A Larger Circle
by Rev. Dan Schatz
Unitarian Congregation of West Chester
March 4, 2018
The year was 1954. A couple of dozen members of the First Unitarian Church of Wilmington, Delaware met for dinner every month. All of them lived in the same Pennsylvania neighborhood, and over time they became closer and stronger in the circle of their little Unitarian community. Finally their minister told them, “You’re ready. There are enough of you here to form your own congregation.” They used to joke that the West Chester Fellowship began because they got kicked out of the Wilmington Church, but they’d been given a gift and they knew it. They had been given the opportunity to grow a larger circle.
The year was 1962. The Unitarian Fellowship of West Chester had been meeting in rented space each week for eight years. Every Sunday they would set up dividers for the religious education classes in the basement of the Arts Center, while the adults held services on the main floor. It was exhausting and it wasn’t working for them. They had outgrown the space. There was a house on Franklin Street which came up for sale, and the Unitarians had an inside line on a good price. Even then, houses on Franklin Street in West Chester didn’t come cheap, and it seemed too heavy a lift. But members looked over the house. Everybody liked it; they just didn’t think they could afford it.
They sat down in a circle in the empty living room, and the President of the congregation passed out cards. He said “Write down on this card what you would be willing to give so that we can have a permanent home.” They all wrote down numbers, and he collected them and added them up. He said “It’s not enough.” Then he passed out the cards again. “We need more. Write down what you would be willing to give.” The number that came back was much higher, but still not enough to buy that house. So he passed the cards out again, and again, and again until we had enough to buy the meetinghouse on Franklin Street.
Again, and again, the people of this congregation have gathered ‘round the circle and they have expanded the circle. That’s what we did when we bought this building, and that’s what we did last year when we made this old building new. We gathered ‘round the circle, and when it wasn’t enough we made the circle larger.
We make the circle larger when we welcome newcomers into our congregation. We make the circle larger when we reach into the community around us to support the needy, to raise our voices for justice, to give our hands for the earth, or just to create community, because that’s what Unitarian Universalists do. We gather ‘round the circle and we make it larger.
This is part of our spiritual journeys as much as anything else. Anyone can embark on a search for religious and spiritual truth, but we do it in community, because we know that our horizons widen when we gather with others. Anyone who has been part of an adult or children’s religious education class, or been through a transforming experience in this sanctuary, or even one session of Small Group Ministry understands the power of gathering in circles of community. You understand how important this congregation is.
Anyone who has seen the news in the last few years or even the last few days knows how important Unitarian Universalism is. In an era of divisiveness, we are bridge builders. In an era of resurgent racism and misogyny, we preach human worth and dignity. In an era of hatred, we embrace the ever present potential for human redemption. In an era of religious intolerance, we recognize the wisdom in all religions. In an era of anti-intellectualism, we teach reason and responsibility alongside spirit and heart. I have said it before, and it is worth repeating – I believe the world needs Unitarian Universalism to be strong and vital and well supported, now more than it ever has.
When we gather in the circle of this community, we bring all of this together. And when we support the congregation with our time, with our energy, and with our money, we make the circle larger.
This is important: Stewardship is not just about paying for what we get here. I know thinking about it that way is persuasive, because we feel like we get so much out of this congregation. We get community that welcomes us no matter what we think about God, if we think about God, or what happens when we die, and encourages us to keep sharing and seeking wisdom. We get a religious education program for children that is equal parts love, freedom, and gentle guidance, and that helps our children grow into maturity with minds and hearts open, unencumbered by creeds and dogma. We get a community that makes a difference, and a voice for our values. We get care when we are suffering and in pain, and company when we’re celebrating. And I know that if pledging were about paying for what we get out of this congregation, we’d do just fine. But it isn’t just about that.
I know, too, that if Stewardship were about meeting the need of the congregation, we’d do just fine. And it’s true, the need is significant. We have a beautiful new space for our services and classes and community events, and that space comes with a pretty significant mortgage. We sat here in this room one year ago and chose that. Now we need to step up to it. We need to step up to maintaining this building in ways that we’ve never had to do before. We need to continue to pay our staff fairly, and if we can, to expand the hours of some of our staff, so they can meet the needs of a congregation which is growing both in attendance and in complexity. It all takes money. I know that in itself would be enough to motivate us to pledge generously, and increase our pledges. I hope that those of us who have a little more will increase more, because some people can’t afford to increase their pledges, or their life circumstances have changed and they may have to decrease them. I hope that we will each give what we reasonably can, and that those who are in real financial need and cannot pledge will come talk to me, because we have a minister’s discretionary fund in this congregation, and we want to be able to help.
But Stewardship is about more than paying for what we get, and more than meeting the financial need. When we raise money together to support our Unitarian Universalist community, we gather ‘round the circle, just as those who came before us did when they founded this congregation, when they bought our first building, when they called our first minister, and just as we did when we renovated last year. Each time, we already had a circle of community and support, and each time, we made the circle larger. Each time, we gave more to make our dreams real.
When we give to our congregation, we’re not just giving for ourselves. We’re giving for each other. We’re giving for those who are not yet here. We’re giving for the one who needs a spiritual community, but has no idea that something like Unitarian Universalism exists. We’re giving for the one who is suffering and whose life will be saved because they learn about Unitarian Universalism and walk through these doors. We’re giving for children not yet born. We’re giving for generations not yet imagined.
Speaking to a group of Unitarian Universalist ministers this winter, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III said this: “Others made a way for us. Now we have a duty to make a way for others.”
When we give to our congregation, we make a way for others. We come together in a circle, like we did so many years ago in that living room in Franklin Street, and we give until we have made the circle larger. Together we make a circle large enough to include the child who is just beginning to explore their own religious truth. Together we make a circle large enough for the one who feels outcast by society, because they don’t have the right race, or background, or social class, or theology, or gender identity, or ethnic origin, or sexual orientation. We make the circle large enough to include the community outside our congregation who need our voice to be strong. We make the circle large enough to welcome every single one of our neighbors who would find in this place a spiritual home. Every. Single. One.
The year is 2018. The people of our congregation have gathered together. Others brought us to this point, and now it is up to us to gather round and make a larger circle. It is up to us to carry on the legacy of those 22 members who signed the first charter for this congregation, and the ones who made the circle large enough to pay for a building, and a minister, and a new building. It is up to us to carry through what we started last year, when we made our renovation and took on our mortgage. It is up to us to make a way for those who are yet to come.
The Stewardship drive is this month. I hope you will give generously. I hope you will increase your pledge if you are able, and if you’re new and ready to pledge, I hope you’ll let us know.
More than that, I hope that all of our being together, whether it’s a stewardship drive and wonderful all ages party like we’re having next Saturday, or a service, or a class, or a demonstration, or a workshop, or a meeting, or a call from the pastoral care team, or a small group, or any time we are with one another, I hope that our being together makes a larger circle.
Ours is a circle of spirit. Now is the time to gather ‘round.
We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance
And the larger circle of all creatures
Passing in and out of life
Who move also in a dance
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments.
– Wendell Berry