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Sermon – The Rest is Commentary

Comox United Church, Jan 27, 2019Howard Robertson 

Will you pray with me?

Source of Life and Source of Love: May we keep you in our hearts and minds as we consider new ideas and re-consider old ideas, and use these thoughts and feelings to grow our spirituality and faith. Amen 

When I was asked to do the sermon for today, I thought, I’d better find out what a sermon is.

Definition of a Sermon ( a discourse for the purpose of religious instruction or exhortation, especially one based on a text of Scripture and delivered by a member of the clergy as part of a religious service. 2. any serious speech, discourse, or exhortation, especially on a moral issue. 3. a long, tedious speech.  

So this is more of a reflection, or just a sharing of some thoughts that I have had, about the nature of faith and religion. Perhaps for you it will be a provocation to think about some things you may not have considered for a while.

Last week, Keltie drew this diagram, identifying the building blocks of Comox United. I’d like to consider the Building blocks of religion in general.

What is a religion anyway?

I think a Religion has 3 components: a sacred story of creation and purpose, a set of rituals which help us remember and honour that story, and a set of values held by the participants.

What is the Definition of Religion?


1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

I’d like you to consider the 3 components in turn: Story, Rituals, Values.

First: The Sacred story

As Humans, we want to understand where we came from, and where we go when we die. I am not sure if we were always curious about this. Thousands of years ago, like all other animals, we were mostly concerned about staying safe, finding food, and reproducing. If you look around at modern society, you can see these are still our obsessions. But we look for the answers to the mysteries of life too, because we don’t want to imagine that we can be all alone out here on the earth. And we certainly don’t want to die. We have a sacred Western Christian story which tells us how the universe was created, how all life on earth was created, and what our role and purpose is. There is a superior being, and the story explains how we have related to that being, and how that relationship has changed over time, mostly because of our actions. It’s all written in that book – well, most of it is anyway. Some writings didn’t make the cut, as you know.

But there are many other sacred stories in the world, some similar, some very different.

Remember that Western Christianity came to us through the Roman Empire, so it was filtered by all that road-building and heirarchy. Other forms of Christianity exist. For example, Celtic Christianity, which did not travel the Roman roadis more about the expression of faith than the definition of theology. God is a Mystery- The Infinite God cannot be fully comprehended or explained by finite man. Some Celtic stories mention that heaven and earth were created by giants, considered to be the ancient original gods. According to another Celtic myth, the creation took place by the primordial, first god who, by means of a melody played by his breath, brought creation into existence. 

Indigenous stories

In the stories told by different Aboriginal peoples across Canada, various creator characters are named in the stories.

Among these tales is what scholars often refer to as the “Earth Diver myth.” This is a story where a Great Spirit dives into the primeval water to bring back mud, out of which the Earth is fashioned. In some versions of the story, Earth is formed on the back of a turtle; Turtle Islandis a popular name used by certain Indigenous peoples for the land of North America.

Raven Tales are the traditional creation storiesof the indigenous peoples of our region.While each culture's stories of the Raven are different, certain attributes of Raven remain the same. The Raven is always able to take the form of human, animal, even inanimate objects. He is a keeper of secrets, and a trickster.

Hindu creationism

According to Hinducreationism all species on earth includinghumanshave "devolved" or come down from a high state of pure consciousness. Hindu creationists claim that species of plantsand animalsare material forms adopted by pure consciousness which live an endless cycle of births and rebirths.

So Humans across the globe have had different experiences in forming their societies and their religions, but we all share a desire to understand our origins and our purpose. 

Part 2: Rituals

What are the Christian rituals which we practice at Comox United? Take a few seconds, and Think of 3 rituals - not just traditions, but rituals which remind us of the sacred story. 

Well, we baptise children. A little later in their lives, they are confirmed into the church.

We place the Bible and candle in a ritualistic way, at the front of the church.

We confess our sins or shortcomings, and we are assured of forgiveness in a ritualistic way.

We celebrate communion.

We hold funerals, although we often call them by other names now – Celebration of Life, Memorial service.

And think of all the rituals around Christmas and Easter.

Of course, other religions also have rituals.

In Islam, Salah, is one of the Five Pillarsin the faith of Islamand an obligatory religious duty for every Muslim. It is a physical, mental, and spiritual act of worship that is observed five times every day at prescribed times.

In Judaism, The ascent into Adulthood is celebrated by the Bat-mitzvah, bar mitzvah ritual.

I read that for many Hindu households, the day begins when the women in the house draw geometric designs in chalk or rice flour on the floor or the doorstep.

Part 3: What about our Christian values?

Take 22 seconds, and think of 3 Christian values which you think we at Comox United probably share.

Now talk for a moment to your neighbour, and see if you picked the same 3...

What have we come up with? love, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, empathy, generosity, belonging,

Finding the explicit values of any religion I found a bit difficult. I had a hard time finding lists. The values are mostly illustrated by various stories and parables.

Often, those values are closely tied to the beliefs and faith of the religion, so we are back to the sacred stories. ….Look at the Mark scripture – it has two parts and the first is specific to the belief in God.

But a maxim that is found in many religions and culturesis the second part, The Golden Rule,  the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated.. It may appear as either positive or negative:

One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (positive form).

One should nottreat others in ways that one would notlike to be treated (negative form).

What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathic form).

The concept of the Rule is codified in the Babyloniancode of lawof ancient Mesopotamia, dated back to about 1754 BCE . In 1993, 143 leaders encompassing the world's major faiths endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic". According to Greg M. Epstein, an ordained humanist rabbi at Harvard " 'do unto others' ... is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely," but belief in God is not necessary to endorse it.

Maybe you have seen this poster… (describe)

Here are a few examples…

Our Unitarian friends have 7 principles, and among them, they covenant to affirm and promote: ·      

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;·      

Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;·     

 Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;·      

peace, liberty, and justice for all;  

BuddhismTreat not others in ways that you would find hurtful. 

Taoism  Regard your neighbour’s loss as your own loss, and your neighbour’s gain as your own gain.

Judaism What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. 

While we have mentioned major religions of the world, there are also many people who say they are SBNR – that is, Spiritual, but not religious. And there people who are SANROS – Scientific and not religious or spiritual. (I did invent this acronym – you will not find it anywhere else). These people, maybe you are one, still are seeking meaning in their lives, still are curious about the origins of the Universe, the earth, and humans. The term “atheist” though, doesn’t cover it, because it misses the scientific and evidence-based approach some people take.

But, I think that most people who say they are SBNR or SANROS – still share those common values we’ve identified, and do their best to practice the Golden Rule.    

So…We have different stories,

We have different rituals which remind us of those stories.

And our values are strikingly similar across the world. This notion of Reciprocity, the Golden Rule – I think it is a cornerstone, of our humanity.

So What?

Well, there are a number of directions we could take here. I’ll choose one.

Many of us are quite concerned about the future of the church in our world, The United Church in Canada, and Comox United Church right here. Are we sustainable? How do we encourage more people to attend, participate and get involved in this church community so that it thrives or at least survives in to the future?

A suggestion is to de-emphasize the sacred story, and increase the emphasis we place on our shared values. Not do away with the sacred story– just de-emphasize it. I think many people outside churches believe that everyone in church believes and accepts the story literally and in its entirety, and because they may feel they cannot do that, they stay away. It may seem that the image of God which all of us hold, is the same, and is as told and as written, thousands of years ago. But we all have our own personal experiences, our own image of God, our own understanding of the sacred story.

We need to stop measuring our success through the number of people attending Sunday service, and look more broadly at getting people involved at various levels where they can act on their values. And if they attend Sunday service, great. But if not, they can still be involved in others meaningful ways. 

It is the values we share in common.

So, Comox United is already particularly good, I think, at acting out those values in the community. Its one of our strengths. We hold many events here, hosted by our people, partnering with other organizations, and providing resources and support for the Valley community. There was one here yesterday on Advance Care Planning. We have held or hosted sessions on environmental concerns, Death Matters, Inter-Faith understandings. And many of us are very active in community organizations outside the church.

We need to be more explicit to the outside community, and to our own community, about the values which underpin these actions. Why do we do these things? Why do we care about people we don’t even know, and some we will likely never meet? Broadly speaking, because we try to practice the Golden Rule. We need to let people know this. One of the beauties of the United Church is that a person need not accept the whole sacred story to be part of our community here. Because we, and people outside our church need to know, that they can get involved with us because share our human values.

Perhaps for many, The Rest….is Commentary.