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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 3, 2010

A Reflection on the Whence and Whither of Unitarian Universalism

Do you belong to a religion that says humankind is not divided— except by ignorance and prejudice and hate; the religion that sees humankind as naturally one and waiting to be spiritually united; the religion that proclaims an end to all exclusions—and declares a brotherhood and sisterhood unbounded! The religion that knows we shall never find the fullness of the wonder and the glory of life until we are ready to share it, that we shall never have hearts big enough for the love of God until we have made them big enough for the worldwide love of one another.

As you have listened to me, have you thought perchance that this is your religion? If so, do not congratulate yourself. Stop long enough to recollect the miseries of the world in which you live; the fearful cruelties, the enmities, the hate, the bitter prejudices, the need of such a world for such a faith. And if you can still say that this of which I have spoken is your faith, then ask yourself this question: What are you doing with it?

— A. Powell Davies

I tell my story enough that you likely have heard it before. But I cannot say how important it has been in my life to find Unitarian Universalism. So, please, indulge me as I tell the story, the beautiful story…

I vividly recall that first time I walked into a UU church, something in the neighborhood of thirty years ago, actually now on the long side of thirty years ago. I’d left the Buddhist monastery that had been my home for several years. While not at all done with Zen perspectives I felt more than done with the institutions I’d encountered propagating the Zen way. At this same time my brief marriage had fallen apart. In short my life was a mess. I was very much at loose ends. And, I just didn’t know what was next. So, with all that in the background, there I was, working in a large used and antiquarian bookstore in San Diego. Among my responsibilities was tending the religions collection, mostly used and old, some rare, a motley assortment of books and pamphlet literature covering everything from Astrology to Zoroastrianism, and pretty much everything in between.

One of the striking features of this collection of old books were the large amount of pamphlets, mostly kept on a rack that stood nearly six feet tall. They tended toward, how do I say this, the exotic end of the spiritual spectrum. There certainly were mainstream sorts of things, sermons and histories of shrines, that sort of thing. But, most reflected the tastes of the then buyer toward the fringier aspects of religion. It would be a year or two before I became the buyer in that area, and, well, actually it turned out the new buyer’s taste remained much the same.

I did love that section in the bookstore. One pamphlet proved how the English had conspired to move all evidence of the true Holy Land to the Middle East from Jesus’ true home, Ireland, including stone by stone the pyramids, which originally stood not far from Dublin. Speaking of pyramids another pamphlet using a unit of measurement called pyramid inches with numerological manipulation proclaimed the upcoming apocalypse. As I recall the foretold date was somewhere around 1925. On that theme other pamphlets from various eras going back about a hundred years proved how some politician or other, mostly presidents or prime ministers, although I also recall Kaiser Wilhelm the 2nd being named in one, but in all of them the subject was proven to be the antichrist proclaimed in the Book of Revelations.

And out of that mix, one of those pamphlets became a turning moment for me. It was a small battered early twentieth century reprint titled “Unitarian Christianity.” It was by some minister named William Ellery Channing, and had been published in Boston. Without a real sense of its context or its importance in the history of Unitarian Universalism, I ended up reading one of our foundational documents. And I have to say I loved it.

It led me to decide to go to the local UU church that next Sunday. I settled into a chair near the back, and not long into the sermon fell asleep. Fortunately I was driven enough to not give up because of one rather astonishingly boring sermon. That could be a pointer for everyone in this Meeting House. Also, and I think this very important, at the coffee hour people were extremely friendly and inviting. I do know I found that way more important than the sermon.

I decided to learn more about this tradition and what grew from the time that William Ellery Channing held forth in Baltimore. By the bye, I re-read “Unitarian Christianity,” also known as “The Baltimore Sermon,” a couple of years ago, and I’m not actually sure what was in it I found so compelling at the time. It’s pretty thick stuff for anyone not conversant with the back-story of the founding of American Unitarianism. Well, actually, its pretty thick stuff, period.

I think it was just one of those right moments. And in that right moment I heard some word of hope that Mr Channing whispered directly into my ear, into my heart. So, I read about the history of this tradition and where it seemed to be today.

You may have heard, I certainly like to repeat it enough that it would be hard not to have, how the great nineteenth century Universalist divine, Thomas Starr King, who was then serving the Unitarian church in San Francisco, and I guess you could therefore say one of the original Unitarian Universalists, was asked what, after all, is the difference between these two great progressive religious traditions, the Universalists and the Unitarians?

King replied, to paraphrase, the Universalists believe God too good to damn them, while the Unitarians believe they’re too good to be damned. A little harsh, but sets something of the stage of traditions of heart and head. The Unitarians were about the life of the mind and deeply concerned with how that informs a moral life. Their great slogan was “salvation by character.” The Universalists on the other hand were deeply concerned with the reconciliation of the world within God’s love, and specifically rejecting any idea of an eternal hell. Their great slogan was “love over creed.”

In fact not long from their risings as distinctive American religious traditions not far from the cusp of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was little other than class that actually divided the two religions. At first Unitarianism was Harvard College and Boston’s elites, while Universalism was farmers, small town merchants and circuit riding preachers, often with little formal education. But as time passed there was less and less to distinguish the two traditions, both informed by reason and intuition and the lived life here and now.

Frankly, I find it surprising that it took until 1961 for the Unitarians and Universalists to consolidate, to throw their fortunes in with each other and to form this strange and wonderful religion we proclaim here, with its roots, tenuous though they may be today in the larger Christian tradition and now flowering as what I find best named a New Universalism.

I really want to hold this vital faith that informs us whatever flavor we may bring to it such as humanism or Judaism, or Christianity, or Islam, or earth-centered perspectives, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, the list is long. Without a doubt the doors into our way are many. And each is enriched here.

This New Universalism is about a living faith in the beauty and possibility of the individual while at the same time seeing how each of us as individuals exist only within a web of relationships, that we, all of us, without exception, are part of one family. It is about the knowing of the mind brought together with the knowing of the heart. It is open to finding whatever ways there may be into depth, and then manifesting what is found in our shared lives, as personal ethics and as a stance toward and within the world. It is the way of the wise heart. Or, it is, when we’re on our game, when we’re living up to our possibilities.

And this became so important to me. It gave me my life. It gave me a way in life where I could bring my Buddhist faith into a way that put me with humanists and Christians and pagans, as well as assorted others, all of us committed to finding our way together. And, and I need to underscore this, what was most important those many years ago in San Diego was that welcome to me in the coffee hour. I knew I was welcomed just as I am. And that was vastly more important than a good sermon. I hope if you’re visiting today, you hear, and more you feel that invitation.

And there is much more to it than a welcome to us as we are. A lovely thing about this religion is that while it does indeed invite us in wherever we are on our life’s journey, whatever it is we believe, or don’t, it doesn’t stop there. Rather we are invited into a conversation of the heart and the possibility of an ever more boundless life, a constant challenge to us to live within an ever larger liberty.

A. Powell Davies was one of the great Unitarian Universalist ministers. He served All Soul’s church in Washington D. C. and with them was the founder of that ring of liberal congregations that now exist on all sides of the capital. He described what our wise heart religion looks like. We “belong to a religion that says humankind is not divided - except by ignorance and prejudice and hate…” Powell sings to us that ours is a “religion that sees humankind as naturally one and waiting to be spiritually united…” Ours is a “religion that proclaims an end to all exclusions - and declares a brotherhood and sisterhood unbounded!”

Of course, Powell didn’t end there. As he should, he challenges us. He states in words that I cannot sleep through, “As you have listened to me, have you thought… that this is your religion? If so, do not congratulate yourself. Stop long enough to recollect the miseries of the world in which you live; the fearful cruelties, the enmities, the hate, the bitter prejudices, the need of such a world for such a faith. And if you can still say that this of which I have spoken is your faith, then ask yourself this question: What are you doing with it?”

That is, indeed, the question. Now, inspired by our knowing the preciousness of the individual and our intimate connection with the world as our true family, many of us have taken up the ways of spiritual engagement, currently most often found under the banner of our Standing on the Side of Love campaign. People who know nothing else about us have begun to notice us at demonstrations and other events and refer to us as the “love people.” And this is right.

This year I hope we will continue to challenge ourselves to know our way as a way of life, of looking deep into our hearts and then reaching out to the world. Join a chalice circle or a meditation group, or, if those don’t work, start something. I think we are ripe for a Universalist prayer group, for instance. Whatever, I ask you to find the way that opens you wide. It is part of our call to look deep within.

And then act, act in some concrete way. This year we will be working hard toward marriage equality. We will be working hard to stand with the poor and the immigrant, all those who suffer at the hands of the indifferent and uncaring. We will also work to understand the roots of racism and our own part in it. And we will continue to feed the hungry and to seek justice as well as compassion in this life. Just to begin the list. We have much to do. I do ask you to find what resonates with your heart and join it. And if that project doesn’t yet exist, start it.

This is our message. This is our good news. Within all our differences we are also one. We are all one family, and the great way that calls to us all is the larger liberty.

But it demands our attention and our effort. It demands me to attend and to work. It demands that you care, look within, and as you find the connections, to reach out however best you can. This is the work of our New Universalism; this is the work of the Unitarian Universalist community. Let’s know what we’re about, and let’s get on with the work.

The healing of this poor broken, but oh so wonderful, so lovely world; hangs in the balance. Nothing more. And nothing less…