The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] Jesus, God, etc. [Chalice]

Presented May 5, 1991, by Rev. Lynn S. Smith-Roberts


She say, Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. they come to church to share God, not find God.

Alice Walker
The Color Purple


Then she say: Tell me what your Good look like, Celie . . .

Okay, I say. He big and old and tall and graybearded and white. He wear white robes and go barefooted.

Blue eyes? she ast.

Sort of bluish-gray. Cool. Big though.

White Lashes, I say.

She laugh.

Why you laugh? I ast. I don't think it so funny . . .

Then she tell me this old white man is the same God she used to see when she prayed. If you want to find God in church, Celie, she say, that's who is bound to show up, cause that's where he live."

How come? I ast.

Cause that's the one that's in the white folks' white bible.

Shug I say. God wrote the bible, white folks had nothing to do with it.

How come he look just like them, then? Only bigger? And a heap more hair. How come the bible just like everything else they make, all about them doing one thing and another, and all the colored folks is gitting cursed?

I never thought about that . . .

Ain't no way to read the bible and not think God white, she say. Then she sigh. When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lose interest. You mad cause he don't seem to listen to your prayers. Humph! Do the mayor listen to anything colored say? [ } Here's the thing say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don't know what you looking for . . .

It? I ast.

Yeah, It. God ain't a he or a she, but a It.

But what do it look like? I ast.

Don't look like nothing, she say. It ain't a picture show. It ain't something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you've found It My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: That feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that If I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can't miss it . . .

Alice Walker
The Color Purple

Jesus, God, etc.

It had been raining for a long time and the farmer was standing in his field with floodwater up to his ankles. A car came along and the people in it said, "You'd better get in and come with us. It's going to get worse." "No, thanks," said the farmer. "I put my trust in God. He will save me." Soon the water was up to the farmer's waist and a boat came along. The people in it said, "you'd better get in and come with us. It's going to get worse." "No, thanks. I put my trust in God. He will save me." So the boat went away, too. Now the farmer is up to his neck in water. A helicopter hovered overhead and a voice came down from the speaker in the sky: "Grab onto the rope ladder and get up here with us. It's going to get worse." "No, thanks," said the farmer. "I put my trust in God. He will save me." So the farmer drowned and met God. "Where were you?" the farmer asked. I put my trust in you, and you didn't save me!" "How can you say that?" God replied. I sent you a car, and a boat, and a helicopter. What more do you want?"

It used to be that you could not use the "G" word in UU congregations. It was too touchy. More and more we are finding UU's using the word "God" - in poetry, in liturgy, in hymn, in story, in sermon. But we have largely redefined our terms. "God" used to refer to the old man with the long white beard that Celie and Shug spoke of, but, like them, we have rejected him. Often we have rejected "him" for "it," although sometimes we speak of God as "she" - God imagined as female, Goddess, largely a gift of the pagans in our midst.

We are reminded of the absentee landlord God of deism, the clockmaker who set it all into motion and then left it to run by itself. This is the God of our nation's founding fathers, most of whom were Unitarians. A few modern-day UU's still embrace this view of God.

In fact, when UU's speak of God, they mean more things than the manifestations which came to our poor drowned farmer. It used to be that UU's prayed to, at the most, one God. But the God UU's profess to believe in varies a great deal.

For some, God is found in the Tillichean term "the ground of all being," or the creative source of life. God is the core of mystery and sacredness at the center of life.

For others, God is more of a force in the natural world, something like the Force in Star Wars; a kind of life energy. "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower" - or anything else.

God may be an affirmation that the universe and life have some principle of coherence and rationality, a faith that, despite the tragedies of personal life and the unavailability of any final answers, life is tremendously worth living.

God may be that sudden sense of the unity of self and nature and the family of humanity. God is touching the web of life. God is acknowledging the mystery of creation and all that that implies. God may be a verb - emergent in the process of continuous creation that is the cosmic drama. Many UU's are attracted to process theology, in which one talks rationally about God. The stuff of reality, ultimate truth, or God, is a creative becoming which incorporates our everyday acts into lasting importance as part of an ever-growing God. Such a concept emphasizes the relational pattern of existence, with God as the chief example of this relatedness.

God is also found in the Buberian concept of "I-Thou," the meeting and greeting that we may do as human beings, one to another, and even the possibility of relationship with other species, perhaps even beyond those we currently know.

God is the ineffable. The mystery. The inspiration to all that is good. God is the image of perfection, wisdom, holiness, and wholeness ever before us toward which we must direct and stretch our souls. God may not be supernatural for us, as he often is for those of more conventional religious strains, but God is not easy to define or describe; although we may experience God's presence in our lives, we may not always have language to put around that experience. As John Haynes Holmes, one of our ministers, once said, "When I speak of God I am using poetry, not theology."

For most modern UU's, I think it is valid to say God is immanent rather than transcendant. God is not wholly Other, separated from creation by a wide and almost insurmountable abyss. Rather, God is actively a part of our experience, working in our lives and present in our very being as human beings, the children of God.

More and more we are moving towards God as a reality to experience, rather than a proposition to prove or an entity to define. When David Eaton, minister of All Souls in Washington, D.C., spoke to a packed house at the General Assembly last year on "God in the Modern World," he did not try to define God. Instead, he quoted the biblical passage, "By their fruits shall ye know them." God's people are known by their fruits - their behavior in the world. They fight for justice and mercy and righteousness and love. God is not an intellectual exercise to such UU's, but rather a faith in something which transcends reason, yet works through the devine laboratory which is the experience of women and men. By being and doing, rather than thinking about it, we experience the spiritual depths and sense meaning in life.

Humans all through time have posited deities to explain the unexplainable. UU's who are theists tend to look for a common thread of sacrality within the world's religions and find a synthesis which defines or explains this depth of experience. This they term "God."

A handful of UU's boast that in their church the only time the words "Jesus Christ" are uttered during worship is when their minister trips on the stairs. These people are the "cross cringers," those so wounded by the church of their earlier experiences that they are haunted by the memories. Anytime the name of Jesus is mentioned, they wince. Anytime traditional theological language: "salvation," "confession," "grace," is used, they flinch. Ritual is problematic for them, reminding them of Christianity's excesses. Some of you may be among these people.

I recall an experience in Southern California in which several of us were learning about UU curricula for adults. We talked with a couple from a church near San Diego. She found great spiritual satisfaction in lighting candles. She longed to share her joy in the Christmas Eve candlelight service with her partner, but he could not bear the thought of candles. Having come from a Catholic background, he saw candles as the epitome of oppression. They were patient with each other. The Christmas before our curriculum workshop, she has actually gotten him to light the Christmas candles. He blew them out immediately, but he was risking and she was helping. This was over ten years ago. By now, hopefully, he has kept the candles burning and is learning to enjoy them for what they are so that they might share the experience together.

The gifts that our liberal faith has brought to the religious party have been the rejection of the inerrancy of the Bible and the application of reason to our Judeo-Christian roots. William Ellery Channing saw the Bible as a collection of books written, not by God, but by inspired people drawing from both history and experience, who sought to understand better the larger meanings of life and death. Theodore Parker offered a dynamic resolution for those who wished to mine the Bible for its wisdom without sacrificing their critical faculties. Much of what is in the Bible is timebound and, therefore, transient and of little importance to us today. But there are permanent things which will last for all time. Parker found those things in the teachings of Jesus, particularly the two great commandments to love God and one's neighbor.

Parker said:

The end of Christianity seems to be to make all [people] one with God as Christ was one with [God]; to bring them to such a state of obedience and goodness that we shall think divine thoughts and feel divine sentiments, and so keep the law of God by living a life of truth and love. Its means are purity and prayer; getting strength from God, and using it for our [sisters and brothers] as well as ourselves. It allows perfect freedom. It does not demand all [people] to think alike, but to think uprightly, and get as near as possible at truth; not all [people] to live alike, but to live holy, and get as near as possible to a life perfectly divine.

For UU's, Jesus of Nazareth is a great teacher and example for living. Most see his teachings of love and service as empowering their lives and undergirding their work in the world. UU's were practitioners of the Social Gospel around the turn of the century, active in prison reform, health care, rights for women and children, labor, education, and the like. Names of famous UU's like Clara Barton, Dorothea Lynde Dix, Horace Mann, John Haynes Holmes, Margaret Sanger, Henry Whitney Bellows, Joseph Tuckerman and Susan B. Anothony read like a primer of American social history. Their liberal Christian faith led them into social reform in order to fulfill the message of Jesus.

UU's have not tended to see Jesus as a deity, but as an exemplar. He was the incarnation of divinity in humanity. Not only that, but he came to save the souls of men and women because they were worth saving. The original message of universalism, universal salvation, spoke to the inherent worth of all people as God's creatures. Nineteenth Century British Unitarian James Martineau said: "The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but Man [by which he meant all of us] universally." Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in [humanity] and goes forth anew to take possession of [the] world."

The message of Jesus is underscored for modern UU's through new readings of scripture in the light of psychology and socio-economic thinking. Femenist, Black, gay, and liberation theologians point to the radicalness of Jesus' message for his time and provide practical applications for our own, underscoring egalitarian power and an ethical imperative to embrace the outcasts and find ways to enfranchise them. UU's find these new theologies consonant with their sense of justice, righteousness, and fair play and readily adopt them as their own.

But there are people who go beyond simple acceptance of Jesus as a great teacher and leader, one among many, or as a referent for projects of social significance. There are people for whom Jesus of Nazareth is the central figure in their religious experience. These are the UU Christians. They do not accept the doctrines of more conservative communions, and they tend to discount the supernatural and "transcient" aspects of Christianity, opting for a rational and experiential approach, as other UU's do. For them, orthodoxy is not an option, but they are different from other UU's in that they embrace that which many of us are fleeing from. I shall let one of the prominent UU Christian ministers, Judith Hoehler, characterize her view of Jesus:

For me [she said], Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One of God. By this I mean that in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see the revelation of what the God/human and human-to-human relationship is meant to be Christ is the power of God for goodness in the world. When we try to live the Christ-like life, when we open ourselves to God's grace by walking in Jesus' footsteps, we come to know a portion of that "eternity already set within our hearts."

I have had another UU Christian minister tell me that he is a Christian because that is our cultural background and we cannot be true to other religions when we take aspects of them and make them our own when we are not of that culture. I disagree with this attitude, for my culture is greater than merely Christian. And UUism has grown beyond Christianity to embrace Jews, Buddhists, Moslems and Witches as well.

An interesting controversy raged last year in my colleague Bruce Marshall's church on Long Island, the UU Fellowship of Huntington [New York]. Some people of Jewish background in the congregation were upset because the group was refered to as a "church," a word with Christian connotations. Although most of our individual worshipping groups do call themselves "churches," some call themselves "fellowships," as Bruce's does, and Macomb [Illinois] does, betraying their origins as lay-led groups, even though they may now have ministers. Others, like the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta and the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento [California] try to use more inclusive terminology. The UUA uses "society" as its generic term, trying to respect the diversity of our fellow UU's

And we are diverse! King's Chapel in Boston [Massachusetts] still uses the Book of Common Prayer, which betrays its Episcopalian roots, even though that congregation became Unitarian in 1785! It is the Westminster Abbey of Christian Unitarianism - and a far cry from the humanism of Khoren Aristian's humanist First Unitarian Church of Minneapolis [Minnesota] or even the Christianity of John Robinson's Eliot Chapel in Kirkwood, Missouri.

In our diversity lies our strength [as I keep being reminded at our Mission-Covenant dinners in Quincy.] And we do get it all together.

You have, no doubt, heard the story of the young priest giving his first sermon (this was years ago, of course.) Afterward, an older priest mentored him with these words: "That was a good job, my boy, but I do feel obligated to remind you that we like to refer to your Big Three as the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not Big Daddy, Junior, and the Spook."

Well, despite the fact that this is a Unitarian church, I want to talk about the Big Three: the Trinity. Unitarians got in trouble with orthodoxy because they denied the Trinity as not being biblically-based. Early Unitarians did not see Jesus Christ as being of the same substance as the Father - they had what is, in theological terms, a low Christology. They saw Jesus as a human being, not a form of God. But the early discussions never dealt with the Spook - that is, the Holy Spirit.

I interned in a church with a perpetual flame burning in it over the altar, just as you see in many Catholic churches. This, of course, refers to the Holy Spirit. It was my supervising minister's belief that the Holy Spirit was the most important aspect of the Trinity to UU's - they just don't usually articulate it that way I believe he is right, and so I want to talk about the Spirit.

We UU's are talking more and more about spirituality these days. In my sermon on religious humanism, I gave my definition of religion of eleven years ago. I have changed my definition since then. I said "response to life." Now I would say "ordered response to life." Religion is systematic in some way. Spirituality is not. It is the raw response to life. It is the descent of the Holy Spirit into our lives.

We have seen the Holy Spirit at work in this church, haven't we? In talkbacks when the conversation really gets rolling - when someone tells his or her own personal truth and we listen - without ridicule or argument. When Nona fell down the stairs and you all came to visit and brought casseroles and took her car home. When Gary Miller died, or Bob Campbell or Dorothy Owen, or Delores Jenkins, and you were there to comfort their families. Or in the middle of the Plant Sale. Or during the children's wonderful play about Susan B. Anthony at my installation.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit visits us during worship and you are moved by something I say - and tell me so afterwards. Or you sit in awe as Carol sings and the applause wells up afterwards. The Holy Spirit comes to be with us in couselling sessions and as we meet and talk on the phone. I have no doubt it will be there when one of our members goes into the hospital. And I sense it hovering over the crib of the new-born.

The Holy Spirit comes because we choose to walk together in community. Because we assert the right, nay, even the duty, of each of us to both adhere to the understanding of religious truth as we have come to know it, and to accept the obligation to respect one another, even if we do not always agree. Our Unitarian forebear from Transylvania, Francis David, said, "You need not think alike to love alike." Sometimes we get too bound up in the thinking. If we just forgot it all and did the loving, which includes respect, compassion, kindness, understanding, acceptance, consideration, and many of the other values which you have admitted to holding dear, in an atmosphere of trust.

We are challenged by our diversity, as a church and a denomination, to widen our vision, re-examine our prejudices, and learn from each other. This leads to intellectual and spiritual growth and the destruction of the arrogance of those who insist that tolerance means others must tolerate them, no mantter how rigid or dogmatic they may be. Individual ideas may still serve to enrich the consensus and provide food for all to grow. The humanists may learn from the theists and the Christians - and Jews and Moslems and Buddhists and pagans may teach all of us. It is then that the dialogue truly begins and therein lies the hope of the world. May we continue to learn and grow and enrich our theological understandings.

Closing Words

Well, us talk and talk about God, but I'm still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how id do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the wildflowers. Nothing.

Alice Walker
The Color Purple

May we truly notice all of the wonders God has made. So be it. Amen.

©1991 Rev. Lynn S. Smith-Roberts

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Smith-Roberts, Lynn S. . 1991. {title}, /talks/19910505.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.