“The Pope, the Polls, People and the Planet”

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, September 27, 2015
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Come into this circle. You belong here. You are welcome here – you are loved here.

We offer you this invitation, at the conclusion of a very remarkable week in American history. Sitting here, now, as we do – in the midst of the visit of Pope Francis to the United States – if we had not told you that the antiphonal reading came from a Unitarian Universalist minister, perhaps it might have been just as easy for us to imagine those words of welcome and inclusion coming from the lips of the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Think about that, for a moment. It is remarkable indeed…

The original title of my sermon today was “The Search for Significance” – and I had planned to reflect on the human religious impulse, which drives us to seek meaning and significance in this life. But I changed my preaching plans midweek – after hearing the message of, and witnessing the public reaction to, a humble man from Argentina, now known to all the world as Pope Francis – a man who has become, in just two short years as the Bishop of Rome, the most significant religious figure in the world today – possibly even in our lifetime.

I, for one, never would have dreamed that I would be moved to preach, in a Unitarian Universalist church … about a Pope. But never say never! This remarkable – and there’s that word again – this remarkable man shatters all the stereotypes. He breaks the mold. He walks, to quote another Unitarian, to the beat of his own drummer. And praise God that he does!

So here I stand, someone who – and this is no exaggeration – had never even known a Catholic, as far as I’m aware, until I was in college (you’ve got to remember that I grew up in the blue collar South, where – unlike Ohio – it seems nearly every family was BaptistSouthern Baptist, to be precise, or at least evangelically Protestant) – but here I am, a UU minister, preaching to a congregation that is probably majority former Catholic – about the Pope. Let me just say, I feel a bit like a fish out of water.

Yet I know that my experience, this past week is shared by many. I know that I am part of the circle – because I have been invited in, unbeliever that I am – and not to try to convert me, or to tell me that I’m not saved. No, I have been invited into a loving and welcoming circle of humanity – as have you.

So let’s look back on some of what has happened, in the past few days – let’s reflect, together, on what I have called “The Pope, the Polls, People and the Planet.”

The visit of this Pope to America could not have come at a better time. Our public discourse has become unbearably painful. Partisan political divisions and rancorous religious debates have poisoned the well from which we drink, such that it often seems as if bitterness and hatred are choking out any message of tolerance – much less, of love. We are far too quick to focus on those things that separate us – often unwilling even to look for areas of agreement. Name-calling, demonization and demagoguery are the norm in our society today.

And into this – riding in a tiny Fiat, right up to the White House; walking humbly into the halls of Congress; speaking softly, in multiple languages, to nearly 200 heads of state at the United Nations – into these places of power and polarization – comes Pope Francis, the very embodiment of humility and compassion; the very voice of forgiveness and acceptance.

Consider his method. He doesn’t emphasize doctrine – but puts his energy, and his considerable moral and ethical and even political capital – into ministering to the hungry, the sick, the poor, the refugees. This afternoon, he will meet with victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse. Instead of pushing dogma, instead of digging in his heels about doctrine (which he knows would simply sow more seeds of division) – he reaches out in compassion. He leads with love.

That is the brilliance of this Pope. By modeling his living and his teaching, dare I say it, on the aspects of Jesus’ living and teaching that include, rather than exclude – that embrace, rather than reject – Pope Francis reaches across the divides that separate us, here in the 21st century. He avoids the my-way-or-the-highway, you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us attitude of many in his position – be they leaders of faith traditions or political movements. Instead, he exudes a genuine and heartfelt love of all. Let me say that again: Pope Francis demonstrates, expresses, embodies a genuine and heartfelt love – for all people. His is a ministry not just for the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics of this world. It is a ministry, for humanity.

This week, we who live in America have gotten a taste of what that type of ministry can mean for people. What it can mean for our planet. Yes – Pope Francis gave well-documented speeches to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, and met with President Obama and many other world leaders. He spoke truth to power – a phrase originally Quaker in origin, by the way – but for just a moment, I ask you to consider more of the other things the Pope has done, while visiting America. He went onto the streets in Harlem, walking among poor and disadvantaged people – black and brown and white, red and yellow – hugging children and parents, the hungry and the homeless. At one point he blessed a large group of refugees and immigrants who had come to America from six different continents.

Two days earlier, on the streets in Washington, D.C., he embraced the five-year old daughter of immigrant workers, who handed him a letter and begged him to “please protect my parents, because every day I am scared they will be taken away.” As I speak, he is scheduled to be visiting a prison in Philadelphia – meeting with accused robbers, rapists and murderers – as well as some of their victims.

In short, my friends, this is a pontiff who both talks the talk and walks the walk of his faith. In the span of five whirlwind days, he has challenged the leaders of the world on everything from greed and corruption to protecting the environment to helping the poor – and he has ministered to what Jesus called “the least of these.” In fact, it’s not hard to imagine the carpenter’s son from Nazareth – if given five days in 21st century America – doing exactly the same things as the immigrant’s son from Buenos Aires has done. Talking the talk, and walking the walk – and doing it all, with a spirit of palpable love and inclusion.

That is because, unlike politicians and even many of the world’s major religious leaders, Pope Francis puts people ahead of polls. He puts the planet, ahead of profits. This is a man who clearly doesn’t consult pundits or pollsters – or, for that matter, it seems, many Catholic higher-ups – before he speaks. Instead, he consults his heart and he consults his God. He prays – and then he speaks from his heart – and right to the heart of the people.

He prioritizes what he calls “the common good” above the acquisition of wealth and power. Heck, just the fact that he uses phrases like “the common good,” is novel, in the dialogue of our day.

But the Pope hardly stops there. In addressing the United Nations this week – and remember, this was a gathering of heads of state and decision makers from almost 200 different countries – he made a truly radical (yet, I would argue, very biblically grounded) proclamation about our planet. “It must be stated,” he declared, “that a true right of the environment does exist.” In other words, not only do humans, and animals (he specifically mentioned both) have what he called “inherent rights” – but the environment itself does, as well.

He made his case thusly: “We human beings are part of the environment,” he said. “We live in communion with it… [We] possess a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements – and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favorable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.”

As a Unitarian Universalist, my heart leapt with joy when I heard the head of the Catholic Church say those words – words that resonate with my own belief in, and reverence for, what we UU’s like to call the “interdependent web of existence” – our seventh principle.

But the Pope was not done. He went on to declare, “Every creature … has an intrinsic value – in its existence, its life, its beauty, and its interdependence with other creatures.” Again, that was not me talking, or another Unitarian Universalist – it was Pope Francis. In those words, I heard strains of both our seventh principle and our first principle – the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Yet careful listeners will notice that Pope Francis – like the saint from whom he has taken both his name, and his inspiration – broadened our first principle beyond just persons, to all living creatures.

Notice as well how the Pope makes the degradation of our planet’s environment – what he at one point referred to as “our common home” – a justice issue. And a universal justice issue at that. Pope Francis refuses to be drawn into the ridiculous, disingenuous partisan political quagmire of debating the validity of climate change. He accepts that human beings are damaging the environment – and thus, in his words, “doing harm to humanity” – and he pulls no punches in pointing out why.

“The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion,” he told the United Nations on Friday. “In effect,” he went on, “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads to the misuse of available natural resources, and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged… Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity, and a grave offense against human rights.”

I don’t know about you, but I find great hope in the fact that such words are coming from the mouth of a Pope – that such ideas, are being heard (and must be taken seriously) by literally billions of people all around this planet. As international leaders approach a couple of very crucial climate summits this fall, having the clout of the leader of the Catholic Church behind such ideas could make a huge difference in our collective human will to make the changes necessary to save our planet, and save ourselves.

Closer to home, too, Pope Francis had very important – and potentially healing – words to say, in addressing our divisive, partisan politics. He began his speech to Congress – with two devout Catholics who rarely agree on any political issue, Joe Biden and John Boehner, sitting right behind him – by saying, “I would like not only to address you, but through you, the entire people of the United States.” So listen, my friends, to what the Pope had to say to us – for I believe these words, and these sentiments, are very important for us to hear, and to take to heart:

“All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by,” he said, “the disturbing social and political situation in the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred, and brutal atrocities – committed even in the name of God, and of religion.

“[And] we know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism – whether religious or any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of religion, [or of] an ideology, or [of] an economic system.

“But there is another temptation,” the Pope continued, “which we must especially guard against – the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil, or, if you will, [only] the righteous, and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide us into these two camps.”

I would submit to you that polarization begins when we judge. When we pre-judge, of course – but also when we post-judge. When we divide, or separate people, in our minds and in our hearts. When we see them, as the Pope put it, as either good or evil people, as either righteous or sinful. And remember, this is the same Pope who famously said, “Who am I, to judge?”

That, right there, is how you overcome polarization. By adopting an attitude of “Who am I, to judge?” Those five words – uttered, from the heart, by this humble man, not long after he became Pope, set the tone for his papacy. They sum up his message to the world. They are his prescription for the polarization that threatens to destroy us – and our planet. They are the simple message of Pope Francis – and they are incredibly powerful. Just look at what that message has wrought, in only five days, in America.

It is a message I pray we take to heart – whether we be former Catholics or current Catholics, pagans or Protestants, atheists or agnostics, or simply diverse Unitarian Universalists, struggling with how to live and love in a world that seems, at times, hell-bent on destruction. We must confront polarization … with love. We must stand on the side of love. Pope Francis – whose views I do not all agree with, of course (and that, after all, is the point!) – Pope Francis offers us a shining example of how we can live together, as human brothers and sisters, despite our differences. Not by ignoring them. Not by allowing ourselves to become obsessed with them. Rather, by living our daily lives humbly and with integrity – but most of all, with love in our hearts.

May the world heed his call. May we heed his call. For to do so just might be to save the people – and save the planet.

Namaste. Shalom. Blessed be. And amen!