Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Worship, A case study

The Rev. Kent Saleska sent me a copy of a sermon about worship to read. You should read it, too. It is here. The words that caught my attention are near the end of the sermon.
Kent writes:
How can we regularly and intentionally place our values in front of us so that is what
dominates our imaginations so that is what we become? 
In worship, we come here as a group to mimic those feelings I know so many of you have had, of canoeing across a pristine lake, of cultivating a garden, of dancing at a rock concert, of listening to Thelonious Monk or Beethoven‟s “Ode to Joy,” of sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, of being filled with the holy spirit. By nature, our weekly gathering here is contrived, and ultimately this contrivance often fails because it is only an approximation of some other experience. Yet we come back again and again because we know, either consciously or unconsciously, that even though our weekly practice is a metaphor, it is also an honest and sincere weekly attempt to channel awe and wonder as we attempt to name the unnamable.
Two statements that describe different purposes and functions of worship.  The first: place regularly place our values in front of us so that is what dominates our imaginations, so that is what we become. 

The second statement come here as a group to mimic those feelings ... you have had...[list], of being filled with the Holy Spirit. By nature our weekly gathering here is contrived, and ultimately this contrivance often fails because it is only an approximation of some other experience.

They are two different understandings of worship.

(Time out for a pre-emptive non-apology: I am drawing a distinction here between two different approaches to worship.  I know that they are actually polarities.  And I know that "both-and" is so much nicer than "either-or".  I am not God separating the sheep from the goats for all eternity; I am just  making a distinction so we can examine this stuff more closely.)

I'll be blunt: I am in agreement with the first statement, the placing our values in front of us, approach.

I think that the second approach is problematic.  First of all, it is an admission of irrelevance.  If 
we are just trying to mimic other epiphanies, then why bother to come?  I could head out to the state park, or crank up the stereo, or failing, that read one of my shelf-full of Mary Oliver books.  She always delivers that epiphany.

It has been an article of faith among Unitarian Universalists that the worship experience is no better, no more worthwhile than the proverbial walk in the woods, or golf course.  That opinion was part of liberal religion's rejection of sacramental worship, where the worshipper directly encountered God, in the Eucharist.  No magic here among the liberals, no mumbo-jumbo; just one guy talking and everybody singing once in a while.  That belief that no one encountered the holy in worship is why UU's adopted one of our signature doctrines: the doctrine that you don't have to go to church every week, but only when you felt like it. And certainly not in the summer.  (Summer worship is for those old enough to be child-less and poor enough to be cottage-less.)

But what if it were possible to meet the transcendent, the holy, at a UU worship service? Not as a simulacrum, or re-creation, of another direct experience, but as direct experience in the sanctuary. How would that happen?

Evangelical worship (as opposed to pentecostal or sacramental) is a ritual of repeated choice.  Through the biblical text, and the words of the preacher, the Holy, in the form of Jesus, presents Himself to the worshipper every week, in the worship service, and the worshipper decides again to accept Him.  That's the theory.

We UU's are not convinced that the transcendent shows up in the one form of Jesus.  In fact, we aren't into making that kind of definitive statement about the Holy, such as it is.  We would simply assert that people are confronted again and again with decisions about the values or virtues that dominate their lives.  In other words, no matter what religious framework they have, or none, people are faced with spiritual choices.

Kent, you ask the question: how can we place our values in front of us so that is what dominates of our imaginations, so that is what we become?  

The how is the subject of the worship leader's art.  Your sermon is artful; you take us on a long motorcycle ride and we go with you to the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset, where we sit in unspoken communion with a whole group of strangers in reverence and awe. That is the answer to the how question.

My question is to what end?

You don't say it, but I think that you know what you are doing.  You are placing a spiritual choice before the congregation, asking them:  will you decide this morning to let the values of reverence and awe dominate your imagination, so that is what you become?

You evoked an experience of another time and place, and you hope that it has triggered the memory of similar experiences in the congregants.  But as wonderful as those memories are, what matters are the decisions being made that day, in the sanctuary, in the worship service, right then and there, by the people there.  You have done your job well, and the transcendent and the holy are before them as an open question.  They are free to answer as they will, but they have to be asked.  

Thank you, Kent, for sharing this sermon with me.  I'd like to hear your thoughts on my response, and I would like to hear from others.  Some have the perspective of the pulpit and others the persepective of pew.  What do you think about the purpose of worship?


  1. We come together week after week because just to be together is holy. And that's not available anywhere else. We come together to be there with and for each other, held in the larger oneness of which we are a part. How good that is depends on how much we let ourselves share our truths and our questions with each other, how much we authentically care about each other, and how open our hearts are to Spirit.


  2. Hi Tom. I am honored that you shared my sermon on your blog. And you rightly point out one (and of course, *only* one!) flaw of that sermon when you say: "If we are just trying to mimic other epiphanies, then why bother to come? I could head out to the state park, or crank up the stereo, or failing, that read one of my shelf-full of Mary Oliver books. She always delivers that epiphany."

    Some of this has to do with my failings in my sermon writings with all the constraints of sermon preparation in all the ways that the "finished" sermon we end up giving is not always, or not entirely, the sermon we wanted to give or planned to give. Other parts of this have to do with my particular setting.

    I read in one of your posts that you said you had no problem using "God" language in your congregation in Massachusetts. The same is not true for me. Our congregation is changing from what was, before my time here, a more non-theist congregation to one that is more open to talk of spirituality. The more I talk about metaphor and meaning (for instance, another sermon I gave called "Metaphor and Meaning in Easter" I gave on March 31, 2013, found here:, it seems the congregation is more open to the possibility of more multiple theological languages.

    It seems that I spend much of my time walking a fence: when I engage with others outside our church and/or outside UUism, I challenge the notion of a Jesus-centered universe (and sometimes even a God-centered universe - but I address that in my "metaphor" sermon). But when I talk to my own congregation, I spend time attempting to open the door to (some might say "arguing for"!) the possiblity of what I call "being fluent in metaphor." This includes advocating for and articulating a liberal definition of words like "God" and "spirit" and "worship."

    Yes, I absolutely agree that in worship we are not just "mimicing" some other experience - that we are creating, embodying and experiencing a transcendant moment. At least, we are attempting to. But I also attempt to bring people in, particularly the non-mystics and non-theists and those who don't understand or feel the need for "spirituality", to invite them into a space of experimentation.

    Sometimes a "fake it 'til you make it" approach is useful.

    I don't always say everything I want to say in one sermon, or say it in a way I really want to. So I am grateful for the chance to have many Sundays where I can go back and worry the bone of worship and say again something I meant to say but in a different way. Until I realize there was something else I didn't quite say the way I wanted to and go back and readdress that piece, too!


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