Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Have you ever made a promise that you found was hard to keep? I bet you have. For those of us who have kids, we can easily identify with Meg Barnhouse’s story about the pumpkins. We say, we’re going to do something for or with the kids and then, maybe it rains. And if it doesn’t rain, something else happens, like the car breaks down. Despite our best intentions, it is hard to keep the promises we make to kids.
Oh yeah, and then for those of us who have been married or in committed relationships – which are both built on promises made – we really know how hard it is to keep a promise, don’t we? Oh yeah, the closer we try to build our lives around and with another person, the more we learn about what happens to our best intentions over time. Yes, when the rubber meets the road, our sweet sounding promises are often put to the test. Right?
With all this nice cool weather I’ve been starting to get into the spirit of the fall season, haven’t you? One of the things I love about this time of year is the pumpkin patches. You know those few places where your eye is treated to the warm orange glow of a large congregation of pumpkins. For those of you who know how much we enjoy Meg Barnhouse’s stories, you’ll understand how I had to take the opportunity to include the one about Dumpster Pumpkins. It’s not really a story for the kids, although they’d probably appreciate it, but it is a good story to help us think today about how Unitarian Universalism got to be such a ‘big umbrella’. It has to do with promises, both the beauty of making sweet sounding promises and the challenge of keeping them.
Do y’all know what I mean when I say that Unitarian Universalism is a big umbrella? Other than a Unitarian Universalist congregation, where else will you find Christians and Jews sitting with mystics and poets, scientists sitting with atheists? How did this come about in a religious movement? I’m here to tell you that it has something to do with promises.
In contrast to the majority of religious communities which are built on common statements of belief, often formulated in a creed of some kind, Unitarian Universalists build communities on a statement of intentions, promises made to one another, which in marriage are called vows, and which in our UU communities is called our covenant.
As Unitarian Universalists our religious roots are found in the Jewish and Christian traditions especially in those places that affirmed that revelation is not sealed, but ongoing. What does this mean exactly? It means that no text or scripture, no body of knowledge about the human condition and its place on this earth and in this cosmos is complete unto itself. No, the nature of life and human beings, is that we are constantly growing and changing. Our curious minds are always seeking more understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. We believe that there is always much more we have yet to learn and so we say that revelation is not sealed. We certainly don’t already know everything there is to know. We are open to learning.
The chalice lighting ritual that is commonly found in UU settings embodies our commitment to our coming together to learn. We light a flame that symbolizes our ongoing process of coming together with an open chalice of our being to receive more insight, more knowledge, more wisdom, more understanding. We open ourselves to the greater wisdom that lies within us, that still, small voice that knows what is true for us. When we believe that revelation is ongoing and not sealed in any one scripture or text, we are honoring what there is to learn from each other, from the multiple perspectives that many different people can bring and we are honoring our own right of conscience. We are able to pursue the paths of growth that speak to us personally. We feel the courage and commitment to honor our own paths to growth and wisdom, even when they are different paths than the ones our families might have chosen for us, or our school teachers or religious leaders. As Unitarian Universalists we have permission to march to the sound of a different drummer, and to feel empowered to know it is the sound of our very own heartbeats.
For Unitarian Universalists, our covenant tradition came out of the Protestant Reformation, a reaction to the Catholic and Anglican Church, that affirmed every person’s direct relationship with the divine or a greater knowledge that was not necessarily provided through set doctrines or absolute statements of faith and which did not depend on the role of religious intermediaries acting on our behalf, such as priests or saints, or any intermediary.
The covenant tradition of Unitarian Universalism is part of the Congregationalist churches that sprang up in the American colonies, where the democratic process and the voice and ideas of every person was affirmed as the standing authority of the church.
Unitarians emerged from the early Congregationalist churches, when they insisted that human reason be applied to Biblical scriptures. Not only did they want to recognize that the Bible was written by various people over time in specific cultural and social conditions, the doctrines of the church, any church, were also created by humans and therefore set in a particular cultural and historical context. The term Unitarian emerged from the Congregationalist churches when the doctrine of the Trinity was challenged as being an idea imposed by church fathers and not necessarily even found in the Bible.
While the doctrine of the Trinity was the current issue of debate among the Congregationalists at the time, the larger issue reflected in the new name of the Unitarians was the use of reason to analyze scripture, and all of human experience really, and that the Bible and even the very life of Jesus, was a text and story set in a particular historical context. It is a great story, an important story, but we also know that the world is a much bigger place than the biblical Middle East of Jesus’ times. This placement of the biblical text and Jesus’ life in a cultural context, which is to be understood through a lens of human rationality, focuses the strength of the tradition on Jesus’ teachings, rather than the documented stories of his life.
The Unitarians in the American colonies were people who believed strongly in the value of education and they were highly educated. They applied their learnings to the betterment of the emerging American society, building up democratic institutions in government, education, healthcare, and all aspects of corporate life. While I don’t have time to go into the rich history of Unitarians who served as founding fathers – and mothers – of American society today, their passion for not just learning, but for social justice is a major reason why Unitarian Universalists provide a wide umbrella of views today.
The Universalist strand of the story is the other major reason for the big umbrella today. In the American colonies the Universalist message was of a loving God who would never condemn any of his or her children to eternal damnation for believing the wrong thing or making a mistake, which is what sin is about. The Universalist message was a much needed antidote to challenge the common image of the times as ‘human sinners in the hand of an angry God’. The American puritan tradition of right conduct enforced by parental authority with shame, guilt and punishment was meant to correct a fallen, sinful nature in humans. Eventually the message of a loving God and human nature as not only capable of good, but generally wired with best intentions won the day. Eventually the Universalist message of a loving God softened the mainstream Christian tactics and Christian Universalism extended to an openness to a diversity of religious paths. If you believe in a loving God and a loving nature in people everywhere, you are inclined to be open to the various ways that this love is supported and expressed. The Universalist Christian stance opened to the wisdom of other religious traditions beyond Christianity, and to the commitment to lead an ethical life in nonreligious people such as academics and scientists.
In the histories of both Unitarians and Universalists, you will find a commitment of social justice-making. It is based on a simple idea that society is meant to support the common good of both the individual and the community, and we are the ones who make that happen, despite our various religious ideas or inclinations.
Out of the intellectual and social creativity of the American colonies, also emerged a distinctly American philosophical tradition – Transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister who left the ministry to focus on writing and lecturing. He is the most prominent spokesperson for the American Transcendentalist movement, but it really had multiple expressions throughout American society in aspects of education and the arts. The essence of American Transcendentalism builds on the democratic principle of the value in each person’s direct experience of the world as a source of knowledge, both moral and practical. This direct experience of the world acknowledges all of Nature as a great teacher and lifts up the human capacity for thinking and making decisions that helps to create so much of the life of human communities.
In the twenty-first century, with advances in science, both the Unitarians and the Universalists communities became a refuge for curious minds that would no longer acquiesce to supernatural religious beliefs. Not only was there a space in our communities for scientific thinkers, we had made a space for the full participation of women, for people of various classes and ethnic backgrounds, and a space for gays and lesbians.
The democratic affirmation of every person’s worth and dignity opened our communities to the pursuit of a variety of life paths. This promising to walk together to affirm each other, to learn from each other, and to share of ourselves is what holds us together as a religious movement , rather than a common creed of belief. Our promising to walk together is what we call a Living Tradition, meaning that it is growing and changing all the time, just as we are growing and changing.
Instead of common beliefs or doctrines that bind us together, we promise to walk together around shared values which help to guide us on our way. The seven Unitarian Universalist principles are the most recent statement of those values. They are printed each week on the back of our church bulletin. Inside the front of our hymnal, aptly called Singing the Living Tradition, is a page that has both the seven principles and the list of many sources from which we share. You are welcome now to pull out the hymnal so that you can look at them with me. You’ll find the page after the Table of Context and just before the first hymn.
Rather than reading the whole list, I’ll lift up the main points of our sources, the first being “direct experience of people in all cultures that is Life affirming”, the inspirational words of women and men who challenge us to live lives of integrity and to confront injustice, wisdom from throughout the world’s religious traditions that inspire ethical living, including but not exclusive to, the Jewish and Christian traditions which teach the golden rule loving our neighbor as ourselves. Then we also have the contemporary learnings of reason and science, and the ancient wisdom of earth-centered traditions which is equally needed in our world today as we struggle to understand the human role as stewards of a precious planet.
When you look at our seven principles and the sources of our Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism, you can see why we are so engaged in some of the most pressing and controversial issues of our time. A Living Tradition is designed, like an umbrella, to meet the present demands of our time. So UUs are there, talking about immigration legislation in our neighboring state of Alabama, we’re talking about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in our country’s military, we’re talking about calling financial leaders in this country into account with the demonstrations on Wall Street and throughout our country.
Our Living Tradition is about the promises we make to each other to walk together through thick and thin, celebrating our sweet sounding vows to each other, whether they are in a new member ceremony like we had in our service last week, or in wedding vows between two committed women in one of the few states that will permit it.
We also keep our promises by jumping into the dumpster of life sometimes, to rescue accidentally discarded pumpkins or accidentally discarded best intentions. All of this is part of the Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism and in times like these, when the many challenging rains of life are threatening our skies, it is good to have a big umbrella. Amen.