“Please Join Me in Saying” A sermon by Sarah Gillespie, student minister
Please join me in wondering… about the words we say almost every week.
Life is a gift for which we are grateful.
We gather in community to celebrate
The glories and the mysteries of this great gift.
The ritual of saying these words is as important as the words themselves. The ritual calls us to pay attention. As you witnessed this morning, someone walks to the front and takes a candle lighting our chalice from a smaller flame.
We wait. We watch. We speak. We pause. This can be a holy turning point for us: in the service, in the day, in the week ahead. We speak together these two sentences looking forward and at one another, rather than down into our hymnals. The words are written in the order of service but more so they are written on our hearts.
As Unitarian Universalists we do not have much memorized liturgy that we say every week. This is part of what separates us from other religious traditions. And while we light candles of joy or concern, only a few people feel moved to come forward and share things. But when someone
comes forward to light our chalice, this symbol of our faith, we all know what to say.
And this is learned at a young age in this congregation. The chalice is lit with these words in our religious education classrooms, and to begin Coming of Age and Youth Group meetings. In fact, the Youth and Coming of Age Services this year both contained several moving reflections and credos based on these words. They stick with us because the ritual of saying them together has become a part of the identity of this community.
And because I have heard and said them with great frequency, like many of you, these words have been on my mind. If you haven’t said or heard these words, and are maybe visiting today,—there’s still something in here for you… Because these are important words, worthy of speaking and listening and digging into for everyone.
They were written by one of the previous ministers here, your first female minister, Rev. Marjorie Sams Montgomery, who ministered here from 1976-1979. They are also in the back of our UU hymnal. These words convey a theology and they maybe illuminate some of our beliefs.
The phrase begins by comparing life to a gift, which begs the question of what is meant by the word “gift”. A gift is something we get without paying for it. A gift can be accepted or rejected, used for ill or good. Gifts present opportunities to bless or curse as Rebecca Parker told us in our reading this
morning. Given and received voluntarily, a gift cannot be earned.
To me, this sounds a lot like grace—the unmerited love and forgiveness we receive from one another and from what we consider holy. It’s not something we can get by doing or being good—even though we try, maybe by teaching religious education or making a generous pledge to the church
(both very good things to do). Grace is present in relationships where there is a foundation of love. It is a gift that cannot be repaid to its giver, just
Now to say that life is a gift is one thing, but when we add, “for which we are grateful,” it begins to mean something else. While a gift implies a gesture of generosity and may conjure up excitement and anticipation, we all know that we have received gifts for which we have not been grateful (think about the movie, “A Christmas Story” and the pink bunny pajamas that Ralphie receives from his Aunt).
But unlike that image, being grateful means lifting up the gift and feeling lucky that we got it. It means saying “thank you” for life. And this one seemingly simple phrase can be a stumbling block for those of us who sometimes feel like life is not a gift.
Maybe it is when we lose loved ones (thinking especially of those whom we memorialize tomorrow)—or when natural disasters strike—when acts of
violence occur in and outside of our own backyards— when we struggle with depression, addiction, or other illnesses… and in so many more unnamable moments, you or I might not feel like saying “thank you” for life.
How do we invite those into our community when we say words that some feel they cannot utter in that moment?
While as individuals you or I may not be able to see life as a blessing, it is “we” who are grateful. There is no “I” in our chalice lighting. We are collectively grateful which means “we” strive to be a thankful people, even though there are times when as individuals we feel differently.
And it is “we” who “gather in community, “ as Marjorie’s words go on to say. It is the act of coming together in this place, in this faith, with these people that gives each and every one of us the opportunity to open up to love and thanksgiving. And like many of you, I have a story about such an opportunity, here at this church.
When I was driving to the Youth Group coffee house in January, I got in a minor car accident. I rear-ended someone. It wasn’t bad. I was okay; my car wasn’t. And it was the car that I had been driving since I got my license… it was crunched. And I was feeling SO not grateful.
I had a plan for that evening and it got altered (because—surprise! I am not in control of the universe). But I really wanted to see the youth and watch them perform. And I knew that I was okay, so after driving to the closest auto shop, I ditched my car (to be dealt with later) and got a ride from one of the mechanics to church.
A couple hours later as the coffee house began, I noticed I had a little headache and remembered bumping my head on my steering wheel during the accident. I wanted to ignore it… but members of this community made that impossible.
Many youth checked in when they arrived and heard what had happened. Several youth group parents urged me to just go and get checked out at the hospital, even though that was the last thing I felt like doing.
But eventually I saw their reasoning and approached a friendly face, one of the friendliest faces I know here, Jim Staton, and asked him for a favor. And before I could even get out all the words about what had happened, he grabbed both my hands and looked me in the eyes and said gently, “I would love to take you to the hospital.” He did and I was fine, just a little sore and shaken up.
That night, when I was feeling ungrateful for this very negligible accident and annoyed thinking about all the petty inconveniences that would result from it, I happened to gather in this community. And I was surrounded by love, and I could feel grateful for that. Community gives us the opportunity
to come as we are, grateful or not, and be held by the grace and gratitude of others.
But we don’t just gather in community, we “celebrate”, as our chalice lighting tells us. Now when I hear celebrate I think about birthday parties, weddings, cake, ice cream, etc. These are all things that I like (just in case anyone is taking notes).
But celebrating is more complex than that. While it traditionally refers to how we mark our holidays and festivals throughout the year, celebrating is not just singing and smiling (and eating cake)—to celebrate is to deviate from routine.
Sunday morning is the time we come together to celebrate in that respect. It is the ritual of creating that holy turning point. It is a time in our week, when we attempt to pause in the midst of our busy lives. In our ordinary routine of rushing, working, traveling, emailing, facebooking, etc. we gather in community to celebrate—to break away from the ordinary.
Celebrating is the act of making something sacred. Sometimes it is the passing of a loved one that is made sacred here and other times it is the transition of our high school seniors that is made sacred here. Celebrating is about honoring and giving name and space to all of the thoughts and feelings that we carry. We gather in community to celebrate, to make things different than the way they were when we came in this morning.
Sometimes we refer to these varied life moments we mark as concerns and celebrations, but our chalice lighting names them as “glories and mysteries”.
For this part of the phrase, I went straight to the source and contacted the Rev. Marjorie Montgomery. She helped clarify her thoughts surrounding these words and she shared a story with me that I could pass onto you all.
She admits that the last part of the opening words is the trickiest. The word “mysteries” is meant to suggest that not EVERYTHING is glorious.
Yet, she says, we can “celebrate” even painful moments by looking at them face on, not dodging or trying to avoid them, not pretending that they
Marjorie’s thinking and call to ministry were shaped by the worst “mystery” she says ever happened to her. In 1974 after 16 years of marriage and 3 years of counseling her husband decided to end their marriage. She got custody of her three children and had to decide what to do with her life.
Ironically, her marriage counselor said, “Well Marjorie, we didn’t save your marriage, but I would like to offer you a job as co-counselor with me, working with husband/wife pairs who are in trouble.”
This was unexpected but she was intrigued. So she decided to get more training and went to seminary for a pastoral counseling degree, in hopes of taking the counseling job when she finished. But after completing an internship with the First Church of Dallas, she felt called into parish ministry—and she followed that call to what she describes as “the most joyful and satisfying years” of her whole life. She also met her husband of now 33 years at that church. Our chalice lighting arose out of this piece of life story.
In a time of great sorrow in her life, Marjorie chose to bless. And that choice blessed many of you who were here in the late 70s with her, and even more of us here now through her words. And maybe we feel blessed by these words of hers because they encourage us to choose blessing as well.
Rebecca Parker writes that the choice to bless can take you into solitude, but “more, the choice will draw you into community, both the companionship of struggle and the comfort of human friendship.”
Choosing to bless is about more than the gift of life, which we try to affirm through Marjorie’s words. It is about discovering and sharing our own gifts. This community has the gifts Parker writes about, “speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, and waiting.” And our opening words ask that we lift up these gifts and in turn bless one another.
In choosing to share my gifts and hoping to both bless and be blessed, I have been drawn into this community for the last 16 months. And whether or not these words have always rung true for me each Sunday morning or evening, I take comfort in letting them wash over me, knowing that I am surrounded by a community that takes them to heart. And I hope and believe, that in times of change and struggle, the more I hear them and say them, the more they might become true in those times.
Choosing to bless might just mean choosing to acknowledge, (as Parker writes,) “That in the midst of a broken world, unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.”
Whether they abide with us all the time is not what matters. Just acknowledging that they might exist in the midst of this whirlwind of life is what brings us hope and can later allow for gratitude to enter. But knowing this alone as individuals, does not enable us to do the most good. Knowing this together, however, is “another possibility waiting”.
We are grateful. We gather to celebrate. Marjorie’s words are a call to build beloved community.
We answer that call in making her words come to life, embodying them for all to see. We answer that call in small unnoticeable acts of kindness and in large gestures of love and thanksgiving. We answer that call by just showing up and by sometimes giving thanks for the beauty, grace, and mystery, which are all a part of this great gift.
And in the times when we cannot answer that call or even say these words, may we still be surrounded in the nurturing embrace of a loving sacred community, like this. And may we continue to celebrate what we find here, allowing it to bless us,
and choosing to bless others as we go forward. May it be so. Amen.