Sunday, October 23, 2011

Knowing Why We Knock! A Sermon on UU Evangelism for Association Sunday

October 23, 2011
Rev. Jane Page

The old UU joke is:
“What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist?” And the response is: “Someone who knocks on your door but doesn’t know why she’s there.”

And we laugh about that!

But I am called by that great spirit of Unitarian Universalism revealed to me by my Unitarian Universalist ancestors and contemporaries to stand here in this pulpit today and prophesy to you about this. And what I am called to say is:
We might not need to witness for Jehovah – but we DO need to be a witness for Unitarian Universalism. And unlike the member in the joke, we need to know why.

Rev. Shana Lynngood, in her essay entitled, “A Faith that Believes in Itself,” spells out why we knock pretty well.

She says:

“We are knocking because the world is in urgent need of our message, which says that all people matter….That the well-being of our earth is intrinsically linked with our own future; that peoples in other parts of the globe cry out for peace and we must hear and heed their cry; that people in our towns and cities cry out for food and shelter and a way of life that values … a way that knows all souls are worthy of love. (Yes,) we stand in a long line of visionary Unitarian Universalist thinkers and believers who call to us.
What they dreamed by ours to do, indeed.”

Now when I first started going to seminary, I announced to my newfound love Greg Brock, that it was MY intention to be a Unitarian Universalist evangelist. He responded: “Isn’t that an oxymoron.”

Oh Contraire!

I then shared with Greg that an internet search using the words UU Evangelism produced 28 matches. A decade later the same search produced 133,000 matches, including a sermon preached by then seminarian Jane Page back in 2002 entitled, “Can You Say UU Evangelism?” And I and others here have been encouraging this group ever since.

Yet, we still have a little skepticism about that word “evangelism” and those kinds of actions. Why? -- Probably because the term has stereotypically been used with the likes of less than noble fundamentalist preachers. The character Elmer Gantry is the type that comes to mind. I haven't seen that film in ages, but a quote in a sermon by Robin Zuckerman reminded me of that fiery preacher. She tells her listener's, "If you've read the searing Sinclair Lewis novel or seen the melodramatic Burt Lancaster film, then you've met Elmer Gantry, the engaging, but scandalous Midwestern shoe salesman turned charismatic preacher in the 1920's. The quintessential revivalist showman, Brother Gantry, with rolled-up shirt sleeves, preaches hellfire and brimstone, thumps his Bible, performs alleged miracles, and leads repentant sinners to conversion through his touring tent ministry. With mesmerizing eloquence, Gantry exhorts one crowd:
'Sin, sin, sin. You're all sinners. You're doomed to perdition. You're all going to the painful, stinkin', scaldin,' everlastin' tortures of a fiery hell, created by God for sinners... unless, unless, unless you repent.'"

And the people all said, -- "AMEN"

When I was nine years old, I was "saved" when a visiting evangelist came to our revival at First Baptist Church here in Statesboro. Of course the first order of the day was convincing me I was lost. Fears of dying in my sleep without having made that all important decision and proclaiming it publicly had haunted me a bit. But it wasn't fear that encouraged me to step forward. It was the glorious good news that Preacher Robinson was sharing with us. We had a wonderful savior and friend in Jesus. Someone that would be there for us and look after our every need. Someone who loved us supremely. So much that he gave his life for us. And he was standing there at the door of my heart - knocking - knocking -knocking. And all I had to do was let him in.

At the age of nine, I had bought into all that was taught to me in Sunday School and church. I had not yet reached the stage of reasoning that developmental psychologist Piaget calls Formal Operations which would enable me to think more abstractly about various possibilities.. My more concrete inductive logical reasoning however was pretty good. And I figured that if salvation was working so wondrously well for all of these folk at First Baptist Church, then it would work for me too. And it did for a while.

But like most of you, I have a questioning mind. And when my mind moved into that gear as a teenager, the old answers didn't work. Now, I went through years of feeling guilty about initially doubting and later plain old disbelieving many of the things that were taught to me. Preacher Robinson's Good News just wasn't good for me anymore. And it wasn't until MANY years later that I heard the Good News of Unitarian Universalists. And I heard it on a cable television show. The Good News I heard was that there were others like me and that they were a part of a wonderful religious movement called Unitarian Universalism. Now it's a shame that I did not hear this sooner since there was already a UU congregation in Statesboro at that time. But these folks - like many of us today - kept to themselves religiously - and when at work and at play told no one about Unitarian Universalism. WHY? After all, folks talk about other things they are involved in - clubs, sports, charitable organizations. Things like that just come up in conversation if it's something you are really involved with and care about.

It seems that most Unitarian Universalists are so afraid of seeming to be proselytizing that they don't share anything.

Now that was not always the case, of course. I’m going to share a couple of examples from this book that Greg Brock bought at the cluster meeting we recently went to in Charleston. Greg, Shari Barr, Teresa Winn and I had the pleasure of hearing and sharing with John Buehrens, former UUA President, who very recently published this book, A People’s History: Universalists and Unitarians in America.

One of the folks I want to lift up to you is Universalist Quillen Hamilton Shinn, who lived from 1845 to 1907, and grew up in what became West Virginia.
Shinn served as a Universalist minister for 20 years in New England, always broadening his riding circuit for carrying the good news to others. He introduced Universalist “Summer Meetings” on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampsire and at Ferry Beach on the coast of Southern Maine – (still a favorite for UU meetings and coursework). Then as “General Missionary” for the Universalist Convention, he visited some thirty-four states and two Canadian provinces, averaging nearly a sermon per day. His modus operandi included distributing flyers about his impending arrival with the Universalist gospel, and then, after speaking, gathering the most enthusiastic to start a new congregation. He became known as the “Grasshopper Missionary” and was later appointed Missionary to the Southern States. A picture of him on the horse he rode to spread the good news is included in Buehrens’ book.

The Unitarian example I want to lift up is Munroe Husbands, who lived from 1909 to 1984. Husbands was a Unitarian layman hired by the association in 1948 to give leadership to the Unitarian Fellowship Movement.

“Raised in Salt Lake City, as a teenager Munroe rebelled against both his family’s Mormon heritage and the Christian Science church preferred by his mother, a social worker. Wanting her son to be a part of a church, she passed on a colleague’s suggestion that Munroe ‘try the Unitarians.’” (Buehrens, p. 62) Well, he tried them and loved them – so much so that he convinced all his siblings to join as well. Munroe got involved with public relations during World War II and continued with that work in Needham Massachusetts (with Blue Cross) after the war.” After being discovered as a real promoter at the local Unitarian church, the association hired him to lead the new lay fellowship program.

“Husbands wrote short, provocative ads. The most widely-used began, ‘Are you a Unitarian Without Knowing it?’.... Each Spring and Fall he set off in a car loaded with pamphlets for a thirty to forty day tour, speaking in a different community every evening. Before he left town, he appointed the best leaders as interim officers…. By 1958 there were 249 new Unitarian fellowships, and twenty years later, twice as many.”

Of course in 1961, the Universalists and the Unitarians got together – partly because they were doing so much together already and were so similar – and also because they needed one another. Since then, we’ve had some times of growth, and some times of decline, with many folks not feeling the need to spread the word. If folks found us, good for them. But we weren’t going to proclaim this faith too loudly. In fact, many UUs (especially in conservative areas) became more closeted during the growth of right wing Christianity. And shame on all of us.

Now understandably, there are many of us who do have good reason to steer clear of proselytizing .

But there IS a difference in proselytizing and evangelizing. As the Rev. Tony Larsen wrote, "Sharing is different from shoving." To proselytize is "to induce someone to convert to one's faith." An evangelist, according to the Random House college dictionary is "a person marked by zealous enthusiasm for or support of a cause."

And if that is the case - a UU evangelist I will be.

Evangelism literally means to "spread the good news." I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is - do we have good news to share. And the answer is YES WE DO!

Some of us shared the good loving news of Unitarian Universalism this past Monday by marching in the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair Parade. Our President, Shari Barr, was motivated to sign us up for the first time for this parade while we were attending a Southern Cluster Meeting in Charleston recently. Jim Key, President of our Southeast District, was the speaker that provided that inspiration. He shared with us that it took him a long, long time to find a liberal religious faith home, through his many moves working for IBM – because Unitarian Universalism never crossed his radar. He had never heard of a UU congregation, so he kept visiting the most liberal Methodist and Presbyterian and nondenominational churches he could find. And, he challenged us to come out of the closet and make ourselves more visible as Unitarian Universalists, including marching in ANY parade in town. And Shari’s eyes lit up and she announced to those of us there: “If it’s not too late, we are going to march in the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair Parade.” the speaker who provided that inspiration. ...... Now at first, we thought we might not be able to get folks there – and even considered that it might just be Shari and me carrying the “Standing on the Side of Love" banner. But that would be something! As it turned out, fourteen of you showed up to decorate Rick’s truck and march with our fellowship of LOVE, while the children blew bubbles, and the rest of us held signs and rainbow flags, smiled, gave “shout outs” to hundreds of parade watchers, and of course waved. And as Shari noted afterward, perhaps a thousand or more folks now know that there IS a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Statesboro.

You know that story that Jim Key told is not unusual. Many of you have shared with me that you did not know we existed for a long time. I emailed the listserv this week to ask how you DID find out about Unitarian Universalism and got some interesting and varied responses. But I was able to group them into four categories.
(1) Moving into a building of our own sure helped – because several of you found our faith after having yoga classes or meetings in our building. And some just noticed the sign as you passed by and looked us up. Of course, Grady Street is no longer a well traveled road now that the hospital is gone. So we sure can’t depend upon folks just seeing the building.
(2) Now some of you found UU while attending memorial services of others who were UUs. But we don’t want to have to encourage any of you to die, so let’s not be too dependent on that method either.
(3) And then some of you actually found out about us through your reading – either books or reading materials on the web, or reading something in the newspaper.
(4) But MOST of you found out about Unitarian Universalism because somebody told you about it. Hallelujah! That’s what more of us need to do.

Now sometimes we are shy about sharing – because we don’t know what to say. And indeed, if you are going to share, if you dare to share, then you need to prepare! And, if we are going to knock – we’ve got to know why we are knocking.

Earlier this month I sent out lots examples of elevator speeches from a Unitarian Universalist brochure. Of course elevator speeches are short enough that you can share them on a brief elevator ride or while standing in line at the grocery store. You are encouraged to find your own way to share about UU – but if you need to – just borrow one of these for now. I’ve handed a few of these out and these folks are going to stand and share some of these.

“Our faith is not interested in saving your soul—we’re here to help you unfold the awesome soul you already have.”
Andrea Lerner

“Unitarian Universalists have different religious beliefs but share a common faith. We know that life is holy, that each person is worthy, and that, when we join together to plant the seeds of love, the world blossoms.”
Erik Resly

“Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal, not creedal faith. That means that, although we may believe differently, we come together to search, grow, serve, and minister. Francis David said it best, ‘We need not think alike to love alike.’”
Michelle Buhite

“It’s a blessing you were born.
It matters what you do with your life.
What you know about god is a piece of the truth.
You do not have to do it alone.”
Laila Ibrahim

“We are a church of many beliefs, worshipping as one community, and focused on making this a better world.”
Rev. Steve J. Crump

“Unitarian Universalism is a religion of people who covenant to treat one another well, care for the earth, and protect the beautiful tapestry of cultures and communities that make up the people of the world. Love is the core value from which we build.”
Sunshine Jeremiah Wolfe

“In our faith, God is not a given, God is a question. God is not defined for us, God is defined by us. Our views are shaped and changed by our experiences…. We create a faith by which we can live, and struggle to live up to it. Throughout, each of us is fated to travel his or her own path. In the larger sense, we have chosen to journey together because we find that it is helpful. We find that it is good.”
Rev. Forrest Church

“I am a UU because I am convinced I need other people who love what I love. I am a UU because I want to join hands with others to create a community where we grow spiritually, where we support one another, and where we work together to create a world in which everyone matters, everyone is free, everyone is respected, and everyone lives in peace. I am a UU because I have seen what love, understanding, and commitment can do. And finally, I am a UU because I am convinced that if we let the love in our hearts guide our ways, the possibilities before us are breathtaking.”
Rev. Peter Morales, UUA President

And if you can’t remember anything else – just share our little children’s affirmation: “We are Unitarian Universalists: People of Open Minds, Loving Hearts, and Helping Hands.”

Yes my friends, I AM a Unitarian Universalist evangelist! You can put those words under my name in my obituary. And there are other lay evangelists here as well. We invite you to join us in sharing our good news.

I'll close this sermon with the words attributed to the Universalist Preacher known as the Father of Universalism in America, John Murray:
"Go out into the highways and by-ways. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine."

(Sing) "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine" – (Sing with me.)
"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!"

AMEN and Blessed BE.

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