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[Chalice] A Lonely Minority [Chalice]

Presented December 27, 1998, by Dr. John Sperry

A Reading for the service from The 6 Messiahs by Mark Frost:

"You're a certified member of your clergy, doesn't that give you the authority to communicate directly with God?"

"Oh, thank heavens, no; only Moses and a few other Old Testament Jews were saddled with that responsibility, and even their conversations were usually filtered through some sort of intermediary; an angel or a burning bush," said Jacob, bending over his drawing.

"But there must be hundreds of Christian ministers in this country who believe they receive the word of God straight from the horse's mouth."

"Yes," said Jacob, with a sad smile, "I know."

"But if you have no contact with whoever He is, how can you claim to perform God's will?"

"A rabbi makes no such claim, my dear; that is far too important a job to be entrusted to professionals. If God speaks to anyone it is only through the voice of the human heart and everyone you meet has one of those."

"Theatrical producers aside."

"Not to mention certain neighborhoods in New York," said Jacob. "My people have a belief that the existence of the world is sustained by the righteousness of a small number of perfectly ordinary people who attract no attention to themselves and very quietly go about their business."

"Like saints, then."

"Hidden saints, you might call them, seeking no reward or recognition for what they do. Pass them in the street, you'd hardly notice them; not even they have the slightest idea they are performing such essential service. But they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders."

"Sounds more like a job for the Messiah," she said.

"This whole Messiah business is so terribly overemphasized. "

"You don't believe in the Messiah?"

"There is a tradition in Judiasm that if someone tells you the Messiah has come and you are planting a tree, first finish planting the tree and then go see about this Messiah."

"Hmm. I guess if a fellow actually was the Messiah, the last thing he'd do is run around announcing it to people."

"Not if he wants to live until suppertime. If you look at the subject historically, this idea began because the Jews in Israel wanted a man with supernatural powers to fly down from heaven and rescue them; quite a natural response to a thousand years of slavery, wouldn't you agree?"

"I'd wish for a squadron of them."

"Then Jesus came along and, regardless of who you believe he was, the rest is history. But ever since in Western culture when we approach the end of a century, as we are now, a terror that the Judgement Day is at hand awakens in us this hunger for a savior to appear and set things right. And with it the strange notion that there can only be one of these persons."

"More than one Messiah?" asked Eileen. "But he's one of a kind, isn't he, by definition?"

"In Kabbalah there is an alternative idea that has always struck me as infinitely more reasonable: Within each generation that passes through this life there are a few people alive at all times -- without any self-awareness that they possess such a quality -- who, if events called upon them to do so, could assume the role of the Messiah."

"The 'role' of the Messiah?"

"In the same way we are all playing a part in our own lives: strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage, full of sound and fury, signifying God knows what. If you look at it from this perspective, in the great pageant of life the Messiah is simply one of the more interesting characters."

"So what sort of events might bring these Messiahs forward?"

"I suppose the usual calamities: cataclysm, pestilence, apocalypse. Our hero needs a good entrance. Although according to this theory, He would have been standing in front of us the entire time without anyone noticing."

"What happens to these people when they don't become the Chosen One?" she asked.

"They live out their days and die in peace, the lucky creatures."

"Never knowing about the part they might otherwise have played."

"For their sake let's hope so. Messiah; what a dreadful job. Everyone throwing themselves at your feet, asking you to cure their rheumatism. Pearls of wisdom expected to fall with every utterance. All pain and suffering and never a kind word in the end."

. . . .

Eileen relaxed and turned to face the other direction, looking past Jacob out the far window. "Tell me: I've always been unclear on exactly what the Messiah is supposed to do for us if He does come back."

"There is a remarkable division of opinion on this subject. One school of thought has Him riding down from the sky in the nick of time to save the world from eternal darkness. Another believes He will appear wielding a vengeful sword to judge the wicked and reward the faithful, of which there are only about twelve. A third version says if enough human beings straighten themselves out and follow the path of goodness, He would show up at once and lead us all through the pearly gates."

. . . .

"What do you believe, Jacob?"

"Since I have come to the conclusion this is an area about which I can only confess my staggering ignorance, I've decided it's far too important a question to be answered with any degree of certainty."

"Leave certainty for the fanatics, you mean."

"Exactly. I take a wait and see approach. I'll either find out when I die or I won't." (1)

The title for this talk is taken from a book I read a number of years ago, quite a few years ago, I think, when I was preparing a particular lecture, while I was teaching, by a man by the name of Wakins called A Lonely Minority. What Wakins was talking about were the Coptic Christians in Egypt of our time. They constitute about ten percent of the total population. And I think you could say that in that country where is ninety percent Muslim, that those who profess Christianity are a minority; although my observations on the spot do not suggest to me that they are particularly lonely, although they are a minority group. And I have taken that as the title of this talk because I find that within the Unitarian Universalist Church, according to surveys (I'm not always completely sure just what these surveys tell us), but in the May/June 1998 issue of our World we find the results of a survey there that the top five Unitarian Universalist theologies and I look at that and those within our church who profess or claim to be Christians constitute perhaps five percent, maybe a little bit more, of the membership. Well, there are several ways we can look at that: If we wanted to do it strictly by the numbers, and I did this, it is a rather useless exercise, but I throw it out for what it is worth; if our congregation here in Quincy, IL reflected these national averages and we wanted to do things by the numbers, I figured that during our church year we would have two point eight services that are devoted to Christianity and the others would be devoted to a variety of other topics. Well that's not the right way to run a railroad.

All this begs another question, and it's a question to which I am afraid I do not have answers, but I'm going to throw out some thoughts on the subject. Who are these that call themselves Christians within the Unitarian Universalist Church? They obviously are a minority. Well, various alternate means have been attempted to describe them. The first is, "They are the Jesus Cultists." To me that sounds just a little bit tacky. Others say, "Well no, they are the Jesus Sectarians." That may come closer to it, but it is a clumsy title. One clergyman within our church has described them as the "lurkers." Now, that sounds a little bit sinister, and I think we can dispense with that. Others have suggested, and I have heard this from many different sources, a large number of the members of our church are "culturally" Christian. Well maybe, but that doesn't answer it. And so while some may object, I will use the word "Christians."

That of course, begs another question, how do you define someone that is a Christian? People have been trying to do that for a long time. Not only within our church, but I daresay, within almost every other church in the land. Some people have very definite ideas what it means to be a Christian, and if you analyze them you are rejected with horror: Does it mean this to be a Christian; that you will have a bigoted attitude toward our fellow creatures; based on a Biblical proof text? No, that's not Christian. It is an abomination in the use of the name. So it is very difficult to decide just what it means when one says they are a Christian.

Now there is an organization within our church which Jean and I took out membership in a number of years ago. They publish a small journal entitled, The Good News. It is put out by the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, and as I said, it is titled The Good News and it is subtitled Toward a Free Christianity. It is very interesting reading. One of the things that intrigues me are the letters and some of the articles, some written by clergy and some written by lay-people, that describe how they came themselves, to think of themselves as Christian. And believe me some of them are very heart-reaching stories. Some have fled from whatever orthodoxy they came from because they felt they were abused. They felt the fear that was instilled in them was unjustified. Some came from other religious traditions. What I suspect, if my readings from this journal over the past three or four years are correct, some of them decided that they were Christians because they had spent a great deal of time trying to define why they were NOT Christians. And I must confess, and I speak for myself and as a result of our discussions I think I speak for Jean; that we came to the conclusion we are Christians because we analyzed the reasons why we were not.

But that still doesn't answer the question, "what does it mean to be a Christian?" and I think there are many different answers to that. And again I will interject my personal feelings on the subject. I am increasingly fascinated and interested in the subject of why people believe and what they do believe. And this led me to the investigation, on my own part, what did the first followers of Jesus believe, what motivated them? What was their motivation to put it quite bluntly and quite frankly, before Paul got into the act? And I find that to me it is a very rich and rewarding and indeed, inspiring form of research and intellectual exercise. I think others approach it from quite a different standpoint, but the fact does remain that we do classify ourselves as Christians. And how does this manifest itself. Well, I think in many ways, both rational and irrational, and of course, in the subject of religion you do get into many irrational things, again speaking personally, there are certain saints days that I hold important. During the twelve days of Christmas, on the gazebo of our front porch, the last light that is left burning, and burns most of the night, is a candle. Someone asked me what that was and I said it was for the Krist Kinder. Now I don't actually believe that but the symbolism is important.

We would all trust, whether we be Christians or not, we would lead a life of goodness; living up to the good teachings of whatever system we choose to follow, and that is perhaps why we are here, in our diversity; to reinforce one another, to strengthen one another in whatever beliefs we may personally have. I think it is important. As I have said before, from this pulpit, one of the practical tests of a church, or any other religious assembly, I suspect, but I am referring to our church; is how does it stand up in times of personal sorrow and stress? Are there people here that are understanding? And give comfort when those things occur and they occur to all of us. And I have found personally our church not wanting. But still I am a minority within this church. Now, once again, reading The Good News there are some things that crop up which really bother me. It's obvious that some of those in the minority find their churches hostile to their beliefs and I think that is terribly sad. There are some that go so far as to suggest that a legal suit should be brought against the Unitarian Universalist Association, that they have usurped the original mission of the church. Fortunately, they are really a minority and cooler heads prevail.

In reading into the history of this fellowship, I find it apparently had its inception in the winter of 1944 in, as you might expect, the Boston area. Reading through the descriptions and the minutes of those earliest meetings, I find with some interest that some of the clergy that attended, and these were Unitarian clergymen, wore the clerical collar. We've come a long way I think you would agree. I can remember when the head of chaplains for the United States Army was a Unitarian. I've often wondered whether that didn't inspire that rather humorous dialogue in the old MASH television production, when Colonel Potter, from Korea, patches a telephone call through to the head of chaplains in Washington. The Colonel says, "By golly, he answered the phone himself. He must be a Unitarian!"

Well, another thing that intrigues me and this is a game from the newsletter of the UUCF, a quiz put forth by Mr.Tom Schade (At the time he wrote this, he was a candidate for ministry at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX) entitled, "How welcoming is your congregation, a Christophobia Quiz." And if your score for your church comes up to 9 to 10, he says, "come on folks; if you were there when the Christians were thrown to the lions, you would have rooted for the lions."(2) Now, I'm not sure how valid this quiz is, but there is another thing about all this that is very disturbing to me. As I read through this newsletter and the reader put out by the association, something keeps cropping up which really bothers me. I do not doubt the sincerity of those who classify themselves as Christians, but I also suspect they are creating a situation which is "we" and "they." I don't think in our church we can tolerate such a thing. I think we need the continuing dialogue between those of us who are Christians and perhaps a minority and those of us that think otherwise. And I said dialogue, not debate or argument. An exchange of ideas.

You know when we had those, what should I call them, seminars, meetings, late summer and fall, the members of this church, about the future of our church. The one that we attended was very pleasant. I think some good ideas perhaps came forward. There was a lot of smoke grinding which you might expect in such a thing. In our session, the question came up, "What would you perceive or hope for the Quincy Unitarian-Universalist Church seventy-five years from now?" well, that is safe to answer because none of us are going to be around here seventy-five years from now and so you can prophesy with abandon. I gave a great deal of thought to that and it is entirely the possibility that there would be two churches in Quincy, one here and one further east as the population of the town moves in that direction. This of course is assuming that the church will grow in numbers. But if the Unitarian Universalist Christians, or at least some of them, had their way, there would be a schism. There would be the Christian Unitarian Universalist Church in one place and the Unitarian Universalist Church in another. Which, if I may use this expression again, "It's a hell of a way to run a railroad." We have problems. We have problems that I think need to be addressed in this regard. You know when you come into our church, and we are greeted at the door, which is a very nice thing, we note a very nice notice to the effect that a Great River Buddhist Meditation group meets in this church. I think that is great. I'm not being critical of it, I want that clearly understood. But I have to pose this question, "Are there members in this church that would also wish to have a Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship discussion group, that would meet?" I do not know the answer. I'm merely throwing it out for a suggestion.

Finally I would point out something else. We quite correctly, as our opening words this morning said, "arrive out of many rooms and have a diversity of opinion." And that diversity should be our strength. And I would also suspect that those of us that profess to be Christians do so from some very complicated reasons. I am reminded of a piece of ancient Egyptian literature which I read, indeed I translated when I was taking a course in Hieroglyphics, and I didn't realize the full impact of that reading until much more recently. It is from the wisdom literature, Dialogue of a Man With His Soul. And those of us that are Christian Unitarian Universalists or Humanistic Unitarian Universalists, or come to our church from the tradition of Judaism or Islam or Buddhism, I would humbly suggest that a dialogue with one's soul is a very interesting place to start. And a dialogue with one's spouse, it helps. I suspect there are many different types of Unitarian Universalist Christians, just as there are many different types of Unitarian Universalists. There were those that would like to have the Eucharist as a part of our service. And to me the Eucharist is a repellent idea, but there are those that would want it. We are diverse. But I think that we really need to have a dialogue on this subject within our church here, and within our church nationally and internationally. And if there is one thing that I find in my reading that those of us who classify ourselves as Unitarian Universalists are in agreement, there are lots of places where we are in disagreement, one place where there is almost universal agreement, at least by what letters people write and what articles they write and so forth, is that in the world of ours today going into the next millennium, there is a fundamental and basic need for dialogue among ourselves and among the other peoples of the world, regardless of their religious persuasion.

Well, as I said, I have not given you answers. I have given you some of my thoughts, and my only hope and indeed, prayer is that it may spark dialogue and discussion, but certainly not debate and argument.

©1998 Dr. John Sperry


1. Frost, Mark. The 6 Messiahs. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1995. pp. 198-200.

2. Schade, Tom. "How welcoming is your congregation? A Christophobia Quiz". From the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship's journal, "Good News, Towards a Free Christianity." July/August, 1998. p.3. Article reprinted here in its entirity:

As conservatives within the mainline churches promote anti-gay measures and call on wives to submit to husbands, hundreds of thousands of liberal Christians are being driven from their own denominations. Many are already visiting your UU congregation in search of a new church home. Does your congregation signal friendliness to liberal Christians, or does it welcome only those who have given up completely on Christianity? Here is a check list to test your Christian-friendliness.

One point for every "yes"

0 Your church should join the Council of UU Christian Churches.

1-3 Your church is welcoming to those seeking a new church home to express their traditional faith.

4-6 You are setting serious obstacles to those who see themselves as in some way Christian. Your church probably thinks that Uuism is a refuge from fundamentalism for those who have lost all faith.

7-8 Your church shows signs of not only being unwelcoming to liberal Christians, but also of defining itself as an anti-Christian congregation.

9-10 Come on folks! If you were there when the Romans threw the Christians to the lions, you would have rooted for the lions!

Tom Schade is a candidate (at the time of the original publication) for Unitarian Universalist ministry at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas.

©1998 Dr. John Sperry

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Sperry, John. 1998. A Lonely Minority, /talks/19981227.shtml (accessed August 10, 2020).

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