(archived — use the download or “Play in Popup” link)
Presented by: Rev. Elizabeth McMaster
READINGS – The Revs. Kirk Loadman-Copeland and Ken Collier
Kirk Loadman-Copeland is a UU minister at the UU Church of the South Hills in Pittsburgh PA. He says:
“We are one faith with many paths. These major paths include liberal Christianity, theism, religious humanism, nature mysticism, feminism, and neo-paganism. While each of these exist as a unique strand within our tradition, each has also shaped Unitarian Universalism in ways that have kept it dynamic and responsive. Given our theological pluralism, how do we understand our religious identity? Do we define ourselves simply as Unitarian Universalists? Might we also add to that definition the specific path that we find ourselves following? Could it be that more than one path commands our loyalty and gives meaning to our life?…
“For many of us, our religious identity might best be represented by a point where several paths intersect. The paths that resonate with my own spiritual longing include theism, nature mysticism, feminism, religious humanism and liberal Christianity. To the purist, this eclectic approach might seem an undisciplined, counterfeit approach to religion. I believe that the intersection of various paths brings us to a place that invites a profound internal conversation about the nature and meaning of religion in our own experience. Rather than limiting our spiritual curiosity to one path, we have the freedom to explore several to more deeply understand the similarities and differences among them. Perhaps we have best kept faith with our tradition of tolerance when we have explored each path within Unitarian Universalism enough to understand and respect its unique truth.”
Ken Collier is our minister in Palo Alto, CA. He has served our churches in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. He says:
“…what is important is not that we all vibrate equally to the same transient metaphor but that we learn to look through each other’s metaphors to the Permanent standing behind them. When will we have done with worrying about choosing up sides and trying to decide who is “in” the circle and who is “out” of the circle? It has always seemed to me that if we really understood Parker, we would realize that theology is and must always be autobiographical and therefore never prescriptive. Why should anyone care what my theology is but me? Why should anyone be offended, puzzled, bent out of shape, or otherwise discomfited by what I do–or do not–believe? When some one asks me for my self-classification my reply is always: Unitarian Universalist.”
Is it any wonder that people other than Unitarian Universalists don’t understand us? Do we wonder that we have difficulty explaining our religion to others? Are we surprised that we have difficulty explaining it to ourselves? Here we have two respected ministers within the movement–one, Kirk Loadman-Copeland, who asks, “Do we define ourselves simply as Unitarian Universalists? Might we also add to that definition the specific path that we find ourselves following? Could it be that more than one path commands our loyalty and gives meaning to our life?” The other, Ken Collier, who says, “When some one asks me for my self-classification my reply is always: Unitarian Universalist.”
Now these two UU ministers are not lightweights, nor do they weigh the question, “Who are we?” lightly. But for Kirk, being a Unitarian Universalist must be more narrowly defined by adding -Buddhist, or -Humanist, or -Christian to his religious name. And to Ken, being “Unitarian Universalist” says it all. I am of the Collier School, but I have been in the past a Loadman-Copelian–and I believe that both schools of thought are–well, right’s not the right word–of course they’re both “right.” Maybe it’s that both schools of thought can help us along our way in seeking our own beliefs.
But I have another question for you this morning that precedes Ken’s and Kirk’s puzzlements. As you answer it, you may come down in either one of their camps–and that’s just cool–and the question may lead you on toward further thought. For my underlying desire is to get you to think about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist and how do you live your life accordingly. My question, posed initially by my colleague, Dick Gilbert, is this: If Unitarian Universalism were judged to be a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Now that’s not a light weigh-in question. It’s a question that’s formulated to take us deep into our own private, distinctive ways of looking at the world and our place in it. I’ll repeat: If Unitarian Universalism were judged to be a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
The interesting thing about defending the answer to this question is that for each one of you there’s a different answer. And there’s no one right answer–that’s what makes us Unitarian Universalist. We don’t have a creed to ascribe to. There’s no way for you to start scribbling down an “I believe…” statement that’s copied off a plaque on the wall or that you had to memorize in order to join this church. We don’t ask that of new members as we welcome into our churches. We ask them to subscribe to our UU Purposes and Principles and we promise them that they, along with each one of us, have the freedom and the responsibility to search for truth and meaning in each of our lives.
Now, having said that, I must backtrack to say that there are, indeed, a few answers that are not acceptable. One of them is, “I can believe anything I want.” Wrong! “Why not,” you might respond. “Hey! we’re free to search out our own meaning for our own lives. Why can’t I believe anything I want?”
Well, I’ll tell you why! If you believe you can believe anything you want to believe, then you have forgotten the other part of our Unitarian Universalist Third Principle which says, “we affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Not just free–FREE AND RESPONSIBLE! Furthermore, you have neglected to look at another Principle, which says that we promise to respect “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” If your free search says to you, “It’s okay to hate someone else because they’re a fundamentalist or they’re a homosexual or they’re a racist a pagan or…or…or, then you may have arrived at a set of beliefs in your search for truth and meaning, but your not living up to the principles of Unitarian Universalism. It’s also a cop-out answer. Believing anything is not saying…well, it’s not saying anything!
Another answer that just doesn’t cut it is, “Well, I don’t believe such-and-such.” Like, “I don’t believe in a judging God somewhere up there.” Or, “I don’t believe in heaven or hell!” Or, “I don’t believe in Jesus.” That may be AN answer, but, like saying “I can believe anything I want,” it doesn’t actually say anything. Saying what you DON’T believe, doesn’t give a clue as to what you DO believe. What are your answers to the great religious and moral questions of all time. Questions like: What have I learned out of the experiences of my life? What guides me in my everyday life? Why am I here? What’s the meaning of my life? What’s the meaning of death?
That’s the stuff we need to wrestle with if we’re to lead lives that are fulfilling. And to simply say we can believe anything we want or saying what we don’t believe, just doesn’t cut it! These are tough questions. And you cannot get the answers to them out of a book or from a sermon. You can get some insights or some jump-starts from books or sermons, but the answers need to come out of your own mind and heart, out of the experiences you’ve had in the life you’ve led and the thinking you’ve done.
We don’t have an easy religion. It demands that we think about what we believe in–there are no creeds to guide the way. You’re on your own, pretty much. That’s why we have churches–Unitarian Universalist churches–to help us in our spiritual quest for truth and meaning. We come together to seek the answers in the company of others who respect differing beliefs.
So, it’s important–no, it’s vital–if we are to live fulfilling lives for us to go deep into our own centers to ask the questions of faith and of living and to begin to make sense of it all–all the while remembering that revelation is not sealed, and that our questing spirits will always be challenged as the events of our lives pose new questions for new times.
But there’s another equally essential part of our faith along with figuring out what our faith actually is. And that is–how do we live out our faith.
The fulfilled ones among us know this. They know what they believe and they live their beliefs out in their daily lives. They think about what experience can teach them. They work to make this world better and that strengthens their faith as Unitarian Universalists.
So, let me pose some ideas for you to chew on–about how to live your lives by the Purposes and Principles of our faith.
This month, across the United States, many churches and synagogues are celebrating Solidarity Sunday. Developed some years ago by Dignity, the Catholic gay organization, it asks that you affirm your support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. This ribbon on the sleeve of my robe reminds me of that pledge I’ve made–that I am in solidarity with our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers. I have pledged myself to work for civil rights for all people; to seek to stop jokes and unkind language that arise out of bigotry and ignorance; to help stop physical violence against anyone–gay or non-gay. Just a year ago, I journeyed to Lynchburg, VA, home of Jerry Fallwell, along with 200 supporters of gay rights. We went as part of Soulforce, a national organization of gay and gay friendly people who work to eliminate hate and hateful language. We went to Jerry Falwell’s home town to ask him to stop verbally beating up on gay people. Since last October Soulforce has appeared in Denver at the Episcopal General Assembly and in Cleveland at the Methodists’ Annual Meeting. But you don’t have to go to Lynchburg or Denver or Cleveland to stand up for gay rights right here in Los Alamos. You can affirm what you have voted as a congregation and have posted on your walls in testimony to that affirmation of gay rights. You can tell people who tell “fag” jokes that you find them offensive. You can ask your legislators to support Hate Crime legislation. There’s lots you can do.
The fire has given all of us in Los Alamos the opportunity to help others. Last Tuesday, Kok Heong and I attended Advocate training for the Interfaith Recovery Project. This is a chance to reach out and touch people who have lost everything in the fire. You’re a hand holder mostly. Perhaps you’d accompany someone to the FEMA office as they turn in their lists of lost properties or seek answers that may be confusing or hard for them to understand. You go as a friend and supporter.
There are some religions that have to ponder whether to become involved in the world. For Unitarian Universalists, that’s a no-brainer. Should we be involved with community matters? Of course we should. Unlike some other religions that believe the spiritual side of life is definitely separate and distinct from the secular side of life. That what we do in church has no relevance to what we do in the world. Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, are committed to working for justice in this world.
However, we do have a tendency to talk this talk a lot better than we walk the walk. We spend lots of time talking with one another about the problems of the world and what we believe to be solutions. This is not just a tendency of this church. Look at how much time the Association spends in formulating policy questions having to do with civic and social ills of the world. Could we better spend our time by getting involved and then doing a bit of reflection on what we’ve done? We learned in seminary that contemplation and action are fully intertwined. That to do justice without thinking about the experience makes the work merely activity, but to simply talk without action is pious drivel. Both the work of the hands and the labor of the mind and heart are essential if we are to be whole.
I know many of you are doing lots of work for social justice–on your own. But can we, as Unitarian Universalists, live out our faith by doing justice, as a religious community? We do a few things–CSA comes to mind. The resolution regarding Wen Ho Lee comes to mind. I tend to think we could do more.
These are worthwhile efforts–CSA and supporting Wen Ho Lee–but could we do more? Could we have more going–as a community? As a church community–working side by side and getting to know each other at a deeper level. Living our faith in working for justice–together.
That’s a huge chunk of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.
We’ll never come to one conclusion about our beliefs. We will each of us come to our own faith stances, each in our own way. And we can argue with each other till the cows come home, but that part of our religion won’t change. Diversity is what we’re about, and diversity is what we, in truth, need to celebrate. It makes us whole, and it makes us interesting people. It’s, for me, the most exciting thing about being a Unitarian Universalist. I trust it is for you as well.
But the one thing we share as Unitarian Universalists–the one thing we can plead guilty to loud and clear is our abiding belief that, though our roads split into many over theological convictions, we are one in our belief that this life counts! And that this life needs purpose–and it’s purpose is more than making ourselves more and more comfortable.
Our purpose as Unitarian Universalists is to help create a better world. We kid ourselves about our penchant for talk–and indeed we do love to talk. Maybe this joke illustrates my point:
How many Southern Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? About 16,000,000. However, they are badly divided over whether changing the bulb is a fundamental need or not.
How many televangelists does it take to change a light bulb? Honestly, we’re not sure. But for the message of change to continue to go out, please keep those letters and checks coming.
How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Four. One to change the bulb. One to bless the elements. One to pour the sherry. And one to offer a toast to the old light bulb.
How many Amish does it take to change a light bulb? What’s a light bulb?
How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb? 300–12 to sit on the Board which appoints the Nominating and Personnel Committee. 5 to sit on the Nominating and Personnel Committee which appoints the House Committee. 8 to sit on the House Committee which appoints the Light Bulb Changing Committee. 4 to sit on the Light Bulb Changing Committee which chooses who will screw in the Light Bulb–those 4 then give their own opinion of “screwing in methods” while the one actually does the installation. After completion it takes 100 individuals to complain about the method of installation and another 177 to debate the ecological impact of using the light bulb at all. (The funniest thing about this joke is, for those of you who were counting–and of course there were those of you counting–we’re UU, after all–that total comes to 306!)
Well, we can kid ourselves all we want, but there’s enough truth in that joke to take seriously. We need to cut the talk and start the walk–and if you respond to me with a list of all the volunteer work you’re doing, I’ll applaud your efforts. But I’d like to see this church–as I want to see all Unitarian Universalist churches–do the work of community–as a community. Not only each of us as individuals.
Becoming a Unitarian Universalist takes more than throwing off the shackles of the church of our youth. It takes more than saying what it is we don’t believe. It takes more than formulating–even tentatively and hesitantly–our faith stances. It takes taking that belief system–a belief system that in large part says THIS is the place where we live and THIS is the place where we live out our faith–DOING the work of community– together.
If Unitarian Universalism were judged to be a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you? That’s a question you must answer for yourselves. On the basis of your answers, however, depends the future of our faith. But, more than that–more than the future of our faith–rests the future of each one of us–and both of these futures are so intertwined that we cannot separate one from the other. You will determine how your life is to be led–if Unitarian Universalism were ever to be judged a crime, may you be judged guilty. AMEN.
The Rev. Elizabeth McMaster