Our reading today comes from a blog post by Dr. Bruce Prescott, the Executive Director of the Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. Many Unitarian Universalists mistakenly assume that all Baptists are basically the same. This is false. The Mainstream Baptists emerged to challenge fundamentalism within the Southern Baptist denomination. They believe that Southern Baptists have betrayed their history, their theology, and their faith. We will read one part of his blog post today, and another part in two weeks, when we return to the theme of Progressive Faith:
As evening slides across the time zones of this planet, Jewish people around the world will begin celebrating Rosh Hashannah, as they have for thousands of years. This is a celebration of the beginning of the world and the birth of humanity. A ram’s horn, the shofar, will be blown in every synagogue in the world, signifying a time of reorientation. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership calls it “an ancient alarm clock, and Rosh Hashannah as the day on which [it is] set to help wake ourselves up to becoming the person we most want to be.” Apples dipped in honey are eaten to symbolize sweetness, health, success and luck in the coming year. It is a time of hope and gratitude.
But after that first celebration, the spirit of the next ten days changes. It is said that God opens up the Book of Life to see whose name appears there. Who has been faithful? In the next 10 days, Jewish people are called to a time of atonement. Rabbi Hirschfield says that this is a time to be brave, as brave as God, for this is time to account for one’s choices through the year. What mistakes did you make, who did you hurt, what did you take for granted, and how will you make amends? And then, who do you need to forgive? Sometimes the withholding of forgiveness is as damaging as the thing that hurt you in the first place. Are we being arrogant in holding onto grudges? Are we poisoning ourselves with resentment? This is a time to let those things go so that you can begin the new year unencumbered, ready to be the person you most want to be. The High Holy Days end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day on which you ask to be freed from your burdens so that you may begin anew.
It may seem like a paradox, to start with a holiday of celebration and to end the turn of the year with a time of somber reflection. But perhaps that’s what it takes to be brave. Both the acts of celebration and atonement are brave acts. It is brave to celebrate because to celebrate is to have hope in the world and hope in humanity. Sometimes it’s not easy to have that hope. This is why celebration is an act of bravery.
So is atonement, because the act of atoning is a vulnerable thing. It means admitting that we aren’t perfect, that we don’t always know the right thing to do. It means saying that we made mistakes, that we weren’t the person we most want to be. The giving, receiving, and asking of forgiveness is a scary and powerful and liberating process. Perhaps the God of the Jewish people, and perhaps the Jewish prophets of ancient times understood this, and so Rosh Hashannah, with its focus on celebration and hope and possibility comes first and builds us up in our spirit, so that when Yom Kippur follows, we will have the courage for the spiritual work that needs to be done.
This is the spiritual work that Bruce Prescott is talking about in his blog on progressive faith, because both Bruce Prescott and Rabbi Hirschfield are religious progressives, like we are. Progressive faith is the spiritual work of getting outside of the smallness of our own individual perspective so that we can see ourselves and the world around us, with all its differences and difficulties, a little more clearly, and a little more humbly, and with a little more love and kindness. In progressive religious traditions like ours, faith is not a set of beliefs that you have to adhere to. Faith is a process of aligning one’s life with one’s values through intentional self-reflection and action.
We Unitarian Universalists have a lot in common with the Mainstream Baptists. Just as Bruce Prescott is struggling against the fundamentalist takeover of his beloved denomination, the Southern Baptists, we have also struggled against the fundamentalisms that we see around us – in our politicians, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our community, in our nation.
Many people find their way to Unitarian Universalism because they are looking for a way to strengthen themselves in the face of these fundamentalisms. They are looking for like-minded people who have the same values. Many Unitarian Universalists feel like minorities in their communities, but in our UU congregations they are not. We come to be with people who understand us and accept us and affirm us. This is one of the most important things that Unitarian Universalist churches provide in places like the Bible Belt. A refuge. Our congregations provide a place to heal and a place to feel safe and valued for who we are.
But, one of the casualties of being a refuge is that many Unitarian Universalists, in response to these fundamentalisms, often develop their own black and white thinking. We become so protective of our safety and security and ability to belong and feel at home in our congregations, that sometimes we are suspicious of anything that comes into our churches that feels even the slightest bit like the fundamentalisms we are trying to get a break from.
There is a strong current of anti-Christian prejudice in many Unitarian Universalist congregations. We can talk about Buddhism and Hinduism and New Age Spirituality, and reincarnation and Paganism and women’s spirituality, but try talking about Christianity and you will often see people close down. It’s not uncommon to walk into coffee hour in any UU congregation and hear people making judgmental comments about Christians and Christianity. We could invite a Buddhist monk here for a Sunday morning, and that monk could quote only from Buddhist writings and speak only through a Buddhist lens, and he or she would more than likely be warmly welcomed and have a full house at their Religious Education Talkback. But bring a Christian minister, and if they quoted only from Christian writings and spoke through a Christian lens, people might murmur about it for weeks.
Unitarian Universalist congregations have lost so many people who consider themselves liberal Christians, who also come in search of a place to recover from fundamentalism, who come because our websites all say we welcome diversity, only to find out that the welcome doesn’t quite include them. They try to talk about what they believe and are met with awkward silence. They hear the generalizations about “those Christians” during coffee hour, adult education, and sometimes even during worship. Sometimes they are told by well-meaning individuals that this might not be the right church for them, and are gently directed out the door. I’ve even had people ask me, “Why would a Christian ever want to come here?” Because they have Unitarian Universalist values, and want to practice their faith in an open-minded diverse setting, because they believe they can be stronger Christians by being Unitarian Universalists.
Now I do understand that many individuals in our congregations have been deeply wounded by Christianity. Some of you will struggle with those wounds your whole life. But many Unitarian Universalists make the mistake of assuming that all Christians are the same, that there is only one kind of Christianity, the kind that hurt us, the kind that silences our children at school and makes us uncomfortable with our neighbors, the kind that many of our legislators parade during elections. When we do this, we become fundamentalists ourselves. We betray our Unitarian Universalist heritage, and we betray our Unitarian Universalist faith, the faith of Unitarians like King Sigismund of Transylvania who said “There is room for everyone in my country.”
This is why I invited Rev. Jacoba Koppert, a United Church of Christ minister, to speak at Emerson Chapel in August, and why I affirmed her in speaking from the truth of her Christian faith. Her presence here invited us to a place of openness and humbleness and spiritual maturity.
Progressive Faith is that kind of faith – it is open, it is humble, and it asks us to be spiritually mature and reflective. It has very little to do with whether you believe the right things about God or Moses or Jesus or the after life or the Bible. Fundamentalist faiths make litmus tests out of beliefs and call that faith. That is a shallow and dangerous form of faith. This is the kind of faith that killed J. Christopher Stevens, the American Ambassador to Libya, this week. This is the kind of faith that led to the creation of the movie, “The Innocence of Muslims”, that intentionally insulted the prophet Mohammad and Islam. This is the kind of faith that asks us to set aside our minds and blindly accept certain things as true or false. This is also the kind of faith that, year by year, sends theistic or Christian leaning Unitarian Universalists into my office, saying, “I don’t know if I can stay in this church. I don’t feel valued here.”
Progressive Faith is about turning the mirror on ourselves and asking, what do we say we stand for, and what do we actually do? Progressive Faith asks us to be brave, a Yom Kippur kind of brave, and to dare to see ourselves through the eyes of the other. This actually goes way beyond the Golden Rule, which is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Platinum Rule takes it another step, which is to do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. What the Platinum Rule does is take us out of the center.
The mark of a person of faith is not them doing for others what they want for themselves, but to step out of the comfort zone, and into what you might call the Rosh Hashannah/ Yom Kippur zone, the zone of celebration and atonement, to celebrate the things that unite us, to celebrate that we all come from the same spirit of life, the breath of God, that we are the hands and the voices and the bodies of the sacred. And then, to atone for the ways that we let down that sacred purpose, when we limit the sacred by using our wounds as crutches and silencing the things in others that we cannot hear in ourselves. This Rosh Hashannah/Yom Kippur zone is a place to listen deeply, feel deeply, love deeply, forgive and be forgiven bravely, and respond courageously and compassionately to the otherness around us, until we see that otherness in ourselves. In fact, this is what many progressive religious people – whether they are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, Religious Humanist, Buddhist, Pagan, Bahai, and others – would call true faith, the willingness to feel like a stranger in our own skins, and to paradoxically find ourselves, our true selves, in that strangeness.
So many of us come to Unitarian Universalism seeking refuge. But ironically, when true faith happens, our congregations shift from being a refuge to being beacons of hope, celebration, and healing. We shift from the Golden Rule to the Platinum Rule. We shift to living in the mode of hospitality and generosity and abundance. We become beacons of hopeful celebration and liberating atonement. This is how we create truly welcoming Unitarian Universalist communities that are faithful to our heritage and our mission. This is true healing, this is true forgiveness, this is true love, this is progressive faith.
May the spirit be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.