Rev. Chris Jimmerson
March 19, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756
Our great 20th Century Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, James Luther Adams wrote of five underlying principles of liberal religion. This principles seem eerily relevant still.
exerpt from Being Human Religiously by James Luther Adams
Whatever the destiny of the planet or of the individual life, a sustaining meaning is discernable and commanding in the here and now. Anyone who denies this denies that there is anything worth taking seriously or even worth talking about. Every blade of grass, every work of art, every scientific endeavor, every striving for righteousness bears witness to this meaning. Indeed, every frustration or perversion of truth, beauty, or goodness also bears this witness, as the shadow points round to the sun.
When I was a child attending a little Southern Baptist church in the S.E. Texas town of Groves, one of the stories they used to tell us was the one about David and Goliath from the Hebrew Bible. You may be familiar with it.
Goliath is a giant, philistine soldier who has been taunting King Saul and the Israelites, daring anyone of them to come do battle with him. Saul and the Israelites are terrified
This goes on for 40 days until, David, somewhere between boyhood and young man, arrives on the scene and tells King Saul that he will battle Goliath. Eventually, Saul reluctantly agrees, fearing David is too young, too small and too inexperienced. He loans David his coat of armor, helmet and sword, but they are too big and heavy for David.
Instead, David goes out to challenge the giant with nothing but a wooden staff, his slingshot and 5 smooth stones he gathers from a stream and places in his pouch.
As soon as Goliath sees David, he bellows, basically, “Look at you, ya little pipsqueak. I’ma killya dead.”
And then David drones on for a while about the Lord God Almighty being on his side, until finally, they charge at each other, the giant with his sword raised overhead. David takes a stone out of his pouch, loads it in his slingshot and strikes Goliath right in the center of the forehead. Goliath falls face down upon the ground, at which point David runs over and cuts the giant’s head off using Goliath’s own sword.
This is followed by much celebration, David having what seems suspiciously like a gay love affair with Saul’s son, Jonathan, and David becoming a great warrior who would eventually become the king himself.
They didn’t really talk about the whole David and Jonathan thing at my little Southern Baptist church. They did tell us that the meaning of this story was about how even the small and weak can prevail against their adversaries with the power of the “Lord God Almighty” on their side.
Even as a small child, that explanation didn’t ring true for me. For me, it seemed like David had prevailed because he had been quite ingenious by coming up with one of the first documented examples of insurgent, asymmetrical warfare.
Yes, I was a budding liberal religious geek even back then.
I tell you this whole David and Goliath story because it is also the genesis of another reinterpretation of it by our preeminent, 20th Century, Unitarian Universalist theologian, minister and scholar, James Luther Adams. Much of Adams thinking was greatly informed by what he witnessed while he was in Germany during the rise of Nazism.
It is amazing (and a little scary too) then, that so many of his ideas are still relevant today. I think even those who are not familiar with James Luther Adams or his works, will recognize the influence his ideas still have within Unitarian Universalist thought and theology.
As a liberal religion, and a small one at that, it can certainly feel sometimes like we are up against one or even many Goliaths.
Specifically, Adam’s ideas that I want to explore today, and that I think are still extremely relevant for our faith, are his ideas around, if liberal religion where to pick up five smooth stones as David did, what would be the tenants those stones might represent?
I will briefly go through all five of them in his words, which can be academic and a little dense, and then we’ll break each one down a little further. James Luther Adam’s five stones of liberal religion are:
- – “revelation is continuous”,
- – “all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion”,
- – we affirm “the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community,”
- – “we deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation”,
- – “the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.”
Now Adams used the terms “God” and “Divine” pretty freely, so let me take a small diversion here to read for you his words about such terms.
He writes, “To be sure, the word “God” is so heavily laden with unacceptable connotations that it is for many people scarcely usable without confusion… Indeed, the word “God” may in the present context be replaced by the phrase “that which ultimately concerns humanity” or “that in which we should place our confidence.”
“God (or that in which we may have faith) is the inescapable, commanding reality that sustains and transforms all meaningful existence.”
So, let’s go through each smooth stone in more detail now.
The first stone is that “revelation is continuous”. Unlike some fundamentalist religions, which believe that once God laid down the sacred scriptures, he said, “Well that’s it. Revelation is now sealed for all eternity. Move along now, nothing else to see here,” we believe that we are always still learning. We must continue to question what we think we know to be the truth. As our island of knowledge expands, so does the shoreline of unknowing and mystery.
We do not provide creeds or easy answers but do support one another in a free and responsible search for truth meaning and beauty. We are responsible for seeking out meaning and new revelations because they help us understand more and more what our creative possibilities are.
I think we see this in our church all the time, as people of all ages explore together the mysterious of living creative, meaningful and ethical lives. We do this in worship, in our faith development classes and throughout the life of this church.
The second stone is that “all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion” . Now. Of course, Adams recognizes that this cannot be absolute. We require children to attend school, for example. He is warning us though that both religion and the state can easily become coercive – that even persuasion if it is based on fear can easily “be perverted into a camouflage for duress.” It becomes coercive.
Adams reminds us that liberal religion grew out of an aversion to overly hierarchical “ecclesiastical pecking orders” – church denominational structures that were extremely top down and coercive in nature.
We see this rejection of extreme hierarchy even today in the way that Unitarian Universalism is organized through a system called congregational polity – each church owns its own property, elects its own board of trustees and calls its senior minister. We are an association of churches, but our Unitarian Universalist Association bureaucracy has no legal authority over any individual church.
We also see this stone reflected in our covenant of healthy relations at this church, which describes how we will be in right relationship with one another.
As ministers, Meg and I don’t get to use the promise of heaven and the threat of hell to grant ourselves authority or as coercion to try to get people to up their stewardship pledge!
Ours is a beloved community based upon on mutual, free consent and not on coercion.
Adams third smooth stone involves “the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community.” We must build the beloved community, that community of love and justice, both within our church walls and, perhaps more importantly, beyond them.
Adams wrote, “A faith that is not the sister of justice is bound to bring us to grief.” It becomes stale and thwarts the inherent creative potential of its people.
He continued, “Freedom, justice, and love require a body as well as a spirit. We do not live by spirit alone. A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion; it is one that exempts its believer from surrender to the sustaining, transforming reality that demands the community of justice and love.”
For the church to be alive and fulfilling its promise, we must be a prophetic church – a church that is participating in the processes that give body and form to love and justice in our world and making a moral demand for such love and justice from our societal and political leaders.
We see this in First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin through the call to do justice in our mission, through our many social justice and interfaith efforts, our people of color group, our alphabet soup group and our white allies for racial equity group, just as a few examples.
We see it through so many of our church members also being involved in non-profit and human rights organizations. Our church members are out in what Adams called the “conflicts and turmoils of the world,” making love and justice real, answering that moral obligation to grow the beloved community.
The fourth smooth stone is that “we deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation”. This one is saying that good does not happen by itself – that we must make it happen by our actions and that the good requires social and institutional forms.
Freedom, love and justice can only be built through organizations — educational, economic, social and political organizations. Freedom, love and justice require, in Adam’s words, “The organization of power and the power of organization”. Our church and our faith must inspire our members to participate in such organizations and, when necessary, build them if they do not yet exist.
Given the authoritarianism and white supremacy that we are witnessing in our world, Adam’s call to organize power seems all the more prophetic now.
A strong example of this in this congregation was when we offered sanctuary to Sulma Franco, an asylum seeker from Guatemala who feared deportation back to a country where her life had been threatened because of her activism on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights. In the three months that Sulma lived on our campus, as many of you will remember, we organized a coalition of local churches, religious leaders and immigrant and human right organizations. That coalition worked with Sulma on a successful campaign to pressure Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to grant Sulma a stay of removal. The stay would allow her the time to stay in the U.S. while the government processed a visa application she had submitted that would give her legal residency status if approved.
A little over two years ago, ICE granted Sulma that stay of removal. AND, that network I mentioned has continued to expand and grow, forming the Austin Sanctuary Network, consisting of well over a dozen local churches and many, many local non-profits and human rights groups. The network has since helped our sister sanctuary church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian offer sanctuary to another immigrant and her young son.
I am thrilled to let you know also that a few months ago, I joined some members of the Austin Sanctuary Network to accompany Sulma to the ICE office in San Antonio, where they granted her stay of removal for a second year. Then, just a few days ago, Suln1a learned that the government has approved her visa application. She has won legal residency status in the U.S.!
The organization of power and the power of organization.
Adam’s fifth and final smooth stone asserts that “the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.” Now this is not a blind or naive optimism, nor is it an immediate optimism. It is perhaps not even that the arc of the universe necessarily bends toward justice. For Adams, it is an optimism that we have all that we need to bend that arc toward justice ourselves, if with each new generation we choose to have the tenacity, courage, perseverance and strength to do so.
Adams recognized that we would experience setbacks. We would make mistakes. He saw that we humans also have a tragic side to our nature – that we can fall prey to the evils of greed, hatred, tribalism nihilism, war and violence, requiring that we adapt a willing humility.
And yet, he also wrote of the great progressive visionaries, who he said, “all sense that at the depths of human nature and at the boundaries of what we are, there are potential resources that can prevent a retreat to nihilism … The affirmative answer of prophetic religion, which may be heard in the very midst of the doom that threatens like thunder, is that history is a struggle in dead earnest between justice and injustice, looking towards the ultimate victory in the promise and fulfillment of grace.”
We have the resources we need. Grace is when we see them and utilize them.
In this church, we have our values: Transcendence, Community, Compassion, Courage and Transformation.
We have our covenant and through it, we have our healthy relations with one another.
I first came to this church over twelve years ago, and since that time I have seen it go through many a challenge and triumph. I think one of this congregation’s great strengths has been and continues to be a willingness to reach for “the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change.”
This congregation is filled with love, kindness, humor, joy and willingness to forgive, as well as to see difference and disagreement as potential assets. These resources give us reason for that “attitude of ultimate optimism” of which John Luther Adams wrote.
I would like to leave you with a formulation of the five smooth stones that I saw Connie Goodbread, one of Our Unitarian Universalist Association Southern Region staff members present a while back. I just loved it, and Connie was kind enough to send me her slide.
She took each of the five stones and associated a concept or value word with it. Here they are:
- Because revelation is continuous, nearly endless discoveries and possibilities lie before us, so we may have great HOPE.
- When our relationships are consensual, not coerced, we can know the true depth of a healthy and life giving LOVE held in sacred covenant with one another.
- Fulfilling our obligation to work toward a just and loving community allows us to also know JUSTICE in our own lives.
- When we deny the immaculate conception of virtue and work to create good in the world through organizing with others, we build up our own COURAGE.
- Because we have those resources, human and divine, to achieve meaningful change, we may rejoice and know JOY.
Hope. Love. Justice. Courage. Joy.
May we carry these five smooth stones with us throughout our days and throughout the life of this church and our beloved Unitarian Unversalism.
Go now, with hearts overflowing with hope.
Go now, knowing that the love in this community goes with you until we are together again.
Go now and create justice in our world, filled with the courage to do so and the joy of knowing that nearly endless possibilities still stretch before us.
Maybe the congregation say, “Amen” and “Blessed be.”
Go in peace.
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