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

Born Again… and Again! — Sermon by Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on November 18th, 2012


Meditative Reading

So the hymn comes to a close with an unsteady amen, and the organist gestures the choir to sit down. Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick run through of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in hand. He hikes his black robe at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up. His mouth is a little dry. He has cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else. In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six-year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home from vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice- president of a bank who twice this week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part, even from himself, creases his order of service with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee. The preacher pulls a little chord that turns the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence he will tell them?

Frederick Buechner   

Sermon     “Born Again… and Again!”                                                  Rev. David Pyle

This week, as I was preparing for this sermon,

I came across a wonderful lecture;

part of the TED Talks series,

where an artist and scientist named Beau Lotto

described and demonstrated his research into the brain.

He uses optical illusions to test and show

how the human brain creates the reality that we experience,

by filling in the gaps

between the limited information our senses actually receive,

and the fullness of a reality that we need to function.

He said in the video that

we human beings never perceive reality…

only the meanings that we make from our limited perceptions.


A colleague who saw the same video commented

that it was wonderful that science was now showing

the basis of the entire philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Now I, in my mercy, have chosen to spare you all

an exposition on Kant this morning…

although I Kant promise you that will continue forever,

and I will never spare you bad puns whenever I can find them.


However, as Beau Lotto showed his audience

at the TED talk optical illusion after optical illusion,

it struck me that the reality that we think we experience

is even more tenuous that I had described it

in my first draft of this sermon.

Not only is the universe constantly changing around us,

and not only are we constantly changing,

but even our understanding of a constantly changing universe

is based in limited and flawed perceptions,

easily fooled by changing patterns of light and shading.


I sometimes get called an Evangelical Unitarian Universalist.

It’s about 50/50, between those

who mean that as a compliment and those who do not.

It is true that one of my former ministries

that provided Sunday morning Unitarian Universalist Worship

for Naval Basic Training recruits was called

the “most evangelical pulpit in Unitarian Universalism”

by the then President of our denomination.

But at heart, I do not think

I am a Unitarian Universalist Evangelical,

because I have to be honest and admit

that I don’t think that a life of Liberal Faith is for everyone.

Unlike the way my Christian Evangelical friends

feel about their religious tradition,

I have come to the opinion that there are many people

who could not be, and perhaps should not be,

Unitarian Universalists.


I’ve never said this before in a sermon.

When I’ve said it among Unitarian Universalist Ministers

they often make the little scrunchy faces,

like some of those I see among us right now…

And I don’t want you to hear in this an idea

that Liberal Faith is for an elite,

or that we are special because we are people of Liberal Faith.

I do believe that we are special,

but that is for an entirely different reason.

I simply mean that I currently hold the belief

that there is one aspect to living a life of Liberal Faith

that is so amazingly difficult that it is not meant for everyone…

at least not at every point in our lives.


There are many ways to understand

the human drive toward religion,

towards communities that bind us together

in meaning and understanding.

Albert Einstein talked about religion

as the way that human beings first sought

to make meaning of natural forces they did not understand,

and then how they sought to control the behavior

of the greatest threat the human race faces… other humans.


Dogen Zenji, the founder of what we now call Zen Buddhism,

found the meaning of religion in the practice of the individual

toward greater and greater understanding

by seeking a deeper experience of reality

than the senses and human perception of them could provide.


The German Philosopher Freiderich Nietzsche

saw that there was no truth at all…

that all of human life consisted only of perspectives

of varying value to the individual and to society.

And so he famously declared about religion that

“God was Dead” and that we killed him.


I promised to spare you all from Kant this morning…

I said nothing about Nietzche…

I want us to focus on one particular lens

for understanding the human drive toward religion this morning,

and that is the tension within the human soul

created by our desire to know that there

are some things that are permanent and unchanging,

amidst an experience of reality

that is constantly changing, transforming, and shifting.

I want us to think of religion this morning

as an expression of the human need

for something in our lives to stay the same.


There are dozens of clever little aphorisms about change…

The only constant in life is change…

Change is the name we give to life.

Without Change, something sleeps inside us,

and seldom awakens.


I think they all seem clever because they point

to this inherent tension in humanity…

that we realize that we live amidst constant transformation,

or as I said in a sermon awhile ago,

we live on the shifting sands of the universe…

and we really wish we did not.

There is something in humanity that wishes,

really wishes for things to quit changing on us.


The ways in which this tension

manifests in our lives is incalculable…

We hold to beliefs long after

the situation that fostered those beliefs has changed.

We hold onto the mental images of people in our lives

long after the people themselves

have transformed into someone new…

a child who has grown up who we still see as a child.

A spouse who has changed and transformed,

leading us to cry that “they are not the person I married anymore”.

An activist organization that continues to exist,

long after the significance

of the cause it was founded for has transformed.


One of the ways to understand the human drive toward religion

is for something, anything to remain solid and stable

amidst a universe that is constantly changing

and a perception of that universe that is incomplete at best.

Religion has attempted to provide this stability

in many different ways…


An understanding of God that is Permanent, never changing …

A work of written scripture that is taken as literal and unchanging,

the word of God…

a transcendent reality, beyond this one

of worldly concerns and limited perception that,

with work and patience, we can access and experience…

a tradition, a line of religious succession,

that stretches back to an unchanging original teacher.


In all of these ways and many more

do religions seek to alleviate this tension in the human soul

of a desire for stability amidst an ever-changing universe.

Think we Unitarian Universalists are immune to this need?

Then just try to make changes within one of our churches

that affect the nature and the character

of the community that we build among us…

changes that affect how we are and who we are as a church.

Not getting what I mean?

Then what if I were to tell you that I think

we are going to need two worship services each weekend,

one on Saturday Night and one on Sunday morning…

Think I would get some pushback over that?


Understand that was just an example…

I am not crazy enough to advocate such a thing… yet…


And this is my point… we all need some stability in our lives,

and so we find ways to create at least a temporary version of it.

Some people find that stability

in a never-changing image of themselves,

even through we are all transforming into new people

each and every moment of our lives.

Some people find their stability in relationships,

even though with every experience we have together

our relationships change.

Some of us seek stability by creating institutions

and organizations in our lives, such as churches,

that can seem to change so slowly

we can pretend that at least something stays the same.

And some of us find our stability

in an image of something intangible and unmoving,

like Aristotle’s idea of an “unmoved mover”,

or an unchanging source for all this change.


And this is why I don’t think

I’m really a Unitarian Universalist Evangelical…

because I’ve found myself becoming less and less critical

of what people find as their source of stability

in this ever-changing universe.

I’ve come to believe, at least for the moment,

that there are many people out there

who would be ill-served by liberal religious faith…

who need something from religion

other than what liberal religious faith provides.


This is not a value judgment,

and I hold out hope that as people change,

so to do what we need from religion change.

But if someone needs to feel the stability

of a personal, unchanging religious center,

who am I to challenge that?


Rev. Jan Christian, our Senior Minister,

put it in a way that I think I have grown to accept…

I want our church to be open and available

to all of the people of Ventura County

who would benefit from liberal religion,

and I accept in that that not everyone in Ventura County

would benefit from Liberal Religion.

Why?  Because what liberal faith asks of us

is actually very, very difficult, in many different ways…

ways that not everyone is prepared for.


I am reminded of a story of a Zen master,

who fell asleep during a meditation session,

leaving his students to continue sitting in meditation

on their cushions for hours longer than they had expected,

until the master woke up and finally rang the bell.

Even the most experienced Unitarian Universalists

constantly struggle to recognize, honor, and live

in a universe that is forever changing,

while recognizing the human need for stability.


I think that this is one of the defining aspects

of living a life of Liberal faith…

and that is that when we are faced with the tension

between an ever changing universe around us and within us,

and the human desire for stability, for a rock to cling to…

the practice of liberal faith is to move away from the certainty

and to try and embrace the changes as much as we can.

I think the center of this faith lies

not in our proclaiming ourselves experts or masters of change,

because I tell you we are not…

change is as difficult for us Unitarian Universalists

as it is for anyone else.

No, I think that a center of liberal faith

lies in a commitment and practice of turning towards change,

when faced with the choice between transformation and stability.


Transformation and stability… transformation and stability…

to stay who we are, to stay in what we know…

or to be born again.  To be born anew.


It is a value laden religious phrase, isn’t it?

To be born again?

I saw a bumpersticker on a car

in a Unitarian Universalist church parking lot

that said “Born Right the First time”

I was a preemie, born a month early,

so I’m not certain I would accept that bumptersticker

as even factual for me…

And the sentiment behind it points to

that desire for stability again, doesn’t it?


But if there was a genius in the phrase Born Again

as Jesus of Nazareth meant it,

it was in the recognition that we humans

can be spiritually transformed,

that our natures are able to change…

a recognition even more radical then than it is today.

Where I think he missed the mark

is by implying that we only need to undergo

such a radical transformation in who we are

just once in our life.


Each time we let go of the many rocks of stability in our lives,

we are born again.

Each time we see that someone else has changed,

and therefore our relationship with them has changed,

we are born again.

Each time we notice something in ourselves has changed,

and accept that change rather than fight or deny it,

we are born again.

Each time we see that a perception of reality

that we had held on to is 1 part reality

and 9 parts meaning making, we are born again.

Each time we allow a risk we take to transform us,

we are born again.

Each time we allow the communities and institutions

we form with others to change, we are born again.


I believe it is the practice of the person of liberal faith to try,

as often as we can, to let go of our comforting stability

and allow transformation to work its magic upon us…

and each time we risk enough to do that,

we are born again, and again, and again.


This is hard, and often scary…

and I have come to believe, at least for now,

that it is not something that everyone needs

or is prepared for.

But for those who are called to it,

the movement through an ever changing universe

is a journey with no beginning and no end.

Life upon the shifting sands of the universe is,

if anything, never boring.


One last point about that journey,

and one that I think is often missed…

and that is that, if you choose the life of liberal faith,

if you choose to let go of some comforting stabilities

and embrace a little transformation…

embrace being born again, and again, and again…

then you get to have some choice

as to the path that your journey of transformation will take.

While we will never get to choose all the ways

in which we change and transform

amidst this universe of impermanence,

we do get to choose some of it.


Choosing to turn towards transformation

allows you to also choose the meanings

of the experiences you have…

to give some direction to the changes that happen in your life,

rather than just accepting the changes

imposed by an impersonal universe or even a personal God.

This applies not just as an individual,

but to the organizations and institutions

we build as human beings… including this church.

Turning towards a little transformation

allows us to choose how this, our church,

will also be born again, and again, and again…


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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