Almost Worship

Richard Dawkins is best known for his outspoken atheism. He is the author of a book called The God Delusion and seems to take pleasure in jousting with fundamentalists on talk shows. And yet he is also the kind of person who could write these words. 

“When I lie on my back and look up at the Milky Way on a clear night and see the vast distances of space and reflect that these are also vast differences of time as well, when I look at the Grand Canyon and see the strata going down, down, down, through periods of time which the human mind can’t comprehend. I am overwhelmingly filled with a sense of almost worship. It is not worshiping anything personal. It’s a feeling of sort of abstract gratitude that I am alive to appreciate these wonders. When I look down a microscope, it’s the same feeling. I am grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders.” 

This morning I want to talk about those human emotions that transport us to the place of almost worship, those moments when we stand at the edge of an awe inspiring ocean, caught in rapture by the majesty of the sea and the power of the crashing waves BUT we are not quite ready to jump in and swim. I want us to reflect on those moments that are almost but not quite worship. 

When I was Director of Religious Education here in the 1990’s Lois Southworth who described herself as “a little old lady”  used to come to every one of the adult education classes I led. At that time her adult son, the Reverend Bruce Southworth, was a well known Unitarian theologian who wrote books about Henry Nelson Wieman and empirical theology. However, Lois was very much a down to earth humanist. In one adult education class I asked members of the group to share a moment where they felt reverence and awe. One person spoke about a sunrise. Another spoke about walking along a ridge with a beautiful view of the mountains. One woman spoke of holding her adopted baby in her arms for the first time. Finally, it came time for Lois to share her experience. She thought for a moment and said with a wry smile, “I guess I am just a good Unitarian. I take everything for granted.” 

I share this story because the Unitarian Universalist Church does include many different kinds of people. Those of us who worship. Those of us who almost worship. And those of us who may or may not be able to summon up any such feelings. In the last Board Meeting as things were winding down Mary Rogge bid everyone adieu by saying  “Secular Blessings.” We are a diverse church where we frame our beliefs using different words. 

As the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda, tell  us, “Who knows in truth? Who can tell us whence and how arose this universe? The gods are later than its beginning; who knows therefore whence comes this creation. Only God knows, only the God who sees in the highest heaven knows or perhaps even God does not know.” 

Another ancient Hindu scripture, the Upanishads, teach us that we should reverence, “What cannot be spoken with word, but that whereby words are spoken…What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think…What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see…What cannot be heard with the ear, but that whereby the ear can hear…What cannot be indrawn with the breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn.” This is what we should reverence and this may or may not be what the other people around us adore or worship. In other words religion cannot be a mere social construct, an exercise in group think, but must be a meaningful personal experience. 

Jean Wahl was a French philosopher who lived in the early 20th Century who staked out a position between atheism, on one hand, and theism on the other. He put forth the idea of an agnostic mysticism. Where theism says, “There is a God” and atheism says, “There is no God’ agnostic mysticism says, “Since the Absolute is unknowable all we can do is have a reverent relationship with the unknowable.” When we are confronted by the insoluble mystery of human existence we should embrace that insolubility. Acknowledge the partiality of all thought and the limitations of every conception. He argued that “all that can be thought is attached to the unthinkable, as all that is visible to the invisible, and all that one understands to what cannot be understood.” The challenge of a philosopher is to realize that the solution is to stop seeking a solution. 

Since the Absolute is Unknowable all we can do is enter into a reverent relationship with the Unknown. We are in relationship with the Absolute whenever we are faced by all that exceeds ourselves. I am reminded of a moment in Alex Haley’s book Roots where Kunte Kinte’s father holds his newborn child up to the starry night and says, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself.” 

The Absolute is the experience of everything greater than ourselves. The Absolute is not necessarily something we think about, it is something we feel. There may be different concepts about the Absolute. There may be different theologies and philosophies about the Absolute, however, an encounter with the Absolute can generate many of the same feelings. In other words, we will not reach the Absolute with our knowledge, we will reach it with our feelings. And even though the Absolute is by definition Something Much Larger Than Ourselves it can be felt in every little thing in the cosmos. 

Earlier this month I heard astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson interviewed about the 6 new galaxies discovered by the James Webb Space Telescope that are forcing scientists to rethink all their theories about the origins of galaxies. As one scientist remarked, “We’ve discovered something so unexpected that it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.” 

Tyson was asked to comment on this statement and he reframed the issue by saying  that discoveries like this do not create problems for science, they create excitement. They generate a new understanding of the universe, “We delight in this,” he said, “We shouldn’t be surprised that we’re surprised.” We should expect to encounter the unexpected. He said, “When people say that scientists have to go back to the drawing board they do not understand our work. We don’t go back to the drawing board, we live at the drawing board.” When the interviewer asked him, “So this discovery means rethinking everything so what are you thinking now?” Neil DeGrasse Tyson laughed and said, “I don’t know…and there’s nothing wrong with not knowing.” What Tyson says about the science of the universe, the philosopher Jean Wahl says we should say about religion. We should never be afraid to say,  “We don’t know…and there’s nothing wrong with not knowing.” 

We often get the impression that faith and doubt are opposites. That our faith is at war with our doubts and our doubts at war with our faith. However, there can be no faith without doubt. As the scriptures say, “we walk by faith, not sight.” Or as the philosopher Pascal put it, “If I could never act except on the basis of a certainty then I could never act because nothing is certain.” Faith is about how we act in the face of uncertainty. Faith is about  how we move through the Unknowable. And as we move through the Unknowable we can still do some important things together. 

We can be thankful for the gift of reason.

We can be thankful for the gift of freedom. 

We can be thankful for the gift of compassion. 

We can celebrate the wonder of life, the wonder of humanity and the wonder of knowledge.  

There is much we can celebrate even as we face all that is Unknowable. Earlier, I mentioned Mary Rogge’s dispensation of a secular blessing to her fellow members of the church board. Her words reminded me of an old story of a man who was very proud of the fact that he bought a Prius to help the environment. So he went to the Catholic church and said to the priest, “I just bought a Prius and I would like you to give it a blessing.” The priest said, “Sure, I’d be happy to help but what is a Prius.” The man was disgusted by the priest’s lack of knowledge about the environmental benefits of his particular car so he went to the Baptist Church and said to the preacher, “I just bought a Prius and I would like you to give it a blessing.” The preacher replied, “I’d be happy to help but what is a Prius?” Once again the man was disgusted so he went to the Unitarian Universalist church which had a great reputation for environmental activism and he said to the minister there, “I just bought a Prius and I would like you to give it a blessing.” And the UU minister said, “I’d be happy to help but what is a blessing?” 

In conclusion, I want to say, even though I have always enjoyed this joke I have never felt it rang completely true because it is a blessing to be together with each other every Sunday morning, online or in person. It is a blessing to work together on our shared vision to transform the world through acts of love and justice. It is a blessing to sing together and celebrate together and laugh together.  I agree with Rabbi Abraham Heschel who said, “Simply to be is a blessing, simply to live is holy.” Indeed, it is such a blessing that I am tempted to almost worship. 

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday March 25, 2023)


The Overeaters Guide to Lent

There is an old mountain story about the foreman for a whisky distillery who had to deliver some bad news to the wife of one of his workers. He said, “I am sorry to have to tell you but your husband died in an accident at work today. He fell into a vat of whisky and drowned.” The wife said, “That’s horrible. Did he die quickly?” The foreman shook his head gravely and said, “I’m afraid not. He got out three times to go to the bathroom.” 

The story reminds us that we are sometimes very willing participants in our own self-destructive choices. This is why many people choose to make different kinds of choices during the season of Lent. This is a season in which we are invited to give up something that we may have a tendency to overindulge in. Some people give up alcohol for Lent. Others might give up cigarettes or chocolate or fast food or sodas. The season of Lent is meant to be a time to contemplate the possibility that less is more. 

Those of you who grew up in more traditional churches may be aware that one of the Seven Deadly sins is gluttony, the sin of overindulgence, of eating or drinking too much. The commentaries about this sin suggest that human beings have a tendency to try to meet our spiritual needs through the consumption of material things like food and beverages. And yet we hunger for things that can never be satisfied by any form of consumerism. 

At the last Justice Knox clergy meeting Pastor Chris Battle led us in a meditation on a verse from the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they shall be filled” Of course, during his lesson there were distractions. For instance, I couldn’t help but notice that on the counter of the classroom there was a box of delicious looking doughnuts. And while I was listening attentively to Pastor Battle talk about our hunger for justice there was another part of me that was also thinking about those doughnuts. 

And it occurred to me that this hunger for justice requires a lot more from us than our hunger for doughnuts. For it is challenging for us to speak out for justice. It is challenging to take action for justice and yet it is relatively easy to walk over to that counter and get a doughnut. Our spiritual hunger and thirst for justice is real but we are often given very attractive substitutes, very alluring alternatives. And this is the source of many different kinds of addictions. 

The Psalmist cries out, “As the deer pants for water, so I long for you.” Inside of us there is something that thirsts for Something More. In Alcoholics Anonymous they describe a moment of realization where the addict says, “One drink is too many and a thousand never enough.” In other words, there is not enough whisky in the world to quench this thirst inside of us. In Overeaters Anonymous the problem is with food not drink. Sometimes we overstuff our bodies because we feel an emptiness of our spirit. 

Now if you ever go to a rugby match in Wales you are likely to hear the crowd in the stadium at some point break out singing a church hymn that is the Welsh National Anthem. 

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven

Feed me til I want no more, Feed me til I want no more. 

There is something in us that hungers for Something More. Sometimes we go to church to find it. Sometimes we go to a rugby match to find it. We hunger for community. We hunger for connection. We hunger for acceptance. We hunger for meaning. We hunger for love. And sometimes we go to church hoping that our hunger will be satisfied and yet afterwards we can say we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.  

Jesus once said to his followers, “ Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone?” All too often people go to church hungering for acceptance only to get the stone of rejection, hungering to be included only to get the stone of judgment, hungering for community only to get the stone of dismissiveness, hungering for love but only getting a stone. 

Fortunately the church is not the only place where we can go for spiritual experience. The poet Rumi was speaking about spiritual experience when he wrote, 

Do not look for it outside of yourself.

You are the source of milk. Don’t milk others!

There is a milk fountain inside you.

Don’t walk around with an empty bucket….

There is a basket of fresh bread on your head,

And yet you go door to door asking for crusts.

So we don’t have to go somewhere else to find our milk and our bread (Remember that next time the weather station tells you snow is coming to Knoxville.) We don’t have to go somewhere else for our milk and our bread (at least spiritually speaking.) There is a milk fountain inside of us. There is a basket of fresh bread on top of our heads. And yet we still hunger and thirst for community.

Pastor Battle made another point in his lesson at the Justice Knox ministers meeting. He pointed out that when Jesus taught people to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” he was speaking to a group of people for whom earning one’s daily bread was an enormous struggle. In a subsistence economy earning one’s daily bread is a daily challenge. 

Of course, earning one’s daily bread can still be a struggle today and that’s why our church has a Free Food Pantry. That’s why our church delivers groceries to people in need through the FISH program and why we support Family Promise and Volunteer Ministry Center in providing meals for the homeless. And this is why we are cooperating with Justice Knox to work for systemic change in our community to address homelessness. Because wherever people are hungry for food we are hungry for justice. 

If you have been keeping up with the news from the Unitarian Universalist Association then you know that the Article II Commission has been working on a fresh statement to articulate the values of our faith at this moment in our history. Two of those values are love and justice. We hunger for love. We hunger for justice. Here are the words that the Article II Commission uses to describe these values. 

Love is the power that holds us together and is at the center of our shared values. We are accountable to one another for doing the work of living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of Love.”

Justice. We work to be diverse multicultural Beloved Communities where all thrive. We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of systemic oppression. We support the use of inclusive democratic processes to make decisions.” 

One of the challenges of working for love and justice through systemic social change is it can be hard to even see the systems we are in. The systems we are in are often invisible to our eyes. Before John Newton was author of the hymn Amazing Grace he worked in the slave trade. He could not see the evil inherent in the system of slavery but then he had his awakening and became an abolitionist and wrote the words, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” The work of love and justice requires us to continually look for, identify and change those systems of oppression that so many people simply cannot see.

Of course, for those of us who live in Tennessee it’s not so hard to see the work that needs to be done. We live in a state where gun manufacturers are opening up for business and family planning clinics are closing down. Where children might lose their mother because the majority of men in the legislature do not understand ectopic pregnancies or diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, anemia , peripartum cardiomyopathy, sepsis, preeclampsia, eclampsia or any other conditions under which a woman might need a just abortion. Where Qweer kids, children of every sexual orientation and gender identity, are at higher risk for suicide because our elected leaders want their stories banned from the library and their celebrations banned from public life and their physicians forbidden to offer services which are the standard of care. We live in a state where a woman in a wheelchair can go to a hospital for help and get kicked out in the street and arrested by the police and die in police custody. 

We live in discouraging times and I have to be honest with you that I have my own moments of despair for we are living in a time when it is very difficult to feel as I have in times past that the sun will come out tomorrow. 

But then I remember the wisdom of the rabbis who taught, “It is not our duty to finish the work, but neither are we at liberty to neglect it.” And I remember the words of Dorothy Day, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” But I also remember something the Reverend Duncan Teague said to us in the workshop he led last Saturday. He said that he was an activist before he became a Unitarian Universalist. He was an African American gay man working to end the AIDS epidemic and struggling against the powers and principalities of this world and what drew him to church was the thought, “If I am going to go through hell all week I need some heaven on Sundays.” And this is our responsibility to each other. If we are going to go through hell all week we are all going to need some heaven on Sundays.

So let us recommit to the spiritual life that underlies all sustainable activism. Let’s recommit to the spirituality that reminds us that sometimes less is more, where our hunger and thirst for justice is greater than anything that might be sitting on the counter of the classroom. Let us strive to be a community that practices the spirituality captured in that song sung not only in churches but at rugby matches. (So let’s sing with our stadium voices) 

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven

Feed me til I want no more, Feed me til I want no more. 


(The Reverend Chris Buice preached this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday March 5, 2023)