Fear, Anger, Hopelessness...we succumb to the pull of this maelstrom with slumped heads, broken hearts and forgotten dreams. Our resources seemingly drained, we feebly accept our impotence and hide in episodes of American Idol. Like small children afraid of the night, we cower, having forgotten our power, having misplaced our souls, having turned our backs on creativity.
In a single moment we are stirred by a word, a song or a memory, which reminds us that we chose this…we created our predicament. With resolute passion we burst into life looking for those who will join us calling for those who will love us and hoping that together, we will change all we see.
Originally, I wrote this sermon in February…it was inspired by my outrage over conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Since that time, things have changed…we’ve already forgotten the Alberto Gonzales scandal, there are ever increasing deaths in Iraq, Democrats surrendered to GW signing a blank check for the supplemental war funding bill and Cindy Sheehan has dropped out of public life. I am left feeling morally impotent and embarrassed of my country, my government and my community.
I feel helpless in today’s world of globalized economics. Ours is a strange new world where any country’s autonomy, her laws, her government, her democratic processes, her very citizens can be forced to buy and sell genetically altered foods, without the right even to label those products. I feel stunned that despite an overwhelming Democratic revolt in our last election, our Democracy’s machinery can’t check the war ambitions of its executive branch. I’m revolted that around the world, basic, vital resources like water are being co-opted by corporations and controlled for profit, despite the thousands who are dying from lack of clean water. In this climate, I feel that I can make no difference. There seems to be no group I can join which is powerful or organized enough to influence our course. There seems to be no petition that I could sign or letter I could write that finds its home in the hands of those powerful or brave enough to act decisively. News of political headway made by those who share my values is like the quiet plink of a tiny pebble landing in a deep and murky well. I feel violated, on a personal, psychic and empathetic level by the acts of callousness and aggression committed by my own society against its members. I have developed something like an ethical Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It seems there is no scream, no genuine outburst of anguish or cry of “Stop!” which is loud enough to be heard. There is no where to flee, no way to make a stand and I am left in a state of paralyzed apprehension…waiting for the next act of violation. Sometimes, I long to have no conscience and no empathy…that I might escape the emotional anguish brought on by these conditions.
I grew up as a patriot of this country. I marveled that we would struggle to live by principles expressed in our Declaration of Independence. I studied our constitution, memorizing her preamble and loving the ideals which we had made law. I knew our sins could be converted to wisdom and strength as I memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I felt pride about our sacrifices to subdue the Nazis and then rebuild a tattered world. I was inspired by the courage of those who struggled and prevailed against bitter racism only a generation before mine.
As a young adult starting college, I knew we faced a long road of work, spiritual growth and great struggle. Nonetheless, I brimmed with pride and awe when confronted with the progress made in generations before mine. I lived in a world of ideas ruled by notions of equality, democracy, compassion and justice. These sentiments swelled my pride and I was grateful to be part owner of a country, which strove constantly toward those ideals.
Today I stand before you nearly two decades older, a little bit wiser and much more cynical. I struggle with the fear that I am destined for unremitting apathy. I am repulsed by the fleeting yet incessant notion that I am a broken man, who must ignore the world, and take solace in assuring my children that I love them and would leave them a better world if I could. I have recently plodded through a depression, the likes of which I had thought impossible after giving up Alcohol in 1995 in favor of a practical spiritual path. Ironically, during one of my periods of outrage, I found an inspiration, which I now think worthy of sharing with you.
While doing internet research on my wife’s grandmother, noted UU Muriel A. Davies, I discovered a sermon she wrote in 1998 for the 90th Anniversary of the Summit, New Jersey Congregation.
Davies wrote: “I think we Unitarian Universalists have a great opportunity today, if we cease putting obstacles in our path -- obstacles of vocabulary, of narrow identification. In a conversation with a friend who had attended the most recent General Assembly, I was saddened to hear that there is still apparently controversy between humanists and theists and anxiety about splinter groups such as Unitarian Pagans. These conflicts can even split congregations.
We have a message which supersedes these differences. I submit that our message, as stated in our seven principles, is one to which we can all subscribe, whatever our religious preferences in expression are. Surely, whether one chooses to use the word God or adheres to a humanist or scientific approach, we can unite in covenanting to affirm and promote the inherent worth of every person; justice and compassion for all; acceptance of one another; the search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience; the goal of world community, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
In a culture which is becoming increasingly global, there is need for a religion which is relevant to an expanding world. If we can focus on our basic message, I believe we can make a significant contribution to this new world. Our religion looks to the future. In a world of intolerance, where religious, ethnic and cultural differences are tearing people apart, we offer a religion which is inclusive, from which no one is excluded except, as William Ellery Channing once said, "by the death of goodness in his or her own soul." In a world of rigid sectarianism, we offer a religion which finds wisdom and insight from many sources, past and present, thus linking us to the whole human experience. We affirm our belief in world community with peace and justice and liberty for all.”
We are all experiencing a difficult and divisive period. We can’t agree on how to proceed. Splinter groups are attempting to force the whole in one direction or another. I assert that we are making ourselves irrelevant. Davies sermon describes a historical UU turning point; decisions were made resulting in explosive growth for Unitarianism. The first half of last century saw many lawmakers and people of import listening to Unitarian ministers. Our influence was important and our values made a real difference in the world.
Today, many people even in our congregations don’t know what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. Unitarianism has a marginal influence in our laws. Our values, while worthy are easily found in other groups that one might join. It’s not difficult to imagine gaining more spiritual fulfillment and a deeper experience of fellowship from volunteering to help Habitat for Humanity.
If we want a place at tomorrow’s table, if we want our values to help guide society, if we as a congregation, want to make a positive difference in the world, we must set aside our internal grievances and allow ourselves to serve a greater cause. We must allow ourselves to grow individually and collectively. We must practice personal reflection, accurate self appraisal and practical self criticism. We must not shrink from searching out our own flaws. If we are honest, we can easily identify our own racism, stubbornness, arrogance, and deceit. Where have we undermined others who deserved our support? When did we spread divisive gossip either for our own amusement or to bolster our own egos? Can we really admit when we are wrong? What cost is there in believing ourselves to be always or at least usually right? Consider the words of philosopher Edward de Bono, “The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas.” These questions can provide fertile ground for each of us to start looking at our own faults.
Only if we are willing to fearlessly examine ourselves and grow beyond our current limitations, will we become a denomination and possibly a great movement of influence and moral excellence. We can effectively champion our seven principles in the world. We can extend our hands to those who suffer and “ease the world’s pain.” We can collectively be “moved by compassion to service and to justice.” We have the people, we have the organization and right now…in today’s world…more than ever…we have the opportunity.
To be relevant, Unitarian Universalism must stand for something that people want, understand and embrace. Our intellect and heady conversations mean nothing if we as an organization allow society to ignore 8.4 million children who have no health coverage. Our seven principles are ignored and forgotten if we don’t stand up for Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. We must demand they receive care. And We must demand they receive compassion.
It is natural to hear entreaties to reflect on one’s shortcomings as being directed toward, the person sitting next to us or several rows away. Make no mistake, I am talking to you…I am addressing each and every member of this congregation. I challenge any UU anywhere. I assert that we have allowed these transgressions. We have fallen asleep and we have slipped into ambivalence. We have focused on ourselves and our comfort at the expense of others. Is there anyone here who really couldn’t have done more to influence the last two elections? Is there anyone present who really couldn’t do more today in service of our seven principles?
Like many of you, I have complained that our leaders and our ministry haven’t suggested a solid and unifying course of action which will make a difference…Today, I assert that such complaints are shallow and cheap! We design those complaints in order to avoid personal responsibility.
In fact, we Unitarians are the wealthiest, most educated and perhaps the brightest which our society has. Why aren’t we generating plans? Why do we act like it’s “not my job.” Each of us can meditate on our values, and honestly criticize ourselves in light of those values. Any of us could generate plans and produce action. We are responsible for tomorrow’s world. We create our future.
Our Seven principles are the result of centuries of human effort. We have stripped away unreasoning superstitions, we have rejected dogmatisms and we have created a foundation where humanity might embrace the interconnected web of life. Through knowledge and spirit, we are linked to our past and to our future; we author the fulfillment of our dreams…or we author our complete failure. We hold the reins and we must decide. Don’t let this moment slip, each person must chose whether they will stand together and take action to create this dream or whether they will let petty resentment and disagreement impede collective progress towards a humanity which proclaims that “all life is our concern and love is our way.” In the words of Congregationalist minister Reverend Dale E. Turner, “In all the work we do, our most valuable asset can be the attitude of self-examination. It is forgivable to make mistakes, but to stand fast behind a wall of self-righteousness and make the same mistake twice is not forgivable.”
Thank you, Amen, Blessed Be