Check Your Sources
Video of this sermon can be seen (here)
Call to worship: Sources
Yes, let this be a house of peace, one where both scientists and mystics can abide.
Most of us are pretty familiar with the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism. If you are not, they are listed both in the front of both hymnals and on the rainbow colored bookmarks that are in most of the pews.
The principles are guides for living, they are what our member congregations have covenanted, promised, to affirm and promote. We care about the worth and dignity of all, justice, equity and compassion, spiritual growth, search for truth and meaning, the democratic process, world community, and last, but never least, respect for our living planet.
But why do we care about those things? What do we use in our searches for truth and meaning? How and why do we work for justice?
The answers to those questions are, I believe, on the back of the bookmark. That is a metaphor because our sources are quite literally what holds our unique place in the world of ideas and world religions. I quote, “The living tradition we share draws from many sources.” Living is a key word here, as well as the word tradition. Our sources are from our history; they are where we came from. But most importantly they are what we can use to find out where we are going.
In our reading this morning, Paul Oakley (see his blog post) makes a similar point. He says that the sources lead us to specific actions like loving our neighbors and working for justice. I agree with him, but I want to take it a step further. Our sources are not just about our history and they are not just guides for the present, but they are a list of research materials as it were. A reference library we can go to when we have the need, when the world or our lives have changed in ways that we no longer understand.
These sources are incredibly rich, every single one of them. I want to encourage all of you to look at them and think about them. Some of you may feel more drawn to some of them than others. Some of the sources may have little personal meaning for you. That used to be true for me. But if you pay a little more attention to those sources that haven’t moved you in the past, I think you may be surprised at what you will discover. It is a living tradition after all. We need to give it ways and room to grow.
The first source is:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
What does that mean? Several things I think. Revelation is not sealed. Mystery and wonder are all around us. We need to trust our own experiences and our own senses. If we see a rainbow and think it is a miracle, maybe it is.
Many of us have had, in our own lives experiences which some would name spiritual. There have been times where a deep realization of an important truth has left us in awe and wonder. It is a knowing that not everything can be understood by the simply rational. It is a sense that there really are forces that both create and uphold life, even if they are forces that are beyond our understanding. This direct experience could be a sense of having a personal connection to God, but it doesn’t have to be exclusively theistic. One of our members who defines himself as a humanist spoke a few years ago about the feeling he had when he visited the Smithsonian in Washington DC. (The government wasn’t shut down then.) He had a moment there when he realized that everything in that fabulous museum belonged to him. He was part of something much larger than himself. We should never discount our own experience of the world around us. This source reminds us to think, see, and feel for ourselves. It doesn’t mean we will always be right, but we should not substitute someone else’s judgment about what is right and good for our own. If we aren’t sure, we can check other sources.
The second source is:
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
This is where we could say, “What would Jesus do?” Who are your heroes? Who has inspired you? It could be someone famous, but it could just be someone you know. Many members of this church community have inspired me both with their words and deeds. People like Bev Dalley, Cal Hanson, Roy Hassel, Evelyn Bertilson, Roxanne Taylor and Doris Lang are awesome role models. This source also leads us to look at our heroes and who they were as well as what they did. Did they confront evil with justice as well as with compassion and love? No one is perfect, but those who would lead us to hate others are not those we should try to model ourselves after. Martin Luther King is one of my inspirations as well as Ghandi, both of whom held strongly to love as their guiding force. My namesake, Mother Theresa is not a bad role model either, although I do not share her Catholic theology. This second source is a place we can go to discover more effective ways to bring about a more just world.
The third source: Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
This one is incredibly varied. The religions of the world are many and varied. What do they have to teach us? What spiritual practices from other traditions can give our lives more meaning? Yoga, Buddhist meditation practice, the Hindu concept of Namaste, and the daily prayers of Islam, are only a few places we can go for help in our spiritual and ethical lives. This source is a place awaiting our discoveries. Most of us have not looked too closely at what the different world religions have to offer us.
The fourth source is: Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
This source is our immediate history and heritage. Unitarian Universalism arose from Christianity just as Jesus was a follower of the Jewish faith. This history speaks very strongly to those of us who attended exclusively Christian Churches in the past and loved the many inspiring messages contained in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. One point, that bears repeating: We are still Christian just not exclusively Christian anymore., just as we are not exclusively humanist, agnostic, or pagan. There is so much to learn from study of the Bible. Inspiration is everywhere in the parables of Jesus and the stories of the Hebrew prophets.
Our fifth source is: Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
This is the one that I think can help keep us honest. Whatever we believe and do must make some sense in the real and rational world. Yes, we can have understandings of mystery that are beyond the realm of the scientific method, but it is dangerous ground to rely on something that is in direct contradiction to what reason and science tell us. Angels might fly, but we humans are subject to gravity. The Bible might say one thing, but if science tells us the world is much older than 6000 years, I am going with science. Science and religion are not in conflict.
They should both be about increasing our understanding of the universe and our place in it.
That brings us to our sixth source, the last official one, which is: Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature
How can we not live in harmony with nature when we are part of it? This is the favorite source for many of us who have come to Unitarian Universalism from pagan traditions and practices. There are seasons to our lives just as there are seasons in the year. The need for harmony with nature is also in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as well as in the various world religions. Sometimes we just need to go up on a mountain and watch the sunrise. Sometimes we need the peace that can come from sitting by a river or watching a flock of birds fly by.
Those are our six official sources, places where we can go for inspiration and for solace. Is anything left out?
What would you add to this list? It is not written in stone, we can add things to it, just as we can rewrite the seven principles. There is a democratic process to do that at our national assemblies. There was a proposal to revise the wording of the sources a couple of years ago as a matter of fact. It did not pass, but it could have.
One I might add would be something about the arts, about music and poetry.
Beauty and meaning both can come from artistic creativity. It is worth thinking about adding them more specifically to our list of reference materials.
Our sources are in some senses a reference library. They aren’t just history and they aren’t just an action plan as Paul Oakley suggested.
He said that, “We irrigate the fields not by worshiping the water but by doing something with the water.”
He is not wrong, but we also need to go back and drink from the wells the water comes from, again and again. Living is thirsty work. May we never be afraid to drink from the many wells that can offer us the wisdom and strength to carry on. May it be so.