Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sermon: “Roots, Hold Me Close? Seriously?: Affirming Our UU Voice”

For Bradford Community Church, Kenosha, WI

For a bunch of people who love to go to church Sunday after Sunday, Unitarian Universalists have a way in taking pride in being non-“liturgical.”
            Take, for instance, the following fictitious conversation between two co-workers:
            Person 1 – “That’s a cool black cross on your forehead.”
Person 2 – “Yeah, we had our Ash Wednesday service this year. Same as last year.”
1 – “Oh yeah?”
2 – “Yeah…  I really felt God there.  I always do.”
1 – “Oh yeah? Oh. [awkward pause]  Well I couldn’t imagine having the same thing week after week, year after year. Yeah, that’s why I’m a UU.  We never know what we’re gonna get.”
2 – “Oh yeah?”
1 – “Yeah.”

Hmm, what’s wrong with this picture?  In some ways, it’s true.  The Order of Service changes every now and again to accommodate extra readings or fewer hymns.  But what about the things we do hold dear?  On any given Sunday, UU’s all over the world… light the chalice, share joys and sorrows, open the same hymnal, read some of the same readings, cringe when the preacher says “God” too much, extinguish the chalice, receive the benediction, go forth into the world to create justice… and drink coffee from Equal Exchange!  It’s all there.  Who says UU’s don’t have tradition!  Who says we don’t have ritual?    //  

Perhaps our rituals that are shared worldwide look dissimilar to those of other denominations.  But on the local level, some New England Universalist churches share the Holy Eucharist every week, to celebrate the universal salvation provided by Jesus of Nazareth.  Other congregations share the Passover Seder and other Jewish Unitarian feasts.  We are Congregationalists—authors of the Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.  Just like our UU forbears (and their colleagues) wrote the Constitution so that states would have rights that the Federal government can never infringe upon, also the local congregation decides local ritual and theology.  So, what does our local liturgy tell us about our theology? 

As many of you know, I’m taking a couple seminary classes each semester to pursue an enhanced ministry as “Minister for Religious Education” or “of Lifespan Faith Development.”  As part of my chosen degree program, I’m required to take extra coursework in vocal performance, conducting and liturgical studies.  I already had a hunch when I started out but I now know for sure that we use music here at Bradford UU differently than the Methodist church down the road.  While the Methodists might use a prelude to convey the majesty of God, we tend to use that time at Bradford for “being still” or centering ourselves for worship.

Neither is incorrect.
What is liturgy, anyway? (And when is he going to talk about music?)
Liturgy has been defined as meaning, “the work of the people.” 
Many take this to mean that, whatever we do in church, that is liturgy, because we’re the people… doing a work. 
But a better understanding of this term might be “liturgy for the people.”
Roman senators were liturgists of the law.  Because people needed the Roman government to act on their behalf, the senators would create laws to help them out. 
Sociologist Anthony J. Blasi writes that “Ritual is neither the recapitulation of the profane nor the imprisonment of the sacred, but rather the … opening-to the transcendent sacred. In participating in ritual, the person is neither being profane nor sacred, but is rather being religious.”
What does this mean for music in worship? 
Good art cannot stand on its own in worship, or else it ceases to be worship. 
Good art cannot be didactic in worship, otherwise it ceases to be art. 
Good art (in worship) must be a portal that connects us here… to all the other worshipers around the world. 
It must connect us to the stories of our forebears, saints, prophets and reformers. 
It must hold “the good” in tension with “the bad” of our history. 
…  And—if it’s really good—then it will connect us to the Methodist church down the street, even when we do not share all of the same beliefs. 
But it’s just music, right?  Music isn’t that important to UU, is it? 
No!  It’s who we are.  Music is an expression of our most authentic selves. 
To learn a congregation’s culture is to honor the people that comprise it.
And the more a congregation learns about itself, the better it is able to engage in critical reflection of itself…. Like writing a mission statement.
It’s like we’re writing a new mission statement every week, when we sing our hymns. 
Right here, in this hymnal, we are able to offer up sacred words from Torah to Bhagavad Gita.
We vocalize the secular words of Emily Dickinson, Annie Dillard and Walt Whitman. 
It becomes religious… because of that connection that we have with the profound-profane.

This morning, we sang about how the notion of “God” is not limited to the traditional Judeo-Christian image.  No, our Unitarian forbears have freed us to use as many metaphors for the Eternal as we are so inspired.  Now, UU's have humanist or Christian beliefs… Buddhist or Sufi spiritualities… Yet these different beliefs and different spiritualities all exist harmoniously in our one faith community that worships together.  Now THAT is opening-up to the transcendent!

This morning, we also sang about how all people are welcome to worship here.  It doesn’t matter how many times people think we’ve sinned.  Our Universalist forbears have freed us to drop the “holier than thou” act, tear down the walls of prejudice, and work to model the institutions of earth after the institutions of heaven.  All lines of separation gone…  Now THAT is opening-up to the transcendent!

When I consider the words to the beloved Hymn 123, Spirit of Life, I have to wonder how many people roll their eyes at the words, “Roots hold me close.”  I get the feeling that people want to say, “Blah blah blah blah, WINGS, SET ME FREE!”

In the last UUA Commission on Appraisal report that was released in May 2005, this tendency is most evident.  They write,
Today most UUs, if asked, “Are you Christian?” would respond with something between “Well, not really,” and “Hell, no!” Though there are many UU Christians, they have become a minority within the denomination. In fact, UUs seem almost proud of the way they have abandoned their roots.

(I didn’t write that; this UUA Commission did.)

They continue:
In religious studies, this idea is called supersessionism; one example is the notion that Christianity superseded Judaism. Now many of us imply that UU has superseded Christianity.
UU's need to make peace with their heritage.
… UUs should do a better job of remembering the tradition from which they came, and even be grateful to it. UUs should be aware of, and make use of, the rich gifts [in] the movement’s heritage.

            I suggest to you today… that if we did not have Universalism—that wonderful Christian denomination—then we might not be “Welcoming” of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and queer/questioning individuals… which means I wouldn’t be here in front of you today, and many of you would have to scoot, too!

            It is also quite possible—without those rational Christians called Unitarians—that we would still be talking about certain Bible passages without the historical-critical method of interpretation… and talking about loaves and fishes as if actually happened as described in the Bible—not looking for deeper meaning in such miraculous descriptions.

            We cannot abandon our roots, because if we do, we will stay exactly where we are for the next 100 years… and we will become the fundamentalists of the future.  Abandoning roots is exactly how idealisms shrivel up and become irrelevant (though perhaps influential) fundamentalists.

            Rather, we must rejoice for our prophetic forebears… for poising us to be the religion of our time.  Our connection to these roots is our liturgy, our heritage, our tradition, our scriptures, our shared stories… and our never-ending pursuit of truth, meaning and new sacraments.

            So, why do UU's tend to shout?  Why do UU's tend to struggle for justice?  Maybe it’s because we were burned at the stake as heretics by the Catholic church (years before Martin Luther) for serving the bread and the chalice to all people—rather than just the bread.  When you get burned at the stake for giving people a chalice, you tend to shout…  You also tend to commemorate this tragic event with a ritual, such as igniting a flaming chalice.

            Why do UU’s tend to shout?  When you officiate a marriage in California, like our Association President did, and the Supreme Court decides your religious and legal ceremony was unconstitutional—or you’re the couple that was married—you tend to shout!  You tend to march for the equality for all people—based not on political affiliation but religious principle.  You also tend to make your sanctuary a safe place for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities!

            Our ritual and traditions… connect to our ethics.  This is our worship.  This is what makes us UU.  This is what sends us forward to struggle for justice once again, and next week, we can come back to refuel right here…  Even though you may fail…  Even though you may not live up to UU values this week, you are still welcome here.  Now that is opening-up to the transcendent sacred.