Moving Toward the Holy City (or, Taking Inventory)

The following homily was presented at the San Fernando Valley Sub-Cluster Vespers Service on Wednesday, May 20, 2009.

Religious experiences come in many different shapes and sizes, affecting our sense of ourselves as empowered participants in the ever-unfolding drama of life.  My earliest such memories of awe and wonder were set in two radically different contexts.  One, under the starry expanse of the night sky – in which I was quickly overwhelmed by the vast expanse of creation and by the relative insignifance of my “petty concerns”.  The other such memory (a few years later) was set in the context of the worn red-velvet pews of St. Margaret’s Church:  waiting for my best friend to come out of the Confessional.

I wasn’t Catholic.  I didn’t understand what was going on in that box.  But I did notice how anticipation of it, and return from it affected my friend.  I noticed that on the way to mass she was quiet, pensive, weighted with the significance of all of her actions of the past week.  And by the time we left, that  she felt ready “to begin again.”  To “be a full participant,” as she said, in the “manifestation of God’s will on earth!”

I didn’t envy her hours of agonizing over whether punching her little brother was a mortal or a venial sin.  Or, her sometimes narcissistic paranoia that God was watching her every move, and reading her every thought.   But I was impressed that none of her concerns, none of her actions, were considered petty by her God.  That every single thing she did, every thought she had, was worthy of review. 

I was impressed that the act of Confession brought such relief:  an experience of being embraced in compassion, and even encouragement.  And that she never doubted her life as significant within God’s plan for all of creation.

Today’s Vesper theme involves a journey.  The need to look towards the future, to embrace a motivating vision of a “new world order”, if you will, and it involves movement toward that metaphorical “holy city on a hill”.  Making it a reality here on earth.

And I can’t help but think that before undertaking any journey a certain amount of reflection and planning must take place. Not only thinking about where you want to go, but why.  And what to pack. And that figuring out how to get there involves knowing where you’ve been.

On a personal level, it seemed to me that my friend, by engaging in the process of weekly confession, was doing all of this within the context of her religious community.  Each week she thought about what she’d done, the effects it had, and where that placed her (and all of creation) in relation to God’s will, and the future.

As Unitarian Universalists, personal confession is not a part of our institutionalized rituals.  It doesn’t come automatically to most us. Yes, we’re very good at noticing and questioning the “sins”/the injustices of our world.  We’re very good at coming up with creative solutions, and at rolling up our sleeves, putting our faith in action.  But, we don’t generally engage in a ritualized process of figuring out how our way of living and thinking may have contributed to those “sins”.

So let’s consider, for a moment, the impact of  going through this kind of process. 

On a national level:  we bear witness to the recent efforts of our President, Barack Obama, in trying to restore our moral leadership on the world stage, by openly acknowledging the transgressions of our country.  

Apparently, doing so had quite a positive reaction abroad.  It went a long way toward creating new paths of diplomacy.  Toward restoring this country’s reputation as a worthy global power.  

But here in the US many people were mortified that the leader of the free world would ever admit to our country having done something wrong.  This was read as a sign of weakness, of inexcusably revealed vulnerability rather than, as integrity.

My take on this is, that we no longer have “The Decider” as President.  We have a realist.  A person who’s willing to acknowledge where we’ve been as a country.  To confess, if you will, as a way to move forward along the path to reconciliation.

On a congregational level:  I’m aware of ongoing strategic planning processes in all of our congregations, as well as several other exciting new programs, such as the fledgling Addictions and Recovery Ministry in this district.

In each case, despite the enthusiasm by our congregations to move forward as fast as possible, each planning group has had to first come to terms with the ways in which our communities have, and have not, been well served.  And to take responsibility for that.  And to use that process as a map for the journey ahead.

This kind of inventory, of assessment and grappling with responsibility, is hard.  It takes discipline, trust and humility.

On a personal level:  I confess that I am an idealist.  I believe in the human capacity to reach for those starts that I found so intimidating as a child.  I believe that we can cure at least a goodly portion of the multitude of global social ills.  If not within our lifetime, then perhaps within the next.

But I’m also a realist.  I know that human beings have limitations.  We can’t do it all/know it all, no matter how noble the intentions:  whether they be part of God’s plan, or not.   We don’t always choose wisely.  We make mistakes, and sometimes we even do things we know we shouldn’t. 

And I believe we need to own up to that.  And forgive ourselves for that. 

It is here, I believe, where any worthy journey must start.  Why?  Because I’m convinced that the process of taking inventory, of confessing shortcomings, and of forgiveness, brings us that much closer to the metaphorical “City on a Hill.”  It helps us forge new paths and serves as constant reminder of our value as empowered participants in the ever-unfolding drama of life.

So, as we hear the reflections presented tonight, and find ourselves getting excited about all the possibilities of this journey we are on together:  I urge you to consider what it will take to make you ready “to begin again”.   May a personal inventory and the embrace of compassion and encouragement, be part of our shared journey.  So may it be.  Amen.

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