Sermon: Giving Sanctuary

2018 February 4
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Religions and religious communities are, among other things, sanctuaries for stories. From ancient stories to stories of current day peoples to individual stories of people in this room, our community creates a sanctuary for stories to be told, heard, and held. This is a stark contrast to the mainstream world in which stories are getting lost. The 24-hour news cycle and the advent of online advertising creates a pressure-cooker in which stories have to be fast and cheap, shiny and shallow. And, of course, short. Often as short as a tweet. History is getting forgotten and therefore repeated. To a world in which human stories are increasingly disposable, we at First Unitarian answer, human stories are sacred.


Some of the most powerful stories have been the ones told this year by our own congregants in their own words about their own experiences here at First Unitarian. As we contemplate today how we can each financially support the continued growth of this community, I invite you to reflect with me on some of these stories and what they tell us of all the ways that we give sanctuary.


We give sanctuary from the alienation and loneliness of modern life. Loneliness is the great epidemic of our time – people’s isolation from one another in this country is causing failing health, spiritual breakdown, and even at times a grief so deep it leads to violence. At First Unitarian, we offer a community where people can be held and connected, remembered and heard. Liz Komar, in her words to the congregation, said, “I arrived here isolated and so tired, but between choir, the Young Adult Ministry, and Queer Caucus, within a month I was struggling with the wonderful problem of potluck over-commitment. I feel like I’ve found something wild and precious here – true friends and community. A home.” To a world that isolates and sets us in competition with one another, we at First Unitarian say, we are all part of an interdependent web and you are not alone.


We give sanctuary for people who need space to be themselves. Takako Kono, in her words to the congregation, said about an earlier time in her life, “My progressive political identity emerged at the same time that my religious identity retreated, so I took them to be mutually exclusive. … And yet, I felt a deep and persistent yearning for spiritual community. … From the first time I sat in these pews, I knew I found something quite special here. And, to my surprise, I also found a socially active congregation, where in song, scripture, and sermon, we bravely confront salient political issues from a place that is honest and hopeful, realistic and still really optimistic. Here, I found a new kind of spiritual home, one that does not require tradeoffs because it makes room for all people; one that, time and again, stands on the side of love, justice, and compassion.” To a world that says you have to choose between religion and being who you are, we at First Unitarian answer, it is our very faith that calls us to be who we are.


We give sanctuary for people working hard to transform our world, who need respite and healing. Anger and moral indignation can fuel our work in short-term bursts, but it’s not sustaining in the long run. We all need a place where we can be spiritually and emotionally recharged to do our best work in the world without burning out. Dale Ho, who works with the ACLU, shared these words with us: “In these dark times, I’ve been fortunate to find a tremendous sense of purpose in my work as a civil rights lawyer. …Part of why I come here is to find peace in a community founded on the Unitarian principle of the ‘inherent worth and dignity of every person.” … Coming here each week …helps me carry on. I don’t come here to forget the ugliness and pain that’s out there; but to process and mourn. And to REMEMBER that love and community are the spiritual foods that sustain us in the long road ahead.”


And along these same lines, Liz Komar, who I just have to quote again here, says, “I receive the spiritual sustenance and inspiration I need for my work on criminal justice reform. Here, I find hope. And from hope, springs resilience.” To a world with unlimited demands on our time and energy, we at First Unitarian answer with unlimited refills of the renewable resource of love.


We give sanctuary for all these ideals and to all the people like Liz, Takako, and Dale who come here looking for solace and community and empowerment.


We are also growing our sanctuary for people who come to us from outside our walls. We are becoming an actual “sanctuary congregation” for immigrants and refugees. When someone is at risk of being deported and they need a safe place to stay for a day or two while they collect themselves and figure out next steps, we have committed to be that place. Members are volunteering right now to accompany these guests during their stay with us and we’re having our first training for them today.


We are growing our sanctuary by hosting three other progressive congregations: Original Blessing is a fledgling UU congregation that is experimenting with alternative and more participatory worship. Romemu is an egalitarian, progressive Jewish congregation that’s expanding from Manhattan into Brooklyn. And Sadhana is a progressive Hindu congregation that rejects ideas of caste and teaches a Hindu ecological consciousness. I feel proud that we are able to give these budding communities a home in our sanctuary.


We are growing our sanctuary through the Phoenix rising program, partnering with formerly homeless veterans to reimagine their lives and ours. We are giving away over $15K a year to social service organizations. We are giving our spaces pro bono to social justice organizations.


And perhaps most important of all, we are extending the ethic of sanctuary out into the world. We are spreading ideals of inclusiveness, we are spreading commitment to solidarity with the vulnerable, we are becoming walking Wi-Fi hotspots of sanctuary wherever we go. Allegra Alcoff, one of our young adults who grew up at First Unitarian is now serving in the Peace Corps in Zambia. Here’s what she wrote to us: “Here I am in a little mud hut in Zambia. … I’ll tell you why I am here… I’m here because the undercroft gave me the space to cultivate my own identity. Because the 3rd floor classrooms gave me the words I needed to be able to empower young girls here in Zambia about their sexuality. And because the chapel gave me the support and sense of unity that can be so hard to find.”


People who get fed with the spirituality of sanctuary do not just keep it to ourselves. We go out across the country and to other countries and help transform our world. To a world of divisiveness, we answer with the quote we heard last week from Francis Dávid, “we need not think alike to love alike.” To a world of cynicism, we answer with awe and wonder at the universe. To a world of despair, we answer with focused hope in the human capacity to transform.


Our sanctuary is what the world needs right now. And so the world needs us to be strong. This is where all of you come in on this stewardship Sunday. Because all of this vital work of transformation, all of this refuge and spiritual nourishment, all the inspiration of our worship services, all the empowerment of our religious education; it ain’t free. We are growing and we are rising to meet greater and greater needs from this community and from this aching world. We are doing more and more each year. And while this takes lots of committed work from dozens of volunteers, it also takes money. It takes money to maintain our physical sanctuary, old and beautiful as it is, and to pay for boring things like taxes and utilities. It takes money to pay our excellent staff here and to keep our staff with fair compensation and even to grow our staff to meet the demands of our growing community. And frankly, it’s going to take more money than it took in the past. There’s the old saying, “What got us here won’t get us there.”


Here’s what will get us there. I have a metaphor to explain it: When I was an undergrad, I was a music major and one little trick that I learned in composition class always stuck with me: when you’ve written a piece in which each of your instruments or singers are playing or singing at top of their range, whatever that range might be, it creates a powerful effect. It creates much greater intensity than a different group of instruments or singers playing or singing the exact same notes but where those notes are in the middle of their range. That feeling of everyone reaching together is audible in the music. We heard this a bit today in our music – the men on “Instruments of Peace” and Candice singing “Vocalise.” It’s powerful.


I think there’s something similar when we look at financial giving. Something powerful happens when we are all reaching together. When we are each giving at the top of our range, whatever that range is, it feels different. Even if we could make the same dollar amount if Bill Gates swooped in here and wrote us a big fat check, there is a special magic that happens when every one of us says, “What’s happening here at First Unitarian is vital to this world and I am going to stretch to make this place strong.”

When you do that, you personally are giving sanctuary. All the good that we do here, all the different ways we give sanctuary, you get to claim credit for it. Because when you are giving at the top of your range, even if you don’t have time to, say, do an overnight shift with an immigrant family, you are making it possible for the magic brew to happen here. And you are helping to provide healing in a world that needs it so badly. As you think about your pledge for next year, give some thought to this and to the importance of First Unitarian in your life. And think about what you’ve heard through our sacred stories here about how First Unitarian is changing lives and changing the world.


After the service, volunteers are going to be available in the Undercroft, wearing hats [like this] to help you make your pledge for next year. It will be just like the Apple store – you don’t have to go to any desk or counter – they’ll be able to take care of you right where you are. So I invite you to reach this year – reach toward the top of your range. And if we all do that, we can all give sanctuary and listen for the sound of the amazing symphony we’ll make together.



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