as preached July 30, 2023 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
It is good to be back in the pulpit today. I enjoyed last week’s question box service. I am always grateful to get something of a sense of your spiritual quests and institutional concerns. And it is fun to have to think a bit more spontaneously.
But I am also appreciative of the opportunity to offer you a more traditional service. Ralph Waldo Emerson once advised aspiring preachers that the “true preacher … deals out to the people his life,–life passed through the fire of thought.” Preparing and delivering sermons is part of my spiritual practice, the opportunity to reflect, in conversation with a community and a tradition, upon the “age of the world,” the state of our congregation, and how goes it with my soul in the hopes that I might stir something within yours.
Emerson’s gendered language is thoroughly out of date in a Unitarian Universalist pulpit, though not, I fear, in a Southern Baptist one. In what seems to me a strangely unbiblical move, their convention, as you probably know, recently voted to expel two congregations with female leaders and limit all pastoral roles to men.
Paul, the Apostle, would have been shocked. Read through his letters in the Christian New Testament and you will find him constantly acknowledging and encouraging women’s leadership. In his letter to the Romans alone we find him praising the ministry of Phoebe and recommending that the congregation in Rome “support her in any business in which she may need your help” and sending greetings to Prisca, Aquila, Mary–“who worked so hard for you”–, Junia– “eminent among the apostles”–, Patrobas, Julia, and Olympas.
He probably would have been significantly less shocked to learn that we Unitarian Universalists have been ordaining women since the middle of the nineteenth-century. When Olympia Brown became a minister back in 1863 she was the first woman to be ordained with the consent of her denomination. For us, the thought that a woman could not lead a church is singularly strange. This June, after all, marked the election of the Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt as the President of our Association. She’s the second woman elected to the position and the first queer woman of African descent to lead a major denomination in the United States. Her election was followed a couple of weeks later by the election of the first Black woman, the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, to the Presidency of the United Church of Christ. She’s the first female member of the African diaspora to lead a major Christian denomination.
I mention all of this, in part, because the “age of the world” in which we live is one of increasing social fracture. Religious institutions are not immune to this dynamic. Entities like the Southern Baptist Convention seem to be more content to focus on conservatism than Christianity–Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written at the request of “Chloe’s people”–and when I read news of their internal deliberations I cannot help but think of the political philosopher Corey Robin. He observed that conservatism is best understood as “a meditation on–and the theoretical rendering of–the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”
That dynamic, he’s noted, plays out as much in the private sphere as the public one. A key to understanding the rise of White working class conservatism is recognizing that leadership from women, people of African descent, and other people of color often threatens “how a father governs his family.”
We Unitarian Universalists welcome all sorts of families and make no assumption that the family need be a patriarchal institution. They can be matriarchies, queer, or follow other arrangements–be they connected by blood or formed by choice. I suspect that if you are here this morning you know that we understand that love is love, that any consenting adult relationship united by love ought to be honored.
I know that some of you are with us today for the very reason that religious institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention will not celebrate the fullness of your gifts or the beauty of your relationships. And I suspect that you are with us because our Unitarian Universalist tradition demands that we do. This partially why, I suspect, that we have a growing congregation right now.
Often times in July and August, we have a lot of people who are “church shopping,” looking for a religious community, coming to services. This seems to be especially true as of late. The past several weeks, we have had more people in the sanctuary than we did during our autumn services. A couple of Sundays in June and July, we have had even better attendance than Christmas Eve. Three people have joined since in the last two weeks. There are something like twenty folks in the membership process.
And our growth has not just been numerical. We have been growing in diversity as well. During our most recent meetings, the Spanish language ministry team has welcomed new people and new community partnerships. The program seems likely to expand in exciting ways over the coming months.
In my conversations with our new members and visitors it seems like a good number of you are just learning about our faith tradition. You come seeking community, spiritual grounding, and an antidote to the politics of cruelty. But you are not too sure exactly what Unitarian Universalism is. So, this morning seems like as good a time as any to provide a bit of theological orientation.
Certainly, the most important things to know are expressed in the first two phrases of our congregational covenant: love is the spirit of our congregation; service is our prayer. We seek to be a community of radical inclusion. We want to be a place where all are welcome to bring the fullness of themselves. We are devoted to building the world we dream about. It will be a world filled with beauty in which all people, all being, can be nurtured and sustained and the planet is not threatened by the climate crisis–where the politics of compassion rather than politics of cruelty govern.
Beyond that, there is our name, Unitarian Universalist. Today, our movement is non-creedal. We do not require our members to subscribe to a specific statement of faith–such as those found in conventional Christianity–to join our congregation. Yet, curiously for a non-creedal tradition, the words Unitarian and Universalist are each tied to a specific theological doctrine. Unitarian symbolized a belief in the unity of God and, with that belief, the affirmation of the humanity of Jesus. Universalists indicated a trust, “in God’s universal love to all … creatures,” as one of our early religious ancestors put it.
More than sixty years ago, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America joined forces to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. The historic theologies of the two traditions are neither exactly identical nor fully compatible. Like all blended families, over the years our congregations have had to make sense of their different inheritances.
One particular theological perspective on which our religious ancestors disagreed had to do with that uncomfortable word salvation. The view of Universalists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was summarized in an early article of faith as the belief that after death God “will finally restore the whole human race to happiness.” Everyone, in other words, after they die was thought to go to Heaven. You might recall Mark Morrison-Reed’s description of this historical vision. He has described how Universalism “came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ … Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable … to resist the power and love of the Almighty.”
The last unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, the Unitarians had a somewhat different view. They did not believe in universal salvation. Instead, they celebrated what William Ellery Channing called the “likeness to God.” This was the understanding that each and every person was born with the divine spark within. The task of the religious community was to help us in uncovering that spark, tend to the flame, so that it might shine more and more brightly until, eventually, we might achieve what James Freeman Clarke, another nineteenth-century Unitarian, named “Salvation by Character.”
We can signify each approach to salvation with a single word. The Gospel of God’s Success, being; Salvation by Character, becoming; being and becoming, both suggest a purpose for our religious communion–a way in which we are called to care for each other and nurture an alternative to the politics of cruelty.
Being, the theologian Matthew Fox poetically has described this perspective as a narrative around our births. Contrary to the Christian doctrine of original sin, which maintains we “enter [the world] as blotches on existence,” Fox maintains “we burst into the world as ‘original blessings.’” I am fairly certain that any of you who have had the privilege to give birth to a child or to be present for a child’s birth know this. We attest to it in our hymnal when we sing, “each night that a child is born is a holy night.”
Being, we aspire to be a community in which everyone is welcome. It is as I said in our call to worship, drawn from Susan Frederick-Gray, immediate past President of our Association:
If you are an immigrant, a refugee, undocumented,
you are welcome here.
If you are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist,
a theist or an atheist,
you are welcome here.
If you are gay or straight,
if you are a woman or a man,
transgender or queer,
you are welcome here.
If you have a disability,
visible or invisible,
you are welcome here.
Whoever you are, you, your family,
your whole self is welcome here!
Being, those of you who, like me, are over a certain age, might remember this perspective summarized in the popular seventies children’s song by Marlo Thomas. It promised “you and me are free to be you and me.”
Free to be you and me, the most vivid description of a community devoted to the proposition of universal salvation that I have run across comes in Zora Neale Hurston’s brief text “Mother Catherine.” Hurston was a pivotal literary figure in the first half of the twentieth century. A leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, she trained as an anthropologist. A number of her works observed Black religion in the South and the Caribbean.
“Mother Catherine” was one of those. It describes the church of Mother Catherine Seale, a spiritual leader in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward who held a universalist theology. Completely unconnected to our movement, Hurston’s description of Mother Catherine’s religious community offers a picture of the Universalist heaven. Not only are “all kinds of children” welcome but all being is held up as a blessing. Worship is not just a matter of human praise and exuberance, there are “canary birds … singing and chirping happily, … [a] donkey, a mother goat with her kid, numbers of hens, a sheep … [t]wo dogs.”
I am not sure we could handle such an environment. But Mother Catherine created one because “God got all kinds, how come I can’t love all of mine?”
Being, here is where Unitarian objections might come in. Yes, you are an original blessing. Yes, you welcome here. Yes, you and me are free to be you and me. Yes, love is the spirit of this congregation. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes to all of that.
But it is not enough. Service is our prayer, and to read little bit further down our covenant, to seek the truth. Becoming, everyone is welcome but we have not already built the world we dream about. Each of us, always, has work to do towards becoming a better person. Religion should be about transformation, helping each of us uncover the spark of the divine–or our own highest potential–within.
And here, I fear, we struggle. In our efforts to build an inclusive community we sometimes expect people to already have arrived at the point at which they recognize everyone as an original blessing. We want White folks, like me, to have already given up our frightful addiction to the poison of white supremacy. We want men to already have moved beyond toxic masculinity. We want people to be fully accepting of transgender people even as they just coming to understand that gender is fluid, and like race, a social construct.
This, of course, comes with a paradox. If we are going to fully live into our vision of radical inclusion then we need to have an environment where people who are not part of the traditionally White male dominant culture are safe from constant micro-aggressions and even real aggression. At a time of rising misogyny, women need to feel safe within our community. At a time when white supremacist and nativists movements are growing, people of color and immigrants need to know that this is their community. At a time of when LGBTQ communities are under assault, folks from those communities need to know that they are an original blessing. At a time of growing economic inequality, when union organizers are targeted and fired by companies like Starbucks, working class people need to know that there are religious communities that support working class power.
The challenge, then, is how do we, as a congregation, hold these two things, being and becoming, in tension. I am reminded of the account of a conversion that James Luther Adams, a twentieth century Unitarian theologian, offered of a racial bigot in one of his essays. In the early nineteen fifties, the man was trying to block the First Unitarian Church of Chicago–one of our few historically multiracial congregations–from committing to not just racial integration but active outreach to the city’s African American community. After finally recognizing that the way forward for his congregation was through an intentional outreach effort he confessed, “the purpose of the church is to get ahold of people like me and change them.”
The purpose of the church is to get ahold of people like me and change, I hesitate to imagine how much damage he did–how many acts of micro and macro aggression–to the members of his congregation who were people of color before he came to that realization.
Being, becoming, the two visions of salvation are in tension. Perhaps, it is simply like that line from Fyodor Dostoevsky, “[l]ove in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Playing the role of the preacher, I sometimes feel like I am cast as the person with the answers. But love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing and, really, though, I just have questions, discomforts, and an urgent need to be, though the road be rough and rocky, on a path that is both being and becoming.
Being, becoming, I am not sure how to do it, this thing we try to do, where we welcome everyone, confess that we have work to do, and somehow, someway, still have patience and compassion for each other. Some of what I know about it, like so much of what I know, comes from my time with the labor movement.
Now, I am not entirely sure how the story that I am about to tell connects to congregational life. But it is one I think about often when struggling to consider how to nurture a multiracial religious community. You see, congregations have a choice as to whether or not they want to be multiracial. Even today, more than twenty years into the twenty-first century, Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week.
Unions, however, do not have that luxury. They have to be multiracial. If workers are going to come together and effectively build power against the powers and principalities of the hour–the massive wealth disparity that exists in this country–then they have to include everyone, because the workforce includes everyone.
Well, about twenty years ago, I was involved in an effort to build a union in Chicago. When you go about trying to organize a union one of the first things you do is identify the people who are leaders at work. These are not necessarily people who hold positions of power–managers or the like. Instead, they are folks who other people look up to and, to some extent, follow. If those people support the union, then the people who respect them will join the effort.
One of our tasks as organizers was to try and recruit different leaders to the union. The job fell to me to go and talk someone who was known to have a particularly unpleasant personality. He was an older White guy who was known for making disparaging remarks about just about everyone who was not White or male. I was sent to talk to him, because, well as you can tell, I am White and male.
We met in a rough bar–the kind where the floors a bit sticky and your choices for a beverage are either cheap beer or cheap whiskey–and the first part of our conversation pretty much went how you would expect. He said just about every disgusting thing that you might imagine. But finally, after listening to that barrage, I was able to turn the conversation to work. How is it at work I asked him? What would you change if you could? How can the union help you make those changes? Who needs to be in the union for you to make those changes?
And somehow, some way, after something like two hours, I convinced him to join the union. He went on to be one of our best organizers. He brought all kinds of people in. Somehow, a light had gone off and he recognized that if he was going to have a better workplace then we was going to have to work with everyone–even the people who he had said nasty things about.
Cooperate is then what those workers did. Within a year, they ended up winning the first wage gains that anyone in their industry had won in more than a decade. The union even formed a LGBTQ+ caucus to address the needs of members of those communities at work.
Being, becoming, I still have lots of questions about that experience. But I suspect that somehow, some way, the path to building a multiracial congregation, and a functioning multiracial democracy, lies through moments like it. For it began with a recognition that somehow, some way, we are all in this together–we are all blessing–but also rested upon an acknowledgement that we each have work to do. We are not here perfectly formed. We are each challenged, if we want to build the world we dream of, to become better and, little-by-little, uncover the spark within.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.