days, and was planning to return home. He and two other Unitarian Universalist ministers were walking back to where they were staying in Selma, when they were attacked by a group of four white men who targeted them as outside agitators. Reeb was struck badly in the head; he died from the injury two days later. Just after the news of Jim’s death began to spread, another Unitarian Universalist, a lay woman named Viola Liuzzio, was making the decision to travel from Detroit to Selma, to do what she could to join the ongoing protest there. Viola was 39, and had a husband and five children. She used her car to ferry marchers between locations that were too far to walk, and for this reason – being seen driving in a car with a black man – she was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. Viola was assassinated on March 25th, 1965.

The power of death is great, and it is real. A life once taken cannot be returned, and the world is poorer without it. Faced with this truth, it is easy to think of violence, the strength and the will to do harm, as the final measure of power, just as did the king in the Buddhist story of the ibex. But there is a greater power than the power to kill, and that is the capacity to face death and to choose life. To do what is compassionate, what is merciful, what is just, even though it means great personal risk. What is greater than death is the courage that will not be moved by the threat of death. When the hunter who has chased you will die without your help, and you climb down into the hole with him and help him up, risking your life to save his.

The deaths of two white northerners, particularly a white minister, captured the national attention in a way that untold death and violence against black people had not up to that point had not. The Voting Rights Act passed in the wake of the horrible events in Selma, addressing the original cause for which Jimmie Lee Jackson had given his life. Speaking of Viola Liuzzo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If physical death is the price some must pay to save us and our white brothers from eternal death of the spirit, then no sacrifice could be more redemptive.”[iii] Here I, and I believe our tradition, would disagree in as much as there is no such thing as a redemptive sacrifice. A life lost is a life lost; it is always a thing which ought not to be. But it is possible for justice and hope to follow after dying – good may come from bad, though the bad is not erased by the good.

The teacher Jesus is said to have said, “If someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn and offer them your left.”[iv] Yet another example of someone following a peaceful ethos and being killed for it. But while much of Christianity for the past two thousand years has held Jesus’ most important quality to be his death, our tradition would offer that his most important quality was his willingness to die. He had the courage to preach against the injustices of his age, and to confront the wealthy and powerful whom they benefited. That came with the risk that they would seek to be rid of him, and the willingness to continue despite that risk animated his ministry. In this much, he was following the example of his own spiritual ancestors, taking the same role Moses played when he stood before Pharoah

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to declare, “Let my people go.” Practicing the same courage Nathan showed when he told King David the story of a man who had badly wronged another, and then declared: “Sire, thou art the man!”

When he first applied to enter fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister, James Reeb wrote, “I want to participate in the continuous creation of a vision that will inspire our people to noble and courageous living. I want to share actively in the adventure of trying to forge the spiritual ties that will bind mankind together in brotherhood and peace.” and. On happy is abilify cheapest price while sturdy plus make-up great weight loss with pcos like difference gp canada inc pharmacy belize city read for is it.

did Martin Luther King, who confronted his adversaries with passion, but refused to stop acknowledging their fundamental humanity. Every living thing has at least one reason to live for. It isn’t easy, necessarily, to know what yours is or to hold onto it, but harder still is the question of what you are willing to risk your life for. What cause or value or ideal is so important that you will continue it even when the threat is mortal and great? That is the question I see before us, placed by this national holiday and by the memory of our spiritual ancestors.



[i] Versions of this story appear in several different Buddhist sources – it is one of the Jataka Tales, a genre of stories dealing with earlier incarnations of the Buddha. This particular telling was freely adapted from Sarah Conover’s collection, Kindness.

[ii] Remarks made on the Tavis Smiley Show, 1/12/2007.

[iii] http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/violaliuzzo.html

[iv] Matthew 5:39

[v] http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/jamesjosephreeb.html

Adoption Day – 1/6/2013

There are many stories from the Hindu tradition of gods who take on human form and live fantastic but still mortal lives in order to learn something, or to teach something, or to accomplish something important. Hinduism is an ancient and spectacularly diverse religion, and there’s no way for me to give this one particular story an introduction that would cover everything you might need to know in order to fully appreciate it. So please just know that there is more to learn, as there always is with everything, and we’ll proceed.

In Hinduism, or at least in many forms of Hinduism, one of the most important gods is Vishnu, who forms a trinity of sorts – you thought that only Christianity had a trinity? No, no! – a trinity of sorts with Brahma and Shiva. Brahma is everything: all existence, everything that is. Shiva is destruction: the means by which anything ever ends so that new creation and change can happen. And Vishnu stands between them: the sustainer, upholding what is. Vishnu is the architect of order and justice, and many of the stories about Vishnu taking human form are about helping people to solve their internal conflicts, and freeing communities from oppression.

Vishnu’s most famous avatar – his most famous human life – is Krishna, who before he was even a teenager began defeating monsters and offering sage advice. But this story is from before all that. You see, before he was born, Krishna’s uncle, the cruel king Kamsa, heard that his brother’s next son was destined to liberate their kingdom. Hoping to keep his grip on power, Kamsa threw Krishna’s future parents into prison. Against the odds, Krishna’s mother gave birth in secret, and in order to save their child’s life, she and Krishna’s father had the boy smuggled out of their jail, to be raised by another family in the countryside.

Krishna’s adoptive mother was Yashoda, and she loved him very much, as she did all of her children. Krishna had a happy childhood with Yashoda and her husband, and got into just the same sorts of mischief that most children do. And so it was, that one day when Krishna was still very young, some of his older siblings rushed into the family home to tell his mother that little Krishna was eating mud. Yashoda went outside to investigate, and found Krishna sitting on the ground with his cheeks puffed out and his mouth clamped shut. She gave him a stern look, as so many mothers would, and told him to open his mouth right away. Krishna, really just a toddler at this point, obeyed his mother, but he paused for just a moment before doing so, like he was giving her a chance to change her mind.

And then, he opened his mouth. Yashoda looked inside, but she did not find what she was expecting there. Staring into the mouth of her young son, she saw, well, everything. Everything that is.: stars and planets, the sun and the moon, everything that lives and everything that does not live. Contained in this seemingly tiny child was not just our universe but every universe that might ever have been or could ever possibly be. All of these things were contained in Krishna because Krishna was, in truth, Vishnu, the sustainer of all worlds. In the moment that she saw this, how impossibly, cosmically huge the baby Krishna was, words fled from Yashoda. When her son closed his mouth and the moment had passed, Yashoda still stood there, gazing at her child in wonder and fear.

A sudden rush of insight or awareness is sometimes called an epiphany, from the Greek word for a manifestation or striking appearance. Such moments are a staple of the way we talk about science – Archimedes shouting ‘Eureka!’, a well-timed apple falling on Newton’s head – as well as religion. The epiphany is also a crucial element of many sorts of humor. Consider the famous story of a regular customer at a certain restaurant. He called the waiter to his table and asked him to try the soup. “What’s wrong with it?” the waiter asked.

“Just taste it,” the customer replied.

“Sir, I apologize if anything isn’t to your liking.”

“Really, I insist: taste the soup.”

“Sir?”

“Taste it.”

Finally, the waiter relented and looking about the place setting in front of the customer said, “Fine; where’s the spoon?”

“Aha!”

That same word, epiphany, is also used for a Christian feast day which happens to fall on today, by most calendars: the feast of the Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas. It is a holiday focused on the early life of Jesus, who, for the various shades of Christian orthodoxy is God incarnate: a manifestation of God in human form. Several stories are associated with the festival, such as the Magi coming from the East to visit Bethlehem, following a star newly appeared in the heavens, looking for the newborn Jesus and his family.

Knowing what we now do about what stars are and how they form, the sudden appearance of a star in the sky seems even more impressive to me today than it would have been when it was first told: thousands or millions of light years ago, a star is born, or perhaps an old star reaches a new stage in its cycle of existence, becoming dramatically brighter, all so that millennia later, at just the right moment, its ancient light can reach a small distant planet, and announce a new child’s birth. In the Gospel according to Matthew, the only one of the four canonical Gospels in which the bit about the star and the Magi appears, the foreign astrologers are Jesus’ first out-of-town test audience: they are figures of wisdom, importance and authority. They are taste-makers of a sort – they know what’s good. They travel an awful long way, go to a lot of trouble, and when they finally meet the child, they seem quite satisfied that he is as wondrous and spectacular as they expected.

Such a singular, revelatory moment or experience is not just a creature of ancient times or cherished stories, however. Our tradition maintains – and we are not alone in this – that the heights of awe and revelation are accessible to all people in all places and times. Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic monk and social activist, reported his own moment of awakening in this same vein. He described his mystical experience – his epiphany – which came upon him at the corner of 4th and Walnut streets in Louisville, KY:

“in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation…. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud …. But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”[i]

Merton cited that realization that everyone was walking around shining like the sun, as the insight that fueled his engagement with the world and his work for peace and justice.

Now, in Western Christianity, the focus today is still on the figure of Jesus in his first days, a sort of epilogue to Christmas. But in the Eastern churches, and probably as the festival was originally created, Epiphany is about Jesus’ baptism. The four Gospels contained in canonical Christian scripture are usually described as all telling basically the same story. But each were written at different times, by different people, and they each present different views and understandings of the teacher Jesus. Some details are the same, or at least similar, and some of them are different, and those differences matter. The baptism story comes from the Gospel according to Mark, which was written the earliest of the four, probably about 40 years after Jesus’ death.

Mark doesn’t open with a birth story; he begins instead with John the Baptist. John is presented as a pious mystic, in the mold of the Hebrew prophets from centuries before him. He has introduced a new ritual, washing away people’s sins in the River Jordan, getting things ready as he says, “for the one who is more powerful than I”. And this is where Jesus first appears:

In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.[ii]

Those words are a combination of a line from the second Psalm and a passage from Isaiah.[iii] They invoke a concept of the ancient Hebrew kings: that at their coronation they are adopted, becoming sons of God. This moment is the beginning of Jesus’ story for the author of Mark because it is the moment at which his story begins to be extraordinary. This account does not see Jesus as preexistent before his own birth, as the Gospel of John does, or great because of a noble lineage and a spectacular birth, as Matthew and Luke do. One of the many early understandings of Jesus that we might consider proto-Unitarian or pseudo-Unitarian was called Adoptionism, and Mark seems to be its earliest advocate. It was the belief that Jesus attained his special quality of spiritual importance – whatever that was – at the moment of his baptism, when he was adopted by God.

Now even this heretical and comparatively modest view of Jesus’ importance is more than many of us here today, and many Unitarian Universalists in general, would be inclined to grant. Our tradition has its origins in Christianity, and today we generally afford Jesus a place of honor as a great prophet and teacher, but most of us steer clear of the son of God language, just as many of us avoid God language all together. But Jesus’ theological influence is so vast in the world we live in that his ideas about God are assured some influence on our thoughts and beliefs whether or not we consider ourselves Christians, and even if their only influence is in our reaction against them. One of the things that comes across clearly in the four distinct Jesuses presented in the Gospels is that they all share an understanding of God as a parent – that is their fundamental metaphor for understanding the source of all existence and the measure of all good. And when we pause to consider this metaphor as specifically being one of an adoptive parent, a new perspective opens up.

To fully take on the mantle and responsibility of parenthood is always a choice: it is never easy and never accidental. Yet we also know that a great many people, most of them fathers, do manage to meet the technical, biological definition of parenthood without having to work particularly hard, or even to intend it. But one adopts only ever out of choosing, and particularly in our day it is a choice full of challenges. In a recent essay on her personal experience of becoming an adoptive parent, Jennifer Hauseman pointed out that a domestic infant adoption in the United States costs thousands of dollars to accomplish and takes an average of more than a year (in cases where its successful).[iv] Same sex couples, like Hauseman and her partner, face many additional barriers: international adoption (which is full of its own struggles and expenses) is not an option, as no country in the world allows openly gay couples to adopt across borders. Many states in our own country have the same sorts of bans, the average wait is longer, and in almost all cases same-sex couples cannot adopt the same child together, as a couple – one of them has to be designated the official parent and go through the process technically on their own. Before coming to know their daughter, Hauseman and her partner went through the anguish of having an agreement in place, maternity leave taken, a nursery set up, only to have the birth mother decide against the adoption. It can be a hard way to become a parent.

And this is the model of understanding the human relationship to the divine that Jesus offered. Nothing random, or simple; something actively chosen, and made the more beautiful for its difficulty. For whatever he may or may not have believed about being the son of God, Jesus was clear in his preaching that all people are the children of God. Chosen. Loved. Perhaps that was a part of his own epiphany; when he saw the sky open up, and the spirit in the form of a dove descend.

And then there was Yashoda, remember? She was looking at her son, that tiny child who was somehow so big that he contained all of everyone and everything. Here was this strange, unknowable creature who had become a part of her family for mysterious reasons entirely its own. There was only one thing Yashoda could do about it. She scooped the baby Krishna up, cradled him in her arms, and took him inside for his feeding. Because whatever else he might be, whatever his origin, nature, and destiny, he was absolutely her son, and she was absolutely his mother. After the epiphany, after the grand revelation, everything is different – and everything is also still the same. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun,” Thomas Merton said. You can hear a revelation as much as you want, but to know it, you have to see it for yourself. So all there is to do once you know it, is to live your life in such a way that it might help other people see what you have seen.



[i] Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1996

[ii] Mark 1:9-11

[iii] Ps. 2:7, Isa 42:1-2 (see The Jewish Annotated New Testament note to Mark 1:11)

[iv] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/fashion/modern-love-three-mothers-one-bond.html

sunset

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