Sowing Heresy, Growing Spirit
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia
March 18, 2018
Rev. Jeff Liebmann
Call to Worship
From Harvard Divinity School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1838
And now let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering, nigh quenched fire on the altar. The evils of the Church that now is are manifest. The question returns, what shall we do? …let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, Soul, and second, Soul, and evermore, Soul.”
Time for All Ages
Journeys of George
When I was your age, I had imaginary friends. These were people and animals that I could talk to, but no one else could see them or talk to them. Do any of you have friends like that? Well, as I grew older, I learned that I could talk to all kinds of things.
For instance, I want to introduce you to my friend George. I just met George here yesterday when I stopped at the bank. Can any of you tell me why his name is George? Because there is a picture of George Washington, the first President of the United States on the front. Actually, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Every dollar bill is named George, so it can be really hard to tell one George from another when you are trying to have a conversation.
What? What was that?
Oh, forgive me. George here says hello to all of you boys and girls. Can you say hello to George?
So, George, tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?…Oh, of course, you are from Fort Worth, Texas. I thought I detected a bit of a Southern accent. You see, George is a newly printed dollar bill, and all paper money in the United States is printed either in Fort Worth or in Washington, D.C. He was just created a few days ago and was shipped to the bank here in Columbia.
Well, George, since you are a brand new dollar bill, let me share with you and the children here a story I heard once from a very old and worn bill I got in change at the grocery store. Once upon a time, this dollar (whose name was also George) was printed. He was printed 20 years ago, which is very old for a dollar bill. He was born in Fort Worth, just like George here, but had traveled all over the country. He had been spent in big cities like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles and in little towns in states like Iowa and Kansas. But, the place he liked to talk about most was a tiny farm in Alabama.
You see, George told me something I didn’t know. What do you think the paper that money is printed on is made of? Well, American paper money is printed on paper mostly made of cotton, just like a lot of the clothes we wear. And, the cotton in the paper that George was printed on came from this tiny farm in Alabama. When George was still a cotton plant, he remembered a little boy who lived on this farm. Now, this boy’s family had very little money. But, his parents loved him very much, and he loved them. So, even though he didn’t have a lot of toys and things, he was very happy.
Well, the cotton on this farm was picked and eventually found its way into this dollar bill. He changed hands countless times, going from barbers to bingo games and from garage sales to garden shops. After years of being spent all over the country, George found himself in the wallet of a lady from Walla Walla, Washington. She got George in change on a Sunday morning at a coffee shop on the way to church. Anyway, when she got to church, she learned that a special offering was being collected that day to help people who had suffered through a big hurricane down South. The lady took some money from her purse and put it in the collection plate, including old, worn George.
Over the next few days, George made his way from the church to a place where other Georges were being brought from all over the country. After being counted and sorted, George found himself being bundled, packed into an envelope, and sent off again. After a couple of days, the envelope was opened by a young man. The man seemed very tired, but George could tell how happy he was when he saw what was in the envelope. George got a funny feeling from the man as he counted the money from the envelope. All of a sudden, he realized that he knew the man. It was the young boy, now all grown up, that had picked his cotton and played on the farm all those years ago, that he now owned. The hurricane had damaged the farm and the church sent the money to help the man rebuild his home and replant his cotton crop.
I learned a couple of things from that George. One is that we never know where the journey of our lives will take us. Another is that we can make a real difference in others’ lives through giving and loving each other.
From Heresies and Heretics by Robert G. Ingersoll, 1874
Imagine a vine that grows at one end and decays at the other. The end that grows is heresy, the end that rots is orthodox. The dead are orthodox, and your cemetery is the most perfect type of a well regulated church. No thought, no progress, no heresy there…
Every heretic has been, and is, a ray of light…Heresy cannot be burned, nor imprisoned, nor starved…Heresy is the eternal dawn, the morning star, the glittering herald of the day. Heresy is the last and best thought. It is the perpetual New World, the unknown sea, toward which the brave all sail. It is the eternal horizon of progress…
The real Bible is not the work of inspired men, nor prophets, nor apostles, nor evangelists, nor of Christs. Every[one] who finds a fact, adds, as it were, a word to this great book. It is not attested by prophecy, by miracles or signs. It makes no appeal to faith, to ignorance, to credulity or fear. It has no punishment for unbelief, and no reward for hypocrisy. It appeals to [humankind] in the name of demonstration. It has nothing to conceal. It has no fear of being read, of being contradicted, of being investigated and understood. It does not pretend to be holy, or sacred; it simply claims to be true. It challenges the scrutiny of all, and implores every reader to verify every line for himself. It is incapable of being blasphemed…The earth, with its heart of fire and crowns of snow; with its forests and plains, its rocks and seas; with its every wave and cloud; with its every leaf and bud and flower, confirms its every word, and the solemn stars, shining in the infinite abysses, are the eternal witnesses of its truth.
Sermon – Sowing Heresy, Growing Spirit
I intensely dislike talking about money…ever. And, I especially dislike speaking about financial matters from the pulpit. I don’t know about you, but I believe that the last thing people want to do on Sunday morning is to engage in worship and listen to someone ask for your money. So, I won’t.
Instead, I choose to talk to you this morning about one of my favorite topics – heresy. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word hairesis, meaning “to choose.” Of course, the word possesses a much narrower meaning within the context of Western history. But for me, the term “heresy” has a purely objective meaning and refers merely to the point of view of opting to reject that which is considered “orthodox.” Any nonconformist view within any field may be perceived as “heretical” by others within that field who are convinced that their view is orthodoxy.
I have studied much of the history of our liberal religious tradition. Our Unitarian heritage dates back to the teachings of the early Christian priest Arius. Arius believed that the depiction of Jesus as the Son of God was incorrect. The philosophy of Arianism (with an “I” and never to be confused with Hitler’s Aryanism, with a “y”) maintained that Jesus was not coeternal with God the Father, and that there was once a time, before he was begotten, that he did not exist. Arius was deemed a heretic and was excommunicated in the fourth century C.E.
Another early Christian theologian, Origen, began a school of thought holding Logos as the rational creative principle that permeates the universe. Since God eternally manifests himself, the Logos is likewise eternal. Later followers of Origen refined this philosophy into a belief in universal salvation, rejecting the construct of eternal damnation. These writings were declared heretical in 545 C.E., resulting in Origen’s posthumous excommunication a few years later.
My personal favorite remains Michael Servetus, the 16th century Spanish writer, physician, and editor, whose famous book On the Errors of the Trinity made his life one of exile and persecution. His writings fueled a liberal religious movement in Eastern Europe that eventually spread to Holland, then England, and then across the Atlantic. These, and many other religious heretics, sacrificed much so that we could enjoy our freedoms available today. In some cases, like Servetus, that sacrifice included their very lives by burning at the stake, or other barbaric acts.
The Reformation of Servetus’ time also began the so-called “modern” era of human civilization in the West. Some of the tenets of modernism, such as democracy and capitalism, have blossomed to full maturity in our society today. Behind these ideals of modernism lie an inherent belief in the value of change, of constant progress, and of innovation.
To a large extent, our principles of Unitarian Universalism share a commitment to these same basic societal goals. We welcome the use of reason and science in our search for truth and meaning. We promote advancements in technology, and in medical and social sciences in our pursuit for justice and equality. All this vision presumes a free market exchange of not only commodities, but of ideas and innovations.
In our lifetimes, events have given us all reason to consider a more critical commitment to modernist principles. Some of us came of age during the madness of the Cold War and the Arms Race. Many of you struggled through the gas shortages of the 70’s, high inflation of the 80’s, and our seemingly endless involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts that came to a head in the 90’s and continue today. Every boon to humankind seems inextricably linked to an equally precarious fallout.
As we have seen in recent times, the economic theory of capitalism does not always play out in noble ways. Investment in innovation can quickly devolve into speculation in high risk ventures with little purpose aside from the acquisition of wealth for its own sake. People who put profit ahead of logic, and the financial “bottom line” ahead of social welfare place our hard-earned savings and long-term financial security at continual risk. One could hardly blame you for viewing a mattress as an inviting vault for your savings.
The constant spate of bankruptcies and failures on Wall Street give us pause to reflect on our priorities as a society. Today, artists struggle to make ends meet. Creative people in all fields of endeavor see their dreams wither and die for lack of venture capital. Schools routinely hold bake sales and other fund raisers in order to buy basic supplies and textbooks, while the special interests in Washington wallow in the public trough. We continue to build offices and shopping centers where none are needed, bridges and highways to nowhere, and ever more prisons.
I know you read the news and see these trends. You work long hours to not just to survive, but to build something, to achieve personal goals and dreams. You ask yourselves, “What can I do to affect our nation’s priorities? How can I change the way our system works?” My answer is this. Our nation, comprised of megacorporations and massive political bureaucracies, ultimately depends on the will and the consent of each and every one of us to survive. We make the choice to purchase goods; the choice to vote for politicians; the choice to invest in retirement funds.
Last Tuesday, the election of the U.S. Representative from the 18th District in Pennsylvania was decided by a number of votes approximately the size of this body assembled here today. My childhood home in the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly for the winning candidate, which was no surprise. My hometown leaned hard to the left even when I was a teenager.
But the one I looked for was the little town of Smithton. Located in Westmoreland County (which the media dubbed a “stronghold” of the Republican Party all during election night), Smithton is a poor town of 400 blue collar workers and retirees, families and simple country folk. I served the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton from 2009 to 2011 as a contract minister before I earned Final Fellowship as a UU minister.
I lived in the heart of Smithton in a one-bedroom apartment that used to house a laundromat. I shopped at the Smithton grocery store, ate meals hosted by the volunteer fire department, and offered the invocations at Memorial Day parades. I drank beer as an honorary member of the American Legion and knew the Mayor, the town Secretary, and the part-time Librarian.
The only reason anyone knew about Smithton was the exit on I-70, which boasted a truck stop, a strip club, and a speedway. But for two years, I preached Unitarian Universalism. We proudly hung our Standing on the Side of Love banner on the front of the building. We preached the message of the church’s Universalist roots, that God is Love. We had movie nights, community discussions, and gay coffeehouses. Some mornings, I preached to a handful of people. But every Sunday, the music streamed from our windows and in 2010 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the church.
On election night last Tuesday, Smithton voted Democratic 66 to 33. Surrounded by red precincts, my little enclave of decent and kind Americans voted for a voice of reason, a message of acceptance and compassion.
Each of us may only be one person, one voice, one vote. But, together we can create an impact. Each of us can make choices. We can choose to support local artists, farmers, and businesses. We can choose to actively monitor our elected representatives and support those with integrity and courage. We can choose to invest our resources in responsible funds committed to social and environmental justice. Together, we can choose to fight the orthodoxies of greed, corruption, and “business as usual,” to create an ethical society in line with our Unitarian Universalist principles.
Let me offer an example of the kind of choice I am talking about by telling you a fairy tale. Once upon a time years ago, lived a young man named Henry. Henry was not a king or a general. He was a simple man just like everybody else. He dreamed dreams like other people. He studied hard in school like other people. He grew up and began working like other people. And, he lived by a code of ethics that influenced the choices he made throughout his life.
For instance, when Henry’s parents fell on hard times, he gave up some of his goals and used all the money he had saved to secure a home for them. When Henry married, he and his wife worked for years building their own home. As his children grew, Henry scrimped and saved all of the money he could, so that they would have a chance at a better life. Henry worked for 50 years for the same company and retired. After 50 years of marriage, his wife died. Henry died peacefully a few years later. And, his children and grandchildren continue to live happily ever after.
Henry’s story does not make a glamorous fairy tale. I see no Pixar productions of Henry’s life anytime in the future. There are no fairy godmothers, frogs, or genies to grant wishes. No talking animals populate the narrative, and nothing happens by magic. This fairy tale contains only the choices made throughout a lifetime and the consequences of those choices. Probably every one of you here today knows a Henry, or can identify yourselves in many ways with my father. Much of his story occurs in many typical, often uncelebrated lives.
My father’s parents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. My grandfather was skilled in construction using timber – not a promising vocation for a nation of steel and skyscrapers. But, he chose to come to America to find a better life. My grandmother was excommunicated by the Catholic Church for divorcing her abusive husband. She chose to come to America to live free of religious dogma and oppression. They met and married here, raised four children, and struggled through the Great War, the Depression, and then another World War.
When my father returned home from the Pacific in 1945, he could have joined the thousands of servicemen entering college. Instead, he chose to invest his life savings buying his parents a farm. He then took a job as a draftsman and worked his way up the ranks in a division of a major Pittsburgh corporation. He chose a job that allowed him to spend many hours each day at home with his family. And, he chose to spend his weekends volunteering to run his children’s activities, serving his city and his church, and carrying on his father’s tradition by creating works of art out of wood.
To my father, one’s investment choices reflect one’s values. He treasured family. He believed in neighborhood and community. He respected the creative process. Most of all, he was a futurist. No matter how distressing the news, or cruel the fates, my father could see the potential for good in a situation. With enough hard work and commitment, people can always make the world a better place. Sometimes, a helping hand or a just reward is all it takes for humankind to achieve its potential for good.
My father taught me many of the values that comprise my own philosophy of life. In the end, without family, community, love of and for others, and self-respect, money and possessions cannot fulfill our lives. His life may not have been the stuff of fairy tales, but he provided me with all of the will to dream and the desire to achieve them that I will ever need. Our stories require no magic lamps and leprechauns to grant us our wishes. We only need the will and the courage to make choices.
Our liberal religious tradition offers hope to this madhouse of a world we live in. And, as a free association of independent congregations, the responsibility lies with us to fulfill that hope here where we live. By sowing heresy in our lives, we are the catalysts for change. If you believe, then you can make the choice to love, to serve, and to create. By doing this, we will reap the harvest of justice, of peace, of freedom, and of love.
Spirit of life and love that we know by many names, be with us as we enter an attitude of reflection, meditation, and prayer.
I invite you to think about this place, this time as a comfort zone. The friends…the experiences…everything that makes this a spiritual home for you.
Now, imagine a door, a brand new door somewhere in this comfort zone. You feel drawn to this door. You somehow sense not only safety and encouragement behind this door, but something vibrant and alive.
You reach for the knob and slowly turn. As the door swings open, you see all the same friends, but also many new smiling faces. You see some of the same walls and furniture, but also new and unfamiliar things. Everything is cleaner, newer, more attractive, and more functional.
What you see through this door is the future Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. For each of you, the view may differ. Some may see more children that an expanded religious exploration program could attract. Some may hear all kinds of music that guest performers could offer. Some may feel the quiet of a Soulful Sundown service on a weeknight made possible with a growing team of worship leaders. And some may see crowds gathered in a new parking lot to drive to the capitol for a rally.
All of these dreams are possible. We need these dreams to be achievable. We can make these dreams come to pass. As stewards of this church in this place and time, we will make these dreams a reality.
Blessed be. Amen. Let it be so.
In your order of service, you will see a slightly modified dollar bill. His name is Michael, named after the Unitarian heretic Michael Servetus. He was born just a few days ago here in Columbia. I hope you will keep Michael with you as a reminder of the journeys that dollar bills make and the lives they impact. In the days and weeks to come, I also hope that when you see Michael, you will remember that you always have choices in your life. And, among those choices is to sow the seed of heresy to grow the spirit of free religion in our world.