When one imagines a religion, something human-made may immediately come to mind: perhaps religious architecture like Angkor Wat, the vast ancient Hindu temple complex in Cambodia; or Islam’s Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem; or Chartres Cathedral in Paris.
Something spacious and sizable in stone and glass, shaped by human hands.
Yet I am struck by our story from earlier, about the Tree of Life. How
Children play beneath it and climb its lowest branches. Young people know that if you whisper your dreams to the tree, they are more likely to come true. People who proclaim their love or friendship for one another beneath its branches find their relationships to be nourishing, and elders discover that their sweetest memories can be counted on when they are near the great tree. The tree has been witness to so much, and when the breezes blow through the leaves, one can hear echoes of generations: laughter, conversations, dreams, prayers, and songs.
The Tree of Life.
It feels like us. It’s our congregational Tree of Life. Ours to Sustain.
Today’s service is a celebration of this and a recognition of this.
See it in your mind’s eye. Our Tree of Life. A trunk as wide-around as any gigantic redwood. Big-armed limbs extending outwards from the center, holding branches. Off of each branch: twigs reaching out like little fingers. At the finger-ends of each of the countless twigs: leaves, an entire community of them, chattering in the wind, weaving together, shining and green-lit on a sunny day.
Those leaves, now: they represent you and me.
Make a leaf-rustling sound with me: [wiggle fingers and whisper a rustling noise]
Spiritually, we live upon a holy architecture that’s alive and growing and renewing annually.
And right now I want to tell some of the larger story of this Tree. What it grew from, how it comes to us today in the way it does.
Imagine the taproot underneath our Tree’s trunk. That taproot anchors everything. Actually, if we are going to do justice to history, it will need to be a double taproot. One representing Unitarianism, and the other representing Universalism.
Start with the Unitarian taproot. It represents an idea as old as Christianity itself. After Jesus’ death, there were so many theories about who he was, and Unitarianism represented one of the important ones: namely, that God is one and Jesus was a great prophet but not equal to God. This is classic, old-school Unitarianism.
Fast-forward around 300 hundred years. After plenty of persecution, Christianity finally triumphed when no one less than the Roman emperor of the time, Constantine, converted to Christianity. It was a time when church and state were solidly merged, so religious belief was at one and the same time a political force. People who disagreed religiously disagreed politically, and the result was social chaos. To ensure social harmony, then, Constantine decided that his chosen religion needed to get clear about proper belief–it needed to define ”orthodoxy.” In 325 AD, he had all the Bishops of Christendom gather together in an ancient city called Nicea (which today would be located in Turkey). Constantine told them: define what is orthodox, and clearly distinguish it from what is soul-damning heresy. The whole story of what happened is complex, but the essential result is that Unitarianism was declared heretical. Constantine himself enforced this with brute force, and said that folks who committed this heresy would be, if not exiled, then murdered.
Several hundreds of years later, at yet another council, Universalism was declared heretical too. Universalism (also an idea as old as Christianity itself) said that eternal hell is a lie, that God’s essential goodness would lead God to gather up all beings into himself–no one left out.
As beautiful as it sounds, it was declared heresy too! Anathema!
So, pause here for a moment. This is our Unitarian Universalist Tree of Life we’re talking about, and look at its two taproots: both judged heretical! Heresy in its most positive sense means to choose. It means to think and act on the basis of one’s personal integrity, no matter what. Even if orthodoxy takes offense, and you’re going against the political grain. Even if the Emperor threatens to exile or kill you.
That’s what our twin taproots say about us, who we are as a people of faith. We must never forget this. Our faith was never meant to be easy. Being a heretic has never been convenient or safe. But our Tree of Life does not grow out of taproots of convenience.
But now we lift our eyes from the twin taproots, to look above them at the trunk they anchor. This trunk is as wide as a redwood. Historically, this represents Jesus. It reminds us that historical Unitarianism and Universalism are responses, ultimately, to experiences people had of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus once said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it in abundance.” Right here is the gospel that launched us as well as so many other communities of kindred faith. The trunk is wide so as to symbolize this: how, within Christianity, despite Constantine’s heavy-handedness, and the heavy-handedness of subsequent leaders, diversity of Christian belief ultimately won out–it could not be stopped–leaving us today with a situation in which one group’s definition of Christianity might go so far as to be the exact opposite of another’s definition of Christianity, but both would still deserve to be called Christian!
As Unitarian Universalists, sometimes we grow anxious at our seeming inability to define ourselves in a once-and-for-all sort of way. But it is good to be reminded by the example of Christianity that the task of definition is hard all-around. There is no other side of the fence where the grass is greener. Even the most dogmatic, hard-line faiths have to work hard to keep their people straight.
But that’s another sermon.
For now, we are gazing on and appreciating the great teacher and prophet, Jesus. The strong, solid, wide trunk of our Tree of Life. Yet we know only too well that, for Unitarian Universalism today, the wisdom we have to offer does not stop with Christianity. Somehow, from out of Christian roots and trunk we have grown into a more-than-Christian, post-Christian faith. Just look to the multiple tree limbs which radiate off of the single trunk. Look to the numerous branches which radiate off the multiple limbs. Look to the innumerable twigs. Look to all the leaves, which represent you and me…. [wiggle fingers and whisper a rustling noise]
One of the great tree limbs on our tree is from Buddhism, and the Buddha winks out at us. Moses with his Ten Commandments is yet another great limb. Yet a third limb will bring Lao Tzu to mind, walking in remote misty mountains in China.
Beyond these are the branches: Gandhi at his spinning wheel; Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. preaching “I have a dream.” Maya Angelou, reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, when she said,
History despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Listen to our Tree! Upwards of the twin taproots and the single trunk, our Unitarian Universalist Tree of Life flourishes into a diversity of rich spiritual wisdom. Limbs and branches and twigs representing the world’s great religions. Representing prophetic women and men. Representing science. Representing humanism. Representing earth-based spirituality–for example, look carefully and you will see Robin Wall Kimmerer of Braiding Sweetgrass there in our Tree too….
And then there are the leaves: they are you and you and you and me. [wiggle fingers and whisper a rustling noise]
We have come a long way since the earliest Jesus communities of first century Palestine, or our moments of heresy in the fourth and sixth centuries. We’ve come a long way even since the early 19th century, when American Unitarianism and American Universalism were Bible-centered and exclusively Christian.
And while there are many historic causes I could cite for this—for our expansion into a fully pluralistic faith—I will ask you simply to gaze upon yet another branch on the Tree of our Unitarian Universalist life. It is half-in, half-out of the sunlight. It represents the great Unitarian preacher and prophet of Transcendentalism: Ralph Waldo Emerson. He once said, “Live after the infinite Law that is in you and in company with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all lovely forms.” Revelation, in other words, can’t possibly be contained just within the Hebrew or Christian Bible. The wellspring is fundamentally within each of our souls; revelation bubbles up out of the spark of the Divine in our depths. Add to this the revelation of nature, as well as the revelation embodied by the Bibles of many times and lands, such as Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita.
One narrow way, one narrow truth, one narrow light?
Irrational! Untrue! Unfortunate!
So our job, says Emerson, is to live within the abundance of the Truth (an idea that echoes Jesus’ own emphasis on abundance). Let Truth come to us from any and all available sources. For, the Truth shall set a person free. Let the sleepers awaken and know their hidden powers for healing and action and compassion. Said Emerson in 1836, “Our age is retrospective. It builds on the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? […] There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
Yet at this point I need to acknowledge something. So far, we have seen that today’s Unitarian Universalist Tree of Life invites us on a great search for Truth, Truth from many sources. Yet that is not all there is to our lives. And that’s not all there is to our Tree of Life. For in this Tree, there are plenty of spots to which the sunlight does not penetrate, that are deep in shadow….
To understand what I mean, we need to learn a little more about Emerson’s life. Remember how I said his branch was half-in, half-out of sunlight? Emerson’s father was a traditional minister who never blessed him. His first wife Ellen, who believed in him, who was his rock, died young … and death repeatedly struck at his brothers and his own children. The man who optimistically wrote, “Hitch your wagon to a star” and “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” also wrote, “after thirty, a man wakes up sad every morning.” And then from his student days at Harvard: right in the middle of an essay he was writing about God, when he was struggling with what those three little letters strung together might refer to, his eyesight failed him and he was able to see no light at all. Only after two surgeries and nine months of recuperation was he able to go back to wrestling with his theological studies.
If ever there was a man who loved light, it was Emerson. Yet in the Tree of Life, there will always be pockets of shadow, where light does not come through. Adversity is a part and parcel of the human condition. Shadow parts in ourselves and in our relationships lead to self-destructiveness and addictions and bad habits of every kind. Shadow parts in society and the larger world lead to structural poverty and prejudice and war. The light never comes unmixed.
Life is a great mystery. Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church puts it this way: “By the time we die, we will barely have gotten our minds wet. The wisest of us all will have but the faintest notion of what life was all about.” He goes on to say: “This counsels humility, but also oneness. … My favorite etymology speaks eloquently to this very point. Human, humane, humanitarian, humor, humility, humus.”
For me, what all of this leads to is my sense that the Unitarian Universalist religious journey is NOT a quest for perfect certainty in the here and now. It’s not that It’s more a quest for greater trust in the meaningfulness and worth of life, no matter where life leads. We live in a world that is so often unfair, and joy is weirdly and jarringly juxtaposed with every kind of woe. Randomness and senselessness and sorrow strike. Life can place so many limits on us. But there are no limits that can be placed on our human capacity to respond with courage and grace and forgiveness. There are no limits to this. Our greatest prophets and saints prove the point. Jesus. The Buddha. No limits to the abundance of the human heart to be generous in times of anxiety and fear. No limits to clarity or compassion. None.
Our Unitarian Universalist Tree of Life is all about abundance. Abundant truth, abundant mystery, abundant capacity to respond to life with limitless love. “I have come that you might have life, and have it in abundance.”
But there is one more thing to notice, before we are done with this bold imaginative vision of who we are as a Tree of Life religious people. It’s time to take a closer look at … the leaves. Us.
[wiggle fingers and whisper a rustling noise]
A certain Latin phrase comes to mind: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
To me, this suggests how we see ourselves as a community of gathered seekers. It’s wonderfully infused by core American values which have themselves been shaped and formed by key Unitarian and Universalist leaders. The author of these following words, for example: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words are from the Declaration of Independence—written by Thomas Jefferson, Unitarian. It’s why our community affirms the inherent worth and dignity of each person. Why our community affirms the spirituality of the work of social justice to defend human dignity and restore it when others threaten to take it away. It’s why our community affirms open conversation in the context of supportive community. It’s why we bless each individual journey of faith because we know that the Creator has a creative connection with each and every person here and now. Our Tree of Life soars into the sky with this insight. Life, from the taproots, through the trunk and limbs and branches and twigs, pulsates into the green leaves, and it is there where the miracle of photosynthesis happens–the miracle which represents the culmination of the whole tree, which the whole tree relies upon.
Yet another distinctly American phrase comes to mind as well: “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Here is the classic definition of democracy, which Abraham Lincoln famously used in his Gettysburg Address. But it’s not original with him. He got it from Theodore Parker, one of our best Unitarian preachers in the 19th century, whose services would gather literally thousands of people—he was a megachurch preacher and didn’t know it.
“Of the people, by the people, for the people.” It means that through our gathered generosity of presence and service and witness and giving, we can become great. It’s good old American enterprise: You get only as much as you put in. Vote with your time and energy, because without you, this community cannot be strong. Vote with your presence. Vote with your annual pledge. Don’t be fooled by all the people you see, thinking that someone else will do it so you don’t have to. Don’t think that no one will miss your single vote and your single pledge, since there are so many others. American democracy can’t survive such apathy, since apathy inevitably builds and steamrolls; and we can’t survive it here, in our Unitarian Universalist spiritual democracy. “Of the people, by the people, for the people” means everyone involved in some way, everyone informed, everyone giving, because everyone has a vital stake in the outcome.
Children play beneath our Tree of Life and climb its lowest branches. Young people know that if you whisper your dreams to the tree, they are more likely to come true. People who proclaim their love or friendship for one another beneath its branches find their relationships to be nourishing, and elders discover that their sweetest memories can be counted on when they are near the great tree. The tree has been witness to so much, and when the breezes blow through the leaves, one can hear echoes of generations: laughter, conversations, dreams, prayers, and songs.
Will you do your part to love this Tree of Life and sustain it?
We live upon a holy architecture that’s alive and growing and renewing annually.
Will you make your annual pledge right now, to do your part?