I want to repeat the chalice lighting I read today: “The great are the pillars of fire in this dark pilgrimage of humankind: they stand as everlasting witnesses of what has been, prophetic tokens of what may still be, the revealed, embodied possibilities of human nature. Great deeds cannot die; they, with the sun and moon, renew their light forever, blessing those that look on them.”
When I think of Unitarian Universalists, yes, you and I and UUs across the world, I think of people who actively embody their values in their lives and in the world. I think of people who aren’t just sitting in a chair on a Sunday morning. Unitarian Universalists find ways to make a difference in the world. I’ve known countless UUs in my 20 years of ministry and I know how you UUs live your lives—with the ethical grounding of such UU values as love, compassion, pluralism, interdependence, respect, justice, equity, and liberty. The UUs I know affirm the worth and dignity of others, the interdependent web of all existence and the democratic process. I can recognize these qualities in each of you, at least in part, because I have studied our forebears.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at what one of you is doing and thought “there goes a modern-day Augusta Jane Chapin.” She was one of the chief organizers of the Parliament of World Religions in 1893. I understand that our forebears were not perfect.
Not all them are exemplars for me—Millard Filmore, for example, signed the Compromise of 1850, which delayed the Civil War for a decade allowing slavery to endure. The Compromise outlined that California would enter the Union as a free state; in exchange, the South was guaranteed that no federal restrictions on slavery would be placed on Utah Territory or New Mexico.
Many of our UU forebears were “great, pillars of fire in this dark pilgrimage of humankind; they [at least for me], stand as everlasting witness of what has been, prophetic tokens of what still may be, the revealed, embodied possibilities of human nature—Clarissa Harlowe Barton founded the American Red Cross. She was a hospital nurse in the American Civil War, a teacher, and a patent clerk. She provided self-taught nursing care. Barton also did humanitarian work and civil rights advocacy at a time before women had the right to vote.
I believe that the great deeds of our forebears will not “die; they, with the sun and moon, renew their light forever, blessing those that look on them.” They inspire me. May they inspire you, too.
Many Unitarians and Unitarian sympathizers were instrumental in the formation of this country and of what it could become. American author, conservationist and activist Terry Tempest Williams (in “Engagement”) wrote: “The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our mind, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?”
Democracy is still an experiment. It had never been successfully attempted before our American forebears decided to struggle with one another to forge and implement a new concept of government by and for the people. Unitarian John Adams struggled for years to get the Continental Congress to agree that America needed to be free from England’s tyranny. But like some Unitarians, he had great ideas. He had great courage. But he didn’t have the people skills to persuade others to follow him. May of his peers found him a little too cranky.
So he turned to other Unitarian leaning forebears to help him—Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson believed that everyone in this country would become eventually become Unitarians. Franklin was a Deist who felt that religion, like everything else, was “something to be studied and experimented with.” (“Ben Franklin’s Religion” By Rev. Kim D. Wilson, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Poconos, December 4, 2016)
Their hope was that something truly special would emerge when people governed themselves. They seemed an idealistic lot—dreaming of and working toward a living democracy. Those early Americans foresaw that politics could, and would, get in the way of a thriving democracy—George Washington in his farewell address warned, “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” Does this bring anything—or anyone—to mind?
I was at a presentation some 14 years ago made by two Iowa state legislators who were both retiring. They talked about what had been accomplished across party lines and what isn’t being accomplished. One of them was very clear that political divisiveness was bad in Iowa but not as bad as it was in Washington. And one of them was just as clear that he was ethically challenged by his own party, which wanted him to put out divisive, even lying commercials about his opponent when he was running for a seat in the legislature. Maintaining his ethical stance led him to eventually quit the legislature after just one year. Our country’s forebears wrote, “Governments are instituted among Men—today we’d say people--, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and we, the people, had consented to be governed by these two legislators—but politics got in the way.
How many of you believe that “cunning, ambitious, unprincipled [people] are “subverting the power of the people”—that’s us— “to usurp for themselves the reins of government?” How do you feel when hear smear tactics in commercials funded by powerful special interest groups or when you hear twisted half-truths presented as facts, or when people just flat-out lie? How many of you hit the “mute” button when you see a political commercial starting? I know I do. It’s easy to feel powerless about how our government is run. In the past 6 years, the government has shut down twice. And its likely to happen again next week. That’s not a really sign healthy democracy, is it?
I want to repeat this quote about a living democracy is: “The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our mind, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?” It’s no surprise that this quote strongly reminds us of some of the phrasing of our Unitarian Universalist Principles, particularly in their original form, given how many Unitarians were active in the creation of our democratic form of government.
“Most of the Founding Fathers were Deists, Unitarians or similar faiths that believed that God does not directly influence the world or order its events. They believed in rational thought, in personal responsibility for our actions, and the need to protect the innocent.” (“Faith of Our Founding Fathers” November 2, 2008, Jack Regehr)
This congregation—and almost all healthy UU congregation—are democratic. We vote; we listen with our whole selves; we disagree with respect and civility. And when we fail at being respectful and civil, we do what we can to come back into right relationship with each other. We honor the rights and liberties, beliefs, and opinions of all who join us. We do not tell people they must hold certain spiritual beliefs in order to be part of this congregation—this principle dates back to A Statement of Faith written by William Channing Gannett for the 1887 meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference in Chicago. It wasn’t called Things you must believe to be a Unitarian. It was called Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us. Sounds more like a survey than a requirement. We do standup courageously for the worth and dignity of every person and we speak out if rights or liberties are infringed upon. And we make the decisions about our Unitarian Universalist church home, together; no-one tells us how to worship or what to worship, if we worship for that matter; we decide our priorities together. The principle of congregational independence dates back to the Cambridge Platform of 1648. The Cambridge Platform holds that "there is no greater Church than a Congregation," We try to embody a living democracy here in this church and in our denomination.
And sometimes its hard. We’re human. We make mistakes. Sometimes we hurt one another. Choosing to act in the spirit of a living democracy can be even harder in the larger community. Think about how difficult it is to reach across the aisle here in Florida, and how much more difficult it must be in Washington today. Yet a living, thriving democracy can help to heal the wounds of our current dysfunctional system of, for the most part, secular government. We have built a thriving democracy here, but there’s always room for improvement. As we live and grow in our understanding of how a democratic society can continue to grow, we can be an example of how true pluralism nourishes and sustains our democracy.
In political terms, these are dark times. Note I do not say “in terms of democracy.” But in politics, this is an evil time. What George Washington feared has indeed come to pass: “cunning, unprincipled [people have been] enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” We, the people, cannot allow these unprincipled superpacs, special interest groups, and extremist groups to “destroy…the very engines” of democracy. It seems like an impossible task, like an insurmountable mountain.
But I recall to you searing image of the power of one person against a veritable army of corrupt men and women in power. Tank Man in Tiananmen Square. For one brief moment, a single person, armed with only shopping bags, stood in front of a phalanx of tanks and stopped the madness. My friends, we can each be Tank Person.
I think of each of you who are signing the petition for access to abortion here in Florida. Each of you who sign are that Tank Person.
As Universalist forebear John Murray said, “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women.” Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears inspire, call to us to sing no ordinary song in our lives. Our song must have a cadence that is relevant. One that touches the heart and stirs us to action.
Its every measure purposeful and strong.
Let this song our greatest hopes contain:
Well-fed children [as] its just refrain,
Roofs over every heartbeat [as] its tune,
[May] Its harmony from peaceful cities hewn.
[We must] Sing of hope while hammering each nail.
Sing of joy while pulling every weed.
Sing to renew a covenant grown frail.
May every [one of our heart songs] plant a seed.
Just as we plant new heart song seeds, we carry forward the heart song seeds of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears.
Go forth my friends, be brave, speak truth to power, and together I know we, along with our Unitarian Universalist siblings and all the other Tank People, will stop the machines of corruption and unprincipled politics.