CLICK HERE for video of this sermon. CLICK HERE for audio of this sermon.
CLICK HERE for a printable PDF of this sermon.
Every year five thousand UUs from around the country gather in a mid-sized city and engage in debate and celebration. The general assembly is focused on learning and setting a direction for our faith. Next year the Assembly is in Pittsburg. I have been to dozens of these meetings. You always know when the UUs are in town, Tie Dye T-Shirts, and drumming on the street corners.
I want to start today with a story from what is known as the Service of the Living Tradition: a service marking the lives and meaning of the ministers who serve our movement. It is the most attended event every year by clergy and laity alike, full of pomp and circumstance as ministers being honored march in full regalia. Included in this service is the roll call of those who have died, most after 4 or 5 decades of service. Imagine the surprise then when a young woman no more than 35, steps up to the pulpit in full military dress uniform to deliver the sermon, our single greatest honor for a minister. Her name is Rev. Rebekah Montgomery and serves in the Army reserve. As she begins speaking her brisk military demeanor starts to melt towards a pastoral tone reserved for those most in need of compassion. She is fully aware that her presence is dissident for many attending, who see the military as the enemy of our faith. She starts to explain:
“Our legacy of the military chaplaincy is not a recent story—we trace our roots back to George Washington who declared that the role of chaplains was to protect and foster religious freedom and that no faith shall be decreed by government. Some of the very first chaplains in the Continental Army were Unitarian and Universalist, to include our own pioneer minister and founder of the Universalist faith, the Reverend John Murray. …In 2005, I was deployed as the Deputy Task Force Chaplain to Kabul, Afghanistan for an 18-month tour of duty. Over the course of that tour, I travelled to 38 different Forward Operating Bases by massive C-130 airplanes, sleek Chinook helicopters and lumbering Humvees. As a military chaplain, I am a non-combatant which means that I do not carry a weapon, further I am not permitted to ever touch a weapon even in the event of an emergency or total mission failure. I am assigned a chaplain assistant, often known as my bodyguard, and that brave Soldier is responsible for my safety, security, managing my schedule and section property, and most importantly—graciously making my coffee before I get to the office. Since I am a non-combatant, I am often the Soldier responsible for driving our unit ministry team vehicle so my chaplain assistant is able to monitor the perimeter and provide force protection. When traveling through the vast expanses of mountain terrain in Afghanistan, the shortest distance can endure for 8-10 hours if the route is difficult to navigate. On one convoy to provide medical supplies and personnel to an extremely remote area, we drove—strike that—I drove an impossible 10 miles an hour for 9 hours. Up and down steep silky roads, across rocky dry river beds and through narrow passes of mud, clay and dirt. Once the signal was given, every few hours we would stop in a small village and climb out of our dust encased vehicles to stretch our legs.
“Often the most remarkable thing would happen. I would stop our vehicle, push open my heavy door and step outside—take off my Kevlar helmet and brush the sweaty hair off my brow. The villagers would gather around us and kids would peek from behind older children, just watching us. After a few minutes, the one or two villagers around me would swell to 5 or 6—then 9, then 12. The thing is—out in some of these areas—Afghans had never seen a female Soldier. They’d especially never seen a female Soldier driving a Humvee. The reception I received a handful of times is sort of like landing on a strange planet where you think you’re average and nothing out of the ordinary—and everyone else perceives you as a purple dinosaur with green spots and yellow feathers. Then in a hot minute, the Afghans’ world view would completely shatter when the interpreter explained to the amassing crowd before us that I’m an officer and a chaplain, or like one interpreter insisted, “a female mullah” or religious leader in Islam. I have to admit that me, standing here at General Assembly for our Service of the Living Tradition—is a bit like climbing out of that Humvee in Afghanistan. I never thought in all my years that I would have the honor and privilege to stand before you this day. A lifelong UU, formed in the womb of River River UU Congregation in Bethesda, MD, raised in an interracial family with ardent peace activist grandmother—who knew a deep calling to military chaplaincy would catch fire in my belly.”
She goes on to recall how in May of 2012, Tammy Smith was promoted by the army to the rank of Brigadier General. “Good soldiers with significant leadership potential are promoted all the time but this made historical news because she is the first gay openly serving general officer. Her spouse, Tracey Hepner, pinned the stars on BG Smith’s shoulders for the promotion ceremony. Also marking the first time a gay spouse has done so. And which denomination put forth a chaplain who could gladly unite their hearts in marriage? Ours did—because I presided over the first gay wedding in the military.”
As we consider the spiritual theme of change in the month of November, I want to explore how our way of religion has changed, starting with what many consider our political identity. Are we a liberal religion or a religion of liberals? The answer lies within this story about Rebekah, a bi-racial woman raised in a peace activist household who chose to serve her country and her liberal faith at the same time as an Army officer.
The word liberal is often conflated with politics. The assumption is that a liberal is a democrat politically, socially permissive and economically undisciplined. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In its historical sense liberal means, being open to new ideas and promoting liberty and equality. That is what being liberal means. And when used to modify religion as an adjective we get a religion that is open to new ideas and promotes equality. We don’t get a political party; plenty of republicans are open to new ideas and plenty of democrats aren’t. Right here in this congregation we have many who are not open to new ideas and they vote democratic every time. I would challenge most of us, myself included, to ask just how liberal we are every time we make a groan or snide remark about Christians, Republicans or the military. It’s not only not true to our liberal religion it’s downright regressive.
It doesn’t even mean we will act in a certain way, as Rebekah recalled, most of our northern churches were made rich by the cotton trade. As one commentator put it on the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, “church bells tolled in celebration except the Unitarians, for theirs were stuffed with cotton.” Ours is not a proud heritage on the issue of racial liberty, we were decidedly not a religion of liberals. “We look to the UU Church of Charleston, SC where our enslaved fore bearers dug the clay and mud and the earth to make the bricks of the sanctuary walls. In September of last year, the community gathered to install a memorial made from those very same bricks, shaped by hands of people wrongly enslaved, whose sweat and blood created that space. The monument proudly displays the West African symbol from Ghana: the Sankofa, a symbol in the form of a powerful bird that means “looking back in order to move forward”.
The fact of the matter is that while our religion stands for liberal values; peace, justice and equity, we haven’t always been able to live up to those values. While we have been historically open to many new ideas theologically, we are most definitely not a religion of liberals taken in this broader sense. We may tend toward the left end of a political spectrum but as a church we are remarkably conservative; we don’t like change, we don’t like to consider new ideas until they can be proven (even if most of our sister churches are trying it as well), we don’t want to invest our savings in the future. My friends at the Saddleback Church in contrast, a conservative religion, have borrowed over a million dollars for their outreach to AIDS patients in Africa.
Being a liberal religion can have an impact on politics because our moral values have a political dimension, but that is not the same as endorsing a political party. We want you to vote on Tuesday but we don’t tell you how to vote. That is a matter of your individual conscience which is very much at the heart of our values as a liberal religion. Our values can also embrace our veterans whom we honor this Friday on Veterans Day.
The fact is religion, our religion, our congregation is facing a new era. We are not the congregation we were ten years ago. The pandemic only hastened the reality that so-called organized religion is reorganizing into something new. That is part of the reason we are considering a new name of ourselves; to embrace the new beginning we are seeing; younger, more diverse, more nimble to pivot to the needs of our community. In a world of rising authoritarianism, we need to not only provide spiritual sustenance for each other, we also need to be able to mobilize to the needs of our world. Its not an either/or, spirituality vs. religion it’s a both/and. As Rabbi David Wolpe put it:
“Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes, religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself, religion is dissatisfied with the world”. https://ideas.time.com/2013/03/21/viewpoint-the-problem-with-being-spiritual-but-not-religious/
Our religion, our progressive liberal religion is more about getting heaven into people than people into heaven, more interested in preaching practiced than practiced preaching, to paraphrase John Corrado.
Our religion, like our congregation and its being is about finding comfort in the world, but also being called out to acting civilly in the world. And towards one another. We have a covenant of right relations for a reason; it speaks to our best selves, no emails that hurt others, but direct and respectful conversation. Disagreements that are polite and don’t leave a scorched earth. We are, as a liberal religion, covenantal, relational and able to change even if we don’t agree with that change. Do you hear me?
We aren’t a religion of liberals because we aren’t even consistently liberal. Most of you who vote democratic here are fiscally conservative. I am fiscally progressive but socially conservative on such issues as polyamory. As individuals we are all over the map, but as a religion we are not.
I can say with certainty that while we may have some liberals among us we are not a religion of liberals, but we are very much a liberal religion. And therein lays our hope. Our house of hope, as Rebecca Parker put it: “Ours is no caravan of despair.” Religious mission is not easy to live up to it. It can lead people to places they never expected to go and asks things of them they are sure they can do…they can be driven by a force beyond themselves to which they have surrendered.” (House of Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century) That is where a progressive faith like ours can take us; being willing to change especially if it’s outside your comfort zone. We are not like the Y, we are not a member’s services organization, we are a community, striving to be beloved, even if still an aspiration. That is what we are becoming: my vision for us as thriving mid-sized congregation with a strong music program, robust faith formation ministry, compassionate care for the wounded, and a calling to change the world. Do you hear me? The very fact that we have a military chaplain corps is a sign that we are moving beyond politics and into the work of human spiritual renewal. We are open to new ideas. We are open to new spiritual progress.
Our liberal religion harkens back to 1648 wherein the Cambridge Platform we promised to walk in the path of righteousness despite individual feelings. Being a religion of liberals means we are more than a bunch of self-serving individuals. Being a liberal religion means we are a community dedicated to change the world. Being a member of this religion is not always getting what you want, but what the world needs.
Yet to live up to being a liberal religion we must cultivate the one virtue that marks a liberal religion above all else: Respect which I take to be the true appreciation of the other as worthy being is marked not by agreement but by understanding. Repeat. I believe this is closer to the heart of our faith than tolerance; embracing as it does our principles of inherent worth, the acceptance of one another and the right of conscience that is our highest authority as spiritual seekers. Respect is more than just keeping your mouth shut. In fact, it is just the opposite. It involves opening your mouth to ask and your ears to hear and truly understand what the other is trying to say. Most of the time we are mentally preparing a rejoinder to what someone who we don’t agree with is trying to say from whatever position we have quickly judged them to be coming from. If someone should start talking to you about the sanctity of life, for instance, are you listening to what they are saying or are you just assuming that they are going to give you a pro-life, anti-abortion spiel? What if you were to ask them to clarify what they mean by life? Or if someone were to tell you that they were republican, would you take the time to find out just what kind of republican they are? A bunch of liberals may not care, but a liberal religion wants to know.
So, as we move forward, broken as we are, may we remember that our religion, our liberal religion is guided by these principles we love, aspirational, held by the structure of this congregation, respectful and willing to change. As Jesus is reported to have said to those crucified with him, “today you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise is already here. Look around my friends and welcome one another home. Amen.