The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon
TO BE A RELIGION
February 28, 1988
First of all, I want to thank all of you, not only for the generous sabbatical gift but also to thank you who attended Friday night’s party and thereby helped its planners make it such a tremendous success. Jim and I both had a fabulous time and it was wonderful to see such a joyous spirit in the church. In a way, this is a difficult time to leave South Peel, because things are going so well: it might be easier to leave if I were running away from a problem or ducking out on a difficult time. But I’m not. Who wants to leave when being here is so good?
And it is good. For the last several months, I’ve been impressed at what a good job we are doing at being the church – in all the ways that really matter. People are genuinely good to each other here. I’ve certainly seen churches where that wasn’t the case! People open their lives to the mystery in the midst of pain, to the wonder in the daily moment, to the everyday epiphany. I see it happening all the time. And while the world will always offer us opportunities to expand our service to the community outside ourselves, for a congregation of our size, we aren’t doing so badly. Life at South Peel is good.
And yet I find myself needing a sabbatical. Things are going well here, yet I find myself irritated with parish routine – the rounds of meetings, the various deadlines, and the problems which never seem to away (someone else who doesn’t know where the light switches are; the downstairs thermostat being confused and freezing one meeting while roasting another; where do we store things in a church with no closets?). I’ve been working at this for six year in this congregation, and I need a break to get perspective.
It used to be that Unitarian Universalist ministers changed churches on the average of every four years. That average has lengthened considerably in the last decade, and we are learning the advantages of longer settled pastorates. We are learning that a relationship between a congregation and a minister deepens with time, and that ministers discover new areas of interest and that this helps congregations grow both numerically and spiritually.
But to achieve this ministers need to take time to reorient themselves. Congregations, too, need this time. Longer settled pastorates – and we became one by breaking the old statistical average two years ago – demand timely re-examination of goals, interests, and methods. They need re-visioning: not simply revising, but a recasting of the central vision which motivates a minister and a church.
Sabbaticals can be justified on simpler terms, sure. If for no other reason than the fact that my seminary education is already showing signs of being out of date. Yesterday’s Globe & Mail contained an article in the Focus section on how new archaeological findings are forcing a reconsideration of Biblical history – the work of William Albright, considered authoritative only 10 years ago when I did my Hebrew Bible work, is now seriously challenged. Ministers need time to keep up to date.
But there are more important reasons than just providing time for the minister to get back on top of contemporary scholarship. From a minister’s point of view, it is crucial to take time to step outside the routine of parish life to re-examine, and re-vision the ministry. Deepening one’s learning is part of the outward form of such a revisioning, and a major ingredient. But such learning is to a purpose: re-invigorating the minister and the church.
Congregations need sabbaticals, too. In the next four months, you are going to be reminded in very real ways that the Unitarian Universalist ministry is far broader, deeper and richer than anything Mark Mosher DeWolfe can do on his own. It will be an opportunity for you to see some of the possibilities for us as we face the future. In a way, it is an opportunity for your to remember who you are.
You will be hearing from other Unitarian Universalist ministers, some of whom have preached here before, others will be new. They are all marvellous people, and not a one of them is quite like me. They have gifts different from mine and you will be richer for them. Half our current congregation has joined since I became the minister. For most, I am the only minister they have known. Here’s an opportunity to glimpse that the ministry is larger than anything I can do by myself.
You will also be hearing from some of our own lay members. Surely one of the oldest principles of our Dissenting faith is that the spirit of religious inspiration speaks through the lives of women and men of the congregation. It is all of us who midwife truth into birth in the lives of our sisters and brothers in this congregation. You will have some fine examples of that in Sunday mornings to come. ANYONE WHO STOPS COMING TO CHURCH IN THE NEXT FOUR MONTHS BECAUSE IT ISN’T MARK IN THE PULPIT IS MISSING OUT ON SOME FINE OPPORTUNITIES.
Sabbaticals are times when we are free of our usual routine. I will be free of the routine of the weekly sermon, and much as I love preaching, I’m looking forward to not having to sweat the Saturday night deadline. I will be free of the routine of board and committee meetings, and while I love the give and take of our congregation polity, I will appreciate the break. I don’t believe my meeting skills will get rusty.
You too will be free of some things: for the next four months, you will not have me looking at you impatiently as we try to get the service started. You will be free of my guiding hand in meetings, trying to make certain that the right thing happens. You will be free of my complaining and my high expectations. You will be free of my sour expression every time another handle breaks off one of the stackable chairs.
sect will condemn them to endless torment. It amazes me, raised as I was in the free blowing winds of Unitarian Universalism, that people can allow a church to have such authority over their happiness. The sincerity of the parents cannot be denied – it is a deeply held religion which tears their family apart.
Let us not mistake religion for superstition. To some of religion’s opponents, they are synonymous; I maintain they are not. Superstitious beliefs can function as someone’s religion, and while religions can be based on superstition, but religion is neither necessarily superstitious nor bound to lead to superstition. Religion is to superstition what fine wine is to plonk: both could get you drunk, but the quality is all important.
So with all this bad credit o the record of religion, it is no surprise that some come to Unitarian Universalism wanting to be rid of it. They tend, by the way, to join our lay led congregations, the very presence of ministers being suspect. And when those congregations invite ministers to speak, they are the first to question the very presumption of their calling.
They would prefer we didn’t use the word “church”; prefer to think of Unitarian Universalism as philosophy rather than a religion, and are suspicious of candle lighting and hymn singing. Oh, you might get them to sing a protest song, but don’t call it a hymn. Might be too much like “Onward, Christian Soldier”: patriarchal, theistic, triumphalist, hypocritical.
And given all the damage religion has done in the world, who can blame them? Perhaps Unitarian Universalism should be an alternative to religion, something that will fill the void we’d face if religion didn’t exist: with institutions which aren’t “churchy”; with philosophies which aren’t too spiritual; with a social action policy which rights wrongs without asking people to change their lives. We’d have to be on constant guard against too much “religion” getting into it; nothing is more insufferable than a person who’s “got religion.” Yes, perhaps Unitarian Universalism should be an alternative to religion, something that will fill the void we’d face if religion didn’t exist: something to take up time on Sunday mornings, something to tell the evangelical neighbours if they get too nosy, something to put on the marriage license in the space marked “religion.” But nothing that will get too powerful, too emotional, too restricting.
Religion is a powerful force, no doubt about that. Just look at the enemies it makes for itself! Anything which casts that long a shadow stands pretty tall and pretty mean. An ogre like that needs to be kept in its place, which might be pretty far from us.
I entered the Unitarian Universalist ministry because of the power of religion. But I did not enter it to free people from religion, the ogre. I entered it because I believe in the power of religion, and I don’t want to give all that power to the Tartuffes, the Inquisitors, and the makes of holy wars.
Religion casts a powerful shadow when it stands in the way of its own light. We see the power of religion in the shadow, but we can see it also in the light. And we can use the light to find new pathways to peace, new roads to freedom, and truer ways of human being.
Religion is that cluster of ideas, values and practices by which people express the meaning they find in living. It includes the heritage of ideas, values and practices they receive and the innovations they bring to it in each generation. It is the ways people make sense out of life and the ways they express it. Religion grows, changes, evolves, because it is a human phenomenon.
Since Earl asked his question, Unitarian Universalists have begun acting more as if our organization were a religion. I believe we are doing this because we have become aware of the power of religion and want to claim it for our faith, our values and ideals. We are willing to look more like a religion because we have chosen to be, not an alternative to religion, but a significant religious alternative.
This morning I wear a robe. In a way, it is a symbol of the authority you as a congregation have vested in my as your minister. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalist practice, our ministers are called and ordained by the congregations they serve, not by some self-perpetuating priesthood. It is a symbol of authority, yes, but authority born of relationship between a community of free seekers and the woman or man they ask to facilitate the search. As the reading from Christine Robinson points out, it means I do not speak for my ego but of the truths we are learning between us.
We have decorated this room with a large hanging banner, a symbol of our church, the double-circle flaming chalice. The double circle symbolizes the twin heritage of Unitarianism and Universalism, and the coming into harmony of a world too often seen as divided. The flaming chalice is a symbol of light, of energy, of the ways we are nurtured by spiritual insight. And it is a reminder that our faith began when people rebelled against those who would withhold the truth from them, and it is a symbol that truth is ultimately victorious.
This morning I lit the candle in the chalice in front of you in a ceremonial act. Such practices have spread throughout our denomination in recent years. We are less afraid of ritual, and with good reason: we have learned that we can use its power. Ritual doesn’t need to be mindless, it doesn’t have to be without meaning; it isn’t deadening in and of itself. In fact, ritual can wake us up to feelings we might not touch in a world which did not have them.
All in all, we are behaving more like a religion. I think we have made the choice Earl put before us, and we were making it at the time he asked the question. It is part of the movement of our time to reappropriate things we were in danger of losing. We are rediscovering the power of being a religion, and this is to our benefit.
In the Canada of 1988, the church does not have the power it had 150 years ago to control the society around us. Archbishop Garnsworthy cannot exercise the control Bishop Strachan did in the early years of Toronto. Instead of that kind of establishment power, the churches are having to learn how to exert power from outside the establishment. They are having to learn again the ancient powers of religion: the power to inspire, to shape meaning for people, the power to celebrate life in its solemnity and its passions.
For Unitarian Universalists, this means discovering that we can have a religion for both sides of the brain. We are learning that a religion of feeling is not necessarily an irrational manipulator of people. It means learning that we too can use symbols, which are always larger than words, that we can sing our faith, not just debate it to death. We can sing about the things which are important to us, the central principles of Unitarian Universalism, and that we can lift our spirits when we do.
We are learning that being a religion means honouring our past. We are learning that our religious tradition is not the dead hand of the past holding us to outworn ideas, but is a saga of courage and faith, of risks taken and challenges answered, a heritage we continue in our own day. We have learned that a past, too, is not only important so that we know from where we come as we chart where we go; it is vital if we are to remember what has set us apart as a religion and makes us different to this day.
We have long feared the power of religion. Now we are learning to turn to it again, for we have long been longing for it. Longing for symbols and songs which unite our community, longing for a heritage we can continue in our time, longing for a handle on the power of religion.
We will never be able to forget the shadow religion casts. Our own religion was born of that shadow, of the Inquisition and the Holy Wars, of the march of forced orthodoxy. Our ow faith in freedom was born of the shadow of religion, and we will never forget that it looms large over the land. But we are, I believe, ready and willing to be a religion, to take on the yoke of living our lives in the light of our high ideals.
To be a religion means to take risks. It means taking the risk of being judged in the light of our religious ideals. It means risking being found lacking, and having to adjust our lives and ourselves to a greater coherence with the values we dearly hold. It means taking the risks of opening our minds and our hearts to the stories of other people, and ourselves. And it means being seen in the world as a special people, a religious people, a people who think things are important and act as if it were true.
Unitarian Universalists have chosen to be a religion. It is not an easy path to walk, but it is the road we have chosen: to be a pilgrim people, seeking always the better way, the clearer truth, the deeper love. I can imagine no finer way of life.
Reverend Mark DeWolfe