Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sermon from the 25th March

I was invited to speak at my church, First Congregational Church, Battle Creek, which was a great privilege. It was huge because I am an atheist. This was an opportunity I felt I should take, and a trust that I should honour.

In the writing of this I must have followed more than a handful of impulses, and then gone back and killed my darlings. Some trails started but abandoned: family history discrimination, growing up, Lovecraft, Alan Moore, my belief in the human imagination, more Kurt Vonnegut, explorations of socialism, negative church experiences, the most recent time I prayef and the idea that for someone to dominate someone else must submit.

It was well received, and there was some nice feedback.

The given sermon differed slightly from the text that follows. I ad libbed a little, mainly some explanations of some stuff. I will update this text when I have had a chance to watch the video. Updates will be in [[bracketed italics]]. I also realised that I mispelt atheist through out (cursed 'i' before 'e')

Thanks, Simon

Kia ora koutou. Welcome.

In New Zealand we often start a speaking engagement with a little bit of maori.

Writing this sermon has been difficult. I realised yesterday that I have not exposed myself in quite this way since I first started talking to Carmen four years ago. I feel vulnerable, that by talking about this I am truly laying myself on the line to the extent that I know that things won't be the same, regardless of the reception of what I say. I will be the one who has changed.

What I'm going to reveal is not strictly a secret. Some of you, maybe most of you, already know it. I am an athiest.

When Tom asked me to preach here, he said it would be a challenge. I immediately thought that he meant a challenge in terms of writing a sermon and speaking in front of people. No, Tom was referring to the idea that me, an athiest, talking here, might be a challenge for the Open and Affirming-ness of FCC.

At it's simplest definition an athiest is a person who does not believe in a god or gods. From there, it accumulates meanings like a blue whale accumulates barnacles.

I don't like the word.

I don't like it because, while accurate, it only describes what I do not believe. It tells you nothing else about me.It tells you one spare detail about how I view the world. It does not explain why I am here, now, with you all in this sanctuary. It is a non-label, a word used to define 'the other' in relation to the 'us'.

What I believe unites us is that we are capable of sharing headspace. Of creating in the space between us all, something that is more that the sum of it's parts. We all have a unique perspective, informed by the many factors that make up our lives. So unique, that although we may be on the same page, we're probably all reading different paragraphs.

I will get to our verses, I promise. First, some of my beliefs. I want to talk about space.

Carmen has seen me in the thrall of outer space. I have drifted off mid sentence, eyes glowing and mouth split in a beatific grin as some physicist or astronomer sketches some detail of the universe. Science for me is a set of beautiful ideas, ripe for use. We are all involved in delving into the mystery. But the mystery is a mandelbrot set: the further in you go, the more mystery you find.

[[The mandelbrot set: a fractal image which when you enlarge a section of it, the edge repeats the pattern into infinity. ]]

When we look at the night sky, I suspect we're all looking at the same thing. Only we each bring our own perspective to it. I see a vast, almost infinitely empty void. It is beautiful. It is scary. And we are alone. The universe does not care about us. It is not capable of caring. The earth could vanish tomorrow and the universe will carry on. Life here is fragile. Change any one thing about this planet and things get bad. For example, move Earth closer or further away from the sun and all our surface water freezes or burns off into space (Scientists call it the goldilocks zone: the planet is juuust the right distance away)

Who knows how many other planets have come close to being as lucky as ours.
And that makes life here precious, makes this planet precious. We are stewards, or we should be stewards of this planet. We don't have a spare out there, no galactic cousins willing to let us sleep on their couch.

I certainly believe that there is life out there. Not necessarily sentient, though how cool would that be? Right now, I'd settle for simple bacteria. The paradigm would change. We would not be the sole life in the universe. We would be sharing this place with another.

Of course it could be that we have simply missed signs of other life in the vast emptiness. Their civilisations could have collapsed and their broadcasts passed us by before we gained the technology to detect them. Conversely, they may be out there looking at the night sky, sitting in their tribal groups and telling tales of strange life on other stars, simply not having got to where we got to a hundred years ago.

We have been sending signals into space for nearly a hundred years. Who knows where and when and who will see them. I hope they don't judge us too harshly.


Theme: The Temptation to Dominate: Doing Enough
Text: Luke 4: 1-2, 5-8, 13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,
2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.
6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.
7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

When reading these verses I found myself thinking of the devil as an internal voice. It suggests to me that Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness working through how to carry out his ministry. Working through the ways in which he could use his power, dragging the voice inside his head into the open and refuting it. William Burroughs called this kind of voice the Policeman inside. That insidious voice that tells you that you are wrong, that this is what you should be doing. It's the voice installed by your parents, by society, by institutions. A voice made out of all the rules, expectations, guilt trips and other nasty little tricks society uses to keep you in line.

Temptation for me is the voice telling me not to do something. "Don't swim. Don't drive. Don't talk to people. Don't go to that function" Usually, this voice is connected with fear ("Do you really think you can do this? Do this?" It's taken me a long time to recognise it and realise that if I hear it, it's a good sign that I should try and overcome it.

Jesus's temptation is to become king, and his overcoming of this temptation leads us from the wilderness to the sermon of the mount, where he gifts the kingdom to everyone.

For myself, when I read the verses, I find myself reflecting on my inexperience as a parent. I can see all the mistakes, all the pitfalls coming down the road for our kids. Some from personal experience, some from observation. We also have this grand vision of how we want life to be like for our children.

If only they would damned well listen.

We know what's best, and still it is not enough. You want to shake the sense into them. It always feels like there is one more thing you could do, one more thing you could say. And isn't that the hard part? To gain the experience to know that you have done all you can, have done enough. That ultimately you can't force your child to submit. That you've placed yourself in the devil's role.


The unanswered question from earlier: Why am I here? I came initially to support and encourage Carmen in her faith. I stayed because of the open and affirming belief of this faith and this church in particular. This is the only church where the welcome-ness I received on my first visit has been backed up by the rhetoric of the church leadership. All too often my visits to churches start like this (an open embrace) and then progress, quickly, to this (talk to the hand). Here I feel that my perspective is one of many, and not discounted because of what I do or do not believe.

I am here because this is my community. I have never had one quite like this one. Like you all. Here I feel that I can be myself: a heathen, a father, a foreigner, a human without any of the judgment that I have experienced elsewhere. Here in this shared space something is created when we come together.

I want to end with a koha. In New Zealand, traditionally a koha is presented at a special occasion. Loosely it's a gift of appreciation and thanks.

I want to koha you all with the following words that have special place in my life.

The first is Kurt Vonnegut's evocation of enoughness. Something that he acquired from his uncle Alex and passed to us through. among other works, his book 'A Man Without a Country'.

"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

The second is a karakia, a prayer, that I said for four years in my bi-lingual class. It is the Lord's Prayer in Maori.

Let us pray.

E to matou Matua i te rangi
Kia tapu tou Ingoa
Kia tae mai tou rangatira-tanga.

Kia meatia tau e pai ai
ki runga ki te whenua,
kia rite ano ki to te rangi.

Homai ki a matou aianei
he taro ma matou mo tenei ra.

Murua o matou hara

Me matou hoki e muru nei
i o te hunga e hara ana ki a matou.

Aua hoki matou e kawea kia whaka-waia;

Me matou hoki e muru nei
i o te hunga e hara ana ki a matou.

Aua hoki matou e kawea kia whaka-waia;

[[Oops, accidentally repeated the previous 3 lines]]

Engari whaka-orangia matou, i te kino:

Nou hoki te rangatira-tanga,
te kaha,
me te kororia,
Ake, ake, ake.


Thank you for letting be ramble. Peace be with you all.