Sunday 30th August – The Promise of Spiritual Freedom

by Rev. Duncan Voice

“When freedom is not an inner idea which imparts strength to our activities and breadth to our creations, when it is merely a thing of external circumstance, it is like an open space to one who is blindfolded.”
Rabindranath Tagore

Welcome

A very warm welcome to our Service on this the last Sunday in August and bank holiday weekend, although it doesn’t really feel like it does it! Probably if we were meeting at The Old Meeting House it would be a quiet time. I know some churches don’t open because so few people turn up; on holiday or meeting family and friends perhaps? Nevertheless, I am glad to welcome you and I hope this finds you well.

Please feel free to join in by lighting a chalice, or candle, if it safe to so. If not, you might like to imagine you are doing so at The Old Meeting House among friends, and saying these words:

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice
as a symbol of commitment to our faith,
and to light up our lives
in times of darkness.
May it burn bright
as we welcome all in love.
Welcome, welcome, welcome.

Prayer/meditation

Let us be quiet and still for a few moments, to find connection to that which we consider to be of greatest worth, and with each other to feel a sense of community.

May we be fully present,
and fully open to this
time of worship;
this time of togetherness,
though we are apart.

We each bring with us
our personal difficulties and anxieties.
May we see them
for what they are;
accepting what we cannot change,
and changing the things we can.

May we have the desire,
and the commitment,
to think of others who may need help;
those close to us, and those we don’t know,
treating them all with kindness and generosity.

At this time of late summer
may there be warmth in our hearts
and words of peace on our lips;
and may the love that is forever in the world
guide us and give us hope.

Amen

Story

“Diluting the Wine” from The Shortest Distance by Bill Darlison

Many years ago, the mayor of a village in China wanted to prepare a big feast for the whole village. He called together his chief advisors and told them of his plan. “I shall be happy to provide all the food,” he said, “but I want you to supply the wine. Each of you must bring a wineskin filled with your finest wine. We will pour them into a common pot so that the people can help themselves.”

The advisors told their leader that this was a very good idea: a party makes the people happy, and happy people work hard commit fewer crimes. “It will bring our people closer together,” said one.

However, not everyone was pleased. One of the advisors, a young man called Chang, thought to himself: “A wineskin full of wine will cost me a pretty penny. I’m not prepared to sacrifice my best wine so that the village rabble can get drunk. In fact, I’m not even prepared to give them my poorest wine. I’ll take water instead. No one will notice if the common pot of wine is slightly diluted.” He felt very pleased with his money saving plan, and when he told his wife she congratulated him on his cleverness.

When the big day arrived, Chang went to the well, filled a wineskin with fresh water, and gave it to a servant to carry to the feast. As they approached, they could hear the merrymaking and the the music, and smell the delicious aromas of the spices the cooks had used in preparing the huge vats of food. It looked like being a day to remember!

In the middle of the square stood a gigantic pot, into which each of the mayor’s advisors was invited to pour the contents of his wineskin. As they did so, the crowd cheered wildly, impressed by the great generosity of their leading citizens. Chang poured his into the pot.

Everyone sat down and listened impatiently as the mayor gave his speech; they were eager to get down to the serious business of eating and drinking! After the speech, the people began to fill their plates with food from long tables, and their goblets with wine from the big pot. But as each of them took a drink, the look of expectation on each face changed to one of puzzlement. “This is not wine” they said, “this is water!” Sure enough, every one of the advisors had brought water, thinking as Chang did that, “no one will notice if the common pot of wine is slightly diluted.”

The mayor was disgusted with his miserly and hypocritical advisors. He stripped them of the positions, and ordered them all to pay a big fine.

First Reading

by A. Powell Davies (1902 -1957)

Arthur Powell Davies was a British born minister, who started his career as a Methodist serving in Ilford, before moving to America and becoming a Unitarian in 1933. He was a prolific author of theological books and a civil rights activist. His final ministry, from 1944 until his death in 1957, was at All Souls Church, Unitarian, Washington, D.C.

“The religion that says freedom! – freedom from ignorance and false belief; freedom from spurious claims and bitter prejudice;
freedom to seek truth, both old and new, and freedom to follow it; freedom from the hate and the greed that divides humankind and spills the blood of every generation; freedom for honest thought, freedom for equal justice, freedom to seek the true, the good and the beautiful with minds unimpaired by cramping dogmas and unhindered by dependence. The religion that says humankind is not divided – except by ignorance and prejudice and hate; the religion that sees humankind as naturally one and waiting to be spiritually united; the religion that proclaims an end to all exclusions – and declares brother and sisterhood unbounded! The religion that knows we shall never find the fullness of the wonder and the glory of life until we are ready to share it, that we shall never have hearts big enough for the love of God until we have made them big enough for the worldwide love of one another.

As you have listened to me, have you thought perchance that this is your religion? If you have, do not congratulate yourself. Stop long enough to recollect the miseries of the world you live in: the fearful cruelties, the enmities, the hate, the bitter prejudices, the need of such a world for such a faith. And if you can still can say this of which I have spoken is your religion, then ask yourself this question: What are you doing with it?”
(Extract taken from “The Unitarian Life Past and Present” edited by Stephen Lingwood)

[I invite you to pause for quite reflection and to consider this question]

Second Reading

by William Sykes (1939 – 2015)

William “Bill” Sykes was an Anglican priest who served as chaplain at University College, Oxford between 1978 and 2005.

“Martin Luther King put his finger on a crucial point when he wrote we must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress. He went on to add one of the great problems of humanity is that we suffer from a poverty of spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The scientific and technological revolutions have been truly impressive, and we have witnessed awe-inspiring progress in both these spheres in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This form of progress can be seen in every technical area of life, but for some reason progress has not been forthcoming in the spiritual and moral spheres of life. What I think is now needed is spiritual and moral revolution, similar to the one we had in science and technology, coming to us through meditation and contemplation.”

(Extract from “The Canterbury Book of Spiritual Quotations” compiled by William Sykes.)

Prayer

Let’s pause once again for a time of quiet reflection.

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of life, come to me, come to me.

words by Carolyn McDade

Reflection

The other day I enjoyed a blackberry and apple crumble made by my wife Dawn, and using blackberries picked from the hedge outside our house. It tasted delicious and it was satisfying to be able enjoy the annual bounty provided by the humble blackberry. The ripening of the blackberries is, for me, a visible and tasty symbol of the passing of the seasons. Summer has not ended yet, the Autumn equinox is not until later in September, but it feels, somehow, like it is in its 11th hour. For me not a sad thing, but something perfectly natural and awakening, as I particularly enjoy the Autumn that is to come, with its colours and freshness.

In some ways this time of year feels to me like a pause before a time of new beginning, perhaps more so than as we approach New Year. I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps it is because of the school year starting or the anticipation of the season change. The weather is usually warm, the fruit and vegetables are ready for harvesting, and the holiday season (although it hasn’t really been the same this year!) is coming to an end. Where are we now, where are we going to? What will the winds of change bring us? What new choices do we need to make?

One of the things that brought me to Unitarianism was the freedom that it gave me to make choices in my spiritual life. It gave me a spiritual home and sense of belonging, but at the same time freedom to choose what I believed in and how I practiced. Talking to others over the years I know this has been a significant factor for many other people too. But as someone pointed out to me early on in my Unitarian life, it is not the easy path that it may at first appear to be. Because with freedom comes responsibility. When there are no religious rules to which one must adhere or no religious hierarchy whom one must obey, then choices must be made by each individual. But paradoxically it is often very hard for us to make these choices alone, we usually need the support and interaction that comes from being in community.

One of the misconceptions about having spiritual freedom is that it means we can simply just believe, and do, what we want. But what do we want, and is it just all about what we want anyway? I don’t think so. If we are interested in living a spiritual life then doesn’t it come with challenges and a certain amount of self-discipline too? In other words, if we exercise our choice to not attend some kind of communal worship, to not practice some kind of prayer or meditation or reflection, to not engage with the problems of the world, to not care for others or our earth; are we making the choice to become a spiritual couch potato? The choices are ours, but the easy or self-indulgent ones probably aren’t the right ones.

I really understand if people are turned off religion by the experiences they have had, or if they been confronted by hateful views dressed as religion; or sickened by the cruelty of some religious people or the institutions they belong too. But I do think most people, deep down, have some need of reflection and contemplation; which can be suppressed or ignored, but often shows itself most acutely at times of loss, anxiety or difficulty. Not necessarily a need to believe in the supernatural, but a desire to seek meaning and truth in some way, or perhaps to find peace. So, we need to find ways to develop and grow spiritually.

I wonder how you reflected on the question posed by Arthur Powell Davies in our first reading? Did you just skip over it? Or did it not seem relevant to you. Maybe you thought, well I’m not sure I really am religious. OK, perhaps then the question is a little different. If you think some of those things seem important, how are you engaging with them if not in a religious or spiritual way, or how could you?

[You might like to pause to reflect on this]

How we set our moral compass to find a way through life is important, I think. What we do matters. Our story this morning spoke to that part of that us that thinks: I know this is wrong, but no one will notice and it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a small thing. I’m sure we have all been there to some extent. The story suggests that if we all think like that then it will not be very good for society or our community. Meanness can become a habit if we don’t think it matters, and this may become our normal way of thinking and behaving. Not good for those we cheat or harm, not good for our spiritual wellbeing either. Somehow, we need to turn away from this place toward a more generous way of being; to cultivate better habits.

Unitarianism is not a proselytising faith; in other words, we don’t try to convert people. Which can be misinterpreted as being half-hearted, lacking religious fervour or zeal, even by some Unitarians! But I know the time that I have spent in sharing worship, prayer, meditation, conversation, silence, even coffee and biscuits with others has been very valuable. I am challenged and changed, inspired and supported, to reflect on the difficult questions of life and to try to walk the humble path of peace. To be open to and be respectful of other faiths and other perspectives, to learn from them, and to recognise my own limited understanding and perspective. To work to promote compassion in community, and value our Earth, as best I can; to try be honest in my own faith. For all this I have needed our Unitarian community.

Next month, on September 20th, we will re-open up our beloved Old Meeting House in Ditchling once again, albeit in a limited way. We can each help to shape our community’s future and take it though these difficult times. Not to be a club for a few, but somewhere that offers a warm welcome to all, and reaches out far beyond its boundaries in friendship and peace.

Our spiritual freedom is a hard won and precious thing that gives us great creative potential, and which, when we work together, can inspire us to do great things. So, let us use it wisely to seek the truth in our hearts and reach out to others. It matters how we are in our being and our doing. It matters that we share generously and care passionately. It matters. It all matters.

May it be so.

Music

May It Be by Enya

Blessing

Extract from “For Freedom” by John O’Donohue

“As a bird soars high
In the free holding of the wind,
Clear of the certainty of ground,
Opening the imagination of wings
Into the grace of emptiness
To fulfill new voyagings,
May your life awaken
To the call of its freedom.”

As we go from here this morning, may we follow the path of peace and love through the challenges of life, and may the God of our understanding be with us now and always. Amen.

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