Sunday Sermon – Reclaiming the Language of Faith – December 3, 2017

 Sermon (12/3/17) Reclaiming the Language of Faith

Rev. Paul D. Daniel, Minister

The use of religious language is primarily a philosophical problem

arising from the difficulties in accurately describing God.

Because God is generally conceived as incorporeal, infinite, and timeless,

ordinary language cannot always accurately capture those qualities….

This makes speaking about or attributing properties to God difficult:

a religious believer might simultaneously wish to describe God as good, yet

also hold that God’s goodness is unique and cannot be articulated by

relatively limited human language of goodness….

This raises the problem of how (and whether) God can be meaningfully spoken about at all,

which in turn causes problems for

religious belief since the ability to describe and talk about God is

important in religious life, even for non-believers.

Traditional theological language such as

God and Grace,

salvation and resurrection

soul and sacrament, etc. are

central in all sacred texts.

These words are powerful because of the vivid, stark and lush images they create in our mind; and for

the visceral effects they can have on us.

Like it or not, such words are embedded at the core of our civilization, pulsating at the very heart of our being.

Even today these old stories, metaphors and proverbs can

resonate for good or ill in our spiritual journey to faith….

In the beginning of everything, God created the heavens and earth and

spoke “Let there be light”, and it was brought into existence.

Through God’s action people and worlds are seemingly created or destroyed by an unfathomable entity with unimaginable power.

For many of us when we were children, the magic in these stories seemed so real.

As adults, these tales still resonate for some, but for many others they are

no more profound or different than fairy tales, like Cinderella or Pinocchio.

Some of us, especially gays, lesbians and many women still

struggle to cope with religious language that has been and still is

used to shame, judge, control, and oppress all marginalized groups….

My sermon today addresses this issue and calls us to reconsider and

deconstruct theological language as the way to reclaim our Judeo-Christian and other’s heritages of faith.

With translation and adaptation of such language to modern understandings, we can

return these words to their original majesty but without the judgment we felt….

I invite you to be aware of your reaction to theological language.

Do you shut down and tune out when hearing traditional religious language because?

in the past you were intimidated or marginalized by the demeaning usage of religious language?

Traumatized or not are you willing to keep an open mind,

stay in the conversation, and remain tolerant of theological prospective different from your own?

Can you hear the meaning beyond these emotionally charged words?

Former UUA president John Buerhens wrote,

“we religious liberals haven’t merely shot ourselves in the foot by

abandoning all the most powerful language and imagery of our culture.

We have shot ourselves in the mouth, where it is fatal.

We have turned this language over to the religious conservatives and they have run with it.

Our effort to communicate with the larger culture is a failure because

people do not find our language authentic to their life experiences and religious upbringing…..

We can however reclaim the common religious vocabulary–but,

with our own liberal religious meanings.

This is not a call for UUs to mimic mainline churches or to abandon other forms of religious dialogue, but rather

an appeal to stay in the conversation, and in so doing

move beyond our pain and misapprehension….

The effect of religious language can be experienced as a balm in Gilead or a deep wounding.

I belief that it is in our power to redefine and reimagine what religious words mean.

We can choose to use such words with a conviction biased towards

liberation and justice and not patriarchal oppression….

To say no to what denies or destroys is also to say yes to what affirms, lifts-up, and creates.

Such traditional language is rich in meaning and possesses a primitive, mystical incantational power that is difficult to deny.

That’s why many of us in our secreted heart love ritual and ceremonies….

William Ellery Channing tells us to

“prove all things, hold fast to that which is good; …

do not shrink from the duty of searching God’s word for yourself,

through fear of human censure and denunciation”.

These traditional words are an appropriate part of our UU vocabulary, as are the words from

our humanist, atheists, pagan earth centered traditions, Hindu and Buddhist teachings.

The trick is to balance their use, so that all of us within a congregation can feel included and uplifted….

All our words need to embody the spirit of love without

hurting our heart and spirit though misuse.

My objective is to make religious terminology accessible and

empowering to believers and non-believers alike….

Our challenge is to remain open to

our own theological evolution and its roadblocks; mindful

that revelation, new understanding is never closed.

Our revealed truth is still over the horizon, and our final understanding is yet to be written in stone.

What we know is the that use of religious words are a form of action,

capable of creating a reaction for good or ill, so

we are well advised use them with courage, sensitivity and caution….

If we are to move into a place of healing over these “forbidding words of faith” we need to re-think their meaning and usage.

For too long some of us have been held captive and terrorized by these words.

As I see it, we need to adapt traditional language to revive our liberal religion by

allowing us to address a wider audience by meeting people where they are religiously.

The unique inclusionary message of hope we Unitarian Universalist can bring to the world

must not be lost because we refuse to speak the language of most other faith traditions.

We can reclaim these words by redefining them for our time.

Perhaps, like some of you I too had to confront both Jewish and Christian images and

theological language I found distasteful.

As a young Jew, I heard stories about Christian prejudice and hatred towards Jews. I was called a Christ killer and told I would go to hell.

My own Old Testament upbringing was also frightening.

There was this angry, vengeful old guy killing and punishing Jews for

the least infringement of the “rules”. And let’s not talk about the flood!…

When I first became a UU 50 years ago, I was not sure our

historically Christian association could be a safe place for a Jew to worship.

I quickly found it was not a place to fear, but a haven.

I hope you also have found safety here.

Sadly, to many clergy and religious educators have been the source of dis-ease and condemnation because

they used theological language like a saber to cut deep into our psyches.

Even today, in an unguarded moment, we can be

humiliated and diminished by the misapplication of these ‘words of terror.’…

I am reminded of a true poignant story about a little boy named Richard, my life partner.

Like many he was coerced into going to church to build his “Christian character”.

He hated church because his priest, the nuns and Sunday school teachers told him that

he was a sinner, and that Christ had died for his sins.

That was a frightening, terrifying concept for a child of six or seven.

When he asked questions about how he had sinned; he was told that it was not his place to question the word of God but to repent.

With a growing skepticism Richard questioning increasingly put him at odds with the Catholic church.

In the process, they betrayed his trust and in so doing,

fused his embryonic faith to an experience of shame….

But, we have the power take back the meaning of religious words.

The philosopher Paul Tillich did that by calling God

the ground of all being, the God beyond God, the source of all courage.

UU can also use the word God in non-traditionally ways such as

the creative power of evolution in the universe, or

the ongoing power of love or simply ultimate mystery.

Such a God is neither male or female but

an all-inclusive representation of our highest values of truth, justice, love, and goodness,

We can never fully understand the nature of God, but

as Albert Einstein put it

“to know that what is impenetrable to us really exists…

this knowledge, this feeling, is the center of religion….

The blessing of our UU faith is that it arises out of our own understanding and experience,

which can open us to new love and meaning.

Our faith ultimately frees us from religious language that wounds.

When the language of faith stems from a holy place within,

we can finally recover its true intent and beauty and return

these once forbidden words to their rightful place in our liberal religious lexicon.

May it come to pass!

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