The Promise of Unitarian Universalism, Part I
November 12, 2023
Rev. Rita Capezzi—Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga
You know I travel up and down the QEW, often. And every time, whether I am really looking at the side of the road or not, there is a sign for a winery. It’s called “Organized Crime Winery,” and that sign makes me itchy, every time. It makes me itchy in the same way the name of the major Buffalo Bills fan club makes me itchy. I love the Bills, though the fandom is more than a bit over the top, and I absolutely loathe the name they call themselves: the Bills Mafia.
Mafia. Organized Crime. I am Italian-American. That heritage is a big part of my identity, and I absolutely cannot stand the casual use of language that recalls violence, murder, illegal and racist activity. I struggle to take the casual use of such words lightly. And I know what it’s like to brush up against actual mafiosos. My father shared a name with a local criminal. A different middle initial, but still—two Italian men named Tony Capezzi, one a working-class family man and the other the owner of a night club and various criminal enterprises. Maybe he was other things, too, I don’t know. This association, however, as perhaps you can imagine, was challenging. Things got easier when the mafioso was sentenced to prison.
Before that, though, when I was fourteen and alone after school, we got a call on the house phone, from someone named Raymond, who said to me, “Is this Tony Capezzi’s house. Are you Tony Capezzi’s daughter? This is Raymond, and I’m going to . . ..” Well, I won’t repeat it here. It was terrifying. I really can’t joke about Organized Crime. I can’t joke about Mafia, even though I know these are just words, because the words have caused me harm. But no longer life-threatening harm. I wish folk would say first “Michelangelo” or “Galileo” or even “Machiavelli” before “Mafia” when they see an Italian name. And, many of us live through and within identities marginalized and oppressed, and the words impacting those identities are crueler and more damaging because wielded by powerful social and cultural systems. I cannot take the casual use of such words lightly.
It can be like this with words that are part of religious practice and religious heritage. Words like “prayer,” “hymn,” “church,” “worship,” “god,” other such words. Particular words make us itchy, when we have been hurt by other religious traditions. If not outright wounded, at least alienated. We may have gotten the feeling that we can’t belong, that our ways of presenting ourselves in the world make us unacceptable to the community, theologically and socially. We may have learned—as part of doctrine or just by casual treatment—that our sexuality is an abomination and will send us to hell. We may have learned—as part of doctrine or just by casual treatment—that we are inherently sinful, only a very few of us are good enough to go to god when we die. We may have learned that our voices are irrelevant, shouldn’t be heard in worship, shouldn’t preach, shouldn’t even show up. We may have learned that there is one orthodox way to believe and to praise the ultimate and all else leads away from the light. We may have learned that the actions and behavior in a community do not quite match up to stated aspirations and principles. We may have learned—as part of doctrine or just by casual treatment—that we need to check reason and science at the door of the supernatural in order to be acceptable to a community.
And we may have come to the realization that we cannot live and thrive within such beliefs and practices, and we want to get away from them and the harm they’ve caused as effectively as possible. Let us just take a pause to acknowledge this actuality in ourselves and among each other, extending compassion to each other even if you have not had such experiences.
“We humans have these troubles everywhere. Religion, race, and nationality; gender, age, affiliations—these define and divide us. We are ennobled and estranged by them. Religion is the double-edged sword that unites, protects, and secures while it divides and conquers and endangers, always and ever in the names of God. [. . .] The issue is otherness. How we separate ourselves from other human kinds. [. . .] The haves and have-nots around the world maintain their status—as victimizer and aggrieved—on the narrowest grounds of difference. Race, religion, tribe, caste, class, club, color, gender, sexual preference, denomination, sect, geography, and politics—everything we are separates us from everyone else.” In defining ourselves, we name our community, and we name who is not our community. That is a hard way to live. And here we are.
When it comes to religion, we may have come to the realization that we cannot live and thrive within such beliefs and practices, and we want to get away from them and the harm they’ve caused as effectively as possible. And this removal of ourselves from harm may include trying to root out words still connected to the harm, in particular churchy words. When we have been wounded by, at least alienated from particular religious traditions, words like “prayer,” “hymn,” “church,” “worship,” “god” can become wounding and alienating in themselves. And we want to eliminate the words, as if we can eliminate the pain and suffering, the irritation and frustration that they have caused. As if we could eliminate all the pain and suffering, all the irritation and frustration that lingers.
I spent my first career reveling in the glories of language and what language can do. The worlds that a good string of words can open up for us, the stories that can bring us close or make us curious or scare us and warn us. The belonging that is created when we know ourselves to be part of a community because of our lingo, because of the words we claim or reclaim to proclaim ourselves to ourselves and to the world. The security that emerges from the shared understanding of our histories, communicated by strings of words whose meaning we have agreed upon.
I have spent a three-decades long career exploring the power of language, what it can do and what it cannot. And I have learned that when it comes to the words for naming the most important aspects of our spiritual dimension—“holy,” “sacred,” “divine,” “love,” “spiritual” itself, for heaven’s sake—we seldom can find the ones not somehow weighted down with the harm of past associations, past identity. And, and those of us here this morning, despite all this weight, somehow, some way, we have agreed that journeying through traffic, walking through the cold to a particular building at a particular time on a Sunday morning to participate with others in a ritual—a ritual of affirmations and music and talking and even drinking coffee—well, that is a good thing, that is a healing thing, that is a practice for thriving in community, that is a practice for forging a more expansive, a more complex and multivalent religious identity. Here you are at the church, at church, making a commitment, even if some church, some temple, some mosque, some sangha, some congregation in your life has hurt you. You are here, because a religious life and a spiritual dimension have positive power and meaning for you. You are here, because you have found a way to move through the meanings of some words to get closer to the meaning, the purpose, the solace, the community that you need to live life well and whole. Here you are.
If you say a word enough times, the whole meaning of it dissolves before your very ears. Surely you have played this game. It reminds us that language is not solid and durable in itself. Let’s talk about some words, words part of our religious life together about which we may have some assumptions and about which we have to make some translations. Let’s talk about the word “chalice.” If you hold or once held a Christian identity or a Catholic identity or even saw Raiders of the Lost Arc Part 2, you know that a chalice is a cup to hold sacred wine, maybe even the blood of Christ. And here we are, every week with our chalice, filled with fire and sand. Chalice—a word we commonly use across religious identities to mean completely dissonate things.
Let’s talk about the word congregation—a word some people prefer because it is not the word “church.” But there is a weight on the word, nonetheless, as there is on all words. “Congregation” holds meaning within Jewish practice. There are 349 uses of the word “congregation” in the Hebrew Bible. Within the Roman Catholic hierarchy, “congregation” refers to collections of bishops, as well as communities of lay people living monistic lives. Within Protestantism, congregations are a collection of worshippers on a Sunday morning or the members of a particular church or parish. “Congregation” turns out to be no simpler than “Chalice.”
And then there is the big one, the word “God.” The 99 names of Allah. Countless deities springing out of Brahman, the ground of being, embodying and enlivening local rites wherever Hindus practice. The “Many Names” of our song from the grey hymnal, or our hymn from the grey songbook, if you like. All these names, and still they are not enough names and they may be the wrong names for the ultimate, for the mystery. The words, they are shorthand for the attributes we hope is the “more,” “the ineffable,” “the transcendent “created out of the mundane. I’ve visited the country of Malta several times, a crossroads of a place, where cultures have met and merged for millennia. And I remember as a physical, as a bodily thrill hearing the word “Allah” at a Catholic mass and knowing that the people saying the word meant “Jesus Christ.” There, it was all translation. “There is the profane and there is the sacred. A long time ago, something lit a fire here, and it has been burning ever since. Surely, at the very least, we are still capable, in our profanity, of witnessing the sacred, and protecting it, and preserving it beyond our hungry reach. Surely we are capable of that.” I know we are, or we wouldn’t be here.
Language is about agreed upon use. Language is about context. Language attempts to name reality—material and ineffable reality—and it only ever comes close, in a moment, for some of us. And you, each of us, somehow parses the language of your past encounters with religion and religious community. Reflecting on words and the power they may hold, releasing that hold and finding new meaning in words that can only imperfectly describe the fundamental, the life-giving, the ultimate—we do this together in time set aside from the ordinary within a practice that calls us to curiosity and creativity. We do this within a faith tradition composed of sources from many other religions, from many ethical traditions, and from the ordinary and every day. We are called to flex, to acknowledge and honor our different paths to the higher or broader or more expansive reality that we are seeking. We can be different, very different from each other. Our differences are OK, they are more than OK. Unitarian Universalism calls us to learn about, to learn from, and to celebrate our differences.
We shall love our crooked neighbors with our crooked hearts, imperfect in our identities, in our understanding, in our compassion. But we will love, within the ultimate promise of Unitarian Universalism—that everything is holy now, everything profane imbued with sacredness—meaningful, loveable, worthy of protection and reverence; that we are good as we are and we can change for the better; we are part of something larger than ourselves, even when we can’t feel it; we amount to more together than when alone; we are part of nature, part of the fabric of the great cosmic weaving, not above it or beyond it or apart from it. We strive to live in mutuality, in receiving and giving, sharing, communal. Do You hear?—All the dreams, all the dares, all the sighs, all the prayers of us all? May we hear the cries and answer the calls within each of us, the cries and the calls binding us, beyond any particular words, to each other in love.
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