Sermon: Putting Our Light on a Stand by Ethan Loewi

2021 April 30

Ethan Loewi

First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn

April 18, 2021

A reading from the Gospel of Luke, 8:16.

16 No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. 17 For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.


First Unitarian, it is a joy to be with you as always. After a few months away from preaching, I am thrilled to be back in the pulpit. It’s somehow my final semester of divinity school, so I’ve been busy frantically cramming books into my brain. And I am a bookish person under regular circumstances. So between COVID times and the mad rush to finish my degree, I have pretty much gone full medieval monk. I have lived in a crude shack constructed entirely of books, emerging once or twice a day for sustenance. My minutes of daily sunlight have occasionally dropped into the single digits. Sometimes that digit has been zero.

But surprisingly, these months of drowning in books have fueled my spirit—because I’ve been spending a lot of time with our UU ancestors. I’ve been learning about the people who built our tradition—their great dreams and great sacrifices. When I dive into the legacy of our faith, one thing strikes me time and time again is the boldness and bravery of our spiritual predecessors. The greatest Unitarians and Universalists fought courageously for freedom of religion, for women’s suffrage, for racial justice, no matter the cost or the danger. And in the midst of a scary time, with social injustice all around us, I think the fire of their courage can help in sparking ours.

            So let’s gather around two remarkable people of faith—two bright lights in our history. Our scripture reading today tells us that if we have a light to share, like our UU chalice, we shouldn’t put it under a bed or a clay jar—we should put it where it can be seen. And that’s what these two did: in the face of powerful opposition they evangelized, spreading the good news of our tradition. They can show us how to live our Unitarian Universalism more boldly, more brightly. In other words, how to put our light on a stand.

Our first light is the Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown, one of the very first Black Unitarian ministers. He was born in Jamaica, in 1875—Episcopalian, but not for long. One day he got a Sunday school lesson on the walls of Jericho, which fell on the 7th day. He asked his teacher “Why did God waste so much time, when he could have brought down the walls on the first day?” “My teacher,” he writes, “was horrified.” Now that is a Unitarian. We ask questions that horrify Sunday school teachers, that’s our brand.

From a young age, Brown believed that reason should play a major role in guiding faith. He wrote “if I did enter the ministry I was under moral and spiritual compulsion to be a minister only of that church in which I could be absolutely honest.” Against all odds, he was determined to be a Unitarian. When he reached out to Meadville, our Unitarian seminary, he was told he could attend—but also that white congregants required white ministers, so there might not be a pulpit for him. Simply put, he was offered a raw deal: travel 1500 miles from home, work hard for years, and then possibly get denied a job because of white supremacy. And Rev. Brown, because he was a person of profound, courageous faith, took that deal.

He got ordained, then pioneered still further—leading a mission to Jamaica, and founding a Unitarian church in Harlem. The American Unitarian Association, and its all-white leadership, was mostly ambivalent or skeptical towards his work, and frequently declined to support him. At one point they even revoked his ministerial fellowship, which he only got back by threatening a lawsuit. But through great tenacity and vision, he put the light of this faith on a stand. Rev. Brown’s life was filled with struggle; he suffered the great tragedy of losing a child, and while leading the Harlem church he simultaneously had to work for five years as an elevator operator just to pay the bills. And yet, he kept the flame alive. In the face of racist colleagues, and exhausting decades of hard work, Rev. Brown insisted that Unitarianism was his faith as much as anyone else’s, and he was determined to share it with the world.

Our second bright light is one Maria Cook. Born in 1779, she was the first female Universalist preacher. Though she never had the chance to get formal training in ministry, and her family disapproved, she believed so deeply in the message of universal salvation that she set out to proclaim it. As a traveling preacher in New York State and Pennsylvania, her eloquence and passion drew huge crowds—though many people objected to her giving sermons in the first place. In response, Cook forcefully defended the right of women to preach—and did so in 1811, 25 years before Olympia Brown, a Universalist and the first ordained woman minister in America, was even born. On one occasion, intolerant onlookers reported Cook to the police, and she was arrested for vagrancy. She was put in jail, where she simply continued to preach Universalism. Like Rev. Brown’s, hers was a courageous, unapologetic faith, that she refused to keep hidden under the bed.

Also like Rev. Brown, Cook had to work her way in from the margins, fighting against the abuse and disrespect of a patriarchal culture. That’s why I can’t quote her directly—because she was outside of the structures of power, and never got to publish her work. But she was determined to take up that fight—to live her faith out loud, and demand respect as a preacher and prophet. She shows us that though it may not happen in our lifetimes, if we live with courageous faith, we can spark a blaze of change. Today in Unitarian Universalism, the majority of our clergy are women. Maria Cook’s daring prophetic actions helped create a more just future for our tradition. If we are willing to risk and struggle in pursuit of a better way, who knows how more inclusive, change-making, and life-giving Unitarian Universalism could still become.

There are so many other brave souls we could talk about, who fought and sacrificed for this faith. But let’s jump forward to 2021, to ask how can we follow in their footsteps? What can we do in our time to live with courageous faith, and put our light on a stand?

Let me propose that putting our light on a stand means at least two things: sharing the good news of our faith, and drawing on our faith in our work for social justice. When I say sharing the good news, I simply mean talking about our faith with people who are not Unitarian Universalists. This is also known as evangelism—and I know that word can be taboo in UU circles. The concept of us doing evangelism can seem so strange to some that it’s given rise to one of my favorite UU jokes. What do you get when you cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door to ask you about your religion.

We’re not really known for being loud about our faith. And when we think of evangelism, we may first think of people shoving their religion in our faces, or pressuring us to believe as they believe. That’s something quite different, called proselytizing. Proselytizing attempts to forcibly convert people—which is the last thing I want to see UUs doing. But I think we can go too far in the other direction, to the point that we don’t really talk about our faith at all with people who aren’t UU.  Some of us may have deeply negative experiences of other people trying to push their religion on us. I know I do. In one of my first sermons here, you may remember I told a story about my own relatives giving me a set of the Left Behind books. If you are mercifully unaware of these books, it’s a young adult series about the rapture, which teaches that all non-Christians will be left on earth to battle with the antichrist, who happens to be a Romanian politician named Nicolae Carpathia. These are tremendous books, and I think it’s only through liberal media bias that they haven’t won the Pulitzer.

            To state the obvious, this was not a tasteful gift for a Jewish kid. Or really for anyone. So I know what it’s like to have people shove their religion in my face; it’s awful and weird. But that’s not what evangelism is. The Greek root of the word is “evangel,” one who tells good news. Evangelism might just mean talking about our faith with our friends, posting on social media, sharing how Unitarian Universalism has been a positive force in our lives. If they seem interested, maybe given them an open invitation to come to a worship service. The gospel message, the good news of our faith looks a little different for each of us; you might share that historically we stand for the unity and goodness of God, and that all souls are beloved and saved. Today we hold diverse theologies, united by our commitment to love and serve each other in this life.

If we truly believe that our faith has a bright light to share with the world, let’s share it. Like Rev. Brown and Maria Cook, let’s not settle for a timid or reclusive Unitarian Universalism. The fire of our chalice represents beloved community, spiritual growth, and the pursuit of social justice. Let’s put that light on a stand—and shine it for more people, in more places.

And if we won’t share our faith—if we sit back and never evangelize, keep it under the bed or a clay jar–other religious voices will simply dominate the public square. For example, I’ve heard quite a few religious people making public, faith-based arguments for the restriction of abortion rights. We can make public, faith-based arguments to counter them. Us religious liberals may be inclined to stay reserved about our faith; that doesn’t mean other people will follow suit.

Which brings me to my second and final point: to put our light on a stand, we must draw on our faith in our work for justice. It makes our voices stronger, our perspective as religious people more distinct. UUs haven’t always been great about this: for example, UU scholar Paul Rasor notes that when the UUA officially condemned the war in Vietnam, its language was almost completely secular; there was nothing in the statement about our principles or sources, nothing to even suggest that we’re a religion. Given the huge amount of material in sources and principles that might be used to criticize the Vietnam war, that just seems like a missed opportunity to take a stronger stance rooted in our faith. As UUs, some of us hold humanist beliefs, some pagan, some Christian—these are all wonderful expressions of Unitarian Universalism, offering language and values that can empower our calls for social justice. Like EE Brown, and Maria Cook, let’s get prophetic. Let’s get zealous. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the perception that the most intensely religious people are in the most conservative denominations. I’m tired of the perception that liberal traditions, like our own, are sort of a low-calorie alternative—religions for people who want less religion.

As we see in the lives of Maria Cook and EE Brown—as well as Michael Servetus, Jim Reeb, Susan B. Anthony, and countless others, our tradition is shaped by people of profound, luminous faith. As we gather around their light, may we strive to kindle that same fire of commitment in ourselves. It’s certainly not easy—it can be scary to put ourselves out there, to speak publicly about our faith. But as our wisdom story teaches, we all have a spark of courage within us. Our light maybe be small to start—but it can turn into a flame. Together, as individuals and a community, we can put that flame up on a stand.

 If we have the courage to speak about our faith and from our faith, we can build a movement that is not just larger—but also more vibrant, more inclusive, more relentless in our work for social justice. And then a hundred years from now, when some stressed out intern minister in grad school is studying the history of Unitarian Universalism, and they read about people of inspiring courage and dedication, maybe it’ll be our names that they come across and preach about. Amen, ashe, may it be so.

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