Free and Responsible

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
Free and Responsible

By highly unofficial survey, of the seven principles that we affirm and promote as a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, number four, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” is the favorite. Today we delve into what this freedom and responsibility mean, at a particularly acute moment for our country.

Worship leader: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Special music: Ihang Lin, piano

Photo by Brandon Mowinkel on Unsplash

Follow along in the order of service:

Video of the entire January 24, 2021 service with copyrighted and private information redacted.


Do you know the song that’s in our hymnal that goes: (sings) “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all these chains holding me,” and then this great, enigmatic line,

“I wish I could say all the things I could say.” It raises so many questions. What are these things that I could say? And why can’t I say them?

What is keeping us from saying the things that we could say if we were free? Sometimes it’s an actual danger. Sometimes we are at no physical risk, yet there’s something else making us feel as if we can’t speak what is in our hearts . . . Or maybe we don’t even know yet what we want to say, and we won’t be able to say it until we do know it.

And to turn the question around: what would help us to say what we could say? What would make us safer, braver, wiser . . . more free?

One thing we do to help ourselves along is come here: to explore, to discover what we think, to discover what we believe is true and to what we want to commit ourselves.

Compelled by longing, we come here we seek out practices and people that will help us to be free and to say what is in our hearts.

When I gave a version of this sermon several years ago, I was thinking mostly of internal congregational practices. But last week, as I searched for a sermon that would bear repeating, this one caught my eye because its theme also resonates with our country’s struggles. All year, during the pandemic; and for many years, as our political and economic systems have shifted; and really, for the entire history of this country, we have posed the question: how does it feel to be free? What does freedom mean?

You may know that Unitarian Universalist congregations promise each other that they will affirm and promote seven principles. In an extremely informal survey of Unitarian Universalists, the favorite of these principles is the fourth. The middle one. I’m tempted to say, therefore, the hub around which all the others revolve, although honestly, one could make that argument for any of the seven . . . In any case, we like it. It is “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

If we were in our Main Hall, I’d urge you to take a wallet card of the principles from our pamphlet rack. Instead, I’ve put them at the end of the order of service so you can print them out if you want to keep them handy. I know somebody who keeps a little stack of them by the front door so that when somebody comes and tries to give her their religious literature, such as the Watchtower, she agrees to take theirs if they’ll take hers. I guess we’re not seeing a lot of door-to-door proselytizing at the moment.

In this fourth principle, there are at least four words of such richness that we could ponder them together for a long time: truth; meaning; free; responsible. Today I’m talking just about those last two, because the interaction between them is so interesting.

Those who drafted the principles and the General Assembly that approved them, some 35 years ago, clearly believed that our quest needed to involve both freedom and responsibility.

Responsibility without freedom sounds like a kind of imprisonment. Servitude without reward. Our religious ancestors, and many of us personally, left behind doctrines and dogmas that bound us to “shalts” and “shalt nots” without giving us the freedom that we sought in return. To give up that hard-won freedom would be a betrayal of the human spirit’s longing to explore, just as to give up the freedoms on which our country was founded would be to once again put ourselves under the rule of a king. Without the freedom to search for the truth, how would we make the discoveries by which we create meaningful lives?

And freedom without responsibility would be mere license. That might seem more tempting. But Howard Thurman, one of the great preachers and spiritual leaders of the 20th century, warned against it. He wrote, “There is a medley of confusion as to the meaning of personal freedom. For some it means to function without limitations at any point, to be able to do what one wants to do, and without hindrance. This is the fantasy of many minds, particularly those that are young. For others, personal freedom is to be let alone; to be protected against any force that may move into the life with a swift and decisive imperative. For still others, it means to be limited in one’s  power over others only by one’s own strength, energy, and perseverance.

“The meaning of personal freedom,” he continues, “is found in none of these. They lack precious ingredients: a core of discipline and inner structure, without which personal freedom is a delusion.”

Freedom and responsibility, it seems, are partners. Freedom and what Thurman refers to as “discipline”—which was actually the word in an earlier statement of our principles, the first one after the Unitarians and Universalists merged. When the new UUs wrote up their commitments, one was “To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth.”

A great spiritual and philosophical movement arose in the crucible of Unitarianism of the early 19th century: Transcendentalism. Some of you have been learning about it from the Reverend John Buehrens, and it’s possible that he has a very different take on some of the things I’m about to say, which would be great. Part of what I’m talking about is exactly that kind of give and take.

If you aren’t taking the class and aren’t familiar with the term “Transcendentalism,” cast your mind back to your high school English class. If you read anything by Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, you were learning about this early Unitarian school of thought.

The Transcendentalists promoted the conviction that each individual spirit could access the deepest truth and meaning of life. They, like Unitarians in general, like many of us today, were rebelling against traditions that held them down in dogmatism and conformity. To declare the    doctrine, “Obey thyself” (Emerson: Divinity School Address), was to declare an ultimate independence from religious authorities, governmental authorities, the guidance of tradition, and anything else if it conflicted with the murmurings of conscience. And that was a very important move forward for freedom.

And of course, it is epitomized in Emerson’s possibly most famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” which includes statements like this.

“I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you”;

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself”; and even,

“We must go alone.”

His friend Thoreau wrote, in Walden, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

And yet, this was not the whole picture of freedom for the Transcendentalists. They nurtured various practices to aid the search for truth and meaning, some of which were quite solitary, such as journal keeping or simply being alone with one’s thoughts. But other Transcendentalist practices to help us discover meaning and truth were, and are, the opposite of solitary. One of the most important of these is conversation.

The Transcendentalist who perhaps demonstrated most energetically the importance of conversation in the search for meaning and truth was somebody whose works you probably didn’t read in your high school English class: Margaret Fuller. Fuller was born in 1810 and lived only 40 years before she and her family died in a shipwreck just off the coast of New York, within sight of Fire Island. But in that brief lifetime, she accomplished a tremendous amount to shape both Transcendentalism and the life of the mind in our country.

She was editor of The Dial, the Transcendentalist journal that put forth many of these thinkers’ ideas. She wrote the book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which had a significant effect on the movement for women’s rights. She was a journalist, a book reviewer, a revolutionary, and all around, one of the foremost public intellectuals of her time. And she developed salons that she called simply “Conversations”: forums for discussing literature, art, philosophy, history, social problems with seriousness and purpose.

Now there was an explicitly feminist project to this. She wanted to provide an opportunity for women, and she specifically invited women into these conversations. Many were for women only. Most women of the time were flat-out denied formal and higher education. Most of the men in her circle went to Harvard College, which would not begin admitting women for another hundred years; the great women’s colleges were only just beginning to be founded; and most families that valued formal education for their young men saw no reason for young women to receive the same opportunities. To make up for this lack, Fuller could have created a lecture series. She could have compiled a list of great books that they ought to absorb, or arranged for tutors to catch them up with the Harvard-educated men. But she didn’t create those solitary forms of exploration. She created conversations.

To this day, that’s a major purpose of our religious communities, a reason to form a congregation: to nurture opportunities to carry out our search via conversation. Adult Religious Education, Children and Youth Religious Education, women’s and men’s groups, the Forum, Brown Bag Books, the patio after services—any place that a few people gather to converse: these don’t just meet our needs for social or emotional or intellectual connection, though they do all of that. They are ways that we help each other along the paths that lead to truth and meaning.

The pandemic has posed a particular challenge to gathering, and so we’ve worked hard to help groups move to online forums and create other ones, such as Dan’s Wednesday evening conversations about a wide range of religious issues, the Sacred Text Reading Group, and after each Sunday service, the main “room” where those who wish to dig into the topic of the service can do that together.

Whether or not you regularly participate in one of these small groups, being a part of this community is to be in conversation. The salon is open. And to anyone looking for meaning and truth, ethical guidance or deep thought, I recommend choosing one of these gatherings, or two or three. Conversation is fun and interesting, yes, but more than that: it demonstrates why we need both freedom and responsibility; it gives us both freedom and responsibility; and it just might be the saving of the soul of our nation.

I’m such a big promoter of small groups because of my own experience within them. So I’d like to give you a little peek into one I’ve belonged to for many years. This one is called Women’s R&R, it meets monthly, and it is made up of Unitarian Universalist clergy who identify as female. I think the initials initially stood for reading and reflection, or maybe rest and relaxation; another thing one of those r’s could stand for would be responsibility, for three reasons:

We make a commitment to each other.

We proclaim a responsibility to ourselves.

And we take seriously our accountability to the truth.

In the commitment to each other, we promise that we’ll make participation a priority, we’ll do our preparation of reading and thinking, and we’ll share the time for talking so that everyone has time to speak and to listen reflectively. And we promise to proactively invite in every female UU minister who moves into the area; the last line of our covenant is “The more the merrier!”

These aren’t always easy responsibilities. There are months that that Monday rolls around and I just don’t feel like I have the time. But I promised. And it’s important for me to be there for myself and others, so I have rarely missed a session.

The responsibility to ourselves comes into play in our promise to be honest and vulnerable and risk being our whole and real selves with each other. Anyone can show up and talk and listen for two hours and barely let the conversation touch her soul. But if we accept the responsibly to engage with that honesty, vulnerability, and authenticity, then we will be transformed.

And being our real selves means accepting that we have a responsibility to the truth. To think hard. To question our discoveries and dig deeper. To find the words to express what we learn, and be willing to change our minds because of what others say, when what they say seems to us to be more true than what we believed before.

Those are the responsibilities.

And there is tremendous freedom in this group as well. Because of these monthly gatherings, each of us goes places we could never have gone alone. Each of us makes discoveries that we did not make until the sparkling light of that conversation illuminated something new.

Now, you can see how responsibility is important in the search for truth. When you have to articulate your ideas to somebody else, when you have to show that they have some reason behind them, well, that helps you to clarify your own thoughts. That’s a kind of responsibility and accountability that a group helps us to muster.

There’s also accountability in the search for meaning that takes a gentler form: the form of support. For example, one of the functions of such a group is that its members can bring troubles and sorrows to the circle. When you are trying to find meaning in the midst of a loss, the circle of community helps by listening and caring, and–by example, more than by words–reminding you that grief is not the final word. That too is a kind of responsibility to which a group holds its members, and therefore they are able to hold one another when meaning is hard to find.

So freedom and responsibility balance each other. Yes.

But as you may already be beginning to hear in these examples, there’s something still more complex, more intertwined, about these two values, and that is that there is no true freedom without responsibility. That’s not because of anyone’s rules. It’s just how freedom works.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

Ihang (Lin, today’s guest musician) and I are equally free to play Chopin. Nobody is stopping us either one of us. And while one of us may have more innate talent than the other, I’m sure either of us could become competent at it.

But only the one who has put in the discipline, as Howard Thurman said–who has taken responsibility–is actually free to play that glorious music. It’s not enough to be free; only the one who has also been responsible can make good on that desire. (It’s not me.)

Another example:

In the resources I give to people planning a wedding are various phrases to say as they exchange rings. One is “With this ring I consecrate myself to you, and you to me, to be bound and freed by our love.” Why bound and freed? Bound because the love between people restricts and restrains them. When you are in a relationship with someone, whether it’s a marriage or a friendship or a book group, you are accepting certain responsibilities. You can’t just say whatever comes into your head. you have committed to be kind and honest. You can’t just do whatever you feel like doing. When you’re married, you’re bound by a promise to consider your partner’s needs in deciding where to live, what jobs to pursue, even what to do that evening. Decisions that you used to make without consulting anybody but yourself, are now decisions that include someone else. Marriage binds us. All relationships do.

And we are also freed by our relationships. Will you take a moment right now to reflect on a relationship that makes you happy? . . . . There is something that you have learned only because of this relationship. Or a memory that makes you laugh that came about only through this relationship. No wonder that, as you think about this relationship, your heart soars. It’s like the lines in that hymn: “I wish I could be like a bird in the sky / How sweet it would be if I found I could fly.”

Here’s the thing: that freedom comes not in spite of being bound to each other, not in spite of this relationship’s asking so much of you, but because of those responsibilities.

It is the commitment we make to others–to a baby, to a spouse, to a circle of friends, to a group of people at the church, to anyone to whom we have promised: yes, I will be there, and for whom we keep that promise–it is that commitment that makes it possible to discover aspects of ourselves and vistas of life that were formerly hidden.

Reverend Howard Thurman was right again: “There can be no personal freedom where there is not an initial personal surrender.”

“There can be no personal freedom where there is not an initial personal surrender.”

Sustaining any relationship entails a certain amount of surrender. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. But that surrender is invaluable, because there is so much about ourselves, about life, that we learn through our relationships, and only through our relationships. The relationships open up a greater landscape to explore. What’s more, we often learn the most from the relationships that bind us the closest–that ask the greatest commitment of us. They are not prisons or traps; they are grounded in mutual respect and care; but that respect and that care require a lot from us. When we give them, we gain greater freedom.

That is why those who insist that the freest country is the one that asks the least of us have it all wrong. We have obligations to one another: in the way we act, in the sacrifices we agree to make, in the rules by which we impose restraints and responsibilities on ourselves, from the country’s constitution on down to the Board of Education by-laws. The Congress is only the people’s house if we respect it; if we acknowledge our responsibility toward it. Without those, it isn’t anyone’s house. It’s a ruin. There isn’t much freedom in living in a ruin, nor even in ruling over one.

That is why we say in the covenant of this congregation, our mutual promises: that we commit to making it everything that we want it to be. That is a serious responsibility. The more we fulfill that commitment, the broader and deeper and wilder and richer and more complex will be the environment we create here, and our freedom will grow.

I hope that our national conversation, our congregational conversations, all of our relationships and the interchange we find there, call us all into responsibility and free us to fly to heights we did not even know were possible. So may it be.