“Jesus was a Unitarian” by Mark W. Harris

 

First Parish of Watertown – December 13, 2015

 

Call to Worship – It & Co. by Tracy Smith

We are a part of It. Not guests.

Is It us, or what contains us?

How can It be anything but an idea,

Something teetering on the spine

Of the number i? It is elegant

But coy. It avoids the blunt ends

Of our fingers as we point. We

Have gone looking for It everywhere:

In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming

Like a wound from the ocean floor.

Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real.

Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-

Appeasable. It is like some novels:

Vast and unreadable.

 

Reading – from Moby Dick by Herman Melville

 

Sermon

Some years ago when I was scouring every used bookstore I stumbled upon for materials on Unitarian or Universalist history, I came across an old tome called Heads of Unitarian History, published in 1895. In a section of the book on the derivation of the word Unitarian, I discovered a reference to a popular old Methodist hymn, which in striving for doctrinal purity contained this line: ‘The Unitarian fiend expel, And chase his doctrine back to hell.” I had recalled it thinking that the Methodists wanted to pursue us into the fiery pit, but no, it is our beliefs that they wished to condemn to the flames. Early in the twentieth century an article in the Unitarian paper, the Christian Register said it was “not worthwhile to make too much of the hymn because it was said that the phrase was not aimed at today’s Unitarians, but rather it was an attack on Muslims, who for centuries were called Unitarians. This seemed to make it an acceptable insult since we were still considered nominal Christians at that point in time. I would guess this was an attempt to be ecumenical towards our Methodist friends at the expense of Muslims, despite the fact that in many ways we have more in common with Islam. We believe that Jesus was not God but a great teacher. Jesus actually plays a key role in the Qu-ran, and is seen in Islam as one of the prophetic forerunners to Muhammad,. It is hard for us to understand doctrinal purity today, but it always takes me back to my clinical pastoral training in the hospital, where a priest once told me he was having a hard time being in the same room with me because of my beliefs. He was convinced that I would burn for eternity. Religious authority had taught him that I was lost, and it would have threatened his very being to have known me.

The cultural power of a religious institution to uphold authority at the expense of seeing truth is depicted in the film “Spotlight.” This is the story of the Boston Globe team of reporters who worked diligently to uncover the truth about the terrible web of abusive priests who were shuffled around by an enabling hierarchy while victims and families suffered alone and in silence. While sexual abuse of children is horrific, there is very little depiction of the perpetrators in the film. Instead we see the culture that allows this to continue unabated, and the victims years later who continued to suffer because no one named the crime. Spotlight casts a shadow on all of us, whether we have Catholic backgrounds or not, because it shows how people and a culture can condone terribly wrong behavior when we can’t speak out against or question the actions of powerful institutions, or even the cultural mileu that we inhabit. As is repeated in the film, if you learn that a priest is a representative of God, then how do you say no to God. The institution that is supposed to protect children does not even ask if it is wrong. It has become more important to protect the church. Moreover we see people who are reluctant to accept what seems to be an outrageous accusation against the community’s pride of place.

This heritage has made everyone who they are, except the outsider, who is the new Globe editor. He is represented as being unable to understand. He is the unmarried Jew who hates baseball. How can someone who is not one of us know anything about what is going on? Yet it is Marty Baron who has the courage and insight to see that there is a truth here that the natives cannot or will not see. The head of the Spotlight team, Walter Robinson, is asked if he’s from Boston, and he replies, “Born and raised.” This is a repeated theme where the affection for the hometown prevents the people from seeing the underlying disease. Lawyers do their jobs of winning settlements, and school administrators don’t recall any incidents, and cultural mavens just want to get everyone on the same page, smoothing over pain with a pat on the back. The scary thing is that they all seem to be good people. Even though they know it went on, they don’t really want to know, because it names all they hold dear as complicit. One other disturbing aspect of the movie for me were the brief scenes with abusive priest, Ronald Paquin, where we see him admit to Globe reporter Sacha Pfieffer. that he did perpetrate these acts, but he finds a forgivable excuse in that he did not derive pleasure from them. It is almost like he was entitled to do these things, as a slave master with his slave. It is like saying; it didn’t mean anything, so it is okay. But what did it mean to the victims?

How do you develop the courage to live inside your own culture, but appreciate how another culture can help you question and then deepen your own understanding of the universe and your place in it, so that you can develop a peaceful living environment together? Of course we have ingrown patterns with insiders who uphold it at church, in denominations, in school administration, in politics, basically at all levels of societal participation. They work to keep the order of power and control to their way of liking and thinking. They would prefer not to hear about ideas or changes that will upset the applecart. How can we help any of them see some of the institutional rot that may exist and needs transforming?

The most obvious example of a culture clash is when we witness another terrorist shooting. Most publicity goes to terrorists who have perverted the interpretation of their Islamic faith and become radicalized. While we all want to be able to live our lives in freedom, we have also been concerned about our public safety in response to terrorist attacks No one wants this violence to continue. We abhor it, and we condemn it. But religious zealotry is not only found with Muslims, but with other fanatics as well who stir up fear and hatred to control or manipulate people’s feelings. The Colorado Planned Parenthood killer claimed to be a Christian, who as long as he believed he was saved, an acquaintance said, could do whatever he pleased. We are a nation founded on religious tolerance and understanding. As a result of the very principles that we profess to be central to our democracy, Trump’s idea of banning or excluding Muslims from coming to our country is outrageous.   In fact, as you may know, the first treaty we ever signed as a nation was with a Muslim country, Tripoli. That 1797 agreement signed by John Adams said “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — . . . it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims]. We have always been enriched by religious diversity, so that knowing and welcoming Muslims will make our community better in many ways.

There have been long standing neighbors who have felt other kinds of terror, too. Freedom to live in communities where they can develop to their fullest potential, and also feel safe has been a continuing concern for African Americans in our society. Ever since slave states developed a wide ranging categorizing of many types of people of European origin as whites, and a wide ranging categorization of many types of African origin as black (including those with more white ancestors than black), these neat categories became accepted as truth This distinction quickly determines where we live, who are friends are, and whom we marry, how we think of ourselves, and perhaps how well we can do in school, especially if you are Judge Anton Scalia. A corollary to this distinction is one that categorizes racists from non-racists. No one wants to be called racist, and so we are quick to categorize ourselves as free from bigotry. But what about those choices we make of where we live, and go to school? We may not be overtly racist, but the question is no simplistic one. Yet clearly the advantages of white privilege run deep in the opportunities we gain merely by being on the right side of the cultural divide. Bill Jones, a UU theologian, called Christianity, “whiteianity” because its signs and symbols of salvation teach that suffering and sacrifice for others were proclaimed good things, but actually contributed to the continuing oppression of African Americans, and so he argued in favor of a theology where human agency became central to liberation.

This month I wrote a newsletter column on today’s Black Lives Matter discussion pertaining to the insertion of a sign in our Wayside Pulpit. I immediately felt the struggle of awkwardness in writing about race. How could I make it so it was not patronizing to Blacks? How could I, the white liberal, not be the bearer of cultural enlightenment?. At about the time I was writing that column, I was also preparing to teach my UU history class at Andover Newton. The subject matter was the early twentieth century and the rise of the humanist/theist controversy. Right in the middle of this denominational wrangling over the role of God came the advent of one of our early Black ministers, Ethelred Brown, a native of Jamaica. Describing his transformation from being a Methodist and a Civil Service employee to hear a call to ministry, Brown said “I was an inquisitive youngster and a truthful child. I was disposed to ask questions.” It was these characteristics, he said, that led him to enter the Unitarian ministry. He could not be a Methodist because he had to be in a church, “in which I would be absolutely honest.” He would not be dissuaded, and so against all counsel, he chose to become the first Black Unitarian to attend Meadville seminary, even though he was advised that white Unitarians required a white minister.”   He would face many trials over the years, including being deported from the US before he even reached Meadville. Then once he was in seminary he was told every time he did something well, “you must have some white blood in you.” He returned to Jamaica after graduation to begin a mission there in Montego Bay, and later in Kingston.

What Brown encountered was extreme prejudice from successive Unitarian administrations in Boston. They were quick to withdraw grants because they said his results were not satisfactory; not bring in enough people or money. While there were financial difficulties, perhaps the most painful blow on the part of the leaders was when they said that blacks could not grasp Unitarianism because of limited intelligence. Unitarians officials asserted cultural superiority, believing they were uplifting blacks morally and intellectually so that they could participate in the great white culture. Despite these setbacks, Brown left Jamaica to live out his dream of bringing a Unitarian church to Harlem, and he did so in 1920, where he remained until his death in 1956.   It was here that Brown preached his sermon, “Jesus was a Unitarian.” Why did he say this? It was not based in a Biblical interpretation that Jesus never claimed a divine title. Instead, Brown believed that Unitarianism was the religion of the future. It had a message everyone could understand, and he also believed that it had outgrown the narrowness of the older churches. Furthermore, Brown believed people needed a religion of character and service. Historically, Black people had depended too much on what religion could give them in an afterlife, while promoting servile contentment, when instead they needed a faith that would provoke rebellious discontent with inequality and the adoption of personal responsibility to make earth a place wherein dwell justice and peace and love.” He thought that being in direct communion with God in a personal way was the most deeply spiritual faith, and one achieved this by working together for a righteous social order.   The statement of purpose for his Harlem church ended: “Knowing not sect, class, nation or race it welcomes each to the service of all.

This creation of a beloved community that builds on the strengths of diversity, is found in literature in what has been called the great American novel, Moby Dick. This summer after dropping off Dana at college, Andrea and I headed for western Massachusetts. Among our stops was a visit to Arrowhead the home of Herman Melville and his family from 1850 to 1863. That first winter Melville wrote Moby Dick mostly ensconced in his study on the second floor, a room which overlooked Mt. Greylock. Melville thought he could see the whale’s white back on the snow covered peak amid the sea of mountains in the distance, and when the wind blew at night, he fancied he would leave this ship’s cabin of a room and go on the roof to rig the chimney. In the chapter I read from earlier, Melville presents the action like a scene from a play and we see the diverse community of sailors of all different nationalities, singing and dancing to the tambourine of the African American cabin boy, Pip. They get into a fight when a Spanish sailor makes fun of the African Daggoo. The onset of a storm, however, ends their fighting and makes them tend to the ship. Pip asks the “big white God,” who may be either God or Captain Ahab, to “have mercy on this small black boy.” The orders are to steer through the storm, and to keep their ship afloat, they must stop fighting. Keep me safe, Pip prays.

Ethelred Brown’s vision for an inclusive ministry was one where we each learn to grow mutually from one another, keeping each other safe, and nurturing each other’s contributions. We must commit ourselves to long term inclusive community building. There is a cultural dance going on, and a fight has broken out. Together we must find ways to keep the ship afloat, even as violence flares and demagogues yell. It is not done by excluding others with words of fear. It is also not done by living in the protective bubble of cultural superiority. It is done by listening and learning from one another, and by protecting those who are attacked. I am going to end with a true story called The Stranger on the Bus, as told by Lawrence Kushner.   What would you do if you met the stranger on the bus? It happened in Munich in Nazi Germany. A woman had been riding a city bus home from work when SS storm troopers suddenly stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed, but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into a truck around the corner. The woman watched from her seat in the rear, as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed she was crying, he politely asked her why. “I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’re going to take me.” Suddenly the man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. Was this the end for her? He said, “You stupid cow! I can’t stand being near you. This brought the SS men over to where the man and the woman were seated. “What is this all about?” they asked. “Why are you yelling?” “Damn her,” the man shouted angrily. “My wife has forgotten her papers again! I’m fed up! She always does this!” The soldiers laughed and moved on. Do we have the courage to speak up to save a fellow traveler on the bus that is this planet? We know Jesus was not a Unitarian, but rather a poor, marginal Jew who was pursued by a maniacal King, but maybe we Unitarian Universalists can still claim his relevant vision. He is riding the bus, and shouting out his saving words for the person others would fail to speak up for. The good Samaritan becomes the good Muslim. I want to be on that bus.

 

Closing Words – excerpts from “Helped” by Alice Walker

HELPED are those who love the entire cosmos rather than their own tiny country, city, or farm, for to them will be shown the unbroken web of life and the meaning of infinity.

HELPED are those who risk themselves for others’ sakes; to them will be given increasing opportunities for ever greater risks. Theirs will be a vision of the world in which no one’s gift is despised or lost.

HELPED are those who are shown the existence of the Creator’s magic in the Universe; they shall experience delight and astonishment without ceasing.

HELPED are those who love all the colors of all the human beings, as they love all the colors of the animals and plants; none of their children, nor any of their ancestors, nor any parts of themselves, shall be hidden from them.

HELPED are those who love and actively support the diversity of life; they shall be secure in their differences.