Story: "A Church Divided" An interview with Rev. Howard Dana
Responsive Reading: "I Call That Church Free" by James Luther Adams
I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence,
That sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands.
It binds together families and generations, protecting against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority.
This covenant is the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life.
I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship,
That protects and nourishes their integrity and spiritual freedom; that yearns to belong to the church universal;
It is open to insight and conscience from every source, it bursts through rigid tradition, giving rise to new and living language, to new and broader fellowship.
It is a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit.
The goal is the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing.
It aims to find unity in diversity under the promptings of the spirit “that bloweth where it listeth and maketh all things new.”
Faith and Community
So a couple of weeks ago I talked about faith and doubt. I said that we need both faith and doubt – that we need enough faith to move forward, to take action and enough doubt to remain flexible and open to new possibilities. That too little faith or to be overwhelmed with doubt can be paralyzing. Today I want to talk about what it means to be a faith community. We talk about UUCOB as a community of faith. Yet what does it mean to be a community of faith when we do not necessarily share a common set of beliefs. What is it that binds us together if it is not a set of shared beliefs? What is our shared faith?
James Luther Adams, Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian had much to say about the free church and its role. For Adams it was voluntary associations, in particular the free church that was the antidote to fascism and hence the Holocaust. It was in the context of the free church that human beings learned and practiced using their creativity to choose to act in ways that created justice and healing in the world. James Luther Adams taught and ministered in the height of the humanist movement – often disagreeing with them. He challenged them to think deeply and in one story one of the leading humanists said that “Adams believed in salvation by bibliography” and Adams replied “there is no such thing as the immaculate conception of an idea.” While challenging the Humanists, Adams also respected the diversity of beliefs within Unitarian Universalism.
For Adams wrestling with the Holocaust and the complicity of the German church with the Nazis called him to examine the characteristics of a faith community that would resist and oppose oppression rather than be complicit with it.
In our reading today, we hear what the characteristics of the free church according to Adams. It begins with covenant. I have spoken here often that Unitarian Universalists are bound together by the agreements they make with one another. For Adams this covenant begins with the ultimate source of existence, with the Spirit of Life, God. It is that which we cannot name, that sense of mystery that there is anything here rather not here. It transcends any one person and even humanity itself and yet encompasses all of us.
This covenant binds us together in families, community and not just in the present but generation to generation. This covenant with the ultimate source of existence protects the world and humanity from the claim of absolute human authority or truth. There are many people and groups that will claim they have absolute authority, absolute truth – like the Nazis. For Adams this unexamined, uncritical faith is dangerous. It is what led to the silence and complicity of so many. Over and over again we ask how could this happen? How could we or they let this happen? It happens when we accept the absolute authority of another. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that it is not the hateful words of our enemies that will be remembered but the silence of friends. Another way to say this is that the covenant protects the inherent worth and dignity of each person and the interdependent web of which each of us is a part. It rejects that any one person is more worthy or less worthy than another.
The Free Church, the liberal faith community brings individuals together for caring and trusting fellowship. Here we care for each other, we are in relationship with each other, we trust each other to share with each other, to be authentic with one another. At our best we are also free to challenge and disagree with one another and yet remain in the dialogue. Like in our story this morning, it was not just a loyalty to conserve what they have or a loyalty to living out a future mission but a loyalty to each other, to assume the best of one another. They may have disagreed about what decision would be best but they agreed to make this decision together and to remain together regardless of the outcome.
The free church protects and nourishes integrity and spiritual freedom and also yearns to be part of the church universal. This is the free and responsible search for truth and the encouragement to our spiritual lives. Here we cherish the freedom of the individual and yet also strive to be in community, to nourish and care for one another and to always call each other to deeper authenticity and integrity. It is yearning to be part of something greater than ourselves, to search for truth, for meaning, to make sense of the world and our lives within it.
The free church, is open to insight and conscience from every source, bursts through rigid tradition. For Unitarian Universalists everything contains the possibility for insight - the latest scientific breakthroughs, ancient sacred texts from all traditions, each other and those very different from us. It is critical that we remain open to new insight and revelation - not with uncritical, unthinking acceptance but with curiosity, authenticity. It is a problem when we as UU's automatically reject something without examining whether or not it may have insight for us. Another way of saying this is that revelation for Unitarian Universalists is never closed, never sealed. It is an affirmation that the Spirit, that life is always revealing new things. It is the affirmation of on-going creation, on-going evolution.
A pilgrim church, a servant church on an adventure of the spirit; we are on a journey and along the way we seek to serve. We are not just here for ourselves. We are here to learn, to serve, to help heal our hurting world; it is to be both curious and humble. It is to admit we don't have all the answers.
The goal is the prophethood and priesthood of all believers – we all have a responsibility to become prophets, to speak truth to power and a ministry of healing - to bring comfort and consolation. So many conditions in our world today demand us to be both prophets and priests - speaking truth and bringing healing.
I cannot help this morning but think of Ferguson, MO. This situation is holding up a mirror to us, particularly those of us who are white. It is saying that racism is not done, we are not in a post-racial society. It demands that we as white people understand the privilege we possess just by virtue of being white. It demands, not that we reject or deny that privilege, but use that privilege, to acknowledge that privilege and stand up and say that not one more young black man should die, that black lives matter. Every 28 hours a black man is killed in the United States by police or vigilantes. Every 28 hours! While all eyes are focused on Michael Brown and Ferguson, there were three other shootings of unarmed black men in the same week. Over and over it is the same story. Can you imagine the outrage if white men were being killed by police or vigilantes at the rate of one every 28 hours? What do we as faith community, we as the Unitarian Universalists of the Outer Banks have to say about Ferguson? How are we called to respond?
It is here in the liberal faith community that we find our voice, we find the courage and community to speak up against injustice, oppression wherever we find it. We do this knowing that the work is on-going and that we may not see it complete within our lifetime yet that is no excuse to sit down and do nothing. It is here in nurturing this community that we go out and spread it to others. It is not enough for our Unitarian Universalist congregations to simply exist for the enrichment of our own spirits! It is not enough - we must manifest our liberal faith in the world. The world needs our voices, it needs us to speak up. We are the ones we are waiting for, there is not someone else, there is not someone better. We must join with others, even with those we disagree - again being open to finding truth wherever it may be found. It means each of us individually finding our own voice, our truth, our own sense of integrity and authenticity and bringing that together with others here to take it out there. We are not alone. We don't do this alone. Adams writes that the free faith must take form - it must take form in order for belief to be formed and transformed over and over again. It must take form so it can act - so it can be a force for transformation in the world. We practice being in right relation here, so we can be in right relation out there.
For Adams the free church, the free faith is where we learn to be authentic, to be in right relation. Like in the story of Harrisburg, they first had to be in right relation with each other before they could move forward. Can you imagine if they had moved forward with buying that building, with entering a new community where they would have much to learn about their own privilege, to let go of what they thought they knew if they had not done that work of being in relationship with each other first? There are too many examples of well meaning, people with good intentions wreaking havoc because they did not enter into a community with humility and curiosity - and instead came convinced of their own rightness, their own answers. It reminds me of children on a playground who cry "but I didn't mean to do it" and yet they did, someone was hurt, someone was impacted regardless of what was intended.
It is my deep belief that Officer Wilson did not get up that morning intending to kill Michael Brown and yet Michael Brown is dead. He will never go to college, his mother will bury him rather than celebrate another graduation. Darren Wilson may not have intended to kill Michael Brown yet Michael Brown is dead. What does our faith call us to do now? What shall be our response to Officer Wilson? To Michael Brown's family? To a community in Ferguson that is angry and hurting - that is outraged that another young life is gone? What do we as an overwhelmingly white faith community need to examine about our own privilege? Do we have the courage to look into the mirror that Ferguson holds up to us? It is not the first time that this mirror has been held up - do we have the courage to look together - even if we don't necessarily like what we see there?
We live in a world that needs both prophets and priests. It needs voice to speak up, to say things are wrong, to say never again and take steps to make sure when we say it we mean it. It needs healing. People are hurting and weeping and they need our compassion, our listening ears and loving hearts.
How are we here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks becoming a place of priests and prophets? How are we bringing both a prophetic voice of justice to our community and healing hands? It is not enough to trust that it will all be ok – we are called to participate in making it ok – in making justice, in making a just and caring world. We learn to do that here.
We are stronger together. We come together in community because we know that we cannot do it alone. Here we learn to live out our deepest values in the world. Here we find comfort when the hurt of the world and our own lives is just too much. We find comfort and challenge so we can go back out and do the work.
May we continue to become the priests and prophets that this world so desperately needs.
May it be so!
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