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The Collector 
        



Everyone collects something. Collections provide a thread to your existence, a personal continuum of diverting interest. It tells what you hold important, gives insight into your inspiration, your spirit. You may collect stoneware, or thimbles, or first editions, or tropical fish, but you must collect, it is part of the human imperative. Yes, collections tell you much about the collector. I once knew a fellow who collected the lint from his belly button each morning. His goal was to collect enough to someday knit the world’s most personal sweater. Collections usually take space and money, both in short supply in my household. Today we will examine my prized collection, which takes neither space nor money, the collection that is the contents of my virtual belly button.





“An idea is salvation by imagination.”

    - Frank Lloyd Wright 



“Give me my scallop-shell of quiet, 
   My staff of faith to walk upon, 
My scrip of joy, immortal diet, 
   My bottle of salvation, 
My gown of glory, hope's true gage; 
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage. 

Blood must be my body's balmer; 
   No other balm will there be given: 
Whilst my soul, like quiet palmer, 
   Travelleth towards the land of heaven; 
Over the silver mountains, 
Where spring the nectar fountains; 
   There will I kiss 
   The bowl of bliss; 
And drink mine everlasting fill 
Upon every milken hill. 
My soul will be a-dry before; 
But, after, it will thirst no more. “

    - His Pilgrimage by Sir Walter Raleigh


“One naturally goes first to the sepulchre. It is right in the city, near the western gate; it and the place of the crucifixion, and, in fact, every other place intimately connected with that tremendous event, are ingeniously massed together and covered by one roof -- the dome of the Church of the sepulchre.

The priests tried to show us, through a small screen, a fragment of the genuine Pillar of Flagellation, to which christ was bound when they scourged him. But we could not see it, because it was dark inside the screen. However, a baton is kept here, which the pilgrim thrusts through a hole in the screen, and then he no longer doubts that the true Pillar of Flagellation is in there. He can not have any excuse to doubt it, for he can feel it with the stick. He can feel it as distinctly as he could feel any thing.
Not far from here was a niche where they used to preserve a piece of the True cross, but it is gone, now. This piece of the cross was discovered in the sixteenth century. The Latin priests say it was stolen away, long ago, by priests of another sect. That seems like a hard statement to make, but we know very well that it was stolen, because we have seen the splinter ourselves in many of the cathedrals of Italy and France.

And so we leave the Church of the sepulchre -- the most sacred locality on earth to millions and millions of men, and women, and children, the noble and the humble, bond and free. In its history from the first, and in its tremendous associations, it is the most illustrious edifice in christendom. With all its clap-trap side-shows and unseemly impostures of every kind, it is still grand, reverend, venerable -- for a god died there; for fifteen hundred years its shrines have been wet with the tears of pilgrims from the earth's remotest confines; for more than two hundred, the most gallant knights that ever wielded sword wasted their lives away in a struggle to seize it and hold it sacred from infidel pollution. Even in our own day a war, that cost millions of treasure and rivers of blood, was fought because two rival nations claimed the sole right to put a new dome upon it. history is full of this old Church of the sepulchre -- full of blood that was shed because of the respect and the veneration in which men held the last resting-place of the meek and lowly, the mild and gentle, Prince of Peace!”

    - from the Innocents Abroad - Mark Twain





The Collector

I am a collector. My precious collection is made up of the things that make humans unique among all living things. I collect the building blocks of belief systems. I collect ideas.

Ideas make my heart flutter. I fall in love with an idea only to waiver when another idea sashays beguilingly into my consciousness. How does one remain faithful forever to one idea?

I love ideas for their variety, their beauty, their cleverness, their power, their capacity for delusion, and sometimes their danger. 

I am going to share some of my collection with you this morning. Don’t fret if some of the collection seems a little scary - I think we all agree that scary stuff lends itself to storytelling, as any evening around a campfire confirms. I promise to end with the more edifying elements of my collection, in the spirit of the setting.

Let’s start with a beautiful idea:

Treat others as you wish to be treated. 

This is perhaps the greatest idea in mankind’s repertoire of ideas, a central theme in all the world’s religions, an idea that, if embraced fully, would solve most of mankind’s vexing problems. Such power in one idea. Let’s put that one in a prominent spot in the collection.

But I also mentioned their capacity for danger.

As an example, I recently discovered while reading a biography of the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza, that he had embraced an idea that put his life at risk. An idea bounced around in his head, begging to be shared,  yet it had the power to cost him his life if he did share it. I had this same idea myself some years ago and thought myself clever for my originality - but found that Spinoza had the idea 400 years before me. The idea was that everything in the universe combined forms a consciousness - that the universe itself, of which we are a part, might be called God. He believed this rather than the idea of a supernatural being having infinite consciousness. His idea is called pantheism. It put Spinoza’s life at risk because it was an idea that threatened the monopoly on cosmology maintained by the ermine robed leadership of the Universal Church.

Pantheism is a prized specimen in my idea collection, and while it is an idea that provokes frozen stares when I bring it up with my Christian friends, no one has threatened to kill me over my enchantment with this grand idea. Progress.

Another example from my collection:

People are inherently evil.

I’m fascinated by this idea for it’s pointedness, it’s unwavering certainty, it’s inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy. It is an abstraction so dark it sounds impossible to embrace on it’s surface, excepting that hundreds of millions of our brethren believe it passionately. It is an idea at the core of Christian thought.

It is in my collection, though under lock and key, with garlic and a wooden stake close at hand.

This recalls another set of ideas, ideas within ideas if you will. Here goes:

If you have one set of ideas you will spend eternity in the bliss of heaven, and if you have another set of ideas you will spend eternity in the fires of hell. Countless millions of people think this is absolutely true.

This is an example of why you must handle your collection carefully.

Let me share an idea encapsulated in a story:

A pilgrim was walking across a great plateau and came to a gorge. He proceeded to a bridge over the gorge, and saw a man standing on the edge of the bridge, about to jump off. The pilgrim ran to the man and said "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" the man said. "Well, there's so much to live for!" "Like what?" "Well... are you religious?" the pilgrim asked. The man said yes. "Me too! In fact I am a pilgrim wandering this path in search of meaning. Are you Catholic or Protestant ? "Protestant." "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?" "Baptist" "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?" "Baptist Church of God!" "Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?" "Reformed Baptist Church of God!" "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!" The pilgrim said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off the bridge.

Now there is an idea for you. The most excruciatingly minor difference in belief is justification for murder. 

As you know, this is not a theoretical idea, confined to a joke - it happens everyday in various regions of the world. Consider Northern Ireland. Consider Baghdad. People kill each other every day, all over the world, for the most subtle distinctions in the structure of their religious faith.

Murder justified by Faith. What an idea. You can see why it is part of my collection. I keep it right next to the two headed goat and the unicorn.-


Let’s examine the pilgrim on the bridge a little further. When we observe him for a moment he seems a pleasant enough looking fellow on the surface, earnest, thoughtful, if disastrously presumptuous. His most obvious physical characteristic is the bag over his shoulder. One assumes it contains provisions for his journey, but one would assume wrong. The bag is large and filled to it’s limit. It obviously contains a great burden, as the pilgrim is stooped and struggles against it’s weight. The bag is impeding the pilgrim’s journey, coloring the journey with it’s contents.

So what is in there? 

False assumptions, misplaced certainties, guesses masquerading as truths, comforting delusions, hubris, insecurity posing as confidence, childhood neurosis and anxiety, misinterpretations of experience, superstition and fear pretending to be wisdom.

We all carry metaphorical baggage, it is part of the human condition. We carry experiences and assumptions like so much luggage, always digging into them to color and distort the moment. 

Buddhists believe so strongly in this concept that it is part of the buddhist philosophy. There is a famous buddhist representation of the wheel of karma. One of the figures on the picture is a man with a great bag over his shoulder. The bag represents all of the negative experiences, assumptions, habits, memories, and so forth that we carry with us, distracting us from living in the moment, burdening us with the karmic residue of our lives. The bigger the bag, the more negatives it contains, the greater the burden you carry, the less likely one is to be free of it’s constraints.

Imagine for a moment all these nasty experiences, memories, neurosis, and so forth that you harbor,  these relics of your past that impede your ability to feel content, fulfilled, self-actualized, in the present. Then consider them as the contents of a bag over your shoulder. Every step you take, ever moment of your life, the bag is there, impeding your progress, diverting your attention, making any task at hand more difficult.

So here is another idea in my collection: all humans carry a metaphorical bag over their shoulders. The bag is filled with life’s travails, damaging relics of their past.

Our pilgrim, like most of humanity, carried metaphorical baggage with him, baggage that caused him to miss the point of his spiritual quest. Among the contents of the bag was a false assumption. He believed that a pilgrimage was a destination rather than a journey, and that the destination provides the answer to all life’s questions and mysteries.

Here is my favorite idea, the flagship of my collection: Human consciousness is the result of a mathematical ratio between neurons and DNA. That is to say, consciousness, the self awareness that separates humans from all other life on earth, is not the result of a supernatural being’s favor but rather the result of mankind being the only creature that has evolved to store more information in it’s cerebrum than in it’s DNA. Consciousness emerged when a mutation occurred that made man the first creature whose brain could be aware of it’s own blueprint. This idea explains our singular status among earth’s creatures. It’s implications make me lightheaded with wonder.

Speaking of DNA here’s another grand idea: The genetic blueprint contained in all DNA proves that everything from bacteria, to aspen trees, to grasshoppers, to humans are all cousins on the same family tree. Hallelujah.

Miraculously, DNA also contains a map of our history, literal evidence of the physical journey our ancestors made out of the Rift Valley in Africa to all all points of the compass. Each of us in this room has, in their very cells, a record of their ancestor’s journey across the planet. One might imagine our DNA as a religious relic we carry everywhere with us, a relic of man’s pilgrimage across planet earth. 

We are fortunate to be in this church. One of the attributes of dear souls drawn to Unitarian Universalism is viewing life as a journey not a destination. To most of us, life itself is a pilgrimage, another of my favorite ideas. 

The original idea behind pilgrimage was this: a quizzical soul journeys to some physical destination in order to get closer to God. Historically, a pilgrimage meant a journey on a premeditated geographical path, to a specific geographical place. That place it was assumed, was a meridian, a set of coordinates blessed by the creator, a place that coalesced the faithful with God. 

Pilgrimage is so important to Muslims that the pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the Pillars of Islam. Every Muslim who is physically and financially able must complete the pilgrimage to Mecca in their lifetime.

Christian pilgrimage was a spiritual fad in the middle ages, faded out somewhat, and is now undergoing something of a resurgence, with many of the ancient pilgrimages finding favor once more. The history of pilgrimages in Europe is well documented, allowing us a glimpse at the details of the arduous experience for the medieval pilgrim. 

One pilgrimage of note was across northern Spain, ending in Santiago, the el Camino de Santiago. In the middle ages this pilgrimage held great favor with the Faithful. In this day and age when we all bemoan the commercialization of religion, it is interesting to note that a pervasive pilgrimage industry developed along the path of the el Camino de Santiago. To serve the great number of pilgrims hospitals, churches, hospices, shrines, lodging, eating establishments, and shops for pilgrim supplies and souvenirs sprang up along the trails to the great cathedral in Santiago. Spirituality is lovely, but commerce paid the bills then, as it does now. An essential part of the pilgrimage experience was encompassed in the tradition of religious relics. Not metaphorical relics like I alluded to earlier, but actual physical objects with supernatural healing powers. The el Camino de Santiago pilgrimage was an homage to Saint James and what better way to finesse the hearts of pilgrims than to display relics of Saint James at journey’s end? 

The Saint relic business was a growth industry, a sure fire way to draw the faithful to whatever attraction might be along the path. The difference between a prosperous community and a dismal backwater might be established by the quality of religious relics displayed in their churches. The biggest crowd pleasers were pieces of the mortal form of a saint, that is to say pieces of their dead body. Saint James was represented by bits of bone in the Santiago Cathedral. This seems something of a stretch considering he had been dead well over a thousand years before the Cathedral opened, and his burial site was in dispute. Pilgrims apparently were quite forgiving on the  provenance of a relic. 

While traveling in Europe Mark Twain noted that he had seen enough splinters of the cross ensconced in churches and cathedrals to reconstitute the original with a few splinters left over. You might call him a skeptic. I myself, while visiting a lovely church in Rothenburg Germany, laid eyes on an Altar carved by Germany’s greatest sculpture and wood carver, Tilman Reimenscheider. It is called the Blood Altar. It is so named because it contains a vial with 3 drops of Jesus’ Blood. I was unable to find a docent who could provide me with documentation of the chain of custody of the blood over the 1500 plus years between the Crucifixion and the construction of the altar, a development that detracted from the ambiance of the experience for me, and labeled me as a troublemaker. It is worth noting that thousands of tourists, thousands of pilgrims, visit the Blood Alter every year still, and provide a sizable portion of the community's economic base.

Another idea in my ever growing collection: prosperity and grace can both be delivered by supernatural innards. 

Which brings me to the inevitable thought that crossed my mind while viewing the magnificent work of art that is the Blood Altar. The ultimate religious relic for a church wanting to make a name for itself on the pilgrimage trail would be a relic physically related to Jesus. There is a decided economic advantage to  such a possession. One must acknowledge a logistical problem however. Excepting the stray drop of blood or two, Jesus rose bodily into heaven, leaving behind no pieces of bone, no personal physical object that could be put on display as the ultimate relic and pilgrim magnet on earth. 

Or so one rationally assumes.

But that assumption would underestimate the entrepreneurial nature of mankind, the wonder of our miraculous cerebrum. I ask you now to consider the stunning creative thinking of one genius of the middle ages, a soul who thought so far outside the box as to inspire even a religious skeptic like me to gape jawed wonderment. 

This one soul wouldn’t accept that bodily ascension into heaven was an insurmountable problem for his dream of having a piece of Jesus as a relic to draw the faithful and their donations to his ambitious church. He had a revelation, an idea. Jesus was after all, a Jew. And did not all male Jews undergo a ritual that required the removal of a small amount of living flesh? I think you know where I am going with this. At some point in the Middle ages, over 1500 years after the procedure was presumably performed, a church suddenly created a sensation by having on display the Holy Prepuce of Jesus. It was such a sensation, and caused such envy across the continent in an age where information didn’t filter down to the masses like it does today, that eventually, no less than 13 churches and cathedrals had on display the desiccated detritus of the Prince of Peace’s bris. Up until the 1980s a church in Italy continued to have this relic on display and each year had a festival in it’s honor, parading the Holy Prepuce through the streets, past vendors and souvenir stands. When it comes to matters of Faith friends, anything is possible. 

I think we could agree unanimously that the idea of a Holy Prepuce goes into the idea hall of fame, in a prominent alcove, near the entrance.

-

The removal of living tissue can involve ritual, as we have seen, but is occasionally more haphazard. An idea that resonated with me led to the loss of my finger, a painful example of the power of ideas. 

While I am a religious skeptic, I love church architecture and spent many joyful hours examining European churches when I lived in Germany. I noticed that all European churches, from the most humble to the most majestic, contained stands with votive candles where the faithful could donate a few coins, light a candle, and petition their creator in some fashion. While the supernatural elements left me cold, I found the ritual itself to be inspirational. It seemed so lovely to pause for a moment and recall a loved one, or to meditate on strength or wisdom. Life should be filled with reverence and this struck me as a wonderfully reverent bit of grounded ritual, an idea worth embracing.

When I joined the UU church, with the image of a flame as it’s visual symbol, it occurred to me that a votive stand would be a perfect fit in a UU church, allowing those reticent to take part in joys and concerns to light a candle in a more private, contemplative setting. I took it upon myself to build a votive candle stand to donate to the church and the result is in the rear of the sanctuary. I hope many of you have indulged in it’s meditative quality as I have. 

In the process of building the stand, the process of bringing this idea into creation, I indulged in a brief and misguided moment of haste. I used a broken guide to do a quick bit of joining on a piece of wood that was too thick. The guide failed, my finger dropped onto the blade, the finger was partially severed, and the rest had to be amputated by a surgeon. 

The mechanics of surgically removing the finger was unsettling, as you might surmise. And when we got home after the surgery imagine my surprise when my ex pulled a paper towel out of her purse and indicated that, when the doctor momentarily left the room, she had appropriated my finger from the surgical tray. She was quite proud of herself, having an inquisitive mind and a cast iron stomach. Still reeling from the trauma and the surgery, I did not share her excitement. I didn’t care to see evidence of my disfigurement and said as much. She regarded me as something of an ingrate, but, if I was going to be delicate about it, she offered to bury the finger in the back yard. An image entered my mind of the dog returning from the yard with my severed finger in her mouth, followed by the reflection that I would probably never sleep again. I asked her to dispose  of it in a way that included no possibility of my crossing paths with it, ever.

And now time has passed and oh how I regret my shortsightedness. For the bone and sinew that she cast out that day at my request could have served a greater purpose. It was a relic of my service to the church, a physical representation of my inadvertent sacrifice for the greater good. It could have been placed in a glass container, stored in the drawer in the votive stand and served as a religious relic of this, our spiritual home. I could have been the first UU to have their bones on display in a church. Like the bone relics in Cathedrals around Europe, it would serve as a symbol of faith, or in some of our cases the lack thereof. UUs could have gazed upon it with a mix of awe and giddy revulsion, again like the experience of viewing relics in Europe. But unlike the relics of Europe it would not be an object of manipulative diversion and suspect origin. It would be an authentic symbol of the uncertainty and spiritual clumsiness that UUs, alone among religions, embrace and hold dear.

Since I insisted the finger be thrown away, these glorious possibilities are lost to us. But the thought remains and I like to think of the thought as a synaptic relic, an idea not as concrete as the real thing, though much more hygienic.  

-

So we see that my collection embraces pilgrims and the relics of saints and DNA and consciousness ratios and meditative candles and divine foreskins and a metaphorical bag to throw them all in.

As a collector of ideas I am thrilled to run across something new and unusual, a stimulating and intriguingly novel idea, a new toy to add to my collection. You’ve seen that I play with my collection as surely as if they were components of a toy train set or Lincoln Logs. I configure them in all kinds of ways to see what will happen. If a configuration stands up to reason, experience, and feedback, it becomes part of my belief system. If it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny I put it in the pile with the centaurs and hydra.

Here is how I have some of my collection configured . . . today.

 It is the most glorious thing in the universe to be right here, right now. We must be alive to be right here, right now, and life is the greatest privilege in the universe. As Spinoza posited, we are part of something grandly bigger than ourselves, part of creation, a part of the natural world, part of the consciousness of the universe. We have been blessed by creation with the most unlikely gift in the cosmos, awareness of self. Our miraculous cognitive abilities, combined with our perceptual apparatus and our capacity for memory, make us the recorders of existence, the only recorders of creation, truly the chosen ones. Creation asks only one thing of us as we experience the privilege of life. Treat others like you want to be treated. Our friends studying the relics in our DNA have shown us with something approaching certainty that we are all cousins, descended from one woman in the Rift Valley of Africa only 10000 or so generations ago. We owe it to our cousins to treat them as we want to be treated. It is a family courtesy. 

The privilege of life has responsibilities as well. We must be reverent pilgrims, travelers of life who observe, and record, and consider the experience of life, moment to moment. To accurately serve our mission we must be honest with ourselves, we must be true to the events of our life, true to our pilgrimage. If experience and contemplation shows us that something must be true, we betray our privilege if we convince ourselves it is not true. If experience shows us that something cannot be true, we betray our privilege if we convince ourselves that it is true. 

This obligation, this responsibility to be honest with ourselves, is the way to keep the metaphorical bag over our shoulder free of burdens that detract from purity of judgment, clarity of vision.

They are only burdens if we choose to continue carrying them. They only have power to distort the moment if we allow them.

Our pilgrim on the bridge at the opening of this homily was told from an early age that only one path exists for eternal truth. He carried this idea in the bag over his shoulder long after it had ceased to ring true. He spent his life poisoning the moment by carrying this relic with him.

Scientific research into the DNA we carry in our very cells has proven that all humans are essentially identical in their heritage. We are different only in the ideas and experiences we carry with us.

Let us acknowledge that we must closely examine the ideas that we bear and more closely embrace those that are beautiful and righteous. Let us examine the ideas we bear and let go of those that are encumbrances impeding our journey.

The nature of our pilgrimage is clear and filled with the wonder of creation. It is a journey, never a destination, and the journey is to all points of the compass within you.

Empty the bag, let go of the relics, use that miraculous cerebrum to put any crippling relics that you have outgrown onto a dusty shelf with the bones of saints. Let the pilgrimage begin in earnest, and let the space where the burdens once dwelled be filled with the new ideas and experiences collected each glorious new day.
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