Rev. Josh M. Pawelek
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
September 17, 2023
Our ministry theme for September is welcome, a fitting theme for the first month of the congregational year when we welcome each other home; when we say words and sing hymns of welcome, invitation, entering and rejoicing, returning, joining together, gathering the spirit.
I love the words we say to new members of our congregation: We welcome you as companions in the search for truth and meaning. We invite you to share in our mission of caring for one another, encouraging each other in spiritual growth, working for justice and peace in the wider community, and living in harmony with the earth. We join our gifts with yours, trusting in the power of community to bring freedom, healing, and love.
And it feels so appropriate, every Sunday morning, to offer all of you, but especially visitors and newcomers, a warm hearty, heart-felt, enthusiastic, joy-filled, boisterous, raucous welcome. Sometimes I add “ebullient” to the mix, but I’m never sure if I’m pronouncing it correctly. And whether or not we pronounce any of the words correctly, the welcome that begins our worship and extends through Sunday morning, into the afternoon, into the coming weeks, months, years—that welcome is genuine, real and enduring. It is not contrived, not cosmetic, not simply a surface feature. It lives at the heart of our congregational life and it lives at the heart of Unitarian Universalism.
And if you know me well, if you’ve been taking in my message over these past two decades serving as your minister, you will not be surprised to hear me say also that our welcome is far from perfect, that it has limitations, that we stumble, that changing our congregational culture so that it appeals to a greater range of people is difficult, decades-long work. Perhaps most obviously, we remain a largely White congregation. This is no secret. We know this. It begs the question: How do we increase and expand our welcome to People of Color who are looking for a non-traditional, liberal, religious community that includes atheists, humanists, agnostics, pagans and other kinds of theists, and takes the results of science seriously, as ours does, yet whose congregational life is less Euro-centric and more multicultural, as ours is not?
How do we increase and expand our welcome to people whose first language is Spanish or Portuguese or American Sign Language—people for whom English isn’t an option? I might add that this year our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee plans to explore how we might begin using Spanish-language resources more regularly in worship and in all the ways we present ourselves to the wider community. If you can contribute to that exploration, please connect with the committee co-chairs, Maureen Flanagan and Monica Van Beusekom.
How do we increase and expand our welcome to people with disabilities? Can we imagine accessibility beyond assisted listening devices, handicap parking spaces and our low scent guidelines? How do we increase and expand our welcome to people living with or in recovery from mental illness? I should also point out that plans are afoot—or will be later this year—to reinvigorate our mental health ministry in partnership with the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. If you have an interest in that ministry, please feel free to connect with me.
How do we increase and expand our welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary and queer people, especially in this era of legislative assaults, harassment, denial of health care and violence—even here in blue Connecticut, in Tolland where residents and the local Congregational church have been harassed all summer long by anti-gay hate groups?
As a largely middle and upper middle class congregation, how do we increase and expand our welcome to poor and working class people?
You likely haven’t heard me ask this question: How do we increase and expand our welcome to people who are seeking an engagement with Jesus—not necessarily the Jesus of Christianity, but the Jesus of first-century Galilee who offered that basic, enduring moral guidance from the grounding of his Hebrew tradition: “Love your neighbor as yourself?” I’m inspired in my thinking about this particular welcome by my colleague, the Rev. Carlton E. Smith, who currently serves on the Congregational Life staff at the Unitarian Universalist Association. Last year he published, Try My Jesus: Daily Reflections to Free Your Mind, Deepen Your Faith, and Invite Universal Love Into Your Life.” He writes from a Black, queer, Post-Pentecostal, UU perspective; and say “I especially hope [this book] finds its way into the hands of people who could benefit from an opportunity to see themselves inside the Jesus story—an affirmation of his authentic humanity as well as of his divinity, and of their own.”
How do we increase and expand our welcome to people who value and want to hold onto their Islamic heritage, their Hindu heritage, their Jewish heritage, their Sikh heritage, yet who are also seeking a liberal, and liberating spiritual community that deeply values religious pluralism, and understands the United States not as an Evangelical Christian nation, but as a religiously diverse nation that maintains a clear separation of church and state?
There are so many ways we name this work of increasing and expanding our welcome within Unitarian Universalism. In the 1990s when I began working for the Unitarian Universalist Association and studying for the ministry, we used the language of “Creating a Jubilee Word.” Later we referred to building an antiracist, anti-oppressive multicultural identity and practice (I still use that language). In recent years we’ve used the language of centering, as in centering the voices and life experiences of historically marginalized peoples in our congregations. We’ve used the language or addressing or confronting our own white supremacy culture. We’ve used the language of “decolonizing our faith.” We haven’t used the language of “diversity, equity and inclusion” so much here, but it’s certainly in the mix. We definitely use the language of “building the beloved community.” Those of you familiar with the proposal to adopt an 8th Unitarian Universalist principle know that work is also very much about increasing and expanding our welcome. Over the past two years I’ve grown attached to the language of “Widening the Circle of Concern,” which is the title of the 2020 report from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Institutional Change. As a congregation we are still at the beginning stages of implementing recommendations from that report. That is work I hope we will continue for many years, though I imagine the words we use to describe that work will continue to change and evolve.
My point here is that we offer a warm hearty, heart-felt, enthusiastic, joy-filled, boisterous, raucous, ebullient welcome to everyone; and we are simultaneously called to recognize the limitations of that welcome, and to do the slow, intentional work of increasing and expanding that welcome. I think of it as a manifestation of the Universalist side of our spiritual heritage. We genuinely mean it when we say “all are welcome,” or that we respect “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”—this is the legacy of our forebears’ Universalist theology that says “all are saved.” But we know it doesn’t happen just because we say it. So we commit to the work of making it so.
In light of the Jewish High Holy Days, which began with Rosh Hashanna at sunset on Friday, I went searching for a Jewish voice who might inform our thinking about welcome, hospitality, generosity of spirit, openness to the other, etc. As is often the case, my search led to Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who was ordained through the Jewish Renewal movement, serves a Reform synagogue in western Massachusetts, and writes poetry and blogs as the “Velveteen Rabbi.” I loved her poem, “2021 / 5782: Anew,” which I shared at the beginning of our service. This poem got me thinking about our mission, especially since I knew this morning we would be welcoming new members to “share in our mission of caring for one another, encouraging each other in spiritual growth, working for justice and peace in the wider community, and living in harmony with the earth.” In her poem, which she wrote two years ago in Elul—the month in the Jewish calendar in which Jews prepare for the High Holy Days—she offers her own, simple mission statement. Given, she writes, that “sometimes we’re afraid,” that “we can’t know what choice to make to keep anyone safe,” that “uncertainty’s a bear,” “All we can do / is seek out sweetness everywhere we may / and work to fix what brokenness we find.”
“All we can do / is seek out sweetness everywhere we may / and work to fix what brokenness we find.”
It has become cliché at this point for clergy of all sorts to tell their parishioners that we live in challenging times. But cliché or not, I am saying it: we live in challenging times. You know the litany of challenges. Everyone who enters this meeting house on Sunday morning or at any other time during the week, and truly everyone we encounter through the course of our comings and goings, feels at some level, experiences to some degree, the ripple effects of global pandemic; or stress and worry over political polarization, marked by the rise of fascist ideology and hate inexplicably directed toward society’s most vulnerable people rather than at the people who are hoarding wealth and power to serve their own selfish ends; or the now regular climate catastrophes across the planet; not to mention every possible personal struggle and uncertainty with which a person may be living. I’m mindful of that quote—also a cliché at this point—appearing in a thousand slightly different versions, attributed to a thousand different people, but most often associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” An even simpler mission statement.
“All we can do is seek out sweetness everywhere me may, and work to fix the brokenness we find.” Sweetness in a warm greeting as we enter the meeting house; sweetness in a caring gesture after we’ve shared a painful truth; sweetness in the art work on the walls; sweetness in the music, the singing, the improvised piano melodies, the achingly beautiful violin; sweetness in the children we so desperately want to shield from the challenges we face; sweetness in the weekly rituals, the chalice flame, the sharing of joys and concerns, the closing words, the love of the light in each other; sweetness in the hospitality, the coffee service, the occasional snack left over from the reception at a Saturday memorial service or leadership retreat; sweetness in the friendships that blossom over time; sweetness in a congregation that makes its way, imperfectly, toward beloved community; sweetness in the weekly reminder of the things that matter most in our lives; sweetness in the way those reminders go forth with us, encouraging us to care for ourselves, to rest in the calming silence and the nurturing darkness, to breath—always to breath—to stretch, to pray, to drink from our deepest wells; sweetness likewise, in the way the reminders extend out through and from us, small waves of kindness, generosity, caring, compassion, love, advocacy, democracy, justice-making, community-building.
Sweetness everywhere: an ongoing yes attempting to fix the brokenness of the all-too-frequent no. An ongoing gratitude for life attempting to fix the brokenness of a larger culture that caters more and more to death. An ongoing solid ground attempting to fix the brokenness of bearish uncertainty. An ongoing appreciation of nuance and complexity attempting to fix the brokenness of that oh-so-seductive black-and-white, us-and-them narrative that succeeds only in driving people further apart. An ongoing creativity attempting to fix the brokenness of everything in our era that numbs the human spirit.
We invite you to share in our mission of caring for one another, encouraging each other in spiritual growth, working for justice and peace in the wider community, and living in harmony with the earth. In the Rabbi’s simpler language, “seek out sweetness everywhere we may, and work to fix what brokenness we find.” I send you forth this morning, hoping as I do every Sunday that you will take this mission to heart no matter how it is expressed. I trust, I believe, that as this mission seeps into us, embeds itself in us, guides us and nurtures us, that our welcome, as imperfect and limited as it is, will continually increase and expand.
Amen and blessed be.