Homecoming Sunday

We had wonderful music this summer, but it is so nice to have the choir back, filling the sanctuary with their voices and those lyrics that help call us back into community.

Ubi Caritas…Where there is kindness and understanding toward others… where there is love…

“Deus ibi est…that is where you will discover the holy.

I am translating the Latin with a Unitarian Universalist dictionary, of course. “God is there,” is the literal translation. “Where there is charity and love, God is there.”

But the theological life of that language is the spirit of love and kindness that crosses religious boundaries. It is the commandment of all the Abrahamic faiths to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving kindness infuses Buddhism. Love is the wisdom of humanism’s focus on our potential for good.

And it is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. For us, love is at the center of things. Our Universalist religious ancestors proclaimed that God IS love…love is what God is.

Both our Unitarian and Universalist religious forbears refused to believe that a loving God would offer salvation to only some elect few. We share the same destiny…all of us…each and every one.

Our faith tradition requires us to proclaim the inherent worth and dignity of every person, because each of us is lovable and already loved.

And we are inspired to work for a world in which that worth and dignity is known in each of our lives. We call it the Beloved Community. And we are audacious enough to believe that it is a possible dream, here, on earth.

Where there is kindness and understanding toward “the other,” not fear…

Where there is a search for compassion, not a building of walls to keep us apart…

Where our differences are seen as blessings, not as curses…

Where there is a recognition of our common human inheritance and our common human destiny on this small blue planet…

Where we set a welcome table… and where we invite love to move within us and among us and through us into the world.

Liberal religion is an act of faith and it requires a leap of faith, because it always challenges us to think again about how well we are living out its bold claims of love and how we are resisting all that would divide us, and diminish us and keep us apart.

That is the great hope we proclaim,

And it is a good sermon to preach as we gather for Homecoming Sunday in this sanctuary. We need to be reminded of our highest hopes and aspirations.

We bring that hope, however, to a world that falls so very far short of our bold dreams.

Today, we mark the anniversary of September 11, 2001. 15 years have passed since those hijacked planes collapsed not only towers of glass and steel, but also our sense of safety. 15 years since we learned the term “homeland security” and were forced to tolerate a “patriot act” that compromised so much of our privacy. 15 years of war with no end in sight in the Middle East. 15 years of demonizing and misusing of the world’s second largest faith.

Today, we remember those who lost their lives on that day. We remember the many who still grieve those losses.

But we also remember the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in our wars. We remember our citizen soldiers who suffered both physical and emotional wounds. And we remember the refugees streaming out of the Middle East in search now of new homes in a hostile world.

We remember the long litany of these losses. Not least the way September 11 seemed to usher in an era of what feels like unprecedented divisiveness here at home. An era when our politics are at an impasse and when our differences threaten to obscure our common concern.

E Pluribus Unam (Out of Many One) seems in danger of being replaced with a blustery retreat into a fictitious Eden of homogeneity and a tyranny of sameness, in which so many of us would not be welcome.

How shall we navigate? As liberal religious people how do we approach this divided and fearful world? What model can we follow?

Like most other faith traditions, one approach is to look to our saints for guidance.

Now, I know, we don’t technically have saints in our tradition. Who could appoint them? But if we did, Michael Servetus would certainly be among them.

Servetus was a Spaniard who lived during the Reformation in Europe, 600 years ago. It was another era when diversities were seen as dangerous. Muslims were driven out of Spain. Jews were forced to convert. It was another divisive time.

And a time of intellectual and religious ferment when the new printing press made the Bible available to all who could read. And Servetus, who was educated, did just that. He studied the New Testament and he found not one mention of the Trinity. He just didn’t find it in the text, because it is not there, at least explicitly.

He proclaimed a Unitarian theology (the unity of God, not God in three persons) and he wrote a book titled, On the Errors of the Trinity that got him in deep trouble with the Inquisition.

He fled to Paris. Lived under an assumed name, became a doctor. He is credited with discovering the circulation of the blood.

But he kept writing on theology and the Inquisition found him again.

Finally, he fled to Geneva where he hoped to find sanctuary in the city where John Calvin, another Reformation leader, held theological and political power.

But Calvin was solidly in the Trinitarian camp and did not agree with the Unitarian theology that Servetus proclaimed. Servetus was arrested and tried for heresy.

Ultimately, the trial came down to just one word. If Servetus had been willing to call Jesus THE son of God, rather than just A son of God, he could have lived.

But Servetus refused. And he was burned at the stake, with a copy of his book strapped to his thigh. The only Unitarian martyr we have in our pantheon.

And we love to tell the story of Servetus. It is dramatic. It helps explain our Unitarian theology. We like his association with science. And it is a story of courage in the face of oppression.

We love to tell the story of Michael Servetus.

But I am coming to believe, more and more, that the story of Michael Servetus does not serve us well.

It gets us a martyr in our history, but it does not get us a method for engaging with a divided and divisive world.

Because Servetus doubled down. He dug in his heels. He drew a line in the sand that he could not undraw.

His example, I think, would lead us to do the same. To retreat into our comfortable corners and accept each encounter with difference as a battle, Armageddon looking us in the face with every disagreement.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the things that are being said in public these days are deplorable.

There are times when a sharp line in the sand is the only authentic choice. But the choice of a word or even a theological idea is rarely one of those times.

You see, it is less important, by far, how we describe what we love, than how we live out that love.

If you say Allah and I say God and she says Spirit of Life and he says mystery, lets not have a fight about whose name is right, lets have a conversation about what those names mean to us and how we feel called to respond to them.

Let’s not find excuses to dig in our heels but engage in the much more difficult work of finding common ground, of finding the power in our pluralism.

We work hard at this here at First Unitarian. The All-Church dialogues on complicated topics are an example. The classes we offer on constructive dialogue are another.

We are all “shaky skaters” trying to make our way around the rink without falling to the floor or crashing into the wall. None of us has made this particular circuit before and it is going to take all of us to skate with integrity to the loud music of fear that seems to be playing non-stop.

Unitarian Universalism is a faith of deeds not creeds. It is how we live that matters.

We should be investing less energy in arguing the small ways we disagree and more energy in celebrating the common human struggle to find meaning and somehow build the world we dream about. It is real lived experience that should be the test. It should be how we treat one another, not how we pray, or whether we pray, that guides us.

Ubi Caritas…where there is kindness and love…

Or as poet Alice Walker wrote:

Love is not concerned
With whom you pray
Or where you slept
The night you ran away
From home.
Love is concerned
That the beating of your heart
Should kill no one.

Liberal religion is not for the faint of heart. Especially in these divisive times. This is going to be a particularly challenging fall. It is a political season, a silly season some call it, but I think it is a dangerous time when we will all receive so much encouragement to retreat into our corners, to see those who disagree with us as dangerous, threatening, to give them more power than they deserve…

I am preaching to myself every bit as much as I am preaching to you. I believe we are going to be tested this fall.

It becomes even more important for us to remember who we are, as a religious people…as a community.

We come together not around some creed. There is no test of belief required to enter this space.

But there are expectations. There are promises that we make to one another and that we expect others to make as well. Promises to guide us and shape our relationships. Promises to help us restore relationship when we fail.

Those mutual promises are embodied in our congregational covenant, which calls us to bring our best selves to our relationships with one another and to grow in spirit by deepening our connections with each other.

As we begin this church year, I invite us to read together our covenant and renew our promises about how we will journey together.

Can we have the covenant on the screen? It is printed in the insert in the OOS as well.

We will begin where it says “Our Covenant.”

“I promise to cultivate in myself:

Appreciation of our commonalities and differences,
Joy and a sense of humor,
Trust that others have good intentions,
Generosity of spirit and substance,
Willingness to forgive and seek forgiveness,
Ownership of my actions and their consequences,
Gratitude for those who helped build our church community, and
Commitment to sustaining this church for those who will follow after.

In accordance with these values and intentions, I promise to:

Give generously of my time, talents and resources,
Be kind and compassionate,
Listen to understand rather than to judge or prove a point,
Support and nurture others,
Express appreciation of others’ effort,
Talk with, rather than about, others,
Be mindful and considerate in my communications and interactions,
Respond to anger with gentleness, and
Forgive myself and others when we fail to keep these promises and begin again in love and faith.

This covenant is a touchstone that guides us in nurturing ourselves and our church community and supporting its work in the world. Through it we will enrich our relationships with one another and serve others in accordance with our principles. Together we pledge to revisit and renew our promises to one another to foster our spiritual growth and sustain the vitality of our congregation and its larger mission in the world.”

With these promises to each other on our lips and the Spirit of Life moving in our hearts, we set a Welcome Table here where our individual spirits can be nurtured, where our worth and dignity can find affirmation, and where our collective will can help our hurting world move toward justice and peace.

For, “…though we each walk within a vast loneliness,
The promise we offer here is that we do not walk alone.

In this place of silence and celebration,
Solemnity and music,
We make a sanctuary and name our home.

Welcome home.

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