What Does it Mean?


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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