Opening Words [Terry Tempest Williams]:
“I pray to the birds. I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, [the birds] teach me how to listen.”
The Morning Reading, “Invitation,” by Mary Oliver
“Oh do you have time
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude–
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,
do not walk by
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.”
Sermon: “Some UU Views of God”
Since I began serving you in August, I’ve been part of many conversations in which our current members express passionately that they want more new people to know about our congregation, and join our congregation. So this is a good morning for us to look at what Unitarian Universalists believe– for newer people, and so all of us might be more comfortable explaining what is at the heart of our liberal faith tradition. Often Unitarian Universalism is viewed as a spiritualized version of the political left. And it is true that, throughout history, Unitarians and Universalists have been on the frontlines of the struggles for human rights and other liberal causes. But we are more than that. Unitarian Universalism is a real religion that has clear beliefs on all aspects of theology, including views of God, Jesus, the Prophets, sin, and what salvation means. One way I can summarize those views for you is through the words of my colleague, the Rev. Tess Baumberger, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister, and a poet. And another way is through the belief-o-matic quiz, on the wildly popular and helpful website called beliefnet.com. First the lovely words of Rev. Baumberger:
“Ours is a theology of trust in the fundamental goodness and beauty of creation as expressed so richly by Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Ours is a theology that regards our bodies as good and worthy, our world as generate and whole, and the problems of this planet as rooted in humanity’s errors, not in some personification of evil.
Ours is a theology of hope in the possibilities of humanity and our potential for good, as preached by the Religious Humanists and the Universalists.
Ours is a theology that contains many beliefs about the Divine, holding no one belief as normative. However, it is important to note that the range of Unitarian Universalist beliefs about the Sacred is not unlimited. From early days, we have rejected images of the Divine as punitive and authoritarian. Such images of the Sacred are inconsistent with our belief in the basic goodness of humanity.
If we do believe in something we might call God, it is a loving, compassionate power that calls us to work with it to shape a just world where every human being can grow the divine spark within into a fire that can transform our world.
Ours is a theology that upholds freedom of belief about the existence and the nature of the Divine. It also upholds freedom of practice. We are free to relate to the Divine if and however we choose, so long as it does not infringe on the rights or the dignity of other human beings. Ours is a theology that treats Jesus as one among many enlightened prophets, spiritually vibrant souls who reveal to us what it is to be most perfectly human, what it is to live an ethical existence.
Ours is above all else a relational theology– a theology that stresses the radical inter-relatedness of creation, and our selves as beings in that creation. We work to affirm and to promote that interdependent web of existence that may hold for us the place the Divine holds in other religions.
Ours is a theology whose ethics are based on this relationality, that that sees sin or error as the breaking of a covenant of right-relation, and salvation as the maintaining of those good promises aimed at creating a better world.
We do have a theology, and it is a good, rich, rooted theology.” [I thank the Rev. Baumberger for her helpful words.]
We can tell Rev. Baumberger put a great deal of thought into questions of what UUs believe about things like God, Jesus, prophets, sin, and salvation. You may not have thought about those things yourselves, in any detail. But it can be helpful to anyone to think through such questions in advance of times of feeling troubled, or in crisis, or even times of awe, gladness, and good fortune we somehow feel we don’t deserve. I am here to help people think through where they stand on “Life’s Big Questions.” And our whole congregation is here to give you helpful ways to discern what you believe, and what you hold as reverent. One of the most helpful ways is for us to come together on Sunday mornings, in a spirit of openness to the hymns, special music, and readings of the worship service. For this morning’s service, I chose opening words by the environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams, who is highly respected by Unitarian Universalists. The morning reading is by contemporary poet Mary Oliver, who is a Unitarian Universalist. And our closing words will be by the late Rev. Forrest Church, who was the minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City, and has written several beautiful books about living a religious life, and experiencing a good death. I encourage you to read more of Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Oliver, and Forrest Church.
Charmingly, another way anyone can discern their personal theology is through the website called, beliefnet, and its brief but profound “belief-o-matic” quiz. Beliefnet was launched in 1999 “to fill a gap in the religious and inspirational content available online… It takes visitors to the website on an exploration of different faiths, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and others; facilitating interfaith dialogue across the site.” “It is the most comprehensive online resource for inspiration and spirituality, and is presented without a defined editorial point of view.” For many years now, people have found Unitarian Universalist congregations from taking the beliefnet quiz. The quiz asks you for your answers to exactly the sort of questions Rev. Baumberger answered. And often beliefnet also wants you to answer if that question is of low, medium, or high importance to you. Then beliefnet tells you which religions match your beliefs, including with a percentage of agreement. I had taken the beliefnet quiz several years ago. But in preparation for this sermon, I took it again. I’m pleased, and somewhat relieved, that beliefnet found that my beliefs align with Unitarian Universalism 100% ☺ !
Beliefnet also found a high correlation between my beliefs and Liberal Quakerism, Secular Humanism, Taoism, Liberal Protestantism, Theravada Buddhism, Sikhism, and Judaism. So there’s a lot of fodder for future sermons! And if you look on the beliefnet website, at their description of Unitarian Universalist beliefs, it is quite a good summary, and mirrors much of what Rev. Baumberger discerned. I encourage you to take the Beliefnet quiz yourselves. Here is a sample of the questions and my thoughts on them.
The first one is: What is the number and nature of the deity or deities? Do you think there is only one God? Do you believe in the Holy Trinity? And how important is this question to you? The answer I most agreed with is that that which is divine is both impersonal and personal, is an eternal and formless Ultimate Reality. This question is of high importance to me. As an ordained minister, I think about God a great deal, and I pray frequently.
To step back from the Beliefnet quiz for just a moment, I’d like to tell you one thing I mean when I say “God” or “that which is divine.” I believe there are forces in the universe that could either be called supernatural or could be called forces of nature that we simply do not understand yet. But this is a theology you can all read and reflect on for yourselves; it’s described in the Unitarian Universalist primer, A Chosen Faith, in the chapter by John Buehrens called, “Mind and Spirit.” In it, Buehrens cites process theologian Alfred North Whitehead as having said:
“There is a creative tendency in the universe to produce worthwhile things, and moments come when we can work with it and it can work through us. But the tendency in the universe to produce worthwhile things is by no means omnipotent [it is not all-powerful]. Other forces work against it. This creative principle is everywhere. It is a continuing process. Insofar as you partake of this creative process, you partake of the divine, and that participation is your immortality, reducing the question of whether your individuality survives the death of the body to the estate of irrelevancy. Our true destiny as co-creators in the universe is our dignity and our grandeur.” As such, I believe there are forces in the universe that want beauty, truth, justice, healing, and beloved community. But I believe we have to work with them– We have to do our part. We must not turn away from the suffering that is occurring right alongside us, and is within our ability to salve. On the front of your order of service, there are several names for God, from several religious traditions. One of the names that resonates with me lately is Universal Intelligence. One of my concepts of God is that it is like a Collective Unconscious, that can help and support us, and does help and support us. But that would not ever be the only name I’d use for God. I also like to say, “a higher wisdom and a greater good than any of us, or even all of us put together,” and also, “That Greater Love.”
Question two in the beliefnet quiz really gave me pause: Do you believe in any human incarnations of God? That’s something I hadn’t thought about for some time. But after reflection I discerned that I believe there is a distinction between God and human beings that walk on this earth. I think human beings, try as we might to live honorably, are flawed, err, and are fallible. I especially believe this when I am watching a college football game, and begin praying for my team to win. I feel acutely aware of the flaws and foibles of the players, coaches, and referees. So what I am praying to for help is, to me, something greater and more powerful than anyone on that playing field. That leads me to question five, which is Why is there terrible wrongdoing in the world? I was torn between the answers, “Wrongdoing occurs because God gave us free will, plus a weak side, or selfishness…” and “Egoism, or self-importance, leads to desire, craving, and attachments, which can lead to greed, hate, and violence.”
Question ten asks if you believe that confession is important along a person’s path to the ultimate reward or reality, such as heaven, enlightenment, or spiritual harmony. I do think confession is important. So that’s part of why I chose a responsive reading this morning about expressing our shortcomings and bad habits. But I do not think a person necessarily has to confess to a clergyperson. Along the same lines, do you think that good works, good deeds, and compassion are important? I do, as a means to improve ourselves, our communities, and the world we will leave behind us for posterity.
Two more questions asked if I am in favor of a woman’s right to chose, and gay rights, which I am in support of, and if divorce or remarriage should be condemned or punished, which I would be against. And perhaps the most Unitarian Universalist question is whether we believe that nature should be honored– If not actually worshipped, then highly revered. My agreeing with this is of high importance. Unitarian Universalists believe in caring for the environment, and I would even say that failing to recycle and littering are, to Unitarian Universalists, grave sins. Another thing I’ve been told is a sin to Unitarian Universalists is not returning your shopping cart to the corral, but, rather, leaving it neglectfully in the middle of the parking lot, where it could roll into someone’s car and cause damage. If “sin” is a word you are uncomfortable with, you’re not alone. Many Unitarian Universalists would like to sidestep conversations about sin altogether. Yet many UU clergy are realizing that for us to grow and mature, spiritually, we have to look at what our contemporary society considers to be sinful. In a few weeks I will attend a UU ministers’ study group on the topic of “UU Theologies of Sin and Hope.” One of the books on our reading list is called, “A History of Sin – Its Evolution to Today and Beyond,” by John Portmann. One of his chapters is called, “Modern Sins.” Here are some things he suggests that liberals consider to be modern sins: Harming the Environment; Failing to Thrive, i.e., not reaching your full potential; Sexual Harassment; Denying the Holocaust; Homophobia; Disrespecting other religions; and Drunk Driving. Do some others come to mind for you? I found his book to be a refreshing way to view the word and the topic, “sin.”
Having let you know what my answers are to some theological questions, I must also say that I am not trying to convert anyone to my beliefs. I would not want anyone to too quickly adopt my personal theology just because it sounded good to them this morning. I do not think everyone will, nor should, in time, come around to a faith in the God I believe in. I do not think it is anyone’s place to define God for anyone else. I always say, “I don’t want to be right; I want to be thoughtfully considered.” And then I want us to talk about it in a way which is truly mutually open, soulful, and respectful of each other’s differences. It is my sincere hope that what I have said, and the way I have said it, will help you see more clearly what you believe and what you do not. All Unitarian Universalists have promised –covenanted—to honor your beliefs, and to empower you to live by them as we endeavor to improve our world today.
I’ll close this morning with a story from a class I had back in Seminary, called, “Christian Doctrine.” In it, we were graded in part on our responsible and respectful class participation. I’m proud to tell you that I participated right along with the best of them. One of the best of them was my friend Bruce Young, a Methodist. He and I often went head-to-head on theological issues such as the Trinity, original sin, predestination, and salvation. One discussion centered on the gospel calling with which Christians are charged to be “Fishers of Men” and spread the “Good News.” I said I wanted to hear from the Christians in the class how far they thought they were supposed to go with that. My friend Bruce said he interprets that scripture as a calling to simply offer the gospel message, but then let people decide for themselves. His strongest calling is not to preach the gospel, but to represent its message by the example of the way he lives his life. This is a widely-practiced Methodist teaching which I greatly admire. Our teacher then interjected with, “But what about all the people who have never heard the Christian message? In other countries? Shouldn’t we go to them?” Bruce became pensive. Clearly he could not justify such evangelism. Then suddenly his eyes opened wide and his face lit up. “What if,” he said, “there could be a panel! With Protestants, Catholics, Jewish people, Native Americans, Moslems, Hindus, and Buddhists! They could go together, and each would have equal time to present their beliefs, with none of them being pushy, and then the people could decide for themselves!” I said, “Bruce! You sound just like a Unitarian Universalist!” And the class applauded! “No, no!” he said, “Not all in the same church! I didn’t mean all in the same church!”
Well I say, “Yes—Yes– Resoundingly, yes: All in the same church!”
Let us applaud Unitarian Universalist thinking when we hear it in unlikely places. Let us hold high the example of all who have dared to let their conscience guide them to go against the grain and improve our world. Let us seek the sacred which beckons to us, as distant as the sparkle of a star, and as close as a glass of clear water. And let us never cease to be houses of worship where the best of all religious thought is celebrated equally, all in the same church. Let it be and, Amen.
*Parting Words [the Late Rev. Forrest Church]:
“So it’s pretty simple for me: Love when you can. Do the work that is yours to do. Be the person that is yours to be at any given time. Think to wish for what is yours at this very moment. To love. To serve. To touch. To know. Think to wish for all that is yours to have. Think to wish for all that is yours to do. And think to wish that you might be who it is that you might most fully be. Avoid wishful thinking. Avoid the traps and pitfalls of nostalgia for the past. Savor every moment as it passes. And enlist yourself in saving that which can be saved this very moment, in order that it, too, may endure for others to enjoy.”