Why Unitarianism Matters

Why Unitarianism Matters  a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton September 28, 2014

Rev. Linda Thomson who works for the Canadian Unitarian Council in the eastern part of our country has a sermon she uses when visiting congregations.  And in that sermon she makes the bold statement “Unitarianism … saves … lives.”  She’s not the first person to say that, and she won’t be the last.

But I sometimes stumble on that word ‘saves’.  My mind wanders and comes up with an image I think she did not intend.  What do I see?  The screen on my brain shows some huge Christian evangelical congregation.  The band is playing some up-beat hymn and people are standing waving their arms in the air.  Some have tears streaming down their faces.  Others look like they are caught up in the rapture.

The focus tightens until we come to one beat-up looking 40 year person.  His face bears the clear signs of a hard life of drugs or alcohol.  His tattoos come from prison.  Maybe we can read an abused childhood in his face, maybe not. But somewhere along the way he found Jesus and turned his life around, at least for a while.  And here he is, sharing in the ecstasy that comes from repeating the words as if they were his own, from surrendering his own ideas in favour of the teachings of the church.  He has a community now and a warm glow inside.  He believes he is saved now and forevermore.  He is happy to be a follower and does not challenge or think too hard about this renewing gift he has been given.

Now, that’s my stereotypical ‘Save’.  We all know that image, perhaps all have our own version of it. Maybe it’s an Islamic version, for there are sects there that trade on similar certainties.  I am happy for that man or woman.  I am proud that they have reclaimed their lives, and I hope that their belief is strong and deep and generous.  I hope that the leaders who give them direction provide them with a kind and accepting view of others who think differently.  And if they are kind followers of their faith, I wish them well.

But I don’t think that’s what Linda was getting at when she claimed that Unitarianism saves lives.

Linda doesn’t wave her arms and ask us to shout ‘Amen!’  In fact when she delivers that line, it is not an exhortation or even a promise  – but a simple statement of something she believes to be a fact.

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t be that guy in my dream video.  I started in a Christian church and believed deeply as a child.  But that faith doesn’t work for me anymore.  As I grew to adulthood, I found the simple answers unsatisfying. It wasn’t enough.  I was still hungry…spiritually hungry. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that I was not really an unquestioning  follower.  I had questions, and they grew important.  I suspect a few of you can nod their heads in sympathy.

And then there are others, probably some here today, who never had a religious background or upbringing, who never got taught the Bible stories or were given THE answers.  Perhaps they grew up not thinking about God or religion or even asking ultimate questions.  But somewhere along the way,  they too have come to feel that inner gnawing- that same hunger for something more, something that connects us to a life outside of ourselves.

And you know, too much hunger becomes starvation that withers something important inside of us- call it soul or what you will.

For people who feel that hunger, Unitarianism offers a chance for a decent meal.  And delightfully it’s not prepackaged fast food from a limited menu.  Rather we offer – or try to offer – a buffet with a wide variety of flavours.

No, wait… that’s not quite it.  Maybe we are more like a set of tables in the Food Court of religion.  You get to sample what you like, pick the meal that suits you best,  and then join a common table with people you like.  Perhaps we taste each other’s meal once in awhile, but more significantly we don’t challenge another’s choice of meal…well, maybe there is one exception.

We don’t usually care for the person who wanders over wondering why we don’t all have Big Macs and claiming that something terrible will happen to us if we don’t accept Big Macs as the one true meal.  We prefer the diversity.  We prefer to respect one another’s choices as we would have them respect ours.

So how does this save lives?

“Unitarian Universalism saves lives, and I mean that literally. There are people right now who are alone and hungering for a place where they will be accepted for who they are. Not letting them in on the secret is a form of stinginess.”  ~ John Gibb Millspaugh

The Unitarian Church is a place where we work hard at letting people in, without judgment and without a test of faith or belief.  It is our task as a community to be as welcoming as we reasonably can be, to be generous with our home and our activities and even our food.  To be stingy just wouldn’t feel right to us, especially since everyone of us here has felt that generous welcome at one time or another.

In one of our readings, Marilyn Sewell articulated this even further as she asserted that our Principle affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person “speaks of respecting others enough never to objectify and control them in the service of ideology, however precious…Imperfect as we are, this principle calls us into right relationship with others.  It calls for profound respect, even when we differ with the views and behaviour of another.  It calls for gentleness and forgiveness…”

And that can save lives, for there are people in the world who are lost and alone, who have been hurt by life.  They are oppressed by the insistence of leaders that they must think, or talk or act in a certain way, that they must deny or set aside their ability to reason, even set aside their love for another person.  These people are lonely to the point of soul starvation.  They are withering in our society of plenty because of the thunderous “No!s” of those who betray and reject them.

Here we work as hard as we can to say “Yes!” as often and as wholeheartedly as we can. That can save lives.

Not all of us here have experienced that kind of hardship, but some have.

Some of you who are newer won’t know this critical story that is part of our Unitarian Church of Edmonton lore.  It is a story that deserves retelling.

We had a member for about 25 years or so.  His name was Stan Calder.  He was a teacher, married and a father.  He was also Gay in a time when that was not really okay. He feared that being open could have cost him his job (though the teacher’s association already had rules in place to prevent that).  It certainly would have cost him his family.

As the story has been told to me by Stan and others, he was depressed, alone, fearful and mostly in the closet.  Stan was a mild-mannered, sweet man, a fine pianist and could be wonderfully entertaining.  He was loyal, gentle and caring.  And he was on the outside looking in and dying.

About 35 years ago this congregation started becoming more welcoming to Gay and Lesbian people.  It started with a minister who had a Gay son.  It took time.  There was a lot of resistance at first.  But some church folks started monthly pot luck dances for the Gay community in a time where they had few safe places to meet.   Folks got to know one another. – gay and straight.  Not surprisingly some Gay folks started coming to church.  Our congregational culture changed.  People did hard work and turned out community into a welcoming, Gay friendly place.

Stan became quietly involved and then active in many areas of church life, but there was still discretion about his private life.  Until the day he stood in the pulpit and outed himself.  It was Stan who said that Unitarianism and the radical acceptance of the people here saved his life.  And all who were there recall it as a profound moment in their lives and the life of this church.

What he needed was some group concerned with matters of heart and soul and mind to say he was a worthy being, deserving of respect.

Stan would serve on the Board here, become the first openly Gay President of the Canadian Unitarian Council, a Gay rights activist in our movement, and would be awarded the Nancy and Victor Knight Award for Distinguished Service to Unitarianism in Canada.  He died a few years ago and is still very much missed.

Well, that’s the human side.  But not everyone has so dramatic a story.  We are also offer a place for people, who, instead of having been damaged by intolerant religious beliefs – have rather only been … disappointed by them.

A lot of the people who connect with our congregations want to think about the kinds of questions that religion explores.  Such questions include life and death, living a moral and ethical life, speculating about what might exist beyond our consciousness and looking for an intellectual grounding for our personal beliefs about justice.

But more than just think about these questions, many of us prefer to do this in a community where others have the same questions.  Most importantly we want our explorations to be rational.  We want to be free to include the discoveries of science, the debates of philosophies of all stripes, the intellectual explorations unbounded by doctrine or dogma or required teachings.

We do that here.  Unitarianism has always been a rational religion, a church that belonged to the people instead of having people belong to it.  500 years ago Transylvanian Unitarians wanted the freedom to believe in God in a way that made sense.  It was the same in England and the USA 200 years later and Canada not long after that.  Religion had to be intellectually free and satisfying.  It had to be a progressive, living thing.

That is our history and legacy – the church of free thought, the church of the free mind.

Not everyone looks for that.  Not everyone needs that.  People are different and that’s wonderful.  But for the kinds of folks who want to think about religion instead of just believing in religion, Unitarianism offers that freedom.

Yes, Unitarianism matters.  It matters for people who have been harmed by religion and who long to be affirmed and have their inherent worth and dignity recognized.  It matters for people who wish to think about religion freely without fear of being challenged for believing as they do.  It matters for people who want to explore social and political and justice issues from a liberal perspective.  And finally, perhaps most of all, it matters for people who want to do some or all of those things in a warm, welcoming and supportive community.

I want to finish by rereading Debra Faulk’s chalice lighting words:

A chalice lit in our midst is a symbol of our liberal faith

A faith built on a foundation of freedom, reason and tolerance

A faith sustained by acts of kindness and justice

A faith that dreams of fairness for all her people

A faith that demands the living out of goodness

A faith that requires kind thoughts

A faith of wholeness

A faith of love

This tiny flame is the spark of all this inside us.