A Vision for Liberal Religion

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek –

It was Monday, August 30th. Mason’s first day of school was two days away. That morning I took the boys rock climbing along the trails south of Manchester’s Case Mountain. It was a beautiful, late summer New England day—warm, sunny, dry, clear. We enjoyed a quiet, peaceful reverie out on the trails, completely denying the fact that our lazy summer lives would be over in less than 48 hours. Back to school, back to work.

It’s rare enough for me to encounter a moment of solitude when I’m away from my boys. It’s even more rare to have such encounters in their presence. Yet there we were. Even now I can picture the trees, unmoving and tranquil, rays of sunlight reaching down through their leaves to the forest floor. Even now I can recall the pervasive stillness of the morning. It was a spiritual experience, a small span of grace, the peace and quiet of the forest leading me—and maybe even the boys—to that place where the inner life and the outer life blend together seamlessly, where wonder, awe and mystery seem to fill me up; leading me—and maybe even the boys—to apprehend some profound sense of belonging in this universe, some deeper connection of all to all, some gentle, sustaining, wordless power flowing through everything, making everything holy.

Knowing full well the fleeting nature of such experiences, I tried nevertheless to hold onto it during the trip home. That was not to be. Driving west along Hebron Ave. towards the center of Glastonbury I saw a huge American flag rising above a row of trees near the entrance to Holy Cross Cemetery. I saw cars lining the street for half a mile. I saw news trucks camped out on the grassy strip along the cemetery fence, their antennas gleaming in the nearly high-noon sun.  As I turned left onto Wickham Rd. and waited in line for the police to let me pass, I saw that the massive flag was suspended from the top of a fire engine ladder. I saw people walking into the cemetery, some with grim expressions on their faces, others stoic, others shedding tears. I saw rows of motorcycles lining the main road through the cemetery. These, I later figured out, belonged to the Patriot Guard Riders, a national organization made up mostly of bikers—many of whom are war veterans—whose mission is “to attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family.”[1]

It turned out we were driving by the burial of 25-year-old Sgt. Steven DeLuzio, a 2003 Glastonbury High School graduate, a member of the Vermont National Guard. Along with 21-year-old Sgt. Tristan Southworth, of Walden, VT, he died on August 22nd in what has been described as a prolonged gun battle after insurgents attacked his unit with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades in the Paktika Province of Afghanistan.

In that moment of realizing what I was witnessing my last bit of summer reverie vanished; my already waning sense of solitude vanished; the pervasive forest stillness vanished.  The hurting world, the grieving world, the violent world reached in. A sense of sorrow and foreboding rose up in me as I continued the brief trip home.

Our theme for the month of September is vision—I fitting theme especially on this day when we rededicate our beloved meeting house. What future do we imagine for ourselves and our families? For our communities? For our nation and the world? And in particular, what purpose will Unitarian Universalism serve in the coming decades? What gifts will we offer as liberal religious people? How must we change to meet the challenges ahead? What is our UU vision? That afternoon, as I began to contemplate what I would say to you this morning, I knew two things: the gentle, sustaining, wordless power flowing through everything, making everything holy; and the hurting, grieving, violent world. Somehow, a vision for the future of our faith ought to respond to both.

When I survey the religious landscape in the United States—and in the world to the extent that’s possible—I perceive deep and widespread spiritual hunger. Theologian Harvey Cox reminds us that just a few decades ago scholars were confidently predicting the demise of religion. Some of you may remember the famous April, 1966 Time Magazine cover story proclaiming the death of God. The story examined the secularization of American society and what that implied for the religious life. But in his recent book, The Future of Faith, Cox says “the soothsayers were wrong. Instead of disappearing, religion—for good or ill—is now exhibiting a new vitality all around the world and making its weight widely felt in the corridors of power.”[2] And Boston University Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero has recently described the world as “furiously religious.”[3] Certainly, some of that new vitality and furiousness emerges out of literal fury and results in extremist rage co-opting and re-interpreting various religious traditions and their sacred scriptures as calls to holy war, terrorism and murder.  I suspect most of it, however, emerges out of a more humble, twofold spiritual hunger: the hunger for the peace and comfort that comes from experiencing or communing with a reality larger than oneself; and the hunger to transform and heal, in some small way, the hurting, grieving, violent world. In even more basic terms: A hunger to belong, and a hunger to help. My vision for our faith in the 21st century is that we will respond to these two spiritual hungers: to belong and to help.

One of the most significant gifts liberal religion offers that I believe will help us respond to that hunger for belonging in a hurting, grieving, violent world is its commitment to the idea that “all are welcome.” No spiritual contingencies: no doctrines, no creeds, no professions of faith, no spiritual laws, no required rituals. It’s not “All are welcome” with an unspoken “as long as you believe the way we believe.” It’s “All are welcome, period.” This is the first Unitarian Universalist principle: “Respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  Everyone matters. Every single person who enters through our doors, whether you come for worship on Sunday morning or for some community event, whether you’re renting space in the building or providing a service, everyone matters.

Women matter. Men matter. Children matter. Elders matter. Poor people matter. Rich people matter. Middle class people matter. Unemployed people matter. Workers matter. Managers and CEOs matter. Gays and lesbians matter. Straight people matter. Transgender people matter. Bisexual people matter. People with disabilities and able-bodied people matter. Mentally ill people matter. Prisoners matter and Police matter. Politicians matter. People with cancer matter. People with HIV and AIDS matter. Drug users matter. Sober people matter. White people and people of color matter. Doctors and lawyers matter. Mail carriers and janitors matter. Truck drivers matter. Gun owners and non-gun owners matter. Soldiers matter. Peace activists matter. Liberals and conservatives matter. Democrats and Republicans matter. Tea Party activists matter. Immigrants both documented and undocumented matter. And here’s where it gets utterly critical that we understand this and put it into action in this hurting, grieving violent world: Jews matter. Muslims matter. Christians—Catholics, Protestants and Pentecostals matter. Humanists matter. Atheists matter. Hindus and Buddhists matter. Taoists and Confucianists matter. Shintoists matter. Pagans and Wiccans matter. All the multitude of people of indigenous and earth-based religious identities around the globe matter. Unitarian Universalists matter. You matter. I matter. Everyone matters.[4]

Living this principle, we know, is not easy. We struggle when we encounter people whose social views, whose theology, whose politics are different from our own. And of course, not everyone will find a religious home here—not everyone will belong—but it is my vision and my prayer that everyone who encounters Unitarian Universalism will recognize, not only in what we say but in what we do, that our first principle is not a sweet-sounding platitude but is truly a way of life.

Having said that, I also contend that this spiritual hunger to belong—this hunger that has arisen so dramatically in the 21st century—goes much deeper than belonging to a congregation, feeling welcome there, feeling at home there. Belonging to a congregation is belonging with a small b. I want to describe Belonging with a capital B in a variety of ways because how you experience it and how you talk about it depend on your theological and spiritual world-view. Belonging with a capital B is that sense of Belonging to the larger human family, or Belonging to the whole of life, or Belonging to God, or to the Goddess, or to some Holy Presence. Belonging with a capital B is feeling at home on this earth, feeling at home in this universe. Belonging with a capital B is connecting or relating to a reality larger than yourself, whether it is of this earth or beyond it, a reality in which you find sustenance, strength and comfort; a reality in which you find inspiration and joy; a reality that challenges you, guides you, helps you make moral decisions, calls you to be loving, to practice compassion, to seek justice. Belonging with a capital B is the experience of being fully enmeshed or embedded in the sacred as you understand it. For me, it is that apprehension of some gentle, sustaining, wordless power flowing through everything, making everything holy. I found it that morning, hiking in the woods south of Case Mountain with my boys. I find it in nature, like so many of us do. I find it in the midst of family. I find it when I’m part of a larger group engaging in action for social justice. I find it when I worship with religious leaders from other faith traditions. I find it here at UUS:E. (The last time was last night—my apologies to those of you who weren’t here for the concert—when Pawel and Dorothy played the “Coronation” from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Stunning!

Liberal religion invites us to seek Belonging with a capital B. That is also its gift to a hurting, grieving, violent world. It doesn’t tell us how we should understand Belonging, what it should feel like, how we should articulate it. It doesn’t impose a specific, creedal definition of Belonging on us. It simply holds us, steadies us, anchors us as we seek. True, the seeking is not easy. The answers are not given. We can become frustrated in our searching. We can become lazy in our searching. But it is my vision and my prayer that Unitarian Universalism will be available to all those who hunger for that deep experience of Belonging on their own terms, in a way that is consistent with their own conscience, their own reasoning, their own instincts and intuition.

Finally, there is the hunger—the immense, gnawing hunger—to help heal and transform this hurting, grieving, violent world. I don’t believe I have to prove to you the truth of the hurt, grief and violence. I don’t want to read to you an abstract list of the ills humanity and the earth face and say, “you see how much hurt, grief and violence there are in the world? You see the desperateness of our plight?” I believe you already see these things. But mindful that is was that momentary witness of Sgt. DeLuzio’s burial that started me thinking about tmy vision and this sermon, I want to read you a poem from Archibald MacLeish called “The Young Dead Soldiers.” He wrote it after World War II for a memorial services the Library of Congress was holding for staff who had died in the war. “The young dead soldiers do not speak. Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them? They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts. They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us. They say: We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done. They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave. They say: Our deaths are not ours. They are yours; they will mean what you make them. They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say. They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning. We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.”[5]

The gift liberal religion offers for the healing and transformation of this hurting, grieving, violent world is hope. It is hope born out of an understanding that, as the poet says, ‘until it is finished it is not done.’ And nothing is finished. We still have the power to tell a different story—not one of hurting, but one of healing, not one of grieving, but one of celebrating, not one of violence but one of peace. This is not hope for the next life, or hope for some Biblical New Heaven and New Earth. This is not hope for some divine child or new messiah. This is hope for this life on this earth here and now. It is hope born ultimately out of faith in human beings—faith in their inherent goodness, faith in their ingenuity and creativity; faith in their courage and resilience.

It is my vision and my prayer that Unitarian Universalists across the country and across the globe will continue to live our principles in the world for the sake of healing and transformation. Where there is conflict and violence and war, may we be messengers of peace. Where there is discrimination and inequality, may we be messengers of justice and fairness. Where there is pain and grief may we be messengers of comfort and healing. Where there is hatred and bigotry, may we be messengers of love and acceptance. Belonging and Helping. Belonging and Helping. Belonging and Helping, for all the days to come. Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] See the Patriot Guard Riders website at http://www.patriotguard.org/.

[2] Cox, Harvey, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009) p. 1.

[3] Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 7.

[4] I borrowed and adapted this “everybody matters” list from a sermon preached in 1999 by Elias Farajaje-Jones, now Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé (see http://www.sksm.edu/faculty/ibrahim_farajaje.php).

[5] MacLeish, Archibald, “The Young Dead Soldiers,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993) #583.