“Living the Welcome”
A sermon given at First Parish Dorchester on September 17, 2017 by Rev. Tricia Brennan
Good morning. The worship theme for the month of September is Welcome, and the title of this sermon is Living the Welcome. What does it mean for this congregation, in this city, in this neighborhood, in this moment of human history to be living the welcome?
Let me start by placing First Parish Dorchester on the landscape of Unitarian Universalist churches in this moment in time. You are one of the oldest congregations in the country, and thus in the UUA. You are located in a diverse urban community, while the majority of UU churches are suburban, in middle class, predominantly white communities. Your membership is more varied in ethnicity, race, sexual identities, age and class than most UU churches.
In 1992 the UUA passed a resolution on Racial and Cultural Diversity with the aim of moving the denomination toward greater diversity. Despite 25 years of effort, I don’t think we’ve been that successful. UU churches lag behind the society at large in becoming multiracial and multicultural.
Now you may be aware of the controversy this past spring over hiring practices in the UUA that look to reinforce white privilege, and I know you are aware of the rise in hate speech and racial violence in our country – most notably but hardly solely in Charlottesville. And I trust you are aware of the increasing recognition of structural racism, white privilege and the wrongness of it all – and aware and likely part of the growing number of voices raised for racial justice – we saw that most notably here in Boston when 40,000 people marched against white supremacy on Saturday August 19th. The honesty of these times, the focus and the energy of engagement all give hope that entrenched racism is on its way out, though its grip on our country will not be loosened without a struggle. This we know. We are in a moment in time when change can happen, and the UUA and its congregations may finally move toward greater racial and cultural diversity.
All that to say that this church – this old church – is also the face of the new church. This church, whose DNA contains all the glories and troubles of America’s history, is and can become even more so a vital example of living the welcome in this our complex, wonderfully diverse and beautiful world. In short order, you will be seeking your new settled minister, and as your interim I look forward to being able to say to prospective candidates – and to my colleagues in general- you would be so lucky to serve this congregation for they are for real; as a historic and emerging church, they are engaged in the powerful religious work of being a welcoming congregation in all the ways they can.
Living the welcome is religious work. It is also theological, practical and emotional work. It calls for the power of a big vision, and the potency of ordinary acts of love and kindness.
Let’s start with theology. The Unitarian Universalist Association is a small denomination with a big name. As you may know, the Unitarian denomination and the Universalist denomination merged in 1961 to form the UUA. The Unitarians and the Universalists were faith cousins of sorts, sharing many liberal religious values. The Unitarians were mostly from New England and more of the elite class, the Universalists were mostly from rural communities in the south, Midwest and New England and more working class. The word Unitarian referred to the Oneness of God, in contrast to a God that was three in one, or Trinitarian. The word Universalist referred to universal salvation, the belief that no person would be condemned by God to eternal damnation. The saying goes that the Universalists believed that God was too good to damn people, while the Unitarians believed they were too good to be damned – actually the original saying was that Universalists believed that God was too good to damn people and the Unitarians believed that people were too good to be damned, but it is the humorous saying that has lasted.
Both the Unitarians and the Universalists were liberal, with our freedom to make religious choices central to both. It was the Universalists that championed inclusion, a true welcome, however. From its beginnings, Universalism challenged its members to reach out and embrace people whom society often marginalized. The Gloucester MA Universalist Church had a formerly enslaved person among its charter members in 1778, and the Universalists were the first denomination to ordain a woman, that being Olympia Brown in 1863.
When we think about and desire to live the welcome, it is that half of our faith tradition that we tap. From the belief that God was too good to damn anyone flowed the belief that all people are worthy, and that we need everyone if we are to truly be an alive faith. UU theologian Paul Rasor writes that “our commitment to creating a genuinely multiracial-multicultural Unitarian Universalism has deep roots. It is theologically grounded not only in our current Principles and Purposes, but ultimately in the early Universalist theology of radical egalitarianism. If we restate this Universalist principle in the language of our time, we might say that it is basically a commitment to liberation.”
Living the Welcome is practical. And by practical, I mean the daily details that when attended to make things real. Yes, it means having a greeter or two warmly welcoming all every Sunday, Yes, it means taking a turn to sign up to host for Fellowship hour, and reaching out to those who are new or to people you don’t know very well. Sure, it means that we think about our worship life and whose stories are told, what music is sung and heard, what writers and thinkers and poets and leaders we lift up – with the hope that all who gather will see or hear or say or sing something that belongs to them, something that resonates with their life.
Those are Sunday things, and Sunday is the big day in the life of a church. But the welcome can be lived in practical tangible ways every day of the week. One small church I served really stretched itself to raise the money to build a new accessible Parish Hall. They said it was a justice issue, and they couldn’t live with themselves if their church wasn’t a place that someone in a wheelchair, or with limited mobility, could enter. Another congregation I served examined what it meant to be welcoming to people with mental health challenges- and then did things – like offer support groups for parents, held a worship service that spoke of the struggles and the strengths of living with psychological challenges, added capacity to the RE program so it could serve children with special needs.
Every congregation can take that word welcome and stretch it, work it, make it real in tangible ways that fit who they are. The thing that stands out for me about First Parish Dorchester is the way you open your physical space to the community. The church really is a meeting house on Meeting House Hill. Every week one of the largest AA meetings in the city meets here, every week an extraordinary amount of healthy produce is available via Fair Foods, every week young people from all over the city learn to sing with Boston Children’s Chorus, and students from the Mather School dance here two days. And that’s just a portion of it. There are memorial services, and weddings and birthday parties, and bat mitzvahs, and civic groups, arts groups, a prisoner support group, and most recently another faith community, Christ the King, holds services and RE programs here. Yes, most of these group pay to use the space- and that’s really helpful to pay the bills- but the rates range from very low to affordable and it is clear that the congregation sees this sharing of space as part of this mission, one big way to say welcome. I often hear from people who come to use the space how grateful they and how welcome they feel – for beyond affordability is courtesy, respect and genuine hospitality, and they experience that.
Which leads me to the emotional work of living the welcome. I saved the best for last. In the end, we can speak the best theology, and we can master all the practical details, but if our hearts aren’t open to all, then our welcome is not as wide and deep and true as it can be. All who enter these doors, all whom we encounter in our daily lives, all with whom we share the planet: living the welcome to the fullest means that we have unboundaried hearts. I know that’s a tall order. To be open to all, to show that openness by listening, to allow our hearts to be touched and our minds to be changed by another’s story and truth, even those whose story and truth we learn about from the news, even when another truth causes us to question our assumptions – that is the work of a lifetime. A heart without boundaries sees and respects all people as members of our human family, and acts to promote the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.
Next Saturday in this sanctuary we will honor and remember someone who was able to live this sort of radical welcome for all his almost 99 years. To be in the presence of Lowell Kingsley, as many of you know, was to be with someone who was open to you, cared about and was curious about your life, and remembered you and what was important to you. An educator and an activist peace-maker, his emotional reach included all he met and all those they loved and all those who lived in this world. When I would visit him in the nursing home, he always called by name all who entered his room, and he knew their stories. Even when bedridden in a sterile room, his way of welcome filled the space with a warm glow and made all who came in feel like honored guests.
It may not be fair to say if he could do it, so can we, for we each have our own ways of being in this world, and most of us aren’t yet as at ease with ourselves as Lowell was, I think. But someone like Lowell, or others you may know who are similarly gifted, can inspire us to open our hearts as wide as we can. They challenge us to extend the boundaries of our heart beyond where they are now, to allow ourselves to be changed by another.
Jack Kornfield wrote that “Whenever our goodness is seen, it is a blessing. Every culture and tradition understands the importance of seeing one another with love.” And he tells of the old Hassidic rabbi who once asked his pupils how they could tell exactly when the night had ended and the day begun (daybreak is the time for certain holy prayers).
Is it when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?, one student proposed. “No,” answered the rabbi. “is it when you can clearly see the lines on your own palm?” another asked. “It is when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell if it is a fig or a pear tree? “No,” answered the rabbi each time. “Then what is it?” the pupils demanded. “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that they are your sister or brother. Until then it is still night.”
Until then it is still night. It feels like night at times in our world these days. And it also feels, to me, that a new world is dawning. Vibrant healthy faith communities who open their doors to their communities, who open their hearts to the world, can hasten daybreak.
Unitarian Universalists, like members of every other religion, are trying to change the world by encouraging people to live a different way. wrote Tom Schade. By word and by deed, Unitarian Universalists are trying to change people. It is time for us to acknowledge and proclaim this, and to see that building a religious community is but a means to that larger end.
What I hear Tom saying is to take yourselves seriously, as a faith community and as people who carry this embodied faith into the world. I agree and add, let the knowledge that you are bringing about a new world fill you with strength and purpose, animate all the small and practical things you do, and make this house of welcome and joy.
Bring Home the Dharma, Jack Kornfield. Shambala, 2011, page 29
Religious Community is Not Enough, Rev. Tom Schade. UU World, Winter 2013
Can Unitarian Universalism Change? by Paul Rasor, UU World Spring 2010.
Thought not quoted directly, the following influenced the composition of this sermon:
Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, Joan Chittister, Harper and Row, 1990. The chapter entitled The Unboundaried Heart in particular.
Unitarian Universalists Origins, Our Historic Faith a pamphlet by Mark W. Harris which can be found at the UUA.org