WHAT UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM IS AND WHAT IT ISN’T
A sermon preached by Brian Mason
at the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, September 30, 2018
A couple weeks back my wife and I accepted an invitation to attend our neighborhood’s block party. I’m naturally an introvert, so for as much as I might want to hang out with people, my introversion always gets in the way of my desire for fellowship. But I was grateful for the personal invitation and was actually looking forward to it.
As with most new social occasions you have to wade your way through the initial round of questioning about your marital and child status, your city and state of origin, and of course your job. As an educator my wife has it easy. (Everybody loves teachers except when it comes to paying them.) When the question finally moved around the circle to me I explained that I am a minister. This should be gravy and it would be if I was a Presbyterian or Episcopalian, but God obviously has a sense of humor so I’m a Unitarian Universalist.
Most people have no idea what that is, and, let’s admit it, we have a confusing name that is a bit misleading. Upon occasion, however, there are some people who have a high degree of religious literacy.
One of my neighbors is obviously one of those people with a high degree of religious literacy. I know that because when she heard me say I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister she said something to the effect of, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of that.
You all can believe and do whatever you want, and nothing really matters. Is that kind of it or do I have it wrong?”
I’m a traditional Unitarian, so I tried to give her my elevator speech about our religious tradition’s origins, but I noticed her eyes glazing over in boredom, so I stopped. Quickly I summarized by agreeing with her that there are a diversity of beliefs and an expectation for respect when it comes to someone’s personal right of conscience to make up their own minds about faith and so on.
She was obviously very pleased with herself that in front of all our neighbors I admitted she was mostly right about her description of present-day Unitarian Universalism. Later, after everyone had exchanged their résumés and children’s ages and favorite lawn fertilizer, the same religiously literate lady found her way over to where I was playing football with a couple of the neighbor kids.
She asked in a curious but respectful way this follow up question: If Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever they want, and nothing really matters, then what do you say when you preach? Or do you even preach in your church?
I would have been offended if the woman’s curiosity wasn’t so obviously genuine. She, as well as her husband and children, are devoutly religious people. The couple was married right after graduating from college in the university’s chapel they both worshiped in as undergraduates.
For her, church is an outward expression of her faith and commitment to God. And at church she hears the Word of God preached by one of God’s chosen ministers, a minister authorized to interpret God’s very Word.
There was an era in our religious movement when confusion about what we believe and aspire to wasn’t so elusive and confusing. If you ever find yourself in Boston, Massachusetts, take an hour or two and walk around the Commons.
Most of the churches there are either Episcopal or Congregationalist or Unitarian.
King’s Chapel, right on the corner of Tremont and School streets has been gathering since 1686. That was so long ago the piano wasn’t invented yet. King’s Chapel is so old it predates the cotton gin and the bicycle. Just to put this into perspective, the pulpit in King’s Chapel is the oldest pulpit still in use in America.
To this day King’s Chapel practices, the faith of their 17th Century spiritual ancestors. It was originally founded as an Episcopal church, but when the British evacuated Boston in 1776 the church’s British-born minister left with along with his countrymen; and the church struggled to find a replacement for years.
However, in 1783, the church did something almost nobody in the history of every church ever had done before: they called someone from among them and designated them as their minister.
They didn’t wait for a bishop to send a priest; they didn’t convert to Catholicism; they decided to choose their own minister. Back then, that was a really big deal. The man they chose, James Freeman, was the first clergyman in America to call himself a Unitarian.
Freeman would go on to edit the Book of Common Prayer to reflect his and his church’s Unitarian beliefs in God, and they have been using that same book ever since. By calling their own minister they shed the authority of bishops and presbyteries and instead bestowed their authority on an elected vestry.
In essence, they became congregational in governance; just like us, they are a church of the people, by the people, and for the people.
King’s Chapel has preserved its roots, celebrating a vibrant expression of liberal Christianity to this very day. A few other Unitarian churches like in Lancaster and Weston, Massachusetts, continue to use Freeman’s Unitarian Book of Common Prayer every time a service is held.
However, most Unitarian and Universalist churches west of New England have moved away from their liberal religious roots. Many churches and ministers go to great links to avoid using religious and theistic language. In other words, some of our churches and clergy try very hard to practice a religion without religion.
Some might look at this trending away from religious tradition and think it’s for the best, and that the continued and ongoing secularization of Unitarian Universalism is the fulfillment of a natural progression of religious thought, which is to say from theist to agnostic to atheist.
I want to acknowledge that some aspects of my sermon might be challenging. So, why am I preaching it? Because I think it is one of my duties is to challenge people to name what it is they actually believe in. We do this in Religious Education all the time. So, this morning we’re doing it in the sanctuary too.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that our church is demographically similar to most other Unitarian Universalist churches in America, and I think that’s pretty safe to do.
If you’re willing to go with me that far, come with me just a bit further: In survey conducted last year by our youth it was discovered that 90-something percent of this congregation considers themselves to be secular.
If you curious how our church compares to other UU churches, then consider the Unitarian Universalist Demographic Data from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) and the Faith Communities Today (FACT) Surveys released in 2008 revealed 39% of UUs say they’re Secular, 19% say they’re Somewhat Secular, 17% say they’re Somewhat Religious, 20% say they’re Religious, and 5% say they’re A Little of Both. The survey also showed more than 40% of UUs characterize their current religious preferences at None.*****
Thinking back to our own survey, if I remember correctly, and I think I do, there was only one person who answered affirmatively to the questions about belief in Jesus, and I know who that person was because it was me. Isn’t this interesting? Perhaps you find it odd?
Either way, let’s keep going.
In a sermon preached by the great Carl Scovel, who served King’s Chapel in Boston from 1967 to 1999, reminded his congregation, in 2014, “we live in a smorgasbord of options, a world with many vines bearing many different fruits and flavors.” Dr. Scovel went on to ask this question: “Don’t we want the freedom to choose what we like, what seems significant to us?”
Of course we do, don’t we?
“And yet,” the Rev. Scovel cautions us, “at the same time do we not also know that we can only give what we have been given, can only teach what we have been taught, can only share what has been shared with us, can only love as we ourselves have been loved?”
In other words, if any of us hopes “For a full life, we all have to be connected to some vine.”
Historically, our churches sought to practice a liberal expression of Christianity informed by rational thought and rigorous scholarship.
This would last only until the 19th Century when Kant and Hegel’s German Idealism would transform our faith and the radical individualism found in the Transcendentalist thought of R. W. Emerson, H. D. Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller would alter the American pulpit forever.
“Onward through the ages,” as the old Unitarian hymn would say, our religious movement has moved so far from its genesis you have to dig deep into the stacks of seminary libraries to figure out where we came from.
From a sociological perspective, Unitarian Universalism has tracked right along with society’s ongoing secularization. One would think that if our churches are becoming more secular and society is becoming more secular Unitarian Universalist churches would be bursting at the seams. However, the opposite is true.
Our local churches are getting smaller-and-smaller, losing their respect and authority, as trust in clergy gets weaker and weaker. Meanwhile, our denomination’s headquarters are growing in power and influence. The UUA owns a multi-million-dollar state-of-the-art facility in downtown Boston.
Our denomination employs investment bankers who manage millions in endowments, and millions more in salaries for experts who have all-but-succeeded in taking a religious association and transforming it into a full-blown corporation.
We’ve given so much authority over to the denomination that they now act as counsel, judge, and jury, wielding their authority over ministers and churches alike.
Within the denominational headquarters’ walls are corporate experts who send us ministers more emails than we could read in a lifetime, encouraging us to take workshops on how to be successful at marketing our churches.
They offer pay-to-play courses on advertising and branding and corporate models for ministry and for what? Corporations make money. Churches, by design, are non-profit.
We don’t make money by design. After all, our model for business is based on the teachings of a wandering Jew who fed people for free, healed people for free, and liked to throw get-togethers and turn water into wine. I’m going to safely assume that today’s Jesus wouldn’t be a CEO or a CFO or a COO.
Unitarianism and Universalism are rooted in an understanding that our authority rests not in denominational headquarters or CEOs but in local congregations.
2018 marks the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda. This Edict has served as the bedrock of our liberal religion since it was read to the delegates of the Three Nations of Transylvania in1568. It says in simple, beautiful words that one’s faith is more than a set of inherited doctrines; rather, faith is a gift from God; it’s a personal choice.
So, at General Assembly in Kansas City, Missouri, this year, the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council held a Torda 450 Anniversary service led by Unitarian Universalists from around the world.
There was a Unitarian minister from Hungary who shared that his faith is a form of resistance – that his faith in God serves as a daily challenge to preach and practice the radical idea that we all long to live in a world of belonging and live together in peace and freedom.
A lawyer and lay-minister in Indonesia said that her faith is the source of a dream she has that one day her country will know greater religious freedom and tolerance, and that she will be able to live out her Unitarian Christianity in public without fearing for her life.
We heard from a Ugandan Unitarian Universalist who runs a residential school for children whose parents have died from HIV/AIDS.
We heard from a Unitarian headmaster in the Khasi Hills who runs more than 34 schools that provide education to poor and under-privileged children throughout North East India.
We heard from a Pakistani Unitarian Universalist minister whose church gives shelter and medical aid to victims of violence and terrorism.
The service reminded me that we practice a powerful faith, a faith that is urgent and profound; or, as the Rev. Scovel might say, a faith that is connected to vine.
Towards the end of General Assembly, I did what I’ve done for years: I worshiped with my fellow members of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. I go because it’s one of the most authentic worship spaces I’ve ever entered in to.
It’s a space for freaks and weirdoes, for people who have been beaten up and let down by their faith; it’s a place for people who have lost hope and for those who have just enough hope to be there; it’s for Unitarian traditionalists like me and secular humanists who just want a space to sit and cry and feel okay about that. In other words, it’s church.
This year the minister who preached the service told us about her best friend who just got his big break on Broadway.
He was cast in a lead role in the breakout hit Come from Away, based on the true story of the 38 planes, holding more than 6,500 passengers and crew, that were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, after the tragedies that occurred on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Just imagine that: a town of about 11,000 people almost doubled in size in a matter of hours. Chaos should have happened. Experts and journalists warned of looting and violence and food shortages. People said there would be beatings and deaths and sexualized violence. But do you want to know what really happened?
The people of Gander left their homes and went to the small airstrip to meet the 6,500 people and brought them back to their homes and fed them and let them bathe in their bathrooms and clothed them. They took them to the local bar for beers and hot wings.
They welcomed the travelers to their churches where they sang hymns and prayed.
Gay people, straight people, Africans, Americans, and others from all over the world, even 19 animals that were in the cargo bays were sheltered and fed and kept safe at a time when everyone feared the whole world was falling apart. Not one emergency situation happened. In the end the 6,500 people and their 19 animals were delivered to their destination.
It was a miracle, a testament to the goodness inside every one of us.
To be honest, I don’t quite know what Unitarian Universalism is. I struggle with this and pray about it most every day. But I don’t think I’m all that different from everyone else.
I think most of us are just making it up as we go along, hoping an answer to our endless questioning might show up at some point. But if I had to venture a guess I’d say the answer rests somewhere in the psalms and saints and scripture that has bound us together for centuries.
And what do those psalms and saints and scriptures tell us? They give us a promise that stands in opposition to the news found in the headlines that humanity is broken and beyond repair. They tell to never repay evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another. They tell us to be faithful, to love and be loved, and they tell us to give grace after grace after grace.
Our faith has faced many obstacles and we’ve got many more to go. But we are not our divisions. We are a living tradition of Indian Headmasters and Ugandan caregivers; we are Pakistani peacekeepers, and we are confused ministers standing in a neighbor’s back yard.
We are human beings, fallible and selfish, but also powerful and inspiring. This is why Scripture reminds us to consider when we look into the eyes of someone we see not just any ol’ person, but the face of a loving divinity. Sometimes we have to read our history to be reminded of where we come from and all that we’re capable of.
We can feed 6,500 people who have come far away. We can comfort the sick and the dying; we can teach our children; we can oppose hate with hope; and through it all we sing songs and laugh and cheer and pray. Sure, we might get it wrong from time-to-time. But we also get it right.