By Reverend John A. Buehrens

A Sermon Delivered at

First Unitarian Church of San Jose, CA

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Also delivered in Spanish at the 9:30 service

When I was running around as President of our Association, one of the many things I, and my family and friends, had to put up with was hearing me referred to as the "evangelical rabbi of liberal religion." Which caused my daughter Erica to send me a postcard, depicting a fellow about my girth, wearing a well-traveled, patched robe, a prayer shawl, and a yalmulke — with the caption, "The Velveteen Rabbi," and the question, "So when do I get to go out and play with the real rabbis?"

This weekend I’m out here to play with the real rabbis at Starr King, and I’m pleased that Rabbi Lilia here has given me the chance to be with a real congregation.

"What is REAL?" asks the Rabbit in Margery William's children’s classic.

"Real isn’t how you are made," says the Skin Horse. "It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asks the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes time."

I don’t know about you, but for me the past ten days have seemed both painful and strangely unreal. Actually, I take that back. For some time now I have felt myself living in a society where what I know really matters — the very soul of society — seems increasingly neglected, in favor of a delusional system that takes only money, image, power, and violence as real. And I ask myself, what is happening to our collective soul?

"Corporate soul searching," reads a headline. But the article goes on to describe how the chair of the governmental body overseeing corporate accountability was forced to resign, followed by his nominee to correct lying in corporate accounting, because he withheld information from his fellow commissioners: that the nominee in question had been chair of a corporate audit committee that had fired its auditors for telling the truth.

"The very soul of democracy is threatened," says eminent journalist Bill Moyers, by the pervasive corruption of our politics, who describes how the late Senator Paul Wellstone once stood on the Senate floor and described a typical interaction between an office holder and a potential source of re-election money:

"What do I get if I give you $500?"

"Just government."

"If I give you $1000?"

"Good government."

"And if I can show you the way to $100,000?"

"Then, my friend, you get any kind of government you want!"

But what shall it profit any one to gain the whole world and lose one’s own soul? What shall it profit our nation to win an unjustifiable war and lose the respect and support of some of our oldest friends around the world? There may be only one military superpower left. But as the New York Times put it recently, there is a second less visible superpower, called world opinion. When I think of this war, I’m reminded of what Thomas Jefferson once said: "I tremble for my country when I consider that God is just." America today, as one of our hymns puts it, is "rich in things but poor in soul." No wonder the soul, as Szymborska says, seems to come to go. Mine surely does. Yours too, I’ll bet. Not to mention other souls we try to connect with, to be real with.

Often I’ve come home from my efforts at trying to connect more deeply, at a soul level, with people in the world of power brokering and self-interest saying to my good wife, "It’s getting harder and harder to save souls dear; fewer and fewer seem to have ‘em!"

But I know that’s cynical. Our universalism reminds me that underneath all the selfish, short-sighted, greedy, even paranoid and violent defensiveness humans display, there is a soulful, human, real part to each of us. It reappears whenever we can share some human vulnerability.

The author Nancy Mairs, who has MS and writes about these matters in a very down-to-earth way from her wheelchair, puts it simply: "The soul," she says, "is that part of the human psyche that is capable of transcending mere self-interest."

And that exists in all of us. For all of his prideful self-reliance, Emerson knew it: "It comes to the lowly and simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is . . . proud; it comes as insight; it comes as serenity and grandeur. The soul’s health consists in the fullness of its reception. . . Within us is the soul of the whole . . . When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love." So did Thoreau, who wrote in his journal that "Silence is the communing of a conscious soul with itself. If the soul attend for a moment to its own infinity, then and there is silence. She is audible to all [of us], at all times, in all places, and if we will we may always hearken to [the soul’s] admonitions." But we don’t.

And my mission here isn’t really to convince you of something about the soul. Like the transcendentalists who said they were more interested in the religion of Jesus than any religion about Jesus, I am far more interested in the life of the soul -- living with soul -- than in any abstract teachings about the soul. As the Buddha once said, whether the soul exists or does not exist, whether God exists or does not exist, may quite miss the point entirely. Or as another poet expresses it:

It doesn’t interest me if you believe there is one God or many gods.

I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.

If you know despair or can see it in others.

I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world

with its harsh need to change you.

If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.

I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living

falling toward the center of your longing.

I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day,

with the consequence of love

and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat [in death].

I have been told, in that fierce embrace, even

the gods speak of God.

And even the soul-less speak of soul. No, my mission, like that of this church, isn’t to convince or convert you, but to invite you -- to live in the deeper questions of the soul. For what is required of us is not speculative beliefs, but real, soulful human living — serving justice, loving mercy, walking humbly on this earth with others of differing cultural and experiential backgrounds.

We do have a mission, however, you and I. If I ever doubted that I was reminded of it quite dramatically on a trip to India, three years ago, after the devastating earthquake in Gujarat, and I had gone to bring material aid and spiritual support to the human rights groups there we partner with through the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program. At the Bombay airport I was met by a courageous activist. Vivek won the World Anti-Slavery Award for freeing thousands of poor tribal people from bonded labor.

Emerging from customs, he welcomed me warmly. But within minutes we were surrounded by a menacing crowd, including policemen, asking angry questions. India, you may know, is now ruled by the Hindu equivalent of the Christian Coalition, and they not only scapegoat Muslims and poor minorities, but despise Western "missionaries." Shouting in the local language, they were demanding to know if I was a missionary. Soon my friend began yelling back: "Yes! Yes! He is a missionary! But you have not asked what his mission is! His mission is human rights! His mission is justice for the poor! His mission is democracy! Not conversions! Now, tell us, if you dare, what is your mission?" And before what Gandhi would have called the ‘soul force’ of this man, the hostile mob simply melted away.

"Life," said the great Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies, "is just a chance to grow a soul." And the older I have become, even the more I’ve sensed the body to be frail, the more I have become aware that our mission, yours and mine, must emerge from the soul and be aimed at the soul -- to help others, and indeed the whole of society, to grow in soul; to grow in the capacity to transcend mere self-interest.

When I was first considering becoming a minister, I’m not sure I understood that. In fact, I couldn’t quite figure out why people even came to church, week after week. Was it just conformity? Social habit? So I asked the most faithful churchgoer I knew — my own grandmother.

"Why I go to church?" she replied. "Oh, Janni, you will learn, if you don’t already know: sometimes soul get very empty; faith small, like mustard seed." I knew enough about her life to have some hint of what she meant. Born in Eastern Europe, she had been orphaned there at the age of ten. At fifteen she came through Ellis Island all alone, with only an older married sister to meet her once she got to Chicago. There she met and married another Slovak immigrant, my grandfather, who had also been orphaned, and began a family. But by the end of the influenza epidemic that followed World War I, they had buried their first four children. Soul get very empty indeed.

That’s when my grandfather stopped going to church. When the priest wouldn’t come to the house to give his wife last rites, when it seemed she was dying too. Then during the Depression, when he lost his factory job, and there were three more children to feed, they had to leave their home, and tried scratching out a living on a spinach farm in Texas fortwo years that were so hard my mother still can’t talk about.

"I go to church," said my grandma, "and in my soul I know I have to be grateful, just to be still alive. I am there with other people. I pray with them and for them. I know many of them have sorrows just as real as mine. So my thoughts go wider, deeper, higher. Faith comes back. Sometimes," she said to me, "does not even matter if the priest’s sermon is not so very good! I pray for you, and for your cousins, for all young people, and hope comes back. I pray for your grandfather, because is no good in life to stay bitter, and I think how to show him, not just by words, what love is. Then I go home and get him to join me in doing something nice for a child, a friend. That’s why I go to church."

And I ask you, my friends, isn’t that why we are all here? My grandmother knew implicitly what I now am free to preach more explicitly. That faith is not a matter of believing some ancient assertion in spite of the evidence. It is more like living with courage and integrity in spite of life’s inevitable challenges, losses, and temptations to despair. And hope is not a matter of believing that everything will turn out all right. It is more like aiming one’s life toward a point on the horizon beyond which none of us can see, but toward which we know we had better move, together, if there is going to be a worthwhile future for our children and our children’s children. And love is no mere Hallmark greeting card sentiment, is it? It is more like living in the here-and-now, serving the social form of love known as justice, practicing compassion, and walking humbly on this earth, in the time that is ours, with others, before a mystery that transcends us all.

It’s like living with soul.

This is our calling, yours and mine: to tend and serve the fragile flame in all our souls, until they burn with the steady flame of mission — to heal the soul of democracy and the soul of our world.


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This sermon © 2003 Rev. John A. Buehrens (American, n. 1947), Former president of the Unitarian-Universalist Association. It is used here with his kind permission.

This page maintained by Gaylord E. Smith. Posted April 5, 2003.