Sunday, February 17, 2008


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday February 17th, 2008

I know some of you have noticed something a little different about my face this morning, so I thought I’d better explain. Last Sunday as I was sitting down front here listening to Jim Scott, I heard him say that he never really believed in “a Bearded Old Man in the Sky.” And I got to thinking, I’m not that old...but I’m not getting any younger. And this pulpit isn’t really “Sky-High,” but it is pretty far up off the ground. So maybe I ought to shave off my whiskers, just to avoid any confusion. Because I don’t want you to mistake me for somebody else. And I really do want to be believed....

Jim also made mention last week of the fact that he knew he was “Preaching to the Convicted” -- in other words, that he was talking to people who already shared his attitudes and core beliefs about environmental issues, along with a strong conviction that it is important that we work together to do something about it. But having just read an interesting article about church growth by my friend and Divinity School classmate Dan Hotchkiss (who now works as a senior consultant for the prestigious Alban Institute), I couldn’t help hearing those words in a slightly different context.

Dan wrote: "With the possible exception of rich, repentant criminals, nobody visits a church in the hope of being asked to pay some of its bills.” And having just seen our heating oil bill for the month of January, I also couldn’ help thinking that maybe we could use just a few more convicted felons around here. I’m not really sure what kind of criminal would really fit in best at a Unitarian Church, since in my experience I find that most of the really “high-profile” criminals tend to prefer more conservative, Fundamentalist, “Bible-believing” churches anyway. But whatta they got that we ain’t got? Except, of course, more money....

Dan goes on to point out that lots of people DO visit churches with ”vague hopes of friendship, intimacy, spiritual [growth and healing], and support in living a more useful life...." And this (as I’ve been telling the folks who have been attending our New UU Explorer classes this month), is also our most basic mission here at First Parish: to bring out the best in the people who come here, and to empower them to do good in the world.

We have plenty of proven, time-tested techniques for accomplishing this task; methods that go back hundreds and even thousands of years. But they all begin here in this hour on Sunday morning, when we take time out of our busy lives to congregate together for worship and fellowship: to share with one another the substance of our lives, and to seek inspiration for the week ahead.

And yes, it can be expensive to heat a big old building like this all winter, which is one of the reasons that the congregation has just formed a new committee to lead us through the “Green Sanctuary” program that Jim mentioned last week. But somehow, thanks to each of us generously doing what we can, we always seem to manage to pay the oil bill, and the electric bill, and the telephone bill...(not to mention the salaries of our small, yet yet deeply-committed five-person staff, which are far and away the most expensive line item of all).

And someday, if we stick with it, we may even to be able to afford to do some of the things so many of you tell me you DREAM of doing here at First Parish, if only we can figure out a way to pay for it....

We have now reached the midpoint in this informal series of sermons I’ve been preaching during Lent on key themes from our current denominational statement of Principles and Purposes. And if you think of that statement as a stone arch, grounded on one side in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and on the other in “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part,” then “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is like the keystone: it’s that big, heavy thing right over our heads that holds everything in place, and gives the entire structure its integrity.

And often when we talk about the Fourth Principle, we speak almost exclusively in terms of “the free search for truth” -- that unencumbered intellectual quest for consistency and certainty grounded in a disciplined use of human reason, and the free inquiry of the unfettered mind. But today I’d like to take a little bit different turn, and talk instead about “the responsible search for meaning,” which in very many ways is a very different thing.

Because you see, no matter how hard we may try, none of us is ever going to know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Rather, what we know (or think we know) tends to be a constantly evolving amalgam of insights, partial truths, and principled convictions -- things we WANT to be true despite widespread evidence to the contrary, simply because it seems so right to us that they should be that way.

For example, I WANT to believe that even though the moral arc of the Universe is long, it bends towards justice; and that deep down in our heart of hearts, human beings are more good than evil; that God is One and the same for everybody (no matter how they may choose to understand that ultimately mysterious “spiritual” reality) and also fundamentally benevolent and providential in nature; and that ultimately all souls will be reconciled both to one another, and to their Creator.

These are basically the central theological convictions that have been at the heart of the Unitarian and Universalist faith traditions for hundreds of years; but they are indeed statements of “faith” -- you don’t have to look very hard to find all kinds of evidence to contradict them. Still, we WANT them to be true because it just seems so wrong that they should be otherwise.

And many of us have chosen to devote our entire lives to making that vision more real, to making our dream come true. And this is why it is so much more useful to talk about “meaning” rather than truth, and to talk about “responsibility” rather than simply freedom. Meaning is ultimately about purpose and value. It’s about the things we FIND worthy of devoting our lives to, whether we can actually “prove” them.

And believe it or not, this was the principal reason, historically, that 19th century Unitarians in particular could enjoy such broad freedom of belief -- it’s because they understood, on some deep level, that it doesn’t really matter WHAT you believe so long as your heart is in the right place, and you are willing to back it up through your actions. They called this doctrine “Salvation by Character,” and along with the notion of “Self-Culture” -- (basically the belief that it is the responsibility of every human being to cultivate within ourselves the higher, more spiritual parts of our personalities) -- this is still the source of our unique theological diversity even today.

Reflect for a moment about the definition of the word “Responsibility.” Basically, all that word means is “the ability to respond.” I know that my own parents worked very hard to instill a strong sense of responsibility within their first born male child; I sometimes wonder whether maybe they did their job just a little too well, since there was a long period in my life when I basically felt responsible for fixing everything that was wrong with the Universe. But now I pretty much try to limit myself to things I may actually have some ability to influence.

Management consultants often define “ability” as a combination of “skill and will” -- the tools, the talent, and the DESIRE to get something done. We all have different abilities (obviously), but (with a few exceptions) we ALL have some ability to respond -- to react, to reply, to “give back.” That’s what responsibility really is: simply the ability to give back -- or in this particular context, to give back in a meaningful, worthwhile way.

Of course, here in America it is hard to speak of Responsibility without also speaking about our Rights. Rights and Responsibilities go hand in hand in our culture, in no small part because unless we take responsibility for defending our rights, there is a very good likelihood that we will lose them. Most of us know that we have the right to remain silent, and also the right to be represented by an attorney (which is one of the reasons we have so many of them), and even the right, if we can not afford one, to have an attorney provided for us. We have rights to life, liberty, and the PURSUIT of happiness (although not necessarily its attainment); and plenty of other rights as well -- not the least of which are freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of assembly and to the free exercise of religion.

The reason we Americans enjoy so many rights is in no small part thanks to the efforts of Unitarians like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in order to secure these rights for themselves and their posterity, and to begin this great experiment in the responsibilities of democratic self government which continues to this day. And lest we forget, these values were not important to men and women like Adams and Jefferson simply because they were Unitarians. Rather, I suspect it’s probably more accurate to say just the opposite: that Adams and Jefferson and others like them were Unitarian BECAUSE these values of duty, of service, of liberty itself, were so important, and meaningful, in their lives.

I want to wrap up this morning by talking just a little bit more about the importance and MEANING of what we are doing right now. Freedom of the Pulpit is perhaps the most distinctive (and I might also say the most envied) aspect of the Unitarian Universalist church, but it is also perhaps one of the most misunderstood elements of our spiritual practice. A lot of folks seem to believe that freedom of the pulpit means that anyone who wants to has a right to climb these stairs and say whatever they please, and that all of us have a responsibility to listen politely and respectfully. And as nice as that may sound to some of you (and believe me, it certainly sounds good to me), it’s simply not true. The place where people have a right to stand up in public and say whatever they like is called a “soapbox,” and it happens out there across the street, in the public square.

Freedom of the Pulpit refers specifically to the right of a covenanted Faith Community such as this one to choose its own minister, rather than having someone appointed over them by a king or a bishop. And with that right comes the duty of making that selection in a responsible manner, as well as the responsibility of supporting their minister in really a shared ministry to the larger community-- not just financially, but by regular attendance, and active participation, and in whatever other manner they are able to respond in service and as faithful witnesses to the truth and meaning of our heritage of faith.

And likewise, being chosen and “ordained” to serve as the minister of a particular faith community does not necessarily confer upon the minister any special rights. Rather, it ENTITLES them (which is why they call us by the title “Reverend”) to both the privilege and the obligation of stepping into this pulpit this week to “Preach the Truth in Love” -- not to say whatever we feel like saying, but to share to the best of our ability the things that our Reason and our Experience, our Education and our own ongoing contemplative spiritual practice, tell us to be true, and which are most meaningful in our own lives.

Some people like to talk about Freedom of the Pulpit in connection with something they call “freedom of the pew,” which is actually a much less complicated idea, although certainly no less profound. But for more than a century now, most Unitarian and Universalist churches have operated according to something called the “Voluntary System,” which means that this church no longer receives any support from public tax revenues (as it did back before Maine became a state in 1820), and none of these individually numbered pews with their tiny little doors are owned by specific “proprietors” any more. All the seats are free, and anyone who wants to is welcome to come in and sit down and listen without being charged a dime.

Likewise (with the possible exception of a handful of teenagers) nobody is obligated to stay: folks are pretty much free to come and go as they please, and no one will come and arrest them and compel them to attend services (as they did in colonial times).

And finally (and this is perhaps the most important thing of all) nobody is obligated to believe a single thing I have to say. Even though it may seem like I’m doing all the talking, this is actually a dialogue and not a lecture: we are here to “talk things through,” rather than simply creating a time for all of you sitting out there to listen to the person standing up here read you the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, Chapter and Verse....

The purpose of this weekly exercise is a simple one. We congregate here, for an hour on Sunday morning, to deepen our insights, to round out our knowledge and our understanding, and to strengthen our convictions, in open and honest conversation and fellowship with one another, and with teachers of our own choosing, as together we pursue that elusive yet essential “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

And by doing so, we also endeavor to bring out the best within ourselves, and to empower one another to do good in the world....