Sermon Delivered September 23, 2018 by Rev. Karen Fraser Gitlitz
Imagine seven people in a room, sitting around a table.
Everyone is leaning in. Voices are rising. This is an intense conversation.
If we’d noticed the room allocation chart on our left as we walked in the building, we would have learned that this is a meeting of the church board, and the people in the room are the board members and the minister.
Listening even for a few minutes, it is obvious that everyone is passionate, and everyone has their own perspective, although some positions are closer together than others.
The motion on the table is very practical, but it represents a challenge to the community. Not everyone in the congregation will agree with it if it passes. Some are afraid it will cause division.
Over several hours, a consensus is gradually cobbled together out of the various perspectives, with one exception.
Finally, one of the board members asks the other one “What do you say is the purpose of this church?”
The intended respondent balked. “I’m no theologian.”
“But you have ideas,” said the other board member. “You’re a member here, a member of the Board of Trustees, and you’re helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we’re up to here.”
The conversation had found a new current, and the agenda was left on the riverbank.
If each of the people present at the meeting had answered the question, we would have discovered that all seven people had different answers to this one question about purpose. The differences would reflect their varying personalities and their different experiences of the congregation.
The answers also would have reflected their differing generations and the moment at which they joined the church. Because the church changes over time, and most of us have an answer that reflects the church that we arrived at, the church that we joined, however long ago we decided that this community would be our home, and worth the investment of our time and money.
The crazy thing is that all those different answers are true. Because the congregation is all these things, in varying degrees. Just like a person, a congregation carries its past experiences along with it into the present. Even if one answer is more on display than another in a given moment, they are all present.
Far into the night, the conversation circles back to the original intended respondent, because they realize that all things flow from this answer to this question: what do you say is the purpose of this church.
It took some pushing, but an answer came, and the board had their decision.
This board meeting took place in 1948.
The city was Chicago.
The congregation was the First Unitarian Society of Chicago.
And the motion on the table proposed the desegregation of the church. [see notes]
The Unitarian Universalist tradition of which we are a part has had many births, in different places and at different times. This is part of the richness of our tradition: there are many streams. Each of the streams takes similar themes — freedom, reason, tolerance and love — and expresses them in unique ways.
One of those streams finds its source in the New England puritans, which might seem incongruous at first glance. But those early New England settlers were idealists, hoping to build the city on the hill, a city that reflected their belief in what their god was calling them to do. In the early 1800s, the descendants of those idealists became divided over their understanding of human nature. One end of the spectrum became the Congregationalists and the other end, with the more hopeful view of human nature, became the New England Unitarians.
Going back to our distant 17th century ancestors, these immigrant arrivals left the old world because they wanted the freedom to pursue their own clear answer to the question of the purpose of the church, unhindered by an ecclesiastical hierarchy which was, to their minds, both unnecessary and totally encumbered by unbiblical traditions.
In 1649, representatives of the puritan communities gathered together at the Cambridge meeting house and drafted the document that became known as the Cambridge platform.
These proto-congregationalists/proto-Unitarians were reacting to a document issued by the church of England. Which they agreed with in all respects EXCEPT the section on the workings of the church.
And like the good Unitarians they would become, they held a meeting so they could talk about it, and write a statement.
The New England puritans had missed the violence of the English civil war. They did not have the English need to deal authoritatively with extremists, that had caused the English church to turn away from congregationalism. Congregationalism, if you haven’t heard it before, is a fancy word which means that the congregation is self governing. You are congregationalist — you have no bishops, you choose your own ministers, you belong to a national association but that association cannot require your participation, it is a voluntary association.
The New England puritans read the bible as a document explaining how to love one another. (I know, this isn’t what many of us see when we read the Bible). But they read all of the Old Testament stories as well as the New, they analyzed each story, noticing who made the decisions, how the decisions were made and why they were successful or not, they concluded that there is no greater authority than a group of people gathered into a church, and the “substance” of this church is the Holy Spirit of mutual love.
The church is made up of the gathered people — the people who have chosen of their own free will to belong to the church — what we would call the members and friends. But it is the promise of mutual love made by these people — “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” — that makes the church a church.
The purpose of all of the activities of the church — the preaching and teaching — what we would call Sunday services, children’s program, youth program and adult programs — the purpose of all this activity was to encourage the members and friends to engage in mutual learning about the ways of love.
Now, if you hang around this congregation for awhile you will notice that we talk a lot about covenants. We have a covenant of right relations — our promise of how we will get along with one another — and each of our small group ministry circles (such as spirit quest) has a covenant or agreement that states what each of the participants commits to do.
All this talk of covenanting comes to us from our puritan ancestors — but they knew that the covenanting itself is not sufficient. The promise must be followed by the practice. Each of us has to be ready to learn new things about loving one another. To put it in more modern terms, the community is the curriculum. [see notes]
Like many of our covenants and agreements, the Cambridge Platform was an idealistic expression of the community at its best. For all that, there are doses of reality within it. It is apparent that these were flesh and blood human beings who had seen a conflict or two, or four, because the platform has some fairly practical chapters describing how church officers should deal with disagreement, the extent of the authority of these elected officers in times of disagreement, and, what to do if the church is hopelessly divided (in case you are interested: other neighbouring churches are supposed to step in).
All issues of interest to us, as we try to navigate relationships in the church.
In each of the puritan’s discussions of individual and group authority, the matter is always brought back to the spirit of mutual love which is to guide all participants and elected officers.
For one of the greatest concerns of these ancestors of ours was hardness of heart. The heart that was not open, the ears that would not hear, this was the gravest problem for an individual and a church.
The recommended remedy was discernment — what we might call attentive listening. To listen for the spirit of love within oneself and within others, and to learn new things as a result of this listening — this was and is the greatest strength of the free church. [see notes]
If our puritan ancestors are watching over us now, I imagine they would be both pleased and disappointed. Like all groups of people, we have our moments of discernment, when we catch the movement of the spirit of mutual love, as well as our moments of hardness of heart.
We also are much less inclined to write things down about the workings of the church — we leave much more to oral history – so perhaps we do have something to learn from them!
In this congregation, the Sunday Services committee requires that every service includes a chalice lighting and an offering. Strangely, there is no requirement for a chalice extinguishing, but I guess that is taken for granted.
Most people who’ve been around here for a while would notice if there wasn’t a chalice lighting. And I always rest easy knowing that if the minister happens to skip over the offering by accident, the current Treasurer or one of several past Treasurers will stand up in the service and remind me about it. It never fails, no matter what congregation I’m in.
But there is another part of the service that — although not officially required — never changes and is never forgotten.
Every Sunday in this congregation, the Service Leader opens with the same welcome:
We welcome you as you are, with your doubts as well as your convictions, with your hopes and your fears. Whatever your heritage, whatever your faith, whomever you love, today you are a part of our religious community.
These words are dear to many. When I am planning a wedding, child dedication or memorial, I am often asked — or more accurately, politely told — that these words need to be included. “You’re going to say those words, right? The ones about welcoming.”
It’s not surprising, really, because those two sentences contain the accumulated wisdom of 450 years of experience. They say something important about who we are as a people.
The oldest part is the bit about faith, doubt and conviction.
This takes us right back to the protestant reformation and the Italian Humanists who studied their bible with an eye to later changes and additions, and as a result, came to question the doctrine of the trinity. The trinity, they argued, was not biblical. The best argument for the trinity was, in their eyes, a later amendment, clearly added after the fact.
Branded heretics, and hounded from their positions, they fled Italy and found homes in the more open societies in Transylvania — a cultural crossroads of east and west — and Poland — briefly, one of the earliest European democracies.
Queen Isabella of Transylvania and her son John Sigismund welcomed people with new ideas, foreign and homegrown. They quickly became a helpful part of a state which was seeking to balance people of many heritages and faiths inside and outside their borders. This led to the first edict of religious tolerance in Europe, the edict of Torda, which was proclaimed 450 years ago last January.
The Edict of Torda said that each community should choose the preacher that best suited them. This meant that there was no state religion — a novelty at the time. Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians were each free to exist within the borders of Transylvania.
Of course, this discussion of freedom of conscience, or free faith, mostly took place within the context of Christianity. It took another three centuries, and a new continent, to teach Unitarian hearts to welcoming other faiths, and people of no faith at all.
This November, Toronto is hosting the Parliament of World Religions, which many Unitarian Universalists will be attending. This seems a natural fit, because it was the first Parliament of World Religions, held in Chicago in 1893 which had a formative impact on the attending Unitarian delegates, influencing them to include all faiths — and not just Christianity — in their welcome.
The more recent, early twentieth century debate about welcoming atheist humanists still has its echoes that rise up from time to time.
Other references in our welcome words are much more recent. The inclusion of “whomever you love” is part of our late twentieth century, early twenty-first century understanding of identity. You will hear more about this during next Sunday’s service.
But it is worth noting that now we have come forward to a time within living memory.
I am old enough to remember the first generation of the welcoming congregation movement. Today we are proud of our commitment to same sex marriage, but it is not so long ago that this was a fraught conversation. When congregations began to reach a tipping point, and suddenly objections that were once simply matters of opinion were no longer socially acceptable within our congregations.
I have a strong memory of a church elder sharing with me that accepting and lobbying for marriage rights of gay and lesbian people shattered the underpinnings of her marriage.
Her marriage had not been an easy one, and she had found deep meaning and even joy in shaping her life into what she had understood to be the biblical purpose of marriage. Letting go of that purpose that had shaped her life, that had encouraged her struggle and shaped who she was as a human being, called everything into question, and left her feeling bereft and alone, afraid to share her struggle with her congregation.
The position of Lesbian and Gay men at that time is similar to those who are Trans and Bisexual now. We are educating ourselves, and in the midst of this process, it can be unclear what to say or how to say it. Choices that seem obvious now were challenging once, challenging for people of good intent. People we may know, or who may be us.
Beryl Markham once said that losing a loved one is like losing a keystone from the arch — take the keystone out, and the whole thing collapses. I think this is true of social change as well. Any form of change, really, because all change results in grief and loss. Even change we welcome. We can never know in advance what we will be called to give up. There is always a time of chaos, when the way forward is unclear, when we haven’t figured out how to speak, or what questions are ok and what questions are not.
One of my colleagues stands up at every new member ceremony and says, “We will fail you. I will fail you.”
And it is true, we will. I will. We all will. Sometimes we will fail ourselves. How can we not?
Like our puritan ancestors, like the board members of the First Unitarian Society of Chicago, we aspire to create the caring community we are sure must be possible. We have the great purpose of being a caring, principled community.
But no human being, no human community lives up to its aspirations all the time. If we did live up to them all of the time, it wouldn’t be much of an aspiration would it? As my swim coach would have said — that’s not much of a stretch goal, is it Karen?
Because by its nature a goal is beyond our reach. Not so far as to be impossible, but certainly not so close as to seem easy.
So what do we do when we don’t meet our goals. When we disappoint one another, or even harder, ourselves?
Our third principle invites us to consider acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.
It seems to me that the whole of our four and a half centuries of attempting to welcome one another into community is a struggle between acceptance and encouragement. Trying to figure out when and how to apply each of them.
Just when we think we’ve figured out how to listen for the spirit of love amongst us, someone comes along and points out a horrible blind spot in our vision. Whether it is Robyn Maynard lifting up the history of police violence toward black people in Canada, or the stories of the residential school survivors, or the realization that our good intentions are no longer sufficient, we are here, yet again, learning that our welcome is partial. That we have excluded when we sought to include.
This is not a cause for despair, however, if we believe, with our puritan ancestors, that the purpose of the church is mutual learning. And only when we are learning can we be sure that the spirit of mutual love is alive among us.
We will never “get it” completely, because we are only part of the interdependent web — we are not the whole of it. Hopefully most of the time we have the humility to remember that, or at least, have the grace to accept it when someone else reminds us.
Back in the board room of the First Unitarian Society of Chicago, in the early hours of the morning, the agenda long abandoned, it was the dissenting board member who came up with the insight that stunned the other board members and the minister with a brilliance that has stood the test of time.
“Okay,” he said, “the purpose of the church … the purpose of this church is to get hold of people like me and change them.”
People like me, he said. The purpose of the church is not to change other people, but to change ourselves.
This is the heart of welcoming, when we allow ourselves to be changed by another person in a spirit of mutuality.
May this be true of all of us. At least occasionally.
Amen. Blessed be.
- The sermon is an oral art form; some aspects of the oral delivery were likely different than the text.
- The story of the Chicago Board conversation comes from the writings of James Luther Adams. The quotes come from JLA. The other details of the conversation (location, number of board members, discussion of the other board members’ answers) are imagined embellishments based on other boards I know).
- The phrase “the community is the curriculum” comes from religious educator Maria Harris.
- My understanding of the Cambridge Platform is influenced by Alice Blair Wesley’s introduction to the Modern Reader’s Edition (all mistakes are mine!)