Sunday, February 15, 2015

Unitarian Universalism Saves Lives

This sermon was offered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalism in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, February 15th, 2015.  If you'd to hear it, a recording will be posted here.

This is the morning we’re really giving our pledge drive a real push.  Oh, I know that Alex gave a stirring sermon last week, and that we’ve had announcements, testimonials, dinners, and brunches since the beginning of the month.  But this is “Generosity Sunday.”  And as such you’re probably expecting from me a traditional pledge drive sermon – the sermon we UU preachers call amongst ourselves, “The Sermon on the Amount.”  You probably expect me to have a prop that looks something like this:  an actual approved reproduction of Andy Warhol’s 1981 piece “dollar sign” … on a tote bag.  (I got this at the staff’s annual holiday party this year, and that’s all I’m going to say about it, so don’t ask.)

And that’s actually all I’m going to say about the pledge drive, and money, and why you should give generously to the church.

I've been thinking about someone I knew in Divinity School.  She'd come to Boston from Texas, and one day early on she decided to get the lay of the land by driving around a bit.  She told me that as she drove she kept crying.  She cried because her UU church in Texas -- the only one anywhere around -- met in the basement of a store in a strip mall.  Around Boston, though, every town had a UU church, and they were often in a place of honor -- at the end of the town green, or at the top of the highest hill.  She couldn't keep from crying to see this.

Some stories:

When the news spread about Leela Alcorn’s death by suicide on December 28th of last year, one of my colleagues got to thinking.  Miss Alcorn is the 17 year old transgender girl whose death – she walked out into oncoming highway traffic – gained international attention.  Her death, and the suicide note she left on her Tumblr blog.  In that suicide note she talked about the challenges – the impossibilities – of being a trans kid in our country, with the biases and bigotry that exists.  Miss Alcorn had no support – not at home, not in the community around her.  She got no support, but also no end of grief simply because of who she was.  In the end, it was too much … or, maybe, too little.

So, as I said, when news about Leela Alcorn’s death by suicide spread, the Rev. Sarah Gibbs Milspaugh found herself thinking about a Christmas pageant she’d attended at the Boulder Valley UU fellowship just a few weeks before.  One of the co-narrators, whose role included not just reading a narration but acting and singing as well, one of the co-narrators was a strong, proud, self-confident teenage girl. A transgender teenage girl.  A teenage girl who could have been Leela Alcorn, accept that she was surrounded by love and acceptance.  No, let me correct that.  She is embraced as who she is, and because of who she is – another person of inherent worth and dignity, as are we all.

Friends, Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities.

Let me say that again:  Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities. 

This week I asked colleagues to send me stories.  So I heard about the lesbian teen who was suicidal when she began attending a UU church.  She is now thriving.  And I heard about a couple of Mormon parents who are eternally grateful to Unitarian Universalism because their gay son has found a place that loves and supports him in a way that their own faith communities could not.  I heard about the clergy person who called the pastor of the local black Baptist church in the days following the incidents in Ferguson to ask if there were any local responses planned who then heard a thankful sigh of relief because that Baptist pastor had thought no one else would care.

Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities.

That last story reminded me of one I experienced during my first pastorate up in Yarmouth, Maine.  This was back in the day when the only option for gay couples was civil unions, and one day I got a call from a couple who very tentatively, fearfully, asked if I’d be willing to perform their union service.  When I responded with enthusiasm the woman on the phone began to cry.  More than one of the other churches in town had actually hung up on her; the pastor of her own church had actually laughed at her when she’d asked.  Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities.

I’d like a show of hands – how many of you are what we call “birthright Unitarian Universalists?”  (That is, you were born into the Unitarian Universalist, Unitarian, or Universalist church.)  And how many are “come outers”?  (That’d be folks who’ve come out of some other tradition or, perhaps, no religious tradition, in your past.)  Of that number, how many have said that you’d wished you’d known that a faith like this existed long before you’d ever found it?  That you’d been looking for something like this?

In the days and weeks after the tragic slaughter at Columbine High School back in 1999, the Unitarian Universalist church there became a haven for the area’s teens – not just the members of the church, but for other hurting young people who didn’t want their grief answered by dogmas and creeds.  Unitarian Universalism at work saving lives and changing communities.

Our own young people, year after year, tell us in their Coming of Age service that this – this – is the place where they feel fully free to be their true and authentic selves.  High school is, well, high school, and families are families.  We all remember what it was like to be a teenager.  But here, in this Unitarian Universalist community, our youth find unconditional acceptance, support, and love.  Can you imagine the difference that makes?

I want to quote at length the email I received from one of my colleagues.  Shortly after he began a new ministry in one of our congregations one of his children, about to start her junior year at Yale, was killed in a car accident precipitated by a drunk drive.  This is what he wrote:
In the next days, weeks, months, I came to know that Unitarian Universalism was not just a good-time religion. My liberal religious, non-creedal faith sustained and saved.  Whether it was the presence at her Memorial Service of many area Unitarian Universalist colleagues I had not yet met, or the theological reassurance of the prevailing goodness of existence despite momentary times of suffering, or the abiding emphasis on the fact that there can be meaning on the other side of anything (and we are the agents of finding it), or the awareness that all of this was not either a judgment nor a infliction on us personally, or the quiet embracing community who offered no magic words others but rather their comforting care, we moved through the passage of deep loss.  Nothing was denied, nothing was explained away, nothing was converted into vengeance, nothing was made supernatural, nothing was done or said that would later linger as a vestigial remnant of either fear or doubt.
This all became all the more evident as the larger world, the world of the families of the fellow victims and the world of the larger community, tried to salve the wounds and bind up lives with pronouncements, prayers, judgments, and calls for retribution, all of which would have denied us our identities.  Yes, we had suffered a loss, a profound loss, a gut-wrenching loss, but our Unitarian Universalism helped us see that we did not have to also lose ourselves in the process.  We, life, existence, meaning, were all affirmed because our values and our community helped us walk the grief journey.
How many of us have walked our own grief journey with the help of this congregation?  (No hands needed.)  Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities

I’ve been saving this one for last because, well, it’s perhaps the hardest to believe.
One of our congregations began, more recently, as a fairly typical UU church comfortably ensconced in the suburbs.  But they realized that that really wasn’t who they were being called on to be, so they closed up shop and moved to an abandoned, derelict church building in, as they say, the zip code with the lowest life expectancy in the area.  Rather than put energy into fixing up their building – not even pausing to clean up the graffiti in the sanctuary – they began trying to make a difference.  In that same derelict building they established a free food store that serves over 1,000 people each month, a free bookstore, computer center, and laundry.  Until the Health Department set up shop they hosted a health clinic in their space.  They’ve also managed to buy a block of abandoned buildings and a trash dump and turned it into garden space and an orchard.  They’ve done all this in their seven year existence, with an average Sunday worship attendance – the gold standard of church success measures – and average Sunday worship attendance of three to twelve.
Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities.
PACEM, the Soup Kitchen, the Food Bank, IMPACT, the community groups we support with our monthly Social Justice collections, the 12 Step groups we host, our partnerships with other area congregations, the children and youth who are nurtured here, the adults who have found a place that is filled not only with like-minded people but, more importantly I think, with like-hearted people.  I know of people who not only chose to join this congregation but who chose to move to Charlottesville because of that marriage equality banner we so proudly fly.  This Unitarian Universalist church saves lives and changes our community.
I said I wasn’t going to talk about our pledge drive.  I lied.  Here goes:
We’re often told (as we even were earlier in this service) that as we consider our pledge we should think about what the church means to us.  I’m going to suggest that while that is important, perhaps even more important is what the church means to others.  What it can mean to others.  The lives it can save; the ways it can change our community.
So often we think about the things we get out of being a part of TJMC, and we do a kind of cost/benefit analysis – what do we get out of it and what should we, therefore, put into it.  But what does it mean that there is a Unitarian Universalist church here on the highest point in Charlottesville?  What does it mean to our town, and our region, that liberal religion has a champion? 
Please, don’t just think of what TJMC means to you.  And don’t even think about what it takes to support this congregation.  Think about the impact of Unitarian Universalism in other cities and states.  Think about the power of Unitarian Universalism across the country.  Think about how our faith – the faith that informs and infuses our own community here and so many, many more – think about how it truly saves lives and changes communities.  Think about how it can change the world.  Think on that, my friends.  Think about that.

Pax tecum,

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