Speaker: Rev. Taryn Strauss
First Service: 9:30 am
Second Service: 11:00 am
How do people know you by your faith? Do you hide your light under a bushel? Let your light shine, let your faith flag fly. There are a million ways to proclaim your faith. Let’s explore some of the more unique ways UUs have lived out their UU faith across history and the present.
During this time of advent, of hope and anticipation, I have been considering our North Star.
Our North Star or Pole Star – aka Polaris – is famous for holding nearly still in our sky while the entire northern sky moves around it. That’s because it’s located nearly at the north celestial pole, the point around which the entire northern sky turns. Polaris marks the way due north.
In our lexicon its a metaphor for certainty, for orientation to something sure and eternal.
When enslaved people in this country were escaped to freedom, it was the North Star they followed. As it turns out, not even the North Star is forever. Right now we see Polaris, but humans 5,000 years ago knew another star called Thuban as their north star, and 13, 000 years from now, yet another star named Vega will be the North Star. Polaris will take another turn in about 26,000 years.
Nothing is certain, not faith, nor doubt.
I used to think that in order to proudly let my faith flag fly, I required certainty.
I remember the first time I saw a girl with a chalice tattoo. I was a sophomore in college, and as soon as she rolled up her sleeve and I saw it, I felt immediate alienation from my UU faith. I thought I was really UU, but clearly, she was REALLY UU. She had stamped her body with the chalice, for everyone to see, forever. I asked her why she did it.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m like, a really religious UU.” It was true.
Even during college, she attended the UU campus fellowship. Unlike many of us in those formative years, her ethical stance on most issues was fixed. She was a vegan, a member of the peer sex education team, a leader of the feminist group on campus, in her spare time she tutored after school programs, made food and dropped it off to people living on the street, she was on student government, and as I recall, I don’t think she drank alcohol or even smoked pot. Not only that, she was even an English major. Unitarian Universalist. Bonified.
I have never forgotten that moment when I realized I was UU, but I wasn’t a “really religious UU.” I had a few T-Shirts from The Mountain, but I was experimenting with Quakerism at that time and attending Quaker meeting, otherwise I didn’t think too much about my life choices, ethics nor virtue. At that point, it was still my Sunday School religion. I was a fierce UU in high school, but once I got to college, the truth is, I hadn’t thought about it much.
When I saw her tattoo, I envied her calm certainty.
I’ve seen this a few other times in my life, mostly in a network of Unitarian Universalist Religious Educators.
Andrea Lerner, until recently was the Congregational Life Consultant for the Central-East Region of the United States. She developed a hashtag called “Chalice of the Day.” At first it was only she, finding chalices in her oatmeal, or in a cloud formation. Now UU ministers, religious educators, and laypeople find them and send them to her. There are hundreds of us, seeking a hidden image in our daily lives, a sign that we are on the right path, or a miracle in the toast, proclaiming our faith and our presence in the world. Andrea’s twitter handle, Relentlessly UU, has been a beacon of joy and collective innovation. Now she’s got all of us looking for chalices in our lives,and sharing her posts, and there’s a lightness to the project that feels like a balm amidst the heaviness in our denomination and our online existence.
I am lucky in my life I had the opportunity to serve one of our largest, most vibrant urban UU congregations, in the wake of the death of their longtime senior Minister, Forrest Church. He is most likely one of our most well-known ministers, he was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air not long before he died in 2008.
He is also one of the few ministers who was most effective in sharing the gospel of theological inclusion.
In 1990, Rev. Forrest Church, Senior Minister of All Souls UU Church of New York City, took out ads in the buses and a few billboards around the City. Only a few congregants supported his effort at the time, he did this without large scale support from the congregation, as I understand it.
The ads read, “AIDS is a Human Disease, and Requires a Human Response.” The poster revealed two people hugging, implying one of them was HIV+ or living with AIDS. This was in 1990, when myths about HIV transmission were rampant, and many people living with AIDS were socially quarantined. At the bottom of the ads was the address of All Souls Church. For the next decade, All Souls attracted religious wanderers who could accommodate rational thought about the AIDS scare in New York, and so they found their way to the church.
Not only that, but in the 1980s and a bit of the 90s, Rev. Church had a radio program on a local public classical station, on Sunday evenings. During this time, the membership at All Souls, around 350 at the time of his arrival in 1986, had grown to over 1,000 members by the late nineteen nineties. Rev. Church was unwaveringly lcertain about sharing the good news of a faith without certainty.
“To the Universalist, truth in religion is like truth in poetry. Our common text is the creation. Though limited by the depth and field of our vision, we are driven to make sense of it as best we can. So we tell stories, formulate hypotheses, develop schools of thought and worship, and pass our partial wisdom down from generation to generation. Not only every religion, but every philosophy, ideology, and scientific worldview is a critical school with creation as its text.
Universalism accounts for the fact that We all suffer. We are broken and in need of healing. We struggle to accept ourselves and forgive others. Aware of our imperfections, we seek more perfect faith, hope, love, and justice. At our best, we empathize with one another’s pain and rise together in answer to a higher law. Illumination shines from heart to heart. We discover the healing and saving power of the holy within the ordinary. For instance, anyone who embraces the most familiar Universalist definition, that “God is love,” discovers God’s nature in their own experience of love. This may not mean that God is love actually, but it certainly suggests that love is divine.” -Forrest Church, UU World
The North Star we Unitarian Universalists have to offer is the same one in the night sky. Impermanent, and often not the brightest star in the sky. Certain dark nights, it can be difficult to find. It requires much of us sometimes, sometimes it requires the compass of a fellow traveler on the journey.
About this Chalice. How did the chalice come to be so central to our faith anyway?
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that real symbols have the power to change history.
During the Second World War an American Unitarian, Reverend Charles Joy, was stationed in Lisbon to help refugees from Nazism escape to safe havens. As executive director of the Unitarian Service Committee he felt that this new, unknown organisation needed some visual image to represent Unitarianism to the world, especially when dealing with government agencies abroad.
The USC took special interest in helping artists, intellectuals, and dissidents escape the Nazis. And so while Joy worked with people from all walks of life, his clientele included many famous authors, scientists, and politicians.
Many of the refugees fled without the identification papers they needed to cross borders, so the Lisbon office concentrated especially on helping them obtain replacement papers. Joy introduced an innovation: travel documents issued by the Unitarian Service Committee itself. “It may amuse you a bit,” he wrote to the Boston office of the USC, “to know that we are now issuing navicerts to pass emigrants to the new world through the British blockade. We are certifying that they are politically safe and sound.”
Joy believed these documents needed a seal. He asked Hans Deutsch, an Austrian refugee artist working in Lisbon, to create one. The result was essentially the flaming chalice as we know it now.
We don’t know what the symbol meant to the artist Hans Deutch, all we know is Joy’s description:
Joy described what Deutsch had drawn in the following terms: “A chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice… This was in the mind of the artist.”
Rev. Kali Fyre writes,
The American Universalists and Unitarians merged in the early sixties, and versions of the symbol were adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association and by the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in Britain and around the world.
Unitarianism values insights from the present as well as the past. It is appropriate therefore that the flaming chalice symbol should have both ancient and modern roots, in both instances grounded in the principles of sacrifice and service to humanity.
The symbol of the chalice flame may be further understood as a metaphor for the lives of human beings, both as individuals and in community.
A cup is a familiar object made to be held and passed around — for sharing. A flame, by contrast, is not an object. It cannot be weighed or measured. It is no static object, but a dynamic, changing process.
The flame needs three elements. The first of these is fuel. Fuel is material — like the human body, like the treasured buildings and books, money and documents of a church community. If a fire lacks fuel it is said to be “burning low” like a candle in its final moments. The flame shrinks until it is just a feeble glow.
Unitarians are not ascetic or “other-worldly” but try to take a realistic and rational view of life. Unitarians readily accept that, like kindling for a fire, people in their private lives and collectively need the fuel of physical things.
The second element is heat. Think of the heat of life itself, distinguishing the living from the dead; the spark of intelligence and passion, the warmth of human encounter, even the friction of disagreement. If a fire lacks heat, as when you dampen a flame with water, it is said to be guttering.
To develop as human beings, people also need heat. The vitality of congregational life, activities which animate and engross, thought-provoking moments that challenge are signs of a healthy liberal religious community. Unitarians believe that society is sustained by the warmth that functioning and supportive communities can provide.
The third element is air. Spirit has always been compared with air, or wind — by Greeks and Hebrews alike. If a fire lacks air, we say that it is smouldering. There is much heat and thick black smoke, but little or no light. Modern life is too often like this.
Unitarians are open to the importance of personal religious experience, whether in chapel on a Sunday, on a mountain-top, or in everyday moments during the working week. To develop, people need air — or spirit: the inspiration, or breathing in, of that invisible, yet vital element; the deep moments of the self in prayer or meditation; the shared movement of the heart when the spirit is felt.
A Living Flame
Unitarians Universalists, unlike Moses, do not simply find the fire burning in the wilderness. The flaming chalice is no burning bush, but something to be lit, and re-lit, by every person. It requires an act of will, of purpose and of faith.
Unitarianism allows persons to develop freely, without the constrictions of received dogma, while experiencing the warmth of community. Unitarians are open to the truths that science has bequeathed, including the truth that darkness has no existence in itself. Darkness is the absence of light. Unitarians believe the way to overcome the darkness is to light our lamps whenever we meet.
This is a story of the chalice, but it is only one story. You may have your own story of how your faith animates you to action in your community, or how it grounds you in your spiritual exploration. In 2020, I hope to hear more from you in worship, I would like to add a new element of our worship where we how our congregants’ faith inspire them to drive as a UU, to parent as a UU, to study epidemiology as a UU, to eat as a UU.
Perhaps, you’ll find a way to show and tell your faith to your community. To say, I am a theological imperfectionist. I don’t have a dogma, and I don’t have answers. But my life is my faith. What we lack in orthodoxy, we make up for in orthopraxy. Our living flame. That is to say, our deeds, and not our creeds.
Some of us may need reminders of our North Star, when it can be difficult to find. Tedd Meinersmann’s twin daughters, both have tattoos that remind them of their faith home.
Times in my life, I have longed for certainty. A faith that would just tell me what to believe. Life was complicated, and I longed for simplicity. Certainty. These days, I find so much more power, meaning, and surrender in the mystery.
A month ago, I was talking to a colleague about this sermon. She is a newly minted UU minister, a young woman’s whose call to UU minister is powerful, though she is currently on hiatus from her ability to fulfill it due to health challenges. She perked up when I mentioned chalice tattoos.
“Oh, I love mine! It’s a little different than your run of the mill chalice. A friend of mine had seen it somewhere, I don’t know where, and she designed this beautiful chalice that means so much to me, especially with my surgeries and illness. Would you like to see it?” Sure, I replied, feeling less impressed by chalice tattoos since that first one I saw in college.
Holy Synchronicity, I call this. Our Phoenix, rising from the flame of our chalice, is the guiding beacon for people beyond this community.
We find ourselves in the darkest time of the year, looking up, as in the Nativity story, for a North Star we can rely on. Will he, won’t he be impeached? Will we as a nation recover from the legacies of slavery that sowed the seeds for the inhumane response at our borders? Will our vote matter? Will we get all the Christmas shopping done in time? Will Santa arrive, even if we’ve been a little naughty? Will our family members create harmony, or dissonance at holiday events? Will the oil last for eight nights?
The answers are uncertain. Even our North Star is not eternal. May we seek and may we find creative ways to make the chalice, to be the light, so complex in its luminescence, wherever we find it, and allow it to light our path, step by step as we go, facing our uncertainty together.