Renew, Rebuild, Rejoice!


Renew, rebuild, rejoice! This morning we officially launch our capital campaign. The goal is to raise $2.4 million to remodel and restore our campus. After the campaign, our facilities will be updated and refreshed. The building will be greener; the A/V system in the sanctuary modernized and the organ restored; the playground redesigned; the website upgraded; the religious education classrooms remodeled; the…

Well, the truth is that a lot will be done. The campaign includes more than forty different items. The list is the result of the almost Herculean efforts of the facilities team to assess our needs. They spoke with numerous members and much of the staff. They worked with a design company to develop a master plan. They held town halls. Then they worked with the stewardship team to survey members and friends and conduct house meetings. All told, more than a hundred of you have been involved in naming the needs and priorities of this campaign. It is, more than anything, already a reflection of your commitment to First Unitarian Universalist and our devotion to widening love’s circle.

And it because of that commitment that I can announce, as we launch our campaign, that we already have more than a million dollars in pledge commitments. That, incidentally, is meant to be an applause line.

Renew, rebuild, rejoice!

A few months ago, I preached a sermon on joy. In it, I shared with you a bit about the word, “Hallelujah.” Do you remember? Hallelujah, I offered, is one of the oldest religious words. It’s a mash-up of two Hebrew words, “hallel”–to praise–and “jah”–signifying God.

Hallelujah, can we say it together? It is a word that has been used to express gratitude in joyful worship, for the joy of being alive, for the joy of being together, for the joy of having something to celebrate, for a hundred generations. Hallelujah!

God is a bit of a tricky word with us Unitarian Universalists. Some of us are atheists. Others are religious humanists. Still others are theists, liberal Christians, Buddhists, neo-pagans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, or… There is a lot of theological diversity within our community. Some of you have trauma from other religious communities that you have belonged to. The word God can bring up stuff that you would prefer stays in the past. Others find comfort within it.

I have always found the Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church’s advice on the matter to be rather helpful. He wrote, “‘God’ is not God’s name. Referring to the highest power we can imagine, ‘God’ is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.” We are all challenged to understand that thing that “is greater than all” in our own fashion. Some of you might prefer to lift up the Goddess or the feminine divine. Others might find comfort in conceptions that are rooted in Hebrew–Adonai, Elohim, Avinu Malkeinu. Another group might be caught by Islam’s ninety-nine names for Allah–Al-Kabir, Al-Hadi, Al-Bari, Al-Fattah. Or prefer the Hindu pantheon–Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Ganesha, Kali. Or choose to speak of the stars, the almost impossible miracle of life, the way in which, in the dark of the night, lights glitter off the coast as ocean crashes over sand, or the feeling of connected grounding you sometimes have when…

Hallelujah, when we use the word, I invite you to understand the “jah” in your own fashion. Maybe, if you do not like the word God, think of jah as being. Or call to mind the awe-inspiring images from the James Webb Space Telescope–countless pinpricks of light awash in prismatic celestial dust.

Hallelujah, praise being! Hallelujah, praise the stars!

I am trying to bring a bit of joy into our sermon this morning. The launch of our capital campaign should be a joyous event. As near as I can figure, First Unitarian Universalist has had four significant such campaigns before. Right around World War I, the congregation bought its first building, a house over at Bagby and Rosalie. Then in 1931, funds were raised to purchase this plot–the Board’s President at the time, it is interesting to note, was one Dr. Walter L. Cronkite, father of the famous television journalist. A small one room church was built. It served as a space for worship until the early 1950s when a campaign was held to build the sanctuary in which we are now gathered and the rooms that currently house our nursery. The next capital campaign did not take place until the mid-1990s. It created Channing Hall, the courtyard, and the second and third floor rooms and offices.

Each of these four campaigns have one thing in common. They all marked new eras of growth and dynamism. A little more than a decade after the first one the membership had grown so large that the church building itself was insufficient for services. Instead of meeting in its sanctuary, the congregation met in what’s now Hotel ZaZa. Within a couple of years of moving to this lot, the congregation expanded so much that some religious education classes had to be moved off site until the buildings could be expanded. After the sanctuary and old religious education wing were constructed in the 1950s, membership grew to its highest ever level–more than eight hundred–and a second Unitarian Universalist congregation, Emerson, was started to accommodate all of the people who were attracted to our liberating message. The years after campaign in the mid-1990s saw the greatest period of membership growth since the early 1950s.

Renew, rebuild, rejoice! Hallelujah!

Capital campaigns are about the future. They come because we cast a vision of what could be. We could have a fresh, new, playground. We could have a green building. We could have an even more beautiful sanctuary. We could… Here at First Unitarian Universalist, we have started speaking of widening love’s circle. The phrase is partially inspired by the words of Universalist poet Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

The space we create together is a physical manifestation of our intention to widen love’s circle. An attractive, welcoming, building offers an inviting space for visitors. It communicates that the congregation is investing in its future and intent on thriving into the next years. It also suggests that we are devoted to being a resource for the wider community by providing a location, in the heart of Houston’s cultural center, where organizations and groups devoted to the common good can rent rooms and further their own missions.

Our mission statement names our desire to be “a pillar congregation for Houstonians of many faiths and build the Beloved Community.” Tending to our physical plant, not just for ourselves but as a resource for the wider community, is one way that we do that. You might not know it, but in addition to our own congregation, our campus provides a place for a synagogue, several support groups for domestic abuse survivors, and a daycare. And that’s just regular renters. Numerous other community groups rent from us on an occasional basis. Over our long history, we have used our facilities to serve as an incubator for important Houston institutions. Both the Houston Zen Center and HATCH Youth, Houston’s oldest program devoted to empowering LGBTQIA+ youth, started on our grounds.

Rev. Cooper and I have often spoken with you about the ways in which the state of Texas is governed by those who appear to be devoted to the politics of cruelty. Almost every week I am shocked by what seems to be their narrow vision. In place of the common good and the compassionate heart, they seem ever ready to uplift private gain and inhumanity. Rather than concern for the future–what world will we leave for the next generations–they seem committed to maximizing the wealth of the wealthy in these times.

Inhabiting my scholarly role for a moment, I think we can go so far as to say that we live in an illiberal state. Illiberalism is a political practice which retains the form of liberal democracy but strips it of its actual content. In an illiberal society, there are elections and there are laws and there are courts, all of the trappings of a liberal democratic society, but there is little respect for political minorities or human rights. One party holds power and does all it can to game the system to ensure that its grip is unfaltering. Opposition strongholds are undermined through legalistic ploys–and here I admit to thinking of TEA’s takeover of HISD. Its actions increasingly appear to be a prelude to the statewide destruction of public education in the name of school choice. Partitioners of dominant religion seek to inflict their moral vision, however limited it might be, on the rest of society. In Texas that means that evangelical understandings of human sexuality are imposed upon the rest of us. Women are stripped of reproductive rights and prevented from accessing healthcare. LGBTQIA+ communities are legally marginalized and targeted. Books are banned.

Love’s circle is not widened. It is contracted.

We Unitarian Universalists have long held a different vision. If my ministry with you has had a thesis statement it is that strong Unitarian Universalist communities have the power to change the world. At their very best our congregations do more than provide spaces for deepening spirituality, growing fellowship, or increasing connection to community. At their very best our congregations actually transform society.

Our first reading this morning was meant to lift up that potential. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Community Church in New York was one of the most important institutions in the United States. You will note that I did not just use the adjective religious. Yes, the congregation was noted for its powerful, theologically innovative, and spiritually stirring services. A few thousand people flocked there each week to hear inspiring sermons and vibrant music. People like Pete Seeger joined. Leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois spoke. “[T]he free spirit,” as the congregation’s Senior Minister, John Haynes Holmes, named it, was palpable and “the Spirit of Love incarnate in human fellowship” could be felt.

But more than that, the congregation was devoted to the prospect of building “the Beloved Community” for all humanity. It took as its purpose “dedication to a better life in this world” and the construction of “the [cooperative] commonwealth.” And with that purpose, with that mission, its members provided the physical space and much of the initial organizing impetus for two of the most important civil rights organizations of the last decades. The ACLU and NAACP were both founded within the walls of the Community Church. And much of the money and initial leadership of those organizations came from the people who attended its Sunday services.

Widening love’s circle, think on that for a moment. What would the world be like without either the ACLU or the NAACP? How much good have they brought into the world?

Renew, rebuild, rejoice! Hallelujah!

In contrast to the politics of cruelty, our tradition offers space for religious pluralism and what I sometimes name the resurrection of the living, the waking up to the world as it is, the proposition that there is power and joy to be found in the possibility of human goodness, a call, as the Unitarian Universalist poet Atena Danner, puts it, “to breathe together.”

A conspiracy dancing,
a dance of need and met need,
request and offering:
Feeding each other.

The holy vision that she offers us is a call to reject the politics of cruelty and build a more beautiful world. Is not our vision to be found in words like:

What if we open the airways?
What if we unblock
the hands that feed us?

A conspiracy dancing, it is our task to be the kind of congregation that widen’s love circle rather than contracts it. In our times, this is no easy labor. It is hard to proclaim the power of love or the potential of a more beautiful world when the spiteful reign and seek to further mar Earth’s glorious sphere. It is difficult to be a space for embracing all when our society seems ever more divided and so many communities strive to be more exclusive rather than more inclusive. But our tradition calls us on.

Here, I cannot help but be reminded of some of the most famous words ever offered in Houston. You probably know them. They were uttered by John F. Kennedy, right down the street, in Rice’s stadium, as he sought to inspire stellar exploration. He told the gathered crowd, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

We choose to do these “things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Our endeavor is nothing on that scale. But it is not easy to widen love’s circle in a society where some wage a “war on woke.” Nor is it easy to build and sustain the kind of religious institution that help us to grow our souls and bring more beauty into the world.

But this is the task we have, collectively, taken up together. It is the task we have set for ourselves in this capital campaign. It is the task to which we are invited into this morning and every morning we gathere.

Four times the congregation has undertaken a major capital campaign. Four times those campaigns have led to growth, dynamism, and helped to build a community that serves not only its members but all of Houston. Today we embark on a fifth such effort. It might not be easy. It might be hard. Raising $2.4 million is not a simple task, even if we already have over a million dollars committed. But I am confident we can do it and in doing so further live into our charge to widen love’s circle.

Renew, rebuild, rejoice! Hallelujah!

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