Sermon: What UU’s Can Learn From Catholicism

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/22/16. It looks at the points of connection and difference between our UU Faith and the Catholic church with an eye for the positive and for what can challenge us to be a better people of faith.

I want to begin by thanking Maria Nielsen for supporting our Fellowship this past Fall through our Services Auction. She generously bid to support the many works and ministries of this congregation and won the opportunity to pick one sermon topic this year, and this sermon reflects that choice. What we can learn from Catholicism.

I’ll begin with a little bit of my own history, talk briefly about the sorts of things we share in common with Catholicism that you’ll often hear me preach about, and then move onto the areas where we could do better in following some of Catholicism’s strengths that are in line with our values – but where we may not currently do so well. If this is a sermon topic that’s a struggle for you in any way, come to it from a spirit of ecumenism or interfaith openness.

I was raised Catholic and most of my family remain devout Catholics. I left that faith mainly over the doctrine of Hell, and I doubt being Gay was ever going to really work for me there. But I never left with a sense of drama over the church, much of the faith worked for me and still informs my spirituality. But I probably have too much of a questing spirit than what would neatly fit into mainstream Catholicism.

That being said, in Seminary, two of the more influential teachers I learned from, were a Catholic nun and a Jesuit Priest, who taught Feminist Liturgical Practices and Church Ecclesiology – respectively – or in more everyday language – how we worship together and how we do church together. Although some word choices they used might not work for you, I’d be hard pressed to think of one lesson that would be in seriously conflict with our own teachings. There are fundamental ways in which religion, at its core, is compatible across divisions. We would do well to always remember that; to always come to places of difference and ask – where can we find the commonality. It’s the only way we’ll move forward in this world that seems to be increasingly defined by divisiveness; it’s not only unhelpful, it’s often untrue. In that spirit, I want to make sure you don’t miss a guest speaker preaching here on Sunday, June 26th from the Islamic tradition, Mr. Hakan Yesilova. We have much to learn from one another.

When I was still employed in the non-profit community organizing sector years ago, I worked with various Jesuit Priests and Catholic Nuns in the area of affordable housing and homelessness. It was a central value to the Catholic Church to be on the side of the poor and oppressed. It’s a central value in our own UU faith; a common point where we often find alignment in our justice work. I mention this in part, because I think that when we begin to talk about the places where we’re challenged by one another, it’s important to start from a place of understanding how we’re supported by one another, and in the areas of economic justice in particular, our religious traditions do support one another very much.

Starr mentioned earlier Sister Simone, from the “Nuns on the Bus” fame. Last year, I actually devoted three sermons here that reflected on her talk at our denomination’s annual Ware Lecture at General Assembly, at the suggestion of some of our members who also attended that major lecture with me. So I won’t go into detail again today, but you can go to our website to find those sermons if you’re interested. But I’ll say here, that I think it’s helpful to remember the complexity of a faith tradition when we so often can succumb to sound bytes that diminish or devalue. People and religions are complex.

And in the spirit of economic justice work – it’s timely and important that I mention this today. We heard earlier from Judie Gardner about our recommitment to our Food Pantry work. We’ve had a strong commitment to growing fresh produce for the local food pantries through our Grow to Give Garden, and Judie is re-challenging us to deepen our charity when we are in the supermarket. This, in line with our Cold Weather men’s shelter, is the direct service and support side of economic justice work. The other half of that work is changing the system. Diana Weaving and our Social Justice team is organizing a petition for Farm Workers’ Rights – to ensure that workers are given a living wage. We housed 15 marchers this past Sunday in our Social Hall, protestors who are marching from one end of Long Island all the way up to Albany, to protest the poor wages that farm workers can legally receive. Please head to her table after the service and flex your legislative muscle for good by writing a letter or signing a petition.

Now, where can we be challenged, for the better, by Catholicism? I’ll begin with our monthly theme: What would being a people of blessing mean? We began our service with a short ritual led by Starr around passing blessings on. Starr and I saw this done at the UU Metro NY District Annual Meeting in Morristown, NJ at the beginning of the month and it was led by the District Youth group. The youth were tasked with, as discreetly as possible, clipping the clothespin blessing onto someone without drawing much fanfare or attention for it, and over time, each recipient of the blessing was tasked with repeating the humble, quiet gesture to someone else who needed it or maybe deserved it, or maybe as a simple random act of cheerleading kindness.

For some of us, this was a fun and neat experience. For others it might take time to warm up to it. I hadn’t made it into the service in time and was sitting outside the doors and when folks were stealthily coming up behind me I remember briefly thinking, What is this person doing, and why are they doing it? Is this for real?! Blessings, generosity, humble kindness, can sometimes feel that awkward in a world that tells us cynicism, consumerism, and aggression win the day. We sometimes get infected by the worst of societal pressures, even when we otherwise would never consciously support them. Humility in the face of Grace; hope in the face of cynicism; simplicity in the face of greed – are all bedrock Catholic values. Not that we don’t share those values ourselves, especially in the value of hope; but if we’re going to be really self-reflectively honest with ourselves: humility and simplicity are a major challenge for a tradition that is rooted in intellectual achievement and what Rev. William Ellery Channing famously preached about Salvation through Character. We are saved by our virtuous actions; we develop through a sort of will to character – and that’s fundamentally opposed to the idea of humility as a saving grace – (unless you manage to also nurture humility as a character trait.) In a world where consumerism and productivity, push the wheel spinning further and further into madness, humility might go a long way toward slowing it down. Character may also, but we must remained cautioned about too long relying on the value of achievement (even personal achievement) to undo the failings of a social work ethic of achievement. Sometimes doing less is more, and we’ll certainly spend next month imaging what it would mean to be a people of simplicity, as simplicity is next month’s theme.

I grew up with incense and holy water. I remember with great fondness when I finally made the pilgrimage to what was colloquially called “Smoky Mary’s” in NYC, where it was sometimes tough to see through the haze of incense in the Mass. (I had already converted to UU by that time, and was actually invited to that Mass by my college religious studies professor who was a mentor to me, who was Conservative Jewish. I know, very UU of me.)  “Smoky Mary’s” is more formally called “The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin,” and it’s actually Episcopalian, not Catholic, but you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. Whether at that extreme, or at the more everyday Masses at local Catholic churches, there’s a comfortable sense of ritual that punctuates the cycles of the years and the seasons and placed us into a stream of timelessness that echoes back through the eons of humanity. People have been in this ritualized and sacramental moment, since the dawn of Christianity, and will continue throughout the epoch of our species. There is something stunning about stepping out of the everyday and into that kind of structured eternity. Often we miss it, but the devout experience it eventually or often. You’ll hear me speak about it almost every week here, only I usually call it by a different name – mindfulness. There are many ways to get there, and none of them are “right” or “the only way.”

That structured timelessness deepens a sense of devotion in those that make a sacrament of it; those who commit to it. Devotion, where the ego is tempered by humility, leads to mindfulness. It’s a core truth of faith; and when we mock it, we miss the whole point. When we come to faith with a sincerity of religious expression, we have a key that unlocks a door that we might have walked past a thousand, thousand times.

We often pretend we don’t have this in Unitarian Universalism because it looks different, or because we may be carrying scars from former religious traditions, or because if we were raised as UU we learned to come to these values and encounters through action and not silence. Our youth who grew up learning a devotion that was centered in a self-less, justice-centered ministry – they have been raised steeped in a tradition that teaches us to temper the ego through through humility in service to the world. But our adults, who may have come from another tradition may miss the fact that we do have rituals, they just look different.

We hold sacraments as well. Our child blessings, full of words, water and roses, start the cycle of religious life. We tell our children that this time we’ll gift you with a rose with its thorns removed because of our commitment to their growth and well-being. When they reach Coming of Age, they are challenged to publicly speak their faith in their year-long study of our tradition. We ask them to take it so seriously – to spend time and energy on it, to speak before their community, their friends, their extended family. There are retreats, and a pilgrimage to our place of founding in the US, and they are asked to work with a mentor because they can’t do this alone. Often, their words are so important, and there are so many that are doing it, that we have two services of celebration; one for the wider community and families, and one in our own congregation. The minister often skips preaching a sermon that day because so much is already being taught by our youth. And when it comes time to transition into adulthood we hold a third sacramental ritual, that of Bridging.

In some communities, we give them a rose with its thorns still on, recognizing it’s time they handle this challenging journey of life as it is with their fullest sense of self. In others, that thorn-full rose is given at Coming of Age. And true to our UU, some communities don’t give another rose, but give chalices symbolizing our faith, or even compasses reminding them which way forever points home, and to always seek their moral center. These rites are as important for our children and youth as they are for our adults. We teach our faith over and over through rite and song; through prayer and candle-lighting.

We may not have incense, but we have songs and candles and bells and flowers. We may only rarely anoint, but we commission and ordain, we bless and we lay on hands. We may rarely offer shared moments of contrition (usually once or twice a year), but we maintain a covenantal life that constantly calls us to return to right relationship over and over again.

Maria, you asked what are the things we can learn from Catholicism and I’ll close with this last pairing built up from all the rest – devotion and contrition – those two words are probably our toughest growing edges.

For most of our Fellowship, we are at a time of liveliness, camaraderie, and growth. We are welcoming new faces, returning to a time of active justice and service work (our cold weather shelter, our warm weather food garden, the food wagon, marches, and petitions for Economic Justice issues and Gender Identity Justice issues, and our stance that Black Lives Matter.) I am deeply involved in the denominational changes that are happening as we restructure districts into regions and the impact that has on LIAC (our local cluster of Long Island UU congregations); and I’m deeply involved in youth ministry in the wider area and in Long Island – something that this Fellowship said was a major priority when it began the search for this new ministry. The prioritizing of our youth and children as a Fellowship, is a remarkable gift in this time when so many congregations allow their family ministry to dwindle – we have doubled-down and are watching it grow. It’s an amazing time to be a UU at our beloved Fellowship. Our youth group is growing, our kids are maturing into kind and spiritual people, our choir sings with joy, and our meditation groups are bringing more and more newcomers into our faith.

I’ll say it again: Devotion, where the ego is tempered by humility, leads to mindfulness. When we come to faith with a sincerity of religious expression, we have a key that unlocks a door that we might have walked past a thousand, thousand times. There is so much that is good and right and well in our community. But devotion and contrition can be a challenge for all of us in our lives. What do we commit to? What do we never let go of? This is as true in our congregations as it is in our families, our neighborhoods, our classrooms and our workplaces. If you’re finding yourself – every week – finding fault, whether that’s here, or at work, or at home. I challenge you to redirect your sense of devotion to what is going right. Be devoted to what is excellent or inspiring. This doesn’t mean never to speak out about short-comings, or to take care of yourself, or your loved ones. The people that rarely lift up issues, or defend themselves, are not the ones I’m speaking to right now. I definitely want to hear from the folks that rarely speak up. But if you’re always speaking up, and you’re finding it harder and harder to enter into a sense of the holy, humble quiet, then the spiritual depth of a different kind of devotion may be spiritually instructive here. Learn to look to the good once more, and go deeper where things are well and nurturing. We can fixate on imperfections to the point of idolatry, and yes, UU’s teach against idolatry too, it steals away from us the timeless. Idolatry and mindfulness have a hard time dwelling together.

Call it a contrition from perfectionism. It’s about us, the community, the Holy Church (to take a teaching from the Catholics.) Idolatry wears away at community, and compassion, and patience. It wears on friends, on family members, on coworkers, and fellow congregants. It wears away on lay leaders and volunteers who give their all, week after week and year after year – including yourself when you find yourself in the thrall to the idolatry of perfectionism. In Catholic teaching, one understanding of the Body of Christ is that is refers to the population of the church. The living community is God’s body on earth and in eternity. There’s a powerful lesson there that has meaning for our covenantal faith – our religious community – the people that make us up – is the grounding for the holy – may we ever strive to live into that truth.

Catholicism taught me that humans aren’t perfect. A simplistic understanding of our earliest Unitarian preacher, William Ellery Channing who I mentioned earlier, taught a theology of Salvation through Character- somewhere along the way got mixed up in our DNA to think that he meant “Perfection through Character.” He didn’t mean Perfection through Character. He meant that our souls grow and mature through character; not that our egos achieve perfection through character. He didn’t mean for that to get confused, but we got sloppy as a faith, and let that seep into our spiritual DNA. Right Relationship and Covenant bring us back into community and wash away the idolatry of perfectionism, but you need to be willing to let it. And being willing, being contrite before our sense of Rightness (not righteousness, but our sense of Rightness) is a deep spiritual challenge for all people. But that is part of the spiritual work this Fellowship is called to do.

And when you find your mind wandering away during the prayer or candle-lighting – sorting through to-do lists or your kids’ sports schedules – come on back to the time of mindfulness, of awe, of spirit. I promise you, the busy and the production will still be there when you come back to it. The times of quiet and song lift up our gaze, and our center; they renew us for the work ahead and soothe the times of hardship that can’t be willed away. It’s in these moment that we find that key to the door we’ve walked by a thousand, thousand times. In humility before the awe at the center of life, may we grow to be a blessing in return.

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