Unitarian Universalist Pillars, Part 2:

A Call to Faith, Liberally

A Sermon by the Rev. Barbara Wells
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church
November 10, 2002

Let me start by saying that this week was pretty hard for lots of us. The elections on Tuesday were, to put it bluntly, a rout of the Democrats. I know that not all of us here are Democrats. Yet I would venture to say that most of us here today are liberals, for we espouse one of the world’s most liberal religions. Yet in our nation today, we are somehow supposed to be ashamed of being liberal. I am not ashamed to be liberal. And I would hope no one in this room is ashamed, either. Yet, if we listen to the voices of arch-conservatives, and even moderates, you would think that being a liberal makes us into some kind of a demon. Many people are downright hostile to liberals, and it tends to put us on the defensive.

Part of the real challenge of liberalism today is a seeming unwillingness to name our values, to stand up for what we believe in. I think this is one of the key reasons why so many liberals went down in flames on Tuesday. They were unwilling to name and claim their liberalism. Unlike some of the great liberals of the past (Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt to name two), many liberal leaders do not speak out for liberal values and in so doing give away their power to make a real difference in the world.

This political reality is mirrored in the religious realm as well. People who are liberal religiously often find themselves unable to respond to dogmatic claims of the religious right. Because of this, the conservative religious groups in our nation are setting the agenda in election after election, and in congregations around the United States. Liberal religious groups like ours are virtually ignored by the politicians and the press because when they ask us what we believe, too often we have nothing to say.

Let me ask you a question. Think about the last time someone asked you if you went to church, or what your religious beliefs were. Were you calm and confident in your response, able to speak clearly of your beliefs and religious commitments? Or did you fumble, wanting so much to say what you believe deep down but lacking the language with which to speak of it? If the latter is more common for you (as it unfortunately is for too many UUs) then I hope today’s sermon will be of some help.

Today I intend to give you a simple and hopefully helpful way to talk about what is at the center of liberal religion, in particular our liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism. Last week I talked about how important awe and humility are to understanding one’s approach to religion and spirituality. Today I want to articulate four tenets of our faith, which I believe can hold their own in the world today. Four values or principles which shape how we live in the world. Four ways that we are called to faith, liberally.

First, Unitarian Universalists believe strongly in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This means that we are called upon to treat all other human beings as if they matter, as if they are precious to us. So I would say that one cornerstone of our faith lies in a commitment to a radical acceptance of others.

Second, as Unitarian Universalists, we also value the spiritual path of all people, including people whose ideas are very different from our own. Each of us, in our own way, must find a path to what is most holy in life. So at the center of our faith lies a respect for the spiritual journey in all its diversity.

Third, we are people who believe in community, and the gifts it brings to all of us. Community is developed when people promise to live and work together toward a greater good. The old fashioned word for this is covenant. At the center of our faith is a covenant to serve and be together in community.

And fourth, our approach to the universe includes a reverence for all of life, not just human life. The wonder and awe we feel as a part of the great web of existence permeates our religious worldview. Thus at the center of our faith is a deep sense of creation as holy.

So, I invite you to imagine that our faith rests on a four-legged stool. One leg is radical acceptance of others. A second leg is respect for the spiritual journey. Another leg is a covenant to be together in community. And the fourth leg is a sense of the holiness of creation. If this is so, and I believe it is, what do these principles have to teach us about living a faithful life?

Let me begin with the first leg — the radical acceptance of others. As Unitarian Universalists, we cannot fall into the trap of making any person, no matter how heinous their deeds or how wounded their personality, into a non-human thing. Making people into things is the beginning of hatred and all that follows from it. Our religious perspective calls on us to seek out what is human in all people, and to condemn the behavior, not the person.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. For a few years, in the 1990's, I volunteered at a prison in Washington State, and worked with a number of violent criminals. With two other women, we led a group of prisoners who used their time with us to talk about their pain and struggle both inside the prison and beyond. One night, a young man in our group said to us that he hated society and other people for creating a monster–him. This young man was scary. He had obviously committed a very serious crime and looked to be as mean and deadly as they come.

Yet there was something about him that caused me to stop for a moment before calling him to task for not taking responsibility for his actions. I told him that calling himself a monster reminded me of Maurice Sendak's wonderful book, Where the Wild Things Are. At the mention of this story, this boy in a man's body lit up. "That was my favorite book as a child" he told us. And he spoke for the first time from the real and hurting place inside.

And in that moment the monster disappeared and in its place stood a child so wounded by life that he could barely see himself as human. But, by finding that bit of him that could still be touched, the prisoner’s face softened and we saw the child behind the mask. This does not mean that we condoned the crime. Rather we were able to see the person behind the criminal. A person who has inherent worth and dignity no matter what they did.

This attitude becomes challengingly real when we face men like the two snipers whose actions terrorized our region for weeks. It seems that everyone and their brother is out for revenge. We are so ready to kill these two that they are convicted and sentenced before they are even tried. I feel particular compassion for the boy aged 17. I wonder if he isn’t like the wounded child in a monster's body I met inside a Washington prison. With a radical acceptance of others as a central tenet of our faith, we are called to see these criminals as human, even as we hold them responsible for their actions.

Now let’s explore the second pillar. Our faith challenges us to value diverse religious paths. Here at this church, I know some of you find much of your spiritual health in reading and reflection about great ideas like folks in the Religious Quest group. Some among us pray. Others find our road is filled with fellow journeyers with whom we can share thoughts and feelings, such as the regular attendees at the Spirituality and Creativity Circles. Some of us find our spiritual path through the body, and seek a sense of wholeness through Tai'Chi, meditation, even walking. And, of course, many find that our path leads us toward music, art and poetry.

What our faith invites us to do is to see each path as holy, even if it differs wildly from our own. This is why we believe in teaching our children about other religions as well as Unitarian Universalism. When we are able to view different religious paths not as threats but as opportunities to learn and grow, our own path may broaden. The story during today’s Together Time about Ramadan illustrates this value beautifully.

One caution. There are some paths that people choose to take that are extremely exclusive, sometimes even hateful to others. Our religious perspective invites us to view these paths with our minds as well as our hearts. We may conclude they are wrong or harmful. They may very well be. But we must not jump to conclusions based on discomfort or difference alone. There has been a lot of harm done in this world because people were unwilling to accept the different religious beliefs of another.

Our faith calls us to look with respect on others spiritual paths, something few religions have ever done. We must never take this important value for granted. Few religious people throughout history have ever been willing to attempt to model this kind of acceptance of diverse religious paths.

Third, our religion calls us to live in community. I believe that community in and of itself is a faithful way to live and learn. Today, our world pushes us apart and making the promise to be in community is a very difficult promise to make. Yet I think it is a profoundly religious thing to do. The root of the word religion means that which binds us together. If we are in true community, we are bound together in powerful ways.

Yet community isn't easy to create. Parker Palmer, a Quaker theologian, wrote once (perhaps you have heard me say this before!) that community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives. And when he or she moves away, someone always comes along to take their place. Ain't that the truth?! Community can be hard; being a church can be challenging. Yet, it is worth it.

When we come together here we promise, we covenant to try to live in ways that affirm our values. We try to model to the world that people of diverse beliefs can live together in harmony. We can't do that outside of community. We can't value diversity without experiencing it. We can't respect and cherish other humans without meeting them and knowing them face to face. Community is often hard. But, when we make the promise to support each other, and to worship, learn and grow together as we do here, the rewards are great, for us, for our children, and hopefully for the world.

Finally, our faith rests on a deep -seated belief that all of creation is holy. We can have a tremendous impact on our culture if this cornerstone of our faith ever becomes truly realized. Much of the traditional religious world accepts the idea that humans have dominion over the earth and that all the animals and plants on it were made exclusively for our use. Yet, increasingly religious people of all persuasions are beginning to question the approach to the earth which sees it as dead matter, here to be used by humans. To imagine and experience the world as a living creature, as a being of which we are an important part, is a powerful faith statement. When we view all creation as holy, we can no longer take it for granted. Each step we take on the earth, all the food we eat, even the air we breathe takes on religious meaning if we view it as sacred.

The implications for this are huge. Our planet is under enormous duress, and there are those in power across the globe who don’t seem to care. Our faith challenges us to do everything we can to treat our planet as the living being it is. When we recognize creation itself as sacred and holy, we can’t help but look at everything we do to and on the earth as having religious implications. A recent article in the Washington Post spoke of this idea even taking root in Evangelical churches. They ask the question, "What would Jesus drive?" We should be asking similar kinds of questions of ourselves if we are called to live a faithful life that includes a belief in the holiness of creation.

 

Unitarian Universalism is a religion that rests on a strong platform of respect for human dignity, appreciation of the spiritual and the communal path, and a sense of all creation as holy. Today, many would tell us that this perspective is not truly religious for it does not require a creed, even a God. Yet I believe, truly and deep down, that our world is crying out for a religion like ours. For too long we have been either unable or unwilling to articulate our faith and values in the marketplace of ideas. When, for example, a friend asks us if we are religious, we might stare into space and mumble some inarticulate response. How much more powerful it would be to answer yes, with fervor! And then to tell our friend the basic tenets of our faith. It does not have to be difficult. It does not have to hurt. It can even make you proud and happy.

But it does take practice. You will have an opportunity to practice in the "Articulating Your Faith" class which Jaco and I will lead in the winter. But you can begin now if you choose. Take a moment and find the words written in Italics at the top of your order of service. I invite you to join with me in saying them out loud, right now.

Our faith rests on four principles: 1. Radical acceptance of others; 2. Respect for the spiritual journey; 3. A covenant to be together in community; and 4. A sense of the holiness of creation.

Learning to name our beliefs and claim them without shame can go a long way toward strengthening our faith in the often hostile religious and political environment we face today. In the aftermath of last week’s elections, we are called not to despair or give up but to raise our liberal voices with hope and courage. The world needs our voices to ring out loud and clear, proclaiming the religious values of human dignity and the sacredness of creation. The world needs places where the spiritual path is valued and community is created. The world needs us. May our lives bear witness to our faith.

Amen.

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