Unitarian Universalism is full of paradox. We champion the individual search for meaning – at the same time we honor relationship and connection above all. In many cases, we have conflated the importance of owning and driving our own spiritual journey with the assumption that all of Unitarian Universalism ought to be about the individual. There’s an old saw about a pastor who was in the church office on a Sunday before services and answered the phone – and the person said, “what’s the sermon about this morning?” and the pastor answered, “Come Anyway.” This alludes to the consumer model of community. What’s on the movie marquee? Am I going to watch this movie, or am I going to stay home? But that’s not what church is about, right? Church is about community. It’s about all of us.
It matters that you are here today. It matters. And it isn’t just about the message. It isn’t even primarily about the message. It’s about the people you encounter, the things you hear that push you to think differently or feel deeply.
It also matters how we engage in the community around us.
In her book, Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about her congregation, the House for All Sinners & Saints, which is built on the premise that all are welcome, with foibles and addictions and inevitable mistakes – that their whole selves are welcomed. In their version of new member classes, she says, “I am always the last to speak at these events. I tell them that I love hearing all of that, and that I, too, love being in a spiritual community where I don’t have to add or take away from my own story to be accepted. But I have learned something… and I [want] them to hear me: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down, or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens.” She says, “If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just to beautiful and too real to miss.” (Pastrix, p. 55)
Now, the grace of God is not something that we Unitarian Universalists talk about much, that sense of grace bestowed upon us by an omnipotent god. But the concept of grace is too important to leave aside altogether. I see grace daily in the relationships we create with one another. I believe that we give one another grace when we allow each of us to be whole and broken, challenged and full of ease, and when we allow each of us to make mistakes.
Grace is caring for one another in the midst of being disappointed, giving one another mercy and love simply because we are human beings walking this earth together. Not because we deserve it, not because we have earned it, but simply because we believe in the promise of humanity.
How do we care for one another?
We show up.
We ask for help when we need it.
And when we disappoint each other, which we inevitably will, we stay at the table and try to make amends, we stay engaged, and we work together to mend the fabric of our life together.
For many years, we have had a special list called the Caring Response Network that allows us to provide rides, food, and other assistance to folks who are in the midst of a medical or other crisis. Despite many attempts over the past few years to add people to this list, we find ourselves unable to meet all the needs that we have – requests to the Caring Response Network go unanswered. I am grateful to those of you, especially the pastoral visitors, who have helped me pick up the slack when this happens.
We are working on finding other ways to meet the need. But the question remains, is it our work to care for one another? In other cases, when a program struggles like this one has, I would let it fall by the wayside. I would say, “this appears to be something that is not important to the congregation, since nobody is stepping forward to meet the need.” And I would let it go. But with this situation, I can’t do that. It is not acceptable to me to say to our elders and others in crisis, “I’m sorry, we can’t help you.” And my hope is that it isn’t acceptable to you, either.
It is all of our work to care for one another. How will you respond when the call comes to help a friend? That one’s easy. When a friend calls, we answer. But what if it is someone we don’t know so well? Our presence in this community calls us to reach out, and it calls us to answer when others reach out, even when we aren’t already friends.
It has been said that in a religious community, we don’t have to like each other, but we do have to love each other – we are, in a way, each other’s anam cara. As a community of faith, as a congregation that chooses association based on relationship rather than creed, we choose to be spiritual friends. We choose this place because it calls us to reach toward our highest aspirations, to create a network of connections that will support us, and that will allow us to support others.
We need one another. We always have. But we need each other more and more every day. The more the system we rely on to keep us safe and healthy crumbles, the more we need one another.
This community is a place where you can deepen your faith, where you can ask questions, and learn about the world around you. But my greatest hope for this community is that it would be a place where each and every one of us can be seen, known, and loved for all of who we are.
And a big part of our role as a community is to be prophetic witnesses so that we are not the only ones who can be seen, known, and loved for all of who we are.
Rebecca Parker explains it thus, “Our times ask us to exercise our capacity for prophetic witness. By prophetic witness I mean our capacity to see what is happening, to say what is happening, and to act in accordance to what we know… prophetic witness… is the ability to name those places where we resist knowing what needs to be known.
And so we come together here, in this place, to be known and to know. To know one another, and to know more deeply who we are as individuals, and how those individual identities make up the tapestry that is our covenanted community.
We are called into this congregation. We are called by our faith to be a people of connection and covenant.
Think about the first time you came here. Or the second or the fifth or the hundredth. Recall the moment you felt you belonged here. The moment you decided to stay.
Perhaps you haven’t felt it yet. If not, I hope that you will. Whether you know this as your heart’s home, your spiritual family, a center of friendship and love, or if you still feel a bit on the edges, please understand that the process that leads to that first moment of belonging is the result of a combination of many variables.
One set of variables is who we are as a community when you arrive – the ministry that we do, the hospitality we provide, the opportunities that exist for connection and personal growth, and how we are willing to be changed by the presence of people we have not yet met. And the other set of variables is how you reach into this place – whether you open your heart to the possibility of being changed, how you engage with people you meet, and risk vulnerability.
Which is to say that the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville is what it is because of each and every one of you. It does not exist without all of us bringing our whole selves, our gifts and our needs, to the table.
Because when we come together, we are more powerful, more kind, more prophetic, and more able to change the world. The world is changed heart by heart, one by one, connection by connection, community by community.
Our sense of belonging in this community is fed by the grace we give one another, and the ways we reach out within this community and without it.
May it be so.