Religion in a Spiritual Age

Religion in a Spiritual Age
Our reading this morning is an excerpt from a reflection by The Rev. Lillian Daniel, senior minister of the First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
On airplanes I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.”  Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo…
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me.  There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.  Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
“I’m spiritual but not religious.”  If I never hear this claim again it will be too soon.  And yet it’s everywhere these days, especially in liberal circles, sitting next to us at community meetings, selling self-help books, hanging out on college campuses.  Even Oprah has said she’s spiritual but not religious for heaven’s sake.  Spirituality without religion has become the unholy holiness of the new age.
Which is probably why Lillian Daniel’s piece, part of which we heard in our reading this morning, exploded this summer onto the liberal religious scene.  She has dared to be a cranky religious person in public (I left the super cranky parts out of the reading  they are too much for Sunday, but not for Monday — you can check them out online).  Lillian has dared to say that going to church is actually helpful.  And she has had the audacity to imply that creating a spirituality for our personal consumption and out of our own experience alone is hubris.  This is radical stuff in a spiritual-but-not-religious age.
It’s radical because our culture in general, and liberal culture in particular, tends to prioritize personal liberty and self-reliance over community.  Religious people are outliers these days because we believe that living in community  the kind of community known as a congregation  not only has value but is vital to our spiritual well being.  Somehow we’ve learned that while it’s fine to be spiritual by ourselves, we need each other to become religious.
Being religious is unusual nowadays because it means we have cast our lot with  gasp  an actual institution and that our affiliation with that institution might make an actual claim on our personal identity.  This really is counter-cultural.  The root of the word religion is the Latin religare, to bind.#  And we sense that, don’t we, that by coming here you choose to bind yourselves to a certain group of people, collectively called the First Parish of Sudbury, and to a certain tradition called Unitarian Universalism.  This morning I ask you to think about who you are bound to, and how, and why.
Many of you have heard of the Unitarian Universalist Association, or “the UUA.”  It’s easy to think of our Association as that denominational institution at 25 Beacon Street  the address of the UUA headquarters in Boston.  And of course “the UUA” is partly the institution and its staff.  But really it isn’t.  Our Association is the 1100 congregations across the country who have bound themselves in covenant to do together what we cannot do alone.  Our Association is both the collection of these 1100 covenanted congregations and the institutional architecture that connects us.
And lest these connections sound abstract, like they only exist Out There, consider just a few of our associational connections that run through this place right here and right now. The Chalice Circles small group ministry model so many of you are a part of was created by other UU congregations.  Your 12-14 year olds are in the midst of the Our Whole Lives sexuality education curriculum that was jointly developed by our UUA and the United Church of Christ.  Rev. Gary comes to you a trained interim minister thanks to the UUA’s Transitions office (and his own years of experience, to be sure).  Annemarie and your Search Committee have countless resources at their disposal, from coaching calls with me to search committee handbooks, to an online ministerial candidate matching system, to a host of UUA field staff to call for candidate references.  Check out the little bookshelf thingy in your pew.  The teal and gray hymnals were created by our Association to gather sacred music, and our publishing wing published the books.  Meanwhile, you literally walk with sister congregations under a single Standing on the Side of Love banner, and therefore amplify our faith’s justice witness.
Our Association lives. And it lives here.
Meanwhile, First Parish of Sudbury pays dues to the Unitarian Universalist Association and to the District totaling about $75 per member.  This congregation takes that stewardship seriously, and I thank you for that.  But it would be a huge mistake to reduce this congregation’s associational connections to some gross fee-for-service transaction along the lines of we pay your dues to the UUA and District and get X services in return.  The financial contribution is important, but it’s only the bluntest way that we reach out to support other Unitarian Universalists.
Associational connections are everywhere.  So much of what happens around here is enriched by these connections.  Our programs are better, our leadership is stronger, and our songs easier to sing because of our association with other congregations.  And we, in turn, strengthen others.
My partner  who is also a Unitarian Universalist  lives near Seattle, and when she comes back East she always wants to come to worship at one of our white-steepled New England Churches just like this one.  She posts pictures of our gorgeous buildings on Facebook and croons about the bells and the steeples and the grassy yards, the gilt lettering on the walls, and the organs.  She literally didn’t believe me when I told her that if you google “UU church,” 50 little red pins pop up on the map within 25 miles of my house in Jamaica Plain.  This degree of proximity and density astonishes her Western UU heart, because where she lives people FLY to District workshops.  Some have to drive hundreds of miles to visit another congregation.  And they DO!  Her jealousy blasts me out of my presumption that there’s a white-steepled UU church gracing prime real estate on every town green in America.
UUs in other parts of the country know what we have the luxury to forget: we need each other.  Imagine how important it is for the Unitarian Universalist Church in Wyoming to feel our collective presence when they raise a new rainbow flag on their church building every few weeks because the old one gets burned off its brackets.  Or how our brothers and sisters in Knoxville Tennessee felt when a team from the UU Trauma Response Ministry arrived with our Association’s President and media experts just after the deadly shootings there?  Imagine how it felt to Unitarian Universalists in Kampala Uganda when they opened a big box of hymnals from our Association after their minister told stories of running out because his congregation is growing so fast.  Or how the congregations in rural Alaska are served by a single minister who arrives by bushplane, her travel subsidized by the District.
Individual congregations can’t do this alone.  Together we can.  That is the power or our Association.  And all of these connections give us healthy dose of religion to enrich our spirituality.
One of the reasons Lillian Daniel’s piece has captured so much attention is that it resists the claim that congregations are fundamentally out of step with the 21st century.  Not only what happens IN congregations, but congregations themselves.  I just heard a new phrase that I toy with the way one’s tongue torments a sore tooth: Congregations are a 19th century technology.  If I believed that, I literally wouldn’t be standing here.  But still the phrase hints at the anachronism of congregational life in a post-parish, spiritual-but-not-religious world.  It’s impossible not to feel a little old-fashioned arriving at church on a Sunday morning and parking right next to a carriage house for god’s sake.  This church was literally built to serve another age.
And still, undeniably, this place is a refuge for our longing hearts.  Coming here slakes the loneliness and isolation we so often feel in the face of this hurting world.  There’s nothing anachronistic about this longing.  There is something deeply troubling about the postmodern presumption that we have stopped needing other people to help us make meaning of the world.  How much greater would our loneliness and isolation be if First Parish of Sudbury were the only one of its kind?  This morning we pause to remember that we need the people outside these walls too.
Every time a chalice is lit in some other church, our collective place in the order of things is that much brighter.  Even now, chalices are burning in Burlington, Vermont, and Rochester, New York; in Kent Ohio and Philadelphia, and Annapolis; Lexington, Charlotte, Charleston, and Miami.  Our isolation as religious people in a spiritual age is lightened when our understanding of who we are enlarges to include all those hearts too.
I’ve never been here to your church before.   My work brings me to many UU churches, but when I come to a place for the first time I always bring that visceral experience of being a newcomer  do you remember that that feels like?  So here I was this morning, sitting right there, admiring this beautiful space and then I heard the doxology start.
From all that dwell below the skies;
let songs of hope and faith arise,
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung;
through every land, by every tongue.
Before I became a minister I was an active lay person in a congregation a lot like this one, and Old Hundredth was always my favorite part of the service.  Something about the ritual of the same song every week added a dimension of sound and substance to the singing that reached deep and took root in me.  When I became the minister of my own congregation and lost the ability to go to worship, I would sometimes retreat into the dark sanctuary and conjure my home congregation.  I would hear them singing Old Hundredth like a lullabye, and I would feel soothed and comforted.
So I come here this morning, in a formal role, yes, but first and always a sister in faith, and as soon as I heard those first few notes, a flood of answered longing once again stung my eyes and stole my breath and I knew I was bound to you.
This power to alchemize belonging with a few bars of music is the power of our religion.  Our Association gave us the hymnal in which those words are written, the theology that adapted those new words to the old 16th century music, the freedom for that song to become a chosen tradition in this congregation, the training for Emma Jean to appreciate its place in the canon of our sacred music.#  This one little piece of music is only a single sparkle in a great web that connects all Unitarian Universalists, that reaches not only across distance but across time.  And yet those four lines contain everything I will ever need to know about why our Association is important…
I belong to you, and you belong to me, not only because of this congregation, but because of others, and because of a religious movement that gives all of us the tools we need to build a sense of ourselves as Unitarian Universalists, and the architecture to live this connection in real time and space.  Like this time.  And this space.  Let us thank God for each other, for this place, and for our larger faith, which has given us each other for brothers and sisters.