Monday, March 29, 2010

I am writing this month’s Sealight article from a cafĂ© in New York City. I have had a terrific few days here in the city enjoying great food and reconnecting with friends who I haven’t seen in years. Just yesterday we made an unplanned visit to All Souls Church here in New York City.
Wow! What a joy to visit such a historic institution of our faith tradition. The congregation was formed in 1819 and the building is simply amazing. Sitting for a moment in the massive sanctuary filled me with two distinct feelings. I felt rooted in a tremendous tradition, and I longed for the unique little Fellowship that I call home. It is a tension that we exist in as Unitarian Universalists. We are a part of a broad intellectual and historical tradition that has molded much of America. It is a deep and inspiring history that can anchor our faith. And the other side of that tension is an appreciation for the uniqueness of our Fellowship and the individuals we know and love there.
For the most part, members of our congregation know the great work that UUFLB does in our community and the wonderful individuals who come here on Sunday mornings. That deeper sense of tradition however, is lacking. Either through human relationship or visiting some of the vast array of Unitarian Universalist landmarks, the power of connection with a tradition is not something to be read about but something to be experienced.
I am excited to have heard that a few of you plan to attend this year’s District Assembly in Santa Barbara and I hope more of you will seriously consider going. Spending time with other Unitarian Universalists is a priceless and rare opportunity. Sure there are things to learn and new helpful ideas. But much more than that, District Assembly is an opportunity to tap into the power of broader reaching Unitarian Universalist community. Like I said, connection to our tradition is not something to read about, but something to experience. So while I want to share with you a sense of tradition and history that informs my faith, the most important thing I can offer is an invitation, not to read, but to step into a wider circle of our faith tradition.

Sharing the Wealth
One of my favorite things about the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach is that we get to break the rules of polite conversation. We get to break the rules of what you talk about with company. Didn’t you know, you’re not supposed to talk about money, or religion, or politics with people you don’t know very well. Well today, we’re going to talk about all three, because they all three matter, and they’re pretty intertwined. In fact it’s difficult to say anything substantial about any one of these topics without broaching the others. Religion, money and politics, what a web.
First I want to talk a little bit about money. It’s no secret that some people have more material goods than others. We can see it driving down the street, we can see it in clothes, in homes in cars, in all sorts of different ways. Although its uncomfortable to talk about sometimes, the fact of the matter is some people have more wealth than others.

We all know what the stuff is, cars, houses, retirement funds, maybe even just enough food. We know what the stuff is, but what I want to talk about is the way that we own these things. What does it mean that some people own more than others. How do we own something? What gives us that right?

Most of us take it for granted, this sense of ownership. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours and we have pieces of paper to prove that. If there is dispute, we’ll talk about it, and in the end we will clarify, what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours. But what does that mean? By what right do we own what we have?

Is it because we have power over our environment and power over other people? Do we own more stuff because we exert our power over the world around us and take what we want? Or maybe that power isn’t just ours alone, maybe God decides who deserves to have more wealth. That may sound antiquated, but there are plenty of people today who still believe that God rewards those people who are worthy with financial and material rewards. Is that what it means to own stuff? Being powerful or God wants us to have it?

Or, do certain people have more because they have worked harder and earned it? Well that’s a slightly more complicated question, one that many of us may want to jump up and say yes, or no to. It’s true that many people, many of you, have worked your butts off to make a dime. And you have succeeded at that. It is also true that many other people have worked their butts off simply to put food on the table for their family. Usually those people are able to make enough, but sometimes they aren’t. We just heard the intergenerational story about Mariz. Our world is full of people who work very hard, and yet still struggle to make ends meet.

By what right do we own what we own? Is it through earning alone? Did Mariz simply not work hard enough?

Perhaps working, even earning our money doesn’t quite lead to a solid sense of ownership. I want to offer a different concept of ownership for us today. It’s actually more trusteeship. There was a saying in my head as I wrote this sermon and finally I had to look it up. It turns out it is from the Gospel according to Luke in chapter 12. The story itself is unfortunately violent and pretty distasteful. However, the saying, the one sentence that stuck in my mind, that one that I want to share with you may be a helpful key to this question of ownership. “To whom much is given, much is required.”

In the Bible passage, it’s pretty clear that the giver of resources is understood to be God, and for those who have been fortunate, much is required of them in faith. Well, I’d like to unpack that a little bit for a modern Unitarian Universalist.

“To whom much is given, much is required”. Those who are more fortunate have a moral obligation to take that into account as they relate to the world around them. This is not a message of guilt. Money is not the root of all evil. I’m not asking you to give away all your worldly possessions. I’m just offering a potential answer to this question of what does it mean to own what we own.

The best answer that I can come up with is that we have a sort of trusteeship over our possessions. We are called to use our resources, whatever they are, to the best of our ability and knowledge. And by that right, we own what we own. And to whom much is given, much is required.

In a perfect world, hard work is rewarded equally. We would like the think that our world, and especially our country is a meritocracy, where you come into the world on an equal footing and you earn what you can by the effort you put out. It’s a sort of economic Garden of Eden. But Eden my friends is a myth, a powerful myth, but a myth. We are not born out of the Earth as individuals like Adam and Eve. We are born into families, families that are unequal. And unlike that perfect pristine garden, we walk into an economy that is already established. In our world different types of work are given different value. In our world, political instability of some countries makes it nearly impossible to earn and honest wage. In our world women still earn ten to twenty percent less than men in the workforce. A litany of other institutional structures than maintain wealth, and poverty get in the way of an equitable distribution of wealth.

So what does that mean for us as Unitarian Universalists? Obviously something is wrong with a picture that does not give people equal access to wealth of even basic needs. And we have language to describe a problem that limits anyone’s full humanity, or perpetuates injustice. We call it evil.

In our religious community, most of us don’t see evil as a supernatural being or a deep-seated characteristic in human hearts. We have long since given up any significant notion or the Devil, and our first Principle is about the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Certainly then, those individuals of worth and dignity aren’t the source of evil…. So what is? Why is our economy where Mariz can barely scrap together enough money to feed her family in this country of plenty, why are we so far away from that economic Eden where there is enough to go around and people are rewarded fairly and equitably for their work?

Evil is in structures and systems that prevent people from actualizing their best selves, that keep people from reaping the rewards of their hard work, that communicate to people that they are of less value and insults their dignity. Whether it is racism or sexism or militarism or political force or economic exploitation, evil exists in the systems that crush the human spirit. Our call as a UU community is to work to dismantle these structures, to help people free themselves from these systems.

Sharing the wealth isn’t just about what we own as individuals, or as I suggest, what we have been entrusted with. Sharing the wealth is also a question of how our society is organized as a system to distribute wealth. This is not just about personal finances, but also public policy.

Fortunately we don’t live in a blatantly corrupt country. Most of us can do our jobs safely and know that we will be paid what we have been promised. In many ways we are fortunate. However in some less obvious ways, our public policy, while not corrupt, has benefitted the wealthy more than the poor. In recent history, public policy in our country has been used to maintain wealth for the few, and further burden the poor. This is not propaganda to get you excited. This is an honest reflection of public policy in the recent history of the United States.

Over the past thirty years, government policies and market forces have been moving in the same direction, both increasing inequality. The pre-tax incomes of the wealthy Americans have drastically increased, while their tax rates have fallen more than rates for middle class and poor Americans. For the past thirty years, federal tax policy has consistently given advantage to the wealthy, allowing them amass even larger portions of the pie.

I did not plan for this sermon on “Sharing the Wealth” to conencide with such a historical moment. But it did. We all know that a sweeping piece of Federal legislation is about to be enacted. Healthcare reform will touch all of our lives, and it is deeply connected to “Sharing the Wealth.” So we need to talk about it briefly.

We are on the verge of the most sweeping piece of federal legislation to offer more equitable distribution of resources since 1965. The health care bill aims to smooth out one of the roughest edges in American society — the inability of many people to afford medical care after they lose a job or get sick. And it would do so in large measure by taxing the rich. The benefits, meanwhile, flow mostly to households making less than four times the poverty level — $88,200 for a family of four people.

The bill will also hopefully reduce a different kind of inequality. In the broadest sense, insurance is meant to spread the costs of an individual’s misfortune — illness, death, fire, flood — across society. Since the late 1970s, though, the share of Americans with health insurance has shrunk. As a result, the gap between the economic well-being of the sick and the healthy has been growing, at virtually every level of the income distribution. More and more since the 1970s being sick means that you and your family will be in economic jeopardy . The health reform bill will hopefully reverse that trend.

It’s true that many people are deeply upset about this piece of legislation. Perhaps some of you are upset about it. There is a level of discontent and pain in American politics these past few years that is simply sad.
But I have to say, I’m celebrating. Not because it came from one party or another, but because it will help those people most in need. Not because it’s a political victory in Washington D.C. but because it’s a victory for our neighbors who can’t afford healthcare.

A couple of months ago I told you that I wouldn’t talk about social justice any more without giving you some specific action that you can take. So making good on my promise, I have a few suggestions this week to share the wealth.
The fastest and easiest action is to write a check, not for UUFLB, but for the food bank. This month UUFLB has been the designated church to help stock up the food pantry at the resource center. I have been gone for a couple of weeks, but I haven’t seen much food coming in. This is the last Sunday of the month, if you didn’t bring non-parishable food with you, then just write a check to the Laguna Relief and Resource Center. If you don’t have a check book with you, we’ll even take cash. Just leave it in the basket with the sign.

To take action on a wider level, beyond Laguna Beach, I have printed out some flyers that list several different actions you can take. One that I already did and look forward to learning more about is a movement to increase minimum wage.

Did you know in the United States, more than 28 million people, about a quarter of the workforce are minimum wage workers — earning less than the poverty level for their families. Nearly two thirds are women, and almost one third of those women are raising children.
There is a movement called “$10 in 2010”, to increase the minimum wage to a real living wage that matches today’s economy. On the flyer I printed you can find the website with a petition to sign online, and several other ways to help share the wealth.
In must a minute we will sing our Closing Song “We are Building a New Way.” Hopefully we a building a new way of sharing the wealth more equitably. I’m not talking about revolutionary change here. I’m just talking about an economy that is fair, where people are paid reasonably for the work that they contribute to the shared community. And as We build a New Way, we can do that personally. I invite you to really sit with the question of what does it meant to own what you own. By what right do you have it. It’s not a question to be guilt inducing, but it is a very real and important question.
I know for me, I will be sitting with the idea of trusteeship. What I own, what wealth I have I am a trustee of, I am a guardian of it, with the understanding that I will do my best to use it wisely.
And we are also building a new way as a society. Sharing the Wealth isn’t primarily about writing a personal check. It’s about making fair compensation and equitable distribution of resources a priority. Please consider support for some public action to fight the evil systems that maintain economic disparity, or at least be mindful that the systems that we participate in, affect countless people, from CEO to janitor, from Executive to day laborer, It’s time to share the wealth. It’s time to build a new way of supporting one another.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

sermon - Making the List

Making the List

Today I have two stories for you. One is a real story, a feel good story. The other story is a sort of choose your own adventure, a metaphor.

Our first story is about a family named the Salwens, from Atlanta Georgia. One day when the father and his teenaged daughter were driving in their car, they pulled up to a stoplight. The teenager notice on one side of their car was an expensive luxury car. And on the other side of them was a homeless person on the sidewalk. This bright teenager said to her dad. “Dad if he didn’t drive that car, then that person could have something to eat tonight.”
The dad said, well you’re probably right. The conversation continued until he asked what would you be willing to give up so that other people could have a better life? Your room? Our house? And the conversation continued at home with their teenaged son. Eventually, these two children came together and decided yes, they would rather give up their house for something smaller so that other people could have a better life. They lobbied their parents for the family to live out their priorities.
And they got what they wanted. The Salwens sold their two million dollar house, and moved four blocks away to a smaller house. That move allowed them to donate $800,000 to the organization Project Hunger. They sold their story-book dream house, so that girls in Ghana could go to school. They sold their American dream, to live out a their version of the American dream.
And they are encouraging other people to do the same thing. We’re actually reading the book they wrote in the book group next month. It’s called “The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to stop taking and Start Giving Back.” They want people to give up half of something, not necessarily a house but give up half of something that is important to you, and give it away. It’s an amazing and inspiring story. Mostly because it is true. I haven’t read the book yet, but I look forward to hearing how this all unfolded. They sold their American dream house to live their version of the American dream. How refreshing.

The second story that I have for you is a little more complicated. This story comes from a pretty well-known ethicist named Peter Singer.
So imagine that you are out on a walk one day. You come upon a shallow pond. And you notice out in the middle of this pond a small child appears to be on the verge of drowning. You look around and realize that no know is there. For some reason his or her parent isn’t there to supervise and you realize, if I don’t wade out into this pond, that child is going to die.
But you are wearing a rather nice outfit, and most importantly, you are wearing the new pair of shoes that cost you well over $100. What do you do? … To any reasonable person, the answer is obvious, you go in and save the child. Forget about the shoes. They are not that important. There is no question.
Well, Peter Singer points out, the real challenge in this story. Isn’t it true that you bought that expensive pair of shoes instead of using the money in another way. Isn’t it also true that in the hands of the right organization $100 could easily save a child’s life, possibly several children’s lives. I told you it was a more complicated story.

Peter Singer insists that ethical choices are not just about what we choose to do. We also have to look at what we choose not to do. Every time we spend our limited resources on one thing, we are choosing not to spend them on something else. Whether it is our time or money of attention, when we spend our resources one place, we are not spending them somewhere else, and that is why we have to have a list.

This morning we are talking about making the list, the list of our priorities that is. And why do we have to make such a list, a literal or figurative one? We have to make a list because we are limited beings with limited resources. We can’t do it all, so we have to choose.

Now I’m not going to tell you what belongs on your list of priorities and what doesn’t. We heard how well that worked in the intergenerational story this morning. The truth is, no one can tell you what is important. That’s up to you to decide. Rather than talk about what belongs on the list, I want to talk more about how we understand that list of priorities. This is an invitation to take an honest look at the way we spend our resources and decide if that is a reflection of our real priorities.

It seems that the biggest step in addressing our priorities is understanding what they are. We know what we say our priorities are, “love, and justice, peace and harmony, the planet, caring for our family, and goodness for all.” Right?…. But sometimes our lives don’t look exactly like that. Sometimes the way we spend our resources reflects other priorities.
There are a few very real ways of looking at our priorities. First of all you can take a look at your budget. What do you spend your money on? It’s a simple but very real question. With a limited amount of money in your possession, where you spend it? You don’t have to track dollar for dollar, but look at your bank statement and credit card statement sometime. Where did it all go? Is your heart there? Did those dollars do what you had hoped they would?
Sometimes I like to think of every dollar that I spend as a vote for something. That is after all the foundation of our capitalist economy. We will spend our money on the things that we find valuable, and therefore the businesses, organizations and causes that we support will thrive, while the businesses and ideas that we do not support will parish. Like it or not, you vote with your dollars when you spend your money. It’s worth looking back at a balance sheet to see exactly what it was that you voted for.
Or, like your budget, your calendar tells a story about what you value. This one is a little more difficult to decipher because the fact is we have to work to earn money. And some of us work in jobs that demand tremendous amounts of time, while others have plenty of time left over. But still, I don’t think it’s too difficult to see through some of that ambiguity to see a reflection of our values, our priorities. Perhaps even more so than money, time is a limited commodity, and where we spend it is a pretty good indication of where our heart is.
There’s one other way to look at our priorities. This one is a little more slippery, and it doesn’t come with a paper trail the way our finances and calendars do. But it can be just as telling. We can also look inside and look at what you crave and why. What are the material objects that you seek out to add to your life? What would they bring you? Which are the advertisements that grab your eye? What is it about them that excites you or makes you feel incomplete without that thing or experience?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it is wrong to want things. Quite the contrary. I think it is essential to want things. I think it is unavoidable. But by being aware of what we want in our lives and why we want them, can be a helpful insight into where our priorities actually lie. And more importantly, how we might want to change them.

Like I said, I’m not going to tell you what your priorities should be. We’re in a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship; there are plenty of implicit messages about what we value, and perhaps what you should value.
And besides, as Unitarian Universalists, we believe in the worth and dignity of every person. We believe that at the end of the people are good. Although it may not appear so sometimes, especially from people that we disagree with. But we all want good things for the world. We all want safety for our families, and a country where people are healthy and happy. We all want a world that is safe and peaceful. Of course the suggestions of how we achieve those priorities are very different. But I believe that we all want good things for our world. People genuinely want goodness. You and I genuinely want good things to come about in the world.

But strangely we can get distracted from that desire. It is remarkable how often I hear people say with surprise how much they enjoyed doing something they believe in. Whether it is cooking a meal for the homeless or volunteering to tutor children, marching for justice, or just offering an extra hug to someone in need. When we go out of our way to embody our values, we are occasionally SHOCKED at how good it feels. As if we forget what it is we care about. Something about this phenomenon makes me angry, the fact that we can forget what we care about and the fact that it feels good.
The psychological power of consumer society is so powerful that we forget that living out our values feels good, it feels better and lasts longer than heated leather seats or cashmere. Maybe it is capitalism, maybe it is our animal instinct to amass resources and do whatever we can to look attractive, but it angers me that we forget how good it feels to do what we know is good. We forget to do what in our hearts we want to do. But hopefully our friends and our family, and our community here can help remind us of what it is we do care about. That is after all one of the best pieces of really good friendship or really good communities. They remind us of our best selves, they remind us of who we want to be in the world, even when we forget it.

In some ways, families have to remind one another about their priorities, because their limited resources are shared resources. I actually find this idea pretty daunting. As someone who lives on my own finances, the idea of setting a budget with another person, and clarifying how we spend “our” money sounds like really serious business. Families have to figure out this business of priorities together. That is certainly the most remarkable part of the story of the Salwens, the family we heard of earlier who sold their house. They had a series of family conversations. The lifestyle change was especially encouraged by their children, but they decided all together that they would live their lives with a different goal. They decided together to sell their American dream house to live out a different dream. I have actually spoken with a couple of our families with small children, who have had to recently have serious conversations about their priorities. Either with shrinking budgets, shrinking time, or the incredible demands we put on children today, families have to decide where and how they spend their resources.
Those limits on resources seem most clear for parents with small children, but really all households have to make these decisions. It’s a difficult, but important conversation to have. I would even call it your homework this week. Three simple questions:

What do we care most about supporting?
How are we using out time and money right now?
Should we shift any of that to better reflect what we care about?

So you have a list. I imagine many of you through the course of this sermon have been thinking about what those things are that you care about and support. But did you leave anything off? … What about fun; where is fun and caring for yourself in your list? There is an inherent value in joy. I’m not talking about the super serious joy of being fulfilled by doing the right thing. There is inherent value in the silly kind of joy. The joy of laughing uncontrollably, the joy of laughter with friends, the joy of physical pleasure. I hope that you include fun on your list somewhere because it is important, and for some of us, fun can be way too easy to forget about.

Talking so much about priorities is pretty heavy stuff. It’s a little more demanding than usual. Before closing, I want to be clear that this isn’t about making anyone feel guilty or inadequate. Because guilt is useless, guilt is paralyzing. And it’s certainly not the emotion that I want to impart.

What I do want to say about setting priorities and living them out is not about guilt, but about joy. There is little power in guilt, but there is tremendous power in living with integrity. And we can do that by seriously listening to our hearts. By listening to our hearts, I mean really listening to what our deepest concerns are for the world we can live out our priorities in a meaningful way.

Making the list and Living it out is as simple as listening to our heart, and letting the rest of it go. Making the list and Living it out is as simple as listening to our heart, and letting the rest of it go.


Monday, March 1, 2010

sermon - This Thing Called Worship

This Thing Called Worship


This morning we are talking about Unitarian Universalist worship services, both worship in general, and worship as we do it here at UUFLB.

Today’s worship is a little more engaged in navel gazing than usual. I feel pretty strongly that what happens here should pertain to the rest of our lives and the rest of the world. But it is also worth our time to understand what it is we do here on Sunday mornings. It is after all the core of our church community. This is the one time that we all come together on a regular basis. And it’s a time that hopefully we are all pretty invested in.

Worship is serious business and it takes a lot of preparation. Because we are a small congregation, it may appear that worship just happens out of the kindness of a few hearts and some skill at public speaking. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s true that it does depend on the commitment of a handful of people, but the commitment that you see on Sundays is just a small glimpse at what they do. Each service takes significant preparation for our Sunday Service Associate. And when I’m not here, these volunteers prepare an entire Order of Service. Selecting hymns and readings, and making it all flow together, it’s not an easy task.
It is also serious business for the larger church world. Did you know that this is a whole field of study called homiletics. You can get a Doctoral degree in the field. But we have a team of amazing lay leaders who help make worship happen on Sundays. If you have been a Sunday Service Associate, or served on the worship committee would you please raise your hand. I want to offer a very public and sincere thank you! Creating meaningful worship is that lifeblood of the Fellowship. Thank you for sustaining our spirit.

Most broadly, what we do for worship can be seen from the word itself. The word “worship” comes from the Old English worthscipe, meaning worthiness or worth-ship — to give, at its simplest, worth to something. The historical details are not all that important, but I bring up the concept of worthship because it describes what worship means to us as Unitarian Universalists. In worship, we celebrate and name those things that are most important to us. For some of us that means worshiping God; for others that means celebrating our highest ideals and ethical principles.
Some of us are here worshiping one thing, while others are celebrating something else. So how can it be that we are doing the same thing? Why are we gathering to do this together?
Because for Unitarian Universalists, the most important piece of the equation is not what you worship, or even how you do it. The most important piece of the equation is the end result. The important part is who that makes you as a person in the world. In the midst of all our theological diversity, our worshiping of different things, we know that the goal of worship is not simply veneration of ideas or deities. The goal of worship is to bring meaning into our lives, and to empower us to live more fully in the world beyond these walls.

There are two basic pieces of worship theory that have a strong baring on what we do every Sunday. Hopefully they give some insight as to why we do what we do.
One pertains to the order of service, and why we keep it the same every week. You see, creating a worship service is a delicate balance of structure and chaos. There is a certain amount of structure in any service. We have a building, and we have things that we read, and we have hymns that we sing together. You know ahead of time, who will be leading the worship service and there is an order of service for you to follow.
But also in worship there is, hopefully a pretty significant amount of chaos. I am referring here less to logistic chaos than innerpersonal chaos, a moving of the spirit. Hopefully in worship services, those participating feel something move in their soul, they feel a shifting of thoughts and feelings. They encounter new people, new music and new ideas. Worship is a time to be shaken up.
The theory goes, and I tend to agree, that maintaining a solid order of service week to week provides a structure in which chaos can happen. When you know what’s coming next, when you feel safe, whether that means with a friend, or in your home, or here at church, when you feel safe you are more inclined to open your heart and mind to a new experience. It is a little counter intuitive, but the structure of a regular Order of Service, is put in place to enhance the chaos that we allow for in worship.

The other piece of theory that informs what we do in worship is about the way people learn. You may know this about yourself. Either you remember faces or names. You’re a visual or an oral learner. Maybe you really need to move your body or repeat the information to be able to absorb it. We as individuals learn best, and experience the world best through different means. In planning and executing our worship services, we try to take into account all of those different ways of learning. Worship needs to be a multisensory experience.
And this is also an important theological point. Our Unitarian Universalist theology and tradition, tell us that truth comes in different shapes, in different hues. Truth comes to us through different senses. There is insight available to use in the world in every moment in different ways. This was the truth that Transcendetalists like Thoreau, Emerson brought to our tradition. In fact for both of those men, the most spiritual and moving experiences came not from word, but from a visceral bodily connection with the world around them. Insight is available everywhere, so we do our best to reflect that diversity of insight here in worship.
This is honestly I think our biggest shortcoming as a worshiping community. We are not unique in this. Unitarian Universalist churches tend to be very stuck in words, either spoken or sung. We utilize pretty limited ritual in our worship services. And the only thing that changes visually from week to week is the color of the three-inch wide stole that I wear around my neck. And I only have a few of those.
I would really like to utilize more visual and kinesthetic sources in our worship together. Our new Ministering with Technology Task Force is working on some creative ways to improve our ability to use video in worship. And if you have ideas for how we can enrich the worship experience by using other senses of learning, either movement or visual, don’t hesitate to let me know. Even better than suggestions though, is help in executing those idea.

So we have talked about worship in the abstract, but what really gets people in a knot are the individual Components of our worship service. Pretty much everyone has a favorite, and something they could really do without. As you probably realize, our order of service follows a standard Protestant worship format, with a few notable exceptions. Oddly, it is those exceptions that raise the most fuss.

First I want to touch on the Community Covenant, because this is the most recent change that has been made to our order of service. It is that first piece that we read together on Sundays. Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law. This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. The worship committee is still feeling this out.
The crux of this component is the meaning of covenant itself. In a simple sense, covenant is an agreement among people about how we will treat one another and how we will engage with the world. This is so crucial for Unitarian Universalism because we are a covenantal tradition, rather than a creedal one. That is to say, we covenant to build a community of mutual support and love, rather than a community centered on a theological creed. As King John Sigismund of Transylvia, the only Unitarian king in history, so clearly declared, “We need no all think alike to love alike.”
So the community covenant on Sunday mornings takes the place of what in many traditions would be a creed. Rather than a statement about what we believe about God, or the nature of the universe, we make a statement about why we come together and build this community. It’s a covenant.
That is a VERY quick overview of covenant. I have written a few sermons about covenant. I have posted at least one of them on my blog that you can access through the church website. And I promise you that I’ll bring it up in another sermon soon because it is deeply important to our faith tradition.

Another important piece of our worship service to mention briefly is our tradition of singing to one another after the offering. I have maybe one or two other UU churches do this. It is remarkable in a church service, to take time to turn to one another and say “thank you for sustaining our community.” It is so in line with our tradition of being a congregationally driven denomination that is run by the democratic principles from the ground up. It really is your generosity and commitment that allow this community to thrive. So we recognize that every week. To be honest, that portion used to annoy me. But now as I know this congregation better and better, as I know you all better and better and the work that it takes to make this all happen. And the wonderful way you support each others spirits, I have been converted. Singing that little song has become a deeply meaningful piece of the worship service for me because it is central to who we are, and because it is true.

And I have saved the best for last. Joys and Sorrows has to be the most contested piece of Unitarian Universalist worship services. Every church that I know of goes around and around about this portion of the service. I have participated in hours of discussion on the topic with ministers and lay leaders from this congregation and others.
The usual question is how to do it best. We have experimented with a couple of different formats. And I think we have the “how” pretty well under control here. Each Sunday people share briefly from the heart. Joys and Sorrows is being used as it is intended and I thank you for that.
Of course that raises the question, what exactly is it intended for? In some ways, Joys and Sorrows serves to let the broader community know when someone is in need of support or celebration. Sunday morning is the best chance to get the word out about anything, so we use the time to get support for people who need it. But, if we were just looking for communication, it would be easier and faster to have me, or someone else announce these things from the pulpit.
But during Joys and Sorrows we take time to hear directly from one another. It’s not filtered through my reading what has been written down. That’s because in times of pain, or even in times of unique joy, we can feel isolated. We can feel like no one understands what we are going through. Knowing you have been heard in your own words is an important part of participating in community. When we are given an opportunity to speak from the heart about those things that touch us most deeply, when we can share our heart, we know we are at home. It’s not just an exchange of information, it’s an exchange of feeling.
But there is one more reason. Joys and Sorrows is important because it is a much needed moment of realness in our lives. For just a few minutes the question “How are you?” is not a rhetorical one. For just a few minutes each Sunday we are reminded that other people, people close to us face tremendous hardship, and tremendous joy. We are invited to witness to the complexities of human experience. For just a few minutes on Sunday we recognize all that life lays at our feet. Not all of it is good, but all of it is worth our attention. It is worthy, it is a part of worship.

There are all sorts of theories of worship. Like I said people get doctoral degrees in the topic. But for our small community, worship is crucial because it is a hub. Every other piece of our community life is touch on in worship.
Being together in joy and sorrow provides pastoral support and builds a community. And it’s an opportunity for personal development. Hopefully worship provides some insight and helps make meaning out of lives. And it is a place where we build our personal theologies and sense of meaning.
We also do some justice work in just about every service. We either are reminded of specific actions to take at church, or are encouraged to embody our ideals in the wider world. And we take time for spiritual connection through meditation and prayer. Doing it together is a chance to enhance that spiritual experience. Like working out with a team.
For me worship is a wonderful chance to spend time with our children and hopefully learn about the world through their eyes. Many of us don’t have the opportunity to see children very often. Our time with them on Sunday mornings is such a gift. Even the financial life of the church is part of worship as we take a collection, and occasionally even talk about the spiritual and philosophical implications of generosity. And finally, we get to celebrate the arts on Sunday, most clearly with music. Every week I hear how thrilled people are with our growing choir and music program.

Our Sunday worship service is not just another aspect of our church life. It is not just about worshiping God. Sunday morning worship is the hub of our church community, and people participate, you participate for an array of different reasons. Probably some reasons that I haven’t even thought of yet. And on any given Sunday we may need one of these pieces more or in a different way than the week before, depending on what’s going on in our life outside of church.
The final thing I want to say about Sunday morning, and coming here to be together, is that it’s not just about getting something. We also come here to support one another in religious community. Sometimes you don’t “need” church. Well we sill need you to be here to support the community, whether you “need” UUFLB on a given Sunday morning or not.

“This Thing Called Worship” is actually quite simple. It is time set aside to come together and celebrate those things that are important to us. A time to celebrate human community, the ineffable spirit of life. It’s a time to support one another on our mutual journey of living and loving. That’s it. It’s simply a time to celebrate what is important. It’s time to lift up and celebrate what you bring with you in your heart.