A sermon by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, January 7, 2018
In 1819, William Ellery Channing delivered the sermon “Unitarian Christianity” at the ordination service of the Rev. Jared Sparks at the First Independent (now Unitarian) Church of Baltimore. The sermon, coming in at a little over 13,000, words, is a marathon by modern standards. In it, Channing boldly claimed, in an era when ministers commonly preached about a god who ruled the world with a cold and brutal distance from humankind was over. Instead, a new, progressive era had finally arrived, and science and philosophy, and their methods, would now be applied to faith. The tyranny of supernaturalism was over; the era of faith informed by rationality had finally arrived. In other words, Channing celebrated the end of an irrational Christian faith, which he regarded as a collection of “gross and cherish[ed] corruptions”; the vengeful god of yesterday was dead, and the God of science and reason and progress had arrived.
Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity” was a bold departure from Calvin’s fundamentalism and the Catholic Church’s supernaturalism that offered a god who dealt wrath and vengeance to sinners and unbelievers alike.
And now, nearly 200 years later, Unitarian Universalism is radically different than it was when Channing delivered the very sermon that gave our movement its intellectual framework and societal legitimacy. It was to American Christianity what genetic therapy is to medicine today: it was a paradigm shift. And if we could rouse Channing from the dead and bring him along for a tour of Unitarian Universalism today he’d hardly recognize it all, aside from the churches of his era that still stand. What Channing would have trouble figuring out is our belief; he’d wonder if we actually believe in anything at all. And who could blame him? One of the most frequent questions I get from people when I say I’m a Unitarian Universalist is, “So, what do you all believe in?”
When people ask me what UUs believe in I usually ask them how much time they have.
I could attempt to answer the question using our history, which is to say: We’re a progressive religious movement that has its beginnings in liberal Christianity. Or, I could attempt an answer by saying we believe in the Free and Responsible search for Truth and Meaning. Or, I could say we’re a collection of Atheists, Christians, Buddhists, and so on.
“But do you all believe in God or not?” my friends in seminary asked me from time-to-time. This morning’s sermon is an attempt to answer these questions. My hope and faith is that you all regard this as the beginning and not the end of a vital question, one that can be answered only for yourself.
Many UU churches have religious reputations. During the nine years I spent in St. Louis, I attended and also worked, in some capacity, at each of the four UU churches in the area.
As you might imagine, each of the churches have unique and defining characteristics. For instance, William Greenleaf Eliot founded the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis (originally named Church of the Messiah), where I served as an intern minister. Eliot is a giant in our movement who is barely talked about today; he helped create sanitation standards still practiced in cities today; he also founded the St. Louis Art Museum, the Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School, and Washington University (he was also the grandfather of the Nobel Prize winning poet T. S. Eliot). Eliot was a traditional Unitarian by the standards of his era; he believed in God and regarded Jesus as an exemplar of human conduct, upon whom Eliot modeled his life after.
As a result, the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis, to this day, maintains a reputation as a traditional, if not conservative UU church. However, when I was the intern there, the minister at the time was a practicing Buddhist. He was so not Christian that his Easter sermon that year was about a three-headed demon dog that rises from the dead each spring to mix things up on earth, thus keeping us earthlings alert by injecting a bit of chaos from the underworld into our boring old human dimension. In other words, my first mentor preached a horror story . . . on Easter.
Meanwhile, across town at Eliot Unitarian Chapel, where my wife and I maintain our membership (and pledge), has a reputation as a thoroughly humanist congregation that dates back to the 60s when a group calling themselves the Friday Freethinkers started meeting there to discuss philosophy and secular humanism.
Eliot maintains a reputation as a socially progressive, humanist congregation, despite the fact that in 1973 a young, Christian, Republican minister arrived there after serving the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau for four years. That young minister ended up serving Eliot Chapel for 28 years, and still yet, Eliot has never lost its socially liberal and religiously humanistic reputation.
Interestingly, Eliot’s current minister is a practicing Christian who gets criticized not for her theism, but for her deep commitment to the Black Lives Matter justice movement.
Each of the churches and ministers I mentioned are special. All of them are capable of great ministries. Their unique characteristics are indicative of a broader complexity we, as UUs, experience when asked to define Unitarian Universalism. And, with histories as unconventional as Unitarian Universalism’s, it’s easy to understand why some of us, myself included, struggle to answer the question, “So, what do UUs believe in?”
Some find our theology frustrating. Unitarian Universalism is often criticized for lacking rules and definition. I’ve heard our Tradition negatively characterized as a spiritual smorgasbord, a place where people grab what they like, leave what they don’t, and practice a coffee-table book style devotion that hollows out religions and philosophies for selfish interests rather than deep practice. And this criticism doesn’t just come from people on the outside; it comes from UU theologians and congregants just as often. The secularism and resistance to our historical belief in God is a modern predicament, one that’s being negotiated within our congregations, and also within our movement as a whole. Even with this complexity, the heart of our Tradition has always kept faith in humanity, faith in the individual; and, as Abraham Lincoln wrote in his first inaugural, trust in “the better angels of our nature.”
As a child, I was not encouraged to be an individual. Furthermore, I never received the cosmopolitan religious education our UU congregations offer today. I inherited the faith of my mother. Like the Catholics and Calvinists of the 19th Century, I once believed in a jealous, vengeful god. On car rides I’d sometimes stare fearfully skyward, worrying that God might, at any moment, rip through the clouds and send down fiery judgment on the world.
I was raised in the Assemblies of God (AG) church. For those of you unfamiliar with the AG church, it’s a conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist Christian movement. In other words, they believe that there are the elect and then there’s the damned, and that how you become one of the elect is to think and act like you’re told to; and they believe that God authored the Bible.
Furthermore, they’re socially conservative. They have their own educational institutions, one of which I was sent in the 7th and 8th grade. The curriculum is entirely religious and corporal punishment was practiced on boys and girls alike, and done so by my headmaster with fanatical enthusiasm.
And church, for us, wasn’t a weekend occasion; it was a way of life. We went to church on Monday nights, Wednesday nights, and twice each Sunday. And the services weren’t a neat and tidy one hour fifteen minutes; they usually lasted about three to seven hours. I can remember a getting there at 9 AM and leaving long after it had turned dark.
And, truth be told, I practiced this faith with near perfect precision. Each summer at church camp I won camper of the year. I memorized Bible verses, and like a party trick I could rattle off a verse of two to show just how faithful I really was.
In 1998, when I was allowed to return to public school I desperately wanted to fit in, so I joined the football and wrestling teams. I fit in with my teammates with modest success, but eventually I found my crew in theater and newspaper. In my high school, drama and the newspaper staff was mostly composed of what we now call “nerds”; back then they were a catchall for weirdoes and social outcasts, and I pray there’s still a place like that in school today.
One of my favorite newspaper writers was a lanky junior named Isaac. Isaac was the first person I met who is gay. I knew Isaac was gay before we met because the local paper covered an instance when his car and parent’s home was vandalized with spray-painted slurs.
Isaac was discouraged from playing on the basketball team and other team sports. The pressure eventually got to him so he quit, but went on to dominate varsity tennis for the next two years. He was 6’3” by the time he was sixteen; so, playing a tennis match against him was like going up against a point guard.
That winter, shortly before break, Isaac submitted an editorial about a young man named Matthew Shepard, who was killed, in Laramie, Wyoming, in the most brutal fashion for being a gay man.
Shortly after Matthew Shepard’s murder, my church pastor, one Sunday morning in church, started talking about the events in Laramie. He said something to the effect that God can and will use any means necessary to cleanse the earth of people like Matthew Shepard. People like my dear friend Isaac.
Following Shepard’s murder, Isaac became persona non grata. Isaac sexuality, while known to his friends and family, was a well-known secret to his friends’ parents. So, parents fearful for their sons’ safety stopped allowing them to accept rides to tennis practice and theater rehearsal with Isaac. Furthermore, Isaac’s relationship with his own parents started to deteriorate, especially with his father.
One afternoon a few of us from newspaper snuck out of school during lunch hour and took a hike in a nearby park.
We stopped midway to smoke some Virginia Slims I’d stolen from my grandma. With our legs dangling over a rock cliff I asked Isaac, in frustration, “Why don’t you just stop being gay?” Isaac laughed so hard he nearly slipped off the cliff. Once he regained his composure he turned to me and in a voice I had never heard come from him before said, “I would if I could.”
My friendship and affection for Isaac was the catalyst that eventually led me to depart from my cradle religious tradition. More than a departure, it was a total repudiation of everything I had ever believed. I even questioned the integrity of the people who’d been good to me for as long as I could remember.
I assumed the worst in everyone, and as soon as I was able I left the church that was so much of my life; and slowly, but with careful precision, I traded my love for the church for a potent hatred. I turned everything I believed into a straw man, and I knocked it over and lit it afire as often as I could.
The god I rejected was nothing more than a delusion, a vengeful despot that inspired the weak minded, bamboozling them, extracting their money in exchange for a fealty robbed from them out of an irrational fear of a hell, a place no more real than the Easter bunny or Santa Claus.
And anytime someone wanted to share their genuine faith with me I propped up my straw-god and burned it down right before their eyes. I held tightly to this god, dragging it and my hatred with me clear into my late-20s. On my admission essay that won me admittance to a seminary operated by the United Church of Christ, I boldly claimed that god is nothing more than a convenient narrative. I defined, in that essay, a philosophy of enlightenment humanism, signaled the end of the Christian myth once and for all, and celebrated a civil religion that champions freedom and justice and equality in the name of scientific progress and social evolution.
In an Old Testament course, during my first year of seminary, our class was discussing God’s evolution from the polytheistic gods of Babylonia and Mesopotamia to the monotheistic God as imagined by a wandering religious sect in the Fertile Crescent. What this religious sect imagined was God among gods, a great God of gods who found favor with this wandering tribe who would eventually become the Jewish people.
Throughout this rich and fascinating discussion, I stalked the God we were discussing like a predator. And, when the time was right, I raised my hand and readied an assault. I propped up my straw-god and laid waste. And when I was through I saw myself a victor standing before the rubble of their mythical fantasy.
My professor and fellow students listened to me politely, as is the custom in seminary. When I was through my professor broke a chunk of chocolate off the bar she was enjoying, popped it in her mouth, took a of the Dr. Pepper she was drinking, turned her eyes toward me and said, “Yeah, I don’t believe in that god either.” “Me either,” several of my fellow seminarians chimed in after.
A couple years later, as a hospital chaplain, I found myself scared to death of being asked to pray for someone, for fear I’d be asked to pray to a god I didn’t believe in.
My mentor at the hospital, a retired college professor and Jesuit priest, listened as I told him my refusal to pray to a fantasy god. After a rather lengthy speech the good priest said, “You silly Unitarian – nobody’s going to care what you say as long as what you say comes from your heart.”
What I’d soon realize was that I wasn’t listening to the patients and their families at all. Instead, I listened to the fear and hatred from my childhood that still lingered deep within me. So, doing the only thing I knew to do I prayed to whoever might be listening to free me from my hatred and fear, and I’ve been praying that prayer ever since.
Not so long-ago Isaac called to tell me his sister, Deb, had died after a short battle with cancer. Deb was larger than life. Like Isaac, she was tall and athletic, which won her a scholarship to Duke University where she played basketball, and later coached college teams in Missouri and California.
Isaac’s family struggled with his sexuality long after he left home after high school. His father found it difficult to talk with him, reserving most of his contact for holidays and birthdays. But as Deb got sicker the family found themselves together a lot at Deb and her partner’s home, outside Los Angeles.
A couple nights before Deb died her partner called their Episcopal priest to come and offer her and Deb communion one last time together.
The family decided to join them and kneeled on the floor of the living room to receive communion at the altar of Deb’s body. Isaac told me that he’d never felt so close to his father as he did in that moment.
Isaac didn’t become a Christian afterward, either. He’s a happy “San Francisco Humanist,” as he likes to say.
And yet an ancient ritual inspired by refugee Jew who preached love and forgiveness helped heal decades of heartbreak and distance in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine.
The question for me isn’t God or No God? It’s not whether there’s the unmoved-mover of Aristotle; it’s not whether Plato’s Realm of the Forms actually exists; it’s not whether God is in all things, near or far; it’s not whether we, as individuals, are simply the result of chemical and electrical activity in our minds. The audacity of our faith strives to see the good news that threads the world religions together. What makes us Unitarian Universalists is our common humanity. And it is through this that we live by faith, in love beyond belief.
Unitarian Universalism in the 21st Century will not remain if we mirror society and let our differences divide us. Our Tradition will not remain the Humanists secretly judge the faith of Christians. Our Tradition will not remain if our Christians secretly judge the practices of our Pagans.
There’s no demand in our Tradition to believe everything that’s taught; there’s not even an expectation that you enjoy everything you hear and read. What makes our Tradition special is that diversity and difference is seen as something beautiful, something to be celebrated.
When I say the word “God” I’m not thinking about a cosmic guy in the sky. For me, God is kindness and forgiveness, faithfulness and grace. It is the silence I feel on snowy mornings, a silence that pulls me from the confines of my selfishness and brokenness. It is the miracle of life happening at every moment, right in front of me.
What led me to reconcile the trauma of my childhood was this institution, this Living Tradition of Channing and Eliot, Humanists and Atheists, Christians, Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews. Despite the diversity of our individual congregations and people therein, we, as an Association, share a trust in the goodness of humankind. We share a faith in the abiding promise of life’s enduring mystery.
A mystery that leads us to forgive and grow; a mystery that leads atheists to believe and believers to doubt; a mystery that led us here, a mystery that holds us all, tenderly and precariously, and yet marvelously here, together.
So, now, when I close my eyes and imagine God, I still see each and every one of you. For it is through our hearts, minds, and hands that the greatest good on earth will be done; and it is in your name I pray for hope and love all the same. Amen and Blessed Be.