This Sunday, we were delighted to be welcoming a new member to our congregation. The newest member in a long line from the founding of the Meeting House in 1716. Our Sermon, below, focused on our community values and strengths. And our connectedness with each other and world at large. An MP3 download of the Sermon can be accessed by clicking the link above.
We are one.
We are many.
And we are one.
A congregation is a very strange thing.It is a many-splendoured thing also.But quite difficult to pin down.
The congregation will vary week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year.But it remains the congregation.You here today are by natural progression, the same congregation as has met here almost every week since 1716.
Understanding this connection can be seen, in part, through a great game that can be played when bored in an afternoon or an evening. You try to work your way to a friendship with a named celebrity, through friends-of-friends.It is said you can link your self to anyone in the world through only seven or eight steps.
For example, a friend of mine from long ago knew the keyboard player in a reasonably famous eighties rock band.That keyboard player was married later to Patsy Kensit, the actress.Patsy Kensit starred in the Lethal Weapon films with Hollywood star Mel Gibson.So, I am just four steps away from Mel Gibson.
And then you spot the quicker routes.My predecessor here was David Usher.His brother is Geoff Usher.Geoff Usher appeared in several key scenes in an 1979 Australian film called ‘Tim’.The star of ‘Tim’ was Mel Gibson.So actually many of you are just three steps from Mel Gibson.
But to put this back to this congregation, you are all linked in some way to the continuous path back to 1716, and further.We will be welcoming Jane formally to our congregation later this morning.Jane will be the newest member of the congregation, and already knows many, if not all, of you.Sheila and Henry are the longest serving members of this congregation, having joined in the 1950s.And when they joined, or even when they first attended, they will have met and got to know long-standing members then.
Working backwards, I estimate each of here today is just seven or eight ‘steps’ from the founders of this Meeting.
You are the congregation of this Meeting House.And so were they.The congregation is one.
And that’s what is so wonderful about congregations.That continuum of worship, friendship, fellowship, support and love.From the very first time you take that often difficult and brave step to enter in to this Meeting House, you are brought into the love and care of all those present.
We are many.And we are one.
I am not, of course, a formal member of this congregation.But you have called me to be a part of your community.Thank you.
But the members of this community are not identical.We do not all agree on everything.We often have disagreements between ourselves.
We are human, we are individuals.We are not, therefore, perfect.
But we have all chosen to be here.Whether that is just here today.Or here, as a member or contributor to this community.
Well, there are of course as many reasons for coming here as there are people attending.Indeed, as Unitarians there are probably more reasons than there are people.
But I wonder whether these words from Mark Morrison-Reed, might strike a chord with some of us:
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others.Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.
It is the church that assures us we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community.The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done.Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
In true Unitarian style, I suspect that some of you are now thinking..’yes, that’s exactly it’.Others will be thinking ‘hmm, sort of, but I come for other reasons instead’.And yet others are simply worried there may be a test on that quote – because they are using the time here this morning to let the words wash over rather than be examined.
And all those positions, yes all those positions are completely right in themselves.
We are all different, we have different reasons and purposes for coming.
But I think, and hope, that Mark’s final words find a home in most, if not all, of our reasons for being here:
‘The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done.Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.’
Our strength is renewed.
Is that it, perhaps?
I think it entirely appropriate at this welcoming Service to quote Jane herself.Jane told me, some time ago, that the joy of a Sunday Service was being able to leave the building feeling her shoulders had lifted two inches.
That says it all for me.That describes beautifully the effect of having my strength renewed at church.Some cares lifted, some clarity of purpose.A renewal.
And for reasons I cannot explain, this seems to be more effective for many through community worship.We can all sit at home, read some poetry, listen to some music, find some inspirational quotes.But it rarely has the same effect as that of community worship and fellowship.By being together, we seem to both draw strength, and give support all at the same time.The nature of community remains hard to explain.
In our first reading, John O'Donohuespoke of a longing for community, a huge need to participate.We went on to suggest that we do not, ourselves, create community. Rather, community already exists and we enter as new participants into a drama that is already on.He says ‘we are required to maintain and often reawaken community’.
And maybe that captures it on both the small and the large scale.
Here at the Meeting House, we are maintaining and reawakening, ourselves and this community each time we meet.We are all, whether here for the first time, or the four thousandth and first time, we are part of this community.And part of the life blood that keeps it alive and refreshed.
But looking further, at the greater impact to which John O’Donohue refers, we are reminded also of our part in the great community of life.The community that is the population of the world.Of all humanity, and the earth on which we live and depend.
This feeling of community, a calling to the brotherhood and sisterhood with others.Of an underlying connectedness that exists and flows through each of us.An invisible web of life which pulses through us all.Both here within this congregation and community, and beyond these four walls.
And for many, this pulsing, connecting life is how God is perceived.A living, yet unexplainable, yet indefinable presence that seems to bind us together.We are called, perhaps, to follow this connection – a connection that has existed before us, and will continue long after we are gone.But we have a conscious, or perhaps unconscious, calling to find our place in that connected community, that beloved congregation of all.
Our involvement in this congregation - whether as member, regular attendee, occasional visitor, or first-time seeker - on this smaller scale we are all participating in that greater connection.We are nurturing and strengthening our part in this world.We are bringing our spiritual selves and gifts to play their part in making this world a better place.Through mutual support to give us the strength we need to go out from here and live our lives in love.
And that can only happen through a living collective to support and drive the congregation.And in Unitarian circles, that is achieved through the work of the congregation.We are a congregational body.We do not receive any funding from elsewhere – we do not receive direction from a central policy organisation.We have no bishops or archbishops.We are accountable to ourselves alone.
And we all have a role to play in that congregation.St Paul, writing his guidance for churches and congregations 2000 years ago (as that is what his letter in the Bible really are), was all too aware of the differing skills and needs.In his first letter to the new church in Corinth, Paul was clear that leaders and ‘speakers in tongues’ were not the sole requirement for a working church.There was also a need for helpers, healers, administrators and others.These are the basic requirements of the living religious community or congregation – be it Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Unitarian, whatever you wish.The differing roles and skills, both formal and informal, are integral to keeping the body alive.We are our own doctors and patients.We give and take our support to and from this community.
So, we are, by working together, creating a strong, and vital resource for us all to dip into and refill whenever we need it.
The hopes and aims of a Unitarian congregation will be many and varied – as many and varied as the people within it.But at our core remain our true values of love, truth and fairness.A love that transcends barriers, a love that is much deeper than surface pleasantness.A love of truth and honest commitment.
We bind ourselves to this community because we want to help ourselves, and we want to help others.We recognise the strong bonds of trust that are needed to hold us in, and we must surely open ourselves to the knowledge that our community is strengthened through its diversity.Diversity in thought, diversity in actions, diversity in gifts and needs.
We, all of us here today, and those members, friends and visitors that will be here on other days, we are the guardians and carers of this community.We did not create it.We found oursleves called to it.And we are maintaining it, strengthening it and ceaselessly reawakening it for each other, and for those yet to come.Ultimately for the next three hundred years.
We, or more exactly in this case, you, the congregation – members, friends and visitors to this Meeting House, will be welcoming a new member to this congregation today.A link in the connectedness of those that have gathered here for the last 300 years, and to those that will hopefully gather for another 300, at least.
We are Unitarians United.Carrying the flame of truth from previous generations for future ones.May we always remember our indebtedness to our forebears in this congregation, and may we live in love and truth with one another today and always.
As the Reverend Jopie Boeke said in our second reading, may we learn to live with each other, and for each other.