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“So you’re a preacher” he said. It was late about 9:30 in Chicago and it was cold, the January wind tearing at my jacket. I was standing on a train platform waiting for my two hour commute back to northern Indiana where I lived. I told him that I was a seminary student and yes, I was a “preacher”. “How about that” he said, “a man of God.” I didn’t have the heart to clarify just what kind of God he thought I might be a man of. But then again, it didn’t matter. “Just great, just great” he said, “I’ve always admired a man of the cloth”. He continued, “Just found Jesus myself” he said. I shifted, not sure if my discomfort was with the wind or where this conversation was going. My new found friend went on in great detail: he was a bricklayer, he was on this third wife, he had six children and was finally in AA. As he explained his conversion I couldn’t help but notice the sound of contentment in his voice, it was almost contagious. That was a difficult year for me: I was struggling over my new identity, with the death of a close friend and with this expansive faith of ours which required such a broad knowledge. I yearned, I admit, for a simple faith, perhaps the comfort of Jesus.
As we boarded the train together, he naturally sat down right next to me. He pulled out a well-worn copy of the bible and recited his favorite passage from the Gospel of John, “No one shall come onto the father but through me.” I knew that for him this meant that he was already in the arms of a loving God. That in the end, with all his troubles, he would be all right. I have come in the many years since this encounter to feel and know what it is about a simple faith in Jesus that is so refreshing and comforting: If you believe you are saved than there is nothing this world can do to you to hurt you more than for a moment. This kind of faith is not about reason, it’s about feelings. Many of us don’t understand this allure.
But this man understood. He was quite sure of his own salvation. And equally worried about his sister’s soul. She was a Muslim. “What about you, Reverend? What church do you belong to?” he asked. “I’m a Unitarian Universalist” I replied, trying to let the 10 syllables fall out of my mouth slowly. He was quiet for a moment trying to recall where he had heard that before. Then the gleam of recognition, “Oh yeah, I got a friend who is into the Unity stuff – real spiritual.” Alas, we fall again to the arrows of misrecognition. I started to explain the difference, but his stop had arrived and he thanked me and got off.
Perhaps just as well. I would rather have him leave with that warmth. Many days have passed since that cold night. Many more sermons, deaths, births and doubts and I am still before you, a humble servant of the spirit, searching as you are for that faith which will sustain us; the faith of a community like ours with so many different beliefs. A faith that out of our many paths we will find one faith, one theology, a meaning to which we are that draws us together in more than just a freedom to believe. Because my friends the freedom to believe is not an end, but a means to an end, still and always in process before us. We come here out of many branching streams to find ourselves in the current of this beloved community bound by covenant to one another.
But how do we recognize that mighty stream of faith that is ours as a congregation? How do we find common ground in a congregation full of atheists, agnostics, humanists, theists, liberal Christians, Buddhists, (aka Buddhatarians) pagans and those who are culturally Jewish (aka Jewatarians)? I believe that one faith is all around us and part of my mission as your senior minister is to help us collectively find it.
I thought often of my train companion’s description of us as “real spiritual”. For most of our 500-year history, we wouldn’t be accused of that. Although all of that is changing, and changing fast.
Unitarian Universalism is actually the merging of two streams of faith. The Unitarians and the Universalists. The Unitarians have historically believed that God is one; in all people and that the concept of the trinity, that is the father, son and the Holy Ghost, has no basis in reason. This Unity of Experience based on a reason was proposed as early as 325 CE by a Bishop named Arius who was condemned to heresy. Our reasonable approach to religion laid dormant for almost 1000 years until the idea of only One God resurfaced in Eastern Europe, Transylvania to be exact. Francis David, under the emerging protestant reformation and a lenient monarchy established the first Unitarian churches in the world which stand, despite centuries of persecution, to this day. Their altars proclaim “God is One” and in all people, the teaching proclaim that Jesus came to love us all. Many of our American churches, including this one, have partner relationships with these poorer and ancient churches in Eastern Europe. Unitarianism traveled across Europe to Britain and then to the United States and found a welcome home in the Congregationalist churches of New England because the congregation could decide on its own beliefs. This is the basis for our fierce congregational polity: the people, that is all of you, decide the future of our course. Ours is a “covenantal theology”, we are united not so much by common belief as by caring of one another. Protecting our freedom to belief. And with our relational approach to religion came another very unique institution: The free pulpit. We have a free pulpit meaning that I am free to speak the truth in love as I see it. Our flame in this chalice burns for that truth which we seek openly and together.
We are by our nature a faith of heretics. Heresy only means those who disagree with the orthodox. Unitarian’s bedrock lies in three beliefs: One, that religion needs to make some sense; this is why for instance our beliefs cannot deny the truths of science. Two, our beliefs have to fit our experience of the world. And three, we are open to hearing and exploring other religions and ways to the spirit.
What this means is that we have amongst us people who have a strong faith in God, some who would consider themselves Christians, others who would consider themselves Buddhists, some who don’t believe in God, many of us have doubts about God, pagans, earth worshipers and the just plain curious. We are unique on the religious landscape in that as Unitarian Universalists we do not require you to subscribe to any doctrine or creed – just to come and in reason and experience, explore the possible Unity of the Divine.
If our Unitarian heritage appeals more to our minds than our Universalist heritage appeals more to our hearts. Historically, Universalists have believed that we are all saved by a loving God. While the Unitarians cry “God is One” Universalists altars, some even to this day, in the firelands of Ohio declare “God is Love”. Since the time of Origen in the 4th century, we have had a strong belief in the gnosis – or knowledge of God’s love. Early Universalists said that if Jesus died for our sins, he did so for all of us, for all time. Hell was just not the burning issue that it is for many other orthodox religions. All go to heaven; why would a loving Abba, Aramaic for Daddy, as Jesus claimed in his saying condemn any of us to everlasting hell. This idea also had its roots in Eastern Europe and traveled through an underground church founded by Jon Hus using a simple chalice, the communion of God, which he gave to each person, before it was reserved only for the priests. The common chalice, God’s love available to all, is the bottom part of this symbol we light each Sunday. The chalice for God’s loving embrace is our Universalist heritage; the flame for the search for God’s spirit is the flame of truth within it. Universalists have been historically much more emotionally charged than their Unitarian cousins. With that emotion, came a love for music, dancing and heartfelt preaching. Your minister, stands before you as a fifth generation Unitarian but a stronger Universalist. I believe with all my heart that we have some good and openly freeing news for the world…The Spirit is ours to find, hold and celebrate, even if we can’t all agree on what it means.
The Unitarians and the Universalists came together in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations of which this one is a part. It’s a proud and wonderful heritage. Like hubs to a wheel we gather to search for that way to inner meaning using both heart and mind. Our way of religion is open and free and it is not for everybody. Some misunderstand our open spirit as meaning we can belief whatever we want. This is not true. Our WAY of discovery is open, our END of discovery is personal, but the COMMUNITY of searchers that we are is united by principles and practices that provide for open exchange and safety. Not everything goes in a UU church like ours: there are limits. We do not permit hurtful behavior; we put a limit on the espousal of abuse, hatred and exclusion. We are not, as I am fond of saying, the ACLU. We are a religion and while we are an open religion we stand for something.
It’s a rare day that a UU minister quotes a Catholic pope, perhaps a slippery slope but then again, we are living in an increasingly post denominational world and besides, any pope who turns down lunch with Congress to eat with the homeless is a lot more like the Jesus I follow. Much of that one faith that unites our many beliefs lies in something that Pope Francis said to the joint session of Congress. This is what he said: “You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.” He then went on to extol the virtue of caring for our elderly, empowering our young people, climate change and my favorite, the dangers of excess. Talk about speaking truth to power! The pope was extolling what is known in social ethics as the “common good”, in his words “We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.” The common good is the faith that we must and can move beyond self-interest and engage with the world in hopes of changing it. And that, I believe is our one faith: we believe in the creation of a common good. Our faith as a congregation is not in boiling down all our individual beliefs into the lowest common denominator but rather putting those beliefs into the practice of creating a common good. I believe we should move beyond Building Our Own Theology to Creating a Shared Theology that is rooted not in words but in deeds. This is why doing social justice and having a director of social justice is so critical to our faith as a congregation. Without it we are only a club of likeminded people, but with action as our standard we are a faith of One. Our mission statement inspire, connect and act is not a multiple choice (despite the joke which our Methodist friends around the corner put it that the ten commandments are not multiple choice), our mission statement is a process of our faith. Come be inspired, be healed, eat and be fed, then connect with others in this congregation through our small group ministry and our action teams and finally, ACT, it’s the action that is our faith.
Doug Davidoff pointed out that because of the Pope’s leadership; Bishop Frank Caggiano of the Bridgeport Dioceses is directing his 82 parishes in Fairfield County to “turn outward”. Turn outward. That is, I believe the only direction for our faith as a congregation to turn. We do a pretty good job taking care of our own, but we are called to also take care of those around us. I have asked David Vita to work on some metrics to determine the effectiveness of the many social justice causes we are involved in to determine how we might focus our energy, in partnership with our interfaith friends, to turn outward towards helping our neighbors fight the injustice of racism and poverty. I realize that being in partnership with Catholics and Pentecostal people might be uncomfortable, as Daniel Schatz put it “will bring up some of the tension between our UU ideals and the way we sometimes talk about the religions we have chosen to leave, especially when there’s pain involved”. My colleague Daniel Schatz in Philadelphia posted on Facebook that he was considering preaching in Latin today but then observed that this “Pope is “almost one of us.” Which he isn’t, and which is good.” Daniel put it this way “I think the central image will come down to the need for a good bridge – a strong foundation on both shores. It doesn’t bring the shores closer together but allows people to meet in the middle while remaining grounded.”
This is how we make the many one: By acting our faith out in the world, not just here. As Abraham Herschel, the great Jewish thinker and scholar observed, we live in a world where “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We are responsible, that’s our faith. That is our One true God.
This past summer at the UUA General Assembly my colleague Rev. Marlin Lavanhar shared the following in his sermon:
“It was just (9) years after I (had) lost my daughter, who died at the age of 3. I remember talking about her, Sienna, …and how very raw it still (is) was then. She would be 12 this year if she had lived. I’m going to admit something. Sometimes, even now, when I’m visiting a person from my congregation who’s dying, if it seems appropriate I’ll ask them, “When you finally die, if it turns out there really is a heaven on the other side of all this, and you see my little girl Sienna, will you give her a big hug for me and tell her that her mom and brother and I are doing alright and we love her?” And I’ve discovered that it doesn’t matter if the person is a Humanist, a secular-rationalist, a Buddhist or a Theist…There is something in the very humanity of that sincere request (from a broken-hearted father) …together with the humility of facing our mortality …that allows us to suspend our disbelief. It allows us to let go of our own literalism. So that we can bathe together in the warmth and tenderness of the deep longing and the love that begged the request.
“Whatever that is… that sacred place where people can meet… that is beyond belief and that binds us together in our love and our naked humanity… that’s the place I want us to go….Because we are a covenanted people… bound together by a sacred promise. But I’m not sure we’ve ever really lived into all of what that can mean.” (UUA GA, Service of the Living Tradition)
I want our faith to mean something, a love beyond belief, that heals us first and helps us to heal the world next. That movement from the inside out, is the very Oneness we crave and it is ours for the doing. Amen.