The Living tradition


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 19, 2023

Those of you who are parents, grandparents, have had children, or were children, which is to say, all of us, are likely familiar with something we might call the “I don’t want tos.”

Recall a scenario like this one. It is morning. You are helping a child to get ready to go to school. The child likes school. They have friends who they are eager to see.

You have made them breakfast. Maybe it is something simple like toast with a piece of fruit or oatmeal with cinnamon, brown sugar, and raisins. Maybe it is a special day, and the meal is something a bit more elaborate. Pancakes are perennial favorite in my house. It does not matter.

There is exciting chatter about the day.

And then, when it comes time to put on shoes and head out the door, “I don’t want to. I hate school.” What had seemed like it was going to be an easy, even dare I say it, pleasant, morning is suddenly transformed into a battle. There is gnashing of teeth. Garments are rendered. And then, finally, you and the child leave the house. It is not so bad. They do not hate school after all.

The “I don’t want tos” are a reaction to change. When we are little, we humans tend to hate change. The moments of transition are some of the most difficult in parenting.

If we are honest, it is probably true that transitions are some of the hardest parts of life. One of the reasons why we humans have created religious communities is to help us manage them. It is often my experience that many people the only times they enter our sanctuary are to celebrate a wedding, dedicate a child, or mourn the passing of a loved one.

It seems that ritual provides comfort when we are trying to navigate such significant events. Rituals offer a sense of structure, a feeling of continuity, a reminder that as unique as our own life is there are certain things about it that we share with all humans–and all living beings. It is like we sang in our earlier hymn:

A child is born,
the old must die;
a time for joy,
a time to cry.

It is the repetition in ritual that helps ease change. A new life has come among us–it will be unlike any other that ever has been. With so much unknown, we know this way, this set of repeated activities and particular words that form a ritual, is how we will greet this new being. A life has been lost–a vibrant soul has gone to join the ancestors and become a blessed memory. With so much lost, we have decided to come together to share, to reflect, and to remind each other that, especially when we mourn, we are never truly alone.

You have probably learned something about this when dealing with the “I don’t want tos.” In helping the child out the door–whether that child was you or you were the parent–you likely figured out that a certain ritual of some kind helped with the transition from breakfast to school. Maybe it was a silly song you sang or a particular order you put on coats and boots.

It does not really matter. The important thing is that in both daily life and when confronted with the biggest shifts we can experience, ritual provides a sense of stability, routine, and meaning.

I mention all of this because our Unitarian Universalist Association is in the process of undergoing a consequential change. Right now, we are considering rewriting Article II of the bylaws. This might seem obtuse or banal or overly bureaucratic to mention in sermon. It is actually of significant religious importance. Article II contains the Principles and Sources of the Association. For a lot us, it represents the clearest statement of our common theology.

The proposed revisions to Article II are significant. They entirely replace the existing Principles and Sources with statements of Values and Covenant and Inspirations. The Eighth Principle, which is under discussion as an addition to the current Principles, would be revised into its own section, titled Inclusion.

The dramatic nature of the intended alterations to Article II has prompted a lot of reaction. People affiliated with our congregation have been emailing me or wanting to talk with me about the changes almost once a week. After I attended the session put on by the Association’s commission to revise Article II at the American Academy of Religion last autumn, I was inspired to send the commissioners about four pages of commentary.

Some of you are opposed to the prospect of changing the Principles at all. Others think that the new text is great. Most of my commentary about the new version of the Article had to do theological nuances. If I shared them with you they would overtake the rest of the sermon.

Broadly speaking, though, I am supportive of the effort to revise Article II. But my first reaction to the new text was a case of the “I don’t want tos.” The Principles were rendered in their current form in 1987. I grew up with them. They are familiar and provide an easy introduction to Unitarian Universalism. I do not necessarily want to let go of them.

There is a bit of irony here. Unitarian Universalism has always had a bit of contradiction at its heart. A core element of the tradition is openness to change. Some of you might remember that I like to quote Joanne Braxton and others on the point that “revelation is not sealed.” Or, alternatively, the early twentieth century Universalist L. B. Fischer who, when asked to define our faith wrote, “we [do not] defend any immovable theological positions … We grow … as all living things … must … The main [question is] … which way we are moving.”

Which way we are moving, and here comes the contradiction, we are tradition committed to change. Many religious traditions are just the opposite. They seek to preserve their patterns of belief and worship from generation-to-generation. Unitarian Universalism seeks adapt to the changing world. It is what scholars call a mediating tradition. It attempts to provide bridges between the past and the present, religion and science, the secular and the sacred, and theological innovation and ritual consistency.

The contradiction inherent in being a mediating tradition is that we typically think of traditions as antithetical to change. We attempt to reframe this by talking Unitarian Universalism as a living tradition. As the late Elandria Williams put it, “If we believe in the promise of our faith, we must continue pushing forward, even if the reality makes us want to give up.”

Elandria was the Co-Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who along with their Co-Moderator Barb Greeve, established the commission to study, and probably revise, Article II. They believed that the nature of Unitarian Universalism includes an openness to change. And a couple of years back they called us to consider changing the Principles and Sources.

As I mentioned earlier, the current iteration of the Principles and Sources only date to 1987. Their relatively contemporary language leads to an experience I sometimes have when meeting new members or curious visitors. It is of witnessing the reaction of surprise they have when they–perhaps I should say you–learn that Unitarian Universalism is a venerable movement with historical roots in Christianity.

Oh, the vi-bra-tions…
Oh, the Unitarians…
Apostate seminarians…
Grok the groovy…

Why the consternation?
Arise ye antediluvians,
Groove on

Tom Wolfe’s 1960s tongue-and-cheek description of Unitarian Universalism is typical of the impression that our religious communities came out of the hippy counter-culture. Or, at the very most, that they have their origins in the same period that gave birth to new religious movements like Unity or maybe the Bahá’í Faith.

In my conversations, I offer a different perspective. I share that there are congregations associated with Unitarianism that date back to the middle of the sixteenth-century. And that some of those linked to Universalism have their origins in the later years of the eighteenth-century.

It is true that these communities were Christian. But the earliest Unitarians in North America were covenantal, not creedal. And while they could not imagine that any member of their community would ever be anything other than Christian, they differed significantly on what Christians were supposed to believe about the nature of God, Jesus, and humanity. Over time these differences became great enough that some of them stopped identifying as Christian. They took up labels like Transcendentalist and atheist, and widened their circles large enough to welcome people without roots in Christianity.

The Universalists, for their part, believed in universal salvation. They held that God’s love was all encompassing, all embracing, and all powerful. Mark Morrison-Reed has described how historically Universalism “came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ … Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable … to resist the power and love of the Almighty.” Eventually, this emphasis on the overwhelming love of God led the Universalists, like the Unitarians, to stop worrying about whether or not someone identified as Christian. Their communities became theologically inclusive too.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the Unitarians and the Universalists in North America had reached a point where they both recognized that they cared less about religious belief and more about ethical action. In 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, two historic denominational bodies, underwent a consolidation and formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.

This history is likely familiar to many of you. I offer it because some of you are new to the congregation. It can be helpful to have some perspective on how Unitarian Universalism has changed over time.

These changes have often been expressed in the differing historical statements of faith that various Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist communities have made over time. The Principles and Sources are just the most recent of these.

Some of these documents use language and theological concepts that many of you would likely find out of place in our congregation. The 1605 Racovian Catechism, an influential early text, describes the aim of religion as “attaining eternal life” and spends a great deal of ink on the nature of “the Christian Faith” and “the Office of Jesus Christ.” The Salem Covenant of 1629 refers to a decision to “bind ourselves in the presence of God.” The enlarged version of 1636–note that early community revised their core text just seven years after writing it–refers often to “the Lord Jesus Christ” and invokes “his Gospel.” The 1790 “Articles of Faith and Plan of Church Government,” issued by the Philadelphia Convention of Universalists, professes, “a deep sense of the unchangeable, and universal love of God to mankind.” The 1830 “Trust Deed of Adi Brahmo Samaj”–that is a cousin of our movement in Indian–refers to a devotion to “adoration of the Eternal Unsearchable and Immutable Being who is the Author and Preserver of the Universe.” The…

There have been a great number of attempts to summarize our non-creedal tradition over the centuries. All of them have been insufficient. Unlike our creedal cousins, we have long understood that whatever it is that brings us together ultimately escapes codification in language. Trinitarian Christians believe that the verbal essence of their theological perspective can be captured in statements like the Nicene Creed. We do not.

The intended revisions to Article II, like all of their many predecessors, will be insufficient. They will be insufficient because, as Theresa Soto has said, “there is something between us that cannot tame and cannot measure.” My words, your words, words of any kind will never capture the fullness of faith.

Our faith is found more in the things we do together–the rituals we share–than in any statement, be it the current or future version of Article II, that we might make. Faith is caught up in all of the rituals we share that help us through the inevitable I do not want tos of life: the big rites of passage and the simple steady act of gathering together on Sunday mornings. Whatever language we use, however we choose to speak of our living tradition, we will remain a congregation that assembles to widen the circle of love, bring more justice into the world, and accompany each other on life’s journey.

Over the next year, the Unitarian Universalist Association has invited all of us into a discussion about Article II. Today, after the service, you can participate in such a discussion in the Fireside room. We will host other discussions here in the coming months. The Association will vote on the language of the article at this year’s General Assembly–which is the annual gathering of delegates from all of our congregations. First Unitarian Universalist will send seven delegates and you will have an opportunity to let them know what you think after they have been selected by the Board.

The language in Article II can be revised. Public online conversations to foster the revision process will take place in early June. Whatever language these conversations ultimately settle on will be voted on at this year’s assembly. We will then have a year to try that language out, and further discuss whether we think it reflects our living tradition, before voting to permanently incorporate the new text into the bylaws.

The word permanently there is a misstatement. Whatever is in Article II can, and will be, changed again. This is both the dynamism and contradiction at the heart of our movement. We are a tradition committed to change. We seek to preserve that unnamable something between us that we cannot tame and cannot measure. At the same time, we recognize that each generation will experience, understand, and attempt to name it in their own language.

Here, then, is what I leave you with this morning, a blessing inspired by the essence of our living tradition:

May we find,
in the work of this religious community,
inspiration to be open to change
and comfort in the steady rituals it offers:
a reminder that though we cannot fully
name the something between us,
that we might speak of it differently
from generation-to-generation,
it remains,
here, there, in these sacred walls,
a source of love and justice
in our lives.

That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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