Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–
Thin January sunlight filtered through leafless trees as about a half dozen people gathered a little self-consciously along a sidewalk in the hills of Berkeley, California. Facing them, along the doorway of a small, squat building that is Starr King School for the Ministry, were about 30 others, standing in silence. At some unspoken cue that group began singing the words of the Sufi poet Rumi:
Come, come whoever you are
wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, yet again, come.
At the song’s conclusion, Rebecca Parker, president of the school, began reciting her poem that you heard earlier:
“We are at the threshold; we are here.”
And then other members of the group took turns reading:
“We who have crossed many thresholds already
to arrive at this space and time” and so on:
Coming out – coming across – coming with – coming to – coming again.
Crossing a threshold, poised for possibility.
Then, the new students standing on the sidewalk were invited to enter and be greeted.
This was the scene I witnessed nearly two months ago when our daughter Erica, one of those people gathering on the sidewalk at the start of the ceremony, formally took her place in that student body, beginning the challenging walk of ministry.
It came to my mind as I reflected on this service today where we welcome newcomers into this community. I don’t presume that joining this congregation is anything like entering seminary. That place, after all, is in many ways a rarified setting, removed from much of the daily flow of life so that students have room for a depth of study and reflection that few of us have time for, and the commitment of leadership it demands is far greater than what we seek as being part of a congregation. But the parallel is not as far off as it might appear.
We hold up this moment of joining this community, we take time for it in our Sunday worship because we believe that this is something that matters – to you who are joining us, and to us who welcome you. As I told our newcomers our Connecting Points class, when you join a congregation like this you are making a statement. You are taking a public stand. In the words of UU minister Roy Phillips, you are making a declaration “about who you are and who you intend to become.”
The culture we live in today atomizes us. It breaks us up into the tiniest possible bits, disconnects us from each other, and then spins us around. We either fly off in random directions or bash into each other. In between the work of getting and spending we look up in despair and wonder what on earth we are running so hard to accomplish.
Meanwhile, there is in us a yearning for integrity in our lives: to make some sense of the world, to raise our children as decent people, to live with character and compassion, to lift our dull gaze from feeding our own hungers so that we might make some difference in the world. But all of this is too big to figure out on our own, and besides we quickly run out of time and energy to accomplish much.
Rebecca Parker tells of a time at the start of her ministry when she was a young pastor at a tiny congregation that was on the verge of closing. Still, she saw hope in the caring of those who remained. So, she began a practice of watching for visitors and calling on them in the following week. Though often surprised, she said, most people were hospitable.
She says that she found that no one ever came to church casually, as if they had nothing better to do that Sunday. Instead, Parker said, most of them came for, in her words, “life-and-death reasons.” One woman who had finally given birth after years of infertility and miscarriages was looking for a way to offer gratitude for life and to find a community to help her raise her child. A man came with his partner after he had lost his job because the school district was firing gay teachers. Angry and heart-broken, they were looking for an expression of kindness that might ease their pain and give them hope. One woman had just been diagnosed with cancer and was feeling scared and overwhelmed. Another had spent years working to defend the Earth and was looking for something deeper than anger to keep her going.
Change some of the details of these stories and add a few more and you would describe many of the people who I have welcomed into membership in this congregation. Our congregations are not just convenient places to spend a pleasant Sunday morning. They are places where people bring some of the deepest struggles of their lives, hoping to find a community that will take them seriously, that will confront head on some of the gnarliest knots that living presents us and will stick with them and stay in conversation when the going gets tough, that will support them in their struggles and the twists and turns of life, and that will celebrate often and with great joy the wonders of this good life and how good it is to be together.
And so I begin each newcomer class with a chalice lighting and reading from our hymnal: “We bid you welcome who come with weary spirit seeking rest, who comes with troubles that are too much with you, who come hurt and afraid. We bid you welcome, who come with hope in your heart, who come with anticipation in your step, who come proud and joyous. We bid you welcome, who are seekers of a new faith, who come to probe and explore, who come to learn. We bid you welcome, who enter this hall as a homecoming, who have found here room for your spirit, who find in this people a family.”
So, welcome! Now what? Some weeks ago I introduced you to comedian Tina Fey’s “Rules for Improvisation.” You may recall that one of her principle tenets was that when you enter a scene you should begin by saying, “Yes.” Rather than question what your partner offers, begin from an open-minded place. In Tina Fey’s words, “Start with a YES and see where that takes you.” But she also said that “Yes” alone is not enough. Your partner depends on you to help keep the action going. She or he expects you not only to play along, but also to add something of your own: not just “Yes,” but “Yes, and . . . .”
As she said, “don’t be afraid to contribute. Your initiations are worthwhile.” And so it is here. Having said “yes” to becoming a part of this community, what might you contribute to helping keep the action going?
Because, you see, I believe that this practice of “yes, and” is not just a good idea; it is integral to who we are as a religious community. To make this case, let me bring in Bernard Loomer, who we heard from earlier. Loomer was a theology professor associated with the University of Chicago, who late in life joined a Unitarian Universalist church, as it happens it was in our daughter Erica’s haunting grounds in Berkeley, California.
For a good part of the 20th century he was an important figure in process theology, a movement that sought to bridge the gap between science and religion, arguing that creativity is woven into all things and that the universe is constantly growing in size and complexity.
Loomer reached the conclusion that this growth occurs in the making of relationships. What matters in the end, he said, are the relationships that this process working in the universe makes, and the making of these relationships is what creates us as individuals and a society.
What determines how effective these relationships are, Loomer said, is their size, their ability to grow and expand, and also to accept tensions and contradictions. At the Berkeley church in conversation with other members, he was said to challenge them to reflect, “What is the size of your soul?” Here’s what he said about that: “By size I mean the capacity of a person’s soul, the range and depth of his love, his capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality.
“I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness.”
As Unitarian Universalists we understand that our relatedness to one another and the Earth is not some random fact of our existence. It is essential to our nature; it defines us. And so, returning to Loomer’s remarks, when we look for the source of love in our lives, we see that there is no external principle of love that determines our interdependence.
“Love,” Loomer said, “is an acknowledgement of our interdependence. We love because we are bound to each other, because we live and are fulfilled in, with, and through each other. We love because a failure to love is a denial of the other, a denial of ourselves, a denial of our relatedness.”
By expanding our souls enough to add the “and” to the “yes,” – “Yes, And . . .” – bringing ourselves, our own creative capacity into play in the communities we join, we affirm what we already know in our hearts: that, while we see ourselves as many, in the end we are one.
So, here we stand at the threshold of this evolving community, a community that changes as we change, as the world changes, yet remains routed in the possibility of relationship that links us with each other and all things, that finds the sacred in this world, in this life, within and among us.
It is space where each of us seeks to grow, and so as those of us who have been here a while welcome newcomers, we also welcome each other in our continuing journeys, some of us also still coming out of identifies that didn’t embrace fully who we were, crossing boundaries that once limited our lives; coming with our loves, our partners, our children, our memories, our wisdom; coming to our senses, our awareness of that which holds hope and possibility; coming again to our commitments, to our deep knowing:
Come, come whoever you are;
wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yet again, come.
Come into this space, into this community that we create together, poised with possibility of thresholds yet to come, joined in the commitment to say, “Yes,” and with that affirmation bring our full selves into relationship with all that is and all that might be with our common endeavor.