Mar 25, 2019
This is the third sermon in our series on the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The seven principles are not a creed. They are not a statement of belief. One way to understand them is that they are a covenant--an agreement about the promises Unitarian Universalists make to each other about how we will live together. Covenants are at the heart of Unitarian Universalist practice. We use them in the place of a set of beliefs to which all members of the community must subscribe. They are one of the oldest customs among our congregations. In New England there are Unitarian Universalist churches whose covenants date back to the seventeenth century. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker offers a concise description of where covenants lie within our tradition. She writes, “In place of a hierarchical church authorized by tradition and governed by priests, bishops, and popes, [our religious ancestors] ... insisted congregations should be organized by people coming together and making a covenant to ‘walk together’ in their spiritual lives. Covenanted religious communities rest on the authority of their members...” This last point is especially important. The world changes over time. And, as I recounted a couple of weeks ago, the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association--the covenant we promise to keep between our congregations--have changed in response to shifts in society and our understanding of the world around us. We been able to change them because have given ourselves the authority to change them.
This week we are tackling the third principle: “Acceptance of another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” I want to make a deceptively simple claim about this principle. It offers us a basic formula for our life together. As Unitarian Universalists, we promise to accept each other. We promise to encourage each other towards spiritual growth. And we promise to do so as part of a congregation.
My claim about the third principle is deceptively simple. None of these things are easy. If we engage with them we will find ourselves transformed. But then, is that not a purpose of religious life? To transform ourselves and equip each other to transform the world? This morning I want to take us through each part of the formula for life together that the third principle offers us. And I want to suggest to you how following it can be transformative. But before I do, a couple of painfully bad jokes.
In a big elegant Unitarian Universalist church up in New England, a visitor was making a ruckus in the back pew. After every sentence the minister spoke, the visitor shouted, “Hallelujah! Amen!”
As the service progressed, an usher approached the visitor and spoke to them quietly. “Uh... excuse me... we just do not do things like that here.”
“But I got religion!” the visitor exclaimed.
“Well,” the usher said, “You certainly did not get it here.”
One evening, a Unitarian Universalist was at a cocktail party with a bunch of people from other religious traditions. After a little while, the Unitarian Universalist realized that they could tell the religious tradition of the other guests by the first question someone asked them.
The Methodists wanted to know, “Where do you go to church?”
The Congregationalists queried, “Did your family come over on the Mayflower too?”
And the other Unitarian Universalists said, “Where did you go to graduate school?”
Acceptance of one another
Those are pretty bad jokes. I told them to offer to two observations. First, many of the members of most Unitarian Universalist communities have certain, usually unspoken, expectations around the kinds of behavior that are appropriate in our churches. Second, many of the members of most Unitarian Universalist communities have certain, usually unspoken, expectations around the type of people who are attracted to Unitarian Universalism.
First observation... expectations for behavior...
When I speak of behavior I am not talking about the question of ethics. I am not asking, how must we act in the world if we love justice and love goodness? Instead, I am talking about culture: the implicit assumptions people make about how to conduct themselves in certain situations. This brings us back to our first joke.
Unitarian Universalist churches are not known for our ecstatic religious celebrations. Bob Fazakerly, our musician emeritus, told us when he retired that people used to come to First Church for a classical music concert and a lecture. Neither classical music concerts nor lectures are genres known for their ebullient audience participation. If anything, it is precisely the opposite. In symphony halls and lecture venues the audience is supposed to sit quietly and absorb the powerful music or the stimulating message.
When I have preached at various congregations I have tried to shake this up a bit. I have invited people to talk back to me or to each other during the sermon. The results have sometimes been... well... humorous? Responding immediately to the sermon, offering an “Hallelujah” or an “Amen” in reaction to whatever the preacher just said is not something that happens in most Unitarian Universalist congregations.
A discomfort with saying “Hallelujah” I can understand, at least on a theological level. The word is Hebrew. It roughly translates to, “Praise God.” A lot of Unitarian Universalists are humanists or atheists. They are not usually comfortable praising God.
“Amen” is another Hebrew word. It translates to “so be it.” Unitarian Universalists say it fairly often throughout the service. I invite you to say at various points on Sunday morning. When you say it you signify your rough assent or agreement with the offered prayers or sermon. You are not indicating that you agree with every word spoken. Instead, you are indicating your support for the general spirit of the message or prayer.
In a lot of religious contexts, people say “Amen” frequently throughout the service. In some congregations there is even something called the “Amen” corner. That is a group of people who get pretty excited throughout the service and support the preacher by saying “Amen” whenever there’s something they like in the sermon. Shall we try it for a moment? Can I get a quick “Amen”?
Most Unitarian Universalist congregations do not have “Amen” corners. One of the first times someone pointed out to me just how closely this reflected the culture of the classical music concert hall and college lecture when I was serving a church in Cleveland, Ohio.
I invited a Black Baptist friend of mine to come preach the Sunday sermon to my congregation. We part of a network of religious communities and clergy devoted to social justice. We socialized together, and I occasionally attended her church on my Sundays off. Their services were boisterous affairs. There was a big gospel choir, a strong “Amen” corner, lots of clapping during the hymns...
So, my friend came to my congregation and gave her sermon. The congregation appreciated her and the service went well. Afterwards, I asked her what she thought. She said, “It certainly was tranquil. Very nice people. Similar vibe to the Cleveland Symphony.”
Similar vibe to the symphony... In the bad joke the usher was telling the visitor that it was not OK to bring their whole self to the worship service. There were to be no Amens, no Hallelujahs, no ecstatic expressions of religion. The visitor might have accepted--they were no thrown out of the church nor where they theologically condemned. But they were certainly not welcomed.
This leads me to a series of questions for you. Do you feel welcomed at First Church? Do you feel like you can bring your whole self here? If not, why not? Conversely, are there certain behaviors that you expect on a Sunday morning? What are they? How would you feel if we had an “Amen” corner? It is good to talk about our answers to these questions. It is one way that we clarify our assumptions about what it means to do church together. It allows us to make the invisible visible and to challenge our own assumptions. That, in turns, opens up a space for us to engage in the work of collective transformation.
Second observation... expectations around culture...
In my second bad joke, Unitarian Universalists ask each other the question, “Where did you go to graduate school?” This question surfaces an assumption about Unitarian Universalism that many people have. It is often presumed to the educated person’s religion.
As a denomination one of our greatest struggles is around class diversity. The historian Mark Harris wrote an entire book on classism within Unitarian Universalism. He claims that a preference for a more tranquil worship service is tied to the class orientation that many of our churches had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Back then, New England Unitarianism was the religion of the social elite. They rejected the instant emotional conversion to salvation favored by evangelicals. Instead, they thought that salvation was to be found through an educational process that would last throughout life. This understanding of salvation--the slow and steady, rather than the quick--led them to think that churches were not different from universities.
Even though I am myself Harvard educated, I have experienced my share of class discomfort in Unitarian Universalist congregations. While I was working on my doctorate I regularly did pulpit supply. About twice a month, I preached at a different church. Some of them were small and scrappy. Others were large and elegant.
As some of you know, I am a single parent. When I would go preach someplace I would have to bring my son along with me. When he was little, when it was time for the service to start, my son would want to sit up in the pulpit with me. He did not know anyone else at the congregation. And as a five, six, or seven-year-old he was not comfortable sitting out there, in the pews, by himself.
Now those of you who are parents, or know children at all, can imagine how this sometimes played out. Kids squirm. They do their own thing. He would dutifully go off and join the other children when it was time for religious education classes. But he was very clear he wanted to sit next to his Dad until then.
Those big elegant New England churches have huge pulpits elevated over the entire congregation. There is nowhere to hide in them. You can imagine how the presence of my wiggling child next to me in the pulpit sometimes went over. After preaching, on more than occasion, I received notes or comments about how my sermon was very good but it was inappropriate for me bring my son with me when I went to lead the service somewhere. He was too distracting. The underlying message: we do not want single working parents as our ministers. That is about a classist message as they come.
More questions: Do you feel welcomed at First Church? Do you feel like your level of education or economic class matters to other members? Do you have certain assumptions about the level of education or the economic class about other members? Again, it is good to talk about our answers to these questions. When we talk about them we can make the invisible visible and challenge our own assumptions. We can raise the questions: Who is really accepted at First Church? Who do we really welcome here? Do we need to change our congregation to live into our universalist theology of radical love and acceptance.
Encouragement to spiritual growth
Asking these questions together can push us towards greater spiritual growth. That is one of principal reasons for our religious life together: to deepen our own religious sensibilities. Or as I put it at the beginning of the sermon: to transform ourselves and our community. We might think of it is as a process. First, someone is welcomed into our religious communion. Second, they are encouraged towards spiritual growth.
The very process of welcoming can be an opportunity for spiritual growth--for personal and collective transformation. In recent weeks there has been a fair amount of discussion in Unitarian Universalist circles around the question of welcoming. How many of you get or read the UU World? It is our association’s quarterly magazine.
In the most recent issue there was an article on how Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome transgender and genderqueer people. It was written by a cis-gender woman and centered on her experience of relating to transgender and genderqueer people. Many transgender and genderqueer Unitarian Universalists were outraged.
CB Beal is a Unitarian Universalist educator who self-describes “as a gender non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer person.” They wrote an eloquent response centering their experience and the experiences of other transgender and genderqueer people in our congregations. They challenged Unitarian Universalists to consider who feels most welcome in our congregations. They challenged Unitarian Universalists to ask the question: What standards of behavior, what kinds of dress, what identities are expected in most Unitarian Universalist congregations? They write, “When we [Unitarian Universalists] ... speak of inclusion but we only mean that people are welcome among us when their identities do not cause us confusion or discomfort, we are not speaking of inclusion.”
The President of our Association, Susan Frederick-Gray has said to us, “our Universalism tells us that no one is outside the circle of love.” “However,” she has reminded us, “we must understand that in our lives, in the context of oppression and discrimination, that the circle has never been drawn wider from the center. It has always grown wider because of the vision, leadership and organizing of people living on the margins who truly understand the limits and costs of oppressive policies--and what liberation means.”
In dialogue with this insight, CB Beal suggests three steps towards living into our theology of radical love and building communities of radical welcome. For someone who is relatively privileged like me, they recommend: “First, to seek the voices of the marginalized and center those voices. Second, not to decenter them when they say something we... [do not] want to hear. Third, if we hear something we... [do not] want to hear or that we ... [do not] agree with...” commit to staying in the conversation.
We encourage each other towards spiritual growth when we listen to and welcome difference. My identity, my theology, my way of expressing myself might be different from yours. We are each transformed when we learn to communicate and, dare I say, love across these differences.
Further questions: How has your life, your spirituality, been changed by being part of a congregation that contains people who are different from you? How have you grown or been transformed by participating in a religious community where there is no consensus on the nature or presence of the divine? Where our theology includes theists and atheists, believers and doubters, pagans and pantheists, and all seekers after religious truth?
In our congregations
One of the great gifts of Unitarian Universalism is the hybrid nature of our religious communities. The covenantal nature of our communities and our commitment to theological diversity means that among Unitarian Universalists you can find different religious identities. There are Christian Unitarian Universalists. There are Jewish Unitarian Universalists, like my family. There are Muslim Unitarian Universalists. There are Unitarian Universalist pagans. There are Unitarian Universalist humanists. There are Shikh Unitarian Universalists. There are Hindu Unitarian Universalists. I would need to continue my list for a list for long time to effectively include all of our theological diversity. What I am trying to do, in my own awkward way, is to highlight the hybridity of Unitarian Universalism.
Ours is a religious tradition that for many years has been open to influence by other religious traditions. Historian Susan Ritchie observes that in the sixteenth century, “European Unitarianism grew up in the soil of a variety of boundary lands in the outreaches of Eastern Europe.” That set of our religious ancestors became Unitarian because they sought to reconcile the theologies of three religious communities present in places like Transylvania and Hungary. Christians, Jews, and Muslims, they believed, were all children of the same God. By rejecting the divinity of Christ, they thought, it was possible to recognize the family resemblance between the different religions of their lands. This, they hoped, would lead to religious tolerance and, ultimately, peace.
I picked Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “To live in the Borderlands means you” as one of our readings this morning because it is one of my favorite pieces on hybridity--on navigating the challenging, fertile, wonderful, and sometimes dangerous space of living between defined identities. Anzaldúa was a queer Chicana poet from Texas. She wrote her poem to reflect on what means to live as a Chicana in country that stole much of its land from Mexico and seeks to build borders between itself and Latin America. She wrote it reflect on what it means to be LGBTQI in a country that has historically marginalized everyone but straight presenting cis-gendered white men. When she wrote:
Cuando vives en la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half--both woman and man, neither--
a new gender.
She was not thinking of Unitarian Universalism or our communities at all.
Yet, I think that her poem expresses much truth when it comes to living with a hybrid identity in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. If you have a hybrid identity, you are never fully one thing or the other. You are something in between. And that something is wonderful. You may not always feel welcome. Your identity may be contested. But you are wonderful and you are loved.
And that, is our challenge, when we hear the third principle of our association: “Acceptance of another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” We are challenged to radically welcome each other. We are challenged to truly accept each other. Regardless of class, regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of other human divisor, regardless of education, regardless of worship style, we are called to build a community where all are welcome and all are loved. Our last question: Can we do it together?
And to that, I invite the congregation to say, “Amen.”
Jun 16, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, June 3, 2018
I am mindful that we only two services left together: today, and Sunday, June 17th. After that we will go our separate ways. You will stay in Ashby and continue to nurture this precious Unitarian Universalist community. Asa and I will head to Houston. Your congregation has survived for two hundred and fifty years. I have spent a year with you. In that year I have become convinced that your congregation will endure for many years to come. The First Parish Church might be small but you have been here, on the common, for longer than the United States has existed as a nation. I suspect that your Paul Revere bell will continue to ring long after I have turned to dust.
As my ministry with you moves towards its close, I recognize that there are a lot of things that I still want to share. I will not have the opportunity to offer you even a fraction of them. Ministry is a bit like showing up at a party midway through. When you arrive you do not know most of the other guests. They are deeply involved in their conversation. You enter into the conversation. You meet people. You may change the subject some. You might tell a particularly good joke, share a special family recipe, or offer some helpful tips on gardening or animal husbandry. I have an uncle who likes to give people his formula for slug removal when he’s at gatherings. It involves spraying some mixture of beer, dish soap, and, I think, salt, on tomato leaves to protect them from terrestrial mollusks. But after the story, the joke, or the slug elimination strategy, we ministers have to leave the conservation--leave the party--midway through. You all get to stay and continue it. We do not get find out what comes next in the conversation. It goes on without us.
Knowing that this Sunday and June seventeenth are my final parts in the conversation known as the First Parish Church, I thought I would leave with some parting thoughts. This Sunday and the seventeenth I want to talk with you about the purpose of the church. These sermons are gestures towards three questions: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world? I suggested in my first sermon with you that finding answers to questions like these was necessary to sustain a vital religious community. In the years ahead, I hope that you will ask them and try to answer them.
They can be difficult questions to answer. Some years ago, I was reminded of this when I was serving a congregation in Cleveland. Alongside several of the congregation’s members, I attended an interfaith conference for multiracial religious communities. It was in New York City and featured workshops, speakers, and preachers from across the United States. One in particular I remember was a self-identified progressive Christian minister. In the space of a half dozen years his congregation had grown from a couple of dozen members to several hundred. Everyone at the conference was eager to learn his story.
He told us, “Oh it was very simple. We came up with a clear mission that was both challenging and easy to live into and then we lived into it. Our mission: Feed more sheep. Sometimes to reinforce that this is our mission I come to church dressed in a shepherd’s outfit and carrying a crosier--that’s a shepherd’s staff. We also have a couple of people who wander around coffee hour holding signs that read, ‘Feed More Sheep.’ Visitors will often come up to them and ask what the signs are about. It is a good way to welcome them into a conversation about what the church is about.”
Feed more sheep... The minister went onto explain how this slogan was rooted in both the Christian New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. Many of the people who wrote those scriptures came from pastoral communities. They did what many human communities have done. They imagined the divine in their own image. Their God became a shepherd. They became sheep. The texts that they composed are filled with the imagery of a divine shepherd taking care of an ovine flock. “The Lord is my shepherd,” opens Psalm 23. “Feed my sheep,” the Gospel of John instructs.
Feed more sheep... The minister’s point was that it was not enough merely to feed, to take care of, the existing members of the congregation. If the congregation was to truly live out the Christian message, as the minister understood it, then its members had to have an orientation towards growth. They needed to focus on bringing more people into the community to be fed by its religious message.
Feed more sheep... I heard that minister’s story more than six years ago. And his congregation’s pithy summation of its mission has stuck with me. I have to admit his metaphors do not that appeal to me. You, the members of First Parish Church, are not sheep. And I am not a shepherd. The firm hierarchy implied within the slogan runs counter to the radical equality that infuses Unitarian Universalist theology. And yet... and yet... The phrase “Feed more sheep” enabled the members of that congregation to clearly articulate the purpose of their community and the difference that it made in their lives. The slogan inspired them to start a ministry devoted towards feeding the homeless. It inspired them to work towards justice. It inspired them to invite their friends and loved ones to join with them in their efforts. And when they doubted what they were supposed to be doing they could return to that phrase, “Feed more sheep,” to recall that they were supposed to maintain an outward focus.
It is easy to be jealous of such a clearly articulated mission. And certainly, I know some of my ministerial colleagues are jealous of the authority that such a phrase grants them. When I attend ministerial gatherings I occasionally come across another clergyperson who complains that the job of a Unitarian Universalist minister is to herd cats. Cats, you probably know, are not particularly prone to herding. They each tend to want to do their own thing--chase this bit of string; go after that mouse toy.
Neither cat nor sheep herding works as metaphor for the purpose of the church. This Sunday and on the seventeenth I want to suggest two slogans that taken together might be offer a twenty first century Unitarian Universalist statement of the purpose of the church. We will cover one this week and the other next week. This week’s phrase: “We are all leaders.” Next week’s phrase: “Love the Hell out of the world.” “Love the Hell out of the world” describes what we might do when we gather. “We are all leaders” describes how we might organize ourselves.
I choose the phrase “We are all leaders” for today’s service because it is a service in which we are welcoming three new members into the congregation. I offer it as a reminder that a Unitarian Universalist congregation, especially a small congregation like First Parish Church, is run by its members. Your ministers will come and go. You, the members of the congregation, will remain tending to your sacred charge: sustaining this religious community across the generations.
I also offer it because democracy throughout the world is in crisis. It has become an almost constant truism that democratic institutions are in the decline. Certainly, in the United States there is a large segment of the governing elite that is committed to undermining democratic norms. And there are countries in Europe like Hungary who have elected governments that are essentially opposed to democracy.
One reason, I suspect, for this crisis is that many of us do not have places in our lives where we actually practice democracy or learn democratic practice. Most of corporations are rigidly hierarchical. Management makes the decisions. Workers carry them out or lose their jobs. And voting at shareholders’ meetings is based on the principle of one dollar, one vote rather than one person, one vote. Power is concentrated at the top.
Most public education systems throughout the United States do not teach democratic theory or practice. Civics education has long been in decline. According to surveys, most adults would fail a basic civics test on questions such as: What rights are contained in the Bill of Rights? Or what is the term of a member of the House of Representatives?
I certainly did not learn much about how to live in a democratic society in my public school back in Michigan. My high school history teachers generally seemed more interested in teaching us about the nation’s military achievements than its democratic norms. I was taught to honor military veterans but learned little about the veterans of the civil rights, labor, and women’s movements. They were the ones who actually struggled to expand democracy in the country so that it included people other than white males.
As a youth, I learned about democracy through my engagement with Unitarian Universalism. As an adult, I deepened my skills as part of the labor movement. In both instances, the phrase “We Are All Leaders” was crucial to my understanding of what it meant to be part of a democratic organization.
In the 1990s, the Unitarian Universalist youth movement was organized around an ideology known as youth empowerment. This is the idea that youth--with minimal adult guidance and supervision--are capable of creating programming that meets their emotional, intellectual, and religious needs. In my youth group this meant that we actually were in charge of figuring out the curriculum that we would use each year. It also meant that we joined together with other youth groups from throughout the region to put on what we called conferences--weekend long gatherings where youth created worship services, led workshops, played games, and developed a deep sense of fellowship.
I remember these as incredibly powerful events. Certainly, some of the most intense religious experiences of my life took place at these conferences. There was something about the energy of a hundred or two hundred high school students gathered together in a circle, singing songs, sharing stories, staring into the candlelight or walking out onto a field under the moon, that stirred within me a certain feeling of oneness with the universe--that experience of connection that assures me that I am somehow part of something much larger than myself.
All of the aspects of these conferences were organized in collaboration between youth and our adult advisors. We would meet as a group, decide upon a purpose or a vision for the conference, and then elected people to fulfill the roles necessary to execute that vision. The roles would rotate. One conference you might be in charge of planning worship. The next conference you might have kitchen duty. By democratically deciding what we were going to do and then rotating responsibility for doing it everyone had the opportunity to gain the skills necessary for democratic governance and leadership. And community norms and the diffusion of expertise generally meant that things got done well. If last time worship or the food had been excellent there was pressure to make sure that it would be good this time as well. And if you did not know how to plan worship or run a kitchen to cook food for a hundred people there was always someone who had done those tasks successfully who you could ask for assistance.
When I became an active lay member as adult and then a minister I discovered that our congregations and our larger religious association function in much the same way. We all have the opportunity to be leaders. When we take that opportunity we have the chance to develop skills we would not develop otherwise. At their best, our congregations are places where we learn skills to live in a democratic society. They are places where as a member you can gain experience as a public speaker by serving as a reader or leading a lay led service. They are places where you can gain financial management and fundraising skills. They are communities in which you can learn how to run a meeting and develop facilitation techniques to ensure that all of the voices in the community are heard. What kind of skills have you gained through your involvement with Unitarian Universalism? Long before I became a minister I gained many of the basic skills necessary for life in a democratic society through my participation in our faith tradition. We are all leaders.
I suspect that this might be even more true in a community like Ashby. As you all know, Asa and I live in Medford. But I understand that Ashby is still governed by a town meeting. The governance of New England towns are closely related to the governance of Unitarian Universalist congregations. This is not coincidental. This church and the town of Ashby used to be the same entity. And this church and the town of Ashby both stem from the same religious movement. It was a religious movement that believed in democratic governance of both the church and the larger society. It was not perfect and restricted who could participate in that governance for many generations. Nonetheless, that history is an example of how the democratic skills we practice in this congregation and help us to nurture democratic practice throughout society.
The other place where I have learned the skills necessary for a democratic is through the labor movement. One of the readings I picked this morning comes from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She was one of the great labor organizers of the early twentieth century. She understood that we learn to live in a democratic society by practicing democracy. As she said, “People learn to do by doing.” A lot of times, people enter a democratic organization without the skills necessary to run a democratic organization. That means that in the routine functioning of the organization people will make mistakes. These mistakes can be learning opportunities, chances to figure out how to do things differently in the future.
My involvement in the labor movement has primarily been through organizers transit workers--bike messengers, taxi drivers, and truck drivers--into independent unions. In each of these cases I saw something similar take place to what I see take place in our Unitarian Universalist congregations. People with little previous exposure to democratic practice gaining the skills necessary to run a democratic society. I have seen a worker with little formal education become a powerful public speaker. I have seen an immigrant new to the United States learn to effectively facilitate a meeting for dozens of people. And I have witnessed a group of workers come together to successfully demand that their employer give them a voice in the management of their workplace. We all can be leaders.
I picked our third reading, Carl Sandburg’s poem “I Am The People, The Mob,” because Sandburg was a Universalist who saw the radical democratic values of our religious tradition mirrored in the practices of the left wing of the labor movement. Much of his corpus celebrates the possibility of democracy to be found in the lives of masses of people. “Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?,” he asks. We can all be leaders, he wants us to remember.
This is one of the messages I want to leave you with as we move towards the end of our ministry together. What is the purpose of this congregation? What difference does it make in your life? What difference does it make in the wider world? As Unitarian Universalists the answers to these questions cannot be to feed more sheep. The answers might be, however, to nurture the democratic potential innate within all of us. The answers might be, that this congregation, like Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country, can be a place where we learn the skills necessary to live in a democratic society. In doing so we might both make a difference in our own lives and in the world.
Let the congregation say Amen.
May 15, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, April 29, 2018
Today is bring a friend Sunday. I would like to begin my sermon by extending a special welcome to the guests who are visiting today. I know that visiting a strange religious community--even at the invitation of a friend--can be intimidating. It is hard to know exactly what to expect. I imagine that can be especially true when visiting a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Unitarian Universalism is not a large religious movement. It might seem similar to Protestant Christianity but it is very much its own thing.
Our tradition has deep roots in New England. Here in Ashby, the First Parish Church is thus named precisely because it was the first parish in the town, founded at the same time as the community itself. It was not exactly Unitarian Universalist at the time. Unitarian Universalism as it exists today came about from the merger of two historic Protestant denominations. First Parish was a member of one of them. This congregation historically was Unitarian. The Unitarians believed in the universality of the human family, the power of reason to progressively perfect character, and the humanity of Jesus. The Universalists took a somewhat humbler approach. Instead of lauding human potential, they rejected the Christian idea that God damned sinners to eternal torment. They asserted that a loving God would not damn any of her creations to Hell. One Unitarian minister joked about the two denominations, “The Unitarians believed that they were too good to damn. The Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them.”
Today, drawing on both of these traditions, Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal, non-creedal, post-Christian religious movement. We are covenantal because in our congregations we make agreements about what we expect from each other as members of a community. This congregation reads its covenant every Sunday. We recited it a little bit earlier. It runs:
We gather to build community, because we know that people need to give and receive love.
We gather to worship, because we hunger for the sacred.
We gather to dedicate ourselves to service, because service is
the active expression of our beliefs and talents.
We gather to celebrate the power and wonder of Mystery.
This covenant suggests that if you are a member here you are expected to work to build community, to take part in worship, to serve the congregation and the wider world, and to celebrate the mystery that lies at the heart of existence.
That last point touches on the non-creedal aspect of our tradition. Our covenant does not require you to hold a particular theological position to participate in a Unitarian Universalist community. You can describe the Mystery as God. Or, if you are an atheist, name it as the marvels of the laws of physics. Alternatively, you can approach it through Buddhist practice or neo-paganism. If you are of Jewish heritage, as I am, you might observe holidays like Passover or Hanukkah. It less important what spiritual path you pursue than it is that you choose to pursue one.
The final words I used to describe Unitarian Universalism were post-Christian. They acknowledge that while Unitarian Universalism came out of Christianity it is no longer explicitly Christian. You can be Christian and be a Unitarian Universalist. You can also not be Christian and be a Unitarian Universalist. Nonetheless, Unitarian Universalism retains many of the forms of practice of Christianity, specifically Protestant Christianity. We gather for worship on Sunday mornings. We sing hymns. We preach and listen to sermons. We ask for an offering to sustain the life and work of the congregation. We pray.
So, if today is your first time here and you are wondering what the heck this is all about, I hope that my explanation of Unitarian Universalism has been helpful. Please feel free to come talk with me after the service if you have any questions or just to introduce yourself.
The title of today’s sermon is “A Place to Grow Our Souls.” The title is inspired by the life and writing of the late Grace Lee Boggs. Grace Lee was a Detroiter. She died a couple of years ago at just past the age of one hundred. She was a remarkable woman whose life and activism spanned much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first-century. Born in the middle of World War I, she was one of the first women of color to earn a PhD in philosophy. She was by turns a socialist, a labor activist, a leader in the Northern civil rights movement, and a supporter of the Black Power movement. At the end of her life she was also someone who believed that if the human species is to survive we all, each of us, need to undergo a great moral awakening and transformation. It is that last of aspect Grace Lee’s life that I want to dwell on this morning, the idea that, in her words, “Each of us needs undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation.” This work of transformation is not work that we can achieve individually. It is a collective project, one that is best pursued as part of a community. A Unitarian Universalist congregation like this one is a pretty good place to engage in the difficult work of transformation.
Most days when I turn on the radio, open a magazine, or make the mistake of glancing at my social media feed, it seems like we as a human species and as a country are in the midst of a series of great crises. The climate is warming. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. There is a dramatic epidemic of gun violence. There is a dramatic epidemic of opioid abuse. Economic inequality is rising. Democratic institutions and norms are declining. White supremacy is resurgent. Sexual violence is rampant. I feel exhausted just reciting this list. And it is incomplete. What about you? Do you find the news of the world overwhelming? At this moment in human history it is easy to feel hopeless, alone, powerless, and isolated in despair. And, indeed, in our increasingly atomized society more people feel alone today than ever before. Family ties have frayed. Friendships are harder to make as many of us retreat from public activities. As Grace Lee wrote, “These are the times that try our souls.”
Grace Lee was, as I mentioned earlier, a Detroiter. Now, I am from Michigan and I have a particular affinity for Detroit. Have you been there? It is like nothing in New England. Over the last seventy years it has steadily lost population as a combination of white flight and deindustrialization have hollowed out large segments of the city. In 1950 there were close to two million people living in Detroit. Today there are less than seven hundred thousand. Meanwhile, the city’s economic base has collapsed. One out of every three residents lives in poverty. There are whole neighborhoods that have essentially been abandoned. You can see blocks upon blocks of collapsing red brick apartment buildings and burned out single family homes. You can even find deserted factory complexes. I suspect words might not capture the scale of the devastation.
Maybe it would help to describe one site, the Packard Plant. An automobile factory built in the early twentieth century, it is a mass of concrete, steel, and brick. The windows are all broken out. In the winter, snow drifts and ice invade the buildings. In the summer, the sun comes inside. Vegetation is everywhere. There are trees, and not small ones, growing on the roof. In the month of May the former parking lots are filled with the weed flowers of spring. Roots from dandelions, myrtle, milkweed, and garlic mustard, all break down old asphalt. The buildings themselves are cavernous. Walking through them can feel like walking through ancient caves--some of the concrete has even degenerated in stalactites. It can also feel like traveling through the remains of an ancient civilization, a sensation made all the more palpable after the Packard was plundered for its copper and anything else of value that could be pried loose. This whole site is almost twice the size of the Harvard yard. If we brought it to Ashby it would enclose the Common and stretch down to about the elementary school in one direction and Glenwood Cemetery in another.
Some years ago, someone on the radio show The American Life described the city this way, “Whatever civilization is, Detroit is what comes after.” I tell you all this because I want you to understand a little about the place that Grace Lee spent most of her life and to give you a feel for the crises which surrounded her. The neighborhood Grace Lee lived in is not far from the Packard Plant. And near her house are several buildings that had been partially burned out and left to rot. There are also some vacant lots that have turned to what can only be described as urban prairie--large spaces were native plants and wildlife are returning.
Thinking of Detroit and Grace Lee, I am reminded of the work of the Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker. She encourages us to imagine that we live after the apocalypse. The great catastrophe has already happened. The world has, in some way, already ended. She reminds us: “We are living in the aftermath of collective violence that has been severe, massive, and traumatic. The scars from slavery, genocide, and meaningless war mark our bodies.” And she asks, “How do we live in this world? What is our religious task?”
Like Parker, Grace Lee was someone who recognized that we live after the apocalypse. She once wrote, “there is no utopia, no final solution, no Promised Land.” Our task is to grow our souls knowing that there will never be a perfect world, that human struggle might be endless, that whatever victories we achieve will only lay the ground for further struggle. The philosophical and spiritual awakening that we need is one that recognizes that whatever successes we have in our efforts to build a better world will only be partial victories.
And yet, this is not cause for despair. It is reason to continue because every ending brings with it the possibility of another beginning. Grace Lee moved to Detroit in the early 1950s as part of an effort to radicalize autoworkers. Automation, global competition, and outsourcing decimated Detroit’s industrial workforce and cityscape, Grace Lee realized that the work ahead was different than she had imagined. Urban decline created the space for new forms of community to blossom.
And so, in the midst of desolation she began to dream of what might come after the collapse of a city, in the spaces abandoned by capitalism. She became a pioneer in the urban gardening movement claiming, “Detroit is a city of Hope rather than a city of Despair. The thousands of vacant lots and abandoned houses provide not only the space to begin anew but also the incentive to create innovative ways of making our living--ways that nurture our productive, cooperative, and caring selves.” She saw the city as a place where people might begin to pursue a new way of living and she helped to organize hundreds, or maybe thousands, of urban gardens throughout the city. Taking inspiration from a network of black farmers, she told people, “we cannot free ourselves until we feed ourselves.” And the urban gardens that she helped to start in many cases became places of renewal, where community began to come back, and flowers and vegetables grew on what had once been crumbling concrete.
When I lived in Cleveland some members of the congregation and I looked to Grace Lee and her work in Detroit as an inspiration. We started a community garden on the church’s grounds and experienced a small revitalization in the local neighborhood. We got to know people who we would have never met otherwise. My favorite may have been Esther, a Filipino woman then in her sixties who had immigrated to the United States only a few years prior. She had been a peasant farmer her in native country. And she brought her farming traditions to our urban garden--constructing out of the sticks and cast-off bits of metal she found an elaborate lattice on which to grow a multilayered cornucopia of beans, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, and herbs. Somehow out of her two eight by four plots in the garden she was able to grow almost enough food to live on for the year.
Esther and her vegetables, our community garden in Cleveland, the work of Grace Lee, point to the lesson that I am trying to offer. Every space contains the possibility of revitalization. The times may be difficult but if we think creatively, open ourselves to possibility, we can grow our souls. A desolate urban landscape does not have to be a symbol of collapse. It contains new ways of organizing ourselves or new possibilities for growing communities.
We can find similar possibilities wherever we live. And one of the best ways to find those possibilities is to be part of a liberal religious congregation like this one. The non-creedal and covenantal nature of our tradition means that we can flexibly open ourselves to collaboration and service with others. It also means that we understand that the work of growing our souls or undergoing a philosophical and spiritual transformation is not merely an activity for quiet contemplation. It might begin with the ability to see new possibilities in existing spaces, but it is best expressed through action. And that action is something that we do collectively. We need not be a large group to take collective action. Even a small congregation like First Parish Ashby can make a difference and help us to grow our souls. The Earth Day clean-up and the local organizing that the congregation did for March for Our Lives are great examples of this.
Grace Lee knew this. She was not a Unitarian Universalist. And yet, she could be described as a fellow traveler. She had a close relationship with the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit. The funeral of her husband was held there and for many years she used it as an organizing site. She even mentioned it in her final book. That congregation, it is worth telling you, is not a large one. It has declined significantly in membership as the city has declined. And yet, it continues to make a difference, to be a place where people can grow their souls by creatively serving the community.
The times may be challenging. We may find ourselves often on the edge of despair. And yet, these are the times to grow our souls. And this is a good place to do it, by working together to imagine how our world and this town can be different. We can undergo a spiritual and philosophical transformation if we are willing to see the possibilities that open themselves after catastrophes, to seek, together, the hope that can follow despair.
May it be so, blessed be, and Amen.
Jan 7, 2017
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, March 10, 2009
This morning I am going to talk about stewardship. Stewardship is the way in which we pass gifts from generation to generation. It is the act of preserving and maintaining the community so that the gifts that we receive from it might be available to future generations. Stewardship has four interrelated and interlocking aspects: love, money, values and tradition. The four facets of stewardship are related to each other and to our spiritual lives.
Money is the part of stewardship we talk about least often during our Sunday services. Love, values and tradition frequently appear in the Society's other sermons and services throughout the year. Money, however, generally only gets mentioned during the annual stewardship campaign. I suspect that this is because money often stands in tension with religion.
Money is, after all, one of the major ordering forces of the material world. For many of us it determines what kind home we have, what kind of food we eat, what type of clothes we wear and what forms of entertainment we can seek. Our society consistently broadcasts the message that an individual's self-worth is related to how much money he or she has.
Consumer culture has been built by trying to convince people that they will be happier if only the own certain products. Commercials promise happiness by offering us younger skin, new cars, trendier clothes, exciting food and better homes. The message is always clear. Transformation and personal fulfillment are possible through the consumption of products. What we have defines who we are.
Religion usually posits one of two oppositional messages to this gospel of consumerism. Religious communities suggest that we are either defined by what we believe or what we do. What we have is secondary to who we are. Anyone, regardless of their material possessions, can be a member of a religious community. In fact, someone's material possessions can stand in the way of their ability to participate in a religious community.
There are plenty of stories about how those with few material possessions and little money have a better chance at having a rich spiritual life. Many of you are probably familiar with a story called the rich young man found in the Christian tradition.
Once when Jesus was sitting with his disciples a rich young man came up to him and asked "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" Jesus replied that in order to have eternal life all the young man had to do was keep the commandments. He should refrain from murder. He should not steal or commit adultery. He should love his neighbor as himself.
The young man was not satisfied with this answer and so he asked Jesus "I have kept all the commandments what do I still lack?" Jesus replied "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor..."
The young man was shocked and retreated in confusion. Jesus told his disciples "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter into the kingdom of God."
This story suggests that to be a member of Jesus's community you had to eschew material goods. They actually prevented one from being a full member of the community. Jesus favored the poor and the outcast more than he favored the wealthy or even the middle class.
Christianity is not the only religion to suggest that there is a tension between the material and the spiritual world. There is a Taoist story, for example, about the encounter between a Taoist gardener and a disciple of Confucius named Zi-gong.
One day Zi-gong was traveling through the country side when he saw an old man digging a ditch to connect a vegetable garden with a well. Slowly and painstakingly the gardener would draw a bucket of water from the well and pour it into the ditch.
Zi-gong approached him and said, "You know, if you had the right contraption you could water your garden faster and with less effort. Wouldn't you like that?"
"What type of contraption?" the gardener asked.
"It's called a well sweep. It is really just a wooden lever that is light in back and heavy in front. You pull on it and it allows you to draw water from the well in a steady flowing stream," Zi-gong replied.
The gardener was not impressed. In fact, he started to laugh at Zi-gong. Then he said to Zi-gong, "My teacher says that those with tricky tools have tricky business affairs. Those with tricky business affairs have trickery in their hearts. Those with trickery in their hearts cannot remain pure. Without purity they will have restless spirits and for them Dao cannot exist. I would be ashamed to use the sort of tricky tool you suggest."
In this story there is a clear scorn for material things. What is simplest is best. Any tool more complex than the most basic one might get in the way of an individual's spiritual life. To be a member of the gardener's spiritual community one must seek simplicity and avoid significant entanglements with the material world.
There is a certain usefulness and richness to such teachings. Our material lives should not define us. When we enter into a religious community or embark upon a spiritual path what we own and how much money we make should not limit us or even be particularly relevant.
Yet our physical beings and our communities are located in the material world. It is true that when we focus too much on money and material things our spiritual lives can be distorted. It is equally true that if we do not focus on the material world enough our spiritual lives will become distorted.
We Unitarian Universalists should be particularly cognizant of this. Unlike a lot of religious traditions most Unitarian Universalists tend to be skeptical about a realm of pure spirit. The contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka, for example, argues that we can best understand our human nature by understanding our physiology. While we might have religious lives and spiritual experiences those lives and experiences are, for a large part, shaped by the material world we inhabit. Neglecting the material world can mean that we neglect the realm of the spirit. Our spiritual experiences are shaped by that material world.
"The Magic Penny" is a story that illustrates the connection between the material and spiritual realms. The story suggests that the more we give to others the more, in turn, we receive. You might remember it from the folk song by the same name.
A long time ago, a little girl found a magic penny. She and her family were poor and so she was delighted to have found some money for her own. She thought that, perhaps, she could buy herself a piece of penny candy.
That afternoon when she got home she was excited and told her father about what she had found. She told him that she was hoping to buy a lollypop. That evening her dad had to ask her for the penny. They were almost out of food and he needed the penny to buy a bag of beans so that everyone in the family could have something to eat. He told her he would repay her as soon as he could.
The little girl was crestfallen but she gave her father the penny and, filled with sorrow, went to bed. The next morning she woke-up and under her pillow were two pennies. She told her father and thanked him for giving her two pennies. He said that he didn't know where they came from.
Later that day she went to the candy store and bought her little brother a piece of candy. The next morning she discovered that her pennies had multiplied again. She continued to lend out her pennies or spend them on gifts for others. With each gift given or loan made her pennies came back to her, more than before.
After awhile she started to horde her pennies. Within a few days she noticed that her pile was decreasing in size. Every day that she went without lending out a penny or using a penny to buy a gift for someone her pile would get a little smaller.
The folk song compares the magic penny to love. The chorus and first verse of the song read:
Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.
It's just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won't have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many
They'll roll all over the floor.
Love is like the magic penny because the more love we give the more we receive. If we hold ourselves in, are afraid to engage with others, and fail to share we will end up alone and unloved. It is only by loving others and seeking love that we can find it.
The song and the story capture the spirit of congregational stewardship perfectly. The more you give the more you receive. And stewardship is not just about giving money. It is about sharing our love, our values and passing along our tradition. The song reflects this. It is part of our tradition. It was written by Malvina Reynolds, a Unitarian Universalist folk singer who lived in Berkeley, California.
I first heard the song not as child but as an adult when I was a member of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. Even though she died in the late 1970s Reynolds was still a presence within that congregation's life. People sang her songs and her family--Unitarian Universalists who attended other congregations in the Bay Area--came to do a program about her every few years.
The song was created by Reynolds as an expression of her love for her daughter Nancy. It is one way that Reynolds passed her love and her values down to the next generation. So, not only does the song provide a nice metaphor for stewardship it actually reflects the practice. Stewardship is not just about money. It is about how we pass along and share what is most important to us.
Passing along gifts between generations was a topic this past week in the Unitarian Universalist parenting group that Sara and I facilitate. As part of the class we the read the poem by Antoine de St. Exupery "Generation to Generation." The poem is about how values are passed from one generation to the next. It ends with the lines: "We live, not by things, but by the meanings / of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords / from generation to generation."
After reading the poem participants took a little time to reflect upon and share the passwords that had been handed down to them from a previous generation. Passwords help us gain entrance into secret or closed places. In the sense of the poem they are the keys that unlock our identities. They help us define who we are and what means to be a member of particular community or family.
In the class, people shared words like justice, spirit or love. These were often key concepts that had ordered their lives. Such things are worth sharing with the following generations.
The conversation was about being stewards of our religious and familial values. As members of families and a religious community we are inheritors of traditions. It falls upon us to continue those traditions.
Stewardship is the act of preserving and nurturing the tradition for those who will come next. You may not know but anyone sitting in this room is the beneficiary of the stewardship of previous generations.
Those previous generations were filled with love. They proclaimed that all of humanity is worthy of God's love and wanted to share that message with others. They believed that love was transformative and that one of the purposes of religious community was to teach us to love better.
They sought to nurture a tradition that expressed and articulated that love. A tradition that provided an alternative to more orthodox religious movements that taught that the love of God and the humanity community are both limited.
This tradition and that love gave them the values to proclaim that women and men should have equal rights, that people of all colors and creeds are full members of the human and that sexual orientation should not limit one's right to have a partner or a family. This love and tradition called them to create a religious community where there is room for many different beliefs so that we might have a congregation which includes atheists, pagans, theists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and people with other religious understandings.
And in order to share their love, nurture their tradition and spread their values they gave time and money to support Unitarian Universalism. Without that dedication and sacrifice we would not have a place to worship on Sunday. Without them we would not be able to broadcast the message that all of humanity is one family and that everyone is welcome--regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or other human divisor--in our community. Without that dedication and sacrifice we would not have a community from which to reach out to refugees, advocate for peace, emphasize the importance of our connection to the natural world, speak out in favor of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights and work for justice.
Think of all of these gifts you have received. Surely they are worth nurturing and passing down to the next generation. One of the ways we pass these gifts down is through the act of financial giving. It is just one part of stewardship but it is an important part.The money that we give to our Unitarian Universalist congregation is an expression of the love we have for each other, the tradition we hold sacred and the values that we seek to promote. Giving money to the congregation sustains it and allows us to continue spreading and sharing our tradition of love.
This year as we launch our annual canvass we are trying something new. We are shifting to something called fair share giving. With fair share giving each person or family is asked to give a percentage of their income, rather than a specific dollar amount. Fair share giving allows you to self-identify how important this congregation and Unitarian Universalism are to your life. You can call yourself a supporter and give 3% of your income, a sustainer and give 4%, a visionary and give 5% or offer a full tithe of 10%. The goal of fair share giving is to have everyone give a meaningful amount rather than raise a specific dollar amount. Fair share giving recognizes that everyone's circumstances and different and that for some even giving at the 3% level can be a stretch. The hope is even if you cannot make a commitment to fair sharing this year you might be able to work towards it next year.
Fair share giving is like the magic penny. In the end it is not the amount that is given that is not as important as the commitment. If everyone gives their fair share we will have more than enough for all of the congregation's needs and ministries.
John Wolf said, "There is only one reason for joining a Unitarian Universalist church. That is to support it with your time and money. You want to support it because it stands against superstition and fear. Because it points to what is noblest and best in human life. Because it is open to women and men of whatever race, creed, color, place of origin or sexual orientation."
I hope that agree that this congregation and this tradition are worth supporting. If you do I am certain you will receive more than you give and find, like the magic penny, your love and your pledge multiplied many times over.
May be it so. Amen.
Aug 30, 2014
preached by the Rev. Joan Van Becelaere and the Rev. Colin Bossen at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, October 14, 2007
Part 1: Rev. Colin Bossen
Today is Association Sunday, a chance for us to affirm our common bonds, our covenant and our purpose. We celebrate this day with hundreds of other Unitarian Universalist congregations. Today is an opportunity to reflect upon what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist and why our congregation and our religious association are important.
As a lifelong Unitarian Universalist it is clear to me that we need Unitarian Universalism in our troubled world. Our community can give us the strength we need to be healers and to struggle for justice. It can offer us a vision of what a better world might look like. In our community we come together to nurture our spirits and try to heal our world.
I am reminded of the importance of our religious community on an almost daily basis. Thursday we held a candle light vigil in response to the shooting at SuccessTech Academy. Our vigil helped me to remember that in times of crisis and tragedy our community should be, and is, a place for people to come for support, healing and meaning making.
Throughout my life the Unitarian Universalist community has almost always been there when I needed it. As many of you know I am a social activist by nature. Much of the organizing I have done would not have been possible if it was not for the Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities I have a part of. Whenever I felt that it was too hard to go on, pointless to go to another meeting or attend another march, there has always been someone in the Unitarian Universalist community that I could turn to for support.
I have learned about the power of religious community both through direct experience and by watching my elders. In fact, one of the wonderful things about our communities is that they are intergenerational and that they offer us the chance to interact and learn across the generations.
Several years ago, I was a member of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. When I was there the congregation had a strong commitment to social justice. The stalwarts of the community were all longtime veterans of justice work. A couple of the older members had developed civil disobedience into a spiritual practice. I remember a Sunday that Hal, one of the civil disobedience practitioners, got up in front of the congregation during joys and concerns. He wanted to proudly announce that he had just been arrested for the two hundredth time. The day before he had been protesting the death penalty at San Quentin, again, and had been arrested for blocking the road to the prison.
His cohort in civil disobedience, a man named Elwood, had declined in health by the time I moved to Berkeley. There were wonderful stories circulating about him. Hal liked to share the one about the last time he and Elwood had committed civil disobedience together. They were at San Quentin and Elwood, who was in his eighties, was too ill to stand unassisted. Despite his infirmity he wanted to participate in the protest. So, he and Hal came up with a brilliant solution. They made a fake electric chair, put a execution hood on Elwood and placed him in the middle of the street. At Elwood's trial, this is the part of the story that Hal liked best, the judge threw the charges out. Since Elwood was tied to the chair he was incapable of moving from the street when ordered to do so. That meant that he could not be held responsible for his actions.
I love this story. I think it illustrates a congregation at its best. Hal and Elwood were able to accomplish things together that they could not have done alone. Their faith in their community sustained them over many long years of struggle. It strengthened their voices for social change and gave them comfort in dark times. I knew Hal and his wife Cynthia for many years. I know that it was his community that allowed him to stand going to jail over and over again.
Today, we need our liberal religious communities more than ever. We live in an age of anxiety, in a time when people are anxious and disconnected from each other. In a globalized world we face increasing cultural and political complexity. The world can be a very confusing place. Our liberal religious communities can ground us. They can give us the strength we need to struggle onwards.
At the heart of communities is the idea of covenant. Covenants are agreements we make with each other about how we will live together. They are a practice of loving conduct and a mark of faithfulness to each other in the midst of change, anxiety and differences of opinion.
Covenant is also at the very heart of our congregational polity, our Unitarian Universalist way of doing religion and living together as a faith community. Some of you may be surprised to hear this. You might think that congregational polity means that each congregation simply does its own thing. After all, we each are autonomous and are each run by our members. Does that not mean that we are just free to do our own thing?
That may be the way some folks think about congregational polity, but it certainly is not what our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors meant when they formed the foundation of congregationalism back in 1648.
Part 2: Rev. Joan Van Becelaere
Let me tell you a story about our religious ancestors and what they were willing to risk for the sake of their belief in their covenant.
In 1620, our Pilgrim ancestors landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. In 1630, our Puritan ancestors arrived at the Massachusetts Bay colony.
Soon after arriving in New England, the Pilgrims and the Puritans began to work together and formed the New England Standing Order of Congregations. This Standing Order began to experiment with a new way of working together, a new way of doing religion in a new context.
Instead of relying on old structures, either the rule of bishops as in the Church of England or the rule of a powerful group of regional Elders and Clergy as in the Reformed tradition, our mix of New England Pilgrims and Puritans developed a new, revolutionary structure where each congregation governed itself, but still lived in cooperative relationship with other congregations. Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Puritans remaining in England grew strong and took over Parliament. These English Puritans favored Reformed church structure—that is, the rule by the group of regional elders and clergy.
In 1642, the English Puritans declared war on the king, took control of Parliament and then tried to take control of the colonies in North America. Then the Puritan Parliament passed the Westminster Confession which, among other things, dictated that all congregations were to use the Reformed polity. The congregations in New England could see what was coming and they were very afraid that the English Parliament would try to stop their new experiment in congregational independence. And they couldn’t just ignore the laws from Parliament. After all, Parliament controlled the colonial governments as well as the English army and navy and trade. And now Parliament wanted to control the congregations. This was a matter of politics as well as religion.
So the New England congregations begin meeting to deal with this threat. They outlined their experimental congregational structure and put it all down on paper. Then, when finally faced with a demand to adopt the Westminster Confession, the New England congregations had already formed a very sensitive but risky response which we now call the Cambridge Platform.
The Cambridge Platform diplomatically affirmed the theology of Parliament’s Westminister Confession. The platform said that Parliament’s Confession was "holy, orthodox, and judicious in all matters of faith."
But then the New England congregations went on to say: "Only in those things which have respect to church governance and discipline, we refer ourselves to the platform of church discipline agreed upon by this present assembly."
In other words, only in that minor matter of congregational governance, that itty bitty little question of polity, we beg to differ with you, dear Parliament, and we will use our own structures, thank you very much. The Cambridge Platform was a declaration of religious independence for the colonies long before political independence was even considered.
The Congregational polity of the Platform includes the autonomy of the local congregation, that the local congregation ordains ministers and that membership is based on covenant, not adherence to a creed. And it also said that the congregations themselves live in covenant with each other.
Covenant for our ancestors wasn’t just about the relationship of individual members within the congregations. It was about the relationship between the congregations themselves.
The Cambridge Platform outlined six ways in which congregations covenant, promise to be in relationship with each other.
consultation with one another in times of congregational conflict or indecision,
admonition when a congregation was perceived to be straying from the covenant,
participation in common celebrations and events of the larger community like ordinations and such,
recommendation or reference when a congregant moved from one congregation to another,
and relief and succor which meant sharing financial resources in times of need.
This declaration of religious independence was also a declaration of interdependence. And it was a huge risk for the New England congregations, a very dangerous game. They could have lost their charter, their right o stay in the English colonies. They could have lost their legal rights, their freedom; they could have lost their churches. But they had their faith; their commitment that enabled them to take that risk.
Fortunately for them, the next year, the civil war heated up again and the English Puritans had bigger problems than the New England colonies and their polite but revolutionary congregations.
American Unitarianism grew directly out of these revolutionary New England Standing Order congregations. And it was our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors who put covenant at the center of our polity and what it means to live in a faith community.
Part. 3: Rev. Colin Bossen
Our ancestors did not understand their congregations as isolated. They viewed each congregation as part of a larger web of mutuality, a covenanted community of congregations. The Cambridge Platform helped to define their duties and obligations to each other.
Today we would do well to remember the Cambridge Platform. Unfortunately, many contemporary Unitarian Universalists have a history of forgetting about our covenantal roots. We like to think of our congregations as individuals, liberal beacons in a socially and religiously conservative sea.
In an address at the 1998 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, sociologist Robert Bellah named this problem “radical religio-cultural individualism.” A fundamental tenet of liberal religion is the sacred nature of the individual. Individualism has shaped the view we have of the relationships between our congregations. Often we talk about covenantal relationships and act as if our congregations are isolated entities.
Bellah also said, however, that despite our fascination with individualism, we humans are, at root, relational creatures. Our focus on individualism and our forgetfulness concerning the interdependence of our covenant community is a great mistake. It runs counter to our very best natural tendencies.
We humans are essentially relational, we are tied to the rest of the universe through webs of connections. This interconnected reality has long been recognized by a number of religious traditions. Whether it is called the web of existence, the Communion of the Saints or the Tao, relationship lies at the center of our existence. Religion reminds us again and again, that we are ever bound in community. We always live in the reality of interdependence and the hope of covenant.
And it is in community that we find the deep resources to nurture our spirits in times of change. It is in community that we gain the strength to help heal our anxious and wounded world. Whenever I forget this I think of Hal and Elwood. Their story reminds me of how we can help and sustain each other through years of struggle. In telling their story I am honoring my connection to them.
We live in a time of chaos and uncertainty. We cannot cope with this new world using our worldview of radical individualism. If we are to cope with this new reality, we need a new approach, a new worldview, new creativity to navigate this chaotic world.
If we Unitarian Universalists are going to truly cope with our chaotic cosmos, to learn to live and thrive in an increasingly uncertain world, if we are going to nurture our souls as individuals and help heal our connected world, we must rekindle that fire of covenantal commitment, that reality of relationship and interconnectedness that lies at the roots of Unitarian Universalism. That is how we will survive and thrive.
Because we live in connection, as we state with our seventh principle,--to honor the interconnected web of existence--we know that all of our actions, and failures to take action, have repercussions that ripple on throughout the web of life. We are not alone when we take action based on our deepest values, when we work for healing and justice in the world. We are nurtured in the collective covenantal power, that revolutionary commitment that lies at the historical roots of our UU community.
In working to nurture the spirits of persons and heal our society and world, we ground ourselves in the power of those Unitarians and Universalists who came before us as we work with those who are in covenant with us today, for the sake of those who come after us. The web of existence is not bound by time or space.
Part 4: Rev. Joan Van Becelaere
Lately, I have experienced an excellent example of the reality of covenant community, where the welfare of each congregation directly impacts the health and welfare of all other congregations.
A few weeks ago our sister congregation in Findlay, Ohio—the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Blanchard Valley—was flooded. The congregation lost a lot of things: their piano, sound system, chairs, all of their religious education curricula, books, and supplies in the flood waters. And they had to move to a new rental building.
They were able to save their pulpit, chalice, some of their hymnals, and the coffee pots. Yes, the coffee pots were saved. There’s a certain ironic humor in that.
Our District Office, of course, put out an immediate call for help. And help poured in from throughout the Ohio Meadville District and the larger Unitarian Universalist community. Ministers, congregations and other districts contributed to help put that congregation back on its feet.
I recently talked to the minister at the Findlay Congregation, the Rev. Beth Marshall, and she said: “It's easy to feel isolated out here, and yet I now know that there are good colleagues and congregations out there we can depend upon.” We live in covenant.
The story of the Findlay congregation is a great example of how our Unitarian Universalist community operates when it remembers the Covenantal relationship, that deep commitment to interdependence that is at the foundation of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist.
It has been said—way too often—that trying to get Unitarian Universalists to cooperate with one another is like herding hungry cats past a tuna boat at dinner time. But I don’t buy that.
I think in our very heart of hearts, we do remember our covenant. It’s in our ancestral DNA. We have just forgotten it for awhile. I believe that the Cambridge Platform, with its six concepts of congregational communion—
consultation in times of conflict,
participation in celebration,
recommendation in transition,
and financial sharing in times of need.
—was way ahead of its time. And with a little creative cooperation, we can re-discover and live into that covenantal ideal—here and now.
Today, we can live our covenant when we participate in Association Sunday—when we celebrate our covenant here in the Ohio Meadville district and across North America.
And why do we do all of this? Because the world today truly needs Unitarian Universalism. It needs our message of hope and welcome and acceptance and interdependence. We need a faith community that can truly provide a welcoming place of spiritual nurture for everyone. A faith that can help heal our fragmented, chaotic world.
W.E.B. DuBois once wrote:
"Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow."
Today, we can live our covenant.
We can start here and now to rekindle the fire of our commitment.
Our collection of congregational kitty cats can and will come together.
Because now is the time.
Now is the time to remember our roots as Unitarian Universalists.
Now is the time to come together and remember that we are bound in community.
Now is the time to provide a place of spiritual nurture for people seeking a spiritual home.
Now is the time for our congregations to reach out to help heal our world with hope and love.
The world needs Unitarian Universalism.
The world needs the fire of our commitment.
And it certainly needs the strength of our covenant.
Now is the time.
Amen and blessed be.
Aug 29, 2014
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, October 7, 2007
All human beings deserve the same rights and respect. It does not matter whether you are black, white, Asian, Mexican or Native American. It does not matter whether you are male, female or transgender. It does not matter whether you are homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. It does not matter if you are rich or poor. You deserve to live your life with grace and dignity.
This coming week marks both Columbus and National Coming Out Days. In very different ways these celebrations epitomize the controversy that often erupts when people insist upon and advocate for human rights for all. Columbus Day is a celebration of the European discovery of the Americas. Most indigenous communities do not view the holiday as a celebration of discovery. For them it is a reminder of the genocide of their ancestors.
Our society denies gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people their full human rights. National Coming Out Day is a chance to raise awareness about this. Like Columbus Day it is not a holiday that is universally celebrated. Those who oppose full human rights for members of the queer community are likely to either ignore or protest National Coming Out Day.
When I was a child we celebrated Columbus Day in my elementary school. In one of my classes we made drawings of Columbus and his three ships--the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. We learned about how he had discovered America and convinced the Spanish king and queen Ferdinand and Isabel to finance his trip across the ocean. No mention was made of the native populations who inhabited this continent before the arrival of the Europeans or of their fate after the conquest of the Americas. To a naive child Columbus was a hero to be celebrated.
My consciousness about Columbus Day changed when I became involved in indigenous solidarity work in Chiapas, Mexico. I now understand that it as a complex holiday. On the one hand, it is an important day for Italian Americans and others to celebrate their heritage. On the other, it is a reminder of the suffering of generations of indigenous people at the hands of European colonialists. This complexity makes the Columbus Day holiday an ideal time to reflect upon one of the pressing issues of our day, immigration. Columbus was, after all, the original immigrant. Many of the undocumented immigrants to the United States today are descendents from the original inhabitants of the Americas. The debate about immigration is in part a continuation of a long debate about whom this continent belongs to and who has a right to participate in our society.
The immigration debate has gradually been heating up for the last several years. In 2006 it reached a boiling point when Congress attempted to pass a series of laws to clamp down on undocumented immigration. One of the measures that conservatives hoped to pass called for the deportation of the at least twelve million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. A mass deportation of this type would prove disastrous, not in the least because, according to the Center for American Progress, the costs would be at least $215 billion.
Right now, undocumented immigration is an issue in most wealthy countries. Things have gotten so bad in the Global South, in the developing countries of the world, that people are willing to risk anything to have a shot at a better life for themselves and their families.
Many do risk everything and ultimately die attempting to reach the wealthy countries. In five months in late 2005 and early 2006, for example, between one thousand and fifteen hundred sub-Saharan Africans died trying to sneak into Spain. According to the journalist Jeremy Rose that is "five and seven times the number of people who died attempting to reach West Berlin during the Berlin Wall's entire history."
People do not take such risks and leave their families behind because they want to. They do it because they have to. People emigrate to places like the United States because the options of staying behind in their home countries are much worse than risking death trying to leave them.
There are many people in our country who are afraid of immigrants. They are afraid that undocumented immigrants erode border security, take jobs from American citizens and threaten American culture. These issues frame most of the debate around immigration. I believe they obfuscate the central issue. The central issue is: who do we, and by we I mean both the people in this room and our culture at large, consider a human being? I believe that we all deserve the same rights and respect. We are all human beings. We all deserve to be able to live our lives with grace and dignity.
This idea is at the core of the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This first principle says that our community affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means that we think all human beings are human beings and are worthy of respect and dignity. This idea is at the heart of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It says, in part:
"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
The Declaration of Human Rights is supposed to be the global standard by which countries are judged, both in terms of how they treat their citizens and how they treat others. The Declaration contains all of the basic things that human beings are supposed to be entitled to. According to the Declaration all people are afforded the right to own property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to work and not be forced to work, freedom to choose their own sexual and life partners and freedom of movement. To deny people these rights is to deny them their humanity.
For undocumented immigrants the words "other status" are the key phrase in the document. That means that everyone in this country is supposed to be afforded these rights, whether or not they are here with the approval of the government.
The question of who really is a human being has been one that our country has wrestled with for a long time. Throughout the colonial period and during the first decades of our history as a nation the only people considered to be full human beings were land owning males of European descent. Anyone who did not meet the criteria of being male, white and a landowner was seen as less than a full citizen and, therefore, less than completely human. Slavery was justified by claiming that Africans and people of African descent possessed less developed faculties than Europeans. They were thought to need the guidance of others, their slave masters, to become civilized. Women, likewise, were denied the vote because they were thought of as less rational and capable than men.
Today, though most of us would not admit it, our country continues to have such attitudes. Today we do not consider people who live in the Global South, that is developing nations like Nicaragua, Iraq or the Sudan to be full human beings. If we did we would never let our government pursue the foreign policies it has in those countries.
In fact much of the immigration to the United States is a direct result of the failed economic and political policies of Washington. The last few years have seen an average of 500,000 undocumented immigrants from Mexico per year. Currently the greatest export from Mexico is Mexicans. As a result, remittance, money sent back to Mexico from the United States, is one of the top sources of income within Mexico. This is a direct result of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, more commonly known as NAFTA. NAFTA has decimated the Mexican countryside by placing small Mexican subsistence farmers in direct competition with large agricultural combines from the United States and Canada. Unable to compete, over 1.3 million Mexicans have left the countryside in the last ten years.
The violence that our government has perpetrated in Central America is another major reason why so many people have been forced to emigrate to the United States. Throughout the seventies and eighties the United States backed repressive regimes or right wing guerilla movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The conflicts in these countries led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of primarily indigenous peoples. Those that could, fled. And those that fled, fled to the United States.
One of the major reasons why people immigrate to the United States is that they want to be treated like human beings. I remember talking with a campesino in Chiapas, Mexico a few summers ago about this. He told me: "You Americans care more about your pets than you care about us." At least three thousand people from Latin America have been found dead along the United States border in the last ten years. I cannot help but wonder if he is right.
The material poverty that most of Latin America lives in is staggering. Through my work with CASA, the human rights organization that I helped to start in Mexico, I have visited Mexico a number of times. While there I have taken trips to the poorest rural communities and urban slums. People live without running water, far from the nearest school or doctor. They live in shacks with dirt floors and thatch or tin roofs. And they work hard for very little. Many live on less than a dollar a day.
The journey that many people from Mexico and Central America take to escape this kind of poverty is arduous. It involves a difficult and lengthy trip to the border, often through dangerous areas where immigrants are preyed upon by organized crime and harassed by governmental authorities. Once at the border immigrants will locate a coyote, a professional people smuggler, to take them into this country. Coyotes charge as much as $3,000 to people who wish to cross the border. Most of the people who cross into the United States lack the resources to pay up front. So coyotes often deliver them directly to potential employers through whom they can work off their debt. This can amount to modern slavery. Undocumented immigrants have been held in bondage for years while working off their debt. Once their debt to the coyote is cleared they often continue to live in fear as their employer threatens to have them deported if they step out of line.
Two myths about undocumented workers are that:
They do work that Americans do not want to do;
and they depress wages for American workers.
If either of these myths are true it is only by the slightest degree. Economics is not a zero sum game. There are not a set number of jobs available. More people in the United States means more needs for goods and services. This in turn means more jobs. The extent to which undocumented workers depress wages is also open to question. An article in the Economist argued that at most undocumented workers depressed wages for other Americans by 8%. Their analysis suggested, however, that the actual number was much closer to .4%.
Most undocumented immigrants do the work immigrants and poor people in this country have always done. They work in fields, in restaurants, in the garment industry and in domestic work. The wages in these industries are low in part because the management in these industries has fought tooth and nail against unionization efforts. Management would prefer that the workers stay undocumented so that they continue to live in fear and stay docile. Giving undocumented workers papers and a path to citizenship would in fact raise wages much more than clamping down on undocumented workers would.
It is certainly true that the income gap between the rich and poor in our country is growing. This is not the fault of undocumented immigrants. It is a result of the same economic and political policies that cause people to immigrate to the United States in the first place. Through trade agreements like NAFTA, a situation has been created where there a free movement of capital but not free movement of labor. Companies are free to move their factories wherever they like if labor costs get to expensive and workers are not able to follow them. This creates a series of captive labor markets, each trying to outbid the other in terms of low wages and services. The governments of poor countries vie with each other for the right to exploit their citizens. Working conditions in those countries are not fit for human beings. In some, children work twelve or fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for only a few dollars in wages. Such practices were outlawed in the United States three or four generations ago. Yet we allow our government to pursue economic policies that support such behavior. And in the end it hurts our country as well because manufacturing jobs from the United States leave for places with cheaper labor.
This is not capitalism as envisioned by Adam Smith. He believed that capitalism required free movement of both labor and capital. Restrict one and you distort the capitalist system and deny someone’s basic rights.
Columbus Day and the debate around immigration are connected to National Coming Out Day by questions of human rights. Both undocumented workers and members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities are denied some of their human rights. The struggles of both challenge us to make our society more inclusive.
Not long ago almost all members of the queer communities lived in the closest, afraid to admit their sexual orientation to any but a trusted circle. Over the last several years this has changed and, in many communities, it is now more acceptable to be queer. The stories from lesbians of two different generations that Dana read earlier demonstrate this. Young people questioning their sexual orientation or identity today have far more opportunities to safely explore whom they love than they did twenty years ago.
This does not mean that our society treats members of the queer community justly. It does not. Most states do not recognize the right of gays and lesbians to get married. The murder of Matthew Shepard a few years ago also served as a tragic reminder that while our society has become more tolerant of queer lifestyles, we still have a long way to go.
This is why celebrating National Coming Out Day is important. Coming Out Day reminds us both of the struggles that have been fought in the past and those that must be waged in the future. It is a time for us to pause and remember Stonewall, Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk, and the countless others who have either suffered because of who they loved or struggled for equal rights for all people. Coming Out Day is also a time for us to roll-up our sleeves and commit to making the lives of those around us and those who will come after us better. Never again should it be permissible to hate someone because of their sexual or gender orientation.
The history of this country is in part the history of the expansion of the franchise. Gradually more and more groups have been allowed to become full participants in our society. First white men without property and then women and black men were granted equal rights, at least under the eyes of the law. They are now all considered human beings and the laws for committing crimes against them are, in theory, the same. It is time to expand the franchise again. This time we must expand the franchise to truly include all human beings. We must recognize all of our brothers and sisters on planet earth as human beings.
In the hopes that it may be so, I say Amen and Blessed Be.
Aug 28, 2014
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 30, 2007
My theme this morning is the transient and the permanent in liberal religion. When I talk about liberal religion I mean Unitarianism, Universalism or Unitarian Universalism. Over the course of our almost five hundred year history our religious movement has changed a great deal. We have changed so much, in fact, that what seemed essential to us in one era now appears to be only tangential. Despite appearances I believe that no matter what the changes in our movement we have retained an important and discernible core. At our essence we are a covenantal community committed to truth, love, freedom and the ability of each person to find his or her own spiritual path.
The inspiration for this sermon comes from a seminal sermon by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker entitled "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity." In that sermon Parker tried to discern the essence of Christianity. He believed that much of what people took to be Christianity was actually a product of the time and culture in which they lived. He wrote:
"In actual Christianity... there seem to have been... two elements, the one transient, the other permanent. The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions... the other, the eternal truth of God. These two bear perhaps the same relation to each other that the phenomena of outward nature, such as sunshine and cloud, growth [and] decay...bear to the great law of nature, which underlies and supports them all."
Parker wrote as a transcendentalist. For him the essence of Christianity stood in for all religious truth. He thought that Jesus taught not Christianity but absolute religion, the essence of spiritual truth that lay behind all religion. Despite the title of his sermon, Parker was part of a movement that helped turn Unitarianism away from its identity as an exclusively Christian religion. Today, in our congregations, we recognize that all religions contain a kernel of truth in them. We understand that each religion is an effort to reach toward an understanding of ultimate reality. The interpretation may be different but the impulse to reach out is the same.
To help us explore the transient and the permanent of liberal religion, our own attempt at reaching towards the absolute, I would like to offer you three images from my and our religious ancestry. If examined closely, these images can teach us much about Unitarian Universalism.
First, imagine the gathering of a group of 17th century New England colonists. They have left the Church of England and fled their native land. They have come to a strange continent seeking religious freedom and, after months of discussion and debate, they have decided to form a religious community. Finally, they have reached agreement about the shape and form of their community. It is important for them that each individual be allowed to find truth in God and in the Bible as they best know how. One by one they write their names in the membership book and sign a covenant, an agreement about how they will behave together in religious community. Their covenant reads:
"We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth."
Now we turn to our second image. It is late at night. Theodore Parker sits at his desk. He is writing a fiery sermon calling for resistance to the fugitive slave law. That law demands that Northerners return fugitives to their supposed masters in the South. In front of Parker lies a loaded pistol. He has the gun because he and his wife are sheltering Ellen and William Craft, fugitives and members of his congregation. He plans to shoot anyone who comes and tries to return them to slavery.
The third image is of myself as a youth of fourteen. I am on the beach with about two hundred other Unitarian Universalist youth. Moonlight bounces off the sand and waves tumble rocks ever smoother on the shore. We are at the evening worship service of Con Con, the international annual conference for Unitarian Universalist youth. We are singing, sharing stories, running our hands over the soft warm earth. Amid the song, starlight and fellowship I experience an almost overpowering feeling of love and unity.
Each of these images is taken from a different moment in the history of liberal religion. The first image is from our earliest roots on this continent. The last is almost contemporary. We can draw a direct line through all three images to our worship service today. What has changed in our communities since the New England farmers gathered almost four hundred years ago? What has remained the same? What is transient and what is permanent?
I approach these questions from two directions. First, I take a theological tact, and look at the beliefs of both Unitarian Universalists and our ancestors. Second, I examine our culture, that is I look at who makes up our communities and how we relate to the wider world.
To the casual eye it would appear that almost nothing of Unitarian Universalist theology has remained consistent. Our religious ancestors who gathered together in Massachusets were self-identified Christians. The Bible was the central text in their religious community and all of them regarded Jesus as their lord and savior. A sociologist of religion would call them Protestant Christians.
Today, only a portion of Unitarian Universalists and Unitarian Universalist congregations identify as Christian. The members of our religious communities follow a variety of spiritual practices and beliefs. In our congregations we find Buddhists, Christians, Humanists, Jews, Agnostics, Pagans and others. A sociologist of religion would call us Post-Christian Protestants.
We are post-Christian because, as a religious movement, we come out of Christianity. That means that while we do not retain much of the theology of Christianity we continue to use many of the forms of Christianity. Like most other Protestant movements we have ministers, gather together for worship primarily on Sunday morning and organize ourselves into congregations. In addition we have taken a central idea of Protestantism, the belief that each person is capable of direct relationship with God and able to read and interpret the Bible, to an entirely different level. We recognize that there is truth in religious communities beyond Christianity. We do not just believe that each person is capable of interpreting the Bible. We think that each person is capable of interpreting their own religious experiences and naming their own source of religious authority. For us personal experience, and not the Bible, is the starting point for theological reflection.
Despite the shift from Christian to post-Christian we are united with our New England ancestors by our use of covenants. When we form communities we agree to treat each other in a certain way. The New England religious communities from which we are descended used similar covenants. The Salem covenant of 1629 that I read earlier is an example of one such covenant. Another, couched in slightly different language, is the Bond of Union of this congregation. If you look on our web-site or in our by-laws, you will find a statement that reads:
"We warmly invite into membership all in common with our purpose as expressed in our Bond of Union: mutual helpfulness in the search for truth and for enduring value in ways of life; advancement of sound morals among ourselves and in our community; encouragement and protection of individual freedom of religion."
This Bond of Union is meant to guide us as we live and work together in religious community. It contains several clear expectations about how we will behave in our congregation. It describes what it means to be a member of this community. We agree that when we gather:
We will help each other
We will seek truth
We will try to live moral lives and promote morality, as best we understand it, in our communities
We will respect and protect freedom of religion
Our Bond of Union is not really that different from the covenant of our New England ancestors. Laying them side by side it easy to see how they contain the same spirit. The language may be different, one mentions the Lord and God while the other does not, but both covenants speak of a commitment to truth, of mutual aid and respect. Neither explicitly mentions a standard of belief that people must meet in order to join the community. Instead we are asked to agree to "walk together" or be "in common with our purpose."
Our use of covenant unites us with our religious ancestors across almost four hundred years. We have long understood, to quote the Transylvania Unitarian Bishop Francis David, "we do not need to think alike to love alike."
With our Unitarian Christian, Universalist and Transcendentalist ancestors we share a belief that human beings are at the very least morally neutral. According to the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, our congregations "covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person."
This pledge is at the heart of what it means to be a religious liberal. Historically, the very definition of a religious liberal was someone who objected to the argument that humanity is somehow inherently wicked. In the Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association this sentiment is not couched as a belief—to affirm and promote is not the same thing as to believe—but in looking back at our history it might as well be.
The origin of the American Unitarian Association, one of the precursors to the Unitarian Universalist Association, lies in a 19th century dispute over whether or not human beings had innate goodness within them. The principle spokesperson of Unitarianism during this time was William Ellery Channing and he engaged in numerous debates with more orthodox clergy. In his famous sermon, entitled "Likeness to God," Channing argued that each person had within them the likeness to God. The purpose of religion was to help us nurture that divine spark. Channing felt that it was possible for us to reach an almost Godlike consciousness because, in his words, "we carry within ourselves the perfections, of which its beauty, magnificence, order, benevolent adaptations, and boundless purposes, are the results and manifestations [of God]. God unfolds himself in his works to a kindred mind."
As a young man, Channing was Parker's hero and provided him with much inspiration. Looking at texts like Channing's "Likeness to God" and Parker's "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity" one cannot help but notice similarities between them. That said, Channing and Parker had their differences. Channing acted as a sort of senior statesman for the religious liberals of his day. Parker was a powerful prophet whose anti-slavery views made him pariah among his fellow Unitarians. Channing was reluctant to call for the abolition of slavery until late in his career.
Parker, however, never would have taken the stands he did had it not been for the liberals of Channing's generation. Channing's generation's belief in the perfectibility of humans was in part what led Parker and his cohorts to attack slavery. If Parker was to approach God's likeness how could he not speak out against the evil of his times?
We are united with our 19th century ancestors not only by our feelings about human nature but by our understanding that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. In his essay "Self-Reliance" the Unitarian minister and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson admonished: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world." By this Emerson means that it is our own experience of truth that is ultimately important. Each of us has had our own experiences and each of our experiences helps us to understand what is true.
My own truth has been tempered by a healthy dose of mysticism, a feeling that we can all connect to the infinite that surrounds us. This belief stems from early experiences like the one in Oregon where I felt a deep connection to everyone and everything around me.
The wonderful thing about Unitarian Universalism is that I can hold this belief, some of you can disagree with me and we can all be right. We are able to do so because we understand that our religious truths stem from our experiences. We have all had different experiences, which means we have all come to different religious truths. The absolute undergirding all of our experiences may be the same but our ways of understanding what is true will be different.
Covenants are a belief in at least the neutrality of human nature and a recognition that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. Taken together these three things form the core of Unitarian Universalism. Combined they form us into covenantal religious communities dedicated to truth, love and freedom. This is the core of our theological vision, our sense of absolute religion.
Having described our theological vision, we should turn our attention to the culture of liberal religion. We Unitarian Universalists are not of the sort to separate ourselves from the world. We have chosen to live in it. We are shaped by, and to a limited extent, shape the culture around us. Parker believed that culture should be the most transient part of religion. While the essence of our religion remains the same, culture should change with the times.
We can look at the culture of liberal religion on local or global levels. From a global perspective Unitarianism, Universalism and Unitarian Universalism are culturally rich. We can find our co-religionists in the Kashi hills of India, in Transylvania, the United States and the Philippines.
On the other hand, if we only look locally, if we examine the culture of our religion in the United States over the last four hundred years it appears culturally poor. David Bumbaugh touches on this in his sermon "Beyond the Seven Principles: The Core of Our Faith:"
"[I]f we ask, "Who is served by Unitarian Universalism" we come at the core of our faith from a very different angle. The answer to that question, whether we like it or not, is that historically Unitarian Universalism has served the emergent middle-class, (dare I say, mostly the Euro-American emergent middle class). This is not a fact we find ourselves able to embrace comfortably."
I am afraid that, in general, Bumbaugh's observation is correct. There are, of course, exceptions, and much of the best of Unitarian Universalism can be found within them. However, it is painfully true that in aggregate our congregations have primarily served the professional and business classes. In general, our communities are made up of teachers, public servants, college professors, mid-level business executives and others of similar educational background. Most of us are neither the people who own the means of production nor those who those who labor in the mills.
Unitarian Universalists are not only a middle-class people. Many of us are also deeply counter-cultural. We have come to Unitarian Universalism because we have rejected the dominant modes of religious thinking in our society. In earlier days we would have been called heretics. Often our understanding of religious truth calls upon us to question the actions of our government, the values of our materialist culture and why people in our world are not afforded to most basic of human rights. When we ask these questions, I believe the permanent in liberal religion, the part of our faith that calls us to extend ourselves beyond our comfortable shells, in peeking through.
Nonetheless, as a religious movement, we need to ask ourselves if the class composition of our congregations is part of the transient or the permanent of liberal religion. When our communities lack the full spectrum of human diversity we are all missing something. We learn by struggling to build community with those who are different from us. If we restrict ourselves to only a thin band of the world's peoples, then our community is the poorer for it.
The Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed reminds us, "The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all."
To fully unveil those bonds we need to widen our communities. This is not easy work as it requires us to carefully examine the cultural assumptions we make within our congregations. Often I have heard Unitarian Universalists say that our faith is best fitted for people with a certain level of education or background. If culture is part of the transient in liberal religion this need not be the case.
When we remember that culture is transient, we remember, again in the words of Morrison-Reed, that "alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done." This act of remembrance is part of the permanence of liberal religion. This act of remembrance is what makes our communities worthwhile. It is what happens when we truly unite in a covenantal community to pursue truth, love and freedom. That it may be so.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Aug 27, 2014
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 23, 2007
My message this morning is that it is possible to build a better world, a world decidedly more fair than the one we live in today. In such a world no one will go without food, without shelter, without education and each community will be able to decide how to best meet its own needs. This may sound like a utopian dream but today we have the technology to make such a dream a reality. I know that such a world is possible because I have seen the seeds of it amid the indigenous communities of Chiapas and among the communities I am a part of in the United States.
Our reading this morning comes from Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos, the primary spokesperson of the Zapatista National Army of Liberation. Marcos speaks of building such a world. He writes: "In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live...This world was not a dream from the past, it was not something that came to us from our ancestors. It came from ahead, from the next step we were going to take."
The Zapatista National Army of Liberation, usually just know as the Zapatistas or the EZLN, their initials in Spanish, are the armed part of a broader social movement for indigenous rights and autonomy. Located in Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico, the Zapatistas have openly struggled for indigenous rights, autonomy and the possibility of a better world for the last thirteen years. Despite their name, the Zapatistas are primarily a non-violent movement. They have only taken up arms once and that was in January of 1994. Since then, despite being frequently attacked by paramilitaries and harassed by the Mexican military, federal and state police, they have not fired a shot.
The Zapatistas took up arms on January first of 1994 against the Mexican government for two reasons. The first was that January first was the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement, commonly known as NAFTA, took effect. The Zapatistas viewed NAFTA as a virtually death sentence for their rural communities. NAFTA included provisions in it that essentially outlawed the collective ownership of land, a practice of the indigenous of Mexico since before the arrival of the Spaniards. Without the collective ownership of land the Zapatistas feared that much of indigenous campesino culture would disappear.
The Zapatistas also objected to NAFTA because it placed small Mexican farmers in direct competition with the large agricultural combines of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and the other states that make up the corn belt. Corn is the base of the Mexican diet and the Zapatistas were afraid that the small farmers from their communities would simply be unable to compete with the cheap corn from the United States that would flood the Mexican market in the wake of NAFTA.
The second reason why the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 was that at time Mexico had been governed by one party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, for sixty five years. For all intents and purposes Mexico was not a democratic country, it was a one party dictatorship, and the PRI did not practice democracy internally. Every six years presidential elections were held. The PRI always won them and the outgoing President always nominated his successor.
Rural Mexico is, in general, an impoverished place, more than half of rural Mexicans live in poverty, that is they live on less than two dollars a day, and the indigenous communities of Chiapas were among the poorest of the poor. In some parts of the state the poverty rate exceeds eighty percent. For the Zapatistas NAFTA was the final straw. They felt it was better to die on their feet than to starve to death silently in their communities.
The Zapatista uprising lasted a scant twelve days. They were able to seize control of about one third of the state of Chiapas but by January 12th the Mexican military was poised to go into the jungle and massacre the indigenous communities that supported the Zapatistas. At that point Mexican civil society, that is to say people like you and me, staged massive protests throughout Mexico demanding that the government and the Zapatistas solve their conflict peacefully. In the face of this the Mexican military was forced to back down. That left the Zapatistas in control of a small swatch of liberated territory, an area of which they have set up about implementing their vision of a better world.
I began working in Chiapas in the summer of 2000 when I took at two week trip there with the organization Schools for Chiapas to help build a school in one of the Zapatista autonomous communities. While in Chiapas I met my friend Roxanne Ukahri Rivas and in the fall of 2001 we started an organization originally called the Chiapas Peace House Project. Now called CASA or Colectivos de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Acción, an acronym that roughly translates to collectives for solidarity and action, the Peace House was started to provide a physical space for people sympathetic to the Zapatistas to come, reflect and work with either indigenous communities or the social movements and non-governmental organizations that supported them. In the six years since we started CASA we have opened two centers, one in Chiapas and another in Oaxaca, and have hosted more than seventy long-term volunteers. Our volunteers have worked on everything from training indigenous campesinos to be human rights observers to mural painting and collective gardening projects.
In the eight summers since I started working in Chiapas I have had the privilege to watch the Zapatista movement's vision for a new society unfold. My first trip to Chiapas was at the end of what I affectionately call "the bad old days." 2000 was the last year that the PRI were in power. Since the cease-fire in 1994 the Mexican government has been conducting a low-intensity war against the Zapatista communities. Another way to describe low-intensity warfare is to call it civilian targeted warfare. In this counter-insurgency model the government gives arms and immunity to paramilitaries who attack indigenous communities. At the same time military and police units encircle the communities under threat. This allows the government to claim that it is not involved in the conflict, that the conflict is between different social organizations, while at the same time slowly starving the Zapatista communities of the resources that they need to thrive.
Prior to the ouster of the PRI, part of the Mexican government's strategy was to harass, detain and deport internationals who came to Chiapas to either act as human rights observers or to offer the Zapatistas aid. I call that period the bad old days because back then if you wanted to visit the Zapatista communities you had to engage in complicated cloak and dagger operations, dodge military road blocks and generally operate under cover. If you did not it was possible that you would find yourself on a plane headed back to your home country with an order never to return to Mexico.
Today the situation in Chiapas remains largely the same. There is one important difference. The Mexican government has stopped harassing solidarity activists and human rights workers. Government officials came to the conclusion that the conflict in Chiapas and the Zapatista movement received a lot less attention if they simply ignored the presence of internationals. After the election of Vicente Fox in 2000 the deportations of internationals ceased. For us then the bad old days are those before Fox's party, the National Action Party or PAN, took power. The Mexican government now tries to claim that really there is no conflict in Chiapas. But for the people of Chiapas the situation was not changed much. In fact it has probably gotten worse. The number of documented human rights abuses in Mexico have increased since the PAN took power.
When I went to Chiapas in 2000 I visited two Zapatista communities. The first was Oventik. An hour outside of the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Oventik is probably the most visited of the Zapatista communities. Back in 2000 it often served as a launching point for other journeys into Zapatista territory. We spent two days there speaking with Zapatistas from the community and waiting to travel to the community of Francisco Gomez.
The journey from Oventik to Francisco Gomez took eight hours. We left in the middle of the night and traveled under tarps in the back of cattle trucks. It was one of the more intense experiences of my life. We had to try and circumvent at least three military roadblocks to get to Francisco Gomez. We were stopped at the last roadblock outside of Francisco Gomez. My heart sank and I know that most of the other people I was with were worried as well. We were pretty certain that we going to get deported or, at the very least, turned back. Instead the soldiers let us through.
Years later, talking with a Mexican friend, I found out why. Apparently she and the driver had told the soldiers that they were polleros, which is a Spanish slang word for human traffickers, and that we were undocumented migrants. Given that at least half of our delegation were white gringos like myself I have no idea why the soldiers believed my friend. Regardless, we were allowed to continue our journey.
In 2000 Francisco Gomez was a tiny little community. It had a population of maybe two hundred. The only way to get to the community was via a rough dirt road that bisected the hamlet. Like Oventik, Francisco Gomez is also an important Zapatista center. Both are what are now called Carcoles, which means shell in Spanish. Carcoles act as regional seats for the Zapatista autonomous government. Each Carcole coordinates the activities of approximately two hundred communities. Today most Carcoles have their own clinics, schools, meeting centers, cooperative stores and administrative offices. When I visited Francisco Gomez in 2000 the community was just in the process of building its school. We were there, in fact, to help them build that school. We brought with us a willing volunteer force and, more importantly, enough money to buy all of the concrete that was needed.
We spent two weeks in Francisco Gomez working along side and learning about the Zapatistas. We had a chance to watch them make decisions collectively. In their communities a general assembly of, depending on the community, all men or men and women is the policy setting agent. The general assembly elects leaders to enact the policies while the general assembly decides them. These leaders can be recalled if they overstep their authority, are unpaid, and usually only serve for a very limited term.
When I was in Francisco Gomez it seemed that the Zapatista experiment in autonomy was just starting. The communities still had much to do if they were to reach their stated goal of creating a different sort of society. Their infrastructure was still fairly rudimentary. A lot has changed in the following eight years.
This summer I had the opportunity to take my family to Chiapas with me. We went to Chiapas for two reasons. The first was that the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee had contracted with me and CASA to run a human rights delegation for them. The second was that I wanted Sara and Emma to have a chance to learn about the Zapatista movement first hand.
We arrived about a week and a half before the start of the delegation to attend the Second Encounter of Zapatista Peoples with the Peoples of the World. About three thousand people from across Mexico and from around the world attended this meeting. The Zapatistas sometimes refer to their big meetings as intergalacticos because they hold that people will attend from as far away as outside the solar system. This summer's intergalatico lasted ten days and consisted primarily of speeches by representatives of Zapatista communities and other progressive, usually rural, communities from around the world followed by a question and answer session. There were also ample opportunities for both formal and informal networking. It was an exercise in listening, achance to hear the voices of others from all across the globe. The Zapatistas want a world in which there is room for all cultures and peoples of the world. Their events usually attempt to bring somewhat disparate groups together to make common cause.
This year's intergalatico was a opportunity for the Zapatistas to highlight the accomplishments of their movement over the last thirteen years. Discussions were held on such topics as the Zapatista government, education, health care, economic and justice systems. Representatives from some Zapatista communities also spoke about women's rights and women's struggles in the indigenous communities and the relationship between Zapatista communities and international solidarity activists.
During the ten days of the intergalatico the Zapatistas held meetings at the Caracoles of Oventik, Morelia and La Realidad--there are five Caracoles in total. La Realidad is in the heart of Zapatista territory and while all of the Carcoles are supposedly equal, La Realidad is clearly more equal than the others. It is larger and is the place where much of the Zapatista military leadership spends its time.
Sara, Emma, Asa and I arrived in Chiapas in time to participate in the second half of the Intergalatico. That meant that we missed the meetings in Oventik and travelled instead directly to Morelia. It was a three-hour trip in the back of old VW micro buses and pick-ups. When we were in pick-up trucks Sara and the kids got to ride in the cabin.
Travelling with a family was a very different experience for me. While there was far less of a chance of deportation than there was eight years ago, it was still challenging. Sara and I had to make certain that the kids had their needs taken care of at all times and I choose to do things differently than I would have had I been by myself. We brought a tent and went to bed early rather than staying up late to take part in the festivities--the Zapatistas love a good party and their events always feature a lot of dancing, art and, usually, a basketball tournament. I was unable to participate as much in the meetings as I had in the past.
On the other hand, bringing my family allowed for interactions on a different level than I had experienced in the past. Asa took on an almost celebrity status. He was probably the only white baby that a lot of the Zapatistas had ever seen. They were fascinated by him. Women lined up to hold him and Sara and I got to speak with them about their parenting practices. Babies, it seems, transcend all cultures.
The biggest challenge about traveling with my family was simply the travel itself. The trip from Morelia to La Realidad was not an easy one. We went as part of a caravan of intergalatico attendees. There were twenty one trucks in our caravan and each truck carried between twenty five and thirty people. For the most part the trucks were cattle trucks and most of us had to travel in the truck bed. Sara, Emma and Asa were given a seat in the cabin but there was not space for me.
The trip took fifteen hours, nineteen if you count the four hours we spent waiting in the sun for the caravan to get organized. The last eight hours of our journey were along windy dirt mountain roads long after the sun had set.
While it was a hard journey it was not all bad. We made friends with our fellow travelers and I got to learn a bunch of radical songs from across Latin America. I traded civil rights and labor movement songs for poetry and music from Mexican and Spanish social movements.
When we got to La Realidad we had the chance to learn more about the Zapatista autonomous communities. Of particular interest were the discourses on women's rights and the Zapatista justice system. The Zapatistas have always had a good line on women's rights. Unfortunately, it has often seemed like there was dissidence between their word and their actions. Prior to this trip I have rarely seen women in leadership positions within the communities. I believe this has been largely because of the traditional roles of women in indigenous communities.
This dynamic seems to have shifted. At the intergalatico women acted as spokespeople for their communities and were visibly part of the highest levels of the Zapatista government. It was a powerful change to witness.
The discourse on the justice system was also interesting because the communities had tried to really implement a form restorative justice. One story I heard about the justice system in La Realidad is about Coyote, a human trafficker who people from Latin America pay to help them sneak into the United States. It seems that people from La Realidad caught him in their territory. When they caught him he had a large number of migrants locked in the back of semi. He was smuggling them North so they could cross into the United States. When the Zapatistas caught them they been had been without food or water for some time. The Zapatistas gave the migrants a good talking to, fed them, and told them that it would be better if they went back to their own communities than if they tried to come to the United States. Many people die in the journey North and once they get to the United States there is no guarantee that they will find themselves in a good situation. The Zapatistas made Coyote refund the migrants their money, levied him an additional fine and sentenced him to a couple of years of community service. I am told he considered himself lucky that he was caught by the Zapatistas and not the Mexican government.
Now I realize that I am speaking very highly of the Zapatistas. It is true that I have a lot of respect for them and believe that the autonomous communities offer an important lesson to how the world might be different. I have learned through working with them that it is possible to build a different world. To have hope for a better world in this day is a powerful thing to have.
However, I do not mean to come off totally uncritical of the Zapatistas. Their role among the social movements in Chiapas and Mexico is complicated. In the last thirteen years they have both worked with and alienated many organizations I am sympathetic to and people that I am friends with. Their communities are far from perfect and they have the same human flaws as all of us. In some communities they have a long way to go before their discourse on women's rights matches their practice. Nonetheless, their experience suggests that we can build a better, fairer world.
Sara, Emma, Asa and I returned to our new home in Cleveland Heights about two weeks before I started my ministry with you. Since then I have been trying to think about how my experiences in Chiapas apply to my work with you here. There are a couple of things that seem clear.
The most important is simply that the Zapatista dream of a better world can be a powerful inspiration. It is possible to catch glimpses of this dream now and again. The essence of Zapatismo is collective work, the practice that people work together to accomplish what they could not as individuals. I saw members from this congregation engaging in this type of mutual aid yesterday when many of you gathered to help an older member of the community scrape and paint his garage and tidy his yard so he could try to sell his home.
The second is that there are some interesting parallels between Chiapas and North Eastern Ohio. Both areas are suffering heavily due to shifts in the economy. Rural Chiapas is in crisis to due to the changes in trade that NAFTA has brought. Likewise, Northeastern Ohio is in the midst of deindustrialization as manufacturing jobs leave the area as a result of changes in technology and the availability of cheaper labor elsewhere. As a result, both areas are experiencing significant out migration as it becomes more and more difficult for some people to support themselves. Sometimes when I am out walking the dog or biking around town, I will see three or four homes for a sale on a single block. And just as Chiapas is one of the poorest parts of Mexico, Cleveland is one of the poorest areas in the United States.
Now I am not suggesting that we organize a revolution. However, I do think that the key to transforming our community is organizing and seeking new solutions to old problems. If we can find our own dreams of what is ahead perhaps together we can, one step at time, stretch to reach them. Our dreams might teach us how our society can be different and how we can build a more peaceable world, one in which there is room for many others.
May it be so. Amen and Blessed Be.
Aug 26, 2014
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 16, 2007
And so we find ourselves at the beginning of things. This month marks the start of our ministry together. This is my first sermon as your settled minister. Together we have begun a new era in the life of this congregation.
The problem with beginnings is that it is often difficult to discern exactly when things start. In any relationship there is a lot that happens beforehand to make the actual relationship even a possibility. I arrive here after having gone through an extensive search process. I talked with and pre-candidated with many different congregations before deciding that this congregation was the best fit for me. Your search committee interviewed many different ministers before deciding that I was the best fit for this congregation. Before we got to our decision points, or even began our searches, there was a lot of discernment that took place. Based on my skills, my values, the needs of my family and my hopes for the future I had to figure out what type of congregation I wanted to serve. You had to do likewise as you prepared to look for your new minister.
I think a statement from my brother, Jorin, sums up all of this quite nicely: “There’s a lot of stuff that happened before I was born.” Whenever we start, whenever we are born or embark onto a new adventure, we are coming into the middle of things. What happened before we begin shapes who we are and what we understand is possible. The past can limit us or it can help us to understand that there are boundless possibilities before us. But the past itself is problematic. Ask two participants at the same event and they are bound to give two slightly different histories.
I picked our readings today from first two chapters of the book of Genesis because I believe that taken together they demonstrate the problems with beginnings. If you read the book of Genesis you will notice that it actually contains two different creation stories. In the first story, found in the first chapter, God creates humankind, man and woman, together. He does this after he has created the stars, the earth, the sea, the animals, the plants and pretty much everything that exists.
In the second story, found in the second chapter, the Lord God creates man first and then woman from the body of man. Woman is only created after man has already named all of the plants and animals. In this version of creation man, and not the animals and plants, is what comes first. Woman comes last.
There has been a lot of speculation as to why there are two separate stories of creation in the book of Genesis. The story of creation is not the only instance where the Bible contains two versions of the same story. Over the years Biblical scholars have evolved what is called the documentary hypothesis to explain why these duplications exist. This theory holds that the first five books of the Bible, usually called the Torah or the Pentateuch, were not written by one person or even one community. Instead, they believe that the Torah came together over many hundreds of years and that it had four primary sources. These sources, each representing a different community among the ancient Israelites, can be identified by the language they use and how they understand the divine, the priesthood and the Law.
Scholars of the documentary hypothesis argue that the reason why the book of Genesis has two different creation stories is because it is the amalgamation of at least two different texts. One is called the Elohim because of how it refers to the divine. In this version the divine is called, in English, God. The other version is called the Jahwist because it refers to the divine as the Lord God. The Elohim source is commonly attributed to a community in the Kingdom of Israel while the Jahwist source is usually believed to have originated in the Kingdom of Judah. The two sources offer different histories about the people of Israel and in some cases contradict each other. Whichever individual or group edited the version of the Torah that we have today could not, for whatever reason, decide which of their stories were correct or more important and as result there are many instances where we have the same story told from two different perspectives. At this late date in history it is impossible to know which one is closer to the oral tradition from which the Bible originated, or even if such a concept makes any sense when trying to interpret the Bible.
I think that this illustrates a simple truth about history. There are always multiple interpretations of the same event. Each community, and each person, will understand what happened in the past a little differently.
The other thing that the book of Genesis can teach us is that beginnings are never truly clear. The first sentence of Genesis reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth...” The problem here is that it does not say where God comes from, why God decided to create the earth or what the pre-history of the world was. Even in this story of the creation there’s a missing story of the beginnings of the beginnings.
Again scholars have tried to figure out what is going on. Some have speculated that the Bible actually contains hints of the pre-history of the world within the text. Based on what is offered in those hints, some scholars believe it is actually possible to create a rough narrative of what happened before the book of Genesis. I had a professor in graduate school who thought that various Sumerian and Babylonian sources, when compared with the Biblical texts, could be used to help fill in the missing gaps. Whether this is actually true, or whether it is a flight of scholarly fancy, I do not feel qualified to say.
Today, in our own beginning, we find that we are not really at the beginning. There is a lot of pre-history that proceeds the start of our ministry together. In fact, for some of you our beginning is not a beginning at all but a continuation of the ongoing story of this congregation. For you I am a character introduced somewhere in the middle of the story. I come in neither at the beginning nor, I hope, at the end. The congregation will continue after I move on, an event that I hope will not occur for many years, and at some point my time with you will simply be referred to as the years during which Colin Bossen was your minister, just as you talk about the Farley Wheelwright, Jesse Cavileer, Chris Bailey or Peggy Clason years.
Since I am coming into your story in the middle things I have spent a little while trying to understand what happened before I arrived. Unitarian Universalism and this congregation have a long, interesting and complicated history in the Cleveland area. There is a lot to try and understand. As far as I can figure there have been Universalists in the Cleveland area since at least the 1830s. Our oldest congregation in the area, the North Olmsted Unitarian Universalist Church, dates from this era.
The first Unitarians arrived to Cleveland around the same time as Universalists. It was not until 1867 when the Unitarians were organized enough to form the First Unitarian Society of Cleveland. That congregation is one of the two ancestor congregations of our community. Our other ancestral congregation is All Souls Universalist Church. That congregation merged with First Unitarian in 1932.
The real story of this congregation seems to begin in 1951 when the majority of the members of First Unitarian decided to relocate the congregation to Shaker Heights. At the time the congregation was located at 82nd and Euclid. The neighborhood that the grand old Gothic church was in was changing. Cleveland was experiencing its first major round of white flight and middle class whites were leaving the city for the suburbs. The people who founded the Society were those who decided that they wanted to stay in the city.
About twenty years later came another defining moment in the history of the congregation. I have heard some people refer to it as “the time we gave the church away.” Earlier this year your interim minister, Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, preached an excellent sermon called “The Legacy of Empowerment” on this time in our congregation’s history. In that sermon she argued that this period of time has left a long standing imprint on the congregation. What happened between 1969 and 1971 determined the shape of the congregation for years to come.
I do not pretend to understand everything about that period in the congregation’s history. What I do know is this, the late sixties and early seventies were a very tumultuous time in our country, in our religious association and in our city. The years between 1967 and 1971 saw what has been commonly called the black empowerment controversy in the Unitarian Universalist Association. During this time Unitarian Universalists struggled with racial issues in a way that we had not done before and have not done since. At the heart of the crisis was the question of whether or not the UUA would give $1,000,000 to the Black Affairs Council, or BAC, to spend as they saw fit.
At the 1968 General Assembly, held here in Cleveland, the member congregations of the UUA voted to give BAC $1,000,000. Not long after, citing a looming financial crisis, the UUA Board of Trustees overturned the decision. Up until that point the General Assembly, to which each congregation sends delegates to represent its interests, was the body that set the budget of the UUA. The decision to overturn the financial commitments that the General Assembly had made was unprecedented and at the following year’s meeting, held in Boston, total chaos broke loose.
An attempt was made to reverse the Board’s decision and when it failed, our religious association almost split in two. Many African American members of BAC left our movement. First they left the meeting in disgust, and then they left our religious association. At the same time, Jack Mendelssohn led a walkout of the white delegates sympathetic to BAC. Almost half of the Unitarian Universalists present at the meeting followed him. It has taken more than a generation to begin to heal the self-inflicted wounds of that day.
In 1969, our congregation experienced its own version of the black empowerment controversy. As the neighborhood around 82nd and Euclid continued to change and the toll on the congregation began to show, it became necessary to hire a police guard during church functions, the administrative offices were broken into so frequently that it was no longer safe to keep stamps there overnight and two women were mugged on the church’s property. In the face of these circumstances the congregational leadership decided that something had to be done.
Under the leadership of then minister Farley Wheelwright, it was decided to consider giving the building and half of the endowment to the Cleveland Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) so that they could start an African American Unitarian Universalist congregation. After a very controversial vote that is exactly what happened. The Cleveland BUUC organized the Black Humanist Fellowship of Liberation and called John Fraizer to be their minister. For reasons that I do not know, that congregation collapsed within only a few years.
It became clear to the members of the Unitarian Society that they needed to find another place to worship. In 1971 the Society purchased this building. The congregation that came here was dramatically different from the congregation that had been at 82nd and Euclid just a few years earlier. To be blunt, it was much whiter and much smaller. In the course of a few years the membership of the Society shrank from slightly over three hundred to under one hundred. Over the next thirty five years the congregation’s membership gradually shrank to around sixty members.
Through it all this congregation has remained here and struggled onward. No doubt at times some of you have been like the young frog in the story from earlier today. You have been ready to despair, drown in the cream and let the congregation fold. Others have probably played the role of the older frog and kept on croaking “Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!”
This congregation has seen remarkable growth in the last few years and it seems likely that those of you who kept crying “Keep hope alive!” were onto something. The congregation may be at another turning point. It might be poised to shift from a small congregation to a larger one.
Some of you may be hearing this history for the first time. Many of you probably remember part of it from Rev. Rolenz’s sermon. Still others of you may have lived it. The history of our congregation is undoubtedly like the creation myth at the start of the book of Genesis. There is more than one version. But however we remember it or understand it is important.
One of our challenges together will be to honor our past without letting it hold us hostage. Today is a different day than 1969. Our congregation today is very different from the congregation that existed then. We should look to our past as a guide, but we should only hold it as one guide of many. The transcendentalist Samuel Longfellow used to say that revelation is not sealed. Alongside our history we will find many other sources of inspiration as we labor together.
However you understand our history, whether this is your first time here or your thousandth, the truth is that today we find ourselves at a beginning. We are in the middle of the congregation’s history but we are at the start of a new ministry together. We can see the road behind us but the path ahead is murky. What will we decide about our future? What will we choose? Which road will we take?
Here we are at the beginning of things, in the middle of things, with part of our story told and part of it yet to unfold.
Amen and Blessed Be.