Why the Liberal Church Matters

Why the Liberal Church Matters

May 02, 2021 | Sarah Stewart

This is such a wonderful day. Last spring, responding to the Coronavirus pandemic, we completely closed our doors for everybody except for staff for five months. We were mostly closed to for another eight. We have begun to reopen. And this morning, it's just wonderful. I think there are about 55 of you, or so, here in the sanctuary. We probably have another 50 of you folks, live streaming with us at home right now. And we know from experience, that perhaps another 100 or 150 people, will watch this service over the course of just this coming week. It's so wonderful that we have all these ways of worshipping together. I am incredibly grateful, not only for this technology that has allowed us to worship together online for this past year, but especially for the work of our staff, of our young people who have learned to do this broadcasting, that has made this all possible. It gives us hope that we can finally be together again, hope that comes out of the science of vaccines and the possibility of the end of this pandemic. And we need this hope and solace, after such a long, hard year.

We're remembering today all those who we lost in the last year, our own member of our church Barry Morgan, who died of COVID, family members, mothers, fathers, family. far and wide. who died of this illness, or who died of other things, but we couldn't be with them when we wanted to be. Our sadness extends all over the world, because even as America, and some other wealthy countries are beginning to emerge from this pandemic, it rages on in India and in South America, and we know that there are people who are still suffering from illness and still need the reach of science and of good health to come to them. We think of over 3 million people who have died of this illness. We think of the ongoing pandemics of racism and violence in our world. And we have worries about vaccine hesitancy, the possibility that COVID could overwhelm us again.

If any of you are still wondering about vaccines, they are incredibly safe, and appointments are now readily available at Worcester State, at the state-run sites, and at drugstores. So, even as we gather, even on this joyful day, we offer a prayer, for all those who are sick in body or spirit, that they may be healed. For the fear that lives in our hearts, that we may be comforted, for those suffering injustice, that they may find succor and relief. May the Spirit of love be with the family of humanity in our time of need. I have certainly been there over the past year; I've had my own moments of despair. Last spring, when we had to close our worship services, that was one of the hardest times I've experienced in ministry. To come into this room, and to not have any of you here to preach into a camera and just to be wondering, were you okay? how were things with you? how would we get through this as a community? and as there have been deaths in the parish and in people's families, those have been hard times. We've helped families facing homelessness. We've dealt with the stresses of online school, which has certainly been difficult in my own family and I know in others. I've had those difficult moments, sitting at my desk, not seeing all of you, wondering if this is why I became a minister. And on my saddest days, I have to confess to you, I sometimes wondered why do we have church? And now as we are beginning to reopen, I think that is a valid question. Why do we have church? and specifically, why this kind of church. Why a liberal church? What does it do for us? What does it do for the world? After all, fewer and fewer people are members of religious congregations than ever before. The Gallup organization just conducted a poll. Fewer than fifty percent of Americans are members of a church, synagogue, or mosque. This is the lowest it has ever been in our country. In 1999, seventy percent of Americans were members of a religious organization and that number had been about steady since 1937. And still, seventy percent of Americans will tell you that they are in some way religious that they do identify with some religious identity, but they're not members of a congregation.

I was talking with some friends recently, other ministers, we were talking about reopening our churches and talking about what church is for, what's really important about this increasingly countercultural thing that we're doing. And you know, I had one friend who serves a non-denominational church, and she said, “well, denominations really don't matter, it doesn't matter to be Unitarian Universalist or to be a Baptist or to be Congregationalist, those denominations don't matter, what matters is really good churches. And another friend of mine, who is not serving a church right now, he said, “oh never mind that, church is a losing proposition, what really matters is individual spirituality and connection with the source of goodness in the world.” And this is definitely a time when I wish I could have thought of all the witty things to say right then, in the moment, do you have that? you think of the best thing later on. Because, you know, I'm not a nondenominational minister, and I'm not a minister who is not serving a church, I am your minister, serving this congregation; First Unitarian Church. This church, that I love, trying to be better people with you in this particular way. So, I want to speak up for the liberal church. James Luther Adams had five stones but I'm just going to talk about three this morning. The liberal church matters. It matters because here in this church we get over ourselves, we work toward justice, and we reject despair. We get over ourselves, we work toward justice, and we reject despair. It matters that we do these things.

So first of all, we get over ourselves, we get over that sense that it's the me, the I, the one, the individual that matters more than anything else, and hasn't COVID taught us this? Because if I just think about what's good for me, I don't think of myself as being at very high risk from COVID, I was never personally very worried about getting seriously ill, but if I had behaved that way, I would have gone out into the world and potentially spread illness to people who could have been very seriously sick from this disease And I'm sure that every one of you has had this thought, you weigh your own danger versus what's good for everybody, and church helps us choose what's good for everybody, not just what's good for us. We don't proclaim a personal salvation. We don't say, “well, I've got my relationship to God sorted out, so I'm set now, and I don't need anybody else.” James Luther Adams said, “every child of God, has the guidance of conscience for the Holy Spirit is available to every child of God, but this conscience, and the living presence of the Holy Spirit, is found in the mutuality of community”. In the liberal church, we get over ourselves. We believe that we learn what is right, by being together in community, by doing, by learning to do what is best for the whole, Adams called it co archy versus hierarchy. The rule of us together, instead of powerful people at the top.  And we know that we can't go it alone, that this church is here for us when we need it, and it helps us be there for others, who need us.

The liberal church helps us move toward justice. The essay in which James Luther Adams articulates his five smooth stones, it was taken from articles and speeches written from 1939 to 1955, it was actually published in the 70’s. And if you think about that time in the middle of the 20th century, that was a time when liberalism was under attack, worldwide. We hadn't yet seen the rise of the evangelical church in America, the way we did at the end of the 20th century, but liberalism as a concept, apart from religious liberalism. It had been under attack during World War II, and in Soviet Russia. Adams contemporary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he refused the label, liberal, because he had seen the supposedly liberal church in Germany just fold to the Nazis and agree to support the Nazi regime. Adams believed that we could reclaim that word. He believed that we could reclaim the word liberal, because it was the liberal church that would gather in resistance to totalitarianism. That belief that it was this world where we would make a difference, not the next world. And that we were called to do that, that we couldn't really be a church, unless we were trying to make the world a better place. I believe that in our time, this takes the shape of anti-racism. This has always been a part of the liberal church for at least the last 70 years Bonhoeffer, like Thomas Merton, was inspired by the black church in America. He spent time at Union Theological Seminary in New York and worshiped at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And he said, there, that he found an authentic American religion, that worshiping with people who were resisting the power of racism in community together, connected him with the Holy Spirit in a way he had not found otherwise in America. We take on that spirit today. We resist humanities in humanity.  The next world is God's realm. But this world, so help us God, is ours to take care of. So, the liberal church helps us get over ourselves and it helps us move toward justice.

The third thing it helps us do is to reject despair. Because we operate in this world, we locate hope in this world. We're not pinning all our hopes on whatever might come next, it's hope here and now. And you know, hope here and now, it's not quite such a grand thing as that hope for the time to come. It's iterative, we hope a little bit, hope for this.triumph, this progress, this thing, we can do next, and we turn that into the next hope, and the next one. We do come in here sometimes weighed down with the despair of the world and we turn to this community to renew ourselves, for goodness. It helps us look for opportunities to do good, rather than count the cost. In conservative Christianity, all of the hope is in heaven. And in secularism, all of the hope is in material improvement. Here in the liberal church, we have spiritual hope here and now. Even if it is long, even if we cannot see the bend of the ark; we have hope that it bends toward justice. I am grateful to all the first Unitarians of the past. Those visionary people who built this large sanctuary in 1850, who rebuilt it again after hurricane, who rebuilt it again after fire. I'm grateful to those people who sat in these pews and survived the 1918 flu pandemic and set us an example to live up to. I'm grateful to all of those people who endowed our church with resources and optimism to get us through hard times. I'm grateful to every single one of you, who have maintained your connection to this church, who have sought creative ways to be together through computer screens and outdoor walks, in all these long months, when we couldn't be here together in this building. And I look forward to the First Unitarian of the future, which will apprehend the spirit in community, which proclaims racial justice and freedom from the tyranny of efficiency, which maintains hope in the movement of goodness in the world, which loves truth and creates beauty, which worships the one who holds us in love, and opens every human heart, to mutuality, dignity, and hope.

I love you all. Amen.