“A New Evangelism” by Mark W. Harris
April 26, 2015 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Mary Harrington
In the full beauty of the day
We come to this place to savor life’s riches.
In the full light of day
Keenly aware of all the hard edges we face
And struggle to cope with,
May we give ourselves to this hour of consolation and peace
In the fullness of this company
Let us join together to better endure
The rough strife of our days,
Surrounded by stories of brokenness and courage,
Kindness and healing.
Come into this time and place where all of what you bring is
welcome. Where you may lay down your burdens and celebrate all
The good gifts of life.
Sermon – “A New Evangelism” by Mark W. Harris
Recently the Watertown Department of Public Works shut down Church and Summer Streets in order to repave. I usually walk to work, but I had a couple of occasions where I had to drive down Spring Street, and access the Church via Summer Street. The first time, the police officer stopped me, I said I was trying to get to the church. He quizzically repeated Church Street?, with the knowing look that it was being paved and was inaccessible. I immediately said no, the church. It’s that building right there. He said, oh, next to the bank? And, I said, yes that is a church. The second time, another police officer stopped me, and I said I was trying to get to the church. He responded, by saying, where’s the church? With the assured look of “there’s no church around here.” I had to once again tell him, like I did with his colleague, that it was the building right there, the one I am pointing at, the one you are almost standing in the shadow of. That is a church. My exasperated response could have been, does anyone know who or what or where we are? I suppose I could have blamed their ignorance on the fact that we have a building that looks like a big house, and not a traditional church with a soaring steeple. But in all likelihood that is not the case. They have just never heard of us. A Church must be Catholic or Armenian in their minds, but certainly not Unitarian Universalist. Isn’t that some weird cult? It seems odd that one of the oldest congregations in America is anonymous, but it is. Unitarian Universalists have forever been shy, humble, and mostly reluctant to tell anyone what church they belong to, and moreover downright adverse to consider inviting a friend, neighbor or colleague to come to their church. We keep our church lives a secret because we are the kind of people who are just not demonstrative about our church affiliations.
How did we get to the place where our religious faith was a secret not meant to be shared with anyone? The first lesson we adopted was that we should never, never show emotion in our expression of faith. I am in the middle of working on a project with Dan McKanan, who is the Emerson Professor at Harvard Divinity School. We are part of a team of editors who are putting together a volume of primary sources on Unitarian Universalist history. My particular task is to edit the works of three proto-Unitarians; early liberals who prefigured the development of our movement. One of my assigned people, Charles Chauncy was minister of First Church Boston for about sixty years. Chauncy was a leader of a group of clergy and lay people who opposed a nation wide revival called The Great Awakening in the 1740’s. One of Chuancy’s works was called “Enthusiasm Describ’d and Caution’d Against.” Those who opposed the revival said that the showing of enthusiasm or passion in our faith was antithetical to reason, and that if we became too emotional we could not make rational decisions. To the liberals, faith developed over time with a steady growth of intellectual understanding and discernment of what was correct ethical behavior and beliefs. It was all about character development. Faith development was a slow, educational process rather than a quick, passionate conversion to embracing God in your heart.
In his work on the dangers of enthusiasm, Chauncy provided the foundation of our liberal understanding of the use of emotion in religion. He said the cause of “enthusiasm is a bad temperament of the blood and spirits; ’tis properly a disease, a sort of madness….” This madness was discovered in a person’s countenance. “They had a certain wildness in their general look and air; especially when their imaginations are mov’d and fired.” Chauncy was further disturbed because these wild imaginative ramblings “strangely loosens their tongues. “ Furthermore, Chauncy said, “Sometimes, it affects their bodies, throws them into convulsions and distortions, into quakings and tremblings…. Sometimes, it will unaccountably mix itself with their conduct, and give it such a tincture of that which is freakish or furious, as none can have an idea of, but those who have seen the behaviour, of a person in a phrenzy.” This set a pattern for the development of our liberal faith that became central to its informing culture. We learned that one does not embrace Unitarian Universalism with any show of passion. You can be earnest and serious about what is proper behavior. You can be concerned about giving everyone a fair chance in life. You can learn about all aspects of the world’s cultures and religions. You see goodness all around, but you are serious and rational about it. This lack of enthusiasm for faith became a problem almost a century later after the Unitarian movement became organized, and the state church was disestablished. No one had much feeling for the religion. In 1835 Henry Ware, Jr. fell into a panic that the Unitarians failed to experience anything positive about the faith; they disliked Calvinism, but liked nothing else. They were described as “ anti-Calvinist, anti-orthodox, anti-zealots, anti-everything severe and urgent in religion.”
Yet this lack of enthusiasm was not my experience of the embrace I felt for Unitarian Universalism. Many of you have heard my personal tale of conversion from a fundamentalist church that denied my passion for dinosaurs and evolution. It was a religion that labeled me a worthless sinner before God. I could only be made clean if I accepted Jesus as my Lord and savior. Then every so often the minister would lead these altar calls in church. My local pastor made like Billy Graham on TV and called us down front to show our love for Jesus, and be baptized in the faith. This was their version of emotion. I said I can’t go down front and embarrass myself. But then I started attending a Unitarian church. They were cool. They liked folk music. They even liked the Stones. They said I was good, not sinful. They said God loved everybody. I was liberated. I was joyful. I was happy. You don’t think that is religious enthusiasm? But too often those same UU churches, especially here in New England, said the only acceptable music in church was classical music. And the parishioners rather than enjoying the services sat in the congregation and were critical of words in the hymns or the minister’s grammar. It sometimes felt like a graded test, and the people wanted only intellectual stimulation.
And now slowly we are seeing that we need a little passion in this faith, a little freedom to show that enthusiasm that we feel for life, for love, for the community.
A few weeks ago I read a passage that struck me, although I cannot tell you now what the source was. It was simply this, “any organization that does not have a plan for attracting new members will die.” What struck me was this: we don’t have a plan. We have in the almost twenty years that I have been here relied upon some people inviting their friends to come, word around town, and a kind of catch as catch can of prospective members wandering in. When Andrea came in 1992 there was a falling down sign, no answering machine, and the week before she was to start her candidating week, she and I drove to Watertown, and literally could not find the church. In the twenty odd years since the worship services and the programs, and the friendliness of the congregation have been attractive enough to garner enough new members for us to grow some, and more recently remain stable. We have been blessed with incredibly generous parishioners and other resources to keep ourselves financially strong. The state of our church is strong – attendance is good, and we are trending, as they say, in a positive direction. There is lots of good energy here.
But what does the future hold? Those of us who follow main line religion in America know that the trend is away from going to church and religious affiliations. The Baptists, the Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ have all been hemorrhaging members, and are in sharp decline. What is going to happen to us? We have had a great year, but the one fear I raise in my annual report is the lack of younger children in our church school, and my concern for membership. We don’t have a plan. How might we get one?
Our congregation can come up with a successful plan of action to grow. We have started up a potluck supper group for parents of young children. This proved successful in the past, and deserves your support. A support group for parents of teens, and small group ministry are all programs that can help attract families and people searching for a faith community, but fundamentally there needs to be a vision of how we will be a growing community, following up with visitors, seeking to spread the word that we love and embrace. One of our members, Alyssa Lawson, told me last night that after she saw my topic for today, she dreamed that I encouraged everybody to ask friends and fellow workers to come to church. And in that dream, she asked her boss. Of course we can repeat the familiar refrain that these heady Unitarians are just not passionate about their faith, and certainly we cannot be evangelical, but why not? Saying, “it’s just not that kind of religion” hardly holds water. We can get passionate about things. If Clint Sours can dance like Mick Jagger, we, too, can be passionate about our faith.
A couple of years ago I had a startling revelation about Unitarian Universalism. It is relevant because it is about children. It has two components. The first is that for those adults who were brought up Unitarian Universalist, there has always been an expectation that they would move on. We explicitly describe our faith as one of come-outers. That means that the expectation is that the new members will always come out of another religion, usually one that has restricted their freedom to believe, or has hurt or rejected them with restrictive creeds or beliefs. This worked beautifully for me. I grew up fundamentalist, and found this affirming loving religion, and embraced it. But for my wife Andrea, and several other members here who grew up UU, the expectation is that you are no longer rebelling, and therefore the religion that expects you to come from somewhere else, no longer has a place for you here. So we have tacitly told those who were born into the faith, you are not welcome here.
The second revelation about children is that we raised our children to make a choice about their faith once they were adults. This seems reasonable, until you think about the ramifications. We have informed our children about all the world’s religions, but never given them much UU identity. Fortunately that has been remedied in recent years. The corollary of teaching children about every other religion except our own is that we have never believed in raising our children to remain Unitarian Universalists. That seems to be too coercive for the open minded liberal. But guess what? When you tell a child that they don’t need to stay, then 90% of the time, they don’t. So that means about 10% is about how many of our children remain Unitarian Universalist. Most religions expect 50%. The major revelation or conclusion of all this is that, historically Unitarian Universalism is the only religion in the history of the world that brought children up in the faith, but had no expectation that they would remain part of the faith as adults. How do you think every other church in the world grows, or where it places its greatest plan for new members? So the first new member plan is to tell our children, we want you to remain part of this faith community. We want you to go to a UU church wherever you live. We think this is a great faith for you, for your children, for your friends. Do not become something else or none. Be one of us.
This brings me to my third and last component of a growth plan for our future. First, show some passion for this faith. Second, encourage your children to embrace this faith. And finally, the beauty and wonder of this faith should not be a secret. There was a brief, but excellent article in the spring 2015 issue of the UU World, called “Universalism in Practice.” It began by asking the question, Did Michael Brown steal the cigars in Ferguson last August? The article by Nancy Ladd said that too often in this country we focus, not just on guilt or innocence, but rather if the accused person is the right kind of person. Was this a young black man who deserved to walk free, or was he a young black man who ultimately got what he deserved. Was he just a criminal type? And was that woman who got raped on campus, wearing fishnet stockings or was she drunk? Do we think she got what she deserved? You know that kind of judgment that oozes up from people’s attitudes. Are you the right kind of woman or man to belong here? The Mom in one family who stopped attending here said, “I felt funny wearing lipstick or heels. Do we even want you? Should we care if you have enough money, or own your house, or went to Harvard, or meet the environmental test? Our faith teaches that you do not have to be good enough, or be the right kind of person because each and every one of you is already inherently good enough. You do not have to earn safety or human rights, or opportunities, or even the love of God, you inherently possess those. You are born worthy.
Why do we keep this faith a secret? Do we want the people here to say, I wonder what that building over there is, you know, the one next to the bank? Years ago there was a UU advertising campaign that posed the question, “Are You a UU Without Knowing It? Too many people don’t know about it. It is the best-kept religious secret. I recently saw an article where one woman wrote how she was still wrestling with a question she heard in a workshop at General Assembly: If someone were a visitor to your house, would they be able to tell that you are a Unitarian Universalist? We often say we are proud that members of this church are active in community affairs. They serve in positions of leadership. They are always at the publics meetings. But is it known that they are Unitarian Universalists, or that this faith makes a difference as a faith community, and not as a few random individuals who happen to go to church here? When are we going to put our church on the map? We need to act as a community. We need to tell others what a great church it is. Yesterday, it was an identified church group that helped clean up the Charles.
In a few weeks I am going to give a keynote address at a Universalist convocation. The address is called “Never Put Your Light Under a Bushel.” It begins with the story from an 1844 newspaper published in New York, reporting on the death of a young Universalist businessman from Jacksonville, it was said that he was among that class of believers who “never put their light under a bushel.” Furthermore, “he was always open and fearless in his profession of faith in the gospel of impartial grace and salvation.” If our Universalist light is going to shine brighter in the 21st century, we have much to learn from those evangelists who went before. When will we take our fire out from under the bushel? On the campus of St. Lawrence University, there is a three-story brick structure called Richardson Hall. It was built in 1855. It housed the chapel, and dormitory rooms for the students who were studying for the Universalist ministry. In January 1863, in the wake of the emancipation proclamation, word that the slaves had been freed traveled north. The theological students lit hundreds of candles in the windows of the hall when they heard the news. It was a bright light signaling the end of slavery. Townspeople rushed to Richardson Hall with their fire equipment, thinking it was ablaze. When they arrived, they learned the flames signaled lights of freedom. They stood in awe, and many cried. If you feel the emotion of this free faith, then let the blaze in your heart burn freely and openly. Our house must be on fire, so that we do not become the ashes of history, but are its eternal flame of forever creating beloved community. Take your light out, and let it burn for freedom proclaiming the message of a God who sets no bounds to love.
Closing Words “That lives in us” by Rumi
If you put your hands on this oar with me,
they will never harm another,
and they will come to find
they hold everything you want.
If you put your hands on this oar with me,
they would no longer lift anything to your
mouth that might wound your precious land-
that sacred earth that is your body.
If you put your soul against this oar with me,
the power that made the universe will enter your sinew
from a source not outside your limbs,
but from a holy realm that lives in us.
Exuberant is existence, time a husk.
When the moment cracks open, ecstasy leaps out and devours space;
love goes mad with the blessings, like my words give.
Why lay yourself on the torturer’s rack of the past and future?
The mind that tries to shape tomorrow beyond its capacities will find no rest.
Be kind to yourself, dear- to our innocent follies.
Forget any sounds or touch you knew that did not help you dance.
You will come to see that all evolves us.
If you put your heart against the earth with me,
in serving every creature, our Beloved will enter you
from our sacred realm
and we will be, we will be so happy.