Thursday, February 28, 2013

“Looking Behind, Looking Ahead”

A Sermon for the 180th Anniversary of
First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans
The Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger
Sunday, February 24, 2013
Only two years after being seated on the Mississippi Presbytery as the minister of First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, The Rev. Theodore Clapp had formal charges of heresy and immoral conduct lodged against him.  The proceedings ground on for 6 long years, back and forth.  Finally, Parson Clapp, as he was familiarly known, was convicted of heresy (the immorality charge was dropped) in December of 1832.
It was a fair verdict – Parson Clapp WAS a heretic.  In his sermons, he had denied the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity, asserted that Sabbath observance was optional, and said he did not believe in intercessory prayer.  Perhaps even more disturbing to the Presbyterian authorities was his rejection of hell and the doctrine of eternal damnation (he was famously inspired to universalism while at a party at a parishioner's home). 
News traveled slowly those days.  Word of Clapp’s conviction did not reach New Orleans until February of 1833.  Meetings were held – and we have to assume in the homes of members as well as at church – and many discussions ensued.  (Good thing they had neither email nor parking lots.) 
As with any issue in any church at any time, people were divided.  There were folks were wanted to keep Parson Clapp as minister and those who were appalled by his heresy.  On February 26, 1833, a majority of the congregation voted to keep Clapp and to remove their congregation from the Presbyterian faith.  (The minority retained their ties to Presbyterianism, and their descendants are our neighbors at First Presbyterian across Claiborne Avenue.)  In 1837, the congregation was listed in the directory of the American Unitarian Association, and has remained ever since as a Unitarian, and later as a Unitarian Universalist, church.
 Since February 26, 1833, this congregation has weathered countless church fights, 6 major wars (the congregation really had to struggle to survive the Civil War and the Vietnam War, a hundred years apart), several local epidemics (Parson Clapp’s close observations of mass deaths in his diaries are still taught in epidemiology at Tulane Med School), and many cultural and social issues – emancipation, women’s suffrage, humanism, integration and civil rights, second-wave feminism, gay rights, paganism, the environment, to name a few -- that resulted in congregational conflicts.  The church has also survived and overcome bankruptcy, a fire, a firebombing, lack of building maintenance, a major church split, and of course the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.  We have had 2 ministers with tenure over 30 years, and a large number of short-term ministries, especially during periods of stress, such as after the Civil War and during the Depression.   (Our current average ministry, not counting interims, since Rev. Albert D’Orlando’s retirement in 1979 is slightly over 6 years.)
Even during Parson Clapp’s ministry, when so many non-members attended services that the church’s nickname was The Strangers Church, the actual official membership has been rather small.  With the exception of a short post-World War II period of the Baby Boom, the church has never had a large bustling membership.  And yet, over our history our church has had an outsize impact on the important justice issues of our day in every era.
At this time, the week of our 180th anniversary as a heretical progressive religious congregation, we look back at our past to gain inspiration and hope.  We know what our church’s ancestors faced, and what they managed to overcome.  We draw the spiritual conclusion that we can certainly overcome whatever challenges we have to face in the present, since our current troubles really don’t seem as bad as what we’ve already triumphed over.
We learn a spiritual lesson from our looking back – that it’s important that the majority of church members prevail when there’s a conflict.  Conflicts are messy and uncomfortable, and conflicts are usually NOT what most folks come to church for – but only by sticking with the church through such hard times can the congregational majority achieve what they want.  It was a minority in the church who wanted to stay Presbyterian and get rid of Parson Clapp; it was a minority who disliked the methods and message of Rev. D’Orlando; it was a minority who were afraid of what standing up publicly for gay rights would mean.  But because congregational decisions were arrived at democratically, the majority was able to move ahead in the directions they had chosen for themselves.  Democracy in all its complications and participation when the going gets gets rough become for us a spiritual discipline, and like most spiritual disciplines, hard to stick to.
Another lesson we learn from First Church history is that there are few quiet times in liberal religious life.  While some of us might long sometimes for the quiet meditative sort of spirituality characteristic of Quakerism or Buddhism or cloistered Christianity, Unitarian Universalism is usually NOT that kind of faith and New Orleans is not that kind of city.  We are a religion of action, a religion of words, and quite often, a religion of conflict, in a city vibrant with sound and music and coping always with the mechanisms of change.
A third important learning from First Church’s past that we carry forward with us is the importance of our young people.  Especially since the 20th century, and I would especially lift up the interim ministry of Rev. Krista Taves, the education of our children and their participation in the life of the church has been a major hallmark of our religious identity, and since Hurricane Katrina, an important engine of our recovery and renewal.  If we were not known in the community and among the other local UU churches for high-quality, professional religious education for children and a lively group for youth, we would be a much, much smaller congregation than we are.  And it is not just in numbers that our young people have enriched us – they have brought major issues to our attention with their passion and commitment.
We look forward also assured that while social justice issues can certainly rile up the folks and cause a ruckus, they also energize and revitalize our wider ministries.  I cannot tell you how wonderful it is for me to go places in the city and have strangers congratulate me on the things First Church stands for.  This city needs and wants our voices and our bodies, and we are strengthened by adding our partnerships in the Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal, the Greater New Orleans UU cluster, and the New Orleans AIDS Task Force as part of our public ministry.
What lies in our future no one knows, but we can perhaps discern some patterns.  The largest and healthiest churches in our denomination have long stable ministries, so that is something we ought to strive for (no matter who that minister is) as we also work towards financial stability.  It has been predicted at one UU conference recently that the coming trend is conjoined congregations in one locality, reducing duplication of effort and sharing resources and even paid staff – so we may want to look to make our connections with the Greater New Orleans UU cluster even stronger.  First Church has spent a large of our history disconnected from the wider UU movement, and yet the UU friendships we developed after Katrina might help us to be more UU than ever, keeping abreast of what’s happening in our faith tradition, and appropriately utilizing the resources that the UUA and the District and the Region can offer us.
And finally, our theological evolution over 180 years has been tremendous.  From our start as a Presbyterian congregation, we became unorthodox, liberal Christian; moved first toward a radical humanism that evolved almost into its own orthodoxy; and then embraced earth-based and feminist spirituality and neo-paganism.  We incorporated Buddhist meditation and Jewish holidays into our worship.  Liberal Christianity circled back into our congregation under Rev. Suzanne Meyer (whose Candidating Sermon back in 1988 was controversially entitled “Just as I Am, Without One Plea” after the traditional Baptist altar-call hymn).  Rev. Marta Valentin brought a new mysticism into our services post-Katrina.  The Feeling Ultimate Life & Love Group, called the FULL Group, showed a core group at First Church who were willing and even eager to explore a wide variety of spiritual disciplines.  We are at our best at First Church when our worship life engages people physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and encourages members to go deep in whatever spiritual path they have chosen.
Democracy, controversy, religious education, engagement in social justice – this is what we carry forward with us from our 180-year history.  Financial and ministerial stability, strong lateral relationships and connections with the larger Unitarian Universalist movement, and internal theological and spiritual diversity are part of what we hope to fully realize as we face our next 180 years.
As Jyaphia Christos-Rodgers wrote for our 175th anniversary:  “The fleur de lis, the chalice, and the flame, together rising from the water, rising from the soul of a people, in a city that remembers with care.”  As we have before, we will again – we rise.  We rise from and with our city.  We rise with and because of our sisters and brothers in faith, those close by and those far away.  We rise because of our love for each other and our commitment to this faith and this church.  No matter what, we rise.  We rise.  We rise.