The Promise of Worth

This sermon was first preached at First Unitarian in Brooklyn on August 2nd, 2009. It looks at our first principle as a covenantal promise.

“A woman in a village was surprised to find a very well-dressed stranger at her door, asking for something to eat. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I have nothing in the house right now.’”

What a curious predicament this story creates! All we know about the man with the odd soup stone, is how he’s dressed. Just a first impression really. But with it, a rock and some good clothes, all the folks in the village go from not feeling like they have anything to offer to being able to cook a meal for the whole town. It’s enough to make one want to carry a rock around with us all the time.

I’ve always liked this story for the rare tale of the charlatan who uses their charisma for the good; the sacred trickster who generates wealth and compassion rather than the type to siphon it away for their own ends. It reminds me of stories friends have shared who have benefitted from the random driver ahead of them who chose to pay their toll at a collection site, only to generate a string of folks paying for the next person behind them. Maybe nothing has actually changed if each successive driver still pays the same amount, but it makes a world of difference in how we see the drive. Then there’s my aggressive guerilla tactics regarding smiling, long lines, and Duane Reade. Sometimes they make me feel like the kind-hearted well-dressed stranger in the story, and other times like the villager who feels they have nothing left to give.

The story we heard this morning is a sad one in a way as well. It relays truthfully the world we live in when it reminds us of how much clout and status we give to strangers around us. There’s a message here that we all have something to give, but we so often give away that power to others with rocks in their hands and a smart set of clothes. It’s the internal voice that convinces us that everyone around us is smarter, or more skilled, more talented, or better looking. It’s the same one that loudly lies to us that others are more self-assured and confident. In case no one’s mentioned this to you today regarding self-assurance, (and it’s a message I need to hear just about daily to remember,) the other person is probably thinking the same thing about you. Most of us think we’re more of a mess than those around us; even and especially those who outwardly act like all the world is more a mess than they.

Of course, we will all go through times where we are particularly down from loss or illness, drawn out from work, or enervated from family. They are all realities in life that we will forever struggle with. But even in those moments, worth comes from within, even if it might take a stranger or a community to help bring that sense of self-worth back to the surface. The Soup Stone’s resolution involves a secreted exit for the trickster of the story, who leaves the very precious rock behind. The people of the village have been gifted with the magic they need to realize their capacity for giving. They are better able to see what they are able to offer to the world. I see them as better recognizing their own value. What they can only achieve from within, they are only able to do so by being in community; with a little good-hearted kick from the story’s roving trickster character.

So why do we do it? Why do we give rocks magical powers and think we have none of our own? Why do we so clearly see the value in others, and so often have a terrible time seeing the value in ourselves? Why do we all do it, and easily forget that that means the person next to us is also similarly struggling? How do we lift up the mantle of trickster in the story, and live that generosity for ourselves? That’s the religious question (or questions) for the day.

Our first principle states that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Often when I hear this first principle spoken about, it’s clear folks are very conscious of two of the three aspects to the principle that I find most important. One of those aspects crucially recognizes that we must stand on the side of love in our human relations. Every person is deserving of love and compassion. Just because we live, each of us are deserving of being treated with respect; regardless of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality or gender expression. Even though we don’t always succeed in this, this principle reminds us of our struggle toward that lofty and healing goal.

The second way I often here this principle applied is the clarion call that just like those we strive to support, we too are deserving of respect from others. We fight for others’ rights, and we struggle for our own. In this formulation, this principle reminds us that when folks are treating us poorly for our differences, we do not deserve it.

The third aspect to this principle I rarely hear mentioned is the obverse of the second way. If all of the rough treatments we may be subjected to by others is wrong, what of those we inflict upon ourselves? Who do we go to when our harshest critic and the most unjust judge is no one other than us? It’s the villager that believes they have nothing to give, when in fact they have so very much to give. We often hear the first principle as a justice issue; and it definitely is that as well; but it can be a pastoral issue as well. How do we convince ourselves that we deserve to treat ourselves as well as we expect ourselves to treat others? How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others within us as well?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions in relation to our seven principles. As Unitarian Universalists we are a covenantal faith. Rather than coming together based on a shared creed, we are a faith whose identity is based on shared commitments. As a tradition we first stand in relation to one another, rather than how much we agree with one another. Despite all this, we have structured our seven principles as beliefs. Yes, the wording for them all begins with us agreeing to “covenant to affirm and promote…” and yet they are essentially structured as affirmations of belief.

So how does this little aside, this sort of mini-UU primer, relate to the questions of how we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others within us as well? That question of the flip-side of the first principle and how we internalize it. Simply put, how can the principles be more than affirmations of static belief while offering a theological solution to the many intersecting questions of spirit and heart I’ve laid out this morning? I should say that if we were reading this sermon in a book there would be an asterisk next to the word theological. At the bottom of the page it would read something like, “Theological: how we find meaning in the world.” So, how do we orient ourselves in response to the religiously structured principles we covenant to affirm and promote?

I’ve been wondering how different we would engage with our principles if we saw them as religious promises, rather than simply religious beliefs. As a covenantal faith we focus first on our relations, so our core principles, in my estimation, ought to be similarly defined. A promise is a sort of belief that we extend out into the world between ourselves and someone else; although sometimes it is a belief that we commit to just with ourselves. And I’m talking here about the bigger ones. Like the promise a parent makes to their children, verbalized or implicit, in that they will raise and care for them with all their heart. It’s a belief that the parent typically holds to, and one that children usually believe – at least till our teenage years. The promise is lived between the parent and the child. It has as much power and substance as the maker invests in it. It’s deeply relational, and intrinsically predicated on belief.

So what changes? Our principles as written are somewhat action orientated already. Covenanting to affirm and promote is language of action, yet when you speak about them to most Unitarian Universalists, we internalize them as beliefs. For example, folks typically truncate the statement and say, “I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Well, that’s a pretty good belief. One I happen to agree with. We may think of them as things we ought to also follow since we believe in them; but they tend to be expressed as beliefs first and actions second. So in some ways, visualizing the principles as promises could just be a re-clarification of what’s already written. To some extent, that could be enough in itself. I find that many of us struggle with explaining our faith tradition as non-creedal while conveying our core principles. When we forget they’re action statements, the line between creedal and non-creedal blurs. And if we’re trying to explain our religion to someone who’s not familiar with it, we might get a little tongue-tied here.

But I feel there’s more to hearing our principles as promises than simply that. Promises bring us back to the theological question. In the case of the first principle, our faith makes the bold statement that everyone has worth and dignity; including yourself; including myself. I promise you that your inherently worthy. You may not be feeling that to be the case at this moment because of something you’re carrying with you from work, or school, or how you acted on your way in here this morning. But it is a promise Unitarian Universalism makes. We’re not saying we’re forgiven, although we all need to be from time to time. We’re not saying we’re justified, or sinners, or lost or found. We’re saying we have worth, and we deserve to be treated with dignity; even by ourselves.

So in light of the question I posed before. “How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others within us as well?” Now we have the theological basis for a religious discipline. Do we choose to assent to the promise our faith puts forth, or do we choose to turn away from it? The three aspects of the first principle I mentioned also stand in relation to one another. Recognizing the worth in others; others recognizing the worth in us; and we recognizing the worth in ourselves. If the first two ways come more naturally to you – and I know they do for me; remind yourself of them when you can’t find anything about yourself to value. That’s the beauty of a promise made. They may be difficult to keep, but if they are made with integrity they plot a very honest course.

In this regard, the promise of our faith encourages us to live knowing that we believe in the people around us; that we are all deserving of a place at the table. Our story this morning ends with the exclamation, “Bowls for everyone. Then they all sat down to a delicious meal while the stranger handed out large helpings of his incredible soup. Everyone felt strangely happy as they laughed and talked and shared their very first common meal.”

We too often give up our self-worth to the judgements of others, and sooner place credence in magic rocks than believe unfettered we have something to contribute. The promise of our faith is the balm to this malady.

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