Each of us has a network of relationships with family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, volunteer organizations, schools, and more. Social media, cell phones and other communications vehicles have made it possible for many of us to be in regular communication even with those who live at a great distance. All of these relationships – whether they are more personal and intimate or more casual and routine - are important to our sense of being connected.
One of the reasons that being a Unitarian Universalist is so important to me is that it has helped me feel deeply connected at many levels. I became a Unitarian Universalist after moving back to Pennsylvania from northern New Jersey. I had family nearby at that time, but not a wide circle of friends and certainly not a group who helped me have a sense of belonging and place in the world. It was primarily the women’s group at my church that first gave me a sense of connection, which then spread to the whole church, and beyond.
As it turns out, my connection to Unitarian Universalism grows stronger and deeper with the years. But this connection has also helped strengthen and deepen my sense of overall belonging in the world. Not only does it give me the experience of belonging to a particular UU community, it has fostered my experience of belonging in the world writ large. It has helped to shape my understanding of myself as part and parcel of the universe, and I am still learning about this covenant. My engagement with the faith has given me a stronger sense of self – both the individual small “s” “self” and the capital “S” “Self.” It has helped me see who I am and whose I am as inextricably linked.
Sarah Lammert, a colleague of mine in Unitarian Universalist ministry, tells a story of meeting a Maasai warrior in 1985. She was studying in Kenya with the School for International Living. They were building bricks for a local schoolhouse in a remote area. She and other students got invited to a dinner of fire-roasted meat with the local warriors. Most of them, she said, were younger than her twenty-one years, but seemed “ancient in spirit – calm and wise.” One of the young men asked her who her people were. She said:
I stumbled with my answer, explaining that I came from the area of the Mississippi River. He seemed puzzled that I could not clearly identify myself with a tribe. ‘I know who I am,’ he said gravely. By this, he mean; I know who I am in community. I know who I am as a part of the natural world. I know myself to be a member of one tribal body. I belong; therefore I am.’
For those who live in community-centered cultures, chasing after one’s identity without that sense of belonging is incomprehensible – a fool’s errand. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote:
We are one, after all, you and I;Together we suffer,Together exist,And forever will recreate each other.
Our American culture emphasizes the primacy of the individual over that oneness. In doing so, separation rather than unity of spirit is fostered. We are more likely to ask “Who am I?” than “Whose am I?” “Who am I?” is in fact an important question. Each of us needs to explore our sense of identity and purpose. Yet without exploring the question “Whose am I?” alongside it, or as part of it, our inquiry can become a shallow and self-interested examination.
That is why, from 2011 to 2013, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association began a theological conversations entitled, “Whose Are We?” There was a feeling that Unitarian Universalists can get caught up in focusing on who we are and neglect to consider our covenant with each other. The program provided ministers with opportunities to explore theological, vocational, and personal implications of their covenant. They explored together what they “are called to serve and what nurtures our ministries.” The program led to deeper conversation about how we are part of “something larger, which both includes and transcends us.”1
One outcomes was a sermon by Rev. Victoria Safford in which she quoted Quaker Douglas Steer. Steer says “the ancient question, ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one: ‘Whose am I?’ – because there is not identity outside relationship.” For Steer, asking “Whose am I?” calls us beyond “the little self-absorbed self” to the interdependent web of life, to a wholeness beyond our individual selves and even beyond our individual families or neighborhoods or national borders, while honoring those relationships as well. The greed, self-centeredness and loneliness that plague our world and our souls find a remedy when our focus encompasses something larger than ourselves alone.
Let’s be honest. Most of us have times in our lives when we feel absorbed in our own problems, discouraged, and want to focus on our own needs without regard for that larger web of life. It turns out that being part of something larger makes life richer and more meaningful, but also comes with obligations.
John Murray’s arrival in America brought him into this realization. John Murray had every reason to be wary of forming connections. He had lost his wife, his son, his job, all of his money, and had been jailed for his inability to pay his bills. He left England to sail for America because he felt his life was over. John Murray had experienced incredible losses in his life. He was trying to heal his own spirit. He was trying to free himself from bonds that felt constraining and hurtful. Though he was committed to Universalism, he had determined never to preach again. He was ready to turn his back on the world’s need for his message of love.
As you know from our story this morning, John Murray met Thomas Potter when his boat ran aground in New Jersey. The course of his life would forever change. And that change would also forever impact the development of Universalism in America. John Murray promised Potter he would stay and preach if the winds did not change and if his boat could not set sail by Sunday. That promise brought him back into relationship, back into belonging. It also brought him back to life.
On Sunday morning, September 30, 1770, when the wind had not changed, Murray preached the Universalist message of love in Potter’s chapel. I was grateful to visit the site of Potter’s chapel a few years ago. There was a hunger for this good news. And preaching brought Murray back to life. That turn of events helped found Universalism in America. The message of love has changed a lot of lives, including mine and yours.2
Being part of something larger than ourselves not only gives us life it also requires something of us. It comes with obligations to bring others to life. That connection calls us to seek love, to end suffering and destruction, and to do our part to recreate each other. Albert Schweitzer describes this ethic this way:
As a being in an active relation to the world [one] comes into a spiritual relation with it by not living for [one]self alone, but feeling [the] self one with all life that comes within [one’s] reach …. [A person] injures and destroys life only under a necessity which [they] cannot avoid, and never from thoughtlessness. So far as [they are] free … [they use] every opportunity of tasting the blessedness of being able to assist life and avert from it suffering and destruction.
To begin to explore whose we are is to begin to acknowledge our indebtedness to all life. When we do, we take nothing for granted. We know that “Together we suffer, together exist.” Together with people from all cultures and religions and races. “Together we suffer, together exist.” And only together will we flourish, thrive, and become whole.
Events this week compel us to engage the question: “Whose am I?” – both the rewards and obligations it entails. In Charlotte – the killing of Keith Lamont Scott and the ongoing protests - are yet more reminders in a long and burgeoning list of devastating reminders that racism is deeply engrained in us and in our American culture today. We need to keep asking: To whom do I belong and who belongs to me? Do we know who we are in community? Do we know who we are as a part of the natural world? Do we know ourselves to be members of one tribal body?
This weekend the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington. “In large graven letters on the wall … is a quote from poet Langston Hughes: “I, too, am America.” Hughes poem was published in 1926. It was written in the early 20th century when Jim Crow laws in the south enforced racial segregation. Hughes was a voice for those excluded.3 Listen to the words of his poem:
I, too, sing America.I am the darker brother.They send me to eat in the kitchenWhen company comes,But I laugh,And eat well,And grow strong.Tomorrow,I’ll be at the tableWhen company comes.Nobody’ll dareSay to me,“Eat in the kitchen,”Then.Besides,They’ll see how beautiful I amAnd be ashamed—I, too, am America.
Sadly these words are not consigned to our past. They also speak to our present, and to the terrible events that continue to exclude and separate people.
To turn our attention to contemplating those to whom we belong and those who belong to us is to come into an active relation with the world. It means not living for ourselves alone, but instead feeling ourselves one with all life that comes within our reach. Don’t we all belong to each other? Aren’t we all America, all one human family?
This is a troubling time in our country. I long for the day when the people in this country who are now excluded will be able to declare: “I, too, am America” – and be heard and honored.
I long for the day we will all be able to say “I, too, am America” and mean it and believe it. I long for the day when the history of racism will indeed be our history from which we have learned and grown whole.
But today, I long for us to hold fast hope and courage to continue the struggle to make it so in the days ahead. Let us keep John Murray’s good news of love alive in us, in our faith, and in our world. For truly we are in need of the good news of love.
Amen. Blessed be.