The winds howl in outrage
As the rain pounds down in pain
Our mother sobs
As her body turns to mud.
The oceans rise in protest
The glaciers melt in despair.
We can hunker down
But we cannot hide
Umbrellas are not enough
To clean the poisoned water
To heal our wounded earth.
Our prayers may help
If they inspire us
To turn this storm around.
Is anyone else stressed out about the election? I know I am. The changing poll numbers and the “October Surprises” have made it hard for me to stay centered and hopeful.
As a minister, I am pretty much a professional optimist. Sometimes that is one of the hardest parts of the job.
Democracy is just stressful at its core. I have been nervous before every election I can remember. Who knows how the votes will turn out in the end? And the issues are much more significant than flavors of ice cream. What if our country elects a president that would be as life threatening to some people as peanuts are those who are allergic? Peanut butter looks kind of orange, so don’t laugh, it could happen.
As scary as elections can be, part of my religious practice is to carefully study candidates and issues and then to vote my values in every single election.
I have opinions about methods and policies, about what might work better than something else, but bottom-line, it is values I care about. Does a policy or a candidate promote the inherent worth and dignity of all? What about liberty and justice for all or world community? Is there an element of compassion contained in the plan? Is there some respect for diversity as well as the realization that we are all connected? How do our religious values relate to the death penalty? To the plastic bag ban? To support for schools and libraries?
Those are the questions I asked myself before I voted.
You might consider asking yourself some similar questions.
Please note that I am not telling any of you how to vote because I really do believe in our fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” People should have a voice, a say, in what affects them. You all need to make up your own minds about how to vote.
Mark Twain said that, “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others.”
Mark Twain was not a member of a Unitarian Church, but he did have a lot of Unitarian friends. He clearly thought that people should examine their beliefs and convictions for themselves, and not take them on second hand authority. It is what our faith asks us to do. Our principles call us to examine our beliefs, to test them against our reason, our experience and our hearts. This is true in matters of politics as well as religion.
We are a liberal religion, by definition, because we promote that first hand authority of the individual conscience, because we don’t expect everyone to agree about everything, particularly when it comes to theology. There should be room in this congregation for atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, and followers of just about any other religious tradition.
To be comfortable here, however, most folks find that it is important to at least be open to the idea that spiritual traditions and practices other than their own just might be very valid for other people.
Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion, but that doesn’t mean we are all liberal Democrats. There are many thoughtful and faithful Republicans in our churches.
A little history: Unitarian Universalism is deeply rooted in American cultural values. There is a reason most people agree with our seven principles the first time they hear them. Liberty and justice are words contained in the pledge of allegiance after all.
There have been 5 US presidents who either attended Unitarian churches or professed Unitarian beliefs: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and William Taft. While he did not specifically identify with any organized religion, Abraham Lincoln had Universalist leanings. Some of you may also know that our current president, Barack Obama, attended a Unitarian Universalist church as a child.
But let’s talk about William Taft for a minute. He was president between 1909 and 1913, and he was a Republican.
His great-grandson, John Taft wrote an article a few years ago where he said he was a genetic Republican, claiming that 5 generations of Tafts have served our nation as unwaveringly stalwart Republicans.
In his article he also says this:
“Throughout my family’s more than 170-year legacy of public service, Republicans have represented the voice of fiscal conservatism. Republicans have been the adults in the room.”
He went on to say:
“The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is (or should be) about responsible behavior. The Republican Party is (or should be) at long last, about decency.”
The Republican values he speaks of are quite consistent with Unitarian Universalism.
But here is where it gets a bit more complicated. Clearly, there have been, and are, a lot of politically liberal Unitarian Universalists. If we did a survey, I suspect most of our members vote for Democrats most of the time. I also suspect that the number of Democrats among us is increasing over time and the number of Republicans is declining.
I don’t think it is anything that we are doing, however. Instead, I think the right wing of Republican Party has been systematically driving religiously liberal people away.
Marriage Equality should not be a partisan issue, but it has become so. A plan for compassionate immigration reform should have nothing to do with whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat. How to deal with global climate change is a scientific problem. Science is not a left wing conspiracy. The right of a woman to control her own body should have nothing to do with whether or not you are a fiscal conservative.
It started years ago, when economic conservatives began wooing religious conservatives. They became the “family values party,” but they were very restrictive in how they defined a family.
When you have agreed to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it becomes difficult to demonize others, no matter who they are. Immigrants, gays, poor people, Muslims, women, people with disabilities, have all been demonized or mocked. This is in clear conflict with our values.
But listen to me now, many on the left have cast all Trump supporters as racist sexist bigots, – it isn’t a moral equivalent as angry white men aren’t an oppressed group, but it still isn’t OK.
It is hard not to hate your political opponents. It is hard not to hate those you are afraid of. I do think fear is at the root of much of the political discord these days.
“America as we know it will end if the other party gains control of the presidency and gets to appoint justices to the Supreme Court.” Both sides are saying that. Some people really hate Clinton; others hate Trump. Very few people are really completely evil; they just have very different views of the world and sometimes serve different interests.
This is where liberal religion can help begin a dialogue. Open hearted, open minded, curious as to what the other thinks and feels. It doesn’t always work, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
Listen for the middle ground, listen for where you might agree, or at least have something to learn. Speak with bravest fire, but hold love at the center of it all.
It is how we try to do theology here. We listen to each other. Christians, pagans, and atheists really can get along, and form an awesome religious community together. So why can’t Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Libertarians get along in the political sphere?
In this congregation we need radical visionaries willing to take some risks, but we also need fiscally conservative financial stewards. Our country needs more people willing to listen to others, whatever their party affiliation.
I believe there is an important role for religion in politics. Gandhi said that “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
Gandhi was a Hindu, but the Judeo-Christian tradition is also full of calls for the faithful to be engaged in social and political issues. To love all of creation, but in particular to be concerned for those who have the least power in the wider culture.
Virtually all of the Biblical prophets spoke out for justice for the weak, for the poor, and for the oppressed.
From the prophet Amos who said let justice roll down like waters, to Isaiah who said that the spirit of God sent him to bring good news to the oppressed, to the prophet Jesus who told us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and to, in modern times, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who led a faith based movement against racial discrimination, the religious voice has been a powerful and important one.
That is the prophetic tradition, and one that I think Unitarian Universalism identifies with very strongly. We have always spoken out against unjust laws and argued for just ones. From opposing the fugitive slave act to working with Black Lives Matter, we have been a tradition that championed the rights of the oppressed. Respect for the inherent dignity of all is our first principle. The key here is that this prophetic tradition is about religion and religious people working to protect the weak, to enhance life, to care for all of creation. This type of religious activism serves democracy well because it is fundamentally about caring, respect, and love. It is not about restriction and punishment.
There is another Biblical tradition, however, one that most of the prophets I listed above were in direct opposition to. There is also a priestly tradition that focused on religious laws. The scribes and Pharisees that took Jesus to task for violating the law were a part of that tradition. Leviticus, with its long list of rules, many of which are a little weird to our modern sensibilities, is another example.
This priestly tradition is very dangerous to democracy, I think, especially when it argues that religious laws should be enforced by the state.
Some Muslim countries follow Sharia law, and most Americans find that appalling, but Leviticus is the primary reason that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people still do not have full civil rights in this country.
It is one thing to follow your religious values by asking for help for the vulnerable, and it is quite another to ask the state to promote your religious values over those of others and to create legislation to ensure that it is your rules that are followed.
So what do we do? How to we hold on to hope?
I love the following poem by ee cummings.
It is called “dive for dreams,”
Dive for dreams
Or a slogan may topple you
(trees are their roots
and wind is wind)
trust your heart
if the seas catch fire
(and live by love
though the stars walk backward)
honour the past
but welcome the future
(and dance your death
away at this wedding)
Dive deep for your dreams, trust your heart. Live by love though the stars walk backward. No matter what happens on Tuesday, there will be work for us to do. Love can guide us on our way. Amen and Blessed Be.
We value our freedoms
Sometimes more than our lives
The martyrs are many
Who have died just for words.
What does this mean
For the Pulpit and Pew?
What does it mean for me and for you?
Words sometimes hurt
Bringing pain from our pasts
Swirling to memories
Of being abused
Those same painful words
Bring others great joy
A longing for comfort
A longing for peace.
How can we balance
Such contrary needs
When freedom for some
Causes others to weep?
Our spirits are hardy
This I believe
Compassion is called for
And gentle support
We’ll find a way forward
Both caring and free
If our faith is a building
Open hearts are the doors
We welcomed new members today. Becoming part of this church community will change them. It will also change us. Our sacred water is a symbol of this. We collect it each fall from whoever attends worship that Sunday, just as has been done each year since this church was started. We add the new water to what we had before, creating an ongoing link from the past and to the future. During our offering, we drop stones into this water, also symbolizing that this living community holds us each, no matter who we are, no matter what gifts we bring, or what burdens we carry.
There is more than one thing about our faith tradition that sets us apart from many others, but one important characteristic of Unitarian Universalism is that we are always changing. Change can be difficult for people. Crash helmets really are a good idea.
Let’s go back to our reading for a minute:
Unitarian Universalist Minister, Tom Schade, named four different conceptions of our churches. (For reference: Click here)
One – our churches are places where smart people gather for the intellectual exploration of life issues, in an atmosphere freed of religion dogma.
Is that part of why you are here? If so, raise your hand. You are all smart people, by the way. I don’t care how much formal education you may have had.
Two – our churches are places to connect to the rebellious and counter-culture trends in society, a place to meet more radical, committed and interesting people there than anywhere else in town.
Is that part of why you are here? If so, raise your hand. Interesting.
Three – our churches serve as a place for community, a community perhaps more welcoming and supportive than you have found anywhere else.
I think Rev. Schade was wrong to label these “stages” as if they are something that we move through and leave behind. Instead, they are not only part of what we once were, but they are part of what we still are today and part of who we will be in the future. They are in the water, so to speak.
But, what of his fourth so-called stage? Do you have your crash helmets on? Should we issue them to our new members in addition to a flower and a book?
How many of you come here to be challenged, to wake up, and to be a little off-balance? How many of you want to discover a way to change and improve your own life and also the world around you?
OK, if that rings true for you, please raise your hands. We have some brave souls here!
There is a lot of conversation going on right now about where Unitarian Universalism is going. Are we the religion for our time or are we going to fade away like most of the mainline denominations seem to be doing?
The Reverend Christine Robinson talked about this a lot as the keynote speaker at our regional assembly last month. You can find her full address on-line. Her main point was that the religious landscape of America is changing, that the fastest growing group of people in America are those who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious.
People used to come to us because “We honor your religious freedom,” but that is not bringing many people any more. Now, when people decide that they don’t believe what they were raised to believe, they often go for years without belonging to any congregation, and in the new religious ecology, there’s no pressure to join one. When they decide they want to go to church again, it is not because they want freedom; they’ve had freedom. They come looking for something that they can’t get in the secular world. They want spiritual instruction, not freedom. They want a safe place to explore what happens to them when they start to deepen their lives.
They come to us because they know their beliefs are not orthodox and because they would feel hypocritical in an orthodox church…. in this they resemble their elders. But once here, they want to do very different things.
Here’s my guess at a slogan for this part of the religious ecology; a place we can call our very own and serve with integrity and thrive: “Spiritual growth in a theologically diverse community.” (For reference: click here)
She also called it, “Spiritual not dogmatic.”
Rev. Robinson did not go into it in detail, but an important part of spiritual growth is sharing that larger spirit into the world, serving others and creating a more just world. Yes, we should be issuing crash helmets.
Another thing we need to be clearer about is our theology. This congregation handles our religious diversity well, but in our larger association a debate is going on about how we use religious language in our congregations. The Rev. Marilyn Sewell tried to define a common Unitarian Universalist theology and listed the following: (For reference: Click here)
“We believe that human beings should be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.
We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.
We believe that God is One.
We believe that revelation is ever unfolding.
We believe that the Kingdom of God is to be created here on this earth.
We believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, and that other prophets from God have risen in other faith traditions.
We believe that love is more important than doctrine.
We believe that God’s mercy will reconcile all unto itself in the end.”
Now, those work really well for me. I agree with them. But then again, I believe in God, although my understanding of God is nothing like the understanding of clergy from more orthodox traditions. Some of the atheists had a huge problem with her use of the word God. They felt like they were being excluded from what was stated to be a theology held in common. I think if her ideas were simply rearranged, and a small phrase added, then there would not be the same level of controversy about them.
Listen again, and see if they work for you.
“We believe that human beings should be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.” Agree? Raise your hand. It is our fourth principle somewhat restated.
“We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.” Raise your hand.
Then for the next five, let’s add the words, “if we believe in God or if we were to believe in God,” The addition of those words should be helpful for the atheists and agnostics among us.
“We believe that God is One.” Raise your hands.
“We believe that revelation is ever unfolding.” Raise your hands.
“We believe that the Kingdom of God is to be created here on this earth.” Raise your hands.
“We believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, and that other prophets from God have risen in other faith traditions.” Raise your hands.
We believe that God’s mercy will reconcile all unto itself in the end.” Raise your hands.
And finally, and this one is I think the most important of all:
“We believe that love is more important than doctrine.” Raise your hands.
None of that was 100%, but it was pretty close, and it really is a distinctive theology, particularly among denominations that are part of the Christian tradition, as we have been and still are in many ways.
Those of us that believe in God believe in a merciful loving God, not a judgmental or punishing one.
Those of us that believe in an afterlife do not believe in a hell where people are punished after we die.
I could go on, but being a Unitarian Universalist, is not a “believe whatever you want,” kind of religion.
So my hope for our new members, and for our longer-term members as well, is that you find here not only what you are looking for, but also what you might need.
I hope this church makes you think, and I hope you find the ideas and the other people here interesting. I hope you feel welcome and supported in this community. And I hope that you sometimes feel challenged, surprised, and maybe even a little off balance. I hope you discover ways to improve your own life and to make this world a better place for all who share this planet with us.
What do you want? What do you need?
Feel it. Imagine it. Make it so.