What Does it Mean?

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Sermon #20 (8th January 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

When people ask me what exactly it is we do here on Sunday mornings – and they do ask me, occasionally, though not as often as I’d like – one of my better responses is to say that we ‘come together to share the search for wisdom, truth, and meaning, gleaning it from wherever it can be found’. I remember a long-standing and faithful member of this congregation, my great friend Patricia Walker-Hesson, who died a little over seven years ago, telling me that on her first visit to this church, just after this building was opened in 1977, she was impressed that the readings in that very first Sunday service she attended were taken from the Qur’an and from the Evening Standard. For her, that marked the Unitarian church out as something a little bit unusual – a church open to gleaning wisdom, truth, and meaning from wherever it could be found.

In most religious traditions one of the primary sources of wisdom, truth, and meaning is scripture. Each faith has its own sacred texts and its own story about their origins. However, I think it’s fair to say that contemporary Unitarianism has a slightly uneasy relationship with sacred texts, at best. There are regional variations, both within this country, and worldwide, but I think I’m right in saying that Bible readings are unlikely to be a feature of worship in all that many of the Unitarian services up and down the country this morning (a few though). Or indeed in the UU services over in the States in a few hours’ time when they’ve woken up.

In our first reading today we heard John Buehrens, one-time president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, make a plea for the liberal religious (that’s us!) to re-engage with the sacred text of our heritage and discover its peculiar treasures instead of tossing the Bible aside and allowing others to have a monopoly on its interpretation. And I would agree that if we choose to ignore this part of our heritage – all the collected wisdom of the scriptures and the tradition that’s grown up around them down the ages – we’re really missing out on some good stuff. So if we’re going to do as John Buehrens suggests – to engage more deeply with scripture and do so with our intellectual integrity intact – I suggest we would be wise to dip our toes today into the world of hermeneutics – that is, the theory of interpretation, the theory of understanding what things mean, if you like. [I need to tell you at this point that I spent a large part of last summer writing an essay about hermeneutics and it was the most painfully mind-bending essay I have ever written… but the good news is that I went through that traumatic experience so you don’t have to! and in a few minutes I will give you my best attempt at explaining hermeneutics-in-a-nutshell.]

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Self-Care and Self-Compassion

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Sermon #19 (2nd October 2016 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians) 

Compassion is something that we talk about quite a lot here in church. It is perhaps one of the key religious values, or practices, one which cuts across many different traditions. Many of you may be aware of the ‘Charter for Compassion’ – a campaign launched by the writer and popular theologian Karen Armstrong in 2009 – she used this central value of compassion as a focal point to bring together individuals and organisations of all faiths and none, inviting them – inviting us – to sign up to a set of affirmations about the need to reaffirm and enact compassion in every sphere of our lives (and our own religious denomination here in the UK, The General Assembly of Unitarian Free Christian Churches, officially became a signatory of the Charter for Compassion a year or two after its launch, endorsing its call for a restoration of compassion as the central value of religion and morality).

So, I’m sure you’ll be reassured to know, we’re officially in favour of compassion! That’s the party line, as it were, and it’s probably one of the least contentious generalisations you can make about Unitarians… But we don’t talk about self-compassion quite so much. It seems to me when people hear the phrase ‘self-compassion’ (if they hear it at all) it conjures up thoughts of selfishness, self-centredness, self-indulgence, qualities quite at odds with the acts of self-giving and self-sacrifice which we might more readily associate with compassion. Read more

The Resistance

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Sermon #18 (7th August 2016 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians) 

Sometimes – quite often, if I’m honest – I feel a sense of despair about the state of the world. If we look at the big picture of world events then there often seem to be plenty of reasons to feel like we’re a bit beyond hope as a species… collectively incapable of making wise choices… and we might well take the rest of the planet down with us in a catastrophic blow-out when we go.

In many ways, here in Britain, over the course of my lifetime at least, we have been largely shielded from the very worst of the chaos. At the moment, there is not war playing out on our doorsteps, and the effects of climate change are as yet not sweeping our homes away, not here in London anyway… but political upheaval is having an impact, ever closer to home, or so it seems to me. Policies which serve to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few are ever-more-the-norm and those basic rights which had seemed sacrosanct for so long in this country – the welfare state, free education, social housing, the NHS – are being whittled away, one by one.  The gulf between the haves and have-nots seems to get greater by the year and there is a scary tendency to scapegoat those in genuine need as ‘scroungers’ to justify the starvation of funds to vital public services and to stir up disregard for the common good.

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Leftovers

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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.

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Both/And

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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.

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Let Your Yeah Be Yeah

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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.

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Christmas Eve (Revisited)

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‘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.

Shame, Shame, Shame

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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.

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Make Yourself At Home

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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.

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Wings of Desire

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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.

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