Why do we do what we do in our Sunday services?

Script of a complete worship service. Reflection copyright Castor Fu. Sermon copyright Dan Harper. Castor Fu and Dan Harper retain the copyright to the questions and answers.

Community Welcome and Announcements

KERENSA FU: Welcome to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, where we come to transform ourselves, each other, and the world. We begin our time together by greeting each other. Please turn and greet someone you haven’t seen in awhile or have never met, if you meet a newcomer, please ask them if they would like you to introduce them to everyone. Newcomers, you do not have to speak yourselves!

Is there anyone who would like to introduce one of our guests? I’ll bring you the microphone….Let’s all say welcome to everybody. WELCOME!

Guests, please stay for refreshments and conversation after the service. At the Information Table, with the red tablecloth (POINT), you can get a name-tag and answers to your questions about UUCPA from a friendly volunteer.

I have one very important announcement. I’m Kerensa Fu, this is my father, Castor Fu, and this is Dan Harper. The question we will be asking in this morning’s service is — Why do we do what we do in our Sunday services?

CASTOR FU: Dan, I have a question. Why do we have announcements in our service?

DAN HARPER: Our congregation traces its history back to the old established churches in New England in the Colonial era. Those old churches didn’t have access to cheap printing so they didn’t have printed orders of service, nor did they have telephones, email, or social media. If you wanted everyone in the congregation to hear an announcement, you had to make a spoken announcement in the Sunday service. Some twenty-first century Unitarian Universalist congregations have eliminated spoken announcements during their Sunday services, but we still hold on to this historical artifact.

KERENSA: And now, let us begin our service.

Prelude

Chalice Lighting and Centering Words — KERENSA

CASTOR: Dan, is lighting the chalice a Unitarian or Universalist thing?

DAN: Lighting a flaming chalice in the Sunday service is a ritual peculiar to Unitarian Universalists. It can probably be traced back to the Charles Street Meetinghouse, an innovative Universalist church in the 1950s. But the practice of lighting a flaming chalice during Sunday services didn’t become widespread until the 1990s.

My mother, who was born a Unitarian, didn’t like the flaming chalice — her generation of Unitarians tried to get irrational symbols out of our churches. I remember the first time we saw a flaming chalice lit in my home church — my mother shook her head, and muttered under her breath, “Graven images.” For this or other reasons, there are probably a few of our congregations that still do not use a flaming chalice. But today, most Unitarian Universalists like the flaming chalice, and feel it is a part of who we are.

Hymn — KERENSA introduces

Caring and Sharing — KERENSA leads

CASTOR: Dan, I have a question about Caring and Sharing; is it a Christian thing, a UU thing? At a lot of faith communities we visited with the middle school Neighboring Faith Communities class, we saw people would just light candles in silence.

DAN: It’s more commonly called “Joys and Concerns,” and it is a wide-spread custom in Unitarian Universalist congregations, and also in liberal mainline Protestant Christian churches. I don’t know where the custom came from, but I suspect Joy and Concerns spread during the feminist revolution that swept through both Unitarian Universalist congregations and liberal Christian churches beginning in the 1970s, when we decided we didn’t need a male authority figure (most ministers in those days were men) telling us about our own births, death, and illnesses.

Not all Unitarian Universalist congregations do Joys and Concerns the way we do. I remember going to services at the Arlington Street church ten or twenty years ago, and their practice was just as you described it: people went forward in silence to light candles. But the Arlington Street Church had a good reason for doing it that way: they had the first openly gay minister of any church in Boston, and during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s there would be lines of people extending the entire length of the church — and this is a church that seats some 600 people — waiting to light a candle for someone who was sick or dead or dying. Actually, in our own congregation, at times in the autumn and winter when attendance is high, the worship leader has to cut Caring and Sharing short because there isn’t enough time for everyone to speak.

Reading — KERENSA
[Not included here due to copyright.]

CASTOR: Dan, I have a question about readings…why do we sometimes have readings in our services?

DAN: Our congregation traces its historical roots back to the Puritan churches of colonial New England, and each week those old churches had a reading from the Bible that the minister would then expound upon for two or three hours. Sometimes the sermons ranged far afield from the Bible, as when Rev. Samuel West of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, began preaching outright rebellion against England starting in the 1770s. Samuel West’s church became a Unitarian church around 1800 — by the time that church called radical abolitionist John Weiss as minister in 1847, they had become a post-Christian church, and didn’t bother too much with the Bible. But as Unitarian Universalists became post-Christian, we retained the old custom of having readings from religious literature. In our congregation, most of our readings from religious literature come during the centering words, but sometimes we have readings just before the sermon or reflection — just as Samuel West did during the American Revolution.

Reflection — CASTOR
Copyright (c) 2017 Castor Fu; Castor’s actual reflection differed from the text reproduced here.

For the last two years I’ve been helping teach our Neighboring Faiths class. That means I got to go with middle school students to see other church services. I’ve got to go to a Muslim masjid, a Sikh gurdwara, a Quaker gathering, and Memorial Church. Each time we go on a field trip, even if it’s to someplace I’ve been before, I see things I hadn’t seen before.

At first I was fascinated just to see things which I’d heard or read about.

I thought it was great to see up close “communion” for example. The western culture class I had had focused on the idea of Transubstantiation, where bread and wine miraculously transformed into the blood and body of Christ. That seemed incomprehensible to me, because I had focused on it literally. Being there in person seeing the ritual of people silently lining up solemnly moving forward and receiving the host while organ music played and the choir sang was completely different, creating space for meditative contemplation.

I could relate it to our own flower communion and water communion ceremonies, which certainly developed (or perhaps as UU’s we might say evolved). But as time went on, and also from interesting discussions as a member of the Committee on Ministry, I found it interesting to think of these not just as historical artifacts, but also as a program which is actively created by people. Yes, ministers are people.

So as we see each of these elements, some we may like, some we don’t. So maybe ask yourself how did it get there? And remember that someone made a choice.

For example, we saw many different ways churches to deal with their finances. Here, we have a token offering, as a small reminder. In one of the catholic churches, we saw that they were literally keeping score of the amount brought in by different services. In a Mormon service, they didn’t collect money at all at the service at all, even though they are known to be pretty observant about tithing. But they did But they had a lengthy portion where they recognized the service that different members had provided or were going to be providing. In the Mormon congregation, it’s all lay led. There is no minister on the payroll. So they work hard to make sure that volunteers are recognized.

As we look at these pieces we can think about the reasons behind different elements.

Is it ritual, where repetition brings both a familiarity and a sense of order? Is the goal to emphasize community, trying to bring people together? Could it be providing space, space for other thoughts to grow? Could it be to share wisdom? Perhaps through a story or an analogy.

Hymn — KERENSA introduces

CASTOR: Dan, I have a question about singing hymns, why do we all sing, or at least try to in my case?

DAN: In Western culture, singing in worship services is a hard-won right gained during the Protestant Reformation. Prior to that, the only voices you were allowed to hear in a Western religious service were the voices of priests, or the voices of choirs and soloists under the control of priests. Five hundred years ago this year, Martin Luther started the Protestant revolution, and he insisted on the priesthood of all believers. One result of that insistence was that the voices of ordinary people were finally heard in Western religious services. The tendency continues to evolve, and our Unitarian Universalist feminist revolution took us even further, challenging the notion that only experts can do things like sing, and challenging us to make our religion be fully embodied, as it is when we sing.

There are also physiological reasons to sing together. Unitarian Universalist choral director Nick Page says the roots of group singing lie far back in our evolutionary history. And a recent article in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (vol. 160, p. 21) reports on an experiment showing how synchronized experiences enhance peer cooperation; the authors state: “Music making is … a joint creation that encourages flexibility in the face of changing patterns and dynamics.”

Castor, you say that you “try to sing,” and that points to a real problem: in today’s society we learn how to consume music, or to perform music, but not how to make music together. Fortunately, our congregation offers opportunities to learn how to sing in groups: we have two different Sunday afternoon singing groups, and our choir warmly welcomes anyone who wants to sing, regardless of skill level.

Sermon — “Why Do We Do THAT in the Sunday Service?” — DAN
Sermon copyright (c) 2017 Dan Harper.

The question that we are posing in today’s service is this: “Why do we do THAT in the Sunday service?” I’m going to try to give a few answers to this question. Mind you, I’m not going to try to provide THE answer, the final complete and utterly true answer, because there isn’t one. I’ll start by talking about our ideals, and then I’ll talk about some pragmatic and even trivial things. But although I will give you some provisional answers, my real goal is to get you thinking and wondering about why our services are the way they are.

Let me start off by repeating that we Unitarian Universalists are no longer Christians — we got kicked out of the Christian club about two hundred years ago, when we started thinking that it was necessary to get away from blind reliance on some authority figure who told us what to think and feel; as a result, we stopped affirming the Nicene creed. The Christians looked at us in horror, and said, “But you can’t be Christian unless you believe the Nicene Creed.” But we had learned the Nicene creed was something the Roman emperor shoved down the throats of the Christians in the fourth century as a condition for becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire; we had learned that creeds were fallible human inventions and we preferred to seek after truth and goodness on our own.

In short, we Unitarians and Universalists rebel against blind obedience to authority, and we have consistently refused to have creeds. We do have the so-called “Principles and Purposes,” which are printed just after the table of contents in the gray hymnal. But the two most critical sections of the “Principles and Purposes” were NOT printed in the hymnal, so I’m going to read them to you now:

First: “Systems of power, privilege, and oppression have traditionally created barriers for persons and groups with particular identities, ages, abilities, and histories. We pledge to replace such barriers with ever-widening circles of solidarity and mutual respect. We strive to be an association of congregations that truly welcome all persons and commit to structuring congregational and associational life in ways that empower and enhance everyone’s participation.”

And second: “Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.”

These two statements, flawed though they might be, represent important ideals that shape our worship services, and they shape our unique identity.

The first statement has deepest roots in our Universalist heritage. The old eighteenth century Universalists shocked their Christian neighbors by declaring God was love, and therefore God would never condemn anyone to hell. Their Christian neighbors said in reply, “But if there’s no threat of hell, what’s to keep human beings from doing evil?” To which the Universalists replied, “Evil is OUR responsibility. It is not up to some Daddy God to make us behave well; WE have to make OURSELVES behave well.” This ideal of radical love drove a few nineteenth century Universalists to become radical abolitionists, because if God loved everybody equally, that meant God loved black people the same as white people. And this ideal drove the nineteenth century Universalists to be the first denomination to officially sanction the ordination of a woman, because here again women were just as worthy of God’s love as were men. These days, we may not talk about God very much — but we are still focused on the ideal of radical love: that all persons are worthy of love, and somehow we have to create a human community that embodies this love.

As to the second statement, that “nothing … shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief”: this comes from both our Unitarian and Universalist heritages. In its most debased form, this gets stated as: “No one can tell me what to believe!” But doing away with creeds is a far more radical act than the childish sentiment, “You can’t tell me what to believe!” No, this is a radical act that requires us to come together as a community of inquirers, knowing that no single person can ever serve as an ultimate authority, but also knowing that the way to make progress towards the truth is to share our knowledge and test the insights others have had, and build upon those insights. So this is no infantile individualism, but rather a freedom of belief related to the growth of knowledge that can come from scientific communities. Except that we cannot test our answers through peer-reviewed journals, because we are asking subjective, personal questions like: Who am I, what is my identity? and: What is the best way for me to live my life? and: Why is there suffering, and what can I do about it?

So it is that these two ideals help shape our Sunday services:– We want to create a human community that reflects our ideal that all persons are worthy of love; and we want to create a community of inquirers that encourages us to share and test our insights so that we can make sense out of the world, make sense out of our own actions, and progress in our search for truth and goodness.

 

By now it should be obvious that our ideals sometimes prompt us to REFUSE to do certain things in our service. In other words, sometimes there are things missing from our services because of our ideals. Let me give you a couple of examples:

First, one thing we do NOT do is we do NOT have bits of the service that are only accessible to people who have some kind of special knowledge. Thus, all the language in our services is common everyday language; we do not use Latin, like some Catholics, and we do not use Old Church Slavonic, like some Russian Orthodox churches; we want everyone to understand everything that we do in the service. However, in today’s increasingly multicultural world this impulse is leading us in some interesting directions. We have a good many non-native speakers of English in our congregation, and so we sometimes use languages other than English in our services, typically accompanied by an English translation; we have used Spanish, German, and Mandarin in this fashion. But we do NOT use obsolete, archaic languages: we want everyone here to understand.

Another thing that we do NOT do is we do NOT have any secret bits in our service that only certain people are allowed to participate in. Some Christian churches do not allow everyone to participate in communion; some Buddhists have certain rites or practices that only initiates can participate in; and so on. by contrast, we want everyone to participate in everything, as much as we can make that happen. The technical term for this is that we are an exoteric religion, not an esoteric religion.

 

I must also tell you that sometimes we do things in our services, not out of our ideals, but for historical reasons, or practical reasons, or because something evolved randomly. I’ll give you an example:

We have three main pieces of music in our service: the prelude, the offertory, and the postlude. The original purpose of these pieces of music was entirely practical; they were what we might call traveling music: the prelude covered up the sound of footsteps as people came into the service; the offertory covered up the sound of the ushers walking around collecting money; and the postlude covered up the sounds of people going out of the service. In some Unitarian Universalist congregations, that’s still the way it’s done. But in our congregation, we like our musicians so much that we want to sit and listen to them play. So now we have the prelude after people have come in and seated themselves (unless you come in late); and we sit still for the postlude, then after the postlude we applaud for our musicians as if this were a concert performance. The prelude, offertory, and postlude are examples of things that originally had practical reasons behind them, but which have since been subject to random evolution.

 

To conclude, then: Some of the things we do in our Sunday services embody our highest ideals; some of the things we DON’T do in our services also reflect our highest ideals; and some of the things we do in our services are there for purely practical or historical reasons, or no reason at all.

As I wind up this sermon, I realize that I’ve said nothing about why our services include a sermon. Well, part of the reason we have a sermon in our services is to live out our ideals: the sermon should be one locus of the ongoing conversation we have together as a community of inquirers seeking after truth and goodness. Part of the reason we have a sermon is historical: the Christian tradition we came out of had sermons to explain Christian doctrine and beliefs. And part of the reason we have a sermon is practical: most religions in North America with regular services include something that looks like a sermon (though it might be called a dharma talk or the “platform” or some other name).

And as I wind up this sermon, I also realize that an hour is not enough time to give a full answer to the question “Why do we do THAT in our services?” So we don’t have time to talk about what we do in special services, like next week’s Water Communion service, or the Flower Celebration we do in the springtime. I am also very aware that the answers I have given in this sermon are partial and incomplete; if our senior minister, Amy Zucker Morgenstern, did a sermon on the same topic she would give you more information. With this latter point in mind, there are other people I would like to hear speak on this topic: anthropologist Don Brenneis, and psychologist Susan Owicki, and artist Lynn Grant, to name just a few.

But I hope that I have at least prompted to you ask yourself: Why do we do THAT in our Sunday services? I hope that by asking this question, you are drawn into a deeper examination of what it means to be a part of a religious community committed to an ongoing search for truth and goodness. And I hope that together we may strengthen our commitment to the radical love that causes us to try to root out evil wherever we find it.

 

CASTOR: Dan, now that you are done with the sermon, I have a question about why we take an offering during the service. What good does it do to give a dollar? I noticed the Mormons do not do this, and they seem to take tithing very seriously.

DAN: Like the Mormons, we trace our historical roots back to the early Christians; they took offerings of food, not money, food which became a meal that everyone got to eat together: so the offering was actually a social justice project: rich people in the church brought more food than poor people, and if you were poor you knew you’d get at least one good meal a week. (It’s worth remembering in this context that at our Second Sunday lunches and Fourth Sunday brunches we ask for a VOLUNTARY donation; some people give MORE than is asked, and some people can’t afford to put any money in the basket, and so we break even; in my opinion Second Sunday lunches and Fourth Sunday brunches are thus historically related to the offering.)

What good does it do to give a dollar? Well, we have people in our congregation who are on very limited incomes, and a dollar is a LOT of money for them; indeed, social scientists have shown that low income people generally give a greater percentage of their income to charity than do upper middle class people. You mentioned tithing, which means giving ten percent of your income away. For some people, a dollar is tithing, and there are other people who could give a hundred dollars or more a week and that wouldn’t be a tithe. Thus, it’s not the dollar amount, it’s the relative amount that matters most.

Offering — KERENSA
As a part of the free church tradition, we accept no money from any governmental body, nor do we receive money from any ecclesiastical authority, in order that we shall remain free to govern ourselves. In addition to their annual pledges, each week our members and friends may choose to give an additional contribution as a public witness that we are, and shall remain, a free church.

Offertory — Musicians

Hymn — KERENSA introduces

CASTOR: Dan, we’re about to extinguish the chalice. Why do we do that?

DAN: Extinguishing the chalice is something that was started in the 1990s by Elizabeth Selle Jones; she was a Unitarian Universalist minister who insisted that if you light the chalice at the beginning of a service, then you have to extinguish it at the end. I never agreed with Elizabeth’s reasoning, but I do think it’s a pleasant ritual, and a nice way to end the service.

Chalice Extinguishing — KERENSA
[#705 in the gray hymnal]

Postlude — Musicians

[DURING THE POSTLUDE, Castor and Dan stay at the front of the Main Hall for one more question and answer, while Kerensa takes the handheld mic and walks to the back of the Main Hall to give the unison benediction.]

CASTOR: Wait, there’s more? Why do we have a benediction, and a chalice extinguishing, and a postlude, and sometimes even a sung benediction?!

DAN: Yes, sometimes it feels like this is the service that never ends. All these things — extinguishing the chalice, the postlude, the sung benediction when the choir is present, and the unison benediction — got included in our services for good reasons, but all of them together might feel a little awkward if you stop to think about it. This is a perfect example of the random evolution of the service. I guess I’d say that maybe we don’t have to think through EVERYTHING in the service; some things, to use an expression of my Pennsylvania Dutch forebears, are “just for nice.”

Unison Benediction — KERENSA [from the back of the Main Hall]
Please rise in body or in spirit, join hands as you are willing and able, and let us say together the unison benediction. There is an insert in your order of service with the benediction in three languages; please read whichever language you are comfortable with.

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings