We Are Seekers

 We Are Seekers

First Parish of Sudbury
Rev. Katie Lee Crane, preaching

Generation after generation, Unitarian Universalists
continue to examine the religion, reshape it, persist in it and find joy in it.

      • – Rev. Jane Rzepka

Our Unitarian Universalist history features generations of people who, by means of private struggle and personal risk, find new ways of being religious. Our founders were doubters, thinkers, people for whom integrity counted. Through reinterpretation and revolution, they found ways to continue their religious lives.

      • – Rev. Jane Rzepka

UNISON CHALICE LIGHTING                                  

Love is the spirit of this church
       and service is its law
This is our great covenant:
to dwell together in peace
to seek the truth in love
and to help one another.

      • – James Vila Blake


RA: We are ALL religious explorers throughout our whole lives. Wonder, curiosity, learning, and growing are important at every stage of life. Our Unitarian Universalist principles value the freedom to seek our own ways of being religious and encourage us to explore our unique and personal spiritual paths. Separately and together, we explore the sacred light we carry deep within ourselves, the same light that connects us to all living beings in the interdependent web of life. As explorers, we seek to ignite the "light of truth, the warmth of community, and the fire of commitment" within ourselves, among our loved ones, in our communities, and around our world.

When we worship and work and play together, we gather our individual lights and create this beloved community.

As we begin a new year of religious exploring today, will you take this pledge with me?

All:        We are religious explorers. Each of us is on our own life-long quest, yet all of us come together here because we yearn to learn about ourselves, each other, and all that we do not yet know or understand. As we begin a new year together, we pledge to support one another on our individual spiritual journeys. We also pledge to share our discoveries and our gifts with the First Parish community so that what we learn may inspire or help others. This is the way we seek the truth in love. This is the way we help one another.

RA: May love bless our way. May light guide our journey.
Let us begin again.

UNISON READING  Our Fourth Principle, the Green Promise

I invite all of you to join me in reaffirming our forth principle. We will say it first in the words that we adults often use and then in the words our children learn at a very young age. They know it as the Green promise, one of seven Rainbow Promises that we make to one another. Please join me in this brief yet profound reading.

We covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

We grow by exploring what is true and right in life.

RESPONSIVE READING We have inherited quite a religion
by the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn

We have inherited quite a religion.

  • It is lived. It is not just a set of bromides and pietisms. It is a serious effort to conduct life according to principles and ideals.

It is emotional, heart-swelling. It is even nave. In spite of uncertainty, it does not rule out leaps of faith.

  • It is free, not bound by tradition, inheritance, geography, nor the passing parade.

It is first-hand, a personal experience.

  • It is responsible. It does not try to escape the consequences of decision.

It is growing. It never thinks of itself as perfected and final.

  • It embraces humility, recognizing that faith is not certainty where there is in fact mystery.

It is compassionate. It understands that religions universally wrap their essence in myth. It reaches to grasp and appreciate the truths bound up in the myths of other believers.

  • It is tough on its possessors, committing them to sacrifice, but it is tender toward those who disagree.

It is social, struggling to realize its own vision at community, national and world levels.

  • It is radiant, blessing its possessor with courage, serenity and zest.

This is our history, and also our hope.

SERMON  We Are Seekers   Rev. Katie Lee Crane

My colleague and mentor Jane Rzepka has given new meaning to the phrase "elevator speech." Jane has been in ministry a lot longer than me and, even though I’m older, she’s been one of my most important teachers. But in her latest column as Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship (our Unitarian Universalist, worldwide congregation online), she’s really thrown down the gauntlet. She has written a summary of all of Unitarian Universalist history  and I mean ALL, starting with the early third century of the Common Era  in, get this, under 2,000 words!

Before I tell you more, let me explain what we mean by "elevator speech." It is a challenge we make to one another: Explain our Unitarian Universalist faith to someone who knows nothing about it while riding from the first to the fifth floor in an elevator!  

Now back to our religious history in fewer than 2,000 words. After a romp through history from two Greeks, Arius and Origen, who both challenged different, emerging 3rd century Christian notions, to 20th century Unitarian Universalism, Jane concludes: "Every generation of Unitarians and Universalists have questioned the religion they inherited." Our religion has evolved and continues to evolve.

As Samuel Longfellow once said when challenging the Bible as the definitive source of Christian teachings, "Revelation is not sealed."  He wasn’t the first to say it, nor will we be the last. We assume there is no final, definitive, infallible word. Because we are always learning and, as we learn, we make sense of things in new ways. Think Copernicus. Think Isaac Newton.

We are, like those before us, thinkers, doubters, and people of integrity. We examine what we believe. We reshape it and  even sometimes through private struggle and personal risk  we persist in it. In those 2,000 words it’s hard to count how many before us reinterpreted what was taken as "gospel truth." Origen (remember we’re talking the 3rd century here) doubted the existence of heaven and hell; he believed everyone not just Christians would find ultimate reconciliation with God. His ideas became known as universal salvation and were the foundi
ng premise of our Universalist ancestors.

In the 16th century, in Transylvania (now Romania), one cocky young preacher convinced his king to issue an edict of religio
us toleration, advocating tolerance of differences in religious beliefs. Today we call ours a pluralist faith  advocating not only tolerance but also engagement with different theologies, philosophies, and world views. And what follows from that, of course, is obvious, but not always easy: engagement with people of different cultures and different faiths. Where do we start? Right here among ourselves. Accepting that we, too, have different ways of making meanings and engaging with one another about what matters most.

Only a few years before the Edict of Religious Toleration, Michael Servetus had been burned at the stake because he dared to challenge the notion that God was three-in-one: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. It wasn’t "gospel truth" he asserted; he could find no mention of this trinity in the Bible. But, in John Calvin’s world, the Bible was the last word. They not only burned his books, but Servetus as well. By the early 1800s, William Ellery Channing reaffirmed the oneness of God and introduced a new theological movement called Unitarianism.

By mid-19th century the Transcendentalists took a dramatic turn toward the mystical at century’s end, the freethinkers and Humanists spearheaded another important movement, born of the Enlightenment. Let’s just say that the 19th century was full of religious explorers in our history!

Jane is right. Every generation questions. Every generation reshapes and reinterprets. We are no exception.

That is why, here at First Parish of Sudbury, we begin our mission statement with the statement: We are seekers…. We believe, and our history is the foundation of this belief, that we need not be bound by tradition, dogma or proscribed creeds. We affirm a free and personal search for meaning.

But that’s only one half of the equation. With that part alone, one might think that anything goes. Nothing could be further from the truth. We insist that ours also be a responsible search. And, while there may be different interpretations of responsible, we can and do hold one another accountable to our principles. These are promises we make to one another  not promises about what we should be believe  but promises about the values we share and how we will walk together in the company of one another.

Sometimes when people learn a little about us  say by about the 4th floor on the elevator  they think "Gee, that’s easy. They can believe anything they want."  Well, you’d better keep them on that elevator! Not so. It’s truly challenging to live our principles. It isn’t easy to be on a private quest in the company of others who are also on their own private quest  especially when most of us are in different places along the way.

A few years ago one of you said to me: "I’m not on a spiritual journey, I’ve stopped right where I want to be and I’m staying there." It illustrates so clearly how virtually all of us are in different places and stages of making meanings for ourselves. One person comes here because feels she’s ready for a spiritual growth spurt. Another comes because he feels broken-spirited and needs our compassion  and some space to sort things out. Still another feels she’s come down right where she wants to be.

It’s a little like the well-known comparison of world religions where they say: all paths lead to the top of the mountain. Except we’re not all going up. Nor are we necessarily going somewhere in particular. We may be just where we want to be or we may be resting a spell while others sprint right on by us. You see, meaning-making can and does happen anywhere. There is no special enlightenment promised at the top or in any other particular spot. You may discover insights just as easily while you rest as you do while you are sprinting toward a goal.  

In a congregation like ours, we are spiritual companions. We are our own guides and, at times, we serve as guides for one another.  We find our inspiration from many sources: our own experiences, people we admire, and the wisdom of the centuries. As Jack Mendelsohn says in today’s responsive reading: as Unitarian Universalists we understand that religions everywhere and throughout history wrap their essence in myth. We see the value in understanding and appreciating the stories of many religious traditions, whether we agree with their messages or not.

Here’s an example. Preaching at a summer worship service, one member extended an invitation to those of us who’d like to learn more about the Bible. She acknowledged somewhat sheepishly that, until recently, most of what she knew about the Bible came from movies starring Charlton Heston. (I don’t think she’s alone in that!) But, now, given where she is in her particular religious explorations, she feels drawn to know more. For herself, yes, but also so that she can understand better the perspective of friends, relatives, and others for whom the Bible is more than a collection of stories that shape two of the world’s religions. It is, for many, the word of God.

My husband and I accepted that challenge and agreed to lead a conversation about the Bible this year. Details will follow. I will bring my own knowledge and a Unitarian Universalist perspective. Jonas, who is a trained theologian and a practicing Christian, will bring quite a different outlook. He has recently engaged in his own study of the Bible. He is looking not only at the stories, but also at recent scholarship, and at translations and interpretations that may shed new light on the stories that we find in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible or, as some of us know it, the Old and New Testaments. We hope not only to explore the Bible, but to do so in the context of an interfaith conversation.

If you think it odd that UUs are looking at the Bible, consider the impressive line-up of UUs throughout history who have done exactly this: Origen did it. So did Servetus. And Thomas Jefferson. (Jefferson was a Diest and did not belong to any religious community. Though he is said to have commented that he would become a Unitarian if he were to become something!)  Then there is the lesser known Joseph Stevens Buckminster, called to minister to the congregation at the Brattle Street Church in Boston in 1804. He is said to have "launched an almost legendary career of preaching and bible scholarship.

Forty years later Theodore Parker was virtually blacklisted by his own Unitarian fellows for preaching his belief that certain biblical stories, such as the miracles attributed to Jesus, were, in his words, transcient, not permanent, and therefore not crucial to understanding the underlying message. Even Isaac Newton  who as far as I know was NOT a Unitarian  was well known in his day for his biblical scholarship.

Yes, you say, but all that was a long time ago. We UUs don’t do Bible study today. I respectfully disagree. Our former Unitarian Universalist Association president, the Rev. John Buehrens, now the minister in Needham, recently published: Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals. Many UU congregations are using it to launch explorations of the Bible. We will bring it into our discussion here, along with the scholarship of other liberal theologians such as Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg.

Still, if the Bible’s not your thing, there are other opportunities for exploring. You may consider joining a Chalice Circle where gatherings of six to ten people meet together for two hours each month to discuss a topic where we share various spiritual, moral or ethical perspectives. These groups follow a prescribed format that encourages deep listening and thoughtful attention to what each person says. Four Circles will hold open circles in October.

If you can’t commit that much time, you may be able to stay a little longer on a Sunday for the Hearthside Chat following most worship services. We simply gather to continue the
conversation about the topic introduced in the worship service t
hat day.  

Two of you have offered to lead a workshop on the Enneagram. You may know it as a way of identifying personality types. But it is actually rooted deeply in ancient wisdom traditions reinterpreted in modern times by George Gurdjieff and, more recently, by Oscar Ichazo. Gurdjieff used Sufi techniques of sacred dance and movement to help students discern certain features of their inner world. Ichazo is credited with the contemporary interpretation that is used by many as a spiritual tool to move toward deeper self discovery and understanding.

Suffice it to say that we are seekers. The spiritual quest is lifelong. And here at First Parish of Sudbury there are many ways to seek meanings for ourselves in solitude and in the company of one another.

We are here, together, to encourage one another and to accept one another for who we are, and  where we are.


I close with our congregation’s mission statement:

We are First Parish of Sudbury, a diverse and welcoming community of spiritual seekers; we strive to learn together and support one another as we celebrate life’s important moments and serve the larger community.

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