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.
When I first started thinking about this service I asked a few members of the church how belonging to our congregation, or being a Unitarian more generally, had changed their life in ways large or small (if they felt it had done so at all) – maybe through new things they learned, or insights they had gained, perhaps through people they had met, or personal support they had received, or even ways in which they had been challenged to change the way they think, or behave, or even their whole way of life…essentially any way in which they had been (even slightly) transformed by their participation in this modest, quirky, religious community that some of us call home.
Almost everybody I spoke to mentioned the way in which they had found meaningful connections here, with caring, supportive, encouraging people, and that those relationships had made a difference to them through good times and bad. That is not an insignificant change in one’s life. It can be hugely meaningful. It can be life-saving. And that’s not an exaggeration. Someone noted that, as an older person, and a single person, the sense of belonging they found in this community was especially significant for them. Knowing that, whatever else is going on in your life, you can come here on Sunday, every single week, like people have been doing in this very building for nearly 40 years, and on this site for nearly 150 years, and you can rely on seeing those familiar, friendly faces of people who (more-or-less) share your values. That actually matters a great deal to people. Your presence here matters. To them. To me. You might not credit it, but people are looking forward to seeing you, and being seen by you. If you’re a regular, and you’ve not been spotted round here for a few weeks, then someone is likely to wonder how you are and will probably try to get in touch. For some of you that might not sound like a big deal, or it might not even sound desirable! But for those of us who are feeling a bit lonely, or disconnected, or even alienated, that knowledge that there’s somewhere that you belong can be life-changing in itself.
Another theme that came up a lot when I asked people about the ways in which this church had helped to bring about transformation for them can be summed up by this comment I received: ‘church helps me to be my best self’. Perhaps this is because it gives you a regular time and space to reflect on your life, and to be around other thoughtful people who are also committed to thinking about deep matters, wrestling with questions of meaning and purpose, and wondering about how best to live. It’s the sort of activity that it’s easy to put off doing in our busy lives but making a regular habit of coming here once a week helps you keep a focus on the deeper dimensions of life. This community will support you in your own personal exploration and self-development. People around you aren’t generally going to try and mould you into something particular but will do whatever they can to help and cheer you on while you’re working it out yourself. You can try new things in a setting where people are generally rooting for you to do well. Someone else I spoke to said that their experience of transformation in this church was that they’d ‘changed towards someone that [they’d] like to be…’ and ‘everyone [they’d] engaged with had been supportive and accepting…’ They observed that ‘you are enabled by others to transform by yourself for yourself’.
Perhaps this is a good moment to make it quite clear, in passing, that all this talk about church being a place of transformation doesn’t imply that I, or anybody else, thinks that there’s anything wrong with you, or anything that needs fixing! We’re all amazing just as we are and by virtue of the fact that we’re still alive, we’re each on a journey of continual change that isn’t over yet. Indeed the Unitarian Universalist minister Douglas Taylor points out that ‘a pre-condition to true transformation… is to accept ourselves in the moment’. And he quotes the words of the psychologist Carl Rogers, which may be familiar to some of you, ‘It wasn’t until I accepted myself just as I was in this moment, that I was free to change.’
So… let’s return for a moment to the question we started out with: “What might transformative religion look like for Unitarians?” In the words that are on the front of your order of service, Unitarian Universalist minister Kent Doss has got this to say on the subject:
‘I’m really curious about what it would look like for us as Unitarians to open ourselves to having a transformational experience in our religious life. I don’t mean feeling like you got a new idea, or feeling motivated to do a little better this week. I mean what would it take for us to come to church open to the possibility of leaving a different person, transformed by the sacred, filled with a new spirit of love, justice and compassion, so much so that you couldn’t help but make changes in the rest of your life?’
I think he’s talking about something more dramatic here, more like a Unitarian conversion. Not just small-scale changes but a whole reorientation and re-dedication of your life. A real sense of wholeheartedly committing to that ‘spirit of love, justice and compassion’, taking your values seriously, sorting out your priorities, and actively rearranging your life so that you can give more of your time and energy to the things that ultimately matter most of all.
Religious transformation of this kind is not an end in itself. Not just a passing mystical thrill. We are transformed so that we can go out and transform the broken world. We are transformed so that we can speak the truth and challenge injustice. We are transformed, if you like, so that we can help to build the Kingdom of God. It’s about claiming this sense of purpose and aligning our actions with the greater good. Feel free to choose the form of words which express it most powerfully for you.
Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Scott Alexander says this (it’s a long quote, but worth it, I think):
‘True religion — transforming, saving, compassionate religion — is about rolling up your sleeves and genuinely living a theology of dirty hands. It’s about standing up for principles, living your values, and serving others. It is not convenient to live by one’s most dearly held principles; there are many costs and sacrifices that are required. True religion limits, tests and challenges the individual. It is often anything but fun. For in this broken world of ours, it is hard to serve justice, difficult to work for peace and equality, demanding to live compassionately.
Taking your Unitarianism seriously means that your beliefs, principles and values should be visibly present in your life. People around you should be able to see your religion in all the big and little ways—in what you say and do in relationships, in how you make decisions and solve problems, in the institutions and causes to which you give time and money, in how you care for and serve other living things, most especially other people.
Being a Unitarian means daily lending yourself and your soul to the building of a gentler, more humane world—most often not in grand and glorious heroic feats like those accomplished by great human saints, but in little, everyday ways that have the power to transform our world, one caring, responsible deed at a time.’
…words of encouragement and challenge from the UU minister Rev. Scott Alexander.
We have so much potential within us, as individuals and as a community, to help make the world better in innumerable different and beautiful ways. And in this congregation we can support each other to realise that potential, using our gifts to the full, and spotting and developing those that are as yet undiscovered. To coax and cajole and occasionally prod one another into new phases of growth. It is perhaps too easy to forget how unusual this is, this opportunity we have here. You’re onto a really good thing! Well done for finding us (and for staying put)! This gathered community of people, of varying ages, and life experiences, brought together by… well, it’s not always clear! Shared values, I hope. Now be sure you’re making the most of this remarkable opportunity – for your own sake, for the sake of all of us, for the sake of something bigger. Make a ‘leap of faith’, some sort of inner commitment to deepen your religious life, to take your Unitarianism a bit more seriously, to let it truly transform you.
I’d like to close with some words from the UU minister Rev. Dr. Joshua Snyder:
‘Even doing a small thing can transform us if it resonates with our soul. For it is in that moment when we understand that religion is more than a set of philosophical ideals that one gives their intellectual assent to. Rather religion is the truth that you live your life by. It goes beyond knowing, to actually doing (or not doing) something, because you are called by God or by your innermost conscious to do it. That takes real courage. For it is when we follow that deep stir of the soul, and we have the courage to let it burst forth into the world in some concrete way that our faith becomes transformative.’
May it be so for all of us. Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: