Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.
There’s a Sufi story from long ago. It’s called “The Little Stream Called to the Sea,” and it goes like this:
Once there was a little stream that dreamed of flowing to the sea. The stream started in an aquifer, a huge pool of water underground, but the call of the ocean was so strong that the stream pushed its way through nooks and cracks, up through the earth, until it burst forth into the air and began its journey toward the sea. As its waters bubbled to the surface, they ran down the hill carving the stream bed into the earth. Sometimes the stream babbled as it traveled, sometimes it gurgled, sometimes it roared. At times the stream traveled alone. Its waters were so clear you could see the pebbles that lined its bed. At other times the stream ran through great lakes, or tumbled over a cliff, or joined other streams to form a river, and then split again to travel alone, but always, always the little stream yearned to flow into the sea.
Sometimes the stream would run fast and deep, eager to reach the sea. Fish swam in its waters as it carried them swiftly on its journey. Sometimes the stream would grow wide and slow, and it would carry boats on its back as it continued its journey. But always, always the little stream yearned to flow into the sea.
One day, just as the call of the ocean seemed to grow a bit stronger, the stream found itself growing sluggish, its waters grew thick with mud, until sadly it pooled into a brackish mud hole right on the edge of the desert. “Woe is me,” thought the little stream, “now I’ll never get to the sea.” It tried going around the desert—but the desert was too wide. It tried going under the desert—but the desert was too deep. Still (even with mud in its “ears”) the little stream heard the call of the ocean and yearned to flow to the sea.
After what seemed like a long time, as the stream just pooled there in the sun, it began to hear a second voice. “I can take you to the sea, little stream,” whispered the wind. “Come with me, I’ll carry you to the ocean shore.”
“How could you do that?” scoffed the stream. “You are only made of air.”
“I can carry you on a breeze,” whispered the wind, “but you must be very brave, for you must let go of yourself and change.”
“I’ve changed many times,” said the stream.
“But this will be different,” said the wind.
The little stream paused, but deep within, the stream still yearned for the sea. The stream let go… and the wind picked it up particle by particle. At first the stream was scared, for it felt lost, it was no longer a stream but was turned sort of inside out and had become moisture swirling in the sky. The view was like nothing the little stream had ever seen before. Not only was the whole world laid out below it, but it was surrounded by sparkling jewels. Then what had been the stream realized that all those sparkling jewels were parts of itself. Molecules of water, droplets of moisture, sparkling in the light. What had been the stream realized that it was truly beautiful on the inside.
Next the stream-turned-moisture saw that it was not alone, for the wind had whispered to other streams, and ponds, and even to the morning dew upon the oasis. All had turned into moisture. And all their parts were also sparkling in the sun. Together they were even more beautiful, for the sunlight had changed them into all the colors of a rainbow.
Then the little stream-turned-rainbow felt itself falling and falling and falling. All the other droplets were falling too, until plop, plop, plop, plop—all the droplets ran together into a mighty river which rushed down the mountainside, across a coastal plain, and into the sea, where the waves pushed it back and pulled it forward and the currents carried it far out into the pulsing depths. The little stream was content.
But I understand that every now and then, the wind would breeze by, whispering to the currents in the sea, “Come with me, come with me…” and that the moisture would rise up into the wind and be carried away to start all over again.
Let’s make the sound of a rainstorm
Rubbing hands together
Adding stomping feet
Rubbing hands together
Life is like that. Congregational life is like that. The UUA is like that. I read somewhere in the past week that the river may always be there, but if you step in its water, it is different every time. The water is always moving, always evaporating, always collecting more moisture. Sometimes the river totally changes into a rainbow. We are like that.
This is a story told by the Rev. Erika Hewitt. She is wonderful person, with a part-time position at a small church in Vermont, and she does weddings nearly every weekend.
I spend a lot of my Saturday evenings feeling awkward at wedding receptions, because most guests don’t want to talk to The Minister. Are they worried that I’m boring, or that I’ll look them deeply in the eye and ask about their relationship with God? Either way, being alone with a plate of hors d’oeuvres is preferable to going home to finish my sermon.“Making Room at the Table” by Rev. Erika Hewitt
A few weeks ago, though, I was delighted when a table of wedding guests—obviously friends, who’d traveled in from two states away—waved me over.
“We’re therapists,” one of them explained, “so nobody ever wants to talk to us, either.” Upon learning that I’m a Unitarian Universalist, the entire group—not all of them white, not all of them straight, not all of them gender conforming—exchanged knowing looks.
“What?” I probed.
“That means you’re safe,” one of them announced as the others nodded. They’re not religious, they elaborated, but they trust UU communities to accept them without judgment.
It makes you want to cheer, doesn’t it, when outsiders praise the people you call home? I so wanted to gather up their affirmations to dole out back at the UU ranch… but I couldn’t. As I smiled politely, I called to mind the UUs in my life who are queer; who live with a disability; who are people of color. I thought about their countless stories of their lived experience being painted over with the brush of privilege, and the harm inflicted upon them by people with good intentions. I remembered my colleague Sean Parker Dennison’s reminder that there are many people in the world who are never completely safe—and don’t expect to be.
Those of us inside the Unitarian Universalist fold know that when it comes to living our expansive, inclusive, anti-oppression faith, we fall short (sometimes in 3D, technicolor ways). I do. And every time my privilege and I cause harm, I get to decide whether my arrogant decision that I’m enlightened or woke outweighs evidence to the contrary.
It was a gift, on that early summer evening, to be received by a group of strangers as if I belonged, and to hear them call my UU kindred a haven. While I know there’s a gap between who they say we are and who we are in practice, those seven therapists gave me a second gift: they fortified my commitment to keep closing that gap, and to transform our UU communities into havens: a home for all who need us.
We change. We expect to change (as UUs). But sometimes we dig in our heels and say, “Please no, let’s stay as we always were. Yet we’ve always changed. We have always been people who change. The river may be there, but the water is always different. That’s what I love about the water ceremony. I have water from last year, I’m going to pour it in to our common bowl today. But I am so conscious that who we are have changed from last year, and the year before and the year before. And we will be different next year and the year after. There is that. To me, that is what the water ceremony is about: reconstituting ourselves into who we are today and into who we are this year. Different in some ways from who we were last year, but standing in the same river, the river that longs for the sea. The river that is afraid to change, but says yes anyway.
Yesterday, I was at an ordination for a person who had lived in Nashville for a long time, went to Vanderbilt Divinity School (as I did, way before she did). There were several people there who had also gone to Vanderbilt. We got to talking about the new dean of the Divinity School, how amazing she is in her theology and practice. The young minister who was there to give the sermon for the ordination is a recent graduate of VDS and she was amazing. She gave such a different sermon, with so much embodiment. She taught us how to dance, and hum and sing a call and response song. It was wonderful. I told her so afterwards. I also told her that after the new dean, Emilie Townes, started at the Divinity School, she sent out a letter to all the old folks who had graduated long ago what the Divinity School was like now. I wrote her back immediately to say, “You don’t know me, but I was there in the late seventies,” and “OMG, we wanted this so much.”
That’s why I started this worship service with this:
It was at a gathering of white women“Gathering of the Waters” by Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
when this gathering of the waters first came to pass.
White women in a second wave of gender self-awareness;
making new meaning,
shifting the old ethos.
The solidarity of these white women was reflected in the waters each brought,
waters that became a liquid harmony of each sweet voice and intention.
Today, we gather as a community of humans in a new wave of gender and racial awareness;
making new meaning,
shifting the old ethos.
Today, we seek more than solidarity and harmony.
We seek inclusion.
We seek mutuality.
We seek reconciliation.
We seek justice for all people.
Today, may our gathering of the waters reflect the gathering of our collective courage
in service of the grace and love that is promised by our liberal faith.
It was years ago in the seventies when the water ceremony was started. Not that long ago? Long ago for some. We change! We are about change.
Let us all be proud of everything we have ever been, who we are today, who we are becoming. Let us be appropriately sad and sorrowful when those we love or care about leave this earthly plain. Let us always remember, as we do on 9/11 for these last 20+ years. Remember who we knew, who died tragically. Let us remember those who died in their 90s or their 100s, after a long life. Yet, still gone, now. Let us be glad for what has died in us that needed to go and be replaced, that now calls us to the future by its dying, and in what rises and rises again. What makes new life. What holds hands. What causes you to love people you never thought you would love, but whom you do now.
Let us be that community that loves each other and spreads love throughout this world as best we know how, as much as we can, listening for all that messiness that is in here and out there. Amen.