Monday, July 15, 2013

"Controversy and Commitment" - Sermon

Controversy and Commitment
         This morning’s reading was a little out of the ordinary. I have seen this reading in our hymnal for years, and I don’t think I have ever used it. But today seemed like the day. Olympia Brown implores us to stand by this faith. It’s a pretty self-righteous reading for UUs. I imagine some of you were wondering what exactly was going on with this.
         The magic of this reading comes from the identity of the author. Olympia Brown was the first women to be fully recognized as a minister within the Universalist tradition. That happened in 1864. As you can imagine, her journey to ministry was not an easy one. And even after she was ordained, her career met roadblock after roadblock. Back in those days Universalist ministers traveled extensively, renting out meeting halls as a venue to speak. She found that consistently she was not given the basic assistance she needed, and met with crowds of men, eager not to hear her wisdom, but to prove her wrong.  But she persisted.
         Given the odds, her career in ministry was impressive. What was even more impressive was her determined work for the suffrage movement. The prologue of her biography recounts two different tales of protest. One when, at the age of eighty-two, she braved hours of pelting rain and police harassment to march in front of the White House for women’s right to vote. Two years later, when protesting President Wilson’s celebratory trip to France, she said in a speech, “I have fought for liberty for seventy years, and I protest against the Presidents leaving this country with this old fight here unwon!”[1]
         The real beauty of this story is how it all ends. At the age of eighty-five, Olympia Brown is one of the few original suffragists who lived to vote in the 1920 presidential election. This tenacious story is the background of those impassioned words that we read. From the time she was a small child Olympia Brown struggled to gain access to education and to be recognized as a leader in her religious community. Her life was a constant struggle with her church and her country. And still these were her words, “Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals – which has comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty and made the world beautiful. Do not demand immediate results but rejoice that we are worthy to be entrusted with this great message.”[2]
         This morning following the legal ruling over the death of Trayvon Martin, as our country again is anguished and confused by racial tension, we remember that those who fight for more justice are not the enemies of our country. For when you love your community you engage with it, you struggle with it to help draw it into all that it can be.
         I have come to believe that church is a lot like school, or the neighborhood that you live in, a lot of things in life really. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Of course there is no guarantee. But generally speaking, the more you invest your heart and mind into something, the more you care about it, the more meaningful it is going to be for you. I’ve certainly seen that to be true here. The people you know who have been a part of this congregation for over ten years, have all been seriously involved. They have offered not just their money, but also their time and their heart.
         But there is no guarantee on the investment of your heart. The more you invest, the riskier it is. Even in church. Being in relationship with other people is risky business, even in church. Often people think church is some alternative universe where everyone is perfectly nice and we get along. But, people get hurt in church. Over the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen many tears shed. Not over sickness or death, but over what happens between these walls. It’s scary to say, but people get their hearts broken. Ministers do too. Caring deeply about other people is risky business. Somewhere along the line, you are likely to get hurt. And you will almost certainly meet some disappointment along the way.
         But then I’m sure Olympia Brown had her heart broken along the way as well. I’m sure that she was disappointed more than a few times in her Universalist church. As far as I can tell, you get out of your relationships only as much as you are willing to put into them. And the same goes for church.  

         As we continue with the theme of covenant today, I wanted to bring in some of the difficult pieces of our past to see what we might learn. Another moment of controversy that teaches us about covenant and relationship is “The Unitarian Controversy.” That’s actually what this moment in history was called, the Unitarian Controversy. This controversy grew directly out of the development of American colonial religion. I won’t go into the details, but by the early 1800s a major split was emerging. As the academic field of biblical research grew, some clergy began applying historical and scientific reason to religion, while others thought reading the bible that critically was blasphemous. And eventually our predecessors , the Puritan churches, were no longer turning to their nearest neighbor for support and counsel. They began turning to the other churches that they knew held a similar theological viewpoint.
         The division between the orthodox churches and the liberal churches grew deeper and deeper. And in the midst of that division, the orthodox started calling the Liberals “Unitarian.” They meant it as an insult, because doubting the doctrine of the trinity was the most unthinkable and awful thing you could do.
         Finally, in 1918, William Ellery Channing preached the sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” in which he outlined the Liberal beliefs of his peers. For the first time he said, yup, that’s right, what we believe is different. But we believe it is true, and here is why. In one sermon, William Ellery Channing acknowledged the existing rifts and ushered in a new era of American religion, Unitarianism.
         He took a huge risk doing it. He didn’t know how the whole thing would develop. But within a few years Unitarians had taken control of Harvard Divinity School, the only school In America training ministers at that time. 250 of the originally Puritan churches took on the name Unitarian, and by 1900, the Calvinists and the Unitarians when their own separate ways.
         In one sense this story, the Unitarian Controversy, is about a church splitting. But I wanted to share the story with you today to point out not the split, but the coming together of a community. For Unitarianism to emerge as a real tradition brave people had to speak their truth. There was no guarantee that they would be supported. But they took the risk to speak their truth and be real.
         As Unitarian Universalists we are called to seek the truth in love, and to share what we have found with one another. The purpose of this journey is not to stir the pot. I fear that our tradition is attractive to some because they see it as a celebration of conflict. But Channing wasn’t aiming to start an argument. He was naming what he knew was true for himself and many others. The fruit of his brave proclamation was the American Unitarian Association. Yes, you can look at that moment of our history as a schism. But my hope is that you will see it as a moment of coming together.  
         If we are going to be in community with each other, in covenant, then we have to take the risk of telling our truth. Even when you think it may be a minority opinion. It’s quite likely that others have had a similar insight. But the only way to find out that you are not alone in your belief, is to share them with one another.

         The last thing that I want to talk about in terms of relationship and covenant is change. The only thing that is certain in our relationships, with our church, our spouse, our children or anyone else, is that they change. As people grow, change is inevitable.
         This reminds me not so much of a controversy, as simply what I would call the current state of confusion that American religion is in today. As you may be aware, the United States is in a tremendous shift away from organized religion. An unprecedented number of people identify themselves as spiritual but nor religious. They are not atheist; they just don’t find a home in the religious communities that exist today. And today there is no default notion that people will go to church on Sunday mornings. The church hour now competes directly with soccer practice, yoga, groceries, brunch, sleeping in, or spending time with the kids. Church is no longer given a privileged place in American society.
         But it’s even more complicated than that. The whole way that American’s understand membership in organizations is changing. Not just churches, but all sorts of organizations are finding that the old structure of “membership” isn’t fitting anymore. And as those models of membership go out the window, so do funding structures that went with them.
         My message here is not that church is going to Hell in a hand basket. My message is that it is changing. As American society changes, so will our religious communities. It’s scary stuff, but it’s not necessarily bad.
         Just a couple of months ago I heard Rev. Sarah Moldenhower-Salizar preach at the Western Regional Assembly in San Jose. For those of you who don’t know, she is a former minister of this congregation. She was talking about just this thing. She said that she had, for a very long time thought that being a Unitarian Universalist meant being a part of a congregation. We practice our religious in community, in a covenant with other people. But as she is raising children, pursuing a Ph.D. and developing a rich network of friends, she finds that she is living out her Unitarian Universalist faith independent of a church community. Mind you, her Ph.D. is focusing on covenant and she is the chair of the UU Minister’s Association in her area. This is a person who is deeply invested in living within a Unitarian Universalist faith in community. But she wasn’t rooted in a particular congregation. The point of her sermon, and my point is, that the way we understand our religious community is changing dramatically in the twenty first century.
         This is incredibly scary stuff. As someone who has invested my career in the institution of church as we know it, the idea of upending congregational life to do something completely different is a terrifying. I love churches. The idea of this level of change is very scary to me. But I am doing my best to trust my wider faith community. I know that there are brilliant and dedicated Unitarian Universalists across the country with ideas for new vibrant ministries that will revolutionize church as we know it. It’s a little terrifying, but I am doing what I can to understand what church is transforming into, because I am committed to it.
         Whether they are covenants with our congregation or relationships with friends and spouses, they change over time.  It’s the only thing that is certain in life and certain in our relationships, change.
         It’s often remarkable that some couples stay together as long as they do, married to the same person for decades. Heck it’s amazing some of our members who have been at this church for thirty years. But they aren’t really married to the same person, because we all change and grow over time. And this church is pretty difference from what it was thirty years ago. Relationships change over time, but that doesn’t mean that they have to end. Yes, they will look different, but as Unitarian Universalists we should know deeply in our hearts that different can be good. Change can be good.
         As Olympia Brown tells us in her impassioned words to stand by this faith, you get out of your relationships only as much as you put into them. It is a risky investment, but that’s the only way to get any return. So let us be brave in our investment of hear and of truth. Let us share our hearts and our minds with one another. So that even as our community changes, as it is bound to, we remember that it is home.
         “Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals – which has comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty and made the world beautiful. Do not demand immediate results but rejoice that we are worthy to be entrusted with this great message.”[3]


[1] Charlotte Coté, Olympia Brown: The Battle for Equality (Racine, WI: Mother Courage Press, 1988), 3.
[2] Unitarian Universalist Association, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press : Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993).
[3] Unitarian Universalist Association, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press : Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993).

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