This is not a new question, or one unique to Unitarian Universalists. But the answer to this question almost always means going against conventional wisdom, bucking the social trends and the peer expectations.
If we look for proof of the age of this answer, we can find many stories from around the world. But the one I come back to, time and time again, is the Book of Ruth. See, the Book of Ruth begins with three women, Orpah, Ruth, and Naomi, who have lost everything—their husbands, their social standing, their homes, their means to make a living, a chance for children. And in their society, this was clearly a sign that they were not blessed. In the society of this story, it was widely believed Orpah, Ruth, and Naomi must have sinned because God somehow forgot to buy them social security—in those days, a stable family, lots of children, and a means to make a living.
The thing was, that in that time and place Ruth and Orpah essentially belong to Naomi; they entered the family and they could not leave. Naomi could have demanded that they do everything in their power to make her comfortable and to care for her. But she didn’t. What she did was, in the last powerful act she could do, in the tiny space allotted to her, was to say to Orpah and Ruth, “Don’t stay with me, because that is not fair or right to you; the only future you have with me is slavery.” Naomi knew she had to return to her husband’s village and that along with his property, she would be sold to pay his debts. If Orpah and Ruth went with her, they would be sold too.
The question for Naomi is: What is a faithful act? To drag these suffering women with her into slavery or, in her last free moment, free them to follow their hearts and destinies? Set them on the road to deal with the social outcast status they would have, with its attendant shame and suffering, a status considered by many of the time worse than slavery, or invite them into a path of slavery, with its sufferings including the expectation that as women, they could be sexually used by others?
Orpah and Ruth both have to think about this troubling gift Naomi makes; they care about her. They are worried for her. They know the choices they are facing. To go home is to choose a path of suffering and to enter slavery is to choose a path of suffering; they could also have chosen to die. But then they listen to their hearts, following where their hearts call them. Orpah returns to her family and Ruth says to Naomi, “Whatever happens to you will happen to me.”
They each made a free choice; they make a choice for life and they choose the path they each can best approach. They each knew that they were bucking conventional wisdom in choosing to continue to live their lives with caring and love and following their hearts. They knew there would be sacrifice and work ahead of them, in following their choices, but the choice, even if the suffering was inevitable, was freely made. They were setting out on faith that goodness had to go beyond social convention. Their actions were speaking even more loudly than their words as they chose to live and deal with what life sent their way. What was holy and sacred for them was in making these choices. All three women are making generous, difficult, sacrificing choices.
After this, we lose Orpah’s side of the story and only follow Ruth and Naomi, as they head into sure slavery and degradation. They return to Naomi’s husband’s village, where they shelter inside the city wall and Ruth goes out to glean in the fields. Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever gleaned—it’s not much in vogue with these days of mechanical harvesters that take every last bit of grain, even from the edges of the fields. Gleaning is hard work. One is fighting with the birds and the mice for the spare strands of wheat that remain on the ground and behind the cutting. Gleaning also happens along the edges of the field, where one-tenth of the land is set aside for the needs of the destitute. This set-aside land is a sign that the owner of the field recognizes his religious obligation to care for the poor and the destitute.
Boaz, whose field we find Ruth gleaning, has dutifully set aside his tenth of land—a tenth of his income to let us know already that Boaz is a generous man who puts his money where his prayers are—to provide for the needs of the poor. He watches Ruth work hard and he is taken with the choices she keeps making, choices he understands as being faith full, not just adhering to the letter of the law. He is so moved by Ruth’s choices that he makes a faith full choice, too. He shares how much he wants to help with Ruth. She becomes very excited about the possibility and tells Naomi, who also is excited by what Boaz offers.
But then, the next day is the day of the estate sale, where Ruth and Naomi are to be sold along with the rest of Elimelech’s estate. It is the end of hope for their freedom. But Boaz has another problem. See, Boaz doesn’t have the money to buy out Elimelech’s debt and set Ruth and Naomi free. He has to go ask his friend for help. Boaz’s friend is interested in Elimelech’s land, which he can use—maybe he has a lot of children to divide his estate when he dies. But he has no use for the women who are part of that package. So Boaz is given charge of them. Asking for help from his friends, asking for a friend to make a free choice for generosity, requires Boaz to stretch his pride and to be so generous as to incur a major social debt. But by doing so, his friend buys out Naomi’s husband’s debt, and Boaz sets both Naomi and Ruth free. This allows Boaz and Ruth to marry and provide a home to Naomi. Slavery turns around to freedom, death turns toward life, on the basis of free choices, generous hearts, and listening where we are called. The choice, even when it meant hard work and sacrifice, was always for freedom to listen to the heart’s voice calling where each person must go and act.
You have listened to your own heart voices to come to this place—whether
you were raised Unitarian Universalist or in another tradition or in no specific
tradition—you have made and continue to make a choice to buck conventional
wisdom and work in this faith, to follow your hearts here. Sometimes that free
choice is translated as loyalty, but we have different cultural understandings
about loyalty. Loyalty is the description usually given to Ruth. But when,
today, we talk about Ruth being loyal to Naomi we probably imagine something
like a balloon on a string and the string just following that balloon around; we
don’t imagine the difficult choices and the discernment required.
In order for us to really grasp the meaning of loyalty in our faith, this
element of discerning must be present, not just following a tether.
The Rev. A. Powell Davies once observed:
“There is and always has been a premium upon an individual’s remaining with the loyalties he grew up with. If his family were Baptists who lived in Texas and vote for a certain political party, he will find life easier if he remains a Baptist and a Texan…and votes for that same political party…loyalty is supposed to be best evidenced by remaining with whatever you started out with.
“But this is neither sound American principle nor good religion. The founding fathers started out as British subjects and ended up as American citizens; many of them belonged to the Church of England and yet became Unitarians. They not only declared themselves free, they used their freedom to follow their convictions…
“What kind of loyalty was this? It was the one loyalty…that is alive and authentic. For the truth is that in the end loyalty is never an attachment to something external so much as it is an allegiance to something inside yourself. That which commands you outwardly has first possessed you inwardly…There is no surer test than this: Your loyalty will always be to what you secretly love and serve.” 1
The challenge for us is to make sure we are providing evidence of what we love and serve more than secretly. Actions speak louder than words. Do we care about conventional wisdom more than justice? Do we care about keeping up with our neighbors more than enlarging those who are truly our neighbors and inviting all persons to the party? Where are our hearts leading us, not just in secret, but here, publicly?
This challenge means we are talking about vocation—a calling to something. Here we are, having covenanted, having promised to affirm and promote these principles and draw upon these many traditions. Here we are answering this calling, which sometimes we might struggle to define, answering this calling here, to work in this church and in this faith. Parker Palmer, an educator who has greatly influenced Unitarian Universalist approaches to religious education, once wrote: “Vocation at its deepest level is not, ‘Oh, boy, I get to go to this strange place where I have to learn a new way to live and where no one, including me, understands what I’m doing.’ Vocation at its deepest level is, “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.” That’s what Ruth, Naomi, Boaz, and Orpah were responding to. That’s what our pantheon of great Unitarian and Universalist and Unitarian Universalist women and men were responding to.
We are called in this church to use our hearts and hands and minds to bring hope to each other, to pick up despair and hug it into tears, to continue to invite apathy to the party because oh, wow, is our dancing good, and isn’t our music wonderful? We are first and foremost listening to where our hearts are calling us, checking out that call with our minds, and putting our bodies to work.
Knowing where we are called and to what meaningful work and to which relationships are amazing, life-affirming gifts. It would be an amazing experience and a great gift if these calls happened only once in our lives. But even more generously, even more amazingly, they don’t just happen once, but repeatedly, every time we’re tested, and every time something about us changes.
When we go to the dry cleaners and someone asks about where we go to church,
do we make the choice to talk about our faith and how wonderful it is?
When we meet a friend—or a stranger—as we go through our daily lives, as we commit to practices that make hope real in this world, are we talking about it? Are we acting and speaking in unison?
Listening to what calls us to the hope here and now is an ongoing spiritual practice and it requires courage and discipline.
When we want to look at courage and discipline, let’s look at our youth. In this church, in this movement, we care about our youth. Our youth sometimes are the touch-point for how difficult standing by our faith can be; how many of our children and youth come home having lost their friends because our child does not believe in Hell and so has just been sent there here on earth for that unbelief? How do we help our young people develop an identity, a rock of faith, from which they can stand and speak and act deeply and fully? We do so through worship and youth camps and YRUU—Young Religious Unitarian Universalists—and religious education programs. But we also do so by talking with our youth about our faith and about their own developing faith, applauding the courage they show is living faith full lives, and in modeling that same courage and discipline.
It is work. It is work for our teens and for our children and for our elders and for ourselves. Because living faith full lives requires courage and stamina. Courage because you’re bucking conventional wisdom just being here. The more you give yourself to hope and act on that, the more you’re working against the conventional wisdom.
The conventional wisdom says:
- only a few people are worth caring about; get everything for yourself that you can;
- if you aren’t wealthy, it’s your fault;
- if you aren’t happy, it’s your fault;
- and you better hope to get to heaven some day.
You are here though, here where we say:
- everyone is worth caring about, even if we have to struggle to see that;
- we can have enough money and time and give to others, too;
- there is such a thing as social inequity and we’re working to change that;
- happiness requires a great many things, and it begins here in human
- and heaven or not, we need to get to work here and now.
What we do here extends beyond these doors, throughout everything we do and touch in our entire lives. We’re doing church even when we’re not at church. We’re doing church the other six days of the week. We’re doing church everywhere we go, every moment. We are making the choice constantly to stand with this faith, and to make hope real.
Standing with this faith, we are living out what we say—that no punishment, nothing, is worse than conspiring in our own diminishment, conspiring in our own enslavement to conventional wisdom. We are making a choice for freedom. We are saying and dancing and witnessing that no victory is greater than when we work to enlarge the circle of who is included, when we reach out a hand and shoulder to one another, when we attend to those are hurting. When we move beyond the us/them to a truly universal we, when we open this circle, we are standing with this faith.
Every time you work for this church and write a check, add or delete a budget line, make no mistake about this: you are living your faith. Is your faith smaller or greater? Are we here as an enduring, real, growing presence of hope, making difficult decisions and risking and reaching out? Are we making the choices to follow our hearts, to find and expand freedom, to be loyal to our faith? Are we choosing freedom over slavery? Are we asking for help from our friends, finding some way where there is no apparent way? This is work, difficult work, as difficult as gleaning, as difficult as the choices of Ruth, Boaz, Orpah, and Naomi. Are we putting our money where our mouth is?
Oh, that pesky money part! One more story about this:
(This is) “…the story of a Southern evangelist who said to his flock: ‘Brothers and sisters, there’s work to be done. Great good to be got. But first we got to take that first little step. And then the second. Then we got to walk together, and not grow weary.’
‘Amen,’ said the congregation. “ Now, every time the congregation says, ‘Amen’ in this story, it would help if you all would offer an ‘Amen.’
‘We got to run together, and not grow faint.’
‘Amen.’ (The church responds, ‘Amen.’)
‘We got to spread our wings like eagles and fly!’
‘Amen.’ (The church responds, ‘Amen.’)
‘But’, said the preacher, ‘we all know today it takes money to fly!’
There were a few scattered ‘Amens’, but mostly silence. And then a voice piped up from the back, ‘Then let’s walk, preacher!’” 2
But here’s the truth: if you have the capacity to give generously, know that money is an important way to stand with this church and this faith. I used to recruit board members for non-profit organizations and when I was out there looking, I looked for three things to show me that someone really was passionate and committed, that actions speak louder than words. I found that people who were passionate and committed gave time, invited strangers and friends to the community, and gave what money they could afford to give or raised it from others who could give. It’s canvass time, when you’re thinking about your pledging and what you want from this Unitarian Universalist faith and from this church. We’re not going to get there without you. We need each and every one of you to make hope real.
I know you have the passion. I can feel that.
I know your hearts have called you to be in this place. I can see that.
I know you have time and are committing that.
I know you’re going to write the largest check you can and support this faith that is supporting you.
I know you’re making hope real each and every day.
It’s your hands that are making hope real, that your hands are gleaning hope from the fields of despair.
It’s your hands that are changing this world.
It’s your hands that are employing choices for this world not deferring them for some heavenly payment.
It is up to you.
Separately, we can do a lot.
Together, we can make miracles happen.
- The Rev, F, Forrester Church, ed. Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion by A. Powell Davies. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998: 9-10.
- The Rev. John A. Buehrens, “Roots and Wings: Five Suggestions for the Future of Universalism.” (1991). The Universalist Heritage: Keynote Addresses on Universalist History, Ethics, and Theology, 1976-1992. ed. Harold H. Burkhart, New York State Convention of Universalists, 1993: 172.
©2004 by The Rev. Naomi King Sermon delivered on February 22, 2004, to Horizon Unitarian Universalist Church, Carrollton, TX, while serving as their Ministerial Intern