Grounded in Principle

A sermon on the theme of  integrity

Rev. Brian J. Kiely   November 29, 2015

This month we have been asking, “How can I live with integrity?” And really this is the core question of every religion.  The various world faiths may have debates about why we should live well or teach different definitions of living well . They certainly post a variety of ideas about the quality of reward or punishment we can earn for our behaviours. And we can have long debates about what historical and contextual factors went into the formation of religious teachings that define some behaviours as good and others as bad…and sometimes offer exceptions to the seemingly cut and dried ones like not killing another person.

Just look at the stories of the great religious figures.  Mohammed muses at length about core values.  Abraham and Moses struggle mightily with how best to obey the commands of Yahweh.  The Buddha renounces all he inherited because it felt morally corrupt and illusory.  Jesus taught endlessly and radically about how to live a moral life when surrounded by people who did not wish him well.

Set aside the theological debates and we come back to the truth that living well, living with integrity is at the centre of all religious inquiry.

Well, most of us here today consider ourselves Unitarian Universalist, or are at least are interested in what that tradition has to offer.  And I daresay that most of us are humanist or even atheist in theological outlook.  Which is to say we don’t depend on God either to tell us what to do or to keep tabs on how we live our lives.  Few of us feel deeply concerned when a passionate believer in some other tradition threatens us with eternal damnation because of our beliefs, views, our orientation or our lifestyle.

Yet as Unitarian Universalists we are very much concerned with right and wrong…with living with integrity.  But we don’t rely on a fixed and ancient set of teachings to define that for us.  We  accept the evidence that culture evolves along with all other aspects of life.  That which once was shocking is now commonplace.

Our sexual mores are very different from those of our parents and grandparents.  Well, perhaps I should say from the social environments in which those elders lived.  I have heard some pretty racy stories about a few of those folks in generations gone by!

At the same time things which were perfectly acceptable once upon a time- things like our poor treatment of ethnic minorities, the aboriginal peoples, women, homosexuals – we have rejected those behaviours.  What once was good is now not okay.

Given how many of those changes came in just a century or so, how can we assume that the texts of 10-20 centuries ago will have captured the rules of good behaviour perfectly and for all time?

Well, even most of the rabbis, imams and ministers who depend upon those texts at least interpret them for the age in which we live.  Even most of them shy away from the absolutes.  Yet as we look at the texts we do see some commonalities.  Treat others as you would be treated.  According to the poster hanging just outside these doors that one comes up in every religious tradition.  Don’t kill ranks pretty highly, though with exceptions.  Don’t steal or destroy are fairly common.  And I can’t say I disagree with any of them.

But if there are so few absolutes and those that are are so very general, how then do we decide what’s okay and what’s not okay on an everyday basis?  How do we finally define a life of integrity for ourselves?  From whence do we get the basis for our personal moral codes?

We have to start with our own hearts.  As the rabbi says in our reading about the atheist: “When an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he/she is not doing so because of some religious teaching.  She/he does not believe in God at all, so the acts are based on an inner sense of morality.”

That’s the best starting place.  And that’s the core of our Unitarian tradition.  We don’t tell people what to believe or largely, how to behave.  We ASK people what they believe, and why.  And then we may engage in a healthy discussion, even debate.  Ideally both people in such a conversation learn something and are changed by the encounter, and so values and morals develop. It helps refine what we feel in our hearts.

But unless you were born into this church, and most of us weren’t, we started developing our integrity elsewhere.   We learned some things from families, some from school, from cases of professional practice and other societal teachings, some from friends and unofficial teachers we met along the way.  But mostly their teachings refine what’s already in us.  To some extent most people just know right from wrong.

Of course there are people who have been forced to grow up in situations where the needle on the moral compass has been yanked off true north by the magnetic forces of war, famine, residential schools, enflamed racism among other things.  Some find their footing, some do not and society as a whole must respond.  How we respond – that’s a sermon for another day.

And we also have to acknowledge that a minority of those among us are born without a moral compass or with medical/mental conditions that strip them of their ability to accurately distinguish right and wrong.  They also require special care from the society that surrounds them, and sometimes the rest of us need protection from their actions.  Again, another sermon for another Sunday.

Today I want to think about how we Unitarian Universalists fill out the direction cards for our moral compass.  It’s a unique challenge in that our church doesn’t have a single sacred text or a defined set of teachings.  We have no rule book nor code of laws.  Without those requirements, deciding what living with integrity looks like is really up to us.  Now, I think that most of us avoid the hubris of thinking we alone can absolutely define what is good behaviour and what is bad behaviour.

So we look around to moral codes and philosophies for guidance, we look to friends and families, and that helps.  But we can also turn to our Unitarian Universalist Statement of Principles.

Now, these are kind of cool – and this is a brief preview for those coming to the New U session following this service.

The seven principles are not some ancient document.  They are not handed down by a sainted teacher.  In fact, they  were passionately debated and democratically worked out over a period of three years and approved by the UUs across the continent in 1984 and 85.

And although some have made this mistake, they aren’t a law code or creed either.  If you read them, they really look more like a set of guidelines. They don’t tell us what to think, but instead suggest things we should consider when making a moral decision.  To illustrate, I will just look at one…well two Principles.

The Statement begins by affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Now I find that wonderfully challenging.  It isn’t always easy.  In fact, I bet most of us can think of someone whose dignity and worth – well let’s say it’s not obvious to us.

Notice how this Principle is different from a law.  There is no commandment here, no “Do this!” or “Don’t do that!  Instead there is an implied question, an obligation placed upon us:  How can we affirm this person we know, or meet?  The power do do or do not is up to us, completely on our hands.  This is the work we are called to do if we want to live with integrity.

It’s an invitation to look beyond the first impression, an invitation to resist dismissing someone as this or that, because they work at such and such a job or perhaps are not working at all.  This Principle encourages us to get past the filter of ‘isms’ we all seem to acquire.  We are asked to get past the agism or gender bias, the status in life, the race or religion the culture or clothing choices.  We are challenged to strip away the masks we place onto other people’s identities and to try to better see them for who they are, to try to uncover their best qualities, or at least the qualities to which we can relate.

When we do that we are more likely to understand why they behave as they do.  And when we do that bit of affirming of worth and dignity, then we are led straight to the second principle that speaks of balancing justice equity and compassion.  When we see a whole person it becomes harder to dismiss their actions with a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude… one I usually reserve only for motorcyclists with unmuffled engines.

When we start seeing whole people, it becomes easy to sponsor refugee families fleeing wars we don’t grasp coming from cultures we can’t always understand.

I know very little about Mohamad, the father of our refugee family.   I read the story of their escape to Turkey from Damascus. I met him briefly on a computer chat and that’s it. We literally don’t speak the same language.  In time we might become friends, and we might not.  That really doesn’t matter right now.

The point was to for me find a way to affirm his worth and dignity as a fellow being.  That’s the commitment I made when I chose to adopt the Principles in my life.  I was already committed to the idea of helping refugees as a general idea – it’s the right thing to help people fleeing in fear of their lives.  But when I read about his primary concern for the safety of his children, – kids the same ages as mine – when I saw the anxiety in his eyes, the barriers between us dropped away.  I cannot imagine fearing that your child – my child – could die in a war or in the act of escaping one.  I can’t think of anything more terrifying.  I saw that in his eyes.  I need to help this man, father to father.

I am sure I could make the same connection to Ramza and the children, but the critical bridge across differences had already been constructed. And in this story I only give myself credit for one small thing, one thing that I do far too infrequently.  The only thing I did was to follow that first Principle and find a way to affirm him.  If only for a moment I stepped out from behind my emotional walls and tried to build a bridge instead.

That’s what this first Principle calls us to do.  It invites us to see – to really see the other as a full person with wants and needs, with scars and loves and pet peeves, with good habits and with bad ones…you know, someone just like us.

And if we can do just that one thing, then following all the other Principles becomes easier, and that whole golden rule “Do unto others” think becomes a snap.

The life of integrity begins in your heart.  It’s shaped by lots of lessons and ideas and even Principles, but it begins and ends in your heart.  You have to choose a path of integrity.  No one can do it for you.

And so, as we enter the Advent season, let us remember one of the holiest and most sacred tales of the holidays… “The Grinch Who Stile Christmas”.  When he really saw the people of Whoville for the first time, when he got past his prejudices and inner twistedness, well “His heart grew three sizes that day.”

May your encounters with the Other lead to similar cardiac growth in us all.