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“Come As You Are” — UUSS Sermon from Veterans Day, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, California

Songs: #21 (in Las Voces del Camino):  “Ven, Espiritu de Amor,” “America the Beautiful,” vv. 1-3; #201 (in Singing the Living Tradition):  “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah (Since I Laid My Burden Down)”

Yoga Practice with Paige:  Warrior Pose (Stepping Forward), Seated Breathing (Acceptance)




Pastoral Prayer

Now I invite you to a time of contemplation in word and silence.  Please take out the insert for hymn #21, “Ven, Espiritu de Amor,” so you have it handy at the end of this time.  We’ll remain seated to sing, and will hear the song played through once again before singing.

Now please settle your mind and spirit.  Notice your hands resting. Notice your feet and bodies, resting in the Spirit.  Notice the breath of life…as I offer these words.

Spirit of Life and Love, give us hearts full of gratitude for the gift of life and the gift of this new day.   As nights grow long and the air grows cold, we can be grateful for all who bring light to our lives, and for all sources of warmth. We keep in mind those recovering from hurricanes and snow storms, and those providing help.  We hold in our hearts all people around the globe made vulnerable by rapid climate changes now taking place.

Today is Veterans Day.  Let us extend prayers of care and thanks to all who have served, and to those now on active duty or in the reserves.

Let us also extend prayers of care and thanks to those for whom the call to serve has led them into other ventures, and often into harm’s way:  those working in the diplomatic service, volunteers in Peace Corps and Americorps, journalists working in dangerous, repressive places around the world, public safety employees in local communities, and activists who put their bodies on the line to bear witness to injustice and oppression in lands near and far.

We call to mind any veterans we know and love, and others who give of themselves in service. Let us now speak the names on our hearts into the space of our sanctuary.

At this time we may be thinking of loved ones we have lost to death—those lost recently, and those whose absence we mark at this time of worship.  Let us now speak the names on our hearts into the space of our sanctuary.

We reach out in care to those facing a family crisis, medical challenge, financial distress, heartache and loss, and burdens of the mind or spirit.  Let us say the names of those people we have on our minds.  Either whispering to ourselves or calling out our concerns for others to hear, let us now speak the names on our hearts into the space of our sanctuary.

Life has its light moments and joyful milestones also.  We give thanks for the moments of celebration, and we invite those names or events to be spoken into the space of our sanctuary.

May one another’s good news give all of us reasons for joy.

As we conclude another nationwide election, we can breathe a sigh of relief.  Now as the advertisements and arguments have subsided, may tensions ease.  May all of us be open to hear the hopes and longings of all our neighbors.

Let us move ahead with gratitude for this messy blessing of democracy.  From sea to shining sea, may the spirit of wisdom and stewardship guide our elected officials.   May all of us be guided by compassion.

Spirit of Life bless us, and bless this world with peace and healing.  Blessed be, and amen.

[Moment of silence.]

Now please remain seated for singing #21 together after we hear it again.  Ven, Espiritu de Amor.  Come, Spirit of Love.

Sermon:  Come As You Are


Driving on a summer day in the wooded hills of southern Indiana, I slow down as the state road takes me through a town with one flashing yellow traffic light: Bean Blossom.  On the left hand side I pass a memorial park celebrating a late great Blue Grass musician (Bill Monroe).  On the right I pass a clean white wooden church with clear windows.  It stands out against a bright blue sky.  Up high inside the gable, a painted sign: “Bean Blossom Mennonite Church.”  Just below the name, it says: “Strangers Expected.”

I’m not sure what that means.  Mennonites are an old sect, with connections to the Amish and the Quakers.  Most are of German ancestry.  Services are traditional; clothing is conservative.

Strangers Expected.  As a marketing slogan, a bit ungracious.  If it’s aimed at curious neighbors and seekers passing by—telling us that visitors are welcome—it’s at best antiquated.  Strangers?  Up-to-date wording would say: newcomers, visitors, guests, friends-to-be…

Maybe it’s telling us that visitors are expected — so, you better visit!  That’s kind of bossy.  Well, I am passing by on my way to Bloomington, where I will go to a UU church in the morning, so I can’t visit the service here to find out what they mean.  Before driving on by, I take a picture with my phone.

Strangers Expected.  I wonder if the sign is aimed at that church’s own members.  An existential reminder:  We’re all strangers here, in one way or another.  There is so much that we do not yet understand about one another, so much we do not know.  Whether first timers or long timers, we have much to learn, much to share, of ourselves.  Perhaps that is what it’s for.

Here in Sacramento, the regular invitation seen by visitors to our website says:  “Come As You Are.”  The words mean: Dress however you feel comfortable.  But the words mean more than that.

Come as you are.  Bring your whole self to this congregation.  Bring your history, your personality, your identity, your love.  Your hopes, passion, talent, creative enthusiasm.   Bring your loss and your lamenting.   Your doubts, quirks, bad habits, weaknesses, and failures.  Bring your energy and your exhaustion.  There is room to grow here, room to risk, room to be less than perfect.

It’s not a condition of participation to have your life nice and tidy, “issues” taken care of, questions answered, spiritual mess cleaned up.  If each of us waited till we had it all together before coming to church, this place would be empty.

It is not required to have all your stuff together before building a community for yourself.

Over the years, it has hurt my heart when someone says to me they feel embarrassed to come back to church, or to come for the first time, on account of their present condition… of grief, confusion, self-doubt, singleness, unemployment, underemployment, or having medical needs or emotional challenges.  This is when we need community, not when to shy away from it.

There are two main reasons that people start attending a spiritual community.  One reason is that somebody has invited you.  The other one reason is a transition in your life.  A new child, relocation, new job, lost job, retirement, death in the family, loss of relationship, an unwelcome diagnosis.

On the other hand, a big life change also can leave us shaken, and we may stop involvement in a community, or not even start going to one in the first place.  It’s a paradox—in our pain or doubt, just when we need caring people, we may keep them at arm’s length. When we need a place to belong, we may allow loneliness to keep us away.          Don’t do this!  Come as you are.  At its best, a spiritual community accepts us as we are, wherever we are.  And then it opens us to the challenge to grow beyond who we are, to be more than we were before.   We have to start somewhere. Why not start where you are?

Healing, self-acceptance and self-transformation are done best with the support of other people.              James Luther Adams, the great Unitarian theologian and activist minister of the 20th century, said:  “Church is a place where you get to practice being human.”  Come as you are.

A story from over ten years ago.   I received a phone call from a stranger, a woman living near the town of the congregation I was serving at the time.  She said that her father was in a local hospital with a terminal disease.  He needed someone to talk with.  He had requested a Unitarian Universalist minister. “Is that something you do?” she asked.

Her father was not a member of any church.  When she and her sister were young, he had taken them to a UU church elsewhere for Sunday school, but not for very long.  Knowing her age, I calculated that it would have been in the 1960s or 70s, back when I had attended church with my mother.  Ours was a middle-of-the-road Protestant congregation.  Attending was a regular thing, but I can’t say our family was immersed in the life of the congregation.  We did not bring our whole selves to church.  We kept the community at arm’s length.

Back then, churchgoing was just what you did, not something you chose to do because you felt a need for something more, a need for greater depth in life.  In those days, many congregations reflected the larger culture’s preference to stay on the surface of life, to avoid the depths and be quiet about the tender places of our lives.

Back to the woman’s request for me to visit her dying father.  Though I was busy, I made the time.  After services on Easter Sunday, I went to the hospital.  I made my way to a critical care unit.

There was little of the small talk that usually takes place between strangers.  I introduced myself, and he started talking.  “I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching,” he said.

He told me that he had married and had two children.  His wife had divorced him when the children were young.  After the divorce, he dated, but never remarried.  But the main burden on his mind was older than his divorce.  He told me that when he was 18 he had entered the Army.  He fought in Europe during World War II, as a member of the Army Signal Corps.  He shot at enemy soldiers.  He told me that he could justify his actions by the necessity of stopping the Nazis.  However, it was still a burden to think that he had probably killed other human beings.

For a young man who grew up with principles of nonviolence, he said, it was a disorienting experience.  He had never been able to resolve it.  He told me that he had never kept his wartime experiences a secret.  However, almost nobody had seemed to be interested.  Nobody had invited him to talk about his time in the war.

After telling me all this, he said, “What can you do for me?”

I said:  “I could listen some more; I could tell you my thoughts about what you have told me, or I could pray with you.”

He said:  “I’ll take all three.”

He talked more.  He had been a dentist for many years.  After earning a doctorate in re-constructive dentistry, he had worked on teams of volunteers who repaired cleft palates in people all over the world.  After his retirement, he became a volunteer leader in his town.  He established Head Start early education programs in the school district, and served on the board for years.  This man was the gentlest soul I had met in a very long time.

After talking he became chilled.  He requested a warmed-up blanket.  A nurse brought one, but he still shivered.  I asked for a few more.  By the time he was bundled up, he was agitated and anxious.  He asked me to sit with him for a while until he became calm again.  I sat in silence in a chair near the foot of his bed.  After a while, he said, “Thank you for staying with me.”

I said,  “I am honored to be here.”

After a while, he was ready to resume conversation.  The silence had given me time to think about what I might say to him, and time to pray about it.

This is what I told him.  I said that we cannot undo or erase the actions we regret.  But even if we cannot justify our actions, we might be able to understand how it was that they happened.  Then, with the life we have left, we can make choices that reflect what we value and what we believe in.  I asked him if his work as a dentist and his years of volunteer service had been his attempt to make life-affirming choices.  He said yes, that’s what he had tried to do.

The last part of his request of was a prayer.  Before I took his hand to pray, I thought I should ask him about his concept of the divine.  This was his answer:  “God… represents… the totality of all the love and caring that has ever existed.”

I prayed to the Spirit of Life and Love, asking for comfort and peace for him and those he cared about.  I prayed that he might know that he was forgiven.  I prayed that he might know what a blessing his life had been.   I gave thanks for knowing him.  I concluded:  Amen.  (It took effort for me to use the word forgiveness, but this is what I think he was seeking.)  Ninety minutes after we had met, we said goodbye.   He died the next week.

He said that he had never kept his wartime regrets a secret.  But few people had asked him.  He carried those burdens alone, for too long.  What if he had been part of a community that had asked him?  What would it have been like if he could have unburdened himself in a caring congregation? What a gift it could have been for younger people in a congregation to hear this man tell his story!  How many stories need to get told?  How many stories don’t ever get told?

Of course, we do not reveal our most meaningful stories easily.  We need safe places to be ourselves, in all our tenderness.  That is what we strive to do in this place.  Through our Ministry Circle groups, Lay Ministry volunteers, Youth Groups, adult classes, worship services, and  Parents’ Group, we strive to be and provide a safe place.  To welcome you as you are.

We even have an activity called Strangers Feasts.  These are dinners in peoples’ homes, sharing the roles of hosts and cooks.

Through many opportunities for fellowship and connection, we strive to welcome one another–not as idealized, perfect people–but as whole people.

Come as you are.  Bring your whole self here.  You choose when and how.  Of course you decide how and when to show yourself.  You decide when to reach out… whether it’s asking for help, or offering it, whether it’s inviting others to go hiking, play a board game, work on an event or a project, attend a show, or make a play date with your kids.

Let us keep on learning, keep on practicing what it means to be human.  We practice being human together.

Let us connect with one another as we are, without hiding our shadow sides, without ignoring our need for the warmth of others.

Let us connect with one another as we are, bringing forth our light and our warmth.  So may it be.  Amen.

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