KISS: Keeping It Simple

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 03/03/2013

Reflection 1
One of the things that Unitarian Universalists like to tell themselves about our religion is that our beliefs are really complicated and very difficult to explain to others.  This is sort of peculiar, because often the first thing that brand new UUs feel when they start attending a UU congregation is that there’s a huge amount of freedom, because no-one is explaining anything.

In his or her new UU church, there’s no-one telling the New Guy what to believe, or asking if they agree with church teachings.  No-one’s telling them that there are truths with which they need to align, nor does the message from the pulpit assume that they are already in agreement with our church doctrine or traditions.  We established UUs do a good job of telling the New Guy that their beliefs have a place here, that the New Guy is free to believe as he or she sees fit. 

At first, in other words, Unitarian Universalism seems really simple, and liberating. 

But as time goes on, that space that the New Guy experiences can seem more like a vacuum.  A vacuum of information.  A vacuum of opinion.  It’s not really possible, the New Guy realizes, for a group of people to not believe anything at all.  Besides, obviously, UUs do believe certain things.  After all, we all show up here week after week to hear about ideas and ways that we want to interact with the world, and those ideas and ways are really pretty identifiable.  It’s just that no-one around seems to have an easy explanation for what it is that UUs do believe in. 

So, the question always, always arises:  What DO UUs believe?  And then things get all complicated.

Do we believe in the Seven Principles?  Well, they are certainly agreed upon by most UUs and they certainly encapsulate how we want to act in our religion, but they are sparing in what they say about what we believe, with an exception we’ll talk about in a minute.  So it seems that the Principles wouldn’t be the best place to look for what UUs believe, although they’re a great place to see how we might behave

Do UUs believe in the Six Sources?  (You can see the Sources along with the Principles in the opening pages of your hymnal.)  Well, the Sources are meant to tell people where our beliefs stem from.  Our individual beliefs might come from one or more of these Sources, and our collective range of beliefs are sort of an amalgam of these Sources…but I’m not sure the Sources are a great answer to what UUs believe.  They’re kind of broad and complicated, and don’t apply every time.

In fact, complicated tends to be the problem overall.  As some of you know, about ten years ago, the then-President of our denomination, Bill Sinkford, challenged every UU to come up with what he called an elevator speech.  The elevator speech is meant to be the thing you say when you’re getting on an elevator on the sixth floor of a building and the person next to you asks, “So, what’s a Unitarian Universalist?”  You have 30 seconds to say something that makes sense. 

So the fad at the time was for everyone to write or create an elevator speech that you’d use in just this occasion.  UUs collected many elevator speeches, and at the time I expected that these speeches would be really stellar, really informative, and maybe I could adopt one.  Instead, they were super complicated.

I mean listen to some of these.  And these were the ones that were published for broad consumption!

“As Unitarian Universalists, we celebrate the inherent worth and dignity of every person and seek to build a peaceful, just, and compassionate  society. At the heart of our faith, therefore, is a commitment to democracy—not only as a form of government but as a moral value that lifts our lives beyond the self-centered and mundane and gives meaning to our existence. Thus we follow in the footsteps of many of America’s Founders, including three of our early presidents. These religious principles, coupled with a basic reliance on human reason, provide us with inspiration and guidance as citizens, as parents, and as neighbors.”

It’s not that it’s wrong, you know, it’s just too much!  Who’s gonna say the the word “thus” on that elevator ride?  You might as well tell the person you’re talking to up front – don’t bother listening to this because you’re not going to get it.

Here’s another:
“Our denomination is unique because every Unitarian Universalist has the right to develop a personal philosophy of life, without being told what to believe. We can learn from all philosophies and religions, and also from science and the arts. We explore important life issues in a caring community, united by shared values rather than by shared theological opinions. And no matter what we do believe about theology or philosophy, we try to live a good life and leave the world better than we found it.”

I mean, I guess, that’s nice.  It just seems like too much complicated explaining.

I’d like to suggest that there is a simple way to talk about what we UUs believe.  And I mean BELIEVE believe here, not about how we want to act or where our theological origins are.  We’ll talk about the first belief in just a minute.  But first, we’ll sing about it.

Please open your gray hymnal to number 18, What Wondrous Love.  Please rise as you are able.
[18 What wondrous love]

Reflection 2
One of the things I’m into these days with regard to church lessons is portability.  By that I mean, I want to teach church ideas that can be carried around and spread easily by everyone because they are simple or because they capture some energy or a spark of truth, or because they just make sense.  “Portable,” to me, means catchy, sticky, in that it sticks in your head, and it’s a description compelling enough for you to want to use it, too, and tell others.

Portability is what made my ears perk up when I was at my most recent ministerial continuing education conference in January, when Rev. Robin Tanner of the Piedmont UU Church in Charlotte, North Carolina offered a homily in our opening worship service.  In that homily, she said that Unitarian Universalist beliefs are actually quite simple, not complicated at all.  There are two of them, and they are easy to remember.  The first belief is that we UUs believe in a love beyond measure.

Our first simple UU belief is that there is a love that exists amongst us that is so large and powerful as to be beyond measure.

The hymn we just sang, What Wondrous Love, talks about a grand and wonderful love that exists among human beings.  The song describes a love within humanity such that when we are feeling badly, either just for the day or in a really major way, the care that other people show us can make all the difference.  When I was sinking down, and beneath my sorrows ground, friends to me gathered round.  To love and to all friends I will sing. 

I think everyone here has had an experience where their sorrow, their worry, even their desperation was touched, mitigated, by the actions of another person.  Someone listened, someone cared, someone was there.  Our human capacity to love other people in this way has effect that can’t be measured, and the good each bit of that love can do is without measure as well.  I remember that G. told a story maybe a year ago about a soldier coming home from the Vietnam War to a hostile country, and what a difference one flight attendant’s smile made to him.  That human love that we show each other are mustard seeds: they are tiny; they grow enormous things.  So that’s one aspect of a love beyond measure.

I also want to talk about the work of love in the world outside of the human experience. I am often struck by the creative force that fuels our world, and this time of year, in what may be very early spring, is a great time to consider it.  Who ever would have thought that nature could come back to life after months of appearing to be dead?  No matter what you believe, you cannot disregard this planet’s concerted effort to erupt with life at nearly all times, even when that effort is seriously thwarted by us short-sighted human beings.  And I have come to equate that life force with a form of measureless love.

The whole world is set up to grow stuff, to allow things to be born.  What’s more, when those life forms are damaged, they have the capacity to heal themselves, from the inside out.  It’s not like you need a medical degree, or be an incredibly special person, to have a cut like this one on my finger heal – your body just does it, most of the time.  That’s good news for grass, for example, because we mow it a lot.  The earth wants to live, to create, to heal, all the time.  It’s a second kind of wondrous love, creation is, life is:  a total and comprehensive love beyond measure.

The third kind of love beyond measure that I see may be one that not every UU resonates with.  The third kind of love beyond measure that I see is that of a loving, interactive God.

People get themselves into logical trouble when they contemplate the notion that there may be a loving God behind the workings of things, because the tragic events of the world and of our lives are often so counter to what we human beings would define as loving.  It is true that the universe is not set up to keep us all alive for long - or to keep things the same all the time, just because that would be easier - or to have us human beings in charge of natural forces. 

If there is a God, it is clearly not God’s plan to keep us and everyone we love alive forever.  It is evidently not God’s plan that things always go the way we are used to them going, or the way we like them to go, so that we never have to deal with change.  It is obviously not God’s plan that we human beings are in charge of the world and its happenings – even when we do a great job of pretending that we have a lot of influence.  We cannot stop death and we cannot stop change and we are not in charge.

But when we human beings are able to give up our fear of death and relinquish our overwhelming desire to be in control of what happens to us and those we love, and we ask with all of our hearts that whatever forces that run this Universe bend the world towards good instead of evil, bend the circumstances of our lives towards what is worthy and whole rather than what is broken and what destroys, I have found that that request, to turn things towards the good, is usually honored, in time. 

Which is a long way of saying that in my experience, if you pray for things to be whole or to turn towards the good, then those prayers are answered, by something undefinable, and you can see that if you take the long view.  So what I’m also saying is in my life, there is a third level of love beyond measure, and that is a love that holds me in its hands no matter how bad things get, and I believe it holds you, too.  It’s a love that’s always working for the good, even when that can’t be seen from our vantage point. 

Whichever way you define it, though, I think we can all agree that there is some sort of Love in the world that is bigger than our measuring.  UUs believe in it, and they want to use it, and they want to increase it.  This is the work of our religion.
The offering will now be taken for the life and work of this beloved community.

Please open your hymnals to number 27, I Am That Great and Fiery Force.  You can stay seated for this one.

[27 I am that great and fiery force]

Reflection 3
The second UU belief that Rev. Tanner says that UUs share is that we believe that we are all connected.  We are all connected.  Every person, every being, every thing.

Now, this belief is in our Principles – it’s number seven.  But actually, if you read the seventh principle, it says that "we UUs agree to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part".  That’s how we agree to behave.  But what we believe, says Rev. Tanner, is that we are all connected.

This should be the easiest concept in the world to grasp if you’re a 21st century scientist, as many in this congregation are.  It couldn’t be clearer, for example, that there’s nowhere on this planet to hide from other people and their actions.  The whole world is affected by American environmental behavior, for example.  The whole world is affected by our military policies, and whether or not we fund development overseas, and whether or not we educate our children adequately, and how much investment we make in life-saving technologies, and what we choose to make television shows about, and on and on.  Thanks to technological advances we can talk in real time to anyone around the planet, pretty much, whenever we want to.  So we are connected in that there are a lot of us on a small area and we have the know-how to enter each other lives pretty easily.

And then there’s the science of it all.  It used to be that we “knew” that human beings were made up of substantially different materials than, say, a table and chairs.  But now, since we know more about molecules and atoms and quarks and string theory and so on, we know we’re made up of substantially similar materials – it just depends on the perspective you’re taking whether or not you can see it. 

It used to be that we "knew" that if we cut down all the trees around us, or dumped chemicals in our rivers, or trash into the ocean or outer space, that the earth would magically make it go away.  Now we know that we have been having a major detrimental impact on the other animals and the plants that live on earth with us, and on the earth itself. 

We used to think, oh, I’ve burned up that wood, so now it’s all gone – and now we know that matter cannot be created or destroyed, no matter what you do to it, only transformed - which is a show stopper of a physical principle, and absolutely mind blowing as a theological principle. 

You see what I’m saying?  Everything I understand about basic social and scientific principles underscores the notion that we are all connected.  Our connection to each other and to everything else on the earth is simply fact.  It is simply true.  All we need to do is see it.

What’s more interesting is what happens as a result of our understanding, our belief, that we are all connected.  When we remember that we are all connected, then suddenly there’s a lot more going on that insists upon our attention and intervention.  Hungry kids in Washington DC are our problem.  Pollution in Beijing is our problem.  Immigrants in Arizona being thrown in jail is our problem.  A giant secret asteroid hurtling towards earth is everyone’s problem. 

It’s not that we have to do the work of remembering that we’re supposed to be compassionate and then summoning the energy to care.  When we believe we are connected, then we know that whatever is happening, it’s happening to us.  And then caring is not so hard after all.

So.  We’re keeping it simple, today, UUs.  There’s always going to be a laundry list of things that we Unitarian Universalists agree with, things we want to do, ways we want to be.  But what would happen if we moved away from the complicated?  What would happen for us if we started saying to ourselves, and to others, when the elevator doors start to close, “You know what UUs believe, when it comes right down to it?  We believe in a love without measure, and we believe we’re all connected.”

I think, if we kept it real simple like this, then we could spend less time talking about ideas, or wondering if we agree with the next person, or pondering our individual truths in relation to other individual truths. 

I think, if we kept it real simple like this, that we could have something to fall back on when our own lives get challenging, and we could have the starting gate for the good work we’d like to see get done in the world around us.

Love beyond measure.  We are all connected.  This is what UUs believe.

Let’s take it out for a spin, and see where it takes us.  And I mean that literally, right now.  We haven’t had a meditation time yet.  So please get comfortable in your seats, place your feet on the floor and your hands in your laps.  Close your eyes.  Breathe.  And spend a few moments with two simple, portable thoughts in your mind, in your heart.

Love beyond measure.
We are all connected.
Please join me in singing our final hymn, 114 Forward through the ages.