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You have gifts. Your gift may be an awareness of beauty, or awareness of outrage, or both. Your gift may be one that feeds others in body or in spirit. Your gift may be that you are quick with words, or your gift may be your ability to think before you speak. I have gotten to know some of you a little bit, and I know this congregation to be a community of abundant spiritual gifts and talents. Even if I don’t know you personally, I have faith in your gifts.
Rebecca Parker asks us, “What will you do with your gifts?” While I think she is asking us to discover our individual gifts and to choose to use them in blessing, don’t forget that she also warns us, “none of us alone can save the world.”
Wouldn’t that be great if we could? Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be isolated super heroes, ready to rescue the vulnerable, repair the ecosystem, and end world hunger single-handedly? Being in community is so messy! When I’m in community, I’m much more likely to put my foot in my mouth or otherwise have my mistakes pointed out to me. I am constantly reminded of my own ignorance. And the meetings! Being in authentic community requires meetings! Compassion toward humanity leads to a startling amount of contact with flawed human beings.
But that’s how it is. We are more powerful together than alone. As a community, we can more effectively share our table with the hungry. As a community, we have a whole circle into which we can welcome the stranger. As a community, we have a chorus of voices and a gallery of visual talents and a hall full of dancers who can evoke sacred beauty in a multiplicity of forms. Praising the sacred requires a diverse community because the Holy has more faces and names and shapes than we can imagine.
Dr. Parker writes, “None of us alone can save the world. Together—that is another possibility waiting.”
So we go to meetings. We organize. We sign the membership book and the Common Good signup sheet and the Religious Education registration form. We go to some more meetings. We show up to church, even when we are tired. Maybe we get together with a friend to write postcards, or maybe we babysit to make it possible for someone to take a step forward in their life, or maybe we dial in to a conference call, or maybe we greet newcomers on Sunday morning, or maybe we march with a few dozen other people who believe in freedom and equality. Choosing to bless the world is a team sport.
I will tell you something about my faith. To me, part of Unitarian Universalism is that we believe in each other. We believe in the power of ordinary people who listen and move together to bring us closer to the reign of justice, equality, and compassion. In a healthy, authentic, spiritual community, being together is the means by which we channel our gifts and it is the training ground for developing our gifts. Spiritual community is where we practice what it would mean to live as if we wanted every person to have the opportunity to thrive. Church is where we practice being human. Humans come in a beautiful, infinite variety, with many gifts.
Choosing to bless the world is a team sport, and it’s a team sport that takes practice. Dr. Parker asks, “What will you do with your gifts?” She is not asking us to only ponder this in the secret recesses of our hearts, planning how to deploy our individual gifts alone. The “you” in that sentence is plural. What will we do as a unit with the gifts we bring together in this circle? We have to strategize. We have to compromise. We have to lift each other up. We have to love and protect each other. Deciding what we will do with our gifts, all of our gifts, means pooling our time, talent, and treasure. It means delegating leadership who can take the long view and help arrange the gifts of the community into a harmonizing chorus of blessing.
This is the essential meaning of the form you have enclosed with your Order of Service. (I’m speaking here to members and friends and those who have made this congregation your spiritual home. If you are a visitor, pause for a minute, you and I can come back to this conversation in a month or two.) One on side is the Time and Talent form. Updating this at least once a year helps people find each other who are excited about collaborating on similar things. The gifts of your skills and your experience can be woven into the larger tapestry of our shared ministry.
The other side of the golden piece of paper is the pledge form. Pledges are essential for the leadership’s ability to coordinate and plan how this congregation will use its collective treasure. Not only that, your pledge is a sign that you are committed to the congregation heading into the future, it is a declaration that you are joining forces with the mission of this church.
The generosity of those who are able to pledge supports a community where people of many different backgrounds can develop their gifts in support of a vision of abundant life for all. Talk to me about a pastoral exemption if a financial pledge is beyond your means. Filling out the form is a practice of encouragement and affirmation. Hold on, though, because we have some more worshipping to do together this morning.
Your gift will be used to bless the world. Whatever combination of time, talent, and treasure you can share, generosity is a practice that reminds us of our connections with something larger than ourselves.
At UUCY, we connect many of our worship services and some of our affinity group discussion topics with themes of the month. These same themes are shared with other congregations in the Soul Matters network, through which we are connected with something larger than just this congregation. January is a month of prophecy.
Stewardship is a form of prophecy. The growth of a faith community that moves in the direction of justice, equality, and compassion is a prophetic act of resistance against oppression. We are part of a living tradition that has long been associated with freedom, reason, and tolerance. Attempting to make these values manifest within our own congregation is, by itself, a form of prophetic witness. Creating a space of healing, resilience, and spiritual preparation that equips us to live in the world is the work of a prophetic community.
Prophecy might sound like something that is reserved for social justice activists. Activists are welcome here, and so are people who do not identify as activists. “Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—can be used to bless or curse the world.” Channeling your gifts in support of this congregation, its mission, and its people is a blessing. Your gift—your charism to use a Christian term for a Divine gift that flows through humans—might be making coffee, or delivering casseroles, or knitting bandages, or welcoming visitors. There are many ways to embody Unitarian Universalist values.
Then again, sometimes just being a decent human being can end up being a kind of activism, and we welcome that, too. This past Wednesday, a group of members and friends got together to talk about immigration justice, and about what UUCY might do as a congregation to get more deeply involved. They viewed a webinar by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an independent human rights organization rooted in our values. The UUSC and our denominational leadership at the Unitarian Universalist Association have joined forces in a Statement of Conscience about solidarity with all of our vulnerable neighbors, including our immigrant neighbors. We are part of something larger than ourselves.
Wednesday’s meeting was timely. On Friday, an executive order on visas came down for immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers from certain Muslim-majority countries. The order immediately caused chaos, confusion, family separation, and mortal danger for refugees and asylum seekers. A judge ordered a temporary stay to keep those who arrived since the ban from being sent back, but this is not over. That this order was issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day is an additional insult to decency. “Never again” means raising our voices against all forms of bigotry and xenophobia.
As we observe this time of reflection in the wake of Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us also remember acts of courage in defying hatred. Remember the UU Service Committee’s work in World War II, especially Waitstill and Martha Sharp, rescuing intellectuals and children from the Nazis. Remember the ongoing work of UU congregations, of our Association of congregations, and of the UUSC. Sticking together increases the strength of our message of compassion and freedom.
This congregation is as good a place as any, and better than most, for reviving your soul and building the connections we all need to thrive in difficult times. Your gift of presence makes a difference.
Back at the end of November, I mentioned briefly that our Unitarian cousins in Transylvania know something about being a faith community in troubled times. They have survived for almost 500 years in a politically interesting part of Europe. More recently, they survived Nicolae Ceaușescu.
I went on a pilgrimage to Unitarian congregations in Transylvania in 2001, the same year I went to the International Association of Religious Freedom conference in Budapest. That was only a dozen years since Romania had come out from under its most famous dictator. Things were better, but still difficult for my friends who were an ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority under the Romanian government.
In Transylvania, I stayed for a few nights with a woman minister about my age. One of the hostess gifts I brought was a tiny booklet about Native American nations and tribal customs. She gasped. “Traditional Native dress?” she asked. She immediately identified with United States past attempts to suppress Native American dress and ceremony, because that’s what she experienced. My colleague had learned folk dancing from her Unitarian faith community when it was illegal.
Visiting with another young adult colleague, I toured the vegetable gardens maintained by the members of his Unitarian congregation in the countryside. At my colleague’s mother’s government-owned apartment in the city, the guest room was fragrant with herbs from his garden, hanging to dry on every surface so that they could be preserved and used in traditional recipes. Like labor unions, our Unitarian cousins learned a long time ago that it’s harder for an autocracy to force people into submission if the people can feed their families without the cooperation of the autocracy. Religious education, dancing, and farming were forms of resistance.
We will speak out against oppression as often as we can. “That which is sacred will not be defiled.” Meanwhile, sustaining this community that will carry our principles through the ages is part of a long-term strategy. Engaging in the practices that restore our souls is a form of resistance and resilience. If your gift is teaching, childcare, singing, dancing, playing a musical instrument, UU stand-up comedy, maintaining a garden, preserving vegetables, or baking, your generosity of time and talent is revolutionary. I am here to witness for you that the practice of a liberating faith community has overcome impossible obstacles in the past. This is how we will live. This is how our values will continue past the horizons of our own lives. This is how we will move through the world not only bravely, but joyfully.
We give thanks for this community and for the living tradition of our faith. May we build networks that outlast us, legacies of love that will carry blessings from generation to generation.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.