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Reverence and Generosity

A sermon preached by Rev. Rhett D. Baird
at High Street UU Church, Macon, GA – October 15, 2006

At yesterday’s Healthy Congregation Conference, the meditation words at the closing worship service were words of Denise Levertov, from our hymnal. It is a six line reading and I want to open my time with you by sharing again the first three of her lines:

An awe so quiet I don’t know
When it began.

A gratitude had begun to sing
In me.

Was there some moment dividing
Song from no song?


Rev. Rhett Baird

She is asking is there some line of demarcation between a posture of gratitude and a posture of no gratitude? She says there was an awe preceding this song which welled up inside her, the song being her expression of gratitude.

This morning I want to spend a little time inviting you to explore with me the connection between REVERENCE and GENEROSITY, knowing that there is also a deep connection between AWE and REVERENCE and GRATITUDE.

When I think of her question in the third line, “Was there some moment dividing song from no song” I am drawn to the words of Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, my colleague and co-minister in Toronto.

In his one reading in our hymnal, entitled “The task of Religious Community,” he opens with these words:

“The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice….”

One key phrase here for me is UNVEIL THE BONDS THAT BIND EACH TO ALL.

UNVEIL. If you unveil the bonds that bind us together, I guess that means that the bonds were there all along, but for some reason, we were unable to see them until they were UNVEILED to us – BY THE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY, according to Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.

To me, there feels like some kind of a connection here between the words of Mark Morrison-Reed and Denise Levertov.

She asks if there was some moment within her when there was no song, and then through mystery or epiphany, “a gratitude had begun to sing in me.” I wonder if the song of gratitude is a constant within all of us, a given in the definition of what it means to be human – but that somehow – we don’t always hear the song – or sing the song – but the song is there – and that

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In moments of awe and reverence, the song comes alive again – is unveiled to our hearts – and it is our hearts that hear the song – the song that plays constantly – within us – each one of us. The thing is – sometimes we can hear it – and sometimes we can’t.

Perhaps the words of Mark Morrison-Reed are true – that it is the central task of the religious community to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. Just perhaps one of those bonds is the presence of awe and reverence -- for life, all life and our own, for nature, for human nature, for the universe as it unfolds.

Let me give you an example. Last Sunday I saw “An Inconvenient Truth” at the Arts and Sciences Museum. It opened with the first breathtaking picture of the earth from the moon. The Famous “Earthrise” photograph. The first image of the earth in its entirety – hanging there in space, a beautiful blue ball, wrapped in white, suspended in the black of space.

That picture is, for me, one of the most religious and spiritual images I ever expect to see. I am filled with awe and reverence every time I gaze upon it. The image binds me to every other human on earth and indeed all life on earth.

Even though persuasive scientific data was presented – and that is important, to be sure – I believe that the image of the earth from space speaks a kind of non-verbal language to the depths of my soul – and I believe to every other human being. I believe that I am more likely to be moved to action by some powerful combination of a visual like this combined with the scientific data than by would be the data alone. We will be saved by poetry and stories and art and music joining as full partners with science.

During the past month or so, I gave much thought to the subject of generosity, to the link between gratitude and generosity, since this was the subject of our conference yesterday. And while I was deeply focused on this subject, a related but different aspect of this subject invited itself into my span of attention. That different aspect became the title of today sermon, Reverence and Generosity.

For me, when I use the phrase gratitude and generosity, even though I try very hard to make the word gratitude be wide and universal, I always seem to have this image in my mind of a cup running over, my cup running over, and my sharing some of what is my cup with those who have less in their cup.

And while that is a good and honorable and fine image, there was something within me that wanted to explore another level of this idea of generosity to see if there might be a deeper stream, a wider river that runs through the veins of every human – that inherently speaks to this subject of generosity – regardless of the level of the cup.

For me, it felt like if we could get to the tap root of this notion of awe and reverence, we just might find a connection between awe and reverence on the one hand and generosity, on the other hand. I wanted to explore the notion of reverence, grounded in awe, as the ultimate common language of all humans, and to try to listen to what that common language might tell us.

It seemed to me that a kind of generosity that flowed out of the pool of awe and reverence – rather than the pool of abundance and overflowing cups, would be a kind of generosity that nudges each of us toward creating a more level playing field, a landscape more fully grounded in justicerelationships more grounded in love and acceptance, grace and forgiveness.

I came to believe that this kind of posture of generosity toward the world would be a helpful internal guide to trying to do right and live right in the world, not as a singular creature in an alien world but as a person who is at home in this world, as an integral and important part of the community of all life, with responsibilities to enhance and promote the preciousness of all present and future life.

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We can’t do everything,

But we can try to perceive what is right,

And then do right,

Every day.

It can’t be wrong to do right.

It might be lonely,

It might be scary,

But it can’t be wrong to do right.

To nudge the world toward a more level playing field.”

In our society, we normally associate the words awe and reverence with some kind of acknowledgement of power or forces outside of our control. The stars, the vastness of the oceans, the redwood trees, some find it meaningful to embrace those words in a theological sense.

Yesterday, in the social justice workshop at the conference, there were some folks there from Gulfport, MS. A woman spoke with great eloquence about the devastation in that region as a result of Katrina, about the very real difficulties of very real people; she shared a little about the small UU congregation there, about their courage and commitment and about her concerns for the future of that faith community.

When she finished, someone in the room responded to her by saying something to the effect, “I am filled with awe at your capacity to persevere and the congregation’s will to prevail.”

I realized at that moment that I was witnessing something very powerful, and it was this: a human response of awe to the human resilience in the face of tragedy. For me, that interaction was a kind of nudging to do right in the world, to change the playing field ever so slightly toward a level, more just posture.

Now, I don’t know what will come out of that meeting. I know that the speaker and her husband drove a very long way to tell that story. I will always be grateful to her for driving all that way to tell that story of courage in the face of adversity – and to call forth the response of awe

and allow me to witness that –

and to know that the connection which I experienced was exactly what I was intuitively seeking in my trying to connect the dots between awe and generosity for my sermon. It was an undeserved gift, indeed.

Her gift to me was a whole new and empowering definition of awe.

My life has been enriched and sustained in diverse ways by a large number of our churches and congregations that were there when I needed them:

  • when I was sitting in the midst of personal failure;
  • when I was trying to dream new dreams and move toward making them come true;
  • when I was trying to grow and stretch and learn;
  • when I was trying to make a difference in the larger world;
  • when I was trying to learn how to be true to me;
  • when I was trying to hang on to hope when I was down to a shred;
  • when my sense of community had dwindled down to a nub.

My churches always seemed to be there when I was in need, even in the midst of their own imperfections – just like me.

I took them all for granted in many ways. And in my later years I am realizing more fully that they were all, every one of them, nourished and sustained and financially supported by people who valued their church, their larger faith community, who had come to know, in ways that I had not, that the church is a saving place:

a place of transformation;

a place of renewed wholeness;

a place of strength and integrity;

a birthplace of justice;

and a soil where hope always resides.

And these realizations filled me with awe and gratitude,surely a fertile ground for generosity.

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Here are four flashlights which you might use to think about and perhaps name some of the areas of thanksgiving and gratitude in relation to YOUR OWN LIFE HISTORY AND CONNECTION TO THIS FAITH COMMUNITY. And the four cornerstones or flashlights, for me, are these:

IDEALS

INSTITUTIONS

FRIENDSHIPS

OPPORTUNITIES

As I reflected back over the breadth and depth of my association with this denomination, I realized that I was drawn to come and stay because of these four living categories. And I discovered that all four were like pools from which I drank, pools which sustained me with living waters or wheat fields which nourished me.

The receiving and giving back is an ongoing dance, I am learning, not a lifetime of receiving and a sudden time to give back – which is the place I seem to find myself in some real sense.

It is, indeed, like an ongoing dance.

But we can’t dance as well if we don’t hear the music.

And the music is in the gifts that come our way – of which we are unaware –

unless we are awake and aware of the gifts of intention and chance, of affirmation and opportunity, gifts of friendship and care .

Mary Oliver, in her book of poetry entitled “What Do We Know,” has a poem on gratitude. It is divided into eight sections in which she poses a question and then offers a several line answer to each question. I want to simply share the questions. As you hear the questions, be aware that she does not tell you what is going on when the questions are raised, or where she is, or what time of day? That’s for you to create for yourself. You may want to take home one or two and ponder your own answers.

The questions are these:

What did you notice?

What did you hear?

What did you admire?

What astonished you?

What would you like to see again?

What was most tender?

What was most wonderful?

What did you think was happening ?

I believe these are questions that call for awe and reverence. I believe that a kind of generosity, a nudging the world to be a better place, can be called forth out of the soil of such awe and reverence.

I want to close our time together with a three-sentence reading from a 2001 Oxford University Press publication entitled REVERENCE – renewing a forgotten virtue – by Paul Woodruff, a Professor of Humanities at the University of Texas in Austin. He is a widely published writer on classical philosophy and political thought and is a widely published translator of Plato, Thucydides and other ancient writers.

This is part of a larger section called “The String Quartet” in which the musicians, in the midst of their imperfections, create beauty in the world that had never existed before, a beauty that none of the four could create alone.

The four amateur musicians in a pool of light have reached the last note of Mozart’s Dissonant” Quartet, and they have done so more or less at the same time. They find contact with each other’s eyes, all looking to the first violin to see how long to draw out the note. Then they fall silent for a moment, subdued by a sense of awe that none of them could fully explain.”

AMEN

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