© Dr. Chris Schriner 2004
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 10, 2004

This sermon was preceded by a meditation: Today we will be talking about how Unitarian Universalism helps meet our spiritual needs. Of course, the word "spiritual" means many different things, but the sort of spirituality I am talking about has to do with our deepest responses to life; our bedrock, fundamental sense of what our life is all about. And spiritual health is just like physical health, in that becoming physically healthy involves both curing sickness and building up vitality, healing what is broken and enhancing what is already strong. We need both spiritual healing and spiritual empowerment.

I also want to point out that spirituality involves both inreach and outreach. We need healing and empowerment inside of ourselves, so that we feel good about being who we are and about our place in the great scheme of things. And we also need healing and empowerment vis-a-vis the world around us, in our relationships with people, with groups, and with the larger world.

In a spiritual community, healing and empowerment happen most often in experiences. Some spiritually enlivening experiences happen on Sunday morning. Others occur in a congregation's social gatherings, its boards and committees, its workshops and classes, and in face-to-face interactions between people. I invite you now to reflect on two questions: First, how does Unitarian Universalism heal and empower us internally, within ourselves? Second, how does this denomination heal and empower us externally, in relation to other people, groups, and the larger world? We will move now into a period of prayer and reflection, followed by some sharing. So I invite you to close your eyes and meditate upon these two questions. (Meditation and conversation.)

The sermon: Unitarian Universalism is a genuinely new way of approaching spirituality. And when something is truly new, it may be difficult to understand. Even those who have been members for years may wonder at times if they know what this movement is all about. And this may make it hard to explain Mission Peak to other people.

Actually, the basic idea of Unitarian Universalism is breathtakingly simple: UUs are empowered to search for what is good and meaningful, without being told what we have to believe. And no matter what we do believe about theology or philosophy, we try to live a good life and leave the world better than we found it.

That's fine, but a critic might reply, "Well, is this just a gathering place for different religions and philosophies? Don't you have something positive to offer besides being a good place to explore?" My answer is that if this is a good place to explore what is most important in life, then that is more than enough reason for Mission Peak to exist. And as they say in the infomercials, "But wait - there's more!" There are other ways that UUism helps meet the core spiritual needs of healing and empowerment, both within each person and in the relations between each person and the larger world.

As I consider some ways that our denomination satisfies spiritual hungers, let's remember that it does so in ways that are different from most other religions. Sometimes we may wish that UUism looked and felt like religions we have known in the past, even though we don't really want it to be like those religions. For example, even people who are thrilled that Mission Peak does not require them to buy into any particular set of beliefs may also find it hard to accept that a religious movement doesn't promote some set of doctrines. We may want to hear that Unitarian Universalism believes something about God, angels, and the great riddles of life and death. Here is the way the Rev. Tony Larsen responded to that concern:

"... when we say our church has freedom of belief, we mean that in a limited way. You are free to believe whatever you want here - but only as long as it helps you live a caring and humane life - or at least doesn't prevent you from living a caring life.... So when someone says, 'What do Unitarian Universalists believe?' and you answer, 'Oh, we believe whatever we want to.' - that's not quite true.... We don't believe in limiting people because of their race or color, for example. We don't believe in restricting people on the basis of gender. We don't believe in excluding people because of disability.... We don't believe in destroying the environment.... There are some very definite limitations on freedom of belief in this church, and those are some of them." (Sermon, "Why You Should Not Be A Unitarian Universalist," from the Web)

I like that statement. And yet part of the reason this statement sounds so good is that it starts off talking about one kind of beliefs and ends up talking about another. It seems to me that Rev. Larson begins by asking whether UUs believe "whatever they want to" about the universe, and ends up focusing on what we believe about how we ought to treat each other. Those are two very different things - our theory about ultimate reality and our ethical commitments about how we should act. I'm glad he emphasizes our ethical agreements, and that does not answer the charge that UUs believe whatever they want about things like God or life after death. But in fact, that charge is false. Unitarian Universalists do not believe whatever they want. They believe whatever fits the deepest understanding of life they have yet been able to achieve. To say we believe whatever we want to sounds so flippant and superficial, but a lot of us have developed our own philosophy of life through serious searching. Besides, it is impossible for me to believe something just because I want to. I have to have some evidence. I admit that there are times when I can relate to Ashleigh Brilliant's comment that "I have abandoned my search for truth and am now looking for a good fantasy." But usually it is hard to believe something unless we actually think it's true. Those who say we believe whatever we "want" are simply wrong.

What holds UUs together is not our worldviews, but our shared values. This congregation is value-centered rather than belief-centered. Look at our Seven Principles, which are on the back cover of the Order of Service (and on this web site). Those are statements of what we value, what we strive for. You don't have to agree with all of this statement, or interpret it in the same way everyone else does. This is not a rigid creed. But if you want to explore the spiritual core of Unitarian Universalism, then reflect on these Principles until you find something that lights a fire under you, something that prods you to become a better person than you are now. I invite everybody here to find one part of the Principles that you could support better in your own life than you do today. This is a very useful list of ethical challenges.

The Principles begin with the inherent worth and dignity of every person (and that includes people we disapprove of). Justice, equity, and compassion - a lot of us could be more compassionate. Acceptance of one another - even those we dislike. Encouraging spiritual growth. Fostering a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Supporting the right of conscience and the democratic process here at Mission Peak and in the rest of the world. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, and respect for the interdependent web of existence.

Do you see at least one phrase in this list of Principles that you could use to challenge yourself? In a moment I'd like to hear what that phrase would be. All of us have human weaknesses and the Principles can help us correct them. At times we may tend to be self-centered. We may vote along the lines of our class and economic interests instead of voting for what supports the larger good. And we have other flaws. Many of us make ourselves right in our own eyes. We are sometimes short-sighted, insecure, or defensive. We may be inclined to attack when provoked, when another approach would be better. We may tend to be lazy, wanting the soft life, not wanting to have to think too hard or change behavior patterns. We may grasp at simple solutions that cannot adequately deal with complex problems. We all have personal limitations that we need to confront.

Personally, I think I could do better at respecting the interdependent web of existence. When something in a store calls out, "Buy me, buy me," I want to think about how making that purchase will enlarge my ecological footprint, increasing my weight upon the carrying capacity of the earth. It's easy to say, "Sure, we want to take good care of good old Mother Earth!" But, being human, we may do things that harm the planet by being self-centered, short-sighted, lazy, wanting a soft life, not wanting to be conscientious or to change our behaviors. Keeping the Seventh Principle in mind sets up a creative tension between who we are and who we want to become.

How about some others of you? Just call out a phrase from the Principles that you would like to focus on in your own life. (Sharing.)

A lot of what I've been saying has to do with healing and empowering ourselves in relation to the world around us. But healing and empowerment also take place within our individual hearts and minds. We want a sense of connection and belonging and an attitude of serenity and basic trust. Mission Peak gives us permission to draw upon all life-affirming religions and philosophies, to meet these personal needs. And there's more. Unitarian Universalism makes its own contributions to inner healing and transformation. Most of these contributions are not unique to our denomination, but we give them a special UU flavor. I will talk about just two of these this morning - reaching out to the silence, and being part of a caring community.

By reaching out to the silence, I mean quieting the chatter of our minds and listening to the fertile stillness. UUs do that in lots of ways, with chalice lightings, Sunday morning meditations, reflection and prayer during the service and during workshops, classes, and retreats. Regardless of our philosophy of life, it is obvious that there is much to be learned by closing our mouths and being still.

And Mission Peak also offers us the opportunity to reach out to a congregation of people who care. And this is a special kind of community. Many religions form communities so that they can enjoy the power of agreement, or the appearance of agreement, the power of everybody saying the same thing - and thinking, falsely, that they all mean the same thing. But Unitarian Universalist congregations know the power of another kind of spiritual community - the power of a shared journey of seekers, where differences of opinion stimulate us and add to our understanding.

Many people have never felt this sort of excitement. They assume that if you're on a personal quest, you are on your own. So they stay home and watch PBS and reflect on the nature of existence in the splendid isolation of a well-padded armchair. But humans tend to grow best when they are embedded in a community that stimulates them, supports them, challenges them, and loves them. This is good news that we need to share with the world.

I see tremendous potential for deepening our connections with each other. For example, our women's group will meet after the service today. This is a chance for women to be open and real, to get to know each other, and I hope all participants will take responsibility for making the level of communication genuine and satisfying. And there is some interest now in a Mission Peak men's group. Again, a fine opportunity to deepen community.

If MPUUC were nothing but a good place to explore the great questions of life, that would be more than enough. But our congregation also affirms the values expressed in our Seven Principles, values that challenge us to become better people. We encourage people to reach out to the sacred silence, listening for messages of wisdom and healing, and to reach out to a caring community, a community in which, as the Unitarian Francis David said 500 years ago, "we do not have to think alike to love alike." We are creating a sort of virtual village that draws its power from the dynamic, restless journey of search and discovery, a spiritual village that helps us seek the sacred and better the world.

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