Monday, August 29, 2011
Sermon - "Descendants of Abraham"
All summer in our worship services, we have been talking about the sources and the principles of Unitarian Universalism. We talked about personal experience of the sacred, world religions, humanism. We talked about the web that connects us all, and about the sense of community in our ever shrinking globe. All these things are important to our faith tradition. Although we forget it at times, the biggest source of our tradition is Christianity.
To answer a question that comes up over and over again, no Unitarian Universalism is not a Christian denomination. It began as a reform movement within Christianity. But by 20th Century, it long exceeded the bounds of Christian thought to include other religious sources, as well as humanist teachings that challenge the very notion of religious authority. Yes, there are Christians who are Unitarian Universalists, and yes, we did develop out of Christian roots. But today we embrace far too broad of a religious spectrum to be considered a Christian denomination. No, Unitarian Universalism is not a Christian denomination. Still, Christianity is in our religious DNA.
The other source that we will explore today is Jewish heritage. Judaism comes to Unitarianism through less direct sources. Obviously, Jesus was a Jew and Christianity first came to the Jewish community. In that way, as Judaism informs Christianity, it also informs Unitarian Universalism. But more recently, Unitarian Universalism has been impacted by Judaism in the 20th century, as humanist leaning Jews found a new home here.
I called this worship service Descends of Abraham, in recognition of a common source. And I must also mention Islam. While Islam is the other widely known Abrahamic religion, it has not influenced Unitarian Universalism as significantly as Judaism and Christianity have. So for today, as we talk about sources of our faith we will focus on Christianity and Judaism, and hold Islam for another time.
First and foremost, Unitarian Universalism has been shaped by Chrstianty. Obviously, Christianity is an incredibly vast tradition. With around two billion adherents around the globe, it’s no surprise that it means a great many different things to different people. Even within our own country, it seems that different groups claiming the same tradition couldn’t possibly be talking about the same thing.
But, there is one theme in Christianity that is central to the tradition in the United States. It’s a theme that clearly has shapes Unitarian Universalism. It is, a profound and repeated emphasis on love. It is the lynch pin of Christian belief.
We all know that the whole tradition of Christianity centers on the person of Jesus. Whether or not you agree, Christians believe that Jesus brings salvation to humanity. We know that, living in the United States this is sort of basic cultural knowledge.
But I want to dig a little bit deeper. Jesus is a savior in two different ways. And BOTH of those ways hinge on love. The way that Jesus offers salvation that most of us hear about in contemporary Christianity is the idea of a sacrifice. We hear about Jesus being sacrificed on the cross to pay for the sins of humanity. Through his suffering, the sins of Christians, who accept him as their savior can be forgiven for their sins. The official word for this theology is substitutionary atonement. Jesus was the substitute who atoned, or paid for the sins of humanity.
Offering your only child as a physical sacrifice is a pretty gruesome picture. But, I want you to keep in mind that the whole concept of that sacrifice is about God’s love. God loved the world so much, that he made the most unthinkable sacrifice.
His death on the cross was a sacrifice made out of love for humanity. In the most common sense, we hear of God, sending Jesus as his son, as a sacrifice. But there’s also a sense of self-sacrifice, civil disobedience style. Jesus knew that his radical message of love was so counter-cultural, so dangerous to the mainstream, that it endangered his life. And rather than give up that struggle or pay tribute to the political tyrants of his day, he said no to evil and yes to love. He knowingly sacrificed himself to stay true to his message. He loved the world so much, that he was willing to give his life to stand up for his life-giving truth.
The way most Christians speak of Jesus as a savior today is through a sacrifice made in love. But as I said, Jesus was also a saving figure in second and very different way, a way that most Unitarians find more compelling, a way that is also centered on love. Most Unitarians who find inspiration in Jesus, find it in his teachings of love, acceptance, and justice. Over and over again in the gospels, we hear of Jesus spending his time and being compassionate with the most unlikely of characters. Tax collectors, peasants, foreigners, women, adulterers, children, and the list goes on. None of these people would have been understood as worthy of the attention of a great religious figure, and yet these are the exact people who Jesus taught and shared meals with. These are the people he touched and healed. These are the people that he offered hope to.
Jesus explained to them that all was required of them was to love their neighbors and to love God. Nothing else mattered. Not their wealth or role in society. Jesus taught, by the example of his life, that the ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IS LOVING YOUR NEIGHBOR AND LOVING GOD. Let me repeat that. Jesus taught, by the example of his life, that the ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IS LOVING YOUR NEIGHBOR AND LOVING GOD. Christianity has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But the central thing that Jesus taught, the thing you can read for yourself, is a message of love in the present moment.
When I say love is the center of the Christian message, I’m not talking about an easy love, a puppy love of simple answers. I’m talking about real, rich, nuanced life-saving love. It’s the kind of love that we have heard described a thousand times in weddings, in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. You will recognize it when I read it, I promise. What you may not know is that this passage that is so familiar isn’t about romantic love at all. Paul wasn’t writing about marriage. He was writing to a community in turmoil. He was writing about the kid of love that sustains a community.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
When I say that love is the central message of Christianity, this is the sort of love I am talking about.
If the message that we inherit from Christianity is all about love, then the message we inherit from Judaism is all about community. Judaism and Christianity are radically different in a very important way. Earlier I spoke about how Jesus is a savior within Christianity. His role is to save individual people, individual souls.
For Jews, salvation is a very different thing. Rather than concern for individual salvation in the next life, the Jewish community focuses on saving the entire community in this life. It’s not about what happens after you die, it’s about what happens to us collectively here and now. Judaism is concerned with the health and well-being of the community, because our mutual life depends on it.
The sense of communal investment goes all the way back to the Torah, the Old Testament. We see God rewarding or punishing entire communities in the Old Testament. Most classically this happens with Noah and the flood. But, there are countless other stories of God punishing or rewarding and entire civilizations. Think of the Israelites escape from Egypt, or the plagues that the Egyptians suffered.
Now it couldn’t be that every single one of those Egyptians was evil, or that every single one of the Israelites was a good person. Could it? We sometimes want to protest the fairness of such a God. How could it be that everyone’s fate is wrapped up all together for group judgment?
It doesn’t seem fair in these old stories. But more and more, this is the way we Unitarian Universalists have come to understand salvation. We are in this thing together. Whether we are talking about environmental devestation, racial injustice, gender oppression, nuclear proliferation, we have come to realize that our own liberation is tied up with everyone else’s. Salvation or destruction is wrapped up in an intricate web, that we are each connected to. It’s not so different from those stories of the great flood, not so different at all.
For the Jews of the Old Testament, and the Jews of today, working to maintain community is a central task of religious life. And for us as Unitarian Universalists, building community, especially in the midst of our theological diversity is the central task of our religious life.
More recently, Judaism has shaped our tradition in a different way. After the horrors of World War II, many Jews became increasingly uncomfortable with static ideologies, whether political or religious. They moved away from concrete belief in one God as the core of religious community. And they moved toward a belief that peaceful human community is more important that religious ideology. They essentially became humanists. And along with humanists of many other backgrounds, those Jews, found that Unitarian Universalism was a natural place for them to come. What they brought with them, was a culture that emphasized community. They also brought with them the hard earned lesson that any ideology that claims to have the authoritative answer over others, can become deadly in and frightening instant. They brought, and they remind Unitarian Universalism that celebrating diversity within our community is an essential guard against tyranny.
So, we get a message of love from Christianity, and a message about the central role of community from Judaism. These two core messages of our tradition have been inherited from our roots.
But what does that mean for you, what does that mean when you walk out these doors?
Well, first of all, it means that we need to remember that they are us. Those Christians that we often point fingers at because of political differences, they are the foundation of our own faith. Although it may lead them to different conclusions, the central message of faith for Christians as for us, is one of love.
I’m not saying that all of Christianity or all Judaism is perfect. I also wouldn’t say that about Unitarian Universalism. What I am saying is that we often short change them and dismiss the good that they offer. I feel sometimes like Unitarian Universalism is the teenager, rebelling against the parent, refusing to see that perhaps what the parent has to offer is sage advice.
Our roots in Christianity and Judaism mean one more thing for our lives. Beyond a history lesson or a theology lesson, I want you to hear that the message of these two great traditions holds true for us today.
For us as Unitarian Universalists, that the message in Micah that we read earlier holds as true today as it ever did.
The translation in our hymnal is, “What does the Eternal ask from you, but to be just and kind, and live in a quiet fellowship with your God?”
That’s it. That’s all that is required, to be just and kind, and to deepen your connection to your sense of hope. That is all that is required.
Your initial reaction may be to say “Required? Who does he think he is to tell me something is ‘required’?” I want you to hear this loud and clear, all that is required of you is to be just and kind, and to hold on to your source of hope. That’s it. You’re not required to be top of your class, or to win the race. You’re not required to have your finances in perfect order. You’re not required to have all the answers or even to know the right questions. You’re not required to do any of that.
Because all that is required of you, is to be just and kind, and hold on to the source of your hope. The rest simply doesn’t matter that much.