Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia
June 18, 2017
Rev. Jeff Liebmann
As we light this symbol of our faith
Let us remember our heritage, represented by its base;
Our inclusive community, embodied by the bowl;
And the transformative power of the flame.
By Stephen Fry
I am a lover of truth, a worshipper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance. That is my religion, and every day I am sorely, grossly, heinously and deeply offended, wounded, mortified and injured by a thousand different blasphemies against it. When the fundamental canons of truth, honesty, compassion and decency are hourly assaulted by fatuous bishops, pompous, illiberal and ignorant priests, politicians and prelates, sanctimonious censors, self-appointed moralists and busy-bodies, what recourse of ancient laws have I? None whatever. Nor would I ask for any. For unlike these blistering imbeciles my belief in my religion is strong and I know that lies will always fail and indecency and intolerance will always perish.
from Gentleman’s Magazine (1775)
Close th’ historic page disgraced with more than civil rage;
Let dark oblivion hide the plain o’erspread with heaps of Britons slain;
Friends, brothers, parents, in the blood of brothers, friends, and sons imbrued!
Griev’d at the past, yet more we fear the horrors of the coming year.
Ships sunk or plunder’d, slaughter’d hosts, towns burnt, and desolated coasts.
Yet, sever’d by th’ Atlantic main, though great, our efforts must be vain;
Resources so remote must fail, nor skill nor valor can prevail:
When winds, waves, elements are foes, in vain all human means oppose.
At length, when all these contests cease, and Britain weary’d rests in peace,
Our sons, beneath yon Western skies shall see one vast republic rise;
Another Athens, Sparta, Rome shall there unbounded sway assume;
Thither her ball shall Empire roll, and Europe’s pamper’d states controul,
Though Xerxes rul’d and lash’d the sea, the Greeks of old thus would be free;
Nor could the power and wealth of Spain th’ United Netherlands regain.
Sermon – Our Mission
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin deliberated over words that would set the course of our nation for years to come. These words defined the core mission of the United States and remain the most succinct statement defining our union.
Historians argue over who chose the motto e pluribus unum, Latin for “out of many, one.” The most convincing evidence tilts the credit toward Franklin, a contributing writer to the British publication, Gentleman’s Magazine. The masthead of the journal proclaimed e pluribus unum, referring to the broad content areas of its articles.
The reflection reading today appeared in an issue in late 1775, bemoaning the author’s prediction of a coming war with the colonies across the Atlantic. Delivery of the magazine to Franklin would have taken several months, into early 1776. We can easily imagine the poem’s impact. Given Franklin’s willingness to borrow liberally from all manner of sources, he might have seen appropriating the magazine’s motto a fitting tribute to the conflagration to come.
Out of many, one – a fantastic mission statement. Underlying the image of the eagle grasping the arrows and the olive branch, the slogan makes clear to the viewer the nature of the fledgling nation and affirms its resolve to move forward together in peace and war.
We rarely see high quality mission statements. Many organizations craft lengthy expositions loaded with meaningless boilerplate that does little to help the reader know anything about purpose, process, or priority. Too often, the verbiage purporting to represent a company’s mission is rarely reflected in day-to-day decisions or corporate policy. Bad mission statements seek to be all things to all people and end up expressing little to anyone.
So, what makes a great mission statement? When I was earning my MBA, Ford Motor Company provided an outstanding example. “Quality is Job One” transformed the company and changed the public perception of Ford for years. Combined with a real corporate commitment to improving the quality of its product, this mission changed the collective mind of America, so that anyone in the market for a new car immediately accepted as a given that a Ford vehicle was inherently safer than those of its competitors.
Recently, I saw a commercial on television advertising McDonalds. The ad featured restaurant workers and the story of one staff person receiving an acceptance letter to an educational program. No pictures of Big Macs and fries, just young people in the iconic red uniforms. At the end of the ad, a simple statement – McDonalds, America’s Best First job.
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Like Ford, this statement focuses consumer attention on a professed corporate commitment that places people above profit. Whether McDonalds follows through on that statement is another matter that remains to be seen. If they do, however, expect the company to carve out even more of the market share of the fast food industry.
Here’s another one – Eat Fresh. That is the tagline of the ubiquitous Subway chain, and one that accurately represents exactly what they offer the consumer. They don’t pretend to be the least expensive or the most nutritious. They make no claim to provide a full menu array. But they promise to give buyers fresh food to eat – a claim that many fast food restaurants cannot honestly make. I love Taco Bell, but only because I never allow myself to think of what things look like in the storage lockers behind the counters.
For every great mission statement, terrible examples abound. They typically don’t last long enough to ingrain themselves in our long-term memories. For instance, I was mildly fond of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s marketing phrase from a decade or so ago, the Uncommon Denomination. I love alliteration and felt that the phrase represented us accurately. The slogan did not appeal to the public, however, and the campaign was dropped.
The subject of religion comes up with a friend, neighbor, or new acquaintance. “Uni…?” The tilted head and raised eyebrows tell you all you need know.
Before they can ask the inevitable follow-up question, you begin your “elevator speech.” Each of us likely has one. Each probably fails to satisfy us, or our listeners. We call this our elevator speech because we typically only have 10 seconds or so, maybe as many as 20 words – the time it takes to ride an elevator from one floor to another – to get the point across. Many times, we really only have a few words to grab and keep the listener before their attention begins drifting away.
A few years ago, the staff in the Washington D.C. office coined the phrase “Standing on the Side of Love.” This public advocacy campaign seeks to harness the power of Love to stop oppression. Standing on the Side of Love focuses primarily on helping people experiencing identity-based oppression, including marriage and LGBTQ equity, immigration justice, racial justice, new Jim Crow, voting rights, anti-Muslim bigotry, disability rights, rapid response after national trauma, and more.
As a mission statement for our religious movement, Standing on the Side of Love possesses many strengths. It harkens us to our Universalist roots, calling us not only to think right, but also to act right in the service of our principles. People recognize us in our signature gold yellow shirts providing services to the needy and marching in protest to advocate the rights of the underprivileged. In the context of social action, Standing on the Side of Love certainly succeeds as a phrase describing who we are.
Does Standing on the Side of Love work as an elevator speech? Maybe…
maybe not. The most obvious flaw associated with using this phrase as a mission statement is its failure to distinguish us from nearly any other religion – or from a host of other organizations, for that matter. Most churches tout the love that their god has for us, and profess the call for adherents to love their neighbors as themselves.
I owe much of my discernment process during seminary to my dear friend and mentor, David Bumbaugh. David served many churches over decades during his active ministry. And yet, he lamented the lack of a clear Unitarian Universalist message – what defines us as religious people. As an agitator and self-proclaimed windmill tilter, I identify with much of David’s frustration. I, too, find enormously exasperating our lack of a clear answer to the simple question, “What is a Unitarian Universalist?”
David points out that we too often let our fear of offending anybody steer us toward language loaded with ambiguity that fails to clarify or inspire. But, as David himself points out, his deep Universalist roots and prodigious contributions to our movement perhaps influence his perspective and weigh his hopes down with excessive expectations.
As a relatively new Unitarian Universalist (I’ve only been a UU for 32 years), I have no personal pre-merger history that influences my foundational thinking. And, while I do fashion myself an historian, I believe this discussion depends far more on how we envision the future than the path we travelled to reach our current state.
I think one key piece missing from our equation will help define us as a religious denomination, both to ourselves and to the world. Like other religious traditions, we interpret great truths; we help people cope with challenge and tragedy; we celebrate joys and life passages; and we educate ourselves and our children about our principles and traditions. Specifically, however, we must declare boldly and proudly exactly what differentiates us from other religions.
For me, three things clearly separate us from most religions. I believe they collectively define us as a wholly distinct religious body.
Courage – Unitarian Universalism celebrates individual and collective acts of courage, specifically acts that challenge the authority of institutional power and dogma. We not only elevate martyrs and people of great accomplishment to pedestals of admiration, but we encourage each and every Unitarian Universalist to do the same. By holding no individual or congregation to creedal tests, we literally demand of everyone a commitment to craft a unique philosophy of moral conduct.
Reason – Unitarian Universalism places the power of human thought above any sacred text, holy object, tradition, or vow of obedience. The opinion of no single member of our denomination – be they minister, administrator, or even the President of the UUA – matters more than that of any other. And, we promote the notion that Truth can be discerned through the application of reason.
Universal Love – Unitarian Universalism is not unique among religions promoting love of our neighbors. We aspire, however, not to pick and choose which neighbor receive that love unconditionally. This phrase also has the double meaning of portraying our love for our universe, a belief that all of existence is sacred and deserving of our caring devotion.
So, my “elevator speech” in response to the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?” is this.
Faith of Universal Love through Courage and Reason.
For me, that’s it. No long preambles. No “whereas” or “be it resolved.” All of the rest can wait. All our principles and sources are covered. Eight words. Perhaps more discernment could whittle it down even more. But eight words suffices as an elevator speech.
Now, here comes the fun part. If we describe Unitarian Universalism as a faith of universal love through courage and reason, how do we describe the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, SC? Our current mission statement reads:
The mission of the UUCC is to nurture and respect each other in our spiritual growth and pursuit of meaning and to create a welcoming and engaging environment through which we work for positive change in the community and the world.
In my experience, this statement shares much in common with similar statements at many other UU congregations. During the past week, some of you expressed varying levels of satisfaction with these words. As a self-professed “mission-geek,” I would be happy to help you revisit this conversation over the next year to discern a statement that uniquely and powerfully identifies this congregation in this city, and which will drive planning and goal-setting for years to come.
In the end, of course, actions speak louder than words. We will be known in Columbia and throughout South Carolina by our deeds in service to our principles and our denomination. But words have tremendous power, and a mission statement can act as a rallying cry to encourage us to be more effective change agents, to inspire us to live lives of authenticity, and to serve as a beacon to all who search for a religious home free of dogma and creeds.
E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. May we unite in common purpose to grow spiritually, to spread the word of our progressive religion, and to effect meaningful change for the millions in need here and across the world.
Spirit of Life and Love that goes by many names, be with us now in a moment of reflection, meditation, and prayer.
Two years ago last night, a white supremacist sought to ignite a race war by murdering nine people during a prayer service. The shooting targeted one of America’s oldest black churches, which has long been a site for community organization around civil rights.
How do we, as people of faith, respond to such horror? We remember and keep fresh in social memory the lives lost and the causes of such violence and hatred in our world. We reach out to include every voice in the conversation; to empower the oppressed, challenge privilege, and love all. And we fan the flames of transformation with the goal of creating Beloved Community.
Blessed Be, Amen, and Let It Be So.
By Fanny Kemble
And weep that trust, and that deceiving;
Than doubt one heart, that, if believed,
Had blessed one’s life with true believing.
Oh, in this mocking world, too fast
The doubting fiend o’ertakes our youth!
Better be cheated to the last,
Than lose the blessèd hope of truth.