Inherent Worth and Dignity: The Starting Point

March 12, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

I have a confession to make. For the past three years, I have gone over to the Church Hill United Methodist Church down River Street to attend their Ash Wednesday services.

(I would like you to know, however, that after last year' s service I did go for a martini at Mount Blue immediately afterwards, which I don' t think is a traditional way to kick off Lent. You have to keep that non-conformist edge.)

This year, I got a call in November or December from the worship committee chair at Church Hill, asking me if I would lead their Ash Wednesday service since their minister and my friend, the Reverend Twila Broadway, would be on a sabbatical leave. I was silent for a moment. "This is Vicki Weinstein," I said. "The UNITARIAN minister. Are you sure you' ve got the right person?" I thought maybe they had me mixed up with Tanya Rasmussen over at the United Church of Christ. "No, no, you' re the right person," said Rena Lukowski. She was smiling, I could hear it. "We know that you' ve been here worshiping with us each Ash Wednesday since you moved to town so we figure you' ll be just fine."

I thought this was, to put it in modern parlance, very cool that the Methodists would think that the Unitarian Universalist minister would be acceptable to lead this important observance. Unitarian Universalists ministers are not often the first pick for ecumenical invitations. We' re heretics, and even those of us who follow a Christian spiritual path don' t have orthodox enough beliefs. We change the words of the prayers, we criticize the Bible a lot, we refer to God as "She" and make everyone squirm in their seats. Some clergy admire us for our social justice commitments (especially, in my experience, our denominational commitment to welcoming sexual minorities – an issue that is tearing apart many other religious movements) and for our openness and welcome of theological difference – and others just grumble when we show up at meetings and scrape their chairs across the room. I' m used to it by now.

So this was just terrific. I was pleased as punch. I prepared the service and I went over there last week and I led it and it was great and I learned a lot. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday has an awful lot of confessions of sins and repentance and it has this thing called the "imposition of ashes," which is when people come up and the minister says, "Dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return." And then you stick your thumb in the little pot of ashes (made from burnt up palms from the last Palm Sunday) and draw a cross on their forehead. It' s really a blessing before death, a reminder of our mortality.

To me it says, "We' re all sinners and we' re all going to die someday, so don' t mess around! Live in such a way as to be a credit to your obituary!" In a strange way, I find that very comforting and very positive. But some of you grew up going to church on Ash Wednesday and getting smeared on the forehead in this way, and I know you don' t have happy memories of it. Lots of my friends think that it' s a really crazy thing to do. I' ve heard the comments for years. "The imposition of ashes? Why would you want to do that? It' s so Catholic! It' s so medieval! All that emphasis on sin and penitence! Ach, who needs it?"

And I say, "Well…I guess I do." As I told the Methodists last week, the grass is always greener, religiously speaking. They' ve got the "Sin Thing," and we don' t really do the Sin Thing. I find that I really appreciate an opportunity to get into the Sin Thing at least once a year (in church, I mean. Theologically).

My soul needs that balance.

The first time I ever decided to observe Lent it was over a decade ago, and I was very new at Christian spiritual practice but very interested in it. I did all kinds of spiritual practices at that time; mostly Wiccan. I lived with another Unitarian Universalist minister who wanted to engage in some Christian spiritual practice, too. We were discussing an article that appeared in the Boston Globe about what people were giving up for Lent, and kind of laughing because people were giving up things like popcorn and chocolate which we thought was dumb. Then my roommate said to me, very sincerely,

"What I' m going to do for Lent is to brush and floss my teeth really mindfully every morning and night."
And I don' t know if I said anything, but I was thinking oh my god. A Lenten discipline is supposed to be a pleasing sacrifice unto the Lord. Your pleasing sacrifice unto the Lord is FLOSSING?

I went on ranting in my mind: You' re like a Unitarian JOKE someone would tell!

And on and on I went in my mind until it occurred to me that one of the major teachings of Christianity is about not seeing the speck of dust in your neighbor' s eyes when you' ve got a beam in your own. So I reached waaaay back in there and pulled out my beam. And in that moment I knew what I should give up for Lent: self-righteous indignation, my favorite sin.

I think everyone has a best sin, one that they' re really good at. Self-righteous indignation is mine. And I' ve known that for years but I really learned it during that first painful Lent. I learned that I can hardly go forty minutes without self-righteous indignation, let alone forty days. During this time, I gained a deep appreciation for spiritual practice, and in a funny way, I gained an appreciation for the concept of sin. Best of all, I gained a sense of humor about sin. Sin is actually one of the most fun and juicy parts of being alive. The joke is on us for ever thinking we can entirely avoid it. I advise you not to, or you' ll make a very dull person to sit next to at dinner parties.

I had always thought that sin was not a helpful word or idea. I rejected it as a modern woman who was raised at a time of great confidence in the power of high self-esteem. I also rejected the concept of sin because neither historical Unitarians nor Universalists found a lot of good use for it; especially the Universalists, who were particularly devoted to the idea that people need "hope, not hell." I believed that too much emphasis on sin would truly shrivel the soul, and make a person believe that he or she was no good and had nothing to offer because no matter what good you did, you were bound to sin again.

For years I struggled with this, back and forth. I studied the Universalist idea of God, which is full of grace and a belief in God' s love for us no matter what we do. There is a Jewish saying that illustrates this beautifully, and it goes, "If only I could love the tzaddik (the most virtuous and wise one) as much as God loves the worst sinner." And I struggled with the honest reality of my own sinful nature. Then one day I read a quote by Annie Lamott who shared in one of her books something her friend used to say to her: "God loves us too much to let us stay like this."

And that, for me, was the hook. God loves us too much to let us stay like this. In that one phrase was both the Universalist promise that we are recipients of the unearned love (or "grace") and the Unitarian idea that the most profoundly spiritual task of our lifetime is to cultivate wholeness and goodness. I love that quote. It says, yes, you' re loved. And the Source of that love is rooting for you to grow your spirit. You can do it. Because you' re loved, you can do it. You don' t earn love by doing it, you' re already loved. That' s what grace is, and it' s given freely to all. That' s where I started to get a sense of humor and appreciation about sin.

Hosea Ballou was the great father of American Universalism who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. He was preaching in a town somewhere and staying with a family, when he walked into the kitchen to find the lady of the house mopping the floor. "Well, Mr. Ballou," his hostess said. "I hear that you preach universal salvation for all." He replied that he did. "Do you believe, sir, that all men are going to be saved, such creatures just as they are?" she asked. Hosea Ballou saw that she did not understand the doctrine of universal salvation. "Sister," he said, "What is that you have in your hand?" "Why, it' s my mop," she replied. "I always mop my kitchen floor on Saturday afternoons." Ballou asked, "Do you intend to mop that floor just as it is?" "Why, of course," she said, "I mop it to clean it." "Yes," said Ballou. "You don' t expect the floor to be made clean before you consent to mop it. And so it is with salvation. God saves men to purify them. That is what salvation is designed for. God does not require us to be pure in order that he may save us." (Ernest Cassara, Hosea Ballou: The Challenge To Orthodoxy, adap).

I don' t know if that story has any impact nowadays because nowadays, we hardly ever feel there is any need to purify ourselves. You know why? Because it' s always someone else who needs a morality make-over, never us. We' re so offended by the idea that we' re sinners that we can' t even deal with it most of the time. We go overboard in one direction or another: we either obsess about our failings and fill our hearts with self-loathing or we brush our sins away with justifications.

One of the things I love best about my work is that people confess their moral messes to me all the time, and I get to say, "Yep, that sure is a grievous sin you' ve committed." At first their eyes get real big, and then we just laugh because I' ve just said out loud the thing that' s been tormenting them all day. Might as well say it right out. It won' t kill anyone. The good news of our faith is that we both know (and we all know), that they can make whatever wrong they' ve committed right, or they can certainly try. All the energy we spend either denying sin, or repressing it, or hating ourselves for it could be so much better used trying to achieve reconciliation of some kind, learning, and moving on. We don' t believe in Hell, so that' s not a problem. The problem is what a Hell we can create for each other right here on Earth.

We should be each other' s best cheerleaders and coaches against sinning. Sin is a real thing and it causes real harm, and most of us are bright enough pennies to know when we' ve missed the mark that widely. (By the way, the origin of the word sin doesn' t mean "to miss the mark." No one knows where it comes from, but it' s from some ancient Germanic word relating to "guilty.")

Unitarian Universalists share a set of seven principles. The first among them is a commitment to affirm and promote "the inherent worth and dignity of each person." I think this is a beautiful principle, and I am happy to see that Unitarian Universalists take it seriously enough to invoke it on a very regular basis in the wider denominational context.

But Houston, I think we have a problem. When it comes to the notion of moral or ethical failings, also known as "sin," UUs tend very often to jump right to the first principle and to say, "Remember, that person has inherent worth and dignity!" It' s as though that' s it, that' s the final truth, and therefore, we must not delve at all into the question of whether or not there is some moral or communal failing or problem that needs to be named and fixed.

Our mistake is in seeing our first principle as a kind of sociological and psychological claim rather than an ontological claim. (An ontological claim is a claim about the nature of reality itself.) To use simpler language, we have often insisted that because each person has "inherent worth and dignity," they can really do no wrong, in the final analysis, because to accuse them of doing wrong is akin to accusing them of being wrong and unacceptable in some basic way. This kind of attitude really stymies conversation and stifles healthy conflict. It says, "There' s no such thing as sin, because we' re all inherently worthy!"

Well, of course we are inherently worthy. But we are also occasionally terribly wrong and terribly harmful. The first principle should not be the ending point for our view of human nature, and a conversation stopper, it should be the starting point – the first assumption -- for our work toward spiritual growth and ethical commitment. The first principle should be the optimistic claim that starts us on our way knowing that we can ascend higher on the ladder of moral evolution.

That first principle was written to remind us that there are many brothers and sisters who voices have been silenced, whose humanity has been denigrated, and whose full participation in the notion of God' s grace has been questioned. Our first principle calls us to serve as guardians for the humanity and dignity of those people especially, and to promote such conditions for all people as allows that dignity and worth to flourish. It was never intended to be used as a defense plea for my sins or yours, but as a rallying cry toward an ethic of universal kinship.

I am sorry that Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals have so little use for the notion of sin anymore. I think it goes along beautifully with our first principle, where we could say, if we chose, "We are sinners, yes, but because we have inherent worth and dignity, we can take responsibility for who we are and what we do." I think it' s a really glorious theological claim, one that I carry in my heart at all times. And the second part just doesn' t pack much punch without the first.

So last week, I looked out over those foreheads marked with ashes and I thought to myself, "Look at all of us sinners with the mark of mortality on our forehead. What a trip." And I wondered if any of the congregation noticed that I had sneaked in a little bit of theology from the Unitarian King' s Chapel prayer book in the prayer before the imposition of the ashes. My Methodist hosts had assured me that I was welcome to make any changes I wanted to to their liturgy, but I wanted not to monkey with it too much. However, I found that the Methodist prayer before the Imposition of the Ashes was so grim I couldn' t, as a good Unitarian Universalist, say it, so I replaced it with one from our historical tradition which was a bit different and which said, "Lord, who maketh us to know that dust we are and to dust we shall return, make us also to know that we are vessels of thy Holy Spirit, and recipients of thy grace."

Yes, we' re sinners. But we' re also temples of God' s own spirit. And we are loved unconditionally, "just such creatures as we are."

There' s an old joke that says that the Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believe that they' re too good to be damned. I think we know we' re sinners, but we' re just sinners with healthy self-esteem. We know we' re dust, but we also know we' re vessels of the holy. When you remember that first fact, in the dark hours of anxious days and nights, don' t forget the second. Hold it to you, this Lenten season and always, and may the spirit of grace attend to you through all your hardest moral and mortal struggles.