The Third Principle December 13, 2015
“The thing about being a Unitarian Universalist that I like is that I can believe anything I want.” I wonder how many times I have heard that, or a variant. I wonder how many times, in explaining to an enquirer what Unitarian Universalism is, I have said something which might have been interpreted as us being the church where you can believe anything you want. Because we are non-dogmatic, non-creedal, because we do not gather around a shared and enforced statement of belief, because we gladly include in our number theists and non-theists, humanists and Christians, Buddhists and Jews and Pagans and Pantheists and Panentheists and just about any other theological category and sub-division you might care to think of, because we affirm that in matters of faith, it is the individual and his or her own reason, conscience and experience which are the final arbiters and not The Church, not the Magisterium, because of all of that, all of which I celebrate, it is tempting to conclude that each and every one of us can believe anything we want.
But no we can’t. That is not who we are. If that is how we understand ourselves, then we have abandoned our long-held heritage of intellectual and ethical rigor. If that is how we understand ourselves, we have become weak-minded and self-indulgent, and that is not, I think, how we want to be.
This morning my sermon is about the third in the occasional series of sermons about the seven Unitarian Universalist principles, which is “Acceptance of one another, and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”
Let’s look at that, phrase by phrase. Acceptance of one another. Here’s what that means to me. It means that when someone comes through that front door for the first time, we seek to honor the authenticity of their spiritual journey so far. We want to say, “Here is a person whose worth and dignity we honor and respect, whose spiritual and religious needs are as valuable as our own. We do not demand that they renounce those things of their past which remain dear to them, that they conform themselves to our pre-determined theological mold.
And not only to newcomers, but to each of us who have been around a while as well. If your way of experiencing and interpreting the world is through a Christian lens, you are entitled to expect that others here who see the world differently will honor you and accept you warmly into the circle. Equally, if your way of experiencing and interpreting the world is through a humanist lens, you are entitled to expect that others here who see the world differently will honor you and accept you warmly into the circle. Whatever your personal theological lens, it is the third Unitarian Universalist principle that you will be accepted for who you are and what you believe. But, and this is the catch, as you are accepted, so must you accept. As others make room for you, so you must make room for others.
It is fine to disagree. It is not fine to disparage.
Let’s consider the word which is often the single most controversial word in a Unitarian Universalist context. God. For some of us, the word is deeply problematic, and we would be perfectly happy never to hear it again. It conjures up images of a Being which we find intellectually untenable, particularly in the way it is often portrayed in the bible – punitive, partisan, judgmental, cruel. We find such a God morally questionable as well. Perhaps we grew up with that God and now we have discarded it, as we have discarded much of our childlike way of understanding the world, and we don’t like to be reminded of what we have left behind.
And for some of us, the word God is deeply evocative of all that is most precious to them in our spiritual life. It speaks to us of mystery and reverence, it speaks of the need for humility in the face of transcendence, of a deep connection with all that is that goes beyond the rational, the scientific, the immediate. For some of us, the word God is an emotion, not a thought, not about what we believe with our minds but what we feel in our hearts.
And here’s the thing. Wherever you stand on that God spectrum, there are others here in this room with you, right now, who stand somewhere else along the line. None of us has the right to say, Because this is where I stand, you must stand here also. That is what, for me, is so wonderful and exhilarating about being a Unitarian Universalist, when we are at our best, which, let’s face it, we aren’t always.
Because it is the most stimulating of conversations. A conversation, not a debate, because a conversation is about listening as much as it is about talking, a conversation is about wanting to learn from the other, it is not about trying to convert the other. I have no interest in talking about religion, or politics for that matter, with someone else who is not open to what I have to say, whose mind is already made up and closed for business. You know, that boorish uncle or brother-in-law we all seem to have whom we dread seeing at christmas because of his rants. But I love talking about religion, or politics, with people with whom I might disagree but who allow me to challenge their thinking as I allow them to challenge mine. I’m usually not learning much when I am talking. I do tend to learn much more when I am listening.
So we accept each other as we are. And. And! We expect each other to change. What does “encouragement to spiritual growth “ mean if not that wherever you are now in your journey, whatever you believe now, we expect you to be open to doing the challenging work of deepening your spirit, of changing your mind, and, perhaps, if necessary, of getting over yourself. When he stood on the dockside of Delft Harbour in Holland in the year 1620, bidding farewell to most of his pilgrim congregation as they were about to set sail for England and thence to the New World of America on their two boats, the Speedwell and the Mayflower, the Rev John Robinson famously said the words which today we still sing, “The Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.”
Revelation is not sealed, it is ongoing. But what use new revelation if our minds, our eyes, our hearts are closed? Closed to thought, closed to science, closed to experience, closed to wonder?
Being here means we are also willing to be shaken and stirred from our complacency, from our preconceived notions. I remember well the interview I had with four worthies all those years ago who were considering whether I should be admitted to study for the ministry. One of them asked what I believed. I have no idea now what I said in reply, I would probably cringe if I knew, but I do remember what he said after I had stumbled through whatever I did say. “Well, David,” he said, “I hope you don’t still believe that when you are done here.” He did not mean that I was wrong. He meant that the point of my education would be to make me grow intellectually, even if, as T S Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Maybe so, but we will be richer for having made the journey.
We all might say that we want to grow spiritually, but am I right in saying that none of us really likes being made to change. We want to grow, as long as we can stay as we are. The only person who likes change is a set baby. Sadly, it does not seem to work that way. That is not an option.
There is a story, I believe a true story, which goes to the heart of this.
In 1947 the hour of eleven on Sunday morning was called the most segregated hour in America. Sadly, it still is. Leslie Pennington who was the minister of First Unitarian Society of Chicago wanted to integrate his church. He didn’t feel justified in going out and recruiting black friends as John Haynes Holmes had done in New York; so, in his Chicago congregation it was voted upon whether or not they agreed to open their doors and welcome people of color. This vote caused a tremendous ruckus in the church. One board member, adamantly opposed to integrating the church, objected loudly giving many reasons the church should not be integrated. In the midst of the heated discussion, another board turned to him and asked, “What is this church for?” The upset man answered with more arguments against integrating the church. Again, the man asked the question, “What is this church for?” In his frustration and anger, the objecting member blurted out, “To change people like me!”
That’s why this church exists. To change people like you. To change people like me. We are challenged to change, to grow, within our congregations, because it is within our congregations that we encounter each other. Not alone. Not being spiritual but not religious. But doing the not always easy work of being vulnerable and safe at the same time. If not that, what is the point? The end of that story from Chicago is that the board member chose to leave the church, he was not willing to be changed, but had spoken the truth. The church exists to change people. To transform them. To help them grow. To make them better than they would otherwise be. They are you and me. That’s why we’re here.
We change each other, we help each other to grow, when we are honest with each other; when we say You are welcome, but that behavior is not; when we show compassion and care for each other; when we work together to make the world a better place by feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, speaking out against injustice. We change each other and help each other to grow when we break bread together, when we do the work of creating and sustaining community, when we hold each other tenderly, and allow ourselves to be held, through life’s hard moments.