as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, August 15, 2021
It is good to be with you this morning. It is good to create this community together through word and song.
I know this rose will open.
I know my fear will burn away.
I know my soul will unfurl its wings.
I appreciate the confidence, the faith, that our hymn projects. It is a nice reflection of classical Unitarian theology. It suggests that the universe is ultimately friendly, that God is good, and that humanity is destined for continual progress. The nineteenth-century Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke summarized such a position when he described his faith as, using the gendered language of his day, a belief in: “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the continuity of human development in all worlds, or, the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”
Such faith is by no means unique to nineteenth-century Unitarians. I detect a similar sentiment in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century theologian Julian of Norwich’s words: “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”
It is present to in Marge Piercy’s poem “The Low Road.” There she provides the basic formula for any kind of organizing:
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organisation. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
There is a great deal of hope in such words. Who does not want pie for dinner?
I know this rose will open.
I know my fear will burn away.
I know my soul will unfurl its wings.
I have to admit that I am finding such faith difficult right now. The surge in COVID cases with the rise of the Delta variant, the recent UN report on the climate crisis (which General Secretary António Guterres named a “code red for humanity”), one political party clearly opposed to democratic practice and flagrantly dedicated to undermining public health, the other teetering on being incapable of desperately needed bold action… they form but a partial litany of the world’s horrors.
It is a bit challenging to squarely face that list and believe: “it starts when you care / to act.”
What about you? Are you finding faith in your human fellows or in the divine easy or hard right now?
We live in a period of great uncertainty. Do you feel it? It pervades much of my waking. The uncertainty of the hour is so great that, in truth, even the invocation of you, the rhetorical acknowledgement of the gathered community, is not uncomplicated.
It is good to see you. It is good to be with you. I offer you those sentiments entirely without irony. It is a joy to be before you and, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would have it, offering you something of my “life passed through the fire of thought.”
And yet, I must admit, when I wrote those words on Friday afternoon, it was challenging for me to imagine exactly who you are and where here is.
Let me explain. As a preacher, while preparing my sermon, I have long relied upon a certain level of knowledge of the congregation. When I sit down to write, I think about who you are and who is going to be in the pews when I enter the pulpit. Sometimes, I even stand here and imagine you in the sanctuary. I conjure up the family whose children are in religious education with mine. I envision the widower who recently lost his wife, the artist who is so excited about an upcoming show, the recent college graduate struggling with their first full-time job, the schoolteacher nearing retirement and contemplating what comes next, the new parents hoping to find a community in which to raise their children, the second time visitor who last week shared with me their excitement about finding Unitarian Universalism, the longtime member who is leaving the congregation for a cross country move so that they might be closer to their grandchildren…
On Friday afternoon, I had no real sense of who would be here with me in this sanctuary when I offered these words. Nor did I know who would be joining us online or where they would joining us from. It is hard to know what to anticipate week-to-week and to imagine who our congregation is on any given Sunday.
In the last five weeks, since returning to in-person services, the resurgence of COVID cases has prompted dramatic shifts in attendance patterns. On our first Sunday back we had almost two hundred people in the sanctuary between the two services. Last week, we probably had the same number of people join us for worship. I use the word probably because most of you who joined us did so online.
Where is your here? Most of you who are online, I understand, are someplace in the Houston area. But yesterday, I spoke with two members who are currently staying out of state. And there are individuals who comment or engage with the live stream on First Houston’s Facebook page–which somehow has now been liked by almost 11,000 people–from places like Maryland or as far as from Vietnam.
In such a situation, I find myself more than a little uncertain who I am preparing the sermon for, what exactly is going on in your lives, and what I am called to say. Should I be considering those of you I know will be in the pews? Those I imagine will be joining us online?
Nothing in my ministerial training quite trained me for this. Honestly, nothing in my life prior to March 2020 really prepared me for this. Like most of you, I grew up and spent most of my life operating under a series of assumptions about the predictability of the world.
Time was assumed to have its particular rhythm. Day followed day. Month followed month. Year followed year. All proceeded with something akin to the logic found in the ancient biblical text:
One generation goes, another comes,
But the earth remains the same forever.
The sun rises, and the sun sets–
And glides back to where it rises.
A season is set for everything,
a time for every experience under heaven.
Religious communities like ours have long been organized around an understanding that time consists of nothing so much as repeating patterns. No matter the tradition there is a sense that the wheel of the year and the wheel of life are supposed to follow a clear calendar and set cycle. Rosh Hashanah is followed by Yom Kippor is followed by Sukkot is followed by Hanukkah, Purim, Pesach… and then everything repeats. Advent proceeds Christmas. Christmas is followed by Epiphany. Then arrives ordinary time. It is interrupted by Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, only to resume before being broken by Advent again. Yule, Imbloc, Ostara, Beltane… Samhain, and then Yule again.
I could go on but whatever the tradition, such calendars are meant to create an experience of a universe infused with cosmic meaning and divine order. As the theologian Aidan Kavanagh once observed, they represent “faith in motion on certain definite and crucial levels.” The content of the faith varies greatly according to the community. The predictability that it offers, however, is likely to be a human universal.
First Houston is not so distinct from other religious communities. We have our own liturgical calendar, one that is suggestive of the motion of our faith and which ties us to our religious roots and the wider Unitarian Universalist community. Next week, we are supposed to be holding our annual water communion and ingathering.
The ritual itself is familiar to those of you who have attended this or almost any other Unitarian Universalist congregation in the past. Everyone is invited to bring some water that is special to them. We then pour these waters into a common bowl. The water is blessed and then used itself is for blessings throughout the year–memorial services, child dedications.
The ritual was created by two Unitarian Universalist women: Lucile Shuck Longview and Carolyn McDade. They chose water because it was “a universal symbol,” something that could represent the common mystery that is our lives. The mingling of the waters was meant to represent “our connectedness” and symbolize the ways in which our experiences–yours and mine–are shared when we gather together in community.
The service takes place when it does, at the end of summer because, historically, that is when many of us begin to come back together as the school year resumes and vacations end.
I will have rather more to share with you about the water communion and its roots in feminist theology next week. I mention it now because it is suggestive of the ways in which our sense of time and our liturgical calendar have been disrupted and continue to be disrupted by the pandemic. A few weeks ago, I had anticipated that the ingathering service and the water communion would be like they were during the before times. And now, well, I have no idea what they will be like.
What do you think it means for a religious community to regather when most of us will be gathering online rather than in person? What do you think it means to be a community that marks the beginning of the school year when many parents are, quite justifiably, anxious about bringing their unvaccinated children any place they do not absolutely have to? Most autumns, we could safely anticipate dozens of school age kids with us the first weekend of the school year. And now?
In the past, I have thought of our liturgical calendar as providing something of map for my preaching throughout the year. We have ingathering, a requiem for All Souls Day, bread communion for Thanksgiving, Advent, Winter Solstice, Christmas… Scott does a regular service, right after New Years, reflecting upon those who died in the previous year, a tradition that stretches back to at least the ministry of Bob Schaibly… there’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, services focusing on Black History and Women’s History months, the stewardship campaign, a spring music service, Earth Day, Mother’s Day, flower communion, and then summer services–tilted as they often are for people who are newly looking for a religious community.
It helps Scott and my preaching–and it certainly helps with Mark’s music planning–to know the topics of the sermons in advance. If I know what I am going to be preaching about I can research it, find the right sacred texts, and come up with a few clever stories, well in advance. And now?
If our liturgical calendar can be likened to a map for where we are headed each year as a religious community then I cannot help but think of what the map as metaphor might offer us in these strange days. Those of you who are under a certain age might not really remember proper maps. Most days, now, when we want to go someplace, we plug the address we are headed to into Google maps and are given directions that send us on our way. Google maps seem to represent a world in which every place in known and every destination has been found. If you are lost in, say, Mexico City–stuck someplace in Coyoacan and trying to get to a friend’s house in Xochimilco–you can discover the easiest way to get to where you are going provided you have the address where you are headed simply by punching it into your phone.
It did not used to be that way. It used to be that you figure dout where you were going by tracing out your path on a paper map. Twenty years ago, if I wanted to take that journey from Coyoacan to Xochimilco–I mention Mexico City here because twenty years ago I was spending a lot of time there–I needed to sit down and write directions out for myself. Walk this many blocks to that Metro station, take the train for several stops, transfer to another train, look for this bus, get off the bus, and then walk this many blocks, turning at that street and then this other one, before arriving at my friend’s house.
I do not know about you, but I used to spend a lot more time back then lost. Maps had edges. It was sort of easy to wander off the edge of them when you were in a new place. In fact, I mention Xochimilco precisely because whatever maps of Mexico City I had back then never seemed to contain full maps of that neighborhood. Subsequently, I always seemed to wander off the edge of the map when I went there and spent a good deal of time lost in that area.
My experience is not unique. In medieval Europe, mapmakers incorporated it into the maps they made. They are beautiful objects and if you have never seen one, I suggest you look one up on the internet, or better, see if you can find one floating around one of the area libraries and museums. At the edges of the maps the mapmakers would frequently place ornate drawings of dragons, sea monsters, and other fantastical creatures. In at least two cases, such illustrations were accompanied with the Latin words, “hic sunt dracones” or “here be dragons.”
Here be dragons, the words meant to suggest: wander off the edge of the map at your peril. After the edge of the map, the unknown. After the edge of the map, dangerous and brutal beasties beyond human control or even comprehension.
Here be dragons, if there is supposed to a rhythm to life, a temporal map of season following season, a liturgical calendar which points the way towards what we should anticipate as the wheel of the year spins and the wheels of our lives turn, then we have wandered off the edge of it.
Here be dragons, the pandemic and climate crisis, and, well, so much else. The thing I have come to realize, the thing that I am struggling to accept, perhaps the crisis of faith that I am having, is that there will be no real return to the before times. Ingathering next Sunday will mean something different than it ever has before. The virus will always be with us. We will adapt. But things will have been changed.
The environmentalist Bill McKibben has suggested that this change should be understood as a map of the world to come. Reflecting on the pandemic about a year back he wrote, “now we have some sense of what it’s like: a full-on global-scale crisis, one that disrupts everything.” All that had been held to be constant “shopping for food, holding a wedding, going to work, seeing your parents” shifts and “every assumption about safety and predictability upended.”
In such a period, it can be difficult to find much truth in words like: “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.” Or even have faith that someone like Marge Piercy is offering good advice when she tells us:
It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
Time is out of joint. And the liturgical calendar, with its sense of what we are supposed to be doing when we gather each week and its map for where we are headed as our planet circles the sun, week to week, month to month, and year to year, has been disrupted–perhaps permanently.
Stretch out your hands to me
don’t let the world blocked by my shoulder
disturb you any longer
if love is not forgotten
hardship leaves no memory
In such a time as this, I find myself struggling to muster that old Unitarian faith in “the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.” But I have also found a sense of renewal in a different part of our faith–that feeling, that sense, that we are better, stronger, together than when we are apart.
I cannot promise you a return to the world that we have known. We have traveled off the edge of the map. I cannot offer you a false sense of certainty or security. I know as little about what next week will bring as you do. If my task is bring you something of my “life passed through the fire of thought” then I must be honest that my life, like yours, has been greatly upended by all that has passed.
What I can offer you, and what this community can offer you, what Unitarian Universalism can offer you, whether you are here in the sanctuary or joining us online, is something different. It is the simple promise that we can travel together as a community through time. We can traverse the metaphorical and literal muck and mire that is to come, attempt to make our way as we stumble, not really knowing what will arrive next, through this unknown world with its upended calendars and time out of joint, together. And in being together, sharing something of all that is our lives, with the other members of this community, we can make each other’s burdens a little easier.
It is a simple promise and one that is repeated in the words of our closing hymn:
Let it be a dance we do.
May I have this dance with you?
Through the good times and the bad times, too,
let it is be a dance.
The dance we make need not follow a particular set pattern. It can respond to unfolding rhythms–the changes in tempo, the shift from melancholy to exuberant, from downbeat to upbeat to back again–that we encounter as we move along from unknown to unknown. And thus shared it can empower us to make it through the good times and the bad times too.
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance.
So that it might be a dance, I invite the congregation, both present in body and those of you at home, to say Amen.