Preaching to the Choir

December 11, 2011

Clay Nelson

Advent 3

A sermon preached to the Auckland Unitarian Church.


It is good to be back with you. And it isn’t just because you have welcomed me warmly in the past. It’s Advent in my tradition, a time when we focus on hope in the midst of disappointment and despair. And I have to admit that as a progressive, both politically and theologically; I’m not overwhelmed with hope at the moment. Certainly the recent election hasn’t helped. “A brighter future” indeed! Brighter for whom, I wonder? Not for the poor. Not for the elderly. Not for our children. Not for our planet. Political dysfunction in the country of my birth doesn’t improve my mood. What kind of bizarre parallel universe are we in where it is even conceivable that Americans could elect a Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich over someone of the calibre of Barack Obama as president? Despair is in the ascendency. In truth it is even worse than despair, I find an unwelcomed cynical note creeping into my attitude and words. So I needed to take a time out. This is an opportune time for me to come preach to the choir, not for your sake, but mine. Perhaps in doing so I can find clarity and purpose again. Perhaps I can reclaim the vision of why I am a progressive by returning to a community of like-minded souls.


It isn’t that my community of St Matthew’s isn’t a progressive, supportive community. It is, but it is part of a greater body, the Anglican Church, that is neglecting its mission through its preoccupation with whether or not the GLBT community should be fully included in its corporate life. While there is a glimmer of progress here and there, Anglicans locally and globally are a far cry from living out the radical imperative the historical Jesus laid on us from the prophet Isaiah: “to bring good news to the poor… release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s justice.”


While every faith tradition has a progressive strand, even Evangelicals, UUs are the only faith group I know of that can claim “progressive” as a part of their DNA. The Baha’i come close but even they are not welcoming of the GLBT community. There are some Christian denominations that are more progressive than they are not, like the Uniting Church of Australia, NZ Methodists, the United Church of Christ in the US, and the United Church of Canada, but only UUs can claim that their Seven Principles define being a religious progressive.


As you are well aware, there is a downside to being a progressive religious tradition. Few are beating down the doors to get in. In the US only 0.2% of the population name themselves as UUs. In NZ, UUs don’t even make the cut to be identified in the census by name. It isn’t any better for progressives in other traditions. While there are certainly liberal Anglican congregations sprinkled around NZ, St Matthew-in-the-City sits alone as progressive in the Anglican tradition in NZ. That is to say we are progressive in our willingness to dispense with creeds, to challenge doctrine and dogma, to question traditional authority and to stand up vocally and publicly for the marginalised in our society. Even NZ Presbyterians do us better, they have two such congregations.


However, St Matthew’s uniqueness within Anglicanism doesn’t translate into the number of worshippers you will find in a typical neighbourhood Catholic Church or a nondenominational fundamentalist church or even a charismatic Anglican congregation on an average Sunday. While we are doing better in our diversity it is still a predominantly aging Pakeha congregation that fills up a fifth of our capacity on any given Sunday. So there are definitely days I wonder, why bother, and consider just marking time until I can apply for my Gold Card and play golf on Sunday mornings.


When I’m not considering a blissful retirement, I struggle to understand the context in which progressive congregations struggle to flourish.


Certainly in New Zealand and other first world western countries organised religion is a “declining industry.” We are no longer living in a world where there isn’t much else to do on a Sunday morning but go to church. On a beautiful summer’s day it is hard to compete with the beach or lingering over a flat white at a Ponsonby café.


I suspect a bigger reason has to do with either people's past experiences with religion or their assumptions about it. Many have found it toxic. Too many have been condemned, judged, and excluded by churches dispensing guilt more freely than love. Others have simply found it boring, failing to either uplift or challenge their human spirit.


For others relevance is the issue. They find it impossible to believe in a superman god in the sky running their lives. Literal understandings of scripture that require dismissing scientific knowledge, and ancient doctrines set down for a world in which we no longer live sends them scurrying off to a Ponsonby café to seek enlightenment in the Sunday Star Times. 


It doesn’t occur to them that not all people of faith check their minds at the door when they go to worship. It would be news to them that there are worshipping communities that see no conflict between science and faith. It may not occur to them that there are people of faith who understand the word God as a metaphor for ultimate mystery and not as the meddling, intrusive figure in our own image Michelangelo portrayed. It may also not cross their minds that that there are faith communities that do not demand shared belief or even equate faith with beliefs, but with ethical and just action.


Ultimately, I believe the reason progressive religious communities are not struggling with the problems that come from growth has more to do with western culture than what does or does not happen here on Sundays. We are products of a western culture that puts primacy of the individual over concern for the common good: I versus we. Even within faith communities, parochialism abounds rather than authentic interfaith engagement and cooperation. I think there are many at the cafés down the road this morning that share our progressive values and long for spiritual sustenance as much as we do. It is just contrary to our culture for them to look to community to meet their spiritual needs or to make a difference to a world in need of healing.


Clearly religious progressives are swimming against the current. So, it was heartening in the midst of my discouragement to come across a new book, A House for Hope, by Rebecca Ann Parker, a liberal Christian UU, who is president of the Starr King School of Theology in Berkeley and John A. Buehrens, a humanist UU, who is the minister at one of UUs oldest congregations in New England and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The focus of their book is The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century.


They use the metaphor of a theological house’s architecture to explore why you here and I at St Matthew’s must continue what we are doing. They argue that it is our religious framework that has inspired generations of activists to work for human rights, racial equality, economic justice and peace. Our theological perspectives embody reverence for the sacred, nourish community life, carry forward the aspirations of our forbears, and respond to legacies of violence and injustice that harm our bodies and souls. We differ from secular progressives in our understanding that while politics is all about how we’re going to make the world better, progressive religion tells us why it’s necessary to work for change. They quote Wallace Robins at the University of Chicago, “the mission of liberal religion is to make religion more liberal and make liberals more religious.”


I found each section of the book very affirming of living and working in a progressive religious community. It was filled with stories of progressives in community, who against all the odds, made a difference. In short, it is a book full of hope. I would commend it to each of you.


But the chapter that most caught my imagination reflected on the threshold of a theological house. Every theological house has to have a doorway – its point of entrance and departure. I guess I never thought of it as a sacred place before. It symbolises the permeable boundary between a community’s inner circle and the wider world. In Rebecca Parker’s words, thresholds “mark the importance of movement between shelter and adventure – of arriving home and of setting out.”


Those who cross the threshold into the inner circle of Auckland Unitarian Church or St Matthew’s for the first time probably do so for many reasons, but they are all life or death reasons. They may come to celebrate, grieve, find comfort, solace or encouragement, search for understanding, or experience the holy. They may come over the threshold clueless but know only that they are compelled to do so. But all who come are looking for a way to amplify their happiness, solidify their commitments, ease their difficulties and fulfil their hopes. 


Once we are inside we have a new perspective on the world outside our theological house. We could look at those outside as nonbelievers who need to be saved. This is certainly true of many Christian households of faith who seek to convert and assimilate them. Progressive religious houses have a different perspective. We are places of hospitality to any who seek shelter. We honour religious diversity and encourage creative exchange between multiple beliefs and practices. The outsider who has the courage to venture in is treated as a holy guest. We live that out ritually at St Matthew’s by verbally welcoming everyone, no matter what his or her faith or beliefs, to receive communion.


Once we are inside, the threshold presents a new challenge – the challenge to leave. It is so much more comfortable to stay inside where we can have the reassurance of hearing our values and beliefs echoed by our companions – to do as I am doing this morning – preaching to the choir. As the Occupy Wall Street movement is finding around the world, the one per cent who hold wealth and power are less than receptive to our views of how the world might function more justly, more peaceably. The world outside these doors is shaped by hate and fear. It is ruled by crucifying powers. Liberal theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch named them: militarism, religious bigotry, mob-spirit, greed and economic exploitation, and corruption of justice systems. To face it requires courage and commitment; and one more essential thing – unity. The only way I can step out those doors is confident I’m not doing so alone. We go out together.


Perhaps we should have a ritual for doing it. Rebecca Parker has a ritual crossing of the threshold for students and faculty at Starr King at the beginning of each new school year. They all gather outside the front door of the school in their diversity of backgrounds and beliefs but committed to their mission to go deeper in their religious understanding and practice; to be of greater service to the common good; to be more faithful to their own heart and more helpful to their communities.


Rebecca greets them and welcomes them through the school’s open door. Drummers begin to beat out a rhythm. The singers start a simple refrain, and voices join in singing words of the Sufi Rūmī: “Come, come whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving, ours is no caravan of despair.”


I’m not sure where going through those doors will lead. From past experience all I know for sure is it will be somewhere unexpected. Once there it will ask of me things I will be unsure I can do. But I will go. It is why I am here. 


So be it.



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