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

Shifting Sands — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on April 5th, 2012


Sermon     “Shifting Sands”   Rev. David Pyle

I’ve said before that one of the best parts

About being a Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplain

Is that I often get to discuss faith and theology

With minister’s who are far more conservative than myself.

I love those conversations,

Because they make me think outside my own box,

And realize how unique and precious our liberal faith really is.

So I want to tell you about a conversation I had a few years ago

With a Southern Baptist military chaplain.


The conversation stands out in my memory

because of his response to one of my questions.

Amidst this conversation about

why, how, and what each of us believed,

I asked this question.

“What if the body of Jesus of Nazareth

were found in a tomb outside Jerusalem?

What if there were no doubt in your mind

that this was the body of Jesus…

if scientists and others had proven

that Jesus did not physically ascend into the heavens,

but lie buried in a tomb?

What would that mean for your faith?”


He thought for about thirty seconds,

and then gave me an answer that has haunted me…

He said, “It would mean my entire life has been a lie.”

His entire life… a lie.


Now, that is the kind of spiritual crisis

that I would not ever wish on anyone.

Maybe some of you all have been in that kind of a place.

In my path from growing up Southern Baptist and Pentecostal

to becoming a Unitarian Universalist

I have had some major transitions

in my faith, values, and beliefs,

but I never encountered a moment

where my entire life had become a lie.

My mind struggles to grasp what it would mean for a person

to discover that their whole center of meaning was gone,

because of the shifting of an accepted fact.


Some of you who might have grown up

in conservative Christian religious traditions like I did

might remember the hymn that says

“On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand”.

The ideal of having and clinging to a religious center

that is a solid rock has been

part of our society for a long time.

While the image of a religious faith being best when it is a “rock”

has been with us for millennia,

among the Christian tradition it finds its root in the parable

that is attributed to Jesus of Nazareth

in both Luke 6 and Matthew 7,

about a wise man who built his house on a foundation of rock,

and foolish man who built his house on a foundation of sand.

Like most of the parables, Jesus did not mean them literally.

He was talking about where you built your spiritual life.


Now, as those of you who were here last week found out,

I very intentionally decided to talk about Jesus of Nazareth a bit

in my last two sermons before Rev. Jan

gets her pulpit back from me.

There are many reasons for this,

not the least of which being that if it didn’t go well,

Rev. Jan would be back to help me take the heat…

But there are a few reasons why I think it is important

for us to talk about Christian theology and scripture

in our Unitarian Universalist faith.


The first is that we, as a society and culture,

We live in a world that has been profoundly shaped

by these stories from the Bible.

Our attitudes as both Americans and as Unitarian Universalists

are profoundly and subtly shaped by these stories,

and if we do not engage them

we remain blind to how they are affecting us.

It is important that we, from the perspective of our liberal faith,

seek meaning in those stories that is new,

so that we are not controlled by those same stories

and the meanings for them created by others.


Secondly, I think we Unitarian Universalists can play a special,

critical role for our society,

in that we do not have to agree with Jesus all the time

as a matter of faith.

On this particular set of bible verses,

about houses on rock and sand,

I think Jesus was not only wrong, but dangerously so.


It is my opinion that for the sake of an easy sermon point,

Jesus saddled the world

with a theology which was not worthy of him…

with some easy theology that he transcended

at other times in his life and teachings.


Did I get your attention?

What other minister in Ventura do you think is going

to blatantly disagree with Jesus from the pulpit this morning?


Think with me for a minute about all the ways

this idea of looking for that foundation of rock

affects the way we live our lives.

It goes well beyond the religious,

although that is often the first place we look for it.

Have you ever met anyone who was completely demoralized

when a sports team lost a game?

Have you ever met anyone who had invested so much

of themselves into a romantic relationship,

that when it ended they seemed

to have lost themselves in the breakup?


Have you ever encountered anyone who placed

so much faith and hope in a political candidate or party

that when the next election came around and their candidate lost,

or when their candidate turned out

not to keep all of their promises,

it was as if they had been personally betrayed?


This idea of seeking such rocks

to build our lives and identities upon is,

I believe, one of the foundational ideas of western culture,

and it has lead us into some dangerous ground.

The “rock” of American exceptionalism,

or that America is a special country

that the rest of the world should copy,

has lead us into one foreign policy debacle after another.

The twin rocks of consumerism and capitalism

have brought us to a time where we have traded

the public good of domestic jobs

for a pretty set of beads made in China,

whose true price we are now paying

through the loss of a stable economy.


The rock of American Individualism

has brought us to a time when,

though we have the greatest ability at communication

the human race has ever achieved,

we feel more cut-off from others than ever before

And people are coming to the belief

that we are no longer responsible for each other,

only for ourselves, because we are suppose to be individuals.


The search for the solid rocks that we can build a foundation

for our lives upon rests upon a flawed assumption…

the idea that such rocks are solid and forever unchanging…

and that they are not affected by the environment that they are in.

It forgets that every grain of sand in the “shifting sands”

that Jesus warned us about was once a solid rock.


That, and when the earthquake comes,

when we encounter massive transition,

when one of the core beliefs of our lives

turns out to be based on false premises…

it is far safer to be on the “shifting sands”

than it is to have built our spiritual faith upon any rock.


If I ever write a book on encountering life as a Unitarian Universalist,

perhaps the title might be

“Learning to Live on the Shifting Sands”.


We are called to encounter a universe

that is ever changing, ever shifting, ever growing…

and to allow to allow ourselves

to be constantly reborn and renewed.

We are called to practice a faith

that is ever changing, ever shifting, ever growing…

and be transformed by it.

We are called to engage with doubt as a friend,

to become comfortable with change,

and to welcome transition…

simply because we have realized

that even the most solid of rocks

is just waiting for the opportunity,

for the earthquakes, the wind, and the waves,

that will transform it into sand.

And the sand is waiting for the heat and pressure,

that will transform it back into rock.


The idea of impermanence,

of the transience of all things…

this is not an idea that comes uniquely to us of liberal faith.

Like much of the wisdom of liberal faith,

we have learned it from others,

and in this case we have drawn

on the experience and awakening

to a transient universe that occurred to Gautama Siddhartha,

more commonly known as the Buddha.


The Buddha saw what Jesus did not…

that there was nothing that could ever stay as it was.

That all things were in the process of becoming something else.

That each moment was inexorably changed by the next moment.


The Buddha named this struggle between

the perceived permanence of Rock

and a reality that is composed of transient sand,

as the root of all suffering…

That seeking stability amid transience

is the cause of human pain.


By encouraging his followers to seek the stability of rock,

the Buddha might say Jesus increased their suffering,

instead of easing it.


It is a characterization I agree with intellectually,

and still struggle with emotionally.

I too am still learning to live on the shifting sands.


There is an important piece of meaning

we as Unitarian Universalists can draw

from the parable that Jesus told,

even if it is not one that he might have intended.

I find myself agreeing with Jesus that

it is probably kinda silly

to be building theological and spiritual “houses”

while we are trying to live on these shifting sands

of an impermanent, ever-changing universe.

It is probably foolish to try to hold absolute firm beliefs

in a reality that is constantly born again, and again, and again.


I’m drawn to something I once read

from one of my favorite American philosophers, Mark Twain.


In his essay “What is Man?”,

Twain says that he had never met a permanent seeker of truth.

That everyone he had ever encountered

had built a house of beliefs for themselves,

and then had spent the rest of their lives patching it,

propping it up, plugging the leaks in it,

and praying that it did not cave in on them.

He included himself in that,

though he had aspired to a different way of being.


How precarious is the house built upon rock,

when it has already been patched, propped up,

and caulked to stop the leaks?

When the earthquake of crisis comes,

and crisis always comes,

even that house might be better off on the sands.


Sermons that are an extended metaphor

can sometimes go too far,

and this one may be approaching that point.

If you leave with anything from this sermon,

I hope it will be you thinking about your life as a religious liberal

as learning to live on the shifting sands.

It is counter-cultural in a society that seeks to tempt us

with the illusion of safety among the rocks.

I will take the risk of extending this metaphor just a little further,

to include an image that has been helpful to me

amid my learning to live on the shifting sands.


While Jesus talked about building a house of your beliefs…

and Buddha talked about living life without any such beliefs,

I find myself drawn to something in-between.

I find myself drawn to having beliefs that can be questioned,

that can be shifted and moved as the circumstances warrant.

I find myself drawn to having a spiritual dwelling place

where the parts, the beliefs, can be easily replaced,

where I can add new beliefs

or remove beliefs that no longer work

simply by stitching them together.

I find myself drawn to a spiritual dwelling place

that can grow as I grow,

that can move as I move,

and that can find itself set up on both the shifting sands,

and even on the occasional rock.


Some of you may have guessed it…

it is an image of a spiritual home

that is also of great importance in the Bible…

I have come to think of my beliefs, of my values,

of the things I think of as true not as a house, but as a tent.

A tent that moves with me in this ever-changing universe.

A tent that can protect me from the storms,

and move with me in the earthquakes, the crises of life.

It is a spiritual shelter of beliefs that I can easily make larger,

so others can shelter with me.


As we Unitarian Universalists learn to live,

not on the false illusion of safety offered

by the many “rocks” proffered by our culture,

but out on the shifting sands,

there may be one other lesson and new meaning

we can draw from an example in the Bible.

For generations, the temple of the Hebrew people,

the holiest of holies, their sacred dwelling place, was a tent.

Their sacred shelter went with them when they moved,

they set it up when they stopped.

They replaced the panels when they were worn,

they sewed the seams when they tore.

For generations their holy place traveled with them,

wherever they went… and it was never destroyed.


Not until they turned it into a building,

and set that building upon the supposed security of rock,

was it destroyed, first by the Babylonians,

and then by the Romans.

It has not been rebuilt since.


There is a lesson in that for us of Liberal Faith,

as we seek to learn to live on the shifting sands.


So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: