Message In A Bottle

A Sermon Delivered August 11, 2002

First Unitarian Church, Portland, Oregon

Cole Brecheen



It’s so hard for a Sunday School teacher to know what is actually getting across and what’s not.  My own nine-year-old son has been in the Learning Community here all his life, several years in classes that I’ve taught.  A couple of months ago he was listening to one of my wife’s phone conversations where the subject of Jehovah’s Witnesses had come up.  Toward the end of the conversation she said something like, “We’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses, but we have friends who are, and they’re pretty ordinary people …,” etcetera, etcetera.  After she hung up, my little boy said, dead serious, “Mom, we are part Jehovah’s Witness.”  Marsha was a little startled by that, and asked him how he figured it.  He said, “Well, we’re Unitarians, and Unitarians are a little bit of everything, so that makes us part Jehovah’s Witness, too.”


I don’t remember that being an explicit part of the message in any class I’ve taught, but I guess you can’t blame him for making that deduction.  For some reason this chasm of years between little children and us is harder to bridge with matters of religion than it is with all the other subjects they have to master.  We can have our own theories about why that is, but it’s important to call on memory as much as possible so as to see things from their point of view.  The way they see it, the reason we fail to get our point across about religion is just that we are ancient and incredibly dull.


As they grow, of course, that perspective changes.  They take classes that make their old Sunday School teachers seem lively by comparison, and a lot of them start to think that their early religious instruction didn’t take because the message was flawed.  That is certainly a phase that I went through, and may not be out of completely.  I should give you a little context here to help you understand what I mean.  I grew up in a little West Texas farm town where my mother’s family had lived for several generations, all members of the Church of Christ.  We were theologically a lot like the Baptists – I think we differed with them on the meaning of John 3:16 or something like that – but really the main difference was more a matter of form and style:  worship services in the Church of Christ don’t use instrumental music, and generally speaking are a little quieter and more reserved. 


I believe, and have believed for a long time, that a lot of what young people learn in conservative religious environments like that is mean-spirited and just plain wrong, in more ways than one.  I filtered out almost all of it, and spent most of my Sunday School years slouched in my chair looking out the window.  But I never thought that the individuals who taught us were mean-spirited, and now, many years later, some of what I had filtered out seems to be coming back. 


I’ve begun to think about some of the teachers who genuinely seemed to care about our spiritual well being, and sometimes to speculate about what they would do and say if they were in my shoes, because they did live with a certain amount of grace and dignity that is hard to duplicate.  Many of the people who taught us were what my grandmother used to call “dashboard farmers.”  They spent a big part of every week driving around in their pickups visiting with people, mostly spreading gossip, but performing a useful social function.  When you were having a hard time – going through a divorce or a foreclosure or a terrible loss – you could always count on one of these dashboard farmers to stop by and talk because you were the source of news.  The more gregarious they were during the week, the less they seemed interested in talking to us about John 3:16 or the other more negative parts of Church of Christ doctrine.  They were more interested in telling us stories about the people they knew and the great variety of ways they had seen people make good and bad decisions.


My guess now is that they didn’t reach me, or a lot of the other kids I knew, just because we weren’t mature enough to hear and understand.  But they may have had some success in reaching through time.  That seems to be the way that communication works best between Sunday School teachers and students; it takes full effect only after it has been mediated through about thirty or forty years.  So I thought this morning that I would cut to the chase and attempt, or at least pretend, to accomplish that kind of communication directly.


I want to imagine this morning that you are the kids from all the classes that my co-teachers and I have taught over the last four or five years, all grown up now, capable of understanding, possibly capable of sitting still for twenty minutes and not throwing things at each other.  I particularly want to finish some thoughts from the 5th/6th-grade class that Denise Bauman and I taught this past year.  I can’t presume to speak for her or any of the other wonderful teachers and parent helpers I work with here in the Learning Community every Sunday – I know that a lot of what I have to say here is idiosyncratic – but I have a powerful sense that all of these teachers, and many of the teachers you remember from your own childhood, would speak to you now in the same spirit, if they could, even if they might sound a little different.


There is so much I would want to say if I really could reach out through time and talk to these children as grown ups. But if I had to boil it down into one last, brief message, I think I would tell them just three things.


For you to fully understand the first one, I need to explain something about our purposes and methods.  Memory plays tricks after such a long time, and I want to make sure you understand that, even though our class time when you were small was seldom spent in the main sanctuary, and was more often in some little room tucked far away from it, you were the main focus of our community, not the periphery.  And our work with you was not just about arts and crafts and socialization.  There was an important theme and message in it, and my guess is that all of you did somehow absorb it.  At least I hope you did.  I hope you carry it in your heart and think about it every day.  The basic message was just “Wake up, Sweetheart.  There is something more to this life than you see right in front of you.  There is an important mystery here.  Parts of it might be capable of solution.  Others have had useful things to say about it.  All these things are worthy of your interest.” 


So what we were mostly trying to do when you were young was awaken your interest in the inner life.  I know it must have seemed that the principles of civil conduct were the main subject a lot of the time, but even if none of that Golden Rule stuff sank in, you have surely learned it the hard way by now.  We knew that’s how it would be.  We just wanted to save you a little heartache.


But it was your interest that we really cared about.  And so we tried to emphasize variety.  We talked about the many different religious traditions, the many interpretations of the old stories, the many ways people worship and try to make sense of their own existences, the “many different paths to God.”  You heard us say that over and over, but I’m not sure you ever heard us say that you need to choose one of them. 


Six or seven years ago I heard Huston Smith, the great scholar of world religions, say something about the importance of choosing a path, and I can’t remember if it was from an interview I heard on Fresh Air or from his talk one evening over in the Salmon Street sanctuary, both of which were at about that time.  I think he was repeating a proverb, but what he said was this:


When you’re looking for water, it’s generally better to dig one deep well than many shallow ones.


So that’s the first of the three things I would say, now that you’re all grown up:  choose a path.  Choose a wisdom tradition to follow, a religion of some kind that does have doctrine and scripture.  I know that in a certain sense all of us are on a path, and I don’t want to discount the value of living with awareness and compassion, even if you do it completely without guidance, independent of any religious tradition.  But it’s harder that way, and most people who try run out of steam at some point short of the mark.  The vast majority of us need to make a lifelong commitment to a tradition in which we can find guidance.  It’s not something you should do lightly, or hastily, but don’t put it off for a better day, either.  You’ll know when the time is right.  Once you’ve chosen a path, don’t give up on it and choose a different one when you get far enough along to see all the potholes and broken bridges.  Every human activity has its ugly sides, and religion is no exception.


The second thing I would say is going to seem like it contradicts one of the principal messages that you absorbed so long ago in Sunday School.  Do you remember that, on the day we learned to sing “This Little Light of Mine,” we talked about something Jesus said? It was from the Sermon on the Mount:


Matthew, Chapter 5

14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.

15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
16 Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.


We talked about that passage, and then we made little lamps that you took home and used to pester your parents about matches for the next several days.  You probably thought all this time that the lesson was only an excuse to make those little fire hazards.


To be honest, that was a big part of it, but the main point was to help you see that it’s not so bad to be a good kid, and to set a good example.  That’s an important message when you’re small, because you have to survive in such a savage culture.  This year, when Denise and I talked about Jesus’s injunction to turn the other cheek, a little boy in our class said, “That might be good advice for grown ups, but it would never work in my school.”


When you get older, however, the different strata of people separate pretty widely, and most of us wind up in social environments where there are no obvious disincentives for “letting our lights shine before others,” and where in fact we have to struggle with some temptations along those lines.  When you’re a grown-up in the world that most of us inhabit, what you need to do at some point is turn just one page over in the book of Matthew, and read what Jesus said only few minutes later in the very same sermon:


Matthew, Chapter 6

1.        Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

2.        Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that others may praise them. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

3.        But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

4.        so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5.        And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that others can see them. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

6.        But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.


So that’s the second thing:  once you’ve chosen a path, be careful about how you share it. 


I don’t want to dwell too much on the question of public prayer; the gospels do make clear that Jesus sometimes led ceremonial public prayers:  blessing the loaves and fishes, for example.  His point most likely was that your personal relationship with the great underlying mystery that works in all our lives is a private thing.  You need to protect it, tend to it in your quiet time, and before you share it with someone, you need to search your heart and make certain that there is no trace of ego in your motives.


The temptation to feed your ego with the fruits of spiritual work becomes a powerful thing when you get older.  That’s something you weren’t well prepared to understand when you were in Sunday School, maybe because your ego was still under construction at that point, maybe because you were praised enough for small things that you became numb to it. 


But when we get older no one praises us for our penmanship any more, and we all become a little bit like Mark Twain.  He said, “I can live a month or two on a good compliment,” and few compliments are more seductive than the ones that relate to your inner life.  A grown-up who does take the inner life seriously has to work hard at not developing a taste for that kind of thing, and I don’t know how to tell you to do it.  All I can tell you is that there is no form of pride that is more ugly or more destructive than the kind Jesus was talking about in the passage we read a minute ago. 


How we reconcile the value of letting our lights shine – what some people might call “witnessing” – with the importance of modesty and privacy in our spiritual lives is a difficult subject.  Denise and I tried to talk to our class about it a little this year, but it was clearly not a subject for fifth graders.  I couldn’t quit thinking, though, that it was important, and something they needed eventually to understand.  That experience, actually, was the principal motivation for choosing this sermon topic.  I will say that my own life would be a lot less rich if it weren’t for things that some of you have shared with me over the years about your personal journeys.  So it is the right thing to do sometimes.  When that kind of sharing is a natural outflow from the personal, engaged outreach and contact that we all need to be doing with the suffering folks we meet every day, it’s life changing.  When your heart is right, and the time is right, and the place is right, then you need to speak up.


Now here’s the third and final thing.  It relates directly to this issue of right time and right place.


  1. You need to choose a path.
  2. You need to be careful about how you share it.
  3. You need to pursue it in a religious community.


When you were small you never heard us take much of a position on exactly what kind of religious community you ought to choose, and we wouldn’t say the somewhat evangelistic things that I’m about to say to just anyone on the street.  Knowingly or unknowingly, Unitarian Universalists tend to follow the Buddha’s example in the matter of evangelism.  The story is that a famous representative of a different religion once paid a visit to the Buddha and attempted to convert him, but wound up being so impressed with the Buddha’s presence and teaching that he decided on the spot to give up his own religion and become a student of the dharma.  When he asked the Buddha how to do this, the Buddha said, “Make a proper investigation first.”


But today is special, you’re special, and you’ve had long enough to investigate, so I’ll say just a little about why a Unitarian Universalist community is a particularly good choice for someone who has chosen a path and learned to treat it as a precious and private thing.  In other religious communities, people generally assume that everyone present is more or less on the same path.  A place like this, a genuine community in which we all search, but in which we understand that people search in different ways, is better for the kind of private religious life that I think Jesus wanted us to lead.  We don’t compete with each other to exaggerate the certainty of uncertain things; it doesn’t go over well.  We focus instead on the lowest common denominators of our inner lives:  awareness of the smallest and largest things, the worth of acting for the common good, the importance of love and compassion.  We remember the Buddha’s answer to the question of how big a part friendship plays in spirituality:  “It’s not a part at all,” he said.  “It’s the whole of spirituality.”


And I think I’ll say one more thing about how you should make this choice, because it is tremendously important.  You need to be careful not to set your standards too high when you’re looking for the right religious community for you.  A real community, especially one that can be of genuine help to you in doing the kind of long-term growing-up work that you need to do as an adult, is going to have lots of rough edges and lots of prickly characters.  Don’t go looking for a religious community in which every person is a saint.  You won’t find it, and it’s not what you need.  And don’t withdraw from the religious community you’ve chosen when you get your feelings hurt or when you see ugly behavior.  Those things may very well happen.  But they are part of what gives the experience its power.  The reason that my little West Texas hometown is a real community, with a life-shaping life of its own, is that most people can’t easily leave it.  When you make a foolish decision and lose your job or your house or your family in some splashy way, or when you learn that people are starting to talk about how much you drink, or when you suffer one of this life’s many other humiliations, you can’t easily move on to a different social circle in a place like that.  Instead, you share your story with the dashboard farmers, and in exchange they tell you about other folks who have it worse, and in the end you realize that you’re in the right place.


I don’t know that it’s essential for me to explain why you need the support of a community to help you stay on the path.  You are grown up now, you already know how much harder it is to face any draining long-term task by yourself, and you already know how important it is for you to find support in pursuing anything in life that is important to you.  So that’s the one question to which it all boils down:  Are you awake yet, Sweetheart?  Has the inner life become genuinely important to you?


If it has, and if you’ve chosen your path, and you’ve come to understand the need to be careful about how you share it, then you don’t need to despair that it must also be lonely.  It doesn’t have to be.  Right here, in this very place, you have a home.  You are in the company of like-minded people.  We may not have chosen the same path, we may not wear the effort of walking it on our sleeves, but we do love you, and we will do whatever we can to help you find your way, even if it requires reaching through time to do it.


So be it.