five smooth stones.

3 Apr

Our Unitarian Universalist Good News

Delivered April 3, 2011 at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY

Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” -James Luther Adams

Call to Worship

Welcome to this community where we encourage one another in our searches for truth and meaning. Here we know that revelation is a continuous process, that truth and meaning aren’t things that were only discovered once, long ago. Instead, they are all around us: we just have to recognize it.

We find revelation in the cycle of nature, in the pushing up of the bulbs in springtime, reaching for the sun.

Revelation can found in the eyes and hearts of our loved ones; or in a piece of art which challenges and changes us.

It’s found in science, literature, music, anthropology. It’s in the in the elegance of a mathematical equation. It’s found in history, in the scriptures of the world religions, in the experience of poets and sages and in our own experience of the wonder of life, passed through the fire of thought.

Welcome to this place where we seek to know, and to be known, in new and wonderful ways.

Chalice Lighting

by Charles Howe

We light this chalice to affirm that new light is ever waiting to break through to enlighten our ways: That new truth is ever waiting to break through to illumine our minds; And that new love is ever waiting to break through to warm our hearts.

May we be open to this light, and to the rich possibilities that it brings us.

Hymn #361 Enter, Rejoice and Come In

Reading our Covenant (unison)

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

Joys and Sorrows

Here we gather together, not because some authority tells us we must, not out of fear for our immortal souls (should we have them!), but because being together is something that we choose. We co-create this congregation when we choose to share our lives with one another, to bind ourselves together in a thick community. One of the ways in which we do this is through the sharing of those joys and sorrows in our lives that have deep meaning to us. Each week, if you have a joy or a sorrow to share, I invite you to write it in the binder by the doors to the sanctuary.

Moment of Prayer and Meditation

We each have our own ways of connecting with the spirit of life and love.

We may meditate on our breath as we breathe in and out,

We may recite well worn words and phrases from times past

We may listen to the still small voice inside

We may talk to the divine as though it were a dear friend

We take this time now, in gathered silence, to join the spirit of prayer or meditation in whatever way feels right, holding these and other joys and sorrows in our hearts and minds.

Sung Response (unison)

We join in this community to build the world we hope will be. Our hearts and minds do hold in prayer these joys and sorrows which we share.

Invitation to Generosity

Offertory

Hymn #346 Come, Sing a Song With Me

Sermon

If you’ve been watching the screens, you may have noticed two “smooth stones” present themselves. At this point, you are probably wondering what on earth these smooth stones are, and how they connect to today’s program.

These smooth stones, and there are 5 of them, come from our Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, in an essay he wrote in 1939. Now Adams is known as one of the greatest liberal religious theologians of the 20th century, and in 1939, he was writing in direct opposition to what he saw happening in the world around him. Inspired by the myth of David fighting the giant Goliath, Adams asked what it is that liberal religion has in its hands that can help us fight the giants of our times. He identified five, smooth stones, five stones in our arsenal with which to battle those who would seek to limit our freedoms, to have us march lockstep with fear.

Even today, when the metaphor of battle has lost much of its luster, these stones are inspiring, for they encapsulate in 5 short, easy to understand bullet points what the good news, indeed one might even say, the saving news of liberal religion is all about – saving not from eternal damnation, but instead from the short sightedness of radically conservative religious faiths.

The first smooth stone we touched on in our opening words this morning is that Revelation is continuous, that truth is available to us to be found and understood, something alive and vital, not something that was discovered once, written about, and that’s the end of the story. Revelation is continuous. When the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association say we promote “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” and that we engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” this is what they are talking about! That we recognize we are all on a journey, looking for truth and meaning. Journeys, such as the ones that Clare and Kailoa are on, that we recgonized and affirmed a few moments ago. Journeys that we are all on, that remind us that we are still growing and learning as the human species and as individuals.

The second smooth stone was briefly touched on as I introduced our joys and sorrows. That is, that relations among persons should rest on consent, not coercion. Adams was big on volunteer associations, and was often heard to put a twist on the words of Jesus, saying “By their groups ye shall know them.” He would never let us take for granted the precious power of voluntary associations – groups freely gathered – such as political parties, and advocacy organizations, and free churches, because these are the institutions that the forces of fascism and oppression first seek to abolish. I can’t help but wonder what Adams’ response would be to the Union busting movements taking place in Wisconsin and other states. I suspect he would be quite upset.

We also see a reflection of this smooth stone in our UU principles, for when we say we affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;” we are talking about each person having a voice. Additionally, I believe that our existence as a creedless religion informed this stone of Adams, because we are not going to coerce you into saying you believe something you don’t believe. Remember – we are all still searching, and finding, truth and meaning!

Which brings us to Smooth Stone #3. “Religious people have a moral obligation to establish a just and loving community.” Because we know that truth is still being discovered, and because relationships with one another must be based on consent, as human beings, as practitioners of liberal religion, Adams said that we have a moral obligation to work for justice, to work to create the beloved community.

Recently, we have heard some theists claim that atheists can’t be moral without some sort of fear of God. Meanwhile, some atheists claim that the theists are only being moral out of fear for their souls, and they wonder what kind of morality that might be. So what does Adams, mean when he says religious people have a moral obligation to establish a just and loving community?

Adams identified as a Unitarian Christian, and his understanding was that God acts through people, and that when this happens, people act for justice. Adam’s personal understanding of God was not at all traditional and he knew the word God was laden with all sorts of baggage for people. Adams used the term “God” to describe purposes and processes far greater than those humanity knows.

With this in mind, he wrote that “A faith that is not the sister of justice is bound to bring us to grief…It thwarts creation, a divinely given possibility; it robs us of our birthright of freedom in an open universe; it robs the community of the spiritual riches latent in its members; it reduces us to beasts of burden in slavish subservience to a state, a church or party – to a self-made God.”

Justice, said Adams, is love writ large, and as practitioners of liberal religion (whether you are a theist, and athiest, or neither), we are called to love in this large way, though seeking and creating justice.

I believe that the rest of our principles are influenced by this one smooth stone of Adams. Because it recognizes that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and that all people have a right to justice. As a religious body, we are called to create justice in the world, to create the beloved community, that each person deserves to live in. We seek peace, we are careful how we tread on this earth, we understand our connectedness to one another.

Harken back to John Lennon with me for a moment, and Imagine all the people sharing all the world. Imagine it! Our liberal religion calls us to envision and work for world of freedom and justice, a world where all the world will live as one. But our good news does not stop there, oh no.

Adams identified the fourth smooth stone as: Good things don’t just happen, people make them happen. We are not called to sit back and wait for the Beloved Community to come about; instead we are called create the beloved community where freedom, peace and justice reign here, and now. Though working together in our voluntary associations, associations like this congregation, human beings can bring justice into being.

My favorite quote for a long, long time was the Margaret Meade quote found in the back of our hymnal. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;” Meade wrote. “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

But they didn’t just change the world by sitting around and wishing for it to change – not at all. That wouldn’t change much of anything. Good things are not just going to fall into our laps, we have to do something.

Folksinger Jewel has a song called “Life Uncommon” that reminds me of this smooth stone. She sings:

There are plenty of people who pray for peace
but if praying were enough it would have come to be”

While our imagination and our prayers are important, they are not enough. We must put our faith into action and make the good things happen.

This is why Social Justice is so important to Unitarian Universalists. We must use these hands that we are given not to sit around wringing them, but to go create the world we want, that Beloved Community.

Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale said “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

Hale does not say anything about thinking about problems, or talking about them. He says he will not refuse to do something.

But just what is the something that we can do? I know that I often get overwhelmed thinking of all the problems in the world, all the injustices that need correcting. It can totally overwhelm us to the point of becoming immobilized. We have this amazing vision, but how do we even begin to make the good stuff happen? Thankfully, we don’t have to do it all at once – even what we think of as little steps are progress in the right direction. Slowly, as we get more used to this type of movement, our steps become larger, and with more and more of us stepping together, we become a movement…a force for good in the world, doing what we can.

People can make good things happen, as overwhelming as it may sometimes seem. We can take care of the environment by reducing our carbon footprint, we can work for justice where we see it is absent. We can love our brothers and our sisters and our neighbors as ourselves. We can make a difference.

This leads to Adams fifth and final smooth stone, perhaps the most important piece of this puzzle of Good News we are putting together today: hope. The resources available for change, Adams said, justify an ultimate optimism.

Now the modern period in which Adams lived is characterized by this grand hope in the capabilities of mankind: progress! Onward and upward! Fluffy-bunny optimism is how I tend to think of it. Sure, it’s easy to be optimistic when one has access to all sorts of riches and privileges, to be optimistic when you are well-educated and have a job and a home. This modern optimism we now know was pretty short-sited and limited in where, and to whom, it extended.

Certainly, Adams was a product of his time. However, there is an integrity to it when he claims that the resources at our disposal justify hope. He was not talking about fluffy-bunny optimism, not at all.

In Germany during 1935-36, Adams watched as the Nazi government of Adolph Hitler ruthlessly crushed any and all dissent as it marshaled forces for its coming march across the continent. Interrogated by the Gestapo, Adams narrowly avoided imprisonment as a result of his engagement with the Underground Church movement. Using a home movie camera, he filmed theologians Karl Barth, Albert Schweitzer and others, including those who were involved in clandestine, church-related resistance groups, as well as pro-Nazi leaders of the so-called German Christian Church. Adams returned to the United States more convinced than ever that the tendency of religious liberals to be theologically content with vague slogans and platitudes about open-mindedness could only render liberal churches irrelevant and impotent in face of the world’s evils, and he stated his convictions loudly and frequently.

Coming out of this experience with Nazi-ism, I think that for Adams to claim that there is hope, that the resources human beings have at our disposal – both internal and external, justify an ultimate optimism – this is very, very good news indeed.

But hope can be hard – to hope is to risk failure. To risk being hurt. I know I sometimes find myself lacking in hope. It isn’t that I fall into despair, mind you, but that I am sometimes afraid to hope. Emily Dickinson wrote that Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul. A thing with feathers – something fragile, that may fly away at any moment. It can be hard to hope. It can take a force of will for me to say to myself: Ok, I will risk this. I will allow myself to hope. I am aware that I risk deep sorrow, when my hopes don’t manifest, but I would rather have to climb out of sorrow than never have seen the peak to begin with. I believe that what Adams said continues to be true, that the resources for change justify an ultimate optimism: that justice will prevail, that love will conquer hate. So I will hope.

But hope can’t stand by itself. Hope alone is not our good news – there are four other pieces that it must build on. And so we have five smooth stones:

  1. Revelation is continuous
  2. Relations among persons should rest on consent, not coercion.
  3. Religious people have a moral obligation to establish a just and loving community
  4. Good things don’t just happen, people make them happen
  5. The resources available for change justify an ultimate optimism.

This is a powerful message of salvation – not in some other life, but in this life, in this world. Right here, right now! We have good news! This is a message, not of “us-versus-them”, not of domination or dogmatic belief. Rather, it is a message that understands that there are different paths to Truth. It is a message of inclusion and connectedness. It is a message of building bridges in such a way that reduces polarization rather than feeding into it. It is a message that moves us to action!

Taken together, these smooth stones of liberal religion that Adams identified are very, very good news indeed. And it all starts with you, and with me, right here, right now. May it be so.  May we make it so.

Hymn #1064 Blue Boat Home

Extinguishing the Chalice (unison)

We extinguish this flame, but not the light of truth, the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment. These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.

Closing Words
From Theodore Parker

Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.

Blessed Be!

Postlude

Benediction

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