Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Word Between Us

One of the most common questions I have been asked by those new to Unitarian Universalist worship is why the sermon is so central to our faith? For many it seems incongruous… that in this faith of inherent worth and dignity, where the responsibility for spiritual growth is placed on the individual (but facilitated by the community), it seems odd to those new to our faith that the thoughts, ideas, and suppositions of one are privileged.

Lets face it… this thought is not just in the minds of those new to our faith.

When I think about the worship of many different traditions, the central place of the spoken, prepared sermon is profoundly protestant of us. For Catholics, Episcopalians, and many Lutherans, the homily or sermon is of much less importance in their worship that the Eucharist. For many Buddhists it is not the “Dharma Talk” that is central, but the practice of meditation or the ritual that is key. For much of Islam, the message of the Imam are of lesser importance than the sacrament of prayer. For many Christians in the Evangelical and Full Gospel traditions, it is not the sermon that is important, but rather that the entirety of the experience be focused on a direct experience of the “Holy Spirit”… on a perceived direct experience of God.

So, in the centrality of the sermon in our worship we find our kinship with protestant traditions like the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and (aghast) the Baptists. We are indeed profoundly protestant in this regard (understanding the root word of Protestant is “protest”, which should make us feel a little better.) To put it in language more familiar to my Baptist roots… Unitarian Universalism is indeed a “Worship through The Word”.

And yet, there is something different happening on Sunday morning as I listen to a Unitarian Universalist sermon… something different than my experience of the Southern Baptist sermons of my youth. It is subtle, and it requires much of each of us, but the difference is there, and it is profound.

When I was a young boy in a Southern Baptist church, I had no doubt where the sermon rested in my religious life. What Brother John said from the pulpit might as well have been from Moses holding the Ten Commandments, or from St. Peter just out of conference with Jesus. There was no room for doubt, there was little room for my own opinions, and the stories my mind made up to distract me from the sermon were the source of both guilt and frustration.

It was in this mindset that I first approached this “Worship through The Word” in Unitarian Universalism, and needless to say I was frustrated. For one thing, the minister kept saying things I did not agree with, and then did not give me any clear guidance on how to be a good UU. I left the services feeling more confused than I had when I arrived.

And so I left Unitarian Universalism.

What I had missed was that, though the worship services seemed similar in their style and structure, and though the sermon had a central place in both, what the services were asking of me was entirely different. Rather than being the “receiver of wisdom and commandments from on high” which characterized the worship of my youth, Unitarian Universalism was challenging me to become an active participant in the worship, an active participant in the sermon.

When a minister of our faith preaches a sermon to the congregation, it is an invitation. The invitation is three-fold. First, it is an invitation from the minister to the congregation to connect on a deep, very human level. The most frightening part for me as a preacher is to open myself up publically, not just to people I know, but among visitors and guests, and even among people who probably don’t like me very much. The sermon is the minister modeling in a public way how to be authentic in inviting relationship with others.

The second invitation is for those in the congregation to listen to the “raw material” of the sermon with the same kind of open heart that the minister strives to bring into the pulpit. It is an invitation to, for that short time, open you mind to the imagery, open your heart to your emotions, open your spirit to flight, and open your soul to depth. You may not always get to each (or any) of these, but the invitation, the practice is to be open.

The third invitation is to complete the sermon. A sermon is always a draft until preached. Preachers cannot complete a sermon themselves. The power of the sermon in our liberal, living tradition comes from all of the thoughts, connections, stories, emotions, tribulations, and experiences that the sermon calls forth from the minds and hearts of the congregation. A sermon without a congregation is merely an essay, and often not a very good one. This is why sermons don’t always read well.

The true nature of the sermon, of The Word in our living tradition lies not on the pulpit, and not on paper, but in the space between the pulpit and the pew, in the space between the open heart of the minister and the open hearts of the congregation. It is only in that faith-filled relationship between them that Worship through The Word can occur, and it is the reason why the sermon remains the center of our worship together.

The sermon is a practice of Right Relationship.

Our worship requires as much of the congregant as it does of the minister, and in that it truly is a reflection of our interconnection and our inherent worth.

So, the next Sunday that you listen to a sermon, open your heart as far as you can. Visualize, remember experiences and stories from your life, feel the emotions that flow through you… After the sermon, don’t just say to the preacher “Great Sermon!” Tell them the story you remembered, or describe the emotions you felt.

For The Word can only exist between us.

Yours in Faith,


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