Loving, Active, Welcoming Grace

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, January 26, 2020



In keeping with our faith and inspired by our Vision, it is the mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro to grow a loving, active and welcoming community, practicing grace and understanding in all we do.


So begins this congregation’s Mission Statement, which you can find in full on the back of the order of service. Good Golly! There’s a whole lot packed into that! In this fifth sermon in our series on the ways this congregation has documented and described what we are about, we now take up our mission.



We begin our sense of mission with a fine ambiguity. What is faith? Or more precisely, what is “our faith”? We aren’t talking about beliefs, per se, where there is wide possibility for arriving at the same values without agreeing about beliefs. No, we are talking about something shared. We are talking broadly about Unitarian Universalism.


As a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we together have committed to both affirm and promote seven shared principles. As long as we remain in that association, we are covenanted to affirm and promote: the worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion; acceptance of each other and encouragement to spiritual growth; free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and democratic process; peace, liberty and justice in world community; and respect for the interdependent web of existence. If something we are doing or considering doing runs counter to any of these seven principles, we cannot say it is in keeping with our faith in that large sense.


As a living, evolving tradition rather than a static, one-time statement of what we are about, our shared faith includes more than these seven principles alone. Sometime the lines may be fuzzy. But as a movement there is no question that we are growing toward greater engagement for social justice: racial justice, justice for all genders, justice for people of all sexual orientations, economic justice, educational justice… These may fall under the umbrella of our denominational covenant as stated in our principles, but as an association, a movement, and a people, our explicit commitments are growing. Are we in keeping with our faith if we too are not growing in those directions? The end may not be settled in every case. New knowledge is constantly emerging. New situations require new approaches.


We act in keeping with our faith when we engage seriously both to affirm the values of our faith – that is, to speak our values – and also to promote them – that is, to act in the world that aim to nudge the world to reflect our values. We cannot live in keeping with our faith – as individuals, as a congregation, as part of our covenanted association, as part of our movement – without acting to participate in changing and shaping the world into a new and better version of itself.



This refers directly to our Vision Statement, which is also on the back of your order of service. What do we see ourselves, this congregation, emerging to be at this point in our life together? What is our intention for our next and developing reality?


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.


We intend to be inspired by our shared future, which we see as growing in diversity and spirituality, practicing loving-kindness, and acting to grow justice in the world and generosity in our own hearts and lives. I preached on this vision in three sermons this past September, November, and December, titled: Diverse and Vibrant; The Practice of Lovingkindness; Justice and Generosity. So I won’t spend time our the Vision here, except to say, pay attention to it. It is the source and grounding of the particulars of our Mission Statement.



So what exactly is a mission that we would have such a statement? I’ll be honest. I didn’t know squat about vision and mission statements until I was in business school and have largely thought of them as guiding the evolution and values of corporations and other businesses. When I first learned in seminary about mission statements as part of congregational planning and intention building, my first thought was, why do we want to model ourselves on the corporate world, of which we are frequently justly critical?


And, I have to admit a reluctance around the word “mission” that comes from growing up in a denomination with missionary zeal. And by that I’m not talking about building hospitals and digging wells and building schools and operating soup kitchens in economically challenged parts of the nation and the world. No, the missions I knew growing up and as a young adult were aimed at one thing only: saving souls of people whose cultural practices and values were quite different from my family’s and my congregation’s. My Dad’s family hero was his Uncle Vernon Oakley, one year younger than him, who was a missionary in the African country of Zambia, which had gained its independence from the British Empire only six or seven years before Uncle Vernon and Aunt Catherine took their children into a culture and a continent that we could not then imagine. When their oldest daughter was an adult, she went as a missionary to Portugal, because the Portuguese weren’t the “right kind” of Christian or were not sufficiently pious. I think of the cultural and religious imperialism of those relatives and see it on a continuum that includes the Spanish missions in California, which were focused on the domination of Native Americans by European colonizers. So I fought with the word “mission.”


In its simplest form, though, divested of this baggage – my baggage or yours – our mission is a statement of the actions we intend to pursue in the service of becoming more fully that vision of ourselves, somewhat farther down the path toward who we want to become together that we are right now.



“Love” is one of those words that is both deeply meaningful and seriously ambiguous and confusing in English. Some languages use different words for the different “kinds” of love. People who’ve spent much time in certain Christian churches recognize the difference between types of love because New Testament scripture was written in Greek, and ancient Greek had multiple words for love: Eros, or sexual passion; Philia, or deep friendship; Ludus, or playful love; Agape, or love for everyone; and Philautia, or love of the self, which has both healthy and unhealthy expression.


Unitarian Universalism is a sex-positive religion. We hope everyone is equipped to live a life with a personally satisfying amount and kind of sexual activity, engaged in responsibly. We hold it as a value that our bodies are sacred and the ways we interact with another can also be sacred and rejuvenating. Our hope for the responsible sexual and relationship future of our youth is why we offer the middle schoolers a values based sexuality curriculum known as Our Whole Lives. But among the ancient Greek menu, that is not what this about.


Friendship and playfulness are valuable, and a healthy love of the self are essential building blocks of a healthy life. We would encourage these. But the word “loving” is attached here to the sense of community, which points us in the direction of agape, love for everyone, a deep desire that the whole of humanity achieve fulfillment. This is the kind of love that links with loving-kindness, the love that wishes and aims to help all creation achieve versions of itself that are fulfilling and satisfying.


A loving community is one that seeks justice and well-being, both for itself and the world. A loving community supports each other in times of need or distress. A loving community engages in support for those in need, and also participates in changing a world of injustice into a world of justice, changing systems for the good of all.



We live in a time in our culture when busy-ness is seen as a value in its own right. So often, someone asks us how it’s going, and we respond, “Crazy busy!” And much of the time it is not a complaint but a statement of modest pride. Being active is good – except when it is excessive and keeps us from fulfilling our just and appropriate commitments.


So what is “active community”? In active community, we are not satisfied with knowing alone. We are not satisfied with feeling alone. We are moved to act to change things. A congregation can be overburdened with doing stuff, and usually it’s doing stuff that is good or can be used in the service of good. But being “crazy busy” in the service of the congregation is not what this is about. Active community is about improving the world, dismantling oppression, increasing equity, and intentionally and fully honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all. Active community is always a matter of moving into higher aspirations for ourselves and our world, an expression of agape, love.



We have so many ideas about welcoming. Sometimes it seems like just being pleasant, nice, and hospitable. When a newcomer walks through the door, we know, of course, that how they perceive us depends entirely on how we interact with them. Are we kind or pushy or do we ignore them?


But being welcoming is so much more than being nice. In 2004, this congregation took the formal step of voting to become a Welcoming Congregation. Capital W, capital C. This is a certification program of the association in which congregations engage in education, self-evaluation, and, where necessary, change in order to be an accepting, supporting place in which lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and non-binary people and others whose sexual orientation or gender identity are not accepted in many corners of American religion and culture. Being actually welcoming to LGBTQ people, though, requires more than a certification program – it requires an ongoing commitment to action and ongoing education.


And again, being a welcoming congregation, in its broad sense, is much larger than greeting visitors and supporting LGBTQ people through a Welcoming Congregation designation. It is about seeing who is not here or is underrepresented here – race, class, disability, and more – and setting about what we do with them and their needs in mind. Being nice is nice. Being kind is good. But alone it doesn’t fulfill this mission step. We have to embody welcome, radical hospitality in all we do.



What is grace? There is an old theological definition that says grace is unmerited favor. Unmerited favor. On the one hand, I like that, but on the other I find it rather self-important. Unmerited, as if we were in a position to accurately judge what another person deserves. Even if our values were properly aligned, we just don’t know enough to judge worthiness of another. So maybe practicing grace can be seen as extending to each and all a measure of respect and honor and caring action that we don’t know or even care whether they deserve.


In another perspective, it is through grace that one encounters the divine. That which is ultimate, meaningful, comes or is offered in the countless ways our humanity meets the humanity of another. Grace may be a complicated or problematic theological word for some, but stripped of baggage, it is where soul meets soul with support and love.



Finally, finally, understanding. It is impossible to adequately honor another without understanding and understanding comes through learning. And learning arrives through many routes, among them: experience and study.


Through the four and a half years I’ve been here, I have offered classes on racial equity, in which we have used a variety of resources to grow our understanding of injustices and justice possibilities, of history that undergirds future possibilities and challenges. Before we voted to become recognized as an LGBTQ-Welcoming Congregation, there were workshops to complete, learning to gain. Unitarian Universalists can sometimes be too much in our heads and not enough grounded in the “real world,” but we have to engage in learning through some means to increase our understanding.


Do you agree that there was a lot to unpack in that beginning of our mission statement? It comes to us as a challenge and an encouragement. What can we DO to live out our values, to affirm and promote our principles together? Here. In this congregation. In this community. In this nation. In this world.


Amen and Blessed Be.