as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, August 29, 2010
This is actually the second sermon I have prepared this week on the theology of the late Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian Forrest Church. I more-or-less finished my first sermon Friday evening. It was not a bad piece of writing. It hit all of the requisite points and outlined Church’s theology neatly. It was filled with ample citations from his writings and, I think, captured a portion of his spirit. In that first sermon, I began by systematically laying out his thinking. Then I applied his system of thought to the current debate over the so-called ground zero mosque. Church was a public intellectual, a New Yorker and a champion of both liberal religious and political values. If he were alive today I am sure that Church would something to say about the mosque controversy.
Yesterday when I read my first sermon over I realized that it was all head and no heart. It neither communicated why I care about Forrest Church nor why you should care about him. Hearing it you might have chalked it up to the genre of academic biography, not a bad genre in and of itself but surely not appropriate fare for Sunday morning.
So last night, after the kitchen was cleaned and the toddler was in bed I sat down and wrote this second sermon. It is a more personal piece than the first. It is both a homage to a great preacher and a meditation on the latent possibility of our universalist heritage to transform the world.
As most of you know, the Society is my first settled parish. When I came here I had a seminary degree, an internship and one year of very part-time ministry under my belt. I was not entirely prepared for the task of leading a religious community. I suspect that no one truly is. I was, in all honesty, mildly terrified of the prospect of preaching week-in and week-out.
Sermon preparation can be a big task and for the naturally introverted like myself delivering a sermon can be quite intimidating. I never know exactly what people will think about my sermons or if my texts will prove up to the task of binding together, uplifting and building the beloved community.
The genre of the sermon is also a peculiar one. Sermons range from the deeply personal to the profoundly spiritual to the emotional to the precisely intellectual. Some preachers manage to touch all points and territories in between in a single text. Others spend their entire career exploring only a few notes.
Most preachers will tell you that the key to successful preaching stems from the development of preaching habits. We need spiritual practice and study to root us. Otherwise we risk being cast adrift on a sea of words.
My first year here my preaching habits were underdeveloped. My sermons were only planned a few weeks out and I had no regular spiritual practice. Pretty quickly I found myself adrift. Forrest Church brought me back to solid ground.
As an undergraduate studying poetry writing I learned that one of the best ways to master a genre is to read works by the masters of the genre. Forrest Church is regarded by many as the greatest Unitarian Universalist preacher of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. During his thirty year tenure as senior minister and then minister of public theology at All Souls, Unitarian in New York City his congregation more than quadrupled in size. By the time of his death in 2009 All Souls numbered close to 1,500 members, making it the largest Unitarian Universalist congregation on the East Coast.
He built his congregation through his preaching. This made his sermons excellent candidates for study. After reading a few, I set myself the task of reading all of them that I could get ahold of. The internet is a wonderful thing. All Souls web site has a back catalog of more than a hundred and fifty of Church’s sermons, stretching from 1995 to 2009. So, for the better part of a year, at the beginning of each day and whenever I got stumped with my own writing I read his sermons.
In a very real way he became my minister, his texts were what I turned to as I struggled to learn what it meant to lead a religious community. There’s a lot to be learned about the preaching life from studying a large corpus from a single preacher. I learned about Church’s relationship with his congregation, his theology and the cycles of his sermons. Some of his texts were brilliant, the majority were very good and a small handful were downright lousy–I am told by a friend and former congregant of Church’s that one of his sermons was so bad it was taken off of the All Souls web site.
In a strange way it was Church’s poorest sermons that gave me the most comfort. If even a great preacher like him failed to bat a thousand then I need not worry about trying to do so myself. Nobody truly is perfect. His occasional foibles also caused me to call to mind words another respected Unitarian Universalist preacher had once told me, “Every Sunday morning when you get into the pulpit act as if the words that you are offering are the most important things you have to say. It does not matter what you think of your text because in that moment whatever words you have to offer are the best you have to offer.” Put another way, say it like you mean it.
Church was a gifted writer and I am confident that he knew when his text was inadequate. I am also confident that when he knew so he delivered it with aplomb.
Reading Church’s sermons brought me two other lessons. The first was that any and every sermon is part of a continuing conversation between preacher, congregation and the divine. The second was that Unitarian Universalism could live up to its potential and provide a prophetic voice in our pluralistic age.
Prior to my exposure to Church’s sermons, I had learned these lessons from other sources. The dialogic nature of the sermon was something I studied in my preaching classes. One of the reasons why I decided to become a minister was because of the prophetic role the liberal religious community can play in society. Somehow neither lesson quite sunk in until I read through Church’s sermonic corpus.
Church’s sermons were peppered with examples, questions, observations and encounters drawn from his life with his congregation. It was here that he lived out his pastoral universalist theology, a theology rooted in his understanding of the universality of the human experience. “Religion,” Church wrote, “is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. When we discover we must die, we question what life means.” Church liked to reflect on this reality in his favorite etymology, the origin of the word human. “All the words that relate to it are illuminating: humane, humanitarian, humility, humble and, finally, humus. From dust to dust, we live and move and have our being…Though the human pilgrimage may wind down a million paths, all roads alike lead to the grave.”
No matter what culture we are rooted in, what country we live in, what language we speak, which image of God we worship, which gender we are or which gender we love, no matter our race, color or creed, Church understood that just by being human we share more similarities than differences. We are born, we live our allotted span and then all too quickly we die. Life hinges upon our knowledge of death for we are the only creature who knows that it is fated to die.
The test of any theology, in Church’s view, is how it stood the test of death. If it provided its adherent with comfort and the ability to accept the inevitable reality of death then it was a successful theology. If not, then it was a failure. Armed with the reality of mortality Church urged his congregation to not leave unfinished business behind. He believed it is never too late or too early to call an estranged lover, friend or sibling. It is never too late to seek and give forgiveness. It is never too late to strive to live in the present.
Church tested his theology in the last years of his life when he was given a terminal diagnosis of esophageal cancer. He found it adequate. In the final months of his life his theology challenged him to love God, neighbor and, in his words, “redeem the day.” This very Christian language had a very Unitarian Universalist twist to it. God is a metaphor for, in his words, “that which is greater than all and yet present in each, the life force, the holy.” God is the highest power and Church reflected that what that highest power looked like was often a matter of personal experience and cultural location. In one instance he wrote, “For some the highest imaginable power will be a petty and angry tribal baron ensconced high above clouds on a golden throne, visiting punishment on all who don’t believe in him…for others, the highest power is love, goodness, justice, or the spirit of life itself.” Each person has her own understanding of highest power. Each understanding is incomplete. Each could be labeled God.
On more than one occasion I have found Church’s understanding of God and his pastoral vignettes about the divine to pastorally useful. When challenged by self-labeled atheists Church was found of saying, “tell me a little about the God…[you] don’t believe in, because I probably don’t believe in ‘him’ either.” When pressed most people, Church argued, have some higher power that they believe in, whether it is a loving parent in heaven or the force that drives life forward.
My first year at the Society I found myself in a conversation that could have come straight out of one of Church’s sermons. A family of avowed atheists wanted to start coming to the Society. They were, however, hesitant about attending any institution that had members who called it a church and suspicious of those of their potentially fellow congregants who identified as theists or Christians.
One afternoon I went out to coffee with the mother of the family. The conversation quickly turned to God and her non-belief in the deity. I asked her to describe the God that she did not believe in and as we talked she revealed that she had been raised a Catholic. The God she so clearly did not believe in was a male God with a white beard and flowing robe who scowled down upon his creation. She wanted little traffic with that God’s followers either for they, in her view, rejected science and wanted to drag the country back to the mid-19th century.
But she did find the universe to be a mysterious and awesome thing. She had a certain mystical bent to her and was open to what the world might bring. While she did not believe in God I found that she did have a deep respect for the world of nature and human vitality. I explained that some people choose to label these God. And from there we were able to build an understanding of how she and her family could participate in a religious community.
Church’s understanding of love and redemption was likewise pastorally instructive. As we approach death, whether quickly or slowly, he urged his audience to ask three religious questions: “have you made peace with yourself?…Are you reconciled with your loved ones, even with your enemies?…have you made your peace with God, with the mystery of creation, the ground of your being, with your life?” The truly religious life was one that led to each of these questions being answered yes. And when I find myself offering pastoral counseling I tend to keep them in the back of my head, even if I do not mention them explicitly. When someone comes to me asking advice on how to relate to an estranged parent or friend it is almost always best to suggest that they seek reconciliation. Life is too short to risk being burdened by regret for the unasked for blessing or forgiveness. Better to find a little further pain than to die not knowing whether or not healing a relationship is possible.
Church liked to sum up his universalist theology through the use of his well-known image “The Cathedral of the World.” All of the peoples of the world could be understood as inhabiting the same vast cathedral. The religions of the world were that cathedral windows. The light of God streams through the windows, each window refracting God’s light a little differently. Some might provide abstract mosaics of light, thin dancing streams of reds and blues brushing each other to form glorious purples. Others might offer distinct and discernible images–Tiffany windows depicting ancient parables or familiar biblical figures. However one perceived the light, whichever window one looked out through, the same light shines for everyone.
Church’s universalism provided him with a ground for his public ministry. He believed that Unitarian Universalism had great potential in the pluralistic twenty first century. It challenged its adherents to see “your enemy as yourself; to view your tears in another’s eyes; to respect, and even embrace otherness, rather than merely tolerate…it.” Here the ultimate test was not found in what one believed but in how one acted. “In a universalist construct, good behavior unites and heals; bad behavior destroys and divides. Unless our faith…helps us heal our lives…inspires us to reconcile with our neighbors…we have been blinded by the light that shines through our chosen window, unaware of the long shadow that those who bathe themselves blindly in the light can cast,” he wrote.
It is easy for people to become blinded by the light of their particular windows. Church believed that the best way to call people to look beyond a single window was to at tug the sleeve of their common humanity. He understood that salvation is to be found in the here and now in the way that we treat each other, not in some mythic afterlife. Those who found God to be spiteful or vengeful were guilty of projecting their own prejudices upon the divine. Echoing an old Universalist strophe he wrote, “God is too good and too loving to damn us.” Unfortunately, we do damn each other.
The tendency to damnation could be countered by love. Love unites and heals, rather than divides and injures. It counteracts fear. During the height of the AIDS crisis of the eighties Church sought to demonstrate this through his congregation’s AIDS ministry, one of the very first in the country. At a time when the religious right was screaming that AIDS was a divine punishment brought upon homosexuals and I.V. drug users Church and his congregation took out advertisements throughout New York that read “AIDS is a human disease and deserves a humane response.”
I can imagine him saying something similar about the current ground zero mosque controversy. Church would almost certainly challenge opponents of the mosque to see that they shared a common humanity with Muslims. Furthermore, as a New Yorker he would probably remind everyone that the victims and heroes of September 11th include Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Most likely he would draw upon his rich knowledge of American history and rhetoric to do so. Church was, among other things, the son of the U.S. Senator Frank Church and the grandson of the one-time governor of Idaho Clark Chase. He knew the American political idiom. He spoke it fluently and sought to reclaim the language of God, family and country from religious conservatives.
The United States of America, he believed, “is the most daring experiment in democratic government… ever… fashioned.” I imagine he would counter the braying pundits on the right who denounce the mosque with an appeal to America’s tradition of religious tolerance and ideal–though not always reality–of welcoming the stranger. Echoing Lincoln’s challenge to heed “the better angels of our nature” I can almost hear him calling for a country that embraced diversity and celebrated pluralism. He might even read, as he had in the past, from the poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
The amount of currency such rhetoric holds with each of us is no doubt a matter of individual opinion. Church could be accused of conflating religious and political liberalism. He was, for some, too much of a political liberal, a bleeding heart. Some might argue that his religious message was clouded by his involvement in public politics. I suspect that when faced with such criticism he would own his shortcomings and then remind his critic that the view from his window was a little different than their own. He would also remind them that the same light shone through both of their windows. Ultimately, he would say, that light and the love we have for each other is what matters.
May it be so.
Amen and Blessed Be.