“The world has need of your theology,” said prominent Harvard theologian Diana Eck last year to one of our sister congregations in New York City. “In a world divided by race, and by religion and ideology, the very presence of a church like yours—committed to the oneness of God, the love of God, the love of neighbor, and service to humanity—is a beacon. Be bold in proclaiming it!” That’s what Diana Eck said.
But before boldness of proclamation, there must be a boldness of inner vision, of imagination. So this morning, I invite you to imagine boldly, along with me, this religious tradition that the world needs. Imagine with me an image or series of images that captures our story, expresses it, telegraphs who we are and what we stand for.
For me, the boldness begins with a feeling of spaciousness, of SIZE. I see in my mind’s eye blue sky, a bright sun, and a BIG building. Not a superdome or megamall—the values those kinds of architecture imply don’t fit. What comes to mind are the great structures of our religious past—Angkor Wat, the vast ancient Hindu temple complex in Cambodia; or Islam’s Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem; or Chartres Cathedral in Paris. Architecture that serves to embody spiritual aspiration in stone and wood and glass. Spaciousness and size…..
The image that is grabbing me right now is that of a cathedral, so that’s the one I’m going to follow up on, trust my imagination to take me where I need to go. Unitarian Universalism is like a great massive cathedral—a “cathedral of the world,” as the Rev. Forrest Church likes to say, and I’ll say it as well. A cathedral of the world.
But now my inner imaginative eye—like a movie camera—swoops down and gives me a close up of the foundation of it all. I see, at the base of the cathedral, in the ground, twin foundation stones, ancient, upon which all the rest is built. Twin foundation stones: one representing Unitarianism, and the other representing Universalism.
The Unitarian stone has a date carved into it: 325AD. It represents an idea that is a lot older, but 325 AD is when it gained a definite kind of historical notoriety. The idea says that Jesus is not equal to God—Jesus is not God—God is one. Classical Unitarianism. In 325AD, it was formally declared heretical. One of the foundation stones of the entire cathedral of the world edifice embodies … heresy.
So does the other. Carved into it is the date 544AD, when the Universalist idea was declared heretical: the idea that God will gather up all beings into himself; no one shall be lost in hell for all time. Believe that, said the orthodox of the time, and your soul is eternally condemned.
Now pause here for a moment. This is our Unitarian Universalist cathedral of the world we are talking about, and look at how it begins: in heresy. And already we know the risks, at least theologically: our souls condemned, so say the orthodox. But there are political risks as well, since theology and politics unarguably reflect and form each other (even where there is separation of church and state). 1500 years ago, for example, to stake your claim on Unitarianism was, in essence, to reject the absolute God-ordained lordship of the emperor. Not a convenient thing to do back then when the emperor claimed his rule was God-ordained. In order to solidify this, in fact, he gathered up all the most important religious leaders of his day by sheer military might and charged them with defining the articles of proper Christian belief—doing this once and for all. But the religious leaders ended up dickering and dithering and multiplying distinctions and tiny differences—clarity was not happening—so the emperor essentially had to threaten them by the sword to get their act together and vote like he wanted them to: against Unitarianism and for Trinitarianism. History calls this the Council of Nicea.
Being a heretic is neither convenient nor safe. But our cathedral of the world is not built on foundations of convenience. Heresy in its most positive sense means “to choose.” It means to think and act on the basis of one’s personal integrity, no matter what. It is courage. That’s what our twin foundation stones say about us, who we are as a people of integrity. We must never forget this. Our religion was never meant to be easy.
But now it is time to enter into the cathedral. We pass the foundation stones as we walk through massive double-doors and into a vast space. We lift up our eyes to see amazing stained glass windows, through which light streams and illuminates. Can you see the windows, in your mind’s eye?
The first window our eyes rest on portrays Jesus. Blazing, brilliant colors. By this we are reminded that Unitarianism and Universalism are, ultimately speaking, responses to experiences people had of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Once he said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it in abundance,” and this is the gospel that launched us as well as so many other communities of faith. Over time, there has been a branching effect, with differences and distinctions multiplied in ways that no emperor could prevent for long. Today, one group’s definition of Christianity might be the exact opposite of another’s—even though all embrace Jesus, the founder. As Unitarian Universalists, sometimes we grow anxious at our seeming inability to define ourselves in a once-and-for-all sort of way. But it is good to be reminded by the example of Christianity that the task of definition is hard all-around. There is no other side of the fence where the grass is greener. Even the most dogmatic, hard-line faiths have to work hard to keep their people straight.
But that’s another sermon. For now, we are gazing on and appreciating the great teacher and prophet, Jesus. Yet this is the cathedral or the world, and the wisdom we have to offer does not stop with Christianity. Today we are a more-than-Christian, post-Christian faith. Look just to the left, and you will see light streaming through a stained glass window that portrays the Buddha—perhaps that part of his life when he experiences illumination sitting at the base of a Bo tree. Light shining through this, and through so many other stained glass windows. Moses with his Ten Commandments; Lao Tzu walking in remote misty mountains; Gandhi at his spinning wheel; Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. preaching “I have a dream.” Light shining and streaming through. We look up, and the colors are breathtaking. One light, many windows. Windows of the world’s great religions. Windows of prophetic women and men. Windows of science. Windows of humanism. Windows of earth-based spirituality. Windows of mysticism. Many windows, but one shining, streaming light of abundant truth and meaning….
We have come a long way since the earliest Jesus communities of first century Palestine, or our moments of heresy in the fourth and sixth centuries. We’ve come a long way even since the 19th century, when American Unitarianism and American Universalism were Bible-centered and exclusively Christian.
And while there are many causes I could cite for this—for our expansion into a pluralistic faith—I will ask you simply to gaze upon yet another stained glass window in our cathedral of the world. There it is: it portrays the great Unitarian preacher and prophet of Transcendentalism: Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Live after the infinite Law that is in you,” he once said, “and in company with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all lovely forms.” Revelation, in other words, can’t possibly be contained just within the Hebrew or Christian Bible. The wellspring is fundamentally within each of our souls; revelation bubbles up out of the spark of the Divine in our depths. Add to this the revelation of nature, as well as the revelation embodied by the Bibles of many times and lands, such as Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita. The one light of truth is abundant; no single stained-glass window may ever contain it or control it. One light but many, many windows.
So our job, says Emerson, is to live in the light. Let the light that comes to us through so many windows of truth and wisdom go deep and awaken the sleeping source of light within. Let sleeping heretics awaken, to choose with integrity and courage what they shall believe about God and the afterlife and ethics and so many other things. Let sleeping heretics awaken and know their hidden powers for healing and action and compassion. Said Emerson in 1836, “Our age is retrospective. It builds on the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? […] There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.” In our cathedral of the world, there are already many stained glass windows, yet larger still is the space awaiting what is new. Your window, my window. Revelation is not ended. Revelation is not sealed. The journey never ends.
Yet at this point I need to acknowledge something. So far, we have seen that today’s Unitarian Universalism invites us on a great adventure of light. One light, many windows. Yet that is not all there is to our lives. And that’s not all there is in our cathedral of the world. For in our cathedral, there are plenty of shadows as well.
To understand what I mean, we need to learn a little more about Emerson’s life. Emerson’s father was a traditional minister who never blessed him. His first wife Ellen, who believed in him and was his rock, died young … and death repeatedly struck at his brothers and his own children. The man who wrote, “Hitch your wagon to a star” and “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” also wrote, “after thirty, a man wakes up sad every morning.” And then from his student days at Harvard: right in the middle of an essay he was writing about God, after struggling long and hard with what those three little letters strung together refer to, his eyes failed him and he was able to see no light at all. Only after two surgeries and nine months of recuperation was he able to go back to wrestling with his theological studies.
If ever there was a man who loved light, it was Emerson. Yet the light never comes unmixed. Adversity is a part and parcel of the human condition. The shadow in ourselves and in our relationships lead to self-destructiveness and addictions and bad habits of every kind. Shadow parts in society and the larger world lead to structural poverty and prejudice and war. The light never comes unmixed.
Life is a great mystery. Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church puts it this way: “By the time we die, we will barely have gotten our minds wet. The wisest of us all will have but the faintest notion of what life was all about.” He goes on to say: “This counsels humility, but also oneness. … My favorite etymology speaks eloquently to this very point. Human, humane, humanitarian, humor, humility, humus.”
For me, what all of this leads to is my sense of the Unitarian Universalist religious journey as NOT a quest for certainty—NOT a quest for perfection in the here and now—but a quest for greater trust in the meaningfulness and worth of life, no matter where it leads. I need the abundance of light that streams and shines through the many windows of our cathedral of the world to encourage me, to strengthen me. I need it to waken the sleeping light within, as well, so that the abundance within me can be released. So that I can be a messenger of hope and humor to others, a messenger of compassion and peace. We live in a world that is so often unfair, and joy is weirdly and jarringly juxtaposed with every kind of woe. Randomness and senselessness and sorrow strike. Life can place so many limits on us. But there are no limits that can be placed on our human capacity to respond with courage and grace and forgiveness. There are no limits to this. Our greatest prophets and saints prove the point. Jesus. The Buddha. No limits to the abundance of the human heart to be generous in times of anxiety and fear. No limits to clarity or compassion. None.
Our cathedral of the world is all about abundance. Abundant light, abundant mystery, abundant capacity to respond to life with limitless love. “I have come that you might have life, and have it in abundance.”
But there is one more thing to notice, before we are done with this imaginative vision of who we are as a religious people—the vision we can proclaim boldly in the world. We have been looking up for a long time now, so now let’s look down—down at the floor, at a phrase inscribed in the stones there. A Latin phrase: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
To me, this suggests how our religious community is wonderfully infused by core American values which have themselves been shaped and formed by key Unitarian and Universalist leaders. The author of these words, for example: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Words from the Declaration of Independence—written by Thomas Jefferson, Unitarian. It’s why our community affirms the inherent worth and dignity of each person. Why our community affirms the spirituality of the work of social justice to defend human dignity and restore it when others threaten to take it away. It’s why our community affirms open conversation in the context of supportive community. It’s why we bless each individual journey of faith because we know that the Creator has a creative connection with each and every person here and now. This is the floor upon which we stand—the covenant that unites us and makes us whole. We need not think alike to love alike.
Another distinctly American phrase which resonates with us is: “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It is the classic definition of democracy, which Abraham Lincoln famously used in his Gettysburg Address. But it’s not original with him. He got it from Theodore Parker, one of our best Unitarian preachers in the 19th century, whose services would gather literally thousands of people. “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” It means that through our gathered generosity of presence and service and witness and giving, we can become great. We each get a vote in this community, in some form or fashion, and to the degree that we vote, we are vital and strong. It’s good old American enterprise: You get only as much as you put in. Vote with your time and energy, because without you, this community cannot be strong. Vote with your presence. Vote with your financial generosity. Don’t be fooled by all the people you see, thinking that someone else will do it so you don’t have to. Don’t think that no one will miss your single vote, since there are so many others. American democracy can’t survive such apathy, since it inevitably builds and steamrolls; and we can’t survive it here, in our Unitarian Universalist spiritual democracy. “Of the people, by the people, for the people” means everyone involved in some way, everyone informed, because everyone has a vital stake in the outcome.
The building of our cathedral of the world never ends. It needs every one of us. But it is worth it. It is bold. It symbolizes a religion which essentially says: abundance. Abundance of light, abundance of mystery, abundance of humanity, abundance of involvement and enterprise in building community. The challenge for us, ultimately, is this: how shall we live in this abundance? Will we allow it to change us? Will we let it sink it, transform us from within?
Though the foundation stones are ancient, still, Unitarian Universalism itself is only a baby faith, born with the formal consolidation of Unitarianism and Universalism in the 20th century, in 1961. A new thing came to life in that year, different from anything that had ever been before. And I believe that we live in a unique moment of time, where congregations like this one can make a huge impact on the shape of our movement and its future. We need to give ourselves to the abundance of this faith and let it inspire us, create out of it. Back in 1836, Emerson asked, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? […] There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.” Why not? Why not, right here and right now? Let us imagine our religion boldly, and then proclaim it boldly—this abundance that the world needs.