Ingathering- Our Principles

“Ingathering – Our Principles” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely  Unitarian Church of Edmonton September 2, 2018

I begin with a quotation from liberal theologian Anthony Padovano:

Being human is the most difficult and the most religious of all our undertakings, for being human means accepting the sacredness and fragility of one’s own life.  It means living every moment with tragedy at hand and grace close by.  Being human means forever trying to settle oneself into the unsettling situations of life.  It means accepting the freedom and unknowability of the human enterprise.  It means that anything can happen to us.  We can gain the world and lose God or forfeit life and find love.  Being human means reaching for the stars and the person next to us at the same time; it also means missing the stars and the person nearby.  Being human is the most difficult and the most religious of our undertakings, for being human means accepting the sacredness and the fragility of one’s own life.

There is an awful lot at stake in this being alive thing.  After all, no matter what your beliefs, we are only certain of getting one crack at a life.  Happily we can get lots of chances to start again in the course of that life, but ultimately we have to define what ours will look like.  If it is to have meaning, we have to define and make it for ourselves.

No, this is not a sermon about being all you can be or achieving some kind of greatness in your living.  That’s overrated.  Success, while nice, is given too much prominence, for success does not automatically equate to either happiness or a satisfying life. No, I would rather talk about living a life you can stand, about making choices that allow you to sleep at night, about savouring the simple happiness you can find everyday.  I want to talk about satisfaction and contentment.  I would rather talk about facing your daily struggles and occasional life crises with character and a sense of dignity.  I would rather talk about coming to the end of each day, whether it be a good one or a terrible one and being able to say that you have done all you could with what you have and find peace. You are enough.

If there has been a focus for my career as a minister it has been preaching that message, you are enough and then following it up with celebrating the value of people forming communities of mutual support, be they a community of two or 200.

Respecting and supporting the growth and struggle of individuals is the major task of religion, though that very basic duty has often been lost in the swirl of institution building and the quest for power.  Indeed, the discussions about the existence of deities and how best such entities should be worshipped is important, and yet is almost a distraction from the real work of serving the people.

Religion SHOULD be helping us make it through our days and nights…helping us find the tools we need to live well and reassurances that such living is possible and has purpose in and of itself.   Religion should be about helping us forge rich spiritual and moral lives by encouraging us, not by dictating to us the proper way to be spiritual or the only acceptable moral positions.  To have any meaningful impact in our lives, those are things we have to work out for ourselves, not adopt unquestioningly.

Religious leaders must respect the people they lead, not expect them to be docile sheep.

Religion can’t hand you morality or spirituality.  It can’t give you meaning by itself.  It needs you, because such things emerge naturally from people trying to lead a good life.  At it’s best, religion can only suggest pathways to help you along the way.  And maybe religion can legitimately encourage discussions without dictating final answers.  Unitarianism tries to do that.  But when religion tries to control conversations and shut down questioning, that’s when it begins to lose its way. Unitarianism tries to avoid that trap.

Despite all the priests and imams and rabbis and pastors and gurus, the work of religion is yours alone to do.  As Padavano says, “Being human is the most difficult and the most religious of all our undertakings, for being human means accepting the sacredness and fragility of one’s own life.”  Only you can do that. The only religion, really, is personal religion. 

Religion is an impulse buried deeply in the human psyche.  It is a drive to find or create stories that explain the mysteries of life.  It is what we use to make sense of life, to tie it all together.  That’s the Latin root of the word religion: to tie together or bind up.  You may choose to use the word religious or not, and that’s fine.  But the work of making moral sense of your world stems from that impulse, call it what you will.

Each of us makes decisions about what stories will be most impactful on our worldview.  Some of those stories are science and fact based, others are romantic.  Some stories are shaped by myth, or the natural world, or deeply seated emotional impulses.  Some are given to us by parents and honoured elders.  The stories that shape that worldview are the ones that strike a chord in our deepest beings.  Only you get to say what stories will shape your world. 

Sometimes we find ourselves keeping those most significant stories buried.  We have to pretend our stories don’t matter while trying to fit in by using other people’s more ‘acceptable’ stories that have been forced upon us. Look at the damage done to women, to LGBTQ2 people, to the enslaved and oppressed of all kinds who were forced to live with their own stories hidden. To me that is a definition of misery and frustration. 

We need to live by our own stories. And that’s why I chose to become a Unitarian Universalist some 40 years ago.  I found in this community a place where my personal religion was accepted and honoured by others who only asked that I respect and honour theirs in return.  Good deal!

I don’t believe religion is about saving souls in some other life.  Again I say that the job of religion – especially Unitarian Universalism- is about getting through this life with a sense of worth and dignity, with a belief that we have lived well and made the best moral and ethical choices we could at the time.

Unitarianism and Univeralism were religions born in the Protestant Reformation.  They were founded by people who rejected the stories they were being ordered to believe and practice.  It’s no different today, except that fewer new arrivals in our communities come burdened with old dogmas.  Today we often find people simply trying to learn what religion is and then figuring out how to do their own spiritual and moral work. 

One way to describe 500 years of our history could be as a journey out from under the weight of dogma and doctrine: the rejection of a single, one sized fits all religious story.

Using the tools of rationalism and tolerance and combining them with a passion for freedom of religious thought, Unitarians and Universalists moved increasingly to a theology of the individual.  It was a humanistic theology that suggested that we had abilities and skills and the moral capacity to make their own difficult decisions. We were not the puppets of a god. We were not sitting idly by waiting for God to do it for us.

For some of us a divinity still and a place in that story, for others not so much.  Some built their personal views on the stories and structure of Christianity.  Others chose different foundations.  And that was okay.  It is we who get to decide our beliefs.  It is we who decide whether we believe in heaven or hell or not.  It is we who get to make the thousand moral decisions that still exist within the larger boundaries of social norms.  There was a UU advertising slogan 20 years ago that I rather liked, “Unitarian Universalism is a religion that puts its faith in you.”

Two challenges to Unitarianism have typically arisen from all this independence and humanism:  First, it has been chronically hard to define what a Unitarian is.  

Second, it can be a challenge to build a sense of community when there is great diversity of opinion.  I will deal with this second point in a couple of weeks when I discuss our vision.

So back to the first question of what the heck is a Unitarian anyway?  Our critics have often accused us of believing in anything and standing for nothing. It’s a criticism that comes from a position that a creed must be believed and certain rules must be followed.  It’s a position, in my view, that lacks respect for the people and loses sight of the basic job that religion must serve the needs of the people.

And in fact, the statement that we don’t believe in anything is not true.  We are all believers.  We just don’t always believe the same things.  Nor does our religion require that obedience.  As one of our earliest Transylvanian Unitarian ministers proclaimed, “We need not think alike to love alike.”

Still, back in the 1980’s when I was just becoming involved in the church, there was a push to develop a new statement that spoke to who we are.  Was it possible to find some ideas, some phrases that would adequately speak for us?  A commission was struck to try to find out.

The process of discussion and consultation took 5 years and involved every congregation and as many individuals as possible willing to participate.  Broad ideas, and then draft statements were debated and voted upon in congregations and then in large delegate assemblies.  It was truly a democratic process.  The Statement of Principles we read at the beginning of the service was the result, along with a statement of five key sources for our beliefs (now amended to six).  I will speak about the sources next week.

The Principles were a cleverly and sensitively created document.  If you look at them again, you will see they are not statements of faith.  They are not doctrines that must be followed.  At best they are guidelines. We each have to make judgments and decisions every day about people we meet, situations we encounter, news stories we read and so on.  How we respond to those situations is a character question.  

The Principles offer us areas to consider as we make these decisions. Are my ideas and actions respectful of the worth and dignity of others? … even when I cannot understand their sometimes troubling and even horrible acts, or when I encounter someone who seems so different from me – in social status, race, religion, life experience and so on.

Are my actions just and compassionate?  Do I give others proper space to express their religious views even if they differ from mine?  And these days a reasonable question to ask is when, if ever. is it appropriate to limit religious belief or practice that challenges the generally accepted views of society.  That’s a hard one.

Our UU Principles are not rules, nor are they faith statements.  But the way we approach them do define us as religious and moral people.  They also define our congregations as communities of individuals who choose to journey together guided by some core ideas as we work on our personal religion.

Being human is the most difficult and the most religious of all our undertakings, for being human means accepting the sacredness and fragility of one’s own life.