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

In and Between — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on March 18th 2012.

 

Reading

“Beneath all our diversity, behind all our differences,
there is a unity of the spirit that makes us one,
and binds us forever together in spite of time,
and death, and the space between the stars”.

Rev. David Bumbaugh

Sermon     “In and Between”   Rev. David Pyle

Unitarian Universalism is a thoroughly American Religion.

Now, by saying that I do not mean to imply that there are not Unitarians, Universalists, and even Unitarian Universalists beyond our shores… there certainly are.  However, Unitarian Universalism can be quite different in other parts of the world than it is here in the United States.  The obvious difference is that UU’ism beyond our shores is quite a bit more obviously Christian than it often is here in the U.S… but what I mean to imply by my opening line for this sermon is a bit more subtle than that.

You see, I believe that Unitarian Universalism in the United States is suffering from a myth… the same myth that our nation is suffering from.  And I do mean suffering, because I believe that this myth has made us less than we should be as a religion, and less than we should be as a nation.

Our theme for this month is covenant, or the sacred promises that we make with one another, in light of our faith, that bind us together beyond time, and death, and the space between the stars, to quote Rev. David Bumbaugh.  I believe that in a faith that does not require that everyone believe the same things, it is these kinds of covenantal sacred promises that unite us into congregations and into a religious movement.  The covenantal nature of our faith traces back not only to our Christian and Jewish roots as a religious faith, but also to our first religious ancestors who landed upon these shores, the Pilgrims and the Puritans.  When someone joins a Unitarian Universalist Church, what makes them a Unitarian Universalist is not stating that they believe as I do, or as any of you do, but that they are willing and desire to walk in covenant with each and every one of their fellow Unitarian Universalists.

This willingness to bind ourselves into communities, into voluntary associations of choice, is the essence of becoming a Unitarian Universalist.  Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be a Democrat to be a Unitarian Universalist.  You don’t even have to be all that progressive or liberal, either in faith or in politics.  No, what you have to agree to is to practice your faith and live your life in intentional, dedicated, and purposeful relationship with fellow UU’s… and hopefully from our church community you learn to live your life in intentional, dedicated, and purposeful relationship with the entire world.

That doesn’t sound like much, does it?  All Unitarian Universalism asks is that you be in intentional and purposeful relationship to the entire world?

You begin to see why I often say that Unitarian Universalism, lived to the fullness of our expectations, is one of the most difficult religious paths one can choose to walk.  Especially here in the United States… because here we have a myth that permeates our culture that tells us the exact opposite… they myth of the individual.  The ideal of “rugged individualism”.  The fallacy that freedom equals independence.

We see this myth in all elements of our culture… the idea that the only truly free person is the one who doesn’t have to rely on anyone for anything.  Sometimes this myth manifests as the “Self made” man or woman.  Sometimes it manifests in demonizing people who are in need of the social safety net of public support and assistance.  It is always used to demonize the poor…  such as a recent candidate for political office saying “If you’re not rich, blame yourself”.  It even gets perpetrated in aspects of American society that rely on teamwork… such as how “star players” are celebrated in sports such as basketball, baseball, and football… sports where individual effort should be so much less important than that of the team.

Let me tell you about an experience of this myth that I lived just recently.  Now, most of you know that I am also a Reserve U.S. Army Chaplain, and a military veteran.  In fact, I’ve been connected with the Army for most of my life, having grown up in the military, and then having served as a combat soldier in my late teens and twenties, and now in my late thirties as a military chaplain.  The Army is the least individualistic part of American Society.  The highest General and the lowest private go to work wearing the same clothes every day, and they all depend upon one another to do their jobs for any of them to succeed.  They are interdependent, you might say…

So, in my life I’ve lived through dozens of Army Advertising Campaigns… only one of which was ever true.  It was from the 80’s, and not very successful…  you might remember it… “Join the Army, because we do more before 9am than most people do all day”…  As my drill weekend earlier this month began each day before 5am… as I said, the only true recruiting campaign ever.

When I rejoined as a military chaplain, however, the recruiting campaign was one of the most blatant examples of the myth of American Individualism I have ever seen…  you may remember the commercials from this…  An Army of One.  The campaign stressed that each soldier was strong and independent, and didn’t really need anyone else to accomplish their mission, which was in fact all lies.  While that campaign was going on, I would walk around my unit saying things like “An Army of One…  well, that’s just an excuse to leave all of us stranded and alone.”  It is so much fun to be a liberal near-pacifist prophet in the U.S. military…  Great fun, considering the military is the most socialist institution in our country.

American Unitarian Universalism has this myth of the individual active among us as well.  In manifests in a couple of different ways, the most common of which is the belief that in Unitarian Universalism, you can believe whatever you want to.  Now, I’m not going to call anyone out… but I want you to think how many of you have heard this, or even have believed this?  I normally would not stand up here and challenge anyone’s belief, but this one I do challenge.  I do not believe that Unitarian Universalism means you can believe whatever you want to…  and that at the root of this myth about our faith lies the American myth of rugged individualism.

There is another major way that the myth of the individual manifests in our religious movement, and that is the belief that each of our congregations and churches is independent of all of the other Unitarian Universalist Churches across the country and the world.  This myth of independence often leaves our congregations with virtually no connection with the other congregations around them.

Everywhere I have served as a UU Minister, there have been at least two other UU congregations within 50 miles… here we have four… and yet our connections with those congregations beyond our ministers are minimal at best.  It is not that we are competing for members… people join the churches they join because they are called to them, and often drive long distances to go to the church that speaks to them.  No, I find the root of our self-imposed isolation to be this sense that we are an independent congregation… our own mini-denomination.

I’ve often thought that the myth of American Independence finds its root in that document, penned by a Unitarian named Thomas Jefferson, known as the Declaration of Independence… but if so that root is without substance, for the Declaration of Independence was mis-named.  It is true that it was declaring our nation’s Independence from Great Britain, but it was also declaring something far more important… it was declaring the inter-dependence between all those who signed the document.  They pledged their sacred honor and their lives to each other… and those were not idle words.  As another Unitarian, Benjamin Franklin, commented at the time… “we must all hang together, or we will assuredly all hang separately.”

 

My sisters and brothers of faith, what Benjamin Franklin said literally, I will hopefully be saying metaphorically… our faith calls us to all hang together, or we will assuredly all hang separately.  Although, Franklin’s words are not even totally metaphorical for us today.  A few weeks ago, I was having a theological debate with one of my military chaplain colleagues… we were debating Unitarian Universalism and Evangelical Christianity… At some point in the debate he said “Well, I didn’t know that your theological sense was so evolved… why is it that you have only really become known as a separate church in the last few hundred years?”  To which I answered, “Well, it’s only been in the last few hundred years the rest of you quit executing us for heresy!”  Unitarians and Universalists have existed from the earliest days of Christianity, and perhaps the ideas existed even before that… but it is only these last few hundred years that it has been safe for us to form our own religious communities and be public about our shared faith… So let us remember both lessons of Franklin’s words…

When I said that I do not believe that you can believe whatever you want to as a Unitarian Universalists, what I mean is that we do not hold our beliefs in an isolated individualism, but in spiritually connected community.  If, say, I believed that ministers were inherently better than anyone else by the fact of their ordination, I dare say that there are a few of you who would call me to task for that belief, and help me to see that, just because I have been granted the privilege of serving our religious faith as a minister does not increase or lessen my inherent worth in relationship to others.  I’m still just as human as everyone else in this room… beautifully so.

You see, we hold our beliefs in common, rather than holding common beliefs.  Let me say that again, because I think it is a point that is easily missed.  We Unitarian Universalists hold our beliefs in common, rather than holding common beliefs.  What I mean by that is that we are not each independently responsible for the beliefs we hold, but we are all responsible for each other’s beliefs.  We are responsible for sharing and engaging our beliefs in our common community.  If I believe something that is damaging to the common community, then I am required by our covenant to be open to the community helping me to shift and change that belief.

Individualism is the belief-set of Independence, and independence says that I am responsible for myself.  Covenantalism is the belief set of Interdependence, and interdependence says that we are all responsible for each other.  I share the responsibility I have for myself with all of you, and you share the responsibility you have for yourself with all of us.  This is the essence of covenantal community, and it is the essence of our faith as Unitarian Universalists.  We are each responsible for the beliefs, the faith journey, and the very lives of each and every other one of us.

We live this responsibility in a couple of different ways within this, our church.  The first is that we do have a covenant, expressed in words, about how we will treat one another in this congregation.  It requires a lot of us, including assuming good intentions and being in open, honest, and sensitive communication with one another… but beyond anything else our covenant requires us to care for one another… to get out of the isolation of the American Myth of Individualism and build together the UU Dream of Covenantalism.  We live this responsibility physically… this congregation is pretty good at coming together to support one another, particularly when one of us trusts the covenant enough to let others know they are in need.

Yet we are also responsible for each other’s spiritual lives, faith, and beliefs.  I believe that being responsible for the spiritual health, journey, life and faith of more people than just yourself is the most important growing edge of our faith tradition.  We do this by sharing our own spiritual self and beliefs.  We do this by listening to others, and each of us being open to being transformed by one another.  We do this by building a community where it is safe for each of us to deeply share who we are and what we value.  We do this by ministering to each other, and by remembering that we are not here on an independent faith journey, but all of us together are on an interdependent faith journey.

And what is true among us within this congregation is also true among the many congregations of Unitarian Universalism.  As you may have noticed in our opening reading, our loved 7 principles and 6 sources are actually part of a broader covenant that does not bind individuals together, but binds all the congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association together.  In that covenant, our congregations pledged to expand our mutual vision, and promised to each other our mutual trust and support.  Like the covenant of the Declaration of Independence, we have a Declaration of Interdependence.

We, as a congregation, have covenanted to build and maintain interdependent relationship with the other over 1,000 congregations of our association, and by extension all of the other U, U, and UU congregations across the world.

My brothers and sisters of faith, covenant is what binds us together within our own hearts.  Covenant is what brings us out of our individualism and into the interdependence of our religious community.  And Covenant is what binds our religious communities together, despite time, and death, and the space between the stars.

So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.

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