The Grass is Always Greener
A Sermon offered to the UUCE
by The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
August 18, 2013
Good morning. I haven’t been at a UU church on a Sunday for a long time, and anticipating some nervousness, I am going to start off with a joke. So there are differences in UU churchs across the country. Back East, like in Boston where I am from, it is a bit more conservative. In UU churches there, Jesus is optional. In the Mid-West it loosens a bit, and God is optional. And out here, on the West Coast, clothing is optional.
Right off the bat, I have to apologize. I am going to offend some of you good people. It is a special gift I have, offending people. A superpower almost, one that I cultivated in UU churches. I am going to offend because I am going to talk pretty clearly about something that does not get a lot of airtime in UU churches in my experience, UU theology. And I am going to talk about it from the perspective of someone who underwent a deep religious transformation in a UU context and found myself to not be UU. I spent four years at Harvard Divinity School as a candidate for UU ordination; I withdrew a month before my final ordination interview. I have preached from the same pulpit that Emerson preached his Divinity School Address, and from where Theodore Parker preached “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” I even come from the inner sanctum of UUism, Boston, and while this faith tradition, this continually emerging and evolving faith tradition turned out to be very complicated for me, and turned out not to be the path I have been called to follow, I am deeply indebted to this movement. I appreciate it deeply, and my time in your care has enabled me to be a much, much better Christian than I could have become otherwise. So right off the bat, I am sorry if what I will say is hard to hear, but in the spirit of the Common Lectionary’s gospel reading for this morning, I come not bringing peace, but a sword.
To set the context, a brief bio… I had a potent religious experience 15 years ago in which it was perfectly clear that I was called into ministry. The thing was, I had no church home and I was pretty sure that Christians were completely full of malarkey if not something even less palatable. I was baptized into the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church… tough Lutherans, but then we migrated to a very liberal UCC church when I was in elementary school. It never stuck for me; it was thin soup for my soul. Then I went off as an officer in the Marine Corps where I experienced a brand of Christianity that was virulent, violent and nonsensical to me: “God is an angry God who likes wars sometimes” kind of nonsensical.
But then this thing happened, and ministry was laid on my like a mantel, (or wet blanket, it is hard to tell sometimes), and I had no idea what to do. I was living in Western Mass and my then girlfriend, now wife had some radical, lesbian social worker friends who were UU so I knew it couldn’t be all bad. It wasn’t, in fact it was awesome. I was blown away, invited in, called out and next thing I know I’m at divinity school. In my second year I even had the great fortune to serve as intern at one of the great churches in the movement: First Unitarian, Portland, under the mentorship of Marilyn Sewell. The UU was good to me. Very good.
There is so much about the Unitarian Universalist universe that I love, admire, and (shhhh, don’t tell anyone) that I miss. The grass is greener from the other side… Truly, you all got it going on in so many ways. From the very earliest days of the movement, this has been (and in ways continues to be) the radical leading edge of the Protestant Reformation. The Unitarian and Universalist predecessors of the UUA, in myriad ways pushed the boundaries of what it means to be Christian. U’s and U’s probed deeply what doctrines, dogmas, creeds, beliefs, habits were necessary to still consider ones self Christian. Your ancestors pushed the faith to the limits of its understanding and it brought the universal church with it. Universalism died as a stand alone movement because it won. The main line protestant church is basically universalist now because of the eminent reason and merciful acceptance of the theology of universal salvation, even the Presbyterians don’t talk about pre-destination outside of historical curiosity anymore. The Universalists preached themselves out of distinctiveness. That is fantastic. And all of this happened by the constant, relentless habit that UUs developed over the years: asking questions.
A second gift that UU offers the world, it certainly offered it to me, was the application of reason to the religious project. Now you are not alone in that. Richard Hooker, the first Anglican theologian in the 16th century located religious authority in the Three-legged stool, the idea that God is discerned in a balance between Scripture, Tradition and Reason. But Unitarians, from Michael Servetus, through the Joseph Priestleys, Murrays, Ballous, Emersons, Parkers and the rest of them, thinking, deep thinking, applying learning in many ways to influence how we know and approach God and life… fantastic. I can not imagine that I could have become Christian had I not been able to ask the questions I was allowed to ask as a UU seminarian. Like, “Do you have to have a personal relationship with Jesus to be Christian?” Christians kind of can’t ask that question, particularly in an ordination process. (Oh, the answer is basically “no”, with at least 108 caveats, asterisks and footnotes).
Now sometimes even reason can go too far. I did a paper for a history class on a little know disputation initiated by Joseph Priestley. With the innovation of Unitarian Christianity, with its non-Trinitarian God-head, Priestley determined that Jewish people no longer had an argument with Christianity and they should join the Unitarian camp. In 1786 Priestley published a collection of pamphlets as a book entitled, Letters to the Jews, which said just that. “Since we’ve dealt with Jesus, you’ve got no reason not to be a Unitarian Christian.” It wasn’t taken very well by the small 18th century Jewish population in England. A man named David Levi wrote a reply, a book length A Letter to Joseph Priestly pointing out the absurdity of this proposal. Even reason has it limits.
Joseph Priestley’s hubris aside, a third gift of UU theology is a genuine existential humility. From the earliest days right up until now, Unitarian Universalism holds to the light that there is no one, single path to… nibbana, salvation, the promised land, peace in the valley, God. That there are as many paths to the divine as there are people in the world, as there are grains of sand on a beach, as there are stars in the sky. That is just true. Even in as an Anglo-Catholic, when I say “God” or “Christ” or “salvation” or “Blessing”, there are as many definitions and understanding of those words are there are people, grains of sand, stars… you get my drift. No matter how dogmatic, no matter how wrote folks can repeat back religious formulas, in the end, no single system of belief or way of approaching the holy can possibly contain all of the truth, nor can the adherents believe the same thing, we can’t explain things to each other that well. A single faith might contain enough truth to survive, even thrive with, but no single faith has a monopoly on the way things are. Period. And here, in a Unitarian Universalist, that knowledge is a basic premise of your movement. It is foundational. And it is awesome.
I could go on and on in the technicalities of why UU is a great way to be religiously, but I’ll end with one last one: it is a lot of fun. In general, besides sometimes being offended too easily, free-minded, liberal/progressive folks are fun, more fun than most. And more so, it is fun to be in the opposition, particularly the religious opposition because there is so much bad religion to oppose. The world is rife with small, mean spirited, un-loving, un-graceful, un-forgiving, silly and down-right un-Godly religious ways of being. Horrific, even. And being the loyal opposition, the opposition to small mindedness, intolerance, joylessness, dogmatism… it is a great place to be. It is a great posture to being a religious life in, and it is something I miss, deeply.
So where did you loose me?
Right off the bat it was the liturgy. A form of prayer, an ancient form of prayer. I need that. The coming to church each week not knowing what to expect; I am too fragile a soul for that. I need habits, holy habits repeated weekly to keep me grounded. I can’t do it on my own.
But that speaks to a much larger issue. The issue of mystery, or more importantly, how do we, do I engage with Mystery with a capital “M”. The founding roots of UU was all about calling out the powers that be and saying, “You don’t have all the answers.” No doubt about that. I am confident that the Bible contains everything sufficient for salvation, the wisdom and grace of God is contained within those pages, but great is the mystery of faith… how to divine out that grace and wisdom, how to read, learn and inwardly digest it, now that is a deep, deep mystery that takes lifetimes to discern and is impossible to do in isolation, it is not about me. It takes community, and that community is not just local, it is not just national or global, it is catholic (meaning universal) and that means that the dead get a vote too, not a veto, but a vote. That is where scripture ascends in importance for me, tradition, too, like funny collars and bishops and liturgical forms.
But as my prayer and meditation practice took me deeper and deeper into silence, deeper and deeper into places of Mystery, I began to find that answers became less and less clear, or maybe that the questions became less and less answerable. And I found great comfort, solace and strength in the Christian story approached through a form of Christianity not comfortable with mystery (only the most spiritually adept are actually comfortable with mystery), but willing and able to recognize its existential reality. My faith does not give me many answers, but it gives me a community, a process, a ritual framework for asking questions, for listening deeply to myself, others and The Other, and a place to live in the true and natural ambiguity of life. What I found in Christianity that I did not find in UU is that I did not have to do it on my own.
When push comes to shove, in all religious conversations, it all comes down to authority. Where does the authority come from? What I figured out, what I discerned, is that the Unitarian Universalist project posits that in the end, the individual is the ultimate authority on deciding what is true. And not only what is true, but how that truth is arrived at, how it is discerned. If a liberal Christian lens is what you want to use, have at it. A neo-pagan one, fine. A religious humanist approach, all are welcome here. And that is fantastic. But that was just too much responsibility for me. I always found myself cross referencing, second guessing, searching, searching, searching and not arriving at any solid conclusions because I, on my own, couldn’t handle the Mystery, couldn’t handle the unknowable on my own. I could not handle being responsible for that authority.
All of us, be we Muslim, Christian, Jewish, UU, Nones, Jedi, even, all of us are the ultimate authority when it comes to our own path. We choose to believe or not, to have faith or not, to surrender or not. At least in the Abrahamic faiths, the fact that we have a choice is itself a primary gift of God. So I understand, have always understood that the power, the authority and responsibility to follow a path, to do right or wrong, to be kind and merciful or not lies in each of our individual hands, heads, and hearts. Where you all lost me at least, is that I can’t create that path myself. Ancient vocabularies, scriptures, forms of worship and mediation, a pattern of ritual, billions of other human beings over thousands of years leaning, learning, yearning for truth and righteousness, for God in God’s self. I couldn’t, can’t create that on my own. Or more importantly, I don’t want to do it on my own. I don’t want to debate the meaning of words, much. Debate the form of worship, much. I want to get on with creating peace in my heart, with approaching the ground of being with bended knees and folded hands, and with the strength found there, with others who find their strength in Mystery, to do the work in the world that we have been given to do, to love and serve God and neighbor with gladness and singleness of heart, singleness of purpose.
Now, there are a lot of sacrifices to be made, in accepting a religious path. A lot of freedom is sacrificed. A lot of Christianity is pretty creepy if not downright evil, heretical, in opposition to what I understand a loving, and ultimately forgiving God to look like. There are still a lot of vocabulary gymnastics I have to do, like I inwardly wince a little each time I offer a blessing in the name of God the Father… Lots of compromises, and compromises I can make in part because I never had and religious trauma in my up-bringing. I am privileged that way. And while Mae West said, “Too much of a good thing is just fine,” for me, too much freedom, too much religious freedom in particular left me adrift in the world.
But I am not adrift now. I am a happy member of the loyal opposition within the Episcopal church. And I get to wear funny collars, and pray ancient prayers to the Blessed Virgin, and burn good incense, and work with the fantastic radical religious folks here at the UUCE as we build Conestoga huts, as we build Opportunity Village, as we keep the earth and each other better and better as we move closer, every day closer to some vision of the promised land. And whether the name of Jesus Christ is on our lips, or Mohammed, or the Buddha, or the words of “Spirit of Life,” we are walking together to build the beloved community. And that is what matters. AMEN.