Monday, September 07, 2015

Where Have We Gathered? (Reflections for In-Gathering Water Communion)

Date Taken: 28 Dec 2011
Place: Bangalore, Karnataka, India

This is the text of the sermon I delivered to the congregation I serve, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist.  You can listen to the podcast if you'd prefer.

In Spanish it’s, “Bienvenidos.”  Our friends in Oltheviz Transylvania would say, “Isten hozott mindenkit.”  Our other overseas partner, the Nongkrem Unitarian Church in the Khasi Hills of India, might offer a simple, “Phi long kumno.”  I’ll just say, “Welcome everyone.”
<go into our usual welcoming words>

First Reflection
Good morning!  How many of you are back in school already, or have a sibling who’s back in school?  Any of you know an adult who’s back in school now?
For a lot of people this feels like the start of the year.  I know that New Year’s Day is the first of January, and that Chinese New Year is in February.  Some people think that the new year begins in springtime, and some feel like their birthday is the start of a new year.  (My younger son was born on December 31, so I’ve always told him that all those fireworks are to celebrate his birthday!)  The Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah – begins at sundown next Sunday.  (And did you know that on the Jewish calendar it’s not 2015?  It’s 5775!)

Lots of days and lots of ways of marking and celebrating the start of a new year.  We have In-Gathering Sunday with its wonderful Water Communion.  This is how we start a new year of being together.  I don’t know how long we’ve been doing it, but I know that it’s been quite a while.  I also know that in Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country people recently have done, are doing today, or are soon about to do what we’re going to do in a little while – pour our individual containers of water into one big container so that they all get mixed up with one another  Anybody know why we do this?

The Water Communion is a way of acting out with our water what we do as people.  We come together here, each of us unique and each of us different from everybody else.  Yet when we come together week after week for worship – here or in the children’s worship room (which this year, you know, is going to be next door over in Summit House) – when we come together week after week to learn together, and sing together, and play together, and laugh together, and sometimes cry together … when we come together over and over again to do these kinds of things we also – just like the water – start to become one big something instead of just a whole bunch of separate somethings.  And that big thing we could call, “community.”  Each of these separate people – including you, including me – come together and become a community.

Now … the water has something to hold it:  the bowl.  What do you think holds us?  Our covenant.  (Some of you may remember that at the start of RE year last year you made a covenant together for your class.)  A covenant is really just a promise, but it’s not a one-sided promise like when I would promise my mom that I’d never put my dirty shoes on the couch again, or that when I was done with something I’d put things back where I’d found them.  A covenant’s not like that. A covenant is a two-way promise – you and me, we both promise it to each other.  I promise to you, and you promise to me.

And here at TJMC we have a covenant, a promise that we all make to one another as a way of holding our beloved community.

I’d like to read our covenant to you this morning, and I’ve put it in less formal language than you’d find it on our website, in the framed picture in the Church Office, or on the big sign in the Social Hall.  Here’s our covenant, our promise, in words that even I can understand:

So that we can make TJMC the kind of place we all want it to be, we promise to each other:

·         That we’ll talk to each other with kindness and respect, especially when we don’t agree with each other;
·         That we’ll make room for all of our differences and work really hard at including everybody;
·         That we’ll be there to help each other;
·         That we’ll work for justice, fairness, what is right, both here in our congregation and in the world around us;
·         That we’ll give happily to this church with our time, our money, and our energy;
·         And that when we forget these promises, we will remind one another in loving ways.

I think that those are pretty good promises.

I hope this new school year, and this new church year will be really fun and full of wonder for each of us.  And all of us together.

So … here we are.  As one of the hymns I’d thought about having us sing puts it, “Here we have gathered; gathered side by side.  Circle of kindship, come and step inside.”  Whether you have been away for the summer, or just for part of it, or have been here doing the day-to-day as if summer was just another season no different than any other (except for the humidity) – welcome back.  To students coming back to town for a new semester, and parents whose children have gone back to school, and children whose vacations are over, and people who for a myriad of reasons “took the summer off” from church – it’s good to see you all again at the start of this “new” year, this new church season.  To those who’ve been here pretty much each and every Sunday throughout the summer – it’s been nice to see you all along and it’s nice to see you now amidst all these returning folks.  Kumno.  Isten hozott mindenkit. Bienvenidos.

Earlier we did our annual Water Communion.  Our separate vials of water comingling in the bowl to create one common pool.  At some level we all get it – each of us comes here as an individual and together we create a community.  I’ve found myself wondering, though, just what kind of community is it that we’re creating?  “Community” in the abstract?  Some kind of generic community?  Somebody’s probably thinking, “a Unitarian Universalist community!” but that’s kind of a generalization too, isn’t it?  Liberal, progressive, free thinking, spiritual, loving, welcoming – these are all a part of it, yet I don’t think that any of them really captures it.

From time to time I remind us that each week we create a unique congregation – this particular combination of people has never been together before and won’t all be together, in this same way, ever again.  Even if next week everyone here returned and no one else joined us, it still wouldn’t be the same as it is right here and right now because many of us would be in a different place physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.  The energy, the feel, of the group would be different.  We would be different.

So this community thing that we say we are building, that we join and say we’re a part of, that we come home to in this homecoming, is a kind of fluid thing, isn’t it?  In fact, there are people who think of themselves as part of TJMC who haven’t attended worship or anything else in a long time yet who still feel that connection.  And there are people who’ve moved away yet who also feel a tie to this place and these people.  And there are people in book groups who’ve never met some of the people who have breakfast together every week, who may not know the new families that have been coming for the past couple of weeks or the widower who’s dipped his toes in every now and again for the past couple of years and thinks he’s now ready for more of a commitment.  The truth is that we’re never all together at the same time in the same place, yet still, almost despite ourselves, we are one community.

And it’s sure not theology that holds us together.  It might not be immediately obvious, because we UUs often hold our religious beliefs and practices pretty privately, but there are a lot of folk here who are really deeply and passionately trying to live their lives in accord with their beliefs.  Of course, the person sitting next to them might be equally passionate for entirely different reasons.  As the quote so long erroneously attributed to Transylvanian martyr Francis David says, “We need not think alike to love alike.”  So it’s not our theology that holds us together, nor is this the kind of community that is built by constant face-to-face encounters with one another.

What holds us together, as I said earlier, is our promise.  Our covenant.  I’ll bet that many of you didn’t know we had one, or were surprised to hear that it’s posted in several places.  I would bet good money that there’s no one here who could recite it from memory.  And I am fairly sure that its unpacking wasn’t a part of any Newcomer Orientation, nor was it even explicitly shared at the time of “signing the book.”  (In preparing for this sermon it dawned on me that this would probably be a pretty good idea –asking people to think about and then actually make these promises as part of formalizing their membership.  How can we expect each other to keep them if it was never really clear that we were expected to make them?)

So … we’re going to try to make up for that oversight this morning.  I would like to ask you all to rise in body or spirit, and for the folks on this side to look at the folks on that side (and vice versa).  Here’s our formal covenant:

In order to create the beloved community we all desire for ourselves, we, the Congregation of [and I realized that that probably should be “we, the members of …”] Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist Covenant to:

·         Communicate with compassion and respect, especially when we disagree,
·         Celebrate diversity and nurture our inclusivity,
·         Embrace one another spiritually and emotionally,
·         Promote social justice within our congregation and the larger community,
·         Generously support the ministries of the church with time, money and enthusiasm, and
·         When we have fallen short, lovingly call each other back into covenant. 

As I said earlier – I think those are pretty good promises.  I think they are strong enough to hold us together even as entropy – and elemental group dynamics – work to undo us.  These promises tell us who we are as a community – we are a people of covenant, of mutual promise, and these are the things we have promised to one another.  May these promises guide us in the coming year.  May they keep us safe; may the encourage us to try new things; may they get us through any hard times (and there probably will be some of those!); may they remind us inspire us to go deeper and reach higher; and my they be there to catch us when we have – as each of us at some point no doubt surely will – forgotten and fallen short of them.

Welcome home, everyone.  I think it’s going to be a great year.

Pax tecum,


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