Unitarian Universalism in
Eight Minutes Flat
River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, September 17, 2000
Rev. Scott W. Alexander
Rev. Lynn Strauss
[SCOTT BEGINS TALKING REAL FAST
As most of you know, I can talk pretty fast, so
one approach to summarizing Unitarian Universalism in 8 minutes
flat, is to talk like this and squeeze a full 25 minute sermon
into the next 8 minutes
[SCOTT INHALES, AND SLOWS HIS SPEECH
DOWN TO A NORMAL PACE]
But to spare you that craziness
don't I just try (instead, in the next 8 minutes) to be as
succinct and precise as possible about what I believe to be the
essence of our faith? Here goes
Unitarian Universalism is a lifelong journey of
developing kinship, caring and connection with the
precious life that is within and around you. Practicing our
religion (being a Unitarian Universalist) is all about spending a
lifetime intentionally (through everyday spiritual and ethical
practice) creating an evermore intricate web of blessed
belonging and responsible relatedness with all the
life (that surges - so miraculously, yet so vulnerably -- within
and around you). Ours is a lifestyle religion (not a doctrinal
one) that spiritually beckons all human beings out of the
dark and empty chamber of the isolated self into the sunlight of
responsive and reciprocal relationships -- with as wide a circle
of life and persons as possible.
Unitarian Universalism is a hopeful, humanity-centered
American faith tradition which (for more than 200 years) has
dared to proclaim that human life on this earth can (and should)
move toward evermore intricate patterns of harmony, justice,
dignity and peace. We have always believed that the human
enterprise (eternally fragile and foibled as it is) can
nonetheless be transformed (bit-by-bit, by our thoughtful and
compassionate efforts) into a more beautiful global fabric of
decency, justice and freedom for all. As Unitarian Universalists,
we are called by our centuries-old faith tradition to spend a
lifetime lending ourselves to the creation of kinship. We
are called upon to cultivate and nurture (on a daily basis
the various venues and broad landscapes of our lives) the kinds
of humane relationships that bring us (and the Dalai Lama, Jesus
and other great prophets of humanity have taught) into close
and compassionate connection with all that lives. If there is
such a thing (such a spiritual place) as hell, surely it
lies in this earthly life
coiled in seductive
emptiness within the isolation and indifference toward life and
being we allow in our human living. And if there is such a thing
(such a spiritual place) as heaven, similarly it also lies
quietly here, in this life, on this earth, in the milieu and
moment of all the satisfying and reciprocal everyday
relationships we can build with life and other persons (by honing
our spiritual attentions and nurturing our relationships) with
this intricate dance of life we so miraculously find ourselves in.
This Unitarian Universalist journey of
developing kinship (and lending ourselves to a better, more just,
interconnected world) must (by both physical and spiritual logic)
begin, within the individual self
as we work spiritually (on
a daily basis, through spiritual practices of discernment,
restraint and engagement) to build within us an interior
architecture of decency, sensitivity and care. Religious
human beings are works in progress, who intentionally strive (by
the light of their highest principles and by the work of everyday
spiritual practice) to find responsible (and joyful) ways of
being woven into in the world which contribute (often in the
small ways which make such a big difference in this troubled
world of ours) to the softening, saving and sanctifying of life.
So the Unitarian Universalist journey toward (what I have often
called from this pulpit the journey of) right relation, depth
relation, caring relation with life and other persons begins
inside us and then (again through practicing our principles)
moves out (in expanding ripples of responsive and responsible
relationship) to ever wider circles of life and community. Again
is from the strength and integrity of our interior spiritual
and ethical architecture (which we are - at our best --
tinkering with and honing on a nearly daily basis) that we move
out into the world to both enjoy and care for the natural world
and other persons around us, and participate (with others of good
will) in the creation of ever-wider structures of beauty, justice
Now, let there be no mistaking what this
journey means. Spending a lifetime as a Unitarian Universalist
developing your everyday kinship, caring and connection in your
living is (in addition to being so obviously soul satisfying
because of the divine life connections that get created) also
very demanding, daunting and difficult. Being a committed,
disciplined Unitarian Universalist often means making hard
spiritual and ethical choices, and requires us to regularly reach
out to make difficult connections and demanding sacrifices on
behalf of other life and persons (especially when it comes to
ensuring social, racial and economic justice which have proven so
elusive for our human family. Some (like Garrison Keillor in the
rather silly cowboy skit we enjoyed earlier in the service)
persist in imagining us a light-weight, low-demand, "feel
good", do-and-believe-anything-you want religion. But our
faith (if truly practiced and lived out of our daily human
relationships) is rather a hard-working, serious lifestyle faith
of daily sensitivity, service, compassion and sacrifice.
Unitarian Universalism is a joyful religion that unashamedly
celebrates the great and mysterious gift of human being, but it
is also a religion which understands (deep to its heart) the
weighty responsibilities that come with finding ourselves as
STEWARDS and CITIZENS of earth and one another. The great
magic trick in one's spiritual and religious life is to
balance, 1) the joy one takes from the delight of finding oneself
alive in so profligate a creation, and 2) the duty one feels to
find for ever wider structures of justice, peace, and equality.
it's time for me to wrap up. The
journey of Unitarian Universalism (both for us individually and
as a gathered congregation) is an intentional, compassionate (and
often just plain enjoyable!) journey of developing kinship
journey of growing and giving ourselves so that we move evermore
gently, joyfully and responsibly through our world
purposeful patterns of right relation, depth relation, caring
relation with all we meet and touch. This lifelong journey of
religious care and discernment is one that asks much of us
the rewards, my dear UU friends, (both for ourselves and other
life) are nothing short of divine. Nothing short of divine.
I have not found being a Unitarian Universalist
to be an easy path.
To be a good UU causes me to so engage my
doubts, my responsibilities, and my freedoms as to make my life
Now that is, not altogether true, Im not
miserable most of the time, but I submit that one essence of
Unitarian Universalism is struggle. If you are not struggling, at
least from time to time, with how to live this faith, then you
may not be experiencing the fullness of our liberal tradition.
The problem stems in large part from our belief
that we can make a difference. To be a person of faith, means
that how we live matters. Each of our lives can make a difference
it is up to us to discern how to use our gifts and our resources
in ways that make a difference for good in the world. This is
also the challenge for congregations. How can we make a
difference for the common good.
I have found that people considering membership
in our congregations take our principles and purposes very
seriously. They sense, that the choice they are about to make may
keep them awake some nights. They know theyre not joining a
One woman came to us in her seventies.
She had been a bit of a recluse, but had decided that she needed
more social interaction. She drove almost an hour to get to our
.the nearest to her rural home. Before she came she
called and asked that literature be sent
and a copy of our
newsletter. Then she called me, the minister of the church,
saying she had some serious questions. She sat down in my office
and began by saying that she really didnt think she could
become a Unitarian. Why I asked
.because I dont much
like people she said
.I havent found all people to be
of dignity and worth. I find people very difficult, she said, I
much prefer animals. It turns out she was the local animal rights
activist, the one who wrote all those letters to the editor on
behalf of species that cant write for themselves.
For this lady of integrity, living our first
principle, affirming the worth and dignity of all people, is
definitely a struggle.
One family I know struggled because they
taught their daughter to value all world religions and to be open
to many truths, yet they were conflicted when she choose to
attend a conservative Christian church and soon converted to
At times we wish, that ours was a more
comforting religion. One UU friend struggled for several years to
understand the suicide of his wife. He could not say it was
"Gods will" and therefore he sought for an answer
that satisfied. He read widely, he sought counsel, he spent time
in contemplation, he grieved deeply; our faith encouraged his
search. Our faith affirmed his anger. Our faith walked with him
on his difficult path. Our faith gave him the freedom and
acceptance that he needed to heal.
As you know, I have come recently from a UU
congregation in the Bible belt. In that conservative religious
environment, we UUs struggle everyday. There we are less
challenged to accept people that are different from us than we
are challenged by being excluded because we are different from
the dominant culture.
The struggle to be a faithful UU is a struggle
to be proud of. It puts us in a line with those who have
sacrificed much for our faith.
For our faith was born in struggle. Because we
began in doubt, challenging doctrines and hierarchies
people gave their lives for the religious freedom that we now
Because we encourage the free mind, we must
always think critically, always engage with new ideas. Always ask
our questions. As UUs we are always learning, and at times
this is a struggle. There is no final answer upon which we can
Because we hold no transcendent authority, we
must make our own decisions. And often we struggle with the
burden of our freedom. Because for us, revelation is not sealed,
there is a wealth of sources upon which to draw. It can be a
struggle to discern the truth, and the meaning of our lives.
Because we do not believe in salvation after death, we struggle
to be liberated in this life. To free our spirit and know our
full selves. To engage with our own limitations and failings to
fight evil in the world and close to home.
Because our principles call us to affirm the
worth and dignity of each person, to stand for equality and
freedom and democratic practice
.our work for justice is on-going.
We struggle for freedom for all peoples. We
struggle to change the world, sustain the world, love the world.
Because we know that we are interdependent with
all life, we struggle to honor life, to affirm life, to say yes
.even in the face of death.
And finally, Unitarian Universalism is a
faithful struggle because we celebrate change. We rejoice in the
new. We commit to creativity. We always draw the circle larger.
We are never satisfied. The potential for transformation is
.we cannot cease from searching.
I invite you to join in the struggle. Our
legacy, our values have power in them. Without a vision the
people perish. Join in the struggle for a world of peace, a world
of harmony, a world of respect and compassion for all.
Join in the struggle of our free faith. It isnt
easy. And it may change your life. And your life may change
someone elses life.
And then you will have made a difference and
then you will be blessed among women and
Andrew McLaren, the Director of The Little Red
School House in New York City, my husband's 1st through 8th grade
alma mater, wrote in the most recent alumni newsletter:
The best way I can define the purpose
of education is that it is to transcend the treadmill of
thought and emotion, in which one always finishes up where
This troubling pedagogical and, let's face it,
societal instinct to conclude first and think later, to resist
looking and feeling and thinking outside the box of one's own
experience could be applied as well to religious thought and
practice and, yes, teaching.
I was raised in a conservative Jewish home by
parents who were the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe.
My parents were well educated and assimilated and successful.
They self-identified as New Deal liberals. They were living the
great dream of America that had driven their parents to escape
pogroms and poverty, to come to seek a better life on these
shores. Mom and Dad offered my brother and me advantages and
middle class privilege. They offered us freedom to think and
dream, but the offer did not cover religious training. They could
not and, later on, would not be able to imagine a child of theirs
who would question Hebrew scripture or its very core of Jewish
religious belief, the Sh'ma: "Hear O Israel, the Lord Thy
God, the Lord is One." They could not imagine much
less sanction a child of theirs leaving the tent or the covenant.
But in my college years at Vassar, I began to
do just that. Twenty years before the emergence of a vocabulary
of feminist religious thought, I cringed from the patriarchy,
resisted the chains of orthodoxy, peeked tentatively outside the
box walls that felt so stultifying. What was out there?
Well, you know what was out there, awaiting my
discovery at age 28, now forty years ago. Unitarianism, just one
year away from becoming Unitarian Universalism. That's what was
It is my practice to take time to consciously
acknowledge the gift of life almost every day. I look at the
world about me and acknowledge awe before the miracles of nature.
I acknowledge the joy of family, the blessings of health and the
comfort of substantial material possessions. It took me a while
to realize that this practice is actually meditation, perhaps it
is prayer. It is a personal religious ritual, simple and at the
same time complex and, I believe, very Unitarian Universalist.
Given the freedom to figure out how to be conscious of the grace
in my life, disobliged to repeat a litany not of my choosing,
encouraged to be awake to wonder, I can see that I am growing
into the life of a serious religionist. I love this facet of
Unitarian Universalism more than any other. The imperative to
learn, to discover, to not necessarily finish up where one starts.
I may have started by running from the religion of my childhood
but I'm running faster and faster to my religion now. How lucky
can we get to have this opportunity for spiritual sustenance and
deep worship experience! The challenge is to get more of us to
understand and value the gift.
Stephen Covey, author of the book First
Things First, writes:
We settle for the illusion society
sells us that meaning is in self-focus - self esteem, self-development,
self improvement - "It's what I want," "Let me
do my own thing," "I did it my way." But the
wisdom literature of thousands of years of history repeatedly
validates the reality that the greatest fulfillment in
improving ourselves comes in our empowerment to more
effectively reach out and help others. Meaning is in
contribution, in living for something higher than self.
Living for something higher than self. I think
that's why we are gathered here this morning. I think that's the
essence of our common call as Unitarian Universalists.