Membership Sunday, Autumn 2013

Membership Sunday  A sermon by Rev. David M Bryce

This is the time of the Indian festival of Diwali or Deepavali.

In the Hindu tradition, Diwali has multiple meanings depending upon where in India one is.  It is the New Year festival but also represents the victory of light over darkness and the return of Rama after having defeated Ravana and rescued Sita.

In the Jain tradition, it represents the liberation of their great sage Mahavira, when he escaped from the cycle, of birth, death and rebirth.

And this week, either Monday or Tuesday, depending upon when the moon officially changes its phase, is beginning of the month of Muharram, the New Year, and is also the commemoration of the Hijra or Hegira, when Mohamed left Mecca to journey to Medina where he became the leader of the community; this is reckoned within Islam as the official beginning of the Muslim Community.

Today’s sermon was intended to include the ceremony of welcoming new members into our congregation, however, the majority of those new members could not be here today, so in consultation with the Membership committee on this past Monday it was agreed to include them in the New Member celebration that we have in the spring.  That gave your minister an interesting circumstance: what topic to preach on?

At one point I thought of preaching on Change and Surprise; but I decided to keep the topic of membership, but to preach on that in its broadest sense.

Unitarian Universalism contains within itself a contradiction: it is in part about the individual search for truth and meaning, but it is about engaging in that search within the context of community.

So while we believe in radical individualism when it comes to belief and statements of faith, we also believe in developing and supporting an institution for collective worship, religious education and other activities.  And because we are a religious institution in the Reformation tradition, we also believe in covenant.  It is covenant that holds us together, not creed.

Covenant comes in multiple forms.  There are formal ones like the Principles and Purposes of Unitarian Universalist Association or our First Church In Belmont Vision/Mission statement and our Behavioral Covenant.

The value of these formal covenants is that we can read and acknowledge them, and that in reading them we can remind ourselves who we wish to be as a congregation, as a community.

One of the reasons I “go to church” is to remind myself of the deepest values I hold, to reconnect to that part within me that is the highest and best and to reconnect with the all, with the oneness of everything that transcends time.  You may have different but, I would guess, similar reasons.

In the same way, reminding ourselves of our covenants–whether denominational or congregational–reminds us who we wish to be collectively, as a worshipping community; and so every year in our opening service in September we read them.

Reading our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes reminds us that we are not an isolated congregation; that we are in community and covenant with other UU congregations, that we have a shared history, a shared religious journey and a shared future.  It may even remind us that the intent of such covenants between congregations is that they shall help one another in times of trouble and will hold one another to account if a congregation within the association violates the covenant.  I have not heard of the latter being done during my lifetime, but it is supposed to be what happens.

It reminds us what is most important in our community life;

It reminds us that we are a religious community and not a civic organization;

It reminds us that when we work for social change, we do not do so out of partisan politics, but instead we act based upon our moral and religious values.

It reminds us how we wish to treat one another and be treated.  I expect to be treated with respect, which includes kindness.  People who treat me unkindly are people who do not behave well, do not respect me, and do not follow the basic principles of human interaction.  And, they violate our covenants, both spoken and unspoken.

Those who treat others unkindly violate the inherent worth and dignity of that other person; they ignore

Now, disagreeing with someone is not in and of itself being unkind or a denial of that person’s worth and dignity.  We are entitled to hold different opinions.  And if you say to me that you believe in ghosts and I say that I do not believe in ghosts, my response, in and of itself, is not unkind.  But if I treat you with snide contempt in my voice because you believe in ghosts; or you do the same to me because I do not, that is something different.  We can disagree with love and with respect.

Then there are informal covenants, ones, ways that we “know” we are supposed to treat one another.   These are mostly gained through osmosis, through living our journey with one another.  These are harder to define because they are not written; we just “know”.

Institutions have strengths and weaknesses.  We live in a time when many people do not have faith in or loyalty to institutions.   That is unfortunate as institutions have proven themselves to be valuable.

One of the burdens of community is building a system of coordination that does not block creativity and spontaneous occurrences.   A good institution makes it easy for people to do things, like organize events or join with others for social action or for learning.

However…there times when people should not just jump in and act on their own.

You may have read in the news a little over a year ago about a church in Spain that has a mural painting by 19th century artist.  Included in the mural was a depiction of Jesus.  The paint of the mural had begun to peel and a woman in the congregation took it upon herself to “repair” the damage.  The result was a depiction of Jesus that some have compared to a monkey and others have compared to a hedgehog.

Had the woman checked with others, she would have discovered that the Church had contracted with art restorers to come in and check the mural to see what could be done to stop or even repair the damage.  When we live in community, we need to check with others and coordinate with them before we act.

I do want to broaden the concept of membership beyond just the congregation.

I am a citizen of the town of Waltham, but I am not just a citizen of the town of Waltham;  I am a citizen of the state of Massachusetts, but I am not just a citizen of the state of Massachusetts; I am also a citizen of the United States of America.  That citizenship, my US citizenship, has much more meaning to me than the lesser, more local citizenships.  My “membership” in the United States takes precedence over the others, and my greater loyalty is to the United States not to Waltham or Massachusetts.

As a citizen of each of these, I believe we have responsibilities to and for the other people who live in these.

The United States is a member state of the United Nations.  I see myself as a citizen of the world, and am glad we helped to found the United Nations.  I believe that our loyalty ought to be to the world first, and only then to lesser parts of it, like nations.

The UN strives to fulfill one of our Principles and Purposes, our statement of shared religious values: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

That goal is in part a reflection of an understanding which many of us hold that from the perspective of the divine or of the Cosmos, we are one family, one race, one people; all are siblings. Whether framed as all of being children of God, children of the Goddess, or children of the universe the point is that we are all siblings and we have responsibilites to and for one another.

Today the United Nations, for all of its weaknesses, is the representative world body.

Perhaps the greatest failing of the UN is that the member states have refused to yield any level of sovereignty to it.

I find this reminiscent of the colonies on the east coast of North America who cooperated together in their rebellion against the British but who then jealously guarded their independent status and sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation until they realized that this just did not work, and so they joined together under the Constitution, which created a single nation.  A similar debate is happening in Europe today between those who want a strengthened European Union and those who are jealous of their local sovereignty.

Localism is the bane of humanity.  In its worst aspect it leads to war between nations or to civil wars within nations.  Our first loyalty ought to be to the whole, to the greater part.

The United Nations works to aid refugees, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to keep wars from happening, to end wars that are taking place and to promote human rights around the world.

The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, which is linked to the Unitarian Universalist Association, represents our values at the UN.  Each year it has an annual gathering called the Intergenerational Spring Seminar, and this year’s theme was Sex, Love, and Violence: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in a Globalized World.

There is before the General Assembly of the United Nations a declaration regarding rights for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgendered and Queer people. It was presented by the Government of Argentina, but it has yet to be voted upon

In 2012, the Social, Humanitarian Cultural Affairs Committee of the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, the first time such a resolution included gender identity in the list of discriminatory reasons for executions.  The UU-UNO led civil society in support of a diplomatic initiative led by the United States which successfully restored sexual orientation to the resolution.

As Unitarian Universalists, we strive to make the world a better place for all. Our first principle affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Around the world, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) people can face discrimination, imprisonment, and even death because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

We are citizens of the world, and we have responsibilities to our siblings.  That begins when we recognize our interconnectedness and interdependence.  Whenever and wherever there is suffering, we are called upon to end it.

We have a global vision that transcends nationalism.  Our true membership is in the global human race.

I urge all of us to keep that vision ever clear and ever paramount.