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Sunday Morning Worship, General Assembly 2004

General Assembly 2004 Event 4003

Order of Service (PDF)

Delegates, Unitarian Universalists from nearby congregations, and many guests responding to inviting ads in the local newspaper gathered in worship in the Convention Hall for music, poetry, and a sermon by the Reverend William G. Sinkford, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association on the “saving message” of freedom, forgiveness, imperfection, and optimism.

Reported by Jone Johnson Lewis.

"A Work in Progress"

Sermon by William G. Sinkford

Before I continue, let me extend a personal welcome to those citizens of Long Beach and the surrounding communities who have come to share worship with those of us attending the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. We could not be more delighted that you are here.

Occasionally, in the flood of offers to make me thin, rich, virile and pain-free, something truly helpful comes to me in my email. This short prayer appeared on my screen a while ago:

Dear God,

So far today I've done all right.
I haven't gossiped.
I haven't lost my temper.
I haven't been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.
I'm very thankful for that.

But in a few minutes, God, I'm going to get out of bed;

And from then on I'm probably going to need a lot more help.


Not everyone here prays to God. But regardless of how you name the Holy, or how you practice your faith, everyone here has had the experience of falling short, of making mistakes, of intentionally or unintentionally harming another. We've all had the experience of being…well…less than perfect.

Do you remember the press conference this spring when President Bush was asked if he could name any mistakes he'd made in his presidency, any decisions he regretted? He couldn't name one. I was astonished. I don't know about you, but I can name 10 mistakes I made last week.

Right now, I'm thinking about one I made last year, at our General Assembly in Boston. I was preparing to introduce the Ware Lecturer, the major speaker we invite to offer an outside view of the challenges and opportunities facing religion. I stood confidently to begin. Julian Bond, now Chairperson of the NAACP, was the lecturer and I was very much looking forward to hearing him. The hall was still filling, but I decided that timeliness was a virtue and launched into my introduction. About half way through it, a member of the Board of Trustees approached the podium and told me I was a half hour early.

After a moment of intense embarrassment, I apologized to the more than 5000 people filling the hall and asked for a “do over.” On the big screen behind me, the person doing the captioning wrote: “Let's take a collection so that he can buy a watch.”

Or there was the time a couple of years ago when I was leading a program at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tahlequah, OK. That community was the terminus of the “Trail of Tears” walked by the Cherokees when they were dispossessed of their homes in North Georgia and North Carolina. Our congregation there is about 35% Native American, Cherokee mostly. I was speaking about race and talking extensively about the “tribe”. The tribe this and the tribe that…until one courageous young woman raised her hand and said, “Reverend Sinkford, I don't belong to a tribe, I belong to the Cherokee Nation.”

My heart sank. I'm a person of color, and I'm supposed to get this stuff right.

But we were able to stay in conversation, in relationship. Not only did I learn something from the mistake, but the congregation was able to use the incident to begin talking about what it meant for them to be a multi-cultural community. My error somehow allowed them to open a conversation that had seemed too fraught with the peril of causing real hurt or harm.

“You do not have to be good”, writes the poet Mary Oliver, “you do not need to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.”

All too often, our experience with religious community feels like that—walking on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert. I know that was my experience, many years ago, as a young black man. In my boyhood years, my family had attended the Episcopal and the Southern Baptist Church, neither of which fit my needs. I could never quite wrap my head around the liturgical mysteries of the Episcopal faith, and the liturgy did not speak to my heart. And though the Black Baptist Church in the small town in western North Carolina where we lived for a time was the center of the Black community's life, Hell Fire was preached from that pulpit. I felt sure that, if there was a God, he or she (well it was he then) could not be so punishing.

So by the ripe old age of 14, I had decided that organized religion was not for me. In fact, I proclaimed a stand-up atheism and took some pleasure in the consternation that caused among friends and family. I understood myself to be a heretic,and enjoyed it. So I remember how difficult and even frightening it was to walk into my first Unitarian Universalist service. Truth be told, I did not so much walk into that church in Cincinnati, OH, as I was dragged, practically kicking and screaming, by my mother. Most of you seem to have come more easily this morning.

What I found in that UU church literally changed my life. I didn't have to check any of myself at the door. I could bring my questions and my doubts. I could bring my youthful arrogance and my deep need to be accepted. It was not that the youth and adults I came to know shared my opinions. Far from it. But my questions seemed to be valued, and no one made me recite a creed or doctrine. I came to understand that what the people of that church community valued…was me. They valued me. They seemed to understand their spiritual lives—their very selves— as works in progress; they welcomed my presence and participation. We could create our lives together free from rigid ideas about religion, regardless of any false steps we might have taken thus far.

Cincinnati is a border town, across the Ohio River from Kentucky, part of the old South. The year was 1960, and that church was raising a powerful voice in the emerging Civil Rights Struggle. They seemed to feel that they could change the world, help the universe bend toward justice. As a young black man, I found in [First Church Cincinnati] a community where Blacks and Whites not only seemed able to be together peaceably, but where together they worked for justice. I never thought I'd find a church like that. I had found a religious home.

Unitarian Universalism is the coming together of two historic American faith communities. In these days, blended families are increasingly common, and so it's useful to think of Unitarian Universalism as a blended religious family at the meta-level.

The Unitarians brought much to the new family. The Unitarian faith was born in this country within the faith and culture of the Boston elite. By 1819, the great Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing, had articulated a doctrine that emphasized human potential and named Jesus as fully human: a great rabbi, an ethical and religious leader whose teachings were to be followed, a model for how a good life can be lived. But not God, well at least not any more than you or I. Unitarian Universalists believe that every person has the spark of divinity within.

Unitarianism was heretical and it was radical. Unitarians brought with them to this shared faith a commitment to the making of justice. From the abolition of slavery to women's rights to the Civil Rights struggle, Unitarians have been prominent advocates for expanding the circle of “We the People” to include more and more of us. They brought a kind of optimism, a can-do attitude born in part, from their social position and in part from their theology. They believed they could shape the world, and that the world was theirs to shape. Religious authority, for Unitarians, moved from Scripture directly to the individual mind and heart. In Ralph Waldo Emerson's words, “there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens…no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease, and God, the cause, begins.”

The Universalist contribution to this faith was heretical and radical as well. In conspicuous contrast to the Calvinist New England climate from which they sprang, Universalists found in scripture a loving God, a God who would condemn no person out of hand. The power of love lay at the very heart of the Universalist faith. The great Universalist minister Hosea Ballou was banned from preaching in many New England towns during the 1790s, because he preached universal salvation: the radical notion that Jesus died for us all, not just a predestined few. John Murray, another prominent early Universalist, admonished his fellow Universalist preachers to “Give them not Hell, but Hope and Courage.”

Universalists were more a part of the working class than the upper-class Unitarians. They saw salvation in service and founded schools and hospitals as they spread and expanded, becoming one of the nation's most popular religious faiths—the 6th largest in the U.S.—during the 1840s.

Both Universalists and Unitarians were optimistic souls—the former because of their belief in God, the latter, at least in part, because of their belief in themselves

As one joke has it, the Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them, while the Unitarians believed they were too good to be damned by God.

But that shared optimism has helped us create this blended family. That hope fuels our work for justice and supports the works in progress that are our lives. Yet that optimism leaves us with this small problem: How do we deal with the fact that we are not perfect? That we make mistakes, fall short, intentionally and unintentionally hurt others? How do we deal with the reality that we are fallible?

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” writes Mary Oliver.

Unitarian Universalism has fallen short, at times. Fallen short of our high ideals. Fallen short of our optimistic dreams. One of those times was the late 1960's and early 70's. Unitarian Universalists, like other Americans, were struggling with the difficult issue of race. Our hopes were high. But when differences and disagreements became intense, our hopes crumbled. Reconciliation escaped us. The denomination pulled back. For me, a young Black man, to have my church retreat from a commitment to racial justice was more than I could bear. The controversy almost wrenched the whole denomination asunder, and I myself left our faith, along with many other disenchanted black Unitarian Universalists.

For a time, I wandered in the wilderness, unchurched until the early 1980s, when I was back again in Cincinnati around the time that my mother died. My old Unitarian Universalist congregation showed up for me, in the form of a crusty old friend of my mothers. She appeared on my doorstep with a really bad casserole, and the message that they wanted to be my community. I was able to return, became increasingly involved in that congregation, and ultimately was called to the ministry in the early 1990s. By that time, the denomination had returned to its engagement with race and racial justice once again. We have a long way to go, but over time we have been able to heal many of the wounds inflicted during that painful period.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself…calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” Mary Oliver again.

We Unitarian Universalists set high expectations for ourselves. We say that we “affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” commit ourselves to make justice roll down like waters, promise to respect the interconnected web of life of which we are a part. We say all of these things. And we mean them. This is our vision. We hold it before us, even when we know we live it imperfectly. Unitarian Universalism will always be works in progress.

We bring the great strengths of our wedded traditions to the table: our openness to the new, our freedom of thought. As UU minister Fred Muir has put it, “we want to stretch our minds and souls, pushing the limit of thought and spirit.”

Ours is a big-hearted theology. We see divinity—however we define its source—as present in every human being and in the earth itself. Out of this liberal religious vision grows our commitment to justice, equity and compassion, and peace. From this ground springs our commitment to social justice and our work for environmental justice, our fight for the rights of BGLT persons, and our continuing struggle for racial justice. We are still a work in progress.

Are we still heretics, like our forebears? Are we as radical as Hosea Ballou or William Ellery Channing or Ralph Waldo Emerson? I say we are. But the heart of our heresy is our openness, our knowledge that revelation is not sealed, our embrace of the power of love to enrich and redeem our lives. We've embraced the Universalist gospel. Unitarian Universalism is committed to a justice-making love that transforms lives and offers liberating hope. Unitarian Universalism stands on the side of love.

And what of the 14-year-old atheist who found a religious home in Unitarian Universalism? I'm now a minister, the President of this Association, who calls on us to reclaim the use of religious language, to name the holy in our lives, to know God. It has been quite a spiritual journey. And I am still a work in progress.

The religious journey is not an easy trip. I know this from my life. The road you travel may have dead ends. You may stumble; you may feel alone. I know… because I have walked that road. My journey brought me to Unitarian Universalism.

“It's not easy being a Unitarian Universalist,” writes Fred Muir. We offer no simple salvation, no set of religious rules that promises either happiness or wholeness. We offer only ourselves, with all of our shortcomings, and the great liberal religious tradition in which we stand.

For me and for many others like me, Unitarian Universalism is the right path. For me, it is the only path. Perhaps it will be so for you. Perhaps you will find among us the religious home you thought you would never find. We offer ourselves, in open invitation, to walk with you on your personal journey. So come: let's walk together. Together, perhaps, we can help the universe bend toward justice. Together, perhaps we can find peace—for ourselves, as well as for our world.

"What if Nobody Forgave?"

Children's Play by Barbara Marshman

Narrator [Jory] stands center stage:

In a land far away, a wise old woman who knew a great deal about people because she traveled from place to place arrived at a strange village.

Wendy comes out, walking stick, traveling hat on head.

In this town all the people were carrying what seemed to be great bundles on their backs.

Others come out all with great bundles on their backs, hunched over, and moving slowly.

They couldn't look around very well, and they never looked up because of the heave burdens they carried.

Puzzled, the wise woman finally stopped a young girl.

Wendy taps Maya on the shoulder: Excuse me please, I am a stranger to your land and am fascinated by these large bundles you all carry about but never seem to put down. What is their purpose?

Maya: Oh these, [Maya points at the bundle on her back.] These are our grudges.

Wendy: My, that's a lot of grudges to collect at your age!

Maya: Oh, they're not all mine. Most of them were passed down in my family. [Maya heaves a heavy sigh.] See that girl over there? [Maya points at Kalin, Kalin makes her way over to the conversation.] I have quite a load of grudges against her family. Her great, great grandfather called mine a horse thief when they both wanted to be elected mayor.

Wendy looks around and shook her head sadly.

Wendy speaking to Kalin and Maya: You all look so unhappy. Is there no way to get rid of these burdens?

Kalin: We've forgotten how, [Kalin tries to shift the bundle to make it more comfortable.] You see, at first we were proud of our grudges. Tourists came from miles around. But after a few years, our town became a very dreary place. Nobody came. And we had forgotten how to stop holding our grudges.

Throughout all of this dialog, Laila, Mark, Marc, and Dan are milling, grumbling, and scowling at each other.

Wendy: If you really want to get rid of those grudges, I think I know five magic words that will do the trick.

Maya answers hopefully: You do? That would be a miracle. I'll go and have the mayor call the people of together. [Maya runs over to Marc, as fast as she can struggling with her bundle.]

Marc gestures for everyone to gather round Marc, Wendy will be center stage, Kalin and Maya on either side with the others fanning out on either side. Marc will gesture to the audience as if they are towns people too.

Jory: The mayor lost no time calling the people to the village square. The mayor and the wise woman stood where they could see all the hunched-over villagers. [Marc and Wendy make a gesture like scanning the horizon looking out over the entire congregation. Marc gestures like he is quieting people down.]

Marc: Good people, a wonderful thing has happened! A very wise stranger has come into our town. She says she can tell us the magic words that will rid us of these grudges we have carried for generations. How many of you would like to be able to straighten up, have your grudges disappear, look at the world in a whole new way. Listen to the wise words of our visitor, then and do as she tells you. [Marc says all these lines to the congregation, but are group listens in and responds. Raise hand that you want to be ride of the grudges.]

Wendy: My friends, these are simple words, yet some people find them hard to say. I think you have the courage to speak them. The trick is that you must say them to each other and truly mean them. The first two words are 'I'm sorry.' Can you say them?

[Wendy waits to hear the audience respond. If they don't ham it up until they do. Laila, Mark, Marc, Dan, Kalin and Maya, start hesitantly but say (not to each other) I'm sorry, as if you are trying a new food you are not sure if you will like.]

Wendy: They other three are 'I forgive you.' Can you say that? Now say these words to each other.

[Laila, Mark, Marc, Dan, Kalin and Maya, and slowly start saying the words to each other. As you say them, they get easier to say and you backs straighten and you throw off your back packs.]

Jory: There was a long pause, then a low grumble from the townspeople. First one person, and then another, said the words. Soon they were all saying them to each other – quietly at first and then louder. An then – would you believe it? Just like the wise man predicted, the grudges disappeared! What joy there was in the town.

Laila: Look how those trees have grown!

Dan: Mark is that you? How good to see your face!

Jory: There was dancing in the streets that day, and can't say they lived happily ever after. They still fought at times, but now they knew some simple words that allowed them to live together in peace.

[During this last part, Kalin and Maya hold hands and skip in a circle and then skip off stage, Mark trips over Laila, but then gestures he is sorry while Laila gestures I forgive you and they go off. Marc and Wendy go off laughing (silently) and chatting. Dan collects backpacks and goes off stage.]

Litany with Music after the Offertory

Free. May we be free. Alleluia. (sung)
Free from the notion that liberation is for other places, other nations, other times.
Free from the idea that I am finished, finalized, complete and done.
Free from the false hope that some lottery will heal any hurt in the heart.
Free. May we be free Alleluia. (sung)
Free from the idea that religion is handed over from someone else.
Free from the fiction that good feelings are an antidote to hurtful systems.
Free from the conviction that those who are different are on some other plain.
Free. May we be free. Alleluia. (sung)
Free from the doctrine that human beings are born disappointments to God. .
Free from the assumption that glory is for sale, and worthiness is stingy.
Free from the mindless structures of consumerism and competition that rule us.
Free. May we be free. Alleluia. (sung)
Free for the mind's deeper focus.
Free for a breath of silence.
Free for the kindling of the spirit.
Free to offer hope's critique and hope's healing to a cynical, broken world.
Free to offer our lives as generous gifts to each other.
Free to replace famine with feast, and fist with friendship.
Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. (sung)

First Reading: "Wild Geese"

By Mary Oliver (read byMarta Valentin-Chase)

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting---over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Second Reading: From “Heretics Faith”

By Rev. Frederic John Muir (read by William Sinkford)

Its not easy being a Unitarian Universalist. …We've always been thought of as a heretical faith.

The word heresy comes from the Greek hairesis and means choice: as a heretic you choose. There are all kinds of heresies, but being a religious heretic has always meant not going along with official religious doctrines and creeds. Unitarian Universalism's particular heresy is that we are religious liberals.

Being a liberal is currently not popular—the word alone strikes fear or animosity in the hearts of many. But like heretic, liberal has a special meaning for Unitarian Universalists: its root means to ‘be generous and open.' As religious liberals, we seek deeper and wider understanding, greater tolerance, broader definition, more inclusive language; we want to stretch our minds and souls, pushing the limits of thought and spirit, redefining the boundaries of tradition and orthodoxy. And so, as religious liberals we have committed heresy and appear out of the mainstream, standing on the fringe.