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Spirit, Law, and Covenant – 12/4/2016

In the year 325, an ecumenical council of bishops in the early Christian church was convened by the Roman emperor Constantine in the city of Nicaea, in what is today North West Turkey. This First Council of Nicaea was a crucial organizational meeting in the history of the early church, and it’s most famous product is probably the Nicaean Creed, or at least the original version of it. An amended version of that creed, which begins, in English, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible…” has been used in Christian liturgy and practice for nearly 1700 years. Today it is employed in Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, as well as most major Protestant traditions, and is generally considered to articulate ideas essential to Christian belief. It was not in any sense the first creed in human history, and it is not the only creed ever espoused even within the Christian church, but it is the archetype of what a creed is – an example so important that it greatly shapes the definition of the word it is attached to.

Establishing that creed was not the only order of business at Nicaea. In fact, it was part of a larger project attempting to codify doctrine within the Christian movement, specifically around the exact nature and character of Jesus. The overwhelming majority of leaders at the council held that Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father – that somehow the Son was equally as old, equally as unchanging, and equally as much God as the Father – co-eternal, and co-divine. If you’re a student of doctrinal language, you may recognize this as the standing doctrine and official teaching within all of Christian orthodoxy. I would offer that a vast number of faithful, practicing Christians have theologies that differ from this, but there is always a gulf between the official teachings of a faith and the beliefs-in-practice of its membership, especially when those teachings are particularly narrow, or arcane. In any case, this was the side that won out, while on the opposing camp was represented by a Christian leader from Egypt named Arius.

Arius is, in some sense, our theological ancestor. He is sometimes credited as being the first Unitarian. In fact, he held a position that I think most of us would see as only a slightly distinguishable from the orthodox view – agreeing that Jesus was divine, but that God the Father must have come first, and created the Son. Arius and the camp he represented were condemned as heretics at Nicaea; effectively expelled from the church. Arianism became a term for anyone who questioned the orthodox position on the divinity of Christ – all the many and varied shades of Unitarianism included. In fact, the original version of the Nicaean creed ends with several sentences condemning the ideas of Arius’ faction. A small anecdote I feel I can’t ignore three Sundays before Christmas: It is reported in some sources that during the council, one of the members of the soon-to-be-orthodox wing became so offended by the very presence of Arius in the proceedings that he struck him in the face in anger. That zealous bully, who wasn’t content simply to win the argument, or to banish his opponents from the church and set up more than a thousand years of persecution for anyone who might think like them, had to start throwing punches instead. That fellow was Nicholas of Myrna – that is, Saint Nicholas, on whom the modern character of Santa Claus is very loosely based.

I provide this little history lesson to offer one of the many reasons for why we Unitarian Universalists practice a creedless faith – because when people start writing down creeds and making folks recite them, and determining who is acceptable and who is not on the basis of them, it has not gone well for us in the past. As an Association of Congregations – the way in which we organize ourselves – we have agreed to make no creedal test, either for the admission of a congregation to our ranks, or for the entrance of any person into any of our congregations as a member. And yet, we do still make statements about who we are, and what we hold dear, and how we seek to live and work in the world. The distinction between any of these statements and a creed is first that we explicitly refuse to make them compulsory – we acknowledge that they are imperfect, and incomplete, and that embracing them is not a hard-and-fast requirement to be a part of who we are. But there’s also a difference in their content – our theological statements tend to focus not on explicit truth-claims about unseen or unknowable things, but on our values and ideals and how we will put them into practice together. This morning, I’m going to focus on one-such statement that we share in together, every Sunday, as a congregation: our Affirmation of Faith. I’m going to take this line by line, and provide some stories and anecdotes to explicate each:

As we read a bit ago, Love is the Spirit of this Church. A colleague of mine once told me about a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the middle of this country. That congregation had established a tradition, in one Sunday service each year, of celebrating its status as a Welcoming Congregation – committed to actively affirming, welcoming, and including Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer folks. My colleague – a queer woman herself – tried to be both honest and kind when she explained that the service didn’t say much to her. It seemed to be more about celebrating for the straight members of the congregation than for really lifting up the voices of the GLBTQ folks it was ostensibly centered on. But then, one year on that particular Sunday, a guest in the pews stood up in the middle of the proceedings. The visitor apparently didn’t get the memo about what could be expected in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and more to the point, didn’t have the manners to keep their peace or leave. Instead, the guest stood up and called out, “What is this, some kind of gay church?”

That was enough to silence the lay person at the microphone, and there was a brief hush in the sanctuary. Until someone else stood up. A long-time member of the congregation; older, straight, sort of taciturn, with a gruff personality. This is what they said, “Yes. This is a gay church. We have gay people here, and we love them like we love everybody else. If you don’t like that, you can leave. If you want to stay, then sit down.”

The principle that comes first and foremost for who we are as a congregation, how we treat one another, how we seek to treat ourselves, our planet, and all the people we share it with, is love. It is the spirit that suffuses every other element of our community. It is not passive, it is not meek; frequently it is the animating force that stirs us to action, that demands we take a side, intervene, challenge the way things are. Right at the start of his public career as a civil rights activist, during a speech in support of the Montgomery bus boycott, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “…justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”

Second line: And Service is its Law. A few of you have heard me tell a Christmas story from near the beginning of my own ministry, when I served a small, rural congregation in Western New York. I had begun my time there just after serving as a chaplain at the big hospital in the city an hour away, and one day I got a phone call from my former boss. In the chapel at the hospital there was a place where anyone who needed to could write out a prayer on slips of paper. The chaplains gathered up those slips every so often, and read them aloud – all at once – as a way of honoring the intentions and the hopes they expressed, before one of the staff took them home to bury them in her garden. They’d held the prayer reading earlier that day, and gotten one of a sort they very rarely receive. It was a prayer from a mother for her children and family, because Christmas was coming, and she had nothing to give them. And on that slip of paper, was her name and address. She lived in the same little town where my little congregation was.

I could not be in church that Sunday – I was only their part-time minister. But I called up a member of the leadership, and told him the situation; I didn’t give the name, of course, but I asked if he thought the congregation might want to make some response. That was all I could do; I left any decision up to them. What they did, was to take up a special collection that Sunday. The church saw 10-15 people in its pews on a good Sunday. Together they scraped together more money than would have made it into those collection plates in three months time. And so it was that I and the chair of the board, found ourselves waiting in her car the next night, outside the dark, empty house of a stranger, wondering how we were going to get this money to her if she was not home. And then a car pulled up, and the family got out, and nervously, we approached. We explained who we were, and what we were there for. The folks were confused, and then elated. They invited us into their home. The woman who had left that prayer in the hospital chapel began to talk about how we’d be seeing them in our church real soon. And this is what the board chair said to her, in response:

“We’d love to see you, of course. You’re welcome any time. But we’re not here tonight to get you to join us. We’re here because we had a chance to answer someone’s prayer. Thank you for giving us that opportunity.”

Law, at its best, gives form and shape to spirit. In fact, it can be the thing that returns us, again and again, to that spirit, when we would otherwise have lost track and sight of it.

The next line: This is our great covenant: To dwell together in peace. Another story about another congregation, this one out in California. Like most Unitarian Universalist congregations, it has its origins in the Christian tradition, and when it was built a very large, very expensive glass window in the image of the teacher Jesus was put up right at the front, right behind the pulpit, at the very center of the worship life of the congregation. The years wore on, and Unitarians became Unitarian Universalists. The Christian consensus gave way to a blessed diversity of theologies and spiritual paths. And so the congregation thought, perhaps it was time that they considered doing something about that window. There was much discussion and negotiation. A great deal of time and thought was put into it, and finally the congregation held a vote on whether or not they ought to remove the window and seek to sell it or give it away to a museum or some such and replace it with a different, more inclusive image, or simply with clear glass, to let more light into the sanctuary. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of removing that window. That was very clear when it was taken. But what else was clear from the discussion that occurred at that meeting was how dearly and closely held the members of that congregation who did identify as Christian cared about and loved that window. So after the vote had been held, someone approached the microphone from the winning side and asked if they could take another vote. That they would hold the decision to remove the window until such time as the congregation could reach a true consensus; until the side that had lost the vote could be fully reconciled to that outcome, or some new strategy for increasing the inclusivity of their worship space could be found. That motion passed unanimously.

Next line: To seek truth in love. This story comes from a mentor of mine, when she was still serving a congregation. There was a year when the chairship of an important committee fell to a person who it seemed obvious was not up to the task. She was a fine person, a beloved member of the congregation, but she was disorganized and not known for her leadership skills. And at the first meeting that year of this particular committee, everyone else was in attendance, and the chair was late. And my mentor looked around the room, and she could see it on people’s faces that they weren’t excited about the year ahead, and serving alongside this person – who was the only person who had said ‘yes’ when the question was asked, “who will chair this committee?” And so my mentor said this, (I’m going to call the person Jenny, because she needs a name for this story).

“Let’s help Jenny be a real success this year. Let’s make it a point to help her be the best chair that she could possibly be, and to make this committee’s work as successful as it can possibly be. I think she deserves that win.” And that’s what those people did. They were the best followers they could have possibly been, following through an doing everything that was asked of them. The minister mentored Jenny closely over the course of that year, making sure that she kept up with appointments and deadlines. And with help, and with her own hard work, Jenny was the best darn chairperson that that committee could have possibly had.

We often confuse the truth with unkindness. “What do you think of my casserole?” “This casserole is simultaneously lukewarm and slightly burnt. This is an objectively terrible casserole.” But the full truth is only expressed when it is said in love. “I’m grateful you made this casserole for us to eat together.” That’s the truth, if you care about the cook. Jenny had it in her to be a great leader, if other people loved her enough to help her accomplish that.

And finally: And to help one another.

There’s a congregation on Long Island that is so wealthy that the whole of our Association routinely turns to it for financial support. This is not just because they’re in a relatively well-to-do part of the world; their wealth is the direct result of their generosity of spirit as a congregation. The story goes that there was a woman who was very rich and very much alone. She was a widow and had no descendants. She did not belong to any congregation, but she was attended to by a nurse who was a Unitarian, and knew that she was sad, and lonely, and had no one else. So the nurse asked her minister to come and visit this woman who was in her care, even though she had no particular connection to his congregation, and both foolishly and wisely he said, ‘yes.’ As the story was told to me, their meeting did not make any great impression on the minister, he did not spend a great deal of time or emotional energy, he just went and visited and thought that that was that. Until this woman died, and left to that congregation the bulk of her inheritance, which included oil and gas rights for the North Sea so vast that they are still paying dividends today – the basis for the wealth of this otherwise non-descript congregation on Long Island.

Friends, I do not promise you that every time we help each other we are going to get a major windfall of millions and millions of dollars. What I promise you is that every time we help each other it is as worth it as if we had gotten a major windfall of millions and millions of dollars. The words share each Sunday are words only. They are empty and meaningless unless supplied with the actions that give them animating force. Our work together, Sunday and every other day of the week, is to give them that animating force. To breathe life into old language, and to make the world and ourselves better for it.


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