Sermon: “Handling tradition”

This sermon was delivered March 29, 2011, at the Unitarian Universalist Association weekly staff chapel:

Have we misappropriated our own traditions?

It’s a provocative thought, I hope. How we could possibly be in the wrong when we use the rituals, the words, the thoughts, the feelings of our own liberal religious forebears? Aren’t those the one group of people from whom we don’t have to worry about borrowing?

Maybe I need to back up first.

We have a long, very storied tradition we claim as Unitarian Universalists. Both doctrines, that of the unity of the divine and of the salvation of all people, go back to the earliest days of Christianity. In many ways, it’s no new thing we’re saying. Indeed, It was Universalism that got me thinking about all this. Perhaps you’ve heard: a prominent evangelical pastor named Rob Bell just came out with a new book, in which he questions issues of salvation and hell. Is Ghandi in Hell, he wonders? In the generally conservative Christian circles in which Bell runs, this is a dangerous line of thinking. Questioning, or even appearing to question, whether it is necessary to accept Jesus Christ in order to avoid hell is controversial here. And even before the book was actually released, Bell was openly, and strongly, rejected by many of his former comrades.

Bell emphasizes God’s love, proposing that God’s love is powerful enough to overcome any human shortcoming—whether it is sin or not accepting Jesus. Students of Universalism will recognize strains of historic Universalist thought here, as a number of UUs, including Rev. Morales, have noted. Perhaps Rob Bell is a co-religionist for us, someone we should bring into the fold? There may be some truth to that, or at least to the notion that we should be reaching out more to people who might be willing to engage in dialogue with us.

But first, I think we have issues of our own to deal with on this subject. Are we really Universalist, in the historic sense? Sure, I’ll venture to say that few UUs believe that large swaths of humanity are condemned to eternal torment because of their sins or failing to accept Jesus. I’m guessing if you pressed those people, they are less sure that all people will be saved—is Hitler not in Hell, then? But that might be beside the point. Our modern-day affirmation of Universalism can seem hollow. If you don’t believe in God, then how can you think God’s love be great enough to save everyone? If there is no afterlife at all, then who cares about Universalism—it’s pointless. So what are we really saying when we talk about Universalism. It doesn’t seem to have the same stakes that it did for our Universalist forebears, or indeed, that it does for Rob Bell and his compatriots today.

If we embrace Universalism without acknowledging the deep faith and theological reflection that people like Hosea Ballou engaged in, we are making a mistake. Ballou didn’t wake up one day thinking it would be nice if everyone was saved. His belief in Universalism came from a very deep theological reflection, from serious discernment in which he engaged. Too many of us are appropriating an idea we like with no substance and no understanding behind it. It’s not just Universalism where we risk this, though.

We love our heritage of being rebels, heretics, freethinkers. We don’t always like what those we admire actually thought. Separating the ideas of Channing and Ballou, Servetus and Adams, from their spiritual grounding is a dangerous proposition. Channing’s famous sermon was “Unitarian Christianity”, after all—and if we don’t remember both parts of that, we are not honoring his work. Michael Servetus—or Miguel Serveto, to be true to his heritage—was kind of a jerk. Even his friends turned on him. John Calvin finally had him put to death. We like to claim Servetus as a honored martyr, and there’s much truth to that. But to claim that without also acknowledging the things we have more trouble with—his literalistic reading of the Bible, his contentious nature, for many of us just the fact of his Christian faith—is to be false, and disrespectful.

Our hymnal has an alarming tendency to rip religious words out of their context, even changing them so that we can agree on them. It would be one thing if most of us knew the context and understood where these ideas come from, but I don’t think that’s the case, myself often included. Our living tradition draws from many sources, but we have to do so responsibly. Pulling a few things we like from their sources without an understanding of those traditions is irresponsible and morally wrong. As religious leaders, it is our duty to educate ourselves, and UUs at large, about the traditions we study and use in our worship and our lives. To do any less is immoral.

At the same time, we’ve abandoned things that are wonderful from our own past. This has often come just from neglect—or because we had tiny problems with something, so we scrapped it rather than dealing with our issues and moving on—yes, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. The service we’re holding here today is from Hymns of the Spirit, a wonderful hymnal and worship resource. You know the thing I like best about it? It has full services in the front, ready to use with a few choices from the worship leader—and readings and a sermon, of course. But some people didn’t think we should be told what services should look like, so we scrapped them. Why do we try to reinvent the wheel every time instead of using the wonderful resources from our past? I’m still working to figure that one out.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way, and the solution is simple. Difficult, but simple. It starts with us. We have to own our tradition in an authentic, responsible way. We have to learn, to understand, to truly appreciate what we believe, and how our liberal religious past fits with that. I believe in this faith. I think we have the power to change the world for the better. But it has to come from an authentic place. When we lay claim to the ideas and traditions of others, even those we call our forebears, we have to make sure we are doing so responsibly. We have to see where we agree and disagree with those who have come before us, and understand why they felt the way they did. We are not alone—we stand in a long line of people of faith. We should use their wisdom, but we must also respect who they were. It is only be respecting our tradition that we can get a handle on it.

Friends, we can do this. I hope each of you will leave this place in thought, considering the traditions we borrow from and whether we are doing so responsibly. I hope you will be moved to learn, to study, to appreciate those who have come before us—and those who will come after. We owe both of them nothing less.

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