We Know Within (2.10.2019)

I don’t know if the story happened exactly this way, but I believe it’s true. There was a married couple, Avram and Sarai, near the city of Ur in ancient Babylonia. They led a comfortable life, with a large household.

A holy voice spoke to Sarai and Avram, saying “Lech lecha,” which means, “go to yourself.”  The voice continued, “Leave your own country, your kin, and your father’s house, and go to a place that I will show you.”  

The Divine didn’t just ask them to go on a road trip. Avram and Sarai were being asked to leave their homeland, to give up the identities they had among their people, and to leave the household of Avram’s father, Terach. To follow the voice would be to lose all that was familiar, and to rethink what they knew of themselves. Sarai and Avram were being asked to “go to yourself,” to begin a quest for authenticity. They said yes.

Calling is, in part, about identity, it’s about who we choose to be and who we can’t help but be. Lech lecha, go to yourself. When we are suddenly grasped by the source of blessing as we understand it, who will we be? What will we choose?

Making a choice to go to yourself isn’t easy. Avram and Sarai had to give up a great deal, although they did bring people and possessions along with them on their journey. This story is a sacred text, from a book called Genesis or Bereshit (Bereshit is Hebrew for “Beginnings.”), depending on your faith background.

Saying “yes” to the quest, seeking to become the person or the people you are called to be, is not easy, but it is exhilarating.The moment comes when an ordinary character or group chooses to take on an extraordinary quest. Perhaps, like me, you imagine yourself in that place, asking, “Who, me?” It is a choice between the ground underfoot and something entirely unknown, a long walk or flight with angels in disguise. Go to yourself.

Yourself who? Who are we? What does it mean to have an identity, when we know we are different people from age to age, from year to year, from moment to moment. If we are lucky, there is never a final version as long as we live. Who are we? I have more questions than answers, so I’ll share my questions with you, and we can explore this together.

Within the question, “Who are you?” I perceive a few other questions. There is a question about how we experience the world, and maybe a little bit about how the world experiences us. I know that my perspective and the permission I am given or not given to move through the world is impacted by my whiteness, by my being a cisgender woman, by my queerness, by the fact that I am hearing and able-bodied, at least temporarily. My life and others’ experience of me is affected by the fact that I have the privilege of citizenship, and that my first language is English, and that I was raised to enter the middle class by parents who were not. That race, gender, class, and language are some of the elements that comprise identity might seem obvious, but sometimes when we have a dominant identity, we forget that this is a perspective, not the default. So my experience as a white person is not the true experience or the best experience or the experience by which others can be measured, it’s just one. The Racial Justice Task Force has a worship service and a workshop coming up that will lead to brave conversations about race and identity. In dialogue with each other, let us honor each other’s location and identities and ways of moving through the world.

But identity can never be simply who we are as an isolated person. We are, as the Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh say, inter-being. We are who we are because we are in relationship with people and history and ecological systems, whether we acknowledge them or not. So, contained within the question of “who are we” is the question “whose are we?” To whom are we accountable? For whom are we responsible? Who are the ancestors who created a way for us? If we are connected with a higher power, how are we held in that relationship? “Whose are we?” is a question that goes out in many directions.

Call-and-response chants and hymns are, I believe, an experience of belonging, of embodying the answer to “whose are we.” In listening and in responding, in taking leadership and receiving responses, we are living into what it means to be part of something larger than ourselves. In some cases, music or rhythm connects us with ancestors, people who developed songs to sustain the lives that led to our lives. Drumming and music are rituals of interbeing.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are heavily influenced by the myths of the Enlightenment, the idea that one person can stand against tradition in isolation. Staying connected with a sense of belonging might be devalued, or regarded as a limiting factor in the search for truth. I believe we can be in relationship with a people or a tradition and also be faithful in following a call to liberation. Avram and Sarai, or as they are known later in the story, Avraham and Sarah, are not perfect characters who make the right choices all the time, but their story can give us some clues about staying connected and also being authentic to the people they were becoming.

Avram grew up surrounded by a prosperous clan, including his father Terach and his brothers Nahor and Haran. Part of their story is retold in the Bible, but of course there are oral traditions not found in the text. Tradition says that Terach made a living selling idols, and that Avram had rebellious view of the family business. One day when Avram was minding the shop, he smashed all of the idols except for the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hands of the largest idol.

   Terach returned home, and was aghast at the stone carnage. “What happened?”

   “It was amazing, Dad!  The idols got into a fight and the biggest idol won.”

   “Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power.”

   “Then why do you worship them?”

Avram had realized that his faith was in a unified God. But destruction is not the end of the story. It wasn’t enough to declare what he did NOT believe and make a mess in the process. In order to go from Avram the trickster to Avraham the Prophet (and trickster), he had to say yes to the journey. Meanwhile, he began a dialogue with his father. Another aspect of the beginning of this story is that the Eternal says that a great nation will come from Avram and Sarai, and that all people on earth will be blessed through them. For Avram and Sarai, not only were they part of the community they brought with them, they were accountable to future generations. Their sense of belonging, their “whose are we” answer, had something to do with people yet to arrive. And so they chose to accept the quest.

This leads me to a third question contained within, “who are you?” In addition to being curious about how we experience the world, and whose we are, I wonder: what is at the heart of our quest? How are we called forth into a journey that may be uncomfortable, and that follows the current of the forces that create and uphold life?

What is your quest?  What is it you seek? What force do you serve during this chapter of your life?  What value is at the center of your actions? As a person, as a family, as a community, as a congregation, how are you called? These are different forms of the same question, the question of faith. It’s a simple question to ask, but not an easy one to answer.

“Faith” is a term that carries some heat in UU congregations, so let me say a little more about that. Twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as “ultimate concern.”  He asked people if there was something that they took with unconditional seriousness, something that grasped them so firmly that they would be willing to suffer for it. Tillich spoke in mid-twentieth century gendered language, which I will translate to language that makes more sense today. In a 1965 lecture, Tillich said:

When you find what it is that a person takes so seriously, then and there you can say, “[They] are grasped by it.” This means that, as [their] life has developed, this seriousness was not produced by active, reflective, voluntary processes, but came to [them], perhaps very early, and never left [him]. Take the scientist. If [they have] matured in the scientific tradition, [they are] willing to give up every particular of his scientific findings (they are all preliminary, never final), but [they] will never give up the scientific attitude, even if a tyrant should demand it of [them]. Or if [they] were weak enough to give it up, [they] would do it with a bad conscience… That is how we are grasped. We cannot produce it, cannot say, “I will make this or that a matter of my ultimate concern.” It has already grasped us when we begin to reflect on it. (Brown, D.M. 1965. Tillich in Dialogue. Harper & Row.)

Discovering our true quest is often something that comes by surprise, during the course of an ordinary life. The language of that quest may be shaped by the “who” in “whose are we,” the people or the forces to whom we are accountable. Tillich says we can’t necessarily choose our ultimate concern, it chooses us. But we can choose what to do once our core values have been illuminated. Identifying the quest is the first thing. Deciding whether and how to say yes is something else entirely.

Our journey begins with the realization of the values we set our hearts upon. Part of orienting ourselves for that journey is understanding that we each have a unique perspective, our own combination of ways of experiencing the world, our own set of relationships of belonging and accountability. It doesn’t end there. The quest continues when we say yes, taking action to move in relationship with that ultimate concern. It doesn’t end there, either. To continue to grow in spirit, to continue to follow our calling, we are asked to say yes again. When we meet a challenge, we reflect and doubt, and we say yes again. When the rhythm of our days lulls us into sleepwalking away from our values, we stop, assess our direction, and say yes again.

The invitation to a spiritual quest springs up unannounced, called forth by forces larger than any one of us. To keep it going is difficult, and that’s why people in congregations need each other. We need encouragement from each other as we listen for the voice of ultimate concern. We listen through meditation, prayer, yoga, encountering nature and a number of other practices. Once we’ve heard and said yes, we need each other to remind us of our values. We say yes when we commit to regular worship attendance, join a covenant group, comfort neighbors in need, and participate in social justice. We need each other when challenges arise, when it’s time to regroup and reflect. In those moments, congregations create a safe space to rise up and to say yes again.

The spiritual journey doesn’t belong to a solitary adventurous soul. It is not a secret between one person and the Divine. When you discover your quest, return here. Let us create together a context for knowing ourselves, our sources of blessing, and our shared calling. So be it. Blessed be. Amen.

We give thanks for all who are generous with their time and talent. Though we do appreciate Board President Tamara Bowman, the person who is actually the Board Member of the Week is Christa Maher, and we welcome her to the podium.