Homily: Justification: a homiletic dialogue by Ana Levy-Lyons and Tom Check

2018 January 21
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons



Justification: Part One

Tom Check:

Rev. Ana, in mid-November you said something from this pulpit that hit me like a lightning bolt.  You were describing that the following Sunday, the day of the annual Hunger Communion service, you would invite the whole congregation to participate in a fast.  You described that fasting is a much more powerful experience if we do it together as a community than if we do it individually, each at our own separate time and place.  And you went on to say – and this is what struck me – that you knew this type of group activity could be hard for those of us who grew up in religions that expected everyone to perform ritual practices together.  That really hit home for me, and I had to park that thought away to pay attention to the rest of the sermon.

I stepped away from the Catholicism of my childhood long ago.  I stopped going to Mass in 1975, a couple of years after I had graduated college and moved to New York City.  But my discomfort with group spiritual practice continues to be a struggle for me.  It’s an unresolved issue I’d like to share with all of you now. 

In school I learned that Martin Luther proclaimed that the Catholic Church of his day was wrong in preaching salvation through faith and good works – Luther professed justification by faith alone.  That God alone can save a person, the person cannot “earn” salvation by performing good works. 

In school I thought the problem was simply that the Catholic church of Luther’s day had made a mistake by “selling” indulgences, which reduce the number of days a person needs to spend in purgatory after dying, before being admitted to heaven.  And that if only the hierarchy had not made themselves rich by selling these indulgences, the Protestant Reformation would never have occurred, and there would still be just one Christian faith. 

After college, even while I was still attending Mass on Sundays, I stopped engaging in community rituals such as abstaining from meat on Fridays, having ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday, and giving up desserts for Lent. 

And once I left the Catholic church altogether, I focused on political and social actions to make an impact on the world – to achieve good for humankind.  I thought of truly good works as being engaged in our society – against war, against prejudice and hatred, and for equality and justice.  I wanted to promote good in the world at a practical level. 

I believed that because my parents felt they were too disenfranchised to have any real impact on society and the world at large, they withdrew into the safer sphere of self, family and religion. I rejected that conclusion, and wanted to achieve good things in the world rather than adhering to religious practice or ritual.  I suppose Luther would have still considered this justification by works rather than faith, but at least it wasn’t the mechanical work of rituals and earning indulgences.

In 1989, my wife Nancy, our son Dan and I joined First Unitarian Brooklyn, primarily because Dan – who is with us here today from Maryland with his wife and children — was then 10 years old, and was asking about God.  Here the three of us found a warm and affirming community, engaging us and challenging us to deepen our values, our insight, and our social action – but without the weight of sacramental rituals that I wanted to avoid.     

So, Rev. Ana, you took me aback in November when you observed that a ritual activity like fasting could be a transformative experience when done together in a community.  Because even in the worship service on Sundays – in hymns, responsive readings, greetings, meditations — I see myself as an individual, independent agent, temporarily acting in parallel with others.  I see my activity as all mine, each of us acting in parallel rather than all of us acting as one. 

So this has opened a larger question for me: in addition to doing good works that have a practical positive impact in the world, is there value in performing spiritual rituals together?




Rev. Ana:

Part 1 response:

In a word, yes. I believe that there is great value in collective spiritual practice and rituals. But before I explain why, I want to talk about this question, as you’ve laid it out, as one of “faith” versus “works.” As you pointed out, those categories go way back, and “works” in the narrowest sense originally referred to the paying of indulgences. You pay this money to gain salvation – it’s all very transactional – and that’s what Martin Luther objected to.


But, also as you pointed out, Martin Luther, if he were alive today, might well include as “works” anything that we misguidedly do in order to achieve salvation or, in Christian terms, “justification.” So the works could include things like providing sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation, giving money to a charity or to First U, or eating a plant-based diet – all nice things to do, but from this one religious perspective, they have nothing to do with salvation.


Tom, you talked about how your family felt so powerless to affect the world that they fled from these kinds of worldly acts. They fled to the relative safety of religious rituals as the source of their justification by faith.


That approach didn’t sit right with you and it doesn’t with me either. We sense intuitively that there is something of deep spiritual value to doing good work in the world. And conversely, we sense that it’s a bit of a spiritual cop out not to. If someone just has “faith” – if they only put ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday and give up dessert for Lent but do nothing of material benefit to anyone, that feels like they’re practicing a stunted form of religion. It means that spiritual practice is not bearing fruit in the world. Such a person may experience a feeling of communion with God. But the communion is only partial if you ignore the face of God as it appears in a child in need or in a forest that’s dying. So I’m completely with you on that.


But as I see it, something is equally lost when a religious community only does “works” – when it sees its only value in doing social justice and political activism. If the community’s success is judged on its quantifiable efficacy in making social change, we will always fail. We will never be as good at protecting voting rights as the ACLU. We will never be as good at combating climate change as 350.org. We will never be as good at saving children’s lives as UNICEF.


We can do a bunch of stuff, even a lot of good stuff, but if we don’t have a shared sense of why we’re doing it and if don’t have a deeper grounding in a spiritual mission that encompasses all of these issues and more, the communion, again, is only partial.

And if, in the course of our good works in the world we are not also transforming ourselves, we remain embedded in the very systems that gave rise to the evils we’re trying to fight. As the great prophet Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”


Religious community and the spiritual practices we share give us a different kind of thinking. And not just intellectual thinking, but a different intuition to understand ourselves, our role in the unfolding story of our time. By intentionally separating ourselves from secular culture for brief spans of hours or days, we gain some freedom from its logic and have a protected space to grow a different logic – one based on love, compassion, generosity, and care for one another and the earth. “Faith” allows us to envision the world, not just as it is, but as it could be.



Justification: Part Two

Tom Check:

Rev. Ana, you’ve just hit on the other conundrum I grapple with – the importance, as you put it, of “transforming ourselves” and “finding a different way to understand ourselves, our role in the unfolding story of our time”.  For just as I more easily see value in social action than in group spiritual practice, I am also more comfortable focusing on my impact on the world than my own spiritual health. 

For example, I am proud to work in the program our Congregation has embraced, to offer sanctuary to immigrants and refugees facing detention or deportation – helping our neighbors who need a safe space and time to plan their next steps.  This work will promote concrete good in our world, by tangibly helping our neighbors in need, and by increasing political pressure to change public policy.  

But in performing this kind of activity, do I also realize and transform myself as a person?  Or can even spiritual practice, whether communal or individual, help me understand myself and become more fully me?  I find that a troubling and intimidating question. 

I find myself still beholden to the calculus I formed years ago:  that I can realize and justify my true self only by pragmatic action that accomplishes something tangible in the world at large. 

Although I profess the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I am a harsh critic of my own worth and dignity.  I measure my own value by the external impact of my actions.  From this perspective, my justification is possible only by the positive impact – by the success – of good works, but not by spiritual practice and certainly not by faith alone, whether in community or individually.      

This perspective is another barrier to my considering a spiritual practice such as fasting.  Again the clouds of my childhood cast a dark shadow in the present.  In childhood, I did not get much recognition or encouragement for my natural curiosity, exploration, or creativity, but was tacitly cautioned to hold back and be still.  So now I see public action as liberating and validating, and I imagine that fasting would reduce my strength and impede that action.  I want the freedom and power to engage in the world. Holding back from activity feels like obediently submitting to authority.

I’m afraid that if I allow myself to focus inward, I will be seduced by some comforting but false reassurance.  That the life force within me is not strong enough to sort out true insight from deception.  That worth and dignity are not inherent within me, and that I can only attain them by my actions in the world.  That if I refocus from outward activity to inward insight, I run the risk of sliding into inertia.                

But in the end, a focus only on public action leaves me without a way to honor myself or practice self-care.  First Unitarian keeps sounding the message that I too have inherent worth and dignity, that I can realize myself, that I can care for myself as well as others.  I have still not adopted a way to do this, but maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m here at First U, engaged in the search for a way forward.       


Rev. Ana:

Part 2 Response:

It sounds like knowing your own worth and dignity is part of your curriculum here at First U. And, in fact, I think it should be part of all of our curricula here. It’s easy to say in theory that someone else has inherent worth and dignity. It’s a lot harder for many of us to believe it about ourselves. Because we are fed exactly the opposite message in mainstream society: we get fed the message that our worth is contingent on many things. When we’re a kid, it might be how popular we are or how good at sports. As we grow up it might be how attractive we are or how much money we make or how many people “like” our latest Facebook post. Our sense of worth may hinge on hitting certain milestones for marriage, career, or having children. Once we have a career, it may hinge on how we advance in that career. Once we have children, it may hinge on how successful they are by these same measures. And then it transfers to the grandchildren, and on and on.


And for some of us, like you, Tom, our sense of self-worth is dependent upon how much quantifiable good we’ve done in the world. Not even how hard we’ve worked at it, but what we’ve actually accomplished. This is a private form of “justification by works.” The idea is that our existence here – the air we breathe, the space we take up – has to be justified. By this calculus, it’s never really acceptable to do things purely for the sake of spiritual growth (that doesn’t help anyone) and certainly you can’t do things just for fun (what a waste!). Obviously if you take “justification by works” to the extreme like this, you wind up burnt out, unhappy, and unable to function.


There is, of course, a very real danger on the other side, as you pointed out, Tom. There’s the overly fragile person always in need of self-care but never seeming to get around to other-care. (Some people are fragile for good reason, and that’s a different situation.) But spirituality can become feel-good and indulgent and never really demand anything of us. We might meditate to lower our stress or fast to improve our health, and it’s satisfying as a kind of private “justification by faith,” but it never translates into a different kind of life. We figure we can’t change politics and can’t change the weather, and so we just retreat and hunker down. This kind of disconnection from the world leads to malaise and ennui and a shrinking sense of personal power.


The Unitarian Universalist concept of the inherent dignity and worth of every person is different. It goes beyond justification by faith or justification by works. It is the radical claim that you and I and each one of us needs no justification at all. We are miracles just as we are. We are loved just as we are. We are blessings just as we are and we don’t need to defend our right to exist.


More importantly, doing spiritual work and doing good work in the world, just like waking and sleeping, are not in opposition. It isn’t a zero sum game. When we step away from the noise of the world, of the constant striving, the relentless engagement with commerce, the weight of everyday responsibilities, we can do essential capacity and strength-building (yes, even through fasting or meditating). Practices like Sabbath or prayer, help us move beyond feeling like we’re chipping away at the problems of the world or reacting to the latest outrage or injustice. Individual spiritual practices, just like communal practices, help us sharpen and broaden a vision of the world we want to see. 


We don’t do good work in the world so that we’ll feel better about ourselves, but that’s generally what happens. By the same token, we don’t do communal practices and rituals so we’ll be able to do more good work in the world, but that’s generally what happens. And both sides of those endeavors should enliven us. They should both be ways to cultivate gratitude for our lives, to feel more connection to all that is, and to grow more love in the world – love of ourselves and towards everyone else. In the end, love is the renewable energy that will save this world. 


And so I say to you, Tom, and also to our new members, and to everyone here today and everyone watching this service streaming: our worth and dignity is our birthright, guaranteed by a cosmic love, non-negotiable. No one and nothing, no failure, no illness, and no defeat can ever take it away. I pray that our community here and the traditions we keep can teach us this holy lesson over and over. And may we all find our deep source of power to do good in the world – the source that, through all the vagaries of life, in the words of the old hymn, “abides with us.”



Comments are closed.