Monday, August 17, 2015

Revelation is Not Sealed

This is the text of the sermon I delivered to the congregation of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, August 16th.  If you're interested, you can listen to the podcast on our congregation's website.  (I'd like to note that this was the first sermon written in what I hope will be my new norm -- I wrote it early enough in the week that I could post it to the Wiki of our Worship Weavers Guild so that they could all provide input.  Because of that input I was saved from some of the errors that come with being your own editor, and I learned things -- that are included here -- that I didn't know before! Thanks to them this last draft of the sermon is considerably different, and improved, from the .)

Opening Words:  "Hey Ain't That Good News," by John Corrado

There's a story told in the Hebrew Scriptures that I'm pretty sure you've heard before and almost absolutely sure you at least know the names of the two main characters.  You can find it in the book of 1 Samuel, chapter17, if you're looking.  It's the story of David and Goliath.

A quick refresher:  the army of the Israelites is facing off against their most fearsome foe -- the Philistines.  The Philistines are camped together over there under their banner, and the Israelites over there, with a clear strip of no-man's land in between.  The story says that every day -- twice a day -- the Philistine champion, Goliath, would walk back and forth in that no-man's land, daring the Israelites to send out a champion their own, mocking and deriding them for not being able to do so.  After several days of this, someone who was not a soldier but a shepherd, not a man but a boy, a boy named David, stepped up to answer the challenge.

Now Goliath was a giant of a man; a man who was like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ving Rhames, Michael Clarke Duncan, and The Rock all rolled into one.  As if that weren’t enough, he was wearing the absolute best heavy armor of the day, and carrying the most massive weapons imaginable.  When David was offered the King's own armor, he refused saying that it would only make him slow and clumsy.  And though he no doubt had his pick of the best weapons from the Israelite army, he decided to trust his own little sling and the "five smooth stones" he picked up at the river.
You no doubt know the rest.  Although it might seem that Goliath had every advantage, David was able to slay his opponent with one well-aimed stone that sunk itself into the middle of the Philistine's forehead.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book David and Goliath:  underdogs, misfits, and the art of battlinggiants says that David's seemingly inexplicable victory was actually quite predictable.  It's true that Goliath had all the advantages ... from the perspective of business -- or "battle" -- as usual.  But David had no intention of engaging his opponent on his enemy's terms.  Unencumbered by heavy armor he was faster and more agile.  And that sling?  A stone slung from a sling strikes with the force of a bullet shot from a .45.  Goliath never had a chance.

I bring all of this up for a couple of reasons.  First, and most immediately, the story says that David armed himself with "five smooth stones" when he went up against his seemingly implacable foe.  Several thousand years later, the Unitarian minister and theologian James Luther Adams returned to that image when he titled one of his now most well known essays, "The Five Smooth Stones ofReligious Liberalism."  This was an attempt to lay out the essential elements of liberal religion, perhaps to help us arm ourselves against one of today's most implacable foes -- conservative religion.  So much damage, so much harm, so much evil has been done, and is being done, under the banner of religious conservatism.  I need hardly enumerate. 

So, back in 1976, in his book On Being Human Religiously, Adams names these "five smooth stones":
  1. Religious liberalism depends on the principle that 'revelation' is continuous.  Meaning has not been finally captured. 
  2. All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion.
  3. Religious liberalism affirms the moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is this which makes the role of the prophet central and indispensable in liberalism.
  4. We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation.
  5. [L]beralism holds that the resources available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.  This view does not necessarily involve immediate optimism.
There have been innumerable sermons dedicated to unpacking these five foundation building blocks, and I have no doubt that, now introduced, you'll hear them come up again from time to time here as well.  This morning, though, we'll be looking only at the first -- "revelation is continuous; meaning has not been finally captured."  Earlier, in that invigorating call-and-response, we said it a different way, "We believe there is holy writ yet to be written."  As we sing our last hymn in a moment -- a poem by Samuel Longfellow set to some stirring music -- we'll affirm again, "revelation is not sealed."
This may not seem like much.  It may be, for us, so commonplace as to be hardly worth noticing.  Much like, I dare say, a shepherd might not give much thought to their simple tunic or the sling in their pocket.  But look around, friends.  Look at the culture -- the dominant culture -- we are submersed in.  The idea that revelation is ongoing, continuous, is actually a pretty radical one.
How much of what happens in our world -- and I'm thinking mostly of the bad stuff now -- how much of what happens in our world happens because somebody thinks that The Truth was set down sometime in the past and that it should remain as it was?  Because when you think that The Truth was set down sometime in the past and should remain intact as it was, you're probably going to be pretty serious about trying to defend it from people who'd change it.
The battle cry of those who oppose marriage equality say that it goes against "traditional marriage" for people of the same gender to marry.  Let's for the moment, leave aside the fact that it is demonstrably untrue that there ever was one unchanging understanding of marriage.  What matters here is that there are people who think that there was, who are certain that there was, and who will do whatever it takes to ensure that how it was is how it is and how it evermore shall be.
That's just one example, of course.  It wouldn't be much of a challenge to think of a myriad of others, and I'd argue that so, so many of them are rooted in the assertion that revelation is not continuous, that it was set down in the distant past, was sealed, and that our job today is to defend it at all costs.  And that's true not just here at home but around the world as well. 
In his book Christ in a Changing World, the Presbyterian Minister and Professor of Theology Tom Driver asserts that if you were to extend traditional Christian theology to its most logical conclusion it would naturally lead to something as homophobic, racist, misogynistic, and in every other way heinous as what we see in the religious right today.  Since he believes deeply, since he would say he knows, that that's not the proper end-point for Jesus' life and teachings, he argues that therefore it is traditional Christian theology must be wrong.   
He wrote, and I'm paraphrasing here, that the greatest sin Christians have committed is locking God in that time and place back then, when if the Bible shows anything about the nature of God it's that God is always out in front, calling people into the new and the unknown.  So although I do not remember him using these words specifically, I'd say that the thrust of his book is precisely what we're talking about this morning -- that revelation is continuous, not sealed; that meaning has not finally been captured.  For many, a really radical assertion.
But so what?  What's the point of all this?  Hold that thought ...
Unitarian Universalism is a small denomination.  There are somewhere around 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, and maybe something like 250,000 individual Unitarian Universalists.  Compare that to the roughly 80 million individual Catholics in the US, in something like 20,000 parishes, and it's pretty clear that we're a minority of the minority.  (To further drive home the point -- the top eleven megachurches in the US have more members than we do in total!) 
Yet not only are we small, there are many among us who think that we're also a little lost.  Directionless.  It’s true that we do a pretty good job of providing a safe haven for folks who are looking for a community of like-minded people where they can be free from dogma and demands.  But if that’s all that we are?  If that’s all that we do?  Many suggest that this might be the reason we're so small. 
This morning I want to affirm that Unitarian Universalism has good news to share.  Our message literally saves lives and I believe it can help save the world.  To be sure, we're not the only religious liberals around.  The United Church of Christ – the UCC – has a pretty good track record, as do Quakers, and some parts of both the Methodist and Episcopal churches.  There's also a pretty radical justice-seeking streak within the Catholic Church.  And that’s only thinking about the Christian traditions!  There’s Reform Judaism, and Engaged Buddhism, and so many others manifestations of liberal religion.  There are a whole lot more religiously liberal folks out there than you might think if all you do watch the evening news or listen to the radio.  In mainstream discourse the word "religion" is most often used as if it is synonymous with "conservative religion," yet you and I know that that's just not so.  There is an alternative.
And that's the "so what."  We have something worth sharing -- not just with our families, our friends, our co-workers even, but with the wider world around us.  Our liberal religion, our "way" of religious liberalism, has never been needed more than it is today.  And it matters, I think, that we're a religious people, that this thing we do here with each other is a religion.  I think that matters.  So whether we're talking about the climate crisis, systemic racism, violence against transgender persons, heterosexism, multicultural sensitivity (a phrase I like better than, "political correctness") -- whatever the issue we need our voice, our religious voice, our Unitarian Universalist voice to ring out loud and clear.
When was the last time, do you think, one of us invited a friend to come to a Sunday service?  How often, would you say, one of us during a conversation with someone says that it's because we're a Unitarian Universalist that we hold the viewpoints that we do (or, at least, that because we're UU these viewpoints are affirmed and encouraged)?  I don't intend these questions to be merely rhetorical -- I want us to actually ask them of ourselves.  What have you, me -- you and me specifically -- what have we done lately to share the good news of our religiously liberal faith?
The Philistines faced off against the Israelites, and the Philistines dared them to do something about it.  That's how sure they were of their superiority.  Yet one young boy was sure that their confidence was misplaced and that their victory was not assured.  Armed only with something that seemed so small and insignificant, he accepted their challenge and, in the end, despite all appearances and expectations, he proved that they could not stand.
Five smooth stones.  Thanks to James Adams we can identify five smooth stones that we have in our pouch today.  The thing is, though, it doesn't matter that we have them, that we think about them and admire their beauty, that we appreciate their heft in our hand.  What matters is our willingness to let them fly -- to let them fly and see where they land.
Revelation is not sealed, my friends.  Revelation is continuous and meaning has not been finally captured, no matter how many people assert that it has.  The ever-changing, always evolving, never containable world is before us, and all around us, and we are part and parcel of it.  And no matter how unremarkable this may seem to us, let me tell you that it is good news that needs to be shared.  So let's share it.

Pax tecum,


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arthurrashap said...

OOPS! The first part is missing, Wik. I am looking forward to sharing this with a number of those who I think would enjoy reading and then discussing. Could you repost the complete sermon, please?

RevWik said...

Thanks for the catch on that, Arthur!

JamieMc said...

I'm listening to an On Being interview with John O'Donohue and two of his comments seemed very apropos of this sermon:

"Fundamentalism works by inventing a past that never existed and evoking a false nostalgia for it." What a great definition! Looking backward, longing for an imaginary past.

"It is a critical question for someone who wants to have a mature, adult, good-hearted, open-ended, critical faith to conduct the most vigorous and relentless conversation that you can with your own tradition." What does a vigorous and relentless conversation with Unitarian Universalism look like? I'll keep this question in mind as I write my sermon for this Sunday.

Lynn said...

The sermon was not recorded this week. Glad to have the text to link to our website, though.

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