Observance

Reading 1:


Ralph Waldo Emerson

From a sermon preached before the Church of which he was pastor, in Boston, September 9, 1832. 

I am not engaged to Christianity by decent forms, or saving ordinances; it is not usage, it is not what I do not understand, that binds me to it—let these be the sandy foundations of falsehoods. What I revere and obey in it is its reality, its boundless charity, its deep interior life, the rest it gives to mind, the echo it returns to my thoughts, the perfect accord it makes with my reason through all its representation of God and His Providence; and the persuasion and courage that come out thence to lead me upward and onward. Freedom is the essence of this faith. It has for its object simply to make men good and wise. Its institutions then should be as flexible as the wants of men. That form out of which the life and suitableness have departed should be as worthless in its eyes as the dead leaves that are falling around us.

 

Reading 2:


Excerpt from “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran: Religion
 
Is not religion all deeds and all reflection, 
And that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise ever springing in the soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend the loom? 
Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations?
Who can spread his hours before him, saying, 'This for God and this for myself; This for my soul, and this other for my body?' […]
Your daily life is your temple and your religion. 
Whenever you enter into it take with you your all. […]
And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles. 
Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children. 
And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain. 
You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees. 

 

Sermon

We find ourselves today in the most sacred time of the year for two of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam.  

For Jews, these are the “Days of Awe” – the ten day period between Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.  

And we are also in the first week of the Muslim month of Ramadan.

During the Days of Awe, observant Jews seek to make amends for their wrongdoings of the preceding year. On Yom Kippur – they will fast and pray from Friday evening to Saturday evening.  

During the entire month of Ramadan, observant Muslims fast throughout the daylight hours and pray each evening. 

My reaction to these observances is mixed.  The Days of Awe and Ramadan incorporate powerful experiences that can help to bring people toward a more meaningful, centred life, and I am filled with admiration at the discipline and dedication shown by the people who follow these practices.  I even feel a twinge of envy for a way of being religious that I do not follow – a system of faith that clearly stipulates such powerful, embodied ways of being religious.

But I am also uneasy as I contemplate both The Days of Awe and the Fast of Ramadan.  I am conscious of the division that is so readily drawn between what might be called a “good Jew” and a “bad Jew” or a “good Muslim” and a “bad Muslim.” These distinctions are made on the basis of practice – the “one size fits all” ritual observances that a person follows or fails to follow.  A good Jew avoids shellfish and mixing milk and meat.  A good Muslim abstains from alcohol and from pork.  A good Jew keeps the Sabbath.  A good Muslim stops whatever he may be doing to pray five times each day.

Similar distinctions are made in most faith traditions.  A good Christian – depending on their denomination – may reject birth control, forgo meat on Fridays, give up something during Lent, and may participate in the rights of communion and confession.

Our first reading this morning was taken from a sermon preached by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1832.  Emerson’s congregation was not at all happy with his message.  In fact, their response to this sermon led Emerson to resign his ministry at the Second Unitarian Church of Boston and never to take on a regular ministry again.  Emerson explained that, after much study and reflection, he felt that he could no longer conscientiously observe the rite of communion.  “I am not engaged to Christianity by decent forms” he said.  It is not these forms – the outward manifestations of his religion – that Emerson revered, but rather “its boundless charity, its deep interior life, the rest it gives to mind, the echo it returns to my thoughts, the perfect accord it makes with my reason through all its representation of God and […] Providence.”
Emerson believed in personal experience of religion – he felt compelled to reject traditions that had lost their immediacy and power.  “Belief”, he wrote elsewhere, “consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; Unbelief, in denying them.”

Emerson and a group of his contemporaries – the Transcendentalists – turned away from remote teachings and practices and toward a more intuitive and direct way of being religious.  

There can be no doubt that when the practice of the Lord’s Supper was instituted, it was a powerful ritual that deeply affected the early Christian community.  It was a direct and heartfelt connection to the leader they revered and had tragically lost. It restored to them some of the hope and inspiration they felt when Jesus was alive and with them. 

To Emerson, some eighteen centuries later, communion had become a practice that held little meaning or spiritual power.  The word spiritual – although not necessarily one that the transcendentalists would have used – seems quite appropriate today.  We might imagine the transcendentalists as leaning more toward spirituality than to traditional religion – the latter seen as a system of accumulated prescriptions, beliefs, observances, and myths.  How remarkable it is that we continue to see these same questions played out in our own times – more than a century and a half later!

The story is told of a great Rabbi who spent years in solitude meditating on the mystery of the divine in all things.  When he finally returned to live among men and women, his eyes shone with the beauty of what he discovered.  Many seekers came to him to ask for his truth, yet he was always reluctant to answer them, to put it into words.  Pressed for years, he finally relented and with eloquent words, gave a feeble approximation of what he had discovered.

The seekers took these words with them everywhere.  They spoke them, wrote them, created sacred texts about them, and religious societies were formed of those who repeated them, until no one remembered that the words were really about an experience.  As his words spread, the rabbi became disheartened.  “I had hoped to help” he said, “but perhaps I should not have spoken at all.”

Personal experience is not readily conveyed from one person to another, and much less from one generation to another.

As T.S. Eliot put it, “Any religion...is for ever in danger of petrifaction into mere ritual and habit...”

Most of you know that my grandmother passed away recently on the occasion of her one hundred and third birthday. She lived an extraordinary life – joyfully and optimistically confronting and conquering challenges that would have left most people bitter and despondent.  As her surviving relatives reflected on her life, we recalled that she had always had a kind word for everyone, that she had never held grudges or anger toward anyone. She was generous and compassionate.  She embraced life fully as it came to her – both the bitter and the sweet of it.

My grandmother was not, however, religiously observant.  Not at all.  Jewish by birth, she had no use for the synagogue, the kosher dietary laws, or most of the holy days.  She did not believe in God.  And yet, at her funeral service, the wise rabbi who officiated called her a deeply religious person. Had he simply got his facts wrong?  No. He was right. Observance, as he said, is meant to lead us to religion.  My grandmother had achieved religion without the benefit of observance.  She received it directly from the world, from life, from her experience.

It is said that the Buddha in his travels encountered a Jain whose practiceconsisted of standing still on one leg. The Buddha asked him, `Wouldyou tell me please why you are doing this? What will this practiceof standing on one leg do for you?' 

The Jain replied, `Through this practice, I am working out my karma.  It will free me of all past karma.'  The Buddha asked him, `How much have you worked out so far?' TheJain replied, `I could not say.' The Buddha then asked, `How muchkarma do you still have to work out?' The Jain again replied, `I donot know.' Lastly, the Buddha asked, `But how will you know when youhave finished working out your karma?' The Jain could only answeragain, `This I do not know.' 

At this reply, the Buddha spoke to him saying, `It is time for you to set aside this practice and to understand the path to the end ofsuffering. It lies within the truth of each moment, here and now.'" 

The Buddha did not suggest rejecting all practice.  In fact, his own system was strongly based on the practice of meditation.  What he spoke against was empty practice – practice that is handed down but lack direct and immediate meaning to the practitioner.  Instead, as the Buddha offers, enlightenment “lies within the truth of each moment, here and now.”

This wisdom was also offered by no lesser sage than my dear grandmother who said “You just need to open your eyes and look.  It’s all right here.  You don’t need to go anywhere else.  I see this. Why couldn’t you?” 

True religion is what we feel in our hearts and our spirits.  Religious observance and spiritual practice may help to connect us to the realities that lie about us, they are truly there to see once we can awaken from the blind slumber in which we spend so many of our days.  Kahlil Gibran warns us not look for our God in riddles:

“look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children. 
And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain. 
You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.”

Our religious life together is about experiencing the sacred in our own lives.  It is not possible to live the experiences of those who went before us.  We can benefit from their wisdom.  We can study the maps they left.  But we can not experience the destination through them.  For that, we must open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, and our minds to the life of life that surrounds us at every moment.

"It is said that soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the extraordinary radiance and peacefulness of his presence. The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?" 
"No,"said the Buddha. 
"Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?" 
Again the Buddha answered, "No." 
"Are you a man?" 
"No." 
"Well, my friend, what then are you?" 
The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

So may it be with you.