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A sermon by DRE Cathy Seggel delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, December 12, 2010

A House of Dance & Feathers and A House for Hope

We are at the threshold.
We are here,

We who have crossed many thresholds already
to arrive at this space and time,
Coming out-from identities and locations that didn’t embrace the fullness of who we are;
Coming across- distances, boundaries, discoveries that have beckoned us to deeper life
and challenged us to change;
Coming with- our loves, our partners, our children, our memories,
our knowledge, our wisdom, our willingness;
Coming to- our senses, our awareness, of the critical issues that threaten the well-being
of earth’s creatures, communities and cultures;
Coming again- to decisions, commitments, hopes, determinations that we know matter.

We are here at this threshold,
the threshold of a house of study,
where minds and hearts are on fire;
the threshold of a house of spirit
where prayer and contemplation take us deeper;
the threshold of a house of hope
for greater justice and compassion in the world;
the threshold of a house of history
that can inform our present lives
and link us to a communion that crosses the boundary of death;
the threshold of a house of preparation
for the thresholds yet to come,
for the thresholds the world stands on- poised now, as always
between the possibilities of violence
and the possibilities of peace.

Come, let us cross this threshold together.

— Words of Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker

This season’s darkening days and holidays touch on the human experience of waiting, inner preparation, quiet. Since ancient times and around the globe, festivals of light have evolved to celebrate sacred days, to soothe the ebb and flow of hope, freedom, death and life. Humans have looked forward to so many things: For the light to return to, for courage to face challenges, for anger, envy, and hatred to vanish, for peace to prevail, reconciliation with family and friends, paths to useful, life-sustaining work, for ways to calm doubts and fear.

For light to remain and return. For the birth of a child.
For miracles, in our time.

The shortest day and the longest night are almost here. Christmas is coming.

As Unitarian Universalists, drawing wisdom from many sources to make meaning, what are we really waiting for?

It feels good to be with you this morning to share a message that I believe is worth the wait.

Our first reading was spoken by two young adult Unitarian Universalist leaders. The words, originally intended for seminary students, launching into study for the UU ministry, apply to us all. We reach crossroads, thresholds of faith development, throughout our lives. As we move on that continuum of spiritual exploration, there is a theology of Unitarian Universalism to support us on the journey, as our Associational slogan says, “ to nurture our spirits and transform a hurting world.”

I am a combination of homebody and adventurer. That can translate to difficulty in convincing myself to travel, not to mention pack-up and leave the comfort and safety of home. Despite this growing edge, I do roam from dear Providence to visit family, or mostly, to attend professional gatherings. This fall, with resistance, I flew to NOLA, New Orleans, Louisiana, to attend the Liberal Religious Educator’s Association conference. The theme was “Transforming The Jericho Road. “ The PR promised to place us “on the ground” at work-sites, needing help. Through that real social action experience, we would be taught to encourage projects in home congregations. I was assigned to tour the post-Katrina Lower 9th Ward, to listen to stories of survivors and tales of UU mission trips to aid long-term recovery efforts.

There, on a humid, hot Saturday, I met Mr. Ronald W. Lewis, founder and curator of The House of Dance & Feathers. Just the name was intriguing. I love to dance and feathers are playful reminders of flight and freedom. Ronald warmly welcomed our brood of church workers into his highly decorated, cramped structure, plunked amidst partially renovated homesteads. He told his stormy story of resilience and heritage, jazz, Mardi Gras and love. Despite painful losses and continued hardships, his narrative abounded with tales of food, family, music and faith. He created the museum to teach the culture and history of his people, from the African Diaspora until today. His determination is to make interfaith connections by spreading the story of his people, New Orleanians, including the practice of masking in feathers that originated as homage to native Americans and their struggle to find a place in their own land. I was struck by his positive, hopeful attitude and strong faith in human nature, God and the universe. I wondered, where and how that faith was formed and how much has been passed on to his children and grandchildren.

Next, my mind shifted to our children, youth and adults and to factors that drive and underpin our outlooks. What feeds the hope of Unitarian Universalists? Do we spread the promise of our liberal living tradition, how and why? I’ll get back to the dance and feathers later.

One stumbling block to sharing our Unitarian Universalist “word” is that many of us feel safe in congregations, but don’t really understand what the religion/movement/denomination is about.

This wasn’t the first time that getting out of Dodge and communing with colleagues has fed my work and my soul. In 2002, in Toronto, CA, I listened with rapt attention to Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker use a house metaphor to espouse a systematic theology (Western Christian tradition) of religious education for UUs. That lecture series changed me and along with her book, co-authored by John Buehrens, has informed my own faith development. My hope is that an understanding how UUism is grounded can move us to transform ourselves, support our families and change our world. v I enlisted my partner in life, Norm, to help construct a picture of this house for hope on the cover of your order of service.

There are other convincing models that resonate in my understanding of our faith. Like that of Rev. Thandeka, another of my teachers, called Affect or Experiential UU Theology. Her stance is that there are three basic elements of human experience providing a conceptual roadmap for when we lose our way. The elements are: An uplifting change of heart, A religious community of care and compassion, and Doctrinal freedom. Holding on to these three concepts we can figure out what’s missing in our religious lives. Do we need a personal experience of an uplifting change of heart? Or, a feeling of being loved and loving beyond belief within our own religious community? Does that happen when we sit in a small group or chalice circle and someone’s personal story becomes our collective story? Or do we seek encouragement from our own liberal faith tradition to explore more religious and scientific resources in order to more fully explain what it means to us to feel loved beyond belief – and to love beyond belief? Beyond our differences?

I am inclined to combine the more structural theological heritage for UUs to stand on with the heart-centric version. Either way, I am convinced that there is a there, there in our tradition and that it can help us navigate these and other darker times.

Parker teaches some overarching theological characteristics implicit in how we do church, worship and teach our children. Though there is no creed or doctrine, there is a process or way. Think of it as a place. It has a distinctive perspective on the world, an ethos. These elements have a place in our congregations today. We live in this house, but often don’t know how it got built. Therefore, we don’t or can’t talk about it in much depth or be particularly good caretakers of it. She sees the corrective as evaluating our heritage so we can be a people among peoples. We are inheritors, inhabitors of the house and transformers, creators of that culture. It’s a way to articulate our heritage, direction, mission and relationship with our neighbors, so that we might become better caretakers of all the community buildings.

This house metaphor appears other places, like the1st hymn in our gray book, a prayer for this house. Fred knows that I am deeply drawn to music and lyrics and today is no exception. I will point to other songs along the way. (feel free to peek in the hymnal)

When describing our theological house, all of the elements affect each other, relate and make a whole.

The Foundation is the relationship between our human-beingness and the ultimate- Spirit of Life, God, Goddess, of many names.

The Unitarian forebears disagreed with the Calvinist Puritans whose view of humans and relation to God was that people were born without goodness and their lives, predestined by an all-powerful God. Unitarians believed human beings had free will and the power to choose, to reason, to feel, to have conscience and responsibility. So, the UU Spirit of Life/God to humans is relational. Theists and Humanists can coexist in this context of our foundational theology of humanbeingness. It has been interesting to me, to realize how directly the selections in our hymnal reflect the theology. #123 Spirit of Life

The Walls are the Ecclesiology, the way we gather together, what it is to be a church.

This was a response or reaction to the oppressive economic/political alliance between church and state before the Protestant reformation. Our distinctive way is not a hierarchy but formed by free people who covenant to walk together. They make promises, find common purpose and commitment, that all members know. Everyone has a say and can choose to join or not. UUs are part of the Free Church tradition. We sit in circles and say why we’re together. Our kids develop behavior promises that hang in each classroom. Our adult covenant was affirmed last year. It appears, weekly on the back of the OOS. As a UU Association, congregations covenant to affirm and promote 7 UU Principles. The walls are our Promises.

The Roof is our Soteriology: How we’re protected and from what? What’s the danger? There is some risk. What shelters us? It’s a theory of salvation. In the 19th Century, Christian teaching was that God predestined some folks to Heaven and some to Hell. There was nothing you could do and much anxiety about figuring out which you were. Early Universalists , like Hosea Ballou, believed that we were all saved, that God’s love embraced all. Ballou said that not only are we not divided, but what saves us is the power of love. And, that, we create hell when we harm one another. Heaven is the good we do- on Earth. We belong to one another. So, if we divide ourselves into “the good guys and the bad guys,” we create our own forms of hell. Anyone ever seen that happen? When we gather, we all bring capacities for good and evil. And, humans can organize themselves into structures that are detrimental to life. When all is said and done, We stand on the side of love! See Hymn # 1014 in the Teal Hymnal. “The promise of the spirit, faith, hope and love abide.”

Our Door/Escatology: Represents where we come from and where we are we going? What’s the end point, the goal? Connect the dots. We believe in the promise of forming a just and compassionate society, building the beloved community on a progressive path. There are no guarantees. We have to pay attention. Sometimes our confidence can flag, that’s where hope can come in. We sing to each other, “I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.” Or, gather in hope, compassion and strength, gather to celebrate, once again.” To name just a few. One strand of our tradition is that heaven is here and we have to realize it. That means that the things we hope for in the future are completely available to us right now. Claim it, bring our lives and transform our cultures into accord with it. Then, celebrate it. This is more of an Eastern philosophy, understood in the Buddhist tradition.

How we look out and see the other houses and our relation to the neighborhood is our Windows/Missiology:. What’s our mission in the community? Sometimes we forget that we are not the only faith that is acceptable. We seek to know our neighbors and claim a mission of hospitality. There’s room in our house and we want others to come in. That might mean change! Children experience curricula from Church Across The Street to Neighboring Faiths. We honor symbols of celebration representing multiple religious paths to welcome all. We work in the neighborhood to improve it, forging alliances and interfaith connections. Think of the Food Share Pantry, The Standing On the Side of Love team, Neighborhood Social Justice Committee, Village Bank effort, and more- 14 social justice groups. Our building declares inherent worth for all and respect for a pluralistic society. “We’ll build a land, where sisters and brothers, anointed by God, can then create peace. Hymn # 121. By the way, I understand that a traditional language of reverence can be hard for some of us. The notion of God can feel limited or one that has harmed life and sustained unjust systems.

Last but not at all least, The Elements/Pneumatology: from the Greek for, breath that moves through all things. Wind, water, fire, sun: The way we speak about connections in life. This is reflected in our Earth based heritage and the 7th principle, an interconnectedness with all of nature and how we are just one part. “Touch the earth, reach the sky.” #301 calls us to take part, not dominate, as does #203 “All creatures of the earth and sky, come kindred, lift your voices high.” A summary hymn, one of my favorites, #123 “Spirit of Life, Come unto me sing in my heart, all the stirrings of compassion. Roots hold me close, wings set me free, spirit of life, come to me Come to me. A spirit that is an immediate presence in all of life, a source of soulfulness, all pervasive, in all things, for all beings. Some creatures in nature require times of darkness and cold to utilize the stores of energy already within them. Do we?

So, are we already sitting in a house of hope? Will we be a multigenerational, multicultural house of love and hope for ourselves and our communities? Will our Association and its congregations embrace adaptive change so vital to their health and growth? That means social networking, parent support services and please, please, please caring for our elders. We know the over 65ers are an increasing demographic.

A picture of twenty UU religious educators now hangs on the wall of The House of Dance & Feathers, alongside photos of other visitor groups. Of course, we all bought Ronald’s book.(show) I absorbed our host’s feeling that there are cross-cultural links to be forged, that we might all join in the dance, maybe even with feathers.

Something always happens that touches my core when I travel. In New Orleans, my hotel room had huge windows, inviting me to gaze at tugboats, floating day and night on the Mississippi. I just wanted to stay and stare. It was calming to watch, as I wondered about the future of my 21st Century UUism. What is missing? What holds hope?

I am told ours is a promising faith, one that sees possibilities, seeks transformation and justice. We sing of that hope and teach our children to count on it. It was not by accident that I asked some of our young adult community to join me as worship leaders today. All are born and raised Unitarian Universalists! Imagine. It is said that their generation desires to build on their heritage to revitalize our living tradition. To quote an article by Doug Murder, “unlike some growing up in the sixties who longed to escape the oppressive wisdom of their elders, young adult UUs have expectations and hope that there is wisdom worth passing on, a legacy worth living up to, a foundation to stand on and worth evolving. I have felt their commitment and I hear their call. As I wait patiently for the light to return, for healing to happen, that is where I find hope. What do you wait for?

We are here at this threshold,
the threshold of a house of spirit
where prayer and contemplation take us deeper;
the threshold of a house of hope
for greater justice and compassion in the world;
the threshold of a house of history
that can inform our present lives
The thresholds the world stands on- poised now, as always
between the possibilities of violence
and the possibilities of peace.

Come, let us cross this threshold together.


Please rise in body or spirit to sing our final hymn, “Fire of Commitment.” It implores us to fulfill the promises of our house of hope so the future can begin.