I wonder how many of you thought that the sermon this morning was about the movie Deliverance where two friends on a canoe trip run into moonshining hillbillies. Speaking of my family in upstate New York ......
I constantly have to explain to them my choices and my faith. Though supportive, they simply have a difficult time wrapping their head around things they don’t know. My family also turn to me with interesting questions. Last summer I held a summit on the back porch explaining transgenderism and Caitlyn Jenner. It was a bit more difficult than the summit I held on an Easter Sunday many years ago explaining to them I would be marrying a man. The question I get most, as I was raised Catholic, is "What exactly do Unitarians profess? I mean, if Jesus Christ isn't your savior, how are you saved?"
Many of us are long-time Unitarian Universalists, which means, among other things, that we’ve been attending coffee hours for a very long time. In all my years of coming to UU coffee hours, I have never heard anyone ask "Have you been saved?" or "How are you saved?" I’m sure those new to or considering Unitarian Universalism have noticed the absence of such questions. But they are important questions.
When most of us hear "Have you been saved?" we assume it to be in the Christian sense of salvation. To remind anyone who may have forgotten, or never knew, Christian theology suggests that we are saved from sin through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Moreover, upon death, we are granted eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is upon us after all.
In this formula, we are taught we are saved from sin and we are saved for eternal life. Let’s take a close look at this blueprint for salvation -- what about that formula makes sense for us and what doesn't.
There is much about Jesus and Christianity that has given me great solace and understanding. Believing that Jesus was a man whose ministry we should ultimately imitate. However, there is much in Christian theology and church dogma I find difficult.
Can we critique something that some of us also embrace? I hope the answer is yes. I don't believe any faith is worth much if it doesn't leave room for expressing doubt and asking questions. We regularly reflect on our affirmations and our denials -- what do we believe and what do we disbelieve? Using these questions as a starting place, let’s explore salvation or deliverance in the context of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition.
Why don't we start with what we are saved from?
Unlike many liberal religious folks, I have no problem with the concept of sin. I appreciate the words of Unitarian minister, A. Powell Davies who wrote:
To the best of my observation and belief, sin is highly contemporary, and we are all up to our necks in it. Evil in human life is not a fiction; it is a very somber fact.
He wrote that in 1950, but it could have been this morning. I might want to broaden the definition of sin just a little - to sin can mean more than to do evil -- I believe it to mean anything that prevents wholeness. I do not deny evil -- not in myself and not in others -- but I don't believe we have to be evil to be sinful. We are all broken in some way. The minute we attained consciousness and in effect, understood ourselves as individual humans, we also understood our apartness from whatever had created us, and our separation from one another.
We have a variety of beliefs about what created us (pure biology, God, the universe, some combination) and the severed relationship with that creation affects each of us differently. What unites us is that we all need deliverance. That is. we all need to be set free.
I need to be set free from excessive pride, self-righteousness, and envy, just to name a few. Some need to be delivered from our obsession with the little trinity: money, fame, and youth. We need to be delivered, set free, from loneliness, cynicism, and fear. So, I understand the need to be saved. I just don't understand how the suffering and hideous death of Jesus became the crucial link in our redemption.
I am not alone in my discomfort. The Christian ministers and scholars, Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakishima wrote a brilliant book called Proverbs of Ashes which critiques the theology of the cross. That argument says we should be like Jesus: the obedient, silent, suffering servant, willingly going to his death for us. That belief has led to great violence against women and children in particular. The authors are not the only Christians who take issue with this limited view of deliverance.
So let's broaden it a bit. I'm one of that long line of Unitarians who weren't satisfied with the sacrificial-lamb metaphor. The 16th century Unitarian theologian Faustus Socinus asserted that Jesus saved humans, not by dying for them, but by setting an example for them to follow. The scholarship coming out of the present day theological thinktank, the Jesus Seminar, also emphasizes the significance of Jesus' life -- his practice and preaching. He lived a life dedicated to an egalitarian society. His parables are, almost without exception, about subverting current society, with its hierarchies, its imbalance of power and wealth. He embodied his teaching in how he lived his life. He ate with all the wrong people, touched all the wrong people, healed all the wrong people. That sounds a lot like what our Congregation did last night -- hosting and sharing a meal with farm workers considered dispensable.
While I understand that suffering can be a transformative event, I don't believe in the substitution theory of suffering. Nor do I believe that all suffering is liberating. How has a child who has starved to death been delivered or set free? How has a woman who is beaten by her husband delivered or set free by staying in that relationship? Clearly our world needs deliverance from suffering just as much now as it did in the ancient Near East. Our world is wounded by pollution and poverty, by political and religious oppression. It suffers from widespread and unchecked disease, from the glamorization of violence.
We need deliverance from the consequences of a popular culture that can sink down to the very lowest common denominator, giving us junk journalism, reality TV, and my personal favorite rendition of hell: Disney World. My apologies to its fans. I don't think the problem lies in which faith tradition people choose to make meaning out of their lives. I think the problem lies in our overwhelming inability to respect anyone who believes something we don't. Deliverance lies not in any one path -- it lies in our openness to the reality of many paths. There is always more than one trail up the mountain. Do we respect the person who has taken a left at the fork when we have chosen right? We needn't agree with all the tenets in any faith tradition to accept it as a viable religious choice.
This is where Unitarian Universalism has something to teach. The past President of the UUA, Bill Sinkford, is fond of saying that we have a saving word for the whole hurting world.
We may not have the overarching story of the Exodus. We may not have one savior. But we do have a faith that respects, even encourages many beliefs, yet is grounded in certain universals: We have faith in life as an unmerited gift, to be relished and treasured and appreciated, faith that people are basically good; faith in the never-ending mystery of why and how we are here. We have a faith that says Yes to life and love -- even in the face of suffering, even when confronting death.
People tease UUs about our lack of belief. One popular joke I have heard for years is "What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's witness with a Unitarian? Someone who knocks on your door for apparently no reason." We've heard the jokes, we've gotten the looks. But it isn't true that we believe nothing.
The congregations in our association covenant to affirm 7 principles, all of which offer saving to our world. I offer to you now the first of our principles:
We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Every one of us on the planet is intrinsically valuable. What a radical idea! It goes against everything we see around us every day, everything our society is built upon: The rich are better than the poor, men are more valuable than women, whites are better than blacks -- and everyone else. Bishops are more important than parishioners. Paying members are more worthy than non-paying members. Straights are more worthy than gays, and on and on.
The inherent worth and dignity of every person. It is not an idea original with us. But in UU churches, the idea has vitality. We bring it to life in our polity, our practices. Congregations "call" ministers as well as make all the important decisions about how the church will run. Our lay people not only participate in the services, but lead them. Our children are nurtured and respected for who they are.
Our congregations accept people who are Jewish, Pagan, and Christian and Buddhist and undecided. Our chairs are filled with theists and atheists, humanists and agnostics, pagans and tree huggers. Our pews are filled with individuals who have not or cannot pay for their participation here.
How many houses of worship profess an open heart while practicing a closed one? Here are some other principles we promise to affirm:
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The use of democratic process in our decision-making;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence.
Do we practice these principles every day? Of course not.
We are fallible and human. But just because we don't always follow our principles doesn't mean there's something wrong with them. Our universalism -- historically our belief in universal deliverance, not just a chosen few -- and more currently our belief that we are all worthy and that we are all connected, leads naturally to the assumption that all religions have wisdom to transmit and beauty to behold. It is a saving idea for a world divided and divided and divided.
If one finds the principles too cumbersome, we can turn to our affirmation and our doxology. Read those words in your order of service over and over, perhaps daily as a spiritual practice.
I have been delivered by the earth's beauty over and over again. The northern lights; phosphorescence on the water while paddling in a canoe at night; the first days of spring in New England when everything is glowing green and pink and purple and the beautiful beaches and the flowering bush demanding attention by its color that appears everywhere here in south Florida.
And the autumn. One morning when living in the northeast I left the house in despair. As I was driving, I came around a corner and saw the most brilliant red leafed maple tree. It took over the whole sky with its radiance, and it stunned me into humility and gratitude. I have been delivered by the beauty of our world. I have been delivered by a free search for the truth. Not the Truth with a capital "T" because we don't believe there is just one. But my truth. I have been delivered from self-deception by discovering what my truth is, and learning how to express it. I have been delivered by the good. The endless goodness of others, in communities like this one, and in others, and by the goodness people have brought out in me. We are responsible not only for our deliverance but for the deliverance of others.
Our faith allows us to choose for ourselves what will be binding. What is meaningful to me? What gives me hope? What strengthens my faith? I have been given hope and faith by my grandmother, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jerry Seinfeld, my dog, my family; the band U2, theater, my husband, my children, and the poet Mary Oliver. I have been delivered by a good meal served by people who love me.
Our faith has given me the freedom to be delivered by so many people, places and things -- I cannot imagine I am alone in this. How have you been delivered? How did it happen for you? Tell someone.
Perhaps you have come here to be delivered. I hope you have come to the right place. Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey, we welcome you and want you to be here. Perhaps we can set you free and perhaps you can deliver us. We are set free so that we might pay attention to what is in front of us right now. In the present moment we will smell the sea and be aware of our breathing. We will attend to beauty, to suffering, to goodness, to the evil residing within, to the love in and around and among us.
Indeed, deliverance is defined as the act of setting free or of being set free. We are right here, filled with all the love and energy we need to heal each other and our broken world. We have a saving word for our whole hurting world. Let us know it and proclaim it and live by it.
May it be so.
Deliverance, a sermon delivered by The Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on March 13, 2016.