Service of the Living Tradition, General Assembly 2020

Program Description

The Ministries and Faith Development Staff Group invites you to join us at this service where we honor those who have died, recognize those who have completed active service, and welcome those who have received fellowship, credentialed, or certified status in the past year.

The sermon will be delivered by Rev. Danielle Di Bona. Rev. Di Bona has served Unitarian Universalism for 30 years, and is the 2018 recipient of the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. In her retirement, she serves as the Palliative Care chaplain at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, MA. She has served as a member of the UU Nominating Committee and on the UU Women’s Federation board. She is the former President of the Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries, and continues to serve DRUUMM as Chaplain. Rev. Di Bona also serves on the Board of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. She is a Chaplain to the UUA Board of Trustees and Finding Our Way Home.

Dr. Zanaida Stewart Robles, Service of the Living Tradition Music Director, is a fierce advocate for diversity and inclusion in music education and performance. Born, raised, and educated in Southern California, she is in demand as a vocalist, conductor, clinician and adjudicator for competitions, festivals, and conferences related to choral and solo vocal music. She serves on the national board of the National Association of Negro Musicians and is co-chair of the board of directors of Tonality, a non-profit organization that promotes peace, unity, and social justice through choral music performance in Los Angeles.

The service includes a collection to benefit the Living Tradition Fund. Members of the public are welcome.

Rough Captioning

Transcribed by Otter.

Welcome to the 2020 Service of the Living Tradition. I wish that we were all together in a physical space. But what a blessing that we can still gather in this way. We've all endured a lot of change during this pandemic. It showed up a lot of hardship in our midst. But change can also be beautiful. It's also allowed us new and creative ways of connecting and it's showing us new visions of what a libertatory faith can really bring into our world. Tonight, as we honor those who have achieved credentials in our various ministries, those who have served and are now retiring, and those who have died in the last year, we also lift up the power of shared ministry with our laity. What endures is the central purpose of this service, which is to speak to who we have been as Unitarian Universalists, who we are now, and most importantly, who we are called to be. So welcome again, as the service begins.

Let us pause for a moment to remind ourselves that even though we are apart, we are together.

In spite of virtual space, we are one.

Let us bear witness to whom we are becoming. As such, we light this chalice with intention, with optimism, with grace, and with the tenacity that the fierce urgency of now demands of each and every one of us. Masakhane.

Let us build together.


I'm Sara Lewis, the chair of the Religious Education Credentialing Committee.

And on behalf of the whole committee, we extend our congratulations to all those who are being honored here today. In particular, those who have earned their credential at the Associate, Credentialed, or Master level as Credentialed Religious Educators. Congratulations all.

Hello. My name is Reverend Shana Lynngood. And I have served for the past year as the acting chair of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. And I'm concluding eight years of service on that committee. And so I know keenly just how much each of you gaining Preliminary Fellowship this evening have given of yourselves, of your dedication and time to becoming an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. I'm also keenly aware of how much those of you attaining Full Fellowship have done. As I read over your renewals, I know how much hard work and dedication you have given to communities, chaplaincies, military, prison, hospital, to entrepreneurial ministries to help Unitarian Universalism thrive in this 21st-century setting. I give thanks as well for those of you completing Full Time Service in ministry. It is work that is challenging and rich and beautiful. And as we celebrate beginnings and endings this evening, in the midst of a pandemic, what a time to honor the thresholds of newness and endings. And so I hope that wherever you are, you are honoring this time. You are marking this threshold moment in your life with celebration and reflection with time with family and friends, whether virtual or in person, to honor all that you have done, all that you have given, all that you will give to Unitarian Universalism. For without your leadership, we would be the lesser for it. And we need those who dedicate their lives to this faith. So thank you. And congratulations.

The Music Leadership Certification Committee would like to congratulate the candidates who have completed the Music Leadership Certification Program. We are inspired by the personal, professional, and spiritual growth we have witnessed in all of you over the past three years. And we deeply appreciate your dedication to completing the program, often in the face of difficult circumstances in your work or your home. Now, of course, we find ourselves in a world more broken than we could have imagined, which needs the healing power of music ministry more than ever. We are grateful that you have chosen to hone your skills for this work at this time, and we look forward to the blessings we know you will bring to your congregations, to our faith, and to our world. Congratulations.

Greetings. I'm Diane Miller. I'm Minister Emerita of the First Church in Belmont, Massachusetts. I'm a resident now of central Kansas. And I am president of the UU Retired Ministers and Partners Association, better known as UURMaPA. Congratulations to retiring clergy, religious educators, and musicians. Thank you for your ministries. May the good that you have done remain to your credit, and where you missed the mark, as we all do, let it go. This year is like no other with virtual events. To honor this retirement, significant change in our lives and careers, we warmly acknowledge you. We appreciate you as beacons of our faith. Welcome to retirement. May it lead you on to new ventures and bring you what you need. And may it bring you much joy. Well done. Thank you.

Each year as we have for generations, we honor the religious professionals of our living tradition who have died in the last year. As we remember these loved ones and dear colleagues, we honor the lives they lived, the ministries they offered, the meaningful difference they made to the people and communities they served with their leadership, their care, their wisdom, and their faithful presence. I invite you to find a comfortable position that feels right as we enter into this communion of memory. Perhaps rise in body or in spirit, perhaps open your hands in prayer. As we remember these leaders of our tradition, we also hold their family members in our hearts. May gratitude for all of the love shared surround them and all of us, even in our grief.


Will you join me in a moment of prayer. Spirit of Life, Spirit of Love that holds us close in a network of mutuality that extends across the generations, linking us to all who have gone before and all who will come after. Our hearts are humble. In the midst of the precious gift and great mystery of life, we honor these precious leaders who have gone before us. In remembering them we remember that we are not the first to struggle, to lose, to know anguish, to risk, to love, to celebrate, and to be in need of forgiveness and grace. In remembering them we remember our own responsibilities in the face of the brevity of life. Every moment we are given is precious. May we in remembering these leaders live our own lives more committed to compassion, to community, to one another, and always in service of the larger call of love and justice. I invite us all now into a moment of shared silence, to be attentive to the prayers, the memories, the longings, the hope, present in each of our own hearts.

Blessed be and amen.

The reading today is entitled Pry Me Off Dead Center, written by the Reverend Ted Loder. Oh persistent holy one. Deliver me from assuming your mercy is gentle. Pressure me that I may grow more human, not through the lessening of my struggles, but through an expansion of them that will undamn me and unbury my gifts. Deepen my hurt until I learn to share it and myself openly and my needs honestly. Sharpen my fears until I name them and release the power I have locked in them and they in me. Accentuate my confusion until I shed those grandiose expectations that divert me from the small, glad gifts of the now and the here and the me. Expose my shame where it shivers, crouched behind the curtains of propriety, until I can laugh at last through my common frailties and failures, laugh my way toward becoming whole. Deliver me from just going through the motions and wasting everything I have, which is today, a chance, a choice, my creativity, your call. Oh persistent God, let how much it all matters pry me off dead center. So if I am moved inside to tears or sighs or screams or smiles or dreams, they will be real and I will be in touch with who I am and who you are. And who my siblings and brothers are. Thus ends our reading.

I'm the Reverend Dr. Matthew Johnson, and I'm here in the sanctuary of the church I serve, the Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford, Illinois. I want to tell you three stories today. Three stories about the Living Tradition Fund. The first story is about me. When I graduated from seminary, I was 26 and I had $60,000 in student loan debt. That may sound like a lot, but it's less than many of our graduates have today. I was serving a powerful but small church in Colorado back then, and each year I applied for and got a very helpful debt-reduction grant from the Living Tradition Fund. It helped out a lot in those years when money was tight, every little bit helped. When I was called to this church, which is very generous with me, thank you, I didn't need that grant anymore. And so I didn't apply. I started giving more in this service each year for others of my colleagues who were more in need. And then, a few years later, my marriage fell apart. The divorce took all my savings, and the bills kept coming. I was in trouble. I applied for the debt-reduction grant and filled out the special circumstances short answer question at the end. Every little bit helps, I thought. At the same time, I was on a committee for the UUA and so when a check from Boston came in the mail, I thought it was a small travel reimbursement, mileage from here to O'Hare. It wasn't. It was a large check from this fund. And friends, I tell you, when I opened that envelope and saw what it was, I laid down on my kitchen floor and wept.

I wept.

Somebody cared for me. And for my ministry. You cared. It gives me joy to do this work. But that day, that season of my life, I felt all alone until you reminded me I wasn't. Until you showed up in the mail. For me. That's story one. Story two. A few years after that I was doing much better. I sat at a table, a general assembly with a group of ministers. These are people I admire. Vibrant, excellent ministries with great reputations. You would know their names. And the topic of this fund came up. And I shared the story with them that I just shared with you about how I felt seen and loved and how I laid down and wept because of your generosity.

And you know what happened, right?

Every single minister at that table told a story like that. When they fought cancer, when their son was sick, when their spouse got laid off, when they made a hard choice because of their integrity and it had consequences. And in the mail, a check. A sacrament really, a visible sign of love. And I tell you friends, we wept with the heartache and the mercy that we were cared for. That the money you give right now came once to us when we needed your care as much as we needed your money. That's story two. Story three is right now. Ministers are reinventing how we do church on the fly. We are loving you fiercely. We are leaning hard on each other for wisdom and help. And many of our incomes are now precarious. Some next week, first of July, will take reduced hours, pay cuts, or be unemployed. We are not in person to raise money in person for this fund, but the need has never been greater.

Right now.

There are instructions on how to give on your screen and I tell you that we will lay down and weep to know that in this time we are not alone.

Please be generous.

We will never forget it.

I chose the sermon title months ago, not knowing what was coming. And now it seems very eerily to be on target. The recent shooting by two armed vigilantes of Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging in the neighborhood. Breonna Taylor, an EMT, shot in her own apartment by police who allegedly entered the wrong place. And COVID-19. And the never-ending lies coming from the White House, which puts people at risk every day. With the current numbers in the United States, over 2 million confirmed cases and over 115 thousand deaths of American people as of June 11. And now today, as I record this sermon, we have the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. A black man, eight and a half minutes of being under the knee of a white policeman. As he begs for mercy and his mother. My friends, we are in deep trouble. And when I say we, I mean Unitarian Universalist leaders. We are out of time. Revival of relationships, revolution of values, a proposal that will look inward at ourselves and who we are as a faith right now, and a revolution of values and action-centered. An action-centered faith that tells the world who we are. This is a time of great responsibility for people who claim a liberal faith, but we cannot articulate what it means to be both liberal and faithful. If we do that, we will become like a tree in the forest. Nobody hears it fall and nobody cares. So let us mull over the revival of relationships. I have watched for over 30 years many of our congregations in action. It is often a beautiful thing. It is just as often discouraging and disappointing. When we cannot or choose not to dig deeply into our relationships with one another within our congregations, we break the very essence of what it means to be people of faith. When we are conflict avoidant, yet willing to gossip, we break the fabric of community. When we as religious professionals choose not to lead our congregations in justice-making, we deny them an opportunity to expand their understanding of we. As I continue to speak of and to our religious leaders, you are all welcome to listen in. This is for our religious leaders now. Unitarian Universalism is fortunate to have dedicated, committed, and loving leaders. We have Unitarian Universalist ministers, both parish and community, religious educators, and musicians chomping at the bit to share our liberal faith. Chomping at the bit to make the world better, more faithful. People who want to build the brave and beloved community, both within and outside of our building. They guide us to become more selfless, less self-centered, more just, less judgmental, more loving, and less afraid. And of course, as is human nature, for some of our leaders, not so much. I do not judge, but dear siblings in faith, if you are resistant to change, dialogue, and love, I beg of you to put aside any arrogance and stubbornness and come sit with us. Talk with us. Pray with us. We are all part of the circle.

If you believe you are part of this community who wants to build the brave, beloved community, I charge you to wrap yourself in the banner of bravery and bring forth the good news to your community. The good news that Unitarian Universalism is love, and we will not back down from hatred and fear. If you love your congregation, and I know you do, please invite them into the brave and beloved heart and listen to their expertise, their wisdom, their passion. For you who sit in the pews, we need you now more than ever. We need you to be open to a true shared ministry where you, who have already done such hard work, come and share it with us, your religious leaders. We all must enter into our faith in this new time of pandemic and all that goes with it, ready to open our hearts, minds, and souls, first to each other and then to the world. So as we return to church, however that looks in the next year, let us commit to deep honesty, deep listening, and deep learning, with an open mind ready to be brave. Thus ends the revival of relationships. Now, let us look inward. Let us change our minds and hearts so that we might make a difference in the world. Let us look for a revolution of values. For too long Unitarian Universalists have worshipped at the feet of rugged individualism and reason beyond reason. Many UUs have rejected any sense of the wonder and the need of community. We sit in our pews, the same seats every week, with lots of distance between us, even before the pandemic, with lots of distance between us and our fellow church members. What is that about? Why is it we're advertising our individualism, our go it alone, our I don't need any help and neither should you. We make noise about welcoming others. But we argue rather than discuss new programs that will benefit the other. We reject the need to understand deeply what it means to be the other, and we adamantly stand our ground around ethics, equality, and values to meet our individual needs. This is not how we want to be seen in the world. Actually, we no longer have the luxury to be defiant and argumentative for argument's sake. Now hear this, I am not talking about good old-fashioned UU debate, and individual journeys of faith. I am not talking about toeing the line of the company, whatever that might be, and its declarations. This is not about dogma, or confession of faith. But in order to face the world today, in order to be part of the saving of the world, we need to find a common language and common values. I propose a value of love beyond love. A willingness to accept all people as they are. A willingness to make deep accommodations to those who are desperately seeking a safe haven. I propose a value of power. We UUs often don't recognize the power of our faith in community. Grasp it and use it for the benefit of others. And we must be willing to give up much of our power. We must be willing to give up power.

I propose a value of humility. We all know that UUs are highly educated, very smart, very successful. Now if we value love beyond love, we must strip away our conceit. We must learn that there are so many ways to be educated and smart. We must value those who enter our doors as the beloved human beings that they are. We must stop pontificating and listen. Listen deeply. We must be willing to be wrong. We must be open to losing the argument for the good of all. I propose a value of learning. We must recognize that others who we do not see as Unitarian Universalists have rituals, experiences, worldviews, and knowledge that we need to hear and learn from and understand. I propose a value of bravery. Stop with the safe space. You don't need it. Be brave. Go out and join the protesters and confront your political leaders. Sit with and befriend the homeless man on the street. Gently, or not so gently, confront those who would bully others who might be intimidated with hatred. I propose a value of fearlessness. The world is different today than it was last year when we prepared for GA in Spokane. Not only are we rightfully afraid of our leaders and the antagonism towards everything science-based, everything that has been established to protect and provide for its citizens. Now we need to fear the invisible COVID-19. In our fearlessness, we need to be cautious. But we do not need to be terrified into frozenness. This is the time to use our power to insist that our government step up and lead, step up and tell the truth, step up and provide. And we don't even need to leave our homes to do so.

I propose a value of imagination. We can use all of our senses to imagine the community we want. What you see, what you think about your UU community in your deepest imagination, you can bring to fruition. I propose a value of generosity. Do not hoard the gifts. Share them widely. Do not assume poverty of resources, time, talent, treasure. Spend some of your church's money. The community outside your doors needs it more than your church does. Believe me. Take a leap of faith. Do concrete things. Open your buildings for the kids in the neighborhood. Get wild and crazy. Sell your suburban church and buy a storefront or a box store or a car dealership. All empty because buying is not as important as we thought.

Build a community center and tell the world who you are. You are Unitarian Universalists. I work in a hospital in the palliative care department as their chaplain. After working from home I have now returned to the hospital. Those early days were frightful. Shortages of masks, gowns, gloves. Needing to use a mask for five days. This may be the beginning of a new time of desperation and fear. And it requires us as Unitarian Universalists to be fearless, brave, and generous while using our imagination, our bravery, our generosity, and, most important, our love. Where do those people who are working 24 hours a day with the same mask and the same PPE? Where do they go for hope? Where do they go for love? Open your doors to them. We are Unitarian Universalists. We have so much at our disposal. We have willing leaders in the administration who will provide the services we need to live into our values. We have leaders on the ground in the community, who we can follow, who will welcome us into the revolution. This all brings us to the question, Who do we want to be in the world? We can be the insular church on a hill, white suburban church of old. That's easy. Or we can revolutionize the church into something so amazing that right now we cannot imagine it. I was at a powwow once and all the people were dancing. One elder was dancing in the opposite direction of all the others. When asked why, he said that the world was in such despair that it was off its axis. And by dancing in the opposite direction, he was trying to tilt it back. There is a lot of tilting needed. So let's dance counterclockwise. Be not afraid. Be not afraid. All of you together possess the amazing ability to share in bringing the world back to sanity, back to its axis. You are called by our ancestors, by those in whose arms we rest, by those who paved the way for our bright and beautiful liberal faith. You are called to turn away from pettiness, despair, fear, arrogance, and turn toward love, faith, bravery, generosity, and humility to make this world our precious world and all the people on it, our precious people, whole again.


In these times of fear, worry, sickness, I pray for you. I pray for your safety, your well-being, your good health. I pray for your quick recovery from COVID and other illnesses of your body, soul, and mind. I pray that you are secure in home and hearth. I pray that you have enough and will survive. May you be blessed by all that is holy, and may you survive and thrive. May you take on the mantle of faith and bravely go out and change the world. Just change the world. May it be so and amen.


About the Authors

Danielle Di Bona

Rev. Di Bona has served Unitarian Universalism for 30 years, and is the 2018 recipient of the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. In her retirement, she serves as the Palliative Care chaplain at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, MA....

Zanaida Stewart Robles

Dr. Zanaida Stewart Robles is a fierce advocate for diversity and inclusion in music education and performance....

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