Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

By Their Groups Shall You Know Them — Rev. David Pyle

Last preached September 23rd, 2012


Sermon        “By Their Groups Shall You Know Them”       Rev. David Pyle

In the late 1960’s, when the Soviet Union

was at the height of its power,

Unitarian professor and theologian James Luther Adams

attended a meeting of

the American Philosophical Association in Boston.


The guest and featured speakers at this conference

were three professors of Philosophy from Soviet Russia.


In the conversations that followed the lectures,

an American philosopher asked his Russian counterparts

when the Soviet Union was going to adopt freedom of speech.

To everyone’s surprise, all three of the visiting philosophers

insisted energetically that there was already

the freedom of speech in Soviet Russia.

They cited all sorts of evidence to back up this claim,

and were quite emphatic about it.


Another American asked his Soviet counterparts

when Russia would adopt Democracy.

To the continued surprise, and even frustrated disbelief

on the part of some, the Russian philosophers insisted

that the Soviet system was politically Democratic…

and that the people were better represented

under their form of Democracy

than they were in the United States.


Finally, one American professor from the audience

asked the visiting Russian philosophers

when they would adopt

the fundamental freedom of American life…

the Freedom of Association.

Despite much effort, translations back and forth,

and even some assistance from a British Marxist philosopher,

the Russians simply could not understand

the importance of a Freedom of Association…


Or, they could not afford to understand.


Isn’t it ironic that, among all the freedoms

that we American’s cherish,

the one freedom we never give a second thought to,

the one we rarely comment on or defend,

is the one that these Soviet philosophers

could not even admit they understood,

for fear that the Soviet government

would no longer think them politically reliable?


When our nation was young,

America played host to many a tourist from Europe.

One such tourist was a man named Alexis de Tocqueville.

We know so much about de Tocqueville’s explorations

of the new American experiment,

because he wrote several works on his time in this country.


De Tocqueville once joked that

“where two or three Americans are gathered together,

it is likely that a committee is being formed”.

He also said that

“Wherever at the head of some new undertaking

you see the government in France,

or a man of rank (nobility) in England,

in the United States you will be sure to find an association”.


As Max Webber said, we are a nation of joiners,

which is quite ironic considering

how much of our national image is built

upon freedom, individuality, and independence.

We form associations almost without thinking about it…

Citizens for this, People for that.


They are a large part of who we are,

as a nation and as individual people.


We of liberal faith love big questions.

Like one of our hymn’s asks : Where do we come from?

What are we?  Where are we going?

But one of the most important questions we can ask of ourselves,

and one of those we have the best chance

of finding an answer to is

“Who am I?”


I doubt there are any of us in this room who,

if asked to write down a list of who we are

and what is important to us,

would not end up putting down some associations

we belong to or support.

I hope that more than a few of you would put your association

with our church near the top of your list!

All the groups, clubs, associations, and causes

we belong to play a major role

in both our public and our private personas.


Societies and associations have a place

on our resume when we apply for a job,

or when we introduce ourselves to someone,

or when we choose decorations for the bumpers of our cars.

When our life story is told in our obituary in the local paper,

what groups we were a part of

almost always get prominent billing.


It was James Luther Adams,

that same Unitarian Professor

who challenged the Soviet philosophers

who changed the words of Jesus when he said

“By their roots shall you know them”,

by making the statement about people of Liberal faith,

“By their Groups shall you know them.


Our nation began as a series of associations,

people who came together to protest the treatment of the colonies

by the crown of England.


The ancestors of our Unitarian Universalist religious movement

began as a series of associations that came together

to worship in a new way,

with leadership drawn from among themselves,

and bound together not simply by geography, but by covenant.

At the heart of every social action cause

that you might feel strongly about there is an association,

from the American Civil Liberties Union

to the Ventura County Rescue Mission.


Imagine if that freedom were to disappear.

At its core, this was the danger of the McCarthy hearings and the House Un-American Activities hearings and their aftermath.

In each of these cases, the United States Government

challenged the individual’s right to be a member of associations,

not because those associations advocated violence,

but because they fell outside the government’s view

of what it meant to be American.

In each of these cases, it was the Freedom of Association,

the right to come together in groups and organizations

to promote certain ideals, causes, or lifestyles

that found itself endangered.


But those examples are in the past, right?

There is no question in America today

about the Freedom of Association, is there?

In a memorandum released a few years ago,

the American Society of Newspaper Editors

analysis of Patriot Act II

cites four sections of that act that violate

the principle of Freedom of Association.


The act criminalizes support of any organization

which the government deems to “support terrorism”,

even if you are unaware of that support.

And, even for our current government

the definition of “terrorism” has become a rather large tent.


Seem farfetched?  Well, a professor named Sami Al-Arian

has been in jail or under house-arrest

in the United States since 2003

on just these kinds of charges.  And he’s not the only one.


The freedom to come together in association

is at the core of everything that makes us American.

How ironic that each time that this freedom becomes threatened,

it is always in the guise of “protecting America” and our freedom.


Surely though, there has to be something we do in American life

that is completely individualistic, right?

We are the nation of the “rugged individual”…

we are the go it alone Mavericks

that are always “goin rogue” right?


I thought through my own life,

to see if there was anything I had ever experienced

that was completely and totally individualistic…

completely without any association at all.


And for a moment, I thought I had found it!

You see, up until we moved to Chicago,

I had always had a motorcycle.

I love motorcycles, even though three months working in a hospital trauma ward cured me of owning one again.

I’ve had 4 motorcycles in my life, all of them Hondas.


As I remembered riding my 1979 Honda Goldwing

out on the western half of Galveston Island, Texas,

I thought I had found that

completely individualistic American activity!

There was just me and the motorcycle!

Unless you completely ruin the experience with a walkie-talkie,

you can’t speak to anyone, or listen to the radio.

There is just you, your thoughts, and the road.


Just as I thought this, I remembered a time

when another motorcycle pulled towards me in the opposite lane.

As the rider came up to pass me,

he took his left hand off of the handle bars

and gave me a quick wave, and I automatically returned it.


We had never met.

We would probably not speak to each other

if we passed one another in the supermarket.

Had we been in cars,

we would have been lucky to notice the other was even there.

But because we were both on a motorcycle,

we shared enough of a kinship that we waved at one another.


This is not an isolated incident…

motorcycle riders wave at each other all the time!

Watch for it sometime as you are driving behind a motorcycle…

see how many other riders wave at them.

None of these people know each other,

but there is an implicit association between them,

simply by virtue of being on two wheels and not four.

And, as I can now testify… Smart Car drivers

Flash their lights at one another when they pass…


And there is not just this implied association,

but there are literally thousands of actual,

formal motorcycle riders associations out there…

from the Hell’s Angels to Biker’s for Christ!

Major cities have dozens of motorcycle clubs,

small towns often have one or two.


Almost every major police department has a motorcycle club,

and there are even motorcycle clubs

that combine social action causes with the passion to ride…

from the group “Rolling Thunder”

which promotes Prisoner of War awareness,

to Gay and lesbian Motorcycle clubs,

such as the Cavaliers in New Orleans,

or the Satyrs in Los Angeles.

One group of Vietnam Veteran motorcycle riders

came out at 4am one morning a few months ago,

and escorted the bus carrying a group of my soldiers

to the plane that would take them

eventually to Kuwait and Afghanistan,

in an honor formation carrying American flags.


Even in this motorcycle community of ardent individualists,

for which freedom and liberty are watchwords,

and in which the cult of the individual is given free-reign,

we find that the Freedom of Association is exercised

with a proliferation the likes of which

it is hard to fully comprehend.

There are indeed many times many more motorcycle associations

in the United States than there are

Unitarian Universalist Churches.


From our two major political parties, to biker’s for Jesus,

the Freedom to come together and associate

is the foundation of our democracy, the foundation of our society,

and indeed it is the foundation of much of our religion.


This is most certainly true for us religious liberals.


There are two different kinds of associations…

those you choose to belong to,

and those you really have no choice but to belong to.

You don’t often get to choose whether to join a family,

and if you want to be a lawyer,

you have to join the Bar Association.

There are quite a few doctors who grumble

about having to support the American Medical Association,

and, though we could, it would be difficult to leave the Association

known as the United States of America…


But your church is another matter.

You voluntarily choose to join your church,

and you can choose to leave it.

A church is one of those associations that you join and support

because you want to, not because you have to.

And if you don’t like the one you are in,

there are plenty more where that one came from.


There are well over a hundred churches

in Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, and Ojai…

To say nothing of synagogues and temples….


What religious community you choose to attend, join

or even just visit from time to time says a lot about who you are,

both to yourself and to others.

For those of us of liberal faith,

our choice in our religious community

stands in even sharper contrast

to many of those other congregations,

not necessarily in the “how we do church”,

but rather in the “why we do church?”

As Rev. Jan recently asked the board…

Who are we as a church?  Whose are we as a church?  To what are we called as a church?


As people of liberal faith, our choice of a church

is more than a choice for an internal community,

but also a choice for a way of engaging the world.


A statement that we believe in a just society.

A statement that we believe that revelation is continuous.

A statement that we believe that the divine speaks

to many different people in many different ways,

all of which we can learn from.

A statement that we believe that human kind is inherently good,

not inherently sinful.

A statement of compassion over revenge,

of acceptance over division,

of equity over privilege,

and of a life of purpose over a life of pointlessness…

all of these things and more our choice of a religious community,

our choice of this church, says about us.

And together, and only together

can we work in this world to make these ideals of ours a reality.


That, my sisters and brothers of liberal faith

is the power of the Freedom of Association.

That is the power of coming together in community.

In one of my favorite quotes, Margaret Meade said

“never doubt that a small group of well intentioned citizens

can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.


I will ask you to think about this…

how much of who you are

is defined by being a person of liberal religious faith?

How much of who you want to be is so defined?

How much of what you believe in this world

is represented by your membership

in an association of Unitarian Universalism?

And how would you be different

if that part of who you are, was gone?

If this Church did not exist?


When you become a member of a Liberal Religious Church,

when you support your faith,

when you support your liberal religious movement

with your time through serving in a leadership position,

with your talent through applying

your knowledge and skill to the movement,

and with your treasure through your pledge and your donations…

what you are really supporting is yourself.

You are supporting a portion,

and in some cases like mine a large portion,

of who you are in this world.


What is it worth, to be true to yourself?

To keep this portion of who you have chosen to be,

alive and healthy?


Some of us today are considering

whether or not to attend the membership classes,

and take the step of joining this church.

Others among us are considering our pledge for the next year, and still more of us are wondering how we might come together

to support special projects at the church,

such as adding the right new floor

to our fellowship area in Berg Hall.

We often think of these commitments

in terms of the benefits to us, or to others…

and often forget what such commitments

say about who we are, and who we want to be.


James Luther Adams said “By their groups shall you know them”

and how better to be known than by your liberal religious faith?


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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