Sermon: Celebrating Our Sacred Spaces

2021 September 26
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Arts and Inspiration

[Spotlight: with Adam Podd, Dawn Elane Reed, and Liz Komar]


Structure makes art possible. Artists of all stripes know this. Whether writers or musicians or (I imagine) stained glass window makers, it is a common experience that structure and even limitations fuel creativity. If there’s too little structure, the wide ocean of possibilities can be paralyzing. Strange as it may seem, artists finding themselves in such an ocean will sometimes even make up rules for themselves in order to have something to work within and push against. If you want an extreme example of this, the author Earnest Vincent Wright decided to write a 50,000 word novel without using the most common letter in the English language, the letter “e.” It’s quite a challenge to write even a single sentence without the letter e. I’ll try that sentence again, without “e:” It’s most difficult to spin a string of words without using that taboo you-know-what.


For the theists among us, I like to imagine that this is kind of what God did when God created the world (and bear with me for a moment if this is not your thing – it’ll be over soon). God said, “Hey, just for fun, let’s build an entire universe without using most of reality. Let’s try to squeeze the kaleidoscopic thousand-dimensional, trillion-eyed, timeless, spaceless, divine into a time-bound, 3D physical world. Let’s try playing the symphony of the cosmos through a kazoo and see how it sounds.” That, I believe, is God’s project, and that, I believe, is the artist’s project as well.


And so a house of worship is a perfect garden for these mystical arts. Our mission provides a target for artistic expression. And our sanctuary provides the physical structure within which music and shape and color and light and stories can flourish. The healthy limitations of the space – the shape of the windows, the organ with its particular sound, the configuration of the pews and balconies, the high pulpit and the high ceiling, they all create a playground slash obstacle course where creativity is coaxed and the spirit can play.


The fruits of that creativity fill the worship life of this community. We roll into this space and we are immersed in beauty. The arts give us a little taste of the world of spirit, emotion, and ideas – all the intangible wonders that we come here longing for. They elevate the mundane and focus our hearts. We feel joy; we process pain; our cups are filled.


With your generosity, our sacred space here at First Unitarian will continue to serve as a home for the arts, for inspiration, and as a conduit for the holy for generations to come.


Social Justice

[Spotlight: Nancy Wolf, Natalie Thielen Helper, Vania Abrew Rodriguez, Sean Sellers, and Jan Thompson]


During this pandemic we have learned that many things, including worship services and classes can happen online. But there are some things that can only happen in a physical space. All the work for justice that we’ve just heard about happens in a building – in this particular building. The Buddhist monk protesting the Vietnam war was here. The Ramadan dinners happen here. Our safe space for Black Lives Matter protestors was here. The sanctuary for refugees and asylum-seekers is here. The weddings for all couples regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation happen here. And the greening of our buildings, by definition, has to be here. This is the physical body of First Unitarian, in which our values are, well, embodied. Our faith in inscribed in the walls.


In that sense this entire building is not a container so much as a bridge. It’s a bridge between spirit and matter; the world of ideas and the world of action. We have our ideals that we speak about in our sermons and readings; that we drink in through the music –  and then, when we’re at our best, we waste no time and allow no daylight between those ideals and trying them out in real life. It’s a kind of farm to table system. We cultivate our aspirations on our spiritual farm here, we tend the crops of idealism, and then we harvest them and serve them up to real people, right in the same place. Farm to table in one fell swoop. And that transformation happens right here in these buildings.


A house of worship is the only kind of institution that I know of that does this. At a university, the ideas are cultivated but they’re mostly enacted elsewhere. At a homeless shelter, the work of serving people’s needs is done, but the concept – the why – is generated elsewhere. But here at First U, we have this unique energetic confluence where our moral imagination can come to life. This is something special and powerful. With your generosity, our sacred spaces will continue to be a bridge to our justice work. They will continue to shelter those who need shelter, provide gathering for those working for change, and become models of earth reverence and sustainability for generations to come.


Community and Inclusion

[Spotlight: Tyrone Davis, Becky Huffman, and RE children]


It is said that we should “be the change we wish to see in the world.” It is how we live our values that, I believe, determines how effective we are at spreading those values. When we build a wheelchair lift, as we have, to bring people from outside into the Sanctuary for prayer and another one to bring people from the Chapel to the Undercroft for fellowship, that’s being the change. When we carve out a space for those wheelchairs, that’s being the change. When we provide a place here in the Chapel of All Faiths for people to bring pastoral concerns and have loving conversations after every service, that’s being the change. When we host fellowship hours, lunches, dinners, and joyful events to build community in this isolating world, that’s being the change.


And when we make space for our young people – classrooms and playrooms – when we make those spaces warm and safe and comfortable; and when the children feel like those spaces are a second home where they can be themselves, that is building a future. We’re living in a time when children are growing up without a sense of place. This is partly by necessity because of the pandemic and partly because of the allure and convenience of virtual space long predating the pandemic. What we provide here in our physical spaces is unique and truly irreplaceable. Children get comfort and groundedness and hopefully soon, hugs in this place. In this place they can be embraced just as they are.


For people of all ages, the embrace of First U can be an antidote to loneliness. It’s a special spot on earth that is not home and not work (and not Starbucks, the supposed third place). We know we need this because some of us don’t fit in neatly at home or at work. Maybe it’s because of our gender identity or beliefs or who we’re partnered with or just social awkwardness but we don’t fit in. To have a place where we can go and be protected from the rains and warmed from the social cold, that is a blessing. And for us to provide such a place, to hold such a community, is being the change.


When a canvasser approaches you in the coming weeks, please join your fellow congregants in responding as generously as your circumstances allow.  Every gift moves us toward a future where our spaces can serve our faith with continued stability, inclusiveness, safety, beauty, and grace. Every gift matters and every gift is appreciated.

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