The Purpose of Community

Rev. Joseph Ketley (left) at the 1840 Anti-Slavery Conference

Rev. Joseph Ketley (left) at the 1840 Anti-Slavery Conference

We gather in a place of worship to remember. Religion is really made up of rituals and practices to help us remember; help us to remember our identity, our true identity, as children of light, as conscientious individuals, as seekers of love and justice. As we come to remember, we make a choice, not once, but every time we are drawn into this building. We may trick ourselves into thinking that our being here is just the way things are, but really, we choose, and choose again. We commit ourselves, weekly, daily, to the ideals which make us who we are. Given this regular choice to gather in an old Meeting House, we affirm over and over again essential components of ourselves. Why do we do this? Why have conscientious individuals been drawn to this place of worship for over 300 years?

This week I have been reading about the Rev. Joseph Ketley, who was the minister here for three years, from 1834 to 1836. He made the choice to turn his back on our Unitarian community, and resigned his post. He did so not in a compassionate and gentle way, but in such a way that highlighted his new found abhorrence for our Unitarian ideals, very much to the embarrassment of this community. Soon after he took up this post, he became friends with the Rev. Piers Butler, who was at the time the curate up at St. Margaret’s Church. Over the course of many conversations, Butler was able to convince Joseph Ketley that his Unitarianism did not hold up under scrutiny. It’s difficult to assess the debate they had in our present day, as they were both operating under a priori assumptions which I would not accept – most notably the inerrancy of the Bible, which both men took as a given. Nevertheless, Joseph Ketley having been thoroughly convinced resigned his post, but not before entering this pulpit to give a final sermon. The sermon followed the standard Calvinistic formula, that we are blind, perverse, and our hearts are depraved. That we stand on the brink of hell, and that as such we require the blood of Jesus to wash away transgressions. We require the atoning sacrifice of Christ to pay the debt of Adam’s sin. He declared his prior views to be heretical, and by extension he declared all those sitting before him to be heretics. It is difficult to imagine this space filled with as much anger as must have been then. I can’t imagine Ketley standing at the back, shaking people’s hands as they left. As soon as he resigned the trustees issued a report in which they slandered Joseph Ketley and declared him quite deranged.

St. Margaret's Church, Ipswich

As I said, it is impossible today to defend either credulous position. Though Unitarianism of the early 1800s was of course of a more progressive ilk when compared to other Christians of their period, when compared to the Unitarian spirit of today their positions show up as naively literalistic. I think today, as a Unitarian, it matters far less what one believes, and far more the sense in which one believes it. Even Trinitarian theology, or the Atonement, or the divinity of Christ, show up as incredulous only in as far as it is believed that such doctrines elucidate an historical reality, and not a mythological reality. As myths, it seems me, such doctrines can still elucidate “truth”. My trouble then with Joseph Ketley is not in what he came to believe, but in the way he felt it necessary to insult and embarrass his congregation before his departure. I think he did this ostensibly to protect his own ego. Upon leaving this post in 1836, he worked as a Christian missionary in the Caribbean, and South America, for the rest of his life.

In community then, we gather because this place, these people, confirm within us an essential aspect of our reality. When here, we know who we are, for the stories we tell each other, and this physical space, confirm our place in this world, and confirms to us our truth. This community being not just those gathered here today, but those who have gathered here for 300 years, people we agree with and disagree with, we are joined with them all in the peace and gentleness of this space. A web of community stretching back through time, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in freedom. Unitarianism drew me in because it was a faith in which people were asking and talking about the things that no one else in my world was asking and talking about, in ways that no one else was. It was a place, and still is, to sing aloud words of hope, in a world which takes a pretty cynical view of hope. It was a place in which walls could come down, in which one could say what they really meant, without fear of reprisal. “I disagree, I don’t understand, I think on that point I would differ”, never put me outside the bounds of the community. A place where we can ask what we should do with, as Mary Oliver put it, ‘this one wild and precious life’. A place where we might be pressed into answering foundational questions of our life for ourselves. It’s a place that asks us to live into our truth. If we compartmentalize this world from the other worlds we inhabit, we are failing ourselves. This place asks us to look at our selves seriously, and strive to live up to the best version of our self all the time. Fundamentally, Church, or religious community, is about gathering together, and practicing doing/enacting the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is a speculative reality in which lions lie down with lambs, and swords are beaten into plowshares, and love and justice reign, where milk and honey flows, and none go hungry, or unloved, or forgotten. The picture you have on your order of service is of a man beating a sword into a plowshare. The blade of a plough, that we might make food and not war.

Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House pulpit.

Our talk is important. Our words are important. Our ideals are important. But it’s really the living of it that matters most. Theoretical enquiry, reading about historical figures, historical controversies - you all know I like that stuff. I’m willing to have an argument any time you want. But without love, and kindness, and justice, and living into those Kingdom ethics, it is all worthless. To practice this is our most essential purpose as church, as gathered community. It’s like our training ground; it’s easier to practice living these values alongside others trying to live these values. We tell stories of our saints, our martyrs, and even perhaps our villains, that we might learn from them, grow by their example. Our faith is the commitment to risk in the goodness of humanity, which cannot always be seen, whispered in the stories we tell. A people who promises to be together in good times, and bad, who learn together through trial and error. And of course, what we learn here, we carry out with us. We carry our lit chalice into the world, to bless the world. For we have gathered to remember what we are, to be reminded our purpose, the purpose of community.

Amen.

Not 7 times, but 77 times!

A self-portrait of Dürer, striking as he styslises himself on Christ. 

A self-portrait of Dürer, striking as he styslises himself on Christ. 

I feel it’s been a while since we did a more Bible focused address. The last few weeks have been very literary and poetry orientated. So, here’s an address on Matthew 18, the passages about forgiveness. It begins with Peter, who was the most senior of the disciples, asking Jesus about how many times one should forgive another member of the church. From the various accounts which mention Peter in the Bible, we’re able to build up a picture of the sort of man he was. Peter, who was formally called Simon, was a fisherman. Peter comes across as a bit foolhardy, at times a bit stubborn, says what’s on his mind, can be quick to anger; it was Peter who drew his sword and cut off the ear of one those trying to arrest Jesus in the garden of gethsemane. Peter is impulsive, brash, and as such when we hear in Matthew that he is asking Jesus about how many times it is required to forgive a member of the church - “as much as seven?” - I think we can assume that his question is not arising out of mere intellectual curiosity. He’s almost certainly asking because he’s angry with someone, and wondering if his teacher, his rabbi, really requires him to forgive completely. After all, Jesus does have a track record of subverting and reinterpreting Jewish laws and practices. Perhaps Jesus’ approach to forgiveness would be different too.

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Number seven in Jewish Scripture was symbolic of completeness, seven being the amount of days in the week.  So to say, ‘should I forgive seven times’ is not to be read literally, but rather should be taken to mean, ‘need I forgive completely?’. To which Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” It turns out that the number seventy-seven does appear one other time in the Bible, and to find it we need to go back to Genesis. Remember Genesis begins with a poetic account of God creating earth, filling the earth with life, putting fish into the sea, and animals onto the land, and then finally putting two people upon the earth: Adam and Eve. As the myth goes, Adam and Eve disobey God, and are cast out of paradise. When out of paradise, Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. Abel, who grew up to be a shepherd, and Cain, who grew up to be a farmer. Cain was very jealous of his brother, and ultimately struck him with a stone, killing him. When, in the story, God finds out about this murder, he says Cain cannot ever be forgiven. Cain then goes off and has a few children, and they have children, and so on, and murdering people runs in their family. They’re certainly portrayed as bad people in the early chapters of Genesis. One of Cain’s great-great-grandchildren named Lamech we are told kills someone, at which point Lamech is quoted talking to one of his wives saying “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly I, seventy-seven-fold.” So, Lamech is portrayed as a really bad person. Not only a murderer, but he is also the first person in the Bible to have multiple wives, which, though this practice is tolerated later in the Bible with the likes of King Solomon and his wife for every day of the year, at this stage is understood to be a very bad thing. So, if God punished Cain seven times, meaning punished Cain ‘completely’, so, he will punish Lamech seventy-seven times, ‘Completely, Completely’. He will punish Lamech utterly and completely! He will be punished beyond what can even be conceived. Lamech is who Jesus is alluding to when he uses the expression seventy-seven. But of course, he is flipping the context, not talking about punishment, but the opposite, forgiveness. So it kind of backfires on the apostle Peter. He’s angry with some member of the church, and he asks Jesus, ‘Do I really need to forgive completely?’ to which Jesus responds, ‘No, you need to forgive utterly and completely, you need to forgive on an irrational inconceivable scale’.

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Jesus then not wanting to lose this teaching opportunity takes this idea further. Hitting as they have upon this idea of total forgiveness, he wants to say that the Kingdom of Heaven is like that. Remember, whenever Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God, he is not talking about abstract metaphysics, about realms beyond this life, he’s talking about a reality we can manifest and make real in the present. So, Jesus gives us a mini-parable, about a king expunging the debt of one of his slaves. It’s interesting I think that even though Jesus is talking about manifesting qualities of the Kingdom in the present, he’s unable to conceive of a reality without slavery. He of course doesn’t condone slavery in any way, but neither does he at any point condemn it. The institution of slavery is just so much a part of the fabric of Jesus’ world, that imagining a social progression beyond it is inconceivable to him. From Peter’s original question to this mini-parable, we can see that sinning against someone is equated to being financially indebted to someone. This word, ‘sin’, like much religious vocabulary is problematic, because the word carries so many associations for us. The word ‘sin’ is so often used to emotionally manipulate people, used by religious authorities to subscribe a particular pattern of behaviour. For our purposes here though, we can think of sin as anything which acts against relationships. In this way, we need not think of sin in grandiose terms, as disobeying the pre-ordained laws of God, but simply a breakdown of relationship between one person and another. A relational dysfunctionality between yourself and another. So what is the worst sin you can commit against another? Well it would have to be a sin which you could not take back, which you could not make amends for, which could not be forgiven. Murder ticks that box. It doesn’t matter how forgiving a victim of murder is, he or she is unable to forgive. Unless like Jesus, you get in under the wire and forgive while the murdering is taking place. Anyway, when sin is thought of in this way, as a breakdown in relationship, the comparison to debt makes a great deal of sense. A breakdown in relationship easily leads to a further breakdown in relationship, just as debt easily leads to further debt. This idea of sin being like debt is a recurring theme in the Bible. Think for example of the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…” Or, as it is more commonly translated today, ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’. Debt is a good analogy for sin, because it’s like a swamp; people in debt accumulate more debt, interest mounts, they’re sucked down into a spiral. Having uncontrollable debt today can be a debilitating thing. There are many people in the west constantly treading water, trying not to be swallowed by their ever-mounting debt. And that’s in the West in the 21st century, where there are some failsafes in place, some support available, the option of filing for bankruptcy, etc. If you were in debt in the Roman Empire, in the first century, you were put in a work camp until you paid off your debt, or someone paid it off for you.

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So, returning to the parable, the king expunges the slave’s debt. The passage says the slave owed ‘ten thousand talents’. Now, ‘ten thousand talents’ is an astronomical amount of money, it’s a joke amount of money, it’s equivalent to saying something like ‘the store clerk owes a billion dollars’. So this reference to ‘ten thousand talents’ is performing the same rhetorical function as the number seventy-seven. Lamech is to be punished seventy-seven fold, while the slave is in ‘ten thousand talents’ worth of debt. But the King forgives the debt, and releases him. The idea here then is that when, and if, we manifest the Kingdom in the present, we create an environment of perfect freedom. We release one another from our accumulation of failings, we don’t keep a record of one another’s wrongs. That feeling you get when debt has been lifted off your shoulders is perpetually present. We feel at liberty, as if a world of possibility has been opened before us. We’re no longer walking on eggshells, worried we will offend or disappoint, we’re free to be ourselves, free to be in good relationship with one another. This is very difficult way of being in our world. We so naturally think about our relationships in transactional terms. If someone’s a bit snappy with us, we’re a bit snappy with them. If someone’s trying to play us, we’ll play them. If someone’s a little bit nice to us, we’ll be a little bit nice to them, and so on. What would it be to just let all that stuff go, and to just be lovingly present to one another.

But it’s more difficult than that. It’s a pleasure to be lovingly present to someone being lovingly present to you. It’s a lot more difficult to be lovingly present to someone being a prat. But to do that begins to interrupt the cycle, and manifesting the Kingdom is all about interrupting the cycle. By interrupting the cycle, relationally dysfunctional behaviour begins to show up as bizarre, and that is what this parable is trying to highlight. The slave, having been forgiven a billion dollars of debt, shakes down a fellow slave who owes him one hundred denarii. Now, one hundred denarii is still a sizable amount of money, but nothing compared to the ‘ten thousand talents’. It’s equivalent to, say, half a year’s average salary, so like 12/13 thousand pounds in today’s money, something like that. He came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ If we’re in the crowd listening to Jesus’ parable, we are shocked by the behaviour of the slave. Such love is shown to him, and he still has such unkind selfishness in his heart. And that’s because that is the reality of manifesting the Kingdom.  It is a slow process. It takes time to really work into people’s hearts. Habits and behaviours are not changed overnight. It takes time to confound a hurting person with love, and sometimes we are not even the appropriate person to give that love and support; it is sometimes just our calling, to forgive someone their debts and then remove them from our lives. And such a decision is never easy, it takes real discernment and reflection. Manifesting the Kingdom then is not down to an individual, it’s down to a community. A community listening and being open to the spirit moving amongst them, the spirit of love, and freedom, and compassion, and forgiveness. And the odd thing is, what a community looks like which is open to the spirit, and endeavouring to manifest the Kingdom, is almost the exact opposite (of the image that comes to mind) of the stereotypical religious community. A living community of this sort is not conforming to one way of being in the world, it’s not about uniformity, or being submissive. It’s about living, curiosity, being our own individual selves, being awakened to the vibrancy of life. Embracing one another in a community of acceptance and forgiveness, that is what we must enact together, make real together.

Amen.

The Religion of Poetry

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Last week, we touched upon the idea that Mary Oliver found her freedom, her way of being in this world, through an interplay between nature and poetry, as she recovered from the hurtful and broken family she was from. I find this idea of finding healing through poetry quite compelling. I think it’s quite a similar process to what happens within religious community. In both religious communities and poetry (I have given you a list if you want to follow along), you focus upon the interior world, you think about things in an associative way, drawing out tacit connections between one thing and another, you speak together a language which is not the language of our everyday lives, you are very attentive to the present moment, and not simply swept along by the rhythms of the mundane, you are not self or ego orientated, you place a value on things which goes beyond financial matters, and finally both religious communities and poetry are both incapable of realising, or fulfilling, the impulse from which they arise. I’m going to unpack what I mean by each of these similarities. First, in religious community and poetry, we focus upon the interior world. Focusing upon our interior selves is not a thing valued much in the West. Through introspection, we very slowly and meaningfully consider all the dimensions of things. Say for example, you have an emotional response to something, and you consider where that emotional response comes from within you. Does it resonate with something about which you have strong feelings, does it hook up with memories from your past, will the consequence of ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ is), be contrary to what you want? In this introspective process, we delve into the implications of what is happening in the world, and how we might act in this world. An introspective person is a conscious person, a person who thinks first and acts second, a person more rooted into this world - they’re not just skimming over it. They feel the world’s pain and her joys.

An Earth-rise. 

An Earth-rise. 

There is a pop song that came out a few years ago which is the antithesis of this introspective process. It’s a song I really hate, but it captures in many ways a prevalent spirit of our age, a nihilistic, nothing matters, flippant, don’t think about it type attitude. It’s a song by Natalia Kills called ‘Controversy’. It’s a Pop song so it has a lot of repetition in it as you would expect – ‘controversy, controversy, controversy’, followed by ‘controversies’ being listed: drug dealers, porn addicts, under age, politicians, teen brides, headlines, STDs, high school shootings, peer pressure, working late, society, online is the new reality, prostitution, hate crime, and on and on it goes… And then we get to the chorus – ‘Drink the Kool Aid, don’t drink the Kool Aid’, ‘Drink the Kool Aid, don’t drink the Kool Aid’. In other words, take it seriously, don’t take seriously, care, don’t care, take up the cause or don’t, either way it ultimately matters not. This nihilistic mentality I personally find quite troubling. I value, as I think all of us gathered here do, taking weighty issues seriously, being reflective, and thoughtful. Of course, it goes without saying that being a conscious person does not mean being a religious person, one can obviously be a thoughtful, spiritually attuned person without going to a place of worship on a Sunday, though I would imagine it helps. Poetry, in this way, often shows up as a way of doing spirituality in a secular way. Again, Mary Oliver’s poetry strikes me as a very good example of this, of being spiritual without being religious. I think Unitarianism often functions in that way also; a place for people who feel spiritual, without necessary feeling religious.

Okay, returning to similarities between religious communities and poetry, the second on my list is thinking about things in an associative way. In poetry, you often take an idea or image, which at a surface level, or in literal terms, is unrelated to the subject matter, but through associating them you draw out a particular feeling or sense. This of course happens all the time in poetry. Like in the poem we heard of a man on a walk under the trees in the evening, reminiscing about a past with bare feet and silk dresses. The leaves on the trees rustle gently, and this is likened to voices – muffled voices, locked in a past he can no longer access. He reaches for images and senses in his present, to articulate a sense, a longing… This reaching after inadequate words to express something which is ultimately beyond words is a recurring theme of poetry, and also religious language. Take the passages we heard from 1 Kings, the Lord passing by Elijah who was in his cave. In those verses, you have words which are basically prose poetry, “There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” We can only speculate about what is happening to Elijah. He is having a transcendent experience of the divine, and he is reaching for words to try and express it. I would imagine there is not really any splitting of mountains, earthquakes, or fires. He reaches for ideas he can take hold of, to express something he cannot. The journey of faith is really a journey of wrestling with metaphor, of groping after language that we can share in common which expresses something luminous, something essential, that speaks to our most essential selves.

Elijah on Mount Horeb, a Greek Orthodox icon.

Elijah on Mount Horeb, a Greek Orthodox icon.

Often a mark of spiritual maturity is a recognition that an idea or assertion within a religious text can be understood in a multitude of ways. In the same way that we each experience poems uniquely, filtered as they are through our own unique perception, so it is likewise that biblical texts are going to be coloured by our individual reading of them. The spiritually awakened person is someone who is able to think associatively. We reach for associative language because it helps us be more experimental. This way we can try to express originality, attempt to find new structures of intelligibility, new ways of thinking in this world, which at least optimistically, should help us discover new ways of being in this world. When you read a poem you enter into an unspoken agreement with the poet. You recognise together that associative language is being used. You’re not using the language of our everyday lives. You expect a poet to string concepts together in an unconventional way, to communicate the subject matter uniquely. As you read poetry, and think poetically, you become better at reading poetry, and thinking poetically. There is a process, a growing taking place. This is also the case within religious communities. We, by virtue of being a religious community, think and unfold ideas in way which is unique to this community. We have our own, Ipswich Unitarian Meeting, ‘language’. A language which has taken shape here for decades, centuries, which we all have a stake in. I think it’s very easy for religious communities to forget how odd what we’re currently doing is. When new people come into this community, they’re not going to just get it. There is a process of enculturation that has to take place. You could almost say there is special knowledge; as I said a couple of weeks ago, there are key ideas we as Unitarians move in concentric circles around. Each service builds on the previous, each conversation builds on the previous. To be a Unitarian is to learn the language of Unitarianism.

Number four is focused on the present. In a poem, one is intensively focusing upon the particularities of a present moment, making oneself aware of every sensation, feeling, sight, sound, smell, of that moment. And by capturing it in words, trying to make that present moment universally accessible. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In other words, God has sent Jesus to show us the way, and if we follow Jesus’ way, we will not perish but have eternal life. Now what is that? The traditional conception of eternal life is the literal definition – that somehow, our bodies, or our souls, or our essences, will be eternally preserved in some way. But what if we read Jesus words and assume that as he often does he is not talking literally, but rather, talking associatively. What if he’s not talking about a future reality, but rather possibilities within our present reality. What does Elijah say - “There was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Being utterly present, infinitely present, eternally present to sheer silence. In silent meditation, we endeavour to silence the mind, a silence which goes deep, a deep silence of our unconscious mind. Here we gather in the Meeting House each week, to be wholly present to ourselves, to one another, to our world. We’re not trying to kill time. In our everyday lives we may naturally slip into just coasting through, numbed by just how repetitively mundane everything is. Here we are awake, to the present. We practice being present in this space, to these people, we practice what Jesus was inviting us into, being eternally alive people now. Full of life, love, and compassion. Both religious community (at its best) and poetry (at its best) are about being wholly alive to the present.

Einstein

Einstein

Number five is probably the most self-evident. In both poetry and in religious community, we expand our circle of compassion. By imaging what it’s like to be in someone else’s subjective space, we learn to not just view this world through the lens of our own wants and desires. Being in religious community, being in any community to an extent, helps us practice putting others before ourselves. To quote Albert Einstein, “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”.

Number six is value beyond money. In the West, we are in the throes of a self-esteem epidemic. Suicide rates are high, clinical depression is prevalent. As far as we know, it’s worse now than it’s ever been in human history. Now why is that? One likely explanation is the extent to which value is determined today by something’s economic worth alone. A human being is worth the sum of his skills, skills by which he or she earns money. Each of us is under pressure to prove his or her own worth, by maximising their own value. The more we earn, money, recognition, likes on Facebook, hits on our blog, the more value we perceive ourselves to have. Through poetry, through religious community, we measure value by a far different criteria, a more humanising criteria, by which we recognise innate value. Poetry is a particularly good example of this in the arts, because a poem has essentially no economic value at all. The greatest poems ever written can be owned by anyone, easily accessed on the internet, downloaded, and printed. If you have the words, you own the poem. It’s not like a painting, in which you have the original, and the limited prints of that piece. Paintings are subject to market forces in a way poetry is not. Both poetry and religious community turn the criteria of value our world operates under on its head. ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me.’

And finally, number seven. The poet comes to a white piece of paper, white space. She seeks to create a timeless moment, to express an individual experience with universal appeal, to create a sense of communal identity. There is an ideal, a transcendent impulse which poetry attempts to capture, but by virtue of being reduced to finite words on a page, the poem fails. All poetry fails to live up to the possibility of poetry. Religious community is the same - we long to inhabit some pure crystallised transcendental moment, to feel wholly at one in some primordial sense with reality. Every poem and every religious service is a record of failure, another example of an unrealised possibility. What’s interesting though, is that by virtue of being inadequate, and us recognising that inadequacy, it proves in a way that we instinctively have a criterion by which to know we fail. To know this is to make the journey worthwhile. Religion does not give us what we want, it gives us what we need.

The poetics of religion.
The religion of poetry.

Amen.