Reaching In, Reaching Out

a sermon by the Rev. Jill Cowie


Recently at one of our stewardship planning meetings, a person said “we create sanctuary.” Her words reminds me of what Jewish Scholar Elie Wiesel once said, “A sanctuary is a Human Being, a dream. And that is why you are here, and that is why I am here. We are here because of one another. We are in truth each other’s shelter.” This is what “ REACHING IN, REACHING OUT,” the theme of our Stewardship campaign, means to me. A radical intimacy and a radical inclusion that extends this sheltering promise to everyone. This is what is to be human, says Elie, but it’s also dream. As a WWII death camp survivor he knew how readily human beings can disengage. This year, as stewards, we are claiming this dream of radical engagement as our own. What does this dream look like for you?

The Sermon

As we begin our stewardship drive, we are looking within and looking to the world, and asking how can we best be stewards to our ministry? How does who we are here connect to our vision for the world? I was reading some historic documents of the church to learn how this question has been answered in the past. I found some writings of our minister emeritus of beloved memory, Malcolm Sutherland. For him, reaching in and reaching out was about witnessing to freedom. A freedom that comes when in the richness of our inner-life we discover a deep sense of interconnection and engagement that refuses to the world as it is. My hope is that this witness to freedom is the warp upon which we continue to weave our ministry.

In 1952, Malcolm said to a group of colleagues,”This is a religious fellowship in the most inclusive and universal sense- and religion isn’t anything if it isn’t lived.” He said “We are witnesses to a way a life. A life where people, must demonstrate by the character and quality of their life that the God of justice and love is very much alive. A life where people are committed to kindling and keeping aflame the spirit of our companions so that their hearts are warmed, their minds enlightened and their lives enriched.” He ends with this “If we are unwilling to make our lives such a witness, if we are unwilling to reveal the spirit of goodness and truth within, if we are unwilling to serve the higher cause of humanity, who then calls us Unitarian Universalists?”

I love how his question puts the power of our religious identity in the context of a witness to a relationship, with first ourselves and then humanity; and that it is not enough for each of to name ourselves Unitarian Universalist but that being known as a UU emerges and is witnessed in the life we lead. A life devoted first to the spirit of goodness and truth within. I remembered what it felt like in my early days as a minister in formation to serving a congregation devoted to creating such a witness. They gave me space to express my emotions more deeply and I wrote in my journal of vulnerability, of feeling exposed. But as my story intertwined with the congregations, I remember feeling a presence inside myself, a depth that was new, a chamber of sanctuary inside where doubt and fear were at last silent, a place where I could hear my authentic voice.

After three years with the congregation as their intern, I knew I had changed, but somehow I was the same. A paradox that reminds of a story about a stonemason. A story that describes what its like sometimes to cultivate an inner-life. The stonemason was never quite satisfied with who he was. He worked all day for a miserable pay and he thought, if only I could be rich and loaf all day! His wish grew so intense that in the end it came true. The stonemason heard a voice saying, “You are what you want to be.” He was happy rich until one day a king passes by with his procession, and he thought, “He is more powerful than I. How I would like to be in his shoes! Once again he heard the voice, and as if by magic, he became a king, the most powerful man in the whole world. But bit-by-bit he became dissatisfied. He saw the sun in the sky and thought the sun most powerful and said I want to be the sun. He became the sun, needed by all living things. But then he saw the clouds they were light and mobile, could take on any shape, and at sunset became the most beautiful colors. He heard the voice “you are what you want to be” and he became the clouds. It was pleasant to be suspended in air, mobile and fluffy, taking different shapes, but sooner or later the cloud condensed into raindrops and struck rocks of granite. The little drops of water burst on the granite and flowed and disappeared into the earth. The rocks had been there for millennia, how wonderful to be a rock the stonemason thought, and you guessed it, he became a rock.

At last, stability, no one is going to move me from here he thought. The rain trickled down with a gentle massage, a gift. The sun caressed and warmed him, how beautiful. The wind refreshed him, the stars watched over him. He had become complete. But not yet. One day he saw a figure approaching. It was a man slightly bent carrying a hammer, a stonemason, who began chiseling his stone. He felt dismay. The stonemason could decide his destiny. How I wish I could be a stonemason he thought.
Thus the stonemason became once again a stonemason. After being everything he wanted to be, he became what he had always been. But this time he was happy. Cutting stones became an art, the sound of his hammer music, and the fatigue at the end of the day – satisfaction of a job well done. And at night in his sleep, he had wonderful visions of the cathedral his stones were helping to build. It seemed to him that there was nothing better to be than who he was.

This story speaks to the power of desire and agency that we find when we look within and with attention we discover indwelling of spirit that aligns with his inherent sense of beauty and worth. Have you experience this? This is the essence of a spiritual life, an inner –life where in our witness we transform beliefs, hopes and fears and release our passion. And as we do we find a spaciousness of sanctuary that witnesses to both the truth of our inner goodness and our deep interconnection with the world.

A few months ago I went to see the play entitled AmericaMoor about the racism experienced by a distinguished Shakespearean actor of Color when told over and over by a newly minted young white director how to play the part of the Black African Warrior Othello. After the play there was time for a conversation with the actor Keith Hamilton Cobb. One teen age aspiring actor of color in the audience, told Cobb “that Cobb is an inspiration for him, a role model,” and he wanted to know where Cobb finds his safe place to be who he is? Cobb said, “here, on this stage.” My friends this sanctuary is our safe place to practice our soul interconnection and radical love. Every time you sign up for teaching our youth, you are signing up to be present to a young person in need out there, every time you sign up for hosting coffee hour, you are practicing setting one more plate at the universal welcoming table, every time you give name to any expression of racism, sexism, ageism, any “ism” among us, you are practicing your agency to do the same out there. This is a place where we create sanctuary within, among, so that you, me, we can be a sanctuary in the world.

Jewish scholar Elie Wiesel, once said “sanctuary is often very small, not a grandiose gesture, a small one towards alleviating suffering and preventing humiliation. A sanctuary is a human being, a dream.” That is why you are here, and that is whey I am here. We are here because of one another. We are in truth each other’s shelter. This is not just metaphorically true, but exactly true. This sanctuary is a shelter for all those who come here from the crazy storms of secular society, from the hatred that abound out there sometimes, and from the loneliness and sorrows that are inevitable. This house is an ingathering of those who seek this sheltering promise.

My colleague Victoria Stafford, says sometimes she hears one of her congregants say that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t demand much, after all we don’t have to learn any creeds, or confess any sins, and she likes to reply, “but friend, we ask you to be each other’s shelter, we ask you to be sanctuary to each other. We ask you to be human beings. We ask you to help teach each other’s children and to teach each other how to be wise parents. We ask you to prepare meals for each other, to drive each other to doctor’s appointments and to visit sick loved ones, to celebrate birthdays, and to welcome with radical hospitality new comers. We ask you to practice democracy in the life of our congregation, and to celebrate our pride in being a welcoming congregation, to celebrate the gay lesbian bisexual, transgender, heterosexual rainbow we have become. Above all we ask you to defend our free faith, to understand that this is a rare and rather fragile place, a temple of free speech, dedicated to spiritual pluralism, to intellectual wandering, and to mystical wondering. A place where you find relationships of value, or discover and rediscover your calling, or find ways of being you want your children to experience.” I hope all this is true. This year our hearts are leading us in a vision that includes sustaining the promising ministry we have started together, it includes fighting racism and bigotry, and feeding the hungry. Our vision includes sustaining our vibrant music program, and deepening the ways we make meaning as Unitarian Universalists in our programming for youth and children. Our hearts continue to invite everyone to the party because our music is so good and because what we offer is life nourishing, life saving and life sustaining. We are asking unapologetically for you to pay for all of what is this church because quite frankly no one else will. We are asking each of you to be each other’s shelter, to be each other’s sanctuary. As we give our money takes on this moral stamp. It is coined over and over again in our inward mint. The uses we put it to, the spirit in which we spend it, give it a character that is plainly seen by the eye of our heart.

Rev. Bretz, the minister here when this church was built said in 1968, “it is imperative that we do all within our power to bring the positive witness of Unitarian Universalist to this community and as far beyond as our energies and resources will permit.” This is as true now, as it was then. Together may we reach for our highest aspiration in this place we call sacred, among this blessed community, so that we may bring our witness and radical love to the world. May it be so.