The Next Step

The Next Step

September 27, 2020 | Sarah Stewart

What is it about discernment that means that it is described by spiritual masters in such mysterious terms? where they say it's something that you can prepare for, but not ask for, it's a quality of listening, it's a way of experiencing the world. Think about this morning's magical moment.

Fatih, and his companion Dinar, they had the same experiences; they both walked by the honey tree, they both saw the ants digging in the earth, they both saw the fish asking for help. In fact, the ferry man, who the story doesn't say has any particular spiritual expertise, he understood what the fish needed, and yet Fatih can make sense of these experiences and Dinar cannot. Fatih says that discernment, the inner hidden teacher, is listening to your experience, and it's so both of these things; it's noticing what's going on around you, and it's understanding the true meaning of what's going on around you. Zhaopian’s mind was struck open with a thunderclap to achieve enlightenment, and in that moment, he knew his true self, and he had no ego pretensions about his true self, his true self was a homely old man at one with the universe. So, it's clear that discernment is a spiritual practice, and it's clear that it has to do with understanding, truly, what's going on around us, and recognizing that we are not separate from everything that's going on around us. In the story, it's called listening to the inner hidden teacher. Discernment is a spiritual practice of listening to the voice of that inner teacher, especially when we are uncertain of which way to go, especially in times like these that we find ourselves in times in the wilderness, betwixt in between the liminal space.

In discernment we connect with our heart, with our deepest values, we listen for the voice of our soul, and we know that our soul is not separate from the soul of all life. Discernment is not a strategic plan or a list of pros and cons, or a 10point checklist. It is a spiritual attitude of awareness and connection that allows our true self to lead. Our spiritual ancestors practice discernment. They believed that the state of their eternal soul hung in the balance. Discernment was a vital spiritual practice in their lives. So, in our story this morning, we heard about discernment as a Muslim Sufi practice, and in the reading from Thomas Merton, we heard about it as a Zen practice, but discernment is a spiritual practice that transcends religious boundaries. And it has been a Christian practice as well, and a practice of our spiritual ancestors, who first founded this church, First Unitarian Church, in fact, even earlier than that, the people who established the first churches at all, in New England. You may remember from your American history class or from your own Unitarian Universalist Sunday school class that those European settlers in New England were congregationalist. They believe that each individual church should be organized as its own religious community and that there shouldn't be bishops to tell churches what to do. And they believe that the membership of the church ought to be the people whom God was going to save, and that the church and heaven of all the people who would be saved, should be the same as the church here on Earth. It was folks like this, Congregationalists, with this theology, who founded the first European church in Worcester; the Worcester Parish Church. It might have just at the time been called The Church; the parish meant the area, the people in Worcester, and the church was the community that served it. They believed that God would only send a few people to heaven. They believe that, although holy behavior was prompted by knowledge of the salvation that God would send just a few people to heaven, and those people, because they were chosen by God, would be naturally very good people; but they were also savvy enough to recognize that unsaved people can still do good works, and even to recognize that somebody who was truly wicked on the inside, but wanted cover, would pretend to be good by doing good works, so you couldn't just look at what somebody did to know whether or not they were saved Knowing if you were saved took discernment. Evidence of saving grace brought on a whole experience of existential peace, it brought on full church membership, society’s respect, and of course, the separatists had made this dangerous journey, all the way from Europe, in order to found their religious communities, so you can imagine a lot was riding on this experience. Imagine what it was like for a Worcester woman, say in 1722, around the time the town was founded, discerning the state of her immortal soul. So, she goes to church services on Sundays, she does good works, she seeks to read and understand scripture, she's aware of all the ways in which she falls short of her ideals; this brings into her a sense of despair. Now, if she is one of the saved, if she is one of the elect, she'll experience a spark of faith, joy in the gospel, a sense of God's redeeming grace. But this will immediately be followed by doubt as to whether these experiences are really true. Followed again by assurance and persuasion of mercy. Our imaginary Worcester woman in 1772, she couldn't decide whether she was saved or not, and she couldn't go through a certain series of activities in order to bring it about, she had to call on her powers of discernment. They would have included prayer, listening for that inner voice, testing her actions against her values, patience, and relying on the work of an ineffable deity, who may or may not have deigned to save her. I think it must have been pretty angst ridden to be an early Congregationalist. And by the 1780’s, some members of the Worcester church weren't so sure that God actually worked that way. Maybe God was not in charge of everything that humans did, maybe humans had some moral choice in what happened to them.

So, in this mid-1780s, the church, this Worcester parish church needed a new minister, and there were some of these more liberal members who wanted to hear free will preached from the pulpit, moral responsibility, taking responsibility for our own actions. And in 1785, these families, 53 families from the Worcester parish church, decided to form their own church, to call their own liberal preacher. That decision marks the founding of what would become our First Unitarian Church. At the time churches were supported the way schools are now. The whole town paid taxes to support the church. The town extended the call to a new minister and official church members, those same few, they voted to confirm it. And now, usually this went along without a hitch, the town would recommend a candidate and the church would confirm it. But Worcester was polarized in 1783, we might even have some sympathy for what they were going through based on the polarization of our own society today. The town had been separated by the Revolutionary War, divisions between Tories and rebels for strong. Some Tories were driven out of the city and indeed out of the colonies all together. Shays’ rebellion had further split the community. There was strong theological disagreement about whether God was in charge of everybody's actions or whether humans had free well. Some of the people in the town who were not official church members, because they hadn't had that experience of saving grace, they wanted the freewill preacher, Aaron Bancroft, and the town refused to elect him. So, 53 members decided to form a new parish, with Aaron Bancroft as its minister. In that time of upheaval, those families had to discern the right thing to do, they couldn't follow a well-worn plan. Ultimately, they did form their own church, they called Aaron Bancroft to be the minister. Because they didn't have that tax base, there wasn't a lot of money to support him for the first few years, but in a few years, the Massachusetts legislature voted to create a second parish in the town of Worcester, and for that parish to support the second Congregational Church; what would become the First Unitarian Church. Aaron Bancroft served as the church’s First Minister for almost 50 years and was also the first President of what would become the American Unitarian Association. We now find ourselves in a time of upheaval, a time of polarization, a time when we're stuck in the middle between where we were and where we want to be, and, we too need the spiritual practices of discernment. We are discerning how to live our spiritual lives, how to live out our values in public, how to educate our children; we're discerning as a nation, what we want our future to be. You personally might need the sermon right now. You might need to listen to the voice of the hidden teacher. I dare say, you might even be missing riches, because you're too focused on the path you had before the coronavirus, the path that used to make sense.

Church organization expert, Susan Beaumont, contrasts the differences between decision making and discerning. In decision making, she says, we define the problem, we look for its root causes, we gather data, we interpret the data, we brainstorm alternatives, we establish criteria for making a decision, we evaluate alternatives, there's that pro/con checklist, we assess risk and return, we select the optimal solution. But if your life is like mine, you've been in a lot of decision making conversations with your spouse, at your place of work lately, where those decision making practices just don't work, because you don't have all the information. How can you weigh the unknown risks of the coronavirus in a given social situation outside, versus the happiness your children will experience if they get to see their friends? How do you balance the need to go to work and support yourself, and, continue in your professional career with the possibility of getting sick by going to that office? That there's not enough information, not enough support for that kind of decision making and we are thrown back on our values. And I'm listening to that interconnectedness between ourselves and the world around us, to make the best decision we can, in the moment, to discern what is right. So, Susan Beaumont describes discernment; she says its grounding and guiding principles, shedding ego and biases, rooting yourself in tradition, listening for the promptings of the Spirit. Using our imagination to explore different possible futures, to explore what other people's experiences might be, in case our own experiences are limiting, weighing options, moving towards selection, and even testing the decision with rest. Come to what you think is right and see if it still seems right in the morning. We need these spiritual practices in our personal lives, but we need them in our national life too. So many threats seem to come at us right now, as a people, as a nation, our democracy is under threat. Our society is polarized. There's no accountability for police violence, for Brianna Taylor, and so many others. COVID continues to ravage our communities, our climate is in upheaval. Now, we can imagine society wide leadership that would let us make decisions, to overcome these problems, that would take leadership, that would create an action plan to address these inequities, and this suffering. But friends, we don't have that kind of leadership at a national level right now. We are left on our own devices, and our own devices, what we have available all of us, is this spiritual power of discernment, to know what is right and to do it, to listen to the ways we are all connected to each other. And this is everything from making decisions about how we live our family life, to giving and doing actions that support one another in society, to recognize we're all in this together. We must marshal our spiritual resources to discern the right thing to do and organize to do it. We stand in a long tradition of religious liberalism upheld in this congregation, which loves truth and seeks to serve all people. The hidden teacher whispers to each of us, what is right. Even in hardest times, we can quiet down to listen to its voice, and follow.

I love you all. Amen.