The Unitarian Universalist Association has a new slogan, "Nurture your spirit; help heal our world." You've seen it. Several of our members have it on bumper stickers and someone bought the banner that we displayed at the groundbreaking for our new reli-gious education wing. I like it very much better than any of our past attempts, like the one before that we used for the publicity blast in the Tampa Bay area, "Imagine a reli-gion that embraces many different beliefs... including yours." Most of them have been of that ilk, stressing what is true, our commitment to freedom of thought, but allowing people to think and say that frustrating perversion of what we stand for, "You can be-lieve anything you want to." We all know that that isn't true, though it's fatally easy to say. We can't believe anything that we know isn't true, no matter how attractive it is, or even something we strongly suspect may not be true. We can't believe anything just because ancient tradition or an authoritative-seeming voice tells us it's true. We can't believe anything that our critical, rational minds reject. We can, however, and should, keep our options open in case some evidence for the truth of an idea may emerge in the future.
Belief, however, isn't what we're about. That is hard for people to understand, as the western religions, even if they have no creed that must be accepted, are based on par-ticular sets of beliefs which have their origin in a religious story told in an authoritative text. The text may not necessarily be taken literally, but it must be assumed to be true in its essentials. Even the Science of Mind church, which is one I have learned about fairly recently, is based on interpretations of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. We read Emerson, too, of course - he began his career as a Unitarian minister - but not with the same fervor or the same unquestioning acceptance. Our individual beliefs which vary from one to another are based instead on the process of our individual search for truth. We are not, therefore, simply an amalgam of all the beliefs that we hold as individuals. We have a very clear message of our own, a message that I believe is necessary for the healing of the world. That message is that freedom, freedom of thought, belief and conscience, is the path that will lead us through our differences, our fears, our tribal hatreds, our ignorance and suffering to a world of, as our mission statement puts it, beauty, justice, truth and love.
Our world at the moment is in need of a lot of healing. Want and disease and conflict are rife. AIDS in Africa, continued conflict in Darfur, the resurgence of the Taliban, one of the most repressive regimes that ever existed, in Afghanistan, a few terrorists hold Mumbai in India at gunpoint and killing over two hundred people, our unjustified and unjustifiable war in Iraq, the Gaza strip again the focus of violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, smaller tribal battles all over the world that we only even know about if we have a particular concern...it goes on and on. It seems laughable to even dream of making a difference, to hope to heal our world. Laughable, but Margaret Mead said it, "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
There are many ways in which I believe our process can help to do this, by accepting the scientific world-view, by accepting human responsibility for moral outcomes, by our belief that good character is the most important aspect of human beings, rendering such differences as belief, ethnic background, sex or sexual orientation irrelevant, but there is something else that is the inevitable consequence of our commitment to free-dom that is vitally necessary, and that is tolerance.
Tolerance has gotten a bad name, recently. We used to say that our religion was based on three things: freedom, reason and tolerance. But tolerance has seemed like such a negative virtue. We prefer to think of ourselves as accepting and affirming of difference. I like to use the word respect, myself, but on consideration it seems to me that there are ideas, beliefs, practices, which I not only do not accept or affirm, I don't even respect. However, I do tolerate them, in my commitment not only to my own freedom but to that of others. There is a one-liner that people love to repeat and laugh when they do, "I'm very tolerant. The only thing I can't tolerate is intolerance." In fact, that is not funny at all. It is absolutely true. The one thing that cannot ever coexist with tolerance is intolerance. Intolerance cannot allow tolerance to survive. Ultimately, therefore, tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance.
I am about to make an embarrassing confession. One of the things of which I am most deeply ashamed is the incident that made me decide that the Taliban could not much longer be tolerated was not their hideous oppression of women but their destruction of those ancient monumental Buddhist statues, a destruction caused by their intolerance of what they considered pagan idols. Human suffering, the oppression of other human beings based simply upon their sex, is horrible and horrifying, but I suppose one gets inured to it. Those beautiful statues, though, historic remnants of Buddhism's early influence in northern India and eastern Afghanistan, millennia old, should surely have been sacrosanct. The only thing tolerance cannot tolerate...
Tolerance has never been more in demand than it is today. Until very recently in human history cultures seldom clashed except at their very edges. At those edges there was conflict and influence - you can see the Greek influence on Buddhist sculpture stemming from Alexander's attempt to conquer the world. He thought he had done it, but there were whole civilizations and peoples of whom he had never even heard: China, Japan, the peoples of Central America. Communications were painfully slow and travel even slower. People lived for generations without a hint that others might live differently than they, speaking different languages, honoring different traditions, worshipping different gods. Such isolation is no longer possible except in tiny pockets tucked here and there. We are daily and hourly confronted with differences in culture. People can travel from one end of the earth to the other or all around it in a matter of hours. We see one another on television; we communicate directly through the internet. We know that all over the world there are those who think differently, feel differently, act differently, worship differently than we. Without tolerance violent conflict is inevitable.
Freedom, the almost inadvertent wellspring of tolerance, is also, finally, the destruction of its opposite. You cannot be committed to freedom - true freedom for everyone - without learning and practicing a broad tolerance for other's ideas and loyalties. In the United States, where freedom of religion is guaranteed, not only is there a range of reli-gions and sects, but despite the efforts of fundamentalists to claim exclusive truth, a broad tolerance exists. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Institute and commented on in the New York Times, (thank you, Phyllis) shows that the vast majority of the people in the United States believe that practitioners of other faiths than theirs are equally eligible for salvation. Freedom works, and our faith is essentially the institutio-nalization of religious freedom. As we nurture our spirit of freedom it will surely help heal the world.
We all have many personal reasons for wanting this congregation to flourish in health and prosperity. It has nurtured and will nurture not only our spirits but our hearts, our minds and our bodies. If you doubt that last you weren't at the Fellowship Dinner last night. It nurtures our spirits in its commitment to freedom of thought, belief and con-science. It nurtures our hearts with its friendliness, the friendships we form, the love that we share with one another. It nurtures the mind with its free search for truth and meaning. And it nurtures the body. We do like to eat. But there is that greater reason, beyond our personal desires and needs, its spirit of freedom that at last can heal this hurting world.
Every year at this time I preach a sermon on why we need to support this congregation. Usually I'm a bit coy with my titles. After all, I don't much like talking about money and I doubt that most of you like much to be talked to about it. This year, however, I was quite blatant. Money has taken over our thoughts and concern in a way unprece-dented in my lifetime. It is the daily headline, the top news story, day after day, week after week. The economy, we are told ad nauseam is tanking. We're all going to be out of jobs, our retirement money has melted away, our homes will be in foreclosure, gloom and doom are all we hear on every hand. And much of it is true, but it seems a bit ironic to me that the health of an economy is based on confidence, and everything possible is being done to undermine whatever confidence we might have left. It used to be that the people besides charities who called to solicit my business were credit card companies. Now they are people who want me to renegotiate my mortgage. When I told one young caller that I was not behind on my payments nor anticipating being so he seemed almost incredulous. Those calls, of course, are entirely random. We've even gotten them at the church. They are, however, indicative of the state of our fear. We are seen to be easy targets for those who would take advantage of it.
Much of the hype is real. There are many who have lost their jobs, many whose pensions have been halved. Banks are shaky; companies are running scared, Chrysler, which used to be on the cutting edge of automotive engineering is not expected to sur-vive this latest crisis. There are heartbreaking stories of loss and need. On the other hand there are many who are still employed, many whose pensions were not invested in the stock market, many, even, who, while suffering some loss are still quite comfort-able. Yet even these are feeling the fear, pulling in their horns, saving money wherever they can. And so the stores lay off more employees, manufacturing plants slow down and bad becomes worse. Conspicuous consumption has always been bad taste, but now any consumption is unfashionable. Wal-mart chic is the watchword. And you want to know who're really, really scared? The people running the canvass for this church that means so much to us. They know that one of the seemingly easiest ways to save money is to decrease charitable giving. After all, what do you get for it? Only this church that nurtures us in every way. Only this religious movement that points the way to heal the world.
I know that for many of you the loss is real. You no longer have the kind of disposable income that you had last year. No one could even want you to give money that you can't afford to give, but for the rest of us, those who can still give, it's up to us to fill in the gaps. I am raising my own pledge by twenty-five percent. I hope that those of you who can will do the same.
At a similar time in our history, President Franklin Roosevelt made one of his most famous statements, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Unitarian Universal-ists are by their nature courageous. They have to be. It takes immense courage to choose freedom, to choose to take responsibility for your own thoughts and actions. That is, after all, what freedom means. Now is the time to put away fear, to live courageously. It has never been more important. "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." The world is wounded and bleeding. It is racked with violence and prejudice and mired in fear. We must help to change that. We can do it by supporting this church, this faith that nurtures our spirit so that we can help heal our world.