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“We need one another.”
from Singing in the Living Tradition reading 468
“Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” ~Albert Schweitzer
Some of you when you heard I was scheduled to preach on Halloween have said, “So, is it going to be scary?” and I’ve thought, “well, most likely for me it will be!” But that’s not really true, standing before I have many feelings but scary is not one of them. You are family to me. However, here is the scary part for you. I’m just going to get it out of the way, here in the beginning.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, or maybe it was just a yesterday in the grand scheme of things, Frances Sink, a new member at The Unitarian Church in Westport answered her phone, and it was Doris Brenner, who then chaired the Membership Committee. And Doris said, “Frances We are having a new member potluck in a few weeks and I was wondering if you would help me out with it? I answered, “Yes.” Sounded simple? Yes, scary simple- because when I chart my journey into Unitarian Universalist ministry I trace it directly back to that moment when I said, “yes” to Doris.
It matters when we answer “Yes.“ You might ask yourself, To what have you answered “Yes?” Where has it taken you or where is it taking you? Is it a little scary? Could it be if you looked at it closely?
We need one another. We spoke these words from George Odell as a responsive reading this morning. We need one another to encourage us to spiritual growth and also to help us find our way into growth in religious community together. I didn’t even know I needed Doris’s invitation to answer “yes” to. But I did. She moved me forward towards involvement and belonging here, towards trust in this congregation that has become a spiritual home for me.
I want to speak this morning about leaving home because that is what my leave taking from this congregation feels like. Frank and I figured that I have been here somewhere between 18 and 19 years, I came when Peter was still in the nursery- he turned 20 in September. I have very much a sense of having grown up here both spiritually and religiously. From non-member to member, to active member, to lay leader, to congregational consultant, to divinity school, to intern minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester in Mt. Kisco, NY starting this coming week. I believe I am number twelve in the line of members from this congregation who drank deeply from the well here and felt the call to ministry from inside this spiritual home.
The leave taking is always part of the spiritual journey, the search for meaning, the seeking of beloved community. We never get there. We struggle to the crest of one mountain only to view another one on our horizon beckoning us on. One of the blessings I have always credited to our Unitarian Universalist congregations is our commitment to sustaining religious community even as our members grow and change through our spiritual journeying. So, its not so much the leaving I want to focus on today, as real as it is for me. Rather it is the strong sense of home I have grown into here with you that I want to reflect upon. I want to tell you some things about growing up here spiritually that have been important to my journey. I want to appreciate you for nurturing me into loves and commitments I could not have imagined, and sustained me with shared hopes and dreams of growing beloved community within, among, and beyond ourselves. And I want to speak about how our journeys now intertwined, are sustained, in both our shared legacy and our future visions, even in our parting.
There is a paradox that I happen to find compelling, embedded deeply in our religious tradition. We honor the truth that each of us is responsible to walk our own individual spiritual journeys, to come to know well our own hearts and minds, to feel in our own ways the spirit of life moving within us and compelling us to live our love outward. And at the same time, it is foundational to both our Unitarian and Universalist heritages that we do this spiritual work together, inspiring each other and dedicated together in covenanted religious communities.
In our individual journeys we have to claim the life we find before us. Here in this sanctuary I have often been reminded of Thoreau’s yearning, speaking of his time by Walden pond, “ I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discovered that I had not lived.”
Living deliberately in this world today without pond scum to sit by regularly seems almost too difficult. But Mary Oliver wisely advises us well in her poem “To live in this world“:
“To live in this world you must be able to do three things:
To love what is mortal,
To hold it against your bones knowing
Your own life depends on it;
And when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
Even as we seek to be emboldened to live deliberately into our individual lives, we know, we need one another. James Luther Adams our great 20th century theologian said congregations are where we come to practice being human. Today, as we do each Sunday, we spoke together,
“Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenant- to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”
In making such a promise to each other we also affirm our place in our religious heritage of the free church that is grounded above all else in love. This heritage of covenanting in love that we invoke each Sunday goes going back to the earliest colonial settlements of pilgrims seeking religious freedom in the 1600s.
“Sing out praises for the journey, pilgrims we who carry on, searchers in the soul’s deep yearning, like our forebears in their time.“ We sang these words of Unitarian Universalist Mark DeWitt this morning.
When I arrived here 18 years or so ago I was not looking for a covenanted free church with an almost 400 year old heritage. But I was looking for something my life did not have, a yearning I could not fill on my own. I was a new mother and a yearning for a community of values and caring fellowship to help me raise my son, Peter, was welling up inside me. I had slammed the door on my Protestant heritage about 20 years earlier for a host of rational reasons, even though I now admit that door slamming is hardly rational. But I missed what I remembered well of that religious fellowship of very good people who had loved and watched over me for years.
I had heard Frank Hall officiating at a friend‘s wedding, and he wasn‘t so bad. He wasn‘t much like the ministers I had known before, so Pete‘s dad and I circled the parking lot here a few times and came in one summer Sunday to a discussion group of about 12 people. It was interesting, different, and people said, “Come back…, come back and see what its like in the fall… And then come again.”
I was hearing a friendly call to worship to which I thought I could answer “Yes.”
“Come, come whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving- ours is no caravan of despair, come yet again come.” The first time we sang those words from Rumi in worship I cried. Tears of relief? Tears of joy? Tears of a soul whose yearning had been answered?
So we came, again and then again. After a couple of years life happened, as it does. In 1993 and 94, my dad died, my marriage ended, and my work life changed abruptly, and my world which had been predictable and certain was rocked upside-down. You were there- Frank, worship, fellowship with friends here all held me well. By then it was clear I was coming here for myself, not just for Peter. I no longer felt I had answers, but I had many questions. I heard here in this room the words of the poet Rilke, from his letters to the young poet, and I took them to heart,
“.. have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, then , someday far in the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. “
A patient said to me recently , “I’m tired of living the questions.” I know that feeling. But, I also have learned here that in spiritual community such as ours, through in conversation with others who are committed to each other’s growth we can discover new questions-
In my years working with the Membership Committee after Doris invited me in, every other month I helped to lead new member meetings where we would all tell our stories of our spiritual journey. I learned there that if you tell your story five times a year for five years to people who are interested, you will learn some things about yourself. Over time, my story of my journey was evolving, reflecting new themes, new explorations, but I was holding onto an old question that plagued me, particularly at Easter, “What was worth dying for? The Cross of Christ had burdened me since childhood with a sense of defeat, of not being strong enough, or believing enough to carry that cross myself. My thinking had not moved a inch since I had slammed that door at age 17. I asked Barbara Fast, who was then our Associate Minister, one Saturday morning about this dilemma after one of those meeting, And she replied, “Maybe you could try asking, What is worth living for?” So, simple, and so profound. That was a question I could live into- What is worth living for? That was a question I could love into.
Mary Oliver in “Wild Geese” says,
“You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
In time, I was even able to to love those slammed doors, and want to look behind them. Many of us come here wounded, with religious scars and word allergies that block our curiosity, limit our access to joy, and dampen the fire of our commitment. We need one another to help us with our questions and with the struggle to be whole again.
Another one of my questions was, “Can I sing?” I was in the choirs here including this beloved Chamber Choir. I starting out I just wanted to sing. I had this tender wounded spot that a mean choir director had left me with many years earlier. My time in the choirs here was great learning for me. First of all, I got a lot of practice being on this side looking out, before I even needed it. I also found my voice, in a deeply embodied way. Singing is very physical, it’s a mindfulness practice of presence and breathe and attunement. Now that I am, sadly, no longer in the choir, people will ask me, “Are you still singing? And I answer, “Oh yes- preaching is singing, shared ministry is singing together. When we are striving to accomplish great things together, , when we join our hearts and minds we are singing together.
Some of the times I have felt most alive in this religious community have been when we were bending and intertwining our individual wills like voices blending in fine harmonies. We sing when we seek a common mission and vision of how we will creating beloved community together. Alice Blair Wesley, scholar of our covenantal tradition says it best. She describes this process as our discovery of our “worthiest loves and deepest loyalities together.”
In community together we find ourselves persuaded to limit a personal need for the sake of a common good. In love we will struggle to accept another’s truth that we could not have embraced alone. We lament together a world too slow to bend towards justice. All along we are growing together in compassion, in the fire of commitment, and in joy even as we recommit to sustain the struggle together.
When we join this congregation we join a legacy of individuals who had covenanted together in deep commitment to their worthiest loves. Those who were here before me and many of you were inspired to meet in a living room together as Unitarians in search of the fellowship of each other. They invited others in. They called the first minister, and bought this land and built this building. They wrote our constitution and bylaws, began a religious education program, and served the local communities of need. When I arrived we were already a Welcoming Congregation. We already provided strong lay leadership to the Metro NY District and to the UUA.
In my time in this congregation we have called a minister of music, we called three associate ministers, endorsed a community minister, and hired a full-time professional director of Religious Education. We made a commitment to Beardsley School that has spanned more than decade. Adult religious education grew and was organized into the Odyssey program. Our ministers went to New Paltz to perform same-sex marriages. We began small group ministry. We accepted a gift from Jan Park that allowed us to transform our Social Justice program and bring David Vita to direct it. We became a Green Sanctuary. We’ve expanded our reach to our partner church in Transylvania, to fellow Unitarian Universalist congregations in New Orleans, and to a village in Kenya. Our members continue to serve the Metro District, the UUA, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and the UU-UNO. We offer a full summer program of lay-led worship service with music that are well attended. And the great work continues.
There is something fundamentally right in acknowledging the power of religious community to bind us together in that which we cannot accomplish alone.
We often hear about those religious demographic surveys that find literally thousands of anonymous individuals out there who claim the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. But, who are they, where are they, why aren’t they here? If the truth be told, I doubt those surveys because those people aren’t here. You are here.
You have taken the free step to join your personal spiritual growth to the life of this congregation, in relationship to the divine, the Spirit of Life, and love known by many names.
You have joined your energies with those who affirm the power of the spirit of love to lead us in discerning shared loyalties worthy of your commitment within these walls, in our communities and in the world.
There is no work more sacred, no work more sincerely committed to a future of promise and hope, than this work to which we covenant together.
You have taught me the meaning of a spiritual home. Because of this way that we have shared together, our lives and spirits, and our journeys forward are intertwined. The warmth of this community, the fire of commitments we have shared, the spirit of life that roots us together and also sets us free, because of all of this, I carry you with me in my heart. Because of all this, I will always come home, here.
I leave you with these words from Rilke, from his poem “A Walk.”
My eyes already reach the sunny hill,
Going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp.
It has an inner light, even from a distance –
And changes us, even if we do not reach it,
Into something else, which hardly sensing it, we already are.
A gesture waves us on answering our own wave,
But what we feel is the wind on our faces.
Travel well and blessed be.