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.


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