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Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Power of the Unitarian Universalist Story

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Marilyn Pearl, Worship Associate; Erica Shadowsong, Director of Religious Exploration

The Power of our Unitarian Universalist Story

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

September 25, 2011


That hymn (“Light of Ages and of Nations” #189) is an old chestnut. Set to an older hymn tune, the words were written in 1860 by the Unitarian minister Samuel Longfellow, younger brother of the more famous Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet. It’s believed to be one of the earliest hymns to fully-recognize non-Christian traditions [Between the Lines:  Sources for Singing the Living Tradition, page 53].

I chose it for today because of the expression in verse three, “revelation is not sealed.”  But really the entire hymn is a testimony to the Unitarian Universalist beliefs that there is that of truth in all religions and that the potential to know truth exists in all people, of all times and places, including today, and here.

You ask what gives Unitarian Universalism POWER? There is power in our belief that the possibility of revelation was 1) not ever restricted to one religious group and 2) continues to be as possible as ever.

The first part is about religious diversity. In our view, revelation was never restricted to one religion. Especially today, in the present climate of intolerance, this is powerful. We are not new to interfaith understanding. We have a century and a half of experience from which to draw in understanding and working with our brothers and sisters of other faiths. We have an historic appreciation, written in our souls’ deep pages (as the hymn says), of the truth of their religion for them. We know that it is as true – no more, no less – for them as ours is for us.

We Unitarian Universalists do not have to get past or put aside a doctrinal teaching that says otherwise. For example, in Judaism, that they are the chosen people; or in Christianity, that access to God is only through Jesus; or in Islam, that Mohammad is the last true prophet.

I don’t mean to suggest that ours is the only faith group to understand religious pluralism, or that there are no liberal Jews, Christians and Muslims who think this way. I’m just saying that this is a core belief for us, it’s in our DNA, it goes way back, and it grounds us and even gives us authority if and when we speak up as people of faith. It can give us power.

The second part is that revelation is still possible.  Ours is a “living tradition,” we like to say. It has evolved over time and will continue to do so, in large part because it is not tied to an ancient scripture or institutional creed. We do not hold onto the literal meaning of scriptures that originated in a historic context different than ours, defined by the customs and values of their (ancient) times.

While we can, and do, find meaning in scriptures for our own times, the first source from which we draw is our own direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, that many know as God… that moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life. We rely on our experience to know the truth that will set us free.

Sometimes, our experience causes us to challenge our own faith principles. Take for example Bill Schulz, Unitarian Universalist minister, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association who went on to become Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, and now holds the same position with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

His experience encountering evil, advocating for victims of torture and opposing the death penalty, caused him to doubt the first principle that Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

He said in a 2006 lecture to UU ministers, “I don’t buy that anymore. I have fought tirelessly against the death penalty in this country. I have visited death rows, spoken frequently with condemned prisoners. Some of them have acknowledged their crimes and altered their hearts. Others of them are truly innocent. Many of them are mentally ill. And some of them are vicious, dangerous killers. I oppose the death penalty not because I believe that every one of those lives carries inherent worth… I oppose the death penalty because I can’t be sure which of them falls into which category and because the use of executions by the state diminishes my own dignity and that of every other citizen in whose name it is enforced. I need, in other words, to assign the occupants of death row worth and dignity in order to preserve my own. But I find no such characteristics inherent in either them or me.”

So is the worth and dignity of every person inherent? “No,” he says. “Each of us has to be assigned worth—it does not come automatically—and taught to behave with dignity…” [“What Torture’s Taught Me,” The Rev. William F. Schulz, DMin ’75 DD ’87; 2006 Berry Street Lecture Delivered June 21 at the UUA General Assembly in St. Louis, MO].

That we must draw on our own experience, and can question even our own principles, is a source of power. It’s not easy, but it engages and energizes us and therefore enables us to take action on behalf of our principles, to do the work of love and justice in this world.  It gives us power.

This faith has the power to change lives, including and especially our own lives, as Marilyn Pearl told us in her Chalice Reflection a few moments ago. When she was in her mid-20’s she began attending a Unitarian Church. She said the people in her congregation enabled her to do things she “never thought (she) was capable of – things like start a local chapter of an environmental group, do public speaking, leave a bad marriage, support her kids by herself, teach a college course, complete her own degree, and finally, pack up and move from her home in western NY to the Washington DC area.”

She attributed her transformation to the people in the church, but it was their climate of acceptance, especially of her doubts and questions, that empowered her to grow into new experiences and change her circumstances. Revelation is not sealed in our own lives, either. Many of you have spoken here, or to me privately, about how you attribute transformation in your life to Unitarian Universalism and its specific manifestation here at Paint Branch UU Church.

Ongoing revelation, questioning, transformation… with so much change, what lends stability to our faith tradition, which we sometimes even call a “movement” rather than a “denomination,” to accentuate the mobility? The word “religion” means “to bind together.” By what are we bound?

We are not bound by creeds, but by covenants. We are bound by promises we make about how we will be together. We call them covenants, a Biblical word. For example, in next Sunday’s service, the congregation and its elected Board of Trustees will covenant. Also, members covenant with new members, and congregations covenant with each other, as member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Today, right now perhaps, over in the Religious Exploration Building, on their first day of classes, our children may be coming up with their class covenants for the year:  how do they want to be together? If you look, you might find their covenants posted on the walls – in pre-school they may be agreeing to “use their words”(instead of hitting) while the high school students may covenant not to “harsh each other’s mellows.” 

So, grounded in covenants, empowered by our belief in ongoing revelation, what is it all for? Is it all just for us, individually and collectively, or are we empowered for something larger than ourselves, this congregation, this movement?  

What comes to mind is another expression from the pre-Civil War period, by another Unitarian minister in New England, Theodore Parker. You find this expression in the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and woven into a new carpet on the floor of the Oval Office in the White House. It is, "The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Towards Justice." Parker, in his 1853 treatise "Of Justice and the Conscience," wrote a similar phrase that appears to have been later paraphrased by King: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one ... And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

Bending the arc of the moral universe, more and more, toward justice is what we must do with our power. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to help us understand what we need to be about.

Harvard professor Diana Eck, one of the world’s leading scholars of religion, said in her sermon at the 2007 installation of the present senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, “If there ever were a time that we need to spin out a new fabric of belonging and a wider sense of ‘we’ for the human community, it is certainly now…. Developing a consciousness of our growing religious inter-relatedness, developing a moral compass that will give us guidance in the years ahead—these are certainly among the most important tasks of our time. …you have a theological orientation toward the oneness and mystery of God that is essential for the world of religious difference in which we live…

“You are, in my estimation, the church of the new millennium. In this era, Unitarian Universalism is not the lowest common denominator, but the highest common calling… In a world divided by race and by religion and ideology … You do have a mission. The world is in need of your theology.”

So may it be! As we began in song, let us end in song. As we began with an old song, let us end with a new one. Words and music were written in 2004 to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice for marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples, by Jason Shelton, Associate Minister for Music at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Please rise in body or in spirit to join your voices in singing #1014, Standing on the Side of Love, in Singing the Journey, the teal songbook.

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