In 1517, a young professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral a document that outlined ninety-five objections to Catholic doctrine and practices. Most objectionable to this theologian was the practice of selling indulgences to raise money. The Church decreed that a person could buy an indulgence – which was a means by which a Priest, Bishop or Pope could declare that the contributor may immediately enter heaven upon dying. One could also buy an indulgence for a deceased relative and save his or her soul from spending centuries in purgatory – which is a waiting area to which Catholics believe souls must stay before entering heaven.
This theologian, whose name was Martin Luther, had committed a revolutionary act. Because of it, he was excommunicated and labeled an outlaw. Luther’s publication of his 95 Theses, as they are called, is considered one of history’s most momentous actions – an act of defiance that forever changed history. Its repercussions impact even us here today. Unitarian Universalism emerged from Protestant belief which originated with Martin Luther’s protest.
The primary theological argument Martin Luther made against the Church was its doctrine that a person is not saved from hell by belief alone. A person must show acts of faith, or good works, in order to prove one’s inner belief. Taking communion, regular confession, prayer, giving to the church, charitable works and clean living are all Catholic requirements to enter Heaven.
Luther, however, argued that the Bible says one is eligible to enter heaven merely by believing. He pointed to a verse in the Biblical Book of John, John 3:16, which is verse often seen on signs that people display for TV cameras at sports games. It says, “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
In other words, if a person believes in Jesus, that he died for one’s sins and was resurrected, then he or she will go to Heaven forever. That’s it. That’s all one need do. Luther pointed to this verse, and to other Bible verses, to claim that just believing – or faith alone – is what makes a person right with God.
And therein lies the rub. Luther was raising a fundamental theological issue – one that has been spiritually debated for thousands of years by multiple religions – and it still is. Is being a good person, is going to heaven a matter of simple belief or a matter of also performing good deeds and following religious duties?
Jesus affirmed the latter. He was a man of action and he encouraged the same. He spoke eloquently about the need to serve others. He did not simply engage in sermonizing. He touched the sick and deformed. He healed. He sat down with and befriended so-called sinners. He lived a life true to his ideals of simplicity and humility. In other words, he acted.
Jesus challenged the talkers of his day – those who piously postured about their morality and generosity – while they ignored real problems all around them. Such people loved to pontificate. They loved to pray aloud for all to hear. They loved to brag about their seemingly large charitable donations when they weren’t sacrificing much at all. The religious hypocrites loved to scurry off to the Temple to worship while passing by and ignoring the hungry, the blind, the lepers, and the poor.
Overall, the point Jesus and other religious prophets like Moses and Mohammad have made is that being a good person, a so-called “godly” person, is a matter of doing. One must offer evidence to the world that one’s inner heart is spiritually true. One doesn’t do that with just a profession of belief, but instead with acts that literally prove one is more loving, caring, giving, serving, humble, gentle, forgiving and peaceful. One may not ever be perfect, but one had best examine whether he or she is at least changing for the better…….
You may ask, why do we need to be concerned about such a seemingly minor theological debate – between believing or acting? As people who respect all beliefs, why does this theological issue matter to us? Ironically, even though Unitarian-Universalism emerged from Protestantism, it rejects the standard Protestant dogma that faith alone is all that matters. We claim that spiritual beliefs are a personal matter and one is never asked to change them so long as one respects the beliefs of others. But more importantly, we hold that since every person has dignity, it’s we who must act to preserve and protect that. Theologically, Unitarian Universalists claim it is us who are the little ‘g’ gods who create goodness and justice in the world.
Where racism, oppression and hate exist, we must both renounce them and practice the opposite – to love and respect everyone. Unitarian spirituality is invested in its actions. Do you say you are a good person? Show it. Do you say you believe in principles of service, humility, equality and compassion? Show it. As one unknown commentator once said, “Actions prove who somebody is. Words just prove who they want to be.”
In that regard, a fundamental hallmark of modern Unitarian Universalism is that spiritual action must be wedded to spiritual belief.
For my three part series this month, I spoke two weeks ago about the power of ideas. We must not fear innovation. We need a continuous flow of new ideas in order to change for the better. Last week, I spoke of the power of character and how true morality is non-judgmental, empathetic and gracious. Good character does not point out the flaws in others – as much as it looks inward to change oneself – while encouraging better character in others through positive reinforcement. To conclude this message series today, I assert that since ideas and character are important, then plugging into the power of action is essential in order to prove them.
This is an important topic for us. Congregations are supposed to be dynamic organizations that do much more than hold Sunday services. They should be vibrant and supercharged with action. As spiritual people, our primary goals should be to positively change ourselves and change the world.
There are several hallmarks of a healthy, action oriented spiritual community. I encourage us to think about these criteria and how they apply to the Gathering at Northern Hills. First, action oriented churches are inwardly strong but outwardly focused. Second, they encourage spiritual insight AND good deeds. Third, they value their impact in the wider community more than they do their number of members or the size of their budget. Fourth, they would be greatly missed by the wider community if they ceased to exist. Fifth and finally, they regularly ask, “Whose lives have been influenced for good because of this spiritual community?”
Interestingly, my thoughts on what constitutes a healthy congregation match those of many young people. In a recent Pew Research analysis, there has been a 70% decline in affiliation with organized spirituality by the millennial generation, those who are ages 18 to 34. What the Pew research discovered is that young people are increasingly disillusioned with contemporary churches, mosques and synagogues. They see religious organizations and people who talk a lot about morality but who do very little to act and address issues such as inequality, poverty, and bigotry. For millennials, religions and spiritual communities are often political and theological advocacy groups – one’s that involve themselves in politics, judgement and moralizing. There is too little emphasis, they say, in doing the social work of Jesus, Muhammad, Gandhi, Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King. Religions, they claim, are not action oriented.
As one twenty-something recently put it, “I don’t want to attend any more churches or be around any more church folks who are all talk and no action. I don’t want one more person telling me they are religious when their actions scream that they are no more concerned with my plight than Attila the Hun. Fake spirituality is everywhere in America, and it’s because it is centered on “self” and what we can get from it. And plenty of pastors preach to that end, too – how we can get more from God while never addressing the issue of what we should be giving back.”
Millennials are often portrayed as self-absorbed. But that stereotype is false. 80% of millennials, based on last year’s tax returns, contributed to a charity. Large numbers of them volunteer for civic and charitable groups. Demographically, they are the most diverse American generation in history – 40% of millennials are non-white. And over 50% of their children are non-white – pointing to an even more diverse future generation. As such, young people want to be a part of organizations that look like them and act like them. Spiritually, millennials desire action over dogma.
What this means for the Gathering at Northern Hills is that we must evaluate and implement new ideas on how to be relevant to young people – if we hope to attract them as members and insure our future. Fortunately, this congregation already meets one criteria millennials expect of spiritual places – we actively work to help the poor, marginalized and distressed.
But our level of compassionate activity can always be increased. As most of you know, the Gathering at Northern Hills partners with local charitable organizations to help them serve. To the Lighthouse Shelter for Homeless Youth, we prepare and serve lunch sixteen times a year. We purchase hygiene supplies for them and our youth assemble those supplies into almost 2000 packets a year that are distributed to homeless youth. We work every month at the Freestone warehouse assembling weekend bags of food for elementary aged children who experience food insecurity. Over the last year, we’ve assembled thousands of such food bags. We prepare lunches for 100 homeless children ages 5 to 10 for a summer camp organized by a local charity called UpSpring. We will be preparing such lunches this year on June 15 and July 13 and many volunteers are needed. Four times a year we help host homeless families by cooking and serving them dinner, playing with their children and spending the night with them. We will hear about this Inter-Faith Hospitality outreach in a few minutes, as a part of our monthly SPARK presentation on ways to get involved in social justice. Last December, we provided over forty holiday gifts to local youth in need – thanks to the organizing efforts of two of our members. And, as was presented at last month’s SPARK third Sunday, and thanks to the work of one of our newest members, we will soon be actively assisting immigrant families in Cincinnati. Several people signed up to help in this effort and I’m excited about ways our congregation will answer anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant attitudes.
And I am constantly thinking of ways we can do more. Just this past week a member told me about four persons in our congregation who, on their own, tutor children at the local Winton Woods elementary school. I know of other members who tutor at other area schools. I plan to follow up on this, publish a training date to be held this summer at Winton Woods, and encourage members from our congregation to spend an hour or two a week tutoring children at risk in our neighboring schools. This will be one additional way we, as spiritual people, can take action and give voice to our belief that insuring the well-being of ALL children is vital. I encourage you to bring to the Social Justice Action Team other ideas on ways to serve the poor, hungry and oppressed.
Our mission is to plug into the power of action because that underpins what we believe. We consider ourselves imperfect people who nevertheless want to improve ourselves and the plight of others. We take spirituality to a high level – what we believe is what we also do. And we must continue and strengthen that approach for our own sake, for the sake of insuring our future by attracting young people, and for the sake of being true to ourselves. We are each ministers to the wider world. We will plug into the power of action. We will preach not with words – but with deeds of compassion and justice. We will walk our talk.
I wish you each much peace and joy.