A Religion for its Time

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 03/23/2014

Our worship theme this month is What Can I Get From Unitarian Universalism?, and in service of this theme, I want to tell you a few stories about our modern age.

Story 1: In the 2012 movie 21 J. Street, some 20-something cops are sent back to high school to investigate a drug ring. They make a plan for how they’re going to fit in with high schoolers, being so much older. One of the cops was cool in high school back in the day and the other wasn’t, so the cool cop is giving out the advice. First of all, you never wear both straps of your backpack, only one strap. “I’d no-strap it if I could,” Cool Cop says. Second, you never try hard at anything, and third, you make fun of people who do try hard at things. Fourth, if anyone gives you any trouble on the first day of school, you punch them in the face. Also, you need a super cool car. So the cops break a corvette or something out of the police pool and head off, back to high school.

So they pull into school, and it turns out that the world is a different place. Everyone is wearing their backpacks with both straps, which is confusing, and then this student comes up and says, hey, what does that car get, like 10 miles to the gallon, and the cop says, no, more like seven, but your car smells like egg rolls, and the student says yeah, I run it on biodiesel from Hunan Palace, but I try to bike when I can. Cop says, whatever, who cares, and the kid says, “what, you don’t care about the environment?” and this other kid says hey, I’m trying to study, and the cop says, heh, you’re trying, that’s so dumb, nerd, and the studying kid comes over and says who you calling nerd, so the cop hits him right in the face. All the kids are shocked and they circle around the hurt kid, asking him if he’s okay, and then they turn to the cop all incredulous over what he did, and the cop’s trying to be cool, so he’s all, whatever, and what’s with this gay music, to which the punched kid says you hit me because I’m gay? And suddenly the whole school has circled round being horrified while the cop explains that he didn’t hit the kid because he was gay, he was just using the word gay to describe something he doesn’t like….but nobody gets it, and that’s what Hollywood thinks high school is like now. Whether it’s entirely true or not, Hollywood portrayed high school as a place where people care about things and protect each other, and not a place where you’re likely to be abused or get punched.

Story 2. Pope Francis now heads up the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has many wonderful things going for it, such as a long history and powerful liturgy. But the Church can also be a home for exclusion, intolerance, and an over-focus on conservative social issues. Because of that, many, many former Catholics have ended up in Unitarian Universalist congregations.

And! And, here are a couple of quotes from the new pope. (Quotes from the Huffington Post.)

"Just as the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say "thou shalt not" to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?" -- Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.

"A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: "Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?" We must always consider the person. -- Interview with Jesuit Catholic journals around the world.

"Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage." -- Interview with Jesuit Catholic journals around the world

The Catholic Church has 1.2 billion followers, my friends, and unlike us UUs, most of the time at least, those 1.2 billion people listen closely to authority. Soak that in for a minute, and then imagine 1.2 billion people now shifting towards greater tolerance, forgiveness, and love. Just like Jesus taught!

Story 3. As of today, 17 states and the District of Columbia have marriage equality, with five more states in some sort of flux. ‘Nough said.

Story 4. The Pew Research center reports that Millenials, the new generation coming of age, are more self-expressive, upbeat, open to change, ethnically diverse, and socially liberal than the generations preceding it. One in four of them are not…yet…affiliated with a congregation, but they pray about the same as any other generation. The top three priorities of Millenials are being a good parent, having a good marriage, and helping those in need. Having a high powered career is 6th – right after “living a very religious life.”

Story 5, our last story. The TV series Cosmos, first created by Carl Sagan in 1980, has been recreated and is showing now. In the most recent episode aired, host Neil Degrasse Tyson describes all the species on earth as existing as limbs and branches on a giant tree of life. He tells the viewer that you don’t have to know much about science or evolution to easily see that all of life on earth is related to each other like cousins, and we are, whether we can easily see it or not, all one.

I tell you these stories because when we ask, What Can Unitarian Universalism Do for Me? as we are this month, one clear answer has to be that practicing Unitarian Universalism puts you on the cutting edge of many popular social trends. Caring for the environment? Check. Trying to make everyone feel included? Check! Fighting for marriage equality? Check. Saying that it’s not okay to bully people for their beliefs or orientations? Check. Trying to remember that caring for the poor is more important than caring for our bottom line? Check. Fostering the knowledge that all living things are connected? Check. Being open to change, new ideas, all sorts of diversities? Check.

Suddenly it seems that Unitarian Universalists are the popular kids in school. Everyone wants to be like us. And that’s nice, real nice, but of course, it isn’t what matters the most. What matters the most, if you ask me, is that we stand for things, believe in things, and act in ways that are important and are good and are true. And we’re willing to share those good things, that good news, with the world, with you.

It seems silly to say out loud that UU ideas are good ones, and probably pretty obvious since here we are practicing them, but I think it bears saying, out loud and proud: UU ideas are good ones. We have perspectives that are fair, and loving, and true, and make room for each person, and make room for diversity, and can change with the times. Our UU orientation is useful to everyone because it points at reality and it keeps pointing at reality, even as reality evolves. And I believe this is why so many of our ideas are spreading into the rest of the culture.

An example of our usefulness: We live in a world that is ever more crowded with more and more people with different, even competing, beliefs and perspectives. We cannot any longer rely on distance between us or homogeneity among us to keep us from constant conflict. We need to find a way to get along with people who are very different from us, because nowadays we’re rubbing elbows with difference all the time. Unfortunately, it seems that the natural human response to difference is to flee and/or to fight. But we are tired of fighting, we human beings, aren’t we? What’s the alternative to constant conflict, in a world too crowded to escape from your neighbor?

Well. How about starting with the assertion that each one of us is, at our cores, inherently worthy and deserves dignity. That’s our first UU principle. How about throwing in our belief that we are all connected to each other, like a web, where what one person does or experiences always affects another as if we were cousins, because we are. That’s our seventh UU principle. And what if we inform these two principles with the good news that we borrowed from our Jewish and Christian sources, the ones that teach us to love our neighbors as we would ourselves. Could that be a blueprint for how to move forward in a complicated, contentious, diverse world? Yes it could, and here we have been using this information, this process, this perspective, all this time.

Our blueprint is being picked up, more and more often, by the world at large. This isn’t because we are so great at promoting it, because unfortunately we aren’t very good at promoting our ideas at all. No, our blueprint is being picked up by the world because our ideas are a good ones. Unitarian Universalist ideas are good ones.

Here’s another example of good UU ideas that are useful to everyone. Some of humanity’s most pressing and divisive questions have to do with the existence and nature of God. Unitarian Universalism is striking in that we don’t take a stand on those sorts of questions. Instead, we turn the question around, and we ask you to carefully construct a theology – a belief system about God or the Divine or what is most ultimate or foundational or true, if you will – we ask you to construct a theology that makes sense to you given what you know and what you’ve experienced out of life.

The principle that supports this practice is the fourth, where we affirm that we all have the right to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. And our very first UU Source lists our own experiences of mystery and wonder that cause us to be open to the forces that create and uphold life. We also use a common expression: We say that for us, revelation is not sealed, but that we can always learn something new and true. We’re always growing.

Why is this open, flexible and individual approach to theology, to beliefs about God, helpful to all of humanity? Why is our UU system of finding religious truth another gift we can offer out to the world?

Our UU theological system, our way of spiritually searching, is useful to all in part because our UU theologies are so closely linked to reality, to real experience, that they easily adjust to make room for new understandings in science and technology, and they can easily accommodate new social experiences and truths, including other religious beliefs and practices, that inform what we understand.

That is to say, generally, our personal belief systems are not shaken into dust when we hear something unusual from science, like that the universe we know exploded into being from a tiny speck, or that our DNA is incredibly similar to that of butterflies. Because our theologies stem from experience and reality, we can accommodate new scientific discoveries. We are lucky because we can grow in our understanding and appreciation of the holy parts of the universe without having to ignore science or other obvious information that’s all around us. And we are never asked to stop learning new things about what is true.

UUs are asked to build our theologies, our belief systems, with full knowledge and incorporation of new truths. You are not asked to check your brain or your senses at the door of a UU church. We know that using your brain, your senses and your experiences makes for a richer, deeper, more foundational and more solid belief system. And that’s what the world needs – people with solid religious beliefs that jibe with reality.

We also can use our experiences with the religious beliefs of others to enrich our own, and not annihilate them. So many UUs engage in religious practices that come from other religions: meditation, chant, walking labyrinths. And we use those practices that span all religions: prayer, pilgrimage, justice work. Everything we learn about the world, about religious beliefs in general, helps us to grow. We never need to block out reality to keep our belief system intact.

The final example of what Unitarian Universalism offers the world we’ll talk more about next week, but I’ll touch on it today. This is it: Unitarian Universalist congregations offer human beings a place to practice some of these great UU ideas that we have.

Ideas are wonderful in their place. But we human beings don’t live in our heads; we live out here in the real world, and the real world demands that we not just have good ideas but that we act out our good ideas, we enact our values, that the things we do and the things we say show what we believe. If our ideas can’t make it out into the world of doing, of being, then those ideas aren’t good enough.

Even in this world where UU ideals are being expressed more and more, it’s still hard to find places where UU ideals can be practiced. But we practice our UU ideals in church.

We have a covenant between us here at SCUU that tells us how to proceed to mend relationships when relationships have been hurt or broken. Out there in the world, there aren’t covenants between people or groups that talk about how we’d like to behave with each other, not yet, anyway. Out in the world, there are laws, and there’s a criminal justice system, and that’s about it.

Here in this church we are encouraged to explore our beliefs about God or the divine, and engage in those spiritual practices that bring us closer to the Holy as we understand it, while staying in community with people we know don’t believe what we do. Out there in the world, God is most often used as a scarlet letter and a wedge, a topic to be avoided or to beat someone over the head with.

This is all to say, besides getting good ideas that you can use all over the world, another thing that you can get from Unitarian Universalism is the chance to practice what you know. Unitarian Universalism, the practice of it, teaches us to change ideas into actions, and get really good at them, so when we are faced with similar experiences out in the rest of the world we can act the way we’d most want to. There will be more to come on this topic next week.

What can YOU get from Unitarian Universalism? Good ideas that work in the real world. A chance to practice your ideas so you’re living your principles, not just thinking about them. And, the chance to be the coolest kid in school these days. If you think about it, what could be better than Unitarian Universalism?