Archive for February, 2015

What We Bring to It

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 23rd 2014.)

I first stood here a little less than four years ago.  It was Candidating Week, the final stage in a months-long process where your Search Committee and I figured out together if you and I were a good match.  It was a process a lot like on-line dating, starting off with sharing profiles through a web site, then moving on to e-mail exchanges, then telephone conversations, then that first “date” known as pre-candidating weekend, and then, when the courtship, as it were, had reached that critical point, I was introduced to the congregation as a whole, to this Fellowship, during Candidating Week.

I remember many positive impressions from that time back in 2010, but this morning I’m going to focus on just one of them.

A Candidating Week typically begins and ends on a Sunday, giving the prospective minister two sets of Sunday services, one at the start and one at the finish.  Preparing for the week, then, I needed to know how services were conducted here.  After all, each Unitarian Universalist congregation has its own way of doing worship, even if just about every place uses the grey hymnal and includes many of the same service elements, from the lighting of a chalice to the preaching of a sermon.  But each congregation does them in its own way, with different words used in different places to introduce, say, the offering.

In some congregations, the offering may be introduced pretty literally:  “In support of the work of this church, we shall now receive the offering.”  Here, by contrast, the introduction to the offering begins with the words you heard just a little while ago:  “All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it: our time, our talents, our capabilities and concerns, and our money.”  Amongst many positive impressions from Candidating Week, those words impressed me very much, because those words, my friends, present a simple yet incredibly profound theology.

Let me explain why that matters.

Cynthia Grant Tucker is a Professor of English at the University of Memphis, but in Unitarian Universalist circles she’s better known for her studies of our history.  One of the books all would-be UU ministers are required to read, for example, is Tucker’s book about the Unitarian women ministers who served on the Iowa frontier during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, about how those women brought the inspiration of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other “Boston Brahmins” to life in mid-Western fire-side parlors.  Indeed, some have said that Iowa becoming the first state outside of New England to recognize marriage equality is part of the legacy of Mary Safford, Eleanor Gordon and the other Unitarian women who formed that Iowa Sisterhood.

And yet Tucker does not passively relate such history in order that we may know our own past, as important as that is.  She also engages with it actively, that we may know our own future.  Writing of “the hunger for greater spirituality and community in the church”, for example, Tucker advises that “preachers [must seek] their texts in the life of the parish, past and present, and build on the theology that they discover among the people.”  Most seminaries, after all, teach would-be ministers how to analyze and interpret and explain texts found in the Bible, and yet they also stress the importance of meeting people where they already are.  What scripture long since frozen to paper could be more relevant, then, than the living text found in the life of the congregation?

The words we use to introduce the offering every Sunday morning are such a living text.  Now many of you have heard them so many times you probably don’t really listen to them anymore, particularly when you’re looking for a suitable bill in your pocket or trying to find your checkbook.  So listen to them again now, when you don’t have anything to distract you:  “All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it”.  What simple yet profound theology.  So, following Tucker’s advice to preachers, let me build on that theology.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are part of a tradition that is more than three-and-a-half centuries old, in which individual congregations enter into cooperative association with one another for mutual support and encouragement but are otherwise governed independently.  This Fellowship, for instance, elects its own Board, calls its own ministers, hires its own staff, runs its own programs, maintains its own facilities and funds its own budget.  There is no regional bishop nor outside council of elders that does those things for us.

We are associated, for instance, with other congregations in Southeast Virginia, and, in fact, we’re hosting this year’s meeting of the Tidewater Cluster at the end of March; the Unitarian Universalist Association’s new Moderator, Jim Key, is our featured speaker, so you don’t want to miss it.  But while being associated with other UU congregations allows us to do some things together that we wouldn’t be able to do by ourselves, such as the Hampton Roads UU Revival that took place this time last year, it is ultimately the case that this particular congregation, this UU Fellowship of the Peninsula, is precisely what we bring to it, no more and no less.

Before I get to the practical consequences of this, though, let’s consider it from another perspective…

There was once a village that was much the same as villages everywhere.  It had grown up by a ford where the road between distant cities crossed a river.  First there was an inn, since travelers on the road might find that the river could not be safely forded, and an enterprising innkeeper gave them food and a place to stay while they waited.  With a regular clientele, a farrier and a cartwright and a brewer soon set up shop, followed by a blacksmith and a carpenter and a baker.  A mill was built upriver, and a tannery downstream, and soon enough there was a tidy collection of houses within the village, and farms scattered around it.

One afternoon, the owner of one such farm was leaning against a fence where it ran alongside the road into the village.  When she had a quiet moment, the farmer liked to rest here, for there was a good view of the land with the road cresting a gentle hill before heading toward the river.  Sometimes there would be travelers, and she enjoyed exchanging greetings with them as they passed.

And on this particular afternoon, there was a traveler.  He came over to the farmer and, after the usual pleasantries about the weather, asked what the village was like.

“I’m thinking this might be a place I’d like to live,” the traveler said.

“Really?” said the farmer.  “And what was it like where you lived before?” she asked.

“Well,” answered the traveler, “everyone was really friendly and they treated one another well.  I do miss them.”

And the farmer smiled and said, “You’ll enjoy living here, then.  You’ll find that people here are like that, too.”

And the traveler thanked her and continued on into the village.

Only a little while later, another traveler came along the road.  He went over to the farmer and, after further pleasantries about the weather, asked what the village was like.

“I’m thinking this might be a place I’d like to live,” the traveler said.

“Really?” said the farmer.  “And what was it like where you lived before?” she asked.

“Well,” answered the traveler, “everyone was rather unfriendly and they treated one another badly.  I don’t miss them.”

And the farmer frowned and said, “You won’t enjoy living here, then.  You’ll find that people here are like that, too.”

And the traveler thanked her and turned around to go back the way he’d come.

The farmer, of course, knew that the village was much the same as villages everywhere, in that it was simply made up of the people in it.  So she also knew that if those people could see all the good in their lives together, then their lives would be better, whereas if they only saw the bad in their lives together, then their lives would be worse.

Now, if such a bucolic parable isn’t to your taste, how about this modern tale?

In 1979, Pauline Phillips received a letter.  That name might not ring a bell, and that’s because Phillips used the pen name “Abigail van Buren” when she answered such letters in her advice column, “Dear Abby”.  This particular letter, and Phillips’ response back in 1979, were as follows:

“Dear Abby,
Two men who claim to be father and adopted son just bought an old mansion across the street and fixed it up.  We notice a very suspicious mixture of company coming and going at all hours — blacks, whites, Orientals, women who look like men and men who look like women.  This has always been considered one of the finest sections of San Francisco, and these weirdos are giving it a bad name.  How can we improve the neighborhood?
[From,] Nob Hill Residents.”

“Dear Residents,
You could move.”

So what are the practical consequences of this simple yet profound theology, as presented by the words that are part of every Sunday service?  “All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it: our time, our talents, our capabilities and concerns, and our money.”

In this Sanctuary alone, what we experience as a Sunday service is the result of many people’s dedication.  About half of my work week is spent preparing for services, but of course this is hardly a one-man show.  Ahead of each Sunday, your Fellowship Administrator Mary-Elizabeth Cotton compiles and produces the printed Order of Service, for example, while a local janitorial company comes in to clean the building and make sure it’s ready to be used.  The service musicians, whether Nickie or Robin or Cheré or Jeffrey or the UUFP Winds, need to practice ahead of time, and the ChorUUs practices every Thursday evening for those Sundays when they’re singing, too.  The services themselves rely upon lay leaders and ushers to go smoothly, but perhaps even more they rely on all of you to be here and to bring your minds and your hearts and your voices and your hands into this place of worship, too.  So between what you pay staff, and what our member volunteers give of their time and talents, and what all of you give of your whole selves, each of our Sunday services is what we bring to it.

Part of each service, of course, is the Children’s Focus that your Director of Religious Education Joanne Dingus provides, and I know for a fact that the adults here get as much out of what Joanne says to our children as they do, maybe more.  But the rest of the time on Sunday morning, Joanne is to be found either teaching a religious education class herself or moving about our campus assisting and supporting those she and the RE Committee have recruited to teach our children and youth.  There is also our nursery, where Mary-Elizabeth Cotton and Mary Robertson look after our very youngest members, while for our grown-ups — who are still, I hasten to mention, young-at-heart — there are Sunday morning Adult RE programs over in the office building, too.  So, again: between what you pay staff, and what our member volunteers give of their time and talents, and what all of you give when you participate, each of our programs of religious education is what we bring to it.

Then there’s what happens before and between and after services and RE classes.  Since the Summer, we’ve been implementing a model of Sunday morning hospitality that is based on teams, working together to cover all the necessary tasks from getting the coffee going to setting up food, from greeting newcomers to ushering people into services, from helping with coffee and food to cleaning everything up afterwards.  It’s also a great way to get to know more people here at the Fellowship and make new friends.  There are plenty of volunteer slots still available — you don’t have to be a member to be on a hospitality team, you don’t even have to be here on a Sunday morning for some of the tasks — so if you’re not yet on a team, please see one of the team leaders — Rosalee, Bobbie and [Sarah] — to join one today.  In short, Sunday morning hospitality is definitely what we bring to it.

Then there are a number of programs that take place after services on Sundays, such as Goddess Circle and Second Sunday Lunch and Got Kids? and Fourth Sunday Soup Social as well as presentations and movies here in the Sanctuary.  Between the efforts of our member volunteers to plan and run these programs and your participation in them, each of these is what we bring to it.

There are similarly programs at other times and on other days of the week, such as the Book Club and Fifty and Better and Resist Apathy! and Saturday Game Night and Women’s Drumming.  And there are our outreach programs, such as the third Friday dinner at St. Paul’s and the PORT Winter Shelter.  There are other programs for spiritual development, such as Fellowship Circles and the meditation groups and EarthRising and softball.  (I’m sure Mason would agree with me that softball offers plenty of spiritual development.)

There are all the ways we care for one another, from hospital visits to telephone calls, from going with someone to their court appointment to bringing one another meals following sickness or childbirth.  There are special annual events, such as the auction and the casbah and the yard sale, all of which need lots of volunteers.  There are the buildings and grounds clean-up days.  There are the staff and the volunteers who help to publicize all these ways to be involved.  There are the dedicated committees that plan and run all of these efforts, and maintain our facilities so that we can do them, and raise the money we need for programs and outreach and utilities and maintenance and staffing.  There are the committee chairs and Policy Board members who work with staff to find all of these ways to fulfill our mission.  And, perhaps most importantly, there is each and every one of you, contributing your time, your talents, your capabilities and concerns, and your money.  For every single thing that we do here, every single thing that we can do here, is what we bring to it.

Now I’ve just given you an awfully long list of what it takes to run a thriving, growing congregation like this Fellowship.  I’m sure I didn’t mention a few things that ought to be on that list, too, so if you didn’t hear a program you run or love, I apologize, but please do tell me or e-mail me to let me know that I didn’t mention it.  And it’s easy to see that just about everything on that long list needs volunteers to make it happen.  But it also takes money.

This is a growing congregation that is asking our staff to do more in response to and in support of that growth.  And with a growing number of programs, we’re using our buildings more and using more heat and light and water, too.  The state may not require us to pay taxes, but Dominion certainly expects churches to pay for electricity.  And to run those programs, from bringing in quality preachers for those Sundays when I’m not in the pulpit to obtaining the resources and supplies needed for Religious Education, from completing certain projects in order to become a Green Sanctuary to assisting with some of the costs that our members bear in order to represent us as congregation delegates at General Assembly, well, that takes money, too.

As it says in the brochure in your Order of Service this morning, “All members volunteer in various ways, and that’s crucial in sustaining the Fellowship’s mission and ministry.  However, we cannot function (much less grow) as a congregation without funding for our programs, our staff and our facilities.  There are many congregational functions which require more than volunteerism can provide.”

So this service is officially the start of this year’s Canvass, our pledge drive.  We ask all of our members, as well as those non-members known as “friends”, to pledge financial support to the Fellowship for the coming church year, which starts in July.  We ask members and friends to pledge so that, quite simply, we can create a budget, and we need a budget so that we can plan for programs and outreach and utilities and maintenance and staffing.  Some of what we spend our money on is more fun, or at least more interesting, than some of the other things we spend our money on, of course.  I don’t know of many people outside the Green Sanctuary Committee who get excited about utility bills.  And of course those whom you elect each May to lead the congregation and run these programs in turn pledge to be as wise and conscientious stewards of our collective time, talents and treasure as possible.

But to many ears these are just words.  And spoken words at that.  And there’s really just one word that matters right now.  And perhaps you’re like me and sometimes wish that life came with a great soundtrack, so maybe what we need to do with that one word… is set it… to music!

[“The Pledging Song”, words by Alan Sheeler, set to “The Drinking Song” from The Student Prince by Sigmund Romberg]

Pledge!  Pledge!  Pledge!
Pledge to a cause that is just, we call it the UUFP!
Pledge!  Pledge!  Pledge!
You’ll be helping to fund those wonderful kids in RE!
Here’s to hoping our UUs will shine,
lovingly giving both money and time!

I can foresee a time in May,
the budget made, the FiComm* at play!
Pledge!  Pledge!  Let the bucks start!
May all UUs show heart.
Pledge!  Pledge!  Pledge!
Your Fellowship needs you, so UUs don’t wait!
Let’s pledge!

[* Finance Committee]

So when, in the next few weeks, the time comes for you to pledge, whether that’s at one of the dinners to which everyone is invited, such as the Big Canvass Event on Saturday March 8th, or whether it’s in person with one of our UUFP canvassers, I would ask you to remember that everything we do — from worship services to religious exploration, from community building to public advocacy — is possible only because people like you contribute their time, their skills and their money.  All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are precisely what we bring to it.

May it be so.

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