Other People’s Lives

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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.

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How, Then, Shall We Live?

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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.

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What’s Going On?

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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).

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Liberation Theologies

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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.

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Anything Goes? Freedom and Responsibility in Liberal Religion

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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.

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The World as God’s Body

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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’.

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It’s a Sin

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Sermon #27 (8th April 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Here are some preliminary thoughts on sin – and grace – and how these tricky theological concepts might speak to Unitarians today. Last Sunday, over our congregational lunch, more than one person came up to me (having heard about the subject of today’s service) and said: ‘I don’t believe in sin!’ (or words to that effect). And, of course, this response is not unexpected among Unitarians. Many of us have (more-or-less) rejected the concept of sin, perhaps largely because we associate it with the religious right, and other groups who’ve condemned a lot of us (and a lot of our friends) down the years, as being thoroughly sinful in one way or another: our beliefs, our actions, our identity, our very existence perhaps, condemned as wicked, immoral, and wrong.

I can’t help thinking back to my youth, and to the words of Neil Tennant, from his 80s number one hit as lead singer with the Pet Shop Boys. He sang:

‘For everything I long to do, no matter when or where or who,
has one thing in common too: It’s a sin…’
Everything I’ve ever done, everything I ever do,
every place I’ve ever been, everywhere I’m going to… It’s a sin.’

And if that’s the main exposure you’ve had to the concept of sin – this impression that everything you do, have done, or might think about doing in the future, is probably wrong and bad, in the view of certain religious hardliners – with a special focus on pleasures of the body, pleasures these hardliners often regard as sexual sins, which they seem to be particularly (pruriently?) interested in – well, it’s not at all surprising that you might not want nothing to do with that idea of sin. ‘Sin’ can just seem like no more than a religious gloss conveniently overlaid on a bunch of other-people’s-conservative-social-norms as an unwelcome means of social control.

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Inside Illness

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Sermon #26 (4th March 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

This month at Essex Church we’re taking on the theme of ‘Health and Healing’. And, ever the ray of sunshine, I thought I’d get us started with a service on what it’s like to be ill. In our society, talk of illness is often about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment – the medical side of things – which is of course an extremely important aspect of trying to keep us well. But I’ve called today’s service ‘Inside Illness’ because I want us to focus on the inner experience. I reckon that giving a bit of attention to that inner dimension of illness – what it’s like to be ill – might help us reflect on how best to respond to some of challenges that ill-health brings, both when we ourselves are unwell, and when people we know and love are suffering in this way.

I feel pretty confident in my starting assumption that everybody here at church this morning has got some first-hand experience of illness. If you have made it to adult life without ever being ill in any way… then perhaps you should be up here, instead of me, telling the rest of us your secrets!

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The Mystical Art of Unsaying

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Sermon #25 (5th November 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

It’s up to me, once again, to kick off our new theme for the month here at Essex Church. Throughout November we’re going to be looking into ‘The Unknown’, and today, in particular, we’re focusing on the concept of God – the idea that God is, in some sense, unknown – and ultimately unknowable – that God is so unlike anything else we humans have experienced or gained knowledge of, so utterly beyond the limits of what we can understand, that we can never really hope to grasp whatever it is we mean by ‘God’. On this view, it could be said that when we speak of God, as we do most weeks at church, we literally do not know what we are talking about! None of us. Certainly not me, anyway.

Not an especially reassuring thought to be bringing to you from the pulpit, but there it is. As the Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Walsh put it (in the reading that Antony gave for us earlier), ‘God is a mystery – [a creating, transforming, sustaining mystery] – and is always and forever beyond every mortal attempt to figure God out and settle God once and for all.’

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A Sense of Vocation

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Sermon #24 (3rd September 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Each new month brings a new theme to explore in our services here at Essex Church and the topic we’re going to be looking at in September is ‘Mission and Purpose’. Over the next few weeks Sarah will be helping us to consider our collective purpose, looking at some inspiring stories of Unitarian missionaries who came before us, asking what we can learn from them, and what we are called to do together as a community. We’ll be looking at what our mission might be and how best we can address the pressing issues of our time.

Today I’m going to get us started by considering our mission and purpose as individuals. Our ‘calling’, or ‘vocation’, if you like. Some of us might be at ease with these concepts, and applying them to ourselves, while others might find them a bit BIG and intimidating. Be not afraid! The message of today’s service, in a nutshell, is that we all have a calling, one way or another, a unique opportunity to use our gifts for good in the world. I’m not talking about vocation in the sense of being called to the priesthood or ‘Holy Orders’ – at least, not uniquely, though maybe there is someone in the room (or listening to the podcast at home) for whom that is their ultimate vocation – but perhaps there’s a way of seeing things in which you could say we are all ultimately ordained to a life which is unique, unrepeatable, and shot through with the holy (or at least with endless opportunities to sense a sacred dimension, if only we are willing and able to make ourselves vulnerable, and open ourselves up to it). Our calling, whatever it is, might not be especially prestigious or dramatic. We might not have been summoned by a voice from the clouds, a sudden thunderbolt, or a burning bush to get our attention. But nonetheless, every single one of us has a sacred purpose in life, I reckon. And there’s something to be said for taking the time to reflect on what that might be, and for making that a conscious focus, one which shapes the course of our everyday lives.

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