Posts Tagged stewardship

Weighing Our Choices

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.

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Inch By Inch

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/28/16 for our annual Stewardship service. It looks at the wisdom of Rev. Robert Fulghum and everything we ever needed to know we learned in Kindergarten.

Earlier this week I was on a two day retreat, with about 15 local UU ministers, up in Stonypoint, NY. We were reflecting together on what is our call – what’s our purpose in life and in our vocation. So many of us, and this is true for all of us, not just ministers – so many of us can find a thread somewhere in our lives that seems to indicate where we’re going or at least, after we look back, a thread that helps us make sense of what just happened. I think a congregation can a have call too, a purpose that pulls us forward. But whether is inspires us forward in our lives, or drags us despite ourselves, it’s a movement forward that takes us step by step, or sometimes just inch by inch. I believe it begins years before we ever really know to even think of finding a call or purpose in our lives.

Remember back to your kindergarten years. We heard a reading about that earlier in the service. Small chairs. Milk boxes with straws. A time in our lives when “nap time” was a four letter word – we clearly had no clue about anything if we thought naps were bad. Learning the basics of being in community and sorting out how to even be around people. But there were some key lessons that set us on our paths.

So if the UU minister, and author, the Rev. Robert Fulghum is right from the read we heard earlier – we already know all we really need to know about living as good people. Is he right? Can it be that simple? I want to start off by saying why it is that simple – and then we’ll talk a little bit later about why it’s not really that simple. If you’re new to UU, let me tell you that this is a really good example of how we think here. Or as my Italian mother would say, “Well.., yeah, no.”

What did Rev. Fulghum say again? In short – “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.[1]” Now these are some rules to live by. For the most part, I think we can all agree that following them would make for a better, kinder world. We might come up with some exceptions for self-defense, or caring for our loved ones. But for every day living, it’s hard to argue with them. If you’ve graduated from Kindergarten, and you have taken these rules to heart, you have a graduate degree in human living!

But do most of us live this way most of the time? Do we always share? Maybe we don’t have enough for ourselves. Or maybe we feel like we’ve worked so hard for what we have we don’t want to share any of it. When we do share – why are we doing it? (Call out some answers — kindness, helping other people, we feel better, sometimes we’re lucky and others are unlucky.) Sharing or – as we’ll talk about later at our Stewardship luncheon – generosity – makes us feel better but it also helps the world. It reminds us that we’re connected to the world around us. It’s an expression of the reality that we all got where we are today by the help of others in the world – the parents or caregivers that raised us; the teachers that taught us; the scientists and doctors who discovered a cure that keeps us healthy and so on. Because so many people have come before us and done things that makes our life and happiness possible – we in return share. And the circle continues.

I remember a story Gini Courter once told me. She was a recent former Moderator of the UUA (think Chair of the Board for the Denomination.) She was driving on the road one day and came up to a toll booth and was pulling out her wallet to pay (this was back in the ancient days before EZ pass- just after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth.) The toll collector said – “You don’t have to pay me today. The guy in front of you paid for your toll.” She got a smile on her face from the kind deed. What do you think she did? (allow for answers) She paid it anyway and said give it to the next person. What just happened? She’s not coming ahead in money at all! Yet she’s only smiling even more! Instead, just like how the generous person ahead of her put a smile to her face, she gave that smile to the next person coming after her. Now maybe that next person really needed the break – or maybe they’ll just get a smile to their face. But I can imagine a long row of drivers having a very different view of the day from it.

What are the ways you pay forward what’s been done for you? I know some of us teach in our classes; some help host our winter shelter – HIHI; some join our pastoral care team and help ease the suffering of others who are struggling through crisis. When we speak of generosity, or sharing, there’s a way in which that’s what we’re really saying. We tell the people around you that you care, that we’re willing to help, that they’re not alone. It’s not about giving up what we have, but about recognizing how much our friendships or our relationships means to us– how much more than the thing you’re sharing.

Sometimes I think generosity is like planting a seed in a garden; maybe imagine our Grow to Give Garden on our grounds that we use for community food banks. We plant these seeds, without labeling them as our own. We’ll care for them in their little spaces for a little while. They’ll grow for the Spring and maybe even part of the Summer. We grow it for others who are in need, and we grow those veggies also to teach the next generation that generosity matters. In this faith community, we raise our children and our youth to be adults who care in a world that too often seems not to care.

But there’s also another significance. We don’t always know what good thing will come of our actions. In life, we sometimes do a small thing – a small good act – one inch at a time. We might come to know immediately that it helped someone and it was appreciated. Or we might pay for the next person’s toll and never know if they were thankful or if they even needed it. The gardening of the spirit can be like that. Some seeds may not take root. Others will grow strong for a time. In life, sometimes our actions will have a bigger effect on the world around us than we can easily imagine.

In our reading from Robert Fulghum, he also said, “Play fair. Don’t hit people…. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.” I see all of these things as sort of the opposite of sharing. It’s all about thinking that what little you have, is more important than the people around you. If you cheat, or take what’s not yours, you’re saying those things are a bigger deal than the person next to you. This can be a really dangerous thing when countries are fighting over resources like oil or consumer markets. But in the everyday, it can feel like a big deal too.

Has anyone ever had to deal with a bully before? (I have.) I think most of us had to face a bully at one time in our life or another. Sometimes they’re on the playground; sometimes they’re in the office next door; sometimes they’re a spouse or someone you’re dating; sometimes they’re a country. Some of these things we might feel like we can’t handle ourselves, but the lesson on how to deal with it, we learned in Kindergarten.

We just don’t always remember. And the Kindergarten language can be really helpful for our parents. If – or maybe sadly I should when – your kids have to deal with these sorts of peer pressure – this kind of language can help our kids be better people. The simple language may even help some of us adults check ourselves.

For some of us, dealing with a bully is learning to not be one ourselves. If you find yourself planning on not playing fair, or hurting someone physically or emotionally – the kindergarten rules remind us – just don’t. But often the bully is someone else – it’s still good to check in with friends (or fellow committee members) every so often and ask them – was I just a bully? This might seem silly – but we all know bullies in our lives. We’ve all sat through painful lunches (whether in school or in the office.) And there are a lot of people that try to get their way at the expense of another person.  Sometimes they’re not bullying us – they’re bullying another person.

This is where the Kindergarten rules are just too simple. Sometimes it’s not enough to just follow them. It’s not enough to just share, or to just not be hurtful. Sometimes we have to take a stand. Sometimes we have to not let something just go by us. It’s being a good person. Sometimes we call it challenging or changing the system. When one person breaks from the norm – when one person calls out what’s not right, others may follow – and then the system changes.

I know this is sort of the atypical way of talking about stewardship and an annual canvass – to talk about bullying. But as we reflect this month on what it means to be a people of desire, one side of that discussion is unlearning how to be people who are ruled by desire. Generosity is a sort of antidote to bullying, or greed or desire. The world can teach us to believe in scarcity – that there’s only so much to go around. When we live too deeply into that, we sometimes see people start to clutch and grab and use their power for their own singular gain.

That false message also too often forces our true selves into hiding. Our second reading by Hafiz is about that. “There is a Beautiful Creature

Living in a hole you have dug. So at night I set fruit and grains And little pots of wine and milk Beside your soft earthen mounds, And I often sing. But still, my dear, You do not come out.” Where have we allowed the world to teach us to bury ourselves out of sight or out of mind? When have our neighbors tried to help dig us out of the holes of our own making, and we simply refuse to climb out? When have we turned to our more aggressive sides in order to have the better part of us stay hidden in the earth?

Personally, I find that the bigger part of the spiritual journey, that we call faith, is learning how to unbury ourselves. We should talk about this problem, as the poem’s title goes. Religion asks us to talk about this problem. 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.

As many of you who are on Facebook may already know, a colleague of mine, who was a former co-worker, Rev. Orlanda Brugnola, died a few nights ago. She was one of the first clergy I worked with as an ordained minister. She had a ton of advice that I never asked for, and too often didn’t appreciate, but she was going to help me despite myself – because that’s the kind of person she was. I think I remember her most fondly for her tenacious ability to know in her bones that things mattered – that life and relationships mattered – and to be able to make people around her remember that too. When I say life calling to life, that’s what I mean. 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.

One of our hymns – Though I Speak with Bravest Fire – adapts 1st Corinthians to music. We often hear that scriptural verse read at weddings, but it actually refers to a time when the apostle Paul was trying to get a few house churches back in accord with one another. The churches and the people in the churches were squabbling over petty things, the story goes, and he was calling them to task. Though I speak with bravest fire… if I have not love…. It’s a message we all can do well to remember. When we steward our faith tradition for ourselves and for the next generation, we can always trip up over the small things; confusing the small contemporary trappings of by-laws, or procedures, or committee meetings with the eternal truths of our spiritual values. But our mission, our calling as a community, is not to the temporal workings of our opinions or preferences but to a sovereign love that stands forever at our center. Can we place our little pots of wine and milk before the love that is hidden deep in our hearth and sing it out – sing it back into our lives and our communities and our schools and our offices and our country? That is the purpose to which we, at our bests, are given. May we live into that fully, and truly.

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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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Prayer for Stewardship and Community

Spirit of Community, God of Many Names, Love Abounding,

We each come here for different reasons,

To connect once more with friends well known,

To meet new folks along the way,

To be less alone in a city that is both very full,

And sometimes very isolating amidst the bustle.

Some of us are tired,

Dedicated to the busy-ness of our work week,

Struggling to find a job,

Stressed from the tests, and the homework, and the deadlines;

We gather to pause between the silence and the joy of this hour,

Hoping to be renewed in spirit and in mind,

To be able to appreciate the small wonders, of the moments,

between our obligations.

We gather as a community,

To build loving friendships,

To seek justice in our world,

To grow our souls,

To nurture compassion with every step,

As best we can.

We pray for those among us living with illness,

For those recovering in a hospital bed,

For their families and friends who wish they could ease their burden.

May they find healing where it is possible,

Peace of mind where it is not,

And feel the love that ever surrounds them.

God of Compassion, help us to weave real connections,

In this house of hope;

To build community within our walls and beyond;

To welcome the stranger,

Wherever they are on their life’s journey,

And allow ourselves to be changed,

With every new soul that enters our religious home.

In building our community, in growing our spirits,

We become the stewards of our faith.

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