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Sermon: Sharing the Gift of UU 12/12/99 : UUCJ : John Young

We are in the midst of a frenzy of gifts. Each Christmas season, we face, again, the opportunities and the challenges of giving and receiving. Remember the incredible childhood excitement and magic of waiting for gifts at this season? Most of us luxuriate in the good feelings of giving gifts that are satisfying to both the recipient and the giver. When I was 10 years old, for the first time, I got more excited about giving gifts, than about getting them. This feeling is probably true for most adults, and many children, but almost everyone also deeply appreciates receiving gifts. However, as each of us re-discovers each year during this season, it is neither easy nor simple to give or to receive gifts. Do you make your gifts, or do you buy them? Do you choose gifts using your personal preferences, or do you give others what they told you they want or need? Do you let your gift-giving be swayed by what is being advertised, or do you give others what you know is best for them? How important is it that you package your gifts beautifully, time them expertly, or make them a big surprise? Is it the thought that counts, or is it other qualities: size, cost, relevance, sensitivity, care that actually count in a gift? Do you usually like the gifts that others give you? Are they what you wanted? Some people are quite uncomfortable getting gifts. They feel that it obligates them, makes statements about them, misreads them, or imposes others’ values upon them. Few people get through the holidays without some sense of disappointment, usually both about some of the gifts they have given, and about some of the gifts they have received.

Today, I wish to talk with you about sharing the gift of Unitarian Universalism. Most [UU's] Unitarian Universalists are given the gift of Unitarian Universalism by some one who likes them. If they grew up Unitarian Universalist, it was usually their parents that shared the faith with them. Most of the rest of us were told by someone, when we were youths or adults, that "we should try a Unitarian Universalist church," or that "we sounded like a Unitarian Universalist." Often, the individual that told us, went on to actually invite us to their Unitarian Universalist congregation. Ironically, in quite a few instances, a person's past priest, rabbi, or minister finally got so tired of their questions or doubts, activism or persistent analysis, and said, in frustration or impatience, "I think that you would be happier with the Unitarians."

Now, there are probably several million Americans who have been told that they were Unitarian Universalists in spirit, or have decided that for themselves. Perhaps more than a million have even made some connection with one or more of our congregations: got married there, went to a meeting or service and were impressed, even participate regularly in and take advantage of some activity or group that a UU congregation sponsors. However, only 154,459 adults are actually presently participating members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and 61,165 children are in our religious education programs in the United States and Canada. Most of those people were truly invited into a Unitarian Universalist church. That is, someone who liked them, respected them, and cared for them, invited them to their church, attended with them, talked with them about their experiences there, and helped them get acquainted both with the other people, and with the activities of the congregation. When you think about it, that is not unusual in life. Whether school or club, professional group or job, volunteer opportunity or neighborhood association, most people are taken by a friend, introduced around, and carefully integrated by their friends over a period of time. People do not usually get involved in a new group entirely on their own. They are usually invited, welcomed, mentored, and integrated into their chosen groups. This is true of a street gang or cult, and it is equally true of our most prestigious universities, clubs, or professional associations.

I grew up in a small town in Kansas. My parents were not church goers, although their ancestors were Protestants of different varieties. My mother worshiped nature and beauty, and my father was devoted to great books and music. My mother and her father were social and political activists. My father was a passionate debater of the issues of the day, and he was very critical of religious hypocrisy. I ended up being in churches a lot because I was a pianist, and, later, an organist, and I ended up working in churches as a musician from about the fifth grade on through high school graduation. I was often called upon in high school to debate the devout believers. I was my high school's semi-official skeptic or unbeliever, and since I usually attended two church services a week, I knew more about the Bible than a good many of the believers. When I went off to college, an older sister with a family of her own, invited me to come play for the Sunday school at her church, the Unitarian Church in Wichita, Kansas.

I began attending simply as my new musical gig. The church was close to the campus. Within a few months, I became a member because I believed in what was being taught and talked about, because I believed in what the people were doing and being, but also because my sister took the time to get me there and make me feel welcome, answer my questions and listen to my concerns, and treated me as worthy , as a college freshman, to consider membership. As a high school senior, I had been offered a full scholarship at an expensive Eastern Episcopal college if I would simply become confirmed and, therefore, a member, at the Episcopal Church where I played the organ. It was tempting for a lower middle class kid who ended up on a partial scholarship and working throughout my three undergraduate years at Wichita State University, but I refused because I could not believe what the Episcopal Church believed. They were good people; they treated me kindly; I knew their services nearly by heart, an organist in a Episcopal Church has to more or less memorize the highly liturgical service in order to survive. So, I was welcomed and courted at other churches, but I joined first and only as a Unitarian Universalist. I got there and stayed there, significantly, because my sister, Nancy Allen, cared enough about me, and believed enough in herself, to share with me the gift of Unitarian Universalism.

A person does need to believe in themselves and in their faith in order to feel able to share it with others. A person needs to care a good deal for another person in order to go to the trouble of sharing their faith with them, in the sense of truly inviting, welcoming, mentoring, and integrating them into their religious community. Some one did that for many of us in this room, and I am asking you, in your turn, to share the gift of Unitarian Universalism with some people in the coming months and years. Our religious faith is at the core of who we are and what we are about in our lives. If it is not so, it is not really a spiritual faith worthy of that terminology.

There is not one living Unitarian Universalist who believes that every human being should be a UU, or that one needs to be a UU for human salvation, moral purity, or becoming part of the ethical elite. We do not have, nor do we believe in, missionaries in this sense, nor do we have a crusader's passion to convert everyone to UUism in order to save their souls nor to line our congregations' pocketbooks. However, there is nothing un-Unitarian Universalist about wanting to share our good news with people of like minds, hearts, temperaments, and activist intents. There is nothing incorrect about being passionately evangelical about spreading the advantages of being a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation to the many thousands of people who would benefit greatly from their becoming involved with us.

If you truly respect other people, then you respect them enough to share your best experiences and deepest wisdom with them, and let them choose whether they will decide to continue to participate in those experiences or to identify with that wisdom. I am a UU; so, I believe in people enough to share myself with them, and let them choose whether they will become a member or not. Our principles and traditions make it clear that we believe that it makes a difference what you believe and what you do in your lives. All choices are not equal, and inaction and neutrality are not ethical behavior from our UU perspective, never has been, and never will be. What are we sharing if we give the gift of Unitarian Universalism? What is our good news? We are not sharing a closed religious dogma, but we are sharing an embracing spiritual practice. We are not sharing mindless or irrational beliefs, but we are sharing a mindful, experienced, living faith. We are not sharing a disdainful, holier-than-thou tolerance of others, but we are sharing a respectful, egalitarian acceptance of our fellow seekers. We agree on our religious process, but it is an open, evolving system.

We are Unitarians; so, we see God and reality as a unity, and we lift human beings up as capable and worthy of being in communion with this God, and as free participants in this ultimate reality. We are Universalists; so, we see God, and human prophets like Jesus or Buddha, and the other prophets and seers, as good and loving, and we believe that everyone can find satisfaction in life and will find peace in death. We also believe, as Universalists, that each human tradition has some of the truth, and that no human tradition, including our own, has all of the truth. So, we joyfully celebrate a panoply of holidays and prophets, scriptures and practices. Our faith is a learning religion.

We, Unitarian Universalists, are clearly focused on doing justice in our lives, and on becoming loving people. However, you do not have everyone over for Christmas dinner, nor do you give everyone a holiday gift. If a stranger came to your door and expected a place at the table and a stocking under the tree, you would not automatically accept his intrusion. Sometimes, you do justice with a person, and it is not enough for the recipient. They do not like or accept your gifts. They want to tell you what you are going to do for them. In such a situation, it may become most loving to ask such a person to leave because they do not fit around your table; they cannot accept your gifts. Unitarian Universalists are realists. They recognize that not everyone fits; not everyone can understand or accept another's gifts. We are loving communities, but that does not mean that we are such unrealistic idealists that we presume that we will be able to love everyone effectively, or that every person will be willing to accept the obligations and understandings of our congregations. We are committed to proceeding fairly and democratically; to being affirming and patient, but we realize that virtues and tolerance can be abused, and we are committed to maintaining our congregations as safe places for the vast majority of their participants, who are willing to be civil and accommodating, polite and democratic. An open system is still a system of order, and it cannot survive anarchy, nor can it accept arrogant narcissism.

As you consider who to share the gift of Unitarian Universalism with, you do not need to only choose people of a certain age or sex, race or religious background, income level or life style. We are not bigots nor sexists. If you hope, as I do, that our congregation will grow to include more people of color, you may, particularly, want to invite some of your friends of color to try us out. If you hope, as I do, that our wonderful religious education program will grow to twice its present size, to make full use of our excellent curriculum, wonderful volunteer teachers, and beautiful facilities, then you will want, particularly, to invite some of your relatives, friends or neighbors with young children who will benefit from many years in our extraordinary religious education program. If you have a friend who is in a mixed marriage, has faced a divorce, or has a same sex orientation, you know that our congregation, unlike most religious communities, is not prejudiced against people in those categories.

You also know that Unitarian Universalists are, statistically, the best educated and among the wealthiest per capita among American denominations; so, you would wisely choose people who are comfortable in that kind of a sociological environment. My father had not graduated from high school and never made more than $12,000. a year in his hard working life, and my mother only got a junior college degree in her fifties and never had a full-time job outside the home, but my father loved to think and to discuss, and my mother was a liberal and an activist; so, although they did not become UU's until they were in their fifties, they flourished in a UU congregation. My sister, Nancy, has only a year or so of college, which she got in middle age, and had to work to keep her home together into her early sixties, but she has been a pillar of various UU churches for over fifty years now.

Most UU's are activists; that is, whatever they are involved in, they really get involved: they are leaders and innovators, they speak up and reach out; so, naturally, other activists are most drawn to our congregations. We are a liberal religion, and, usually a majority of us are liberal on most social and political issues, but there are plenty of people who are economic, social, and political conservatives in our congregations. There are people active in the full spectrum of party politics, social and fraternal organizations, and recreational clubs. A person does not need to fit some stereotype of a liberal to find a happy home in our congregation. We have all sorts of personality types, and you do not need to fit some single personality profile either.

UU's include people of all religious backgrounds, and no religion background. In my 38 years as a UU, our denomination has grown much more inclusive of different religious and spiritual viewpoints. When I joined in 1961, the Wichita Unitarian Church was pretty stuck in being proudly, sometimes arrogantly, secular humanist. Now, UU's continue to recognize that some of us come with wounds from their religious pasts or America's culture wars, but we are becoming truly welcoming of genuine ideological, philosophical, and theological diversity. There are Jews, Christians, theists, agnostics, secular humanists, mystical scientists, fervent meditators, cheerful pagans, militant feminists and vegetarians, prudent conservatives, proud old radical ideologues, and many other perspectives here, and we savor and embrace this salad bowl of thinking people.

If you come here, and you feel at home, make friends, and are inspired by our services and activities, what are your responsibilities in becoming a member? We expect our members to participate, to be at many of our services, to volunteer some of their best talents and most vital hours in the service of this congregation. We expect our members to be generous in their financial giving; most of us have considerable discretionary income; this congregation needs a significant piece of that discretionary income in order to flourish. We expect our members to treat their colleague members with respect, to be fair and polite in their statements and their actions, to be democratic in their deeds in this congregation. We expect our members to have a growing spiritual life, based upon intellectual freedom and personal growth, but we also expect our members to live their personal growth within our inclusive community, to put their beliefs into ethical activism in the wider society, and to do their deeds democratically.

In closing, let me return to giving gifts. You would NOT give the gift of UU to someone who is already fulfilled in their present religious home. You WOULD give the gift to someone who is either without any spiritual community now, or who is unfulfilled in the congregation they now attend. You would NOT give the gift of UU to someone who you knew would be and remain uncomfortable here, nor would you bring someone to this congregation who you knew would make most of the people in the congregation uncomfortable, or who would keep them from feeling safe in their own religious home. You WOULD, instead, share with us someone who you felt strongly would complement and deepen our community, and, whom, simultaneously, would likely be made joyful and grateful that you had helped them find a spiritual community where they could grow, be nurtured, and inspired.

We each have people that give us special gifts that we never forget. My sister, Nancy, often understood before I did what I needed in my growing up. I am eternally grateful that she invited and welcomed, mentored and integrated me into Unitarian Universalism. I was finding myself, but I had no idea where to find a spiritual home that worked for people like me. I needed an ethical community, a group of inquiring religious friends, where I could grow my thoughtful faith and live my activist life with integrity. Many, if not most, of you could say the same about the friend who brought you to Unitarian Universalism. Now, I ask you to live your faith, to walk your talk, and to invite and welcome, mentor and integrate several of your relatives, friends, or neighbors into this congregation. By doing so, you will make us more of what you want our community to become; you will have more personal friends here, and you will, simultaneously, give to those chosen individuals, who are not yet known us, the priceless gift of a liberal spiritual community, a nurturing place, and a wonderful group of people in which to grow.

Give your gifts of candy and toys, of clothes and books, of CDs and vacation trips, of jewelry and food, of art objects and personal creations, but also believe in yourself enough, have enough respect for your unchurched or under satisfied friends, celebrate your own faith, by giving the gift of Unitarian Universalism to a few of the people you love. There are few gifts that you will give in your entire lifetime that will be as cherished or rewarding.

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