Light One Candle

Light One Candle

A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Donna Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 5 December 1999

Every once in a while having been raised Unitarian in Mississauga is a real disadvantage. This morning is one of those moments. Our choir is singing the African Mass, Missa Luba, and all week I've been trying to figure out what a Mass is. I know Catholics go to Mass all the time. But, what is it? Why are they going? What are they doing? I remember visiting other congregations with my Unitarian Sunday school class. But I don't remember ever figuring out what the Mass was exactly for.

According to the unabridged Random House dictionary of the English language, Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist. According to the same dictionary, the Eucharist is the sacrifice of the Mass or the sacrament of Holy Communion. And Holy Communion is the act of receiving the Eucharistic elements, the bread and the wine. I'm sure this makes perfect sense to many of you. But you weren't raised Unitarian in Mississauga. When I looked at those words earlier this week I couldn't figure them out at all. I looked further. A sacrament, I read, is a visible sign of an inward grace. And grace is the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God. Well, I can certainly affirm that there are visible signs of God's love everywhere, but I hadn't thought of them as sacraments and I didn't think one needed to go to church to receive them. A sacrifice, I read, is the offering of something in propitiation or homage to God. And God is defined as the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe. Well this was problematic too. Not because I can't conceive of God as the creator and ruler of the universe, but because I don't regard going to church as a sacrifice and I don't really believe in a God that demands or desires our sacrifices either. According to Fulton Sheen, "The Mass is the Sacrifice of the Mystical Body of Christ, and is one with Calvary, which was the sacrifice of the physical body of Christ." And Paul Bussard goes even further: "The Mass," he writes, "is a true and real Sacrifice. It is identical with the Sacrifice of the Cross."

I think I understand. The Mass is a reenactment of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a Christian's act of identification with Christ's suffering. Christ sacrificed his life for us and God responded to that sacrifice with mercy and love. The Mass is an opportunity to ask God for the same love and mercy Jesus received. That connection with God, which is called grace, is a Christian's central source of hope - hope that God, the creator and ruler of the universe, loves us, will watch over us, thinks about us, will answer our prayers and make a place for us in heaven.

We don't have masses in Unitarianism because we don't have sacraments. We haven't ordained any particular set of actions with the exclusive power of symbolizing our connection with God. And our coming to church is not a sacrifice to God, because our God is not interested in sacrifice.

Last week I participated in a debate on the question: "Can We Be Good Without God?" I spent a fair bit of time defining God not as an anthropomorphic ruler of the universe but as the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. Of which we are a part. Perhaps the purpose of the Mass is to enable us to feel at one with God. This morning, as we listen to the elements of the mass sung by our choir, perhaps we might feel it too. Perhaps we will catch the spirit, feel our interdependence within that web, stretching out to the ends of all time and all space, that whole beyond our capacity to perceive or comprehend.

As we sang this morning, the winds of change are forever blowing. With the gift of life comes pain, struggle, challenge, and ultimately, death. To be alive means to feel sorrow along with joy. To be alive is to be able to imagine the finality of death. You and I both know that many more than fourteen women died just this past year at the hands of angry, alienated gun-wielding people. Random individuals, young and old, like you and me, people alive one moment, and gone the next. How are we to respond? How are we to make sense of it all? How are we to find peace?

Randy Becker, a friend of mine, wrote this:

In 1995, our oldest daughter was killed -- along with two other college friends -- by a drunk driver going the wrong way down the Interstate. ... Unitarian Universalism, as I understand it, offers us a vision of a larger HOPE. That hope is in the essential goodness of existence despite the specifics of any given moment. Events happen, but to isolate bad times and then turn them into personal attacks is no more appropriate than to isolate good times and turn them into evidence of personal divine favor. The larger hope is about an overall pattern in which the many events of life play out, no one point in the pattern being definitive of the whole, unless we choose to dwell and focus on it as if it were. My belief, as a UU, is that when the whole is seen, there will be meaning in the pattern. "This larger hope depends on a measure of FAITH. Such a faith does not believe that life will turn out in a specific way, but that there is meaning in the whole. So, this faith says, in the face of life not going the way we would choose: there can be meaning on the other [side of] any piece of our life. Horror and tragedy do not mean the end of meaning, unless we choose to see it that way. Our informing faith, affirming not a linear cause/effect way of believing but a field of possibilities through which meaning can be found on many paths, calls us to see those possibilities wherever we are in life, even on the other side of the worst tragedies we can imagine." Unitarian minister Robert Terry Weston calls us to this same relationship with Life, with God: The past that has hurt slips away: The humiliations, the failures, the resentment, The sorrows, the haunting fears, dissolve into the healing night. And it comes, a great peace, flooding the heart. It comes, a sense of healing forgiveness, A sense of comprehending and forgiving compassion, A meaning in which all things are comprehended and made whole Though we, accepting, comprehend it not.

The Macabees hung on for three years, hiding in the hills before finally defeating the Seleucid forces, taking back their Temple, rededicating the altar and lighting a lamp that burned for eight days on one small vial of olive oil. It was a miracle, they said, an outward, visible sign of God's grace, God's love and favour.

That flame was their sacrament, their symbol of hope.

Finding hope ... learning to trust death, to feel thankful that life includes the dark ... feeling the great peace, that connection to the whole ... trusting in God, the interdependent web of all existence that sustains life and beauty on this earth and in this universe. We are part of that whole, rocked in the cradle of its ancient rhythms.