Lisa Garcia-Sampson is a graduate of Boston University’s School of Theology and currently serves as the ministerial intern at First Church in Boston. Lisa first discovered Unitarian Universalism at First U and forever considers this to be her spiritual home, and, more importantly, her family.
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It’s so great to be here, to be home this morning. In the place that introduced me to Unitarian Universalism. The place where I got married. And the place where, in a little over a month, my spouse Ry will graduate from medical school.
This is where I made the decision to quit my job – and go to seminary. And with your encouragement, and financial support, and all the meals you cooked for me – you helped get me through it. I’ve said it before, and I cherish the opportunity to say it to you again, This place, and you all, changed the course of my life and for that I am forever grateful. And… with that being said, if this whole ministry thing doesn’t work out, I’m totally blaming you guys.
I graduated from seminary in May. Seminary was beautiful, and enlightening and really hard – and it’s hard for each person in their own way. And while so many of my Christian friends were off having various crisis of faith, my personal struggle was around religious language – words like “God” and “prayer” and “sin.” I was suddenly thrown into an environment where these words were constantly being evoked by different people who defined them in different ways. And it was clear that I had some work to do, to sort through my own relationship with those – and so many other religious words.
Like a lot of UUs around here, I grew up Catholic and left the church as a young adult, and so all these words felt like a dead language to me. No longer active in my life. And more strongly than that – for me, these words were a little triggering. I still associated so much religious language with the harm, not the good, that it’s done in the world – and, to be honest, in my own life.
And yet, in my classes, and in BU’s weekly worship service, I could see that these same words held incredible power and significance in the lives of my dear friends. In the storm of seminary these words anchored them.
- They had words like “God” and “Spirit” to recognize and name the presence of the divine in their lives.
- They held a deep sense of grace which inspired self-compassion and self-care.
- They had the rich spiritual practice of prayer which guided their ministerial discernment. They could say out loud what was on their hearts in ways I didn’t know how to do.
And I must say, I was a little jealous that they had these words on their spiritual journeys. And it got me thinking, where are my spiritual tools? What are my words? So I wisely referred to my handy UU dictionary of religious words that we all agree on and, well you know that book doesn’t exist.
Our Former UUA President William Sinkford once had this to say about our tradition’s history with words:
“One approach to dealing with language that no longer reflects our common assumptions or values is simply to discard it. Another approach is to search for and use only a kind of ‘least common denominator’ language that the fewest of us will have to translate… Stripping away, leaving behind words that carry with them histories of being used to exclude, histories of being used to limit our spirits or even punish us, is one approach to this dilemma.”
Bill Sinkford eludes to the fact that our dilemma with words can leave us with a depleted spiritual vocabulary. But as I quickly found out in seminary, we need words.
In the book, Fluent in Faith, Unitarian Universalist minister Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar explains the idea that the language we have at our disposal and regularly use shapes how we perceive and experience life and impacts our ability to make theological meaning of life. She writes that words are “essential tools of our imaginations. They define, and they limit what is possible. That for which there is no construct in our minds eludes our grasp. For the most part, our lives consist of that which we know, which we can name, and which we have words for.”
Words have a transformative power in our lives. And that’s not just true in the case of our spiritual lives.
The same is true, for example with our emotions. Having a robust emotional vocabulary is incredibly important, but unfortunately, research shows that on average, people can only identify three emotions in themselves. Can you guess what they are? Happy, sad, and angry. But Researcher Brene Brown explains that “We really need to be able to identify and articulate thirty. Research is showing the importance of recognizing emotional granularity. Instead of happy, it’s joyful, it’s surprised. Instead of angry it’s regret, shame, guilt, humiliated, anxious, uncertain. It’s deeper.” Having a large emotional vocabulary actually changes the way we understand, experience, and navigate our emotions.
Another powerful example is the creation and reclaiming of words to speak to queer and transgender experiences – words that help us understand our identity and relationships with one another.
And so, in this same way, when we have words to describe the spiritual dimension of our life, whatever those words are, they have the power to call us into deeper attunement to our present moment. They help us make meaning of our lives. To recognize, and name and feel deep in our bones the sacredness of life.
What are the most precious moments of your day, your week, your year? Perhaps you love to feed people. Anne, I know you love baking bread on the weekends. But why do you love baking so much? Is it an expression of love, of abundance; does kneading that dough get out your frustrations and return you to a sense of peace?
You may cherish going for a daily walk or run? Or spending time by the water – or even on the water? If so, why are those experiences so important to you? Rick, when you’re out on the Seekonk River early in the morning, is rowing your prayer or meditation? Do you meet God there on the river? Or is teaching kids to row a spiritual practice for you?
Those among us who are musically inclined – our choir, those in Providence’s beloved Extraordinary Rendition Band. Dana and Kim, when you play, choir when you sing, what are the words to describe how you feel? Do you feel spirit move through you? Doesn’t have to be the catholic holy spirit but it might be for you? Is it a deep experience of interconnection? What is it?
Having sacred language is so important because it helps us to elevate these moments in our lives and make meaning of them.
This is what’s going on in the story of the cathedral builder. That wise third laborer, with reverence and pride says, “Can’t you see, we are building a Cathedral.” And the meaning he places on his work fundamentally changes his experience of that work. He’s not just busting rocks or bringing home a paycheck; with every swing of his hammer he is doing sacred work.
If one day, God floated down on a cloud – I know we don’t all believe in God, but humor me for a second. If some God or Goddess or spiritual master appeared to you one day while you were running or gardening or dropping your kids off at school and said, ” Hey, what are you doing right now? What are you really doing right now?” What would you say? How would you describe your actions and why they really matter?
What I love most about Unitarian Universalism is that we each have the authority to answer that question for ourselves. It’s captured in our fourth principle: The free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Although we are in covenant with one another and celebrate our collective faith together, it is up to each of us to walk our spiritual paths and make ultimate meaning our lives. Only we can do that for ourselves. And language helps us make meaning.
So how might we acquire more spiritual language to help us on our journey?
Well first, I believe that we are each called to reflect on our current relationship with sacred words. To do a little personal audit of your spiritual vocabulary, I’d like to ask you to close your eyes and I will offer some religious language. I want you to just pay attention to any mental, physical or emotional reaction that you have:
Spirit of life
How was that? Which words, if any, felt beautiful and life-giving for you? Were there any words that piqued your curiosity? That you might want to newly claim and use in your life? To help you live into your beliefs? To help you describe what’s going on in this world? Did any words evoke negative emotions in you? Feel oppressive, even?
If there is a word that really doesn’t work for you, then absolutely, get rid of it. Feel free. But don’t get rid of it because of someone else’s definition of that word. Because if we throw away every word that someone somewhere has used for harm – or has defined in a way that doesn’t jive with our beliefs – then it’s as if we are conceding that they somehow own that word and its definition. And that is simply not true. These words can be re-imagined, redefined by us, for us. These words are ours to claim if we want them.
And here’s the other thing. And it’s a big thing. Understanding our relationship to these words is not just important for our own lives, but also the life of our community. The same word that irked you might be life-giving to someone else in this room. And more broadly, the theological idea you reject may be fundamental to the faith of the person sitting next to you. And THAT is the radical project of Unitarian Universalism. That is what makes me proud to be UU.
It’s our 3rd principle – Acceptance and encouragement of each other’s spiritual growth – in all our theological diversity. This is not a throw- away principle; in many ways it’s the hardest part of our covenant to one another. This is what we signed up for. We should not downplay our theological differences. We should lean into the them. And celebrate them. It is what our faith calls us to do, and in 2019 it is what our world needs us to do.
We are approaching Easter, traditionally the day when our theological diversity and sacred words collide most. Fred will have a field day on the organ; this place will be filled with beautiful flowers, Anne and Sean will wear their fun hats. And for some among us, the day will celebrate the resurrection of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And no matter what we believe, we are called to make room for all of it.
When we have explored our own history and feelings toward religious language, and when we ask each about our beliefs and our sacred words, it all helps us to build an affirming space for everyone. So that on Easter and every day we are not reduced to the least common denominator. No, we celebrate all that we believe. All that we are.
May we live into both our 3rd and 4th UU principles. To make meaning of our lives, pick our sacred words, and at the same time affirm the person sitting next to us – whatever their words and beliefs may be.
I am on my path and you are on yours and we are walking together.
May it be so. Amen.
 William Sinkford, “In Translation”
 Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar, Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language.
 Brene Brown, Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice. Recorded Seminar. Sounds True: Books. 2017.