Sermon presented by Rev. Stefanie Etzbach-Dale, Affiliate Minister to the Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society (North Hills, CA), on Sunday, January 18, 2009, to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, AZ
* NOTE: This sermon has been submitted to the Inauguration 2009 Sermons and Orations Project collect of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
To listen to an audio recording of the sermon, click on this link.
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In just over 48 hours, a day after this nation’s celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, we will bear witness to the inauguration of: President Barak Hussein Obama. We will hear the invocation by Pastor Rick Warren, and we will hear our new president’s words of commitment to this country.
In his prior speeches, Obama has made it very clear that he sees this election as not only as a victory by the 52% who voted for him, but as a challenge to provide leadership and unity to the 48%, who did not.
In that simple turn of a phrase he set a tone for this country. A tone of clear intention regarding the kind of relationship he is looking to create with us: a relationship of collaboration, of inclusivity, and of unity within these United States – as opposed to a relationship based upon the continuing habit of clinging to polarized identities of red/blue, liberal/conservative, black/white.
And I can’t help but believe that the selection of Pastor Rick Warren, a topic of great controversy among many of us, is intended as a manifestation of that intention, that covenant, to bring together divergent views. Because, clearly, his choice is in blatant contrast to the historic practice of the “victor” claiming, as a spoil of victory, the right to select a speaker completely “in sync” with his own views – the winning majority views. And from what I’ve been hearing, that change, that break with tradition, feels uncomfortable and scary to many of us.
I also can’t help but wonder, as I get caught up in the excitement, the much-needed-optimism regarding the next four years: shouldn’t we be giving attention to what OUR commitment is to this process? Because after all, aren’t the best commitments, the ones that lead to the most enriching and satisfying experiences, those that are mutual, clearly expressed and frequently affirmed?
Since entering our collective consciousness as a potential answer to the Bush administration, Obama has been asking us every step of the way to welcome change, to restore trust and integrity to government. And a significant aspect of the change he’s been asking us to support has to do with giving up the divisive habit of thinking in terms of “winners and losers”. It has to do with not thinking just in terms of those within the circle of political majority, but of simultaneously welcoming and caring for those outside that circle.
His approach is one directly linked with some of the fundamental values on which this country was founded, and it’s a long time in coming-of-age. Some say: “too long”. Some say that it may be “too late for this country,” that we’re “too deeply mired in habits of defensively aggressive grandiosity.” Some say we’re just “too stuck” in violent habits of entitlement and in civil passivity.
And that remains to be seen: whether it is, in fact, too late. Clearly we have gotten ourselves into some pretty sticky situations, including: tacitly agreeing to give up civil liberties in the name of national security; giving up reasonable economic regulations in the name of free market capitalism; and allowing the silence of our still-in-office President while Gaza burns.
Yes, it’s easy to identify, in hindsight, some of the things that could have/should have been done differently. But I have to believe that it’s not too late for us. I have to believe there is still time enough to embrace this new opportunity to cultivate mutual habits of inclusivity and trust. I have to believe that it’s not too late to articulate them clearly and frequently and loud enough so that they will be heard within each of our communities and across the world.
Now, a moment ago I mentioned that these ideals of mutuality, trust and integrity, were part of the value system upon which this country was founded. Well, they’re also the ideals that have given beauty and strength, personal, political, and social relevance to the liberal religious tradition we share as Unitarian Universalists.
In the 16th century the ideals of toleration, of bringing people together despite their differences of belief, were brought to bear upon the political system of Transylvania, through King John Sigismund, and the Edict of Torda (1568). In the 17th century those ideals came to light on the shores of what came to be known, as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as fugitives of religious oppression articulated their commitment to join together, in a kind of “social experiment” recognized as needed not only for the fulfillment of their responsibility to God and King James, but for their own survival.
That articulation of intention and commitment, of expectation and responsibility, is called the Mayflower Compact. And it is widely recognized as representing a radical change from the way things had been done on the European continent. Most likely it was a welcome change for those directly affected, but it was quite possibly also an uncomfortable or scary one. (Change is often uncomfortable and scary, even when it’s freely initiated.)
The Mayflower Compact is recognized as having “set a tone” for the cooperative governance, of this new city on a hill.” This new experiment in democracy called America; this “opportunity” to heal from the errors of the past and be the best that we can be, ought to be, together.
Having recognized in my own life (sometimes the hard way, sometimes too late) how critical it can be to openly share this kind of mutual commitment, I was excited to hear that this congregation has been actively seeking to do just that. I was impressed to learn from Rev. Diane that you have a history of actively exploring your changing congregational identity and of wanting to set and promote a tone of unity and mutuality; tthat you want to build upon the trust and integrity that is already a part of your shared identity and that you want to collaborate on some specific ways in which you can, as a community of faith, “further cultivate” habits of beauty and strength, personal, political and social relevance. And that one of the ways you want to do that is through the creation and affirmation of a “covenant of right relations”.
That’s what brought me all the way to Tucson, Arizona from Santa Monica, CA this weekend and I am honored to have been invited to accompany you on that journey and inspired by your desire not to wait until hindsight forces action. But to get going while the going’s good. I hope you will all be able to stay for our Creating a Covenant of Right Relations workshop scheduled for this afternoon.
But in the meantime, I’d like to share with you some thoughts and additional reflections on what I feel to be most significant about “covenants.” What are they? What are they NOT? What do they have to do with our principles? And what do they have to do with survival?
Well, let’s start with what Covenants are not. Covenants are not contracts. Contracts tend to be created by one entity, with only some “wiggle-room” for negotiation. Ultimately, the other entity either accepts the terms, or doesn’t and goes elsewhere.
Contracts are also considered legal documents enforceable through a court of law, often with serious consequences if they’re not honored. If nothing else, they become null and void. They’re ripped up and the relationship is over, leaving in its wake a lot of bad feelings, distrust, and a desire to make ever more restrictive contracts in the future.
In contrast, covenants are always created through mutual consent, drawing from the collective values, the collective wisdom, of those who participate in the creation process. Covenants are given shape and meaning through the experiences, the needs and hopes, abilities, intentions, aspirations and expectations of all those who care enough to participate in the process.
And, they’re entered into freely, continually reviewed and revised as needed to ensure that they continue to represent those who, in this way, bind themselves to one another in goodwill.
Covenants are not written in stone: they’re written on our hearts – with erasable ink. They are written with the understanding that we all will, at times, forget what is written there. That we all may, at times, unconsciously or consciously rebel against the covenants we share. Why? Because we’re human.
Because it’s so easy to forget that we don’t, any of us, have all the pieces to the puzzle of life. It’s easy to forget that other people, people who seem radically different from us, people who disagree with us or rub us the wrong way, just may have that missing piece of the puzzle that we need to make sense of this world and our place in it.
Often it feels easier to ignore those people. To tighten or close the circle, so it contains only those most “like” us, whether by virtue of race, class, politics, lifestyle or belief.
And here’s where our Unitarian Universalist values come in – the ones so well articulated in the seven principles we covenant to affirm and promote; the principles that are at this very moment being reviewed and revised to reflect our changing collective understanding of the world and what it takes to live a life of relevance.
Now some people look at those principles and realize that elements of them can be found in many religious traditions. And they’re actually quite simple – not nearly as detailed as other “ethical codes.” The first one is an affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of each person. That seems reasonable and easy enough, right? The concept is reflected in many religious traditions, so it’s not revolutionary. But the cold hard facts of most of our lives, of our congregations and this nation, show that it’s actually a lot harder to live up to this principle than most of us will admit.
The fact is, we need constant reminders of that principle as a guiding truth. If that weren’t the case racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, marriage equality, underfunded schools, overcrowded prisons, the quest for living wages and universal health care would not the controversial issues they are in this country.
And then there’s the fact that on any given day we have personal encounters with people who push our buttons. I can tell you I’ve been known to chant that principle like a mantra during my daily quest to find parking in downtown Santa Monica. After spending 30 minutes driving around the same parking structure, looking for a spot so I can show up to work on time, and finally finding one – when someone swoops in and takes it, I have to grit my teeth and remind myself: they have in inherent worth and dignity!
When I sit down to eat or lie down to sleep and the phone will not stop ringing, with one telemarketer after another disrupting the peace of my home, it’s all I can do to remind myself: they have inherent worth and dignity, they have inherent worth and dignity!
And when I’m contemplating the incompetence of elected officials, for which there have been far too many opportunities, it’s either start chanting: they have inherent worth and dignity, they have inherent worth and dignity, they have inherent worth and dignity – or cry. I’ve been known to do both, simultaneously.
If it weren’t for the fact that, as a Unitarian Universalist, I have covenanted to affirm and promote that principle, I’d be sorely tempted to say or do some ”undignified things”. Things I’d soon enough regret. Things that would contribute to the problem, rather than represent a solution.
And for me, living up to my religious ideals because I freely chose them and am part of a religious tradition that encourages my active engagement in their articulation, is a lot more palatable than living up to similar ideals in the form of “commandments”. Or contracts.
If living up to that principle of “inherent worth and dignity” came automatically, came easily to us, what would that look like?
I can’t help but think that patience and compassion would guide our behaviors. That it would be easier somehow to recognize and celebrate each and every person as a precious part of creation, a “vital contributor” to the “big picture” truth of life, even if that person’s presence or contribution felt foreign or inconvenient or downright rude. Even, if it pushed some buttons.
I can’t help but think we would always be singing “come, come, whoever you are”, the song with which we welcomed one another into this new day. We would be singing it not just in Unitarian Universalist settings but everywhere – inviting one another to share, listening deeply, looking out for and reaching out to those who are absent, and recognizing in their absence, in their silence, a critical loss.
Wouldn’t we also want to hear what Pastor Rick Warren says on the occasion of our President’s inauguration? We might even want to hear what the telemarketer has to say. Or we might at least have compassion for the fact that this is how some people make ends meet.
And we would not tune out or stigmatize or condemn people if they “missed the mark” somehow. We’d get awfully good at offering support and encouraging one another to live up to our highest ideals. We’d get good at communicating healthy boundaries.
And we would not give ourselves over to the paralyzing effects of anger, guilt or shame, the destructive divisiveness of bitter polarization, when we too happen to fall short of the ideal.
Goodwill, I think, would be the order of the day. And with it, I imagine, a great deal more joy!
If we look at our Unitarian Universalist Principles, the ones that reflect our current collective understanding of what it’s going to take to “live a life of relevance” in this ever-changing world, in this world as ripe with opportunity for greed and violence, for oppression and divisiveness, as it is ripe for generosity, peace, equity, and unity – we know that every voice is needed. And we know that the best reality is created by those who show up in goodwill with their pieces of the puzzle – those who care enough to become engaged in the value-driven processes by which everyone’s rights will be protected, everyone’s needs and feelings valued.
And that brings us to the issue of survival. Does it make sense to just keep doing the same old thing without collaborating on “what THING” would best serve the collective good?
Our Unitarian Universalist history says: no, a resounding no. Our history says, and all seven of our shared religious principles point to the fact that: our survival depends upon our collective willingness to clearly articulate who we are as a community. And that means: what we freely offer and what we can expect from one another. And to do it before it’s “too late!
Covenants are what it takes to survive. And beyond that? They are, I believe, what it takes to thrive. Whether that covenant is articulated between individuals joined in spiritual and/or legal marriage, individuals joined together in a community of faith (like this one), or individuals joined through democratic engagement with their own governance.
Among other things, covenanting can actually be a powerful form of spiritual practice: keeping us on our toes, keeping us in relationship, keeping us accountable – reminding us over and over again why we’re here and that we actually have a lot to celebrate, and protect. And, that change doesn’t have to be scary.
I’m looking forward to the inauguration speech this week. I’m looking forward to hearing our new President further articulate what we can expect from his time in office. And I’m interested to find out whether he will include in his speech the kind of call to covenantal action made during another inauguration speech, 48 years ago. The one that voiced the challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
I hope he does! He’s already challenged us along those lines in so many ways. Last week Thursday he asked us to “put good ideas ahead of the old ideological battles, a sense of common purpose above the same narrow partisanship”
I hope he continues to widen the circle of responsibility and accountability; to remind us of the high ideals of this nation. I hope he continues to help us “heal the errors of the past” and calls us to be the best we can be, ought to be, together.
As a people of faith and as participants in this experiment in democracy called America, I urge you to take his call seriously and not just as another piece of “empty rhetoric”.
I encourage you to recognize that the best, most satisfying experiences, are the ones that are the result of mutuality, of unity, and of trust -achieved in good will. Articulating what you’re prepared to offer is a step in the right direction. It’s a big piece of that puzzle called life.
As Unitarian Universalists we now have a real and precious opportunity, as well as a historic mandate, to set and maintain “a tone” of cooperative governance in every area of our lives.
The question is: can we do it? The answer, I believe with every fiber of my being, is: Yes we can! So let’s get going, while the going’s good!
May it be so! Amen
(refers to prophecy found within the Gospel of Matthew, which inspired John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon)
From MLK’s last sermon: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one, directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are, what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am, what I ought to be.” From: Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.
BO Speech of Thursday, 01/08/09