Vigil for the Tree of Life Synagogue

My name is Chris Buice and I am minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. In a world of anti-semitism I consider myself to be a pro-semite. Looking around me I can see I am not alone, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, people of all faiths, however, tonight we are all members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

IMG_8712

To the anti-semites of our nation we say America would not be America without the voice of Barbara Streisand, the music of George Gershwin, the humor of Jon Stewart, the magic of Houdini, the architecture of Frank Gehry, the films of Stephen Spielberg, the science of Albert Einstein, the plays of Arthur Miller, the journalism of Barbara Walters, the activism of Gloria Steinem and the conscience of Elie Wiesel.

Since the motives of the shooter were his opposition to the efforts of Jewish groups to work for immigration reform and to support refuges let me say this – America would be a better country if Anne Frank had been able to make it through our broken immigration system. American would be a much better country if the hundreds of passengers on the SS Saint Louis had been able to find safe harbor in our country.

For America would not be America without the poetry of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.”

10 years ago there was a shooting in my church, a hate crime, where 2 people were killed and 8 others injured. Members of the Knoxville Jewish Community were quick to respond. Rabbi Schwartz and a crew of people showed up with casseroles. Love walked in the door. There was standing room only at an interfaith service held at 2nd Presbyterian with many people standing outside in the rain to show support for our church during that tragic time. At some point someone decided to do a “roll call” to see what faiths were present in that service, “Are there any Muslims in the house?” Hands went up. “Are there any Catholics in the house?” Hands went up. “Are there any members of the Jewish community here tonight?” and a voice shouted out from down the hall, “We’re in the kitchen!”

And this is true, you were there feeding us in body and spirit. You brought us casseroles and tonight we brought you candle holders. And so I can say America would not be America and Knoxville would not be Knoxville without the conscience and casseroles of the Knoxville Jewish community.

Tonight we grieve. Tonight we pray. Tonight we support each other. Tomorrow we vote. Tomorrow we take action. Tomorrow we organize. Many of us were trained to do just that in this building (the Arnstein Jewish Community Center. ) We were trained to be upstanders not bystanders; to stand up to hate, bias, bigotry and racism. For as the Gates of Prayer, a prayer book found in synagogues across this country, tells us, “Pray like everything depends on God but act as if everything depends on you.” Tonight we pray. Tomorrow we do God’s work.

(These words were given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Knoxville Vigil for the Tree of Life Synagogue sponsored by the Knoxville Jewish Alliance on Monday, October 29, 2018)

Advertisements

All Creatures Here Below

The mega church pastor Rick Warren has written a book called A Purpose Driven Life in which he states that our spiritual growth begins when we realize, “It’s not about me.”

IMG_8451

Here is how he puts it, “It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions.” It’s bigger than all that.

Rick Warren has recently retooled his book, added material and changed the title to, What on Earth am I Here For? Here he focuses on what most philosophers agree are the important philosophical question, “Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?”

I was thinking about these big picture questions last week when my daughter and I were in walking through the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, only my questions were more like, “What on earth are sea anemone here for? What are stingrays, chambered nautilis, pacific sea nettle and jellyfish here for? What are star sea cucumber, wolf eels, long nose sea horses and percula clownfish here for? What are black grouper, northern hogsucker or spotfin porcupine fish here for? The list could go on an on.

While it might seem presumptuous of me to speak on behalf of all of humanity the only thing I took away from that encounter with so many different varieties of life is the realization that, “It’s not about us. It’s bigger than the human species?” It’s bigger than us. It’s bigger than what we want or need, bigger than our hopes or dreams, bigger than our fears and anxieties.

When I looked into the aquarium I could sometimes see my own reflection on the glass but my takeaway lesson was, “It’s not about me. The meaning of life is much bigger than my own image. It is also bigger than the image of all the other people I could see who were also looking into the glass.”

The theologian Matthew Fox says that spiritual growth is moving from the ego-logical to the eco-logical. In the language of theology school we must move from an anthropocentric and anthropomorphic theology to a broader and deeper meaning of Universalism. Historical Western Christian theology has had a tendency to be anthropocentric (human-centered) and anthropomorphic (a god made in our own image.) However the problem with having a theology that is human centered and made in our own image is that spiritual growth does not happen when we are self-centered, self-focused, where the dominate image in our mind is self. Our spirituality must always be grounded in something bigger than ourselves.

The ocean is bigger than ourselves, which may explain why it has often served as a metaphor for the divine. The mystics tell us that we live and move and have our being in divinity, in much the same ways as a fish swims in water. However, this oceanic image is more often associated with the religions of the East than Western theology.

Western theology tends to be anthropocentric, focused almost entirely on human concerns, but there are exceptions to that rule. The book of Psalms reveals a wider perspective, “Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all the ocean depths…wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds.” And we hear this broader perspective echoed in the traditional doxology that I grew up singing in the Episcopal Church, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise God all creatures here below.” This is sort of the Episcopal version of the song, “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir.” Earlier we sang a hymn based on the Canticle of the Sun by Saint Francis, the most ecological of saints, the patron saint of animals, “All creatures of the earth and sky, come kindred lift your voices high, alleluia, alleluia.”

Because of this earth friendly tradition, perhaps my daughter Sally and my wife Suzanne shouldn’t have been quite so surprised when they went to the tropical bird sanctuary Parrot Mountain in Pigeon Forge and they encountered a parrot that said, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

There is so much variety in the world. At Parrot Mountain there are cockatoos, macaws, toucans, African gray, hornbills, parakeets, kookaburras, starlings, doves, peacocks and pheasants. And if you step out of that particular tourist attraction and get away from the Pigeon Forge traffic and go into The Great Smoky Mountain National Park there is more biodiversity in that park than all of Europe.

This morning we held an animal blessing outside and we celebrated the hawks, the owls, the foxes and the ground hogs we often see on our land here and the river otters that have returned to Third Creek, we blessed people’s companion animals some dogs, a cat, a ferret, a hedge hog and a sugar glider.

So speaking on behalf of our species let me say, “It’s not about us.” Our spirituality changes once we think beyond our self, beyond our species and begin to contemplate all creatures and all creation.

A number of years ago our church hosted a talk by Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow. Michael Dowd is a minister and theologian who has written the book Thank God for Evolution; How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and World. Connie Barlow is a scientist and atheist. However both describe their religious beliefs by using the same word spelled c-r-e-a-t-h-e-i-s-t, only they pronounce differently. The minister Dowd describes himself as a crea-theist and the scientist Barlow describes herself as a cre-atheist. Theirs is an interfaith marriage, however, like the marriage of science and religion, their marriage may just help transform the world.

This use of the word crea-theist or cre-atheist is an example of this couple’s creativity and creativity is at the heart of my understanding of spirituality, theology and evolution. Creativity is important because we do not want to be parrots, simply mimicking someone else’s faith, repeating someone else’s words. We want to be participants in the creative process.

When I was in seminary I read a lot of the works of the Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman who wrote a lot about creativity. Pulling those books off my shelf I found almost everything he had to say on the subject almost completely unintelligible. So I am going to do some heavy paraphrasing.

Henry Nelson Wieman said the meaning of life is about grounding ourselves in and participating in a life transforming creativity that is bigger than ourselves and beyond all human control. However, when we cooperate with this revolutionary and evolutionary creativity we live more abundantly and our lives are enriched with meaning, purpose and co-creativity in partnership with the larger forces of life. So the goal of living is to open ourselves up to those forces that create and uphold life.

Because of this emphasis on creativity Henry Nelson Wieman was very supportive of scientific ideas about the evolution of life. Of course, not everyone thinks that the relationship between science and religion is a match made in heaven. Just down the road Dayton, Tennessee, was the location of the famous Scopes Monkey Trails in the 1920’s where attorney Clarence Darrow defended the right of a high school teacher to teach the theory of evolution even though it was against state law to teach any theory contrary to the biblical story of creation. Darrow defended his client, spoke out for intellectual and academic freedom and there is a now a statue of Darrow on the lawn of the courthouse.

Rachel Held Evans who is from Dayton speaks out for the harmony of science and religion. She contends that our religious ideas are like a living organism that must adapt to change. She says “our faith must be able to grow fins when we need it to swim and wings when we need it to fly” in order for us to stay vibrant and relevant in a world of constant change. Our faith must evolve. Our religious ideas must evolve.

When we look into an aquarium or visit a bird sanctuary or simply look carefully at the life in our own backyard what we are seeing are many different adaptions to change. In my own backyard there are coyotes and caterpillars, butterflies and bees, garden snakes and ground hogs, lizards and lightening bugs. All god’s critters have a place in my yard.

And so whenever we encounter another form of life we can meditate on how this particular creature has adapted to change and this can help us reflect on a more personal question, “How am I going to adapt to change? How am I going to evolve?” And we can ask the same question of our church, “How is our church going to adapt to change? How are we going to evolve?”

This week I came across an article from the Wall Street Journal American Retailers Have a New Target Customer: The 26 Year Old Millennial. Twenty six year olds are the biggest single age group today in the United States, around 4.8 million people. So the question for our faith, indeed the question for every faith, is who is our message targeting? Who do we have in mind when make our decisions as a church? What age group is our music and our sermons aimed at? Hopefully, our message is broad enough to include all of us, but we cannot be complacent because the fossil record is full of examples of creatures that were not ready for change.

Speaking of fossils, a lot of us have been watching the Senate hearings around the Supreme Court Justice pick. The average age of the Senate keeps getting older and older. Many of the same men sitting listening to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford are also the men (and I do mean that word men) who listened to Anita Hill testify 27 years ago in 1991. We now have the oldest Senate in the history of the country and to be honest they often sound like it. Is our democracy evolving or is it in danger of becoming extinct?

I have nothing against growing old because I am doing it. However, one of the things that attracted me to the Unitarian Universalist Church is because I came into this church as a young adult I encountered some of the youngest old people I’d ever met. Older people open to change. Older people open to new ideas. Older people open to evolution. But we can’t be complacent because I am now as old as they were when I met them. And now it is my job the welcome the 27 year old who walks through the door of this church. Now it is my job to be youngest old person someone else is going to meet. That’s how this faith is going to evolve and change and stay open to new life.

So in conclusion let me say that we must be open to evolution and change – for evolution may be painful, hard, difficult and dangerous, but it is also beautiful. When I was in Baltimore I was aware that I was in one of the cities where the Black Lives Matter movement started so the question is, “Are we ready for diversity? Are we ready to encounter life in its many different forms?

Looking past my own image into the water of that aquarium in Baltimore I could see the beauty of the earth, the wonders of the ocean, life of every conceivable color, every conceivable size and shape. Who knew protoplasm could take so many different forms? Who knew that DNA could shape so many different kinds of life? Sometime all we need to do is take a moment to drink it all that beauty in and appreciate the wonder of it all. You may ask, “Why should we do that?” and the answer is, “Because that’s who we are, that’s why we are here, that is our purpose.”

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday October 7, 2018)