[This sermon was given at the UU Congregation of the Hudson Valley on October 16, 2016]
If you had told me a year ago that I would make bread for a communion service, I would have thought you were joking. I would have thought that was the most bizarre thing I had heard in a long time and assured you that there’s no way I would be caught dead going to a communion service, much less participating in one. And yet, I did.
I deliberately chose to attend Union Theological Seminary because of its incredible diversity. Its racial, chronological, geographic and religious diversity was a huge selling point for me. What I didn’t know was that there is a chapel service every Monday through Thursday and a communion service happens at the Thursday chapel, every week. The chapel services are an opportunity for various groups to create a service around a theme. It’s a way to experiment, do things that don’t happen anywhere else, and possibly fail in a safe place. But the communion services? I didn’t know how I would respond to them.
I haven’t participated in an actual “this is my body, broken for you” kind of communion service in many, many years. What would it actually be like? Would the language be inclusive of people who don’t necessarily believe in God? Is it okay if I believe in God today but not tomorrow? Will my belief or non-belief be okay in a communion service? Would I truly be welcomed as I am? I decided to acknowledge my fear and try it out and see. Chapel services aren’t mandatory but they are encouraged. I began attending them because I was curious; I keep attending them because they feed my soul in ways I can’t explain.
As someone who believes in living the values I espouse as a Unitarian Universalist, about contributing and making the world a better place for others, when the request was put out to students to bake bread for the communion service, I thought back to my life decades ago when an ex partner and I got on a bread baking kick. We tried our hand at multiple styles of bread and various techniques. I can’t remember why we started baking bread or why we stopped but the memory affirmed for me that I can bake bread, I do have that capability; it’s nothing to be afraid of. I decided that baking bread was a way I could contribute to a service that I was learning to appreciate from a new point of view.
A few days later during a Gospel Choir rehearsal, when we were talking about how to be with anger during worship services, I mentioned that one way to deal with anger is to knead and pound bread. Immediately after the rehearsal I was asked if I’d be willing to make bread for the following week’s communion service. In a moment of desire to contribute to my newfound community, I said yes, not having any idea what kind of bread I was going to bake. I did some research, found a recipe and was determined to figure out how to do this thing called taking yeast, water, flour, sugar and salt and creating a loaf of yummy bread.
I followed the recipe but realized that it wasn’t going to work because of the way part of the recipe was worded. After the bread rose, the recipe said to divide it in half to create two loaves. After I divided them, I realized that two smaller loaves would be too small for the purpose of the service. However, I came to this conclusion after already dividing one large loaf into two. I decided that the only way to rectify the situation at that point was to put both halves back together and see what happens.
What happened was a loaf that had a big ridge across the middle. It clearly was not picture perfect and truly, I was kind of embarrassed when I saw it. Here was my first loaf of bread in many, many years, made specifically for this community, and it had a seam across the middle. I was frustrated, I was annoyed but I also knew that at least it was bread and that’s what I promised to bring to the service.
The next day I brought the imperfect bread to the worship staff before the chapel service began and they all exclaimed about how beautiful it was and affirmed for me that it would be just fine the way it was. They turned out to be absolutely right. My imperfect, seamed bread was welcomed and praised just as it was. It nourished and blessed those in attendance, whatever their religious beliefs were. For me it felt like the ultimate reminder that something imperfect could bless, serve and contribute to imperfect people, which we all are.
Unitarian Universalism holds that, among other things, all people have inherent dignity and worth. Some UU leaders are taking that one step further and saying we are all loved. Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, former president of Starr King School for the Ministry, wrote a meditation that says “There is a love holding me / us. There is a love holding all that I / we love. There is a love holding all. I / We rest in that love.”
Saying we are all loved implies we are loved by some kind of entity, an entity not all of us are comfortable with or even believe exists. When I first heard someone say this, my initial reaction was kind of a flinch because when we hear this we think we are being told that an entity called God loves us. But what if we could believe that we are loved by other people in our lives? Most of us know on an intellectual level that we are loved, but do we know this as a down-in-the-gut, I know I’m loved kind of way?
As a seminarian, recently I’ve been told that UU ministers are thinking about and praying for me. Until a few years ago, UUism wouldn’t have even talked about prayer and now people are saying, “I’m praying for you.” We as a movement are coming back to our spiritual roots.
I am now in a place in my spiritual understanding that I can be open to some outside source of love, knowing that putting restrictions on where love comes from and who love comes from doesn’t serve to keep me safe, it keeps me from being open to others and to spirituality.
When I was told the theme for this church for October was awe, I thought of the communion bread and how it reminded me that we are all imperfect and yet have the ability to make the world a better place. Our imperfect selves are loved whether we are loved by other humans, the animals in our lives, or our understanding of God.
Whenever I get an opportunity to speak, I think about what religious holidays are happening during that time of year. Turns out, this is the beginning of the Jewish New Year. I like to think on it every year even though I’m not Jewish. The Days of Awe are between Rosh Hashannah, the beginning of the year and Yom Kippur. The Days of Awe is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Rosh Hashannah was October 3-4 and Yom Kippur was October 12.
I find it fascinating that I have been reconnecting with Yom Kippur for many years in different ways, usually by re-reading a version of the Al Chayt in Geneen Roth’s book, “Appetites” but until this year I was unaware of the Days of Awe, which are inbetween these two holidays. It’s funny how an opportunity to speak presents opportunities to learn.
As I was thinking about this sermon, and what exactly awe means to me, I noticed that a friend of mine posted the poem read earlier in the service on facebook and these lines in particular made me stop and pay attention:
And also weep at words said once as though
They might be rearranged but which
Once loose, refuse to return and we are helpless
Because we are imperfect and love so
Deeply we will never have enough days,
We need the gift of starting over, beginning
Again: just this constant good, this
The secular new year does not include a time of repentance, it is usually all about merrymaking. The Jewish new year, on the other hand, emphasizes repentance, forgiveness, and beginning again, a good practice for all of us to undertake regardless of our religious affiliation.
In my classes at Union, which is not affiliated in any way with Unitarian Universalism, I’m learning of our early days in the very beginnings of Christianity itself and in the 1800’s when we were practically forced to take on the mantle of Unitarianism (that is a fascinating piece of history I encourage you to look up). At the same time I’m paying attention to the current discussion our UU leaders are having and I’m noticing that we are always in the process of beginning again, of re-evaluating, of re-learning, making space for new ideas and blessing the old ones as well.
UUism doesn’t come with answers but it does come with the beautiful place of imperfection and being willing to start over, much like the Jewish faith, one of the places of our origins. We begin again, and again, and again always believing in the indefinable good that we all are. We have a song in our teal hymnal that says “We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.” This is one of the songs I keep in my heart when I am most struggling with how to keep pressing forward.
Awe holds a space of graciousness and hope. It holds that even when I don’t know what the next step is, or how the bread is going to turn out, I am loved – and you are loved. Awe reminds us that even in the midst of this insane political season we are all living through, the sun still rises, beauty is all around us (especially in the fall leaves), and our common humanity is affirmed. May we know we are loved in all our imperfection.