Sunday, August 3, 2014

What is a Committed Unitarian Universalist?

While I was serving as an usher at Sunday services last Fall, a visitor to our Congregation noticed the gold chalice I wear around my neck. He asked me what it was and I said it is the religious symbol of Unitarian Universalism, a flaming oil lamp called a chalice. The visitor immediately replied, “You must really be a committed Unitarian!”

That encounter made me stop and think. This was the first time since I signed the book in 1961 in Pittsburgh that anyone referred to me as a committed UU. What have my 53 years as a UU taught me about what it means to be a committed Unitarian Universalist? The sermon which follows represents my personal answer to this important question. Your answer may differ, and that is as it should be.

UUs put great store by our right to decide for ourselves what is true and what is false. This is in part because we have no official creed, no organizational dogma that one is obligated to accept, internalize, and follow, in order to be a “good” Unitarian. We are therefore free to accept or reject ideas, beliefs, and values that we encounter as we live our lives.

We are members of a truly “free” church. Our great degree of freedom differentiates us from all other faiths, and parenthetically, makes it hard for members of those faiths to understand what it is we actually believe. One simple answer is that UUs hold sacred the right of each individual to engage with others in the perennial search for truth.

We therefore reject the concept that the Old and New Testaments are the primary sources of revealed truth, even though our faith has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nor do we posit the idea that our ordained ministers, whom we hold in high regard, are themselves the primary source of truth. Our ministers are there to guide us, to advise us, to call our attention to the moral, ethical, social, and intellectual issues of our day, and to perform pastoral care.

Few of us were born and raised as Unitarian Universalists. We are mainly a Congregation made up of converts from other faiths. As First UU of the Palm Beaches members, we have agreed to fulfill three duties -- to pay a pledge, to attend services on a regular basis, and to participate in church activities.

Our religious understanding imparts to us two essential historically-based concepts: the unity of God as opposed to the Trinity, a denial of the divinity, as opposed to the humanity, of Jesus; and, the forgiveness of God for whatever wrongs we may have committed on earth. The significant Universalist message is that all are eventually saved, and there is no hell.

Compared with the three Abrahamic God-centered beliefs, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, our key religious teachings are really quite radical. UU independent, revolutionary zeal stands out as an intellectual challenge to traditional religious thought about the nature of God and God’s relationship to human kind. The simple, yet extraordinary message of Unitarian Universalism is, God is one. All are saved.

And yet, for Unitarian Universalists, there is no requirement to believe in God. We are free to question the existence of a supernatural being or what some refer to as a supernatural force. Some of us are Agnostics. A few of us are Atheists. Others are Humanists, Buddhists, Ethical Culturists. In the Unitarian family there is room for believers, doubters, and non-believers alike. The point is because we are free individuals within a free church, each of us is entitled to our own set of beliefs. Regarding the existence of a Deity, there is no single paramount belief that all of us share equally.

When did you first discover you were a Unitarian? Did you, like me, have an epiphany, an “ah ha” moment when you suddenly understood you were a Unitarian? Do you remember “coming out” to your family and friends, prompting some of them to ask, “So, what are Unitarian Universalists and why do you want to join them?” Did you struggle with how to explain your attraction to Unitarianism to those who may have never heard of it before? Were they surprised to learn that your new faith was not God-centered or Bible-centered? Many years ago a new girlfriend of mine who had been accompanying me to church announced she did not wish to continue attending services. When I asked her why, she said, “Unitarian services are not Christian enough for me.”

She had been raised Presbyterian, a Protestant from birth. She missed worshiping in front of the cross, singing Christian hymns, listening to her preacher reciting the miracles allegedly performed by Jesus. I understood why Unitarian church services did not satisfy her. She needed the reassurance of certain familiar symbols. She needed a structured set of approved values. She needed and wanted to believe in miracles. The Christian Gospel gave her joy. Unitarian Universalism is not for everybody.

I recall the very first time I heard a Unitarian minister speak about Jesus. He called him “Yeshuah Ben Yoseph,” and referred to him as an itinerant Jewish rabbi, a man of conscience, critical of the societal norms of his day. This was a concept of Jesus I could relate to...a principled social reformer whose own life was an example to others …. a teacher, a man who spoke truth to power, who risked his life to bring a message of change, hope, and love to his oppressed community.

Perhaps those of you who are visitors today are searching for a new faith. Or maybe you are hurting emotionally, and looking for the solace a caring, spiritual congregation can provide. Possibly you are hoping to find other like-minded persons with whom to communicate, sharing views and experiences. Perhaps you are a parent wondering how to educate your child in a liberal, non-traditional religious environment. Or maybe you are a minority person, a gay person, or an individual with very “different,” unconventional ideas. Here, you are welcome. Here, you are wanted. Here, you are valued and respected.

The Unitarian Universalist congregations have established seven guiding principles our members are asked to commit to. Among others these include working to achieve peace and relieve hunger and suffering in the world. We follow through on this goal via our international NGO, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and by supporting the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and other groups in service to humankind, like Doctors Without Borders. Our principles state the need to respect the interdependent web of all living things and ask us to be stewards of nature. Many local UU churches advocate for conservation, for anti-pollution laws and regulations, for the maintenance of animal shelters that have no-kill policies, and for the protection of endangered species through other organizations like Greenpeace and the Nature Conservancy. UU congregations through their Social Action Committees, mobilize to combine their efforts to combat racism, homophobia, and gun violence. They advocate for the sheltering of abuse victims, and they speak out against inequality, poverty, and injustice at home and abroad.

As a committed Unitarian I personally believe that our faith has endured because of its democratic values, its egalitarianism, and its shared search for truth and meaning. Unitarians reject dictatorial rule, authoritarianism, and elitist, narrowly constructed ideologies. We recognize that bringing about betterment depends on the determination and hard work of many people willing to help those less fortunate.

Committed Unitarians understand if better is to triumph over worse, we ourselves must be the primary engines of change. We have to help make it happen. It is not sufficient simply to pray for a better world. Heartfelt prayer helps one to focus, and it can provide the emotional strength needed to accomplish that which is difficult and often seems impossible. But, Unitarian Universalists do not sit around waiting for miracles to occur through an other-worldly source. We do not rely on a supreme power to do that which we, through collective action, are capable of accomplishing ourselves. We may praise the Lord, but we also roll up our sleeves and pitch in.

What are some of the chief values espoused by committed American Unitarian Universalists today? We believe in the right of all to marry, and therefore, standing on the side of love, strongly support same-gender marriage. We practice gender equality and believe all men and women should enjoy equal status and equal rights. We believe in the right of women and men to determine the size of their families using whatever means of birth control they choose, including the legal right of women to seek a safe medical abortion. We believe in the right of gays and lesbians to adopt children on an equal basis with heterosexuals.

Committed Unitarians believe in the democratic process and reject gerrymandered voting districts that favor one party over another. We believe in the right of every American citizen to vote and reject requirements for voting registration that place a burden on disadvantaged minorities. We believe in the democratic, egalitarian principle of majority rule, and therefore question the fairness of the electoral college system which grants disproportionate power to smaller states at the expense of larger states. We regard the principle of one person-one vote, to be fundamental to democratic decision-making.

Few of us believe that private corporations are the same as persons, and therefore call into question Supreme Court decisions which solidify rights and privileges for companies as if they were human beings. Although we believe in the principle of self-defense, we question the wisdom of stand-your-ground gun laws that permit individuals to conceal deadly weapons on their person and fire them at presumed attackers without the obligation to retreat. We are critical of weak gun laws that allow people to purchase semi-automatic assault rifles and large ammunition clips. We insist that a person’s mental state be a key factor in determining whether or not to grant him or her a license to purchase a gun.

We believe in the peaceful resolution of disputes between nations and peoples, and reject armed aggression, terrorism, and torture. We strongly oppose human trafficking, slavery of whatever type, and living and working conditions that are dangerous to human health and threaten human survival. Above all we support the right of every human being on the planet to have access to sufficient food, essential health care, decent housing and sanitation, basic education, safe drinking water, a reasonable degree of privacy and adequate security.

In matters of faith, committed Unitarian Universalists question many of the age-old biblical stories taken literally by traditionalists and religious fundamentalists. We as Unitarians are inclined not to take such stories literally. Rather we assume they have symbolic importance and are open to broad interpretation.

Committed Unitarians generally reject the many anthropomorphic attributes of God as described in the Bible. God is often equated with a law-giver as in the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, and a life-taker, as in the story of Noah and the Flood. Law is a human invention and taking life, an unfortunate human pastime. Committed Unitarians doubt that the Deity can be appeased, angered, or delighted by anything humans do or fail to do. Certainly it is hard for us to imagine the Supreme Being loving and hating in the same sense that humans do, or authorizing prophets and messengers to communicate heavenly-approved behavior to humans.

I have my doubts that God has ever anointed a prophet or brought a deceased person back to life. And I don’t think God exclusively belongs to any one group of people or to any nation, race, or culture. I see no likelihood that God favors any particular religion or sect, the so-called “one true faith.” As a modern, educated adult, a teacher who has studied global cultures, I find it hard to believe in the concept of a “chosen people,” a “promised land,” or conversely, the notion that some people are “infidels.”

Traditional religion represents to me, a form of sanctioned social control by an all-knowing, all-powerful God, as interpreted by an authoritative, church hierarchy. But for we Unitarian Universalists, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “God leaves the fate of mortals in the hands of mortals themselves.”

Summing up then, it is not easy being a committed Unitarian Universalist. We have no absolute, dogmatic truths to guide us or fall back on. We are tasked to maintain our individual distinctiveness as Unitarians while at the same time, drawing upon the world’s religious traditions for inspiration and guidance. Our Unitarian Universalist ministers are called by congregations and are primarily responsible to those congregations. Although we are fully aware our ministers are mortal and fallible, we nevertheless hold them in high regard and cherish their advice and guidance. We not only preach equality and democracy, we covenant with each other to practice these virtues as well, in our congregational life and in our civic life. And when we say “all are welcome”-- to our churches, to our congregations, and to our fellowships, we mean all, and not some. We are indeed, a welcoming faith. Committed UUs are proud to wear the golden chalice as they should be, for taken together, we are a light unto the world. May it be so. Amen.

Thank you all for attending the service today. I am reminded that we stand on the shoulders of Unitarian martyrs whose sacrifices have made it possible for us to worship in peace and security this morning. We are thankful for the inspiring legacy that has been left to us. If you came seeking communion with others, may we be your family. If you came searching for a better way of life, may a path be found. And if you came looking for an answer, may your prayers be heard.

What is a Committed Unitarian Universalist?, a sermon and benediction delivered by Andrew Kahn at 1stUUPB on Aug 3, 2014.

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