Moving Forward With Hope — A Sermon for the Annual Appeal

Today we kick off our Annual Appeal, our largest fundraiser of the year where we raise the vast majority of the dollars we need to provide compensation and benefits for our staff, operate our building, deliver our programs and reach our collective goals. This year’s theme is “Moving Forward With Hope,” a very appropriate theme as we look forward to a year in which Covid restrictions recede and congregational life begins to look and feel more like it did before the pandemic.

Why does UUS:E matter to you? What have you encountered here that makes a difference in your life? I invite you to ponder these questions now. What have you encountered at UUS:E that challenges and stretches you, that comforts and consoles you, that connects you to friends, to nature, to realities larger than yourself, that affirms your values, that keeps you resilient in the face of life’s stresses, that sends you forth into the world with vision and resolve? What have you found here over the years of your participation and membership? Why does UUS:E matter to you? Again, I invite you to ponder these questions as you prepare to make your financial pledge to the congregation for the coming year.

A few details about the campaign. First, from the bottom of my heart I want to thanks the members of the UUS:E Stewardship Committee: Jason Corsa, Louisa Graver, Larry Lunden, Stan McMillen and Phil Sawyer. They’ve been doing all the planning and strategizing about how to hold the most successful Annual Appeal possible given where we are with the pandemic. I am enormously grateful to them for their love and dedication to UUS:E. I invite everyone to give them a big round of applause, both here at the meeting house and online. Turn on your video feed and put your hands together!

Similar to last year’s Annual Appeal, the Stewardship Committee has sent a packet in the mail that will detail our accomplishments over the past year and our aspirations for the coming fiscal year which begins on July 1. [If you don’t receive the packet by early this week, please call the UUS:E office.] The packet will contain a Giving Guide to help you think about the amount of your financial pledge. We’re asking each member and friend to fill out the enclosed pledge form and, if you choose to use it, electronic funds transfer form. Please return them to the UUS:E office by March 20. For those who not responded by then, a Steward will contact you. After receiving your packet, if you have any questions, you are more than welcome to reach out to anyone on the Stewardship Committee. And please keep in mind this message from the committee: We are all stewards of UUS:E. As a congregation we are responsible, not only to maintain, but to grow, strengthen, and enhance all that UUS:E represents. We hope this year’s campaign will generate the same spirit of generosity that has made UUS:E a thriving, spiritual home for us throughout the year. The Stewardship Committee thanks you as always for making UUS:E the best it can be with your generous time, talent and treasure.

There’s one more important detail. We have a special challenge grant this year. Fred and Phil Sawyer have generously offered to provide a dollar-for-dollar match for every new or increased financial pledge. They will match up to $1,000 for each new pledge and as much as a $500 match for an increase in an existing pledge. The grant is capped at $20,000, half of which will go to support next year’s operating budget, and half of which will go to the UUS:E Endowment Fund. Fred and Phil: Thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re love, dedication and generosity to UUS:E makes a huge difference. I invite everyone to give them a big round of applause, both here at the meeting house and online. Turn on your video feed and put your hands together!

I started my reflections on why UUS:E matters and is worthy of our financial giving last week when speaking about the “things that must endure.” I was naming the bedrock values and practices we share here, and which we dare not lose even as we engage in the work of antiracist and anti-oppressive cultural change. I named respect for human dignity, relational culture, spiritual freedom, democracy, humility, religious education for children and youth, commitments to social and environmental justice, trusting science and the scientific method, caring for one another, and putting love and compassion at the heart of everything we do. In view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I named these values and practices as essential in the struggle against authoritarianism.

These are big picture reasons why UUS:E and Unitarian Universalism matter. I also think it’s important to remember the close-up, day-to-day, minute-by-minute, task-by-task picture of why this congregation matters. Earlier Gina shared the story A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams. It’s the story of a family that experiences a fire in their home—they lose everything—and their neighbors rally around them, bring them furniture and household items, even a stuffed animal, to start rebuilding their lives in a new apartment. Then, in need of a comfortable chair, they begin saving their pocket change. It’s a story about resilience in the face of crisis, about community generosity, and about patience and persistence in reaching goals.

We can talk about UUS:E in similar terms. Navigating the crisis of the pandemic has been an extraordinary team effort, with the members of the Emergency Preparedness Team playing a central role in figuring out what data to track and proposing safety protocols; in dialogue with the Policy Board members who consider and debate the proposals and make them official; in dialogue with the Personnel Committee members who make sure our staff have what they need to weather the crisis; in dialogue with the Religious Education Committee members who’ve been implementing their program online, in-person outdoors or in-person indoors depending on the data, and RE teachers and youth group advisors continuing to provide programming no matter the format; in dialogue with the Sunday Services Committee members who’ve been adapting their program to the hybrid, in-person/online format, learning the relevant technologies; in dialogue with the Music Committee members and all our musicians, figuring out what is possible for live music on Sunday mornings or virtual concerts, and learning the art of creating music videos; in dialogue with the Membership Committee members, who’ve been adapting their work to online formats and to the in-person realities of Covid and figuring out how to inform people about our protocols as they come to the meeting house on Sunday mornings; in dialogue with all the Program committees, and the small group leaders, who’ve been figuring out how to continue their offerings; in dialogue with Communications and Technology Committee members who’ve been researching and purchasing the necessary equipment to create virtual church; in dialogue with the Buildings and Grounds Committee members who’ve been addressing our ventilation issues; in dialogue with the staff who’ve been implementing many of the necessary changes, week-to-week, day-to-day, hour-to-hour; in dialogue with all of you who’ve been so patient, so understanding, so affirming, so generous, so loving through these past two years. During those two years we’ve easily dedicated ten thousand human hours to responding rationally, non-anxiously, and effectively to the crisis of the pandemic. We’re like the neighbors in A Chair for My Mother, each person bringing something to respond to the crisis. [We even brought stuffed animals for the stuffed animal sleep over in the fall of 2020!]

I can’t think of a better example of what it means to be a congregation worthy of our financial generosity: people willingly and gladly researching, learning, debating, experimenting, purchasing, installing, training, communicating, making policy—thousands of mundane tasks, many of them simple, responding to a slow-moving crisis over the course of two years. Perhaps we’re also like the family in the story, each task a dime or quarter in the jar, saving for that comfortable chair; each task part of a long-term effort to respond, adapt and persevere, with the ultimate goal of transitioning safely back into each other’s physical presence—the comfy chair of our collective life—at 153 West Vernon St., here on Elm Hill, at the Manchester-Vernon line, on the traditional lands of the Podunk and Wangunk people, in the gently rolling hills above the Hockanum, east of the Connecticut River. Thousands of mundane tasks over these past two years, thousands of mundane tasks week in and week out, collectively holding this congregational community in love and care, mindful that keeping ourselves safe actually sustains safety in the wider community and especially among the most vulnerable members of that wider community; mindful that with every task we move forward, fulfilling our mission, we move forward, fulling the promise of our faith. What a blessing to have such a congregation in our lives. Please give generously to our Annual Appeal. Together, let’s move forward with hope!

Amen and blessed be!