The Rev. Josh Pawelek
This coming week marks the anniversary of a milestone in my life and in the life of this congregation. Ten years ago this week, Wednesday, March 19th, 2003 is perhaps most memorable as the day the United States launched its invasion of Iraq—the second Gulf War. That same week, here in New England, spring was in the air after what had then been a record-setting winter—a record that more recent winters have obliterated. During that sunny, soggy week I changed the sermon I had planned to deliver here on Sunday, March 23rd. I preached instead on my concern about the invasion and what it suggested to me about a growing malignancy in the American character. I also shared my instinct that war is, in the end, an aberration—inconsistent with a greater peace that lies at the heart of Creation. That same day—March 23rd—the members of this congregation—many of you were there—voted unanimously to call me as your settled minister, the fourth settled minister in UUS:E’s then thirty-four year history. It was my first formal calling, a huge milestone in my life. So, for me—and I trust for you—this is a very significant anniversary week. Next Sunday, spring’s first Sunday in 2013, we begin our second decade of ministry tog
In September of that first year I preached a sermon called “Taking Time.” I want to share an excerpt with you because in it I invited us to peer ten years into the future—to now, to today. I asked those present to take a moment and imagine: what will this congregation be like [in 2013]? How might we have grown? Will the building be larger? Will there be more members? More children? Will we be a truly green sanctuary? Will we be fully accessible?
On Sunday mornings many of us will be here…. Our bodies will be ten years older, our hair perhaps grayer (if we still have any at all), our faces perhaps sporting a few more wrinkles. And some of us will not be here. This is perhaps the saddest part of imagining the future: for any number of reasons, some of us will no longer be here. Some will have died. I urge us not to shy away from this sad truth. [Instead, let’s take time] for saying goodbye to our loved-ones, for honoring their lives, for experiencing and expressing the fullness of our grief.
And then imagine the world in 2013. Will there still be a war on terror? Will there be gay marriage? Will there be a Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition? Will our towns and cities east of the river be thriving or declining?
There was much more, but that gives you a flavor. It was a sermon about beginning what we hoped would be a deep and lasting shared ministry, about not rushing the building of that ministry but taking our time. I said we need to take time so that time does not take us. But taking time—being thoughtful and patient—is not always our natural instinct, here or anywhere. So often, time seems to take us. We feel there is never enough time. We do tend to rush, to keep busy. For better or for worse—and it’s often worse—our larger culture affirms us in our rushing, our multi-tasking, our high productivity, even when the product is sub- standard. I can point to moments over the last decade when the work of this congregation has felt frenetic, frenzied, even overwhelming; when we felt as if we didn’t have enough time to do things well. And in such moments we were more likely to make mistakes, to not listen deeply to each other, to not bring our best selves to the process. Still, I think mostly we have heeded the advice in that sermon. We have taken our time. We’ve been patient and thoughtful. We’ve listened to each other, made good decisions. We’ve allowed things to come in their own season. And I believe we are better for it. Looking back over ten years, though I have some regrets, they are few and they are vastly overshadowed by the immense pride I take in what we’ve accomplished together. I am unapologetically proud. I am also humbled by the fondness and affection you continue to express for me. And I am filled with joy and excitement at the prospect of continuing this shared ministry into a second decade. From the deepest place in my heart I thank you.
Our ministry theme for March is inheritance. Two Sundays ago I spoke about our liberal spiritual inheritance, in particular the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the sacredness of all living things. I talked about a conflict we experience over the purpose of that principle in our spiritual lives. Do we come to church to hear that message and thereby experience our own liberation? Or do we come to church so that we may be sent back out into the world to engage in acts of liberation in the world. Ny answer was both. We come to receive the good news of our spiritual inheritance. And we come to be sent back out into the world.
That is one way to explore the theme of inheritance. I also reminded us that in March we begin our annual appeal, which also has something to do with inheritance. Last night was the kick-off celebration and this is my stewardship sermon. So, here’s my appeal. Please make the most generous financial gift possible to this congregation, not only to support its day-to-day functioning, but so that it can fulfill its mission and continue to thrive. In asking this, I’m mindful that we 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 east of the Connecticut River. I’m mindful that when we give our financial gifts to UUS:E we are ensuring that future generations will inherit this congregation from us, embrace its mission, continue its traditions, and keep the beacon burning brightly.
Having now been here now ten years, I can look back at our shared ministry and begin to envision what coming generations will inherit from us. And I love what I see. I asked in that 2003 sermon, will we have a larger building? I don’t think many of us took the idea seriously. Certainly none of us could imagine what we would go through to create this peaceful, elegant, efficient, holy space. But we took that risk, that leap of faith. We went through it. And now we have something tangible, beautiful and sacred to pass on to future generations.
In that sermon I asked, will we be a truly green sanctuary? Will the building be fully accessible? Well, over the past decade, green and accessible have become central features of our congregational identity. It’s not been easy. The work is ongoing. We still struggle to live fully into these identities. But they are part of who we are. They are wonderful expressions of our spiritual inheritance, of our good news that all people matter, that the earth matters. This, too, is something sacred we will pass on to future generations.
And of course our ministry has not only been about what happens here at 153 West Vernon St. We know the congregation, ultimately, is not the building; it’s the people and what they do with their spiritual inheritance. I asked in that sermon ten years ago, Will there be gay marriage?” Today we have marriage equality in Connecticut. Our congregation wasn’t responsible for the Supreme Court decision that gave us marriage equality, but keep in mind: no one person was responsible. We have marriage equality in Connecticut because there was a movement to achieve it. Tens of thousands of people participated in that movement. And members of this congregation were there all along the way. And when I said I would stop signing marriage licenses to protest discrimination, you supported me. When I agreed to take on the leadership of Connecticut Clergy for Marriage Equality, you supported me. When I was invited to speak at rallies and marches you came with me. We were part of a movement to change the hearts and minds of the people of Connecticut. We were part of a movement to change the culture of Connecticut from one that was, on the issue of same-sex relationships, closed-minded, conservative and at times mean-spirited, to one that was open, accepting and loving. We were part of that! We entered that movement grounded in our spiritual inheritance and now we have something precious, wonderful and sacred to pass on to future generations. I’m just scratching the surface of our shared ministry, but looking back I am filled with pride.
Our 2013 annual appeal has begun. It’s time to pledge our financial gifts for next year. Many of you have signed up for group stewarding. Others will meet one-on-one with a steward. When the steward contacts you, please respond to them quickly. They don’t mean to be pushy. They do what they do out of a deep love for this congregation, for Unitarian Universalism, and for our liberal spiritual inheritance. They want to hear from you not only about your financial contribution but about what this congregation and this faith mean to you. They’ll remind you about the goals for this year’s appeal. In many ways the goals are mundane; they relate to the healthy functioning of the church: we want to expand religious education opportunities, reduce our dependency on fundraisers, pay all staff according to Unitarian Universalist Association guidelines. There’s more. They are clear, concrete goals, but I’m also aware that annual appeal goals don’t—and really can’t—express the ways in which our ministry touches and transforms lives and leaves something lasting and holy for future generations to inherit.
What I hope we have done these past ten years, and what I fully expect we shall continue doing in the coming decade is to constantly proclaim in word and deed, within these walls and beyond them, a drum-beat of good news, that message that each person matters; that each of us has something of value to contribute; that each of our lives tells a story worth hearing; that there’s a river flowin’ in our souls and it’s tellin’ us we’re somebody; that each of us possesses inherent worth and dignity—meaning it’s in you, no one can take it away. Inherent, meaning not contingent on the color of your skin, or the money in your wallet, or who you love or how old you are; not contingent on whether you walk on your legs or roll in a wheelchair, or how you express your gender to the world, or what you do for work or whether you live in a home or on the street; and not contingent on what you believe, whether you pass some spiritual test or confess the right creed. Your worth is inherent. It’s universal. Here we celebrate it. It’s good and essential news in a world that tries in so many ways to crush the human spirit.
And of course the good news extends beyond people. Those solar panels on our south-facing roof? They’ll save us a lot of money on our electricity bill. But we know they make a much more profound statement that we recognize our connection not only to each other, but to local ecosystems, to the environment, to the earth. We recognize the immense damage that has resulted from the burning of fossil fuels, the surpassing of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We recognize it’s time to change our global habits of energy consumption and that we need to start with ourselves. You see the organic garden? Those geothermal pumps? Those compost bins? Those marmoleum floors? It’s all part of the same proclamation, the same good news: the earth matters. The natural world matters. Living in harmony with the earth matters. And the survival of everything—everything!—depends on humanity hearing this message, taking it to heart, and making it real.
Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, people won’t look back and ask, “Did they achieve their annual appeal goals?” But I hope and trust they’ll know—without asking—that this congregation stayed true to its spiritual inheritance, that it valued each and every person, that it made room for everyone who wanted to quench their soul-thirst and deepen their spirits, that it inspired and empowered people, that it taught people, listened to people, connected people; that it fought for justice, that it resisted violence, that it subverted racism, that it was part of the movement to end mass incarceration, that is was part of the movement to end the achievement gap in public education, that it tutored children, that it struggled for affordable, accessible health care for all people, that it proudly flew a rainbow flag; and that it cared for the earth and future generations enough to change its own ways, enough to speak boldly in the wider community about our interdependence with the whole of life. And it did none of this for prestige, none of it for accolades, special recognition or awards. It did these things simply and humbly for the sake of saving lives—and not only saving them but fortifying them for the work of building the beloved community here and everywhere. These are just some of the intangible yet utterly essential roles this congregation will play in the coming decade of our shared ministry. They aren’t explicitly stated in our annual appeal goals, but make no mistake: when you make a generous financial gift to this congregation, you are making a gift that helps save lives, that helps liberate people, that builds the beloved community. I cannot speak more plainly about what I firmly believe we are doing here at 153 West Vernon St on Elm Hill in Manchester.
Well, I can speak a bit more plainly. Our liberal spiritual inheritance doesn’t stand on its own. It needs a foundation of love. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I read earlier from the Rev. Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me. She’s writing to her brother who really doesn’t understand or approve of her having become a minister; and she’s writing about the experience of receiving devastating news. Her own devastating news was the car accident death of her husband. And her job as a chaplain to the Maine State Game Wardens requires her from time to time to deliver hard news to people. She says, “Your life, too, will swing suddenly and cruelly in a new direction with breathtaking speed. If you are really wise—and it’s surprising and wondrous…how many people have this wisdom in them—you will know enough to look around for love. It will be there, standing right on the hinge, holding out its arms to you. If you are wise, whoever you are, you will let go, fall against that love, and be held.”
Friends, she’s right about the way life can change in an instant. And she’s right that love will find us in those moments if we let it. What I hope has been true about my ministry and about our shared ministry these past ten years is that I’ve been that kind of minister and we’ve been that kind of congregation in whom people in the midst of pain and loss can find love: loving words, loving arms, a loving presence, a loving community. I would hope that despite those moments of rushing, thoughtlessness, rubbing each other the wrong way and missing our mark, you will still find at the heart of everything we do, a profound love for humanity and the earth. That love is real, and it makes all the difference.
As we enter our second decade of shared ministry, my prayer for each of us is that we may find that love here when we need it; offer it to others when it is needed; and thereby continue to grow a congregation for all that is our life; a congregation worthy of passing on to those who come after us.
Amen and blessed be.
 First Corinthians 13:1.
 Braestrup, Kate, Here If You Need Me (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2007) pp. 205-206.