“You are, in my estimation, the church of the new millennium,” writes Diana Eck, professor of religion at Harvard, “in a world divided by race and by religion and ideology, … [it] is a beacon.” Unitarian Universalism offers us a powerful inheritance: a mind-opening take on the holy, an affirmation of the dignity of all, an open-hearted welcome across lines of division. In this age of unprecedented change, let us reflect on the power of that inheritance to steady us while also calling us forward, as we welcome new members (and coming-back members) into our congregation today.
Faith of the Future
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
May 14, 2017
From Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion at Harvard:
You are, in my estimation, the church of the new millennium. In this era, Unitarian Universalism is not the lowest common denominator, but the highest common calling. . . . In a world divided by race and by religion and ideology, the very presence of a church like this, committed to the oneness of God, the love of God, the love of neighbor and service to humanity, is a beacon
The Unitarian [Universalist] theology, and yes you have one, does not reduce the mystery of the divine, the transcendent, but amplifies it, broadens it to include the investigation of the many, many ways in which the divine is known and yet unknown. . . . The world is in need of your theology.
We are the church of the new millennium, Diana Eck writes. The church – the place, the theology, the vision, that the world needs – we have something, here, that is critical for our era so divided by race and by religion and by ideology. The oneness of God, the onenness of Love, the love of neighbor & service to humanity. The world is in need of us.
That’s a pretty bold statement and a pretty high bar. But inspiring too.
And just a little intimidating….
I want to step back and take a look at what she might mean and what that might mean, for me and for you.
We do have a universal theology. We do not reduce the mystery of the divine. We do not bind, or badger. We do not aim to coerce or restrict. There is no one creed, no one statement to which all must profess belief. We do not claim to have the one true path and we take wisdom from many spiritual sources, welcome different religious perspectives on life. There is, you could say, a lot of room, in our theology. A wide open field, as a friend of mine described it to me once.
Which is a beautiful thing. It creates room for each of us to discern truth from wherever we stand. Whether we were raised Jewish, or Catholic or Protestant or UU, or whether we were shaped by another faith or some combination, we come here with diverse understandings and we make room for them all. We are less likely to pit our beliefs against others. We are less likely to take a rigid stand and close our ears and eyes to the possible truths of another faith. And for some, our openness has been a life-changing relief from the feeling that you had to believe something that did not make sense to you.
And that religious openness lays the groundwork for us to be open in other ways too, across all lines of division. To enter into the perspective of the other, take it in, see freshly and become a bridge. A translator. A mediator. Here, we encourage each person to question party lines as much as creeds, to question the ways in which we’ve always looked at things and see if maybe there’s another way to see.
It means is that an any one moment, we know we don’t have the one final answer. Neither does anyone else.
So this is what Diana Eck means, I think, when she says that we broaden the mystery of the divine, that we are inclusive, that the world, this world so torn along lines of ideology, race, and religion, the world needs a wide embrace like ours.
But. It also needs more. And so do we.
We need more than just openness, more than just inclusion of lots of viewpoints.
We need more than just room, more than a wide open field in which to wander.
Because when we wander, we may just get lost. When we define our faith as simply not this or not that, we risk losing our sense of direction. Without concrete sets of beliefs, we are vulnerable to picking and choosing what’s comfortable for us, and we run the risk of missing out on challenges that call on our courage and help us to grow. When we are aimless we cannot not move forward.
We are not the lowest common denominator, Eck wrote, but when we focus primarily on how open we are, we risk becoming just that. When we are open to too many ideas and theologies, we risk having none. And then we cannot be a beacon, or the church the world needs.
Which is why, when you talk to ministers about how UU’s can believe anything they want, those ministers will, after suppressing a flinch, probably say something to you like, well, yes, and well, no. We may welcome many beliefs, but when we are at our best, we do not stay there. We covenant. We covenant with one another. We covenant around common values, visions and principles. We covenant with one another so we can challenge each other and move forward, together.
Covenant is a core piece of our theology. Part of our Unitarian Universalist DNA. Baked in nearly 500 years ago in 1648, in a document called the Cambridge Platform. Covenant was our alternative to creed. Our alternative to static ideas of what we must do or must believe, it is, instead, all about making promises in relationship – living, breathing, evolving.
Now, if you’ve been around this church for a while you’ll recognize the term covenant. We often read one at the beginning of a meeting – covenants say things like – start and end on time, and, listen respectfully, speak thoughtfully. Covenants can function like rules of the road: slow down here, no parking there, stay on your side of the street, buckle your seatbelt. Most of the time we don’t notice them or pay close attention to them, but we’re glad they’re there when they prevent accident or injury. Keep us moving along in relative harmony as we make our way down the roads of life.
Which is great. That can be really helpful in keeping meetings on track and a useful reminder of how we want to be together.
And, covenant can be more than that. Much much more.
Some covenants are relatively easy to keep – like staying on your side of the road. Covenants get interesting, and transformational, when our commitment goes deep or when life gets hard. Or both. Times when we need that seatbelt.
I think of life’s significant moments. A wedding. “everything that goes around a wedding makes it so that when those two people look at each other and say I do, … even people in the audience, […] [get] chills go up and down their spine … ” Big promises, big changes…
Or, today is mothers’ day – the moment you realized you were going to be a mom – or a dad – (or aunt or uncle or grandparent or godparent or responsible for some new life…. ) what promises did you make to that little person still unborn?
Or, at some point we recognize, that the people we care about will not [always] be with us, and something shifts […]. And we probably make promises around how we behave, [what] we plan to do [in the future] [in light of that realization]
Those were examples that Doug Zelinksi, then-director of Leadership Development, describes in a workshop on covenant . Big promise moments, what makes us notice them, and how they change us.
Big covenants. Big callings.
That get lived out in little moments, little ways, all the time. Taking out the trash. Helping with homework. Simply being more kind.
And broken, in little moments, and little ways, all the time. “Forgetting” to take out the trash. Being too busy to help with that homework. Snapping in a flash of irritation.
Which is actually a really important part of the story. A really important part of our theology. We don’t believe in original sin. We don’t believe that when we break a promise we must be punished, must be threatened, must feel bad or believe that we are bad. These are not moments that lead to eternal damnation, they are, as Doug notes, spiritual… opportunities: sometimes you can end up in a place better than where you started: when you break a promise, and you decide to go back and make it right. Sometimes, you break a promise and you learn something that helps you better understand what you are really called to do.
So you have these big promises that get lived out in little ways. But you also have little moments that, over time, add up to big changes.
They happen in our personal lives, and they happen in our congregational lives. Those feel it in your gut moments of truth: Am I going to make this promise? keep this promise? Break it? Make it anew?
Doug mentions a few of the congregational kind: will I choose to gossip or not? Will I talk to that newcomer or not? Will I put the same number down for my pledge that I did last year or will I give it fresh thought? Will I “share the good news” – tell my friends about the ways my church has had an impact in my life?
“How do you want this place to change your life?” Rev. Aaron White asks – that’s from our new member welcome – “what are you willing to risk?”
A promise is a risk. When we bring our hearts. When we really live it.
Signs and seatbelts really matter, when roads get slippery, other drivers are inattentive or everyone is driving too fast.
I think of one of my favorite quotes. A ship can remain in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
What would it look like, for each of us, to live covenant, to live promises, live them true enough so that we could all say with confidence that, “in a world divided by race and by religion and ideology, Uuism is a highest common calling” We could all say with confidence that we are the religion of the new millennium, a beacon, that the world so sorely needs?
We say a covenant every Sunday. We said it just a little while ago. But I wonder if it can feel a like the stop sign we pass every day, one we don’t notice consciously.
This is our great covenant we say:
To dwell together in peace, To seek the truth in love. And to help one another.
And whenever we all say it, I feel peaceful, I feel loving, I feel helpful.
Which is nice….
But one of the points that Doug Zelinksi was making in his presentation (and I encourage you to watch it, the link will be in the printed or uploaded sermon on the web) is that it’s in the taking those promises to the streets, so to speak, it’s in really taking them to heart – that’s where the action happens.
Because here, well, we dwell together very peacefully, especially when we’re listening to the choir or Nonetta’s beautiful piano playing…
But what if dwelling together in peace was about more than feeling peaceful, about more than being polite, more than being nice. What if it was about creating a deeper peace, untangling misunderstandings or misconceptions that, too often, get left to lie? What would happen if we were to more directly engage in tough topics – can we not only deepen the peace, but continue dwelling together? When really tough stuff rolls in, it gets harder to stay. It’s hard. It’s hard in our personal lives, it’s hard in congregational life. But imagine, if we knew, we were in it for the greater good, what if we knew we have a commitment to stay at the table? What life-changing, congregation-transforming conversations might be possible then?
To seek the truth in love: what if seeking the truth in love is about having some of those conversations? Telling more of our truth? So that we are not simply people with our own personal perspectives that we do not want challenged, but where we take the risk to really engage our differences? Like the other day, in a conversation with a member of the congregation after the sermon on White Supremacy Culture. I was heartened that this person came right out and told me what they thought. It was full of passion and conviction. This person did not agree with some things I had said or the way I had said them. And we had a great talk. And since then, another person came to me too. This person had spent a lot of time in reflection. Had read up on the topic. And then came and shared their thoughts. Their feelings. Shared with me what they heard and how it impacted them. And I shared what I saw and what my big hopes were. For conversations about race, for conversations about anything. It was good, it was forward moving, we each learned something, and it’s the kind of conversation I really appreciate having.
And helping one another. What if we were more willing not only to help each other, but to ask for help? What if, we could tell there was room to be vulnerable, to show when we’re hurting, admit where we feel weak, where we could use a shoulder to lean on. What closeness might we create if we really let others in?
Can we learn to pause, step out of automatic pilot, and try a new way? Notice moments of truth, and be willing to risk real change?
There is a lot, in our world, that is hard right now. And there is a lot, in our theology, that can be powerful, when we deeply engage it.
Our theology of openness, wideness, welcoming embrace, is an aspect of love. And our challenging, step-up-to-the-plate, push you pull you theology of covenant is an aspect of love.
On this mothers day, may we know that we are loved, exactly as we are. And may we know that there is nothing n the way of each of us becoming just as courageous, just as strong, just as fierce and just as justice-seeking as we’ve ever imagined we might be.
May we experience both, may we offer both as we answer the call of love, every day.