By Richard Hurst Liturgist, Universalist National Memorial Church – Washington, D.C.
March 12, 2000
First Reading: “Am I A Christian?” from Without Apology
by A. Powell Davies
I believe with Jesus that God is spirit, and that truth never binds our minds but sets them free. I believe that “by their fruits ye shall know them.” I believe that Jesus was one of the world’s great religious geniuses– so far as my own knowledge goes, the greatest– but that he would have been appalled at the notion of calling him God. And, most of all, I believe that Jesus intended no one to be imprisoned within one tradition, even though it were his own and precious to him. I cannot imagine him agreeing to a formula that excluded most of the forthright honest thinkers of his age– and at the same time shutting out by far the greater part of the world’s population: those who are not now and never will be Christians.
For my part, therefore, if I must answer as to whether I am a Christian, I shall say that if the creeds define the question, I am excluded. And this will remain the case even though the creeds be reduced to a single sentence, so long as that sentence remains a deceptive symbol. I am not impatient of such symbols where they take a secondary place, but I cannot base my own religion on them. I want the basis of my own religion to be candid, open, and entirely real. Nor can I be a Christian if the two thousand years of Christian history must supply the definition. As much evil has been done in the name of Christianity as almost anything I ever heard about– from wars and inquisitions to crippled minds and cruel prejudices. When I look back over the story of Christendom, I am sometimes reminded of the shipwrecked sailor who landed on a lonely beach, and, when he observed a gallows, exclaimed, ‘Thank God! I am in a Christian country!”
But it is not only a matter of theological definitions or traditions defined by history. Why should any of us be confined within a single area of religious culture? So that at the end, there is nothing I can say but that, like Emerson and Channing, I want to live with the privilege of the illimitable mind.
Second Reading: Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Sermon: “Am I a Christian?” Mr. Richard E. Hurst
I entitled my sermon this morning “Am I a Christian?” But before I get to that difficult question, I’ll try to tackle a simpler one first: “Am I a Unitarian?”
Let me start with a story well beyond the sheltering walls of the church. I work for a Minor Law Enforcement Agency. Some time ago, I received a call from another law enforcement agency, from our brothers in arms, an outfit we might call a Major Law Enforcement Agency. The caller was an agent, at the Majors, who was finishing up the final touches on my security clearance. I had been selected for an agent position with the Majors, and this bureaucratic hurdle was all that remained.
I had an inkling what was coming. “Mr. Hurst,” he says as if it might destroy my world completely, “there’s been an allegation made that you’re, gosh I don’t know how to say this, that you’re homosexual.” I say, somewhat timidly but with still something of an edge, “yeah?” “Well,” he breathlessly continues, “is it true?”
Somehow, I think I responded in a way in which he least expected, as I blurt out, “why would you assume I was straight?” I sense I’ve knocked him off center. Certainly no one would think, he goes on to assure me, that someone who’s been selected for the lofty status as a special agent at a Major Law Enforcement Agency might be gay, particularly when that someone already works for a Minor Law Enforcement Agency. He doesn’t say this, but I think next on his lips is, don’t you people know your place? Your place isn’t here with us real men, you know, and honestly I don’t know how you’ve managed to infiltrate our ranks for so long.
I am silent. Of course what I really want to say, but do not, is this: Look, pal, I’m not really one to know my place and to stay in it. I’m not out to advance any big agenda here, but don’t think for a minute I’m gonna conform to your stereotype of who I’m supposed to be, and where I’m supposed to be. And I will offer you no apology for that. I’m out here on the edges, and that’s where I like it.
So the upshot of all this is that I am told to have my boss at the Minors author a memorandum attesting to the fact, and I couldn’t make this up, that I really am gay, lest I be a security risk for having something to hide. My boss relays this fact to my second-line supervisor, the big boss at the Assistant Director level, whose response is, of course Richard’s gay, and he’s damn proud of it too.
My boss looks at me, shakes his head, and says, no. You may or may not be proud of being gay, Richard, but the only thing I’ve ever known you to be proud of being is being Unitarian. That’s it, Richard Hurst, proud Unitarian. It’s odd I wasn’t asked to have that fact “attested” to as well.
So, here I am, out on the edges. Out on the edges of the law enforcement world, out on the edges of the Unitarian world, certainly out on the edges of the Christian world, and proud of it, in each case. I am a member of a congregation in the District, Universalist National Memorial Church, which belongs to the Council of Christian Churches within the Unitarian Universalist Association. We are a congregation where communion is periodically celebrated, where the Lord’s Prayer is recited every Sunday, where we, on most Sundays, read from the Bible, but where we, as do all good Unitarian Universalists, impose no creedal test on anyone, and where we adhere just as faithfully to the universal values of reason, freedom and tolerance spelled out in the UUA’s statement of principles and purposes, and where we seek to bring those principles to the larger world through social action and witness. While I say we’re out on the edges, we might be heading in the direction of the mainstream in our movement. Or perhaps, the mainstream is veering a bit more in our direction. Certainly there appears in many of our congregations more room for overt expressions of spirituality– be they Christian or otherwise– than might have been the case some time ago. Slowly, we are shedding our long-time moniker as Unitarians, “God’s Frozen People.” Five years ago, when our congregation was last looking for a minister, I am told there were “slim pickings” from denominational sources. We found our current minister– the Reverend Vanessa Southern– without Boston’s help. But this time around, I can tell you that the list of prospective ministers is an embarrassment of riches. There are literally scores of seminarians in UU theological institutions who wish to serve a liturgically Christian congregation such as ours.
Life out here in the margins, or perhaps just on the margin, means living against expectations, your own, and others, and certainly when unknowing UUs stumble into a Christian worship service at our church, with our Celtic cross so prominently displayed above the altar, we as a community are living against what others expect of us, the stereotypes to which Unitarians and Universalists are expected to conform. I on a personal level feel gleeful, almost, challenging folks’ expectations about who I am supposed to be– sexually, professionally, and religiously. It is, for my money, the way in which I am most faithful to the core of our Unitarian faith, our thoroughly heretical Unitarian Universalist message. It makes me smile, it comforts me, it energizes me to live out my life with the grace and wholeness for which and with which I believe we were called into being.
But beyond being faithful to our heretical Unitarian faith, I also believe my position out on the edges, well beyond any position of safety and security, well beyond what anyone would ever expect, is also wholly faithful to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus, at least as I imagine him to be, would hardly make such a choice as to move away from the edges, where all the fun is, where all the real work is, to a position of cover. Over and over again in the New Testament, that is, in the Christian scriptures, Jesus uses the formula “you have heard such-and-such,” but I say unto you “something new and shocking,” such as, “love your enemies.” Over and over again, Jesus challenges our expectations, and asks us to challenge the expectations of others. More than anything too specific, he asks us to reexamine what we have thought, and to consider looking at ourselves, our world, and our place in it, in thoroughly new and unexpected ways.
Today in the Christian calendar is the first Sunday of Lent, the forty day period of fasting and reflection prior to Easter. Today’s Gospel reading for this day as set forth in the Revised Common Lectionary– that is, the schedule of Bible readings used in my home church as well as in countless churches in countless denominations– challenges our rational Unitarian faith in an extraordinarily direct and profound way. Who is this Jesus person to tell us that we need to “repent, and believe in this good news,” at least as reported by St. Mark? The King James Version of this same passage strikes me as even more outrageous, exhorting us to “repent, and believe in the Gospel.” As a people of faith, we’re certainly not well suited to being told to “repent,” nor are we well-disposed to being told to “believe” in anything in particular. By a mainstream Unitarian Universalist reading, this verse is, at a minimum, presumptuous, if not outrightly outrageous. If you’re anything like me, when you hear the words “repent” and “Gospel,” you’re apt to imagine a well-groomed television evangelist, hair sprayed perfectly into place, slaying people in the spirit, or begging for money, or weepingly declaring Christ Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior, or some other ridiculous activity played out before a stadium-sized audience on cable.
But perhaps the problem is more one of translation than it is anything else. The Greek word translated as “repent” is in fact “metanoia,” which means something perhaps a bit closer to re-think, which is what re-pent literally means in any case. Jesus asks us, not to repent our many and manifold sins, but to re-think our many and manifold expectations. He asks us to be re-energized, or to be new-minded, in the words of some UU biblical scholars, and to believe in the power of this good news. Where does the strength, the power, come from for us to be new-minded in a world which so often wears us down? Jesus also instructs us in the lectionary reading for today that, “the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” But by “at hand,” he doesn’t really mean “right around the corner” but actually something closer to “in our hands,” in the sense of “available to us.” Again, the question is one, at base, of translation. The Kingdom of God– which we might modernize as the Community of God, or perhaps in our peculiarly chatty UU way, as the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”– isn’t a physical place, or the Christian dream world of Pat Robertson. Rather, it is a symbolic expression for the one spiritual reality on which everything else depends. Jesus invites his listeners to appropriate that reality; some found the invitation irresistible, and others found it offensive. As a result the Gospels record a series of conflicts, deepening in bitterness, that marks his ministry and apparently leads him to “go up to Jerusalem” for a decisive answer. Jesus tells throughout the Gospels “parables of the Kingdom,” presumably to make perfectly clear what he meant. But the parables remain notoriously obscure, because– like all poetic language– they work by indirection. The Kingdom of God, or the Community of God, is not something you can see. It is something that enables you to see. It is not something you hear, but something that enables you to hear.
The reality of this realm of God seems to depend on your being inside it already. It is not about what God created “in the beginning,” but what is being created here and now. It is not about what God requires you to do, either to “set things right” or to justify yourself; it is about the powerful goodness “in the midst of you already,” waiting to be grasped. It’s a participatory experience, or it is nothing at all. Thus the famous passage from the Gospel according to St. Luke, which parallels today’s reading from Mark:
“Being asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming, he answered them, The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
The better known King James Version translates the key phrase in an even more provocative way, “The kingdom of God is within you.” In either case, what the passage asks for is a transformation of consciousness, in effect saying “you keep looking around you for it, but you are within it already– would you but awaken to it!” No wonder we have a hard time grasping it. It would be perfectly clear had we but “ears to hear.” Through such teasing, challenging, and off-putting suggestions, Jesus calls us to be new-minded, he calls us to metanoia. It is a power which is “within your grasp,” hence available. You cannot passively sit back and wait, you must actively lay hold of this spiritual energy. You must appropriate it. The community of God calls for your participation. It calls forth your affirmation.
Am I a Christian? Like A. Powell Davies, namesake of this community of faith, if it means necessarily worshipping Jesus as God, or adhering to a creed manufactured by the institutional church, or approving of the church’s many and manifold efforts to justify hate and prejudice and division in the name of Christ, my answer must be no. But if it means acknowledging Jesus as the greatest religious leader I’ve yet to know, whose words I seek to live in and live out, and whose footsteps up to Calvary I seek to retrace every year, beginning just about now, on this first Sunday of Lent, the answer is yes. I am a Christian because I see God not as a distant, heaven-bound figure, but because I believe that God suffers here on earth whenever anyone suffers, I believe God is persecuted with us whenever anyone is persecuted, I believe God is murdered in our very midst whenever anyone is murdered. I am a Christian because I believe in the eternal, redemptive power of human brokenness, as perhaps no more profoundly told and retold than in the very story of Jesus’ death on the cross.
Our liberal faith, regardless of our own identification with the Christian story, demands that we take on the work of bringing about here on earth the very Kingdom of God which Jesus heralds, that we simultaneously participate in and bring about a community of freedom, reason and tolerance– a community of our shared UU values. We must have courage in our heretical UU message, and declare the gospel of our own radically inclusive faith, despite great opposition, despite the forces of intolerance and hate we have heard so often, and which we will no doubt hear again. We must savor the spiritual freedom, the very same good news which Jesus preaches, and for which our own heretical Unitarian and Universalist foremothers and forefathers so bravely lived and died.
I have a friend of whom I am intensely envious. Rather than my contingent, overlapping, contradictory identities as Unitarian, as Universalist, as humanist, as Christian, rather than my confusing and confused journey between professions and employing agencies, Major and Minor, rather than my own multi-ethnic, and to some extent, multi-racial background, rather than my own constant, maddening questioning as to the validity of what I’m doing at any given moment, regardless of the sphere of life at issue, he knows who he is. He is a fourth-generation New York City policeman, a devout Irish Catholic with definitive answers to life’s questions. He’s a wonderful man, “delightful, yet dogmatic,” according to the very words he uses to describe himself, at least somewhat facetiously. I recently learned that the tradition in southwestern rural Ireland is for the son, upon his father’s death, to assume his father’s job. So, when the gravedigger passes away, the gravedigger’s son takes up the shovel, as it were. Generation to generation, there is continuity and there is meaning in each shovelful of dirt. I wish, I pray, that I might be so sure of my place in the world, and so assured of my own place in bringing about the Kingdom of God.
The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in this good news. Amen. Ashante. Blessed Be.