Roots and Branches


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 11, 2022

It is good to be back in the pulpit. It is good to share this morning with you. It is a special morning for me. It is my first Sunday back from sabbatical. And it is my first time preaching to you or anyone else since we held our flower communion back in June.

I am glad to be with you, to see longtime members of our community and to have the opportunity to meet new ones. I understand we had quite a few visitors over the summer. And so, if you are visiting today, or you have been visiting since June, I hope you will come introduce yourself after the service.

Congregational life, if it is anything, is a conversation. Ralph Waldo Emerson described good preaching as “life passed through the fire of thought.” That is an apt description for our shared purpose. We come together to share our lives and collectively reflect upon what is most important to us. I share my word with you. You share your word with me. Together, living, reasoning, and loving the world we offer each other a little bit of what we have found out about what it means to be human. We honor the stories of those who have gone before. And we pass our own stories on to the coming generations.

These last months I have been absent from our discourse. I am eager to resume my place in it and learn what has been happening with you. How has it been with your hearts? I have visited with several of you this week. Rev. Scott thoughtfully left me a list of pastoral calls to make as soon as I came back, and I have been working my way through it. I know that this is a time, like most times I suppose, filled with a mixture of hope and anxiety, fear and joy, anticipation and dread, conflict and calm.

It is also a time for gratitude. We are here on this day. There is beautiful music. The sun shines. The live oaks on Southmore offer their evergreen shade and bless us with their steadfast company. A certain loveliness pervades the courtyard garden.

In this sanctuary there is company there is fellowship and friendship to be found. We have gathered to celebrate the life we share, the warmth of our community, and the fire of commitment. Here there is company for the lonely and the opportunity to seek truth and make beauty together.

The Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

In ordinary life we hardly realize that
we receive a great deal more than we give,
and that it is only with gratitude
that life becomes rich.

I want to offer you my gratitude this morning. I am very appreciative of the congregation for having provided me with a sabbatical. Offering them to ministers is standard practice for Unitarian Universalist religious communities. But that does not make me any less grateful for having had the chance to get away, get some perspective and respite, and engage deeply with research and writing.

These past couple of years have been times of record burnout for clergy across all traditions. The stress of COVID has meant that Unitarian Universalist ministers have been retiring or leaving the parish ministry in higher numbers that at any point in the past several decades. And I want to share that despite the difficulties of these times I have never thought about doing so.

You are the main reason why I have not. I believe our work together is important. And I feel very supported by you to do my part of it. Not just supported in that you gave me a sabbatical but supported that you have been encouraging throughout my time with you. I think that we are good conversation partners. I am grateful for that.

And I feel supported in that you have offered me this free pulpit to come back to. A free pulpit from which I can offer our tradition’s message of hope and love, a free pulpit from which I can proclaim the truth as best I can in a world increasingly haunted by untruths, a free pulpit where I can share my part of our ongoing dialogue about what it means to be human, to live and to die, and to struggle so that there might be a little more goodness in this world.

Gratitude, I am thankful to the staff and the Board for all that was done in my absence. I am especially thankful for the Sunday morning worship leaders and the ways in which they contributed to the collective conversation that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. I understand that services went well in my absence. And that you had the opportunity to gain something from the word and spiritual gifts of such fine guest preachers as Dr. Jason Oby, Bishop Carlton Pearson, Dr. Stephen J. Ray, Rev. Claudia Jimenez, and Rev. Erin Walter. And that when you were not being blessed by them, First Houston’s own Carol Burrus, Rev. D. Scott Cooper, and Dr. Jolie Rocke offered you some sustenance for the soul.

I certainly found sustenance for my soul while I was gone. My time was spent working on a book about contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology, a project I will be sharing with you in the coming months, and preparing for our upcoming FotoFest exhibition. I had the opportunity to visit the artist Libuše Jarcovjáková in her studio in Prague and work with her on selecting images for the show. We will be presenting her photographs of the T-Club, one of Prague’s two LGBTQ clubs in the 1980s. It was a time when Czechoslovakia was ruled by the Communist Party. Under the regime free speech and free thought were criminalized. It was technically legal to be gay, the Communists legalized consensual sex between people of the same gender in 1962, some forty years before the US Supreme Court struck down Texas’s sodomy law. However, living an open LGBTQ lifestyle marked someone as socially undesirable and led to a life of constant monitoring by the secret police. It was common for the police to charge LGBTQ people that they did not like with “gross indecency” or blackmail them.

Libuše documented the celebration of life that took place in the underground club she frequented in the midst of that oppressive society. There is joy, vibrancy, and love in her pictures. I think that it is important for us to share in our sanctuary now, at this time, when free expression is under threat in the United States and in Texas. At time when the state of Florida has passed its notorious Don’t Say Gay law and the state of Texas has targeted the parents of transgender children and banned the teaching of critical race theory, it is an act of dissent to use our sanctuary to show art from the LGBTQ community.

In addition to my visit with Libuše, I spent several weeks deeply immersed in fine libraries in Oxford, Manchester, and London reading, writing, and thinking about the origins and current contours of our movement. And I bring you greetings from the several member congregations of the British General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches that I visited while I was in the United Kingdom: the Cross Street Chapel in Manchester and the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in Hampstead Heath, both founded in 1662; the Newington Green Unitarian Church, dating to 1708; and the Oxford Unitarians, who since 1893 have been gathering for worship at Harris Manchester College, the former Unitarian college that is part of the University of Oxford.

Now, as I said at the outset, congregational life can be thought of as a conversation. And a religious tradition might be thought of a conversation between congregations. Communities that part of the same tradition agree upon what they will talk about–this set of scriptures, that set of concerns, this variety of rituals, that assemblage of divinities–and how their conversation will proceed.

Indeed, the great inflection points in Unitarian history often have occurred around the question of which conversations congregations will take part in. In New England, in the early nineteenth century, Unitarianism began its life as a separate denomination when conservative congregationalists decided that they no longer wanted to have liberal, non-Trinitarian, ministers be part of their conversation.

In Massachusetts the institution of pulpit exchange goes back to the earliest days of the colony. It was common amongst the first of the colonists’ congregations for ministers to swap pulpits on a regular basis. A minister might preach three weekends at his own congregation and then on fourth preach at the congregation of a colleague.

At the start of the nineteenth-century preachers like William Ellery Channing began to offer sermons that rejected the idea that human beings were innately depraved or that Jesus was a blood sacrifice to God. Instead, they told their congregations that the aim of religion was to help us grow in likeness to God.

The conservatives were not amused. They literally decided to stop talking to Channing and his ilk. The early Unitarians were disinvited from the regular conversations for ministers’ meetings. And people who did not like their theology refused to exchange pulpits with them. They were told, in essence, that they could no longer share a conversation with their former co-religionists because they did not share the same doctrinal beliefs.

Has that ever happened to you? Have you had an experience when you thought you were part of an ongoing conversation, a community, and then you were told you were no longer welcome in it? If you have then you might know that such an experience can be very painful.

The early Unitarians in New England certainly found it to be painful. So much so that as they consolidated our tradition into the distinctive movement it is today, they decided to organize their communities around the basis of covenant rather than creed. Creeds are statements of belief that set the boundaries of the conversation that forms a religious community. Covenants are promises we make to each other about how we will treat each other, and act in the world, as we proceed with our conversation.

I have been talking with you about the nature of our shared conversation because, in our remaining time together, I want to offer a bit of framing for what we will be discussing between now and June. As you might remember, Scott and I take a thematic approach to our sermons. With input from the staff, and in dialogue with many of you, we select a theme for worship for the year and then sub-themes for each month. We do this because it helps us to organize our thoughts and make our conversation a bit more structured.

Our Christian and Jewish friends follow liturgical calendars that are closely tied to their sacred scriptures. In both cases, their preaching schedules are dictated by a desire to read together, as a congregation, all of a given set of holy texts within a particular period of time. When they have completed this task, they start back at the beginning.

Unitarian Universalism has no such prescribed structure. Instead of taking the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament as the starting point of our faith, we root ourselves in “direct experience of … transcending mystery and wonder.” Then we try to figure out what our experiences mean. Do you know what I am talking about?

Our approach to theology works a bit like this: something happens to you; or, better, you do something; or, even better … there’s a moment, an event that feels substantive to you. It might be anything–a momentous incident: the birth of a child, the death of friend, a grand journey to another country, a great adventure–or something ordinary: the way milk swirls when it is poured into black tea followed by the glory of a sweet first sip, the bark of a tree which, in William Haskell Simpson’s words offer:

Something you say to me
That is under the earth.
Something you say to me
That is over the earth.

Whatever the case, the operative word here is “feel.” Mystery and wonder are not concepts that tie closely to rationality. They are related, instead, to that which is beyond words. They are connected to that famous interpretation by the poet Coleman Barks of the Sufi mystic Rūmī:

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make sense any more.

When we pick a theme for the program year, we try to carefully consider what is happening with First Houston and what is going on in the world. We try, as best we can, to get some sense of what you have been experiencing and what you might experience and how our words, and our collective worship, may help you make some sense of it all.

In the case of our congregation this means being very cognizant of the reality that we are entering into the third year of my five-year developmental ministry with you. You might remember that after the departure of your previous Senior Minister you decided, in conversation with the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that you were not ready to call another Senior Minister. There was some work you wanted to do and some things you needed to figure out, to talk about, before you elected a settled minister. So, you asked me to be in dialogue with you around a group of questions around the nature of congregational life. All of these questions have, in some sense, to do with a larger question: What kind of congregation is First Houston?

This program year is going to be a key year for answering that question. The Vision, Mission, and Covenant Committee is going to lead you in a series of conversations around developing a new vision, mission, and covenant for First Houston. Today they are holding the first of their focus group sessions after the service and I urge you to attend. If you cannot make it today, there will be other opportunities. Your individual input is important. The congregation will be voting to adopt a new vision, mission, and covenant at a special congregational meeting in January.

After that the Transformation Committee will begin a conversation about adopting the proposed Eighth Principle. It 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.” There will be discussions about incorporating this text into the Association’s Principles at its next General Assembly. And we will be voting on whether or not to affirm it at another special congregational meeting in May.

That is not all. This year we will also be talking about a much-needed capital campaign to handle deferred maintenance and possibly modify our campus.

These are big conversations in the life of a congregation. They will shape what it means to be part of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston for a generation or more to come. And so, the theme we selected to try to knit these conversations together is roots and branches.

Trees have long been important for religious metaphor. Various traditions speak of the tree of life. The Buddha found enlightenment while sitting underneath the Bodhi tree. Some Christians liken the cross to a tree. Often trees are taken to represent the totality of the world or of humanity or religious knowledge.

We picked the theme because this year we will be exploring the totality of our religious community. Where we have come from. Where we hope to go. The roots that ground us. The things that bind us together. The branches that we aspire to extend.

Trees, we hope, will provide some useful metaphors in this conversational effort. There are many similarities, after all, between congregations and trees. Both are entities that can grow across many generations of human life. Both form complicated ecosystems. The live oaks outside my office window are homes to mosses, tillandsia air plants, squirrels… so much life! The congregation hosts a couple of dozen communities within it: the Women’s group, the Justice Coordinating Council, the religious education program, the choir… so much vibrancy!

Both succeed best when they are part of a network. We gain much by being part of the conversation that is the Unitarian Universalist Association and participating in the larger dialogue that is the global Unitarian Universalist movement. Trees, as Robin Wall Kimmerer eloquently reminds us, are able to “‘speak’ to one another.” A forest, it turns out, is a network of entwined organisms communicating, learning, sharing councils together.

And that is, in the end, what I hope we will be doing: talking together about the nature of our communion, the deep concerns of each of us, and what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist community.

Congregational life is a conversation. I am grateful to be part of it and to be back to resume my part in our collective discourse. I am eager to hear what you have to say about the nature of our communion. What do you think it means to be part of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston? What makes you proud of our community? What dreams do you have for our future?

Congregational life is a conversation. This year we will be exploring roots and branches as we consider a new vision, mission, and covenant. This year we will be discussing be whether or not we are going to make an explicit commitment to dismantling white supremacy and other forms of oppression. Whether this is your first time here or your thousandth your words and wisdom are welcome as together we share something about what it means to be human, pursue beauty, offer each other companionship, and seek to bring more justice into the world.

That it might be so, I invite you to say Amen.

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