Radical Acceptance – The Rev. Eva Cameron

To listen to this sermon, click here.

I begin with these words of Victor Frankl, who says: “The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

To me, the term Radical Acceptance invites us to explore this ‘last of the human freedoms.’ It invites us to think about what our attitude is towards circumstances and people who are quite foreign and even odd to us.

There are a number of stories in the sacred scriptures that have to do with encountering people and situations that are quite foreign. In some ways they are quite the same; and in other ways, they are different. The first one that came to my mind is the entire story of the Bhagavad-Gita. Do you know the Gita? In the Gita, it is the radical acceptance of the Ultimate’s plan that is asked of Arjuna. It is a story of a Prince who finds himself in a very interesting setting . . . He is in his war chariot, about to go into battle. And the battle is with a rebellious branch of his own family. The people he would have to kill would be the very people he played with as a child. And with hundreds of thousands lined up of the battlefield for each side, many deaths would be the result of his starting the battle. With this setting, the Ultimate—in the form of Krishna_comes down to sit in the chariot and have a (long!) conversation with him about his decision. This is one of the most beloved stories of Hinduism. The basic message is that the Ultimate’s plan is bigger than we can understand; and we often find ourselves in big and complex situations where is seems like we have to act in a certain way, even though we understand that our actions will cause harm. Anyhow, in this case the Ultimate asks us to have a Radical Acceptance in life that is sometimes mysterious, painful, and complicated.

Perhaps you are thinking: “Yikes! Eva, I don’t believe in God having a plan—by whatever name.” That’s okay, because there is a universal message that still holds. It is about Radical Acceptance. Whether we believe in God or not, or we believe in a divine plan or not, the Hindu story is so beloved because it points to a universal human experience—feeling trapped by a situation which is not your choosing; and like any choice of action you have to make, it will have consequences you’d rather not even think about. The book is so well loved because it translates into one of the tough parts about being human and living as part of a society.

It offers the message that you cannot and should not tear yourself apart with guilt, or a sense that you should have figured out a way to not get yourself into this situation—rather you should find an acceptance, a peace that comes from knowing that sometimes we are not in control of everything—some things are larger than we are.

The next sacred text I’d like to refer to is the Christian teaching found in Luke (19), the story of Zacchaeus. Do you remember this one? It’s the story of a tax collector, a person who most people in society thought of as a cheat, a slimy creature, a traitor to his own people. He wants to meet this teacher everyone is talking about, and after being pushed to the back of the crowd a number of times, climbs up into a tree so that he might get a glimpse. He gets singled out by Jesus and gets to entertain him at his house. All the while, the crowd is abuzz: “He’s with a tax collector, can you believe that? What is he thinking, hanging out with that scoundrel. . . ?” It is a story with the Radical Acceptance of a stranger, someone people didn’t usually hang out with. The story ends with Jesus saying that the people of this house_ our vilified tax collector_is saved; in other words, loved, accepted. And it implies that same Radical Acceptance is asked of us.

This is a little bit different from the other story. In this one, we are asked to have Radical Acceptance in other humans, in order that we may become able to see the divinity in each human, even if their ways seem mysterious to us. Although these situations seem very different outwardly, they are both ways that we get to choose to be Radically Accepting.

When you really think about it, Radical Acceptance is actually an oxymoron because it leads to very strong beliefs. If you radically, whole-heartedly cling to something, accept something, then you have less ability to flex and change, to be accepting!

This can be one of the struggles we Unitarian Universalists have in trying to live within this creedless faith. We welcome and cherish diverse beliefs. We encourage people to have faith, their own faith. And then when they do, sometimes they find that their faith is quite different from someone sitting next to them in church, or even, dare I say it, the minister! So in our Radical Acceptance of others, we find ourselves individually challenged on how to continue to be accepting, and not have to give in, or somehow change our beliefs.

Del [Carpenter] and I were talking about this before I wrote this sermon, and we both feel the real challenge is that we Unitarian Universalists need to translate a lot. If at some point in a service connected to someone else’s theology, what we need to do is translate. Part of Radical Acceptance is doing this translation, so that we actually understand what they are saying at the core, universal level.

We worship for same reasons, same needs. Together we explore what we do to fulfill those needs. Part of understanding that someone’s path of meeting their needs comes from the same kind of need that I have . . . part of reaching the point of connection is reached through a willingness to figure out what the person is trying to say, beyond the point of their choice of words.

I know that my last year in Tulsa when I attended an Evangelical Universalist Christian church, I was rather excited to be able to go to a church with such different practices and feel like I wasn’t going to be beaten up with the weapon of hell. But even though I didn’t find hell, I did have to take some time to get used to the language used in the Christian church, particularly the use of the word Jesus. Being raised UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST, I had always been taught to think of Jesus the human, the great teacher of the past. This was definitely not what the preachers were pointing to in the universal experiences of the soul when they said the word ‘Jesus.’ After some time, I found I could translate the word ‘Jesus’ into: ‘the divine love that I experience in contacting and connecting other humans, or the human community. The very real, tangible, concrete outpouring of love.’ That’s a lot of words to use in place of one word, huh?! But it worked for me.

I told this story to a fellow UU minister at General Assembly this year, one who like me had been raised UU, and so had never developed a relationship with the Jesus of the trinity. We were talking about trying to bridge gaps of understanding in interfaith events. He smiled at my translation. “That’s very useful; I can go with that,” he said.

Radical Acceptance asks that we work on learning the languages of people around us, and really work hard at finding the core message.
This isn’t as odd as it sounds. In truth, as native-born English-speakers, we translate in English, too. All language is symbolic and points at feelings, experiences, and senses that come at us and develop inside us.

It will probably always be true that we will be more philosophically radical-accepting when we actually accept things that are different from our own understanding. If this were not so, we’d be happy worshiping in another place, any place. And when we heard diversity in our own Sunday services, we would smile with delight. For me, personal religion is a journey, and Radical Acceptance is one of those areas to explore and grow into as I move my comfort level, or expand it. It is the very last personal freedom I have, as Frankl said.

The times are changing, the world has become more global, and we are all learning just what that means. We experience much more global travel_much more movement of humans about the globe. We see there is more openness toward other paths. And although this openness is not working so well for the Shi’a and Sunni, and some other old, long-held hatreds, perhaps there is growth. Perhaps the mixing and globalization is helping an increasing number of people to come to at least consider the possibility of accepting the other, the stranger.

I think we Unitarian Universalists can help show the world the way. I found inspiration in these words in a sermon by Jolinda Stephens, the Director of Lifespan Religious Programming at the UU Church of the Monterey Peninsula. She says we are:

“. . .based, not on liking people or thinking alike, but on an act of will that opens us to joining with one another. Just the idea that people with a diversity of beliefs can live together in community is an incredible gift we bring to the world, if we are willing to do the hard work to make that kind of community a reality. If we want a faith community that answers the longing of our hearts, what we must do is hold on to each other, even when we’re angry with one another, even when the vote doesn’t go our way, even when we are bored or our feelings are hurt, even when we’re embarrassed by something we’ve done. We hang on. And then we share with each other our beliefs and the assumptions they are based on, and we talk and we dialogue and we learn… and then we act in harmony because we know each other so well.”

I love her simple words, “We hang on. And then we share . . . .”

From our heritage comes the concept of universal salvation, and with it the inherent worth and dignity of every one. The idea that all are capable of being “saved”_that is, forgiven).

We think of each other as being very different. But biologically, our differences are very tiny. In most western theology, our real differences are even smaller. The real difference in this case is whether any of us are inherently more worthy of salvation. Even the worthiness of the most saintly is nothing compared with the enormity of the gift for those who believe in salvation. Even the one who is 1,000 times more worthy than anyone would need a trillion squared increase in worthiness to become worthy of the gift.

That acceptance which is the most “radical,” the one with the most radical result_salvation, is not seen as radical at all by the being, God, doing the accepting. This is the old teaching of our Universalist heritage. We are accepted; we are universally, and on no doing of our own, accepted and loved—each and every one of us. In the face of the fierce fear preached by some Christian faiths, this is a very powerful message of acceptance.

And in many ways, one can see the call to be radically accepting is a call to be Godlike. The Mahayana Buddhists would say it is a call to be a Boddhisatva: a Buddha-being in the world, spreading loving-kindness. The Muslims would say:“Islam,” which means “submit.” The invitation is universal; and the struggle to heed its call is universal, too. But, I believe that we have the begun on the right path. And that is why I am a Unitarian Universalist.

I return to Del Carpenter’s lovely words of the meditation.

Believe in the Christian God or not,
Believe in a supreme being or not,
Believe in a oneness of the universe or not,
Believe in any of the world’s religions or believe in none.

When breathing is understood,
When life is recognized all around,
When the enormity of the gift is recognized,

When I feel life’s acceptance of me
Then I must accept.

If I feel life’s acceptance of me,
Then I must accept me.
My radical acceptance of me,
Is the beginning of my radical acceptance of you.

If I am unable to radically accept myself,
I am also unable to radically accept you.

Today, we sang the hymn ‘Here we have Gathered.’ In its simple way, it points the way to Radical Acceptance:

May we each be able to “sing together our heart’s own song.”

Sermon by Rev. Cameron
(With due thanks to Del Carpenter, worship associate for this Sunday, for hours of good conversation as this sermon was written)

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