Rev. Matthew McHale; Karen Rose, Worship Associate
There is a perceived conflict in our world between two worldviews: whether individual autonomy or collective wellbeing is more important. One of the beautiful aspects of the Flower Communion is that it celebrates uniqueness, diversity and community. This Sunday join us as we explore how to honor the individual and the greater whole.
In addition to our annual flower communion, this service will include a child dedication ceremony. Please bring fresh cut flowers for this spring ritual
Flower Communion Ceremony
Dedication of Emerson’s Children
The Emerson Choir, under the direction of Scott Rieker, and accompanied by Christy Marshall, will ing “Roots and Wings” by Sheri Porterfield.
May 7, “EMBODYING RESISTANCE: LEARNING ABOUT WHITE SUPREMACY”
Megan Dowdell, Guest Preacher;
Rev. Matthew McHale and David Early, Worship Associates
White supremacy* is a set of institutional assumptions and practices, often operating unconsciously, that tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color. As people of faith, we are called to understand the ways in which white supremacy culture operates in society, as well as within communities. Our bodies can become our resource in staying present in learning about white supremacy and caring for ourselves as we resist racism and systemic oppression. Join in song, meditation, and spiritual practice, as we journey together toward justice and embodying resistance.
Click on the video below to watch Megan Dowdell deliver her sermon, “Embodying Resistance: Learning About White Supremacy.”
The Special Music for this Sunday will be “Up To The Mountain,” by Patty Griffon (Kelly Clarkson version), performed by Sharra Romany (vocals), Ramy Romany (guitar), and Christy Marshall (piano).
April 30, 2017, “ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE: IT’S ALL CONNECTED”
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Melissa Marote, Worship Associate
When we think about the environment, we often think about being in nature, the forests, the mountains, the ocean. Likewise, environmentalism is often narrowly focused on the protection of our natural world. What’s often lost in this perception is humans. We forget our interdependence with the natural world, and overlook the ways that environmental/climate impacts disproportionately burden poor communities and Communities of Color. This Sunday we remember that the struggles for justice and the environment are inextricably connected.
Click on the video below to watch Rev. Matthew McHale deliver his sermon, “It’s All Connected.”
Click on the video below to see Rev. Matthew McHale tell the children “Destiny vs. the Incinerator,” a Story for All Ages.
The Emerson Choir, under the direction of Scott Rieker and accompanied by Christy Marshall, will sing, “All Things Are Connected” by Mary Lynn Lightfoot.
April 23, 2017, MULTIGENERATIONAL EARTH DAY SERVICE
Emmalinda MacLean, Director of Religious Education;
Don Ordway, Worship Associate
In celebration of Earth Day, join us for a multigenerational, interactive retelling of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, the beloved classic about cherishing the natural beauty of our world. This is a “partial-planning pageant,” meaning that the main speaking roles have already been cast, but there will also be lots of opportunities for impromptu participation by both children and adults. We’ll need everyone’s help to bring the world of the Lorax, the Once-ler, the swomee-swans, the bar-ba-loots, and the humming fish to life!
Watch the video below to see the amazing presentation of The Lorax!
The Special Music for this Sunday will be “Down to Earth,” performed by Elizabeth Altman and Paul Mahdavi-Bernstein.
The children in Religious Education class created some of the props for The Lorax, as shown below:
April 16, 2017, “EGGS, RABBITS, CHOCOLATE…AND RESURRECTION?!”
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Linda Fitzgerald, Worship Associate
Click on the video below to see and hear Rev. Matthew McHale deliver his sermon, “Eggs, Rabbits, Chocolate, and Resurrection?!”
Easter—the death and resurrection of Jesus—is Christianity’s most important story, but its observance is deeply infused with pagan elements celebrating Spring and fertility, and it has become increasingly commercialized. So what does Easter mean for us as Unitarian Universalists, anyway?
Rev. Matthew McHale tells the story of “The Ostara Bunny” to youth and adults during the “Story for All Ages.” Click on the video below:
The Emerson Choir, under the direction of Scott Rieker and accompanied by Christy Marshall, will sing, “Alleluia” by Ralph Manuel.
April 9, 2017, “GROWTH DOESN’T ALWAYS COME EASY”
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; David Early, Worship Associate
There’s a tendency to think about personal growth as a sort of new beginning, and all-around positive experience. In reality, such transformations most often arise out of something old falling apart. In the face of difficult and disorienting changes, positive growth is far from assured, and it can be easy to fall into resentment. How can we orient ourselves towards growth instead?
Click on the video below to hear Emmalinda MacLean, Director or Religious Education, tell “The Bamboo,” a traditional folktale.
Click on the video below to see and hear Sharra Romany, accompanied by Christy Marshall (piano) and Ramy Romany (guitar) perform “The Climb,” by Jessi Alexander and Jon Mabe.
In the video below, Rev. Matthew McHale delivers his sermon, “Growth Doesn’t Always Come Easy.”
April 2, 2017, “A MUSIC-MAKING MORNING”
Jim Scott, Composer/Guitarist/Singer; Terry Hassman-Paulin, Worship Associate
Popular Unitarian Universalist composer/guitarist/singer will be joining us this morning, along with the Unitarian Universalist Choir of Studio City. This music-filled service will send you off with a melody in your heart and on your lips.
Emerson Choir and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Studio City will perform “Hope is Alive,” by Mac Huff; “Here Comes the Sun,” by George Harrison, and “I am Waiting” by Jim Scott.
Composer, guitarist and singer Jim Scott brings a warmth and humor with his jazz and world music influenced songs. He has a prodigious guitar mastery and clear voice, to touch hearts with his messages of peace, justice and the earth. Formerly a member of the Paul Winter Consort, Jim was co-composer of their celebrated “Missa Gaia/Earth Mass” and sang their anthem song “Common Ground.” He has toured the world, recorded a number of CDs of original music and published a growing line of choral works. Jim has played at more than 700 UU churches over 30 years of travels, and his songs are in the UU hymnbooks
Please plan to stay for the potluck lunch after the service, followed by a concert at 1:00, “Gather the Spirit,” presented by Jim Scott.
Click on the video below to see Jim Scott deliver his talk, “Spring Again–and a Transformation.”
Watch the video below to see the combined choir (Emerson Choir and UU Church of Studio City Choir) sing “Here Comes the Sun,” by George Harrison.
March 26, 2017, “RISK BEING WHO YOU ARE”
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Linda Fitzgerald, Worship Associate
Click on the video below to see and hear Rev. Matthew deliver his sermon, “Risk Being Yourself.”
All too often, we hide parts of ourselves, whether due to societal pressure or the fear of conflict, judgment or rejection. We spend so much of our lives living out of alignment with who were really are. Yet, when we take the risk of showing up as our whole self, we may find a sense of relief, like a weight has been lifted, and it can open up the possibility for those around us to be who they are.
Click on the video below to see and hear “Brave,” by Sara Bareilles and Jack Antonoff, performed by Amber Norwood, Elizabeth Altman, Paul Mahdavi-Bernstein, and David Early. Genevieve Mahdavi-Bernstein is the dancer.
March 19, 2017, “DARING TO DREAM, DARING TO DO”
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; David Early, Worship Associate
Click on the video below to see Rev. Matthew McHale deliver his sermon, “Daring to Dream, Daring to Do.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we are dedicated to creating a more just and equitable world. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that in some comfortable, safe and surefire way? Yet creating change requires taking risks—organizing, marching and speaking out, often in the face of daunting odds or strong opposition. This Sunday we’ll find inspiration in the stories of risk-takers and explore spiritual practices to ground and inspire us for this challenging and necessary work.
Click on the video below to see and hear Emmalinda MacLean tell the story “Brave Raven,” by Aaron McEmrys.
March 12, 2017, “RADICAL HOSPITALITY”
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Karen Rose, Worship Associate
A sense of connection and belonging is an essential component of any religious community. How might radical hospitality help us find the balance between a tight-knit sense of community and making space for new people? And how might it transform us as a community and as individuals?
March 5, 2017, “TRAGEDY, DEATH, PESSIMISM, AND DESPAIR”
Rev. Steven Wilson, Minister, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Braintree, MA; Terry Hassman-Paulin, Worship Associate
Have you ever walked into a church service hurting, and found that the optimism that flowed from the choir and pulpit failed to soothe? If so, this is a service for you. Need a good cry? Come! Come assured that your sadness will not be lonely today. Today we will be healed by a good honest cry and the peace and even laughter that “can” come from that journey.
The video below shows a snippet of Rev. Wilson delivering his sermon, “Tragedy, Death, Pessimism, and Despair.”
The video below shows just a bit of Rev. Wilson’s telling his story, “Cosmic Dessert” to Emerson’s children.
The Emerson Choir, under the direction of Scott Rieker and accompanied by Christy Marshall, will sing, “Love is the Spirit of this Church” by Paul Ayres. Watch the video below.
Rev. Steve Wilson comes to us as the Settled Minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Braintree, Massachusetts, and as the long-time, part-time minister of the Bernardston Unitarian Congregational Society in western Massachusetts. He is a graduate of Boston University’s School of Theology, where he was an Oxnam Scholar and received a Master in Divinity degree with a concentration in Social Ethics.
February 26, 2017, “SPRINGING INTO ACTION”
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Melissa Marote, Worship Associate
Over the past several months Emerson has been springing into action. We have experienced a surge of energy activity, inspired by the beginning of a new ministry, and in defending our religious values of justice, equity, and inclusion. It has been an exciting time for our church community. What enables our congregation to be vibrant—to stand for justice, to provide healing, comfort and support; to provide opportunities for spiritual reflection and growth—is the generosity of this community. It’s all of you sharing of your time, talents and treasure.
Click on the video below to see Rev. Matthew McHale delivering his sermon, “Springing Into Action.”
Click on the video below to hear Emmalinda MacLean telling the story “Parting the Waters.”
Watch the video below to hear The Black Phoebes perform “Takin’ It to the Streets,” by Michael McDonald.
February 19, 2017, “Love Has No Labels”
Rev. Matthew McHale; Karen Rose, Worship Associate
Our identities—gender, sexual orientation, race, class, age, and ability—are an important part of who we are, helping shape the ways in which we experience and move through the world. Yet, we are often told that we should think of ourselves, not by our individual identities, but as members of the human family. Can we honor each other’s common humanity, while celebrating the diversity among us?
Under the direction of Scott Rieker and with accompaniment by Christy Marshall, the Emerson Choir will sing “Seasons of Love” from Rent by Jonathan Larson.
Please click on the video below to see Rev. Matthew McHale deliver Part 1 of his sermon: “Love Has No Labels.”
Please click on the video below to see Rev. Matthew McHale deliver Part 2 of his sermon: “Loving the Labels.”
Rev. Matthew McHale tells a story he wrote, “You Look Ridiculous” to the children for Story for All Ages on February 19, 2017.
Watch the video below to see the Emerson Choir, under the direction of Scott Rieker and accompanied by Christy Marshall, sing “Seasons of Love,” from Rent. Words and music by Jonathan Larson.
February 12, 2017, “The Witness and the Wilderness: The Self in Relief”
Essy Hart, Guest Speaker; Don Ordway, Worship Associate
Different types of spiritual work require and replenish different resources for our work in the world. We may find that our wild, Pagan joy is restored in the reflective witness of the Buddha. Our willingness to pray may be unearthed in surrender to a deep desire to dance. Trusting the higher self is a practice. We come into focus when we lean into whatever makes us quake, whatever allows for transformation and awakening.
This morning we will explore the power, mischief, and sacred nature of contradiction. Essy Hart will provide the music for this service.
Click on the video below for a segment of Essy Hart’s sermon, “The Witness and the Wilderness: The Self in Relief.” If you wish to read the entire sermon, click on the PDF file below the video.
Click on the video below to see Emmalinda MacLean, Director of Religious Education, telling the “The Disappearing Boy,” a story written by Essy Hart (seated next to Emmalinda).
Click on the video below to see and hear more of Essy Hart’s sermon and singing on February 12, 2017.
February 5, 2017, “BUILDING BRIDGES, NOT WALLS”
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Terry Hassman-Paulin, Worship Associate
One of the most vital tasks of any religious community is welcoming in the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee. During a time when walls are being built between people, how might we be a community that breaks down walls and builds bridges of connection and support?
The Emerson Choir, under the direction of Scott Rieker, will sing “Covenant” by Christy Carew Marshall.
Watch the video below, which shows Rev. Matthew McHale delivering his sermon, “Building Bridges, Not Walls.”
“WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE PROPHET IS A JERK:
A Buddhist Meditation on the Book of Jonah”
January 29, 2017
Rev. James Ford; David Early, Worship Associate
Reverend James Ishmael Ford
These days we find ourselves called to speak truth to power. This can be a daunting task for a large number of reasons. Our guest speaker, Reverend James Ford, finds the Book of Jonah a strange and wonderful tale with lessons that might be helpful for all of us in these hard times.
The Reverend James Ishmael Ford served as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister for 25 years. He is Minister Emeritus of the First Unitarian Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Today he serves as community minister affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach. He is also the first UU minister to also be ordained a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and currently guides the Blue Cliff Zen Sangha, which meets at the Long Beach church. His most recent book is If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break.
Watch the video below to see Rev. James Ford delivering his sermon: “What Happens When the Prophet is a Jerk: A Buddhist Meditation on the Book of Jonah.”
Here’s another view of Rev. James Ford preaching on January 29, 2017:
Emmalinda MacLean, Director of Religious Education, tells the children “The Stonecutter’s Tale,” January 29, 2017: Watch the video below:
Watch the video below to see and hear “The Emersons” (Mia Forbes, Rhonda Richard, Hap Palmer, Briana Bandy, and Jeff Bandy) perform “Glorious” by MaMuse.
“PROPHETIC IMAGINATION,” January 22, 2017
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Melissa Marote, Worship Associate
The liberal understanding of what it means to be prophetic is to decry the injustices in our society, but it often overlooks the critical need to offer alternatives to the dominant paradigm. At the beginning of a new presidency, how can we not only fight against injustice, but also use our imagination to nourish and evoke consciousness and perception different than the dominant culture?
Click on the video below to see and hear Rev. Matthew McHale deliver his sermon, “Prophetic Imagination.”
Copy and paste the link below to see another video of Rev. Matthew delivering his sermon, “Prophetic Imagination.”
“RECLAIMING KING, “January 15, 2017
Rev Matthew, Minister; Don Ordway, Worship Associate
Over time, Martin Luther King has been tamed in our collective consciousness, to be remembered and honored solely as someone who nonviolently struggled for civil rights for Black people, and he has become revered by almost all Americans as a great hero. But that sanitized version of King obscures the reality that he was deeply divisive at the time, particularly as he expanded the scope of his radical love, becoming an outspoken critic, not just of racism, but also poverty, militarism, and materialism. This Sunday, we reclaim the radical King, and explore how King’s message can impact us today.
Click on the video below to see Rev. Matthew McHale deliver his sermon, “Reclaiming King.”
“A PROPHET OF THE PEOPLE,” January 8, 2017
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Linda Fitzgerald, Worship Associate
When we talk of prophets, many of us think of the messengers of God in the Hebrew Bible—larger than life people, who stood up for and spoke out against Kings—and offering visions of a better society. Yet, Rebecca Parker says, “It is a mistake to see [the prophet] as an isolated, heroic individual. It is better to see [them] as the crest of a wave.” How might we individually and collectively be part of the upswell?
Click on the link below to see Rev. Matthew delivering his sermon, “A Prophet of the People.”
“PROMISES, PROMISES,” January 1, 2017
Terry Hassman-Paulin, Worship Associate
Each new year provides another opportunity to begin anew. We can wipe the slate clean and start all over. Join in this interactive service to define the promises you’re going to make to yourself, your family, your church, the wider community, the country, and even the planet. Resolve that 2017 will be the year you keep the promises you make!
Posting of our promises for 2017 (top)
One of the small groups discussing their promises (bottom)
For our Special Music, Lynn Prager will sing “Promises, Promises,” by Burt Bacharach.
HOLIDAY PAGEANT, December 18, 2016
Rev. Matthew McHale, Emmalinda MacLean, Director of Religious Education
This year’s multigenerational winter holiday play will re-enact the biblical Nativity story, but in a very UU sort of way. Children, youth, and adults will be able to participate easily in this “no-rehearsal” pageant: when roles are announced by the narrators, anyone can raise their hand to jump up, receive a costume, and join the performance! We will need a team of adults to serve as “stage managers” who can help with props and costumes before and during the actual service; please contact Emmalinda (EmmalindaDRE@gmail.com) if you would like to help. Come and enjoy our always-enjoyable holiday celebration!
Click on the link below to see the pageant!
The Emerson Choir, under the direction of Scott Rieker and accompanied by pianist Christy Marshall will sing, “Pass on the Light” by Cliff Hardin.
BEING PRESENT TO ALL THAT IS, December 11, 2016
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Rhod Zimmerman, Worship Associate
To live is to experience both great joy and profound heartbreak. This Sunday we open ourselves both the beauty and the brokenness of this world, and in so doing begin to experience the presence of the holy.
Click on the video below to see Rev. Matthew deliver his sermon, “Being Present to All That Is.”
Click on the video below to see and hear the “Old Folkies” singing, “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen. They are from left to right, Hap Palmer, Larry Swerdlove, Mia Forbes, and Sindy Swerdlove.
STAYING IN IT, December 4, 2016
KC Slack, Guest Preacher; David Early, Worship Associate
As people concerned with the inherent worth and dignity of every person, who value the interdependent web of all existence, we often find ourselves in awkward, difficult, and uncomfortable situations. We struggle to stay in community together, we struggle to have difficult conversations with friends and family members, we struggle to keep our commitments to justice, and we struggle to keep our commitments to our own well being. Each of these struggles requires presence – requires us to “stay in it” – and remaining present, even through the awkward moments, is a practice.
Note: Toward the end of her sermon, KC Slack mentioned the following websites, which you might want to check out:
safetypinbox.com provides several options for subscription boxes and one time boxes with information and actions for white allies, run by Black women (including the founder of the Ferguson Response network, UU Leslie Mac) and the organization will use profits to further fund Black women activists.
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Traci Davis and Bonnie Norwood, Co-Worship Associates
The ritual of communion began as a time set aside to welcome everyone to a communal table to share food and give thanks. Several members of our Emerson community have graciously offered to bake bread that we will share during our service today to celebrate this season of thanksgiving, the gifts of the earth, and the gifts of our own hands and hearts.
Click on the video below to hear Rev. Matthew deliver his sermon, “Gratitude in Hard Times.”
Memories of the Bread Communion
THREE STORIES OF OUR TIME, November 20, 2016
Rev. Matthew McHale, Settled Minister; David Early, Worship Associate
The stories that we tell shape how we understand the reality in which we live. Stories have the power to make us complacent, leave us in despair, or make us hopeful about future possibilities. Are things just fine as they are? As the fabric of our society and our ecological systems unravel, is all hope lost? Or are we on the verge of turning towards a way of life that is more just, peaceful, and sustainable?
Click on the video below to see “The Woodcutter’s Daughter and the Vanishing Forest,” a story by Rev. Matthew McHale and Emmalinda MacLean, Director of Religious Education.
The Emerson Choir, under the direction of Scott Rieker and accompanied by collaborative pianist Christy Marshall, will sing “Of Time and Memory,” words by Edwin Muir, music by Scott Rieker.
Click on the video below to hear Rev. Matthew McHale’s sermon, “Three Stories of Our Time.”
WHAT NOW, AMERICA? November 13, 2016
Rev. Matthew McHale, Settled Minister; Melissa Marote, Worship Associate
After the campaigns have ended, the polls have closed, and votes have been counted, what lessons can we learn from this election? After perhaps the most toxic and divisive election in our country’s history, how can we find reconciliation and healing? After campaigning and voting to get politicians elected, how can we continue to help bring about the changes necessary for a more just and equitable society?
The Special Music for this service will be “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Ungar; offered by Briana Bandy and Hap Palmer. Click on the video below to hear this beautiful piece of music.
COMING OUT, AND COMING INTO A CIRCLE OF LOVE, October 23, 2016
Rev. Matthew McHale, Minister; Linda Fitzgerald, Worship Associate
Over the past few decades, the LGBTQ community has made tremendous strides for equality. Yet, there is still much work to be done. One of the most important factors has been LGBTQ folks coming out to friends, family, and the public, which remains a vital tool for social transformation, as well as personal healing. But coming out comes with risks, which is why we need religious communities that are welcoming, safe, and affirming for LGBTQ folks.
The Emerson Choir, under the direction of Scott Rieker and accompanied by collaborative pianist Christy Marshall, will perform “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper.
Click on the video below to hear Rev. Matthew McHale’s sermon, “Coming Out, and Coming Into a Circle of Love:
FROM FRAGMENTATION INTO WHOLENESS, October 16, 2016
Jo Green, Guest Speaker; Don Ordway, Worship Associate
Healing means to make whole. Our world today seems to be fragmenting into individual silos of thought, opinion, belief and bias. How can we bring together these fragments of our world and create a new whole? Join us this Sunday to see how we can be cogs in the machine that puts our world together again, to make it whole.
Click on the video below to hear “Glory Bound” by Ruth Moody, performed by Emersonians Briana Bandy, Mia Forbes, Hap Palmer, and Rhonda Richard.
WE COVENANT TOGETHER, September 18, 2016
Rev. Matthew McHale, Settled Minister; Melissa Marote, Lay Worship LeaderThe dominant culture teaches us to think of ourselves in individualistic terms. But that perspective obscures the reality that the human experience is deeply relational. As Unitarian Universalists, we create covenants to articulate how we wish to be with each other. When we covenant together, we are creating relationships of love, trust, and forgiveness. It is in those relationships, like those developed in our Small Group Ministries (which are also known as Covenant Groups) that we can see and be seen by each other, and experience more deeply what it is to be human.Below is a videotape of Rev. Matthew’s sermon, which is divided into two parts.
TROUBLED WATERS, WATER COMMUNION SUNDAY, September 11, 2016
Rev. Matthew McHale, Settled Minister; Terry Hassman-Paulin, Lay Worship Leader
Our annual Water Communion marks the beginning of our church year. This will be Rev. Matthew McHale’s first time preaching as Emerson’s settled minister! It also marks the end of a summer punctuated by a string of shootings, natural disasters, and a vitriolic election season. How can we navigate these troubled waters together? Come welcome Rev. Matthew and bring a small sample of water from your summer vacation for our water communion.
Below is a videotape of Rev. Matthew’s sermon, “Troubled Waters,” on September 11, 2016.
RIDING ALONG WITH KRISHNA, by Dr. Mehrdad Haghi, August 14, 2016
Dr. Mehrdad Haghi delivered a sermon, “Riding Along with Krishna,” on August 14, 2016, at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, Canoga Park, CA. You can read his sermon in its entirety below, following the description of the service.
August 14, 2016
RIDING ALONG WITH KRISHNA
Dr. Mehrdad Haghi, guest speaker; Traci Davis, Lay Worship Leader
Dr. Mehrdad Haghi
The Bhagavad Gita is widely considered to be the heart of Hinduism, and Mahatma Gandhi considered it his spiritual reference book. What can the Gita teach UUs about facing fear, living a worthy life, and finding purpose in what can sometimes feel like a cruel and meaningless world?
A former member who served Emerson as Worship Trustee and Choir Director, Mehrdad Haghi now lives in Orange County and is Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Safety Officer for the College of Engineering at Cal Poly Pomona. He still considers Emerson to be his spiritual home.
Arjuna, greatest of archers and prince of the Pandavas, looked on the battlefield of Kurukshetra and despaired. Life had brought him to a choice between two terrible paths, each one intolerable. He could wage war against his own family and teacher, or he could forsake honor and duty and abandon his homeland to injustice. So he stopped in the middle of field and sat down in his chariot not knowing what to do, there to be advised by his charioteer.
Arjuna’s story is something we can all relate to. Not the first part: I bet we have no more than three or four warrior princes at Emerson. But nearly all of us will at some point in our lives come to a hard place, usually because some aspect of our life has gone horribly wrong. It could be the death of loved one, a health problem, or maybe financial troubles. But we find ourselves sitting on the floor of our chariot, asking some pretty fundamental questions. Not just “How on earth do I get through this,” but maybe “What’s the point of even trying to get through this?” This is where Arjuna’s story can help.
His story is told in the Mahabharata, the longest epic poem in all of literature. In the Mahabharata you will find a prince who builds a castle out of butter and lacquer for his relatives, then tries to burn them down in it. You’ll find a princess who is won as the prize of an archery contest, and then gets married to five princes simultaneously. In short, you’ll find all the wild adventure, intrigue, heroes and gods of the Iliad and Odyssey or the Thousand and One Nights. If you haven’t read either of those, think “Game of Thrones” set to Sanskrit poetry. But among the stories of the Mahabharata, you’ll also find a little philosophical pearl called the Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of The Lord”. It’s a record of the conversation that day between Arjuna and his charioteer, who just happened to be the Lord Krishna. Now for those of you whose Hindu theology is a bit rusty, Krishna is not some minor godling from a backwater of the pantheon. No, Krishna is a full incarnation of Vishnu, the second person of the Hindu trinity. In the Gita, Arjuna is being counseled by God with a capital G.
So if Netflix made the miniseries “American Gita,” its pilot might go something like this: A.J. is all steamed up because his rotten uncle and cousins from Oklahoma have taken over his ranch and won’t give it back. He can’t grab an AR- 15 because in 2016 the United States regained its sanity and outlawed private ownership of assault weapons. (It’s a TV show: you have to suspend disbelief.) So he’s got his celestial bow Gandiva in the pickup, and he’s getting ready to self-defense the no-good claim jumpers clear to kingdom-come, or at least back to Tulsa. But he’s worried because he doesn’t really want to fight his family, and then there’s the karmic backlash to consider. Fortunately, Jesus is riding with him, operating the GPS and giving A.J. some life coaching.
Anyway that’s where the Bhagavad Gita begins, with Krishna advising Arjuna. So what does Krishna tell him? What’s the message of the Gita? Hindu scholars have been debating that for millennia. Mahatma Gandhi found it worthwhile to study the Gita his whole life. And Yale University has a 15 week semester-long course dedicated exclusively to trying to understand the Gita . But Yale students can be a little slow, so I think we can do this in 15 minutes. Arjuna’s problem is that if he does what he thinks he should do, he will be fighting and killing members of his own family, and he believes that this will increase his karmic burden. Now I don’t know if you believe in the Law of Karma, which says that we incur karmic debt for the actions in this life, which we then have to work off in a future incarnation. I personally don’t believe in it, although I absolutely do believe in the Law of Karma’s younger, secular sibling, the Law of What Goes Around Comes Around. But even for those of us who don’t believe in reincarnation there’s a deep truth there, which is that the more we act for purely self-focused reasons, the more narrowly we limit our perspective and the scope of our lives, and that paucity, more often than not, increases suffering. In any event Arjuna’s dilemma goes beyond a single difficult decision. He really needs a way to approach whatever the world throws at him so as to live a good and worthy life, and Krishna’s advice to him is wide-reaching.
Krishna tells Arjuna of three practices that lead to Moksha, or liberation from the cycle of suffering: Karma Yoga, or the practice of selfless service, Bhakti Yoga, or the practice of loving devotion, and Jnana Yoga, or the practice of knowledge and insight. They are considered separate paths, and we’ll discuss them separately, but as you’ll soon see they are all intimately connected: there are two components to Karma Yoga, and it turns out that Bhakti Yoga facilitates the first, and Jnana Yoga facilitates the second.
The first component of Karma Yoga, or selfless service, is acting not out of our own desires, but out of dedication to something greater than ourselves. For the theists among us, a natural choice for that “something greater” is God, and Krishna says as much. The non-theists among us have a little work to do to figure out what that greater thing is. It could be an abstract concept like justice, or liberty. It could be a group of people like your family, or your country, or all life on Earth. Whatever that greater thing is it has to meet two basic criteria. It has to be something you feel a deep personal devotion to, and it has to be something great and enduring. Those two requirements can sometimes be in mild conflict with each other. It’s very easy to feel devoted to your family, but your family isn’t much greater or more enduring than you are. All life on Earth is much closer to eternity, but it can also be harder to have a personal connection with. Which is probably one major reason so many religions have deities that take on human form: to make the eternal accessible.
Of course selfless service is not an alien notion for us: a commitment to service is a component of most world religions in general, and a central pillar of Unitarian Universalism in particular. In part it comes from a recognition that even wonderful things, when done only for one’s self, are ultimately not totally satisfying. At the end of it, you’re left with a bit of a sense of “Is that all?” King Solomon had the definitive word on this feeling in the Book of Ecclesiastes. To paraphrase, he said: “I gained more wisdom than anyone; I became fantastically rich and powerful; I built buildings and monuments and gardens; I sampled the best food and wine; I had wives and concubines. I did everything that people view as valuable and pleasurable, and in the end, it all rings hollow and futile.” There is within us a yearning to be part of something more than ourselves. If you tend to view semi-mystical statements like that with suspicion and scorn, consider this peculiar truth about human nature: for the great majority of us, one of the most effective and reliable ways to feel better is to help someone else. That simple fact, that most of us derive joy from helping others, has been something of a touchstone for me during this last summer. When I get depressed because the morning news is full of fresh acts of intolerance and cruelty, it’s good to remember that somewhere through the collective spirit of humankind there runs a vein of something golden and beautiful.
The second component of Karma Yoga is to let go of all expectations for the results of our service. This one is a familiar part of Eastern religions: Taoists and Buddhists will feel very much at home with doing good work for the sake of doing good work, without becoming attached to the results. I personally struggled with this concept for a long time. I used to think: “How can you care about what you’re working towards, and then not care about how it turns out? Are they advocating apathy?” But it isn’t apathy; it’s more a matter of perspective and acceptance in the spirit of the Serenity Prayer. Of course you should try to change the things you can change, but trying to control things you can’t control is a recipe for unnecessary heartache. Let’s say you decide to swim the English Channel. You wouldn’t just show up on Shakespeare Beach in Dover one day and say, “What the heck, I think I’ll swim to France today. If I make it, great, if I don’t, oh well, whatever.” No: you’d train, you’d look at the weather predictions, you’d hire an experienced pilot to escort you. But having done all of that, you’d still have to go into the water knowing that the outcome depended on the wind, the waves, the currents, and the jellyfish, none of which are under your control.
The second practice Krishna talks about is Bhakti Yoga, or loving devotion. The key notion here is that whatever actions we take in service our something greater should be motivated not by duty, not by obligation, not by the need to keep up appearances, but by gratitude and love. Bhakti Yoga seeks to nurture that love by keeping it fresh and current in our lives and thoughts through ritual, worship, acts of devotion, and meditation. You can find Bhakti Yoga in many world religions. When a Muslim prays five times a day to Allah, that’s not quite Bhakti Yoga: there is remembrance and worship, but the motivation is a complex mixture of love, awe, fear, and duty. When a Sufi prays five times a day to Allah with the overriding motivation of dissolution in loving communion with God, that’s Bhakti Yoga. There are also many examples of Bhakti Yoga in the Bible. In his 2nd letter to the Corinthians Paul says:
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
And you can read about Paul’s missionary journey to Macedonia in the Book of Acts. One day, for example, Paul and Silas are walking around in Philippi, and as usual they get arrested, beaten to a pulp and thrown into the dungeon. And how do they respond? They’re up at midnight, singing songs of praise to the Lord so joyously and loudly that they cause an earthquake! That’s Bhakti Yoga with an exclamation mark and with special effects thrown in for good measure.
As I mentioned before, Bhakti Yoga is its own independent path to enlightenment, but it’s also a big help if your main thing is Karma Yoga and you’re trying to commit yourself to selfless service. That’s because we human beings, as any biological being must, have a powerful instinct for self preservation. Acting against our own interests for any extended period of time feels unnatural and makes us grouchy. The major exception is if you really love something. If I were to walk up to you on the street and tell you to burn your arm, you’d probably have a few choice things to say to me about where I could go and what I could do to myself when I got there. But a parent will run into a burning building without a second thought to save their child. When you really love someone or something, somehow the borders of your instinct for self preservation grow to include them. Love expands us. And in that expansion, there is a hint of Jnana Yoga as well.
The third practice that Krishna speaks of, Jnana Yoga, is both the hardest to explain and also considered the most difficult to follow. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna explains it as understanding the difference between the field of activity and the knower of that field. The field of activity is the physical manifestation, the transient body we live in. The knower of the field is the atman, or soul, which in truth is inseparable from the supreme, all-pervading and eternal consciousness which is Krishna Himself. In understanding the difference between the two, one’s sense of separation from the great All dissolves. People often speak of this as an extinction of the self, but really it’s an infinite expansion of the self.
This is, of course, a hopeless oversimplification of a complex doctrine. But even from everyday considerations it’s clear that the boundaries most people visualize for themselves are much too narrow. It’s worth taking a moment to really think about this. What do you consider to be the boundaries of your self? Is your self your physical body? Is it your thoughts and feelings? Your soul? Let’s start with the collection of chemicals bound in your current body. The atoms in your body were created inside stars and have been a part of countless other objects and creatures before they became part of you. And your skin, respiratory tract and digestive tract are porous. With every single breath you exchange hundreds of quintillions of atoms with the environment. Just from having breathed the air in the sanctuary for the last hour, the body you had when you walked in has been inseparably intermingled with that of every other person here. Radioisotope studies on tissue replacement indicate that outside of a few long lasting items like tooth enamel, cerebral neurons, and the lenses in your eyes, almost every other atom in your body today wasn’t part of you ten years ago. So the separation between your physical body and the world is entirely illusory.
Or maybe your self is not your physical body, but the collection of your thoughts and how you influence the world. But if that’s true, how do you find the edge of a thought? Have you had a friend, a mentor, a teacher, or the cashier in the grocery store say something to you that changed your life? Have you read a book that influenced how you think? If what really defines your self is your thoughts, then your self is spread across the world like a sparkling, ephemeral cloth, touching everyone you ever made an impact on, and everyone they made an impact on, and everyone they made an impact on.
For the discussion of the self as soul you should read the Bhagavad Gita directly. Krishna talks about the soul at length, and he does it using a vocabulary and set of concepts that require serious study to understand. But just based on what we’ve talked about today, if someone were to say “Your skin doesn’t delimit you in space;” if someone were to say “The dates of your birth and death don’t delimit you in time;” if someone were to say “The lines of causation that resulted in you stretch back to the beginning of time, and what you do with your life will echo until time’s end;” if someone were to say “You are a full and integral participant in the evolution of the glorious universe around you,” well you might be inclined to view those statements not as strange and esoteric, but as straightforward declarations of fact.
So there in a nutshell is the basic message of the Bhagavad Gita as adapted for Unitarian Universalists. Find something greater than yourself: something towards which you feel great personal commitment and devotion. Keep that devotion alive and vibrant with daily reminders and expressions of love. Give to it of your time, your energy, your self, openly, unstintingly, joyously. And know deep down that you are not a passing bubble of foam on an uncaring cosmic sea: you are an intrinsic and inseparable part of something vast, beautiful and eternal.
Of course none of this will stop bad things from happening to you. And none of it will stop you from getting hurt when bad things do happen. It’s just that of all that is less important when you walk in the constant awareness that your purpose and your being transcend the mere sum of your daily circumstances.
I can tell you that reading the Bhagavad Gita has been very helpful to me personally in dealing with the latest stage of my daughters’ lives. It’s hard to believe that it was 16 years ago that Sarah was hiding under the Emerson coffee table so she could eat her cookies in peace. I remember rocking them to sleep when they were babies as if it were yesterday, and if I close my eyes, I can almost feel their tiny bodies cuddled up against me, their absence a tingle on my arms and an ache in my chest. I remember looking at those sweet little faces and fervently wishing for them every good thing in life: loyal friends, teachers who would see and bring out the best in them, satisfying work, partners who would be kind and true, strawberry lemonade on sun-splashed beaches and hot chocolate next to the fireplace in winter, health, happiness, love. And now they are 19 and 21 and moving in the world far beyond the tiny sphere over which I have any influence. They are swimming the English Channel, and that means their lives will be long or short, their journeys will be calm or turbulent, they will suffer little or they will suffer greatly. That’s their birthright as finite human beings in an all too imperfect world, and that is a hard pill to swallow. But the Gita reminds me to look again with different eyes and see two strong young women: warm-hearted, thoughtful, committed champions of the Earth determined to leave this planet in better shape than they found it. To worry about them too much would be to commit an error of perspective and miss the main point, which is that, apparently, Lord Krishna has been spending some time riding along with my girls, helping to navigate the Honda Fit.
 RLST 183/SAST 366, The Bhagavad Gita, Hugh Flick
 One common version of the Serenity Prayer is: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” There are many other versions. The prayer originated with American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
 If you actually are thinking of doing this, you’ll want to visit www.channelswimmingassociation.com
 To estimate the number of atoms exchanged between your body and the environment with every breath you can start with the volume of air displaced by your lungs. Most of what goes in also comes back out, but your body absorbs some atoms and expels other atoms, making the chemical composition of the exhaled breath different from the inhaled breath. From that change in the proportions of the gasses, you can calculate the volume of the exchanged gas, and from there it’s a straightforward matter to find the number of atoms exchanged. The result will vary depending on size of the person, the temperature, the elevation, whether the person is at rest or exercising, etc. But a ball-park estimate puts the number of oxygen atoms exchanged per breath at something on the order of 5 x 1020, or 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. And that doesn’t count CO2 or water vapor.
 See for example “Measuring atomic bomb-derived 14C levels in human remains to determine Year of Birth and/or Year of Death,” by Gregory W. L. Hodgins, the final report in August 2009 of a study funded by the US Department of Justice, Document 227839, Award number 2005-IJ-CX-K013, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/227839.pdf, or the older work by Oak Ridge Lab atomic scientist Paul C. Aebersold in 1950s.
The quotation below was the centering thought for the meditation before the sermon.
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”