“Unitarian Universalism has a long history of finding ways for the differences between us to find their place among us. We keep trying to make the ark bigger. This is a result of our history. Both Unitarianism and Universalism were created when our founders were kicked out of their churches by more conservative Christians who labeled them heretics. That experience was so painful that both Unitarians and Universalists vowed to create religious traditions that could expand with differences of opinion. It wasn’t always easy. They were tested many times, and many times tempted to small up the ark, but time and time again, they managed to make the ark bigger.”
This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday, October 19, 2014.
I am not the kind of person who often has random conversations with strangers. I’m pretty shy and generally keep to myself. But recently I’ve thought it might be nice to change that. I have many extroverted friends and they seem to meet so many neat people. I’d like to have more of those kinds of experiences.
This week, I had my chance. I had to go to the dentist, and one of the things I like about my dentist is that he stocks magazines that I’ll never buy, like Good Housekeeping and Southern Living. I found this great recipe for turkey leftovers. As I was taking a photo of it to bring home, I noticed the other woman in the waiting room looking at me strangely. “Recipe…” I mumbled, and she asked what the recipe was. Here was my chance to be more outgoing! “Turkey leftovers. Do you have turkey leftovers?” She laughed. “I have three sons. That’ll never happen!” That’s how we started to talk. I learned all about her three sons, but it didn’t take long for her to settle on the son that she is most worried about, her middle son who has a little boy from an unplanned pregnancy. And it’s gone all wrong.
The girlfriend has disappeared, and this woman’s 25 year-old son is now the primary caregiver of this little boy and he’s moved back in because he can’t afford an apartment and full-time childcare. This woman is so worried about her grandson. “Should we ever tell him what his mother was like?” she said. And I said, “Yes, I think so.” “But won’t that hurt him?” she said. And I said, “It might. But secrets hurt more. People need to know their history.”
Then the conversation turned to her awesome Bible study group. She told me how comforting it is to know that everyone has a burden. Just last week they studied the story of Noah’s Ark and the flood. In the story, God decides that humanity is so lost that it’s time to start again. He tells Noah to build an ark and fill it with his family and two of every animal. When the rains begin God closes the door of the ark and as the boat rises in the water, evil is left behind. In that dentist’s waiting room, the woman told me that she has hope and does not despair, because when Jesus comes again, she will be on that ark, and as God closes the door, Jesus will separate the good from the evil, and there will be brand a new start.
Even though I bristle at the idea that any God could simply define people as good or evil and destroy most of them, I had a feeling that I was in the presence of something special. This woman had opened her heart to me. I don’t think she realized who she was opening her heart to, but I could hear her, not in the sense of believing in the rapture or the story of Noah. Like many Unitarian Universalists, I see the bible as a collection of sacred stories written by human beings seeking to understand the deepest yearnings of the human heart. I heard her because I knew the burden she was carrying. Just like her, I have my own burdens. Just like her, we all have our burdens. And like her, we are always trying to manage those burdens and manage the anxiety they bring us so that we can have hope. Who of us has not wanted to obliterate our burdens?
All of humanity is united by the fact that life is filled with struggle. So, even though I could choose to be offended by the comfort she gets thinking of her enemies being destroyed, it makes sense. She is understandably angry that her grandson has been abandoned by his mother. She finds comfort in a God who would eliminate her grandson’s pain when he is old enough to ask where his mother is. Who would not want to protect their child from that pain?
But, I think it is important to recognize that as Unitarian Universalists we do have different answers for suffering. Our response to suffering is not to wait for the end times, trusting that God will slay our enemies. In fact, the whole idea that humanity can be divided into good and evil is dangerous. It gives human beings the moral authority to write each other off. It gives us permission to believe that we are better or worse than other people. It creates arrogance and it creates shame.
Our Unitarian Universalist theology has two answers for suffering: everyone is saved, and we embrace diversity. Everyone is saved, and we embrace diversity.
Let’s start with the first one because I know that references to “being saved” and “salvation” make a lot of Unitarian Universalists squirm a bit in our seats. But believe it or not, Unitarian Universalism has a strong theology of salvation. It’s not much like the salvation many of us learned about, but it’s there and it’s very alive.
Unitarian Universalism has its roots in Liberal Protestant Christianity. The Universalist side of our heritage started in the late 1700s in Britain as a rebellion against using the threat of hell to get people to behave. Universalists rebelled against the idea that the only reason people do good is because they are afraid of punishment. They believed this didn’t give humanity enough credit. We don’t need fear to do the right thing because we are created by God, and God is good, therefore our natural inclination is goodness.
They also said that if God really is good, then God could not possibly damn any of his creation to hell. God has the power to reconcile all evil to him or herself. We had to trust in the mysteries of God, the spirit, and the human heart. This trust allows us to stop judging others, stop shaming others, stop fooling ourselves with arrogance, and instead focus on our own lives. Universalists loved the Bible verse, “Why worry about the speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in our own?”
Today, many of us are no longer just Christian, we are also atheist and agnostic, theist, Buddhist, pagan, or just plain Unitarian Universalist, but this doesn’t change the teaching. We still try to trust in the mysteries of the universe and the human heart. In fact, our lives depend on that trust, because to live in distrust and fear creates hell on earth.
One of the ways we try to live in that place of trust is by our deep affirmation and embrace of diversity. We are not as concerned about what is locked out of the ark when the rains come, but rather what is inside it. We don’t seek salvation by exclusion, but rather by a radical inclusion. For UUs salvation is not something you have to wait for until you die. Salvation can happen here and now when we live in trust.
So for instance, when you encounter something in another human being that makes you step back a bit, they make a decision you don’t like, or they believe something you don’t, or they do something you don’t understand, or they look different from you or act differently or love differently, you are called to resist that urge to make snap judgments. Instead, you try to honor the spark of the divine in each of us and pause for moment. You ask if there is something that you need to learn from the difference that you are experiencing. Is there some way you are being asked to grow, expand how you see things, to choose a different action?
Let’s take an example that’s very close to home right now that faces us every time we turn on the TV or the radio or go online.
Our city is experiencing a dramatic increase in racial tension. Many African Americans in our city widely believe that Michael Brown’s shooting was murder. They want Darren Wilson charged. They want Bob McCullough to step aside. They believe that the shooting of Michael Brown is one more example of how African Americans are oppressed every single day. Many African Americans are unlikely to trust anything said by the police and assume the legal system is not going to support them. They are assuming that Darren Wilson will not be indicted.
Most whites in our city don’t understand what the big deal is and want it to go away. Many don’t understand the history by which their parents, grandparents, great grandparents kept making new towns to keep out black residents. Most have never experienced law enforcement as anything but supportive and protective. So, when they hear the term, “racial profiling” many don’t believe it. And, they don’t understand the anger. There is widespread criticism of the protests, the assumption that they’re all violent, and that the protesters are dangerous. Some whites have expressed that if Darren Wilson is indicted, it will only be because of political pressure. And if Darren Wilson is not indicted, many will believe that there was no basis for any of the complaints raised by the protesters.
This is a pretty hard place to be in and I don’t know what the path is out of it. I wish I did. Then I think about Noah’s Ark. I wonder how we all get on that ark and what needs to be washed away. Our Universalist heritage tells me that we don’t all need to believe the same thing to get on that ark. And when the rains come, what’s left outside is not people, it’s ideas and beliefs, it’s old loyalties, it’s economic and political systems that kill our spirits, and kill our bodies. Those rains are no longer a punishment, but a cleansing. How many of us look at the divisions of our city and hunger for a cleansing?
Unitarian Universalism has a long history of finding ways for the differences between us to find their place among us. We keep trying to make the ark bigger. This is a result of our history. Both Unitarianism and Universalism were created when our founders were kicked out of their churches by more conservative Christians who labeled them heretics. That experience was so painful that both Unitarians and Universalists vowed to create religious traditions that could expand with differences of opinion. It wasn’t always easy. They were tested many times, and many times tempted to small up the ark, but time and time again, they managed to make the ark bigger.
This wasn’t just about embracing differences of opinion, but real differences of experience. Our embrace of feminism, for instance, was a way of honoring the experience of women and valuing it equally with the experience of men. Women were paying such a huge price; still pay a price, when they are not valued equally. The same is true for our embrace of sexual and gender minorities. Our commitment to diversity is not just an intellectual idea; it has real-life consequences. It saves lives.
Our commitment to diversity asks us to step into the messiness of life with an open heart. We can’t just turn away from the things we don’t understand, or that make us uncomfortable. We stay on the ark.
Where I’ve come to is this. None of us can force someone off the ark, but we can force ourselves off of the ark when we succumb to close mindedness and small thinking. We exclude ourselves from the ark when we allow fear and distrust to rule our hearts. We put ourselves in the path of the flood and allow ourselves to be washed away.
If Darren Wilson is not indicted, those of us who consider ourselves moderates are going to be mightily tested because violence may very well erupt. If that happens, many whites are going to use that as the excuse to turn away, the same way they turned away after Martin Luther King was assassinated and the riots erupted. I believe that our commitment to diversity is to stay on the ark, and I don’t know what that looks like, but I ask myself that every day now. What will it mean to be an ally if the streets run with blood, if the SWAT teams come back and St. Louis returns to top billing in the 24-hour news cycle? I don’t want to fear monger. I hope this does not happen. I also don’t want to be naïve.
This week, I want you to think about that ark. I want you to imagine that the sky is darkening and you know the rain is coming. You stand by the doors of the ark, helping people climb inside. When those first drops start to fall, you grab the ropes on that door and you pull hard. The door closes with a thud, and you feel the boat lift up, caught in the rising current. Who is with you on that boat? What are you leaving behind?
In that answer, lies your salvation. In that answer, lies my salvation. In that answer, lies our salvation.
May the spirit be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.