So You’re “Not Religious”

When Prime Minister Winston Churchill was asked to describe his leadership of Great Britain during Nazi bombardments he said, “I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar.”

I feel that same way about being the minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. I am not the lion, but sometimes I am called upon to give the lion’s roar. For that reason, I am grateful for my predecessors who roared before me including the Reverend Richard Henry of blessed memory who was this congregation’s first settled minister.

In 1953 the Reverend Henry gave a sermon to our congregation with the title So You’re ‘Not Religious.’ I know this because someone found a printed copy of the sermon when cleaning out their files and donated it to the church. And so one day in my office I found myself reading a very old sermon, printed on yellowing paper, that may be even more relevant for our times than it was back in the 50’s.

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That’s because in the 50’s almost half the population in our country went to church on Sundays. The 50’s were the high water mark of American institutional religiosity whereas in our time, 33% of the population does not go to church or identify with any religion at all. So what Reverend Henry was describing back then is even more pertinent in our times when more and more people are saying they are not religious.

So seeing it is a New Year, a time when many of us clean out our closest, possibly finding old sermons, it seems like a good time to reflect on that theme again.

In his sermon the Reverend Henry said that many people think they are not religious because they do not belong to an organized religion or go to any particular congregation. However, religion is not the same thing as church attendance. I am reminded of the words that Alice Walker wrote in her 1982 novel The Color Purple.

“…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.”

The same could be said of religion. We don’t go to church to find religion because the religion we find there is most likely the one we brought with us. In other words, religion is not something we find “out there” but “in here” in the human heart.

In his sermon Reverend Henry suggested that another reason that many people say they are not religious is because they no longer identify with ancient phraseology found in so many creeds, doctrines and dogmas. Old words do not speak to current circumstances. Old certainties do not explain new discoveries.

In the year 2019 we had a lot of losses. We lost one of the great spiritual writers of our time, Rachel Held Evans, who died at the age of 37, far too young. Evans grew up near Dayton, Tennessee, home of the Scopes Monkey Trial, where creationism and evolution battled it out in the courtroom in 1925.

However, one of the things Evans so often said was that religion and evolution need each other; that religion and evolution should be partners not enemies. She said our faith must always be evolving, growing fins when we need to swim and wings when we need to fly, changing, adapting, learning and growing. Our faith like life itself must evolve.

When I was in middle school I was religious in a fairly conventional way. I was a minister’s son who grew up in the Episcopal Church and belonged to the youth group. I led vespers services at summer camp and workshops at church youth conferences. My beliefs fit within the parameters of orthodoxy and so I never felt the need to re-examine my beliefs or convictions. Of course, events were about to change my complacency.

For instance, when I was in high school I had a fire breathing fundamentalist camp counselor who worked hard to terrorize me with visions of the fiery furnaces of the afterlife, dangling my soul over eternal hellfire for my two weeks in captivity in his cabin at summer camp.

After camp I confronted tragedy, my brother Bill died in a car accident just one block away from our home. Shortly thereafter, in the aftershocks of that trauma, my parents got separated and then divorced. The theologian Paul Tillich describes God as the “ground of all being” and at this period of my life I felt like my being was groundless. I felt I was unanchored, unmoored and adrift in the universe without protection, guidance or comfort.

So I decided to give up on religion altogether. I told my parents that I needed a new start with religion. I needed to begin again –tabula rasa – a clean slate. I quit going to church and participating in the youth group. So for the record, let me say I can totally identify with the 33% of the population that does not go to church or identify with any religion. Indeed, even though I am a minister now, there is a part of me that does not identify with the word religion or religious. There are times when the word religion only describes everything that fell apart in my high school years, everything that cracked, crumbled, disintegrate, did not work and did not last.

Of course, there are other times when the word religion points to something more. As the Zen Buddhists say, “Our words are like a finger pointing at the moon, they are not the moon itself.” There are times when I walk at night when I do experience the moon itself. I feel what Shinto priests calls the religion that is higher than all religions, deeper than all religions, the religion that underlies all religions, the religion before all religions and after all religions where the goal is not to be a better Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu but where the goal is to be a better human being. As Corey Booker once said,

 “Don’t speak to me about your religion; first show it to me in how you treat other people.
Don’t tell me how much you love your God;
show me in how much you love all God’s children.  Don’t preach to me your passion for your faith;  teach me through your compassion for your neighbors.” 

Reverend Henry put it this way in 1953, “We need not be a member of a church; we certainly need not have the remotest trace of a theology; nor need we ever utter any of the words, or think any of the thoughts that belong to the learned treatises on the history and philosophy of religion, to be a religious person. What we must have is an attitude of understanding and respect toward every human being, including ourselves, courage to entertain great thoughts and generous ideals, and to stick to them till we can substitute more ennobling ones, sensitivity to the beauty and mystery of life; and wisdom to act on the knowledge that the salvation of the world is dependent, in part, on our own loyalty to the highest vision we can conceive.” He wrote these words over 5 decades ago, rediscovered in 2019. Perhaps his words can guide us in this New Year offering us both 2020 hindsight and 2020 foresight.

I am grateful to Richard Henry who worked so hard to build this church so I could discover it when I was a young adult in the 1980’s ready to let go of my past so that I could experience something new, evolution, change and growth. Hopefully this first Sunday in the New Year can also serve as a new beginning for us all. So let me end this sermon with a roar.

However, this time I am not the lion or the roar. For these words come from a member of this congregation Bill Fields, who offers us these thoughts to usher in the New Year.

It is 2020.
I want these 20s to ROAR.
I want them to roar with cries for justice.
I want them to roar with songs of peace.
I want them to roar with affirmation of the dignity of ALL people.
I want them to roar for fairness, for enough for everyone and excess for none.
I want them to roar with demands for honest, honorable government.
I want them to roar with outrage for children in cages, for children slaughtered in classrooms.
I want them to roar for kindness, courtesy, decency and dignity.
I want them to roar as loudly for you as for me and louder still for us.
I’m ready. Let the Roaring Twenties begin!

(Rev. Chris Buice shared this homily with the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on this first Sunday in January 2020)

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