This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.
The first reading is from the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the entry dated August 23, 1901:
“I sometimes ask myself why, after all, I go to church so regularly. Well, I go for a jumble of reasons, some of which are very good, and others very flimsy and ashamed of themselves. It’s the respectable thing to do — this is one of the flimsy ones — and I would be branded a black sheep if I didn’t go. Then, in this quiet uneventful land, church is really a social function and the only regular one we have. We get out, see our friends and are seen of them, and air our best clothes which otherwise would be left for the most part to the tender mercies of moth and rust.
“Oh, you miserable reasons! Now for a few better ones!
“I go to church because I think it well to shut the world out from my soul now and then and look my spiritual self squarely in the face. I go because I think it well to search for truth everywhere, even if we never find it in its entirety; and finally I go because all the associations of the church and service make for good and bring the best that is in me to the surface — the memories of old days, old friends, childish aspirations for the beautiful and sacred. All these come back, like the dew of some spiritual benediction — and so I go to church.”
[The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery: Volume I: 1889-1910, ed. Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 262]
The second reading is from A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone:
“Because the church knows that the world is where human beings are dehumanized, it can neither retreat from the world nor embrace it. Retreating is tantamount to a denial of its calling to share in divine liberation….
“…There is no place for sheltered piety. Who can “pray” when all hell has broken loose and human existence is being trampled underfoot by evil forces? Prayer takes on new meaning. It has nothing to do with those Bible verses that rulers utter before eating their steaks, in order to remind themselves that they are religious and have not mistreated anybody. Who can thank God for food when we know that our brothers and sisters are starving as we dine like kings?
“Prayer is not kneeling morning, noon, and evening. This is a tradition that is characteristic of whites; they use it to reinforce the rightness of their destruction of blacks. Prayer is the spirit that is evident in all oppressed communities when they know that they have a job to do. It is the communication with the divine that makes them know that they have very little to lose in the fight against evil and a lot to gain…. To retreat from the world is to lose one’s life and become what others say we are.
“Embracing the world is also a denial of the gospel. The history of traditional Christianity… show the danger of this procedure. Identifying the rise of nationalism with Christianity, capitalism with the gospel, or exploration of outer space with the advancement of the kingdom of God serves only to enhance the oppression of the weak….
“The difficulty of defining the meaning of the church and it involvement in the world stems from the unchurchly behavior of institutional white churches. They have given the word “church” a bad reputation for those interested in fighting against human suffering. Because of the unchristian behavior of persons who say they are Christians, “church” in America may very well refer to respectable murderers, who destroy human dignity while “worshipping” God and feeling no guilt about it.”
This morning, I had planned to preach a sermon titled “Spirit of the Sea”; it was to be a sermon on Buddhism, but I realized I needed to do more reading and study before I could pull it off. And then I found myself tangled up in what felt to me to be a more urgent question. That more urgent question was quite simple: Why go to church? Although attendance at Unitarian Universalist churches has been slowly creeping upwards for the pat twenty-five years, generally speaking here in the United States we have been seeing a trend of declining church attendance. And declining church attendance is only one manifestation of the wider social phenomenon of general civic disengagement. Here in the United States, people are pulling back from all organized groups, not just churches.
The effect of all this is straightforward and personal. Those of us who do go to church have to deal with friends and family members who ask us: So — why do you go to church?
Perhaps if we were traditional Christians, we’d have an easy traditional answer: We’d say, We go to church to worship God and to acknowledge (what is the traditional formula?) Jesus as our Lord and Savior — that’s what we might say if we happened to be traditional Christians. In fact, there are some Unitarian Universalists who are fairly traditional Christians, and who might in fact give that answer for themselves. But if we’re going to speak more generally, we have to recognize that the majority of us Unitarian Universalists do not believe in a traditional Christian God, and so we do not say that the reason to go to a Unitarian Universalist church to worship God.
So why do we go to church?
1. In the late 19th C., it would have been easier for us to answer this question. Not that we would have given the traditional Christian answer. Here in First Unitarian, there were already a significant number of people who did not believe in a traditional Christian God by the middle of the 19th C. John Weiss, minister here from 1847-1859, was a radical Transcendentalist — the scholar Gary Dorrien has called him an advocate of “post-Christian” religion. Weiss’s successor here, William Potter, who finally retired in 1892 was almost as radical as Weiss. Thus, by the mid-19th C., you would not say that people came to this church was to worship God — because many of them, including the ministers, did not.
But in the 19th C., it was unlikely that anyone would ask you why you went to church. There were many more reasons to go to church than there are now. We heard some of those reasons in the first reading. You went to church because in a small, quiet city like this one, church was one of the only regular social functions. In a history of this church written in 1938, William Emery spoke of this when he recalled what it was like to attend church when he was a boy in the late 19th C.: “And then those late Sunday night vespers! Held in an era when the world was not full of diversions that kept people away from the evening service, vespers were always a center of attraction, for the young people as well as the elders. High School boys might have gone chiefly for the especial purpose of escorting the girls home — the stag line formed on the sidewalk — but they went, and the church was filled.” Thus it was that in the youth of William Emery, people went to church because it was a social function: they went to see their friends, to show off their best clothes, perhaps to flirt a little bit. We have so many leisure-time activities now that the old social function of church is no longer so important; but once it was very important.
In the first reading this morning, we heard another reason why people went to church: because it was the respectable thing to do. This reason continued to be in force right the middle part of the 20th C. My Unitarian mother once told me that she had been brought up with the dictum that once she grew up, she would be expected to attend the nearest Unitarian church whether she liked it or not. And in the 1950’s, when she got a teaching job in Wilmington, Delaware, she went to the Wilmington Unitarian church, and when she was asked to teach Sunday school, she did so — because that was what one did. Many people went to church in the 1950’s, simply because it was the respectable thing to do. I once heard someone describe it this way: in the 1950’s, it was as if a dump truck backed up to the front door of your church and delivered a whole batch of newcomers every week. You didn’t have to be all that welcoming, you didn’t have to advertise — in the 1950’s, people showed up at your church because that’s what people did in the 1950’s. This was true throughout society. The decade of the 1950’s was a high point of civic engagement in the United States: you went to church, you joined a bowling league, you did volunteer work, you belonged to social clubs. Nobody asked why you went to church: you went because everybody went, and it was the respectable thing to do.
The late 19th C. and the 1950’s represent high points of church membership and attendance here at First Unitarian. Almost nobody asked why you went to church, because it was taken as a given in the wider society that people just went to church. But now we are in a time when fewer and fewer people actually do go to church. According to polls taken in the last decade, maybe two fifths of the United States population go to church once a month or more. Maybe one fifth of the United States population goes to church every week. We know from sociological studies like the book Bowling Alone that this is part of a wider pattern of civic disengagement. And so nowadays we find ourselves having to answer the question: Why do you go to church?
2. Lucy Maud Montgomery offers three more reasons why we might go to church. Even though she was writing more than a hundred years ago, I find her reasons still hold up today. She says:
“ I go to church because I think it well to shut the world out from my soul now and then and look my spiritual self squarely in the face.  I go because I think it well to search for truth everywhere, even if we never find it in its entirety; …  I go because all the associations of the church and service make for good and bring the best that is in me to the surface.”
We can group these three reasons together under the general heading of “Personal Reasons”. You will notice that Lucy Maud Montgomery does not mention anything about worshipping God, or accepting Jesus as some sort of personal savior. Nor does she say that by going to church she is going to somehow make the world a better place. Instead, she gives three reasons that have to do with her own self. Let’s consider each of these reasons.
First, she says she goes to church to shut out the outside world for a short time and look her spiritual self in the face. She does not pretend that she could do this entirely on her own; she is wise and knows that it’s very easy to fool yourself about your personal spiritual progress. All the major world religions have a strong communal component to them, because we human beings seem to need the presence of other human beings to be entirely truthful with ourselves. I know I find it easy to tell myself what a great guy I am. But then I go to church, a community where we talk about the highest standards of moral conduct and spiritual progress, and I find that I fall quite short of being a great guy; I may be a great guy in one or two places in my life, but in many more I do not live up to the highest moral standards nor the highest standards of spiritual progress. So, like Lucy Maud Montgomery, I go to church so that I can have a good honest look at who I really am. Mind you, this isn’t about feeling guilty, it’s about being honest with yourself. It’s not always pleasant, but I have found it to be better than deluding myself.
Second, Lucy Maud Montgomery says she goes to church because she thinks it well to search for truth, even if we never quite find truth in its entirety. She does not think that she can do this on her own, even though she was a writer and a particularly thoughtful person; when she says that she goes to church to search for truth, she is saying that the search for truth must be a communal affair. Scientists and scholars tell us the same thing: science and scholarship depend on having communities of inquirers investigating questions together. Not that churches are meant to investigate scientific or scholarly truths; churches are places where we investigate what it means for you and me to be human; churches are places where we investigate big issues of morality and reality; churches are places where we link the big truths to our own personal lives. This may not be true for you, but personally I’d say this is my chief personal reason for going to church: to search for truth.
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s third personal reason for going to church is because the service brings out the best in her. I have my own ideas why I think this is so. According to the sociologist Mark Chaves, in his comprehensive 2004 study Congregations in America, “whether or not worshippers know it, and whether or not people generally come to congregations and worship services in search of art or beauty, a substantial amount of artistic activity in fact occurs in congregations, and congregations both inside and outside of worship thereby expose large numbers of people to art.” [p. 179] Chaves goes on to say that churches are one of the primary venues for the arts in United States culture today. So art is a part of churches.
For me, the whole purpose of art is to bring out the best in persons; at least, I seek out art as a way of reminding myself of the best that is in me. In our congregation, we emphasize art quite a bit. In our church, we get to hear the finest church musicians I have had the pleasure of working with, and we also have other excellent musicians and a Folk Choir that continues to impress me; we have a really quite extraordinary building, and this fine Tiffany mosaic behind me; I try to make an effort to include excellent poetry and prose and the greatest religious literature in our worship services, church being one of the few venues where you get to hear great literature read aloud. Spoken word, visual art and architecture, music — and maybe someday we’ll include occasional bits of drama and dance. The arts are central to who we are as a congregation; and the appreciation of the arts brings out the best that is in us.
These, then, are three personal reasons for going to church: to take a good honest look at our spiritual selves; to seek together after truth; and to bring out the best in our selves. If someone asks you why you go to church, you could give any one of these answers. Or you could even simply say that you go to church to save your soul — although you would mean something utterly different than the traditional Christian sense of saving souls; you would mean to be the best person you can.
3. The second reading this morning, from the book A Black Theology of Liberation by the African American theologian James Cone, offers yet another powerful reason for going to church. He says we go to church to fight human suffering. I think he would be a little impatient with the three personal reasons for going to church that we have just heard. He is certainly critical of praying morning, noon, and night — something he says that white churches do as a way of reinforcing their destruction of other people. He says: “There is no place for sheltered piety. Who can ‘pray’ when all hell has broken loose and human existence is being trampled underfoot by evil forces? Prayer takes on new meaning.”
James Cone is right to take some churches to task for ignoring racism and the oppression of people of color. And after he wrote his book, back in 1970, he was himself taken to task by feminists, both black and white, for leaving women out of his book; for women might equally well ask, Who can ‘pray’ when all hell has broken loose and women, of all skin colors, are being trampled underfoot by evil forces? Later James Cone came to agree with this point, and he wrote: “Black theology is not only a force against racism but also against sexism and any evil done in the name of God and humanity.” Here is this church, we might add a few other evils done in the name of God and humanity. We might talk about the evil that is done in the name of God and humanity against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. We might talk about the evil that is done in the name of God and humanity against poor people — and let’s face it, these days the evil that is done against working class and middle class people as well. Or the evil done against people with different physical and mental abilities. Here in the United States, racism deserves our special attention, and we must acknowledge that; but as religious persons, we also want to be sure to extend James Cones’s theology of liberation to anybody who is being trampled underfoot by evil forces.
All this leads us to another reason why we go to church:–
James Cone tells us that a church that takes liberation seriously does not withdraw from the world; neither does that church embrace the world. We go to church to be in the world, but not entirely of the world. If all we cared about was our own personal spiritual and religious progress, we could remove ourselves from the world and go to those wonderful weekend spiritual retreats, way off in one of those countryside retreat centers, where you get to do personal spiritual practices to your heart’s content. Or if all we cared about was engaging with the world and doing social justice, we wouldn’t waste our time in church, we’d just go off and do social justice on Sunday mornings.
One extreme is to retreat from the world; the other extreme is to plunge completely into the world. But we follow a middle way. Yes, we stay in touch with that which is highest in best in humanity, which some of us call God: the arts help us to do that, taking the time to seek after truth helps us to do that, taking a good honest look at our spiritual selves helps us to do that. And we also engage the world, we take those insights out into the world and fight evil and human suffering.
So we try to find a balance between retreat and engagement. We are a church, and that is different from being a non-profit social justice organization that efficiently delivers social services or efficiently engages in affecting public policy. We are a churchy, and that is different from being a spiritual retreat center. We attempt to maintain a balance between doing social justice on the one hand, and staying in touch with what is highest and best in humanity on the other hand. And it’s a balance — we’ll always be teetering to one side or the other, we’re never going to get it exactly right, and it will always be a little bit different for every individual among us.
Yet notice that there are concrete things we do right now to fight injustice. Our church is a training ground for leadership and organization — churches are one of the best places to learn the leadership and organizational skills necessary in non-profits or to affect public policy. Our church is a place where we combine our individual voices into one voice big enough (we hope) to affect public policy; as we did recently during the fight to retain the right to same sex marriage here in the state of Massachusetts. And our church can be a conduit for helping to provide direct social services to those in need, as we do with the thrift shop in the basement, and our soup kitchen crew, and the food pantry box, and the money we periodically collect for non-profit agencies. Each of these is a concrete way that we remain engaged — while staying apart from, and critical of, the world.
So it is that when someone asks you why you go to church, one valid response you can give is this: I go to church to save the world.
And now that we are almost done, I think this counts as my annual sermon about why we should support our church financially, since the reasons I go to church are the same reasons I give two and one half percent of my gross annual income to the church.
Why do we go to church? In our society, as fewer people do go to church, we find ourselves having to answer this question. Why do we go to church? We go to church to see our friends, and maybe some of us go to church because it is the respectable thing to do. We go to church for personal reasons: to look honestly at our spiritual selves, to seek together after truth, and to bring out the best in our selves. We go to church to gain perspective while remaining engaged with the world, remaining engaged in the fight to end human suffering.
We go to church to save our own selves, and we go to church to save the world. That’s why I go to church.