Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Unitarian Universalist Heresies (sermon for Tee Shirt Theology Sunday)

Sunday, July 1, 2012, Sacramento, California


298, Wake Now, My Senses; 361, Enter, Rejoice and Come In; Isaac Watts’s doxology (English-Spanish, tune 371); 163, For the Earth, Forever Turning. Solo vocal/ukulele:  “Heal the World” (M. Jackson).

Blessing of Elected Lay Leaders

(responsive reading, see

Tee Shirt Procession (after sermon)


Our liberal religious heritage is a heritage of heresy.  Spiritual innovators and religious rebels charted new paths of understanding and insight, gave new answers to the big questions about God, human nature, human destiny, and the meaning of life.

Here are some of the big heresies of our movement:  Jesus was not God, but a human being; he was a special human being, even a prophet of God, but not the only Son of God.

Another:  All people are made in the image of God and are beloved of God, and because of this nobody is going to hell.  If there is a heaven, then all of us are going there.  Hence, we might as well learn how to get along now[1], here while we are alive, and before we have to go meet our dead ancestors and their in-laws.

Another heresy:  Religious belief cannot be coerced or forced; it can only be persuaded or inspired, and the ultimate authority is everyone’s heart and mind.

More heresy:  In human community, deeds are more important than creeds.  Uniform agreement on all questions and issues is unlikely, but we can still co-exist in community.  David Lust, one of our beloved late members, was fond of saying:  “The highest form of intelligence… is kindness.”  Most people might agree with that sentiment. But in practice, if we look around our world, around our country, around our own circles, we see that it’s an idea whose time… is becoming.

In these times, the needs that lead most people to seek a spiritual home are not needs for matching beliefs but about belonging.  The ailments a congregation helps to heal are those of isolation, disconnection, and separation.  People are seeking to receive–and give–inspiration, hope, and care.  We seek fellowship, circles of community.  In the spirit of widening our own circle, I’d like to offer a few modern heresies for your consideration.  If you agree with all of them, then they aren’t heresies–and my sermon will be a failure.  For today, I’m saying that a “UU heresy” is an idea that goes against the surface impression that we may give to others or an assumption we might hold about ourselves as Unitarian Universalists.

The first heresy:  Smokers Are Welcome!   We could put such a slogan on a UU tee shirt or our website.   It’s been many years since most church spaces, especially inside spaces, became smoke free, including ours.  Public health campaigns and community support have helped many folks break this hard habit.   Yet smokers still exist in our midst. Note I am not proposing that we make this a smoking zone again, or that we celebrate cigarettes.  (I’m allergic, for starters.)

But I’m asking that we not assume that nobody smokes here, that we not speak in a condescending tone about the habit or the people who live with it.  Though it has been hidden from view, President Obama is a smoker.  The former president of our Unitarian Universalist Association was a smoker during his two terms as well.  I’d see him during General Assembly, often sneaking a smoke while walking down an empty street between hotel and convention center.

I lost my parents early to diseases caused by smoking, watched my mother’s labored breathing for a decade. As a nonsmoker, it pains me to walk through the garden entrance of my apartment building and greet a gathered group of young neighbors—people in their 20s and 30s—for whom smoking is part of their social bond.  Knowing now that nicotine is more addictive than many other drugs, it cheers me to hear someone tell me they’ve quit, even if it’s for the third or fourth time.   But our religious values of human dignity and freedom lead me to affirm what Doug Kraft calls “Loving What Is”—not liking all that we see in others or in ourselves, but recognizing what is real and true, and seeing it.  Smokers Are Welcome here, just not a lot of smoking on site.

Another heresy:  You will disagree with religious views of other people here.  As heresies go, maybe that’s a minor challenge for you.  Yet it can be easy to think that we have the same theological views, easy to expect that others will know what we are talking about.  Last month I led a class on the Five Big Questions, with 20 adults from the congregation.  Each person prepared an answer to each question and read it aloud in the group.  In my 17 years of having led this course in several churches, this recent group had the most variety of ideas, the most varied ways at looking at questions about the sources of our knowing, the nature of the divine, the purpose of life and the meaning of death.  How did I decide who had the best beliefs for each class meeting?  Whoever brought snacks.

Here’s a big heresy:  You will disagree with political views of other people here.   Maybe it’s too obvious to be heretical, but it can be easy to think we all see things the same way.  Of course, the UU movement promotes common values, and our UU people are engaged in the world beyond these walls.   As our stewardship slogan put it, in this church we give safe harbor to weary souls, and we shine a beacon of love and justice in a world that needs more of both.  But the way we as individuals think about our justice-making commitments and our voting decisions will vary based on our life experiences, family backgrounds, what we read and hear, and our basic moral orientations.

We are going to have differences.  The best way to approach them is with honesty and curiosity.

This takes discipline, and a lot of singing together.  Last Saturday night in downtown Phoenix, thousands of Unitarian Universalists boarded school buses to drive across the city for a candle light vigil.   Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has operated a Tent City jail for 19 years, keeping people in dreadful conditions, defying human rights organizations and legal appeals to Constitutional protections for the accused.  In recent years, the Sheriff has used those dirty and very hot holding camps to keep undocumented immigrants, and Latinos he suspects to be undocumented.

When held without criminal charge, suspected undocumented immigrants are part of a parallel jailing system in this nation.  This detention lacks the guarantees of the criminal justice process, because not having documents is not a felony charge.  Several of us from this congregation were in Phoenix for General Assembly, and each of us was on one of those yellow school buses on a hundred-degree night.  On the ride, the chaplain on my bus led us in UU songs and centering chants.  She reminded us that counter-protestors would be at our destination.  If we walked by them, we were not to engage them, but to move on to the large rally area—singing and not shouting—with our battery-powered candles held high.  Then she spoke a prayer, we sang again, and we stepped off the bus, thanking the driver, many of us of us clad in yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” tee shirts.  As I walked in the yellow-shirted crowd, I saw the Minute Men watching us, wearing camouflage battle fatigues, holding semi-automatic rifles.  I had no temptation to engage them.

Mounted on horseback, the county sheriff’s deputies guarded the Tent City jail, while City of Phoenix police officers guarded us and guided us to the rally.   Volunteers kept us on track, handed out bottles of water and spritzed us on the neck, face, and head.  This witness event itsel included songs and speeches.   We heard from Latino activists from Phoenix and a Latino labor activist from Los Angeles.  A local black Baptist minister said that the animal shelter down the road keeps the dogs in air conditioned, clean rooms.  The Tent City keeps people like dogs out in the Arizona heat.

Our UUA president looked out at the sea of yellow shirts and battery-powered candles in our hands, and he said, “You look beautiful.”  A national human rights leader gave a prayer, and in silence we heard the names of 129 people who have perished in immigrant detention centers in this country.  As we walked, streaming back to the bus at the conclusion of this witness event, I saw more city police officers.  One of them–a policeman and not a county deputy–looked friendly.  He said:  “Welcome to Phoenix.  Thanks for being here.”

A less dramatic part of General Assembly was a workshop entitled Crossing Political Borders.  The workshop was developed by three ministers who identify as political liberals but who serve church members who are not.  They had composed a readers’ theater play in two acts, using interviews they had conducted wth some of their parishioners:  men and women from the Washington, DC, area and suburban Chicago.  I had been recruited to be one of the actors by a co-author, who is a young woman who was my ministerial intern years ago.  (She had also arranged the rented house that nine of us ministers shared during GA, saving us a bundle over hotel costs.)  After the play, a man from her conregation read his testimonial as a devoted UU and as a conservative who votes Republican on some issues, but not all issues.

[If there is a group who’d like to order this play and hold a conversation here some time, send me a note.]  At the start of the workshop my friend invited us to read a covenant and say if we could hold to it–such things as: be quick to listen and slow to speak, refrain from using the terms fascist, Stalinist, and so on. 

During the play and the discussion period that followed, nobody expressed a strict allegiance down the board with any political party or platform.  There was more diversity than I had expected.  Some people said they are liberals in general but on one issue or another they have a dissenting view, or questions nagging at them.  Some were open- minded folks who had only just begun thinking about a social issue that for many other UUs was presumed to be clear and settled.  But they feel their questions are not always welcome, and this makes them feel less than welcome as people.

The purpose of this workshop was to explore the challenging topic of diversity in community, with politics as the lens.  The aim of the young ministers leading it was to confront the bad habit of demonization.  Demonization is rife in the world of competitive politics and commercial media that exists beyond our church walls.  We do not want to let the worst of what takes place beyond our walls to tear at our bonds of fellowship inside the walls.

Lest you think this is only a Republican-Democrat issue, let me tell you about Helen and Rose.  The church I served in Silicon Valley included these two friends, now deceased.  Helen was 90, Rose was 80.  Helen was a staunch Democrat, Rose a radical one. When Rose opined that she felt President Clinton had some character problems, Helen called her a fascist and chased her out of the house and into her car.  When the Bush, Gore and Nader election was approaching in the year 2000, Rose said she was fed up and would vote for the Nader and the Green Party.  Furious, Helen went on a tirade, and then stopped speaking to Rose.  Only for a few months, thank goodness.  A few years later, on the occasion of Helen’s memorial service, these memories were part of Rose’s written reflections of their friendship, which I read aloud to many laughs in the congregation.

Humor is often the start of a way toward forgiveness and healing, and I hope they had forgiven one another.   Yet most of us don’t want that much drama in our church relationships to start with.  Yes, we can express our commitments and our disagreements with clarity, but also with kindness.  We can practice curiosity, be quick to listen and slow to speak.  We can own our passions without drawing lines in the sand.

As people concerned about our world and about this country, I understand and share deep feelings of grief for what has happened in recent years, and fears for the future. Yet we must guard against taking out our fear, grief and frustration on those who seek fellowship with us.

In these times of isolation and separation, our religious community is a rare and precious thing.  It is a safe harbor for weary souls, and a beacon of love and justice.  We tend it with kindness, curiosity, listening and speaking from the heart, and lots of singing. It is a blessing to be together.  So may it be:  a blessing to be together.  Amen.

[1] Attributed by many to the Rev. Gordon McKeeman, former president of Starr King School for the Ministry.


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