Belonging in Spirit and Soul

In liberal religious traditions two kinds of spiritual integrity are practiced; one looking inward and  the other outward.  Each practice comes with its own demands and challenges, but they come together in places as well.  One of these intersections occurs in the space of belonging.  This Sunday we will explore the mystery of Belonging in Spirit and Soul.  All are welcome!

Belonging in Spirit and Soul

A Sermon Offered at All Souls Church; Unitarian Universalist

October 13, 2019

Rev. Shayna Appel

Welcome & Announcements

Chalice Lighting  By Elena Westbrook [adapted]

In a world ravaged by violence, by hatred,

by conflicts that seem eternal and insoluble,

sometimes the only thing we can do

is be still for a moment

to remind ourselves what is real:

the sun that rose this morning,

the dirt under our feet,

the air whispering in and out of our lungs.

We light our chalice in gratitude for this hour,

we try just to be present in each moment as it unfolds,

Recognizing that our simple attention is what makes these moments holy.

Hymn: #360 Here We Have Gathered

Opening Words: by Ted Loder

Gentle me,

Holy One,

into an unclenched moment,

   a deep breath,

      a letting go

         of heavy experiences,

              of shriveling anxieties,

                   of dead certainties,

that, softened by the silence,

    surrounded by the light,

        and open to the mystery,

I may be found by wholeness,

   upheld by the unfathomable,

       entranced by the simple,

          and filled with the joy

              that is you.  


Time for All Ages  

Reading #1: Mending the Broken World by Rev. Kathleen McTigue [pg 50-51, Shine and Shadow]

In early September I stop to watch my neighbor at work repairing a stone wall that lines the road perpendicular to ours. Built as all the old field walls of our region have been built, the stones are held by balance and judicious choice rather than by mortar.  The wall was built well, but the weight of many decades has broken it here and there, with some stones fallen out of place or carried away for some other use.

As I warm myself in the autumn sun and watch him work, I see that about half of what he does is simply look at the stones in their haphazard piles, stroking his chin in thought.  Then from time to time he rolls one from the pile onto the ground and turns it from side to side, pondering, or walks back to study again the place in the wall he’s trying to mend.  When he finally makes his choice, he’s sure.  Each stone waits for the right opening, the place where its particular heft and shape fit as though cradled.  Once in place, it is no longer merely a stone, but an essential piece of the wall, part of a larger thing taking shape as naturally as a tree flows from root to trunk to branch.

My neighbor is an ordinary working man,  I know his name, and sometimes we talk together about life and horses and his willingness to help me haul manure to my garden one of these days before the first hard frost.  But on this sunny September afternoon as I watch his eyes and hands become familiar with each stone and then lift it to shape the wall, it’s easy to imagine God at work in the immense universe, quietly humming, pulling our lives together into something strong and useful.

I don’t mean we’re mute or helpless, waiting passively for the great Stonemason to lift and move our lives or tell us where we belong.  I mean only that there is a place for us, that our gifts — the shape of our minds and talents, the angles of our interest and concern — fit the needs of the world the way my neighbor’s stones anchor themselves in the lengthening all.  I mean that the worlds possibilities shift and change each time we put ourselves into building something large and strong and beautiful.  Whether or not we find room in our theologies for the word God, the world itself calls us to imagine ourselves essential to this engaged holiness, bringing forth what is ours to give of creation and strength, toward mending the broken world. [Skinner House Books.]

Reading #2: John 3:8, 11-12

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit…Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you abut earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” 

Sermon: Belonging in Spirit and Soul

In the Jewish and Christian traditions there is a list of scriptures proscribed to be read during certain services throughout the year.  That list is called the ‘lectionary.’  In Jewish tradition, the lectionary contains readings from the Torah, (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) and the Prophets.  There is also a list from the Mishnah portion of the Talmud that contains readings for special occasions, but the cycle for Jewish people is annual.  In other words, they will read through their lectionary in its entirety each year. The Christian cycle is three years, generally referred to as years ‘A’, ‘B’ & ‘C.’  By the end of the three years, sticking to the lectionary and reading every day, an individual would get through the entirety of the Bible…Hebrew and Christian scriptures!

Lectionaries are great for lots of reasons.  They parallel religious seasons throughout the year such as Passover, Pentecost, and the feast of the Tabernacles for Jews;  Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter for Christians.  The lectionary also assures that various congregations within each fold are tackling the same material, more or less, week in and week out.  I personally just think it’s a nice way to run a waft through all of those separate houses of worship.

But another bonus to the lectionary is that it ensures resources for worship and preaching can be made available across a wide array of platforms.  Opening Words, Prayers, Sermon Starters that are pertinent to the readings, and by extension the seasons, are all available and easily accessible on websites like…or my personal favorite,!

A number of years ago, a bunch of UU’s got together and put forth the idea of creating a UU Lectionary of sorts, and from this humble beginning the Soul Matters Curriculum was born.  True to our UU faith and history, the Soul Matters Curriculum is thematically based and changes from year-to-year.  So, for example, some of our themes for this year are things like Attention, Awe, Integrity, Resilience, etc. 

This past year, some UU Ministers got together with the creators of the Soul Matters Curriculum seeking to add to the themes something a bit more faith based, something recognizably religious.  Because I could offer you all a nice talk on the subject of Integrity, but what makes that talk worshipful?  If worship reflects a reverent love, an ardent devotion, or an expression of love, then for something to be ‘worth our ship,’ it must be more than simply something we listen to or something we do, but rather something we are becomming.

So, this year we have paired more traditional words of faith with those thematic ideas and voi la…we arrive into the month of October and the theme of ‘Belonging.’ And for reasons I do not know and did not understand prior to wrestling with material for todays sermon, the more traditional, religious word that got paired with ‘Belonging’ is ‘Mysticism.’  Mysticism and Belonging…Belonging and Mysticism.  For me, the exploration at the intersection of those two words moved the theme from a talk to something far more worth my ship!

Because, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is a part of belonging that is a bit mysterious…not immediately evident…worth thinking about, diving into, and honing an appreciation for.  There is a part of belonging that beckons our becoming. And when we locate that mystery, we become able to belong not just in body, but in spirit and in soul.

Let’s begin our ‘journey to the mystery’ by digging into the concepts of soul and spirit for a moment.  In an article for Quest Monthly, (a publication of our UU Church of the Larger Fellowship), from back in June of 2017, the Rev. Victoria Safford penned a piece she titled, “The Soul of the Whole.”  In it, she offered a definition of both soul and spirit.

Soul, Safford proposes, “is the part of you that is most uniquely you, deeper than mind, more durable even than your will — and holy, if you like that word, or sacred.  It is the essence of identity, radiant with dignity and worth.  Even when [we] feel unworthy and undignified, it’s there, and has been since the moment of [our births]…”.

Like the wind that blows where it chooses in our reading from the gospel of John this morning, “No one knows whence or when it comes into the world, nor when or whither it leaves.”  But, Safford suggests, and I will most definitely agree based on my own experience, that those of us who have been present at the birth or death of a person get a glimpse of the difference between “presence” and “no presence.”  Without words or so much as anything our five senses could latch onto, this “presence” and “no presence” is palpable and ineffable…and it is what some people call the soul.

Spirit, on the other hand, is, “grounded not only in mysticism but in biology and physics — grounded in the ground, in the natural, physical world.”  As a construct, spirit is not so much opposed to soul as it is a parallel idea, equally compelling, equally demanding, and just as beautiful.  It could be said that the notion of spirit is captured beautifully in our 7th UU Principle.  The one in which, “We covenant to affirm and promote…respect of the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” Stafford defines spirit as, “the awareness that whatever we are as human, living beings is deeply interfused, interwoven, interconnected and interdependent with everything else.”

That we are deeply connected to everything around us is a matter of scientific fact.  At a molecular level, at a vapor-of-our-breath level, at a corpuscular level.  We are connected each to each and each to all.  

O.K., now, what does any of this have to do with belonging, much less the mystery of belonging?   Stafford captures it beautifully and succinctly when she writes; “whatever it is that is holy in me, separate and unique, touches somehow what is holy in you.  Namaste. It is not separate; it is the selfsame holiness, the spirit of life that blows in the wind and flows in the water and in sap, in glacial ice, and among and within the animals, fishes, birds, the grasses and the trees…” 

The mystery of belonging is found in it’s two natures.  It is at one and the same time internal, unique, the part of you that is most uniquely you, deeper than mind, more durable even than your will, AND it is external; that is, connected to everything around you.  To truly belong requires that we fully grow our souls and our spirits; that we cultivate and nurture the internal landscape while simultaneously we increase awareness of, and practices for cooperation in, the architecture of our interdependence.

In our first reading this morning from “Mending the Broken World by the Rev. Kathleen McTigue, we are treated to a moment out of time on a warm autumn day wherein McTigue is watching her neighbor construct a stone wall.  The process has two distinct parts.  First there is the heft and shape of the stone.  There is that which is unique to the individual stone. Think of the stones as soul.  Second, there is the larger wall into which the stone will ultimately be placed.  And when it is placed it both interacts with the stones around it and it becomes part of something bigger than itself.  The wall in this metaphor serves as spirit. 

And thus, with both halves of the mystery present – the heft and shape of the stone, or soul, and the larger wall it becomes part of, or spirit – the stone finds its place in the larger whole and finds itself belonging. It’s shape and angles fit the needs of the larger wall, just like the shape of our minds and talents, the angles of our interest and concern, fit the needs of the world…and anchor themselves in the lengthening all.

McTigue notes that, “Whether or not we find room in our theologies for the word God, the world itself calls us to imagine ourselves essential to this engaged holiness, bringing forth what is ours to give of creation and strength, toward mending the broken world.” 

Can you imagine it?  How would our world look different today if, let’s just say a majority of people walking around this planet understood themselves, understood their individual gifts, to be essential to the mending of the world?  What difference would it make in our nation if all those angry, young, white men with guns understood themselves to be not disenfranchised outcasts, but rather essential components to the multifaceted fabric of democracy?  If folks in the LGBTQ community and those seeking to enlarge our understanding of gender identity weren’t made out to be freaks of nature, but rather holy and sacred children of God with a worthy perspective to share?  What difference might it make to the trigger finger of the law enforcement officer, or the incarceration rate among persons of color if we all figured out the wall will not gt built without the heft and shape of every person?  How would we allocate resources differently when we came to see that it takes many stones of different sizes and shapes to build a solid wall?  What difference would it make in our families, our homes, our denomination, our congregations, if everyone had a sense of belonging in spirit and in soul?

It can start right here. It can start right now with each and every one of us.  It’s going to require that we engage in practices that nurture both halves of the mystery…the growing of our spirits and our souls, until we know as the sound of our own breathing that we do, in fact, belong. Then we bring another along, and another, and another.

My friends, we are not mute or helpless in the matter of belonging.  We don’t need to wait passively for the great stone mason to lift and move our lives or tell us where we belong.  There is a place for each and every one of us and the worlds [very] possibilities shift and change each [and every] time we put ourselves into building something large and strong and beautiful.

Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  Peace be with you.  Amen.

Hymn: #349 We Gather Together



Blessing Candles of Joy & Sorrow

Unison Affirmation

Hymn: #209 O Come, You Longing Thirsty Souls

Extinguish the Chalice: by Rev. Mark Morrison Reed

The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.  There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others.  Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.

It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community.  The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done.  [As we extinguish our chalice this morning, may we be reminded that] Together our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

Closing Circle