“Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Speaker: Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

Services: 9:30 am & 11:00 am

How do we conceptualize a humanist response to the world in which we live, our daily lives, and our fellow human beings? What does it look like to think of Humanism as a joyous “Yes!” to all of the above?

Watch the Service Recording

Sermon Text

I invite you to time travel with me back to the year 2008.

Now, a lot happened that year. Some of which we might prefer not to revisit, but I want to take us back to the 2008 Unitarian Universalist Association’s annual meeting, our General Assembly, where thousands of Unitarian Universalists from around the country and around the world gathered in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

The event on the evening in question was a performance of composer Jason Shelton and lyricist Kendyl Gibbons’s Sources cantata, a seven movement piece of music celebrating the sources of our living tradition and the threads that bind them together. 

I loved the music. I loved the words. I was loving the whole thing, and then we arrived at the fifth movement. Entitled, No Other World, it was dedicated to our fifth source, humanist teachings. The lights dimmed in the huge hall. The screen filled with images of space: stars and galaxies, star dust and planets. 

I was excited to see what would come from the choir and musicians to match the beautiful, majestic images of space on the screen. 

But as I began preparing for this sermon over a decade later, all I remembered was the word “no”. 

In my recollection, the piece of music consisted of the choir shouting “No! No! No!” 

So, this past month, I went back to listen to it again. 

Not surprisingly, I discovered that, in reality, the words are much more complex than “No! No! No!,” and the music is stunningly beautiful. 

It begins with a single solo voice: 

I would live simply, and bravely and nobly…

“Ok,” I thought back in 2008, hearing it for the first time. 

“I’m on board with that.” 

You see, I’m a good Unitarian Universalist, always analyzing lyrics to see if I can agree with them. I’ve finally stopped looking ahead at the words while we are singing hymns, but as a teenage UU who happened to be attending Catholic high school, I used to do so. 

A militant atheist, whenever the word “God” appeared, I would literally put down my hymnal and refuse to sing. I was frustrated, confused, and angry. 

I was frustrated with what I was being taught at my UU congregation and my Catholic school. 

I was confused by how they could be so different. 

I was angry, because I wanted desperately to believe but simply did not.

But living “simply, bravely and nobly.” 

Give me that any day. 

The music swelled and the chorus begins.

The time is now, the place is here;

The good we know, the earth we share;

This day we have, this love we give;

Yes, I thought, yes! This is the crux of our faith. 

This is the joy and the beauty of our humanist heritage. 

What a celebration!

The chorus continued, and my heart sank. 

Here were the nos:

No other truth; no other joy; the choir sings fiercely, No other life; no other world.

And I thought: “If this is our statement, what was the difference between Unitarian Universalists and religious fundamentalists who proclaim that their truth, their way, is the truth, the way.”

“How is it constructive to deny and dismiss the beliefs so many hold dear so as to proclaim our  certainty?”

I was in seminary in 2008, and I was building a new way for myself, one that was moving from anger to acceptance, from frustration to surrender, from confusion to mystery. 

I had let go of my militarism, if not my atheism yet, and found myself curious instead, open to life and love and the potential for an even greater love that surrounds us all. 

I didn’t have designs on anyone joining me in my new-found delight in transcendence, but I did hope that my faith tradition might move from rejection toward affirmation, as I had.

No other truth; no other joy; No other life; no other world felt, well, altogether too negative. 

I was looking for Yes!”

I am still looking for “Yes!” 

And I don’t think that I am alone.

I believe that twenty-first century religion must approach the world with affirmation of the life that we human beings share – with each other, with the other beings of this planet, with the Earth as a whole, our “blue boat home.” 

And I believe that Unitarian Universalism can only be a faith for our time – for this time – if we let go of our impulse to proclaim what we do not believe and instead lean into what we do: that all people have worth and dignity, that all are deserving of compassion, that our planet requires our care and commitment, that true justice is for all.

We can – and we must – counter the negativity and fear of our day with a resounding YES! 

Today, I want to share with you what I have learned about this “Yes!” from my work at Winship Cancer Institute as an interfaith chaplain.

And so, I invite us to continue, now, the work of this past month’s sermon series on Humanism as we look at the foundations Humanism provides for care and compassion for our fellow human beings, for curiosity and openness, for social reform and changing the world – two hands at a time. 

On the wall of the stairwell between the first floor lobby and the Infusion Center at Winship’s Clifton Road campus is a quote:

One of the essential qualities of the clinician is interest in humanity, for the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.

On my first day of work this past September, I took a picture of that quote on the wall and sent it to my brother, Evan, who is a third year resident in neurosurgery in New York City. 

Patient care is my brother’s passion, and for him, while it is brain surgery, it’s not rocket science. 

For Evan as a doctor, and for me as a chaplain, “the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”

The quote comes from Dr. Francis Weld Peabody, from his 1927 essay entitled: The Care of the Patient.

Peabody was the son and grandson of Unitarian ministers. His father was Francis Greenwood Peabody; his grandfather, Ephraim Peabody. 

Francis Greenwood was pastor of First Unitarian, Cambridge, Massachusetts, later Dean of Harvard Divinity School, where he developed the department of social ethics. According to Harvard’s write up, “in his teaching, preaching and writing, he portrayed a religious tradition that stressed members as agents of social change, de-emphasizing personal salvation in favor of social action.”

His father, Ephraim Peabody, had been minister of the famed Kings Chapel in Boston. Before that, the elder Peabody had ministered in Cincinnati, my hometown. He was an early Unitarian missionary to what was then “the West.” And he was part of the movement of western Unitarian Christianity toward Transcendentalism and Humanism. 

He was also a reluctant opponent of slavery who assisted fugitive slaves, including Frederick Douglas. But Ephraim Peabody believed, essentially, that recolonization of Africa by former slaves was the solution to the nation’s nineteenth-century ills rather than the freeing of American slaves to live as free people on this nation’s soil.

At the dawn of a new century, however, his son, Francis Greenwood, came to believe strongly in freedom for all and love of all human beings as foundational for his Unitarianism.

“The religion of the twentieth century,” he wrote, “must contemplate the world, not as a chaos of competing atoms, but as an organic and invisible whole. It must socialize its hopes and save people, not singly but together, the poor with the prosperous, the employed with the employer…the Black with the White.” 

Francis Greenwood Peabody believed we — all of us, together — could change society, change the world, make it a better place for all people.

And his son, Francis Weld Peabody, the doctor of the quote on the wall, took his father’s ethos to heart. One of the essential qualities of the clinician is interest in humanity…

The secret of the care of others, is to care for others — all others — embracing difference and distinctions of race, class, ability, gender, background, education, illness or health, ability to pay, appearance, you name it…

It is not rocket science. 

It is not brain surgery. 

But it is hard. 

I think, often, we Unitarian Universalists throw out the first of our seven shared principles, the commitment to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” as simple and easy. We just do that, right?

But when we stop and think about it, saying “yes” to the worth and dignity of every human person is a radical statement, a challenge to what, in many ways, is instinctual to us as humans— to circle our wagons, to affirm and love and have compassion for those in our own families, those we know, those who look like us, live like us, believe like us, think like us, those we deem “good.”

To broaden the circle so as to encompass the whole of humanity, to have not only interest in, but truly care, for all human beings – let alone for all beings and for the Earth, herself – requires patience and perseverance. It requires flexing muscles we might not always use. It requires building new skills. It requires practice. 

And it requires a spiritual foundation that we are privileged to have in our own religious tradition. It is a foundation that comes from many sources, one of them being Humanism. 

The third Humanist Manifesto, penned in 2003, states that “Humanists are concerned for the well being of all” and that “Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern…” That “the joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.”

I see this as a shift in the focus of humanist thought – a welcome one. The humanists of 1933 who wrote the first Humanist Manifesto were radical rejectors of the supernatural, of the divisive and dismissive nature of religion that focused solely on other-worldly salvation at the expense of the common good.

While religion is still used today to divide and exclude, to separate and segregate, twenty-first century Humanism need no longer focus on what we do not believe, nor on the rejection of what others do. The radicalism of today’s Humanism lies in our fundamental interest in humanity, in our commitment to this world that we share, in the vision of the world that we seek, in the “Yes” we say to life and to love and to our fellow human beings in a world besieged by “Nos.” 

No, not you. Or you. No, you can’t. No, you don’t belong. No, it won’t work. No, I don’t have time. No, you can’t come in. No, I can’t possibly care for you. 

With the “Nos” standing on our heads and pulling at our ears and tugging at our tails, we say “Yes!” 

Yes to life!

Yes to love! 

Yes to our neighbor!

Yes to humanity!

Yes to the Earth!

Yes to a deeper justice!

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Humanism gives us the ethical, the moral, and, yes, the spiritual foundation to replace the “Nos” with Yeses.

But in order to do so, we have to let go of the urge to reject and defend and replace this urge with interest instead, with curiosity about and care for the other, with our commitment to create – with others – a better world, a brighter world, a kinder world, our hearts open to what might be when we join our hands with theirs. 

At Winship, I work at – I practice – every day the cultivation of compassion, of curiosity, of warm-hearted regard for those whose beliefs are different from my own. I’m not going to stand before you and say that this is easy. It requires patience and perseverance; it requires flexing muscles I haven’t always used; it requires building new skills, and, slowly but surely, I am getting better at it.

My job is not to judge or convince or dissuade or disavow. My job is to affirm, to accept, to sit with. My job is to welcome questions along with certainty, faith alongside doubt, fear in the same breath as courage. My job is to be open to the other, to attune to where they are. My job is to provide some comfort in the midst of a nightmare, some solace in the midst of suffering, and when I cannot do those things, my job is simply to be a witness, to hold pain, to acknowledge the reality of what is. 

And I cannot do my job with “no.” 

I can only do it with “yes.” 

Because, in the cancer center, the golden present is sometimes all there is, and it awaits a response: from from my patients, from their families, from the hard-working staff who care for them, from me.

And we say “Yes.”

Yes to life in the face of death; 

Yes to strength in the face of pain; 

Yes to love in the face of loss.

Together, we are building a new way forward, a way of affirmation and acceptance, acknowledgment and attunement, a celebration of difference and distinction, and a deep respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human person, and for that which binds us all. 

In a world full of nos, may it be that each of us finds the courage to respond to life’s call with a resounding “Yes!” 

We just may change the world.