This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 2/11/18 as a kick off to our stewardship year. It focuses on the power and need for a progressive religious voice.
Two weeks ago, I was using some vacation time to co-chair our UU Ministers’ Association’s triennial conference called The Institute. There were over 350 of our ministers in attendance at this week-long program of workshops on ministry, worship, and a few talks. We live-streamed the seven worship services that I coordinated, or took part in, and I expect to be able to send out the online links of the recordings in the near future for those that missed them. They included some of our finest preachers, with the award winning music director, Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout tying the artistic thread through the week, and culminating with the preaching of Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ – the UCC’s largest church in the US, and where President Obama is a member.
It was a stunningly beautiful week. Although we’re all in the same line of work, clergy rarely get to hear each other. Coming together to workshop, and worship, to deepen our collegial ties, and learn in community, is a powerful gift. I was honored to be able to help in the ways that I did. Co-chairing the production of seven worship services in a week, however, was utterly terrifying. Something being an honor though, doesn’t make it devoid of stress, pressure, or the abject horror of speaking in front of your colleagues – all who you’re absolutely sure are wielding their finest internal worship-critiques as they sit facing you. Some of my mentors were in the room, my friends, the people I went to seminary with. This only happens every three years, and many of our ministers are starving to be able to attend worship, without leading worship. The pressure was immense.
Now, I’m not one of those people who have that anxiety dream about talking naked in front of crowds….Thankfully. The dream I return to time and again, is the one where I’m just about to graduate from college, and realize there’s one more final I need to take in a class that I skipped going to, and didn’t do any of the homework for. I can’t possibly complete everything I need to in the time remaining, and I’m going to have to return for another semester to make up that class. And it was a class that I absolutely had zero interest in – which is why I was skipping it in the first place. I wake up in a cold sweat every time. The Institute I co-chaired also felt a little like that dream. How are we ever going to pull off all the thousand things?! And yes, it was still an honor.
The other night, when I was up late with insomnia, from all the stresses of the world that we’re all living through right now, I found myself scrolling through Facebook. Because, of course, staring at an electronic screen at four in the morning is the surest way to go back to sleep quickly… I came upon a quote that put a lot of this in perspective. “Discomfort is the price of a meaningful life.” “Discomfort is the price of a meaningful life.” Sure, there are things in the world that come easy, that are also meaningful, but we would all be kidding ourselves if we pretended ease is the norm. So much of worth in the world, takes our diligent striving, stewardship and care. When things are hard to accomplish, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not doing it well; it may simply mean that it’s worth doing.
This draws me back to our religious community. Things aren’t always easy. Religious community is made up of humans, and we’re not all perfect, we’re not all shiny all the time, and we all bring with us our personal stories of hope and pain, loss, and possibility. We step on one another’s toes, we need to repair the roof, or the window, and money isn’t always easy to find, and we certainly can’t do everything – but we grieve that we can’t do everything nonetheless. I recall the wise words of our resident sage, Bob Bader, that brings us back from the precipice of wanton pining for a perfection that never existed. To paraphrase Bob, We like to think it was easier at some time in our past, but it was never easy; it was always hard work. Religious community is not easy, it’s hard work. If we want easy, we can do brunch instead, or flip through the Sunday Times, (or as one dear member here reminded me recently, we conflict with Jake Tapper on Sundays.) (And as an important reminder, for folks considering just that, you can still make it to brunch and attend our services. And the Times can be read whenever you like – but we’re here at 10:30am.) We’re doing something hard here. It means we’ll be uncomfortable from time to time. Discomfort sometimes is the price of a meaningful life.
I think about all the accomplishments in our Fellowship’s history building upon one another – and often only shining their benefits onto a later generation of members. Back in the 80’s when we expanded our building to build this room where we all gather, we laid the groundwork to grow in membership, but we also laid the groundwork to help the community when the need was great. The Huntington men’s shelter – HIHI – was started by this Fellowship, after a tragic death on the streets. It’s hard to say if we would have been in a place to do that ministry if we didn’t have the larger space we have now. What was started as a simple (or not so simple) grounds and capital project to expand our worship hall, 20 years later became the foundation for saving lives in the wintertime. But if you ask our leaders back then (like MJ) if it was easy, I’m sure she would smile and shake her head no. It wasn’t easy. It was hard, and uncomfortable. But it was worth it. As the poet said earlier in our service, “Wrongs don’t work themselves out. Injustices and inequities and hurt don’t just dissolve. Somebody has to stick her neck out, somebody who cares enough to think through and work through hard ground, because she believes and has something personal and emphatic to say about it.” And as another leader reminded me yesterday, those days were also exciting to be part of!
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.
In part, 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.
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.
And we’re not just about outward acts of justice. 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. I don’t have kids of my own, but I want to live in a world where those are the kids we’re raising! 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.
And what sets us apart the most – is the spirit at the center of our faith. Religious community is a spiritual journey, long and winding, with many choices and forks along the way. In all the great odyssey stories, the hero travels far afield only to return to where they began, and ultimately find themselves. The biggest part of the spiritual journey, that we call faith, is learning how to find ourselves again. We don’t always live as ourselves. We hide, or inhibit, or push down our hearts, our feelings, sometimes our dreams; too often our kindest or best selves. We come together here and sing every week in community – and I wonder how often our singing grabs our souls’ attention and stirs it a little more into life. Life calling to life. Stewardship is, in part, taking stock of how well we’ve connected our hearts to our purpose, and making sure it remains nurtured for the years ahead. Supporting what matters to us most.
When I say life calling to life, I mean knowing in our bones that things matter – that life and relationships matter. Remembering to live fully – to live as ourselves – as best we can; to live knowing that life and relationships matter in our bones. The religious path is one where we help one another remember that too.
I’ll close with how we began our service. In religious community, we gather to nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Our spirits are nurtured through care for one another – together. Our mission reminds us that we’re never alone; that we’re here for one another. Institutions are our bedrock in times of turmoil. We will continue to be a place of support; a place of organizing against that which defies our highest values; and a place of challenge when we fall into complacency. As we begin a new stewardship year, I encourage you to support this institution so that in the coming year and years, we can continue to be a Beacon in a world that needs more places of compassion and spirit – places that live to remind us all – we’re not alone.