Sunday, May 30, 2021

For the Future (of Unitarian Universalism) by Reverend Tom Capo


             "Out of the ruins and rubble, Out of the smoke --the song goes-- We can build A beautiful city, Not a city of angels, But we can build a city of man." ("Beautiful City" from Godspell, Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz)   Now while the language is non-inclusive, the message is one that we might consider as we begin our journey through past and present to the future of this congregation and of Unitarian Universalism.  This congregation has a rich, interesting history and sometimes troubled history, has grown to hundreds of members and has become a congregation of less than a hundred members, has been a place in Miami to come for beautiful jazz music and a place known for its justice work.  This congregation is not what it once was, and I know some of you may be mourning that.  But I would ask you this: are you what you once were?  Do you mourn that?  Or do you do something else?  Maybe bring some of who you were to who you are now?  I envision us building an enriching spiritual, musical, and social justice hub for Miami/Dade, with enough space for anyone who finds a home with us.  That's my vision—what is yours?  I believe in order for us to be that hub, that home for heart, mind, and spirit, that we have to do a couple things.  One is to assess what we believe Unitarian Universalism is here in Miami. 

            Before I go too far, I want to offer a reading by one of our Unitarian forebears and a Transcendentalist, Reverend Theodore Parker.  I think the message that he delivered at the Ordination of Rev. Charles C. Shackford in the Hawes Place Church, in Boston, Massachusetts on May 19, 1841 might offer us some reflection as we consider what is Unitarian Universalism:

            In actual Christianity -- that is, in that portion of Christianity which is preached and believed -- there seem to have been, ever since the time of its earthly founder, two elements, the one transient, the other permanent. The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions, the impiety of [people]; the other, the eternal truth of God. These two bear perhaps the same relation to each other that the phenomena of outward nature, such as sunshine and cloud, growth, decay, and reproduction, bear to the great law of nature, which underlies and supports them all...

            [But] anyone, who traces the history of what is called Christianity, will see that nothing changes more from age to age than the doctrines taught as Christian, and insisted on as essential to Christianity and personal salvation. What is falsehood in one province passes for truth in another. The heresy of one age is the orthodox belief and "only infallible rule" of the next...

            For, strictly speaking, there is but one kind of religion, as there is but one kind of love, though the manifestations of this religion, in forms, doctrine, and life, be never so diverse. It is through these, [people] approximate to the true expression of this religion...."

            So let me break this down. First, let's agree that Unitarian Universalism is a religion.  There are two aspects of a religion: the transient—the things that will change over time, be seen differently, practiced differently.  For instance, did you know that lighting a chalice at the beginning of our service didn't start in Unitarian or Universalist churches until after World War II?  Do you know when the Water Communion and Flower Communion, rituals that bookend our church year, that affirm our desire to share our spiritual and ethical journeys through life together, and affirm the unity in our diversity of thought, belief, sexual orientation, gender, skills, talents, every aspect of our diversity started showing up in Unitarian Universalist Churches.  The Flower Communion began in the 1940's and the Water Communion in the 1980's.  The second aspect of a religion is the permanent—that which does not change, is at the core of a religion.  What is the permanent in Unitarian Universalism?  What do we, UUs here in Miami, believe is the permanent in Unitarian Universalism?  As we reflect on permanence in our religion and within our congregation, we might consider what the Buddha said, "Praise, blame, gain, loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind.  To be happy, rest like giant tree in the midst of them all."  What about Unitarian Universalism and about UU Miami is like a great tree amidst chaos and change, praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow?

            I ask those of you to who are with us online, to open your YouTube chat.  And those of you who are with us in person, to come up to the microphone, maintaining social distance, one at a time.  Now please write or speak some of the aspects of Unitarian Universalism that you believe are the permanent, the things that you believe don't change even as we add new rituals, new songs, as we try on new ways to do worship, religious exploration, or governance. 


I will share some of my thoughts on this as well. The permanent beliefs that are at the core of Unitarian Universalism as I understand it are our Fourth Principle that we affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning or said another way we believe that each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.  And a combination of our 2nd and 6th Principles that we affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations and the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice, in other words: we believe that all people should be treated fairly and kindly and we believe in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world.  So, you might ask me: "Well, Reverend Tom, if you only believe in three of the Principles, are you still a Unitarian Universalist?" 

            I would answer: when I describe what Unitarian Universalism is to someone quickly, say, in less than a couple minutes– I talk about how we all search for truth and meaning and work to make the world more just, equitable, peaceful and compassionate because they are the core of our faith as I understand it. Just because I believe those three Principles are core to our faith, doesn't mean I only believe in them. I believe in all the 7 Principles—the worth and dignity of every person, the right of conscience and the democratic process, acceptance of one another, encouragement to spiritual growth, and respect for the interdependent web of exitance.  I also draw from our Six Sources—personal experience, Christian and Jewish teachings, words and deeds of prophetic people, the world religions, humanist teachings and earth-centered traditions-- for spiritual sustenance and wisdom as I search for truth and meaning.  And if I have time in describing our faith I include those ideas as well.  If you were to describe Unitarian Universalism, how would you describe it?  Would you use some of our Unitarian Universalist Principles or Sources?  Which ones?  Are there 2 or 3 in particular?

            But here's something that throws a wrench in the gears about being a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami, Congregational Polity.  Congregation Polity has been foundational to Unitarian Universalism since its beginning here in the United States in the 1700's.  Sorry just toss out Congregational Polity like everyone would know what it means.  What this means is that there is no hierarchy at the Unitarian Universalist office in Boston that can tell Unitarian Universalist congregations what to do or how to do anything.  There are no Unitarian Universalist Bishops or Pope, only an association of congregations that makes decisions together.  The members and friends of any Unitarian Universalist congregation, including this congregation, decide together what they believe, what they think is most important to them collectively, and how those ideas and beliefs manifest themselves in the life of this congregation.  Post modernists love Unitarian Universalism because we are not into simple answers about what we believe.  In addition, Post Modernists, Unitarian Universalists, and UU congregations lean away from absolutes, like yes or no, right or wrong, good or bad.  Post Modernists are all about the complexities, the grey areas, the both/ands in life.  So are Unitarian Universalists.  You might even say that Unitarian Universalist congregations are both/and places, places that embrace life’s complexities, places that change as new people join them, as the world changes, and as we learn more.  When I tell you what I think is permanent about our faith, it's just that what I think is permanent.  The questions then become "What do you think is permanent?"  and “How do what I think and what you think fit together?”  That's kind of what congregational polity is: finding out what we each believe and how all our beliefs together?  We are in this community to decide together, to co-create the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami.  And beyond that our voices also determine what Unitarian Universalism is, just like the 7 Principles and 6 Sources were decided on collectively, and may change, probably will change, someday.

            So if our Principles and Sources can change, what is permanent?  If what our minister thinks is permanent can change, and what each of us thinks is permanent can change, how do we describe Unitarian Universalism?  There are no easy answers that describe our faith, no simple concepts, no simple place to go to—like to one Unitarian Universalist or one congregation; there is no single text or source.  What it is and where it comes from is within each of us and with all of us collectively.  We sit at an intersection that we call Unitarian Universalism.  An intersection which is both each of us and all of us.  The authority for our faith comes from our personal spiritual and ethical journeys and our journeys together. And perhaps that is what doesn't change, that is the permanent.  This is a dynamic faith, or a faith that the Buddha might describe with the metaphor the foot feels the foot when it touches the ground.  We experience this faith individually and collectively in UU Miami and denominationally as Unitarian Universalists in each moment when our foot touches the ground, in other words as we live our lives as Unitarian Universalists in the present.  We are constantly becoming Unitarian Universalists.

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