Eccentricity in Excelsis

I heard a woman say once that she was a little crazy. No one around her laughed. Everyone just kind of looked at her uncomfortably. Maybe they were wondering whether she was OK, or if she might do something unexpected, or something…well…crazy. But she didn’t. She sensed that maybe people misunderstood her. She went on and said, “Let me clarify. What I mean is that I’m the kind of crazy that if I had money, people would call me eccentric.” Then everyone nodded. They knew exactly what she meant.

In this time of year, we understand a little eccentricity. Eccentricity describes an object’s relationship to a center. For people, this might be a measure of how far away from “normal” or “customary” their actions are. For planets, this is a measure of how much a planet deviates from a perfect circle around what it orbits. Earth is not a good example of eccentricity. We’re just passing the solstice now, but really, the earth keeps a nearly circular orbit around the sun, so it’s not all that eccentric as heavenly bodies go, which might not do as good a job as it should in describing some of its inhabitants.

Does anyone here know anyone who’s a bit eccentric? Well for those of you who don’t, I have two pieces of news for you. The first one is that your friends doknow someone a bit eccentric. And I think you can guess the second one. And that’s OK.

Look, we know where we are, here in a Unitarian Universalist community. In the world of religions or faith communities or even belief systems, we’re not exactly in the center, right? We’re a bit eccentric, stretching out a little farther from the center than other faith communities, right? At least for me, when I consider how my colleagues in ministry see us, that’s certainly the case. I remember, when I was deciding where to study for the ministry, I was considering a school that was really out there, very liberal. And one colleague in ministry said, “So, T. J. You’re already in a tradition that’s kind of ‘out there’…”. He didn’t actually complete the sentence. He didn’t need to. The implication was that he thought I should avoid going fullred commie hippie by also attending sort of an “out there” school.

I mean look at us. We’re sitting here for a Unitarian Universalist Lessons and Carols service. And we’ve lighted the Yule Wreath. We’ve heard from the genius of Maya Angelou. And we’ve been through a Buddhist meditation. It’s fair to say that if someone who was raised in a non-Unitarian Universalist church saw the Lessons and Carols part of our service, but not the Unitarian Universalist part, they’d be a little confused right now. Lessons and Carols is a tradition that dates back only about two centuries. Some of the more doctrinal churches, in the catholic tradition, The Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, began them in Victorian times. There is a set pattern of nine readings, nine prayers, and nine carols. And the format starts with readings about creation, followed by readings about an earth and her people longing, even groaning for a savior. Then there are a few readings about the arrival of that savior as the person of Jesus. And it ends with a retelling of some of the great moral and ethical teachings of the books about the life and sayings of Jesus. Of course, it’s remarkable that one life inspired such powerful expressions of faith, of worship. But what’s even more remarkable is that this inspiration caught on so so fast.

For more than four and a half billion years the planet where we sit, where we wake, and where we slumber, traversed so far its path around the sun. It endured the bombardment of meteors, the growth and recession over and over of glacial formations, the real and appreciable movement of continents atop a molten mantle of churning metals, the springing forth of life in an array and with a patience humans will never fully grasp. The earth endured a lot before the arrival of what we call the “world’s religions” these days.

If you take the history of the earth, and think of it like a 24-hour party, with all of earth’s existence compressed relatively into 24 hours, we can arrange the meteor bombardment time that lasted millions and millions of years over the first few hours. The slow and patient gathering of iron in the crust we call home, the rise and fall of enormous animals—if you arrange all of that, compressed onto a clock face that starts the party the moment the second hand passes 12 am, humans would arrive to the party…at 11:58:43 pm.[1]Out of the twenty-four hours the earth’s been humming through orbit, humans have been humming in harmony for a sum total of one minute and seventeen seconds. Humans’ entire, entire, time on earth is essentially a cat video in the day of the earth’s life. And that’s just human existence.

To understand the time in which many of today’s “world religions” began, really the last 3500 years, we can think about that time in something many people equate closely with time: money. If you had a dollar for every year that Hinduism, arguably the oldest organized religion still practiced on earth, has been around, you’d have a stack of ones about 15 inches high. If you had a stack of one-dollar bills for every year the earth has been around, you’d have a stack 305 mileshigh. And in case you’re wondering, that’s high enough to achieve a little better than low earth orbit, like most of NASA’s weather satellites. And well beyond the distance to the International Space Station. Though not quite as far as Sputnik, the first satellite to achieve low earth elliptical, eccentric orbit.

So it could make a person wonder, it could certainly make a planet wonder, about this strange, new blip in the life of a planet. A planet like earth could look at its very new inhabitants and say to itself, “I tell you, if those creatures had money, I’d call them eccentric.”

And that’s exactly what humankind is. Our development and our proliferation over this planet is not the norm. It’s far from the centerline of the earth’s history. It’s eccentric, the height of eccentricity, or eccentricity in excelsis, if we’re using the Latin we hear in some songs this time of year.

A few days ago, I was getting ready for worship and I saw our slides for the song we’re all about to sing together: “Joy to the World.” But the “original” lyrics were on the slides. The song “Joy to the World” is one of my favorites, for a few reasons. The trumpety feeling it has is fun to sing, and it sort of fits the sensibilities of this time of year. But taking a look at those lyrics that I used to sing every year (starting in September, much to my sainted sister’s horror, but that’s another sermon), kind of made me chuckle.

“He rules the world, with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove, the glories of His righteousness, and the wonders of his love.” Oh, lord. Every year in Unitarian Universalist churches, I hear it: “Ugh, can’t we just sing the original lyrics?” I get that. And in truth, there are a few forms of spiritual maturity wrapped up in doing that. By not ascribing to another’s faith merely by singing a song from that faith, we practice self-determination. By translating the meaning of the words in real time, a spiritual dexterity, or religious sight-reading many of us are good at, you practice interpretation. And these are all noble attributes.

But the opening of “Joy to the World” is tough. “Joy to the World. The lord is come, let earth receive her king.” This phrase considers the arrival of a male human or at least human-ish god, on a scene, on an earth, that’s been going on for four and a half billion years. In geologic time, those years are the blip, the eccentricity, the trip farthest away from the norm. And yes, there are many people of faith who say that is exactly why the mystery, the holding, the inspiration of faith is so strong, so miraculous—becauseit happened so recently. But there are other voices in this conversation.

Some of the best-loved theologians in the Christian traditionsay plainly that much of humanity’s talk of God, including much of the bible, is simply humanity insisting upon itselfin a loud voice.[2]And I’m not talking about some wacky, lefty, Christian minister in Berkeley. Karl Barth, who wrote what most consider the single greatest contribution to Christian thought…in centuries…said that. He also said that God is essentially all-surpassing, unknowable, unfathomable love. And that whatever human experiences might be of that love, whether the event celebrated around this time of year, whether our own experience on earth, whatever they are, those experiences can never give a human the understanding of that love. It’s too huge, too all encompassing, too universally whole. The love Barth describes is one with no beginning and no end, no center and no boundaries. And what lacks a center point, a mid-line, must also lack any eccentricity.

In the highest form of love, love in excelsis, there is no middle ground, because we give all of our heart.

In the highest form of service, service in excelsis, there are no half measures because we are always ready to hold out a hand of aid and comfort.

In the highest form of joy, joy in excelsis, there is no portion too meager, no serving too small, to feed a life inclining to its warming glow.

Look, it’s part of my identity, it’s part of my humor among my friends and colleagues, to be the “out there” the “far out” minister who believes all kinds of things that will get other ministers in trouble and doesn’tbelieve a lot of things that would get other ministers fired. But the longer I’m alive, the more I am convinced that viewing my beliefs through those of our predecessor faiths, feeling like the “far out” faith, is not only unhelpful at times. It is also untrue.

The version of “Joy to the World” we are about to sing, yes, is different from the one so popular in our human culture, or more familiar to us. But trust me, the words we will sing together are not some kind of Unitarian Universalist simplification or bastardization of the lyrics. They are not a dumbing down for people to not get offended. The lyrics in our hymnal are actually more in line with the teachings of the most influential theologians in modern history than the original ones. The only change Barth would make to the lyrics we are about to sing, would come in the third verse. When we get to it, think about what it might be. But since this is a Unitarian Universalist Lessons and Carols, I’ll give you a hint. There is one word he would capitalize.

It is easy to think of Unitarian Universalism as this out there thing, far on the eccentricities of faith communities. And if you compare us to what the world has to offer humans over the past two millennia, you might be right. We might be the lefty, commie satellites in an elliptical, eccentric orbit out in space. But what brings me exceeding joy, almost giddy delight at this time when presents are wrapped and revealed is that the beautiful balance of teachings of our earth, of our beliefs grounded first in that earth, help us to locate ourselves where we should be: here in this world, yes, with our feet planted on the meteor bombarded, glacially ravaged, beautifully bountiful earth, preparing for a new year, when on January 4th, this earth will make its closest approach to the life-giving sun in its orbit, traversing the least eccentric part if its orbit, here where we hope one day that heaven and nature might sing compassion into this world, where we strive over and over, day in, day out, to repeat, to repeat, to repeat the sounding joy of justice coming into this world, where we seek all the places were love may be found, from the lowest valley, to the highest orbit, so that Joy might enter the very heart of this world.

And may it ever be so.

[1]See graphic at https://flowingdata.com/2012/10/09/history-of-earth-in-24-hour-clock/.

[2]Karl Barth, paraphrased fromThe Word of God and the Word of Man(1958).

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