A sermon by the Rev. Phyllis L. Hubbell
All are worthy; all are welcome.
Bill Schulz, former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association and of Amesty International, told this story in a lecture
When I was seven or eight years old, I lived across the street from a little dog named Amy. Every afternoon after my school let out, Amy and I would play together for an hour. One of Amy’s favorite games was a dancing game in which I held her two forepaws in my hands and we would dance around the yard. Sometimes Amy even put her paws in my lap to signal that she wanted to dance. But I noticed that after a few minutes Amy’s hind legs would get sore and she would pull her paws away. The first few times we played our dancing game, I dropped her paws the moment I sensed her discomfort and we went on to something else.
But one day I decided to hold on. The more Amy tugged, the tighter I held on until finally, when she yelped in agony, I let her go. But the next day I repeated my demonic game. It was fascinating to feel this little creature, so much less powerful than me, entirely at my mercy.
I was lucky that Amy was such a gentle dog for she had every right to have bitten me and when, after two or three days, I saw that my friend, who had previously scrambled eagerly toward me on first site, now cowered at my approach, I realized with a start what I had done and I was deeply frightened of myself and much ashamed. Whatever had come over me that I would treat someone I had loved that way.
All are worthy, all are welcome.
Those words I first heard from the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland capture for me the part of the core of our faith, especially the Universalist side. Our faith has a wide embrace. Knowing that we all fall short, even acknowledging that some behavior cannot be accepted in a religious community, still, still, all are worthy, all have possibility, all are precious. All are welcome.
Yet many of us in this sanctuary have suspected in the middle of difficult nights when we cannot sleep, or difficult days when we have given in to our demons, that we ourselves are not worthy, at least not all of the time. It is the human condition to be generous, courageous and compassionate, but our failings are also many. Our faith, or our lack of faith, does not leave us invulnerable to common weaknesses. As the Jewish prayer suggests, we merely human beings are too often arrogant, at home and at church. We may pride ourselves on our inclusiveness, but we don’t recognize the prejudice that separates us. We are cynical, yet those we ridicule are far more complex than we will ever know. Our egos separate us from wider, deeper truths. We hold grudges. Lust may make us cruel and deceitful. Anger may lead us to moments of rage, on the road and at home. Bill Shulz’s story reminds us that it’s not just little things we must confront. The capacity for evil coexists with the capacity for good.
Even in church. Even among fine upstanding Unitarian Universalists. John will never forget the sight of a board leader at a church he served, standing up and screaming at another trustee on the other side of the table. We Unitarian Universalists and those of you visiting us this morning share common human failings. We steal. We abuse alcohol and drugs. We hit our spouses. Yes, I have personally heard such stories. Just like the rest of the world, those of us who are Unitarian Universalists commit crimes and go to jail.
Our ministers, for all their many virtues, for all our Association does to screen out people with serious problems, sometimes do hurtful things as well. We have used the pulpit to hurt and not to heal. We have raised our voices in frustration and anger. We have broken confidences. We have broken trust.
Yet we are all worthy. We are all welcome.
As members of religious communities, we come together with the intent to embody our deeply held values -- being peacemakers, making justice, spreading compassion. Our covenant is to walk together, supporting one another in our wildly different spiritual journeys, Christian, Pagan and Atheist; Buddhist, Jew and Humanist.
We commit to a lifetime of growth. We promise to work together and separately to end poverty, oppression and violence. We know we are imperfect. Our faith is that we can get better. We know that the world is imperfect. Our commitment is to bend the arc of the universe towards justice.
Our Universalist heritage taught that all of us would eventually be reconciled with God. God was too good to damn anyone forever. As the old saw goes, the Unitarians added that we humans were too good to be damned. In the face of evil, the Universalists avowed the goodness of a power permeating the universe greater than any individual person. They believed that Goodness would ultimately call to itself even those who held and sold slaves. Surely, they preached, all of us – all of us including ourselves -- would ultimately return to the source of life and love from which we came. Not all of us would use their more traditional religious language today, but our faith remains generous at its core, inviting all to the table. Love is stronger than evil. In the long run of history, justice will prevail.
But Unitarians also have seen the spark of divinity, of potential, in humanity. We believe that we can blow on that spark with the benefit of prayer and study, and reflection, loving truth shared among friends, and a lifelong commitment to growth and change. One of the founders of our faith, William Ellery Channing stressed that we needed a lifetime commitment to emotional and spiritual growth as well as intellectual growth. What is past, is past, but we can change today. We can do better, be better tomorrow. “Today is the first day of the rest of our lives.”
Today, this morning, we are among friends. Friends who have looked after the sick, the weak, the oppressed. Friends who have made Norfolk a better city. Friends who have provided a sanctuary for those whose questions made them unwelcome elsewhere. Friends whose race made them pariahs. Friends whose sexual orientation made them outcasts. We are in the presence of a deeply spiritual, deeply religious community that invites us each week to come as we are, whoever we are, believing that together, we can make a difference. Together, we can be different. But being different starts with humility, with acknowledging that we have failed, fallen short, and made a mess of our own lives and others.
To many Jews, Yom Kippur is the most important holiday of the Jewish calendar. Attendance doubles and triples at temple. This time of atonement and reconciliation allows us to move forward, to grow, to thrive. It is not cheap absolution. It comes only after a time of reflection and fasting. The tradition requires not just the prayers at temple, but somehow getting right with those we have wronged. There must be a lot of tears in Jewish families during the ten days between Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur. For some, more time and tending will be needed for lasting reconciliation to occur. For others, the only reconciliation possible may be with themselves and the person they hope to be. But Yom Kippur is a beginning. It brings with it gifts of acceptance, gifts of love.
We here this morning are at the beginning of a new church year. But more than that, it is a new beginning for all of us in this sanctuary, whether we are here for a short visit, or are long time members. This is the first day of the time we have left to us in this life. There is so much we can do together. So much we can be for one another. This is a wonderful congregation with a proud history. Let us forgive ourselves. Let us forgive each other. May we begin again in love.
All are worthy. All are welcome. Even you. Even me. Let us say a fond farewell to yesterday. Let the new day begin.