Sermons

Wisdom of the Woods

Wisdom of the Woods

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Installation Sermon for Rev. Aileen Fitzke

6-6-21, 4:00 pm

Two years back I attended and participated in Aileen’s Ordination Ceremony in Ithaca, NY. I recall well the sermon our colleague Rev. Darcey Laine had offered. It was a sermon filled with lessons about faith and community through the topic of mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms. Knowing I cannot measure up to that, I offer a message focused on really big trees. This afternoon I offer what I hope might be a descant to that elegant sermon from two years back. I offer some wisdom of the woods. I begin with a parable – well, it’s not really a parable because it is entirely true and historically accurate. I offer it as a metaphor and a teaching story for it reveals the wisdom of the woods. And the story I share is from the life of John Muir.

John Muir, some of you may know, was the great naturalist from the late 1800’s.  He is the “Father of our National Parks” and founder of the Sierra Club. He was also a bit of a thrill seeker. He loved to really get out into nature and experience it as fully as possible. He would climb trees, scramble up rocky inclines, and he got out in all manner of weather to experience nature. I offer remarks from his own journal to reveal the teaching story I present this afternoon.

“One of the most beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed in the Sierra,” Muir wrote in A Wind-Storm in the Forests, “occurred in December, 1874, when I happened to be exploring one of the tributary valleys of the Yuba River.” 

He was on his way to visit a friend that day, but when he noticed a fine wind-storm brewing he decided to instead push out into the woods to enjoy it.  I don’t know about you, but when I see a wind storm coming, I like to have some shelter.  John Muir was led by a different impulse.  “For on such occasions (he wrote) Nature has always something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof.”  After spending a good while walking around the woods in the midst of this great windstorm it occurred to him “that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook.”

So he hunted for a good choice.  He found a stand of tall Douglas Spruces growing close together. He knew that the wind was strong enough to uproot a single tree standing alone, but a dozen or more trees together served to protect all the trees in the copse.

“Though comparatively young, (he writes in his journal) they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion.”

He clung to the high slender tree as it bent and swirled in the storm.  The tree bent from 20 to 30 degrees in arc but he trusted the companion stand around him to keep his tree rooted and upright throughout the experience.  He describes it as exciting and beautiful.  He felt the wind in his pulse.  He described light and wind sweeping across the valley spread before his eyes as if he were watching waves on the open sea; the trees undulating and swaying in concentric circles, lines of wind chasing each other in a water-like flow from one end of valley to the other.  “I kept my lofty perch for hours, (he writes) frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past.”

This experience was a seminal moment for Muir’s sense of connectedness with all nature.  “We all travel the milky way together,” he wrote, “trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings–many of them not so much.”

I wonder if you can relate? Perhaps not to the thrill-seeking element in John Muir’s character. But perhaps to the experience of being tossed about in a storm? Perhaps you can relate to the experience of seeing trouble brewing and making your way to a safe spot. John Muir’s idea of a safe spot may be different from yours.

Religion, through the ages, has offered its adherents shelter in the metaphorical storms of life. Religion offers assurances and safe harbor. People speak of clinging to their rock, holding fast to their sure anchor. But what if this is not the best analogy? What if this religious metaphor is off? What if we could embrace the experience and still be safe, or at least safe enough? What if we were to seek out not a firm and immobile stone but a fine copse of trustworthy trees in which to weather our storms?

I suggest Muir’s experience in the wind-storm could be a parable for what our congregational life could be. In our hymnal there is a reading #591 if you like to take notes (“I Call That Church Free”) in which Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams says, “I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence, that sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands.” This reading clarifies the theological and covenantal nature of our gathered religious communities. Adams says “I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship.” And he goes on to describe it as “a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit.” And then he closes quoting scripture saying, “It aims to find unity in diversity under the promptings of the spirit ‘that bloweth where it listeth (John 3:8) … and maketh all things new. (Rev 21:1)’”

My story about John Muir in the wind, my parable is not about you as an individual clinging to your own safe place. My story is about the free church. It is about how we create communities that can serve as trustworthy places in which we can weather our storms. Tis grace that brought me safe thus far … James Luther Adams described the Free Church as a body of seekers freely joined in a covenant of loyalty to the spirit of love. 

John Muir clung to the top of a tall pine to feel the wind blowth where it listeth. It is not an insignificant piece of the story that the tree was a good and safe choice because it was a copse of trees – a community of trees supporting each other. Or to read it metaphorically, “a gathering of individuals in a caring and trusting fellowship!”  For our theology of the Spirit to be made real in this world it is best enacted in community. 

Yes, trees do fall down, by age, by ax, by storm. But the forest continues. The community of faith still thrives in the face of plague and illness, through the winds of political turmoil and insurrection, despite the scourge of racism and bigotry – our faith communities are strong because we are not alone; I am not left to rely on only my own strength to persevere. We are like a trustworthy copse of trees. Our roots are strong and deep. Our shelter does not stop the wind and the trouble, but it does keep us secure all the same. You and I bend in the wind and the community bends too. Let the cares of the world blow across the face of your deep souls and know that you thrive because you are connected in a trustworthy copse of fellow travelers.

Let the wind blow – the winds of trouble and the breath of Spirit both. Listen to the wisdom of the woods. Let trouble come and go. Let the Spirit move among us. Stay present and stay relevant, for the world needs strong communities of truth and trust, of hope and healing, of compassion and action. Our world needs communities such as this one. But it is not just the world who needs this, you and I need such communities as well. And you and I participate in the creation of such communities.

Let the wind come. We will persevere and and even be renewed. Together we will build the beloved forest of faith that will always be our home. We create this together and in partnership with the Spirit ‘that bloweth where it listeth (John 3:8) … and maketh all things new. (Rev 21:1)’”

In a world without end, may it be so.

Every Mind Is Made for Growth

Every Mind Is Made for Growth

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Ordination Sermon for Ann Kadlecek

6-6-21, 10:00 am

Sermons | Rev. Douglas Taylor

Reading – “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon “I am from clothespins, from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride…”

Sermon – Every Mind Was Made for Growth

We are from “God is Love” and “There is no God.” We are from “Deeds not creeds” and “Black Lives Matter.” We are Unitarian Universalists. We are from New England steeples and cushioned pews and coffee urns. From radical theology and congregational polity. From arguments over doctrine and discussions over potlucks and activism over unjust systems of oppression. We are from an interconnected web and a free & responsible search. We are from questions and curiosity and love, dear ones. We are from love. 

It is said that an ordination sermon should be about ministry and about 10 minutes. I will endeavor to satisfy on both counts. This morning let me share with you a key piece of where we are from, of the threads that are woven of our past which still shimmer in our present and point us toward the future.

The Unitarian side of our merged religious family in America began as a theological argument. We are from a good and righteous theological argument. Our Universalist side of the family is also pretty cool, but I only have 10 minutes, so humor me. William Ellery Channing is considered the founder of American Unitarianism for his landmark sermon, “Unitarian Christianity” in 1819. He brought forth a new identity.

Channing delivered that sermon “Unitarian Christianity” in Baltimore during an ordination service. He spoke for over an hour. Ha! I’m still only going ten minutes. In that sermon, Channing 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. 

The heart of the arguments he offered then were around the trinitarian doctrines of God and Jesus:

In the first place, (he preached) 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 (he continued) 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 word Unitarian in our name today, this is not the heart of what has carried forward through the decades as our religious identity. Modern-day Unitarian Universalists are not locked on to the theology of God’s unity – or any other belief about God. We have a plurality of beliefs about the nature of God – or even the lack thereof. That is not the important part for us. What has followed through as a thread to today is the theology William Ellery Channing elucidated about what it means to be human.

Channing railed against the prevailing theology of his day that spoke of humanity as being totally depraved and bound to sin with no power by which to change the situation without the salvific grace of an angry deity.

Channing declared God to be our model of goodness. We, he said sensationally, 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. No! Channing said, no. He said “Every mind was made for growth.” The sensational part of that hour-long sermon was the stuff about God and Jesus, but the best part – the part we still carry today – is what Channing declared about what it means to be human.

He said “Every mind was made for growth.” Our capacity for spiritual and intellectual growth was central for Channing. That is the theological thread that has woven through the decades into today. That is the ground upon which our faith tradition has been built. That is where we are from. I’ll offer an example:

“What does God sound like?” my oldest child once asked me.

It is always a delight to get a question like that from a child. 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?”

“Wind.”

“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 my now-young-adult child reminded me of it recently. 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 the holy has matured as the years have gone by.

Our conversation then is representative of my theology now. That last answer my child offered – “I hear you and me talking.” – Yes, that’s one way the Holy can sound. Channing would likely be baffled by that idea if he were to hear it. But it was never a certain belief or doctrine about God at our center. Those particulars have been allowed to change. It was always our capacity to wonder about life and explore meaning and to choose the good – that is our center. “Every mind was made for growth.” That is our divine inheritance.  

How was it for you? When did your spiritual mind begin to grow? What opened you up to awe and wonder as a child? Maybe it wasn’t questions about God, maybe you were opened by questions about mortality or morality or meaning. Maybe you were not a child when first you were able to truly question and grow in this way. Is there a moment or a topic you can recall that serve as a launching point for your intellectual or spiritual curiosity? This is where we are from. This is what our congregations are for.

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 that which is holy. This, dear ones, is where we are from.

We are from “God is Love” and “There is no God.” We are from “Deeds not creeds” and “Black Lives Matter.” We are Unitarian Universalists. We are from New England steeples and cushioned pews and coffee urns. From radical theology and congregational polity. From arguments over doctrine and discussions over potlucks and activism over unjust systems of oppression. We are from an interconnected web and a free & responsible search. We are from questions and curiosity and love, dear ones. We are from love. 

The journey continues. Let us move forward boldly. 

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Embracing Risk

Crater Lake | Crater Lake | Andy Spearing | Flickr

Embracing Risk

Rev. Douglas Taylor

6-20-21

(Here is a link to the video of this sermon delivered) https://youtu.be/qGa1ouh1Ew8

I’m preaching about risks and how it is good to take risks. My spouse looked at me. “You?” she asked a little incredulously. “You are not a risk-taker.” Okay, that’s fair.

If you asked around you would hear from others about some of my better qualities but ‘thrill-seeker’ would not be on that list; ‘risk-taker’ is not the descriptor that comes to most people’s minds when they think of me. I’m okay with that. I’m still going to preach about embracing risk this morning.

I’m talking about risk in a slightly different, but still authentic way this morning. I am never going to jump out of an airplane or go cliff diving or rock climbing without safety lines. That’s not the sort of risk I am drawn to. But those are not the only kinds of risks there are in life.

I will share this story to seal my non-risk-taking bona fides. While still in seminary, I was looking for a congregation in which to do my internship. One congregation in a Chicago suburb gave me an interview but ended up not giving me the position. I later learned they felt I was too trepidatious during the interview, too fearful. I had shared with them my concerns about moving to the Chicago area. I’m not a city person, we had two young children and almost no financial resources. I knew it would be a hard year. I shared this during the interview. They heard that as fearful on my part. I would interpret it as realistic and honest.

A year later I reapplied to that congregation and was given the internship slot. One of their questions during that interview a year later was: what has changed since last time you applied. I had lived for a year in Chicago for my last academic year of study and it had been a hard year. I had been right. One thing I learned is this: perhaps I should not have shared with them my concern for living in a big city as a young poor family. I would have appeared less trepidatious, I might have gotten the job the first time around. But here we are. And perhaps I did not learn this ‘don’t share your fears’ lesson because I just told all of you about it.

Here is why I shared this story, however. I was fearful. I did see moving to Chicago as a risk. I still did it. I was correct in my assessment of the risk – it was a very hard year. Just recently I found a great story that explains the experience I’d had those decades back.

Two children are at a public pool. One child helping their younger sibling learn to jump into the water. The younger one kept hovering at the edge, “but I’m scared,” she would cry. Her older sibling would try to comfort her, “You’ll be okay. I’m right here. You don’t need to be afraid.” But nothing worked until an older lady at the pool swam by and said, “It’s okay to be scared. Do it anyway. Do it scared.” That proved to be helpful advice. Instead of ‘don’t be scared;” “Do it scared.”

I moved to Chicago. I took the risk. I didn’t fall in love with Chicago. I didn’t overcome my discomfort with big cities. They are too crowded, too frenetic, too distanced from nature. I would be trepidatious if faced with the situation again. But I did it. I did it scared.

A Shel Silverstein poem offers a cautionary version of this:

Barnabus Browning

Was scared of drowning,

So he never would swim

Or get into a boat

Or take a bath

Or cross a moat.

He just sat day and night

With his door locked tight

And the windows nailed down,

Shaking with fear

That a wave might appear,

And cried so many tears

That they filled up the room

And he drowned.

The difference is not about who is scared and who is not. The difference is about what you do with your fear. I’m preaching about risks and how it is good to take risks. I will not lie and say I have no fears in my life or that I am a great risk-taker. Instead, I will tell you about the overcoming of the fears we have. This is about taking risks and having courage. I am not talking not about the courage to jump out of an airplane, but of the courage to live your life faithfully and openly.

People talk about fear and faith being opposites. Fear will hold you back and faith will set you free. And that is certainly true, but it’s more complicated than that too. The spirit is diminished when we let our fear rule our actions. But having faith in a situation doesn’t make the fear go away. The fear is just outweighed. Learning to take good risks is an important part of life.

Growing up, I had a very high level of skill at assessing risks. Knowing the risks is not the same as taking risks, of course. Growing up in the chaos of an alcoholic household gave me a keen ability to see the risks, to understand potential consequences. As a child I usually chose to not take the risks. As I matured into a young adult, I worked my way into learning how to jump in the water even though I was afraid – to use that little swimming pool story metaphorically. As an adult, I began to ask not if it was risky, but is the risk worth taking?

One of the teachers I have found to help me clarify this, to help me learn to jump in the water, if you will, has been Brené Brown. I want to share this clip of her in an interview in which she talks about vulnerability and the relationship between vulnerability and risk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkDaKKkFi6Y&ab_channel=Inc.

Dr. Brown says “Vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” The risk, in the middle there, is the key piece. There is a cost to being true. There is a risk in reaching out, in wanting to be better. Brené Brown says we need to risk being vulnerable to live more fully. That’s the risk I am talking about.

She talked about difference between the sign language for ‘vulnerability’ rooted in ‘weak in the knees” vs “opening yourself.” There is little risk in being weak in the knees. The good stuff is found in the risk of opening up and reaching out.

We have an old anonymous piece in our hymnal simply entitled “To Risk” (SLT #658)

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool

To weep is to risk appearing sentimental

To reach out for another is to risk exposing our true self

To place our ideas – our dreams – before the crowd is to risk loss

To love is to risk not being loved in return

To hope is to risk despair

To try is to risk failure

To live is to risk dying

When we put it like this, I am a high-end risk-taker! I have shaped my life around risking failure and despair, looking foolish and appearing sentimental, putting my ideas before the crowd – that’s my thing! My ministry is brimming with this sort of risk-taking: with laughter and weeping, hopes and failures, vulnerability and love. 

“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” Author C. S. Lewis warns us. “If you want to keep it intact,” he continues, “you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable.”

The question is not: is it a risk? The question is: which risks are worth taking? Which risks are you taking, have you taken in your life? Which ones were worth it? What have you gained and what have you lost? There is always more to risk.

Will you risk associating with people on the margins? Will you risk being an ally? Will you risk telling people they are important to you? Will you risk telling a friend that their off-color jokes are offensive? Will you risk giving shelter to someone in need?

Maybe you don’t want to jay-walk or bungee-jump off a high bridge. Maybe you are scared of heights or large crowds or public speaking. Maybe you are not comfortable getting the vaccine given your immune issues or are unwilling to risk arrest at a protest.

Where is the line for you? What are the issues or situations that are on the edge in your heart? I encourage you to push yourself. Poke at the edges. Just because we are afraid of something does not mean we need to overcome it. Most of the time, fear is a healthy warning; giving us useful information about ourselves and our world.

But there are times when our fear gets detached from what is really going on and we get stuck in our fear. In such cases it is worth it to take some risks. The Spirit will not abide being stuck. You cannot grow when you are stuck. And the good stuff is found in the risk of opening up and reaching out.

So, embrace risks, I say. Live. Care. Try again. Let yourself be vulnerable. Reach out and be loving. It’s worth it. We will get hurt and we will fail and we will surely sometimes lose. But that is not all that will happen. Because the risk is worth it. Follow the spirit to reach beyond your fear. All the good stuff in life is found in the risk of opening up and reaching out.

In a world without end,

May it be so

Earth Tale

A UU Sermon about the Flower Ceremony (with a Buddhist lens)

Homily                 Earth Tale             Rev. Taylor

terra #earth | Earth at night was holding in human hands. E… | Flickr

https://youtu.be/B-SojsecwMo

It is said that the shortest of the Buddha’s sermons went something like this: The Buddha had his disciples sitting around him; he reached down, plucked a flower and held it up. He spoke not a word. In that silence, one of his disciples became enlightened. Consider these flowers and consider how we fit into this amazing universe together.  

There is something in our annual Flower Ceremony that always puts me in a certain frame of mind. I grow contemplative bordering on the mystic. What is it about flowers that we find so alluring and companionable? Certainly, their fragrance and color, their variety and wild abundance. And we find meaningful connections to these flowers and ourselves. We too have fragrance and color; we too arrive in such variety and – when we let ourselves – are capable of wild abandon. But there is more. These flowers are transient, they blossom and die all around us constantly. And yet they persist. So, it is with us as well.

Allow me a second Buddhist story, it pairs well with the one about the flower. This second story is from Thich Nhat Hanh (from at least a few decades back.)  He has walking across a collage campus with several people after a lecture. This story is an autumn story, rather than a spring story about flowers. In this story, Thich Nhat Hanh and the others were walking and the ground was strewn with many-colored leaves that had recently fallen to the ground. Suddenly Thich Nhat Hanh stops, points to a leaf and shouts, “You’re faking!”

I love this story. I know I’ve told it before and some of you may remember it. I know my inclination is to look at autumn and think of things dying, or everything letting go. But the Buddhist teacher is right. Autumn is simply one point in the ever-circling spiral of life. The dead leaf is part of the grander cycle of rebirth – it just isn’t revealing that aspect of it at the moment. The leaves that are dying are not really dying.

What if the flowers are faking too? Because they are, you know. They are no more the epitome of life than the leaf in autumn is the epitome of death. The flower is one moment in the full cycle. And like us, it has unfolded into this moment of being and is on its way to somewhere else. But in this moment, ah, such color, such vibrance, such life.

Yes, the flower may be fixed in my mind, in my memory like a photo. A moment out of countless moments when it happens to be in its fullness. But in truth, that moment is a tension. The flower is in its fullness, in beautiful bloom; and it is at the same time on its journey from seed to compost – the full breadth of its living. The flower is faking when it shows us only its full glory, because it is not only that moment; it is also in the middle of a long, elegant journey.

We call it ‘living in the moment’ when we do it. We call it, ‘mindfully present.’ But the flower is faking. Its wholeness is not contained in the moment of full bloom. So it is with us. When we are living in the moment, when we are mindfully present, we do not stop being part of the ongoing circle and cycle of living. When we are living in the moment we are not escaping from the past or ignoring the future. We are in that full journey right now.

One more story. This one is from Anthony DeMello in his book One Minute Wisdom.

The Master smiled, “Tell me, my dear, when you were born did you come into the world like a star from the sky or out of it like a leaf from a tree?” All day long [the student] pondered that strange question of the Master. Then she suddenly saw the answer and fell into Enlightenment.  (DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom, p121)

We were not dropped here into this moment, we grew here. We are not transplanted into nature, we are nature. We, like the blooming flower and the dying leaf, are the earth. We are a local embodiment of the universe. Walt Whitman famously said “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” We, like the grass, are the journey-work of the stars. And at any given moment, we are here – a leaf on the ground, a flower in bloom – ebbing or flowing; we are here.

I hope you may remember that when you are in a more barren or difficult season of your life, the flower is always part of the journey. even when it is ‘not yet’ or is ‘no longer.’ The flower is always with us and it is always on its way. And so are we.

In a world without end,

may it be so.

Our Old Unitarian Argument

Our Old Unitarian Argument

May 23, 2021

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Unitarianism in this country began as an argument within the liberal Christianity of its day. It began as a response against certain theological doctrines. From those first arguments, on through to today, there has been a steady, albeit sometimes unnoticed, series of arguments at play among us. Our old Unitarian argument is still part of our identity and shows up not just in our history but in our present experience as a faith tradition today.

That first old argument – the opening salvo – I am referring to is revealed wonderfully in William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon of 1819 entitled “Unitarian Christianity.”  It was our opening shot. In it, Channing made the argument that the Character of God is good: meaning God is not angry or vengeful or jealous, as some of the orthodox theologies would have it. God is Good. Next, Channing said God is one. God is a unity, not a trinity. Following from that he argued that Jesus was not God, that Jesus was likewise a unity, namely fully human. And the final big argument Channing made was that humanity has the capacity to be good, that we can follow the example of Jesus. Again, this was counter to the prevailing orthodoxy of the day that said humanity cannot be good without first being saved by God through Jesus.

I am breezing through the actual arguments because – and here is the best part – we did not say such doctrines were the creeds of a Unitarian faith to which all Unitarians must adhere. We instead choose to be non-creedal. In effect, what we did was establish a house in which our faith community could exist, but we did not put a lock on the door. We said anyone can join in our community if you agree with us in principle. You don’t need to believe the exact doctrines we’ve just declared; you don’t need that key to unlock the door to our community.

Pretty soon after Channing’s arguments were aired and Unitarian churches were established, there began to be a group of Deists showing up. And an argument began: Was God actively involved in the lives of the people? The Deists said no. Channing and the other Unitarian Christians said yes. But rather than kicking the Deists out, they all found a way to share the space. There was, after all, no creed saying the Deists could not be part of Unitarianism. So, we expanded our circle and kept going.

Next the Transcendentalists showed up. They found the door unlocked and moved in. And an argument began. Is the Bible the only valid revelation of God? The Transcendentalists like Emerson and Alcott, Thoreau and Fuller, argued it was not; while the Deists and the original Unitarian Christians argued that it was.  But rather than kicking the Transcendentalists out, the Unitarians instead recognized that there was no creedal lock on the door. And we expanded the circle and kept going.

This became our pattern. Throughout our history, we’ve had significant theological arguments against the culture and theology around us and against cultures and theologies among ourselves. Yet our history is about how we stayed together through these arguments rather than the more common religious history pattern of splitting into factions and sects.

Today we Unitarian Universalists are at the point that our inclusivity is a bright beacon to the world and all those hungering for an open community grounded in values of truth and respect, personal integrity and communal support. We are not grounded in a creed or set belief as our center. As Rosemary Bray McNatt said in our reading this morning,

Whether you revere God, Goddess, nature, the human spirit, or something holy that you have no name for, you are welcome to join any Unitarian Universalist community and to worship, study, work, and be in relationship with people who are all on their own spiritual paths.       (From “Our Faith” essay in UU Pocket Guide, 2012 edition)

But it is worth noting we have not arrived at this stance of openness by chance, nor have we been in this exact spot all along. Ours is an evolving dynamic faith history. And I suggest, we are not done.

My colleague Rev. Craig Schwalenberg shared this insight with me when we were talking about it yesterday. He said this pattern of argument and expansion in our history found in our beginnings, has subsequently reappeared roughly every few generations. This pattern did not stop with the Deists and the Transcendentalists of the early and mid-1800’s. Every few generations, a new group would show up among the Unitarians, find the door unlocked and move in. ‘Nice place you got here,’ they would say. ‘But you don’t fit in here,’ the response would come. And an argument would ensue.

And every few generations, this argument would rage through our churches and congregations, our fellowships and societies and meeting houses. And for a time, people would draw lines in the sand, churches would get into fights, ministers would loss their jobs, some people would get hurt. These conflicts were real. It was hard. But in the end, our history shows that we would eventually find our way to expand the circle and keep going.

That first old argument was about the nature of God and of Jesus. It was also about what it means to be human. As the years have worn on and the generations have come and gone – our arguments have continued. We’ve argued about the centrality of Christianity in our identity, about the relationship of science in our beliefs, about the importance of activism in our deeds. In early 1900’s we had a good, long argument about whether or not we even needed God in our theology at all. The Humanists pressed the question. They showed up among our Unitarian communities, found the door unlocked and moved in. And after some acrimony and struggle, we again expanded our circle and kept going.

It was a far more formal process when the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961 – but in many ways the pattern holds true for the outcome. The Universalists declared God was too good to damn humanity for eternity and the Unitarians countered that humanity was too good to be damned. (Credit to Thomas Starr King, who said this more eloquently). But still we found our way to expand the circle and keep going. I have intentionally been talking about just the Unitarians in this fun romp through our history. The Universalists had different patterns echoing along the ages, but that is a sermon for another day. Today I am lifting out the pattern within our American Unitarian history of argument and expansion. Because today I want to notice we are in the midst of that exact pattern now.

But I’m running ahead a bit. Let me finish the survey and then I’ll jump off this last ledge with you. It matters because the really exciting argument was next in our chronology. In the late 70’s and early 80’s we had a big argument brought to us by the pagans and supporters of feminist theologies. I call it exciting because something in the pattern seems to have shifted. The argument brought to us by the pagans and feminists suggested, among other thigs, that the Earth itself is holy, that we are more interconnected and relational than independent and isolated, and also the perspective that our journey is more a spiral dance than a climb onward and upward forever.

Interestingly, this argument fits the pattern at first. The pagans and feminists showed up, found the door unlocked and moved in. ‘Nice place you got here,’ they said. ‘But you don’t fit in here,’ the response came. And an argument ensued. We eventually expanded the circle and kept going. But here is the part that is different. In the past, whenever a new group or theological cohort would come into the fold, and the circle expanded to include them, a strange thing would happen. The group that was finally received would turn around and shut the door. Then when the next group would arrive, the most recent addition would lend the loudest complaints about the infiltration of the new trouble-makers in our midst!

When the Transcendentalists showed up, it was the Deists and Theists rallying against them. When the Humanist showed up, the Transcendentalists joined the hue and cry against them. When the Pagans came knocking, the Humanists were among the loudest to say that Paganism went going too far. This is not to say any of these theological groups were then or are now hypocritical by nature. No. It is simply the pattern of group dynamics we fell into over the years. I mention this part not to denigrate any theological perspective. I mention it to show that we all fall into the patterns at times and it is hard work to shake ourselves free.

And here, now is the interesting bit: the earth-centered traditions … the pagans and the feminist theologies … did not shut the door behind them once the circle was expanded and they were firmly recognized among us. Part of the perspective they brought was this exact shift in recognizing how to keep the circle open for the next people who may need to be let in. I thank God for those feminists and pagans from fifty years ago, for the influence their theology and perspective has had on me and on our faith history.

All of which leads me to our current situation. Unitarian Universalism has been overdue for a theological argument. If you have been paying attention to the themes and scuffles in the broader Unitarian Universalist movement – I won’t assume any of you have – then you may be pondering this exact question. What theological argument is going on now?

About 15 or 20 years ago there was the beginnings of a good theological argument among us. We were talking about the Language of Reverence a lot. People were lining up for and against the use of particular words in our churches such as church, God, prayer, and worship. It had the feel of the pattern. Almost. There was not a group or cohort in particular championing this argument against the current establishment within Unitarian Universalism. It was just some of us arguing with some of us. Plus, the argument eventually faded away without resulting in increased inclusion or notable exclusion in our circle. And it never quite reached the level of people getting hurt or losing their jobs or feeling like they were getting excommunicated – all of which does tend to happen when the conflicts get significant among us. 

When I back into the question I find an interesting possibility. When I ask what theological dispute is brewing among us, I don’t notice anything happening nowadays that has folks concerned. When I ask instead, what is going on now that has some UUs getting hurt, losing their ministry and field work jobs, or feeling like they are getting excommunicated? Well, that question cracks open some possibilities. Almost.

The answer to who is getting hurt in UUism by UUs today is people of color, trans people, and some other similarly marginalized identities among us. Today in Unitarian Universalism there is a heated argument unfolding about anti-racism and multiculturalism as well as about how welcoming or unwelcoming we are to transgender and gender queer people, particularly leaders among us. The thing is: that’s not a theological perspective. So, this almost fits the pattern, enough to make me very curious.

I will pause here and say: I am “all in” for being inclusive and supportive of folks on the margins in our faith. I say this not to virtue-signal or toe a party-line, but to acknowledge that there are somethings we ought not, we cannot, be neutral about.

That said, let me pull your attention back to the broader topic at hand. This is an argument happening among us as Unitarian Universalists, but is it a theological argument? Might we be looking at another old unfolding of the doctrines around human nature – who is worthy, who is included, who counts? Is this culture war around identity and racism rooted in some old ideas of human nature that we are being called upon to refute once more? Maybe. I might just be fishing here. And I wonder if the argument is about plurality and multiculturalism is a stand in for the old argument about the saved and unsaved, good people vs second-rate people.

Thankfully, I can tell you how this argument will eventually turn out. One way or another, we will eventually find our way to the other side of this and discover our circle again expanded and we will have grown as a faith tradition.

Until then, I encourage us all to be mindful of how we can have arguments and conflict in ways that are healthy. I encourage us to step closer to the troubles we notice; to allow the differences and disagreements to be present but not harmful. And in so doing, may we remember we are not just talking about interesting ideas and theological positions; we are talking about people. May we proceed with grace and may we engage our differences openly and respectfully – for that is what our faith calls of us in times like these.

In a world without end,

may it be so