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July 11, 2010: “Unitarian Universalism: The Religion That Puts Its Faith in You”

Full Devotion to God

         In the days of the circuit riders a minister was out riding one afternoon and came upon a man out working in his field. "Fine day isn't it?" the minister called out.  "Its fine for you", the man replied, "All you have to do is ride around on that horse thinking about God all day long, while I have to sweat here in this field and then walk home afterward. I don't think it is right you should have things so easy while I have to work so hard." "On the contrary", the minister answered, "thinking about God is one of the most difficult things you can do.  And to prove it, I'll give you this horse if you can think about God and nothing else for one minute."  "You're on," said the man and immediately he sat down in silence.  Thirty seconds later he looked up at the minister, and said, "Does that include the saddle?"

        The title of the sermon, 'Unitarian Universalism: The Religion That Puts Its Faith in You,' is actually from a national publicity campaign slogan from a few years ago that the Unitarian Universalist Association conducted. It was, of course, available on bumper stickers, leading some to talk about us being a bumper sticker religion, but I disagree! Indeed, of course, there is much debate about whether we are truly a religion at all, but that's not the subject of this sermon. I'm going to suggest that we might avoid the discussion which I think is not helpful, by eliminating the adjectives and thus, I believe, changing the meaning to something we might more easily be able to commonly agree upon. Let's say instead, then, that we are 'religion that puts its faith in you.' Do you see the difference?

        Not 'a' religion, and certainly not 'the' religion, as if we were the right or only one! But we ARE religious! Yes, all kidding aside, we have a long and distinguished religious history of free thinking, yes, often called heresy, but remember that heresy simply comes from the Greek word meaning 'choose.' We have long believed that each of us has the right to choose our belief; hence the statement-putting our faith in you has one meaning.

        Our present denomination or association is made up of the merger of two heresies of orthodox belief- from the very beginning of Christianity- the Unitarian heresy which held that Jesus was not the same as God and rejected the idea of the Trinity, and the Universalist idea that a loving God would not condemn anyone to Hell but would save all humankind in universal salvation as opposed to predestination and especially the need for the church sacraments to be saved.

        But it's also important to realize that early Christianity was not unified either, but had many different beliefs, doctrines, practices, writings, leaders, and ideas. It would not be until 313 when the Roman Emperor Constantine would choose Christianity as the religion of the empire only to discover that it was really not a unified religion, but many different ones with Jesus as the central figure, but some thought him divine and human, while others one and not the other!  It was the Government, then, that called the Bishops together to hammer out a creed to serve the empire by all agreeing on one way! They gathered in the Turkish town of Nicea in 325, and once could argue, that it was then we can talk about Christianity beginning! That resulted in the  

Nicene Creed, still recited in some churches today, or the very similar Apostle’s Creed.

        Bishop Arius from Alexandria, often called the first Unitarian, voted against the Nicene Creed, which was the beginning of the doctrine of the Trinity, because he felt it created a Jesus of two natures. Because he would vote against the next council, he would be banished and exiled to the barbarians for his heresy.

        But what did Jesus say about this? What did the Bible say? Well, of course, it all depends on which side you're on and which Bible you read. Like those who write history are usually the winners, contemporary biblical scholars are now realizing that it's much the same way with the Bible! Who decided, for instance, which books went into the Christian New Testament, for instance? Discoveries in Egypt in the last 50 years or so in the Nag Hammadi Library of Gospels that didn't make it-The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of, yes even, Judas! Not all complete, of course, but what finds!

        Recently there was a big event when Gospel of Judas was finally translated and published. National Geographic had a huge TV Special and a book was published by scholars Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King which I listened to on my recent ride back from Texas.

        According to this gospel, Judas did not hang himself, but was stoned to death by the 12 disciples, because he alone was the one Jesus actually trusted. Jesus wanted him to turn him in so the process could get under way; Judas was not a traitor but a hero! But his gospel was what was called Gnostic and was more esoteric and metaphysical, holding that the flesh was not important but that the spirit was what really mattered, and that was one of the early Christian groups. They also believed in individual seeking rather than in the church and the priesthood as sacred institutions; indeed, they were seen as a threat to the church and hence suppressed as heretics.

        The Christianity that won out was the institutional, priestly, Roman Catholic church where there was no salvation outside of the church, and Doctrine/Dogma became absolute! There were small pockets of resistance,  but officially this was true until the schism with Eastern Catholicism around the first millennium, when the Eastern Orthodox church was formed, though the difference seemed slight.

        Then of course, came the Protestant Reformation which opened the floodgates in Europe and began the huge changes that forever changed the 'Church Universal' though it could be questioned whether 'Christianity' changed much; the interpretations began, especially with Martin Luther's 'Solo Scritptura,' 'Scripture Alone' -in other words, each of us decides what to believe and what doctrines are true by the words of the Bible, now translated into the vernacular and now able to be read thanks to the Gutenberg printing press and increased literacy.

        A Spanish physician named Michael Servetus discovers no doctrine of the trinity there and is burned at the stake by John Calvin in Geneva Switzerland! A little too liberal interpretation!  Servetus is often called the Father of modern Unitarianism.  The philosophers are beginning to free up our thinking as well. and the Enlightenment is ahead with reason beginning to be seen as valuable as revelation, revelation comes from God, and how can we be sure that it's God's voice we hear and not a delusion, but reason, ah, reason comes from us, from within!

        Reason becomes one of Unitarians truths, but with some caution. It must have heart as well! Indeed. Emerson, who I like to call our Patron Saint could also be called the father of Transcendentalism was a Unitarian minister. Transcendentalism was often described as a reaction against the Enlightenment  dictatorship of Reason that prohibited the heart of passion and feeling! Remember the title of the great biography of Emerson was called The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Jr., and I want to urge the balance of the mind and the heart, the balance of reason and passion. But what Emerson did was to emphasize, especially for America in the 19th century in a way that would become the American ideal of  individualism in thought as well as theology!

        Virginia Woolf would say what Emerson did 'was to assert that he could not be rejected because he held the universe within him. Each man, by finding out what he feels, discovers the laws of the universe.'

        Arguably Emerson's best-known essay is "Self-Reliance." It is the supreme argument for forming our own opinions and standing up for our own beliefs with some lines which have become as oft quoted as many familiar Bible passages. For instance, "Whoso would be a man (and I would add - or a real woman), must be a nonconformist?'

        "Emerson and the Transcendentalists are probably more relevant now than they were in their time," said the Rev. Suzanne Meyer, a beloved colleague who recently died of cancer, "They speak out of our UU tradition to a postmodern mindset that is tired of scientism and reductionism, just as they were reacting against the Enlightenment rationalism of their day. They offer us a naturalist spirituality, a naturalist mysticism, without metaphysics and supernaturalism."

        Religion putting its faith in each of us, you see. And think of Thoreau at Walden.

        Richardson writes in Emerson, The Mind on Fire: 'As the new year, 1830, began, Emerson was working out a new and strikingly modern theology. He started from the premise that 'Christianity is validated in each person's life and experience or not at all.' Following Coleridge's life-giving observation that 'Christianity is not a theory or a speculation, but a life -- not a philosophy of life but life itself, not knowledge but being'. Emerson insists that 'every man makes his own religion, his own God.' To the question, 'What is God?' he now replies, 'the most elevated conception of character that can be formed in the mind. It is the individual's own soul carried out to perfection.' From this position he began to work out in his January sermons a theology of friendship. The relation of Christ to the soul of a good person is not that of redeemer but of friend. Our feeling for Christ is that of 'profoundest friendship.' Emerson's effort to relocate and reconstitute theology starting with human nature came about partly because Emerson was already sympathetic to the radical new religious thought of the time -- this is the Schleiermacher legacy-- and partly because he was rapidly becoming a deeper, warmer, more human person himself as he and Ellen struggled to live with her illness.  Far from praising ignorance, Emerson kept repeating in his journal Coleridge's quiet incitement to study, quantum scimus sumus -- we are what we know.'

        You see the idea of relationship comes to play here of friendship as part of religion and of trying to figure out our own idea of God and faith and religious experience, and finally how to connect them religiously to community and yes, church. Though that is where we sometimes part with Emerson, but because the church of his time had not caught up to where he was yet!

        Today UUism as religion which puts its faith in you is a vastly different church than Emerson's. I like to call us a searching church, yet how often we seem to insist that one kind of thinking is better than another.  In a survey a few years ago we religious liberals were asked from whence our religious authority comes; here's what we said about 'Sources of Authority:'

Bible -1 %
Creeds and Traditions-2
The Holy Spirit-3
World Religions-10
Personal Experience-42
Human Reason-45
UU Principles- 48

        Notice that our sources of authority come from personal, reason, then our covenantal authority, the Principles and Purposes that came, not from on High from God down to humanity, but through discussion by all of us and many General Assembly Votes by delegates from congregations!  Narrowing it down to just 1 source of authority Human Reason 37% UU Principles-33% Personal Experience 24%

In a National Survey outside UUism- where religious authority comes from -Sacred Scripture 82% Holy Spirit-60%

        'While creeds, doctrines, reason and personal experience are important for a large number of congregations, they are acknowledged as foundational in relatively few.'

        In surveying what the focus of the sermon should be-personal salvation was at the bottom with only 4%, even 'God's love' was only 13%; Mystery of God 29%; Struggling with Faith/Belief 44%; Social Justice 48%; Advice for Daily Living 52%; Living a Moral Life 69%, but the highest, believe it or not was 'spiritual growth' at 76%.

        And what about the faith part? What does that mean to us? Again, we leave it up to each other without creed, but not without discussion! I continue to search for religious meaning and one of the latest books is In the Absence of God: Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred, by Sam Keen, Ph.D. former Presbyterian Seminary Professor who left traditional Christianity, Editor of Psychology today, but most of all one of my favorite deeply inspirational writers of many spiritual books.

        He writes: 'We who have been unsatisfied by any traditional religion have spent our lives in quest of a rose, but the closest we ever get is entering a room still redolent with the scent of a rose that was removed before we arrived. We cannot easily locate God in the house of our longing, yet we remain haunted; God's missing presence echoes throughout the empty rooms. In the void we hear faint hymns of an ancient faith for which we no longer have room among the endless quarks, waves and subatomic particles identified by science. We exist in a God-shaped vacuum. That which is no longer present (but is not completely absent) gives shape to our aspirations and longings.'

        The world's religions attempt various ways to describe the divine and sometimes even kill one another over it! I have often said surely a mighty God has a voice loud enough to tell us once and for all his, her or its name so we could stop fighting, but since he, she, or it doesn't, we are obviously not supposed to know!  Yet still we wonder and have wondered since time began and we could make up stories and myths and names...

        Keen writes, 'From the perspective of the sacred vision, the profane notion of power makes no sense because there are no separate entities, no disconnected entities facts. To speak of 'G-d'- the code word for the original systems theory- is to assert that all reality is intercourse, interconnection, and interaction. The starting point for any religious philosophy is a metaphysical communion. The many are encompassed in one universe. Subtract interaction and there would be neither G-d, nor cosmos, nor human beings.  Religion in its original sense is the yoke that binds us in a celebration of our outer-being. The communion of believers is rooted in the awareness that to be alive is to partake of the divine power.  The body of G-d is our daily bread. Sacred potency is rooted in an experience of the essential Self and the world as manifestations of the power of Being.'

        So here we are, religion that puts its faith in, well, in us, starting with you, but ending with us gathered for religious purpose to transform the world, to work for justice, which then makes the beloved community. Like so many of us, I come out of a Christian background and find the teachings of Jesus still part of my spiritual and moral compass based on an ethic of love, humanity, nature, justice, peace, and beloved community.

In my song, ‘You, Me and the Universe,’ there is a verse that came to me and I always think of the healing power of a mother’s kiss, for instance, but it is symbolic, I hope, of the healing power of human love for one another and I hope further, that it is in church that we show that best:

‘Hear all the stories ever told
The greatest is always this-
most of the hurts that we suffer
Can still be healed with a kiss’.

        May we go from here recharged, inspired with love- of the world, of each other, of ourselves, and the journey of the every day life.
        May we find a way to help make the world a better, more loving and just place for our having lived here.
        May we laugh often, and cry as we need to.
        May we have fun in life.
        May we pray, not to avoid problems, but for the strength, inner wisdom and friends to solve them.
        May we live our lives the best that we can.
        May we love the best we can.
        May we gather strength from holding hands.
        May we be generous givers as well as receivers.
        May we meet one new person every Sunday.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ So I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con Su Dios,’ ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.’

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios