16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 06/20/2010
Why is it so difficult to define our religion?
Unitarian Universalist churches are distinctive. Our denominational culture is particularly so. Although each of our congregations is different from the others, there is something that defines our churches across the board that makes them similar to each other in a way that UUs can always identify. Culturally, we have a particular way of thinking, of acting, of doing church, that ties us together in ways we might not be aware – that is, until we see it.
I’ll be heading off to General Assembly, our denominational annual meeting, in a couple of days, where thousands of UUs gather to learn and to do the business of the association. And believe me, even in a strange city, you can pick the UUs out of the crowd from the get-go. You can pick them out of the airport at the host city before they ever board the shuttle. Heck, you can pick them out of the crowd of people on the plane going to GA. Culturally, UUs are easy to spot and, perhaps, easy to define -- when you’re talking about our denominational culture, that is.
There are ways to define us that are true and other ways that are stereotypes. There are ways that make us proud, and other ways that make us wince. There are so very many Unitarian Universalist jokes, I can’t even tell you. I visited a website for this sermon that claims to have 1.2 million UU jokes on it – I am not kidding you – and you can just click and click and read one after another. And some of those jokes are informative, and some are revealing, and some make you smile, and others just make you cringe.
But what would be a first summer service, without some UU joke telling? So here you go:
You may be a Unitarian Universalist if:
Funny, right? Here’s another couple of funny ones:
How many UUs does it take to screw in a light bulb?
How many UU's does it take to screw in a light bulb?
You might be a UU if… You know at least two people who are upset that trees had to die for your church to be built.
But no set of UU jokes would be complete without the jokes that are a little too true, if you know what I mean – jokes that call out things about ourselves that maybe we wish we could move beyond as a religion, or that are really about misunderstandings of what we are about. Oftentimes, you’ll notice, these ‘too true they hurt” jokes tend to talk less about our UU culture and more about our UU theology – or supposed lack thereof. These jokes fall into that category, for me:
Unitarian Universalism - Where all your answers are questioned.
How do you know when a Unitarian Universalist doesn’t want you in his neighborhood? He’ll burn a question mark on your lawn.
A favorite old UU hymn:
See, having a theology that embraces different viewpoints is confusing to people. They confuse our openness with nothingness, and think that our commitment to the individual search for truth and meaning actually means that anything goes here, that all beliefs are just fine with us. I think most UUs know in their hearts that we aren’t the religion where “everything goes,” but they can’t put into words exactly what it is that we are about, what we ARE for. Somehow, the idea that we are FOR treating every human being well, regardless of their religious beliefs, somehow that idea gets lost when we are confronted with the possibility that we don’t really believe in anything, that what we really are is a group of like minded political liberals who like to get together to argue, rail against Republicans and listen to National Public Radio. There is a fear that this joke is true: How do Unitarian Universalists define diversity? Three colors of Subaru in the church parking lot.
Yet those of us who are committed to Unitarian Universalism know there’s so much more to us than that, even when we can’t quite put our finger on the essence of what we are about. And so it was that eight years ago, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Bill Sinkford, issued a challenge to every UU in a speech in Dallas and then later in an article in the UU World magazine .
Sinkford wrote this, “I always encourage people to work on their elevator speech, what you'd say when you're going from the sixth floor to the lobby and somebody asks you, "What's a Unitarian Universalist?" You've got forty-five seconds.”
Interesting idea, is it not? If you’ve ever tried to explain your religion to someone who was new to the faith, you probably experienced how very difficult it can be to sum us up in just a few sentences. Where to start? What to include? It’s really hard. And I think that’s why these one liner jokes that sting a little bit seem to have more of a voice in the public square than we do, at times. I completely agree with Bill Sinkford that it is worth our time to come up with an elevator speech of our own, something compelling and interesting that we can pull out of our pockets at a moment’s notice to use to talk to a new person who seems interested in our faith. Sharing the tradition that we love so much is a great way to grow our religion in numbers and in spirit.
It’s important, though, to remember the purpose of the elevator speech, and that is to quickly inform the stranger in a way that is accessible and compelling. I’ve read many elevator speeches about Unitarian Universalism in my day and I have rarely thought that any of them hit the nail on the head. Most of them seem like they would be better off chiseled in stone at the opening of some UU monument than used to inform and impress someone new to the religion. Many of them start, not on a metaphorical chapter one where we need to meet our new friend, but on chapter four or ten or twenty five. Even Bill Sinkford’s speech, in my opinion, misses the mark somewhat. He includes his elevator speech (of that time in 2003) in his article. He writes:
"The Unitarian side tells us that there is only one God, one spirit of life, one power of love. The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being."
This is all technically true, perhaps, if you don’t mind the God language, but it strikes me as a little abstract for the new person and for the elevator setting.
Here’s another, given by our new denominational president, Peter Morales, last year when he was running for office:
“I believe that religion is much less about what we think than about what we love. And we are a group of people who loves life, who believes in compassion for one another, who believes in human dignity, who believes in peace and compassion, and if you believe in that, we have the same religion.”
Now, that is rather inclusive and supportive, but it doesn’t exactly underline what’s distinctive about our religion. This might make a good bridge between people who are different, but doesn’t underline who we really are very well.
As I said, this is hard and important work. In a few minutes, you’ll have the chance to work on an elevator speech of your own. Don’t be concerned if its way harder than you thought it might be. Coming up with your final elevator speech may have to wait until you have spent some time thinking and pondering and wondering and maybe even praying. Because think of all the things you need to know before you have your speech created.
You have to know what UUs believe in – not always a small task, although I recommend going to the Principles and Sources, always to be found in your order of service, if you’re really lost.
You have to know what’s most important to you among all the things we believe in.
And you have to talk about those things in a way that might interest and inform a brand new person to our faith.
All difficult tasks, which is why we’re going to start today.
But before we do, I have one more joke for you to send you on your way. See, it seems that at a great international interfaith gathering at a major convention hotel, five delegates found themselves waiting and waiting for the elevator following one of the sessions. To break the monotony and silence, one of the delegates suggested they play a little game: "Let's see if we can explain our faith in the time it takes the elevator to go from here to the first floor!" Although they would have to travel up and down several times, the delegates agreed.
On the trip down from the tenth to the first floor, the Roman Catholic delegate volunteered to go first. He recited the Apostles' Creed -- I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, etc. – and finished just as the doors opened on the lobby.
Now it fell to the Zen Buddhist delegate to push the button for the tenth floor. All waited eagerly for him to begin, but there was only silence as the car traveled the ten floors. When the doors opened, they asked the Zen Buddhist: "Why did you not say anything to us about your belief?" He replied: "In saying nothing, I said all that there is to say."
The interfaith conference delegates then looked to the Unitarian delegate, the last to take a turn. The elevator doors closed, and she reached out to push the button. All were surprised when she pushed "2."
Why did you not push the button for the lobby?" they asked.
"Because," the Unitarian delegate replied, "there's a great little coffee shop on the second floor where we can kick back and really discuss this!"
If there are people here who are new to Unitarian Universalism, I invite you to sit tight and maybe take a look at our Principles and Purposes. How are they different from what you have experienced in other religions? How are they the same?
At the end of the writing process, we’ll have a chance to share some of our ideas with each other – because what’s a summer UU service without sharing? I invite you to begin.
[Unitarian Universalism was originally a Christian religion that took Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor” so seriously that it began to define everyone as its neighbor – so now we are an open religion that respects the value and beliefs of every person, as long as they are willing to do the same for us.]