“We Come to Follow Jesus, not Worship Him” By Mark Harris – December 11, 2005
“The Christian Path” or ” We Come to Follow Jesus, Not Worship Him”
by Mark W. Harris
(Third in a series on Religious Expressions of Unitarian Universalism)
“We Come to Follow Jesus . . . ” is attributed to Francis David, the famous Unitarian from Transylvania (present day Romania) who in the 1560’s and 1570’s founded the Unitarian church, and would not give in to pressure to say he would worship Jesus as God, and thus provided the ethical Christian foundations of Unitarianism.
December 11, 2005 – The First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words (Responsive) #653 in hymnal by Dori J. Somers
Reading – “Special Starlight” by Carl Sandburg
The Creator of night and of birth
was the Maker of the stars.
Shall we look up now at stars in Winter
And call them always sweeter friends
Because this story of a Mother and a Child
Never is told with the stars left out?
Is it a Holy Night now when a child issues
Out of the dark and the unknown
Into the starlight?
Down a Winter evening sky
when a woman hovers
between two great doorways
between entry and exit,
between pain to be laughed at
joy to be wept over —
do the silver-white lines
then come from holy stars?
shall the Newcomer, the Newborn,
between soft flannels,
swaddling cloths called Holy?
Shall all wanderers over the earth, all homeless ones,
All against whom doors are shut and words spoken —
Shall these find the earth less strange tonight?
Shall they hear news, a whisper on the night wind?
”A child is born.” “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
“And they crucified Him . . . they spat upon Him.
And He rose from the dead.”
Shall a quiet dome of stars high over
Make signs and a friendly language
Among all the nations?
Shall they yet gather with no clenched fists at all,
And look into each other’s faces and see eye to eye,
And find ever new testaments of man as a sojourner
And a toiler and a brother of fresh understandings?
Shall there be now always
believers and more believers
of sunset and moonrise,
of moonset and dawn,
of wheeling numbers of stars,
and wheels within wheels?
Shall plain habitations off the well-known roads
Count now for a little more than they used to?
Shall plains ways and people held close to earth
be reckoned among things to be written about?
Shall tumult, grandeur, fanfare, panoply, prepared loud noises
Stand equal to a quiet heart, thoughts, vast dreams
Of men conquering the earth by conquering themselves?
Is there a time for ancient genius of man
To be set for comparison with the latest generations?
Is there a time for stripping to simple, childish questions?
On a holy night we may say:
The Creator of night and of birth
was the Maker of the stars.
As I began to write this sermon on Friday morning, I looked outside the church window, and saw snow falling heavily from the sky. It reminded me of two things. Unitarian Universalism may be largely what it is today due to the influence of its most famous minister, and perhaps the most profound American writer of them of all, Ralph Waldo Emerson. On a snowy day sometime during the winter of 1838 Emerson sat in his pew at the First Parish of Concord. He was listening to what he perceived as cold, lifeless preaching from a minister who had the symbolically appropriate surname of Frost. When he wrote his Divinity School Address for delivery the following July in the refulgent summer, Emerson remembered that snow storm as real, and the lifeless preacher as merely spectral. Emerson said that he could not tell if this man had lived, breathed, was married, had children or indeed, anything about him. In fact, Emerson was at the center of a rebellion away from what was then called liberal Christianity. He rejected its forms, its traditions, its rituals, and even its history. The sermon or the central religious expression of the Protestant Christian tradition should be life, he said, life in all its passions and pains, breathed through the fire of thought. At the center of Emerson’s thought was that we, each one of us, has the ability to perceive and know divinity directly, and that even Jesus himself, the human God of Christianity, was true to what is in you and me. And the snow was significant because it was an emblem of nature, and it is through our personal experience of the natural world, and not Biblical revelation or tradition, that we come to know eternal truths.
This was powerful stuff in the 19th century, and it caused an avalanche of criticism to fall on those radicals we have come to know as Transcendentalists. But this questioning of fundamental Christians principles was not confined to Concord or Boston. Although it is sometimes hard for us to admit, there are enlightened people beyond the Rte. 128 beltway. There were also men and women in Europe who had come to understand human beings should read the Bible for themselves, and arrive at their own conclusions about what it says. They began to advocate the radical ideas of using your mind in interpreting scriptures, being tolerant and understanding of the many paths to truth, and finally being open to a free search for continuing revelations of truth. This was true of many people in England, where advocating a belief in a human Jesus rather than the Trinity of Christianity was against the law, and was punishable by seizures of property and imprisonment. One person who rebelled against a thoughtless allegiance to a church, and began to advocate for a Christian faith that was centered upon an ethical approach to living was Josiah Wedgwood, that most famous of potters, who became one of the most successful business people in history. Wedgwood was one of Charles Darwin’s grandfathers. The other, Erasmus Darwin was also a religious nonconformist. His radicalism went beyond Wedgwood, when he ridiculed the Unitarian faith by calling it “a featherbed to catch a falling Christian.” This featherbed analogy was the second thing the snow reminded me of. The soft cushion we lay upon as children to makes our snow angels. This was the way Darwin saw Unitarians; soft Christians who leave the old faith behind, to embrace a new faith that mollifies all the harsh doctrines of sin and salvation. So if, Unitarians were falling away from Christianity even then, in what sense do we have a relationship to Christianity today? Perhaps the most common question posed to Unitarian Universalists is, Are you Christian or not?
Although I do not remember the exact context, last year there were two occasions at church meetings here at First Parish, where I innocently referred to our congregation as Protestant. In both those instances I remember our members, who may be present today, responding as though I had misspoken. Clearly to them, the word Protestant evoked images of traditional Christianity, and its worship , beliefs and institutions, and was no longer a word that in any way identified Unitarian Universalists today. I was reminded of how sensitive many of our members feel about their relationship to Christianity. They may have grown up in a Christian church and felt its beliefs were irrational, its traditions authoritarian, and its methods shameful. They may have come to our faith because here you are encouraged to use your mind, discover those traditions which speak to you, and hopefully find understanding fellow travelers who believe in a universal embrace of compassion.
When I used the word “Protestant,” I was speaking as a historian, and was evoking the specific tradition we Unitarian Universalists emerged from. It could be that 60’s hippie in me coming to life again, but when I say Protestant, it does not evoke all those stultifying, guilt inducing, moralisms for me that some may associate with the old time religion of no dancing, no drinking, and certainly no laughing in church. While Martin Luther is hardly a person we would remember as liberal, he started what became a broader “protest” against the widespread corruption of the Catholic church, and produced a revolution in religious thought and practice. In many ways, we religious liberals are an embodiment of his belief in the “priesthood of all believers,” as fully revealed in Emerson’s understanding that we can each know God firsthand. So for me there is something in Protestant Christianity that stands as a protest against any injustice or bigotry that exists in the world. Much of the Unitarian Universalist protestant center can be identified with its continuing protest of Christian tradition and authority. Andrew Hill, the minister in Edinburgh says we are so thoroughly Protestant that we protest the very core of the Christian tradition, and its too frequent reliance upon hypocrisy and hierarchal control. The earliest Unitarians here in America advocated a broad Christian church that was not based on doctrinal conformity, but rather a fellowship that was open to many approaches to faith, and was ultimately grounded, not in conformity, but in freedom. So if we are children of the Christian tradition, we also protesters of that tradition as well. In fact some would say that we are so thoroughly protestant that the vast majority of our members do not consider themselves Christian.
That word protest also says something very relevant about our place in the world. Liberals have long said that our faith must be based, not on a salvation which lies beyond this life, but upon ethical guidelines for living that will result in a world transformed. Our understanding of Christianity was to have an active presence in the world. Universalists went so far as to imply that none of us would be saved, that is receive God’s embracing love, until all of us are saved, saints and sinners alike – a vision for one world. For these liberals you are most Christian, when you are living the words of the old hymn, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” and this was in fact the way Unitarians and Universalists came to define their understanding of Christianity. They invoked the words of Jesus – when I was sick, when I was hungry, when I was in prison – you came to me, you cared about me, you fed me. Unitarian Universalists embraced what has been called an ethical Christianity, one grounded in deeds not creeds. While our traditions and our cultural norms may be based in Christianity, and our sense of ethics and involvement in the world grows from Christian morality, we have mostly never been seen as Christian in the context of our beliefs.
This is true of the many ways we define the Christian message. For Christians the Bible has been the sole means of religious revelation, but liberals have come to see that there are many sources of religious inspiration, embodied in scriptures from all the world’s great faiths and other writings. For Christians, Jesus Christ has been the human conduit to the divine so that believing in him, and accepting him as Lord, brings an individual into the Christian fold, but liberals have come to see that there have been many great teachers of religious truths throughout history, and while Jesus embodied a great and genuine spirit of love and forgiveness, that ability, as we have seen in Emerson’s gospel resides in us, too. For Christians, a basic belief in God, or an all powerful spirit that brings purpose to life has been necessary, but liberals have come to understand that truth begins not with divine inspiration, but with human experience, and while some will hear a still small, voice of eternal truth, others will only find meaning in what we create together in our human and earthly communities. But there are those among us who look first to the Bible, and first to Jesus and ultimately to God for inspiration, and they have chosen to identify with the Christian path in our pluralistic Unitarian Universalist faith.
So you see the question cuts both ways. Historically we came out of the Christian tradition, but we have always protested its rituals and beliefs to the point of sometimes finding them bereft of meaning. It is our home, but most of us have never longed to return. Historically we have said the Christian message is about how much we love one another rather than how much we mouthed revealed words or propounded doctrines. A half century ago, the Universalists used to say we are Christian, but more than Christian, and they symbolized that with a larger circle, and in that circle of truth there was an off center cross. That cross symbolized where we began. The Bible, Jesus, the God of justice and understanding informed us. But then we discovered that faith is bigger than any one tradition – truth is found in many cultures, is prophesied by many teachers, and resides in the hearts of all people if they would only turn their hearts toward each other in warm embrace, and journey down a path of trying to understand each other. It could be for many of us that this longing for love and understanding, for building a holier sense of community began with Christianity, but we know now that it requires something broader and deeper, and that is why we have become advocates for Unitarian Universalism.
And yet, as Carl Sandburg implies in his poem “Special Starlight,” this story, this tradition at this time of year asks us all to return to the simplest, and most humble of origins. It is a time for stripping down to simple questions. We come to understand that the wanderers, the homeless ones are us, and that the religious quest is not to proclaim one truth over others, one way of life over others, but to open the doors to those who are shut out, and to speak words of hospitality to those who are shunned. The December issue of Harper’s magazine has a cover story article on “Jesus Without the Miracles” by Erik Reece. Reece covers familiar territory for Unitarian Universalists. He begins with Thomas Jefferson’s famous Bible, where that scissors wielding rationalist third President of the USA took the New Testament and literally cut out all of the miracle stories to give us a purely ethical Jesus. Here was the most perfect model for moral behavior the world had ever witnessed. Jefferson said that Jesus’ basic teaching had been distorted by a dogmatically oriented Christian church, and he advocated for an authentic Christianity as seen through Jesus’ amazing life. Yet Jefferson came to realize that most people who espoused Christianity were really looking for the ticket to eternal life, and were less interested in living such a perfect life. That was too hard. Jesus is trying to convince whoever will listen, to shake off the world’s distractions, and find that kingdom that is present within.
In the article, Reece goes on to look at the Gospel of Thomas, which early Christians tried to repress, and recent writers have rediscovered. Prefiguring Emerson, the Gospel of Thomas says that all of us posses some fragment of the divine light. We don’t have to find it only through the conduit of the Messiah. We, as Emerson later tells us, can find it within ourselves. In that sense the Gospel is present in each of us. It is a kind of radical UU Christianity, that continues to protest how oppressive the message and the institution became and is. Reece reminds us that the Christian church has traditionally taught us about out smallness – they dispense the truth, they dispense salvation through their boy Jesus, but Reece and Emerson helps us realize the true largeness of our nature; the divine beings each of us could be and is. In a way Emerson did the Christians one better, not by denying Jesus’ divinity, but by making us all Jesus’, all saviors, all divine. Some might argue that this is the pure Christianity that Unitarian Universalism has embodied all along. What’s clear is that Unitarian Universalists stand apart from much of Christian tradition, but if we can help Christianity see its protesting, ethical, transforming, universal light then we have played a key role in opening ourselves and our world to becoming more whole and holy people. Even if we are not Christian, may we continue to embrace its radical thinking, protesting, and loving truth, with its vision of who we can become, and what kind of world we can create.
Closing Words – from Edward Ericson
We stand with eyes toward the east,
Awaiting the rising of the star,
And pray that love shall become flesh,
and dwell among us;
And that compassion shall be born
in human hearts.
We celebrate the discovery of fact
in the garment of legend.
Let every cradle be visited by the three
good kings of Faith, Hope and Love.
Then Christmas is with us always,
and every birth is the birth of god among us,
And every child is the Christ child,
And every song is the song of angels.
To celebrate Christmas is to attest
the power of love to remake humankind,
May we be renewed in the love which can save the world.