A Free Faith 10/9/16 @ UUP
Opening words (here)
Good morning. I hope you are all well and that those of who have been uncomfortable with parts of our services lately are feeling a bit better today.
I am going to start with a brief history lesson. One, I love our Unitarian Universalist history and find it inspiring. When I took my ordination vows, I promised to uphold the principles of our faith. Two, although our history does not define us, it can inform us. Life is a riddle and a mystery, but it is important to know where we come from. I love the song in our hymnal, “Rank by Rank,” which is often sung at ordinations as it was at my own. One line is: “Days of comrades gone before, lives that speak and deeds that beckon.” How can we not listen to the voices of Martha and Waitsill Sharp, John Murray, Olympia Brown, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and so many others?
Both Unitarianism and Universalism, in modern times anyway, were a part of the free church tradition. That term originally just meant they were not state sponsored religions. They also had congregational polity, which in the simplest definition means that congregations chose their own leaders, including their ministers. That authority does not rest with a larger association or denomination as it does in so many other religions.
Unitarian Universalism is now a creedless faith. We have no requirements for membership that involve a particular theological belief. This was not always true.
In 1803, the Universalist Church of America adopted the Winchester Profession which stated in part that
“We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.
We believe that there is one God, whose nature is love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.”
Almost immediately after the adoption of this creed there was controversy and discussion. Those folks were our ancestors after all.
In 1899, the liberty clause was added, which states:
“Neither this nor any other precise form of words is required as a condition of fellowship…”
That addition was the beginning of making our Universalist faith a truly free one.
One the Unitarian side, we have Theodore Parker to thank. Famous for writing his sermons with a pistol on his desk because he had fugitive slaves hidden in the parsonage, he also was one of the secret six who funded John Brown’s attempted slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. If we had Unitarian Universalist saints, he would be one.
He also made our free faith truly free. In 1841, he wrote the
“Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” which in a much more complicated way said, basically, that the “religion of Jesus” would have existed even if a man named Jesus had never lived.
People really freaked out when he said that. His fellow ministers and the Unitarian Church even conducted what could only be called a heresy trial. Parker was not just a saint but also our only true Unitarian Universalist heretic. His ideas were truly heretical for the time, but what is significant, is that he was not convicted.
Instead, Parker was instrumental in creating what we now call the free pulpit. He had these words to say:
(Truth) “speaks in a thousand tongues, and with a pen graves her sentence on the rock forever. You may prevent the freedom of speech in this pulpit if you will. You may hire your servants to preach as you bid; to spare your vices and flatter your follies; to prophecy smooth things, and say, It is peace, when there is no peace. Yet in so doing you weaken and enthrall yourselves …. But, on the other hand, you may encourage your brother to tell you the truth …. You will then have his best words, his brightest thoughts, and his most hearty prayers,”
So we have a free pulpit because of Theodore Parker. But just because ministers have not only the right but the obligation to speak the truth as they see it, we also have a free pew. Because of the liberty clause, members of the congregation also have the freedom to agree or disagree with whatever is said from the pulpit.
This is some of the history contained in our fourth principle “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
There is a lot more I could tell you about, dating back to the Edict of Torda in 1568 and Francis David and the line sometimes attributed to him, “We need not think alike to love alike.”
It is hard for me to stop talking about our history because I love it so, but I really need to talk some about what is happening here and now at the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma.
We had a Listening Circle last Sunday where people spoke from their hearts about worship. I heard some disagreement, but mainly I heard pain. Freedom of the pulpit aside, no minister wants to hurt people. Disagreement is fine, it is healthy, and it is part of our tradition. Part of minister’s job, particularly a transitional one, is to challenge some of the assumptions and practices that may be inhibiting a congregation’s growth, both in numbers and in spiritual growth. I am going to do my best to do that in a way that will hopefully be less painful for those of you who are traumatized by religious language.
I did hear you and I also understand some of the pain because I have felt it myself. Early on, when I first started attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I left after a worship service in tears simply because the minister quoted from the Bible. I did not understand anything then about our history of the freedom of the pulpit or the freedom of the pew. I thought I was being expected to believe what the Bible said.
The particular quote wasn’t at all offensive, I can’t even remember what it was, but the fact that the Bible was quoted caused me pain. I eventually got over those painful reactions, and I also know that may not be possible for everyone.
Last Sunday, people talked about the words in the order of service, most of which were there long before I came here. In response, I have changed some of the words. Opening words instead of invocation, closing words instead of benediction. I also introduced the prayer differently this morning, leaving more of an option for people to “opt out” if they wanted to do so. These were all fairly simple to do and I really hope they helped.
There was also a great deal of disappointment about the water and stones service which was on the 15th anniversary of 911. In retrospect, we should have moved the ingathering celebration to a different Sunday. The Worship Committee and I will keep that in mind for the future.
There were a couple of concerns that I listened to and I think I understood, but then decided I could not make the changes that some wanted.
A very specific one is whether or not I speak from the pulpit. Some of you may not know, but after my first sermon here on August 21, I fell after the service. I tripped on that stupid step over there and went down hard on my left shoulder, which still aches. Paul Mark was the only one around at the time and he helped me get up. I don’t think he wants to have to do that again, although I am sure he would.
This pulpit has sides I can hold on to that the lectern does not. It also has a large raised platform, and I don’t have to stand on a small box so people can see me. I really don’t want to fall again, so I hope you understand my choice to use the pulpit.
Some people also really wanted me to eliminate the pastoral prayer while others said prayer was something they wanted. I changed the introduction as I said, but I left the prayer in. Prayer is important to me personally, but I can do that silently and in private. But I also strongly believe that spoken, community prayer is important to a congregation’s spiritual life. We are a people of faith and we long to bring our values into the world. Prayer is a way of setting our collective intention to bring more peace, compassion, and justice into the world and into our own lives. I don’t think prayer by itself changes the world, or that some supreme being responds to our prayers by taking action.
I don’t believe in a God that can act in any way other than through human beings. But I do believe prayer changes us. It has changed me. Prayer can make us realize that we are not all powerful, that we need help sometimes, that we always need hope. Community prayer can take us out of our individual boxes to find the deep truth that we are all connected, no matter our particular situation in life.
I also understand that prayer doesn’t work for a number of you. I used to feel that way about silent meditation. I’d be tapping my foot, impatient for it to be over. Patience has never been my strong suit, but I have worked on it over the years.
I did not care for the periods of silence, but once I became a minister, I realized how important they were for some of the people in the congregation I served. So I did it. I watched the second hand on a small clock on the pulpit, making sure I waited long enough before I could – finally – ring the singing bowl.
And over the years something happened that I had not expected. The silent times during worship became very important to me. They enriched my own spiritual life in ways I cannot really describe.
I am not saying that if prayer is really upsetting to you that you should try it anyway. That is for you to decide, if and when you ever feel ready to do so. But for those of you that right now just find it boring or meaningless, consider giving it a try. See if it might work for you after some practice. A spiritual practice is just that, a practice. We practice, by trying, failing, and trying again, and sometimes we are surprised by what we might learn. Cherish your doubts, but continue to examine both your beliefs and your doubts. As James Luther Adams said, in a quote that is in your order of service, “An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident”
I’ll close now with the Kenyan prayer, also in the order of service, revising the language slightly, because that prayer is really for me, as I learn how I can best minister to this awesome congregation “From the cowardice that dares not face new truth, from the laziness that is contented with half-truth, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, may I be delivered.” May it be so.