Archive for Sermon

Assembled Here

This sermon, delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 22nd 2016, was rather unusual.  The service began without hymn books, without a chalice, and without myself or our student minister present…

Lay Leader, Scott:

You may have noticed that I’m all alone up here. If you’re a member or have otherwise been here long enough to know how we usually do services, you may have noticed that some things are missing this morning. If this is your first time here today: welcome, and I’m glad you’re here, and I apologize for everybody else’s confusion, but all will become clear, I promise.

So what’s missing? The lay leader doesn’t usually have this much responsibility on a Sunday morning. We usually sing out of hymn books. We’d have lit our chalice by now, and in fact there’d be other flaming chalice symbols around the place, too. Even the Order of Service is missing a few words, such as calling this congregation the “Fellowship of the Peninsula”.

Imagine that, then. Imagine this as some non-denominational congregation, a “Fellowship of the Peninsula” all alone in the world, without any larger faith tradition of which it is a part. Imagine, in other words, that there’s no Unitarian Universalist Association. How would a congregation like ours make do without the benefits and resources deriving from being part of that wider denomination?

Well, let’s consider just one of those benefits and resources.

[He pulls out a copy of our hymn book from under the pulpit.]

Consider this hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition”. It’s published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, and was the result of five years’ worth of work by the UUA’s Hymnbook Resources Commission. We’re used to singing hymns out of it every Sunday, maybe a reading from it, too, but without the UUA creating the commission and subsidizing their work and paying for copyright licenses and so forth, there’d be no hymnal.

What would we use instead? Well, that’s a good question. Maybe the New Century Hymnal from the United Church of Christ, but perhaps only the hymns that are particularly liberal even for that liberal denomination. Maybe we’d be able to find more songs like “Weave”, songs that are appropriately “spiritual but not religious”, though without the Unitarian Universalist Association there’d be far fewer of those sort of songs, too.

Thankfully the UUA does exist and does publish hymn books, so let’s bring in our copies of “Singing the Living Tradition” and hand them out now.

[The ushers wheel the hymnal cart into the Sanctuary and give out the books.]

There, that feels better, doesn’t it?

Now, let’s see what else is missing.

Well, there’s the chalice, but we’ll come to that in a moment. Before that, though, let’s talk about who else is missing.

A very important function of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to evaluate and certify new ministers. And a big part of preparing ministers to be ministers is, of course, the training. There’s the academic work, which takes place at a seminary; there are two of those that are associated with the UUA, namely Starr King in San Francisco and Meadville Lombard in Chicago. And there’s the practical work of becoming a minister, which takes place at hospitals and in teaching congregations. We’ve been fortunate to be one of the latter these last two years, so it’s time to bring in our student minister, Christina Hockman!

[Chris enters the Sanctuary and takes a seat on the platform.]

Now Chris graduated from Meadville Lombard one week ago — congratulations, Chris! — and came to us from her home congregation in Richmond. But if there were no Unitarian Universalist Association, we’d have no connection with Meadville to have one of their students here, and without the UUA, we’d have no connection with Richmond to have one of their members here. So thank goodness the UUA does exist!

Student Minister, Chris:

Yes, if it weren’t for the Unitarian Universalist Association, I wouldn’t have been your student minister these last two years, I wouldn’t now have a Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School, and I wouldn’t have been been evaluated and certified ready for ministry. And maybe my life would have been rather simpler over the last three years were all of that the case, but my life would also be much less full and rich, given the wonderful people and the many experiences that have helped me become the person I am today. As I’ll describe next Sunday, it’s made a world of difference for me to be a part of this wonderful, warm, loving congregation.

As most of you know, another major event for me this month was being called to serve the Unitarian Universalist Church of Corpus Christi in Texas. What you may not know is that, in addition to the schooling and training and certifying, the UUA plays a vital role in the search process, too. After all, most congregations don’t go directly to the ministers they want and offer them the job. There’s no magic to finding a minister who seems like a good match to a given congregation, and professional headhunters who would do the work cost more than almost any congregation can afford.

So the Unitarian Universalist Association helps out, making the search process a lot easier for both congregations and ministers to find one another. There’s a website where both sides upload lots of information about themselves, about who they really are, about what they really want to achieve. It’s like match.com or eHarmony, only for congregations and ministers. Thanks to the UUA, then, ministers in search can identify congregations that seem like they’d be good places to serve, and then congregations can look at the ministers interested in them and decide who seems like a good fit. It’s thanks to the UUA, in other words, that I’m going to Corpus Christi. And since this congregation went through its own search process seven years ago, it’s thanks to the UUA that you have a minister, too.

[I enter the Sanctuary and take a seat on the platform.]

There’s something else that’s a feature of every Sunday morning that we owe to the Unitarian Universalist Association, and that’s our flaming chalice. It began as a symbol of hope and liberation, when it was created during World War II in support of the work of the Unitarian Service Committee as it helped refugees escape from Nazi Europe. A few decades later, the UUA adopted it as a symbol for its own documents, and as such congregations started using it, too. We have the flaming chalice on display here in this Sanctuary: on the wall, in a framed piece of the old pulpit; and on the front of this pulpit.

[I uncover the chalice symbol on the wall; Chris uncovers the chalice symbol on the pulpit.]

UUFP's Pulpit and Flaming ChaliceMost obvious, perhaps, is that we also have a physical chalice in which we light an actual flame, a chalice given to us by former youth, Keith Dixon, many decades ago, a chalice that survived the fire that burned down our old building.

[Ask ushers to bring the chalice into the Sanctuary and place it on its table next to the pulpit.]

Now that we have both hymn books and chalice, I would ask you to join me in speaking aloud, together and in unison, reading number 443, “We Arrive Out of Many Singular Rooms” by Kenneth Patton, while Scott lights our chalice.

Me:

“We arrive out of many singular rooms,” seeking the assurances of friendship, community, presence and human contact. “This is the reason of cities, of homes, of assemblies in the houses of worship.” It’s the reason of congregations, and also of denominations — in our case, an association of congregations. And given the presence of hymn books and the chalice, given that Chris and I are present, too, we are also aware of the presence of that association, here in our own singular room of this Sanctuary.

In some of the things we do, we draw attention to how they connect us with other Unitarian Universalist congregations. Last Sunday we celebrated the Flower Communion, as did other UU congregations that same day, and almost all UU congregations hold a Flower Communion service sometime in the Spring. And in the Fall, we and almost all other UU congregations hold a Water Communion service. Now for all that they seem timeless, it’s important to remember that these traditions had a beginning.

We know that Maja Čapek brought the Flower Communion to this country during World War II, sharing it with some congregations, who then shared it with others. If it weren’t for those congregations being part of an association with one another, there wouldn’t be a Flower Communion. It’s less clear how the Water Communion started. I once heard that it began at a conference, perhaps a UU women’s retreat, and the participants took it back to their home congregations, who then shared it with others. Once again, if it weren’t for the association of those congregations, there wouldn’t be a Water Communion.

And that brings me to the last thing that we need to uncover — the last thing we need to reclaim as part of recognizing that our association of congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Association, does indeed exist — and that’s our Joys and Sorrows table.

[Chris and Scott uncover the Joys and Sorrows table and prepare it.]

Now it’s also not clear how Joys and Sorrows began, and it may even have been created in more than one place, given the number of different ways of doing it, but what is clear is that this congregation did not create it. We practice Joys and Sorrows here — every Sunday at first service, less often at second service — because we heard about it thanks to being part of a wider association of congregations. And, of course, part of how we do Joys and Sorrows is sing “Spirit of Life”, number 123 in the hymn book. Carolyn McDade wrote her sung prayer for reasons that had little to do with Unitarian Universalism, but it wouldn’t be as known and loved by so many UUs if it weren’t for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

And so, in this community of compassion and gratitude, let us now take the time to share with one another what is in our hearts — our joys, our sorrows, and important milestones that are truly changing our lives. I invite you to receive and light a candle, then tell us your name, and briefly share what matters to you so much that you can’t not share it. You may choose to light a candle in silence, but if you do speak, please use the microphone so that everyone here this morning may hear your words.

[The sharing of Joys and Sorrows takes place, followed by the singing of “Spirit of Life”.]

Me:

Thank goodness the Unitarian Universalist Association does exist! Without the UUA, we wouldn’t have hymn books full of inspiring words and music. Without the UUA, we wouldn’t have the flaming chalice, either as a symbol or as a physical object. Without the UUA we wouldn’t have beloved, meaningful rituals like Flower Communion and Joys and Sorrows. And without the UUA, Chris wouldn’t have been here as our intern, and I wouldn’t be here as your minister.

Of course, there are many more benefits and resources we receive from being part of a wider association.

Elsewhere on our campus this morning, for instance, our children and youth are engaged in religious exploration. Three of the RE curricula we’ve been using all this year, namely “Sing to the Power” for elementary-school-age children, “Building Bridges” for middle-schoolers and “A Place of Wholeness” for high-schoolers, come from Tapestry of Faith, a curriculum series produced by the UUA that congregations (or anybody, for that matter) can download and use completely free of charge. And next year, we’ll be offering Our Whole Lives, the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for teenagers, which is a joint project of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.

And if you’re a member you should have received this magazine in the mail just this week. UU World is published each quarter by the UUA and sent out to all members of congregations, and there’s always lots of fabulous content in it. This issue made me chuckle, though.

The cover story is about the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon and their rapid growth in recent years, and, as I scanned through it, I recognized a face in the pictures. So I looked more closely. It turns out that their first minister, hired in 2004, was Jeanne Pupke, my colleague at First UU in Richmond. Then, their first called minister a couple of years later was Heather Starr, who is now one of the co-ministers of my home congregation in Hartford, Connecticut. Then Central Oregon had an interim minister, Alex Holt, who I’ve met at Southeast UU Ministers Association meetings when he was in our region. And for the last couple of years, their minister has been Antonia Won, whose face I recognized in the article’s pictures, because she was student minister in Albuquerque immediately before I did my internship there!

Now I want to note that this isn’t about me, though my life has been enriched in many different ways for knowing these colleagues. And it’d be easy to say, as if everything was explained, “Well, it’s a small UU world.” But the fact is, I wouldn’t know these wonderful people, I wouldn’t be working alongside them, if it weren’t for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

After all, we tend to think of the Unitarian Universalist Association as an institution in its own right, doing its thing up in Boston. And we’ve already seen how, as an institution, it provides so much that we need as a congregation, but that’s an outcome, an end-result of what it means to be a congregation in covenant with other congregations, to be a member of an association of congregations.

So, take a hymn book, please, and open it to hymn number one. Then turn back a page. On the left, you’ll see a page of text that begins with the big word “We”. Well, you could argue that the big word “We” says it all, but maybe it needs some unpacking. So, please read with me the top three lines on that page: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote”. Then, what follows are the Seven Principles and the Six Sources, all thirteen of which, of course, only exist because the UUA exists. And then, at the bottom of the page are another three and a bit lines of text, so please read those with me: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.”  [Emphasis mine.]

That’s the covenant that this congregation makes with all other Unitarian Universalist congregations, the promise we have made to be part of a wider association with a pledge of mutual trust and support. It’s what makes us, not just some non-denominational “Fellowship of the Peninsula” but rather the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula.

Just as members of this congregation covenant with one another to form the congregation, promising to support it with time, talent and treasure, so do member congregations of the UUA covenant with one another to form the association, promising to support it with the congregation’s time, talent and treasure. It’s a promise we make as the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, a promise that’s also made by those congregations in Central Oregon, Richmond, Hartford and Albuquerque, a covenant that holds us in relationship with them and with more than a thousand other UU congregations.

“A pledge of mutual trust and support.” It should be pretty obvious why we make that promise: we can’t do it all by ourselves. Not even big congregations, like First UU in Richmond, can do it all by themselves.

Consider the fact that we’re sending two of our own emerging leaders to leadership school this Summer. It’s not cheap to send two people for a week-long, immersive, residential program like that — so a big thank you to the trustees for agreeing to pay for about half of the cost from Endowment income — but it would cost even more if it weren’t heavily subsidized by the UUA.

Or consider that, over the last twenty years, this congregation has benefited from two Chalice Lighter Grants, money that’s collected directly from participating members of other congregations in our region. The most recent grant was about $25,000 to pay for the renovation of our office building when we bought it six years ago.

Or consider that, thanks to the association, we have a voice on national, even global, issues. Earlier this month, for instance, UUA President Peter Morales addressed LGBTQ clergy and other leaders in the United Methodist Church, recognizing their bravery and offering them encouragement as their own denomination struggles to be fully inclusive and welcoming.

None of these are things we’d be able to do by ourselves. And recognizing that, we can be proud that this congregation has a long history of doing its part to support the Unitarian Universalist Association. Up until a couple of years ago, we were what is called a “Fair Share” congregation, meaning that we gave to the UUA an expected amount of money from our budget each year.

I’ll note as an aside that this used to be calculated as a certain amount per member, but now it’s simply a percentage of the budget. The new method of figuring Fair Share — known as GIFT — is actually more fair, particularly since some congregations now admit that they used to play games with their membership rolls to try to reduce what they’d pay. Please know that this congregation did not play such games. In any case, the amount of our Fair Share didn’t change much from the old method to the new, and going back twenty-five years or more, in fact, we had been a Fair Share congregation. We can, as I say, be proud of that.

Unfortunately, that changed a couple of years ago. Given our budget the year before last, we only contributed to the UUA about a third of our Fair Share. And in this year’s budget, as UUFP Treasurer Alan Sheeler pointed out last Sunday, there’s actually no money for the UUA at all. So we want to try to fix that today.

If, as Scott said earlier, you’re a member or have otherwise been here long enough to know how we usually do services, you may have noticed that we haven’t collected the Offering yet. And as we usually say in introducing the Offering, 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. Well, the same is true of our association: all that the UUA is and has are what we give to it. So today we’re going to share our Offering with our UUA.

Now I’m not deluding myself that a single Sunday’s Offering would allow us to pay our full Fair Share to the UUA. That would be truly fantastic, in the original sense of the word. But I do see this as a first step back to making good on the promise we make as a congregation, the covenant that we have entered in association with our sister congregations.

And so, in gratitude for the resources and services that come to us from the UUA, in recognition of the benefits and advantages that follow from being part of a wider association, and in keeping our promise of mutual trust and support to our sister congregations, let us now collect the offering, and, as is our tradition, receive it with the singing of hymn number 402, “From You I Receive”.

~ ~ ~

You can make your contribution on-line now. Just click here and look for the box marked “UUA GIFT Contributions.

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The Chalice and the Circle (and the Cross) [redux]

I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in August 2012, and the statistics gathered by WordPress tell me that it’s been viewed more than anything else I’ve posted, often as a result of somebody searching the Web for a phrase like “cross in a circle”.  In that time, however, most of the links I had used for examples of flaming chalice symbols have stopped working, and this month the Fellowship is running a competition to create our own symbol, so I’m bringing back this post to show those examples.  (I believe that they’ve been shared on-line for general use, but if that’s not the case, or if I have mis-attributed any of them, please let me know.)

In today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations it’s not hard to find chalices.  They’re lit at the beginning of our Sunday services, just as we did this morning, but we also light chalices to open Religious Education classes, our Fellowship Circle sessions and even our committee meetings, where a chalice-lighting helps to remind us that we are not a social group or a debating club or a political party but a religious community.  You’ll find flaming chalice symbols in print, on websites and made into jewelry.  As shown in the gallery below, you’ll also find them in many different designs: enclosed in a circle or a sunburst; with a stylized flame or a realistic flame or a rainbow-colored flame; made up of letters that spell out a word or including a peace sign, a recycling logo or a question mark; recognizing the importance of reaching out to Unitarian Universalists who serve in our nation’s armed forces.  Not only is the flaming chalice ubiquitous, a widely loved symbol of Unitarian Universalism, but lighting it is the single-most recognized ritual our faith embraces.

Now while the flaming chalice symbol goes back over seventy years, it’s only become a widely accepted part of our congregational life in the last twenty or thirty years.  There were no chalice lightings in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the 1964 hymn book.  The flaming chalice appeared for the first time on an official Unitarian Universalist Association document only in 1976.  And our current hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition published in 1993, has only nine chalice lightings, but there are many more than that in use today.  So, you can see that in the last couple of decades the flaming chalice has caught on in a really big way!

What’s more, as these various examples show, the chalice symbol is, more often than not, enclosed in some sort of circle, or sometimes two overlapping circles, which are usually taken to represent the coming together of Unitarianism and Universalism.  This morning I’m going to reflect on the origins of these symbols — the chalice from Unitarianism and the circle from Universalism — as well as a third symbol that dropped out along the way.

Many of you have probably heard the story of the flaming chalice, but it’s a good story that bears repeating from time to time.  This is how Unitarian Universalist minister Dan Hotchkiss tells that story:

The chalice and the flame were brought together to make a symbol for Unitarian use by an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch.  Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew political cartoons that were critical of Adolf Hitler, so when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Deutsch abandoned all he had and fled.  That was probably the right move!  He went first to the south of France, and then he went to Spain.  Finally, with an altered passport, Deutsch made it into Portugal, where Lisbon was the only open port remaining in Europe.

In Portugal, Deutsch met the Reverend Charles Joy, commissioner for Europe of the newly founded Unitarian Service Committee.  The Service Committee — a forerunner of today’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, including Unitarians and Jews, as well as artists, intellectuals and dissidents, to escape Nazi persecution.  From his headquarters in Lisbon, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents, helping to provide identification papers and travel documents that would allow refugees to escape to freedom.

Now Deutsch was most impressed with the work of the Unitarian Service Committee and was soon working for Joy.  Deutsch had never seen a Unitarian — or, for that matter, a Universalist — church, but what he had seen was faith in action, with Joy and the other members of the Service Committee willing to risk everything for others in a time of urgent need.  Deutsch wanted to help.

In 1940, the Unitarian Service Committee was an unknown organization.  That put them at a disadvantage in the war-time environment, when establishing trust across barriers of language, nationality and faith would mean life instead of death. So Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for the papers issued by the Service Committee, to make them look official, dignifying them while also symbolizing the spirit of the work.  Joy wrote, “When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the Unitarian Service Committee and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism.  With pencil and ink, he drew a chalice with a flame rising from it.  The design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom.  Unitarian Service Committee logoReporting to Boston, Charles Joy wrote:

“It represents, as you see, […] the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars.  The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.  In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts.  This was in the mind of the artist.  The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit.  We do not limit our work to Christians.  Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

Let’s move from the Unitarian side of the story to the Universalist side.

Back in the United States in the 1940s, the Universalist Church of America was struggling with its religious identity.  At stake was whether Universalism was genuinely a Christian denomination or whether it was (or should be) something more, something larger, something truly universal.  In truth, the Universalist Church had struggled with its sense of identity for most of its existence, and had just been denied membership — twice — in the Federal Council of Churches: the council decided that the Universalists were, first, not sufficiently Christian and, second, too much like the Unitarians!

But into the mixture of voices calling, on the one hand, for a stronger Christian witness and, on the other, for a transformation of Universalism to a more truly universal religion, there came a new voice.  It came from a small group of recent graduates of the Crane Theological School at Tufts University, and it proved to be a major force pushing the Universalist Church beyond Christianity.

The graduates took their name from a medieval religious order, the Humiliati.  The name means “the humble ones”, though few people thought the members of this new order were particularly humble!  The group was originally formed so that its members could continue to enjoy the friendship, intellectual stimulation and spiritual growth they had enjoyed as seminarians; they held annual retreats during the 1940s and 50s at which they discussed theology, worship and liturgy.

Committing themselves to the renewal of their denomination as a universalized Universalism, the Humiliati adopted the symbol of a small, off-center cross enclosed by a larger circle.Humiliati symbol  The circle was intended to represent the all-embracing nature of Universalism; the off-center cross, of course, recognized Universalism’s Christian roots while at the same time implying that Christianity was no longer necessarily central to the faith.  When the symbol first appeared at the ordination of one of the Humiliati, it created something of a stir; then another member of the group caused a bigger dispute when he insisted on being ordained to the Universalist ministry rather than to the Christian ministry.  Although the Humiliati’s theological and liturgical innovations were by no means widely embraced, the idea of a universalized Universalism took hold and the symbol of the circle enclosing an off-center cross came to be widely used in Universalist churches.

It was at about the same time in the 1940s and 50s that the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association were once again talking about the possibility of combining their organizations and resources, a conversation that had been going, off and on, for almost a century.  The Unitarians had worked through the humanist–theist controversy of the 1920s and 30s and now, thanks in no small part to the Humiliati, the Universalists were moving beyond an exclusively Christian orientation.  The talks finally culminated, of course, in the legal consolidation that in 1961 formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.  And, a couple of years after that, the Unitarian Service Committee and the Universalist Service Committee merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which continued to use the flaming chalice in its documents.

Like our faith itself, the flaming chalice symbol has evolved over time.  Some years ago the UUA changed its logo to convey the idea of illumination emanating from the flame; more recently the UUSC changed its logo to hold the chalice in a pair of hands.Unitarian Universalist Service Committee logo  More often, the placing of the Unitarian chalice within the Universalist circle is a starting point for all sorts of  variations in design.  As Charles Joy noted almost seventy years ago, the shape of the chalice can be suggestive of a cross, but in some designs the cross is more explicit.  One painting, commissioned by First Unitarian in Albuquerque from New Mexico artist Robert P. Hooton, features a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right.  Here together are the three symbols we’ve been considering: the chalice, the circle and the cross.

sketch for painting by Robert P. Hooton, featuring a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right

sketch for painting by Robert P. Hooton

The flaming chalice combines two archetypes — a drinking cup and a flame — that have been used in religious symbolism for as long as there’s been such a thing as religion.  From the wine cup of the Passover seder to the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the chalice represents community, sustenance, fertility.  The flame is an even older symbol, of course, and soon we’ll be in that season featuring a number of holidays involving candles, in Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras, where the flames represent hope, courage, witness.  With this wealth of meanings, it’s perhaps not surprising that the flaming chalice caught on within Unitarian Universalism and that it’s become so near and dear to our hearts.

Now there’s a joke that tells of a Catholic church, a Baptist church and a Unitarian Universalist church next to one another; one stormy night there’s a lightning strike and soon all three churches are on fire.  Some of the more dedicated church members risk their lives to save the church’s most prized possessions: the Catholics run in to save the communion host; the Baptists run in to save the Bible; and the UUs run in to save the coffee pot!  But the very next thing most UUs would try to save would be the chalice.

(Our own chalice has its own story, of course, which also involves a church fire, but that’s a story for another time.)

For me, the flaming chalice represents the relationship between the individual and the community.  The community holds the individual just as the chalice holds the flame, providing it with a home, a place to be, sheltering it from the winds that would extinguish it.  The individual, on the other hand, illuminates the community, just as the flame illuminates the chalice, shining its light, sharing its wisdom and warming with its love.  Last Sunday I introduced the word “autokoenony” from the Greek meaning “the self engaged in a group whose members have something in common”, and that describes what the flaming chalice represents to me.  In this interpretation, in fact, it teach us two simple lessons: without the community, there would be no place for the individual to stand; and without the individual, the community would go without illumination.

Another archetypal symbol is the circle.  With no beginning and no end, a circle goes on forever.  What most of us think of as the traditional wedding ceremony includes the custom of exchanging rings as a sign of our hope — even in this day and age — for everlasting love.  And yet a ring wouldn’t be a ring were it not for the empty space in the middle through which one’s finger passes, and a circle wouldn’t be a circle without the empty space in the center.  If the circle, in the symbology we inherit from the Universalists, represents the universe of existence, then perhaps the empty space in the center represents the mystery at the heart of existence.  We place our flaming chalice within the circle, but it doesn’t fill the circle: there’s still plenty of room for mystery.

symbols of the religions of the world design based on the Rehnberg Memorial Window at the UU Church of Rockford

design based on the Rehnberg Memorial Window at the UU Church of Rockford

And then we come to the cross.  Many Unitarian Universalists have some difficulty accepting the cross as one of our religious symbols, I’ve noticed.  Including it as just another symbol along with the Jewish Star of David, the Hindu Om, the Taoist Yin–Yang, and so on is okay, but most Unitarian Universalists would rather not focus on the cross, if we can help it.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross was, after all, an instrument of torture and death used by the Roman Empire against those it particularly despised.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross became a symbol justifying colonialism and oppression by Europeans against Africans and Native Americans.  We might object to it on the grounds that the whole emphasis on the crucifixion came, in any case, from the Apostle Paul and doesn’t really have anything to do with the ethical teachings of the human Jesus.

Well, those are valid objections.  However, there are two reasons why we ought to be okay with the cross as a symbol representing Christianity at its best.  First, both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved out of “traditional” Christianity.  As the Unitarian Universalist Association’s own Commission on Appraisal made clear:

“Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages.  Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions and experiences.  The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one.  The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God.  Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds.”

Second, given that heritage, we have a right to own the meanings of that heritage, to speak in favor of religion based on love rather than fear, to use the cross as a symbol for our purposes rather than let it be used against us.  We may not subscribe to the theology it is usually taken to represent and we may object to its history as a tool of conquest and subjugation, but strip away the distinctly un-Christian abuses of the cross and trim back the elaborate mystification surrounding it, and what we find is a simple call to love and to be loved.

The chalice, the circle and the cross, in fact, are reminders to us of those who went before us in our faith.  Let us remember those who were willing to risk everything, even their lives, to help others escape persecution.  Let us remember those who advocated for a larger faith, embracing freedom of belief and service to the whole.  And let us affirm our heritage in oneness and wholeness, carrying forward the symbols of our faith as we fill our lives with hope and courage, kindness and love.

So may it be.

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The Meaning of Membership

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on September 7th 2014.)

For many congregations, today is known as “Ingathering Sunday” or “Back to Church Sunday”.  Well, this week has been “Back to School”, it’s true, with public schools at least here in Virginia and other places on the East Coast waiting to start until after Labor Day.  But I can’t say that we’re now “Back to Church” with any sincerity, given that we’ve been here all Summer, going strong with a full slate of worship services and religious exploration programs every Sunday throughout July and August.  After all, we can’t come back if we didn’t go away.

What’s more, we weren’t just here in August: we were busy in August.  We’ve had lots of newcomers, many of them families with children, doing their Summer “church shopping” before the busy-ness of the school year starts.  A good number of you who are here this morning, in fact, came to services for the first time one Sunday last month, and I’m so glad that you made the choice to keep coming back.  And naturally, many of you who are newcomers have had questions, about the congregation, about our programs, about becoming a member.

That, of course, is the natural progression.  A first-time visitor enjoys what they experienced or likes the people they met — hopefully both! — and plans to come again.  That makes them a newcomer, when they get to know the place a bit more and figure out if this is where they feel they can belong.  And, in time, they receive a letter from me, inviting them to a Membership Orientation, like the one we have planned for late October.  That’s where we talk about what it means to be a member, what’s involved in joining us in creating a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, and why that matters.  (For those who cannot attend an orientation given their schedules, there’s also the option of meeting with me.)  And then for those who choose to become members, who have made the decision to embrace the rights and responsibilities that come with that commitment, they demonstrate that by signing the membership book.

Now joining a congregation is rather different from joining almost anything else.  It’s not like being part of a book discussion group that meets at Barnes and Noble.  It’s not like being on a mailing list or Facebook.  It’s not like going to talks offered by the Sierra Club nor is it like sending a nominal contribution to the World Wildlife Fund and getting a newsletter.  It’s not like dropping children off at an after-school program at the Y nor is it like being part of a life-long learning course at CNU.  It’s not like having dinner or coffee with friends nor is it like getting together to watch a TV show and then talk about it.  It has aspects of all of those things, of course, but it’s rather different from all of them, and with more and more of the people who find themselves here never having had much prior church experience, we’ve found ourselves being very intentional, when it comes to membership orientations, to explain what it really means to be a member.

I want to give you a couple of perspectives on why this matters.  Here’s the first.

Back at the beginning of May, I began my sermon on the topic of understanding ourselves in relation to those around us by reflecting on how many non-members benefit from the presence, here on the Peninsula, of this congregation.  Between those who pledge their financial support as if they were members without actually being members, those who participate in programs and put money into the offering basket but have made no formal commitment otherwise, those who might only come to special services such as on Christmas Eve or to special events like the Luau, as well as those who might simply visit in the course of a year, there are, by one estimate, something like four hundred non-members as compared to some 160 members.

Beyond that, of course, if we guesstimate the number of people we serve at St. Paul’s or PORT, the number of people we impact through our Share-the-Basket partners like LINK, and the number of people we reach through other outreach efforts, we may well be talking about a few thousand people whose lives benefit from the presence of this Fellowship, from what this congregation is and from what it does.  That’s something in which we should all feel quite a bit of pride.

So here’s the obvious question:  If it’s possible to be almost as much a part of the life of the Fellowship as a member without actually being a member, if it’s possible to be connected to or supported by the congregation without even being here in person, then what does it mean to be a member?

Here’s another perspective on why this matters.  Whenever I’m at another Unitarian Universalist church, whether to preach or just to be part of their services, I like to check out the materials they give to visitors.  I know I’m not alone in this.  One such item I came across recently was this bookmark, produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association and sold to congregations in packs of twenty-five to hand out to newcomers.  It’s entitled “Ten Good Reasons for Joining a Unitarian Universalist Congregation”, and I was intrigued to see what those were.  Here are some of those reasons.

Because here we join with open hearts and minds to worship together, seeking what is sacred among us.

Because here we honor our Jewish and Christian roots, and also reach out to know the great truths found in other religious expressions.

Because here we nurture our children’s enthusiasms and encourage their questions.

Because here we join our strength with others to create a more just society.

Because here we encourage each other to be true to ourselves.

Now, without doubt, those are all good reasons to participate in the life of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  They’re all great reasons, for that matter, why such things as UU churches should exist.  But reasons for joining a congregation as a member?  Compelling, necessary reasons?  I’m not so sure.  Again we come back to the obvious question:  If we welcome non-members to come to worship services, to learn about our tradition as well as other religions, to give our children a religious education, to work with others to make a better world, even to help one another become our best selves, if we welcome non-members to all of that, and we do, then what does it mean to be a member?

Now some might say that the reason to be a member is to pay for those services and benefits.  That’s a reasonable claim, particularly since that’s the way our culture works as a whole.  After all, in almost all other areas of modern life, it’s the case that you get what you pay for.  So let’s think about that for a moment.

In any other setting than a church, what would you pay, if you’re a parent, for someone to not only look after your child for an hour, but to teach them about what it means to have an open mind, a loving heart and a helping hand?  Even if it were just baby-sitting, it might be ten dollars for the hour, probably more for actual teaching, and more still for youth.  For Sunday school over the course of a year, then, and assuming all but one Sunday each month, that’s at least four-hundred dollars a year.  That’s probably a good ballpark figure for an hour or so a week of quality adult programming, too, such as the Sunday Morning Forum that takes place over in the Office Building.  For comparison, registration in the LifeLong Learning Society at Christopher Newport University is $235, and that’s with CNU’s own subsidies and the sponsorship of some local businesses.

Or what about coffee or tea plus assorted snacks, sandwiches, cakes, fruit and other food?  Well, those are unlimited here as part of hospitality, and though some places might offer free refills, go to Panera or Starbucks for coffee and a brownie and you’d pay $5 or more.  Again, consider being here more often than not each month and that adds up to a couple of hundred dollars each year.  And what about the price of Sunday service?  Well for the music alone, a professional musician could reasonably expect to be paid, so Robin has told me in the past, at least a hundred dollars per service.  And the going rate for a professional speaker, according to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, is somewhat more than that, making it in all, again, a couple of hundred dollars per person each year.  Add it all up, for the average person, and we’re talking about something like a thousand dollars each year if you went somewhere else and paid for what we offer here, freely to everyone and gladly to everyone, every single Sunday morning.

Now for those of you checking your calendars, no, it’s not pledge drive time, and no, this is not the Sermon on the Amount.  I’m simply offering you these back-of-the-envelope numbers to show you that the idea that someone become a member in order to pay for the services and benefits they receive, well that idea is hogwash.  We’re not here as consumers, and in most cases we’re not getting what we pay for: we’re actually getting much more than we pay for.

So if someone isn’t a member because they must be a member in order to participate in our services and programs, and if they’re not a member in order to simply pay for those services and programs, then what does it mean to be a member?

Well I put it to you that being a member means wanting this to be a place where those services and programs are and will always be available, not only to members but to everyone.  It means a commitment to this congregation so that it can be a place where, member or not, anyone can join in seeking the sacred, in learning about religion, in nurturing our children’s souls, in striving to make the world a better place, and in encouraging one another’s authenticity.  It means promising to make that possible through the direct contribution of volunteer hours and, yes, volunteer dollars.  It means investing one’s mind, one’s body and one’s spirit in the vision of this congregation as a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.

That’s no small order, of course.  As I say on those occasions when we welcome our newest members of this Fellowship, “joining is easy, but membership is not”.  Joining is, after all, a matter of attending an orientation, or otherwise meeting with me in person, and then signing the membership book.  Sure, the orientation is three hours long and takes up a whole Saturday morning, but we feed you a great breakfast!  And there are plenty of congregations out there that have a much more involved process of joining, in one case that I know taking one whole year to be accepted as a new member.  But if joining only takes a Saturday morning, membership takes a lifetime.  We do expect our members to actively participate in the life of the Fellowship, in whatever ways are appropriate, and to contribute financially, to whatever extent is reasonable.  That’s the easy part, though: something else that I say when we recognize new members is that “a member accepts responsibility for continuing and sharing the faith journey that brought them to this place, and also covenants to live in community with others whose journeys may be different.”  And that is the work of a lifetime, because it’s what life is actually about.

Now from time to time, you’ll hear on a Sunday morning a member testimonial.  Though they tend to be associated with the aforementioned pledge drive, for obvious reasons, we ask those members who give testimonials to speak to the same matters regardless of whether they’re doing so at pledge time or not.  We ask them to speak about why this congregation is a special place.  We ask them to speak about what it means to them to be a member.  We ask them to speak about why it’s important for them to be here.  We ask them to speak about how they have been transformed by being part of this Fellowship.  What I’ve noticed is that rarely do any of these members describe membership as a static state, where they joined, met some nice people, liked the music, and they’re done.  Rather — and of course this is particularly noticeable when, over the course of a few years, a member gives more than one testimonial — being a member is a dynamic reality, where there are always opportunities to grow our own souls while also growing the soul of the congregation so that together we may grow the soul of the world.

So if you are one of our many newcomers who first visited over the Summer, or perhaps even before that, and you’re interested in becoming a member here because you’ve found that this is a place where you feel you can belong, then I encourage you to continue asking questions about what it really means to be a member.  Or if you’re one of our newer members, who, within the last few years, attended an orientation and signed the membership book and was welcomed by the congregation one following Sunday morning, then I encourage you to think beyond your current participation in congregation life to consider some of the many ways in which you can get the most out of becoming a member.  And if you’re one of our members who’s been here for some larger span of years, who has served on some committees and taught some classes and led worship from time to time and taken on any of a thousand responsibilities large and small, I thank you for being one of our “long haul people” but I also encourage you to reach out to our new members and to our newcomers, to bring them into the work of making this congregation a spiritual home for our common endeavor.

I’m going to close with a reading I happened to rediscover this week.  Talk about good timing!  It was written by Unitarian Universalist minister Clarke Dewey Wells, and was read right here thirty-four years ago, as part of the service dedicating this very Sanctuary building in 1980.

This is the liberal church:

a place to go where you know you belong;

where the mind is free to soar beyond the coercions and crudities that inevitably beset all orthodoxies;

where the heart is free to extend that larger love to all, unencumbered by notions of dogma, tradition, race, religion, country or class,

where the rights of individual conscience and action are guarded with vigilance, out of belief in the fitness of diversity, the liberty to be different, out of eternal hostility to every form of tyranny;

where the hands are free to work and create for the cause of community and the hope of peace;

where the soul is free to open, stretch, discover, develop, change and grow, always, continuously and progressively;

where human promise is nurtured, supported and blessed, and never cursed, degraded or despaired of;

where people are invited to be themselves in joy, in sorrow, in the struggle of the deeper self to be born, in the resolution of some great issue, in the witnessing to high ideals, in living and dying, seeking, finding and serving.

A place to learn, to grow, to sing, to stand.

A place to encounter, reckon, judge, accept, and be accepted.

A place to be challenged by new insight, and be reminded of what one already knows.

A place to go where you know you belong.

This is the liberal church.

To these words I would add the following:  This is the liberal church that was built by those members who were part of that building dedication service thirty-four years ago.  This is the liberal church that those members here today are building through the dedication of their minds, their bodies and their spirits.  And this is the liberal church that will continue to be built in the years and decades to come, in ways that we expect, in other ways that we may only dimly see, and in some ways that will surprise and delight the world.  This is the meaning of membership: to be the past, the present and the future of the liberal church, a place to go where you know you belong.

So may it be.

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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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We’re All in This Together

20141228 BlackLivesMatter sign(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 28th 2014.)

Video: “Five Tips for Being an Ally” by Franchesca Ramsey

Franchesca Ramsey describes herself as an actress, a comedian, a graphic designer, a consultant and a natural hair geek, but not always in that order.  She is perhaps best known as a video blogger, and has two YouTube channels with over 150,000 subscribers and over 23 million views.  Chescaleigh, as she is better known on-line, published this video last month.

Sermon: “We’re All in This Together”

Since my daughter was very young, we’ve been teaching her that she doesn’t need to be afraid when she hears sirens.  Not that she’s exactly old now — she’ll be two-and-a-half in January — but her level of comprehension and articulation is much greater now than when we first started telling her that a siren meant that somebody was going to help someone.  “Help” was the operative word, back then when she could only say a word or two at a time.  “Help” was something that she understood, given that we had to help her do a number of things that she couldn’t do for herself at the time.

Nowadays, of course, my daughter’s an active, curious toddler who talks non-stop except when she’s asleep.  I’ve already apologized to our Director of Religious Education for what she’s likely to do during the children’s story once she starts coming here with me on Sunday mornings.  It does mean, though, that we can now talk about how an ambulance, for example, helps someone get to the hospital for the medicine they need.  She’s seen and even sat inside fire trucks a couple of different times, even though, in her mind, the main reason for being of a fire truck is to rescue cats that are stuck in trees.  And we’ve continued to reinforce the idea that police cars are there to help people.

But then, we’re the white parents of a white child.  If my daughter were not white, we know we’d be having a different conversation.  We’d be having a conversation much like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife have been having with their son.  As part of a speech about the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, Mayor de Blasio said the following:

Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face.  A good young man, a law-abiding young man who would never think to do anything wrong.  And yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him — as families have all over this city for decades — in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.

Now for most white American families, the idea that you’d need to warn your otherwise good, law-abiding children against the very people we know are also there to protect us from real criminals, well, that idea seems very foreign.  But the fact is that it is far from foreign for black American families.  I first heard about it following the death of Trayvon Martin, the advice that many African-American parents feel compelled to give their children, and their sons in particular, even before they become teenagers, advice that has been passed on for generations, advice that is often named “the talk”, as follows:

Pay attention to where you are and who is around you.  If you go into a store, lower the hood on your sweatshirt and keep your hands out of your pockets.  If you buy something, put it in a bag and be sure to get a receipt.  If you’re confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, don’t argue or run away or put your hands anywhere but up.  Always address them as “sir” or “ma’am”.  Do not make any sudden moves, even to reach for identification.  Do not raise your voice or resist or run.  As Dana Caneday, a senior editor at the New York Times, described it, it’s a “nausea-inducing discussion” to need to have with your eight-year-old child.

Remember Chescaleigh’s first two tips for being an ally?  (And I’m taking it as a given that we want to be allies, but I’ll come back to one big reason why — other than simple human decency — a little later.)  They were, first, understand your own privilege and, two, listen and do your homework.  Actually, it’s hard to do the first without doing the second, and that’s because privilege is almost always hidden to those who have it.  I’m not aware of my male privilege, for instance, until I hear from women about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  I’m not aware of my hetero privilege until I hear from lesbian, gay and bisexual people.  I’m not aware of my cis privilege — “cis” meaning that my gender identity as a man lines up with my anatomy as a male — until I hear from transgender people.  And I’m not aware of my white privilege until I hear from people of color about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  And when they tell me they have experienced disadvantage to the point of oppression, I need to listen to them and believe that that is what they have experienced, rather than automatically trying to explain it away or getting defensive as if I were singlehandedly to blame for the way our society is structured.

And when news reports describe the same pattern of events over and over again, and when the profit-driven media fails to report many similar events, too, then it’s clearly time to pay attention.  The conversation we’re now having about race is about much more than Ferguson.  Ferguson may have been the place where the conversation erupted, but while that was triggered by the death of Michael Brown, it was caused by the decades-long predation of the suburb itself on the majority black population, using the mostly white police department to gather much of the city’s revenue rather than going after, say, actual crime.  As Reuters reported, “Traffic fines are the St. Louis suburb’s second-largest source of revenue and just about the only one that is growing appreciably.  Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and, at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.”  With budget shortfalls following the recession, Ferguson is literally criminalizing its own residents in order to fund itself.  In 2013 alone, the municipal court issued an average of three warrants per household, raising an average of $321 in fines and fees, in a city where the crime rate is about the national average.

Then there’s the fact that some of the conversations about Michael Brown and Eric Garner have focused on how they were breaking the law and otherwise resisting arrest.  The case was made that police officer Darren Wilson was genuinely afraid for his life when he shot and killed Michael Brown, but that certainly wasn’t true for police officer Daniel Pantaleo when he put Eric Garner in a chokehold that is forbidden by his own police department.  And then there’s the question of how resisting arrest deserves being put to death on the spot.  Or, in other situations, not resisting arrest. Or not even having a chance to resist arrest.  A video shows that John Crawford III was fired upon just seconds after police encountered him; he had been holding an air rifle that was for sale by the Walmart in which he was shopping.  And then there was twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot within two seconds of police arriving at his location; he had been playing with a toy gun.

In these two cases, there was an obvious common factor, namely something that looked like a real gun.  But another common factor was the state in which those events happened.  John Crawford III was killed near Dayton and Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland… and Ohio is a so-called “open carry” state, meaning it’s completely legal to openly carry a gun whether you have a license for it or not.  But during all the commotion over “open carry” in Starbucks and Target and other places, how many of those white people brandishing very real guns were killed?  How many of them were even charged with reckless endangerment for leaving their guns on shelves where anyone, including children, could get at them?  (What about the two white men who took guns off a Walmart’s shelves, loaded them and started shooting?)

But guns don’t need to be involved to show how differently people get treated on the basis of race.  Looking at some of the things that people have tweeted recently under two particular hashtags is quite illuminating.  Here are some examples of one of those hashtags.

What this says to me is that if you have a story about some interaction with law enforcement where nothing bad happened to you, and if you’re white, then your story doesn’t prove anything, because “nothing bad happening to you” is the norm for white people, even if they’ve been committing a crime.

Here, by contrast, are some examples of the other hashtag.

I worked with someone in Connecticut, a white woman who was married to a black man.  She had a number of stories where they were pulled over while out in their car — her husband in the driver’s seat, her in the passenger seat — and the first thing the police officer would do is ask her if she was okay.  In short, all of this is why African-American parents need to have “the talk” with their children.

And actually, being a police officer yourself is no protection if you’re black.

Reuters interviewed twenty-five African American male officers on the NYPD, fifteen of whom are retired and ten of whom are still serving.  All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime.  The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing ‘stop and frisk’ while shopping.  The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving.  Five had had guns pulled on them.

Then there’s the conversation I observed a couple of weeks ago on Facebook.  It started when someone who was a couple of years ahead of me in theological school posted a segment from The Daily Show where Jon Stewart expresses such disbelief over the grand jury decision not to indict Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, even when the video showed him putting Eric Garner in a forbidden chokehold, even when the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, that, for once, Stewart couldn’t find the words.

Posting that video led to a conversation about the subject that was, for the most part, quite civil.  Now I don’t know most of the people involved in that conversation; I assume they are friends of my fellow seminarian, and I could see from their Facebook profile pictures that they are white.  I also have no reason to believe that they are anything other than “good” people who would never intentionally cause pain or suffering to another person.

So the conversation meandered as Facebook comment threads tend to do, and somewhere along the way one person — I’ll call him Mark — expressed concern that there wasn’t enough appreciation for the challenges and dangers of being a police officer.  At that, another person wrote: “Mark, I agree that cops are badly compensated and have a super tough job, but you can quit being a cop.  You can’t quit being a person of color.”  And to that, Mark responded with this:

Yes, I agree you can quit being a cop, but can’t you also quit being perceived as a target for racism?  The one consistent theme I see in all of these events, is not one of the victims were dressed in button-down shirts or slacks with the appearance of self-respect or responsibility.  […]  If you don’t want to be a target of racism, don’t LET yourself be a target for racism.  […]  All I saw from many of these recent events, were people who were complacent, and downright comfortable being the victim.

There’s something called Poe’s Law that, applied in particular to discussions that take place via the Internet, says that without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it’s difficult or even impossible to distinguish between a sincere expression of an outrageous opinion and a parody of such an opinion.  Unfortunately, from the rest of the conversation, which soon went downhill from there, I’m pretty sure that Mark was being sincere.  But let me get this straight, the reason Eric Garner died was because he wasn’t dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks?  Because he didn’t try hard enough not to be a victim of racism?  Really?  How is that any different from saying that the reason any woman who was raped got raped was because of what she was wearing?  Talk about blaming the victim!

It’s not surprising that most of the conversation about these events has been labeled with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.  The fact is that a black man, woman or child is killed every twenty-eight hours by police officers or self-appointed law enforcement.  It’s also not surprising that there’s been backlash against #BlackLivesMatter.  Some otherwise well-meaning people have said that it would be better to use the hashtag #AllLivesMatter.  Well, yes, all lives ought to matter.  But unfortunately, that’s not what our society looks like to all those parents who know they need to have “the talk” with their children.  The ever-growing list of names — Jordan Baker, Donitre Hamilton, Yvette Smith, Pearlie Golden, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tyree Woodson, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Victor White III, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and that’s just some of them from 2014 alone — those names prove that our society values black lives less than others.  So insisting that #BlackLivesMatter be replaced by #AllLivesMatter is like, as others have said, crashing somebody else’s funeral and insisting that the mourners put your loss before their own.  Or, to look at it another way, taking offense at #BlackLivesMatter is like being offended that people are working on a cure for diabetes when there are other diseases out there, too.

Of course, it got a whole lot harder to have a reasonable conversation about this when two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were killed last week by a man who had that morning bragged on Instagram about avenging the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Without wasting any time, people who had been critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement claimed that the deaths of officers Liu and Ramos were the direct fault of those calling for racial justice, or that New York Mayor de Blasio was to blame for disrespecting the police, or that it was President Obama’s fault, just because.  Needless to say, though, many groups under the #BlackLivesMatter banner have condemned the killings of the New York police officers, and have recommitted themselves to a non-violent movement for change.  The fact is that Asian police officer Liu and Latino police officer Ramos, in being killed by a black man who shot his black ex-girlfriend, Air Force reservist Shaneka Thompson, earlier that day, the fact is that they were just as much victims of institutional racism as any of the black men and women killed by their fellow police officers.

Because that’s the thing.  Racism isn’t personal.  It’s certainly not rational.  It’s not about who your friends are or who you’d be willing to share a drink with, because in those situations you have time to stop and think.  And most of us, when we have time to stop and think, can remember that we believe that most people are pretty much the same as us, and so we’d do our best to respect their inherent worth and dignity just as we’d hope they’d offer us the same courtesy.  But Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson didn’t have time to stop and think.  He was afraid for his life, and a combination of police training, human instinct and cultural conditioning kicked in, and he shot Michael Brown without stopping to think about it.  And that’s the point.  When we don’t stop to think about it, then our higher cognitive functions don’t have a chance to overrule the much greater part of our brain that otherwise runs on training, instinct and conditioning.

To demonstrate this, there’s something called an Implicit Association Test, which measures the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations.  One version of the test has you first sort descriptive words into categories such as good or bad and then sort pictures of faces into categories such as African American or European American.  Then it mixes them up so that you’re sorting both words and pictures at the same time.  By running different combinations, the test can determine if you have subconscious preferences one way or the other.  As hosted by Harvard University, more than seven hundred thousand people took the Implicit Association Test with pictures of African American and European American faces over a six-year period, and more than half showed either a moderate or a strong automatic preference for white people compared to black people.  And while the majority of white people who took the test showed an implicit preference for white people, so did about half of the black people who took the test.  Again, this is not about what happens when we stop to think, because the test doesn’t give you time to think.  It’s about how we’ve been conditioned by our culture, by our training, by our upbringing.

And that’s why it’s necessary to be active in addressing it.  Racism isn’t just going to go away if we stop talking about.  That’s not taking the moral high ground; that’s being complicit in a system of oppression.  So it’s entirely appropriate to demand that police departments adopt policies that end racial profiling and prevent the criminalization of people of color, as well as to be much more transparent and accountable when someone is killed.  Some have said that demanding accountability in police actions is anti-police, but that’s like saying that calling for faulty brakes to be fixed is anti-car.  If anything, we should hold something to a higher standard when we value it, and a police force made up of our fellow citizens — and police officers are citizens just like us — who have agreed, on our behalf, to all the risk and danger that goes with the enforcement of the laws that we, the people, have passed in order to protect ourselves, well, that’s something we should value greatly and thus hold to a very high standard.

Of course, the case can also be made that nothing is broken, and that the system is working just the way it was intended ever since Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which took place not far from here in Southampton County, and in the aftermath of which racism was, if not invented, then at least applied as never before in support of class privilege.  But I’d like to think we can do better.  The “Universalism” part of Unitarian Universalism originally meant the belief that all souls would finally reach heaven.  Today, it usually means the belief that heaven on Earth is possible, that salvation can be reached in this life, that the Beloved Community can be brought into existence, that a universal commonwealth of love and justice is attainable.  But here’s the catch: none of that is possible on an individual basis.  It can’t be done piecemeal.  It’s all or nothing, everybody or nobody.  So if entire groups of people are systematically oppressed to the point that their lives are altogether too much like hell, then there’s no heaven for anyone else.  After all, there’s no privilege in heaven.  Until black lives matter as much as white lives, then nobody gets to say that all lives matter.

And that’s why we should want to be allies, because our own salvation, our own wholeness, our own well-being is inextricably connected to everybody else’s.  Some of us may be part of particular struggles already, given one or more identities that mean that the very structure of our society puts us at a disadvantage, but if our other identities mean that we are privileged in other ways, then we have a responsibility to use that privilege to support and empower those whom our society judges as less worthy.  So men can be allies to women by understanding their own male privilege.  Heterosexual and cisgender people can be allies by listening to and taking seriously the lived experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  And white people can be allies by speaking up in support of people of color, not speaking over them or taking the megaphone from them, but learning to take a supporting rather than leading role for once.  As Chescaleigh explained, we’ll make mistakes in trying to be good allies, and it’s important to apologize when we do make mistakes, because it’s not our intent that matters, but our impact.  And, then there’s the fifth of her five tips: we need to remember that ally is a verb, which means doing something.

So to that end, outside the Sanctuary this morning, there are a couple of copies of what is known as the Birmingham Pledge.  This was created sixteen years ago by an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, to express a grassroots commitment to combating racism and racial prejudice, and it has since been used in anti-racism programs in all fifty states.  I would ask you to take a look at it and, if you are willing to make that commitment, and then live it to the best of your ability, to sign it as well.  Here’s what it says:

“I believe that every person has worth as an individual.  I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of race or color.  I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others.  Therefore, from this day forward: I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions; I will discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity; I will treat all people with dignity and respect; and I will strive daily to honor this pledge, knowing that the world will be a better place because of my effort.”

May it be so.

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Gifts of Being from Sources Beyond Ourselves

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 24th 2013.)

I’ve loved the thanksgiving prayer of Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Fewkes since I first heard it.  As we heard our youngest choir members sing it so sweetly this morning:

“For the sun and the dawn which we did not create,
for the moon and the evening which we did not design,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

Elizabeth Alexander set these words to music, explaining that “my family has spoken this blessing as our table grace for the past twenty years.  This is no small praise, for I had exhaustive criteria for this prayer: it needed to be simple enough for a young child to learn, beautiful in language and form, and appropriate in the presence of a guest of any faith. It was a pleasure to set Richard Fewkes’ words to music, so that I could share his generous sentiment with others.”

Now I don’t know how many Unitarian Universalists engage in what they might consider prayer on a regular basis.  Indeed it has been said that prayer in most Unitarian Universalist circles is something like a dog walking around on its hind legs: the surprise isn’t from seeing it done well, but from seeing it done at all.  But some sort of blessing or grace at the dinner table may not be that unusual, particularly when taken as an opportunity to teach children about the value of gratitude, as was evidently part of Alexander’s intention. (She is, by the way, a Unitarian Universalist.)

Now expressing gratitude is one of the four classic purposes of prayer.  The other three are expressing wonder, expressing regret and expressing need, though the forms of those expressions obviously vary depending on your theology.  I think one of the reasons many Unitarian Universalists don’t consider anything they do as prayer is because we’ve fallen victim to the idea that praying is simply about asking for things, and to most of us that sounds pretty self-serving.  But let’s try to escape the trap of a narrow theological frame and broaden our thinking.

What about prayer as an expression of wonder?  I’m by no means a morning person, but whenever I get the opportunity to see the Sun rise into the dawning sky, I can’t help but marvel that I’m standing on a huge ball of rock that’s spinning as it circles through space around a vast ball of fire.  Moreover, the scales and distances are so immense that we actually see the Sun as it was more than eight minutes into the past.  That’s just one of the many wonders available to us every minute of every day.

What about prayer as an expression of regret?  There are all the ways in which I fall short of my own intentions, all the ways that I don’t live up to my own vision for who I want to be in the world.  Whether I make promises to myself or to others, I can run out of time or I can get distracted; I can forget something on my ever-growing “to do” list, and then there’s always just plain old-fashioned procrastination.  But I try to be aware of how I fall short, because it’s only by being honest with myself that I can fix what my mistakes and figure out how to do better next time.

And what about prayer as an expression of need?  This is not just asking for things.  If we’re willing to admit, particularly to ourselves, our limits and our faults, then we ought to be able to admit what we need, from one another, from the world, from life.  I need to feel connected to family and friends, for instance.  I need to feel like I belong.  I’ve found I have a real need to spend time with my one-year-old daughter before she goes to sleep, and so I also need the people who run our many evening committee meetings to be understanding of that when I arrive late.

And then there’s prayer as an expression of gratitude.  Many people have noted that gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving Day.  It’s something to be done every day, a way of life that we should always be practicing because it helps to move us from dwelling on what we lack — and with that attitude what we need will always be scarce — to celebrating what we have — and appreciating how our needs are met in a spirit of abundance.  As addiction recovery specialist and self-help author Melody Beattie puts it, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Personally I think that gratitude is foundational to any expression of need, regret or wonder.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that gratitude brings depth and motivation and promise and usefulness to those other expressions.  After all, it’s no good to become so focused on what we need that we fail to appreciate what we already have; it’s certainly no good if reasonable and honest acknowledgements of our failings become drowned in self-pity; and it’s no less unhelpful to spend every waking moment in such a state of amazement that we are incapable of actually doing anything with the gifts we’ve been given.  It’s gratitude that frees us from the paralysis that can so easily come from need, regret and even wonder.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

“For food which we plant but cannot grow,
for friends and loved ones we have not earned and cannot buy,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

Any occasion to sit down for a good meal with friends and family is a chance to think intentionally about these gifts, to appreciate them and perhaps to express gratitude out loud.  A major holiday that’s actually called Thanksgiving does, of course, lend itself to doing this more readily, but Thanksgiving isn’t the only time to be grateful any more than Christmas is the only time to be nice to people or Valentine’s Day is the only time to be loving or St. Patrick’s Day is the only time to eat food that’s all been boiled until it’s the same color.  If, that is, you have some objection to vitamins.

Still, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking Thanksgiving as an opportunity to think more about those things for which we are grateful, and there’s some merit to the idea that if we focus on some particular good habit for at least a while, then some of it will stick with us afterwards.

So it’s not too surprising that, for the last forty years, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — the UUSC, for short — has been asking UU congregations to participate in its “Guest at Your Table” program, starting the Sunday before Thanksgiving and running through the Winter holidays.  If you’ve been to this or any other UU congregation on such a Sunday before, you’ll have heard the basic idea, which has a lot to do with gratitude.

The official mission and vision statements of the UUSC are as follows: the “UUSC advances human rights and social justice around the world, partnering with those who confront unjust power structures and mobilizing to challenge oppressive policies”; the “UUSC envisions a world free from oppression and injustice, where all can realize their full human rights.”  As such, the UUSC is in Haiti, supporting people who are rebuilding communities that are still recovering from the earthquake that devastated the country three years ago.  And the UUSC is in Arkansas, helping people who are fighting against worker exploitation in situations where wages are stolen, where safety rules are ignored and where sexual harassment is overlooked.  And now the UUSC is in the Philippines, too, working with local and international organizations as well as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines to provide relief in communities where people lost almost everything to Typhoon Haiyan.

Those are all worthy efforts, of course, and the UUSC is engaged in plenty more all over the world.  For me, though, it all comes down to gratitude.  Most of us, most of the time, are amongst the fortunate.  And that goes for Unitarian Universalists in general, at least within the United States: most of us, most of the time, are amongst the fortunate.  The UUSC, then, is one way that Unitarian Universalists, collectively, can give back.  You’ve probably heard the saying that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”  It’s one of the many sayings that people think are in the Bible, only this one actually is — it’s said by Jesus in the Book of Luke — though it was also paraphrased by Oliver Wendell Holmes and John F. Kennedy.  The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, then, is one way that Unitarian Universalism recognizes that obligation, and so it makes perfect sense to learn about and think about the UUSC’s work during that time of year when we are encouraged to express gratitude for what we have and how we have been blessed.

And so for the last forty years, the UUSC has been asking Unitarian Universalists in congregations across the United States to support their work by participating in Guest at Your Table.  GaYT_boxThe idea is pretty simple: you take one of these boxes, and you take it home, and you put it on your dinner table, and every time you sit down for a meal — and perhaps say a formal grace or at least go around the table and have everyone speak of something for which they are grateful — then you see the box and remember to put a few coins or even a couple of dollar bills into it as a way to make concrete your gratitude for what you have and how you have been blessed.  Every year the UUSC selects four of their partners and writes “Stories of Hope” about them to help bring to life some of the valuable, vital work they’re doing, but that doesn’t really matter, because you know that everything they do is good, worthwhile work that reflects UU values and makes a difference in people’s lives, but that’s not why you put those cents and dollars into that box.  No, you put that money in because you are grateful for what you have and how you have been blessed.

But this year, the UUSC isn’t making these boxes.  They’ve decided that in keeping with their other efforts to be good stewards of the environment, Guest at Your Table will collect money through a website.  After all, producing thousands of boxes and printing them all in full color only for them to be used for a couple of months before they go, hopefully, into the recycling bin, well, that’s perhaps not the most environmentally friendly thing to do every year.  And I applaud that, but, you know, it worries me.  I worry about how well it will work, without the physical presence of the cardboard boxes on people’s dinner tables.  It turns out that it also worries J— who, I should note, has been the one who for so many years has maintained this Fellowship’s participation in the UUSC’s programs and for that we should all express our gratitude to her.  So she and I did some of our own thinking “outside the box” — yes, groan — and came up with our own UUFP way to do Guest at Your Table this year.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

“For this gathered company which welcomes us as we are,
from wherever we have come,
for all our free churches that keep us human
and encourage us in our quest for beauty, truth and love,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we like food here.  We like eating together, whether it’s a potluck or a lunch after services at a local restaurant or a meal for six or eight offered by members as an auction item or a special dinner as part of the annual pledge drive.  Members of this congregation covenant to companion one another on this journey of the spirit that we call life, and there’s nothing wrong with remembering that to be a companion literally means to share bread with someone.  Well, we have a few people who can’t eat gluten, but the good news is that there’s always plenty more food than just bread here!

So today, for instance, the Membership Committee is hosting the first of this year’s Fourth Sunday Soup Socials that run through the Winter months.  These aren’t potlucks, but rather R— and devoted volunteers will provide a variety of types of soup and an occasional chili that are available for anyone to enjoy.  In keeping with our own efforts to be good stewards of the environment, you’re encouraged to bring your own bowl and spoon, but you won’t be turned away if you don’t.  As R— explains it, “All are welcome to join in without having to bring anything except for your […] willingness to help out if needed for set up and take down.”

Then there’s the Thanksgiving Day potluck lunch that S— is coordinating right here this Thursday.  If you’ll be by yourself for Thanksgiving, or even if you’ll be with others who might also enjoy a friendly meal with a welcoming group, then you’re welcome to come; just let S— know today and she’ll make sure she has enough turkey.  In a similar vein, J— and I are coordinating a potluck lunch here on Christmas Day, and of course the Festival of the Season that we’re doing on December 7th will kick-off the afternoon’s festivities with a meal, too.  There are also many regular groups and programs that include potlucks or meals together in their activities, and looking out as far ahead as the Spring, we’ve already scheduled a Passover Seder — itself an ancient religious practice of companionship — for the afternoon of Easter Sunday.

Thinking about all these opportunities we have to share food together, J— and I very quickly went through the four classic purposes of prayer.  First, wonder: “Isn’t it great that we have so many times that people can enjoy food and fellowship here?”  Then, regret: “It’s a shame that we can’t always get to them and enjoy them ourselves.”  Then, need: “We should look for more occasions to do more of them and involve more people, too.”  Then, gratitude: “But we certainly owe great thanks to everyone who organizes these potlucks and meals as well as everyone who comes to them and makes them such fun.”  Well, okay, maybe we didn’t literally say those exact sentences out loud, but our conversation formed a prayer nonetheless, and out of it came an epiphany.  If the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is no longer making the many small collection boxes that can go home with each of you for Guest at Your Table, then perhaps we could instead have one big collection box that stays here at the Fellowship for Guest at Our Table.

And here it is:

GaOT_box

This box will be on the table at those lunches and potlucks and dinners I mentioned, probably on the kitchen island where the food is usually served, and it’ll be the Guest at Our Table, reminding us to be grateful for what we have and how we have been blessed.  As always, putting some coins or dollar bills or anything into the box is entirely voluntary.  We don’t charge admission to any of these meals — they’re not church fund-raisers and the Fourth Sunday Soup Socials aren’t even potlucks — and in fact some of our own members who face daily financial hardships come to such events specifically for a meal that they might not otherwise get.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  We also have plenty of people who are able to put anything from loose pocket change to a few dollars into this box and, in a spirit of gratitude, will want to do so.  It’ll add up, and come the Spring we’ll send it all in to the UUSC as our expression of gratitude for what we have and how we have been blessed, emphasizing as well that what we do as Unitarian Universalists, we do together, in community, rather than as individuals alone.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer concludes:

“For all things which come to us
as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves,
gifts of life and love and friendship,
we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.”

As we approach this week the primary holiday of the United States, an essential civic holiday named for the essentially religious act of expressing gratitude, I invite you to keep the words of Richard Fewkes’ prayer in mind.  They’re printed in our grey hymnal and you can find them in plenty of places on-line, too.  Perhaps, like Elizabeth Alexander and her family, you’ll make it a grace, saying it together as you’re holding hands around the table before your meal.

Or keep, at least, the spirit of Fewkes’ prayer in your heart.  Keep its spirit of humility, of wonder, of grace with you; let it open you to all the possibilities offered by life and love and friendship; let it lead you to join others in the outpouring of all those “gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves”.  There is much in this world for all of us to do — and, really, to do together — but to do any of it we must begin in a place of gratitude.

So may it be.

~ ~ ~

Update!  We collected $144.44 in our Guest at Our Table box, which is matched dollar-for-dollar by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, NY!  An additional $200 (also matched) was collected by on-line donations via our UUFP team web page.  (as of June 11th 2014)

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Bringing Wholeness

(I preached this homily for Flower Communion at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 1st 2014.)

In a few minutes’ time, we’ll celebrate the Flower Communion, which I can say without hesitation is the most beloved of all Unitarian Universalist ceremonies.  It was created by Czech Unitarian minister Norbert Čapek, who wrote a number of original hymns and prayers for it, and it was then brought to the United States by his wife, Maja.  Actually, I suspect that Maja had a hand in helping her husband create the Flower Communion, but we are particularly grateful to her for making it such a beautiful part of the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism.

The story goes that, until about a hundred years ago, Norbert was living in eastern Europe.  He’d been born into a Roman Catholic family living in Bohemia and he’d always wanted to be a priest, but he was a free-thinker and that got him into trouble when it came to some of the things he said about religion and politics.  Finding his increasingly liberal opinions unwelcome, Norbert, his first wife and their eight children fled to the United States.  Unfortunately his wife died soon after they arrived, but it was here that he learned about Unitarianism and found that it matched his own developing religious ideas.  He also met Maja, who was from Bohemia as well and had come to the United States some years before.  A graduate of Columbia University, she worked at the New York Public Library when they met.  They married soon after, and together joined the Unitarian church in Orange, New Jersey.

With their homeland newly independent after World War I, the Čapeks moved back to Europe, to the city of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic.  Together they founded the first Unitarian church in that part of Europe, and in time it became the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, with over three-thousand members.

Now, Sunday services in the Czech Unitarian Church weren’t much like worship services in today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations.  They didn’t sing hymns, and the ritual of lighting the chalice didn’t yet exist.  Some of the church members wanted something more spiritual than a lecture they could hear at the local university, so Norbert decided to create a ritual that would bring people together.  Taking his inspiration from the beauty of the countryside around Prague, he created the Flower Communion.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s the simple beauty that makes it so meaningful.  Every person coming to the service brings a flower, which they place in large vases.  The flowers form a beautiful bouquet, as unique and irreplaceable as each of the flowers in it.  With even just one flower missing, it wouldn’t be the same bouquet!  After the flowers are blessed, each person selects a flower to take home with them.  So different people brings different flowers and everybody gets to take one home, a different one than they brought.  In this way we honor the uniqueness of each person, as beautiful in their own way as a flower, each of us with a special contribution to make to our community.

lots of flowers

Now this isn’t a story with a nice, neat happy ending, but then, life is hardly a fairy tale.  During World War II, the Čapeks were invited back to the United States, given understandable concerns for their safety.  Maja did return, though that was primarily to help raise funds for Czech relief efforts, but Norbert chose to remain in his homeland, ministering to those who needed to hear his message of inherent worth and dignity and beauty.  Unfortunately that message wasn’t popular with the Nazi regime, and both he and his daughter were arrested and sent to a concentration camp.  Norbert was tortured and then killed.  But his legacy didn’t die with him, of course.  Maja, who had also been ordained a minister of the Czech Unitarian Church, brought with her the Flower Communion, and it quickly became a beloved tradition in Unitarian and then Unitarian Universalist congregations.

In a moment, I’ll read Norbert’s own words for consecrating the flowers before I invite you to come forward and take one.  But there’s one particular line that has stood out since the first time I heard these words, and it bears a little further comment.  That line is as follows:

May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do work of bringing wholeness to the world.

I know there have been times in my own life when I feel envy at something that another person has done, something that I myself have not done, perhaps that I am not even able to do.  Many of my colleagues in ministry do amazing things all the time, and I sometimes find myself thinking, “Oooh, I wish I had done that.”  Or even, “I wish I could do that.”  Of course, I try not to begrudge them their success, and I try to turn it around to find ways to let their successes inspire me, rather than resenting them and putting myself down.  I’d like to think, of course, that there are similarly things that I do, at least once in a while, that inspire other people, and maybe even impress them, too.  Hey, I have an ego: I’m human, too.

Goodness knows, there are lots of opportunities, even within a modestly sized congregation like ours, to be impressed by what other people are doing.  Take any one of us, and there will always be someone who can volunteer more of their time here, or who can contribute more money, or who can run a committee meeting more effectively, or who can sing or play music with more skill, or who can create artwork or write poetry that is more beautiful, or who can cook and bake more delicious food, or …  The list goes on.  It’s natural to feel a little envious, because we’re human, too, and if it inspires us to try a little harder and aim a little higher, then that’s okay.  Putting ourselves down, and making others feel bad about their talents and efforts, on the other hand, is not okay.

This, of course, is one of the lessons of the Flower Communion.  It wasn’t some random thought that prompted Norbert Čapek to put that line into his prayer for consecrating the flowers: “May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do work of bringing wholeness to the world.”  Flowers are a great metaphor for human diversity, and of course an object lesson in accepting one another’s inherent worth and dignity and beauty.  And not only accepting it, but lifting it up, and enjoy being lifted up ourselves, too.

After all, even the flowers that most people consider to be undesirable weeds when it comes to their lawns at home are beautiful in their own way.  When my daughter and I go for a walk — well, I’m usually the one walking, while she rides in the wagon I’m pulling — we notice all of the flowers we pass.  As yet, she really hasn’t been that interested in roses or lilies, but she loves buttercups and clover.  It’s reminded me of my own childhood delight in flowers, how buttercups shine so brightly yellow, and that thing children do of holding one under someone’s chin to see if they like butter or not.  And clover is not only something that enriches the soil, but is a primary source of nectar for honeybees, which need all the help they can get right now.  Even dandelions, the bane of many home gardeners’ existence, are beautiful in their own way, not to mention when the heads dry out and all those seeds are on their little fluffy parachutes and you can blow on them and who knows how far any one seed will travel.

So as you select a flower today to take home, think about how it’s different from every other flower that you might have taken.  Think about how you are different from every other person here, perhaps more skilled and gifted and interested in some things than other people, perhaps less in others.  And that’s okay, because whatever we do and whatever we are, we are all a part of the work of bringing wholeness to the world.

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