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Sunday, January 12, 2014

We Begin Again in Love

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Rev. Renee Ruchotzke preaching, and Ken Redd, Worship Associate


We Begin Again in Love

A Sermon by Guest Preacher Rev. Renee Ruchotzke

At Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

January 12, 2014

 

Note:  Rev. Ruchotzke is the Leadership Development Consultant for CERG - Central East Regional Group of the Unitarian Universalist Association. She facilitated our Lay Leadership Covenant Workshop on the previous day.

      

       Love is the doctrine of this church,

            The quest of truth is its sacrament,

            And service is its prayer.

            To dwell together in peace,

            To seek knowledge in freedom,

            To serve human need,

            To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with   the Divine -

            Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.

Covenant of the First Church of Dedham, MA  1638

 

In 1637 a group of about 30 Puritan families had moved to the newly-chartered settlement of Dedham, Massachusetts.  Unlike the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth or the earlier Puritan settlement in Salem, this faithful group did not know one another before forming their new community. 


They came from different parts of Great Britain, and some had previously settled in other areas of this then-new world of North America. Their first order of business was to quickly establish

how they were to fairly divide the land so that they could plant their crops, build their homes and fence their pastures. Once they had taken care of their food and shelter needs, they were able to turn their attention to forming the religious part of their community.

 

120 years earlier, Martin Luther had put the Catholic Church on notice by nailing a list of 95 complaints on the cathedral door in his town of Wittenberg, Germany. In his heresy trial 4 years later, he claimed that the authority of scripture and the clear reasoning of his own conscience were to be trusted over the pope or councils of bishops, who had often been in error or had contradicted themselves. 

 

The 17th Century Puritans in our story, using their own consciences and Biblical scripture, were looking to live in the world in a way that they believed put them in right relationship with God.  They had the opinion that the bishops in the Church of England didn’t act all that differently   from the Catholic hierarchy and they intended to live in a way that resisted such corruption. 

 

So the good people of Dedham looked to form their religious community on a model that was introduced 50 years earlier by an English Separatist named Robert Browne and adopted by the earlier Pilgrims and Puritans.  This congregational model was based on Luther’s claim that each individual’s reason and conscience cannot be excluded from their religious understanding. 

 

At the same time, Browne and his followers understood that—just like the bishops—each individual is susceptible to error and contradiction, but, as a group, the faithful could together discern their religious truths through communal study, reflections and discourse.  This idea of the truth being discerned by a thoughtful group of people was not new – it had been around for centuries in the form of juries used in discerning the truth in legal matters.

 

Alice Blair Wesley, expands on this story in the Minns Lectures she gave over a decade ago, a story that I will briefly share: The members of the fledgling Dedham community approached their communal religious life with seriousness and intention. They scheduled a series of meetings over the course of a year, held every Thursday evening, taking turns in the homes of various families, with all of the townspeople invited to participate.

 

As part of their intentionality, they adopted a few simple rules:

 

Rule 1: They would decide before leaving each meeting what question to discuss next week.

That way people were more apt to share considered thoughts.

Rule 2: Each week the host of the house would begin, speaking to the agreed-upon question.

Then everyone else could speak by turns.

Rule 3: Each one could, as they chose, speak to the question, or raise a closely related question and speak to that, or state any objections or doubts concerning what any others had said, "so it were humbly & with a teachable hart not with any mind of caviling or contradicting." In other words, Rule 3 was: Here we speak our own understandings or doubts. No arguing.  (or nit-picking)

 

The record reports that all their "reasonings" were "very peaceable, loving, & tender, much to edification." [ 1] (or learning together)

 

This is not all that different than the process that our congregations use today in small group ministry such as Covenant Groups or Chalice Circles.

 

What I find really fascinating, and instructive for us today, are the kinds of questions that they started with.  The questions weren’t about the Bible or what they believed.  They were about what kind of society they wished to create.  What were their highest values? How did they wish to be together?  Did they even need to create a church? Couldn’t they just live those values as friends and neighbors?  For the seventeenth century these were radical questions. Even these weekly house meetings could have gotten them arrested or even executed back in England.

 

After a year of careful discernment they decided that the society they wanted to create was going to reflect their understanding of creating the Kingdom of God on Earth, what we might call the Beloved Community, a society that promoted justice and peace through reasonable laws.

 

Their highest value was Love…as in Love is the doctrine of this church. In order to create this kind of community, the casual bonds of neighborliness would not be enough. They believed that if they wanted to live their doctrine of Love, they would need deep commitments and accountability to the lived practice of Love.

 

I share this story of the church in Dedham because it exemplifies the free church tradition that we Unitarian Universalists so proudly claim.  Being a free church does not mean that we believe whatever we want. 

 

It means that we come together in a way that creates a space and an intention that calls forth that which is worthy of our ultimate commitment and then helps us hold each other accountable

to that commitment. 

 

The container that holds the free church, that keeps it faithful, is covenant.

 

Our covenants remind us that as a religious people, we have a commitment to something that is greater than any one of us, greater even than the whole of us.  The Dedham covenant called that something God, but we Unitarian Universalists have agreed to disagree on that naming. 

 

Our covenants also remind us that we seek answers together.  Our discussions must be grounded in listening, in curiosity, in sharing doubts as well as sharing insights. 

 

We trust and invite one another to notice and name our failings (such as the metaphorical limp in our reading),[2] not so that we see ourselves as sinful or broken, but to enable us to see our blind spots.  We make space for disagreements, mistakes and inconsistencies and use them as learning experiences.  It is telling that during each theological shift in our history, from the Transcendentalists to the nontheistic humanists, to the consolidation of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations to the inclusion of pagans in our congregations, we have stayed together where creedal denominations split at the drop of a doctrinal hat.

 

400 years after those first congregational churches were established, modern American philosophy and theology caught up and paralleled the process of congregational practices.  American Pragmatism, the school of philosophy of William James and John Dewey, described a universe that was unfolding and a human consciousness that was part and parcel of the direction of that unfolding . Human learning is as dependent on mistake-making as it is on successes.  As an aside…John Dewey grew up in the congregational church and in the town hall meeting tradition of New England. 

 

Following pragmatism came Process Theology, where Unitarian Universalist theologian Henry Nelson Wieman described a process of creative interchange between humans as they engaged with each other and with the object of their Ultimate commitment.  But that’s a topic to explore another time.

 

I bring it up to highlight that this idea of covenant providing a container for congregational discernment goes back to the earliest European settlers on this continent, and the idea of humans needing to make mistakes as a part of their learning has been reinforced by some of the greatest minds of the 20th century. 

 

Somehow, along the way, many our Unitarian Universalist congregations lost these critical insights.  We were able to stay together, yes, but at the cost of losing some depth and a compelling level of engagement with and commitment to shared ultimate values.  And along the way we lost individual members whenever we didn’t have the capacity to deal with societal shifts around race, class, gender and other post-modern identity-bases realities.

 

But my friends, we have been having a covenant renaissance.  Back in the late 1990’s the UUA board laid out a plan to reinvigorate our congregations by reviving the practice of covenant,

by reconnecting to our highest values, and by recommitting ourselves to a purpose greater than our collective selves.  You may remember—it was called Fulfilling the Promise.  

 

Slowly at first, and then gaining momentum, we have been renewing our faith with this old but essential part of our very own heritage. We were asked to renew our covenants as congregations and between congregations.  Of course some people resisted, thinking it was a new gimmick.  Others misunderstood and misapplied the process.

 

It took me a long time to really understand how important covenant was to our heritage and to our future. But people much wiser than I—and that I trusted—invited both lay and ordained leaders

to re-explore the possibilities that covenant offered us.  And it was in the context of covenant groups, small group ministry, that I first experienced the sacred possibilities that creating a container of deep trust and engagement could present. 

 

In my congregation we had a social justice committee that was full of passionate activists, but they tended to talk across each other without ever really listening to one another.  They were unable to accomplish anything as a group.  Then they re-formed using a covenant…actually they called it a right relationship agreement…and it transformed them in a way that enabled them to work together in amazing ways.  

 

They learned how to speak in turn and to listen deeply.  They learned how to question with curiosity rather than criticism. And they learned how to pay attention to where the energy was as a group and used that energy to discern their purpose and to accomplish some pretty impressive projects.

 

So, in the past 10 years we have been re-learning the practice of covenant as in how to be in right relationship with one another. We can handle the horizontal relationships.  But what about the vertical relationship?  If we are committed to being a faith community with different theologies, including theologies that can’t include God or some variation wherein, can we have a shared ultimate commitment, a shared purpose—a religious shared purpose—that provides a tent that is big enough to hold all Unitarian Universalists and to guide our engagement with the rest of the world?

 

I believe that we do…and it’s the same lived doctrine of the faithful people of Dedham almost 5 centuries ago. 

 

I believe that we are called to find ways to manifest deep love within our congregation’s walls and share those ways with the rest of the world. 

 

 

This is a common thread in both our Unitarian and Universalist heritages and still calls to us today.

I think this is one reason that the Standing on the Side of Love campaign has been so successful. 

It plays on the heartstrings of our deepest longings and commitments. 

 

Why else would so many of us be willing to wear those golden yellow t-shirts that don’t look good on hardly anyone!?!

 

Let me share another story:

Back in 2011, we had a number of Unitarian Universalists participating in civil disobedience in Arizona in response to the new laws affecting undocumented foreigners. 

(SB1070)   I want to hold up that not every Unitarian Universalist agrees on this issue, but I think we can agree that those who went to Arizona did so in response to their own consciences. 

 

Almost all of the Unitarian Universalists there wore the golden yellow Standing on the Side of Love T-Shirts and the sea of yellow was impressive.  When Peter Morales went to the press covering the event, he introduced himself as the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. 

 

Ho-hum, so what?  Who are they?  But then he introduced himself as the leader of the yellow shirt people.  Oh the Love people!  Why didn’t you say so!?! 

 

The Love People. 

 

For those of us who remember the 1960’s, this may have some other connotations, but we are in a different era and can re-engage with the call to deep Love with a renewed sensibility. In our free church tradition, we are free to claim Love as our supreme value.  We are free to discern together how to manifest that love, in the form of openness, in the form of inclusivity, in the form of humility, in the form of accountability, in the form of forgiveness and renewal. 

 

When we choose to embrace the gift of covenant from our ancestors, we can create faith communities that offer both creativity and purpose.  I think our biggest challenge to embracing the spirit of covenant is a pervasive culture of perfection.

 

Like our Pug in our story for all ages today (Unlovable by Dan Yaccarino ) we might have a history of everyone around us making us feel unlovable.  We may be afraid of showing a weakness lest it be exploited, of keeping our game face on, no matter how we are feeling, of feeling shame whenever we make a mistake.

 

Forgiveness is something that we bestow on others, and that we ask for ourselves.

 

The liturgy in our Protestant theological tradition hasn’t always addressed the fact that we humans make mistakes and we need a way to renew our covenants and commitments regularly. The Jews have Yom Kippur, the Catholics have confession, and the Muslims have Tawbah. 

 

In the past couple of decades we Unitarian Universalists have adopted a litany of restoration that I wish to use to conclude this exploration of covenant.  I invite you to open your teal hymnals to 1037.  I invite you to think about our implicit and explicit promises to one another as we sing together:

For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For losing sight of our unity, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.  -Robert Eller-Isaacs



[1] Our Covenant: The 2000-01 Minns Lectures: The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: The Spirit and the Promise of our Covenant by Alice Blair Wesley

[2] Though I'd had several knee surgeries, I was unprepared for total knee replacement: intense rehab, painkillers,

and three days using a walker. Among the many unexpected gifts of the surgery are the friendships I've developed with the physical therapists in rehab.  (I joke with them that it is "Stockholm syndrome," wherein prisoners befriend their captors.)

During one session they retaught me how to walk and pointed out how off kilter my gait was as a result of years of compensating for a bad knee. Without knowing it, I had developed a limp. I worked hard that day to correct it, but as I was headed out the door, I had already reverted to limping out of habit.  "Hey, walk right!" the trainer yelled.

I wondered if anyone else had noticed my impaired stride before the surgery, so I asked a few friends.  They all said I'd been walking that way for years. Amazed that I had so little sense of my weaknesses, I asked my friends to let me know of any other "limps" they saw in my life.

It was a little frightening to trust them to reveal my broken places, but I knew they had my best interests in mind.

A few weeks later one of those friends took me up on the request: I had shared something with him in confidence,

and he called and said he felt that my need to keep the issue quiet was a sort of limp.

I knew what he said was true. Pride and ego were my reasons for silence. 

I have since asked other friends, my wife, and even my children to say, "Walk right," to me if they notice a bad habit.

I'm looking forward to working out a few more limps.

-Stu Graff   Phoenix, Arizona   From Readers Write “Paying Attention” The Sun, Aug 2011

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