"In His Name"
A sermon preached February 9, 2003 by the Reverend John Morgan at the First Unitarian
Universalist Church, Reading, Pa
The "In His Name" is intentional. The communion table in the church I serve has these words carved along one side. It's this side which has turned away from the congregation. Ironically, the wood in the table is from Dr. George De Benneville's home, Thomas Potter's chapel in New Jersey and the Ephrata Cloisters from which Universalist missionaries set out to share the good news.
This is a very personal sermon. In truth, I wrote it for myself, to be clear about where my life journey has brought me. I hope I do not sound like the person who talked about himself for a long time before saying to a friend: "Okay, that's enough about me; let's talk about you. What do you think of me?"
I want to talk about the fact that I am back to dealing with that Zen-like, Mediterranean peasant who wandered around the villages talking about the kingdom of God and turning the notion of being a messiah upside down preaching about nonviolence, questioning religious authorities, speaking in parables, and otherwise making a nuisance of himself not only to his family and friends, but finally to the political powers. He was crucified, died, and, according to a few friends, came back to prove his point about love being stronger than death.
On the night before he died, Jesus met with his disciples at Gethsemane, The earliest Gospel writer, Mark, says Jesus was fearful and distressed.
He asked his disciples to stay awake with him, but they fell asleep. And Jesus prayed for the strength to bear whatever came his way, "Thy will, not mine, "was always his deepest prayer.
On the night of September 29, 1770, the Reverend John Murray, having fled from England because he had lost his finances, wife and son, also spent the night praying, because he had been asked by an illiterate Quaker Universalist, Thomas Potter, to give a sermon in a rustic New Jersey meetinghouse the next day, Murray didn't want anything to do with it. But he, too, found the strength to go on, being assured that, as the scripture says, what he needed to say would be given to him when he needed it.
I may have the same initials as John Murray, but that's about all. However, I do understand his resistance to God's will for his life, Like John Murray, I have prayed the prayer of weakness: "0 God, go away and leave me alone,"
But the Hound of Heaven has a persistent way of getting your attention. It usually takes a two-by-four for me to wake up. But I have awoken, And the most amazing thing of all-I feel myself being led by a power greater than my own to places I would rather not go, "He leadeth me, He leadeth me, by His own hand, He leadeth me." Now I finally understand the words of old hymn,I am not that far from retirement. I could sit quietly and say nothing and collect whatever meager pension I have. But what kind of a person would I be then? And what kind of people would I be serving if I believed I had to hide?
"What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" My prayer all week has been simple:
"0 God, you have brought me this far. I do not believe my work is over. I ask that you bless and keep me according to your will, and lead me into new life, so that I might be faithful to what light you have shone me. Amen."
I do not come to argue, I do not come to suggest that you agree with me. I do come only asking that you hear where I am on my life's journey, If you really know and care for me at all, you will be glad for me, that after such a long sojourn in the wilderness, I feel at peace.
For most of its journey, our movement has been Christian. Whether Unitarian or Universalist, our affirmations or covenants were overtly Christian.
The earliest covenant we claim is congregational in polity-the 17th Century Cambridge Platform.
It affirmed our Christian roots. And the earliest Univer-salist covenant, 1790, also affirmed the same roots. And the last Universalist covenant before merger with the Unitarans in 1961, stated this:"We avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme worth of every human personality, in the
authority of truth known or to be known, and in the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God."
That's who we have been for most of our history: Liberal Christians. Yet that Is not our common, collective identify any longer. Isn't it most telling that one of the publications of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship is entitled: "So You Want To Be a Christian, But Your Church Isn't?" That about says it all. But I don't think it states it as clearly as someone said to me recently: "You can be anything here except a Christian."
What is it about being a Christian that irks so many of us? Is it because we were wounded by our own Christian roots? Is it because we think all Christians preach a distorted, rightwing gospel of disdain toward anyone who does not take the Bible literally or adopt their pet theology? Have we forgotten our own roots? Can't we marvel at the Sermon on the Mount or the wonderful parables and stories he told?
A few weeks ago, I sat with a minister of another tradition. He was gay; his congregation was not.
He wasn't telling them about himself because he was afraid of what they might think. "Coming out" for him was so risky that he had to hide his deepest self. He had to bear the off hand remarks others made about "queers" and "fags." He and I cried together. A day later, I realized that I was not only crying for him, but for myself and for this movement. I cried for his pain. I cried because I realized that I felt the same pain but for a different reason: I, and others like me, some who have left our movement, felt sad because the Jesus rebuked was not the Jesus we had found... Jesus, the teacher and healer and activist who taught about the nearness of God in the holiness of the ordinary-a band of disciples eating together, water and air and fire and nature and the presence of the Holy in even the most lowly of people.
There is a story told by Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement. She refused to move to the back of the bus and take a seat there because of the color of her skin. Years later, when asked why she reused to move to the back of the bus, Rosa Parks said: "Because I was tired. "
I don't think she meant "tired" physically. I think she meant "tired" emotionally and spiritually. She was tired of being forced to sit at the back of a bus. She was tired of being a second class citizen.
In a very real way, I'm "tired," too.
I have always been involved in struggling with the life and teachings of Jesus, only recently have I opened the closet door to say openly: I am a follower of Jesus.. ..reluctant and hesitant, but clear that he is calling me by name.
Life is too short to stay hidden or fearful. I owe myself and I owe you and I owe God, more than my fears and weaknesses. The words my father put in the first Bible he gave me have challenged me anew:
"In all thy ways, acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths. "
So let me clear and unequivocal. I am trying with all my heart and soul to be a disciple of Jesus.
Heaven knows, I've been everything else.
I am the son in one of Jesus' parables who takes his inheritance and gambles it away in a far-off country. I am so grateful for a second and third and, maybe last chance. I feel claimed by a Presence deeper and more loving than I have ever known. If you really knew my life story, you would rejoice with me now as the father in the parable. You would run out to welcome me home.