Rev. Douglas Taylor
I began my seminary career at a Methodist Seminary just north of Columbus, OH. It was a valuable experience for me. Having grown up in a Unitarian Universalist church and planning to graduate from Meadville Lombard, our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago, it was a good experience to immerse myself in a positive Christian community. I developed an ear for the language and passion of the liberal Christian culture.
There were two other seminaries in the Columbus area, a somewhat moderate-to-conservative Lutheran school in downtown Columbus and a moderate-to-liberal Catholic seminary in the northern suburbs. By comparison, the Methodist seminary was more liberal, more ecumenical, and more rural. We all came together once a year for shared classes and worship. I was one of the representatives from the Methodist school to help in the planning of the day. I also participated in the evening worship service which the Catholic students (as the hosting school) put together. I did a reading, as did one of the Lutheran students from the downtown seminary.
Now, if you know a little bit about the historical theological rallying of Lutherans and Unitarians you will notice the irony of this. The organizers gave me, the “Deeds not Creeds” Unitarian, the passage from Ephesians where Paul says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
But then the “Saved by Faith Alone” Lutheran was given the passage in James that says:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
The Catholic student in charge of organizing this shared service claimed to not have noticed the theological reversal, and that may well be true. I still harbor the belief that it was playfully intentional and he chose not to admit it. I think this because it is the kind of thing I might do. “Oh, really, Luther called the letter of James, “the Epistle of Straw” he hated it so much? Oh, Unitarians get there backs up when Paul starts disrespecting the role of good deeds? Gee, it must have been interesting experience for you to have the opposite readings.” Actually, I can’t imagine myself being quite that devious, I’m sure I would have admitted the readings were not random. I think Paul’s over-emphasis on faith is a good balance to James’ heavy-handed praise of works.
Sometimes I wonder if the conservative outsider’s perception is true. I wonder if we do place too much emphasis on justice-making in our congregations. What, after all, is the purpose of a church? And what is the role of social activism and justice-making in life of a congregation? How does the Prophetic ministry fit into the broader scope of why this congregation exists? I’ve been studying this question of purpose lately. I’ve noticed that more conservative Christian churches talk about their purpose in terms of worship, education, and evangelism. Many of them will have an outreach to the poor or a prison ministry, but it is rarely a featured program. Their justice ministry is not written into their mission statements or slogans. They will more often focus on the Great Commission which is to evangelize.
Now, it’s not that we Unitarian Universalists don’t evangelize. It’s that we do it gently. We don’t make a big show of it. We offer examples of what it means to be a part of our community, examples through our living, our loving, and perhaps most visibly, through our justice-making efforts. We are known as J-walkers, we walk the justice walk. Unitarian Universalists Congregations are networks of compassionate concern for the betterment of our world.
What is the purpose of our congregations, why do we exist? Is it simply to be a vehicle to better coordinate justice making efforts? Are we simply a J-walking club? Well, I’ll tell you: of course not, because it’s only half the answer. I’ll admit I toyed with the idea of preaching about faith or spiritual growth knowing that with the Justice forum scheduled there would be many social activists in attendance this morning. But I to be honest, I must spend out time together highlighting the shared primacy of contemplation and activism.
I have long held that the grand purpose of Unitarian Universalism is transformation: personal and social transformation. Social activism and justice-making programs fit as a balance into the primary purpose of why our congregations are here. Our version of salvation is focused on saving the world through justice-work today for all people, rather than offering “personal salvation” in some “next world” for a special select set of true believers. Unitarian Universalism is a progressive religion that balances the freedom of individual belief with the responsibility of the community to take care of others. We strive to have compassion in action.
We Unitarian Universalists have long held a conviction for the importance of good deeds, ethical living, and justice-making in both our personal lives and in our congregational lives. Throughout our history courageous men and women have taken risks and stood up for justice, fairness, and equity. The stunning number of famous people like Susan B. Anthony, Adlai Stevenson, Clara Barton, and John Haynes Holmes are wonderfully outnumbered by the hundreds and thousands of Unitarian Universalists like you and me who work with passion and compassion for positive change to happen in our local communities. And many of our congregations take stands together in a wide array of justice issues. We are justifiably proud of our habit to J-walking.
The grand purpose of Unitarian Universalism is transformation: personal and social transformation. Of course, each Unitarian Universalist congregation is a little bit different; each one has its own flavor. What is this congregation’s purpose? I have said from time to time, “People are our business,” which is kind of vague. I bet a Life Insurance company could get away with the same slogan. I think a better way for us to say it might be: UUCB exists to help people deepen and connect through worship, study, service, and fellowship.
I think we’re doing a great job fulfilling our purpose. Look at this busy month: Last week we invited an Emerson Scholar into our pulpit who led us into deeper study of the life and thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Today we host a forum with local justice-oriented organizations. Next weekend we’ll hold our second annual Spirituality retreat. The week after will have Maundy Thursday worship and fellowship events leading up to our significant Spring-time worship event: Easter Sunday. And then, one week later there will be our second annual UU Revue talent night. I could go on, and I’m still talking about the month of April! These are all activities focused on worship, study, service, and fellowship. These are all opportunities to deepen and connect, to balance our individual freedoms and our communal responsibilities. There are many ways to connect and to deepen, many ways to engage your faith here.
Of the many ways in, however, the way of service is a crucial way that everyone at one point or another must travel. And here I mean service in a broader sense than Justice-making. Service is virtually anything you do to make life in general or another person’s life in particular better. Without the service component in faith, everything would be turned inward and we might as well simply be a club. Faith without service is dead. A congregation without a service orientation is a dying congregation. Without the justice programs drawing us to connect with those in need, we end up only for ourselves – a stifling proposition. Our outward-looking service work is a critical component to the health of the congregation.
Notice, for example, how our financial generosity has grown through the monthly special offerings we’ve been hosting. Each month we give our collection away to a local charity or organization that is doing good work in the broader community. When we started, we gave about $200 away each month. That amount has grown slowly to the point that a special collection now raises $600 or $700. In February we collected over $900 for the SOS shelter. Yet, our annual pledge drive, our year-after-year effort to raise funds for our internal financial needs, continues to produce pretty much the same results again and again. We are a generous congregation, though it shows primarily when we are J-walking.
We are in the people business; our purpose is to help people deepen and connect. Justice is about relationships. Justice is not about abstract ideas, or issues. It is about people. “Righteousness” is a common word in the bible. It comes up when describing a just person, or in prayers asking God to make us righteous. “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Being righteous is not about being right or correct. It is not about being better than others. Righteous is perhaps best translated as “Right-relatedness.” To be righteous is to be in “right-relation.” It is about relationships, about how we are with other people.
There is an insightful little story about two men walking along a river one day. They see an infant floating down the river, helplessly caught in the current. Immediately, the two men jump in the river and rescue the child. But after getting the infant to safety they notice another infant floating down the river in the same way. Again, they rush into the river to save the child. And again they look up after getting the second child to safety and another baby is floating down the river. One guy looks at the other and says, “I’ll get this one, you go upstream and stop whoever’s throwing babies in the river.” This story is a play on the aphorism, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” They both illustrate a distinction between immediate personal problems and systemic problems that effect many people, but the first one makes clear that we need to deal on both levels.
And that is ultimately what I want to tell you this morning. We need to deal on both levels. Service and Justice-work is important, critical. But it is half the equation because we are also called to help one another at times with the little, simple, personal stuff of life: when your neighbor is in need of a ride to the store, a hand shoveling the walk, a kind word during a time of personal turmoil. We call ourselves to put our faith into practice, our compassion into action.
The world is full of all manner of terrible things. There are wars to protest, food pantries to support, legislation to oppose, grassroots organizing to encourage. Yet there are also people in need: loved ones have died, insurance bills have added up, marriages are in trouble, and houses have burned down. Everyone carries their own burdens; each of us is weighed down by our private cares and concerns. Meanwhile the world cries out with injustice and suffering on the global scale. We strive to have compassion in action. We strive to balance our individual needs and passions with the needs and injustices in the world around us. Not an easy task.
I suspect that Paul and James (from the bible-letters) would not disagree with me. Each wrote to a particular community in a particular situation. This is a fact many forget when we read the bible and take what it says as final. These writers were offering responses to particular circumstances such as an overemphasis on good works or a heavy-handed stress on faith as the only thing necessary. Both authors admit in their letters that both are present.
It is always about balance, isn’t it? Breathing out and breathing in, reaching out and drawing in; balance is the key. Having a conscience takes its toll. There is great need and so much of it is truly worthy of our passion and energy. Yet I caution us all to attend to the balance. Now, I’ll admit that some powerful movement can happen when we lean deeply into either our intimate spiritual, personal work or into a highly engaging time of activism and justice-making. Leaning into just activism or only spiritual contemplation will offer the risk of genuine movement. But it is not possible to lean so one-sidedly for long. Those who can develop an even give and take will go farther and cause greater impact both within themselves and in the world around them.
So for all you J-walkers with sometimes spiritual longings, take some time today to contemplate the reason behind your passion, allow it to seep again into your soul. And to all you contemplative souls with occasional bouts of agitation – take in the Justice Forum this afternoon and allow is to offend your conscience a little. Today, through balance and compassion may we become more whole and bring the world greater peace.
In a world without end,
May it be so.