You Belong Here

Where is the home of your soul? To whom and what do you belong? It is worth pondering, as Carol Hepokoski suggests. Do you belong here? How do you know and what does it mean?

We are made for belonging. Belonging is about connection to and responsibility for one another.

As a congregation, we belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

We covenant, along with its other members, to affirm and promote its principles: the inherent worth and dignity of all persons, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, the right to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, exercise of democratic governance in our congregations and the world at large, world where all are free and treated fairly, and acknowledgement of interdependence –

our inseparability from the web of life in all its forms. Which is, in the broadest sense, an acknowledgment of belonging.

We are stronger and make more of a difference in the world because we belong to the UUA.

As you heard earlier, Lewis McGee proudly proclaimed Unitarian Universalism as a religion of social concern and intellectual and ethical integrity, a religion that emphasizes the dynamic conception of history and the scientific world-view, that stresses the dignity and worth of the person as a supreme value, and goodwill as the creative force in human relations. He says our religion can and ought to become a beacon from which this kind of faith shines.

We join in keeping that beacon shining by being in relationship with our sibling churches, societies and fellowships. There are about 1,000 UU congregations. The official tally of our combined membership and RE enrollment for 2016 is just under 200,000 people nationwide.

In a country of over 320 million that’s a very small number. But for such a tiny, tiny, religious movement we have made a disproportionate amount of noise and had a disproportionate impact, over the years.

I was at a UU ministers’ conference last week, where our leader for the closing worship was the Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III. He is an African American pastor serving a UCC church in Chicago. He has been at the forefront of efforts for empowering black youth, and for sentencing reform, environmental justice and economic equality. As a preacher and as a human being he is a powerhouse.

Rev. Moss began by thanking us – as representatives of Unitarian Universalism – for the UUA’s historical commitment to equal rights for black Americans, beginning with the fight against slavery in the 1800s. He thanked us for showing up and making sacrifices during the civil rights marches and protests of the 1950s and 60s. He thanked us for leading the fight for marriage equality.
He didn’t mention – but we should also know – that Unitarian Universalists were highly visible during the Vietnam War protests, and that our Beacon Press was the courageous publisher of the Pentagon Papers in 1968. Unitarians, historically, have been at the forefront of other movements – for prison reform, for humane treatment for people with mental illness, for women’s suffrage, and more.

All of us who consider ourselves to be Unitarian Universalists belong to that history, and to our Association’s voice in the collective justice work that continues today. Moss reminds us that all of the separate struggles for justice are part of the same struggle. … a struggle for respect and dignity for every human being.

UU minister Susan Manke Seale agrees – it’s all the same fight, she says. “It’s a religious fight, a fight about what’s important in the world: to love your brother and sister as yourself, to love your god, mystery, … the symbol of all that is good and holy in the world - … to love with all you heart and all your soul!”

If you agree, if those words touch you, if you identify with the struggles for justice that Unitarian Universalists have helped to fight – you belong here.

We are made for belonging. Belonging is about connection to and responsibility for one another.   How else, and why, do you belong?

I’ve been dipping into the book that David Junno has recommended for a discussion series this month – Alain de Bouton’s Religion for Atheists. In it de Bouton, an atheist, makes a case for religious community, beginning with the value of coming together in worship.

He says that religions “seem to know a great deal about our loneliness.”

Worship, he says, “strengthens bonds of affection…..creat(ing) a sense of community within a setting. It marks off a piece of the earth, puts walls up around it, and declares that within their parameters there will reign values…unlike those which hold sway in the world beyond, in the offices, gyms and living rooms of the city.”   And we who come together in worship are, he says, “are souls united by their shared commitment to certain values.”
We are souls united by a shared commitment to certain values and – often I hope, united in consolation, in beauty, in mutual feeling, in connection, mystery, and an invitation to be a little more vulnerable, a little more who we truly are at our core, a little less alone.

We sit in this beautiful hall. The place, music, words, silences and ritual all help us to enter into and trust the experience, and one another. Sometimes, we become one.
You can feel it, in the moments when that happens.
Those are moments that whisper to each of us, “I belong here.”
Have you looked at the February Pioneer? There is a lot there to make us feel good about belonging –

There is an article by our congregation President Laurie Loisel reflecting on the process by which we made the decision to become a sanctuary congregation. She describes some of the questions that many thoughtful people have been asking, including:

Do we feel comfortable disagreeing with one another?   When we disagree can we remain curious about each other’s points of views? Still listen respectfully and deeply without the goal being to change the other person’s mind? How do we hold space for discussions that are meant to get to know each other better even when the topics inspire passionate feelings?

Wow. How often do we find soul searching and honest self-reflection? Thank you – to everyone who is asking those questions. It’s a sign of this congregation’s health and vitality that we are able to ask them. I would add, if we do this pretty well sometimes – and, yes, we do it well sometimes – how can we do it even better?

The Pioneer also includes pictures of people working together – of some of the people who make bag lunches for the homeless, in collaboration with other churches in town. There are pictures of First Night Café volunteers.

An article about the progress our Finance Committee has made in divesting our assets from fossil fuel stocks. Opportunities for learning and witness from the Climate Action Group. Pictures and information about all kinds of activities in our growing religious education program. A profile of two of our newest members, Joel and Tomas.

And there is a report from the sanctuary team – whose expanded membership includes many of you – and which has been working feverishly to be ready to welcome a guest in case someone comes to us soon.

The February Pioneer leaves out a lot – a new spiritual writing and discussion group, and thoughts on how the coordinating council can become more active in helping to connect people with ideas to other people who might be able to help, especially in the area of social justice. Members of our youth group spent last weekend with other UU youth at a workshop on racial justice and cultural competence. When Annie Doran gets back from maternity leave she’s hoping to set up opportunities for action/reflection groups for people who are involved in service and social justice and want to explore and share their spiritual journeys more deeply.

I am a bit awed by all that is happening. “Too much,” some may say. It is a lot. It’s wonderful and daunting. You all continually inspire and humble me. I’m grateful for the sincerity and honesty of conversations, for the commitment of so many of you to new efforts, and for your ongoing commitment to the hundreds of mundane tasks that keep us going.

I’m guessing (I actually know) that many of you have not read the February Pioneer. That’s ok. If your email inbox perpetually contains hundreds of messages you may not even have seen it – or if you saw it you might have saved it to read later. Or not. Despite the fact that you belong, you may not have the bandwidth to keep track of all the things that are happening here.

As I said, the Pioneer is a snapshot. It doesn’t include any real mention, for example, of the fact that February is stewardship month. If you didn’t look carefully, you might not even have known that today is stewardship Sunday! I hope you’re not sorry you came. I hope you still feel you belong, or if you’re visiting, that you could belong.

We are made for belonging. Belonging is about connection to and responsibility for one another.       And today is a day to stop and think about how you belong, how deeply connected you may be to this Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. And a day to think about how you can support it.

For those of you who may be new or newer to a congregation like this one, you should know that the majority of our funding comes from all of us. People make a commitment – a pledge – at this time of year, for the amount of money they will contribute during next fiscal year. That next fiscal year begins in September.

It may seem soon, but we do this now in order to be able to plan, to make a budget, to decide what compensation we can offer next year and what level of programming we can afford. Almost three quarters of our budget goes for salaries and benefits.

Last year, many of us raised the level of our financial commitments to this Society by a substantial amount, and some even doubled the level of support given in the past. We need everyone who did that last year, and is still able, to maintain their level of support, and even to do a little more.

We need everyone’s support in order to send our fair share contribution to the Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations to which we belong, and which provides us resources and represents us in the public square.

We need everyone’s support to continue the progress we’ve made in revitalizing our religious education program, providing staff compensation that appropriately recognizes and rewards competence and performance, and experimenting with how a second minister can help support all that is already happening, as well as bring us new ideas.

If you got a visit from a stewardship volunteer last year, you will probably not be asked to meet this year. If you did not get a visit last year, this is your turn! The visits are an opportunity for wonderful, rich conversations about what it means to belong. An opportunity to get to know someone more deeply. And, I hope, to say yes when you are asked about your financial commitment.

As my litany of activities demonstrates – we are doing a lot! What we are doing is our way of bearing witness, working for justice, caring for one another and our neighbors, and making manifest our shared values.

In so doing we also provide for ourselves the experience of belonging.  We make possible that experience for those who haven’t found us yet. We make possible the opportunity to know consolation, and beauty, mutual feeling, connection, mystery. We make possible the chance to hear an invitation to be a little more vulnerable, a little more who we truly are at our heart’s core, a little less alone.

We belong to our work, and to our wider UU faith community. We belong to the mission and vision and history of this congregation. We belong to one another.