GRATEFUL FOR RELIGIOUS PLURALISM… (Section 2.1, final paragraph)
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, March 18, 2018
“Jesus didn’t die because of God’s plan. He died as a result of how we responded to God’s presence.” Okay. How many of you got an itch when you heard that? A feeling of unease? A sense of unfamiliarity? A sense of too great a familiarity? Such responses are not unusual for Unitarian Universalists, with our varied personal and religious histories and our divergent paths that brought us here.
Those words were spoken yesterday at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond by the Rev. Dr. John Kinney. The event was titled Equipping Resistance, a revival meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, a nationwide group of Unitarian Universalist clergy and lay people who identify as Christian. Dr. Kinney is a Baptist minister with an impressive list of credentials. Back in February, he was the keynote speaker at the Staunton branch NAACP Unity Prayer Breakfast.
Yesterday morning’s revival worship was led by the Rev. Nancy MacDonald Ladd, who preached the main Sunday morning service at our association’s General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, two summers ago. And the afternoon worship was led by the Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, who, together with her husband, the Rev. Wayne Arnason, wrote the widely admired resource book Worship That Works. These Unitarian Universalist ministers are among the best and brightest in our association. And they identify as Christian. They were joined by such non-Unitarian Universalist Christians as the Rev. Kinney. And worship was replete with singing by a Black gospel choir singing music that unapologetically spoke of Jesus.
Did any of you go to this revival meeting? I did not attend, and you will get a better description from someone who did. But I looked in at bits of the event that were posted online and got a filtered sense of what was going on.
The morning sermon was based on the gospel account of Jesus at the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary, and Martha, and while Jesus talked about the deep, important things Jesus talked about, Mary hung on his every word, drinking in the wisdom of this teacher, while Martha was busy making the meal and taking care of the house. Martha complained, and Jesus – whom Rev. MacDonald Ladd referred to just then as “the Incarnation of Holiness Himself” – Jesus told Martha that “only one thing is needful.” In the interpretation in yesterday morning’s sermon, what is necessary, the necessary work of the church, the necessary work of the body of all people of faith is “to effect the salvation of the world.” Rv. MacDonald Ladd came to the sermon’s conclusion with the observation that the world will not be saved by a congregation’s 5-year plan, its bylaws, its budget, or even by its social justice program, but by love, embodied.
The afternoon sermon was about the ritual and experience of baptism – and specifically, Jesus’ baptism by his cousin and friend John; the socially engaging Jesus, who met with ordinary people, with sinners, who went to parties and picnics, being baptized by the anti-social recluse John, crying out in his ascetic wilderness, clad in an itchy camel-hair loincloth and eating insects as a practice of denunciation and renunciation. In her sermon, Rev. Rolenz spoke of Jesus as Christ, and as exemplar. She used the locution “Lord God Almighty.” She ended her sermon with an invitation to “Pray with me.”
There was a whole lot more to these sermons and the services in which they were presented than can be summarized in just a few minutes, but I thought it was important to mention this event with its different style of preaching and worship, its different style of engaging with the Bible, its different relationship to the unorthodox Christianities that are the historical roots of our association’s consolidated name, different than is common here or in many of Unitarian Universalist congregations.
Contemporary Unitarian Universalism is often called a post-Christian religion. This means, certainly, that we are a religion we believe to be suited to this time in American history, when the religiously unaffiliated are beginning to dominate and Christianity’s place of authority in American society is quickly evaporating. It also means that our Christian origins are no longer the single defining limit of how we engage with what we find most meaningful. But Christianity is our denomination’s origin, and it has been, is, and continues to be part of the inspiring vision for many Unitarian Universalists. Christianity is not a newcomer among us. Christianity and Christians have always been part of this growing, emerging experiment in pluralism. Plain and simple, whoever else we are and become, whoever else we encompass and serve, Christians belong.
Have you heard of the VUU? the weekly live video panel discussion meeting put on by the Church of the Larger Fellowship? How many of you know about the Church of the Larger Fellowship? It is a congregation without brick-and-mortar presence, with its own minister, with the activities of a Unitarian Universalist congregation handled through online technologies. A couple of weeks ago on the VUU, a couple of Unitarian Universalist ministers who identify as Christian, the Rev. Jake Morrill and the Rev. Kelly Murphy Mason, talked about the challenges and difficulties of being a Unitarian Universalist Christian. They reported that it is a frequent experience to be disinvited to Unitarian Universalism by fellow Unitarian Universalists who take it on themselves to decide that there is no room for Christians within our association. Christian Unitarian Universalists often get told to leave, or rudely asked, “Why don’t you just join the United Church of Christ?” Others are regularly treated with an astounding level of condescension, as if no one with any intelligence or commitment to justice could possibly draw any value from Christianity. People with such views understand Christianity as a relic of an uncouth past rather than a viable path. They may think of Christianity as a vestige to be cast off rather than as both our denomination’s origin and a living part of who and what this association encompasses and includes now.
Many Unitarian Universalists came to our association after experiencing religious abuse in the religion of their upbringing – often some form of Christianity. And many of those members had the experience of struggling their way to a new, often humanist identity. Some came to our congregations at a time when a humanist position was the dominant one in their congregation or in the association but was vilified in society at large. And then, as the cultural changes of the late 20th Century and early 21st Century CE brought growing numbers of people with different religious histories to our congregations, many humanists felt that what they had struggled so hard to win was in danger of slipping away.
Our once fully Christian Unitarian and Universalist movements moved with the times and made place in our historical denominations and then in our consolidated association for people with different theological and religious orientations. Transcendentalism in the mid 1800s and then Humanism from its flowering in the early 1900s grew and flourished. Religiously intermarried couples also came to Unitarian Universalism to raise their families in what felt more like neutral territory than could be found in the religions of their origins. Jews who felt religiously estranged from Judaism found a home in Unitarianism without having to give up their Jewish identity and culture.
My personal association with Judaism and with the organizations serving Jewish Unitarian Universalists has provided yet another lens through which to see our faith. As a member of the board of Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Jewish Clergy Group and someone who has staffed the booth for the Jewish Awareness group at General Assembly, I have observed a lot. And, mixed in with the acceptance of Jews and Judaism, Unitarian Universalism also holds latent anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, as nearly all liberal Western institutions do. There is a welcome that expects a certain silence in return. It is not uncommon for the Jewish Unitarian Universalist to be expected in some settings to prove their liberal loyalty by choosing, for example, to side against Israel in complex and nuanced situations that should never be litmus tests.
Earth-centered spiritualities, Wicca and Paganism entered and found a place to develop their own relationship with justice-seeking Unitarian Universalism. But many congregations have unsettled relationships with the pagan groups within them. In came Muslims and Hindus and more. And each religious and social identity to find a home here found themselves in tension with a religion whose core values call us to be open and accepting of each other, of the stranger, and of the newcomer, but we are still a religion full of humans with our own histories and challenges.
If you look at the last paragraph on the back of your order of service, the words from Section 2.1 of the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association read: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.”
At our best this is a beautiful description of our movement. It is also our challenge. The pluralism it refers to links specifically to the statement of our sources of inspiration as a movement, an association, a denomination. Without a lot of interpretation necessary, we can see that we claim to draw from and be inspired and influenced by Judaism, Christianity, World Religions, Humanism, and Earth-Centered Traditions, as well as the prophetic utterances of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., William J. Barber II, and direct, personal experience.
That is, our claim is to be in spiritual and meaning-making relationship with all of those ways of learning and growing and being inspired to make a better world than the one we inherited. And not in a disembodied way. Not just ideas, but people! According to the language hammered out by our movement’s delegates at our association’s General Assembly, this pluralistic heritage of six sources is something we – or at least they, our delegates – were and hopefully are grateful for. It was not envisioned as a burden or as a painful reality. “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.”5. In light of our statement of sources, it clearly refers both to the internal life of our association and to the way we interact with the world around us, of which we are a part.
My colleague the Rev. Cyndi Simpson, who serves a congregation in greater Phoenix, tells an experience from the end of her seminary career. Her seminary required the whole student body to go on a group trip to India, where each person would be paired up with a minister that they would shadow. It was a liberal Christian seminary and the ministers they would work with were Christian. But Cyndi was not Christian. The story of how it unfolded is hers, and I invite you to search for her sermon on pluralism on YouTube. But what she found in her India experience was a trans-religious, pluralistic willingness of ordinary people to accept the spirituality and ministry of people who were religiously different. It is possible.
Are there parts of your philosophical, theological, and/or religious identity or identities that you just feel safer keeping to yourself? Are there parts of who you are that you feel like your life will just be easier in Unitarian Universalist congregations and groups if you just keep it to yourself? I’m not asking about meanness, just about an innate sense that you’ll be able to fit in just fine as long as you stay under cover. But that you’re not as certain that all will be well if you expose who you are, really. Or on the other side, are there religious identities among us that you hope against hope will just be quiet? Our movement into pluralism is a challenge because of the innate tribalism that is encoded in our DNA as a survival mechanism from our earliest origins, when the world was different. People of most philosophical, religious, and spiritual identities among us have moments of feeling like the earth is shifting from under them, like the home they love is falling around them. It is the challenge of change and growth, the challenge of our movement and our time to learn to lean into this challenge. We cannot live our principles without it. It is hard, but when actually practiced, it is life-giving. Let’s lean into Life. Together.
Amen and Blessed Be.
 Words reported by Walter Clark, M.Div.
© 2018 by the Rev. Paul Oakley