Monday, July 30, 2012

Sermon: "The Transient and Permanent in Religion" (Delivered 7-8-12)

You’ve seen those bumper stickers, the ones that have the letter “I” followed by a picture of a heart followed by what it is that the person who owns the car happens to love.  I Love New York.  I Love Golden Retrievers.  You’ve seen these, right?  Well, I once saw a most unusual version of one of those bumper stickers.  I was in the parking lot of a Panera, walking back to my car, when I saw a bumper bearing a sticker that read, “I love the 1928 revised edition of the Book of Common Prayer.”

Let me give a little bit of explanation so that we are all on the same page here.  The Book of Common Prayer contains the words used in worship services in the Anglican and Episcopalian tradition.  So if you walk into any Anglican church in the world, you can open the Book of Common Prayer and you’ll be able to follow along with the various prayers, readings, and spoken responses of the service.  The most recent revision of the Book of Common Prayer came in 1979 which replaced the version from fifty years earlier, the 1928 version.  The changes in the 1979 edition included use of contemporary language as well as a shift towards a more liberal theology that reflected trends in mainline American Protestantism in the last century.

With this background information, the bumper sticker begins to make a bit more sense.  The owner of that car doesn’t like the changes that were made in 1979 and the bumper sticker is his way of continuing to protest those changes more than thirty years later.

If you look at the history of Christianity, or the history of religion for that matter, the one constant has been change.  New expressions of faith, in the form of creeds and teachings, were produced at the Council of Nicaea, and at the Council of Constantinople, and at the Council of Trent.  The Reformation gave us new theological insights from Martin Luther and John Calvin as well as so many others.  And, the last half century has given us new forms from the Second Vatican Council and the 1979 revision to the Book of Common Prayer to the invention of the praise band and the use of Power Point presentations in worship.

If change has been one constant, the other constant has been resistance to change.  Witness the Catholics who continue to decry Vatican II, more than forty later.  Witness the bumper sticker pining for the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer, and not the version that has been used for the past thirty years.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are not immune to this resistance either.  Last fall I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to guest preach at a UU church that was celebrating its 50th anniversary.  Following the service I was approached by a founding member of the congregation, a life-long Unitarian.  “I’ll tell you when Unitarianism took a wrong turn,” the elderly member said to me.  “It’s when we merged with those damn Universalists.  What a mistake that was!”  That was also more than fifty years ago.  I wasn’t exactly sure what to say to that.  I offered this reply, “Well, these things do take time to get used to.”

The one constant is change.  Consider some parts of the worship service that are most dear to us.  We’ve had our gray hymnal for less than twenty years, which means that beloved hymns like “Spirit of Life” are less than twenty years old.  And new favorite hymns like “Meditation on Breathing” are only as old as the children in our kindergarten class.  Our seven principles aren’t even thirty years old and revisions to them are supposed to be considered every decade.  The ritual of lighting the chalice originated in the 1950s.  The affirmation on the front of the order of service that we read each week was composed in 1933 by a Unitarian minister named L. Griswold Williams.  However, he took a shorter version of this affirmation from a half-century earlier and expanded it.  Of course, the version of it we use isn’t exactly what Williams wrote, but is a revised version of his expanded version.  Somewhere there may be a Unitarian with a bumper sticker that says, “I love the L. Griswold Williams affirmation of 1933.”  Probably not.

All of this is to say that change is the great constant.  If we joyfully sang “Spirit of Life” on your first Sunday here, you may not be aware that two decades ago it was considered novel and strange.  If you can’t imagine a Unitarian Universalist worship service without a chalice, try putting yourself in the shoes of those Unitarians who came to a worship service in the 1950s only to find that their religion had a new religious symbol.  Similarly, we can imagine an Episcopalian in 1928 attaching a placard of protest to his Ford Model A automobile that read, “I love the 1896 revised edition of the Book of Common Prayer.”


My words this morning are inspired by a famous piece of writing from our religious tradition.  That piece of writing is a sermon by Theodore Parker that was delivered in 1841 at an ordination in Boston.  Theodore Parker was the most theologically radical and the most controversial of all the Unitarian ministers of the 19th century.  His controversial sermons and his generally combative style caused him to be shunned by his fellow Unitarian colleagues.  It didn’t hurt his popularity, though.  Theodore Parker rented out the largest concert hall in the city of Boston and preached to audiences of as many as 3,000 people each Sunday, the largest audience in America.  (Just think, this was before the invention of the microphone!)  Many of the best and brightest social justice celebrities of the day attended his services, including abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, peace activist Julia Ward Howe, and women’s rights advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Louisa May Alcott.  His congregation also included many African Americans, including runaway slaves who were sheltered in homes of church members, in open and flagrant violation of the fugitive slave act.  Parker’s church even organized armed groups so that the authorities would think twice about trying to capture any of the runaways.

In the famous sermon that we got a taste of in our reading, Parker begins by looking at what is permanent in Christianity and what is transient in Christianity.  He looks at doctrines, creeds, rituals, and sacraments and finds that they are transient, that they change over time.  In looking for what is permanent, he finds that the only thing that is permanent is a few of the most basic teachings and ethical commandments of Jesus. For Parker, these eternal laws are best summarized by Jesus in Matthew 22, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  That is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Parker says that this is really about all that is permanent.  Love God, a God Parker says is present “in the first wind-flower of spring, in the falling of a sparrow, in the distress of a nation, [and] in the sorrow or rapture of the world.”   And, love your fellow human beings.  What is permanent, says Parker, is a few noble teachings, a few ethical commandments, and a few sublime hopes and dreams.  “If we are faithful, the great truths of morality and religion, the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God, are perceived intuitively, by instinct, as it were, though our theology be imperfect and miserable.”  Love of man and love to God.  Everything else, and he means everything else, is transient.

Allow me to share with you two things that Parker says is transient.  I mention these in part to show just how radical a thinker Parker was, but also to show you just how open Parker was to embracing change.  According to Parker, it is not just the various creeds, doctrines, and teachings of the church that are transient, but The Bible itself should be regarded as impermanent, or at least imperfect.  Interestingly, Parker suggests that worshipping the text, regarding it as inerrant, can get in the way of actually trying to live out its most basic and most essential teachings.

Parker doesn’t stop here.  He also says that Christian beliefs about the personhood and authority of Jesus are transitory as well.  Here is Theodore Parker in his own words, “It seems difficult to conceive of any reason why moral and religious truths should rest for their support on the personal authority of their revealer, any more than the truths of science [rest] on the [personal authority] of [the person] who makes them known first or most clearly.  It is hard see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid, or Archimedes.  The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers… must rest on the truth of his words.” 

In fact, Parker goes even farther, and says that even if Jesus was a fabricated, fictional character, the teachings attributed to him would be no less true.  The teachings of Jesus are infinitely more important than the teachings about Jesus.  That, in a nutshell, is Parker’s sermon on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity from 1841.  You can easily imagine how this stirred up some controversy, can’t you?  And, as if that was not enough, Parker went one step further and turned his message on his audience.

“Now who shall tell us that the change is to stop there?...  Who shall tell us that another age will not smile at our doctrines?... Who shall tell us they will not weep at the folly of all such as fancied truth shone only into the contracted nook of their school, or sect, or coterie?”


I think that it is important religious practice to be able to distinguish and differentiate and tell the difference between what is transient and what is permanent, between what is transitory and what is eternal.  This ability to discern is important because a great deal of harm can be done by taking things that are subject to change and treating them like eternal things that must not change.  This is the definition of idolatry:  giving something more importance than it actually has, confusing what is not as important with what is truly important, worshiping what is not worthy of worship, mistakenly loving what isn’t worthy of love instead of what is.

Allow me to pick on the guy with the bumper sticker on his car in the Panera parking lot once more.  “I love the 1928 Revised Edition of the Book of Common Prayer.”  The Jesus he worships commanded him to love God and his neighbor as himself.  The Jesus he worships commanded him to love the widow and the orphan, the hungry and the sick, the prisoner and the stranger.  The Jesus he worships uttered no commandment about loving a formula for Baptism, the syntax of a prayer, the use of Elizabethan English in worship, or a specific edition of liturgy.

Alas, this guy is easy to pick on.  It is much, much harder for us to realize what transient things we ourselves cling to, at the expense of being truly loyal to what is permanent and worthy of our highest devotion.  Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by desire, which is a form of attachment.  Insisting things that are transient not change is certainly one form of attachment.  It is a question of discernment.  Is that a transient thing or an eternal thing?  Weight your response accordingly.

When I think of changes in religion, and my own feelings about them, I like to take a very long view of human history.  A recent book I read contained a long section presenting a lot of research about primate behavior and the anthropological findings about the earliest hominids.  Anthropologists tell us that the first homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago.  Agriculture was invented about 12,000 years ago.  Monotheism was invented 4-5,000 years ago.  And Christianity, as we know, emerged only 2,000 years ago.

Imagine that.  The oldest and most ancient of the world’s religions have existed for one or two percent of the human story, and as you break them down into sects and texts, theologies and denominations, liturgical trends and the editions of hymnals, you begin to talk about things that have existed for a tenth, or hundredth, or thousandth of a percent of human history.

It is important to be able to tell the difference between what is permanent and what is transient.  Once we understand and internalize this, we will come to see, as Parker puts it, “The only form our faith demands is a divine life; doing the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives… All this is very simple; a little child can understand it; and very beautiful, the loftiest mind can find nothing so lovely.”