Sermon: Roots & Wings (text & audio)

This morning’s service began with the words of our Board President, Jane Bramham. I used her words to start us off because this sermon is the second in a series on governance and covenant – and as I’ve said before, governance itself is not usually the stuff of inspiration, but her words inspired me. You also heard from Vice President John Bates. The Board’s work to discern the vision that you are putting forth is essential as we move forward into the future as a congregation. We are lucky to have such strong leadership in this community, and I hope that many of you will consider joining them in the next year.

When I was growing up, the decorative art in our house was mostly visual – there were few words on things, except if you looked at the bookshelves. There, you’d see lots of words! But the only other place you’d see words was the small needle pointed decorations that my grandmother made. They’d say things like “a place for everything, and everything in it’s place,” or “the dishwasher is… clean or dirty…”

So it was of particular note when my mother got a small framed piece that said, “There are two things we should give our children: one is roots and the other is wings.,” I’ve always remembered that paradoxical statement. We hear similar words in the beloved hymn we sang earlier in the service, “roots hold me close, wings set me free”

They are each metaphors, of course, but the two images are so different – roots, we think of green things, mostly trees. Planted in one place, needing to rely on wind, fate and other creatures to propagate their seeds. Roots that hold them close to the earth, nourish them and take in water. And for us human beings, our roots lie in the stories that tell us who we are, the sense memories that recall our best and worst experiences, the ancestral connections, broken or sustained.

Wings, on the other hand, bring to mind birds, planes, bumblebees, or butterflies. Wings are about movement, agency, travel, and lightness. They are about breaking free, finding our own way, creating our own story.

How can we possibly have both?

Well, that’s the beauty of metaphor, I suppose – it’s a literary trope which allows us to pick up one idea when it suits, and then shift into a different one when that one works better.

I rely a lot on metaphor for my own process of meaning making – I have a practice of making regular collages during the year. This means that I am constantly looking at images, choosing them and putting them together to make a cohesive artistic piece. I make smaller collages throughout the year, but every year, I start a large collage at the Winter Solstice, and work through the new year, setting up a dedicated space for my work, focusing on what ideas and energy I’m bringing with me into the new year.

I have files and files of images I’ve collected over the years, some I’ve saved for over a decade, usually because I was drawn to the image, not because I knew what I was going to use it for. As I work on a collage, I incorporate new and old images into this new piece, and often find meaning in pictures that get put together in unexpected ways. I notice inadvertent juxtapositions, and am constantly reminded of the sometimes contradictory meanings of metaphor. Interpreting these metaphors in the context of my own life’s story is a core part of my own practice of meaning making, and I’m often surprised by what I put together.

We see this type of juxtaposition in the roots and wings language. For example, I tend to gravitate toward the soaring metaphors – I have long-standing love for hawks and bluejays in particular, and the messages they continue to send me over decades of my life. At the same time, I am drawn toward the transformative process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, and the hives and honey and pollination of bees.

And yet, when I am at my most vulnerable, my most nervous, I unconsciously call forth a time-lapse video I once saw of a tree’s root system growing into the earth. I think it was originally from children’s programming on public TV, but one day as an adult, I was asked in a guided meditation to imagine my own root system, and that’s what I saw. And now it is so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I use it to calm and center myself in moments of stress.

Roots and wings.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are the heirs to a rich history – our roots – some of which we learned about two weeks ago – and our faith, as it stands today, gives us wings to explore the breadth and depth of our own time and place, the multivalent strands of history and theology that draw us together in this time and in this place.

Two weeks ago I spoke in considerable depth about the concept of congregational polity and why it is central to who we are. The kernel of knowledge that I hope you will all bring forward from that sermon is this one: The founders of the Dedham congregation chose to be a covenantal faith rather than a creedal faith even though their beliefs at that time were so similar that they could have been a creedal faith. That kernel is essential to the story of who we are today: A free faith. The decision those settlers in Dedham made centuries ago set the stage for us to exist in the way we do today.

Today our individual beliefs vary vastly. We couldn’t create a true creed that would encompass all of what we each hold dear. And so we rely on the covenant to hold us to our highest aspirations, even when we struggle to agree.

And so we travel from 1648 to 1946, and touch on another interpretation of our free faith. James Luther Adams is known by many as the pre-eminent Unitarian theologian of the 20th century, and taught at Meadville Lombard Theological School, Harvard, and my own alma mater, Andover Newton. In the preamble to this morning’s reading, he Adams asks, “As creatures fated to be free, as creatures who must make responsible decisions, what may we place our confidence in? What can we have faith in? What should we serve?”

Where is our confidence? What should we serve?

In the sense that we are each on an individual search for meaning, our confidence resides in different places. And yet, we choose to gather in community. And so, we place our confidence in one another.

Sometimes it is difficult to have faith in one another. We are, after all, part of humanity – each struggling with our own journey, so often not reaching the ideals in which we believe.

And so we muddle through together, trying our best to serve one another, and our common good.

Adams suggests that there are three tenets of the free faith:

The first, he says, is that our ultimate faith is not in ourselves. And this is true – ultimately, we know that we simply cannot do this alone. Whether our “ultimate concern” is understood as mystical or human or natural, our lives are made richer and more manageable when we exist in community. Like the character Tom Hanks played in the desert island movie, Castaway, we are hard-wired to connect – and you and I are lucky to have access to more than just a volleyball to befriend!

Adams’ second tenet is that the “commanding, sustaining, transforming reality finds its richest focus in meaningful human history, in free cooperative efforts for the common good.” This tenet again privileges our life in community above all – while taking it a step further, tying community to justice and right relation.

This is where our faith begins to look outward – first we stand in right relation with one another, and then we look to the community around us, and work to stand in right relation with those around us. In other words, “Our life together declares that the future of each depends on the good of all, and the future of all depends on the good of each.”

We find a similar construction in the third tenet of Adams’ free faith, “the achievement of freedom in community requires the power of organization and the organization of power.” And so we organize ourselves to maximize our impact – we use governance structures and the foundation of our covenant to live into the promises we make and keep.

We are defined by our humanity – the undeniable truth that we do, in fact, need one another.

And with our humanity we find ways to connect with one another, to make transformative change in our selves and in our world.

Our own covenant here at UUCA is fairly simply constructed – the beginning and the end statements set out the framework within which we operate – it begins by recognizing that we need one another – and that this community is held together by the promises we make and keep.

In the middle, we see concrete steps that we agree to take – we will share our resources, we will remain steadfast in times of conflict, we will celebrate our diversity.

And then the conclusion, which I’ve already stated: “Our life together declares that the future of each depends on the good of all, and the future of all depends on the good of each.”

That phrase calls us to deeper relationship with one another, and with the world around us. It calls us to seek out the places where the world is on fire, and attempt to quench the flames. It calls us to constantly seek out relationships with people around us, to understand our own place in the system, and break out of the oppressive constructs that hold us down.

I’d like to share a story, as told by Mary Luti, a UCC minister who used to teach at Andover Newton, “Years ago, the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands held an outdoor banquet on a soccer field for the visiting Archbishop of Canterbury. Between courses, they discussed the bloody civil war that had recently ended there.

Suddenly, the Prime Minister turned to the Archbishop and said, “I want you to bless us! I need to say in public that we were responsible too, not just the people on the other islands. So I’ll quiet the crowd. Then I’ll kneel down, and you can ask God to forgive us for what we contributed to the horrors.”

There are moments in life, the Archbishop said later, when you hear the gospel for the first time. Like when a politician says, “We were all wrong. It wasn’t just them. It was us too.”

People hardly ever voluntarily accept a share of blame. Our default position is innocence…

You did this. We didn’t. Our intentions are good. Yours are bad. Our suffering’s terrible. Yours can’t compare. Our story’s true. Yours is a lie.

Little changes until we stop telling the story of our innocence and their guilt. Things change when we tell the far more important story—not yours or mine, but the one shared human narrative of ignorance, myopia, fear, error, violence, trauma, and loss.

It wasn’t just them. It was us too.”

And so it is for us as Unitarian Universalists. We begin by recognizing our interdependence, by making a commitment to our own community. Our next step is to seek out injustice and understand its cause. And finally, we must reach toward the ideal lifted up in the story of the Prime Minister and the Archbishop – the understanding that we each have a story that is valid and worth hearing. The understanding that claims of blame and innocence miss the point in our interdependent world. Claims of blame and innocence make us feel better, perhaps, but they also break our relationships. The work of covenant calls us to transcend these petty claims and reach toward each other across the divide.

This is the greatest gift of Unitarian Universalism – because of our identity as a pluralistic community, we understand on a visceral level that multiple experiences and many truths can exist in the same space. We can sit together in this sanctuary, and I can guarantee you that one of you believes something that is entirely impossible within the belief system of someone else. There is room enough in our covenantal faith for multiple truths to exist. We live in this paradox every day. And so we have something essential and life-giving to share with the world around us.

Just like the roots and wings imagery, we are at the same time reaching toward two different goals – First, we support and one another in this community, working to create strong relationships and imagine our own future together, with the leadership of the board and your own individual gifts. And second, we are working to reach outward – remember the intent of the members of the Dedham church The free church was established with an explicit responsibility to both its own members and the larger society, and we continue to work to be that bridge into the larger society.

For us, as Unitarian Universalists, our covenant calls us to remember that we are all in this together – our historical roots tie us to a series of stories out of which we make meaning. Our covenant reminds us what we hold most dear. And the wings of our free faith lift us high enough to seek new frontiers of understanding and connection.

May it be so.