Weaving a Tapestry of Love and Action


Several Sundays ago, I shared with you a quote by writer Leland
Kaiser, and I am thinking about it again this morning. It goes like
this: "If your line of sight is even with the floor, you can
starve to death in a full pantry." In other words, how we see
determines the choices we make, the actions we take. If we look down
at the floor and at our feet, never seeing the abundance that
surrounds us, we do nothing and starve. But if we look up and look
around, we can reach out and live.

So this morning we are looking up, and what we see is this wonderful
tapestry creation (behind me) which pictures the abundance of this
congregation. How hearts have been woven together in this place, and
so many positive memories formed. There is abundance, here, and it is
both a legacy that has been handed down to us as well as a promise
about how we might grow and evolve into the future. Thus our task for
this morning, which is a celebration and a joy: to see this abundance,
so that we might choose it and reach out for it and act upon it.

Consider, then, the legacy that our tapestry reflects with regard to
Unitarian Universalism in Atlanta. It is a legacy of firsts. One of
these has to do with how Atlanta Unitarians and Universalists came
together in 1918 to form the very first Unitarian Universalist
congregation in history-43 years before the two national organizations
merged in 1961. Another first has to do with how this was the first
racially integrated congregation in Atlanta, and members willingly
endured the considerable risk and sacrifice that this led to. This was
back in 1954, when the congregation used to be called The United
Liberal Church, led by ministers Glenn Canfield, Ed Cahill, and Eugene
Pickett. Finally, I am led to understand that this congregation was
the first real "large church" in our movement, and out of
this richness it planted another church, Northwest Unitarian
Universalist Congregation.

All of these firsts are reflected by this tapestry. A legacy of
firsts, a legacy of risk and sacrifice on behalf of a high purpose, a
legacy of resilience that gives this community the capacity to be born
again and again after trouble and strife. So many things that this
tapestry reflects. And leaders in Atlanta know it. Your reputation
precedes me. I was at a clergy meeting just a few short weeks ago,
organized by a group called Atlantans Building Leadership Empowerment,
in which the topic was an event scheduled for this very afternoon,
which I strongly encourage you to consider going to-a public rally of
people from all classes and races and faiths who are committed to
progressive social values around such issues as health care, public
education, and immigration reform. At the meeting a few short weeks
ago, I identified myself as the new Senior Minister of UUCA, and
I'll tell you this: they all knew about Unitarian Universalism.
They all knew about the heart of this place. That's what I keep
discovering, as I network and get to know area leaders. Your
reputation precedes me. For so many years, this congregation has been
making a difference.

But there's more. Our tapestry also reflects the legacy that comes
to us from the larger movement of Unitarian Universalism. This larger
legacy goes way back into history, ultimately to the early Jesus
communities 2000 years ago. And so we consider how Universalism was,
in its earliest form, a response to the God that people saw at work in
the life of Jesus. Jesus lived in horrendous times-times of brutal
social and political oppression, times in which different Jewish
groups competed and fought with each other about what to do with the
oppression, times in which daily life and relationships were burdened
by prejudice towards women, the poor, outcasts, tax collectors,
sinners. But the God that Jesus directly knew was a God of love; and
Jesus channeled this connection into acts of compassion. And so in the
midst of horrendous times, there was Jesus, gathering the outcasts and
the poor and the sinners to his welcome table. There was Jesus,
proclaiming an ethic of universal, unconditional love that called for
nonviolent resistance to evil. There was Jesus, surrounded by broken
lives and broken relationships, and he was a healing light.
Universalism ultimately was a response to all this; the early
Universalists saw and heard and read about what Jesus was like, and
they couldn't help but conclude that whatever God was, God could
never be a brutal power like Rome. God could never crucify and condemn
a soul to everlasting damnation. That could never be the God that
Jesus was in relationship with. All will be saved-that is the original
meaning of Universalism. What is truly everlasting is love.

As for Unitarianism, the other side of our heritage: it also was a
response to the Jesus of history. Unitarianism in its earliest form
was the conviction that Jesus was not equal to God, though his life
and character were certainly God-inspired and God-like. God is a
unity, not a duality or a trinity. God is one. Now this is admittedly
an abstract theological claim, and it leaves me wanting to understand
in practical terms what it has to do with my life. And I found this
understanding when reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous Divinity
School Address of 1838, where he says this: "Jesus Christ
belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the
mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its
beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history,
he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you
and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes
forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee
of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me,
speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also
thinkest as I now think.'"

This is Emerson, and it's the last sentence in particular that
moves us towards a truly astonishing thought: that all people have
within them a divine spark that is just waiting to be known and to
flare forth. Every one of us. Unitarian Universalists today differ
with regard to preferences around religious language and metaphysics,
so that some still embrace a word like God while others have no use
for it; yet the underlying, deeper thought nevertheless persists:
there is a genius and a creativity and a Tao in the heart of the
universe and in our heart of hearts that is just waiting to be tapped;
there is a healing pattern and power that is deep within, and it's
part of the meaning of life to learn how to connect with it. But to do
that, we cannot allow ourselves to be sidetracked by bad theology.
This is what Emerson is trying to say. Doctrines that declare only a
certain person to possess the divine spark-or only certain
people-become obstacles to you and me discovering the divine spark
within ourselves. What we need is a doctrine that is true and helps
open our eyes to the potentials that are the birthright of us all. And
so Emerson goes on to say: "That is always best which gives me to
myself. The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine,
Obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which
shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a
necessary reason for my being. Already the long shadows of untimely
oblivion creep over me, and I shall decease forever." But Emerson
refuses to decease forever. He won't do it! He refuses to allow
the long shadows to creep over him. What he wants is what all
Unitarians want: to seize the day. To be driven by high purpose. To
thrive! And also this: to prevent the great tragedy from happening as
far as possible, which is when a person is blocked from laying hold of
the worth and dignity that is inherently theirs, when personal or
social evils prevent people from searching and finding the meaning in
life that is theirs to find. That is the great tragedy.

And these are just some of the great spiritual themes that come to us
from the abundant legacies of Universalism and Unitarianism. 2000
years later, these two traditions survive even as they have been
profoundly impacted and changed by such things as the Protestant
Reformation, modern biblical scholarship, religious diversity, various
social justice movements, and modern science. Each of these things
represents a force that has shaped and transformed Unitarianism and
Universalism until we have what is before us today: two movements
combined into one, Unitarian Universalism. A
"post-Christian" faith embracing wisdom and truth from many
sources. A religion that points people to the sacred in life and
allows people freedom to understand this as their own reason and
conscience dictate. Call it what you will-God, the Tao, Buddhamind,
the Goddess, healthy human relationships, the creative process,
Nature, Spirit, Love, Beauty-call it what you will: but know that
connection with the sacred is an ever-present possibility, and that
this connection heals and makes whole and releases us into peace and
forgiveness and compassion. And then we channel the compassion. We act
on it. Like Jesus, and like other saints and sages throughout history,
we invite people of all kinds to our welcome table. We proclaim an
ethic of universal, unconditional love that calls for nonviolent
resistance to evil. Surrounded by broken lives and broken
relationships, we become to all this a healing light. That's what
Unitarian Universalism is about. Connection to what is sacred in life,
and compassionate action. Connection and compassion. This is the full
legacy that our tapestry bears forth and lifts up. And we have
received it.

But now consider the short phrases on the tapestry which describe the
kinds of things we want to give to the world: a vibrant faith
community; a loving community; a safe and welcoming community;
nurtured children and youth; people with a passion for justice;
creative community; a place where hope is born. What these phrases
signify are promises to the future; this is the horizon that we are
ever aiming towards. Our tapestry of love and action, which honors the
legacy we have received from the past, is also challenging us to live
up to it, to extend the legacy forward into the future. And so we ask
discernment questions like these: What are we called to be in
these changing times? What evidences of brokenness just break our
hearts and make them burst to do something? How might we experience
rich and deep connection with the sacred so that our service is
resilient and emerges out of an indomitable sense of hopefulness, even
joy?
These are the kind of questions we need to ask as we look to
the future. We cannot rest on our laurels. We must find ways of
staying relevant to our times. Vision and commitment and risk and
sacrifice in pursuit of a high purpose are as important and needed now
as they were in 1954, when this congregation chose to let its light
shine and did something that no one else dared do. So now, in the
present, what can WE do?

Here's what's on my heart this morning. Three initiatives
that, if we championed them, would definitely represent living out our
call in the world. Three initiatives that I and so many of you have a
heartburst for-our hearts burst to do something about them. Three
initiatives that are spirituality-focused and would require a deepened
sense of connection to the Spirit of Life, to eachother, and to our
planet earth.

Here's the first: strengthening our families. Being a part of some
kind of family is an undeniable universal experience, and no one can
escape its profound influence. I'm talking biological families but
also functional families in which people may not be blood kin but
treat each other and rely upon each other as family anyway. Single
people-whether divorced, or never married, or widowed-are as much a
part of the picture as everyone else. The family need and influence is
indelible, from cradle to grave; and the issue is as much about
personal development and healthy lifestyles as it is about collective
social justice. Historians Ariel and Will Durant put it like this:
"The family is the nucleus of civilization." It means that
to the degree we strengthen our families, we strengthen the world.

I was at an interfaith prayer breakfast a couple of weeks ago, and the
speaker, who happened to be the president of Morehouse College, Robert
Franklin, talked about how, in some Native American and Native African
traditions, the presence of illness or distress in a person or in a
group becomes an occasion for the entire community to pause and ask
itself, "How has the community as a whole contributed to the
problem? What must we all do to help the individual or the group to
heal?" And this is what we might do, as we consider the struggle
that our families experience in our day and time. Parents who too
often go it alone, without sufficient coaching and support. Children
who too often find themselves at the mercy of a media-driven,
hyper-consumeristic society that becomes their primary teacher.
Families who suffer because social and economic policies don't
have their best interests at heart. Families of various kinds who
struggle because of the "family fundamentalism" in our
culture which says that only certain kinds of families are OK, and all
the rest are wrong. There is so much distress around the family
today-it cuts straight across class and race and creed-and too often
the response is to privatize the problem, to isolate the family and
blame it, to put the issues on the back burner.

But we can do better. We can. At one point in his talk, President
Franklin mentioned the link between stressed families and crime, and
he said, "If our boys and girls have guns in their hands,
it's because they don't have an adult to hold their hands. If
you're worried about the children, then strengthen the adults.
It's the adults, stupid…" That's what he said. We can
do something about this. Strengthening families is one direction
I'd like us to take in the next several years.

Now I'm mindful of our limited time, so I will need to be briefer
about the second and third initiatives. I'm also mindful of work
that has already have been done here at UUCA around the initiatives I
am proposing. So my thought is that, going forward, we draw upon what
has been done and focus it forward, establish clear growth targets,
develop a sense of what success would look like for each initiative.
My hope is to accomplish truly cutting-edge stuff in the next 3-5-7
years, before my first sabbatical.

And having said that, we turn to the second thing my heart bursts for:
earthkeeping, or care of creation, or eco-spirituality. How can this
congregation lead in the effort of moving humanity towards a
transformed sense of relationship with the earth? Of living more
lightly upon it, of being better stewards of it? One writer1 has said
that "it is no longer a question of ‘saving the
environment' as if that were something out there apart from us. We
humans are the environment, and it is us-shaping our minds, nourishing
our bodies, refreshing our spirit." But then this same writer
goes on to say, "Currently, we in the developed world are easily
distracted from these tasks by mass consumerism, media entertainment,
and political manipulation. Our plundering power is almost invisible
to the majority of people in the world who are intent simply on
feeding their families or, in affluent regions, on acquiring more
goods. We need a serious wake-up call from our slumbers."
That's what this writer says, and I agree with him. So how can we
here at UUCA be a part of that wake-up call? Let's do that!

Finally, the third initiative my heart bursts for, which involves and
transcends the other two: developing and evolving our Unitarian
Universalist spiritual identity. Enhancing the ability of Unitarian
Universalism to help people connect with the sacred and then channel
the results into acts of creativity and compassion. Even though
Unitarianism and Universalism, separately, are ancient traditions,
their coming together in 1961 represented a completely new start. And
so it means that our "connection and compassion" faith is,
all things considered, still in its infancy, still with a great deal
of maturing to do so that it can speak to people today and into the
future. For example, in this world of the rush and gush, in which
people are already able to access many sources of religion and
spirituality, it is not enough for us just to offer that. The choices
that are available today are overwhelming, and the real question that
confronts people is, How do I choose? What's the foundation
upon which I can build my life and make my choices? Don't just
give me more choices; give me something to help me choose….
As
for our answer: it cannot be the "one-way,
one-size-fits-all" answer, of course. Our answer will be a
"many ways" answer. But it must also be crystal clear and
concrete. Not in the form of another abstract theological
dissertation, but in the form of distinctive songs and stories,
signature rituals and spiritual practices that embody and demonstrate
the excitement and power of our diversity-and could seep into our
blood and bones and become a part of our very character. That's
what will evolve this faith and take it to the next level. And
that's why I'm dreaming about, among other things, a full-time
music director. That's why I'm wanting to explore innovations
in our worship life, including a third service that evinces a very
different but equally moving style. Unitarian Universalists do not
stand but move. It is time to move.

And there they are: the three growth initiatives I'd like to focus
on in the next several years. Exciting possibilities-connection and
compassion possibilities-that would truly do justice to the abundance
that is ours.

I'll close by asking for three things. One is that we remember the
wisdom encoded in a saying from Zen Buddhism: "Even the strongest
finger is useless if it tries to do anything on its own." Power
comes from all five fingers and the whole hand working in concert, as
a team. To do what we are called to do, we must all get behind this.
The ministry of UUCA must become an every-member ministry. The
opportunity before us has got to be seen as one in which every person
can discover a service opportunity that will grow their souls. All
five fingers are needed. It can't and won't happen otherwise.
You are needed.

So please be thinking about ways you might get involved here at UUCA.
You‘ll be hearing more about this in the next several months,
but now I'm just asking you to think about it. I'm also
wanting to ask for this: that you come next Sunday, because next
Sunday we are going to be talking about an absolutely necessary
ingredient for our work together: a shared vision about what it means
to be in healthy relationship with each other. I'm talking about
forming a congregational covenant. More about that next week. Please
be here.

And finally, there is a third thing I want to ask for: that you give
into the vision of this place. We are the beneficiaries of a great
legacy, and before us are some great possibilities. I have tried this
morning to share with you a vision of greatness. So if you have found
yourself moved, please be generous with your financial pledge. You may
have already noticed that in your order of service is a pledge form.
Take this opportunity now to fill it out, and we'll pick it up in
a moment. There will also be places in the social hall and the front
lobby where you can turn it in. And if it so happens that you've
already filled out a pledge form-I invite you to consider upping your
pledge. Great things cannot be born without great financial
generosity.

And now, let us think generous thoughts!