Monday, September 14, 2015

Can UUs Believe Anything We Want?

This is the sermon delievered on Sunday, September 13th, 2015 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  You can listen to a podcast if you prefer.

I love that story we heard earlier ["A Small Jar Called Freedom" from the book What if Nobody Forgave?], and I love the image of creation being something of a kitchen experiment.  There’s a whimsical mischievousness in the God of that story, and the idea of a playfulness built into our very existence.  And, of course, there’s that freedom … that freedom that’s liberally sprinkled into the mix … the freedom to think for ourselves, and make choices for ourselves, and to act on the choices we make.  All of our choices have consequences, of course – and those we often don’t have any choice about – yet still we remain free to choose for ourselves.

A lot of people ask if we Unitarian Universalists are free to believe anything we want.  And, actually, a lot of Unitarian Universalists say that we can believe anything we want.  We are, after all, a “free faith.”   We don’t demand adherence to a dogma; we don’t have a catechism to memorize; and it’s pretty darned hard to be a UU heretic.  (Although, thank goodness, it is possible.)

Yet I don’t think our faith does allow us to believe just anything we might want to.  Because we all need something to ground our lives on and in.  We all need something to hold on to and something that can hold on to us when times are hard.  And as the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs taught us – in a reading that’s in the back of the hymnal (#657) – not all beliefs are equal in their effect upon us.  It matters what we believe, as she said.

Many UUs lift up the so-called “seven principles” when asked about what it is we believe.  These well-known words actually come from the bylaws of our Association, yet it’s no dry text.  There’s a copy on the insert, and in a moment I’m going to invite each of us to read these words together.  The first line of each section is the formal and official words of this covenant, so if you’re feeling formal and official you should read those.  The second has the principles put into child-friendly language (our kids here know them as the “rainbow chalice” which is why there’s a color noted after each one).  If you’re feeling kid-like, then, please read those italicized words.  And while we read, Leia will light the candles of our rainbow chalice.

As Unitarian Universalists we covenant to affirm and promote:
·         The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
o   respect the inherent worth & dignity of every person [red]
·         Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
o   offer fair and kind treatment to others [orange]
·         Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
o   yearn to learn throughout life [yellow]
·         A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
o   grow in our ongoing search for truth and meaning [green]
·         The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
o   believe in our ideas and act on them [blue]
·         The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
o   insist on peace, freedom and justice for all [indigo]
·         Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
o   value our interdependence with all living things—the web of life [violet]

I’m the first to point out that this is not a statement of beliefs; it’s not a creed.  It’s a covenant statement, promises that our congregations make to one another in the coming-together that creates the UUA, like the covenant we have with each other that we read earlier.  And even if it were a creed statement, I’ve heard people say that they are so general that they don’t really mean much of anything – pretty much anybody of good will would agree with them.

Let’s just take a look at the first one, though:  we UUs covenant with one another to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Every person – not just the ones who think the way we do, or look the way we do, or vote the way we do.  Every person – not just good people, or successful people, or happy people; not just liberal people, or people who’ve had their consciousness raised about racism and hetero-sexism and transphobia.  We Unitarian Universalists affirm a principle that’s based on the belief that every person … each and every person who is, was, or ever will be … every person without exceptions … absolutely every person has inherent worth and dignity.  And “inherent” means that we’re born with it, don’t have to do anything to earn it, can’t do anything to lose it, and, according to the dictionary, this worth and dignity is, “permanent, essential, [and a] characteristic attribute” of every person on the planet.

That’s definitely not something everyone would agree with, nor is it so general as to have no meaning.  It’s incredibly specific … and demanding.  From the playground to geopolitics, affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person is hard work.  It’s hard to remember it when people are being mean to us, or we watch them being mean to each other; it’s hard to remind other people about it when it seems that everyone else thinks these other people are bad, or don’t belong here, or are just trying to cause trouble.  Yet even in these situations – especially in these situations – our faith calls on us to both remember and to act from the awareness that each and every person has worth, has value … just because they are a person. This means that we have to work for justice; that we have to stand up for what is right; that we have to stand with those people others would push aside and ignore.

It also means – and for some of us, maybe a lot of us, this can be even harder – our faith’s assertion that every person has inherent worth and dignity means us too.  It can be hard to remember that when we’re feeling not too good about ourselves.  When we’ve done something wrong, or let somebody down, or not performed up to our potential, or made a mistake that hurt someone else … even then we need to remember that we have worth and that it’s inherent worth, which means that we don’t have to do anything to deserve it and nothing we can do – no matter how embarrassing or regrettable – can take it away.

That’s a belief we can hold on to and that can hold on to us in the hard times.  That’s a belief that can help us make those choices we’re free to make, because it gives us a foundation on which to make them.  We UUs are called by our faith to wrestle with this foundational belief.  Each of the other Principles is as equally deep and demanding.

Now … I do want to say something that ties all of this into Balloon Sunday.  Here goes:  our Unitarian Universalist Principles – the core concepts on which our faith is built and which makes demands of us because we’re UU – these Principles are kind of like balloons.  When you see a hot air balloon it’s kind of hard not to look up, isn’t it?  Our Principles help us to keep looking up so that we don’t get so trapped in the day-to-day details of our lives that we forget the big picture.

And like balloons – like these balloons – they’re really pretty when we hold them down here by our chests.  They have that, I don’t know, balloon smell; and the light shines off of them; and their colors are so bright.  But that’s really not what balloons are for.  Balloons are meant to be aloft so that they can be seen, so that they can share their beauty, and so that others can be cheered by them.  Our Principles are like that, too.  That’s what the “promote” part of “affirm and promote” means.  We’re called on to do more than simply admire the beauty of our Principles, we’re called to put them into action, to show others how they make the world more fair, and just, and, well, beautiful and loving.

We believe these things because we’re UUs, and we’re UUs because we believe these things.

Pax tecum,


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