Human beings are relational creatures. We function best when we are in relationship with others.
Congregations are also relational entities. They function best when they are in relationship with other congregations and with their denomination or association. That is the underlying idea for all that I will say this morning.
Rev. Jack Mendelssohn, who served as a Unitarian Universalist minister for many decades, passed away this week.
He wrote a statement about Unitarian Universalist ministers that I believe applies to not just to our Unitarian Universalist clergy but to all Unitarian Universalists.
Excerpt from Why I am A Unitarian Universalist. Jack Mendelssohn
Who is a Unitarian Universalist minister? He is a man [or a woman], never completely satisfied or satisfiable, never completely adjusted or adjustable, who walks in two world’s—one of things as they are, the other of things as they ought to be—and loves them both. [S]he is a [wo]man with a pincushion soul and an elastic heart, who sits with the happy and the sad in a chaotic pattern of laugh, cry, laugh, cry. And [s]he knows deep down that the first time [her] laughter is false, or his tears make-believe, [her] days as a real minister are over.
He is a man with dreams he can never wholly share, partly because he has some doubts about them himself and partly because he is unable adequately to explain, describe, or define what it is he thinks he sees and understands.
A Unitarian Universalist minister is a [wo]man who continually runs out of time, out of wisdom, out of ability, out of courage and out of money. [S]He is hurtable. [Her} tasks involve great responsibility and little power. He must learn to accept people where they are and go on from there. He must never try to exercise influence he does not possess. If [s]he is worth [her] salt, [s]he knows all this, and is still thankful every day of [her] life for the privilege of being what [s]he is.
The future of the liberal church is almost totally dependent on these two factors: great congregations (whether large or small), and skilled, effective, dedicated ministers. The strangest feature of their relationship is that they create one another. End Quote.
The strangest feature of the relationship between great congregations and great congregants is also that they create one another. I am a better person because I was raised in congregations of caring and nurture. Those were not only Unitarian Universalist congregations, but it includes those. I attended worship services and, religious education classes or youth programming at three different UU congregations: in White Plains, NY; in Hartford, CT; and in Westport, Ct. Those congregations helped to shape my current world view.
Religious communities make a difference in part because they connect us in new and different ways to other people, to life around us, to the universe and–for some of us–to divinity; or because they remind us of the call to relationship with all of these. And they help us to deepen those relationships and to deepen our relationship with our own highest ideals and values.
I choose to be a Unitarian Universalist because of my personal experience over the years of growth within our tradition. For me that was not just about congregational life. I was part of a Unitarian Universalist youth organization (Liberal Religious Youth) that really became my church for a number of years because of its openness and inclusion of all. And I attended a Unitarian Universalist summer camp for several years. These helped to build my UU identity much more than did our congregations. I do not in any way intend to dismiss what congregational life inculcated in me, what it provided was rich; but there were Unitarian Universalist influences external to our congregations that had a much greater impact upon me. It was through them that my UU identity came into being. These had much more to do with my formation as a person and ultimately as a minister than did the congregations which I attended.
This congregation, The First Church In Belmont, is a great congregation. But it does not represent itself alone. To use Jack Mendelssohn’s words in a different way, the strangest feature of the relationship between great congregations and a great denomination or association is that they, too, create one another. This congregation is an important place. We do great things with and for one another. But part of our importance is that we represent something much larger than ourselves. We are not a religious community that stands alone and isolated. We are part of a religious tradition that stretches back over time and that extends around the world. That tradition stands for reason, freedom and tolerance and it stands for universal love and affirmation.
We cannot be a great Unitarian Universalist congregation without our attachment to our Unitarian Universalist Association.
It is not just the particulars of what the association does:
- Advocate publicly for marriage equality;
- Create resources to help congregations be more welcoming, such as the Welcoming Congregation Bulletin or this list of “10 Ways to Come Out as a Welcoming Congregation“;
- Offer trainings and webinars, including the “Transgender Identity and Inclusion” webinar on Wednesday, October 17; and
- Provide inclusive health insurance for UUA employees and UU church staff to ensure coverage is available for transgender individuals and for domestic partners regardless of gender. According to the NY Times, we are one of the only non-profits that offer this benefit.
And the development of Religious Education curricula, the screening and guidance of ministers during their training, ongoing development programs for Directors of Religious Education and Directors of Youth programs; these are of benefit to us.
Some years ago I was at a party and I was wearing a United Nations flag pin on my lapel. I spoke with a man who asked, “What has the United Nations done for me?” And I thought to myself–and wish I had said to him–“Who cares what the United Nations has done for you. Look what it has done through the World Health Organization to end disease; through the Food and Agricultural Organization to end hunger; through its work for refugees and human rights. Who cares what it has done for you! That is the wrong question. Look at what it has done for the world.”
Selfishness is unbecoming and unworthy of a great people.
One of the things that has bothered me about our American electoral process lately is that both of the major political parties have spent the majority of their time talking about what they will do for the middle class, which in the United States most people feel part of, instead of talking about the poor, the marginalized, the outcast. Don’t tell me what you are going to do for me; tell me what you are going to do for the nation and especially tell me what you are going to do for those who are really hurting; the sick, the homeless, the hungry.
And so in talking about the Unitarian Universalist Association, other than the things I mentioned briefly, I am not going to talk about what the Association does for us because I have said before and will say over and over again that asking “what does it do for us?” is the wrong the question. Who cares what it has done for us; look at what it is doing for the world.
For example, the UUA General Assembly this past summer was focused on justice and included learning and action regarding immigrant rights. A candle light vigil at the jail in Arizona where at any given time over two thousand people are being detained year round in a tent city—this jail is a tent city. It can be extremely hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter. And people are outside in tents. Whatever we may think about immigration issues, and there are legitimate questions for people to ask, surely we also believe in decent and humane treatment for all human beings. It was the Unitarian Universalist Association which organized that vigil of witness.
Don’t ask what the UUA has done for you or has done for this congregation (it has done much) but ask instead what it is doing in the world. Ask whether it is standing on the side of religious freedom and tolerance; ask whether it is standing on the side of those who are marginalized or outcast in our society.
The Standing on the Side of Love Campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association was inspired by the July, 2008 shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, in which two people died and seven were wounded. That congregation was targeted because they are welcoming to LGBT people and have a liberal stance on many other issues including the rights of women and of others.
Among other things, the Standing On The Side Of Love campaign is working hard to ensure marriage equality, and right now is focusing especially on those states where marriage equality is on the ballot this coming November.
What has the UUA done for me or for us? Much, but that is the wrong question. There are great tasks to be done in the world and our Association is working to achieve them.
And an important thing to recognize is that we are the Unitarian Universalist Association. It is not some formless entity out there. It is us. And so the right question is what are we, the Unitarian Universalist Association, doing in the world and how can we do more?
The strangest feature of the relationship between great congregations and great denominations is that they, too, create one another.
How can we in this congregation help to create a great denomination?
I am going to do that first of all by recognizing my connection to the denomination. Secondly, just as I ask you to fully fund the programs of this congregation, so I will urge this congregation to always provide full funding of its fair share financial support to the denomination. Those two things go hand in hand. Thirdly, I will provide my own financial support to the denomination. I will be sending a $100 personal check this week to the Unitarian Universalist Association. I would be happy to send along with my check any checks that you might feel moved to send.
Our Association is an expression of how we work to change the world. It is us.
Let us support our work, our goals and our values with words and with treasure.
So let it be.