It’s been four years since I wrote a sermon. There is little reason to write one if you are not a minister, which I am certainly am not. But it has also been four years since I attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Four years ago it was in Salt Lake City. This week it is in Louisville, Kentucky. Unsurprisingly if you attend an event like this you will hear lots of sermons as well as prominent speakers, albeit given in large conference rooms instead of sanctuaries. This sermon is tangentially based on a lecture I attended yesterday. No one will hear this sermon but some will at least read it. Enjoy.
Not long ago I wrote about TheTweetofGod, a Twitter feed that hilariously claims to be thoughts from God himself. Many of the prayerful believe they get personal communications from God. Most of us get the sense that God is distant and at best we hear from him through other channels and rarely get information we need when we need it. Many of the more secular of us, such as me, observe that God seems to be far too busy in other outer worldly tasks than to bother with my pedestrian needs. It is hard for us to reconcile the perfectly compassionate God we were taught with the world we inhabit. In the real world, so many of us live harsh, cruel and often capricious lives. Why does an all-loving God allow evil to happen to people? It’s an eternal mystery and for all their quoting of Bible passages, the arguments by the devout are weak at best. It is entirely rational to see God as absent at best and a figment of our suffering at worst.
Yet we move forward in life, at least those of us do with innate survival skills, aided perhaps in part by our local house of worship. Some of us end up as road kill: victims of suicide, homicide, starvation and various diseases. Most of us particularly if blessed with opportunity and education carve some meaning through career, family and social engagement. Life becomes, if not heavenly, at least somewhat bearable with challenges and happy periods. All of us share the same fate. All of us, if we are honest, can say that any other life that happens after death is unfathomable.
Catholics in particular are comfortable with the notion of saints. Saints are men and women with god-like spiritual powers, whose works on earth seem at least inspired by God. Some of the saints Catholics worship seem to have wizard-like capabilities. They are not God, but seem touched by God in some special way to channel abilities seemingly beyond mortal men. Saints tend to have specializations. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, seemed to be especially in tune with the animals.
In truth most of us have gifts that if we practiced them would make us saintly. Simply practicing compassion to those suffering around us can do much to reduce suffering. Many of these skills are easy to learn, if not innate, and are not difficult to practice on a daily basis. I am a reasonably compassionate person but I will confess it is hard to act compassionately to the homeless people on the streets here in Louisville as I walk to the convention center from my hotel. It’s much easier to be compassionate toward more trusted sources, like my wife and daughter. Given that these skills are easy to acquire, and perhaps innate, all of us are in some ways capable of being ministers. The fundamental skill required of ministry is simply the ability to relate to a person and acknowledge them as a person, no better or worse than ourselves.
Thus, while all of us are imperfect, we are still God-like. We have the ability to combine reason with empathy to reduce not just our suffering but the suffering of those we encounter. We become, in effect, the hands of God in the world. We have the ability to do the boots-on-the-ground ministry that God himself seems unwilling to do directly.
Perhaps this is because God is not some external entity wholly apart from us. Perhaps it is because we are all a part of the body of God whether we acknowledge it or not. Obviously none of us acts with perfect knowledge and perfect empathy, but neither does an individual cell in your own body. And yet just as each cell in your body has functions, so do you. Some of these functions can be used to spread love and reduce misery. At any moment we can choose whether or not we wish to exercise these talents.
If we have an erroneous zone, perhaps it is in thinking that God is some external being, rather than we are the hands of God. Perhaps we discount our own ability to be the hands of God, because we see ourselves as too imperfect, and thus unworthy of divinity. Perhaps we have been trained to wallow in our unworthiness, and thus find it hard to love and trust ourselves. Perhaps we believe because we know of our innate imperfections that we cannot summon our god-like powers. And yet we all have them and can use them at any time we choose to do so. We can put a dollar in the cup of a homeless man. We can pick up a man who has fallen and take him to the hospital. We can nurture a son or a daughter. We can hold the hand of our aging parent as they confess their fears of dying. We can scour our pantry for food that we don’t need so that the poor can have sustenance. We can peel potatoes in a soup kitchen. We can pick up trash from public lots. We can plant trees and remove garbage from our estuaries.
Perhaps God is simply saying to us who want to worship him: I gave you hands, feet, eyes and mouths for a reason: so that you can make your world a better place for you and for all life. All we have to do is choose to engage that part of us, and we can create the paradise that we imagine. We simply have to act.