as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, August 22, 2021
This is the second year in a row that our annual ingathering service has taken place under difficult, uncertain, circumstances. Last year, our service took place entirely online. This year, some of us have gathered in-person and others of us are participating via our livestream. This year, like last year, as the pandemic has unfolded, we had adapted and adjusted our service as best we can to respond the situation while retaining its core rituals.
All of this has required a certain of willingness to consistently reimagine what our worship looks like and the structure of our liturgy–the set of things we do in our services. Concerns about transmission of the Delta variant led Mark and I to make a significant change to today’s gathering only yesterday. As he told you earlier, today was supposed to be the start of the choir season. The first in-person choir performance in over a year was going to be a joyous occasion, for certain. It would have been a marker that we had returned to something resembling the before times. And now…
Now, we are left having to adapt again. Which is not exactly the easiest task. The service takes planning, of course, and changing plans on short notice can be difficult. However, the primary challenge is not the difficulty that changing the service presents the staff. It is difficult because of the nature worship itself.
Worship is an activity filled with ceremony and infused with meaning. Much of what we do on Sunday morning is intended to connect us to something greater than ourselves while deepening our connections to each other. The repeated patterns, the weekly activities, of worship–the items that form our liturgy–are designed to offer you a certain amount of familiarity and comfort. We do so in order to provide you a place where you feel welcomed and secure in a certain kind of stability. Through the things we do together–the lighting and extinguishing of the chalice, the singing of hymns, the dedication of the offering, the ongoing conversation that is our sermons–we want to communicate that no matter the difficulties of the hour, the challenges in our lives, there will be an institution and a community that will be here for us throughout everything.
This has been a principal reason why over the course of the pandemic the staff, the Board, and I have done what we can to ensure that First Houston offers some form of worship each and every week. And that form of worship has at least some semblance to the services we held during the before times.
Nonetheless, we have had to adjust almost each and every week. First we had to learn how to do services entirely online. Then we returned to in-person services with the hopes that the majority of our community would be gathering with us in the sanctuary and that we would be able to resume many of the activities–such as regular choir performances and, should I say it?, coffee hour–that had been previously critical for our communion. Now we find ourselves trying to provide a meaningful worship experience for a congregation where about half of you are joining us online while the other half you sit in the pews, wear masks, and keep your physical distance.
Instead of complaining–am I complaining or just describing what is happening? Under the difficult circumstances of the pandemic sometimes it can be hard to know… Instead of complaining, I should be celebrating that our Unitarian Universalist tradition is one that encourages us to consistently reimagine the nature of our life together. There are no prescribed actions that we must include in each and every worship service. We can have a service without sermon, without music, even without a chalice. For us, worship should always be about what best serves the needs of the community and responds to the crises and blessings of the hour.
This approach to worship comes directly from our Unitarian Universalist approach to religion. Exactly a century ago, the Universalist minister L. B. Fisher wrote, “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.”
This movement can be detected in the flexible approach we generally take to organizing our services. I say generally because one of the markers of the religious diversity found within Unitarian Universalism is the fact that while we here in Houston feel somewhat free to shift the elements of our service, there are some of our congregations in New England that have essentially kept the same liturgy since at least the Revolutionary War.
Those handful of congregations aside, actually if you are ever in Boston, Kings Chapel is well worth the visit: the minister still wears Sunday morning Puritan preaching garb… Those handful of congregations aside, the flexibility found within our services is directly connected to the changing contours of Unitarian Universalist theology and religious life.
Today’s service is an excellent example of that very dynamic. Ingathering and the water communion are important events in our congregation. Typically, they mark a significant shift in our life together. Travellers return from their summer travels, the children’s religious education takes on a more organized form, choir starts, there are more people in the pews than there have been throughout June, July, and most of August. The energy and excitement are palpable and we celebrate seeing friends we have not seen for awhile.
The importance of these events can make it seem like they have been central to Unitarian Universalism since as long as we have had congregations. Yet, they are relatively recent additions to our religious life. King’s Chapel does not celebrate them. I am not even certain how long First Houston has been observing them. Looking through our archives, the only references I have been able to find to the water communion are from about a dozen years ago.
I am certain we have been celebrating it longer than that. My best guess, is that the service came to First Houston sometime in the eighties or, at the latest, early nineties. It was part of an effort to transform Unitarian Universalism led by women. As the feminist movement, and feminist theology, gained strength both inside and outside of Unitarian Universalism in the seventies there was an effort to push aside, what Lucile Shuck, named “the male-dominated hierarchy sanctioned by Judeo-Christian theology” and replace it with something that could serve the spiritual needs of all people.
I say all people, but Shuck and the women who worked with her in this effort were particularly interested in reimagining Unitarian Universalism so that it met their needs as women. They were deeply critical of the humanism then dominant within many of our congregations. Shuck wrote that all humanism did was push a male God aside. Rather than providing a radical theological innovation, as it proponents claimed, all it did was move “the human male… up from the top step of the divinely ordered ladder to the platform beside God and succeeded in pushing the Great Father aside and enthroning himself.”
At a 1980 feminist theology convocation in East Lansing, Michigan, Shuck and Carolyn McDade–whose hymn “Spirit of Life” we just sang–proposed an approach to creating a more feminist Unitarian Universalism. It focused on liturgical innovation and reimagining what we did when we gathered. Rather than having services that always lifted up the sermon as the highest point, they created services that were the products of the entire community. The water communion was born from this spirit.
Its intention, they said, in that first water communion was “to give shape to a new spirituality.” The service was in many ways like ours. Participants brought waters that connected them to something greater than themselves and mingled the waters together in a bowl to represent their coming together in community.
In the service, McDade and Shuck challenged what the patriarchal Unitarian Universalism of their day–in 1980 the majority of Unitarian Universalist ministers were men and our Association did not have a woman as President until 2017–and sought to call “women to strength rather than to support the strength of others… to action rather than to passivity.” In their work of creating and re-creating “the rituals and symbols that give meaning to us” they choose “water as our symbol of our empowerment.” For them, water was directly related to the cycles of their lives, “As rivers in cycle release their waters and regain new beginnings, so do we cycle.”
The ritual was deeply meaningful for many of its participants. Some brought it back to their home congregations and adapted it for ingathering services. The congregation I grew up began celebrating it that very next year and I have any childhood memories of it in the church’s old sanctuary. Others took longer to adopt it, and a few never did.
Wherever it came into use, it was reimagined. Congregations discarded the emphasis on the experiences of cis-gendered women for a theology that was imagined as more inclusive. Water came to symbolize our connection to and dependence on this muddy blue green ball of a planet and the cycles of life. The service often focused on the stories that members of the congregation told each other. In recent years, it has frequently proved an opportunity to reflect on the climate crisis and what must be done–but is not being done–to confront it.
I tell this story less to offer a particular interpretation of the water communion and more of a way to introduce our theme for worship this year and a task we have before us as a religious community and, indeed, a human species. The pandemic, the climate crisis, the resurgence in white supremacy (which is both racist and patriarcal), the assault on democracy, these times call for us to reimagine what it means to be Unitarian Universalists, to be a religious community, and, indeed, even human beings. The story of the water communion should remind us that this act of reimagining is not new. It is something that we Unitarian Universalists have long done and now–whether we are gathering in-person, online, or some mixture of both–are called to do again.
And so, I close my homily, with a simple invitation. I invite you to engage in this work of re-imagination with me. I invite us to re-imagine together.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation, at home and here in the sanctuary, to say, Amen.