What Makes Us One?

In the Jewish tradition, there is a story about a ship which was sailing across the wide, dark sea, when it became engulfed in a terrible storm. The crew worked bravely to keep the vessel afloat against the high winds and crashing waves. Eventually, the storm did past, they made it through and found that their ship was pretty much alright, but that they had been blown far, far off course. Now the trip would take several days longer than expected.

          This wasn’t too much of a problem, except that they had only stocked so much food for this voyage, and the stores were running low. So the ship’s cook, whose job it was to see that everyone aboard was fed, decided to go and talk to one of the passengers. The passenger was a wealthy merchant, and the ship’s hold had many crates belonging to him filled with exotic foods that he planned to sell for a tidy profit once they reached port. The cook asked if she might use some of the merchant’s wares to keep the crew and other passenger’s fed for the rest of the voyage. The merchant replied, “What’s mine is mine. What happens to the rest of you is no concern to me.”

          Days passed and the last of the ship’s reserve of food was eaten; now the cook had nothing at all to serve. So she went to see the merchant again, and this time she asked him to follow her to where his cargo was stored. Standing near his boxes of olive oil and dates, she took out a hand drill, and began to drive a hole into the floor of the ship. She seemed determined to make a hole straight through to the sea. “Stop,” cried the merchant, “we’ll all go down along with the ship if you do that!”

          The cook replied, “I am only making a hole under my own little spot of the boat. What’s mine is mine. What happens to the rest of you is no concern of to me.” The drill went deeper and deeper into the wood until finally the merchant relented,

          “Alright, I understand. If the other people on this boat go hungry, I’ll be stuck at sea just as surely as everyone else. Here, let me open some boxes and find you something to make into dinner.”

          This sermon is the sixth in a monthly series exploring two related summaries of the core values of Liberal Religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in specific. I began with the Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism, a creation of James Luther Adams, one of our most influential theological thinkers in the 20th century. Today we begin the second set, which was an attempt to create something like the first but more succinct and more specific to our current era. The Rev. Nancy Bowen for this second list of religious values, which she named, “The Five Jagged Rocks of Unitarian Universalism.” Bowen was working in the context of the mountain west at the time, where stones are much more often sharp and rough than round and smooth. And the different title also served to draw attention to the way in which simple statements do not have to be easy, or without challenge. Like the craggy peak of a high mountaintop, the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists offers beauty and inspiration, but also holds up something ambitious and demanding to work towards. The Five Jagged Rocks, with some small disagreement about the exact ordering, are as follows:

  1. There is a unity that makes us one.
  2. All souls are sacred.
  3. Courageous love can transform the world.
  4. Salvation is in this lifetime.
  5. Truth continues to be revealed.

This morning, my focus is on the first jagged rock: there is a unity that makes us one. That might sound familiar to you, since it repeats, word for word, something we say together every Sunday. Both the first smooth stone and the words we say together as we light our chalice appear to draw their origin from a blessing written by David Bumbaugh, a Unitarian Universalist minister and historian. Here it is in its entirety:

“We are here dedicated to the proposition that beneath all our differences, behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and that binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars. We pause in silent witness to that unity.”

There are some small and fascinating ways in which our own chalice lighting words have departed from Bumbaugh’s over time, but the root message remains the same: something, there is, that makes us one, despite or at least regardless of all the things that divide or differentiate us. But what is this thing, exactly? What is the unity that makes us one. This morning I want to offer you three answers. The first is simultaneously the simplest and the most complicated, either the most compelling or the least motivating, depend on whom you ask: That we are all united by God.

550 years ago, in North West India, in the city of Varnasi, there lived a mystical poet and prophet named Kabir. Most major religious figures are thought of as champions for their particular faith: the prophet Isaiah as a proponent of Judaism for instance, and St. Francis as an exemplar of Christianity. Kabir is notable, however, because during his life and still today he is claimed by at least two different religious groups. For a spiritual poet who lived and wrote in 15th century India, his tone, which mixes insight and insult freely, is far less lofty than you might expect. At times he comes across with less of the transcendent wonder of a saint, and more of the gritty crassness of a modern comedian – a spiritual George Carlin, of sorts. He lived in a place and time that was shaped by the relationships, and often the divisions, between Muslims and Hindus. Kabir won popularity and acclaim in part through the stinging, sarcastic criticism of both groups that he wove into his religious poetry. “Vedas, Puranas” – the holy texts of Hinduism – “why read them?” Kabir asked. “Its like loading a donkey with sandalwood!” Islam, like Judaism, requires circumcision in men, and so Kabir asked the pointed question, “If God wanted me to be a Muslim, why didn’t God make the incision?”

          Kabir was a critic, but that criticism came from his passionate, mystical spirituality. He was a weaver by trade, and it is said that he would only occasionally make it to the market to sell the produce of his loom. Often he would give the cloth away to the poor or the destitute before he could sell it for himself. The religion he professed had no name, no text, not even a clear sense of form or practice; just a persistent love for the divine, and a willingness to follow that into acts of kindness for others, even when that might seem foolish or dangerous. In one of his poems he describes his God through the metaphor of his own profession:

                     That master weaver, whose skills

                     are beyond our knowing,

                     has stretched his warp through the world.

                     He has fastened his loom

                     between earth and sky,

                     where the shuttlecocks are the sun and the moon.

                     He fills the shuttle with the thread

                     of easy spontaneity,

                     And weaves and weaves

                     an endless pattern.

                     But now, says Kabir, that weaver!

                     He breaks apart his loom

                     and tangles the thread

                     in thread.

          The poet’s words speak to a beautiful wholeness underlying existence, its strands woven together perfectly by the motions of the sun and moon, guided by a masterful and unseen hand. But it is also a world that is far more jumbled and knotted and complex than any mortal cloth could be – the loom is broken apart, the threads all tangled together. Somehow, still, the wholeness remains. Kabir’s challenge to unpopular religious conventions, in particular the caste system, and his call for spiritual unity to replace Hindu-Muslim conflict made him a celebrity in his own lifetime. In one of the mythic stories associated with the poet, after Kabir died two groups came to claim his body: one Muslim, and one Hindu. Muslim religious custom dictates that a body should be buried in the first day after death, while Hinduism does not condone burial at all, requiring cremation instead. Disagreement over who should have the right to give this man their preferred sort of funeral led to argument, and argument led to quarrel, and so the two mobs began a bloody brawl. Somewhere in the midst of the fighting, the body of the saint disappeared, leaving behind two piles of fresh flower blossoms in its place. The struggle did not end until Kabir’s disembodied voice spoke up and silenced the crowds. It announced that each of them could now take one of these two piles of flowers: one for the Hindus to burn, and the other for the Muslims to bury.[i]

Kabir was neither the first nor the last religious thinker to emphasize divine unity over sectarian division. It is a strand that has run through human religious thought, perhaps for as long as there have existed formal divisions between religious groups. The impulse for one group to exclude and persecute all others, claiming a monopoly on spiritual truth for themselves is powerful; it has done, and continues to do much harm in the world. But still the spirit of something well past tolerance – a sense of shared sameness, and a curiosity about other groups – manages to endure.

The Christian tradition, which emphasizes the parenthood of God, unites humankind in the understanding that we are all children of the same Source. The Jewish tradition is a bit more varied in its metaphors – the framework of parent and child is there too, but also of sovereign and subject, and defender or liberator with humanity those being defended or liberated (or expecting to be so). Again, some version of most of these frameworks appear in Islam – though that tradition has a particular resistance to the idea of God as a Father – while also emphasizing the understanding of God as a friend, or even a lover. All of these are relational metaphors: humanity is united by the universality of each individual’s relationship to God, whatever that particular relationship might be. Further variations of this can be found in other traditions, as well. Certain sects of Hinduism, for instance, hold that the entire purpose of the universe itself is simply for living beings to be courted by the Divine in a playful, adventurous way specifically compared to the intense infatuation of those who have never loved before.

For those who experience God as a self-evident reality of the existence we share, this unification is just as self-evident. But, of course, not all of us do. That is, when we look out on the universe with awe and wonder, we may find inspiration or purpose, but not something that makes sense to us as a being, to be related to in any of the ways that one person relates to another. Nevertheless, there remain at least two other realities that unite us, and the next of these is meaning.

Our faith as Unitarian Universalists affirms that no one religious tradition has a monopoly on the truth. In fact, it’s often the case that one faith is holding Atlantic Avenue, and another tradition has Ventnor Avenue, and a third one has Marvin Gardens – so that the only way that anyone’s gonna get to build some houses is by starting to work together. (That was an over-extended board game metaphor, for those of you who missed it.)

Its all a bit like soup. There are many different types of soup in the world: a sharp French onion, a hearty three-bean chili and a chilled gazpacho are all very different eating experiences. Many of us are capable of appreciating the flavor of lots of different soups, and a few of us focus all our culinary pleasures on one particular type, like one characters in the Japanese film Tampopo, who is spiritually devoted to creating the perfect bowl of ramen noodles. But even as we have our preferences, we can still recognize the qualities they share. And we know that any sort of soup is better when it is made from fresh ingredients, and best, of course, when it is made with love.

The Star Wars films and novels and tv shows and comic books and video games all take place, as you probably already know, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. And the Force, which has no more specific title than THE – FORCE, is used by some of the characters in those movies to overcome the limits of their senses and their bodies, to fight each other with laser swords, and to move objects with only the power of their minds. In short, the Force seems to be most useful for doing whatever happens to fall under the category of “rad stuff”.

          But in the films, the Force is supposed to be more than just an excuse for cool special effects. To quote an expert, Master Obi Wan Kenobi, the Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Now, there are some of us who might say that that is a pretty fair description of God – an energy, a force, which unites all beings and can be found within all beings. But whether or not you resonate with the idea of God – or the idea of Star Wars, for that matter, there is something that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds us together, at the human if not the atomic level.

          That something is meaning: the feeling that who we are and what we are doing with our lives matters. Religion has a lot of rad stuff about it – grand architecture, beautiful music, stirring poetry – but religion is above all else the work to seek out and to make meaning with each other. To know that whatever else is unknown or uncertain, it matters that we are here, now, together.

The search for meaning, and the meaning we find and make together, serves to connect us, but there is still at least one more unifying truth about life here on earth: we are all in this together. In the ancient Hindu cosmology out of which Buddhism originally grew, Indra was the god of rain and thunder and the sky, and the king of all the other gods. And one Buddhist teaching about the interconnectedness of our lives and our fates describes a particular mystical possession of this deity: Indra’s Net. This is a web of infinitely slender threads, with a perfect jewel hanging at each intersection, so vast that it spreads out to cover the dimensions of the universe entirely. Each of these gems is so perfect in cut and clarity that in their innumerable facets, the reflections of each other gem can be seen, so that the entire, infinite pattern repeats over and over and over again, infinity upon infinity. Disturb one jewel or just one strand, and the entire whole is affected. Nothing is separate. Everything is related.

This is the way that the world is, and the way of our particular places within it. Who and what we are depends upon the who and what of everyone else, of everything else. I can only be me, because you are you. Our identities are bound up, together, and so are our fates.

There is a repeated plot in many movies and other sorts of popular stories, where a group of strangers are thrown together by some strange circumstance, and have to work together to preserve their own interests. Most of these, it happens, are horror movies, which says something about how terrified our hyper-individualized society is of having to depend on others to survive. We live in an illusion of separateness; that what happens to us affects us alone, and that what happens to everyone else is of no concern. But there is at least one other example of a film in which strangers come together to work for the common good that’s not a horror movie, and that would be the Breakfast Club. The classic 80s film about a group of high schoolers in detention on a Saturday, who do not like or know each other well, fighting and misbehaving and eventually bonding and cooperating, to better understand themselves and serve their common good. As silly as this might sound, it is a passable metaphor for life here on earth, where we are, all of us, thrown together with people who do not initially know, by circumstances we rarely understand and never fully control, but from which it is possible to build community, and a larger and more complete sense of self, even as we struggle, together, with the sorrow and adversity that life inevitably brings. We are each a gem in Indra’s Net, each a not-quite-fully-formed teenager in detention, each passengers on the same ship. What any one of us does or experiences has an affect on each of us – and that, first before all else, unites us.

[i] Both the excerpts from and the stories about Kabir given here are drawn from John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer’s Songs of the Saints of India.

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