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sermon85

 

Seven Reasons Not To Be a Unitarian Universalist

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, October 8, 2000

Rev. Scott Alexander

 

Alright...I might as well just confess it at the outset...(heck, half of you probably already suspect it any way) my sermon title this morning "7 Reasons NOT to be a Unitarian Universalist" is nothing more than a cheap rhetorical trick to lay out (in a proud and passionate way) the 7 essential beliefs of our faith. It is my unashamed intention this morning to spell out to you - by way of this negative (and if I may be so bold to say reasonably clever) rhetorical device - precisely why Unitarian Universalism is the perfect, sound and sensible religion for you (and the rest of our culture, for that matter).

You must have known this admission was eventually coming this morning. Surely you didn't really come to church this morning expecting me (of all people) to give you 7 reasons WHY NOT to make your spiritual home here. As a proud and passionate Unitarian Universalist minister, I have devoted nearly 30 years of my life to the health, growth, and extension of this religious movement (including editing this evangelistic book [SCOTT HOLDS UP COPY], "Salted With Fire," on sharing our faith and growing our congregations). I believe deeply in our religion, I grew up in this faith, build my entire career here, and look to this faith to guide my life, shape my character, humanize my relationships, and give my life its direction, meaning and purpose. The truth is I really can't come up with EVEN ONE REASON why you should not make this faith YOUR faith.

Besides, why would I ever provide anyone with reasons or excuses NOT to be Unitarian Universalist when most in our culture manage quite nicely, thank you, to live without our faith. You may not realize how statistically insignificant we Unitarian Universalists really are in North America, but with only a little more than 150,000 adults and 61,000 children (which is a grand total of 211,000 Unitarian Universalists) in the United States and Canada our denomination represents considerably less, CONSIDERABLY LESS than one-tenth-of-one-percent of the population. These small numbers are quite remarkable when you consider that more than a century-and-a-half ago Abraham Lincoln (after hearing a traveling Universalist evangelist preach that part of our positive, humanity-centered "good news," was purported to have observed that given the reasonableness, compassion and logic of our liberal faith, and now I quote him "It is hard to imagine that there is a man [or woman] alive today who will not die a Universalist." While Universalism (and its sister faith Unitarianism) did grow rapidly for a period in the 18th Century, Abraham Lincoln's prediction of our numerical and spiritual success in the cultural marketplace hasn't quite come to fruition. Despite a long history of having more cultural and political influence than our numbers might suggest (throughout our American history, Unitarians and Universalists as cultural, political and scientific leaders have had a greater impact on society and thought than our numbers would indicate) the fact is that when religious groups in the United States are listed, we are always anonymously lumped into "OTHER" at the bottom of the table.

My colleague Bruce Marshall was once feeling a bit of excessive pride for all the influence and stature Unitarian Universalists seem have in American life when he saw a news piece about Americans (who struggle with severe and persistent obesity) are increasingly turning to a (rather risky, painful, and "last ditch") medical procedure where they have their stomachs partially sewn shut. It seems that at that time more than 200, 000 Americans had undergone that rather arcane practice. He wrote, "I was stunned. For that number clicked off one of my reference points: the number of Unitarian Universalists in North America [is far less than that]. There are, as of the last UUA Directory, [something on the order of 150,000 - editor's note, I have updated these statistics for the purposes of this sermon, the number then was 139,052, SWA] Unitarian Universalists walking around...While there are 200,000 Americans walking around with their stomachs sewn shut. This statistic gives me pause." And then Bruce went on to give other American statistics, proving (for example) that there are more Filipinos living in California than there are UU's nationwide, more taxi drivers in the U.S. than UU's, more people arrested for aggravated assault, more members in the American Chemical Engineering Society, and so on. He concluded, "Whenever I start feeling self-important with all the influence I possess as a UU minister, I find that such statistics bring me properly down to earth." So, given the fact that we UUs are ALREADY pretty statistically insignificant as a religious group, this proud and passionate UU minister is the LAST PERSON ON EARTH from whom you are likely to get REAL reasons why you should NOT be a Unitarian Universalist. But I thought (nonetheless) that it might be a provocative exercise to take a look at what our movement does stand for by giving you 7 reasons why some people might not feel spiritually comfortable here. [And an important aside here: obviously this liberal religion which fiercely respects the individual and demands that each of us does a lot of hard spiritual and ethical work is NOT right for Americans who want to be told, once and for all, what to believe and why]. Now...the numerically-gifted clever amongst you may have already noticed (by counting the number of UU affirmations printed every Sunday in the order of service) that Unitarian Universalism (by odd coincidence) has 7 principles. It might just be this morning that my 7 reasons for not being a UU may bear (in proper order nonetheless) an inverse relationship with our 7 principles that define and animate our faith.

Alright...my first reason for NOT being a Unitarian Universalist. You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you have AN ESSENTIALLY NEGATIVE AND PESSIMISTIC VIEW OF PERSONS AND THEIR POTENTIAL FOR DIGNITY, DECENCY AND WORTH. I wish I could say that I have made this up, but listen to this "Message from our National Chaplain" (written a few years back now, 1987 to be precise, in what the author apparently thought was rather clever adolescent "lingo") addressed to thousands of little Lutheran "Girl Pioneers" of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod:

Whereas I am a filthy, slime-bucket, worm-pit, low-life bum, and, Whereas I am surrounded in this life by other slime-bucket, worm-pit, low-life bums; and whereas one slime-bucket can't de-slime another; and, whereas one worm-pit can't de-worm another; and whereas one low-life can't raise another; and whereas a bum is a bum...Therefore be it resolved that this slime-bucket, worm-pit, low-life cast all his sliminess, worminess, and lowness in Christ...
Well...it goes on at some puritanical length, but you get the idea. A lot of American religious traditions (especially conservative Christian ones) begin theologically and spiritually with profound distrust of and disrespect for human persons and their potential. Our religious tradition, on the other hand, from it's earliest American beginnings as a hopeful alternative to Puritanical negativity, has always seen first (glowing at the soul and center of persons and society) a divine spark, a holy flame (and, for the humanists among us, simply profound potential and power for decency and good). None of this means, of course, that Unitarian Universalists are spiritually nave about (or unprepared for) human failure, depravity and evil -- all mature religions must confront and seek to change that -- it's just that we begin (as our spiritual and theological starting place) by seeing the worth and wonder of persons (both as individuals and in community). So don't become a Unitarian Universalist if you have an essentially negative view of persons and their potential for dignity, decency and worth, for here we believe in THE INHERENT WORTH AND DIGNITY OF EVERY PERSON.

Secondly, you should not be a Unitarian Universalist IF YOU THINK THE INJUSTICES AND INDIGNITIES OF OUR SOCIETY AND WORLD ARE EITHER INTRACTABLE...OR SOMEONE ELSE'S RESPONSIBILITY. A lot of people in our society today (if you look at their rather selfish, consumerist and self centered behavior) seem to feel that the problems and pains of our social order (things like poverty and prejudice...hunger and homelessness...racial and social inequality...violence in our homes, schools and streets...and the lack of opportunity and medical care for millions in our society...to name just a few of the ways our society is failing its highest aspirations) a lot of people seem to feel that these problems and pains are someone else's responsibility to fix. Not so in this religious tradition. Unitarian Universalists have always believed (again, since our earliest days as a liberal American religious tradition of rebels and reformers) that it is our responsibility, or moral duty, (as principled and caring people) to do what we can to ensure justice, equity and compassion in human affairs and society. How could we - how would it even be vaguely possible? -- for us as a religious people (who first and foremost see this spark of goodness and worth and beauty radiating from the center of all persons) to then idly and indifferently stand by and allow the unnecessary diminishment and degradation of persons by a flawed social order? We cannot. So if you just want to go your own merry little individualistic way in this world (imagining that you can be safe and happy and well in your own little selfish world of possession, prerogative and privilege -- taking what you want from life and ignoring the needs and suffering of others) then don't be a Unitarian Universalist. For here we believe it is our duty to affirm and promote JUSTICE, EQUITY AND COMPASSION IN HUMAN AFFAIRS, and must (on a nearly daily basis) lend ourselves to the creation of just such a social order.

Thirdly, you should not be a Unitarian Universalist IF YOU IMAGINE YOURSELF CAPABLE OF HAVING A FULL AND SATISFYING RELIGIOUS LIFE ALL BY YOURSELF (IN SOME SORT OF SPLENDID SPIRITUAL ISOLATION). In this Unitarian Universalist congregation we understand, deep to the core of our community, how desperately (and magnificently) human beings need one another if they are to (both separately and together) achieve even an approximation of their full human potential for joy, purpose, and responsibility to others. Here in this religious community we work continuously to create the kinds of interactive and enrichment opportunities that will encourage each of us (together) to think, grow, care, and cultivate meaningful connections with other life and persons. In this religion, we do not believe you can (in the end) find enduring peace, enlightenment or compassionate living by sitting alone (in pure meditation or contemplation) on some pristine mountaintop. Ours is a community-based faith of interaction and interchange - and we know, deep to our spiritual bones, that we need congregations of people who will care for (and connect with) one another. This is one of the reasons we have been so systematic here at River Road Unitarian Church developing our new (and if I don't say so spectacular) pastoral care system...and why we're now working on developing many more small group support and spirituality opportunities...we need to encourage and care for one another if we are to be true to our goal of full and fine protection for and validation of all persons. So don't be a Unitarian Universalist if you believe you are capable of having a full and satisfying religious life all by yourself in some sort of splendid isolation, for here we promise to foster ACCEPTANCE OF ONE ANOTHER AND ENCOURAGEMENT OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH IN OUR CONGREGATIONS.

Fourth, don't be a Unitarian Universalist IF YOU WANT SOMEONE (FROM SOME DOGMATIC, HIERARCHICAL PLACE) TO LAY OUT A COMPLETE, CUT-AND-DRIED, TRUE FOR ALL TIMES AND AGES FAITH SYSTEM THAT REQUIRES YOU TO BLINDLY FOLLOW AND OBEY. Some (in fact most) American religious traditions require (when you come to them) adherence and allegiance to a fixed, pre-existing creed, dogma, or belief system. Here -- while we do have clear and articulated principles (which we print for you each Sunday and regularly explore and explain in worship and other congregational venues) and have a long and coherent religious heritage from which to shape our ever-unfolding spiritual understandings (in our ever-unfolding world of challenge and change) -- we Unitarian Universalists nonetheless never expect (or allow even) individuals to somehow blindly submit or submerge their own personal spiritual authority or understandings to that of some "higher" ecclesiastical authority. Here -- within the clear, coherent, centuries-old framework that is Unitarian Universalism -- we expect (in fact, demand) that you always filter and fine-tune our tradition through the light and wisdom of your own best heart and most diligent mind. This is a religion that requires you to employ your own discernment, judgement, and reflection, and shape Unitarian Universalism into a lifestyle faith that works for you. There are a whole lot of people out there in America who don't want to do this much spiritual and ethical work. There are a whole lot of people who want to be spiritually lazy, and want someone else to lay out for them (once and for all, no questions asked, no doubts allowed, no ambiguity tolerated) precisely what to believe and how to act. Don't be a Unitarian Universalist if this describes you, for here we will insist that you personally engage (alone and with others in this community) in A FREE AND RESPONSIBLE SEARCH FOR TRUTH AND MEANING.

Fifth, don't be a Unitarian Universalist IF YOU FIND DEMOCRACY AND THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS TO BE A TEDIOUS AND FRUSTRATING WASTE OF TIME. Because we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person (as, needless I point out, did all early philosophers and proponents of democracy as a form of human governance) we, of necessity, are an American religious tradition firmly committed to democratic ideals. If human history teaches us anything, it is that injustice, oppression and tyranny tend to perniciously arise in human organizations which do not respect and invite the full and free participation of all. Over the entire course of our American history (and we were there from the very beginnings of this great, experimental republic) Unitarian Universalists have always been staunch and sure supporters of democratic theory and practice. As a movement, we have always spoken up in the public square when we have felt the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution (and its all important amendments) have been threatened with usurpation or subversion. That is why (more than a century-and-a-half ago) Theodore Parker kept a loaded gun in his desk to protect the freed slaves he was harboring...and why A. Powell Davies (the great 1950's Unitarian minister down at All Souls) spoke up early and loud against the immoral excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy...and why UU minister James Reeb died in the streets of Selma defending the civil rights of African Americans. And that is also why every major decision here in our congregation (like how we are going to address our rapid growth and our need for more physical space to accommodate all our adults and children) is reached ONLY after a long, and thoughtful and open democratic process, where every member of the congregation is invited in to make their voice heard and their perspectives and needs respected. Yes, every once and a while as your minister (indeed, every once and a while as an American citizen) I wish (in moments of impatience or personal petulance when I want things my own way) I wish that there could be a little less democratic process...but then I am reminded of the absolute necessity to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person by maintaining scrupulously fair and wide-open decision-making processes. So don't be a Unitarian Universalist if you want to deny others the opportunity to have their say, speak their mind, vote their conscience, or have full and fair influence over the course of human affairs, for here we believe in THE RIGHTS OF CONSCIENCE AND THE USE OF THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS WITHIN OUR CONGREGATIONS AND IN SOCIETY AT LARGE.

Sixth, don't be a Unitarian Universalist IF YOU'RE ONE OF THOSE AMERICANS WHO FEELS THAT WE CAN (AS A PEOPLE AND A NATION) LIVE RESPONSIBLY AND SUCCESSFULLY UPON THIS PLANET BY ISOLATING OURSELVES FROM THE PROBLEMS AND PAINS OF THE REST OF THE WORLD'S PEOPLE. Unitarianism and Universalism - each in their own ways, from the earliest days of their founding as American faith movements - have affirmed the absolute inter-connectedness and inter-relatedness of all the world's precious people. We have always (as a spiritual tradition) been able to look in beyond the surface differences of Mother Earth's many peoples (who are so pleasingly diverse in color and kind, face and feature, culture and cuisine, poetry and perspective, tone and tongue) and see a universal worth and unquenchable dignity that demands protection and care. How can we as American Unitarian Universalists honor our commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person (and our corollary dream for justice, equity and compassion in human relations) and not look beyond the relative safety of our national boundaries to the possibility of world community in which every person (no matter how desperate or poor) will be afforded the dignity and worth to which they are entitled by the mere (but holy) fact of their humanness? So if you're one of those latter-day American "isolationists" who believes America must "look out for itself" and not be either the "policeman of the world" nor its "compassionate benefactor " sharing our astounding wealth, then don't be a Unitarian Universalist. For here, we keep before our spiritual and ethical eyes THE GOAL OF WORLD COMMUNITY WITH PEACE, LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL, and promise to lend ourselves to doing what we can to enable such a noble world to slowly come to birth, lend ourselves even if that means we will be called upon (as we shall be, time and again) to make very real sacrifices and live with less, that others might simply live.

Seventh, and lastly, don't be a Unitarian Universalist if YOU THINK HUMANITY CAN BASICALLY CONTINUE TO LIVE (SANELY AND SUCCESSFULLY) ON THIS FRAGILE PLANET OF OURS, SELFISHLY DISREGARDING THE TENDER BALANCE AND VERY REAL RESOURCE LIMITS OF MOTHER EARTH. God knows how such Ostrich "let's bury our heads in the sand" tunnel-vision thinking is still possible in this age of so much global ecological crisis -- just read any of the thousands of newspaper articles about global warming or the continuing destruction of the rain forests, or talk to any earth scientist -- but many (perhaps still a majority?) of Americans are yet living with the illusion that we can somehow continue to live in this new millennium consuming vastly more than our share of the world's resources, and ignore the increasing degradation of the earth's water, air, and animal kingdom. Unitarian Universalism (just as it understands deep it its spiritual bones the interconnected of all the earth's persons and races) also understands the interconnectedness of all life forms and living things. Since the early days of our 19th Century New England transcendentalist dreamers (who like Unitarians Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau wrote their poems to the "breathing oneness" of it all), we Unitarian Universalists have seen, celebrated (and sanctified) this holy, beautiful world as one interrelated piece...a fabric of living wholeness that deserves both our praise and protection. As so many of the other guiding principles and perspectives of our Unitarian Universalist faith, this one will require that we act (and, yes, restrain ourselves responsibly) in certain self-denying (yet, in the end, of course, self-protecting) ways. So don't be a Unitarian Universalist if you want to live the illusion that it is alright for you to live as a GREEDY GLOBAL OSTRICH, foolishly and selfishly ignoring the distress and destruction of our planet, for here we have RESPECT FOR THE INTERDEPENDENT WEB OF ALL EXISTENCE OF WHICH WE ARE A PART, and we fully understand our moral responsibility to participate (with others of wise and good will) in saving our world from ultimate imbalance and destruction.

Well, my dear Unitarian Universalist friends, there you have it...7 reasons (from this passionate, proud Unitarian Universalist) why you should NOT be a Unitarian Universalist. Obviously I have totally stacked the spiritual deck this morning AGAINST EACH of these false, fallacious and foolish reasons I have given you. I have stacked the deck against them because I believe, deep to my heart, that Unitarian Universalism (while surely not the only sound and sensible, worthy and wonderful religion in this world) is nonetheless a wise, compassionate, and serious faith, seriously needed in these serious human times. I want you to be Unitarian Universalists because I passionately believe that together (by ourselves and in community), guided by our 7 principles, and employing our finest minds and deepest hearts we can play a holy part in helping to transform our society and our world in patterns of dignity and hope which fully reflect our potential as wise and noble and loving creatures. Ours is a positive, humanity-affirming, life-loving faith tradition which has the power to show us the way to a life and a world worth having. There is no good reason - not one! - for you to not to be a Unitarian Universalist. In fact there is EVERY REASON in the world for you to shape your life and craft your living by the light of this good and noble faith. Every reason in the world.

 

Amen.