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Learning Spirituality from Plants! Flower Celebration Sunday Message

Homily (Sermonette) by Rev. Roger from UUSS Flower Communion Sunday, June 2, 2013 (All-Ages Worship Service)

 

Writing in his journal in 1859, Henry David Thoreau says that “the mystery of the life of plants” is like the mystery of our own human lives. He cautions the scientist against trying to explain their growth “according to mechanical laws” or the way engineers might explain the machines that they make.   There is a magic ingredient, to go along with air and sun, earth, water and nutrients. There is one part miracle to every living thing, he says. The force of life. A force we can feel and recognize, but cannot create or control.

For my birthday I received a planter from our Religious Education staff person, Miranda.   To ensure its longevity I left it in her office, and it has flourished. But when she departed for two months in Ghana, a post-it note appeared on the planter: Roger, remember to water me.

            I am not reliable around green things. I have nearly killed off a cactus—a small one I got last Christmas. I remember when I was little, in school, planting seeds in Dixie cups with dirt an inch deep.   Watching the sprouts, helping them along; it was fun. Then, a few years later, a friend of the family helped me plant a garden in the back yard: green beans, tomatoes, onions. Delicious, for one or two summers.

But my horticultural karma was all downhill from there. In high school I mowed grass for a few neighbors and friends of my mom. One family had a large yard around their large house. They asked me to pull or cut out the weeds growing close to the house.  This was before the days of the weed-whacker, which would have been fun to use. Using my bare hands—not fun. So I drizzled gasoline on the weeds near the outside walls, all the way around. Killed all their weeds. Filled the house with fumes, I found out later.

To the good fortune of the plant kingdom, in my adult life I’ve never had a yard or a garden, nearly always lived in an apartment. Here in the church’s community garden, which we call UURTHSONG, a few summers ago at lunchtime I helped myself to a few meals of tomatoes and chard, but I haven’t dared to plant a garden plot.

I know many of you garden, with lovely flowers and gorgeous vegetables. You have citrus and plum and fig trees and so many other kinds. Some of you are Master Gardeners. Some of you sell plants for a living, or you work in landscaping and grounds-keeping.

Some of you volunteer with plants, like our member Jerry, who spends many a weekday tending the flowerbeds and flowerpots here at the church. Some of you, like Nancy and Gail, give tours at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center on the American River Parkway, among other outdoor places. Annie and other UUSS Waterbugs tend our thirsty trees and bushes year after year.

As I noted, my experience with plants is questionable, so I can’t be sure what it’s like for people who put hour after hour into the lives of growing green things. But this is what it might be like.   Planting, tending, watering, weeding, harvesting, transplanting… it involves a mix of your own physical power, and the patience to wait and see what happens. It calls for intention and effort, and then for humility.

            One cannot bring plants into bloom, or force them to bear fruit. You have to learn enough to know when and where to plant them, how much water and fertilizer to give, how much to weed, when to prune or plow over, and of course you need to know what not to do.

You do your part, waiting, watching, tending. You wait on the force of life. You wait on a miracle, an everyday ordinary miracle. Seeing a vine crawl, blossoms yielding fruit, colors calling for bees and other pollinating insects. Miracles happen a lot. But we can’t make them happen. We can’t make life happen.

I wonder if this is a helpful way to think about our spirituality. There are new and modern resources for spiritual growth, and there are ancient practices.   We can draw on all of them, of course.   Yet the main ingredient is paying attention. Watching ourselves, noticing reactions, sensations, desires. Observing the world around us—the plants, the people, the traffic, the sunlight. Gently tending to the needs around us.

Preparing ourselves.

Perhaps we can think of spiritual growth from the perspective of a faithful gardener.   Not a prizewinning perfectionist whose work is on the cover of a magazine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I bet most of us aren’t up to that much effort in spiritual practice (or in gardening).

I’m thinking of a gardener like a humble companion, a curious visitor. As a humble gardener tending our own growth, we remember to check in with ourselves, on a regular basis. We notice the world around us. We tend our gardens. We wait in humility, and we remember to practice patience. We don’t worry about explaining too much, about figuring ourselves out, as if we were machines, predictable and controllable. We don’t try to fix, only to encourage, nurture, water and feed.

We can’t make plants grow, but we can help them, and watch the miracle happen. We can’t force ourselves to grow spiritually—and we certainly can’t make somebody else grow. But we can be present and attentive. Be intentional. Notice what might help, or ask. Practice a bit more patience.

Then, we can enjoy the results. We give thanks for what we are able to harvest, thanks for the results of our waiting and watching.

Give thanks for the ground of our being. And celebrate every ordinary miracle.

So may it be. Blessed be. Amen.

 

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Atheism & Spirituality — Sermon Excerpt March 23, 2014

Spirituality has to do with renewal, when we take our worn lives and cultivate a new enthusiasm for what is ours. It’s about building bridges of connection between our solitary self and others. It’s about finding your place in the family of things, in the family of life.

When I meet people socially they often ask what I do, where I work. I usually tell them. In reply, they might say, “Oh, well, I’m an atheist.”

Their tone implies: If you’re angling to invite me to services, Mr. Minister, I’m off the hook! But I say, “Oh, good. I have plenty of atheists in my congregation! Agnostics too.”

. . .

I like to think of a UU congregation as an inter-faith community. We strive to welcome differences of theology while celebrating common ethical values. But it’s not easy.

It can feel vulnerable to speak from the heart, to express your personal views. When we dare to speak from the heart, it calls for trust and courage. When we ask another “What do you believe?” it calls for the practice of curiosity and a discipline of respect. Let us help one another to practice courage and respectful curiosity.

At our best, we can be an intentional inter-faith community. What holds us together in our diversity is a set of shared values, and a set of promises, which we call a covenant.

 

Listen to the whole sermon, and find others, at http://uuss.org/Sermons.



Icons and Agitators: Maladjustment to the Way Things Are–UUSS Sermon for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday

Rev. Roger Jones, Acting Senior Minister

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

January 19, 2014

Hymns: #116, I’m on My Way; #155, Circle Round for Freedom; #1018, Come and Go With Me

Choir:  Hush!  Somebody’s Callin’ My Name

Piano:

Prelude:  Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Meditation:  Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Offertory:  Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)

Postlude:   It Is Well with My Soul

 

Sermon

What fascinates me about the study of history is learning how the social advancements we consider to be normal, to be “the way things are,” did not come about easily.  To people who lived in the past, the achievements of equality and fairness that we take for granted were not assured or guaranteed.  Indeed, every step toward equality involved struggle and upheaval.

Should women have the right to vote and run for office?  Of course!  Few in public life would now say that’s a debatable question.  But until 1920, the road toward voting equality was messy and full of setbacks.  Some states allowed voting, others did not.  After the Senate approved the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and enough states ratified that amendment, voting equality became the way things are.  Twenty-five senators had voted no, but history moved on, passing them by.  Many women who had begun the struggle in the 1800s were dead by then. They had given themselves to a cause that would outlive them.  Success was not predictable or guaranteed.

Likewise, ending American slavery was not predictable or guaranteed.  Nor were any of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, of which Martin Luther King Jr. was the most prominent and inspiring leader.  But after we expand the circles of opportunity and freedom, it becomes easy to talk as if justice was obvious and success inevitable.

It is tempting to frame the history of a struggle for freedom in sweet words and warm images.  We can use the words of daring women and men not to urge us to achieve more, but merely to comfort ourselves, to make ourselves comfortable with the status quo.

We can use the words of heroic people only to honor them, while we avoid hearing them.

Martin Luther King worked against racism and segregation.  But he also preached against militarism and economic inequality.  According to scholar Michael Eric Dyson, in the later years of his brief life Dr. King’s views grew more radical.  Upsetting his colleagues and staff, Dr. King became one of the first high-profile leaders in America to oppose the American military involvement in Vietnam.  King highlighted the hypocrisy of suppressing freedoms in the name of protecting freedom.  We could not defend freedom by supporting rule by generals in Southeast Asia, he said.

Many politicians and the press ridiculed him for expressing his opinions about the war.  They questioned the ability of a southern black Baptist preacher to analyze international affairs (according to Dyson).  However, King had a Ph.D. from Boston University.  He had won the Nobel Peace Prize.  The historian Taylor Branch writes that King was the “the moral voice of America,” more than any office holder or elected leader.[i]   His opinions mattered, and he felt compelled to speak out.

His colleagues didn’t want his involvement with another controversy to dilute and distract from civil rights.  They feared he would alienate the Congress and President Lyndon Johnson, who had been a forceful supporter of the civil rights agenda.  Indeed, Johnson did feel betrayed by King’s opposition to the war, according to Dyson.[ii]

King’s response to his critics was this:  “I have worked too long now and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern.” By articulating the linkages among types of injustice and oppression, he raised our discomfort, raised our national tension.

This was Dr. King’s gift and his role as a leader.  He could orchestrate a mix of tension and inspiration, the right blend of discomfort and conciliation.  To change, America needed challenge.  This took standing up and sticking his neck out.  That is a challenge that many of us can recall having in our own lives from time to time.  Dr. King did it for all our lives, for our common life and the common good.  Many times, Dr. King said:  “If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”  Such words, and his commitment to them, unsettle my comfort with the way things are.

Since his assassination in 1968, Dr. King has been turned from a strategist and an agitator into an icon. Leaders from all across the political spectrum and the range of religions now salute Martin Luther King.  It’s easier to honor someone who’s dead.  You don’t have to listen to him for real.   Leaders from across the spectrum make their own assertions about what Dr. King wanted for our society and what he would want.  This is what you can do with icons. With real people who carry out real movements for change, you have to wrestle.  They make us uncomfortable.  They unsettle our adjustment to the way things are.

We may be comfortable imagining Dr. King and his challenges to the America of 50 years ago, but what would his challenges be for us today?  What tension and what inspiration would he bring to us?

In King’s last years, he addressed poverty and economic injustice.  He launched the Poor People’s Campaign and argued for another March on Washington, like the one in the summer of 1963, but one lifting up economic injustice and poverty.  Men on King’s staff opposed this campaign—and they were all men on his staff.  They feared it would be a disaster, generating only the resistance of Congress and the anger of President Johnson.

According to Michael Eric Dyson, in 1966, King admitted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had failed to improve the condition of poor blacks.  He said that progress had been “limited mainly to the Negro middle-class” (Dyson, 87).  With his Poor People’s Campaign, King endeavored to focus on the need to lift all people out of degrading poverty, including all black people.

He saw people as connected, no matter our identity and life circumstances.  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is how he said it.  “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In private, Dr. King told colleagues that he believed America must move toward democratic socialism. However, in public he did not use the term socialism.  The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had waged a campaign to discredit the movement by smearing Dr. King as a Communist sympathizer.        King did not have Communist sympathies or alliances.  Communist regimes were anti-democratic, and Communist theory was anti-religious.  King said:  “I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx.  I got it from a man named Jesus.”  He said that Jesus was “anointed to heal the broken hearted” and to deal with the problems of the poor, and those in captivity” (Dyson, 130).  In this spirit, King called for job creation programs, for full employment and for a guaranteed minimum income.

Dr. King said that full-time work should yield a person enough money to support a family.  In the years since 1980, for most of this nation’s people, income and wealth have stagnated, even shrunk when you consider the eroding effects of inflation.  Wealth has been concentrated more and more in the hands of a smaller percentage of people at the very top.  Two years ago, the Occupy Wall Street Movement brought to public attention the idea of the 99% and the 1%.  At the top, the 1%, are those who have gained by the shifting structures of economic policy, international trade agreements, tax breaks, and lax regulation in the financial services industry.[iii]

Meanwhile, for a growing mass of people, it has become harder to support a family on full-time work, even if two parents work full-time.

If Dr. King were alive right now, perhaps he would embrace campaigns for better funding of public schools and a restoration in financial aid for college.   Perhaps he would lead campaigns for a single-payer health care system available to all and for a higher minimum wage.  In pursuit of economic fairness, he might advocate for regulation of the financial services industry, and a reform of crop subsidies to move away from industrial agriculture and toward smaller, sustainable farms.  Perhaps he would speak for these goals, but I can’t be sure.

Such goals have come to seem less radical in these times, as ordinary American have grown more desperate, and as more working people feel the loss of economic security, and the loss of food security.  I am sure Dr. King would have would have made us uncomfortable.  He would have turned up the tension that political leaders feel about these issues.  Maybe he would call for more subsidized housing for low-income families and more mental health care for the lost souls wandering and sleeping on the streets.  He said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

If he were speaking to most of us right now, would he ask us if we need all the square footage many of us enjoy in our homes?  Would he challenge us for having a car of our own and the petroleum to run it, given what oil extraction does to local and global environments, not to mention to indigenous tribal communities who live near oil wells?  Would he ask us if we couldn’t still do okay financially without investing in portfolios that grow by pushing down worker’s wages and benefits, and by tearing down rain forests for beef grazing?

In India, Martin Luther King met with Mohandas K. Gandhi, to learn about the “soul force” of nonviolent resistance, which had been a tool of the Indian Freedom Struggle.  King saw dissent and rivalries among Gandhi’s inner circle, something he would find among his own leaders and staff members at home.  And he saw the massive poverty of people sleeping on the streets in Calcutta, hungry children and begging parents and elders.

Ten years ago I traveled in India, during a sabbatical for five weeks.  In cities around the country, I saw masses of barely housed and homeless and hungry people.  Many were begging, but some only were sitting in the heat, exhausted.  I even saw some of them weeping.  What came to my mind on my journey was the idea that most Indians seemed to accept this as normal, inevitable, the way things are.  There will always be destitute people around you.  Your task is to learn how to refuse the destitute, walk around them, ignore them.  The task of one who is not hurting in that way is to do anything except ask why such hurt persists.   If this is the way things are, you need not imagine how to change the system or why.  I could be wrong about Indian social attitudes—I bet I am wrong—but it made me think about us.

I see people begging for money at street intersections around here, holding cardboard signs.  I see more of them at more corners than I did just a year ago.

In thinking about India, I’m thinking about the person I saw Friday night at my apartment building in a sleeping bag, lying in the car port by the dumpster.   I’m doubtful that a handout of money would change such a situation.  But I wonder how normal we have let it become that so many people live on the street.  Is this now the way things are?  Is the choice now merely whether to give a dollar, or smile, or look the other way?

Is the question no longer, how did we let this happen?  Is the question now just whether to call the cops or the landlord so the person can be rousted from beside our dumpster, and find another dumpster to sleep near?

In May of 1966, Dr. King addressed the ministers and lay delegates of the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist Association, meeting in Florida.   Every year the General Assembly holds a major lecture, the Ware Lecture, and he gave this lecture in 1966.[iv]

He called on our congregations to assert the basic sinfulness of racial segregation, refute the idea of racial superiority, and engage in action on legislation to expand the circles of equality and fairness.

And he cautioned us against the “myth… of exaggerated progress,” the idea that we’ve arrived.   He said:  “We should be proud of the steps we’ve made…. On the other hand, we must realize that the plant of freedom is only a bud and not yet a flower.”   He said we cannot stop with the way things are.

He spoke about the psychological term or label of a maladjusted personality.  He said:  “I must say to you this evening, my friends, there are some things in our nation and our world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted….  I call upon … all people of good will to be maladjusted to those things until the good society is realized.”

He listed the problems of life in America to which he wished we could remain maladjusted.   He said:   “I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

King’s life, and the deeds of so many people in the struggle for civil rights, unsettled a country that had adjusted to the way things are, as if it was always how things were going to be.

His words and life and the movement he led continue to challenge us to pay attention, take steps toward healing, stretch ourselves and let ourselves feel discomfort and maladjustment/ for the sake of a better world.

King said that life’s most urgent and persistent question is, “What are you doing for others?”  His legacy is the legacy of standing up for others, and standing up with others.

This legacy should discomfort us, and unsettle us, but it shouldn’t paralyze us.  His words and deeds should not freeze us in a sense of smallness or shyness or shame.  We should hear his words as the call to community, the call to standing up with others.

Part of the King legacy is the fact that today many organizers, leaders, volunteers and advocates of all generations are doing this work, bringing attention to unfair and unsustainable conditions.

I give thanks for those who give of their time in service, their treasure in generosity, and their courage and hope toward a better country and a better world.  I give thanks for those who dedicate their lives to the needs of others and those who risk their lives for the betterment of all of us, everywhere.

May the deeds of all those who struggle, serve, hope and give of themselves give us the courage not to get too adjusted to the way things are.  May their deeds challenge us.

May they awaken us into attention, imagination, action and courage.  So may it be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes


[i] Branch, Taylor. The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

[ii] Dyson, Michael Eric.  I May Not Get there with YouThe True Martin Luther King, Jr.  New York:  Free Press, 2000.

[iii] See more analysis and stirring comment in columns by Chris Hedges on truthdig.com.



Time of Darkness and Light– UUSS Sermon from Sunday, December 15, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

Music:  Hymns:  #226 “People, Look East,” #118 “This Little Light of mine,” #1008 “When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place.”  Solo:  “The Dark” by Mary Grigolia, sung a capella by Rev. Lucy.

Litany of Darkness and Light    (see at end)

Sermon

I sat looking out the kitchen window well before 7 in the morning, just last week.  I felt the chilly air seeping in, and a mug of warm tea in my cold hands.  I was ready to watch the morning light emerge, was waiting for the sunlight to change the look of everything.  But I felt sadness.  The tea had caffeine—how long would it take to change my mood, if it could?  This mood was not of deep grief, and not a heavy burden of depression on my shoulders, yet it was a decidedly not-fun feeling of sadness.   I said my morning prayer anyway.

I gave thanks for the gift of life and the new day, for a night’s rest in a warm, safe place.  I lifted up the names of parishioners who need good wishes or prayers, brought their faces to mind, plus those of colleagues, friends, and relatives.  I stated my intentions for living the day with gratitude, generosity, curiosity and kindness.  The light was now making the street visible, and showing the colors of the cars parked on it.

Then it occurred to me:  that pre-dawn darkness was just the right place for my sadness.  The shadows could receive it.  The shadows could let the sadness move, in its own gentle way.  Had it been 7 AM in June or July, the sun would have claimed the whole scene by now.  It would be urging me into the many tasks of the day:  Get going, look alive!  But the morning darkness of December seems to say, “Take it easy and slowly–I am taking it easy and slowly, after all.  Let it be.  Feel what you feel in this moment.  You will notice how it changes.”

Soon it was bright and clear, and my day was on its way.  And it went fast.  The night came in the middle of the day—5 o’clock.  Wait!  I’m not finished with my day yet!

For years I have resisted and resented the early evening.  I’ve dreaded the shrinking hours of daylight, starting in early November, when we set our clocks back an hour.

But as this December Solstice approaches, I try to appreciate what can happen in the dark.  I would like to mention a few of the gifts of the time of darkness, but first I want to say:  it’s not a gift for everyone, no matter what a preacher or a poet might say.

Like many people, a friend of mine has a clinical, biological reaction in the winter darkness, called Seasonal Affective Disorder.  It does not help that she lives at a latitude even farther north than we do, and it’s cold there, for a long time.  You know what they would call the chilly weather we’ve had this past week?  Springtime (without the mud).

She sits under a special kind of lamp every day, to give her body and spirit some extra rays of light.  In retirement she has the time to travel, so she spends a few weeks in the winter visiting friends in warm, sunny places.  When she can save up enough money and find a cheap deal, she takes a trip to a warm country.  Not speaking Vietnamese, she made her way around villages in Vietnam by pointing and smiling.  In the sunshine of Egypt a few years ago, she heard people speak with hope right after the overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.  She enjoyed the January summer of Argentina, taking in the spray of Iguazu falls, the marvel of a glacier, and some penguins in their stiff cuteness.  Rather than cursing the dark and cold, she follows the sun.  Of course, this is not an option for most people, and she gives thanks for the privilege to do so.

It’s important to note that seasons of darkness and cold can be very hard on the spirit, hard on the emotional health of many people around us.  It may not only bring up grief or painful memories of past experiences, it may bring depression that weighs on our minds and even on our physical bodies.  This can happen to people young or old, in any occupation or stage of life.  When other ways of dealing with the shadow side of this dark time don’t seem to help us, it may be worth seeing if anti-depressant medicines, psychotherapy, or a 12-Step recovery group can make a difference for us.  Whether as individuals or as families, we can look for professional resources and community support as we pursue emotional healing, personal growth, and the ability to accept the gift of life with joy.

Personal growth can happen in the dark times and places.  Seeds will sprout in the cool dark of the earth, and begin their journey toward the light.  As a tree stretches toward the sun, it also grows downward, inward, into the dark earth.  We can be like the trees.  As Henry David Thoreau said, “In winter we lead a more inward life.”

Another friend of mine lives not so far north, so the weather’s not as cold and the nights not as long.  Yet the winter darkness does mean a change of her pattern of living, toward a more inward life.   She spends more time under the covers, reading a book propped on the pillow next to her.   In the living room she brings out candles and a string of holiday lights.  They remind her of our inner light, of an eternal spark.  Believing that winter is the best time for exercise, she puts on layers and goes out for a brisk walk.  The leaves crunch underfoot, the air chills the skin of the face, the nose runs.

In winter, she says, we need exercise to stimulate our endorphins.  Of course, we can be tempted to medicate our mood by drinking more alcohol and eating more, especially sweets and other carbohydrates.  But the boost we might feel by consuming alcohol and sweets can have a down side.  It can make us feel worse—edgy–after the boost wears off.   This December I am taking some of her advice.  Of course, I may never stop my holiday consumption of cookies, cake, fudge and anything else any of you might wish to make for me.  But I’m eating more almonds and pecans and not forgetting my veggies.  And I am having less alcohol, and drinking less often.   I’m not crazy about green tea, but I’ve been drinking so much of it lately that soon I may turn the color of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

One Unitarian Universalist family I know has created their own Solstice tradition.  With candles and cloths they make an altar of their table.  They bake a light brown, round ginger cake—dense and only an inch thick.  They serve it on a large round plate with a rim glazed with dark blue like the sky, and specked with stars.  They pass the cake around, each one cutting a piece for the next person, who indicates by nods and silent gestures how large of a piece to cut.

As the cake is served, what is revealed underneath it in the center of the plate is a round red sun.  The sun returns!  For Solstice dinner, they eat only foods with round shapes, evoking the sun.  They read prayers to the divine light and sing chants to the source of returning warmth.  The parents hide little suns around the house and the kids go searching for them.  By finding a likeness of sun, they are bringing the sun back, helping it return.  This family does not rely on the dominant culture to tell them what they need to do or to buy for making spirits bright—they create their own traditions.  Any of us can be creative.  We can join with nature and with other people to create our own light, and share the light, now in the dark of winter.

For many people, winter is a time for making soup and other warm foods, and eating more of the fresh foods that our season brings out.  In California we have so many winter crops.  Those in cold climates now can benefit from quick transport of fresh foods, but in the old days they kept food in the root cellar, and dried meat and beans from the summer crop.

Back home in Indiana, my mother’s fridge held many frozen foods for our winter meals, and this was fine.  But around the corner from our house, my uncle and aunt had shelves of clear glass jars with green beans, tomatoes, corn and other produce they had canned in the summer.   My uncle Roger had been a cook on a ship in the Navy during the Second World War.  As a boy I helped him in the kitchen, including his major undertaking of putting up all that food, with Mason jars boiling in big pots of water and other steps for cleanliness and safety.  That was a summer activity, but the memory of it warms me in the winter.

Now I can see that we were storing sunshine in shiny glass jars.

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time the eye begins to see.”

The darkness can help us to see the truth… that we are not in control of everything.  We can be so busy in our lives, have so many expectations.  So many technologies at our fingertips and conveniences in our daily experience can lull us into thinking that there is an online menu tab for peace of mind or an iPad application for wisdom, courage, and grace.

The world does not revolve around any of us, including me; nor does earth rotate at my command.   Its creation is a miracle and a blessing. The operation of the heavens is a wonder.  And it all goes on without my permission or involvement. It will go on without me.  The darkness comes and goes—my cursing it or my blessing it affects only the condition of my own spirit.  The season’s advice to me:  you need not be in control, and in fact you are not in control.  Let the darkness hold the future.  Let go!

We can be intentional about living in the darker season. This is why candles appeal to us:  the darker it gets around them, the more they show their beauty.   Looking at a candle flame, or a string of lights on the tree or around the window, we can think about the meaning of light, and the bringers of light—like our nearby star, the human mind and heart, the source of love and light eternal, the creative spark, the divine fire of courage and compassion.

Solstice rituals use fire and food and song—to bless the darkness with beauty, while praising the cycles of the seasons of the earth.   People hang lights at Christmas to praise the source of life, celebrate the story of the star of Bethlehem, and remember that sun and warmth will return.

On Christmas Eve at UUSS, our sanctuary fills with members and their friends, and with guests we see only once a year.  In the weeks leading up to it, folks ask me the time:  seven o’clock, same as always.  They ask me if we will light candles and sing “Silent Night,” at the end.  Of course!  We will make a circle around the walls of the sanctuary, and exchange the light with one another, and then enjoy the darkness, filled with song and silence, and with faces illuminated by the flames.

Folks never ask:  will we sing the carols and hear a homily, will we have some instrumental music, prayer and silence and an offering?  All those things are like the setup to the “Silent Night” candle light finale!  Yet without those elements, the finale would be weak.

Without the darkness, our candles would be weak.  Likewise, without the embrace of the darkness, we might not have the reminder to plan ahead, create meaning in the season, and reach out for fellowship and support.  The darkness holds an invitation to let go of all that we cannot control, and accept with serenity all that we can’t change.

At my kitchen window, in my early morning watch for the light, the dark of winter seems to say:  “Take it easy, and go slowly–I am taking it easy, and going slowly, after all.  Let it be.  Feel what you feel in this moment.  You will notice how it changes.”

The dark of winter is a time to consider the sources of light we can count on, and give thanks for them.  It’s the season for tasting the warmth of nourishing food, made by human hands from the gifts of the earth for our sustenance and our joy. It’s a season for creativity, planning ahead, self-care and care for others.  It’s a time for digging deep and for reaching out toward others with compassion, openness, and kindness.

It’s a time for patience and letting go of control, for releasing the past and opening to the mystery of the future.  May we all be so blessed.

In the days to come, may you welcome the gifts of light and warmth you can bring into the darkness.  May the days and nights ahead bless us with light, learning, warmth, patience and peace.               Blessed be.


 

Litany of Darkness and Light

 

Part A (Before silent meditation/prayer)

 

Voice 1:  We wait in the darkness expectantly, longingly, anxiously, thoughtfully.

Voice 2:  In the darkness of the womb, we have all been nurtured and protected.

All Voices:  May we feel comfort in the darkness.

 

It is only in the darkness that we can see the splendor of the universe– blankets of stars, the solitary glowing of distant planets.

In the darkness of the night sky we feel beyond time – in the presence of the past, and with the promise of the future.

May we feel hope in the darkness.

 

In the solitude of the darkness we may remember those who need our love and support in special ways–

 the sick, the unemployed, the bereaved, the persecuted, the homeless, those who are demoralized or discouraged, those whose fear has turned to cynicism, those whose vulnerability has become bitterness.

Sometimes in the darkness we remember those who are near to our hearts – colleagues, partners, parents, children, neighbors, friends, congregation members.   We pray for their safety and happiness.  We offer our support.

May we know healing in the darkness.


 

 

Part B (After musical interlude following sermon)

 

In the quiet darkness of the night, we may hear that still, small voice within.

In the blessed darkness we may be transformed, changed by what we face in the dark.

May we feel the challenge of the darkness.

 

In the darkness of sleep, we are soothed and restored, healed and renewed.

In the darkness of sleep dreams rise up, calling us to possibilities, calling us to know our connection to the world.

May we feel joy in the darkness.               

Sometimes in the solitude of darkness our fears and concerns, our hopes and our visions rise to the surface. We come face to face with ourselves.   We find the road that lies ahead of us.

Sometimes in the darkness we wonder about the important things, the deep things, and inexpressible things.  We watch for glimmers of hope and glimpses of grace.

May we feel renewed in the darkness.  May we be guided by the light of our hearts.  Reflecting the divine love that shines at the heart of life,  let us reach out to this troubled world with compassion.

New Century Hymnal, adapted



Trees Full of Angels or Infinity in Your Hand — UUSS Sermon

 UU Society of Sacramento

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shared Offering for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes

Dance with Music:  Sarah Bush Dance Project with “Sing When the Spirit Says Sing” by Sweet Honey in the Rock and “The Last Bird” by Zoe Keating.

Hymns:  #126 “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” #21 “For the Beauty of the Earth,” #163, “For the Earth Forever Turning.”

Reading (followed by “The Last Bird”) with Dance: William Blake:

To see a World in a grain of sand,

And a Heaven in a wild flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour…

 

Sermon

“A spiritual awakening is taking place in the world today.”  So writes Macrina Wiederkehr, a Catholic sister who lives in a Benedictine monastery in Arkansas.  She says: “An authentic yearning to touch the depths of who we are is urging people to seek out ways to rekindle the soul.”   In her book about “seeing the holy in the ordinary,” she finds this a “promising sign” for the future.  But as a spiritual teacher, she does offer a warning.

She explains:  “I am concerned about the many people today who are lured to extraordinary spiritual phenomena that are manifested, … in sensational ways.  Stories abound about visions and trances, weeping statues, rosaries turning gold.  Celestial beings are emerging everywhere, and angels are in danger of becoming trendy.”  In other words, across the wide landscape of spirituality, she sees a few “cautionary flags.”  These flags look like angels. Too many angels for her, and she’s a nun!  Too many supernatural events.

Of course, questionable accounts of unnatural occurrences have been splashed on the cover of tabloid newspapers in the supermarket for decades.  Now the Internet provides a nonstop supply of sensational spirituality.  This may not be just a harmless and amusing distraction.  It can be spiritually dangerous.  This is because, when we look outside our own lives for spiritual validation, we may neglect our own gifts.  We may diminish the ability to find meaning in our own lives and comfort in our everyday surroundings.  When we seek the sensational, out there, we cannot explore the depth of our own souls, in here.

The nun seems to say:  You want miracles? Go down to the river or up to the mountains.  Visit a local park, or a nature preserve, and look up at the trees.  You want angels?  A tree is “full of angels,” Sister Macrina says.  She’s talking about leaves, flowers, and fruit, about the miracle of growth and the web of nature.  There is holiness in the here and now.  Whether we identify as religious or not, too many of us today are suffering from a lack of noticing the grace of the world at hand.

Yet she is not blaming us, only diagnosing a problem for us.  She says:  “The fast pace of our lives makes it difficult for us to find grace in the present moment, and when the simple gifts at our fingertips cease to nourish us, we have a tendency to crave the sensational.”

Yes.  It’s hard to find grace in the moment if we’re struggling “in the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life,” as Henry David Thoreau pictured our situation, and he was writing back in 1854.  We live with a stressful pace of life, and the distractions of technology, media, and a consumer culture that doesn’t know the meaning of enough.  We feel the tensions of economic uncertainty, the growing inequality of wealth, the pressing demands on our time.  We see suffering around the world, and in our own towns and in our circles of care and kin.

So much can weigh on the spirit.  We need spiritual comfort and nourishment.  I know I need it, and I think some of you feel the same way.

Sister Macrina’s message reminds me of something from our own religious tradition.  The Unitarian Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson made a similar pronouncement.   In 1838, a few years after he left parish ministry, he spoke to the graduating class at the divinity school at Harvard, nearly all of them freshly minted Unitarian ministers.

In Boston in 1838, Unitarianism was barely two decades old.  Many Unitarian ministers still believed that Jesus of Nazareth had conducted supernatural miracles.  Even some Harvard professors still taught the miracle stories as literally true events.   To the Boston Unitarians, even though Jesus was not God, the fact that Jesus conducted miracles was evidence of God’s favor.  The miracles proved that the moral teachings of Jesus were true.  This name for this doctrine is supernatural rationalism.

Emerson would not have it.   According to Emerson, “the word Miracle,” as most churches use the word, “gives a false impression.”  By their worn-out literalism and limited imaginations, he said, they’ve turned the word miracle into a  “monster.”

A true miracle is the life of a human being, of every human being.  A true miracle is visible through nature.  A miracle, he said, must be on par “with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Whatever faith you preach or practice, Emerson said, “[that] faith should blend with the light of rising [suns] and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers.”

You want miracles?  Go outside on a clear night and look up!  Emerson said:  “Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. [Any person] under them seems a young child.”

The Reverend Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar is a Unitarian Universalist from New Hampshire.  She says that children are inherently spiritual beings.  Naturally open, children are predisposed to experience the world as a place of mystery and wonder.  They are “natural poets and natural mystics,” she writes.  They can become totally absorbed in the progress of a caterpillar or the movement of the clouds, losing all sense of themselves.” (Nieuwejaar, 65)

Nieuwejaar recounts a story about Howard Ikemoto, who is an artist.  He said: “When my daughter was seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work.  I told her I worked at the college, that my job was to teach people how to draw.  She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forget?’” (Nieuwejaar, 62, citing Gregg Levoy)

As an adult, Henry David Thoreau kept and cultivated his childlike wonder.  As another of our Transcendentalist spiritual writers, Thoreau devoted his time to doing just enough ordinary work to sustain his life, and used the rest of his time to reflect on his life.  Thoreau said:  “I see, smell, taste, hear, [and] feel that everlasting Something to which we are allied, at once our maker, our abode, our destiny, our very Selves.”

The good news from our Unitarian Transcendentalists is this:  everyone has the right to a sense of connection to life, to all the forms of life around us, to the Mystery of life.  We may not wish for mystical visions, but in any case the sense of connection and wonder is not the privilege of the few.  The wonder of life should be available to all, here and now.  It should be open to us if we but open our hearts!

Yet some people may still ask—what’s all the spirituality stuff about?  Some of us may feel left out, uncertain, non-mystical, un-poetic, even spiritually inadequate.  Sometimes I can be one of those people.  As today approached, I worried what to say in my sermon about seeing the holy in the ordinary.  But then I decided to take some time, a few moments every day to slow down and watch. Slow down, take some time.

As I sit in the morning light at the kitchen window of my apartment, I decide to trust that miracles will reveal themselves to me, or at least I will be able to say I tried to be open to them.   Just outside the window between the sidewalk and the street is a big tree with narrow tapered leaves.  This week, they look so yellow and full on the tree, even though the tree has shed many already.  A few of its leaves still have a trace of green in them, but mostly it’s a big ball of yellow fire coming out of long, rough angled brown limbs.  Wow–I have a kitchen window with a big bright yellow tree just outside!  How did I forget that?  Even though I’ve sat at that window more than at any other window in my apartment, for five years, it feels as if I haven’t noticed it before.  Noticing.  I want to remember to notice.

This is what I take from the notable spiritual teachers of our heritage and those less famous ones who on Sunday mornings are seated in the chairs of this sanctuary, this Unitarian Universalist congregation.  If we are open to noticing the feel of every day and every night we’re given, maybe we can sense the power and energy around us.  If we decide that we wish to take some time to slow down, sometimes, we might be surprised.

Thoreau said:  “We are surrounded by a rich and fertile mystery.  May we not probe it, pry into it, … a little?” (Journal 1851)

Thoreau did his daily chores, but he did not let practical concerns get in the way of his open study of life.  He said:  “The things immediate to be done are very trivial.  I could postpone them all/ to hear this locust/ sing.”  How wise he was!  And how lucky, that he did not have to worry about making a house payment.  And how convenient that he did not have children to shuttle to school or medical appointments or athletic practice.  How lucky that he did not have to prepare a sermon to deliver on Sunday!   His simple and single life made it easier.             Yet he was not writing to boast about his spiritual depth, he was writing with care and compassion for our shared spiritual hunger.  He was suggesting:  Just say that you wish to notice life’s miracles.  Just be open.  You deserve it.  You deserve to be nourished by the ordinary miracle of life.

This past Thursday morning I rose early, shaved and brushed my teeth, and walked to the nearby YMCA to exercise.  It still was mostly dark outside, but sunrise had begun.   I walked to the corner and turned east.  The dawn sky was cast with a bold purple-pink light.  A long stretch of wide, flat ruffled clouds glowed with that beautiful color.  I gasped:  “Oh my God.”  I usually don’t speak out loud when I’m walking alone, but I did.  As I turned another corner, heading south, I kept my eyes on that view, knowing that as the sun and clouds moved the view would not last much longer than my walk to the Y, where in any case I would be indoors.

I must confess that right after I gasped at the texture and color of the dawn, I felt a sense of relief.  I thought:  “Sermon illustration!  I found an ordinary miracle with days to spare before Sunday. Whew.”  Perhaps I was not as deficient in the spirituality department as I had feared.

Perhaps it made a difference that I had told myself that I wanted to notice.  I had made the intention, had actually said that I wish to be open to seeing ordinary miracles.

There are many ways to experience the holy in the ordinary.   Whatever that might be for you….  Merely take time–with others or by yourself–for a practice, an activity, or a pastime that has no obvious practical purpose.  Just say to yourself that you wish to be more open to the miracle of ordinary life.

Thoreau asked:  “What kind of gift is life unless we have spirits to enjoy it and taste its true flavor?”  [8/10]

There are many ways to make our spirits ready to enjoy the gift of life.  Let us remember that we deserve this enjoyment.   You deserve it, and I do, and so does everyone alive on this earth.   May we strive to shape a world more just and fair, in which the whole human family can taste the true sweet flavor of life.

May we live with openness to the miracles of the ordinary day.  And, being open to them, let us enjoy them, and give thanks.   So may it be.              Blessed be, amen and Namaste.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Divinity School Address,” July 15, 1838.  See http://www.emersoncentral.com/divaddr.htm

Nieuwejaar, Jeanne Harrison. Fluent in Faith. Boston: Skinner House, 2012.

Thoreau, H. D. A Week on the Concord & Merrimack River  and Walden.

Wiederkehr, Macrina. A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009, p. ix.

 

 



Death, Loss and the Spirituality of Mortality, sermon at UU Society of Sacramento, Sunday, November 3, 2013

Hymns:  #1003, “Where Do We Come From?”;

#123, “Spirit of Life”; #86, “Blessed Spirit of My Life”.  Also, parody of “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Nicaea) by Christopher Raible:  “Coffee, Coffee Coffee,”  verses 1 and 3.

Choral Music: Autumn Vesper, words by Emily Bronte, music by Audrey Snyder

Shared Offering  for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes.

Testimony by Diane O.

Jean’s mother, Lucille, was lying silently in her bed, her breathing labored, and her face was pinched in pain.    Her morphine didn’t seem to help much.

We kept her lips moisturized, and frequently dabbed her face with a warm washcloth.  We placed a soft cuddly toy in her hand to hold.  We had created an altar of sorts on her rolling bedside table with her favorite objects, fresh yellow roses in a vase, and photos of those she loved including a picture of her husband, Warren. When we repositioned her each time we made sure Warren was in her line of sight.

We made up the futon and spent the night in Lucille’s room.   We startled throughout the night anytime Lucille’s breathing seemed to stop but then she would take in a deep breath.   By morning we were all exhausted.

Jean had left the room momentarily as I finished repositioning Lucille.   I leaned over and carefully wrapped my arms around her so I wouldn’t add to her pain.  I cried as I told her I loved her and was glad she had come to live with us.

I told her I loved Jean and would take care of her for the rest of my life.

I whispered to her… that I was worried about her struggling so hard to live.   I Told Lucille that it was time to dance a Strauss waltz with Warren again.  He was waiting for her, and she would be safe.

I tucked her covers, wiped my tears off of her face and gently kissed her cheek. When Jean returned we left her alone to quietly rest while exiting through the door of her bedroom onto the porch.   A few minutes later I looked through the door and noticed the cuddly toy on the floor.  –Jean!!!!!!!    We rushed to her bed.  Lucille had moved on to a gentler plane of existence to join her husband and family.

Good-bye, Lucille, and thank you for teaching us about the honors we are bestowed in life.

[Addendum: Death and I are familiar old friends.  Death is as beautiful in its pain and sorrow as is the joy and promise while holding a newborn covered with placenta fluids screaming its first cry.   This little story is meant as an adieu  to Lucille as much as a thank you for teaching us to live, dance, laugh and cry with honor when life can be a struggle. ]

 

Sermon by Roger Jones

            This has been the weekend of All Souls Day and All Saints Day in the Christian calendar.  In the Pagan tradition, it is the time of Samhain (SOW-in), the time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest.  In Mexican cultures, the Day of the Dead, or el Dia de los Muertos, is a time to laugh at mortality, remember our ancestors, and celebrate life with art, music, food and fellowship.  Our mortality is the cause and the reason for all of these ritual days

            We are all bound together–all of us–in the common experience of being alive, and knowing that each one of us will die, and having to make some response to this reality.  With those words I begin most of the memorial services at which I officiate.

            Death comes to us all.  Loss hurts us all, sooner or later.  Yet it is not easy to talk about death, especially if it’s near.  To speak about our vulnerability to loss and death… perhaps this makes us feel even more vulnerable.

            Yet when we take the risk to open our heart, we may gain a stronger heart.  When we dare to reach out in times of loss or fear, we may find a warm embrace, a kind word, or a quiet, listening presence from another person.  To exchange such gestures of welcome and honesty is a spiritual gift.  It can be a source of spiritual growth.

            All of us can be enriched by the honest gifts of sadness and love, the mix of memories, gratitude, grief, and fear which are part of dying and part of mourning a loss.   One of the gifts of being a minister is the invitation to hear what it means to lose a dear friend, colleague, family member or another loved one.  Also, it is an honor to bear witness to the feelings and thoughts of a congregation member who is facing the end of life.   These experiences have enriched my life.  They nourish my spirit, with gratitude for the gift of life and for the moments I have with others.  As a young person, I was afraid of life in many ways.  As a minister, learning about loss, death and grief has deepened my love of life.

            I think the main ingredient is honesty.  I learned this the hard way, and only in looking back over the years.

When I was nine years old and my brother was in his junior year of college, he married his high school sweetheart.  This was against our father’s wishes and loud protestations, but I had a new friend in my young sister in law. Her name was Lynn.  I had fun watching movies and shopping with her, and going to stay with them in their new mobile home.  Within two years they had a baby boy, and I was an uncle.  They gave him my middle name.  Not long after that, my brother’s wife began having serious physical symptoms.  Weeks and weeks of tests at the university medical center revealed a rare type of cancer.  Because my father was a physician, he learned from his medical colleagues that her prognosis was fatal.  He told my mother; Mom told her sister.  In a moment of upset, Mom told me, sort of.   Standing over the bathroom sink, crying as she brushed her teeth, she blurted out:  “Lynn might have something terminal.”   Nobody else in my or my sister in law’s family heard it straight, including her.   My parents did not talk any more with me about what was happening.

Photographs from her baby son’s first birthday party show that the illness and the treatments for it had withered and weakened Lynn.  Three months later, she died.  I don’t know how or when the denial about her fatal condition ended.  I think she asked “Am I going to die?” and they told her no.

Those were the days when medicine was heroic and its inadequacies were cause for hushed words.  As I recall, many people with a terminal diagnosis spent long stretches in hospitals and often died there.  Death was a shameful enemy, something to fight so much that you couldn’t let up for a moment, even to talk about it.  As a boy, I didn’t know how to talk about it, didn’t know when or with whom it would be okay to talk about my sister in law’s prognosis, or my fears, or my love for her.  I was an invisible witness.  I was not an invited or included participant in this family drama, even though I had been foretold its conclusion. I was thought of as too young to visit her in the hospital.  Had I been able to go, it might have been a source of comfort for her, as well as for me.

When she died, my brother called my parents on the phone from the hospital.  I listened in on the telephone extension in another room.  After my parents expressed their sorrow, Mom told her son, “Come on home, Honey.” Then my mother called her sister, long distance. I listened in on their conversation too.  I wanted to hear how you say these things, and how one reacts to the news.  Just after my aunt said “Hello,” Mom said, “She’s gone.”  My aunt let out a sigh full of pity.

My sister in law died with the best medical care in the state, but maybe not the most complete care.  It was a time when people felt censored from speaking openly about death.  It was a time when the concept and practice of hospice care was just coming out of exile.    In the western world the first hospice opened as early as the 14th century, in Europe.  Of course, people around the globe have been dying at home instead of in an institution through most of history, with family and care-giving team often one and the same.  The modern ministry known as hospice has made it natural once again to face dying and mourning with honesty, and to face it as an opportunity for growth.

Hospice teams include medical, social service and religious professionals and trained volunteers. They strive not only to ease the last few months of patients’ lives, but to help them experience as much presence, kindness, truth and love as life can hold.

I wonder how my sister in law’s family and my family might have been enriched by a more open approach when she was dying. Instead of keeping everybody apart in our separate fears and sadness, we could have invited one another to come together.

The hospice movement has made a tremendous difference in how North Americans live with loss, and live through our own dying process.  Hospice programs are sustained by voluntary donations and by government grants, in recognition that health care includes care for our experience of the end of life.   Even if we are not a client of hospice care, its philosophy has affected our medical establishment and legal system.  No longer must we expect that every effort will be made to prolong life when the prognosis is that someone will die.  No longer are so many people afraid of talking openly about the coming separation.  We have more tools and encouragement to speak about loss as it approaches, to express appreciation, regrets, and forgiveness, to say farewell and “I love you.”

Of course, many of us die unexpectedly from an accident or murder or another violent cause, or from a sudden health crisis.  But many of us have a slow decline into death.  If this is how my death will occur, I hope to benefit from hospice care when my time comes.  The humorist Woody Allen says:  “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  Thanks to the hospice movement, more people have more courage to be closer to death when it happens, at our own passing or in losing a loved one.

Orson Scott Card is a contemporary science fiction writer.  In his short story Mortal Gods, space aliens have come to earth.  They have established themselves in American cities as friendly neighbors. They build homes that look like houses of worship—temples, churches, mosques.  The aliens, however, are not human-like at all.  They are slithering green blobs that look like bunches of seaweed. These smart aliens inform humans that it’s not feasible for us humans to visit any planet with life on it, as getting to the closest one would take 500 years.  That’s how long it took the aliens, and the reason they could make it here is that they never die.  They are immortal.

The aliens meet an old man, a human one, and they explain their observations of us.  When human beings die, we leave behind the things we have created, built, given away.  The aliens, on the other hand, must endure the decline and loss of everything they create and give.  Nothing they build can outlast them.  For this reason, they worship human beings.  To these alien observers, because we are not immortal, we are worthy of worship.  Death causes us to fear, but it gives them cause to revere our lives.

Even though you and I are not slithering green bunches of seaweed, we can learn from them, from those long-lived aliens.  We can praise and honor human life precisely because it is going to end.  We can affirm life, even in the face of death and even with the knowledge that we will lose what we love.  We can affirm life by going places in our world, communities, relationships and our hearts where life is not fun or clean or easy.

As the Dalai Lama writes: “No matter what is going on,” the opportunity remains to “develop the heart.”  Every day holds opportunities to develop the heart, pay attention, listen to life, listen to others, show kindness.  Every day is a new chance to be generous, and to speak with courage, honesty and love.  Life continues to offer such opportunities, both in the fullness of health and in those times when we face the end of life or the loss of another person.

We are all bound together–all of us–in the common experience of being alive, and knowing that each one of us will die, and having to make some response to this reality.   Let our response be that of coming together across the gaps of grief, uncertainty, or fear.

By coming together we affirm that we are connected.  Connected to one another and to all those beyond these walls, those living on this earth, those who are gone, and those who are here after us.

Together, let us rely on the power of love to help us face mortality with grace and embrace life with gratitude.  Together, may we strive to live with honesty, generosity, kindness and courage.

So may we live.  So may it be.  Amen and blessed be.



Roots and Wings: Annual Ingathering and Water Communion

Ingathering Sunday, August 25, 2013

Prelude                                             Prelude from Suite Bergamasque

-Claude Debussy

Nicholas Dold, Guest Pianist

Invocation                                                              Rev. Lucy Bunch

We come together this morning to remind one another
                    To rest for a moment on the forming edge of our lives,
To resist the headlong tumble into the next moment,
        Until we claim for ourselves awareness and gratitude,
Taking the time to look into one another’s faces
        and see there communion: the reflection of our own eyes. This house of laughter and silence, memory and hope,
        is hallowed by our presence together.

-Kathleen McTigue

*Hymn #347                                                             Gather the Spirit

-Jim Scott

Welcome & Announcements                                Rev. Roger Jones

            Welcome to UUSS.  I am Roger Jones, happy to serve here as the acting senior minister.

Whoever you are, and however you arrived here, and whatever you may be seeking, please know that you are welcome here.  This congregation strives to be inclusive regarding the diversity of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices reflected among us, as well as of gender identity, sexual orientation, cultural background, economic situation, and political opinion.  We strive to see diversity as a source of strength and richness.

With me today making the service possible:  Rev. Lucy, Religious Services Committee members Deirdre   and Diane  , and Erik  , our Sound Manager Ian , our new Board President, Linda .

Our two music staff members are not here today, so I am happy to introduce you to our guest pianist and a brand new Californian, Nicholas Dold. Read about him in Thursday’s Ministerial Message email or in the order of service.

We also give thanks to the ushers, greeters, coffee and tea servers– today and every Sunday.  We offer special thanks today to the salad makers for the lunch of salad, bread and dessert that will follow the service.  Thanks to Glory  and Keith for planning and putting this on, along with her volunteer team.  [Other groups will be invited to sign up to put on a Salad Sunday.]

This lunch is a mini-fundraiser for the church, with a sliding scale of donations ranging from 4 dollars per person to 4,000 dollars per person.  Trust me, this lunch will be worth it!

Three important conversations after the service, for your salad-munching consideration.  Please see the Blue Sheet.

Coming of Age orientation for youth interested in this special program for making friends across the generations, developing UU identity and building your own set of beliefs and articulating them.

There is an American Friends Service Committee presentation on the 49-day hunger strike in California prisons by prisoners protesting the widespread use of solitary confinement in our State.

Our Implementing the Master Plan team offers you a Master Plan Update – here in the Sanctuary.  First part of our master plan is our outdoor Labyrinth.  Diane Kelly-Abrams invites you to come Saturday morning till 2 PM on September 7 to help lay the bricks and finish the Labyrinth.

In two weeks, on September 8, we move back to a schedule of two Sunday services.  Religious Education for youth and children will take place during the 9:30 service.

Today’s service is our Ingathering Service, when we kick off a new church year in our congregation.  This is our welcome service.

If you have been away the past few months, welcome back.  If you have been taking the summer off from church…I hereby forgive you.  Almost completely.  And I say, welcome back.

If you are just now visiting us for the first time, checking us out, looking for a spiritual home, we extend a welcome to you.  Every person sitting here has been in the same situation as a first time visitor, and we have hung around and kept coming back.  We invite you to fill out a Newcomer Form at the Welcome Table in the back after the service, and to make a nametag for yourself after the service.  We invite you to please stay afterwards so we can get to know you.

Greeting with the Hand of Fellowship

Now please we ask you to put your cell phones on their most reverent setting for the rest of the worship service.  It would be nice to have an awesome review on Yelp about our congregation or a happy Tweet about the service, but please wait until afterwards.

Now I’d like to invite you to reflect on the freedom and power that each one of you has.  No matter whether you are a brand new seeker here or a long time church member, young or old, rich or poor or somewhere in the middle, you have the power to give an amazing and welcome gift to a few other people. And that is the simple gift of the words, “Good Morning!  Welcome!”  You could make it better if you introduced yourself by name.  Let’s try that now.  Please rise as you are able and reach out and greet a few other people.

*Hymn (words on insert)                       Spirit of Life/Fuente de Amor

-Carolyn McDade; Spanish trans. Ervin Barrios

Our Mission, Values and Covenant

We come together to deepen our lives
and be a force for healing in the world.

We value the goodness in everyone,
the openness and curiosity that illuminate that goodness
and the love and courage that sustain us.

We, an intergenerational community, travel together

with open minds, open hearts, and helping hands.

We value justice, compassion, integrity and acceptance.

We seek spiritual growth, intellectual stimulation,

caring and laughter.

To these ends we pledge our time, talents and support.

Commissioning of Rev. Lucy, Assistant Minister

See separate attachment

Prayer and Meditation                                                     Erik B.

Gift of Music                                  “Ondine” from Preludes, Book II

-Claude Debussy

 

Sermonette:  Roots and Wings

         

            Our song “Spirit of Life” sings: Roots hold me close; wings set me free.   That’s what I’d like us to think about for a few moments.  Roots and wings.

The writer Brian Nelson says:

People think of the roots of their lives as fixed, while their lives keep growing toward the sun.  But roots keep growing, too, in unexpected ways and directions….  Your story changes as you grow and learn new truths about yourself.  Even as your wings set you free, make sure that you keep track of the … ways in which [you are] grounded.

One of the reasons we seek out religious communities, I think, is to put down roots and spread our wings.  We practice new expressions of ourselves.  We find opportunities to learn, reflect, put our gifts to use, and stretch ourselves.  When we first get involved, we may not know what to expect, but if we stay engaged with anything for a time, opportunities for growth appear.  Opportunities to stretch our wings appear.

I first became a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation when I was 24, starting my first career, living alone in a new city in the middle of the Illinois prairie.  People in the church were friendly, and after my first visit, some called me by name.  It helped that I wore a nametag, of course, but as a new person in a strange town it was nice to hear the sound of my name.

After a number of visits, an usher asked me if I could help:  to hand out the order of service, and receive the offering.  A simple thing.  But let me tell you, the first few times I walked the offering basket up and down the aisle, I felt as self-conscious as if I’d been singing a solo or giving the sermon.  It was a small step, but I was exercising my wings.

The result?  I began to learn that I could stand up in front of a group of people I didn’t know… and survive.  And of course I would get quite used to standing in front of church people.  It started in that congregation.   One more thing:  I felt useful, I sensed more ownership of the place.  I started to grow roots.

Looking back, I find it odd that they asked me only to be an usher, but never to serve the coffee.  Was it easier to trust a newcomer with collecting money than the making coffee?  I don’t know, but I suspect all we had back then was instant coffee, anyway.  After all, it was 1985 in the Midwest.  The trend of really good, brewed coffee had not yet begun.

Also back in the 1980s, coming out as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person was more daunting and lonely than it may be now for a lot of people.  I had begun edging out of my own closet three years before, mostly to myself and my friends in college.  I had little practice speaking my truth in other settings.  Here I was, in a conservative city in a new job, and in a new church, in 1985.  But in truth, most of the barriers were in my own mind, most of the fears in my own heart.  I needed practice at being myself and feeling accepted.  Our church had a series of Sunday morning discussions–a small circle of chairs bringing together all those who showed up on a given day for a given topic.

One Sunday a lesbian therapist from the church led a talk about homophobia.  I found myself contributing to the conversation among these new people in a way I had not experienced before.   I used the words “we” and “us” when speaking about LGBT people, rather than keeping my words at a safe, academic distance.  Nobody shuddered; the walls did not fall in.

In that circle of kind people, I stretched my wings and hopped out of my nest of self-silencing.  It was a subtle change, but also part of a lifelong transformation into a happier human being.  Some time later, I began working on a committee, and became friends with a shy middle-aged woman.  She spoke to the group about her brother who had died, but spoke only vaguely.  Later she told me that he had contracted HIV, which was nearly always terminal back then.  Having been married, he had remained in the closet through death, and the family was holding this great secret, adding to the grief of their loss of him.  Yet for his sister, the burden lifted a bit when she spoke to me, because I had opened up.  Thanks to that church, she and I both grew stronger wings.  We both poked our heads out of the nest of our own fears and vulnerabilities.

A year later the Religious Education Committee asked me to teach Sunday school.  First and second graders.  Who, me?  I had barely seen a first grader in years, let alone try to have a conversation with one of them.

Did that committee see the potential in me?  Who knows–they merely might have been desperate.  Of course, desperate was how I felt.  Yet I had a co-teacher – a dad in the church.  He was easy going and reliable.  We had a book of lessons to guide us.  Some props required, but the lessons were planned.  We would talk every week in advance of Sunday:  who was leading what, who should bring what.  I survived that year, and so did they.  I learned things, and left with fond memories.

Not all congregations help everyone spread their spiritual wings, of course.   Especially when it comes to religious ideas and personal expressions of spirituality.  Some discourage the stretching of wings.

On the other hand, there are plenty of ways beyond a congregation to stretch your wings in 21st century North America:  hobbies, sports and cultural organizations, book clubs, Yoga studios, personal trainers, community colleges, website courses.  But here in a congregation you may wander into a way to spread your wings that you had not been looking for.   Rather than doing a methodical review of opportunities on local websites, and finding an opportunity that you choose, in a community like this one, in a congregation, the opportunity may find you.

You may grow in a way you were not seeking to grow.   Learn lessons you were not looking for.  A benefit of a larger congregation like ours is that we have diverse ways to participate, many opportunities to learn, grow, try out new things, serve, and help out.  You can get involved here in one activity for a while, and if later you feel ready to try something else, we’ll try to help you do that.

Outside of a congregation, if you drop out of a book club, you may not see the people again.  If you give up Yoga class, you may lose your Yoga classmates.  In a congregation, you might slip out of an activity, but you are still part of the community.  You have roots!

Even better, you can use one commitment in order to decline another.  I’m sorry, I can’t install paving stones in the labyrinth next Saturday out in the hot sun with you.  I’m co-leading a workshop at the UU church in Davis, which by chance is indoors in the air conditioning.  Sorry!

[In truth, the Labyrinth is in a well-shaded area here.]

For some folks, the opportunity for growth provided by the church could be… just sitting in one place for an hour.  For others, the stretching of wings could be the invitation to rise to your feet and sing with a room full of people.  Or to greet a few others and say, “Glad to meet you.”   Even if you don’t know for sure that you’re glad about it, you do know it feels good to be greeted, so you decide you will reach out.

In this place, we can watch one another stretch and reach and spread our wings.  We can encourage one another.  If we stumble or flop, we can catch one another.  If we are the ones flopping or falling, we might feel others easing us down to a soft landing.

And while all this is going on—the stretching of wings and the efforts at flight—something else happens.   We get rooted!  As we encourage others and receive encouragement, as we strengthen the wings, we deepen the roots.  We ground ourselves.  Roots grow as we add to our life story by the moments we spend with others.  At a shared meal, we nourish the roots, not only by the food, but also by the fellowship aroundthe food.

Roots grow as we let ourselves be known.

Most of us, I hope, begin to realize that we belong.  We experience a deeper sense of connection and rootedness, not only to a community, but to Life and the spirit and the whole human family.  As we stretch our wings, we deepen the roots of belonging to Life.

The presence of others makes a difference.  All those with whom we invest our time and our gifts can support the roots as we dig deep into life.  And we can do that for others.  You can do that.  Your smile, kind word, outstretched hand, your voice lifted in word and song, can do that.

On this Ingathering Sunday, I ask you to remember that your presence matters to others around you.  Even to those you have not yet met.

We come together to receive encouragement for ourselves, but by showing up, we also extend encouragement to others.  Just by coming together, you help others to dig deep roots into life and stretch out the wings of the spirit.   What a blessing it can be, when we come together.

So may it be.   Blessed be, amen, and Namaste.

Shared Offering

This congregation has a tradition of giving away half of every Sunday morning offering to an organization doing good work in the larger community beyond these walls.   For this month, the month of August, we share the offering with Sacramento Family Promise.  This is a program of hospitality and support services to homeless families with children, including school for the children and assistance in finding employment, stable housing and self-sufficiency for the parents.  Several families will be staying overnight with us in our church buildings for a week starting next Sunday night.

Your generosity today will keep this important program thriving and successful.  Thank you for making a difference.  The shared offering will now be given and received.

Offertory                                                       Cancion y Danza No. 1

–                                                                              -Frederic Mompou

Roll Call and Water Communion Ceremony—Rev. Roger

See separate attachment

           In a congregation of our size, transitions are always taking place, even in years when we don’t have a construction project in the works.

In addition to the good news of Lucy’s joining our ministry here, we also have the sadder news that Eric  has announced his resignation from the position of Music Director.   He’s held this job since 2011.  Last week he wrote to our Board and staff members, and his letter to the congregation will appear in the Unigram.   Next Sunday will be Eric’s goodbye service with us—one service at 10 o’clock.  The Music Committee is planning a farewell for him after that service, with cake.  Please come.  Also, if you would like to contribute money toward a gift, you can see Judy  today after the service.  Next week, we will honor and thank him, and I bet he will sing to us.

Other transitions in the life of our congregation, every year, include the passing of a number of members and friends, and family members of congregants.

You will find an insert in your order of service entitled In Loving Memory.  This is our roll call of those who have died since last year’s Ingathering Service.  If you think of a name that should be added, or if you have in mind others who died in years prior to the last one, we will take a moment after the roll call.  As we conclude, our Board President will pour into this empty vessel some of the water that has been collected from Ingathering Rituals in years past.  This jar includes the waters brought here by people we have known and lost over the years. And after today it will be mingled with the waters that you will pour into the vessel in a few moments.

Now please join with me in saying these names one at a time, with a brief pause to hear each name in our heart.

[Unison speaking of the Roll Call.]

At this time, if you are holding in your heart other loved ones who have died, we will take a few moments to hear the sounds of their names spoken into the space of our sanctuary.  [PAUSE.]  May their memory be a blessing.

[President Linda  pours about half of the tall jar into the cylinder.]

Water Communion Ritual—Rev. Roger

If you have brought a small container of water, this is the time when we will mingle the waters together.  Whether you are bringing or just remembering waters from oceans visited, glaciers, lakes, local rivers, or a local tap, you are invited to mingle the waters.

If you didn’t know about this ritual, forgot, or didn’t read the newsletter, there are containers of water up here for your use.  Please line up on both sides, and when it is your turn, use the microphone, alternating between right and left sides, and speaking loudly.  You may say “This water is from _________” or “This water represents ______.”

At the end I will say a blessing.

*Hymn   There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul, and It’s Tellin’ Me that I’m Somebody

-Rose Sanders, arr. Kenny Smith

Led by Rev. Lucy

[words are at #1007 but we didn’t use the hymn supplement book]

*Benediction


           If you are comfortable, please join hands or just be with us for this Benediction.  At the end, you may be seated for the Postlude, or you may come back to the Lobby.

In the days to come, take the time to consider when and how you are deepening your own roots and your own sense of belonging to life and to community.

Consider opportunities to stretch yourself and try your wings.   And remember that your presence makes a difference.  Your presence can help others to find a place to put down roots, and can help us all to try our wings.

As you go out beyond these walls, may you see blessings around you, and may you know that you bring a blessing into this world we share.

Postlude                                             Prelude in c-minor WTC vol. 1
-J. S. Bach