Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sermon - "Getting Our Principles in Order"

Getting our Principles in Order
The Seven Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, wow that’s a long title. Well it is a great place to start to describe who we are as a faith tradition, and how we live in the world. Now, thanks to Mark Dimond you all have a beautiful copy of them to take home with you.

Before I dive in and start picking at a few of these principles, I want to give a little background. For any visitors, these Seven Principles are the closest thing that we have to a creed. They aren’t things that anyone has to believe, but guiding principles for the way we treat one another. You’ll hear UU’s talk about the Principles as if they are set in stone. Some people love them, some people think they are silly. At any rate, they are ours, they are a core of our tradition, so we need to talk about them a little.

There are a couple key points I want to make about the 7 Principles. One is that they are not a covenant between individual Unitarian Universalists. If you read the opening sentence of the document, you hear, “We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote.” Far to often I hear The Seven Principles invoked as near dogma, that this is what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. In actuality, the Principles and Purposes exists as a piece of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that’s our national organization. The Seven Principles is a statement about how our congregations and our religious movement is called to act in the world. There is certain tremendous advice and poetry in the statement, but we should be clear, that it is a covenant for our wider movement, not a statement that each person must agree to as individual Unitarian Universalists.

The other important detail that we often forget, is that the Principles is a document ever under revision. The bylaws of the UUA require us to look into revising it every ten years. They don’t have to be changed, but they have to be discussed critically, with the option of revision. It has always and will always be a fluid statement of what we hold dear.

The Seven Principles first marked our history in a major way during the merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists in the late 1950’s. It was a long road to merger between these groups. While there were some bumps along the way, the two groups eventually saw eye to eye with great hopes for the future of Liberal religion. But just one thing stood between them, the wording of the Principles.

The division was along lines that we still see today. . Traditional theists, Universalists, and humanists each wanted their own theological language represented in the Principles. Hours of meetings and revisions by both the Unitarians and the Universalists produced a good compromise. And finally, in 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged into our Unitarian Universalist Association.

But the discussion didn’t end there. It was good, but far from perfect. The 1960 version used some very sexist language, referring to the “dignity of man” and the “ideal of brotherhood”. The women of our tradition raised the suggestion of revising the Principles into it’s current form. After those women raised the made a move toward change, two other shortcomings were made clear. The original Principles only mentioned the Judeo-Christian religious traditions as sources for our movement, and there was no mention of our growing awareness of the environment as a religious concern.
As you can imagine, these critical changes were not made over night. It took years, roughly the mid seventies until 1984 for the document as we know it to emerge. It took years and years of hard work. And just last year at General Assembly in Salt Lake City, we voted to keep the Principles in tact as they currently stand, even after a two years of nation-wide discussion and drafting.

This is all to say the Seven Principles and Purposes of the UUA is a document that we take very seriously. But it’s not a test for individual membership, and it’s always changing as we expand our consciousness and grow as a religious tradition.

By and large, the middle five principles get short changed. Most of us as long-time UUs can name number one and number seven. If we don’t know them word for word, we get somewhere close to describing them. But the rest just sort of get lost in the fray. I recommend taking a look at them. See what you agree with, and even what you want to challenge. I will talk about each of them in more detail in the Fall and I welcome your insights.

But today, we are again focusing on the First and Seventh Principle. That’s because I’m fully convinced that the Seventh principle should be first. The Seventh Principle, Respect for the Interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part, should be first. It should go before the inherent worth and dignity of every person, both in this document, and in our minds.
The Seventh Principle is perhaps the largest theological or philosophical claim that we make as a tradition. No it’s not a claim about God, it’s not a claim about the human morality or even salvation. The Seventh Principle is a claim about the Universe. That’s big stuff. It talks about an interdependent web of ALL EXISTENCE, ALL EXISTENCE of which we are a part. This is the broadest truth claim of Unitarian Universalism. And it is a huge one with deep, deep implications.

Too often we understand it as an environmental message, or a message of Earth based spiritualities. Many of our environmental folks have grabbed a hold of the principle, and rightfully so. It does point to the beautiful, and sometimes terrifying reality of our ecological interdependence. And it does describe a spiritual experience that deeply engages nature. And obviously, the first thing that comes to mind with a web is a spider, a wonderful creature of nature.

But its not just about nature in the ecological or outdoorsy sense. It’s not about the type of connection I was talking about last week with our animal friends. Respect for the Interdependent web of all existence is a claim about the ultimate nature of reality. About you and me and nature and the planet and our emotions and our future and our past and the Divine. The BIG picture, interdependent web.

The INTERDEPENDENT web means I depend on others. Not just for food and comfort. Not just for friends or support. I depend on others for the very nature of my being. Physically, cognitively, emotionally and spiritual, relationships make me who I am, they make me exist.
Just think of the physical realm for starters. Basic human reproduction, most non-human reproduction for that matter, is sexual. It depends on two animals joining together. Of course now, there is an array of ways that science enhances human fertility. But still, we rely on a simple combo of sperm and egg. We depend on two people, contributing to the equation for our very lives to begin. We are born out of human relationship. We are born out of human relationship. Relationship is what allows us to live in the world, and we should NEVER forget that.
And that’s just our physical being. Think how much we depend on others for the formation of our minds. Sure many of us are smart. But the modern mind with a grasp of science, math, and complex language, all of these things are inherited from millennia of communities sharing and building knowledge. Our minds as we know them are not simply the fruit of our hard work in school. They are the culmination of borrowed knowledge. They depend on people and events that we don’t even know. And isn’t the same true of our emotional lives. Our coping mechanisms, our social capacity are all learned behaviors. We depend on others for our basic way of being in the world. We are a part of that interdependent web of all existence.

And we contribute back to the web, for better or worse. It’s easy in our UU way to talk about the Web of all existence in a blissful romantic way. But that web, if it includes everything, it includes some pretty awful thing too. Death and pain are a part of the web also. War is a part of that web. Pollution is a part of that web. Some of us gathered here last night to watch a documentary about the Vietnam War, and how the American people allowed it to happen, they allowed it to continue even after they knew it was started as a hoax and three Presidents had repeatedly lied about the prospect of success. But a few brave people put their lives on the line to resist.
During that film, all weekend actually I have stunned by the options that we have with regards to this Web. Each moment of each day we face countless decisions about what we want to share with the rest of existence. More life, or more death. More beauty of more homogenization. More peace or more war.

What I’m trying to point out is that our lives are not just our own. Our lives are intimately woven with the rest of the world. Even more so now with a globalized economy, but even before that. Our lives are interwoven with an interdependent web of all existence that we influence with each decision, each word we speak in praise or in anger.

That’s why the Seventh principle should be first, even before the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Not because we aren’t each important. The inherent worth and dignity of every person is a critical thing to remember. But when we think of ourselves, and our own actions in the world. What we need is not another reminder that we are special, but to always be aware that our actions affect the rest of the world. For better or worse, our actions affect the world.

You and I live in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known, with military and financial strength unimaginable to previous generations. We sit at the pinnacle of Western though, Liberal thought that depends on the notion of the individual thinking and making decisions for him or herself, the individual voting, the individual earning his way, the individual having rights.

Certainly all of those things are important. But our religious tradition, our faith calls us to raise above individual concerns, and transcend even if just for a moment, to transcend our own limited view of our needs to see a broader picture of the world.

Hopefully you realize by now that this sermon isn’t so much about the order in which the Principles appear on a list. I do think that the Seventh should be first, but the list really isn’t that big of a deal. In fact most people can’t even recite the principles. This isn’t a sermon about the list; it is a sermon about how we understand ourselves as individuals, and more importantly, as a community of faith.

Not only is “the interdependent web” a profound theological claim for our individual lives. It also says a great deal about community. I like to think of church life as a kind of training ground. Sure, you can come here and find sanctuary and be inspired. But in the long term, what we do together is build a community. We build relationships. It’s sort of a little microcosm of what we hope that the world can be like outside of these walls. A place where all are welcome, all are respected as people with inherent worth and dignity, and where we know we can rely on one another.

But training isn’t easy. It’s actually usually a bit of work. Often people say that they like Unitarian Universalism because they find like-minded people here. But that doesn’t square so well with what I was saying about this being a training ground. Being in a sea of sameness isn’t so much a growth opportunity or source of inspiration. Being in a sea of sameness is like a luke-warm bath. It’s soothing at first, but gets pretty dull.

I want to pose a challenge to you. It’s something that we all could do a little bit better, and it’s the core of what I think our religious movement is about. Don’t come here for like-minded people or to be soothed. Come here to engage in the spiritual discipline of learning to love more deeply. Don’t come to this Fellowship to find the people you love; come here to love the people you find. Let me say that again. Don’t come to church to find the people you love; come to church to love the people you find.

I was very clear about this in the time of ministerial transition. It was a regular topic for a couple of years when the congregation was in a time of transition. But I’ll say it again, now that I am settled here for the long haul. Church is not about me and what I have to say on Sunday mornings. It’s about you and how you care for one another. It’s about us building a community together.

But how do we build community, how do we build the beloved community? By getting to know one another, by having fun, by caring for each other. Building community is not about committees and budgets. Yes, we can build relationships while we work on those things. But building community is about sharing your stories. It’s about sharing picture of your children, and your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren. I want to hear about where you grew up, not about the font in the Sunday Order of Service. I want to know how you met your spouse, what you do in your free time, where you would travel if you could, not the agenda for the next meeting at the church. I want to know what you are most afraid of and what you love the most in this world.

What we do here at this Fellowship is an exercise. It is holy work of relationship building, it is a spiritual discipline, learning to love more deeply. For if religion is not about that, then what has it to offer?


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sermon - "Our Friends with Fur Feathers and Scales"

Our Friends with Fur, Feathers, and Scales
(note – The bulk of historical information in this sermon comes from the wonderful book “Signs & Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to the Origins and Meanings” from DK Publishing.)

For all of recorded history, and certainly long before, humans have been fascinated with animals. Whether domesticated or wild, animals have captured our dreams and shared our living spaces us. And in that fascination, they have taken on a deep meaning.
They have been worshiped as gods, linked with good or bad luck, and seen as sources of power and wisdom. Many are symbolically associated with a human quality. Hunter-gatherers respected and sometimes revered animals as being part of the natural world, which they viewed as sacred. And to access their instinctual wisdom, specific animals were adopted as totems or ancestors.

Noah, Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare), Astrological signs, Chinese Calendar. Whethere you have pets or not, whether you own animals or not, they are a part of the collective human consciousness. They are a part of what it means to be in human community.

I want to talk briefly about the symbolic meaning that has developed around a few animals most common to us. Some of this is obvious, but that’s just the point. The meaning and symbolism that we put upon our friends with fur, feathers and scales is second nature to us. Relating to them is a part of our culture, a part of human experience.

Since ancient times the dog has been seen as a companion animal symbolizing loyalty, protection, and hunting. As a dog person myself, I have to say “man’s BEST friend.” Early societies associated dogs with the spirit world. African and American Indian cultures saw the dog as a master of fire and a rain-maker. Interestingly, not everyone is a fan of Fido. Muslims regard the dog as unclean and use it as a derogatory term for an unbeliever.

Shortly after they became domesticated, dogs became commonplace in human populations, they spread throughout the world in human communities. Emigrants from Siberia likely crossed the Bering Strait with dogs in their company. Experts suggest that sled dogs may have been critical to the success of the waves humans that entered North America roughly 12,000 years ago. That’s quite a long time for those friends to carve out a special place in our hearts.

But of course they are not the only ones who have been with us all these years. Cat’s clearly go back in human history quite a ways as well.
In 2004, a Neolithic grave was excavated in Cyprus, that contained the skeletons of both a human and a cat clearly laid next to one another. The grave is estimated to be 9,500 years old. That discovery, combined with genetic studies, suggest that cats were probably domesticated in Cyprus and the Near East, in the Fertile Crescent around the time of the development of agriculture.

From Ancient Egyptians on, cats have captured our imagination. They have been worshiped as gods, persecuted as demons, and associated with an extraordinary range of both positive and negative symbolism.

In the West we know the Lion as the King of Beasts, while in the East that role is taken by the tiger, and in the Americas by the jaguar. All the big cats are fierce hunters, so they are feared and respected. These awesome animals are a hugely symbolic. In China, tigers represent speed, power, and beauty. The Hindu goddess, Durga, rides a tiger, symbolizing her mastery over animal passions, and Shiva wears a tiger’s skin for similar reasons. Needless to say, these are very old, and deeply rooted symbols in the human psyche.

Some people, a few of you as a matter of fact, find a special bond with a much larger animal, the horse. Around the world horses are seen as a symbol of nobility, speed, freedom and beauty. I was also depicted in many Classical statues as a symbol of a conquering power. And this may be the oldest human friend and fascination of all, at least that we have record of. paintings of a spotted horse can be found in the 20,000- year old cave paintings at Pech Merle, France. 20,000 years old. That’s a lot of human history. In those same paintings are Wooly mammoths and Reindeer by the way.

They aren’t as common as pets, but they certainly capture the imagination, birds are the symbol of the messenger in human imagination. For some it was the messengers between heaven and earth, and in the contemporary Harry Potter franchise, birds, owls more specifically, are the preferred carriers of mail.

Traditionally, too, birds were also linked with wisdom. I still remember a cartoon Owl from my childhood who was supposed to be the smart animal. And that expression, “a little bird told me” comes from the ancient belief that birds confided secrets.

And a bird, an Eagle is a part of our national identity. The Eagle, the king of the birds, is a “high-flier” symbolizing status, victory and Omniscience. But it’s not uniquely American. The Eagle has been adopted as a symbol of sovereignty and national identity also by Germany, and the Roman Empire. It was the imperial emblem of the Russian and Austrian empires. That’s one power hungry bird.

And then some of us have friends with scales. Reptiles are amphibian have long captured the human imagination. They are associated with the Sun and Moon, and also cosmos and creation symbolism. And because many regularly shed their skin or change color, they signify change and renewal.

Then of course, there are snakes. Throughout human history and still today, snakes evoke both fascination and revulsion. The simple beauty of its form is at odds with its complex and powerful symbolism. Self-contained, myseterious, inhabiting underground burrows and shedding its skin, it is a creature linked with the underwold. As a result, an array of symbolism embraces themes of duality, fertility, the primeval life force, and creation. We know the snake that tempted Eve to taste the forbidden fruit on the Tree of Knowledge, knowing it would cause her downfall. But there is also Naga, the Hindu serpent, which is benevolent threshold guardian associated with rain, fertility, and renewal. It is often depicted with a human upper body.

Animals of all different varieties have captured our imagination. In fact we are so fascinated by animals, that we make some of them up. Mythical beasts abound in human history around the world. They are symbols of supernatural power or different aspects of the human psyche. They sometimes act as messengers or teachers, or represent dark, untamed forces in human nature that must be overcome. In a lot of lore, they must be fought by a hero figure, like the knight slaying a dragon, allowing good to triumph over evil, or order over chaos. Although we come nowhere close to the creativity of actual nature, there are some fascinating concepts out there: the mermaid, the Capricorus, the phoenix, the thunderbird. And Harry Potter has unleashed a menagery of new ones.

Complicated Relationships

Our lives are interwoven in so many ways. Many of the examples I just talked about were just fascination, but in a lot of ways, the animals we come in contact with most frequently depend on us. And in profound ways, we depend on them. The degree to which that is true finally occurred to me when I was watching TV.

I was watching my current television obsession, the show “Friday Night Light’s.” It’s a show about high-school football in a small town in West Texas. Obviously everything and everyone in the town lives and dies by the Friday night football game.

One of the story lines in the show is that of the leading quarterback. He’s a player of mediocre ability who inherited the role after the town’s star quarterback was paralyzed from an injury on the field. Needless to say, there’s plenty of pressure from football on this boys shoulders.
The more complicated plot though is his living situation. The boy’s father is in Iraq, while he lives with his grandmother. Legally, his grandmother is his guardian, but in reality, she is slowly becoming disabled with dementia. Matt, the 17yo quarterback, when faced with the challenges of caring for his grandmother finally comes realizes that legally, to take care of her, he must become and emancipated minor. He must legally flip flop, from the child to the caretaker with a few strokes of a pen.
It’s a very difficult story to watch, but it’s far from unique. Yes, the fact that this character is only 17 years old makes the story much more dramatic. But it points to the difficult reality of family relationships. We care for one another, but we do it in a fluid way. First the child, then the adult, and then the senior, who needs help again. Sometimes we are cared for, and sometimes we are the responsible ones.
Family is very complicated that way. Sometimes it is confusing, and sometimes it is heartbreaking. But as I thought about it more, I realized how much our pets are like a part of our family in this way. Sure, I feed my dog every day and look out for her. But she also provides companionship that deeply enriches my life. She give back in an amazing way, and seems to have an ability, when I am most absorbed in a mundane problem, to bring me back to the sanity of the present moment. She cares for me. For many people their animals care for them in much more literal terms. Whether it is a guard dog, or a therapy dog, the relationship is a give and take. Sometimes we are the responsible ones, and sometimes we get cared for.

Isn’t that the nature of family, a give and take. What I hope we can celebrate today is our whole family taking care of one another, including the non-human members. I deeply believe that our relationships with animals, the relationships that have been a part of human experience for at least 20,000 years, are key getting a grasp on what it means to share this ever shrinking planet.

The last thing that I want to talk about today is a little abstract, but perhaps the most important piece of this sermon. I believe, and generally we as Unitarian Universalists believe, that relationships are an inherently good and powerful thing. It’s reflected in our support for democratic principles, and our interest in ecology. We build church communities from the ground up, not the top down because we value the relationships between individuals. Throughout our tradition we celebrate relationships as powerful. And I think recognizing our relationship with our friends with fur, feathers and scales also holds power, not just feel good power, but power that helps us understand and make a difference.

These past weeks I have been pretty dismayed by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Very early on, when I read about the leak in the New York Times I wrote about it on Facebook. On April 29th I wrote “As the news of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico gets worse every day, I have a very, very bad feeling about the impact. This is not going to be pretty.” Rarely have I wished to have been more wrong about something. I knew it was going to bad. I did not expect over a month later for the flow of oil gushing into the ocean to have simply increased in flow.

Can you imagine what that would be like for our town? For our beaches to be covered in thick globby oil. For our pelicans and seagulls to be coated with gunk, so much oil that many of them die by drowning or hypothermia. Honestly I can’t absorb much of the coverage at this point. I can’t get past the first couple of paragraphs of any news story on it. It is overwhelming.

So I am trying to engage the issue in a different way. Rather than reading the facts and figures and failed plans, I’m trying to hold in my heart all of those affected, the fishermen, and the local people, yes. But also the birds and the fish and the countless variety of creatures that live on the coast. Deepening my respect, our respect for our friends with fur, feather and scales, is one of the few hopes that we have for taking our shared world seriously. And unfortunately the opportunities for those relationships with the animal world get fewer and fewer as we wall ourselves off from the natural world. So I am doing my best, whenever I walk on the beach, whenever I pet my dog, whenever I see a crow in my neighborhood, to hold that animal in my heart, to have some level of relationship and respect for it.

As we heard in our opening words from Jane Goodall, “The line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, once thought to be so clear, has become blurred. Chimpanzees bridge the gap between “us” and “them.” Unfortunately, today it is an oil spill that bridges the gap between us and them. It is an oil spill and global warming and deforestation, that remind us that our fate in intertwined with that of our non-human friends. I think we would do well do remember our relationships with them, they way they have shaped the human experience, the way they depend on us, and we depend on them. I think it’s time to remember our relationship rather than reading more statistics.