Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lesson of the Sorting Hat (UU homily)

Cynthia Parkhill in Hogwarts cardigan at Unitarian Universalist Community of Lake County, Calif.
You are a first-year student at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You boarded the train at Station 9 3/4 and the Hogwarts Express has transported you to Hogwarts.

You disembark from the train and are met by the groundskeeper Hagrid. You are ferried across the lake and ushered into the great hall.

Now you face the pivotal moment that will forever define your career at Hogwarts. When the Sorting Hat is placed upon your head, into which house will you be placed? Gryffindor? Slytherin? Ravenclaw? Or Hufflepuff?

When we first encounter the Sorting Hat, it is Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts. The hat’s recitation provides our first introduction to the very different values that each school’s founder most prized:

By Gryffindor, the bravest were
Prized far beyond the rest;

For Ravenclaw, the cleverest
Would always be the best;

For Hufflepuff, hard workers were
Most worthy of admission;

And power-hungry Slytherin
Loved those of great ambition
— “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

In successive years, however, the hat’s recitation takes on an edge of warning:

“Though I must fulfill my duty
And must quarter every year

Still I wonder whether sorting
May not bring the end I fear.”
— “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

The hat’s concern takes on a note of validity when you consider that from sorting onward, students at Hogwarts socialize exclusively with people in their own house. Harry Potter, the Weasley clan, Hermione and Neville Longbottom. Gryffindors socialize with Gryffindors and their arch rivals are in Slytherin.

Thinking back to my own years in Calistoga Junior/Senior High School, I remember how intense were the rivalries between my school and its arch-rival, St. Helena. And yes, this adversary was portrayed in these terms. St. Helena was the arch-rival of Calistoga.

In our religious faith, how similarly do we sort ourselves into Houses? How easy it is to emphasize the differences in our beliefs, the choice of scripture or prophet or the identity that we project upon the divine. An old white man with a beard. A Jesus of European ancestry, despite the historical man's origins in the middle east. Perhaps, for you, the divine is a goddess that embodies the sacred feminine.

How easy to allow those differences to obscure our similarities and take on overwhelming importance.

My experiences have led me into the “Houses” of several religious faiths. When I was growing up, my mom took me to services at the Presbyterian Church. When I was old enough to make an informed decision, I was baptized into the Presbyterian congregation.

My first experience with religious bigotry occurred a short while later when my father was hosting a retreat for the members of his congregation, which were conservative evangelicals.

A creek ran through my father's property and the church used it for immersion baptisms. A woman present asked if I had been baptized and when I told her I was, she reacted with disdain that I was “sprinkled” and not “immersed.” This judgemental attitude made a bad impression for me of evangelical Christianity.

Too many times, in the years that followed, many people I met who loudly proclaimed themselves Christians, fell short from practicing the teachings of the historical Jesus. Instead of embracing the beatitudes or the Golden Rule, they exhibited complacency, self-righteousness and a judgmental attitude.

But don't think I'm only picking on Christians; I've explored several other traditions.

A few years ago, my husband and I began attending local Jewish services. I was attracted to the Judaism portrayed by Tikkun magazine and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, which engages with God’s mandate to heal the world. We even considered conversion.

I was appalled one day when a Jewish couple, during a local book study group, blithely advocated killing every Arab man, woman and child.

As Liberty Magazine has pointed out, nearly every world religion has a version of the Golden Rule, and yet time and again, people subvert these common teachings and instead focus upon their differences. A Christian is likely to identify as a Catholic or Protestant, Baptist, Evangelical, Methodist, Lutheran, the list goes on. There are Sunni and Shiite Muslims. If you are Jewish, you may be Orthodox, Hasidic or Reform; you may even identify as a Messianic Jew.

William F. Schulz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as executive director of Amnesty International USA from 1994 to 2006. An ordained minister, Dr. Schulz was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations from 1985 to 1993.

When writing the foreword to a book by Sharon D. Welch, “Real Peace, Real Security, The Challenges of Global Citizenship,” Dr. Schulz shared that during his 12 years with Amnesty International, he was required to hear, on a daily basis, about the most horrific violence: much of it religiously based.

In order to eliminate violence, he argues, you must first change the heart of a society. Legislation alone will not accomplish it, if people disobey the law with impunity.

“We are all tempted, in the face of our own failings, to lash out at others. But from a religious perspective, the appropriate response to a recognition of our own demons is not to demonize others. It is to seek out common bonds. It is to recognize that virtually all people, of whatever stripe, feel the need to be safe in their homes, to be treated fairly by the authorities, to pass on a better life to their children, and to enjoy their rightful share of the earth’s abundance. Part of the job of a government is to make it as easy as possible for its citizens to be their best selves, not their ugliest and most degraded, and part of religion's job is to help us understand what those best selves look like.”

Speaking from our personal experience, my husband’s and my searching led us to Unitarian Universalism.

The value of Unitarian Universalism is that it respects the answers that are offered by world faiths: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and other faith traditions.

Turning again to Dr. Schulz, this time in the foreword to the “Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide:”

“We do not require our members to subscribe to a particular theology or set of affirmations in order to join our congregations. Instead, we encourage individuals to garner insights from all the world’s great faiths, as well as from Shakespeare and from science, from feminism and from feelings.”

And the UU goes beyond mere acceptance; there is an effort in the UU to acknowledge each religious tradition as possessing a piece of divine truth.

Bill Neely, minister of the Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church in Memphis, Tenn. writes about “Namaste” as a statement that something divine lives in every person:

“Namaste makes no differentiation between affirming a sacred center when it’s easy and when it’s hard. Natural or difficult, with people we like and people we can’t stand, with people who inspire us and people who anger us, Namaste demands a common level of appreciation for the other’s life and respect for the other’s integrity. Appreciation for and respect of our own lives demand it, for what we share in common is more important than what divides us.

“Political party, nationality, race, religion, citizenship, sexual orientation, gender, all of those descriptive categories that define us as one thing and not another, all of them combined do not diminish the larger unifying presence of holiness in every one. For diversity to truly be virtuous, for diversity to be the fullest expression of the blessing that it can be, it must be held in a sense of unity.”

But because the UU is so welcoming of people from diverse religious faiths, I believe that we must be on guard, in whatever our mother faith, that we do not segregate ourselves into "Houses." Be ready and willing to share your mother faith with your larger UU community, as well as to learn from the riches that other mother faiths provide. It will help to strengthen our ties.

Returning to the lesson of the Sorting Hat, whose warning takes on prophetic reality when Slytherins break from the school and the death-eaters deliver what they believe to have been a crippling blow to the resistance.

The final image in the most recent film is worth dwelling upon. Led by Professor McGonegal, one by one each student who remains at Hogwarts — in Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff — defiantly lifts his or her wand, which emits a beam of light. Their combined force dispels the sigil of Lord Voldemort that hovers in the clouds above the school.

I wish to leave you with the immortal words of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts:

“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided ... Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

Original homily presented Sept. 6, 2009
to the Unitarian Universalist Community of Lake County

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