Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

August 19, 2018: “Creed and Covenant”

Call to Worship Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Good morning, and welcome.

Welcome into this space that is a bit more intimate than it usually is.

Yesterday, there was a wedding here, under this chuppah, constructed by the McGoverns as their daughter Francesca entered into covenant of marriage. Like all covenants it includes not only the bride and the groom, but their families, friends, neighbors and congregants. We are all part of that. And so, it seems fitting to keep the space arranged in this way, as a symbol of the connection we all have.

And now, we are present to comfort and challenge one another, with the words of Micky ScottBey Jones     

Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side.

Reading Rickie Beck
This morning’s reading is part of an essay called, “I Don’t ‘Believe In’ the Seven Principles,” by Doug Muder, which appeared in UU World Magazine back in the summer of 2014.

Over the years, I think I’ve paid my dues on the topic of what Unitarian Universalists believe. I’ve written about it, preached about it, taught Coming of Age classes about it, and been pulled into countless coffee-hour conversations with newcomers. Everyone in America seems to know that religious organizations exist to promote some set of beliefs that their members share. So when people find out you belong to a religion with a tongue-twisting name, that’s their first question: What do you believe?

Like a lot of UUs, I’m never entirely happy with my answer. I dislike my own answers almost as much as I dislike everybody else’s.

The absolute worst of the common answers is “UUs can believe whatever they want.” In fact the exact opposite is true. Maybe more than any other religion, Unitarian Universalism pushes us to ask: “Is that really true or is it just what I want to believe?”
In an essay I wrote after my mother’s funeral, I admitted that I want to believe what my parents raised me to believe: that when our loved ones die, they transcend to a perfect place, where they wait for us to join them in eternal bliss. What’s not to like about that? But precisely because I am a UU, I question ideas whose primary virtue is that I want to believe them.

Once you step around that pothole, discussions tend to gravitate towards the Seven Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which you can find at the front of our hymnals and in many congregations’ orders of service. As a list of things that our congregations are committed to affirm and promote, the Principles have at least a formal resemblance to the creeds of Christian churches; we teach them to our children, introductory books are organized around them, and so forth. So if someone comes to a UU congregation looking for the Unitarian Universalist creed, the Principles seem to be it.

But if you’ve ever tried to present the Principles to creed-seeking newcomers, you’ve probably seen their disappointment. “And?” their expressions seem to ask.

Lesson (Rev Denis)
“How the Principles and Purposes were Adopted”

Imagine it’s 1960. Nearly everyone in the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association is excited about the idea of the two consolidating into one new organization. Sure, there are some who are resistant, and even among the most vehement supporters there are some quiet doubts and fears, thinking What if it doesn’t work? What if this new thing we create isn’t recognizable to me anymore? What if I lose my church home?

But the groundwork has been laid by Liberal Religious Youth, the conjoined organization of youth and young adults who’d brought the two churches together in ways the older adults had been talking about for decades, but could never really make happen. The Youth have made the adults see what’s possible.

As the transition team makes proposals, negotiations go pretty easily. Congregational delegates accept the Universalist regional structure and the Unitarian polity built on a board of trustees and moderator, with major decisions made at an annual general assembly. The new methodology for ordaining and fellowshipping ministers is a hybrid of Unitarian and Universalist practices. There’s been some spirited debate about which name will go first, and whether or not there should be a hyphen, but all in all, it’s going remarkably well. The time seems right.

Until the debate about a faith statement.

The Universalists have always had a faith statement, a constantly evolving creed that has defined who they are, based on their shared belief in God and in Jesus. Unitarians have had a faith statement that put God squarely at the top of the universal hierarchy, with Jesus below him, as a man, not an incarnation of God, but it has slowly just kind of gone away, making room from many personal understandings of theology, all of them profoundly humanist.

One thing everyone can agree on is that you shouldn’t have to subscribe to any set of theological beliefs in order to belong to a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

But they’re forming something new from two formerly separate things. How will we know who we are without some kind of statement about what unites us? That’s where things starts looking like they could break down.

Imagine you are there. As people suggest phrases like “Our Judeo-Christian Heritage,” and “love to God and love to man,” how do you feel? Does it feel like that language includes your beliefs? Or do you feel excluded?

And what about simple words like “our”? As in “our heritage,” and “our culture” and “our beliefs.”

Like me, are you thinking “whose beliefs? Unitarian beliefs that denied the divinity of Christ? Universalist beliefs that there is no hell?”

Or maybe you didn’t believe any of that spiritual clap-trap, and recoil from all that religious mumbo-jumbo.

So, in 1961, in time for the consolidation and the formation of the new Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, they came up with the Six Principles, which began “the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking: (1) To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;”
It went on to include five more principle with the phrases “love to God and love to man”, “world community founded on ideals of brotherhood,” and “cooperation with men of goodwill in every land.”
You hear the problems with that verbiage?

Let’s fast forward to 1979. It’s ten years after the association nearly broke up in the white controversy over black empowerment, a war of will in which many of the skirmishes were fought right here in Cleveland. Paul Carnes has just died after only two years in office, making O. Eugene Pickett the new president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and, when asked about the problems facing the 18 year old organization, he responds:

“The deeper malaise lies in our confusion as to what word we have to spread. The old watchwords of liberalism—freedom, reason, tolerance—worthy though they may be, are simply not catching the imagination of the contemporary world. They describe a process for approaching the religious depths, but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves. If we are ever to speak to a new age, we must supplement our seeking with some profound religious finds.”

I could thrill you with the long and gloried of history of what came next, the debates, the negotiations in all their complexity, but in the interest of time, I’ll sum it up this way: Women were the catalysts for change.

A lot of the women at that time, especially the few women ministers, were notoriously on “manhunts,” that is they were on a tear, removing sexist language from the hymnals and every item published by the Unitarian Universalist Association. There’s one congregation in our region in which the minister went through every single hymnal, one at a time, and blacked out with marker every single use of the word man!

So a lot of folks, obviously, wanted more inclusive language. But as the women leaders in the congregation began to meet, they gave life to and strongly influenced a process of creating a new faith statement, a covenant, that would include both our Principles, and Sources.

In the process, they uncovered something that hadn’t been verbalized in 1961: there was a broad desire, among all people, to give more credence to our Christian and Jewish past and present, as well as other religions, ancient and modern. But more importantly, a large and growing majority of Unitarian Universalists wanted to acknowledge the interconnectedness of the universe, with humanity as a part of it, not the driving, central force.

It changed everything, and after the adoption in 1984 of this new Covenant that included our sources AND Seven Principles, congregations started making adherence to the covenant part of membership for new individuals, and youth religious education curricula started focusing on the covenant, especially the new seven principles, as not only an explanation of what UU is, but also as an expression of UU identity.

Unison Reading (Rev Denis)
I’d like us now to read the seven principles which can be found in the front of the gray hymnal, between page viii and Hymn 1.

They aren’t listed as the seven principles, they are part of the covenant. We’ll read the long title and just to the end of the first section.

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Sermon “Creed and Covenant” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

I grew up in a church that required children to memorize the creed – The Apostles’ Creed – in order to recite it each week with the adults. It was, and still is, repeated in every single service, every single day, by everyone present.

That creed was perhaps the biggest reason I left the Catholic Church. I just didn’t believe it. And, as I looked around during each mass, I didn’t see any spark of connection among my neighbors. I saw rote repetition. The creed seemed lifeless. When I asked people I knew and trusted, my parents and other elders, if they believed the creed, they all said pretty much the same thing.

“I guess.” I’d wait through the pause. “I’m not really sure what it means.”

So, when I came to Unitarian Universalism as a young adult, I didn’t come seeking a creed, I came seeking community. And that was exactly what I found: people who rejoiced in being together, not bothering with reciting any creed. I could belong simply because I wanted to be there. There was no litmus test for my inclusion, no hoops I had to jump through.

One thing I noticed right off the bat was the almost universal discomfort UUs have with the whole idea of religion. There’s a widespread desire to not be told what to do, what to think, or what to believe. And religion at its core, according to most people I’ve talked to, is all about telling people what to believe.

Well, if you haven’t heard me say it before, you might be surprised that I have a different take on all that. Religion is about binding together. It’s about coming together, week after week, and promising ourselves to be together in our quest for truth and meaning. Religion is about not thinking alike, but journeying together. The meaning is in the roots of the word, the Latin re-legare, meaning to bind together again.

Creed is a set of beliefs that guide actions, a set of beliefs that a group of people agree to share in order to belong to that group. “In order for us to accept you as one of us, you have to believe XY and Z.”

My intuition and experience tell me that what UUs really dislike, isn’t religion, it’s creed. UUs, I’ve been sure, are uncomfortable with being told what to believe, and are perfectly comfortable with committing to one another to being together. That’s why more than any other thing, our bond of union is most often quoted as why people come to East Shore. Not to think alike, but to journey together.

So, in my ministry, I’ve been careful not to think of our Seven Principles as a creed, and honestly, I’ve even been uncomfortable with the way in which they’re taught to children in most of our religious education classes. The Seven Principles are presented as not only an explanation of what UU is, but also as an expression of identity for individual UUs. The way we teach the Seven Principles comes dangerously close to turning it into a creed: “These are the seven things we believe, in order to belong. Let’s profess them together!”

And if I’m honest, I also agree with Doug Muder. On many occasions when I’ve tried to present the Principles to newcomers I thought were probably seeking concrete answers about what to believe, I’ve seen their disappointed expressions, … their sometimes harshly judgmental disappointment.

A few have even said, “well, that’s an easy set of beliefs to adopt. There’s nothing there.” Muder says that the problem with our seven principles, as a creed, is that it sets a pretty low bar.

I hate to say it, but I tend to agree. As a creed goes, it’s pretty lame. As Gene Pickett said, “They describe a process for approaching the religious depths, but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves.”

I have to ask myself, who in the United States wouldn’t believe in our seven principles? Who wouldn’t believe in the dignity of the individual; justice, equity, compassion, acceptance, encouragement, democratic process, the right of conscience? So much of it sounds like the documents that established this country as a democratic republic, which shouldn’t be surprising, when consider that two of the authors of those documents –Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – were Unitarians.

There’s nothing earth-shattering there. Nothing that would set our beliefs apart from those of any freedom-loving American. The Seven Principles, like the original Six, are full of the watchwords of liberalism: freedom, reason, tolerance. They are still “not catching the imagination of the contemporary world.”

But this is the part that’s hard to groc: The Seven Principles aren’t a creed, they’re part of a covenant between congregations. No individual is required to profess adherence to our Principles, even if our congregations do.

And a covenant is a completely different thing from a creed. A covenant is an agreement that brings about a relationship of commitment. It’s more about how we’ll behave with each other and the world than it is about what we believe. It comes from the French, covenir, meaning to agree. Literally, though, covenir, is to “become together.”

I think Rickie got it exactly right. A creed is good as a goal, but a covenant is a good thing to have when the chips are down, so you have something to fall back on.

I know there’s a lot of resistance to the word covenant. Maybe more than there is resistance to religion. I can see the resistance in some of your faces as I say the word. Covenant. But really, covenants are part of every day life in the United States.

According to Bruce Feiler, one of the most widely-read practical theologians of our time, calls Moses “America’s Prophet,” in a book by that title. Moses, he asserts, is the Biblical character our nation most relates to. More than Jesus. More than God.

John Winthrop quoted Moses. Franklin and Jefferson wanted Moses on the US seal. Washington and Lincoln, in their times, were both called incarnations of Moses. Martin Luther King Jr invoked Moses the night before his own assassination. And Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, two people who aren’t often spoken of in the same sentence, both cite Moses as major inspirations.

Moses was the reluctant prophet who ended up being the driving force of forming the practices and identity of twelve tribes as they consolidated into one unified people. And that, historically if not currently, has been the job of our leaders: to unify a diverse people, not through beliefs about God, the divinity of Jesus, or even about sin or the afterlife, but through shared practices and identity.

Moses brought the ten commandments, the covenant between Yahweh and his people, to the twelve tribes as the document that would unite them to each other and to something larger than themselves.

And in the United States, our Constitution with its Bill of Rights, is the covenant that unites a diverse people to each other and to the promise of democracy, something larger than any one of us, yet created for the protection of each of us, equally.

Good leaders are like Moses. They unite through covenant. That’s why so many good leaders are compared to Moses.

In the United States, our covenant is made up of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and in Unitarian Universalism, our covenant is made up of our Seven Principles and our Sources.

The sources are important, because they track our diverse and shared history. But I want to focus on how the Seven Principles work, as they track our present and our future.

You might want to refer back to the front of your hymnal as I talk about this.

The first principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” speaks to the autonomy of the individual, the incredible light, courage, intelligence, strength, creativity and potential of every single one of us. It’s an affirmation that every aspect of being in relationship with one another begins with seeing the good in ourselves and each other. The first principle reminds us that no person is made more honorable or more wealthy than any other. Period.

The seventh principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part,” speaks to the power of the universe and the delicate balance we are a part of. It’s an affirmation that we are in relationship with every other being on earth, profoundly connected in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. The seventh principle reminds us that we aren’t in control of anything, yet everything we do affects everything else.

In my experience, these are generally the only two of the principles that most UUs know by heart. Not just because they are the easiest to remember, but I think because they get to the core of our practices. We are constantly balancing the good of the individual with the good of the collective.

The rest of the seven principles are the tools for managing the tension the personal good and the common good. Principles two through six are goals for how to behave, and the sixth one even uses the word goal: “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

To use Rickie’s language, they’re the creed, the goals, within the covenant.

After all this thinking, especially in conversation with Rickie, I’ve come to a couple conclusions:

First, you can’t be a UU alone. Being a UU doesn’t end with the first principle, it also includes the seventh, and all those tools in between that we’ll need to manage the tension. If I ever start thinking Unitarian Universalism exists for the sole purpose of upholding my personal dignity, and supporting my personal journey, I know it will be time for me to leave.

Second, when I was a young, disenfranchised Catholic, I asked my parents and the other adults in my church the wrong question. Instead of asking them if they believed the Apostles’ Creed, I should have been asking if them if it made them feel like they belonged. I bet I would have gotten a completely different answer. Because one thing I’ve noticed since: in times of need, like at a funeral, people actually recite the Apostles Creed with conviction and heart.

Third, covenant is made up of the goals we set for ourselves and the things we do to make them happen. I’m a Unitarian Universalist because I live in the tension between individual worth and common good. I’m a Unitarian Universalist because I strive toward justice, compassion, responsibility, right of conscience and world community as our way of upholding individual worth and the common good. Even if I can’t remember all those words in the right order.

The thing I know now about the Catholic Church is that because of that creed, coupled with the practice of the eucharist, and the commitment they make to the two, every Catholic knows that they belong. Wherever they find themselves in the world, they have a place to go where they will be affirmed, even protected.

And the same goes for our Seven Principles. It forms our identity as Unitarian Universalists. Because of that covenant, and the creed – the goals – contained within it, we know that each week, when we want to celebrate our joys and be affirmed in our wholeness as people of dignity and creativity, we will be welcomed.

Because of our Seven Principles, we know that whenever the chips are down, we’ll have something to fall back on.

It’s who we are.