A Religion for Our Time

Sunday Service, 2010 October 17


Let us prepare to worship: to ascribe worth; to shape with our presence, to embody in this community what has value. For we gather again, as we do -- again and again, week after week --to re-do, to re-set ourselves: for our hearts forget, and our minds succumb to distraction.
And so we gather this hour, to rediscover, renew, reaffirm, rekindle, and reclaim. “To rediscover the wondrous gift of free religious community; To renew our faith in the holiness, goodness, and beauty of life; To reaffirm the way of the open mind and full heart; To rekindle the flame of memory and hope; and To reclaim the vision of an earth made fair, and all her people one.” (David C. Pohl, SLT #436). For if we do not, no one will do it for us. If we do not, the vision will fade.


The pulpit editorial lifts up one aspect of our congregational life each week. This week, I lift up an aspect of our shared congregational and Gainesville life. No, I don’t mean all the head shaking and muttering about three losses in a row. It is pride week here in Gainesville this week: the annual time when GLBT – that’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender – folk and their allies join together to celebrate diversity – to celebrate all the forms that healthy love can take, and to celebrate the different ways that gender identity manifests in different people. The symbol is the rainbow, and that is appropriate, for the difference of color are natural, and they are beautiful, by themselves, as well as taken all together.

 This congregation is a Welcoming Congregation. In 1994, we underwent a process of training and reflection to deepen our understanding of GLBT people and issues, to learn better how to understand and therefore to welcome them. That process led to our certification by the national Unitarian Universalist Association as a Welcoming Congregation. This Gainesville Congregation was the first Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Florida to receive that designation.

Ours is a denomination that proclaims that civil marriage is a civil right, and religious marriage a religious choice. I will marry you – in a religious wedding – if you and your partner are ready for it -- even if the state of Florida will not recognize any legal status of the marriage.

Full acceptance is the requirement of the time. A religion for our time must be one that stands on the side of love, that stands for fairness and equality. This is our tradition as Unitarian Universalists – it is our calling to be in the world a voice for acceptance and justice.
Therefore, many members of this congregation will be marching in the Pride parade next Saturday, October 23.

These are times of anger and confusion for many of us, as the news in recent weeks of bullying of GLBT youth – harassment so sever that it leads some of them to take their own life.
Let us remember and hold in our hearts the names:

-Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his sexual encounter with another man was broadcast online. 

-Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Greensburg, Ind., hanged himself after being harassed at school. 

-Asher Brown, a 13-year-old from the Houston suburbs, shot himself after coming out. 

-And 13-year-old Seth Walsh from Tehachapi, Calif., died a week after he hanged himself in his parents' back yard following a barrage of taunting and bullying.

Our support for GLBT people matters – by standing up for them, and standing on the side of love, we may save lives. The tide of hate and contempt must turn – and we must assume that it we who must turn it. Look for other UUs at the Ayers Medical Plaza, 720 West University.
The parade starts at 1:00pm and we’ll walk together 8 blocks down to the Bo Diddley plaza.
Please come and walk with us and stand together with us on the side of love, and be lights unto the nations.


This story is called “Daddy’s Roommate,” by Michael Willhoite. (If you have kids, buy a copy – you’ll want to have it with its full-page illustrations).

My Mommy and Daddy got a divorce last year. Now there’s somebody new at Daddy’s house. Daddy and his roommate Frank live together. Work together on the house and the yard. Eat together.  Sleep together.  Shave together. Sometimes even fight together. But they always make up. Frank likes me too. We play ball. Just like Daddy, he tells me jokes and riddles; Helps me catch bugs for show-and-tell; Reads to me; Makes great peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches; And chases nightmares away. When weekends come, we do all sorts of things together. We go to ball games; visit the zoo; go to the beach; Work in the yard; go shopping; and in the evenings we sing at the piano. Mommy says Daddy and Frank are gay. At first I didn’t know what that meant. So she explained it. Being gay is just one more kind of love. And love is the best kind of happiness. Daddy and his roommate are very happy together. And I’m happy too!


The phrase, “A religion for our time” is the slogan of President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales. I introduce our offertory this morning with this reading from Rev. Morales:

“A religion for our time must be about wholeness, integrity, and engagement.  It must promote the spiritual practices that give us depth and insight: meditation, prayer, small groups, and music. 
It must touch our hearts as well as our heads. Our new religion must promote deep reflection, but it must never, never, become an escape from life or descend into navel gazing narcissism. 
A religion for our time must be prophetic. It must speak truth to power. It must raise a powerful voice against violence, injustice, racism, economic exploitation, and the destruction of life on our planet. A religion for our time is not afraid of power. It uses power. A religion for our time must strive to transform the world. Beyond this, our new religion must have a vision of a multiracial and multicultural future. It must invite people to come together in love to help create new world—a world of peace, justice, equity, compassion and stewardship of the environment. It must draw upon ancient and undying human longing for harmony, for beloved community, for bringing the kingdom of God to earth. You are called to be a place of healing and support. We are all called to be voices for compassion, voices calling our culture back to a sense of the common good. We must be moral beacons in a dark time—a time in which out of control individual acquisitiveness has wreaked havoc on our economy and on our environment.

“What are we called to be? I believe we are called to transform lives. We are called to be a force for compassion, understanding, sustainability and peace. We are called to feed the spiritually hungry and open our home to the religiously homeless. We are called to heal and empower people so that they can in turn help transform our world. We are called to teach our children compassion, understanding and respect. We live in dark times, times filled with hatred, injustice, prejudice, ignorance. Sadly, obsolete religions created for another time contribute to the darkness. We can be the religion for our time. We can lead. We can help transcend the religious tribalism that is killing people every day. You and I are called to shine the light of compassion, the light of openness, the light of acceptance, the light of justice, the light of truth. We can do this. We must do it. If we let the love in our hearts and our ideals of freedom and justice guide us, we can revitalize our faith, we can touch lives, we can change the world.”

That revitalization begins with you – your heart, your passion, your love and understanding  – and your financial support. Please: give generously.


The reading that Ruth and I will share is a poem by Maria Carter. In strong words, the poet gives voice to the energy of anger, that that energy may turn toward building justice – justice for all, regardless of who they love.

“Protest Song” by Maria Carter.

This is a protest song.
For my brothers who mourned Matthew Shepard song
a watch your boy’s back in this our free country song 
he could be beaten and left to die in agony,
his blood on the hands of animals in Laramie
because the fear of love runs deep.
Love, stand up and protest
song for my brothers who fight like Brandon Teena, 
questioned about the contents of his boxer shorts at knifepoint, 
murdered by the sons of the fathers of the patriarchy 
in a surreptitious act of negligent police brutality
because the fear of the other runs deeper.
But not than this Love, 
stand up and hear this, 
love song,

Song for my sisters in Richmond, California
Last year in a parking lot, the community was informed of a
rainbow sticker on a car with a driver’s seat
With a female body dragged out onto the concrete
By a gang of young men who knew she was a lesbian
the fear of a love that turns to face that fear again
and stands up, love
I said, hear this, 
love song

song for my sisters who remember Gwen Araujo, 
a daughter and a lover and a woman, no matter who 
thought what about her anatomy at that tragedy 
of a trial, both of them, where four men again nearly went free
how clearly society can speak 
if you don’t fit in a box, you’ll end up in one. 

When I came out to my mother at 19
She said, thinking of you being with a woman
Makes me sick.
It turns my stomach
Like seeing something cut open on TV.
I said, Mom, my life is not televised
And what’s cut open here is my chest, see the way these truths nest 
together, sex, love, family, career, 
God, sex, love, politics, justice
sex, love, lungs, blood, tissue, muscle, heart

When have I chosen 

the arrangement of my bones and
the alignment of my organs?

When did I capitulate 

to an agreement in which you would dictate
The shape and propriety of my expression? 
I Protest.

I protest every injustice that is inflicted
Every heart that is restricted
Should make the apathy to which we are addicted
A little more conflicted, right?
I’ve been biding my time
And waiting on this rhyme to 
come out, come out

Like I did that day when I confessed to my mother, 

No, this is not going away

So look at me and tell me that I make you sick
When the love I’m asking for is the same you want for your clique 

And I don’t want to hear any practical advice
About how to talk to The Man, about how to shuck and jive
If I deserve equal protection and my rights are being shanghaied
Then why do I have to ask nicely, why do I have to apologize
For making someone else uncomfortable?

The discomfort we have felt looms
Every moment we consider that hospital room
Where we are not allowed to sleep by our partners’ sides
Where drug-riddled mothers give birth to unwanted children
While the adoption rights of two loving parents are denied
And I can spend the rest of my life with you

But no court in my state will recognize the truth

Of our union, without that little piece of paper.
So don’t tell me we can’t march on our capitol without a permit.
I’ve permitted this commitment to practicality to submit
My constitutionally guaranteed pursuit of happiness 
to an infantile fear of authority
For far too long. 
So I will be there on Sunday, with my partner and my sign

Because Love is the thing that my God had in mind
When she designed this time for the reckoning of these crimes

And the change we ache to find at the end of this 40-year climb
Don’t tell me you won’t see my marriage in your lifetime
See that little piece of paper 
rock the foundations of the dispossessed. 
You’ll see it

You’ll see it

Stand up with me

With me

And protest.


Religion is getting a bad name. The historic conflict between Muslims and Jews continues unabated. Sunnis and Shiites show no signs of liking each other; Catholics and Protestants face off in Northern Ireland. Fundamentalist forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam foster intolerance and ultimately violence. The ongoing genocide in Darfur has a religious dimension. Religious violence is part of our daily lives. The Buddhists have the best record of peace of the four largest world religions, yet in Sri Lanka even the Buddhists have wreaked inexcusable and racist violence upon the Hindu Tamils. 

Religious violence should not be surprising if we look at where religion came from. In early human life, competition between groups was intense. A raid from the group on the other side of the hill would threaten your food supply, destroy your shelter, and make off with the women. Competition fuels cooperation: that is, competition BETWEEN groups put a premium on cooperation WITHIN groups. If your group had good cooperation together, you could defend yourselves, and mount successful raids on your neighbors. 

That level of cooperation required strong emotional bonding. And that’s what religion is originally all about. Sharing together in rituals, enhances bonding and interconnection. Having shared stories about the origin of people – understood as your tribe – enhances bonding and interconnection. Sharing stories about the origin of your moral code bolstered its legitimacy and a shared behavioral code further helped bonding and connection. Rituals, origin myths, moral code, interconnection – that’s religion. 

We have religion because we needed it – a tribe that couldn’t generate deep tribal cohesion would not survive the violent competition of other tribes. So it’s no surprise that our human world continues to be beset by religious violence. From its beginnings, religion was all about group bonding of a good sized tribe, so that tribe could defend better and attack better. Yes, the world religions all teach peace, and the historical – or, rather, prehistorical, evolutionary -- roots of that are in the need to make peace with the others within our tribe so that we could better defend against or attack another tribe. 

Evolution, however, is a continual story of something evolving for one purpose and then being put to another purpose. Example #1: Back before there were land animals, there was an early form of what we call a lung-fish. It had a sac that held air. It was to give the fish buoyancy in the water -- it had nothing to do with respiration. Since the sac was there, it could be appropriated for respiration purposes, and it gradually evolved into a lung, allowing the first land animals. Building upon its inheritance, it transcended it and became a new thing on this earth. 

Example #2: The early ancestors of the bat could not fly. They had a little webbing between the fingers in order to catch flies better. The webbing’s original purpose had nothing to do with what then happened: that webbing allowed the animal to take flight. Building upon its inheritance, it transcended it and became a new thing on this earth. 

And here we are: homo religioso – hardwired to be religious. We inherit this brain that evolution has built to respond to rituals and stories, shared moral understanding – this brain that uses those rituals, stories, and morality to form fierce loyalty to our tribe. We can try to cut that out of ourselves. We can try to suppress and excise the religious impulse, attempt to destroy a part of who we are. It’s not rational, we might say. Music isn’t either. You could suppress and deny and try to eliminate the part of you gets any pleasure from music. You might even succeed, if you worked at it long enough. But you would have diminished life, not enhanced it. 

The brain circuitry that orients us to bond with one another through religion, that orients us to live in peace within our group: that circuitry is available for being universalized beyond our group. The sense of interconnection that evolved to unite our tribe is available to unite our planet. Building upon our inheritance, we can transcend it and become a new thing on this earth. 

Our spiritual perception can plumb more deeply, can see more than just what selective pressures once needed our ancestors to see. We can train awareness to know, more thoroughly, fully, richly, than cognition alone can know, that all humans are us, all sentient beings are us; all bugs and plants, all amoebas, paramecia, bacteria, and fungi are us; all rocks and dirt, rivers and oceans; air and fire; sun, moon, and stars are us. 

Such a religion – a religion of tolerance, of acceptance, of welcome – a religion of empathy and understanding even for people with religions that remain narrowly tribal – this is the religion for our time. This is Unitarian Universalism. It is the faith that we have been practicing and living, increasingly so over the last century. 

I see that professor Harvey Cox’s new book, The Future of Faith, predicts that Fundamentalism will die off. He says religious movements in the future will abandon creeds, seek justice, support democracy, cultivate small groups, and become less regional, less parochial, less dogmatic, and less patriarchal. That would be nice. I’m not holding my breath, but where professor Cox and I do agree is that this is, indeed, the kind of religion we most need today. Whether we as a species are really headed that way within the lifespan of a baby born today . . . that’s up to us. We are the religion for our time: it’s up to us to bring it to the world. 

The religion for our time must no longer be belief-centric, putting beliefs – creeds, dogma, doctrine – at the center. The religion for our time understands that what religion is about is three things:

(1) Religion is about how you live, the ethics and values that guide your life. 
(2) It’s about coming together with others and sharing in rituals that bond us together. 
(3) It’s about the experiences of awe, and wonder, and beauty; about those moments when the ego defenses fall away and the fundamental oneness of all things is suddenly so clear. 

And a congregation, a denomination, a faith tradition is for bringing those three things together in such a way that each one reinforces the other two. 

The religion for our time is us: open to the great spiritual gifts of other traditions, yet having a clear tradition of our own from William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Hosea Ballou, and courageous and thoughtful women and men who have kept alive through the centuries this conversation that constitutes us. 

Our lives are enriched by spiritual experience in they same way that they are enriched by poetry, and by music. A religion for our time cannot conflict with science, but incorporates scientific findings into our story of wider and fuller meaning – and does not treat metaphor and poetry as if it were history and science.

Ethics and values have always been a function of religion. The sexual energy from which life comes can be misused to hurt others and ourselves. That energy that can add depth and connection to relationships of intimacy can also disrupt relationships, break up households, harm children. A religion for our time will not flinch from the ancient role of religion in distinguishing appropriate from inappropriate sexual conduct. Ecstatic and connecting physical experience is an aspect of the spiritual. Some of us are in committed relationships right now, and some of us are not. What all of us wish for those who are in such relationships is that they are a ground for growth of joy, for we understand that a sexual relationship that is sustainable and nonexploitive and mutually respectful helps support and is supported by nonsexual relationships of community that are also a ground for the growth of joy. Relationships at all those levels also deepen our connection with nature, with our world, with the awakening of wonder and oneness that I call spiritual. Inappropriate use of sexuality tears apart families and rends community, and distances us from spiritual experience and spiritual growth. So, yes, religion has a role to play in helping to guide us toward sexual expression that enhances rather than harms our spiritual health. A religion for our time recognizes that. 

Yet we see today a religious landscape that widely and profoundly gets it wrong on sexual mores. The kind of intimate relationships that provide for personal and emotional stability so that spiritual maturity can begin to flourish have everything to do with commitment, sustainability, nonexploitation, mutual respect and mutual consent and nothing to do with whether or not your partner is the same sex as you, or whether your gender identity is the same as your biological sex. A religion for our time recognizes that if, for instance, you were born biologically male, it is not necessary either that you be male nor that your partner not be. A religion for our time respects humanity’s diverse traditions – diverse spiritual expressions – and likewise respects diverse sexual expressions. 

All people matter. People of all racial backgrounds matter. Poor people matter as much as rich people. Uneducated people matter as much as scholars. Children matter. The aged matter. Lesbians matter as much as straight women. Gay men matter as much as straight men. Bisexual people matter as much as people with a unidirectional sexual orientation. Transgender people matter as much as people whose gender identity has always more or less matched their apparent biological sex at birth. A religion for our time does not merely tolerate human diversity, it celebrates it. A religion for our time stands on the side of love.

Rebecca Parker, the president of our Unitarian Universalist seminary, the Starr King School for the Ministry, is one of the most humane and wise people I have ever read and heard speak. She tells the story of her cousin Megan. A few years back, Megan was going through a period of despair after an unexpected and painful break-up. Then one day, Megan invited her cousin Rebecca to lunch, bursting with good news. 

“I have been born again!” she announced. Rebecca, President of a Unitarian seminary, felt her heart sink. Who had gotten to Cousin Megan, she wondered. 

“No, no, it’s OK,” said Megan. And she told about how she was listening to her car radio and heard a radio preacher with a message unusual for radio preachers. He said everyone is a child of God, and everyone can be like Christ. Megan was so excited she talked back to the radio: “That’s what I believe. I believe everyone can be a savior and we can save the world by loving it and each other.” 

Megan felt such a love and warmth and joy come over her in that moment. And she was still feeling it the next morning. She got up and began a meditation practice, built a home altar, and began the earnest work of strengthening and deepening this peace and love she felt. In her practice Megan did become peaceful and centered and focused – but then, she says, as soon as I’d begin my daily routine that would all fall apart. As soon as there were real people to deal with, they were annoying – and Megan couldn’t hold onto, couldn’t live what she knew: that those people are also, everyone of them, children of God, saviors. 

“I realized,” said Megan, “that I just couldn’t do this alone. I needed to find some other people who were trying to put love into practice. Then it hit me. Church! That’s what church is for!” Megan, unchurched, began to look for a faith community. 

She went to a liberal congregation: the sermon was intellectually stimulating and addressed racial justice – certainly an important topic. But the atmosphere was cold, the congregation all white, the music staid. 

Megan tried a progressive, multiracial, historically black Baptist church. The music rocked, the people were warm, the place was energetic and alive. But the sermon rehashed the appalling theology that had kept Megan out of church for so many years: that Jesus died to save us from our sins. 

So Megan went to a New Age church, multiracial congregation, and small covenant groups supporting each other and carrying out service projects. They did right, but the theology was pabulum. “We memorized affirmation about the power of mind over matter,” reported Megan. “You can’t just think poverty, and war, and the environmental crisis away. That’s nonsense.” 

Megan needed a congregation of intellectual depth, social ethics, and also of warm connection with other people; racial and cultural diversity; lively, rocking music; small groups and committed service. And what Megan needed is what more and more people are coming to consciously recognize they want and need – and it’s what many times more people need but don’t consciously know it . . . yet. That’s what the religion for our time must provide. 

There’s a challenge there for us: as we go down the list of what Megan needed, how are we doing? Had Megan visited the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, we would have fallen short, most obviously in the diversity area, and maybe in some other ways too. 

We are mostly there – we have a lot to celebrate, and taking joy in each other and this wonderful community we have together is an essential grounding for us if we are to take the next step. And take the next step we must – if we are to truly be the religion that our world needs now. 

Megan, by the way, did find what she was looking for, and that was the good news she was bursting to share with her cousin Rebecca. She found it in a progressive Jewish synagogue that emphasized the value of silence, meditation, and spiritual practice -- that had beautiful chanting, and Torah study that was intellectually rich with layers of meaning – and the people were warm and welcoming. 

We don’t have a monopoly on being the religion of out time. We are on the right track, but we still have some work to do. We always have, and we always will: as the times keep changing, so also must the religion of our time. 

So may it be, and Amen.

(Words of Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association): 

We are called to feed the spiritually hungry and open our home to the religiously homeless. 
We are called to heal and empower people so that they can in turn help transform our world. 
We are called to teach our children compassion, understanding and respect. 
We are called to shine the light of compassion, the light of openness, the light of acceptance, the light of justice, the light of truth. 
Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!