This week, we are thrilled to present the words of a Unitarian Universalist who went to General Assembly and was asked to give a sermon based on what she learned. She has graciously contributed her words to this website so that we can hopefully incite two very important discussions about two very important words that some Unitarian Universalists find distasteful if not outright offensive. The sermon is posted in two parts, and the first can be found with this link. The video included at the bottom of the first post is the bulk of the service, though we’ve book marked it to start at the sermon, where these two parts are delivered together. ~Thomas
A while back, I had made a late night trip to the store. I don’t remember what it was that I needed so badly at 10 o’clock, but whatever it was, I was willing to wait in a ridiculously long checkout line for it. I ended up talking with the woman behind me because what else was I going to do? She asked if I lived in the area and I said that I did and shared that I was born a little north of here in Denton and that I had lived most of my life in the area. Then she asked where I went to church and even with being a native Texan, that’s still not a question that I’m expecting to have to answer within two minutes of meeting someone. But, having been raised with Southern manners and taught that I’m supposed to make small talk to be polite, I told her that I was a member of Horizon and left it at that.
She asked where the church was located and after a rough description she was curious to know if that was the church with the big steeple that you could see from the highway. No, it’s not the one with the big steeple. Her next question wasn’t so direct. She hemmed and hawed and danced around what she wanted to ask. “Well… what or um… is there some kind of…” She wanted to know the denomination of the church. This was the point where I realized that I was way deeper into this conversation than I wanted to be and I had absolutely no exit strategy other than chucking my items on a shelf and running for my car. “Sorry ma’am, but my grandmother’s on fire and I need to go.” Looking back, I’m not proud of how that conversation turned out. When she asked me what I liked about the church or why I kept coming back, my brain started a rapid fire analysis of worst case scenarios depending on what sort of answer I gave. Mainly, my goal was not to give a response that would earn me some kind of lesson about my immortal soul being in jeopardy and the need to accept Jesus in order to save myself from hell. I don’t believe in hell. And even if I’m wrong on that point, I still believe that whatever higher power might exist is a benevolent one which, in my mind, doesn’t leave any room for eternal damnation. But of course I didn’t actually say any of that.
I said that I liked the music selections and enjoyed singing in the choir and then listened as she told me about how Unitarians believe everything and lack direction. Not a very fulfilling conversation, but at least I avoided the brimstone angle. But why did I just stand there and let this person disparage my faith? Why didn’t I speak up and say “No. There’s so much more to Unitarian Universalism than you think there is and we don’t have to require a formal creed from our members in order to be in relationship with one another.” And yet, for all the happiness and fulfillment that I’ve found here, there’s a part of me that still feels very awkward and strange about presenting myself as a person of faith, like I’m only telling someone half the story when I talk about teaching a class here or singing in the choir. Because I think that what I’m saying and what they’re hearing or assuming probably aren’t the same. And I would argue that I’m not the only one with these reservations.
In his book, Reclaiming Prophetic Witness, Paul Rasor writes about how religion is portrayed in the media. A 2007 study by Media Matters for America, a nonprofit media-monitoring organization, found that in the two years following the 2004 presidential election, conservative religious figures were covered almost three times more often than liberal or progressive figures. With that much focus on only one side, it’s not surprising that people might decide that liberal and religious are mutually exclusive terms. And we’ve helped a little in digging that hole by exercising an almost “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to other people and religion. We care deeply about religious freedom and to avoid the potential for someone feel pressured or put down, we just avoid the topic altogether. Many of us have seen the wounds inflicted by bad theologies—theologies that drive us apart, rather than bring us together. Many of us, myself included, are personally familiar with the pain of being excluded or othered by a religious community or the anxiety that comes from the constant message that you are not and can never be good enough. We’ve watched as a message of redemption is corrupted and leveraged as a weapon against others and we’re left with so much hurt and angst that we would do anything to avoid even the thinnest resemblance to those doctrines of exclusion—including intentionally NOT presenting ourselves as religious people.
But we’re not doing anyone any favors by remaining silent. We didn’t advance religious freedom or religious tolerance by being silent. We’re not going to solve the problem of racial inequality by remaining silent. We can’t secure full legal protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer individuals by remaining silent. And we won’t show people that there is a new way to view religion if we remain silent. While we’ve been busy dismantling institutions of oppression, we’ve let the individual get lost in the shuffle and left them to wander.
Maybe they’ll find a spiritual home or maybe they’ll continue on without a path because they never knew we were here. And if we allow that to happen, then we’re falling down in our own values of supporting each individual’s search for truth and meaning and we’re missing an opportunity to minister to someone in pain. It’s not about conversion. It’s a little hard to convert someone to a specific theological stance when you’re a denomination that encourages a search for personal truth. What I’m actually encouraging is a little subversive evangelism.
I realize that the language you’ve heard this morning is pretty loaded and that I’ve probably made some or maybe all of you uncomfortable and I want to honor those feelings. But I also want to encourage you to sit with those thoughts and feelings and remember that our denomination teaches that no one has a monopoly on the truth and that also means that no one has a monopoly on language or morality or theological relevance. We can define what evangelism and ministry look and feel like for us. We have our own Good News and our own message of salvation. And while we may not be talking about salvation from some supernatural hellfire, it is necessary and worth being a part of public discourse. We have work to do. We have mouths to feed, children to educate, and a planet to preserve for the next seven generations. And we can show, rationally, why this work is so desperately needed. We can point to studies that show how hunger affects our physical and emotional health, how education leads to economic self-sufficiency, and the impact to our air and water from fossil fuels.
All of it makes sense on paper – but that’s not the answer. We have work to do because we are an activist faith. We have work to do because it is the only morally acceptable option and because our principles demand that we respond to the calls for justice in our world – but it’s time to come out of hiding when we answer this call. It’s time to be more than just a political or social activist. It’s time to say that we are Unitarian Universalists and we are here to bear witness and save the world and we don’t need anyone’s permission to speak justice in the language of our faith. We’ve used our prophetic voice to speak up for others.
Now lets strike a new path and build a new way where we can speak up for ourselves and make it clear who and what we are.