Diverse and Vibrant

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, September 22, 2019



Over the course of the 2015 to 2016 fellowship year, my first year here, a task force made up of leaders of the congregation led us on the journey of discerning how our various individual preferences and commitments flowed into a shared vision of who we want to be as a congregation. Input was sought from everyone. Careful word crafting to best represent the things held in common by the many voices of this congregation was done. And some of the ideas that came forward were not included because they were the ideas of individuals only, not of the larger community. Other ideas about where we were heading more broadly expressed the understanding and aspiration of the congregation as a whole. And so, at the annual meeting on June 19, 2016, we debated and discussed the wording that our input had led to and voted to adopt this Vision Statement:


We envision the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro as a diverse and vibrant spiritual community. Rooted in the practice of loving-kindness, we are moved to act with justice and generosity in our Fellowship and beyond.


It is the first part of this vision that we take up this morning: “a diverse and vibrant spiritual community.” This is the second sermon in this year’s sermon series on the ways we have chosen to define the purpose, vision, and mission of this Fellowship. Last year our sermon series was on the Sources of the Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism as stated in Article 2 of the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The year before, we examined the Principles of our movement, which are also encoded in our Association Bylaws. In those two series, we examined what our congregation, together with other congregations in our movement, have committed to as part of our membership in the Association.


But in this fellowship year, we draw our attention to home, looking locally at what we right here have found to be our driving forces and commitments as distinct from what we committed to as part of our larger movement. In August, in the first sermon in this series, we considered the meaning of the Purpose section of our congregation’s bylaws. According to that document that you participated in shaping and then voted on, we exist with the  purpose of providing “a liberal religious community for children, youth and adults through worship, study, service and fellowship.”


In that sermon we parsed phrases and considered why we might have worded it the way we did and what it means for us now, regardless of original intent. That statement of purpose contains an aim and a compound method. It is the aim that most closely corresponds to the first portion of our Vision Statement. “A liberal religious community for children, youth and adults” as outlined in our bylaws parallels “a diverse and vibrant spiritual community” in our vision statement. But do they mean exactly the same thing?


Or does the different wording suggest shades and nuance that our task force did not find explicit in the bylaws? And remember that a purpose statement and a vision statement have different intentions. The purpose is part of a legal document governing the Fellowship, while the vision is about who we want to be and see ourselves as in the process of becoming. The vision is what we aim for. It draws us into the future that can be. The fact that we have not yet fulfilled this aim does not diminish it but gives us purpose.


“We envision the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro as a diverse and vibrant spiritual community.”


What is this spiritual community our vision points us toward?


Remember how, in the first sermon in the series I made a point of the fact that our bylaws purpose calls us a liberal religious community. I focused in on each word. Religious: this is not a club and what we do together is not secular but religious; we come together, bind ourselves together, in service to values and goals greater than any of us individually. Liberal religion: we are not dogmatic but open to differences of belief and practice and honor and respect that difference. Community: we are not alone in our effort but part of an aspirational community, supported by and supporting each other on our journeys.


So now in our Vision Statement, we continue with the idea of community. How many of you first came to Unitarian Universalism not because of the teaching you might have heard from the pulpit or in a class or group but because this religious movement offered community, the opportunity to join together rather than living in isolation? […] I certainly did. Long before I was sure I was comfortable with the details, I felt and knew I had come into a community that might sustain me, that I might participate in freely, where I would be accepted without the demand that I change or renounce myself. The religious part of the equation took a back seat for me in the beginning to just coming together and building community.


We envision ourselves not as individuals being served and serviced by this congregation but aim higher. We aim and call ourselves to become ever more connected and interconnected, We envision ourselves growing together in more than one sense. We would grow individually through our interactions and interdependence with each other, but we would also grow as a body, together becoming more active and vital, more of an influence on the world around us.


Spiritual community, then, as an aspiration, a vision for this congregation, is it different from religious community? I know the word “spiritual” can be a sticking point for some Unitarian Universalist. After all, if you are assured in your mind that you do not have a personal existence independent of your body and that any immortality you have is through the memories of others and the results of your actions in the world, that is, if you believe you are not or do not have a spirit, what does the word “spiritual” mean to you?


I remember my supervisor in Clinical Pastoral Education, the interfaith practical training program that prepares chaplains for hospital or prison work, among other opportunities for service, in that program my supervisor asked us early on what “spiritual” and “spirituality” meant to each of us. Unitarian Universalist me with my Jewish grounding, I was in a group with a Reform Jewish rabbinical student, a non-denominational conservative Christian minister, a United Methodist seminarian who happened to be a distant relative of mine, and a Catholic non-clergy chaplain trainee. We were a mutually respecting and supporting group. But some of these definition exercises strained the fabric of our little group. Our supervisor, who was an Evangelical Lutheran minister chaplain, allowed us to stumble around a bit looking for a definition that extended beyond our own traditions and then, finally, offered us an option that might support us in our work, a definition that did not depend on the person in the hospital bed having the same beliefs and practices we did before we could interact in a supportive way with them.


Spirituality, for the purposes of best serving a diverse group of patients, was a mater of meaning making and meaning finding. Spirituality is what you do and how you approach making sense of the reality around and within you. It is both individual and communal, what you carry in your heart and what you explore and support in community.


Spiritual community, then, is our aspiration to a joint enterprise where individuals and the body as a whole can seek and create meaning and build shared values. Our vision is support our individual meaning seeking while together building shared meaning, never isolated but supporting each other as equals, partners, friends… as a kind of family to each other.


Which leads us to the word diverse. The word “diversity” has, over the past twenty years had its ups and downs among progressive-minded people. Is it a goal, a value in its own right? Or is it a means toward the goal of greater vibrancy? Many Sundays, the welcome statement our lay service leader reads or recites at the beginning of our service makes the assertion.


We see diversity as a source of strength and have committed to honoring the lives, relationships, and equal participation of persons whose sexual orientation or gender identity has often NOT been accepted by others.


It includes an operational idea bout diversity: it is a source of strength, alongside proclamation of our very specific commitment that this congregation formally accepted by voting to become an LGBTQ Welcoming Congregation. The statement about orientation and gender is not a limit on diversity but an example of it that has been formally committed to by congregational vote.


But if you look around the room on an average Sunday morning, you don’t see any great presence of diverse identities and ideologies. We are an LGBTQ-Welcoming Congregation, but, aside from me in the pulpit and my partner Walter at home, we might not see more than one out LGBTQ person in the congregation on a given Sunday. Our commitments that we voted on are not paralleled with presence.


You look around the room on a given Sunday and there is only a small presence of persons of color. We intend our welcome to include racial difference, but this diversity often is not seen and when present is often overlooked in this space.


On a given representative Sunday, we look around the room and do not see a representative presence among us of all ages. We are a wonderful community for people of increasing years, but children and young families are in short supply, as it were.


No, diversity is not a primary defining characteristic of who we are, even as it IS central to our vision of who we might strive to become. There are various kinds of diversity, but we are not essentially a diverse congregation but more accidentally. What kinds of diversity, in addition to gender, orientation, race and ethnicity, and age, might we make an explicit, intentional place for in this congregation? […] And what do we need to do to make ourselves accessible and a viable, supportive choice for people who self-identify within these areas of diversity? […]


  • Disability (hearing, vision, mobility), neurodiversity
  • Theology and spiritual practice
  • Political philosophy and organizational membership
  • Economic placement


There is also diversity of talent and skills that we bring with us when we come together, of course. Do we really want to be diverse? Or maybe we want to want to be diverse? We named it in our vision for our future. Will we pursue it? This is a long game, certainly. The question is whether we will allow it to remain a hope on paper or whether we will structure our lives to make it a greater part of our


But the other word we are looking at today, “vibrant,” points to the idea embodied in that frequent wording of the welcome statement: “We see diversity as a strength.” It is my belief and is inherent in the wording of our vision statement, that vibrancy comes through expanding our parameters, widening the circle, finding increasing ways to grow our welcome to include more and more – not merely through our intentions and our baseline values but through our actions and policies and practices.


Which is more vibrant: a congregation that is mostly white, almost fully straight and cisgender, retired or nearing retirement, largely able-bodied, or a congregation that more fully mirrors the face of our community, our Commonwealth, and our nation? We are more vibrant when we have a greater mix of life experiences and ways of thinking about things, about how to solve problems. And we can grow that greater mix when we engage in change making that best supports diversity. We’re doing it with our new sound system that allows more persons with hearing issues to participate in the service. We’re doing it when we prepare to install an ADA-compliant restroom in Chalice House. We’re moving that direction as we engage more fully in movements for racial justice. And so on. Our vision pairs vibrancy and diversity. Let’s take new, confident, and lengthening steps to move in the direction we have named for our own future.


Amen and Blessed Be.