Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sermon: "Universalism Today & Tomorrow: The Expansiveness and Intimacy of Our Connections" (Delivered 7-30-06)

Since I'm going to be talking about Universalism this morning I thought it appropriate to begin with a story from our Universalist heritage. The story goes that a Universalist and a Baptist church in the same town were having a kind of feud. They did battle by posting messages on the sign boards outside their respective churches. Hosea Ballou, who some would consider the father of Universalism, came to town to guest preach at the Universalist Church and they posted the title of his sermon, “There is no Hell.” The next day, the Baptists had responded, changing their sign board to read, “The Hell there ain’t.”

My sermon this morning is the first in a three part series that I’ve titled “Universalism Today & Tomorrow.” What we’re going to do in this sermon series is explore three traditional expressions of Universalist theology and apply them to our situation today. Maybe that sounds boring to you. I don’t think it is. And not because I’m some kind of religion nerd who enjoys theology, but because this has to do with our lives and our world.

This sermon series is going to introduce three expressions of Universalist theology, and it will introduce them in reverse historical order. We’ll be working our way backwards. Two weeks from now, we’ll be looking at the earliest expression of Universalist theology, the doctrine of Universal Salvation. Universal Salvation, the narrowest of these theological statements, said simply this, that all souls will be reconciled and reunited with God. What a powerful thing to say. Not all souls, except for people of this religion or that nationality. Not all souls, except for this scoundrel or that criminal. Not all souls except for that neighbor, the one I cannot stand. Not all souls except for that person whose entire existence seemed of no redemptive value to anybody whatsoever. All Souls are reconciled with their Creator. Everybody goes to Heaven. Everybody gets in. That was the theological position of our religious ancestors. Two weeks from now, we’ll talk about what that means for those of us living today.

Now you can imagine that if those earliest Universalists believed everybody would get into heaven, the consequence of such a belief would be not a suspicion of other religions, but an open-minded curiosity directed towards them, and a desire to see goodness confirmed by them. In one UU church I once belonged to, a prominent poster displayed versions of the Golden Rule as contained in the scriptures of different religions of the world. When Rev. Ken Patton put symbols from the world’s religions around the sanctuary of his Universalist Charles Street Meeting House – much like the world religions symbols we used to display around the entrance to the Barn Chapel thirty years later – it announced a new understanding of Universalist theology, the understanding that the religions of the world had, at root, a common dream, vision, wisdom that was available to us. I’ll be talking more about this next week.

So, if the religions of the world had something in common, if dialogue between religions and nationalities was possible, if there was some connection we shared, then it was possible for Universalists to broaden that way of thinking, and to imagine that there is a shared connectedness that is a reality between all people and between all beings. This became the third major understanding of Universalism. And this understanding gave us our seventh principle. The seventh principle, which says that there is an interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

What does this principle mean: “An interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”? I would say it means that we are connected to everything, and everything is connected to us. This is a theological statement. I can’t prove it to you, even though I can give you examples that would support it. It is a theological statement, meaning it helps us to form the meaning we make out of the world in which we live, and as a result of impacting our meaning-making, it helps to determine our actions, our deeds, and our choices.

So, let’s look at this principle, this idea that our lives are part of, “an interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” What does this mean? First of all, it is such a broad concept. When many read this principle, they first think to environmentalism. We recognize, for example, that if a factory puts toxins into a stream here it causes cancer there, and if you spray DDT to kill insects, the chemical gets carried up the food chain and kills birds. This is basic cause- and- effect thinking.

But the principle is even broader than that. We all recognize these interdependences – webs of existence – in our lives. To an extent, at least. The problem is that this web of all existence is too big for us to fully comprehend, fully grasp, and so it can be our tendency to only see the connections that are most obvious to us, to value the relationships that we already value, to hang out in our nook of the web, maybe sensing the vibrations from events that occur a seemingly long way off, but all the time hanging out in the neighborhood of interactions we are familiar with, and meanings already made. I want to suggest that this way of being in the web is not sufficient to the task of living a life that makes the whole system better, and is not in line with the larger truth of what it means to live in the world. In reality, our connections are both more intimate and more expansive than we tend to accept.

What I want to do is offer some helpful observations for living interdependently in this web of all existence of which we are a part. All this so far might seem abstract, but we’re going to try to make in plain.

The first observation I want to introduce is something I call the rule of indirectness. We are used to thinking of cause and effect between things directly. But the rule of indirectness says that all sorts of things impact us and others indirectly. My favorite example of this was given at a church leadership convention I attended a couple of years ago. The presenter, Rev. Kenn Hurto, was talking about a church that was always horribly off-key in its singing. This fact was a great sore spot to many in the congregation. They fixed their problem by painting their nursery. It turns out the nursery had been kind of a dingy, dreary, uninviting place, but after it was painted, it was much more inviting, and several weeks after it was spruced up a new family with a small infant visited. Impressed by the bright and friendly nursery they felt comfortably welcome and decided to stay. It turns out that the couple had extensive training in leading singing groups, and the congregation’s singing soon improved tremendously as a consequence of their leadership. The presenter made the point to those of us there that it would be wrong to think that doing likewise would guarantee similar results, but rather, that changing one part of a system will change other parts of a system. Changing one part of a system will change other parts of a system, indirectly.

The rule of indirectness is “a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa will cause it to snow in Kansas City”-style thinking; it’s quantum physics compared to Newtonian physics (or so I’ve heard.) The rule of indirectness says that the effects of actions have an expansive, and unpredictable, rippling effect.

In any event, another observation that is important to consider when we think of Universalism as interconnectedness is the rule of intimacy. The rule of intimacy says that we are actually a lot closer to other people than we imagine we are. One writer [Tracy Kidder in his biography of Dr. Paul Farmer] observed that a person can get on a jet plane in a third world country and land in a first world country, or for that matter, take a different highway exit than the one they usually take, and remark about this journey, “I feel like I am in a different world.” In which case, the writer remarks, such a feeling would be absolutely wrong. That feeling, he explains, is a way of distancing yourself from the fact that someone else’s living in a third world country has something to do with your living in a first world country. The feeling is a way of distancing yourself from the fact that the type of life found off of one highway exit is connected to the type of life found off of another highway exit.

Intimacy, rather than distance. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker calls the artificial distance which prevents us from understanding our actual connection with others “fragmentation”. She says that there is a kind of culturally sanctioned and enforced ignorance which fragments our inter-relatedness, and she writes that, “to become an inhabitant of our own lives and society [and world], we need a different theology. A new theology must begin here, a theology that assists in a healing of the fragmented self, supports a new engagement with social realities, and sanctions a remedial education into the actual history and present realities of our country [and world.]” She continues, arguing that such “a fragmentation of knowledge—a splitting of mind, body and soul; neighbor from neighbor; disciplines of knowledge from disciplines of knowledge; and religion from politics… results in apathy, passivity, and compliance.” [Blessing the World, pp. 29, 33]

There is the rule of indirectness, which teaches that changing one local part of a system can result in expansive changes in other parts of a system. There is the rule of intimacy, which teaches that we are closer to parts of the web than we perceive and that we should challenge the fragmentation that insists we are separate and different.

The third observation we might apply is what I call the rule of reflexivity. I apologize for the jargon. Reflexivity is just a fifty-cent word that I use to mean the capacity to be a present part oneself of the interdependent web. Let’s look at the verbiage again. The seventh principle calls us to have “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” So far I’ve been talking about indirectness and uncertainty; I’ve been talking about this absolutely enormous expansiveness; I’ve been talking about a radical intimacy that unites all that has been fragmented. It is easy for ourselves to start to get lost in this theology. But those last six words of the seventh principle are important. They’re reflexive. “Of which we are a part.” Of which we are a part. That is an affirmation, folks.

In your order of service today, you’ll notice a letter from Kendra Schlebusch. As a member of the board, Kendra is the liaison to our social action vision. That vision states that as a church we will invite and inspire people to get involved in working for a peaceful, fair and free world… and that our congregation will grow to be seen as a social justice and community service leader in the Kansas City metro-area. We’ll do this by partnering with other congregations, community organizations, and by working collectively and individually. The piece of paper in your order of service will kind of set a bench-mark, knowing where we stand right now: where SMUUCh is at in the whole big interdependent web of all existence, of which, individually and collectively, we are most certainly a part.

I want to end with a brief story from earlier in this month. Back at the beginning of July I was privileged to be invited to speak at a Reproductive Justice conference which took place a few blocks away from the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. The group hosting the conference was ChoiceUSA, an organization created by Gloria Steinem. Unfortunately, the portrait of Ms. Steinem in the National Portrait Gallery was as close to her as I was able to get. What was so cool about the conference was the framing of the issues: that reproductive justice was an aspect of social justice and that it was necessarily linked to racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice, gender justice, immigration justice, et cetera. I spoke to a group of about fifty diverse young people who were actively organizing and fighting for reproductive justice on their campuses and in their communities. Very impressive.

Part of my talk was the interdependent web talk. I spoke about the importance of involving clergy and religious communities in the struggle and talked about what those connections could add to the advancement of justice. I also talked to them about the dangers of a fragmentation in which activism was divorced from religious community and vice-versa.

What impressed me so much was how some of the conference attendees were linking various forms of justice in their work. One participant was working to link reproductive justice with racial and immigration justice, working to bring attention to policies that deny entrance to visibly pregnant women at airports. Another participant was combining reproductive justice with economic and racial justice working with Vietnamese nail salon employees who, if pregnant, are exposing their unborn children to harmful chemicals that may cause deformities. I conferenced with one young person who was running for office about how to get churches involved in her justice work which has inspired her bid for public office. The courage, the connections these young people were making in their activism work was inspiring to me.

Let us remember, as we leave this place, to take the wider view, aware that our lives not only affect others in our local spheres directly, but touch others indirectly. In that way, our reach is expansive. Let us remember that feeling that another is far away is a sign of our own fragmentation, and that repairing that fragmentation leads to intimacy. And finally, let us boldly and audaciously claim our part in this interdependent web of all existence.

Expanding on a passage from Deuteronomy, Rev. Peter Raible composed these words:

We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Summer Reading

Here's what I've been reading this Summer:

I've continued on my David Foster Wallace binge, reading his first novel, The Broom of the System, as well as his book on the mathematics of infinity, Everything and More.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I finally got around to reading Tracy Kidder's biography of Dr. Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for far too long. I wish I had read it months ago!

In the world of Unitarian Universalism I am reading the new collection of essays by Rebecca Parker, Blessing the World (which I will be preaching about on August 13) as well as the collection of essays edited by Kathleen Rolenz, Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism. The latter was the fifth highest selling title at General Assembly.

Still moved by Bill Schulz's lecture, "What Torture has Taught Me", I decided to pick up Torture and Modernity by Darius Rejali. A sermon on this subject is forthcoming.

Finally, I'm hoping to find the time to get around to reading Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sermon: "Mistaking Offense: The Da Vinci Code Outrage Conspiracy" (Delivered 6-11-06)

Opening Words
[These opening words were inspired by a post on the UU minister’s list-serve. A comment about Jesus in India inspired this riff…]

I imagine we are all familiar with Dan Brown’s book, now a movie, The Da Vinci Code which suggests that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, who fled with child to present day France, where the line of Jesus’ biological descendants has continued to this day.

But, to suggest this is clearly offensive to some religious people who insist that wasn’t the case at all. For example, if you travel to Sringar, in the Kashmir region of India, you will find the tomb of Jesus. There, Hindus believe that Jesus survived the crucifixion and then journeyed to India where he became a Hindu holy man and had seven children. He died there at an advanced age and is buried there.

Hold on just a second. That isn’t what happened. At least, it isn’t according to the residents of Shingo, Japan. In Shingo, they would tell you that Jesus didn’t stop in India, how could you believe that? To them, clearly Jesus journeyed all the way to Japan, where he married, had a family, died, and is buried.

Hold on just a second. That’s not how it happened – that’s what a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints would tell you. When they tell the story, Jesus did die on the cross, but then came back several hundred years later in South America. That’s what it says in the Book of Mormon.

Which of these scenarios is true? Perhaps a more important question to ask would be: Who owns this story? Who gets to decide which version of it may be told? How does one version become official? And, how do you arbitrate when one group insists its version is the right one, and the existence of any others is offensive?

About two and a half years ago, I preached to you about the book version of The Da Vinci Code and talked all about early Christian history, gnosticism, pagan influence, and the idea of the Divine feminine. This morning I want to take a different tack on the whole Da Vinci Code phenomenon – I want to explore the popularity aroused (note the double entendre) and the controversy engendered (double entendre again) by the book and movie. I want to explore how The Da Vinci Code came to be the latest territory battled over in the culture wars.

If you drive around town looking at church billboards you can’t help but think that every church in town has caught Da Vinci Code fever. The last movie to cause such an uproar was Mel Gibson’s depraved, ultra-violent, and embarrassingly misguided The Passion of the Christ – which I preached on as well when it was released a little over two years ago. In hindsight, that phenomenon, like this one, was such a mingling of pop culture, marketing savvy, and religious group-think. If you remember, Mel Gibson exploited his supporters by getting evangelical Christian ministers to exhort their flocks to return to see the Passion over and over again, telling them that it was their Christian duty to keep Jesus number one at the box office. And if you remember – something I believe I was the first to point out – the film that finally toppled Gibson’s Passion was a remake of George Romero’s zombie-classic Dawn of the Dead. Yes, a violent gore-fest about returning from the dead… eventually got bumped from #1 by a zombie movie.

This time around, the churches are less happy about the movie. They are criticizing it and calling it offensive. Some are protesting it. Some find its depiction of Catholicism offensive. Others are offended because of what it claims about Jesus. This time the Evangelical churches are worried about whose faith it may “destroy” or “misguide” or “weaken,” calling it a danger to their faith. They worry that it may lead potential, if not faithful, Christians astray and away.

Of course, on one level, The Da Vinci Code is fiction. Opus Dei doesn’t run around killing nuns and museum curators. But, just as The Firm with Tom Cruise succeeded by playing with our anxiety about corrupt workplace ethics, and the new version of The Manchurian Candidate succeeded by playing with our anxiety about power-hungry politicians and corporations, so too does The Da Vinci Code play with anxiety about cloaked religious secrecy. If the Cardinals can meet in secret to elect a Pope, what else the imagination wonders might take place in secret? In that vein of thought, one would really have to question whether defensiveness is actually the best strategy.

But then there is that other level, the outrage and taking offense about what The Da Vinci Code says about who Jesus was. While the wrappings – the setting, plot, context, etc. of The Da Vinci Code may be fiction, like all art (even some pop art) the artifice of the wrappings does not mean that we aren’t asked important and serious questions. That is perhaps the nature of art – even formulaic, gimmicky art: A representation of reality allows us to ask questions about what is real.

These are the real questions, and our reactions to them, that I want to explore with you this morning.

The first thing I want to explore with you is the nature of offensiveness. To a degree we live in an “in your face” time when attitude is a supposed virtue. Ours is a time when homophobic ministers protest at the funerals of soldiers, when the Vice-President of the United States tells a Senator to “F___-off” on the Senate floor and act smug about it, and when, just this past week, Ann Coulter viciously attacked women whose husbands died in the World Trade Center on September 11 suggesting that they should pose for Playboy.

And at the same time, we paradoxically live in a world that claims sensitivity to offense. Though often maligned, Political Correctness – in its most basic, essential form – was concerned, and I believe rightly so, with altering language to make it more inclusive and more compassionate. So, what are we to do with offensive things? And, how are we to respond to the claim that something is offensive?

I think we ought to begin by looking at the intent, the motivations, of what is causing offense. There are times when what causes offense seems to exist for no other reason than to offend – to get a rise out of somebody. This seems to be the case with those drawings which appeared in a Dutch newspaper, you know, the ones that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. These drawings were clearly intended to incite. In this way, they are like the creations of shock-jock Howard Stern: they are designed to titillate, provoke, shock and/or disgust.

Of course, one can say shocking and outrageous things for personal gain – be it attention, sales, or whatever, but this strategy can also backfire. Witness the poor box office turnout for the latest Mission Impossible sequel starring Tom Cruise; people now are more turned-off than seduced by his tendency to do and say shocking, offbeat things.

Similarly, there are times when calling something offensive serves a purpose. Again, I return to the idea of political correctness, the aim of which is to make public discourse more inclusive, more accessible for those who are usually excluded. But claims that The Da Vinci Code is offensive are not in this line. At least I don’t think they are. Claiming that something is offensive can be a way of silencing dissent and claiming authority and power.

In 1998 I had the opportunity to attend a program on religious scholarship with Professor Bruce Lincoln of the University of Chicago. A few dozen of us were invited to spend an afternoon in discussion with him. We got to talking about questions of authority and Bruce Lincoln, referring to a piece of his writing, had this to say:

“Those who sustain an idealized image of culture do so, inter alia, by mistaking the dominant faction of a given group for the group or ‘culture’ itself. At the same time, they mistake the ideological positions favored and propagated by the dominant faction for those of the group as a whole.

“The same destabilizing and irreverent questions that one might ask of any speech act ought to be posed of religious discourse. The first of these is, ‘Who speaks here?’ ‘To what audience?’ ‘In what immediate and broader context?’ ‘With what interests?’ ‘And should the speaker persuade the audience, what are the consequences?’ ‘Who wins?’ ‘How much?’ ‘Conversely, who loses?’”

What Prof. Lincoln is saying is that there is a tendency for the powerful, the dominant, to try to speak on behalf of the less powerful. Another great scholar of religion, Robert Orsi, studied groups of ethnic Catholic women in Chicago. He found that their religious praxis centered on the Virgin Mary; Jesus was clearly subordinate. However, if you would have asked their Priest, or Bishop, or Cardinal, or Pope about the degree to which the church venerated Mary,. you would get a different and contradictory answer. These groups of ethnic women, though, would tell you that they were devout practicing Catholics. So, who is right? “Who speaks here?” “With what interests?”

So, with The Da Vinci Code, when someone says that it is offensive to Christians, or that it challenges the beliefs of Christians, we would probably be wise to ask: “Which Christians?” “Whose beliefs?” and “Who speaks here?” “With what interests?” and “Whose voice is silenced?”

It is a power play. It is to say, “Those of us with this theology, this interpretive system, this version of scripture, this version of history, this concept of salvation – we are the ones who get to decide what the official version of the story is. We are the ones who get to decide what the true version of the story is. We’re official. And to tell the story differently is not just unorthodox, it is offensive to us and to our official version.” To call it offensive is to say, “You’re not allowed to challenge our dominant view; you must be silenced.”

Which is really ironic, because if you want to read The Da Vinci Code at all generously – looking for what wisdom can be mined – the best thing about the book and movie is that they succeed in asking these sorts of important questions: “Who owns the story?” “Who decides?”

I might spend just a minute on the history of things here. When I was an undergraduate student, I learned Coptic in order to earn the favor and attention of a religion professor who was, in my estimation, about as cool as Robert Langdon. Coptic is the language of those excluded gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas, Phillip, Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. The Nag Hammadi Library was composed in Coptic. Coptic was also the language of even weirder holy texts, such as the Apocryphon of John in which truth is revealed, not through Jesus, but from the spirit of the feminine Divine, Sophia, the incarnation of wisdom. It is important to note that these unofficial gospels, like the official ones, tell very little and with little certainty about who Jesus actually was. But what they do tell us, and with tremendous certainty, is that among the spiritual options available in late antiquity were versions of the story in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a special relationship, as well as versions in which a Divine Feminine Spirit embodies wisdom.

Being offended by something can serve to expand our circle, can help us to welcome and include. Or, being offended by something can be used as a tool to exclude. To push away. To limit. To control. To silence. We can attempt to remove the obstacles that prevent voices from being heard. Or, we can attempt to silence other voices on account of their being threateningly other.

Causing offense and taking offense are neither inherently good, nor inherently bad. For a good example of this, we might turn to the Hebrew Prophets and consider their antics and rhetoric. The Hebrew Prophets were not exactly the type of people who you would like to invite to a dinner party. They would be more likely to overturn the table, or start a food-fight. According to the Jewish tradition, some of their behaviors included dressing in sack-clothes and covering their bodies in ashes, public disrobing, and neglecting conventions of personal hygiene. As I said, these guys were offensiveness personified. Yet at the same time, I have a difficult time condemning these antic. The role of the prophets was to recall religion and government to a moral standard – not to exploit the weak and vulnerable, not to ignore the poor and sick, not to make war for greed and conquest and then call it peace.

Saint Augustine once famously said that the twin daughters of hope are anger and courage, anger that things are the way they ought not be, and courage to work to make things as they ought to be. I don’t think it is too big of a stretch to say that our central problem is neither an excess of anger, nor an insufficiency of anger, but an intensity of emotion directed to where it ought to be directed: Offense taken by those things that are, in fact, offensive rather than mistaken offense.

The example here that I cannot help but include is from Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelical minister, who has been known to begin a sermon this way,

“I want to tell you three things. The first thing is that while you were sleeping last night, twenty-thousand children died of starvation and curable diseases. The second thing is that none of you give a shit. And the third thing, is that many of you are more upset that I said the word shit than you are that twenty-thousand children died of starvation and curable diseases.”

And so we pray that we take all things – all offense and trespass – in correct proportion, not making mountains of molehills, not worrying over splinters while neglecting motes. That we may treat all things in life with the intensity proper to them. We express gratitude for the wonder of stories, imagination, and mystery. We affirm: Life is too serious for it to be solemn. Truth, too abundant to be clung at. And grace, resolute even throughout all our worries.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"The Primitive and not-so-Primitive Church" 6-24-06

[Remarks made at the Dinner, Hymn Sing, and Annual Meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship on Saturday, June 24, 2006 at the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, Missouri.]

It is an honor to be asked to speak this evening. Thank you Ron for this honor. Before I launch into what I had planned to say, there are a few people who are worthy of mention. I was first made aware of the UUCF seven years ago by my then pastor and now colleague Rev. Tim Jensen, a past board member of the UUCF. While on a road trip from Portland to Salt Lake City, Tim spoke so highly of this organization calling it the best hope for the future of our UU movement. I also want to mention my parishioner, Michele Gaston, who is here this evening. And finally, I want to mention Rev. Roger Butts; the seeds of this talk came from a conversation we had one evening on an organic farm on the windswept prairies of southern Minnesota. As a born and bred New Englander now living in the Midwest, sentences like that one still don’t strike me as natural to say.

This past year I launched my own blog, and joined the community of UU bloggers. Many of my favorite blogs are written by UU Christians, an interesting phenomenon. Something that I’ve noticed spending time in these circles is that a good proportion of these UU blogs tend to approach Unitarian Universalism with an attitude of criticism. This is true of both the Christian blogs and the non-Christian blogs. The criticism they offer is diverse. Some of the criticism is earnest; some of it is sarcastic and edgy; some of it is plaintive; some of it is angry; some of it is a cry of mourning from the depths of the soul; some of it could be described simply as “snarky.” But, from a fair sampling, it is clear that the critical spirit is present. And I want to explore what this says about our identities. This line of thought caused me to wonder. Would Martin Luther have had a blog? “” or something? Would Michael Servetus have posted his letters to Calvin on-line?

But seriously, I want to talk about the spirit of reform, and the spirit of critique, which are both aspects of the prophetic spirit. I want to talk about how we embody and identify with this often restless aspect of the religious life. And, finally, I want to suggest a way of understanding our identities as UU Christians in relation to this restless aspect of the religious life.

To begin, I want to get a little bit nerdy. Since about half of you are ministers, you’ll probably think, “Oh, I remember this from seminary and it was boring then.” The other half of you will be bored by this for the first time. There was once a guy named Joseph Priestley, a British Unitarian minister and scientist who emigrated to the United States and became something of a spiritual advisor to Thomas Jefferson.

In 1782 Priestley published a book called “The Corruptions of Christianity.” What the book did was to give a history of early Christianity and to attempt to expose the various corruptions, impurities, and errors that found their way in over the years. The implication was that if you simply stripped away all those impurities and corruptions you would be left with a perfected church.

The scholarly term for such a perfected church is the “primitive church.” Here the word “primitive” does not hold those politically-incorrect connotations we might associate with the term. Rather, it means original. There is an “in-the-beginning” sense to it. Reform is intended to correct the corruptions that human beings have wrought.

This spirit of critique and reform is as old as Protestantism. It is as old as Christianity. It is as old as religion itself. It has surely been a facet of Unitarianism and Universalism since the beginning.

In the early days of Unitarianism, people like Priestley imagined a primitive church, cleansed of non-Biblical ideas which introduced error. Since then, the spirit of reform has suggested other corrections. Some of these corrections have claimed the power of the human mind and some of them have exhorted us to guard against idolatries of the mind. Some of these corrections have claimed the power of the Divine Spirit and some of them have exhorted us to guard against idolatrous images of the Divine.

Whether Humanist or Christian, whether Earth-centered or Goddess-based, the reforming spirit has been and continues to be alive and well in Unitarian Universalism. And UU Christians have surely been a part of this. UU Christians have offered corrections and called for reform when our movement’s imagination of the Divine has become too limited. UU Christians have offered corrections and called for reform when our movement takes its heritage for granted. UU Christians have offered corrections and called for reform when we would make idols of our own human faculties of thought and intellect.

But isn’t it something to daydream – to daydream of a church 200 or 2,000 years ago that didn’t do any of these things that we find fault with today. But then we remember that Jesus was a reformer. And John the Baptist was a reformer. And Paul, of course Paul was a reformer. Someone once suggested that reading Paul was like reading only the answers to a Dear Abby advice column – you get the answers, but at times the questions aren’t entirely certain.

What I want to suggest, leaving this boring history lesson aside, is that our strength as UU Christians is not located in some great acumen we might possess as reformers. Our strength is not the power to return it to some primitive condition, free of error. (Such a utopian community has never existed.) Rather, I want to ask you to imagine that your strength is found in your ability to be the “not-so-primitive” church.

The “not-so-primitive church.” What does this mean? I think it means being able to understand your past, both the good and bad of it, and being willing to see how you are a part of it. I think it means being able to identify with your history, even if you don’t always agree with it. And, I think it means realizing that churches are homes of the imperfectly human, just as they are places to grow in the grace of God. Understanding this is what keeps us from imposing arbitrary litmus tests on those who would join our communities.

Why is it natural for UU Christians to be the not-so-primitive church?

… Because our theology tells us of the reality of human shortcoming. And by shortcoming I do not mean only sinfulness, or being fallen, or missing the mark. I mean an incompleteness, which is what opens us to grace.

… Because we are willing to enter into relationships with our religious past, not flee from it. I think of that way of interpreting the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the inheritance that is squandered is not a sum of gold, but a religious heritage. What if we were to interpret this parable as an allegory for our relationship with the living tradition?

… And finally, I think it is natural for UU Christians to be the not-so-primitive church because of a realization that God is there whenever two or three or four are gathered. God does not wait to arrive until the cathedral is completed.

Several years ago I was lucky enough to get to travel to Barcelona. There is Barcelona is one of the world’s greatest architectural miracles: Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia. This absolute marvel has been under construction for over a century. As you stand there in front of it, you first notice how exquisite it is. Then you notice the cranes, scaffolding, and construction equipment. Part of you can’t help to imagine what it will look like completed. It is perhaps a metaphor for faith – that in some way our faith and our religion is always “under construction.”

Mine certainly is. As someone who tries to take seriously Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, and as someone who tries to take seriously those who take Jesus’ life and death and resurrection seriously, and as someone who tries to live intentionally as a result, mine certainly is.

Let us close together is prayer:

Amidst this gathering of earnest souls, help us to grow in fellowship and in greater faith. Help us to love one another as Jesus taught.

We offer thanks for our meal this evening, for the bread that sustains, as well as for the faith that fills us in ways that bread cannot.

Help us to make our lives a witness, both within this meetings and outside of it, both within this week and beyond it. Remind us that selfless acts of love are better representatives of faith than well-spoken words. Help us to remember joy, laughter, and celebration – that our faith is a source of gladness and that we should share this by showing this.

Most of all, we pray we are forgiven for our shortcomings and errors, loved for who we are despite our blemishes, our human imperfections, and even our foolishness. Bless us not only in moments of clarity, but also in uncertainty; bless us not only in vocation, but also in discernment.

[According to a wonderful prayer I once heard] remind us that God has room for all people: the faithful, the faithless, and those of dappled faith… and the Lord so loves dappled things. Amen.

Picture taken from this site.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Summer Diversion

Peacebang is at it again with her hilarious and prophetic blog: Beauty Tips for Ministers. Check the archives.