"They Shout for Joy"

September 12, 2004
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

This Psalm was written thousands of years ago by an anonymous person
praising his or her Creator. It's a wonderful psalm for such a day as today…

You make the outgoings of the morning and the evening
To shout for joy.
You visit the earth, watering it, making it very rich.
The great river swells with water, filling the ridges, blessing the growth of grain.
You crown the year with your abundance.

The pastures are perfumed with dew.
The hills deck themselves with joy.

The meadows adorn themselves with flocks.
The valleys grow themselves with grain.
They shout for joy!
They join in song!

Someone was having a very good day! And I'm glad, because life back then was certainly brutish and short.

It's a lovely coincidence that our Homecoming Sunday is held at about the same time of year as the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It gives us such a good excuse to deeply claim this new beginning, to align ourselves in spirit with those ancient ones who began to turn their wheel of the year at September's new moon. The official calendar New Year may come on January 1st, but this is back-to-church and back-to-school time has always been the real new year for me.

Welcome back to our regular worship. I am so happy to see you and to be back in the swing of things. Yes, it has been wonderful to have time off – I spent an extra week in California after GA and went up to wine country in Napa Valley. I spent a few days in Pennsylvania with my nephew Nicholas, and I spent a week in Rhinebeck, NY taking a class with the NY Center for Jungian Studies – and I spent all of August home and not very busy at all, which was an illuminating and mostly pleasant experience. As I have intimated to you before, I am better off busy and am prone to fits of brooding and encounters with the seven deadly sins when not immersed in the regular rhythms of our community. I don't know about you but I need church to be at my best.

One of the things I have lots of time to do in the summer is to read, and a lot of what I read is what we might loosely describe as "religion-biz materials." I got into a habit of reading articles and books on church life – congregational growth, trends in American religious life, analyses of where church-going Americans are politically right now – and I would go out on my back steps by the kitchen and chew my nails and look at the sky and think about it all. This is when I would miss you the most. Because I have to say that reading about church life without church people is like looking at pictures of the ocean as a substitute for going to the beach. There's no spirit in it. God, it's grim! The news is never good – the books and articles are invested in giving you the sense that you don't really know what you're doing, you know, so you'll buy more books – and you get the impression that your church is a problem to be solved instead of a community of people to share life with and cherish.

Say it ain't so!
Really, friends, I have no other message to give you today but to say, "My God, let's live this with joy! Let's remember that our church is not a problem to be solved – not ever – it's a treasure of our hearts and souls. Let's be brave and bold and love this congregation, cherish its tradition and its call to us, and let's enjoy this work!"

There are four things I want to ask you to do with me this year, all in a spirit of joy and courage:

(1) I want you to promise to hold this church and all its people in your heart in an intentional and constant way. In whatever manner best suits you, pray or think good thoughts for the congregation and its leaders, its children, its teachers, committee members, the sick and homebound, and all the church's programs. Believe that we are spiritually connected, that we need each other, and act accordingly. Come to worship to encounter that unity and to be part of it.

(2) As part of that heart-centered connection with church folk, give out love to your congregational leaders any time you can. Know who they are, and know that they are spending a lot of their own life-energy running this church as volunteers. Remember that committees exist to facilitate relationships, joy and fellowship in the church, not the other way around. Let's have fun with our church work, and practice lots of patience, forgiveness and active affection in it.

(3) Join me in having a bold vision for our church. Let me say what I mean at a bit more length.

I have noticed, having time to wander around and listen to people and having sneaked around a bit in California, Pennsylvania and New York State this summer – plus greater Boston – there's a lot of negativity, a lot of fear, a lot of searching for meaning, a lot of isolation and angst out there. Maybe, as the Talking Heads used to sing, that's "the same as it ever was." 1 (Same as it ever was… same as it … ever was.) Maybe not. Things feel particularly anxious in our country right now. We've talked about the news media's investment in keeping us nervous and at each other's throats – that sells a lot more papers and TV time than respectful, deep listening and conversation. We all certainly know that there's precious little dialogue in our national leadership and among the citizenry – that much is obvious. And we know that fear is a major feature of shared emotional landscape.

Just Friday night as I was preparing this sermon I went outside and noticed a plane going by – a plane with one red, one blue and several white lights on its underbelly that cheered me when it flew over head. But it was September 10th, and I got scared for a moment, remembering the four hijacked planes of September 11th and the cruelty and terror they instigated. And then I remembered that to be faithful means to believe that perfect love casts out fear, and I decided to put my heart in a place of faith instead of a place of fear. If I wasn't a church-going woman I don't know that I would have had the strength to do that.

We have an important ministry to offer. One that is urgently needed; that speaks for unity amid diversity, one that helps men and women and children see the world as one world, and human beings as one people. From our Hungarian Unitarian brothers and sisters, "Egy Az Isten," God is one, and all human beings have their common origin in that divine source.

I am asking you to be energetic about your Unitarian Universalist hospitality and evangelism this year. I want us all to reach out to more people, to unabashedly encourage them to join with us in our covenanted community, and to expect to be stretched and challenged in good ways by visitors and newcomers. The church books talk about this all the time, of course – they call it "church growth" – and fill your head with numbers and dollars and complicated nightmare scenarios about how you are going to have to add onto your buildings and host more than one Sunday morning worship service. It all sounds very stressful. But then again, I ran into a colleague at GA this year who asked how things are going in Norwell. "I love it," I replied. "It's a nice little arrangement," he said, his arms folded across his chest (he's the minister of a really big congregation in a place that shall remain unnamed). "Nice little place; you really can't grow much though, cute little place." WELL. That's not very faithful, is it? If people need us, we most certainly will grow! Nice little arrangement…. harrumph.

We have to do this out of joy and hope and a belief that we're capable of saving lives by inviting more people in to the freedom, the joy and the care that we share as individuals and as a community. We have to do this because it hurts us – or it should -- to recognize that there are thousands of individuals and families right nearby us here who are spinning around their lives rather than really living them mindfully, who feel alone in their concerns and their hopes and dreams for how the world could be, and who hunger for a religious community where human responsibility for the fate of the earth and its people will be promoted, and where the people cherish a rational approach to the questions of ultimate meaning. Where it doesn't matter who you love or what name you give to God, or whether or not you even believe in God, but you believe in life more abundant, and you believe in the ultimate sovereignty of love.

What if this church gathered in 100 new members in the next five to ten years? I'm throwing out a big number for fun but it's not impossible. What would we do with 100 more people!? We'd make room! We could have more than one worship service on Sundays if need be (are you hyperventilating yet? I am!), we could deal as other growing churches do with all the challenges that come with lots of new members, and we've got a string of carriage barns out there that could be made into Sunday School classrooms and offices. Does the mere idea of that much change make you clutch? Me, too! But let's not let that keep us from opening our doors wider and looking more energetically for where we might extend our ministries.

Don't worry if you're out there evangelizing and someone asks, "What a Unitarian Universalist" and you're not quite sure how to respond in one minute or less. Put a church brochure in your pocket or purse and give it to them and invite them to church to find out for themselves (and take the brochures out of the pews – that's what they're there for)! Carry that wallet card with the UU principles on it with you (you'll also find one in the pews) and whip it out for some talking points. Make sure to attend our New UU orientation sessions in the fall or spring, and keep working on that "elevator speech," but for heaven's sake don't let that question stop you from sharing your faith with those who might be in need of it!

Finally. A fourth commitment. Along with your church involvement, and maybe even in tandem with it, do something that feeds your soul, that feels authentic to your unique being. Do it regularly as a form of prayer. Pick a political issue and work at it, with zest and love and graciousness that comes from the faith that what you do matters. Be publicly faithful. Make time for family. Draw, paint, sing, go on the stage, believe that dancing has probably saved as many souls as fasting and prayer. Write, keep a journal, take photographs, star-gaze, make collages for your grandchildren. Cook grand meals, even if just for yourself. Nourish yourself away from TV, away from the malls and the computers and the corporate grind. Claim your humanity. Do not allow it to be shriveled by anything or for any cause. You were made to love, you were made to shine, you were created as a unique vehicle for the creative spirit that animates the world – the holiness at the heart of being wants to make itself known through you. And for this bit of time, we have been brought together to shine love on our bit of the world together. As corny or clichéd – as that might be, it also happens to be the truth.

This summer I picked up a quote that made me catch my breath, and I am holding it in my heart throughout this bitter, divisive pre-election time and will hold to it long afterward. It is a Hasidic saying and it says : "The Divine Presence cannot dwell in a place of despair."

So that's it. Hold the church and its leaders in your heart at all times. Have a bold vision for our church, and evangelize to those who are hungering for our kind of religious life. Feed your soul however you have strength and inspiration to do so. And whenever possible, shout for joy.

Welcome back. Welcome home. Bless your hearts.

1 "Once in A Lifetime" – David Byrne