16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
4000 UUs All In One Room
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 03/06/2011
Coming here to Sugarloaf every week, or more than once a week, it is easy to get a certain view of what Unitarian Universalism is.
UUs are friendly! you might decide, because you were greeted so warmly here by your old friends or by someone new.
UUs are thought-provoking and open minded! you might decide, after coming to a few of our worship services and seeing the range of ideas we discuss in this yurt each Sunday.
UUs are independent! you might decide, after seeing one of our lay-led services, or participating in our congregational-based decision-making processes.
UUs care about children! you might decide, after dropping your kids off at the house next door for religious education.
UUs like a pretty view! you might decide, after driving up here and seeing ours.
UUs are like a big family! you might decide, because there’s never more than a few dozen of us here at any given time, and we all know each other’s faces and names, if not our life stories, by now – even the new people.
That’s the thing about congregation-based religions, where our power is centralized in this congregation, and we hire our own minister and run our own budget and create our own specific UU culture. If you weren’t at all curious, you could live your whole religious life right inside this encircled room or right on top of this hill, and never know that there was anything more to Unitarian Universalism than what you find right here.
And although right here is great, right here is awesome, if this were all you were to know about Unitarian Universalism… that would actually be a tremendous shame.
Because we here at SCUU are but one shoot, one glorious little blossom, on the huge tree of our religion.
And if you want to see the huge, whole tree that is our religion, you could do no better than to attend our annual General Assembly, known as GA, held every year on the fourth week in June. Held this year in Charlotte, North Carolina.
At General Assembly, you get a brand new sense of how large our family really is. Like swallows to Capistrano, General Assembly is the convergence of thousands of us, thousands of you, upon one unsuspecting city somewhere in our land. At General Assembly, every year, we collect 4000 UUs all in one room.
You’ll know you’re close as soon as you come within a few blocks of the convention center, or as soon as you land in the airport, really. I’ve gotten so I can pick them out in the starting airport before I even get on that plane: people who look like UUs. Maybe it’s the NPR tote bag. Maybe it’s the flowing sea-colored batik-print shirt-jacket-garment. Sometimes it’s the sandals-and-socks look.
But mostly I recognize them by a certain personal quality. There is such a breadth of ways in which to practice Unitarian Universalism, and yet UUs often carry themselves in a definable way. They exhibit a quiet alertness, especially when they’re on route to represent their religion. They are bright and engaged. They are involved with those around them. They talk a lot, and when they do you can tell they’ve read a lot and thought a lot. In a random sampling of Americans, they might stand out as unusual. But while they’re busy standing apart from the crowd, they are ironically easy to spot because they belong with us.
So, why do Unitarian Universalists go to General Assembly?
It would be easy enough to say that they go for the programming. GA has tons of it. If there’s anything churchy that you’re interested in learning more about, you can do so at GA in spades. You could go to workshop after workshop just on how to do good worship – focusing on music, or lay led services, or multigenerational experiences, or any number of other things.
You could learn about congregational growth, how to get more members in the door, and make them feel welcome and included once they are here.
You could attend workshops about church governance, or be more specific and learn about small church governance – how many board members we should have, and how they should relate to the committees, and even if we should have committees at all or rather task forces, and what sort of offerings we should concentrate on, and how to get our volunteer base more energized. You could attend any number of workshops on how to move our small church into more of a medium-sized church.
If you were interested in becoming a minister, you could learn more about that process. And if you were interested in become a teaching congregation, which helps to train ministers, you could learn about that. If you wanted to know more about our denomination as a whole, or how the home office operates up in Boston, or get to know our association’s President a little better, then there is plenty of space to do that, too.
You could learn all about those things and much more – because, as I said, there is enough programming at GA for anyone’s needs and anyone’s interests, four full days of workshops of every stripe.
But I wouldn’t say that programming is the main reason to go to GA. Even though it is programming that I am most excited about this year. Workshops are cool – but the programming I love is the stuff we all do together, the worship and the lectures and the business meetings that we do all together in one place.
We start GA with a giant worship service that opens with a banner parade. You know our banner, hanging right here…how would you like to carry it along with several hundred of your fellow UU congregations from across the continent? It’s an incredibly impressive start to our time together each year.
We worship all together in a giant hall, all four thousand of us. Imagine your favorite hymn that we sing here on Sunday morning. Now, imagine it being sung by thousands, with a giant band to back it up and a 75-voice choir lending support. GA has signature worship services like the Service of the Living Tradition, which honors ministers past and present and future, and our Bridging Service which employs the best of multigenerational worship trends and honors our growing youth. Our largest worship service is on Sunday morning, of course, which we open to the public and where we take a collection of several thousand dollars to assist a local social service or justice-making facility. At each of these services, the best and brightest of our movement’s ministers preach and lead us. Worship at GA is truly spectacular.
We also have guest lecturers at GA. Through the years the Ware lecture has been delivered by notables such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Van Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and Mary Oliver. This year we’ll hear from Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s foremost authorities on religion.
Last year in Minneapolis, Senator Al Franken dropped by to tell us how great he thought we were. We heard the same inspiring words that you heard this morning, by Representative Keith Ellison, one of very few Muslims currently serving in Congress. This year we’ll be lucky enough to hear from Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the group hoping to put up a controversial Muslim community center nearish to ground zero.
And even though these collective programs are probably my favorite part of General Assembly, I still wouldn’t say they are the main reason to go to GA.
General Assembly is also a giant business meeting, by the way. If you’ve been to SCUU’s annual congregational meeting that we hold each year in May, you’ve seen the business of this church being done. Each member of SCUU has a vote in our congregational meetings here, and the sorts of things that might come up for a vote could be changes to our bylaws, or the introduction of new policies, or voting in your new Board members (and if you’re asked to be a Board member, please say yes, by the way!). We run our meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order, and we hope that our methods allow each person a voice and a chance to be heard.
Well, at General Assembly, we see the same process but on a broader scale. Imagine our congregational meeting, but with 4000 members. You, any one of you, with Board approval, could come to GA and represent Sugarloaf as a delegate. When you do that, you get to vote on matters concerning the denomination as a whole. Like our voting at home, these votes can also be on new policies or bylaw changes, or on new Board members or a new president. The votes at GA can also be on what social issue to study and how we might develop a common UU statement about that issue of concern. As you can imagine, developing a common UU statement on a justice issue is rather a large undertaking – but it’s done gracefully, every year, at General Assembly.
There are probably some of us brave enough to say that we love the business meetings the very most at GA, that we are invested in policy decisions at the denominational level to the extent that this is the real reason why we show up every year – to vote. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that the business stuff at GA is genuinely interesting and only a little bit geeky. But I would also say, no matter how devoted you are to Robert’s Rules of Order, and how proud you are to represent Sugarloaf, that the business of the Assembly is still not the main reason to go to GA.
Lastly but not least importantly I’ll point out that the Unitarian and Universalists merged in 1961 – which means that we are fifty years old this year and this year in Charlotte is our fiftieth General Assembly together as the Unitarian Universalist Association.
We seem so united these days, Unitarians and Universalists, that it’s sometimes hard to believe how very hard won that merger was 50 years ago, and how tenuous that starting connection really was between those two deep-rooted religions. The first General Assembly together in 1961 was surely fraught with concern over how we could ever get past our distinctive histories and be one religion together. And here we are fifty years later, very much that one religion that those who came before us dreamed we would be. It’s an accomplishment worth celebrating this year.
Even so, the 50 year celebrations would still not be the main reason why you’d want to go to GA this year, although you would be able to see the main reason within that celebration. You’d be able to see the main reason as we go about our business meetings, and when we come together to worship, and when we wander around trying to find our workshops. You’ll see it at the airports and in the long line at that one belabored coffee bar because they never remember to have more of them for us, even though it’s safe to say that coffee is the one thing that every UU does worship.
You’ll see the main reason when you spot your people at the airport on the way there, and wave at your new friends as you rather exhaustedly make your way back home. In fact, the main reason to go to GA is no different than the reason you show up here each week – or even more than once a week.
The main reason to go to GA is to be with your community. To be with the community you may have never realized you were a part of – but you are.
Coming here every week, you won’t see 4000 UUs from around the continent who share your values and your commitments. Coming just here every week, you might not realize that your community actually includes over 100,000 UUs from all over this land and in other nations as well, in over a thousand different congregations, all of whom are part of your religious family. If all you know is Sugarloaf, you might be content with being kind to your neighbors and hoping for justice in upper Montgomery County under the shadow of our Sugarloaf Mountain, without ever seeing the sort of impact that 4000 UUs congregating in a new city to support a shared justice concern can have.
It is General Assembly that can open your eyes to the size and force of your greater Unitarian Universalist community. At General Assembly, you can see all the options for this little church on the hillside and for you within it, because there are so many people out there who have gone this way before. At General Assembly, you can see all the ways that UUs are and all the ways we hope to be. And there could be no greater impact to this congregation than a group of people who have seen what possibilities are out there, and can come back and tell us which of those opportunities might be the one we here at SCUU want to go for.
Community. It’s why we’re Unitarian Universalists. It’s why you should go to General Assembly. Try it out and see.
If you’re interested in going to GA in Charlotte this year, the registration period has begun. Go to the uua.org website or see your edigest for more information. The UUA reserves hotel rooms for us at reduced rates, and you’ll want to sign up now for those if you’re interested. And, if you’d like to go to GA and represent Sugarloaf as a delegate, we’d love to have you do so. Please check with me or with a board member (who are listed on the back of your order of service) for more information.
Community. You love it here, and you’ll love it at GA. Come and see.