Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sermon: "Where Freedom and Responsibility Meet" (Delivered 8-25-13)

Call to Worship
You got to sing when the spirit says sing.
            You have to sing.  You can’t not sing.
            You have to speak up for what you feel is right.
            You have to let the world know your truth.
When the spirit says sing, you got to sing.

You got to dance when the spirit says dance.
            You have to dance.  You can’t not dance.
            Sometimes that means you are dancing to a beat
            That no one else can hear.  And other people will
            Think your dancing is strange.
But when the spirit says dance, you got to dance.

And you got to laugh when the spirit says laugh.
            You laugh and say I’m just being me.
            I’m just being how I’m meant to be.
            Joyfully.  Honestly.
When the spirit says laugh, you got to laugh.

You’ve got to do when the spirit says do.
            You have to.  You can’t not do.
            You have to act on your deepest convictions.
            You have to do what you think it right, even when it’s not easy.
When the spirit says do, you got to do.

There is a spirit of freedom calling us into this place of laughter and song, of dancing and doing.
There is a spirit of freedom calling us to worship together.

Back what feels like a long time ago, when I was the intern minister of a Unitarian Universalist church in suburban Dallas, I was invited by one of that congregation’s small group ministry groups to come along with them as they did their annual day of community service.  (Each of the small groups did a day of service as part of the group’s process of deepening in their relationships.)  This particular group had chosen to do their service at a distribution center that sorted food that came in from canned food drives.  A church or a school or a business would do a canned food drive and then the donated food had to be sorted into boxes of corn, green beans, chicken noodle soup, and so forth.  The members of the group arrived and jumped right in to the work of sorting.  They jumped right in to the work without bothering to listen to the instructions of what they were supposed to do.  The coordinator at the distribution center tried to rein in the group, tried to bring them together so that she could teach them the system that was used to sort the food.  But these instructions fell on deaf ears.  At one point, a member of the group explained to her, “You’ve got to understand, we’re Unitarians.  We don’t really like to follow the rules.  And besides, it seems like we could come up with our own sorting system that works well enough.”  I gazed across the warehouse to another group, a group of Lutherans, who were listening attentively for directions and then later checked with the coordinator to make sure they were following the directions correctly.  That day part of me secretly longed to be a Lutheran.

William Ellery Channing wrote, “I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society, and which does not cower to human opinion:  which refuses to be the slave or tool of the many or of the few, and guards its empire over itself as nobler than the empire of the world.”  These are powerful and inspiring sentiments.  But somehow I think Channing didn’t have the task of sorting canned goods in mind when he wrote it.  Just my gut feeling here.

Back in the first week of August I described the overarching theme that runs through this month of sermons.  That theme was inspired by a provocative quote that I found in an odd little book by David Byrne.  The quote went, “What are currently accepted by an older generation as virtues are revealed, upon closer examination, to be vices…  One may be tempted to laugh at the suggestion that one’s most treasured virtues are indeed sins.”  We defined sin, in the words of Forrest Church, as “anything that divides us: within ourselves; against our neighbor; from the ground of our being, the god of all creation.”

Back in the first week of August I talked about how striving for perfection is often regarded as a treasured virtue worthy of our ambition and how the quest for perfection can often wind up becoming a source of division.  In the second week of August I talked about how being a trusted keeper of secrets may be regarded as a virtue but can actually do more harm than good.  This morning I’m going to talk about how exercising freedom can be a treasured virtue, but how it can also can have a shadow side.

Unitarian Universalist minister Jane Rzepka once authored a piece introducing what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.  The title of the piece was How We Break the Rules.  “I hate to say it,” she writes, “but rule breaking just might be right up our alley.  Maybe it’s not the positive tone we try to strike in describing our religion, but I’m going to say right out loud that Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in a lot of rules that our religious neighbors take for granted.”  She then lists nine rules that UUs break and even challenges the reader to come up with a tenth.  Surely there are rules worth breaking that even she has not considered.

According to Reverend Rzepka, the seventh religious rule that we break is that heresy is bad.  We believe that “heresy can be heroic.”  She mentions that during the late 1960s, the UUA President Dana McLean Greeley met with Pope John XXIII during the Vatican II Council.  Supposedly the Pope, with a twinkle in his eye, told Greeley, “You’ve made a religion out of all our heresies.”

To make just a tiny digression here, there is something about my family that may interest you.  More than a decade ago I received a package in the mail from a relative in Tennessee whom I had never met.  The package contained a book about life in a small town in the south of France during the 1300s.  Lest you think this entirely random, it just so happened that this small town was the center of a heretical movement known as Catharism.  The Cathars were being violently persecuted and an Inquisition was launched to vanquish this heresy.  And, it just so happens that a prominent family in this small town that was helping to support the Cathars happened to have the last name “Belote.”  The letter from my cousin said, “We’ve been attending a Unitarian Universalist church here in Tennessee.  Do you suppose that heresy is genetic?”

The word “heresy” actually means “choice.”  A heretic is one who chooses.  The most popular introductory book to Unitarian Universalism has the title, A Chosen Faith.  Heresy.  Choice.  Freedom.  Rule-breaking.  “I hate to say it, but rule-breaking just may be right up our alley.”  “You’ve got to understand, we’re Unitarians.  We don’t really like to follow the rules.”  How many of you think of yourselves as choosers?  As heretics?  As rule-breakers?  As questioners of authority?  [Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the worshippers raised a hand.]

This past week I began teaching an adult religious education course on Unitarian Universalist identity.  Texts for Deepening Unitarian Universalist Identity.  I began the class by sharing some introductory texts.  One of the texts was Jane Rzepka’s article on How We Break the Rules.  The participants in the class had an extremely positive reaction to this text. 

It is no exaggeration to say that our tradition is replete with grandiose language extolling our free faith.  “I call that mind free…”  The 2004 Commission on Appraisal report on Engaging Our Theological Diversity (p. 155-158) puts it this way, “We agree that the conscience of the individual is the ultimate locus of religious authority… We agree that no one owns the truth, and that each person must be free to search for the truth in a responsible and disciplined way and to choose what to believe based on individual experience and conscience.”

In my office I have a framed poster of a painting that was commissioned by one of our largest UU congregations.  The beautiful painting is a Unitarian Universalist still life, where all of the elements in the painting symbolize aspects of UU identity.  Two of the items in the still life are a miniature statuette of the Statue of Liberty, representing freedom, and a miniature statuette of the scales of justice, representing justice, balance, prudence, and responsibility.  In the painting, these items are in tension with each other.  Freedom is balanced against responsibility and prudence.

When I think of this tension, the image that comes to mind is the can sorting disaster from so many years ago.  I asked others what came to mind when they imagined freedom being out of balance with responsibility.  My wife Anne, who used to work in student services at Rockhurst University, immediately recalled the struggles some first year students face to use the freedoms they’ve been given constructively.  It is not uncommon that a student will decide not to go to any classes but instead play video games all day for a whole semester.  A minister colleague of mine told me that the image that comes to mind is the deregulation of large energy companies and large financial institutions and the catastrophic result of the irresponsibility of those institutions.  A friend of mine with teenagers said that trying to balance freedom and responsibility describes the existential challenge of being a parent to teenagers.  A member of the Worship Team said that for him what comes to mind is the issue of free speech.  Just because you have the freedom to say something doesn’t mean that you should.  As a follow up to my sermon from two weeks ago, I might mention that the news site The Huffington Post decided to ban anonymous comments as a way of encouraging more responsibility in its online community.  I would venture to guess that you could come up with additional examples in your own life, in your families, in your work, in your social networks, or in the larger world where freedom and responsibility are out of balance, and where the result is division: within ourselves, against our neighbors, from the ground of our being, the god of all creation.

Our first hymn this morning was a lively hymn that declares “You’ve got to do when the spirit says do.”  To me, this is a song about freedom, a song about having the freedom to follow that to which you owe your highest allegiance, whether to you that means the Spirit of God, your own inner light, your conscience, your truest self, or what Channing called the free mind.  The hymn describes following the spirit by singing, dancing, and shouting.  At times that’ll mean – if you’re truly following the spirit – singing your own words, stepping on toes, and raising your voice.  But it won’t always mean that.  Other times it will mean blending your voice with the choir, following a partner’s lead, our shouting out encouragement to your companions.  It is a delicate balance, these places where freedom and responsibility meet.  Good luck in your discernment.

Questions for Reflection:
1) In the second to last paragraph of this sermon I listed several examples of times when "freedom" is in tension with "responsibility."  Have you ever experienced this own tension in your own life?

2) In the song "When the Spirit Says Do," what does the word "Spirit" mean to you?

3) David Byrne writes, What are currently accepted by an older generation as virtues are revealed, upon closer examination, to be vices…  One may be tempted to laugh at the suggestion that one’s most treasured virtues are indeed sins.” Can you think of any other virtues that have a shadow side?