Many years ago, an eminent colleague who used to do a lot of guest preaching told me that when she was booked way in advance and didn’t know what she would be preaching about when the time came, she always gave the congregation her go-to sermon title: “For Such a Time as This.” It was perfect. It sounded like the sermon was super solid and very particular. But of course, the title could actually could mean anything, anything at all. Such collegially strategic brilliance stuck in my head and has popped up again now because I actually think our Unitarian Universalist faith is in fact ideal – wait for it – for such a time as this, ideal for such a time as this especially in three ways.
First, there are our seven foundational Unitarian Universalist Principles. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, what?” How is that dry list of bullet points a match for these days which you, yourself, Rev. Liz, said just last week in your sermon, these days are so bizarre and drastic that they’re actually biblical. So for biblical-level times, the solution is the principles?!?! Aren’t you the one who has told us the story at least once from the pulpit about the Unitarian Universalist colleague of yours who talked about how most religions have foundational expressions of yearning or faith – often both together – that their faithful can invoke in the most dire circumstances. But we don’t have that? He made the point that if we’re in a plane plummeting down from the sky, whatever we’re doing, it’s definitely not desperately invoking the seven principles with what might be our very last breaths. Remember that, Rev. Liz? So how the heck can the Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles be the answer to these biblically-drastic times?!
Well, remember I said there were three ways and the Principles are only one of them – well, seven components that comprise one of the three ways. But they are one of the ways. For those of us who could use a reminder, the purposes and principles are:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
At a time when we may be feeling helpless or overwhelmed, the Principles are a tangible set of beliefs that can also be our personal bedrock, our perennial standard whatever the day’s disaster, offering the strength that comes from knowing whatever is being imposed from beyond, it will not shake how we are and who we are and what we do, because these deceptively simple phrases are sacred commitments to us. And now in this isolating time, they also remind us that we are not alone. You are not alone. There are hundreds of others who feel and believe the same, who are with us in spirit, and with us, with you, in the work and the joy, of living these principles into being. If we need something meaningful to do against all the wrong we see piling up right now, return to the Principles and think about what they hold for you. Maybe seek one new thing you can do for one of them or all of them – and do it. Or simply turn to the Principles and reflect on the ways you are already living them well, and remember your power and the impact you have on all those whose lives are interwoven with your own. Or turn to this church, where there are so many ways to live into the Principles, and get involved in one of the many was we live into them together. The Food Pantry. UU the Vote voter registration. Green Sanctuary environmental work. Anti-racism and Black Lives Matter engagement. Small group ministry. The opportunities are many, and there is a way you can be involved that will help you stand against what is getting to you, offering you instead what makes you glad and hopeful and connected and fulfilled. If your plate is full, simply keep being a part of this community, sharing yourself and your gifts when you can, and help us stay strong for these times that require strength. Whatever your own approach, the principles can help. So thank you Principles. In an actual plane, you may not be the answer. But in the plane of this nation in this time, there is always something we can do, and you remind us of our power to act when we are, as it is so easy to be these days, overwhelmed or anxious or furious or despairing.
But – what about our own souls, not just in terms of what we need to do within and around ourselves to counter inherent prejudices and support society’s evolution, but in terms of our own peace, our own personal sustainability, our own lives worth living in terms of joy and not just merit? If we’re all talking about coping strategies and self-care and managing expectations and those parts of navigating the myriad challenges of this time, what does our faith offer us for this? There are many ways our faith believes in feeding the soul, but the one I want to lift up today is our long history of finding inspiration in nature. Thanks to the Unitarian Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Louisa May Alcott, and others (who did not all have three names), the place of nature as a source of solace and renewal, communion with the sacred and spiritual uplift, is enshrined among us. It’s hard to find words to describe what is ultimately indescribable, but the words the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote in 1798 while on a walking tour still come closest to approximating something I too have felt:
—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
- Excerpt from Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798
Nowadays when nature is so challenged, when seas are rising and hurricanes are blowing and our West Coast is burning, and our own skies are hazing over for days with that same smoke blown high across the entire continent, and species are vanishing… nature does not feel like the impervious, eternal force it used to seem to be. It never actually was invulnerable. But it seemed so, and that was as much comforting as it was intimidating. Now we may miss those days when nature seemed to withstand anything, but it’s essential that we better understand our true place in the whole. We are puny. And we are powerful. And we have important changes to make to better reflect those realities and better respect our place in the whole, to reverse our choices and make a better future for this planet – not just our own descendants but all those who call this extraordinary setting home.
And still with all that, with so many frightening changes and vulnerabilities and challenges, nature is here for us. Here in New England, fall is at hand with everything it always brings. The sun is shining, and there is solace to be had when we go out and attend to the great wheel of time. Space is still rolling in countless ways all around us, the light of setting suns and the round ocean and the living air and the blue sky and the motion and the spirit rolling through all things.
I sit outside on my back porch and my fingers are cold in the autumn air. The three black locust trees in the backyard stand tall and winding and beautiful, three graces always right there, different in every season and yet the same, for my grateful eyes to see. Robins have raised two nestfuls of fledglings this summer at that same porch. A hummingbird visited yesterday checking out the hanging petunias that are recovering from caterpillars. The rose tree is putting out her last pink blossoms, so intense they are almost gaudy. The spider plant is enjoying its last days outdoors and the gardenia, always impossible to please, has blown my mind and condescended to put out an immaculate, redolent, bright white flower. The wildflowers and weeds have all gone to seed. Our open windows tell me that a skunk has taken to passing by our yard in the early hours. The geese have left the pond, and other geese have begun to fly overhead in the late afternoons, sometimes so low that between their calls I can hear the sound of their wings in the air. A great horned owl calls on and off through the night, and maybe that owl is the reason I found some short grey fur fallen on the grass in the yard some weeks ago, and why there are fewer squirrels than last spring. A single tree in the back woods has begun to turn its leaves, already some are brilliant scarlet, making me sad and glad all at once.
It is such a basic nourishment to get your mind-and-body self outside for some communion with that motion and spirit that rolls through all things. It will help sustain you. It is not here for you, but it is totally here for you, if you let it be. If you open yourself the way African American poet Evie Shockley writes about in her gorgeous mosaic of a poem “You must walk this lonesome”:
say hello to moon leads you into trees as thick as folk on easter pews dark
but venture through amazing was blind but now fireflies glittering dangling
from evergreens like Christmas oracles soon you meet the riverbank down
by the riverside water bapteases your feet moon bursts back in low yellow
swing low sweet chariot of cheese shines on in the river cup hands and sip
what never saw inside a peace be still mix in your tears moon distills distress
like yours so nobody knows the trouble it causes pull up a log and sit until
your empty is full your straight is wool your death is yule moonshine will do
that barter with you what you got for what you need draw from the river like
it is well with my soul o moon you croon and home you go
Amen, amen, Evie Shockley and thank you for the permission to share your poem this morning.
And this brings me to the third way our faith is ideal for such a time as this – our long-established Unitarian Universalist attitude. We may not all always be wholly grateful for UU attitude, but, for such a time as this, we really can be. So let’s remind ourselves for a moment about UU attitude, about the fact that faith is not just about theology and values, faith is also about attitude. And Unitarianism and Universalism have not only been historically theologically progressive, compassionate and respectful, they have also been very much, ” Oh HELL no!” when confronted with what is outrageous, unjust, profane. When other schools of faith have laid down the law, or governments have laid down the law, and it was unjust, oppressive, persecuting law, our people, our ministers, our theologians, our members and friends in churches and communities have been like, “Yeah, no. HELL no. Absolutely NO. In fact, to the contrary…” and off our theological ancestors went, drawing lines, taking stands, civilly disobedient again and again, even in the face of threat, of coercion, of disregard and disrespect, even in the face of active persecution. Sometimes at great cost, and yes even when it meant ultimate sacrifice. I’m not just talking about the last century when our own Beacon Press published the Pentagon Papers and was then thoroughly audited by the IRS for countless years after. Or when our people risked their lives – and James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo lost theirs – supporting civil rights at Selma. Or when Unitarian Joseph Welch faced down Senator Joe McCarthy, ending his reign of terror with his immortal question: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency sir?”
I’m talking past the last century, as far back as you want to go, to the earliest days of Unitarianism and Universalism coming into existence. Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, an African American Unitarian who spent much of the 1800’s risking her life, touring the country writing and speaking for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and prohibition. English scientist Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen, who lost his home, his laboratory and his church, which were all destroyed in a single day, 1791, by a mob who didn’t like his Unitarian beliefs. He moved to the United States and started over. Transylvanian Unitarian Francis David, born in 1520, who helped establish Unitarianism in Europe and rose to incredible highs as his king’s Unitarian theologian and fell to incredible lows imprisoned for heresy when the next monarch ascended. But he never recanted, and the seeds he sowed then flourish today throughout Hungary and Romania. This is who we have always been, unwilling to back down, uncowed, uncoerced, and that has made all the difference again and again.
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed human beings who had escaped slavery and were now living in free states to be captured and returned South. The act was a sop meant to propitiate the South and preserve the Union. To those ends, they doubled down on slavery and added this abomination to the laws of the land.
Boston Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was already under pressure from people who considered his fiery progressivism, including his abolitionism, too radical. You may remember Theodore Parker, he is the man who first wrote about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. And he certainly played a role in that bending. Despite that considerable pressure already on him, in response to this appalling legislation, Rev. Parker, along with many in his congregation, helped found a Vigilance Committee. They were not just riding on outrage, they used wisdom and care. Even their statement of purpose shows it, so strong and respectful of the personhood of those at risk. They gathered, they wrote, to “protect the colored inhabitants of Boston from any invasion of their rights.”
The Vigilance Committee had both Black and White members. Some Black members of the Committee were themselves people at risk from the legislation. And when agents from the South came, of course, to recapture people who had been enslaved, not only did Vigilance Committee members shelter and protect those at risk, they also actively harassed and thwarted the agents for many weeks, as long as it took, forcing them in the end to return South with nothing, no one, to show for their efforts. This commitment and vision won thousands to the cause. Rev. Parker’s congregation swelled, his writings became read across the country, bringing many more into the fight to end slavery. His words found their way from the thinking and rhetoric of our nation, from Abraham Lincoln all the way to Barack Obama.
No one can be surprised that these unprecedented times are making us anxious or afraid or despairing, sometimes exhausted and yet itchingly urgent in the very same moment. This is not just a marathon, it’s also a roller coaster, a marathon roller coaster – what a concept – with too much plummeting and not enough rising. One First U’er pointed out to me earlier this week, reading the headlines on pretty much any day at all lately inevitably brings us to Dorothy’s Parker’s famous declaration: ‘What fresh hell is this?!’ Except it’s not really a fresh hell, it’s more a horribly-evolving hell. Who knew evolution would be part even of hell?
But all this is why we have to remember our heritage, the immemorial ways of attitude that have shaped our faith, the culture of our faith, this faith we belong to, thank god. Because it has been fashioned and refined, over and over again, in times of turmoil and transformation, times such as this. These days are what our faith was made for, the kind of days in which our faith first took form. We are here not just to be a home for progressive religious seekers, but to stand up in the face of oppression and evil and say “Oh HELL no” – or, if you prefer, “Absolutely NOT” and to engage in courageous, exciting, determined ways to live our faith into the world until it is just and beautiful as it can be, as it will be, as our nation will be because we will not back down until it is so. We share our journeys of seeking and learning, we offer help and love within us and beyond us, and we fight against all that is unjust and hateful. We will work to overcome white supremacy, we will love beyond belief, we will offer ourselves and each other renewal, comfort and communion with the sacred. We will vigorously, relentlessly, creatively and joyfully live our faith. Every time the arc bends toward justice and goodness, as it did with marriage equality, we will celebrate. When the arc bends away from justice or love or hope, we will release our inevitable, time-honored, faithful attitude into the world. This is who we are. This is what we do. For such a time as this. And our history shows us, together, everything is possible. Amen.