Saturday, September 28, 2013

There's No Place Like Home

I came to Unitarian Universalism ten years ago.  I was raised Southern Baptist, but I left as a young adult.  But I missed church.  When I found the progressive, liberal Unitarian Universalist church, I felt like I was coming home.

And yet I struggled to articulate Unitarian Universalism. I was in graduate school at the time, minoring in religious studies.  One of my professors argued with me about whether or not Unitarian Universalism is a religion at all since it is non-creedal.  But I knew that there must be a way to define theology without creed.  And then I found it. 

In 2008, I went to a Religious Education retreat with Rev. Rebecca Parker, a professor of theology and president of Starr King School for the Ministry. She outlined the concept of a “theological house” to explain Unitarian Universalism.  This was the metaphor I needed. 

As I was preparing for this worship service and thinking on the concept of the theological house, another phrase kept rising to the surface of the foggy crystal ball of my thoughts: “There’s No Place Like Home.”  My family went to Boston a few weeks ago to see Wicked, my favorite musical. I have seen it on stage six times.  We know the soundtrack inside and out, and my daughter insists on performing a different song from Wicked every year at Ferry Beach.  I also love the original Wizard of Oz, both the book and the movie.  The words kept swirling in my mind.  “There’s no place like home.”  I resisted the thought.  I’m preaching to the adults today.  It’s not a multi-generational service.  Should I really talk to adults about The Wizard of Oz?  But there were the words again.  “There’s no place like home.”  And then I remembered the original movie has been around since1939.  I strongly believe that the stories of our childhood affect us in deep and meaningful ways.  How many of you saw the movie as children? See, that’s a horse of a different color. So, at the risk of mixing metaphors, I am going to click together the heels of my ruby slippers and invite you along as I take our theological “house” on a whirlwind tour through the magical land of Oz.

The Garden
We begin in Kansas.  We begin and end in the same place.

When Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens wrote the book A House For Hope in 2011, they begin their description of the theological house by talking about the garden. Before you can build a house, you must find the right location.  Location, location, location.  Where should we build our theological house? 

“The garden,” according to Parker and Beuhrens, is “eschatology.”  This is the study of the end result and final purpose of a religion.  In some doctrines of Christianity, the eschatology for individuals is heaven.  At the end of a long, difficult life, the reward is eternal life in a beautiful place with streets of gold.  The earth itself, this sinful, horrible place, will be destroyed through apocalypse and fire.

Thankfully, this is not the only eschatology available.  As the Universalist John Murray famously said, “Give them not hell, but hope.”  According to progressive eschatology, rather than after death or after the end of the world, we can have paradise now.

As we have different creeds and different perspectives, Unitarian Universalists have many, many different ideas about what might happen after death.  Some of us believe in some form of heaven. Some believe in reincarnation.  Some believe that life simply ends when the body and brain cease to function.  And most of us just don’t know what will happen.  But there is one thing we can all agree upon.  We are here, in this world, now.

In A House of Hope, Parker writes:
“Radically realized eschatology – begins with affirming that we are already standing on holy ground.  This earth – and none other – is a garden of beauty, a place of life.  Neglecting it for some other imagined better place will be a self-fulfilling prophecy – it will make the earth a wasteland.  There is no land promised to any of us other than the land already given, the world already here.” (12)

This reminds me of the very beginning of The Wizard of Oz, when in the bleak wasteland of Kansas, Dorothy longs for a utopian land “over the rainbow.”  She neglects the world around her.  When the tornado – the ultimate destroyer of attachments – rips her away from the place she wanted to leave, she finds herself in a new paradise full of adventure but also danger.  From this point on, all she seeks is to find her way home.  And ultimately, she finds her way from within.  She has the power all along.

Foundation: Inherent Worth & Dignity
And this brings us to the foundation of our theological house: the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  At the very core of our theology, the study of the nature of God, and our Anthropology, the study of the nature of man, Unitarian Universalism teaches that human life is sacred.

We have many ideas about God.  Some believe in specific forms of Deity.  Others believe god to be mere smoke and mirrors, and that the “man behind the curtain” is just a concept that humans have created.  Many of us land somewhere in between. In our children’s classes, we call this “the Spirit of Love and Mystery that some people call God.”

We have inherent worth.  Original blessedness rather than original sin. And so it does not matter that the man behind the curtain is “a very bad wizard,” for he is a “very good man.”  His greatest achievement is in helping Dorothy’s companions recognize what they already have within themselves. In our recognition of human sacredness, we can find a common understanding of God. 

Many use the simple definition of “God is love.”  And we know love through its manifestation in humanity. The impetus for every part of Dorothy’s journey is her love.  First, her love for her little dog Toto causes her to run away from home.  Then, her love for her Aunt Em causes her to run back home and to get caught in the tornado.  Her love for Aunt Em sends her to the Emerald City.  Her love for the Scarecrow causes her to throw water on the Wicked Witch.  Love is the foundation of her home. And so our love for each other and our respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people is the foundation of our theology.  As Parker says, “The divine-human encounter is the rock on which our theological house stands” (93). And that encounter is love.

The Walls: Our Covenant
But for a house to be a shelter, we must build walls.  In the metaphor of the theological house, the walls are our “Ecclesiology,” the study of how we “do” church. The walls of our church house are made of the covenant that binds us together. These are the promises we make to one another. 

In our connection to our much broader association of Unitarian Universalism, we affirm and promote the covenant of the seven principles and six sources.  If you don’t know about them, they are printed on the inside cover of the gray hymnal. In a non-creedal religious tradition where we all have such different opinions, how could we possibly agree on anything?  And yet, the Principles and Purposes as they were adopted unanimously in 1985 have lasted virtually unchanged for 28 years.  The principles are not about what we believe.  They are about what we do.

And taking this back to The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s walls are represented by her three companions, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.  The four are searching for different things, but they choose to search together.  Though they are quite different, they accept one another immediately and unconditionally.  The objects of Dorothy’s companions’ search are quite similar to the things that many seekers are looking for in a UU church home.  The Scarecrow longs for a brain.  So many of us gather here for intellectual stimulation.  Some UU churches have the challenge of being too intellectual, of sermons that sound more like college lectures than encouragement toward spiritual growth.  But, like the Tin Man, we are also seeking a heart.  We long for spiritual connection, for community, for love.  And, like the Lion, we wish for the strength and courage to stand up for what we believe in, to fight for social justice, and we work together to make this world a better place.  This is what we do.  We think together, love together, and courageously step into the world together.  We are the force that holds up the walls to this theological house.

The Roof: Universal Salvation
So we have our foundation.  We have our walls.  Now we need a roof to hold our house together.  In Parker’s metaphor, the roof is our soteriology, the study of the nature of salvation.  And, as such, it is our Unitarian Universalist answer to the question of evil in this world.

This is a complicated question, one which we cannot fully explore this morning.  While the doctrine of universal salvation tells us that there is room for everyone under our roof, we still have the challenge of evil.  For while everyone is born with original blessedness rather than original sin, we are also born with the free will to make choices.  And some human choices are selfish and destructive.

Parker defines evil as “that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.” (68)

The Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most-feared villains of all time.  Her actions are harmful and selfish. The Wicked Witch is countered by the character of Glinda, the good witch.  Her goodness and protection follow the characters through their journey, and ultimately she empowers Dorothy to follow her instincts home. 

But good and evil are not so simple.  In the movie The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch made choices which led to her being melted by a bucket of water.  When the character was revisioned by author Gregory Maguire, who wrote the book that eventually became the musical Wicked, he blurred the lines between good and evil in this character.  Maguire has stated that his intention was to explore the nature of evil from a different perspective.  He also created Glinda as a more complicated character, and in the musical, she makes many selfish choices and has many regrets.  The theme of the entire musical is how good and evil cannot be clearly defined.  We all have good in us.  We all have wickedness.  We all have choices to make.

Salvation is found through our choices. This is not a one-time “salvation,” a simple belief in a power from outside.  This salvation is a process, a continuous choice.  Parker explains, “Salvation is fully arriving in this life, turning our faces toward its complex realities and engaging our whole being in creative, compassionate, loving interaction with what is at hand.” (75)

We choose to stay under this roof and help hold the covenant of these walls.  And this gives us shelter.

Windows & Door: Openness
Yet we do not wish to keep others out.  This shelter is open to all who wish to be part of what it is we do here.  Our windows and doors are open.  The path to our house is clear and welcoming.  All who follow the yellow brick road to our doors can come in.

Our missiology (mission or purpose) is to make space for everyone who chooses to cross this threshold.  We make space for multiple expressions of the divine. We allow for multiple cultures and people to coexist.  We want to make room for those who have made different choices in the past.  We offer ministry and support for all.

This is still not an easy thing to do.  Can we welcome blindly those who would cause us harm?  Those who would enter only to tear down our walls?  Wouldn’t that defeat the safety and shelter of our house? 

Landscaping: Social Justice
And this is where we return to our garden.  Our eschatology, our final purpose, is to work for a fair and free world. We work with outreach ministries.  We work to make this a better world, one person at a time.  We can build Heaven on Earth right here and now.  It may not happen in our lifetimes, but our theological house gives us hope.  It gives us a foundation from which to begin.

And so we have followed the yellow brick road on our search for home, our search for the Spirit of Love and Mystery that some people call God.  We have the support of our companions as we face the challenges of making choices between good and evil.  And, ultimately, we find our way home.  There’s no place like home.