Speaker: Rev. Taryn Strauss

We have a message to offer the world.  What keeps us from evangelizing our UU faith, and saving more lives?  Together we’ll explore our historical resistance to evangelism.

Sermon Text

In 1822, Thomas Jefferson said this about our faith: “I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.” I believe he was only a couple of generations off.

But if we are going to get there, we have to change our entire relationship to our faith. First, you may have noticed, I call this our faith. Our religion. Our religious denomination. It’s not a social movement, it’s not a club or society, Unitarian Universalism is a religion.
Now, because our religion upholds our fourth principle, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we have no creed.

We do have some core essential beliefs that unify us:

We believe in original blessing and not original sin,
We believe in universal salvation and reconciliation, not an afterlife of eternal doom,
We believe heaven and hell are created here on Earth,
We believe each life has worth and dignity,
We believe all life is interconnected and interdependent
We believe Jesus was a great rabbi and prophet in human form,
and beyond that, as the prescription says, results may vary.

It occurred to me recently that I have not yet shared with you my moment of “call.” In ministry, this is the moment when one “feels the call from God or Spirit.” Most call experiences are like a snowball rolling down a mountain over time, gathering speed until it is too large to ignore and you must get out of its way or succumb to the avalanche. For me, there were a couple of moments, but I actually did have one clear moment of call, like cymbals being smashed in front of my face.

It was the last Sunday in July, of 2008. I was living in Asheville, North Carolina, and working, somewhat ambivalently, as a Director of Religious Education at the UU Congregation of Asheville. Seven days earlier, a man had walked into my home congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, during Sunday services, holding a guitar case.

In the guitar case was a rifle. In the middle of a children’s performance, this man opened fire on my congregation, full of my friends and mentors, my church family, killing two people and wounding six others before my best friend’s dad and the board president, rushed him and wrestled him to the ground.

The UU Trauma Response team flew down and spent the following week with the congregation, and it was decided that the next Sunday, we would re-consecrate the sanctuary, making it once again a safe space. The current DRE was too traumatized to re-enter the building, so I volunteered to drive over and serve as DRE for the day.

The service was about to begin when I realized the youth group was late in arriving for worship.
I remember finding the high school youth group, sitting in the dark, alone, no adults with them, asking themselves what they were going to do. They were quiet, dazed, traumatized. I came to them and explained that I had been a high school youth group member at that church, and I sat in those couches and been one of them.

I invited them to come with me, into the sanctuary. I promised them they could sit together, and that I would stay with them. We held hands as we walked into the sanctuary, making a chain of support. I brought them into the center of the sanctuary, where they could sit on the floor, protected by the pews all around them.

As we entered the white light-filled sanctuary, you could see spatters of blood on the walls and the pews. The youth sat together in a huddle, they made a fortress out of their bodies, leaning into each other. I sat with them, singing Spirit of Life, and experienced a moment of utter certainty.

That I would give the rest of my life to this faith, that had created a refuge for these kids, gay, transgender, Latino, black, white, and I would devote my life to the cause of religious freedom, and I have never looked back.

That congregation was proud of its ecclesial work. In the years leading up to the shooting, they had a banner that read plainly, “We welcome gays and lesbians.” The minister was always on the front page of the paper, speaking at rallies against gun violence, marrying gay people though it was against the law, speaking out against charter schools and red lining.

As a high schooler, I was persecuted every day for my heathenism. But since the shooting, the city of Knoxville has rallied around that church, and lifted it up, making it a central player in interfaith work in the City. Knoxville’s two most recent mayors were a part of that congregation.

I remember when the local news station interviewed the UUA president at the time, Bill Sinkford, who had flown in for the reconsecration of the sanctuary. The news reporter asked him if we UUs believed the shooter was going to hell. I will never forget Bill’s response, he said, “we don’t have to send him to hell. He is already there. Someone with that much hate in his heart is already living in hell, and our hearts go out to him.” The reporter was stunned. It was the best expression of Universalism I had ever witnessed in my life.
The prosecutor wanted the death penalty for the killer, but the congregation testified and fought hard for him to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
This was a shining moment for Unitarian Universalism, and in the years that followed membership exploded at TVUUC, and it continues to thrive and grow today.

So the stakes are very high for me, and this is a matter of life and death. When I say we are saving lives, I mean it.

Now, I am excited about the future of our faith. I am particularly excited about the future of our faith in Atlanta, and across the Southeast.

We have a UU Congregation of Atlanta with a new senior minister, renovating a centrally located, beautiful property, we have a church plant on the West Side, in Rev. Duncan Teague’s Abundant Luuv congregation, we have a brand-new Dean of Spiritual Life at Emory University who is a Unitarian Universalist, and we have exciting new ministries in Sandy Springs and Roswell.

We have healthy, vibrant ministries. We are starting to show up at more interfaith tables. I have been asked to join the inaugural board of the Georgia Interfaith Public Policy Center, a network of faith leaders who advocate, educate, and lobby for the common good. Rev. Raphael Warnock from Ebenezer Baptist Church sits on the this board with me, as does Rabbi Peter Berg from the Temple and Bishop Robert Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, and more.

This is the situation we find ourselves in in 2019. It’s a dark time, full of political division and legislative bigotry, rising sea levels and climate denial, mass incarceration of black and brown people, and forced child separation of migrants.

This is our time of call. The world needs us to thrive, and offer a slice of heaven in our modeling of religious tolerance and cultural diversity.

But what if we never share our faith with anyone?

Here’s what is at stake:

We will acquiesce religion to people who would use it to spread hate, division, and weaponize it for political gain. They will get religion.

Growing up in East Tennessee, I remember a series of billboards that graced the skyline in the late 90s.
Perhaps you remember them too. It was a giant black billboard, with huge white letters, featuring phrases such as, “Let’s Meet at My House Sunday, Before the Game. – God.” Or “That Love Thy Neighbor Thing. . . I Meant That. -God” Or the ominous, “Don’t Make Me Come Down There.- God.” Now I am not clear how this was not viewed as blasphemous, instead it was claimed by Southern Baptists as a message to non-believers, and it was one of the most popular advertising campaigns of the decade.

Looking up at the billboards as a high school senior, I used to sit and wonder what a UU billboard would say. “Be Yourself, You are Loved.” “Whomever You Love, You are Welcome,” “Honor the Interconnected Web of Life” I longed for our church to host the baccalaureate service for graduation, or the interfaith prayer breakfasts. I still long for this reality. This is still my goal. Total benevolent takeover.

What else is at stake if we do not share our faith?

People will live their whole lives in isolation, never knowing there was a faith community that would love them, learn with them and grow with them.

We do have one profoundly evangelist time of year at UUCA. Do you know what that is?

It’s Pride Sunday. On Pride Sunday, we wear our golden Side With Love UU T-Shirts, and we march in the parade. We hand out flags or cards with our congregation’s logo and web address. This year, I took on the tradition Anthony began by wearing a full clergy collar, and walking along the sidelines of the parade, shaking hands with people who had journeyed from around the Southeast and beyond to attend Atlanta Pride. I was wholly unprepared for what I experienced.

I walked along the sidelines, shaking hands, and bestowing blessings. To people dressed in drag, or making out with their partner, or letting their freak flag fly, I said, “you are blessed and you are beautiful, while hugging them and handing them one of our cards. Many people wooped with joy, “Yess!!!” when the saw me at Pride. Many more people said to me, “Thank you for being here.” Some people hugged me and cried on my shoulder.

I didn’t realize it, but with a simple blessing and just by our presence,
we offered healing to people who had been told by someone dressed like me that they were not worthy of God’s grace, that they were excluded from the Welcome Table. I returned home pensive and exhausted from Pride, wondering what other opportunities we were missing, to share our love and good news of radical acceptance with our City of Atlanta.

Some of you out there may be skeptical when I speak of evangelism, concerned that it does not adhere to the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Some of you may be here because you were escaping efforts to convert you. I want to be clear about the difference between evangelism and proselytizing.

By definition, Evangelism is merely zealous advocacy of a cause

The word derives from the 12th century, from Old French, late Latin and early Greek, meaning preacher of the gospel,” literally “bringer of good news,” also connected to angelos “messenger” (see angel).
Classical Greek euangelion meant “the reward of good tidings;”
Whereas Proselytize

convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another
late 14c., from Old French proselite, Late Latin and Greek proselytos “convert (to Judaism), stranger, one who has come over,” surrender; Originally in English “a Gentile converted to Judaism”

I want to be clear, I am talking about evangelizing, and not proselytizing.

From John Luther Adams, the great 20th Unitarian theologian, had something to say in the 1950s about our repellant attitude towards evangelism:

“So I would suggest that religious liberals ought to try to learn something about what the progressive Evangelicals are doing. We could learn from them the uses of the prophetic elements in the Bible, elements that we have not been unaware of but that they are exploiting to good effect. I would like to hear such perspectives on the radio, or in the Harvard Memorial Church, rather than hearing liberals, including Unitarians, just flatly and uncreatively condemning them.

I hide my face when that happens. In view of the divisions among the Evangelicals, we might even see possibilities in liberalism that are not being realized, such as the way the progressive Evangelicals are dealing with the conservatives.” -James Luther Adams

But what would it even look like to evangelize Unitarian Universalism?

I am reminded of that old Unitarian joke, what do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who comes to your door and doesn’t know what to say.

First, we must make our congregation a radically, gregariously welcoming space. If you see someone you don’t know, greet them in the social hour. Risk making a mistake. Perhaps they are not new here. So what? Their evangelist spirit should require them to show you grace for your mistake. If you notice someone coming into worship service late, scooch over and make room for them, help them feel welcomed here.

That’s the easy part.

How do you talk about your faith in the world? This is an act of love, of kindness. Once you have found something good, don’t keep it to yourself. Don’t withhold the good from those you know or love.

Share your moment of call, when you realized you were not just dabbling, but a full-fledged UU. If you love something, why not share it? A minister recently said to me, we all share pictures of our food and recommend the wonderful meal we just ate to our friends, but we don’t share our faith with the same enthusiasm. So today, I want to encourage you to share a word of inspiration you heard today with your social media friends.

Or call up a friend who you think would love it here. Don’t keep it a secret from them.

I’ll close with a story I heard just this last week, where I was at a UU ministers conference. I was sitting with Rev. Chris Buice, the minister at Tennessee Valley UU Church, and we were reminiscing about a friend of mine who sadly died a few years ago after a long illness. Jessica was a staunch UU her whole life, though the friends she kept were culturally very different from a lot of UUs.
She was friends with a lot of people with less education, less money, people who often drank or did drugs. She was not risk-averse. Even as a youth, we voted her most likely to be on the roof during Sunday morning youth group.

Chris told me that in her last year of life, when she was bedridden at home, he kept seeing all these visitors show up on Sundays. They were much younger than the average church goer, and dressed a little differently, and seemed a bit rough around the edges. Whenever he greeted them and asked how they found out about the church, they responded with a dazed look and replied, Jessica sent me.

And that sums up Jessica perfectly. Above all, she was a deeply generous person. If she found something that she loved, or that she found good, she immediately wanted to share it with everyone else.

Even in death, Jessica calls to me, and to all of us, don’t hide the good. If you have found the good, share it! Proclaim it! Use your dying breath to send your loved ones to the thing that saved you every day of your life.

What is a word you love about UUCA, that you would love to share with a friend? What something that inspires you, calls you.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.