Some Things Must Endure — UUS:E worship, February 27, 2022

Some Things Must Endure
Rev. Josh Pawelek

In January I had a conversation with Sharon Gresk and Ida Gales, both long-time members of our congregation. They are also close friends who met and grew their friendship here at UUS:E. At the core of the conversation was their love for our congregation and their concern about the toll the pandemic has taken on us. At first I tried to reassure them: “We’re really doing OK. We’ve made a successful transition to online worship. We’ve been able to sustain a significant portion of our programmatic offerings and committee work online. Our religious education program for children and youth is as vibrant as it’s ever been. Our social justice public witness and activism remains strong. Music is one of the hardest programs to sustain online, but even there we’ve been able to innovate and learn new ways of doing things.”

Sharon and Ida weren’t having it. That’s not what they were talking about. They were—they are—missing something more fundamental about church, something more immediate, more visceral: the power of being in each other’s physical presence, what I call the somatic collective we create as we breathe together, hold silence together, speak together, sing together, take hands—all those ritual activities that are so fraught in the midst of an air-born disease. That’s what they’re missing: the subtle, intangible ministry we enact as we physically bear witness to each other’s sorrow and joy, failure and success, grief and elation; the full-facial, unmasked eye-contact that comes with conversation and interaction before and after the service, sometimes small-talk (which in itself has value); sometimes plumbing the depths; sometimes even establishing friendships that will last for the remainder of our lives. We heard words earlier from my colleague, the Rev. Marta Valentín: “Wind your thoughts like a river / toward the center of who we are: / this morning as one body.” This ‘one body’ is not mere metaphor. It actually happens in the space and time of in-person congregational life.

Please be assured: as pandemic restrictions ease, we will absolutely continue with online offerings because they are now part of who we are as a congregation, and so critical for people who are homebound, who live with compromised immune systems, or who live in other parts of the country. Learning how to offer high quality online worship has been one of the silver linings of the pandemic for us. And, with Sharon and Ida, and with so many others, we look forward to the somatic collective we create as in-person congregational life resumes.

I made a promise to Sharon and Ida, which is to ask all of you to consider your personal connections at UUS:E. Who do you know, and how have you lost contact with them during the pandemic? Think about people you might have had regular conversation with on Sunday mornings, but now you haven’t spoken to them face-to-face for two years. Maybe you’ve rotated off a committee or a leadership position, so you haven’t interacted with people you’d been working with regularly for a period of years. Think about people you might have chatted with while waiting to pick up your kids from religious education; or someone with whom you once taught a class in the RE program. It might even be people you see on Zoom, but you don’t feel that you really connect with them like you might in person. The pandemic has caused us to lose different degrees of touch with each other. We know this. Let’s not let it continue. Reach out to each other. Say “hello.” Say “I miss you.” Ask, “Can we connect?” And now that the omicron wave has receded, now that we are expanding the number of people who can be in the UUS:E meeting house, I encourage you, within your comfort zone, to meet each other in person. Certainly as spring arrives and the days grow warmer, meet in person outdoors. Meet each other however you can, because meeting each other is foundational to who we are. Meeting each other gives energy and vibrancy to our congregational life. I call this sermon “Some Things Must Endure.” This practice of meeting each other is one of those things that must endure.

As a reminder, our ministry theme for February is “Widening the Circle,” which presents opportunities for exploring how we move beyond our historically white, liberal religious congregational identity and culture, to a more multicultural reality; how we navigate the waters of diversity, equity; and how we confront and transform the legacies of white supremacy culture and settler colonialism. My previous sermon on this theme was entitled “Some Things Must Change.” Indeed, if we want to widen the circle, there are aspects of our congregational life, especially our culture, that need to change. I offered some ideas for how to embrace and advance that change.

It is also true, however, that some things must endure. Especially in this moment, as the world watches a despot carry out an unjustified invasion of a neighboring, sovereign nation, manifesting the most dangerous tendencies of a globally re-emergent authoritarianism that exists and operates here in the United States, it strikes me there are values and practices within Unitarian Universalist congregational life that we must preserve, values and practices that reject authoritarianism in all its forms and promote peaceful coexistence, just social, political and economic structures, self-determination and freedom. I want to share, briefly, some of the values and practices that, in my view, must endure even as we set about the work of change. Full disclosure: after more than 20 years of ministry, I have named in various ways at various times these values and practices. There’s nothing I’m about to say that I haven’t said before, and yet all of it bears repeating because it speaks so directly to who we are and why our faith and this congregation matter. And again, though I am not speaking directly to the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, I am mindful of the stark contrast between our practices and values vs. the practices and values that live at the heart of the authoritarian driving that invasion.

A value: our immediate spiritual forebears, the Universalists of the late 1700s and the Unitarians of the early 1800s, rejected the theological notion that some are saved and some are damned. In response to that prevailing Calvinist doctrine, they offered an all-loving God who saves everyone: universal salvation. We inherit from them the principle that each human being has inherent worth and dignity. As difficult as it can be to put this principle into practice, if our goal is to widen the circle, it must endure.

A practice: As Sharon and Ida were emphasizing in our conversation a few weeks ago,  meeting each other is part of our collective spiritual practice: learning each other’s stories. Learning each other’s concerns and anxieties. Learning each other’s goals and aspirations. Learning each other’s deepest questions. Learning each other’s lives. And ultimately, building and deepening relationships. If our goal is to widen the circle, this practice of meeting each other must endure.

A value: Unitarian Universalism trusts us to freely and responsibly conduct our own search for truth and meaning in the context of our congregational community. The resulting spiritual freedom, though at times daunting, enables us to make room for a wide variety of religious world-views, theologies and spiritualities. As we often say, ‘many truths in one room.’ If our goal is to widen the circle, this spiritual freedom must endure.

A practice: We lovingly and conscientiously provide a foundational religious education for our children. We teach them Unitarian Universalist principles and history. We cultivate religious literacy by exposing them to other world religions. We instill in them a passion for building a more just society and caring for the Earth. We provide a reliable place for our children to build friendships, to safely explore aspects of their identity that may feel risky to explore in other contexts, and to be part of a community that cares about them, roots for them, supports them, and values their opinions. If our goal is to widen the circle, these educational practices must endure.

A Value: Unitarian Universalism knows it doesn’t have all the answers, knows it isn’t perfect, knows there are multiple ways to accomplish goals, and therefore aspires to approach the world from a position of humble questioning rather than convinced theological knowing. Humility takes work to sustain, but if our goal is to widen the circle, this work must endure.

A Practice: Our congregation dedicates a significant amount of time and resources to building accountable relationships in the wider community, and engaging in acts of justice and liberation in solidarity with people from historically marginalized groups. Sometimes we work on a very local scale, for example with an organization like Power Up here in Manchester. Sometimes we work on a regional scale, as we do with the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. Sometimes we work on a statewide scale, as we do with an organization like the Recovery for All Coalition. Sometimes we engage nationally, sometimes even internationally. We don’t always get it right. We don’t always do it well. Yet we are engaged. We bear witness to our values in the public sphere. If our goal is to widen the circle, that engagement and witness must endure.

A value: Unitarian Universalism takes science seriously, respects scientific knowledge and methods, and is willing to modify its spiritual views in response to scientific discovery. If our goal is to widen the circle in an era when scientific knowledge is increasingly under attack, increasingly politicized, increasingly denied, our embrace of science and scientific knowledge must endure.

A practice: Our congregation dedicates a significant amount of time and resources to the work of earth stewardship and climate justice. We understand we are not separate from but rather exist in intimate relationship with our surrounding ecosystems. We understand that climate change is real and concerted, well-organized global action to address it is essential. We expect to be part of that action. If our goal is to widen the circle, this practice of earth stewardship and organizing for climate justice must endure.

A value: Love and compassion must live at the heart of all our relationships—with people, with nature, with the earth. We know putting them at the heart of our relationships is not as easy as just saying it. At the end of a long day, or in the midst of a stressful situation, love and compassion do not just flow out of us. When we are angry, love and compassion do not just flow out of us. But we also know there can be no social healing without love and compassion, no social justice without love and compassion, no environmental justice without love and compassion, and no widening the circle without love and compassion. The aspiration to put love and compassion at the heart of all our relationships must endure.

A Practice: We take care of one another. Consider all the ways we offer pastoral support to each other: providing rides and meals or running errands for people and families in crisis, visiting people in crisis, driving people to church, reading to people whose eyesight is failing, helping out financially. I love the way you take care of each other. If our goal is to widen the circle, this robust pastoral response to each other must endure.

One last value, perhaps most significant in light of the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine and the global rise of authoritarianism: we value democracy and democratic processes. The members of UUS:E show an amazing willingness to take responsibility for the health and well-being of this congregation, to participate in its governance, to trust our elected leaders while also asking good questions, to speak our minds thoughtfully and to thoughtfully listen to the views of others, and to make meaningful and sometimes difficult collective decisions about the congregation’s future. If our goal is to widen the circle, our internal democracy must endure, our commitment to the global flourishing of democracy must endure.  

Though we are thousands of miles from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this war will impact us in a variety of ways, though certainly not as profoundly as it will impact the people of Ukraine and Russia. And whatever that impact may be, however long it may last, we must be mindful that the authoritarianism driving it has taken root here in the United States and can easily grow if not countered. The values and practices we celebrate in this Unitarian Universalist congregation do counter and confront that authoritarianism. So please share them, speak them, write them, sing them, dance them, pray them, shout them from the rooftops, so they may endure.

Amen and blessed be.