That song by Sweet Honey in the Rock (Would you Harbor Me), an a cappella group of African American women activists, almost always brings me to tears. Who would you harbor? As Unitarian Universalists, our congregations have long harbored some of the outcasts of our larger society – religious heretics and skeptics, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are the most obvious of the groups that have found shelter with us over the years. We have also provided a religious home for interfaith couples and their children.
Today is the Sunday closest to the Martin Luther King holiday, and I think it is even more important this year that we look to his example so that we can find the courage to open our hearts wide enough so that all who seek shelter can find a safe harbor with us. Would we harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew?
Our President Elect has said he is planning on having American Muslims register with the government. Will you be willing to register as a Muslim in order to help defeat this horrible and Un-American plan?
Becoming a Muslim is fairly simple, one only needs to say the Shahada, the Muslim statement of faith, twice, with sincerity. lā ʾilāha ʾillā-llāh, muḥammadur-rasūlu-llāh or in English: There is no god but God. Muhammad is a prophet of God.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with that statement of faith. As a Unitarian Universalist, my theology is grounded in a belief that if there is a divine presence in the universe; that presence is universal, open to all and loving all. Muhammad spoke of that presence as have many others that I would name prophets of that one light that guides us all toward justice and wholeness. So think, as the days before our new president takes office grow shorter and shorter, think about what you might be willing to do.
There is one thing that is, I think, critical for our survival in this new age, and that is holding onto our dreams for a better world. Our outgoing President spoke to this in his farewell address, but it is a truth that bears repeating.
Langston Hughes, an African American poet who was part of the Harlem Renaissance and also a gay man, had this to say about dreams:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
I don’t want to live like broken winged bird.
We cannot let our dreams die, no matter how long or how hard we have to work to make them real.
Faith can help, as in our responsive reading this morning, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
We have all known despair. Even after all these years, Martin Luther King’s dream is not yet realized. People still need to proclaim that black lives matter, because too often, it seems that they don’t. The last election fanned the flames of the racial hatred that has always been a part of the American story. It feels like we are moving backward, not forward into making the dream a reality.
A song we did not sing today because it was a little too challenging musically if you don’t know it well, is hymn #149. You might want to look it up and glance at some of the words. Often called the Negro National Anthem, it is being sung this morning in most African American Churches and many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations as well. It is a song of hope, but it also names the despair, the hard times. The second verse in particular, “stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died, yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers sighed. We have come over a way that with tears have been watered, we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” That verse references both slavery and the civil war, yet ends with a vision of a bright star of hope.
We are entering into hard times again, but the star is still shining if we look for it.
The Rev. Dr. King was not a Unitarian Universalist, although he and his wife did attend one of our churches for a time.
It was not an accident, however, that there were more Unitarian Universalist ministers involved in the civil rights struggle movement than from any other predominantly white denomination. Some of them gave their lives, most notably the Rev. James Rheeb, who died after being beaten by a gang of white segregationists.
Our faith tradition is one that lives in this world. If we had a Holy Trinity in this faith of ours, it would be Justice, Love, and Compassion.
Dr. King always tried to live his life guided by love. He was a visionary, an activist for justice, but most of all; he was a man of faith that believed in love.
He stood tall and he walked proud.
He faced dogs and fire hoses, and finally an assassin’s bullet, but he never lost sight of love. He reached out to both his enemies and to those that hung back on the sidelines.
Near the end of his life he also worked to end the Viet Nam war and he worked to end poverty. His life was not about a single issue.
Our faith gives us so much, a welcoming place, a place where we can feel accepted, where we can be free to be who we are, where we can follow both our heads and our hearts, where we can find a place to be whole. But our faith also is a demanding one, one that asks us repeatedly to keep learning and growing, and doing. It isn’t easy to walk our talk. It isn’t easy to live according to our values.
Unitarian Universalists worked to abolish slavery in this country. We worked for child labor laws, and for women’s rights. Many of us marched with Dr. King.
We have been in the front lines in the struggle for full equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. We are involved in immigrant rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But action can be risky. James Reeb and Martin Luther King were both murdered. Many others have also lost their lives in similar ways. But what is most important is not how they died, but how they lived.
We don’t have to be a James Rheeb, or a Martin Luther King to follow in their footsteps, to keep their dreams alive. Not just their dreams, but also our own dreams, and the dreams of our children and all who will come after them.
I want tell you some of what MLK said in a speech he gave, at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1966. It wasn’t one of his most famous speeches and it isn’t quoted often, but it was addressed directly to Unitarian Universalists and can, I think, speak to us today.
Dr King told us that the church needs to stay awake and be responsive to what is going on in the world.
“Certainly the church has a great responsibility” he said, “because when the church is true to its nature, it stands as a moral guardian of the community and of society.
“It has always been the role of the church to broaden horizons, to challenge the status quo, and to question and break mores if necessary.”
“It is not enough for the church to work in the ideological realm, and to clear up misguided ideas. To remain awake through this social revolution, the church must engage in strong action programs”
MLK changed hearts and minds. He changed the world. But he didn’t do it alone. Thousands marched with him, thousands went to jail, and many were killed, as he was, by violence.
Martin Luther King did the eulogy for James Rheeb, and in that eulogy he spoke of hope, saying he was not discouraged by the future, despite the heartache, despite the tragedy that was all around him.
He faced despair, a whole mountain of it. A system of segregation that many believed would never really change. But in his dream he climbed that mountain of despair and saw a vision of the other side. He carved a stone of hope from that mountain, one that kept his dream alive.
Many of us are in despair today. We are in despair over the state of the world, the wars, the impending environmental disasters, the racism; the massive scale of human suffering that exists all around the world.
Some of us may also be in despair over something that is going on in our own individual lives, a relationship gone bad, a health crises, a job loss, a need for housing, or for even a little bit of financial security.
We need to keep dreaming. We need to keep doing, to keep on working, making the effort, and keep taking the risks. The largest problem can be tackled, step-by-step and piece-by-piece. Work for justice. Do your part to help heal the planet. Ask for help when you need it. Dare to keep on dreaming. If we keep dreaming together we can make those dreams, those visions of a better world, of a better life; we can make those dreams come true.
I will end with these words by MLK
“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
We are part of that creative force that will find a way to keep bending that arc toward justice. May it be so.
The winds howl in outrage
As the rain pounds down in pain
Our mother sobs
As her body turns to mud.
The oceans rise in protest
The glaciers melt in despair.
We can hunker down
But we cannot hide
Umbrellas are not enough
To clean the poisoned water
To heal our wounded earth.
Our prayers may help
If they inspire us
To turn this storm around.
I know why they call it
The dead of winter
The Christmas tree still stands
But it is dry and brown
Becoming a fire hazard
Before our rusty eyes.
The presents are all gone
Nothing left to unwrap but fear.
Lights still shine in the houses
But we no longer see the star
That bright hope and promise
A newborn babe
Peace on earth at last
It seems like it was folly.
In this dread time of winter
We await the new year
Not knowing exactly
What it will bring
But it doesn’t look good.
Let’s go back to Christmas
While we can.
It is far too long to wait
For Easter morning
And Hope’s sweet resurrection
We need it now.
Such a wonderful story isn’t it? The young couple, with a baby about to be born, and they can find no room at the inn. The animals make room for them in a stable. The cattle are lowing. Mooing that is, I assume. Shepherds and wise men see a star and follow it, bringing gifts. Angels sing and fly about.
The Christmas story, as we have come to know it, is composed of two very different versions of the birth of Jesus that are told in the Gospels of Luke and of Matthew.
Mark, and scholars are in agreement that Mark is the oldest gospel, written about 70 years after Jesus died, and Mark says nothing at all about the birth of Jesus. Who knows what actually happened at the birth of this particular child?
But it is a wonderful story, one that has been added to and embellished over the years, as often happens with wonderful stories. The writers of the later gospels of Luke and Matthew added the shepherds, the wise men and the angels. All the different animals were added later. St Francis was the first; it is said, to include live animals in nativity scenes. And was there a little drummer boy there? Pa rum ba dum dum, I have no gift to bring –
The song about the little drummer boy was first written in 1958, but it is easy to imagine him there too, isn’t it? I loved that song as a child.
Placing more people at the birth site of Jesus in song and in story is, I think, a way of living out the central message that made Jesus such a remarkable teacher and preacher. God loves us all. Everyone is welcome. When we feed the hungry, when we donate clothing to those who need it, when we visit those in prison, and when we work to liberate those who are oppressed, we are doing just as he would have done. We are serving God because God is in each of us, including and perhaps especially, in those of us who are in need.
Christmas belongs to all of us. Those that would restrict it and define it too narrowly are just wrong. They don’t get it. It is too large to be shrink-wrapped into a state of mind that could even imagine being resentful of a sweet greeting like, “Happy Holidays.”
And this particular Christmas Eve is very special. For the first time in decades it is also the first night of Hanukkah. Jews and Christians around the world are all lighting candles tonight, candles of hope that sometimes burn brightest in times of great danger and fear. Muslims too are celebrating Christmas and the birth of the prophet they call Isa, born in Bethlehem, the son of Mary.
Much of how we celebrate is also drawn from ancient customs that drew meaning from what must have seemed like rebirth of the sun at the time of the winter solstice. Many people celebrated the solstice just 3 nights ago.
With all of these varied faith traditions coming together this week, I think we might be getting a message from the expansive and inclusive spirit of the universe. Jesus, during his ministry, called upon us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He was also named the Prince of Peace. Our task, my friends, tonight and in the days to come, is to keep working together toward a vision of Peace on Earth for all. With the power of the love inside each of us, we must keep the flame of hope burning brightly, so that justice will truly rain down like the waters and even the hearts of tyrants will be changed.
So, back to the Christmas story, I do think there were angels there, and shepherds and homeless folk, little drummer boys, wise men, and of course the queens. There were people of all races, gender identities, sexual orientations, and faiths gathered there together around the manger, welcoming a newborn child.
The donkey was there, and the cow, and probably even the tiny lizard like the one that attended worship here with us one Sunday not long ago.
Each of us was there too, that Holy night, for the story is timeless and unending. Look into each other’s faces and look into the candle’s flame when we light them in a few more moments.
It is up to us to keep singing the song of Christmas, the song of the angels, helping the light of truth, of love, of peace to be reborn. May it be so.
The religious right has been going on for years about how there is a war against Christmas. If you make the mistake of saying “Happy Holidays” to one of them, you might get blasted. Heaven forbid you say something like Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Solstice, Good Yule, or Joyous Kwanza. It is rather bizarre really; because it is in fact corporations that are waging the real war against Christmas. They urge you to spend way more than you can afford and to get in fistfights over parking spots at the mall.
As Unitarian Universalists, we tend to believe that all religious traditions contain some truth, and that we can learn from them. We don’t feel we have a lock on the truth, or on wisdom or on goodness. Because of this we think it is a rather good thing to recognize and try to appreciate the various holidays of this season. So yeah, I say happy holidays quite a bit.
And I love Christmas, the real Christmas, and the one that came after the first war against Christmas. That first war was also about social justice, something that is also dear to my heart.
This morning’s reading from Dicken’s Christmas Carol raised some social justice issues, didn’t it? The two children were called “Ignorance” and “Want.” Doom was written on the boy’s forehead, for ignorance was even more frightening than want, than poverty. The ghost mocked Scrooge with his own words – “Are there no jails, are there no workhouses?”
It reminds me of the modern day war against the poor. We have even elected a predatory capitalist as our president. We roust the homeless from the streets and destroy their meager belongings in the process. Dickens hated the way the poor were treated in his society.
Did I mention that Dicken’s was a Unitarian? At the end of the story, Scrooge is saved from himself, by his change of heart and by his actions of generosity.
Changing your heart, opening yourself to joy, is definitely a Unitarian style salvation story. The Christmas carol ends as follows:
“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. ….and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
Dicken’s Christmas Carol is a classic. I have always loved it, and I am sure many of you do as well. It really is pure Unitarian Universalist propaganda. God Bless us every One, indeed. Yes, the inherent worth and dignity of all. The story teaches generosity, kindness, repentance and forgiveness. Scrooge is also saved in this world, not in the hereafter.
In a very real way, the Christmas celebrations we know today in the United States would not be happening quite the way they are without the efforts of Unitarians and Universalists. We saved Christmas, yes we did! It is very fitting for a faith that maintains that all are saved. Can I hear a hallelujah? Hallelujah is similar to rock on. Say that if it is more comfortable for you.
Now some of you may not know that Christmas ever needed saving. Our pilgrim fathers (along with the Native Americans who fed the starving strangers) may have been responsible for promoting the Thanksgiving holiday, but they were not fond of Christmas. They even went so far as to try and outlaw it. In 1659, a law was passed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that imposed a fine of five shillings on anyone found to be celebrating Christmas.
They were opposed to Christmas for several reasons.
It isn’t biblical of course. No one knows when Jesus was born and the puritans knew that. A Puritan minister at the time wrote:
It can never be proved that Christ was born on December 25. Had it been the will of Christ that the Anniversary of his Nativity should have been celebrated; he would at least have let us known the day.
The second reason is that they were well – Puritans – and they didn’t like the wild Christmas celebrations that were common in Europe, which included lots of drinking and well – rather shall we say rowdy behavior that was a very far cry from “puritanical.” They also rejected Christmas as a pagan celebration, which of course it was.
They were pretty successful for a time in outlawing it. Most people today don’t realize that Christmas Day did not become a federal holiday until 1870.
Unitarian Universalists were largely responsible for that act of Congress. I am indebted to the Reverend Richard Nugent, a Unitarian Universalist minister who a few years ago pulled together much of the history that I will share with you this morning.
The Universalist community in Boston held a special Christmas Day service in 1789, much to the chagrin of the surrounding clergy. The Unitarians began promoting Christmas in the early 1800’s. They didn’t believe that Christmas was the actual birthday of Jesus either, but they liked the idea of a family centered holiday and thought a special season with a tradition of helping the poor and less fortunate was a pretty fine idea.
The celebration of Christmas was the most controversial subject, second only to slavery, within churches at that time.
Liberal clergy like the Unitarians and Universalists, denounced slavery and promoted Christmas, while their conservative colleagues did the exact opposite.
The issue with Christmas tied into both theology and politics. The conservative religion of the time believed in original sin, believed that only some were saved, and even worse, believed that the state of your soul was directly related to your material wealth. No need for charity. The poor were damned by their own sin anyway. Dickens Christmas Carol with his bald statement that ignorance and want were the real evils was in direct contrast to the theology and social policies of his day. The solution to poverty was to punish those who were poor, to put them in workhouses or debtor’s prisons.
Christmas was the only time of the year when the poor could expect, even demand, some charity from the wealthy. The carol, “We wish you a Merry Christmas” references those times with the figgy pudding verse Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer: We won’t go until we get some; We won’t go until we get some.” The wealthy did not like this tradition of the unwashed masses gathering at their doors demanding both food and drink.
Unitarians were also responsible for creating or at least spreading several of our most popular Christmas traditions. Dutch and German immigrants first brought the custom of Christmas trees to the United States, but in 1832 Rev. Charles Follen, a Unitarian minister and a professor at Harvard College, put up a tree in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and decorated it. Follen remembered the German Christmases of his youth, and wanted to recreate that magic for his son.
He cut a small tree and decorated it with candles, eggshells, and other ornaments. Two women visited his house that year, both authors and Unitarians.
One was Harriet Martineau who was visiting from England and she wrote of the tree and of the gifts given to the Follen children. The other woman was Catherine Sedgwick. She wrote a short story about a Christmas tree that was published in 1836. Their writings helped spread the tradition of bringing a tree indoors and decorating it.
Another Unitarian minister, Alfred Shurtleff, is supposed to have been the first to put lights in his windows at Christmas. I wonder what he would say about some of the elaborate displays we now see. Even if it is only an historical rumor, I love the idea of a Unitarian starting the whole Christmas light thing. As the religion of love instead of fear, it seems very appropriate to have offered the joy of multicolored lights to this season. It even speaks to the beauty of diversity, doesn’t it? How dull it would be if all the Christmas lights were of one color only, and how sad if none of them twinkled off and on in the night.
Edward Sears, a Unitarian minister, wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” We will sing it at the end of the service. Please pay particular attention to the third verse. Sears lived through the civil war. His phrase “beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong,” is a clear call for peace and justice in this life, in this world.
In case anyone is starting to wonder, no, the 12 days of Christmas was NOT written by a UU – at least as far as I know.
But back to the antiwar message,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a contemporary of Edward Sears and also, yes, a Unitarian, wrote the poem about Christmas Bells, which is in our hymnal as #240 which we sang earlier. It was also written about the civil war.
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Peace on earth, good will to men. Hate is still strong today, isn’t it? It is why young men of color are being killed and why people have needed to be in the streets proclaiming that black lives matter. It is why immigrants, Muslims, GLBT people, and so many others are very afraid of what the new administration will bring.
The Christmas spirit as described by these good Unitarians of our past, is something that can help lead us to change our lives, to change the world for the better. And in keeping with our long-standing Unitarian Universalist tradition of changing with the times, and with new understandings, the hymnal words read ‘to all good will” rather than good will to men. Yes, being willing to change CAN be traditional!
Christmas really didn’t become popular, however, until one really important thing happened. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book, The Battle for Christmas, says that ‘a new faith (began) to sweep over American society.
It was the religion of domesticity, which would be represented at Christmas-time not by Jesus of Nazareth but a newer and more worldly deity- Santa Claus.”
Santa Claus. A favorite character of adults and children was really created when a famous poem was written and published. You know the poem, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. It was read to me as a child. I have read it to my own children. I am sure most of you have read it many times.
Originally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, it may have instead been the work of Henry Livingston.
The poem with its Jolly Old Elf, the sleigh with 8 tiny reindeer, all of it contains the defining cultural creation of Santa Claus.
Now, Moore and Livingston were not Unitarians, BUT the book was illustrated by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who was. Nast created the pictures that are how we see Santa Claus today. His engravings, 76 in all, were published in Harper’s Weekly beginning in 1862. He used many images from the poem, but also added his own ideas – he was responsible for placing Santa’s home at the North Pole, for instance. A nice idea that was, as takes Santa beyond the boundaries of any one country. He also created Santa’s elf helpers, and he introduced the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe to the United States.
Christmas imagery was furthered enhanced when another Unitarian, Nathaniel Currier, and his partner, Jims Ives, began making their famous Christmas lithographs
And last but not least in this litany of Unitarians and Christmas cheer, James Pierpont, son of a Unitarian minister and a church musician wrote the popular “Jingle Bells”.
So Unitarians had a really big role in creating Christmas, as we know it. But did they really save it? Can a holiday be saved?
Let’s listen to Dicken’s Scrooge again,
“Merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in them through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?
If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge indignantly, ‘every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!’
His nephew replied, ‘There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!’
Christmas is a time to think of other people, regardless of their station in life, as fellow passengers in life. I think that is salvation. We may have to save the holiday again because many seem to have forgotten that it is not about greed, about plenty for some, salvation for some, about over-spending, or about arguing about whose holiday it is. It belongs to all of us. And even though, as Unitarians and Universalists, we helped create this holiday, we are with full hearts more than willing to share it with everyone, in the spirit of the season. Merry Christmas Happy Holidays and May God and the Goddess bless us all, each and every one.
I won’t run from fear
That orange beast that stalks my sleep
Claws trying to drag hope
Back into despair.
No. Just no.
We have been here before
This time we fight
Like life depends on us
Because it does.
Lives of children
Lives of black and brown folks
Lives of queers and Muslims
Lives of refugees and women.
For the life of our whole planet
This green precious globe
Will not be ravaged
No. Just no.
Not on our watch
Not this time.
A nightmare chased itself
Round the bend again
The serpent eats its tail
Saying facts are for fools
This power is corrupt
As vile as slime
Seeping into our foundations
Weakening the supports
Before the house falls
Around all of our heads
Pity the sad souls
That chose a poisoned apple.
We have to wake up
We have to stay woke
Truth is stronger than lies
Love lasts longer than hate.
I have held a lot of different jobs during my life, but after that reading, maybe I should add spiritual bartender to list. Like many bartenders, ministers are listeners and we try to provide what our congregants need in terms of pastoral care and spiritual nourishment.
So, what kind of spiritual cocktail are you looking for here? Is it pure humanism, with maybe just a dash of the mystical? Do you want a pagan chaser or how about some wisdom from the Bible as the olive in your martini? Some of you like wine, and some of you prefer beer. Some just want the seven-up of social justice or the pure clear water of the spirit. We serve up all sorts of theologies here, but we try to serve all of them from the perspective of Unitarian Universalism. It is the container that holds us together and reminds us that reason and science are equal partners with mystery and spirit.
Being a minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not an easy thing. Everyone wants something different, and crafting a worship service where every individual’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs will be met is nearly an impossible task. It is also very easy to trigger someone’s bad memories with a word or phrase. It is nice if folks can try to remember that they aren’t the only person that this congregation is trying to serve. You might prefer coffee, but we need to offer tea as well. If you hate it, no one will force you to drink it, but let other people have their caffeine in a way that works for them.
It is also possible that we may not have everyone’s preferred brand of spirit here. Some people may want clear cut answers to all their questions and a set of beliefs that exactly match their own understanding of the world. Those folks might need to find what they want at another bar – er – church.
Enough with the bar metaphor! I want to talk about church growth dynamics.
This congregation has been what is called a family church for most of its existence. The easiest definition of a family church is an average of not much more than 50 people attending the Sunday services.
Congregations, particularly small ones, are called family churches because they tend to function in very similar ways to real families. Some of this functioning is very emotionally satisfying. Family churches can be wonderful. Everyone knows everyone else, and love and trust can be built over time. When an issue comes up, people just talk about whatever it is. The board has very little actual power in a family church, but a few trusted individuals can usually be depended upon to offer wise counsel to the group.
Those folks are the ones that usually welcome new people, bringing them into the circle and introducing them around. Joining a small family church is kind of like being adopted. It can feel great! You have a new family, people that will love and accept you no matter what!
How we yearn for that, especially those of us who may have grown up in families that were less than accepting.
In a family style church, people that show up, do the work, and who often also donate a lot of money have the most real say in what happens. Almost all of these folks sincerely believe that they have the best interests of the entire congregation at heart. But it is not really democratic, at least not in the sense of “one person one vote.” Families just aren’t very democratic, something Anne and I made clear to our kids, but new church members can take a while to understand how decisions are really made in family sized churches. It takes some time to be adopted and even longer to be known as a valued member of the family, someone whose opinion and feelings matter to almost everyone else.
As I said earlier, UUP has been a family church for years, and is, in fact, a very healthy one. You have had smart and dedicated leadership. You have had vision and courage. You have also taken some steps toward growing larger. Moving to this location was one such step. You also increased Rev. Mary’s hours until she was half-time and you gave her some authority as your minister. You hired me, also half-time, to help you decide what you wanted to do about the future.
I have said to you before that there is nothing wrong with being a congregation with 50 or so members, functioning as a family church.
I have now changed my mind about that.
Up until a couple of weeks ago, I did not think there was anything wrong with deciding to stay a small close knit family church, tending mainly to the needs of the current members, and just inviting in a few new people every so often, people that fit in and that like the way you already do things.
But our world has changed. We saw that when our attendance at worship right after the election doubled. Many people in our wider community are looking for exactly what Unitarian Universalism can offer. If we can have a truly open and inclusive theology, if our worship services are usually both deep and spirit-filled, we can help people renew their energy and soothe their souls so they can go back out into the world to do the work of justice. We could actually be a center, a focal point, for justice making in this community, and a real-life model for what the world could be if we all really lived according to our life enhancing principles.
I don’t think deciding to stay small would be an ethical decision in these times. Our town and our world need us too much now.
And I know that if I asked each of you, the vast majority of you would say that the growth of Unitarian Universalism is important to you and to the world at large.
But growth brings change and also requires change.
Continuing to function as a family church just won’t work if you want to grow.
The reason is a simple sociological truth.
The maximum number of people who can all know each other relatively well is roughly 50. If you want to grow much beyond that then your organizational structure needs to change to accommodate growth. Your membership is in the 90’s but the average attendance at most worship services has been well under 50.
The way to do that is to move into being a pastoral church. This type of church was described in our reading.
“The Pastoral Church averages 50 to 150 people on Sundays. In this size of church, the role of both the minister and the board shifts toward the center of the system. The board’s responsibility for making decisions on behalf of the church increases.”
In this representative style democracy, the influence of some individuals will decrease, especially for those who are not on the board or on a committee. At the same time, the influence of newer members can increase because when the board of a pastoral church gets input from the membership, everyone is invited. It is one person one vote.
The board holds the vision of the congregation and works to fulfill its mission. The minister is both a member of the board and in an equal partnership with them in both caring for and leading the congregation.
In a pastoral church, the minister usually full-time, preaches at least 3 times a month and is granted full authority over all worship services so that there is consistency both in quality and grounding in our faith tradition. New people in a pastoral sized church tend to connect with the minister first, rather than being “adopted” by one of the church lay leaders. Everyone no longer knows everyone else, but the minister can know almost everyone. One person can easily know 100-150 people. 150 people can also know the minister and all of the board members.
If attendance increases, but the style of functioning doesn’t also change, some people will inevitably become marginalized. There just isn’t room in the family-style system for more that 50 people. Marginalized people will leave.
Change is not easy. All change involves some loss.
For those of you who have really loved being part of a small church that feels like family, where you know almost everyone, where you are comfortable, the idea of growth can be frightening.
So, what will need to change if you really want to grow?
Worship is one area. You have a fine worship committee, they understand worship and they work very hard. But some of the services you have can work against growth.
Sometimes you pass the microphone around during the service and everyone gets a chance to comment on the topic. Services like that can be great for a small group of people that all know each other well. It can increase intimacy for people that are already part of the family system. Even a less than stellar lay lead service can be heartwarming for the members that know and love the individual presenting. Both of those types of services, however, can be very off-putting and alienating for many new people. If you want to grow, services like that won’t work well anymore. Chalice Circles, our small group ministry, can fulfill some of need for intimacy, but not having it in worship would be a loss that most of you will grieve.
And then there is content. I have been asked if using “God” language is necessary for growth. The short answer is “yes.”
No one expects that everyone in the congregation will want to pray or will find meaning in the language of reverence, but excluding the spiritual, not talking about the great mystery of life in all kinds of different ways, including prayer and “God” language excludes people that are looking for that very thing in an atmosphere of acceptance and diversity of beliefs. If you want to grow, your worship needs to feed the spirits of people with a wide variety of beliefs.
We can’t turn hungry people from our doors, people that need us, people that we need. We need to offer them bread that will feed them.
None of us are here to hurt each other, but it is hard work learning how to be in a really diverse religious community. If we can accept and be gentle with one another here, we can heal some of the old hurts of our individual pasts, while finding the courage to really embrace diversity. It is part of how we can bring more hope and compassion into the world.
There is one more change I have to mention. At our last congregational listening circle, no one said their name before they spoke. The assumption was that “everyone knows everyone.” It wasn’t true that day and it definitely won’t be true if we continue to grow. Please say who you are and wear your name tags. You may know everyone, but everyone doesn’t know you.
The board will be scheduling a meeting after the first of the year to discuss issues of growth and some of the possibilities for a future minister after my time with you is done. I hope most of you will attend, to listen and learn from others, as well as to express your own opinions and preferences.
It was hard for me to do this sermon today, focusing on issues that don’t seem to have much to do with what is happening in the world. I do believe, however, that it is all connected. I believe that love is deep and love is wide. I will end with this poem I read at the gathering last Thursday, where people gathered to begin the work of creating safety for Petaluma’s diverse population. It is by Denise Levertov. I will read it twice,
For the New Year, 1981
I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.
I need more.
I break off a fragment
to send you.
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.
Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.
Only so, by division,
will hope increase,
like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
May we all share our small fragments of hope, may we all find the grace to meet fear and hate with grace and love. Always love. Blessed Be.
Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude, and I have found that over time the thing about life that I am most grateful for is laughter. Laughter keeps us going I think. It can call attention to some of the absurdities of life in a way that helps us cope when reality doesn’t live up to our expectations. And how often does that happen? Even the Thanksgiving meal doesn’t always turn out perfectly. Sometimes the pies are burnt, and sometimes the conversations around the table can be hurtful. I know some of us may be facing awkward family situations over the holidays. If that is true for you, please know that we are holding you and feel free to call a friend or your minister for emotional support, debriefing, or just to rant a bit. Holidays can be hard. There is always some sadness among the fun. We miss people that have died, loneliness can be worse if we don’t have a family with which to share holidays. So, all of you, if you have space at your table, invite someone who might be alone. And if you are alone, and don’t want to be, call someone and offer to bake some pies. If they are slightly burnt, who cares? Sometimes we have to work to create joy in our lives. Put a stone in the pot, keep the faith, and we can find ways to be fed together.
We are taught to count our blessings, to cultivate gratitude. This is a good thing in many ways, and it is part of the task of religious community to remind us to celebrate, to savor the good times, to appreciate beauty, to rest easy, and to simply let the love that surrounds us enter into our hearts and our souls. When we are truly aware of all the gifts we have received, we can be filled with a sense of abundance, a sense of generosity.
For myself, there are many things that I feel grateful for, things that are gifts in the sense that they are not things that I necessarily earned or was owed somehow.
I am grateful that I am alive.
I am grateful for my wife Anne, who for more than 41 years has stood by me, comforting me when I have been sick or sad and always calling me back to honest self-awareness when I am in danger of losing that important connection.
I am grateful for our three adult children and all they have taught me about life and about patience and letting go.
I am grateful for my education, for the opportunity to engage ideas.
I am grateful for the chance to have led a productive life when I worked for Social Security, for helping those that needed help.
I am grateful for the work of ministry, work that seems so close sometimes to the very meaning of life, and may be the exact reason that I am on this planet at all.
I am grateful for all of you. To look out on your faces this morning is a blessing indeed.
The list could go on. I am thankful for the flowers and trees, the sunsets, the mountains and rivers, friends, good food to eat, small kittens to hold, and for lessons I have learned. It is important to be grateful for the truly wonderful things and people in our lives, those that remind us how precious life is, those that inspire awe, that call us to reverence, and to humility. These are blessings in every sense of the word and it is easy to be thankful for them.
But things, and people, don’t have to be perfect for us to feel gratitude for them. And sometimes the less than ideal is even better. Sometimes folks have a better time laughing at a partially raw turkey on Thanksgiving Day than they would in a tense atmosphere at a gourmet meal. It is much better, I think, to have small children around than not, even if they sometimes spill things. Adults spill too and the tablecloth should always be much less important than the guests.
To really cultivate gratitude means to look for the positives in those less than perfect situations. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make things nice. The undercooked turkey usually only happens once in the lifetime of all but the most disastrous cooks. We should be grateful that we are able to learn from our mistakes. I only carved into a raw turkey once.
Gratitude can also help us accept the things we cannot change. It matters how we look at things, and I am talking about more than the old glass empty/ glass full dichotomy. It also isn’t about blind optimism or simply looking for a silver lining to a dark and dangerous cloud. I am not sure that the recent election results have much of a silver lining at all.
When we accept reality, however, both the good parts and the bad, we may also grow more grateful, and so appreciate the good things more.
Ill health will come to us all with time, especially if we are lucky enough to live until old age. I love the following poem by May Sarton. She calls it
Friend or Enemy
I can look
At my body
As an old friend
Who needs my help,
Or an enemy
Who frustrates me
In every way
With its frailty
And inability to cope.
I shall try
To be of comfort to you
To the end.
Sarton’s words are so full of love! She is not particularly grateful for the frailty of her aging body, but she loves it, treasures it in fact as a friend.
To cultivate gratitude also does not mean we have to be grateful for everything.
There are many things I am not grateful for. The list is a long one. I am sure you all have your own lists.
Having gratitude does not mean you have to be happy with the way things are. Many of us are outraged at the growth of racism and white supremacy.
Perhaps, though, we can be grateful for the outrage because outrage can provide energy for action, for change. Outrage, by its very nature contains a seed of hope. It is the passive acceptance of evil, of injustice, that is soul killing.
Gratitude is a religious issue. It has to do with reverence and with what we value.
Sometimes appreciating the good things of the world, really valuing them, can lead us to make things better.
The Reverend Doctor Rebecca Parker says that,
“Our society is currently guided by a worldview that is insufficiently grounded in reverence. Religiously, it is a worldview that regards the world itself as trash—a planet that God is soon going to discard in a plan to wipe this world away and create a new one. Economically, the dominant worldview regards human beings as self-interested individuals, motivated only by their personal desire to consume.
And scientifically, it sees existence as devoid of value, atomistic, disconnected, and mechanistic. Such inadequate views are tearing our world to tatters by lack of regard for the communal character of life.”
“We must learn again to live with reverence.” She says, “Reverence is a form of love. It is a response to life that falls on its knees before the rising sun and bows down before the mountains. It puts its palms together in the presence of the night sky and the myriad galaxies and recognizes, as poet Langston Hughes tells us, “beautiful are the stars, beautiful too are the faces of my people.” Reverence greets all humanity as sacred. It genuflects before the splendor of the grass and the magnificence of the trees. It respects the complexity, beauty, and magnitude of creation and does not presume to undo its intricate miracles. Instead, it gives life reverent attention, seeking to know, understand, and cooperate with life’s ways.”
Parker is right. We as a culture have to learn more reverence for life in all of its diverse glory. Learn to be grateful for our lives, for the health of this planet, for our relationships with others. If we learn to recognize these as the blessings they are, to treasure them, then we will work to care for them, to protect them.
Our Unitarian Universalist faith should inspire us to use both our hearts and our minds. To discern the good that is inherent in almost all of life, to treasure life and the world, to refuse to fall victim to the idea that what is not ideal is somehow trash. To cultivate beauty and wholeness, to recognize that our lives are our own and that it is up to us to spend them in ways that reflect appreciation of the miracle, the chance that we have been given to make a difference.
I will end another poem, by Rebecca Parker, particularly fitting in these times.
Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.
The choice to bless the world is more than act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition,
A confession of surprise,
A grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness,
That encompasses all life,
And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
There moves a holy disturbance,
A benevolent rage,
A revolutionary love
Protesting, urging insisting
That which is sacred will not be defiled.
Those who bless the world live their life
As a gesture of thanks
For this beauty
And this rage.
Amen and blessed BE
This has been a very hard week for most of us. It has been for me. I have been going through all the stages of grief, trying to understand how the election turned out the way it did. I have been through denial, thinking I would soon wake up from a nightmare. My disappointment soon turned to anger and to rage. I started hoping that maybe it won’t be so bad, that perhaps our President Elect is really not as horrifying as he seems. I went through bargaining, maybe the electoral college will save us, maybe Trump will be impeached or even jailed before the inauguration. I have been depressed, wanting to pull the metaphorical covers over my head so I did not have to face the reality of the country we now find ourselves living in. I wrote 3 poems in the first 3 days as all of those emotions swirled inside of me. I was trying to find some hope in the midst of my grief.
Let me read them.
The Morning After
Even if sleep has not
The dawning sun laughs
Look at me she says
I have seen far worse
On your poor planet.
Get a grip.
We have a light
That needs to shine.
It might take years
But the nightmare will end
If we stay strong.
2 Days After
The tears flow
Denial is sweet
Then I remember
How could they?
Even some of my family
The bitter taste of fear
Pain in my stomach
But most of all in my heart
Where is Love?
Then I remember
It is everywhere
We can find it
If we look
Hope lives inside me
For a moment
Before the tears come again
The cycle of grief
Then when it is over
We get busy
We are the lovers
Of the planet
And of the vulnerable
Acceptance and then
And on the Third Day
I felt it last night
Just before I fell asleep
That I thought had died.
It came awake
A force, a power.
Three days of pain
Fear anger grief
In a cold tomb of despair.
On this third day
The Spirit rose again to say
Life lives and
Love will never be denied.
Go into the world
Spread the message
Be fierce be bold
Resurrection is not easy
But faith will be reborn
The last poem contains some Christian imagery, but I think the Easter story has some relevance for all of us on this November Day. When Jesus was murdered by the Roman empire, his followers were in despair. Their dreams had died with him. The forces of the empire were too strong, the future would hold nothing but more death and destruction.
A lot of us feel exactly that way right now. There will surely be more scapegoating and increase in violence against Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and gay lesbian bisexual and transgender people. That is already happening. Mass deportations will be implemented if we can’t stop them. The first amendment, including freedom of the press is in danger, and all of us may need to learn how to survive in a time of heavy surveillance and very possibly a police state.
Somehow, more than 2000 years ago, people found the courage, in the midst of their despair, to go out into the wolrd and preach the message of their faith, the core of which is “Love your neighbor.”
I pray that we can find a similarly strong faith in the saving message of Unitarian Universalism. With this new reality we no longer have the luxury of resting on our laurels, of doing social justice only when it is convenient, of hiding away in a liberal enclave while we watch our planet and our very civilization be destroyed. We are now called to act, to speak out, to put our very bodies on the line when necessary. We need to reach out to others – to those who are afraid – to pledge that we will protect them – to other religious and non-religious communities who can be allies in this struggle.
We might start with the church that owns this building asking perhaps that if necessary, can we make this a physical sanctuary for those who may be deported.
Can we pledge to feed and clothe the families we may need to shelter? Will we hide them in our own homes and help them escape in our own cars? Can we commit fully in support of Native American water protectors, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, with everyone who is committed to the inherent worth and dignity of all and to protecting our planet which sustains all of our lives?
Get ready people. Get ready. It is OK to continue to grieve. Rest in denial when you need to, make your bargains, hide in your beds, let the drug of anger soothe your soul.
And while you are doing those things, prepare yourselves. Get ready. Pray if that helps you, and then decide what you will do.
During WWII, Unitarians Martha and Waitsill Sharp risked their own their lives to save people from the Nazi Regime. Courage in the face of injustice is in our DNA. We can and will rise to the challenge. There is no other choice.
Will you be ready to join with us?
(Explain safety pins and what they mean)