by Rev Dr Marilyn Sewell

A sermon given June 9, 2002
First Unitarian Church
Portland, Oregon


Good morning, everyone! A warm welcome to all, friends and members and newcomers who may be among us this morning. Look to this day, for this is our life, this very moment.

Let us come together in joy and thanksgiving. Come now, let us worship together.


I'm careful with my things. You know — nice things. I'm especially careful of things that break — like my wedding crystal, so fragile, Waterford, each piece hand-cut, sparkling, with the heft and weight of something substantial. I say that I love beauty. I say that it's only responsible to care for one's possessions. But perhaps my carefulness tells me something more — about myself, something about my own sense of fragility, my need for order, for permanence.

For years I kept the Waterford glasses shut up in their cabinet — safe, behind wood and glass. I should use them, I told myself. I should allow my friends to enjoy their form and beauty. But using them would surely mean that they would be chipped and cracked. So — they will be chipped and cracked. I'm using them now. What I am beginning to learn, and it is a hard lesson — is that the glass is already broken. Nothing will last, all will be lost. It is the nature of things. Hanging on to things, hanging on to life as it is, is a kind of spiritual denial that I can no longer afford.

In spite of Einstein and his theory of relativity, we in the West still live in a Newtonian world of absolute time and space. Unlike Eastern cultures, which typically focus on harmony and unity, we thrive on schism and dichotomy, on separation. This is black, that is white. This is good, that is evil. This view of reality — we might call it the "Star Wars" view — is comforting. Simple and unambiguous, it gives us certainty and the illusion of control. But in the end it will play us false.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh helps us to understand the Eastern view of reality. He writes "There are two dimensions to life, and we should be able to touch both. One is like a wave 'in the ocean', and we call it the historical dimension. The other is like the 'vast ocean itself', and we call it the ultimate dimension. We usually touch just the wave, but when we touch the water we receive the 'greatest spiritual' fruit. A wave has a beginning and an end," he says, "but in the world of water, there is no birth or death, no being and non-being, no beginning or end. When we touch the water, we are liberated from all of these concepts."

He speaks to a friend whose mother is dying. "Who can say that your mother 'has' passed away ... these notions belong to the historical dimension. When you touch your mother in the ultimate dimension, you see that she is still with you."

In our culture, we tend to focus on the tangible, on what we can see and hear and smell and, of course, measure. We turn away from the Mystery, believing that only what our senses can know is real and true. But it seems to me that the most radical, the most basic, of life's questions is this: How do we approach what is hidden? How do we relate to the Ultimate?

We tend to live as if things we love are permanent—it's more comfortable that way. But this approach to living gets us into big trouble. We fall into what the Buddhists call attachment. We want things or people to remain as they are, so as not to inconvenience us or deprive us of pleasure. But attachment leads to disappointment and frustration, even despair. For you see, in addition to the pain we experience in life—and we all experience pain—we add onto that pain, needless suffering. We suffer because we don't understand the nature of reality: that things will and must change. The glass shouldn't break, but it will—the glass of my young, healthy body; the glass of my satisfying job; the glass of the love relationship I thought would last forever.

W.H. Auden captures much of the way we live our lives in these few lines of poetry:

"We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die."

We "climb the cross of the moment" when we give up our illusion that everything holds, that nothing changes; when we are willing to trust an unknown future. Unless we are able to loosen our grasp, and look to see how the circle of life is turning, we will die many times over before our death. Life will reduce us to fearful, fretful creatures who will not engage very fully in the adventure that life is.

Some monks in the Eastern tradition create beautiful sand pictures, intricate mandalas, sometimes spending months creating these pictures. Then one day the master will come, and with one swoop of his hand destroy their work. It is a lesson they must learn. The glass is broken? So what? It was never meant to last.

In the throes of attachment, we tend to control our lives as much as we can and often try to control the lives of others. We become preoccupied, in order to stave off our anxiety. Do you ever have the feeling that you are just marking time? Just filling your hours? There are many ways of being preoccupied — working, accumulating and caring for goods, racing from activity to activity, worrying about the future, regretting the past. All the usual addictions. Anything, rather than being present to the moment. But living this way leads to a dispirited heart, for we can never be filled. We are running, but we are running away, so we can never experience the joy we covet. We begin to long for freedom from this pattern of breathless, meaningless living, and we begin to want to break out of this pattern to something more meaningful. But how?

There is an old Sufi story about a man who was walking down the dark side of a street when he dropped his keys. He crossed the street where there was a lamppost and began looking there. When a friend asked him why he was looking there instead of where he lost his keys, he said, "I'm looking here because here there is more light."

Looking for answers where they can't be found. Sticking to our old habits, though they have failed us over and over again. This Sufi story reminded me of a conversation I had recently. I was talking with a woman who seemed to have it all. She was attractive, successful in her career, and had a lovely family. She began telling me how busy her life is, and how busy, in fact, everyone in the family is. Looking around at her beautifully appointed home, and gesturing, she said, "We have all this—but are we happy? Are my children happy? They go to the right schools, they have the right tennis shoes—but are they happy?" The intensity of her voice rose as she spoke. She gave way to tears. "Have I got my ladder up the wrong wall?" she asked.

It is in the dimension of the ultimate that we come to understand that we have already arrived, that we can cease our constant striving. When we give up our preoccupation with being this or having that, and give ourselves to the moment, give ourselves to experiencing what _is_, we see that we have all we need for happiness.

There is a Buddhist story about a monk who was boasting about the prowess of his master. He said to another monk, "My master is so much greater than yours. Do you see that great river? Why he can perform miracles — he can walk across that river." And the second monk responded, "For my master, the miracle is this: when he is hungry, he eats; when he is thirsty, he drinks."

Could it be that simple? For all of us, could it really be that simple? Can we find peace within by giving up our ambition, our competing, our radical separating one from the other, and just simply live in the moment? Joy isn't something we have to search for; it's simply what rises up in us when we are not preoccupied. When the moment is enough.

We in the Western world divide, separate, judge, and we call ourselves discerning. We create elaborate boundaries and distinctions and call ourselves wise. But if everything that _is_, is connected, is in fact one, then all distinctions vanish. The constant is change, but the compensation is oneness, a sacred unity, the place where all contradictions are explained, all opposites reconciled, all suffering healed, all that we have lost, restored.

Let us not weep over the past nor fear the future, let us not be impatient with the present. All is in movement, and we can never hold and keep anything. And life is good. Our breath comes and goes, comes and goes, teaching us the nature of existence. We receive, and we let go. We are full, and we are empty, that we might again be filled. Birth and death are partners—no terms are final. May we rest in this circle of life, and as we move through our days, may thanksgiving fill our hearts.

So be it. Amen.


Great Mystery, we come in all humility today, admitting that our knowledge is like one grain of sand in a vast desert. May we hold precious every moment that life gives to us; may we not allow the moments and hours and days to pass unnoticed, so that we grow old and never really live. Let us refuse to live in the shallows and go in faith to the depths. Amen.

My people, cease your striving! Let joy rise up within you. Go in love and go in peace. Amen.

Original sermon was online at

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