Sermons We Will Never Preach
Sermons We Will Never Preach – Part 2 – Dr. Tony Stringer
Rev. David Rankin was not a man that was easy to intimidate. Before becoming a UU minister, he was a professional boxer. Professional boxing, I hear, is excellent preparation for our ministry. Rev. Rankin had faced down the toughest, meanest, orneriest pugilistic opponents to win 192 of his 200 professional fights. Which means, he was nearly ready for his first church board meeting. But despite having stared fear in the face at least 200 times, this is what Rev. Rankin had to say about his first time facing a congregation from the pulpit. “My head was pounding, my knees were knocking, my stomach was churning. [I just wanted it to be over. But,] it was still the night before!” Preaching terrified him. I understand that fear. I often share in that fear.
What is it about all of you that is so scary? You appear innocent enough. But I know better. I know what can happen if I stand up here and get too Christian on you. You’re go nuclear.
And look at this pulpit. It appears youthful and modern, the kind of pulpit you would find in an up and coming congregation, one bursting with new energy, ideas, and vigor. But this pulpit is not truly youthful, rather it is a crossroads of history. Remember those who have stood in this pulpit, and in the pulpit that preceded it in our Southern ancestral church.
Rev. Rankin, whom I’ve already spoken of, was one of them. George Leonard Chaney was another. Chaney stood in this historical pulpit. Chaney—-a pioneer of Unitarianism in the South, one of the founders of the first library in Atlanta that would lend books to black people and to women, and one of the founders of the Artisans Institute of Atlanta, an institution that grew to become what we now know as Georgia Tech University——-Rev. George Chaney stood in this historical pulpit.
Clinton Lee Scott stood in this historical pulpit. Scott—-a minister with the nerve to challenge the Ku Klux Klan, the nerve to challenge the American Legion, and most amazingly of all, the nerve to challenge Southern Methodists—–Rev. Clinton Scott stood in this historical pulpit.
Glenn Canfield stood in this pulpit. Canfield—-a minister with the vision to propel this congregation to integrate back in 1952, before the Supreme Court had declared school segregation unconstitutional——-Rev. Glenn Canfield stood in this pulpit. And there were others whose names are more familiar to you. Great men, accomplished women, have stood in this pulpit.
I always ask myself, who am I to follow these great men and accomplished women? Who am I to preach to you? Even as an occasional substitute? Hence, my anxiety. And also the reason there are sermons I will never have the nerve to preach. That is, at least not while I can still see you.
That’s much better.
“God—–is not a four letter word.” That is the sermon that I will never preach. I would preach this sermon, if I had the nerve, as a dues-paying, card-carrying, reason-loving, scientifically-minded, humanist and naturalist. God is not a four letter word, I would preach, and should not be banished from the discourse of our congregations.
That is essentially the message UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford shared with our faith movement towards the beginning of his presidency. And by sharing what he thought was a modest proposal for our consideration, he ignited a controversy that has yet to fully abate. God should be a part of our lexicon, a part of our language of reverence and hope. God is not a four letter word and should not be banished from our pulpits and our congregations.
I confess I reacted with a mixture of skepticism and alarm when I read Rev. Sinkford’s call to reclaim the language of religious reverence, as it was a language I had grown unaccustomed to hearing, let alone speaking. Sinkford’s call to us to reclaim the language of reverence, to reclaim words like “God,” made me wonder what was happening to my religion. It made me wonder whether this rational religion, it had taken me so long to find, would one day no longer be mine. I don’t think I was ready for reverent language, having left it behind along with the Christianity of my youth.
God should not be banished from our discourse, the argument goes, because Unitarians are religious people, and whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a religious dialogue with the rest of the world. Engaged in such a dialogue even when we are silent. When much of the country, indeed when much of the world, talks “God-talk,” our hesitancy to utter the “G-word,” our tendency to stumble over that one syllable, speaks volumes about our irrelevancy in the country’s, and in the world’s, religious life.
If you doubt our irrelevancy, consider the findings of the U.S. Landscape Survey published in February of this year by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In that survey, only 600,000 people in the U.S. identified themselves as Unitarian Universalist. Compare that to the over 47 million self-identified Catholics, 2 million Episcopalians, 6.8 million Lutherans, 3 million Mormons, 10 million Methodists, 13 million Southern Baptists, and so on. Only 600,000 self-identified UUs. In other words, of every thousand people living in the United States, only 3 are Unitarian. This is less than even the 800,000 who reported that they belonged to a liberal faith tradition other than UUism. And the really bad thing about this puny number is the fact that it actually overestimates our size. In reality, only about a fifth of this 600,000 are currently active in our congregations. It’s kind of pathetic.
If we dig a bit deeper, part of the reason there are so few of us becomes evident. Ninety-two percent of Americans, that is, 9 of every 10 Americans, believe in God. Nine of every 10 UUs not only don’t believe in God, there is a good chance that 9 of every 10 UUs object to the word “God” even being used in a sermon or a prayer. I have come to realize that, that is a shame, because it closes off an important part of the religious conversation with the 9 of every 10 Americans who are not Unitarian.
This is even more of a shame when we consider what many of the God-believing Americans actually think about God. True enough, 60% are certain that God is a person with whom they have a direct relationship. But a healthy 25% see God as an abstract, impersonal force, and, a somewhat overlapping but still respectable, 20% really haven’t made up their minds about what they think regarding God. We aught to have a language for talking to these people. A language in which God is not a four letter word to be whispered with embarrassment. Because if that is truly how we feel about the word, then we insult them from the moment we say hello.
God is not a four-letter word, I would preach, if we allow for necessary growth in God’s meaning in the modern world. Nor should we stop with just allowing such growth, we should demand it. As lovers of reason and science, we should insist upon a more sophisticated concept of God. As religious people, God is as much ours as it is anyone else’s and we should not permit the dumbing-down of the concept.
We should challenge ideas about God that we know to be specious. We should not permit God to be defined as a particular human being of a particular religious persuasion. We should not permit God to be a partisan in a political cause or a militaristic venture. We should not permit God to be a father or a mother in a mythical sky. We should not let God be a creator of a universe that requires no act of creation. We should not let God become judge, jury, executioner, or savior—–not in this life, nor in an afterlife that has little probability of existing. We should not let God be defined in a manner that betrays ignorance, backwardness, or chauvinism. God is not a four-letter word, it is our word, or at least it can be if we define it on our own terms.
Being a Unitarian minister or theologian in the historical cradle of 1800s Boston meant applying reason to scripture. Our Unitarian forebears saw themselves not so much as dissenters from Christian tradition, but rather as illuminators of that tradition. By applying reason to scripture they sought to illuminate the essential truth that lay within its pages, to distinguish message from myth, fact from fancy. And though we have gone far, far beyond Christian scripture, our theological task remains the same. That task being to use whatever candle glow we possess to give the world greater religious clarity, to deploy whatever measure of reason we possess to advance human understanding of what is divine.
When she was in elementary school, my Unitarian daughter, Ayanna, only came home once with a note of reprimand from her school principal. I still remember the proud defiance with which Ayanna thrust the note into my hands. She’d already taken the liberty of reading it and was proud of what it said. Signed by her school principal, the note read simply, “While I admire Ayanna’s free and independent mind, please ask your daughter to stop torturing the Christians.” It seemed my daughter took great pleasure in upsetting her more traditionally religious peers by declaring, loudly, that God didn’t exist.
My daughter, you see, was in a developmental stage when it was more important to shock her peers with her religious skepticism, when it was more important to pick a fight over religion, than it was for her to engage her peers in a deeper religious conversation. My daughter, happily, has matured beyond this stage in her faith development and so too, I say, should the rest of us. With so few Unitarians in the world, and as I believe, with the world so badly needing Unitarian voices, it is time for us to be open to deeper conversation.
In such a conversation God will not be a four-letter word. God will not send a shiver down your spine when uttered from this pulpit. God will be other than it has been. You will not need me to explain what I mean by God. I may need to explain it to others outside these walls, but in this sanctuary, you will know and will need no translation and no apology. You will know because you and I are Unitarians and share a deeper, richer, subtler appreciation of the ineffable mystery at the core of living. Not necessarily an identical appreciation, but still a shared appreciation in that it allows for sophistication and nuance.
An ineffable mystery at the core of living, imperfectly captured in words, but still necessarily captured in that one word that resonates throughout the greater religious dialogue of which we are a part. I don’t know what God is truly, but I believe we should talk about it. Not in the ancient ways, but in new ways. I don’t know what God is truly, but I do know it is not a four letter word. Even though I was among those who initially recoiled from Sinkford’s language of reverence proposal, I have come to believe that there is value in our reclaiming some religious language. I have come to believe that rather than avoiding the “G-word,” rather than whispering it when no one can hear, we aught to be about the business of redefining it for that 40% of Americans who are closer to us than they realize.
God is not a four letter word. It aught to be our word. But I’m not Rev. Bill Sinkford. I’m just Tony, and this is a sermon that I’ll never preach. At least not while I can still see you.
Let us honor the prophets among us. Our Boston prophets of yesterday and today—–Channing, Parker, Antoinette Blackwell, Bill Sinkford, and others. Our Southern prophets—–Chaney, Scott, Frost, Anthony David, Marti Keller, and others. May they speak their truths in safety. May we listen in tolerance. And may we all grow in spirit. Amen.