2011 Sermon Award

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Beyond Major Holidays: Engaging Judaism in Unitarian Universalism

“How then shall we live?” by Michelle Buhite, Candidate for UU Ministry

Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Jamestown, NY, December 5, 2010

Delivered to Unitarian Universalist Church of Hamburg, NY, February 20, 2011

Delivered to Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, NY, February 27, 2011

(The great thing about providing ‘pulpit supply’ is that it gives me the opportunity to continue to hone a sermon based on real feedback. This sermon has changed and grown with each preparation and delivery.)


The question sounds innocent enough – but it can strike fear into the heart of a Unitarian Universalist… “What exactly do you believe?” Some who ask are simply curious, asking this question in much the same way they’d ask, “What exactly does a 3-toed tree sloth eat?” But there are others who ask what we believe so they can sort us into a convenient category: saved or damned.


When we are faced with the belief question, some of us fall back on history – we believe in the oneness of God (Unitarianism) and universal mercy and salvation (Universalism). But that sounds rather hollow when a good many of our number don’t believe in any God – singular, multiple, loving, or not. When people ask us what we believe, they are working from a Christian cultural framework, where belief is everything. We are expected to not only believe in God, but to believe in a narrowly defined God who routinely steps in and meddles in the lives of humanity; helping those who believe the right things in the right way, and subverting those who do not. As Unitarian Universalists, we struggle, I think, because we intuitively perceive that, at least for us, this is the wrong question. Although both Unitarianism and Universalism sprang from forms of Christianity, contemporary Unitarian Universalism finds little resonance there. Instead, we might find ourselves more at home in Judaism, and most comfortable in a reformed Jewish setting.


Why? Because Unitarian Universalism, like reformed Judaism, is an orthopractic faith, not an orthodoxic one. We are more concerned with right living than we are with right thinking. So what does it mean to be orthopractic or right living? Well, we can look to the Torah to get perhaps the most widely recognized code for living – what we call the Ten Commandments. The secret to right living is given in broad strokes: Don’t kill. Don’t lie. Don’t want what belongs to someone else. Honor your parents. Have no other gods before the one God… don’t set up replacements for the Ultimate and worship the temporal, mistaking it for the permanent… And probably the hardest, do not take God’s name in vain. (I will resist cussing, no matter how great the temptation!) We’re also not real keen on keeping the Sabbath holy. So where are we? Out of ten commandments, we mostly manage to keep probably three of them, most of the time. Three out of ten. Hmmm. I’m guessing we won’t be up for any awards for keeping a decent number of the 613 mitzvot, all of the laws found in the Torah, either.


So let’s explore Judaism as an orthopractic faith for a moment. First of all it is important to realize that faith traditions do not evolve in a vacuum, they are deeply influenced by the cultures that surround (or conquer) them. For instance, the laws found in the Torah are remarkably similar to the laws found in the Code of Hammurabi – a neighboring culture that produced that patriarch of the Hebrews, Abraham. When Abraham left Mesopotamia for a new land, he and his family brought with them their notions about God and how to live in right relationship. The laws that they brought with them to the new land were as deeply ingrained in them as the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) are ingrained in those of us who were raised in western culture. In fact, the Golden Rule is an excellent example of an orthopractic imperative: Do. There is nothing about belief in the Golden Rule. We are simply instructed to be mindful about our doing – to pause and consider how our actions might impact another.

The purpose of all of this law-keeping is to establish a way to live in accordance with Divine principles and in good relation with our fellow humanity and the planet which we call home. And when we set aside the particulars of these laws for living, it really boils down to living in right relationship. We can look at our own seven Principles to affirm that Unitarian Universalism is an orthopractic, right living, faith.


We talk about believing in the inherent worth and dignity of each person – but it’s not just a belief that stays in our heads. When we affirm that we believe in inherent worth and dignity, we do something about it – we try to make room for each person in our circle of inclusion. We say that we believe in equity, justice, and compassion in human relations; and then we give that belief ‘legs’ by working to make it happen.  We believe in the democratic process – so we do it. We try to model democratic process in our congregations, and we are committed to making sure that process is used in our government and our communities to ensure that every voice is heard. We could look at each one of our principles and discover that although we articulate these as beliefs, they are much more than a creed – they represent a guide for living. There are no abstractions to be found in our Principles – they are as precise and as difficult to live out as the commandment against wanting what belongs to another. It’s all about what we do.


Reformed Judaism and Unitarian Universalism both focus on the humanistic ethics in the relationships between people; both groups are unlikely to call falling out of relationship a “sin” or to be outside the will of God. Reformed Jews and Unitarian Universalists alike emphasize specific, expected behaviors; and acts, not intentions, are what matter. Both groups tend toward liberalism in theology and civic life – in favor of the less advantaged and those targeted by prejudice – and Gays and Lesbians are accepted as full participants.


Other cultures and religions also point to what we do, rather than what we believe, as a path to enlightenment. The idea behind spiritual practices involving movement and breath, as in Yoga and Tai Chi, teach us that if we can discipline the body to do the movements well, the mind and consciousness will follow. Each movement and breath is given full attention – marrying doing and being in one ritualized pattern. Maybe that is why Unitarian Universalists find these movement practices and mind-quieting practices like meditation so appealing – we long for something to do to help us become. We recognize that our doing directly informs our being – and that doing can become routine and empty if it is not layered with meaning.


I am a singer, and I have discovered that, for me, singing is a spiritual practice. It becomes a spiritual practice for me when I bring my awareness to how I breathe, where I feel tone resonating, and being completely present to the music I am making at any given moment. Even doing the exercises called ‘warm ups’ helps me re-acquaint myself with established patterns of breath and sound. When I give myself over to the doing, I find that I am centered and calm – I have become something that I was not at the beginning of the exercise.


Maybe you’ve seen these quotations somewhere in your travels:

Socrates – “To be is to do.”  Sartre – “To do is to be.” Sinatra – “Do Be Do Be Do”

Aside from the humor and clever word play, they can be guides for living for us. Socrates and Sartre do not contradict one another; both adages are true, and are simply mirror images for one another. “To be is to do.” Our living informs our activities. “To do is to be.” Our actions and activities define us. But my very favorite is the Sinatra quote: “Do Be Do Be Do,” maybe because of the scat singing that suddenly takes up residence in my mind! I think “Do Be Do Be Do” could be the litmus test for our orthopractic faith. We do, we become. As we become, our doing is transformed; as we live out our faith, we are transformed.


I was raised in a biblical Christian tradition, which means that I have a lot of Bible verses rattling around in my head. As I consider the doing and being of an orthopractic faith, I instantly have James’ words about faith and works in my mind. When I read James, I am reminded that Jesus and his followers were Jewish, and that their lives were guided by the laws found in the Torah. Jesus and his Jewish followers did not model beliefs, they modeled living in right relationship with people and with God. James, who is identified as one of Jesus’ brothers, wrote these words to one of the early churches: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2: 14-19)


Do you remember those convenient categories that follow the “What do you believe” question? The saved and the damned? Clearly, at least in James’ view, when it comes to living an orthopractic faith, rather than being damned for not believing the right thing in the right way, we find that we are saved by a faith that finds expression in our activities to help make the world a better place for all. The same message of hope that has been at the heart of Judaism can be found at the heart of Unitarian Universalism: it matters what you do and it matters who you are to the people around you. I’ve heard our Good News articulated this way:

It is a blessing that each of us was born;

It matters what we do with our lives;

What each of us knows about God is a piece of the truth;

And we don’t have to do it alone.


So I wonder how we will answer those who ask us what we believe. How will we find the words to demonstrate that, rather than believing whatever we want, we believe in doing, being, and becoming. We do not need to subscribe to a list of right beliefs, because we live out our faith with each breath we take and each life we touch. We know, sometimes at a level that defies articulation that if we can do the movements, our minds and our hearts will follow. I wonder if we will have the courage to point out that asking what we believe is really the wrong question, and that the only way we can define our faith is the same way that orthopractic faith has been defined for millennia – by being and doing. You know, [sing] do be do be do…