a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday May 20th, 2007
Having struggled through the blizzard and arrived at the station only to discover that the train to Boston had been delayed by snow, three Unitarian Universalist ministers retired to the bar to wait. They waited for an hour, and still no train; then two hours; until finally, after nearly three hours had passed, one of the ministers looked up from her drink and noticed, not only had the train arrived, but it was already pulling out of the station! Grabbing up the suitcases, the three ministers dashed for the platform. One was just able to leap aboard; then the train picked up speed, and the other two were left behind.…
A porter had witnessed this entire episode, and as the two remaining ministers passed him on their way back to the bar, he called out to them “tough break, missing your train like that.”
“Oh, we’ll be all right,” the oldest and the wisest of the ministers responded. “It’s young Jensen there I’m worried about. He was here to see us off!”
OK, I admit it. Maybe this story didn’t happen exactly the way I just told it. But there’s still more truth to it than you might expect. There’s something about the nature of Unitarian Universalists — and of Unitarian Universalist ministers in particular — that makes us loathe to miss the train, or the boat, or what have you, even when we have no particularly compelling reason from moving on from where we are. It’s the flip-side of our reputation as a questioning faith — a religious of progress and growth. We also tend to be a trendy faith, restless in our search for the avant garde, a faith of perpetual motion.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, there was a brief affirmation, written by the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, which was very popular within our movement, and which sums up much of this questing spirit. It affirmed “The Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, the Leadership of Jesus, Salvation by Character, and the Progress of Mankind Onward and Upward forever.” Today the gendered language makes this statement sound archaic and vaguely inappropriate to our more “progressive” ears, but the sentiment it expresses still remains strong. We are one people, accountable to the same ultimate reality, inspired by the great religious teachers of the past, yet at the end of the day personally responsible for our own ethical choices in the quest for spiritual transcendence and its related free and responsible search for truth and meaning…and the journey itself is endless: “onward and upward forever.” We see ourselves as a Religion of Progress, where the process is more important than the product. And this is why the habit of running for the train takes over, even when we’d come along simply to say “farewell.”
The concept of a religious quest or journey is one that appears in most of the world’s great religions. But this notion that life is in some way a “perpetual pilgrimage” is really quite unique. And from time to time one also hears murmuring that, while the trip is fine, it might also me nice to “arrive” every once in awhile — to have a place where we can rest and hang our hats, a place to call our “home.” I see evidence of this spirit everywhere — from the widespread use of common symbols, such as this flaming chalice, in our worship, to the emphasis on “mission” and “covenant” and the periodic efforts to rework our “Principles and Purposes” statement, which seems to renew itself every few years. Some of this, I suspect, is simply a response to Unitarian Universalism’s recent growth and revitalization — the search for something new to replace the sense of homogeneity that had resulted from that old, implicit Unitarian creed of “The Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston.” But it is also, I think, a realization that the statement “Unitarian Universalists are people who believe that beliefs must change as circumstances change” makes us sound a little wishy-washy: as though belief itself counts for little, and change is what we truly worship.
There are several related questions at issue here, and I want to take just a moment to unravel them a little, so that we can look at them together in a logical sequence. The first question has to do with the nature of pluralistic religion, in which each individual is essentially free to believe whatever his or her experience inspires them to believe. The second has to do with the idea of “progress” itself: what does it mean to progress “onward and upward forever?” And finally (at least for today) is this notion of religious quest or pilgrimage, and what it is we are actually hoping to find at the conclusion of our journey.
Because of what I do for a living, from time to time I am asked by folks unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism to explain our religion to them in twenty-five words or less. It’s a difficult challenge, as I’m sure many of you can appreciate from your own experience — I’ve been at it for the better part of a quarter-century now, and I’m still not sure that I’m any better at it than I was when I first started. Outsiders sometimes have a tough time grasping the dynamic nature of it all. “Surely you must know that you believe,” they say. And I answer, “Yes. But what I believe and what others in my church believe are not necessarily one and the same. One of the principal tenets of our religion is that individuals must be free to seek the truth in their own way, without having the beliefs of others forced upon them.”
Usually that’s enough to get your typical Fundamentalists scratching their heads in confused amazement. But every once in awhile I’ll run across folks who are, themselves, potential Unitarians. “But if you say that people are free to believe whatever they want,” these budding UUs will ask, “what about someone like Hitler, who sincerely believed that it was OK to murder millions of Jews?” It’s a legitimate question, one which in many ways represents the Achilles heel of our movement; and so I must explain that, no, Hitler was not a good UU — that the freedom to choose one’s own beliefs does not imply a solipsistic world in which all beliefs are equally valid, and that one of the reasons that Unitarian Universalists meet in churches is so that we can verify our beliefs and the experiences that have informed them against the beliefs and experiences of other, fellow seekers. Some beliefs, quite frankly, are not as good as others; and the way that Unitarian Universalists have traditionally distinguished between the two is by looking at the results: “By their fruits shall ye know them.” In other words, Religious Pluralism is not the same as Moral Relativism; the freedom to choose one’s own beliefs is not a license to behave as one will.
Unitarian Universalists are not free to believe whatever we want or wish. We are COMPELLED to believe what our reason and our experience tell us to be true. And since no human being is possibly omniscient (that, in the western world, at least, is a quality ordinarily reserved for God), there will naturally be a certain amount of diversity of belief within an undergirding consensus of methodology and value. The statement that human reason and human experience are the ultimate arbiters of religious truth carries with it an unspoken belief about the nature of reality, and of truth itself. And it is from this underlying sense of agreement that our freedom to disagree has its origin.
This brings us, quite naturally, to the question of Progress: how do we differentiate between a good belief and a better belief, or even between a good belief and a bad belief? This is not nearly so easy a task as it might sound. Let’s take a relatively simple example. If you are in business, and you have a gadget that will do a certain job in a certain time at a certain price, and someone brings you a gizmo that will do the same job in less time for half the price, that’s progress. (Unless, of course, you are a gadget manufacturer, in which case maybe its time to start thinking about applying to Divinity School and beginning a second career). If the gizmo will do a better job, or maybe even a second job on top of the first job, but it costs a little more and takes a little longer, that may or may not be progress — it all depends on your particular needs. And if it doesn’t do the job at all, at any price, then it’s obviously not progress, and if you go ahead and buy the gizmo anyway, you probably won’t be in business very long.
When dealing with issues of religion, however, this process becomes infinitely more complicated. Indeed, just deciding what the “job” is — what you want your religion to do for your life — is often a lifetime task. Most religions provide these answers for the believer — the “job” is to be saved, to gain eternal life. We UUs often speak of the “search for truth” as our great religious task — never specifying what it is we should do with this truth once we find it. Indeed, this is precisely the problem we’ve been looking at this morning — it’s fine to search, but what do we do if we should (God forbid!) actually find something? Are we merely looking for better ways to look? Is there no tangible core to our faith, a “job” that must be done?
It has sometimes been said that the one constant thing we can rely on in life is change. Yet often it seems as if those who are actually closest to whatever is changing have the hardest time recognizing what is really going on. “A prophet is not without honor, except in their own country, and in their own house.” You all know that story, don’t you? At about the age of thirty, still a relatively young man, even by the standards of his own day (although certainly no longer a kid), Jesus of Nazareth went to the Jordan river to see and hear the famous religious teacher, John the Baptist, who some thought might even be the Messiah, a prophet who would purge the nation of corrupting, foreign influences and create a kingdom in which God and God alone would rule.
And he had an experience there at the River Jordan that profoundly changed his life. In fact, he found it so disturbing that he actually went out into the desert for forty days (or so the tradition tells us) just to think it over. And when he came back and started to tell people about his vision, they listened in great numbers. What did he say? You don’t have to wait until everything is perfect in order to start doing what is right. God’s kingdom is all around us: open your eyes and see it. This is good news if you are poor; it means freedom to those who are captive and oppressed. Because this is what God wants us to do — to heal the broken-hearted, and to set at liberty those who have been bruised. This is the year acceptable to the Lord.
But when he got back to Nazareth, his own hometown, the people there were a little more skeptical. “We know this guy,” they said. “Who is he to be telling us all these things? He grew up right here; we’ve all known him since he was a baby. He’s nothing special. His father didn’t even own his own house, and had to support the family by working as a manual laborer. Show us something more, carpenter’s son, if you truly expect us to believe all these crazy things you’re saying. Solve your own family’s problems before you start telling us how to solve ours.” The message was the same for everyone who heard it. But some folks were just too set in their ways to listen. They were too familiar with this newly-minted prophet; they were unable appreciate how much he himself had changed.
Now admittedly, change is not always progress in and of itself. Things can change for the better, and things can change for the worse. Thus, whatever changes we embrace over time regarding what we do or do not believe as the result of our religious quest should, in some way, help us to live better lives. They should help us to understand and deal with our limitations, and with the fact of our own mortality; they should help us to improve our relationships with other human beings, and with the natural world in which we live. Insight, inspiration, understanding are important. But mere knowledge alone is not enough. We also need to be able to live these changes, to put into practice the things that we have learned, in order to transform both ourselves, and the world around us.
For some, this may be as profoundly simple as learning to accept ourselves and the world around us for what we are: the knowledge that we are all going die before achieving even a fraction of our potential, and that the world will somehow survive without us. For others, it may lead us on a series of crusades for civil liberties and social reform: a quest for peace and justice. I myself have always felt inspired by the sentiments of the so-called “Serenity” prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, which I have seen now in so many forms: the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference. This tension exists at the core of all great religious questions: a tension between accepting the limits imposed upon us by nature, and the indomitable struggle to transcend them. And progress, at least in my current view, is coming to see more precisely where the line between them lies, and then living one’s life as close to that line as possible.
Wither, then, do we journey? And for what do we quest? We quest for Wholeness: for that elusive harmony of being that lingers in the boundary between mortality and transcendence. And the end of all our exploring, as the Poet tells us, will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. Not in the sense of somewhere or something we might touch or taste or own; not even a spark or a soul or a supernatural force; but a Spirit: a breeze, a breath, a thing felt but not seen. A whole which is greater than the sum of all its parts, but which cannot be explained in analogy to any one of them. And the real mystery is that while we cannot fully comprehend this reality, we do share of it — we participate in it. We are a part of the whole, and yet we are whole within ourselves, and in this sense, truly, we have been created in the image of God, and can know God best through a deep knowledge of ourselves.
Perhaps, as Unitarian-Universalists, we are forever destined to be chasing after trains. But it’s nice to think that every once in awhile we are free to sit in the lounge for a few hours longer, to savor a warming apéritif and listen to the blizzard rage around us, to enjoy the company of friends, to wait for the next train, and be a few hours late to Boston. The Journey Home does not always require perpetual motion. At times it’s important just to sit, and wait, and listen.