Finding Unity in Our Diversity
A sermon by the Rev. David M. Horst
Prague Unitarian Congregation
May 15, 2016
Friends, thank you for the opportunity to worship with you today and share some words of reflection. My traveling companions and I have had a splendid week in Prague and beyond, and we are grateful for your warm welcome and hospitality. It is good to be with you, brothers and sisters in faith.
We are American Unitarian Universalists: But who are we? What are we?
I'm often asked to answer these questions, usually from other Americans who have little knowledge or understanding of the Unitarian Universalism — but I can offer no easy or quick response. We are in all ways a church, a house of worship, a religion and religious movement, a faith tradition; but we're dramatically different from any other church in America.
We are first and foremost religious liberals, which startles the uninformed who think that religion is, by definition, conservative. "Religious liberal" sounds like a contradiction in terms. Indeed, it is not, and religious liberalism has a long tradition in America as well as Europe as you well know.
To be liberal is to be open to new ideas, progressive in thought, open to different beliefs, optimistic in outlook, and committed to health and wholeness. To be a religious liberal is to "affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people," which is our first religious principle. We are free of ideology and positively allergic to fixed creeds and life-denying dogma. Our faith as religious liberals may be hard to define, but it is real and present in our lives. Ours is a life-affirming, life-sustaining faith.
When we speak of salvation, we speak of salvation in this life, not the next one; we speak of "salvation by character/' in the words of the 19th century American Unitarian William Ellery Channing; we speak of the daily practice of "becoming our best selves," in the words of the Mission Statement of our Central Unitarian Church.
Who are we? What are we? Everything I've said so far sounds logical and good, but it's all a little abstract. Let me be more concrete;
We're the church that loves worship and music, preaching and praying, and exploring a variety of engaging ideas and relevant themes that touch the intellectual, emotional, and religious lives we share.
We're the justice-focused church, promoting equality, freedom, and justice for all especially those who remain marginalized or oppressed in our society: Women, people of color, immigrants, impoverished people, and gay, lesbian, and transgender people and their families.
We're the church for learning and exploration, offering children and youth multiple opportunities for religious learning as well as adults across the lifespan in the classroom and beyond.
We're the compassionate church, providing care and support to our members during illness, times of crisis, and life transitions.
I think what describes the Unitarian Universalist church best is this: We're the church for people who don't feel at home in any other church — and those who might not be welcomed in a traditional church. We're the church of last resort, and I'm proud of that.
Members come from a wide range of religious traditions including Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and others. Some are "unchurched," who find in Unitarian Universalism a living tradition of faith that encourages and supports their religious questions and searching.
While we draw inspiration and wisdom from many world religions, more and more, I'm happy to say, Unitarian Universalism is becoming a rich, coherent, and beautiful religion in its own right. I've seen Unitarianism listed as a world religion in some sources, which is remarkable; but we have not yet fully evolved or become differentiated enough to be considered a religion equal to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam or the philosophies of the East with their deep histories, rich scriptures, and well-articulated beliefs.
We are still a young religion, branching out from the Christian tradition, but still attached. Unitarian Universalism is not yet a separate species of religion. We have much more growing and evolving to do.
I've described briefly who and what we are as Unitarian Universalists in America; but the harder question is: What holds us together? We do not have a common creed; we do not have a catechism; we do not have our own long, mythic story with heroes and heroines; we dont have our own sacred scripture; we don't have bishops and popes. We have none of these things. All we have is each other. All we have is a sense that we belong together. All we have is an emotional and spiritual bond that transcends our many differences.
At Central Unitarian Church, we formalize these bonds through the process of covenant. Each Sunday we read the words of the Congregational Covenant together:
As a congregation, we honor our mission and promise to act with grace as we celebrate our shared humanity. We view our differences as strengths and work to meld them into harmony by listening with open minds. We agree to act with honesty, compassion, love, and respect. With this covenant, we will deepen our connections and add joy to our collective lives.
What this statement of covenant lacks in poetry, it makes up for in sincerity and affection. We seek to be in "right relationship" with one another and, for me, the key words are "honesty, compassion, love, and respect."
Our covenant is aspirational as well as operational. It is our vision and our practice. We often fall short. We often need to apologize for words and actions that are "out of covenant." We often need to engage in "relationship repair." So be it. The commitment to one another, however, must never falter. Differences can be strengths. Creating and sustaining harmonious relationships is possible.
"Unity in diversity" is a Unitarian Universalist cliche in America. Note that I did not say "unanimity" — complete and unqualified agreement is never possible when two or more people are gathered. Finding unity in our diversity of educational backgrounds, socio-economic class, religious and political beliefs, sexual orientations and gender identities, racial and ethnic identities is possible.
Our houses of worship — our house of worship in Paramus and your house of worship here in Prague — can be or should be places of common ground, places of unity with diversity, places of covenant where "honesty, compassion, love, and respect" abide.
The process of finding unity in our diversity is at once simple and complex. I'd suggest it begins with listening to each other, listening for understanding, listening not only to the words but the emotions behind the words, listening with loving hearts and open minds. It's not easy. Listening takes practice. Listening is a practice, perhaps a spiritual practice. Let us heed the words of St. Francis: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood/'
The process of finding unity is also to know and trust that everyone holds truth in part. No one has the final word. The ultimate truth or final word is somewhere in the sacred space between us, discovered in a process the American theologian and philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman calls "creative interchange." We might also call it a "holy conversation."
Finally, the unity we seek must be situated in religious community — and perhaps can only be found in religious community. We live in a fractured, violent, power-driven, and wealth-obsessed world. We are not going to find unity out there, which is why we so dearly need unity in here, among we who gather for worship and music, learning and growth, justice and equality, and caring and kindness.
When you think about it, what we do in our churches subverts the dominant paradigm of division, violence, power, and wealth. Indeed, what we do when we gather is create a new vision for our nations and the world. What we do in our liberal churches really matters. What we do empowers us, changes lives, and offers hope.
So we must listen for understanding, engage in holy conversation, and believe in the power of religious community. This is how we find unity in our diversity.
And let us remember that all we do must be done in love. We've got to have love, my friends. Love of life, love of each other, love of this precious planet on which we live and have our being. As that wise man Paul McCartney wrote, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."