Today is my last Sunday with you as your minister. Today is also the last time that I will lead worship as a congregational minister. While I still have hope that my health will improve enough that I can do occasional guest preaching in various congregations, today is an ending for me as well as for you.
Today is also a beginning. You greeted new members today. Each person who comes to this congregation adds something, even if they only stay a short while and move on. The difference each of you make here and in the rest of your lives is significant. It matters what we do.
You will hopefully be getting a new professional minister before too long, so I think it is important to spend my last service here talking about ministry, both professional and lay. Unitarian Universalism fully embraces the concept and practice of the “priesthood of all believers.” “Believer” in this context does not mean only those who believe in God, however they define that term, but also those who have faith in the message of Unitarian Universalism.
If you are a member of this congregation, you are called to the ministry. In affirming and promoting our seven principles, you are doing religious and spiritual work in the world.
Professional ministers do that same work. The difference between professional clergy and lay ministers is primarily one of training, experience, and commitment. The minister’s salary is what allows us to do the work we are called to do.
Becoming an ordained and fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister is not an easy process, and cannot be taken lightly.
Ministers are required to complete a Masters of Divinity at an accredited seminary.
In addition to seminary, a potential minister must undergo psychological testing, a criminal background check, provide multiple reference letters, be sponsored by a congregation, write dozens of essays, and complete an extensive reading list. They also must serve a 9-month internship supervised by an experienced minister and complete 400 hours of clinical pastoral education, usually as a hospital chaplain. They must meet in person with the ministerial fellowship committee, present a sample sermon, and spend an hour answering rapid fire questions on history, theology, and anything else the committee might be interested in. If they do all that well, including passing the oral exam, a new minister is granted preliminary fellowship. They then need to spend at least 3 years working as a minister and have satisfactory evaluations each year before they receive final fellowship. Even after final fellowship, which is similar to academic tenure, they are still accountable to a code of professional conduct and can be removed or suspended from fellowship for cause.
Please be kind to Suzanne; she is in the midst of that rather arduous process.
Ordination is a separate step and it is only after ordination can a minister be referred to as “Reverend.” In our tradition, only congregations can ordain, and ordination is for life.
So what does being a minister in a congregation involve?
One way to look at is to understand the various roles of a minister. Lay people do many of them, but usually only ordained clergy do them all. As I talk about these roles, think about the ones that you yourself do and the ones you might be interested in doing. Ministry is not just the professional minister or ministers. In a healthy church, everyone has a ministry.
Let me start with the 4 P’s of ministry: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet, and Priest. There are also a few that don’t start with the letter P. I will get to those at the end.
Preacher first, which is the one hour a week Sunday Morning role, which some folks think is a really short work week. Sermon preparation takes a lot more than an hour, not to mention crafting how the service will flow together. Preacher includes teacher too. Teaching is a lot of what sermons are about.
Formal religious education classes are included here as well as all the more informal sharing of knowledge and hopefully, sometimes at least, the wisdom that comes from the experience of being a minister.
Those of you who lead worship, those of you who teach classes, and those of you who tell others about our Unitarian Universalist faith are doing the preacher/teacher part of ministry.
The Pastor role is one of caring, and care-giving. It includes being with individual people during some of their hardest times, listening, trying to provide some comfort.
It also includes caring for the spirit of the church as a whole, paying attention to how we treat each other, trying to set an example. It includes caring for the world, for its people and the environment. The caring committee is one obvious example of how lay people are involved in this pastoral role, but it also happens when you just listen to someone else’s troubles and offer them emotional support.
Prophet –This is the social justice role of speaking truth to power, standing on the side of love. It is raising difficult issues and asking hard questions. Those of you who write letters to the editor, to the city council, the board of supervisors. who attend meetings, rallies, and marches, who pick up trash when you see it, recycling what you can, you are doing prophetic work. You work to change the world so that it can become a place of both justice and compassion, and you remind us that this church is not just here for its members but has a higher calling as well. All praise to the prophets among us.
Priest. Yes, Unitarian Universalist ministers have a priestly role too. The work here is one of ritual and rites of passage. Weddings and memorials, baby blessings, and the many elements of our worship services, especially prayer, all call upon the priestly role. Our worship associates and our musicians and our choir, they all minister to the rest of us in that priestly role
Preacher, Pastor, Prophet, and Priest; those are the 4 P’s. The two S’s are steward and shepherd.
To be a Steward is to take care of the congregation, making sure that it continues to exist and to thrive. Many of you do ministry as stewards.
If you are on the membership committee, if you help with fundraisers or the stewardship campaign, if you help at coffee hour, you are being a steward. Stewardship is all the practical and necessary parts of church life. It is supporting the church with your resources and your time. It is pledging generously so this congregation and our larger faith can have the resources it needs to fulfil its mission. Stewardship creates and maintains the foundation we need if our spirits are going to have the ability to soar.
The last “S” is shepherd, and Shepherds are leaders. It does not mean that the people being led are sheep, however. We are not at all famous for being a people who blindly follow wherever their leaders suggest they go. No, the shepherd role is one of trying to keep the church as a whole safe and reasonably together, but still always moving forward, keeping the focus on the vision of where we both need and want to go. The members of our board of trustees do ministry as shepherds. Many other leaders in our congregation also serve in that role. Drafting and approving the new covenant of Right Relations was an act of leadership as well as being pastoral.
Those are the 4 P’s and 2 S’s and I hope in particular that each of you saw some of your own ministry in one or more of them. Are you a Preacher/teacher? A pastor? A prophet? A priest? A Shepherd? A Steward? All of you should raise your hands on that one, because all of you help create and maintain this beloved community. Some of you raised your hands, multiple times. The roles are, of course, intertwined.
Preaching can be pastoral and it can be prophetic.
Social justice work is ineffective if it is not grounded in a pastoral quality of love and caring. Stewardship is a part of everything and everything needs shepherding at times.
I want to share some personal comments now about my time with you. It has been hard for me not being full time here, even though I wanted to be part time. Part time ministry means you can’t do all that you feel called to do.
While at UUP, because of limited hours, I needed to focus mainly on the shepherd and preaching roles, and only performed the others in a rather limited way. It was hard for me not to have the time to visit our elders in their homes, to teach formal classes, or to attend community events.
It is even harder to admit that even those limited roles are no longer possible with my current physical limitations. The little I can still do is not enough for you or for me.
I want to name something else in the spirit of love and care, hoping you will do a bit better with your next minister.
Professional ministers need to be tough and tender at the same time. We need to be tough when hurtful things are said to or about us and we need to be tender with those who are saying them. But it isn’t easy. Ministers are human, and none of us are perfect. My charge to you, as I leave you, is to be faithful to your covenant of Right Relations and keep the criticisms of your new minister constructive, direct and kind. If you hear mean-spirited comments from others, call them back into covenant, and remind them that ministry is what we do together.
That said, it has been a pleasure serving you. I have been inspired by your commitment and willingness to explore and dig deeper into the big questions. I have valued the spirit of community you have created. I have loved your willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things and your passion for creating a better world.
Ministry isn’t always easy, but it is work that has always felt sacred to me. It is an honor and a privilege and a huge responsibility. I have done the best I could for you. Please forgive me for the ways that I have failed.
It breaks my heart to leave you, especially earlier than planned. Please know that I will carry you with me in my heart, just as I still carry those I have served in other congregations. The river of love runs deep and it runs wide. We will always swim in it together.
Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? The song we just heard by the choir asks important questions. Would you offer a safe harbor to just about anyone who needed it? What does it mean to harbor someone? Do we always have to say yes when someone is seeking sanctuary? Is everyone really welcome at the table of this congregation? Do we want to open our doors really wide? What would that mean? How would it change us?
These are practical questions, but they are also spiritual ones. The practical ones are difficult enough, but the spiritual can be even harder.
Today is Transgender Remembrance Day. As was explained in the reading, it is a day when we are asked to remember those who have been murdered in the last year because of their real or perceived gender identity. We are going to do that now. It is important.
2017 has already seen at least 25 transgender people fatally shot or killed by other violent means just in the United states. The world-wide total is much larger. Most are people of color.
I will now read the names of a few of those precious souls. Please hold them in tender care, knowing that each name represents at least hundreds and probably thousands of others.
- Mesha Caldwell, 41,a black transgender woman from Canton, Mississippi, was found shot to death the evening of January 4.
- Sean Hake,23, a transgender man in Sharon, Pennsylvania, died after he was shot by police responding to a 911 call from his mother.
- Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, 28,an American Indian woman who identified as transgender and two-spirit, was found dead in her apartment in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
- JoJo Striker, 23,a transgender woman, was found killed in Toledo, Ohio, on February 8.
- Tiara Richmond, also known as Keke Collier,24, a transgender woman of color, was fatally shot in Chicago on the morning of February 21.
- Chyna Gibson, 31,a Black transgender woman, was shot and killed in New Orleans on February 25.
- Ciara McElveen, 26,a transgender woman of color, was stabbed to death in New Orleans on February 27.
- Jaquarrius Holland, 18,was shot to death in Monroe, Louisiana, on February 19.
- Alphonza Watson,38, was shot and killed in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 22.
- Chay Reed,28, a transgender woman of color, was shot and killed on April 21 in Miami.
- Kenneth Bostick, 59, was found with severe injuries on a Manhattan sidewalk, he later died of his injuries.
- Sherrell Faulkner, 46,a transgender woman of color died on May 16, of injuries sustained during an attack on November 30, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
- Kenne McFadden, 27, was found in the San Antonio River on April 9. Police believe she was pushed into the river, which runs through downtown San Antonio.
- Kendra Marie Adams, 28,was found in a building that was under construction and had burns on her body on June 13.
- Ava Le’Ray Barrin, 17,was shot and killed in Athens, Georgia on June 25 during an altercation in an apartment parking lot.
- Ebony Morgan, 28, was shot multiple times in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the early morning of July 2.
- TeeTee Dangerfield, 32,a Black transgender woman, was shot and killed on July 31 in Atlanta, Georgia.
- Gwynevere River Song,26, was shot and killed in Waxahachie, Texas, on August 12.
- KiwiHerring, 30, was killed during an altercation with police on August 22 during an altercation with her neighbor.
- Kashmire Nazier Redd, 28,was fatally stabbed by his partner on September 5.
- Derricka Banner, 26, was found shot to death in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 12.
- Scout Schultz, 21, was shot and killed by Georgia Tech campus police on September 16.
- Ally Steinfeld, 17,was stabbed to death in Missouri in early September.
- Stephanie Montez, 47, was brutally murdered near Robstown, Texas.
- Candace Towns, 30,a transgender woman who was found shot to death in Georgia.
May their spirits rest in love and in peace. Let us hold their memory in a brief time of silence.
Why did these individuals and so many others like them die such violent deaths? Did no one harbor them? Could no one, even those that loved them, provide enough protection?
One of the ugliest aspects of human social behavior is the tendency we sometimes have to treat people who are different in cruel and often violent ways.
I am not sure why that is, really. Maybe it is fear. People who are different can challenge our own identities, our sense of security, and our ideas about the way the world works. We like to divide the world into binaries: male and female, black and white, religious and secular, theist and atheist, us and them, and right and wrong.
People who identify as transgender challenge that simplistic and dualistic way of looking at the world simply by living their authentic lives. The world is more than black and white. There are all the colors of the rainbow in nature, and gender expression can be just as diverse. In many indigenous cultures, people who cross traditional gender boundaries are honored as being two-spirited and often are given roles of religious leadership.
In cultures with more rigid gender roles, in cultures where crossing the gender line can threaten the patriarchal power structure, such people are instead disparaged and abused. Ours is a patriarchal culture.
Things were slowly beginning to change for the better, but we are now in the midst of a serious backlash. Transgender people were attacked early with the president wanting to ban them from serving in the armed forces, but so many people with marginalized identities of all types are at increased risk by not only the current administration, but by the forces of hate, bigotry, and division that have always been with us, but have been given new life and energy. Nazis are marching in the streets of our cities, shouting the vile slogans of racism and anti-Semitism.
Will the candles we light be brighter than their torches? Will our love be enough to save us?
How can we live with the despair we feel when we faced with so many tragedies, day after day, after day? Our hearts are weary with listening to the long lists of those lost; we weep over the names and faces of the victims of violence and hate. So much is painful these days. How can we stand to live in a world with such horrifying and rampant gun violence, with the frightening impact of climate change which has made the storms and fires so much worse, or with the deep knowledge that sexual assault is woven into the fabric of our culture when virtually every woman alive is crying out, me too, me too?
Can we find a safe harbor for ourselves? Can we provide one for others?
What does it mean to harbor someone? Is it just giving physical shelter or is it more? I think it is a lot more. It is the spiritual promise we make when we affirm our first principle: to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Harboring is welcoming, really welcoming with open arms, hearts, and open doors. We say it often on Sunday mornings, when we welcome everyone with a whole laundry list of just who that welcome includes. Repeating that list is important because when some churches say “we welcome everybody” they only sort of mean it.
They welcome everybody who is willing to accept by faith the beliefs of that particular religion. Some even ask people to change who they are. We try to practice a more radical kind of welcome here. Yes, we have some rules. You can’t smoke during the service. If you go around screaming at other people, we will ask you to be quiet or leave. We expect people to be kind and respectful of other people. But smoking and screaming and being unkind to others are behaviors, and behaviors can be changed, and we are all works in progress. Part of the mission of a religious community is to help us learn to be our best selves.
Churches are sanctuaries, spiritual sanctuaries, but also legal ones. The state is not supposed to interfere with what happens in churches. That is part of the first amendment. I love the first amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The first amendment is in trouble now. The free press is being dismissed as fake news, facts are optional, the truth is whatever serves the purpose of those with the power. 1984 has come and gone and is back again.
Offering sanctuary, harboring someone is always risky business.
Some of our states have passed laws that make it a crime to even give a ride to someone who is an undocumented immigrant. Need a ride home from church? Show me your green card.
The Unitarian Minister, Theodore Parker, is said to have written his sermons with a pistol beside him because he had fugitive slaves hidden in his cellar.
In Nazi Germany, if you harbored a Jew, you could be sent to a concentration camp where you could be tortured and killed.
Would you harbor me if you put your own life at risk to do so?
Not an easy question to answer, but it is one we should all be thinking about.
Even if we don’t risk death or imprisonment, really harboring someone is still risky business. What would happen to this community is we took the risk to create the kind of congregation that truly welcomed all? What would happen if we decentered the white middle-class culture that permeates almost all that we do here? What would happen if we actually welcomed Christians with the same warmth and care that we offer to those who have been hurt by Christianity?
I do believe there is hope, it is part of my faith to believe in hope. I have to keep singing, singing for all of the precious lives who need a sanctuary, who need a place to renew their spirits, a place to get the energy to go out and keep working for positive change. This community can be that kind of place, an open inclusive space, where different cultures, beliefs, and ways of being are respected, honored and celebrated. We are almost there, you have been working on it and do so much well. It will never be perfect, because nothing is ever perfect. But the stretching, the experimenting, the trying, the continual opening and reopening of our hearts and minds to a wider vision of a welcome table, that effort will help us create a beloved community that will be a true sanctuary for all who are seeking one.
Hold me, harbor me, I will hold you, I will harbor you.
Say it to yourself, say it to each other.
Hold me, harbor me. I will hold you, I will harbor you.
Now say it now to someone you don’t know, someone who isn’t here, someone maybe that you may never meet. Say it to all the hurting searching souls.
Hold me, harbor me. I will hold you, I will harbor you.
500 years ago, on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses on the door of a church, signaling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Because of the printing press, invented around 1440, he was able to read the Bible for himself and he took different meanings from it than what had been the orthodox view. In 1531, Michael Servetus also read the Bible for himself and then published a pamphlet called the Errors of the Trinity and our Unitarian Faith was born.
The right of individuals to interpret sacred scripture for themselves, whether that scripture is the Bible or Doctor Seuss, is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. This is reaffirmed in our 4th principle of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
First, let me ask you a question, do you ever cry in church? A lot of people cry in church, and that is usually a good thing. Tears can be good, and in times of grief or disappointment, just letting them flow can be very healing. We cry when are hearts are touched, and our services should touch our hearts.
But people also cry in churches because their church is hurting them, telling them that they are somehow less than worthy, less than whole. They are told that God doesn’t love them just as they are if they are gay. They may also be told that they are less than worthy if they happen to be female. It is in the Bible after all.
This morning we are going to try and unpack some of the misunderstandings about the Bible. Much of what we have been told is simply wrong. This sermon today might help some of you dialogue with or resist anyone who might be beating you about the head and wounding your heart with their literal interpretations of scripture.
The word Gospel comes from the Greek word, euangélion, and means quite literally “good news.”
It does not mean absolute fact, something that can’t be questioned, although the word has taken on that meaning in our language today.
In ancient Greece when a city-state was at war, and soldiers were far away engaged in combat, the people at home worried, just as we do today when our sons and daughters are at risk in foreign lands. After a battle, a runner raced back home, hopefully to bring the word of victory, to spread the gospel, the good news. That is the earliest evidence we have of how the word gospel was used.
When the early Christians were writing in Greek, they used the same term with the same meaning because they believed that the message of Jesus, the message of a loving God, of hope for the poor and oppressed, was very good news indeed.
Now we all want good news to be true. There is nothing so upsetting as to think something wonderful has happened and to find out there was disaster instead.
You know that feeling when you have struggled to park in the last tiny spot on a crowded street and then while walking away, you discover a small sign that tells you it is street sweeping day? We want good news to be true. We want to park our cars, our lives, someplace good, and not have to move them again. We don’t want to be required to read the fine print.
So it is with the Bible. If you read the fine print, if you study it, you will find that while it may contain good news, and much wisdom, it is far from fact. It is not literal and to interpret that way is, dare I say it, fake news
My Old Testament professor in seminary, a delightfully droll Franciscan priest, was fond of saying that the Bible is not history, it is not science, and it should never be used as a club, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The Bible, he said, is a collection of the stories of a people and their struggles to be in right relationship with the divine, with God. It is full of metaphor and full of inconsistencies. It wasn’t written down all at one time; and God didn’t dictate it.
Biblical scholars, using modern methods, have determined that the bible is in fact a collection of stories, many of which were originally oral traditions, and almost of which were edited and changed over time.
The word Bible actually means library and comes from the name of the town Býblos, a Phoenician port where papyrus was prepared. And there is not just one Bible, a fact that many Biblical literalists don’t know. The Hebrew Scriptures are a collection of 24 books in three divisions: the law (or Torah), the prophets, and the writings. The Protestant Old Testament contains all the same books, but arranges them differently in order to make theological points about Christianity. The Roman Catholic Old Testament is larger than the protestant version; containing 15 additional books also known as the apocrypha, which means literally “hidden away”. The Greek Orthodox Church includes even more, and the Ethiopian Church yet again more.
So, if someone tells you that they follow what is in the Bible, it would not be at all unreasonable to ask, “Which one?”
The official version of the bible and the books included in it is often referred to as the canon.
Most of the individual books have also been edited. Some are clearly combinations of different earlier versions. The Torah, what Christians call the Pentateuch, is composed of the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Scholars have determined that there were originally as many as five separate and distinct written versions of the material in the Torah that were combined at a later time.
They are referred to as the J, D, E, and P versions; P is for priestly and the style is rather dry and formulaic. The D source is found mainly in Deuteronomy.
J and E refer to two different Hebrew names for God. Scholars are still arguing about which source came first and the actual number of different sources, but they are in full agreement that the Torah was not written by Moses.
Have you ever wondered why there are two versions of the creation story in Genesis? Genesis one describes creation as happening in seven days and God creating both man and woman in his image at the same time. It is in Genesis 2 that God takes a rib from Adam to create Eve.
From the story of the flood to the tales of Abraham and Sarah, from the parting of the Red Seas to the listing of the Ten Commandments, there are both repetitions and differences in what the Bible says. So, if someone tells you they believe what the Bible says, after they tell you which version, you might want to ask, which part of that version?
You also might want to ask them, if they say the Bible is the literal truth, if they think men really have one less rib than women. Did anyone else ever try to count their own ribs and those of an opposite gender friend or sibling? I did. It was very confusing. It also wasn’t particularly easy and I don’t remember even getting a firm number.
Pull out an anatomy textbook later, or ask your doctor if you still aren’t sure. We aren’t going to engage in rib counting this morning here in church.
If you want, I suppose you can do that later, in the privacy of your own homes.
The New Testament section of the Bible was created in a similar fashion. It is a collection of stories and letters about Jesus and the early Church, some of which are repeated and many of which are inconsistent with each other.
Most scholars agree that some of the letters attributed to Paul were written earlier than any of the actual Gospels. They agree that Mark was the first gospel written; at least of the ones included in the canon, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark when they wrote their versions of the life of Jesus. Many believe that they also had copies of another text, possibly older than Mark, which contained various sayings of Jesus. That document is referred to as “Q”.
There was much controversy in the early church over what writings should be included. There was a lot of very diverse material floating around for the first four centuries, as well as very different oral traditions. People argued about what should be included and what should be left out. Even as late as the protestant reformation Martin Luther argued that the book of James should not be included in the canon.
Some writings were lost for more than a thousand years, but scholars were aware of their existence because of historical records that made reference to them. Many of these texts were found in modern times.
You may have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary, from which David read a portion of earlier. Often referred to as the Gnostic Gospels, more than 52 ancient Christian writings were discovered in 1945 in Egypt.
These writings, that are still being studied by scholars, give us a lot of clues about the diversity of Christian belief in the earliest years.
So, when someone tells you women should be silent in church because it says that in the Bible maybe you might want to quote from the Gospel of Mary where Levi calls Peter hot headed because he does not want to believe what Mary is saying.
You might also ask them why Paul felt the need to tell women they should be quiet. Most likely they were speaking up and he wanted to silence them.
I haven’t even gone into the whole issue of translations, but it is pretty clear that Jesus didn’t speak King James English. He didn’t even speak Greek. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows very well that literal translations often result in distorted meanings.
When in a silly argument with someone who says that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality, I like to quote Luke 17:34 from the King James Version. The verse reads, literally:
“I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.”
Now, when you interpret that verse literally it is pretty clear that at least half of the gay people go to heaven, isn’t it?
I don’t suggest that you leave here today and go out and start arguments with biblical literalists. But if it interests you, do some reading about biblical scholarship.
But what I most want to leave you with today are some questions. What is your holy text, and what good news does it contain?
Do you find meaning in scripture; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or perhaps another tradition? Do you find it in poetry, in nature, in connections with other people?
Each of us must find our own truth. We find it in our own lives and in the lives of others that we come to know. We find it in the world around us. It is helpful to read, to study, and to learn what others believe to be true. But in the end, we must each make our own peace with the meaning of our own lives, and our own peace with whatever we mean when we say the word God.
There is some gospel, some good news, however. We don’t have to do any of this alone. There are other souls around engaged in similar journeys. Maybe we can learn from one another. Maybe people can stop using sacred texts like the Bible to justify their own bias and bigotry.
Maybe other people can stop being afraid of what the Bible says and understand that it is not literal and is not meant to be a club to beat you about the head, but is instead a collection of stories told by people trying to understand their lives and the world they lived in.
Isn’t that what we all are trying to do?
Amen and Blessed Be.
We gather here together each Sunday, but what are we doing? Why do we do what we do? Some of what we do is simply based upon traditions.
I really do appreciate that most of you listen to the sermon, but it really is only a small part of the worship service. Every element, from the welcome, to the music, to the readings, the prayer, the chalice lighting, the offering, and yes, the coffee hour, compose together what is hopefully a meaningful worship service.
Our earlier reading explains some of what worship does, but what is worship and what is its goal? The root of the word “worship” is “worthship”, considering things of worth. “Religion” (religare) means to bind up, to reconnect, to get it all together. To participate in worship, in this sense, does not require one to have an image of a God. Atheists get to play too.
So what is the point?
According to a document prepared for the Unitarian Universalist Association the aim, the goal, of worship is to, I quote:
“Help order the religious consciousness in the individual and the group. It is to help us know and feel how we relate as individuals to ourselves, to the world, to the totality of being.
The aim of common worship is to help us face up to our individual and collective limitations and failures, to open us to sources of creative, healing, transforming, and renewing power. It is to help us discover how that which transcends our narrow individual existence can move us, challenge us, inspire us, stimulate us to think, feel, act, and be. It is to help us declare, celebrate, rejoice in those things we have discovered to be “of worth.”
Leading the Congregation in Worship incorporated a previous document by the Commission, Common Worship: Why and How, which was written on behalf of the Commission by Frederick E. Gillis (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1981).
For the last two weeks, I have been doing a series of sermons on theology based upon a book called, “A House for Hope.” If you missed them you can read my notes online on my blog.
Briefly, the book uses the metaphor of a house to talk about theology. The foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. Our location is our eschatology, how we envision the end of the world and our concept of heaven or hell. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The walls our ecclesiology, and are what gather us into a collective space. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices.
We covered eschatology and soteriology in prior weeks. This week we are going to talk some about pneumatology. We’ll have three left after today: theology, ecclesiology, and missiology. Hopefully I will get to those later in the year, because I think it is important that religious communities engage the theological questions common to all human experience. That engagement is what makes us different from social clubs and social justice organizations.
Are you ready for pneumatology? Don’t stress, pneumatology is not as scary as it might sound. The word comes from the Greek pneuma, which means breath or wind. Rebecca Parker says that,
“Within (a religious community)… there breathes a sense of the Holy, a response to the Sacred Spirit or Spirits present in life, inspiring creativity, compassion and social action. Worship, art, ritual, and music shape religious community, infusing the atmosphere of its environment, making space for people to breathe.”
Take a breath. Is this a place you can breathe?
I hope so, I hope this is now or will become for you a place where you can breathe in and breathe out, a holy place, where your spirit can be restored.
Our Unitarian Universalist worship practices reflect our theologies. Practices vary from congregation to congregation, but some are common to almost all.
Music is critical in worship, because music stirs something that is beyond words, it is the real language of the soul, if the soul has a language at all.
We listen to music or we sing and the music resonates with our bodies and the space inside our lungs. The breath, the spirit begins to move within us and around us. We sing and give voice in word and music to our hopes, our dreams, and sometimes to our fears. Depending on the song, we might move or clap.
As Unitarian Universalists, we do not believe that the body or the pleasures of the body are sinful. When we sing or dance, we loosen up a bit, get out of our heads and become connected to our whole selves. One of the hymns in our hymnal contains the line, “body and spirit united once more.” That, too, is part of our theology. We sing together often during our worship services.
If a formal welcome is done, we welcome everyone because we believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity and because those of us that believe in God know that God loves everyone, no exceptions. We use the time of the announcements to invite people into the community, to engagement.
Chalice lighting words remind us of why we are here together, of the values of our faith and what our faith requires. It connects us to other congregations and the denomination as a whole.
The flaming chalice itself is a symbol that was created during World War II when our service committee was working to rescue people from Nazi Germany. When that flame is lit, our history, our present, and our future are combined during that brief moment.
In this congregation, after the chalice lighting, it is traditional to read the affirmation together. It is also our history, present and future combined. Some congregations read their mission statement instead. Both are reminders, and both define the purpose and intention of why we gather in worship.
After the opening hymn, here at UUP we call the children up to recite a greeting in both English and Spanish.
I haven’t seen this done in other congregations, but it is a nice touch, a way of more inclusive welcoming. The greeting and the story are both ways of reaffirming the commitment to children and families that has been a part of UUP from its beginning.
Our readings are sometimes the sacred texts of the various world religions, but more often they are more secular. Poetry and prose are both used. Wisdom, we believe, can be found in many places. There is little we are unwilling to examine for whatever truth or meaning might be found. Readings from our hymnal can connect us to our wider faith tradition and to the diversity it contains.
We sometimes pray together because prayer helps.
Many of us find comfort in prayer, from giving voice to our pain, from sharing the awareness that we are not alone, that if nothing else, compassion can draw us closer together. Some of us pray to the Holy, however we define that term. For others, prayer is simply a way of expressing our hopes for a better world.
Unitarian Universalist sermons, unlike many other traditions, do not follow a lectionary. The subject matter, other than around holidays, is pretty much up to the preacher and we have what is called a free pulpit and a free pew. This means, basically that the minister is free to say what they feel needs to be said, and those in the pews get to decide whether they agree or not.
The purpose of the sermon is to open up hearts and minds to something that might not have been felt or thought much about outside of church. Hopefully, it sometimes changes your mind and maybe even your heart.
If a sermon should do that, I don’t believe it is just because of the speaker or even what was said. Instead, it is pneumatology, the spirit working in the interaction and space between the words spoken and what is heard. Yeah, pneumatology is pretty mystical.
Our offering is a ritual as well, and an important part of our theology and worship service. It is partly practical of course, we need money to keep this church going, but frankly, the Sunday morning plate provides for only a small fraction of the resources we need. Instead, the offering is about acknowledging our connection, that giving and receiving is what sustains our lives as well as our spirits. We breathe out, and the plants breathe in. No one is really separate and no one is really alone. Whether you drop in a dollar, a twenty, or a hundred, you are acknowledging that this community is worth something. Remember the definition of worship, “Worthship,” considering things of worth.
The offering is not an admission charge or a fee for service, but an opportunity to participate in something that is worthwhile. I encourage you to approach the offering as the ritual it is, and to put something in the basket each and every week.
The closing words, and in smaller congregations, sometimes a closing circle, signals the end of the service and the benediction is usually a “sending forth,”, a charge to go out and act with courage to live your values. The chalice is extinguished but its light still shines.
If it worked well, a worship service will have recharged our spiritual batteries and given us the energy to better face the coming week and all the complexities of our lives.
The worship committee did a survey recently, essentially asking individuals what parts of our services they found most meaningful. Members will get a report of the results soon, and some action items resulted, but as expected, there was also a great deal of diversity of opinion.
You might want to consider later today, when you reflect back on this service, what parts spoke to you. Was it the welcome, the music, the candle lighting, the prayer, the sermon, or one of the readings? Was it simply sitting in the company of other human beings? Was it how everything flowed together or didn’t? How was the pneumatology for you today?
Then go a step further. Ask others what they found meaningful.
Maybe it was something that didn’t really speak to you as an individual. If that is true, try to just listen with curiosity, and without judgement. Remember that the whole is always greater than the parts, another aspect of our theology and our understanding of the interdependent web of life.
Emerson said, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imaginations and thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful about what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
If the worship experience can help inspire us to create more peace and justice in the world, if it can move us to compassion and to forgiveness, if it can comfort us and give us hope, then it is worthy, it is worthwhile. Blessings on all of you.
Pirates and Rabbi’s, Meg Barnhouse and Bob Marley, I love those combinations. It is funny how a mistake, like hearing a word wrong, can lead to an insight you might not have had otherwise. Sermons work like that sometimes. There is the one I write, the one I actually speak, and then there are all of the sermons that each of you hear, none of which are exactly the same. The saying goes that people hear what they want to hear, but I also think that just as often we hear exactly what we need to hear. We all need different things at different times. If the spirit is moving as it so often seems to be in this room on Sunday mornings, the possibility of that happening is increased. Open your ears, open your heart, and let the sun shine in.
Last week, I shared some insights that I gained from a class I took by the authors of “A House for Hope.” If you missed it you can read my notes online on my blog.
Briefly, the book uses the metaphor of a house to talk about theology. The foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. The walls are what gather us into a collective space. This is ecclesiology and includes how our religious community is organized and governed. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. Finally, there is our location, which is obviously here on this earth, this planet, but how we see this earth, especially the end of the earth, the end of time, is eschatology.
Last week we talked about Eschatology.
That sermon introduced the concept of radically realized eschatology is that heaven is right here and right now. This world and this life are sacred. We stand on holy ground. Our task is to recognize that fact and to treat each other and the earth with gentle care and with respect. The kingdom of God is among us.
With this understanding, we are drawn to repair and heal what is broken, not because it will bring about some perfect future world, but simply because the dance we are doing here is a holy dance. Some of you remember that, right? If you don’t or weren’t here last Sunday, don’t worry.
Today, we are going to check out the roof of Parker’s theological house, see how the shingles are doing, and notice if there are any pirates about. What keeps us warm? What keeps us dry? What saves us? What can shelter us from life’s hurricanes? Are you ready for another new word? Soteriology is the theology about salvation. Another way to think about it is; “What delivers us from evil?”
Anne Lamott says there are only two really sincere prayers, which are: “Help me, help me, and thank you, thank you.”
Some folks may be uncomfortable with the term “salvation.” It might help to think of it as the answer to that “help me help me” plea that I believe most of us have felt at some of the hard times in our lives.
Just as there are a variety of eschatologies, there are different soteriologies, and the two are linked in interesting ways.
Some people see salvation as an individual way to escape the punishment of hell. Many conservative Christians believe that. Evil came into the world when the devil tempted Eve in the garden. We are all tainted by this original sin.
In various stories in the Bible, God punished people by floods and other disasters and then finally sent Jesus to die on the cross. If you believe in Him, you will be saved and will go to heaven after you die or after the world is destroyed in the final days.
The response to evil in this soteriology is to defend against it, to avoid evil doers, to try and convert them if possible, and to perhaps punish them in this life as God will in the next.
There is a lot of evil in this world view, everyone is a sinner and deserves punishment. Only by the grace of God can we find a salvation that we don’t really deserve.
I frankly find those ideas pretty creepy. Salvation is defined as being saved from God’s wrath.
God is not a loving force in that soteriology, but a being that punishes by sending earthquakes and hurricanes, and sending everyone to hell if they don’t believe just the right things. It also lets humans off the hook for dealing with the real evil that is in our world and damages life.
Luckily, there are other options.
This week, we are in the midst of the Jewish High Holy Days where the faithful review their thoughts and actions and try to make amends for the harm they have done. It is about getting right with the world, with yourself, with God, and beginning the New Year with your soul refreshed and restored. That is a form of soteriology. There is also been the belief that what we need to be saved from is not the wrath of God, but the consequences of human sin and human evil, that salvation comes not from holding a specific belief, but from the powers of life, love and goodness that are all around us. In more liberal Christian theology, Jesus saves by the example of his life and work. His death was not a sacrifice demanded by God, but the result of the oppressive Roman Empire. His resurrection, which does not have to be taken literally, is evidence that the powers of life and love can counter and even, at times, defeat evil.
But what is evil? What is sin? Two more tricky concepts. Some define sin as a rebellion against God. The liberal theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch, rejects that notion. He says when theologians speak of rebellion against God, it reminds him of despotic governments which treat every offense as treason.
“Our universe is not a monarchy with a despotic God above and humans down below, but a spiritual commonwealth with God in the midst of us.” For Rauschenbusch and others, sin is not the betrayal of God’s rules, but the betrayal of one another. Sin of that sort destroys life giving relationships of love and justice.
Rebecca Parker says that evil is that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.
Evil is not just what individuals do, it hides in systems of oppression, in racism, in anti-Semitism, in sexism, in homophobia, and in economic systems that do not include any protection for those with less power and less money. Salvation is also not individual. We save ourselves when we work for a world of justice where everyone is saved. This fits in well with the social Gospel eschatology of building the Kingdom of heaven here on earth.
It also fits well with Universalist eschatology where we will all end up in heaven together – so it only makes sense to try and get along now.
I don’t think I have told you the story of the tourist who was taking a tour of heaven? No? Maybe some of you have heard it.
“An angel takes the tourist around, showing that everything is beautiful and varied. Some people are chanting in a park, some are sitting in silent meditation by a river, some are laughing and dancing on a hillside. The tourist then notices some walls that reach up to the sky. What is that? It is the section for those that wouldn’t be happy if they thought anyone else was here.”
Universalism – everyone gets to heaven, even those who want to be alone there.
So far we have covered three theologies of salvation. One says only some are saved. The criteria can vary depending on the particular group. Another says that salvation is collective not individual and that when we create a just world with a healthy and sustainable planet we will be saved. The third says that everyone is saved.
There is one other soteriology that I want to describe.
It, as far as I know, hasn’t been called radically realized soteriology, but I think it should be. In this one, the hope for salvation isn’t deferred to another life or tied to success in building a better world, but is realized in the here and now. Salvation can be defined as what we long for, what we need to feel like our life has meaning. What do you long for? What would be your salvation? What is the metaphorical roof over your life that keeps you from harm. For me, it is very simply being fully alive, engaged with each other and with the world, staying “woke,” if you will. It is trying to resist evil with patience and wisdom and it is also taking the time to celebrate all that is right with the world. It isn’t neat; it isn’t particularly easy, but for me it is what being alive is about. We don’t have to lose everything and we don’t have to be kidnapped by a pirate in order to appreciate what is most important. It isn’t money and it isn’t clothes, it isn’t a job or a house. You know that. It also isn’t a dream of an otherworldly paradise, particularly if your vision of such a paradise causes you to be less than kind to others who may not share your specific vision.
“Old pirates, yes, they rob I.” They rob you too. But we still sing songs of freedom, redemption songs. We sing them together. That can be our collective salvation. Blessed be.
We’ve got a feast for the spirit here, and a feast for the mind. Mango thoughts and jalapeno talk. There is nothing bland about the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma, right? Oh, yeah.
But church should be more than interesting dishes on a potluck line. A church should be a sanctuary, a place for respite from a sometimes painful and frightening world, and a place to give us the energy to live our lives in ways that can make a meaningful difference in the world.
While I was in seminary at Starr King, I studied both preaching and theology with Rebecca Parker. Several years later, I took a class taught by both Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens, a former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We discussed the instructors’ recent book: “A House for Hope, the promise of progressive religion for the twenty first century.” If you are interested in reading it, you can order it online from the UUA bookstore.
Their book contains some serious and meaty theology, and presents, I believe, some critical understandings of Unitarian Universalist theology, a theology that help us hold onto both hope and purpose in these challenging times. It is important enough and complex enough, that I am going to do a sermon series on it. For three weeks in a row, we are going to dive fairly deep into theology. I hope you are ready for the ride.
Parker and Buehrens use the metaphor of a house to explain the theological basis of progressive religion, including, but not limited to, Unitarian Universalism.
This metaphorical house has a foundation and is built in a particular place. It has walls and rooms, a roof and a doorway. All of these correspond to categories in systemic theology, which is simply an organized way to look at the different aspects of various religions.
Briefly, because this might give some of you a headache, the foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. The walls are what gather us into a collective space. This is ecclesiology and includes how our religious community is organized and governed. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. Finally, there is our location, which is obviously here on this earth, this planet, but how we see this earth, especially the end of the earth, the end of time, is eschatology.
We are going to start with the last one: Eschatology, our location and relationship to the earth, the end of the earth, the end of time.
But first, some context:
There is a lot to Unitarian Universalism. We have our seven principles and six sources. We read the principles earlier, and both the principles and our sources are in the front of the grey hymnal.
The sources help to explain who we are and where we come from, and the principles are good guides for living. But neither the principles or the sources are actually theology.
Some folks confuse theology with creeds, so let me clear that up immediately. As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have a creed, no one tells us what we have to believe. As the song goes, we welcome atheists and redneck Hindus, as well as Pagan Buddhist Jews. That is part of what we offer to those who would join us. No one needs to check who they are and what they believe at the door.
I know that is very important to many of you. It was to me when I first found Unitarian Universalism.
We don’t have a creed, but we do, my friends, have some particular theological perspectives that influence how we interact with each other and with the world.
These perspectives are made up of the various parts I mentioned earlier: theology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, soteriology, missiology, and eschatology.
If you can’t remember the definitions of those words, don’t stress. Think about a house with a foundation, walls, rooms, a roof, and a doorway.
Just like a house, none of these theological parts can stand alone.
How we conceive of the divine affects how we organize our churches. How we see salvation affects how we determine our mission. How we worship together reflects all of the above.
Let’s start with how we see the world and the ultimate purpose of existence. The most common eschatology in our wider culture here in the United States is the one that goes something like this: God created the world and in the end humanity will meet its maker, be judged and end up in either heaven or in hell. The end of the entire world will come at the end of a cosmic battle between good and evil called Armageddon. The world will be destroyed, but the faithful will be saved and taken to a new paradise. This is not what most Unitarian Universalists believe. As it said in the song, in case of Rapture, pack a snack, ’cause we’ll be left behind.
The major problem with that eschatology is that this world, this life, has meaning only so far as it gets us to heaven. If we believe that, we don’t have to worry about degradation of the environment as it will all be destroyed anyway. The pain and suffering in our own lives, the oppression so many are forced to live with, doesn’t matter because the rewards will all come after we die.
Most Unitarian Universalists don’t believe any of that. We do worry about the end of the world, more at some times than others, but our fears are about climate change, war, and other disasters, and not the wrath or judgement of some God.
There are three eschatologies that can be defined as liberal, all of which have been around at least since the beginning of Christianity.
Briefly, these three can be defined as Social Gospel, Universalist, and radically realized eschatology.
All are fairly popular within Unitarian Universalism and many are also shared by other faith traditions. As I go through, think about which one fits what you believe.
Quite of few of our hymns reflect the social gospel eschatology. “We’ll build a Land” is one of the more obvious.
We are here to build the Kingdom of God here on earth where justice shall roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream. This social gospel eschatology is also very popular with Methodists and many Catholics. The only problem with it is that building heaven on earth is hard work. You have to feed all of the hungry people in the world, end all oppression, and probably be extremely nice all the time too. It can also be frustrating when the arc of the universe seems to be bending away from justice. The approach can be inspirational, it can feed the spirit, but if it the only dish served at the church potluck it can also be overwhelming.
The second of the more liberal eschatologies is Universalism, which holds, basically, that “God’s love embraces the whole human race: another line from one of our hymns. If God loves all of us, then we should try to get along. The Universalist faith is in a God of Love who works to bring all into relationship with the divine.
The third liberal eschatology is radically realized eschatology. It is radical, because it says heaven is right here and right now. This world and this life are sacred. We stand on holy ground. Our task is to recognize that fact and to treat each other and the earth with gentle care and respect.
Jesus said, the kingdom of God is among us. Moses was told to take off his shoes for the ground he stood on was holy.
With this understanding, we are drawn to repair and heal what is broken, not because it will bring about some perfect future world, but simply because the dance we are doing here is a holy dance. As Rumi says, there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Personally, I like some of all three of the progressive eschatologies. I still dream of a better world and want to help that come about. I believe in a God, a sacred source of love and compassion, that loves each and every one of us. But for my house of hope, I want to live in the radically realized vision, because with that one, heaven is already pretty much here. Yes, there is pain and suffering, but life is also to be enjoyed and treasured. Let it be a dance we do, another line from our hymnal, reflects this attitude.
As I said earlier, the parts of a theological house need to fit together. I am not going to go as deeply into the other parts today, simply because there isn’t time. We will do more in the next couple of weeks
But briefly, some of what we try to do in our worship services relate directly to radically realized eschatology. We have fun. We sing joyful songs and we recognize that life itself is a blessing, that it can be simply awesome. And yes, we can work hard for justice in so many ways, but we also have fun while we do it. It affects our mission, how we organize ourselves, and how we see God. It helps us figure out how to “let nothing evil cross this door.
It tells us that heaven can be right here, that comfort and healing can be found, not in some far-off place, but right here, right now.
That is the hope, a hope that is here because we can feel it among us when we gather together. We all know about hell. We all see the damage that is being done by those who believe that this life doesn’t matter, who don’t really care about protecting our planet because they think God will destroy it anyway.
We also know heaven. We see it in the sparkle of our children’s eyes. We see it in the tenderness of our caring committee. We feel it in our chalice circles, where we share our stories from deep inside.
Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens say that to thrive, hope requires a home.
Some words by Jonipher Kwong, a poem entitled
They say faith without works is dead
So I worked for equality
Next to my queer friends who wanted to get married
And I worked for religious freedom
Next to my Muslim friends who were accused of being terrorists
And I worked for racial justice
Next to my black friends whose lives were affected by police brutality
Yet I didn’t feel fully alive even after working myself to death
Until I let my work become a spiritual practice
Until I let go of my attachment to the outcome
Until I stopped chasing after political issues, one after another
I still believe faith without works is dead
But works without faith is just as lifeless
I was an activist before I was religious, and those words ring true for me. Without some type of faith, political engagement can really suck the joy out of life. There are always defeats and disappointments, hard fought progress is stopped or, worse, reversed. Despair, frustration, and bitterness can grow until one can forget to treat even friends with kindness. Infighting and misplaced righteousness has torn many a positive movement apart.
I have experienced that, I have seen it and I have lived it. Many of you have lived it too. Sometimes it even happens in churches.
I was worried when I went to New Orleans in June for our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. A pattern of white supremacy within our association had been called out by brave Unitarian Universalists of color. There was defensiveness and some serious mistakes by some of our leadership which resulted in some significant resignations, including that of our national President. Our well-respected Moderator was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer and he died within a matter of weeks. Both of our two nationally elected offices were vacant.
What was going to happen? Would our faith be torn apart by the same forces that were tearing apart our country and the whole world? Would we find the courage and wisdom to resist not only the forces of evil that surrounded us, but also the fear that lived inside of us?
So, I was very worried. I knew what was happening within was in part the result of what was going on in the world. After the election, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities of all kinds, people who identify as Jewish or Muslim, immigrants, felt even more vulnerable than they had before. The list goes on to include everyone who is marginalized in some way, even women who are a majority in numbers but not in power, and of course that list includes all of the people that love someone whose very worth and dignity, whose actual life in many cases, is under direct attack.
So no wonder, so no wonder, that folks became more sensitive to instances of white supremacy, of sexism, of all the “isms” that afflict our culture, even the culture of our faith tradition.
I worried, but I shouldn’t have. I should have had more faith that who we are as Unitarian Universalists would help us through even this hard time.
My experience at both General Assembly and Ministry Days was simply amazing, and renewed my faith and my commitment.
Our national board named three African American co-presidents who led with grace, compassion, and courage. The Minister’s association’s worship included voices of ministers of color and other marginalized groups who spoke their truths as clearly as they described their visions. Co-moderators were appointed who led the business portions of our meetings with humor, transparency, and a flexibility that was a real joy to witness.
We tackled white supremacy in numerous workshops and in healing spaces reserved for people of color.
That work is far from done – Let me share an example of something I learned in one of the workshops, something that I don’t think was a part of the lesson plan. The workshop was described as a place to sing some of the music in our hymnal that comes out of the African American heritage. The room was crowded and it was clear there weren’t going to be enough hymnals for those sitting in the back. As often happens, there were plenty of seats up front. The workshop leader asked those in the back to move up front so they could share a hymnal. And then, a white woman in the back questioned this, saying it would be much better if some of the hymnals were handed to those in the back.
It was subtle, it was likely unconscious, but it was a clear example of how white supremacy can function in a religiously liberal setting. I caught the eye of the African American woman sitting next to me who also noticed the sense of entitlement that seemed to prompt that demand. The facilitator simply said no, we aren’t going to do that. Too often white folks think we know better and that our needs and ideas should take priority, even if we are late to the party. Listening, really listening, to the stories and experiences of a very diverse Unitarian Universalism was an important part of that week in New Orleans.
It was a joy that our youth from this church were there to experience it as well. Next week, they will be sharing some of their experiences with you.
I could go on about general assembly, it was a full and fruitful time.
But our world keeps turning, and there is going to be an eclipse of the sun – tomorrow, yes?
What a metaphor a solar eclipse is. Especially for us, who light our chalice each week for the light of truth, the warmth of love and the energy of action. We cannot let that light go out. We cannot let the forces of hate and bigotry, we cannot let fascism, because that is what it is, we cannot let it blot out our sun or dim our chalice. The symbol of our chalice, as most of you know, was created during WWII when we, as a faith, took a stand against the Nazi regime and all it stood for.
Many Unitarian Universalists were in Charlottesville last weekend, including Susan Frederick Gray, our newly elected national president, the first woman to ever serve in that position. Arm in arm with her were other clergy, including Jeanne Pupke, who had run against Susan in one of the pleasantest elections I have ever witnessed. Many were trained, many were veterans of non-violent resistance actions. Facing armed Nazi’s screaming racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic curses at them was a very different experience than they had ever had before. What courage that took. What faith they had.
They were not safe. They could have, and almost were, beaten. They could have been killed. Heather Heyer was murdered that day and many others were hurt.
During WWII no one was really safe from the Nazis, and I believe no one is safe today. They have come for the immigrants already. They have attacked Mosques and synagogues, they have burned down the houses of gay activists as happened in Michigan a couple of weeks ago.
What is happening is frightening; it can be overwhelming; and it can freeze our souls to numbness and despair.
We need to resist this evil with all that is in us, and we can do so with joy, rejoicing in the fact that we are not alone in this struggle against hate. We can do so with faith, knowing that as long as we remain true to our values, with our tradition as a guide, and the power of love as our engine, the forces of evil will not prevail. Our spirits will be renewed and our world restored.
I will end with these words by Anne Barker. She names the pain and she names the love that abides:
When the Unimaginable Happened
When we heard the news, saw the wreckage, felt the paralyzing blow…
Our hearts broke open – and spilled out – into our hands
And there we were
Watching our Love seep between our fingers
Watching our fragile Love pour out all over us.
Watching our Love seem to slip away.
When the unimaginable happened,
The ache we felt-
As if Love was being lost
Was the ache of Love’s despairing truth.
This is the Love that no one chooses,
the loss so out of order, so profound,
the Love we did not ever want to know.
And yet, the source of this despair,
the reason our hearts cleave and flow,
is because they know the fullness.
This is the Love of truth and beauty,
Love that spans the web of being,
Uniting each of us within its timeless form.
When we heard the news,
Our hearts broke open, spilled into our hands
And there we stared at Love, lamenting,
“What am I to do with this?”
And with these raw and tender yearnings
We will – beat after precious beat-
Seek wholeness once again
It will take time to find our balance
To grieve, if we will make the room.
Remember, friends, this is the right thing
This ache within our deepest beings.
Know that all these things are normal
To feel disrupted, empty or undone.
Our hearts broke open and the Love that is still true
Draws us once again together, story by story, step by step,
Into places of tender knowing, remembering
To restore us, mend us, piece by broken piece.
This is the Love that runs between us,
Sustaining force of restoration,
The Love that nourishes and feeds us,
Binds us, each, to our collective core.
We grieve…and march….and weep….and sing
And through the pain – but not despite it –
Love will repair us, not the same, but stronger in some places,
Honoring memories like treasures,
Living out our lives’ potential
In the shadow of the trespass
In the warmth of one another
In the light of what, restored, we will become.
May it be so, Blessed Be.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are a promise making people. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, not a creedal one. What does that mean?
Theodore Parker had this to say:
“Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere, its temple all space, its shrine the good heart, its creed all truth, its ritual works of love.”
His ritual really was works of love, he was an active abolitionist. Naming our creed all truth was also a definite challenge to the religious mainstream of his day.
A creed is a statement of beliefs that are taken on faith. Members of religious institutions that have creeds are expected to agree with the beliefs specified in that creed. If you question the Virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or his unique divinity as the only son of God, you can be labeled a heretic. During the reformation, many were burned at the stake for that kind of questioning. Today, people are excommunicated from some faiths because they do not believe or follow all of a church’s teaching.
Parker’s line, “creed all truth,” was an affirmation that people should believe what is true and also that truth is subject to testing, to analysis, to science as well as personal experience.
Unitarian Universalists believe things, of course we do.
As individuals we all have beliefs, some of which we hold fiercely and passionately. There are also a lot of beliefs that we hold in common with one another. Those beliefs are not a creed, however, because they are not a requirement for membership. They are also subject to change based upon new knowledge or new experience. Our creed, if we have one, really is all truth but what that truth may be at any given time or for any given person is open to both questioning and doubt.
Some people consider our seven principles a creed. Many of us when we first read them, say, “oh yes, that is exactly what I believe!” Let’s look at them now if you will. They are in the front of our hymnal.
Please note the introductory lines. It does not begin with “I believe” like the Apostles creed. It says instead that we covenant to affirm and promote– and what does covenant mean? Simply, a covenant is a promise. As Unitarian Universalists, we make promises; promises to do things. The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are not statements of belief, but rather action plans that we try to follow both as congregations and as individuals. Action plans! Don’t you love it?
What matters most is not what we believe, but what we do, how we treat other people and how we care for our planet. It is our promises that hold us together, it is the ways we have pledged to live our lives. That is a lot harder work than simply saying you believe in the virgin birth.
Am I treating that person that bugs me with respect? Am I fair and just when I deal with others? Am I working toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all? If we are faithful to them, our seven principles call us to that kind of reflection and action every day of our lives.
And yes, I guess you have to believe that justice, equity and compassion are good things, so beliefs are a part of it. But the key is not the belief, but the promise of action.
Has anyone here ever been asked, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” It is really the wrong question as we believe a lot of different things, in particular about theology. A better one is perhaps, “What is Unitarian Universalism?”
The best answer is that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith. We are bound together by our promises. Covenants are not contracts, but statements of intent. How we live into those promises, the actions we take in our lives and in the world, are what matters.
Covenants also aren’t rules or laws. You don’t go to jail or get throw out of the community if you break your promises from time to time. We all break our promises sometimes. We are human and we do not always live up to our best intentions.
But living according to covenant can bring us back to those intentions when we fail short. We can forgive each other and ourselves. Then, we can we begin again together in love.
The point is that we have promised to live our lives in a particular way, affirming and promoting certain principles that we have agreed upon.
Many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations have also adopted congregational covenants that contain promises about how we will be together in a religious community.
A sample is as follows:
“As a member of our Unitarian Universalist community, I covenant to affirm and promote our Unitarian Universalist principles. I am mindful, that as an individual and as a member of this community, I am accountable for my words, deeds, and behavior. Therefore, whenever we worship, work, or relate to one another, I covenant that I will:
Treat others with kindness and care, dignity and respect;
Foster an environment of compassion, generosity, fellowship, and creativity;
Share in the responsibilities of congregational life;
Speak truth as I experience it and listen to all points of view;
Practice direct communication. Speak to the individual –
not about them;
Act with respect and humility when I disagree with others;
Seek out understanding and wisdom in the presence of conflict;
Be true to my chosen path although the way may twist and turn, and support others on their journeys;
Resolve conflicts through intentional compromise and collaboration and, when necessary, request facilitation and/or mediation. “
The members of our board of trustees are in the midst of adopting a covenant for the board, promises about how they will work together for the good of the congregation as a whole.
They also think it would be good if we can adopt a congregational covenant, something similar to the one I just read. Such covenants have been proven to enhance the positive feeling of community and to reduce the rancor that can sometimes be involved in conflict situations. Disagreements are inevitable and if voiced respectfully can actually serve to make a community stronger and more committed to its common mission. They can help refine that mission and make it real. But nothing will drive people away faster than conflicts that are not discussed openly, respectfully, and directly.
Being in a religious community that really lives our values is very hard work. How many of you have been hurt by an unkind word by someone you thought was a friend?
What if you discover that you have hurt someone else by a thoughtless act or comment? How did you get back in right relationship? A covenant can help with that, as it is a reminder of how we have promised to be with each other.
Like marriage vows, which are a form of covenant, covenants of right relationship are best if they are created by those who are making the promises to each other.
Those of you who have participated in Chalice circles all have some recent experience in creating covenants.
Those covenants vary, but there are some common themes such as listening respectfully, keeping personal information confidential, sharing time fairly, and honoring the commitment to show up.
If UUP decides to create a congregational covenant, then each of the members will need to reflect upon what is important to them in creating and maintaining a strong and resilient religious community. How do you want to handle conflict? What is the difference between gossip and sharing someone else’s news?
Speaking directly to each other and not about each other is probably the hardest promise in any covenant. What fun it is to complain to a sympathetic ear about something someone else has done! How much harder it is to tell the person directly that you don’t like what they did and why.
One clarification on that: it really isn’t necessary to tell people to their face every little thing we don’t like about them. We all have personal flaws and quirks that it would be a bit rude to have pointed out to us. We all make mistakes. But if we are upset enough about something that we begin to gossip or complain to others about someone else, then we need to express those feelings directly.
It is about respect. It is how most of us would like to be treated. It also prevents misinformation from being spread and the community becoming unsettled by rumors and innuendo. Acting with respect and humility when you disagree with someone is also important. None of us can be right all of the time, and opinions expressed in arrogance can be very destructive in any community.
We also have a culture, both as a nation and as a faith tradition, that tends to be suspicious about anyone in any authority, and that tendency can make it difficult for anyone serving in a leadership capacity. It is not always just about the minister, although the minister rarely escapes such reactions, and most of us have learned to expect it, even if it is not pleasant.
How many of you have served on the board or on a committee and received criticisms that were hurtful? That demeaned your character, ability, or your intentions? Luckily it doesn’t happen very often here, but when it does it can be very hurtful.
A congregational covenant that establishes a practice of acting with respect and humility when we disagree with each other, of treating others with kindness and care, can go a long way in making the inevitable disagreements less personal and hurtful.
There are literally hundreds of congregational covenants that have been adopted by Unitarian Universalist congregations.
If UUP wants to create one of its own, a good way to start would be to create a task force of interested members who could look at a number of samples and then develop a draft to propose to the congregation. If you would be interested in participating in such a task force, please let me or a board member know.
I will end with a poem by the Rev. Derrick Jackson
We Are Called
In these times, we are called:
Called to step into the mess and murk of life
Called to be strong and vulnerable
Called to console and to challenge
Called to be grounded, and hold lofty ideals
Called to love in the face of hate
We are called
And it is not easy
And we will not always agree
And we will yell, and scream and cry
And we will laugh and smile and sing
We are called to be together
There is so much work to do
And we cannot do it alone
We need one another
Holding each other accountable to our covenants, to the holy, to love and justice
In these times, we are called.
Bottom line, the test of faith in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not about believing the right thing; it is rather about doing what is right. May we all strive to live up to our highest aspirations for the common good.
Blessed Be and Namaste
A couple more short readings:
From THE INVISIBILITY OF WHITENESS By john a. powell
White people have the luxury of not having to think about race. That is a benefit of being white, of being part of the dominant group. Just like men don’t have to think about gender. The system works for you, and you don’t have to think about it.
So they live in white space and then they don’t have to think about it. First of all, they think about race as something that belongs to somebody else. The blacks have race; maybe Latinos have race; maybe Asians have race. But they’re just white. They’re just people. That’s part of being white.
from the Rev. Karen Quinlan,
But more often, I’m learning, true change happens only when we take the time and the risk of sitting with something hard. True change in the world is intimately related to our internal transformation, which is intimately related to our presence to our selves.
Culture is simply everything that’s around us. At some point in our lives, we learn that there are other ways of being. Our human tendency is to think that ours is better than theirs.
When we are white, thinking that ours is better is supported by the fact that our social and political systems have been built through the same frame through which we’re looking.
We learn that our way is the right way and the best way. Simply put, this is white supremacy culture.”
She also says, ‘Come on and look inside you–it’s the best place to start.’ The greatest revolution is a simple change of heart.’ So that is where I am going to start. I am going to tell some stories about how I, as a white woman, learned about race and about white supremacy. Just to be clear, white supremacy is the system we all live in, you don’t have to be a racist to participate in it, or, if you are white, benefit from it. As I tell my story, you might want to reflect on whether your own is similar or not.
I grew up in Watsonville, CA, a relatively small, primarily agricultural town. Unlike many white people who grew up in racially segregated suburbs, the town was very ethnically diverse and I was aware of that from an early age. Many of my friend’s parents were first generation immigrants and English was their second language if they spoke it at all. Our next door neighbor, who took care of me while my mother worked, spoke mainly Portuguese. I remember my mother explaining, when I was very young, that the town was settled by waves of immigrants who came mainly to work on the farms. Italians, Slavonian’s, Portuguese, Germans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Okies, and Mexicans were the groups she mentioned. I asked what we were, and she said Okies. Everyone had an ethnicity of some sort in my mother’s opinion, and she used it to describe virtually everyone we knew.
Phyllis was my Chinese friend, John was Slavonian, David was my Jewish friend, and I was named after my mother’s German friend, Theresa.
I remember asking her what we were. She said we were Okies. She’d moved from Texas to California in the 1930’s to find work as a waitress in Hollywood.
I have been thinking about Jordan Edwards a lot this week. He was the young African American teenager who was recently killed by the police in Texas. He was only 15 and had been at a party with his brothers and some friends. When someone said that the police had been called, they got in their car and tried to leave. An officer shot at the departing car, and Jordan was killed by a bullet to his head.
I have been thinking about it a lot, partly because when I was a teenager I went to a friend’s party. Some of the kids were drinking and her parents called the cops. We all got in our cars and tried to get away. In a panic, my friend David backed his car into a muddy field and we got stuck, but finally managed to get the car out and get away. We were scared, but because we were white, our lives were not at risk. The worst case scenario would have been a phone call to our parents and being grounded. That was white supremacy at work although I did not realize it at the time.
I was not totally unaware of racism as a teen, however. My US History teacher in high school, Mr. Hashimoto, had been interned with his family during WWII and talked about that on more than on occasion.
He also told us that it was because of racism that the US dropped the atom bomb on Japan rather than on Germany. He taught me to question things.
In college, although I had the opportunity to hear Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Bobbie Seale and other Black Panthers speak during those turbulent times, it was also the first time I was exposed to a pretty monolithic white middle class culture. Almost everyone in my dorm was white and most of them came from upper middle class white suburbs. White supremacy became the water I swam in.
I saw the class issues, because I was a scholarship student, but my social life was almost completely white and I was clueless about it. We were all for racial justice, but we didn’t really know any black people at all. One thing I have learned over time, is that while ideas and values are good things, you can’t really know someone else unless you take the time to listen. You can’t live our first principle without a deeper understanding of the inherent worth and dignity of all, which is so much more complicated than just accepting the sometimes very self-centered individualism of people with a lot of privilege.
I learned so much during my 25 years working for Social Security in Richmond CA. With almost 2000 employees when I started, it was something like 40% African American with a good mix of other ethnic groups. White people were not the majority, although something like 60% of the management staff was white.
What that meant is that people of color felt safe enough to talk about race and racism openly.
During the OJ Simpson trial, there was a clear racial divide and people argued about it. Most of the white folks thought he was guilty, and most of the black folks wanted him to be freed. When the verdict was announced, the black people cheered. A black man accused of killing a white woman was declared innocent. It was an historic event, something that rarely happens when you live under the thumb of white supremacy. I learned something very real about the reality of black lives
I shared with a black co-worker, a lay sermon I wrote about how Anne and I created our family as lesbian parents. (It was my very first sermon.) She cried when she read it, and told me she thought her church was wrong in how they treated gay people. She then told me of going to a sleepover camp where she was the only black child. She was 9 or 10 and could not swim very well. All of the other kids had swum out to a platform on the lake and she was left on the shore. She gathered her strength and her courage and swam as best she could out to the platform. She was exhausted when she got there, but when she tried to get on the platform to rest, the other kids wouldn’t let her. I am not sure if they used the “N” word or not. She did not say, but she cried again as she told me of almost drowning as she made her way back to shore. I was so honored that she trusted me enough to share that story. I did not make any excuses for the kids who had been mean to her. I just cried with her.
That story was a hard one, and I have more like that, but I have a few funny stories too. My assistant manager Hazel was complaining that I got internet access at my desk before she did. She said it was racist, that all the black managers were going to be last. I looked at her with a straight face and said, maybe, but maybe they are just giving the internet to all the gay managers first, because everyone knows how good we are at technology. We laughed for a solid half an hour about that one.
Conversations about race can be difficult. They can be uncomfortable.
The history is full of pain, and too often white people can get defensive because they don’t want to feel guilty. The very term, white supremacy, is one that is particularly hard for those of us who consider ourselves liberal and certainly not racist.
But you don’t have to identify as a racist in order to acknowledge white privilege and that we live in a culture, a system, where white people and white culture is what is most highly valued. It shows up in all kinds of decisions, including hiring, including within Unitarian Universalism, including in our headquarters, our regions and our congregations. Despite principles and written commitments to diversity, the white candidate is often seen as just the “better fit.” My friends who are ministers of color know that they are less likely to be called to serve a UU congregation than are their white peers.
Straight white cisgender men are also still the most likely to be called to serve our larger churches.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are unfortunately very much alive within Unitarian Universalism. It isn’t always blatant, and the specific instance can be complicated, but if we were really who we say we are, who we want to be, the end result would be different.
Driving home to Utah from the Phoenix General Assembly I was stopped at the Arizona border in what was clearly a speed trap. The state trooper was almost apologetic to this older Anglo woman who maybe looked like his mom. I got a ticket, but he did not call immigration to see if I could be deported. I wasn’t shot and killed as so many people of color are during traffic stops. I did not have an Arabic sounding name so I wasn’t a terrorist. He didn’t ask to search my car looking for weapons or drugs.
I was white, so I was automatically one of the “good people” the “safe people.” The system of white supremacy took care of me. Every day of my life I have reaped the benefits of being white.
And every day, I have suffered from it too. It has kept me separated from other people me so that those moments of sharing across racial lines are as rare as they are precious. I can’t really be free until everyone else is free too.
This is too long already, so I am going to end by asking you to think some about your own lives and how you learned about and understood racism and white supremacy. You might want to share those thought with others during coffee hour.
This work will take a lifetime, but it is what will finally save us. We can all find some of the amazing grace we will sing about in our closing song, one that was written by a man who earned his living as a slave trader. Blessed Be
What an effort it must have been
To climb down from that cross
So many centuries ago
They thought you were dead forever
It certainly looked like that
You’d prayed your last prayer
Healed your last leper
Driven out your last demon.
They even buried you.
It must have felt so good
To lay your head down
The funeral cloths were soft.
The darkness was comforting
So weary you were
Tired, hurt, bleeding.
You’d seen so much
Suffered so much
Done so much
What harm could it do
To give into rest
For a few days
It must have been hard
To hear the weeping
Of those who had loved you
Of those who had betrayed you
The stone was heavy
But you had to push it aside
Rolling away defeat
What an effort it must have taken
To come back not knowing
What people would think
How they would respond
Would they think the miracle
Was only about you?
Thank you for letting us know
That we each have the chance
The opportunity, the responsibility
To be reborn
Again and again.
Like the earth
Forever and ever
Happy Easter. There are other holidays at this time of year. The Jewish Passover celebration is one of liberation, of freedom from slavery. The ritual meal, the Seder, recalls the time the Jewish people spent in Egypt as slaves, and tells the story of their escape to the Promised Land. That holiday can hold deep meaning for those who do not identify as Jewish. We weren’t able to hold a Seder this year but next year it should happen.
Oester is the pagan celebration of spring and fertility, usually celebrated at the Spring equinox. It is where we get the name Easter, and it is also where the Easter Bunny comes from. Rabbits don’t normally lay eggs, but the Goddess Oester was in the form of a rabbit, an animal known for its fertility. She is always portrayed with an egg. The holiday holds meaning for those who do not identify as pagan. It is also a particularly fun one for children.
Easter is the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection. A Christian story, it too holds meaning for those who do not identify as Christian.
The Easter story is a rich one, an important one, and not an easy one to understand. It has been the source of hope and renewal for millions. Millions have fought and died over how it should be understood.
It is good to be celebrating Easter this morning as a Unitarian Universalist!
We can dig into the story, ask some hard questions about it, and – best of all – we do not have to agree on all the answers. No religious wars here.
Easter is most simply a story about a victory of life and love over death.
If Easter had not happened, Jesus would have likely been remembered as simply one more in a long line of Hebrew prophets. Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and so many others who called their people back to God, to faithfulness, and back to caring for others, particularly for the poor and oppressed.
He was a teacher and a healer, traveling around preaching to ordinary people with a fairly ragtag group of followers.
He made some people mad. The occupying Romans certainly weren’t happy with him; some of his followers thought he was the messiah, a new king that would free his people and bring Israel back to her glory.
The established religious authorities weren’t crazy about him either. He ranted about the money lenders in the temple. And, just like the pay day lenders of today, I am sure they made a lot of financial contributions to those who had the power. He healed people and he didn’t charge them for it. He fed the hungry, also for free. Yes, he must have made a lot of people mad.
So who was Jesus? Was he a man, a malcontent, a prophet, a lunatic, or a God? Find your own answer to that question, and cherish the freedom you have to do so.
And, who killed Jesus? Was it the Romans or was it the Jews? Or was his death planned all along by God? People have died because of the various answers to that question. Jesus and all of his followers were Jewish, but still Jews have been blamed for his death by many Christians over the centuries and even today. Would the holocaust have happened without that version of the Easter story? And if his death was God’s plan, why would the Jews or even Judas be blamed?
I say it was the Romans, with the strong encouragement of both the religious and secular authorities of the day. It was the 1% trying to protect their wealth and power from a movement that frankly scared them. It is the answer that makes the most sense to me, but you get to decide for yourself what makes sense to you.
The idea that it was God’s plan is worth exploring more deeply, however, as it raises an important theological issue.
The issue even has a name, “theodicy.” The term comes from the Greek and involves the effort to reconcile the traditional characteristics of God as all good, all loving, and all-powerful with the fact of evil in the world. In simple terms, the question is why do bad things happen to good people? If God is running the world, then why does God let those things happen?
I handle that issue for myself by understanding God as a force for good, and not as an all-powerful being. Others believe that even bad things come from God, as lessons, as tests, or as punishments.
It is an issue worth exploring, and the Easter story is a prime example of how the same event can be interpreted in different ways.
Jesus was a good person and a bad thing happened to him.
It is clear that Jesus despaired. He felt that his God had left him, forsaken him. It is an emotion that I think all of us have felt at one time or another. Even if we have never believed in God, there are times when most of us have been alone and afraid and have felt that there is no help for us anywhere in the universe. It is not so very hard to identify with the suffering Jesus.
We can also identify with his followers and their grief and fear after his death. Some of us will never forget when Martin and Malcolm were murdered, when the Kennedy brothers were killed, or when Harvey Milk was slain. Many of us wept bitter tears at those times. I know I did.
But Easter, although an upsetting story in so many ways has a miracle at the end. The stone gets rolled away and Jesus comes back to life – or at least his spirit and his message lived on.
Easter can also lead us to reflect on what is blocking our own pathway to a more abundant life.
What is the stone that seals us into a metaphorical tomb? Is it an addiction that has made our life unmanageable?
Is it a relationship that isn’t working, a job that is so tedious that it exhausts you for anything else, an earlier trauma that just won’t heal? Did someone else put that stone in your path? Is it racism, sexism, homophobia, or your social class? What is holding you back from being who you were meant to be?
Can you, do you have the courage and strength to begin to roll that stone away all by yourself? Most of us need some help, because those stones are very heavy and are hard to get rolling. It is also scary, as it can be comfortable in a tomb, safe and protected from further harm.
The resurrection of Jesus can be interpreted as a metaphor, and some see it as a fact. In either case, what does it mean? Does it signify hope for all of us? Did his death save us? Who do we mean by us? What do we mean by salvation?
Very early in Christianity, there was a lot of argument about this. OK, there is still a lot of argument about this.
The earliest Universalists, prior to the 4th century even, were divided over some of these issues, but they were in agreement that if the death of Jesus provided salvation, it was salvation for everybody by the grace and goodness of God. No exclusions.
No restricting salvation to just Christians; it is universal. Not everyone agreed then and not everyone agrees now.
There is a New Testament verse that is often quoted that deals with some of this. John 3:16
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The conservative interpretation of this text has caused a lot of grief. It freaked me out when I was younger. “God loves us, he sacrificed his son, believe this or you will die.” The book of John is the most mystical of the Gospels, and taking it at all literally doesn’t make any sense to me, and it also doesn’t really do it justice.
Are humans so evil that such a sacrifice would be required? The verse itself says God gave his son out of love. Perhaps it was a simple gift, and not a sacrifice.
Maybe the message from God was instead, “Here is this man in whom I have invested my spirit, listen to what he says, believe him, follow him, and life will come to you.”
The Easter story should be one of pure joy, of pure relief. There was suffering and there was death, but out of it came new life and new hope. Jesus reappeared after only three days. The tomb was empty. He came back to life. His followers saw him in ordinary people and in each other.
Can we listen to this story of hope? Can we find out how to get our own heavy stones rolled away so we can find our way back to life? Can we learn to do justice and love mercy? Can we love our neighbor as ourselves? Can we see every human being as both our parent and our child? How long will it take us? Are three days enough? Three years? Three decades? Three thousand years?
Those questions are for each of you to answer, each in your own way. But as Unitarian Universalists we are called to life, to be born and reborn again and again.
You can live with your questions, cherish your doubts, and believe what you must, but don’t let anything keep you shut inside a cold tomb of despair, afraid of trying new things, afraid of trying. Come back to Life instead, rejoice in the springtime, and savor the good that you find around you.
Come back to hope and commitment; come back to searching for a better way; roll those heavy stones away. Blessed Be. Happy Easter.