What Is Growing Ethically?


How do we grow ethically? “With a bit of muddle and some hard testing,” as Louise said.

Our mission here in this church is not a “mission accomplished” kind of mission. The job is never completed. For the second and third ones – serving justly and loving radically – it’s conceivable that we might reach a plateau. I rather suspect that we haven’t, but it’s conceivable that we could. And then our job would be just to keep on serving justly and loving radically. When it comes to growing, though, there’s no plateau. If your growth plateaus, you’re not growing anymore.

Our mission directs us to, no matter what level of ethical or spiritual development we might have reached, keep on growing still further. Forever. When it comes to ethical and spiritual development, our mission does not allow any status to stay quo.

I’ll talk about spiritual growth on other Sundays. Today, let’s reflect on ethical growth. Philosopher Iris Murdoch has written: “Nothing in life is of any value except the attempt to be virtuous.” It just so happens that before going into ministry, I was a philosophy professor and taught our department’s ethics course every year. So you might think I’d have something to say on the subject of ethics. And you’d be right.

First, I want to congratulate you for recognizing the importance of the ethical and enshrining it in your mission. Too often we have seen religious bodies imagine that spiritual growth was all they needed. As vital as it is to develop the resources for making meaning of this life and this world, and to experience regularly awe and wonder and the oneness of all things, this is not sufficient.

People who show up at a Zen practice group – even more than your average Unitarian Universalist – are likely to be looking for a particular wow spiritual experience. A newcomer is likely to show up wanting to become “enlightened.” If they stick around and keep coming back, they will sooner or later hear me tell them, “You are already enlightened.” And, “whatever conception of enlightenment you may have, it’s not like that....Nor is it otherwise.” And, “The practice IS the enlightenment.” From time to time I’ll even say, “enlightenment is delusion.”

Sometimes in my talks to Zen groups the topic of the ethical transgressions of certain famous Zen masters comes up. Certain Zen masters have been abusive. Some committed sexual misconduct or other abuses of power, or skimmed from the financial resources of the temple or zen center they served, or were alcoholics. How could enlightened masters act that way? One answer might be to say, “they just weren’t very enlightened after all.” I don’t think that’s it.

Look, spiritual enlightenment doesn’t guarantee ethical awareness. Satori isn’t going to make you able to play the oboe if you don’t already have that skill. If you are a skilled musician, you might be able to more readily slip into “the zone” when performing, but, no, spiritual development won’t impart the basic skills if you don’t have them. Nirvana doesn’t improve your math skills. And: awakening to the vast oneness and emptiness of all things isn’t by itself going to clue you in to just how much devastation your peccadilloes can wreak upon a community that trusted you.

If you want to master the oboe, you have to learn and train at the oboe. Meditating is good for a number of things – that’s not one of them. To learn calculus, you need a calculus teacher – or appropriate book or series of internet videos. Spiritual teachers or books or internet videos will not improve your ability to solve calculus problems.

Ethical growth requires cognitive learning that is distinct from spiritual maturity. It’s not just a matter of being good, or kindhearted -- or even enlightened. It takes study to find out what the effects of actions and words are likely to be.

Some of you may remember the 1960s – though the saying goes that if you remember the 60s you weren’t really a part of them. In the 60s, a number of Unitarian Universalists – including some of our ministers, were what was then thought of as “freewheeling” when it came to sexual conduct. Our movement learned some hard empirical lessons about just how harmful that can be. All we knew then was that the sexual ethic of the puritans didn’t work for us, so we were experimenting with alternatives – and some of those experiments were disastrous. Looking back at that time we are now in the position to say that behavior was unethical even though the perpetrators might not have had any way to know any better.

We know better now: we have evolved some standards of what is inappropriate, when back in the 1960s even to invoke the word “appropriate” -- or its cognates, “propriety” and “proper” – was commonly scorned as unliberated. Of course, inappropriate conduct still happens sometimes – but we have better tools for at least naming it when it does.

When I think about what I knew when I was 25 – and what American culture understood in the 1960s – if I’d been a young minister at that time, oh, man, I hate to think what I might have done – what neither I nor our churches at that time had the brakes to put on to prevent what we hadn’t even learned yet to call abuse. I am so glad that by the time I started seminary in the last year of the 20th century they were teaching us about power dynamics, and what constitutes abuse of that power.

My point is that that was something I had to learn – cognitively learn. There were teachers and I was taught – rather like grammar. Ethics and grammar are alike in that we pick up the basics -- usually -- in the process of being socialized and learning how to talk, but the finer points have to be more formally and intentionally taught. Interestingly, the way both grammar and ethics are taught is by identifying mistakes. Grammar mistakes generally don’t hurt anyone, so, outside of classroom contexts, it’s rude to point them out – but with ethical mistakes the stakes are higher.

We’ve done a lot of learning about boundaries in the last few decades – how to respect autonomy while also making space for joyful connection. Just to learn this vocabulary – to be able to converse and think with concepts like boundary, and autonomy represents ethical growth.

We’ve done a lot of learning about privilege – and about the way White Supremacy culture infects so many ways of thinking. That’s ethical growth – and we certainly have further to go. Our words and actions have effects on other people that can be entirely independent of what we thought they meant, what we wanted them to mean, what we intended them to mean. Finding out what our words and actions might be conveying to others – what impact we might be having – takes some study -- some reading, some conversations, some listening. It’s a matter of learning. Finding out what environmental damage our consumer choices might be doing is a matter of learning.


Understanding all the effects of our actions can be a daunting task. This was illustrated in the TV sitcom “The Good Place” – a comedy about moral philosophy. The premise is that throughout life, people get points for doing good things, and lose points for doing bad things. Celestial beings in another dimension are keeping track of every human being’s point total. When you die, if you have enough points you go to the Good Place. If you don’t, you go to the bad place.

One of those celestial beings – Michael, played by Ted Danson -- has taken a particular interest in the four main character humans of the show, and is trying to get them into the Good Place – but no matter how many times he manages to get them sent back to Earth to try to be better, they can’t seem to get enough points.

In season 3, episode 10, which first aired in fall 2018, Michael makes the discovery that, in fact, no one has gotten into the good place for 521 years. For more than five centuries every single person has, upon dying, been sent to the bad place. At first, Michael thinks the demons who run the bad place have been tampering with the system, denying people their points to keep them from getting into the Good Place. But then he realizes that the ethical challenges people face in the modern world have gotten more complicated.

In a key scene, he’s looking through past records of human actions and the points that were garnered. He reads out two examples for comparison:
“In 1534, Douglas Wynegarr of Hawkhurst, England gave his grandmother roses for her birthday. He picked them himself, walked them over to her. She was happy. Boom. 145 points. Now . . . yeah, here we go. In 2009, Doug Ewing of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother a dozen roses, but he lost four points. Why? Because he ordered roses using a cell phone that was made in a sweatshop. The flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away, which created a massive carbon footprint, and his money went to a billionaire racist CEO, who sends his female employees pictures of his genitals. Whoo!
Another character, Tahani, observes, “That Is a very odd thing to cheer.” But Michael explains:
“Don’t you understand? The Bad Place isn’t tampering with points. They don’t have to. Because every day the world gets a little more complicated, and being a good person gets a little harder. Gather the others. We have a lot to do.”
And off they go.

So. Yes, we today need to think about the ethics of buying products manufactured in sweatshops. We need to think about whether our consumer choices are facilitating toxic pesticide use, migrant worker exploitation – and more: resource depletion, habitat destruction, species extinction, pollutants of air, of water, of soil. We need to think about our carbon footprint – and whether we’re tacitly condoning billionaire, racist, sexual-harassing CEOs.

Douglas Wynnegarr of Hawkhurst, England in 1534 didn’t have to think about any of those things. But is it really any harder to be a good 21st-century person than it was to be a good 16th-century person? Look, forget about the points – the whole concept of getting points is a silly TV conceit, and it’s funny, but it has nothing to do with trying to live a life being the best person you can. On the one hand, sure, we do have a lot to pay attention to that people in the Medieval and Renaissance periods didn’t. But they didn’t have any way to think about those things. The facts of life were different, and the knowledge about those facts was different. Yet then, as now, ethical behavior demands taking into account the effects of our actions – which entails the due diligence to find out what we can about what those effects may be.

If we, today, are called upon to consider our effects on the environment and on systems of oppression, we also have the resources to do so – sources of knowledge and understanding unavailable in previous centuries. The challenge Maya Angelou articulated was the same then as it is now: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Ted Danson’s character Michael humorously recapped some of the new ethical challenges in our age – but every age has had the task to work as best they could on how to be a good person. We have chronicles of how past ages did that work, going back to Greeks of ancient Athens and the Israelites of ancient Jerusalem.

Importantly, we need each other to do that. We have to cultivate the institutions that teach us to think about and reasonably pursue a good life – "good" both in the sense of virtuous and in the sense of truly fulfilling and joyous.

In this regard, there has been a shift. The relevant shift is not in the last 500 years, but in the last 20 – and that’s what I want to talk about in the last part.


David Brooks recently pondered:
“Why have Americans become so mean? I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive. At the far extreme of meanness, hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years.” ("How America Got Mean," Atlantic, 2023 Sep)
Gun sales are up. Social trust is way down.
“In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity; in 2018, fewer than half did. The words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces.
The factors that are making us mean are, of course, also making us sad. Deaths of despair – that is, deaths from suicide or substance addiction – are rising. In 1990, according to the General Social Survey, 8 percent of Americans rated their happiness at the lowest level. Thirty-two years later, in 2022, Americans rating their happiness at the lowest level was up from 8 percent to 20 percent.

What are these factors making us mean and sad? There are a number of inter-relating factors. Social media is making us crazy. We’re more isolated -- participate less in community organizations -- and that makes us crazy. We’re becoming a more racially diverse country, and the challenge to come to grips with that has millions of white Americans in a panic. Ever since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, economic inequality has been growing and growing, leaving people increasingly afraid, alienated, and pessimistic. There are a lot of inter-relating factors.

To address them, we need each other, and to cultivate the institutions that teach us to think about and reasonably pursue a good life – how to be moral. Brooks writes:
“In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation. . . . A culture that leaves people morally naked and alone leaves them without the skills to be decent to one another. . . . If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized.”
It’s not that we don’t yearn for moral purpose and meaning. It’s just that too many of us don’t know how.

The yearning is reflected in the popularity of some TV shows. “The Good Place” was about what we owe to each other, and how we can learn to be good. And when it finished its run, there was "Ted Lasso" – the most watched show on Apple TV+. Jason Sudeikis’ character, Ted Lasso, an American coaching soccer in England, articulated a two-sentence description of moral formation. He said:
“For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”
Ted Lasso is
“an earnest, cheerful, and transparently kind man who enters a world that has grown cynical, amoral, and manipulative, and, episode after episode, even through his own troubles, he offers the people around him opportunities to grow more gracious, to confront their vulnerabilities and fears, and to treat one another more gently and wisely.” (Brooks)
So, that’s great – and it is the lesson that we long for – but a couple TV shows are not enough. We need our schools and our leaders to put questions of how to be a good person, how to live a good life – not just a materialistic, consumerist life – at the center. And there are areas of ethical growth aside from TV shows: the growth I was mentioning earlier, growth in our understanding of how power dynamics can be abused, how to recognize where white supremacy culture is manifesting, where patriarchy is manifesting, why carbon footprints matter. All that represents real ethical growth.

To pull through this period – to more widely share the ethical growth now available -- there will need to be more places like this one: congregations that, week in and week out, affirm that we – individually and collectively – are called to grow ethically, to become better than we were: more kind, less arrogant; more respectful, less entitled; more curious, less judgmental. That’s what ethical growth is, and may it be our path.



Being a People of Covenant


Imagine a religion where people of different beliefs worship as one faith. Back in the aughts, a Unitarian Universalist ad campaign promoted this slogan. "Imagine a religion where people of different beliefs worship as one faith." How could that be? One faith – one religion – many beliefs?

That’s possible because religion isn’t really about belief. So when I’m asked, "What do Unitarian Universalists believe?" I usually answer: What Unitarian Universalists believe is that your religion isn’t about what you believe.

So what is religion about? I’m so glad you asked. Three things. One, it’s about how you live – that is, the ethics and values that guide your life. Two, it’s about community – the people you come together with to share in rituals that affirm your community bond. Three, it’s about a certain kind of experience – the experiences we call religious experience, or spiritual experience: moments of transcendence and awe, of apprehending the beauty, wonder, and oneness of all things.

Those are three rather different things. Yet a faith institution exists to weave them together so that each one supports and reinforces the other two. The ethics and values that guide your life facilitate your community belonging, and prepare you to be open to transcendent experience. Your faith community helps reinforce certain ethics and values, and also helps lay the ground for you to have transcendent experiences. Transcendent experiences expose you to a oneness that awakens compassion, which becomes part of your ethics and values, and also draws you closer to your community. In faith community, each strand of the braid is shaped and directed so that it can reinforce the other two.

The idea that religion is about believing goes back to St. Paul. When Paul invented the religion known as Christianity, his big innovation was to make believing central. When Islam came along 6 centuries later, it followed Paul’s model, so Islam is also belief-centric. But the other world religions are not belief-centric. The Asian religions have teachings, but if you happen to not accept a few of them, that’s fine. What makes a person Jewish isn’t what they believe, but what they practice and that they have a shared history and understanding of themselves as under the laws.

From our roots in Christianity, Unitarian Universalism has traveled a long road back from belief-centric religion, and it was a road of understanding ourselves more and more as being people of covenant – not creed, which is to say, not belief.

A key step on that road was the Cambridge Platform. I’d like you to know about the Cambridge Platform if you don’t. The Puritans who founded the Plymouth colony in 1620 and the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, proceeded to adopt in 1648, the Cambridge Platform. These Puritans didn’t have a strong political tradition other than the sense of being bound in covenant. At first, they felt need for neither a creed nor a specific structure of church governance – after all, they were God’s people bound together by covenant, and that was enough.

We today don’t agree with those Puritans on much. But we are their descendants. Two hundred years after the Plymouth landing – or, invasion – the Unitarian denomination formed consisting of New England congregations that split from their Congregationalist Puritan past. We’ve left behind the focus on sin, the doctrine of total depravity, and of predestination. We’ve sought – and still seek – to correct the way covenant was used to dismiss, disrespect, and oppress people, such as indigenous peoples, deemed not to be in the covenant.

One thing that we’ve kept from our Puritan forebears is this sense of being a people of Covenant. We are not bound together by creed. Unitarians today aren’t even bound together, as the Puritans were, by a common scripture: the 66 canonical books of the Protestant Bible. We are noncreedal and noncanonical. We are bound by covenant – by our promise to each other to walk together on this long, strange journey called life, to have each other’s backs – to care for one another. Covenant.

By 1648, a generation after the Plymouth colony began, the Puritans, facing criticism from Presbyterians for not having a polity, decided that, after all, they did would adopt a polity. They didn’t want Episcopal Polity – rule by the bishops – which is what the Church of England had. They didn’t want Presbyterian Polity – governance by groups of elders called Presbyters – which is what, back in England, the dissenting churches (dissenting, that is, from the Church of England). The Puritans would also have been aware of the Catholic church’s structure of governance, and that was definitely out of the question for them.

They decided, in 1648, to create a polity that was none of the above. It would be a new polity, one based on covenant. They called it Congregational polity, and The Cambridge Platform of 1648 spelled out what this “Congregational Polity” meant. The Platform laid out a basic form for congregations to have: a role for pastors, for teachers, and for ruling elders who oversaw church administration. As the name "Congregational Polity" implies, the Cambridge Platform gave each congregation the fundamental authority for their own operations. A congregation did have some responsibilities to other congregations; the Cambridge Platform identified six:
  • take thought for each other's welfare;
  • consult and advise each other;
  • admonish congregations that erred;
  • allow members of one church to receive communion in other churches;
  • send letters of recommendation when a member goes to a new church; and
  • financially assist poor churches.
Beyond these, each congregation was autonomous.

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 is the foundational document of Congregational Polity – the polity we still follow today. Along with our free search for truth and meaning comes free self-governance. We make our own bylaws, elect our own board, hire our own staff, call our own minister, buy and own and maintain our own building and grounds. It is up to us alone to fund the maintenance of our home, the programs, the ministry, through which we nurture our spirits and help heal our world.

Critics of congregational polity call it a type of religious anarchism – and there’s some truth to that. Still, we share our congregational polity with a number of other denominations. The United Church of Christ – formerly known as the Congregationalist Church – also descends from those New England Puritan churches – namely, the ones that didn’t break away to become Unitarian -- so the UCC also has congregational polity. Baptists and various forms of nondominational Christianity have congregational polity, as do Quakers, Disciples of Christ, most Jewish synagogues, many Sikh Gurdwaras, and most Islamic mosques in the US.

Some of these are also officially creedless, though they all have a shared scripture. Unitarian Universalists are, to the best of my knowledge, alone in being held together neither by the authority of a creed, nor by the authority of a common scripture, nor under the authority of a bishop, synod, diocese, presbytery, or conciliarity.

Which raises the question: What does hold us together? Sometimes, sadly, the answer is: nothing, and we come apart. Congregations acrimoniously split, or dissolve. When we are held together, the name for our sticking by each other is covenant.

Another covenant that may be more familiar is the marriage covenant. That’s also a promise to stick together, to share each other’s lives and provide mutual support. The words of the vow can be highly variable, but at base it comes down to promising to stick together, to share each other’s lives and provide mutual support. It is a committing of our lives that is ultimately beyond what any set of words can capture, whether those words are the vows spoken at a marriage ceremony or the words of a congregation’s covenant.

Yes, you can make a promise without signing a piece of paper – whether that paper is a marriage certificate or our membership book. You don’t have to sign anything to make a promise. It’s just that signing makes the promise public, makes the relationship public. Signing that paper tells the world that you have entered into a sacred relationship – with a spouse, in one case -- with a congregation, in the other.


Our greatest 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, understood “God” to be “community forming power.” That power which comes into existence when human beings gather in a group and which allows that group to form itself into a community – that’s what James Luther Adams called God. So Adams did a great deal of thinking and writing about Voluntary Associations – about the Covenants that are the community-forming power.

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal issues a report every four years, and their 2021 report was called, “Unlocking the Power of Covenant.” The Commission observes that: “We are the promises we make and the vows we break.” A Covenant, it says, “is a mutual sacred promise between individuals or groups, to stay in relationship, care about each other, and work together in good faith.” The Commission goes on to say:
“No single concept is more central to our faith understanding than being in covenant. It is at the core of our identity. It is how we try to build and sustain the Beloved Community. It is the foundation of our governance structures at all levels.”
Ultimately the covenant is beyond language, beyond what words can say. It is the embodied commitment to keep on being together in love. Married couples may have long forgotten the exact words of the vow they spoke on their wedding day, yet, as long as they remain married and together they are embodying their covenant in their way of being together.

The ultimate covenant is beyond words but is embodied in our way of being together, expressed in our patterns of interaction. Still, attempting to put the wordless into words can be helpful. Giving it some words, inevitably imperfect and needing regular revision, but still some words to express our commitment to each other – that can provide guidance about how we shall be together.

For congregations, covenants come in two main forms: aspirational covenants and behavioral covenants. Behavioral covenants delineate the behaviors we promise to follow or avoid. Because behavior is publicly observable, we can notice when someone has broken covenant, and encourage zir back in to the right relationship that our covenant says we promise to uphold.

It’s a reality of being a people of covenant that we sometimes do break covenant. And that reality means that being a people of covenant also entails being a people of forgiveness, recognizing that we stray and calling each back, over and over, every time we do. The life of covenant turns out to be less about staying and more about returning – over and over and over again.

Rev. David Pyle was with us this weekend for a startup workshop that some of you were here for. Rev. Pyle has had some Zen training, as have I, and he referenced the basic teaching for Zen meditation. Focus on your breath. We usually suggest first-timers count their breaths, 1 to 10, then start over at one. Or just bring all your attention to the breath coming in, and going out. Your mind will wander off. It will start thinking about one darn thing or another. That’s OK. That’s what minds do. The mind secretes thoughts the way the liver secretes bile. The practice is, as soon as you notice you’ve wandered off, bring your attention back to the breath.

The practice is the coming back. The point of a 25-minute meditation sit is not to be so concentrated that you stay focused on the breath the whole time. The point is to spend that time coming back over and over: noticing a thought, letting it go, returning to the breath. Returning to the breath is the practice.

And as Rev. Pyle pointed out, coming back is also the point of the practice of covenant: to return over and over to mindfulness of the promises that define who you are. Our aspirational covenant is our mission: to grow ethically and spiritually, serve justly, and love radically. This is not behaviorally defined. There’s no stipulation as to what behaviors constitute growing ethically and spiritually, serving justly, and loving radically. So we can’t judge whether someone else is out of covenant.

Certain behaviors might cause us to inquire gently whether you are keeping the aspiration in mind, but, ultimately, only you can decide if you are keeping the covenant to grow, serve, and love – and only you can assess how well or poorly you are growing, serving, and loving. You haven’t broken the covenant unless you’ve stopped trying, stopped aspiring to grow, to serve, and to love – stopped bringing your mind back to this covenant every time you notice you’ve drifted off from it.

Behavioral covenants do stipulate some behaviors. Because behaviors are observable, behavioral covenant allows us to go the further step of holding each other accountable. We have a team at work on developing a behavioral covenant for this congregation.

Covenants make us. They spell out who we are. When I don’t know who “us” is, then I don’t know who “me” is. By becoming more conscious of our covenants – spoken and unspoken – we can live into them more fully, and become who we are with greater awareness and greater intentionality.

Marcia Pally’s 2016 book, Commonwealth and Covenant, recognizes that we need both situatedness and separability. We need to be situated — embedded in functional and caring families, and thick communities that define our values and our selves: villages of ordinariness in which you can be your plain old ordinary self without the constant expectation to prove yourself.

We also need separability. We need to have the freedom and the support “to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living.”

What creates situatedness, notes Pally, is covenant. A contract protects interests, she says, but a covenant protects relationships.
“A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love.”
Contracts stipulate an exchange of goods or services, but people in a covenant delight in offering their gifts.

We are here to offer each other what gifts we can – to hold open the space of grace. It’s about seeing the goodness and dignity, and the failings and foibles or one another, and still loving each other.

I was once leading a Zen group that met weekly in the 2nd and 3rd grade classroom. Every week we Zen practitioners would gather in this room, and there on the wall, handwritten with marker on newsprint was the class covenant. It showed all the signs of a process in which grownups were drawing the language out of the out of 7- and 8-year-olds so that it would really be the kids’ own covenant. It said things like: “One: Listen and don’t speak when someone is holding the speaking stone.” There was: “Three: Pick up after each other and ourselves – don’t litter.” Notice: pick up after each other, not just after ourselves. The last one was: “11. Come together with a calm and open mind.” Nice. My favorite one, though, was number two: “Be kind to others even when they are not your friend.” Even our kids grasp the gist of the point that being a people of covenant means seeing the goodness and dignity, and the failings and foibles or one another, and still loving each other.

It’s about giving of ourselves, and being called together into a different way of being in the world. I have been held and held together in covenant with Unitarian Universalists my whole life – and now I am held in covenant with you. It is such a wonder. Thank you so much.



Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." It's a line from a song by The Who. Some of you may be thinking, “Just who does this new guy think he is?” – so I hasten to clarify: I’m not the boss. But let me also clarify: you aren’t either. So who’s the boss? Who or what is the ultimate authority around here?

In the traditional Christian churches, the answer to that question is God. Whether such an entity be imaginary or not, this has at least the salutary effect of directing the congregation’s allegiance to something worthier – or imagined as worthier -- than ego, whether individual ego or collective ego. It can be helpful to imagine.

For Unitarian Universalists, however, the ultimate authority – that to which our allegiance is directed – worthier even than the goodness of community and togetherness – is: our mission. At this church, that’s: "Grow ethically and spiritually; serve justly; love radically." That’s the boss. That’s the sheriff in these parts.

So when I say “new boss, same as the old boss,” it is literally the same. This mission is exactly the same as it was last year and the year before that. Not a word is changed. And when I say “meet this new boss” I mean that as our church year begins together, let us begin it by reintroducing, by reacquainting ourselves with this boss whom we are here to serve. Though the same as it has been, yet let it be for us new. Let it be freshly compelling. Let it be rejuvenated, sparkling and shining as washed by the waters of our coming together.

At the year’s beginning, let us take stock. How are we doing? It is our covenant, our promise, our mission, our vow: to grow ethically and spiritually, to serve justly, to love radically. Have we been? Have we been growing ethically? Growing spiritually? Serving justly? Loving radically?

However well or poorly you would say we have been fulfilling our mission, the question before us today, as it is every day, is how shall we fulfill it now? What shall we do with this day, this week, this year to grow ethically, grow spiritually, serve justly, and love radically? What is the work that your spirit longs to take up to grow, to serve, to love? What spiritual muscle toning exercises do you need?

This church is your spiritual gym for doing those exercises, strengthening the meaning, purpose, and wholeness of your life. My colleague Rev. Victoria Weinstein has written:
“If I go to the gym and people are sprawled out napping on the floor of the aerobics studio, I will think the gym management is not just remiss, but nuts. It’s no different in church. We’re all there for heart strengthening of a different kind. Leaders should be empowered to be able to say: 'Get off the aerobics floor, please. You can nap at home.' This isn’t about not loving people. It’s about being clear what congregational life is for. Napping on the floor of the aerobics studio is not part of our mission, so we won’t be addressing your complaints about the pillows.”
As we ingather for the 2023-24 year ahead, we come together to do the work of growing, serving, and loving. We are here to serve the mission, which includes serving others. You’re not here to serve me, and I’m not here to serve you – except insofar as doing so serves our mission. And I want to urge you to keep in mind that, actually, the staff is not here to serve you either, nor is your board. When it comes to our board, yes, your votes elected them, but you elected them to serve the mission, not you. When it comes to the staff, yes, your contributions provide their wages, but please understand that you’re paying them, too, to serve the mission, not you. So, as Rev. Weinstein put it, we won’t be addressing complaints about the pillows -- or anything else that isn’t about this church growing, serving, and loving. Eyes on the prize, good people. Eyes on the prize.

Tall order, but that is the mission we shoulder -- nothing less. To say that a church is a spiritual gym is not to forget that the church is also a spiritual infirmary. There are times in life when we come to church sick at heart, soul weary, broken-spirited. Before we can think about the exercises and disciplines which cultivate and strengthen our wisdom, compassion, and equanimity, we just need to be cared for. We need replenishing rest. We need salve for our woundedness, for indeed salve is the root of salvation, with which our religious forbears were particularly concerned. Yes, the church has that pastoral function in addition to its prophetic task to serve justice.

Thus the church’s role, as the saying goes, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This is not a matter of dividing people into two groups – as if the usher at the door of this auditorium sanctuary were to ask as you came in, “are you feeling more comfortable or more afflicted this morning? Comfortable on the right, afflicted on the left.” Our morning service could then direct toward the afflicted side what balm in Gilead we have – empathy and sympathy for your troubles, assurances of our help, our loving presence. Then when we talk about the injustices of the world -- the needs of the poor, the exploited, the downtrodden, the excluded – we’ll be looking at you, comfortable side. The gist of the message to one side would be “oh, you poor baby,” and to the other side it would be, “get off your butt.”

It doesn’t work like that. The truth is each of us is simultaneously afflicted with burdens while also comfortably complacent. And the messages for your comfortability are the same messages as for your affliction:

Number one, this too shall pass – grief and loss comes for all of us, and so does healing and wholeness. Whatever is comfortable in your life will pass – as will whatever afflicts.

Number two, service to others according to whatever capacity we have is the remedy either way. Compassionate service lifts us out of complacency and equally well lifts us out of despair.

A third message that Sunday services in this space will sometimes emphasize is: life and the world are beautiful, fundamentally mysterious, transcendent, and if we pay attention they will evoke deep wonder and awe. Awe is not comfortable. It pulls us from the narrowness of complacency while it also eases our grief and fills us with the vastness that makes our sadness small.

In all of these ways, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable turn out to be the same thing. So each one of us needs the gym and the infirmary at the same time. What would that be like? Well, it would be kind of like physical therapy, wouldn’t it? Physical therapy is equal parts hospital and gym -- equal parts care for your wound and pushing you to do the exercises anyway, because that’s how you strengthen and heal.

By analogy, we are in the spiritual therapy business – pushing your spirit to stretch and strengthen because that is how you heal from the wounds and the grief that your spirit bears – and how you help heal our world.

There are two things to notice, to simultaneously bear in mind, about our mission. One is that we are doing it. We are carrying out this mission – we do grow and are growing, we do serve and are serving, we do love and are loving. The mission is simply descriptive of what we do here.

Yet simultaneously we notice that we haven’t yet grown, served, and loved in all the ways that we are coming to be able to. The mission calls us forward to ever newer heights. It is not merely descriptive but also prescriptive. We celebrate what we are – and what we yet may be. We celebrate both our being and our becoming.

Let me say a little bit about each of these three. First: "Grow ethically and spiritually." Notice it says “and.” Not “or.” Our mission is both: to grow ethically and to grow spiritually.

Grow ethically. That is: develop clarity about the principles you live by, clarity in our understanding of what it means to be a good person. Growing ethically involves deepening integrity and cultivating virtues. The classic list of virtues is Aristotle’s 12: courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, patience, truthfulness, good humor, friendliness, shame, justice, and prudence. Each of those takes unpacking, and today I’m just giving you names. Cultivating virtues is growing ethically.

Grow spiritually. Here the emphasis is on meaning and belonging – big picture meaning: what does life, your life, mean? The fundamental spiritual malady is the condition of feeling that it’s all meaningless -- and that one doesn't belong. Whatever words you might come up with to answer that question, the crux of the matter is whether those words feel sufficient and satisfactory. The words I use as reminders to evoke my sense of meaning and belonging might not feel sufficient and satisfactory to anyone else – so the words are only tags for meaning and belonging of your life that is beyond all language.

While growing ethically entails cultivating all the virtues, growing spiritually entails two that Aristotle didn’t mention: equanimity, an inner peace even in the midst of turmoil – and compassion, a readiness for presence to suffering. Those are what we may call the spiritual virtues: equanimity and compassion.

This year, in the service of our mission to grow ethically and spiritually, we are launching Connection Circles. In a small group, you’ll have the chance to explore some of the key themes for growing our ethical and spiritual understanding -- significant issues on which religions at their best have always guided people to greater insight -- issues such as this year’s monthly themes:
and Hope.

Our Connection Circles are for exploring together, and spiritually growing and deepening, each in our own way. They meet once a month, Sep through Jun. You won't want to miss a single one. However, even if you miss most of your group’s meetings, you'll still find it valuable to attend occasionally. Signing up does not commit you to attend -- we just need to know which group you'll go to when you do have a chance to go.

I have been so impressed to experience the wisdom and the connection – the love, laughter, and insight – that Unitarian Universalists can offer each other when give ourselves permission and the structure for doing that. We have a whole lot more we can learn from each other than anything weekly sermons alone can convey. So I’m asking every member to sign up for a connection circle. You can sign up on line if you haven’t yet.

When you signed the membership book, you committed yourself to this church’s mission, you committed to growing ethically and spiritually and helping others grow. Our connection circles are vitals ways to do that. Friends, and visitors are also welcome to sign up.

The second prong of this church’s mission – our mission – is to serve justly. And here I draw your attention to our social justice work. We have a number of Faith in Action options. Freestore, the Iowa Trans Mutual Aid Fund are the special focus this year. We also do Compassion and Choices, Green Sanctuary, Family Promise, Immigration Justice, Legislative Action, LGBTQ Justice.

Serve justly. That’s our commitment as the people of First Unitarian Church Des Moines. It’s what we’re here for – to serve justice through taking part of your church’s social justice work.

And the third part: love radically. Love. Radically – all the way to the root. To be radical requires being unconditional. Loving radically is unconditional solidarity with all people, with all animals, with all life – indeed, even with nonlife: rocks and rivers, air and sky, sun, moon, and stars.

For this one I don’t have particular church programs to point you to. Rather, radical love is the spirit to bring to everything you do through the church, and through your life.

The world needs our Unitarian Universalist voice at the table. It needs our caring hands reaching out in compassion. Let us be ingathered, for a new year stretches before us. Let us flow together, roll on together as a mighty river, and, in the words of the prophet Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”