Sermon for HUU’s 20th Anniversary
Rev. Wade Wheelock and Rev. Anne Marsh
May 15, 2011
Wade: We are honored to have been asked to participate in this very special service of the Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalists. We’re so glad Kirk, Emma, and Mike are here this morning, along with many of the lay leaders who have been instrumental in bringing HUU to this day of celebration. We offer our congratulations for what you have accomplished already and our best wishes for the future you will build together.
On this day of looking back at our history, I am reminded that some religions have the practice of actually preserving the bodies of important figures from their past, especially their founders. In our readings and travels, we’ve seen examples among Catholics in the American Southwest and in Quebec, and also in Buddhist and Daoist groups in China and Japan. These embalmed saints or heroes are usually kept in a gilded case on a side altar, but on special occasions are brought forward for a more public display.
Today seems a little like such an occasion. Anne and I don’t need chemical preservation — yet — but we are ghosts of a sort, specters from the earliest days of the HUU community. In a way, we represent your pre-history, for we were already in seminary in Chicago when you had your official Charter Sunday, whose 20th anniversary we mark today. But we were here at the very first gathering of this group and throughout the first year and a half of its evolution.
Anne; In my mind’s eye, I can still see the 20 or so folks who sat on folding chairs in Deb and Randy Mitchells’ back yard in the summer of 1989. Some were strangers to each other; none knew whether they could form a congregation and if so, what shape it might take. I was an outlier from Charlottesville, preparing to go to theological school in a year, but asked in the meantime to join District Executive Roger Comstock in assisting the formation of the Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalists. Those gathered in the circle on that sunny afternoon brought different life stories, different hopes, different ideas — but all were drawn by a desire for religious community.
That in itself is somewhat unusual, for after all, not everyone feels a need to be part of a religious community. How many times have you heard: “If I went to any church, it would be UU, but I’m just not into organized religion”? Of course, it’s often said that Unitarian Universalism is a disorganized religion, but still — despite the fact that each of us can think about life’s Big Questions on our own, people came to that first meeting. Many of them stayed to help grow this church. And this morning you are here, instead of home reading the paper or out hiking or running errands. Why?
UU minister Mark Belletini says, “A free thinker alone out in the woods is not a Unitarian Universalist. He or she is a free thinker alone out in the woods.” Spirituality involves a sense of belonging to something larger than self, an awareness of deep connections to other people, to nature, to the sacred. Out in the woods — or in solitary meditation — we may indeed catch glimpses of our connection with the cosmos. But only in community do we learn how to celebrate and practice this interconnectedness.
And that is what we gather to do — to celebrate and practice our inter-connectedness, and thereby to grow our souls. Alone, none of us has the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Spiritual growth occurs most creatively in a community whose members share their ideas and experiences, and respect and support each other. Our free faith is not just faith in ourselves as individuals, but also faith in our ability as a community to find meaning and value.
Wade: As a former “free thinker alone out in the woods,” I can say that the creation of this religious community certainly mattered a whole lot to me — and came just in the nick of time. I had been teaching about Asian religions for a dozen years at JMU and was head of the department of Philosophy and Religion. Beryl Lawson and Jim Geary had taken some of my courses, and the late Lucy Dambekalns was a philosophy major. They were wonderful students, but I was discontented as a professor. I yearned for a religion I could call my own and a place where I could celebrate and profess its values, something I couldn’t do in the required neutrality of the classroom.
Then, within the space of a few years, my father died, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and came into my care, and I was divorced. In the midst of this mid-life maelstrom, Beryl called to invite me to that first meeting at the Mitchells to talk about forming a Unitarian Universalist group in Harrisonburg. I was introduced to UUism and to Anne, and I underwent an instantaneous and zealous conversion to both! I felt myself caught up in this hopeful yet grounded religion that gave tunes for my spirit to sing. Some of those were the literal hymns I came to love, such as this favorite with a line that sums it all up for me: “Here on the paths of everyday, here on the common human way, is all the stuff the gods would take to build a heaven, to mold and make new Edens. Ours the task sublime to build Eternity in time.” My life was renewed.
How many others have had their lives renewed, in small or large ways, here at HUU? How many more still await the life-changing experience of finding a community where you can freely express your spiritual identity without fear of ridicule or censure. Where there can be an honest exchange of world views in a respectful atmosphere. Our religion has no blasphemy laws, only the rule of compassion for all. In order to join our religion, unlike for so many others, we are not “processed,” the way the Perdue or Wampler plants process poultry — in feet first and out in uniform, wrapped packages. We are the chickens who escaped — to form freely chosen communities where our diverse views are preserved and honored.
Anne: But we are also chickens who need each other. In a graduation speech, Mario Cuomo addressed not the students, but their parents and grandparents, saying: “Do you think [these students] would believe us if we told them today what we know to be true: That after the pride of obtaining a degree and maybe later another degree, and after their first few love affairs, and after earning their first big title and their first shiny new car and traveling around the world…that none of it counts unless they have something real and permanent to believe in.”
Part of the reason for being in a religious community — part of the reason HUU matters — is that we and our children and our children’s children need “something real and permanent to believe in,” and as the great religious educator Sophia Fahs said, “It matters what we believe.” It matters what we hope for, it matters what our vision is, it matters what we love, for these values determine the direction our footsteps take into the future. The church matters, because the purpose of a religious community is nothing less than transformation — personal and societal. Transformation from despair to hope, from ignorance to understanding, from inequity to justice, from meaninglessness to purpose, from apathy to commitment.
Wade: We come together week in and week out not to stay exactly as we are, but to have our minds opened and our hearts uplifted and to be challenged to truly live our values each and every day. I know I have been changed by church — changed to be more aware of the people around me, their struggles and joys. I have grown new sensitivities to the plight of those who are oppressed — from women and African-Americans to GLBT people, from Muslims in this country who have become targets of hate after 9/11 to impoverished families near and far. I’ve grown in my humanity — not as much as I’d like, but more so, I feel sure, than if I had never become a Unitarian Universalist. And for me, it all began here.
As I looked over the names in the current HUU directory, there were very few I knew. Some of the folks from the earliest times have died or moved away, others have perhaps found different spiritual paths. But all the names Anne and I don’t recognize tell us that HUU has already had a significant impact, for you are making a liberal religious community available for a new generation. It makes us feel good to know that the seeds we helped to plant have been tended so well by those who have come after us. So it is for all of us — we plant trees in whose shade we will never sit, and whose fruit we won’t live to enjoy — but others will. And that matters.
Anne: But as you know from your own experiences at HUU over the past two decades, a lasting religious community doesn’t just happen. It takes rolling up our sleeves and getting involved. It takes giving of our time, talent, and treasure. And it takes the realization that being part of a congregation is a spiritual discipline, and a tough one at times. For in any community, there are times of disagreement and disappointment, times we fail to treat each other with respect, times we let each other and ourselves down.
So I honor all of you who come to pretty much every service, whether the sermon topic sounds interesting or not, whether you like the hymn choices or not, whether you agree with the latest Board decision or not. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but at a certain UU church on the other side of the Blue Ridge, several people threatened to withdraw their financial support because they didn’t like the paint color the building committee had chosen for the parlor. Sounds silly, but, on the other hand, most of us have at times stomped off in a huff over even less, if not in our congregational lives, then in our personal relationships.
What is it that enables us not to stomp off? That is, what enables the kind of commitment that will bring HUU to its 120th anniversary? Gordon Allport says true commitments are made “half-sure and whole-hearted.” The “half-sure” part of commitment acknowledges that we cannot know what the future will bring. There are no guarantees of success, perfection is not an option, and large doses of forgiveness and humility will be called for. The “whole-hearted” aspect of commitment means we do it anyway. We choose to care, to act, to give of ourselves, to embrace what fills our spirits.
Half-sure, we know commitment cannot mean attachment to specific results. But whole-hearted, we embrace the journey itself, knowing that the kingdom of God, the reign of love and justice, is not “out there” someplace, but here among us, in community, whenever we feel our kinship, wherever we break down the illusion of separateness and erase the lines of exclusion.
Wade: Breaking down the illusion of separateness — therein lies a clue to why I think HUU matters not just to those of us gathered here today, but to the world beyond these walls as well. For we are called to something more than personal contentment and far more than splendid isolation. We can count UU heroes in the past who demanded freedom and dignity for all — and we must continue to do so today.
When I first came to JMU in 1978, university assemblies still featured performances by the Gospel Choir. Faculty meetings were peppered with Dolly Parton jokes, and snide anti-gay remarks were commonplace. I expect that has changed for the better since then. And hasn’t such change been abetted by your very presence here? My guess is that being part of this congregation has emboldened some faculty members — and their children — to speak out when they see injustice. I bet some citizens of Rockingham County have had their eyes opened and their hearts softened by HUU’s public support for gay rights and other social justice issues. Area college students may have found here a spiritual home to develop progressive views they will take with them into their adult lives as they spread around the globe.
Much work remains, of course, if we are to become a force to be reckoned with. But I truly believe that this congregation, along with fellow UUs everywhere, has the opportunity to demonstrate to all what it means to be a religious community for today’s world — a religious community that learns from all the world’s faiths, rather than fearing or belittling others; that respects every individual and seeks to insure dignified life for each; that truly honors the interdependent web of existence on which all life depends.
Anne: I was once stuck in traffic behind a car with a bumper sticker that read: “Unity: The Church of Love and Laughter.” Hmmm, I wondered, as I waited for the light to change. Is that what our church is about, too? Is HUU a church of love and laughter? I hope so.
But I hope this is also a church of tears and anger, where we don’t gloss over the pain and injustice in life. I hope that here we join love and laughter, tears and anger, strength and brokenness, fear and hope, and bring them all within our circle. Sometimes we’ll find it easy to love each other, sometimes we won’t, but we covenant to keep talking, to keep listening, to keep caring — about each other and about our world. For Unitarian Universalism has good news to offer a hurting world whenever we are able to make peace and justice not just words we form with our lips, but realities we shape with our lives. That is the challenge — and the vision — that lies ahead and draws us onward.
Wade: As another of my favorite hymns puts it, ours is “a freedom that reveres the past, but trusts the dawning future more.” The hope for that future lies in our own hearts, and the responsibility in our own hands. On this 20th anniversary, we have good cause to celebrate the past, but may we commit to trusting the dawning future more, and to reaching out beyond these walls.
Anne: Here in this religious community, we have found something sacred in us and among us. We are called to bear witness in word and deed to that liberating spirit and to let its light shine. So may it be.