Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Alex Brianson
We gather this morning to share a particular kind of community – a community of faith in which each of us is free to quest for our own ways of being spiritual and religious.
We gather this morning to think about how we have done this until now, and how we might do this from now.
We are none of us the same as we were twenty years ago or even last week; we are none of us the same as we shall be in five weeks or ten years.
As the paths of our lives cover new terrain, may we find helpful new thinkers, concepts, and understandings of Spirit, or of the highest good in life, and new ways to interpret those we have loved long and hard.
And may we be open to the voice of wisdom, wherever – and however – we find it.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) words by Adam Slate.
As we travel the paths that our lives reveal to us,
We are often not sure of the way, the distance, or the destination.
Nevertheless, we have each other.
We can look to one another for wisdom,
We can be grateful for each other’s companionship,
And we can seek support when we have lost hope.
We light our chalice this morning to signify that we are willing to take the journey together.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in our own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
Even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
In this world in which Covid has not yet gone away,
And the clouds of war hover.
May we keep in touch however we can,
And help each other,
However we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
Who are grieving, lost, alone,
Suffering in any way, Amen
Story from Mary by Megan McKenna
Once upon a time there was an abbot of a monastery who was very good friends with the rabbi of the local synagogue. It was Europe and times were hard…
The abbot found his community dwindling and the faith of his monks shallow and lifeless. Life in the monastery was dying. He went to his friend and wept. His friend, the rabbi, comforted him, and told him, “There is something you need to know, my brother. We have long known in the Jewish community that the Messiah is one of you.”
“What,” exclaimed the abbot, “the Messiah is one of us? How can that be?”
But the rabbi insisted that it was so, and the abbot went back to his monastery wondering and praying, comforted and excited. Once back in the monastery, walking down the halls and in the courtyard, he would pass by a monk and wonder if he was the one. Sitting in chapel, praying, he would hear a voice and look intently at a face and wonder if he was the one, and he began to treat all of his brothers with respect, with kindness and awe, with reverence. Soon it became quite noticeable.
One of the other brothers came to him and ask him what had happened to him. After some coaxing, the abbot told him what the rabbi had said. Soon the other monk was looking at his brothers differently and wondering. The word spread through the monastery quickly: the Messiah is one of us. Soon the whole monastery was full of life, worship, kindness and grace. The prayer life was rich and passionate, devoted, and the psalms and liturgy and services were alive and vibrant. Soon the surrounding villagers were coming to the services and listening and watching intently, and there were many who wished to join the community.
After their novitiate, when they took their vows, they were told the mystery, the truth that their life was based upon, the source of their strength and life together: the Messiah is one of us. The monastery grew and expanded into house after house, and all of the monks grew in wisdom and grace before the others and the eyes of God.
And they say still, if you stumble across this place, where there is life and hope and kindness and graciousness, that the secret is the same: the Messiah is one of us.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading Golden Threads by Andrew Hill (adapted)
We gather the golden threads of life and weave from them a rich tapestry:
The golden thread of common, everyday human life, speckled with small, unidentifiable little decencies.
The golden thread of human pain, and human pleasure, from which together each human biography is writ.
The golden thread of vision, and example set by known and unknown prophets, saviours and good Samaritans.
The golden thread of communal sorrow and public despair transformed by Easter resurgence, Passover liberations and the resurrection of crucified human spirits.
The golden thread of broken promises mended, held slaves freed, captive people liberated, exiled friends returned.
The golden thread of hope, and life, which shines despite social cold, political darkness and autocratic power.
The golden thread of many-splendored life – spider, human, and lion, fish, plant and toad.
The golden thread of human families when the generations sensitively appreciate their roles and times.
The golden thread of literature, art and music – Job, Beethoven, Hamlet, Renoir, Burns and ‘Greek Thompson.
The golden thread of wonder, increased human understanding, walking hand in hand with a greater sense of mystery.
The golden thread of human communities, loyal to commanding and transforming visions of how things may be.
We thank you that in the texture of our common life, there shines forever this golden thread.
Prayer by Jenny Jacobs (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
Here we are amongst our fellows, in a place where we feel safe, a place we know and where we are known, in a loving community.
With all the problems and challenging situations in our lives, nevertheless, we have the safe still point of this community, on this Sunday, in this virtual space.
Let us give thanks for the stability we enjoy in our lives amidst our friends and families.
Let us pray for all of our brothers and sisters whose lives are not so blessed; whose lives and communities are devastated by war, by terrorism, by famine, by drought, by sickness, by climate change.
Let us open our hearts so that we can empathise with our fellows and feel their pain.
Let us remember and hold in our hearts those who have had to leave their communities, hoping to build new relationships and new lives in foreign lands.
Let us recognise all those things we have in common with them and with people everywhere; our shared hopes and aspirations, for a settled home, a safe haven, rewarding work, a bright future for our children.
Let us help build our society into a place which extends the hand of welcome to all those who need it both without and within.
Let us work towards a safer, fairer world for all, wherever they may be.
Let us live our lives in such a way that we always behave towards others with the same care and compassion we would hope to receive ourselves.
Readings by Corrine McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson, and by Starhawk
Here are two short perspectives on community: one by Corrine McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson, the other by Starhawk. First, McLaughlin and Davidson’s perspective:
Community means different things to different people. To some it is a safe haven where survival is assured through mutual cooperation. To others, it is a place of emotional support, with deep sharing and bonding with close friends. Some see community as an intense crucible for personal growth. For others, it is primarily a place to pioneer their dreams.
Second, Starhawk’s perspective:
Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Something there is that doesn’t love a wall by Margaret Kirk (adapted)
We see barriers erected between people of different lands.
We see sheets of steel and towers of concrete called ‘Protection’.
We see boundaries policed.
Watch men, women and children running from hunger and persecution,
looking for a gap in the wall………
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…………
We see walls of fear –
Fear of the young, fear of the stranger.
Fear of sexuality that is different, fear of the educated, fear of the poor.
Fear of the Muslim, fear of the Jew –
Fear upon fear, endless and perpetuating.
And we offer our silent prayer that solid walls of fear will crumble to dust.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…………
We hear the language of separation.
The jingoistic chant, the racial slur.
Words of indifference and dismissal,
Words arranged for the purpose of exclusion,
Words that sting and taunt,
Words that lie.
Let us find words that ring with love and truthfulness, that reach out through the emptiness of separation.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…………
We see the deluded barriers of the mind protecting self.
We see relationships stripped of affection, as one person becomes closed to another.
We see people trapped in misunderstanding, old hurts re-ignited,
bricks placed higher on the wall, goodwill and trust suspended.
And we ask for boundaries that are not impenetrable,
through which light can shine and distance be dissolved.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall………….
And when we need these boundaries for our own well being,
Let us know them for what they are,
Use them wisely and kindly,
Recognising our own vulnerability and that of others –
So each of us can find the space for retreat and succour,
Find that peace that passes all understanding, and be renewed with strength and love, for the task of living life joyfully in communion with all others.
Musical Interlude Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Being Together in Community
Unitarian communities are (or are supposed to be) places where we can work out what we believe and hold sacred in a safe and welcoming space. Most of our communities are congregations, but there are also other Unitarian communities, whether permanent, such as Unitarian societies, or temporary, like the wonderful community that was our General Assembly meetings last week. And in each community, our beliefs may differ, but our values are often shared.
Nearly thirty years ago, Andrew Hill, whose gorgeous words we heard as our second reading, published The Unitarian Path, in which he identified three distinct faith communities within Unitarianism, with the proviso that these were positions on a spectrum rather than contained, or mutually exclusive. In summary, they were: Unitarian Christian, religious humanist, and those who recognised transcendence of one kind or another as being at the heart of most religious traditions.
And I believe that these definitions are still relevant today. He concludes, “There are many touching areas and crossover points within these three faith communities. Unitarian Christianity so easily finds common cause with a universalised theism; and a naturalised common cause with Christians and theists in values which transcend individual persons, and in appreciating the importance of symbol and myth. All of which bring these three different faith communities to common ground and a shared community.”
But our communities have also evolved and are continuing to evolve. Some Unitarians have moved away from Christianity altogether, and others find that earth-centred spirituality is at the heart of their Unitarian faith. And of course there are also agnostics and spiritual seekers, and those who call themselves atheists (in the sense that they do not believe in any divine being). In terms of belief (or lack of it) we are a diverse bunch indeed.
And over the past couple of decades, there has also been another shift in our beliefs: away from the purely intellectual approach of earlier times, towards a more heart-centred or spirit-centred approach to our faith. Many Unitarians (myself included) have come to acknowledge that some mysticism has its place within our panoply of beliefs.
The existence of these very diverse faith communities, this religious pluralism, is one of Unitarianism’s strengths; this ability to accommodate people of differing beliefs. Today, most Unitarian communities in the UK aver what Hill calls, “an open acceptance and co-existence of different theological positions.” This is evident if you look at the different societies affiliated to the General Assembly, from the neo-Pagan Unitarian Earth Spirit Network, and the spiritualist Unitarian Society for Psychical Studies, to the Unitarian Christian Association (to name but three). All their members are also Unitarians, and all believe in something beyond the human or natural world. I believe that the great thing about Unitarianism is that there is room for all of us. Even within a small congregation, there could be Liberal Christians, religious humanists, universalists and experientialists. And many of us fall into more than one of these categories.
But what matters is that we truly believe that Unitarianism is “the Religion of the Larger Affirmation” to quote Alfred Hall, and that the values we share are more important than our diverse beliefs.
The German writer, Karin E Leiter, once wrote, “To be connected without being bound – that is the art of living.” I believe this is a very appropriate quotation for Unitarians to reflect on. Because for me, the ability to be connected to my Unitarian community without being bound by a doctrinal creed is what makes it special. We share the values of respecting freedom of belief, based on an individual’s reason, conscience and lived experience, and do our level best to not only tolerate, but also accept and respect, the beliefs of others, even when we do not share them (so long as they do not harm any person or other living thing).
The majority of faith traditions require their members to sign up to a particular set of beliefs. Unitarians (and Quakers) are different. For example, the fifth Quaker Advice says (in part): “While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.”
But my favourite Quaker Advice about being in community without being bound is number 17: “Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.”
I believe that this is a very civilised approach to being in community. It is about respect, patience and empathy. Which is how we connect with one another on a deep level.
I also believe that our lives in community should be about seeking to build bridges rather than walls. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “No-one can build the bridge on which you have to cross the river of life, no-one but you alone.”
Because we are all responsible for our own lives, for our reactions and attitudes towards whatever and whomever we encounter. The ways in which we react and change (or stay the same) can have a profound effect on our journey through life. If we do not learn from our mistakes, do not grow and deepen our spiritual lives through both our trials and our joys, then our bridges across the river of life will be flimsy structures, and we will be liable to fall into the river and be swept away.
I think that Nietzsche is saying that the more we experience, the more we learn from those experiences, the more likely we are to grow as people, both mentally and spiritually; and the more we grow, the easier it will become to navigate our way through our lives. And we will have a firm foundation under our feet, with which to do so. Whereas, if we don’t learn and grow, we are liable to repeat the same mistakes; our bridges over the river of life will keep falling into disrepair, and we will keep falling through the gaps, and re-experiencing the same problems and griefs.
The bit I’m not so sure about in Nietzsche’s words is the “you alone” at the end. Because although I agree that in the end, it is up to the individual to learn from their experiences, I also believe that the vast majority of people do this thing called “life” better and more successfully, if we can learn from others, if we do it in community. Speaking personally, I know I would not be the Sue Woolley I am today, had it not been for the generous, empathic, gentle input from family, friends and mentors along the way. I would have become mired in my sadness and loss, and been unable to climb out and move on.
Life is a journey best taken in company, in community. And as Margaret Kirk reminded us, in her beautiful words which formed our Time of Stillness and Reflection, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall………….”
I’d like to leave you with the vision of Michaela von Britzke for the future of Unitarian communities:
“The times require us to move beyond our emphasis on the intellect and our dependence on the pulpit-based hierarchy, to become more expressive, egalitarian and inclusive. We need to spend more time on holistic learning. We need to deal with shadows and projections, learn to deal with conflicts, work in groups, encounter each other deeply, in pain and joy. Sunday sermons, I believe, are the celebratory sauce for the bread pudding of daily living with integrity.”
In other words, we need to become truly welcoming spiritual communities, places where our individual spiritual and religious quests can be safely undertaken, in an atmosphere of freedom and respect and acceptance. A base from which we can go out and live our faith, not just talk about it.
May it be so, Amen.
Closing Words by Yvonne Aburrow and Sue Woolley
Spirit of Life and Love,
May our inner life be nourished by our community.
And may our community be strengthened
by each person’s unique gifts.
May we honour the diversity of our spiritual journeys,
And help each other on the path.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley