PMUC Sermons

Sermons by the Ministers who Serve

Pullman Memorial Universalist Church


The Reverend John Rex
Pullman Memorial Universalist Church
Albion , New York
June 10, 2007

Last Sunday was the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) Pride Parade and Celebration in Buffalo , a main event of Pride month, the month of June. I didn't make it to the parade as I was off preaching in Jamestown , but I will be singing next weekend as a member of the Buffalo Gay Men's Chorus in our big spring concert. If you happen not to be gay or if you are not in a city or college campus where such events occur, you may not be aware that this month is special. For over thirty years, Unitarian Universalist churches have taken the lead in promoting gay rights, acceptance, affirmation, and understanding. It has not been easy. We forget that not too long ago, our gay ministers either remained in the closet or were denied pulpits. We were as much a part of repressed American culture in such matters as anyone else, but we somehow managed to raise our awareness of injustice and to work towards justice.

This process was aided by the development of various curricula related to sexuality--back in the 70's "About Your Sexuality," which radically, in those days, recognized gay relationships as a legitimate expression of human sexuality, with explicit filmstrips. More recently, we have adopted "Our Whole Lives," a much more comprehensive program. Our congregations have struggled with issues related to sexuality. Oh, I know it is politically correct to be open and accepting and affirming of everyone, but this is America , and our culture has imprinted beliefs and ideas that we may not be aware of, and we interact daily with others who do not share our liberal ideas.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has developed a program for all UU congregations entitled the Welcoming Congregation, which sets forth a lengthy, intense, and sometimes difficult process in which all people, straight and gay, are asked to become more aware of their deeply held beliefs related to sexuality, and to act on what they learn. Once members of a congregation have gone through that process, and there has been a congregational vote in affirmation of being recognized as a Welcoming Congregation, a brief description of how each action step was met is sent to the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns in Boston, which then sends on a letter of congratulations and a poster proclaiming that they are a Welcoming Congregation.

Doing that, or not doing that, can be a big issue in a UU congregation. I remember attending a board meeting in one congregation that I served in which a board member requested permission to start the Welcoming Congregation program. The board discussed, debated, and delayed. The big argument was: "Everyone is welcome here. We are already a welcoming congregation. "After that meeting, one board member came to me, her minister, with concern. She was deeply troubled. She said, "We don't want to become a gay congregation, do we?"

My understanding of that situation is that she really did not want to deal with the issue. She wanted—and let's face it, many, perhaps most, people want—to maintain the status quo, which she felt was OK. I have to admit that I, as her minister, wanted to be able to affirm her as a person and to help her grow in her understanding, and that for me was very difficult.

That congregation of wonderful, liberal, open minded folks could have benefited from the Welcoming Congregation program--and, in my opinion, grown in their UU faith and identity, but some key members weren't yet ready to do that. I have always wondered what this person imagined when she spoke of a "gay congregation." Gay affirming, gay welcoming, gay understanding, are perhaps OK, but just plain "gay," taps into some great uncharted depths of our psyche where hidden fears continue to exist--as if great crowds of gays would take over the congregation—and straights--well, use your imagination....

About ten percent of the people in the world are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. I hope it does not offend anyone if I use the word "gay" to include all these groups. The word most often used to name the irrational and persistent fear of anything related to gay identities is "homophobia," literally a "fear of man," and thus a sexist macho male fear of sexual attraction to the same gender or sex. Homophobia has come to mean much more than that, and now includes various aspects of oppression of gays.

But for me, another dynamic is even more insidious: heterosexism. That is the assumption that the heterosexual way is the right way, and that anything else is wrong. That is, having sexual or affectionate attractions to members of another gender or sex is good and desirable, but having sexual or affectionate attractions to members of the same sex is bad. Along with this is the assumption that, unless otherwise identified or outed, a person is heterosexual. (One of my favorite buttons reads, "How dare you assume I am heterosexual???)

Gay people live in two worlds; straight people don't. Gay people have to learn to exist, to survive, in an oppressively dominant straight culture where even their own families might and often do reject them, and where much of what they need most in terms of support, affirmation, or plain old ordinary love, may be lacking. They must live in a country where discrimination based on sexual orientation is still legal in many places, shamefully so in the "Don't ask; don't tell," stance of the military. Just this past week, all ten possible republican presidential candidates stated that they would not approve of having gays serve openly in the military. The current nominee for surgeon general happens to be both a doctor and a minister; in his latter role, he voted to expel a lesbian pastor from her pulpit; and he helped found a congregation that, according to gay rights activists, "believes homosexuality is a matter of choice and can be cured." ("Gays criticize nominee for surgeon general, Buffalo News, 67/7/07, p. A5.) His rise under our current government is just another example of a narrow religious ideology triumphing over current scientific medical studies. No wonder so many gay people do all they can to stay in the closet, which may be a place of isolation, fear, and guilt.

Part of the problem is that there are so many people who think they know what is right for others, based on their particular world views and deeply held beliefs. However, our deeply held beliefs have nothing whatsoever to do with rational thought. That is OK, as long as the beliefs are benign, or as long as we don't use them to justify hurtful behavior. But when the beliefs are toxic and affect others, then we have a problem. Unfortunately, even today there are churches and organizations that claim that gay people are immoral, depraved, sinful--you name it-- and can and should be converted to what they believe is their "true heterosexuality."

Recognizing that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality--not one word--and that the few various other biblical passages that mention same sex relations are badly in need of commentary, I doubt that an unbiased reading of the Bible would support such judgment of fellow humans. The specifics must be another sermon for another day. And, as much as I respect what the Bible says, I don't think it can be or should be used to cancel out rational thought.

My life experience, my reading, my studies, my communities, have all given me a very strong and powerful message: sexual orientation cannot be changed. Being gay is normal for about 10 % of the population of every country in the world, regardless of how open or how repressive their respective cultures are towards gayness.

Being gay is not a life style. Being gay is a state of mind, a way of being in the world that relates to sexual and affectionate attraction. It is not a choice; it just happens. We don't know exactly how or why it happens--nature or nurture or some combination--just that it does. If you are heterosexual, you are attracted to members of the opposite sex. Knowing that you are heterosexual does not tell me what you do. You may be celibate, or committed to one partner, or promiscuous, or kinky or whatever. The same goes for gay people: some are celibate either by choice or by life circumstances; some have life partners; some are promiscuous, and so on. Now just how that gets reduced to "The Homosexual Lifestyle," I will never understand. Except that it is clearly an attempt on the part of those who don't know to persuade themselves that they do know what they are not in a position to know and most likely never will.

Another misconception, I think with significant consequences, is the assumption that a person is either gay or straight. In fact, studies have shown that, given a scale from exclusively gay to exclusively straight, most people fall somewhere in between. Young people today are recognizing and declaring their sexual identities much earlier in life, some coming out as early as junior high school. One large contingent of last Sunday's Buffalo parade was members of the Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Buffalo, teenagers, carrying a rainbow flag, joyfully and publicly declaring who they are. We need to grow in our understanding of how best to affirm and support them.

Once a gay person comes out to him or herself, that person most likely is aware that she or he has been gay since birth. Human sexuality does not begin with adolescence; we all have sexual memories and experiences that go back to the womb. There is the possibility for growth and change, and it is possible that a person may evolve from straight to gay or vice versa during the course of a lifetime, but that seldom happens and is most likely to happen with a person who is towards the midrange of the gay-straight continuum. However, there is no evidence that such a change can be forced, either by tortuous reconditioning, as has been practiced in recent years in otherwise civilized societies, or by therapy or counseling.

he one primary issue being raised in all our 2007 GLBT Pride events is gay marriage. This is a huge issue that draws energy from great depths of cultural and religious beliefs, both those acknowledged and those hidden. It is not an easy issue, given the powerful forces manipulating the thinking and the votes of so many people.

I for one, as a minister, believe that no government should have any part in making decisions related to the sacred and holy state of matrimony. Yes, I have officiated at many marriages in Virginia , Florida , and New York , and, yes, I have been certified by those states to sign legal papers saying people were married in my presence. I think it is totally wrong for government to say who can and who cannot be married. I believe in the separation of church and state. In my opinion, the state has an obligation to provide the legal basis for civil unions for all couples of whatever gender, and should get out of the business of saying who can get married.

The matter is complicated by our long tradition of "legal" marriage, which is generally controlled separately by individual states. Not long ago, in my lifetime, some states did not permit marriage between people of different races. And now we have a President who advocates injustice in his discriminatory legislative proposals defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Such legislation denies the reality of life today in America . "Same-gender couples live in 99.3% of all US counties." All around us are same-gender couples, living out their lives in loving relationships with none of the federal or state benefits offered to married heterosexual couples. "Marriage offers 1,138 Federal benefits and responsibilities, not including hundreds more offered by every state. Legal spouses have automatic rights. Married couples have financial and tax benefits." The list goes on. The issues become more complicated when children are involved. Some statistics off the internet: "Same-gender couples are raising children in at least 96% of all US counties. Nearly one quarter of all same-gender couples are raising children. Nationwide, 34.3% of lesbian couples are raising children, and 22.3% of gay male couples are raising children (compared with 45.6% of married heterosexuals, and 43.1% of unmarried heterosexual couples....)" (Statistics taken from report of a recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, entitled "The Effects of Marriage, Civil Union, and Domestic Partnership Laws on the Health and Well-being of Children.")

As long as governments control the sacred and holy rites of marriage, then, if justice is to prevail, there must be gay marriage. There are today huge pressures both for and against. Traditionalists, conservatives, fundamentalists, and, yes, some ordinary people who hold ordinary views are threatened by any change in the status quo, especially something that goes against their perception of what is right, their deeply held beliefs. In such matters, logic and reason and persuasion may not win out. We have more than our share of demagogues who appeal to passions and prejudices rather than reason, who like to whip up emotions to get people to act in particular ways. That's where Unitarian Universalism can be a positive force. Here in this place, we can share our deepest feelings and ideas. We can disagree lovingly. We can agree and affirm our principles, and, together, we can do our best to right the many wrongs around us. Each of us can, in his or her unique way, contribute towards this justice-making community. It is my hope that people here will take every opportunity to support justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, including working for gay marriage.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are aware that we are a tiny minority, perhaps only 200,000 in a country that is well over 250,000,000. To some other religious groups, we are outsiders, heretics, weirdoes, who don't conform to their idea of what is right. One way we respond is to gather together in communities of support, to speak our truths in sermons, discussions, and publications, and thus to create a world where we feel comfortable living out our lives.

One way we enhance the vision of our world is to name famous Unitarian Universalists throughout history. As I pointed out last month, we love "BIRFing," basking in the reflected glory of our heroes: Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Dorthea Dix, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, John Haynes Holmes, Jane Adams, John Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, Whitney Young, Ray Bradbury, and so on. It is truly amazing how many Unitarian Universalists have used their exceptional gifts to bless the world.

Although gay people make up a minority, it is by no means as tiny a minority as Unitarian Universalists. Ten percent of our population is well over 25,000,000 gay people. That is more than ten times the number of Unitarian Universalists! Many of this gay population are hidden away, in the closet or passing for straight. But many are out and proud, in communities just about everywhere, including Buffalo --and I don't know about Albion ....

As I said before, gay people live in two worlds while straight people do not. The gay world coexists, invisible to those who have no ‘gaydar’, but it is alive and well here today. We have gay newspapers. We have gay magazines, gay TV, gay bars, gay resorts, gay retirement homes--you name it and somewhere it is gay.... And gay people like BIRFing just as much as anyone else, so we have gay heroes, too many to name, but let me mention just a few: Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Michelangelo, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Alexander the Great, Peter the Great, and Frederick the Great (is that what made them great?), Hans Christian Anderson, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Dag Hammarskjold, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Charles Laughton, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Anthony Perkins, Elton John, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, Thornton Wilder, Martina Navratilova, Ellen Degeneres, and how about Rosie O'Donell... and so on. Some were out during their lives; some were not. Most whom we know about distinguished themselves in some creative manner: as artists, writers, theologians, philosophers, musicians, and so on.

We know less of people like Barbara Jordan, who wasn't ‘outed’ until after her death, and whose life had such an impact on the Watergate era. It is still unsafe for some needing public affirmation in their work to come out. I think times are changing. New York now has a governor who supports the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York State . Not so long ago, we might have thought that impossible. But, as we have learned so well, change is not easy, and anyone who attempts to change the system must expect sabotage in direct proportion to the success of the change. That surely happens in our quest for justice for all races; it happens in our pursuit of equal rights for women; and it happens in our struggle towards fairness for gays. May we all be up to the challenge?

Amen and blessed be.

The Reverend John Rex
Pullman Memorial Universalist Church

December 10, 2006

I put up my Christmas tree this past week. I bought this artificial tree when I was ministering to a congregation in Jacksonville , Florida in 1999. Since then, it has stood in six different homes, as well as a year in storage while I was in Namibia . That's seven settings in eight years, and gives you some idea of my many moves. With all that moving around, one constant in my life has been that Christmas tree, bringing a bit of light during this dark month of December each year. Among my accumulated ornaments is a plastic Santa that hung on my family tree when I was a small child--the glass ornaments didn't survive, and a whole collection of felt ornaments made by my mother who crafted them by hand to raise money for her church, the Episcopal Church, in which I was raised. Designed by an artist in her church, these are wonderful animals: an alligator with a Santa hat in its mouth, an ostrich swallowing a string of colored lights, a polar bear licking an ice cream cone, and so on. Back in the 60's and early 70's, they sold for $5 apiece--what I thought was a lot of money then--at the annual church Christmas bazaar, and my mom was pleased to raise hundreds of dollars for her church. Putting up my tree stirs up these memories for me, as, I am guessing, putting up a Christmas tree does for many people. It takes me back to a time when my mother and father and sister, all now long gone, were alive, when life was simpler--at least it seemed so at the time--and when I "fit in" my family, community, and culture as a mainstream Episcopalian. But then came the years of questioning, and doubt, and study which led eventually to a very different understanding of my religion and to the Unitarian Universalist ministry. I left behind much/most/perhaps all of my childhood acceptance of group beliefs, and set off on an uncharted journey of exploration and, what I hope is growth.

Notice that I am tentative in trying to say all this as I consider my spiritual life a work in progress, a journey, and the older I get, the more I realize how much I don't know and how important it is to listen to what others have to say and to be authentic and true to myself. One thing that I have become aware of as years go by is the extent to which I am culturally an Episcopalian. I was raised in a church that had wonderful massive bells that we young people rang by pulling ropes which we could ride high in the air. We had a terrific organ and choir that gave me a lifelong love of classical and choral music. We had a liturgy that exposed me weekly to the finest cadences of the English language. It was a place of great beauty and love, and Christmas was for me a high point the year, with its annual candlelight service and wonderful singing. In my college years, I stopped attending services, and when I moved to a different place and tried attending the local church, I discovered that I didn't fit in. I found I could not, in good faith, believe or utter many of the words that were spoken, and I did not recover a sense of being part of a warm and welcoming community. Until I wandered into a Unitarian Universalist church, where I was pleased and relieved to learn that there are other persons like myself who cannot go along with traditional religious dogma. I joined, plunged in, and eventually ended up in the ministry. Along the way, I had some difficult moments. Like, what do we do with Christmas?

I remember one UU children's service where the central event was the arrival of Santa Claus--in fact a miniature sleigh had been rigged to fly on a wire over the heads of the congregation. I have seen any number of pageants with our children dressed in improvised costumes, the smallest being angels, reenacting events surrounding the biblical birth of Jesus. At least one UU church in the area has a yearly tradition of interpretive dance on Christmas Eve. Somehow, though, we UU's always manage a disclaimer: the Bible stories of the birth of Jesus are not history; these are ancient myths created according to ancient traditions. I have said it myself in Christmas sermons, how common accounts were of miraculous virgin births of important leaders, how we don't know when or where Jesus was born, but the time of the winter solstice was a holiday long before early Christians made it their own, choosing Bethlehem because it fits predictions of the Jewish Bible. These are favorite themes of Unitarian Universalists at this time of year, because in some ways they justify our being Unitarian Universalists, rejecting literal and, for us, impossible myths, applying reason--scholarship--to such matters, and moving on in our faith. But, as my mother said to me when she learned I had joined a Unitarian Universalist church, "Faith in what?" In Jesus? In Santa Claus? In the Winter Solstice?

It helps to know that something like eighty percent of our members are not birthright UU's, that we come from many traditions including atheist, agnostic, Jewish, and a whole range of Christianities, from conservative to liberal. One "New UU" class I led in a church I served had six members, all ex-Catholics. Those folks carried in them a lifelong "catholic" perspective, in a sense giving definition to their newly embraced Unitarian Universalism. For them, as for many of our new members, Unitarian Universalism is defined by what they no longer believe or accept. I suggest that how we understand our religion can only be understood in the perspective of what we learned as children. I remember taking a second grade UU Sunday school class to visit the "church across the street," which happened to be Baptist, and having one of our children, whose parents were Jewish UU's, blurt out that of course we were all Jewish. I think we carry those early teachings and experiences with us all our lives, and we understand what comes later in terms of what we learned earlier.

As I presented a month ago, there are stages in our growing faith: in moving on, we reject what we were taught as untrue, and we may have some anger or other emotional reaction towards the teachings we received that we now perceive as wrong. There is a lot of that in UU churches--often coming out as rejection of Biblical or traditional teachings. Yes, some people who have been hurt by religion come to us, seeking community and affirmation, but wanting nothing to do with church or worship or sermons or the Bible or ministers... or, you name it. There are critical pitfalls in all this:

1) that we UU's begin to think that we have the answers while others don't, a kind of arrogance,

2) that we UU's lose our connection with our own heritage in Western biblical culture, and

3) that we UU's find ourselves cut off from faith communities around us--the butt of Garrison Keillor's jokes as the oddball church, the one that doesn't fit in.

I might add that I am a big fan of Garrison Keillor, and I enjoyed his live appearance in Buffalo last weekend, when he did, as he does each week, joke about Unitarian missionaries and our pagan rites. I used to think he liked us, but I have been assured by colleagues, that, no, he really isn't sympathetic towards our religious ideas, and he regularly plays his comic lines to the masses, making fun, all in good fun, but getting laughs from the fact that we don't fit into traditional religious molds. Oh, the Lutherans may be comically challenged, and the Catholics may be overly ceremonial, but they all fit in, while we UU's don't.

So there is the dilemma for some of us: how do we best deal with our overwhelming cultural holiday of Christmas, when we don't quite fit into that culture? For a start, let's go back to what I have called the "pitfalls." Number one, thinking that we know something that others don't know. Let's get over that. Most of our valued purposes and principals are valued in various ways by other religions. When we say we "affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person," and think that is different from what others teach, we are hugely mistaken. The Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you--is a part of all world religions. Affirming worth and dignity is a large part of many religions, though, granted, in different ways. Each religion sets limits on who and what is not OK. We do that too. See what happens when a sexual predator or child molester wants to join a UU congregation. Not everyone is welcome equally.

Many of our American Christian churches draw wisdom from the same scholarship that we UU's know. They know that the biblical Christmas stories are not literally true, are myths. They celebrate them because they are such wonderful, powerful, meaningful myths, so firmly imbedded in our culture that we cannot live without them. The issue is not whether Jesus really was born in such a place at such a time or that kings or wise men or shepherds came to a manger. The issue is that a man with extraordinary presence and ideas was born long ago, and we wish to celebrate his birth, the symbol of new life and hope. We celebrate the end of darkness, the winter solstice, the coming of the light. For me, the Santa Claus myth, even understood as it may be as at a representation of warmth and love all around, falls far short of the ancient birth in Bethlehem story. And let's face it, the music, art works, TV specials, and now holiday movies have lifted up the Jesus birth myth to a sublime cultural status. You don't have to believe any of it to love and appreciate it. The myths, stories convey ultimate values of love, joy, peace, so badly needed in our wounded world, and we need to hear them.

I think too often, in rejecting mainstream beliefs, Unitarian Universalists ignore their own heritage. We forget that we come out of a profound and meaningful history, and that most of our religious ancestors were devout Christians. Think of Frances David and King John Sigismund--the first and only Unitarian king-- John Murray, Hosea Ballou, Olympia Brown--the list goes on and on of people we honor as our founders, all Christian. Those who ended up being called and then calling themselves Unitarians questioned the nature of the trinity, and those who ended up being called and calling themselves Universalists said that all would be saved, but they did so within a firm biblical context. Yes, we have grown, evolved, become different from what we were. Our churches that are built today do not feature stained glass windows with Jesus, as does this church and the First Universalist Church of Rochester where I was an intern minister. We now prefer banners and windows representing a variety of faith traditions, with multiple symbols all around. We have chosen a new symbol of our own, the flaming chalice, first designed for the Unitarian Service Committee in the Nazi era, and officially brought into our churches in the 1970's.

But, I think it is a mistake for us to forget our origins. I have heard many times, from enthusiastic, liberated, new UU's, that they love this new found religion because they can "believe anything they want." I admit that I am uncomfortable when I hear those words spoken in that way. My religion, my Unitarian Universalism, is not a matter of what I believe. It is a matter of what I do. Unfortunately, for some people, believing whatever they want translates into doing whatever they want, and I have known people who go to our churches--not this church, of course--because there they can be less than kind or considerate or compassionate with others, while they expect others to be kind or considerate or compassionate with them. It happens. Why is that? An anecdote from George Will's 12/8/06 column in the Buffalo News may help, and I quote, speaking of Iraq :

"In June 2004, at the time the Coalition Provisional Authority was to transfer sovereignty to what it thought would be an Iraqui government, Americans were toiling to finish their work of occupation. The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran had a driver who, like other Iraquis, had obeyed the laws under Saddam's police state but now began disregarding all traffic laws. 'When I asked him what he was doing, he turned to me, smiled, and said, 'Mr. Rajiv, democracy is wonderful. Now we can do whatever we want.'"

It's human nature--what happens when we discover new and previously unknown freedom... For me, learning of our religious ancestors, the struggles they went through to advance freedom, reason, and tolerance in their churches, is very important. We have a long and profound history, and I think knowing of it should be a part of our identity. If we lack such grounding, perhaps we deserve Garrison Keillor's teasing more than we realize.

Historically, Unitarians and Universalists celebrated Christmas along with other Christian religions. In fact there are wonderful stories about how our members wrote some of our favorite hymns and created some of our most special Christmas stories. Unitarian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words to "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," and Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." James Pierpont, music director of the Unitarian Church in Savannah , Georgia , wrote "Jingle Bells." Unitarian Lydia Maria Child wrote "Over the River and Through the Wood." And "the man who invented Christmas," Charles Dickens, was a Unitarian. Let us remember these Unitarian Universalist forebears.

I regret that Unitarian Universalist congregations seem so often to be cut off from the churches around them. This being America , most of these other churches, especially in small towns like Albion , are Christian. These are our neighbors, our friends, perhaps even our family members, and I think we are challenged to find ways to join with them. What better time to do so than Christmas? My hope for us all is that we will find the time to remember the goodness of past holiday times, of the people we have known and the places we have been, treasuring the gift of such memories. And, for now, let us share our memories with each other, our children and grandchildren, telling them what life was like when we were young. I remember my mother telling me how, on Christmas Eve, her parents, immigrants from Germany , would light candles on their real Christmas tree. Now that she is gone, I want to know more. Oh, how I wish my parents and grandparents had told more stories of their families of origin and how they celebrated holidays. This holiday time is our cultural and religious heritage. Let us be fully present now, joining our many communities--our families, our church, our neighbors, our colleagues, our many circles of connection--listening respectfully to the many stories told by others, and telling our stories, together envisioning a world of hope and love and peace.

Pullman Memorial Universalist Church

January 30, 2005

Rev. Richard E. Hood

"It's All in the Assumptions "

We Universalists have a founder, largely forgotten. I have preached about him and his unique story a few times. I won't give you those details today. Suffice it to say that our founder's name is John Murray. He arrived from England on 1770. Through a variety of strange circumstances he preached his first sermon, the first Universalist sermon in America, on the day after he arrived in a small meeting house on the Jersey shore.

By all accounts Murray was a scholarly man, and a gifted minister. He did suffer from very poor eyesight, but nevertheless served with distinction as a chaplain in the Revolutionary army and later as a minister in both Gloucester and Boston, Massachusetts.

You wouldn't recognize today what John Murray called Universalism. Murray was, in many ways, what we might consider today an orthodox Christian. He believed in the Bible as the true revelation of God. He believed in the Trinity, miracles, and the necessity of baptism. I'm not sure if he ever wrote down what he thought about the Virgin Birth, but he likely thought it was ok. I also gather from reading accounts that he could be somewhat intolerant of others who did not hold his views.

But Murray made an important and necessary step in the evolution of our faith. He believed that it was the responsibility of each person to read and interpret scripture. And he believed most people got it all wrong. Murray heard the popular theology of the time, especially about the issue of salvation. Theologians has pretty much embraced a doctrine called the salvation of the elect. Certain souls, it was believed, were preordained at creation to go to heaven. Conversely, most souls were preordained for damnation. There was no way around this arbitrary allocation of souls to their final resting places. Some were "elected" for heaven; most were not.

Murray found in his reading of the Bible a radically different interpretation. He believed that scripture said that everyone, that is ALL souls, will eventually go to heaven. Many might suffer in hell for a while to somehow pay for a life of evil, but that, in the end, God will be Loving and Merciful.

Murray never had any intention of founding a separate church or denomination. He thought that if he could articulate the correct (in his view) interpretation of scripture that all of Christianity, or at least all of Protestantism, would accommodate this new belief, commonly referred to as Universal Salvation.

Was Murray wrong! He met with firm resistance on both sides of the Atlantic, and ended up in a separatist church which even today remains outside mainstream Christianity and forbidden from membership in the World Council of Churches.

Today Murray is almost forgotten. His Universalist movement took his methodology of individually interpreting scripture and widened it to mean all religious statements and values. The power of the individual, once unleashed, could never be bottled up again in a church of dogma and creed.

Today the typical Unitarian Universalist would be light years away from John Murray's ideas, or so in would seem at first glance.

I have a friend whose favorite expression is this: "It's all in the details." I've never quite figured out what he means by that, but I love the simplicity of the syntax. I'd like to steal from him this morning and give you my version of a simple sentence: "It's all in the assumptions."

What I mean is this: We may think, at first glance, that we have little if anything in common with our Universalist Christian roots of over 200 years ago. We've outgrown them, or so we might think. Many of us have found, in this very church, refuge from the very kind of orthodoxy that John Murray represented. I think the view that we have outgrown the past is wrong. Oh yes, our theology has changed. But, ah ha, it's all in the assumptions.

A deeper examination of John Murray and early Christian Universalism reveals that the sometime radical assumptions made by those early pioneers are very much alive and part of our belief system today. Murray continues to influence us, even from his grave.

What are those assumptions? There are three, I believe. Let me tell you a little bit about each one.

Murray believed God was a loving God, in contrast to the cruel and judgmental God of the Calvinists. Today, whatever our practices about how we refer to the deity, we all assume that the order of the universe is somehow one that is nurturing and enabling. God is love was the slogan back then. Today we have no such easy words, but we share an assumption that somehow the world matters, that there is a power beyond our comprehension and outside of ourselves, and that somehow that ground of our being is good, or at least neutral. We are not put on this earth to be eternally punished. In spite of all the evil and pain, we somehow assume that there is goodness and we ought to pursue it. Murray's assumptions live on.

John Murray also made assumptions about the nature of humankind that differed markedly from those of his day. We are not merely doomed sinners. Somehow we have a purpose and a calling, and that is somehow related not just to God, but to how we treat one another.

Christianity during Murray's time, as it is somewhat today, focused on matters of salvation and acceptance. Save the world! Believe in Jesus! Be a mission to the message! The ideas of good works, social responsibility, and the Golden rule were somehow lost, or at least dimmed.

Murray reclaimed from the gospels that concept that we have responsibility for the world in which we live and all of its inhabitants. We are not merely on earth as some sort waiting room waiting for the eternity train to arrive. The here and now is important, and we have duties that come with our very existence.

Today we have in our Seven Principles these words: "…[We] affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations." John Murray would be very comfortable with those words, they were part of his assumptions.

Finally, Murray made new and radical assumptions about that place of the individual in determining religious truth. Up until this time there were two main avenues of religious insight: the church and the Bible. Oh yes, both had its individual interpreters, but the pope and the Bible still reigned supreme in the world of Christianity. Murray began to walk down a third avenue as part of the late Reformation. Individuals can look at the Bible and draw their own conclusions. Individual experience and needs, common sense, and personal insight all play a part in determining our beliefs. "You may possess a small light," wrote Murray, but "use it to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women."

By no means was he a radical in this matter. Scripture was still paramount. But Murray opened doors that others walked through. His assumption of individual insight is something we would likely all agree with today.

John Murray and his old Christian Universalism live on today. His name may be dimmed, his assumptions are very much still with us. And, after all, "it's all in the assumptions."

Albion January 11, 2004 Heroes? Yesterday’s and Today’s Rev. Richard Hood

This morning I want to introduce you to two heroes- people who, unusually under adversity, changed the way we live and whose lives continue to influence us today. We’ll come back to talk more about the concept of hero a little later. First, an introduction.

I’d like you to meet a woman named Olympia Brown. Olympia was born on January 5 th (happy belated birthday!), 1835 in the rugged Michigan frontier. Her parents were early Universalists and deeply believed in a strong education for all their four children, regardless of sex. Olympia took advantage of a rare opportunity and actually graduated from Antioch College in 1860, at the age 25. During that time her emerging social conscience began. She was active in a movement to change the law so that women could own property. While a student at Antioch, Olympia decided to enter the ministry. Women just didn’t do that sort of thing back then.

After graduation, she wrote all the prominent theological schools. Most of them turned her down flat. Women were not allowed. Only one school expressed even the slightest bit of encouragement, the Universalist school at Canton, NY. She grabbed the chance and moved to northern NY.

It was not an- easy time for Olympia, although she felt she was treated fairly by the school. She did gain some parish experience and did well in her studies. The president of the school spoke openly that he didn’t think women belonged in the ministry. And, interesting, her greatest opposition came from wives of faculty members. The wife of the president warned that soon “women will be flocking to the ministry” with disastrous results. Well, she was half right anyway.

She made it through Canton (now St. Lawrence). But she faced another hurdle- she had to convince the Northern Universalist Association to ordain her. Olympia’s professors were unanimously against ordination. Many warned her that even if she were ordained no church would ever call her.

Olympia addressed the council herself. She pointed out that she had met all the requirements, educational and moral, for ordination. There was nothing in Universalist bylaws which forbade female ordination. She wanted to be judged solely on her merits. In a surprising decision, those northern NY Universalists narrowly agreed to ordination. Olympia Brown became the first woman in the United States to be ordained by a legal body of a national denomination.

Olympia Brown was almost immediately called to a struggling Universalist parish in Weymouth, Massachusetts. She served several other parishes with distinction. At the same time, her career was marked with strong support of the still unpopular women’s rights movement, especially in the area of suffrage. She did marry, but kept her family last name (a precursor of what took well over 100 years to be acceptable).

In 1920, Olympia Brown had the honor that few of the original suffrage movement lived to experience. She voted in her first presidential election. She was 85 years old. Always an idealist, she spoke of the experiences of her life and her service to Universalism by saying:

The grandest thing has been…opening the doors to the

Women of America, giving liberty to twenty-seven million women…a new and larger life and a higher ideal.

Now a second introduction, and a personal note.

I grew up in the First Parish in Waltham, Massachusetts, Universalist-Unitarian. The woman’s group has a strange name that for years I didn’t understand. They called themselves “The Phoebe Hanaford Society” in honor of one of the church’s ministers. Let me introduce Phoebe to you.

Phoebe Hanaford did not share in any way a childhood similar to Olympia Brown. She was born in 1829 on Nantucket Island, off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Her father, not surprisingly, was a ship owner. The family were Quakers.

She was an energetic child. She wrote at a young age, and actually published her first poem, at the age of 13. She married Dr. Joseph Hanaford at the age of 20 and dutifully converted to his Baptist faith. They had two children, but by 1857 the marriage had started to deteriorate. Economic troubles and family moves did not help the situation.

Phoebe’s inquiring mind and fighting spirit remained constant. She published a total of 14 books, adding needed money to the family coffers. She was active in the anti-slavery movement. She also kept reading about theology. Eventually she came to reject her Baptist church and became a Universalist in 1864. It appears she was invited in Nantucket to give a talk on her new Universalist faith. Something clicked. Phoebe decided to become a minister.

Olympia Brown and Phoebe Hanaford met through their associations in the antislavery and temperance movement. Brown invited Phoebe to preach at her church in Canton, Massachusetts. Brown was so impressed with Hanaford that she urged her to enter the ministry, even though she lacked the usual education. Phoebe Hanaford petitioned the high-sounding Committee of Fellowship, Ordination, and Disciplines of the Massachusetts Universalist Convention. The committee gave her a license, albeit at first only for a year. She was the second woman Universalist minister. She also became the first woman minister in her state.

Evidently, Phoebe had tremendous talent both in writing and in the pulpit. She was quickly called to the Universalist Society of Hingham in 1866. Another barrier had been overcome. In 1869 Hanaford needed more income. She stayed in Hingham and also accepted a half time position in Waltham, Massachusetts, my hometown. She received $1,000 per year. I must admit that history records that a least one man left the Waltham church in disgust over a woman minister saying that “if I had a hen that crowed [like that], I’d cut its head off.”

Hanaford went on to several other churches in her career. She separated from her husband, although they never formally divorced. In the course of her career she had numerous firsts in her life, as the first woman to perform many traditional male clerical roles. To her death she was a strong advocate for woman’s rights, the cause of peace, and the temperance movement.

She spent the final days of her life with her niece in Rochester. She died at the ripe old age of 92 and is buried in Orleans, NY, a village northeast of Canandaigua.

The road pioneered by Brown and Hanaford has become more well-traveled, both within the Universalist movement and within Protestantism in general. In the 1850’s women ministers were unheard of. By 1920 there were 88 ordained Universalist women. Today over 50% of the ministers in fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association are women.

Heroes- Olympia Brown and Phoebe Ann Hanaford…but not always.

For years their contributions were ignored. Prominent histories of our movement failed to even mention them. For awhile Hanaford’s grave was even unmarked. After their deaths, these women sunk into obscurity. It is only in the last 25 or so years that their contributions have been rediscovered and their stories of courage in the face of adversity retold.

What message does this bring to us today? I think there are at least three:

1. There are trailblazers working today, heroes if you will, that we are not even aware of. They labor often in obscurity, spreading a message that is often unpopular or, at best, accepted in a lukewarm fashion. The sacrifices these people make are many. They don’t have the best jobs with the highest notoriety and reputation. The heroes of tomorrow are likely obscured from our vision.

2. If we are lucky enough to know of one of tomorrow’s heroes, we are likely not to greet that person warmly. Brown and Hanaford’s messages were met with opposition or indifference most everywhere they went. Heroes tend to operate on the fringes of a movement. Neither Brown nor Hanaford ever had a big church or were perceived as highly successful ministers. Only today do we appreciate what they contributed to our liberal religious movement.

3. What is the common accepted wisdom of today may not seem quite so wise in the light of history. We see that truth time and time again in the lives of Hanaford and Brown. That should bring to us a certain sense of humility. Are we open to new, fresh ideas or are we stuck in our old, comfortable thought patterns? Do we welcome honest difference, or do we pay lip service to our claims of tolerance and diversity?

Would we have welcomed Brown and Hanaford into our homes? Into our church? Maybe…maybe not.

Today’s heroes are out there…somewhere. New ideas, new causes, new solutions to age old problems, new ways of looking at old practices and traditions. Let’s let our Universalist women heroes remind us to be as accepting as we can. The next Olympia Brown may be on our midst, and we don’t even see her.

Rational e for UU Ministry

A sermon by Rev. Don Reidell

Pullman Memorial Universalist Church Albion, NY

Sunday, March 17, 2002

My conviction to become a Unitarian Universalist minister did not come from any revelatory "call", but rather arose from a rational and deliberate consciousness that made me resolve that it is in the office of the ministry-specifically the Unitarian Universalist ministry-that I could best take up direct service for humanity. But before one ministers to others, he must have a strong belief and faith, and he must verify to himself the solidarity of that faith, for I believe that theological integrity plays a major role in bringing wholeness to a minister. It must be real and organic to him first before he assists others in developing their own spiritual convictions. I have sought and I have found that faith in Unitarian Universalism, and I have an invincible belief in its goodness.

Therefore, in order to best present any promptings and reasons for wanting to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, and why I am a UU, and to grant as much clarity as possible for my conviction, I shall first declare my religious credo, followed by a delineation of the various functions and roles of the way of life of the Unitarian Universalist minister. For it is through my faith and my understanding and knowledge of the various ministerial duties that compelled my decision to enter the ministry.

As every life is born from another life, so also is every freedom born from another freedom. Similarly, I maintain, in the domain of beliefs, every faith is born from a previous faith. As Unitarian Universalism emerged out of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, my avowal to Unitarian Universalism sprang out of my foundations in the Lutheran tradition as I began to assert my belief in the free use of reason and ethics to reinterpret my faith, and as I began to assert my belief in the vitality of active and fearless thought. I believed that one should worship God in spirit and in truth, and the form is as inconsequential as the language we use to worship God in. The forms are only means. They are valuable or valueless only as they lead to the goals, which are the love of truth, the spirit of Jesus, and the service of mankind.

Therefore, I began my search for a liberal approach which would allow a bedrock on which to construct a meaningful faith for me, built from my own being, experience, and character. It was at this time that I found Unitarian Universalism. For me this faith is marked by spiritual freedom, by the use of the rational mind, by faith in the dignity of all men, by the continuance of man's potentiality, by the spirit of Jesus, by the universal truths taught by all religions and exemplified in the Judeo-Christian heritage, and by the desire to serve.

These characteristics flow together in Unitarian Universalism and reinforce the propensities within us for goodness and human decency. It means an experience of religion which is the constant seeking for values which each person continually develops as he creates for himself a religious way of life through the development of character and conduct.

Therefore, Unitarian Universalism means to me the granting of freedom to pursue a religion of my own. There is no finality in the religious quest for those who have reason, free-mindedness, and inquisitiveness. Unitarian Universalism gives me the inspiration, the fellowship, and the society to continue my experiments with truth; and it grants me that inward receptivity to new investigations essential to these experiments.

I do not see my faith as a rival of any other established faith. Rather, I see them alike in that they are all expressions of man's religious consciousness. However, I see in Unitarian Universalism the freedom for inquiry, for exploration, for hope, for expectations.

It is my hope that my religious credo continues to evolve, to merge with the current of change in my personal history, as my reason is illumined by faith and my faith by reason. Unitarian Universalism continues to give me the freedom for this. It is this faith that has given me the revelation and the conviction that the simple doctrine of the essential worth of man, however humble he may be, may prove to be our greatest liberating force. These tenets of Unitarian Universalism, along with those of the exciting traditions of the free pulpit, the free pew, and congregational polity, were the initial prompters for me to wish to become a UU minister. That was 29 years ago. Once I made that decision, I wanted to know as much as I could about the operations and organizations of the church; but, above all, I wanted to know the people. I have had opportunities to plan worship services and preach, both in my own church and in surrounding UU churches and fellowships. Each and all of these experiences over the years have increased my certainty and deepened my compulsion of the UU ministry so that I may work with people and help them by assisting them in affirming life and by awakening in them a consciousness of their own spiritual nature and destiny. This then, in brief, presents the foundation of my Unitarian Universalist faith, a faith which will perpetually develop and emerge and continually imbues me with the desire to serve.

I wished to become a UU minister because I believe that the finest worth in life is that I could do my best in the work I have to do in the world. It was my desire to put my faith to work, for I know that it involves my living schedule as well as my mind and heart. I have taken a position affirmatively about life; I wished now to proceed to act upon my affirmations by doing my part in the exacting task of making the ideal of togetherness work, and in doing so to deepen my own wells of inspiration. I wanted to associate myself actively with people, unequivocally asserting that I am responsible for the present and the future in the world of humanity, that if I do not play my part beyond the role of self-interest and survival there will be no better world. I desired to assist in making my religion continue to come of age, for it is the force of religion which makes people desire the good and which moves the will to achieve it. I wished to become a UU minister because my faith ties my life together into a meaning that will absorb all my energies and hopes. I believed that would make me a part of that process of nature that unites my own inner spirit with that of my neighbors.

I am aware that the UU ministry is no easy position, for it is committed to the espousal of ideals which very often are in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of contemporary society. Surely we are a world-conscious generation, and we have the means at our disposal to see and to analyze the brutalities which characterize individual's larger social relationships and to note the dehumanizing effects of a civilization which unites people mechanically and isolates them spiritually. Therefore, it appears inevitable that a compromise be made between the rigor of the ideal and the necessities of the day.

It is not an easy task to deal realistically with the moral confusion of our time. But it is perilous to entertain great moral ideals without attempting to realize them in life; they must be brought into juxtaposition with the specific social and moral issues of the day. I wanted to be a UU minister in order to make concrete my ideals by agonizing about their validity and practicability in the social issues which I and others face in our present society. It is this which gives the ministry reality and potency.

I entered into the UU ministry firmly believing that only by giving unreservedly to the work of advancing practical goodness can positive change be effected. The type of ministry which I desired, for it offers greater opportunities for both moral adventure and for social usefulness than any other office, is the parish ministry.

At the outset of this sermon, I stated that besides having a clear and unified theological base out of which grew my desire to become a UU minister, there is also a knowledge and understanding of the ministerial roles and functions that I have gained from my observations and experiences; and that it is also because of my cognition and acquaintance with these varied roles that I wanted to become a minister. It is because I have had direct experience both with ministers and with work in the church that have served as a process of trial and entrance, of getting to know what the profession involves so far as work, knowledge, and responsibility are concerned. I feel that this experience and close observation had removed any idyllic or romanticized notions of this office from me. Illusions must be removed and reality forced in order for the ministry to take on form and purpose and accomplishment. Rather, one should enter the ministry of the church with the consent of all his faculties-mind, heart, and conscience. It is not enough for a person to want to be a minister; that want, that compulsion, should be tested against some inventory of the person's abilities and the needs of the church, the denomination, and the society.

Inasmuch as it was by observation and awareness of the varied ministerial functions that were of import as part of my decision to become a UU minister, it seems appropriate to present a brief view of how I perceived each role.

Administration is a necessary part of any human institution, and I would place the administrative task high on the list of useful aspects of the role of the UU minister. In smaller congregations, such as Albion's, the Board of Trustees carries this role. The job of being responsible for a church today appears to be one of the hardest jobs anyone is called to do. In my experience, being an administrator takes much patience and in many ways more time than doing the job myself. Yet this extra time must be taken because there are religious values in this task and the one-man show never serves the purpose of the church as well as the organization under a skillful administrator. Administrative work puts the minister into close, meaningful contact with many people. The process of making real decisions and working with committees who work out the decisions offers a chance to be involved in real dynamics in the all important function of working with laypeople.

I believe that the minister as administrator must keep in mind certain propositions which will assist in the operation of the church. First, that each person can do something. Secondly, each person wants to do something. He may not know this exactly, but a good deal of criticism and unhappiness in a church comes from people who are on the outskirts and not actively engaged in some part of its labor. Thirdly, each person needs to do something; it gives them a sense of purpose and meaning. These are the religious values inherent in the administrative role.

One of the things that impressed me most is that the church as an institution is not very different from the educational institution with which I was acquainted, or, for that matter I suspect, any other institution so far as the procedures and principles of administration are concerned. Therefore, I see my own administrative experience related to that of the needs of the church.

I wanted to become a UU Minster because I believe in the art of the sermon and I wish to preach it. The word for this art is simplicity. Yet back of the simple speech there has to be a love of words and of language and long hours of careful preparation. But the minister must know the difference between a sermon and an oration, and this is known only when there is direct personal contact with the congregation. He must be saturated with the needs of the people, and this comes only by close association with them.

The social and the personal elements of our religious faith must be combined in every sermon. The sermon is an existential event; it is the one great moment of experience between the preacher and the congregation. There is a facing of this great moment after hours of preparation, knowing that in about twenty minutes it is over. Yet, I know that in that brief time great issues may be faced and decided which may influence and change lives.

I continue to be excited by the UU tradition of the free pulpit, which allows me to preach what is in my heart and mind. Surely, we should speak of current events, of things relevant. But above all I believe that every sermon should speak of the deepest spiritual faith that my heart holds. I believe that the deeper and ultimate values are what people wish to hear discussed. It is what they need and want today more than ever before. In such a role, I have desired to touch the lives of the congregation.

I see preaching as commingled with that of teaching. Both are to supply the spirit of inquiry. Part of the task of the minister is to be a teacher of the people, for teaching is an essential part of equipping and sensitizing individuals and groups both in facing the center of life and meaning and in facing one's responsibility to the larger community. But teaching is not a one-way proposition. The minister needs to learn from the people as much as they need to learn from him. The art of teaching is the art of struggling through all kinds of complex propositions in order to come to a solid conviction upon which a person can stand.

The area of the pastoral ministry that includes counseling and visitation is of great importance in achieving a balanced ministry. I wanted to assist in ministering to those terrifying human conditions of anxiety, despair, fear, and loneliness. Marital crises and the problems of youth and age are ever in need of counseling and psychological skills. The ministry would allow me to touch lives at crisis points, to assist in binding up the wounds of the sick and injured and disturbed, to help the dying patient and his family move toward an acceptance of death as an integral part of the wholeness of life. I believe that if the minister cannot give these people a solution to their problems and anxieties, he can surely listen; it is amazing how often this simple function heals and encourages.

I see the religious education role of the minister as that of a facilitator, one who is a leader and teacher and learner, one who serves to leaven religious education for the total church community, not only for the children, for surely religious education is a life-long process. This education is not concerned with a particular class of subjects in which a person may or may not be interested, but rather is an overall response to life in which every person is inextricably involved. Religious education is the individual's response to what he has thus far learned in life and what life further offers to him. Religious education provides opportunities for further learning, and will help each person clarify and interpret his/her experience of life. It should be a shared enterprise of the congregation, and home and church should interact. The object of religious education is to give persons the unity of truth where the elements of humankind-the intellectual, the physical, and the spiritual are brought into harmony.

In closing, there is one more thing to say. There are millions of Unitarian Universalists in America today, but not in Unitarian Universalist churches. There are millions of Unitarian Universalists who do not know that such a church exists. They do not know its history. They do not know its basis. They do not know its purposes. They do not know that they themselves are Unitarian Universalists. If a true religion is to shape the world to peace and freedom, these people should be joined together to advance its cause.

Religions with worn out creeds cannot do it. Irreligion cannot do it. Confused and cultic religions cannot do it. If the strength of a free person's faith is to be the under girding of the world tomorrow, a world so full of dangers, yet so rich in opportunities, and if the people of America must rise to take their place within this venture, then there must be growth, and multitudes of pioneers.

This will come about partly if Unitarian Universalists will preach their faith, for there are many who are ready to hear it. But it will come about most surely if Unitarian Universalists are willing to live their faith--live it into aim and purpose, fearing nothing but the reproach of conscience--for such a faith lived into actual life would be the power of God himself--invincible.

It is my prayer that each of you continue to find this church meaningful to your life. That this your church here in Albion serves to enrich your faith.



So What's the Big Deal?

A sermon by Rev. Richard E. Hood

Pullman Memorial Universalist Church Albion, NY

March 10, 2002

One of the most satisfying parts of my ministry occurs when a new member or friend of the church says words like this to me: "Oh, I didn't know about Unitarian Universalism. What a revelation is has been for me! I'm thrilled to find a new religious home. I've been searching for sometime, and you were here along."

As you can imagine such words bring great joy to me. You would be surprised how often I have heard such thoughts; more often than you might think. But along with my good feelings from hearing such words, the cynic in me softly mutters to my consciousness, "So what's the big deal?" Allow me to explain my cynical side, even if I must apologize for it as well.

I am a lifelong Unitarian Universalist. "Born and bred" is a phrase I sometimes hear. I grew up in the greater Boston area where every city and even most small towns have a Unitarian Universalist Church. Our denomination headquarters stand next to the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Unitarians started our most famous educational institution, Harvard. Universalists founded my alma mater, Tufts University, in a suburb of Boston. I never had a conversion experience; I never "discovered" Unitarian Universalism, it's always just been there. While I am happy to hear about other's joy at finding our religious home, sometimes I wonder, "What's the big deal?"

Ordinarily I would have kept this little peek into the darker side of my personality out of sight. However this sermon series, where you have all three of your religious professionals affiliated with this church speaking on their perspective of our faith, has forced me to bring the "big deal" question out of the closet. Are we truly unique? Do we have something special to offer? What makes us different? What's the big deal?

My road to answer the "big deal" question has been filled with diversions and potholes. But now I do believe I understand. Our big deal has many different aspects, but in the end it boils down to what might be considered the most elementary of theological questions: how do we know? . Who is the final decision maker in the religious journey we are all on? Who decides?

Various religions have various answers.

For Roman Catholics, the ultimate authority of religious truth rests with the church headed by the Pope. The church traces its origins back to the words of Jesus spoke to Peter. Jesus said:

And so I tell you Peter, you are a rock and on this rock I will build my church, that not even death will be able to overcome it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 16:18-19

How's that for authority? For Roman Catholics their faith is sure- they are part of Peter's church. Do as the church says and the doors to the kingdom of heaven will be unlocked. Guess who hold the key?

Unfortunately the church abused its standing; the Protestant Reformation resulted. Protestants answered the question of religious authority in a very different way. We must return to the Scriptures. The Bible is the Word of God; Read it, study it, accept it. It is the truth! Religious truth resides not in a church, but in a collection of books. We hear this message today very strongly from Protestant fundamentalists.

As Protestantism matured, it naturally splintered. Men and women read and interpret passages differently. Cultural differences emerge. Should the Sabbath be on Saturday or Sunday? Should baptism be done an infancy or in early adulthood? Should church government be a hierarchy or should power rest with local congregations? Should church members be required to buy a pew? Protestants of good faith answered these questions differently, each returning to Scripture to find evidence for their particular opinion. Churches around this historic square here in Albion emerged as different groups answered these questions differently. Fragmentation was the obvious result, but the foundation of the assumption of the Bible as the final authority of truth remained constant.

We Unitarian Universalists came from this tradition of scriptural examination. Initially we Universalists were founded based on our interpretation of scripture in favor of the idea of eventual salvation for all God's creatures. Early Unitarians started with an examination of scripture to reject the idea of the Trinity as unbiblical.

But we have moved beyond.

There's a funny thing about allowing individuals to examine religious questions for themselves. Eventually those same individuals arrive at the conclusion that they, themselves, must make final religious decisions for themselves. An important shift occurs, just as it occurred in the 19th century of our religious movement. No longer is any one scripture or church the exclusive font of understanding. Inspiration comes from many sources. Transcendentalists saw God and truth in nature. Rationalists insisted that truth lay in rigorous examination through the filter of common sense. More recently, some members of our movement have insisted that truth lies within what some would call our inner flame.

No longer does a church or a book wield full control. For many questioners like ourselves, we end up believing that each and every one of us can decide issues of religious truth for ourselves. From this principle of individual autonomy and authority, the rest of our religious values and beliefs have emerged.

What are some of these values and beliefs? You've heard me speak of them before in a variety of ways, and I'm sure the sermons by our other ministers have covered them as well. I'll provide only an overview.

We value human dignity. Earlier Universalists used a phrase in their 1935 Avowal of Faith that sums this up well: "the supreme worth of every human personality." We believe no person, government, church or creed has the right to encumber any individual's search for religious truth and practice of belief.

We value individual responsibility. Not only do we have the freedom to make up our minds, we have the obligation as well. Freedom does not allow us the option of opting out of seeking meaning and truth. Understanding, both on a personal and a cultural basis, comes only with continued and ongoing examination and refinement. We are part of that process.

We value tolerance. We understand that all the answers are in our basket. We understand that different cultures, races, and even sexes will, over time, come to differing conclusions. Rather than be frightened by this diversity, we welcome it, or at least try our best to remain welcoming. We strive not for conformity or unanimity, but rather openness and acceptance.

We value the future. Our faith, while we hope respectful of the past, seeks not only preserve old words and thoughts, but to encourage new. We are among the few religious movements who believe, to use the words of Samuel Longfellow, that "revelation is not sealed." That is Longfellow's way of stating a simple yet profound principle: "we don't have all the answers." Unlike other religious faiths reinterpreting old stories or ideas, we humbly acknowledge that we don't always know where the future will lead us.

We value "reverence." By reverence I mean an appreciation for all this is around us- the gift of life itself, the ongoing stream of creation, the power of love. While we possess the power and responsibility of religious judgment, there is much that goes on around us that we but vaguely, if at all, understand. We stand reverent not for what little we know and understand, but the vast spheres of our world we don't understand. Some of us call that unknown God, others prefer a different term. Sometimes forget our reverence; we don't stay humble; sometimes we become puffed up with our own power, but we keep trying.

We value community. If we are reverent to the world around us, we certainly ought to be reverent to those in our midst. We UU's are few in number. Our dollars are stretched. We certainly can, however, show care and concern and we travel the often bumpy road of everyday living. We honor one another, especially in times of trouble or times of life's special moments.

A few years ago this very congregation, with many of the faces present here this morning, engaged in a unique process. We set out, in a very organized and structured fashion, to determine what beliefs and values held us together. We asked ourselves what is the metaphorical glue that binds us. Can you imagine any other church attempting such a task? I can't.

In my humble judgment we were successful in our goal beyond my wildest expectations. We arrived a statement we call our Church Covenant. We read it together every Sunday that I occupy the pulpit. We do that in part because I am so impressed with how well we captured ourselves, and how well we were able to come away from the process living out our goal of tolerance. The words bear repeating once again, as a summary of who we are:

Enriched by our unique legacy, we come together:

To encourage personal spiritual growth in an open, democratic environment,

To search for truth and meaning in our lives,

To model together our values of love and respect,

To advocate in a spirit of optimism for freedom and tolerance in our community.

What's the big deal? I guess for some of us who are used to this sort of thing, we don't understand very well the emotions of others who have just discovered us. But I'll try to summarize what I think other feel.

The big deal is this: that you can find a religious home where you are empowered to think for yourself; where you are encouraged to doubt, to ask questions, to experiment. The big deal is further that there is a religious community, imperfect at times, which will foster and nourish your questions AND your answers.

These homes are hard to find. I dare to say that there is no other community in Orleans County where such an atmosphere exists. We can be proud; we are Unitarian Universalists: it's a big deal!

Embedded in our hymnbook are these closing words by James Villa Webb:

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.

This is our great covenant:

To dwell together in peace

To seek truth in love,

And to help one another. Amen


Susan Dodge-Peters

For as long as I can remember, being a Unitarian has been part of the very foundation of my identity. That the Dodges were Unitarians was a statement of fact, one of the ordering principles of my universe - as basic to my sense of self as the Dodges were Americans, spoke English. What it meant to be a Unitarian, however - and then a Unitarian Universalist - went unasked and therefore unexamined for years.

My first inkling that I didn't really know what being a Unitarian was all about occurred to me as I was picketing with my Sunday school classmates - including the minister's family - for a cause I only vaguely understood. As we walked round and round in front of the offices of the Board of Education, holding placards about injustices in the City School system, I wondered how I would explain my participation in the gathering media.

An imaginary microphone was thrust in my face, and I was asked, "Could you please tell our listening audience just what are you protesting here today?" The imaginary journalist continued, "And, if I'm not mistaken, you are here as a member of your church school. Could you please explain the connection between your religious affiliation and concerns for public education.?”

I sputtered and babbled in my imagination. Slogans from our signs and chants were all I could repeat: something about fighting injustice, fighting for equity in education." The truth is I didn't really understand either the educational conflict or the religious connection. But the fear of the media's potential question forced me to acknowledge that I didn't have a clue what we were challenging and why it was a matter of religious concern. Mercifully, the press didn't press me for information, but the sheer terror of the possibility that I might need publicly to explain my presence and commitment awakened the need for greater awareness about my religious convictions and raised questions that I am still answering today.

This was in the early 1960s. The immediate concern was bussing children in and out of the Boston City School District. The larger issue, of course, was Civil Rights. I came of age as a Unitarian Universalist during an era of heightened social consciousness - an era in which the denomination itself came into being. Social action - the daily practice of living one's religious principles, often publicly and politically - was a shaping force in my early understanding of what it meant to be a Unitarian Universalist. In my eleven-year old head being a good Unitarian Universalist and being a good citizen were synonymous.

Paradoxically, there was another aspect to my religious life, even church life, that developed simultaneously on a parallel track. Ever since I was a very young child I had an abiding sense of the sacred, in the natural world, in the arts, and in language. I was the self-appointed keeper of the animal cemetery, charged to ensure that due reverence was observed when we buried the cat's more than occasional quarry. I have always loved music and sang in the church choir year after year. Stirred by the music, the words, and the joining of voices, singing was a transporting, transcendent experience. I felt, surely, the sacred was present at these times. I also felt the presence of mystery in the "close hand holy darkness," to borrow Dylan Thomas' word, every night when I went to bed. I don't remember ever learning to pray, but prayer very early on was a precious part of my life. How keenly I remember my earnest nightly conversations with God. In my spoken and later written prayers, I yearned for connection with the ultimate.

A few moments ago, I introduced this picture of my emerging spiritual life paradoxically on a parallel track to my developing sense of my Unitarian Universalist identity. The essence of the paradox is this: my spiritual life was a private matter, one I nurtured alone. My intellectual and political identity was unquestionably Unitarian Universalist. My spiritual identity, however, was unaligned/unaffiliated.

I couldn't have articulated this internal chasm even a week ago. The internal truth of it was viscerally familiar to me but I've only just brought it up to the light through thought and language. Exploring my religious journey once more through the lens of this morning's sermon, I realized how many unresolved issues are brewing beneath the surface of my steadfast Unitarian Universalist identity.

In the fast-forward mode, let me share a few of the ways these issues have played out in my life. The story told so far takes me to about age 17 - formative years, for sure. The next 20+ years, I must count myself among the great unchurched. Give me a form to fill out asking for my denomination - ask me point blank about my religious affiliation - and I would have answered immediately Unitarian Universalist - but the church wasn't a part of my daily life. In fact, I began visiting other churches. There was a stint visiting the Presbyterian church, a brief time among the Religious Society of Friends, a visit here and there to a UU fellowship, and soon after we moved to Rochester - sometime in the late '70's-early '80's - a Sunday spent at First Unitarian on Winton Road. I was literally aching for community, but nothing fit. There was too much talk of God and Jesus in certain settings - I found I couldn't participate fully in the "repeat after me" sections of the service - and too little sense of the sacred in others. The ardent call to boycott grapes from a UU pulpit felt as prescriptive as the sermons from other churches.

I was on an urgent quest but I couldn't tell you what I was looking for.

And then one day, I found it. My children were growing up without a faith community and that finally galvanized me into action. They'd been periodically dressed up and dragged to church school over the years so they weren't totally surprised when their mother went into high gear one Sunday morning. With them safely installed in a class, I slipped into the back of the Winton Road sanctuary. I can't tell you what the sermon topic was, which hymns we sang - all I knew is that I'd found a part of me that had been missing for ages. I came totally unprepared for the tears that were released that day.

Why then? What was so different? What had been missing before? Had the denomination changed somehow in the intervening years?

There are, I believe, both denominational and personal answers to these questions - and they are intricately interwoven. The denominational passage of the Purposes and Principles in the mid-1980s was a critical articulation of the forces that bound Unitarian Universalists together. To be a liberal religious community does not mean that anything goes. Contrary to some outsider's views liberal and lazy are not interchangeable. Ours is an arduous way. Practitioners in many other traditions focus on an established canon - the Bible, a theology - and test their beings against it. What would Jesus do? What does the Bible demand? UUs do not have a single starting point. In religious parlance, we might say that our canon is not closed. Revelation does not belong to the past alone but is an every present reality.

Sitting in the sanctuary that day, I didn't know all that had transpired in the denomination; I just knew that something deep within me had been touched and opened. As much as the denomination may have evolved over the years, I believe that essential changes have been at work within me. My connections with the sacred had continued privately. I had never ceased my nocturnal - and then some - dialogues with God. My sense of the holy in the natural world had grown in the intervening decades, and I had a growing "reverence for the reverence of others." What changed was my acknowledgement of the need for and gift of community. We are both solitary and social creatures, spiritual and political animals.

I was born a Unitarian, and for years took it as a given - like my name, nationality, eye color. I only truly became a Unitarian Universalist, however, years later when I chose the denomination, acknowledging that I cannot be fully human on my own.

"Take courage, friends. / The way is often hard, the path is never clear, / and the stakes are very high. Take courage. / For deep down, there is another truth: you are not alone."

Wayne A. Arnason, Singing The Living Tradition, #698



Continuing Revelation

Rev. Donald Reidell

Theme: Modesty is the ingredient for on-going revelation.

1. The clergy, especially, must have humility.

2. Religious liberalism depends on the principle that revelation is continuous. Ultimate meaning has not been captured.

3. Service is a parallel to this concept.

Charles Hartshorne drew a circle - The empty space was the given knowledge of science. Ten dots were then added around its’ circumference, representing the new questions of science. The larger circle was drawn around the first, assuming successful answers to the questions, and on that placed 20 dots. Etc.

In other words, the more science knows, the more it wants to know.

But this is not he model of orthodox religions. They claim absolute truth!! All of them believe in a single revelation:

a. Hindu tradition claims the eternal truth in the Vedas.

b. Hebrews have a special privilege of being born Jews.

c. Buddhists have the Dharma.

d. Islam has Mohammed as the “seal of the prophets,” and the Koran as the highest authority.

e. Christians have Jesus Christ as God in human form and as Redeemer.

Each religion assumes superiority. And they all breed tribalism and suspicion.

When revelation is frozen, the mind is frozen as well.

4. No one has all the answers.

5. Courage is required to continue to search, and to resist the temptation of finality.

6. The mood and the core of liberal religion is to strive to find new answers. To continue to doubt and to challenge.

7. Yet the search is a refinement of understanding. The God of Abraham was not the God of Jesus, and the God of Paul is not the God of the 21st Century.

8. And it is the same in our personal lives. We need not apply revelation only to religion. Who would close the book on their own development as we move through life?

9. It is a joy to discover. Our minds are ever expanding if revelation is not sealed.


Detail of the face of Christ

A Masterpiece in our Midst

Rev. Richard Hood

Sermon Summary, December 8, 2002

It’s hard to believe we have a masterpiece in our midst. I am referring, of course, to our Tiffany windows, especially the window in our west transept, which is considered the most significant of the group, showing Christ with his hands outstretched toward us, as if giving us consolation. In addition to its fine craftsmanship, this window was signed by Tiffany…most unusual.

I must confess I never thought much about this window; in fact I have consciously ignored it for many years. It is only from recent Sundays when I have sat in a pew that I have begun to appreciate the masterpiece in our midst.

This beautiful window depicting Christ wearing a crown of thorns and a glow emanating from the top of his head is a good representation of the state of Universalism in the 1890’s. We were then a solely Christian movement, which emphasized a God so loving that He would, in the end, return all his creatures to the joyful bliss of heaven. Jesus was His Messenger, the Bearer of the Good News of God’s redemption to all.

Our beliefs have grown and changed in the past 100 years, as you well know. No longer does the window seem to represent who we are as a worshipping community. In fact, for many the window has come to represent the orthodoxy we have rejected. Some of us, myself included, have been uncomfortable with the window. We prefer to pretend sometimes that it’s not even there.

My personal attitude has changed in the past few weeks as I have had time to contemplate the window from a perspective other than in the pulpit. The window has messages and meanings still vital to our liberal religious movement here in Albion.

First is certainly the whole idea of gift giving for future generations. Try for a moment to get inside George Pullman’s head. He knew certainly that the church was going to outlast all those who he knew who came to the dedication. He understood that this building and that this church as an organization would be here long after the organized cast of characters had perished. He really did, I think, have US in mind, you and I! Not other people, just this small band of people of who we are.

We have been given this great treasure, just a few of us! I think he knew that the church would live for centuries. He knew back then that there would be men and women long after his death that occupied this room for worship and that looked at this window for inspiration. He was giving for many, many generations. We are today’s recipients. It’s almost hard to comprehend the magnitude of that gift. Given to a very few people. Us!

What gifts are we giving? Oh, I don’t think we are going to be in the situation of calling up Louis Tiffany having him bring up another window. We don’t own a railroad car company. Yet when we look at the gift that has been given to us, the inevitable question comes up: what gifts are we giving- not just to the people around us, not just to the faces that are familiar, but to the future generations? Just as George Pullman gave us an artistic masterpiece, what are we doing within our means for people not yet born? This window forces each of us to ask questions about own gifts to posterity. Will we leave the world a better place? This window reminds us that the yardstick by which we will be measured are not the gifts we give one another around this time of year, but by the gifts to generations yet unborn.

There is another message, I believe. We don’t use the verb “console” much. Somehow it’s gone out of style. We console, perhaps, only at the time of death. Jesus in our window reminds us of the power of the simply act of consolation, not just at the end of one’s life, but throughout it. It is so easy yet so powerful to let another know that you care about their burdens, that you have genuine concerns about the troubles they bear. We can reach out in simple way and console one another. It is truly a gift we can share with each other.

So may we look at our 10 foot Jesus with a new vision. He’s been standing in the window looking down at us in this room for since 1895, a span that includes three separate centuries. What narrow dogma concerns we have about the window seem to fade in the perspective of history. The window can still speak to us, if we will but listen. There is a message of caring, of consoling, and of concern for the future. Those messages are in fact part of our liberal Unitarian Universalist faith today and I assume will be in the future.

We have been entrusted with an object of great beauty, and the lessons of that object still ring true over a century after its creation. We can but say, “Thank you, George Pullman.”


Sermon on Blaise Pascal


Nov. 17, 2002

The opening words come from the works of Blaise Pascal:

“What a shimmer then is man; what a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy. Judge of all things, imbecile, worm of the earth, depository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error, the pride and refuse of the universe.”

(…just in case we think highly of ourselves.)

Blaise Pascal was a highly prominent French scientist. Acutely religious and trained to be a keen observer, he then turned to theological musings. In 1660, he wrote the following reflection on the human condition, though I should caution it is a hard and realistic portrait.

“ Our senses perceive no extreme. Too much sound deafens us. Too much light dazzles us. Too great distance or proximity hinders our view. Too great length and too great brevity of discourse tend to obscurity. Too much truth is paralyzing. First principles are too self evident for us. Too much pleasure disagrees with us. Too many concords are annoying in music. Too many benefits irritate us. We wish to have the wherewithal to overpay our debts. Extreme youth and extreme age hinder the mind, as also too much and too little education. In short, extremes are for us as though they were not and we are not within their notice. They escape us or we them. This is our true state. This is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere ever drifting in uncertainty, driven form end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it waivers and it leaves us and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition. And yet most contrary to our inclination, we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation where on to build a tower reaching to the infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks and the earth opens to abysses. Let us therefore not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows. Nothing can fix the finite between the two infinities, which both enclose and fly from us.” -Blaise Pascal

Everyday I, like you I am sure, am influenced by ideas and beliefs and actions and touched by various forces and objects and conditions; possessed by various hopes and dreams and emotions which I really have to interpret and keep on interpreting in order to exist. Sometimes I am skeptical or convinced, cynical or trusting, optimistic or pessimistic, rational or incoherent as I often shift through those moods to cope with the realities of the world. Occasionally, however, I fall into a mood, which pervades everything. It is very heavy, complex, significant and at bottom it involves a serious question which I ponder intensely until I feel almost as if I should give up on it.

What is real?

What is real, not ideal, not alleged, not imaginary, not artificial, not irrational, not self-serving, but what is real? Such a question is itself extremely unnerving because it disrupts our defense mechanisms and it challenges our artful fictions and it threatens to sow disillusionment. Thomas Stearn Elliot observed, “We cannot bear to much reality.” Nonetheless, I know a figure whose entire life was engulfed by the search for reality. Totally devoted to perceiving existence in its essence, to fully understanding things as they really are, to painfully describing the actual nature of the world with no need to deny, no need to dodge or to rig the evidence in some kind of favorable direction but always pursuing the literal truth and permanently caught in the realistic mood; Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont, France in 1623. A sickly, precocious child, he was educated entirely by his father at home. At the age of eleven, he accurately applied the first twenty-three propositions of Euclid and only five years later he published a paper on geometry, which shook completely the mathematical world. By the age of twenty-six, Pascal was the leading scientist in Europe. And, along with his theories in calculus and acoustics, he devised a barometer, a hydraulic press, and a calculating machine, as well as a bus plan for traffic across greater Paris. Never marrying, he died in his thirty-ninth year in 1662. Pascal was a very rare combination. He was a scientist with an unerring objectivity. He was a fanatic for precision, but he was also a person of deep feeling, with a profound sensitivity to human suffering. He was a mathematician, a highly respected expert in the field of abstract numbers, but he was also a poet, with a very vivid style, one who contributed to the renown and the improvement of the French language. He was an outwardly cheerful individual, able to socialize easily, but he was also a loner and he could spend long, long hours in the study with a microscope and with God. Now true, he matured early and he also wore himself out quickly, but perhaps no one was better prepared to look into the face of reality. As a genius with multiple skills and a passion for truth, Pascal could not abide any deceptions or abide any illusions. In the privacy of the study, he felt the agony and some brief notations in a journal reveal the barren soul.

“Self is hateful. We shall die alone. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”

But he never surrendered to the fear. Pascal was raised a Roman Catholic, and unwilling to swallow the teachings of the church or accept the widespread corruption present at that time, he attacked the major authority. He says, “ The Pope hates and fears the learned who do not submit to him at will.” Along with members of the family, he joined the Jansenists, a splinter group within the church that called for reformation. And yet, Pascal was always wary of organized religion, of its destructive excesses and he consistently issued warnings: “ People never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” How true. Though a committed Christian, he was a fierce individualist, carrying the torch for personal freedom. In 1616, Pascal began to plan a book. It was originally going to be a carefully constructed analysis of the human condition. Uncompleted, since he died within two years, it has survived as a series of disconnected fragments of thought. Still, it is one of the classics of religious literature known today as Pensees.

What is real? According to Pascal, everything exists in a dialectical tension. His perception of reality is that of banging, of clashing, and contradictory situations, I suppose much like modern physics. Human beings are the judge of all things and the imbecile worms of the earth. The universe is a wondrous miracle and a wretched stink-hole of torment. Life is joy and love and adventure and also anxiety and boredom and death. Ultimately, there is nothing to know and there remains an infinity to know. Now seen by the realists, our state is one of contrasts and paradoxes and uncertainties and insecurities and disproportions and inexplicable incongruities. But that’s the beginning of wisdom in Pensees. Good and evil, pain and pleasure, pride and humility, faith and skepticism, knowledge and ignorance, security and disintegration, all of them receive equal billing because each of them is real. He considers the dialectic of the mind and the heart; he believed that thought is wonderful and an incomparable thing. But he also believed there is an infinity of things that go beyond it or pure logic cannot penetrate the

emptiness, the impotence and the afflictions of life. Pascal believed that the heart has its reasons which reason does not know, but he also believed that the unguided passions are always a guarantee for destruction for they lead to error and vile superstition. And thus, sound reasoning must be combined with a sensitive feeling in order to avoid the damaging extremes. “We seek the truth,” he wrote, “not only by the mind, but by the heart.” And similarly, with doubt and dogmatism, am I to doubt everything, to doubt whether I am awake, whether I am being pinched or burned, to doubt whether I am doubting or whether I exist? On the other hand, should I say that I am the possessor of truth when at the slightest pressure I fail to prove the claim and lose my grasp? And so neither doubt nor dogmatism can be strictly defended as it is not certain that anything is certain nor certain that anything is uncertain.

And so armed with a very brutal honestly, Pascal searched for the evidence of God, that elusive ultimate reality. Nothing helped. The proofs of God are so remote from the experience of people that they make little impression and an hour afterwards, they fear a mistake has been made. Prior to him though, no confessing Christian had seriously questioned the existence of God. Pascal, hearing no heavenly voices, scoffing at the creeds, knowing the discrepancies in scripture, and refusing to abandon integrity, became the very first to concede that a belief in God was only a matter of personal decision. And when asking himself the question, “does God exist”, he followed, I guess you would call it, the instincts of a gambler, though Pascal was an expert on the laws of probability. God is or is not. Reason cannot decide this question, for infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of the distance, a coin is being spun which comes down heads or tails. How would you wager? Pascal chose to believe. Now one might argue that he succumbed to illusion, in effect bailing out of the realistic mood, but the decision was based on the merits of very keen observation and devoid of apologetic theology. On the wager, as I interpret it, since there is an unequal risk of loss or gain and if you lose there is nothing to give up, while if you win there is everything to collect, then why not bet on God? And if the result is a transformation, becoming more honest and humble and grateful and full of good works, then you have acquired a significant fullness from the gamble.

So, a faith in God is within the bounds of pragmatic realism even though he states it is a leap in the dark. No school was founded to honor the teaching of Pascal, and while he influenced Voltaire and others including the existentialists of the twentieth century, he has never attracted any organized following that I can determine. But in reality it is quite understandable. When he writes with a realistic pessimism, the last act is tragic. However happy the rest of the play is, at last the little earth is thrown upon our head and that is the end forever. It points to the darkness and futility of life. It appears to some to be a very gloomy and depressing and unappealing discovery. But when he writes with realistic optimism, not withstanding the sight of all of our miseries which press upon us and take us by the throat, we have an instinct which we cannot repress, which lifts us up and points to the hidden God. It appears to others to be a retreat, a surrender and a wishful vision. And in his own defense, Pascal replies, “Truth is so obscure in these times and falsehood so established that unless we love the truth, we cannot know it. If there is ever a time to make a profession of two opposite truths, it is when we are reproached for omitting one.” And he continues to swing in the dialectic of existence.

In the end he did not achieve a comprehensive synthesis. His legacy is left on half pages and on slips of paper and notes in the margins, only fragments of insights that are bumping into each other, but perhaps too, it is the nature of reality. He did say, “ I should do too much honor to my subject if I treated it with order since I want to show that it is incapable of it.”

And so, is it possible to bear reality? In American religion, the predominant tendency is really in the opposite direction. The best way to attract a large audience is to offer an escape, a mind numbing revival, a claim of miracles, a magical scripture, a positive thinking theology and the promises of wealth, health, and salvation. Clearly, the majority prefers the mistress of simplicity. Imagine a preacher saying, “ I want your whole being to be open to reality - To be honest. To strip down and think deeply, to feel the universe and even more, to stop the lies and face the facts and confront the fears, to shed the deceptions and sense the chaos and concede the disorder, to accept the uncertainty, to dwell in the midst of paradox. And if so, could you dance in the empty spaces? Obviously, that’s why the realistic mood is a very rare occasion. It seems that only the brave and the foolish and those caught in a sudden moment of disclosure tend to see the essence of being. The light really is too bright, and we need the shades for comfort because few can stand in the glare. But when the rays sneak through, however, there is an illumination of faith, of truth, of humility, of candor, of awakening, and of sympathy toward the human condition. Even the slightest beam of light, a little glow through the cracks of the barricades, can change our lives forever. Reality is a sobering thing. Having read Pascal since the days I was in college and going back every so often to comb the material, I recently discovered a new piece of advice, which is appropriate in the present situation and a real good reminder to the clergy. He said, “Do you wish people to believe good of you? Don’t speak.”

So, amen.


The Sermon on the Mount

Rev. Don Reidell

It was a warm summer day in 33 AD as recorded in the gospel according to Matthew. Large crowds followed him from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan. Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain and his disciples followed him and he began to teach them. The Sermon on the Mount became the most influential discourse in the history of Christianity. Only 25 minutes in length, it has survived 2000 years of evolution.

The speaker was an earnest young rabbi named Jesus. Born in a small village, he spent his early young manhood as an artisan. Called to preach, he began to roam the countryside attracting a group of disciples, gaining a reputation among the rural population. Drawn into the politics of his time, his ministry would end in a bloody.

Jesus spoke in the vernacular of the village people. He related to those who lived outside in the open air, to those who pondered for long hours of silence in the fields, to those who did not study books but knew by heart the Jewish religious traditions. They were hearty peasants, rough fisherman, a far cry from the dry intellectuals of Jerusalem. Accordingly, each phrase was a very familiar picture ultimately bound up in the texture of their lives. “. -You are the salt of the earth- Behold the birds of the air- Consider the lilies of the field -A good tree beareth good fruit - Cast not your pearls before swine - Beware of false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing.

It was a colorful figurative language which could not always be taken literally. He was not a doctor of law or a professor of science, but a poet of human spirituality. And moreover, Jesus was an eastern figure. It’s usually forgotten that he was born in the east, he lived in the east, he taught in the east - and the east dearly loves earthly wisdom and inner knowledge and tricky parables, winding proverbs and stimulating allegories. Indeed the style and content of Jesus’ teachings have more in common with Buddha than with John Calvin.

In the Sermon on the Mount there is a wide variety of themes - the legal system, domestic life, marriage ties, fasting and prayer, appreciation of nature, radical ethics, judgment and forgiveness - and even the construction of a house which leads many to believe it is a collection of sayings strung together by an editor rather than given as a single discourse. Whatever the truth, however, there is a central theme which gives unity to the sermon. It is the good news - it is the greatest joy. Here is the supreme effort of Jesus to describe a profound personal experience - something overwhelming, something earthshaking, something that will promise a new era in humanity. It is called the kingdom of heaven.

When reading the sermon, I urge people to dispense with everything they may have learned about Jesus. Start fresh. Throw out all the catechisms, throw out all the tortured theologies. There is no creed, there is no dogma, there is no magic, there is no superstition, there is no supernatural savior or ecclesiastical authority. In fact the sermon itself is an indictment of almost everything that is popular in Christendom. It is the absolute opposite of any orthodoxy.

What is the kingdom of heaven? It is feeling God- it is a sense of union, it is a state of being, it is higher way of life. Jesus is promoting a spiritual presence - a spiritual presence which filled his own soul to overflowing. But it is also in the midst of all humankind. He said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”. It is already present. It is not an alien thing or something mystical. It is not above the earth or after death. It is not only in the past or only in the future. It is here, right now, available to all.

If grasped, it is a way of living at peace among all the pain and sorrow of this material world. He said. “The kingdom of heaven is within you”. It’s lodged inside - a condition of the heart. It’s beneath our feet, under our noses. It springs from an inner disposition we possess - not from any rules, not from any doctrines or pious observances - and if grasped, it is like floating in the womb of the universe with a sense of unutterable joy.

Certainly it has nothing to do with material possessions. As he said, “lay not up for yourselves possessions on earth where moth and rust destroy or thieves break through and steal - but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” - for the rich are possessed by their possessions, addicted to their personal power and bewitched by their social prestige. Letting go, letting go of base desire becomes a major prerequisite. That’s why Jesus also said to be born again - which means to jettison the mental claptrap and spiritual baggage of the past. “ Be like a little child”- which means to recapture the trust and the innocence of original creation. “Be as perfect as God in heaven is perfect” - which means to grow into the image and likeness of the highest ideal. Yes, narrow is the gate and few be that find it but one only has to knock and it shall be opened to you.

Basically the Sermon on the Mount is a commentary on character. What are the greatest values, what are the standards of human behavior, what the requirements for an authentic religious existence? What kind of individual is actually a candidate for the kingdom of heaven? Jesus is not shy or obscure in providing the answers - for the beatitudes describe the qualities of character. (1)The poor in spirit are loyal and staunch and deeply devotional. (2) Those who mourn are sensitive to the pain and suffering of life. (3)The meek are gentle with all creatures and they revere the earth. (4) Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are aware of injustices. (5)The merciful reach out with empathy and compassion towards others. (6) The pure in heart display honesty and integrity and sincerity. (7)The peacemakers promote good will and encourage reconciliation. Overall it is a portrait of a humble, unselfish and integrated personality who is acutely conscious of the wounds of creation and who is stirred to engage in a healing process. - a partner, if you will, in the work of God.

And then the parables illustrate the influence of character. It is like the salt of the earth preserving society from stench and decay. It is like the light of a lamp pervading the darkness with a bright beam. It is like a city on a hill exuding strength from a very high and firm foundation. And as the kingdom of heaven grows like yeast or a mustard seed, it becomes a pearl of great price or a treasure in the field until the entire world is redeemed.

No doubt the audience was stunned at such a sermon. It was radical statement. It was delivered with confidence and a challenging alternative to conventional piety. Jesus said worship is not a mechanical authority or ceremony, but a divine communion. Prayer is not a vain repetition, but a heartfelt longing. Forgiveness is not only between friends, but a command for enemies. Love is not an anemic, feeble sentiment, but an heroic commitment. Religion is not any sectarian province, but an all-inclusive realm. Spirituality is not any pious posture, but an act of benevolence. A believer is not praised or feted by others, but often reviled and hated, often slandered.

Even in the wilderness of Israel where prophets multiplied like rabbits, it was not the usual Sabbath fare. Quite possibly there were those who scrambled down the mountain for an early exit. For there was no mistaking the message of the rabbi - empowering the poor to be their own religious authority, without bowing to any earthly throne. Jesus concluded the sermon by drawing attention away from himself. “Don’t worship me, don’t pray to me, don’t appeal to me - only do what I say - for that is the kingdom of God - that is the kingdom of heaven”.

Then Matthew recorded, “and it came to pass that when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished by his sayings and teachings”.

In the early years of Christianity, the Sermon on the Mount was a source of great inspiration. For a minority religion, it provided conviction in the midst of wavering, fiery energy in time of disillusionment, purity in an age of immorality, community in a disintegrating society and rare courage while confronting persecution. And the Christians were well known for their noble way of life. Even later in time, it would inspire St. Francis, Tolstoy, Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Ghandi with its high ethical and moral horizon. Each of those pointed to the sermon as a major religious influence.

But it is generally ignored in Christianity’s Christendom. When Christianity itself became official, successful and powerful, the Sermon on the Mount was conveniently shelved. And soon after the 3 rd century, magic and superstition appeared - re-appeared actually. The rabbi was made divine - God became institutionalized- and dogmas replaced character- and worship became ritualized -and the “good news’ was bought and sold. Ethnic rivalries erupted and force determined the truth - and heretics were executed. Popularity was enshrined and the kingdom of the heaven was lifted from the individual human heart to a far-off neurotic vision of hate and violence at Armageddon. Every insight of Jesus was violated, as the mighty stream of a dynamic faith was whittled down to a thin trickle of public morality. The victory of Christendom became a desecration of its founder.

Today the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount is a left-wing inheritance. But perhaps that is where it truly belongs. To those who oppose military aggression with its nationalistic fervor, he affirms, “ love thy enemies”. To those who oppose virulent racism with its desire to humiliate, he affirms, “love thy neighbors as thyself”. To those oppose economic equality with it hunger and its homelessness, he affirms, “ you cannot serve God and mammon”. And so it really is a sermon for those on the fringe - the nuts, the flakes, the subversives, the bleeding hearts who are widely despised by polite society - and that too was the preacher’s prediction. But it will never die. As long as the species survive, the Sermon on the Mount continues to make its demands on human character. For the rabbi tapped into something eternal and something sovereign and something that will always transcend the petty and expedient by calling for the very best and the highest within each of us.

Appropriately, it was John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, who captured the essence of that discovery. You just sang it - “O Sabbath rest by Galilee, O calm of hills above, Where Jesus knelt to share with thee, the silence of eternity, interpreted by love”. Amen



Rev Donald Reidell


Once upon a time some water sprang up seemingly out of nowhere. No one had ever even considered the possibility that there might be a spring there, but there it was: Water, free flowing, clear and beautiful water. People came from miles around to see the water and then to drink of it. And a few of them said “This water is so precious we need to put a fence around this place.” And so they did and then they thought, well now we can charge a little something. And the water saw this and the water saw that they had fenced it in and were profiting from it. And the water was offended. And it went somewhere else.

And in another place then a spring came up and the people in that place were glad to see this new spring and the water was so free and clear and beautiful that and other people came from miles around to see and then to drink. And the water was good. It was very good. In fact they thought that we had better put up a fence around this place. And so they did. And once they had the fence up it was easy to charge admission. So they did that. And once again the water was offended and it went somewhere else.

And the people there were delighted with the stream in this new place that it had never been before. And they were glad to have everyone drink from it. But then they began to think this spring is so precious, so beautiful, “We had better put a fence around it. Maybe we can charge a little for it.” Well you can see where this is going.

Water has long, long been a metaphor for the spirit. And like spirit, water can be calm or water can be stormy. Water gives life, a necessity for each day. And as any sailor knows it can give death as well. It is within us, making up most of our body weight, and yet also it is beyond us in oceans, lakes, fountains, rain, snow, and hail as well. And apart from water as we know, there is no life.

And neither is life apart from the spirit. And yet in so many ways it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that the spirit can fenced in; that it can be set apart; that it can be specialized. It is easy to think that spirit exists here and that you and I exist over there. I think that even clergy people fall into that fallacy. I know a preacher who entitled a sermon “Life in the spirit.” as though it were possible to have a life, out of the spirit. What a foolish title it seems, foolish perhaps, but compelling. Because if we think on some level that there is a way to be outside the spirit, then we get to divide the world into really two kinds of people, those who live in the spirit and those who don’t. Then those of us who think we might live in the spirit, get to feel, well I suppose mildly superior. Only mildly now mind you because we know you really aren’t suppose to feel superior to anyone else, if you live in the spirit. And those of us, who think that we do not live in the spirit, get to feel like there is perhaps some hope for us.

If only, if only we could achieve that perfect balance, that inner seclusion or that inner space certainly that beautiful joy. If only we could live in the spirit. And often we go to the various books in the libraries and bookstores searching for a book that would help us achieve that. Like I said “Foolish, but compelling” The truth is that, we all of us live in the spirit because all of us live. There’s no way to fence in the spirit metaphorical stories not withstanding. As we have heard the spirit blowth, where it listh make all persons free, the old quote. The old hoary quote from the bible. That is just another way to say that you and I aren’t in charge of the spirit no matter how hard we try. It’s there. And there is a multitude of images, and a multitude of metaphors for the spirit.

Spirit is best explored I think through images and through metaphors. Spirit resists any dictionary definitions. Is it the source or is it the essence of life? Is it an aspect of God or is it God? In trying to pin the spirit down in this way is enough to make our head spin. And so instead I think it is easier to acknowledge that there is always some mystery involved. When we speak of life and there’s always some mystery involved when we speak of the spirit, and really to move on from there both in mystery and in metaphor.

To think of the spirit as being like water, where does that lead? If you remember your bible, the bible is full of water images. From the very beginning of the first creation story which begins in the Hebrew “In wild and watery waste.” and to the last chapter of the book of Revelations in which a river of the water of life, bright as crystal flows from the throne of God upon the city of God’s people. Within the bible, water is present in various guises from threatening storm to cleansing pool. Water signifies an untamed and untamable wildness. It is in this wildness that we have really the first creation story. In the flood which destroys all but Noah and his family. In the Red Sea which threatens to hold back the Israelites as they flee Egypt to safety.

But water also signifies blessing. And hope and grace and the Israelites are given water from the rock in the wilderness And Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan before beginning his ministry. In free flowing water we find the chance to begin again. And if we turn to the Bibles images of water as we craft this metaphor, then we discover that spirit is really a wild grace, an untamable beauty, an unquenchable hope.

I think of all of the Bibles images of water, the one that intrigues me the most lately is the passage from the gospel of John which we heard this morning. The somewhat cryptic conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan women. She comes to the well because she is thirsty and she comes to the well thinking about nourishment for her body not for her soul. And who does she find there but a thirsty stranger. A stranger that we know as Jesus. And he asks her to give him water and she is shocked that he even talks to her at all. After all he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan. Almost arch enemies. And in the normal course of events even if she offered him water he would take offense that she even dared speak. But here he is asking a favor. Exposing vulnerability. Putting her in a position that she can say no, and giving her really some unaccustomed power.

And then they get into a brief conversation and in that conversation the women realizes that Jesus has moved, has moved from waters literal meaning to a metaphorical meaning. And when he talks about living water, he is talking about that wildness and that blessing. He’s talking about spirit. And he said that those that drink form the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give them becomes in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. What does he mean by this? He says that I can put you touch with the source so that you don’t have to depend on others for water or spirit anymore. That your can relate spirit yourself. Without any fences, or without any admission fees in the way. And you can experience that untamable presence, you can experience that blessed refreshment if you will.

It isn’t just for the priests or just for the powerful. It is for every person. Samaritans as well as Israelites, slaves as well for free. Women as well as men, children as well as adults. Spirit in its many guises belongs not just to the people that are called teachers and leaders but to every living soul. That is really what Jesus was saying to the Samaritan woman. And I think that he would be horrified to discover that all of the fences that have been put up around the spirit in his name. He knew that it isn’t a matter of doctrine or dogma, or being in or out of a certain group.

Every person lives in the spirit, if only we can open our eyes and our hearts to it. And I don’t think you hear that message too often. You don’t hear it preached from many of the traditional orthodox pulpits, certainly. And you certainly wouldn’t hear it from the nightly news. We don’t live in a world that acknowledges the presence and the power of the holy. We live in world that has relegated spirit to organized religion. And organized religion has been happy to grab a hold of the spirit as if it could be managed, as if it could be owned. Our world has forgotten that spirit comes really in many disguises. We think that we can fence the spirit in and we think that we can charge admission or that there is a particular priority to it and only a select few or the chosen know. And so we live in a world that does not recognize the pervasive presence of spirits wild grace.

Listen to national public radio. Lately it seems that almost every time I turn it on I am unwittingly entering a combination memorial service and a hall of horrors. Now certainly I feel that this sensation began on Sept 11, but it is continued. It continued throughout the never solved anthax deaths, through the bombing which killed almost two-hundred people in Indonesia. It continues through every suicide bombing in Israel and else where. Through the armed takeover of a theater in Moscow, through two men murdering others at random. It continues every time someone uses the gift of their life and the breath of their body to kill other living souls. As we know that this has been happening much too often lately. So whenever I turn on the news, I expect to hear of tragedy and heart break on a level that was certainly previously unimagined. There’s a threat really that weaves its way throughout each these terrible events. It’s a theological thread and it is this that those who murder, hurt and terrorize do not have a sense of the spirits presence here in this world, in every living being. They do not see this life as a precious experience of the holy.

Two men killed people at random and left a note which said “I am God.” Well I don’t think that is the god here that many of us recognize. That God, whatever name you wish to call it, is that persuasive wild spirit known as Love. And no random murder was ever caused by that force. And as for the suicide bombers who kill in the name of religion, well we know that the religion that they embrace is one that sees this life as nothing and life after death as every thing. And their lives then become dispensable and so by extension then are the lives of those they kill. They don’t have a sense of the spirits presence in the here and now, the sense of spirits presence even in their enemy.

By the way, though the religious terrorists that show up regularly in the headlines claim to be Muslim, this theological position is not representative of Islam. One reading that we may come across is this. Cloak yourself in a thousand ways and still I shall know you my beloved.” From Islam. And the writer is aware of the presence of the spirit in all of the earth and all who live and so must we be if we are to make an appropriate response, to the tragedy and the heartbreak and the evil in our world today.

The situation that we find ourselves now in the dawning of the 21 st century is really multifaceted. It has a political effect and a historical one, an economic one and others besides, but the cruel aspect that I submit to you is this theological problem, this lack of connection. This lack of connection with spirits wild grace here, in the here and in the now.

There’s no way that a government, or an agency or even the United Nations will be able to address the theological problem at the root of the killings that we are witnessing. These are human issues. They are religious issues and how they are resolved will be up to human beings. To religious people of all world traditions, and this is where liberal religion has it chance. Because the gospel that we have is the one I feel that the world needs. The world need to hear that spirit cannot be fenced in by doctrine or by dogma. The world needs to hear that spirit is presence in every living soul. The world needs to hear that this life is part of eternity. And that this moment is a window into the presence of God. And its essence, and that’s our job and we have to do it.

Certainly conservative religion can’t do it. Any religious organization that puts up a fence of doctrine or dogma around God isn’t going to be able to do it. And certainly it needs to be done. Don’t you think that young children are waiting for someone to come along with some view of life that honors every world religion and that accepts scientific discovery and still can celebrate the experience of the spirit? Don’t you think that this particular church and free religion in general may in some way been dormant long enough?

Don’t you think that it’s time to preach and to teach the presence and practice and the beauty of the earth? And the beauty of the spirit and to present it as much as we can to every living soul instead of maybe often times reserving it for ourselves? Not with just words but with action and service. And love made visible beyond the walls of the church. I know that this is done occasionally, as it is with most churches. Don’t you see that if people grasp this at the very depths of their soul that they will be unable to harm and to kill and to terrorize because they will understand that spirit is within all who live. It may seem insurmountable.

There’s enormous theological and practical work to be done. And certainly we think that we can’t do it alone and we can’t do it even together. But there are many others who are willing to join this effort but in many ways I think our faith is here to take the lead. I don’t think the Unitarian Universalist Churches in spite of the fact that they know that they are there to take the lead has yet lived up to its strength after the crisis of the last few years. When it is and it will be.

I think that our impact will be greater than it has ever been. Because we can unabashedly teach and preach that spirit is present in every living soul. Because we know that these are the days which the Lord had made if you will. And we can rejoice in them and be glad. And we can open our eyes to the blessings of this life and the capacity to see and to feel and to hear and to understand.

And we can show the people the spirit, within the ties of the human love in those ties which do give dignity and meaning and worth and joy to all of our days here on earth. The purpose of the church is ministry. And ministry is the work of all of us. Not just those few which who wear the robes or in this case do not. And stand in the pulpit.

It takes each of us and all of us uncover the presence of spirit in the world today and it takes each of us and all of us to do the work of Love. And let us begin to unleash the streams spirit to be the balm for a hurting world. Let us by our ministry be a witness. Be a witness to the world of the spirits presence, in the here and now. That wild grace which can never be fenced in, which lives in every soul. So be it.