Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning
Let’s get right down to today’s question. Can you be two places at once?
Let’s say, for discussion, it is 10:40 a.m. EDT on Sunday, October 22. If you are here at this UU congregation’s service, can you also be in New York City at brunch? Or a few years ago my Dad had two grandsons graduate the same day – one in Missouri and one in NH – at the same time of day. Could he attend both ceremonies?
This is not a trick question. Based on my understanding of basic physics, being two places at once, in this literal and technical way – “No, you can’t be two places at once.”
How about this – You are at home in Easton and you’re talking by phone to someone who still lives in your hometown. The friend tells you that just yesterday she was driving by the high school and thought of you. She goes on, “Do you remember when it rained cats and dogs at the Memorial Day parade on Main St. our junior year and the whole band ran with our instruments into the hairdressers?”
My guess is sitting in Easton you were transported head and heart to your hometown – to Main St. At that moment, are you two places at once?
How about two people at the same party doing the recap: “Great party last night. I loved hearing the 70s music all evening – and loved those desserts.” The partner’s response. “They had music? They had desserts? I spent the whole night outside on the porch catching up with our former neighbor Mark.” Was this couple in one place or two?
Can you be two places at once?
I think our survival as human race depends upon us be able to do so. Unitarian Universalism calls us to be able to hold at least two truths at once. In this spirit I hope we learn to answer the question: ‘Can you be two places at once?’ with a clear, “Yes, of course. My faith calls me to be in at least two places at once.”
Our fourth UU principle calls us to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Members are invited to do their own homework and reflect upon what grounds them. If you do your search, and you do yours, and I do mine, we won’t come up with the same understanding of the world. Not surprising. This is UU 101. People worshiping together and doing church together will define their own spirituality differently than the person next to them.
The essence of this principle has been at the foundation of our faith tradition since the Unitarians and Universalists since merged back in 1961. It has guided the respective faiths for centuries. And different understandings are what happen when beliefs are grounded in personal experience and reason.
There is lots of attention given to the individual search. Of late, there has been focus on the importance of respecting and seeking to understand one another’s search and our respective conclusions. It’s easy to hear the results of our own search as ‘the right answer.’
Yet, that tendency – If through my own search I find my truth(s) – and I get there with care and diligence, aren’t my conclusions basically right – more right than yours? Even if I’m quiet, it’s hard to not at least internally defend my perspectives – right is right, isn’t it?
And there can be costs to this.
In a recent book ‘turning point’ essays on a New Unitarian Universalism, Rev. Rebekah Montgomery (who has preached here this summer) tells of her friend, who was raised in a strongly humanist Unitarian Universalist congregation. Rebekah shares,
“He confided in me that as a young person singing in the high school and college choir he couldn’t bring himself to even sing the word God or Jesus, and he struggled with the reality that UU theists and Christians are part of our living tradition. As such, he found it challenging to make friends who followed a spiritual path different from his and would confront UU theists as being irrational and simpleminded. He confessed to me one day that he was unkind and even cruel. At times, over coffee after Sunday services, he would dismiss and insult others. With tears streaming down his face, he came to realize that he was no different those with racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic beliefs. My dear friend…faced that his inability to hold in his precious keeping the inherent worth and dignity of all people was ultimately destroying his spiritual identity as a Unitarian Universalist. ”
Can we keep the circle wide? If we’re not careful we can use the principle encouraging a free and responsible search to narrow our own understandings, rather to help us connect with others and go deeper. We widen the circle when we keep humility in the mix.
Can we be in two places at once? Can we hold multiple perspectives? It’s who we say we are. We love this principle – the free and responsible search. It’s often how we explain our faith to others – we’re the ‘free church’ we say, and note, ‘and here’s what is so cool about that…’
During the Berry Street lecture in 2012, Rev. Fred Muir, the longstanding minister at UU Annapolis, offered cautions about how we tout our banner for the free and responsible search. First, he noted our individualism (which we encourage) is in tension with the sense of a community identity. Might our focus on self actually weaken our abilities to bond and act together as community?
Second, he finds UUs may be a bit ‘holier than thou’ declaring our open free faith the best of faiths. Muir wonders, did we create our own dogma? Did we shift from valuing diversity and celebrating differences to the putting the demands of celebrating individual rights on a pedestal?
Do we UUs have religion ‘right’ and others have it ‘wrong’? UUs wouldn’t say that, at least not aloud.
Muir asks, do we think we are uniquely unique? Might we say UU is a faith shaped by “perceptions, ideas, intuitions, and ambitions which posits among other things that [our way of religion] is uniquely virtuous, uniquely powerful, uniquely destined to accomplish great things, and thus uniquely authorized to act in ways UUs would object if done by other [ways of faith]. He reminds us, “We must stay conscious how we explain, defend, or share, lest we come across as elitist, insulting, degrading, isolating, or even humiliating to others.”
Unitarian Universalism can inspire us (not my words) to ‘love the heck out of this world.’ If this is a goal, we need to be aware of the vibe we send out.
An antidote to the risk of thinking we’re exceptional, in my view, is to practice being in two places at once, and to claim the power that comes when we do this.
In part being in two places at once is a call to empathy. To step out of our experience and try, the best we can, to imagine life through the eyes of another – the ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ kind of reality check. With empathy can come humility – good start.
Yet I think we are called beyond empathy. How we engage around a ‘free and responsible search for truth and meaning’ affects our collective and personal responses to a world that is diverse. What if we hear ‘free and responsible search’ as less about us as individuals, and more about the possibilities of embracing a pluralistic world view where we strive for Beloved Community – a community of fairness and accountability?
What’s at the heart of such pluralism? Muir finds pluralism includes respect for different theologies and spiritualties – including those we’re personally rejected, positive relationships between diverse communities in your congregation (yes, right here right now, there are varying views in this congregation) and a commitment to a common aspiration and vision.
Our times call us to deep pluralism and Muir reminds us,
“The bridge of pluralism will not drop out of the sky or appear due to magical thinking; relationships are built by dedicated people from the ground up. We must engage each other, tell our stories to each other; we must want to talk to each other. As a community of faith we are diverse. Now we must build a bridge from the individualism …to the pluralism of Beloved Community. ….This is hard work. People like to associate with those who look, think, and behave the same as them, who share the same political, musical and social values. If we wish to achieve pluralism, we need to go out of our way to engage with others.”
I think it takes courage to engage across lines. We can practice here – being intentional about sharing what we care most about, how we’ve reached our truth, and then listening to others.
A few years ago in businesses and churches there was a buzz about moving from “either/or” to “both/and” thinking. The phrase is a bit dated, but for me is often a good reminder. Whenever we drift to seeing life as binary choices, or zero sum games, i.e. we make it ‘either/or’ – at that point we drive a wedge. We forget to stand in two places – to remember our perspective is but one perspective. Your truth can be and my truth can be. “Both/And”
Can you hear and not judge and listen? Can you not be working out who is right, but to start with the assumption that we each have come to valid conclusions. Period. Not ignoring reason, but trusting in multiple experiences, multiple gifts?
Rev. Montgomery, the military chaplain we talked of earlier, described her work as a military chaplain: “I support and serve Jewish, Pagan, Christian, Humanist, Buddhist, Hindu, Native, Sikh, aetheist and agnostic service members equally…Service members seek out chaplains to wrestle with faith and life questions, and while we may not share their faith, we take time to understand and sympathize with their struggles and problems. We provide them with resources to sustain their spiritual lives and engage in thoughtful reflection…Suspending judgement in our faith tradition means affirming the importance of radical love and acceptance as the ultimate expression of how to live together in community.”
We’re called to be in two places at once. To not debate and defend, but to love and share. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning can open doors, open the circle and help us respect to the world.
Rev. Paige Getty sees it is a privilege to be free and seek truth, noting,
“This privilege calls us not to be isolated and self-centered, believing that our single perspective trumps all others, but rather to be humble, to be open to the great mysteries of truth and meaning that life offers. And those mysteries may speak to us through our own intuition and experience—but also through tradition, community, conflict, nature, and relationships.
I offer this sermon, a day after our congregation’s leadership retreat. We sat together yesterday for over 5 hours – sharing personal stories and the stories of this congregation. As our day proceeded we ‘boarded’ the congregational joys and sorrows spanning almost 60 years. We looked at challenges and possibilities of the next era and did so from our different perspectives. It took some time to consider the ‘whys’ of our differing views, and from there we wondered how to inspire the hopes and dreams of the congregation. A day which was less about clarity, and more about making time to hear one another.
We create this space to live amongst our differences. In our earlier reading, ‘Brave Space’ (author Micky ScottBey Jones) we hear we do so because,
…“We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know,
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
But it will be our brave space together,
And we will work in it
side by side.”
May our principle encouraging a free and responsible search for truth and meaning be a path toward love – a path toward understanding.
May It Be So