On this page you will find periodic excerpts from recent sermons.
Once a year Jeffrey solicits questions from the congregation and then endeavors to answer them in a sermon. If you would like to receive the full version of this sermon or any other, email Jeff. He's happy to share.
10) Do you know Jesus personally?
Honestly, and I am not being glib here, it depends on the day. Most of the time I would answer "yes," however. Let me explain a little bit more.
I grew up in the Greenville, SC as a low church Episcopalian. It was a Book of Common Prayer service with robes and crosses but no smells and bells. The larger context of my childhood however was living in the heart of the Bible Belt. I lived only a few miles away from Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school, founded by an Evangelical preacher named – Bob Jones. I looked on that tradition with disbelief and some disdain.
Then when I was 17, I had a sort of religious experience. I became born again of sorts, and acknowledged Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. However, very quickly I learned that what I believed was the religion of Jesus and the religion I saw around me were two very different things. To use Jack Mendelsohn’s phrase in the reading this morning, I saw that "both good people and bad people were religious." For some folks, their faith helped them to become better people and find ways to improve this world. For others, their faith seemed to reinforce their narrow understanding of the world and justify their lifestyle. Even as a very young man, I could not believe that the Jesus I had discovered in the New Testament and encountered personally was the same Jesus being used to justify a racially segregated, gun-toting, free-market society in which I found myself. I realized how wrapped up in culture and personal bias religion can be.
I spent my college years exploring what this meant and trying to determine what had happened to me and the value of religious conversion experiences. Reading William James' Varieties of Religious Experience was a sort of turning point for me in realizing that the best and ultimately only foundation on which to judge someone’s religious experience or claims is in the life they lead and the choices they make. I know Christians who are wonderfully, devout people and I can clearly see how the Lord has worked and is working in their lives. And I know Christians who are miserable and mean spirited souls who use their faith to justify a self-centered, even mean-spirited agenda. And I can say both of these statements about some of the Atheists and Jews and Buddhists and Pagans I know as well.
For me personally, the figure that has the most resonance for me is Jesus. The way I think most often about my relationship with the divine is informed by his descriptions of the Kingdom of God. It's not that I can't think of God in other terms, but this is like my first faith language and the one I speak most fluently.
11) What does faith mean in a UU context? What or who do we have faith in?
First, a word about faith. I don’t think of faith as a set of beliefs to which one ascribes. That is a creed. There is a tendency and a temptation I think to try to reduce faith to a specific set of beliefs and statements. This has been a source of great tragedy and turmoil if one looks at the history of the West over the last 2,000 years.
Faith is best thought of as a verb, not a noun. Faith is an orientation and guiding principle in your life. In some ways that is one of the great insights of 20th century theology and philosophy, whose texts admittedly can sometimes be hard to read, even for seminarians. Paul Tillich, the well-known German and American theologian, famously defined Religion as" ultimate concern." By that he meant that everyone puts faith in something. All of us as human beings are limited in what we can know and not know. We all must make decisions amidst a certain amount of uncertainty. So we all must therefore put faith in something. In this view, faith is the central organizing principle around which people build their lives. Whatever it is that you are ultimately concerned about and on which you are making your life decisions: that is your religion. For some people this principle is money. For others it is power or family. For some it is service and self-improvement or the pursuit of reason. It does not have to be explicitly religious. It quite often can change over time.
The great insight of our religious tradition that comes to us from the Hebrew Prophets and from Jesus is that there is a divine presence and mystery in this world and that this presence is best described as a source of goodness and justice in this life. God, however you wish to define him or her (or it or them), is best described as a force for integrity and fairness in this life. And the doorway to encountering this presence is not through the rigors of the mind but rather the openness and compassion of the heart. Humility is the door that opens to this path.
Now what I just said was a belief statement, not a description of faith. In order for this to be my faith, I have to live my life as if this belief were true. I have to base my life on this belief as an organizing principle. I can’t entirely know for sure if I am correct. That’s why faith is always a leap. To use the famous words from Hebrews we heard this morning: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is taking a chance on the life you lead.
As for faith in a UU context, if you wish to have statements to which you can point, look no further than the principles and purposes of the UUA that all member churches covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice in human relations, respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are apart, etc.
But more than that, realize that we are a part of dissenting religious tradition that believes that while belief is important, it how our beliefs inform and influence our lives that is essential. We are also a tradition that believes that God is best seen and manifested in a community working for some greater good or justice in this world. Perhaps that is why the Rev. James Luther Adams, who began his ministry in this church, later in life chose to define God as" the community forming power in this world. "
In the end, faith is not so much as to be stated, as it is to be lived.