My Least-Favorite Joke

The Rev. Anne Felton Hines

Sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Community of Cambria

July 16, 2017

 

          Throughout my ministry I have often preached about the difficulty of truly living our Unitarian Universalist Principles. Many of us might agree that the first Principle – affirming the “worth and dignity of every person” – is the most difficult, as there are numerous people in the world in whom it’s almost impossible to see any “worth and dignity.” And to be honest, flies and cockroaches have never been part of my “interdependent web!”

But equally difficult may be trying to explain our Faith to someone who’s never heard of it before. We talk about coming up with an “elevator speech” – a description about UUism that could be shared with someone by the time we finish riding in an elevator with them; I just always hope I’m riding down from the top of the new World Trade Center when I have to explain it to someone!

But when I have more time than an elevator ride, I often enjoy using jokes about Unitarian Universalists to help non-UUs understand us a little better. Those light-bulb jokes that Randy and I read speak to many of our cherished values: our aversion to theological dogma, our insistence on using the democratic process for decision-making, our dedication to justice, our willingness to confront the darkness, and the reality that every congregation has a few “lone rangers!” As as is true with all humor, they also suggest that perhaps we can go overboard with these values occasionally – just like every other faith tradition does!

          My Episcopalian mother once told me a joke she’d heard about a fire breaking out in a church during an interfaith service. The Methodists immediately called for a Prayer Meeting; the Episcopalians broke out into a grand procession around the church (oh, how I miss those!); and the Unitarian Universalists formed a committee to decide the course of the fire, and the options for putting it out! (No one, apparently, thought to call the Fire Dept.!)

          Other jokes speak to our theology – such as “Unitarian Universalists believe in one God…at the most,” which not only points to our early Unitarian ancestors who affirmed the unity of God rather than the Trinity, but also to the fact that many UUs today do not believe in a God at all – at least, not in the traditional understanding of God.

          We UUs care a lot about speaking authentically, and not having words put in our mouth that have no meaning to us. Hence the question: “Why don’t UUs sing very well in church? Because we’re always reading ahead to see if we agree with the words!”

          Both the early Unitarians and Universalists grounded their faith in the use of reason – sometimes to a fault, leading the Unitarians to be referred to by some as “God’s Frozen People” because they were seen as acting more from their heads than their hearts. But they insisted that all people should be free to interpret Scripture for themselves, and to follow “a free and responsible search for freedom,” as our 4th UU Principle affirms. They celebrated science and the rational mind.

          So perhaps it’s not surprising that there would be a story about the instructions given on an airplane in case of an impending crash. Jews could turn their headsets to Channel 1 to hear the Kaddish; Christians could turn their headsets to Channel 3 to hear the Lord’s Prayer; and UUs could turn to Channel 5 for a panel discussion on Air Traffic Control.

          We believe in putting our words into actions, and therefore have a long history of involvement on issues of peace, justice, and the environment; political involvement is important to us. So it’s not surprising to hear a story about a UU family who moves into a new neighborhood. Their little girl finds a new playmate, and one day the playmate says, “We’re Lutherans, what are you?”

The UU child thinks for a minute and says, “I’m not sure, but I think we’re League of Women Voters.” (Reminds me of when my daughter was about 5 years old, and was having a similar conversation with one of her friends. I overheard her telling her friend she wasn’t sure what religion we were, but she thought Sagittarian!)

          I almost never hear a joke about Unitarian Universalists that I don’t like; they always seem to point to one of our traits that I hold dear.

          But there is one joke I never repeat (except now for the purpose of this sermon), and which only makes me wince: “What do you get when you cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Jehovah’s Witness?” The answer: “Someone who knocks on your door, but has nothing to say.”

          Really?! Is that true? Do we have “nothing to say?” If so, we apparently aren’t alone in that, according to a fascinating article in the New York Times written a while back by Ross Douthat, called “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”

In the article, Mr. Douthat spoke primarily about the Episcopal Church in America – but he was really using it as an example of mainline Christian churches that since the ‘60s have “tried to adapt to contemporary liberal values.” And in so doing, he asserted, they have experienced a steady decline in membership.

          Of the Episcopal church, he wrote that it has become “flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”

          That is certainly true of most Episcopal churches that I know, including the very large one in Pasadena – All Saints Church, where my younger brother and sister-in-law are active members. There, on Sunday mornings, visitors are told that All Saints welcomes everyone, no matter where they are on their spiritual path. Atheists, agnostics, pagans, Humanists – doesn’t matter; they’ll be welcome – just like we say in our UU churches!

          But Ross Douthat points out in his article that the Christianity that fueled the civil rights movement and Liberation Theology was quite a bit more dogmatic than the current liberal church. He reminds us that the leaders of those movements, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” Progressive reform, he writes, was always in the context of a “personal, transcendent God, the divinity of Jesus, and the need for personal redemption.” But you won’t find that talked about as much these days in progressive Christian churches.

          Instead, he says, “leaders of such churches don’t offer anything that’s not available from secular liberalism.”

          Mr. Douthat’s concern is that progressive Christianity provides an important voice – a voice that is rapidly being drowned out by the growing numbers of religious conservatives. “The defining idea of liberal Christianity – that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion,” he writes, “has been an immensely positive force in our national life; no one should wish its extinction, or a world where Christianity becomes owned by the political right.”

          But it was his prescription for turning this around that touched me so deeply: liberal Christianity, he suggested, “must pause, and consider…what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.”

          “What they would defend and offer uncompromisingly…”

          Everything he was saying about today’s “liberal Christianity” could be said about Unitarian Universalism: We are very “flexible…on dogma” (actually we’re more hostile to dogma than merely “flexible!”); we’re “friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form;” we gladly blend our UUism with other faiths (witness how many of us call ourselves “Jewish UUs, Buddhist UUs, Pagan UUs, Christian UUs,” etc.); and we “downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.” 

          So do we Unitarian Universalists need to “pause” and consider what we’d “defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world?” Is there something in our Unitarian Universalist faith that we are passionate enough about to knock on a stranger’s door and have something important to say? And would it sound any different than information from a secular political organization? We need to ask these questions – not just for the sake of increasing membership in our churches, but for the sake of the soul of our religious movement.

          There was a time when both Unitarians and Universalists cared enough to risk their lives for their beliefs. Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in the 16th century for his anti-Trinitarian views; he could have escaped such a fate had he been willing to recant, but he refused.

George deBenneville nearly lost his head – literally – in18th century France over his belief in universal salvation; all that saved him was his political connections.  In 18th century America, the Universalists had to create their own schools because their children were being bullied due to their religion.

          In the 19th century, Theodore Parker was shunned even by fellow Unitarian clergy when he preached that most of what was known as Christianity – creeds, miracles, etc. – is “transient,” and can shift with the times; and all that is “permanent” are the moral truths which “spring up spontaneously in the human heart.” This was considered blatant heresy at the time. But he didn’t back down.

          There was also a time when both Universalists and, to a lesser degree, Unitarians, actually had “statements of faith” that might be seen by most of us today as creeds; those people were not “indifferent” in their beliefs!

          Yet even the Universalists, who wrote quite a lengthy creedal statement in 1790, attached a “Liberty Clause” to it later that promised it would never be “imposed as a creedal test….”

          So what do we Unitarian Universalists insist on as part of our faith? We hold up our 7 Principles as the closest thing to a shared “Statement of Faith” that we have. But we also wrestle with some of those Principles, and individually sometimes question whether we can espouse all of them.

          And perhaps that is one element of this faith that defines us – that we “offer uncompromisingly to the world.” We know that if we are to abide by our 5th Principle – “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” – we must also embrace those whose search leads them to rejecting one or more of those Principles – or at least calling them into question. We “cherish our doubts,” even when the object of doubt is our very statement of faith.

          Indeed, does not each of the jokes shared this morning – except the one I don’t like – point to basic values of this faith that we would proudly “defend and offer uncompromisingly…?” Our commitment to shared decision making; our celebration of all understandings of God, including rejection of God; our love of learning, and questioning, and sharing in dialogue; our respect for the wisdom found in all religions; our passion for justice, our concern for the earth, our longing for peace; and our faith that by working together we can make a difference in the world? These are values from which we will not back down.

          Our Unitarian Universalist Principles – as well as “statements of faith” or “covenants” such as the “Affirmation” you recite together here every Sunday morning – are the theological underpinnings of our faith. And they are what compel us to put that faith into action – as you do here in Cambria -- through your monthly financial support of community projects such as the Food Bank, Cambria's Anonymous Neighbors (CAN), the Cambria Educational Foundation, and the Homeless Animal Rescue Team (HART); those were just last year alone.

          You put your faith into action every year through your amazing scholarship program, where you include $5,000 in your annual budget, and then do additional fundraising so you can award meaningful scholarships to students from your local high school. This year you awarded $1500 to seven students in support of their educational goals – all of which are related to benefiting society and contributing to their local community. I find this to be a unique and very moving endeavor of this congregation.

          All of these projects and more are profound ways that you, as a religious community, put your faith into action. But it cannot happen without your willingness to speak and listen to one another with compassion, and with a yearning for truth and meaning.

          Our Unitarian Universalist faith has always been one of hope over cynicism, truth over ignorance, love over fear. As UU minister Lisa Ward said in a sermon, “We believe that new light is ever waiting to break through individual hearts and minds.” And then she asked, “How can we communicate and claim this faith? The answer is in our lives; we agree that a religion should be fully lived, not simply believed.”

          When I was searching out jokes about Unitarian Universalists for this sermon, I did come across a version of my “least-favorite UU joke” that I’d never seen before – a version that I can tell – with pride, because it points to another one of those traits of ours that I so dearly cherish.

          “What do you get when you cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door, looking for a good discussion.”

          May we never stop seeking “good discussions,” where we speak and listen with an open heart.  And may we always celebrate this wonderful faith of ours, and offer it “uncompromisingly – with joy and love – to the world.”

          Amen.