LOVE IS THE SPIRIT OF THIS CHURCH, AND SERVICE IS ITS LAW
Dr. John Young, 2/9/97
Affirmation: "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."
Quite a few people are Unitarian Universalists at heart, but they don't yet know it. Most of us here are Unitarian Universalists officially, but some of us are still vague, or even embarrassed, when asked to explain ourselves religiously, to share our good news. Too often, we define ourselves by what we are not, rather than by what we are, by what we reject instead of by what we affirm. We reject people who condemn those who do not join their faith, and this makes us hesitate to share the joy, wisdom, and satisfaction that we find in our faith. We are against people who burn swatikas or crosses on other peoples' lawns, but we laugh about our own tendency to, metaphorically, burn question-marks on our own lawns, or to put bumper stickers on our cars that say: "To Question Is the Answer."
We are a community of seekers. We are a religion which believes that each person needs to discover, understand, and live his/ her own faith. We are a denomination which honors the individuality of each person and the differences among people. We are seeking together the moral, spiritual, philosophical, and spiritual power within each of us and among all of us. We are a WAY of being religious, a process rather than a dogma, a group of creative methods instead of a creed, a caring community much more than holy rites, sacred books, or mysterious sacraments. We agree with the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians 5:21, where the scripture says: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." So, we face our faith as a life-long process of practical growth. We refuse to be stuck in some irrational or outworn dogmas simply because they were our ancestors' history, are the first choice on a current national opinion poll, even simply because they were our own earlier choices. We try to test every available idea, whether it is spiritual or scientific, ethical or everyday by the best available standards of thinking and feeling, experiment and experience, whether it is the wisdom of the world, the gentle cries of our own hearts, or the hopes of a friend.
So much of traditional religion lifts God and some people’s preferred prophets and scriptures UP, and puts other people, other prophets, and life itself DOWN. We think this is wrong; it is destructive to living a good life and to being a good person. We love life and this world. I have a Darwin amphibian decal on the back of my car. It is an amphibian, and not a fish, because the fish that were beginning to develop legs went up on land and became amphibians and other classes of animals, and the ones who did not need legs and feet stayed in the water. Some Christians seem to consider the Darwin amphibian an affront, and have now developed a counter symbol: that has a big Jesus fish eating up the Darwin amphibian. This reflects some of the mistakes that many traditionally religious people seem to make. Unitarian Universalists are NOT against Jesus, they are FOR evolution. They are busy climbing beyond the muck, and they feel no need to eat up those that differ from them. So much of traditional religion seems to be based upon fear: fear of their God, fear of those with other faiths, fear of themselves as sinful and guilty creatures, fear of the world. Fear tends to nurture anger, guilt, hypocrisy, and despair. Our's is not a religion of fear. We do not need to reject human science, reason, or our individual, practical experiences in order to preserve our faiths.
Most of the educated world believe that evolution is the most credible way to understand our own development. For several billion people, the Unitarian, Charles Darwin’s ground breaking theories of natural selection are very much alive. One third of the world’s population, more than 2 billion people identify themselves as Christians, and most of them also believe in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Most of them, like practically everyone of us, believe in evolutionary creation, disbelieve in irrational Creationism or in ANY spirituality based upon blind faith or irrational and anti-scientific dogmas.
Surveys of mainline religions in America: Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish revealed that their pre-eminent spiritual values were SALVATION and PURITY, while love and community service were not their central spiritual priorities. Salvation is not what Unitarian Universalists are looking for in their spirituality. Purity is not what we are striving for in our ethics. UU's are instead, committed to living with love, and to making that love practical in wider community service. We, Unitarian Universalists, revere creation. We believe that each human being is a true inheritor of creation. We are an incarnational religion; so, we believe that Jesus was saying that all people are children of God, and that he was modeling this relationship, not holding himself apart as the only child, nor as necessary for salvation. For us, life is salvation, and each of us, as the scripture says, must work out that salvation for ourselves. We think that people do that by how they love, not primarily, by how they love God, Jesus, or Buddha, but, instead, by how they love their neighbors. Jesus and the other Jewish prophets were on the right track, when they declared that to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves is the heart of the laws and the prophets. Real religion is what people do in their daily lives. Real faith is not dogmas, creeds, or magic promises, but who you are, what you do, and the promises you keep in your chosen communities with the people who share your life. Real faith is your service to others, your acts of peaceful civility, your every day actions of truth seeking and gentle loving.
There are plenty of people who have no actual spiritual community today. They are so busy getting by: making money, raising their families, having fun with their friends, pleasing themselves, that they do not take the time nor make the effort to discover what their lives are all about or to find people with whom they can share the depths and heights of their own lives. As Blake's affirmation points out: we Unitarian Universalists are a church, that is, we are gladly a spiritual community, and a religious denomination with an impressive history and many enthusiastic members. Our denomination does have rules, but they are based upon doing things cooperatively, and upon making positive differences in the world. We make solemn promises or covenants, but they are not about converting the world, destroying enemies, nor denying reality, but, instead, are about: creating and nurturing community together through kind cooperation, seeking truth together through loving interaction, and making life better for each other.
Our primary symbol is the flaming chalice. More than any other denomination, we revere the freedom, reason, and tolerance of the ancient Athenian democracy equally with the ancient, prophetic, justice-seeking monotheism of Israel, and the loving and inclusive spiritual enthusiasm of the early Christians. Do you know about Jan Hus? He was the Christian reformer who became, at the beginning of the 14th century in Czechsovakia, the literal symbol of the flaming chalice by saying that all Christians should receive the wine in communion and not just the priest, and who was burned at the stake for advocating and practicing this reform. In the late 20th century, the flaming chalice became a symbol which stands for freedom and responsibility after the Holocaust, reason and emotion after Hiroshima, and tolerance, inclusiveness and personal integrity after the propaganda and double-think of totalitarian regimes, cults, and revolts.
Because we are considered a thinking person's religion, some people get the idea that all we do is talk and argue, that anything goes. Because we are inclusive, some act as though all ideas will be treated as equally viable whether they are confusions or clarity, truths or mistakes. This is not so. We think that all the major religions have some of the truth, and that no religion, including Unitarian Universalism, has all of the truth. We do not have required dogmas or creeds about God or afterlife, nor do we have required prophets or scriptures. Our members can hold different beliefs about these probably unanswerable spiritual questions, and are allowed to change their own minds and practices about them over time. Thus, we have theists, agnostics and atheists, pagans, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists within our congregations, people who believe in heaven, people who think that death is the end, people who believe in reincarnation, and a good many of us who believe in part of many of these and other foundation theological or philosophical doctrines, and also have our doubts about them.
However, we do share central principles and important traditions in common. We agree upon them, and we expect those who join with us to live them in their lives, and, particularly, to practice them in our spiritual community's life. We believe in individual dignity, in justice, equity and compassion in living together, in mutual encouragement to spiritual growth and the responsible search for truth, to individual conscience and community democracy, to the goal of a liberated, just and peaceful world community, and respect for the interdependent web of nature. We revere: each person's individual spiritual experiences, women and men's words and deeds which challenge evil with justice, compassion, and love, the wisdom of the world's religions, the Judeo-Christian lessons of love, the humanist guidance of reason and science warning us against all idolatries, and the wisdom of the sacred circle of life and the rhythms of nature. Within these principles and traditions, there is much liberty, but we share these important principles, and we expect our members to live by them.
I am reminded of a joke: a Catholic priest was crossing a public park between his church and his residence. He saw a parishioner sitting on a park bench who had not been to Mass in a long time. "Kelly, How are you? I've missed you at Mass." "Oh, hello Father, well, you see how shabby my clothes are, and they are the only ones I have; so, I feel embarrassed to come to Mass looking as I do." The Priest took this to heart and talked with the church leadership, and a special collection was taken up to get Kelly a new set of clothes. They collected enough to get him the works, and the priest gave Kelly his gift outfit. But, Sunday passed, and Kelly did not appear. The priest was crossing the park again, and saw Kelly there. "Kelly, you were missed at Mass. It made us all feel bad that we had gone to this trouble, and, then, you did not appear. "Well, Father, it's this way. I got all dressed in the new clothes, and they looked so great, I decided that I would just look too good at Mass; so, I went to the Episcopal Church."
We welcome many spiritual seekers to our services. Some of them stay, because they truly want not only personal freedom but social responsibility, not only to be tolerated but to become inclusive, not only to share their reasons for being but to accept the democratic disciplines and decisions of their chosen congregation. Others are initially excited because we are different, but, then, become astounded because we have expectations of them: that we want not only to listen to them but to have them listen to us, not only do we celebrate their freedom, but that we expect responsible behavior from them.
Love, as the Apostle Paul reminded us, is not easy. Unitarian Universalists are easy to like; we are relatively free, open, and embracing, but no individual or community is always easy to love. Love takes significant time and energy. It requires patience. People who do not really like nor respect themselves find it even more difficult to like, and, certainly, to love others. Some people only seem to be able to love themselves, and the only way they will love you is if you simply do what they want you to do. Since our principles clearly demand both the ability to love oneself and to love others, those WITHOUT those skills do not STAY with us. It is fair to summarize that we are a tough love faith.
We have even higher expectations. We expect people to love their lives and to love the world. This is antithetical to some faiths, which wait for a good life in heaven and reject this world as ungodly or beyond redemption. We are not a happy home for the proud cynic nor for the chronically angry. We are also an uncomfortable spiritual choice for those who believe all is right with the world, who think that religion should only look at the bright side, or that people can proceed through life without self-criticism or that society can flourish without dramatic cultural and political reforms.
To be happy as a Unitarian Universalist, you need to love life and to love this world, you need to respect yourself and to respect other people. To be happy as a Unitarian Universalist, you need to be willing to use both your head and your heart at church, you need to be willing to use both your cultural knowledge and your personal experiences in your daily religion. You need to want to help Creation to create this evolving world, to help Jesus to teach justice and love in this tragic world, and to help Buddha to share enlightenment and compassion in this suffering world.
As liberal religionists, we celebrate freedom, but we also expect personal responsibility and social activism. We do not just question and seek; we have found that human salvation is achieved through practical love and transformative community activism and service. Service, for us, is not just learning and discussing, but it needs to begin with learning and discussing. You cannot help people if you do not know them, and you cannot know them if you do not listen carefully to them. We seek the truth, but we do it politely and graciously. We do it patiently and with empathy for other peoples' experiences. For us, service combines direct service to those most in need, and social and political transformation that nurtures cultural progress; so, that creation truly evolves. For us, each person is worthy of the flaming chalice of the holy spirit of life. Darwin and Jesus are in communion, and we are all alive, for the glory of Creation.
May 16, 1999, 11 a.m.: Order of Service
Welcome and Announcements
Call To Worship "From all that dwell…by every tongue."
Lighting of the Chalice
UU Minute [above elements by Service Leader]
Hymn #361 "Enter, Rejoice, and Come In [following elements by John Young]
Words to the Children
Hymn #413 "Go Now In Peace" [children proceed to their classes]
Old Words First Corinthians 13
New Words Hymnal Readings #471 and #473
Sermon "Love is the Spirit of this Church"
A Minute of Silence
Hymn #12 "O Life That Maketh All Things New"
Spoken Affirmation "Love is the doctrine….into harmony with the divine."
WORDS TO THE CHILDREN
"Love is the doctrine of this church." Those words begin this church’s Affirmation. Love is what this church is all about. A week after Mother’s Day, most of us might use our Mothers, at their best, as good examples of how love is practiced.
Sometimes, people think of love as undemanding. They say that if you really love somebody, you love them no matter who they are or what they do. I don’t know about your mothers, but my mother was demanding. She had high standards, and she expected me to live up to them, just as she did herself. She wanted me to accomplish things: to do well in school, practice the piano, clean up my room, be nice to my little brother, and do my chores. So, I think real love can be demanding: that love actually asks you to be the person you can be and to do the things in your lives that will make the world a better place.
On the cover of this Order of Service is a painting by the famous artist, Pablo Picasso, of a mother helping her infant to take his first steps. This painting is a picture of love at work. Love is usually helping other people to do something that they want and need to do. The baby in the picture is wanting, trying, to walk, but he needs help to get going. The mother is going to let him make some mistakes and take some falls, but she is going to give a helping hand while he is learning. She is going to praise him when he succeeds, comfort him when he fails, and coax him into trying again until he gets it right. She won’t let him fall over a cliff or walk out in front of a car, if she can help it, even if he wanted to, because that would not be good for him. So, love is asking both ourselves and others to be the best that they can be. It forgives mistakes, if you learn from them and keep trying. It gives a helping hand, but it lets the other persons do what they need to do, as long as it does not hurt others or themselves. Love is helping others and yourself to take the next steps you need to take in your lives. May we all be learning that here in this church.