as preached October 14, 2007 at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland
This is a sermon that I co-wrote with the Rev. Joan Van Becelaere who was then serving as the District Executive for the Ohio Meadville District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Like of these older sermons, there’s a lot in it that I don’t particularly agree with anymore. I can’t imagine today, for instance, writing a sermon that made reference the Cambridge Platform without at least a passing comment about its relationship to settler colonialism. I also find it rather distressing to realize that fifteen, almost sixteen, years ago, I was prefacing some of my sermons with statements about mass shootings and that today there are more of them than ever.
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.