First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Waking Up as a Prophetic Community

January 22, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees

The 20th century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams described the prophetic church as “a place where people make history instead of being pushed around by it.” That is a wonderful description that makes clear that the prophetic church takes its power seriously.

Unfortunately that does not always happen. Too often liberal religious communities do not take their power seriously. Sometimes church members resist being identified as religious in public. Sometimes they are reluctant to speak in public using the language of faith. Sometimes they do not know how.

According to Unitarian Universalist theologian Paul Rasor, religious liberals too often doubt the importance of religion in social change. They are less likely than other groups to see their justice work as religious work. He says,

It is both ironic and tragic that we have come full circle since the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, when no one doubted that religion was an important force for progressive social change, and religious liberals were among the movement’s leading voices. (Reclaiming Prophetic Witness. 2012)

Another factor that limits the church’s prophetic power is the tendency religious liberals have to accommodate ourselves to the culture. Many of us benefit from that accommodation in a variety of ways. When a person’s livelihood or position of power depends on the status quo, launching a critique of the dominant culture can be risky and work against one’s own self-interest. This is a difficult reality.

Despite these challenges, this church and many Unitarian Universalist churches as well as other liberal religious communities are on the path to finding their prophetic voice. Some have already found it. This congregation is beginning to embrace its prophetic role and to take seriously its power. There has been tremendous progress. I think we agree about that, for the most part.

And we do well to give ourselves credit for how far we have come together already. Particularly on issues of immigration and race, we are beginning to claim our collective public voice.

We do well to also acknowledge that we are still learning how to fully own our power and organize ourselves for greatest impact.

One of the fundamental ways I believe our church can continue to advance its prophetic role is theological. When I shared goals with you after my sabbatical, I spoke about our need to do more theological exploration. I spoke of religious community as a place where the questions, doubts, and concerns of everyday life can be examined and where moral wisdom can be cultivated.

It was one of my seminary professors, Rev. Bonganjalo Goba who used that term “moral wisdom.” He described the church as a “community of moral wisdom” (from “Christ to the World.” When he used the word morality, he simply meant a way of life based on values, standards, and behaviors rooted in the resources of faith. He meant a way of life rooted in theology.

For Unitarian Universalists, that way of life is rooted in our principles and sources as well as our history and tradition. That includes our conviction that people have inherent worth and dignity, that we have the right of conscience, and that all life is interconnected.

Prof. Goba, who died last Fall, was South African, and he worked on anti-apartheid. He was a visiting professor at the seminary, and I was fortunate to study Third World Theology with him about 15 years ago.

When a church is able to be what he calls a community of moral wisdom, the church becomes a place that is engaging in theological discourse on social issues and problems. It interprets the signs of the times. It advocates for those who are marginalized and oppressed. And it builds a just and caring society. These commitments are basic to being a prophetic church. They are also intellectually and spiritually demanding.

Today I encourage you to participate in our work as a prophetic church. This is a step we can take together. I am asking you to go home today and sign a declaration of conscience. You have to do this at home because it has to be done online. This link can also be found on our web page under the news, and I will also include a link in the weekly newsletter. If you do not have internet access but want to sign the declaration, let me know and I will go online and sign you on.

The Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee jointly drafted the “Declaration of Conscience” this week. Signing it is a way to affirm our values and declare our commitment to put them into action – as individuals and as a congregation. Your Board of Directors has already voted and signed it on behalf of the congregation. I have also signed it. And I invite you to individually sign as well.

I want to end my reflection this morning by reading the statement to you. Copies of the Declaration are available on the Social Justice table. Listen now to the way the statement is framed in UU religious language reflecting our core values. This statement reflects the moral wisdom of our faith in response to the times.

The Declaration of Conscience is read. You can find it here.