What the Future Asks

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.

It is the time of the year (the congregational year) when every member and many of the active visitors and other admirers of this congregation are asked to make a pledge for the next year. That means what can you give financially to this endeavor from July 2023 through June 2024? It doesn’t matter how you pay your pledge; monthly, quarterly, or all at once. What does matter is that you make a pledge, a promise, of the amount you can contribute. It could be $10 a month; it could be $1000 a month. Whether you pledge $120 or $1200, what is important is that you pledge; that you do your part to show how this endeavor is important to you and to your family.

Your pledge matters for the practical reason that your elected leadership uses the collective total amount “we” promise to contribute for determining what “we” can spend. That is about trusting each other. Members and any other interested parties will see the budget, and members will vote on the budget in later in May.

This process happens year after year. It is a routine thing in a UU congregation.

Being asked to do the normal, routine thing shouldn’t be a big such a deal. But it is a big deal. It is how we express our togetherness, our commitment to this endeavor, even our commitment to this Unitarian Universalist faith.

It is how we express trust for each other, for our leaders, and trust that the future that we are moving toward is the right future for us. Being asked to make a pledge to match what the future is asking of us can be a big deal.

Sometimes we can look at trends and predictions and have an idea of what the future will ask of us. Other times we must just have to take a leap of faith, a worthwhile risk of not knowing.

Maybe you don’t know what your salary is going to be next year. Maybe you don’t know if your debt is going to go up or down. Maybe you don’t know if the government is going to come after you. You don’t know! Make a pledge anyway. It is a guess. It is a promise.

The idea of taking an informed leap of faith was behind the title of a popular book published some 50 years ago. It was a book was used by many college students and others to help with career planning. Who here has read What Color is Your Parachute?

That book was all about figuring out where and how to land in the “what-will-you-do-for-a-meaningful-career” endeavor. That book helped many young people 50 years ago, and still does help some find fulfilling occupations that match their interest and skills.

Perhaps 50 years ago, the future felt more predictable than it does now, but we now may know more than ever that meaningfulness doesn’t only come from a career choice.

Perhaps the main reason why you come to UUCSH is to seek or to confirm your sense of life’s meaning, or to evolve in your sense of what is meaningful, so that you live a purposeful life, regardless of what your career is.

For me, that’s what UU congregations are all about. We gather together to discover who we are, perhaps to decide who we will be, to be that person, in an endeavor together with others, as best we can. We gather ready to move into the future which we know will change, hopefully for the better, doing our part to create the change we would like to see in the world.

Predictors have been warning us that the future for small congregations won’t be a repeat of the past. They have been warning us that the rising cost of everything isn’t matching the financial resources available to most small congregations these days. The older generations who have been churched, and the baby boomers like myself, are aging. The generations who before us may have left endowments and legacy gifts are disappearing. (That’s a nice way to say it!)

The younger generations are not the same church attenders, the way the older generations were. For one thing, when the younger generations come into congregational life, they likely don’t have as much income to contribute as their parents or their grandparents did.

And they don’t come in the door to do congregational life the same old way that maybe my peers did when we entered.

Those of us who have been UU must listen and change. That shouldn’t be so hard, because change, evolving, is integral to who we were and are as UUs.

Part of the change that is coming, that we can be proud of already being engaged in, is forming new partnerships with other congregations. Forming a wider circle of relationships, of networks, of support and encouragement in ways we haven’t done before, that is the future.

We are already in it! Many congregations are isolated, thinking only of themselves. We are reaching out to other congregations asking how can we help, how can we be partners, how can we do this together?

In other words, we are on it! This congregation is on it.

Taking a leap always feels risky, but doing so is necessary not only for survival, but for thriving and allowing others to thrive.

Some of you may know the story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp.

They were an ordinary couple one hundred years ago. By the late 1930s, he was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts, having graduated from Harvard Divinity School, and having served in Meadville, PA for a time. His wife, a Radcliffe graduate, who had majored in social work, wanted more than being only a wife and mother. They were together, side by side. There came a time when he was asked, because he was a Unitarian minister, to go to Europe to help in the resistance against the Nazis. Before saying yes, he wanted to make sure that his beloved wife, Martha, could accompany him.

She felt as called to go as he did, so they said yes. They had close friends who would be with their children while they were gone. Everyone thought they would only be gone for a few months doing relief work in Czechoslovakia (now Czechia).

Yet working in the resistance movement turned out for them to be way more than a few months. They made a difference in so many lives. Their work, work that changed the future, meant that others could live out their lives free from the horrors of the Holocaust. Their answering what the future was asking of them also meant that they would never again live an “ordinary” life.

Sadly, after their long tour was over, they separated and eventually divorced. Each remarried. And their relationship with their children was forever strained. The whole family, all of them, were dramatically changed by the mission to which Martha and Waitstill Sharp said yes.

If you were called to go to make difference, a bigger difference than you do now, to answer what the future asks of you, would you say yes? How much would you be willing to sacrifice? A few months? Your safety? Your relationship with your children? Your person you think of as your loved one, now?

We don’t know what we are ultimately going to be asked to do when the future calls us.

But that is the thing, isn’t it? If we knew where our YES might take us, many of us would never say yes.

(What color is your parachute? Is it yellow with a big yes, written in RED letters?)

The Sharps were heroic in what they accomplished during the Resistance. But they were not widely celebrated for what they did during WWII. Not many even knew what they had done during their lifetimes.

It was known that they, along with three others, co-founded the Unitarian Service Committee. Officially formed in 1940, its job was and is to promote humanitarian relief. The story of the Sharps’ sacrifice and how they orchestrated the safe passage of so many Jews and non-Jews, intellectuals, political leaders, writers, artists, and children had not been told until the last decade or so. (If you don’t know the story, there is a Ken Burns documentary that you can watch.) The story of the Unitarian Service Committee was known.

The knowledge of their heroism is now known because of the tedious work of their grandsons, Art and Michael Joukowsky. Art, in particular, sat at his grandmother’s feet and recorded hours and hours of her stories about her exploits during the Nazi reign of terror. After she died, he sifted through thousands of documents piecing together what the Sharps were responsible for, the fuller story of their heroism, and their courage.

The Sharps had, in their minds, just done what any of us would do when called on to be of help. They were not prone to brag or to boast.

We UUs show up for justice movements. We are there, again and again, in our T-shirts, feeling a kinship with others, marching for peace, demonstrating for action to slow the pace of climate change, to maintain LGBTQ+ rights, making sure those who are mentally ill are treated with dignity and respect, and on and on. We feed the hungry and provide furnishings where needed every Saturday.

What will it take for you to answer “yes” to what the future asks?

The Sharps gave up a lot, as did their children.

The Sharps’ daughter, Martha Sharp Joukowsky, tells of when she was a teenager, her parents back from Europe and divorcing. It was during that time that a judge asked her, “Which one of them do you want to live with?” Her answer was “neither.”

She went on to explain that they hadn’t really been her parents. She recalled later that she and her brothers had raised themselves.

When she was in her thirties, with children of her own, she finally came to terms with why her parents did what they did, and she knew then that she would have done the very same.

The Sharps’ grandson, Art, demonstrated even more empathy for his grandparents’ motives. He knew for sure that their decision was not easy or cavalier. After they both died, he read their journals and letters, and he could hear how much they both suffered from the impact their mission had on their relationship with each other and with their children.

Many of us can’t or won’t make the kind of sacrifices the Sharps made. We won’t say, “Yes, of course, we will fly into another country to provide relief for those suffering from the kind of oppression we probably can’t even imagine. Sure, we will change our lives forever to do what needs to be done to save children from displacement, from war, from ethnic hatred, and on and on. Of course, I will say yes.”

Only a few of us have that kind of trust in our particular parachute; trust that we will return, mission accomplished, sacrifices made for the greater good.

Yet the rest of us can do what we can do, which is to support those who say yes to those kinds of missions. Making a sacrifice does not require heroics on the scale of those made by the Sharps.

Their grandson talks about how the Sharps never anticipated the scope of what they were about to get involved in. He is convinced they would never have wanted their story to overwhelm others, but rather to inspire all of us. He says that he learned from their story that “…life is made of righteous moments, not grandiose ones…[what] my grandparents [did] wasn’t [about] one big moment. They made thousands of little choices that led up to the story that we now tell.”

Thousands of little choices they made that were supported by a huge network of people. The good work of all our causes, all of our justice work, can’t happen without us, all of us, no matter where we are in the network of mutuality.

That grandson discovered in his research the tremendous network of people who made his grandparents’ work possible: church members and family friends who cared for their children; legions of contacts of many different faiths throughout Europe; fellow co-founders of the USC and the thousands of Unitarians around the country who donated money to support their efforts.

NETWORKING was and is so important. And all the little choices.

Being identified as a person who can be counted on to make the little choices that make a movement for needed change possible is important You can make those little choices every day and in what you decide to pledge.

Did you know that the chalice that has become the symbol of our faith actually comes from the story of the Sharps?

The symbol of our faith is a unique combination of fire and a drinking vessel. Jan Hus, an early radical Catholic, at the very beginning of the Reformation used one common cup to serve communion, allowing all to be served in his parish. It had been the practice in his day for only the priests to partake of communion. He changed that.

We like to refer to the flame as the “light of reason,” but the older root of that flame is the ultimate sacrifice that our forebear Michael Servetus made. He was the only Protestant leader to be burned at the stake by other Protestants, for reading the Bible himself and finding no evidence for the concept of the Trinity, thus heretically declaring himself a Unitarian. He was put to death for that!

In 1941, the Lisbon office of the USC was the port from which those escaping the Holocaust left. It was during that time that an artist named Hans Deutsch was commissioned to create a symbol that could be stamped on the documents that were provided to those who were being shepherded to freedom.

He created the flaming chalice: the symbol of the common cup from which all may drink, a reminder of the sacrifice made for truth and for freedom of belief.

What does the future ask of us?

We can’t know the big picture at each moment. We won’t know the consequences of all of our choices. We can, though, discern our calling and act in concert with that calling, that mission in our everyday choices.

The question, perhaps, is to ponder how might our grandchildren, how might the generation ahead of our own children celebrate what we are doing today and tomorrow, celebrate all the moments that are leading to our being known as heroic, as partners with each other and our neighbors here and across the world.

Your pledge is not a big deal. And yet it is such a big deal. A promise to the future.

There are so many of you here today who are not yet members, and I am so glad to see you. No pressure to pledge at this moment! I will give you some pressure to join today. All you have to do is sign the book, which means you are going to support this congregation as best you can, you are going to take this faith seriously, you are going to count yourself and be counted as UU, and you are going engage with other UUs, here in this congregation and across the world as best you can!

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