On a bright fall morning more than a decade ago, Sam Zurich began the day as he usually does with his radio tuned to NPR. As he was getting breakfast together, his ears pricked up to an item on the news: a couple of jetliners that had left Boston’s airport for the west coast were unaccounted for, and authorities were puzzled as to where they could be. Only minutes later, he heard that apparently one of those planes had smashed into the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center, and within 15 minutes the other plane had plowed into the south tower.
Sam knew the World Trade Center. For some 30 years, before he and his wife, Elaine, had moved to Asheville, he had commuted from his home in Westport, Connecticut, to a radio announcing job in Rockefeller Center in the middle of Manhattan. The twin towers were unmistakable landmarks, looming in the distance. He and Elaine had celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary only a few years after the towers had opened with lunch at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the north tower.
As he listened to the rest of that day’s horrifying events unfold – the collapse of the towers, the third plane crashed into the Pentagon, the fourth augering into a Pennsylvania forest – one of his first calls was to the church. Sam had been helping out on the worship team, and he asked what the church would do and volunteered to help in any way he could.
Before long he got a call from the minister, Maureen Killoran, to say that there would be a service that evening and asked him to call local radio and TV stations to let them know. A large poster was prepared announcing the service and propped on an easel in our front yard with the words prominently displayed – “Everyone is invited!”
Sam says he recalls the service that night that packed this sanctuary as the moment he was proudest to be a part of this congregation. And the responsive reading that he led in that service tells why: “We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted,” it began. “We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid.”
Seven years later on a late summer Sunday, Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, and his daughter were having breakfast with Debbie and me, getting ready for a day at Bele Chere, when Chris’ cell phone rang. The signal was spotty, but he could make out enough to hear: “shooting at church.”
He dashed off not knowing what he would find, and we jumped on the Internet. Before long we learned about the man who had entered the sanctuary that morning with a shotgun hidden in a guitar case, pulled it out and began shooting while children of the church were putting on a production of “Annie, Jr.” Two people were killed; several were injured.
A little later I got a call from Taryn Strauss, our religious education director, who had grown up in that congregation while her mom, Lynn, was minister. She came over, and as we commiserated in shock we resolved that we needed to hold a service in solidarity with the Knoxville church. The service was set for Monday, a time when Womansong usually rehearses in our space, and they not only gave up the rehearsal space but performed in the service. Taryn told a story; we sang “Spirit of Life” and “One More Step.”
I began my remarks by quoting remarks that Forrest Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, gave in their service after the events of 9/11. “I am so grateful to see you, each and every one. How profoundly we need one another, especially now, but more than just now. We are not human beings because we think. We are human beings because we care. All true meaning is shared meaning. The only thing that can never be taken from us is the love we give away.”
So, what is religion about? Many tend to associate religion with edifices of various sorts: edifices like this one of stone, wood, and glass, some grand and some simple. But we also associate religion with edifices of another kind: structures of words that organize the world in certain ways, that separate the world into the sacred and the profane, that outline a prescribed path to peace, to salvation, that state of final happiness that we humans imagine in so many ways.
It is in these sorts of words that most faith traditions locate their identities, words intended to inspire, to frame a sometimes hostile word in understandable terms, to offer comfort and serve as bulwarks in times of doubt and need. And yet, as Monika illustrated in her exercise to begin our service, edifices of any kind resist the natural motion of things. Those that endure must find some way to adapt to that motion.
Nearly a century ago, Lewis Fisher, dean of the Ryder Divinity School in Chicago, a Universalist seminary, was struggling with this issue. The denomination had recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of one of its founders, John Murray, in America, and launched a campaign to double its membership. In truth, though, the denomination was in decline, split between conservative rural churches and progressive-minded urban ones.
In his book Which Way? Fisher argued that every religious tradition evolves. Words take on new meaning in the light of new circumstances, and denominations must learn to move with them. “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand,” he wrote. “The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.”
This famous quote has a new currency among us Unitarian Universalists with the announcement that our denomination’s iconic headquarters building at 25 Beacon Street, off the Boston Public Garden and right next to the Massachusetts State House, and several other buildings nearby have been put up for sale. Headquarters will be moving to an up-and-coming but less prestigious neighborhood at 24 Farnsworth Street.
There is much to recommend the move. The old buildings are hopelessly out of date, and it would cost enormous sums – more than we can afford right now – to retrofit them. The sale of these buildings during a booming real estate market in Boston is likely to net the UUA a handsome profit to help pay off debts and put us on a strong footing for the years ahead.
And yet . . . it causes some pain to lose that prominent and historic address that has been home to the Unitarian side of our tradition for nearly 90 years. And there are those who see in this move signs of trouble for our movement at a time when we, like other progressive-minded religious, are, again, struggling. But here I want to affirm the UUA’s use of Lewis Fisher’s words, written for a different time but applying to a surprisingly similar circumstance.
It is not a prominent edifice that defines us as a religious body; it is the way we are in the world that opens the path to life-giving hope, that raises us above our self-concern and helps us see the possibility of a greater life, that creates connections among people centered in an affirmation of each person’s inherent worth and dignity and our kinship with all things.
It matters that we are joined, not by unalterable words, but by a covenant of principles and ways to be together that we learn by living. It matters that the sources of our tradition, some of which you heard the choir recite this morning, are a gift to draw on, not iron strictures. It matters that we have room to move, because it gives us space to breathe, to grow. So, it is a good day to join with other UU congregations across the country to mark Association Sunday as we celebrate the future that awaits us.
This month in worship I am inviting you to examine the “default settings” that you find governing your religious life – untested assumptions, routine ways of thinking that get in the way living fully with integrity and peace. And today I want to suggest that attachment to these kinds of edifices I’ve been talking about is one of them.
Oh, we certainly need them. This lovely edifice that we occupy makes possible the gathering of this community in light-filled, aesthetically pleasing space. But we have also seen it evolve and know it will continue to evolve as this congregation and its needs evolve. We also have our own edifice of words – our mission statement, covenant, by-laws, governing document, as well as the wise words of celebrated women and men. All that gives needed structure to our life together, and it, too, continues to evolve over time.
The life of a congregation, though, is something more. It is embodied, not in its edifices, but in its people and how being part of a gathered community has changed them and changed the world: in short, not so much what we stand for, but how we move.
I began today with two stories of such change, of how our way of being in the world opened doors, opened hearts and made possible something life-giving and good. Sam recalled how the 9/11 service made us both a force and a voice for a community coming together. Our service after the Knoxville shootings not only served to offer comfort in the face of meaningless violence, but made room for an interfaith conversation that we hosted on how faith communities respond to violence.
And there are many more stories to tell. So, to make a start at this I invited people who have been a part of this congregation for 10 years or more to share some of their stories. Sam’s was one; here are some more.
Arthur Poultney recalled the camaraderie of growing up in the 1950s when barely more than a couple of dozen people met at the old YMCA and then a large home on Vermont Avenue. An oasis of liberal religion provided a welcome respite for progressive-minded people, and their gathering sparked community involvement, such as recruiting Eleanor Roosevelt to speak to a U.N. Day gathering here, such as serving breakfasts to African-American kids and registering their parents to vote at a time when the schools here were still segregated.
Bob MacPherson recalled his wife, Ann, bumping into UUA President Robert West in a trip to Germany and recruiting him to speak at a banquet before the dedication of this building. Among the 250 or so present at that dedication on October 15, 1972 were Paula Sandburg, whose gift help make the building possible, and Reuben Robertson, who donated the land where it was located, both of whom died within the year. Those present dedicated this building where we sit to “the life universal, that it may bring blessings to many people: guidance to the young, consolation to the troubled, encouragement to all.”
Nels Arnold remembered an all-church project in the 1990s to support the Helpmate domestic violence center, with congregation members taking part in everything from fund-raising, to child care, and building playground equipment.
And in perhaps no other way we have brought about the change we seek than through religious education that, in William Ellery Channing’s words, aims “not to stamp our minds on the young but to stir up their own.” I couldn’t begin to weigh the impact that dozens of volunteers have had on the hundreds of children who have taken part in our classes, yet I see it resounding in the joy of those who have been touched by it. Anna Olsen says she has taught religious education here for 24 years because she gets so much out of it.
“My theology is open to self examination,” she says. “My patience is increased, my appreciation of wonder at the small details of life and relationships are experienced. I become more of the best part of me because that is (what is) expected. I feel accountable for who I am.”
It is a measure of what a crucial role we play that so many of you have supported this community over the years to preserve a liberal voice in religion in this part of the world. Michael Lord will be returning to his native England within the year, but before going he has contributed $25,000 to our endowment in a bid to help assure that this congregation not only survives but prospers.
Take a look over the fireplace in Sandburg Hall before you leave today to see who else has given or plans to give from the abundance of their lives to sustain the promise we hold for the world. When that list is next updated, you will see my name and Debbie’s there as well. Won’t you join us?
This is important, but in the end we will be measured as a religious community by how we realize our hope for all humankind. It is why our members were key organizers of Building Bridges, a community anti-racism training, and why we are life members of the NAACP. It is why we hosted overnight undocumented workers campaigning for immigration reform, and why we have had teams of visitors, donated books and served as reading tutors to prisoners at the county jail.
It is why our building has been a host of advocacy groups for transgendered people, and gay, lesbian and bisexual teens; for guardians ad litem, and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Cathy Agrella recalls one evening more than a decade ago when she was in the foyer outside the church office and heard a group in the RE common area downstairs singing traditional Christian hymns. She says, “I thought, ‘What in the world?’ These songs, filled with references to Jesus and salvation, were certainly not being practiced by our own choir. And yet, the sound was so beautiful, and so heartfelt, that my eyes filled with tears. When a staff member came by, I asked about the music, and was told that members of the Metropolitan Community Church were having services.
“At that time, when it was still rare for gay people to be welcomed in Protestant churches, where else but in our building could these singers have felt so free? We had offered them a safe and open haven for a spiritual gathering. I was never so proud to be a member of our congregation as at that moment.”
And, of course, the welcome that we provide for others makes that much sweeter the welcome we can offer to each other. I offer you these words of our member Carol Taylor:
“This Christmas, Betty and I are flying to Portland, Maine, to get married—because we can. After 40 years together, we figure it’s going to last. Betty says it will turn us from an old couple into an old married couple.
“Maine in December isn’t exactly what I want. I want to be married here, in this sanctuary, where, for 13 years, I have been moved to laughter, tears, and action. I want to be married by Mark Ward. I want a reception in Sandburg Hall, with champagne and a big cake, surrounded by family and friends, including many in this congregation. I don’t think this will happen soon. When you’re both in your 70s, you can’t afford to wait around.
“When Mark asked everyone who’s been here 10 years what impact UUCA has had on their lives, I had lots of answers. Most of them were about community. This community clarifies my thinking, nudges me outside my comfort zone, draws me out of my shell, brings me friends, and makes me happy. But the clearest and most dramatic impact has to do with who I love.
“When the state of Washington voted to legalize same-sex marriage, a lesbian friend who lives in Seattle said she was surprised by the effect on her, since she had no plans to marry. It changed everything. As she rode the bus, dined in restaurants, shopped in bookstores, she looked around and thought, ‘These people voted me into existence. I’m a citizen of this state. I’m real. I belong.’
“I know how she feels, because I’m a member of this congregation. Oh, this is how it feels to be accepted as just another person. Accepted casually, as a matter of course (“say hello to Betty”). This is what it feels like not to be a category. It’s wonderful to know that if you dislike me, I have earned it. I was rude, or insensitive, or unkind, or stupid, or you haven’t gotten over the checkout lines at last year’s auction.
“When you live in a culture that despises you, it’s impossible not to take that inside. When you belong to a community that affirms you, that brings you in, that accepts you with no particular interest in who you love, you take that inside, too. The hard-edged defenses dissolve, and you can move on.
“In a diverse congregation of 600, there have got to be people who oppose same-sex marriage, and who think that the least I can do is shut up about it. I suspect they don’t talk about it much, because it’s so clearly contrary to the ethos of this congregation. Bless their hearts. In their own way, they’re in the closet. They belong here, too. Community matters. It is comforting. It is transformative. It is life-giving.”
My friends, never doubt the power of religious community, of this religious community. Never doubt that in how we move we are changing the world, even if one silly brick at a time, even if it takes far longer than it should.
But we can trust in the process, in the hope that, as the crusading Unitarian minister Theodore Parker put it, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” because we can see it at work, slowly moving in the world at large, and moving in ourselves as well.
Moving, with all that has ever lived or will live in infinite space and infinite time, letting go of false assurance and giving ourselves over to possibility: emergent, vital and alive, arising in us now.