“Principles Under Pressure”

Back in the day when my career within the prison system took me inside the locked gates to do case management work, I got an eyeful and an earful! Things like mass incarceration, the injustices of the criminal justice system, and the stories beneath the stories of people’s lives that undergirded the choices and decisions they had made. Sensory overload! All of these things are great topics for us to explore, but that’s not what I am here today to talk about. I was also made aware of a whole host of behaviors that resulted in a person’s incarceration – things I would never have dreamed of – the kind of things you only see in the movies if you are into that sort of storyline. But they were real, and the perpetrators of these behaviors were seated before me. Mine was not to judge. That had already happened. My job was to listen and to help them navigate a system that we all can acknowledge was mostly stacked against them or perhaps their eventual freedom. I learned a lot about people and choices in those days, but mostly I learned some things about myself. I realized that I would need to come to terms with my discomfort or even sometimes my disgust, with my anger and my fears, if I was going to endure twenty years of this work.


I would like to say that it was our UU Principles that made this possible for me, but the truth is that back then I hadn’t really discovered Unitarian Universalism! But I can see now that this faith I stumbled upon in my seeking certainly supports what I was going through. I want to thank Debbie Zahka for her sermon question in this morning’s “Service Auction Sermon” about our first Principle. We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And she is honestly on board with that, even when it is hard, because people do have their stories and who are we to judge a decision based in some traumatic prior event or an incapacity forged in genetic makeup. And I thought at the outset that she wanted me to talk about how on earth we manage this when it is really, really difficult; when a person’s behavior is based in one or more of the seven deadly sins – things like greed and lust, pride and envy. There are plenty of tools we can employ to work ourselves through this! Maybe we can talk about those someday, too. Then I discovered that it wasn’t so much the “how” that she was interested in. It was more about the “why.” Why should we make space in our hearts for those who take, for example, with no regard for the effect it has on others; whose values are so skewed that self is all they consider and an attitude that “more for me” tops their list of reasoning. While the “how” will help us wade through the muck, without a solid “why” there is no reason to dive in.


Back in the prison it was my belief in an inherent goodness at the core of all of humanity, likely rooted in my Christian upbringing and some sense of a “spark of the divine” in all beings. These days that spark is the actual spark that started us on our way as living beings; that speck of stardust that we are all derived from. As I peeled away the disturbing outer layers of the persons I was encountering, sometimes it took getting all the way down to that point in order to work my way back out again and sit with them as living breathing humans in whom I could place some value. It was buried far from the surface, but science told me that we both came from the same burst of energy and so I would often repeat to myself, “There but for the grace of God, go I,” knowing that we were all made of the same potential for our existence and its course.


Rabbi David Wolpe of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles wrote recently in a reflection on Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy Day of Atonement, about a friend who had been deservedly and publicly “canceled,” that thing in popular culture where we make someone an outcast from whatever circles we inhabit. He had caused serious hurt to some others and had spent some time working through what he had done in order to once again be accepted. Rabbi Wolpe was pondering a question similar to ours. What to do with the unforgivable? In Jewish tradition, he says, there is a belief that people can change. And this seems obvious because we are all changing all the time. But there will always exist people who don’t deserve to be restored to good reputation and we don’t need to admit them into our lives so readily either. This aspect of the question is about honoring our own dignity in the process. We need always to include ourselves in the mix when ascribing worth and dignity, considering our own integrity as a piece of the whole. Jewish teaching, however, insists that damnation is not required. It believes in transformation and suggests that judging based on potential, rather than the sum of one’s acts can move our culture to a place where shame is no longer the guiding force. It breaks the downward spiral.


In our reading this morning, my colleague the Rev. Dawn Fortune grounds their theology in love and I read the concept of potential into it as well. They offer opposing possibilities and yet see each end of the continuum and likely everything in between the ends as holy, sacred. For them the idea of God is not just all goodness and light! It is instead the powerful force that moves in either direction with the choices that we as human beings make. Just because a choice may seem negative according to our norms doesn’t mean that there was no holy energy involved. They suggest that it can show up when least expected, in the most unlikely places. Our Principles ask us to watch for that potential and when we see even a glimmer of it to affirm it and promote it. There is a lesson in the midst of it, for some or all of us.


When I say that I am a Humanist I am saying that I put my faith in humanity; in our potential as human beings to weather the storms of life, to move with changing tides and also to influence the course of our existence. I believe in the resilience of people, the power of minds and hearts to make a difference. When the difference someone makes appears anathema to me, I refuse to give up on them. I am tenacious and perhaps our Principles require that of us. None of them are easy! They are challenges to us as individuals and to us as humanity, both of which are works in progress. I am noticing that we seem at times so willing to cut some slack and at others to not budge an inch. We appear to want to apply our first Principle selectively. It is an internal struggle, much less about the object of our disdain and much more about our own journey. It means welcoming the tension and dissonance that arises because in it is the potential for growth. It means grappling with our implicit biases. Our Principles ask us to examine ourselves more so than they are built to offer a critique of the world around us.


Unitarian Universalist minister, Sarah Gibb-Millspaugh talks about our religion and its faith in humanity, saying that we will continuously find that faith being tested. Our culture is corrupted by selfishness and oppression-borne privilege and fear, she suggests, and it is easy to justify dehumanization, especially when we feel as if we are taking the moral high road. The thing about our faith – any good faith tradition really – is that it asks us to do better than this; to rise above the very behaviors we loathe in others and that come all too easily to us as well. It asks us to do the very radical thing of searching for that spark of worth, especially when it is hardest to do so. As we take steps toward living out our Principles we are changing the world in which we live. Perhaps the “why” for us has something to do with legacy, however far-reaching and distant the desired outcome may seem. Along the way we are maintaining our own integrity and that of the tradition we love.


Poet David Whyte writes about destiny saying that we shape it when we make choices in how we respond to what we encounter in our days. No action is without effect – every step we take alters the ground beneath our foot – our imprint in our wake. Answering the most abhorrent with a seeking eye bound and determined to unearth the human spark of potential creates a chain reaction that moves our existence closer and closer to its fullest expression of what it can be. It is always going to be a journey we are on, never fully arriving, but still we press forward in the hope of a better humanity realized in the lives of those who follow us.


This question of “why” has asked us to reflect on our own faith, each of us as evolving beings in constant relationship with one another and our larger world. It calls us to remember the aspirational nature of our Principles and the fact that we may never have it all figured out. I know I have just scratched the surface of an answer to this sermon question and as I continue to ponder its influence on my life and that of this congregation, I know it will weave its way into future conversations. For this I am grateful. May it be so for you as well.


UUMH Chatham, September 26, 2021

Blessed be.

Rev. Tracy Johnson