Monday, June 18, 2012
The Unity that Makes Us One
“There is a Unity that makes us One.” This is one very powerful way of describing a belief that we hold deeply as Unitarian Universalists. In the midst of our diversity, in the midst of the beloved community that we aim to build, in the midst of ideological struggle with others, and across this great big planet that is our home, there is a unity that makes us one. This is the core piece of Unitarian Universalist belief that we are exploring today.
You are probably familiar with the idea as it comes up in the Seventh Principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.
This idea of the web or a unity has been interpreted several different ways. For many it’s about environmental stewardship. For some it is about social justice. For others it is a theological statement about the nature of the Universe. One understanding of the web revolves around the way most people understand the word Universalism.
Some people interpret the word Universalism to be a reference to the all-encompassing nature of our religious tradition. We universally accept religious truths from other traditions, and that religious claims are universally equal in a way.
That sentiment was especially strong in our recent history. After the second World War there arose in liberal religion a great need to reach out across differences. The answer to a divided and conflicted world, for some was a universalized Universalism.
A group of new ministers, known as the Humiliati. (Their name, taken from that of an ancient Italian order, means “the humble ones” made the expansion of Universalism their mission. They committed to the renewal of their denomination with a new message of Universalism for the current time.
They adopted the symbol of the off-center cross, enclosed by a circle. I have a picture of it here. This new symbol was an apt representation of their new understanding of Universalism. The cross was off-center, and in the new Universalism, Christianity would be off center. It would remain present in Universalist thought, but it was time to make room for others, to make a Universal religion that called on all faiths and philosophies available to humanity. The circle represented the all-embracing nature of Universalism; the off-center cross recognized Universalism’s Christian roots while at the same time implying that Christianity was no longer necessarily central to the faith.”
While the theology of Universalism changed, so did al the other trappings. The Charles Street Meetinghouse became the physical symbol of universalized Universalism. It was a historic church building in Boston. The Charlse Street Meeting house was to be a new worship space of a new kind of religion. The interior of the sanctuary was transformed to express the idea of a universal religion for one world. The pews were arranged “in the round,” a large mural depicting the great nebula in Andromada was mounted in the cancel, and religious symbols from all faiths and cultures were placed on the walls.
It sounds like a fascinating place, but the Charles Street Meeting House was not a huge success. It “never attracted a large membership, partly because of its urban location, partly because of financial limitations, partly because of its experimental approach to worship, partly because of its minister.
The dream was big, a Universal religion for everyone, one church that would embody all faiths, one religious voice to speak to the world. They sincerely thought that their vision might save a fractured world.
It’s heart-warming. But, if you have been here for the last couple of weeks, you have heard that I am growing to distrust that version of Unitarian Universalism. Though for a time Universalism was understood as a universal religion, Unitarian Universalism is more than a community that supports religious diversity. It is, we are a tradition that inherits and upholds a tremendous theological tradition. One of the pieces of that theology is a belief in a unity that makes us one, a web of life that connects us all.
That unity is not about a unity of ideas or a unity of aspirations. It is not a statement of interfaith understanding. To the contrary, an appreciation for the unity that makes us one is a particular religious claim about the nature of the universe and about our lives. It means that our well-being is tied up together. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. What befalls our planet is our fate as well. The spark of the divine and the capacity for evil that we see in our neighbors also rests in our own heart. And ultimately, we realize that committing violence against another is committing violence against oneself.
There is a unity that makes us one. It is a religious truth that mystics pointed to forever. We have our own mystics. Though they aren’t often called mystics, that’s pretty much what they are. They are people whose lives were shaped by the experience of awe and wonder they felt in the presence of the divine.
I’m thinking now of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Thomas Starr King. They spent their lives experiencing the miracle of nature, connecting with the universe first hand.
I’ve shared a lot with you about what Emerson thought or wrote. But this is a story about something he experienced. It’s a story of him learning about the web of life. As most intellectuals of his time did, Emerson traveled across the United States and toured Europe twice. While in Paris, he visited the Jardin des Plantes, the massive park dedicated to the study of thousands of species of plants. It is important to remember the time he was living in though. Remember Charles Darwin was a contemporary of Emerson. The very idea of evolution and classification of species was cutting edge, and it enthralled Emerson. More than the beauty of each individual plant, Emerson was fascinated by the interrelatedness of all the species. Throughout the garden and the indoor exhibits Emerson noted “how much finer things are in composition than alone.”
Emerson gazed at the exhibits and saw relationships everywhere. Not only were the specimens linked to each other, they were also linked to him. He felt his own fascination with these plants as a fundamental relationship to them. He knew that just looking at them, being aware of their biological interconnection changed him as a person. It touched his soul and transformed him.
When science comes up in discussions of theology the question that almost always arises is evolution verses design. So too was the debate in his time. Emerson didn’t reject the notion of a divine designer or creator of the universe. He actually welcomed such a God-centered understanding of the world. But, with or without such a God, Emerson was much more interested in the relationship between the natural world and the human mind than he was in the natural world as proof of a creator God. For him God was a bit of an extra to the equation, a sideline issue. What he thought and what he felt was that the fundamental relationship between all beings was the most important thing, not the power that any God might have over it.
Both Emerson and Thoreau were inspired by nature and wrote about it. But Thomas Starr King went a step further to actually say that nature was a source of theology. He didn’t just appreciate nature or write about it. Thomas Starr King for the first time American theology said that nature held truths about the nature of life, about God. In his writings he used natural settings the way that other theologians used the Bible, drawing out ideas and truths that were apparent from the content. He saw in nature a world of interdependent relationships, and a world a beauty. And most importantly he came to realize that we are part and parcel of that same magnificent unity.
Some of our most prominent theological forbearers were mystics. But I know they are not alone. I know from talking with many of you and your own spiritual journeys that the interconnection that is so apparent in nature has also touched your lives in personal ways.
Weather it is a sense of awe at the giant red woods, or openness and expanse at the ocean or the simple enchanting beauty at a flower petal, I know that it is in nature that many of you feel most connected.
Last year I heard of someone remembering the moment as a child that he was under the giant redwoods at sunset. The beauty of that moment made him feel in his heart and soul a connection with all of creation.
I have been awash in that sense of connectedness in the mountains of Colorado. When I lived there, one of my favorite hikes was to go up to snow caps that melt and feed the Colorado River. That beautiful pristine snow, above where any trees would grow melts drop by drop, connection a desolate Mountain top with the Oceans of the world. It’s a magnificent thing to be a part of.
Our interdependence is most apparent to me, and I think many of us when we take in the natural world. It’s also apparent in many other ways.
On a more personal level, we are born through partnership and nourished by relationships from our early to final days. Our lives are formed by our relationships with other people. Though we may forget it, though Western obsession with the individual creeps into our lives, the deeper reality is that we come into being through relationship and we live our lives in it. It’s true, some of us need more or less personal connection than others. We need varying degrees of community and alone time. But there is a tremendous difference between isolation and solitude. A little genuine solitude is helpful, necessary even to develop our own thoughts. But isolation, loneliness, separation from the stream of life that connects us one to another is never a good thing.
I’ve spoken a lot about theologians of our distant history. There’s one other UU minister that I want to quote from more recent history. Rev. David Bumbaugh was a active in the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist traditions in 1961 and actively serves a congregation today. He describes this the unity that makes us one beautifully. He says, “We believe that in this interconnected existence the well-being of one cannot be separated from the well-being of the whole, that ultimately we all spring from the same source and all journey to the same ultimate destiny.”
There is a Unity that makes us one. It is a strong and clear statement about ourselves and the world we inhabit. But like any belief, it is meaningless unless it has a bearing on the way we live our lives.
For many of us, the interconnected web comes with a tremendous sense of responsibility. And rightfully so. In plain language, we humans have made a huge mess of what we have been given. We have managed to nearly wreck this world that we inhabit, because those relationship that sustain life are also avenues for destruction. As we honor the relationships that connect us to the earth and to each other, there is a good deal of room for repentance. That’s not a word we use a lot as UUs. It sounds scary but it’s actually a great word. The standard definition of Repentance is the activity of reviewing one's actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. That’s a worthwhile thing to do. But much of the nuance of the word is lost in translation.
In the New Testament, the word translated as 'repentance' is the Greek word (metanoia), which is a compound word of 'meta' (after, with), and the verb 'noeo' (to perceive, to think). This compound word combines the two meanings of time and change; so together it means: 'to think differently after'. Repentance is a change of mind accompanied by change of conduct. It is a change of consciousness.
An awareness of the unity that makes us one is cause for repentance. Not in the sense of guilt or simple regret. When we really grasp the fundamental fact of our interdependence, it can lead to a tremendous change of heart, change of consciousness, change of our lives.
As we do change our lives, as we come to see our own fate intertwined with that of our brothers and sisters, as we do what we can to give back to the web of life that has made our very being, let us not be overwhelmed. Our job is simpler that it may appear. We don’t need to make the universe one. We need only to acknowledge the fact that it is already, and live accordingly.
We don’t need to make the universe one. We need only to acknowledge the fact that it is already, and live accordingly.
Monday, June 11, 2012
“Every Soul is Sacred and Worthy”
Last week I began introducing the worship theme for the Summer. We will spend the next three months diving into some of the core beliefs that permeate Unitarian Universalism. They are anchored in our history, but also flourish in our congregations today. I listed five core beliefs:
Every soul is sacred and worthy,
Salvation is in this life.
There is a unity that makes us one.
Courageous love will transform the world.
Truth continues to be revealed.
Today, we are focusing on the first of those beliefs, which not surprisingly is very similar to our first Principle, respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. What I want to do today is take this little theological statement, and look at it one piece at a time. “Every soul is sacred and worthy.”
Well, let’s start with the core of this idea. Soul. For some of us the word flows naturally. For others it has no meaning or is even offensive. So let me start with the most down to earth description of soul that I know.
This idea of the soul comes from my best friend’s mother. She is the Superindendant of a school, but was a classroom teacher for years and years. She says that when she is having a particularly difficult time with someone, when someone just gets on her nerves and all she can feel is anger, she thinks back on teaching second grade. And she remembers that this challenging person was also once a second grader somewhere. This person was once silly and afraid and open to new ideas. And somewhere, deep inside ,whether we can see it or not, they still are that second grader. They still are a little afraid, a little silly, and open to new ideas and full of potential. If the religious language of “soul” doesn’t float your boat, just think of it as the magic that we see resting in an eager child.
Just a few weeks ago, I preached about how the Unitarian forefather Ralph Waldo Emerson understood the soul. One of the key ideas was about the soul being the piece of us that connects with other people and with the rest of the world. There is a spark in you that calls out to recognize the spark in another person. In your core is a quiet reminder that every other person also has a flash of the sacred in her or him as well. That piece of each of us that recognizes the humanity, the good, the soul or another person is our own soul. It’s also the piece of us that helps us feel connected to the rest of the world. Emerson was very clear that the soul was the piece of the divine in each of us that connects us to the rest of the Universe.
Emerson was deeply influenced by the sacred text of Hinduism and other Eastern religions. It should be no surprise that we hear echoes of his idea of the soul in the common Indian greeting, Namaste. I’ve been using this word at the end of our meditation time lately, but never bothered to explain it. Throughout much of India the world “Namaste” is a greeting and a sign of respect. It is basically the equivalent of “hello.” "Nama" means bow, "as" means I, and "te" means you. Therefore, Namaste literally means "bow me you" or "I bow to you."
Many of us know the word as it is used in yoga studios here in the U.S. Western oriented yoga practices have extrapolated a more elaborate meaning of the word based on Hindu beliefs. They describe it as meaning, "the spirit in me respects the spirit in you," or "the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” Maybe this isn’t totally what they mean in India when they casually use the word. It may not be the indigenous to India, but I like the concept. The divine in me respects the divine in you. The soul in me recognizes the soul in you.
Whether we see it as the humanity that is so easily embodied in a curious scared silly loving second grader, or the spark of the divine, the little piece of the Universal Truth that animates each or our individual lives, we are talking about the seed of potential in each person. It’s that core of our being that may be well hidden, but can never be taken away. Every soul is sacred and worthy.
What then is this soul worthy of? In our Universalist roots the answer to that question is very clear. Every soul is worthy of salvation. Universalism at its core is about affirming a love of God, and proclaiming that no God worthy of our attention would condemn anyone to eternal punishment.
In the face of The Great Awakening, an overwhelming American religious trend that preached hellfire and brimstone, early Universalists said no. Every person, every soul must have the opportunity to reach salvation. God does not cut anyone out of the family. They debated for a very long time about the mechanics of how that salvation happened. But from the beginning, the answer to the question, what every soul was worthy of, was Salvation.
The Unitarian side of our heritage was also very much in line with the sense that every soul was worthy. Like the early universalists, they fought against the doctrine of an angry God, but for a different reason. The Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn anyone to eternal punishment. But the Unitarians believed that we as humans had too much potential for good, to be condemned.
In 1819, William Ellery Channing preached the landmark sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” For the first time, he accepted the label Unitarian, and at that critical moment made a distinction between his Liberal peers and the Christian orthdox. That sermon was the catalyst that made our church the separate religious tradition that it is today.
The thrust of the sermon was two fold. First, he insisted that we must use reason to develop our faith. After all we were endowed with this great capacity and it would be irresponsible not to apply it to religious life. Second, we as humans are capable of moral development, and this, above all else, should be the goal of religious life in America. Channing would say that every soul is sacred and worthy of the opportunity to flourish in this life, the opportunity to develop moral character, and in the process find salvation in this life.
Throughout his short but powerful ministry, Channing railed against slavery, against poverty, against alcoholism. He advocated for the creation of hospitals for the mentally ill and encouraged progressive approaches to education. The first American minister to proudly wear the label of “Unitarian” was a committed activites. Most importantly, Channing’s commitment to these numerous causes was an undying interest in the moral potential of each individual person.
He knew that with effort, people could live more moral and fulfilling lives. He knew that we could mold ourselves into better people, and that work of improving ourselves would in turn improve the world around us.
From our beginnings as a faith tradition, we set our sites on respecting the possibility in each person, the potential for a soul to flourish. And we have made it our mission to protect that possibility for every person. For Channing and many other early UU leaders the battle was about abolition of slavery. Soon after was women’s suffrage and the political rights for African Americans. Access to public education, recognition of same-sex relationships and demanding a humane policy for immigration followed. Each of these political conviction comes from our deeply held faith that every soul is sacred and worthy. Every person deserves the opportunity to flourish and participate fully in what it means to be human.
So we have talked about what we mean by “soul.” And we have talked about what these souls are worthy of. Finally, I want to talk about what is probably the most tricky word in this whole statement, “every.” Every soul is sacred and worthy.
Most obviously it means that everyone, even that moron that cut you off in traffic on the way to church today, even that radio news host that makes your blood boil is sacred. The stranger at the grocery store and the person sitting next to you here today, the same spark of the divine, the human potential that we celebrate without exception is in each and every one of those people. This is not small statement. Though we speak it readily, the first principle of Unitarian Universalist is a tremendous affirmation, and an even more tremendous thing to take on in our living. The challenge to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person is tremendous and could easily fill a lifetime of religious commitment.
Every soul is sacred and worthy. Of all these theological statements of the Summer I love this one the best. Yet it is also the one that I forget most readily. Why is this reality so hard to remember? At first glance, it comes with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. It requires that I treat people with respect. It requires that I help people who need help. It requires that my actions take into account the needs of others, all day, every day. It’s exhausting to even think of the full weight of this commitment.
But there is more than responsibility and dread in this profound statement of faith. Every soul is sacred and worthy. More than responsibility, it is an overwhelming statement of beauty and potential. Every soul is sacred and worthy. Recognizing the sacredness that we swim in every day is inconvenient. It rips our attention from the to-do list, it distracts from our need to accumulate more stuff, it may slow down our jobs as we begin to treat others not as numbers but as human beings. Yes, it is a burden to treat everyone this way, but even more so, opening our hearts to really experience the sacred in every person is a terrifyingly beautiful religious journey that we are called to make.
As we live our lives we develop an arsenal of tools to avoid this reality. We manage, I manage to convince myself that I am so busy that the few moments it takes to have a face-to-face conversation is just too much. And now technology does the work for us. We no longer have to come face to face with the sacredness of each soul because we experience them only through an email or text message. We have an arsenal of tools to help us avoid what we claim to be true, lest we be overwhelmed by a sacredness that we swim in every day.
I am convinced that what we forget that every soul is sacred and worthy, not because it is a burden to treat everyone as human beings. I think we conveniently forget that everyone is sacred and worthy because we fear our little hearts might just bust at the seams if we allowed ourselves to really experience that truth. It would make walking into any room of people like walking into a gallery at the Louvre. Every face a masterpiece, a unique expression of beauty crafted from a particular perspective.
And perhaps even more overwhelming is the possibility of finally understanding ourselves to be one of those masterpieces. I said earlier that truly knowing that every soul is sacred and worthy is a dual commitment. It’s not just about others, it’s about ourselves as well. You are a part of every soul after all. You are a part of this holy family. I want to leave you with a quote from Marianne Williamson. You have no doubt heard it before, but I invite you to listen through the ears of a Unitarian Universalist today.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Every soul is sacred and worthy. Each and every person we know has a seed of humanity, a spark of the divine inside. They are worthy of salvation in this life they deserve the opportunity to participate fully in the human experience, to have meaningful relationships, to find fulfillment, and the opportunity to growth. And so do you.
Monday, June 4, 2012
If you can’t read it, this cartoon I found says “Consider me a purpose-drive meta-seeker with a moderate post-modern free-thinking worldview. I’m not sure what I believe yet, but I certainly nailed my label.” That will make more sense in a bit. The key though, is the last sentence, “I’m not sure what I believe yet, but I certainly nailed my label.”
There are two very different answers to the question “What do Unitarian Universalists believe.” The first answer, the one that I have given here most frequently, also the one that I know this congregation is most comfortable with, goes something like this:
Unitarian Universalists believe a great variety of different things. And we encourage a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. That’s because we are a covenantal, rather than a creedal faith. We don’t all believe the same things but we build a community to help one another along their own journey for meaning.
You have heard some variation of that answer from me for the past several years here at UUFLB. But there is another answer to that question that is equally valid. It just takes a little bit longer to tell. The other answer to the question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” is , while believe a great many different things, there are a handful of core theological beliefs that most of us hold in common. We have a generally positive view of human nature. We believe that we are connected to each other and the world around us, and so we are called to make the world better for everyone. We generally reject the idea of a cosmic punishment for sins, but choose in the face of mystery to focus on living this life with meaning and purpose, trusting that what comes next will work itself out. And we believe that we are called to use logic and reason in every aspect of our lives, and the more we learn, the more we cultivate a sense of awe and wonder at the Universe we share. That’s just describing a few of our beliefs off hand.
Today marks the beginning of a three-month journey in our worship together. It is a journey to explore some of those core UU beliefs that are commonly held in our past and today. Honestly, I’m not sure where the journey will lead. Hopefully it will lead to a new sense of rootedness in our tradition. As Unitarian Universalists we inherit some of the brightest minds that American religion has to offer. We also inherit the inspiration of social reformers that lived out their beliefs in a way that literally shaped our country.
My hope is that this exploration of our core beliefs will lead us to a greater sense of rootedness in Unitarian Universalism. Or perhaps we will find that our diversity and commitment to religious freedom are more significant themes than those beliefs that we share in common. Perhaps this adventure will end in a new sense of religious liberty and freedom to explore. But there’s only one way to find out.
This journey is not a new one. The conversation about core beliefs in the midst of our religious freedom has been going on for a couple of hundred years.
One of the best early examples of that challenge is part of our Universalist heritage, dating back to the beginning of the 19th Century. Because of the tremendous variety of belief, they formed a committee to craft a profession of faith, a list of those things they believed in as Universalists. In 1803 it was crafted. I’m not going to read it, suffice it to say it was very strong on the Bible, a loving God, and universal salvation. The key part that I want to share with you is that it also contained a “Liberty Clause, so that individual Universalist societies could adopt theologies that fit their own particular circumstances. This thorough and solid statement of faith was difficult to get passed, but it did happen, with a liberty clause attached. Ninety-six years later the Universalists decided it was time to revisit the question of what do we believe. They crafted the Boston Declaraion. The language was updated, with nearly identical ideas, and an even stronger “liberty clause” attached. Stating “ The Winchester Profession is commended as containing these principles, but neither this, nor any other precise form of words, is required as a condition of fellowship…” Since that time, the Universalist tradition expanded it’s horizons to wider and wider sources of religious truths.
Unitarians had their own moment of conflict over theological differences in the 1800s. For them, the difference in beliefs was geographically based. As Unitarianism spread west, it took on the sense of freedom and liberty that the West symbolized. Conflict between Boston and the Western Unitarian Conference became extremely heated. As those westerners took on a more and more Humanist perspective, the American Unitarian Association based in Boston made clear it would never assist any group that did not rest on a Christian basis. Finally the Western Unitarian Conference came up with the document “The Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us.”
It was actually an attempt to compromise between divergent viewpoints. It tried to articulate simple truths that a majority could agree upon. These included “reason and conscience as the final authorities in matters of belief,” the “nobility of Man,” and an “unfolding, beneficent order to the universe.” Of course this also came with a sort of liberty clause, stating that no dogmatic tests would be used as consideration of fellowship.
We have struggled for a very, very long time to describe what it is that we believe. It has been an official controversy for over 200 years. So you certainly shouldn’t feel overwhelmed when someone asks you, that dreaded question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?”
It’s hard to nail down. Still, nearly every President of the Unitarian Universalist Association has called for a deepening of our shared beliefs and values. Our current president, Rev. Peter Morales has encouraged us offer a faith for those in need. Before him, President William Sinkford said “We need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms.”
Many of our greatest leaders have seen a need for a better grasp our share beliefs. The one who I think said it best was Eugene Pieckett, the president of the UUA from 1971-1985. He said:
The old watchwords of liberalism – freedom, reason, and tolerance – worthy though they may be, are simply not catching the imagination of the contemporary world. They describe a process for approaching the religions depths, but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves. If we are ever to speak to a new age, we must supplement our seeking with some profound religious finds.
The point is, Unitarian Universalism is more than a method. Yes, we uphold religious liberty as a value as we search for truth and meaning. But we also have a couple of centuries of theology in our back pocket. It’s theology that informs who we are today as a tradition. These are strong and viable ideas that offer a message of hope. I think we can both encourage a free and responsible search for truth and meaning while we offer those life-affirming beliefs that have offered hope to Unitarians and Universalists for a couple of centuries.
The point of church after all, is not to celebrate itself and it’s method. The point of any religious community is to point beyond itself to deeper springs of inspiration and hope.
Often when new people find Unitarian Universalism, they invest deeply in it. Occasionally it is too deeply. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled when anyone finds a religious path that brings meaning to his or her life. I’m even more thrilled when that path is Unitarian Universalism. But on occasion, I see that what has stirred someone’s soul isn’t the path that Unitarian Universalism illuminates. Instead they are enamored with the institution itself. They are thrilled that such a church exists, because it is different, it is free from the dogma and hierarchy of other traditions, it is built on love. It is an almost magical community.
These are the people that worry me, because I know they will be disappointed in the end. Unitarian Universalism is an institution, made up of people. Our Fellowship is made up of people. And I too, your minister, am a person. The faith tradition, this congregation, and undoubtedly I myself will miss the mark sometime, we will make mistakes, we will disappoint. That’s why you have to, we have to set our sights on something beyond the individual people and institutions that make up our faith. They are not perfect, they never will be. They are here not as the object of worship, but to point in the direction of fulfillment and meaning.
It’s no different from appreciating a political leader as an individual. I’m sure you know by now that your faith in democracy as a political system can’t rest on the shoulders of any individual political leader. They are human, they will do their best, but the real power in democracy is that we have trust in an ideal, rather than any single individual person to execute that ideal.
I learned this lesson myself a few years ago. I didn’t think I would ever preach about this, but I can’t think of another way to describe this experience. In my first year of ministry with this congregation I was still in the process of becoming ordained. I had had a wonderful internship at Orange Coast up in Costa Mesa, graduated from seminary with flying colors, including being named “student of the year” a valedictorian or sorts. Things were smooth sailing. So I headed off to have my final interview with the committee that would approve me for ordination.
My experience there was less than perfect. After an intense hour-long interview, they essentially told me I wasn’t ready, and that I should come back next year. In retrospect, I now recognize that I wasn’t quite ready to shoulder the full responsibility of ordained ministry. But at the time I was truly devastated. I can say without hesitation that it’s the single most disappointing moment I have had in my life to date, and it came from my faith tradition.
So I spent the year addressing their concerns in my ministerial formation. That was helpful. But what was far more helpful, what I will hold on to until the day I day, was a much needed realization that my faith is not in Unitarian Universalism. My faith is not in an institution. Sure I think Unitarian Universalism is a great structure to explore and express my ideas, but it is not the object of my worship. My faith is in the beauty and wonder of creation, and what I have come to call God.
This is an amazing church. I mean that in the broadest sense of the word, our congregation, our faith tradition, the people who come here on Sundays and every other day of the week. Even this building. This is an amazing church, but it is not enough to sustain your faith. The role of any meaningful religious tradition must be to set your sights beyond, to set your sights on higher ideals and beliefs.
Ralph Waldo Emerson explained most beautifully and most effectively. He said that the teachings of Jesus were true and powerful, not because Jesus said them. They are true because they are universal truths. In fact any other person might as easily have tapped into these truths and shared them with the world. Jesus shared with the world some wonderful truths about the nature of the divine, the nature of human beings, and the way we are called to treat one another. But those same ideas would have been just as true, were they spoken by different lips in a different land in a different time.
No preacher or teacher or book or church is worthy of our worship. But each of these things, used wisely, can point us in the direction of the divine, and our highest ideals, the things that ultimately are worthy or worship and appreciation. We do not worship an institutions or leaders. This was the indelible mark of Emerson on our tradition. But we can, we should use our institutions to point to that which is worthy of our worship.
Eugene Picket said, “If we are ever to speak to a new age, we must supplement our seeking with some profound religious finds.” I contend that we have already had profound religious finds. In the midst of our diversity and free exploration there are profound and bold theological claims that make up our history. They are alive in our diverse congregations. And I believe they offer a sustaining vision of hope for our future, both as a faith, and as a world.
There are a handful of different lists of what Unitarian Universalists believe. They have been written down repeatedly over the past two centuries. The language changes with time, but the core ideas remain the same. So for the Summer we are going to dive into one of those lists. This particular list comes out of the Mountain Desert District and the work of Rev. Mike Moran. After much discussion, they came up with five pieces of Unitarian Universalist belief. They are:
All souls are sacred and worthy
There is a unity that makes us one
Salvation is in this life
Courageous love will transform the world
Truth continues to be revealed
These are profound theological statements. You may not recognize it because you believe these things. You may take these things for granted, and think of course, doesn’t everyone think this way.
But I want you to know, these are major claims about the nature of the world we live in, about what is sacred, about how we will called to live our lives and what will ultimately save our world. These are religious beliefs and they stand in contrast to claims of other religious traditions. Religions that care more about what happens to you after death that what you do in life. Religions that think we as humans are sinful, dirty, and flawed. Religions that teach our fate as human beings is somehow separate from the fate of the world we inhabit.
Do you remember the cartoon that we saw earlier? “Consider me a purpose-drive meta-seeker with a moderate post-modern free-thinking worldview. I’m not sure what I believe yet, but I certainly nailed my label.” It’s a joke about folks who are stuck in their own heads and in books. It’s a joke about people who have some big words in their minds, but don’t know in their hearts what they believe. I can’t help but read it as a joke about Unitarians.
There are many agnostics among us, those folks who say God is a big fat question mark and is an unanswerable question. I myself fall into that camp from time to time. I appreciate that. But there is no mention of God in this list of beliefs. There is plenty of room for big fat question marks even while we proclaim a life-affirming faith of reason and hope for our shared world.
It is time for us to share that faith with the world; it is time to speak to a new age and share what we have found in our centuries of seeking as a liberal religious community.