The Biblical story in the book of Exodus, the book about Moses leading the Israelites who were in bondage across the Red Sea to freedom, says that a voice came to Moses out of a burning bush telling him to go back into Egypt and free the Hebrew people. Moses resisted, at first, but then agreed, and he asked the voice from the burning bush, “Who should I say sent me,” and the voice answered, “I AM THAT I AM, tell them I AM has sent you.”
We’re told that a more complete translation of the Hebrew would be ‘I am in the process of becoming,’ making God a verb rather than a noun, a person, place or thing.
Each of us is in the process of becoming – of becoming a person, a more complete or whole person, an authentic person; each of us is in the process of creating a life by what we do and say every day, by what we think and feel moment to moment, by the ways in which we respond to the unexpected, unanticipated and sometimes painful or challenging events of our lives – the way we respond to disappointments or disagreements or the way we respond to traffic jams on the Merritt.
In some cultures it is customary to remain actively involved in the religion of your parents – the religion into which you were born and raised.
Theoretically this is still the norm in our culture – but it’s changing; more and more of us leave the religion of our upbringing in search of a more satisfying faith. Of course that also means that more and more of us simply leave institutional religion altogether.
But religion – the way I mean it – not the religions of the world, the institutions that contain the religion label, but religion in its generic sense – which is universal; all humans have some form of religion, at least as I mean it.
Our ancestors invented various religions as a response to a basic human need in us, the need to make sense out of the experience of being a separate individual, knowing that our individual life is limited and feeling a need to find a sense of meaning, purpose and direction in this life.
To me, religion, in its basic, generic sense, is the lifelong process of making connections with other people, and re-connecting with an ever-changing, aging, failing-and-succeeding self, and a sense of connecting with the natural world of which we are a part.
Some define religion as a relationship with the supernatural or a set of beliefs about the supernatural. To be a ‘real religion,’ they say, you have to have an agreed upon set of beliefs, or creeds, or doctrines, or dogma; and this set of creeds is passed on to the next generation – children are told what to believe: ‘we believe this or that.’
A child needs to feel accepted, to feel part of the family in which he or she is living, and part of the groups in the larger community, and so forth. So they accept the beliefs that are given to them – to question those beliefs would threaten their connection to their family and community.
My friend and colleague in ministry, Forrest Church, offers his working definition of religion, saying:
“Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and knowing we must die…We are the religious animal…we question what life means. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?”
He says that we can answer those questions directly, ‘in deeds of love and works of praise.’
A recent Pew Forum survey found that 44% of Americans are no longer involved in the religion or secular upbringing of their childhood, but have changed religions or changed denominations, or adopted a faith system for the first time, or have abandoned any affiliation altogether.
Because of our freedoms, including the freedom from having religion imposed on us, faith is more fluid, now. The various religions and the wide variety of Christian denominations, and the growing number of Jewish denominations are in a competitive market, offering a little different version of Judaism or Christianity, or offering an alternative like Buddhism, which has become so popular in the last generation, or simply ‘spirituality without religion,’ which we used to call ‘religion without revelation.’
So it’s not that religion matters less than it used to, but it matters in a different way – more people want a faith that fits rather than ‘one size fits all’ or one they’ve outgrown.
The major Christian denominations continue to lose members…the Catholic Church is especially hard hit.
So changing faiths or fluidity is the rule, today, rather than the exception that it once was. In addition to the greater movement from one religious faith to another, there’s a greater religious diversity in our corner of the universe.
The authors of the Pew Forum research struggled with the question of what category in which to include Unitarian Universalists. They wrote that “the Unitarian Universalist faith began in Protestantism, but many of the (Unitarian Universalists) we interviewed don’t consider themselves Christians…so we listed them (UU’s) with those in the ‘other faiths’ category.”
Some folks suggest that we’re really not a religion at all, since we have no creedal, theological beliefs to which each member in good standing must agree; we make no pronouncements about an explainable, definable afterlife, except in our Universalist tradition to assert that ‘all souls are saved,’ or ‘all souls ultimately return to God,’ or that ‘God loves all of his children equally.’
Our Unitarian Universalist religion, or approach to religion, if you prefer, is deeply rooted in Jewish monotheism out of which the Christian religion evolved. Some early Christians disagreed with the notion that Jesus was God – they disagreed with the theology of the Trinity, so they were called Unitarian, meaning God is one, not three; and some disagreed with the idea that God accepts some people into heaven but condemns others to hell, so they were called Universalists because they believed in universal salvation.
That’s how people who came before us ‘became’ Unitarian and Universalists.’
Those theological issues have become less compelling – although some of our forebears were burned at the stake or imprisoned for espousing such beliefs: Michael Servetus, Giordano Bruno and Frances David, eg.
How, then, does one become a Unitarian Universalist today?
Anyone can call him or herself a Unitarian Universalist – indeed there are more people in North America who call themselves UU’s than there are members in one of our congregations; research has shown that there are two or three times as many who, when asked, label themselves as Unitarian than we have as members.
So, do you become a Unitarian Universalist by signing the membership book? I would say ‘no.’When you sign the book you become a member of a congregation – as long as you contribute to that congregation you are an ‘active voting member’ of that congregation. You join a congregation in order to support it and to feel supported in your own life journey.
Do you become a UU when you recite the Purposes and Principles adopted by our member congregations to the UUA in 1984, and later revised? I would say ‘no.’ Lots of people in lots of religious groups have no qualms about any of those seven Principles; they don’t define or distinguish us. They may inspire us; they may make us feel at home here, but they don’t make us Unitarian Universalists – not really.
Do you become a UU when you recite the statement of affirmation we use every Sunday…love is the spirit of this church, etc.? No. But it gives some basic direction to your life journey.
The point is that becoming a UU is not about talk, it’s about walking the walk…it’s about the way you live your life, and the ideals that direct that life – which is to say, it’s about the kind of person you strive to be, to become.
Having a car in the garage doesn’t guarantee its function as a means of transportation – it has to be started up and driven to serve its purpose as an automobile, though it may be a nice show piece.
Religion can be a show piece, too.
Becoming a Unitarian Universalist, then, is a process – it’s not a noun and a name tag or label – it’s a verb.
And, by the way, it’s not about succeeding in the process of striving to become the kind of person you want to be – it’s about the conscious and intentional efforts made in working to be and to become that kind of person.
It’s about realizing that your real religion is expressed in the way you live your life in the real, down-to-earth world every day. It’s about blending the sacred and the secular, which is illustrated beautifully in Brian Friel’s wonderful play, Dancing at Lughnasa, which will be presented in this room next Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It happens to be one of my all-time favorite literary expressions.
In 1992 Dancing at Lughnasa won the Tony for best play, and Patrick Mason won a Tony for best director.
It’s a touching portrait of life in a small Irish fictional town of Ballybeg in Donegal in the summer of 1936.
There are five sisters, one of whom has a child out of wedlock, Michael, whose memories provide the basis of the story.
The five Mundy sisters have a brother Jack, who is a Catholic priest who has worked as a missionary in Uganda, in a small fictional village, Ryanga.
Jack is sent home from Uganda ostensibly because he is suffering from malaria, but more likely because he has lost his faith, or moved beyond it…he has ‘gone native.’
Once out of Africa and back in Balybeg he’s having a hard time remembering things, even the names of his sisters, and common words in his English vocabulary.
Father Jack’s sister Maggie (played next week by my talented wife Lory) asks, “Did you speak Swahili all the time out there, Jack?”
He says, “All the time. Yes. To the people. Swahili. When Europeans call, we speak English Or if we have a – visitor? – a visitation! – from the district commissioner. The present commissioner knows Swahili but he won’t speak it. He’s a stubborn man. He and I fight a lot, but I like him. The Irish outcast he calls me. He is always inviting me to spend a weekend with him in Kampala – to keep me from ‘going native,’ as he calls it.”
His sister Kate is anxious about Jack’s acceptance of the Ryangan ways and wants to bring him back into the fold. She says, “So you’ll soon begin saying Mass again?”
He explained that he said Mass with the Ryangans in the open air in the center of the village. Kate says, “They all gathered together for Mass?”
Jack responds: “Maybe. Or maybe to offer sacrifice to Obi, our Great Goddess of the Earth, so that the crops will flourish. Or maybe to get in touch with our departed fathers for their advice and wisdom. Or maybe to thank the spirits of our tribe if they have been good to us; or to appease them if they’re angry. I complain to (my houseboy) Okawa that our calendar of ceremonies gets fuller every year. At this time of year we celebrate the Festival of the New Yam and the Festival of the sweet Cassava; and they’re both dedicated to our Great Goddess, Obi.”
Kate nervously interrupts: “But these aren’t Christian ceremonies, Jack, are they?”
“Oh, no. The Ryangans have always been faithful to their own beliefs – like these two festivals I’m telling you about…they begin very formally, very solemnly with the ritual sacrifice of a fowl or a goat or a calf down at the bank of the river. Then the ceremonial cutting and anointing of the first yams and the first cassava; and we pass these around in huge wooden bowls. Then the incantation – a chant, really – that expresses our gratitude and that also acts as a rhythm or percussion for the ritual dance. And then when the thanksgiving is over, the dance continues. And the interesting this is that it grows naturally into a secular celebration; so that almost imperceptibly the religious ceremony ends and the community celebration takes over…”
“Oh, yes,” he concludes, “the Ryangans are a remarkable people: there is no distinction between the religious and the secular in their culture. And of course their capacity for fun, for laughing, for practical jokes – they have such open hearts! In some respects they’re not unlike us. You’d love them Maggie. You should come back with me.”
I just wanted to give you a flavor of this marvelous play, directed by Jim Luongo with a wonderful cast from the congregation.
Now to tie that into the point of this sermon:
We can identify with Father Jack who had been living in another culture, speaking their language and gradually losing the notion that his Catholicism is ‘the one and the only true religion.’
Jack was becoming a Unitarian Universalist.
Becoming a Unitarian Universalist is an evolutionary process…it may be a temporary side trip on the larger life journey…a good portion of folks who choose to join our congregation eventually choose to leave for a variety of reasons. Hopefully there time here will contribute to their religious or spiritually growth, wherever they go. Hopefully they will carry the notion that we’re all children in one big family of humankind.
None of us is perfect, but we can continue to make important connections; we can see the sacredness in the secular; we can see the common ingredients in all of human kind, from a village in Africa to a village in Ireland; from a community in Fairfield County to a community in Tibet; from a religion with creedal statements ‘carved in stone,’ to a religion with hope nurtured in the heart.
We are One.