Called to Respond
There is this great story that come to us out of colonial North America, concerning a man by the name of Sir Edmund Andros born in 1674 – an English nobleman from London, and the 4th governor of colonial New York.
He was born with a silver spoon and believed wholeheartedly in the crown, the empire, and in the church. Upon becoming governor of New York – he earned himself many enemies – because he was a nice guy. He was called a Dutch sympathizer – one of the worst insults to be hurled during the infancy of British colonialism in North America. The crown recalled him to England, examined him, and found no wrong doing on his part.
He came back to North America and was promoted to the Governor of the Dominion of New England, the only such person to hold that title. With his new promotion in hand and his resolve to no longer be such a nice guy, he approached the Puritan churches throughout the colonies and asked them, “Would it be possible for the Church of England to hold services in your meetinghouses?”
I’m sure the responses from the crusty Puritans made him long for the days when he was only called a Dutch sympathizer. They refused. He demanded. “I’m the governor, you will give me a church!”
The Puritans relented and gave him the keys to a church served by one of their least favorite colleagues – because he was a dangerous progressive that opposed the witch trials – and Andros now had a place for Anglican worship to occur in the British colonies.
The Puritans, despite their relenting, blamed Andros for being too pro-Anglican and for allowing the New World to be infected by a “horrid popish plot.” Not one to lick his wounds, Andros began building a new house of worship for the Church of England – and in 1688 – 88 years before the birth of our nation, the King’s Chapel was built in Boston, for the glory of the crown, and the practice of the Anglican faith.
This story of Sir Edmund Andros and the building of the King’s Chapel here in what is now the United States is not just some random occurrence that I decided to tell you today. It’s a story that has everything to do with the history of our religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism.
It is a story that connects us with one of countless roots that we draw upon in this growing, living, and peculiar way of being religious. The chapel that Andros saw built, still stands today in the heart of Boston.
It stands proudly on the freedom trail, no longer a wood structure but stone, and it is noticeable, because it lacks of a steeple. The steeple was never completed due to a lack of funds – something about discontent in the American colonies led to this shortfall in fundraising.
Shortly after the revolution was fought and won by the colonists, a new minister served King’s Chapel by the name of James Freeman. Freeman was the first openly Unitarian minister in this country –
and he influenced the congregation of King’s Chapel significantly. Since King’s Chapel was Episcopalian – they worshipped every week with the Book of Common Prayer – a text that outlines all forms of prayer and worship suitable to Anglican and Episcopal worship throughout the world.
Freeman, being a Unitarian, gained enough support in his congregation to go to the Book of Common Prayer, remove all references to the divinity of Christ and the affirmation of the Trinity, and in so doing – he was not only the first openly Unitarian minister in this nation, but King’s Chapel became the first Unitarian congregation in North America.
To this day, King’s Chapel in Boston is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, of which we are a part. They describe themselves as being Unitarian in theology, Anglican in worship, and Congregational in their polity. They still use a version of the Book of Common Prayer every time they gather for worship.
Communion is celebrated weekly, they celebrate Advent, Lent, Pentecost, Christmas, Easter – in a very traditional way. They baptize their children. They consecrate with holy oil and take ashes on Ash Wednesday. They confess and repent of their sins. They pray in Jesus’ name. They are Christians. Anglicans. Congregationalists. And at the same time, they are Unitarian Universalists.
Did you know such a place existed in the small world of Unitarian Universalism? Does that world feel a little bigger now? Or is this perhaps challenging one of your ideas concerning who we are as a tradition? Hear a few words from the Book of Common Prayer at King’s Chapel. [a random verse from the Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of King’s Chapel was read here] Is it challenging you now? Are those ideas sounding out of place?
In this month of roots and rootedness, we are pausing to reflect on what we draw upon in our lives as Unitarian Universalists. Today we turn our eyes toward Christianity. Our fourth source as Unitarian Universalists states, “we affirm and promote, Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”
I’m not making this up. It’s right there in your order of service. It’s in your hymnals as well. It’s hanging in the small foyer when you enter the church, it’s on the UUA website.
We affirm and promote Jewish and Christian teachings. But for many of us that come to Unitarian Universalism, Christianity, above all other traditions, causes the greatest discomfort for a variety of reasons. Many of us have been abused by fundamentalism, have grown up believing we would go to hell, have come to know a Jesus that is not in the Christian scriptures, and the list goes on.
Some of us are disgusted by the idea of blood atonement – that of God killing his own son so that we may be saved – and others still really just don’t like the Apostle Paul.
Some of his comments about women are certainly calling to mind another such scandal happening in this moment – though if I had to choose, I would choose the Apostle Paul. Then again, I am not a woman, so you might not choose either of them.
Needless to say, Unitarian Universalists have a complicated relationship with Christianity. We are not entirely sure where our tradition falls in the spectrum. Are we protestants? Protestants that have never stopped protesting? Are we ultra-progressive Christians?
Are we post-Christian – as in, the next phase of Christianity’s evolution? Are we institutional transcendentalism? How about humanism with churches and hymns and ministers? There’s a great two volume commentary on American religion whose name is lost to me.
But in the text of this exhaustive commentary, the author pauses to joke that he’s not quite sure what Unitarian Universalists are. He contends they will either be considered the most liberal of protestants or the most conservative of the humanists.
So, yes, indeed, our relationship with Christianity is difficult for reasons of theology and identity and it is true also with our broader religious identity. As a minister, I do not particularly mind complicated religious relationships.
I enjoy the intersectionality of identities, especially when they have to do with the larger questions we engage in places like these. But when our complicated relationship with such things as Christianity gets in the way of truth-telling and living our lives fully, it makes me wonder where we got stuck.
There is no denying that as a tradition, Unitarian Universalism comes out of radical protestant Christianity. There is no denying that many of the luminaries we lift up in our churches would have had no problem looking to the teachings of Jesus to inform their lives.
And there is no denying that to this day there are Unitarian Universalist churches that celebrate bread and wine communion, read the Gospels and find truth, say the Lord’s prayer every Sunday, and identify very clearly as Christians. Perhaps not traditional Christians, but Christians nonetheless.
And I know right now, in this room, there are many of you that hold dear the teachings of Jesus and think fondly of many of the traditions from which you come – be they protestant, catholic, orthodox. There is one group of Unitarian Universalists, though, that find it very difficult to admit that they are Christians or admirers of Jesus.
That is our ministers. So many times I’ve heard the claim that my colleagues are “too Christian” or any variation on that theme. Which is a heartbreaking thing to hear and see. I can more readily claim I believe in Zeus from this pulpit than I can say that I am a Unitarian Universalist inspired by Jesus.
It is true that Unitarian Universalism holds more within the tradition than Christianity. We hold beloved teachings from humanism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Paganism, and so many more. It is also true in many ways that are beyond Christianity.
I highly doubt I could sit down with many of our southern Baptist friends down the street and have a theological conversation that shared the same precepts. Though you would be surprised. There are more than you think.
But just because Unitarian Universalism certainly holds more than just Christianity and is, in effect, a distinct religion in and of itself, those two facts do not mean that we are done with Christianity. And it certainly is not done with us.
And so to all of you here that perhaps do not admit you are a Unitarian Universalist that is inspired by Christianity, should anyone accuse you of being too Christian, embrace it. Love the accusation. Their discomfort should not deter you from loving the Gospels.
And to those of you who find yourself having great discomfort around any and all things Jesus, I invite you to look inward and find out exactly why. Is it because you have seen what others have done in the name of Christianity? Or maybe you have yet to heal from a past that was harmed by it?
Whatever the reason, Unitarian Universalist congregations are not Jesus free zones any more than they are Darwin free zones. But so, too, they are places where healing, discernment, and exploration and inspiration is possible. To close it off to one of the traditions that we owe our existence to is a disservice to our mission as a religious tradition.
Now I’m not calling for you to repent or be baptized, unless you find you really need that in your life, but I am instead calling us back into covenant – into a shared promise of tolerance and trust – with the people that find their way here any given Sunday.
Our tradition is rich and expansive and not closed off to any tradition that promotes worth, dignity, and right relationship. And for our Christian ancestors, they saw the teachings of Jesus as just that – a call to liberation, love, and life.
That liberation, love, and life is needed in this world. It is needed every time a gay kid feels less than worthy and alone, it is needed when people of color fear for their lives, it is needed every time women are shamed and abused by patriarchy –
need I say what is on my mind with that one? It is needed when the world seems like it would rather burn than survive, it is needed every time a preacher still espouses damnation over hope.
So long as there is hellfire and brimstone, we are not yet done with making known a Christian message of love. That is our great work as Unitarian Universalists – to, more broadly, show people that religion can be loving and inspiring and hopeful.
And I know so many of us agree that, yes, this is our way, we are the love people – we wear yellow shirts that say it and welcome everyone. But that is the work of faith…what are our deeds in the world saying about what we believe. I know I’ve rolled my eyes at the mention of some flavor of fundamentalism.
How does that represent Unitarian Universalism? It represents us poorly and we do no good to make ourselves known if we object to anything that is not us. I guess what I’m saying is, we need to get over our Jesus-allergy as a religious tradition. There are pills for that.
I’ve long said I am a humanist from any pulpit I’ve served. First and foremost that is what I am. And I am inspired by many traditions. But my journey to Unitarian Universalism was through Christianity. It was a journey that I loved and still love and still use to inspire me in the world.
It is there when I awaken and it will be there when my life comes to pass. And so, in many ways, I come to Unitarian Universalism as a Christian Humanist. As someone that loves the Gospels, loves the saints, loves the beauty of the symbol, song, and word of Christianity – and uses that to be a better Humanist, and a better Unitarian Universalist.
Should this admission surprise you, then we, as a faith, have more work to do than just get right with Jesus (because we’ve already gotten right with Zeus). Should that admission surprise you, it likely means we need to take out our principles and read and reread them again and again – it means we should pull out our pens and highlight our affirmation of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
It means we need to crack open not just our history books but also our contemporary sources that tell us of how diverse and good Unitarian Universalism is. This is not an admonishment to anyone in particular, but it is a reminder that our work is not to silo us off from one another.
It is to provide space so that we can heal in community from whatever might have brought us here – should the journey have been a rough one – and from that healing unite with those around us…with their many different beliefs, and love one another. Without that, our work is in vain.
So what do the words of Jesus speak to us today here in 2016, as a religious tradition that has a complicated relationship with Christianity? I invite you to look to those words, whether you’re an atheist or a Christian or any variation thereof. Find the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth and examine them yourself. What is the good that can still be seen here and now? What is still speaking to us in this moment?
Our radical ancestors held on to those sayings and teachings and gave us Unitarian Universalism in due time. What will we give to those who come after us? Will we give them an empty shell of a tradition or a tradition rich with history and a diversity of sources?