Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Zen Teachings of Jesus

Call to Worship – Rev. Jay Wolin
Come into this place and time with reverence
This place of Joy,
This place of refuge
This place to discern hard truths
This place to experience compassion
This place to find inspiration
This place which doesn’t require one answer
This place – your place
This place – our place
This place – everyone’s place
Let us remember though,
This place is not a building.
For we have had different buildings
This place is an idea that we live out
Of how a world can be
Both imperfect and messy and beautiful and diverse and compassionate and forgiving
All the while learning about ourselves, each other and the world.
As we light the chalice, let its light be a symbol of the light within us
That helps us be our better selves and let its flame energize our resilience to live out our values in the world.

Part I
I start with a reading from 19th Century Unitarian Transcendentalist Minister Theodore Parker – an excerpt from his sermon…The Transient and Permanent in Christianity
“Anyone, who traces the history of what is called Christianity, will see that nothing changes more  from age to age than the doctrines taught as Christian, and insisted on as essential to Christianity and personal salvation. What is falsehood in one province passes for truth in another. The heresy of one age is the orthodox belief and “only infallible rule” of the next……

It is only gradually that we approach to the true system of Nature by observation and reasoning, and work out our philosophy and theology by the toil of the brain. But meantime, if we are faithful, the  Great truths of morality and religion, the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God, are perceived intuitively, and by instinct, as it were, though our theology be imperfect and miserable……

It is hard to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid, or Archimedes. The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers, one would naturally think, must rest on the truth of his words, and not their truth on his authority……

If Christianity were true, we should still think it was so, not because its record was written by infallible pens ; nor because it was lived out by an infallible teacher, — but that it is true, like the axioms of geometry, because it is true, and is to be tried by the oracle God places in the breast.”  End of reading.

Today we look back on this sermon by Parker as one of the seminal readings of early Unitarianism. Ironically, considering what he wrote, this was considered heretical even within Unitarianism at the time it was written. I admit that over my life time in my search for truth,  I have been fascinated when I find overlap between various religious traditions. I have to ask myself why is looking at various traditions important? First I try to understand what teachings are unique to circumstances of the time and place of that particular religion. What teachings serve the structure of the organization, But ultimately, I search for what within the teachings may be a hint at the eternal wisdom that can show us how to better live in the world.
Seeing where multiple religious ideas intersect can also point to the same issues that are common to different people in different places. Also today in our pluralistic congregation and society, it helps us understand the commonality that we all have. This commonality, it not the lowest common denominator just so we can say that see we are all alike, these similarities show that many religions are trying to deal with the same issues that humanity struggle with, but profound and profane throughout history. We as Unitarian Universalists look to find wisdom from multiple sources, and look to discern whether old truths are still true or need to be revised due to new knowledge, new understanding or new revelations. Certainly there are differences as well, and we need to acknowledge that, but in a world of diversity, we should look for truths that can be touchstone for how to live together in the world despite our differences and in the midst of suffering. In my long journey of life, I have found all people in all walks of life suffer.

I entitled the service, the Zen Teachings of Jesus because that was the name of one of the books I read over the summer in preparation this service. I didn’t find it a particularly good book either academically, spiritually or ascetically, but the title was catchy. Despite the approximately 500 years and 20,000 miles difference and from vastly different cultures, why would there be so many similarities between Jesus and Buddha’s teachings. In the Christian Scriptures there is nothing about Jesus’s life between the ages 12 and 30. Some have speculated that Jesus travelled to India and studied Buddhism during that time. There is no documentation to indicate this, and considering the gospel stories, it is highly unlikely that a carpenters son, in that day and age would have travelled that far from home. It is more likely that there was a travelling monk or teacher from Asia that Jesus encountered, possibly in Alexandria Egypt. But in my opinion, the most likely scenario, is that these certain great truths were arrived at independently. In looking at these two teachers, there are some similarities to the stories of Buddha and Jesus. Each had to leave their home to find revelation. Each had their awakening at the age of 30.  Ok, so no pressure for anyone who is 29. (And for those of us who are over 30….I am sorry, I guess you are not the messiah J )
As I shall share later, many of their ethical teachings were the similar. These teachings were to help others find liberation from suffering. Each started reformation movements from within their birth religion. Buddha, from Hinduism, and Jesus from within Judaisim. They challenged the orthodoxy of their times. They didn’t see themselves as starting a new religion. Those new religions ended up being created by their followers due to societal and political issues of their time and place. Those who followed them often saw these two teachers as more then human, although both Buddha and Jesus kept affirming their own humanity.  
There were also some stark differences in their lives and their ministries. Buddha came from a wealthy family and renounced his wealth whereas Jesus came from a working class family. Jesus ministry as a teacher only lasted three years before he died at the age of 33. It is said that the Buddha lived until he was 80. The Buddha developed a much more systemic structure of teachings for his followers to implement.  Jesus teachings are more esoteric and at times appear contradictory and confusing. Part of this is of course is due to the shorter nature of his of ministry and as well to the political climate within which he lived having to obscure his radical teachings to avoid risking his life with the Roman Conquerors of Israel. The last major difference I will speak to is the social justice ministry of Jesus compared to Buddha. Buddha’s teaching were more about changing the individual’s perception of what is real to relieve their suffering. Although Jesus spoke to this as well, he also focused on challenging the economic and spiritual injustices that his people lived with under the Roman occupation.
Each leader through their experiences in the world, were awakened to the deeper realities of life and attempted to share that wisdom with others for the betterment of the world. Of course how that develops over the course of time cannot be planned, but the wisdom both Jesus and Buddha shared without question shapes our world today. It is up to us to shape that wisdom not in doctrines but in actions that are relevant to the world we live in today. As Christian theologian Marcus Borg states, "Jesus and the Buddha were teachers of wisdom. Wisdom is more than ethics, even though it includes ethical teaching. The “more” consists of fundamental ways of seeing and being. Wisdom is not just about moral behavior, but about the “center,” the place from which moral perception and moral behavior flow."

One of the ways we see the world and be in the world is to help others in the world. Just as Borg writes about place of moral behavior flow, I invite you to allow the money to flow from your wallet or pocket or purse to the collection plate as we take up our offering today. As always 50 % of the offering will be shared with a local justice organization chosen by our social justice team projects. Details are on the front of the order of service.  Please be as generous as you can be. Once you have had the opportunity to donate, I invite you to come down and  light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your life.

Part II
Matthew 6:29
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet they are fed. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…  Strive first for the kingdom of God and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
I admit this has always been one of my favorite passages from the Christian Scriptures. Much of Buddhist Teachings speak of living in the present moment. Now first let me back up and let you know that within Buddhism there are a multitude of sects similar to the multitude of denominations in Christianity. Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism. It started in China and then travelled to Japan. The word Zen is a Japanese word roughly translated to mean being in a meditative state, but it is much more complex then that. There are now many books written with the title of zen, the zen of motorcycle maintenance, the zen of steve jobs, the zen of parenting, the zen of dying, and…just google the zen of and the list just goes on and on. for this discussion, I will be speaking in more generalized terms of Zen tradition within Mahayana Buddhism, The Buddha speaks often of seeing reality for what it is and how suffering is caused by craving and attachments to outcomes.
You can see in the writing of Jesus that is exactly the lesson he is teaching his disciples. Be in the present moment – worry about today….Stop craving or being anxious about the future, and your material possessions. Worry about today. He is saying look at this, look at that. Seeing the world for what it is, and recognizing that what you have will be enough. There is a story attributed to the Buddha called the flower sermon. One day the Buddha was about to give a sermon in front of his disciples.  He was silent for a long while just holding up a flower.
There are different versions of this which some wondered whether the Buddha had forgot what he was going to say, others who were trying hard to figure out what the profound meaning was of holding up a flower. This highlights another similarity between the Jesus and Buddha stories as to the struggle of the disciples to understand their message.  Then one disciple Mayhakashyapa, just smiled and laughed and thus became the successor to the Buddha understanding the wordless transmission of wisdom. Seeing the flower for what it was, something beautiful, and not attaching other meanings to it. How often do you judge or react negatively towards others over a imagined slight.  Often in our meditation practice on Tuesdays I relate the experience of hearing a car horn honking. Our inner mind can complain, that car horn honking is disturbing my meditation. But instead I encourage people to just recognize it for what it is. That is a car horn honking. And then return to meditating. Just notice something for what it is and do not attach other meanings to it.
 In addition to meditation, Zen Buddhism also makes use of Koans, which master tell their students. Some famous ones are
“What is the sound of one hand clapping” or
“What is the color of wind.”
The point is not to come up with a logical answer for this. The point is to empty your mind. To learn to live with paradox, and to empty your mind, letting go of your way of understanding and to see the world in a completely new way. Jesus as well speaks to letting go and starting anew. In Luke ch 18 Jesus says “all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  This is followed by Jesus saying “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  Again this connects with the theme within zen of beginners mind. To look at everything in the world with openness and a lack of preconceptions.  So often we look at the world through our own lenses of circumstance we often blind ourselves to others’ suffering.
Beginners mind or a child’s eye helps us see the world in new ways with many possibilities, not tethered to the way its always been. As we had new members today, let us remember to try to imagine what the Congregation looks like from their eyes. And from a larger perspective, I invite you to consider what ways you can see your life and this community in new ways. A world where there is justice, where everyone is welcome, where there is enough food and clothing for all, and there is no need to hoard resources for just the few out of some primordial fear of scarcity. When people come together in community working together, not competing, there can be abundance.
More then anything else, both teachers main focus was on creating communities and lives filled with compassion for others.  Both used the golden rule, with Jesus saying “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” And Buddha saying “Consider others as yourself.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” The Buddha as well says “Hatred does not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love, this is an eternal truth.  overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good, overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth.” It seems counterintuitive and is easier to say then it is to live out in the world. Yet, we have seen this acted out with Ghandi, and with Martin Luther King, Jr.
We saw it with the family members of victims of the Church shooting in Charleston. I was so moved, when one after the other, came up to the microphone and said they forgave the man who killed their family member. I don’t know that I could have done that. One elderly woman who clearly was not there yet stated, I understand offering forgiveness  is a process, and I am just at the beginning of that process. Even in despair, she imagined a future where she could see a better self for herself. That is something I would wish for all of us. To be able to imagine ourselves as our best selves, especially in times of despair.  I could go on and on with the parallel sayings about wisdom, materialism, our inner lives, temptation, discipleship, and others but suffice it to say there were many. Peace, compassion, forgiveness and love are the touchstone truths that these teachers shared. Let us go forward and do likewise.

Closing Words – Jack Kornfield, Buddhist Teacher and Writer
‘They both taught the laws of the heart, the eternal fragrance of virtue, the path of generosity, the power of faith, contentment and compassion. They both inspired their disciples to turn from the materialism of the world and live a life of the spirit, to come to know the timeless truth,
to awaken to the undying. See and know this for yourself, said the Buddha. Jesus pointed in the same openhanded fashion when he said the Kingdom of God is within you.
That this is universal wisdom there can be no doubt.”


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Innkeeper - My Christmas Homily

Each year at Christmas Eve, I try to look at the Story of the Birth of Jesus from a different perspective. One year about the wise men, another about the shepherds, one from Joseph’s perspective.  Looking back at my files from my very first year Christmas Eve here my homily focused on the statement in Luke Ch 2 that we  heard earlier, that there was no place for them in the inn. It doesn’t say there was no room at the inn, there was no place for them.
And I asked those who were here to remember times in your life when you were not welcomed into society.
Now after seven years, I look back and think I may have been a little hard on the Innkeeper. Now there is actually debate as to whether this was even an Inn, as the Greek word used for Inn in other parts of the Bible are different then the word used here. Often at that time and place, people travelling would stay in an extra room of someone’s home.  And there is much debate as to whether Jesus was born in a stable, or a cave, or just a room in the house that had a manger. For all we know is what was written, that he was laid down in a manger.
We have this image often of this family arriving late at night, turned away and in their desperation found a stable and then immediately giving birth to Jesus.  However the text says “while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And if you are there for a while, I think it would be hard to hide out in a stable unfound. No, I think you would have to be hidden intentionally. Why would that be the case? It seems strange that if this was Joesph’s ancestral home and considering we know from earlier in the story that Mary had family in nearby countryside, it seems odd that they would not have been able to find a place to stay.
In the Gospel of Matthew we are told that King Herod is searching for the child who would be Jesus with the intent to kill him. So it makes sense that King Herod would have been searching for him at their families’ homes. So looking at the story from this perspective with Joseph and Mary as political fugitives, fleeing persecution from a power hungry king, it makes sense that they could not be registered in the hotel. Herod’s equivalent of the Secret Service would have been monitoring that.
I have come to re-envision the Innkeeper as someone who was protecting this family and this baby. They were was the forerunner of Harriet Tubman and the Underground railroad in this country allowing slaves to escape to free states in the North. The Innkeeper Chose Humanity over legality. Davenport prior to and during the civil war was a hub for transporting escaped slaves,  allowing individuals safe accommodations on their journey from Missouri often on the way to Chicago.
The InnKeeper was a forerunner of those brave souls in Germany, like in the movie the ZooKeeper’s wife,  who chose humanity over nationalism and hid People of Jewish heritage from the Nazis genocide. (Maybe we should make a movie titled the Innkeeper’s Husband) . And in our day and age, in our community, last week, ironically a woman named Mary, or in its Spanish translation Maria, was ripped away from her six children and husband all of who were American Citizens and she was threatened with deportation. Just as the Innkeeper did, let us not forget our own power and our own conscience. Last week we spoke as a community, and with community pressure, Maria was at least temporarily released and reunited with her family.
The Innkeeper knew the power of the Roman government and the risks he was taking.
I am sure the Innkeeper thought, they could close my business, I am sure she feared they could burn my stables. She probably even knew if captured, they would have arrested her. Even so just as Harriet Tubman and Zookeepers wife, the Innkeeper put humanity over law and humanity over nationalism and saved that family. In the coming times, we may come to see more Marys and Marias and Joseph and Jesus’ being taken away by the powerful government in a xenophobic frenzy.
I ask you to consider humanity over law, I ask you to consider humanity over nationalism. How would history have been changed if that Innkeeper didn’t find the courage to hide the family. There may come a time that we in our community may have to summon up that same type of courage to protect a family. You will be hearing more about this in the coming months from our Immigration Sanctuary Team. We need to remind ourselves that to be creators of the world requires courage and sacrifie and a willingness to stand up to power which oppresses the weak.
That is why we tell this story about a young family, on the run. Trying to escape poverty and violence, and seemingly alone. The story of innocence being protected until it has time to flourish and grow and become fully aware. Jesus once he grew up taught many wise lessons that still apply today. Our role as taught by Jesus, is to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbors. And to focus on the weightier matters of the law such as justice and mercy.
This is the story of how every life is precious.
And how someone begins their life is not and should not ever be an indicator of their potential and possibility.
It is a story to remind us of the value of love and compassion for others.
It is a story of having hope in the midst of struggle.
It is a story to remind us that we are not alone in this world.
And so we tell this story of this child to remind us of the beauty, the possibility, and divinity that is in every child and person.
Let us embrace these values not abandon them,
Let us in the midst of suffering find our courage,
Let us look beyond our fears and do what is right and what is good.
Let this story infuse our life with hope for a better future and let it infuse our hearts to take actions to build the world we dream about. may it be so. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Last Jedi – 8 out of 10 on the JWO Scale

I saw the movie last weekend. Coming out of the movie I loved it. I wanted to wait a few days to let it sink in, and after thinking about it more, I loved it even more. I rank it as the third best Star Wars Movie. (Empire Strikes Back #1 because of a sentimentality for Yoda, and Rogue One #2 because it actually was the best of the movies)  The movie had it’s obligatory Star Wars moments. A bar scene (casino in this one) with many different alien species. Cute little creatures (porgs in this case) that will become big holiday gift sales. and instead of just a whiney Luke, we have an old whiny grumpy Luke. And although I found Luke’s new found humor funny, I sort of felt it was just put in to have funny lines in the movies. It didn’t seem to be in his character at all based on previous movies. I could rationalize that with the fact that through his suffering he now found life as absurd.
With that out of the way, I thought the movie raised some very interesting and theological and political questions. Do we learn wisdom from books or do we learn it from our direct experiences. This question has been asked throughout history going as far back to the Hebrew Scriptures Book of Job. It raises the issue of letting go of the past and moving forward. Much like the Buddhist saying “If you meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill the Buddha.” To me this statement means we must find enlightenment by ourselves, and not just take the word of the ancient religious leaders. Must we destroy the past to move forward? Or can we incorporate what we know from the past and  infuse it with current knowledge to create something new. Every Fundamentalist and Reformer religious leader deals with this question.  I think the movie also as has previous star wars movies raises the question of redemption. Is everyone redeemable? In previous movies Luke believed Darth Vadar was redeemable. In the end he was redeemed, but after countless, countless murders and only while he was dieing, in order to save his son. Is Kylo Ren redeemable? Even after killing his father? This series constantly asks that question.
I think the most poignant part of the movie is the question as to whether leaders and heroes are chosen/born, part of a priestly class,  or are they created by the circumstances of their life. Can anyone be a hero/leader? Are leaders supposed to come from one family line as if ordained, like so many religions, kings and rulers throughout history proclaimed.  I admit I never really liked the Midichlorian storyline that only a special few and their offspring were especially strong with the force. Previous star wars movies showed the diversity of the Jedi, so it is unclear as to how those two concepts (diversity and choosiness) go together  in episodes 1-3.  I tended to like Yoda’s teaching that the force is there for anyone to tap into if they become awake to its power and presence and practice using it. This movie’s story line focuses on this latter teaching.
This movie again shows us the folly of hubris, from both good and evil. It also speaks to the question of balance. If there is a Jedi there is an equal dark side and vice versa. I am not sure I agree with this. We have seen throughout history the unchecked power of evil and violence has not always led to the rise of the good. In fact one of the question that is still left open is why after Vadar and the emperor were killed did the republic not come back into existence. Where did Snope come from?
From a political (and maybe religious) front the movie asks the question we ask in our political lives. Is aggressiveness and/or sacrificing oneself, the best course of action, or is a calculated retreat necessary at times? I guess one other sticking point for me, is that the movie continues a line of thought that I hear a lot in the ether about our fetish and idealization of failure as a teacher. Failure is failure. Failure is only a teacher if you use the information you learned from failure to be successful in the future. Failure for failure’s sake is meaningless. Yes we should not fear failure, but we should takes steps to mitigate it. Jedi’s hubris led to them failing to recognize the Sith taking power. Clearly defeating the empire still led to failure and ongoing retreat for the resistance. Luke Skywalker hubris, being the strongest Jedi, and then his low self esteem, led him to failure and retreat from the world. I don’t know if the message is that Evil is stronger then good, or an overview about how Democrats struggle to be organized and don’t have staying power and about how the oppressed don’t join together to overthrow systemic injustice. Or perhaps the message of the movie was a view of our current society as encapsulated in the character of  the amoral codebreaker played by Benicio Del Toro, who had no allegiances and saw no difference between good and evil, and focused only self-preservation.

It was a fairly depressing movie in that sense, with a few hopeful notes thrown in here and there. However from seeing the negative, we can cull from it, what should be done. Perhaps if Luke had not given up, and instead of retreating had honed his powers and matured, perhaps he could have lifted up the resistance over the first order. It is a reminder for us to not give up and to be vigilant.  It is Rey, who is the great hero of this movie. Looking for the good in others and looking for meaning in her life as she says “I need someone to show me my place in all of this.” I think we all are looking to find purpose for our lives and meaning in the world. Rey epitomizes this, realizing her own power to change things for the better, and looking for the better in others and she constantly learns and grows. So not a simple or ra ra movie, but it gave me a lot to think about. I am curious where it will go from here. Lots of good questions and metaphors, and no easy answers. That is why I liked it so much. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"Freedom Moves West"

The title of the service today is from the book Freedom Moves West by Charles Lyttle about the growth of Unitarianism in the West.  Soon after I accepted the call to serve this Congregation, I believe it was Kriss Wells who was on the search committee sent me the autobiography of Blackhawk, the War Chief of the Sauk Native American Tribe in this region. I am reminded of this because Western expansion of Unitarianism did not really start until after the Indigenous peoples were conquered in this part of the country, and our moving West certainly wasn’t freedom for them.
The second thing I want to point out is that when the book says west, it means west of Boston.  (PPT) You can see on the map here, which matches up with the timeline when Congregations were formed from missionary journeys, to Albany New York and Syracuse NY, then Buffalo,  then Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.  Since the association didn’t invest a lot of money in this mission work, the ministers who went out often connected with other liberal religions and thus were more open to ecumenicalism. Also, with finances lacking Ministers often didn’t stay for long, and many Congregations started and stopped and started again. Think about for a moment when our Congregation was founded in 1868 there were only 37 states in the United States. Colorado, the Dakokas were still just territories. One notable missionary was William Greenleaf Eliot. He is famously known as the founder of Washington University in St. Louis and his Grandson the poet T.S. Eliot. But prior to those events, he was the founder of the Church in St. Louis in 1835 and was prodigious in starting Churches in the Midwest. In my research I note he founded a Congregation in Burlington Iowa in 1840 and that he made several trips to Davenport around that time, but could not generate enough interest to start a Congregation here.  
Now I admit, coming from a Jewish background, the word missionary has some negative emotional context for me, with Christians trying to save my soul if I would only accept Christ into my heart. For today, I would say, for the same reason I became a minister, I wanted to share the message of Unitarian Universalism with others. I believe in its life changing and justice seeking message. What does it mean to be a missionary to you. If this Congregation is meaningful to you, why wouldn’t you want to tell the people you know about it. So many people today have a hesitancy to commit to an organization. But what if those who came to the Iowa Territory and planted the seeds never came. What if others who came after that and taught classes and worked for justice and welcomed newcomers into our building, who built buildings and programs to feed the mind and spirit what if they never came here and never joined and never created the organization. How would your life have been affected if we were never here? Who would you not have met? How would Davenport have been affected if we were never here?  
Our Congregation and its members have been part of the fabric of this community affecting its values and its actions impacting government, land use, and civil rights laws to name a few. People I meet in the community always comment on how active we are in the community. And so I ask you to think about what will happen in 50 years if this Congregation is not alive and vibrant. Who will speak with a liberal religious voice for those who do not accept the orthodoxy of other religions. If we do not come together in community to strengthen ourselves and other liberal religious organizations the morals of the community will be left to those whose minds and hearts are closed. There will be no place to hide. Historically this Congregation and Unitarian Universalism have been on the cutting edge and even bleeding edge of progressive religion because if we don’t face the challenges of our life, it is not a foregone conclusion that anyone will. We are the incubator for new religious ideas, we are the incubator for action, we are the incubator of creating a new world that is evolving. We come together to explore those ideas and act on them. We as a religion as I will share with you later have always done this.

And there has always been tension around it. And there always will be tension when we look at the world in a different way then whatever the orthodoxy is at a moment in time. Whether that is slavery, women’s rights, civil rights, peace movements, LGBT rights, environmental justice, or black lives matter. History tells us, when we are open, when we evolve as people and as a community, when we are inclusive of new people, new ideas, and new ways of being that is when we are most successful. We fail when we work against each other for our own personal views and desires. Working towards and seeing your life as part of something larger then just yourself will lead you to a more fulfilling life. To be a missionary you have to have a mission. The mission of this Congregation is to
create a vibrant, welcoming, diverse church family 
which 
embraces individual searches for meaning 
and 
devotes itself to community good.
What is your personal mission? How are you living that out. How can it connect with the Congregational Mission? What are we doing to create a vibrant, welcoming diverse church family,. Have you noticed who you haven’t seen here recently, and check in on them? Have you joyfully greeted newcomers on a Sunday and get to know them? Have you participated in a program here that helps you search for meaning in your life? Do you devote yourself to community good through one of our Congregational Social Justice projects? Let us live our mission and we will be missionaries. One way we as a Congregation do community good is to share our collection with a local social justice organization chosen by our social justice projects. After you have had a chance to donate, we invite you come down and light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your life. Let this sacred time begin.

Part II
Some of the congregations formed in the West were comprised of former New Englanders, but many were also immigrants who were freethinkers and rationalists from Europe. Unitarianism offered a new way to look at religion even then.  Unitarianism comes from a long tradition of heresy. The etymology of the word heresy comes from the word Choice. We choose to believe something different then the orthodoxy. There is always a tension within religion, of whether to change from within or start something new.
(PPT) October 31st was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation and as lore would have it when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Church. Luther had tried and hoped to work from within, but the punishment was more severe then in regard to heresy. I think it is important to note that of course Luther was considered a heretic by the Catholic Church. As part of a Christian Life,  Luther felt that individuals should learn to read the Bible and make decisions for themselves, and not blindly accept church doctrine. Of course Luther believed that once people read the Bible for themselves, they would agree with him and not the Catholic Church. Of course we know where that led. Once individuals started reading the Bible for themselves it led to a multitude of interpretations and multiple denominations within Christianity. And although there was always a strain of Unitarian thought since the inception of Christianity, It wasn’t until 1825 led by Rev. William Ellery Channing., that we became a separate denomination breaking away from the Christian Congregationalists. Even then there was much debate and a conservative faction that argued we should work from within the system of Congregationalism.

The next progression of liberal Christianity was to Biblical Criticism which came from the Unitarian Transcendentalists starting in the 1830s, (PPT) led by Theodore Parker who wrote “The Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” In it he concluded Christian doctrine was transient, rejecting biblical miracles, and that individuals could experience God Directly without an intermediary. He was also one of the strongest ministerial voices against slavery. And those same liberals who broke away from the Congregationalists became conservative and worked hard to drive out the Transcendentalists from the Unitarian Association. Some of those transcendentalist ministers who were inspired by Parker moved west, some joined  the Free Religious Association, others stayed and worked within Unitarianism to reform it.  
It is important to understand this journey to understand how we fit into it.  As Unitarians moved west there was the ongoing tension between the Channing Unitarian Christianity led by the aforementioned Eliot, which saw itself as part of Christianity and on the other side there was what is referred to as the Parkerites, those who supported a more open, freethinking perspective on religion and a more activist role in regard to justice. (story about Channing being against slavery – More political as “leader” of the denomination, and Parker had a Wealthy Mother in Law who controlled the parish he preached in, so felt more free to speak his mind)
In 1852, the Churches in the West formed the Western Unitarian Conference that
“should unite them more closely and enable them to act more effectively in the spread of the truth. The movement is regarded as an important one.”  There was another comment by an unidentified minister who wrote“I am going to propose to my Western brethren to do something for ourselves and stop depending on the East.” And from the very beginning, there was conflict as Eliot tried to steer them towards Christianity and in its first gathering created a creedal statement. This led to ongoing conflict. 
          One significant factor that led to more growth in the west and more parkerites was the creation of the Unitarian Meadville seminary in in Western Pennsylvania which in 1868 also started admitting women to study for the ministry. Many of its Meadville’s students were taught by adherents to Parker and along with the Parker aligned ministers moving west from Boston it became enough of a force to change the Western Unitarian Conference balance of power against a Christian Creed.
To Eliot’s credit, not wanting to destroy what had been created, he stepped back from leadership, let the younger more activist ministers take charge and moved on to other projects. Another big sea change was the Civil War. The conference led by Eliot, went on to create and organize the western sanitary commission – caring for wounded in the war both confederate and union, providing food and clothing and health care for freed slaves as well as others who were displaced by the war. In the Western Conference, over half the ministers joined the army, serving as chaplains or with the Sanitary commission.
The Channing Christians in Boston were more muted about abolition and the war and this was seen as a tipping point in the west in support of the Parkerites. Yet after the war the American Unitarian Association called a conference Issued a very Christian creedal statement of belief.  The Association started withholding money from the Western Conference and even at one point started their own Western Association. The Unitarian Association tried to hire influential ministers of the Western Conference as a way to divide them and weaken the group, but none accepted.
The psychic battle back and forth lasted almost 50 years. The Western Unitarian Conference aligned themselves with the Ethical Culture Society and Free Religious Association and was instrumental in 1893 in creating the first Parliament of Religions.  During this time, our minster and Congregation were seen as leading the way. The book says Davenport’s

“ (Arthur) Judy’s ministry of twenty-six years was a turning point in the history of the Conference and of the church’s comprehensive and friendly Bond of Union: (which stated) “This church shall never adopt any articles of faith or a creed as a test of fellowship nor require its members to acknowledge any authority in matters of doctrine subversive of personal conviction and the light of conscience.”
And Finally the National Conference of 1895 finally accepting that Unitarianism had evolved, passed what is now known as a freedom of belief clause:

“The Conference recognizes the fact that its constituency is Congregational in tradition and polity. Therefore it declares that nothing in this constitution is to be construed as an authoritative test; and we cordially invite to our working fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims.”

There were additional tensions as Unitarianism became more Humanist, and then again when we merged with the Universalist Church of America which was decidedly more Christian. And now when we have come back full circle to revere the Transcendentalists and their global religious view with multiple religious sources, which is both rational and mystical and focused on social justice.  We have also as an Association interestingly have become more centralized with our regions now reporting directly to the Boston headquarters.
From the reformation, to the creation of the Unitarian Association, to the creation of the Western Unitarian Conference, to the tension of religious Humanism, to the rift over the political positions, always in the end, religious freedom has eventually come to the front. Sometimes a little tension and uncomfortableness is required to move us along the path of evolution. The key is to manage the tension, to not get stuck in our ways, to not get caught in the trap of the ego of having to be right, to be open to experimenting with something new, whether it is stones or candles, and if it doesn’t work, be willing to let it go, but it is the rare person or Congregation that can grow without a little tension. I think of the movie groundhog day with Bill Murray who in it every day wakes up and experiences the same day over and over again. It is only when he learns to open his heart and love another that he can move forward. Let us move forward, together and in love.

Closing Words - Statement of purpose of the Western Unitarian Conference in 1920
Our interpretation of religion has long been beyond Christianity and beyond any historic religion.
We cut loose from no history that has contributed to our growth, but we seek to make new history that will contribute to the growth of the future. We feel most at home in territory where the winds of the spirit move from many directions.” Let the winds of the spirit move us forward.