The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon


January 18, 1987

Tonight at 7:00 I will be attending an ecumenical service at St. Dominic’s Church, sponsored by Mississauga Community Churches in Action, an ecumenical clergy group of which I am the treasurer. The member churches of MCCA, as it’s called – a group of ministers with a name reminiscent of a Muslim holy site – are gathering together to celebrate the beginning of the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,” a program of the Canadian Council of Churches.

Generally, within our Unitarian Universalist meetings, I avoid describing myself as a Christian. The word is tainted, and grows more and more tarnished with the outlandish behaviour of some of the people who claim it. And those people define Christian in such a way that I cannot by their definition call myself a Christian.

Yet this evening I will take part, as all of you are invited to take part, in a service inaugurating a “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity”.  I could say that as treasurer of the clergy association I am obliged to go, and justify my actions that way. But I would be dishonest if I did. The time has come to get to understand just why I take part in an avowedly Christian group, and why when they gather to pray for Christian Unity, I am glad to be there.

About a year ago I was invited to attend a meeting in Toronto at which representatives of many different religions were to plan an interfaith event in celebration of the UN’s IYP. I attended several of these, and at each of them, we began by going around the circle, with each person present identifying themselves and the faith community they represented.

The Christians all identified themselves by their denominations — United Church, Anglican, Mennonite, etc. The others generally identified themselves by the larger identity of their faith: Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, etc. At the third of these meetings, one of the Christian clergy present requested that the Christians identify themselves as just that so that rather than emphasizing their dividedness, they would emphasize their unity. So, this time as we went around the circle, the Catholics and Protestants, for the most part, identified themselves simply as Christians. Half way around the circle, a woman identified herself as Quaker. The minister who made the request interrupted to remind us that he thought the Christians should identify themselves as Christians. “Many Quakers”, she responded, “don’t think of themselves as Christians”.  And I interjected, “And most Unitarians don’t, either”.  The Christian minister said, “oh,” with a shrug, and we got on with the agenda.

That story has a lot to do with why I am willing to take part in a celebration of Christian Unity. You might think by my interjection that night that I would refuse to take part in a celebration whose intent is to overcome the divisions of the Christian world into sects. I detest the kind of unity which wipes away differences as if they don’ t matter, which looks at anyone with historical roots in the Christian tradition and says , ‘it doesn’t matter, we’re all Christians anyway.    It’s like the evangelists who came to my door and when I told them that I was a minister in my church, they left their pamphlets because I might find them useful and said, “we all believe in one god.”        I smiled, thanked them, and closed the door, thinking “one god, if any.”  They were willing to think their job done.  I was glad to be rid of them. Yet they left assured that they and I believed in the same god, an assurance I did not want to bother to deny them, but one in which I would never rest quietly.

So, it is with those who look at the world with all its cultural differences and say, “we’ re all one.” Yes, we are all one, and we are all human, but our cultures are our most valuable possession, and we shouldn’t explain them away in the hopes of keeping the peace. I stood up for my religious identity at that meeting, I did not at that doorframe encounter; a wise soldier chooses his battles. Better to dismiss the doorframe evangelists in their mistake and save the energy for forums where it can have a better impact.

The word Christian has come to have a distinct distaste for many people, and there is very good reason. Some people, when they hear that I am a minister, automatically assume I’m also a Christian, and hold me accountable for the abominations done in Christ’s name: inquisitions, holocausts, repressions, you name it. Even Tammy Bakker’s mascara and Oral Robert’s emotional blackmail. Then there’s “athletes for Christ” groups who pray for victories on the football field, and thank Jesus for each touchdown. Yes, much which is deplorable and much that is downright silly is done in Jesus’ name, and if Jesus could, I’m sure he would roll over in his grave at the vanity of it all.

Such is the underside of the Christian message: it has been abused, misunderstood and dragged through the dirt of human distortion for two thousand years.  When I see those things, I thank God I am not a Christian as those people define it – I need not feel myself tarnished by their insensitivity. Their narrowness and stupidity, their theology which Jesus would not recognize, and their willingness to cast all who are not like them into the pits of an imaginary hell, would make any sensitive, intelligent, open-hearted human being refuse to be a Christian.

But as Jacques Brel said, “If you leave it to them, they’ll crochet the world the colour of goose-shit.”  People who abuse the name Christian are an insult to the very memory of the man, Jesus of Nazareth, who unintentionally founded their faith, whose ways they pretend to follow. Take Jerry Falwell, for Instance: he has proclaimed that people with AIDS are suffering God’s vengeance for homosexuality.  Falwell has forgotten that Jesus ministered to the lepers, who in his time, were considered unclean, dangerous and sinners who deserved their fate. Jesus brought them his love and caring, not his condemnation, and brought them a message of hope and health, not despair and hell. Falwell does not follow the example of the man he claims as lord and saviour!

A member of the San Francisco Unitarian Church, who is unfortunately now deceased, once said to me, consider myself a Christian because I believe in the principles set out in the Sermon on the Mount.  I told her that was fine for her, but that the conservative Christians wouldn’t call her a Christian because Jesus’ words and deeds were more important to her than some mystical experience of salvation. She raised her eyebrows demurely, and to her dying day, considered herself a Unitarian Universalist Christian. Remembering her this morning, I think she’s a good example of a responsibility I think Unitarian Universalists have to those who claim to follow in the path of Jesus: to keep them honest about their legacy.  Unitarian Universalism emerged out of liberal Protestantism, and we have a responsibility to our roots like a child, now grown and left home, has a responsibility to his or her parents : a responsibility to care for them, in a broad sense; and in the case of these religious offspring, to keep them honest to their heritage and honest to the world around them. Because if we let the fundamentalists usurp the word “Christian” as they want to, to make it mean illiberal and anti-democratic, then we forfeit the memory of the man who arose in a captive land to proclaim good news to the poor, liberation to the oppressed, freedom to the enslaved, dignity to those cast down in human perception. If we allow the conservative churches to take exclusive use of the memory of Jesus, they will succeed in crocheting the world the colour of goose-shit.

Last week during the sharing time after the service one of you challenged me with the fact that the United Church is doing marveIous things in the field of social action. This is quite true, and so are the Anglicans, and so, at least on economic issues, are the Catholics. At least as far as those church hierarchies are concerned, the message Jesus came to bring has profound consequences for the church in the world. At the level of the parish this has not soaked through, and those churches are having trouble bringing the message from the top down. They have been struggling to discover, in every generation, what the message of Jesus, his words and his behaviour, means in their time.  Mainstream churches have become more liberal, conservative churches more conservative.

Unitarian Universalists bear some responsibility for this, especially here in North America: it was we who first, two hundred years ago, began the scientific study of the Bible on this continent, who brought the study done in Germany here and gave them a home. In our churches first did liberal Christianity find a home, and as cousins now to the liberal churches of the mainstream tradition, we need to help them maintain their tradition: help keep them honest about their tradition and their faith, their tradition based in Jesus’ ministry, and their traditions of service in the world. They will do this best if in dialogue with us they do not forget the sins of the past even as they are forgiven: the inquisitions and the holocausts in the name of religion. They will do their best if we, from our freer faith, can look at their heritage and point out the places where it confronts the modern world.

Unitarian Universalists are like the child who has left home, lived in the world, and can look back on the home situation with some distance. We can find in the Christian tradition much to love, and even some things to envy; and though we have our own home in another place, we need not forget nor always reject the home from which we have come : rather we must sift through the wheat and the chaff of our growing up, claim what we can to affirm, reject what we must as limiting to our own self-creation.

In families where adult children communicate well with the older generation, two worlds speak and listen to each other, and grow in the process. Such could be the effect of an ongoing dialogue between Unitarian Universalists and Christians.  In the world at large, such a dialogue takes place all the time, in the world of ideas, of the letters, pages in the newspapers. Three nights ago on the Journal, a Unitarian minister in Oklahoma was interviewed regarding the behaviour of a well-known evangelist. It takes place in informal settings, too, in the kitchens of our homes, at family reunions, with friends over coffee.

Such a dialogue is, as Adrienne Rich describes, “a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”  Such a dialogue is not easy, and it is frightening.  Conservative Christians would rather not hear what we have to say about the world, it is too threatening; let us be glad that the mainstream churches have learned to listen. And let us listen to them, too, to see and honour the courage they get from their spiritual example in Jesus of Nazareth, the strength they find to criticize the society in which they live, and let us listen that we might evaluate what they have to say. Let us stand up for ourselves, that we might prevent them, and they prevent us, from crocheting the world the colour of goose-shit.

You’ve noticed lately – how could you not – that the Roman Catholic Church is going through one of its times of repression. For two thousand years they’ve had periods of liberalization and times when the freedom to disagree was re-trenched.  Mark Belletini – a Unitarian Universalist minister and, as you would guess from his Italian surname, a former Roman Catholic – maintains that Unitarian Universalists have a mission to the Catholics. It’s to remind them that the church hasn’t always been monolithic, it has been very diverse, and its diversity has sometimes been its strength. The Roman Catholics, now as ever, need us to remind them that diversity is an asset.

Finally, I remain a member of this clergy group, I remain in dialogue with the Christian community, not only because I don’t think they should have exclusive claim to the legacy of Jesus, not only because they need us to keep them honest, but also because of the wealth of our own liberal Christian element . The famous Unitarian and Universalist social reformers of one hundred years ago thought of themselves as liberal Christians; in liberal Christianity they found insights and strengths which led them into struggle, sometimes into dark passageways and more often into light. It was the liberal Christian tradition which led young Dorothea Dix to travel throughout the United States and British North America and even the Caribbean to report on prison conditions, and inspired her, a single woman in a world where women were not allowed into public discourse, inspired her to petition legislatures, governors and kings for humane treatment of the mentally ill and the insane. It was the liberal Christian tradition which inspired Theodore Parker to keep his home as a station on the Underground Railroad, helping fugitive slaves travel by night to freedom in Canada. The liberal Christian tradition strengthened Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale in the battlefields, and inspired Mary Wollstonecraft to speak for women’s rights when it had never been done before. It inspired Dr. Joseph Workman to establish Ontario’s first institution for the mentally ill, and strengthened Emily Stowe when she faced discrimination in her long but finally successful attempt to become Canada’s first woman doctor.

I stay in dialogue with Christians in our time because the Christians need us;  I need them also to keep me in touch with the strength of our now wider heritage, our heritage of humanism and world religion, flowing together to make a greater river than the stream of liberal Christianity would be were it to flow on alone. I stay in dialogue with Christians because it enriches me.

Last May, over cocktails before dinner at the annual meeting of the Canadian Unitarian Council, Bill Schulz, President of our continental Unitarian Universalist Association, accused me, laughingly, of being a “crypto-Christian”. He’s probably right. I don’t use Christian images all that often, they don’t predominate in my preaching, but there is a theme which runs through much of my preaching. It is a theme which proclaims that our alienation is unnecessary, that the things which divide us one from the other, which divide us from the earth and from nature and from wholeness, have no final victory, that we free and independent modern men and women are part and parcel of one another, inter-dependent, interconnected, whole, welcome members of the family of becoming. Is this a crypto-Christian point of view? Is this the secret message of the TV evangelists, of the inquisitions, of holy wars? No. But it is remarkably close to the Jesus remembered in the gospels, the man who dined with publican and sinners, who ministered to lepers and had intercourse with Samaritans and tax gatherers, with those who were despised in his time. It is remarkably close to his message, his message that you are part of the family of God, that the foundation of all things welcomes you even when you feel cut off from it. Jesus’ message was a message to end alienation, and as Bill rightly saw, my message too is to a broken and troubled world to help it see how whole, how holy, it really is. Am I a crypto-Christian? Perhaps. And proud of it.

So tonight, when the Christians of Mississauga East gather at St. Dominic’s I will be among them. In part to keep them honest. In part to learn from them. In part to honour our living liberal Christian heritage. And in part because I belong there. And you belong there, too, as step-children in the godparents’ house, as inside-outsiders, keeping the vision correct, the image accurate, the reconciliation honest.

Reverend Mark DeWolfe

Thank you!

Kathy, Judy, Joan, Bert, Camille, Tisa, Susan, Anthony, Fiona.
Without your help, this work would not have been possible.

Brigitte Twomey