"Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist Christian"
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 16, 2016
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our first reading is from is from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 25:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Our modern reading is taken from the book Original Blessing, by contemporary theologian Matthew Fox:
What [transformative spirituality] makes abundantly clear is the biblical teaching that in fact there is no such thing as privatized or individualized salvation. The prophets of yesterday and today find it necessary to constantly remind God’s people of this fact. Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., all had to fight this battle with religious people who had mistakenly understood salvation as personalized righteousness.
My sermon this morning, “Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist Christian,” is the second in an occasional series this year. The first sermon, three weeks ago, was titled, “Why I am a Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Humanist.” Copies are available in the Parish House Parlor and online. Before we finish this series, it will include… “Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist Jew,” … a UU Buddhist, and …a UU Pagan.
My intention is to view life experience as a Unitarian Universalist, through a number of theological perspectives, in ways that I hope will be of value to those of us who claim to be religious liberals embracing diversity and freedom of conscience in religious matters. That's what liberal religion means: embracing diversity and freedom of conscience. Our faith tradition encourages us to look through different lenses with the hope of possibly seeing larger glimpses of truth, in order that we might find greater meaning in our lives.
Since it is the unifying theme and the title of each of these sermons begins with, “Why I am a Unitarian Universalist…” once again I begin there. I am a Unitarian Universalist because here I am not told what to believe. I’m asked what I do believe. Moreover, I’m asked how that belief matters, both in my own life and in the world. I am asked here to accept things on faith, but on my faith—not anyone else’s. I am a UU because I know my life’s path is a journey, a pilgrimage, and not just a meaningless passage from birth to death.
I don’t know what came before me or where my life path may end. But I do know that the content of my life consists of the actions, experiences and choices that I make here, while I’m in it. And more, I know that the quality of my journey is closely related to the company I keep along the way.
So, I am a Unitarian Universalist because this faith tradition calls me – in community – to make the most of, to do the best with my life, and to love the most fully I can. I am a UU because I believe in the potential for humanity to learn and grow. And with that potential, I believe in the possibility of a better world, rooted more firmly in the ideals of truth, beauty, love and justice.
So now… Why I am a Unitarian Universalist Christian. Years ago, I attended an annual three-day continuing education seminar, hosted by my old seminary. The Meadville/Lombard Mid-Winter Institute was held each February in Madison, Wisconsin, not necessarily the sagest locale for a February getaway. One year, the theme of the institute was world religions. The speaker was Dr. Diane Eck, a preeminent scholar on the subject from the Divinity School at Yale University. Despite the weather, I was pleased to attend because Dr. Eck’s focus was to be on religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation, something our world could use, and still needs, a lot more of. She began by identifying herself as a Methodist and was pleased to inform us that we UUs would be comfortable with her approach because she, too, was a died-in-the-wool, religious liberal.
She then proceeded to introduce the gathering to various world religions, which she obviously knew a great deal about: Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, the Rissho Kosei-kai, the Jains and others. She informed us about their customs and their beliefs. She spoke of their proclivities and sensitivities, and she encouraged us to practice our liberal claim of being tolerant and accepting.
By mid-morning of the second day, I realized that Dr. Eck didn’t have a clue who she was addressing. She thought that we were all like her, of a liberal Christian persuasion. I had an opportunity to talk with her that day at lunch. “I’m wondering,” I asked, “… if we’ll have the opportunity to address what I see as the biggest challenge that we UUs have in our efforts toward religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“We don’t really have that much trouble,” I assured her, “with embracing Buddhism, Hinduism or even Islam. We can accept the Rissho Kosei-kai and the Jains with uncommonly graceful facility. We are masterful at affirming the esoteric, the exotic and the unknown. What many of us sometimes fail at though, is accommodating Christianity as a valid, authentic and worthwhile religious path.”
“What do you mean?” she asked again, even more puzzled.
“Most of our congregants come out of either Jewish or Christian backgrounds,” I explained. “Many of our Jewish members have rejected the practice of Judaism and many of our former Christians have rejected Christianity. What we need to learn about is how to go about accepting, as authentic – at least for others – something that so many of us have rejected for ourselves.”
I’m not sure if she didn’t understand what I was asking or if maybe she just didn’t believe me. Either way, the focus of the seminar did not change. The question I’d asked went quite unanswered. That doesn’t mean those questions are unimportant ones though, or that we needn’t bother answering them for ourselves. Indeed, if we are going to live up to our claim of religious tolerance, is there any more fertile field than our own backyard in which to do our work?
Religious tolerance for many of us is most challenging closest to home. That’s where many of us are personally challenged and where we often feel oppressed by the dominant tradition of our nation’s religious culture. This is especially true when the predominant expression of that tradition is as fundamentalist as it is today. But in truth, many of us also struggle with more liberal varieties of Christianity.
I won’t be asking anyone to convert to Christianity today, not even as a Unitarian Universalist. I am asking you to embrace open-mindedness though, as we explore a topic that may be uncomfortable for some of us here. As Jesus said, in the Book of Matthew, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” And as he said in the Book of Mark, “Where your treasure lies, your heart will lie there, too.” Our challenge is to be peacemakers, to put our hearts where we would find the treasure, the sort of treasures that our world needs for us to find and claim.
I have to say that I have something of an aversion to the use of labels altogether. Sometimes though, they’re valuable in providing us with a framework upon which we can stretch our thinking. I also have to admit that I don’t ordinarily call myself a Christian; mostly that’s because of how I suspect other people might misunderstand what I’m saying based on their own preconceptions about the word Christian. If I’m going to be honest, I really am – at least to some extent – a UU Christian.
If that’s my claim though, I’m the one who gets to do the defining of what that means. I don't have to be at the mercy of those who would impose their definition upon me. Like other religions, Christianity is not monolithic. It's as diverse as are its practitioners.
The definition of Christianity that I accept is one that I think might have been similar to a definition Jesus might have embraced – a religion of Jesus, based on his teachings and examples from his life, and not a religion about Jesus. The religion that he sought to live throughout his life, and to teach through his parables, was the religion of love your neighbor as yourself; the religion of the kingdom of heaven is within; the religion of if your friends or your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they're thirsty, give them something drink. His religion was one of community, of compassion and of bold action. It was a religion of oneness with self, seeking oneness with one another and with the world.
To me, these are the essences of Christianity. I hope to think that Jesus would be sickened by the corruption of his teachings over the past 2000 years, through so many ways but particularly through the deification of his life. He preached against idolatry. What a sad irony that he should become the object of it, that he should be deified, separating him from the rest of humanity. It was his complete oneness with humanity that was at the very core of his life and his teachings.
The Jesus I know from historical presentations of him, was a good man, a great man. His message was simple, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I don’t suppose we’d deify Rodney King and yet, at least for one moment, Rodney King did speak out of the very same Christ-spirit from which Jesus had lived his life. Let’s take a crack, then, at defining or redefining or even reclaiming the term Christianity or Christ-spirit.
A few years back, I was with a group that had gathered for a New UU orientation class. One of the folks in the group talked about being an agnostic, quite ambivalent about the need for or the existence of any kind of personal God. He said that he believed there was some kind of unifying spirit in the universe, of which everything is a part; that it was part of all things, not separated from ourselves or anything else. He felt, however, that this spirit would hardly be though, some kind of a superhuman granter of wishes.
“That’s not the way it is for me,” said a woman in the group. “I believe that we are all part of the same spirit,” she began by agreeing. “But when I struggle with my health, which I do often, or with other hard or painful issues in my life, I pray to Jesus just like I did when I was a child. You can believe it or not, but I can assure you that my prayers to him… bring me comfort. I pray to Jesus for help. And what I get is help. You can’t tell me that Jesus doesn’t exist,” she insisted. “He’s made an incredible difference in my life.”
So, how can that be? They posed the question to me, “How could this congregation provide a place where two such different theological views can be at home?”
I said that here, each of us is responsible for our own theologies, however we might define them; that we tend to agree that we are part of something much larger than ourselves and to that something larger – whatever we might call it – we owe our awe, our gratitude and our service. I told them that, as a community, more important to us than what each of us believes is what we do as a result of our beliefs. I said that I didn’t really see, from my own theological perspective, that their beliefs were mutually exclusive. I could see that they held a different emphasis for sure, different metaphors and symbols, but that they were not inherently mutually exclusive.
The universe exists; life exists. It doesn’t have to, but it does. We could claim existence to be an accident, but not even science supports such a claim. The laws of physics tell us that objects at rest tend to remain at rest. Nothingness – absolute nothingness – would, by this law, remain nothing for… well, at least for all eternity. And yet here we are; here everything is. We don’t know, can’t know, what moved things along from nothingness into being. As a placeholder, let’s, at least for a moment, call whatever it was, whatever it is, mystery.
We may have an idea of what life is. We may speculate how life continues. But we are never likely to know why life is. It is… and so we are… amazing! Since before the beginning of time, some kind of mystery has caused and sustained life. Amazing!
Far from some kind of anthropomorphic, sentient, super being, what I imagine about this mystery is that it was/is some kind of energy, some kind of universal Want to Be, a want so strong that nothingness had to give way to all that is and to all that is becoming. So, this mystery, this energy, this want, this spirit, fractured – BANG! VERY BIG BANG!! Science can’t tell us why, but it does indicate that evidence of this spirit can be observed on every level of life, from the micro to the macro, to the cosmic. Every living cell, every living being, every living system in existence constantly adjusts to inner and outer conditions in order to balance the forces of life… so that being, so that life, can continue.
Science tells us that life and the systems of life will always respond to experience in a manner that promotes the continuation of life. Folk singer Mary Chapin Carpenter sings, “… life goes on, when given the slightest chance.” Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama all referred to the same phenomenon when they've said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice.”
From time immemorial, which in the scheme of things is not very long, humankind has struggled to be in relationship with this mystery, this Spirit of Life, the Christ-spirit. Individuals, communities and entire cultures have given it names and have recognized various images to represent it. Using those names and images, we have sought to be in close relationship with it. We have sought to learn who we are within this mystery through these theological and religious portals that we have created. If Jesus provides entry to this Spirit of Love, this universal spirit of healing and wholeness for the woman who was in that New UU class or for anyone else, who am I, who are any of us, to question the validity of that spiritual claim?
And why not Jesus? What greater, prophetic manifestation of the Spirit of Life and Love might we look to for comfort, for learning, for example, for inspiration? Certainly there have been others, but very few who have left us so much to work with. Jesus lived and taught about love and mercy, about justice and right relationship, about forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption. He was an inspiration to those around him. His legacy continues to inspire the world, despite those who claim godly knowledge of his divinity and then go on to act in self-serving ways that are antithetical to everything he stood for.
There’s an interesting theological side-point here that I would mention. For many Christians, especially many liberal Christians, there is a distinction between Jesus the person and the Christ-spirit. Jesus was the very human being who led the daring and prophetic life that ended with his death on the cross. Christ though, was the spirit – no longer humanly embodied – that rose up from the tomb on Easter.
This Christ-spirit was (and according to this interpretation still is) composed of the idealization of all the virtues and principles Jesus had lived by and had taught. Jesus became the symbol of that Christ-spirit. The Christ-spirit carried with it all the hopes and aspirations of humankind, all of our greatest longings for wholeness and unity. In this way, no longer bound by the human limitations of physical embodiment, the Christ-spirit has become a principle conduit to that healing, loving, sustaining, mysterious energy that has held us in being throughout time. Jesus is a symbol and a metaphor of that spirit.
While I believe in the same or a very similar religion to what I think Jesus believed in, and while – even though it may not be my first choice – I have no problem accepting the use of the word Christ to invoke the mystery that brought us into and holds us in being. Where I have to draw a line in my definition of Christianity though, is where it comes to the issue of exclusivity. It is a way. It’s not the only way. A valuable path? Yes, but not the only one. I’ll save my fidelity for that which holds the possibility for the greatest potential unity and the widest possible universality in providing hope to humanity.
And what of my relationship with those for whom Jesus is THE WAY, the one true light? Far be it from me to assume that I have found the only true answers to the questions that have mystified humanity from our earliest awakenings. Jesus was here and used his life to promote the possibilities of goodness. I can join together with Christians whose lives are inspired by his high ideals and compassionate mercy. There are more important considerations to spend our life energy on than splitting theological hairs. We have far too much work to do in this world.
We need to heal the sick and bind up the wounded. We need to visit those in prison and work for their release. We certainly don’t need the mass incarceration of young black and brown men. We need to recognize that every man, woman and child is our neighbor, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We need to learn how to make peace with all our neighbors, not war. We need to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. We need to learn how to give and how to forgive. We need to learn that love is a gift, not to be judged by others, but to be cherished by all. We need to recognize that the Earth is our body and our blood and that we have to stop poisoning ourselves.
“The reign of God is not coming as you hope to catch sight of it,” reads the Book of Luke. “No one will say, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is,’ for the reign of God is in your midst…” Our task then is to find the reign of God, to find the possibilities of goodness, to find whatever might be life-giving, whatever might mean wholeness for each of us. We need to find it and to promote it. And where, in our lives and in the world, we do not find it, our task is to create it. That’s what Jesus did. That is what is here for us to do.