November 3, 2013 Enlarge the Space of Your Tent Rev Pam Rumancik We are welcoming new people into our church today and it s very exciting.

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1 November 3, 2013 Enlarge the Space of Your Tent Rev Pam Rumancik We are welcoming new people into our church today and it s very exciting. It s kind of like a wedding, where you join because you fall in love, but as you go along you get to learn about the quirks of your new family. So, today we, here at UUCC, are observing Association Sunday. It is a designated day in the church year to talk about what it means to be a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The UUA is an association of congregations. While popularly people refer to the UUA board of trustees, or the administration, as the UUA, they are merely the people we elect & hire to represent the needs and the interests of the association. They have no power or authority outside what is given them by the member churches. Here s just a small example. They tried to designate one Sunday on a certain date, and ask all UU congregations to talk about our Association, but that didn t work. We are a cantankerous collection of churches and the UUA administration got so much push back, so many churches which just refused to participate, that they gave up. They finally said Ok if you might want to tell your members about our association, and if you think it s a good idea to share our history and ideals, and if you have time pick any Sunday you like and call it Association Sunday. So today is Association Sunday here in Chattanooga and I think that while it s a human institution with flaws and challenges, it s one which I am very glad that we are part of. I am grateful for the work they do, grateful for the resources they offer, and grateful for the support I ve gotten from them. In 2010 I received a $20,000 Association Sunday scholarship to help pay for my seminary tuition & this year I received a $5000 grant to pay down my student debt. These come directly out of collections to the UUA like the one we will take today to support the education and training of ministers, to support curriculum development, to support ministers who have been challenged by the harsh winds of fortune and are in need. I am grateful that support is out there. The UUA also offers a whole collection of curricula called Tapestry of Faith which is available, free of charge, to any congregation. It provides really well researched & put together classes for both children and adults all online. We used many of its resources in our own UU101 classes. The UUA provides numerous resources for congregations around hiring ministers, best practices for church governance, trainings, workshops, and facilitation, and providing a visible liberal voice speaking for justice on the national level. To be honest, while I know there are

2 many critiques of the UUA, being a human institution made up of, well, humans. I think they do a pretty good job. Much of the critique they bear comes from strongly encouraging their churches to live up to the values they say they hold bringing forth programs like Green Sanctuary, Welcoming Congregations, Diversity & ARAOMC Training and so on. They hold in tension an array of over 1000 congregations which span a wide spectrum of theological and cultural perspectives and opinions. Our churches are quite diverse. Some still hold onto our Christian roots, using the lectionary, serving communion, talking about Jesus on a regular basis. Some are so vehemently against the traditional representations of church that they demand to be called fellowships or societies and will react strongly to any mention of the G- word. The spectrum is wide yet all are Unitarian Universalists. We have different experiences, different outlooks, different temperaments, different physiologies, and yet we agree to love alike even as we think differently. This is our heritage our history. We come from people who spent their lives defining themselves outside of societal norms. Both our Universalist and Unitarian heritage feature people who have doubted, who searched, and who insisted on figuring things out their own and creating new paths in the world. It s no wonder we have a rocky relationship with institutionalization. From the very beginning on this continent, our forebears came seeking a home where they could practice their radical beliefs without persecution. Both the Puritans and the Pilgrims left behind institutionalized structures which wanted to dictate their relationship with God. They wanted to be able to trust their own hearts in the matter of faith. They believed that God would best create truth, peace, and justice in this world through a community of people dedicated to listening to the voice and direction of the spirit. This led to the invention of a new form of religious community not based on ancient texts or authoritative dogma or tradition but based solely on being in relationship with one another; in being faithful to love as the guide of their actions. Alice Blair Wesley, a Unitarian Universalist minister and historian tells the story of First Parish in Dedham, Massachusetts. They began as a diverse group of settlers who had similar religious beliefs but who didn t know one another very well. In her book, Our Covenant, she says: In 1637, to get to know each other they set up a series of weekly neighborhood meetings, lovingly to discourse and consult together and prepare for spiritual communion in a church society that (they) we might further be acquainted with the (spiritual) tempers and gifts of one another.

3 In this endeavor they adopted a few simple rules. 1) They met each Thursday and would decide before leaving each meeting what question to discuss the next week. That way people were more apt to share considered thoughts. 2) Each week the host of the house would begin the agreed upon question. Then everyone else could speak by turns. 3) Rule 3 was stated: Here we speak our own understandings or doubts. No Arguing. The record reports that all their reasonings were very peaceable, loving, and tender, much to edification. It sounds a little like our small group ministry doesn t it? This novel way of creating community, brand new for that time, was based on trust in the spirit of love, recognized as the Holy Spirit or Jesus, to guide each member. The folks in Dedham indeed throughout the early settlements - believed truth to be a living thing; not something locked in ancient books or held in the safekeeping of specific individuals. Although understood by individuals, Truth was found in a community of people who believed it would be revealed through deep conversations and dialogue. They trusted in something larger than themselves, and believed the best place to support and access that larger reality was a community of supportive and loving people. These early forbears took the idea of individual accessibility to the holy and wedded it with faith in a community of people to support, encourage, and affirm those private experiences of God. They trusted that being in a covenantal relationship with others would best serve everyone s spiritual development. While we claim many people who had radical ideas about God as our Unitarian & Universalist ancestors, these folks, who understood themselves to be both responsible for their relationship with God and responsible to one another in community, are the ones who most closely molded our vision of what it means to be Unitarian Universalists today. As time went on and the established churches hardened into formulaic understandings of religion, radical thinkers like William Ellory Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson took up the cause and proposing a different understanding of spirit an understanding deeply embedded, incarnate and imminent in all of life and most especially found in the natural world. The transcendentalists thought that the divine spark is differently apprehended by each soul and that personal conscience would always trump institutional teaching and dogma in matters of the holy. Abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker took it one step further. In his discourse, the Transient and Permanent in Christianity, Parker declared that there were universal truths that all people could apprehend, but that the outer forms of those truths changed with each succeeding generation.

4 He claimed that Jesus, the Buddha and Mohamed were more in harmony with each other than 1 st century Christians were to ones in the 15 th century. Each succeeding generation holds on to unimportant details and creates false gods out of what should be mere trappings of truth. In fact Parker claimed that even if Jesus had never been born, the truths he represented of loving your neighbor, turning the other cheek, being in right relationship with the universe would still be truths available to be found. The job of true religion is to continue searching for the deepest and most authentic truths for a particular moment in time. Cynthia Grant Tucker, in her book The Iowa Sisterhood tells of another person who pushed the evolution of religion. Mary Safford lived on the wild frontier of Iowa and changed the landscape of Unitarian ministry in the late 19 th century by seeing the world into which she d been born with fresh eyes - and then inventing new possibilities for being and doing. Taking Theodor Parker as her inspiration and joined by her partner, Eleanor Gordon, she created a new vision of church; one which welcomed everyone and found its call in working to make the world a better place for all. Their favorite scripture verse from Isaiah 54: 2, 6; Enlarge the place of your tent Hold not back, lengthen your cords & strengthen your stakes. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken. They created spaces of learning and community where absolutely everyone was welcome. They did not hold up creedal tests, they ignored the social norms which kept women from preaching, and they took the time to mentor young women and girls into leadership positions. Through their work they formed a society of women known as the Iowa sisterhood which set up over 20 churches throughout Illinois, Minnesota, & Iowa. Mary found solid ground in the power of community to save people. She believed that the free search for truth was as much a real part of the human experience as the law of gravity or as the solar system 1 and that people would evolve, not in solitude but in society. 2 We discover who we are in relationship with one another and this discovering is the highest aim of being human. Contemporary author Judith Butler writes; We are undone by each other. And if we re not, we re missing something. We need to be in relationship, to be changed by one another, in order to grow into our very best selves. Mary Safford understood this relational aspect of the human condition. The purpose of church was not to promote ancient dogma or to force individuals to behave in certain ways. The 1 Tucker, Cynthia Grant, The Iowa Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, (Lincoln: Authors Choice Press, 1990,2000), Ibid.

5 purpose of real church was to provide a platform for people to evolve and become their best selves in relationship with their community. These ancestors, people who have struggled with truth in their time and refused to accept the status quo have bequeathed to us the solid basis of Unitarian Universalism which consists of two tenets; that individuals have the ability, the right, the responsibility to find their own truth, meaning & purpose in the world; and that this is best accomplished in a diverse community which affirms and supports, but which also challenges and stretches, horizons, hearts and minds. This is the basis of our shared practice of covenantal relationship. We covenant, we promise, to walk together, to work together, to serve one another and the world. Many congregations begin their services with a covenantal declaration. My home church in Ohio always begins with the Blake Covenant both in English and Spanish: Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenant; to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. It is a statement of purpose and intent that describes the goal of being in community. Rebecca Parker talked about the beautiful idea of falling into communion with one another. We can be in communion, hold the same values and cherish the same ideals, without having to share the same belief systems. As covenantal beings we are called to respond to the world relationally. Called to respond from love, with love, called to honor the power of love in our lives and in the lives of all those around us. The Unitarian Universalist Association is the larger community in which this church exists. It is a human institution; reflecting all the challenges, struggles and failures that every human institution faces. It may not always attain its goals, but it seeks to offer a wider vision and more diverse resources than would be possible access on our own. The UUA website reads: The work of the UUA is to serve member congregations and support UU institutions bearing witness to our liberal religious faith and bringing our principles to life. Both our churches and our association exist to support individuals in becoming the best person they can be through dialogue and connection. Our responsibility to the UUA is to make certain that the folks working for us do not slowly harden into an institution which declares instead of listens, which leads instead of follows, which is attentive to the desires and hopes of its constituency.

6 Many churches and ministers, in rejecting a relationship with the UUA because of past failures or present difficulties, close themselves off and take an isolationist stance. But this doesn t serve anyone. To keep leadership connected and responsive, we have to stay in the conversation. Each individual UU church is only as powerful as a single unit can be. Together, with over 1000 member churches, the UUA can be a much louder voice for Justice, for intercultural understanding, for human rights, for civil rights, for all those things we care about but cannot battle alone. I believe in Unitarian Universalism because it keeps drawing an ever widening circle. Because it makes space for people who think differently, act differently, see differently; because it asks that every one of us respectfully and open-mindedly work together for the good of our communities and the world. We may not be part of a perfect organization we are a human organization. Full of ideals, dreams, hopes, and deep and abiding hunger for truth and justice. We have our flaws and imperfections, but we also have hearts that can expand and hold the pregnant fullness of universal love. Let us walk together today, enlarging the space of our tent, falling into communion one with another, making our way into a world of immeasurable possibilities. Amen & blessed be.

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