Monday, June 18, 2012

Sermon - "The Unity that Makes Us One"

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.”[1]
         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.


[1] Howe, 114.

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