Amazing Faith

Amazing Faith

Rev. Paul Sprecher

Second Parish in Hingham, www.secondparish.org

March 20, 2011

 

Reading: A Chosen Faith, Forrest Church & John Buehrens, Boston:  Beacon Press, 1989, 1998, pp. xx-xxiii

Unitarian Universalists are neither a chosen people nor a people whose choices are made for them by theological authorities—ancient or otherwise. We are a people who choose. Ours is a faith whose authority is grounded in contemporary experience, not ancient revelation. Though we find ourselves naturally drawn to the teachings of our adopted religious forebears, these teachings echo with new insights, insights of our own. Ralph Waldo Emerson did not seek disciples; he sought people who could use their minds and tap their souls as profoundly as he did. In a Unitarian Universalist church, revelation is an ongoing process; each of us is a potential harbinger of meaning….

Yet far more unites than divides us. Unitarian Universalist minister David Rankin, …  lists ten beliefs we hold in common.

1.         We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All individuals should be encouraged to develop a personal theology, and to openly present their religious opinions without fear of censure or reprisal.

2.         We believe in tolerance of religious ideas. The religions of every age and culture have something to teach those who listen.

3.         We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, a document, or an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.

4.         We believe in the search for truth. With an open mind and heart, there is no end to the fruitful and exciting revelations that the human spirit can find.

5.         We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge; religion and the world; the sacred and the secular.

6.         We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty, and justice; no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

7.         We believe in the ethical application of religion. Inner grace and faith finds completion in social and community involvement.

8.         We believe in the force of love, that the governing principle in human relationships is the principle of love, which seeks to help and heal, never to hurt or destroy.

9.         We believe in the necessity of the democratic process. Records are open to scrutiny, elections are open to members, and ideas are open to criticism, so that people might govern themselves.

10.           We believe in the importance of a religious community. Peers confirm and validate experience, and provide a critical platform, as well as a network of mutual support.

Such is our faith.

Sermon

John Murray, sometime Universalist minister in England in the latter part of the 1700’s, had hit rock bottom in his life.  His wife and infant son had died tragically and he himself was sitting in debtors’ prison, completely broke.  He determined to throw over his old life and, like so many others from the Old World, to venture to the New World and never to preach again.  And so, in September of 1770 he was on board a ship to New York City when the vessel was driven south and ran aground off the outer banks of Barnegat Bay, New Jersey.  (So many of our old stories begin with ships being driven off course.   If the Mayflower had not been driven north to Cape Cod instead of arriving as planned in New York, our history in the New World would never have started in Plymouth.)

Now, it so happened that Thomas Potter, an illiterate farmer who lived nearby, had formulated a doctrine of Universal salvation on his own.  He had come to believe, like all Universalists, that God is Love, and that no loving God would condemn anyone to eternal damnation in the pits of hell.  In the faith that one day a preacher would come and expound that doctrine, he had built a meetinghouse on his farm awaiting that day.  Murray was fleeing England precisely to avoid ever having to preach again, but Potter insisted that he stay until that Sunday to deliver the sermon.  They agreed that God would decide:  If the vessel floated off the sand bar before that Sunday, Murray would continue on his way to New York; if not, he would stay and preach.  Since I’m telling you this story, you will be not be too astonished to learn that the winds didn’t shift and that Murray preached that sermon and went on to become one of the founders of Universalism in America.  It’s one of the few documented miracles in the history of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.

We tell stories because they help us to illuminate who we are as individuals and as a people, and to talk about the kind of faith we follow and love.  Second Parish was founded as one of the Standing Order churches first set in place here in Massachusetts by our Puritan forebears.  When the Liberal and Conservative Christians in the those tax-supported churches found they could no longer live and worship together, some became Congregational and others, like Second Parish, became Unitarian, holding that God is One, and that the doctrine of the Trinity is a stumbling block for people of faith.  That was the origin of the Unitarian side of our Unitarian Universalist faith.  Thomas Starr King served as both a Unitarian and a Universalist minister in the mid eighteen hundreds and was credited by Abraham Lincoln with convincing the people of California to remain with the Union at the start of the Civil War.  King offered a pithy explanation of the difference between these two traditions of ours, which joined together fifty years ago to create our Unitarian Universalist Association.  Universalists, he said, believe that God is too good to damn people to hell, while Unitarians believe that they are too good for God to send them there.

The challenge raised by Universalism to a religion in which some are saved and some are damned is one of the sources of the first principle we affirm and promote in our faith, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Our combined Unitarian and Universalist traditions declare that there is one God, no one left behind.  We can see the origins of this faith in the Jewish Bible, when Moses instructed the Children of Israel to care for each other and for the stranger in their midst.  We see it in the teachings of Jesus, who taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and who made clear that our neighbor might be a stranger, someone from a different faith tradition, a Samaritan for example, hated and denounced as a heretic and an enemy of all that is good and right.  We see it in the teachings of our Universalist forebears, who reminded us that God is Love, and that such love extends to the whole world and to every person, a love that will not let us go.  We see it in our own nation’s Declaration of Independence, penned by that Unitarian fellow traveler Thomas Jefferson, which says that we hold this truth to be self evident: that all men are created equal.  And women.  And slaves.  Black and white, Chinese and Irish, Jew and Christian, Muslim and Buddhist, gay and straight, young and old:  all are equal.  Salvation is not just for people of our own sort, but for everyone.

I mention Muslims in particular because there is abroad in the land a spirit of distrust of  that religion, a spirit that tolerates the casual condemnation of the one and a half billion people in this world who adhere to that faith because of the actions and beliefs of their most fanatical heretics.  It’s as if the antics of the Westborough Baptist Church or of violent Identity Christians could be taken to represent what is held true by all Christians in America and in the world.  The fact is that we humans are all in this together, whatever our faith traditions, wherever we come from, whatever our skin tone, whatever our sexual orientation, or whatever else divides us. 

None of this should be taken to assert that evil doesn’t exist in the world, that tyrants don’t murder their own people, that religious fanatics don’t slaughter heretics, that earthquakes and tsunamis don’t cause enormous destruction, that we humans don’t suffer enormous loss and grief and pain, sometimes at the hands of other humans, sometimes at the hands of nature, sometimes because of the simple fact that we are all human and we will all die and leave loved ones behind.  But our faith teaches us humility in the face of evil.  It is all too easy to recognize only what is good in ourselves and to project everything that is evil on someone else.  As Andrei Sakharov reminded us, the truth is that “The line between good and evil is drawn not between nations or parties, but through every human heart.”  Our faith tradition teaches that evil creates plenty of hell right here on earth, but that it is in our hands to stand against that evil and to help quench the flames that torment so many of us living on this earth, and indeed the earth itself.  Human beings have to choose between what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil; but those choices are in each of our hands; humans are not evil by nature, they do evil by choice.  Evil can grip a whole community in the form of drug trafficking and addiction; evil can infect a whole society with hatred of one religions persuasion or one ethnic group for others; evil can tear families apart and lead to generations of suffering.  But evil doesn’t have the final word.  As that great Boston Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker asserted just before the slaughter of the Civil War, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  We might amend that by reminding ourselves that we can bend it toward justice, and that we must, for truly it is our hands, our human hands, that must do the work of healing here on earth.

There are those among us who are uncomfortable with some of the religious language used by our Unitarian and Universalist forebears.  Some feel uneasy with “God talk,” and prefer to understand our faith tradition in purely human terms.  Some among us identify themselves as Buddhists, a tradition which teaches that we can never know what gods might be like or what happens to us after we die.  Some of us come from other religious traditions or from none.  Our faith teaches us that we humans use many different words to speak of our highest aspirations, the things we hold most dear.  In all of those words, in all of those languages, we understand that each of us worships in what Forrest Church calls the cathedral of the world, each of us polishes our own window and sees that which is highest through our own lens, but we also acknowledge that through all of those windows the same light shines.  We all find our own ways to wrestle with what Church refers to as the central issue of our living, which turns us all to the quest for faith:  “Religion,” he says, “is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”

We don’t live only in the human world, though, and loving our neighbor is not our only responsibility.  The seventh and last of our Unitarian Universalist principles calls on us to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  Our concern and our effort must also extend to care for this fragile earth that sustains and nurtures all of the billions of us humans and all of life in its many diverse and wondrous forms.  Earth was given as a garden, and we humans are the ones who must be good stewards in caring for that garden. 

We believe in the use of reason for guiding our own lives and for living on this earth together.  Our faith commits us to caring for this interdependent web of all existence, of which we are only a part, but it doesn’t tell us how to do that or exactly what care might be needed.  Hence we rely on the findings of science to understand how this earth of ours is faring and, as just one example, we understand that humans are contributing to climate change, and that these changes will affect and imperil many of the people living on this earth as well as many of the other living beings with whom we share this precious little habitable globe.  We may differ on the political steps needed to help protect all of life from great harm, but we do not differ in our commitment to reason, to science, as our way of understanding the results we need to achieve.

These are a few of the shining jewels of our Unitarian Universalist faith, a few of the stories we tell about where we come from, a few of the ideals that help us to discern and commit to our own highest aspirations.

Olympia Brown was a Universalist preacher and fervent advocate of rights for women, especially the right to vote.  She ministered, among other places, in our neighboring town of Weymouth and in my home state of Wisconsin.  We Unitarian Universalists take pride in the fact that she was the first woman ordained with full denominational authority in 1863.  We also take pride in that fact that today we are the first denomination in which more women than men are serving as ministers of our faith.  Olympia Brown reminds us of how precious this faith of ours truly is.  She exhorts us:

Stand by this faith.

Work for it and sacrifice for it.

 

There is nothing in all the world

so important as to be loyal to this faith

which has placed before us the loftiest ideals,

 

which has comforted us in sorrow,

strengthened us for noble duty and

made the world beautiful.

 

Do not demand immediate results

but rejoice that we are worthy

to be entrusted with this great message.

That you are strong enough to work

for a great true principle

without counting the cost.

 

Go on finding ever new applications of these truths

and new enjoyments in their contemplation,

always trusting in the one God which ever lives and loves.”

Such is our faith.  May we live in such a manner as to be worthy of it.

So may it be, and Amen.

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