Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

November 7, 2010: “Living Up to Membership, New Member Recognition Sunday”

A pastor was talking with a hard working woman who was a devoted member, present at all services. He expressed his thanks for seeing her so attentive every Sunday. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘It is such a rest after a long, hard week’s work to come to church, to sit down on the soft cushions, and not think about anything.’

From a Catholic perspective:

        It seems that an American priest was visiting Mexico city and wanted to observe how mass was said, and what other customs might be different. He was quite pleased by how many young people came, but mystified by some of their habits. He observed the young people coming to the cathedral. But as each young man approached the church he handed his senorita through the nave and then stood on the stairs smoking a small cigar, occasionally looking in to see how things were going at the altar. This happened again and again until quite a crowd was assembled. Intrigued, the priest went down to the plaza.

        'Good morning gentleman,' said the priest, and the young men replied 'Good morning Father.'

        'I see you escort the ladies to mass and then wait outside.' 'That's right,' they said. 'You don't go in the cathedral yourselves?' 'No, not generally.' 'Well that's puzzling. Aren't you Catholics?' 'Of course we're Catholics,' they said, 'But we're not fanatics!'

        Now a story that is not humorous, but I hope meaningful: A church member who had been devoutly active for many years suddenly was absent. One cold winter evening the pastor knocked at his door. 

Actually, the pastor and the church member had been long-time good friends.

        As they watched the wood burn in the fireplace, the minister mentioned the parishioner's absence from church. The man candidly confessed that he had decided he was just as well off without the church as with it. The minister didn't say a word. He took the tongs from the rack, reached into the fire, pulled out a flaming ember, and laid it down by itself on the hearth. He still said nothing.

        Both men sat in silence and watched the glowing ember lose its glow and turn slowly into a crusty, black lump. After some moments of thoughtful silence, the man turned to his pastor and said, "I get the message, my friend, I see what you mean; I'll be back next Sunday."  And he was.

        Why is attending church important to living up to membership? Because the worship service is the weekly gathering of the beloved community and a time of the potential for the renewal of the spirit, however we want to describe that, even if it is nothing more than the interaction of relationship with one another gathered for sacred purpose. Holy is this place, because we make it so with our gathering for religious reason, whether or not we believe in God. When we decide to make a commitment to become a member, we have joined a journey of pilgrims, both literally and figuratively, that search for religious meaning and to serve the larger community in service. As members, we continue to be challenged to live up to our commitment, our covenant with one another. The many of us who are friends may be as committed as well and are welcomed too. Indeed, we invite you to consider membership as well.

        We have come a long way since 1956 when this church was founded. One of our founders, Lincoln Christenson is still around though frail; he's in a nursing home and visited regularly by some of our long time members. I bought an old booklet at West Shore UU Church in Cleveland a few years ago, titled 'A Century of Unitarianism in Cleveland' from 1967, and though Unitarianism first came to Cleveland in 1836,  there was a go at a church in 1852.  My favorite relative Aunt Caroline Severance, married to the Banker Theodoric Severance had Unitarian ministers visit in the mid 1800s there was no church that lasted until 1867, when  First Unitarian  Society of Cleveland was formed. It gets a bit confusing.  In 1901, the church decided to locate in a different area.  They purchased a lot on the corner of  Euclid Ave. and E. 82nd St.  A new building was built and the church prospered.   In 1911, the name of 'Unity Church' was changed to 'The First Unitarian Church of  Cleveland.'  During the years from 1919 - 1942, the membership increased from 500 - 1500.  Also, during this period, 1932, The All Souls Universalist Church of Cleveland merged with First Unitarian.  In 1955, The First Unitarian Church was dedicated and became one of the three largest churches in the United States in the Unitarian denomination. One interesting footnote is that First church was served by two women coministries from 1893 to 1899 from England, Rev. Marion Murdock, and Rev. Florence Buck.

        The picture inside the booklet reads: '1967 gives birth to our second century of service to mankind through Unitarianism. A progressive church must be concerned with the present and future; what it is doing now for its members and community and what it hopes to accomplish in the foreseeable future for the progress of mankind. The milestones of the past, as recounted in this brochure, are stepping stones for future achievement'.

        Candle lighting ceremonies show 5 candles at the Unitarian Centennial Party symbolizing the birth of the 'Second Century of Service to Mankind through Unitarianism.' Ministers Rev. Arnold F. Westwood, First Unitarian Church; Rev. Dennis G. Kuby, Unitarian Society; Rev. James H. Curtis, West Shore Unitarian Church. The other two candles are for Unitarian churches in Mentor and N. Olmstead. The interesting thing is that this is 5 years after the merger and there is no mention of Universalism! The oldest Universalist Church in Ohio is in Belleville also considered in our district cluster from 1822.

        But that pales next to the oldest Unitarian churches in Massachusetts like the Pilgrims; Plymouth Parish, 1620, though they didn't actually become Unitarian until 1805. But the Plymouth Colony was morphed into the Mass Bay Colony so they all became puritans, if you will and many of those early churches became Unitarian, First Church Salem 1629, First Church Boston, 1630, and so on. The first church to become avowedly Unitarian was King's Chapel in Boston which was Episcopalian until 1794, but it still uses the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and a Christian based liturgy, though not Trinitarian! Many of the older Boston area UU churches have church bells or communion silver made by another Unitarian of the 18th century you might have heard of, Paul Revere. On the other hand, how would you like to be on the building committee and try to change anything on those historic churches?

        In an address about the historical significance of the Pilgrims, Hon. Charles Francis Adams, President of the Massachusetts Historical Society, said, upon the occasion at the Plymouth Church restoration project: 'We are so accustomed to look upon all things American, as new, that it requires some forcible reminder, such as this, to make us realize what an antiquity has gathered upon Plymouth.  Yet the fact is, as I have stated.  When the church, the unbroken succession of which you are, first gathered at Scrooby, and again at Delfthaven on the deck of the Speedwell, or the two most widely read books in all English Literature, our King James' Bible, had been only nine years issued from the press, while the other, the precious first quarto of Shakespeare, did not see the light until three years later.  Of this Society, therefore, American though it be, it may truthfully be said, that it antedates not only the literature, theology, science, and law, of the modern world, but it has outlived most of the philosophies and dynasties, and not a few of the nationalities, which existed at its birth.  It is among the world-venerable things.  When John Robinson addressed his farewell discourse to the little band of Pilgrims, on that day of solemn humiliation in July 1620, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Harvey, Milton, Descartes, were either still doing their work, or, as yet, unheard of in the world...' And just to bring you up to date, we currently have a UU minister in Fellowship who just retired whose name is also John Robinson!

        Now let me make it clear that these Pilgrims weren't specifically Unitarians, but I want to argue that their descendants, both literally and figuratively, were and are. Indeed, though not from Mayflower stock, as far as I know, my New England Congregational forbears were Pilgrim/Puritan Congregationalists that I, too, grew out of to become Unitarian Universalist. And I honor my Congregational, United Church of Christ roots; I loved growing up in that church, the Sunday School, the Youth Group, and even becoming involved in the NH State Youth Ministry Council, I loved the beloved community I felt surrounded and nurtured by as long as I shared the common creed.

        But as I went through college, I found myself growing into another phase of spiritual development, not a higher or better or more intelligent one, but a different one. Indeed, of course, I was becoming a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it, long before I would know what that meant, because we keep ourselves such a secret it would take me some ten years or so before I was ready to be found!  Before, someone INVITED US TO CHURCH!

        SO, of course, living up to membership is to become an evangelist, brothers and sisters, to spread the good news! Yes, I believe we preach salvation here, not from original sin because we don't believe in that, but salvation from prejudice, from hatred, from loneliness, from alienation from one another, from separateness from the sacred, from believing that the spiritual has only certain belief requirements that other people can determine. No, we don't have to convert anyone, but it's like the business owner says, 'if you're satisfied, tell others; if you're not, tell me.'

        We don't claim to have the only way, not even the BEST way, just our way. It MAY NOT be your way. Some things we can change and some things we can't.  But living up to membership is deciding that you HAVE found what you liked here, what you feel you NEED here, and I think you need to share that with your friends, your coworkers and family in a comfortable, nonthreatening, and obviously non-obnoxious way. I don't mean you have to go door to door! But growth is important. Maybe I should also tell you that the membership of that beautiful Pilgrim historical church. 87!

        Attend to your spiritual life however you define that. Find a way to nurture your soul, your spirit, your heart, your happiness, your inner flame. I hope you find some of that in worship, but also in other places as well.  Outside of worship which I do find very spiritual, I find much of my spiritual discipline in reading and in music. One of my luxuries is XM satellite radio in my car, so I can listen to Folk Music with commercials.

And I am always reading.

        I also enjoy leading various adult religious education courses and am always looking for people who might be interested in being considered to lead other courses on a variety of subjects. I think trying to participate in church activities in an important way of living up to membership because it helps develop community and hopefully is also fun. Indeed one of my goals is for a church full of a people involved in a host of various multigenerational activities. Maybe we need a Director of Congregational Life.

        And remember the children, think about teaching Sunday School; it's a great way to get to know our wonderful kids as well as more about Unitarian Universalism and religions of the world. You don't have to be a teacher and there's always another adult there with you. Our director puts the lessons and materials together for you and you only need a short term commitment, but most teachers I know have loved it and usually sign up again and again.

        And yes, living up to membership is about supporting the church financially. I believe that we should be talking about a theology of abundance and generosity, unafraid to ask for money to help fund the life of this church, that we should be celebrating our successes and learning from the times we are less successful. I  am hoping to inspire all our members to become part of that spirit of generosity that some of our members have been showing. If we are to grow, to thrive, indeed to survive, we need to get over this transition hump that we are in right now and have been for the last 10 years or so, to move forward.  It is an exciting time of great potential, but it will take the support, especially of those people who have not been as supportive as they could be. We realize every one is in a different place, and we don't want to scare anyone away because they feel they 'can't afford' to be a member. The economy is terrible, and we don't want anyone feeling guilty; I simply want folks to examine their hearts and ask themselves what this beloved community is worth to them. I want folks to make sure they put a clause in their will to remember the church.

   Lastly, living up to membership is being part of the beloved community, and that means loving one another. When folks ask if we believe in Jesus, I reply that I believe deeply in the teachings OF Jesus, but am not so concerned with the teachings ABOUT Jesus. I believe in his teachings about love being at the heart of religion, especially about him saying that he brought a NEW commandment, to love one another. Indeed, I'm OK with the government posting that all over their buildings, especially the Justice department!  How about that, just ONE commandment: LOVE ONE ANOTHER. The rest is details. OH, I know, we don't have God's name in there, but I will argue, that if we actually went around loving one another, I think God would be OK without being mentioned specifically!

        We are, by our heritage, a covenantal group, not a creedal one, at least, on the Unitarian side.  The oldest church in Boston 1630 is of course, now Unitarian Universalist, just known as First Church Boston.

        UU minister, Peter Richardson in his MInns Lectures, celebrating that church's  375 Anniversary writes: 'When John Winthrop and his party stepped off the Arbella in what is now Charlestown their first action in the new world was to draw up and sign a Covenant for a Church, on July 30, 1630.  The covenant they adopted, and which ninety men and women signed over the next two days, was a document of such theological simplicity that after three centuries and the shift from Calvinism to Unitarianism it is still the basis of membership in First Church in Boston.'  'In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, And in Obedience to His holy will, and Divine Ordinaunce: Wee whose names are hereunder written, being by his most wise and good Providence brought together into this part of America in the Bay of Massachusetts, and desirous to unite our selves, into one Congregation or Church, under the Lord Jesus Christ our Head, in such sort as becometh all those whom He hath Redeemed, and Sanctifyed to Himselfe, do hereby, solemnly, and religiously (as in His most holy Praesence) Promise, and bind ourselves to walke in all our wayes according to the Rule of the Gospell, and in all sincere conformity To His holy Ordinaunces, and in mutuall love, and respect Each to other So neere as  God shall give us grace.'

Do you hear a hint of our bond of Union there? Maybe we should add that ‘mutual love and respect.’ But the idea is that out church community is not just a social club but I believe asks of us to love and respect and help one another.

        I used to have a note when I served First Church San Antonio that was slipped under the office door clipped to my calendar at home by my computer. I kept the note to remind me that every Sunday someone  

walks in that needs our help. In the last move it was lost, though I’m sure it is one of the boxes of stuff, but I will never forget what it said. I assume it wasn’t from a member because it addressed me as ‘Dear Rev. Severance,’ and perhaps that made it even more meaningful; it simply said, ‘I don’t know you’ll ever know how much a sermon can save a life. Thank you.’

        I don't remember the sermon, but I don't think it was because it was a particularly great sermon, but that even if it was, we must put in context; that is, that this sermon was preached in this church, with its beautiful surroundings, music, and a warm and friendly congregation.  We make this place holy and perhaps it comes back to us tenfold and then makes us holy! How holy do we want to be?

        Our denominational president, Peter Morales says, 'What a time to be alive as a Unitarian Universalist! The possibilities for us are breathtaking!

        In a world where sectarianism and tribalism and xenophobia marginalize and kill, we bring a message of the inherent worth and dignity of everyone. We honor wisdom from all traditions. We bring a life giving message of acceptance and interdependence.

        In a world of lonely people looking for real community, we offer religious homes where we can grow together, worship together, and serve together, where we can save our lives and help save the world.

        Love reaches out. Reaching out is what love is. The challenge before us is huge. The stakes are enormous. We live in a time in which the hunger for love is palpable....'

        So come let us walk together, love and help one another, work for justice, peace, and harmony with nature, and invite a friend to church.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ So I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con Su Dios,’ ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.’

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios

Opening words Adapted from Victoria Weinstein

The church is a body.
The church is a body.
May this body breathe and be together in the spirit of hope
May it feel held by comfort.
Those who seek consolation, may they find it in the solace of this time together

The church is a body.
It is as strong as all the men and women who have ever gathered within its walls.
It is the power of all they dreamed and all that they have done.

The church is a body.
It is as vulnerable as the most newborn and untried of its members.
It is ancient, and it is ever new.

The church is a story.
It is the story of lives that are interwoven, brought together in this place and this time for the simple purpose of caring for one another, and helping one another along the arduous path from birth to death.

The church is a vision.
It is a vision of unity amid diversity,
It is a vision of reverence for all of creation,
It is a vision that beckons us beyond the concerns of our own skins.

In the hour, may we abide as one body in the spirit of faith, hope and love that is the story and the vision of this church.