Sermon 01-09-11: Arizona

As many of my readers know, I'm on sabbatical.  But I had volunteered to preach this past weekend at a colleague's church on her Sunday off.  I had volunteered a new sermon topic, rather than a "canned" one, but one I knew I would use again in my own congregation later.  I was most of the way done with my sermon, a sermon on the future of Unitarian Universalism, and had two parts left to go -- one was on the work our denomination has done on immigration reform, particularly in Arizona, and then the conclusion. That's where I had left things on Friday night.  When I got back on the computer late Saturday afternoon, I checked into Facebook, and was hit by the news of the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona.  I knew I couldn't complete my sermon as I had planned, and was going to have to change it.  Because I wasn't preaching in my own church, I didn't completely scrap the sermon, but as you'll see below it was greatly changed.

My first instinct was to reflect or pray, and so I wrote a prayer, which appears on the post before this on this blog (link below).  I then spent a great time just absorbing the news, reading articles, watching TV, reading Facebook.  I saw there the impact of social media on our ministry, as I saw colleague after colleague posting that they were scrapping their sermons.  One was the Rev. Meg Riley, minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.  Her sermon can be read online here.  A reading that a colleague posted up was used by many of us as a reading, including the Rev. Meg Riley and myself--the link appears below.  We watched as the Rev. Peter Morales, our UUA president, quickly put up a statement on his Facebook page; about an hour later it went up on the UUA's page (link to statement below).  I saw another colleague, the Rev. Erika Hewitt, mention that a chat room for ministers changing their sermons had been set up.  I'm grateful to her for sending me the link to the chat room that UU blogger and minister "PeaceBang" had set up. 

Nine years ago when I began my ministry, I was only a few weeks into my first ministry when September 11th, 2001 happened.  At that time, there was a minister's e-mail chat, but my main support came from the fact that my UU colleague cluster in Houston was the next day.  We met and talked about what we were going to do that Sunday and shared sources.  It was of tremendous help.  How wonderful it was now, nine years later, to have an online community of colleagues who could get together through social networking.  Especially since this was a Saturday tragedy, the social networking played a large roll in supporting us all.  Meg Riley speaks of it also on her post.

So with that as prelude, I'm sharing below what I shared this past Sunday, complete with showing you what I cut out.  If you're in my congregation or district (Heartland), feel free to read this, but understand that I may preach all or substantial pieces again at my congregation and (possibly) the district assembly (although I'm hoping we'll have enough other preachers that I won't be--I'm just back-up).


"Statement on Shootings in Tucson" by UUA President, Rev. Peter Morales


"Arizona Prayer" by Cynthia Landrum


Excerpt from “Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: Speaking for the Soul” by Diana Butler Bass


This year our denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, is celebrating 50 years of existence, and I said to you all that I would talk on the subject of “The Next 50 Years.”  I’m going to try to behave.  After all, Yvonne was nice enough to invite me to come here.  See—I’m starting out on task and everything.  We’ll see where it goes from here. 

[The original start to the sermon.]  50 years ago, after years of courtship, two denominations, the Unitarians and Universalists, made their relationship official and tied the knot, and became Unitarian Universalism, the denomination we’ve inherited today.  Without going into a whole lot and making this a sermon about Unitarian and Universalist history, let me tell you a little about how I see the history of our faith – the larger faith, the wider hope.

We started out, two heretical faiths.  Universalism was fresh denomination that believed in the inclusive wider love of God for all souls.  Unitarianism was born out of a schism with Congregationalism, in which the Congregationalists chose to close their doors to the belief in the unity, rather than trinity of God, and church by church, the congregations picked sides and became one denomination or the other. 

From the times of their creations, both denominations were faced with a series of internal controversies in which they could have, like many others before them, created doctrines and demanded adherence.  Instead, we chose the non-creedal route wherein each time our faith became broader and more-inclusive.  We did this when faced with the question of Transcendentalism, which espoused the belief that God could be found not only through our sacred scriptures, but through personal experience and the natural world.  We did this with the “Issue in the West” and the emergence of Humanism, and said that one could be a Unitarian, and, yes, a Universalist, and not believe in God.  In 1946 Tracey Pullman, minister of the Universalist Church in Detroit articulated the need for us to become a new religion, “greater than Christianity because it is an evolutionary religion, because it is universal rather than partial, because it is one with the spirit of science and is primarily interested in bringing out that which is God-like in man.” [1]   Three years earlier in 1943, Robert Cummins had said in an address at the Universalist general assembly:
Universalism cannot be limited to Protestantism or to Christianity, not without denying its very name. Ours is a world fellowship, not just a Christian sect. For so long as Universalism is universalism and not partialism, the fellowship bearing its name must succeed in making it unmistakably clear that all are welcome: theist and humanist, unitarian and Trinitarian, colored and color-less. A circumscribed Universalism is unthinkable.[2]
That, in a nutshell, is the nature of both of the denominations that merged because of their great similarity and became Unitarian Universalism.

And a circumscribed Unitarian Universalism had been equally unthinkable.  From this denomination which made it clear that theist and humanist, Unitarian and Trinitarian were all welcome we became a church which has made it clear that we are a faith that welcomes Wiccans and Pagans of all sorts of stripes—that you can not only be Trinitarian or Unitarian, you can be atheist, deist, pantheist or polytheist or panentheist or even transtheist.  We became a movement which adapted to the feminist movement and became more welcoming of people of all genders into every aspect of our religious and corporate life.  We’ve made it abundantly clear that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, and questioning are equally welcomed with heterosexual people. 

Thus ends my quick explanation of the history of Unitarian Universalism, but I want to add that we are a faith that has literally saved lives with our open acceptance.  While others concern themselves with saving souls—often by prematurely damning people in this life, casting them literally out of home for transgressions—we have been concerned with saving lives, here and now, and building that beloved community here on earth.  Never was that more clear to me than this fall when we watched, with horror, as suicide after suicide was announced of young gay men in despair.  Ours is a saving faith, saving lives with acceptance – I wish they had known us. 

So what does that mean for our future?  Within this framework of who we are –the wider faith, the larger hope—what does that mean about who we will or need to become?

Whatever we become, it will be consistent with who we’ve been and what we are.  It will be consistent with our non-creedal congregational faith.  It will be consistent with James Luther Adams’ five smooth stones of religious liberalism:
  • "Religious liberalism depends on the principle that 'revelation' is continuous."
  • "All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion."
  • "Religious liberalism affirms the moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is this which makes the role of the prophet central and indispensable in liberalism."
  • "[W]e deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation."
  • "[L]iberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism."[3]
In other words, our faith is and will always be a place where we are open to new ideas; where we are willing and free participants; where we work to build the beloved community, to make the world a better place; where we believe in doing justice; and where we believe we believe in a radical democratic hope.

But all this is not to say we might not have to radically change as we move into the future.  For example, there’s the challenge of how our faith will attract and retain members of the younger generation, or generations.  A recent Pew Research study showed that among Millennials, a smaller percentage are involved in church life than preceding generations were at the same point in their lives.[4]   Whereas in earlier generations when someone left a religion they felt the need to find another one, now it is much more acceptable in our society to be without a church, and so many of them simply do not go.  It’s not because of a lack of faith—almost as many millennials believe in God as did GenXers at their age. 
            There’s some good news for us in this—Millennials have some attitudes that are in concert with us, like not taking scriptures literally, thinking that there could be more than one path to God, or increased acceptance of homosexuality and evolution.  But there is some bad news, too – it doesn’t matter if they agree with us sometimes, they’re still not joiners of churches. 
            For example, Anna Snoeyenbos, a life-long UU who lives and worships in Atlanta, recently wrote on her blog:
My parent's generation was willing to put-in the work of keeping their churches going. I'm not convinced that my generation is. I know that personally - the last thing I want to do is spend hours of my time worrying over bylaws, nomination commitees, "vision-planning" committees etc. when I could be spending my time in prayer, fellowship and service to others. Remember, we're the generation that is more spiritual than previous generations, but less religious.
For boomers, this looks like laziness shrouded in idealism. For my generation, we feel that spending more time on polity and governance than on building the kingdom is navel-gazing and uninspiring…
Increased mobility and increased religious freedom has left us with more choices for faith communities than we know what to do with. Those communities that ask my generation to serve the world will thrive - those communities that ask my generation to serve themselves will not.[5]
Rather than bemoaning this—that Millennials are not necessarily interested in the work of running a church—we need to figure out how to address it, how to give them the church that they’re looking for.  None of the five smooth stones is about the importance of committee work.
            But while they’re not connected to congregations, Millennials are connected – socially.  They’ve invented social networks that now the rest of us are climbing on board on.  Our UUA President, Peter Morales, has said on a couple of occasions at least that he would like to see us become the app store for religion, or something to that effect.  I can’t find his exact quote, but what struck me about it was the idea of the UUA president using the idea of “app store” as a model for how we should change and adapt.  Right now, I’m convinced that reaching out to meet people where they’re at, through social media and through our traditional congregational life, and providing them with liberal religious content, whether or not they ever come in our doors and whether or not they ever join a committee, is part of what we’re called to do to become this religion that will grow and thrive in the next 50 years.
            How else will we need to grow and adapt and change over the years to come?  We know that technology has made our world smaller and that we’re more aware that we’re living in a multicultural world.  Worshipping in a historically classical Protestant style was not, again, one of those five smooth stones.  People of all races, even Caucasian, and all backgrounds, even your U.S. American Protestant backgrounds, all national origins, even a U.S.A. born and raised national origin, are expecting worship to be increasingly diverse.  I know that I personally feel more fulfilled by worship that incorporates diverse sources, whether it’s from different cultures around the world, or different cultures within America, or different religions.  I’m sure that’s true for many of you, too, perhaps for all of you.  But when it isn’t, we need to stretch our comfort zones so that all our hymns don’t have to be 4/4 in C or F from hymns that are 100 years old in the European tradition, and so that all our meditation songs don’t have to be Bach or Beethoven or other great and wonderful classical composers from Western Europe.  However much people of, say, my demographic profile want our worship to be multicultural, people from minority cultures and races want it even more, and the Millennials want it more.

I had a few examples of ways I think we’ll grow and change and ways we’ll be the same that I wanted to share with you today.  I had some thoughts about the Millennial generation and how they’re going to change who we’ll be – they are less of church joiners, and we’re going to have to adapt to their desires, which is not to just to church as usual, but to look less like a place to join committees and more like a place to join a social network.  I had some thoughts about how our worship needs to become more multicultural, reflecting not only the fact that we’re more aware of being part of a world community but also the desires of our members for worship that comes from diverse sources.  It was all very deep and meaningful, I assure you.  It was also somewhat dry, but that’s another story.  I’m sure it would’ve gotten better.

And then the third point I was going to turn to was how no matter how our corporate form, our structure, our worship changes, we’ll have to continue to be this religion that is ever casting the circle wider, this religion which holds tight to that smooth stone that says we must continue to work to build the beloved community here on earth.  And I was going to point to the current trends in Unitarian Universalism about where our justice work is going, namely immigration rights, and the work that has gone on in Arizona.

And then, of course, last night we had a terrible tragedy in Arizona, where several people were killed, and a congresswoman’s life is still held in the balance.  And, like always in times of great tragedy, the crystal clarity of our living tradition’s purpose here in America shines through. 

We are the prophetic faith, and ours is the prophethood of all believers.  And may that ever be so.  We are called in our faith to stand up against the culture of violence and death.  We are called to be prophets crying in the wind at times against a whirlwind of anger and hate. 

When it comes to Arizona, we’re doing just that.  The culture isn’t with us yet on this one.  We’re ahead of the curve, but I know and believe that the arc of the universe does bend towards justice, and so the path we’re on is right where the world needs us to be, and they’ll catch up on this one.  I did.

When our denomination stepped up its work on immigration recently, I wasn’t prepared for it.  It wasn’t my issue; I wasn’t studied on the issue, and I had no strong opinions, and I didn’t particularly care.  What I’m proud of is that I’m in a denomination that didn’t wait for people like me to lead the way, that the leadership of our movement isn’t simply seeing where the will of the entire group is and waiting for that consensus to make a move.  I’m proud of being part of a denomination that’s leading the way on progressive issues, even if maybe 70-80-90 percent of the country doesn’t agree on issues of immigration, although I don’t think it’s nearly that large.

I’ve told my congregation that all my sermons come down to love, so here it is.  Whatever we become, it will always be true that the ultimate force of the universe is love, and that we must be a religion that proclaims there is more love somewhere—there is more love for the immigrant, there is more love for the gay and lesbian, there is more love for the Muslim, there is more love for the Republican, there is more love for the Democrat, there is more love for the shooter.  There is more love somewhere.

In the wake of the shootings yesterday, and considering our deep involvement as a faith with the politics of Arizona, many began pointing to our responses to the shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, as helpful words for us to reflect on this day.  Unitarian Universalist minister Meg Barnhouse, who knew the shooter, wrote:
I would like to understand all of the reasons why a person would do something evil, but that’s not a pressing need for me. I’m not sure we’ll ever understand. I think the capability for destruction is within all of us, given certain pressures.
What I do need is to hear stories of courage and kindness.[6]
The minister of that church, the Rev. Chris Buice, said this at the church’s rededication service:
He came into this space with a desire to do an act of hatred, but he has unleashed unspeakable amounts of love.[7]
In an article in Newsweek, he wrote:
Members of my congregation have been hurt. But we have also been healed by the feeling that there is a love greater than our theological differences, a compassion that is not limited by the boundaries of any creed. I firmly believe, now more than ever, that love is stronger than death. Love is more powerful than hate.[8]
 Shortly after the shooting that happened in the Knoxville Unitarian Universalist church in 2008, I wrote this:
The day after the tragedy, members of the Tennessee Valley congregation gathered at the nearby Presbyterian church for a vigil. The children and adults, who only a day before witnessed horror and tragedy, sang out the words from Annie's "Tomorrow." While surely they were still experiencing shock, anger, denial and grief, they raised their voices

The Knoxville congregation members couldn't know it yet, but that night they were joined by churches across the nation in vigils. That same Monday evening, voices were being raised in prayer and song in our congregation here and in at least 50 other Unitarian Universalist congregations across the nation.
By the middle of that week, more than 200 vigils would be scheduled. That is an amazing outpouring of love from a denomination with little more than 1,000 congregations.

A few years ago, the world watched in awe as the Amish people responded to a shooting in one of their schoolhouses. The Amish taught the world about their faith as they responded with love and forgiveness. Today, we learn about a very different faith community, but again the response is love and forgiveness.[9]
Here we stand today after another tragedy, and our response is what it must be: Love.  Love beyond borders, love beyond politics, love beyond hate and fear, love.

Nobody can know what the future can bring for an individual, for a society, for a faith.  I don’t know what challenges we will face, I don’t know how our faith will grow and endure, I don’t know what ways we’ll profoundly change.  What I know is that the answer and the message, the alpha and omega, will still be Love.

So as we boldly go into the unknown future, that is the only thing I can ultimately put before us: Love.  And so I close with the words of Elizabeth Alexander from her poem “Praise Song for the Day.”
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.[10]
Let us walk forward in that light.



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