In the coming week, two religious holidays from the Judeo-Christian traditions take place. Tuesday evenings is the start of the Jewish celebration of Shavuot and Sunday is the Christian celebration called Whitsun, or Pentecost.
Neither is in the top rank of holidays - they don’t touch the likes of Passover, Easter, Yom Kippur, or Christmas, but they’re significant
For both of these holidays, the important number to keep in mind is 50. 50 days after the Jewish people escaped from slavery in Egypt through the parted waters of the Red Sea, tradition says that they were given something even more important than freedom. They received the law - the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai.
And for Christians, it was 50 days after Jesus was killed and resurrected that the Holy Spirit was said to come down upon the people. Jesus’s death was to bring freedom from sin and 50 days later - pentecost - was when something better than freedom came to them.
It is no coincidence that these two events have so much in common. Easter is when it is because Jesus’ death was said to have taken place just after Passover – the annual recollection of the exodus from slavery. And Pentecost took place when Jews gathered to celebrate Shavuot.
Freedom from slavery for the Jews or freedom from sin for the Christians was followed 50 days later by the granting of precious divine gifts. For the Jews, it was the sacred law – the Torah – the guidance of how to live according to God’s will. For the Christians, it was the descent of the Holy Spirit.
In two great religious traditions, the advent of freedom is followed by a gift that defines a way of life. Freedom, these stories reveal, was not enough – the challenge was what to do with that freedom. The divine gifts taught people a way to live – either to live according to a God-given moral code or to go out to share their story of God’s ‘good news’ with the world.
I am sure that many of you recall, as I do, being in our teenage years and longing for freedom. I lived in a particularly boring patch of suburbia and, without ready access to a car, I was stuck. I was prisoner to my overprotective parents whose only interest – it appeared to me – was to prevent me from living my own life. For some reason, they seemed to be irrationally opposed to freedom.
It’s amazing how different that same story looked from the side of a parent when my own son reached that age. Fortunately, moving to London meant that I escaped the terror of my son being a teenaged driver!
What did we do with our freedom once we had it? If you’re at all like me, you are now thinking of at least a few things that, in retrospect, maybe weren’t such great uses of freedom?
The question I’d like to ask today, spurred by Shavuot and Whitsun, is what do we do with our freedom?
Freedom is a two-edged sword. Freedom is wonderful. The freedom we enjoy today means that we have been liberated from oppressions that our ancestors took as normal. Freedom liberated us from restrictive gender roles. Freedom allowed us more time to pursue our interests. Freedom saved us from serving at the whim of a hereditary elite.
But freedom also brings the risk of making us captive to a whole range of other tyrannies: Chief among these is the domination of materialism and selfishness in our lives. We are surrounded by advertising “sermons” that teach us that the most important things in life are wealth, possessions, and the short rush of joy that comes with superficial thrills.
And the question of what to do with our freedom is one that is particularly relevant here. Our Unitarian religious ancestors fought, suffered, and gave their lives for the freedom to think for ourselves.
Some claim Unitarians are free to believe in absolutely anything or that we believe in nothing at all. One joke asks how you know when the Unitarians in your town are angry, and the answer is that you find a question mark burning on your lawn.
Does freedom from narrow creeds and dogmas mean believing nothing, holding to no values, making no commitments?
We heard Jon Carroll’s piece – Unitarian Jihad. Some Unitarians have found this article to be in poor taste – or even offensive - and I apologise if you’ve had that reaction. Carroll is taking off on the popular notion of Jihad as a violent campaign of changing the world, when actually, the true meaning of Jihad has more to do with the inner struggle to live according to the will of Allah – an inner struggle for self perfection. I find – if we keep a sense of humour – that there is a great deal of truth in Carroll’s words. In some way, I wish that Unitarian Jihad was a real organisation – or maybe it is… My Unitarian Jihad name, by the way, is Flaming Sword of Loving Kindness!
Carroll skewers Unitarianism’s tendency toward extreme freedom and democratic process. ‘The vote of our God subcommittee is 10-8 in favor of one God, with two abstentions.’
But the Unitarian Jihad Communiqué offers something much more than a gentle teasing about our openness. It paints an extreme view of what we might do if we were to go out and take forceful action on the basis of our beliefs and values. With continued respect for all religions, it slams the extremist tendencies in each of them – though the ten commandments may be a perfectly good guide for some people, they are not universal and not to be pressed upon everyone. Neither is the gift of language and our ability to communicate in ever more sophisticated ways an adequate reason to go out and try to force everyone else to believe as you do.
Unitarian Jihad threatens to act. It will ‘broadcast calm, well-reasoned discussions of the issues of the day…’ It will require people to shake hands with one another – to engage with one another as people rather than through their beliefs. ‘Just because you believe it's true doesn't make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn't mean you are not doing harm.’
With our freedom, Unitarian Jihad would have us ‘Get a dog, or comfort someone in a nursing home, or just feed the birds in the park… Lighten up.’
The message is to use your freedom to spread freedom – to create connection and move society away from dogmatism and extremism of all sorts – to work to create a way of being that places reasoned consideration and thoughtfulness at the top of priorities for public discourse.
I’ve offered the Unitarian Jihad message today because I hope it will stimulate your own thinking. With freedom comes risk and responsibility. What will you do with your freedom? How can you use your commitment to freedom to make this a better community? How can you use freedom to make a better world for all?
A Unitarian minister sees a child out in front of a house in the neighborhood she drives through on her way to church, with a sign "Adorable kittens -- FREE." The next day, the minister notices the child out in front of a a church with a sign saying: "Adorable Methodist Kittens -- FREE." A couple of days later, the kid is posted in front of the synagogue with a sign: "Adorable Jewish Kittens -- Free." So the Minister isn't surprised when, the next Sunday the child is in front of the church she serves with a sign promising "Adorable Unitarian kittens." "Now really," she tells the child, "they are adorable kittens, but I have a problem with your advertising. I've seen your kittens change their religion every day for a week. Why do you think I'll believe that these are Unitarian kittens now, all of a sudden?" "Well," said the child, "Now they have their eyes open."
May our free faith open our eyes to the truths of this world: to the need for connection, to the necessity that diverse perspectives be honoured, to the power of love to overcome hopelessness and despair and to the process and direction that leads toward understanding, growth, and justice. May our paths be continually in the direction of goodness and love.
May it be so