First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, 11/30/14
Well here we are, in the Channing pulpit. I hope you’ll allow me a brief moment before starting to experience this, and to remember. The first time I preached to this congregation was two and a half years ago, on a July day in the Parish hall. I was trying to put into words my (then recent) decision to start attending seminary. It was hot that morning, and in my nervousness I had worn a heavy linen shirt. By the time I finished preaching I was literally dripping.
I’m not quite that nervous this morning, (and it isn’t that hot!) but there are some nerves. I’m a history nut, you see, so to stand in this pulpit is something special. For our visitors this morning, this pulpit is named after William Ellery Channing, a minister who almost 200 years ago delivered a sermon from this pulpit, defining and naming the new ‘Unitarian Christianity’ then sweeping the country. A month ago I got very excited about being in the same room as Thomas Jefferson’s pen, behind glass, so you’ll have to imagine what’s going through my head now, as I actually stand in this particular pulpit.
Channing was a fierce individualist. ‘The great hope of society,’ he wrote, ‘is in individual character.’ We still see Channing’s influence in how we often speak of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Here, what you believe is your own decision, dictated by individual conscience rather than Church doctrine. This is a great strength of our tradition, placing faith and belief in the hands of the individual rather than some outside hierarchy.
Channing, though, doesn’t tell us the whole story. We call ourselves a community of faith, and that first word is important as well. If we all were content in our own answers, self-sufficient in our own walks of faith, then there would be no need for us to come together, no reason for us to be in this place together this morning. We could be content with our own stories, our own answers, our own back scratchers. “Poor beast,” God says in the reading earlier, “In Eden no one stands alone.” I’d like to take a few minutes this morning to explore this tension in our tradition, between Channing’s individualism and the community we strive to build together.
“All virtue,” Channing spoke here, comes from a person’s forming his or her “temper and life according to conscience.” Channing’s sermon, indeed much of the basis of our UU faith, comes out of Enlightenment principles that enshrine individual conscience and agency with an almost holy aura. It is not a coincidence that the early Unitarian Church arose in Boston, less than a generation after the American Revolution. That same principles that established a stable, mostly progressive country played a role in this generally stable, certainly progressive faith. And to take the comparison one step further, just as our country has - all too slowly - moved toward the promise of its founding, so have we taken Channing’s conception of conscience further than he could have imagined.
We are Channing’s legacy, here in this room, and while many of us no longer call ourselves ‘Unitarian Christians,’ that beautiful emphasis on individual responsibility and conscience is alive in our seven principles. We each have our own conceptions of what is holy, what that candle we light and place with the others means.
Channing’s sermon was at an ordination, and he had some advice for Rev. Sparks, just entering ministry. “Show in your preaching and your life, your beliefs and morals, with a high and delicate sense of duty, with candor towards your opposers, with inflexible integrity and with an habitual reverence for God. If any light can pierce and scatter the clouds of prejudice, it is that of pure example.” Wow. This also can be traced through our tradition. We raise up individual conscience, and often put our leaders right up there with it. And most leaders want to be there! Duty, candor, integrity, reverence, and example: I want to be that! All of us should aspire to those heights, to take our individual lights out into the world, being an example of a life well lived and a force for change in the world.
The thing is, much as we’d like to be that perfect example, almost none of us are. Certainly I’m not always this being of grace and light Channing seems to describe. If you have any doubt of that, talk to me after a committee meeting has run an hour late, or, better yet, find someone in the congregation today to let you know. At coffee hour find one of my friends, my in laws, my wife, or - God help me - my parents. They will gleefully confirm that my faults are manifold, just as all our’s are. We all fall short of perfection, no matter how much we seek it. We invent our own back-scratchers in our cleverness, but they never quite reach that perfect spot.
Self sufficiency isn’t enough. I spent this past summer working as a chaplain at a hospital in North Carolina. While the very existence of chaplains is, perhaps, an argument in itself against spiritual self-sufficiency, that’s a different sermon. Instead, let me tell you about the interconnectedness of chaplains. The five of us in the summer program met at least three times a week, encouraging, consoling, and celebrating with each other. When one of us lost his wedding ring, we were all there. When he found it again, we were there as well. When another lost a patient he had been especially close to, we were all there. When my time came, they were all there. Each of us pulled the others along, and in turn were pulled by them to be just a little better each day. Five chaplains, two Catholic, one Evangelical, on Searching, and one Unitarian Universalist. By the end of the summer, I think it’s safe to say that each had deepened and grown the faith of each other. Without that network of mutual support and trust, I doubt any of us would have been half as effective in our work.
Desmond Tutu calls this interconnectedness Ubuntu. Ubuntu, to him, is our shared humanness, the sense that I am who I am because you are who you are, and vice versa. What diminishes you then must also diminish me, and it’s only by you having full expression that I may express my own humanity fully. As much as Channing’s individualism is part of our tradition, so is Ubuntu- though perhaps in different words: the interconnected web of existence, Martin Luther Kings ‘single garment of destiny.’ Many of our most cherished traditions and actions stem from this sense of Ubuntu, from our Standing on the Side of Love to most recently saying that what happens in Ferguson Missouri is not separate from what happens here in Baltimore, and is no less wrong for happening a thousand miles away.
How do we reconcile these two, Channing and Tutu, individualism and Ubuntu? I’m not sure there’s a neat, seminary ready answer to that question, other than to say that’s what we do as a community of faith. This morning we all gathered together and each family lit a candle symbolizing…whatever was appropriate to their own conscience, before leaving it with all the others in a single display that could together light up this sanctuary.
We’re warned at seminary against getting too personal in our sermons. But this time I think my own experience right now may be useful. One of the most bittersweet parts of this process is knowing that, as soon as you start down the path to ordination, you are saying goodbye to the church that put you on the path. As a member of First Unitarian, I cannot be the minister here, so if I pursue this career it means going elsewhere all too soon.
A calling to ministry, as I described in that first muggy July sermon, is a deeply personal thing- in some ways individual conscience taken to the extreme. This is my choice and my path, and I cannot generalize that path to you. And yet this place, this congregation, everyone in this room is a part of it. Here are the people who cared for me when I was sick, we encouraged me, we cautioned me in moments of excess. I was married right over there, and with any luck I’ll be ordained here in this chancel. I am who I am because you are who you are - In Eden no one stands alone.
If I’ve learned one thing in Seminary, it is that ministers are not the perfect paragons of virtue Channing describes- but they are deeply affected by the churches they come from. The people I work and study with at Wesley are amazing, beautiful examples of humanity, but they still gripe, they still complain, and they they all too often fall short of where they want to be. They have been and are formed by the people around them, and as they lead and support a community they grow as the community around them grows. Each carries with them every church they have been a part of, the memories, the lessons, the failures and the successes. So if my own conscience has put me in a position where I will leave this place, in a way I am tied to it, and always will be.
Channing’s voice in our tradition calls us to free our minds, to answer only to our own conscience the meaning of the things we see. His voice, evolving through the generations, gives us the tapestry of faiths that make up our tradition. Without Ubuntu, without the loom weaving the disparate threads together in a single garment, we would not be a community of faith, simply a collection of individuals. The day I leave this place I will be sad, it’s true, but I know that I my journey is dependent on the journey we have here together, and will remain so as we all move forward. Our faiths are stronger for being part of this community.
Thank you, and bless you all.