Sermons & Other Thoughts from Rev. Brian Chenowith

Tag: Universalism

[BLOG] Sorry, We’re Not Done With God Yet

Anyone that has ever stepped in to a Unitarian Universalist church and spent some time there will know the age old debate:  The Humanists vs. The Theists.  It’s the most anti-climactic battle of philosophies and one I’ve found few people truly want to engage.  Keep in mind that many “un-churched” and millenial folks find the whole debate to be baffling in the first place.  But it’s a discussion, an argument, a heated exchange that I am familiar with as a minister.  I remember I once responded to the question “What do I wish someone told me before I entered seminary?” with “Trust in God.”  A fellow seminarian chimed in:  “If anyone had told me that I would’ve thought I mistakenly went to a Christian seminary.”  I almost feel like that little exchange there highlights the problem and nothing else needs to be said.

It is true that most Unitarian Universalists do not affirm a traditional “God” figure.  Whether or not they use the word itself is another discussion for another day.  The short answer is that our use of religious language is all over the map — and that’s a good thing.  But for many Unitarian Universalists, such as myself, the image of God as a wholly benevolent, almighty, loving, and ever-present being that rules the Universe simply does not compute.  Where we go from that viewpoint is truly up to the person:  agnostic, atheist, naturalist, humanist, choose your label and there are many.  However, there is one aspect of this discussion that frustrates me.  Often times it feels that we are “beyond God” in the life of our congregations.  I find this to be so completely misguided. Read the rest of this entry »

Tough As Nails

Our reading today is from poet Naomi Replansky, titled, Housing Shortage:

I tried to live small.
I took a narrow bed.
I held my elbows to my sides.
I tried to step carefully
And to think softly
And to breathe shallowly
In my portion of air
And to disturb no one.
But see how I spread out and I cannot help it.
I take to myself more and more, and I take nothing
That I do not need, but my needs grow like weeds,
All over and invading; I clutter this place
With all the apparatus of living.
You stumble over it daily.
And then my lungs take their fill.
And then you gasp for air.
Excuse me for living,
But, since I am living,
Given inches, I take yards,
Taking yards, dream of miles
And a landscape, unbounded
And vast in abandon.

The stories always begin the same way. A female minister will have just delivered a sermon she thought knocked it out of the park. She’ll describe the worship service as weaving community – as if she is some sort of existential basket-weaver, reaching vulnerable and meaningful places in the life of the congregation, and spot on.

In addition to the sermon being great, the music was spot on, the prayer was stellar, the readings were relatable, and the pulse of the community was in synch. It was, you could say, a transcendent moment for minister and congregation. These are the moments ministers live for. And while we experience them without everything being perfect, we aim for them above all else.

Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, our first of six identified sources of faith, I can almost guarantee you a minister wrote that. So when a female minister begins her story with much of what I described, I almost always know how it’s going to end.

As the worship service ended and she made her way to the back of the church to stand in the greeting line, not one, but perhaps two or three or more people, walked up to her, thanked her, and proceeded to comment not on the service, but on her shoes. Or her hair. Or the color of her clothing. Or her earring and jewelry choices.

Suddenly that transcendent moment became nothing more than a ministerial runway, with the minister suddenly finding a new item added to her job description: Fashion model. I do not share this very vague story with you to make any of you guilty, I’m not talking about this community, and this is not to say it’s Unitarian Universalists that exclusively do this, female clergy friends across the denominational spectrum have shared such stories. Read the rest of this entry »

The Silence of Injustice

Our reading today is titled, “The Spine” by Joseph G. Anthony

The masseuse can’t really find
the pressure point.
He runs his fingers up and down the spine
of Appalachia, but it’s all stressed.
Bony ribs and shoulders blades are grimy dark;
coal black though the man’s not black.
Just been underground a long, long time.
He tries lye soap to get him clean,
but it just peels the skin and leaves the stain unmarked.
Decades away from sun.
Some dirt is never done.
He scrubs away till finally pink blood seeps
through seams of gray.
He presses down, down, down,
on the poor white man whose backbone’s bent
beneath the weight of all that hate.
The man yells out in pain.
Oh, Jesus, sweet
Jesus, won’t nothing straighten
this spine

In the late 1990s, a south side Chicago kid by the name of Christian Picciolini opened a record shop in the suburbs. The store offered the music you would expect — blues, rap, rock, heavy metal, folk, jazz, and so on and so forth. The combined sales of all this music only equaled 25 percent of his sales each year.

The other 75 percent was due to one of the largest collections of white power music in, not just the Midwest, but the country. By the time Mr. Picciolini opened his record store, he was already immersed in the world of the first and largest neo-Nazi skinhead gang in the Blue Island suburb of Chicago.

He was fourteen years old when he handed his life over to fear, hatred, and violence. Combined with his successful record store and his early involvement in the rebirth of this movement, there was a ruthlessness, a hatred that filled his eyes and passed through his lungs, that makes him a well-respected leader in the white power movement in our country. Read the rest of this entry »

That Old Time Religion

Our reading today comes to us from the Universalist Magazine, dated June 16th, 1793:

Lincoln County, Kentucky.

Rush Branch Meeting-house.

“It is now about nineteen months since we were expelled from our former society of the Separate Baptists for the belief of the final restoration of all things to a union with, and enjoyment of God; and we have had to bear up under a storm of slander, prejudice, ignorance, and ill-will. Notwithstanding all this, the Universal cause yet gains ground. We have four churches constituted in this country [referring to Kentucky], five ordained ministers, and several young gifts.

We hold conferences twice a year by messengers from the churches. The number of members now in Society in Kentucky is about two hundred, we hope all walking in love, besides many other Christians in different societies who believe in the universal love of God, who have not joined with us in society yet, for reasons best known to themselves.”

In 1898, a man named Quillen Hamilton Shinn, which is a name that doesn’t get anymore old school Unitarian Universalist than that, arrived in the piney woods area of Dothan, Alabama, a town of about 3000 people at the time. The piney woods area was known as the sparsely populated area — mostly cotton and cash crop farmers with plenty of small town life.

The town of Dothan itself was only incorporated 8 years prior to Quillen Shinn arriving after the railroad had been built. Upon arriving in Dothan, Shinn observed, “The leaven of Universalism has been spreading in the surrounding country and a little has drifted into this town.”

Shinn, you see, was a Universalist missionary. It was all that he did. And the spread of Universalism in the surrounding country, all around the South, was due mostly to his efforts. He knew that in the town of Dothan, there were a few Universalist families already — and his successes had been great — at least in his mind.

Truth be told he faced immense rejection. Shinn organized with the local high school, going toe to toe with the Baptist principal and eventually earning his right to preach there, and shared, for three nights, heartfelt and inspiring sermons about the unconditional love of God. Read the rest of this entry »