What If There Were A Universe Where…

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 02/23/2014

A few months ago, the Washington Post reported on what they clearly found to be a strange phenomenon, a pair of English comedians who are bringing what they call “Sunday Assembly” to our shores . Billed by the Post as a “godless congregation,” the Sunday Assembly met on a Wednesday evening in a DC basement theater in November, where what were apparently somewhat reluctant participants were encouraged to sing as a group, wave their hands in the air to music, hear poetry about life after death, explore tips on cultivating gratitude, do a team building exercise with each other, and have a few moments for quiet reflection.

This was the first Washington area venture for the Sunday Assembly, which was started a year ago in London. The creator of these services, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, report that they want to create a space for secular people to get, quote, “the best parts of religion – with awesome songs!” This has all created a bit of a journalistic storm both in Britain and here in the US, as the media contemplates the concept of a congregation that meets without a creed or common belief system. A man named John Shook, who heads up the education departments for both the Center for Inquiry and the American Humanist Association, and who did a reading a the DC service, declared, “No-one knows where this is going – that’s the genius of it! It’s new!”

Oh, John Shook, whoever you are. This is So. Not. New. That’s religion, what you’re doing there. Religion, pure and simple – and, since we’re talking about it, this Wednesday night Sunday Assembly you’ve all created? That’s a worship service. And human beings have been doing that – making religion, creating worship - since the beginning of time.

The public at large as represented by the media, as we probably already know, like to simplify complicated things, and more so with religion than most anything else. Our mainstream culture and our news sources don’t seem to understand the foundations of religion any more than John Shook does. It can’t really envision a grass-roots religion that isn’t rigid, or restrictive, or obsessed with the supernatural. The average reporter seems to see religion as an institution that imposes itself on a population, rather than something that people might come up with, naturally and ever so consistently, on their own. The tone of this whole Post article was one of abject surprise: Aren’t these people funny? The article even asks, explicitly: “What besides nonbelief would unite these people?”

We Unitarian Universalists are not surprised by the desire of diverse, sometimes secular people to create a church. We know what mainstream society, and the American Humanist Association, and the news media apparently do not. Church isn’t about doctrine, or rules, or a supernatural deity. It isn’t really even about an institution, even though it is one.

In fact, if the Post had read their own article, their surprise might have been moderated. The author, Michelle Boorstein, explains right there why the Sunday Assembly has gotten so much attention: “mostly,” she writes, “because they’re speaking to an increasingly secular society still hungry for two commodities that organized religion purports to provide: wonder and community.”

Heck, yeah, Michelle Boorstein, Post reporter. You have just defined church: people gathering, hungry for wonder and community. That human hunger for wonder and community is so ubiquitous that if there aren’t viable options available to meet it, then people will create options on their own. That’s how churches have always come to be. And that’s what Sunday Assembly is: A forming church. If you’re interested in such a thing, Michelle Boorstein, Post Reporter, then, please, come on over and join us. I bet we do church better than those newbies do – even though we also sing “Lean On Me”. And read poetry and talk about gratitude from time to time.

Our worship theme question this month is “Why Do People Do Religion?,” and in the theme packet – which is on the website – I talk about why this is a challenging question. It’s like asking why people live in shelters, I guess. They just do, because it’s the best thing for them. People always do religion. They do religion no matter what culture they come from or what time period or what the particular beliefs of the day are. People have done religion in a million different ways…but always, they do religion.

Why do we do it? Why do people do religion? I guess it’s because we live in the universe that was described when we lit the chalice this morning. We were asked: “If such a universe existed and you noticed it, what would you do? What song would come out of your mouth, what prayer, what praises, what sacred offering, what whirling dance, what religion and what reverential gesture would you make to greet that world, every single day that you were in it?” Really, what is the appropriate response to a world as fathomless and amazing and dangerous and wild as the one into which we have been born?

The very word “worship” is Old English, and it means “to shape things of worth.” The root of the word “religion” traces back to the word for binding. The -ligio part of it has the same root as ligament, attaching muscle to bone.

When people gather for worship, they are coming together to celebrate and make sense of the things that are most worthy in life, the things that matter most. You already know that those things that matter the most are love, and close bonds with other people and with the world around us, and learning to deal with the fact that we are born into this fabulous universe and yet we have to die and we don’t know why that’s the system here.

We do religion to bind us to what matters the most, to bind us to that to which we are already bound, really. We come together in religious community to bind ourselves to those things that matter the most. People have always done this, and always will. They do it even despite themselves, when they don’t quite know what it is that they’re doing, as seems to be the case with the Sunday Assembly people.

I have this little pile on my desk at home of Things I Should Have Already Read. In it, for many months, sat a Xerox copy of an essay that a congregant here handed me at the beginning of the church year. It seemed to be copied straight out of a book, with no title or author, and when I asked this congregant where she got it, she couldn’t remember. I googled a paragraph of it and pulled up a newsletter from a guy named Bo Lozoff, who works with something called the Human Kindness Foundation which I believe is a ministry to prisoners and those just released from prison. Anyway, on this sheet of paper, Mr. Lozoff writes this remarkable essay about religion, which I’ll quote at length now:

"Religion – before it splits off into different names – is simply about two things. Every classic religion on Earth is a simple two-sided coin. There is an inward teaching and an outward teaching, that’s all. The inward teaching says there is a Divine force that is absolutely real. It is beyond all limitation and description, it is Holy, much greater than we are, yet mysteriously it exists within each one of us, and we are supposed to spend some time being quiet and humble in order to turn inward and commune with it…. All the traditions stress turning inward, alone and in silence, to commune with this great force inside of us. That’s the inward teaching of all religions. Call it Communion.

The outward teaching is just as simple: When we come out of the cave, off the mountain, back from the desert, when we stand up from our spot underneath the tree and open our eyes and put our feet on the ground, we are supposed to love and respect each person, creature, flower and rock that life places in front of us. This is the outward teaching of every great religion. Call it Community.

Communion and community…. There is no religion that does not stress these two principles at its very core. Before the religions differ in any way, all people of faith are told to turn inward toward the Divine, and turn outward to love our neighbor as our self. You can’t really be a good anything if you don’t practice these two fundamental principles. And if you do practice them, you’re basically a good everything. So relax and enjoy the profound simplicity of your religion." – Bo Lozoff, Human Kindness Foundation

Thank you, Bo Lozoff, whoever you are. Religions can be profoundly simple. They start with the human need to experience Wonder and Community, Communion and Community. Then they get complicated, as human institutions do so quickly, and they get threaded through with power struggles and the human tendency to not be so kind to each other. But the fact that human institutions struggle does not take away from what started the institution in the first place: the human desire, the human striving for communion and community. It is that drive that makes religions happen, that pop them out of basement theaters among people who think they hate church. People can’t get away from it, even when they want to. It is a congregational form that folks most often fall into when they go to meet that need for communion and community.

We heard a reading from Rev. A. Powell Davies last time I was here. He was the minister of the All Souls Church in Washington DC in the 1940s and 50s. He was our own H. P.’s minister when she was a child. Rev. Davies says two things about the importance of church. He says that he goes to church, and would if he were a preacher or not, because he falls below his own standards and needs to be constantly brought back to them. And, he says he wants to be reminded of human nature’s highest possibilities, and this happens to him in church. Davies writes: “It may seem as though the same things could be found in solitude, but it does not easily happen so.”

It does not easily happen so, this reminder of our own standards and human nature’s highest possibilities, but it does in church.

I would suggest that our twin human pursuits, wonder and community, those two things also seem like they could be found elsewhere, like out in the world where there are so many people doing so many things together. But it does not easily happen so. It is in church where we commit ourselves to wonder and community in a way that no other organization or institution is committed.

That doesn’t mean we’re always awash in wonder, swept away by our communion with the holy, or experts in fostering loving community, because God knows in church life we aren’t always any of those things and sometimes we are none of them. Let’s be real about what human institutions are like, and how far from the goal any one of our attempts can fall.

But when you’re tempted to wonder why we bother trying to find wonder and community at all, why we bother with creating religion at all, especially when that work can so spectacularly fail, consider what the world would be like if there were no such groups of people at least trying to make an effort.

What if there were no particular place where people were at least trying to point a finger at the amazing universe and say to one another, to themselves, “wake up!” What if there were no groups of people who at least wondered what sacred center might be at the core of other human beings, and tried to find ways to understand them, connect with them, no matter how different they might seem?

Presbyterian minister John Wimberley writes that “[c]ongregations around the country are engaged in incredible work serving their memberships and communities. Remove them from the fabric of our society,” he says, “and the garment just might fall apart. Such is the important connective role our congregations play in the United States.”

Why do human beings do religion? So that there is a place where their attention is drawn, despite themselves and the thousand pulls of their everyday lives, there is a place where their attention is drawn to that which really matters. Without that place, yes, the garment of our society might fall apart. That is why, when religion is missing, people find themselves, quietly, without always quite knowing what they are doing, gathering in basement theaters and in mason’s halls and in elementary schools and in yurts, to explore together wonder, communion, and community. We can’t help ourselves. Religion is what human beings do.