Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

We Begin Again in Love — Sermon by Rev. David Pyle

Last preached January 26th, 2010

Reading    Excerpt from “A Treatise on Atonement” by Rev. Hosea Ballou  1805

Part II, chapter 2. Necessity of Atonement, and Where Satisfaction Must Be Made

I have already entered my protest against the necessity of atonement on the principles upon which christians have generally believed it, by showing the finite nature of sin, and the error of supposing that the law of God required the endless misery of mankind as a penal requisition.

Atonement signifies reconciliation, or satisfaction, which is the same. It is a being unreconciled to truth and justice which needs reconciliation; and it is a dissatisfied being which needs satisfaction. Therefore I raise my inquiry on the question, Is God the unreconciled or dissatisfied party, or is it man?


Message     “We Begin Again in Love”      by Rev. David Pyle

These past few days, my friend and ministerial colleague

Rev. Seanan Holland was visiting Sandy and I

from the Norfolk Naval Air Station, in Virginia.

He came to spend Christmas day with us,

and shared this pulpit with me for the Christmas Eve service.

As far as we can tell, our Christmas Eve service Friday night

may be the first time ever, or at least in modern memory,

that two Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplains

performed a worship service together.


While that was wonderful, what has been better for me

has been for Seanan and I,

who attended all four years of Seminary together,

to remember old discussions about theology,

about church life, and about the practice of ministry.

You see, for students at Meadville Lombard,

that’s much of what seminary is…

having deep discussions about theology

and about this profession of the clergy and the ministry

we feel called to.


And it is probably why, far from my original intent,

this is one of the most theological sermons I have ever preached.

Such was not my intent when I sat down to write…

but sometimes you have to move when the spirit says move…


During our time visiting on Christmas Day,

one of our old conversations that came up

was the day that I said that I did not think

that there was ever going to be a sermon I would ever preach

that did not in some way call myself a hypocrite.


At the time I said it, walking along 57th Street

on the South Side of Chicago,

Seanan gave me the same look

that some of you all are giving me right now.

But it is true… every sermon I preach

has something in it that calls me, the preacher, a hypocrite.


Or, to perhaps put it in a better light than hypocrisy…

when I step into the pulpit,

I am attempting to speak from my best self.

I am attempting to name ideas, and growths, and learnings,

and wisdoms, and truths, and hopes, and dreams

that I might be able to reach on my best of days.

I am attempting to speak what should be,

what could be, and what might be.


And yet, I am not always my best self.

I am not always a great recycler and steward of the earth.

I am not always someone who

allows my faith and beliefs to move like a tent.

I am not always a caring and understanding soul.

I am not always someone who looks first to the justice implications of decisions and choices I make.

I am not always what I preach from this pulpit that we should be.

I am not always someone who finishes my sermons

before late Saturday night… or early Sunday morning.

I am not always that which I then stand in the pulpit

and encourage us all to be.


And more importantly… there is always something,

in every sermon, where I am preaching to myself

as much as to anyone else.

There is always something, often more than one something,

where I am naming for myself in a sermon a place of failure,

a place of brokenness, a place where there is,

in seminary language, a growing edge.

When I stand in the pulpit on a Sunday morning

and extol the virtues of compassion,

or the necessity of interdependence,

or the value of inherent worth …

there is always something in me that points out the times

that I have failed to even notice those things in my own life,

much less be an example to others

of living those high principles we Unitarian Universalists proclaim.


I remember another conversation with a friend

I made in seminary, where we discussed this disconnect

between the aspirations we seek to name and to live,

not just as ministers

but as Unitarian Universalists and people of liberal faith,

and the ways we fail to live up to that ideal in our lives.

In this particular conversation, this disconnect

between what we profess and what we are able to live up to

was the reason this particular friend

had decided to leave seminary.

He had decided he could not continue

on the path toward ministry,

because he could not accept that he was expected

to be a role model for living the values and principles

of liberal faith always, all the time.


Let’s face it… living life as a Unitarian Universalist is hard.

Let’s just take one ethical and theological principle we hold forth.

We are supposed to respect

the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Do you know how hard it is to respect

the inherent worth and dignity

of some of my extended family members I see at Christmas-time

when I am at my family’s home in Knoxville Tennessee?

This time of year I often wonder if I chose

to become a congregational minister

just so I can tell family “Sorry, I can’t come home this Christmas…

you know Christmas-time is work time for a minister”.


Better that than having to go home and find some way

to respect the inherent worth and dignity of an Uncle

I am still furious at over how he contested my Grandfather’s will

some 10 years ago.


Breathe in… breathe out…


And that is just one of those seven principles,

at one time of the year,

in one small group of people that I am related to.

Let’s not kid ourselves…

living life as a Unitarian Universalist is hard…

and living our professed values and beliefs

perfectly all the time is impossible.

It is impossible for ministers, and it is impossible for all of us.

We are imperfect people trying to live

by a very high-minded ethical and moral code

that takes into account responsibility for the world,

for each other, and for ourselves.


This paradox between the impossibility

of our Unitarian Universalist values, principles, and ideals

in conjunction with our permanent imperfection as human beings

leads to a tension that I believe most Unitarian Universalists feel.


I think this contradiction, unaddressed and unacknowledged,

is why many people come to our congregations,

visit us for a time, and then leave our congregations

either disgusted with us for our unacknowledged hypocrisy,

or feeling worse about themselves that somehow

we are able to meet such high ideals while they are not.

It is why we who profess such high ideals can at times

be responsible for some rather unthinking injustices…

some staff at a church treated poorly…

a minister who is unable to see a part of ministry

they are not good at and ask for help…

a congregation who cannot tell a fellow member

that how they treat the children of the congregation

is unacceptable.


I think that, faced with this paradox of hypocrisy…

this paradox of our high ideals

and our own imperfection at living them,

we sometimes retreat into either denial or inaction.

We either pretend the contradiction is not there,

or we are so paralyzed by the apparent hypocrisy

that we do nothing to address the contradiction.

Either way, we are stuck in inaction, stuck in the contradiction,

and stuck in less than our best selves.


There is something about the Holiday Season

that just brings this contradiction

to the front of my attention each year.

Perhaps it is that this is a time of year

fraught with contradictions…

the recognition of the birth of a savior

celebrated in an orgy of consumerism.

The life of a man dedicated

to the cause of the poor and the downtrodden

acknowledged by holiday celebrations

that take a lot of money and expense.

One of the few times of the year we are expected

to gather together into our extended families,

when our fast-paced and mobility based culture

has fractured those extended family lines

beyond almost any hope of a cultural recovery.

Or, perhaps it is the largest paradox of this time of year…

people who deride paganism as being from the devil

celebrating with Christmas Trees, Yule-logs,

and a Demi-god who has flying reindeer

and can make it to every home across the world in one night.


It is a season of hypocrisy… but that is okay.

We are all hypocrites in one way or another,

to paraphrase buy imitrex in canada Shakespeare.

We are all imperfect beings seeking

one or another form of perfection.

Such is part of what it means to be human.


Religious traditions deal with this contradiction

between an ideal of perfection

and our own inability to achieve that perfection in different ways.

Christianity developed an entire theology of sin,

of the fallen nature of humanity, of atonement,

and of forgiveness of sin through the death

of Jesus on the Cross

because of this contradiction between the sought after perfection

and our own human failings.

And while that Christian answer to the paradox

of perfection and imperfection

is the most dominate one in our culture,

it is not one that holds a great deal of commonality

with the liberal faith of many Unitarian Universalists.

Nor does it hold true for me.

I do not believe that Jesus was born

into perfection on Christmas Day,

nor do I believe he died for the forgiveness of my sins

on the cross on Easter day.


It just seems too easy an answer to me…

and one that requires too little of me.

One thing I have realized about people of Liberal Faith

is that we seldom are wooed by the easy answers.


The answer to this contradiction, this paradox,

this hypocrisy of having such perfect ideals

and being able to live them only imperfectly

is most traditionally expressed in Unitarian Universalism

through the writings, teachings, and preachings

of a Universalist Minister from the early 1800’s,

the Rev. Hosea Ballou.

While Rev. John Murray brought Universalism

to America from Europe,

in was Ballou who became its

most expressive theologian and advocate.

Ballou stated a profound idea…

that human beings did not need

to be reconciled to God for their imperfection…

for their inability to live perfect lives

as defined by their principles values and beliefs.

God did not need our “atonement for sin”

to use Ballou’s language.

No, humans needed to atone for being less than their best selves

because we needed that atonement

in order to be healthy, happy, and well adjusted souls.


This Universalist ideal was that atonement

was not to appease an angry God,

but a necessary ingredient in being whole

and complete as a human being.


That we humans need to confess

where we have been less than our best selves,

ask for forgiveness from any we have wronged,

and make amends for our harm and failures

because doing so makes us better people.

In Ballou’s formation of a theology of atonement,

it is only though such naming and claiming

of the contradiction of perfect principles and imperfect humanity

that we could continue to approach perfection,

and communion with a perfect God.


While I have found value in Ballou’s approach to atonement,

and see some close parallels between it

and how much of modern psychology and psycho-therapy

work with people in regards to issues of guilt and shame…

it is not all of my practice of dealing with

the contradiction of perfection of ideals

and imperfection of humanity in my own life.

The second part of my practice

of Confession, Atonement, Forgiveness, and Redemption

comes in that last part… Redemption.

And for me, it comes not from a forgiveness

given by a divine God…

but through a simple practice I encountered

while beginning my study of Zen Buddhist meditation.


To frame this for you, I have to tell you a little

about my early practice of Zen meditation.

You see, one of my growing edges,

one of my places where I am often less than my best self,

is that I do not deal well with times that I, personally,

cannot do something well, even my first time.

So, when I threw my first baseball as a child,

and it did not make it all the way to my father’s glove…

I got mad at myself.  I was so mad

I would not let him come closer,

and I just kept throwing that ball with drive and determination

until I could not only get it to his glove,

but I could get it to go over his head, too high for him to catch.


I don’t demand that I be the “best” at things…

only that I be good at it… even on my first try.


So, when I began sitting Zen meditation,

and was told that all I was to do

was to just keep my attention focused on following my breath…

following how the breath comes in to my body,

and then flows out of my body, and counting to one.

In through the body, out of the body, and counting two.

In through the body, out through the body, counting three.

Focusing on my breath, and only my breath,

counting to ten and then back to one.


Simple, right?  Anyone can do it, right?  Ever tried it?

Drove me to distraction.


I would make it up to ten a couple of times,

and then my mind would think I was doing it good,

and off the mind would run.

Next thing I knew I was thinking

about how great I was at meditation,

how it was helping me in seminary,

how maybe I could become a Buddhist priest too someday,

and oh, isn’t that an interesting birdcall I just heard,

and I wonder how much longer this meditation session

is going to go on, and, and, and…


I’m supposed to just be counting to ten and following my breath…



In, out… one  In, out… two   In, out… three…


I want to do everything I do well…

and I could not even stick to counting my breaths.

I was bad at this, perhaps even disrespecting

this ancient tradition of Buddhism by even trying.

What do I think I’m doing here, with these monks and priests,

pretending I could ever be like them.

They are so peaceful, and I can’t even count my breath….


And there I go again, darn it…

I’m a miserable failure at meditation.

And it’s just making me mad…

Darn it, I’m going to be good at this, even if it kills me!

Breathe in and count, darn it!


And on, and on, and on… for three hours, twice a week.


I think my teacher knew what was going on in my mind,

because the next time I sat down with him in a private session,

he taught me a lesson that has stayed with me,

and has become a core part of who I am

as a Unitarian Universalist and as a human being…

it is the foundation of my theology of atonement,

of forgiveness, and of redemption.


And it is as simple as this… come back to the breath.


My teacher told me that even the best of Zen Masters,

even the Buddha himself could not keep his mind

from running away from him during meditation.

The practice is just, when you notice it is happening,

to lightly, to gently, and to with great compassion for yourself,

come back to the breath.

Come back to the counting, to the breathing,

and to being aware of your space in that particular moment.

No guilt or shame attaches for your mind wandering…

it is simply what happens.

When it happens, notice it, and come back to the breath.


Come back to the breath…


When we fail to live up to our ideals, to our values,

to our principles as Unitarian Universalists…

the practice is simply to come back to the breath…

to come back to those principles, values, and ideals.

Just like sitting perfect meditation is forever impossible,

living the values and ideals

of Unitarian Universalism perfectly is impossible.

Our practice as religious liberals is simply

to note the places where we are less than our best selves,

re-name for ourselves what our ideal is,

and re-commit to the practice

of trying to emulate those values and ideals

as best we can in our lives.


Like failing to follow the breath in mediation,

failing to be perfect Unitarian Universalists

does not incur any guilt or shame…

No human could ever be a perfect Unitarian Universalist.

No human can always recognize

the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

No human could possibly make a just and equitable decision

in every situation.

No human can always treat everyone

with justice and compassion.


We simply can’t… and when we don’t live up

to those values and ideals our practice is three fold.

We should name for ourselves and for others

what we have done that was less than it should have been,

and thereby atone for that action.


We should seek the forgiveness of any we have wronged,

and grant forgiveness to those who have wronged us

and ask them to begin again with us, in love.


And then, we should step beyond that moment

of being less than our best selves

and recommit to trying to live

our values and beliefs within the world.


We should simply come back to the breath.


So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.


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