This is the first sermon delivered during Candidating Week.
Our reading today is titled, “Walking Toward Morning” by Rev. Victoria Safford.
You know, we do it every day. Every morning we go out blinking into the glare of our freedom, into the wilderness of our work and the world, making maps as we go, looking for signs that we’re on the right path. And on some good days we walk right out of our oppressions, those things that press us down from the outside or (as often) from the inside; we shake off the shackles of fear, prejudice, timidity, closed-mindedness, selfishness, self righteousness, and claim our freedom outright, terrifying as it is—our freedom to be human and humane.
Every morning, every day, we leave our houses, not knowing if it will be for the last time, and we decide what we’ll take with us, what we’ll carry: how much integrity, how much truth-telling, how much compassion (in case somebody along the way may need some), how much arrogance, how much anger, how much humor, how much willingness to change or be changed, to grow and to be grown. How much faith and hope, how much love and gratitude—you pack these with your lunch and medications, your date book and your papers. Every day, we gather what we think we’ll need, pick up what we love and all that we so far believe, put on our history, shoulder our experience and memory, take inventory of our blessings, and we start walking toward morning.
I was completely surprised. I wasn’t even sure what happened — all I knew was that I was suddenly face first in a pile of snow. I really hate to begin by talking about the winter. Not the winter Massachusetts just had with snow piles high above my head and not the winter you just had here in Kentucky, but a winter many years ago in Illinois. It was a completely unremarkable winter but it has stuck with me.
Not far from where I grew up as a child, there was a shopping center with the usual suspects: JC Penney, KMart, and a now dilapidated indoor mall that had the most amazing nachos and the weirdest assortment of stores: a magic shop, an exotic pet store, a store that sold various types of sand and glass. I was with my mother on a particular winter day, the snow was piled out along the sidewalk outside and I was simply not having a good day.
I was letting my captive audience, my mother, know every complaint I had about the world and, looking back, she had just about had enough of that. Along one edge of sidewalk with a fresh pile of snow, I was just starting to launch into some other complaint — I can’t even remember what it was about these days — and before I knew it I found myself tumbling into the pile of snow. Bewildered I looked around. Standing above me was my mother — laughing and laughing and laughing.
She had pushed me into the snow. The complete surprise of what she had done caused me to respond only with: You pushed me! Passers-by were cracking smiles as I pulled myself up out of the snow. And then it hit me. I started laughing along with them. My mother was always the playful type when I was growing up and this was no exception.
From that moment, for the rest of the day beyond my initial shock of being thrown into the snow, the day was brighter and better. I suddenly found joy again and to this day my mother and I still laugh about that moment. It had surprised me so much that I had forgotten what I was complaining about. I had forgotten about the protests of my ten year old self and was called back to a place of happiness.
I try to remind myself of this story every time I find myself stuck in a rut of disappointment or doubt. Stories like this are what sustain me when I am unable to regain perspective. Whenever life is being its hardest, I try to find that surprising moment that will call me back to focus on what matters, to rediscover joy or to simply reclaim the possibility of changing what is before me.
It doesn’t always work. Some challenges are not easily overcome. They can often require distance or further wisdom. Sometimes I need others along with me to nudge me— to surprise me, to call me to change. I am thankful for these moments — even if they mean finding myself covered in snow or having to drastically change the path I am on. They are moments that have carried me along to right here — before all of you.
We all find ourselves suddenly in places that cause us to wake up surprised or think differently about how our life was going in that moment. It can be joyful, sudden, painful — the whole stretch of feelings and emotions in our lives can contribute to it. What in your life has surprised you? Where have you found yourself awakened by whatever event just happened to you?
For me, it was suddenly finding myself in a pile of snow and rediscovering the joy of the moment. It was about stopping the path I was on that day and, instead, forging a new one. All it took was a little push. And, really, it was simpler for my younger self. Would I respond the same way today?
For others it might be more drastic and more serious — it might involve needing to realize we are the only ones that can change our present moment. Others will be there to help us on our way, but the decision is ultimately up to us. It does not always end with laughter but tears as well.
The hallmarks of renewal aren’t always light pushes in the snow or forgetting our worries. They can be arduous and drawn out in ways that we cannot imagine. Beyond the light hearted, I’ve found myself surprised by moments — sometimes mere seconds or days or years — that were difficult in ways that words cannot do justice.
I think of coming out in high school in a conservative Chicago suburb back when it was still very uncommon and unsafe, I think of forgiving family members whose own demons impacted my life, I think of answering the call to ministry and how through all of its challenges it is rewarding beyond measure, and I think of moving halfway across the country to Massachusetts and into the unknown.
These moments of life ran deeper than any snow pile but they too included laughter and tears, challenge and surprise. Our lives are full of journeys and moments that are there to call us back to what we most yearn for, what we hope for, what we feel deep down in our hearts to be necessary for our own well-being. Surprising and life-changing events are waiting for all of us — they may even be unfolding right now. Ask yourself where in your life are you in need of renewal? What has brought you to this place today — besides meeting me — and what is possible in this moment?
The challenge of being a Unitarian Universalist is very much like these moments of surprise. The spark of our faith set down by the Puritans all those years ago was courageous and daring. Courageous because it defied the conventional wisdom of the time — it said to all people that congregations know what is best for them — that they are capable in choosing their own ministers and defining their faith.
That individual conscience was, to them, the best rule of faith. And it was daring because it was something not often practiced in religion. This new way was a way without bishops and priests. We have all chosen a faith that is unconventional. It defies the ground rules of western religion, it stares boldly at the future and wonders. Ours is a faith that calls us to our best selves over and over again — sometimes playfully and sometimes more seriously.
If you’ve ever been to a General Assembly or any large gathering of UUs, you know of the joy and challenge I speak. Being in a room with thousands of Unitarian Universalists and worshipping, singing, praying, rejoicing, and doing good work together is an amazing feeling. It’s almost hard to get back to the real world once those moments are over. But our faith also calls us to our best selves amidst great tragedy.
The events of Ferguson and now Baltimore see Unitarian Universalists engaging work that is difficult and painful. But it is still necessary. Whether through joy or sorrow we are called to our best selves. And it is heartbreaking work. Even when it is at its most joyous.
Even for those of us that have been Unitarian Universalists for quite some time, there is a knowing about just how difficult it can be. It is not easy to forge a new way of being religious with people on diverse spiritual paths. It is not easy to set aside our differences, to live into our promises as a covenanted group of people, and to work for justice and peace.
I have struggled with this all my life as a Unitarian Universalists. From childhood to my college years to adulthood — and it will continue. Sometimes I find myself still admiring the religions where everything is set in stone, where every belief is prescribed and you get a neat and tidy package when you finally say “I believe.”
For Unitarian Universalists, that moment of “I believe” is met with smiling faces, open arms, and no pre-packaged dogma. It is up to us to figure it out for ourselves. And figuring it out is not always easy and joyous. It can weigh heavy on our hearts and makes us wonder what on earth we are doing in the first place.
But as we heard in our reading this morning, we will all be walking and blinking into each new morning, carrying with us what we are able to carry. And we will not be doing it alone. We will have people by our sides that will share of their own wisdom and resources, their own insights and challenges. The people we join together with in our communities are there to call us back to our best selves when need be and vice versa.
The one thing that has helped me through my own challenges of faith is knowing that part of being a Unitarian Universalist is all about the challenge. It’s all about the mystery, the wonder, the unanswered questions — and most importantly, about being with others on the same journey. Each time I am with fellow Unitarian Universalists, I walk away surprised. I walk away knowing that this faith is needed and I walk away a little more aware of where life is calling me. This is the hope and the promise of Unitarian Universalism for all of us.
Where we are called in our lives may surprise us. There may be things in our lives right this very moment that we are thinking about changing, thinking about pursuing or sharing with others. There are things in our lives we may not be proud of or things that may still be hurting us: But the good news is that we are here. We are here in this space with fellow seekers.
The moment where we are called to our best selves is right now. While I’m pretty sure this moment of surprise doesn’t involve any piles of snow for any of you or myself — we are about to embark on a week that will challenge all of us. I can assure you that we will all be different people, in some small way, by next Sunday. And it can be joyous. It can be looking forward with wonder and hope.
We have a busy week ahead of us. It is jam packed with events and opportunities to get to know one another and it’ll be exhausting, and so very good for all of us. Just as you are curious about me, I am curious about each and every one of you here in this room. I want to know the path that led you to this point, I want to hear about the moments in your life that surprised you and called you back to your best selves. I want to begin getting to know you as your minister.
All of us here in this room can start to imagine what is waiting for us around the corner — where will our shared journey as the UU Church of Lexington take us? Not just in this week but in years to come. What possibilities are popping up, what hopes and dreams do we have, where do we see this community going?
These are all questions that we will be asking of each other this week. We will learn from one another and we will discover moments of surprise that call us to reimagine this community and what it can do for Lexington and the wider Unitarian Universalist movement.
So, dear friends, come with me. Come with me into the unknown as we begin to learn about each other, as we grow in our relationship, as we see where this faith will take us this week and in each moment. Let us walk boldly and joyfully in the days ahead and may we be surprised. May it always be so. Blessed Be. Amen.