Once when I was at a music festival in another city I saw someone wave at me from across the room to get my attention. Once they had my attention they walked all the way across the room and asked, “Are you the minister of the Unitarian church in Knoxville?” I said, “Yes.” The man said, “Good, I want to tell you my favorite Unitarian joke,” and he proceeded to do just that. Here it is.
Q: What is the difference between Unitarians and Baptists?
A: In the Baptist Church when the minister really gets to preaching someone in the congregation might shout out “Amen.” In the Unitarian Church when the minister really gets to preaching someone might shout out, “BS.”
For our young people listening who may be wondering what the term “BS” means let me simply say that literally BS is the natural byproduct of a male bovine animal studied by scatologists. Metaphorically, synonyms for BS include bologney, balderdash, buncombe, hogwash and a term made popular by the current occupant of the White House – malarky.
This morning I want to talk about the importance of having a good spiritual BS detector. How to tell the truth from lies. How to tell the difference between a trustworthy minister and a con artist. A few years back a friend drove by a church advertising their Vacation Bible School. Only they must not have had enough letters so their sign said, “Come to our Vacation BS.” This was an accident I am sure but even so it may serve as an unconscious reminder of the fact that some people approach the church with suspicions, skepticism and distrust and understandably so.
Most of us have heard of the Reverend Jim Jones and the tragic ending of the People’s Temple Cult in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. However, what you may not know is that Reverend Jones began as a very idealistic Methodist minister committed to racial equality. He preached and practiced the social gospel that was more focused on making a difference here on earth than it was in talking about the hereafter. He organized a multiracial congregation where he preached and the congregation practiced love for all people of every race. In the early days, many good people followed Reverend Jones because they thought he was an admirable man doing admirable things. Somewhere along the way things went terribly wrong. His preaching became a delusion and then his delusions became deception and then his deceptions became deadly.
I mention this particular story because I want to drive home the point that having a good spiritual BS detector is not about simply being an irreverent backbencher. In certain circumstances having a good BS detector is the difference between life and death. When I lived in Indiana I met people who lost friends and family members to this cult. So as always my sermons will have humor in them, there will be light moments and heavy moments, but I don’t want us to lose the fact that this topic is deadly serious.
Speaking of light moments. When I was visiting High Street Unitarian Universalist Church in Macon, Georgia, I met an elderly woman with very gracious Southern manners, who during a coffee hour conversation told me that she wanted to start a bookstore just so she could put Billy Graham’s books in the Cult section. I couldn’t tell if she was serious or joking.
I tell that story because I want to be very careful how we use that word cult. If you go online you will see that there are some websites that list the Unitarian Universalist Church as a cult. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, Unitarian Universalism is the opposite of a cult, and the reason we are the opposite of the cult is because we teach our kids and encourage each other to have a good BS detector.
When I was a sociology undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee I focused on the sociology of religion. In the field of sociology a cult is an organization that is led by an authoritarian leader who demands unwavering loyalty and devotion and is excessively controlling over group members. By this definition a cult does not even have to be a religion. A cult might be a political party or a secular organization.
Based on that definition I can safely say that the Unitarian Universalist church is the opposite of a cult because I know (and you know) that if I were to get up in this pulpit and demand unconditional loyalty, unwavering obedience and unfaltering devotion someone would shout out “BS.” Indeed, there might be a whole chorus shouting the same thing.
On the spectrum of authoritarianism to anti-authoritarianism we tend to be pretty firmly on the anti-authoritarian end. Our forebears declared “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God” AND I sometimes add, “If tyranny is unavailable any leadership will do.” Which is to say that anyone who agrees to be a leader in our faith will in the fullness of time encounter resistance. I’m not just talking about ministers either. Anyone who volunteers to be a leader whether it be the congregational president or a member of the board or the chair of a committee or even the person who volunteers to fix the coffee in the fellowship hall. Anyone who leads is going to encounter resistance at some time.
Let me use that last leadership role as an example. If you’ve ever volunteered to fix coffee in the fellowship hall you know that someone is going to question your decisions. If you pick the coffee that you think tastes the best, someone is gonna criticize it if it’s not Fair Trade coffee. And if you pick an ethically responsible, environmentally sustainable brand of coffee, someone is gonna criticize it if it doesn’t taste good. In other words, you may think you just volunteered to fix coffee only to find someone resisting your tyranny in obedience to God.
Now, you may think that this is a fairly mundane example from the minutiae of congregational life, and I agree. However, it illustrates a tendency in Unitarian Universalist churches that can sometimes be irritating but is also at the heart of our shared work to keep our congregation a healthy organization.
When I was in college there was a popular bumper sticker that said, “Question authority.” You saw that bumper sticker everywhere, “Question authority,” and then one day someone came up with another bumper sticker that said, “Who are you to tell me to question authority?” The new bumper sticker reminds us that even those who question authority may have our authority questioned.
In the Torah, Moses serves as a great example of someone willing to question authority, someone who was willing to question not only Pharaoh but God. When God told Moses to go tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” Moses asked a series of questions and critiques, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?…What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?…Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and tongue…Please send someone else.”
In other words, as a point of contrast, the prophet Isaiah said, “Here I am Lord, send me” whereas Moses declared, “Here I am Lord, send somebody else.” This is just the first of many examples of Moses questioning God and the Torah tells us that God patiently (and sometimes a little impatiently) answered Moses’ questions. In other words, God does not question Moses’ right to ask questions.
Just as Moses questioned God, rabbinic tradition tells us that we must also question the scriptures. Amy Jill-Levine is a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity school. She is in the interesting position of being both Jewish and a New Testament scholar and does her work in ways that offer insights into both Jewish and Christian tradition. She writes, “All Scriptures have passages with which people of conscience wrestle..since the name “Israel” traditionally means, “to wrestle with God,” we do well to wrestle with the passages that confuse and disturb us. More, we do well to wrestle with passages that have and continue to cause harm.” Such scriptures might include teachings like, “slaves obey your masters” or “women stay silent in your churches.”
Levine continues this line of thought by telling the story of her son’s bar mitzvah. On this occasion, the boy becoming a man is asked to read the appropriate reading from the Torah for that day and offer commentary. The text for that particular day was a very challenging one for a young person to interpret. It included these words from Deuteronomy where God enncourages genocide, “In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.”
Needless to say the young man’s job of interpreting this text was very, very challenging but when the day arrived he stood up in the pulpit and said, “I do not like this text.” In other words, he reserved his right to question the word of God but he continued, “I do not like this text but I am very proud to be a part of a tradition that allows to wrestle with it.” Needless to say his mother was also very proud of him. For anyone who wants to gain wisdom from an ancient text is going to have to wrestle with it.
When we encourage our young people to wrestle with tradition and question authority we are doing important work to keep our faith communities healthy. Our willingness to challenge tradition safeguards our world from horrors like genocide or mass suicide. Remember that the next time someone questions the coffee you serve in coffee hour. Let’s work together to create a healthy church.
One of my heroes is Emma Gonzalez, who I admire for her willingness to speak truth to power. After seventeen people were killed in a mass shooting in her school, the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, she somehow managed to work through her own trauma and grief to offer one of the post powerful speeches I’ve ever heard. Although a teenager she challenged the most powerful people in our nation and the lobbyists at the National Rifle Association who keep them in power and buy their silence. She told a gathering of grieving families and an international audience through the media.
“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones …to call BS. Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers these days…and…hush us into submission…we are prepared to call BS. Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.”
We need to bring this spirit to many other challenges of our time. At present our society is in the middle of the third wave of the coronavirus with the Omicron variant and yet many of our elected leaders actively sabotage public health measures and act like everything is normal. Nothing to see here. No need to be alarmed.
So in conclusion let me say, once again the people in our government are lying to us and someone needs to call BS. Knox County Schools closed down this week because teachers and workers and children are sick and still we’re told we do not need facemasks or social distancing or other mitigation in our schools. We call BS. Local hospitals have 10 hour waits in the emergency room because hundreds of nurses and doctors and healthcare workers are sick and still we’re told to act like everything is normal, go to concerts, restaurants, bars and large public gatherings. We call BS. Outside many hospitals there is a line of people and ambulances waiting even though every ICU bed is taken and every ER bed is taken. Many health care professionals are joining the Great Resignation and many young people are choosing other careers and yet elected officials are saying we do not need a strong Board of Health to guide us through this crisis. We call BS. What do we call? BS! What do we call? BS! And let me end by asking one last very serious question. Can I get an “Amen.”