“Nones and Names” by Mark W. Harris

 First Parish of Watertown –  April 29, 2012

Call to Worship  – from by David S. Blanchard


This church is ready for you to fill its rooms,

to create its spirit,

to generate its warmth,

to kindle its light.

This church is ready for you

 to make community,

to create beauty,

to bend it toward justice,

to serve its ideals.

This church is ready for you to be here,

honoring our past,

invigorating our future,

This is your church.

Here we are home.

Here we are whole.

Let us begin.


Reading:  from Jamesland by Michelle Huneven


Jamesland is the story of a descendant of William James who is trying to determine what is essential to living.  In this excerpt we meet the Unitarian Universalist minister Helen Harland, and the once celebrated chef Pete, who is now in recovery.  See. Pp. 99-102.



 For many years I used to have lunch with a friend who was a minister in the United Church of Christ, the other half of the Congregational Church that we split off from more than 200 years ago.  Those are the people who sometimes like to say you got the communion silver, but we kept the faith.  Like us, my friend’s UUC congregation in Scituate had an annual meeting, and he would give a state of the church sermon every year, mirroring the US President’s State of the Union message, but with much less hype, and no press coverage.  I have never taken on this sermonic task in my career, but  I can say that generally speaking I think our particular church had a good year.  We have deeply committed people who care about one another, and want to make a difference in the world.  I would love to see enthusiastic financial support for building needs and an upcoming capital fund drive, a few more children in our religious education program, and a vigorous outreach to more people with whom we might share our liberal faith, thus making our voice heard in Watertown and beyond.  I believe all those things can be done by this congregation. So today I am not going to dwell on the state of our church, but I think it might be useful to discuss the future of our faith in our country because we are at a crossroads like we have never seen before. 

One thing we have noticed for the past few years it that nobody simply church shops anymore.  Those who are interested in finding a congregation first go to a website.  They may read sermons or newsletters, see pictures of staff and learn a little of our history.  They already know us.  What this means is that the first impression of our congregation on a newcomer comes not through your smiling faces, or my fabulous erudition, or the delicious food, but rather our electronic presence.  As a corollary to that a recent report by UUA President Peter Morales informed us that the UUA Board is trying to change the definition of a congregation, by expanding it beyond the old criteria of physical presence.  Part of the reason for this is that we are aware that four times as many people identify as UUs as there are voting adult members who have signed the book, and hypothetically received the coveted coffee mug.  The theory is that congregations arose in an era that was defined by less mobility and communication.  The world is different now, radically so.  Our one nontraditional Unitarian Universalist congregation, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, has on line worship and other services, classes and discussions. Many of you know that I taught online for ten years.  Business life, political action and education have all been transformed by the internet.  Last Sunday, my sermon in Milton was recorded for posting on You Tube with a link from the church’s website.  In East Lansing, MI where I preached two weeks ago all the words to the hymns were projected on a screen through power point, and my children’s story had all the pictures I had provided posted on the screen so everyone could see.  Imagine the possibilities!

Part of the motivation for this time of imagining a future reflects a need to respond to this cultural shift in America.  Morales says we must stop thinking of ourselves as an association of congregations, and begin to think of ourselves as a religious movement.  He thinks this is a propitious time because the great cultural shift that is going on in America is on our side.  What that means is that evangelical churches are no longer growing, and in fact, the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. is that group of people who say they have no religious affiliation.  These are the “nones” – as in n-o-n-e, as opposed to the Catholic religious order that once wore those funny Penguin looking hats and habits, who were depicted positively when Sally Field took to the air, and negatively through tales of cracking the knuckles of unruly school children with rulers.  Those kinds of nuns offered a literal impression of the faith that many UUs leave behind.

But it is the other nones, the n-o-n-e-s, that are the attraction for us.  The nones seem to often fall into the description of being “spiritual but not religious.”  What this means is that generally they are not interested in traditional religious expressions; organized religion that is rigid and dogmatic and unyielding.  Most mainline churches, as you know, have suffered significant drops in membership over the last few years. All you need to do is look around Watertown – Catholic church closed, Baptist church closed, Congregational church merged and sold, and soon, Methodist church merged.  There is a not so subtle message there. People don’t want the old stolid, backward thinking and acting faith. BUT they do want religion or spirituality in a more open and appealing way.

Many of these nones have values similar to ours – supporting marriage equality and environmental justice, for instance.  Furthermore, what we do know is that people while rejecting traditional church, seem to need and want religious community.  So if they want community, reject dogma, and have liberal values should we be polishing a few of those coffee mugs in preparation?

Last fall I gave a paper at a conference called “A Reasonable World.”  The papers given at the conference basically depicted how rational, thinking people had slowly helped the world see that God was mostly a product of our projected imaginations.  It was a conference for atheists, who in many instances railed against the abuses of the church, not merely in history, but through their own life experiences. Yet what was clear was that they had gathered because having a community with shared values where they could know one another and care for one another was something they needed. They wanted the church without the church.  In fact there are groups who meet on Sunday morning that act like congregations, and worship like congregations and call themselves “Not Church.”  What they want is something fresh and new, and while it may take place in small groups or in people’s homes, or in different forms and methods, it shows clearly that people want to build spiritual lives.   The reason for this may be apparent in a new book called Religion for Atheists.  The author argues that beyond the facades and dogmas, religions have been trying to figure out what people are like and what they need for a very long time.  Two needs become readily apparent.  While the secular world may give us Facebook, the religious life shows our need to make personal connections in a real community setting; sitting next to someone in a chair or pew.  Even a Yoga group, as much as you may love yoga, takes on the dimensions of a religious community through personal face to face connections.  Second, while the world tells us to be independent and successful, we also realize that some place in our lives needs to provide  us with comfort and forgiveness and compassion, especially when the road to success and happiness develops huge ruts.  Here we find others to share our journey, even our values, and see that we are not alone in the world. All of this should seem to set us up to have all the Nones, even a few of the other nuns – n-u-n-s, too, all embrace our liberal way in religion.  But this might be rushing things. 

One piece of advice that is often conveyed to young couples who are about to marry is: “Don’t enter this marriage thinking you are going to change your partner.”  It is a mistake to say, oh, he/she may not want children now, but he/she will think differently once we are married.  The perceived wisdom is that this is a false assumption because he or she is who they are, and will stay that way despite all their partner’s efforts to change them. They are not likely to change either their unwillingness to save money or want children when they are already lavish spenders, and enjoy the childless life. This is one view of marriage that each partner will essentially stay the same person, and the person they marry won’t alter that. However, different people do bring out different parts of us. If the person I love is a stickler for being on time, I can change my ways. And in fact, I did. So while I may never have been on time before I was married, I can see the error of my ways, in how that can be disrespectful of my partner, and voila – I can change.  In some respects both people are right.  We do remain the same person in many ways, but when we enter new relationships we are changed.  In some ways we are partners who grow together, and we make compromises to find common ground.  People we care deeply about make an impact  on us.   Change can happen.

I would like to think that Unitarian Universalist congregations and our participation in them can change us, but too often the congregation has tried to accommodate the individual.  How many of us can remember relationships we have had where we said or implied to our partner I will be anything you want me to be.  “I’ll change to be exactly what you want.”  We may be so desperate for someone to love us that we will do or be anything for them thinking that will keep the relationship alive.  I think we have sometimes done that as congregations when we ask people what can we do for you to accommodate your every need.  We can imply that we have a religion that will contort to any variation you want to espouse, and that any idea you bring up is something we will implement today if not sooner.   In our effort to not be dogmatic or rigid, we give the impression that there is no substance here at all.  Would you give your commitment to a religion that said, I’ll be anything you want me to be.  This can easily translate into a religion where people get the impression that you can believe anything you want.  When we say it is a free faith or a non creedal faith, people may assume anything goes.

This was exactly the problem I had in East Lansing last Sunday.  After the service I greeted a relative newcomer to the church who was furious with me about my sermon.  She had been to church a couple of times before, and assumed that we say that all beliefs are good, and that our genius is that we are tolerant  and understanding of everything.  I gave the sermon Salvation by Character that I gave here a couple of months ago.  In that sermon I criticized among others the Mormons for baptizing deceased Jews.  When I told the woman that, while we do not follow a creed, we are not tolerant of beliefs if they are hurtful or disrespectful, or somehow demean the dignity of any person or group.  She ended up stomping off, and I immediately told Duffy that this might not have been the kind of incident he was hoping for on his ordination day.  But who knows? Perhaps a person who is questioning what they learned about religion might feel confused, and they need healing from their old faith, but are still not sure what this new religion invites from them.

 We often say that Unitarian Universalists have problems with identity.  Who are we?  First we must remember that religion is not the name of the object or idea that counts the most, but rather religion is the active spiritual relationship between me and you and the world. It is how we can be changed or transformed by connecting in new and deeper ways to the life source we all share. In the public relations world, branding of products has become extremely important in recent years.  Whereas people once put their good name to products, such as  Hoover vacuum cleaners, which led to the verb “hoovering” reflecting its popularity, now branding has to be more subtle.  Even religious groups have to think about what will attract people to the faith.  The new shiny flaming chalice that you see on UU publications or websites is an attempt to be more lively and modern. We have learned that brand names are best when they are short, and so Unitarian Universalist may simply be too much of a mouthful for some.   Words do make ideas salable.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted his masterpiece to be called “Trimalchio in West Egg.”  It’s a good thing it was changed to The Great Gatsby.  The idea is that we want to tell people about ourselves. Do we sound intriguing, or full of life?  Experts say names like Civic are just perfect, as it is a car that connotes a sense of responsibility for the environment.  While we are not exactly selling a product, what is important is that our UU name means more than merely loose and non-dogmatic, because the nones want something that will give them a strong sense of community and attachment. We can’t just be saying we will be what you want, but rather need to show the world what we already have that can be powerful and life changing for people

 In our reading today from Jamesland, Rev. Helen Harland says that humanists “believe goodness and mercy and justice come exclusively from humans.”  While these important connections are explained, even the minister Helen laughs at the religion as the church of Christ with no Christ, where the dead stay dead.  While it may be fun to make the jokes it fails to reflect the seriousness with which we take the faith.  We deeply consider religious questions, effectively taking religion more seriously than most. And we expect equality and justice to prevail in the world.  Just this week my son Dana was upset by the bullying he sees at school. He came downstairs one night long after bedtime to tell us about a boy who is picked on my everybody, and then people wonder why the boy retaliates with such anger.  Dana’s life affirming Unitarian Universalist faith is reflected in his surprise that people are not kind to each other, but could be mean and manipulative. We want more people to live as UUs.  The words that express our faith should be good brands as they reflect so much about who we are, and how we act on our faith.   The fundamental question that Helen Harland asks is, how do people live in this world?   Unitarian means God is one.  We believe the creation is unified and connected and whole.  We see the holy in everything, and this one spirit moves within everything.  Of course that means that I am responsible towards that whole.  Universalism speaks of relationships with the creation.  Everyone and everything matters, and we work to make that true.  We are not tolerant when a person or the creation is hurt or demeaned.

Just this week I received an email about how a mother was removed from her position as den leader for her son’s Boy Scout troop.  Her crime? She is Lesbian, and therefore in the Scouts view will set a bad example. They do not tolerate gay or lesbian parents as leaders. We as a people of faith are not tolerant of that.  Unitarian Universalism tells us that there is a part of the truth in everything, but not that everything is true. The Scouts are wrong.  If that oneness we share or those interconnected relationships are violated – then that teaching is not true.  This is just what I told that woman in East Lansing.  I have a faith that is not everything to everybody, but it is a faith that teaches that there is the one truth that will unite us and connect us.  We ask our members to celebrate the beauty, diversity and goodness of the creation, but we reject any teaching that violates the fundamental love that all our deserving of giving and receiving. Rather than changing like a chameleon to a faith that is everything to everybody, we want this loving faith to change you. On this annual meeting day, I know there is no greater gift we could give to the world than sharing this faith with more people.  You love the community here. You love the people here, but that is made possible because of the faith we share here.  This oneness, this connection is a Big message.  Do we have the big hearts to hear the call to give our love to the world?   

Closing Words – from Robinson Jeffers

 I believe the universe is all one being, and all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, therefore parts of one organic whole.  This whole in all its parts is so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. (May it be so.)