Sermon Part 1 - Aimee Downes
Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Shavuot falls exactly seven weeks after Passover. So while Passover commemorates the story of the Exodus—the freeing of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt—Shavuot commemorates the Israelites’ receiving the founding religious document of Judaism.
The Hebrew word “Shavuot” means “weeks”, a reference to the anticipation leading up to God’s revelation at Mount Sinai. According to the story, it took 49 days for the Israelites to travel from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai where they would receive the Torah. Often when the number seven appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s a signal that something is important. In this case, we have seven days of a week times seven weeks, so we know that the link between the Exodus and the Torah is strong and important.
The Jewish people, physically defeated many times over history, would not likely commemorate a victory as temporary as the Exodus if it did not lead to a more lasting triumph. And yet today, the Passover Seder, the
commemoration of the Exodus, is the most observed ritual in Jewish practice. Nevertheless, the Exodus in Egypt without the Torah at Sinai would have been only a temporary victory, an event that would lose its relevance to later generations. It is the greater spiritual significance provided by the Torah that gives permanent meaning to physical and temporal occurrences. It is Shavuot that gives Passover its lasting meaning.
A central idea to the celebration of Shavuot is choice. While the Jews believe that God chose to reveal Godself to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, so too did the Israelites chose to accept the Torah. In fact, the Israelites, when offered the Torah, accepted with enthusiasm, responding “we will do and we will listen” before even hearing the commandments. The Israelites were so eager to accept the Torah, they agreed to follow it before they had the opportunity to hear it. That sort of blind acceptance seems like quite a leap of faith to me. And yet the Israelites’ accepting the Torah is just that—a choice that a people made together in faith. Shavuot is an opportunity to reflect on our choices about how we live our theologies.
Sermon part 2 - Rev. Andy Pakula
Moses descended from the smoke of the mountain top – from the very power and glory of God. And he brought down the law with its great and powerful rules for living – and he gave them unto the assembled peoples – and they gave thanks…. and then they immediately broke as many laws as they could!
Have no other gods before me…
Make no idols…
Do not use the lord’s name in vain…
Keep the Sabbath holy…
It’s hard to find one that most have us have actually observed with any regularity. How many of us do not covet regularly? In fact, covetousness is probably essential for getting us out of the current recession – our economy is built on wanting what the other guy’s got – or preferably getting it first!
In the times of the Hebrew Scriptures – when the tale was told of law received on stone tablets from on high – the laws received were meant to shape a society. They would not be only what we think of as religious laws - because a notion of secular and religious separation would have been completely alien.
Prohibitions against killing and stealing provided some basic foundation for a more stable society. And one that we now deride as extreme – an eye for an eye – was in fact a huge step forward for justice. It was meant to restrict vengeance – no longer would theft be punished by physical mutilation – no longer would adultery be punished with death.
In Biblical times, the relationship between human beings and the relationship with the divine were integrated and all of a single cloth.
As we look upon these rules today though – standing as we do with a perspective of a separation of religious and secular life – we are justified in wondering what all this actually has to do with our religious lives – our spiritual being.
A moment of insight came for me in comparing different religions. In Buddhism, rules are clearly established not for the purpose of creating civil society, but rather as steps along the spiritual path.
Do not harm living beings. Do not engage in sexual misconduct. Do not take intoxicating substances.
We may not agree with the content, but we may be more prepared to accept the rationale behind it: spiritual and personal growth requires not simply the active positive spiritual practice – such as meditation. It also requires of us that we deliberately shape our actions.
I think of this like the difference between microwave cooking and broiling. The microwaves cook from the inside, but can make food unappetizingly gray and lacking in texture. Broiling, on the other hand, cooks from the outside, but may leave a centre that is completely untransformed.
The ideal is to combine the two…
This is not meant as an advert to get you to go out and buy a new oven… please don’t. But in our pursuit of ongoing transformation, can we not consider being changed from both the outside with rules and the inside with practice?
A month ago, I asked you for your thoughts about the basic principles that underlie and guide your actions in the world – the basic foundations of your ethical life.
You spoke of the basic assumptions that guide your behaviour toward others. You said:
- Every individual has a divine spark, no matter how hard it is to see
- see every other person as a facet of the divine
- It is every child's birthright to reach their potential if they so desire
- One human is not superior to another human
- we are all in it together. We are all one
Today, I’d like to ask you about the rules you would choose to live by as guides to your own growth. I ask you to focus primarily on rules for yourself. What are the rules that – if you observed them – would help you most to grow into the wholeness of the person you seek to be?
- Have faith
- Let go of what you can’t change
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
- Show compassion and love
- Love generously
- Have fun
- Happiness is not the objective-it is sometimes a by-product of doing good and working well
- There is always someone in a crowded tube carriage can who needs a sent more than you do (for now!)
- Put myself in other peoples shoes
- Do not judge before the facts are know
- Be thankful to any everyday thing you do. Be grateful to what you always do.
- Aim tor
- Total honesty
- Know that a big worry often lasts less than 48 hours. Not always, but more often than you think. (That’s for me. I’m not sure it’s important for everybody.)
- Respect the other guy’s rules
- Be willing to say how you feel
- To break trough negative negative “comforts” that black truth
- Floss your teeth (Take care of your body. Don’t ignore physical reality; it’s not going to go away if you do.)
- Discipline in what is important
- Remember that the “good” and the bud in others are two sides of a coin-you can’t have one without me other, so accept and rejoice.
- Loving others
- Don’t be high and mighty
- Care for the world.
- Let people know when I uncomfortable
- Keep your wits about you.
- Live unconditional love
- Being honest with others and myself
- Kindness and generosity
- Encourage yourself so you can give to others
- Give thanks-as a practice when eating or drinking, at the end of each day.
- Assume the best in others-give each other the benefit of the doubt.
- Happiness is not “there”. It should be along the path.
- Live in the moment
- The other person (a being) is you.
- Take small steps, not giant leaps to accomplish goals
- Be truthful to myself and others in all situations
- Be kind to each other help the needy
- Do not take what does not belong to you
- Do what is right, even if it’s socially deviant.
- Think the best out know that others are human too
- Remember that your kindness and the kindness of others spring from are abundant, inexhaustible source.
- Be brave enough to be yourself
- Respond to violence with calmness.
- If you have an impulse to do good ACT UPON IT
- Take time for silence and reconnection everyday
- Cultivate harmony in your heart.
- To embrace opposition as a chance to become wiser.
- Whatever you do, do it with others in mind
- Ask for help, don’t expect people to read you mind.
- Do as you would be done by.
- Do you bit. (Whatever that means.)
- Visit the sick
- Do nothing that denies the full humanity of others
- Take small but increasing steps to live more in harmony with the environment.
- To recognise that every viewpoint has its value
- Do not dwell on bad situations
- Seek out the helpless people in society
- Listen to your divine spank and a whisper becomes a strong voice
- Build on your strengths rather than trying to connect your and these of others
Sermon Part 3 - Aimee Downes
Maybe coming up with those rules was easy. Maybe it was hard. Part of what we do here is come to learn from those around us as we each freely choose how we live out our beliefs. Here, in this church, revelation continues. Each of us may carry messages of truth. That knowledge, that while we are each individually engaged in searches for truth and meaning, we are also better together, draws us into community. Because we “trust the wisdom in each of us”.
Deciding to come here this morning, whether it is our first time or whether we have long ago lost count of how many services we have attended, represents an important choice, an affirmation that ours is a chosen faith. In recognizing all people’s freedom to construct beliefs guided by their conscience, we find that we are a group of spiritual seekers, many of whom are likely to be new to Unitarianism. We choose this faith for a variety of reasons. Some like how we incorporate science, reason and new knowledge into our theologies. Some want a faith that is committed to being democratic. Some are looking for acceptance. Some find that the people and community draw them in; they just feel a sense of
belonging here. For these reasons and others, new members have felt that they had been a Unitarian all their lives, but only realized it after finding the church. For them, it is clear how Unitarianism is a chosen faith.
For myself, I was raised Unitarian. My parents were intentional with me about discussing why we go to church. I remember usually being excited to go to church, but my choice to attend church is not quite the same as those who found Unitarianism as adults. To me, choosing means making the decision every week and every month and every year to continue to come to services, to participate in special events, to care about the people here, and to spread the good news of our liberal faith. Choosing means evaluating whether it is worth our time and effort to participate in this community. Choosing means sometimes taking a break from regular attendance and coming back reenergized and rededicated to a worshiping community. Choosing is no easy matter. But I hope we all know that this community is here to support us in our choosing.
At the surface of things, having not only the freedom to choose our faith but also the freedom to choose our beliefs can seem like an awful lot
of freedom. This perceived freedom can lead to the misperception that Unitarianism is the religion in which people can believe anything they want. But I would suggest that we do have requirements. Instead of keeping a doctrinal promise, we are in fact required to do much more. We are each required to choose our own beliefs. In formulating these beliefs, we use our own reason and experience, with the support of a community, to determine our own theologies and to follow our own conscience. As we figure out that ever-evolving theology, we, as Unitarians, are also required to strive to live by it. That’s hard work!
We have many tools available to us as we construct and reconstruct our theologies. Our experiences, whether our own, or those we learn about from listening to others, guide our understanding of the world around us. We then choose how our understandings inform our theologies and practices. In the spirit of Shavuot, let us be mindful of our choices.
Sermon part 4 - Rev. Andy Pakula
We are a faith of choice – as Aimee explained – we do not take our commandments from above but struggle within and struggle together to find our guidance. We seek a path for living fully and openly. We seek a path for living peacefully. We seek a path for living compassionately. We seek a path for living justly. We seek a path for living with love.
As I look through the biblical Ten Commandments – and, in fact, the hundreds of other instructions found in that ancient text – I find it very easy to identify the ones to exclude from my life. Not taking the name of the lord in vain? What lord? What name? Ohmygod… get real!
It is easy too to do the same with the commandments of other religions and philosophies. Or I might modify them – do not indulge in intoxicating substances….except, of course, during karaoke…
Unitarians long ago embarked upon a path that empowers each one of us to decide for ourselves the path that is right at any particular point in life. We emphasize the sacredness within rather than some infallible words on a scroll or the teachings that have been passed down from ecclesiastical leaders.
We trust something within each person to provide the wisdom and guidance to direct us.
There is a danger in this freedom, however, just as in every freedom. When we have gone too far with our freedom, we have become rejection machines – able to see the problems with everything but unable to accept anything at all. It is so easy to find what we will not believe, not think, not do and the commitments that we will simply not make.
The reality of this world – the greatest certainty with which we live – is that there is very little certainty. And a corollary to that truth is – if it’s certain now, look out! It’s likely to be different tomorrow.
One of the great dangers for Unitarians is that we can be too rational to accept anything. The alternative is worse than accepting nothing – it can be a blind acceptance of the standards and principles of the popular culture around us. Do I need to remind anyone that this is not the path toward joy, contentment, or wholeness? Probably not…
And so, like the ancient mariners whose maps showed great blank areas or even the precipitous drop at the end of the earth, we have little choice but to set out.
We must embark toward an unknown destination using unreliable maps and travelling companions who each only know a small part of the way.
Who dares to take such a journey? Who dares to commit to an uncertain path and an uncertain destination?
Only one who is convinced that staying at home is not enough.
Only one who knows deep within that there can be more.
Only one who lives with a hope inspired by the glimpses of love and splendour we find around us.
Only one who has faith in the journey and that we, together, with deliberation, with connection, with spirit, and with love, can find our way. Travellers, I wish you well in your journeys. Take a map. Travel together. Have faith.