Thursday, September 29, 2005

Sermon: "The Conviction of a UU" (Delivered 8/21/2005)

[I know of at least two colleagues, Rev. Richard Gilbert and Rev. Ken Sawyer, who have preached on the hypothetical question, "If you were accused of being a UU, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"]

When I was in college, a professor of mine began a course on Judaism with the fascinating pronouncement that the religion of Judaism – its history and traditions – could be best understood by imagining that there was a central question that lies at the heart of it, a lens through which things Jewish could be comprehended. He then went on to propose that the question, at the heart of the tradition, is: "Who is a Jew?" Which is to ask, “Who is included in the covenant between Yahweh and Yahweh's chosen people?”

I was so struck by this idea that there might be a central question at the heart of each religion – a central question around which a tradition wrestles, a central question shaping discourse and understanding. I was so struck by this idea that I began to wonder if each world religion might have a question at its center.

In Islam, the question might be: "What does it mean to surrender, to submit to God?" In Christianity it might be, "What must I do to be saved?" Or, perhaps, "What does it mean to be a faithful disciple of Jesus?"

And I wondered, I wondered, what the central question at the heart of Unitarian Universalism might be... But for now, I want to ask a different question:
That different question is, "If you were arrested for being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

If you were arrested for being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you? If the attorney general launched an inquiry into those practicing Unitarian Universalism, would your name turn up? If Alberto Gonzales started files on all those suspected of engaging in "Unitarian Universalist activities" would your file be thick or thin? Would there be enough evidence to convict you?

During the nineties, there were a number of sermons preached in UU churches on this question. And the reason for these sermons being preached might have been a very, very puzzling statistical finding. Every time a research company tries to estimate the size of different religious groups in the United States - every time a poll is conducted or a random sampling is performed = the results fairly consisently estimate the number of Unitarian Universalists in the United States to be around 600,00. Which is not a large number, about the size of Johnson County. However if you add up the number of all the members in all of the UU churches in the country you get around 150,000. 600,000 estimate; 150,000 actual. Meaning three quarters of those who answered a telephone survey and said that their religious affiliation was Unitarian Universalist were not actually on the membership lists of their local UU church. If you compared us to other religious traditions, our rate of involvement may not actually be all that unusual, or all that bad comparatively speaking, but I still found and find it to be incredible. Mathematically speaking, the results of that survey would indicate that there are thirteen-hundred individuals living in Johnson County who if you asked them what religion they are, they would say “Unitarian Universalist.” Remember the question posed was not, "this is what our church is like... would you be interested in a church like this?" but rather the question is, “what religion are you?” Thirteen-hundred. I wish I had their phone numbers.

Around the time that all these conviction sermons were being preached, there also rose this interest in Unitarian Universalist identity. UU Identity meant in some way being open and public about your religious identity. Being in some way publicly visible about your faith... not having a secret religious identity that would only be known if it was leaked, as if by a Whitehouse official. "I’m not naming any names, but the wife of the ambassador is… a UU.” UU Identity… that our faith identity need not be something “top secret.”

These two trends – the trend of being open about your religious identity, and the trend of it not being enough to just say what religion you were, that there should be some evidence – these two trends had ramifications. First, the idea that if you claimed to be Unitarian Universalist, there should be some supporting evidence, indicated that being a Unitarian Universalist required some participation. If you asked someone what political party they were, and they said they were a Republican or a Democrat, but then they explained, "Oh, but I don't vote, don't support candidates, and I can't even be bothered to put a bumper sticker on my car," you might wonder, "OK... so what exactly is it that makes you that political party?" Religion might be the same way, if you said, “Oh, I’m Catholic or Baptist, but I don’t go to church, don’t really give a lot of thought to what it might mean to live accordingly…” then it would give us cause to wonder.

And the idea that you should be in some way public about your religious identity meant that there was a component of responsibility. If you wear chalice jewelry, or are open about which church you attend, you should be expected to be able to articulate or explain what Unitarian Universalism is.

Last Spring I had the chance to interview each of the members of the Coming of Age class. To each of them I asked this question: If someone accused you of being Unitarian Universalist, what evidence would they cite? The responses varied. One teen suggested they might search his home for subversive literature, like the UU World Magazine or our church newsletter. Another offered that they could find someone to testify that they went to church here on Sunday. But other teenage youth answered the question by suggesting that the evidence would be connected with something they did. And for those adolescents, the something they did almost universally resembled a daring act of inclusiveness, tolerance, and acceptance -- a sticking up for a person, or type of person, or idea, or way of living that was being mercilessly ridiculed or denigrated by their peers. (That answer swelled me with a wonderful sense of pride.)

What makes you one particular religion or another?

Is it a thing you possess -- a piece of literature, a scripture, a piece of jewelry or ceremonial garb, an icon or relic? Is a search warrant required to prove it?

Or is it a company you keep -- a group you associate with? Sort of like guilt by association.

Or is it a way you believe -- a set of doctrinal statements to accept, creeds to affirm... In order for there to be a conviction, must there be a confession?

Or maybe it is an action you perpetrate? Can I get a witness?

Or maybe it is it some combination of these, some mix of belonging and believing, some combination of deed and devotion.

Really, this morning I have indulged in a bit of wordplay. Conviction being both a judgment against a criminal and the adhering to a set of ethical values. If you were accused of being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you? And we might say, that your conviction might depend on how well you lived by your convictions.

Perhaps, in this day in age the idea of such tribunals being set up to try suspected Unitarian Universalists is too scary an idea to be joked about. We recall, for example, Michael Servetus, the sixteenth century Unitarian burned at the stake for publishing Unitarian views… or Abner Kneeland, the nineteenth century Universalist who was the last man publicly tried on the charge of heresy. And while it is very, very unlikely that anyone here will ever be put to death on account of their religious affiliation, or brought up on charges for it, we do know that we do live in a world in which many of us do have to contend with the persecutions of stand-offish neighbors, proselytizing employers, uncles and aunts with our email addresses.
Currently, though we may never be tried, though we do live in trying times, on a certain level each day is its own trial of our Unitarian Universalist convictions. In the company cafeteria do you have the strength to call foul on a racist or sexist or homophobic joke told at the expense of the dignity of another member of the human family? And do you take up the work of working for the betterment of people through action? Do you resist orthodoxies of the mind, challenging them by passing them through the fire of thought? Do you strive for difficult understanding when conventional prejudice would be so much easier? Are your values reflected, not only in the percentage of your wealth that you give to the church, but in what you do with the rest of it? When you are asked about your moral values, do you have the strength to answer boldly?

The word "conviction" in the title of this sermon is intended to have a dual meaning. I want to continue with the play on words by suggesting that Unitarian Universalists are not so much a "chosen" people, but a "choosing" people.

The concept of a “Chosen people” is a Biblical concept, referring to the particular relationship between the Deity and his people. The story is of Abraham and Sarah. Yahweh bestows the blessing of a child as a sign of blessings to come, and in exchange the descendents vow to be faithful to God and keep the commandments. It might be noted that the status of being a Chosen People is not held to be some kind of special perk. It is a privileged status, but with that privilege comes a burden. Of you more will be asked, more will be expected, you are to live by a higher standard.

In our own Unitarian Universalist heritage, there is a strand of this idea of being a chosen people. It was our forebears, the Puritans that first conceived of their errand into the wilderness as an adventure of God’s chosen people. John Winthrop preached aboard the Arabella, that the Puritans were to be as a city upon a hill, a beacon and example to the world. A Chosen people.

It has been said that Unitarian Universalists are not so much a chosen people as we are a choosing people. In publications, we frequently refer to ourselves as heretics, noting that the root of the word means, “One who chooses.” Notice, I’ve selected the word “choosing”, not “choosy”. But there is this element of discernment, of conscience and conscientiousness, of sifting, of applying reason, of probing and wondering that lies close to the heart of our faith, our chosen faith. “Since what we choose is what we are and what we love we yet shall be, the goal it ever shines afar, the will to reach it makes us free.”

I want to end this morning by suggesting that it is our ability to choose that makes us a chosen people. It is the fact that for us religion is something we choose that means that more is asked of us and expected from us. The act of choice is demanding, not easy. To choose is a burden. It would not be a burden if the choice did not matter, but it does, and therefore, it is demanding. What we choose is what we are.

As one contemporary UU has noted, “Being UU is not permission to choose to believe anything you want. It is the freedom to choose and to pursue that which you are compelled to believe.” To choose that for your own. To choose authenticity over some prefabricated doctrine.

And such a choice, such a choice is intimately connected with responsibility. Since what we choose is what we are. Responsibility and consequence and expectation. Such it is for us, this choosing chosen people. And so it that I might suggest that the question that lies at the heart of our tradition is this: “As a people free to choose, how is it that we are most wisely and responsibly use that awesome choice we are given?"