Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
August 13, 2017
RADICAL HOSPITALITY: BEING IMPERFECT TOGETHER
By David Herndon
13 August 2017
First Unitarian Church
Twenty-three years ago, on August 8, 1994, Cindy and I welcomed our daughter Rachel into the world. Like many other new parents, we thought our infant daughter was perfect.
Eighteen months ago, in the spring of 2016, our family learned that Rachel had a neurenteric cyst in her neck. As I understand it, “neurenteric” means that the cyst was growing in the space that was supposed to be occupied only by her spinal cord. The cyst had actually pushed Rachel’s spinal cord off to one side, and Rachel was experiencing symptoms such as pain in her neck and shoulders, numbness in her fingers, and even some difficulty with such tasks as writing.
As many of you know, Rachel had surgery on Thursday, August 3, to remove the cyst. The surgery went very well, and Rachel’s recovery has gone quite smoothly. We are very appreciative of all the support our family has received from this congregation.
Along the way, we learned that Rachel’s neurenteric cyst had been present since she was born, although we had no reason to think it was there. But our surgeon pointed out that many different kinds of physical imperfections occur in many people. Sometimes they cause medical problems, but sometimes they just accompany us throughout our lives, and we don’t even realize they are present. Yes, our surgeon said, in principle we could run multiple diagnostic tests on every person to identify every imperfection, but in many cases, perhaps most cases, there would be no reason to move forward with medical procedures.
We gather here this morning in all our glorious biological diversity, with our recessive genes and our dominant genes, with some of our characteristics distributed randomly in ways that can be described by bell curves and standard deviations, with some of our characteristics passed along in ways that make us say, “You have your grandmother’s eyes,” or “You have your father’s nose.” Each of us is a biological wonder, the way we are put together and the way our bodies work. Yet the process of human reproduction does not produce perfect individuals; instead, it produces individuals who are likely to survive.And the process of human reproduction is not itself perfect; in those first weeks after gestation, mistakes or imperfections happen, some that are taken care of by Mother Nature, some that we unknowingly live with throughout our lives, some that come to light along the way, as happened with Rachel.
Rachel and you and I and every other person is the product of 4.28 billion years of biological activity and evolution. It is a wonder that she and you and I and every other person is alive. Yet here we are nevertheless, none of us biologically perfect, whatever that might mean, yet each of graced with the opportunity to live on this earth, at least for a brief time.
What we do with that opportunity is another dimension of our human condition.
In a few moments, I would like to events that took place yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia. But first, I would invite you to accompany me on a brief theological journey.
Martin Luther, who lived from 1483 to 1546, struggled deeply with what it means to live a morally acceptable life. In 1505, Martin Luther became a monk. He diligently followed the routine of the monastery, dutifully rising early in the morning, scrupulously attending to study and prayer and other expectations throughout the day, and then sleeping in a cold room with stone walls at night. His aim in living this holy life, and living this holy life as perfectly as possible, was to accumulate as much favor as he could with God in hopes of avoiding eternal damnation. Martin Luther later wrote, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.”
It was common in those days for devout people to seek favor with God by doing external things such as making pilgrimages to holy places, paying money for the privilege of looking at the relics of saints, purchasing church services that would be devoted to the memory of a loved one, and so on. In paintings that were created during this time, as you may have seen, a likeness of the person who commissioned the painting was commonly included among the other people in the painting, even though the story being portrayed had taken place fifteen centuries earlier.
For Martin Luther, this emphasis on external devotion did not match his focus on his intense and turbulent interior spiritual life. He became convinced that salvation was not something that could be earned through good deeds or external devotion. It was impossible, Luther thought, for any human being to close the gap between an imperfect human life and a perfect human life. You could try and try and try, obeying all the rules and fulfilling every expectation, but human activity, no matter how earnest, could never produce a perfectly righteous life.
I am certainly no expert on Luther’s theology, but as I understand it, Luther came to the understanding that salvation was not something that could be earned, but was something available only through the grace of God. In the Lutheran tradition, the theological formula is “salvation by grace through faith,” or in a more complete version, “salvation by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Scripture alone.” As I understand it, Luther understood faith as trust, so it was through trusting God that one experienced the saving grace of God.
In his poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” which we heard a few moments ago, Robert Frost offers an echo of this gracious, unearned acceptance using secular imagery. At the heart of the poem, Warren says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And Mary responds, “I should have called it something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” Unearned acceptability, whether expressed in theological language or secular images, still holds a powerful emotional attraction.
Luther challenged the theological foundations of the Catholic Church. His theological understanding ignited the Protestant Reformation. By custom, October 31, 1517, marks the beginning of the Reformation, and 2017 is the five hundredth anniversary of that movement.
Our own Unitarian and Universalist traditions trace their roots back into the Protestant tradition. Here in the United States, both Unitarianism and Universalism began as progressive unorthodox Protestant denominations around 1800 in the Boston area in eastern Massachusetts. With regard to grace and salvation, the early Universalists completely denied the existence of hell and eternal damnation. They claimed that a loving God would never abandon anyone to eternal punishment. For the Universalists, therefore, salvation was automatic and assured. I don’t know how Martin Luther would have reacted to the Universalists. To me, however, it seems that Martin Luther and the Universalists would have agreed that salvation was not something that could be earned, not something that depended on doing good deeds and accumulating merit. The early Unitarians, on the other hand, spoke of “salvation by character.” They believed that how we live matters, and they believed that people could be persuaded to grow spiritually. I think Martin Luther might have been a little suspicious of this theological understanding. Nevertheless, our Unitarian affirmation that how we live matters has helped to guide our movement toward the concern for the world, something that I appreciate and cherish about our tradition. In a constructive spirit, one might say that the early Universalist and Unitarian understandings of salvation reinforce one another in a remarkable way. The Universalists offered the assurance that a loving God would not send anyone to eternal punishment in hell. Why, then, would one need to engage in morally honorable behavior? The Unitarians would answer, No, you do not need to engage in morally honorable behavior to save your soul. But there are two other reasons why you ought to engage in morally honorable behavior: one is to grow your soul, and the other is to make the world a better place, not so that you can be saved, but rather because what happens in the world matters and what happens to other people matters.
And that brings us to the event that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday and Saturday. In the sacred space of this Sanctuary, where we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people, we express our disappointment and outrage and opposition to the white supremacist groups that descended on Charlottesville. And in the sacred space of this Sanctuary, where we affirm and promote compassion and peace, we mourn the deaths of the three people who lost their lives. And in the sacred space of this Sanctuary, where we affirm and promote conscience and spiritual growth, we affirm the witness of those counter-protesters who offered their courageous witness on behalf of human rights and justice.
For me, however, one of the most disturbing parts of the day was the cowardly speech offered by the President. The children in our Sunday School, or the Sunday School of any Unitarian Universalist church, could have spoken with greater moral clarity than the President. Here is how the President’s speech began: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.” Excuse me – many sides? Our Unitarian Universalist Association called for members of our churches to travel to Charlottesville to participate in the counter-protests. I don’t know how many Unitarian Universalists were present, but we can rest assured that they were not displaying hatred, bigotry, and violence. It gets a little personal when the President starts accusing Unitarian Universalists of promoting hatred, bigotry, and violence. In fact, it gets a little terrifying when the President cannot distinguish between white supremacists from those who oppose white supremacists, lumping them all together in a false moral equivalency. But aside from what the President said, what the President did not say was also troubling, for he did not call out the white supremacist groups by name, and he did not affirm the blunt truth that what the white supremacist groups were doing was basically domestic terrorism.
The strong showing of the white supremacist groups in Charlottesville points out the deep and enduring imperfections of our nation. What might be our most constructive attitude toward those imperfections? For that matter, what might be our most constructive attitude toward imperfections here in Pittsburgh, or imperfections in our church, or imperfections in our families?
A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a man in great distress standing in his kitchen and speaking into a telephone while looking at a note on a piece of paper. He is saying, “How could you just walk out on me like this? And, by the way, ‘nit-picking’ has a hyphen.” So the approach to imperfection employed by this man is an approach that one might want to avoid – for many people do not respond well to the constant criticism of nit-picking.
But abandoning imperfect people or imperfect institutions just because they are imperfect is not necessarily a constructive approach either.
We might have easier relationships with our institutions if we acknowledged that they will always be imperfect, and yet at the same time if we acknowledged that imperfection is not the same as failure.
When we first encounter an institution – a school, for example, or an employer, or a local government, or a social justice organization, or a neighborhood organization, or a church – we may have high hopes. Inevitably, however, as our relationship with that institution moves forward, we discover some sort of imperfection. In one way or another, that institution did not live up to our expectations. We may feel disappointed or disillusioned. We may feel a strong urge to step away from this institution and find some other institution that is closer to our ideal.
But if we insist that imperfection equals failure, then we will never find any institution that will be good enough for us. And we will miss out on the positive opportunities that institutions can offer. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams wrote, “Institutions are the decisive form of goodness in society.” From this perspective, if we insist that imperfection equals failure, we will always miss out on opportunities to be part of the process of productively promoting justice and equity and human rights.
Here at First Unitarian Church, our theme for the month of August is Radical Hospitality. What does this mean with regard to imperfection? A summary statement might be: No, we do not expect perfection from one another. But yes, we do believe that how we live our lives matters. Theologically, our Universalist heritage guides us to say, you can rest assured that you will always have a home in the universe. And on the other hand, our Unitarian heritage guides us to say, the quality of our life together depends on what we promise to one another and what we do with one another. If that message works for you, perhaps this is the church for you.
© 2017 by David Herndon