So much has changed in our lives over this year. We have been caught up in the global storm known as COVID-19. So much of what we took for granted or thought of as normal and regular, so much has been impossible, unsafe, even deadly.
Today, as a congregation, we honor passages in our lives: births, deaths, joining, crossing, and becoming. We may consider the ways the pandemic can also be seen as a passage. We are travelling this path from the way things were through into the way things may yet become. Every passage offers lessons to those involved.
While we have turned ourselves inside out to survive as best we could in this pandemic, we have learned some things about ourselves, about each other, about our world. We have learned some things about our values and our what matters to us, about what does and does not matter to others.
Here are some of the things we’ve learned over this this past year:
We are both fragile and resilient.
We have learned it can hard to keep moving when we are disoriented. It helps to slow down; it has been necessary to slow down.
We’ve learned it becomes easier for lies to spread when we are anxious and uncertain.
We’ve learned that 3.8 million is a large number – too large for most people to really take in. 3.8 million: that’s how many people have died from this pandemic since the beginning of 2020. 600,000 is also a big number. That’s the deaths just in the United States just from this one illness.
This has been hard. Harder that we imagined it would be.
But here is what else we’ve learned: while fear is still present, we are learning to rebuild our resilience.
We have learned that we can do online church; that we can protest injustice effectively even during a pandemic; that a lot of work can happen from home or anywhere – not all of it, but a lot more than we used to imagine; that medical innovation is possible with the right motivation and a reduction in capitalism’s restrictions.
We’ve learned that being with others helps. It is hard to be so vulnerable and powerless. Loneliness can be harmful.
Our big lesion has been that we need connection, that we are all more connected than we usually recognize. That need for connection has been what transmits the illness and also what has been a healing balm. Our connections matter. Our strength comes from being in community.
Our world is changing, and all shall be well. We will get through this, and all shall be well. We will get through this the way we have gotten through other difficulties in the past – together, and all manner of thing shall be well.
It is said that the shortest of the Buddha’s sermons went something like this: The Buddha had his disciples sitting around him; he reached down, plucked a flower and held it up. He spoke not a word. In that silence, one of his disciples became enlightened. Consider these flowers and consider how we fit into this amazing universe together.
There is something in our annual Flower Ceremony that always puts me in a certain frame of mind. I grow contemplative bordering on the mystic. What is it about flowers that we find so alluring and companionable? Certainly, their fragrance and color, their variety and wild abundance. And we find meaningful connections to these flowers and ourselves. We too have fragrance and color; we too arrive in such variety and – when we let ourselves – are capable of wild abandon. But there is more. These flowers are transient, they blossom and die all around us constantly. And yet they persist. So, it is with us as well.
Allow me a second Buddhist story, it pairs well with the one about the flower. This second story is from Thich Nhat Hanh (from at least a few decades back.) He has walking across a collage campus with several people after a lecture. This story is an autumn story, rather than a spring story about flowers. In this story, Thich Nhat Hanh and the others were walking and the ground was strewn with many-colored leaves that had recently fallen to the ground. Suddenly Thich Nhat Hanh stops, points to a leaf and shouts, “You’re faking!”
I love this story. I know I’ve told it before and some of you may remember it. I know my inclination is to look at autumn and think of things dying, or everything letting go. But the Buddhist teacher is right. Autumn is simply one point in the ever-circling spiral of life. The dead leaf is part of the grander cycle of rebirth – it just isn’t revealing that aspect of it at the moment. The leaves that are dying are not really dying.
What if the flowers are faking too? Because they are, you know. They are no more the epitome of life than the leaf in autumn is the epitome of death. The flower is one moment in the full cycle. And like us, it has unfolded into this moment of being and is on its way to somewhere else. But in this moment, ah, such color, such vibrance, such life.
Yes, the flower may be fixed in my mind, in my memory like a photo. A moment out of countless moments when it happens to be in its fullness. But in truth, that moment is a tension. The flower is in its fullness, in beautiful bloom; and it is at the same time on its journey from seed to compost – the full breadth of its living. The flower is faking when it shows us only its full glory, because it is not only that moment; it is also in the middle of a long, elegant journey.
We call it ‘living in the moment’ when we do it. We call it, ‘mindfully present.’ But the flower is faking. Its wholeness is not contained in the moment of full bloom. So it is with us. When we are living in the moment, when we are mindfully present, we do not stop being part of the ongoing circle and cycle of living. When we are living in the moment we are not escaping from the past or ignoring the future. We are in that full journey right now.
One more story. This one is from Anthony DeMello in his book One Minute Wisdom.
The Master smiled, “Tell me, my dear, when you were born did you come into the world like a star from the sky or out of it like a leaf from a tree?” All day long [the student] pondered that strange question of the Master. Then she suddenly saw the answer and fell into Enlightenment. (DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom, p121)
We were not dropped here into this moment, we grew here. We are not transplanted into nature, we are nature. We, like the blooming flower and the dying leaf, are the earth. We are a local embodiment of the universe. Walt Whitman famously said “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” We, like the grass, are the journey-work of the stars. And at any given moment, we are here – a leaf on the ground, a flower in bloom – ebbing or flowing; we are here.
I hope you may remember that when you are in a more barren or difficult season of your life, the flower is always part of the journey. even when it is ‘not yet’ or is ‘no longer.’ The flower is always with us and it is always on its way. And so are we.
From Whom all things come and to whom all things return.
Hear this prayer, for our faith community, for our nation and our world, for me and the ones I love, for all those who are loved. Hear us in this time of change and possibility and uncertainty.
We gather this morning across our phone lines and computer screens. We gather as a community scattered across the region, though connected across the weeks and months and in and out of this past year in the best ways we could keep connected during this pandemic. We gather digitally, yearning for the community of grace and support we have found in years past and need so keenly in these days.
This pandemic has put great limitations upon us, O Spirit. This pandemic has asked sacrifices of us, losses and hardship, isolation and care. We have borne the burden on behalf of ourselves and on behalf of others, of the vulnerable, of strangers in need.
We have learned, O Spirit, just how very deeply the connection is among us while we have been isolated and disconnected. With care, we have worn our masks, stayed away from crowds, stopped visiting friends and family. With care we have refrained from risks knowing that the risk I choose to take may impact my neighbor, my spouse, my friend, my children, in ways I cannot control. We have borne the burden, O Spirit.
And now, the science tells us the trouble is beginning to ease. We begin to breathe again; we begin to hope. We begin to make plans.
But Spirit we know this is a newly dangerous time. This sickness is not done, the burden is not lifted. It has eased, but the danger is still hidden and waiting. We know there are steps we can still take to both come back together and protect the vulnerable among us. O Spirit, help us to remember both the grace of coming back together and the continuing need to care for and protect the vulnerable among us.
As we step into this new time of in between, when our worlds begin to open back up but the risk is still present, help us to keep our values of inclusion and connection and truth at the front of our decisions and choices.
May our community thrive. May the people in our lives be held in care. May our world turn still toward compassion and care for all those in need. May we have what we need. May we remember our power. May we serve life. And may we keep compassion in our hearts as we move forward together into this next chapter of our living.
Be thou an ever-present strength with us on our journeys, O Spirt.
Unitarianism in this country began as an argument within the liberal Christianity of its day. It began as a response against certain theological doctrines. From those first arguments, on through to today, there has been a steady, albeit sometimes unnoticed, series of arguments at play among us. Our old Unitarian argument is still part of our identity and shows up not just in our history but in our present experience as a faith tradition today.
That first old argument – the opening salvo – I am referring to is revealed wonderfully in William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon of 1819 entitled “Unitarian Christianity.” It was our opening shot. In it, Channing made the argument that the Character of God is good: meaning God is not angry or vengeful or jealous, as some of the orthodox theologies would have it. God is Good. Next, Channing said God is one. God is a unity, not a trinity. Following from that he argued that Jesus was not God, that Jesus was likewise a unity, namely fully human. And the final big argument Channing made was that humanity has the capacity to be good, that we can follow the example of Jesus. Again, this was counter to the prevailing orthodoxy of the day that said humanity cannot be good without first being saved by God through Jesus.
I am breezing through the actual arguments because – and here is the best part – we did not say such doctrines were the creeds of a Unitarian faith to which all Unitarians must adhere. We instead choose to be non-creedal. In effect, what we did was establish a house in which our faith community could exist, but we did not put a lock on the door. We said anyone can join in our community if you agree with us in principle. You don’t need to believe the exact doctrines we’ve just declared; you don’t need that key to unlock the door to our community.
Pretty soon after Channing’s arguments were aired and Unitarian churches were established, there began to be a group of Deists showing up. And an argument began: Was God actively involved in the lives of the people? The Deists said no. Channing and the other Unitarian Christians said yes. But rather than kicking the Deists out, they all found a way to share the space. There was, after all, no creed saying the Deists could not be part of Unitarianism. So, we expanded our circle and kept going.
Next the Transcendentalists showed up. They found the door unlocked and moved in. And an argument began. Is the Bible the only valid revelation of God? The Transcendentalists like Emerson and Alcott, Thoreau and Fuller, argued it was not; while the Deists and the original Unitarian Christians argued that it was. But rather than kicking the Transcendentalists out, the Unitarians instead recognized that there was no creedal lock on the door. And we expanded the circle and kept going.
This became our pattern. Throughout our history, we’ve had significant theological arguments against the culture and theology around us and against cultures and theologies among ourselves. Yet our history is about how we stayed together through these arguments rather than the more common religious history pattern of splitting into factions and sects.
Today we Unitarian Universalists are at the point that our inclusivity is a bright beacon to the world and all those hungering for an open community grounded in values of truth and respect, personal integrity and communal support. We are not grounded in a creed or set belief as our center. As Rosemary Bray McNatt said in our reading this morning,
Whether you revere God, Goddess, nature, the human spirit, or something holy that you have no name for, you are welcome to join any Unitarian Universalist community and to worship, study, work, and be in relationship with people who are all on their own spiritual paths. (From “Our Faith” essay in UU Pocket Guide, 2012 edition)
But it is worth noting we have not arrived at this stance of openness by chance, nor have we been in this exact spot all along. Ours is an evolving dynamic faith history. And I suggest, we are not done.
My colleague Rev. Craig Schwalenberg shared this insight with me when we were talking about it yesterday. He said this pattern of argument and expansion in our history found in our beginnings, has subsequently reappeared roughly every few generations. This pattern did not stop with the Deists and the Transcendentalists of the early and mid-1800’s. Every few generations, a new group would show up among the Unitarians, find the door unlocked and move in. ‘Nice place you got here,’ they would say. ‘But you don’t fit in here,’ the response would come. And an argument would ensue.
And every few generations, this argument would rage through our churches and congregations, our fellowships and societies and meeting houses. And for a time, people would draw lines in the sand, churches would get into fights, ministers would loss their jobs, some people would get hurt. These conflicts were real. It was hard. But in the end, our history shows that we would eventually find our way to expand the circle and keep going.
That first old argument was about the nature of God and of Jesus. It was also about what it means to be human. As the years have worn on and the generations have come and gone – our arguments have continued. We’ve argued about the centrality of Christianity in our identity, about the relationship of science in our beliefs, about the importance of activism in our deeds. In early 1900’s we had a good, long argument about whether or not we even needed God in our theology at all. The Humanists pressed the question. They showed up among our Unitarian communities, found the door unlocked and moved in. And after some acrimony and struggle, we again expanded our circle and kept going.
It was a far more formal process when the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961 – but in many ways the pattern holds true for the outcome. The Universalists declared God was too good to damn humanity for eternity and the Unitarians countered that humanity was too good to be damned. (Credit to Thomas Starr King, who said this more eloquently). But still we found our way to expand the circle and keep going. I have intentionally been talking about just the Unitarians in this fun romp through our history. The Universalists had different patterns echoing along the ages, but that is a sermon for another day. Today I am lifting out the pattern within our American Unitarian history of argument and expansion. Because today I want to notice we are in the midst of that exact pattern now.
But I’m running ahead a bit. Let me finish the survey and then I’ll jump off this last ledge with you. It matters because the really exciting argument was next in our chronology. In the late 70’s and early 80’s we had a big argument brought to us by the pagans and supporters of feminist theologies. I call it exciting because something in the pattern seems to have shifted. The argument brought to us by the pagans and feminists suggested, among other thigs, that the Earth itself is holy, that we are more interconnected and relational than independent and isolated, and also the perspective that our journey is more a spiral dance than a climb onward and upward forever.
Interestingly, this argument fits the pattern at first. The pagans and feminists showed up, found the door unlocked and moved in. ‘Nice place you got here,’ they said. ‘But you don’t fit in here,’ the response came. And an argument ensued. We eventually expanded the circle and kept going. But here is the part that is different. In the past, whenever a new group or theological cohort would come into the fold, and the circle expanded to include them, a strange thing would happen. The group that was finally received would turn around and shut the door. Then when the next group would arrive, the most recent addition would lend the loudest complaints about the infiltration of the new trouble-makers in our midst!
When the Transcendentalists showed up, it was the Deists and Theists rallying against them. When the Humanist showed up, the Transcendentalists joined the hue and cry against them. When the Pagans came knocking, the Humanists were among the loudest to say that Paganism went going too far. This is not to say any of these theological groups were then or are now hypocritical by nature. No. It is simply the pattern of group dynamics we fell into over the years. I mention this part not to denigrate any theological perspective. I mention it to show that we all fall into the patterns at times and it is hard work to shake ourselves free.
And here, now is the interesting bit: the earth-centered traditions … the pagans and the feminist theologies … did not shut the door behind them once the circle was expanded and they were firmly recognized among us. Part of the perspective they brought was this exact shift in recognizing how to keep the circle open for the next people who may need to be let in. I thank God for those feminists and pagans from fifty years ago, for the influence their theology and perspective has had on me and on our faith history.
All of which leads me to our current situation. Unitarian Universalism has been overdue for a theological argument. If you have been paying attention to the themes and scuffles in the broader Unitarian Universalist movement – I won’t assume any of you have – then you may be pondering this exact question. What theological argument is going on now?
About 15 or 20 years ago there was the beginnings of a good theological argument among us. We were talking about the Language of Reverence a lot. People were lining up for and against the use of particular words in our churches such as church, God, prayer, and worship. It had the feel of the pattern. Almost. There was not a group or cohort in particular championing this argument against the current establishment within Unitarian Universalism. It was just some of us arguing with some of us. Plus, the argument eventually faded away without resulting in increased inclusion or notable exclusion in our circle. And it never quite reached the level of people getting hurt or losing their jobs or feeling like they were getting excommunicated – all of which does tend to happen when the conflicts get significant among us.
When I back into the question I find an interesting possibility. When I ask what theological dispute is brewing among us, I don’t notice anything happening nowadays that has folks concerned. When I ask instead, what is going on now that has some UUs getting hurt, losing their ministry and field work jobs, or feeling like they are getting excommunicated? Well, that question cracks open some possibilities. Almost.
The answer to who is getting hurt in UUism by UUs today is people of color, trans people, and some other similarly marginalized identities among us. Today in Unitarian Universalism there is a heated argument unfolding about anti-racism and multiculturalism as well as about how welcoming or unwelcoming we are to transgender and gender queer people, particularly leaders among us. The thing is: that’s not a theological perspective. So, this almost fits the pattern, enough to make me very curious.
I will pause here and say: I am “all in” for being inclusive and supportive of folks on the margins in our faith. I say this not to virtue-signal or toe a party-line, but to acknowledge that there are somethings we ought not, we cannot, be neutral about.
That said, let me pull your attention back to the broader topic at hand. This is an argument happening among us as Unitarian Universalists, but is it a theological argument? Might we be looking at another old unfolding of the doctrines around human nature – who is worthy, who is included, who counts? Is this culture war around identity and racism rooted in some old ideas of human nature that we are being called upon to refute once more? Maybe. I might just be fishing here. And I wonder if the argument is about plurality and multiculturalism is a stand in for the old argument about the saved and unsaved, good people vs second-rate people.
Thankfully, I can tell you how this argument will eventually turn out. One way or another, we will eventually find our way to the other side of this and discover our circle again expanded and we will have grown as a faith tradition.
Until then, I encourage us all to be mindful of how we can have arguments and conflict in ways that are healthy. I encourage us to step closer to the troubles we notice; to allow the differences and disagreements to be present but not harmful. And in so doing, may we remember we are not just talking about interesting ideas and theological positions; we are talking about people. May we proceed with grace and may we engage our differences openly and respectfully – for that is what our faith calls of us in times like these.