Expecting Error, Accepting Atonement
September 29, 2019
Rev. Douglas Taylor
We are at an anxious moment in the life of our congregation and in our country. There has been a lot of turmoil politically leading up to the recent announcement of the impeachment inquiry of the current US president. It has been a long road, and we are at the beginning of a new chapter politically. There has been a great deal of trouble these recent years for immigrants, transgender folks, people of color, and the poor in terms of the current administration’s policies and actions and tweets. Now is not an easy time to identify as a person on the margins in our country.
At the same time, there are positive changes at hand. There has been a rising-up of people at the margins, a calling out of harmful behaviors that used to go unnoticed and unchecked. With the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, the #metoo movement, and other similar undertakings at play in our society, it is also becoming thankfully more difficult to be complacent and unaware of the harm happening to people traditionally at the margins.
Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “I did not think this was going to be one of his political sermons.” It’s not. I’m talking about forgiveness today. But I want us to be cognizant of our context. With atrocities and injustices piling up around us in the world and in our nation, it can be jarring to talk about ‘assuming best intentions’ when we bump up against each other. With all the trouble out there, many people don’t have much ‘benefit of the doubt’ left to give. With all I am reading and hearing from people in harm’s way, I am not feeling inclined to ‘just let it go’ or ‘just give ‘em another try.’
And here is my point: Where does that leave us for simpler interpersonal troubles. Where does that leave us when we are dealing with injuries and broken relationships among friends? It is as if the usual cushion of grace and mercy and ‘positive regard for all’ is too thin of late to account for even the smaller slights of our living.
What I’m saying is: I am worried for us. Because let us not forget, this community is in the midst of a lot of anxiety-producing work! We have raised a million dollars in pledging for our capital campaign. The bids are out to the contractors and we eagerly await the news of how much it will actually cost, with that looming worry that our one million dollars – so large and phenomenal a number – will prove insufficient for the amount of work. We are in that delicate ‘moment of unknowing.’ We can start dreaming up the worst scenarios with no reality to check our imaginations.
I am feeling anxious about all that is unknown and unresolved here in our church-life and in our country. I am normally a bastion of non-anxiousness. But friends, I am anxious. I’m anxious about the president. I’m anxious about climate change. I’m anxious about what the contractors are going to say about our renovation plans. I’m a little anxious.
This is the context in which I would speak of forgiveness. Because, the art of forgiveness is one of the ways to ease our anxiety. When we are anxious, we become like the proverbial powder keg. Forgiveness is a salve or balm for our daily living. And here I’m talking about the simplest form of forgiveness, almost more of ‘practice-level forgiveness’ than actual forgiveness. Did you know there are different levels, different kinds of forgiveness? There are. Let me tell you about this most simple form: Practice-level forgiveness.
Practice-level forgiveness is a simple form where we try it out, we work on it privately in low-risk settings. It looks like this: when I’m driving to work in the morning and another driver does something aggressive or annoying or stupid, I can respond with practice-level forgiveness. This is not the same as ignoring the other driver’s behavior or doing my meditative breathing. This is not ‘Oh, well’ or ‘whatever.’ It is about recognizing the other driver’s aggressive or annoying behavior and forgiving it. “That driver is in a hurry,” I might think. “That driver must be having a rough day.”
When I am having a rough day, I am more inclined to call aggressive and annoying drivers by rude names. I am more inclined to judge them harshly and assume things about their upbringing. I’m not proud of that. I’m just telling you what it can be like sometimes. It is healthier for me to offer practice-level forgiveness to that other driver.
I think about the other driver. I notice their driving behavior and – honestly – I make up a snap story about the other driver, maybe put myself in that other driver’s shoes and then make up a generous story about what is going on for them. Maybe they need to find a bathroom, fast. Maybe they are on their way to the hospital. Maybe they just got fired or they’re exhausted or they’re distracted by the news report on the radio.
Do you hear how that’s not the same as just ignoring an annoying driver? Ignoring it is to not think about the other driver, to just focus on your own driving. That’s a good thing to do. But it’s not forgiveness. This simple practice-level forgiveness is almost closer to what happens when I call other drivers rude names. Think about it. When I think ill of the other driver, I’m making a judgement about them. “That guy is a real jerk.” Well, in practice-level forgiveness I am also making a judgement about them. “That person must be having a rough day.” And I don’t really know what kind of day they’re having. Maybe they really are a jerk and I’m letting them off easy. But you know what – it doesn’t matter. My opinion about that other driver only affects me.
In her book Of Mess and Moxie, Jen Hatmaker shares something similar. She writes:
“Back when I was nurturing my anger, I’d spend a good half the day replaying, remembering words… I practiced comebacks … You know what the other person likely did that day? Ate a sandwich, answered some emails… I deferred my own peace and the only loss was mine.” (192-3)
And hear me: this is all practice-level forgiveness. If that aggressive or annoying driver hits my car, causes an accident, does actual harm, then we can talk about other levels of forgiveness. But at this point, the other driver is just one of a multitude of little annoyances on my way to work. Neither my scathing glare or my generous forgiveness make a wit of difference to the other driver except in how it may alter my driving behavior and my attitude about the day.
Ultimately, I am steering us to look at this in terms of how we interact with other people. In the practice-level of forgiveness, we are practicing meeting each other. We develop a habit of being open to the reality that everyone is going through something.
This is the beginning. It is about tempering my expectations of myself, of others, of life in general. If I can keep the reality of errors or imperfections in the equation when going through my day, it makes it easier to roll with it when things don’t go as expected, when people don’t behave as expected. Practice-level forgiveness, is really about tuning in to what’s going on for other people. It’s not exactly forgiveness. Not really. It’s just a warm-up to when it might be needed. You can think of it as empathy training. It’s the groundwork – learning to meet other people in the messy imperfections of our lives.
This is like that amazing poem by William Stafford “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” The poem, and this sermon so far, is not exactly about forgiveness so much as about meeting each other, about connecting. Stafford writes:
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep
In many ways, I contend, the work of actual, full-level forgiveness is about the repairing of relationship, about meeting each other across our mistakes and crimes. It about keeping the connection – the parade of our mutual life – despite the injuries. As we move on from the practice-level forgiveness, we weave our way into the harder work of actual forgiveness.
Now, when we get to this part, I imagine many of us begin to consider the injuries we’ve experienced. I am not unaware of the difficulty here. The realities of abuse and betrayal are fierce and immutable. Not all relationships should be reconciled or even repaired. Some of the wounds are bruises to our feelings and others are literal wounds to our bodies. Author and speaker Jen Hatmaker puts it succinctly: “There are degrees of harm, and not all pain is equal.” Hatmaker continues from there, writing: “Our paths to health vary, but we all have this common denominator as the foundation of healing: Forgiveness.” (p190)
To be clear, forgiveness and reconciliation often go together but they are not the same thing. As with the practice-level forgiveness and the example of my morning commute to work: my attitude of forgiveness does not necessarily mean there is any change or impact on the person I am forgiving. But it has a tremendous impact on me. This is true with the full-level forgiveness as well. It can lead to reconciliation but it does not need to. Forgiveness serves to heal you. That puts you in a position to be able to heal the relationship if that is the path your healing takes.
Jen Hatmaker, again from her book Of Mess and Moxie, articulates this with remarkable clarity. She writes:
“The work of forgiveness is so challenging—the actual work of it. The naming, grieving, empathizing, releasing. It’s like a death. A death of what we wanted, what we expected, what we’d hoped for, what we deserved and didn’t receive…. We don’t get to control other people or outcomes. I am as devastated about this as you.” (p193)
She uses the metaphor of death. “It is like a death,” she says. “A death of what we wanted, what we expected.” The Jack Kornfield reading (The Ancient Art of Forgiveness) offers the same metaphor. The woman in Kornfield’s story, you may recall, said she would kill the boy, but what she did was kill that murderer from within the boy. It’s like a death … of what we expected, of the way the story was supposed to be. And instead something else grew. Instead, an unexpected opening appeared, healing took root, atonement became possible.
And given the context of our living, it is good to allow the grace of healing and atonement to be within reach. Given the looming impeachment proceedings, the foreboding climate crisis, the lingering moments of unknowing at play for our congregation, and countless other concerns weighing on our anxious hearts, is it not good to take some time do some practice-level forgiveness or even full-blown forgiveness with the people in your life.
It is good because many of us have grown a little weary and worn of late. The healing you gain will aid you as you weave your way through the other anxieties of your day. The healing and atonement possible will help restore our spirits and return us to wholeness in our beautifully broken way.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
A sermon on the dance between Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology in Unitarian Universalism
The Gentle Oppressor
Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 15, 2019
Something interesting and perhaps unsettling is happening in Unitarian Universalism lately. There is a change unfolding among us, a turning. And it has to do with something deep. It is about how we do our justice work and the theology behind it – which means this unfolding change, this turning, is about our very identity as a people of faith.
My colleague Darrick Jackson serves on the UUMA executive team and recently wrote a reflection that talks about the impact of this unfolding change among us. Jackson shared about something that came up for him:
… in response to a conversation with a young, white, male layperson. In it, [the young man] asked if there was a place for him in Unitarian Universalism. [Jackson goes on to say] This question resonated with me and had me, a gay, middle-aged man of color, asking the same thing. It struck me that we were both seeking a place in this faith, and neither of us felt like we fit. …
Let me share with you where such questions are coming from. The Black Lives Matter movement began in its current iteration back in 2014 with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Unitarian Universalist churches, in solidarity started hanging Black Lives Matter banners, participating in rallies and marches, and generally getting involved in the anti-racist effort to end unchecked police violence against black and brown bodies.
A few years later, we Unitarian Universalists had moment in which people said, ‘wait a minute. We are doing all this anti-racism work out in the streets but our congregations and our regional & UUA staffing continues to be predominantly white. Let’s do some internal work.’
And 18 months ago, our congregation, along with most other UU congregations, hosted a “Teach-In about White Supremacy.” It is hard to look at our own UU culture and tease out the places in which we participate in the systems of oppression. There has been an increased attention lately to the voices of people of color, a centering of people and voices that have traditionally been at the margin of our UU culture. It’s beginning to get noticeable.
This is difficult in part because Unitarian Universalism has a long and justifiably proud history around Social Justice. It is not easy to be called out about something we’re known for being pretty good at. American history is littered with the names of Unitarian and Universalist activists. From the fight for the abolition of slavery through the 1960’ civil rights era, Unitarians and Universalists (and after our merger in 1961, Unitarian Universalists) have been part of the work.
And not just the work of racial justice. You’ll find our names involved in the women’s movement, as advocates for better health care, at the establishment of the American Red Cross and the Sanitation Commission, as early proponents for same-sex marriage, and at the southern border during the ‘80’s Sanctuary Movement and today. All of that history is borne from our Liberal theological message that says freedom is an essential spiritual necessity.
This summer at General Assembly, my friend and colleague Mark Morrison-Reed received the award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. He has been a UU minister and scholar for many years. Mark elucidates a critical point for Unitarian Universalism along the line between liberalism and liberation and how we talk about freedom. Liberalism’s freedom is very personal. It is about freedom of thought and freedom of religion and stresses the importance of providing opportunities for individuals to be free. Liberation’s freedom is communal. It is about the shared struggle to build relationships and repair relationships that will free individuals and communities from oppressive systems.
Traditionally, we Unitarian Universalists are in the Liberal Theology camp rather than in the Liberation Theology camp. Early Universalists theology said: God is love. We are loved so the best response is to love others. Or, we are loved and so is everyone else, God doesn’t stop, so we shouldn’t either. Or, our work is to make heaven here not just wait for it later
Early Unitarians theology said: Salvation by Character, you get to heaven by being a good person, so help others and you’ll get in. Or, everyone needs the chance to develop their moral character, we need to adjust society so it can happen. Or, we are God’s hands in the world, we are the ones who bring God’s freedom and compassion to people in need.
All of those are versions of Liberal Theology. We don’t see divinity as taking sides for people and groups. Just because we are privileged does not mean God loves us more. It means we are more responsible to make things better for the whole human family. We see the holy wherever there is peace and goodness, regardless of the groups and sides. “God’s love embraces the whole human race,” is how one of our hymns puts it.
There has long been a critique of Liberal Theology, however, that says it is too entangled with colonialism to still serve. There is a patronizing element in which we offer to help the poor or the ‘least of these’ without becoming one with them. We risk perpetuating the oppressive systems even while reaching out to help those in need, we risk becoming gentle oppressors. And our Liberal Theology allows that to go unnoticed and uncritiqued.
Once place that critique does come if from Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology says that in fight against injustice, God is particularly interested in the wellbeing of the poor and disenfranchised. God has a preferential option for the poor. Liberal Theology starts with the notion that God doesn’t take sides; God is for everyone. Liberation Theology says, No. God is not neutral. Liberal Theology says, “That’s not what we meant.” Liberation Theology says, “Well, that’s how it comes out over here.” (At least, that’s what the dance sounds like in my head when I let these two Theologies interact.)
Liberation Theology starts with the analysis that some people are oppressed and other people are doing the oppressing. This can be seen as creating an ‘Us vs Them’ dichotomy, but it doesn’t stay there because the solution from a Liberation Theology perspective is that everyone needs to get free – the Us and the Them.
I began with the story of a colleague’s story in which he and another person each wondered if they fit here. Jackson goes on to write:
I believe that we all have a place here, but it might not be the place we imagined, and it might not be the place we are used to. It is a place of mutuality, respect, and integrity.
What Jackson is articulating is a way forward based in a Liberation Theology. There is room for us all here; it means a few things need to change for that to work, but a way forward is possible. What is happening in Unitarian Universalism today, this deep turning, this unfolding change I’m pointing to is a dance we are currently in around Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology.
Part of what Liberation Theology calls us into is the particular. We need to get specific. My colleague Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley has an essay in the Essex Conversations in which she writes:
What liberalism and liberation have in common is that each is engaged in a project to extend human freedom, but liberalism’s approach is inadequate, in part, because of its tendency to view freedom in the abstract — without exploring a critical question: freedom for whom to do what?
Consider this example: Liberal Theology says “All Lives Matter.” That commitment is at the heart of Liberal Theology. It is the heart of the Universalism and the Humanism I grew up in. Of course, all lives matter. And we have banner in the front of our building that says “Black Lives Matter.” This is part of the dance, the turning we are in. Can we do both? Can we say Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter? Yes. Am I suggesting we put an “All Lives Matter” sign out? No. Part of what is at stake here is the sanctity of certain deep values and ideas. And part of what is at stake here is actual human lives. Our call for freedom needs to be specific.
The reading we had this morning https://www.uuworld.org/articles/power-we (last section by Betancourt and Ortega-Aponte) is taken from a presentation that happened at this summer’s General Assembly in Spokane WA. Part of why I selected this reading is because it lifts up some notable Liberation Theology as a reflection of who we are as Unitarian Universalists. They articulate a communal endeavor.
Believing that we are all saved together, that one life cannot reach its greater meaning unless we center the liberation of all, means not only a willingness to invest in one another and in the greater good, but also responding faithfully to the call to live into the work together.
The message has shifted from “We need to make room for them,” to “We need to make room for us.” This is the result of asking questions about who is on the margins and who is at the center. It is an impact of this dance between Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology.
Back in June, when I returned from General Assembly, I help bring a re-broadcasting of the big GA Sunday Morning worship service to you. The sermon was called “In This Delicate Turning” delivered by Reverend Marta I. Valentín. Some of you may remember because the video didn’t load and I read the transcript instead. One of the things Valentín said near the end of the sermon was about this question around centers and margins, about this question around is there room for everyone. Valentín offered this:
Am I saying we all must be the same? No. Am I saying that power needs to be shared? Yes. Am I saying that power needs to be given away? Yes. This is part of the delicate turning, the willingness to be led.
And this is what leads us back to that conversation Rev. Darrick Jackson had with that young, white, male layperson. When we draw the lines Liberation Theology asks us to notice, my identity lines up with that of the oppressor. I am white, male, and heterosexual. I understand what is at stake here. I find myself invited to take stock of where and how and at whom my power and privilege is at play. There is internal work for me to do.
The big work of justice-making is relational work, communal work. But there is inner work for me, as there is for all of us, to become clear. Who am I? Why am I invested in this faith and in this vision of a Beloved Community? Why am I involving myself in racial justice work? What is my part in perpetuating systems of harm? Or to get particular: How do we shift old trusted processes like Roberts Rules of Order and Freedom of Speech so they serve liberation rather than the status quo? And, is there room for me here in this faith? How can I move forward?
I’m not suggesting you change your theology from Liberal to Liberation – as if that was something a person could just do. I am suggestion you join the dance, allow the challenging interplay between them. Liberation Theology calls us into a place of what Betancourt called ‘collective salvation.’ Or as my colleague Theresa Soto puts it, “All of us need all of us to make it.”
Our Unitarian Universalism is in a time of unfolding change, a turning. Which voices will carry the center? What is at the center? Where are we headed? These are currently open questions. But I wholeheartedly with Jackson’s conclusion – yes. Yes, there is a place for you here. And yes, that means things will need to adjust from what they used to be like. But you know what? That’s what life is like anyway. Things are going to change, let’s be intentional about where we are headed together.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
A Buddhist, a Pagan, and an Atheist Walk into a Church Together
Rev. Douglas Taylor
August 25, 2019
I was standing in the doorway of the gymnastics studio, waiting to pick up my son at the end of his class. Another dad kept glancing at me. Finally, on his way out the door, he paused and gestured to my T-shirt, remarking, “It’s impossible, you know.”
I looked down at my T-shirt, which bore various religious symbols from the world’s religions surrounding the word “unity.” Ah, this man was telling me that unity among the religions is not possible. “Oh, but it is! I’ve seen it,” I responded quickly as he continued out the door – clearly not interested in a conversation with me about this topic.
It is possible. I have seen it many times: people of differing faiths sitting down together in respect and fellowship. It happens a lot more often than people seem to think.
There is a small piece of commentary I saw online again recently. It is a picture of some people together in a coffee shop and it has the words:
A Muslim, a Jew, A Christian, a Pagan, and an Atheist all walk into a coffee shop …
… and they talk, laugh, drink coffee, and become friends. It’s not a joke. It’s what happens when you’re not a jerk.
Certainly, there are many examples of our religious differences dividing us. Certainly, a unity among different religion perspectives is not possible if we assume “unity” means we have to get rid of all of our differences. Our differences are important; they’re even beautiful. But notice that there is common call among the world’s religions to treat our neighbors well, to wish for our neighbors what we wish for ourselves, and to refrain from offering to our neighbors anything which we ourselves find hateful.
Certainly, we have differences. To seek unity is not to seek to do away with these differences. Instead, our unity is shown by a willingness to offer compassion, love and goodwill toward our neighbors.
What I am describing is a form of theological pluralism. Theological pluralism says, essentially, more than one thing can be true. I don’t have to be wrong for you to be right. And new understanding is always possible. It is not the same as ‘anything goes.’
Look at us, for example. Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal faith tradition. We do not have a confession or statement of faith, no doctrine or creed that all must sign and adhere to before being considered a true Unitarian Universalist. You don’t need to agree to or abide by a belief statement written hundreds or thousands of years ago to be here. We are proudly non-creedal.
I hasten to add this does not make us non-theological or imply we have no beliefs as a community. Only that no one belief or theology is determinative or prescriptive. Instead, we have a lot of theology among us, we abide in theological plurality together.
We’re all over the map, theologically speaking. We are Pagans, Theists, Humanists, Buddhists, Mystics, Agnostics and more. And within each of these labels are nuances that spread us quite wide. There are as many ways to approach the Holy as there are people to approach it. As the Sufi mystic Rumi has said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
This is how we gather as a people. Our congregation encourages each person to have their own personal theology rather than asking anyone to bend to a corporate theology. We have an adult curriculum called “Building Your Own Theology” we have offered from time to time in which participants work to craft a credo statement, an “I believe” statement. Our “Coming of Age” program for youth is modeled in much the same way. We recognize that faith is built not from doctrines, but from life. Beliefs are borne from experience. We certainly do not say, “You can believe anything you want,” rather we say, “You can believe as you must, as your conscience demands.” It is a fierce commitment to the freedom of conscience.
Here is a quick version of all this: Unitarian Universalists are not belief-centric. We are values-centric. What binds us together as a community is not a set of shared beliefs, it is instead a set of shared values. One of these values is Theological Plurality.
Have you ever stumbled through one of those conversations when someone asks you what Unitarian Universalism is? Usually, the question comes at me in the shape of ‘What do you all believe?” Do UU’s believe in Jesus, in God, in the Bible? Here is my best advice for that kind of question. Take a deep breath. It’s a trick question. We do not have beliefs at the center of our religious community. We are a values-centric religious community, it is our common values that bind us as one. That’s how we can have Atheists, Pagans, Buddhists, Christians, seekers and skeptics all show up for a shared worship experience week in and week out as Unitarian Universalists together.
E Pluribus Unum. Our unity arises from our differences and variety. It is a good thing we are each different. Every one of us experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person. And we each use the differing words that best fit that experience for us. Each person is like a fingerprint.
Every person’s fingerprints are unique. I’d heard this is not actually true; but when I looked into it more what I learned is that it is absolutely true. Every person has a unique set of fingerprints. The trouble is in the application of this truth to criminal investigations. Fingerprint impressions are always imperfect which leads to false identifications. So, there is some unreliability in fingerprints, not because of the actual fingerprints.
So, consider, then, the analogy. Every person’s way of interacting with the holy is as unique to that person as their fingerprints. Your spirit or soul or personality – whatever word you need to use from your theological framework, your essential self, if you will – has its own unique arches, loops, and whorls. There is a fit between you and the universe that is your unique experience of the universe.
Our beliefs and theology arise from our experiences. We have experiences of life, the universe, of love and trust … and then based on those experiences we shape our beliefs and theology. Your theology and beliefs will be different from mine – not because one of us is wrong but because we are different. The arches, loops, and whorls of your spirit have led you through your experiences to your own unique understandings and beliefs.
What fits you will not fit me. You must find the words and ways that fit best for you. I may use the word ‘God’ when I am talking up here; and as you listen to my words, you’ll need to translate to the words that work for you.
We vest a great amount of authority in the individual religious conscience, proclaiming that you and you alone can discern, through your own free and responsible searching, what is ultimately true and meaningful in terms of faith and religion. It is not simply that differences are honored, accepted. They are necessary. We must be different. All of life is like this.
The Transcendentalists such as Emerson captured the fullness of the sentiment that your personal unique experience can shoot straight to the heart of a universality of experience that harkens the unity of life. In his essay, The Oversoul, Emerson wrote,
“And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one. Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely: that the Highest dwells with him.” (Oversoul)
Your expression of divinity is your contribution to the pattern. And consider the pattern! It’s not just that you have your own special expression of the divine; so, does everyone else! The differences among us beautify the pattern of the whole. There would be no harmony if we all sang the same note. Talking only with people who sound like you do is like walking around endlessly in a cul-de-sac, the challenge is absent and the beauty fades by familiarity!
It is critical to discover the divine spark within you, as Jesus said “the kingdom of God is within.” However, the real challenge is to see the divine spark, the inherent worthiness and dignity of another; to see God’s image in one who is not in your image. It is one of the great tasks of a spiritual life: to allow yourself to be challenged from time to time by the perspective of another. It is one of the best ways to stay grounded in your otherwise private spiritual journey.
And that is the beautiful challenge of our way of faith together. We bump into each other’s differences with a promise to be together with respect; to aim not to wound one another into conformity but instead to encourage each other to live with integrity within the paths we travel.
That is the great benefit to our commitment to theological plurality here in our congregations. This is not about ‘believe whatever you want.’ It is about ‘believe as you must.’ And then come together in community and bump up against the differences and listen.
As we heard last week, we risk stepping out of our bubbles and breaking with the status quo when we listen to each other; when we – as the joke I mentioned at the beginning puts it – sit and talk and not be jerks with each other.
Do you hear how all of this is not just about what you think and believe? It is also about how you behave! The implication of abiding by our values together is that we will behave in a certain way with each other. We will behave in ways that limit harm, that engender trust, that foster respect.
Listening to the perspectives of others will lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself and your world. Listening to the perspectives of other will lead to treat others in a certain way.
I know my own faith is deepened when I encounter another person’s faith in a way that allows me to listen and share with the other person. Listening to another person’s perspective helps me appreciate that other perspective as well as my own perspective at a deeper level.
Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said that the whole point of life is it serves as an opportunity to grow a soul. The implication in this statement from Davies is that your soul in dynamic, today we might say your spirituality is dynamic. It is not just that the people around you here will likely believe differently than you, but you may believe differently from yourself a few years back.
Interestingly, growing your soul is often not about clarifying your beliefs. It is more about clarifying your compassion and your capacity to see another person’s situation. Growing your soul is about allowing another perspective in without being threatened or feeling a need to overcome it or disprove it. Growing your soul is about welcoming diversity and seeking the unity beneath it all.
So, welcome. Welcome to this slightly weird way we do church here. Welcome to this journey among your fellow Atheists, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, Jews, Agnostics, Seekers, Skeptics, and those as yet Uncommitted. We recognize that we are always changing, and your beliefs, your theology, is dynamic. Your religion and your community can never keep up with you and thus we do not even try. Here we eschew doctrines and creeds that we may hold open a space for your understanding to grow and develop free from any shackle or undue constraint.
It is not an easy path to walk alone. Which is why we have a community like this. A community build around this notion that theological plurality and other similar values can serve well as our binding values. Welcome to the work of belonging to such a community in which we both support and challenge one another in this free and responsible search.
May your contributions continue to beautify the pattern. May you be continually enlightened as you engage with the variety around you. And may you ever trust that the values at our center will carry you – as they carry us all – into the heart of our deep longing.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Every Mind Was Made for Growth
Rev. Douglas Taylor
“Every mind was made for growth, for knowledge,” says William Ellery Channing, “and its nature is sinned against when it is doomed to ignorance.” Our capacity for spiritual and intellectual growth was central for Channing. It was a theological stake in the ground for him.
Channing preached his Baltimore Sermon two hundred years ago in 1819 – on May 5, I will add, (so, two hundred years and two weeks ago.) Six years later, in 1825 – on May 25, I will add – the Unitarians organized themselves into the American Unitarian Association. The month of May is particularly rife with institutional dates for us.
More importantly, there are some key points in that Baltimore Sermon which carry forward to today, which have shaped out religious identity as Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists over the decades. “Every mind was made for growth,” Channing said.
“What does God sound like?” my oldest child once asked me.
So, of course, I dragged my then 5-year-old child outside and sat with them in the grass and said, “Listen. What do you hear?”
“Good. What else.”
We were quiet for a moment. “chirping.”
“Yes, that’s birds and squirrels. What else.”
Silence stretched as we listened. “I hear insects buzzing.”
“Good. Yes. All this is what you are listening for.”
“So, God sounds like nature?”
“Yes.” I replied, “But is there anything else you hear”
“Well, cars out on the road… And you and me talking.”
I grinned. “Yes. All of that. Everything.”
I don’t remember exactly what prompted this conversation between us. I do not remember what we talked about next. And honestly, I only remember the conversation because they reminded me of it some years later. It was part of the sense of wonder they picked up as a child which still feeds their sense of what it means to be part of the universe, what it means to participate in the holy, a starting point from whence their sense of God has matured as the years have gone by.
In retrospect, I think I was striving to instill wonder and curiosity rather than instill a fact. I was endeavoring to not “stamp [my] own mind upon the young, but too stir up their own.” (STL #652) I’m not sure our conversation then is representative of my theology now. But it was a snapshot for both of us, a moment in my evolving understanding and in theirs.
How was it for you? What opened you up to awe and wonder as a child or at a point when you were younger? Where did things open for you? Is there a moment or two you can recall that serve as a launching point for your intellectual or spiritual curiosity?
These questions matter; because who you were when you were 5, asking questions and awakening to wonder, is still there in you. As Sandra Cisneros says (in her poem eleven) “Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk.” It’s why our Family Ministry program is for all the people in the congregation and beyond – not just our children. Because we all have our questioning childhood selves within us still.
So how was it for you? Where did things open up for you? “Every mind was made for growth,” Channing said.
William Ellery Channing is considered the founder of American Unitarianism for his landmark sermon, “Unitarian Christianity” in 1819. He broke new ground. He brought forth a new identity. He was a reformer. Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, as it is better known because that is where he was when he delivered it, outlined the radical beliefs that were coalescing within a number of liberal religious communities in New England. He delineated the theological rejections and affirmations that characterized the group of people who soon after became known as Unitarians.
Conrad Wright, editor of the book, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing Emerson, Parker characterized it this way: “Channing took the liberal wing of New England congregationalism, fastened a name to it, and forced it to overcome its reluctance to recognize that it had become, willy-nilly, a separate and distinct Christian body.” (p3)
This sermon was a two-part sermon of which most people recall only the second part. I will pause here a moment to reflect that while most sermons run about 15-20 minutes, Channing talked for over an hour. (Mendelsohn, Reluctant Radical 160) It was a long sermon. Primarily, the first part of the sermon emphasizes reason as the best tool for the study of scripture. “We are particularly accused,” Channing writes, “of making an unwarranted use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture.”
Channing, in the second half of the sermon, then lists out several doctrines found in scripture when reason is so applied. The first two sound like this:
In the first place, we believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God, and only one.… [Secondly,] We believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly we are, and equally distinct from the one God. We complain of the doctrine of the Trinity; that, not satisfied with making God three beings, it makes Jesus Christ two beings, and thus introduces infinite confusion into our conceptions of his character.
And while this is the heart of why we have the name Unitarian, this is not the heart of what has carried forward through the decades as our religious identity. Modern-day Unitarian Universalists are not doctrinally wedded to the theology of God’s unity. We have a plurality of beliefs about the nature of God. What has followed through as a thread to today is the theology Channing elucidated about what it means to be human.
William Ellery Channing preached a radical theology of human nature. This was a rebellion from the Calvinist theology of the day, a theology that spoke of humanity as being totally depraved and in need of God’s grace, of a humanity bound to sin and with no power by which to change the situation. Only though the grace of the all-powerful God above could a person be saved.
In his sermon, Likeness to God, Channing writes,
What, then, is religion? I answer; it is not the adoration of a God with whom we share no common properties; of a distinct, foreign, separate being; but of an all-communicating parent. It recognizes and adores God, as a being whom we know through our souls, who has made man in his image, who is the perfection of our own spiritual nature, who has sympathies with us as kindred beings … (He goes on to say,) Above all, adore his unutterable goodness. But remember, that this attribute is particularly proposed to you as your model; that God calls you, both by nature and revelation, to a fellowship in his philanthropy; that he has placed you in social relations, for the very end of rendering you ministers and representatives of his benevolence…
Channing, here demonstrates how radical his Christianity was at that time, indeed it might still seem radical to most Christians today. God is a model of goodness. We are beings who do good because we have within us the image of God, who is “unutterable good.” We are not disobedient sinners, flawed creatures, depraved souls bound to sin with no good in us. We each have what Channing called the Divine Seed within.
Channing didn’t claim we did only good deeds. He saw in us the connection of God; he didn’t claim we were God. That came later, through Emerson and others after him. Channing and the other Unitarian Christians of that time were Arminians. Arminianism is the doctrinal position that denies election and original sin, and supports the doctrine of free will. It is basically anti-Calvinism, if you will. Jacob Arminius was a Dutch reformed theologian from the 1500’s who said that people could respond to divine grace. He basically said everyone could be saved. John Calvin was saying, “No, only a select few could be saved, a pre-selected few in fact.”
One could characterize it this way: Calvinists believed that every human being was born in original sin. It is like saying you begin life on a train speeding toward hell, totally depraved and unredeemable, and only a few have a chance of getting off. Arminianism – and the formative Unitarian theology of Channing – says you start your life on the platform and can choose which train you get on, and perhaps you can even change trains during the trip. There is no limit to the number of folks who can get a ticket for the heaven bound train.
Unitarianism’s message of the innate dignity and goodness of human beings grew from the Channing’s early articulation of Unitarianism. The first of our current Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism: “to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” is an echo through the decades of Channing’s theology of human nature.
When Channing said “Every mind was made for growth,” he was declaring that to be our precious inheritance as human beings. It is not sin that we inherit, but our capacity to grow and become closer to God in our goodness. He asserted that the ‘Image of God’ we all carry is our essential capacity of the mind. My favorite line from the Baltimore Sermon is when Channing says: “God has given us a rational nature, and we will be held to account for it.”
I often hear from you who worship here that you appreciate a sermon that gives you something to think about, that stirs your intellect. Do you recall what opened you up to curiosity and wonder as a child? Is there a moment or two you can recall that serve as a launching point for your intellectual or spiritual curiosity? How was it for you?
That responsive reading in our hymnal (SLT #652) by Channing comes from a talk he gave in 1837 to the Sunday School Society. It is his vision of religious education, and it still serves to this day as our vision for Family Ministry. Indeed, it serves as the vision I have for my preaching. “The great end in religious instruction is … Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own; not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth.”
The journey continues. Let us move forward boldly.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
from A Samaritan Easter
Homily by Rev. Douglas Taylor
Tell them to rise with me, Jesus says in the poem by Edwina Gateley. Tell the people to rise with me.
But let me start with the Samaritan story. From there I’ll circle around Easter and Passover and back to Edwina Gateley. But let me begin where we began, with the Samaritan’s Story because the story of the Good Samaritan is the essential teaching of Jesus. This is important and if nothing else connects for you today, let this be your one ‘take away’: The Good Samaritan story is the central message of the religion of Jesus. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then to illustrate that point, we hear the Samaritan Story. A man gets beaten by robbers, a priest and a Levite refuse to help and then a dreaded Samaritan steps up and offers the needed assistance. The lesson is: be like the Samaritan.
There is an interpretation of the Good Samaritan story that I want to argue against, as a setup to tell you about an interpretation that I think is very helpful. There is an interpretation that says the Jewish religious leaders were bad. By this interpretation, Jesus was telling us about how awful these elitist priests and Levites were because they were so worried about ritual purity. There were religious laws about keeping yourself clean before performing ritual, and touching that beaten man would have defiled them ahead of the rituals. Being so worried as they were about laws around the rituals, they miss the greater law of love!
But that interpretation misses something important. Aileen was showing me a Jewish interpretation that talked about how the Samaritan story is using a common trope in the Jewish storytelling from that time period which we might recognize today as a version of the rule of three. There were a bunch of stories back them in which first a priest walks by, then a Levite, and finally an Israelite. This was a common trope back then. People back then would have recognized what Jesus was doing after hearing about the first two characters. They expected the third character to do the right thing. What they didn’t expect was who the third person would be. It’s supposed to be an Israelite. It’s supposed to be someone the hearer will identify with. “Oh, that’s like me, I’m an Israelite.’
What Jesus does is subvert the ending. The important part of the story is the identity of last person, not the first two. The first two are not mentioned for the purpose of being disparaged. They are mentioned to set up the expectation which is then subverted. Israelites and Samaritans at that time were like Palestinians and Jews today, like Republicans and Democrats today, like neo-Nazis and black people. They were in deep conflict each other. But according to the trope, the hearer is supposed to identify with the third character, that’s how the story trope works. Jesus adds a twist, a surprise to the usual trope. We’re all listening along, we know where this story is headed, and suddenly it is not what we expected. What Jesus does is subvert the ending.
You may know another story where Jesus does that. It’s Easter today. The Easter story does this as well. We’re all listening along. Jesus starts doing his thing, healing people, performing miracles, challenging the Roman oppressors and the corrupt religious leaders … and we know what’s coming next.
He gets arrested, he goes through a trial which is a bit of a farce, he is put to death. It’s happened before, it happened to so many people back then. It’s still happening in places around the world today. We recognize the story line, it’s how tyrannical governments work, it is how oppressive systems keep the dissidents in check. It’s the playbill of every dictator through the ages.
But then something else happens, Jesus subverts the ending. Easter is the twist ending, the subverting of the expected narrative. The resurrection is not what normally happens. Somehow, hope continues. Somehow, death is not the final answer. I know most of the people gathered do not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus. I also know a few of the people here gathered do. I’m not suggesting we limit this conversation to doctrines and beliefs and who is right and who is wrong. Sometimes truth is a bigger issue than the question of ‘did it really happen?’ Sometimes truth is found in asking what does this story mean? and does it help me be a better person?
Now, hold that thought! Because if the Easter story does not connect for your spirituality, let me circle around to Passover. To understand Jesus, it is important to first understand the Jewish context of his message. Last month I attended Jewish Seder meal for non-Jews. It was hosted jointly by Temple Concord and Temple Israel with support from the Children of Abraham interfaith group. We had a Jewish host at each table to help explain the elements and the rituals. Passover began this past Friday evening at sundown. Judaism’s story of Passover is a story of liberation and freedom.
It is a time when Jewish people remember what it was like to be slaves in Egypt. It is a time to seek liberation for all those in bondage today “for we remember” the people recite in the Haggadah. “We remember what it was like to be slaves.” It is a call to treat the foreigner and stranger with dignity and compassion, for we have been foreigners and strangers ourselves.
And isn’t that essentially what the Samaritan story is all about? Treat the foreigner and stranger with dignity and compassion is simply another version of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
Passover, which began this weekend, is the story of freedom and liberation of the Jewish people; it is also the call to seek freedom and liberation for others. Easter is today; it is a story for every soul that ever faced the tragic choice of love and hopelessness in the face of the world’s madness. It is a story that says even if we feel beaten down, abused, denied, and overlooked – something unexpected can still rise.
Tell them, Jesus says, to rise with me. In the poem by Edwina Gateley, we hear Jesus imploring Mary. Tell the people to rise with me. This is not just a story of something that happened thousands of years ago. It is happening today. It is our story too. Ask yourself: Who is in my path? Who should I help now? Rise. Reach out and help your neighbor. Show your compassion – that is the heart of the Easter message, Rise. Rise.
In a world without end, may it be so.