A Place for All

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington for the start of our new stewardship year. It talks about how we respond to difficulty, trauma and loss.

This coming Memorial Day weekend will be the five year anniversary of when, as a pedestrian, I was hit by a car going about 25 miles an hour. I had been crossing a major avenue in Brooklyn, in the crosswalk, with the walk sign in my favor, and a group of pedestrians right behind me. The driver was making a left hand turn and accelerated thinking he could beat the crowd and simply didn’t see me. That happens to be the most common set of circumstances in car-on-pedestrian accidents. I was fortunate. I went airborne and landed about 10 feet away – on my butt. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t land on my head, or on the edge of the curb.  He stopped. Offered to drive me home. In trauma shock, I said no thank you. I didn’t want to be anywhere near that driver. Instead of then calling 911, he left. Someone else offered to call 911, and I foolishly said to them – no, I’m ok. I then walked to a friend’s who was a few minutes away and later got a car home. I was sore, but fine.

The next morning, when I came out of shock. I realized that I was not fine. I was in a lot of pain. I could just barely walk at about 1 mile an hour. Living alone, I hobbled my way to the doctor who chastised me something fierce. She wasn’t surprised though of my bad choices. When we go into shock, the brain stops working properly. I remember being worried the driver would get in trouble, or that I would be stuck in the hospital too long. Strange thoughts after you’re injured. But I was lucky, the injuries were bruises and cartilage damage. Apparently, healing from cartilage damage tends to take much longer, but you can also be on your feet much sooner. It was this ordeal that taught me to take any injury seriously for those around me; that the injured aren’t always thinking straight. To make sure to call for help.

The most intense period of recovery would be the first 3 months. Physical therapy twice a week would lead back into regular gym workouts. When I finally got back to the gym, I remember being shocked at how much weaker I was after only a short time. My physical therapist explained that in these types of injuries, some biological or chemical interaction happens around impact. The muscles internally stiffen to protect organs, but they then wither or weaken at an astonishing rate. The weight room showed me that I had lost 75% of my strength in my legs.

At first, you go into recovery mode. You think – I got this. I can do this! And you’re doing everything you should or need to do to get better. And you can get better. But after the initial willpower runs its course, you realize that you’re not easily going to get back to what you once were. I had more or less held a 4-5 day a week workout routine for the better part of fifteen years. As time went on, it became difficult to face that reality. Going to the gym meant I would be faced with how much weaker, how much slower, I was. And part of me still doesn’t like seeing that. And my health routines suffer for it. What I need to do, to get back in my old shape again, is the very thing that forces me to see the ways in which I feel less than I once was. And it’s hard to be present to that – to those feelings.

Most of us have had to deal with similar situations in their life. Maybe it wasn’t a nasty accident. Maybe it’s your heart, or chemo, or your weight, or maybe you’re recovering from some other type of surgery. Maybe simply the affects of aging. We’re all challenged at some point to be present to the aftermath of trauma, or weakness, as a fact of life.

Sometimes though, it’s a lesson or a community. Sometimes as a people we have to deal with trauma, and to grow through it. I can think of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Some of us, some of our neighbors, lost their homes or their livelihoods to the ravages of the storm. Even after things were rebuilt, it takes time and dedication to get back into old routines. To see old places the way we might once have viewed them. To walk back into your home after it was rebuilt and learn to feel safe there once more. To be present to the difficulty and to move through it.

Other times it’s more about responding to the depredations of social injustice. Any of the stories I’ve preached about this year could be that for you. Many of them are certainly that for me. Gun violence. Racial injustice in our judicial system. The ongoing barrage of social engineering that continues to go on in places like Arizona. Laws like SB1070, that diminished the humanity of immigrants and migrants, almost became codified this week targeting LGBT people. Under the lie of religious freedom, legislators sought to write discrimination into the state’s code of laws. Any business would be seen as a church. And for religious reasons, you could refuse services to any person. The intent was to target LGBT people, but the law was worded in such a way that you could apply that to anyone. The law was ultimately vetoed by the state’s governor because it had unforeseen financial implications. Legislators forgot LGBT people spend money. They were surprised that businesses ranging from Delta to the NFL were outraged and considering boycotting. It hit the state’s pocketbook, but not it’s soul. The law was vetoed because of finances, not ethics.

When the earlier law, SB1070 was enacted – turning local police into pretend immigration officers – I remember traveling to Arizona to protest. We spent a week protesting and drawing national attention. At first, you do the hard work of acting and protesting and putting your all into it. It’s like physical therapy for our social consciousness. Our national ethical life has been hit by a large object moving at an accelerating rate, and we don’t always respond rationally at first. We have a lot of daily work we need to do as a people to get our collective soul back to health after legislation like these. We have to be present to the injustice – to witness it – to bend into the pain to make it go away. Pretending it’s not there will not make it go away. And if we rely only on our self to figure it all out, we’ll be less effective. There’s a whole host of specialists that make us more effective, that can keep us on track, that can ensure the long term care of our nation doesn’t fall back to a permanent place of weakness. But the work is daily; it’s weekly; it’s yearly. There will continue to be laws threatening injustice so long as we as a people don’t do our work – together. What we do, together, matters.

I know in some ways this congregation felt like it went into shock. For those who have only been here for the past two years or so, you probably don’t notice any of it. For others who have been here longer, caring for your ailing former minister, Rev. Paul at about the same time you were caring for your former Director of Religious Education – Carolyn – as she was caring for her dying husband – must have felt like a shock. At first people responded incredibly admirably. People stepped up, kept the pastoral and education ministries of this Fellowship strong. Sunday services kept happening through more and more lay leadership. People did what had to be done to keep the community vital. And time went on, some people got tired, others left. Gratefully, many are now coming back – as is so clearly evidenced by Sunday attendance over the past seven months.

But for many of those who had to do some really heavy lifting, it can become hard over time to see the places of weakness, or the places of hurt. You might remember a time when the Fellowship was much larger – or felt stronger – and it’s hard to see it any other way. I ask those who this speaks to, to continue to stretch into the places that feel rough to go. Breathe when you need to, and continue loving this community as you have, and as its loved you. Congregations are as resilient as we allow them to be. And this community has shown a great deal of resilience.

And strength does come back, even if it’s not going to do that quickly. Turning away will not strengthen us; being present to the challenges, and the successes of our ministry together, will.

I see a religious community whose attendance is already back up to a high weekly point that matches the highs of 10 years past – even if our formal membership hasn’t returned to the Rev. Beth years yet. The people are here. Our religious education program once more has 100 children and youth registered. Our large team of volunteers have kept our cold weather shelter program serving the needs of an expanding guest list through this very brutal winter; offering food, and shelter and clothes to those in desperate need. We are building partnerships with various neighborhood groups who serve our communities’ needs through our weekly split-the-plate program and the volunteer work of members connecting with those service groups. Coming together, nurturing our children and youth, caring for our members and friends who are dealing with the varied challenges life has to offer, serving the needs of the world during times of strife and times of plenty – that is the work of religious community – and we are doing that work. In fact, we’re doing it so well that our denomination has recognized and awarded our ministry together. And there is a place for all of us in this work.

As the formal start of our new canvass, this sermon is in some ways about funding the present and future of this institution. Many think about budgets, and programs, and costs and services this time of year. Others ask me, “Membership. Why should I join? What do I get for my money?” I’m not sure that’s the best way to think of membership. Religious community is not a place where we buy services. That’s a store. Religious community is a place where we make commitments; where we promise to stretch ourselves when we’re becoming complacent and where we allow ourselves to be cared for by friends and neighbors when our need is there. Where we tell each other that we’ll hold one another accountable to helping to heal the corners of the world where we work and live. And we’ll fall down, we’ll trip, and we’ll help each other back up – to do the daily work, the monthly work, the yearly work of building a more just and compassionate world.  Where else do we do that work? Where else do we combine caring for the friend and the stranger alike with the work of justice?

Many lament that the broader world continues to struggle with perennial issues of inequality. It feels like the same battles decade after decade. Public discourse becomes less and less civil. People seem less and less engaged. When citizens make public protest, the propaganda media often chastises and ridicules them. With all that going on, it’s easy to feel lost and ineffective.

Membership here is a commitment to that work. Social justice, compassion, service, and learning constitute our spiritual exercise regimen. It’s not always going to be easy. It’s not always going to be fun. It’ll include sweat and tears from time to time. You’re not buying something; you’re promising something. Building the world we dream about takes commitment, it takes promises, it requires showing up. Presence and membership are about showing up – again and again. And hopefully, you will change along the way as you help to nurture and transform our neighborhoods into more loving places.

But those changes won’t happen overnight. Our members who were at Selma fifty years ago have seen that the world doesn’t change like that. That progress slides backward a little less often than it moves forward. Progress made today requires intentional communities of effort to continue to exist to ensure future generations have the support they need to do the work they will still have to do. We’re here today because others before us paved the way. And as Kathryn Johnson said earlier today, it now falls upon us to ensure this institution is vibrant enough to ensure our presence for future generations, future struggles, future needs and future celebrations.

So much in our culture teaches us to equate our spending power with goods rendered. In religious community, sometimes, you’re choosing to leverage that power toward another purpose. A progressive religious institutional presence is a force for sanity in our world. Every progressive religious community specializes in some areas over others. Over the twenty years of my membership in Unitarian Universalist religious communities I have seen so much good done. One congregation housed a statewide suicide hotline for LGBT folk in crisis. Getting the training and resources needed to help people at their worst hour is not something I could ever reduce to dollars and cents. Another congregation prepares over 350 meals a week to homeless and underfed neighbors while taking an active role in housing reform. Sometimes our religious homes offer a place for teens who are struggling with their sexuality, who have families who are far from supportive. It’s the kind of life-saving ministry our congregations offer, that you may never see for yourself. We can’t always share those stories because of the complexity of privacy and healing. But without our presence, some youth make dangerous choices in the face of public ridicule. For others, our ministry is that of affirming interfaith families – allowing couples with differing religions to raise their children in a space that honors both of their paths – and teaches the spiritual value of diversity.

Imagine a religious home that offers its children and youth, award-winning comprehensive science-based sexuality education that goes beyond the basics of sex ed, but helps prepare our teens to deal with peer pressure, body image, and relationship building. To value themselves, their bodies, and to value the same for others as well. Imagine contributing to a world where our kids are raised to respect themselves and others. Imagine a congregation that teaches our children the values and strengths of different faiths in such a way that they are embraced and not feared. That is our religious education program. Even if you don’t have kids of your own – I don’t have kids of my own – imagine contributing to the formation of a healthy future. That’s how we prepare our youngest generation to help heal our world. That’s not dollars and cents. That’s life-saving; that’s life affirming.  That’s building a place for all in our neighborhoods and communities.

As we begin a new chapter in our Fellowship’s life, all of these things are the bread and butter of our work – they’re our purpose. With a new covenant that clarifies our promises to one another, we’re moving along with updating and making more concise our mission statement. Our mission is a fancy word for sorting out our purpose. It will likely entail all of this work, but be a visual reminder of our commitments as a community. Our mission will not reflect the services rendered here, but inspire the work we’ll continue to do. Like our covenant building process, you’ll have a chance to give feedback to our Committee on Ministry as it leads us in this work through the end of April.

Our canvass will go to all of these purposes. As we stretch into more financial support we will be able to staff appropriately to our needs. Our search for a new Director of Congregational Life is well under way. We expect to find an excellent professional who can help us reach out to the world around us, care for the institution we have built, and deepen our ties to one another. With the additional secretarial support our plan offers, Austen our Transitional Director of Religious Education and myself will better be able to connect with all the new families and folks attending – and better able to help all of you connect more with each other. I also look forward to having more time to help lead service and justice work in our communities. We are at an exciting time that has some amount of urgency to it. With our Sunday morning attendance up by fifty percent since Ingathering in September, now is definitely the time to take advantage of that renewed interest and commitment. With our attendance back to our past high, it’s time to help our membership return to the same levels. This congregation offers so many life-saving and life-affirming services – it falls to us to be its stewards.

Everyone has differing means here. There’s no minimum or maximum to give. I am new to this community, and new to Long Island. I’m paying off ridiculous amounts of student debt – 30% of my take-home pay goes to student debt management – and debt burdens are something that I know I am not alone on here. With all that in mind, I’ve chosen to tithe 5% of my salary to this Fellowship. I made that commitment because I believe in this congregation. I believe in the healing power of the progressive religious voice. I want those voices alive, well, and loud in our public discourse. I want to foster thriving communities that protect and empower women at a time when government is trying to legislate their bodies in ways that government doesn’t attempt to do to men. I want communities that educate and train citizens about the issues of poverty in our nation, equip us to give the help we can, and strengthen our will to change the systems of oppression that make life easier for some and harder for others. I don’t believe anywhere else will do this as well, or as comprehensively. I want to do this work in a community that is not centered in politics, but in ethics, in values, in relationships. I believe in the potential of our government to do what’s right, but I don’t believe it will do so on its own. Religion at its best is prophetic. It stands up to the vice of power and says, not in my name. But we have to be here to do that.

The choir’s anthem this morning, 100 years is a recent pop charts hit that gives me the chills when I hear it. It sings of the life of any of us. So many things to celebrate, to commiserate, to weep over. All of these feelings will affect each of us in our lives. As the song goes, we only have 100 years to live. Very few of us will make it that long, but that’s the scope of our lives. We’re present to it, as best we can, through the good and the bad. But it’s our life to live. It evokes in me a sense of the preciousness of it; of the preciousness of relationships, of loves, of losses. I often think the song points toward making deeper connections in the time we have, of leaving a footprint for where we tread. Someone else did so before us, and look at the connections their earlier gifts have offered us. How will you live your 100 years? How will you leave this place better for your passing? Will you help each of us to ensure our healing, life-saving, life-affirming presence is here for another generation?

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