A Sermon by the Rev. Phyllis Lenoir Hubbell
Friday night, long time members, Tony and Phyllis Stein, shared with us their Odyssey, the story of their spiritual journey. For those of you who couldn’t be there here is an excerpt from Phyllis’ story in which she describes discovering this church in 1958, as Virginia was taking its famous stand of massive resistance to oppose integration of its schools.
It was a disturbing time to live in Norfolk. Tension was high and Tony had a front row seat to a lot of the action. He covered Federal court and the schools and we both thought it was a responsibility of churches to support integration efforts. I had given up expecting anything good from churches, but Tony started talking about one minister who was fighting a lonely battle to make things better. Although I admired what I read about the minister, Jim Brewer, I was not about to get involved in any more churches.
Then one day Tony said a friend was playing a gig in a church in downtown Norfolk and had invited us to go along. . . .
I will never forget that night. We opened the door to the sound of laughter. The place itself was nothing to brag about, but the people sitting around the floor were an amazing sight, especially for those times. Old people, young people, white people and black people all sitting together in a circle. . . .
There were a few folding chairs around so I found one next to an old man who told me he was from Lake Taylor Nursing Home. His name was Carl Cartwright and he had been a clown with the Barnum and Bailey circus all his life. When I asked him to tell me about the Unitarian church, he said that all he knew was that in his travels around the country, people looked down on circus folks and the only people who ever made them feel welcome were the Unitarians. That was on a Saturday night and when we left to go home, I shocked Tony by saying I would like to come to the church the next morning and check out that minister he had been talking about.
Most of you know that my co-minister John is also my husband. We’ve been married now for 18 years. But I was single for a long time before I met John. I carried around that glass slipper for forty-eight years. I thought for my wedding they should play the
Truth be told, it took me longer than some people to be ready for a long term permanent relationship. So when John and I first started dating, there were still some bumpy moments. But we were willing to work on this relationship because we thought we had found what we had each been looking for all our lives.
We discovered several wonderful books on relationships. One of them recommended that couples spend some uninterrupted time listening to each other. That sounded like a good idea.
I had a long green sofa that remains in the family today. We each got comfortable, facing each other, on opposite ends of that green sofa. Each of us was allotted half an hour to say whatever we wanted, whatever was on our heart, without interruption – even to fill out the time with silence. We were supposed to speak about our own feelings, use the word “I” a lot, and refrain from making negative comments about each other.
We weren’t quite sure what to expect. As ministers, we both thought we were excellent listeners. I certainly did. This would be a piece of cake. John wasn’t sure he’d have enough to say to take up all that time, but he was happy to listen to me talk.
I discovered I hadn’t been such a great listener when I wasn’t allowed to rush in to respond. That discovery about myself alone was worthwhile. But as good a listener as John is always, this exercise in being listened to was still different for me as well. Those conversations became precious times to us both. We discovered a whole new world of being listened to in depth – without being judged, or dismissed, or not really heard. Someone cared enough about us to hear us out, with no concern for the time. I remember crying a lot – crying not from sadness really, but because it was such a profound experience. I felt cared about in a way I’d never known before.
How often do we really listen to one another in church? Listen with the heart as well as the mind? We have what I call Sunday friends -- friends we care about, but not so much that we go that next step to call in between Sundays, go out to lunch, listen to. That Social Hall is not a great place for serious conversation.
The last two days, many of you came together here to listen to each other as you considered your hopes and dreams for this church. Friday night, we sat and listened to Phyllis and Tony Stein tell us the story of their lives – not just who, what, where, when, and how, but the story of the spiritual journey they had taken. We asked them to tell us what they believed and how that had changed over their lives. What was important to them, what gave their lives meaning, what were they proud of? In a big circle in the social hall, we all sat and listened to them without a word while they shared their remarkable stories, laughing and applauding their ordinary, extraordinary lives. We were moved, inspired and challenged.
We come to this faith, this congregation, so many of us, drawn because we hear that this is a place of radical hospitality – a place that respects the circus worker and the eccentric, a place where we seek wisdom and comfort, inspiration and community. Come, come, whoever you are, ours is no caravan of despair, ours is a caravan of joy and laughter, courage and adventure.
Many look to church for community, a community of people who will accept us regardless of our beliefs, our color, our years of education, our income level, our age, or our sexual identity or orientation. We think religions should practice what they preach. We look to our neighbors to be kind in disagreements, to be respectful of differences in others as well as ourselves. We come here looking for depth, honesty, acceptance and compassion. We expect to find our faith demonstrated by the lives we lead.
But we are not perfect people. It is not just people of other faiths who fall short, who are short tempered, quick to judge, slow to forgive. We all have those days. We are human.
Yet you in this church dream big dreams. Yesterday, you spoke of those dreams. You dream of what you could become. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say that 11:00 o’clock on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in the week. You dream that it can be the most integrated hour of the week – integrated by color, integrated by beliefs, integrated by age, integrated by education, integrated by income. Red and yellow, black and white, rolling in and skateboarding in, Christians, atheists, Tea Party members, Buddhists, Socialists, Hindus, gay and bi and straight and transgendered, circus performers, plumbers, professors and artists getting to know one in depth.
It is our very first principle that we strive for – affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all people.
You also dream of acting on your beliefs, continuing your heritage of a place that stands for justice, a place that feeds the poor, shelters the homeless, marches on our city halls and on Richmond for better schools for all, better opportunities for all, justice for all.
The truth that I think many of you take for granted is that you do many of those things. Many voices are already heard in this church. Many are welcomed here who have been turned away elsewhere. You started NEST, which now shelters people in many churches around this City. You helped to start Empower Hampton Roads, which partners with a broad array of other congregations to work to break the cycle of poverty and dependence and allow everyone’s voice to be heard in decision making that affects their lives. You make thousands of sandwiches every year to feed the poor, year after year. You have a proud history of political involvement.
But we are all aware that more could be done. And it is clear from yesterday’s sharing that you want to do more. You want to be proud of this congregation. You believe in that first principle.
What would you need to do to make those dreams come true? Jeanne Pupke couldn’t tell you. We can’t tell you. Nor will your next minister. We can tell you that it won’t improve if you don’t change. But you know that. We can give you information about what others have done. But with the internet and all the resources of the UUA, you could even do that yourself. We can tell you that it takes practice, reflecting every day, on the person you want to be, on the church you want this to become. But you know that as well.
You know. You know. Deep in your heart of hearts, you know who you want to be. If you will listen to one another with an open spirit a central dream will emerge. Not your dream. Not his dream. Not her dream. But a new dream that becomes this congregation’s dream. With a dream to guide you, you can more easily work on the obstacles to the dream. With a dream to inspire you, energy and leadership will emerge. Together you can do what you need to do to get there.
It is not easy. No one said it would be easy. People will disagree. Not everyone’s passion may be included in the larger dream. But as Jeanne told us yesterday, the key is to listen to one another as we deliberate, without preconceived ideas of what you want – with respect and openness, sharing your heart’s desire with each other, without interruption or argument. Discovering your passions. Discovering your neighbors. Each of you changed by each other. Finding the common threads. Then figuring out how to make them come true.
This building, beautiful as it is, with all the problems it has and all the problems it faces is not the main thing. The money to pay for your dreams in a tough economy is not the main thing.
Becoming the people you long to be is. Being a beacon in this community for all those who have been cast off, for all those denied justice, for all those denied compassion is. If you are clear about who you want to be and what you want to do, then you will be on fire to get it done.
These last years have been difficult ones for you. When I talked about the flood last November with the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Team, we also talked about all the conflicts and disappointments and repeated floodings of the last few years. The UU Trauma Response Team has been through the murders during a church service in Knoxville and the floods in Hurricane Katrina. They told me that these repeated blows you have had will have very similar impacts on you, leaving you low on energy and sluggish, making it difficult to find leaders, difficult to make decisions, difficult to act. You also have experienced trauma. Be gentle with one another.
We think the Trauma Team was right. We have seen some of those responses here. But we have also seen devoted leaders and workers who spend hours doing everything from setting up microphones and buying pizzas, to making those sandwiches, attending those meetings. This is a resilient congregation.
Yesterday, we saw that the dreams are still there as well. You were just waiting to be asked. Waiting for someone to take the time to listen. In the weeks ahead, we hope to provide a variety of settings for you to listen to one another and dream.
We had a very good year here at UCN last year -- a year of healing and relearning to trust. Now it is time to consider the future. To pick up the dreams. Our work as your ministers is to provide opportunities for everyone to dream. Everyone to listen.
The task of this faith is to make love. It starts with the idea that all are worthy; all are welcome. All we ask of each other is that we be willing to offer that radical hospitality to others. When we listen to others with our hearts, when someone listens to us with theirs, love begins to grow. When we go out into the world and spread that radical acceptance of all people, love blooms.
The main thing is to find the main thing, and to keep the main thing, the main thing. That’s the main thing.
The main thing is making more love in this broken hurting world of ours. It starts here. It starts with us. It starts now.
John reminded us yesterday of that greeting from the Hindu tradition, Namaste. That greeting means something like “the divine in me honors the divine in you.” May we seek always to recognize and to honor both the divine in ourselves and the divine in each other. Namaste. Namaste.