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? “95theses.com” 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.