The Hearth Fire and Beacon Lamp
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Every two weeks my copy of the Christian Century arrives. It is one of the best and widest read liberal religious periodicals around today. One of the small religion-related tidbits of news it offered last week which caught my eye was a report on the eclectic travels of a gentleman named Edward Hoagland.
In the past year Edward Hoagland has received the Eucharist from the cardinal of Milan, witnessed Mother Teresa’s beatification by the pope in Rome, held hands with a circle of Quakers in Vermont, and attended Methodist, Episcopal and Pentecostal churches. “I liked the architecture of the pope’s basilicas, the rationality of the Quakers, and getting hugged by the Pentecostals, with whom you could at least share a good, unshamedfaced cry.” However, he admits that “with our twelve-step programs and church hopping, we’re like characters in search of an Author … People shop around for a credo to believe in: not just Adam Smith’s Atavism or New Age narcissism, but an idealism marked with faith and logic, and a limber minister to explain the details. (American Scholar, Winter)
I can’t help but wonder if Edward Hoagland had ever visited a Unitarian Universalist congregation in his travels, and if so, what he thought of us. This idea of being characters in search of an Author would not, I suspect, fit how most of us see ourselves, but the rest where he talks about “idealism marked with faith and logic” strikes me as a rather apt description of our religious tradition. “Idealism marked by faith and logic.” A balance of faith and reason, Yep, that’s us.
Why are you here? What are you looking for? Are you searching for something like Edward Hoagland? Why are you here? I can imagine many possibilities. Some of us come for inspiration and insight; some, for ethical encouragement. Some show up because they want to stay connected to friends. Some come to grow and become better persons; some, for spiritual or personal healing. And some are here to take part in the justice-making work of this community. Perhaps you stumbled into us and found a home. And maybe, although it is complicated to think of it like this, just maybe this community saved your life. Likely you come for a mixture of these and other reasons. I have owned each of these reasons at several points along the way in my own journey. A religious community meets different needs for different people. I have said before that we are a little bit of a social club and a civil activism group, and a support group and an institute of higher learning all rolled into one. And yet, in a radical way we are nothing like any of those groups because while we are all that variety rolled into one, we are also something more. It is that ‘something more’ I wish to address this morning.
In his recent book, The Almost Church, Michael Durall asks the question, “Does your congregation have a soul?” It is a bit of an odd question I think. Yet it begins to get at this ‘something more’ I am after. In his capacity as a church consultant, Durall has had the opportunity to ask this and other probing questions to many Unitarian Universalist congregations. “Does your congregation have a soul?” The answers he has received over the years are illuminating.
“Yes, but it is buried neck deep.” “Yes, but it is inward looking.” Yes, but it is a candidate for life-support.” “Yes, but it is hidden under the mask of protecting the status quo.” “Yes, but the issue is how to release it.” “The soul of this place is like the talent of a young artist, in need of both training and public expression.” “[Ours is] a wandering soul, looking for meaning. Well intentioned but not committed.” “I think so, but can’t say exactly what it is.” “This church has a little, wrinkled, raisin-like kernel of a soul, but with the potential to do much more to save others.” “Yes, it is in the loving acceptance of one another.” “Yes, every member of my family is better for our involvement.” “Yes, because there is a greater presence than self.” “Yes, soul is substance and core, constant as a beacon.” “No, and I don’t think a church can have one unless people do intense work together.”
While I think this is a bit of a trick question because we are not in the habit of speaking about our communities and institutions as having “soul.” Remarkably, however, many of the attempts hold a rather pessimistic view; “Yes, [our church has a soul,] but it is a candidate for life-support.” “The soul of this church is that we value variety, and we eat well.” So, do you think the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton has a soul? My own answer is: of course it does. And my impression of our “soul” or whatever we call that binding element at the center of our community is not the least bit pessimistic. Our soul is like the flame in the center of the chalice
The image of the Flaming Chalice dates back to World War Two, (not that long ago by religious iconographic standards;) and lighting a chalice has been a common element in Unitarian Universalist worship for only a generation. It is, however, an amazing choice because the flaming chalice carries so many echoes of symbolic meaning, it is an image rich with possibility. My favorite interpretation picks up on the chalice as a container, a vessel, as that which holds us and represents our community. The flame, then, would represent the spirit of our community, the soul of our congregation. I believe that at our heart we find both the warm and welcoming hearth fire of compassion and the blazing beacon lamp of commitment.
Witness the level of care found within Caring Committee which organizes visits to members living in nursing homes and the receptions for memorial service held in the church for our members. Witness the care found within our Small Group Ministries program reaching out through a network of regular meetings focused on deepening and connecting. Witness the commitment found within the Social Responsibilities Committee which is co-hosting (with the community group, Peace Action,) a thoughtful and provocative series on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Witness the commitment found in the generosity we all participate in with our monthly special collections for local charities and organizations. And these are but a few examples of the many ways we touch people’s lives and make our world more whole.
There was a run back in the Nineties of celebrities dismissing religion. Bill Gates said church is an inefficient use of a Sunday morning. Jesse Venture said religion is a sham and a crutch for weak people. Witness, however, the powerful impact this community has on the lives of its members. Witness the soul of this congregation. Witness the life-giving message we offer of the inherent dignity of every individual, of compassion and radical acceptance, and of justice. Witness the hearth fire and beacon lamp at the center of our community.
As a child growing up in the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, NY I was nourished by that community of hope and promise. I took for granted the freedom and encouragement I received from the people of that church. But don’t you think that children should take for granted that they are loved? Certainly a share of what I felt was because my mother was the Director of Religious Education and when I was a young teen she was ordained as the Minister of Religious Education at First Church. Certainly the congregation extended its care to me in part because of they cared for my mother. But I saw that the care of that congregation included to all my friends. At the time, as amazing as it seems to think back on it now, I took it for granted.
As a child I had very few friends, mostly people I knew from church. I hated school and was the popular target of bullies and pranksters. I was sullen and withdrawn. I wasn’t interested in sports and I didn’t involve myself with the activities of the other kids at school. Church was a haven for me. At church I learned how to have friends and how to be a friend. At church I was nourished and encouraged and most of all noticed. At church I was lifted above the chicken coop that filled my days, I was shown the horizons available to me and I was given wings to fly. And in a very real and significant way, although it is complicated to think of it this way, the church saved my life.
In the reading this morning, M.J. Ryan wrote about how “We give best from overflow.”
She wrote that the root of generosity is gratitude. Growing up a part of the Unitarian Universalist church gave me an overflowing feeling of acceptance for which I am very grateful. Ryan wrote, “Gratitude creates a sense of fullness … And from this fullness, we feel moved to give.” As a teenager, I tapped into the heritage of our faith tradition and found ways to give back. I helped out when ever I could with work around the church, I took part in marches and demonstrations and public events where we worked to make the world a better place and to offer those in hardship cause for hope.
The Unitarian Church in Rochester where I grew up, May Memorial UU society in Syracuse where I first became an official member, the little UU fellowship in Delaware, OH where I began my seminary career, the community of seminarians at Meadville Lombard in Chicago where I finished my seminary degree, Countryside church in the suburbs of Chicago where I was nurtured through my internship, Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, MD where I first called to served, and now the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton. Each of these communities from the first through to you here around me today have nourished me and encouraged me and challenged me to grow and learn and serve at my best.
What are you searching for in a religious community, inspiration, entertainment, encouragement toward ethical living? Do you come because you have dear friends to keep in touch with, or because you want spirituality? Are you here because this community saved your life, or because you are welcomed and accepted? Perhaps you are here simply because when you come you are noticed. Whoever you are, whatever your reasons, may you be filled.
Do you think Edward Hoagland would notice? Do you think that fellow who church-hopped the world over would recognize the value of what this “liberal religious alternative in the Southern Tier” has to offer? He “liked the architecture of the pope’s basilicas, the rationality of the Quakers, and getting hugged by the Pentecostals.” I suspect he would see in us the radical openness and warmth. And quite likely he would find the soul of our congregation in the balance of faith and reason that he claims to seek.
The soul of this congregation is found within each of you, the hearth fire to welcome you in and keep you warm, and the beacon lamp to call you out to encourage your journey and strengthen your voice to speak peace to the nations. At our best this congregation becomes a radical agent of change and transformation in the lives or our members and in the community around us. At your best, you are generous contributors of your time and passion and money to the powerful life-saving work of this congregation. May the light of our chalice shine through your life and in all that we do together.
In a world without end
May it be so.