The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek
“There’s a river flowin’ in my soul”—words from Alabama civil rights attorney, state judge, play-write, songwriter, and community-builder Rose Sanders, also known as Faya Ora Rose Touré. “There’s a river flowin’ in my soul and it’s tellin’ me that I’m somebody.”
I am somebody. You are somebody. I matter. You matter. I don’t know for sure what Touré had in mind when she wrote “There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul,” but given her long and distinguished career as a civil rights attorney and activist, her dedication to the black community in Alabama, across the nation and even globally, her focus on reforming educational systems to address the race-based achievement gap, I’m guessing she wrote this song originally to inspire young black people in her community who were experiencing the impacts of institutional racism and generational poverty, and hearing messages from the larger culture, over and over again, that they don’t matter, that they are nobody—which of course is a lie. The song is meant to dispel a lie. It is meant to speak truth to a larger power—what some might call a demonic power—that keeps telling the pernicious and often deadly lie that some people matter and some people don’t.
This sermon is about our spiritual inheritance as Unitarian Universalist and more generally as liberal religious people. Touré’s song, though I assume not written explicitly for us, certainly speaks to and affirms the foundation of our spiritual inheritance, our principle of the “inherent worth and dignity of every person;” the notion—which we receive from both the Universalist and Unitarian sides of our heritage—that everyone matters, no one is left behind, all are welcome, all are worthy of love, all are saved—no exceptions. Two hundred years ago, in its various liberal Christian forms, this was a radical, liberating and loving message in an American religious landscape that was quite grim and fearful, filled with warnings of God’s judgment and wrath, filled with images of eternal suffering amidst hellfire and brimstone. Today, though we don’t typically express it in its traditional Christian forms, this message of inherent human worth and dignity, which we have extended to include all life—the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—remains a radical, liberating and loving message in a global religious landscape that on one side features a variety of divisive fundamentalisms preaching a variety of eternal damnations and even on occasion inciting followers to commit acts of sacred violence; and on the other side features growing pockets of people who, for a variety of reasons, could care less about religion, viewing it as outdated, hypocritical, insular, irrelevant and, often, abusive.
I’m grateful to Faya Ora Rose Touré for her song. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul, and in your soul. I am somebody. You are somebody. I matter. You matter. This is one way of expressing our spiritual inheritance. This is one way of expressing a radical, liberating, loving message to a hurting, fearful, violent, apathetic 21st century global community. However….
Did you know that was coming? If you’ve been paying attention to me over the years, you know, at about this point in the sermon, it’s time for however or but or still or yet or except that or on the other hand. This morning is no exception.
We chose inheritance as this month’s ministry theme for a number of reasons. Most importantly, we chose it to remind ourselves it is critical, from time to time, to reflect on the gifts of those who came before us, those upon whose shoulders we rest, the legacies our spiritual forebears bequeath to us, the principles that reside at the heart of our religious heritage. It’s important to know where we’ve come from. Such knowledge helps us know who we are today, helps us confront the challenges we face today, helps us imagine and plan for our future.
We also chose inheritance because we kick off our annual appeal this month. We’re going to be asking each of us to make the most generous financial gift possible to this congregation, not only to support its day-to-day, week-to-week functioning, but so that it can keep its promises, fulfill its mission, and continue to thrive. We remind ourselves that those of us here today inherit this congregation from those who came before, from those who’ve given so generously over the years of their time, energy, talent and money to establish and grow this beacon of liberal religion here on beautiful Elm Hill in Manchester’s northeast corner, near the Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River. When you give a financial gift to UUS:E you are helping to ensure that future generations will inherit this congregation, embrace its mission, continue its traditions, and keep the beacon burning brightly.
However, don’t we hear stories about disputes over inheritance tearing families apart? One sibling gets a greater share of the estate than the others and legal wrangling ensues. I don’t know how often this happens. I’ve definitely seen it happen. It’s sad and often inexplicable when it happens, though I’m also mindful that conflict in families is normal. It only becomes a problem when it isn’t managed well. My guess is most disputes over inheritance happen in families that have a history of not managing conflict well. We might say they have stuff to work out—“stuff” being the polite way of saying it. They need to deal with their stuff. And when we say this, we’re not ultimately talking about material or money. We’re talking about the quality of their relationships. Strong relationships—trusting, respectful, supportive, loving relationships—can withstand virtually any conflict.
I want to suggest that Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people in general have a dispute over our inheritance and we need to deal with our spiritual stuff. It’s not a dispute over money—though certainly there are individual congregations who are conflicted about money. I don’t know a congregation that doesn’t have some level of tension with regard to money. It’s normal and it’s not what I’m talking about. I think Unitarian Universalists experience a very deep though largely unspoken and even unrecognized conflict over what to do with our spiritual inheritance—how to use it, how to spend it, what it’s for, what it even means to be liberal religious people in this hurting, fearful, violent, apathetic, 21st-century global community. We all receive the inheritance, but what do we do with it?
As a way of understanding this conflict, consider this question: Why do you come to services on Sunday mornings—at this church or any church, or any religious organization? I’ll give you two options for answers. First, you come to get your spiritual needs met. You come in search of community, personal connections, comfort, solace, peace, beauty, a place to breathe, to heal, to learn, to grow, to gain insight, to get religious education for your children and yourself, to be reminded there’s a river flowin’ in your soul tellin’ you you’re somebody. You come for your spiritual inheritance, that message that you have worth and dignity, that you matter.
Or, second, you come because you see suffering and injustice in the world. You’re looking for a spiritual home that will direct you back out into the world as an agent of healing and transformation, a builder of community, a justice-maker, a peace-bringer. You don’t come to receive your spiritual inheritance for your own sake. You come because you want to take that message out to the world and make it real in the world, for everyone, and for the world.
It may not seem like it at first glance, but these two responses are in conflict. They don’t have to be. They shouldn’t be. But they tend to be. I think both sides of this conflict are important, both have a role to play in congregational life. But I contend if we don’t understand how they relate to each other, how they interact with each other—if we favor one over the other—we squander our spiritual inheritance.
Earlier I read to you from the 20th-century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams. Adams was fond of asking his parishioners, students and readers, “What is the essence of liberalism?” His answer? Liberalism is filled with tension and ambiguity. It is “divided against itself.” He siad this in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but we experience the same internal division today. I don’t know this for a fact, but I speculate that after World War II, Adams observed the birth of the baby boom generation, the beginnings of white and wealth flight from American cities, the rise of a new consumption-based American economy, the emergence of suburbs, and the corresponding founding of new, largely wealthy congregations far away from the urban, sometimes poor, sometimes ethnic neighborhoods where they had previously been located. These new, suburban congregations of the post-war era were designed primarily to provide ministry to and meet the spiritual needs of their own members. This is a general rule—there are many exceptions, especially during the civil rights movement—but post-war suburban congregations were insular and internally focused: focused on healing the spiritual hurts of their own members; focused on developing their own institutional programs; focused on maintaining their endowments for some future they couldn’t actually name; focused on their own children’s religious education; and not focused, except in a very distant way—usually through charitable giving and mission trips—on the world beyond; not focused on social and economic justice; not focused on prophetic and transformational ministries and partnerships in the larger community; and definitely not focused on earth-based and eco-justice ministries.
Adams witnessed this pattern and he was angry. He said: “The faith of a church or of a nation is an adequate faith only when it inspires and enables people to give of their time and energy to shape the various institutions—social, economic and political—of the common life. A faith in the commanding, sustaining, transforming reality is one that tries to shape history.” Remember, he’s a liberal. When he talks about faith, he’s talking about liberal faith. When he writes about the church, he’s writing about the liberal church. How should the liberal church shape history? It should liberate people “from tyranny, provincialism, and arbitrariness and thus contribute to the meaningful fulfillment of human existence.” “Any other faith,” he said, “is thoroughly undependable; it is also, in the end, impotent. It is not a faith that molds history. It is a faith that enables history to crush humanity. Its ministry prepares people to adjust to the crushing by focusing on, and salving, the personal experiences of hurt.” What were those post-war suburban churches doing? They were meeting the needs of their members, salving their personal experiences of hurt. They were not shaping history through acts of liberation. They were retreating from history. That’s the conflict. That’s the tension. Do you come to get your needs met, or do you come to shape history? That’s our spiritual stuff. If we’re not crystal clear about it, we squander our spiritual inheritance. Why do we come to church?
I love James Luther Adams. For me a foundational aspect of the liberal religious identity is being part of movements to liberate people from injustice and oppression as well as movements to sustain the earth. But as much as I love Adams, his critique of the church is not entirely fair. He’s not being completely honest about the realities of congregational life then or now. The inner conflict he describes is real. ut the question isn’t which side is more important. The question is how do the two sides work together?
The church has to meet the spiritual needs of its members. The world does take a toll on us—even the most privileged among us. Life weighs us down from time to time. We come with hurts, wounds, loss and pain. We need the message that there’s a river flowin’ in our soul and it’s tellin’ us we’re somebody, that we’re loved, that we matter—no exceptions.
We absolutely need to hear that—and we deserve to hear it. Because it’s true. And because it’s our spiritual inheritance. Shame on us if we don’t avail ourselves of it. But if that’s all we do—if we remain internally-focused—if church is only about meeting our own needs—then Adams is correct: our faith is inadequate, self-serving and oblivious; as he says, it’s “a form of assistance to the powers of evil in public life.”
On the other hand, let’s imagine we pay no attention to our own spiritual needs. Let’s imagine a church that sends its people out to liberate the world, yet those people are themselves hurting, wounded, thirsty, dry, exhausted. They can’t speak from a place of spiritual depth because their church does not nurture their spirits. They aren’t centered or grounded because they have no place to breath, to reflect, to be still, to pray. They feel no joy because they have no place to sing and dance. They feel alone because they have no place to connect. They’re in no condition to shape history. They are in no condition to liberate anyone because they have failed to liberate themselves.
But if we come to church to get our spiritual needs met—to breath, meditate and pray, to sing and dance, to encounter beauty, to learn, grow and stretch, to reconnect, to be rejuvenated, to be inspired—so that we may then go out beyond these walls and shape history for the sake of liberation, for the sake of spreading the good news of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to proclaim to all people “there’s a river flowin’ in your soul and it’s tellin’ you you’re somebody,” then we’re not only receiving our spiritual inheritance, we’re using it as it was intended.
It is about us; and it is about the world. We need to sustain and strengthen this congregation precisely so that it can meet our spiritual needs, precisely so that we can participate in acts of liberation. In this way, we reclaim, again and again, our liberal religious spiritual inheritance.
Amen and blessed be.
 See biographical information for Faya Ora Rose Touré at http://www.answers.com/topic/faya-ora-rose-tour.
 Sanders, Rose, “There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1007.
 Adams, James Luther, “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” in Stackhouse, Max, ed., On Being Human Religiously (Boston: UUA, 1976) p. 5.
 Ibid. p. 18.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 18.
 Ibid., p. 18.