The Rev. John Buehrens, a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, married to an Episcopal priest, tells the story of his daughters, Erica and Mary, being exposed to both traditions.
At a certain point he writes they were told, “This year you can go to either Sunday school. You choose, but you can’t stay home.” ...When Erica was two and a half, we found her one day with a towel draped down her back like a vestment, holding a hymnal (upside down), and marching around the couch singing “The Hokie Pokie.” Obviously, an Episcopalian!
...Mary, on the other hand, goes to All Soul’s, [UU]. She loved her Sunday school class this year, which studied stories from Genesis and Exodus—putting Jacob and Rachel on trial in the matter of Esua’s birthright, and conducting a protest march against Moses and Aaron, with signs reading “Meat, not Manna!” “Impeach Moses!” and “back to Egypt.” When she grows up, Mary says, she might like to be Jewish. [Clearly, the Unitarian!][i]
My dear friend, James Ford, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island, when I told him of the UU Folk Ensemble visiting with us this morning, quipped in a Facebook message that Episcopalians are just Unitarians with a sense of style.
Though it may be dangerous to say so—thankfully, the Bishop is on sabbatical in the Midwest somewhere—I largely agree. I have great sympathy with Unitarian Universalists, having attended the Allen Avenue UU Church (the other UU church in Portland, affectionately know as A2U2) briefly after taking leave of parish ministry in 2006. My wife, Sukie, comes from a long line of venerable Boston Unitarians dating back to the Nineteenth century.
It goes without saying that Unitarian Universalism represents liberal religion in its broadest, most comprehensive and all-embracing sense. But I would also argue that the Episcopal Church (and by extension, Anglicanism)—within the larger rubric of the Christian Church—is, at its heart, a liberal tradition.
I was raised in the Congregational Church and became an Episcopalian in college. While I valued my religious upbringing, the Episcopal Church attracted me by its liturgy and rootedness in an age-old tradition rich in history and with a global reach. I understood that the Anglican Communion’s common prayer was its guide to theology and practice and that tests of orthodoxy, and censorship of thought, were anathema to its essentially liberal spirit.
Most importantly, I was advised early on not to leave my intellect and my reason at the door when I entered the church, but to bring it—along with my heart—and honor it as an important means of seeking the truth.
I share this with you this morning as we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are some today, particularly among my daughter’s generation, who are unaware that King was a Christian minister. King came from a long line of orthodox Baptist ministers—his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great grandfather, only brother, and uncle were all clergy. “I didn’t have much choice, I guess” he said as an aside in his great sermon “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool.” Throughout his life as a great civil rights activist, King served as pastor of Baptist congregations.
But his faith was essentially liberal and it was that liberal faith that inspired his prophetic witness, including his civil rights leadership, his commitment to non-violence and pacifism, and his advocacy for the poor of all ethnic and racial backgrounds across America and indeed around the world. Some have even argued that King’s was a Unitarian Christianity.
Be that as it may, Robert Scofield, in his essay entitled King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Martin Luther King, Jr.. says that despite being raised in a lineage of orthodox Baptist ministers, King at a young age demonstrated skepticism of the irrational claims of religion, and embarrassment at the emotionalism of his father's preaching.
King carried these suspicions with him when he entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of fifteen. He had originally planned on being a doctor or lawyer. At Morehouse, under the guidance of [the President of the college] and [a] professor [of religion and philosophy], he began to believe that religion could be both "intellectually respectful and emotionally satisfying."
Scofield writes that the purpose of the church for King is not to create dogma, theology, or creeds but rather "to produce living witnesses and testimonies to the power of God in human experience," and to commit to action. From a young age, King understood the importance of combining his religion with social justice.
From this perspective King viewed the church's role as promoting a way of life rather than a belief system, saying, "Jesus always recognized that there is a danger of having a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” He stated that Christ is more concerned with how we treat our neighbors, our attitudes toward racial justice, and living a high ethical life than he is with long processionals, knowledge of creeds, or the beautiful architecture of a church.[ii]
So much for the Anglican Church!
But at the very heart of King’s faith was his experience of God, a God whom he knew as a personal presence, transcendent yet immanent; that is, a God of love and whose Spirit is synonymous with seeking justice. King tells us in his own words that, God is not a process projected somewhere in the lofty blue. God is not a divine hermit hiding himself in a cosmic cave. …God is forever present with us.
In 1955, as a young pastor, King’s life was transformed, his vision of the religious life unalterably deepened and clarified, by a profound encounter with God at his kitchen table in Montgomery, Alabama. Albert Raboteau, a professor of religion at Princeton University writes: That encounter was precipitated by the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott which King had neither started nor suggested, but which irrevocably changed him from the successful pastor of a moderately comfortable church to the leader of a national movement for racial justice...[iii]
As spokesman for the boycott, King was overwhelmed with a load of back-breaking responsibilities and frightened by serious threats against his life and his family's safety. Reaching the end of his endurance, King sat at his kitchen table one night over a cup of coffee, trying to figure out how to get out of the movement without appearing a coward.
Of that experience, King later preached:
But I never will forget one night very late. It was around midnight. And you can have strange experiences at midnight. I had been out with the steering committee all that night. And I came home, and my wife was in bed and I immediately crawled into bed to get some rest...
And immediately the telephone started ringing and I picked it uup. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, “[N-word], we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow your house up your house.”
I’d heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered. And then I got up and went back to the kitchen and I started warming some coffee, thinking that coffee would give me a little relief...
Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something...that your Daddy used to tell you about. That power than can make a way out of no way.
And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it.... I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage they will begin to get weak.”
And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world." ...I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.[iv]
And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me.
In the reading from John’s gospel, two disciples were standing with John the Baptist. And turning, Jesus addresses them, saying: What are you looking for? One of them responds: Rabbi, where are you staying? Jesus replies: Come and see. Just that. Come and see.
As if to say, see for yourself. Experience God for yourself, here and now. Experience first hand that inmost connection with the divine, that inmost connection with all people everywhere and all creation; that larger life that embraces you and sustains you and calls you to works of justice and compassion. Come and see.
My friend the UU minister, James Ford, in a sermon preached three years ago on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday, and reflective of King’s own experience that night in 1955 at his kitchen table, states that his own understanding of God is our direct knowing that we are not alone. What UUs call that interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
God, he says, is that knowing of our connections down to our bones and marrow. Not just a head knowing, but a body knowing, a heart knowing, a knowing that permeates the very fiber of our being.
It is the sustaining experience that allows us to continue the endless work of feeding the hungry, of seeking compassion and justice for all, [of] trying to help transform our own lives and the life of this country in an ever more generous, open hearted direction.[v]
We are not alone. No never alone.
Come and see. AMEN
*A Sermon by the Rev. David S. Heald
St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough
January 19, 2014
Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Year A
Isaiah 49:1-7; Ps. 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
[i] Buehrens, John A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism Beacon Press, 1998
[ii] Scofield, Robert James “Be” King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Martin Luther King, Jr. Tikkun Magazine http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/nov_dec_09_scofield
[iii] Raboteau, Robert J. A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr.
[iv] King, Jr., Martin Luther Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/why_jesus_called_a_man_a_fool/
[v] Ford, The Rev. James Martin Luther King’s Liberal God: A Meditation on the Soul’s Longing http://www.firstunitarianprov.org/sermons/110116.shtml