" False Advertising "

By Ethan Lewis

Presented to the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of the Wyoming Valley

December 28, 2008

©2008 All Rights Reserved

Good morning. There is no need to adjust your television sets; I am NOT Courtney Lewis. You doubtless braved the wind, the snow and the ice to come hear another of Courtney's great sermons. She has given many good ones over the years, and from “Why are teenagers so important” to “Catholic School memories” to the ever popular stewardship sermons, Courtney has never failed to entertain, uplift and inspire.

Today's sermon, as advertised for weeks, is about “The Spirituality of Illness”. To quote from the Church newsletter: “The onset of illness is often viewed as a crisis or battle the individual has with themselves, but spiritual lessons can be gleaned from this negative experience. Come listen to a new perspective of what this all too common occurrence can give to you.” That sounds great. Based on Courtney's track record, I'm sure that the sermon will be a real humdinger.

You know, many people mistake “coincidence” for “irony”. As a schoolteacher, I am often asked by students of an example of irony. Here's a good one: Courtney and I have been sick for a week now, and she is too ill to give her sermon about illness. But fear not! Just as Bill Clinton promised America that if he was elected the country would get a “two for one” bonus with Hilary Clinton; Courtney and I have a similar deal. When she lost her voice on Friday night, I told her that I would prepare a replacement sermon. Hopefully you will like it. Should I ask George to vamp on the piano while you flee towards the exits? Or should I continue?

Thanks for the vote of confidence! Actually, it's been a long time since I stood at this podium, and I welcome the chance to return. I have enjoyed my previous opportunities to relate historical topics (such as Abraham Lincoln) and contemporary issues (such as the importance of voting) to the UU Principles. My first thought for today was that I would deliver a sermon on “false advertising”. After all, you came expecting one thing, and you are getting something totally different; is there a way to relate that to UUism? I think there is.


As you know, Unitarian-Universalim is “non-creedal”--that is why I am a UU. I have never been comfortable with having to accept as true that which I cannot prove. While faith is a wonderful thing, and I know it gives strength to many, I have always been too skeptical to be a “true believer”. I lived and worked for seven years at Episcopalian schools, and the beautiful chapels, powerful organs and short commute to church made Episcopalianism a tempting religion. But to be an Episcopalian, I would have to accept the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed, and I can't accept that Jesus died and rose again.

I've worked for six years now at a Methodist school. The Methodists have a nice church down the street (though their organ is terrible), and their social creed is generally appealing to me (they “dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world”--which would be totally awesome and much more believable if George Bush wasn't a Methodist.), but they require you to believe that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer of Creation. It would be convenient to be Methodist, but I just can't believe in the supernatural aspects of Jesus.

Like Jesus I am Jewish by birth. While that was always more of a cultural than a spiritual thing in my family (for instance, I was taught that Jews were funnier than Gentiles, but eating ham was ok) I have been lighting the Hannukahh candles this week, and consider myself Jewish (“Jew-U's” is what Courtney and I identify as). But it is hard to be Jewish without accepting that God's promise of redemption stems from the covenant with his Chosen People, and I am uncomfortable with the idea that the Supreme Being favors one people over the others. In fact, that concept of God's “in crowd” permeates most major Western religions, except for UUism.

Why did I refer to “false advertising” before? Well, quite simply, what if these core beliefs are wrong? I mean, nothing can be bad about striving for a better world, or living by the Golden Rule, but what if you live your life based on an expectation that the afterlife will be better, and then it isn't? Or there isn't one at all? What if people are living their lives based on untrue promises and expectations? While other, creedal faiths would disapprove of their members questioning these tenets, as UU's we are used to “thinking outside the box”.

Look (as Barack Obama would say): A good salesman doesn't knock the other guy's product—he just sells his own; and that's what I want to do here. The fact that most other religions seem to be based on the idea that if their members live a certain way, they will differentiate themselves from the OTHERS, and they will receive salvation while the OTHERS don't is not necessarily a bad thing. Clearly it is enough to inspire passionate devotion all over the world, and as Cole Porter once said “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong” (not to mention the three and a half billion Christians, Muslims and Jews).

But we UU's take a different approach. The first UU Congregation I belonged to began each meeting with the following reading from James Vila Blake (# 473 in Singing the Living Tradition):

“Love is the spirit of this Church,
and service its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another”

By drawing inspiration from Jewish and Christian traditions that teach us to “love our neighbor as ourselves”; Humanist teachings to “heed the guidance of reason and ...warn against idolatries of the mind and spirit”; Earth-centered traditions that teach us the vital need to “live in harmony with the rhythms of nature” and the words and deeds of prophetic men and women from all of human history all over the world, we acknowledge that there are as many ways to spiritual growth and experience as there are people. By avoiding the idea that there is a “right” way to salvation, UU's have the opportunity to discover EVERY way to improve and eventually redeem the planet we live on. We are able to continuously adapt and adjust our spiritual focus based on newly acquired knowledge, ideas, circumstances and points of view. And while a belief in heaven is not inimical to being a UU, it is not required. As a result, we can focus our energies on the here and now, not just the hereafter. While it is certainly possible that many of our own, individual beliefs are as unprovable and (possibly) untrue as those of more mainstream religions, I think that UUism's openness makes us more willing to accept this possibility.


But you know, another way that UUism appeals to me is that it lets me maintain my own personal belief in the Supreme Being. I have never found a religion that shares a belief in MY God. For most of my life, I believed that MY God was always watching me, was always disappointed in me, and punished me for my transgressions (often through the failure of my favorite sports teams). I had no formal liturgical relationship to God, and I considered our relationship to be a one-way deal: I acted and God responded. This may sound odd to you (I know Courtney thinks it is ridiculous) but so be it.

Well, as Courtney doubtless would have told you (had she been able), about 10 years ago following the somewhat sudden death of my father, Courtney became very ill. The disease with which she was afflicted required her to take massive doses of medication which gave her severe, long lasting side effects (such as osteoporosis) and never fully relieved her symptoms. After suffering for 18 months, she had to undergo a life threatening surgery. While this cured her disease, the recovery from the ordeal lasted for a long time.

For three years while this was happening, I went to Chapel every morning at the school where I worked, and developed a custom. I spent 5-10 minutes before the service staring at the Star of Bethlehem in the stained glass window, speaking directly to God, repeatedly begging him to “please help Courtney to recover; please help Courtney feel better”. This was my first personal experience with actual directed prayer. I resolved that I would never ask God for anything about me (despite job troubles, money troubles, and a pending move to Pennsylvania)--I figured that God would respond better if I was focused on someone other than myself.
Well, obviously Courtney has recovered fully. Were my prayers answered? I think so. To this day, whenever I come into a church (including this one), I only have one prayer. Is this futile? Is it false advertising for me to plepel on to you about Deity centric religions only to conclude with my own idiosyncratic and absurd concept of the Deity? Maybe. But Courtney's illness helped ME learn many “spiritual lessons”. I learned that one can change one's view of the Divine as necessary to meet one's needs. I needed strength and support during a difficult time, and I sought it in a Supreme Being, who could just as easily help my wife as make the Eagles lose a playoff game. When Courtney and I became UU's ten years ago we learned that UU's accept that everyone's spiritual path is different, and mutable. Over the decade my views on religion and God have changed and become clearer.
And this is probably a good thing. As UU Ralph Waldo Emerson said, in reading 563 of Singing the Living Tradition:

A person will worship something—have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming."

It took a serious illness in my family to provide the catalyst for my spiritual reflections. Instead of “worshipping” a vindictiveness and negative spirit, I came to look at the world a new way, through the lens of gentleness, kindness and forgiveness. So in some ways, what I have told you is related to the sermon you were expecting all along. And there is no “false advertising”! Thanks for coming out today. I appreciate your patience with me, and I join you in looking forward to eventually being able to hear the sermon listed in today's program.

In closing, I'd like us to read number 657 in Singing the Living Tradition, “It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs:

Some beliefs are like walled gardens.
They encourage exclusiveness,
and the feeling of being especially privileged.

Other beliefs are expansive and
lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are like shadows,
clouding children's days with fears
of unknown calamities.

Other beliefs are like sunshine,
blessing children with the
warmth of happiness.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating
the saved from the unsaved, friends
from enemies.

Other beliefs are bonds in a
world community, where sincere
differences beautify the pattern.

Some beliefs are like blinders,
shutting off the power to choose one's
own direction.

Other beliefs are like gateways
opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood.
They blight the growth of resourcefulness.

Other beliefs nurture self-confidence
and enrich the feeling of
personal worth.

Some beliefs are rigid, like the body
of death, impotent in a changing world.

Other beliefs are pliable, like the
young sapling, ever growing with
the upward thrust of life.

Thank you. And to quote Theodore Parker in reading 683 of Singing the Living Tradition :

Be ours a religion which, like
sunshine, goes everywhere;
its temple, all space;
its shrine, all heart;
its creed, all truth;
its ritual, works of love;
its profession of faith, divine living.

Please accept my best wishes for a happy and healthy 2009 for you and your families.