Sponsor: Office of the President, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)
Speakers: Rev. William Sinkford, Rev. Gail Geisenhainer, Rev. Jane Rzepka, Beth Norton
Morning has come, Sunday has come, and on behalf of Unitarian Universalist congregations everywhere, I welcome you.
If you are new to Unitarian Universalism and are visiting with us this morning, a special welcome. Please know that whoever you are, we are glad you are here—it's as simple as that.
Most of the rest of you came a long way to get here last week, and you have made it right on through to Sunday. So not only do I welcome you, I congratulate you!
You are not alone in your determination to get here and to be here in St. Louis in the service of our religion: Abby Adams Cranch Eliot made her own trip to St. Louis to further the movement—20 years old, a new bride, wife to the new Unitarian minister. The year was 1837. She writes in her journal that she was nearly shaken to pieces on the new steam railroad, which got her from Washington to Philadelphia. On to the Erie Canal, Buffalo, another steamer to Cleveland. Another canal—the way was blocked—so into a broken-down stage coach (nine people packed into it in the rain and the dark). All night long to Cincinnati in time to catch a boat for St. Louis . They are two weeks on the river what with the water so low and the sand bars, and they run out of food, but for the stale crackers. You get the picture. Weeks after setting out she finally arrives—she arrives to find a warm welcome here in St. Louis . And for the next 71 years she pitches in to support the people of this town. She lives her religion.
And that's what we'll do too. Our journey was easier than Abby Eliot's, and for most of us, the stay far shorter. But, like her, we can live our religion during our time here. And so our morning offering will benefit St. Louis 's "Lift for Life" program that supports athletics for inner city youth. You can make checks out to Lift for Life.
With that opportunity I welcome you to worship in the ways of Unitarian Universalism, in our sure knowledge that wherever we are, we feel a connection. We are one.
(To be followed by the Choir singing "We Are One" by Brian Tate)
Written by Lewis B. Fisher, Universalist minister, Dean of Ryder Divinity School, author of Which Way? A Study of Universalist and Universalism, Boston, 1921, 9-11.
Universalists, [writes LB Fisher in 1921,] Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move. Or we are asked to state our position. Again we can only answer that we are on the march.
We do not stand still, nor do we defend any immovable positions, theologically speaking. We grow and we march, as all living things forever must do. The main questions with Universalists are not where we stand but which way we are moving, not what positions we defend but which way we are marching. Our main interest is to perceive what is true progress, and to keep our movements in line with that, and not to allow ourselves to move round and round in circles, like a squirrel in its cage.
[Religious] words and phrases take on new meanings, and therefore need new definitions, in each succeeding age. Nothing is clearer than the fact that the old definitions do not meet the needs of the new day, or that the old theologies do not function for the new occasions. Our worn phrases are always losing their old meanings, and must forever be finding new meanings in the light of new experiences.
What may probably be more disturbing to minds that tend to inertia, which are dreading changes, and stoutly demanding final and authoritative statements and definitions, is that they will never get what they want in this or in any other possible world. No human word has ever reached or ever will reach finality of meaning. Each living age always has defined religion in the light of its own experiences, and all ages to come will do the same.
[We are often asked to tell where [we] stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.
Ernest Cassara, Universalism in America, pp. 253-4
From Anne Lamott's Plan B
We had shown up [at the Peace March], writes Anne Lamott, not knowing what else to do, and without much hope. This was like going on a huge picnic at the edge of the fog, hoping you would walk through to something warmer. The mantra you could hear in our voices and our footsteps was "I have a good feeling!" The undermutter was silent, spoken with a sort of shrug — "What good will it do to do nothing?"
The barricades were broken down for once, between races, colors, ages, sexes, classes, nations. There are so few opportunities for this to happen—you're shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people, a massive crowd gathered once again on sacred ground. The energy and signs and faces of the crowd were an intoxicating balm, and by some marvelous yogic stretch, we all stopped trying to figure out whom and what we agreed with, and who the bad elements were. You just had to let go, because Market Street was wide enough for us all, and we began to march, each a small part of one big body, fascinatingly out of control, like protoplasm bobbing along.
The sea of people looked like a great heartbroken circus, wild living art, motley and stylish, old and young, people from unions and churches and temples, aging hippies and veterans strewn together on the asphalt lawn of Market Street. We took small shuffle steps. It was like being on a conveyer belt, over-whelming and scary. It's disturbing to not walk with your usual gait, to move at once so slowly and with such purpose. I felt I was trying to pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time.
The "I" turned into "we." You shuffled along with your friends, moving at the pace of the whole organization, moving to the heartbeat of the percussion. You saw people you knew, and hung out awhile, and then they moved away, and new people fell in step beside you, and offered you comments and gum. Whoever came along came along. The goodwill gave you a feeling of safety in this mob, a fizzy euphoria despite the grim reality of these times.
There was a lot of volition; you were swept along, but the crowd had a self-correcting mechanism—it kept letting go of what wasn't quite right, the more raw, angry elements, the strident and divisive. It was a Golden Rule parade with goodness, and tender respect, and this held the peace. I saw only friendliness, sorrow, goodness, and great theater.
You rub shoulders, smell the bodies and the babies and everyone's streaming past, including you. For once, you're part of the stream, and in that, in being part of it, you smell the pungent green shoots of hope. The feeling may be only for the moment. But it's a quantum moment: it might happen again, and spread and spread and spread; and for a moment and then another, there's no judgment, no figuring out, just an ebullient trudge, step, step, step.
Reverend Gail R. Geisenhainer, serving as Minister with The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach, FL
I was forthrightly evangelized into Unitarian Universalism. I was 38 years old, living in Maine, driving a snow-plow for a living and feeling very sorry for myself when a friend invited me to his church. He said it was different. I rudely refused. I cursed his church. "All blank-ing churches are the same," I informed him, "they say they're open—but they don't want queer folk. To Heck with church!" My friend, persisted. He knew his church was different. He told me his church cared about people, embraced diverse families, and worked to make a better world. He assured me I could come and not have to hide any elements of who I was. So I went. Oh, I went alright.
And I dressed sooooo, carefully for my first Sunday visit. I spiked my short hair straight up into the air. I dug out my heaviest, oldest work boots, the ones with the chain saw cut that exposed the steel toe. I got my torn blue jeans and my leather jacket. There would be not a shred of ambiguity this Sunday morning. They would embrace me in my full Amazon glory, or they could fry ice. I carefully arranged my outfit so it would highlight the rock hard chip I carried on my shoulder, I bundled up every shred of pain and hurt and betrayal I had harbored from every other religious experience in my life, and I lumbered into that tiny meetinghouse on the coast of Maine.
Blue jeans and boots. Leather jacket, spiked hair and belligerent attitude. I accepted my friend's invitation and I went to his church. I expected the gray-haired ladies in the foyer to step back in fear. That would have been familiar. Instead, they stepped forward, offered me a bulletin, a newsletter and invited me to stay for coffee. It was so... odd! They never even flinched!
They called me "dear." But they pronounced it "dee-ah." "Stay for coffee, dear."
I stayed for coffee. I stayed for Unitarian Universalism. Over time, the good folks of that church loved up the scattered parts of me and guided me from shattered to whole; from outcast to beloved among many. And those folks listened to me. I and my life partner became their poster-children for the brand new Welcoming Congregation program. And they went on to provide important local pastoral and legislative ministries to gay folks in Down East Maine. We walked together and we helped each other to grow.
Please don't think the transition was smooth or swift. These were not imaginary super-heroes, these were human beings. And this was in the mid 1980's. During the worship service on my second or third Sunday, a woman stood during Joys and Concerns to announce that all homosexuals had AIDS, all homosexuals were deviants who could not be trusted with children, public health or civil society. All homosexuals should be quarantined; packed off to work camps to provide useful labor for society and keep their filthy life style and deadly diseases to themselves.
As the member spoke I slowly sat upright from my customary slouch. I tucked in my arms, looked furtively around to see who might be glaring in my direction, and I tried to remember if I had parked my car facing in or out in the parking lot. In its journey of covenant, this congregation had just stumbled onto an important cross-road. But as Joys and Concerns unfolded not one person made reference to the call to quarantine all homosexuals. The pulpit that morning was ably filled by a student from the local seminary. At the end of the sharing, the seminarian made a brief comment to ensure us that not all the sentiments voiced this morning represented the whole congregation, and that was that!
Now I was at a cross-road. Sure thing I left that week right after service. But what about next Sunday? Would I go back? Why on earth would I go back? That would be, well, you fill in the word, going back would be what? , dangerous, stupid, fool hardy, looking for trouble, probably hurtful, but back I went. I was in the throes of learning my first lessons of being in covenant with a congregation. When we covenant to walk together through all that life brings, it means when things get ugly, we don't walk away. Oh, how we may want to walk away! But our covenants call us to abide and work things through.
The next week the regular minister was back. The service began as usual. I tensed up when Joys and Concerns were announced. Someone announced something like a birthday, I can't fully remember. But I vividly remember as one by one, folks of that congregation stood up and awkwardly announced that not everything said last week was right, or true, or representative of who we were as a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
The cross-road had been engaged. The direction the congregation would take was being chosen. This congregation would not be stuck in conflict, mired in name calling, or diverted from it's gentle, steady trek toward building the Beloved Community. Our aspirations were unfolding: one voice at a time.
That congregation had reached a cross road where one among them had begun the use of language that would depersonalize and endanger others. She tried to create a class of less-than-human persons toward whom violence would be acceptable. The congregation gently refused to follow. But, an even more extraordinary and wonderful thing happened. The congregation refused to depersonalize, refused to dehumanize the original speaker. The congregation stayed in what Martin Buber called an "I-Thou" relationship with her. They did not start calling her names, "that homophobe! That gay-basher!" None of that happened. While the speaker tried to turn homosexuals into objects to be manipulated, the congregation never referred to the speaker in a way that was less than embracing and respectful of her full humanity.
Later, in that same church, I opened the hymnal to find the words attributed to the Buddha, "Never does hatred cease by hating in return."He taught, "Let us overcome violence by gentleness, only through love can hatred come to an end. Never does hatred cease by hating in return."
My friend was right. His church was different. He did forget to tell me that at his church, some Sundays, I could be in for a wild, wild ride. But he was right. His church really cared about making things right for everybody.
Over time, after attending General Assemblies, District Meetings and through working with various groups at the church, I began to experience the shift Anne Lamott described from the Peace March. I had walked into that meetinghouse as a bruised, belligerent, "I." I was fighting alone. But in time, the "I" turned into "we." Lamott wrote, In "the energy and signs and faces of the crowd were an intoxicating balm, and by some marvelous yogic stretch, we all stopped trying to figure out whom and what we agreed with, and who the bad elements were, you just had to let go, fascinatingly out of control, the sea of people, like a great heartbroken circus, wild living art, The "I" turned into "we," moving at the pace of the whole organization."
Pace! Oh, my word! I was frantic with the folks in Maine ! I would have welcomed a S.W.A.T. Team! I wanted that woman bodily lifted from the pews right that moment! I wanted a detailed denunciation of her ideas and a formal apology to all queer folk on the planet . But that's not how human change works. That's not the pace of human learning. Nor is it the pace of effective, world changing work for justice. When I heard that diatribe I was immediately slammed into a sharp, prickly, fully alert sensation of my differences. I was "other." So was the speaker. We were what Martin Buber called "I—It" and not "I—Thou."
At the time, what I remember most is the sensation of holding my breath as I hurried out during the postlude. I ducked my head, avoided eye contact, spoke to no one as though the shame were mine. There was a man in the foyer between me and the exit door. I quickly glanced up to his face, silently pleading for him to let me pass without more pain. He smiled, held the door open gently for me, speaking softly, he said, "See you next week?"
My head snapped up. "Excuse me," I muttered. Surely I had not heard him correctly? He gently repeated, "See you next week?"
Was he mad? Was he impaired? Had he not just heard what that woman said? "See you next week?" It was at once a question and an invitation. Surely, I thought as I scrambled to leave the parking lot, surely it was an invitation to madness, but for one thing. The man's voice, his soft smile, gentle words, direct eye contact, ours was an "I—Thou" encounter. The very thing I'd been seeking.
In the throes of awful moments, in the slap of insult, the breaking through realizations of injustice, disrespect, unkindness, hatred and worse, there is a way to detect if we are off course or on course. In these terrible moments all sense of movement stops. Instinctively, some of us begin to hold our breath. We become hyper alert to details, the sense of "other" and our sense of "apartness."
Conversation, of course, comes to an abrupt halt. The sense of movement stops. Our brains want to scream, "what did you say?" When the attack was made all motion in the room appeared to stop. I hurried from the building nearly holding my breath. Then the fellow at the door said, "See you next week?" At once a question and an invitation. At once an acceptance of the reality I might not come back. "See you next week?" I exhaled. The salvific power of breathing. My first lesson on the Beloved Community where we walk together, though all that life brings. Just enough to keep us in motion, to keep us in conversation.
Within our own religious communities, we have all too many breath stopping moments. Have you ever heard anyone ask, "Well, what do they want?" That's often where it begins. The quick, facile insertion of a prickly sounding "they" into a conversation of exploration and expansion. It stops the movement cold. In some congregations, I fear we have grown all too accustomed to this heavy artillery of meanness. And then we stay stuck in the conflict. We loose sight of our larger aspirations. We forget to include one another on the lists of folks to respect. Sometimes, we all too cavalierly toss around flippant comments that hit like nerve bombs. Have you ever heard someone complain, for instance, about "those cranky old humanists?" Or have you heard one of us whine about "those air-headed theists?"
When we depersonalize and demean one another, most anything that follows will be flawed in some way. When we catch ourselves out of rhythm with our values, we can stop and rebalance. We can back track, retreat to the last place on the path where we remember regarding one another with good will. This is a spiritual practice. What spiritual disciplines do you employ to get your self back to balance after you've been stopped cold by bigotry, meanness, or insult? The basic discipline, of course, is the salvific deep breath. Many of us use poetry, songs, words, to pull us back into balance. For my part, I began collecting a notebook of the words and texts that kept me in balance, guided me back to balance. Do you have such a collection?
In all the holy words I've collected, two themes remain strong, first, that movement from the "I to the we." And with it, the commitment to stay in motion, to stay the course, to be present until justice is present for all. One such guide on the journey "from I to we" is Marge Piercy. In her poem titled, "The Low Road" she chronicles how "alone, you can fight, but they roll over you. Two people can keep each other sane, three people are a delegation, with four you can play bridge, a dozen make a demonstration. A hundred fill a hall." Her poem concludes this way, "It goes on one at a time, it starts when you care to act, it starts when you do it again after they said no, it starts when you say We and you know who you mean, and each day you mean one more."
These themes, the movement from "I to we," and the commitment to stay in motion toward the goal, come together for me in "Ella's Song." The words of the very first verse and chorus focus my mind, motivate my heart, and direct my hands. For me, this is holy language. "Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mother's sons, We who believe in Freedom cannot rest"
Until we create this place of balance, until we build this culture of inclusion and compassion, until we bring down justice like waters, until the days of our lives are filled with the glory of losing sight of whom to hate, until we regard each other with compassion, until the inherent worth and dignity of each is named, celebrated, practiced and nurtured, until, until, until, (sing) Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mother's sons, (add choir) We who believe in Freedom cannot rest, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes."
(Choir hums note for "comes" with a break, repeat till the cue for "Until ")
I invite you to sing this with me. Let us sing to learn, sing to pray, sing to awaken our hearts, just this verse and the chorus, together, "Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mother's sons. We who believe in Freedom cannot rest, we who believe in Freedom cannot rest until it comes."
I've heard folks say they are reluctant to invite others to worship at their Unitarian Universalist church, society, congregation or fellowship. Reluctant because you just never know quite what might happen on a Sunday morning when we get rolling. Well, I can attest, even if one of us gets so far, far off course as to call for a quarantine of homosexuals, the heat of our core, our yearning for a compassionate justice, will still be palpable. So go ahead, take a risk, invite someone to your church. I urge us all, it is time to get the salvific message of our Unitarian Universalist faith out of our congregations, out of our isolated hearts, out past our hesitations, limitations, frustrations, complacency and consternations. We need to aid, assist, challenge and comfort our bruised and wounded world.
Burdette Backus, Unitarian minister and signer of the original Humanist manifesto, taught that we are "at once children of (the Beloved Community) and builders of the Beloved Community." No matter how we came to Unitarian Universalism, birth, invitation, accident or curiosity, we are here with common cause now.
We are here to practice this faith, with all it's rigorous demands. We are here to build this faith, expanding it's broad possibilities. We are here to celebrate living. We are here to make life better.
"See you next week?" It is at once a question we each must answer and an invitation we each must extend.
As we return to our local congregations, let us expand who we mean by "we." Each time meaning one more.
"See you next week?" Let us build Beloved Communities that revere the labors and aspirations of the past but "trust the dawning future more."
See you next week?
Speaking to a congregation of over three thousand people, the Reverend Gail Geisenhainer gave one of the most rousing sermons preached at General Assembly Sunday morning worship in recent memory.
"Come, come into this space. Bring your hurts and your hopes. Here we create community where hurts can be healed and hopes can be made real," said the Reverend William Sinkford to open the worship service. "Here we search for common meaning and common purpose. Here we know that we are not alone. Come, let us worship together."
The first hymn, "Morning Has Come," a meditative contemporary hymn written by the Rev. Jason Shelton of Nashville, TN, put the congregation into a peaceful mood.
"Morning has come," said the Reverend Jan Rzepka, senior minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a Unitarian Universalist congregation that serves religious liberals around the world through the Web and by mail. "Sunday has come, and on behalf of Unitarian Universalist congregations everywhere I welcome you who are in this room and you who are with us by way of technology." Live video of the worship service was streamed via the Web site of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
"A special welcome to anyone here who is new to Unitarian Universalism," Rzepka continued. As for the past two General Assemblies, the Sunday morning worship service for this General Assembly was advertised to and open to the surrounding community. Rzepka also welcomed the General Assembly delegates on this last day of the convention, saying, "You have made it right on through to Sunday, so not only do I welcome you, I congratulate you." Her words were greeted by applause and laughter by tired delegates.
Rzepka told the story of Abigail Adams Cranch Eliot, who came to St. Louis in 1837 when she was 20 years old, accompanying her husband, the Reverend William Eliot, who had been called as the first Unitarian minister in St. Louis. "She arrives to find a warm welcome here in St. Louis, and for the next 71 years she pitches in to help the people of this town, she lives her religion. And that's what we'll do too," said Rzepka. "We can live our religion during our time here, and so our morning offering will benefit 'Lift for Life,'" a free after-school program for inner city children in St. Louis.
The offertory music, "We Are One" by Brian Tate," was another contemporary worship song. It was sung by the General Assembly Choir, accompanied by Susan Peck on piano, Ric Vice on bass, Martin Frye on drums, Leon Burke playing the organ, Melodie Feather and Daniel Stern playing handbells, and Matt Meyer providing percussion.
After the offertory, Rzepka gave a reading from 1921 by L. B. Fisher. "Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand," Rzepka read. "The only true answer to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.... We do not stand still, nor do we defend theological positions." Laughter greeted these words. The reading concluded by saying that the main question is to determine which way we are moving, and "not to move around and around like squirrels in a cage."
The next hymn was a "rhythm hymn," led by percussionist Meyer. He talked about how learn to play their own individual music within a larger, unified piece of music. "I believe that when we come together as people of faith, we too can create something much greater... than the sum of the parts." He then led the congregation in shifting, four part clapping rhythms. At the end, he told members of the congregation to sit, "and take a deep breath, and sit down as you exhale."
"Whether we're making music together or not," Meyer continued, "I blieve that attnetion to the rhythm of our breath can focus the attention of our minds and transform our consciousness." From the back of the congregation came a cry of "Right on!"
"Spirit of life and love, known by many names, dear God," said Sinkford to begin the prayer and meditation. "As we hear the breath of life, we ask ourselves, for what should we pray. Should we pray for peace in our hearts and in our world? Yes, we pray for peace. Should we pary for strength to sustain us when life is hard? Yes, we pray for strength." Sinkford continued on, praying for "meaning to guide us," healing, and justice.
"Should we pray for the American soldiers who have died in Iraq," Sinkford prayed, "and for the thousands and thousands of Iraqis who have died? Yes... we will toll bells to mark their passing." In imitation of tolling bells, Feather and Stern softly played handbells behind the rest of the prayer. Sinkford concluded, "May our breath sustain us and know that we are a part of life, and many our life together be a blessing to the world."
Rzepka returned to the pulpit for the second reading, from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. The reading began, "We had shown up at a peace march not knowing what else to do and without much hope." In the reading, Lamott tells how the individuals joining the peace march became a part of something larger than themselves.
The anthem, "Ella's Song" by Unitarian Universalist composer Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, was sung by the quartet "Quadratic Equation." The quartet sang, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest, until it comes.... Until the killing of black men, black mothers and sons, become as important as the killing of white men, white mothers and sons, we cannot rest." Halfway through this beautiful flowing anthem, the congregation was on its feet, clapping along. The singers invited the congregation to join them in singing the chorus.
The Reverend Gail Geisenhainer, minister of the Unitarian Uiversalist Fellowship of Vero Beach, Florida, stepped forward to deliver a sermon titled "We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest." From her opening sentence, she held the congregation rapt.
"I was forthrightly evangelized into Unitarian Universalism," she began, to scattered cheers from the congregation. "I was 38 years old, living in Maine, and driving a snow plow for a living, and feeling very sorry for myself when a friend invited me to his church. He said it was—different." Laughter greeted this remark.
"I rudely refused," Geisenhainer continued. "Truth be told, I cursed his church. 'All blanking churches are the same,' I said, 'They say they're open but they don't want queer folk.' But my friend persisted. He knew his church was different.... He assured me I could come and not have to hide any element of who I was."
"I went. Oh, mama, I went, and I dressed so carefully for my first Sunday. I spiked my short hair straight up into the air. I dug out my oldest, heaviest work boots with the chain saw cut on one toe that showed the metal underneath the black leather.... There would not be one shred of ambiguity that Sunday." The congregation laughed sympathetically. "Those people would embrace my full Amazon glory, or they could go fry ice."
"I bundled up every shred of pain" that she carried as an out lesbian, "and I lumbered into that tiny meeting house on the coast of Maine," said Geisenhainer. "I expected the little gray-haired ladies in the foyer to step back in fear. Instead, those ladies stepped forward as I entered." The congregation erupted into cheers and applause.
"They never even flinched," said Geisenhainer. "They called me 'dear.' It was so—odd." The people of that congregation invited Geisenhainer to stay for coffee after the worship service. "I stayed for coffee. I stayed for Unitarian Universalism."
Geisenhainer became a part of that congregation, but the way was not always smooth. One Sunday, during the congregational sharing of joys and concerns, one woman in the congregation stood and spoke about how she thought all homosexuals should be segregated from the rest of society, and how they were not fully human. Geisenhainer left that worship service as quickly as possible.
"But I went back," she said. "I was learning my first lesson about being in covenant. When things get ugly, we do not walk away." This statement was greeted with applause and cries of "All right!"
"Mercy, how we yearn to walk away," she continued. "That's OK, but our covenant calls us to abide and to work things through together."
The next Sunday, Geisenhainer did go back to that small Maine church. That next Sunday, during the sharing of joys and concerns, people rose to speak who had never spoken before during the worship service. "Person after person rose to announce that not everything we heard last week was true or representative of who we are as a Unitarian Universalist congregation."
However, said Geisenhainer, members of that congregation did not demonize or dehumanize the woman who had made homophobic remarks. "They did not start calling her names: that homophobe, or that gay basher," Geisenhainer said. "None of that happened."
Quoting the words of Gotama Buddha, Geisenhainer said, "Never does hatred cease by hating in return." Then she added, "My friend was right—his church was different. He did forget to tell us, however, that some Sundays we could be in for a wild wild ride."
Geisenhainer said she was sometimes frustrated by the pace of change in that Maine congregation, as they worked towards full and open acceptance of gay and lesbian persons. But in the end, she realized that it was best to keep everyone in relation, in covenant, rather than to issue denunciations.
Referring to the theology of Martin Buber, author of I Thou, Geisenhainer said, "I had walked into that meetinghouse as a bruised and fighting 'I' but in time that turned into a 'we'."
Going back to the moment when the woman had risen to make her comments about gay and lesbians persons, Geisenhainer recalled that it felt like everything stopped, including her breathing. That Sunday, she fled the church immediately at the conclusion of the service. A man held the door open for her as she left, and said, "See you next week."
"Was he mad, was he impaired, has he not heard what that woman had said?" Geisenhainer said. "It was at once a question and an invitation.... The man's voice, his soft smile, his gentle tone, his direct eye contact.... Ours was an I-Thou encounter, the very thing I had been seeking. It was an acceptance of the reality that I might not come back." And by that man saying that, Geisenhainer found that she could start breathing again.
"Within our religious community, I feel that we have all too many breath-stopping moments," she continued. "In some congregations, I fear we have grown all too accustomed to this heavy artillery of meanness."
"What spiritual practice and discipline do you employ to get back on track when you have been stopped by meanness and bigotry?" she asked. She encouraged those in the congregation to develop such spiritual practices and spiritual disciplines.
She called for Unitarian Universalists to build a culture of inclusion and compassion, to bring down justice like the waters, and then broke into singing a verse of "Ella's Song", accompanied by the bassist: "Let us sing to pray, to understand." The congregation joined her as she sang, singing, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes."
"I have heard people say that they are reluctant to invite people to worship at their Unitarian Universalist congregation," she continued, "reluctant because you just may not know what might happen on Sunday morning when you get up a head of steam. But go ahead. Take a risk. Invite someone to your church. It's time to get the salvific message of Unitarian Universalism out from our congregations, out from our isolated hearts, out past our limitations and frustrations. We need to challenge and comfort a bruised and wounded world." Applause and cries of "Amen!" came from the congregation.
"'See you next week'," she said. There were cries of "Yeah!" from the congregation. "This is an invitation we must extend. Let us expand who we mean by 'we'.... Let us build beloved communities, that trust the dawning future—
"See you next week."
The congregation leaped to its feet to give Geisenhainer a standing ovation for her stirring sermon. Some people said it was one of the finest sermons delivered at General Assembly in recent memory.
Geisenhainer and Sinkford gave the benediction together. "Go forth in the power of love, practice kindness, demand justice, and offer compassion, said Geisenhainer.
"May the challenge you have found here go forth with you," said Sinkford, "and amen."
The congregations shouted back, "Amen!"
The closing hymn was the South African song "Siyahamba." Meyer laid down a powerful groove on the djembe, and the General Assembly choir, directed by Elizabeth Norton, music director of First Parish of Concord, Mass., led the congregation in singing perhaps a dozen verses of this song of freedom and justice.
During this closing hymn, Geisenhainer and Sinkford processed off the stage, where Geisenhainer was met by people who greeted her with hugs. By this time, the congregation was swaying in time to the music, singing in harmony. A growing number of people raised their hands over their heads to sway with the music, and by the last verse a line dance made its way through the aisles.
After the worship service was over, there were numerous comments about the excellence of the sermon. "Wow," said Lynn Calvin of the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church of Naperville, Illinois. "Going [to a church] expecting not to be welcomed, and being welcomed. That was amazing." She said it was easily one of the best sermons she has ever heard preached at a General Assembly.
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Last updated on Friday, March 23, 2012.
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Bill Sinkford, Jane Rzepka, and Gail Geisenhainer.
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