Thursday, January 26, 2012

Freely Following Jesus, a sermon preached in Austin, TX Wildflower Church

Freely Following Jesus

Wildflower Church Austin TX Jan. 22, 2012

The reading from Mark 1:14-20…a part of the weekly lectionary, a way churches of different traditions all read and comment on the same biblical passages each week; the UU Christian Fellowship was one of the founding organizations who set up the current revised common lectionary;

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”18And immediately they left their nets and followed him.19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

Contemporary reading from “Christian Voices within Unitarian Universalism”


Let’s begin with a round of a few different voices from Unitarian Universalists, lay and clergy, who are in the UU Christian Fellowship. I hope it telescopes right away just a bit of the wide bandwidth of what it means to freely follow Jesus among our faith community’s tradition, but let me say upfront that even these selected voices present too limited a picture, as you will see. Still, they reveal encounters of the heart and the hands as well as from the mind.

From Dave Dawson: --“I share a desire for the freedom to test the outer limits of my Christian faith. Within my church I am not told I am wrong, just looked at quizzically when I say I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ…I remain a UU Christian as a witness to those in mainline Christianity that, yes, universal salvation is alive and well, and it is a beautiful option for those people mired in shame-based churches.

 From Anita Farber-Robertson: --“It was not, however, going to be enough to want Jesus in my life. I was going to have to claim him, and let him claim me. I was going to have to say, “Yes, this is my path. You are my guide, my teacher, and my savior, for without you my soul would get brittle, my mouth grow bitter, my heart hard.”

 From Terry Burke: --“My baptism remains central to my religious self-understanding. As part of the confession of faith that Carl Scovel had me write, I said, “I believe that God seeks a loving, dialogical relationship with humanity, and that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ calls us to reflect that sacrificial love in our lives. The cross and the faithful community proclaim that it is more important to love than to survive and that love is stronger than death.”

From Robert Fabre: --“So Unitarian Universalism was, for me, the pathway back to Christianity. No doubt I wouldn’t be where I am today, wouldn’t be the person I am today, without it. Ironically, the longer I’ve been associated with this liberal religious community, the more conservative I’ve become on a personal level. So now I can say, I believe that Jesus was the son of God (not God but the son of God); I believe in the resurrection (not the resuscitation of a dead body but the resurrection); and I believe that I am saved by grace (not because I accept Jesus as my personal savior but because, despite my confusion and my unbelief, despite my shortcomings and mistakes, in a mysterious way, beyond my comprehension and explanation, God accepts me).

 From Victoria Weinstein: --“Who is Jesus Christ to me? He is both a teacher of the Way, and the Way itself. For one who has always had a hard time grasping the concept of God, let alone developing a working definition of God, Jesus both points me toward a definition of God and then lives that definition. Jesus Christ is the freedom that laughs uproariously at the things of this world, while loving me dearly for being human enough to lust after them. He is my soul’s safety from all harm. He is the avatar of aloneness, a compassionate and unsentimental narrator of the soul’s exile on earth, and proof of the soul’s triumphant homecoming at the end of the incarnational struggle. He is not afraid to put his hands anywhere to affect healing. He mourns, and weeps, and scolds, and invites. He is life more abundant and conqueror of the existential condition of fear.”

And From the late Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley: Today, Jesus remains a central figure of my religious identity. And yet I don’t often call myself a Christian because there is no agreement on what the term Christian means, either within Unitarian Universalism or without…There are conservative and liberal understandings of the Jesus story and Christian witness, and none of these has any exclusive claim on Jesus or those who seek to follow him. In my Christian witness, no one’s soul (or spiritual salvation) is dependent on a particular ritual, obligation, or statement of belief. There is no giant cop up in the sky dictating who will go up and who will go down. And yet I have been moved to tears by liturgical expressions of the story of Jesus and his work as a mystical teacher. It’s most accurate to say that I am a nominal Christian who has also found truth and wisdom in pre-Christian and mystical religions, earth-centered spiritualities, religious humanism, womanism, and other theologies of liberation. I have embraced the spiritual practice of Thai Chi and the wisdom of Buddhist philosophy. I am a Unitarian Universalist because I do not exclude any particular theology. As the spiritual says, there is “plenty of good room” at the banquet table.

I would also include the voices of the non-Christian UUs who are a part of the UU Christian Fellowship but who love to learn with us and even worship with us. These include atheists and agnostics and many others who do not claim to freely follow Jesus, but who find their own spiritual lives deepened by being around those who do; and I would include the progressive Christians who are not UUs who are a part of us too, who like what we bring to the Christian table and are sometimes amazed to find that what they think have been new discoveries in biblical and theological studies have actually existed for centuries, among us.

The religious landscape in America has changed vastly since 1945 when the UUCF began. In UUism, in Christianity, and in UU Christianity. These UU Christian voices now are more diverse than you would have found when the UUCF began. Surprise, surprise, they are still changing. For a faith that roots itself in the theological belief that revelation is not sealed and cannot be sealed, we do seem to still resist change. I once had a church member in another congregation say “When I joined this church I guess I thought it had always been the way it was when I joined, and would always stay that way.” On the other hand, when we talk about ongoing revelation as a core value of our tradition, it doesn’t mean continually throwing the baby out with the bathwater in every successive generation, as if that is the mark of a progressive faith. Sometimes, often, ongoing revelation means returning to our touchstones and knowing them more fully because of where we have been, and being touched and supported by them even more deeply and strongly because of it.

There are four words that I think sum up the relationship between Christianity and Unitarian Universalism—in terms of our history and still at work now. They are: Commonplace. Contradiction. Conundrum. And Convergence. (I have borrowed the first three words and ideas from the Rev. Earl Holt.  I updated to add the fourth, convergence.)

Once upon a time, to speak of Christian voices in our movement would have been a commonplace thing, as redundant as saying Methodist or Baptist Christian. It hasn’t been all that long ago, relative to our history. In a 1936 national survey of Unitarians only, some 92 percent of the respondents said they considered their local church to be a Christian church. Now, of course, there were many in the so-called Christian church then who would have argued against that. As there are today. But, I don’t think it is spiritually healthy to let others define you, and what is interesting is how the Unitarians saw themselves. For the Universalists, by and large, they didn’t consider it then an issue to be surveyed about, so integral was Christianity to their identity even though there were movements within Universalism already working to change that.

But if we want to really grasp the notion of how commonplace Christian is in our roots, we should look at the statement of belief approved in 1853 by the American Unitarian Association.

 “WE BELIEVE in Jesus Christ, the everlasting Son of God, the express image of the Father, in whom dwelt all the fullness of the God-head bodily, and who to us is the Way and the Truth and the Life. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, the teacher, renewer, and guide of mankind. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Catholic Church as the body and form of the Holy Spirit, and the presence of Christ in all ages. WE BELIEVE in the Regeneration of the human heart, which, being created upright, but corrupted by sin, is renewed and restored by the power of Christian truth. WE BELIEVE in the constant Atonement whereby God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. WE BELIEVE in the Resurrection from mortal to immortality, in a future judgment and Eternal Life. WE BELIEVE in the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the final triumph of Christian Truth.

And that was from the heretical Unitarian Liberal Christians of their time, and after Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker had preached their famous sermons and Transcendentalism was rising. You might say it was approved because of those sermons and the theological changes underway.

A couple of points to know, though: one, there may be some among us, maybe the Trinitarian Universalists, like myself, whom have always been a part of who we are, who resonate with that language and those theological expressions today still; it is good to remember we never voted not to believe that statement, or another, but we only voted here and there new expressions for new times, not as official replacements that negated what came before; and second, Christians helped to create a faith community that, even if unconsciously in some ways, was open to others different from them; in large measure because of the kind of Christians they were, they helped form an association where they could, and would be, in the minority.  It is not a bad cultural place for a follower of Jesus to be.  

On the Universalist side, in the mid 1930s, they affirmed the following statement: “The bond of fellowship in this Convention shall be a common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and to co-operate in establishing the kingdom for which he lived and died. To that end, we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme worth of every human personality, in the authority of truth known or to be known, and in the power of men of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.”

But by 1945, coming out of the end of the second world war and wanting to cast a vision of a new kind of faith for a new kind of world, the Unitarians began to create common language of purpose that did not specifically lift up God, much less anymore Christ. In reaction to that and to preserve and promote their faith within and without their own ranks, the Unitarian Christians, including the first president of the later created UUA, created a national fellowship. From 1945 to 2004, the fellowship was in Massachusetts, once having its own building in downtown Boston.  A year after hiring me, we moved the UUCF from The First Church of Christ, Unitarian, in Lancaster, Mass, to our church in Turley.

            After 1945 in many places, especially in new lay led fellowships, Unitarian Universalism became the opposite of Christianity, and it was considered a contradiction to be a UU Christian. Over time as Christianity liberalized in many of its denominations, and as more and more UUs began to see how they were a more than tradition, rather than an anti this or that tradition, people began to see UU Christians as conundrums, puzzles. That meant we got a lot of questions like “If you are a Christian and a UU, do you believe in the Trinity, in the divinity of Jesus, in Hell and Heaven, etc etc? And especially the question, wouldn’t you be more comfortable in a Christian denomination like x, y, or z?”

Quick answers to those conundrum questions:  Christians have always believed many things about the nature of God and Jesus and the afterlife; UU Christians do as well. The interesting new development in UU Christianity is that a great number of our members have been non-Christian UUs first, and that it has been through Unitarian Universalism that they have become Christians or Jesus followers for either the first time ever, or as adults, so the thought of leaving for another church doesn’t appeal.  

What we have morphed into then is a UU Christianity where some places it is still commonplace to think of UU and Christian in the same way, and where some places it is seen as a contradiction, and where it is to many a conundrum, in large measure because we now have the Convergent UU Christians. These fall into two categories. One kind are those who converge different ways of primarily following Jesus or practicing their Christian faith. We have classic UU Christians who see Jesus as a teacher, who seek to follow his lessons. We have small c catholic UU Christians who experience Jesus in the traditions and rituals of the church over the centuries. And we have liberationist UU Christians who know Jesus in the actions of healing and liberating and being with the oppressed and marginalized and suffering. (You can read more about these types in the pamphlet Who Are The UU Christians by the Rev. Tom Wintle on our website). More and more UU Christians are converging these different ways of expressing their faith. But we also now have UU Christians who are converging their Christian faith with say Buddhism, or neo-paganism, humanism, Jewish roots, mysticism, and also among us are those who converge the UU part of their faith with their regular attendance and membership in a Christian community. And, to top it all off, we do have UU Christian churches who are also affiliated with other denominations the same as they are with the UUA. The spirit of convergence is alive and well. And, as we often say, we don’t think Jesus, or the radical inclusivist Paul and other early Jewish followers of Jesus, would have it any other way.  In fact UU Christianity is like a living embodied parable told by Jesus.

Which brings me to the final part of this sermon, tying a first century life together with our 21st centuries lives: what is it about Jesus that keeps causing otherwise sane people to do crazy things in their life, still, whether it be leaving their livelihoods and putting down their fishing nets, their careers,  and following someone who asks nothing of them other then everything, who doesn’t say come follow me only if you are good, and believe this or that, but who says come and together, in freedom, we will do something unheard of, be fishers of people, especially the drowning and the lost and the left behind, rebuilders of abandoned places and people, come and we will live in a way and in a place that will be both draining and fulfilling at the same time, where you will be asked not to hide from the crosses the Roman Empire has erected to scare you into submission to its unjust ways but you will be asked to pick up that cross and transform it from fear to love, to risk your very life, in order to show the world that another way of life is possible, in fact can be glimpsed here, now, in what we are doing, and someday will be here for all?

            Jesus’ parables reveal perhaps the clearest picture we have of who he was and why he was so revolutionary that he was killed; they show the kind of Jesus we are trying to make visible in the world through our missional community back in Oklahoma in an area of great suffering and abandonment where we are guided by the 3Rs of relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation.  So, as I began with the words of some of his followers, to close let me end with Jesus’ words.

A favorite parable is when Jesus said, my translation, the kingdom of God is like a woman who stole leaven and put it into three measures of flour, until it was all corrupted. End of parable. But those few words are about the radical fact of God changing sides, as my seminary professor Brandon Scott puts it. Of God’s Relocation, redistribution, reconciliation. Follow Jesus and experience God changing sides.

Jesus’ phrase “kingdom of God”, was itself a kind of internal parable, for the kingdom, the world, the Empire as everyone knew, was Caeser’s. The evidence was everywhere; if you needed reminders just look at your coins or your crosses lining the roads. Caeser was Lord and Savior and was called that and the Son of God, and what was divine, then and now, was power and honor and property and propriety and security, being cool, popular, successful, accomplished, affluent, and with an appealing appearance. Jesus immediately challenges those assumptions by claiming kingdom is not Caeser’s but that of the God who is in relationship with the poor and the conquered.  Today instead of the Kingdom of God, we in the U.S. might say the Consumer Marketplace Entertainment Empire, or just the Empire of Me or Our Kind

In this world changing parable you see Jesus goes on to link God with leaven, something very ordinary, but also something considered unholy, not like the purity of the unleavened bread, rather something moldy that was to be kept separate and apart while preparing your meal. God, Jesus is saying, is in what others seek to shame and silence. And the main player in this God story is a woman, and as if that isn’t bad enough in the eyes of the world, she is a woman who sneaks or steals this leaven, and then foolishly puts it into enough flour to feed a feast, and what happens? It all goes bad, all becomes, in the eyes of the world, useless, to be abandoned. And that’s where the parable ends. And where it really begins to take off.
The God of this parable, as Jesus’ ministry and life also revealed, has relocated…from holiness to unholiness, from power and privilege and public status and acts to what happens in the home, out of sight is no longer out of mind, at least in God’s mind and sight; the everlasting has relocated from fullness and contentment to times and places and people of emptiness and what others see as waste; also God here even changes from being A Static Being to becoming a process, to a movement that changes and corrupts from within the dominant culture’s status quo and beliefs in what is worthy and respectable.

As Jesus challenged the authorities of his time, so this parable challenges us today, to also pick sides, to relocate, to go experience God, and help make God visible, where the powerful and the privileged won’t go, making visible what they seek to keep hidden in hopes of keeping the status quo intact.

Jesus expresses the life and depth of a real freedom, a freedom known as empowering both persons and the communities that nurture those very persons, a freedom whose other name is responsibility, a freedom that is the opposite of license to do what one wills, a freedom that has been the hallmark of the free church tradition of Unitarian Universalism from its origins in radical congregationalism that found a home on this continent. A kind of freedom that in this world today needs to be shouted from the mountaintops and lived in the abandoned places, especially when so many little Emperors seek to misuse the word freedom, just as they misuse Jesus as well.

In freely following Jesus today, we can, we hope, continue, just as the parables did and call us to, to turn our lives and the world upside down, and inside out, and during it all marvel, in amazing grace, at what happens next.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Revival/Retreat sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship: Welcoming the Feminine in Christianity, and much more worship and workshops

Come experience the power of progressive Christianity and the free religious spirit and participate in our 10th Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship Revival/Retreat. Share this exciting news and event with others.
Lectures Theme: Many Voices, Many Verses: Welcoming The Feminine in Christianity
Worship Theme: Hard, Sacred Words
Small Group Theme: Deepening Spirituality: With A Little Help From My Friends
Workshop Themes: Prayer, Bible, Theology, Universalism, Celtic Christianity, Sacred Feminine, New Metaphors, Missional Church, Growing Small Groups of Jesus Followers, UU Christianity 101
Come March 22-25, 2012, UU Congregation of Fairfax, VA. in the Washington, D.C. area.
Come for one day or for full event. We even have single event prices. All worship will be free and open to the public. See for registration and where you can download the revival brochure and more. Check back often for updates. Contact us with questions or to recieve updates at
Presenters and Preachers:
Lecturers: Dr. Mary Hunt "Feminist Theologies in Action---Women Around The World Doing Faith-Based Justice Work; Dr. Amy Oden, "Wide Open Spaces: Women's Voices in Christianity", Margaret Starbird: "Mary Magdalene: Woman and Archetype"
Workshop Presenters. Revs. Thomas Schade, Anita Farber-Robertson, Susan Newman, Scott Wells, Ron Robinson, Sue Mosher, Dave Dawson, Jennifer Sandberg, and others to be announced. .
Worship Leaders for Opening, Closing, Taize, Communion, Baptism, Prayer and Healing, Daily Office: Revs. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, Mary Katherine Morn, Kathleen Rolenz, and more to be announced.
Small Groups Coordinator: Rev. Lillie Mae Henley; group facilitators to be announced.
More on The Lecturers:
Dr. Mary Hunt is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, MD. She lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to social justice concerns. Dr. Hunt received her Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She also received the Masters in Divinity degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and the Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. Her undergraduate degree in Theology and Philosophy is from Marquette University. She will focus on ways in which women from the Christian tradition, especially in the women-church movement, are engaging in new forms of sacrament and solidarity. She is author of a classic work, Fierce Tenderness: Toward A Feminist Theology of Friendship.
Dr. Amy Oden is Dean and Professor of History of Christianity, Wesley Theological Seminary. Dr. Oden received her B.A. from the University of Oklahoma and her Ph.D. from the Southern Methodist University. Dr. Oden has published such books as In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought, And You Welcomed Me: Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity, and the Wesley Study Bible. She has recently finished a book project entitled God's Welcome: Hospitality for a Gospel-Hungry World. She is both a respected scholar and a dynamic speaker.
Dr. Amy Oden's lecture will be: Wide Open Spaces: Women’s voices in Christianity. She writes: 'Throughout history women have called Christianity to more spacious thinking and living. Women’s voices invite and challenge the faithful to the good news of an expansive life. We will listen to their stories, and engage them with our own."
Margaret Starbird holds BA and MA degrees from the University of Maryland. She later studied theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, TN. Starbird is the widely acclaimed author of works that seek to restore Mary Magdalene to a position of honor denied her for 2000 years by the entrenched hierarchy of the patriarchal system. Starbird gives lectures and workshops worldwide focused on reclaiming the Sacred Feminine in Christianity. She writes: Who was Mary Magdalene? Could she have been the wife and beloved of Jesus? What became of her after the Crucifixion? Why was her story suppressed by the Church Fathers and why must we now retrieve it? With an eye to the “Easter Mysteries” celebrated at the Spriing equinox, we will examine the Sacred Partnership revealed at the very heart of the Christian faith. Reclaiming this ancient mystery corrects a tragic “design flaw” in Christian doctrine—the loss of the Holy Bride."
The Workshops:
Some of the exciting workshops and special conversations and gatherings we will have during Revival will include:

Special three-hour Centering and Contemplative Prayer Workshop, Sue Mosher, Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C.
The Bible and Women: It's A Man's World, Or Is It?, Rev. Dr. Susan Newman, All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, D.C.
A New Metaphor for UU Christians: From 'saving remnant' to 'hidden wellspring,' Rev. Tom Schade, First Unitarian Church, Worcester, MA
Praying the Psalms, Rev. Anita Farber-Robertson, Interim Minister, Swampscott, MA
Women, the Image of God and the Universalist Hope, Rev. Scott Wells, Washington, D.C.
Divine Feminine in Celtic Christianity, Sue Mosher, Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C.
Missional Church, Rev. Ron Robinson, Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship and The Welcome Table Church, Turley, OK,
UU Christianity 101
Starting and Nurturing Small Groups of Jesus Followers, Dave Dawson, member of All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, D.C.
Symbols of the Feminine Divine, Jennifer Sandberg, Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C.

The Small Groups: Deepening Spirituality
Three times during the Revival, participants will meet in small groups to "deepen spirituality with a little help from our friends", sharing lives, faith journeys, the revival experience, and more with an intentional program. The purpose is to engage small group participants in experiential exercises which will lead them to a deeper understanding of their own spiritual depths. With this knowledge, they will be able to establish or enhance their own spiritual practices. To share with others one’s life experiences around desire for greater spiritual meaning in one’s life. Facilitators present experiential exercises that will allow participants to share personal feelings, thoughts, and responses to words, sensory stimuli, music, and imagery. Participants will, by the end of the small group sessions, have a greater under­standing of their ability to pray, contemplate, or meditate. With this newly acquired knowledge, they will be better equipped to establish their own spiritual practices.

Friday, January 06, 2012

2012 Dreams

 This Sunday, in the spirit of the season of Epiphany, bring your dreams for what our missional community can be and do in 2012. We will wind up our final video episode of Justice For The Poor starting at 9:30 am then have a short worship that is long on sharing dreams and plans for this year. Calendar making as sacred act and art. We will be planning our MLK events and parade entry. And our common meal and more planning. And come walk with us Sunday Jan. 15 at 5 pm as we participate again in the candlelight march downtown and the Martin Luther King, Jr. interfaith service at Boston Avenue United Methodist. And planning a mission trip to Austin, TX for the weekend of Jan. 22 when I preach there on being a Christian in Unitarian Universalism. Plan on joining us here for a mission week of service and learning March 10-16.

How in the year ahead can we deepen our daily prayer, our weekly worship, our monthly lifesharing struggles and strengths, our annual retreat, our committment to a pilgrimmage during our lifetime, being open to daily random acts of kindness justice and beauty? What shape will that take? What new can we offer our community? How can our work through the Community Center, in the community, and at our Community GardenPark be intertwined with our learning, our serving, our worship?