To Love Alike, Sermon February 2015

Last Tuesday evening, I attended a kick off for our newly launching campus ministry.  It was a great beginning. Good turn out. Our conversation was facilitated by our student leaders Kelly and Rosalina, and our Young Adult Coordinator Chris Sharp. We talked about all kinds of things related to our dreams and stories, as well as what we saw as the biggest needs and dilemma of the world today.

Before I heard their responses, I figured they’d say what a lot of the articles I read about milennialls tell me younger adults are concerned about – the environmental crisis. And it did come up.  But more like, of course, yes.

But it wasn’t the strongest or most pressing concern that I noticed emerging as the night went on. The biggest concern was their sense, that before there can be any effective action on climate change – or any other issue we face – we have to deal with the things that keep our world divided, deal with our increasing sense of isolation, the increasing polarization of society, our inability to talk to each other, really talk – and know each other.  And what felt really pressing, was the loneliness that comes, as a result.

Through their words and unspoken gestures, they conveyed their struggle for human connection, for being known; they shared how difficult it is to make and keep real relationships, especially relationships with those who are different or who think you are different.

It was hard, and sad to be with them in the truth of how lonely so many people are. Sometimes I think we get nostalgic about being a student, or young adulthood, and think that it’s easier to make or be friends at that stage, but I was really struck by their comments and how they echo so much of what I hear from people all across the life span. It can be heartbreaking.

But to tell you the truth, in the midst of those sad feelings that night, I mostly left the gathering feeling really excited. I was. I was excited because I realized, we can help with this. We could really help.

We Unitarian Universalists, we the Foothills Unitarian Church, we can help with this. We can help students, and elders and parents and kids and middle aged folks and single people – we have the tools. If this is the world’s deep hunger – and I think they are right – then we have the food! We have the practices and the good news -the sustenance – to feed this need.

After all, we are a community whose center is relationship. And what’s more, in our relationships, we don’t flatten out difference, we celebrate it, we leverage it so that it becomes our strength, rather than a liability. We teach practices of respect, and kindness, and radical hospitality – we make space another’s sense of the holy, even if is not our own. We are guided by a radical love that inspires us to make room in our lives, and in our hearts – for all the many ways of truth, and goodness, and we know that these many ways can be connective rather than destructive. These tools are at the core of who we are!

Going back centuries, this relational ethic is one of our main through-lines. Maybe you’ve heard or even said one of the best statements summarizing this whole idea: we need not think alike, to love alike.

This saying credited to the 16th century Unitarian minister, Francis David.

To understand why what sounds like obscure history – 16th century Transylvanian Unitarianism -matters to us today – directly matters to our capacity to respond to the world’s hunger today – we must start in the imagination. We need to imagine what it would feel like to be willing to risk your life for a theological idea. There are places in the world right now where people risk their lives for an idea about God, but not too often here in the US. Or at least, not directly.

More often, it’s that people are willing to risk their lives for the actions that flow out of a theological idea, but not too often for the ideas themselves.

The two go together, of course – without freedom of ideas, you don’t finally have freedom of action. But in this case, we really are talking about ideas.

An idea, for example, like that the Trinity isn’t true. Our religious forbear Michael Servetus was put to death for circulating that belief in 1553. Imagine, what it would feel like to be willing to risk your life because you just couldn’t keep quiet about that idea.

In 16th century Europe, having non-orthodox ideas was dangerous; trying to persuade others to agree with you, was suicide.

Diversity or freedom of belief wasn’t a value – it was a liability; how could people who did not agree about these things of Ultimate importance live along side one another, work together, call themselves a common people? There was no precedent.

Which is why what happened in a little corner of Eastern Europe in 1568 is so remarkable.

Transylvania at the time was struggling – it was split between the Lutheran and the Calvinist position – about something I swear to you we’d find obscure today but that they felt was life and death. The schism of belief was seriously dividing the country.

And so the King, King Sigismund decided to assemble a council to try to resolve the disagreement. Unfortunately, the council did no good. Both sides dug in further, and the division grew deeper.

In this council, however, one of the debaters caught the attention of the King’s physician,
who happened to hold a whole other heretical position – antitrinitarianism, or what came to be known as Unitarian.

This physician told the King that he should appoint this charismatic preacher, Francis David, to be the court preacher, and the King agreed. Which meant the King’s doctor started to talk to David about Unitarianism, and as he did, David’s own thinking started to evolve…as did his preaching.

It was 1566 when David preached his first Unitarian sermon and pretty soon after that he started publicly debating trinitarians.

The existing divisions between Calvinists and Lutherans became split even further, and the King started to worry once again. And so once again, he called a gathering, this time with David a featured speaker. But at the end of this debate, rather than settling the “official” doctrine, the King decided to issue what became the first state-issued Act of Religious Freedom.

It reads like this:

“In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teachings they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else for his teaching, for faith is the gift of God.”

Every other religious debate before this had ended with one group being declared right,
and the other groups heretics. But in this one, incredibly, they decided it didn’t matter.

They decided that no one should compel anyone else to understand the truth in any particular way.

It was the middle of the 16th century, and in this little country of Transylvania, they decided that it was possible, maybe even better – to walk together as one – regardless of their beliefs. They decided we need not think alike to love alike.

And we’ve been affirming this practice ever since.

We’ve done a really good job, especially, in asserting the first part: that we need not think alike.

From 16th century Transylvania to 21st century America, we have celebrated our freedom to believe many different things, and our freedom to follow our conscience. We say, we are a non-creedal church, a non-dogmatic church.

We have done less well, however, at articulating and claiming our vision for the second half – that we “love alike.” Less well at describing what fills out the absence of creed, or dogma. It’s this via negativa that can leave some people wondering – as one of my friends in seminary asked me about Unitarian Universalism once -if there’s a there there.

My answer to him, and to us today, is that our “There” – is in the second half of the phrase from David – it’s what we mean when we talk about “loving alike.” Our “there” is in our covenant. Don’t worry, I told my friend, covenant gives us plenty of “there” – there – and here. Enough to sustain any of us, for a long, long time. Sustain us, and if we keep at it, transform us.

We are a covenantal tradition.Whereas many people- religious and otherwise -find relationship by way of agreeing on ideas and beliefs, our way of being together relies on our promises for how we will treat each other, and how we promise our care and love for each other in turn will bless the world.

As the Rev. Victoria Safford puts it, “The central question for us is not ‘What do we believe?’ but more, ‘[What are we committed to?] To what larger love, people, principles, values, and dreams shall we be committed? To whom, to what are we accountable?'” Our answers to these questions are what we mean by “loving alike.”

It might seem obvious, but I’ll say it anyway, our loving alike starts with the value that
“we need not think alike to love alike.” It starts with King Sigismund, coming out of a theological debate not with a new declaration of orthodoxy but with an affirmation of religious freedom. And it starts with that willingness to make room for difference, and to rejoice in it, and to be curious rather than defensive about it. To be just as invested in the crazy beautiful practice and truth that serves your neighbor as you are in the language and practices and songs and prayers that serve you.

Recently I was talking with colleagues about a phrase that many churches say about themselves: We welcome all. Many churches say it, but none actually mean it.And this is not actually a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing to have boundaries for who does or doesn’t belong and why within any given community. Clear boundaries are helpful. Even we who seem to be most invested in the widest possible welcome set a line – again, either explicitly or implicitly – for those things that would make someone able or unable to walk together in this church.

One of my colleagues suggested an alternative phrase: “we welcome all who welcome all.”
I like this a lot. I think it gets to the heart of our covenantal way.

Coming together based in loving alike means people who insist everyone agree with their way of thinking or do things in their specific way aren’t ultimately going to feel welcome here. Whatever that way is – whatever their fundamentalist position is. If they insist on it, they just aren’t going to fit in here. Fundamentalist is another thing we are not. Except about not being fundamentalists! As my friend and colleague the Rev. Nori Rost likes to say – you can always have your way, if you have more than one way. It’s a very Unitarian Universalist statement.

To be clear – none of us do any of this perfectly or consistently – our commitment of faith just means we agree that it’s what we want to do. The promises of a covenant are often so big and important we can’t possibly live up to them all the time. That’s part of our way, too. Which means we agree right up front we’re going to need help. We need others to help us shake free of rigidity when it creeps up. And it will. We need a community of people who are different than we are to walk along side us, to hold us accountable – in love – to openness, humility, and to trying out new ways and to lean into discomfort.

And most of all in our loving alike, we agree that forgiveness is vital. It’s hard to stay this open, to grow our hearts like this, and to stay connected across difference – and we know we we’ll be clumsy and even cruel at times.

But in covenant, we continually find ways to begin again.

We find ways, and something greater than we finds ways. Covenants are not just promises between people, after all, but also involve something greater than the people making the promises, something intangible, and sacred. The spirit of love. Life itself. God. As James Luther Adams said, we covenant with that transforming, sustaining creative power that can be conceived of theistically, or atheistically.

Sometimes people ask me – can we just say “agreement,” or “promises,” to describe what I’m calling covenant? You can. I try not to be fundamentalist about this either.

But as you do, be sure not to forget this really important part of covenant that is often not implied when we say “agreement” or “promise.” If you’ve ever found yourself so angry at someone you love that you can’t imagine ever getting over it, and then with time and work and some kind of mysterious grace that makes no sense at all, somehow you do find your way back together – you know exactly what I mean by something at work beyond the human promise-makers. Agreements are fragile, temporary, task-oriented. Covenants are durable, relentless, relationship-oriented, and for these reasons – saving.

I have one more critical thing to add to describe our practice of loving alike, which is – choice. Covenant is never coerced – can’t be – coercion is anti-thetical to covenant. (Sigismund: compelling satisfies no souls) We are faithful to our covenantal promises out of love and loyalty, not requirement. Choice is perpetual. We decide again and again to live out our promises, and to stay faithful to our relationships.

When I officiate at weddings, I like to remind the couple that vows are not about what’s said on that one day, but about the promises that are made and remade every day, and the real gifts of the relationship will be released on the day when the promises have been broken, and you decide freely to stay put and do the necessary work to rebuild and try again. It’s the same here.

Sometimes I think, it would be so much easier if our church could just come up with a list of stuff we had to believe and we memorized it, and then everyone knew who belonged here because we knew we all agreed. It would feel so much more settled and safe – more comfortable. Certainly much easier to describe to our friends.

And yet this church – this settled and safe and easy to describe church, that kind of faith – would not, could not – offer the necessary tools for that moral dilemma I started this sermon describing.

It is precisely our uncomfortable, unsettled, hard to describe covenantal faith –
our not thinking alike but rather loving alike – that can be – will be, if we really believe it and then just as importantly share this good news out in the world – the food for a world starving for connection, the balm for a world aching with isolation and the hope and light for a world yearning for a vision of the many who are also one.

Blessed be, and amen.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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