What Are We Doing Here?

A Sermon by Rev. Vanessa Rush Southern

Audio Recording

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It is so good to be here!  As some of you may know but maybe do not, Rev. Maclay and I met in Divinity School became best friends.  Since then, however, we have never lived in the same city.  We almost did once.  Currently, we are currently making plans to try and retire to the same city someday and will finalize those plans as soon as we get our husbands to agree.

And as parallel lives would have it, both Liz and I moved again this summer — to opposite coasts, of course.  In May my family and I shut down our apartment in Mumbai, India where we had been living for the previous two years and then sold and cleared out of our old home in New Jersey, to move to San Francisco where I serve the First UU Society in that city now, as its Senior Minister.

Moving for both of us and maybe for any of you who have gone through it lately entails going through decades of our things.  For me, it has been like some kind of mid-life review.  I recommend it and I don’t.

As part of that process, I found my favorite stuffed animal from childhood, lots of sports awards like most improved (which as we both know meant that I started that year pretty awful).  I also found multiple elementary school report cards that said I talked too much in class.  I posted that last bit on Facebook and found out, by the way, that a lot of my colleagues got that same demerit in school.  So I have learned from all of this that ministry is where the people who cannot shut up, go when they grow up.  I am so sorry!

It was good to remember all of it.  That word “re-member” — the pulling back together of our limbs, remembering the wholeness of our lives. And then the powerful opportunity to take one good look at it all; at life so far.

I had been away from church the three years previous to our move to San Francisco.  That was time I consciously took to write and read and be with family and just be differently in my own life for a while.  And it was a huge luxury.  We got to reconnect to our family in India and have an adventure together.  It was all good.

You wonder, though, when you step away from something, sometimes, whether you will step back into it or lose or forget or reject it forever.  There was an article this summer in the NY Times about gap years and a father who warns his son that if he leaves college he will never go back.  It’s an understandable worry.  Sometimes stepping away is more monumental a decision than we know at the time. Sometimes we don’t go back.

And so it was with me and church.  Ministry was the only profession I knew and one that I loved.  However, stepping away I wondered if I would feel the need to step back into it. And interesting stepping back in now, reflecting on why and how I am drawn back?  What is it that pulls me, all of us, back here? It is powerful to reflect on that.

Many of the important commitments we make in life are, in fact, not ones we make or choose once. Maybe we tell ourselves they are but it might be better to recognize that we do actually choose and choose them again.  We do, in some sense, choose every day to walk back into the same friendships, the same life partnerships, show up at the same office, or not.  There is a powerful recommitment that happens, and maybe a lightening of whatever burden comes when we realize we choose these things.

We choose our political party every time we vote.  We choose to be vegan or a locavore ever time we shop or order at a restaurant.  Powerful to remember.

And we choose this place every Sunday we get out of bed and point our feet in this direction.   Why?  Why do you, and did the generations before you, and do I, choose this?

Well, what’s the old joke: ask a community of Unitarians Universalists something and you’ll get more opinions than there are people in the room.  I am sure there are as many reasons why we come here as people in the room, but probably some themes.

I think we come for community, for what we have already enjoyed in our visit with you all.  For that spirit of welcome, the warmth, for people (as the old Cheers soundtrack said) who are always glad you came and, after a while know your name.

We come because we value that web of connections that get woven partly just by showing up and even more so as you get involved; a place where joys are doubled and troubles are halved.  Increasingly countercultural, we yearn for places of interconnection like this one, places where people want to be in relationship in ways that ask a lot of each other and give a lot.

Community, sounds nice, of course.  It can also, we all know, be a wild and maddening three-ring circus some days. Theologian Rentita Weems says of church folks, we are a, “Ragged bunch of miracle workers: ragged because we are often contentious, scared, lazy, undependable, and — in a word — flawed; miracle workers because we’ve had to take straw and build a cathedral of hope for every generation that crossed our threshold.”  Yes, a ragged bunch of miracle workers, but we do build those cathedral of hope.

And we all know that the beauty of what we make together makes up for the discipline of finding our way through together.

I’m sure all of you can think of the quintessential moment when you knew this [gesture all around] was worth it.  Rallying around a family struggling with tragic loss as I know you know how to do.  Walking shoulder-to-shoulder to city hall to speak for values not yet reflected in our world.  Seeing the couple you watched through their early courtship, one Sunday holding up their child to be blessed by you — you, the village they entrusted this life to, who they hope will help shape it to be good and kind and courageous and to love it as they do.  You know the moments.

So community is one of our enduring purposes.  The kind of community bound in self-forgetting, disciplined, committed love for one another.

What else?  The part that drew me in when I first came to church was that here was this place where people were asking the questions and talking about the things no one else was asking and talking about and in ways others were not talking about them.  In cynical, hard driving New York, the church I stepped into had people crying, and singing what seemed like the most vulnerable words about hope and fear.  It was like the walls came down and we talked about what really mattered, for once.

Here was a place where we were asking what we each should do with what Mary Oliver calls “this one wild and precious life”; what is justice, what is virtue, what is courage, what really matters, what do we let go of that the world tells us matters, but doesn’t.  All the questions, that Poet David Whyte says, have the “power to make or unmake a life…. questions that have no right to go away.”

And in our tradition too there is this strong strain of asking, constantly, generation after generation, who was left outside the embrace of love and how to change that. The mentally ill treated like animals, women disenfranchised, people held in bondage; and as the Passover Seder reminds us there are always places of bondage, and liberation we are called to.  This was a community that took that ongoing introspection and self-criticism seriously.  And we did so because the cost of not doing so was to be part of the pain and was to be unfaithful to the call to universal love that was and is our heritage.

So, if you are like me, you come for community, its wild, gorgeous realities, and you come because this place is a place you know the important questions will be asked and you will be pressed into wrestling with others to answer to them in thoughtful ways.

Finally, I think we come because we know this place will ask us to live these truths.

A colleague of mine once said that she thought church was fundamentally about this: about being a place where we practiced being the Kingdom of Heaven.  I don’t remember if the colleague was a UU Christian or not but she chose her words carefully and to make a point.  The Kingdom of Heaven, of course, was that mythical place.  The one where lions lay down with lambs and swords were beaten into plowshares, and love and justice reigned, and there was milk and honey for all, and none went hungry or unloved or were alone or forgotten.

All our talk of ideals is important.  All of our thinking and our dreams of landscapes vast in abandon is foundational.  It helps us paint the picture we are aiming for.  But it is in the living of it all that will make it matter.  And increasingly I am in agreement with my colleague: church’s purpose is to be a place where we practice living into that ideal. It is our training ground, our little laboratory of the human spirit.

Here we tell the stories of all our wild saints and martyrs.  St. Emerson and St. Dorothy Day and St. Ida B. Wells. And Jesus and the Buddha and even St. Darwin and Galileo and Santa Rigoberta Menchú.  All of the free thinkers, big lovers, visionaries and prophets.  We tell of them so we have real-life models for how we might choose to be in the world.

We tell all kinds of tales, even those in which history has morphed into fantastical myth, and we tell them again and again, as William Trevor rightly observes because, “..somewhere in the entanglement of exaggeration and myth there is a whispering insistence that human goodness is what matters most of all; however faint, it’s a sound to honor with the benefit of the doubt.”  And in so doing we renew our commitment to risk on the goodness of humanity we cannot always see.

We are people who promise to be together, in good times and in bad.  Who covenant to be safe harbor that welcomes liberal religious seekers, to replenish and expand the spirit and the mind, to honor each other’s gifts and minister to each other and to translate all those words into action in the world.  And then someone calls us as asks if we can bring a casserole to a family with a new baby or in grief.  Or go with them to speak to the Governor.  Or do the work of making us ready to be a sanctuary congregation and we are in it.  Church is our training ground for Heaven on earth, everyone invited.

Here we ask the big questions,
the ones our life really depends upon
and we pledge to test our answers
with nothing less than the choices we make every day.
We remember the power to choose who we love,
how we love,
kindness over cruelty,
courage over apathy and fear,
joy over cynical despair.

Here, we live into the dreams,
unbounded and vast,
that we all dream.

So there will be no saving of souls in this place, brothers and sisters.
But the spending of them with lavish hand.
Plowing our souls into this world until they bear fruit,
spreading them like seed or sunshine among us,
to nourish new life on rocky soils,
casting them out like sticky string to touch and catch and bless all we can.

We will practice it here.
So we get good at it.
And then, as has been true since this place was founded,
it is something we take with us everywhere we go.
Catchy like a summer cold
Infectious. Like laughter.

Our purpose is the bless the world.

From what I hear, you all know how to do that.
Just shy of 300 years of knowing.
Blessings in this next chapter.
Blessings in your life together in this little Slice of Heaven.



Opening Words & Chalice Lighting

“Housing Shortage” a poem by Naomi Replansky

Excuse me for living,
But, since I am living,
Given inches, I take yards,
Taking yards, dream of miles
And a landscape, unbounded
And vast in abandon.
And you dreaming the same.

And so light our chalice for people dreaming together of landscapes vast and unbounded and a world made whole in love and justice.


Moment of Meditation

Spirit of Life that dwells within us,
God we know by many names but most powerfully as the presence of unbounded Love,
We, in this covenanted body, who choose to be together, and make promises to each other,
We gather on the cusp of one week tumbling into the other,
Here we reflect and regather ourselves,
seeking some beat or refrain to give measure and direction to our steps.
Into this sanctuary we carry all that life places in our hands —
the easy and the painfully hard —
And look to find the wisdom and strength we need to hold it all.
This place is part of our insurance policy on life,
making sure we live a life worth dying for
and that joy and gratitude don’t get lost in the routine of it all.
May we find what we need,
get clarity and bolster resolve,
salve and bind up the hurts enough
to sow peace in our own hearts and wherever we tread.
May we make beauty, truth and holiness incarnate in this sweet and hurting world.

This morning we especially hold up those still suffering acutely in the aftermath of the flooding, earthquakes and now forest fires that have all been part of the natural disasters of this fall.
We hold our leaders, national and local, in our shared thoughts and hope that wisdom and compassion prevail in the decisions that translate values into policy, and policy into impact on lives.
And we hold also in our hearts all those joys and concerns named in this hour and all those held dearly and silently in our hearts and minds.

Now, we surrender for a moment, to the embrace of the shared silence of this space and what it offers us each.
[silence] Amen.


Introduction to the Readings

Like Rev. Maclay, I just spent my summer moving.  Six weeks spent in New Jersey facing down a lifetime, my lifetime, of things in storage.  And since I didn’t want to bring them into a San Francisco Apartment with its precious square footage, I communed with these boxes. In one of them I found our two readings, dog-eared and weary from waiting to be of use.  They seemed as good a way to start our conversations together as any.  The first is a bit bizarre.  Ready?


Reading, by William Trevor, Irish Novelist

“The lives of the saints make fascinating reading.  Saint Patrick, a slave on a lonely Irish mountainside, escaped from his bondage only to find himself overwhelmed by a sacred destiny that was as confining as any serfdom.  Converting the people of the island where he had tended sheep, he gave his life to their spiritual wellbeing, made the locally ubiquitous shamrock the emblem of the Trinity, and rid the island of snakes.

Saint Ursula, child of tenth-century royalty in England, spurned the advances of a pagan king, wishing to remain a virgin, unwed and holy.  Granted a generous period of grace, she took to the open sea with ten ladies-in-waiting who in turn were accompanied by a multitude of female servants and companions.  For three years they sailed the seas in eleven vessels, until the winds blew them up the Rhine to Cologne and on to Basel, where they disembarked, immediately making for Rome to pray at the tombs of the apostles.  On their way back, unwilling to deny their Christian faith to godless captors, they were massacred.

Saint Joan left the plow to lead the armies of France.  Scavenging dogs turned away from the corpse of Saint Bibiana, fearful of its sanctity. The Blessed Lucy endured a loss of blood through her stigmata ever Wednesday and Friday for three years.  The twin saints, Cosmas and Damian — moneyless doctors who took no fees for their services — defied death by water, fire and crucifixion before they were beheaded.

So at least, in all these cases, it is said.  There may be some other reason that shamrock grows wild there while withering on the neighboring island.  The voices that told Joan of Arc to save France may have been no more than the voices that today communicate with young schizophrenics.  The martyrdom of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins is treated with reserve in the Roman liturgy.  The dogs, when they nosed out poor saint Bibiana, maybe have already scavenged their fill that day.  Stigmata are not uncommon, nor is the defiance of death.

Yet these saints are venerated.  They are real because people have made them so, their long-vanished features alive in the people they nourish, their strength the faith of the faithful, the marvels of their lives an inspiration.  And somewhere in the entanglement of exaggeration and myth there is a whispering insistence that human goodness is what matters most of all; however faint, it’s a sound to honor with the benefit of the doubt.”


Reading: “Thirty Six” by Linda M. Underwood

All this talk of saving souls.
Souls weren’t made to save,
like Sunday clothes that
give out at the seams.

They’re made for wear; they
come with lifetime guarantees.
Don’t save your soul.
Pour it out like rain on
cracked, parched earth.

Give your soul away, or
pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out, or
laugh it up the wind.

Souls were made for hearing /breaking hearts, for puzzling dreams,/
remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.

Those who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies
who blow out candles before
you sing happy birthday,
and want the world to be
in alphabetical order.

I will spend my soul,
playing it out like sticky string
into the world,
so I can catch every
last thing I touch.