“Why Belong”

“Why Belong?”
A Sermon on joining
by Joe Cleveland, Ministerial Intern
Delivered on Sunday, March 11, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts

This sermon is somewhat revised for readability from what was given orally.

Opening Words

“The differences between persons are determined by the quality and direction of their participation. In this sense we may understand the New Testament word, ‘By their fruits you shall know them’; but to this word we should add the admonition, By their groups shall you know them.”[1]


We have inherited quite a religion. It is honest; of one piece. It does not indulge in self-deceit. It is lived. It is not just a set of bromides and pietisms. It is a serious effort to conduct life according to principles and ideals. It is emotional; heart-swelling. It is even naive. In spite of uncertainty, it does not rule out leaps of faith. It is free, not bound by tradition, inheritance, geography, or the passing parade. It is first-hand; a personal experience. It is responsible. It does not try to escape the consequences of decision. It is growing. It never thinks of itself as perfected and final. It embraces humility, recognizing that faith is not certainty where there is in fact mystery. It is compassionate. It understands that religions universally wrap their essence in myth. It reaches to grasp and appreciate the truths bound up in the myths of other believers. It is tough on its possessors, committing them to sacrifice, but it is tender toward those who disagree. It is social, struggling to realize its own vision at community, national and world levels. It is radiant, blessing its possessor with courage, serenity and zest. This is our history, and also our hope.

— Jack Mendelsohn (adapted)


I wanted to start this sermon by saying I am no good at joining. I am an individual and I don’t follow the crowd! But then I thought about it a moment. I started thinking about all the groups and associations I’ve been a member of.

I am now or have been a member of—I can’t even keep track of how many organizations I’ve joined. Mostly environmental groups: The Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, but also groups like PFLAG (Parents Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and a nineties (or was it the eighties?) version of Students for a Democratic Society that didn’t quite get off the ground. I have joined labor unions and folk song societies…. I’m hoping the FBI has the records on me because I just can’t keep track.

Thinking about the question, Why Belong?, I thought of an expression I had heard attributed to de Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian: America is a nation of joiners. I am, evidently, an exemplary American.

In his book on Democracy in America, de Tocqueville writes: “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America.”[2] America is a land of associations, organizations, and all manner of clubs.

The UU ethicist and theologian James Luther Adams wrote that, “Any healthy democratic society is a multi-group society.”[3] This was a conviction that grew out of his experience of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The Nazi party was growing in its control of the country and was controlling and coercing people to join. For James Luther Adams, a free society is marked by its voluntary associations. There need to be associations we can enter into voluntarily. I think this is a deep-seated need in people.

Voluntary association is something that goes way back into our roots in Protestant Christianity. For our protestant forebears,

Church was to become a chosen society—not a community that one was born into and gained membership in by inheritance. The right—even the duty—of individuals to break free from the impositions of an unjust religious body became a defining habit of Protestant Christianity.[4]

—“to break free from the impositions of an unjust religious body” — that sounds a bit UU to me! As much as we live in a land of joiners, I think we Unitarian Universalists can get preoccupied with the breaking free part. I wanted to start this sermon by saying I’m no good at joining. I will not march with the passing parade!

Before I considered myself to be a Unitarian Universalist — long before I had even heard of such a thing — back when I was in high school there came to me one day an invitation to join the National Honor Society. My friends were all joining and urged me to do so. “It’ll look good when you apply to college.” “You’ll get a special recognition when you graduate.” And, “You’ll get a pin!”

Special recognition just because I join your group? Why can’t I be seen as meriting honor just by being the good student that I am? What about all those other students who aren’t invited to learn the secret handshake? They can’t all be without merit or honor, right? What kind of elitist club is this? You keep your pin!

That’ll show ‘em.

And then this morning I was distraught because I couldn’t find my flaming chalice pin!

When the American Unitarian Association, the AUA, was founded in 1825, William Ellery Channing, who had preached a sermon just six years before called “Unitarian Christianity” that became the touchstone for the emerging movement, a sermon that, when published, “became the second most widely circulated pamphlet ever, trailing only Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in sales,”[5] William Ellery Channing, who seemed to be the logical leader for the new movement, refused the presidency of the AUA. Setting a benchmark for an aversion to centralized power that has always characterized Unitarianism, Channing feared associations because they “injure free action,” and especially because “they accumulate power in a few hands.”[6]

This aversion to centralized power is still with us. Rebecca Parker, the president of the UU seminary in Berkeley, CA, observes that, “Many liberals, consciously or not, seem to prefer that their religious institutions remain weak, underfunded, or distracted by endless attention to ‘process’ and checks on the exercise of power.”[7]

In his “Remarks on Associations,” Channing said, “In truth all great actions are solitary ones. All the great works of genius come from deep, lonely thought…That is most valuable which is individual.”

I think Channing is great and all, and rightfully a source of inspiration for us, but on this point I think he’s just wrong. I’ve been an individual. I’ve been deeply lonely. I haven’t valued the experience. When I think of the truly profound experiences of my life, they have all been experiences of relationship. I’ve thought some pretty good thoughts in my day, and I’ve got more pretty good thoughts to come, and all of them, all of them are realizations about relationship. That thought is always related to something I’ve read or something I’ve seen or overheard or it’s something my wife said. Moments of insight? They’re always discoveries about new relationships that I can have with other people and other ideas. We need community.

I need community. When I couldn’t find it in the Catholic church, I tried to find it in academia. And when I couldn’t find it there and I felt stuck in a deep lonely, I started following my love for music and that led to coming into community with other people who liked folk music. And then it led to me to an even deeper feeling of community: it was music that brought me to a Unitarian Universalist church.

I love music. And music is all about relationships. It’s about the relation of one note to the next. The relation of my body to the breath it holds and releases. And the banjo. Can I talk about the banjo? The banjo got me into this music called Old-Time music. And a big part of it is this whole body of what get called fiddle tunes. And I’ve gone to these old-time music camps. Before I lived in Massachusetts, my reason for coming to Massachusetts were these old-time music and banjo camps held at a Baptist retreat center in Groton. And I’ve been to old-time music camps in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. The best part of those camps is always the jams that take place at night. We’ve been together all day, getting to know each other, trying out one thing or another, and then in the evening, we all sit down together. It’s not a circle, usually. More like a crowd. And we’ve gotten to know each other a bit and are starting to trust one another and so we’re huddled up real close to one another — on top of one another almost. It’s very intimate. And from that community of people, this amazing music pours out. Our feet are pounding away at the floor and maybe I can’t play every note of this tune, but I’m playing along and our guitars are banging and there’s a bass thumping and banjoes ringing and fiddles singing. It’s amazing. And it is all this everyone together — it’s a community singing. It is a community experience that takes me out of myself like no other community experience except one: being in church.

We need community like that. It is community like that that grounds the church. Remember that amazing installation service we had was it a couple months ago already? And the reception afterword? I was stunned by the community and what it seemed capable of. I am stunned by this community and what it is capable of.

A book on connecting visitors to your church describes ten characteristics of the Emergent Church. The Emergent Church movement can be understood as a kind of Gen X reaction to the mega church movement. One of the characteristics of these trendy churches on the cutting edge of redefining what “church” means, these churches looking toward the future of faith, is this: “They see community as more important than church. Thus community happens first, leading to church; rather than church happening first, leading to community.”[8]

I think contemporary Unitarian Universalism has a great aptitude for and is getting even better at thinking and behaving in this way. I see it here in Bedford again and again, in Sundays and on every other day of the week. Sometimes in the building and sometimes outside the building. Sometimes in big ways and sometimes littler, but amazing things happen, and it’s because of the way we work at being together and the way we take that togetherness out into the world. We are practicing loving one another here — we practice it because we want to get better at it. It takes work and it’s a lot of times messy and there’s some lonely that still happens here. But feel how much you — how much we — want to practice love.

I was searching the internet looking for UU descriptions of community and the ways we strive to be with one another and what came up fifth or sixth in the Google search was a sermon by John Gibbons. I’m not going to quote him. But I’ll quote what he quoted. This is a passage from a novel called Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, and it illustrates this move of community leading to church — to a religious way of being — instead of the other way around. The main character, who loves his town of Port William, says,

“My vision of the gathered church that had come to me after I became the janitor had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. [. . .] It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William [or Bedford!] and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”[9]

You don’t need me to cite how studies show that “Community is more effective than any medication . . . ”[10] OK, I guess I just did. One of the healthiest things you can do for yourself is to join a church! What do you do for each other? Being community for one another? That’s church. I can’t be religious without you. The poet Gerald Stern says, “The holy has to do not with an isolated feeling but with an act of involving yourself with other people.”[11]

This makes me think of the way UU chaplain Kate Braestrup describes what a miracle is. A man’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, has wandered off in the Maine woods. And the Maine Warden Service is there and people in the community have come out and they’re all looking for her:

“Everyone in the world is here,” the lost woman’s son exclaims. “It’s a miracle!”[12]

May we, grounded in and inspired by our Unitarian Universalist communitarian faith, be a church where that miracle of involving ourselves with others happens again and again. Thanks for joining in.




Benediction/Closing Words

May we be “somehow perfected [. . .] by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”

[1] James Luther Adams, “The Indispensable Discipline of Social Responsibility,” Voluntary Associations, 159.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, 3rd ed. (NY: George Adlard, 1839), 24.

[3] James Luther Adams, “The Indispensable Discipline of Social Responsibility,” Voluntary Associations, edited by J. Rondald Engel, (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1986), 155

[4] Rebecca Parker, “Life Together,” A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 36.

[5] Andrea Greenwood and Mark Harris. An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions, (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 59. Kindle Edition

[6] Ibid., 61.

[7] Parker, 37.

[8] Gary L. McIntosh, Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to Your Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 168.

[9] Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (NY: Counterpoint, 2000), 205.

[10] Mark Hyman, “How Social Networks Control Your Health,” Huffington Post (February 14, 2012) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/community-health_b_1271880.html

[11] Gerald Stern, “The Devotion of a Mourner” in A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, edited by Ilya Kaminsy and Katherine Towler (North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2012), 29.

[12] Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me, (New York: Little, Brown; 2007), 211.