as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 21, 2021
Today marks the beginning of our annual stewardship drive. It also marks the one-year anniversary of when we moved our services and our programs–really the totality of our life together–online. As I reflect back upon the past year of hardship, and as I reflect upon stewardship, I find myself drawn to three intertwined lessons that we would do well to consider in relationship to each other and in the days of our lives. First, so much of suffering is social. Second, the salvation we seek is, likewise, social. Third, our congregation can make a difference in lessening suffering and in the pursuit of social salvation.
I will focus my remarks on those three lessons shortly. But, before I do, I want to pause and acknowledge something I have admitted in the past. I have no real idea who makes up our online congregation. The viewership data we have about the people who watch our online services is rather sketchy. What I know is that many more people have viewed our online programs in the last year then ever would have set foot on either of our campuses when we were meeting in person. Our main Facebook page now has more than 7,000 followers and somewhere in the range of 6,000 households have engaged with us on YouTube since the start of the pandemic.
Despite the expanded size of our virtual community, I am aware that a number of First Houston’s longtime members and friends are not engaged with our online worship. In recent weeks I have had a number of conversations with some of them that follow a similar a format.
We encounter each other at an outdoor social justice or social service event. Maybe they are working at the Big Inspiration Garden and helping to replant and reseed in the wake of last month’s traumatic winter storm. Perhaps they are swinging a hammer or climbing a ladder and repairing one of the houses owned by the Yates Museum. Whatever the case, our dialogue takes a predictable turn.
We begin by talking about the activity that they are engaged in. They tell me that the project is something that reflects their Unitarian Universalist values. They are glad the congregation is committed to it. We talk a bit about how they are doing: the long loneliness of the pandemic, the horrors and traumas of the year, missing family and friends, and longing for a return of something resembling the before times (with regular Sunday morning gatherings, excursions to the theater, economic certainty, and, well, so much more). They ask how I am doing and how First Houston is doing. I talk about the pandemic haze (the way in which each day seems to blend into another and how the circle of my life has shrunk to a handful of people) and the ways in which my son has been handling the pandemic. And I mention you, the people who view these services and what I know about you and what I do not. I tell them that seventeen of you have joined since September. That you seek the same things from our religious community that they seek: a space for free thought, a tradition that, in Teresa Soto’s words, is comprised of “the people who return to love like a North Star and to the truth that we are greater together than we are alone,” religious education for your children, companions on life’s journey with whom you can connect during these times of disconnection, radical acceptance for you no matter who you love, words of inspiration and comfort, the power that arrives through working together for justice, or anything from the long litany of that which compromises who we are as Unitarian Universalists.
They respond with a sheepish admission. They tell me that they have not been watching the online services regularly. When the pandemic hit, they viewed our worship on a weekly basis but little-by-little, as it wore on, they got out of the habit. Committed Sunday morning viewing shifted to Sunday afternoon and then became postponed to a bit later in the week and soon slipped to every other week and not that often and now when was the last time they heard a sermon? They are still devoted to First Houston. They participate in social justice activities. They make regular donations to sustain the community. And they cannot wait to get back into our sanctuary in Richmond or in the Museum District and celebrate life and love and all that we lift up. But right now it is just not the same.
This leaves me, the preacher, in a somewhat strange situation. I do not really know who I am preaching to. This presents me with something of a challenge. Almost every Unitarian Universalist text on the art of the sermon that I have ever read contains a statement like Scott Alexander’s that preaching is a conversation between “these people who fill the pews” and the preacher. Experienced parish ministers such as Jane Rzepka’s and Ken Sawyer’s advice, “When preparing a sermon, imagine the listener’s environment and locate your writing.” I wonder how exactly to do that. I ask myself: Who should I be imagining is hearing my words? Who is not hearing them? Who I am in conversation with?
I suggest to you that my experience is typical of many people throughout this pandemic. My engagement with our congregation and the wider world has been reduced, in many ways, to acts of imagination. In the before times, I might have interacted with, had a casual minute-or-four conversation with, two hundred folks affiliated with First Houston during the course of the week. In these times, I am lucky if I interact with thirty. The group of two hundred tended to vary a great amount from week-to-week, there were longtime members and first-time visitors, colleagues who dropped by while they visited family who live in the area, people who wandered in from the neighborhood and others who drove in from far away. The set of thirty is far more stable. It consists of Board members and the staff, the people who are part of my regular discussion group “Texts for Troubled Times,” whoever needs pastoral care that week, the occasional new member or inquirer about First Houston, and a few individuals from our partner social justice organizations.
My experience is one of fragmentation and imagination. The religious community has fragmented into small clusters: this group of friends walks together regularly, that group labors in one of the gardens, this other group assembles online weekly for meditation, a fourth groups works on the houses of the Yates Museum, and yet another group comes together to mentor youth in the religious education program. Each group has their own sense of where our congregation is at, how it has fared throughout the pandemic, and where it is headed. Each now only imagines the whole. The totality of congregational life–whether at our Museum District or Richmond campus–becomes an extrapolation, almost a dream, a story, rather than the old, embodied, truth of people gathering together in the pews and sharing the days of their lives.
The story is different for each of us, or perhaps each group of us, and it will continue to be different until such time as we can gather on our campuses and truly worship together. When we do, we will continue to offer online worship–albeit in a slightly different form–for those of you who have found us in these days and live far away or prefer to watch videos of the sermons. But for now, I want to ask those of you were members and friends before we transitioned to online worship to do one thing. After the end of this service pick up the phone and call, or text, someone you know from First Houston who does not regularly participate in virtual congregational life. Invite them, maybe even cajole them a little, to watch this week’s sermon on stewardship. The end of the pandemic is within the imaginable future. It is time for us to bring together the fragments of our communal life into a whole again. We do that through the shared experience of worship. So, I suggest that you not only call them and encourage them to watch this service. I suggest that afterwards you ask them what they thought of it. You could comment on how ridiculously long my hair has become. But far more importantly, you might ask them to reflect on what they think of the ministry of our congregation in these times. Perhaps, you could query: What is First Houston called to do during in these extraordinary days? Or maybe, what aspect of our ministry will be most important in the coming months? Together you might share a little bit of your own stories of congregational life. A congregation is, after all, partially a shared narrative, a common identity, and by speaking with someone has become a bit disconnected from the life of worship you might begin to bring the fragments of the community back together again.
The community will be coming back together again. This is the place in the improbable arc of the pandemic we have found ourselves. The scientific miracle of vaccination suggests that soon–not tomorrow in but a few months–we will have Sunday services at both our campuses again. Oh, how I long for those days! To see your faces! To know who I am in conversation with! But for now, I want to invite you begin to imagine not just your experience of our life together as it is now, in its fragmented form, but as it will be. What might we accomplish? What dreams might we pull from the ethereal realm of minds and the loving realm of hearts and build into enfleshed reality?
This brings me to the theme of this year’s stewardship campaign, “Growing in Generosity, Rooted in Faith,” and the three intertwined lessons from these past twelve months. Those lesson again: one, so much of suffering is social; two, the salvation we seek is, likewise, social; and three, our congregation can make a difference in lessening suffering and pursuing social salvation.
The French have a saying, which I will not attempt to render on my rusty tongue, called the spirit of the stairs. It evokes the thing that you wish you had said after a conversation has ended–the idea that comes to you as you leave your friend’s apartment and walk down the stairs. It occurred to me that we got the theme of our stewardship campaign backwards. It might have been better written, “Rooted in Faith, Growing in Generosity.” It is our faith in the power of our communion and community, I suspect, which comes before generosity.
And this year, in these extraordinary times, we are asking you to have faith in the proposition articulated by the Unitarian Universalist minister Victoria Safford, “Ours is a saving church, and by that I mean that lives are saved within it.” We are asking you to have faith in the power of this congregation–be it virtual or in-person–to make a difference for the better. And by that we really asking you to have faith in yourselves and what we can do together.
Here we reach the first of our lessons from the past year. So much of suffering is social. When I reflect on my own struggles since the pandemic began I think about how they have often been the result and the reflection of things we do together. And in this instance when I say “we” I mean humanity. For what has the pandemic between but a testament to the ways in which we are collectively connected? It travelled quickly across the globe and then across the country and then spread throughout communities precisely because of that well-worn truth spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
It should be impossible to deny now that, as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper said, “we are all bound up together.” The horror of the pandemic has been an apocalyptic horror. It has revealed the structures that shape suffering. The poor have suffered, and continue to suffer, more than the rich because of choices that we have collectively made. I have spoken on this subject so much in the past months that I will be silent on it now and rather than remind you of another instance of the ways the horrors of the past year are the consequences of what we do to each other–through the intentionally created systems of white supremacy, economic, ecological, and gender exploitation–I will pass onto the happier subject of social salvation.
If, so much of our suffering is social, so much of what saves us is social as well. That is one of the core messages of our faith–one of the things that we are called to be rooted in right now. It is only through collective effort that we can shift the horrors of the hour. The pandemic is only being overcome–after far too many deaths and far too much illness–through the heroic work of literally millions of people cooperating together. Scientists have collaborated to develop vaccines in unprecedented time. Manufacturers have mobilized to produce them on a scale never imagined before. Trucker drivers, airplane pilots, warehouse workers, dockers, train engineers, and couriers of all kinds are taking the precious life saving cargo and ensuring that it is distributed to every corner of the country. Health workers and volunteers are making sure that vaccines are distributed into more than two million arms a day.
I could mention here all of the evil–all of the suffering–that remains to be overcome, the disparities between wealthy countries and the rest of the world when it comes to vaccine distribution. The way in which vaccines have unjustly been distributed along racial and economic lines. All the work that remains to be done. But that would miss my own point. And that is this, the miraculous effort of the last months proves that if the best part of humanity unites there is much that can be saved.
This lesson in social salvation is one is that we must carry forth, that we are called to share, in the coming years as all the peoples of the world face the same rising crises that we have been confronted with: the global assault on democracy, the resurgence of white supremacy–which really is white male supremacy–and the climate catastrophe. These extraordinary times of difficulty and dissolution and of miracle and cooperation have not taught that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Instead, they have taught that we human beings have the possibility within us of coming together, of working together, to bend it toward justice. Nothing is promised to us. It is only our cooperative effort, our social effort, that can empower us to place good above evil and lessen the suffering in the world.
We must remember this if we hope to lessen the ongoing crises of the hour. I have faith that we can. I have because this past year, difficult as it has been, almost impossible as it has been, heartbreaking, heart wounding, isolating, shattering, as it has been has shown that we humans have the capacity to come together and begin to surmount the insurmountable.
I preach slightly falsely here for my enthusiasm, my hope, for the end of the pandemic gets ahead of the truth of where we are at. We are not yet able to safely gather. I have not yet been vaccinated. Many of you have not been vaccinated. We all still need to wear masks and keep our physical distance. But my faith in the power of human hands and human hearts has been stirred mightily and I can imagine the end of the present tragedy. What about you?
This brings me to my final lesson of the pandemic. Our congregation can make a difference in lessening suffering and in the pursuit of social salvation. Over the past year many of you have written to me and to Rev. Scott to tell us that First Houston’s services have been a lifeline, that they have helped you get through these times, that they have brought some joy, some beauty, and some connection into your life and made you feel a little less isolated. Others of you have celebrated the justice work we have done: working with The Metropolitan Organization to get millions of dollars of rental relief to those threatened with eviction; making tens of thousands of contacts with voters in the lead up to the election; distributing 14,000 liters of water to hundreds of households after the arctic storm; empowering Black run community gardens and a Black owned a small family farm to continue to provide food in a food desert… There is a longer litany here but that is not the point. The point is our collective effort has made a difference in the lives of so many. Cornel West likes to say, “justice is what love looks in public.” In the past year–and indeed throughout the history of both of our campuses–we have provided a testament that we are community that holds onto “love like a North Star.”
And here, I invite you again, to reach out to someone who you know is disconnected or who you have not connected with recently and do something to lessen their suffering. Give them a call. Remind them that are not alone. Remind them that they do not need to struggle alone. Make a difference in their life, and in yours, by letting them know that they are important to you. We are a community committed to loving each other and loving the pain the out of the world. We can each do our part to make it a less biting. And if you feel like you do not have someone to call let the church office know and we will make sure that one of the ministers calls you.
We Unitarian Universalists do not focus on the world to come. We focus on bringing more joy, more love, more beauty into this one. Our congregation exists to do just that. In this moment, we are called to have faith that collectively we will bring greater joy, greater love, greater beauty, and greater justice onto the planet we inhabit.
This brings me to the sermon’s crescendo. These are extraordinary times. We have been called as a community to do the most extraordinary thing: be a congregation that saves lives, not in the next world, but in this one. I want to invite you this year to deepen your faith and grow in your generosity. Many people right now are struggling financially. And so, if you have the capacity to do so, I encourage you to make pandemic pledge. If you have been blessed to work throughout the last year and have received a stimulus check, think about giving part of your stimulus check. If have saved money because you have not been able to take a vacation, think of giving part of what you would have spent on your travels. If the stock market has been good to you, think about giving something extra from your market earnings. We have set a goal of $650,000 this year. It is higher than last year’s goal and if you can help us to reach it you can empower First Houston to do something special: grow in our capacity to bring more justice, which is to say bring more love, into the world.
Remember at the start of my sermon when I spoke with you about the thousands of people our message has reached in the last year? Your faith in this community and your generosity can help us to reach them. And if you are one of those thousands of people, and you have not pledged or made a contribution to First Houston I would like to invite you to do so now. We can build a more beautiful world. We can build it together.
What we do, the faith we have, the generosity we share, matters greatly. In these times, and for the end of this sermon, I can think of no better words to finish on than those of Dorothy Day:
People say, what is the sense of our small effort.
They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.
A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that.
No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless.
There’s too much work to do.
Hearing those words, I invite the congregation, absent in body but present in spirit, to root yourselves in the faith that together we can, together we do, make a difference and grow in your generosity.
Amen and blessed be.