This past week has felt very full to me: a funeral service for Lynda Bigl, an amazing Coming of Age Service planned and led by our COA youth and mentors, and a packed evening service where Carrie sang publicly for the first time after her double lung transplant. These very different but powerful services had me reflecting on the meaning of religion and religious community. What follows is the brief sermon I wrote for Sunday's evening service.
According to my colleague, the Rev. Fred Muir, human beings are "...question asking and problem-solving creatures. When we are asking questions and solving problems—and this is being done for a great deal of our time—we are creating meaning. In this sense, we are meaning-making creatures too. And that's what religion seems to be all about: making meaning. We humans thrive on meaning, and when it doesn't exist, we create it. And when we can't create it, when there is no meaning in our life, we get frustrated, shaken, angry, depressed, disillusioned and unhappy. Religion, then, is the response to the feeling—happy, glad, sad, or mad—that arises from the gap (or the lack of one) between expectation and experience: the expectation (or hope) of having meaning to life and the experience (or reality) of missing it." (p. 162 in Heretics Faith: Vocabulary for Religious Liberals).
The word religion comes from the same Latin root as do the words ligament, and rely. Religion then is a re-tying or re-connecting with what binds us together, or that with which we can trust to make meaning. Religion is what ties us across the gap between our reality and experience, versus our expectations and hope. Religion allows us to see the world as it is, to imagine the world as it can be, and to love them both the same.
Because we are a creedless religion, many people outside and within Unitarian Universalism don't see us as one. And if we understand religion only as the acceptance of a set of stated beliefs or as believing in a supernatural god, then we don't qualify. However, Unitarian Universalism is a religion, because we come together to create meaning, to build a bridge between experience and hope—to see the world as it is, to imagine the world as it can be, and to love them both the same. We rebind and reconnect ourselves to what matters, to what is worthy of our time, our talent, our treasure, and our trust. And we do it several ways.
First, we do it through the relationships we build here. We keep each other company in times of great joy and great sorrow, as well as through ordinary moments. We are a community that promises to care for you, and to ask you to care for others. We have seen much of this is recent days and weeks. And this care extends beyond our own walls to include the community around us: in Chelmsford and Lowell, in New Orleans, in our whole world.
Second, we reconnect through worship and ritual. We set aside time each week as holy, for the purpose of lifting up and naming what matters, what is sacred, what is worthy of our loyalty. Our individual spiritual paths may be different, but we lay claim to a shared theology grounded in reason, freedom, love, and hope. We gather to create meaning of our world and our lives through the lens of these religious ideals. We enact rituals that reconnect us as well: the simple act of lighting a chalice or speaking the words of our covenant; blessing a child, a marriage, a life that has ended; praying together, singing together, listening together are all ways to connect our bodies, minds, and souls with the meaning and purpose of our lives: to bear witness to what is happening and to hope for what can be.
Third, we reconnect too through our larger Unitarian Universalist faith: through our denominational covenant, known as our purposes and principles; through our stewardship and knowledge of our history and tradition; through constantly challenging ourselves to become the religion we claim we want to be. We are a religion as we tie and retie what binds us to one another, and to the larger Spirit of Life and Love, as we strive to make meaning in the midst of the hard realities that life and death throw at us, and in hoping and imagining ourselves, one another, and our world healed and whole.