a sermon by Ann Beirne and David Freiman
at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Queens
Sunday, November 13, 2011

ANN: Hello, my name is Ann Beirne and I’m here with my husband, David Freiman. We are members of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan and we met some of you this summer when we co-led four circle worships.

DAVID: We see at lot of familiar faces this morning. To echo Helen, it is like coming home. We are grateful to Rev. Ian White Maher for inviting us to deliver a sermon today.

We are looking forward to a wonderful event that comes on a Thursday in November that celebrates the fruits of the earth, good company, and gratitude: the release of Beaujolais Nouveau 2011. It is this coming Thursday.

ANN:  “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!”  We are big fans of wine, and celebrations in general. It is a good match with my culture as a Catholic UU. We attend mass weekly at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I am leader of song.  We are also at All Souls Unitarian Church every week where David teaches religious education. Our weekends are very religious.

I am a practicing Catholic, but I wasn’t always. True, I was raised Catholic, but there was a time in my teens when I seriously considered converting.  I even stopped taking communion, even if I was at mass. At the same time, I was taking a World Religions class at Catholic high school, the religion course requirement for 11th grade.

At student-parent-teacher night, my mother and I met with Sister Maureen, the teacher. She explained the curriculum, the goal of which was to expose us to the basic tenets of major world religions.  To keep us from allowing an excessively rigid belief system to limit our understanding or expression of the divine.  Or, as she put it, to keep us from “putting God in a box.”

My mother turned to Sister Maureen and said, “if this is such a good idea, why is Ann thinking of converting?”

Now, there are good nuns and their are bad nuns, but if I were to make a sweeping generalization about nuns, it would be this: they do not intimidate easily.

First, Sister Maureen turned to me and said, “Why do you want to convert?”  I explained to her my views about memorized prayer, birth control, and the role of women in the church.  She turned to my mother, shrugged and said, “She makes some good points.”

In the time since my high school days, some of my views have stayed the same, but my views on conversion have changed.  I’ve come to understand that dissent is good for the church, and that I am not alone as a dissenting practicing Catholic. Being a person of faith and a vocal dissenter gives others permission to do the same, and gives them a safe haven in their faith community.

Progressive liberal feminist gay-friendly Catholics may be an endangered species, but we breed well in captivity.  I’m staying, because I will not be bullied away from my faith, nor will I allow bullies to inherit it.  But also, in large part because of that conversation with Sister Maureen, because she was willing to have it: to talk and to listen.

As Unitarian Universalists, the respect for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning is a value we as a community hold dear.  But how much do we really embrace diversity?  Can we truly respect someone’s journey regardless of where it takes them?  Is diversity something that is okay as long as you’re diverse in the ways I approve of? Can we talk freely about our own beliefs? Or are we so afraid to offend anyone by actually believing something that we sound like the madman Shakespeare described, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Are we willing to have these conversations? To both talk and listen?

In every Catholic mass, all the congregants stand and profess our faith.  The profession of faith begins with the word “we.” It does not proselytize with the word “you,” nor does it isolate with “I.”  Using “we” gives us a sense of community.  Unitarian Universalists, of course, have a different approach.  Not quite “we” enough. Ours is a church of unconditional inclusiveness.  But how is that inclusiveness expressed?

In Unitarian Universalist congregations, I have noticed that we are so accepting of other cultures we sometimes lapse into apologizing for our own rituals.

At All Souls, the annual Christmas Pageant plays to packed houses.  It is a cherished tradition.  For those who chose to attend and have their children participate. Clearly, something about having a nativity play touches members of the community.  But the fact that it is such a cherished tradition makes many congregants uncomfortable. In fact, the script includes a speech by the minister.  Not a kid playing the minister. The actual minister, who explains that really, every birth is a miracle.  I’ve always wondered, why is an adult interrupting a children’s nativity play with an apology for putting on a nativity play?  If we just did a show about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, could we let kids play all the parts? Why do we need instruction on how to enjoy a Christmas pageant? Why can’t we just get out of it what we get out of it without someone mediating the experience.

Why can’t we say, “the nativity story touches me because I believe it” or “the nativity story touches me because it reminds me of the universal human experience,” or eean, “I can take or leave the nativity story, but the kindergarten angels are just so cute!”

I do believe that our sensitivity to others’ beliefs is not only good and healthy, it is beautiful and necessary. But if we are unable or unwilling to have a conversation about our own beliefs, or to even acknowledge what those beliefs are, we are shutting down the conversation before it begins.

I have heard from the pulpit Christians described as “delusional.” When discussing Catholicism, the phrase, “I don’t know how anybody could believe that” was used. Do we have to believe it ourselves to understand it?  Do we have to understand it all? Or may we allow others their free search for truth and meaning?

I hear the phrase “Unitarians believe in science.” So do I. “Unitarians believe in social justice.” So do I. “We chose our faith.” So did I.

Unitarian Universalists have more in common with those of other faiths than some may think. And even when we disagree or feel that others have divided the world into camps of “us” and “them,” can we reach across those divisions and say, “you make some good points. Want to hear mine?” Division cannot be cured with more division.  Put up enough walls and we have put both God and ourselves in a box.

Embracing diversity is like getting a seat on the subway.  It looks like it will be impossible to fit in the space between two people. You sit down and it is a tight fit. It is uncomfortable. At first. But gradually, everyone shifts a little and make room. And it only happens if you sit and stay seated. While some diversity seems like an impossible fit in our church, we find ways to be respectful until, as the song goes, “We’re gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days.”

DAVID: I was gratified to see that our topic today is the focus of the latest issue of UU World in an article “Faith in Our Future.” UUA President Peter Morales writes, “Spiritual development is about connecting with others and with the world. We begin with love for another person, then move to loving those around us; eventually we extend that compassion to all humanity.” Rev. Morales says we have to get serious about our faith.

Rev. Cheryl M. Walker, who was an assistant minister at All Souls and now has her own congregation in the seaside town of Wilmington, North Carolina used to say that her elevator speech was the fourth principle, but then she would add, “and we choose to do this in community.” When people told Cheryl that they were “spiritual, but not religious” she would tease, “oh, I see, then you just don’t like PEOPLE.”

Since I was not raised in a faith community it took me a long time to appreciate the benefits of belonging to one. My spiritual journey has taken many turns, and I know as many of you are drawn to this faith on the winding path as those who come as an interfaith family looking for middle ground, or the spiritually wounded seeking a refuge. You were like me if you were uncomfortable when the words God, Christ and prayer came up.

Is there more we can do to offer these solo seekers a religious home or are they only welcome if they fit in? Our communities are our “value add” that lifts a seeker above and beyond spiritual navel gazing. We talk a good story, but do we walk our talk? Or in practice do we only extend a welcome to those who are diverse like me?

The diversity issues being debated today in our faith are big ones: anti-racism, multi-ethnicity, environmental protection, ethical eating, fair trade products, welcoming the LGBT community. Highly ambitious and all worthy. What is not discussed are our blind spots.

We have the biggest tent but do we have the biggest welcome wagon to match? Some already get the welcome right. The first time I walked into the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, a member at the Welcome table identified me and by the end of the service he had convinced me that he needed my help setting up an event during the week. He got me involved and invested in the congregation immediately. I felt not only welcome but needed. It was a simple gesture with a huge impact — after all I am standing up here today thirty years later.

Let’s take baby steps. Literally. How do we help families to worship among the congregation together with their young children if they wish, without being treated as second class citizens? How do we remember to use religiously inclusive language and remain aware of the visiting guests at our services? How do we catch ourselves before we criticize other denominations? Surely, one never knows whose non-UU family is attending a Service of Dedication that day. How do we create our own worship service that is less like a Protestant service, to help atheists, humanists and people from other denominations feel more comfortable. And without scaring the Protestant UUs away?

For a while I was looking for more.   I attended Satsang services at the Siddha Yoga Center.The have an ashram on the Upper West Side. I loved the lay led services which mostly consisted of a chanting, meditating, a short homily and more chanting and meditating.At All Souls there is silence after the Meditation before the choir sings Amen. It is fifteen seconds long. I barely begin to reflect on the words. Silence at the Satsang is at least fifteen minutes three times during the service. Heavenly!  It was there I began to believe in God as the Guru within, as life force energy, as Universal Perfect Intuition. But Siddha Yoga was not a perfect fit. I still needed to experience the Western cultural philosophical questioning I found in the Unitarian Universalist community.

Flash forward to falling in love with Ann. And what’s not to love?  I thought I was no longer a judgmental person, but when I began attending Catholic mass, I discovered some prejudices. My misconceptions were soon cleared up and I was able to separate fact from fiction. I learned that there is the Vatican’s hard line, and then there are the priests and nuns working on the frontline. On the frontlines you are more likely to find people applying compassion, conscience and creativity to be flexible and to do the right thing.

For instance, Ann’s pastor, our pastor, has happily supported the LGBT community in the Brooklyn diocese. While he can’t marry gay couples, he enthusiastically performs baptisms for their children. I learned that Catholics are not a uniform lot, but exist along a continuum of conservative to liberal and it is not fair to make assumptions or generalizations.

I also fell in love with the ritual of the Catholic mass that seems to speak to everyone on any given day. After all, they’ve had 2,000 years to perfect the formula. And even this year at Advent they are rolling out a new translation of the liturgy.

The Catholic church reminds me of a rich old wine. Sometimes it is sublime, with a great nose, long legs, many subtle flavors that blend into a symphonic experience that stimulates all the senses.

Beaujolais Nouveau, on the other hand is bottled only 6-8 weeks after harvest and is not meant to be aged but rather opened immediately.

The Unitarian Universalist church is like the young Beaujolais Nouveau. Our religion has to be harvested and imbibed fresh each year or it is spoiled by the dregs of traditions. We have to constantly rethink our positions, as individuals and democratically in our faith community.

Beaujolais is inexpensive and therefore accessible, just as our church makes it easy to become a member — a brief fermentation and no conversion necessary. Beaujolais is unpretentious,… and well, lets not get carried away with the analogy.

These qualities poorly understood give Beaujolais and Unitarian Universalism a bad rap. What is there to like about Beaujolais Nouveau? Every year, Beaujolais is a mystery that invites possibility and surprise. Until you uncork the bottle you do not know if it will be a good year or a bad year. Will it be too spicy, too dry, too vinegary, too disorganized? Or will it be a party in your mouth and you want to snatch up a few cases before everyone catches on?

We also don’t always know what to expect when we attend a UU service. We might have a guest speaker who pushes our buttons or thrills us. We might sing something funky in the hymnal that rocks our world.

We hear that you have been innovating here in Flushing. Do you feel a little  uncomfortable saying Namaste at the closing? Do you squirm a little when you face someone for a responsive reading? Do you get restless when someone talks about prayer? Does discussion of scripture make you nervous? Then you are on the right track to creating something new and fresh! Keep experimenting.

For Catholic UUs like Ann, or Humanist Yogi UUs like me, it is good that our faith has a big tent that can hold us all. Do we prize diversity? Or do we find ourselves backpedalling when we encounter someone different? Do we open our doors or do we close ranks? Do we open our arms or turn our backs?

In our religious education programs we ask the 9th graders to write their own Credo statements, which subtly implies you will be a true UU when you are certain about what you believe. But that is not completely true. Some of us may never arrive at a complete workable theology within our lifetimes. But Unitarian Universalism specifically does not say, you win a prize when you have found truth and meaning.  For most of us, isn’t the search itself the true meaning?

ANN: By allowing others the free search for truth and meaning, we are making our own search for truth and meaning responsible. We encourage questions. At heart, that’s what I believe and I’d like to think Sister Maureen would agree that I still make a few good points.

Forrest Church once said,

When fundamentalists say that the scriptures are not myth but fact, and secular materialists respond by dismissing them as not fact but myth, I answer both with the same question: “What’s wrong with myth?” The question we should ask ourselves is whether our myth is big enough. Can it begin to encompass the mystery, majesty and wonder of being? Does it even hint at the presence and power of the encompassing?”

DAVID: The sources of our faith offer us possibilities that we may embrace, whether they are the Nativity story or the moral of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. I’ve heard a sermon based on Curious George. And what’s wrong with sermons about Star Trek created by Unitarian Gene Roddenberry or Clifford the Big Red Dog by Unitarian Norman Bridwell. No sincere sources should be belittled. All are valued sources of inspiration and provide avenues for personal growth.

ANN: Beaujolais Nouveau has it’s detractors, too. One wine critic called it the equivalent of eating cookie dough. But we say, “What’s wrong with cookie dough?”

Especially when paired with the right wine.

“Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!”

Blessed be.

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