Thursday, May 03, 2012

Sermon: "Open Wide Thy Hand: The Essence of Liberalism" (Delivered 4-29-12)

Opening Words
by Peter Raible

We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves by 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 person we did not know.

This is as it should be.
Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.
Together we can heed the call to a ministry of care and justice.

We are ever bound in community.
May it always be so.

There hasn’t always been and there may not always be a religious movement known as Unitarian Universalism.  There hasn’t always been and there may not always be an organization known as the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.  If we were really honest with ourselves, we’d also understand that there hasn’t always been and may not always be a church known as the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church.  However, as long as there has been religion and as long as there is a human species, there has always been and there will continue to be something called liberal religion and people who are religious liberals.

The signs at our new facility announce that our church is coming in 2012, and the signs prominently display a tag-line that reads, “Liberal Religion for Johnson County.”  I want to ask us, are we all clear on what liberal religion means?  And, even if we all are clear, is the greater Kansas City metropolitan area clear on what liberal religion is?  When it comes time for us to occupy our new building, I’m fairly certain that it will be necessary for us to offer some bold declarations and powerful articulations of what, exactly, this thing called liberal religion is.  My words this morning are in that vein.

I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with a person my own age.  I introduced myself as the minister of a Unitarian Universalist Church.  The person wasn’t familiar with our tradition, which is not surprising.  My first clarification was to say that we are a liberal church.  The response I received was unexpected.  “Oh, so you have a rock band and you wear blue jeans on Sunday.”  This person had associated liberalism with a style, not a theology.  And, is it possible that some of us make assumptions of a similar nature?  If we meet a person who says that she goes to a church with a rock band, do we make assumptions that the theology is conservative?  When I talk about liberal religion, I want to be clear that I am talking about the message not the medium, the content not the container.

So, what is it that is most essential to communicate when we use term liberal religion?  Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur wrote that what sets liberal religion apart is our commitment to freedom, reason, and tolerance.  Freedom, reason, and tolerance.  However, self-critical Unitarian Universalists have critiqued making these three qualities, together or separately, the core of liberal religion.  Doug Muder writes, “None of the three will get you out of bed in the morning.”  Taking them separately, there is no denying that our willingness to embrace reason and science as ways of approaching truth is an incredibly important aspect of our tradition.  Reason we can keep as a core element of the liberal religious project.  Tolerance?  Well, tolerance is certainly better than intolerance.  At least it’s got that going for it.  But, tolerance is also a passive quality.  Tolerating your neighbor is different than loving your neighbor. 

This leaves us with freedom.  Freedom seems important as a core religious principle.  But, freedom can be a bit problematic.  Freedom is a word that you would find prominently in the speeches of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and prominently on the dust jacket of a book by Sarah Palin, and prominently in the platform of the Libertarian Party.  Freedom is the reason for the existence of the NAACP and freedom is the reason for the existence of the NRA.

So, when we say that freedom in religion is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism, what exactly do we mean?  My colleague Rev. Tom Schade puts it like this, “I think the question out there, especially among the younger people, is, ‘how are we not like every other church/religion organized around its self-importance?’…  The most important thing that I think people should know about us is that we have been struggling and even dying for a spirituality organized around freedom and liberation for a long time.  We’re not done yet.”

What my colleague wrote is absolutely right in some respects.  Religious and spiritual freedom and social liberation have always been central to us.  Michael Servetus was burned at the stake for his practice of free religious inquiry.  In Transylvania, a Unitarian king enacted an edict to guarantee religious freedom.  The early American Unitarians and Universalists followed their conscience away from the orthodox creeds.  The last person imprisoned for the crime of blasphemy in the United States was Abner Kneeland, a Universalist minister sentenced in 1838 to sixty days in jail for publishing statements about his own naturalistic theology.  Intellectual freedom led to the embrace of humanism in the early twentieth century.  And, our commitment to human liberty led to support the abolitionist cause, women’s rights, the civil rights movement, and equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, just to name a few of the ways we’ve promoted the cause of freedom.

These efforts and many more, large and small, to promote spiritual and religious freedom and social liberation have been edifying.  However, it cannot be denied that freedom can have a shadow side.  Too often, the understanding of what freedom actually is stays stuck at its most immature, adolescent, and reactionary levels.  Have you ever experienced a child throwing a tantrum in which certain declarations are made about the future?  When I am older, I’m going to eat dessert for dinner every night.  When I am older, I’m not going to have a bedtime.  When I move out, nobody is going to tell me what to do.  A juvenile declaration of independence.  Maybe your children have said something like this.  Maybe you remember saying or thinking something like this.  All of this is na├»ve and annoying and perfectly developmentally appropriate.  And, all of this is something that we hopefully grow out of through responsibility and maturity.  In time we learn that our actions have an impact on others, that freedom needs to be balanced by responsibility.  We learn that there are all sorts of ways that we are accountable to others, and not just to our own desires and whims.

Liberty, liberation, liberal, liberalism, liberal religion.  What exactly do these words mean?  What is the relationship between religious liberalism and religious freedom?  And, what do we mean by liberal religion?


Last month I read a newly published collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson.  Robinson teaches creative writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, and is the author of three novels and four works of non-fiction.  For her novel, Gilead, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.  Robinson is a liberal Christian and is active in the United Church of Christ.  Each of the ten essays in her most recent book could easily inspire its own sermon.  This morning I want to mention just one of those essays from the heart of her collection.  The essay is entitled, “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism.”

Robinson remarks, “The fact that words have different meanings in different cultures, that ‘liberal’ is itself a word with very different meanings in American and European contexts, for example, never seems to influence discussion as it ought to.”  Robinson explains that in Europe, the word “liberal” changed its meaning between the time of the Renaissance and the end of the Enlightenment.  In the 1800s, liberalism became synonymous with political positions, especially the politics of the French Revolution.  Liberalism’s meaning, which continues to this day, became associated with freedoms having to do with equality and human rights and with resistance to political, religious, or economic authorities that deprived people of their rights and civil liberties.  Liberalism became equated with freedom, reason, and tolerance.

Marilynne Robinson reminds us that liberalism had a somewhat different meaning a couple hundred years earlier, when liberalism was associated with scriptural commandments having to do with generosity.  Consider the following translation of a passage from the Bible from four hundred years ago,

“The nigarde shal no more be called liberal, nor the churl rich.  But the nigarde wil speake of nigardnes, and his heart wil worke iniquitie, and do wickedly, and speake falsely against the Lord, to make emptie the hungrie soule, and to cause the drinke of the thirstie to faile.  For the weapons of the churl are wicked: he deviseth wicked counsels, to undo the poore with lying words: and to speake against the poore in judgement.  But the liberal man wil divise of liberal things, and he wil continue his liberalitie.”

Robinson goes on in her essay to cite several theologians and religious writers in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, and in America in the 1600s and 1700s.  These theologians wrote at great length about the scriptural commandment to be liberal and they greatly emphasized this point.
Writes one European theologian, “True liberality is not momentary or of short duration.  They who possess that virtue persevere steadily, and do not exhaust themselves in a sudden and feeble flame, of which they quickly afterwards repent…  The Lord exhorts us not to momentary liberality, but to that which shall endure during the whole course of our life.”  And, if that wasn’t enough, this writer made notes in the margin of his scholarship that read, “Thou shalt be liberal!”

On the American side, Robinson writes of a great American preacher from the 1700s who liberally poured the word liberal into his sermons.  In his writings we find, quote, “a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, one being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful...  These phrases are all [his] and there are many more like them.”


It may strike you as odd and actually a bit backwards that I should elect to preach on generosity at the end of April, as we’re bringing our annual stewardship campaign to a close, and not, say, at the beginning of March.  To that I say, yes, you’re absolutely right.  It is a bit backwards.  And, I offer two responses.  First, as you’ll notice on the giant thermometer in the foyer, we’re still a good ways off from reaching our goal.  That fact should and will probably engender some conversation and dialogue over the next several weeks and months as we prepare for the coming church year.  [You can still make your pledge.]

But, more importantly, if Marilynne Robinson is right, and if generosity is actually a liberal religious virtue, then there should be no calendar to constrain the discussion of generosity.  And, for that matter, if generosity is actually a divine virtue, then it deserves better than being something that our religion asks us to calculate on a Excel spreadsheet or the back of a napkin once a year.  Generosity belongs with love, justice, compassion, trust, hope, and forgiveness.  It is a virtue for all seasons.

So I want to argue and I want to suggest that what makes liberal religion liberal, at its core, is not just, not only, the Enlightenment concept of liberality, which stands for freedom, reason, and tolerance.  What makes liberal religion liberal, at its core, is also an older Renaissance and Reformation understanding of liberalism that equates liberalism with generosity.

Take, for example, our sources.  We list on the back of the order of service the seven principles, but the document in full is a list of seven principles we affirm and promote and six sources that feed our religious life together.  Those six sources include:  direct experience of the holy, the prophetic witness of women and men, wisdom from the world religions, Jewish and Christian ethical teachings, reason and science, and nature-based wisdom.  I consider the fullness of that list to be a statement of liberal generosity.

Or, take justice work.  Martin Luther King once said, “One of the great tragedies of [our] long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation.”  Our justice work would have to be characterized as generous, broad, expansive, and wide.  Its fullness is liberal.

Or, take our religious forebears, the Universalists who believed in a God whose love was expansive, liberal, and unbelievably generous, and the Unitarians who had a most generous and liberal view of humanity.

When we say that we Unitarian Universalism is a liberal tradition, that we are religious liberals, that the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church is a liberal church, what exactly do we mean?  When we say that we are liberal religion for Johnson County, what exactly do we mean?  I would argue that whatever else we mean, we also mean that we are liberal in the older meaning of the word, which is to say radically generous.  Thou shalt be liberal.