Sunday, January 11, 2009


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday January 11th, 2009


[extemporaneous introduction]

I thought I'd start out today by saying a few words about my title, and also about the larger theme of this loosely-defined series of sermons I’m planning to preach between now and Easter. The theme of the larger series might best be thought of as “UU DNA” -- those things about “Our Liberal Movement in Theology” which are so basic and ubiquitous and essential about understanding who we are and how we got to be this way that they might be thought of as part our our genetic (or, in this case, our “memetic”) code.

The topics themselves: “What does it mean to be part of a community of faith?” The problem of evil, the nature of spirituality and religious experience, and the twin burdens of future expectation and past heritage (who are we and what is our purpose and destiny?) -- These are issues that ANY faith community worth its salt might profitably choose to examine. But the titles I’ve chosen are unusual phrases or aphorisms that have stuck in my mind over my thirty-some years of reading and talking about materials that (in some cases) date back thousands of years before that.

I’m going to try to keep those a surprise, of course, for a little longer if if can. But think about it for a moment. What does it say about our faith, in its essence, that we should choose do define ourselves as a “promiscuous” (which is to say, a “casual, indiscriminate mingling” of both those who have strong Faith convictions, and those who are exploring some?

We tend to talk an awful lot these days about “UU Identity” -- what does it mean to a member of a community living under a covenant of mutual accountability and support, rather than a defined set of beliefs. And we also talk a lot about “UUism” and “What does it mean to be a UU?” as though if we could just find the answer to that question printed somewhere in a book (or on a blog!) people could go the the on-line “test your faith” quiz at and plug in the right answer all the time.
Personally though, I think these kinds of conversations often do us a lot more harm than good. The point is that there are probably as many different ways of being Unitarian Universalist as there are Unitarian Universalsits (and we are thinking up new ones all the time). But people don’t come here to be transformed into something other than what they are. They come here to DISCOVER the person they were already meant to be, and then -- through the relationships they create and develop with the people they meet and discover here -- to grow and deepen that faith identity and their devotion to those beliefs -- through study, through conversation, through service -- until they have also truly become deeply spiritual people of faith.

It’s those OTHER GUYS who want to transform other people into something just like them: who require absolute agreement in a few “essential” beliefs, (and then a few more, and then a few more)...until not only does everyone think alike: they dress alike, they act alike, they vote alike, and they don’t spend much time after hours hanging out with those who dress and think and vote differently than they do.

And I hope I haven’t oversimplified the difference between being a Christian and being a UU by suggesting that Christians are mostly interested in making you just like them, while the Unitarian Universalist church is much more interested in helping YOU discover and become precisely the person you are intended to be {and see how the use of the passive voice in theology -- I might also have said “the person you were meant to become” -- helps us to steer clear of arguing over a lot of meaningless metaphysical details?]. We want you to become the person you were meant to be, just as we all want to become the people WE were meant to be...and whether that involves one “U” or both “UUs” or maybe some sort of hyphenated “UU-this,” or “UU-that,” or maybe even no “U’s” really doesn’t matter, because just as the map is not the territory, the “label” is not the product...and I for one would just as soon not be labeled anyway....;

On the other hand, Unitarian Universalism does indeed have the power to improve our lives in profound and life-transforming ways...but ONLY if we are willing to open ourselves up to the power of that transformation and risk the uncertainty of being changed. I mean, what if it turns out that we’re NOT the people we thought we were all along? What if our wise and comfortably opinions simply don’t translate as we make that transformation from “seeking” to Service, and from skeptical doubting to confident trust?

As seekers we are free to go anywhere and everywhere we wish: to ask any question, to challenge every answer, to test each truth in the crucible of our own experience. But as Believers it is kind of expected that we will KNOW what we BELIEVE and that we will know where we BELONG; that we are no longer here only to explore, but also to improve ourselves, to improve the things around us, and to leave the world a better place than it was when we first encountered it.

It has also been my experience as a Unitarian Universalist minister that very few people actually show up in church with a fully-formed plan for how to fix the world neatly tucked away in one of their inside pockets, and that those who do often end up tapping the dust (or maybe we should say the slush) from their shoes as they leave the sanctuary. Of course, this was also Jesus’s experience in the Synagogue at Nazareth, where he too learned that a prophet is not without honor except in their own hometown.

Generally though, people have much more practical concerns. “Teach me how to raise my children.” “I want to be part of something larger than myself, and more than just a member of a sophisticated audience.” “Help me to learn how to die.” And in the midst of all this conversation the potential for transformation begins to take seed. Because the goal isn’t really to figure out the WHOLE Elephant. The goal is to understand enough about the elephant, and enough about ourselves, that we understand whether or not we need a tree, or a snake, or a wall or a spear or a rope or a fan... or maybe something entirely different altogether.

The goal is to know what we want, and to know where we can find it, and that also know that we can count on the company and the encouragement and the cooperation and the support of the people whom we have met upon the way -- the people who have offered us Hospitality, and to whom we too have have been hosts and hostesses as they have made their journeys thorough life. The goal is to understand that the world is NOT filled with Strangers, but with friendly neighbors, whom we can trust because they have proven themselves trustworthy over time.

A Seeker is a pilgrim, a soujourner, a traveler in search of enlightenment. But Believers tend to put down roots, to make commitments, to be folks you can rely on to leave the lights on when times are tough, and the weather turns nasty....

[extemporaneous conclusion]


The Blind Men and the Elephant
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant~(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation~Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, ~ At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant ~ Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here?
So very round and smooth and sharp? ~ To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant ~ Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, ~ Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant ~ Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like ~ Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant ~ Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most; ~ Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant ~ Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail ~ That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant ~ Is very like a rope!

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion ~ Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right ~ And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
--John Godfrey Saxe