Sermon: We Are One And We Are Loved

2019 June 9
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

We Are One and We Are Loved

Ana Levy-Lyons

June 9, 2019

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

 

Someone asked me recently, “so, we are one and we are loved – what does that mean anyway?” These are the two statements with which I end my benediction here every Sunday. Those of you who are children aren’t usually in the sanctuary when I say that, so you might not recognize it, but you would probably have the same question. What exactly does that mean? We are one and we are loved. So I figure I owe you all an answer. There’s a head answer and there’s a heart answer. I’ll give you both. Here’s the head answer.

 

Unitarian Universalism is like a two-headed monster that was born out of two heresies. A heresy is a belief that people of a certain religion find shocking and terrible and wrong. Unitarianism was the heresy that, instead of a trinity, there is just one God (at most). Universalism was the heresy that, instead of sinners going to hell, everyone will be saved and join God in heaven. So the oneness of God and universal salvation. I’ve taken some liberties with these ideas for our time. The oneness of God is really the unity of everything in the universe, including God and all of us and fungi and any aliens that might exist on other planets: we are one. And the universal salvation is not just about what happens after we die, it’s the faith that there is a loving force at the center of the universe that pulls us like gravity towards itself: we are loved.

 

This might be a little New Agey for some of us. Some of us might be skeptical that we are one or loved when sometimes we feel so alone and unloved. Others might be skeptical for other reasons. It’s just not the way everyone thinks about stuff. So I want to share with you a story from a world-class skeptic. His name is Eben Alexander. Eben is a neurosurgeon, which means that he does surgery on people’s brains, which means he has to know a lot about how the brain works. He has gone to fancy medical schools and is a very well-respected doctor. He used to believe what a lot of scientists believe, which is that the physical reality around us is the only reality there is. He also believed that consciousness comes from our brains. Consciousness is the part of each of us that says, “I’m me and I know that I’m alive sitting in this room right now listening to this sermon.” A rock can’t do that, at least as far as we know. Eben Alexander believed that that consciousness comes from our brains.

 

He believed this for his whole life until he had an experience that showed him something very different. And here’s where we get into the heart side of “we are one and we are loved.” In his book, Proof of Heaven, Eben describes how he came down with a terrible disease very suddenly. Within a few hours he was in a coma, which means kind of like being in a deep, deep sleep that you can’t get woken up from. He was in this coma for seven days and then he did wake up. But during those days, he had an experience that he describes as more real than anything he had ever experienced in his whole life. I’m going to tell you the basic outline. This is a kind of story children may be more open to than grownups. So kids, if your grown-ups don’t get it, be nice to them, it’s not their fault, just explain it to them later, okay?

 

Eben went on a journey through three different kinds of reality. First he was in a thick, dark world that felt sort of like earth. He wrote that he felt like an earthworm. He was not aware of liking or not liking this environment; it was like he had always been there and that was all there was.

 

Then he saw a light and as the light got closer, he realized he was no longer looking at the light, he was looking through it. He got sucked through the opening of the light and then he was in another realm. He was flying on a butterfly wing above a gorgeous, green, rolling landscape, with fruit trees and people laughing and children playing and everything bathed in vivid colors and wonderful music. There were angelic beings doing loop-de-loops of joy and he had some kind of a spirit guide with him, riding next to him on the butterfly wing. She taught him things without words, just sending her thoughts directly into his mind. She helped him experience three basic truths about the universe:

       1.      You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.

      2.      You have nothing to fear.

      3.      There is nothing you can do wrong.

I think on some level we all yearn to be embraced like this – to feel loved and to be free from fear. Eben felt like he had just been given the rules to a game he had been playing his whole life without realizing it.

 

And finally his spirit guide led him into a third stage of reality. This one is the hardest to describe because it’s not something that words do well. But he called it “the Core” because he was connecting with something that felt like the core of reality itself. There was something like a ball of light that he sometimes called “the Orb,” sometime called “God,” and sometimes “Om.” It was joy, it was love, and he was not separate from it. He was not separate from anything in the universe. He was not even aware of himself; he had no ego. He was just an eyeball, experiencing everything. When he had questions, the answers came along with the question, like a flower spontaneously blooming alongside it. Sound was not separate from color; touch was not separate from sight. All the separations we normally base our lives on were just illusions. We are one. And the message he had gotten from his spirit guide, he got even more clearly here: love is the foundation of the universe. We are loved.

 

Eben Alexander woke up from his coma, which was quite remarkable itself and eventually regained all his medical knowledge. Now, when people are very sick, they often get hooked up to machines that can show doctors what’s going on inside their body. So when Eben was feeling up to it, he went back to the hospital and he began to look through all of the graphs of his brain waves, all of the blood tests, all of the monitors he had been on while he was sick. And what he found was amazing: during his coma, the entire part of his brain that produces consciousness and allows us to have experiences and see and feel – the part that makes us human – had been completely shut down. As a neuroscientist he could say without a doubt that what he had experienced could not possibly have been generated by his brain.

 

So Eben felt that he had a special responsibility now to share what he had learned with the world – that reality is so much more vast and spectacular than we usually think, that all of it and all of us are one and that we are loved by an unending love – not just in the abstract, but each of us individually loved. He didn’t give up on science at all – he is still absolutely committed to scientific knowledge – he just now knows that what science describes is only a tiny fraction of what’s out there. And now he has a new understanding of the truths that religion tries to convey. So he wrote Proof of Heaven and he gives speeches, you can find him on YouTube. (There’s a wonderful surprise at the end of the book, which I won’t spoil for you, but it’s worth reading it just for that.)

 

It’s important to notice that what I’m talking about here is not something that happens to us after we die. This larger reality is right here, right now – we are living in the middle of so many more dimensions than we can imagine, the love saturates everything – we’re just not usually aware of it. But people who have near death experiences like Eben Alexander, often do become aware of it. They are able to go past the limits of their physical brains. And they come back with stories of their experiences that are a lot like his. Mystics from across the ages who have gone deep in meditation, prayer, or trance – whether they’re Sufis or Hindus or Kabbalists or Catholics – have also experienced these same truths of the nature of reality. And they often return ecstatic at having encountered such love.

 

Some of you might be thinking, well that’s all very interesting, but it has nothing to do with Unitarian Universalism, which is a rationalist faith. You might even think it’s heresy. Au contraire! Both Unitarianism and Universalism are rooted in mystical experiences. On the Unitarian side, think of Emerson and other transcendentalists who wrote about going into the woods and losing their ego, the self, and merging with the divine oneness. Emerson wrote about what he called the Oversoul, the universal essence that we all are part of. Oversoul, Om, Orb, God – it doesn’t really matter what you call it. In his theology there was no wall where we end and the Infinite begins. He wrote about his own experiences of oneness: “In the woods …Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” We are one.

 

On the Universalist side, we have a fascinating character named George deBenneville. He lived 300 years ago. He was highly educated doctor and the first preacher of universalism in the American colonies. Where did he get the idea of universal salvation – the idea that everyone goes to heaven? His own near death experience. He was very sick, perhaps in a coma, who knows. He wrote about it afterwards, how he felt himself die and separate from his body. Like Eben Alexander, he wrote about how he saw wonders that are impossible to put into words. Like Eben he came to a beautiful natural field, infinitely wide, with fruit trees and the air full of such fragrance, it was like incense. And like Eben he had a spirit guide by his side, “whose boundless friendship and love seemed to penetrate through all my inward parts.”

 

Then he had the revelation that became what we know as universalism. The spirit guide said to him: “My dear soul …take courage, the most holy trinity …will restore all his creatures without exception, to …eternal salvation. …[You] shall preach to the lower world …that the most holy trinity hath a pure universal love towards all the human race without exception, and towards each one in particular.” We are loved.

 

Some of us, too, might have had holy moments in our lives, experiences of these deeper truths. Even if we haven’t had a dramatic near death experience, many of us have had flashes of a larger awareness. Maybe it happens in nature, an ocean, a desert, a forest. Maybe it happens when we are alone in prayer or meditation or away on a retreat. Maybe it happens when making love or making music or art or dancing – I personally believe that the creative spark is always a breakthrough from the larger spiritual reality into our physical world. Always! And scientists are now beginning to discover the oneness that mystics have known about for thousands of years. When you get down to the level of subatomic particles, the teeniest, tiniest specs that our world is made of, if you zoom in the microscope closer and closer and closer, we find that there is no line where I end and you begin.

 

What does all this mean for our lives here on this earth? We yearn for the very things that we know deep in our souls to be true. The reason why we’re all here in this room is that we yearn for connection to others, an end to our isolation and separation. And we yearn to love and be loved. This oneness and this love are there for the taking. It’s not somewhere else; it’s right here, right now. Eben Alexander, along with many spiritual teachers, say that we get closer to realizing it when we act with lovingkindness, because in those actions we are aligning ourselves with the loving power of the universe. We play a part in bringing the worlds closer together – the material world and the world of radiant cosmic love. Sometimes kids are better than grownups at getting this. Kids feel this love in a hug and give it right back. The more that all of us can embrace our human neighbors and all the animals and plants of the earth as part of the same great big holy self, the more we can act with compassion and caring protection for all, the closer we will find ourselves to the joy of Om, Orb, Oversoul, Allah, Atman, emptiness, God. May this summer bring you all abundant love, adventures physical and spiritual, and maybe even a little bit of heresy.

One Response
  1. Virginia Slater permalink
    June 17, 2019

    I appreciated reading your sermon this morning. The Adirondack Unitarian-Universalist Community has a membership of 45, and no minister. We were blessed to have Rev. Jane Dwinell with us part-time for one year a few years ago. Her mission was to help us to become more self-reliant while we grow to a size that can sustain a full time minister. In the meantime, we are visited by ministers, and lay leaders from the Canton-Potsdam congregation, and visiting speakers. A number of our congregants have presented services that are rich in content. We also subscribe to Soul Matters for Worship, RE, and Small Group resources. As our Soul Matters facilitator, I have been creating lay lead services the first Sunday of every month (except July and August) for almost a year. Our attendance makes it possible to incorporate a group sharing near the end of our service. All of this makes us a thriving congregation. BTW, I shared your sermon by email to our members.

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