Legacies of Phophetic Leadership

A service by Barbara Wells and Jaco B. ten Hove
October 22, 2000--Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, MD

This morning, Jaco and I take part in something which has become a tradition at Paint Branch and in many Unitarian Universalist congregations: the auction sermon. At last year's church auction, Ken Montville paid good money to tell us what to preach about. At the upcoming auction on Saturday, November 5th, you, too, can have the chance to give us a topic for a Sunday morning service. We hope that the bidding will be as fierce this year as it was last year.

Ken had two things he wanted us to do this morning. The first is very simple. He wanted us to dedicate this sermon to the memory of Walker and Emily Dawson, founding members of Paint Branch. And we do so in profound appreciation of these two people who still live on in memory here in our church community.

The broader topic that Ken suggested we preach about is at least partially related to his dedication of the sermon. Ken wanted us to reflect on the idea of legacy. Clearly, the Dawson family left a legacy here at Paint Branch. In fact, our endowment fund is now called the Legacy Fund partly because many of us felt that the legacy left by the founders of Paint Branch is one at that should be continued far into the future.

It is appropriate that we look at legacies today because this past week Paint Branch reached its 46th birthday—46 years of being an important liberal religious voice in Prince George's and Montgomery Counties. 46 years ago people like the Dawsons were inspired to create this church and they did so. Today we are the proud inheritors of that legacy.

We titled this sermon "Legacies of Prophetic Leadership" because Ken also challenged us to speak about leaders who, by taking risks, have left their mark on us as ministers within Unitarian Universalism. But we enter this subject not without a little trepidation. For how do we know when someone is a prophetic leader? The biblical model of the prophet may make most of us think of a wild preacher calling down doom on the people who do not follow his understanding of God's ways.

But that is not the only model of prophetic leadership. James Luther Adams, the foremost Unitarian theologian of the 20th century, suggests that the liberal church should be a place where all people can be prophetic in the sense that all of us can look at the world we live in and challenge it to be better. More important, perhaps, we all can challenge ourselves and each other to live lives that make us better people and the world a more humane place.

The word "prophetic" is often used in this regard, meaning that someone speaks out to describe—usually quite passionately—how a certain trend or activity, if continued, will undermine the goals or principles of the group involved. To be prophetic is often to challenge the status quo and offer new ideas that are sometimes hard for others to accept.

I expect that all UU ministers have at times tried to be prophetic. One of the things I was taught in theological school was the dictum that our ministry should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." But while comforting the afflicted can be extremely rewarding (I cherish the letters I have received from people who have let me into their lives after a death), afflicting the comfortable is rarely if ever appreciated. Both Jaco and I have also received letters and comments from people who have been angry with us when we have taken a controversial stand. Let me give you a real example.

Some years ago, when I was serving a church in Seattle, I was interviewed by The Seattle Times about the Promise Keepers, the Christian male-only group that seeks to make men more responsible within a biblical framework. During the interview, I questioned the Promise Keepers views on women and gays and lesbians. The quote attributed to me in the paper said something like "when I hear them talking about 'biblical values' I suggest it is a code word for keeping women in their place."

After this hit the papers, I got anonymous messages on my voice mail telling me I was going to hell. More distressing, a prominent couple in our church quit because they thought I wasn't being tolerant. It still makes me both sad and angry when I remember the letter they wrote. How I wish they had talked with me first! But would I take back what I said about the Promise Keepers even if it would have kept this couple in the church? I don't think I would.

Many UU ministers have had similar experiences, although the subjects certainly vary. It happens when people take unpopular stands in a public forum. But while it almost always distresses us when people are hurt or angered by choices we make or words we say, we take heart in the legacy of those prophetic leaders who have gone before us. Even though few if any of us can claim to be prophetic in the spirit of Jesus, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr., most religious leaders look to role models from the past to keep us going in the face of adversity. They provide us with a legacy of leadership that enables us to forge ahead on issues of the day that may shake the status quo—even the status quo within our own faith.

There are many prophetic role models within UUism, both lay and clergy. Some of these leaders may be familiar to you: Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Jefferson, Whitney Young, and James Reeb to name just a few. But there is one who for many ministers stands tall as the role model we look to when we are choosing to go out on a limb. And his name was Theodore Parker.

It’s my happy task to tell you some of what I know about Theodore Parker, one of my favorite historical Unitarian characters. He is emblazoned on our denominational psyche, mostly for two significant acts of prophetic leadership. How many of you know anything about him? [Only a handful of hands go up.]

Parker’s dates are 1810-1860, and his locale was Boston, although he was also know far and wide (in his own time!) as "the Great American Preacher," so prodigious were his writing and speaking talents. One of his sermons made its way to Abe Lincoln, who evidently underlined Parker’s definition of the budding American democracy:

"…direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people."

Sound familiar?

Parker was blessed with piercing blue eyes and a massive forehead, in which was a huge brain. He zoomed through schools, including Harvard Divinity. By age 21 he could read in six languages; by age 25 he had facility in 11 more. But religious leadership was where he wanted to apply himself most, so he took a post as minister of a church in West Roxbury, just outside Boston (now known as Theodore Parker Unitarian Church, originally organized in 1712).

He was very much a part of the Transcendentalist movement that animated Unitarianism in that era, the mid-19th century, and is perhaps best known for a controversial theological position he took that was rather radical even among his Transcendentalist compatriots, epitomized by the following quote from 1841:

"[Why should] the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, [any] more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid or Archimedes?"

The idea behind this question—that the values taught by Jesus should be worshipped more than Jesus himself—can be found in Parker’s groundbreaking sermon, "The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity." In it, he described an "Absolute Religion" of simple principles that Christianity represents but did not invent, most notably the ethic of Love.

But he actually said that this "Absolute Religion" would be effective even if Jesus had never lived! In other words, what is "Permanent" is Love; what is "Transient" are the mediators of that message, including Jesus. He believed the church was an entirely human construction, and it was blasphemous and WRONG to preach otherwise. Yes, Jesus was the only person so far to actually discern and teach this "Absolute Religion," but worshipping him was WRONG! (Can you hear his prophetic voice?)

Well, all this might sound reasonable and perhaps even appealing to some of us now, but then—in 1841—wow! It was a radically new idea in a culture that was fiercely dedicated to worshipping Jesus as divine. Despite Parker’s rational approach to his theological conclusions, he had trouble comprehending that this departure was not just a groundbreaking notion, but intensely threatening, too. He was surprised to find himself virtually alone in this posture, with little support, facing great pressure and active condemnation, mostly from his colleagues within and without Unitarianism.

The widespread censure of him took shape in two particular ways: First, he was refused pulpit exchanges, which were a very important method of sharing ideas in those days (when there wasn’t anything like the kind of media we have today).

Second, in the closest thing to an American Unitarian "heresy trial," he was gently but firmly called on the carpet by his colleagues and invited to resign his parish credentials. Parker’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson had done this voluntarily a few years earlier—when he realized he could no longer in good conscience conduct the communion service—but Parker was of an entirely different temperament than Emerson. There was no way he would withdraw. In fact, he fired back and challenged his colleagues anew to completely explain their rejection of his ideas. The debate raged for years and helped to reshape Unitarianism.

The full story of this episode in our denominational (and national!) history is fascinating and well documented. For the entire rest of his life, Parker was reviled and shunned by most colleagues, and lest he appear to be too saintly to us from this rarified distance, let me just add that he contributed to the conflicted interpersonal dynamics in his own inimitable ways. As is true with many other prophetic voices, there was a complex personality behind this one.

But his ideas took hold in younger Unitarians, even if slowly. His prophetic legacy is unrefutable: Unitarianism was never the same after and because of Theodore Parker. He moved the person of Jesus from the religious center of his Christianity and instead worshipped the values Jesus taught, notably Love. Slowly but surely, this theological posture opened new doors that even Parker would not have imagined, carrying Unitarianism into the 20th century and right out of the mainstream Christian ranks. Some would call this an advance and others a mistake, but in any event, it was a large evolution.

Such a significant move can be traced back directly to Theodore Parker’s prophetic voice. 160 years ago, it was extremely controversial and it’s still controversial. Today, 160 years later, we’re also embedded in a Jesus-worshipping culture. If you’re looking for some experience as a prophetic religious voice, try this:

Stand up (in a non-UU setting) and proclaim the humanity of this teacher Jesus, that he was no more or less divine than everyone else. Then promote the revolutionary values he lived out, minus the trappings of later exclusionary Christian doctrine.

See how far you get before someone gives you urgent directions to Hell.

Today, we might do well to offer a prophetic voice to counter various conservative religious influences. OR we might also challenge the secular status quo that has in some ways emerged in reaction to such extreme forces as fundamentalism. Within UUism, for instance, some prophetic voices might target a rigid secular humanism that would chase away all traces of traditional religion. Such voices might cry out that, if continued, this narrow humanism will lead our movement into decline.

But, as Barbara mentioned, in any present moment we usually don’t know what is or isn’t prophetic, which is why being able to have a healthy conversation about things is important. In Theodore Parker’s time, the "conversation" about his radical religious ideas was often not polite.

It was even less so about a weighty social issue that he also took on, not by himself this time, but with no less rigor and influence: slavery. This was a prophetic challenge of a different sort, aimed at the status quo of human oppression. It was not an abstract theological debate this time, but an issue closely connected to the livelihood of numerous Unitarians who made a living from the profits of slavery, directly or indirectly.

Theodore Parker was one of the most vociferous abolitionists, actively afflicting the comfortable in this regard. We have an enduring image of Parker at his desk writing sermons with a gun beside him, ready to defend the runaway slaves he was harboring in his house.

He was also an active supporter of the notorious abolitionist John Brown. In fact, Parker died (of an illness) during the few months between Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and the start of the Civil War. Fighting slavery occupied a large portion of his adult life and certainly did not endear him to the Unitarians who supported it.

On both these issues (theological: less focus on Jesus than on his teachings; and social: the abolition of slavery), Theodore Parker’s prophetic urgings were affirmed by later history, but it sure didn’t look like that during his lifetime! His genius and lasting impression is that of a religious bulldog, unswervingly dedicated to the call as he heard it, to preach as he felt it, even if this meant taking on the slings and arrows of prophetic risk.

He died relatively young, about my current age [49], some say because he was plumb worn out. This is a lesson perhaps, but a model nonetheless, of inspiring commitment to ideals and to one’s prophetic voice.

Clearly, few if any of us can claim the kind of prophetic leadership that Parker embodied. He was a product of his time in history, uniquely placed to make a real difference in the world in which he lived. Yet, the legacy he left is profound. His life and work remind UU ministers that our job is not simply to run churches, sit with the sick, or even teach about our history and faith. We are called to speak and live the truth as we discover it, even if it means that the people we love best in the world, our fellow UUs, might be angered.

But is this prophetic stance only in the purview of religious professionals? James Luther Adams, the theologian I mentioned earlier, would tell us no. In our hymnal is a reading Adams wrote titled "I Call that Church Free." In it he says, "I call that church free...which is open to insight and conscience from every source, [which] bursts through rigid tradition, giving rise to new and living language, to new and broader fellowship. It is a pilgrim church, a service church, on an adventure of the spirit. The goal is the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing."

The prophethood of all believers. Not just the clergy. Not just the religious professionals but all believers. That means you.

Throughout the 46 years of this church's life, it has been the laity as well as the clergy who have shown prophetic leadership. For instance, during the civil rights movement, members of this church put themselves on the line, going regularly to the state assembly and the national government to work to change discriminatory laws. During the Vietnam War, Paint Branchers marched and protested even in the face of angry neighbors and friends. During the black empowerment era, this church provided a large sum of money to help deal with the legacy of racism in our own movement. And more recently, members here have risked the hatred of others for standing up proudly to welcome gay, lesbian and transgendered people into this community. This is a legacy for which the current crop of Paint Branch members can surely be proud.

Our UU churches are built on principles that are easy to mouth, and often hard to live by. Part of our responsibility to you as your ministers is to not only preach the good news of liberal religion, but live by it, too. When our status quo is challenged, we have to be willing to listen, and even change. We can’t just ask you to live these difficult principles; we have to try our best to live by them, too. Sometimes that means we have to make hard decisions.

One of the "big" issues facing our world today is the threat to our planet’s very survival due to pollution, de-forestation, and other actions that harm our environment. If we are to model respect "for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part" then what must we do? Jaco and I, reluctantly sometimes and with a certain amount of grace at other times, try to do a few things at least: we drive only one car, we recycle and compost, and most recently we have tried to give up red meat. It’s not easy. I’m a real carnivore and, as a hypoglycemic, in need of a lot of protein to boot. So, I don’t always succeed. But I am challenged to change by those prophetic voices within our own movement who gently (and sometimes not so gently!) remind me that the planet I am living on is the only one we’ve got.

Where are you challenged to change? What issues push your buttons? Which part of you resists? Where does that resistance come from? UUs are not exempt from living the status quo. Have you heard some of the prophetic voices that Jaco and I have heard? How does it make you feel when someone suggests that driving a Sports Utility Vehicle, or living in a large but single family home, or having more than one child is harmful to our planet? The case can be made that if such behavior continues, our collective existence is severely threatened. Did I push any buttons? Yet this is just one of many issues which UUs are called upon to think about in a serious and reflective way.

But I would also ask you to think about where and when you can be or are prophetic. Do you stand up to those around you who demean people who are different? Do you get involved in the political process to change bad laws? Do you teach your children to stand tall in the face of discrimination and not back down? Do you model both a willingness to adhere strongly to your principles and an ability to change your mind if it is warranted? All of these things and more are ways you can leave your mark on the world, your legacy of prophetic leadership.

Over 150 years ago Theodore Parker took the risk of speaking his truth and living it, too. 46 years ago a small band of pioneers took the tremendous risk of giving birth to a liberal church. Today we must ask ourselves: what will be our legacy—as individuals? as a community?

Standing in the present, as we always must, it is hard to say just what our legacy will be. But it is our hope that this church will be remembered as a place that provided both comfort and challenge to its members. And from that place of healing and prophesying rose up a strong and brave group of people who did not flinch when they were called upon to take a stand or make a change. That legacy started 46 years ago in the hearts of people like Emily and Walker Dawson. May their legacy, and the legacy of other prophetic leaders, live on for generations to come.

Song - #358 "Rank by Rank"


The call to us assembled here is, first, to recognize 46 years of PB legacies: "Honored days and names we reckon; lives that speak and deeds that beckon…"

And second, to recognize the prophethood of all believers: that our voices might be raised where needed to point the way beyond self-indulgence, or oppression, or narrow-mindedness, to the aspiration of a peace-filled awareness of our interdependent unity amid such rich diversity.

This path may be long and hard and fraught with risk, so it is good to come together in worship, to be healed and perhaps challenged anew.

May the days ahead bring you good moments of quiet, to help you discern your own voice even more deeply, that you might help to give life the shape of justice. Please join in singing our closing song, "Spirit of Life."

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