Association Sunday 2011

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Our Unitarian Universalist history is important, but our Unitarian Universalist future is even more important.

We have heard this morning how the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee was founded in this Church.  They knew what was happing in Europe in the 1930’s and they chose to do something to help. And they helped hundreds and hundreds of people to escape to safety.  That happened because people in the congregation were able to see beyond themselves.

One of the most important points for me to make today is that we are not an isolated congregation; we are part of a broader association.  We, this congregation, exist in part because that broader denomination and broader connection exist. 

The approach to religion practiced in this congregation did not arise in this congregation.  It has a history that flows from our and through our religious tradition.  The idea that we should not have a creed, that humanist and theist can be happy in the same congregation, that Christian and Jew and Pagan and Buddhist can worship together, all of this comes from our Association and its history.  

The UUA provides religious education materials for our children and youth and for our adults that is predicated upon this diversity of theological belief.  Were we associated with another denomination, or were we an independent congregation, we would not have these materials.

How many hymnals do you know of besides ours that contain Christian and Jewish and Hindu and Buddhist and Confucian and Muslim words in their hymns? 

A few weeks ago I served as a chaplain at the meeting of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA.  The task of the MFC is to assess whether someone is ready to become a Unitarian Universalist minister and to put the UUA imprimatur, if you will, on individuals and say that they are prepared to serve our denomination.  That is important; it may be one of the most important tasks the UUA takes upon itself.  Imagine if you will the difficult choice of saying to someone, “Sorry, we do not believe you are qualified to be a UU minister”; but imagine how much damage and sadness on the part of both individuals and congregations is avoided by having someone be the gatekeeper. 

While no system of selection will ever be perfect, it is important to have some level of confidence in the candidates for ministry who contact those congregations who are in search.

But this year the Association Sunday theme is not just about gate keeping, it is also about strengthening the abilities of those already in service to our congregations.

The theme of Association Sunday for this year is “Celebrating Excellence in Ministries”.  Monies raised by the UUA will go to strengthen activities by members of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association (which I am a member of and which Allison someday will be), the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network (which Alfa is a member of) and the Liberal Religious Educators Association (which Laurel, Julie and Allison are members of).  These activities will include scholarships, continuing education and other similar projects. 

All of this will strengthen our professional services and therefore our ministries to one another.  We are served by the Association in many ways.

But I want to speak to something broader as well.

O. Eugene Pickett, UUA President 1979-1985, stated

“The longer I am a part of this movement, the more convinced I become that the values and ideals of liberal religion can be effective only if they have a solid institutional base, and that means strong congregations and a strong Association. I know that we as a religious movement have traditionally been suspicious of a strong Association. We have been fearful that strength would mean power, rigidity, and control. But I am convinced that our Association can be both strong and flexible, an institution of which we can be critical while still being committed to it.

We tend to be a contentious group of people. We are often harder on ourselves than on our fundamentalist critics. It is so easy to be cynical and mistrustful. But the UUA is what binds us together. It is a vehicle of our hope.

Those years as president made me deeply aware of how much we need one another. It is only as we recognize our mutuality, honor our diversity, and reconcile our differences with respectful honesty that we can build a strong and vital religious community. Being part of and nurturing such a religious community is what ministry is to me…”  The words of Rev. Pickett.

I want to repeat the first line of that quote: “The longer I am a part of this movement, the more convinced I become that the values and ideals of liberal religion can be effective only if they have a solid institutional base, and that means strong congregations and a strong Association.”

Rev. Pickett was speaking to the big picture.  One of the problems in our nation and in our denomination is that all too often people ask the question, “What’s in it for me?”.  There is a selfishness that has come to characterize our people.  We are a far cry from the days when John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”; and we have come a long way from the days when we as a nation asked what can government do to solve problems like hunger, disease and poverty; today it seems we want to know what government does for us; and we want government to do nothing for anyone else.   

I lived in a fairly wealthy town in Connecticutand periodically people complained that we sent more tax money to Hartfordthan we received back in state aid.  My response was always—“that’s right; that’s as it ought to be”.  Poor communities should get back more money than they send; wealthy communities should get back less money than they send.  In fact, they really should not get anything back. 

What do I get out of it? or What do we get out of it? is the wrong question.  It is the wrong question to ask about our nation, our denomination or our congregation. 

Reverend Pickett’s statement was not focused on what the UUA could do for congregations or what congregations could do for individuals; the vision of that statement was about our Association and our congregations working to enhance the values and ideals of liberal religion in the world.  How do we stand for something in the world; how do we promote tolerance and acceptance and justice in the world, how do we change the world to make it better for everyone?

Those questions to do not ask for an accounting of whether I am receiving back as much as or more than I give; those questions are asking about something far more important.  They are asking about dreams and visions.

I am not entirely dismissing the questions about our selves.  I know that many of us have days or weeks or even lives where it is all that we can do to just get up in the morning and face what is happening.  I know that.  And part of what we are about is being together to share our stories and our feelings, to share hope and strength.   I know that and I know that it is important.

But I also believe that what we are about, we as a congregation and we as a religious tradition, is changing the world with our values and ideals.  There are many people who promote hatred and division and intolerance in the world, and there are many people who insist that there is only one way to be genuinely religious—their way.  Our voice–our collective voice–needs to be strengthened so that it can act as a counter weight to the voices of intolerance.  That will only happen if we celebrate and support our Association, if we celebrate and support our own ideals, if we feel our own connection to that which is beyond the narrow walls of this building, this town and of this nation.  We are part of a broad history and a broader future.  May we recognize and celebrate that connection.