The Ties That Bind Us

When I offered my “Kick Off the Year” sermon from this pulpit one year ago this Sunday I assumed I was leading into my final year with you. I’d say there’s an object lesson there on not relying too heavily on one’s assumptions. Sometimes they can fool you.

We have been granted a third interim ministry year together as your Search Team continues their work. I feel we can and will put it to very good use. The very worthy and dedicated efforts of your Search Team continue to go forward; and I know they do so with your deepest support and appreciation. You’ll be hearing from these fine folks in three weeks as they offer the Sunday Service on October 8. They’ll share with you some of what they have learned about this FCU congregation when it comes to your make-up; and what they learned about the process of calling a settled minister in our free church tradition; and anything else they may wish to pass along to you.

For today, I’m using my favorite Pete Seeger song to help shape some of what I want to share with you at the outset of this church year. You just heard Sarah sing it: “Oh Had I a Golden Thread.” Using the metaphor Pete offers, I’d like us to consider: What are some of the “golden threads” that bind us as a congregation in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition? What are the threads, what are the ties, that bind us as we embark upon another year together? During the two years we’ve now spent together, I’ve come to recognize, and to treasure, some of those threads. I’ll touch on some of them today.

There is the thread of care. We’re hardly unique here in that regard. Many, make that most, religious or spiritual communities—clear across the spectrum—are ones in which the members show their love and care for one another. I think that’s one of the reasons why we still have such communities. In the midst of the swirl of the activities and demands, and the sometimes just plain overwhelming “stuff”, that inundates our lives we need a place where we know we are are loved and cared about just for who we are. Next Sunday some members of our Lay Pastoral Ministries Team will share some of their reasons for being a part of this vital aspect of our congregational life—and what they offer as a part of this Team.

This thread of care is part of a larger—and very multi-faceted, thread of community, in all the ways community gets expressed and played out. How we worship together, engage in various kinds of fellowship together, how—together—we manage and govern ourselves, These are all pieces of that greater thread of community. And in this third interim year we’ll be looking at how we can enhance and strengthen that thread, and its various strands, as it gets woven through to the fabric of this wonderful congregation.

There is the thread of the shared search; the shared search for meaning and value and purpose and spiritual depth in each of our lives, while also knowing that are lives are a part of a greater whole in which we are each called to play a part. This is the thread that finds expression in our worship life, in the various support or theme-based groups we offer; and even in the simply fun times we have with one another. They are all a part of the spiritual journey we share, a journey that is undergirded by our UU principle that affirms “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

There is the thread of conscience. One of our Seven UU Principles affirms “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” In addition to caring for one another we also seek, and act on, ways to care about the lives and the world beyond our doors. By care, in this sense, I mean how we bring our values, our principles, our passion for social justice, to bear upon the larger, human community within which we live and move. What does this thread of conscience call us toward, and demand of us, in the larger social, cultural, economic, and—yes—political landscape we now find ourselves in? This is a thread we’ll be exploring together in the year ahead. Here’s a few heads-ups along this line:

Two weeks from today I’ll speak to what I see as our need to come to terms with classism—both within our UU congregations and in society at large. I’ll be drawing on part on a very worthy bit of work done by our UUA’s Commission on Appraisal called “Class Action: The Struggle with Class in Unitarian Universalism.” This will be followed up by a program and workshop our Multi-Cultural Ministries Committee will offer after the service so you can engage with the issue as well. This will build on the White Supremacy service and program the MMC offered last May. Among other things we’ll look at the intersection of race and class. You’ll hear more about this as we go forward, and I hope you can set that time aside to be a part of this very vital conversation.

On October 22nd our guest speaker will be Rev. Ann Willever. Rev. Willever is a community minister affiliated with our UU congregation in Franklin, Massachusetts. Last November she was part of the protective witness effort with 500 members of various clergies—including 55 UUs—with the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline. Her sharing of that experience will also encompass Rev. Willever’s larger focus on Native American and Environmental issues. A follow-up conversation with her will also be facilitated by our Multi-Cultural Ministries Committee.

And then—one more heads-up for now—on November 12 our own Malcom Kroh will speak to how we honor the what at that time will be the upcoming transgender awareness week. This is yet another crucial part of our thread of conscience, given the Presidential decreed ban on transgender persons from our military, and the likely ripple effect it will have in many other areas of our societal and cultural life in which our transgendered fellow citizens live their lives. You’ll have an opportunity on that Sunday as well to interact with Malcom and what he’ll have to say.

The thread of conscience—your thread of conscience—our thread of conscience, is one we’ll be paying particular heed to in the following weeks and months. Do plan to be a part of that ongoing engagement.

The next thread I want to hold up is one that is well interwoven with the others I’ve cited, while also being one that calls for our particular attention. I’m calling it the thread of a shared identity.

This is a tricky one, and one that many of our UU congregations across the country struggle with. I’ll move into this piece of the sermon up by citing some lines that most, maybe all, of you are familiar with. The theme song from the long-running TV series “Cheers.”

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name

And they’re always glad you came…

You want to know that you can go

Where people are all the same

You want to go where everybody knows your name…”

One of the reasons that series was so popular and successful, in addition to having a great cast and good writers, had to do with the responsive chord it hit with millions of viewers. Whether we frequent bars or not, we all want and need a place like that in our lives: Where people are all the same and everybody knows your name.

It may well be quite natural and understandable to want your church, your religious community, your congregation to be such a place. Like I said, practically everybody needs a “Cheers Bar” of one kind or another in their lives. I know I do. Well then, why not your congregation? But, here’s the hitch with that. If the Cheers Bar is the model or paradigm for what you want your congregation to be, that puts a ceiling on how much growth and development you can actually have, or get to.

Our stay here, our times together, are indeed—as Rev. Judy Deutsch reminds us—is a “communion of people.” Who do we invite into that communion? How do we provide a welcoming space where maybe people are not all the same?

Therein lies the challenge and the question: Is it possible to create a shared identity as a liberal religious community wherein each person feels a sense of connection with it, feels they are a part of a greater and more purposeful whole, where their spiritual life is nurtured, and their consciences are stirred and activated—even if it is a place where not everybody knows everybody’s else’s name—and they’re not all the same when it comes to such things as station in life, or economic standing, or level of education?

In this same vein, can we find a language and ways of worship that speak to, and affirm, a larger identity for ourselves even if every single word of that language, and every aspect of worship life may not resonate equally well with each and every member all the time? This is another piece of that greater conversation about that “struggle with class in Unitarian Universalism” that the Commission on Appraisal raises, and it, too, will be part of the conversation on class that I want to initiate on October 1.

We have to have that golden thread of a shared identity in order to be a community—how we shape and define that identity is crucial not only to the future of your congregation here, but to our liberal religious movement itself. This thread of identity is one I feel worth giving special heed to this year as you move ahead in your search for a settled minister, and look for the leadership he or she can provide you in the ongoing conversation as to who you are and who and what you wish to be.

Still another thread—and it’s one I find a little hard to label. It’s a dual thread. I call it the thread of retreat and engagement. I alluded to it in my homily last Sunday when I spoke about my hike—my retreat, if you will—into a redwood forest; and then my return to the day to day world in which I live. I have another story on that theme today.

On a bright, sunny, and rather warm day last August 20 I was on the Boston Common with some 40, 000 other people in a counter rally; counter, that is to say, to what was dubbed a “Free Speech Rally.” For the record, I am in favor of free speech. In this case the term “Free Speech” was being used a cover for—among other people—white nationalists who had come to feel emboldened following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia and the President’s initial response to them. Representing no one but myself, and having no desire to infringe upon the Rally organizers right to “free speech,” I went to take part in the counter-protest.

The Free Speech Rally itself never quite happened, although the participants were given well protected time and space in which to hold it. The very small crowd that was there left after about 45 minutes into their allotted time. And there were some minor, and unfortunate, incidents as things were winding down. But, as Boston’s Police Commissioner himself said, it was over 99% peaceful; and for that I was grateful.

My story, however, has really nothing to do with what happened on the Common itself that day. As I made my way there on that morning and got off the ‘T’ stop at Park Street, I’d arrived early enough and with enough time on my hands, to go in search of a cup of coffee.

Walking along the part of Boylston Street that borders the Common I went by a large Episcopal Church. Its doors were wide open and its ministers, along with some of its lay leaders, were standing on the steps welcoming people in. First things first I went and had my coffee, and a, ah, second breakfast, and then I went back to the church. What they were doing I found to be quite remarkable.

In a rather large meeting space there were chairs arranged in concentric circles with a very simple altar at the center—a cloth cover and a couple of lighted candles. There were signs posted asking persons to be quiet and respectful upon entering and being seated. There was no service or ritual of any kind; the atmosphere instead was one of a vigil.

It was a place to simply sit in quiet; for persons to sit and reflect, meditate, or pray in whatever manner they do those things; and for as long or short a time as they wished. It was a place and a setting to go inward, and become centered, before going back outward to all that would take place across the street as the day went on. I even noticed a couple of my UU minister colleagues from New Hampshire there, and had a chance to chat with them on our way out.

I saw in that setting a demonstration of yet another thread that is woven into the life of a religious or spiritual community—including most certainly the one we strive to be here. It’s the dual thread, as I’ve called it, of retreat and engagement. There are times, especially given the world and the times in which we live, where we need a refuge or a retreat now and then. Refuge and retreat are not ends in themselves, of course. If that happens they become self-defeating. But sometimes we need to seek refuge and retreat as a way of becoming equipped—spiritually equipped—in order to return to engagement. At times we need to come apart and find an inner peace and an inner strength wherein we renew our conscience and our sense of commitment, which in turn then call us forth once again.

Oh had I a golden thread and a needle so fine, I would bind up this sorry world with hand and heart and mind.” So wrote and sang our dearly beloved and now departed Pete Seeger. May this be a place where we come to bind up our hearts and our minds and our lives in order that we may then go forth to do whatever we may be able to accomplish in binding up our world in ways that will at least take away some of its sorrow and allow us to experience some of its joys.

There are only four words you really need to know in order to sing our closing hymn—although you may certainly use your hymnals if you prefer. The words are love, hope, peace, and joy. We need to believe that there is yet more of each one of these things to be found and lived out. May the threads we weave, and the ties that bind us bring us ever closer to them.

We’ll sing the four verses, and then repeat the first one: “There is more love somewhere.”

Stephen D. Edington

September 17, 2017

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