Why Are We Here?

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro
Waynesboro, Virginia
10:30 AM, Sunday, August 18, 2019



Perhaps you noticed that I changed the topic from “Worship, Study, Service, Fellowship,” as it is listed on the website to “Why Are We Here?” Never fear! The topic remains the same. And no, we will not be talking today about why the universe exists or why humanity exists. Entire tomes are written on these. And, despite the amazing lines in Peter Mayer’s song “Holy Now,” saying “an even better magic trick/ is that anything is here at all,” that is the topic for another day. No, today our focus is local, not cosmic: What is the purpose of this Fellowship? What is our reason for being? Why are we here?


Let me start, then, by asking you all: “Why does this Fellowship exist? What do you think?”


This is the first sermon in a series on our own Fellowship. Two years ago, I preached a series on the Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Last year, I preached a series on the Sources of our Living Tradition. Both of those series had to do with the larger landscape that is our movement. In large part, those series were about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist congregation. But this year, I will be preaching a nine-sermon series on how the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro – that’s us – has chosen to describe ourselves – in our Bylaws, in our Vision Statement, and in our Mission Statement. Who are we right here on Pine Avenue? Why have a congregation at all? Today, we look at our always engaging bylaws, in which Article II is a statement of purpose, crafted and voted on by this congregation – by you all:


The purpose of this Fellowship shall be to provide a liberal religious community for children, youth and adults through worship, study, service and fellowship. We are devoted to individual freedom of belief, social justice and caring for each other, all humankind and the planet on which we live.


Notice that this brief statement, in true bylaws fashion, packs a lot in. It names things we are devoted to: “individual freedom of belief, social justice and caring for each other, all humankind and the planet on which we live.” It names a purpose: “to provide a liberal religious community for children, youth and adults.” And it names a fourfold method for achieving this purpose: “worship, study, service and fellowship.” Two sentences. Forty-eight words. Let’s start by looking at a few of the words that are sometimes sticking points for Unitarian Universalists.


Our purpose is “to provide a liberal religious community.” What a mouthful! Liberal, not dogmatic. Religious, not secular. Community, not everyone for themselves. Let’s start with the last part: community. How many of you were first attracted to Unitarian Universalism as a place to belong? A place to be part of a community? … That was my initial reason for visiting my first Unitarian Universalist congregation and then joining it. I had lots of ways I could participate with others in the world – through politics, through legal action, through cultural events, through community activities. And yet, what I had been missing for twenty years at that point was the sense of belonging, of community that I had known in church as a child and young adult. The sense that I was with my people even when we voted differently, even when we disagreed over the decisions of the Supreme Court, even when I didn’t have any interest in going to the bagel festival in my very goyish town, even when you went to Springsteen concerts and I went to the opera.


The more deeply I settled into Unitarian Universalism, the more I connected this kind of community with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s frequently used phrase “Beloved Community.” It was the language of aspiration, although achievable, rather than utopian.


Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.[1]


Is this the kind of community we identify with? A community not of sameness but of inclusion of difference?


And what about that word “liberal”? First of all, we have to approach it knowing that words have multiple meanings and multiple values, depending on context. The word “liberal” is followed in our bylaws by the word “religious,” so immediately we know that we are not talking about political liberalism. Right? It is essential that we know what we are talking about. It has nothing to do with your approach to politics, even though it may and should affect the issues you consider as you vote. Liberal religion is non-dogmatic, does not require an orthodoxy, is not bound in unyielding, fundamentalistic or literalistic approaches to understanding religion. And it is simply not true that religious liberals are by definition also political liberals. Our congregation and other Unitarian Universalist congregations may have a predominance of a particular party, but that tends more to be the product of class and profession than because of the inherent unity of political and religious liberalism. Our religion does not depend on political unity.


And finally our purpose is specifically religious. We are not a club. We don’t gather for the production values of our music, much though we enjoy and appreciate it. We are not a community of secular humanists, even though we find much common ground with them and some of you may feel great affinity for that perspective. We gather around shared commitments to value that we elevate and honor in our services, in our worship. We gather with ethical and moral concerns that have political implications but are, at their core, about a deep substrate of meaning and connection, not about particularities of policy position. Throughout much of America, there is an assumption that to be religious is about the relation of humanity and God – but a certain image of God. We would ask one to broaden interpretations and loosen attachments to words. For us religion is, indeed, about connection to something bigger than yourself. We are not islands of disconnection but part of a community in service of shared values. We as a congregation are religious, even as some of our members itch when it is worded this way.


And let us not lose sight of our stated purpose being not just community but multigenerational community. Children. Youth. Adults. Age is not the delimiter of community. Age is one reality around which our liberal religious community reaches for the embrace of ever greater inclusion. Whether you are nine years old or ninety-nine, the call of Beloved Community, of liberal religious community is that you come to know yourself as meaningfully connected to the other.


The next phase in our bylaws description of our purpose is the set of methods or approaches we take to the creation and maintenance of multigenerational liberal religious community. These are: worship, study, service and fellowship. At least one of those words makes some of our members itch. But all four are present. What do we mean by them? Let’s look at them in seemingly ascending order of complexity or controversy.


Fellowship. That pleasant association with people with whom you share interests, values, or commitments. Building relationships through being together. We don’t become a community to each other without being together, without getting to know each other. We sometimes joke that for Unitarian Universalists, our sacrament is coffee hour. It is often intended as at least a little bit irreverent. But in coffee hour, we have a weekly expression of coming together in twos and threes and fours, perhaps talking of inconsequential things until a platform is constructed on which to talk about meaningful things: our health and wellbeing and relationships; our desires for and commitment to doing things that make the world better; our take on the week’s topic and why it matters to us – or, perhaps, doesn’t.


We fellowship with each other when we share our joys and sorrows with each other – whether we do it in the service or in other times and places. We fellowship when we share a potluck meal together or participate in the many social events offered in the fall service auction. When some members vacation with other members or go out to eat together. There many ways in which we engage in fellowship with each other.


Fellowship is also the word we chose to name ourselves with. The Unitarian Universalist FELLOWSHIP of Waynesboro. It’s partly a matter of history, as we were founded in 1955 as part of the Fellowship Movement of the American Unitarian Association, a movement that created new congregations, not through sending a minister into a new area to plant a church, but through lay people with a vision for having religious community in a new place gathering in living rooms or store fronts and coalescing into something new in association with others who shared interests, goals, and commitments, deciding later whether what they were or were developing into was something that could use the presence of a minister. Fellowship isn’t just schmoozing over coffee. It is who we are.


Study. This is an interesting method, one that is fun for many of us. It starts from a position of recognizing that we don’t already know everything we need to know. It recognizes that, even if we did know everything we needed to know ten years ago, knowledge has grown and the world has changed. Learning how to better take our place in the family of things and how we can participate in making the world better tomorrow than it is today is an essential piece of our self-identity as a congregation. We gather for classes, we listen to and consider the teaching in sermons, we maintain a library and read, alone or together, we bounce ideas off of each other. We cannot be who we hope to be without ongoing study.


Service. In this word we recognize the same thing that the ancient rabbi Hillel taught: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” That is, our collective identity is tied up not solely with making friends and learning new knowledge and new methods of engaging with the world around us. Our identity is inextricably linked with doing what we can, individually and as part of a liberal religious community to change the reality around us for the better. Resist Nazis. Resist the degradation of our democratic republic. Resist poverty. Resist the degradation of our fellow humans. Affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every individual in an interdependent reality that is not simply “out there” but also “in here.” In here [gesture to include the room]. In here [gesture to indicate the self]. We stand not only for ourselves and our own well-being but for the best we can build for tomorrow.


And, finally, worship. Yes, this is an itch producer for some people who find their home in this congregation. In the broader society, the word “worship” often includes the idea of abasing the individual self in front of a God who demands it of us. It raises images of a theology that does not fit our understanding of the universe. But as it is used by religious liberals, it indicates a recognition that, despite our individual inherent worth and dignity, we are not alone in the universe. We are part of something larger than ourselves that calls us to our best selves in the service of humanity. In our worship, we recognize that our dignity does not depend on our resting atop the pyramid, over all, superior. In worship we recognize that, while our worth is inherent, it is expressed through our connection of what is greater. For some that is the idea of community itself. For others, it is the cosmos, or, as I accidentally typed it recently, “the cosMOST.” For some it is an individual or personal sense of the Divine. For yet others, it is God, in the myriad of ways they might understand the word, the idea, the presence so signified. In worship, we lift up what we understand of worthy of our admiration or aspiration. We do not agree in our personal theologies. But in worship, we express shared values that are greater than our individual selves and opinions.


“We are devoted to individual freedom of belief, social justice and caring for each other, all humankind and the planet on which we live.”


For this we come together. For this, this Fellowship exists. For this we learn what we must to play our role, individually and collectively, in looking out for each other and repairing the world.


Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] https://thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy/#sub4