Monday, January 30, 2012

Sermon - "Immigration: Just Us"

As you may know, the topic of human migration has become very important to Unitarian Universalists around the country. In June, when thousands of Unitarians come together at General Assembly, our annual national meeting, we have decided to put aside our usual business schedule to focus as much of our time as possible on justice issues, particularly immigration.
With that event on the horizon, and as immigration comes to the forefront of our moral consciousness as UUs, there has been a great deal of energy put into educating ourselves about the topic. That’s why we are focusing on the topic for these two Sundays. And it’s also why, in October I took a trip with our district Board of Trustees to Arizona. To get a better perspective we went to visit our boarder with Mexico and to visit some of the people who lived there.
The first piece of our adventure was a hike into the desert. South of Tucson and just north of the border, we ventured out into an unmarked area of the desert. Our guides were local humanitarians, who set out hundreds of gallons of water in the desert near areas where they knew immigrants would be attempting to cross the desert on foot.
Being in that area was astounding. It is some of the harshest terrain I’ve hiked, with blistering heat and very little shade to be found. We hiked only a short half-mile to experience some of the terrain. For those risking their lives to make it into the United States, it is on average a forty-mile journey. The cactus strewn rocky terrain is traversed at night to avoid the heat of day and the eyes of Border patrol agents.
There in the desert we had the opportunity to visit a make shift memorial that had been erected where one unfortunate immigrant had not survived the journey. He had been crossing with a group of people. Ofetn, when a person in one of these groups becomes to weak to go any further, they are left behind. Sometimes help is sent in time, but being left in the desert, without resources is deadly.
I want to share with you a picture of that memorial that we visited. Like most pictures, it doesn’t do the real thing justice. But short of taking you there with me, it’s what I can share with you right now.
Before being there, on that sacred spot, immigration and the struggles that people experience was a very abstract issue to me. What I learned there in the desert was more than facts or figures. What I learned there was the first inklings of the suffering that people experience in the tangle of U.S. immigration policy.

I’m sharing that picture with you for shock value, or to wrench your heart. But as we discuss this topic as a community, it is critical that we move beyond numbers and policies. It is critical that we begin to understand what happens on real people on the ground. Suffering isn’t something that most of us can deal with easily. It’s human nature. We spend our lives trying to avoid suffering. And when we are confronted with it, we do our best to sooth the afflicted. We turn away from pain. We turn away from a reality that is too heart-breaking for us to engage. It’s human nature. But it’s not going to get us any closer to solving our problem.
I say our problem because the mess of immigration is our problem. It is a problem that belongs to you and to me, and our government, and immigrants both documented and undocumented. It is a problem that all of us are tangled in. And the sooner we accept the fact that our government is enacting immigration policy on our behalf, the sooner we can move toward change.
Though we may not like what it looks like all the time, it is important to remember that the United States government is acting on our behalf. Another part of the immigration justice tour that we did was visiting a federal courthouse in Tucson. There, we watched something called Operation Streamline. It’s a process to expedite the legal proceedings for immigration cases. In the hour that we were there, we watched over fifty people be tried and sentenced. Most of them were deported immediately, a small handful were sentenced to time in detention centers for minor offenses other than illegal entry into the country. It was amazing to see a courtroom full of fifty defendants. There were five attorneys from the public defenders office who had met with the fifty defendants that same morning in preparation for the one-hour expedited hearing.
What was especially powerful though, was that after the hearing, the judge stayed in the courtroom to chat with us. The group of 12 UUs were the only witnesses gathered for the hearing. He noticed us lingering there after the room had completely cleared of border patrol agents, attorneys, and other support staff. He stayed and engaged us in a conversation. We navigated the conversation delicately until he understood where we were coming from. Eventually he confided in us how ludicrous he thought these laws were. He knew that these folks he had just seen and deported would try as quickly as they could to cross the border again. “But,” he said, “I’m doing my job. We are all doing our job to enforce laws we don’t really believe work. Judges and Boarder patrol agents and local police.” And all of these sorts of officers were there in the court. All of them were there doing their jobs. And suddenly we realized that a person wearing a uniform doesn’t always agree with the laws they enforce. But just like you or me, they have a job to do. The judge told us that we can argue all we want with people enforcing the rules, but until the rules are changed, those people are going to continue doing their job.
He insisted that we as voters had more power to affect immigration that he did as a federal judge. It sounds very strange, but it is true. As voters, as U.S. citizens, this government is ours to deal with. This judge was doing his job. Border patrol agents do their job. But we have to do our job as citizens, to steer our government toward more compassionate and meaningful means of managing immigration.

More than anything, this trip to the Boarder, and what I want to convey to you today, is that immigration is never just about other people. It’s not just about immigrants, or just about law enforcement, or just about legislators. It is about us as well.
Folks in the political and social circles that we find ourselves in often talk about the government as if it is some separate entity from the people. As if there’s some completely different cast of characters that are fundamentally different kinds of people. But the truth is, we elected those legislators. Our democracy is far from perfect. But for the most part, the person with the most votes still wins.

Immigration Enforcement works for us. On behalf of our votes and our tax dollars, their actions are carried out on our behalf. We are, all of us, responsible for the actions of our country. Saying we disagree with the politics or disavowing the government doesn’t remove us from the picture. We are part of it, all together. And though we are slow to admit it, we also reap the material benefits that immigration policy creates for middle-class Americans.
On our immigration tour, eventually we crossed the boarder into Nogales, Mexico. There we met with a couple of community organizations. The people were hopeful and inspiring. We went to a bus station where recent deportees from the U.S. arrived with no money and with no identification to get a foot hold back in Mexico. But what was most impressive to me about this town was the number of maquiladoras there. Maqiladoras are factories that import materials and equipment on a duty-free and tariff-free basis and then re-exports the product, sometimes back to the raw materials' country of origin. In Nogales we saw factory after factory that operated in a sort of tax-free no-man’s land. We had lunch at the home of a woman who worked in one of these Maquiladoras. She said that the average pay was about $50 per week. As little as that sounds, it’s not bad money for low-skilled factory work in the developing world. The much bigger problem is the impossibility of organizing any sort of union there. Workers are typically fired immediately if any organizing is attempted. The workers work long hours under strict rules. Because of a glut of labor, they can lose their jobs at the drop of a hat.
The more complicated piece of the picture is that there is a tremendous number of unemployed people vying for these jobs just across the boarder. They are there, because the farms that they used to work on are no longer profitable. The food that they had grown there for decades, maybe even centuries, has been undercut but cheap government subsidized U.S. crops, particularly corn.
I don’t want to get into too much detail about policy, but this whole arrangement came about because of NAFTA. With Free Trade, the U.S. agricultural industry put Mexican farmers out of business. They migrated north, to work in U.S. owned factories, just across the boarder. But the poor working conditions and high turn over leaves a tremendous glut of labor who can literally see the United States, the land of financial promise, through the giant fence we erected there.
That’s a snap shot of just one of the pieces contributing to immigration pressures from just one country. But I’m not going to talk details anymore. They are overwhelming and if you really want them, you can read them somewhere else.

I was saying, I was struck by the number of these maquiladoras. It just happened that the one factory that we drove past several times was a factory owned by the American company Master Lock. For some reason this particularly resonated with me. Not because I have an affinity for the brand or that it was some how special. In fact it was just the opposite. I was struck by the mundane nature of the object, knowing that I have two or three of these locks floating around my home not being used. It’s something I don’t think twice about, and probably something I didn’t think twice about purchasing because it was so cheap.
Meeting someone who worked in those factories, and seeing the factory that produces an object that I so took for granted somehow completed a circle in my heart. It made real what I already knew in my head. Human migration isn’t just about the people who are moving around the globe. It’s also about me. It’s about the lifestyle I live, the taxes I pay, and the government that acts in my name.

In the struggle for justice, there is just us. We are in this together, all of us. The Boarder Patrol agents, ICE agents, judges, cops, you and me and immigrants from around the world. We are all people trying to do what is right, and making the best of a very bad situation.
Most of the members of our congregation don’t have a good deal of experience relating to migrant workers. We may encounter people in the service industry, or out and about. But by in large, we don’t’ have a great deal of social connection to with immigrant communities.
If we are going to understand the challenges of immigration, and if we are going to do any meaningful work in the direction of justice, we have to build some relationships first. We need to know not just numbers and policies, but people and stories. This Sunday we have a unique opportunity to open ourselves for just that sort of learning. Three members of the Orange County Dream Team are coming to speak to us during sandwich Sunday.
Our guest speakers are undocumented immigrants who are college students. Though they were not born here, they grew up in the United States. Without legal documentation they are working hard to navigate the gauntlet of higher education bureaucracy and trying to find financial aid to help pay for school. They are trying to make something of their lives while the whole world is telling them no. So stick around, listen to their story. And they are very well-versed in the ins and outs of immigration policy. If you have nuts and bolts questions, they can probably answer them much better than I can.
We need to know their stories. We need to know the stories of the people who enforce these laws. We need to know how these laws affect us, so that we can begin the long journey toward fixing the mess. Remember, it is just like the human knot game. It will take some uncomfortable maneuvering. We will all have to give a little and be flexible. But the first step is realizing that we are all connected. Until we have some sense of working together we’re not going to get very far at untangling the mess that we are all a part of.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Sermon - "Engaged Democracy"

Engaged Democracy
Today we are talking about democracy, “engaged democracy” to be more specific. When I say that word, “democracy,” there are likely two different things that come to people’s minds. Some people are reminded of a political system, specific structures in a government, a constitution, checks and balances. Other people hear the word democracy and they think of people on the ground educating themselves and organizing, creating what they want their world to look like from the bottom up.
In religious terms it’s actually a whole lot like the concept of the Beloved Community, or the Kingdom of God. There are two very different perspectives on the idea of the kingdom of God. One is that we are compelled to create a beloved community wherever and whenever we can. It is our on our shoulders to create justice and peace, and through that creation, we usher the divine into our midst. Undoubtedly this is the camp that most Unitarian Universalists fall in.
But there is another perspective on the beloved community. And not quite as many, but still a lot of UU’s fall into this category. These are the folks who believe that our personal relationship with God or the divine is of primary concern. And once we align that primary relationship, that spirituality and encourage others to do the same, then the kingdom of God, and the beloved community will come into being.
One perspective depends on individual action to make a path for a higher power to be present in our community, the other depends largely on that higher power being present, and us arranging ourselves in a way that reflects it.

And we can think of Democracy in much the same way, especially in our country. I imagine the lines are similarly split. Most of us believe that democracy is something that we the people must create room for. It’s about individuals learning and making decisions. But another camp, and in many ways and equally valid camp, is invested in the institutions of democracy: the offices held by our leaders, the Constitution, the political process.
Of course both are necessary, both voices are needed. We need to engage from the ground up. But there is also room for celebrating the ideals that our government is based on. It is increasingly popular to rail against our government, particularly in recent years with financial crisis, lingering wars, and corporate influence tainting the process. American politics are a bit of a mess right now. But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if rather than saying “they’re all a bunch of back-stabbing losers,” we said, “you know we’re disappointed. Our institutions are better than this, and you as individuals are smarter and better than this.” What if rather than condemning our leaders, we simply said we know you are capable of doing better.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not think American democracy is perfect. But I do think that the founding principle is a good one. I do think that that political system has tremendous potential. I do think that many brilliant men and women have invested their lives in a career of public service. Do you remember that, when we used to call politicians public servants?

I do my best to come up with catchy titles for my sermons. Sometimes it works, other times not so well. I’m feeling like this week, is a “not so well” week. That’s because the title of this sermon “engaged democracy” is totally redundant. Any functional democracy, whether it is large or small has to be an engaged one. Once people stop taking an interest in the decisions their leaders make, and once leaders of a community lose interest in what the people want, democracy has lost its hold.
Maybe “engaging democracy” would have been a better title. But Engaged Democracy is just redundant. By its very nature, democracy demands participation to exist. It is inherently an engaged system of government.
Democracy must be engaged from the top down and from the bottom up. That raises the obvious question, “how can we, each one of us, engage our democracy?” A little reminder of civic duty never hurts. So here we go:
The first and most obvious way is to vote. But don’t just go in secretly and quietly. Make sure your family and your friends vote as well, even the ones that you know may vote the other way. It’s astounding to me how low our voter turn out is, especially as a country that so prides itself on being a model of freedom. We had 57% percent that at the polls for the 2008 presidential election. And that was the biggest turn out in forty years. I’m typically not a big fan of pressuring people to do things. But encouraging people to vote isn’t about pushing your own political agenda. It’s about encouraging a healthy society.
And, voting requires more than walking into a voting booth and making a random choice. Participating in democracy requires a certain level of awareness. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to get meaningful news about political issues. News sources from both the right and the left have become echo chambers. They repeat to their consumer exactly what they want to hear to reinforce and already established opinion about any given issue. The job of education ourselves is getting harder, but it is still ours. You don’t have to be a political analyst, but read a newspaper now and again. And, try to pick up a news source that is not necessarily reinforcing your viewpoint. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Of course there are also voter guides to help navigate the tangle of ballot initiatives that come up in California. Both the League of Women Voters, and Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California produce a guide every time there are initiatives on the ballot. And we offer those here at the Fellowship.
And finally, you can donate your time and money to organizations that promote democratic values. Of course you can support the particular issues and candidates, as I know many of you do. But also consider using some of those resources to encourage the democratic process as a whole. Several different organizations work to enhance American democracy. And they all need your support.

Hopefully it has not been completely lost on you that these are also the things that we need to engage here in this congregation. Most of what we ask for explicitly is money. And that is important. The members and friends of this Fellowship give a lot to keep us going. But just like participating in democracy in the wider world, there is more than money involved, or at least there should be more than money involved if we are going to be a healthy community.
Following our service today is our Annual Meeting. This is the one time each year that members of the Fellowship vote to approve our annual budget and to elect our leadership for the coming year. It may not seem like that big of a deal, like someone else will vote for you. But please consider how you feel about people saying that about our wider democracy. “I’m sure other people will vote and take care of it.” Our health as a community depends on engagement from the members and from the leaders. This meeting is the primary moment when that engagement occurs.
So please stay for the annual meeting after worship. And I have one more request from you for the sake of our community. Educate yourself about what’s going on in the life of our community and read the newsletter. It may not seem necessary. Maybe you think you will hear about the big important stuff anyway. But we cannot have a one on one phone call with each member. A team of people works very hard to publish good information in the newsletter and announcements. We publish put out as much news as possible, but we need you to meet us half way and read it.

It’s the only way to really stay informed about the decisions that we face as a community. It’s also the best way to find out about the decisions and changes we face as well as all of the events that we put on.
This past Wednesday we had a screening of the award-winning documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” It’s an in-depth look at the civil rights movement. I had probably seen it four times in school growing up, but it’s wonderful to watch as an adult. The most remarkable part of this film is the amount of original footage that it uses. You hear the voices and see videos of all the action, from interviews with a young Rosa Parks to the Governor of Mississippi insisting on the holiness of segregation and the state’s legal right to enforce.
As we were watching Wednesday night, one speech in particular stood out for me. It was a young, I want to say 26 year old, Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to a crowd at the very beginning of the bus boycott in Montgomery. He spoke beautifully about the struggle they were about to embark on. And it was a struggle. Boycotting the bus meant walking miles to work every day for over a year. He reminded them that the struggle wasn’t just for Blacks in Selma, or just for Blacks in the United States. It was a struggle for justice.
In grade school I was taught about King’s work to end segregation in the South. We learned that that was his mission, and that was all. It wasn’t until much later that I learned King’s vision of justice was an expansive one. He moved far beyond the struggle for integration to speak about the crushing poverty of Blacks throughout America. And he was one of the most powerful voices criticizing the horrors of the Vietnam War.
I knew that he personally expanded his vision of justice throughout his career. But I didn’t know that from the very beginning, from the time Rosa Parks stayed in her seat on the bus, he knew that it was about more than busses, or Blacks. He knew that justice was an expansive thing. When it took hold in one place, it could ripple out around the world.
And I think the same is true for us, and the democracy that we support. This may sound a little grandiose, but hear me out. I think engaging in our church community makes a difference for democracy in the wider world. I don’t think that having our annual meeting here in 20 minutes will usher in sweeping democratic reform in China. But I do think, actually I know, that what we do here affects the lives of our members. When we care enough to engage our community, to look at a budget, and care about our leaders, we expand our personal capacity for democratic life. It may be miniscule on an individual level, but when the 85 members of our congregation expand their capacity for democracy, that change isn’t so tiny.
What we do here impacts our lives when we leave this building. If it doesn’t, then we are failing miserably as a church. I believe, and I have heard our members say, that being active in the community impacts how they think and feel and act in the outside world. And I deeply hope that one of those impacts in an increased sense of responsibility for maintaining a community that rests on democratic principles.

Democracy is a dynamic thing. It requires action, it must be engaged. And Democracy is expansive. Like King’s vision of justice, when we support democracy in small scale, we make it more possible on a large scale. In closing I want to talk a little bit about why this all matters. Why do the work to create it? Why does it matter if it spreads? Well Democracy matters because it is central to our faith. As Unitarian Universalists, and generally as Americans, we believe in democracy.
I have preached time and again about how Unitarian Universalism is a reflection of the democracy as established in the United States. Everything about our structure reflects the democratic ideals and operations of the wider country. But I’m talking about not our faith tradition, but our personal faith. Whether you realize it or not, you and I believe in democracy.
That may sounds ideological, but it is true. In different places and in different times people have organized society based on what they believed to be true about God and about themselves. Not so long ago, and still in many places today, a sovereign ruler had power over the land. That individual was endowed by God with the power and the ability to lead a people. That one individual was believed to have been different, above others in his or her ability and knowledge.
Some movements within Islam have faith in a different kind of political order. They believe that the laws written and derived from the holy book, the Koran, should be the foundation of society. They believe that a particular set of rules is necessary to maintain social order and to revere Allah.
But you and I believe something different, about the divine and the human. We sang about it earlier in our worship service. “Voice still and small, deep inside all, I hear you call, singing. In joy and pain, sorrow and rain, still WE’LL remain, singing.” We believe that each and every person has a conscience, a voice within that leads them toward doing the right thing. “Voice still and small, deep inside all, I hear you call, singing.” No individual, not matter how great or powerful, is entitled to silence that voice. No ancient law, not matter how wise, is more sacred than the voices of today.
Democracy is at the core of our faith tradition. More importantly, democracy rings true for what you and I believe to be true about our fellow human beings, and the sacred. It is where you own personal faith and belief rests. The way we organize ourselves is a reflection of our values and our faith. Some will tell you that Democracy is the most reasonable form of government, or that capitalism is the most productive economic system for generating growth.
But I want to tell you today that democracy is, more than an efficient or productive form of government. Democracy is what we believe to be true and right. And that truth, that rightness is why it is the responsibility of each on of us to participate.


Monday, January 2, 2012

Sermon -"The Vocabulary of Unitarian Universalism"

Vocabulary of Unitarian Universalism

Unitarian Universalism is a liberal faith tradition based in covenant between its members. That is a pretty loaded sentence, but it is a very good description of who we are. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal faith tradition based in covenant between its members.
This Sunday I want to unpack some of the words that we frequently use to talk about Unitarian Universalism. Some of them can be very misleading. I know people start to cringe with the word liberal, like it’s a political agenda. We’re not quite sure what a covenant is. And Over and over we call ourselves a denomination, which we really aren’t. So I want to look at some of that language and the way we talk about ourselves. The point of course isn’t a vocabulary lesson. It’s to help us understand a more deeply who we are as a community.

The first word that I want to talk about is a fairly innocuous one. It is “tradition.” I often call Unitarian Universalism a faith tradition and some people aren’t quite sure how to interpret that. Lots of people refer to Unitarian Universalism as a denomination. Even other ministers use the word denomination sometimes, but it is very misleading, and I would go so far as to say an incorrect way of talking about us.
The word denomination implies being a part of a subset. We know that money comes in different denominations, different amounts. And there are Jewish denominations, and Muslim denominations, and Christian denominations. The problem is, we don’t fit as a subset of a faith other than our own.
It is true, and important to remember that Unitarian Universalism grew out of a Christian history. In fact the initial arguments made for both Unitarian and Universalist theologies were rooted firmly in the Christian Bible. They were Christian Unitarians. In fact in February we will be hearing from a UU minister who will share with us a very Christian understanding of Universalism. We come from a Christian history, but we are no longer a Christian denomination. Since the early 19th Century we have fully embraced experiencing the divine in all sorts of different places, including in Eastern religious teachings.
So it is important to remember, there are Christian Unitarian Universalists, and there are Jewish UUs, and Buddhist UUs, and Humanist UUs and Pagans, and Atheists, and everything else under the sun.
Though we are quite small in number, just around 630,000 in the United States, we are better understood as a faith or a faith tradition, than as a denomination, because we are not a subset, or denomination of a larger group. So, you will hear me referring to Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition. We are not a denomination; we are a faith tradition.

As often is the case, one sticky word clings to another. Although we are getting better about it as a congregation, the word “faith” still gets a little stuck in our throats sometimes. What does it mean for us to have faith, or be a part of a faith tradition?
It does not mean that we all have faith in a conscious God who intervenes in human history. It means that we are about the business of finding something to believe in. It may be God, or it may not, but it is our mission as a faith community to find some foundation for our lives.

Many of us, most of us actually, come to Unitarian Universalism after having left another faith. We found that we could no longer say those words, or believe those things. We could no longer accept a political agenda. We made the brave and sometimes very difficult decision to turn away from a belief system and a community. And now here we are together. Refugees, the departed, seeking support and nurturing for our wounds.
But this is not the final purpose of our community. Healing the wounds inflicted by our religious past is not enough. Our goal here is to move beyond naming what we do not believe in or do not want. Our goal here is to begin to embrace a faith in something broader than ourselves, something that does bring meaning to our lives.
Besides, a community that can only focus on what it doesn’t want simply doesn’t work. Can you imagine trying to order off then menu in a restaurant and only telling your waiter what you don’t like. Or imagine going shopping with a friend who only says, “oh, that doesn’t look so good on you.” Or, perhaps playing a sport where the only reinforcement you get is negative. I don’t like that kind of food. That dress looks terrible on you. Don’t hit the ball that way… It would be a pretty miserable group of people.
Our goal as a faith community is to move beyond the pains of the past to find a belief system that enriches our lives. Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean believing in God. But it does mean believing in something larger than ourselves. It could be a belief in the power of life in nature, the power of love and human community, our highest ideals; any one of these things could be the foundation for your faith.
And it’s important to be clear that having faith isn’t an end in itself. Faith in something means having a foundation that brings perspective to our lives. When we believe deeply in something bigger than ourselves we come to a sense of humility, understanding that we a just pieces of a much larger puzzle. And hopefully our faith also brings a level of comfort, as we realize that that puzzle that we are a piece of, that web that supports us, is a life-affirming network of love and possibility.

We are a faith tradition that embraces, encourages even, a tremendous diversity of beliefs. Which presents us with a pretty unique challenge as a church. Our community cannot be built upon a set of shared theological beliefs, a creed. So instead, we build our community around a covenant. We are a faith tradition rooted in a covenant.
More than any of the other words I’m talking about today, covenant is the most often used and misunderstood in our tradition. A covenant is a very specific type of relationship that goes back to the roots of the establishment of religious communities in colonial America. Without a shared creed, covenant is what holds us together.
We often think of a covenant like a contract, and they are similar. But, a covenant is different from a contract in three important ways. First, a covenant has no termination date, whereas a contract usually does. We rarely talk about FOREVER anymore. The major way we see covenant in this sense today is in marriage. Two people join in the presence of their loved ones and their sense of what is sacred to covenant to build a relationship for the rest of their life.
In Colonial America, when covenant was used to talk about membership in congregational churches, it meant that those entering a covenant or joining a congregation were doing so for the foreseeable future. As we are much more mobile today, the foreseeable future may be only a few years. Who knows when a career change or retirement may take us half way across the country? In the fifteenth century, when Puritan joined a congregation, they did so for the rest of their life, and probably the next couple of generations. Covenants don’t have an end date attached the way most contacts do.
The second way that a covenant is different from a contract is that a covenant applies to the whole of a person, whereas a contract involves only a part, especially a skill, possessed by a person. For example one may contract to have a house built. However, in a marriage, two people make a covenant with each other. They commit their whole selves to each other. While the identity of the individual persists, even prevails over the institution, covenants are concerned with an entire person, not parts of a person, or moments of their lives.
The third and perhaps most significant difference between a covenant and a contract is accountability. Contracts exist as a sort of quid pro quo. You do X for me and I’ll do Y for you. But you have to do X, or I won’t do Y. Covenants are very different in that they assume best intentions. Each party of a covenant assumes that the intentions of the other are good, that he or she is doing their best. The breach of the covenant by one party does not automatically nullify the other party’s obligation.
This does not mean that anything goes. While covenants do enjoin us to be flexible, they do not invite disrespect or repeated denial of the covenant. Just as occasionally marriages find a natural end, a time when it is best for both parties to move in different directions, so too covenants can, and sometimes should be ended.
This covenant stuff is serious business. It is a big challenge, but that’ what we are. It’s why you sign up for in becoming a part of this community. We choose to be Unitarian Universalists, and we take the responsibility to decipher with and open and free mind, what it is that we believe. Freedom to join, freedom to believe are at the core of our faith tradition. And that is why we are a liberal faith tradition.

Unitarian Universalism sits solidly in the tradition of liberalism. No I am not about to endanger our non-profit status or even go on a social justice tangent. I’m talking about liberalism as an ideology that is a product of the Enlightenment of the 18th century. The word “liberal” itself is derived from the Latin liberalis, its root is liber, or free. The Oxford English Dictionary defines liberal as “free from bigotry or unreasonable prejudice in favor of traditional opinions or established institutions” and “open to the reception of new ideas or proposals of reform.”
Liberalism comes out of a distinct moment in history, it comes with the modern age. The modern age brought the idea that we each have the capacity to discover and to question the world around us. We can learn through experimentation and make generalizations about what is true. This liberty, this religious liberalism is through and through who we are, from the very beginning of American Unitarian roots.
Liberal religion in America first began to come together in response to the Great Awakening. You may have heard of the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It was exactly what it sounds like. It was based on fear and punishment. It used the emotions and fear to lead worshipers to repent and convert. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards is the classic example of the religion of the Great Awakening. It was a period beginning around 1734 when original sin and repentance were the order of the day. Revivalist preachers traveled the countryside offering immediate salvation from eternal damnation if you simply profess your faith in Jesus.
As these revivalist preaches began traveling, spreading a gospel of fear and repentance, the liberal church leaders of New England closed their pulpits to that brand of religion. In the wake of this great wave of emotionalism and fear, American religious liberals began to unite in claiming reason and tolerance as the basis of Christian religion.
Without going into tremendous historical detail, those liberal Christians who supported reason over fear began the movement that we know as Unitarianism today.
When we talk about our liberal faith, we are talking about a commitment to freely deciphering what is true or false. Liberal faith is about not taking for granted what we have been told by an authority. Having Liberal Faith is a commitment to look critically at all the information and experience available, and choosing what we believe, choosing what makes the most sense. When we say Unitarian Universalism is a liberal faith, it’s not about politics. It is about individuals taking responsibility to think and act to make their world a better place.

I started this sermon by saying that Unitarian Universalism is a liberal faith tradition based in covenant between its members. I hope that that resonates more with you now. We know that describing our church to other people is not the easiest thing in the world. I usually feel like a deer in the headlights for a moment when someone asks. But it’s worth checking in every once in a while to prepare ourselves for that conversation about where we come from.

But getting a grasp of where we come from is also about charting a course for our future. Unitarian Universalism is intended to be a dynamic, ever-changing tradition. It’s democratically lead, even our Principles and purposes document is up for review and editing every decade. We are about change and growth, but without knowing where we come from, we will never reach the full potential of what we might one day become.