The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
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Presented October 2, 2016, by Rev. Krista Taves
One year ago this past August, my partner and I with two dear friends went to the St. Louis Federal Courthouse and I became an American citizen, ending a journey involving three visas, one green card, three churches, 12 years and $12,000 dollars. I finally made the promises that are asked of every naturalized citizen: Will you respect the constitution, will you be loyal, and will you stand for this country?
It took me a while to make these promises. Part of my struggle was being able to say truthfully that I was ready to hold myself accountable to this country. As a progressive person living in a conservative area, sometime I found it very difficult to love the country that I lived in. In order to become a citizen, did I have to love everything about the country? What should I do with all the things that I didn't like? Was I ready to own the gap between what this country says it is and what it actually does, because sometimes that gap is pretty painful. I know that every country falls short, but this felt personal because I was actively choosing a country instead of being born into one.
There are a few things that helped me to say yes.
One, was knowing and loving Americans who also struggle with how to love their country, people who love this country, weep for their country, rejoice for it, feel the same dissatisfaction I do and still commit to their country. Many of those Americans are Unitarian Universalists in congregations that I have served.
Our faith tradition's center is covenant, meaning sacred promises. We enter into covenant and stay in covenant with each other in good times and bad. Our churches also fall short of their vision but you stay at the table of community and you support your community because you believe in its higher vision of freedom, compassion, hope, and justice. As a Unitarian Universalist I've learned that communities don't have to be perfect to deserve our loyalty.
And what really pushed the issue for me was the shooting of Michael Brown. As the streets erupted I couldn't participate, as I wanted to because as a non-citizen I did not have the same civil rights. If I was caught in the wrong place, I risked deportation and losing the life my partner and I have built.
So I watched from a distance and I'm really not a "from a distance" kind of person. It is counter to who I am, and also counter my Unitarian Universalist faith, which is not a "from a distance" faith, and by faith I don't mean 'Belief' or 'Superstition.' A good friend of mine and UU minister, Dennis McCarty, writes, "Faith is a life beyond easy words, a life that embodies the high values we proclaim, and the courage to act according to those values." This is not a faith where you touch suffering only if it doesn't get your hands dirty. Our faith invites us into a life beyond ease.
And here were so many brave people walking into danger with their hands, their bodies, their reputations, their spirits and risking everything to proclaim a vision what should be.
If they could fight for this nation, I could join it! On August 7, 2015, the day before the 1st anniversary of Michael Brown's shooting, I promised myself to this nation. That same weekend, thousands of people, including Unitarian Universalists from across the country, converged on St. Louis, pledging to stay in the fight for the long haul, and I joined them. The destination of the last march was the same courthouse where I became a citizen three days earlier. We were met by police tape and law enforcement. Standing there, I felt my first whisperings of being an American citizen, immersed in a long history of resistance.
Today is the second in a seven-part series about Unitarian Universalist theology. Last month, I introduced the concept of the Unitarian Universalist theological house developed by Rev. Rebecca Parker, and almost every month I'll be offering the next installment, going into each of the six aspects of Unitarian Universalist theology. If you missed the first service, a recording of my sermon is on the fellowship website. Today we focus on the foundation of our theology, which focuses on these three questions: What is the nature of humanity? What is the nature of the divine? What is their intended relationship?
About two hundred years ago, William Ellery Channing, one of the founders of American Unitarianism, and Hosea Ballou, one of the founders of American Universalism, both experienced a gap between the political and ethical claims of the new American nation and the state of its collective soul, embedded in Christianity, which was the predominant faith of the fledging nation.
Channing was a minister in the Congregational church and Ballou, son of a Baptist minister, was finding his own way into the ministry. America was about 30 years old, a baby as nations go. Channing, an educated man, part of the Boston upper class, was deeply influenced by the European Enlightenment which valued reason and rationality. He wanted to harmonize the teachings of the Enlightenment with Christianity.
Ballou, who was born into a poor farming family, was, without realizing it, being influenced by the Dissenting Tradition in Britain, a religious uprising which challenged the dominance of the state-sanctioned Episcopal Church.
The predominant Christian theology in America was Calvinist determinism, which proclaimed that God had already decided whether you were going to heaven or hell. Your job was to look for signs that you were one of the elect. Be good, be successful, be fearful of God, study the scriptures, pray a lot, and your fate, sealed when you were born, would be revealed to you.
But this is the thing. The whole premise of the new American nation was based on the right of self-determination through the political practice of democracy. Self-determination meant that you had the power to shape your own life, make your own decisions, and follow your own dreams.
To people like Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing, the Protestant theology of predeterminism didn't match up with the aspirations of their new nation. On the one hand you had a God who had already determined your fate, and in America you determined your own fate.
Channing and Ballou were uncomfortable with this disharmony and they looked at their faith with new eyes and towards new theologies that were in harmony with the political practice of democracy. Channing brought his questions to his Congregationalist Church, hoping to find room in his denomination for a Christian faith that emphasized deep thinking. His was a Christian faith that did not ask one to set aside doubt and questioning. One should never have to set aside one's own self to follow Jesus.
Ballou, from within his Baptist faith, began to question a religion that worked through fear. He did not understand how God was both ultimate love and ultimate punishment. Ballou, using in-depth scriptural analysis, developed a theology in which God, in his grace and power, never let one person remain unreconciled to his all encompassing love. Nothing we could do could separate us from that love.
Both Channing and Ballou understood God not as judge and jury but as friend and advocate. This was a God who approached humanity with generosity and understanding. This God had no need for us to live in fear and yearned for our happiness, fulfillment, and peace.
Both Channing and Ballou shifted how they saw humanity, no longer burdened by and defined through Original Sin. Both of them stripped Christianity of fear and shame - Channing by holding up the human potential to approach God, understand God, and live by Jesus' teachings, Ballou by assuring eternal salvation. And there you have several of the pillars of how we understand Unitarian Universalism today - the pillars of authenticity, generosity, understanding, and unconditional love. They are also the pillars of the American nation.
We know that even early on this country fell short of its ideals. Only white men with property were able to participate. White women were second-class citizens. Blacks were property. And Native people were simply in the way. The same is true of Unitarianism and Universalism.
But for the early 19th century these white Christian liberals were ahead of their time and they planted the seeds of a liberal free faith in the context of this emerging democratic nation. Some have said that both Unitarianism and Universalism were the ultimate American denominations because they integrated the aspirations of the new Republic with a Christianity freed of shame and fear, a Christianity grounded in a deep and abiding belief in the worth and dignity of all humans before God, and that humanity is not in a hierarchical relationship with the ultimate, but rather in a deep and abiding covenantal partnership. This foundational theology of covenantal partnership has remained the grounding for what it means to be Unitarian Universalist today regardless of which religious language we are using at the time - Christian, transcendentalist, humanist, pagan, feminist, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist.
We are made for love. We are committed to love. We belong to that love.
As a congregation, we are embarking on a process of equipping ourselves to become active partners in the third civil rights movement that erupted in Ferguson and has spread through our very anxious nation. The nature of being part of a religion committed to liberation is that we stand with those who suffer most because of the gap between who we say we are and who we actually are. The nature of a covenantal faith grounded in love is that we walk into the gap ready to get our hands dirty, ready to be servants of freedom. The same restlessness that propelled Channing and Ballou to construct a theology grounded in the yearning for harmony and wholeness is propelling us into the painful gap that has defined this nation, and that is the legacy of slavery, that still works its poison through our nation's institutions, its people and its soul.
Beloved Conversations, the program we will begin in January, is about us, together, in covenant, learning more deeply about systemic racism, learning more deeply about how it is perpetuated and strengthened, learning more deeply its daily cost, and then, anchored in our covenantal faith, begin to determine what it will mean for this congregation, with its unique history and character, this congregation that has witnessed to the values of Unitarian Universalism in Quincy for over 175 years, to join in the healing of this nation.
As we begin this process, we are engaging a foundational covenant that has shaped Unitarian Universalism in America from its first breath. We are living our promises.
May the spirit of life be with you and yours, amen and blessed be.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.