Duty & Obligation

Rev. Fiona Heath     Presented on Zoom May 30th, 2021

I first started thinking about the notion of duty watching the funeral of Prince Phillip. Forever two steps behind the Queen, always a prince and never the King, he was the personification of a traditional sense of duty, stern and reserved. You do what is asked of you without complaint.

Lord Shaftesbury, in 1844 said that men – or rather gentlemen – “must have nobler, deeper, and sterner stuff; … a rigid sense of duty, but a delicate sense of honour; …and … a desire and a courage to live for the service of God and the best interests of mankind.”

A live well lived isn’t about following your passions or desires, a life well lived is lived in service to God, Queen and Country.

This is the British Empire duty, the one that sends young men off to foreign lands and world wars and women stay home, keep calm and carry on.

This is also British imperialism and colonialism duty, which thought that everyone else had to be “civilized” so that they too could serve God, Queen and Country – just not their own country.

It’s not a form of duty that fits anymore.  And that is a good thing.

This sense of duty lead to suppression of rights and identities – people hiding who they really are, who they really loved – and exploitation of those who don’t fit the mould.

British Empire duty was a harsh taskmaster.

And yet I can also see how the notion of duty -separate from patriarchy and patriotism – how a sense of duty taken seriously can provide the strength to do what needs to be done; it helps people hold heavy responsibility and keep carrying on.

I have one pair of boots and when I wear them there are certain days when the laces unravel and just can’t stay tied. I stop and do them up again and a few steps later the laces unravel again.  And again. Eventually I tie a second knot – creating a double knot and the unravelling stops.

I think of duty like that second knot.

When I can’t get something done on my own, when I’m struggling and unravelling, that sense of duty stiffens the backbone and helps me keep moving.

Duty is the second knot in the shoelace, the back up knot that helps you do what needs to be done. Duty holds you even when you are unravelling.

A sense of duty is about having an obligation to something beyond yourself – something bigger than you. It’s a sense of purpose that connects you to the greater whole.

That’s powerful.

We’ve all been struggling with duty over the pandemic. It’s been our duty to stay home and isolate and not see loved ones.

And it’s been terribly hard. Exhausting and lonely and frustrating.

Not everyone has done their duty – there’s been an endless parade of politicians and hospital ceos and rich people telling us to follow the rules while they go on tropical vacations with family.

Being dutiful seems nonsensical when the people in charge make the rules but see no reason to follow them.

But I know that sense of duty – the purpose to protect the vulnerable – has sustained me – has helped me keep going even when I would rather unravel during these lockdowns.

Duty is the second knot in my shoelace that helps me to keep going.


The sense of duty Prince Phillip embodied was an echo of the British Empire – duty through the suppression of self, personal sacrifice, higher purpose.

This duty – with good reason – began to disappear over the twentieth century and truly declined in the sixties and seventies.

Duty was replaced by free love, self-expression, following your bliss, embracing your passions, being free to be you and me.

These values made space for a wonderful flowering of identities that were denied earlier –women as people, the rainbow of sexual and gender identities, people of colour claiming their heritage, indigenous people honouring their culture that had been destroyed by British Empire duty.

I am so glad to live in this more accepting and inclusive world. Anyone who feels alone in their identity can go on social media and see that they are in truth part of a community.

There is still oppression and exploitation, but we are re-forming the rich tapestry of human identity.

We in the West have more freedom to choose our lives. This is excellent.

There are still some dangers in this more welcoming era – rather then the problematic suppression of the self, there can be the problematic perfection of the self.

There’s a sense that if you are truly authentic, truly yourself then you will be happy and your life will work right.

Which can encourage selfishness – a sense of me first – discard what doesn’t fit perfectly – and that can break down social ties.

And if you’re not happy and your life doesn’t work right then it’s on you to change it all up and find the right person or right job or right place. Or the right body or the right mindset.

It’s a lot of pressure for an individual. It’s all on you to get your life just right for yourself.

And life is not perfect. We will never be consistently perfect or right, fabulous as we all are. Life is messy and unfair and goes badly even for fabulous people like ourselves.

We can’t manage on our own. We don’t always know what we want. Or we want conflicting things.  Sometimes things fall apart, sometimes we fall apart. Then what holds us?

Remember Velcro sneakers?  Great when new but then the Velcro gets filled with fuzz and no longer sticks. Then the Velcro straps just flap in the wind and your shoes fall off your feet.

There’s no second knot, no back up to keep you steady when you are struggling. It’s all on you.

We’ve been living in an era of Velcro sneakers. It leaves us too much alone. Our only allegiance is to ourselves, there is no sense of purpose beyond self fulfilment.

This is where a sense of duty matters.

As a liberal free to be you and me tradition, Unitarian Universalism doesn’t have much to say on the topic of the duty.

After all our religious ancestors were challenging that status quo of duty as suppression and sacrifice. From early heretics to the transcendentalists through humanism we celebrate the individual – the personal understanding of the divine, the freedom to choose and the importance of being true to yourself first and foremost.

We honour the inherent worth and dignity of each of us as we are.

I want people to be free to speak their deepest truths and express their identities in any way they please. And … we are not for ourselves alone.

Self fulfilment is not enough to sustain us. Our seventh principle tells us this. We are part of a web of connection.

Any parent or caregiver or anyone who has ever been  in love knows this, how easy it is to let go of our needs to tend to a loved one.

We are not for ourselves alone.

Any parent or caregiver or anyone who has ever been in love knows how hard it can be to let go of our needs to tend to a loved one.

And we do it when it’s necessary. We are not for ourselves alone.

As we pause for another musical gift consider who else, what else sustains you. Who or what is in your web of connection?


Duty to God, Queen and country. Free to be me and follow my bliss.

How do we refresh a sense of duty and reconcile duty with individual freedoms? What do we owe one another?

Those of you who showed up this morning, I know you are here not just for yourselves. You are here because you know we need one another, that our connections are not just responsibilities that tear us down but gifts that lift us up.

We come together as a chalice community because we know that the “right” life alone is not enough.

We need a greater truth, a sense of meaning to align with, to hold onto when the shoelaces are untied and we are tripping over ourselves.

While Unitarian Universalism continues to uphold people’s right to express their identity and choose their lives, we also understand the power of community and connection.

The power lies not just in the gifts being in community gives us but also in the obligations that come with that gift.

Here at UCM people give so generously of themselves, their time and talents. Each of you in this moment is giving the gift of your presence.

This is the interdependent web.

Biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer who wrote Braiding Sweetgrass, a great book about science and indigenous wisdom, notes that we – all beings on the planet – are bound in reciprocal relationships.

Relationships bring us back to duty. All beings have a duty to each other.

Kimmerer says that “if an animal gives its life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind.”

Kimmerer says to be human means to know our duty to others and learn how to perform these duties. (Braiding Sweetgrass, pg 115)

This sense of duty is a positive one – duty grows healthy connections. So if we eat animals then we should be ensuring their lives, although short, are well lived. If we want fresh water from a stream, we need to work to keep that water clean.

If we want groceries we should help grocery store workers make a living wage and protect them from COVID. If we want clothes they should be made by people with decent working conditions.

We are given many gifts by other people, other beings, the earth, and we in turn have gifts to offer.

Reciprocity reminds us that we are part of something greater than ourselves – not queen and country – but the beautiful mystery of all life on this planet.

This planet with silkworms giving us silk and trees giving us lumber and bees pollinating our fruit.  It’s a whole cycle of abundance, of giving.

I believe we need that sense of duty, of obligation to more than ourselves. We need a sense of gratitude and gift exchange to care for each other and the planet.

In Hinduism, dharma is seen as the healthy order of life, and one aspect of dharma is doing one’s duty – carrying out our obligations to others.

To live well includes doing our duty.

When we love someone we are happy to set aside what we are doing when they are in need.  When we are passionate about a cause we let go of other activities to focus on our passion.

And when we aren’t always feeling the love or the passion, because we can’t always feel that way, then that sense of obligation, that sense of duty can keep us going.

As people of the chalice we see the reciprocity inherent in the world, we know we are part of this greater web of life, and we know just as we are given so many gifts we have gifts to offer too.

Let us find a way to live freely and with a sense of duty.

What do we owe each other?

What do we owe the planet?



So Say We All.


Recent Sermons