“Stand by this faith…which has comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble purpose and made the world beautiful. … There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith.”
With appropriate apologies for her ableist language [stand by this faith], Olympia Brown, the author of our Responsive Reading, did get to clarity about her commitment.
Her words sound…to our ears…almost naïve. When we read them, did you think: “Wow. She really drank the kool-aide.” “There is nothing in all the world so important” as loyalty to this church. She sounds almost like one of those televangelists. Thinking people don’t take their religion that seriously…we don’t take our faith that seriously…in these secular and cynical times.
There is a story I heard told back in Boston this year. Two old Maine fishermen are talking about religion. One asks the other, “Unitarian Universalist—what’s that?” To which the other drawls back, “Well, best I can figure it, that’s someone who has no principles…and lives by ‘em.”
Olympia Brown was born, in 1835, to good Universalist parents, who supported her aspirations in an age when marriage and child bearing were the only hopes for most middle class girls. They sent her to college, at Antioch, and moved there to be with her when she began to come into her own at the school.
At college she heard a woman, a lay person, preach for the first time. “The sense of victory lifted me up,” she wrote. “I felt as though the Kingdom of Heaven were at hand.”
Her dream was to become a minister.
After college, she applied but was turned down by several seminaries. No women had ever been ordained by any denomination. The President of even the Universalist Divinity School at St. Lawrence, NY, responded to her application with a letter of discouragement. “I do not think women were called to the ministry,” he wrote, “But I leave that between you and Great Head of the Church.”…meaning (point upward)…God.
Olympia Brown thought that was exactly where the decision should be left, (Points up). She felt deeply called to the ministry. “… his discouragement,” she wrote, “was my encouragement.”
She showed up at the school and talked her way in. Excelled at her studies. And at graduation talked the elders of the Universalist Church into ordaining her…the first woman ordained by any denomination in the US.
She served three churches, the last in Racine, WI. All of them were failing when she was called to them. When she offered the Racine congregation her services, the congregation warned her the church was in unfortunate condition, thanks to (and I quote) “a series of pastors easy-going, unpractical and some even spiritually unworthy, who had left the church adrift, in debt, hopeless and doubtful whether any pastor could again rouse them.”
Of her ministry, Brown later wrote: Some “may think it strange that I could only find [work] in run-down or comatose churches, but you must remember that the pulpits of all the prosperous churches were already occupied by men. … All I could do was to take some place that had been abandoned by others and make something of it.”
After nine years of her ministry, the Racine Church was thriving and bursting at the seams.
She retired from that church at age 53 to devote the bulk of her time to the cause of women’s rights. The Racine congregation is named in her honor.
Our faith did not roll out the welcome mat for Olympia Brown. She had to fight her way in; the work she was given to do was considered hopeless by most. Yet she was completely committed and she thrived. “Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it.”
I wonder how many of us feel that same depth of commitment…here…today?
I know. It’s a different time. And a different world than that Olympia Brown confronted and overcame. Huge strides have been made toward equality for women, though we’ve not reached the Promised Land yet. Marriage equality is the law of the land. We don’t have the same battles to fight…thankfully. But there still are battles that need to be fought.
Think of what our undocumented neighbors are facing, our trans neighbors, our neighbors with mental illness and our neighbors of color. Think of those who are living on the street. Think of those who are being displaced by the building boom and the rapid development…even here in progressive Portland.
And I do not need to tell this group that we have national leadership intent on rolling progress toward the Beloved Community back on almost every front.
The challenges to justice and decency and sanity at the national level call us to resist. One of the sad realities is that those challenges help us define who we are… in a negative way…we are not them and their values are not ours.
Though pride is a tricky emotion, religiously, we can I think be justifiably proud of our religious ancestors, those Unitarians and Universalist, like Olympia Brown, who changed the world…who left more of us free and more of us empowered.
Our religious ancestors were central in most of the movements toward the Beloved Community in the history of this nation and the history of this community.
Two years ago we celebrated the 150th Anniversary of First Unitarian. We celebrated the early history of this church and the Unitarian contributions to virtually every civic institution in this city. We celebrated our recent contributions in addressing police violence, homelessness and queer rights.
We can, I think, be proud of our history. First Unitarian, to quote our Vision Statement, has truly been a liberal religious beacon of hope in the heart of this city.
But the question for us remains. What future will we create and what future will we support for us and for this church that we love?
Will we continue to be a beacon of hope? Or will we trim our sails? Settle for less? Look to a smaller future lived in the shadow of our vibrant past?
Not too many years ago, the Southern Baptists put one of their seminary professors from Kansas City on trial. It was basically a heresy trial. His crime? His heresy? He was accused of being a universalist.
It is no wonder they were suspicious. He had stated publicly that he believed that all people are children of God. And even worse, he supported the ordination of women.
But the professor denied the charges. “I’m not a universalist,” he said and he convinced them. The council voted 21 to 11 to let him keep his job.
UU minister Robbie Walsh tells this story. He writes: “Now, I confess to being a universalist. In fact, I am a Unitarian Universalist. But I wonder. If I were arrested and charged with being a UU, would there be enough evidence to convict me?”
There is a perception that Unitarian Universalism demands little of us. That ours is a casual approach to religion. Even some of us may harbor that notion. That here we can believe anything we want. That our welcome of theological diversity requires a shallowness in our commitment.
If you were accused of being a UU, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
At one point in her novel, Fly Away Home, author Marge Piercy has a mother say of her daughters: “The girls had been raised Unitarian (Universalist), which seemed a nice, sensible compromise between having no religion at all and having to lie about what we believe. Enough religion to be respectable but not enough to get in the way.”
Religion light. Is that what we want from this church? And from this faith?
Religion Light is not what I hear you asking for.
I hear you asking for this church to be there for you in times of your greatest need. Times of sorrow and disappointment and grief.
I hear you asking for this church to support you when you struggle and celebrate with you when you succeed.
I hear you expecting that this church will teach your children something about how to lead a life of integrity and joy. And help you point them toward both service and happiness.
I hear you asking this church to lead the way toward the Beloved Community out in the world and here in this sanctuary.
I hear you asking this church to steadfastly engage the work of justice and partner with others in the community to make justice real.
And whether you make First Unitarian a big part of your week and of your life, or whether you just come on Sunday and sit up the balcony and take heart in our worship…
I hear a yearning for this church to make our liberal religious message real and meaningful in our lives.
This is an increasingly difficult world in which we live and you expect your church to help you live in it with love.
Unless I have missed your message by a mile, you are not willing to settle for religion light…and neither am I.
You want to create this church as a beacon of hope not only in our community but in your lives.
What will it take? It will require matching our generosity to our hopes for the church. We have some financial ground to make up from last year. It will require not treating First Unitarian like OPB or the ACLU…where we write a check for $20, or $50 or $100 once in a while because we believe in their work. It will require more from us financially than that, more faithfulness and more generosity, because we need this community to believe in us. We need this community to help us believe in ourselves.
There is no specific dollar amount that we are asked to give.
I make what we call a liberal religious tithe. 5% of my income goes to First Unitarian…actually it has grown to be more than that…and 5% to other progressive causes. That is a helpful benchmark for me. Is 5% right for you? Or is 2 or 3% right. Many conservative churches ask for 10%. You know this.
Each of us will make our own decision about what amount is right. We value greatly the diversity of financial circumstance that is present every Sunday in this sanctuary. But each of us is asked to give generously within our means…and to think and meditate and pray about what this church means in our lives before we decide on our pledge of support.
Our anthem told us…
“Want to change the world, there’s nothing to it.”
We do believe we can change the world…because we have. Perhaps the greatest leap of faith for us is to remember that history and to “be not afraid” to have faith in what we can do together.
There is no doubt that we progressive folks are feeling embattled. Fires and floods. It is starting to feel absolutely Biblical. And the protections for all of us that we have fought so hard to put in place…it seems that more and more of them are being stripped away. I don’t know about you, but I almost dread reading the morning news these days. So much is being…or at least seems to be in the process of being…lost. It feels like progress is being stripped away.
There is a story told about classical violinist Itzak Perlman who was on stage performing when one of his violin strings broke with a staccato pop that filled the auditorium. The orchestra stopped playing, assuming that another violin would need to be brought out or that string replaced.
But Perlman, after a brief pause, set his violin under his chin and signaled the conductor to begin again.
One person in the audience commented to a reporter: “I know it is impossible to play a violin concerto with only three strings. I know that and so do you, but that night, Isaac Perlman refused to know it. It sounded as if he were re-tuning the strings to get a new sound that had never been heard before. When he finished, an awesome silence filled the room. Then the audience rose and cheered.”
When asked later, how he had accomplished this feat, Perlman replied, quietly: “Sometimes your task is to make music with what remains.”
With what remains. That is, I believe, where we are today.
But just believing, I am afraid, is not enough. Unless you put your beliefs into practice…unless you help your beliefs live in this hurting world…it is not enough.
Would there be enough evidence to convict you of being a Unitarian Universalist, a liberal religious person of faith?
I think you would have to be able to show that you supported a Unitarian Universalist church. Because beliefs, no matter how noble, have to be embodied in a living institution or they will not have power.
“In the midst of a world
marked by tragedy and beauty,”
writes Rebecca Parker,
“there must be those
who bear witness
against unnecessary destruction
and who, with faith,
rise and lead…
with grace and power.
There must be communities of ¬people
who seek to do justice
love [mercy] and walk humbly…
Can we make this faith real in our lives and in our world?
Can we resist the assaults on so much that we hold dear and respond with a strength born out of our history and our commitment to one another?
Can we claim a hopeful future?
We can. We must. And together, we will.
Will you pray with me?
Spirit of Life and of Love. Hope
that moves within us and among us,
even in the face of loss.
Dear God of many names and no name.
In these trying days,
Help us hold fast to what we know to be good
Help us remember that we are not the first
Generation to face hate
Or to confront greed
Or to face down violence.
Help us find the strength to resist
And a quality of resistance that
Does not harden our hearts.
How we navigate these days
Is as important as bringing
Them to an end.
May we discover that we have
More strength and more commitment
And more love, together, than even we have known.
May it be so. And Amen.