Sermon #37 (4th August 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Once again it falls to me to introduce our new ministry theme for the month of August: For the next few Sundays we’re going to focus on the topic of ‘Hopes and Dreams’. When Sarah, Jeannene and I sat down to plan our service titles a while back, I immediately thought of a well-known quotation – one that’s often, wrongly, attributed to Goethe – in fact it’s by a Scottish mountaineer called W.H. Murray (and I’ve included an extended version of it on the back of your hymnsheet today). It’s just the last few short lines that came to mind though, in connection with this topic of ‘Hopes and Dreams’, as they’re rather memorable and stirring words. Murray says: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it! Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now!’
In truth I didn’t remember the exact quotation until I went to look it up. In my mind, I had somehow just stored the essence of it, and it was distilled to this: ‘Dream boldly! And then get on with it.’ Not nearly so poetic but I still think it’s a fairly accurate representation of the sentiment…
Sermon #36 (7th July 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
If I had my way, I wouldn’t be giving a sermon this morning. Not even a mini-sermon like this. What I really would have preferred to do instead – were it not for insurmountable technical issues – was to show you a rather special little film. It’s nine minutes long and forty two years old. I’ve borrowed the title of that film for today’s service: ‘Powers of Ten’. Who’s seen it?
This film was directed by Charles and Ray Eames, a couple most famous for their work in furniture design and architecture, and it exists in two versions. They had a first go in 1968 and then produced the definitive version in 1977, which has the full and unwieldy title: ‘Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero’. The title is nearly as long as the film! Seeing as I can’t just screen it for you today – though it is on YouTube – I’ve brought a book and a flick-book of the film for you to look at, and I’ll read you a brief description of the film from the Eames’ own office.
Sermon #34 (12th May 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
One of the best things about being in community – especially a community like this one – is, as Sarah’s already said, the opportunity it gives you to meet and get to know people who aren’t like yourself and who you might not ever get to mingle with in other settings. Here, people of different generations, different socio-economic groups, different backgrounds, can become friends, hear each other’s stories, and learn from one another’s varied perspectives. We Unitarians often speak with pride of celebrating diversity and being enriched by it.
However… as well as being a source of delight, differences can sometimes be… difficult. When we first chance across a community like this one, there can be a temptation to idealise it, and imagine that everybody’s chosen to be here ‘cos they think in much the same way as we do – with broadly similar theology, politics, ethical values, manners even – but that’s not quite true. We can’t take it for granted that we’re all pulling in exactly the same direction on every single issue. So when we bump up against people who see the world in a different way than we do – whose life experiences have given them a different outlook, temperament, or habits of behaviour – well, that can sometimes cause a bit of friction. We might rub each other up the wrong way.
Sermon #33 (6th January 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Here we are then: it’s the start of a new year. An opportunity to re-focus. And it’s also the start of a new monthly ministry theme at Essex Church. Throughout January we’re going to focus on the topic of ‘Choices and Decisions’. And this morning I’m going to offer just a few thoughts on one possible way that we might approach our everyday decision-making; for, after all, our days and lives are filled with countless small choices and decisions (and perhaps a few of these choices and decisions turn out not to be quite so small, in the end).
On the front of your order of service today is a quote from Kent Nerburn. He says: ‘Life is an endless creative experience and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.’ Now, depending on what mood you’re in, that quote might strike you in one of several different ways. Like (excitedly): ‘Life is an endless creative experience and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.’ That might sound, to you, like a wonderful gift – life is an adventure of infinite opportunity! We can – at least in part – invent ourselves through our own choices, through our own volition. On the other hand… (in a downtrodden voice): ‘Life is an endless creative experience and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.’ …this notion might instead strike you as rather weighty, and burdensome. Rather tiring! There’s a certain pressure that comes with the thought that every choice we make will end up having a bearing (even if only a tiny one) on who we will become – a bearing on our very self.
Sermon #32 (2nd September 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
There’s a certain sort of conversation I find myself getting into from time to time – the sort you might describe as ‘benign gossip’ – hopefully this is something you do too: catching up on stories of mutual friends, their trials and tribulations, successes and surprises – catching up on how everyone we know is getting on in life and what they’re up to. Somewhere in the course of every chat like this – after a while spent dissecting some of the various complications, difficulties, and peculiarities our friends and acquaintances are inevitably facing – the testing circumstances that I couldn’t imagine having to deal with – there’ll be a lull in conversation, a quiet moment, before one us sighs, and says something like: ‘Well. Other People’s Lives.’ That’s where the title of today’s service came from. It’s almost a catchphrase.
Theme Talk (20th August 2018 at Hucklow Summer School)
Part One: ‘We’re All Going to Die’
The theme of this year’s summer school poses just about the biggest question we humans can ask ourselves: ‘How, then, shall we live?’ I take this question to have several questions implicitly wrapped up in it: ‘How shall we live knowing that – sooner or later – we are all going to die?’; ‘What constitutes a good life anyway, in this troubled and chaotic world?’; ‘What are we meant to be doing in our all-too-brief span?’; and ‘What’s the point?’… Now, I can’t say I feel especially well-equipped to answer these questions… but then, who is? So I’ll give it a go. Seeing as I’m here.
Sermon #31 (5th August 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
This Sunday is the first tackling our new theme for the month of August: ‘Paying Attention’. And this morning I want to talk about a particular kind of paying-attention – I knew what I wanted to explore today as soon as we set the month’s theme – but, even now, as I stand here… I don’t know exactly what to call it. It’s something a bit elusive. Just for now – just to be getting on with – let’s call it ‘sensitivity’.
The distilled message of today’s service is this: There’s nearly always more going on in any given situation than is apparent at face value and we could – and maybe should – put a bit more effort into paying attention to these subtexts and subtleties, into reading between the lines, listening out for what’s not being said, the stories untold. I reckon it would be of benefit to everyone if we could each cultivate greater personal sensitivity in order to have a better sense of what’s going on around us (by which I mean: what’s really going on).
Sermon #30 (8th July 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
This is the second service in our monthly ministry theme of ‘Freedom and Liberation’. And I’m going to do my best, in the next ten minutes or so, to give you a whistle-stop tour through the origins and evolution of the movement known as Liberation Theology. I’ll also try to tell you a little about where it’s at in the present day and why we should care.
Liberation Theology emerged in the 1960s, in Latin America, and although that was its ‘moment’ – in the 60s and 70s, perhaps into the 1980s – to understand its origins and popularity at that time and in that place we need to bear in mind the context: best part of 500 years of suffering that preceded it. There was horrendous treatment of the native population by the colonial powers (Spanish and Portuguese) that had arrived from Europe: exploitation of the people, their land, and resources, and the suppression of their native culture and religion, as the various settled societies were converted (largely by force) to Christianity. By the mid-20th-century there were a number of military dictatorships in the region, and civil rights and human rights were curtailed or at least under threat in a lot of places. Poverty was widespread (though there were aristocracies who were doing very alright for themselves; the contrast between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ was increasingly stark). This is the backdrop, the context, to the emergence of Latin American Liberation Theology.
Sermon #29 (1st July 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Anyone who, like me, spends a fair proportion of their free time hanging out on the internet, particularly anyone who engages much with social media in its various forms, will know that it can be a pretty harsh and spiky environment online these days. And not so long ago, on Facebook, I witnessed what you might call a Social Media Kerfuffle.
This particular kerfuffle blew up in response to a news story about a special service held at the Unitarian Church in Chorlton (a suburb of Greater Manchester). This special service, which they called a “commitment ceremony”, was held to celebrate and affirm the relationship between a long-standing Unitarian, Mary Crumpton, and her partner John Hulls. Mary is polyamorous. This means that she is open to having more than one loving relationship on the go simultaneously, and (crucially!) it also means that everybody involved in these relationships knows the score and freely consents to the arrangement.
Sermon #28 (27th May 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
This is the last of four services in our month on ‘Earth and the Natural World’. Today I’m going to ever-so-briefly introduce you to the work of the eco-feminist theologian Sallie McFague and an idea that was particularly important in her work: That’s the idea of seeing ‘The World as God’s Body’ (the theology otherwise known as Panentheism).
Back in the 1980s Sallie McFague wrote an influential book called ‘Models of God’. In this book (and several others) she argues that all the language that we use about God is symbolic, or metaphorical. All of it. No single image, symbol, story, metaphor or model of God should be taken as literally or exclusively true. God is, after all, beyond all human concepts… but nevertheless, throughout the ages, all over the world, we humans have generally felt the need to say something rather than nothing about whatever-it-is we intuit to be the underlying ultimate reality of all-that-is – about the meaning of our baffling, sometimes brutal, often beautiful existence – and so throughout history we have used varied images, symbols, stories, metaphors and models to point towards something vital… which we know is all-but-ungraspable with words: That which some call ‘God’.