Sunday, October 09, 2016

Freely Following Jesus: A sermon on Unitarian Universalist Christianity

“Freely Following Jesus” UU Church of Bartlesville, Oct. 9, 2016
Rev. Ron Robinson

A week ago today I spoke to the Atheist Community of Tulsa. It was about our area of north Tulsa and its struggles and strengths and ways they could be a part of our renewal work. We didn’t spend any time talking about theology or church, but they knew where we were coming from—our ever-transforming church is a covenanted community in the Unitarian Universalist Association, and a member of the Council of Christian Churches within the UUA, and a member of the Christian Community Development Association. And I began by thanking them for their presence and their mission in our community. I couldn’t think of a more “Christian” thing for me to do, just as they, by inviting me, supporting us, were being true to their deepest identity and purpose. We were in a small way creating a welcome table, intersections, a border, an edge where new life sprouts.
As I did so I thought of a time when I was visiting Massachusetts and worshipping for the first time at the UU First Parish of Worcester. Their minister’s sermon was titled “Why The Church Needs Atheists” and in it she talked about her own deep conversion to Theism through a mystical encounter, a theism that needs the witness of atheists. And right before the sermon, as it does each week, the church recited the Lord’s Prayer. I thought of that as the parable of the power of the free church.
And for 13 years I was privileged to serve the UU Christian Fellowship as Executive Director and to talk to churches about why UU Christians, or those who simply preferred to call themselves Jesus Followers, needed to be in right relationship with the many others on different paths among us in order to actually grow into the life of Christ we desired, and why the churches and others in them on different paths than ours needed us too in order to grow in their own way. There is nothing like having a loving and liberation oriented Christian in healing covenant with someone who has been spiritually, and sometimes physically, hurt by someone else using the name of Jesus or Christianity.
This coming Friday evening and Saturday we are hosting a retreat, free for any donation, that will be open to all of any theological orientation who want to meet with others to celebrate and explore this kind of progressive freely following Jesus spirit, to go deeper into its challenges and its promise, and though it is part of multi state gatherings hosted by the UU Christian Fellowship we will have conversation and workshop partners from other progressive churches too. I hope that it is a chance for others to learn about a part of UUism, as well as focusing on not letting Christian orthodoxy claim to be the one true Christianity.
One of the books we will have available is one published by the UUA a few years ago called Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism. I am getting ready to share some of the various voices from it to lift up what it means to freely follow Jesus, but I want to say that even in the many essays in the book there are many of our diversity of voices still left out. I would also include more of the voices of the Unitarian Universalist Christian who worships in a UU Christian church and for whom it is commonplace to think of UUism and Christianity as one thing. But also the voices of non-Christian UUs who are nevertheless a part of the UU Christian Fellowship, those who love to learn with us in bible study and even worship with us. These include atheists and agnostics and many others who do not claim to freely follow Jesus, but who find their own spiritual lives deepened by being around those who do; and I would include the progressive Christians who are not UUs who are a part of us too, who like what we bring to the Christian table and are sometimes amazed to find that what they think have been new discoveries in biblical and theological studies have actually existed for centuries, among us.
Here are some of the diverse perspectives and accounts in the book in their own words:
From Dave Dawson: --“I share a desire for the freedom to test the outer limits of my Christian faith. Within my church I am not told I am wrong, just looked at quizzically when I say I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ…I remain a UU Christian as a witness to those in mainline Christianity that, yes, universal salvation is alive and well, and it is a beautiful option for those people mired in shame-based churches.
 From Anita Farber-Robertson: --“It was not, however, going to be enough to want Jesus in my life. I was going to have to claim him, and let him claim me. I was going to have to say, “Yes, this is my path. You are my guide, my teacher, and my savior, for without you my soul would get brittle, my mouth grow bitter, my heart hard.”
 From the late Terry Burke: --“My baptism remains central to my religious self-understanding. As part of the confession of faith that Carl Scovel had me write, I said, “I believe that God seeks a loving, dialogical relationship with humanity, and that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ calls us to reflect that sacrificial love in our lives. The cross and the faithful community proclaim that it is more important to love than to survive and that love is stronger than death.”
From Robert Fabre: --“So Unitarian Universalism was, for me, the pathway back to Christianity. No doubt I wouldn’t be where I am today, wouldn’t be the person I am today, without it. Ironically, the longer I’ve been associated with this liberal religious community, the more conservative I’ve become on a personal level. So now I can say, I believe that Jesus was the son of God (not God but the son of God); I believe in the resurrection (not the resuscitation of a dead body but the resurrection); and I believe that I am saved by grace (not because I accept Jesus as my personal savior but because, despite my confusion and my unbelief, despite my shortcomings and mistakes, in a mysterious way, beyond my comprehension and explanation, God accepts me).
 From Victoria Weinstein: --“Who is Jesus Christ to me? He is both a teacher of the Way, and the Way itself. For one who has always had a hard time grasping the concept of God, let alone developing a working definition of God, Jesus both points me toward a definition of God and then lives that definition. Jesus Christ is the freedom that laughs uproariously at the things of this world, while loving me dearly for being human enough to lust after them. He is my soul’s safety from all harm. He is the avatar of aloneness, a compassionate and unsentimental narrator of the soul’s exile on earth, and proof of the soul’s triumphant homecoming at the end of the incarnational struggle. He is not afraid to put his hands anywhere to affect healing. He mourns, and weeps, and scolds, and invites. He is life more abundant and conqueror of the existential condition of fear.”
And From the late Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley: “Today, Jesus remains a central figure of my religious identity. And yet I don’t often call myself a Christian because there is no agreement on what the term Christian means, either within Unitarian Universalism or without…There are conservative and liberal understandings of the Jesus story and Christian witness, and none of these has any exclusive claim on Jesus or those who seek to follow him. In my Christian witness, no one’s soul (or spiritual salvation) is dependent on a particular ritual, obligation, or statement of belief. There is no giant cop up in the sky dictating who will go up and who will go down. And yet I have been moved to tears by liturgical expressions of the story of Jesus and his work as a mystical teacher. It’s most accurate to say that I am a nominal Christian who has also found truth and wisdom in pre-Christian and mystical religions, earth-centered spiritualities, religious humanism, womanism, and other theologies of liberation. I have embraced the spiritual practice of Thai Chi and the wisdom of Buddhist philosophy. I am a Unitarian Universalist because I do not exclude any particular theology. As the spiritual says, there is “plenty of good room” at the banquet table.
The religious landscape in America has changed vastly since 1945 when the UUCF began. In UUism, in Christianity, and in UU Christianity. These UU Christian voices now are more diverse than you would have found when the UUCF began. Surprise, surprise, they are still changing. For a faith that roots itself in the theological belief that revelation is not sealed and cannot be sealed, we do, though, seem to still resist change. On the other hand, when we talk about ongoing revelation as a core value of our tradition, it doesn’t mean continually throwing the baby out with the bathwater in every successive generation, as if that is the mark of a progressive faith. Sometimes, often, ongoing revelation means returning to our touchstones and knowing them more fully because of where we have been, and being touched and supported by them even more deeply and strongly because of it.
Once upon a time to speak of Christian voices in our movement would have been a commonplace thing, as redundant as saying Methodist or Baptist Christian voices. To really grasp the notion of how commonplace Christianity is in our roots, we should look at the statement of belief approved in 1853 by the American Unitarian Association. This was more than a decade after Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker, both of whom still saw themselves as being in the Christian tradition even if heretics within it, began planting seeds that would grow our church to being a “more than Christian, more than any one path” church. In 1853 the Unitarian Association, the radicals in their days, described themselves (not prescribed themselves) this way: 
 “WE BELIEVE in Jesus Christ, the everlasting Son of God, the express image of the Father, in whom dwelt all the fullness of the God-head bodily, and who to us is the Way and the Truth and the Life. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, the teacher, renewer, and guide of mankind. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Catholic Church as the body and form of the Holy Spirit, and the presence of Christ in all ages. WE BELIEVE in the Regeneration of the human heart, which, being created upright, but corrupted by sin, is renewed and restored by the power of Christian truth. WE BELIEVE in the constant Atonement whereby God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. WE BELIEVE in the Resurrection from mortal to immortality, in a future judgment and Eternal Life. WE BELIEVE in the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the final triumph of Christian Truth.
It is important in understanding Unitarian Universalism to remember that we never voted not to believe that statement, to proscribe it, or any other; we don’t do that sort of thing; we only voted in the future on new language and new descriptions for new times, but not as official replacements that negated what came before; to some Trinitarian Universalists like me that 1853 language still in large part might resonate pretty well. And remember it was those very Christians in both the Unitarian and Universalist churches who helped to create a faith community that that would inherently be open to others different from them; in large measure because of the kind of Christians they were, they helped form an association where they could, and would be, in the minority.  It is not a bad cultural place for a follower of Jesus to be.  And, as we are discovering in other arenas, when we are all minorities of one sort or another, we need those intersections, borders, edge places even more where we meet and grow from one another.
            Especially after 1945, the year the UU Christian Fellowship began, there arose in many places, especially in new lay led fellowships, Unitarian Universalism as the opposite of Christianity, and it was considered a contradiction of terms to be a UU Christian. Not I might say here in Bartlesville when the Unitarian fellowship was formed here and in its original bylaws said it existed to promote “practical Christianity”, language evocative of the 1825 American Unitarian Association purpose of promoting what it called “pure Christianity” as opposed to creedal based Christianity. 
Over time though, and as Christianity liberalized itself in many of its denominations, UUs began to see how they were a more than tradition, rather than an anti this or that tradition, and that moved us into the conundrum phase with lots of questions about how one could be this or that, and what was it about UUism that Christians liked and what was it about Christianity that UUs were drawn to, for a prominent path of UU Christians was to be a UU but not UU Christian first.
Then it seems what we have morphed into in UU Christianity is that in some places and some churches it is still commonplace to think of UU and Christian in the same way, and some places it is seen as still a contradiction, and some where it is still just a conundrum to think about, but more and more we are in a place of Convergence, that intersection or border or edge or welcome table place.
In one way of convergence are those who converge different ways of primarily following Jesus or practicing their Christian faith. We have classic UU Christians who see Jesus as a teacher, who seek to follow his lessons. We have small c catholic UU Christians who experience Jesus in the traditions and rituals of the church over the centuries. And we have liberationist UU Christians who know Jesus in the actions of healing and liberating and being with the oppressed and marginalized and suffering. (You can read more about these types in the pamphlet Who Are The UU Christians by the Rev. Tom Wintle online). But more and more UU Christians are converging even within themselves these different ways of expressing their faith.
Add to that the convergence we also now have of UU Christians who are converging their UU Christian faith with say UU Buddhism, or UU neo-paganism, UU humanism, UU Jewish roots, UU mysticism. And finally among us are those who converge the UU part of their faith, whichever form or forms it might take, with their regular attendance and membership in a non-UU Christian community (or non-UU other form of spiritual community). And, to top the convergence all off, we do have UU Christian churches who are also affiliated with other denominations the same as they are with the UUA.
This progressive spirit of convergence is alive and well then, and, as we often say, we don’t think Jesus would have it any other way. In fact contemporary UU Christianity, and UUism in general, at its best, is like a living example of the way of Jesus.
Look no further than in the story from the Bible, from Luke 17, being read today in worship services by many Christian churches, and some UU churches, we find Jesus right where we often find him, at an intersection, moving along the borderlines between different peoples with different faiths. In this case between Galilee and Samaria, often enemy cousins so to speak of culture and faith, and both seeking to exist within the culture of the Hellenistic and Roman Empire occupying them. In this place, he encountered other outcasts, extreme outcasts from all of the cultures; he comes across ten lepers. They are supposed to act out of shame and go hide themselves (think of all kinds of people and conditions our cultures seek to shame today). But they speak up and though they don’t draw physically close, they shout out for mercy, for healing, for connection, for wholeness. And it is as if that alone was the healing.
For Jesus sees them, pays attention, and doesn’t ask what culture they are from, or what they believe, doesn’t try to determine their eligibility and if they deserve anything or not. He just tells them to go see the priests, which is what the routine was for one who had been healed, to get checked out so to speak, ready to re-enter the community that had shunned them. Even there, where they had retreated to a place on the edge of cultures away from all the powers that be, and from the usual sources of healing, they found healing, because Jesus was there too. And, the story ends with one of the ten healed lepers returning to the place and finding Jesus still there; returning to give thanks, for which Jesus says the leper has exhibited the deepest, fullest kind of wholeness.
But I suspect the leper also returned to find ways to give back healing too, to turn that place of shame into a place of grace, and of new community for all those outcasts and misfits who would keep coming, keep converging, to the borderlands, the intersecting paths, to find home. May we go and do likewise.

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