Written in honor of the 10th anniversary of the ministry I share with the UU Congregation of Athens and Sheshequin.
Everyone stands on someone else’s shoulders. No matter what we do, we are able to do it because someone else did the thing that came before. This church is 210 years old. Not one of us were around when Noah Murray preached his radical message of Universal love, but we all help share that message today. That building in Sheshequin was built all by the hands of members and friends, and not one of us was there to help, but if you’ve ever been over to that building, if you’ve ever worshiped in that space, you’ve shared the gift they gave us. And many of us were there the day when it was put on the national registry of historic places.
|Celebrating the Sheshequin Meeting House on the National Historic Registry|
None of us were alive when that bell was hung in 1874, but we are among the thousands of people who have heard it ring.
None of us helped build this Athens building in 1850, but some of you were part of the team back in the 1990s to find a place with indoor plumbing and modern heat, and reclaimed this old Universalist building as our church home. Just a few years ago as part of our green sanctuary program, we weatherized the building so that we and those who come after us will be warmer on a cold blustery Sunday morning, and so that we can reduce our carbon footprint which ripples into the coming decades.
And so we begin our celebration in gratitude for all those who came before, all our ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. We call to mind all those who gathered those first Universalists together in this valley, and to all those who have sustained our beloved community this past 210 years.
|2015 Coming of Age Retreat|
The good news of Universalism is that there is a love big enough to hold us all. But people don’t believe you if you just tell them that. You have to show them. In the words often attributed to St. Francis “preach the gospel always, if necessary use words,” [i] Since I first came here 11 years ago as your visiting minister, this community has done just that. There is a kindness, an attitude of cooperation and collaboration, a generosity of spirit here that embodies our Universalist sense of the largeness of God’s love. So I imagine that at the heart of our shared ministry together is love, like a flame, like a bonfire on a fall evening, and our ministry is to stoke and cultivate the spirit of love, tending it, feeding it so that we can be warmed. And to share that fire with all who need its warmth.
Easier said than done. It is hard to be loving in our hectic, divisive world. It’s hard to be loving when we ourselves are hurting. One of the ways we do it is by making time. I remember one of my first meetings as your minister. As the meeting began the chair asked someone “how’s your mother” and she told how it was with her mother. Soon everyone at the table had been asked how was their mother, their father, their children. I glanced nervously at my watch. We talked conversationally about life at church and the work of the committee, as I fidgeted in my seat. After about an hour I looked at the agenda and was relieved to find that actually we had discussed many of the topics listed there. I piped up “I think there’s one important issue we haven’t talked about…” “Oh”, said one member, “I can do that” and our business was concluded. So we returned to our questions about how people in the community were doing, and the meeting ended early. We know that the business of the church is not business, it’s love. Yes, the heat needs to come on in the winter, Yes we strive to have worship every Sunday, but no work of the church is more important than how we care for one another.
Another way we show love is how generous you are with your time. I love that almost every time a meeting ends, someone will ask “do you need any help cleaning up?” or more often, will just begin putting chairs away and washing out mugs. As I putter with my bags, folks will linger by the door until I turn off the lights so I don’t have to walk to my car in the dark alone.
With amazing regularity when someone says “I need help” folks say “what can I do?” We show our love each time we prepare worship, or wash the mugs, or change the signatories on a bank account, or change a light-bulb.
But part of that reality is that sometimes we can’t. Sometimes there is just no one whose back is healthy who can lift a table, and then we find a way to do without.
We model love with boundaries. I remember saying to the Committee on Ministry “my family wonders why I’m working as many evenings now as when I worked full time” and you said “well you should work fewer evenings” and sure enough the first time I said to a committee chair “Can we meet by phone? I can’t come down that night, I’m already coming down 3 times that week” they said “oh, okay. "
We model love by being a fair share congregation, and a fair compensation employer. This is important. You pay me not only a fair wage, but contribute to my 401K, and long term disability, and even a sabbatical. I serve 2 other congregations, and I also work as a consultant for the region, but I can only do all that other work because you pay a living wage and take care of me and my family, as we hope all employers will someday do.
We show our love by the way we reach out to one another when we have had a death in the family, or an illness, or a new baby.
We show our love by the way we welcome newcomers.
And lets face it, we show our love with food. I remember one valentine’s day I came into coffee hour and there was a table so full of handmade pink and red and heart shaped snacks we could barely fit them all. The following Sunday there was a table full of vegetables. And I loved the way so many of our cooks have learned to cook inclusively, learning vegan and gluten free recipes so everyone feels welcome at the table.
But we don’t just to feed each other. When the valley flooded we fed sometimes 200 people a day until the need receded. We fed flood victims this year in Towanda, we fill backpacks for hungry school kids and are signed up to make the November monthly community meal. Through Project Grow we teach people how to grow their own healthy fresh fruits and vegetables.
We also show our love when we witness the struggle and grief of the larger community, and when we advocate for those who need our voice. When we stood out in the cold that Sunday afternoon for the Transgender Day of remembrance, lighting and re-lighting candles as the cold wind blew them out. When we gathered here to mourn the Pulse 49 shooting, we provided an important place for the community to grieve and to share their worries and struggles.
We show love when we stand up to bullies. Whenever we say no to oppression, racism, homophobia, we tend the fire.
Love is not always easy. Right now it feels like our country, our neighbors, or families are locked into irreconcilable conflict, and so each time we sit in a circle and speak our truth with love. Each time we stay at the table when it’s uncomfortable, we say sorry when we make mistakes. Committed to healthy communication and peaceful conflict resolution, we tend the fire.
There are a thousand other ways, small and large, that we show our love to each other and to the larger world. Each time we manifest our love, we are preaching the good news, that there is a love large enough to hold us all. Each time we do, we feed the fire and keep it alive. I hope that it has warmed you as it has warmed me. Let us dedicate our celebration that all who all who needs its warmth and light may find this fire, or one of the thousands of other fires dotting the landscape in a great web, each just a piece of the one love that holds us all.
In honor of this anniversary we planted a Dogwood tree out front. It’s just a skinny little thing now, but dogwood trees live about 80 years. We look forward to watching it grow inch by inch, leaf by leaf until only the children now in our Youth Religious Education program are around to enjoy its shade and remember the day it was planted.
Walking together into the next 10 years, the next 210 years of shared ministry requires something like faith. We can’t really know who will stand on our shoulders in the years and decades to come. The world is changing so fast, we can only hope that UUism will be here for the next 7 generations. We hope our beautiful buildings will be used by people who cherish them and care for them like we do.
So we tend the fire. We try to embody love that is big enough to hold all of us in everything we do.
If someone is less lonely because of our ministry together.
If even one of the children who was part of our Religious Education program or coming of age knows love and gives love because of their time with us.
If emerging leaders are empowered and mentored here
If we encourage folks to be more ethical in their daily living
If a handful of people have the courage to speak truth to power, to stand up to bullies without becoming bullies themselves
If someone who is grieving finds comfort here
If hungry spirits are fed here
This will be our legacy.
Blessings for the Ministry Ahead:
When a minister is ordained to this ministry, their colleagues and their congregation lay their hands on them in blessing. So this morning as we recommit ourselves to our shared ministry, let us all bless one another. Please rise in body or spirit and put your hand on the arm our shoulder of someone near you. Or, if you have a cold or for whatever reason are not up to being touched, just stay right where you are and join with us in spirit. Let the warmth of your own light, the warmth of your heart grow until it connects you with all the people here. And let it flow down into the ground, into the earth which gave us life, into the earth which needs our love and care.
Spirit of life, help us to remember that each of us is held by a web of connectedness to every other being.
Spirit of life help us to remember that there is a love large enough for everyone, and let love guide this congregation as we strive together to do the work of love in the world. Because we long to know for ourselves the good news passed down to us from generation to generation all the way back to those first Universalists here in the Valley, we long to know the one love that underlies and under girds all things, the love that holds us and will never let us go.
Amen, Blessed Be, Namaste
[i] In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, "Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds."