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?


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