Sermon delivered at Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church on 1 November 2009.
Love is the Doctrine by Rev. Fred L Hammond
We say this covenant every week. “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.” What does this mean to us as we close out the first decade of the 21st century? What does this mean to us as we close out the first year of a new presidency? What does this mean to us as we debate and argue over health care reform, equal rights for gays, the escalating war in Afghanistan, bailouts for the oligarchic financial system, and the dismantling of agencies that successfully advocate for the poor and the oppressed?
What does this mean—indeed? I read a lecture by one of the pillars of our faith, Alice Blair Wesley, and these two sentences popped out at me, “What ought the lay members of a liberal free church understand our kind of church to be about, now, in our time?” She answers, “Strong, effective lively liberal churches, sometimes capable of altering positively the direction of their whole society, will be those liberal churches whose lay members can say clearly, individually and collectively, what are their own most important loyalties, as church members.”
Their most important loyalties. It is difficult to articulate this as church members. We have so many different loyalties, even within a congregation of our number, our loyalties are varied. And to then place it on a denominational level, what are our loyalties then? It is hard to encompass the scope of it all. And harder still to understand how we could be on opposite sides of an issue.
Yet, we do not dictate or demand uniformity of belief in our congregations. We do not say to a potential member, if you are not in 100% agreement with us on this or that issue, this or that doctrine, then you cannot be a member here. We strive, sometimes successfully, to let those differences fade into the background as we seek to live our covenant. And that brings us back to the question, what are our loyalties as a church? What do we serve when we come together on Sunday mornings? To what ends are we serving when we go back to our weekly schedules?
“Love is the Doctrine of this Church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine—Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.”
If this covenant is indeed where our loyalties lie individually and collectively as a church, then how does this play out in our daily lives? According to Random House Dictionary a sacrament is “a visible sign of an inward grace; something regarded as possessing a sacred character or mysterious significance; an oath; a solemn pledge.” So when we state that the quest of truth is its sacrament, it means that we visibly, solemnly seek truth as an act of love. We recognize that this love has a mysterious significance to us, that truth might remain elusive to us or that we might only see glimpses of an unfolding reality. But to seek truth as an act of love opens us up to the possibilities of transforming our ideas, our bigotries, and our biases for something more inclusive, something more embracing in the other.
To love our neighbor as we love ourselves is not an easy task to do. We do not always love ourselves in the fullness that love has to offer us. We sometimes carry within our beings the scars of abuse; either familial or societal, or the scars of oppression; either internal or external phobias that hold us down from our potential. And so it is hard to sometimes love someone else when we do not love ourselves very much. And as we vow to seek truth as a sacrament of that love, it is sometimes difficult for us know how that love should manifest in our midst. But that is what we seek to do as we honor and uphold Love as our doctrine.
Service is its prayer; service is love’s prayer. How are we in service to one another? How is that a prayer? Here prayer takes on a much larger meaning than just a desire for something to happen. For example, it is more than just asking the powers of the universe to restore to health a friend who is ill. It is asking and acting together. It is thought and action combined. Service is action. Prayer is the desire for the difference to be made in love. It is doing what is needed to help that friend recover their health, and what that may be is myriad of possibilities. Service is relational. It is transactional. It is transformational.
It is one thing to ask for equal rights for sexual minorities. It is another to ask and to combine it with service. Opening the doors of the church so that PFLAG can meet here to offer support to families of gay children is service as a prayer. Opening the doors of the church so teens have a safe place to gather and express themselves in discussion, music, and poetry is service as a prayer. The prayer is that gays would find acceptance in our community. The prayer is that our teens will find avenues where they can develop into their full potential as loving compassionate adults. The answers to these prayers begin with the opening of our doors.
The common goals of this questing for sacramental truth and service as prayer are to dwell in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need. To dwell in peace does not mean silence. Peace does not necessarily mean tranquility. Peace is a state of being that is assured that all is well even when the earth is quaking beneath us. To dwell in peace is an assurance that regardless of what you or someone else is going through that you are not alone but in covenanted community.
When the Unitarian Universalist congregations in New Orleans and the Mississippi coast were destroyed by the effects of Katrina, as devastating and heartbreaking as that was for them personally, there was peace that held them knowing that they were not abandoned by their denomination. People from across the country came into their communities to help them rebuild and are continuing to help them rebuild is the proof of that assurance. There is peace that they will survive.
When the news of the Knoxville shooting at the Unitarian Universalist congregation occurred, as painful and heart wrenching as that event was, there was a peace that assured them they were not alone in their grief. The community congregations regardless of doctrinal differences poured out their hearts to the members of this congregation. And so did members of Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country, some by offering their skills in trauma counseling and others in their cards and notes and money for the surviving families.
And here in Laurel when ICE agents raided Howard Industries and arrested 600 plus workers on suspect that they may have been undocumented. Some of them were some of them weren’t. There was an assurance of peace to those families by members of this congregation by dropping off food supplies to the families that suddenly lost their income. And there was an offer of peace when I stood with them in prayerful vigil, the only local clergy person, when they sought for their personal affects and final paychecks. I was moved at how grateful these families were that someone, who represented to them a loving presence of the church, was there to stand in witness of their plight. To dwell in peace does not always mean tranquility but it does mean assurance of a supporting presence.
To seek knowledge in freedom. It may seem to be an odd thing to have this as a goal of this covenant but it is essential, for without it we have coercion, manipulation and propaganda. This is perhaps more important for us today. We have in this country a movement that seeks to shape the knowledge that is available. It will take congregations like ours to recommit to this ideal that knowledge needs to be sought in freedom to ensure that our nation remains free.
There is a resurgence of McCarthyism in our nation. This is being defined as “the reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks on the character or patriotism of political adversaries”. We are seeing it through the irresponsible journalism of the Fox network. It is one thing for a newspaper or television to have a conservative slant but it is another when the newspaper or television begins to use their resources to create the news they wish to cover. When I was studying journalism in my undergraduate work, the number one rule in journalism was to report the news, not become the news. Fox News has in its manipulation of information restricted the freedom needed to find knowledge and their efforts have made them the news.
Fox news is a source and one of the primary sponsors for the tea party protests that have occurred this past year. These protests are based in falsehoods and misinformation propagated by Fox News. They have grossly overcovered these events to give the appearance that they were larger than they really were. For example, they gave on site coverage for a protest that no one was still in attendance. And when another protest march was taking place in Washington, the National Equality March, a group that Fox news does not support, Fox did not cover it themselves and downplayed the attendance to a mere 70K which was the number allegedly in attendance at their teaparty protest the week before. Every other news network reported that upwards to over 200K people being in attendance.
But in case I be accused of mud-slinging with bias, let me add that the other news networks are not innocent in their manipulation of the news or their hindering of conveying knowledge. They have taken a back seat when misinformation is spouted on their networks. They do not do the fact checking that is needed when someone with an agenda, be it liberal or conservative, spouts unsubstantiated figures as if they are factual. All of the news networks have failed their mission in reporting accurate news and instead are reporting opinions about the news. Opinons that have one purpose and one purpose only and that is to divert attention away from an open and honest debate to one that is simply divisive. The health care reform debate is just one example where the news networks have failed in informing the American public the facts of what true reform will mean to the average American.
These words in our covenant are not simply nice words to say. They have meaning in today’s climate of retrograde politics. And these words could potentially mean risking our freedoms to support them like they did in the McCarthy era.
To serve the human need. James Luther Adams once said the purpose of church was to practice being human. Church should be a place where our humanity is held in the safety of the sheltering arms of the congregation. It is also a place where we can begin to serve the human need. In our congregations regardless of size there is someone who is in need of a hug, a listening ear, or a word of encouragement. There is someone in our congregations that need to be seen for who they are and not who they are forced to be in the world outside these doors.
Yes, the human need exists beyond these doors and we have already mentioned how we have made a difference and are going to be making difference in these lives. But for this one moment, take a look around you and see who is here in this room right now. This is where we begin to serve the human need. Right here, right now.
To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine—
We affirm in our principles that we are all part of the interconnected web. Many have come to believe that this means all of creation, not just humanity. And so all souls has an expanded meaning of all creation growing into harmony with the Divine. The Divine can be seen as not just a godforce but also as a lifeforce, a creative force that when we are in harmony with it allows creation to fulfill its fullest potential.
Thus do we covenant with each other and with God. Thus do we promise, pledge, vow, to be our highest loyalty as individuals and collectively as members. And when we fail, as surely we will, we will revisit these words and begin again to love, to seek truth as love’s sacrament, and service as love’s prayer. Blessed Be.
Alice Blair Wesley, Our Covenant: The 2000-01 Minns Lectures
. Lecture 1: Love is the Doctrine of this Church
2002 Meadville Lombard Press