First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

"The Heart of Unitarian Universalism" a sermon by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

First Unitarian Church of Worcester
Worship Service of October 21, 2007

First Reading
Matthew 5: 3-10

Blessed are the poor in spirit:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn:
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek:
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness:
for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful:
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart:
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers:
for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Second Reading
from “Salvation from Hell” by Rev. Burton Carley

The other day I was asked if Unitarians offered “salvation from Hell.” Such questions are usually hostile. However, I remembered a scene from the novel by Georges Bernanos, The Dairy of a Country Priest. The priest encounters a woman who is completely turned in on herself. She has been abandoned by her daughter and betrayed by her husband. Death has claimed her young son. With so much loss and grief her heart has hardened. So the priest urges her to unlock her hardened heart, pleading: “Hell is not to love anymore.”

I told the person seeking to trap me that indeed Unitarians offered salvation from hell, for to tuck ourselves away in a little ego-world of our own is hellish. To deceive ourselves into believing that our world is the world is hellish. To not have opportunities to be of service is hellish. To have to think alike to receive love is hellish. I said, “Yes, we offer salvation from hell.”

“The Heart of Unitarian Universalism” by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

This week I attended Berkshire Group, a professional study group. The theological focus this time was entitled “From Fear to Hope.” How do we (as individuals, as a faith community, as a country) escape the paralysis of fearfulness, cynicism and isolation and move towards courage, action and engagement?

We had one new member (one who had never attended Berkshire Group before) who was not only an ordained UU minister, but also a professional quilter. Judith had never been to Wisdom House in Litchfield, Connecticut and had never seen the kind of room we would gather in. Nevertheless, she brought a small patchwork square with autumn leaf outlines beautifully scattered and quilted on the cloth. It fit perfectly on the round table at the center of our circle. It was the focus during worship and during lulls in the conversation.
I asked her, and I ask you, “How did she know that there would be a place for her art? How did she have the confidence to enter a new group, offering something to us that was important to her? How did she know that we would need her gifts?”

When most religious scholars consider the question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” they become quickly frustrated. How can any one describe what religious liberals think, when we all think so differently? Especially when Unitarians put so much emphasis on the rational, on the abstract, on the intellectual pronouncements of purposes and principals, how can we describe this faith, to ourselves or to others? What makes us tick? What fires our enthusiasm? What allows us to endure?

This morning, I have no intention of focusing on what we think about ourselves or what others think about us. Instead, I want to consider what we do together, what we care about, what we trust, what truths call to us, what lies at the heart, at the core of our tradition.

Even if your Unitarian Universalist roots go back for generations, there is something of a mystery about this faith. Even when we disagree about so much (politically, spiritually and culturally,) we stand together in our hopefulness. Unitarian Universalism calls each of us to enter more fully into our own lives and our own strength.

If you are a relative newcomer to Unitarian Universalism you ought to be asking, “Is this my tribe? Are these people who will encourage my spiritual journey? Can this be my religious home?”

Rather than list ten doctrines of this faith or ten principals or ten beliefs that all Unitarian Universalists share, I will be attempting something different. Call them ten weird spiritual practices of Unitarian Universalists, or ten temperamental characteristics, or ten Unitarian Universalist blessings. I am not saying that any of these may not appear in other more orthodox traditions. What I do know is that these ten weird things make us somewhat unusual. They are some of the peculiar religious gifts that we celebrate and encourage. They are central to our tradition and our inheritance of over 500 years of the free faith. Even in the midst of all the frustrations and limitations of liberal religion, they keep most of us coming back. (I’m certain that I’ve left some important practices off this list. . . please feel free to reflect on others.)

The first is complexity—the blessing of complexity. While other traditions try to keep it simple (accept Jesus as your savior and all will be well), Unitarian Universalism claims that the religious journey is full of detours, switchbacks, zigs and zags, ups and downs, moments of blissful clarity and episodes of great confusion and uncertainty. Parker Palmer (a religious liberal from the UCC tradition) calls this mysterious movement “seasons.”
“‘Seasons’ is a wise metaphor for the movement of life, I think. It suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance but something infinitely richer, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all—and to find in all of it opportunities for growth.”

In the Beatitudes, Jesus captures just how wide a range this complexity embraces. You are blessed if you are poor in spirit, humble, not knowing. You are blessed when you are rich in spirit—when you are able to be merciful, when you are able to pursue righteousness—practicing right relationship. You are blessed with the privilege of grief—you are able to mourn only because you are able to love. You are blessed when you make peace—with your family members, with your neighbors, with a stranger. You are blessed in the simplest cry of your heart for your hunger to be filled and your thirst to be quenched. And you are even blessed when it doesn’t feel like you’re blessed at all—when you are persecuted and reviled for following the truth that has been given to you. Jesus describes an extremely complicated understanding of how you will find comfort in the seasons which bring you the best of circumstances, as well as in the seasons which deliver the worst.

Here in New England, we almost have a remedial education on trusting the complexity and the shifts of the seasons. Have you noticed how magnificent the autumn colors are right now? Listen to the words of Unitarian poet, May Sarton.
“It is all a rich farewell now to leaves, to color. I think of the trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of the season how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep. . . .I think of the golden leaves and the brilliant small red maple that shone transparent against the lake yesterday. . . . Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”

The first blessing is complexity.

The second blessing is the practice of intellectual humility. I believe that every Unitarian Universalist ought to be able to affix to the end of every faith statement, every political pronouncement and every commentary and/or judgment on ourselves or others the words, “of course, I could be wrong.” We have institutionalized skepticism here. Unitarians have carved out an honored place for doubt and uncertainty. Your fallible and limited assessments (and mine) are acknowledged in the liturgy, the prayers and the organizational polity of this community.

Which brings us to the third and increasingly weird blessing (especially as secular society claims that it is entirely unnecessary.) The free church says, “It is in community, in relationships that we will come to know God, truth and reality.”

Particularly, American 21st culture says, “bowl alone, shop alone, watch TV, rent a movie—go on a walk in the woods, read a novel.” The goal is autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency. But the limitations of the private imagination are considerable. When you feel lost and frightened, and at a complete dead end, you will need the help of a friend, Sometimes a single sentence can turn us back around in the direction of hope.

This process was explained in a book by William Lynch, which described “Imagination as the Healer of the Hopeless.” He wrote that we can only find out who we are and where we are meant to go in the art of “collaboration or mutuality.” He writes:
“Hope not only imagines; it imagines with. We are so habituated to conceiving of the imagination as a private act of the human spirit that we now find it almost impossible to conceive of a common act of imagining with. But what happens in despair is that the private imagination, of which we are so enamored, reaches the point of the end of inward resource and must put on the imagination of another if it is to find a way out. Despair lies exactly in the constriction of the private imagination. . . . Hope cannot be achieved alone. It must in some way or other be an act of community, whether the community be a church or just two people struggling together to produce liberation in each other. We tend always to think of hope as that final act which is my own, in isolation and in self-assertion. But hope is an act of the city of humanity meaning. . . . nothing less that that people can depend on one another.”

So life is complicated, and we are often wrong and actually don’t know all that much about reality—but we are not alone. We don’t have to depend on our private imaginations. We are in community.

Which brings me to the fourth blessing—service. Being of service to one another. The paralysis of inaction is to be overcome by doing, by action, by re-covenanting, by getting up again after we fall. Unitarians know in our bones (it is written in our DNA,) in our personalities and temperament that we were put on this earth to do certain things. This morning we contribute to a school on the other side of the world. This afternoon we welcome homeless children and their families into the church. Our choir makes beautiful music and releases a CD next week celebrating our relationships with the earth. Next week is the UNICEF Carnival. And people will be knitting and dancing and the Zen group meditates together every Monday. The list is endless because we are here on earth to serve God, to help our neighbor, to do what we can. If someone asks you to help and you can, the only answer is “Yes.”

The fifth blessing is especially weird. It has to do with our understanding of the location of the sacred, the holy moment—the ultimate and critical moment. For many of the world religions the most important moment is the day and time of conversion. For others it is the moment of death—when you meet face-to-face with God. Unitarian Universalists are taught to not look back to when we first felt called to our spiritual path. We are not taught to look forward to some future epiphany or revelation. The holy moment is now. The day that matters, that offers hope and new possibilities, is this one. Holy ground is (at the moment) 90 Main Street. This afternoon it will be wherever we are standing, or sitting, especially as we watch the Red Sox.

To review—at the core of us, we are called to be complicated, skeptical, in relationship, active and focused on the present moment and location.

The next three strange spiritual practices are about where we look for help.

A physicist colleague told me (and my physicist husband confirmed) that the whole universe is made up of only three things: matter, energy and information. Information (in this instance) doesn’t mean additional faiths, data or book learning. It means the capacity to discern patterns. The ability to organize, to understand, to grasp the way matter and energy interact. It is what happens when you click on your email and magically (in an instant) even those of us with over a thousand emails in the in-box can switch from who to date.

Similarly, our view of the world is often filtered through the patterns we impose. Depending on what part of my brain is fired up at the moment, I can (at one moment) see the world as a beneficent and beautiful place (perfect for spiritual growth and loaded with opportunities for more abundant life.) But then there is this other part of the brain—and when it is organizing information it sees mayhem and destruction, tragedy and disappointment. One of the reasons I come to church is for the music. When the choir sings in four-part harmony, we are listening to a pattern that reminds us of a deeper harmony. With melody and the thunderous chords of the organ, we are being surrounded by information that tells our hearts and minds and souls that beauty is real, that there is order and comfort and peace. We Unitarian Universalists worship together and work together in order to be reminded of transformative patterns so that we might glimpse some of the order and the beauty that flows through our lives.

And that takes us to the seventh thing we care about—stories. Stories from every spiritual tradition. Stories from secular culture. Stories we tell one another from our own lives. Stories about the Red Sox (and what a win this evening will mean.) Stories about our work, our families, our travels. Stories about raising children, about how the creation began. Stories tell us that we are not alone in the ways we struggle, the ways we search for meaning, the ways we process information and matter and energy. My hope is that you might never enter this building without hearing a story from the pulpit or from a congregant—a story that reminds you of what is important.

So we look for patterns, and we listen to stories and then perhaps the most important place we seek our understanding is in our approach to the future. As we walk out into an unknown destiny, the best Unitarian Universalists practice I know of is to remain open and curious. Open and curious. Not assuming that we know what will happen next. Some fundamentalists on TV promise that if you only believe the future will hold only abundance, prosperity and happiness. Some newspaper columnists try to convince us that the future is bleak, that the world is literally going down the tubes and that it is too late to make a difference. We Unitarian Universalists choose a middle path. It ain’t all good and it ain’t all bad—and we are willing to suspend our judgments. Instead we state our intentions to go into the unknown with the curiosity and the openness of someone who is not afraid to be vulnerable and not ashamed not to know.

The last two weird spiritual practices of Unitarian Universalists are actually more a question of temperament than of conviction.

Number nine is restlessness. We will never be content to only know what we know now. We want more truth, more love, more compassion and more clarity. If you are blessed with this particular hunger and thirst, the saints say that you will not be satisfied until you meet with God, face-to-face. The saints say that restlessness and longing are the surest signs of blessing and grace. (Don’t let anyone tell you that your restlessness is not a holy gift.)

And finally we reach number ten. Unitarian Universalists are all about free choice. The freedom to choose our own path to what is ultimately true. Our freedom is to choose who we will be in the world, who we will marry and who we will not marry. Unitarians say that it really matters how we choose to focus our lives And that our choices reveal what we value and what is ultimately important to us.

The Unitarian minister, A. Powell Davis told a story from the Native American tradition which, for me, says everything about how we conduct our spiritual lives.
“An elder Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, ‘A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, pride, and superiority. The other wolf stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside of you and every other person too. The children pondered this for some time and then one child asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf will win?’ The old Cherokee simply replied: ‘That depends on which one I feed.’”

No matter where your spiritual journey takes you today, may you find a nourishment for your soul, for the truth that will set you free. And may you know, that in the midst of your complicated, limited, confusing life—you are blessed—you are loved. The gifts you bring are essential to the well being of the world.


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