Contemplating You

This sermon was preached by Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, in Kensington, California. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2004 Daniel Harper.

SERMON — “Contemplating You”

Do you remember the story of Prometheus? Prometheus was one of the Titans in ancient Greek mythology. When Zeus came along to lead a rebellion against Cronus, Prometheus was one of only two Titans who helped overthrow the old regime. For his support, the Titan Prometheus was accorded something of a special status by Zeus, the new ruler of the gods. Beyond that, according to the ancient Greek religion Prometheus was the one who created humankind. And Athene, the goddess of wisdom, taught Prometheus about architecture, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, medicine, and metallurgy, among other useful arts. Prometheus in turn taught these arts to us human beings. Unfortunately, Zeus was not pleased by these increasing powers of humanity, and threatened to get rid of the whole race. It was only because Prometheus intervened that we were spared.

Prometheus also angered Zeus by taking humanity’s part in a dispute over which portion of a sacrificial bull should be offered to the gods, and which portion might be retained for use by humans. Prometheus made two piles of meat. One pile had all the best parts hidden under sinews and bones. The other pile had all the scraps and inedible parts hidden under a layer of snow-white fat. Naturally, Zeus choose what looked like the better pile. When he realized Prometheus’s deception, he angrily proclaimed that the upstart humans would not be allowed to have fire.

In an act of self-sacrificial rebellion, Prometheus slipped up the back route to Mount Olympos, on top of which Zeus and the other chief gods and goddesses lived, and there he stole a bit of fire. He concealed the glowing coal in a hollow fennel stalk, and brought it back down to share with humankind.

Zeus was outraged. Not only had Prometheus taught humanity how to cheat the gods, but he had stolen fire from Mount Olympos. In punishment, Zeus had Prometheus bound by unbreakable irons to the top of a mountain; and one a day, an eagle swooped down out of the sky and ate Prometheus’s liver. Since he was an immortal, his liver regrew each night, but then the eagle came back the next day. It sounds very painful!

You probably know the ending to the story. The mighty Hercules (or Herakles), half human and half immortal, finally freed Prometheus. But far more importantly, the self-sacrifice of Prometheus allowed humankind to learn how to make use of fire.

The Unitarian Universalist humanist theologian William R. Jones points to the myth of Prometheus as an example of how rebellion can be a saving act. Many of us were brought up with a different myth about rebellion, the myth of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In traditional interpretations of the myth of Adam and Eve, they rebelled by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and for that rebellion humankind will suffer to the end of time. Jones says he prefers the myth of Prometheus, where rebellion results in great good for all humanity — and where rebellion may be punished, but the punishment does not last forever.

I suspect most Unitarian Universalists prefer the myth of Prometheus to the myth of Adam and Eve. Like Prometheus, we believe in saving the human race, saving the world. Not only that, but most of us believe that it is acceptable to annoy the powers that be in order to save the world. We follow the precepts of Henry David Thoreau, who said that breaking laws through civil disobedience is fine, if you are working for the betterment of the world.

On the rare occasions when we use the words “saved” or “salvation,” we are most likely to mean saving the whole world. That’s one of the distinctive features of Unitarian Universalists — for us, salvation means saving the world. And when we go out to save the world, we tend to have pretty big goals. I don’t just want to give a dollar to the homeless man who sits outside the market where I go to buy my vegetables — I want to go much further than that, and create social systems that will put an end to homelessness everywhere. This is one of the things I like best about being a Unitarian Universalist: we think big, we want everyone in the whole world to lead a fully human life.

There is a bit of a problem that comes with thinking big in the way we do. Saving the whole world takes a lot out of you. It’s a big job, and even though we work together to try to make it happen, sometimes I start to feel a little burned out. I sometimes wonder if I’m feeling a little like Prometheus must have felt when he was chained up and having his liver torn out by that eagle. Saving the whole world sometimes feels like it requires a fair amount of self-sacrifice on the part of you & me.

One lesson I have absorbed over my lifetime as a Unitarian Universalist is thatsaving the world isn’t enough. I also have to save myself, as it were — I also need to have a personal spiritual practice. Meditation, prayer, yoga, a weekly session with a therapist, ritual eating of chocolate — we have a myriad of personal spiritual practices that we choose in order to ground us, to renew our minds and hearts and spirits, to keep us from feeling burned out.

I sometimes think that we Unitarian Universalists are a little like Prometheus, except that we have daily spiritual practices. We go out into the world to save humanity, and we do great things out there in the world. But, like Prometheus, we pay a price for saving the world. We stand up for feminism and anti-racism and gay rights at work, even when those views are unpopular, and we endure the consequences of our just actions. We stand up for our children, demanding adequate public schools, fighting to keep good schools open and to improve bad schools, and we do this in spite of being exhausted. This year, many of us will devote long hours of our precious spare time to registering voters, to serving with the Leagues of Women Voters, to getting out the vote. Many of us are devoted to helping organizations which promote non-violence or economic justice or other actions that will save the world.

In ways large and small, we strive to make the world a better place, and like Prometheus, we pay the price. So we go home to recover — to meditate, or to pray, or to sing Bach cantatas, or to cook, or whatever it is you do for your daily spiritual practice — and to wonder if there’s a Hercules who will come along and save us.

Two years ago, I wound up reading the Book of Revelation from the Christian scriptures. The book of Revelation is not a book that we Unitarian Universalists tend to spend much time with. If we read the Bible at all, we might read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and then maybe read Genesis and Exodus as books of liberation. The book of Revelation is just a little too weird for most of us religious liberals.

My friend Ellen Spero, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, convinced me to read Revelation. She interprets Revelation as a book of liberation and of radical inclusivity. Forget what the religious right says about Revelation, says Ellen, it’s not a book about the apocalypse, about the end times. It’s a book about the here-and-now, how justice and righteousness will happen for you and me and for everyone now — in this world.

So following Ellen’s promptings, I read Revelation. And when I could read it as a book of liberation, I actually liked it. And I’ve been haunted by this one passage from it for some months now. The New Revised Standard Version — that’s the translation religious liberals tend to prefer, because it uses gender inclusive language whenever the ancient languages permit it — translates my passage as a short poem:

See, the home of God is among mortals
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

This passage really struck a chord with me, and I think it has a lot to say to us religious liberals. Nor do I think it matters if you are humanist or theist, because I think this passage is less concerned about whether we believe in God, than in whether we believe in liberation of all beings. It tells us of a liberation where people will still die, they always have, but Death will no longer be worshipped as a god, and we will know death as a natural part of life — a liberation where people will still suffer, and we will mourn and cry and weep, but we will do so in the knowledge that justice will be done, that liberation is for everyone — a liberation where someone is going to wipe away the tears from my eyes, and I will wipe away the tears from your eyes, and justice will happen, here and now.

You may think this little poem is overly optimistic. Liberation usually seems a distant dream — knowing as we do that domestic violence continues, that war continues, that people continue to be sold into slavery around the world, that homophobia continues to be such an active force that the United States Senate is even now considering a bill to make same sex marriage unconstitutional. This little poem may be overly optimistic, but as a Universalist I pretty optimistic myself. I cannot accept a universe where we have to wait for an apocalypse before things get better. Nor can I wait for gradual progress onwards and upwards forever, until some day in the distant future justice and righteousness will come down like waters. Like that great Universalist Hosea Ballou, I know that glory is just around the corner — although unlike Ballou I admit that I’m not quite so sure what glory is….

In that poem from the book of Revelation, the line from the poem that sticks with me is that line about God wiping every tear away from our eyes. we’ve all been through some hard times — some of you have been through some very hard times. I would love to have someone wipe every tear away from my eyes. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t really imagine a humaniform God, a God with arms and hands that can wipe away those tears, and I guess a divine handkerchief with which to do the wiping. My imagination doesn’t work quite that way. But it doesn’t matter. I can imagine some person I know and love wiping tears away from my eyes. I can imagine my life partner wiping tears from my eyes — for indeed in the fourteen years we have been together, she has wiped tears from my eyes. I can imagine people in my church wiping tears away from my eyes, for while that hasn’t happened in a literal sense, there have been times when I went to church to keep from crying, or when I went to church so I would have a place to shed tears.

When Herakles broke the chains the bound Prometheus, I don’t think that was enough. What I want for Prometheus is someone to wipe tears away from his eyes. Or maybe he didn’t cry. After all, Prometheus was a Titan, one of those immortal demi-gods of ancient Greece. Maybe Titans don’t shed tears — I don’t know. The problem is, when we human beings start acting like Prometheus — the way we religious liberals sometimes do — we forget that we are not Titans. We are not immortal. We cannot re-grow damaged parts of ourselves overnight, in time to be hurt again tomorrow by the vicissitudes of our work for liberation.

We Unitarian Universalists are willing to go out and save the world by the dint of our own superhuman efforts. We Unitarian Universalists are willing to save ourselves from burnout by the dint of our own individual efforts at spiritual practices. We do a lot already. I don’t want to ask us to do one more thing. But I would like us to consider one little thing….

When you consider the work of liberation, in which you are already engaged, I ask you to consider this: if you are able to wipe the tears away from one person’s eyes — if you are able to allow someone else to wipe the tears away from your eyes — you have furthered the work of liberation, and that day you have made your contribution towards saving the world, and towards saving yourself as well. You don’t even have to actually physically touch someone, which is good news for me, coming as I do from a fairly traditional New England upbringing where shaking someone’s hand is plenty of physical contact, thank you very much. But if I walk down the street and the homeless man who stands on Telegraph Ave. near Ashby asks me for some change and I give him a little change, and if I also look him in the eye and smile, and for that instant I treat him as a human being (as scared as I may be, and he is a pretty scary guy some days), in that instant the world undergoes an infinitesimal moment of complete liberation; and maybe in some way he does wipe all the tears away from my eyes and death and mourning and pain are no more.

Of course these little bits of complete liberation do not solve the problems of hunger and economic injustice and the lack of treatment for persons with chronic mental illness, and — guess what — we still have to do all that hard work. And I still have to get up in the morning and do my daily practice of yoga, which I’m really bad at but I do it anyway. Being good religious liberals, we will continues to work hard and pull ourselves up by our very bootstraps.

While we are hanging on to our bootstraps, at least we can know liberation is all around us. It could happen to you today. You could look into someone’s eyes, and it could happen. It won’t last long, perhaps, but it could happen. In that moment, and just for that moment, you and the world could be saved.

What could be better than that? Next time it happens to me, I’m going to see if I can just accept it — to know that love will overcome all obstacles.