Sermon by Rev. Rachael Hayes, January 29, 2024

What a gift it is to change one’s mind. Somebody, usually a board member these days, says at the beginning of every Sunday service, “We are all growing, all learning, all loved.” You are not trapped by what you have been or thought before; you are free in every moment to grow from all you have experienced.

Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it with his characteristic bravado:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.”

I can almost look back on the person I was five or ten years ago as a little sister. I have considered things that never occurred to her, experienced things she could not fathom. We may have some of the same values and talents, tell some of the same stories, but the years that have come in between have changed me.

Life experiences, interaction with people who made a mark, including this congregation, have changed me. You have changed my life – how could you not? The repetition of caring for you, listening to you, praying for you, being challenged by you. You have worn new grooves in my soul.

This is one of the things we come here for. We do not enter liberal religious community to stay the same, to be agreed with, to receive comfort without challenge. We are here for what I think of as the paradox of the third principle: we come here for acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth. It’s a wild thing, learning how to receive the acceptance and the challenge, learning how to both accept people and encourage them too. We come here to be changed, in the course of an hour or the course of a life, to remember that we don’t have to stay stuck in whatever has us stuck, and to know that we are loved and worthy of love every step of the way, not just at some future destination.

Our congregation changes too. Of course it does. On the most basic level, new members join, old members move on, members die. The congregation is older than anyone here, and if we dare to grow the congregation will outlive everyone here too. But I’m not just talking about numerical growth. 

There was a time when our congregation was an everybody-knows-everybody place. But now, with about 140 or so official members, more friends and newcomers and kids enrolled in RE it might be more like 200. Very few, if any, of us could claim to know everybody. There are new faces, both upstairs and downstairs. We continue to change. Every time a new person greets or brings social hour or joins a small group ministry, we change. We open our ears, open our hearts. We consider things that we had never considered before. We are changed by the presence of each other.

Change is inevitable. At one extreme, you have the dwindling congregation that exists to keep everything the same, with no new people until the remaining group is too small to stay the same. Programs end, staffing shrinks, but you definitely know everyone in the room.

At the other extreme, you have the aggressive growth that incorporates every suggestion and accepts every person whether their actions respect the whole. That congregation will shrink before long, too, as the congregation loses focus and sacrifices the relationships of acceptance, encouragement, and accountability. 

Somewhere in the middle, though, we find a way where we open our hearts to one another, learn what matters to each other, and find a focused way forward together.

Our congregation is in the beginning stages of revisiting our mission and purpose. Why do we exist? Who are we called to be? How do we want to be known? You’ll be hearing from the Committee on Shared Ministries in the coming months. Please come to the chats, respond to the surveys, engage the process. 

It is this work that will keep us focused, that will help us find the balance between taking every suggestion and playing the losing game of trying to make our future congregation the same as our past. 

The larger Unitarian Universalist Association is engaged in a similar but more complicated process right now, conducting a periodic review of Article II of the UUA bylaws. A lot of things stayed mostly the same, but there is a new “values” section …

… that defines our values, held by a center of liberating love. One of these values is Transformation. We adapt to the changing world.

We covenant to collectively transform and grow spiritually and ethically. Openness to change is fundamental to our Unitarian and Universalist heritages, never complete and never perfect.

Some things change and some things stay the same. A hundred years ago, Lewis Fisher, a Universalist theologian, put it like this:

“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…. We do not stand still, nor do we defend any immovable positions…. We grow… as all living things forever must do.

“The main questions with Universalists are not where we stand, but which way we are moving…. 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 simply… like a squirrel in its cage…. Old worn phrases are always losing their old meanings, and must forever be finding new meanings in the light of new experiences.”

We keep going forward, led by that central value of love, encouraged by the friends and neighbors who accompany us along the way, to become something new for the new moment. May it be so.

Transformation photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

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