(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, The Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Every July 14th the French celebrate Bastille Day to commemorate their defeat of religious and aristocratic authority. The French Revolution is one of the most significant events in human history. It was the culmination of the Age of Enlightenment and its ideals of freedom and values of humanism.
As I’ve related in my previous two messages this month, the Enlightenment was humankind’s escape from immaturity. Previously, most western Europeans were unable – or forbidden – to think for themselves. The Enlightenment, and particularly the French Revolution, dramatically changed that by encouraging reason over superstition and fear.
The French are rightfully proud of that revolution. Despite its radical violence, it nevertheless initiated most modern freedoms we now take for granted – but which the French celebrate as proof of their early move toward spiritual and political maturity. Indeed, some of the rights begun by the French Revolution are ones often debated today – ones like equality for women, decriminalization of same-sex relationships, and full equality for non-whites.
The French Revolution and the Enlightenment have cast a wide influence around the world. Unitarianism, as one example, emerged during the Enlightenment in Europe, but became a major form of spirituality in 1819 just after the French Revolution. Early Unitarians, like leaders of the American and French Revolutions, determined that human values must supersede religious ones – that worship at the altar of a god must be secondary to worship at the altar of compassion, respect and freedom for humankind. Ultimately, we as Unitarian Universalists uniquely celebrate the human spirit to live and worship freely.
Today, I conclude my September series on pathways to enlightenment by focusing on a final path – that of celebrating. It’s an appropriate topic for this service because I believe celebration of enlightenment is often not taken to heart. The very act of becoming enlightened IS a big deal! It means one gains greater awareness, sensitivity, and intuition to goodness. It means one begins to understand serving others. It means one is a seeker, a skeptic, a dreamer and an explorer. It means one commits toward becoming more kind, humble, gentle and giving – free from fear or obligation. Becoming enlightened is comparable, for me, to what most religions believe is the process for going to Heaven. For us, we aspire to possess enlightened hearts and minds that are at peace with ourselves, other people and the universe.
Buddhists understand that concept. They believe that reaching a state of Nirvana, a state of perfect peace, is a cause for celebration. Bodhi Day, or Buddha Day, takes place every year on the first full moon in May or June. It is the supposed anniversary of when Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as the Buddha, became enlightened. It’s when he finally let go of his ego – the part of him that desired worldly pleasures – to instead be filled with contentment and kindness. Indeed, the word Buddha means: ‘one who is enlightened’. On Bodhi Day, Buddhists across the world celebrate with feasts and festivals in order to show devotion to that pursuit.
We celebrate Water Communion for similar reasons. We use water, as the essential element for life, to be a symbol of where we have been and where we intend to go. It’s a celebration not to arrogantly boast of what we do, and what we know, but to instead honor and renew our commitment to the path of becoming enlightened.
That’s why I chose this month’s message theme, why I paraphrased that theme and placed it on our new sign, and why there is a photo of the sign on the cover of your programs. It’s my belief of what defines us as spiritually progressive people, members of this beloved community, and activist citizens of the world. We are servants and we are seekers – who joyfully dedicate ourselves to those tasks.
We celebrate, first and foremost, our freedom from fear. The opposite of love is not hate, but instead fear. If we think about it, if we were not afraid of anything, we would be open to total love – of ourselves, of others, and of life itself. Indeed, the Buddha taught that freeing ourselves from fear is a crucial part of letting go of the ego. It’s fear that one will personally suffer – from any multitude of causes – that prevents full enlightenment. People fear the suffering that they’ll feel if they don’t have enough – so they become selfish and greedy. People fear the suffering that comes from dying – or from going to hell – so they believe in supernatural gods who promise eternal life. People fear the humiliation of being inadequate so they become arrogant and self focused. People fear those who are different so they shun, discriminate and demean. Fear of Jews and their success motivated the Holocaust. Fear of Islam motivates hatreds and banishment of desperate Muslim refugees. Fear of losing jobs and wealth motivates angry laws against immigrants. Fear of people of color, their abilities, their different complexion, their cultures – all motivate racism. Fear of same sex romantic love motivates bullying, gay bashing and outright murder.
Freedom from such fears, however, is a hallmark of Unitarian-Universalism and is a core reason many of us are here. We come here to be free of being told to be fearful – of death, of hell, and of man-made religions that teach about vengeful gods and pre-scientific scriptures that are racist, homophobic and misogynistic.
Since fear causes hate and discord, we also come here to be free of those sentiments. Freedom from spiritual fear opens our hearts to love all our neighbors. We love them not as some perverse way to change people, to convert them to our way of belief, but as a way to honor their dignity and equal rights. We may not yet be perfect in our love, but we commit to learning ways to improve. That is a reason to celebrate today and all Sundays!
We also celebrate our freedom from obligation. Free from the fear of death and punishing gods, we are not obliged to honor, worship or follow them. We have the freedom to believe – or not believe – as reason guides us . We serve, seek, and come together not because we must, not because if we don’t we will be punished, but because we deeply want to. We deeply want to grow as better people. We deeply want to love and serve our neighbor. Nothing motivates us beyond an intrinsic and innate desire to be good and do good.
I often hear apologies from folks who miss a Sunday or two. They ruefully admit to a morning of sleeping late, enjoying a leisurely breakfast with family, or taking a walk outdoors. In many ways, they engage in a spiritual activity of their own design. And that is a good thing! I never want someone to attend because they feel they must, or that they have disrespected the congregation, or some spiritual ideal if they don’t. I want people to be here because they want to be here. They want to hear thought provoking ideas, they want to enjoy the friendship and company of others, they want to share, smile, and serve. Freedom from obligation is something to celebrate today and every Sunday you might choose to sleep late at home – instead of coming here to fall asleep listening to boring me!
Finally, I claim we are here to enjoy freedom from immaturity, as Immanuel Kant said. We are not children whose minds are not yet capable to think on their own. We do not depend on being told what to think, believe and know – from me or any Scripture.
I said in my message last week in Louisville that we only know ultimate truth when we admit and accept we don’t know it. Being mature people, we understand the limits of human knowledge and thus our need to continue to explore, seek, discover, dream and dare. It’s the same maturity of mind that compelled Galileo to look to the heavens with telescopes he invented to understand what makes the universe operate – and thereby challenge immature ideas that some God created everything to revolve around us as his playthings.
This is the same mature thinking that compelled Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to practice an alternate way to advance human rights – to use civil disobedience, love and non-violence as catalysts for change. A mature attitude is what compels any of us to empathize with the plight of others – the poor, oppressed and marginalized – and work to change that. Through empathy and not judgment, we can understand how the humiliation of racism has affected ways African-Americans think and act – and their anger at ongoing discrimination. It might help us empathize with the plea that Black lives matter.
Each of these freedoms – freedom from fear, obligation and immaturity, are triumphant reasons to celebrate today and any day. I must remind myself, as I encourage each of you to do the same, not take to for granted the amazing wonder of this congregation and what it represents. In here, through both our Sunday services and our volunteering, we celebrate the inherent human capacity to serve and to seek. These are natural capabilities ingrained in our DNA, but they are also rights that were hard won by our forebears – the thinkers, visionaries and activists on the front lines against forces of fear, superstition, and obligation. We do our freedoms an injustice if we do not remember them, celebrate them and commit ourselves all the more to their practice.
Today and upcoming Sundays may seem like a time of sacrifice – a time when our Board seemingly comes hat in hand and begs for our generosity. I admit to my own concerns about this time and the fear that we ask too much, that members will be turned off by ongoing expressions of need for time, talent and treasure.
But just as I elaborated earlier, we are, in truth, free from such fears. We are free from such obligations. Our Board does not and will not beg. Neither do I. Our fundraisers, our pledge campaign, today’s Building Improvement Gift effort are not requests to be endured – like some painful root canal. I, along with all of you, understand the value of hard earned money and the precious little spare time each of us has. What I also hope we understand is that this endeavor we call the Gathering at Northern Hills, and its ideals, mean nothing unless we honestly believe that they are a force for good and something we want to support with our time, talent and treasure.
We’re challenged today to match what an anonymous donor has given to the congregation to improve serious building needs. These are not improvements so that we can bask in luxury. We hope to address building needs that matter to the long term structural integrity of our home – this place we use to make our values and ideals happen. The donor asked me to promise to never reveal his or her name. The motivation of this person is not to enlarge their ego, but rather to celebrate exactly what I’ve said this community stands for. This person anonymously gives only to celebrate and practice our collective desire to be enlightened.
We are under no obligation to place our checks for building improvements in the box right over there. We are under no obligation to pledge, volunteer, attend, or support this place with thoughts and prayers. We have no fear we will be eternally punished if we don’t. We have not been told giving and serving are moral rules we must obey because an ancient Scripture says so. If we do feel obligation or fear, I strongly encourage us NOT to give.
No matter whether we do give today, and pledge later this fall – or we don’t – it is our freedom, our choice and our innate desire to do as we think is good, right and reasonable. I hope I never forget that. I hope you don’t either. We are here, every single one of us, because through serving, giving and seeking, we hope to become more enlightened. And, that, as I say, is one very, very big reason to celebrate!
I wish you all much peace and joy!