A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Donna Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 26 November 1995
Unitarians embrace the principle of one: one god, not three; and the wholeness, the oneness of the human individual. Unitarians have ever sought emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical integrity, a unified embodiment of faith.
Universalists believe in all: universal salvation. All are saved. All life exists through Love, which, for the Universalist, is but another name for God. Not so much a conviction about the goodness of people -- people, after all, are not angels -- Universal salvation is more about the goodness of the divine impulse running through all existence. How could an infinitely loving God condemn a finite human soul to an infinite hell for a finite human sin? Why should a Buddhist go to hell simply for being raised in the culture of Tokyo instead of Winnipeg? The early Universalists rejected hell. And by the middle of the "hellfire-and-brimstone" nineteenth century, there were Universalist churches across southern Ontario and it was the fifth largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
By the early twentieth century, Universalism had begun putting less emphasis on hell, and more on the universality of the religious experience. There are many spiritual paths --Baptist and Catholic, Hindu and Pagan -- but the religious impulse resides within every human heart. Is there a purpose to my life? Where can I find reassurance and comfort in the face of inevitable death and loss? What is the meaning of existence? How do I live a life of worth and dignity? Though we speak many languages and practice distinct customs, the various religions of the world answer the same basic set of human yearnings. For the questions are universal. There is one interdependent web of all existence. And we are part of that whole.
In 1961 the Unitarians and the Universalists merged in North America, the religion of one and the religion of all having grown so close as to live most comfortably with one another. Today we are all Unitarian Universalists, although this particular society began as Unitarian in 1845.
Let me tell you a bit about how the Unitarian side of the equation got here. Unitarians, Christians who believed that God is one, not three, have been around as long as there have been Christians. The trinitarians won the early theological debates, however, and so, by the fourth century AD Unitarianism was forced underground. It reemerged with the birth of protestantism in the 1500s.
The first gathered Unitarian congregations met in Transylvania. Today, what was Transylvania is the north-western part of Rumania and about 80,000 Unitarians live there. But four hundred years ago, it was an independent country.
First Lutherans came to Transylvania in the 1520s. Then Calvinists, and finally Unitarians came. By 1556 the government disestablished the Catholic Church, doing away with the notion of a state or official religion. Five years later, John Sigismund became King. By that time there were Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians living and worshipping in his realm.
King Sigismund was converted to Unitarianism by Francis David. Trained as a Catholic priest, David became successively a Catholic bishop, a Lutheran bishop, a Calvinist bishop, and finally a Unitarian bishop -- the typical Unitarian journey. "The Trinity held by the pope of Rome is really a belief in four or five Gods," he proclaimed. "One substance, God, three separate persons each of which are Gods, and one man, Christ. [But] God is only one, that Father from whom and by whom is everything, who is above everything, who created everything through the word of his wisdom and the breath of his mouth. Outside of this God there is no other God, neither three, neither four, neither in substance, neither in persons, because the Scripture nowhere teaches anything about a triple God."
King Sigismund, our one and only Unitarian king, believed in the oneness of God. But also, as a Unitarian, he believed in the unity of the human spirit. To live an authentic life, one must have congruence between head and heart, body and spirit. Therefore, to fulfil the religious imperative, to express our full human potential, we must be free to follow the call of conscience, the call of the spirit within.
In 1568, over four hundred years ago, while the Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in England, King Sigismund issued an Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience. In part, that document reads: "In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none ... shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, ... and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching, for faith is the gift of God, this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God."
Unitarianism is and always has been non-creedal. There is no doctrinal test for belonging. The founding members of this congregation, one hundred and fifty years ago, signed a constitution which began: "The leading principles of this Society shall be the maintenance of the free exercise of private judgment in all matters of belief, and the rejection of all tests, creeds and formal declarations of opinion."
The Unitarian religion spread. By 1571 there were 500 Unitarian congregations in Transylvania. Unitarianism grew in Holland and England. Joseph Priestly, the English scientist who discovered oxygen, was also the Unitarian minister of New Meeting chapel in Birmingham. Priestly's two volume History of the Corruptions of Christianity, was avowedly Unitarian. It was also publicly burned in Holland. Priestly, himself, barely escaped England when the mob burned his home and ravaged his church. He came to America in 1794, and founded the first church in North America to call itself Unitarian. It was not the first Unitarian church in North America, however, for one quarter of the original Puritan churches eventually became Unitarian. But it was the first to call itself Unitarian from its inception. This congregation was founded fifty years later.
We are non-creedal, but we do have a set of Purposes and Principles. Seven principles in all, they are not final answers, but rather, the rules of the road. You'll find them on the wall as you enter our building: "We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, do covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth ...; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience ...; the goal of world community ...; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part."
We come together, because the living of a religious life seeks company and demands the testing of here and now. We are philosophers, but a religious philosophy, worked out in the abstract, lived out in a closet, is hardly worth the paper it's written on. We must throw ourselves in the way of life, not huddle together, only those who believe such and so, allowed in the door. It's fine to affirm the principles of justice and compassion. Here, we believe in testing those ideals in our dealings with one another and within the larger community.
Many who come here on Sundays are at first puzzled by what we do. We have reflective meditations and readings but not solely from the Bible. For us, divine Truth did not speak once; the Bible is not our only scripture. Here, we might read Mary Oliver or Robert Frost. We acknowledge that your truth might emerge in a physics class, while talking with a small child, sitting by a gentle stream in the quiet woods, laughing or crying with a friend. Revelation is not closed.
This hour also contains a sermon, but the sermon is often more a question than an answer. Here one is expected to wrestle with the words. We offer suggestions, point to parables that might help. But it is your business to hammer out your answers. We tell no one what to believe, for no one can determine someone else's religion for them. It wouldn't work even if we tried.
We sing also, but not solely, nor even primarily in praise of God. Rather, we sing all life's praises. Our music is meant to move. This week it is a Bach Cantata. At Thanksgiving we had a fiddler and we danced. On Remembrance Day the Men's Band played and sang sixties peace songs. We bring in cellos and oboes, gospel singers and african drums, for our emotions are not to be locked within strict and confining walls and truth is not the sole property of one culture.
Here we are all Unitarian Universalists, but our insights and orientations vary from individual to individual, and even within one individual from year to year. We have atheists and agnostics in our midst, Christians and Pagans, Religious Humanists and Rational Sceptics and Theists and Buddhists and Jews. Many couples of mixed religious background, ultimately find their spiritual home with us. We have a Jewish Awareness Group, whose members grew up in Jewish homes. Now they celebrate the Jewish holidays with each other. Our children learn about Unitarian and Universalist history and values in Sunday school. But they also study all the religions of the world. My son is thirteen. His class is looking at popular music, comparing the values he hears on the radio with the principles he lives by as a Unitarian Universalist. We take religion very seriously here. Our children learn the stories of the Bible, the life of Mohammed, and the myths of earth-centred spiritual traditions. They talk about solving conflicts and decision making. They discuss with thoughtful adults and other children how to live a life of worth and value.
My parent's route to Unitarian Universalism was typical of many. My father grew up in Saskatoon, his parents members of the United church. They wanted him to become a minister, but in high school he discovered Darwin's theory of evolution. All of a sudden he had questions, questions about the Bible, Christianity, heaven and hell. Saskatoon was a small town, and those questions got back to his father. "You're free to believe any nonsense you want," my grandfather told my father. "But don't talk about it with anyone."
My dad left Saskatoon and religion ceased to hold much meaning. My mother came from what the social scientists call an "unchurched" home. As a child, religion was simply not part of her family's life. They moved to Mississauga, and one day saw an advertisement: "Are you a Unitarian without knowing it?" They found out they were, and joined the Unitarian congregation of South Peel, at the corner of Highway Ten and the QEW.
My mother directed the children's choir. My father drank up the sermons. It was a religion that took his doubts seriously, a religion that demanded wholeness and congruity. It was a religion that encouraged him to explore all of life and to listen carefully with heart and mind, body and soul.
Is there a purpose to my life? Where can I find reassurance and comfort in the face of inevitable death and loss? What is the meaning of existence? How can I be awake and open to all of creation? How do I live a life of worth and dignity? The answers to these questions unfold over a lifetime. To be alive is to have a mind that holds fast to answers that work, yet remains ever open to new truths. To be alive is to have a heart that feels everyday anew and a body that struggles to respond with deeds of courage and acts of love.
Such is our Unitarian Universalist faith. Rich in history, yet ever open to new possibilities. Religion like a breath of fresh air, respecting the unity, the oneness of the religious impulse and open to all.