Becoming a Beacon
I’ve never shared with you all the story of the first time I was in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I think it’s fair if I’m asking you to remember those wonderful, peculiar, sometimes frightening, often settling and unsettling moments for yourselves these past few weeks.
I’ve also been asking you to consider what your most loving hope is for this, your church home – the hopes that come to us in the quiet moments, the singing moments, the reflecting, praying, hoping moments when we gather together. We each have our unique stories – and no matter how long you’ve been a Unitarian Universalist, there is something that brought you here this morning.
Now, I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist for more years than not, I speak the language, my year revolves around the customs and flow of church, and I can’t imagine my life without the fulness of this tradition that is our historic Unitarian Universalist faith.
And I remember the first time I sat in a Unitarian Universalist congregation so clearly, I can still hear the piano playing, the minister speaking, the smell of the wood in the sanctuary, the creak of the chairs. It was upon being invited by my best friend to join him and his family for a Sunday service at the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, Illinois.
I like to tell people that the rest is history, that one single invite to church led to this moment as your minister, serving this faith. But it wasn’t that simple. My mother was, effectively, a single mother for most of my upbringing. She was unable to indulge in the luxury of church on Sunday when she had two jobs to work on the weekend and two more during the week.
But as luck may have it, my father was briefly in the picture again and was able to bring me to church that Sunday – even as a kid I was fascinated by religion and wanted, so much, to know what the heck a Unitarian was. I do not share the woes of my family history for any pity, I tell it as a reminder that we come to this faith from paths of struggle just as much as we do from paths of privilege.
Sometimes, and yes, even in this room, coming to church is a luxury. My father brought me, grudgingly, and as the church pulled into view, I remember falling in love with the building before me. The stone, simple steeple, and inviting structure called out – It felt like arriving home after a long journey, and heck, I was barely a teenager.
We entered, an overly friendly man invited me to the youth group, I declined, and we took our seats. It is funny how I can remember that Debussy was the artist of choice for the piano that day, but I don’t remember the hymns, I don’t remember the readings, but I remember the minister yielding the pulpit to a lay leader and how that man launched into a long history of how his task force had finally completed their work – which often isn’t the most exciting way to spend your hour at church, hearing a committee update.
That Sunday, that very first Sunday I ever attended a Unitarian Universalist congregation, was the Sunday that the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale became designated a Welcoming congregation by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Welcoming Congregation program, it is designed to examine how UU churches can become intentionally welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. The chair of the task force said his piece and suddenly baskets were being passed around the congregation.
We were sitting in the round that Sunday. In the baskets were rainbow ribbons attached to pins, it was, in many ways, a rainbow communion – a vibrant celebration of the work that congregation engaged to include their LGBT siblings. My father hated the service. But I loved it.
I took a ribbon from the bowl being passed around mindful that I was a young kid thinking he was different, but living in a conservative suburb with a conservative parent by my side, wrestling with a conservative God in my heart, and from that simple service, that simple ribbon, I felt hope.
I felt a hope that would sustain me through four years of bullying as one of the queer kids in high school, a hope that would bring comfort as my family dynamic radically shifted time and time again, a hope that would free my heart and my passions and lead me, without a doubt, to this vocation and the service of this faith.
All of that from a ribbon. This ribbon. It’s a little worse for wear these days, but it remains one of my most prized possessions – such a common, simple, and sturdy thing. It represents the greatest gift Unitarian Universalism has ever given me – an indwelling hope that sustains me day after day.
To say that I am a true believer in Unitarian Universalism is an understatement. To say that I believe this faith is a saving faith cannot capture the true immensity of what that first church service did for me in my life.
Not all of us have such stories – but I know there are those of us in this room that did indeed find that indwelling hope upon entering a Unitarian Universalist congregation – perhaps it was this one. This is why I keep asking us to remember how we came to this historic tradition.
This tradition rooted in history but also ever looking forward – how has Unitarian Universalism saved us, even in small ways? Has it provided a space for you to express your beliefs or disbeliefs in an affirming environment? Has it drawn you to “your people” – giving you hope that you were not alone in Lexington?
Has it provided a touchpoint for hard times, uncertain times, or really just the ebb and flow of daily living? Or has it saved your life? I know there’s a few of you here where Unitarian Universalism has indeed provided a small flickering beacon of hope. We ask these questions, first, because it is important for us to do so.
Religion is shifting radically and it becomes ever more important for us to ask of ourselves our purposes for coming together week after week. But we also ask these questions because we are a congregation that is evermore dwelling in the realm of discernment – that space where we pause to hear the call of where we must go and where we have yet to explore.
Discernment, that inner exploration of where life is pulling us, and also discernment in community, the intentional practice of steering ourselves toward where we desire to be as one church – these practices are at the heart of everything we do here at UUCL.
But it is not just enough for us to think wonderful thoughts of what this place could be, but there is, implied in being part of a community, a call to commitment and action. This Sunday, we are not handing out rainbow ribbons of indwelling hope, but instead we are handing out yellow cards that ask of us to continue the promise of this community for the coming year.
This is, indeed, stewardship Sunday, the launch of our yearly campaign to raise the funds needed to run the church, and, yes, one of the more uncomfortable topics for Americans is mentioned: money. Forget death and sex, money takes the cake. And churches especially don’t like to talk about money. And I understand why.
I’ve said the word twice already and that’s too much for some of you – I don’t even like saying it. Some traditions abuse the word money, some would lead you to believe that the more you give means God will favor you more, or that the megachurch pastor driving a BMW is a sign of God’s abundance. I squirm just as much as the rest of you at the thought of such things.
But this is not so in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. In this faith tradition, while we are entirely member supported, we do not give money to the church to gain favor with God. We do not give money so that I can get that Bentley I’ve been eyeing.
We give because we want that indwelling hope we found here for ourselves to be available for those who have yet to come through our doors. We also give because we are entirely member supported. There is no bishop or diocese that will rescue us. There is no money coming from our headquarters in Boston.
It is up to all of us to ensure the doors remain open, the staff are paid, and the programs continue to grow. It is up to us to ensure that our most loving hopes for this community are possible.
Give or take a handful of change, it currently costs just under 17 dollars per person, per week, to keep this church running. If we were able to increase that by two dollars per person, per week – we would reach a funding goal that would impact this church in only the most wonderful of ways.
If we were able to increase by two dollars per person, per week – we would see us continue to invest in our children, enrich our Sunday morning experience – especially through music, train and strengthen our lay leadership, grow the staff, be a more engaged force for justice, but also continue to build upon what is good and right in this community already.
Imagine a religious exploration program that does not have to continually fundraise to accomplish basic program needs. Imagine a music program augmented by the talents and gifts of guest musicians but also our already talented musicians in this community gaining access to more music and ways to make music.
Imagine having the resources to further increase our impact in the communities we serve beyond this church, Cardinal Valley, the Catholic Action Center, and elsewhere – but also to have the resources to be a force for love that partners with our siblings of faith across Lexington and can mobilize with effectiveness.
Imagine more Adult religious exploration classes, imagine a deeper connection with our wider Unitarian Universalist faith, imagine more social events – more parties! – and a greater investment in the events we already hold year after year, craft fair, book sale, fair trade chocolate night, service auction, and others.
This congregation likes to party, imagine what we could do. Imagine this congregation providing that indwelling hope so many of us found to more and more people. We are building upon what is good here at UUCL, we’ve done so for these first two years I’ve been with you and are continuing to do so this third year.
We are becoming the beacon we hope for and talk about week after week – we are becoming the realization of hope our founders believed in when they mortgaged their homes almost 70 years ago to make this place a reality.
Not all of our dreams can be accomplished, but we can shine the beacon that is this liberal religious tradition just that much brighter and brighter and brighter. And that brightening becomes possible if we reach a threshold where it costs only two more dollars per person, per week, to keep the doors of this, your church, open.
I share these possibilities with you all because for two years we’ve discerned how we will continue to grow within and beyond our community. And these are just some of the ways in which we can do this, you can do this. And I also share these hopes, because this community has surely saved lives just as the church of my youth saved mine.
Now, I realize, despite UUs always repeating the falsehood that we are all just wealthy white people, we aren’t. And in a congregation like ours, there is a wonderful diversity of class. That should be celebrated.
But I recognize that some of you are working two jobs or more, some of you are single parents, some of you come from blue collar families like mine, some of you know struggle paycheck after paycheck – I have been there, I know that place, I grew up there.
My heart is forever dwelling on the South Side of Chicago just as many of yours dwell in small town Appalachia, Newark, Brooklyn, Southie, Detroit, wherever hard working people have struggled to make ends meet. I hear you. No one will ask you to put your livelihood at stake for this, your church. But we will ask you to show some commitment. Any commitment.
When I was an intern in Concord, Massachusetts, a town where starter homes run a cool million if you’re lucky, there was a woman present at every event, always helping, always giving of her time, asking how she could help and being there should the need arise.
She was one of those volunteers churches dream of. And she only gave a dollar a month to the church – first, because a dollar a month when you’re on a very fixed income in suburban Massachusetts is an immense sacrifice, but secondly, because she loved her church so much she wanted to give back what she could to make her spiritual home continue to thrive. Everyone can give something. And everything you give matters. No amount is too large or too small.
Talking about the funding of our faith is a very personal topic for me. I believe in the dream of Unitarian Universalism – the dream of Emerson and Thoreau and their invitation to always wonder – the dream of those pioneer women ministers bringing the message of universal salvation to the frontier – the dream of our history of working for justice for all – and the dream of a community that makes a gay kid in a seemingly hostile world find hope and wholeness.
What dreams do you believe in for Unitarian Universalism? For this community? For each other here this morning? As the poet William Stafford once said, “we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love where we are, sturdy for common things” – may we believe in so common a thing as church, may we cling to it and love it, and find a sturdy foundation for our dreams, our wonderings, our most loving hopes for this — our beacon, our church. Friends, the 2017 stewardship campaign has begun.