Unitarian Universalist Chalice

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LIBERATED PEOPLE DESERVE A CONGREGATION TOO

A sermon by Reverend Dr. John Young
Unitarian Universalist Minister
UU Church of Jacksonville

Unitarian Universalists are liberated people. We are not, by any means, the only liberated people. Every denomination and ideology probably has some liberated people. When we say of a friend or colleague, she is a Unitarian Universalist in spirit, we are often saying so because we see them and they see themselves, as a liberated person, even though they may have no religious affiliation or know anything about Unitarian Universalism. We recognize that there are individuals of every faith who live lives of liberation, and we value them highly as friends, colleagues, or admirable human models, even though they may believe doctrines and even have practices with which we disagree.

What is liberation? It implies both freedom and dedication to justice. It suggests a reverence for empirical truth combined with a commitment to democratic process plus a living faith based upon love and compassion.

This sermon and my ministry are focused upon the belief that many people would benefit from our liberated religion, and my equally strong belief that human beings cannot become nor remain liberated by themselves. They need a covenanting, living community of soul mates.

For many people, Henry David Thoreau, the transcendentalist philosopher who lived for two years by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, is a good example of a liberated person. He was a rugged individualist, striving for independence, proud of his non-conformity, working hard to live compatibly with the laws of nature, the principles of reason, and the human practices of mutual respect and non-violence. Probably millions of human beings have found reading WALDEN a religious experience and an important part of their own liberation from outworn inherited ideas and inadequate practices. But, it is important to remember that Thoreau did not live in a vacuum. Emerson owned the land where Thoreau built his cabin. Emersonís wife welcomed Thoreau into their nearby home whenever he felt like a fuller meal, and Emerson was his mentor and patron. Their was a Unitarian network for Thoreau, that he, perhaps too often, took for granted, and that community made Thoreauís life at Walden Pond possible.

It is vital to remember, in the words of Maya Angelouís poem, that we are members of a human family, that we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We tend to be very sensitive to own individualities and to our contributions to others, but it is all-too-easy to forget how we became who we are: the people that taught us, cared for us, supported us in the past, the people, communities, and institutions still who make our freedom possible and who provide us the foundations on which we build our liberation. We are each unique, but we are not alone, nor are we self-sufficient. Human beings become individuals through communities and the objects of individuality are neither self-sufficiency nor selfishness but the building of culture and the nurture of other people, and of future generations.

As I said in my interpretation of Psalm 122, our denomination celebrates the good news that Creation welcomes all of us and embraces each of us with the grace of life. This happens through our chosen communities, where our inheritances and our visions, our livesí experiments and our wisdom, are synthesized into judgments and experiences that work, that rest in each otherís arms. This is the life satisfaction that every person seeks; the peace that each individual wants.

Liberated people deserve religion, too. The unchurched and even those who are opposed to "organized religion" could benefit from knowing and participating in our practical and realistic religion for liberated people. We do not pretend to have the right answers for everyone. We do not believe that our way is the only way to be saved. In fact, salvation, in the traditional sense, is not even a goal of our shared faith.

We come from many different backgrounds. Most of us have grown up in traditional Christian religious heritages; many of us have been active members of more orthodox churches; some of us have been participants in other world faiths, but an increasing number of us have also grown up without congregational experience. We are part of the increasing proportion of human beings who simply are not members of any congregation.

My own life was such a case. My parents saw themselves as overworked Protestants as children and had rejected it as adults. We practiced no organized, institutionalized religion as a family during my youth. In fact, my father deprecated churches; he called them 'the houses of the hypocrites.' As an adolescent, I often ended up in church as a musician, first in an Episcopal Sunday school and later as pianist or organist for a variety of churches in my little Kansas town. However, I never felt moved to join. In fact, I was the high school spokesman for the righteously and unrepentantly unchurched, and I was severely critical of organized religion.

Thus, there are ironies in my chosen task in this sermon because I am the minister of a church explaining why many of the unchurched could benefit by finding a religious home here. I am not trying to convert people who are happy with their present faith, nor am I trying to interest people who are satisfied with their spiritual isolation.

The first irony is that the standard Unitarian Universalist "conversion" is the opposite of what religious conversion usually means. You do not join here because you are struck by lightning from on high or convinced this is necessary to your salvation or that it is the only true way to God. We do not believe in such extravagances. We have come to our personal, individual faiths through an intellectual quest, a spiritual rebellion, the sometimes difficult experiences of our lives. We have come to our faiths for ourselves and then discovered that this place, this congregation, this religious movement, and this denomination reflect, support, and enrich who we are and what we believe.

Unitarian Universalists have had so much to do with freeing people from outworn dogmas and have been so correctly aware of the dangers of institutionalization that there is also a second and institutional irony here. From the earliest days of our movement, we have been torn between the inspirations that religion is correctly an individual, personal matter, and the recognition that any faith remains hollow without active participation and membership in a congregation. On the one hand, we recognize that each person is unique and that we must experience religion for ourselves, live out our unique and special lives for ourselves and not be completely dependent on deeds of others, doctrines, or scriptures. On the other hand, we have also been aware from the beginning that religion or any life philosophy soon becomes a hollow piety, an egocentric obsession, and a selfish hiding place if we keep ourselves outside of a community of people, outside a congregation that would challenge us, nurture us, test us, and celebrate with us. These two insights Ė that that religion must be individual and personal to be real and that religion must become part of a community and must be shared to remain real Ė run like strands through our denominational history and through our personal histories. They sometimes seem contradictory. They often leave us confused and divided.

The apparent contradictions of these two insights are compounded by the facts of modern life. Modern history has been identified as a process of secularization. As people have gained more understanding of themselves and of the world around them, they have had less use for magic and mystery, rituals and taboos. Through the centuries, religion has been used to fill the gaps in our knowledge and sense of power with sacred answers and powerful deities. The scientific knowledge and technological power of modern life has secularized human beings. They are not sure that they need religion any more.

Most modern people do not practice religion with any regularity. A majority of Europeans and Americans no longer go to a synagogue, church, or temple with any frequency. They have no genuine religious home. Many of them may continue to identify themselves as Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, but they see little need to have genuine institutional connections with their identified faith. Millions of others have completely lost their sense of inherited religious identity or have never had such an identity. Some of them actively make fun of the minority of Americans who continue to "waste their time in these hypocritical houses of God which are only interested in all their extra time and money." The unchurched and nonbelievers consider themselves lucky to be free of the constraints, demands, and obligations of organized religion.

 

Is Organized Religion Undesirable?

How can I dare stand against this seemingly overwhelming tide of modern life? Perhaps organized religion is a vestige of an outworn past, a collection of self-serving religious professionals and self-perpetuating spiritual bureaucracies frightened that their rituals and rules, holy scriptures, and Father gods are no longer needed? In some ways, I believe this to be true. I think and hope that an ever-diminishing proportion of humanity will be caught in dogmatic and outworn religions that neither reflect the facts of life nor the highest and best ethics and values that human beings can live by.

It is better for human beings to concentrate their lives and their thoughts upon this life and this world. Religious liberals are all, in this sense, humanists. We also find inspiration in the natural world. We find much guidance in the growing body of knowledge and the human process for discovering that knowledge called science. This makes us philosophical naturalists. We all share this belief in nature and science. I am also an existentialist. I think that we must and do create our own meaning. Human values are not written in the sky; they must be discovered in the human spirit and lived in our daily lives.

Human culture is amazing and wonderful, but it is fragile. Humans need always to continue to create culture, to test it, and to build upon its enduring values. We cannot take human culture for granted. Progress is anything but inevitable. That has been a pre-eminent tragic lesson of the 20th century. Most other religious liberals also share this existentialist perspective. We are also pluralists and, on some points, agnostics. We believe that there is more than one right answer to many of the important questions of life, and we recognize that some of the eternal questions may never be completely or even satisfactorily answered. So, at one and the same time, we reject much of what religion has been and much of what ethnic tribalism and dogmatic, orthodox, salvationist religion still are, and yet we also have discovered a human tradition and an institutional context of central value and meaning to us. We have a religious home, and we choose, as liberated people, to be active members of a congregation.

I have no doubt that people can seem to "do" their religion alone. Some of our most important inspirations, discoveries, and struggles are done in isolation. Most of the famous religious leaders came to their faiths in storied moments of isolation: Moses went away into the desert, Buddha went into the forests, Lao Tze went to the west of China, and Jesus went into the wilderness. We must, at times, step back, retreat, and be alone in order to find ourselves and to discover the essence of the world for ourselves. However, modern life has turned this necessary freedom, this essential process of liberation, into a graven image, and a false idol.

For most of human history, the question was survival. As Hobbes said, life was characteristically "nasty, poor, brutish and short." For us lucky moderns, this is no longer a typical life. We do not spend all our time just surviving. Yet, we continue to live with a survival mentality. More and more excesses become "necessary minimums" for a good life. We have become so obsessed with getting free that some people are now confusing any discipline, responsibility, or commitment as opposed to freedom and liberation.

By getting stuck in some fantasy quest for perfect freedom or becoming obsessed with the myth of self-sufficiency, human beings continue to make their primary virtues into their pre-eminent vices. For centuries, the traditional religious virtues were often turned into such vices and this is still happening today. Many of our contemporaries have made liberation and freedom into false idols, and they have forgotten, or perhaps never learned, that the really liberated person uses her/his freedom for personal discipline, social responsibility, and interpersonal commitment.

The Necessity of a Congregation

We, who wish to be genuinely free and to remain truly liberated, need a religious congregation and a spiritual movement or denomination that reflects what we have found to be wise and good and to put into practice what we are seeking for in our lives. This community is needed to help us feel less isolated in our freedom. We need a spiritual home. Yet it must be a home with walls that reach to every horizon. When we are feeling strong, able, and successful, this community can be here to help us to celebrate, to share our insights, wisdom, and experience; it needs to also challenge us and afflict us a little when we get too comfortable. When we are feeling weak, alone, recognizing our limitations, our own finitude, and our failures, we need to find love and support here and to be able to reach out and find a warm hand, a listening ear, and a sympathetic spirit. We need the nurturing of others who face life honestly as both tragedy and miracle, as both mystery and humanistic creation.

In the majority of our days, those that are neither brimming with success and happiness nor overwhelmed by sadness and tragedy, our congregation helps us cope with the frustrations and limitations of regular existence and to find joy and peace in the work and loves of our lives. It helps us grow when we feel dull, listless, or stifled; and it helps us savor when we get too busy to enjoy, too caught up to be creative, or too controlled to breathe.

Why would people who are nonreligious or who have given up on organized religion join us? I think they might do so because we are a community which faces up to the realities of life and the limitations of traditional religions. We are a group of responsible humanists, if you will, yet we intentionally choose to be both liberated and religious. We are wise enough to know that individuals need to be institutionalists in order to make their own individualism genuine and in order to grow, test and temper their individual excesses, obsessions, and inertia with companions of their choosing.

Why not, you say, just do these things in your vocation, with your family, and/or with your carefully chosen friends?

Vocations, even at their best (and many of us are most fortunate in our careers), are rather narrowly focused on profits, finishing a project, teaching one subject, or resolving a particular conflict. There is not much time for other concerns at our work, noble and satisfying as some of our jobs are. In the instances when they are neither noble nor satisfying, the need for other contexts becomes all the greater. We need a place for a vocational overview and for a perspective larger than any job.

Our families are a wonderful center for many of us. They are irreplaceable, but they are our family, their love is partly duty, and family life inevitably becomes a great game of habit and horse trading. As Maya Angelou said so well: lovers may think quite different thoughts while lying side by side. We need other people who do not need us so much, who are not so dependent, who are not so much in our debt and we in theirs. We need a spiritual family, a family of choice and conviction, with new members to learn to understand, to love, and to cherish. Unfortunately, modern life Ė with its geographic moves, its personal changes, and its shifting allegiances has been hard on friendship. This congregation can be a place to widen and deepen our friendships. It can be a place to share ourselves with long-time friends who still understand the ways we are now and to discover in new friends what we yet choose to become.

We share a faith of liberation which combines a belief in freedom and a dedication to human justice, a reverence for empirical truth, democratic process, and the mutual practice of love and compassion. We each know people we care about who would benefit from our liberated religion, and we need to share our good news with them. Like us, they need and deserve a covenanting, living congregation of soul mates. A congregation is necessary because human liberation cannot be created nor maintained in isolation. It must be shared. We need one another for the bad times, the good times, and the everyday times. We need this congregation to help us recognize what we have, to help us see the road ahead, and to help us savor the realities of our daily lives.

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