Cherishing the Sacred – 12/04/20

Hello everybody and welcome to Essex Church and to this podcasted Sunday morning message for Kensington Unitarians and for all of our friends around the world. It’s good to think of you listening in to this message sometime in the future. This podcast lasts about 15 minutes and we’re recording it in week four of our new way of being, avoiding physical closeness, but finding ever more ways to feel connected with one another. Our church building remains closed but our church community is doing a great job of staying very much ‘open’ and very much in touch with one another. Please let us know if you’d like to connect with someone by phone, post, email or online meetups.

The Christian Church is celebrating Easter this weekend, our Jewish friends are in the midst of their festival of Pesach or Passover, and Sikh communities will be celebrating their important festival of Vaisakhi in the week ahead. All of these festivals would traditionally involve people getting together, worshipping together, eating together, building a sense of community. But this year, in most parts of the world, we are being asked not to mix with other people, in order to protect one another from catching the coronavirus. Our challenge then is to find and cherish the sacred in new ways, and that’s what I’ll be focusing on in this message. How can we best find and cherish what we hold as sacred.

So let’s together create this as a sacred time and place, wherever we are and whenever it is you listen in to this message. Many spiritual paths encourage us to light a candle and each week in our Unitarian Sunday gatherings that’s what we do – lighting a simple chalice flame to symbolise our togetherness and our connections with progressive religious communities the world over. So you might choose to pause this recording now and find a candle to light – or simply imagine a lit candle in your mind. Let’s focus on the flame, there’s a flame in our chalice here next to me, and allow our breathing to settle and steady us as we imagine the wondrous web of connection that joins us one with another, reminding us that we are made of the elements of our earth and of the stardust of our universe. Isn’t life, and consciousness of life, a truly miraculous experience.

I know many of us, not surprisingly, are finding our current experiences quite a challenge. To have to spend so much time at home, and perhaps alone, or rather too much with others; to have our freedoms curtailed, to face serious economic concerns as some of you are I know, alongside the anxiety fed by constant news about a virus that seems particularly unnerving because it is invisible to us. How understandable then that many people are worried, a bit on edge, or are having trouble sleeping or finding it hard to settle and focus on any one task. And alongside all that for me, is a delight in hearing how many of you are noticing unexpected bonuses in this new way of living. I doubt there has ever been a spring time more appreciated than this one, especially here in the centre of London, where the easing of traffic noise has allowed us to hear fully the birdsong all around us, in all its exuberant glory. People out for their daily walks now stand in the middle of side roads to get a better view of the cherry blossom or the wisteria now in flower. The longer evenings have brought us more light and the air is fresh and clear. A therapist friend remarked this week that these unusual times we find ourselves in are rather like an extended free therapy session, bringing up plenty of material in our own thoughts and feelings for us to consider more deeply. Simply asking ourselves the question ‘how am I feeling right now?’ will bring many of us layer upon layer of emotional connections, memories, creative possibilities, flashes of insight. I’m going to read a poem by the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz, which has been translated by Daniel Ladinsky. I found this poem again the other day and it reminded me of the value to be gained in sitting with feelings awhile in order to reach a deeper understanding of myself and the world. I wonder what this poem, which you’ll be able to find online, says to you. And if you’re someone for whom God as a concept doesn’t particularly work then enjoy finding another word that fits for you in this context – what is the need in you that is absolutely clear?

Absolutely Clear by Hafiz, from a translation by Daniel Ladinsky

Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,

My need of God

Hafiz, translated by the remarkable wordsmith Daniel Ladinsky.

My need of God, my need of love, my need of connection, our need of one another. What do you need at this time I wonder? Let’s take our awareness of what we need most into a time of reflection and prayer together as I call on the great mystery of all that is to touch us with her grace and allow us to rest in the comfort of being held by that which holds and comforts us all.

And let us pray this day for all people of the world who find themselves in need: those facing economic fears, those in desperate need of healthcare and medicines, those who hunger and thirst, those who long for peace to return to their lands, those who need shelter and warmth, those who yearn for companionship to ease their hearts.

Let us pray for the healthcare workers around the world who are risking their own lives in order to save others, as well as for all the key workers keeping the world turning – not least of which the shop-workers and delivery drivers who are keeping us fed. May we take no-thing and no-body for granted ever again. May we be wakened into awareness of how all our lives affect one another, how important we are to each other. May we never foolishly imagine that we can live our lives for ourselves alone, but rather be inspired by the knowledge that we are forever part of a magnificent web of mutuality.

And in a few moments of shared stillness now I invite you to send your thoughts and prayers to those most in need this day – those close to you or those people and places you have been touched by, when hearing of them in the news – and may each of us in the days ahead find ways to reach out to others and to let them know that we care about them. And let us together say to this aspiration – amen – so may it be.

I’ve called today’s message Cherish the Sacred and I’m grateful to the Unitarian who some years ago questioned me about this word ‘sacred’ and said he didn’t quite know what it meant for Unitarians. I wonder what the word sacred means for you. It’s one of those traditional words isn’t it and I know some people in progressive church communities like ours tend to avoid such words, finding them too loaded with old meaning, or memories from past experiences in religious settings. But it’s been one of the joys in finding our Unitarian faith for me that I’ve felt, not just allowed, but encouraged to reclaim religious language and bring my own meanings to the words I use. So for me the word sacred holds a sense of what is special and valued and important in life. The sacred is that which I bring special meaning and significance to. The word sacred reminds me to pay attention, to focus on what I am currently doing and to acknowledge the miracle that is before me in everyday life. This bowl of soup, this cup of coffee, this water running in the shower, this child’s laughter, this leaf newly unfurled, this music I’m hearing, this phone call from a friend, this fresh breeze – all of them sacred, all of them filled with meaning and memory and love.

You might have heard the story of a student who forever asked the Buddha his teacher how he too could reach enlightenment and the Buddha at last told the student that all he needed to do was ‘wake up’. We could sleep our way through the coming weeks, when most of us will be required to stay mostly at home, many of us alone. And I wouldn’t blame anyone for catching up on sleep in these troubled times we’re in. Sleep is a well-known antidote for stress. But once we’ve had enough sleep let’s truly wake up. Let’s pay attention. Let’s utilise the ‘turned upside down’ quality of our current lives to help us live more fully. If all we gained from this experience is a greater understanding of the privileged nature of most of our lives we will have not spent this time in vain. To have running clean water, flushing toilets, electricity and gas that can be generally relied on and a health service whose staff are working tirelessly to keep us well – this is to place us in the fortunate few here on planet earth. There’s not much we can do to right these economic and social inequalities, though we are surely called to do what we can. But what we can do is to honour the sacred nature of all that we receive. Let’s give thanks when clean water comes from our taps. Let’s murmur words of gratitude when we sit down before a plate of food, however much we had to struggle to secure that supermarket delivery slot. Let’s breathe in the fresh morning air and be filled with praise for a planet that looks after us so well and that does what it can to right the wrongs inflicted by human mind. Just three weeks of reduced road traffic in central London has brought a remarkable improvement in air quality – a gift to cherish and a change to remember if and when life returns to its old ways. Maybe we can find new ways to live, ways in which we cherish all that is sacred, all that is precious and life-affirming. Maybe this could be our easter gift of new life – a new way of being.

Let me close this Easter Sunday message with a blessing written by John O’Donohue – from his beautifully titled book Walking in Wonder – transcripts from a series of radio conversations on Irish radio.

Easter Blessings

“On this Easter morning, let us look again at the lives we have been so generously given and let us let fall away the useless baggage that we carry — old pains, old habits, old ways of seeing and feeling — and let us have the courage to begin again. Life is very short, and we are no sooner here than it is time to depart again, and we should use to the full the time that we still have.

We don’t realize all the good we can do. A kind, encouraging word or helping hand can bring many a person through dark valleys in their lives. We weren’t put here to make money or to acquire status or reputation. We were sent here to search for the light of Easter in our hearts, and when we find it we are meant to give it away generously.

May the spirit and light of this Easter morning bless us all, watch over us and protect us on our journey, open us from the darkness into the light of peace and hope and transfiguration.”

Words from John O’Donohue, to which I can only add – go well dear friends, amen and blessed be, one and all of you.

Rev. Sarah Tinker

12th April 2020 (Easter Sunday)