"Affirmation and Promotion"
Coming up as I did in the Catholic church and during my young adult life as I made my way
through various Protestant traditions, I recall one thread that remained a constant in my Sunday morning experiences. That common feature was the recitation of The Apostle’s Creed. Sunday morning experiences. That common feature was the recitation of The Apostle’s Creed. Decidedly Trinitarian, it asked me to state my beliefs alongside others of like mind – a belief in God, the divinity and sonship of Jesus, his trial, death, ascension, and current role with the Father, the promise of forgiveness and eternal life. In fact, these beliefs were a prerequisite, I learned in later years for entrance into the church. When I was a teen, I didn’t pay much attention to what was being asked of me and then I drifted away. Upon my return I was much more intent on having the words match my actual beliefs, hence the movement along a path that wound its way among the myriad forms of Christian religion. There is a joke about Unitarian Universalists that suggests we don’t sing our hymns well because we are too busy looking ahead to the next line to see if we agree with what we are being asked to give voice to! And I can see now that this is exactly what I was doing all those years! Little did I know that I was a UU even back then!
But, kidding aside, it mattered enough to me to move along when the words I was saying didn’t align with what was in my heart or what I had come to know through time and study – a student always of my tradition, whatever it was in the moment - to move on when the exclusive nature of a single belief system was the only acceptable alternative. Maybe some of you can recount a similar journey, those who are not “birthright UU’s.” There came a point in time where the spiritual and intellectual dissonance you were experiencing became a catalyst for change.
And so, I found my way into a local Unitarian Universalist Society – the location of which was one of the best kept secrets in town, but I am tenacious – and found something very different. There were certainly beliefs, but there were many, unique, as individual as the people who held them. There was no requirement that one subscribe to a spoken creed. And like our video said, I met Humanists and Buddhists, Christian and Jewish people, Atheists and Agnostics and Pagans. Their diversity of belief became for them a strength rather than something divisive. They were genuinely interested in each other’s take on things. Like in the words of 16 th century Unitarian preacher, Francis David, they believed that they, “need not think alike to love alike.” Their conversation was lively and respectful. They were all on a journey, seekers of truths yet to be discovered. And together they joined in what seemed to me like a spiral dance of learning and experiencing and questioning and growing. I realized I was home.
The system was centered around a set of values as opposed to rules. The inherent worth and dignity of everyone. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships. Acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth. Both the freedom and the responsibility to search for truth and meaning. Trusting in the conscience of each person and the democratic process. Caring for a peaceful, just, and free world for all of humanity to exist in. Acknowledgement of the interdependence in which we are all held. And as I said in the invitation to our service today, these are all things that any progressive, liberal religion might espouse. So, the question for me
becomes, “What makes us different?”
Some will argue that these actually are beliefs that we expect folks to adhere to, that they have become a bit creedal. Others will say that these are aspirational Principles, the kind of thing we know we have not fully arrived at and thus are always working toward. I have never been asked to recite them as a litmus test of my Unitarian Universalism, but the idea of aspirational principles can have the effect of letting one off the hook – as in, since we’ll never actually get there, what difference does it make how actively I pursue such values in my life. Neither of these arguments carry the day for me. These Principles are a part of our larger Unitarian Universalist Association’s by-laws, in a section that also holds a purpose statement for the organization, a list of potential sources from which we draw, and a word about inclusion. As a member congregation, we attend to the governance structure of the whole, while keeping in mind the congregational nature of our form of religion in decision making. We are fairly grass roots and each of our congregations has its own personality and makes its own decisions about how it will be run.
The key, as I see it, is not in the Principles themselves or in the wide array of source material from which we encourage study and growth. It has to do instead with the line that precedes these in the bylaws. There it says that, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:” going on to list them. We covenant to affirm and promote these stated values. A covenant is like a promise. It is about a relationship between partners who make a binding promise to each other and who work together toward a common goal. Unlike contracts they are relational and personal in their attempt to follow through on commitments. If you have spent any time in the Hebrew scriptures, you will be familiar with the covenants between God and his people. These are vertical covenants and imply a top down relationship where God promises to do any number of desirable things as long as the people keep up their end of the bargain. The covenants we make as Unitarian Universalists are horizontal in nature, leveling the playing field, respectful of all the parties, maintaining dignity. They are entered into together. We walk this journey alongside one another.
And this is our history as we follow in the footsteps of our Puritan forebears, who some 400 years ago said a resounding, “Yes!” in response to the prophet Amos’s question, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” They decided that they didn’t need to believe the same things, but that the important part was that they form a sacred bond, “a spiritual contract with far more moral power and depth of commitment than any other kind of agreement,” writes my colleague Victoria Weinstein. The emphasis was on how they walked together rather than on what they believed together. The beliefs will differ, but the values we have come to know as our Principles will need to be agreed to if the system is going to work.
How then, do we affirm and promote these ideals? These are active words. Affirming. Promoting. There is something for us to be doing, business for us to be about. They describe for us the nature of our relationships with one another, even as, and I would say before, we attempt to apply them to the rest of our living and being in the world beyond these walls. Here within the safety of this sacred space we agree to operate with respect, ensure equity, practice compassion, honor our various truths. Every week here we say we affirm the love in our midst, our foundation of service, and the peaceful nature of our interactions. We are seekers who help one another along the way – our spiritual way as well as our practical way in this life. These are all calls to action that we promise to attend to. This is a faith that envisions, demands, and requires of us, as we heard in our opening words this morning. There is an understanding that in acting as our best selves toward these ends, the path may be winding, but it is free from the stumbling blocks of disrespect, of hierarchy, of power over. We are promised to one another, bound by a connecting force that reminds us that we need each other to make it in this world.
If you ask some of the folks here why they come, my guess is that the word community will pop up more frequently than not. The truth is that we can find a sense of community in lots of places, participating in activities with like-minded people in our wider spheres. We gather around a cause or a body of work or a common leisurely or intellectual pursuit. Community here is something deeper than that. Beneath the progressive values lies a thread that tethers us one to another. We promise to work together to bring life to our values in real relationships that engage the whole of our beings – body, mind, and spirit. It is an intentional practice. We come here to be challenged and encouraged, to learn and to grow, to be empowered to take these hard-won values out into our broken world.
Covenant has been the constant even as the values have shifted to meet the times. The Principles and Purposes we have now are not the same as what existed at the time of the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961, not the same as those adopted in 1985 or amended in 1995. And as per our UUA bylaws they are again under review; the Article II Study Commission hard at work now in a years-long process of redrafting, receiving input and eventually presenting potential new language that speaks to who we have come to be and where we are headed.
The Rev. Gene Pickett, former member of this congregation said in 1979 when he assumed the role of President of our Unitarian Universalist Association in reference to the circumstances of that day,
“The deeper malaise lies in our confusion as to what word we have to spread. The old
watchwords of liberalism—freedom, reason, tolerance—worthy though they may be,
are simply not catching the imagination of the contemporary world. They describe a
process for approaching the religious depths, but they testify to no intimate
acquaintance with the depths themselves. If we are ever to speak to a new age, we
must supplement our seeking with some profound religious finds." 1
1979. and still poignant today. He was encouraging us to something deeper, to an intimacy of relationship with one another on a journey toward our best selves and the best that this faith tradition can offer. He knew then that the promises we make to one another in the sacred bonds of covenant hold the strength of our commitments and the power to carry us through whatever changes came our way.
If you are visiting with us today and this is your first encounter with Unitarian Universalism, I hope you come away from our service with a better understanding of this religious tradition. I know that any of us here or on zoom would be happy to talk more about our faith and ponder your questions with you. And if you are a regular here, I hope you come away from this service renewed in the foundations of our tradition and that you, too, will continue to ponder, to question and to grow in depth and wholeness as we journey together.
So may it be.
Rev. Tracy Johnson, UUMH Chatham, November 13, 2022