Grounded in Love


The Reverend Lewis A. McGee was born in 1893 and died in 1979.  He was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal tradition, and became a Unitarian minister in 1948.  He helped found the predominantly black Free Religious Fellowship in Chicago.   McGee wrote:

Millions upon millions of people everywhere are …looking for a vital, modern religion with a personal and social imperative.  We may have it!  I think we do!

Our religion is a religion of social concern, a religion of intellectual and ethical integrity, a religion that emphasizes the dynamic conception of history and the scientific world-view, a religion that stresses the dignity and worth of the person as a supreme value and goodwill as the creative force in human relations.  Our religion can and ought to become a beacon from which this kind of faith shines.

How would you capture the essence of Unitarian Universalism?  

Two years ago a group of five women and men was charged with reviewing and suggesting updates to the way we, collectively as the Unitarian Universalist Association, express what Unitarian Universalism represents.  They were charged with looking at the section of the bylaws that includes its purposes as well as the principles and sources, and they have suggested a major revision.  

They wrote:

As Unitarian Universalists, we draw from our heritages of freedom, reason, hope, and courage, building on the foundation of love. Love is the power that holds us together and is at the center of our shared values.  Inseparable from one another, these values are  interdependence, equity, transformation, pluralism, generosity, and justice.  

And they wrote:  We are accountable to one another for doing the work of living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of Love.   

So what’s next?  We’ll hear more about this later in the service.

PART TWO - Letter from the Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the UUA

Our seven Principles and six Sources … were adopted (and codified in the UUA bylaws)  in 1985. They offered a substantial (even radical) change from what preceded them. The 1985 changes came through years of effort by UU women … to push for gender equality and support for women ministers in Unitarian Universalism, and to eliminate sexist language from our bylaws and hymns.

The 1985 bylaws revision of the principles … also made significant language changes that reflected the times. They removed language of God, man, and brotherhood, and added the language of interdependence. They also added sources, reflecting the growing theological diversity shaping our tradition.

…These changes, at the time, brought fierce dissent. But more, they inspired excitement and possibility....

In the mid-2010’s … the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the election of Donald Trump with his racist and misogynist campaign, and urgent calls to confront issues in our own movement, compelled UUs to ask questions about whether our Principles reflected fully who we are and who we need to be.

By the 2017 General Assembly, there were multiple grassroots efforts to change them.  (Some of these came to a vote, and did not pass.)

Discussions of an Eighth Principle were also taking place… The proposed Eighth Principle recognized the need to go beyond aspirational Principles to articulate commitments…..

It was within this context that your UUA Board appointed an Article II Study Commission to integrate these conversations and lead a discernment process for our whole Association about our core values, covenant, and purpose. 

My hope for us as Unitarian Universalists is that we approach this discernment about Article II with openness. May we … listen with our whole hearts and to the fullness and diversity of

SERMON - Grounded in Love

In 1770 John Murray left England a broken man; his wife and young child were dead, and he had been hounded mercilessly for preaching his Universalist convictions that God loves all of creation and its creatures, and that no one is damned to eternal hell.  Murray was one of the founders of the Universalist movement in the country, and the words to the anthem the choir just sang are his words: “Give them not hell, but give them love.” The Universalist side of our tradition affirms the power of love.  

The proposed revisions to our association’s statement of purpose and values say:  “We are accountable to one another for doing the work of living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of Love.”   

“We are accountable to one another for doing the work of living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of Love.”   That might be the most radical part of the proposal.  

What does accountability mean?  

What accountability means to me is that as a congregation,  or more broadly as an association of congregations, we are intentional and active in living our values.  Here, those values compel us to treat one another and our staff with compassion and respect, to honor our differences, to cherish and protect our children, to care for one another when someone experiences hardship or illness.  They compel us to do what we can to combat further harm to our planet, and to work to combat injustice in its many forms, including the dispossession and systemic racism from which we, as members of a historically privileged faith tradition, have materially benefited.  

As individuals, we live our values in different ways.  Some of us demonstrate and engage in political action.  Some support those efforts quietly, and help by keeping the congregation going, sometimes in much less visible ways.   Every one of us brings blessings, and gifts, and love. 

The bylaw review commission asked for and received a lot of input and feedback in arriving at the list of values to which it proposes we should, collectively, be accountable.   I’m going to share them with you.   I invite you to listen, as Susan suggests, with openness, and to take in the spirit of what is proposed.    You will hear echoes of the current principles - they could remind you, if you like, of the handkerchiefs repurposed from Owen’s blanket (The morning’s story was Owen, by Kevin Henkes)

Interdependence. We honor the interdependent web of all existence. We covenant to cherish Earth and all beings by creating and nurturing relationships of care and respect. With humility and reverence, we acknowledge our place in the great web of life, and we work to repair harm and damaged relationships. 

This echoes our current seventh principle.  It is much more strongly written, however, and calls us to action.  I’m thrilled it’s listed first. 

The next value is

Pluralism. We celebrate that we are all sacred beings diverse in culture, experience, and theology. We covenant to learn from one another in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect. 

A friend and colleague sent me a text the other day.  We had an intense conversation about the proposed changes a few weeks ago,  He thinks that 

“We are all sacred beings” is  the new proposed values version of “inherent worth and dignity.”  …  

You might also hear echoes of principle 4, which says we support one another as we engage in our own quests for truth and meaning.  This way of framing it asks us to value, and learn from, one another’s perspectives.   Upholding pluralism as a value, my friend reminds me, calls us to celebrate and protect diversity.  

The next value is 

Justice. We work to be diverse multicultural Beloved Communities where all thrive. We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of systemic oppression. We support the use of inclusive democratic processes to make decisions. 

These sentences capture the work and spirit of the 8th principle, as well as the commitment to democratic process expressed in the current 5th principle.   I want to say something about the word “dismantle.”  I think it is used deliberately, to emphasize and remind us that racism is structural - it has been built into and expressed in laws, policies, practices and propaganda that have disadvantaged and disenfranchised Black people and other minorities since the Europeans began to colonize other parts of the world.   It will take many lifetimes to take those structures apart.    

The next value is:

Transformation. We adapt to the changing world. We covenant to collectively transform and grow spiritually and ethically. Openness to change is fundamental to our Unitarian and Universalist heritages, never complete and never perfect. 

This one expresses a vision of faith community where we covenant to transform and grow spiritually and ethically - there’s an echo of Principle 3, which asks us to support one another’s spiritual growth.

I’ve reflected on transformative changes in this congregation over the past ten or twelve years.   The ways we approach decision-making and conflict have evolved.  We have moved from relying on “reasoned (or not so reasoned) argument and debate” to favoring listening, exploring and sharing feelings and perspectives, giving ourselves time, and trying to be intentional about expressing respect for different points of view.   People have also become more able to express their full selves religiously.   Transformation might be an important value to feature.

The next value is

Generosity. We cultivate a spirit of gratitude and hope. We covenant to freely and compassionately share our faith, presence, and resources. Our generosity connects us to one another in relationships of interdependence and mutuality. 

This value was a surprise that came out of the many listening circles and feedback sessions that the commission members held to get input on their work.  You might want to think of all the ways generosity shows up in congregational life.  

And finally, there is

Equity. We declare that every person has the right to flourish with inherent dignity and worthiness. We covenant to use our time, wisdom, attention, and money to build and sustain fully accessible and inclusive communities.

I still prefer “inherent worth and dignity.”   But equity has been and is a core UU value - one we affirm in our current  principle 2. 

So where does all of this stand?  Why am I sharing it with you again?  Why now?

Our UUAssociation is run democratically, and the decision about whether or not to go forward with these proposed revisions is one that will be made at General Assembly - the association’s annual meeting - this June, in Pittsburgh and online.

As a member congregation we have a right - I would say we have a responsibility - to appoint five delegates to that meeting.   Jessica and I get our own votes, as religious professionals in good standing with our professional associations.

There will be opportunities for General Assembly delegates to recommend amendments to the proposal.  The UUA Board may also make amendments.  

The proposed version must receive a simple majority vote this June to move forward.   It would then go back to congregations for more conversation, and there would be a final vote at the 2024 General Assembly, where it would need to receive a 2/3rd majority vote to be adopted. 

Unitarian Universalism is full of people with strong opinions who love and value words.  No proposal could possibly satisfy any one of us completely.  

I hope that many of you will want to engage in discernment about the changes, and that the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence will be represented by its full contingent of five delegates, voting on our behalf at General Assembly.  No one has to actually go to Pittsburgh.  GA is available online, and there is no charge to attend the parts of the meeting where the proposal will be considered.

LIke Susan Frederick-Gray,  I too hope that we enter into these discernment conversations with a spirit of openness and curiosity, and that we listen with our whole hearts and to the fullness and diversity of voices among us.

Over the month or two so we will schedule opportunities for people to share their thoughts and feelings, once they have had time to read and digest the entire proposal.   If you’d like to ask questions today, I’ll be here for a while after the service, and will be happy to answer as best I can.  We’ll use the wireless microphone and anyone on Zoom can join us in the discussion breakout room - or go to a breakout room for social hour.  

Here is what I see in the revision proposal:   Most the ideas and values in the current seven principles are present in it.  

It places a greater emphasis on relationship and covenant, 

It calls us to address racism and other forms of systemic oppression, and speaks more strongly about caring for our planet. It asks that we affirm that we are accountable to one another for living our values.  And it affirms that love is at the heart of who we are and what we do.

voices in our community.  May the process itself deepen our understanding of and commitment to our faith.