Sermon #17 (3rd April 2016 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
‘In making a life, we’re all cooking with leftovers from childhood… The longer we’re at it, the more leftovers there are… [Each day] you open the door, and you are faced with the question, “What can I make of it?”’ (so said the Unitarian Universalist minister Gordon McKeeman in the reading we heard earlier: http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/life/workshop7/159342.shtml)
In all of our lives, by the time we are old enough to start shaping our own destiny in any significant way, all sorts of external influences will already have acted upon us, shaping our sense of what’s possible, beginning to form our outlook, our identity, setting down those deeply-rooted habits of thought and behaviour which sometimes serve us well… and sometimes not so well.
Sermon #16 (10th January 2016 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
We don’t have to look very hard to find examples of either/or thinking. It sometimes seems to be the dominant mode of operation in the world around us. There is, perhaps, a default tendency to try and make sense of a complex and confusing world by simplifying, segregating, dividing everything up into neat categories, by polarising issues and debates, by identifying ‘them’ and ‘us’.
There is also a great temptation to divide the world into goodies versus baddies – I know this is a temptation I give in to very readily as I think of certain politicians – but ultimately the consequences of this sort of thinking can be pretty grim. Just think of the words used many times throughout history, but most famously in our time by George W. Bush: ‘you’re either with us, or against us’. And think about where that sort of outlook tends to lead us.
Sermon #15 (16th September 2015 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
In the Gospel of Matthew, towards the end of chapter five, after the Beatitudes, Jesus is reported to have said the following words:
‘I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.’
This verse is generally taken to be about forbidding the practice of swearing oaths. The idea is famously taken very seriously by the Quakers – for them, the idea is that to swear an oath implies that you have a double-standard of truth – if you’re saying ‘no, this time, I swear on the bible, it’s true’ then does that mean we can’t trust what you say the rest of the time? The Quakers historically have had such a commitment to integrity that it is understood that one must speak the whole truth at all times. It’s all about saying what you mean and meaning what you say, without fail, in every situation.
‘Spirit of Christmas, Spirit of Peace, Spirit of Hope, we gather in the depths of darkness to bear witness to the everlasting light; assembling at the turn of the year to recall that which stands beyond time and change. Into this sacred time we now enter to listen, to dream, and to be transformed. May our thoughts be filled with gratitude and love.’ – Gary Kowalski
A recording of a service of readings and carols I put together for Christmas Eve 2013 at Essex Church.
Sermon #14 (12th July 2015 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Shame is pretty much universal, as we heard in the first reading, from Brené Brown’s ‘I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)’… but generally it is a topic which makes people so uncomfortable that we don’t like to talk about it very much in polite company. Some of us might be more plagued by it than others, it’s true, but I doubt that anyone here today is entirely unfamiliar with the experience of feeling shame – that cringing feeling – the ‘painful wave of emotion that washes over us when we feel judged or ridiculed’.
The Unitarian Universalist minister Christine Robinson makes a distinction between guilt and shame which I think is quite useful: guilt is about a thing we have done whereas shame is about who we are. If you feel guilty about something you have done then you can regret the behaviour and resolve not to do it again. If you feel ashamed you would think ‘I’m a bad person’… (taking this one mistake or failing to be indicative of who you really are) and this sort of thinking has all sorts of negative consequences, for ourselves, our relationships, and society as a whole.
Sermon #13 (25th January 2015 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
You know that saying ‘I’m sorry I sent you such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one’? That’s what happened with this service. As your last-minute stand-in in the pulpit today I am going to offer a few thoughts on what it means to be hospitable here in our spiritual home. (This was meant to be a 5-minute reflection but it turned out to be a 10-minute sermon instead!) Often our services consider issues that might help us lead better lives as individuals. I think it’s important, once in a while, to consider what might help us to lead a better life as a church community. How should we live – together? I hope that there will still be something in this service for you today regardless of whether or not you are already a committed member of this church, as hospitality is an important consideration in any groups we are a part of, and the lessons we have to take note of as a congregation are more widely applicable. The issues we are considering about hospitality here in our church community also have parallels at a smaller scale – in our homes, families, social groups – and perhaps also at a larger scale – in our nation and in the world beyond.
Sermon #12 (11th January 2015 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Reading and Reflection: Plato’s Symposium – Introducing Socrates and Alcibiades
We’re going to hear a few excerpts from Plato’s Symposium but first let me set the scene for you. The Symposium is perhaps the classic philosophical text on eros, erotic love, the love of romance, desire, and passion. The word ‘symposium’ refers to a Greek drinking-party and the book is set at one of these gatherings. A lot of the great and the good have turned up round Agathon’s house for a symposium but they’re all hungover from a big party the night before so someone suggests they lay off the drinking for a night and instead amuse themselves by having a conversation about the nature of love – eros – (surprisingly they’re all well up for this). So they take turns giving impromptu speeches about eros and we get to hear a variety of different perspectives.
Theme Talk (18th August 2014 at Hucklow Summer School)
An abridged version of this talk was given as sermon #10 at Essex Church on 24th August 2014
The Authentic Self: Who Are You?
When someone asks ‘who are you?’ – What do you say? Where do you start?
I suppose it depends a bit who’s asking, and when they ask, and what mood you’re in at the time. So let’s say I’m asking, right now, this morning (because I just did, & now I’m going to do it again): who are you? Read more
Sermon #11 (5th October 2014 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
In our culture, in the modern world, repetition has got a pretty mixed reputation. Consumerism pushes the message that ‘variety is the spice of life’. There is a certain pressure on us all to be on the lookout for what’s new, to valorise novelty, change and innovation, even to be on the move in our personal lives and never stay put in the same place for too long.
In the next fourteen minutes or so I’m going to try and redress the balance a little bit. I’m going to echo the question we heard from Jeffrey Lockwood (he of the Deluxe Avocado sandwiches) a bit earlier, and ask: ‘What’s wrong with regularity?’ Or to put it more positively, I’m going to offer a few thoughts on the valuable role that repetition has to play in our lives: in the arts and the creative life, in our worship and spiritual practice, and as we all go about our everyday business.
Sermon #9 (26th January 2014 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
We hear a lot about remembering in church. In the next twelve minutes or so I’m going to try and redress the balance a bit – and perhaps that’s the key word to bear in mind, BALANCE – by looking at a handful of different ways in which forgetting might be beneficial or even necessary for a well-rounded and flourishing human life.
Up to a point, forgetting can be good for you intellectually – in terms of learning and creativity; emotionally – in terms of freedom from worry; and spiritually – in terms of personal and social transformation. So I’m going to consider each of those three realms of forgetting in turn. Read more