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The Chalice and the Flame or There and Back Again

A sermon by Justin McCreary Preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson, in Jackson Mississippi on July 7th 2013.

I drove nervously to Louisville, not knowing what I would find, never knowing what I would see. This was my first step into the national Unitarian Universalist church I was to be birthed from the womb of the UUCJ and take part on the national stage. And it was daunting, people moving everywhere, old friend and comrades, coming together, renewing relationships from years past. I could not know what to expect, I could not know what to see, I could not know what I would feel or even if I would be able to “Play well with others.”

And with all the nervousness and fear that I felt walking into those first meetings I have to admit, it was a little boring. Registration started at noon on Wednesday and the line was very long, orientation was informative in the same way that the safety instructions on an airplane are. Very important but… well lets at least say very important. The Regional Welcome took an hour and a half to introduce people I’d never met in a room that sweltered in standing room only space, and I was worried about getting to the banner parade booth on time, to not only register my banner but buy one of the few banner carriers they had. Of course when working within a church that takes pride in it’s polity I was not surprised, nor was I disheartened, for all orientations are boring but important, it is important to thank the people who helped put on events, and lines, no matter the size will always seem long.

We had been warned during orientation that it would be important to “give ourselves permission” to take breaks and to miss things… so in the honor of missing things I cut out early, walked to my hotel, and reapplied deodorant, because after running around in long sleeves all day and slow roasting in room 110 for the regional welcome I could smell myself, which, caused more anxiety for me than it was worth.

But therein lied the nervousness, I was making my first impression within this group that I would wish not just to fellowship with, but to be a part of. Finding friends and making contacts so that years pass and I will look forward to seeing those whom I had not seen in years. I had to curb my introversion, and be the person, you all know me, after a year and a half of connection and friendship, to be, the person you sent, while having to ignore the one who was trying to hide in the corner, and take a nap.

We waited for what seemed like hours in the hallway, for the banner parade to start, banner poles resting on the ground, The banner from my home church hung limp, moving when I did, but mostly motionless in the stagnant air of the hallway. I took some pictures, joined in on a little chit chat, then we started to move and once we started, everything moved fast.

By the time I made it into Plenary Hall an easy hundred banners had already past and many still snaking through. Bluegrass music played from a live band on stage and I…

I was met by cheers.
Not just a few woots and claps, but by a grand assembly of 4 and a half thousand people clapping and cheering, taking pictures, our faces were broadcast on the grand screens in the hall. I couldn’t help but give into a wide smile that quickly broke into a broad grin as I carried the banner for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson into the hall. I did not have to try to be excited at that point, I did not have to try to stay positive, and I did not have to try to fit in. As I snaked through the hall I couldn’t help but feel the pride of being a Unitarian Universalist, and as I relinquished our banner, to be hung with the others, in the hall of banners, I could barely catch my breath.

In that first night many good things were said, many good songs were sung, and I was inspired but if you ask me what those things were and what songs they were I couldn’t tell you. The rest of the night was a blur, and I returned to my room that night exhausted, and proud to have carried our banner through that explosive hall.

I called my wife then went to bed tired, knowing we would start early the next day. I was excited, well… I was tired but after the night before I was looking forward to 7:30 worship. I love worship, I love church services, I think it is never why I can be spiritual not religious, I love the religious aspect too much, the words, the songs, the prayers, and the gathering. The pomp and circumstance is my lifeblood, my comfort, my hope. So this week regardless of anything else I would do I would see how other UU’s worship together. How, on a national scale, we can bring together those who believe in God as male and female, there and not there, true and false, Lord and Devil, Humanist, Pagan, Atheist, Christian, Buddhist, and the general “ah whatever,” under one grand banner, or better said, under one flaming chalice.

I indulged in every worship experience they had, and as I left the week and began driving home, words echoed in my head…

Sung
Come come whoever you are
Worshiper, wanderer, Lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, come again, come

We engaged the song on Friday morning. We had been talking about covenant, about what it means to call ourselves UU, what we promise when we wear the moniker. Because when we choose this identifying name we choose something else. I won’t say we choose all the things that the UUA chooses but we make a choice and a promise. We sit in the chairs and listen, we sit in the chairs and experience, we sit in the chairs as worshipers, wanderers, and lovers of leaving. But we can only sit apart for so long before connection starts to build between us.

The added a refrain to the song… it is in the original poem but it’s left out of the hymn…

Though we’ve broken our vows a thousand times come come again come…

That morning I thought a lot about vow breaking, I thought about the vows I broke that brought me to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson. I thought again of the heartbreak that brought me in the door. And emotion welled up in me, corked like a bottle corked so that the pressure stays, I felt the pressure moving against the cork, pushing, and I fought to keep the cork in place. I must not have been alone in the auditorium because we were asked to share with our neighbor our personal broken vows… I was sitting alone, no one around me… so I thought about leaving the auditorium early… no one would notice, then Jennifer from Buffalo sat next to me.

And in 5 minutes we shared, we shared our heartbreaks and broken vows. It was open and easy because I knew I would never see her again. Then after a final chorus of “We’ve broken our vows a thousand time, come come again come,” we left the auditorium, and I never saw Jennifer from Buffalo again, but I carried absolution, not from her, not from the church, but from myself.

But worship is many things isn’t it, sometimes it is the academic articulation of cultic behavior that signifies we are a community, sometimes it is the Wild Rumpus from Where the Wild things are, sometimes it is just the time we spend between coffee and lunch, and sometimes it is the heart that breaks and needs mended. Regardless of what it is there is something that connects us within it, a covenant, a community, a vow. A vow that we will break a thousand times and more, yet we still come together, make our vow again and work toward the promises only equality can keep.

I couldn’t help but notice the worshipers around me. Teenagers, young people, older people, people in the middle… It reminded me of the youth rallies I went to as an evangelical teenager, chapel service during college, and the worship we had during conferences. Hands raised in the air, eyes closed, hips swaying, some people in the isles dancing. There was a look of joy on all the faces. I stood listening to speakers and singing songs, we did a lot of standing, of course the chairs were so hard it was okay.

Worship was like a tide to be swept away in. I remember listening to the choir sing, and at one point it made complete sense that I should be standing and clapping… and thinking about the theological ramifications of being the first to stand I missed the opportunity that was tied to a specific feeling. I resolved that I would have to stop second guessing, I would have plenty of time to theologically deconstruct what was going on, but at the time I found it was more important to be a part of it, that if I were to go down to the river to pray I might as well jump in and let the waters wash over me in a new kind of baptism.

And what I realized as the choir sang, and as the singers sang, and we stood in the raging sea waving our hands and clapping, children of all ages dancing in the isles was that these people worshiped, sang, prayed, and danced differently than I had known them to in my evangelical history.

As evangelicals, we worshiped for salvation, because we were redeemed from being a part of this broken world. We sang to that same theme, of course we never sang and our hips seldom moved. But I remember the old hymn “This world is not my home I am just passing through,” but that is not what I sing now.

And it is not what we sung there or that we sing here, we sang and danced because this world is our home, and yes very broken, but we have the opportunity to fix it. Our singing was not a song of salvation from Hell, but the action of redeeming Hell. We sang, and we sing because we can make a difference, we can change the world, fix the breaks, and heal the wounded. We do not worship as sheep hiding behind a shepherd, but human beings with the opportunity allotted to us by God to make this world heaven in its own right.

I left after worship to write. I penned the thoughts going through my head, a poem that I later read during the Open Mic Poetry Slam and did the other thing I had found blessing in all week, I did the thing I was encouraged to do the first time I visited the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson, We are told that if we really wanted to know what Unitarian Universalist’s believe, we would have to ask every individual Unitarian Universalist, so I did.

The conversation is easy enough to start, there were only a few tables in public area and there were never enough tables to have your own, so, I asked, “May I share your space?” I was never turned down, and I would pull out a book, start to read, then wonder, what the people at my table believed. So I asked. And no I didn’t start out with that question, I asked “How long have you been a UU? Is this your first General Assembly?” they would ask similar questions and I would tell them about me. There would be lots of sharing, one wonderful thing I have learned about UU’s is that we are talkers. Over and over this played out, and I met UU’s from all over the country.

I heard the stories over and over again, and I never got tired of hearing them because they were all different. One evening a woman rolled up in her power chair and sat with us. Turns out, she came to the UU through her husband sometime in the 1950’s, he happened to be a GA Junky.

To define a GA junky, one who comes to every GA, and I mean EVERY GA.

When her husband died in the 1970’s she just kept coming because she always had.

I sat down with a young man, 20 years old from North Carolina considering seminary, he was doing a survey for college credit. He was a lifer, meaning, he has been UU since childhood. We talked theology, politics, and life.

One thing I noticed was that everyone wanted to talk, everyone wanted to share their story, and to hear mine. I warned them all, that I was by myself so when I get the chance to sit and talk with people I tend to yammer their ears off. Of course I never ran into anyone who’d mind. Everyone loved to share their stories, and their stories were as different as ours.

People came to the UU and GA for so many different reasons, though we were all connected. We were connected by the flame on stage, and flame in our hearts that shines on the words, we do not have to think alike to love alike. The chalice that was lit inside me when I carried our banner into the auditorium that first night, burned without ceasing throughout.

When I was a kid I always looked forward to loved ones coming home from trips, whether it was my Dad for work, or Grandma on a cruise or bus trip. I looked forward to their return because I knew when they came home they would bring me something. A gift because a trip that I didn’t get to go on was not right if I didn’t at least get a gift out of it.

So I brought something home for you, it is the same thing I took with me, the same gift I received from this church. The gift when I first sat in the back of the church, worn out and broken. I bring the flame, I carried it first from Jackson Mississippi, I deposited it in Louisville KY, then I brought home the flame, the flame that burned first in our chalice, then the flame that burned in theirs. I carried the flame.

For what I realized in Kentucky, is the thing I have always believed when I stop to think theologically about the chalice about the flame that burns atop it. I realized that the International Convention Center in KY was a chalice and we were the flames that danced upon it. I realized that this building, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson, is a chalice and we are the flames that dance upon it. I bring home a flame of renewal, a flame of hope, a flame of love. And I realized the flame did not originate in this building, or that building, the flame that I carried and that I still carry originated within me. So what if the chalice is bigger than this building or that, what if the chalice is Jackson, what if the chalice is Mississippi? And we are all flames that burn across it.

What if we leave here carrying this flame, our flame, and we don’t go out to spread our flame but to help this place know, to help these people know, that they carry a flame, that it can burn ever so brightly, regardless of how dim it sets now. What if we feed the flame in others, we remove their blindfold and open them to the idea of unity, that love and hope and acceptance are universal? What happens then? What happens when we beat the swords into plowshares and we come to know the beloved community?

I left my old faith because they believed that only happens in death, but I believe it happens in life. I saw people worship in ecstasy not from the idea that they are saved from this life that they can make this life better. We are the tools to build a better world, but it is easy to get tired when we fight here on the front lines against those who limit human rights, but I bring the flame of renewal, the flame of hope, to be rekindled so that even though we don’t think alike, we can still love alike.

Blessed be