THE THIRD PRINCIPLE – ACCEPTANCE AND ENCOURAGEMENT
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, March 11, 2018
This church year, I’ve been preaching a series of eight sermons on the principles that comprise the beginning part of the covenant of the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. There are seven of these principles and one that is being proposed. We haven’t taken them in the order they appear in the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association or in the front of our hymnal. We’ve gone Seven, Five, Six, Four, Eight, and now are ready for Number Three. On the back of your order of service are the lyrics of the “Seven Principles” song written by my mentor’s mentor, the Rev. Tony Larsen, who preached for 42 ½ years standing at the same pulpit in Racine, Wisconsin, as Olympia Brown (1835-1926), who was the first fully ordained woman in American religion to serve a congregation as its called minister. Literally the same piece of furniture as Olympia Brown! Is this song starting to feel familiar to you? Have any of you memorized it? Let’s sing together.
by the Rev. Tony Larsen
Oh I believe in every person’s
worth and dignity
In justice and compassion
I believe in equity
Acceptance of each other
Encouragement to grow
A free and open search for truth
To find the way to go
Affirm the right of conscience
and affirm democracy
The goal of world community
With peace and liberty
Respect the web of nature
Of which we are a part
These are UU Principles
I hold close to my heart
Those are our principles in simplified form. In the words of the song, our third principle is “acceptance of each other/ encouragement to grow.” Or in the formal language of our association, “We covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”
Unlike some of the principles, there is not much difference between the song’s version and our association’s bylaws. The only real difference is that the formal version tells us where: “in our congregations.” This is an interesting point. Only one other principle even mentions our congregations: the Fifth Principle: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” That is, it states as a core value the intention that our congregations be run democratically, but that it is equally a core value that we support the democratic process as the way our larger society rightly should work. We promise to affirm and promote democratic process everywhere. But all the rest of the principles? The congregation is nowhere in those principles except that our congregations are the ones who are making covenantal promises together. The inherent worth and dignity of every person; the interdependent web of all existence; justice, equity and compassion; free and responsible search for truth and meaning; peace, liberty, and justice for all… Unitarian Universalist congregations promise to affirm and promote those things. But that affirmation, that promotion is for the benefit of the larger world, it would seem, not for ourselves.
Even the free and responsible search for truth and meaning is something we affirm and promote more broadly than primarily for and in our congregations. Only the Third Principle is explicitly and only geared to the life of our congregations. “We covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” The Rev. Victoria Ingram, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton, Ontario, points out another way that the Third Principle is unique among the Seven. It is the only one with two distinct elements (acceptance and encouragement). And not just two. Two actions that we promise or affirm and promote, as opposed to values, attitudes, and standards that are affirmed in the other principles.
So what does that mean for us? Whatever it means, it seems it has to do with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro, first and foremost, for example, not with Staunton, Augusta County, and Waynesboro beyond our doors. This is the one thing we promise each other for the benefit of ourselves as a congregation. That’s right. One thing. Everything else we are about is, first and foremost, for the benefit of the world outside our doors. But this one thing is for us.
When we think of our congregation as our refuge from a world that makes us feel that we don’t belong, as a fortress to protect us from the harshness of the world? This is the principle that applies. When we think of church as the place to go to be taken care of, the place to be spiritually nourished? This is the principle that applies. When we think about this Fellowship as the spot where we find what we need for our deep personal and spiritual development? This is the principle that applies. When we want to know what our religious gathering has to offer us? This is the principle that applies. It is the only principle that specifically applies to gathering in community for our own benefit. One principle out of seven – and perhaps soon eight – is all we get specifically to support us as we take care of ourselves rather than the world.
And, yet, even here, this is not a “me” principle, but rather: “Me. In service of you. To build us.” So if there is only one of our principles that goes there, what is it about?
Acceptance of each other in our congregations. How many of you have ever not been accepted in a congregation you attended or of which you were a member? I joke that my wife got the church in our divorce. It is long enough ago that I can say it without bitterness. But the reason it makes sense to me to make that joke is because the congregation that had loved me and helped me and my wife when money was tight and we were having a hard time even feeding our family, that same congregation withdrew its offer of community and love when they found out that I am gay. It often happens in families and neighborhoods and workplaces as well as churches when they learn that there are aspects of their fellow member that they do not understand, that they will not accept.
The history of religion, like the history of human culture and society, is a history where people are ranked, where some belong more than others, where some are not considered to belong at all. In the context of a larger social and spiritual value of the human individual that is expressed for the world in our First Principle – the inherent worth and dignity of every person – it seems to me that the acceptance of each other within our doors is crucial to master.
But what does it mean to accept each other? Is it the same as being nice? Or tolerant? Putting up with each other? Is it radical hospitality like the Arabs in Naomi Shahib Nye’s poem that was our reading after Joys and Sorrows? Is it the formation of community so closely connected that we might honestly say to each other that we need each other to survive?
I think the next phrase may provide the answer: Encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
The kind of mutual, perhaps radical acceptance that the Unitarian Universalist framers of our principles had in mind when they forged and smithed the Third Principle is an acceptance that doesn’t let one’s fellow members and attendees languish in a spiritual dead zone. It is an acceptance that actively encourages others within the congregation not just to survive, not just to seek refuge, but to grow. Spiritually.
In his reflection on our Third Principle, the Rev. Rob Hardies, minister of All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, DC, wrote:
Spiritual growth isn’t about a vertical ascent to heaven but about growth in every dimension at once. It’s spirituality in 3-D. Growth in spirit doesn’t measure one’s proximity to a God above, but rather the spaciousness of one’s own soul—its volume, its capacity, its size.
We need souls that can take in the world in all its complexity and diversity, yet still maintain our integrity. And we need souls that can love and be in relationship with all of this complexity. Instead of fight or flight, we need a spiritual posture of embrace.
Indeed, the great 20th-Century Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies, minister at the same pulpit in Washington, D.C. from 1943 until his death in 1957, taught that religion existed to provide the opportunity to grow a soul.
Now, at this point, I have to acknowledge a bit of skepticism. Here we are talking about spiritual growth and growing a soul – it’s key to one of our core principles, the only principle with an internal focus – and yet, and yet, I know there are plenty of people in Unitarian Universalist congregations and not a few ministers who do not believe in the existence of anything known as spirit or soul. Certainly, some of you do not find those concepts particularly helpful in your life. Some of you may dismiss the ideas outright. Myself, I often say I believe that “soul” is a useful fiction that points to the development of that complex of experiences, encounters, and identities we think of as a human person. Soul is the avatar of our lives, if you will. I see “spirit,” quite literally, as the breath of the body and, figuratively, as the core, the essence, that brings life in the world to an idea, tradition, or practice.
But remember that Unitarian Universalism is not based on all or even most of us believing the same thing but on sharing commitments. A covenant. “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” We don’t have to believe the soul exists or believe all in the same way that the spirit has any scientifically true existence to commit together to encourage each other to grow spiritually. We affirm. We promote. It does not matter that we believe the same. It does not matter whether we believe the same. It only matters that we devote our practice to encouraging each other to develop their spirit, as they understand it. Notice how this principle says nothing of evaluating whether the other sitting next to us has grown spiritually – or how much – or how well. Evaluation is not the covenant we have made. Acceptance and encouragement are our covenant. This we commit to affirm and promote.
As Rob Hardies wrote, “not a vertical ascent to heaven but about growth in every dimension at once.” Some people grow through Zen meditation. Some, through marching on the streets, protesting or demonstrating. Some grow through taking meals to the sick and bereaved. Some of us grow through study and spiritual practice. And most of us grow through a combination of ways. We must beware of the temptation to evaluate the growth of the person next us. Encourage. Accept. “Feed him for three days before asking who he is, where he’s come from, where he’s headed,” as Naomi Shihab Nye wrote. Offer the red brocade pillow to the person next to you rather than taking it for yourself. Encourage. Support.
Ah! Yes! There we have it. Some wise person once said that we best fulfill our own spiritual needs and promote our spiritual growth by tending the physical needs of others.
How shall we grow in our acceptance of each other? Our encouragement of each other to spiritual growth? How can we make this principle ours?
 Collier, Kenneth W. Our Seven Principles in Story and Verse: A Collection for Children and Adults. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997, p. 50.
© 2018 by Rev. Paul Oakley