It’s a Sin

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Sermon #27 (8th April 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Here are some preliminary thoughts on sin – and grace – and how these tricky theological concepts might speak to Unitarians today. Last Sunday, over our congregational lunch, more than one person came up to me (having heard about the subject of today’s service) and said: ‘I don’t believe in sin!’ (or words to that effect). And, of course, this response is not unexpected among Unitarians. Many of us have (more-or-less) rejected the concept of sin, perhaps largely because we associate it with the religious right, and other groups who’ve condemned a lot of us (and a lot of our friends) down the years, as being thoroughly sinful in one way or another: our beliefs, our actions, our identity, our very existence perhaps, condemned as wicked, immoral, and wrong.

I can’t help thinking back to my youth, and to the words of Neil Tennant, from his 80s number one hit as lead singer with the Pet Shop Boys. He sang:

‘For everything I long to do, no matter when or where or who,
has one thing in common too: It’s a sin…’
Everything I’ve ever done, everything I ever do,
every place I’ve ever been, everywhere I’m going to… It’s a sin.’

And if that’s the main exposure you’ve had to the concept of sin – this impression that everything you do, have done, or might think about doing in the future, is probably wrong and bad, in the view of certain religious hardliners – with a special focus on pleasures of the body, pleasures these hardliners often regard as sexual sins, which they seem to be particularly (pruriently?) interested in – well, it’s not at all surprising that you might not want nothing to do with that idea of sin. ‘Sin’ can just seem like no more than a religious gloss conveniently overlaid on a bunch of other-people’s-conservative-social-norms as an unwelcome means of social control.

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Inside Illness

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Sermon #26 (4th March 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

This month at Essex Church we’re taking on the theme of ‘Health and Healing’. And, ever the ray of sunshine, I thought I’d get us started with a service on what it’s like to be ill. In our society, talk of illness is often about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment – the medical side of things – which is of course an extremely important aspect of trying to keep us well. But I’ve called today’s service ‘Inside Illness’ because I want us to focus on the inner experience. I reckon that giving a bit of attention to that inner dimension of illness – what it’s like to be ill – might help us reflect on how best to respond to some of challenges that ill-health brings, both when we ourselves are unwell, and when people we know and love are suffering in this way.

I feel pretty confident in my starting assumption that everybody here at church this morning has got some first-hand experience of illness. If you have made it to adult life without ever being ill in any way… then perhaps you should be up here, instead of me, telling the rest of us your secrets!

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The Mystical Art of Unsaying

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Sermon #25 (5th November 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

It’s up to me, once again, to kick off our new theme for the month here at Essex Church. Throughout November we’re going to be looking into ‘The Unknown’, and today, in particular, we’re focusing on the concept of God – the idea that God is, in some sense, unknown – and ultimately unknowable – that God is so unlike anything else we humans have experienced or gained knowledge of, so utterly beyond the limits of what we can understand, that we can never really hope to grasp whatever it is we mean by ‘God’. On this view, it could be said that when we speak of God, as we do most weeks at church, we literally do not know what we are talking about! None of us. Certainly not me, anyway.

Not an especially reassuring thought to be bringing to you from the pulpit, but there it is. As the Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Walsh put it (in the reading that Antony gave for us earlier), ‘God is a mystery – [a creating, transforming, sustaining mystery] – and is always and forever beyond every mortal attempt to figure God out and settle God once and for all.’

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A Sense of Vocation

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Sermon #24 (3rd September 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Each new month brings a new theme to explore in our services here at Essex Church and the topic we’re going to be looking at in September is ‘Mission and Purpose’. Over the next few weeks Sarah will be helping us to consider our collective purpose, looking at some inspiring stories of Unitarian missionaries who came before us, asking what we can learn from them, and what we are called to do together as a community. We’ll be looking at what our mission might be and how best we can address the pressing issues of our time.

Today I’m going to get us started by considering our mission and purpose as individuals. Our ‘calling’, or ‘vocation’, if you like. Some of us might be at ease with these concepts, and applying them to ourselves, while others might find them a bit BIG and intimidating. Be not afraid! The message of today’s service, in a nutshell, is that we all have a calling, one way or another, a unique opportunity to use our gifts for good in the world. I’m not talking about vocation in the sense of being called to the priesthood or ‘Holy Orders’ – at least, not uniquely, though maybe there is someone in the room (or listening to the podcast at home) for whom that is their ultimate vocation – but perhaps there’s a way of seeing things in which you could say we are all ultimately ordained to a life which is unique, unrepeatable, and shot through with the holy (or at least with endless opportunities to sense a sacred dimension, if only we are willing and able to make ourselves vulnerable, and open ourselves up to it). Our calling, whatever it is, might not be especially prestigious or dramatic. We might not have been summoned by a voice from the clouds, a sudden thunderbolt, or a burning bush to get our attention. But nonetheless, every single one of us has a sacred purpose in life, I reckon. And there’s something to be said for taking the time to reflect on what that might be, and for making that a conscious focus, one which shapes the course of our everyday lives.

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Be Led by Love (2011)

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In 2011 I co-edited ‘Kindred Pilgrim Souls’, a collection of short reflections written by members of my congregation, and the following is my own contribution to that book, on a belief which has shaped my life (and which continues to do so).

I believe in letting myself be led by love.

Connection with other souls is the most precious thing in life – lovers, friends, companions, teachers, mentors – those people I have been intimately entangled with, those whose lives I have only briefly touched, and still others (artists, writers, broadcasters) who I have only ‘met’ through their work.

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This I Believe (2011)

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In 2011 I co-edited ‘Kindred Pilgrim Souls’, a collection of short reflections written by members of my congregation, and the following is my own statement of belief at that time. Most of it still stands, more-or-less.

I believe… we are all one. All beings are interconnected and interdependent and so the least of our actions may have infinitely far-reaching consequences. We must always consider the effect of our deeds on others and aim to cause less harm and do more good.

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On Being Wrong

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Sermon #23 (6th August 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Digging Holes, Falling in, and Getting Out Again

Today is the first Sunday in our month on ‘Triumph and Disaster’. The particular sort of disaster that I want us to think about today is the sort which can happen when we make mistakes. Of course a mistake need not be a disaster – most mistakes are easily fixed (if we notice we’ve made them) and soon forgotten – but I’m particularly thinking about the times when a little mistake turns into a big one: when we make things worse by digging in our heels, refusing to admit we are wrong, compounding the error, missing the chance to change our mind, or change our ways, and digging ourselves a ruddy great hole in the process.

We all make mistakes. Hopefully we can agree on that much, to start with! Mistakes can be big or small, inconsequential or catastrophic, and it’s not always obvious which is which. Sometimes we can find an apparently small mistake has turned into a giant snowball rolling downhill, getting away from us somehow, and wreaking havoc to all in its path.

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Liberating Labels

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Sermon #22 (2nd July 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Here at Essex Church, since the start of the year, we’ve chosen a different theme to focus on each month. For July, the theme is ‘Identity’, and I put my hand up to lead this service, initially thinking about sexual identity and gender identity in particular. This is partly a nod to next week’s Pride march taking place here in London next Saturday – where a bunch of Unitarians will be joining the march to proclaim our inclusive welcome – and partly looking back to the ‘Working on our Welcome’ training day a few weeks back, which focused on ways in which we Unitarians could be ever more hospitable to people who identify as LGBTQIA (and beyond) – that is, to spell it out – people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and so on. The list of letters has steadily grown in length over the years as the rainbow umbrella has kept expanding to include identities that aren’t so prominent, or even visible, indeed some of these identities might be ones you aren’t all that familiar with even now, and I know some people aren’t at all sure about the need for all these extra labels and letters. In today’s service I want to put the case that this proliferation of labels is a really GOOD thing – though if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology I can see it might seem a bit confusing [and – as an aside, though this is a genuine offer – if there’s anybody who didn’t make it to the workshop the other week and who would like a set of all our handouts getting you up to speed on current terminology on LGBTQ identities and ways to be a better ally let me know and I will make sure I get a full set of handouts to you.]

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A Transformative Faith

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Sermon #21 (2nd April 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

This morning’s service is entitled ‘A Transformative Faith’. For the next ten minutes or so we’re going to ponder the question: “What does it mean – what could it mean – for religion to be ‘transformative’?” More specifically: “what might transformative religion look like for Unitarians? People like us?” What might it mean for you? For everyone here today (or listening at home later)?

According to the Centre for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame University: ‘A transformative experience is an enduring reorganization of a person’s thinking—for instance, their beliefs, attitudes, traits or emotions—that substantially alters life as they experience it or live it.’

I wonder if anybody here today (or anybody listening at home at a later date) thinks about their religious faith, their Unitarianism, in those sort of terms. We Unitarians are not generally known for dramatic conversion experiences… I don’t know how many of you would say you have had your ways of thinking permanently reorganised or your life substantially changed by Unitarianism (though – honestly – I would say that both of those things did happen for me – my life is very different to what it would have been had I not found my way to this church)… but perhaps some of you will have experienced more subtle changes over a time, a more gradual giving of your heart to this place and these people, to this tradition, and our wider Unitarian family. So let’s start by thinking about some of these more modest forms of religious ‘transformation’ that you might have experienced.

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What Does it Mean?

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Sermon #20 (8th January 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

When people ask me what exactly it is we do here on Sunday mornings – and they do ask me, occasionally, though not as often as I’d like – one of my better responses is to say that we ‘come together to share the search for wisdom, truth, and meaning, gleaning it from wherever it can be found’. I remember a long-standing and faithful member of this congregation, my great friend Patricia Walker-Hesson, who died a little over seven years ago, telling me that on her first visit to this church, just after this building was opened in 1977, she was impressed that the readings in that very first Sunday service she attended were taken from the Qur’an and from the Evening Standard. For her, that marked the Unitarian church out as something a little bit unusual – a church open to gleaning wisdom, truth, and meaning from wherever it could be found.

In most religious traditions one of the primary sources of wisdom, truth, and meaning is scripture. Each faith has its own sacred texts and its own story about their origins. However, I think it’s fair to say that contemporary Unitarianism has a slightly uneasy relationship with sacred texts, at best. There are regional variations, both within this country, and worldwide, but I think I’m right in saying that Bible readings are unlikely to be a feature of worship in all that many of the Unitarian services up and down the country this morning (a few though). Or indeed in the UU services over in the States in a few hours’ time when they’ve woken up.

In our first reading today we heard John Buehrens, one-time president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, make a plea for the liberal religious (that’s us!) to re-engage with the sacred text of our heritage and discover its peculiar treasures instead of tossing the Bible aside and allowing others to have a monopoly on its interpretation. And I would agree that if we choose to ignore this part of our heritage – all the collected wisdom of the scriptures and the tradition that’s grown up around them down the ages – we’re really missing out on some good stuff. So if we’re going to do as John Buehrens suggests – to engage more deeply with scripture and do so with our intellectual integrity intact – I suggest we would be wise to dip our toes today into the world of hermeneutics – that is, the theory of interpretation, the theory of understanding what things mean, if you like. [I need to tell you at this point that I spent a large part of last summer writing an essay about hermeneutics and it was the most painfully mind-bending essay I have ever written… but the good news is that I went through that traumatic experience so you don’t have to! and in a few minutes I will give you my best attempt at explaining hermeneutics-in-a-nutshell.]

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