“What Lies Ahead?”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
It is fitting that the third message in my sermon series called Questions of Faith is presented with the question of “What Lies Ahead?” in the context today of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday because it marks the beginning of the Christian Holy Week that culminates next Sunday with Easter. When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem by riding on the back of a donkey in the week that led to his crucifixion, it is said that he was fulfilling yet another sign as a Hebrew messiah, as written in the ancient text. It was told that the messiah who would come to avenge the enemy of the Jewish people would be seen riding a donkey, rather than a horse, to show that the Hebrew people would be avenged by peace, rather than war.
Expectations of a Messiah arose in the Jewish tradition first during and after the Babylonian exile, and then again in the extended occupation of the Jews by the Roman army two thousand years ago.
For some Jews, the details and message of Jesus’ life and death fulfilled their expectations of him as the messiah for humanity. And for other Jews, their messianic expectations did not end with the life and death of Jesus.
Although we will begin to explore the question of “What Lies Ahead for the future of humanity?” in the context of the Abraham traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we will soon broaden the scope to include the Eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, and I’ll add a contemporary global look for today.
The religious question of “What Lies Ahead for the future of humanity?” is a question that is deeply rooted in the cosmologies of individual religious traditions. Cosmology has to do with fundamental beliefs and views about the nature of time and space in the universe and what it means to be an embodied human. The western traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which follow the lineage of Abraham all embrace a concept of time that is linear. For these monotheistic faiths, time and history is moving from a distinct beginning, through middle to an anticipated end.
The area of Systematic Theology to which the question of “What Lies Ahead?” refers is the area called Eschatology – derived from two Greek words meaning “the study of last things”. The last things include juicy topics like death, judgment, heaven and hell.
While the traditions which arose in the Middle East have a linear orientation with the beginning, middle and end in a historical sequence never to be repeated and culminating in a final transformation of humanity and the universe, the traditions of Asian origin assume instead a cyclical view of time. The incredibly expanded Asian view of time sees the same cycles of nature reflected in various epochs of time. They see history as an infinite cycle of creation and destruction, beginning with a time of order and peace through various ages of disorder until peace is eventually restored. For the Asian traditions, human death continues into a physical cycle of rebirth and transformation.
More common in the Western traditions is the notion of an after-life where the human soul is subjected to a day of judgment in another realm of existence. Although the Jewish tradition did not interpret the story of Adam and Eve into a belief of original sin, Christians see the death of Jesus on the cross as an act of atonement for all of humanity’s sinful or fallen nature. This follows the ancient Hebrew notion of sacrifice by one for the purification and renewal of all. For Christians, Jesus’ death and reported resurrection brings about for humanity a salvation through victory over evil and death. Jesus is understood to redeem and restore humanity to its earlier state of innocence.
Overall, we do not find the concept of “millennialism” in the Asian traditions that see the cyclic progression of time as an unlimited chance for human enlightenment, by which is meant, recognizing and realizing one’s own divine nature through various paths of practice and devotion.
Millennialism which we find in the Western religious traditions refers to the expectation that at a certain point in time, human history will experience a dramatic turnabout resulting in the very end of time itself. A millennium, which refers to a thousand years, is a shared expectation of time that several past communities have named. The expectation of these “End Times” is an ancient theme with Jewish roots and common in the time of Jesus.
Religious traditions the world over have anticipated various cataclysmic events as a possible future for humanity. They have fallen into two major categories-environmental disasters and escalated human conflict, or both. The escalated human conflicts are often foretold in mythic proportions of a final battle between virtually superhuman personalities representing the forces of good and evil in the world.
Many people in the world today are actively anticipating the “End Times”, an apocalyptic battle of spiritual adversaries, some of which have ironically sprung from the roots of the same religious tradition – namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Of course, we know that there are other factors beyond purely religious ones that will always affect our notion of humanity’s future. We can’t overlook the significance of economic and political perspectives when informing the religious perspective, to say nothing yet of scientific advances.
When we think of the two major categories of predictions for the future of humanity—environmental disaster and escalated human conflict—where do we as Unitarian Universalists fit into the picture? How do we attempt to answer the question—“What Lies Ahead?”
Well, first of all, despite our Jewish and Christian roots, we do not anticipate, on religious principles, some kind of final conflict between good and evil necessarily, but rather place our faith and our hope in the capacity for human agency and morality. Despite the reality of human frailties and limitations, as UU’s we do not believe in original sin. We believe instead in an essential goodness within humanity which we like to call inherent worth and dignity.
Rather than polarized forces of good and evil, we prefer the notion of an interdependent web of life that calls us to be in right relationships with both our fellow human beings, and the whole circle of life itself, as it is expressed on this precious planet of ours called Earth.
If indeed, any speculation on the future of humanity is a leap of faith – than our speculation as Unitarian Universalist is an optimistic one. A future built on the hope of human resiliency and an instinctual appreciation for life itself. Ours is a leap of faith into the possibility of human justice and of the possibility of humans learning to live in harmony with the Earth that sustains us rather than exploiting it to the point of our own extinction.
Today when we began the service by singing “Woyaya”, we celebrated the UU belief that even though we do not yet fully know how to achieve human justice and harmony in living upon the Earth, we believe it is possible in the future of what lies ahead for humanity.
On Palm Sunday, instead of recalling the procession of a particular human savior, we celebrated the procession of our children, of humanity’s children as they proceed into the future of us all.
On this Palm Sunday as we kick off this church’s Annual Budget Drive with a written testimonial by Bob Ortiz in the Order of Service, we celebrate this congregation’s leap of faith to call a full time settled minister a year and a half ago, believing that ministerial leadership could help secure this congregation’s presence of Unitarian Universalist values in the city of Pensacola’s future. As UU’s we know it is largely up to us what we create in our future together, and so I want to take a moment to encourage everyone again to participate in our Long Range Planning process, to cast a vision of what we hope to achieve as a community over the next five years.
This year we are also reminding longtime members of this church, and informing our new members and newcomers that even as we strive to build a larger church program for music and for the religious education of our children, we are still reaching financially to firmly establish the presence of a full time minister in this congregation’s annual budget. We also want to make the most of the limited resources we have to work with, for example—increasing the use of our building by outside groups to generate operating income for us.
Even though our congregation represents only a small corner of this huge universe, we believe that what we do together in the practicing of basic UU values—celebrating diversity, practicing compassion in human relationships, and building justice in both our human and Earth communities makes a difference. We believe that our message of universal love is a saving message and that investing in our UU values today is our best bet on building a brighter future for the humanity of tomorrow.
In a book entitled “Prayers for a Thousand Years”, Sister Mary Goergen wrote this –
“We are about to enter the 15th million millennium of the universe.
We are about to enter the 4.5 millionth millennium of the Earth.
We are about to enter the 4 million millennium of life.
We are about to enter the 2,600 millennium of humans.
We have entered the 3rd millennium of the Common Era.”
She continues – “We are who we are today because of all that has existed before us. We carry in our bodies and spirits the struggles and changes, joys and sorrows, loves and hates that have occurred throughout all time.”
As we anticipate what lies ahead in the future of humanity, may we walk gently upon our precious planet Earth and reach out to the whole of humanity despite our differences—religious, economic and political.
Let us recognize our common humanity in the treasured hopes we have for all of humanity’s children, and heed the spirit of these words of Albert Einstein – “There lies before us, if we choose, continued progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom. Shall we instead choose death because we can’t forget our quarrels? We appeal, as human beings, to human beings! Remember our common humanity and forget the rest.”