CLICK HERE to listen to this sermon.
This June marks the 55th anniversary of the merger of Unitarian and Universalism into the UUA. That merger was not without its heartache. The Universalists, those who believed that God is Love, the former hippies of the 19th century had declined from their once mighty status as the fifth largest religion in America with almost 4 million members to a shell of their former selves. The Unitarians, their richer cousins, believers in a unity of God, or in fact, no need for God at all, had been wary of welcoming the Universalists into their ranks. As one wit quipped, the Universalists believed God was too good to damn them and the Unitarians believed they were too good to be damned. Still, after decades of negotiations the two were joined in marriage. While we were founded as a Unitarian Church, we embrace the largely emotional and heartfelt love of our Universalist heritage as a Unitarian Universalist Community.
This is for me a special irony as well. I am a fifth generation Unitarian from an old New England line that more than likely goes back to the Webster families of Massachusetts on my paternal grandmother’s side and the Morehouse’s of Connecticut, related to the Morse clan of Rhode Island. The Morse’s were known for their own deep roots in Unitarianism. And yet with all this stale and heady wind at my back, your minister identifies with the fire breathing spirit of Universalism so much more. The Universalists, like the Unitarians hail from the same Free Church tradition of English Puritanism with the exception that Universalists are avowedly lovers of God and Spirit, not skeptics of bible and doctrine. It’s the Universalists who love to clap and sing, it’s the Universalists that encourage a few amens, and it’s the Universalists that stood at the front lines of abolitionism first, suffrage second (with the likes of Susan B. Anthony) and the labor movement always. It’s the Universalists that take the collection after the sermon hoping that the preacher moved your heart to your wallet, while the Unitarians get the collection out of the way almost as if they were embarrassed by the whole money thing.
We have always been a small denomination in large part because we don’t proselytize, believing as our bumper stickers proclaim that we were “born ok the first time”. No salvation of soul required. But both the Unitarians and the Universalists believed in what William Ellery Channing called, “salvation by character”. And it was, ultimately this truth that united us fifty five years ago. It wasn’t easy. Unitarians and Universalists of that era were not entirely simpatico with one another. It was said at the time that there were Universalists who were afraid that the Unitarians were going to swallow them up . . . and Unitarians who were afraid that they were going to get heartburn.
Heartburn aside it is especially fitting that we look back at the last fifty five years, but more importantly a look ahead to the next fifty years.
We’ve come a long way. Women are over half of our ordained ministry, and we not only can say that we have hundreds of “Welcoming Congregations” but that we’re largely a “Welcoming Movement.” We are along with so many other progressive religions at the cross roads of racial and economic justice. But are we ready for the next fifty years? How will we creatively thrive throughout this century? Unitarian Universalism is a hybrid not unlike many other religions.
We are a diverse population – we will be a multicultural nation in a way our rhetoric has only hinted at before. How will we respond? Will we require all newcomers to our faith to adopt the “UU lifestyle” and mold themselves to fit into the “UU culture”? Or will we allow our movement to change, to grow, to morph as it adapts itself to these newcomers – holding on to the heart of what makes us who we are as a religious people yet allowing it to find ever new expressions in ever changing environments? Will we move beyond our own parochialism to a faith more shared and authentic? How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to screw in a light bulb? We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you that is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence. Our Universalist ancestor L. B. Fisher was once asked where the Universalists stood on some contentious point of theology. He famously replied, “We do not stand. We move!” We have the opportunity – as individuals, as a congregation, as an Association of congregations – to continue that movement.
“American religion is in decline. We are declining much like many other main line denominations. We are in age which sociologists call “post denominationalism”. Community churches and evangelicals especially are the only churches that are growing. Far more important is the absolute number of people who no longer identify with any church or mosque or The reasons are complex, but in short, it has to do with the shifting nature of communities. Churches, even long and established churches, are subject to the transient nature of American society and to the competing interests of the internet and other associations both on line and in community. It’s no accident that almost every major running marathon in this country is held on Sunday. Running is just one more association to give your heart and your money to.” (Adapted from Shana Lynngood’s essay in Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Universalism, Jenkin Lloyd Jones Press at All Souls, Tulsa)
In their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell confirm that a very different view of American religion is forming. Generations younger than age fifty are identifying as “nones” not “nuns”. It’s an unfortunate label because it implies that younger generations are not interested in spirituality. The reality is that the vast majority of these generations are spiritual but not religious. Why? Two reasons: the first is the adverse effect Fundamentalism has had on American Culture. The moral wars around abortion, equal marriage, and now transgender equality in the South have spoiled religion for two entire generations. Religion is suspect generally because it is seen as a political wedge that has been driven into our lives. It doesn’t matter that there are millions of progressive and good religious people such as us out there, the mass media has made all religion suspect. The other reason for declining religion has to do with relevance. The generations that are coming of age around us believe that religion has largely become irrelevant to the problems of the world; hunger, war, homelessness, poverty. We are more interested in maintaining our buildings than feeding the poor. This is one reason I have been so dogged in insisting we turn our attention to the problems in our community. It’s why we are so heavily involved in feeding the hungry, educating low income kids in Bridgeport and helping immigrants find a home. It is why we have joined the Council of Churches in Greater Bridgeport, reaching out in understanding and solidarity with our sisters and brothers in need. Yes, we love our building but the next fifty years requires of us a radical shift to caring for those who are fallen; ours is not a mission to a building but a mission to people. We will need to stop relating to one another by what we believe and start relating to each other by what we do.
What does that mean? That means as the President of the UUA Peter Morales puts it that “we are so immersed in a culture that views religion as a matter of what people believe” that we have lost the view of what our religion teaches us to do. (“Religion Beyond Belief” QUEST Oct 2010) Young people don’t want to sit around and talk about what they believe, they do that on Twitter, Instagram and Face Book. Young people want to put their different beliefs into a common action aimed at doing some good. If we are to be relevant in the next fifty years we will need to be boldly creating justice for the communities we serve; not holding classes on what to believe, but celebrating the brilliance of the Spirit in all in its diversity and then volunteering for Community Plates. The fact of the matter is that while religious attendance is down, volunteerism in humanitarian organizations is way up, mostly filled with young people.
It is not that the coming generations are any less spiritual, just less religious, at least in how religion is practiced now. We are spiritual animals, truly as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “less human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience”. Dr. Lisa Miller who lives here in Westport stopped by the church a few weeks back and left me a copy of her book The Spiritual Child, Dr. Miller who teaches and does research in psychology at Columbia has shown in study after study that children are naturally spiritual beings, seeking abiding answers to the deepest questions of life and appealing naturally to powers greater than themselves. Dr. Miller has created a primer on how to help families become more spiritually vibrant with or without religion. My realization is that not only do we need to be relevant to our communities in serving them, we need to encourage the spiritual life of children and families if we are to thrive in the next fifty years. That is why, Mary Collins, our director of Faith Formation (we are moving away from calling it religious education) is experimenting with different modes of learning and relating to the families who come; encouraging them to bring home the spirituality they encounter in this church. As Shana Lynngood, a 30 something minister in our Church in Victoria, BC put it:
“Spiritual substance comes first. What we believe and the implications of who that calls us to be in the world are integral and critical to our survival as a movement. We are a faith tradition that knocks on your door ….We are knocking because the world is in urgent need of our message, which says that all people matter…. That the well-being of our earth is intrinsically linked with our own future; that peoples in other parts of the globe cry out for peace and we must hear and heed their cry; that people in our towns and cities cry out for food and shelter and a way of life that values being over doing—a way that knows all souls are worthy of love… We stand in a long line of visionary thinkers and believers who call to us. What they dreamed be ours to do, indeed!”
(Shana Lynngood in Reverend X, How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Univeralism, Jenkin Lloyd Jones Press at All Souls, Tulsa)
She, like our intern minister Lara Fuchs, are the ministers who will lead us into the next fifty years. And she, kindly and gently has reminded me of what the next generation needs to know: yes, the history of this deep movement, yes, its beauty and love and acceptance but also, more dancing, more singing, more touching and most of all more service. Our faith will still have congregations in the future, but we will have more ways to connect. I am currently developing a plan to create sacred circles of young adults that meet semi-autonomously from this church and provide intimate communities of spiritual ritual and social action. A sort of super charged small group ministry. This is very much in the planning stages and more of you will have input into this after our intern minister Lara Fuchs arrives in September. The future of our religious movement and this church depends on not standing so much as creatively moving; just as our Universalist forbearers believed. Are we ready to move? Well are we?
Let me tell you what a couple of our kids – those who will one day be leading this church someday – asked me after our animal blessing in my last church: They asked if we could do a service blessing the superheroes! And I asked them who they would come as and one said the Hulk and the other said Captain America! I have been thinking a lot about that suggestion as a prophecy of what we will need to become if we are to move into the next 50 years as a religion of hope and change. We are going to need to come as Superheroes. We aren’t going to be able to sit around and talk about what we believe; the world is going to need us to do a lot more than that. We are going to have to arrive here as superheroes, capes and all, transformed to make the difference for those among us and around us in need of love and assistance. We will need to be ready for action my friends. And as you will hear about next week, the good news is that we are ready to go. Zazam!