A Sermon preached on October 11, 2015
Rev. Carol Rosine at The First Universalist Society in Franklin, MA
At the beginning of each new church year, I’ll often preach a sermon that I think of as my UU 101 sermon. I do this because I know that in September we will usually have visitors checking us out for whom Unitarian Universalism is a bit of a puzzle because we don’t fit into a neat category as do other religious faiths nor do we have a creed, a statement of belief that most Christian churches do. And so, once a year, I’ll go back to the basics. I hope that those of you who have been coming for a long time will indulge me and consider this a good review of who we are because my assumption is that even if you’ve been a UU forever, you might still find yourselves stammering a bit if you are asked to explain to a friend what this religion is all about.
I got into one of those uncomfortable conversations when an old friend from the midwest visited here for the first time. She had spent a day visiting the usual tourist spots in Boston. During her walk from the State House to Quincy Market, she had passed King’s Chapel where there was a sign stating that this was a Unitarian Universalist Christian Church. She was curious about how that could be.
Of course I’m always eager to share some of our history, so I told her the same thing that I told the newcomers during our orientation last Sunday. I explained that King’s Chapel which was the first Anglican Church in America had become Unitarian in the 1780’s and in doing so, had kept their Anglican liturgy intact, but had gone through their Book of Common Prayer and removed all references to the trinity. To this day, I told her, the King’s Chapel congregation continues to follow the Anglican liturgy. It is our High Church.
I then launched into the spiel that I also shared during orientation last week in which I explained how so many of the churches in New England became Unitarian during the early 1800’s. She wasn’t as patient as you all are, however, because she interrupted me and asked me to clarify what I meant when I said that King’s Chapel had rejected the trinity. “If they don’t believe in the trinity,” she said, with feeling, “they aren’t Christians.”
I was completely oblivious to the red that was beginning to creep up her neck, and so I continued explaining that there were different ways of understanding what it means to be a Christian, that the trinity was not found in scripture but was instead a doctrine established in the 4th Century during the Council of Nicaea when the Emperor Constantine gathered the Church Fathers together to decide once and for all who Jesus was and what his relationship was to God. I explained that there had been disagreements in the early Christian Church about whether Jesus was of the same nature as God so after coming together at Nicaea and arguing (loudly and forcefully I’m guessing) the bishops voted and the majority agreed that Jesus was the same as God, that God was three in one, a Trinity. Those who lost the vote were the ones who believed that Jesus was a great spiritual teacher and a guide for how to live our lives, but was not God. The Unitarians, I explained, were part of that anti-trinitarian belief that persisted for centuries.
At that this old friend’s face turned bright red, her hand shook, and she blurted out, “if you don’t believe that Jesus is God you’re not a Christian. And if you’re not a Christian you won’t go to heaven but will spend eternity in Hell.” I tried telling her about our Universalist belief in a loving God who would never condemn his children to hell but she wasn’t having it. She was solid in her belief that Jesus was God and that if you didn’t accept that, you would burn in hell.
This friend’s understanding of Christianity is a belief that Jesus is God incarnate, that Jesus was God in human form, and that he came in order to save us from our sins. She believes that the proof for this is the resurrection which, she believes, is the key to everlasting life. Some of you will be familiar with the Nicene Creed (I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in his only begotten son, Jesus Christ….) There are several variations of this creed but those of you who grew up saying it will know that all of these variations focus on how Jesus was born and how he died and that he rose again on the third day. You will know that there is nothing in the creed about what happened between his birth and his death. God in human form. Came to save us from our sins. Was crucified and on the third day arose from the dead. Belief in this story and in him means eternal life. That’s the core of the belief.
But not all Christians believe this way for Christianity is not a monolith, any more than Judaism is, or Islam, or Buddhism, or any of the other major religions of the world. There are, of course, sacred scriptures that provide the story and the teachings of each of these great religions, however the way in which these stories and teachings have been interpreted by their followers over the millennia, the practices that have evolved, and the beliefs that have been codified have led to great diversity within each of these traditions. And so it is with Christianity.
We know that Roman Catholicism differs from Eastern Orthodoxy, while both differ from the Protestant Churches. And that within mainstream Protestant Churches there are Christians ranging all the way from the beliefs of my niece to the beliefs of the liberal Christians who worship at King’s Chapel. And there are other forms of Christianity as well: Mormons, Pentecostals, Jehovah Witnesses, 7th Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and the list goes on and on and on. All with either radically different beliefs or with carefully nuanced differences in understanding what it means to be a Christian.
I know that many of us in this congregation come from a Christian background—either Catholic or a mainstream Protestant church or some other form of Christianity. (Ask for a show of hands) I also know that many of us who grew up within Christianity no longer consider ourselves Christians. (Show of hands) I know that some of you stopped identifying as Christians when you realized that what you were being taught in Sunday School or were hearing from the pulpit no longer made sense to you. Perhaps it was the virgin birth that was the stumbling block, or the story of creation as told in Genesis, or the concept of an all-knowing, all powerful God who allowed so much suffering in the world. Perhaps as a child you worried about all those “heathens” out there in the world who, you were told, were going to hell because they didn’t believe and you didn’t think that was fair or right. Perhaps you disagreed with some of the church’s teachings on social issues like birth control or the role of women in the church. Or perhaps you were wounded by those in positions of authority who sat in judgment upon you or who abused their positions of power in other ways. A lot of different reasons for eventually finding your ways into a Unitarian Universalist church.
One of the continuing challenges for us has been the assumption on the part of some that because we are a Unitarian Universalist church none of us here are Christians. Well, this is not so. I won’t ask those of you who self-identify as Christians to raise your hands because I’m guessing that you may have heard anti-Christian jokes being made here within these hallowed walls, insensitive comments that may have stung a bit. Or at least signaled the need to keep your beliefs to yourself. It’s like those within mainline Christian churches who can’t believe in the God described in Scripture, but would never say so out loud within their religious communities for fear of condemnation.. Even my mother, as faithful a church woman as you’d ever get, confessed to me a few years before she died that she didn’t believe in the God preached about and prayed to at her church. My mother. No wonder I became such a heretic!
So who are these Liberal Christians at Kings Chapel? Well, like most Unitarian Universalists, they believe that the Bible is not to be read as the literal word of God. Instead they know that it was written over a long period of time by multiple authors who told the history of the Hebrew people. Who wrote poems and hymns of praise and words of wisdom as well as writing down the warnings and admonitions by the prophets. They told the story of Jesus and what he taught as he moved among the people and what happened among his followers after his death.
It is these stories of Jesus and his ministry that continue to inspire and ground those who identify themselves as UU Christians.
I was a teenager when I stopped identifying myself as a Christian. I had grown up in a Methodist church and as a child had been taught that the stories in the Bible were true, literally true. I was never exposed to deeper meanings in these stories, that some were allegories, others were to be read metaphorically. I didn’t know that there were other stories of miraculous births and stories of dying gods coming back to life. I didn’t know that the parables told by Jesus were to be struggled with in order to really understand what he was trying to teach: the widow’s mite, camels passing through the eye of a needle, seeds dropping on fertile ground, the living water, stopping to help the stranger at the side of the road. I was taught that it was all to be taken literally and so when it finally dawned on me that the virgin birth couldn’t have been real, everything came tumbling down. Before I had a chance to evolve into a more mature Christian faith, I had rejected it all. And even when the call to ministry came and I entered a Christian seminary, I did so as one of the few non-Christians on campus.
It has only been with time that I have been able to deepen my understanding of what Jesus was trying to teach and have grown into a greater appreciation of those for whom Jesus and his ministry are at the center of their faith. That I have been able to separate the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus.
In 1841, Theodore Parker, one of our great Unitarian ministers, preached a sermon entitled The Transient and The Permanent in Christianity. The kernel of that sermon was that the transient part of Christianity was the way in which Scripture had been interpreted throughout the millennia. What was transient were the beliefs about Jesus and God that had evolved throughout church history. All of this, he said, was subject to change, to re-interpretation by theologians and preachers and those sitting in the pews. It was all transient, he declared.
What was permanent, he said, were the teachings of Jesus that are found in Scripture. It’s not important whether the man, Jesus, even lived, he declared. The important thing was his message. Perhaps you can imagine how radical this belief of Theodore Parker’s was back in 1841. It was customary back then for ministers to exchange pulpits so that congregations could hear other orators. Following this sermon, there were only a handful of ministers who would allow Theodore Parker near their pulpits. He was pretty much ostracized by his colleagues. And so he ended up breaking with the more traditional Unitarians, established a new church in Boston and soon was preaching to thousands, including leading figures of the day like Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Theodore Parker is one of our Unitarian heroes, someone who helped shape a new direction for our living faith. A faith that no longer focused on beliefs found in the religion about Jesus, but a faith that went back to his teachings and found there the wisdom and guidance for how to live. It is important to note, however, that this questioning and discarding and reinterpreting done by our religious ancestors, did not diminish their respect for, or their faith in, what Jesus symbolized and what he taught. Instead their faith was strengthened.
This is what I find to be true for so many of the Liberal Christians today. As children they may have been taught that the stories in the Bible were literally true. But as they matured, so did the stories until these stories were transformed into metaphors and symbols that contain a deeper truth than what they had believed as children. It is these deeper truths and more transcendent truths that ground them and give them the courage to embrace life in the fullness of what that means.
A colleague, Scotty M Scotty McLennon, like me had discarded his Christian roots by the time he reached college age. Instead he was attracted to Hinduism and so he arranged to spend a summer in India with a Hindu priest. He says that this priest would talk about avatars, those who have “a mystical awareness and direct knowledge of the infinite spirit that infuses the universe.” In other words, they have true God-consciousness and help the rest of us to see what God is like in human form. These avatars are the children of God in a unique way. This priest’s avatar was Ramakrishna, a 19th Century saint who founded what became known as the Vedanta Society.
By the end of the summer, Scotty was ready to become a Hindu, but this priest said no. “Ramakrishna, he said, taught that avatars have had different impacts from culture to culture and era to era. Yet, ultimately—although they use different names and different religious methodologies—they all point to the same God. So Ramakrishna advised seekers not to look outside their own tradition, but to follow the path they know best with wholehearted devotion. Ramakrishna counseled, “A Christian should follow Christianity, a Muslim should follow Islam, and so on.”
This Hindu priest told Scotty that he should go back to Christianity. That Jesus was his avatar, not Ramakrishna nor the Buddha nor anyone else. So Scotty came back to America where he discovered Unitarian Universalism, a faith tradition broad enough, welcoming enough, to hold even him.
I, too, after rejecting the Christianity of my childhood, explored a variety of religious paths, including Hinduism which attracted me greatly. And yet, I, too, eventually found that neither Hinduism nor Buddhism nor Paganism in which a Mother God is worshipped were right for me either. I couldn’t return to Christianity, but I did find that my Unitarian Universalist faith was what I needed as I carefully crafted an inclusive faith that would sustain me and enable me to live with joy and with gratitude.
I am not a Christian, but as the years have gone by, the teachings of Jesus have taken on a deeper meaning for me. And my respect for those who are Liberal Christians has deepened as well. Our religious ancestors, the Liberal Christians of 200 years ago and more, “met with public outcries of disgust for their religious beliefs. They were condemned as being enemies of the cross of Christ.” This condemnation continues today from those on the Religious Right. But they are ridiculed by those on the left as well. Outspoken atheists like Richard Dawkins who calls God a delusion and Christopher Hitchens and Bill Mahr who laughs with contempt at the religious impulse. Whose atheism is apparently grounded in a rejection of the supernatural Old Testament God, the god that I reject as well, religious leader that I am. .
May our religious community here be one that accepts and embraces a wide variety of beliefs about the Mystery which some call God and all the avatars who have a clearer understanding of what that Mystery might be. May we have respect for each other as we listen, as we share, so that we all might grow closer to what this ultimate reality might be.
© Carol Rosine, 2015