Demands of the Age – Rev. Abhi Janamanchi

The title of my sermon is borrowed from Rev. William Ellery Channing, who used it to great effect in 1824 during the ordination and installation service of his associate colleague Ezra Stiles Gannett. Channing referenced a verse from Matthew that set an ominous tone to the proceedings: 

“Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: Be ye, therefore, wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”

Channing preached on that text for about an hour and a half. I hope to improve on him by eliminating at least an hour and ten minutes.

In his sermon, Channing opined that his was an enlightened age demanding an enlightened ministry. I submit that ours is a pluralistic, multicultural age demanding a pluralistic, multicultural ministry.  The United States today is one of the most religiously and culturally diverse nations in the world.  If in 1893, the world’s religions were invited to Chicago to be part of the World’s Parliament of Religions, in 1993, during the centennial, the world’s religions lived in Chicago.  This religious and cultural diversity is not limited to Chicago or New York or Los Angeles.  There are Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians in Toledo, OH, Jackson, Mississippi, and right here in Silver Spring, MD.

Pluralism, multiculturalism, diversity are not problems that threaten the consensus of a religious and moral mainstream but are extremely and extraordinarily spiritual and social realities with profound implications for our faith. To remain vital and relevant, we must embrace, engage with, and embody this broader multicultural and pluralistic reality. Both within our congregation and society at large.

From a theological standpoint, we, as a religious movement, are well-equipped to confront this task. We view pluralism as a blessing rather than a curse, recognizing the richness it brings to our religious life and our community.

The novelist Salman Rushdie may not typically be seen as a conventional source for quotes on pluralism. Known for his genre of “theological comedy,” which often employs satire in a direct manner, his perspective might initially seem unexpected. Nevertheless, consider his statement of intent regarding the Satanic Verses, regardless of how one may assess his work:

“The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combination of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs.  It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the pure. . . . . The Satanic Verses is . . .  a love song to our mongrel selves.” 

Again, he confesses, “Like many millions of people, I am a bastard child of history.  Perhaps we all are, black and white, while leaking into one another . . .  . like flavors when you cook . . . I say, let it continue.”

I propose that Unitarian Universalism, at its best, is a “love song to our mongrel selves.” It is a faith that celebrates the abdication of the pure. Within our community, there are no pure-breds; rather, we are all spiritual hybrids, theological crossbreeds, and religious mutts who have traversed diverse paths to find our way here.  We treasure our mixed identities.  We cherish our struggle to live with integrity in the fault-lines of our hyphenated identities while seeking wholeness in and through our common humanity. And so I say, let it continue.

Channing called, second, for an earnest ministry.  

Today’s demand I would say that we be balanced yet agile – to take serious matters seriously and ourselves more lightly, i.e., to maintain a sense of humor.  It is possible to be terribly and terminally earnest especially in moral and spiritual things and lose sight of our common humanity. 

To be whole and human requires an inner balance that perhaps only the cultivation of religious community can help sustain in us.

For you see, the speed-addicted, instant gratification seeking world in which we live in, demands an agile ministry.   Our lives are rushed and harried, our hearts and souls are anxious, and our relationships more neglected perhaps more than ever.  How infrequent it is that we pause to reflect, to wait, to wonder, to ponder.  

A ministry in our age must be agile to help us stop, to see our lives more often, more constantly, under the aspect of eternity as Santayana put it, our lives not as they seem as they pass us by but as they will remain when their story is over.  A ministry must be agile to bring to our lives a sensibility that is both timely and timeless. 

For, as Channing said, there is no such thing as naked truth at any time.  At least so far as moral and spiritual subjects are concerned.  Truth, which related to god and duty, to happiness and our future is always humanized by passing through a human mind.

​​In our current era, there exists a pressing need for a compassionate ministry that extends support to families raising children. While significant strides have been made in providing assistance to the elderly over the past five decades in the United States, there is a glaring absence of support for those engaged in the sacred task of parenting the next generation. As Rev. John Buehrens astutely observed, there is a profound need for an “AARP for parents.” It is disheartening that our nation, despite all the progress, fails to offer paid public leave upon the birth of a child, lacks national health insurance for children (let alone adults), and neglects public daycare and afterschool care services. Consequently, parents find themselves overwhelmed and under supported, much like the educational institutions to which we entrust our children, further exacerbated by the commercialization of spiritual and moral education through the internet and social media. 

In this landscape, where profit often supersedes nurturing, we urgently require a Pastoral ministry to not only foster faith development within the families of our congregations but also to engage in a broader ministry of value-centered moral education. This humane education seeks to instill principles of compassion, reconciliation, and justice not only within our own communities but a broader ministry of humane education that teaches compassion, reconciliation, and justice to the children of many others.

It is a demand, nay, an imperative in this inhumane age, that we be more humane for the coming generation.

 “For our religion owes much of its power, “said Channing, “to the power of the life of the [person] who communicates it and the greater the enlargement and the development of the mind from which it has possessed itself and from which it flows, the wider and deeper would be its actions on other souls.”  Which is why one of the chief demands of this age on our ministry, our collective ministry, is a prophetic ministry.

“The age is in many respects a corrupt one,” said Channing, “and demands a spirit of reform.“ That much has not changed at all. Channing’s plea for a revitalized religious liberalism remains as pertinent today as it did two centuries ago. While the historical context and intellectual landscape have evolved, our perception of living in an era marked by spiritual and moral turmoil persists. Additionally, our apprehension regarding the capacity of religious liberalism to effectively address contemporary challenges has only intensified. 

If we aspire to wield a meaningful influence for spiritual and social transformation, we must liberate liberal religion from its longstanding confines of individualism, secularism, and self-centeredness. Failure to do so risks relegating us, as Reverend Kim Beach cautioned, to mere “religious decompression chambers” or way-stations for those transitioning from fundamentalism to the golf course. We have been drifting in this direction for far too long, and it is imperative that we refocus on our true identity and mission in this broken and beautiful world before us. This reclamation must commence from within.

We are at a critical moment in our nation’s history, where the very fabric of our democracy is imperiled. Throughout the country, policies are being proposed and enacted that chip away at the bedrock of our democratic ideals, stripping away basic rights from millions of our fellow Americans. Furthermore, we confront the insidious influence of militarism and the war economy, perpetuating violence both at home and abroad. In our name.

The question is whether our faith can see us through, point us toward a hopeful path, offer some tools and support so that we can navigate these troubled and troubling times.

Out of all the remarkable speeches delivered by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. throughout his lifetime, I find one particularly resonant and relevant to our present challenges. It’s the speech he gave at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, just one year before his assassination.  Whenever I feel lost or my resolve wavers, I turn to his powerful message for guidance and strength.

In his speech, Dr. King courageously condemned the Vietnam War in unsparing terms.  He decried the moral bankruptcy of a nation that does not hesitate to invest in bombs and warfare around the world but can never seem to find the dollars to eradicate poverty at home. He called for a radical revolution of values. 

He said, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Dr. King was condemned and cancelled and doxed for his speech and called a traitor.  And yet we now know that he was right. He is right. He is right today as he was back then about the triple evils of poverty, militarism and racism and how they lead inexorably toward war. He was right, without knowing it, about climate change. He was right about the threats we now face to our democracy and to our world. He was right about the starving, helpless children in Gaza who are being annihilated by bombs paid for by our tax dollars. 

Above all, he was right about what is required of us now: to speak and to act with unprecedented courage and revolutionary love. To oppose all forms of hate and racism, including antisemitism and Islamophobia. To oppose any policy and any economic system that places profit over people. To reject militarism and state violence as the answer to our most profound, seemingly intractable conflicts and struggles. We must speak unpopular truths and organize to save our planet and rebirth our democracy.  

We must demand a cease-fire in Gaza, the release of all captives, free flow of humanitarian aid, and the eradication of genocide around the world. We must speak. Yes, it may be difficult. Yes, it may be uncomfortable. And yes, we may be afraid. But our fate calls us to speak. Countless lives and the liberation of all of us depend on us breaking our silences.

Dr. King’s message was anything but hopeless. He reminds us that we have more creativity, power, and collective genius than we know. His call to action was a summons to embrace a global fellowship, a profound solidarity rooted in revolutionary love—not just in words, but in deeds.

And this, my friends, is the love we must take into the world to break down the walls and barriers that threaten to divide us and keep us apart. This is the love that will help us be communities of caring where we practice hospitality of the heart and hand as well as be communities of resistance because “resistance is what love looks like in the face of hate, in the face of violence.”

This is the way of being that we must carry out into the world, in whatever place we inhabit, and in whatever work we do. My conviction is that we as a faith have not yet risked enough and loved enough. We do not know what might happen if we did.

So, I ask you this day, are you willing to have your hearts be broken, and be filled with revolutionary love for the world, for all people, for yourself, for the God of your experience and understanding, and let your broken heart guide you in your life? Will you belove yourselves enough to live as if the Beloved Community is real and not just an idle dream? Will you respond to the call of revolutionary love with the “yes” of your lives?