Note: The sermon followed the singing of a hymn entitled Bring Many Names, words by Brian Wren (born 1936) The words may be found following the text of the sermon

We haven’t sung that hymn before. I’m hesitant about hymns that work too much with the word God – not because it’s a bad word, but because it’s a word that – among us – we understand in so very many different ways. I think that a good hymn should lend itself to many different ways of believing. 

Bring many names opens a discussion – it offers a range of images for the divine and – while not broad enough to include all of us – there is a beauty in the openness it does bring to the picture. 

I’ll let you in to a bit of the behind the scenes struggle of this Unitarian minister: I have a hard time choosing hymns for our services. 

To start off with, I don’t want to use bad tunes and I don’t much care for the use of thee and thou and thine and such. It is a shame that anyone ever got the notion that religion would only seem meaningful if it used archaic language. 

And there are words I don’t like to use in connection with religion – and especially to describe the divine. They include especially Lord, King, Father, and Ruler. 

I don’t do this for my own sake, but rather for yours. 

Some of you grew up with this language and it doesn’t bother you. Some of you grew up this language and for that very reason it does bother you. And others grew up without it. They reasonably wonder why we would want to refer to the divine as a male and especially as a powerful male existing as part of a monarchical social system. 

Of course, the answer has to do with the models that were available when the language was crafted. Someone all-powerful? Must be the king! And those images then informed human understanding of the divine. Oh, if he’s the King he’s a he and our role is to beg for good treatment and be grateful when gifts are given. Got to keep the rulers happy, after all. 

This way of thinking – and therefore the terms that go with it - bothers me. I don’t mind if your image of the divine is male, but the last thing I’d want to do – in my own words or in the hymns – is to push these images upon you. Why male? Why should God have a sex at all? If God has to have a sex, why not female? 

The truest image of the divine is no image – if we are told anything from the heart of the world religions and from the mystical traditions it is that the divine – or God – is not something that lends itself to images or description. Ineffable is the word we use to signify this unknowable essence. 

And if no image is accurate, let’s not privilege one image: the old white man on the throne. Let’s have a God that can be young and old, male and female. 

There was a disturbing story from the US this week and religion came into the picture, as it often does in my homeland. 

It seems that in a region of the state of Tennessee, the fire department required a $75 subscription fee. No payment, no service. An unfortunate family – the Cranicks - failed to pay for reasons that I have not seen reported. One horrifying day, their house caught fire. The firefighters arrived and simply watched it burn – with the Cranick family’s pets inside. 

There has, of course, been outrage at a fire department that could stand by and let that happen – over the payment of a $75 fee. And that question opens a sensitive divide in American culture and indeed in human nature. Are we independent or interdependent. Are we meant to be there for each other or is it more important that everyone fend for themselves and pay the price if they fail to do so. 

Isn’t the US the most religious of the developed nations? Doesn’t their dominant Christianity teach helping one’s neighbor? 

While liberal Christians do indeed emphasize that part of religion, the more conservative ones may not. 

Here is what Bryan Fischer of the anti-gay, anti-liberal American Family Association had to say: 

The fire department did the right and Christian thing… 

In this case, critics of the fire department are confused […] about right and wrong and about Christianity. And it is because they have fallen prey to a weakened, feminized version of Christianity that is only about softer virtues such as compassion and not in any part about the muscular Christian virtues of individual responsibility and accountability. 

As an aside, I have to say that I love to hear the anti-gay folks talking about muscular Christianity. I can’t help but think they’re revealing a bit too much there. 

“A weakened, feminized version of Christianity…” 

One wonders what scripture they are reading. The Jesus I know about was the one who was first to forgive the sinners, to embrace the excluded. 

If the value of compassion and the other ‘softer’ virtues are weak and feminine, then I’d say we need more weak and feminine. Almost every religion has found ways to find the feminine side of the divine – often outside of the official dogma. Catholicism has Mary, and she and her softer virtues are worshiped at least as much as Jesus himself. 

Today, we are in the third day of a 9 day Hindu celebration known as Navaratri. This is the most celebrated time of year for many Hindus – and it is a time for the worship of the divine feminine – the divine mother. 

Hinduism is an immensely complicated religion – or some would say set of related religious traditions – and I do not pretend to have a grasp on its, chaotic, expansive, enormous and wonderful diversity. What is undeniable though is that there is a place for the feminine in Hinduism – an important, if not central place. 

Navaratri is a time dedicated in fact to not one, but three goddesses, Saraswati (Goddess of learning and speech), Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth and prosperity), and Durga (Goddess of strength and courage). 

To Bryan Fischer and those who think like he does, I want to raise up the image of Durga. Called the divine mother, Durga is not simply the nurturing, compassionate, mother – she is also the goddess who defeated evil. 

So much for a weak feminized religion. 

Let’s think for a moment about the defeat of evil. 

People like Fischer want to hold up a testosterone-charged, armor-plated, hairy-chested religion and call that good. They glorify evil rather than contesting it. Evil is not relying on others even when we are irresponsible about paying fees – evil is what disconnects us from each other and from our best selves. Evil is what weakens compassion and moves us apart. Or, to use the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson “The meaning of good and bad, of better and worse, is simply helping or hurting.” 

Evil is not defeated with muscle and guns and fierce independence. Those militaristic images are worse even than the monarchical images I so avoid. Evil is best met by love and by compassion. Evil is defeated when we eliminate the places where it grows – the fearful places, the ignorant places, the hungry, hurt, and oppressed places. 

The divine is within each of us. It is a part of us as we are a part – an important part of all things. 

Let us each remain strong in our kindness, robust in our compassion, and fierce in our willingness to give love. This is the way of the mother goddess and the way of peace. 

Bring many names

Bring many names, 
beautiful and good;
celebrate in parable and story,
holiness in glory, 
living, loving God:

Hail and Hosanna,
bring many names!
Strong mother God, 
working night and day,
planning all the wonders of creation,
setting each equation, 
genius at play:

Hail and Hosanna, 
strong mother God!
Warm father God, 
hugging every child,
feeling all the strains of human living,
caring and forgiving
till we're reconciled:
Hail and Hosanna, 
warm father God!

Old, aching God, 
grey with endless care,
calmly piercing evil's new disguises,
glad of good surprises, 
wiser than despair:
Hail and Hosanna, 
old, aching God!

Young, growing God, 
eager, on the move,
saying no to falsehood and unkindness,
crying out for justice,
giving all you have:
Hail and Hosanna, 
young, growing God!

Great, living God, 
never fully known,
joyful darkness far beyond our seeing,
closer yet than breathing, 
everlasting home:
Hail and Hosanna, 
great, living God