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Going Alone – 5/5/2013

There is an old Jewish folktale about a scholar named Oyzar who sat alone in his home one morning, thinking through an important problem. That day, some of the village children were playing in the lane outside his window, as they often did. The scholar normally enjoyed the sound of the children, and sometimes he would go out and join them in their games. But on this day he was particularly vexed by the matter he was thinking through, and felt that he needed quiet to concentrate. So he developed a scheme to convince them to play elsewhere.

Stepping out of his little house, Oyzar called to the children and asked, “Why are you all still here? I would think you would all be down by the river by now. Have you not heard that the great dragon of the sea is passing this way? How he breathes fire and belches smoke and never visits any town more than once in a person’s lifetime? How his body is the body of a fish and his head is the head of a lion? How his horns are the horns of a bull, and his wings are the wings of an eagle? And how to catch even one look of him will bring good luck and good fortune all the remaining days of your life? Well, what are you waiting for? You’d better run if you want to catch him; he might already have passed us by.”

With that story, the eyes of the children grew wide and they all set off as one at a gallop towards the river. Oyzar thought himself very clever, and did not feel too bad about having tricked the children until a little while later when he heard another loud commotion outside his house. Stepping out of his house again, the scholar found a crowd of people from the town streaming towards the river. When he asked what was going on, one of them turned and told him excitedly, “The great dragon of the sea is visiting our town today. He has the head of a lion and the body of a fish, he breathes fire and belches smoke, he brings good fortune to anyone who sees him and if we don’t hurry he will pass us by and never return while any of us still live.”

Oyzar listened to this exciting tale and quickly turned around and dashed back into his house. He took his coat off of the hook and was halfway into it and out the door when he realized that he had heard that story before. It was the same one he had told to the children earlier; word must have made it back to the village, and now some of the adults had fallen for his ruse. He hung his coat back up and returned to working through his puzzle.

Then, once again, loud sounds of voices and footfalls reached his ears. Once more he went out to see what was going on and found another group of people from the village walking towards the river. This group was older and more distinguished then the first, and so it moved a bit slower. In it were several of his fellow scholars, a few of his teachers, and the seven of the wisest folks then known to live in the town. He called out to one of these to ask what was going on, and the old sage turned and said, “Young Oyzar, it must be that you have not been diligent in your studies. For if you had devoted yourself fully to learning, you would already know of the great dragon of the sea, who breathes fire and brings good fortune and passes by our town no more than once in a lifetime. And if you had been truly studious, you would know that this very day is the one appointed for the dragon’s visit. You must recommit yourself to the work of learning, but for now, come with me, quickly, or you may miss your only chance to see the famous beast!”

Again, Oyzar ran back inside, grabbed his coat and darted back out towards the river. This time, however, he did not stop. As he ran, he thought to himself about the story he had told – he had simply made it up. But if the wisest of the wise believed that there was such a thing as the dragon of the sea, that it was tremendously lucky to see it, and that today would be his only chance for the rest of his days, then, it seemed to him, it must be true. So Oyzar ran all the way to the river and spent the afternoon waiting with the rest of the town, hoping to spy the dragon of the sea.[i]

It happens that we have had our own once-in-a-lifetime visitation here in Beverly, yesterday. I can’t say whether or not those of us who saw Angie Miller parade down Cabot Street yesterday are entitled to a lifetime of good luck – though I can say that the band from Beverly High was pretty darn great. But whether it’s in pursuit of something real or something imaginary, we human beings have a tendency to act in groups. The more folks that are following a plan, chasing a dream, or pursuing a celebrity, the more that others are likely to join them. This year we’ve

Started which a Alba Only this girly I say, very swelling?

been talking together about the courage to risk meaningful in order to do what needs to be done. I’ve offered some examples from in and around our tradition as Unitarian Universalists, of people who’ve shown such courage in different ways. This morning, I want to highlight the courage to step away from the crowd, to chart a different course even against a strong prevailing current. And the example I want to offer of this is Toribio Quimada, who is generally held to be the founder of Universalism in the Philippines.

Toribio Quimada was born on the island of Cebu, in the Philippines, one of thirteen children in his family. A former Spanish colony, the Philippines were and remain an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, and the Quimadas were a Catholic family. Now I want to be clear that there are a lot of different ways to practice Catholicism – with more than a billion adherents, it’s an incredibly rich and varied tradition. The particular version that Quimada encountered in his childhood, however, was not of the sort that acknowledges this diversity. It was a rigid, doctrinal system that felt to him cold and controlling. Among many other things, he was taught in his local congregation that even the reading of the bible was a sin: one ought to listen to and learn from the priests, and be satisfied with their lessons and counsel.

It wasn’t until his early adulthood that Toribio encountered any tradition other than Catholicism. When he moved to the island of Negros and was exposed to Presbyterianism through his cousin, he read the bible for the first time. This led him to become a Protestant and join with the Iglesia Universal de Cristo – the Universal Church of Christ – a local church organization in the Philippines. He was now free to read the bible, but still constrained in most of the other ways that he had been before: the Protestants of the Philippines were very nearly as orthodox as the Catholics. The emphasis in both groups was on a harsh, dangerous, judging God, whom all people should fear and obey. This and other elements of the faith did not sit entirely well with Toribio Quimada, but he still had a strong calling to the religious life. He became a minister, and eventually a leader of several congregations within the larger Iglesia.

You may be waiting for the anticipated shoe: how this fellow found his way into our shared history. It comes by a lovely bit of serendipity. Hoping to gain some much-needed materials for his congregations – to obtain more bibles, among other things – he sought assistance from people of good will in other nations. The United States has a long history of involvement in the Philippines, including a long pseudo-colonial occupation, which Toribio grew up under. When Toribio found a listing of churches in the United States, he looked for one that would match some or all of the name of his own. Under ‘U’ he did not find a ‘Universal Church of Christ,’ but he did find a ‘Universalist Church.’ After a false start, he received a reply from the Universalist congregation in Gloucester and was connected with the Universalist Service Committee who sent the requested bibles and other religious and educational literature.

Through this accident, Toribio Quimada found a faith that responded to many of his own concerns about the narrowness and meanness of a religious system that, so far as he knew, was the only option in existence. He began to share his ideas – against the infallibility of scripture, and towards a more humane, compassionate, and loving God – with the congregations in his care. Many came to share some of his outlook. His questions, and the answers he proposed to them, were intolerable to those above him in the church hierarchy: his license to preach was withdrawn, and he was eventually excommunicated. Yet the congregations that had been entrusted to Rev. Quimada left with him.

Knowing that someone else, often anyone else, agrees with you, or is even willing to entertain the idea that you might be right can be a great help in finding the courage to embrace a new idea. The story is told of the Prophet Muhammad that when he received the first of his revelations he was alone in a cave. When he returned to his wife, Khadija, she saw that her husband was troubled and afraid. He explained to her what he had seen and heard: an angel, mystic letters written in the sky, poetic lines of divine wisdom, which he was instructed to repeat. “I have never abhorred anyone more than a poet or a madman,” Muhammad said. Now he seemed doomed to be both. But Khadija reassured her husband: she knew him, and knew what sort of man he was. If God was going to choose a prophet, this seemed to her a fine choice. Because she believed in his message even before Muhammad did, Khadija is remembered as the first Muslim.[ii]

Finding the larger Universalist movement gave Toribio and his people the same sort of validation. What the congregations who left the Iglesia Universal de Cristo forged together was a religion, a form of Christianity, grounded in a universally loving God and otherwise steeped in a reverence for skepticism and freedom of thought. His community’s first personal contact with the larger Universalist movement was a missionary from Japan, Rev. Toshio Yoshioka, who reported to colleagues the profound relief of a people who had previously struggled with the doctrines of original sin and eternal punishment, but had believed that they had no other choice. Soon after, the congregations on Negros became affiliated with the Universalist Church, and the Unitarian Universalist Association following the consolidation in 1961. While the vast majority of congregations in the UUA are located here in the United States, the Filipino congregations are among the key exception: their 25 congregations and more than 2,000 members are part of the same governance structure as we are. Our central offices in Boston belong just as much to them as to us, though they are 13 time zones further away.

There are a few lines from a song I think of often as a catalog of some of the possible costs for doing what we feel is right. They go like this, “I am asking everything you have to give. I am asking everything you have to give….You will lose your youth, your sleep, your arches, your strength, your patience, your sense of humor. And occasionally, the love and support, of people you love very much.”[iii] Toribio Quimada did, in fact, pay a very high price. Embracing Universalism meant expulsion from his religious association and alienation from much of his family. It gave him a derided outsider status in his community: when he ran for local political office, opponents scared away orthodox voters with the slogan, “If you vote for Quimada you will become a Universalist.” Toribio’s faith led him to activism on behalf of the poor, particularly peasant farmers. This was likely the reason for the nefarious circumstances of his death; it has not been proved, but he seems to have been targeted by agents of the repressive government then in power in the Philippines. Setting out against the wind of tradition, the current of the status quo, or the tide of the crowd can be hard, and it is sometimes very costly.

There is also the very real risk of simply being wrong. Sometimes, the crowd is right, or at least the best course cannot be found by running in the opposite direction of it. It is important to remember the difference between argument and contradiction, because indulging in contradiction is one of the best ways to be wrong. “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of whatever the other person says,” as Monty Python’s Flying Circus reminds us. Choosing a different path simply in order to be different is contradiction, not argument. And there’s another important lesson from a different TV show I believe should guide our attitude towards going alone. Here I will clean up the language a bit for the pulpit: “If you meet one creep in the morning, you met a creep. If you meet creep all day, you’re the creep.[iv]

Yet, as like the song says, when the spirit says move, you gotta move right along. When we know that something is not right, when we see injustice, or are a party to it. When what we say, or what is being said for us, does not agree with what is true in our hearts, we have a duty from our faith, to stand outside the consensus and choose difference over conformity. As the teacher Jesus is said to have taught his students, when they told him of having rebuked a stranger who was performing miracles in Jesus’ name, “Do not hinder them. For whoever is not against us is with us.” Additional exfoliant from banished free braids…

those understandings.

[i] Traditional Eastern European Jewish story, based on a retelling in Steve Sanfield’s “The Feather Merchants”

[ii] At-Tabari 2/207

[iii] “We Will Never Give Up,” by Kirsten Lems, based on a speech by Jill Ruckelshaus.

[iv] Graham Yost, Justified, Season 4, Episode 1.

[v] Mark 5:38-39


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