as preached April 3, 2022 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
It is good to be back in the pulpit. It feels like I have been away for a long time. I have missed you.
The last time I was supposed to offer you a sermon I came down with COVID. It was a mild breakthrough case. I completely lost my voice for a couple of days and needed a lot of extra sleep for about a week. But I never had a temperature or any signs of serious illness. And while I was lucky in that regard, it was important for me to stay away until I had a negative PCR test.
Before I continue, a general note about COVID. Some of you have asked when we plan to dispense with mask wearing requirements. It can be hard to build community when you cannot see each other’s faces. The answer is, soon, I hope. We just resumed congregational singing this week. We thought it prudent not to dispense with masks at the same time we resumed an activity that has a great deal of potential for viral spread.
You may not know, but First Houston is blessed to have several medical professionals amongst our membership. Some of them have been serving on our Health Advisory Group for the last year or so. They have helped the staff and I figure out how to keep our congregation open for in-person worship. On the whole, with their guidance, it is by taking a more conservative approach that we have been able to stay open through the case spikes. I am going to be asking them this week when we can fully make masks optional. Until then, I ask that you bear with us while we figure things out.
Today, as you might know, is the start of our annual stewardship drive. Stewardship Sunday is often portrayed as an event that ministers and congregations greet with a combination of trepidation and dread. A quick review of some Unitarian Universalist stewardship sermons will emphasize this point. In one the preacher complains, “money seems to be an anathema to ministers and their congregations.” In another the clergywoman grumbles, Unitarian Universalists “have a rotten theology of money.” And in a third, the sermonizer laments that she has been warned, “Don’t talk with people about money; you’ll only make them uncomfortable.”
I am not so sure about that. Last night, Sadé and I went to an auction barbecue held at the home of a couple of First Houston members. None of the people there who spoke with me about stewardship–and several of them did–expressed real discomfort. Instead, I was told repeatedly about how folks were looking forward to today’s sermon. I was also told, by a membership of the stewardship team, about how good the cake to celebrate today’s launch is going to be. Apparently, it comes from a Vietnamese bakery that adds all this fresh fruit to the pastry. But that’s another matter…
Anyway, last night when I got home, I found myself thinking about why folks at the barbecue seemed to be excited for a sermon that everyone is supposed to dread. It occurred to me that it might have something to do with this year’s theme, “Building the Legacy of Tomorrow.”
First Houston has a wonderful legacy. As a congregation we can and should be proud of what this community has done in the past. For close to 125 years, we have made a significant difference in the lives of our membership and in the region.
Stewardship is about honoring that history. It is about ensuring that this institution has the capacity to carry that legacy forward. We want First Houston to be here 125 years from now. We want it to be making a difference then.
I suspect there is a simple reason why the people I talked to last night told me they were looking forward to this sermon. I suspect that they are proud of the good we have done in the past. And they are hopeful about the good we might do in the future. And they were hoping that I might talk with you some about all of that.
“[W]hat’s past is prologue,” William Shakespeare offers that wonderful line in the Tempest to suggest that our history profoundly influences our future. And so, for the time that remains with me this morning I want to do two things. First, I want to share with you something of the proud legacy of this congregation–the history of where we have been. Second, I want to talk with you a bit about the legacy we are building for the future. First Houston is a critical juncture and with your support it can position itself to continue to make a difference for generations to come.
There are two significant dimensions of our history that I want to lift up. The first is the space that we have created for religious freedom. The second is the work we have done for social justice.
The great Unitarian historian Early Morse Wilbur maintained that the distinguishing characteristics of our religious tradition are its commitment to “freedom, reason, and tolerance” in theological matters. We, he argued, are free to pursue religious truths without the fetters of religious creeds or external authority. We commit to using reason in our efforts. And we make no claim to unique, total or exclusive access to religious truth. Instead, we celebrate the diversity of humanity’s religious beliefs and practices.
The origins of our effort in Houston date to 1899 when the itinerant Universalist minister Quillen Shinn first passed this way, spreading a message of radical love in a community then dominated by conservative religious voices. He believed, like other Universalists of his generation, that God loved everyone without exception and that the end of individual human existence was unity with the divine. He was one of the great evangelicals of our faith and spread a simple message that Universalism was basically just the belief in the possibility of “something better for all.”
It took another fifteen years for the spirit that Shinn brought to Houston to cohere into something consistent. First, there was a Universalist church. Then there was a Unitarian group. They struggled. Finally, in 1914 the First Unitarian Church of Houston came into being.
The congregation’s original statement of purpose committed its members “to promote the high ideals of a reasonable, reverent and helpful religion.” It also established “a bond of fellowship:” “In the love of truth, and the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of Man.”
While the language might seem Christian, in 1914 these words signaled a commitment to religious pluralism. They suggested that First Houston did not require its members to affirm a specific Christian creed. An affirmation of the Trinity was not called for. A statement about the nature of Jesus was not mandated. More than a hundred years ago this statement that could accommodate a substantive amount of religious diversity.
In the 1950s, the congregation moved away from this bond of union. It began to explicitly be a space where people could come together in pursuit of religious truth and devotion to service across a theological spectrum that ranged from atheism and humanism to liberal Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Earth based spirituality, and more.
This commitment to religious pluralism is perhaps best illustrated by the congregations we have birthed. You probably know that First Houston is the First Unitarian Universalist congregation in the city and that the origins of Emerson and all the other area Unitarian Universalists can be connected with us. But did you know that First Houston has played a role in founding two non-Unitarian Universalist congregations? In the early 1950s, with the apparent encouragement of two successive Senior Ministers, first John Petrie and then Horace Westwood, members of this congregation helped start the First Congregational Church of Houston. More than forty years later, while he served as Senior Minister, Bob Schaibly played a crucial role in the organization of the Houston Zen Center. I like to think that we are continuing that tradition by providing Congregational Shma Koleniu a space to meet.
Just as importantly, we have long cultivated a space for mysticism and religious humility. And our ministers and music directors have often played a role in furthering Unitarian Universalist theology and liturgy. One of the readings I picked this morning was from former minister Mary Harrington. She only served the congregation for a year, as an interim assistant minister, but she was well liked and later went on to be one of the best loved Unitarian Universalist preachers of her generation. The words she offers us come from the sermon she preached, shortly before she died, at the Service of the Living Tradition. That is the worship service at the Unitaria Universalist Association’s General Assembly. The invitation to preach it is considered one of the signal honors a minister can have during their career.
Harrington offered words in her sermon that express a sentiment that can be found across more than a hundred years of preaching from this pulpit. She told us that one of the purposes of our communion, was to attempt to get each of us to pay “attention and… reawaken to life at its heights and its depths.”
The members of this congregation, like Unitarian Universalists elsewhere, have long insisted on mixing such a spiritual purpose with the pursuit of social justice. What do you know about this part of First Houston’s history? Alex and I are in the process of shipping the congregation’s archives off to the Harvard Divinity School Library. And so, I find myself consistently learning more.
Did you know that First Houston was the first historically White congregation in the city to vote to desegregate its worship services? On June 7th, 1954, three weeks after Brown v. Board of Education, the congregation passed a motion at is annual meeting stating that it welcome anyone, regardless of their race, who was “sincerely interested in our Church” to participate in congregational life.
Two weeks later the first African American family started attending our services and religious education programs. Since that point, First Houston has had a small Black membership. And while it has never really lived into its early promise of building a Beloved, multiracial, community, a subject I will have more to say about later, the significance of the congregation’s 1954 decision cannot be overemphasized. It occurred six years before the city desegregated schools and lunch counters.
Throughout the fifties and sixties First Houston played a role in the civil rights movement, both locally and nationally. Did you know that at least two of the congregation’s ministers marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma? Or that one of them, Horace Westwood served on the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association when, following the murders of Jimmy Lee Jackson and the Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. James Reeb, it voted to suspend its meeting in Boston and reconvene it in Selma? It is a move that is credited with bringing almost a third of the active Unitarian Universalist ministers in the United States down to Albama to march for civil rights.
Did you know that in addition to the civil rights movement, the congregation has advocated for LGBTQ rights and for refugees for decades? In the 1980s, Bob Schaibly was the first openly gay minister of non-LGBTQ church in the city. During his ministry, and during the initial wave of the AIDS crisis, the congregation ministered to the LGBTQ community when almost no one else would. At the same time, First Houston began to offer support and sanctuary to refugees fleeing war in Central America. Our efforts were so notable at the time that the famed folksinger Joan Baez actually held a fundraising concert to support them.
There’s more to be said about the history of First Houston–our ecological advocacy and commitment to women’s rights and reproductive health, to say the least–but… what’s past is prologue. The name of the sermon and the stewardship campaign is “Building the Legacy of Tomorrow.” And while we have a proud legacy, I want to turn next to where we are headed, the legacy we working to create for the future.
And here, I want to take a little bit of a bureaucratic turn. That’s always a dangerous proposition in a sermon. And one that I suspect might be doubly dangerous one on stewardship. Nonetheless… we are in the midst of a developmental ministry and the next year is one I anticipate will be pivotal in the life of this congregation. I suspect that it will be exciting in the ways it will set First Houston up to thrive in future years.
The purpose of a developmental ministry is to empower a congregation, in collaboration with its clergy, to work through areas on which it has been stuck for sometime. First Houston decided to embark on a developmental ministry with me after you had two negotiated resignations with your senior ministers in a row. The core question you asked yourselves was, “What do we need to do differently in order to have a successful relationship with a senior minister?”
Coming from this question, you decided to focus on five different areas: governance, ministry and administration; mission/vision/covenant; multiculturalism, anti-racism, and inclusion; growth and membership engagement; and multi-site ministry. Most of you probably know that multi-site is no longer a focus. The Thoreau/Richmond campus has transitioned to an independent Unitarian Universalist community. Work on governance, ministry and administration and growth and membership have been ongoing.
It is the two other areas, mission/vision/covenant and multiculturalism, anti-racism, and inclusion, that I want to turn as I talk with you about building the legacy of tomorrow. Now, I could lift up, instead, all of the great social justice work we are doing right–the plans we have to mobilize hundreds of volunteers and thousands of voters for the autumn election, the work we are doing in Freedmen’s Town with the Freedmen’s Town Association and the Yates Museum, the way we are advocating for the LGTBQ community while they are under assault by the state’s political leaders (Rev. Scott was the only identifiable member of the clergy who attended the Montrose Center’s Trans Day of Visibility rally on Friday), the work of our climate action team, the work of… well, you get the point–or I could celebrate the ways in which we reaching more people than we have in years, through social media and our online worship services, with a message of love and collective liberation. But… stewardship is about maintaining and sustaining the institution that allows us to do all of that work. And there are two crucial elements of our efforts together in the coming year that will help us build the legacy of tomorrow.
First, is the work on mission/vision/covenant. The congregation is currently without an explicit mission, vision or covenant that is widely known or that most people use to guide their engagement with First Houston. This is not to say that the congregation is without a mission, vision or covenant. I believe that we have all three implicitly. However, as far as I can tell, First Houston has not consistently recited a covenant in its services since, in the early 1950s, it got rid of the one that read: “In the love of truth, and the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of Man.”
Our the next year, the Mission, Vision, Covenant Committee of the Board will be working to make what is implicit, explicit. This is exciting. It will empower you to clearly state how you promise to live together in community and what your vision is for the legacy of the congregation that you want to build. Well, done a congregational covenant can last for generations. My hope is that together we will be doing foundational work that will allow the impact of First Houston over the next 125 years to be even greater than it has been in our first 125 years.
Second, is the focus on multiculturalism, anti-racism, and inclusion. You might know that alongside the Mission, Vision, Covenant Committee, the Board has created a Transformation Committee. The purpose of this committee is to help the congregation decide on whether or not we will affirm the proposed Eighth Principle. That proposed principle reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
If we affirm that principle then the committee will help guide the congregation in doing so. Some people have objected to the proposed Eighth Principle because they say it is not necessary–that the aspirations of the Eighth Principle are firmly encapsulated in the existing seven principles. Let me suggest that the very legacy of this congregation proves otherwise. While we were the first historically White congregation to desegregate, and while we played a role in the civil rights movement, we have never really figured out how to live in our potential of building the Beloved, multiracial, community. Looking at the ways in which we have continued in the maintenance of predominantly White institution across the years and committing to not just welcome people of all colors into our congregation but dismantle racism has the potential of helping us live into our unfulfilled promise.
Building the legacy of tomorrow… The next year will likely prove pivotal in other ways. The Board is on the cusp of approving the PACE program and beginning the process of installing solar panels and greening the building. We hope to also start the process of tending to much needed capital improvements throughout the physical plant.
Building the legacy of tomorrow… I suspect that First Houston is prepared to thrive and offer a powerful shared ministry for generations to come. And so, here we reach the stewardship crescendo of the sermon. We need your support to do so. We are asking for an across the Board pledge increase of 18%. I know that can be a big stretch. And I suspect that many of you have a bit of sticker shock around it. But please know this, it is your support that will enable us to do the work before and build the legacy of tomorrow. With an increase in pledges we can put the congregation on firm financial footing and empower ourselves to have even more of an impact on the spiritual lives we share and the community we live in. I encourage you to be generous, not just for those present here today but to ensure that the legacy of this congregation endures well into tomorrow. Bob Schaibly used to suggest that you should give until it feels good. It is my hope that the opportunity to build the legacy of tomorrow will make you feel good indeed.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.