Monday, August 22, 2011

Finding our Place at the Table (August 21, 2011)

When this Universalist Church was built some 200 years ago, those men and women knew that they were Christian. The first Universalist articles of faith in 1790 said in part:

We believe that there is One Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; who, by giving himself a ransom for all, hath redeemed them to God by his blood; and who, by the merit of his death, and the efficacy of his Spirit, will finally restore the whole human race to happiness.

To our 21st century Unitarian Universalist ears that may sound pretty orthodox. But if you read carefully, you can see the Universalist heresy it contains- that Jesus gave his ransom for ALL, not just for an elect few, and that his Spirit will “Finally restore the whole human race to happiness” Even in this day and age that’s a very important idea- that no one will be “left behind” – that eventually we will all, every human person, be restored. This will happen, our Universalist forbearers believed, through the efficacy, the power of Jesus’ spirit. Jesus has the power to restore every last person to happiness. WE will be saved not through our own power, not through our good works and righteous living, but through the power of His spirit. Good works were important to those earliest Universalists, but it was not through our works we were saved, but through the power of Jesus’ Spirit, and God’s “infinite, adorable, incomprehensible and unchangeable Love”.

Even in the early 20th century, I am sure that the Universalists who sat and worshiped in these historic pews knew themselves to be Christians. You will find inside the front cover of many of the old blue hymnals here an affirmation of faith-

Avowal of Faith:
We avow our faith
in God as eternal and all-conquering love;
In the spiritual leadership of Jesus;
In the supreme worth of every human personality;
In the authority of truth known or to be known:
And in the power of men of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God.

But notice that the role of Jesus changes in this 20th century avowal. Gone are the words “in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily who, by giving himself a ransom for all, hath redeemed them to God by his blood;” Gone from our avowal of faith is any discussion of the metaphysics of the nature of God and Jesus, and the miraculous nature of Jesus sacrifice on the cross. Now, here in the early 20th century Jesus is a spiritual leader, and what interested Universalists and Unitarians were his humanity and his teachings.

And so it is for many 21st century Unitarian Universalists- Jesus is an important teacher and spiritual leader. He taught us compassion for “the least of these” as he reached out to lepers and others at the margins of society. He taught us to respond to violence with nonviolence by “turning the other cheek” He taught us about community organizing, and speaking out against corruption, as he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the synagogue. He taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

About 20% Unitarian Universalists think of themselves as Christian today. The UU Christian Fellowship was founded in 1945 to continue Christian scholarship and to sustain this important tradition in our movement. But I want to challenge the other 80% of us to remember that Jesus is an important part of our religious heritage, and postulate that all of us can learn something from Jesus the teacher, the spiritual leader. This is particularly challenging for those who grew up in a Christian church and left that faith because in some way it was not a good fit. Perhaps some sadness or resentment lingers, and it is hard to look at the teachings of Jesus with fresh eyes. But this is also part of our UU tradition- to look at old traditions anew, with open hearts and minds. My own spiritual director once told me that sometimes when we come up against a religious story or teaching that is uncomfortable, this is when the most insight, the greatest transformation is available to us.

I think the same is true of the traditional communion ritual. For those of us who are Christian, as for those of us who have no history with the communion ritual, it is easy to open our hearts and minds. But if we have a difficult history or conflicted feelings, or if we don’t understand ourselves to be followers of Jesus, the ritual of Communion raises difficult questions. We may ask ourselves “given my doubts, given my history, given my beliefs, is there a place for me at the communion table?”

When I was a child growing up in a UU church, my 8th grade class studied Neighboring Faiths just as the UUCAS Teen class did last year. I remember how empowering it was to go into a completely foreign religious community, like the Greek Orthodox Church, prepared by our teachers and surround by other kids my age. We were greeted by a leader in the church who welcomed us, showed us to our special spot in the balcony, and could answer questions. “Can we take communion?” one classmate asked. His answer, “anyone who has been baptized can take communion here” left us with even more questions like “does a UU dedication count as a baptism for purposes of taking communion? We decided it probably didn’t.

I nervously asked the same question at a Catholic Mass I attended with my roommate in college. She replied "Oh, no. Even if you are Catholic you can't take communion unless you've been confessed,” and sure enough as I looked around I saw almost 30% of the congregation remain in their seats as others formed lines in the aisle to receive the host. But later that year, when I attend a Presbyterian service with a friend in her tiny old white steepled church, she looked amazed that I would even ask. "How could we turn anyone away from God's table" she responded, and so as the basket of rough cubed bread passed hand to hand, I took a piece and ate.

In her article “Food as Sacrament” UU Christian Rev. Wendy L Bell writes that “While early New England Protestants usually insisted that only members could take communion, and only so-called “worthy” ones at that, our Universalist forebears began insisting in the 1780s that the Lord’s Supper should be open to everyone who wished to take it.” (p. 87)

Ours is a Universalist communion. All are welcome at this table. Whether or not you are Christian. Whether or not you are Unitarian Universalist. For some folks it will be a reminder of that last supper when Jesus said to his followers “take this and eat it in remembrance of me” for others the essential symbol of the communion is that by sharing this loaf of bread, we remember that we are connected through this community. At its root, the word Communion just means a sharing- we share this bread and juice as we share our lives together in community.

Today we celebrate this historic ritual, in our historic church building. We use the same chalice and cups that Universalists have used in this space for decades. The words of the service are ours too. The liturgy we will follow (it’s that insert in your order of service) is based on a worship held by the UU Christian Fellowship at the 2010 General Assembly. These words come from our new hymnal- “Singing the Living Tradition” and from a very old hymnal- the “red hymnal” called “Hymns of the Spirit.” Whether you think of yourself as Christian or Jewish, or Pagan or Humanist, our Universalist faith is big enough to hold us all. And so I invite everyone to find a place at this communion table today.