United for Love and Action


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, April 7, 2024

Bring your broken hallelujah here.
Bring the large one that is beyond
repair. Bring the small one that’s
too soft to share. Bring your broken
hallelujah here.

I appreciate the invitation from Unitarian Universalist minister Julian Soto to bring a hallelujah with you, be it large or small, to Sunday’s service.

The last few weeks, with encouragement from guest preacher Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, we have been trying to bring a little bit more enthusiasm, some more back-and-forth, into the Sunday service. Think of Rev. Soto’s words as prompting along those lines, a call to participate as you are moved, not worrying about getting it exactly right but instead mindful

… You are the gift.
We all bring some broken things, songs
and dreams and long lost hopes. But
here, together, we reach within.
As a community we begin again.

I am glad you are here, part of our community, for an hour or for a lifetime, sharing a bit of yourself with the rest of us. And if you want to offer up a broken hallelujah for that, please go ahead. And if you want to sit in silence, and take it all in, then you are free to do that too. And if you would prefer another word, another phrase, maybe something that feels a bit more comfortable, when something catches you in the sermon, or in the service–Dr. Rocke’s always dropping something powerful on us, the choir and band can get us movin’, and Chelsea, well, Chelsea’s got a gift… So, if you are grabbed by a bit of goodness on Sunday, or find yourself in agreement with what we have to offer, feel free to share a little “hallelujah,” “right on,” “Amen,” “yeah, that’s right,” or… Well, I leave the words to you.

… Bring your broken
hallelujah here. I know that people
have told you that before you can give
You have to get yourself together. They
overstated the value of perfection
by a lot. Or they forgot. You are the gift.

Do not worry exactly how it goes. We always growing and changing as a community. “You are the gift,” and I am glad you are here.

Bring your broken hallelujah
You are the gift
As a community we begin again.

This morning marks the launch of our annual stewardship campaign and with it my yearly sermon on the amount. I suspect that some of you look forward to it about as much as you do dental work–apologies to the dentists in the congregation–or public radio’s regular fundraising campaigns. I know that I have a tendency to change that dial when they come on. I hope that you are not having a similar reaction this morning.

In an attempt to dissuade you from changing that dial, I want to offer up a couple of Unitarian Universalist jokes to get the spirit moving. Since Rev. Cooper’s not here, I’ve enlisted Dr. Rocke as my foil.

How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a lightbulb?
At least three, and always an odd number, we have to insure that there can be a majority vote.

What is the greatest sin in a Unitarian Universalist congregation?
A discussion group where everyone agrees!

Jokes and broken hallelujahs aside, stewardship is a serious matter. If you have been around here awhile you probably know that. It is the generous contributions of the members that literally keep the lights on, the staff paid, and the building in decent shape. PBS stations often broadcast the statement, “public television stations rely on viewers like you,” during their fundraising campaigns. I could say the same thing about this congregation, “the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston relies upon congregants like you.”

Congregants like you, I have a lot of gratitude for the incredible generosity of First Unitarian Universalist’s members. Since I started with the congregation we have seen the total amount pledged to our annual campaign increase by more than 25%. People dug deep for the capital campaign. Thank you!

There has been enthusiasm for our ministry together, for our commitment to widen love’s circle. More people participate in First Unitarian Universalist’s Sunday morning programs now than have for a couple of decades. Most Sundays almost four hundred of you engage in worship, religious education, fellowship, or adult programs either in-person or online. Last week we had so many people attend our 11:30 a.m. Easter service that I am told latecomers had trouble parking.

Latecomers, incidentally, are often newcomers. On holidays like Easter or for special services such as the Flower Communion, I encourage those of you who have been coming here for awhile, and have young legs, to park over at the Asia Society or in the neighborhood, as a way of welcoming visitors. Visitors are much more likely to turnaround and go home if they do not find a parking spot nearby than those of you who are longtime members.

Longtime members, you all have probably heard quite a few sermons on the amount over the years. You know the routine and I know that because you love this community and you love each other you will undoubtedly continue to pledge generously. My sermon is not really for you, though I hope you will get something from it.

Instead, this morning, I want to offer a stewardship sermon that is of a different kind. It is an invitation into membership to all of you who are with us this morning, or watching online, who are not yet members of First Unitarian Universalist. There are a lot of you. Some Sundays more than half of the people who attend the 9:30 a.m. service are not members of the congregation. Today, I want to encourage you to unite with us for love and action.

United for love and action, that is the theme of this year’s stewardship campaign. And offering it up, and inviting friends and visitors into membership, I want to acknowledge that joining a Unitarian Universalist community can be daunting on at least two levels. It can be scary. And it can be unfamiliar.

Let me start with the scary part. As I mentioned in last week’s sermon, a number of people who visit a Unitarian Universalist congregation come looking for community but have religious trauma from their upbringing. The stories you share with me about it are always a bit different: left Southern Baptists; left the Mormons; left Orthodox Judaism; left Catholicism; left conservative Islam; even, on occasion, though admittedly I heard this more when I was in California, left a bona fide cult.

Why you left also varies. Maybe you are queer or trans and could not reconcile the reality that you were born beautifully who you are with a religious tradition that teaches there is something wrong with being other than cis-gendered and straight. Perhaps you developed new beliefs and decided that no one religious tradition has an exclusive claim on truth. It could be that you decided, as you became an adult, that in relation to the religion of your family of origin, whatever you believed it was not that! You know your stories.

And within them, if I am speaking to you, is often trauma. You come into a space like this where we teach that children are not born into original sin but as, as the theologian Matthew Fox likes to remind, original blessings, and well, the words of welcome sound good, the commitment to invite everyone into love’s circle seems right, the opposition to the politics of cruelty appeals, but it still does not feel safe.

On that point, before I go on, will you say something with me? “I am a blessing,” just those words, I invite you to say them with me, “I am a blessing.”

And so you are.

… You are the gift.
We all bring some broken things, songs
and dreams and long lost hopes. But
here, together, we reach within.
As a community we begin again.

As a community we begin again.

The scary part, for those of you with religious trauma, is not necessarily an intellectual exercise. You feel it in your body. You enter a space like this and your heart might start racing faster. You might feel anxious, hypervigilant, and start casting around for the doors. “Trauma is not the thing that happens to us,” writes Laura Anderson, a leading expert on religious trauma, “it’s our nervous system’s response to the thing that happens to us. It lives in the body … We can’t think it away.”

Religious trauma is not something that can be thought away. And here, I want to offer an apology. Our congregation is a religious pluralistic one. We have liberal Christian, atheist, humanist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and neo-pagan members. We have members whose theology I should be naming but have forgotten to include in my list–for any such list will always be partial. And we have folks on staff who are Christian, humanist, come from unchurched backgrounds, or were raised Unitarian Universalist. All of which is another way of saying, that in trying to honor the diversity of our religious community it is probable that at some time Rev. Cooper or I will say something, or Dr. Rocke is going to sing something, that activates your trauma.

When that happens I invite you to do something that I think will help. Say to yourself, “I am a blessing.”

And so you are. You are the gift.

You are the gift. As a community we begin again.

It is the hope of this community that we can be a space for recovering from religious trauma. Psychologists who study it offer some advice on how to approach healing from it. They suggest that you begin by being kind to yourself, by recognizing that road that has led you here has been rough and rocky and extend to yourself compassion and curiosity. Accept where you are on your process of healing, they advise, ask yourself why you are at that point, and consider what you might do to bring yourself further healing. Say, “I am a blessing.”

It might be that a recognition of where you are at in the healing process is what brought you into this sanctuary or prompted you to find us online. Recovering from religious trauma is rarely something that occurs alone. Abby Wong-Heffner, a therapist who works with people to address it, has observed that for people with religious trauma, “harm … abuse, occurred within community. Because of that … restoration [likely] cannot happen alone.”

It is probable that you are here because you decided that there is some truth to her claim for yourself. Of course, you do not necessarily need to be part of a religious community to find healing from religious trauma. Wong-Heffner refers her clients to everything from trivia nights to knitting groups and soccer teams, but as she remarks, congregation like ours can be a powerful way explore spirituality “in a way that feels safe.”

But with all of that, after all that some of you have been through, I understand that joining a religious community like First Unitarian Universalist can be scary. There is no rush. Take your time. Arrive early so you can get a good seat in back and sneak out before you have to talk to the preacher or so that you can walk on the far side of the receiving line. Know that the members of the congregation welcome you, know that you are part of the great family of all souls, a blessing, and when you are and if you decide to become a member we will embrace you. Be not afraid, for we want to be a place for healing for you. We do not demand theological conformity. We encourage it.

In that vein, hey, Dr. Rocke, what is the greatest sin in a Unitarian Universalist congregation?
A discussion group where everyone agrees!

The second group of you who might be considering membership this morning come from a different section of the population. You are not healing from religious trauma because you are what scholars have taken to calling a “none.” You grew up outside of a religious tradition and when the US Census asks you about your affiliation you put down “none.” For some reason or another, you what to explore your spirituality, you are seeking community, you want to hear good music on a Sunday morning, you are looking for something to do before brunch, you have come to First Unitarian Universalist. You have been back a few times. You like it here. The music, the message, or the coffee in the fellowship hall appeals to you.

There is a loneliness epidemic on. People are spending less time with each other in person. A lot of us lack a close friend with whom we can confide in. Many of us live by ourselves. And the music, the word, widening love’s circle, well, First Unitarian Universalist is a place where you can feel less alone and more connected.

So, you are here but not being familiar with a congregation, you find yourself a bit bewildered by the way everything works or what it means to be a member. Each Sunday we try to make this easier and provide an opportunity to learn about it all through our Inquirers Series. Each week, seated in Channing Hall, you will find a different representative of the community facilitating a discussion on membership 101, religious education and adult programs, music, social justice, congregational polity–how Unitarian Universalists govern themselves–, the nature of worship, or Unitarian Universalist history and theology. We ask that visitors attend three such sessions before becoming members. We also offer them online on Thursdays, for our friends who participate virtually or find Sunday morning overwhelming.

During the Inquirers Series sessions you can ask questions and share a bit of your own story. Often times they can be a good opportunity to meet others who are curious about membership and talk to one of the staff members. Rev. Cooper, Dr. Rocke, Carol, Margarita, all lead different ones.

There are a couple of other steps to the membership process. We ask that you meet with me, the Senior Minister, so that I can get to know a bit about you and that you can ask me any questions you might have about First Unitarian Universalist or our tradition.

Now, I understand that this can be a bit intimidating. So, in an effort to make it a bit less intimidating, you do not have to think of it just as a meeting with the Senior Minister. Think of it as an opportunity to talk with someone who really likes his cat, his name is Biscuit and he’s a tuxedo cat with a sweet purr. Or the chance to talk with a person who enjoys gardening, I am not sure what we did but our Meyer lemon tree is thriving. Or… my guess is that we have something in common other our religious inclinations. I am happy to talk about whatever that is with you when we meet as well as the nitty gritty of religious life together.

Life together, the last major step in the membership process is making a commitment to pledge to support the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. This, as I mentioned earlier, is the sermon on the amount, and what I am hoping is that some of you who are new here will be inspired this stewardship drive to take the plunge, join the congregation, and make a pledge.

I am encouraging you to become a member and unite with the existing membership for love and action. At present, First Unitarian Universalist has about 280 members and 226 pledging households. Together, this fiscal year, our pledging households committed almost $630,000 to sustain the life of First Unitarian Universalist. We are hoping that this year’s stewardship campaign is going to raise at least $700,000. We are asking our existing members to consider a 5% increase their pledge commitments. With inflation everything is getting more expensive. Three years ago our property insurance was under $20,000. This year it is forecast to be close to $65,000.

But what we are really hoping is that some of you who are what we call contributing households will join with our membership and make a pledge. Right now, we have over 130 contributing households. That’s more than half our number of pledging households. Contributing households are exactly what they sound like. They are people who have made a financial contribution to support the life and work of First Unitarian Universalist but have not yet made a pledge.

In recent years, with our existing pledging households, First Unitarian Universalist has accomplished a lot for love and for action. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Alice Blair Wesley reminds us, “it matters most what we love.” And in our congregation we try to live out her words. For the sake of love, we have provided a space to raise children in welcoming and inclusive environment. For the sake of love, we have created fellowship and the opportunity to foster friendship at a time when connecting is more difficult than ever. For the sake of love, we have done our best to take care of each other–every week members visit each other in the hospital, provide each other rides to doctors’ appointments, extend compassion and care. For love, say it again, “I am a blessing,” we offer up a space where you can explore spirituality with the hope that through our explorations you will find a path–not the path, a path–to connect that which is greater than all but resides within each.

Uniting in action, First Unitarian Universalist has made a difference in Houston and beyond. Recently, our members convinced The Metropolitan Organization, a large interfaith organization that includes the Catholic archdiocese, to commit to combat the takeover of Houston’s public schools. Each election cycle, we mobilize dozens of volunteers to contact thousands of people to get out the vote. Every year we take on community service projects. We have restored affordable housing in Freedman’s Town and helped homeowners stay in their homes through Rebuilding Houston Together. We are working hard on making sure that children get fed this summer when, a result of the state’s politics of cruelty, thousands of kids will go hungry because Texas is refusing federal money for food assistance. We are… if I stood up here and tried to name all of the work that the members of First Unitarian Universalist have done in the community it would take me at least another ten minutes. Even then, I am sure would leave something out.

We do all of that with just 280 members and 226 pledging households. Imagine the impact we could have on the city and each other if just 10% of our contributing households committed to pledge and become members? If 20%? If, dare we dream, 50%? That would put us well on our way to being a major force for love and action in a city, and a state, that desperately needs such forces.

Hey Dr. Rocke, how many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a lightbulb?
At least three, and always an odd number, we have to insure that there can be a majority vote.

Here is one final thing. First Unitarian Universalist a democratic community. It is the members who elect the settled Senior Minister, the Board, and decide on major statements about congregational life like our vision, mission, and covenant. In a state that is becoming ever more authoritarian, First Unitarian Universalist is a place where through discussion and collective decision making you can learn a practice of democracy that you can apply in other parts of your lives. Learn how to run a meeting and take that skill to your school or your workplace. Figure out how to have a discussion across lines of difference and model how to invite many kinds of people into a conversation.

The more of you who are members the stronger our democratic practice becomes. Together we can discover through our communal work what it means to live in a democratic society and then we can share that discovery with others. But that kind of engagement is best done by those who have made the commitment of membership.

And so, this morning, I hope that I have encouraged some of you who are considering membership to take the next step. Imagine what we could do together! And I hope I have inspired those of you who are already members to do what you can to sustain our beloved community. But if I have not, please know, that I am still so glad that you are here.

You are the gift.
Bring your broken hallelujah here.

So, please say it with me, one last time, “I am a blessing.”

I am a blessing, that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

About the author


Add comment

By cbossen

Follow Me