You are familiar with the phrase, “as American as Apple Pie?” Social Justice is to us UUs, what Apple Pie is to America. Last week I gave some of the historical and theological underpinnings of Unitarian, Universalist and Unitarian Universalist social justice ministries. If you missed the service and would like to read or hear the sermon, you can find it on our website. But fear not, I will also offer enough summary to carry us through this conclusion.
Today I am going to tell how optimism has shaped our prophetic ministry, and how it is calling us today into a “new prophetic ministry,” a new way of participating in the forces that heal and liberate society. I am excited to offer a piece of fresh gospel pie. I am going to suggest that we are called to carry on the prophetic tradition in new ways that reflect our modern understandings of life, and what have learned has been effective to bring about the beloved community.
The important phrase of the day is prophetic ministry. When I use the word prophetic I am alluding to the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. If when you hear the word prophetic, you don't automatically think of social justice, that's probably due to the fact that Christendom has reinterpreted the books of the Prophets. We have heard the word prophetic used to mean knowing the future, and specifically as predicting the future of the coming of Jesus.
To Jews, or at least to me, this notion is hard to fathom. The Prophets of the Hebrew scriptures were people who heard the voice of God as telling them to confront the leaders and the population as having missed the mark, as having served false gods of greed and self interest, as having allowed injustice, poverty, and oppression to flourish.
The implication here is that if people had truly remembered God, or as some might prefer to say, remembered life's interdependence or revered the sacredness of life, then they wouldn't have allowed exploitation and oppression to flourish. You see, the ancient Hebrews believed that God had liberated them as a people from slavery and had led them to the promised land. They equated following God with moving toward liberation. So when oppression flourished, it was seen as proof that people were worshiping false gods.
So that's what I mean by prophetic. By ministry, I mean serving life, being a river unto your people. Ministry means to guide toward the source of life so that peeople can live more abundantly. By UU social justice ministry I am referring to the ways that we have served as agents of the spirit of life throughout our history by being agitators promoting resistance to oppression, proclaimers and guides to a promised land of justice, dignity and peace.
For a couple of generations many people assumed that being UU meant belonging to a small society of political progressives. We threw away our history and our identity as a religious people. Last week I spoke of the origins of the American Unitarian and Universalist denominations to remind us that our emphasis on social justice grew as a result of our theology.
Unitarians were Christians who rejected the trinity and affirmed the humanity of Jesus. As a result of trying to follow rather than worship Jesus, they developed a focus upon liberation, the potential for human moral development and transformation of character. This prehumanist humanism was the basis of Unitarian emphasis on social justice.
The Universalists rejected the notion of eternal damnation, and they emphasized the loving nature of the Creator. Universalism is the good news of salvation for all. This gospel also inspired them to work to improve conditions for all souls here on Earth.
Universalists saw in Jesus' ministry an invitation to experience divine love by becoming agents of it. Jesus asked his followers to care for all who were downtrodden or outcast, to heal society's inhumanity. The Universalists were early joiners in the slave abolition movement. They were the first Euro-American church to welcome African Americans into membership, and the first to ordain a woman minister. Universalists believed that ultimately ao to heaven, that nothing could keep us from going home to the love of the one who gave us life. This faith caused them to work toward the realization of the kingdom told about by Jesus.
The link between UU history in America and optimism is easy to make. Americans have a reputation for optimism. We have a “can do” attitude. We know that dreams have a way of becoming reality. We are a nation of many immigrants and pioneers, who took risks in pursuit of a better life.
Some have suggested that optimism rises from the abundance and beauty of this land. Even the Native Americans who were taken to the brink of genocide, and the Africans who were brought here against their will to be sold as slaves- contributed a spirit of optimism to American culture. Perhaps it took optimism to survive. Perhaps the fact of surviving led to confidence, determination and eventually optimism.
One thing is for certain, Christianity changed when it came to America. Most of the forms of Christianity that landed on this continent were strict in discipline, and stern in outlook. Prior to the rise of Unitarianism and Universalism, the Christianity that dominated taught that humans were sinful or wicked by nature, and only a select few would be spared from eternal damnation. What kind of god would condemn his creation to an eternity of torment? This type of pessimistic worldview was bound to lose favor – at least for a great number of citizens in this land of opportunity.
The Unitarians and Universalists turned toward a more optimistic Christianity, a Christianity that returned to the Jewish notion that following God leads toward liberation. Jesus was a religious liberal Jew. He warned that by straining at the letter of the law, many had lost touch with divine spirit. Jesus was certainly continuing the prophetic tradition.
The emphasis on liberation in Jesus life was not missed the majority of his followers for the first 500 years. The majority of these Christians were unitarians and universalists. The notion of eternal damnation gained sway many years later. And people saw Jesus as human not god until the church of the Roman empire insisted upon worship of Jesus.
I imagine that if you have painful associations with Christianity, it might be difficult to consider all this. It may be tempting to dismiss the importance of this history. If yes, I ask you to stretch yourself, and consider the implications of this history. There are treasures that belong to us that we have abdicated to fundamentalists.
For the first 125- 500 years after the death of Jesus, there was a great diversity among his followers. Most of the varieties of early Christianity were far more optimistic, liberation oriented and empowering than the religion that later took its place. The early Christians challenged the established patterns of society. They set out, and created communities where connection between people was nurtured, where caring about each other was understood as being part of following Jesus.
Some of this optimism remained or resurfaced as the Unitarian, Universalist and UU movements. Proof can be found in sacred Christian texts discarded by the church. According to Princeton professor Elaine Pagels, author of “Beyond Belief, the secret gospel of Thomas,” The gospel of Thomas proves that many of Jesus followers expected the holy spirit, divine revelation, and gifts to be theirs. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells his followers that they will do greater things than he had.
He (Jesus) also tells that inside each of us is something that if brought out, will yield great blessing but if not brought out would destroy us.
This seems to fit with our UU spirituality. Don't we say that the most important Torah, Quaran, Bible, the most important revelations are the one that lie inside us? That the great religious challenge for each of us is to become the people we were created to be? We dare as congregations to encourage people not to over emphasize what authority says “should” be done but instead to pay attention to what reason, intuition, integrity and conscience demand of each of us!
This is optimism! Our religious tradition places extraordinary trust in us. It calls to use our freedom to do more than gaze at our navels, or become so obsessed with the details of our life, that we fail to recognize our being part of something infinitely larger. Our religious tradition offers us freedom and encouragement to awaken to mystery and miracle of our participation in the great story of life unfolding. Call it the Tao, the way of nature, call it divine order, call it the amazing adventure and spectacular unfolding of worlds yet unknown to anyone. Our tradition has the confidence to reject force and coercion in matters of faith. We don't insist that you say it this way or say that way, but our tradition exists to call us to the sacred, the infinite, transcendent and eternal.
And one way that we as a people have know the sacred has been through our prophetic ministry. We discover and practice our values, our beliefs, our gospel by striving to be agents of peace and justice for this world. We come together to make real our covenant, to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to practice justice, equity and compassion, to revere the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
So what came between the early Christians and the American history? Well, I suspect for 1000 years there was not a lot of Unitarianism, Universalism. There was not a lot of optimism.
In his book “Work Like Davinci,” Michael Gelb suggests that the assumption of this 1000 years was that everything worth knowing was already known. He points out that God was thought to be far away, and that subduing our own depraved state was the task. He writes about the emergence from this period and of Davinci, a genius who dared to question everything, who made experience his teacher and who never stopped trying to increase his knowledge and understanding.
The enlightenment is what brought about the re-emergence of Unitarianism and Universalism. Despite the monstrous presence of the inquisition, people hungered for truth. They found no basis in scripture or reason for the Trinity or Hell. A movement began that wove its way from Spain to Transylvania, part of what is today Romania, and to England and finally to American shores.
One of the ideas that re-emerged with Unitarian Universalism is the closeness of God, and of universal access to revelation. Emerson and the Transcendentalists revolutionized our religion with their acknowledgement of Eastern religions, and their insistence that communion with the divine was possible directly through nature. To the transcendentalists and to us today, the holy is to be found here and now. Some scientists might say it this way: “the inifinite is present in every atom, and can be accessed at any point.”
The revelations of science in the past century have brought about a new sense of spirituality that leads us to the optimism of our movement today, and to our new prophetic imperative.
Because the holy exists in you and me, we will resist the temptation to demonize you or forget your humanity. We will find ways to remain connected to each other. We will seek to build relationships of trust and support, in order to ensure a community, and a world where all our needs matter. Because holy has placed scripture inside of us, we will listen and hear a dream of a world where no child is sold as a slave into a sex trade. Because we revere the web of life, we will grieve at BP's criminal neglect of our Gulf of Mexico. Because we know our actions matter, we will give away trees. We will encourage congregations to take the 10 tree challenge, to continue the trend that has planted thousands of trees.
We are a religious people. We are not a social club for like minded people, those we deem to be cool enough or smart enough, educated enough or progressive enough.
We have a tradition that reminds us that revelation is continuous. We have learned that its easy to complain, to call names, to diagnose others as wrong and bad and deserving of punishment. We are a people who recognize our need to cooperate regardless of our opinions about each other.
And so we seek to build bridges. We are standing on the side of love, and we refuse to hate even those who promote ideologies we find to be oppressive.
The new prophetic ministry recognizes that we are one people. No longer will we settle for a piece of pie in the sky, if it requires us to turn our back on our sisters. We will value institutions but not above the welfare of humanity. Our new prophetic ministry asks us if we are spending all our time and attention hating what is, focusing on what we don't want. It asks to dream and then work to bring about what we do want for ourselves, for our families, for all of humanity.
The prophets of old dared to speak truth to power and principalities. We will do no less. But before we speak, we'll make sure we are grounded in the reality of our shared humanity. No matter how much we disagree with someone's actions or strategies, we will strive to connect to the yearnings of their heart. We will listen to hear their desire to live and serve life. Then we will unite and work with each other to accomplish goals based upon shared values.
The prophets of old pointed to the corruption of the regimes, and stated that “all must serve the one true God.” We will not insist that others refer to the sacred the same way we do, but we shall make plain that we are in peril because we have tried to dominate nature rather than serve life. Our new prophetic ministry will call people to recognize the divine in nature, in every person and every creature,.. in all existence. Our prophetic ministry will support us to grieve the losses of our having ignored nature's sovereignty. Our prophetic ministry will grow from our spirituality. Our optimism will inspire a generation. Our love will turns this world around.
We want our congregations and our church activities to teach us by example, to help us experience love, justice, equity and compassion. And in order for us to walk our walk, we need to walk our UU spirituality out into our communities. In order for our social justice efforts be real ministries, worthy of being called church activities, we are going to have to talk our talk. We will speak of our reverence for life. We will share our vision of a world where everyone's needs matter, where we awaken to our unity and see the divine in every soul.
May it be so!