Listen here.

Many things would be a lot easier if we lived in the Star Trek universe.

You see, in the Star Trek universe, it is important to be able to communicate with sentient beings from other planets and galaxies – in English, of course – and thus, Gene Roddenberry created a universe where everyone is implanted with a Universal Translator. Rarely does anyone – not Kirk, Picard, or Janeway – encounter another culture without being able to speak their language.

But even so, in the Star Trek universe, there are communication problems – not with the words themselves, but with how those words are used. In my favorite episode, “Darmok,” the Enterprise encounters the Tamarians, whose words are intelligible but whose meaning is baffling. Sentences like “Darmok and Jilad, across the ocean” and “Mirab, his sails unfurled” make up the entirety of their discourse. As you can imagine, the crew is baffled; and Captain Picard is even more so when he is stranded on a planet with their leader. But eventually, they come to realize that the Tamarians speak exclusively in narrative imagery. Their meaning is deeply enmeshed in their narrative; as the crew of the Enterprise discover, it is analogous to our saying something like “Juliet on her balcony” – it portrays an image of youthful romance, but if you don’t know the Shakespearean play or its use in our Western culture, you would not understand.

We run into the same problems when we talk about religion – particularly about God. How handy it would be to have a universal translator, so we could move from church to church, from theologian to theologian, from congregant to congregant, from song to song – and know exactly what the narrative imagery behind the word “God” really is for them.

Well, sadly, despite many great strides in science and technology that are bringing us closer each day to that Star Trek Universe, we don’t have universal translators yet, so we have to rely on more primitive means of understanding for some of these big ideas – like this sermon series, which I feel blessed to be able to share with you.

Now some of you may already be antsy; you may feel, like Murray Penney did at the end of a service we did many years ago about the Ten Commandments, that there was just too much God talk. Yes. I will be using the word “God” a lot over the next three weeks. But here’s the first piece for your universal translator: when people like me talk about God in Unitarian Universalist circles, we are using the word as shorthand for a particular aspect of belief; you may want to translate that word into your own language: creator, spirit of life, the divine, holy one, infinite, the collective unconscious… whatever makes sense to you. But I will use the word “God’ as we look at some of the aspects – the narrative imagery, if you will – of the Divine.

And it’s important, what we’re about to do. Having this universal translator doesn’t just connect us to other religious cultures – like Muslims, pagans, Hindus, and Methodists; it connects us to the people sitting next to us, with their own beliefs about the Divine; it connects us to our own sometimes contradictory ideas about God; and it connects us to our Unitarian Universalist tradition. It allows us, as Rebecca Parker says, “to enter a theological house that has already been built – a theology of a heritage, of a tradition, of a community.” And because that house contains a plurality of beliefs, we can’t necessarily know even from one hymn to the next exactly what image of God we’re singing about.

But over the next three weeks, we’ll be figuring out exactly that – what the songs and readings in our hymnals say about the ideas Unitarian Universalists have about God.

You’ll note that we’ve put a hymnal on every chair – we’ll be flipping around, looking at readings and singing some verses of songs. This is one instance where looking at the hymnal during the sermon will not be frowned upon.

So let’s begin. We’ve already sung a few verses of Down the Ages We Have Trod – and learned that some think God is “a being throned above, ruling over us in love.” This is what we would call transcendent – the aspect of God’s nature and power which is wholly independent of (and removed from) the material universe. This is an all-powerful, all-knowing, always-present God, whom some turn to for something greater than themselves. We see the transcendent God in Islam – a single and absolute truth that transcends the world; a unique and indivisible being who is independent of the entire creation. We see the transcendent God in Hinduism: “Brahman is supreme; he is self-luminous, he is beyond all thought.” We see the transcendent God in Judaism and Christianity – a parent figure who exists outside the realm of natural occurrence. And it is this aspect that Unitarians and Universalists inherited from our Protestant forbearers, including Martin Luther himself.

We find Luther’s most famous hymn in our hymnal – number 200, A Mighty Fortress. Let’s look at the first verse – please sing along with me, or just listen.

 

“On earth is not an equal.” We won’t find the transcendent God in the trees and the rocks – this is most assuredly a God above. It is an image of God that is steadfast, unchanging – an image that says no matter what happens here on earth, there’s always a safe haven in this God that is watching over us, protecting us, mightier than us.

Now it might seem that modern Unitarian Universalists wouldn’t be very into that God – yet, given the frequency of references to the transcendent God in our hymnal, we clearly still value this idea within our faith tradition. It is certainly in our history; notable 19th century Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing believed that God was first and foremost beyond humanity and beyond nature. As he said in his famous “Baltimore Sermon”:

We believe, that in no being is the sense of right so strong, so omnipotent, as in God. We believe that his almighty power is entirely submitted to his perceptions of rectitude; and this is the ground of our piety. It is not because he is our Creator merely, but because he created us for good and holy purposes; it is not because his will is irresistible, but because his will is the perfection of virtue, that we pay him allegiance.

Channing also forwarded the popular notion that God is not the natural laws that permeate the natural world. God created the universe and nature, and the laws of nature are subordinate to God. In Channing’s thinking, it is perfectly natural to say that God can suspend the laws of nature without being contradictory. Indeed, for early Unitarians, miracles definitely happened.

Now for some UUs today, this is still true; it is certainly true in other Christian denominations, so it’s important for our universal translators to remember that miracles are, for many, their proof that God exists, and must assuredly be separate from us. Now to them, this is a given – much like Juliet on her balcony means young romantic love. It is their narrative imagery – a God who is beyond humanity and nature – thus, much of the conflict raised by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker, Unitarians who talked about an immanent God, which we’ll discuss next week. This transcendent God isn’t one with us but is simply One, above us. This is the God we see reflected in Immortal Invisible. Flip to 273 and sing verses 1 and 2 with me.

 

Now you may notice at the bottom of the page that this hymn is based on a biblical verse – 1 Timothy 1:17. That’s not surprising; first, our Unitarian and Universalist roots are Christian, so we can’t long avoid Biblical references when looking at our faith’s heritage. But beyond that, there is a lot of transcendence in the Bible; you will find this transcendent God throughout the Abrahamic religions – no more poetically than in the Psalms. Let’s join Beth in responsive reading 535, which is based on Psalm 42.

 

We see in this reading – and in perhaps the most famous biblical passage of all, Psalm 23, which begins “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” – a transcendent God who is a comforter. It is this aspect of God – the comforter, the parent figure who takes care of us and makes things better – who is the God many people turn to in times of pain and sorrow. We see the comfort the transcendent God brings in hymns like “Nearer My God to Thee, nearer to thee” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole” – these and more, found in our hymnals.

The transcendent God we find here is loving; and this is a hallmark of Unitarian and Universalist thought. We have waged a battle against the Calvinists about this for centuries: a key theme of Channing’s Baltimore sermon makes this point:

We cannot bow before a being, however great and powerful, who governs tyrannically. We respect nothing but excellence, whether on earth or in heaven. We venerate not the loftiness of God’s throne, but the equity and goodness in which it is established.

We believe that God is infinitely good, kind, benevolent, in the proper sense of these words; good in disposition, as well as in act; good, not to a few, but to all; good to every individual, as well as to the general system.

Yes, there are many who believe that this transcendent God is a vengeful God – and if you read the bulk of the Old Testament, you might think that’s all this transcendent God is; after all, what kind of God gets itchy and floods everyone out but some guy and his pets? What kind of God sends a faithful man out to sacrifice his kid? What kind of God takes everything away from a guy just to prove his faithfulness? This is a mean, spiteful, angry, vengeful God – NOT the God of any aspect of Unitarian Universalism, but … one that exists in the world. Again, if I might add a bit to your universal translator, it’s helpful to remember that when some speak to you of God, they are actually afraid of what God will do if they behave badly. But because we see the transcendent God as a loving figure, we have an opportunity to offer a different view of God above, one that may offer comfort, forgiveness, and healing. This is the God of Hymn 10, Immortal Love. Let’s sing verses 1 and 2.

 

Now I realize I’ve been pretty cagey with my language, talking in generalities about Unitarian Universalist perspectives on transcendence while keeping my personal perspective out of it. But of course, I have a perspective. The truth is there are times when this transcendent God is the God in whom I believe. This is the God I turn to when I need comfort. This is the God who broke the silence when I refused to reach out. This is the God to whom I pray this song: “Open mine eyes that I may see / Glimpses of truth thou has for me / Open mine eyes, illumine me / Spirit Divine.” And when I pray this song: “Spirit of life / come unto me / Sing in my heart / all the stirrings of compassion.”

I believe this is the God who shines down when “we are marching in the light of God.” I believe this is the God who commands us to “do when the spirit says do.” Yes, I believe many different things about God – sometimes all at the same time. But this transcendent God, who is above us, who loves us unconditionally, who welcomes us into harmony, who, like the universe itself, is greater and bigger than we can possibly imagine – this particular narrative image of God – is part of my universal translator, offering me hope and comfort – and allowing me to offer others the greatest gift of all: Universal, unconditional love.

 

REMEMBER me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

–Christina Rossetti

 

I for one would rather forget that my father died suddenly at age 60 and remember that try as he might, he could not stifle the explosive guffaws when watching the movie Airplane. I would rather forget that my mother’s last hours were spent suffering in a hospital and remember that she would sometimes pick me up from school and stop by the video store so we could indulge ourselves in a classic movie before Dad got home from work.

It’s easier – and more comforting – to remember the fun, the loving and touching moments, the happiness our loved ones brought to us in life. Yet we memorialize their deaths. We go to gravesites, we build makeshift altars at sites of their deaths, and on a larger scale, we build memorials – often of granite and marble – to mark the moments of death.

Are we obsessed with death?  I don’t think so… I think exactly the opposite is true. We remember when and how people died because we are obsessed with life.

We mourn the loss of life. When it’s a closed loved one, it cuts us in intimate ways – the death of my partner in 1998 was like losing a limb. When it’s a little more distant, like the recent deaths in Moore, Oklahoma or the constant barrage of mass shootings in New Orleans, Newtown, Aurora, Tuscon, Columbine – it cuts into our understanding of thriving in global community and leaves an existential feeling of loss. When it’s a soldier – especially one who lost their life in combat – it’s more complex. We hate war and how it rips apart our planet; yet we respect deeply those who have chosen to serve.

It’s all so difficult – these memories tied to life and death. We grapple internally with loss, with pain, with the deep well of sorrow that drowns us in cold unsettling grief; yet while much of our personal mourning is private, we publicly memorialize. Why do we take time to memorialize? Why do we ritualize it? We do, after all – we have services and parades and graveside markings and songs. We’ve been doing this for millennia – we see evidence of it in the psalms written during the Babylonian exile in the 5th century BCE: “by the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” There are ancient markers where battles where fought, and stories passed down about Badon Pass and Hannibal and the 300. Today, we see evidence everywhere; even in my little hometown of Taborton, the veteran’s group puts fresh American flags on all the graves of veterans in the little cemetery on the hill overlooking Little Bowman Pond, complete with a brief ceremony at each stone. Round Lake holds a ceremony at our little war memorial – if you come to the service next week, you can see our memorial across from the municipal building. And even today – in a few minutes – we will also memorialize through the ritual of lighting candles for those we have lost. We will speak their names…remember their faces…make sure that others know who they were. Memorializing formally, as ritualist Brigitte Sion says, creates a space where we can claim our right to grief and mourning; we can’t just ‘get over it’ – we need to make space for our memory. And when that space isn’t provided, we find ways to make it.

One of the most powerful memorials I have ever experienced is the AIDS quilt. Unlike a large, permanent memorial, like the Wall or the Holocaust Museum or the striking Korean war memorial, that is planned and sanctioned and funded – it is organic, and surprising, and moveable. Adding to the quilt is a given, for it is also ever-changing. It begins with friends, sitting together, sewing and painting and gluing – and talking. Sharing memories, tears, and Kleenex. And then it’s added to a larger quilt, where more memories are shared as it’s attached to quilt pieces from others; there, our memories become attached to other memories. And then, it is displayed…and others have a chance to remember, to see these lives. And when it is displayed, the names are read. We hear those names – those lost to this horrible disease, those who initially were marginalized even as illness decimated an already marginalized community. I’m sorry to say I have worked on more than one quilt piece – but I am glad that I can remember, and that others can share those memories.

In memorial, the act of remembering is a physical act, that connects us with the past, that connects us with life, that alters time so that past and present can meet, even for a short while. And we find strength in the remembering. Director Anne Bogart says “As a result of a partnership with memory and the consequent journeys through the past, I feel nourished, encouraged, and energized. I feel more profoundly connected to and inspired by those who came before.”

Connected and inspired.

This, especially, when remembering those who served their country in the military, is key. It’s hard now – we have such a difficult relationship to war; misguided policies led us into controversial conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Panama, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan. Remembering those wars requires us to grapple with larger, difficult issues. And I would say we had an easier relationship to war prior to Korea – certainly some of the reasons we fought in the World Wars are more cut and dry. But even those wars – and the Spanish American War, the Mexican Wars, and the Civil War, where the seeds Memorial Day began, are much more complex than simply fights between good and evil.

Yet we cannot help but remember with some admiration the people who have chosen to put themselves in harm’s way – not for personal interest – but for their community and their nation. The first Memorial Day celebrations – and many places claim “first”, including black children in Charleston who honored the US Colored troops who died in the Civil War  – those first celebrations were about remembering sacrifice and honoring the lives of those people who died. And it was such a right and remarkable act, that we institutionalized it and continue to remember and honor those who have served – not just in uniform but in the many ways we understand service to our nation and our world community.

We acknowledge their service, we recall the circumstances of their deaths, and we dwell in the quiet sorrow of our loss … but mostly, we remember their lives. We connect with the living – and we journey with them, even if only for a moment. We recognize the souls that walked among us, while they lived. We hear their names, and we see their spirits in those who bring them to our table today – they live in us. As Kathleen McTigue writes – and we will read together responsively (No. 721, Singing the Living Tradition) – they are with us still.

As we complete our reading, I invite you to come forward to the table as you are so moved, to light a candle and speak the names of those you wish for all of us to remember today.