as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, November 5, 2023
“The new Principles and Purposes should guide us in the transformation of ourselves, our communities, and our faith… They should ask us to choose Love in Action as the path forward,” words from the Charge to the (Article II Study) Commission.
“The purpose of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to actively engage its members in the transformation of the world through liberating Love,” a statement from the proposed Article II Purposes and Covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Association: Bylaws and Rules.
The subject of this morning’s sermon is a proposed revision to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s bylaws. I suppose that is how you know you have wandered into the correct congregation this morning. We are not talking about Jesus. We are not discussing the weekly Torah portion. This is not a Dharma talk or a Hindu sermon. It is a discourse about that most Unitarian Universalist of sacred texts, bylaws.
Bylaws, the Unitarian Universalist Association is unique amongst the world’s major religious institutions in a peculiar way. We North American Unitarian Universalists place our primary statement of values in our bylaws. No other tradition does this. Scripture, yes; an ancient creed, yes; foundational mythology, yes; millennia old oral tradition, yes; but bylaws, not so much!
Bylaws are an unabashedly human creation. There is no pretense within them that our theology is anything more than the product of earthly bodies. Moses did not come down from the mountain with two tablets of bylaws. The angel Gabriel did not reveal to the prophet of Islam a set of bylaws. But we Unitarian Universalists place our statement of our shared principles within our bylaws. We do this we because understand theology to be a human creation. It is something we craft from our encounters with that which is greater than each and yet resides within all. We then attempt to express something about that, in our insufficient language, in human words.
Theology as a human creation, words, language, the insufficiency of any mortal effort, we Unitarian Universalists have attempted to distill the rich disagreements amongst us–sitting out in the pews or watching online there are humanists and theists, neo-pagans, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians, practitioners of Ifa and I know not what else–into a set of common principles.
Our most recent effort to do so, as a religious movement, came from the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. In 1961, they came together to form a new religious association. When they did, they articulated six “principles of a free faith.”
The delegates at the founding General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association were wise enough to recognize that these six principles were not meant to stand for all time. They understood them to be but the latest in an effort to articulate “the things most commonly believed … among us” that stretched back centuries. So, when they crafted the six “principles of a free faith” they mandated that Article II of the bylaws–the place in the corporate text where the principles were placed–be reviewed every fifteen years.
In 1984, this resulted in a comprehensive revision that brought us the current seven principles and six sources. I anticipate that most of you are familiar with them. If you are a visitor, you might know that they pop up near the top of almost any internet search you do for information on Unitarian Universalism. If you are a longtime member, you have probably heard past sermons about them and encountered them when you have been paging through the grey hymnal because the sermon was not that great.
In 2018, the association’s General Assembly began the process of again reviewing the principles and sources. As a result of this review, in 2020, the General Assembly decided that it was time to consider a comprehensive revision. So, the Article II Study Commission was launched and, after a process which gathered feedback from almost 11,000 Unitarian Universalists, the commission proposed new language for the bylaws. It includes: the substitution of “values” for “principles;” the summarization of each of these values into a single word–love, justice, interdependence, equity, transformation, pluralism, and generosity; the removal of specific sources for that which “grounds us and sustains us in ordinary, difficult, and joyous times;” and the assertion of the centrality of love within our tradition.
“Love is the power that holds us together and is at the center of our shared values. We are accountable to one another for doing the work of living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of Love,” reads one section.
“The purpose of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to actively engage its members in the transformation of the world through liberating Love,” to reiterate another.
“Congregational freedom and the individual’s right of conscience are central to our Unitarian Universalist heritage. Congregations may establish statements of purpose, covenants, and bonds of union so long as they do not require that members adhere to a particular creed,” is how association’s famous liberty clause is being rephrased.
No particular creed, liberating love, this habit of ours in which we democratically decide upon how to state our highest values and aspirations is one of the central practices of Unitarian Universalism. This year we are living into it by, as a religious association, devoting a year of study to the proposed new text of Article II. In our congregation this means that today and next Sunday after the second service we will be hosting forums to discuss the revised text.
Are there things about about the new text that you think we can improve? We still have the opportunity to amend it. If, by February 1st, fifteen congregations agree upon a proposed amendment then the General Assembly will consider incorporating revisions into the new text of Article II this June when it meets online. On November 15th, our Board will consider endorsing amendments from any member of the congregation who wishes to present one. If you have ideas for changes you need to send them to Board President Ron Cookston no later than November 13th so that they can be placed on the Board agenda. Our Board intends to share any changes that it endorses with other member congregations of the association in the hopes that we can fourteen others to agree with us and place them on the General Assembly’s agenda.
The assembly will vote whether or not to change the language of Article II after considering any amendments that meet the fifteen congregation threshold. Two thirds of the delegates participating will need to vote to approve the changes in order for them to pass. Delegates are apportioned by congregational size. We will get six or seven of them. If you want to serve as one please let the Board know sometime between now and April when the Board decides who will represent First Unitarian Universalist for this year’s assembly.
Liberating love, this habit of ours in which we democratically decide upon how to state our highest values and aspirations is one of the central Unitarian Universalist practices. I think it is a wonderful opportunity to wrestle with how we each articulate what is most meaningful about our life together. Over the years, it has also made Unitarian Universalism the butt of a number of jokes, some we tell each other and some that people tell about us.
You might have heard the one, for instance, about the Unitarian Universalist congregation that always stopped singing their hymns midway through. They had to hold a vote on whether or not people agreed with the words before proceeding.
Maybe not so funny, so let us try this one. A Unitarian Universalist tries to explain the tradition to a new friend. The friend asks, “What do you mean, Unitarian Universalism is a creedless religion? That means you do not believe anything, right?”
“No, no, that is not what it means,” the Unitarian Universalist protests.
“So, what do you believe then?,” the friend queries.
“Well, for one thing, we believe in creedless religion,” the Unitarian Universalist responds.
Here is another, what is the greatest sin in a Unitarian Universalist congregation? A discussion group where everyone agrees?
Or what about this one, how many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a lightbulb? At least three, there have to be enough to ensure that there is a majority vote.
My favorite might be, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for “evil” and “good” are merely human constructs.
Evil and good are merely human constructs, I have mixed feelings about the proposed changes to Article II. The values are wordier than the principles. I dislike the substitution of the six sources with a more general claim that “the religious ancestries we inherit and the diversity which enriches our faith” calls us “to ever deepen and expand our wisdom.”
But “Love in Action” and “Liberating Love,” these things have some theological depth to them. Evil and good might be human constructs but love is not. If you are some variety of a theist you likely believe “God is love” and that “love your fellow as yourself” is the primary religious injunction. But we need not look to divine reality to assert that love extends beyond human construction. In the last decades numerous varieties of biological science have found a physiological basis for love within the human brain.
“Love beyond belief,” contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has done extensive work on how the biological reality of love provides the “real ground of … moral values and religious belief.” She has argued that it provides a universal foundation for religion that different traditions name in their own way. “For Buddhists, … [it] might be Sunyata; for Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe,” she claims.
Love in action, Liberating Love, love beyond belief, in the last weeks as I have been considering the proposed revisions to Article II, I have found myself focusing on what sort of theological resources these statements might provide. My reflections I have drawn me to three things in particular: a line from my favorite novel by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky; a family story; and a verse from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
First, Dostoevsky’s line: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Love in action is a hard and dreadful thing, second the family story. It involves my grandfather Morrie, my great aunt Claire, my great grandfather Nathan, and my great grandmother Frances. My great aunt Claire is the only one of the four who I knew well, and the story comes from my father, who I am sure will correct me after the service if I get any of the details wrong.
Claire, Morrie, Frances, and Nathan, they were Ukrainian Jews. For many generations their family had lived in a community near Bila Tserkva–a city in Ukraine that was to be the site of one of worst massacres during the Holocaust. They left the Bila Tserkva region well before then. When the Tsarist government fell, Ukraine was plunged into a civil war. With it came a new round of pogroms, organized massacres aimed at killing Jews. These were so fierce and so frequent that one rabbi described the experience as always knowing “death awaits us … horrible death by sword and fire.”
My ancestors, my ancestors, they decided to flee and make the long trek from Bila Tserkva to Marseille where they could board a ship to the United States. The distance is over 1,600 miles. They walked most of the way. My grandfather was maybe two or three at the time. His sister was about three years older.
Imagine that, traveling 1,600 miles, primarily on foot, with two preschool aged children. But that is not the story. The story is that they almost did not make it. Someplace outside of Bila Tserkva, they got cornered by a group of Cossacks. Some writer, I think it was the Ukrainian Jew Isaac Babel, once described “the Cossacks as the traditional enemies of the Jews.” Historically, they were a semi-nomadic community, primarily Christian, that moved through Ukraine and parts of Russia on horseback. The Tsar used them cavalry and they had variety special privileges under Tsarist regimes. One of these, apparently, was the ability to conduct pogroms in the name of collecting tribute with relative impunity.
So, a group of Cossacks surrounded my ancestors. They forced my great grandfather Nathan on to the back of cart. They were about to take him off to kill him. My grandfather Morrie started to scream. He was only two or three years old. I am not sure that he fully knew what was going on. But he knew it was bad. And he did not want to be separated from his father.
His cries moved the leader of the Cossacks. He took my great grandfather off the cart. And he sent my ancestors along their way. Eventually, they made it to Marseille and from there to Chicago.
Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, that familial origin story can be read through the power of liberating love. The love my grandfather had for my great grandfather moved him to terror at the prospect of losing him. The power of this love stirred something like empathy or compassion within the leader of the Cossacks. We will never know why he spared my ancestors. Perhaps he had children of his own and saw, within the tears of my grandfather, the tears of his own children. I do not know. But what I do know is this, whatever happened in that moment, in that interaction, it was rooted in the liberating power of love.
When we speak of liberating love we are not talking about some easy trope or casual nicety. We are uplifting something that, through its ability to unleash compassion, has great power to save human lives.
Article II does not tell us how we are to transform the world through liberating love. It just enjoins that such work is the work of our faith.
Tears, compassion, liberating love, there are theologians who might point us towards how we can unleash love as a force liberation. The martyred Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero was one. He said, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Unitarian Universalist theologians Forrest Church and Rebecca Parker are others. They offer us similar advice. Church claimed that the core of our universalist theology was “to love your enemy as yourself; to see your tears in another’s eyes; to respect and even embrace otherness, rather than merely to tolerate … it.” Parker, meanwhile, writes, “There is no holiness to be ascertained apart from the holiness that can be glimpsed in one another’s eyes.”
Another’s eyes, the liberating power of love is found when the power of empathy–the ability to imagine yourself in another’s shoes–is unbound. And it is here, with the horrors of the present hour, that I recall a stanza from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. He was for many years regarded as Palestine’s national poet, though he died here in Houston. An opponent of Hamas, a believer in reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, who once described Hebrew “as a language of love,” he wrote a long poem during the Second Intifada titled “A State of Siege.”
One stanza within it carries much:
(To a killer:) If you’d contemplated the victim’s face
and thought, you would have remembered your mother in the gas
chamber, you would have liberated yourself from the rifle’s wisdom
and changed your mind: this isn’t how identity is reclaimed.
You would have liberated yourself, I am not going to pretend to have the answers to the widely reported war in the Middle East. Nor am I prepared to offer solutions to the wars in Ukraine, Cameron, or the Sudan. They are complicated questions that so many struggle to answer.
But what I know is this, whatever hope there is for peace–if there is hope for peace–comes from liberating love. Liberating love is not platitudes or simple statements of intent. It stems from the possibility of, as Parker would have, of experiencing, “the holiness that can be glimpsed in one another’s eyes.”
The holiness in one another’s eyes, the power of liberating love, the task we would set for ourselves if we take as our association’s purpose the “transformation of the world through liberating Love” is a great one.
It is unlikely that such a task is achievable. Our highest aspirations rarely are. So, I am going to leave our sermon there. It does not have a resolution. The wars go on. We Unitarian Universalists debate how to name our most profound principles. We struggle with how they call us to live and how to act in world where every day the news can break your heart.
Liberating love, the lack of a resolution, having to complete the sermon somewhere, I complete it here, unresolved, with an invitation to hold close to the verses of our final hymn:
What wondrous love is this
that brings my heart such bliss
and takes away the pain of my soul.
May we each, may we all, live into liberating love.
Amen, Ashe, Shalom, and Blessed Be.