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Love Shows Us How with Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay & surprise guest Lisa Garcia-Sampson!
Posted by First Unitarian Church of Providence on Sunday, March 1, 2020
Text of Sermon by Rev. Liz
A friend of mine had a daughter, a middle schooler, who was struggling with severe anxiety, ultimately finding herself unable to attend school for an entire year. They changed to a special school geared towards kids who have emotional challenges, a school that felt like the right fit for the daughter. When they had the orientation meeting, the school representative said to the daughter: “When you’re having a bad day, you need to come have your bad day with us – and we’ll help you through it.” I thought that was such a brilliant, compassionate message, and also I thought it reminded me of church. It’s how I feel about us. It’s what I would say to anyone here – or who wants to be here: Whatever kind of day you’re having, whatever you’re feeling, if you’re soaring on a new love or a transformative experience, and even if it’s bad, especially when it’s bad, come have your bad day with us, and we’ll help you through it.
Finding a religious home, a religious community, a place to belong, a people to belong with, to teach and to learn from, to risk and share and deepen with, to journey with, to care together for our children and learn together from our elders and share together with our kindred spirits of all ages and races and heritages and experiences – these are some of the most precious, rare and life-sustaining, spirit-sustaining gifts we can ever receive in this life. We are unspeakably lucky to have each other, to be here, whether we are here for the first time or the 50th year, to have the chance to find and share a home here.
This is why I pledge according to the guidelines we all receive at this time of year. I’m raising my gift by about 8% this year, because I was asked to by our wonderful Commitment Drive team. It’s not the most convenient time for me to raise my pledge. Tim and I have had to do some extensive renovation on our home – some of it was required because our house failed the inspection in a couple of ways when we bought it. Some of the renovation was our choice, so that our home will meet our needs for a long time. But as these things tend to do, the work mushroomed and the project ended up much bigger and more expensive than we anticipated. We’ve taken out a couple of loans to complete it, which was not part of the plan. Fulfilling our pledges and then raising them for next year means it will take longer to pay back the loans, which is doable for us, and also still stressful. But it’s also what my husband Tim and I are both committed to because we love this community and we believe in it and we want First Unitarian to not just endure, but thrive.
I hope we all will absolutely give what we can for our church, whatever that looks like. There is a great range of financial circumstances in this church, and we all appreciate each others’ giving at whatever level we’re at. Many of us have had times when we were right on the edge – when a tank of gas could break the budget. Some of us are there now. If it’s been a hard year and you need to reduce your gift, go ahead. In fact, if you need some financial assistance, let me know; we have funds dedicated to help with housing, food, and other needs. If things change for the better, you can always increase your giving later. And also it’s not just on you. Someone else has had a good year and is in a place where they can increase their gift, maybe for the very first time.
If things are tight, and sustaining your gift is a generous choice, then please do that and thank you. If you are able to increase your gift, please do. Our budget is increasing by about 6% next year. If we can overall lift our giving by at least that much, we will be in great shape. If the truth is you could really give a lot more, please do that.
What will your giving make possible? If you read our church organizational assessment we released this year, or heard about it last month from its author, Rev. David Pyle, then you know two things. One is that our church has a lot of strengths that make a great foundation for our present and our future, including a gifted and devoted staff. And two is that our current size and programming far outstrip our personnel and resources – everyone’s been doing our best, but the work, the times, the vision and needs of this community mean we need more time and more resources for staff to be able do their work at the level this church has come to expect – and that this church deserves. With more time and resources, we can maintain ourselves at this level and better meet the needs and opportunities in our community, especially pastoral and spiritual needs along with better integrating and serving our members, our programs and our justice work.
I said I was raising my pledge because of what the Commitment Drive asked of me – and that’s true – but it’s only part of the truth. I am also raising my pledge because I believe absolutely, and fiercely, in the power and potential of this congregation – the power within our church to sustain us, the power to catch us when we feel like we’re falling, the power to hold us when we need holding, the power to lift us and strengthen us when we are low. The power to reflect and magnify our joy when we are joyful, to help us create together: music and art and relationships and our own living, to inspire us to stay in the great struggle for justice and compassion in our world, to do more in that struggle because we will not settle for less. And the power beyond our church, to be a mighty agent for change and good in our city, and across our state. To grow compassion and understanding, to build bridges and partnerships, to make more justice, to serve more people, make more peace, here, now. We are on that path and I am committed to it, and committed to you, and inspired by you and all we are doing together.
It is remarkable. It is beautiful. Lives have been shaped here. This church has drawn people to devote their lives to this faith, to ministry in this faith. Talk about giving, and love beyond belief! The love of this church, the experience of faith here, led them to give themselves. It’s not for me to speak for them, most recently Emily Bruce and Lisa Garcia-Sampson. I wish they could tell you in their own words, what that kind of inspiration has meant to them…
Text of Sermon by Lisa Garcia-Sampson
Liz, did you just call me? Well that’s a coincidence, because I’ve been hiding behind the pulpit for three hours!
Well, this place has given me a lot of firsts in my life – first time I gave a sermon, first time I wore a minister’s robe – at your installation, Liz. And today – my first time popping out of a stairwell in the middle of a sermon. Liz, I love your ridiculous imagination and all the beautiful ways it manifests in this community.
For those of you who don’t know me – I can tell you a little bit about myself.
My name is Lisa Garcia-Sampson and I’ve been a proud member of this congregation for almost a decade now. I wandered through these doors in 2010, new to Unitarian Universalism, and signed the book in 2011. And this May, I will be ordained as a UU minister right here in this meeting house.
My spouse Ry and I were married here in 2015 – after this congregation fought long and hard to pass marriage equality in our state. Thanks for doing that, by the way.
And there’s one other very important thing you should know about me, if you don’t already.
And it’s this.
I LOVE BUDGET DRIVES.
The new members are like – who is this lady? But yeah, I love budget drives.
And there’s a story behind that. A couple years into me being here, our minster at the time, James Ford, invited me out to lunch one day. And you know what they say about free lunches. And at the end of the meal, he asked me if I would co-chair the annual pledge drive.
My first thought was, I am 25 years old. What on earth makes you think that I won’t mess that up?
But, you know…. The guy had bought me lunch. And beyond that, James believed in me. He saw something in me, that if I’m honest I had not yet seen in myself. And that is what made me say yes.
Little did I know, and truly I mean this, that decision changed my life.
In partnership with a seasoned veteran, in Anne Connor, I went on to co-lead the annual budget drive – for not one but two years – and the experience changed the way I thought of this church, and this faith, and myself.
First, during this time, I learned what our church really meant to people. Through Sunday testimonials and visiting stewards and group events, the budget drive created space for people to reflect and share how this community and this faith had shaped their lives.
That was a turning point for me, because after that, whenever I sat in a pew on Sunday, I didn’t see strangers or coffee hour acquaintances – I knew the stories in the room. I saw all the gifts, and passions, and beautiful connection among people in the room. I saw that this church was a living, breathing web – caring for one another, and together – giving life the shape of justice.
That’s how I came to fall in love with this place and with this faith.
And during this time I also learned about myself. Because, in this role, for the first time I was called on to speak from the pulpit – not just to ask for money – but to tell those stories and articulate a vision for what we were building together. And it was in that stewardship campaign eight years ago that I realized my call to ministry. Within six months I was in seminary.
And that’s why it really is so special to be back here – on this day. Not only to hear the world premiere of a new barber shop quarter song – but to help to kick off this drive by sharing my story of how this church has changed my life.
AND I love the theme you have selected for this year – “Giving, Receiving, As love shows us how.” because It calls us to reflect on the relationship between giving and receiving.
It reminds me that while my bond to this place was certainly formed by my service to it, the truly transformative moments of my time here, were not in the moments of giving, but in receiving. I have received so many gifts from you all.
You may not have realized it, but many of you have been like mothers to me. Five years ago when I got married here, my mother was not present, but Anne Connor was. My budget drive co-chair turned chosen family, was there for me as I planned the wedding. She even made the cake. And she was the person I asked to speak at my wedding.
This congregation also got me through seminary. You gave me rides, you cooked me meals, and when my spouse Ry and I were financially struggling while we were both in school, we received money from members of this church as well as from the Pastor’s Fund. A fund that gives financial assistance to members and friends of this community for urgent, short-term needs.
I could not have gotten to point without you. And even though I am no longer a part of this place the way I once was, but this place is always be my spiritual home. And I still draw strength and wisdom from this place.
In times during my ministry when I am scared, or nervous, or just need to be grounded in my faith, do you know what I do? I sing the song, May Love Be Your Guide. You know, the song that we sing at the end of service. Nothing against Shalom Haverim. I really love Shalom Haverim. But, May Love Be Your Guide – that’s the song that was my first anchor to this faith. That is the song that moves to tears and makes me feel that I am home.
And over time it has become the spiritual resource that I call upon – When I’m driving to give a sermon, when my hearts aches, when I don’t know what to do. I sing that song to myself and it helps me to return to my spirit and to you all.
And that is also the song I have asked the choir to sing when I am ordained here in May – right during the laying on of hands – the moment of ordination.
About a month ago, I stepped into the role of Executive Director of the UU Justice Ministry of North Carolina. I know Susan Frederick-Gray came down here earlier this year to talk about UUing the Vote and you can bet we’ll be UUing the Vote down in North Carolina. The gerrymandering capital of the United States.
And if I may share a little secret – just between us, and whoever is watching on Facebook. I don’t entirely know what I’m doing. To be honest, this kind of work is a new frontier for me.
And yet, I know I’ll be fine because I have had great teachers along the way
I have learned what justice looks like because of what we have done together. To proclaim that black lives matter, and accompany those in sanctuary. To feed people through our food pantry and fight to end gun violence in our state.
But equally important to my ministry is that you all have taught me what beloved community looks like. The way we sing together and share pot luck meals together. And the way we love and support one another through chalice circles and our Care Network and simply through our friendships.
I think sometimes our justice ministry out in the world, and our ministry to one another here, can be seen as separate. But actually, these two parts need each other.
Because the relationship between the two actually reveals the heart of our faith.
And here’s why.
When we are in authentic relationship with one another in this community. When we are vulnerable enough to let ourselves be seen by one other. To learn from one other, to ask for help and receive the grace of one another – Those are the profound moments in our lives when we realize our interdependence.
That is what our faith calls us to learn. And that is what this church continues to teach me. That I need you and you need me. And none of us can get through this life on our own. That is the great spiritual transformation in our hearts that will usher in social transformation in our world.
We know that this American cultures promotes individualism and freedom. And celebrates self-reliance.
But the suffering in our world, and the harm being done to this earth, is the result of human beings denying our interdependence. Denying that every being on this earth is bound to one another and accountable to one another.
And we will not heal this world by clinging on to that same sense of independence.
No we – must engage in justice work out of the theological grounding of our interdependence. Because then – we no longer do it out of a sense of charity, or guilt, or hustling for our wokeness – but out of the knowledge that my humanity is tied to yours.
That is the greater love.
We sit here today in this sanctuary looking back at 300 years of history, and looking forward to an unknown future. And on this occasion can’t help but think back to something that Cy O’Neil once said about this beloved place.
He said this:
At the back of our Meeting House, centered on the wall of the balcony, hangs an old clock. It may have been hanging there since this Meeting House was first dedicated back in 1816. On Sunday mornings, during the silences in our service, I like to listen for that clock. I like to listen to it mark the moments in the life of our congregation.
That clock has quietly hailed those moments for almost two hundred years now, as our congregation has gathered together on Sunday mornings, through good years and bad… During those two hundred years a civil war rolled across this land, along with two world wars and a great depression. Most of us have never lived through days like that. But the life of our congregation has. Our congregation has been through it all.
Next time it’s really quiet during Sunday service, listen for the clock. It’s not marking the passing of time… It’s hailing the arrival of our moment, of our time.
May we pass on something as precious and sustaining as this congregation to those who come after.
We are now called to meet this moment. Our moment.
And live into our role as the keepers of this beloved community and. As the keepers of this faith.
Just as those who came before us learned through wars and great depressions. We must rely on one another because that none of us can get through this life alone.
When we do that. When we together realize truth of our interdependence we can realize the full power of our faith to change are lives and heal this aching world.
May it be so. Amen.
Opening Words by Rev. Liz
Here we are, kicking off our annual month-of-March Commitment Drive, when we pledge the funds this church will depend on for the coming year. ‘Giving, receiving, as love show us how.’ This is the theme of our Commitment Drive this year; it comes from the beloved hymn Wake Now My Senses. This theme gives me a great chance to talk elaborate on what it means when I say each week, as I just did, that this congregation ‘loves beyond belief.’ It’s not a thoughtless superlative. Loving ‘beyond belief’ has a threefold meaning.
First, it reminds us that love, real love, deep care and compassion, is foundational to our faith, to our expression of our faith. This is not new, many of us are familiar with old declarations of Unitarianism and Universalism, ‘Love is the doctrine of this faith, the quest for truth is our sacrament and service is our prayer.’ But sometimes we lose sight of what that really means, sometimes we retreat to our proper, buttoned-up, Yankee roots where we feel love, sure, but we certainly don’t, you know, flaunt it! Speaking about loving beyond belief is a way of owning it, and frankly it helps us remember that love should be unbuttoned, should be flaunted, if we really feel it.
Second, ‘love beyond belief ‘celebrates a foundational ideal of Unitarian Universalism, that we we need not think alike, to love alike. We don’t expect everyone to have the same beliefs, in fact, we expect everyone not to. This enriches us all, keeps us encountering new ideas and considering new possibilities and their impact on our own faith. You’re a Buddhist UU, I’m a UU with Jewish inflections, we both love Christmas and we both love each other and we both love this church that loves us and so many others too.
Last, ‘love beyond belief’ reminds us about the scope of love, which is ginormous. Love stretches so big – that’s what distinguishes it from mere ‘like’ and the super tepid and disappointing ‘tolerance.’ We do not just tolerate each other and our differences, and we don’t only like each other and our differences, we love each other and we value our differences – and we love a lot more than just each other. We love this world. We love this place, and all we serve with worship, with religious education, with our food pantry and loaves to fishes mission and sanctuary and asylum work and the comrades we are meeting and friends we are making in working for a more peaceful, hopeful city. Those are all expressions of love. We love our time, full as it is of heartbreak as well as beauty, because we know they both open our hearts and our minds, and we know we are living in a time that really matters, that people will look back on, that we will look back on with pain, yes, but also with pride because through all the struggle, we led with love, for marriage equality and black lives matter and me too and sanctuary and the future of this planet, we keep leading with love, and leading with love is growing us and taking us places we never expected, love beyond belief. So – all that!