Monday, May 07, 2012

Homily: "Different, Unique, Diverse, Inclusive" (Delivered 5-6-12)


I want to begin by mentioning one particular poem by Billy Collins, the former US poet laureate and a favorite poet of many members of this church.  In his exquisite poem Litany, Collins strings together a list, a litany, of increasingly unusual and unlikely metaphors.  [Click here to check out an unlikely recitation of the poem.]  But, Collins begins his poem in more familiar territory, opening with the lines, “You are the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine.”

Bread and wine.  These are universal archetypal images.  (As are the chalice and the blade, for that matter, but that’s a different sermon for a different time.)  These are objects with deep metaphorical resonance, especially in the Christian tradition:  Take, eat, this is my body; take, drink, this is my blood; loaves multiplied; water into wine.  And, especially in the Jewish tradition: the challah bread and wine on the Shabbat table; the matzo and four glasses of wine during the Passover Seder.  And the deep metaphorical importance of bread and wine is by no means limited to the Jewish and Christian traditions.

I was led to reflect on metaphors that are used to symbolize communion for two different reasons this week.  One of those reasons is obvious.  Today is our Flower Communion and it would be helpful to say something about its meaning.  The other reason – pardon my digression, this will come around eventually – has to do with hearing about the news from the General Conference of the United Methodist Church which was held in Tampa, Florida, this past week.  Delegates from America’s largest mainline denomination come together every four years to debate and vote on changing the official positions of the church.  This past week the Methodist General Conference took up the issue of making the denomination’s stance on homosexuality less discriminatory.  Attempts to make the denomination’s teachings more welcoming and inclusive were soundly rejected.

Over the last decade and a half, we’ve witnessed several American Mainline denominations including the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans take at least small steps in the direction of inclusion and welcome, but those steps were taken with considerable pain and deep conflict.  There is a great temptation to brag about Unitarian Universalism here.  After all, our UU General Assembly has been passing resolutions of inclusion and acceptance for gays and lesbians since before I was born.  We were decades ahead of our time!  And, unlike seemingly every other denomination, we passed each resolution without divisiveness or hostility, and without people being nasty to each other.

In all honesty I have to tell you that I do not enjoy attending the business meetings of our religious movement.  It requires a type of patience with which I have not been blessed.  But, when I go I thank my lucky stars that this faith tradition is not stuck in deep and hurtful conflict.  My deepest fear is that I will become bored, not that the humanity of my friends will be questioned.  We don’t debate the exclusion of entire classes of people.  This is as it should be.

Unfortunately, it is not how all organizations operate.  Institutions can use their bureaucracies and by-laws to inflict harm.  Institutions can use their policies, procedures, practices, and processes to wound.  Power can be withheld or wielded destructively.  Organizations can become bullies.  Again, I bring up our tradition for comparison not to brag, though perhaps a little bragging is healthy.  No, rather, I find the capacity of institutions and systems to inflict pain and to dehumanize others to be sobering.  It is important to me that we don’t do that.

This past week, I was struck by an image from the United Methodist General Conference.  This is where I bring us back from the digression.  Following the vote at the Methodist General Conference to uphold the church’s discriminatory teaching, a group of activists and protesters occupied and shut down the meeting.  They rose up and marched in.  Their singing filled the assembly hall.  They gathered in the very center of the room.  In the very center of the room, the activists celebrated communion.  A loaf of bread and a chalice of wine.  I can hardly think of a more powerful symbolic act.  The communion table is an open table is a welcome table.  Jesus fed the multitude, and who was turned away?  The water became wine and who was not invited to rejoice?



No matter how different, distinct, or diverse, still welcomed.  No matter how unique or individual, still included.  That what those protesters were saying.  That's what our UU denomination has been saying for more than forty years.

We’re told that the Unitarian Church in Prague in the 1920s and 30s was made up mostly of former Catholics.  We’re told that a good number of these Czech Unitarians, in fleeing from their faith background, sought the opposite in their new religious home.  We’re told that the Unitarian Church in Prague did away with robes and vestments, ornate decorations, the formal liturgy with prescribed prayers, and the practice of communion.  We can imagine that such a rejection of the old ways was partly reactionary.  But, we can also imagine that this was done out of worry that these rites and rituals would become corrupted by abuses of power or by an in-group mentality.  They feared that they would wind up pushing others away.  And then Norbert Capek had the idea of bringing back ritual, of holding a flower festival in which everyone would bring a flower, place them together in a common bouquet, and then receive a different flower than the one they had shared.

As far as metaphorical significance goes, flowers are right up there with bread and wine.  They are potent symbols of life’s passages, from cradle to grave:  the single rose at the child dedication, the corsage, the wedding bouquet, the get-well flowers sent to the hospital room, the flower arrangement at the memorial service.  They can represent joy or grief, heart-pounding sensuality or calming compassion, life or death.

The beauty of the Christian communion service, when it is done right, is its generous, open-handed welcome.  As one hymn that we have in our hymnal puts it, “O come you longing thirsty souls, drink freely from the spring.  And come, you weary famished folk, and end your hungering.  Why spend yourself on empty air?  Why not be satisfied?  For everywhere a feast is spread that’s always at our side.” 

The flower festival, the flower communion, is beautiful in its own right as well.  The bouquet we become together is tremendously rich, spectacular and complex.  The bouquet comes into being because each person is willing to contribute a bit of their beauty, their joy, their sorrow.  The bouquet comes into being because each person has shared freely of themselves, their own shape and style and personality.  The bouquet comes into being because each person is willing to share their gifts, their unique contributions to community.  The bouquet comes into being because of each person’s willingness to come together in community.  And, in such giving we are also invited to receive, to be blessed by the gifts and lives and stories and beauty and generosity of each other.

If we return to that Billy Collins poem, we might become inspired enough to write out lists of metaphors.

You are the peony, friendly and loud and bubbling out into the world.

You are the daisy, shy and quiet and blending into the crowd.

You are the iris, elegant and also a little delicate.

You are the rose, your life full of complex layers and a few thorns.

You are the daffodil and tulip, early and always leading the way.

And on, and on, and on.

Different, unique, diverse.  Absolutely included.  Absolutely welcomed.

Who's Ready for Arizona?



As of late I haven’t been able to open my web-browser without reading a story about people in Arizona acting as nutty as my grandfather’s pecan tree.  Just yesterday, I read an article about AZ Gov. Jan Brewer signing a law to ban Planned Parenthood from receiving Title X funds.  Because, you know, a great way to reduce abortions is to take away people’s access to contraception.  This news barely cracked the lunacy scale for this week, what with a straight-up neo-Nazi, who happened to be all BFF with the State Republican leadership, killing his entire family and then himself.

And, then it hit me.  I’m actually going to Arizona next month.  Who had this great idea again?  Oh, that’s right, we did.  Back in 2010, with white supremacist anti-immigrant legislation set to take effect in Arizona, the UUA General Assembly met in the civilized city of Minneapolis and debated whether to boycott Phoenix, which had been picked as the General Assembly site for 2012 by the GA Planning Committee.  The final decision was not to forfeit the hefty deposit the UUA had given Phoenix and to go to Phoenix with the understanding that it would be a “Justice GA” and not business as usual.

It seems we were not the only ones talking about pulling out of Arizona.  Check out this Forbes Magazine on-line article that might as well be titled, “Business as Usual Says No More Business as Usual in Arizona.”
“If business leaders in the state can’t find a way to rein in the elected officials, the militias prowling the border, and the out-of-control legislature, Arizona will continue its quick decline, transforming from the business-friendly, libertarian-leaning state of Barry Goldwater into a circus where no sensible entrepreneur would ever dream of locating their business.”
Or, consider this story from the Southern Poverty Law Center that tells us Arizona has a “reputation as the epicenter of anti-immigrant hate and as a site of disturbing extremist activity.”

News stories tell us that politics in Arizona ranges from ultra-conservative at best to domestic terrorist at worst.  Besides JT Ready killing his entire family, there is last year’s shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, as well as stories like this one about a militant hate group conspiring to place landmines along the US-Mexico border.

News stories run from the embarrassing to the idiotic to the surreal.  Embarrassing would be Gov. Jan Brewer literally shaking her finger in the face of President Obama on an airport tarmac in Arizona last January, and then, while being interviewed about the uncomfortable exchange, telling reporters that she “felt a little threatened” by the President.  I’m sure she didn’t mean that in a racist way.

Idiotic would include Arizona’s newest wave of anti-abortion legislation that included a legal definition that pregnancy begins two weeks before conception.

And then there is the surreal.  That would be America’s most demented lawman, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, turning the bust of an alleged cockfighting ring into the set of an action movie, complete with paramilitary equipment and martial arts movie star Steven Seagal riding in on a tank while the cameras rolled.  Apparently, Seagal managed to kill a puppy during the raid.

This list is by no means comprehensive.  I could easily write a blog post ten times as long documenting Arizona’s right wing racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-woman legislation and activity in recent weeks and months.

Of course, I live in Missouri so I shouldn’t call the kettle black.  I work in Kansas so I shouldn’t throw stones at glass houses.  Can I make just one little suggestion to Unitarian Universalists out there?  Instead of going someplace where the politics are as crazy as a wolverine on psychedelics, maybe we can choose a place where our values are celebrated.  I hear Vermont is pleasant in June.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Sermon: "Grace for Unitarian Universalists" (Delivered 4-22-12)


For the past week or two, I’ve been asking people to tell me about what grace means to them.  Several of the responses I’ve received are sprinkled throughout this sermon.  But, I begin with just one response.  Earlier this week Lane and I went to a park for our weekly time of theological reflection.  We talked about our understandings of grace.  While we were sitting there, discussing grace, a woman with a dog came by.  We had a brief chat with the woman and I asked her what her dog’s name was.  “Grace,” she answered.  Lane and I glanced at each other.  What a coincidence!  Amazed, I asked the woman why she had chosen that name for her dog.  She replied, “Oh, you know, for the obvious reasons.”

***

Obviously!  Grace is one of those theological words that resist simple and easy definition.  Its meaning crosses boundaries; its nature is hard to define.  One member of the worship committee commented that when she thinks about grace, she thinks about something that seems to float, something with a light and airy quality.  In other words, the opposite of something solid and distinct.  David Blanchard’s words from our reading agree.  “Grace just sneaks up on us and often steals away before we know what happened…  Grace is sometimes beyond our understanding.  But from time to time it pays us each a visit.”

This morning’s sermon is going to first share some ways of thinking about grace.  Then, we’re going to layer on some Unitarian Universalist theology in order to deepen our thinking about grace.  Finally, we’re going to go beyond theology and talk about the ways grace can and does intersect with our lives.

A tentative working definition of grace might say that grace is favor or fortune that comes to us unbidden, that is impossible for us to do anything to merit or deserve.  That I’m aware of, we’ve had three children and two dogs named Grace in this church community.  One member of our church tells me that she named her dog Grace and she literally meant it.  Dogs, she explained, give us love, companionship, and devotion beyond our capacity to earn it.  They look past our shortcomings and blemishes, our foibles and failings, and favor us unconditionally.

Etymologically, grace is related to expressions of thankfulness.  We might mention the Spanish gracias, the Italian grazie, and the Latin gratia.  There is a clear connection between grace and gratitude.  One step removed is the Latin gratus, which means pleasing, and there we find words like gratifying and gratuity.  Or, take the opposite.  Even if we are not sure about the workings of grace, we know what is meant by a disgrace, an ingrate, a persona non-gratis.

The idea of grace conjures up an awareness that many things in our lives can be thought of as accidents.  The poet Jane Kenyon, in her poem “Otherwise,” writes, “I got out of bed / on two strong legs. / It might have been / otherwise.  I ate / cereal, sweet / milk, ripe, flawless / peach.  It might / have been otherwise.”

It might have been otherwise.  If your life ever brings you into contact with people whose suffering seems overwhelming, you might have repeated this phrase to yourself, or perhaps a variation of it, such as the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Have you ever uttered a phrase like that to yourself?  In my mind, I rewind the script of my life, back to my young adulthood, back to my adolescence, back to my childhood, or back even to my birth.  In my mind, I replay my life with different choices or different fortunes, different opportunities or different circumstances.  I imagine my own life otherwise.  It might have been otherwise.  There,but for the grace of God go I.

For me, one time when I’ve definitely said this to myself is right after I’ve visited someone in jail.  I have had occasion to make such visits as your minister, but fortunately, not often.  “There but for the grace of God go I” is also a saying that comes to the forefront of my mind when serving at the soup kitchen, or officiating at the difficult and tragic memorial service.  It would apply to the refugee camp, to the city ravaged by the natural disaster, wherever there is wholesale suffering in our world.

For religious liberals, understanding grace in these terms may seem problematic.  After all, the idea that God has a plan that involves some being chosen to have a good life and many being chosen to have miserable lives is repulsive.  And, it is also a copout.  A good portion of human suffering is not due to chance in any meaningful way.  I return to the experience of visiting someone in jail.  I find myself thinking of such visits that I’ve made to visit people in jail because I’ve recently been reading a book about race and our nation’s brutal system of mass incarceration.  The book argues, convincingly, that the criminal justice system is designed to be a form of social control that systematically disenfranchises people of color.  (I may come back to this book in a sermon later this year.)  Seen from this perspective, the larger societal perspective, grace, as it is commonly understood, is not all that relevant to the conversation.   Systems of oppression that have a human design also have a human solution.

But, even if we do reject the idea of a God blessing some with favor, it cannot be denied that fortune or dumb luck or random chance most certainly have played more than a small role in making our lives what they are and not otherwise.  Is grace nothing more than the aspects of our lives that are left entirely to chance?

***

I recently had lunch with my friend Aaron Roberts, a minister in the United Church of Christ, a liberal denomination.  I asked him to tell me about what grace means to him.  Aaron said something very smart.  He explained that our theology of grace is inversely proportional to our theological anthropology.  To translate and unpack that statement, what my friend was saying was that to the extent that we have a positive view of human nature and human potential, to the extent that we have a high estimation of ourselves as human beings, we won’t tend to think of ourselves as in need of grace.  However, if we have a negative view of human nature and low expectations of human potential, we will see grace everywhere.  It will all be grace.

Where do Unitarian Universalists fall on this spectrum of holding human nature in either high or low esteem?  Let me give you a hint.  When we include the hymn “Amazing Grace” in our hymnal, we give our members the option of substituting the word “soul” for the word “wretch.”  It is written right there on the page.  Our tradition, historically, has had about as high a view of human nature as it is possible to have.  We have tended to regard ourselves and one another as capable and competent and good.  And, even more than that, we have historically embraced justice, which to us means the work of refashioning a world in which the random accident of being born one race, or one gender, or one nationality, or one socioeconomic class does not foreclose a life of opportunity or security or happiness. 

According to my friend, such a hopeful theology may not leave a lot of room for grace.  There is a very old episode of The Simpsons in which Bart is asked to say grace before the family dinner.  Bart folds his hands together, bows his head, and says, “Dear God, we paid for all this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”  Such a belief in our own radical self-sufficiency can close us off to grace.  Author Marilynne Robinson writes, “It is [Jesus’] consistent teaching that the comfortable, the confident, [and] the pious stand in special need of the intervention of grace… The problem is that we don’t recognize pride or hubris in ourselves, any more than Oedipus did, any more than Job’s so-called comforters.  It can be so innocuous-seeming a thing as confidence that one is right, is competent, is clear-sighted, or confidence that one is pious or pure in one’s motives.”  In the story of John Newton and the composition of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” it is clear that it is the author of the hymn who is most in need of the intervention of a transforming grace.

I wonder.  Is there a way to keep our mostly hopeful view of humanity and still make room for something like grace?

I want to describe two different ways in which human beings are said to embody grace.  The first way is to be graceful.  We are particularly used to using the word “graceful” to describe accomplishments in the fields of art and athletics.  Dancers, gymnasts, figure skaters, second basemen pivoting to complete the double play.  Grace is making something very difficult look smooth and effortless through practice and mastery.  It involves poise and sophistication.  Being graceful is not an exclusively human quality.  Butterflies, soaring birds, and running antelope are thought of and referred to as graceful.  This meaning mostly refers to a quality of motion.

There is another word, though, that is used to describe human beings who are said to embody grace.  That word is “gracious,” and it is almost exclusively used to describe human beings.  Graciousness is an interpersonal quality.  It is the passing of grace between people.  If you are feeling awkward or unsure, a gracious host can set you at ease.  If someone has hurt you, you can graciously accept their apology, just as you can graciously apologize for hurting someone.  It involves having the capacity for compassion, courtesy, kindness, and mercy.

Have you ever done something that made you feel awkward or embarrassed and then someone said something or did something that put you at ease?  Have you ever put your foot in your mouth and then had someone forgive your insensitivity?  Have you ever messed up in such a way that your relationship with someone else became estranged, only to have another person graciously refuse to cut you off entirely?  That’s grace.  We can recognize the grace that comes from graciousness.

How do the workings of grace play out in your life?  I find grace, I experience grace, in the receiving of love.  When it comes right down to it, if I’m completely honest with myself, the love that I receive is not something I can really say that I’ve earned.  And, if I continue to receive it in the future, it won’t be because of merit.

Our positive theological anthropology, our positive view of human nature, does not guarantee that we will never be wretched.  It doesn’t guarantee that our fate in life will be determined by actuarial tables, by an accounting of our credits and debts, our rising up and sinking down.  No, our positive anthropology insists that our own wretchedness isn’t the final word, the end of the story, or our eternal fate.  Grace is many things, and one of the things that it is graciousness, the ability to redeem and bless each other.  As Unitarian Universalists we are the inheritors of twin theological traditions.  The Universalists spoke of an all-loving God, ever bestowing the great gift of grace.  The Unitarians spoke of a humanity worthy of love, still worthy of love despite any evidence that may be produced to the contrary. 

May we be both the givers and receivers of grace.

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.


Sermon
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.