by Senior Minister Rev. David A. Miller.
Jan. 29, 2017.
Unitarian Universalist Minister Rob Macpherson wrote: “The very bedrock of our Unitarian tradition is the free practice of religion, first articulated in the Edict of Torda in 1568. If people ask you when Unitarianism started, that is as close to a solid inception date as can be offered. It was a doctrine of radical tolerance of religious diversity and a bold way forward in the context of the blood-soaked Reformation. Here’s the crucial bit of that edict: ‘… in every place the preachers shall preach the Gospel according to his understanding of it and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them, for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers and no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone…’” Rev. Macpherson continues, “And so from that time, ‘freedom of the pulpit’ and its corollary, ‘freedom of the pew,’ have been among the most hallowed traditions of our faith. In our tradition, no one is compelled to preach any particular doctrine, nor is anyone compelled to accept what is preached. What prompted this radical commitment to freedom was nothing less than a maelstrom of factionalism and the blood of countless martyrs.”
Our worship theme this month is prophecy. Here are the definitions:
- The foretelling or prediction of what is to come.
- Something that is declared by a prophet, especially a divinely inspired prediction, instruction or exhortation.
- A divinely inspired utterance or revelation:
- The action, function or faculty of a prophet.
The bible, a pretty influential document in the world, speaks to prophets being a voice from or certainly influenced by God. In Numbers 12:6, it goes like this, “And he said, ‘Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams.’” In Deuteronomy 18:18: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.” And of course from the words of Paul: 1 Corinthians 12:28: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.”
So where does that leave us, a religious tradition that struggles with traditional mainline religious thought? A religious tradition that still centers its Sunday practice around the sermon and yet doesn’t really see the minister as delivering the word of god? We Unitarian Universalists have Seven Principles that we covenant together to affirm and promote. Those principles are influenced by six sources. The second of those sources says that we are informed by, “the words and deeds of prophetic women and men, which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.”
This second source is one of the reasons we go to places other than the bible for prophetic words. As the minister, I try to find words and deeds that I can lift up as inspiring all of us to live good and meaningful lives, including words that come to me. And, as you have often heard, especially lately, I have done a lot of calling for us “to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.”
Not everyone in our congregation is going to agree with what I say or think. I understand that. For example, after last week’s service where we talked about the Women’s March, a few people came up to me with tears in their eyes with such deep gratitude that we see them and are standing up for the fear this administration is raining down. I also had someone come up and tell me that talking about the march as much as we did might put off people in our congregation who voted for the new president, which always makes me think: Are we trying too openly to radically engage all?
Standing up for our values versus trying to be open and engaging – this dichotomy is not new to this faith tradition. There have been many struggles and differences of opinion and, totally understandably, not everyone agrees with the minister’s words and thoughts. With a couple of examples from the 1800s, again Rev. McPherson reminds us, “For example, William Ellery Channing, the most prominent minister in America and famously called the ‘Father of American Unitarianism,’ whose sermons packed public halls and parks, was unceremoniously kicked off the pulpit of the Federal Street Church in Boston. His offense? Vocal support for the abolition of slavery. Likewise, Theodore Parker so offended the Boston upper-classes with what today would be seen as a non-literal reading of the scriptures, that they blocked him from the preaching rotation of Boston churches. His offense? Just not Christian enough.” I’m not particularly worried about that one.
What does all of this mean however in a time that seems so unprecedented, in a time seemingly so in need of prophetic words and calls to action and hope? And, how can we find our voices together and find ways to support each other during this extraordinary time? I freely admit that I am struggling with my own sense of hope and despair, which continues to come and go on a daily basis. As I asked all of us last week to go down and in, I have been going down and in to understand how to better minister in these times. Certainly one way is to try and give moving and motivating sermons. I have fantasies about doing these grand sermons where people stand and cheer then march out of the sanctuary into the streets with signs stopping traffic on Hunter Mill until everyone gets affordable insurance and free college education. And still another way is to support the need for more quiet and gentle support – maybe something like doing a mostly silent hour of worship with just readings and music where we can be together quietly in a safe and healing space, which is needed too.
We are in an extraordinarily strange time and I want to be as open, transparent and vulnerable with you as possible. There is no specific blueprint on how to do ministry with such a divided country and UU values seemingly under attack by not only those in power, but those who seem to not really care about how we have traditionally pretended to bring people together after an election.
That brings me to our congregational endorsement vote Karen spoke of today. This is not a perfect process, it is an attempt of the leaders, elected, hired and called of this congregation, to be able to speak to our values quickly and boldly in a rapidly changing environment. We are doing the best we can to be nimble in a world turned upside-down.
And there is another reason why speaking our voice publicly is important to me personally. Like many, I fear for our country, but I really fear for people who are feeling alone, unloved and unwanted. I fear for those who think that mainstream America will never fully recognize their humanity and that this country will never fully live up to its promise. It is pains me to know that there are so many who are in pain who don’t even know that a Unitarian Universalist cngregation exists. But it isn’t just out there, it is friends and members of this congregation who have felt the sting of 400 years of systemic oppression that continues to send messages of dehumanization. There are those among us … right here and right now who have come from religious or cultural identities that we still carry as a part of us, who are alarmed by the words and actions that are far too reminiscent of persecution that is only a generation away.
So how do we best speak our truth in love about all of this beyond the walls of our congregation? How do we stand strongly, timely and proactively in the public square when at times we have struggled with who has the right to use our prophetic voice and where? I speak my truth from the pulpit mindful of the culture and traditions of UUCF and Unitarian Universalism and the laws of the United States. We all pretty much have the right to say what we want on social media. By bylaw and policies that exist here a UUCF, the board, the CT and the Social Justice Council can say certain things at certain times about certain issues. In a time that needs our voice and values to be heard in the public square, in a time when so many who are struggling need to know that there is a place for them to be seen and held in love, in a time when we need to speak in a clear and compelling voice, how can we all work together to weigh our traditional embrace of process with the need for impact?
There is no one perfect way. We are all trying to do what we think is best for ourselves, for our congregation, for our tradition and for the world. How do we do that in ways that are timely and relevant? This congregation has a history of being on the side of love and as the senior minister, I want your message heard and felt in this community.
We all are curators of the human heart. Each one of us has deep feelings about what is happening in this world. If the way were crystal clear, we would all be ready to get in the car and head down the road. But unfortunately, when you are in uncharted waters, it takes some time to find your way.
So how do we best let those who have too often been the victims of these kinds of difficult times know that they are welcome here, that they are safe here and that we will support their inherent worth and dignity? How do we support members of the black community, UUCF members and non-members alike, by adding our voices in saying that their lives matter? How do we lift our words and demonstrate our belief that women’s rights are human rights? How do we best let our Muslim neighbors and the immigrants in our community know that we are there to be with them in times of joy and in times of peril?
The way for us to do this is to continue to feel our way through all of this as best as possible and by fostering the human capacity for love and human connection. In these times, it is important for us to do less posturing, be more open and try as safely as possible to be more vulnerable with each other, for the deeper our connection, the more united we will be in our efforts to build the beloved community.
I have been called by this congregation with the understanding that I will speak my truth from this pulpit and I will do that standing on the shoulders of a long history and theology of love. Unitarian Minister Ralph Waldo Emerson said in the male centric language of his time, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life – life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon what age of the world he fell in.” I am hoping that you can tell by my sermons what age of the world I fell in, and you have the right and the responsibility to filter those words through your own light of reason and make your own decisions and life choices.
UUCF does a lot to bring beauty and justice and love to this community, and has for more than 60 years. RE, adult classes, music programming, all kinds of social action and service projects, have made a wonderful impact. And to me, all this activity is really based on these four questions:
- Can we actually spread this deeper connection to our common humanity?
- Can we form deeper relationships across difference?
- Can we connect more profoundly with what is in us, what we experience between us and what we don’t often know how to name that is beyond us? and
- Can we learn how to love more radically?
So I will continue to speak as much as possible with words of inspiration, spiritual grounding, deep care, love, healing, challenge and comfort. Together we will try and promote deeper reflection and increased vulnerability in an atmosphere of safety and respect. And, as a community, I know that we will work together bounded by our covenant as UUs and UUCF members and friends to speak our shared prophetic voice as a beacon of kindness, compassion and love. These are extraordinary times. They call on us in extraordinary ways. I have every bit of confidence that together we can answer this call.
Resistance and resilience.