Get Religion

Sermon – January 6, 2013 
It was about 2007 when I could keep it in no longer.  I’d avoided the issue for long enough.  I’d downplayed my feelings, guarded my intuition.  I’d kept a lot of my favorite things and even my friendships, on what they call, the down low.  But I couldn’t hide it anymore, from myself, or from the world.

One Sunday that Fall, a few months after I’d started seminary, I preached a sermon and officially came out – as religious.  I called it, “The Scarlet R.”

In some ways, coming out as religious was more difficult for me than coming out as queer.   In the circles I run in, being religious carries more baggage, and causes more confusion than any term about sexuality might.

So much so that I could be mid-way through my first year in seminary, and still not be convinced that I was a religious person.

It was like one of those old Jeff Foxworthy routines: You might be religious if….you’re in seminary…You might be religious if…you just described yourself as having preached a sermon…..You might be religious if…you gather with others on a Sunday morning, kindle a flame, sing hymns, sit in silence and in gratitude.  You might be.

You’ll notice that when I described my hesitancy to come out as religious, I told you how I assumed other people would respond.  But as with sexuality, what I’ve realized about religious identity is the real demon you have to confront is in here.  Your own fears, and prejudices about religious people, your limitations of imagination, your own stereotypes – I’m not one of those types of people, you, or I, might say.

I remember the first time I read the bible in public.  I was like….I mean, it was like I was reading pornography.

Whose issue was that? Whose fear, and shame and prejudice?

It was mine.

And my internal barriers were way more stubborn than anything I could have possibly discovered in anyone else. And it turns out, I’m not alone.  According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, one in five Americans today claims no religious affiliation at all.  And one in five Americans says they are spiritual, but not religious.  It’s the “rise of the ‘nones,’” as the article describing the study announces.[1]

I have heard it in Unitarian Universalists circles – I’m spiritual, but not really religious. Some might even wonder about the “spiritual” part. Heck, like I just told you, for a while, I said it in Unitarian Universalist circles.  I’m not religious. We aren’t really a religion. Right?

In June of 2011, the Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (and former senior minister of Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden) looked out across the gathering of those attending the annual General Assembly, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and said that the future for Unitarian Universalists – that is, the only way for us to have a future – is for us to “get religion.”

And with those words, a collective gulp was heard from many corners of the Unitarian Universalist community.  And a collective cheer too. After all, any coming out process is equal measure liberation and terror.

Does the world need religion today?

Does it need this thing called liberal religion today?

And if it does, what does it need it for?

What is liberal religion called to be?

What and who are we called to be?

These are admittedly big questions for the first Sunday in January, the first Sunday of this new year. Questions that will surely be taken one piece at a time each Sunday in the coming year.  But sometimes, perhaps on the first Sunday of the year, it is good to take a macro look.  To step way, way back, and say – what does all this – all this – mean?

What would it mean for us to “get religion”? To come out in today’s world, to claim ourselves boldly and bravely as religious people?

Peter Morales offered 3 ways to understand what it would mean to “get religion.”[2]  I’m going to share these 3 things with you, and expand upon them along the way, and we’ll see where we get in the next 15 minutes or so.   The good news is, I will leave a lot left unsaid. Good news, because we do have a lot more Sundays ahead of us, this year, and beyond, a lot more of time between Sundays too- to discern together our big answers to these very big and important questions.  So, let’s get to it.

Peter Morales’ first answer to what he meant by saying we need to “get religion,” was that we needed to take ourselves seriously as a religious movement.  “We are not” he said, “an alternative to religion.  We have a rich tradition that we want to [that we must] share and pass on to future generations.”

I would characterize this rich tradition first by saying that liberal religion has historically been a place of theological and moral resistance. We have been what Rebecca Parker describes ascommunities of resistance, or “countercultural habitations in which people learn ways to survive and thrive that can resist and sometimes even transform an unjust dominant culture.”

Our history is filled with stories of resistance, with a willingness to question the status quo, perhaps none more dramatically than Michael Servetus, who in 1553 was executed because he would not shut up about there not being a scriptural basis for the trinity.

Can you even imagine being compelled like that? To feel that such an argument was worth dying over?

Our religious tradition invites us to consider the corollary in today’s world.

Where are we called to stand up for unpopular but morally righteous positions? What pieces of our dominant culture are we called upon to question and transform?

As a community of resistance, as a religious community, our task is to discern our answer together. Liberal religion makes no idol of today.  We are called to remember that this world – beautiful and holy as it is- is not enough.

Which brings me to the other way I’d characterize the rich tradition Peter Morales describes – which is as an embodied practice of an ever-widening welcome.

We were the first denomination to ordain a woman, and the first to stand up for gay and lesbian equality, we were one of the earliest denominations to ordain out ministers, and we have stood at the forefront of the civil marriage effort. Kay Northcutt – a prominent Disciples of Christ minister – came to see Unitarian Universalists in our District a couple years ago, because she wanted to let us know that from her perspective, liberal religion is the hope of the world. (No pressure)

It is the hope of the world, for it is the voice that stands for inviting more and more people to the welcome table.  More and more people to the welcome table of our society, more and more people to the welcome table of our hearts.  Which is actually where Peter Morales goes next in his 2nd of his 3 ways describing what it means to “get religion.”

He invites us to consider our hearts. He says, “we must realize that religion is more about what we feel and experience than about our opinions. Religion’s source is our experience of being loved, of loving, of belonging, of feeling awe, and of feeling connected to all creation. This has enormous implications.”

About a year ago, in my former church, we found ourselves facing a divisive community issue.  The talk all over town was about these developers who were asking for a vote on a proposed new and big housing and commercial development.

In our own congregation, there were people on either side of the issue.  Letters to the editor became vicious, and personal.  We knew our time and place invited some kind of response from our church.  But what?

The political question was clear – would a development be right for the community? But what was the religious question? That was harder.

The first Sunday I preached here, I described us as a “liberal religion,” and more than one person asked me after what I meant by the term.  One said, my husband is conservative, and I always feel unsure if he is welcome here.

I wanted to say without hesitation that we welcome everyone, regardless of their political affiliation.  That being liberal religiously is not the same as being liberal politically.  But without even knowing much about this particular congregation, and its capacity to adequately differentiate a religiously liberal voice from a politically liberal approach – I knew it would be a hard promise to keep.

At last year’s General Assembly, there was a full session on the stories of politically conservative Unitarian Universalists, and the ways they had felt ostracized and unwelcome in their congregations, despite their faithful commitment to our religious tradition and values.

Maybe it happened in the 80’s when the religious right united with the political right.  Maybe it happened when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged in 1961 and we didn’t know who we were as a newly formed “religion,” and so we decided to take up the more culturally accessible political path.

Regardless of how or when it started, in our churches today, we often conflate theological and political affiliations, despite the fact that sociologists will readily tell you that one has no automatic correlation with the other. I have partnered with people who interpret scripture quite literally, and who would readily testify to Jesus Christ as their savior – on some of the most liberal political projects.  And some of the most devoted Unitarian Universalist spirits I know come to dramatically different policy conclusions than does the Democratic Party.

Not only are we factually off base when we conflate theology and politics, we all suffer – regardless of our political affiliation- when we fail to discern our religious voice and default instead to an established political approach.

You may have heard me talk about how a few of our newer members have told me they’d been to Unitarian Universalist churches before and tried to make a connection, but it never took. They said – they’d show up on Sunday, and it felt like a political rally, and that just wasn’t what they were looking for. It wasn’t that they disagreed with the philosophy. They were actually active in the Democratic Party.  It was just that they didn’t need another place to explore their political positions, another place where the approach would be about winning and losing, or another community where the emphasis would be on human utility or human separation – what ends can we accomplish so that we can win.

They came to a religious community because they needed help to live out our human wholeness – the question of who are we called to be in this time and place, given that all life is one.

When we “get religion,” Peter Morales says, “our worship, our small groups, our religious education, and our public witness” will all be guided by an “experience of being loved, of loving, of belonging, of feeling connected to all of creation.”

It is this religious understanding that led my former congregation to respond to their political circumstances by calling up neighboring religious communities, and on the day after the vote about the development, they helped lead an interfaith worship service focusing on our shared values, and our unity as a community.

There were leaders from both sides of the issue.  There was music, and meditation, and prayer. It was just a beginning of a long process of communal reconciliation, but it was a meaningful response.  And it was a religious response.

Our religious calling – so distinct from the political approach- invites us to respond to our utter connectedness.  It doesn’t mean we don’t ever take a particular stand in response to a political issue – it’s just that when we do, it is because doing so would foster greater relationship, facilitate deeper reconciliation, develop greater love – bring more people to the welcome table, and respond to our fundamental religious experience of loving, being loved, and of being connected to everyone else on this precious planet.

Which brings us to the third point from Peter Morales on what it means to “get religion.” He says, “religion concerns that which links us together,” referencing its root – religio, or to bind together.  He goes on to make the bold assertion that “radical individualism may have been a liberating force in the more rigid society of the nineteenth century.  [But] today, in a culture that erodes enduring relationships and isolates people, individualism is a prison.”  And religion – he says – is what frees us from that prison, what allows us to be “saved,” from individualism – what he calls the “spiritual disease of our time.”  Or as our reading puts it, religion is what helps us put love into practice, which sounds easy but is completely not.

In August, our Board President began our Board Retreat by sharing a story similar to the one Karen shared in her chalice lighting. For many years, he said, he kept the church at arm’s length.  He made a motion like this (arm reached out).  Church was a nice thing he did, when it was convenient.  And then, last summer, he attended Leadership School, and he started to connect more fully with our rich tradition, and he had an experience with small group ministry that allowed him to get in touch with that feeling of loving and being loved, that experience of being connected, of being a part of something bigger than himself.

He “got religion.”

And in turn, he testified that he was moving from this (arm out) to something more like this (arms open).

From the individual into community.  From one, to many, to One. From separate to connected. And also, from self-protection, to vulnerability.

For it is a move towards relationship, and no relationship comes without risk.  This move – — it says – I’m gonna trust you, I’m gonna invite you in, I’m gonna listen to your story in all its complications, and I’m going to share my own.  I’m going to let you see me, my genuine self, my imperfections and my fears – what Doug’s prayer said described as our human fallibility, and together we’re going to discover where and how love calls us to live.

This openness invites a kind of mutual disarmament.  Karen described it as “the power that comes from taking the risk to be ourselves, and to bring ourselves, just as we are.”  It is a process that necessarily undoes our protective coverings, whatever they may be – anger, control, pessimism, achievement, addiction, consumerism – What are the things that you have spent your life putting in place so as to keep your heart protected?

What would it mean to reveal these places together?

Remember what I said about the coming out process – terror, and liberation.

As we move from spiritual, but not religious; (arm’s length) to spiritual and religious. (arms open)

Peter Morales concludes his article by describing what he sees in congregations that “get religion.” “Members of such a congregation really know one another and deeply love one another.  They have shared their stories and their dreams. They have worked together doing important things. They share a vision for the future.  Religion,” he says, “is something we practice together.  It isn’t about me; it’s about us.”

In our congregations, and beyond, let us unleash this power.  Let us “come out” into the deep promise of our tradition.  Let us live into our deep connectedness. And let us heed the call of the spirit of love, calling us all to proclaim boldly, the possibility and hope of being liberal religiously.

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

[2] http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/186238.shtml

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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