The hoopoe bird knew just where to find such a bird. The hoopoe is a colorful African bird that has a crown of feathers. She said, "It is the Simorgh, which lives far from here." The birds took a vote (Don’t forget to vote!) and unanimously decided to seek the Simorgh. They flew off following the hoopoe. They flew for many days and many nights. Some got tired and left. Others became skeptical. Some were afraid. As they continued their journey, the strong flyers helped the weaker ones. Those with good vision helped find food for all. They learned how to respect each other and share. Each bird had something special and unique to offer on this extraordinary journey of theirs.
At last, the hoopoe announced, "We are here!" The birds searched around them eagerly for the Simorgh. They couldn’t see it. The hoopoe called them over. The other birds looked around in anticipation, expecting to see the Simorgh. "Where is the Simorgh? We don't see it!' they cried. "Come,” said the hoopoe. “It is over here." As the birds gathered beside the hoopoe, they realized they were on the edge of a lake. They looked into the lake. There they saw their own reflections. Then, they understood. The Simorgh was not another bird at all. The Simorgh was all of them. All of them were the Simorgh. They remembered that each of them had gifts to bring to the community. They knew that they needed each other to make and keep their bird community strong. (“The Journey of the Birds,” Inspired by the ancient epic poem, "The Conference of the Birds," by the Persian Sufi Muslim writer Fariduddin Attar)
And so it is that this community is made strong. We each have something beautiful and special to bring to our shared spiritual journey. As you could see from our membership celebration this morning, there are a lot of collective years of bringing those gifts to this congregation.
The gifts of caring, singing, justice-seeking, teaching, visioning, listening, and sharing have helped to build this spiritual home and to rebuild and renew it over many years—more than 50 years for some individuals and more than 2200 years collectively. And of course there were many other individuals who came before us who contributed to this community. And others who never officially joined as members but were long-time supporters and friends. They have all helped to grow the heart of this congregation and to make it beat steadily.
Starhawk reminds us that we long for circles of community like this one. We long to find places where we can speak out, be held, be inspired, celebrate, heal, and make friends. She says we have a longing to come home to places where . . .
there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us wherever we come into our own power. . . . Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. [Somewhere] a circle of healing. A circle of friends.
To find such a circle of kinship is a powerful and holy experience. To gaze into the lake and see our reflection reminds us of just how important our members are. It reminds us that what we do together matters and that we are indeed blessed to be with one another.
Right now at this time in the world it is indeed good for us to be reminded of our collective strength as a congregation. This gathered community is worth celebrating. It is not something to be taken for granted. The reality is that religious affiliation is on the decline. Fewer and fewer adults in the United States are regularly attending religious services. The percentage of Americans who say they seldom or never attend religious services has increased from 27 percent in 2007 to 30 percent in 2014. (www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/chapter-2-religious-practices-and-experiences/)
A recent Pew Research Center survey explored the reasons people regularly go to services and also what keeps them away. Those who don’t regularly attend religious services cite a variety of reasons. They do not on the whole reject spirituality. Instead, many say they practice their faith in other ways. Others say they haven’t found a spiritual community they like, they don’t like the sermons, they don’t have the time, or their health keeps them away. Some say they don’t feel welcome. The individuals most likely to cite not feeling welcome are people of color. (www.pewforum.org/2018/08/01/why-americans-go-to-religious-services/)
The reality is that religion does not always live up to its full potential. Religion has sometimes been part of the problem in our culture. That includes the failure to be truly welcoming and inclusive. That includes the failure to be a place of belonging for all those who long for a circle of kinship. But religious extremism may be the greatest failure of religion in our time. Extremism has fostered hatred, violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Religious extremism does exactly the opposite of what religion is intended to do. At its finest religion brings people together creating connections and alleviating suffering. Religion exists to help make sense of our lives and solve the problems that plague society and individuals—problems of division, alienation, and brokenness.
Rev. Dr. William Barber II describes Americans and the United States as having a heart problem. Barber is a Protestant minister and has revived the Poor People’s Campaign that Martin Luther King Jr began. Barber collaborates with interfaith leaders to craft a moral agenda that will, as he says, “redeem the heart and soul of our country.” Barber says religion needs to serve as a defibrillator to shock our hearts back into a steady beat. He says:
We must shock this nation with the power of love. We must shock this nation with the power of mercy. We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all. We can’t give up on the heart of our democracy. Not now, not ever! (www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2016/07/reviving-the-heart-of-our-democracy.html)
Religious communities have the potential to be circles of care and agents of justice. They were never meant to be instruments of hatred and vehicles of neglect. They are meant to be sanctuaries where people can bring their heartache and where people can offer their gifts in service to creating a stronger network of care and justice. They are harbors of inspiration, hope, laughter, gratitude, and beauty. At its core, religion has to do with casting a moral and ethical vision. Religion at its core is about being attentive to the soul aspect of life, the spirit of life. According to Barber,
the moral public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color, and the sick. Our deepest moral traditions point to equal protection under the law, the desire for peace within and among nations, the dignity of all people, and the responsibility to care for our common home.
These are not, by the way, right versus left issues. They are not about Republicans versus Democrats, although given the polarization in this country seeing it otherwise is certainly a challenge we all face. These are human issues. Moral issues. Heart issues. Religious issues. And it is religion by virtue of its focus that can provide the soul and vision that is most needed.
Rabbi Sharon Brous expresses the need to reclaim religion. She says that religion is needed as “a strong force against extremism.” It can serve as a catalyst for “a spiritual and cultural shift toward love, justice, equality and dignity.” (https://www.ted.com/talks/sharon_brous_it_s_time_to_reclaim_and_reinvent_religion?language=en)
And so it is we need churches and other religious institutions such as ours that are catalysts for such a spiritual and cultural shift. Communities of a liberal religious spirit. We need synagogues and mosques and sanghas and churches like ours to be catalysts for a spiritual shift. And we need to continue to strive to be a truly welcoming spiritual home where people can gather in one strong body. Where individuals can reflect on what it means to be human, what is required of us, and then to carry that message and agenda into the public square and into daily life.
We need each other to create the beloved community, guided by compassion and connection. We need to hold each other accountable. We know this. And so we gather in one strong body in the mystery and the power. We gather as the heart of our church.
I hope this morning that you will take time to remember why you are here and what brought you here. Why do you come back, some of you for more than 50 years? Why do you return again and again to this sanctuary? Why do you come home to this faith? When you move to the edge of the lake and peer into the water, what do you see?
As a young adult I wandered in a kind of spiritual wilderness. I practiced my faith privately, but I longed for religious community. I just couldn’t find one where I felt at home. I couldn’t find one that matched my need for intellectual rigor, spiritual practice, engaged worship, passionate and caring individuals who commit themselves to making the planet a better place for everyone. I couldn’t find a community that didn’t insist on telling me that I had to believe or think or pray a certain way. Then I found Unitarian Universalism. A whole new world opened up to me. When I peer into the lake, I see the faces of this community. I see your faces. I see the heart of love.
Members are our heart. And that gives me hope. That calls me on. May it call you on. May we be called on together—in hope, faith, and love.
May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.