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Standing on One Foot

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

A sermon contributed by Connie Gibbons, Melbourne Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.


There is a famous story in the Talmud – the central text of Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law and Jewish theology. The story tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. He came to the Rabbi Shammai and said he would accept Judaism only if the rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he was standing on one foot.

Shammai was insulted by this ridiculous request, and chased him out of the house with a ruler. But the man did not give up and went to the Rabbi Hillel. This rabbi accepted the challenge, and said: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary—go and study it!"


What if someone came to you and asked you to explain Unitarian Universalism while you were standing on one foot! What would you say?


It happens, doesn’t it? I often feel uncomfortable saying to a friend, I’m going to church on Sunday. Or, I’m working on a sermon. I can sometimes see them looking at me in a way that says, Oh, Connie is different than I thought. She is religious. She’s a believer. She’s a Christian.


This always bothers me and I find myself well on the defensive. I don’t want to sound defensive, but I also don’t want this person to have a mistaken understanding of me about something that’s important to me. Yes, I consider myself religious, but I’m not a believer and I’m not a Christian.


Wouldn’t it be great if we could just say, I’m a Unitarian-Universalist, and have that person understand all the complexities and nuances and all the joy and beauty of being a UU that we all understand? No such luck, I’m afraid.


So we need to be able to tell someone – briefly – while they stand on one foot or ride up in an elevator with us – what it means to be a UU. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this.


There are actually a few good jokes that try to explain Unitarians.

  • A Christian says to a Unitarian, “I hear you deny the divinity of Christ.” “That’s not true!” said the UU, “We don’t deny the divinity of anyone.”

  • The difference between Universalists and Unitarians: “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn us; Unitarians believe that we are too good to be damned.”

  • A Unitarian Universalist dies, and on the way to the after-life encounters a fork in the road. The left path has a sign “To Heaven” and the right has a sign “To a Discussion about Heaven”. Without pausing, the UU turns right.

  • In a MASH episode, Col Potter rings the pentagon to speak to the head of the army chaplaincy service. When he answers, Potter says, “the General answers his own phone. Must be a Unitarian.”


Before I continue, I would like to acknowledge that for this sermon I’m relying on two pieces of work that were very inspiring and helpful.


Doug Muder wrote a great article in the UU World Magazine in 2010, entitled “Stop the elevator; I’m not done.”

And Rev Jamie Hinson-Reiger, of the UU Church of Indianapolis, gave a wonderful sermon in 2018 called “Love in an elevator”.


Both of these men have given me permission to use their content in my sermon and I am grateful for their gracious responses and their generosity.


Why is it so hard to sum up Unitarian-Universalism? Can’t the UU Association just develop one for everyone to use? It doesn’t seem to work that way. I’ve looked at a lot of examples. And I’ve listed some below, but none of these seems to work perfectly for me.


Is it harder for UUs than for other religions? Before we consider this question, let’s take a look at what other religions do.


Other religions


Defining any religion in one or two sentences is difficult. Each religion has its body of teachings and its traditions, rituals, physical objects. And some have sayings or statements that claim to capture the essence of their beliefs.


Old Testament

  • Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel! The lord is our god, the lord is one!

  • Prophet Micah – He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.


New testament:

  • Matthew quotes Jesus in Chapter 22 when he said the greatest commandments are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

  • Followed by the golden rule (Just like Hillel): Love your neighbour as yourself.”


Buddhism – 4 noble truths. The truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, the truth of the path that frees us from suffering.


Islam – 5 pillars – A bit different, duties that Muslims are required to perform: declaration of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage.


Christian – John 3:16 -- For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.


Apparently, in the US at least, Christians sometimes wave this reference – John 3:16 – as a banner or sign, to enlighten all of us to this simple truth. This is claimed to summarise the whole of the Christian faith. But Rev Hinson-Reiger rightly points out that John 3:16 really only works in a particular context, where the reader or listener already understands much of what is being implied. If you don’t already have an understanding of Christianity, you might be asking, Who is this god character? How does a god have a son? And what’s the connection between believing in him and living forever? And, why would you want to live forever anyway? It really isn’t so clear.


And the four noble truths and the five pillars are not really helpful on their own, without any other explanation. None of these is very clear unless you already understand it. It’s shorthand, not a description for the uninitiated.


So it isn’t easy for any religion to sum up in one sentence. Is it harder for Unitarian-Universalism?


I love Doug Muder’s response. He said, “It’s so hard that I can’t even find a speech I want to steal.” And I agree; it is harder. For two reasons, at least. The first reason is our fourth principle. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning.


We UUs – we’re about the search, not about agreeing on the answer. We agree about a lot, but we don’t agree on the finer points of theology. Hell, most of us don’t even agree on the broader points of theology.


Here’s a great example. In 2003, when Rev. Bill Sinkford was the President of the Unitarian-Universalist Association, he promoted the idea of developing an elevator speech in a UU World magazine column. He talked about why we should have one, but also what his elevator speech was. And this is what he said. “The Unitarian side tells us that there is only one God, one spirit of life, one power of love. The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being. So my version of what Unitarian Universalism stands for is: One God, no one left behind.”


So this is his one-line definition of Unitarian-Universalism: One god, no one left behind. Clear, brief and even catchy – but it certainly doesn’t work for me. It’s not a concept we’ve ever talked about in this Fellowship – to my knowledge. Again, I like what Doug Muder said about it. He said, “I could imagine a religion that focused on such a God, and it might be a fine religion indeed. But I don’t think it’s us.”


So, I think our elevator speech needs to be about the search, not the answer. That’s going to be more complicated.


The second reason is that it goes against our nature. If we all agreed on what Unitarian-Universalism was all about – in one or two sentences -- we might have a creed. And we are a non-credal religion.


There is a wonderful quote from William Ellery Channing – an early 19th century theologian and one of American Unitarianism’s founding fathers. He hated creeds – wrote a letter about creeds. I absolutely love this quote.

Who does not see that human creeds, setting bounds to thought, and telling us where all inquiry must stop, tend to repress the holy zeal for truth, to shut our eyes to new illumination, to hem us within the beaten paths, to arrest that perpetual progress which is the light and glory of an immortal mind?

How great is that? No one writes like that anymore. It kind of sums up Unitarians for me – no one can tell us “where all inquiry must stop”!


Hosea Ballou, one of the founders of American Universalism, addresses this question in a very different way. He said, “If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.” He didn’t seem to hate creeds; just didn’t think they were necessary or as important as our intent and our relationships with one another.


And there is another quote that UUs like very much. “We need not think alike to love alike.” This is often attributed to Francis David, 16th Century Transylvanian Unitarian, but unfortunately that is apparently a complete historical inaccuracy. Still, a nice Unitarian meme.


So, if we don’t think alike, how can we summarise what we are about? I think we can agree that a one-line summary of Unitarian Universalism is not easy. The next question would be – do we need one?


I think Channing would have said no. Here’s another really good quote from Channing.

“It has been the fault of all sects, that they have been too anxious to define their religion. They have labored to circumscribe the infinite.” (“Circumscribe the infinite” Don’t you love this man?? So cool that a minister in the early 1800s would have said this.)


And it’s not in our nature to proselytize. Most of use wouldn’t want to do this. Many of us have been uncomfortable when we have been on the receiving end of someone trying to convince us of the right-ness of their religion. We believe people have a right to their own beliefs, so we aren’t comfortable evangelizing.


So – we feel uncomfortable about trying to sell Unitarianism to others. But perhaps we would feel better if we thought of it as “inviting others in”.


I believe there are people out there who would be happy to find us. Many UU ministers have stories of hearing comments like, “I had no idea this existed” or “Where has this church been” or “I have always felt this way about religion, I didn’t know there was a church for people like me.”


And the other question, do we want Unitarian Universalism to grow? Do we want our fellowship to grow? I do. For a few reasons. As I just mentioned, I think there are people out there who would benefit from joining us if they only knew we were here.


And, I would like to see our fellowship grow, at least to a point where we were a bit more sustainable and had more diversity of ages and perspectives. Greater numbers would mean greater opportunities for new ideas and programs and activities.


So we’re back to how to describe it to the uninitiated. I often find myself starting with what it is not.


It’s a church, but not like a church, church. It’s protestant, but it’s not Christian. It’s not trinitarian. It’s difficult to explain. We don’t have a creed or things you must believe. You can believe what you want to believe.


It’s probably not a great way to start. There are more positive things to say, like how we feel about it:

Amazing fellowship, wonderful people

It makes me happy.

It made my life better, richer.

And my usual line: It makes me a nicer person.


And we do share beliefs and values that we can talk about. Unitarians have always had a strong belief in human goodness and the capacity of love. We believe in the power of reason, of science and education. We believe in human equality and justice. We believe in the value of this life, of all lives, rather than – or at least more than -- the afterlife.


Our fellowship is place where you can believe what you want. But you should also expect to have your beliefs challenged against our core commitment to reason, to freedom, to justice and to love. And this is a place where you can come to be inspired and energised by our collective commitment to these ideas.


I love this quote from Rev Hinson-Reiger’s sermon:

We are first and foremost a free thought tradition. A church where Christians, atheists, Buddhists, pagans, sceptics, Goddess worshippers and Bob… Bob doesn’t know what he believes, he doesn’t even have a word for it, he doesn’t want a word for it, but you’re all sitting side by side, worshipping together and growing and learning from each other and being affirmed by each other and it’s beautiful and we’re supporting each other through laughter and tears and we’re working to build a more beautiful and just world. There is something about that that captures the imagination. There’s something about that that is noble and beautiful.


I am still struggling with my response to what is a Unitarian-Universalist. I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while now, and I still don’t have a good elevator speech. But, my identity as a Unitarian Universalist is not a muddle. My commitment to this Fellowship is not confused. In fact, it’s very strong and clear to me. And it gets stronger all the time.


The beauty of our faith is that we struggle together to try to clarify our beliefs, to strengthen our commitment to reason and justice and love. If no one is telling you where inquiry must stop, well that’s a blessing and a freedom, but it’s also a challenge and a journey. Each of us is in a different place on our journey, but we continue to work through it together.


We have a message that many people want to hear. That there can be a community of deep, ethical and spiritual commitment that inspires, challenges and sustains us. That gives us, not just the freedom, but the responsibility to question and explore and grow, that respects ancient wisdom and modern science and that maintains a commitment to justice and peace.


Let us not be reluctant to share that message, but rather let us widen the circle of our community and invite others in.


May each of us feel the strength and joy that this fellowship brings. And may each of us find the words to express it.


May it be so. Amen

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