Pulpit Exchange: Rev. Dr. Ed Piper


Reflections by Rev. Dr. Ed Piper
Temple House of Israel (Staunton, VA)
May 18, 2013

I am grateful to Rabbi Blair for suggesting this pulpit exchange and to the members of your congregation for your kind hospitality. I especially like the idea of inviting members of each of our congregations to attend one another’s services this weekend. Our service is held on Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m., and I look forward to seeing some of your members there, just as I see that some of the members of our Fellowship are here this morning. Let me invite them to raise their hands [pause] . . . Think of them as the “Unitarian Truth Squad”—making sure that I don’t misrepresent our faith tradition to others in our community. Rabbi Joe and I have agreed that we will open the floor to discussion after our presentations, beginning with each other as “first responders.”

Each time I have attended an event in this historic building, I have been struck by its elegance and dignity — unlike our Fellowship Hall with its coffee-stained carpet and uneven rows of chairs, including what we call a “wiggle zone” where families with active young children can sit without being concerned about disturbing others around them. The quiet beauty of this setting, combined with the rich language and rituals in your worship service, somehow make me feel a bit over my head whenever I come here to speak as a Unitarian Universalist minister.

I am reminded of the story of the man who since childhood had dreamed of someday owning a fancy sports car. Many years later, he had finally saved up enough money to buy his dream car: a Lamborghini, one of the fastest and most expensive cars in the world. For him, this was such a significant milestone that he thought it deserved some sort of divine recognition, and so he decided to ask for a prayer of blessing from one of the local clergy.

1st stop: Catholic church. Priest: “Perhaps in exchange for a small donation to our church, but first let me ask you: What is a Lamborghini?” Disappointed in this response, he drove on down the street.

Next stop: local synagogue. Rabbi, who replied that, if the man would make a contribution to a local charity, the rabbi would be willing to offer a prayer of blessing for the car, “But first let me ask you: What is a Lamborghini?” “Ah, never mind!” and on he went.

Desperate, the man finally turned up on the doorstep of the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, where he repeated his request for a prayer of blessing. “Wow, a Lamborghini!” exclaimed the UU minister. “Will you let me drive it around the block? But first let me ask you: What is a prayer?”

This story seems appropriate, because we Unitarians have sometimes been accused of being so open-minded about religion that we begin our prayers with the words, “To Whom It May Concern.” Indeed, at times it seems like UUs are so committed to tolerance and diversity that we don’t really have a core identity of who we are and what we believe. Unlike Judaism, we don’t have a sacred text such as yours to which we can turn for inspiration and guidance. Because we profess to being open to spiritual wisdom from many sources, we risk losing our sense of direction. We have much to learn from a mature faith tradition such as yours, which is a couple of thousand years older than Unitarian Universalism.

Our historical origins can be traced as far back as controversies within the early Christian church about the doctrine of the Trinity and the concept of Original Sin. On both of these issues, our side lost, and our Unitarian and Universalist forebears were declared heretics by the Catholic church and persecuted accordingly. The long and bloody history of religious persecution in Europe inspired our nation’s founders, including Unitarians such as Thomas Jefferson, to hard-wire religious freedom and tolerance into our Constitution and our culture. E Pluribus Unum—“From Many, One.” This motto on the Great Seal of the United States expresses the greatest promise our nation offers to all who come to us. Throughout our history, our national motto has also posed the greatest challenge to those who are already here. The dynamic tension between the one and the many permeates our nation’s history, and it fuels the current debate about our nation’s future. How can we forge a One out of the Many? This continues to be the great American dilemma we must face together.

Let me offer one dramatic example: the growth of Islam in America.
In 1934 there was only one mosque in the entire nation and about 20,000 scattered followers. Today there are more than six million Muslims and hundreds of mosques. As a denomination, Islam is larger than several “mainstream” Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), and the United Church of Christ. [James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars, p. 73] That, my friends, is the new multireligious America. The new multireligious America poses a direct threat to those who cling to the image of a “Christian America.” As historian of religion Diana Eck observes, “The new American dilemma is real religious pluralism, and it poses challenges to America’s Christian churches that are as difficult and divisive as those of race. . . . The ideal of a Christian America stands in contradiction to the spirit, if not the letter, of America’s foundational principle of religious freedom. . . . Our new religious diversity is not just an idea but a reality, built into our neighborhoods all over America. Religious pluralism is squarely and forever on the American agenda.” [Diana Eck, A New Religious America, pp. 46-47]

There is another dimension to religious pluralism: the rise of the religious “nones.”
A recent large-scale survey of the American religious landscape revealed that one-sixth of all adults claim no religious affiliation. They are the fastest-growing “religious” population in our country. Among young American adults ages 18-29, one in four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religious group. [www.religions.pewforum.org/reports] If this trend continues, we will repeat the pattern in Europe, where active participation in institutional religion has dwindled to a fraction. Even though the very vocal critics of religious faith have proclaimed that these statistics foretell the death of traditional religion in America, only four percent of those surveyed identified themselves as atheistic or agnostic. Nearly half of the remaining religiously unaffiliated say that religion is nevertheless important to them. They are searching for something that organized religion is not offering.

How should we respond to the challenges of religious pluralism and lack of religious commitment? I am convinced that we can benefit from one another’s experience. Both Judaism and Unitarian Universalism are grounded in our shared commitment to ethical living.

Deeds are more important than creeds. Jews and UUs have often stood together shoulder-to-shoulder to support social justice and social change in civil rights, opposition to war, gender and marriage equality, and immigration reform. We are kindred spirits.

But we must also acknowledge that we are a tiny minority. In the survey I mentioned earlier, only 1.7 percent of Americans are affiliated with a Jewish congregation and only 0.7 percent with UU or other liberal congregations. Here in our local community, we are an even tinier minority. In a county with a population of 70,000, there are 150 adult members of the UU Fellowship and [how many?] members of this congregation. Historically, our two faith traditions have exerted influence far beyond our small numbers. How might we continue that proud tradition here in our community? How might we tap into the deep resources that each of our faith traditions has to offer as we move forward into the 21st century?

What can we Unitarians learn from you? First, we need to learn how to celebrate our heritage. Even though we are a relatively young”religion, we do have a history worth learning and affirming. Our sacred literature is found mainly in the writings of the Transcendentalists of the 19th century, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, but also in the passionate commitments to social justice of Theodore Parker and Susan B. Anthony. We need to rediscover our roots in the writings of the Hebrew prophets, who challenged the comfortable religion of their times. We UUs also need to temper our idealism and optimism with the realism and pessimism of our Jewish counterparts, arising from centuries of persecution and the indelible memory of the Holocaust. From all of these sources, we UUs need to rediscover the meaning of perseverance in the face of adversity.

What might we UUs pass along to our Jewish sisters and brothers? I would say first and foremost the value of interfaith understanding. This involves learning about not only the basic beliefs of other faith traditions, but also the values we share in common—values that are expressed in all of the major faith traditions: compassion, mercy, hospitality, service. [Eboo Patel, Sacred Ground, pp. 95-96] While differences in belief often divide us, commitment to shared values and common causes can unite us. We can discover these common values in dialogue on a personal level, as described in the best-selling book The Faith Club, based on a mutually respectful interfaith conversation involving a Jewish, Muslim, and Christian woman following the 9/11 attacks. Living as we do in a community that is so overwhelmingly Christian, opportunities like that are very rare. However, the opportunities for interfaith community service are unlimited. Over the years, our Fellowship has collaborated with other churches in local community service programs, even though we are aware that some of the people we are working with may sincerely believe that we may eventually be going to hell. Our united commitment to service is far more important than our divided beliefs. This is the path that will lead us forward in the 21st century. Let me close with the words of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker:
Be ours be a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere;
Its temple, all space;
Its shrine, the good heart;
Its creed, all truth;
Its ritual, works of love;
Its profession of faith, divine living.

DISCUSSION (beginning with Rabbi Joe Blair)