Holy Abrasions (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation

East Brunswick, New Jersey

Someone I know from Western Massachusetts facilitates marriage and parenting workshops. The title of her most popular workshop makes me chuckle, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be in relationship?”

Like our reading this morning said, we could practice religious freedom at home. On some Sunday mornings, (and I’m not taking names or pointing fingers) some of you do.  I, too, have done this on occasion and probably will do it again.

Yet we choose, over and over, to gather together.

I have heard many of you say that you come here for the community. Yet, you could find community elsewhere. A bowling league. A Rotary Club. The League of Women Voters. An activist group like No More Endless Wars. Serving on the board of a non-profit organization that does good in the world or in the local community. In fact, I believe some of you are connected to those perfectly fine, laudable organizations. But here you are, gathered in this place, at this time, with its moral and ethical, and I will say proclaim it, religious identity.

We choose, over and over, to be in relationship with one another here. In person. In this gathered space. With these gathered people (and the our ancestors as well as folks from the future). Over and over we choose relationship.

And over and over we risk being rubbed the wrong way. We risk Holy Abrasions. This is by no means easy, but I believe we are better for it.

Micky Scottbey Jones
Micky Scottbey Jones

In August some of us watched a video recording of the closing worship service from the General Assembly, our annual national gathering of thousands. Reverend Nancy McDonald Ladd, senior minister at River Road congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, delivered a kicker of a sermon. In that sermon she quotes spirit-filled justice activist named Micky ScottBey Jones who says that

relationship is the sandpaper that wears away our resistance to change. Relationship is the abrasion that agitates enough to make a way forward. Relationship – consistent and ongoing encounter with people and perspectives different than our own – it smoothes the way for the sacred, even as it rubs us raw.

assorted-sandpaper-135297Why do that? Yes, relationships can be profoundly rewarding and elementally renewing, but most relationships – most people — are more complicated than that. So why take that risk? Why, once the abrasion is there, once some tender part of us has been rubbed wrong, rubbed hard, rubbed raw – unless we know or hope – consciously or unconsciously, that there is something bigger and better and transformative in the making?

Though there are many reasons why someone might risk the sandpaper rawness for the hope of sacred smoothness, I believe our creedless religion, our faith without dogma – Unitarian Universalism — calls us to do just that.


Perhaps you have heard that before: we are a covenantal religion, not a creedal one.   But what does covenant mean? While a simple definition of covenant is promise, I emphasize that it means ever-renewing promise. Like our prayer, it asks of us to ever begin again.

If you have taken part in teaching Religious Education here, or grew up in it, or have been a part of committee meetings, you have likely encountered the process of covenant making. In the secular world, the closest thing is ground rules for a meeting: Raise your hand if you want to speak. Abide by confidentiality. Don’t bring boring snacks.

But that’s merely an outward product and given its secular nature, more of an agreement than a covenant. Set apart from a regular agreement or understanding, the Reverend Victoria Safford, tells us that

A covenant is not a contract. It is not made and signed and sealed once and for all, sent to the attorneys for safekeeping or guarded under glass in a museum. A covenant is not a static artifact and it is not a sworn oath: Whereas, whereas, whereas. . . . Therefore, I will do this, or I’ll die, so help me God.

A covenant is a living, breathing aspiration, made new every day. It can’t be enforced by consequences but it may be reinforced by forgiveness and by grace, when we stumble, when we forget, when we mess up.

Living and breathing and aspirational. Covenant is both noun – an agreement, a promise – and verb — an action and a process.

Frankly, though having and agreed-upon and written covenant is helpful, especially when there is anxiety or conflict in our midst — it is the process that interests and engages me more. I want to know what it means day to day, month to month, year to year, that we live out our shared lives together, as we embody our shared ministry together.

For instance, just the other day in a meeting, I said something somewhat flippantly. I noticed as soon as the words left my mouth and even observed the impact on one of you. In the moment, I did not follow up. The course of the group’s conversation continued on. Unfortunately, I forgot about it. The next day, I received a request to talk from someone in that conversation. We met. That person shared their upset. We talked about it. I was thankful. I was thankful for their courage to raise this directly with me, not a particularly insignificant thing given a new minister and not knowing how she’d respond.

I was thankful for our covenantal relationship that recognizes we try our best, we sometimes stumble, and we hold each other gently and accountably, and we continue on – in relationship. It was a small thing, this flip comment I made, but the direct communication, the exploring together what it meant and did not mean, that was big. And good practice for those times ahead when bigger hurts, bigger disappointments, bigger conflicts come into our shared lives together as they inevitably will.

What does it take for us to feel the inevitable sandpaper and stay fully present, available to possible transformation and deeper connection? Rev. McDonald Ladd, the one who delivered that kicker of a sermon at GA, she says

There is a holy abrasion of the spirit born in deep relational encounters across differences. We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those very encounters. And yet we know that there are so many ways to

Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd at GA, June, 2016
Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd at GA, June, 2016

hide from the discomfort inherent in a holy abrasion. There are plenty of opportunities presented each and every day in the life of the church to back away from the hard work of continually and repeatedly relating meaningfully to one another and the world.

With covenant in mind, I have four questions for us. I am going to speak them aloud, pausing between each one to give you time to take it in. Because some of us are visual learners and listeners, these four questions are printed on colorful pieces of paper that greeted you on your chair when you sat down.

img_20161001_230314What promises have you made to the world?

What promises have you made to this place?

What promises have you made to this people?

What promises have you made to yourself?

I have a promise that I want to share with you today, risking some holy abrasions… because it is related to money, stewardship and our shared responsibilities to this congregation.

Like the vast majority of UU congregations – TUS has a canvas drive, providing you with the opportunity to practice generosity with the goal of sustaining this congregation now and into the future. Annually, typically in the spring, the leadership asks folks to make a pledge – another word for promise – of how much financial generosity you will direct to the congregation in the coming year. This allows them to draft a budget that pays for many things: yes, your minister’s compensation, and also the Religious Education or Music program that serve the mission of this congregation, the bagels you eat in the Gathering Room, the process that supports our youth learning high quality sexuality education as well as clarifying their own beliefs and commitments, maintenance and improvements of this beloved unique building, the salary of the staff, the list goes on.

Just this week, the canvas committee closed up last year’s pledge drive, reaching out to twenty-nine individuals or families from whom TUS had not received a pledge but who had pledged in the recent past. Much to our joy and gratitude, twenty-two shared their pledge and our deficit budget is now $13,500 closer to being balanced. Deep thanks to all who made this commitment, whether just in the past week or last spring when first asked.

But how can I be in covenant with you, if I do not walk with you in this especially crucial way? Currently I maintain my membership at my home congregation. As such, I pledge there. Yet you called me as your minister, so it seems important – essential, at least for me, ministers differ on this subject — that I respond with a financial promise. So this year, I am matching the pledge to my home congregation, bringing my total pledge to 4% of my gross income.

Gulp. This is more than I have ever pledged. I feel a noticeable catch in my throat. It touches on a deep sense of scarcity that has dogged me my whole life, one that sometimes surprises me when it shows up uninvited. Yet this promise also awakens in me a sense of abundance, generosity, and connection, which is what I want to grow in myself. Which is what I want to help grow in you.

This promise from me – this part of my covenanting with you — seems not just important, but necessary – not necessary because we have a deficit budget (though it definitely helps), and not just necessary because it walks the walk of our talk of ensuring this place exists for future generations, but spiritually necessary, because we are walking together, because we covenant with one another, because I have covenanted with our larger faith movement to be an active participant in that which sustains and enriches our presence in the world, now and into the future.  So I think it’s about all four of those promise questions.

I share this with you not for a pat on the back, but because in nearly every UU congregation with which I have been affiliated, talking about money and talking about financial stewardship can sometimes feel like we are causing or feeling those holy abrasions, the place where our relationship and covenant with one another gets tense, rubs us hard and sometimes raw. And yet, I believe ongoing conversations about money and stewardship is how we smooth the way to find a sacred space and connection and possibility.

There is whole other aspect of covenant that is essential to its nature and important for us to explore, yet there is not enough time today.  It’s the reason covenanting must have that ever-renewing quality: because we are, according to James Luther Adams, “promise-making, promise-breaking, promise-remaking creatures.” We break promises. We disappoint. I will disappoint. More on that two weeks from now. Suffice it to repeat the words we heard before from Victoria Safford:

A covenant is a living, breathing aspiration, made new every day. It can’t be enforced by consequences but it may be reinforced by forgiveness and by grace, when we stumble, when we forget, when we mess up.

May we live lives worthy of promise-making.

In the midst of broke promises, may we have what it takes – courage, humility, a sense of connection – to allow us to ask forgiveness, as well as to grant it.

May we occasionally know times in our lives what it is to be right, but may we more often feel what it is to be in relationship.

May we be instruments of holy abrasion.

May be it so. Amen.



Ladd, Nancy McDonald. In All Thy Getting, Get Thee Understanding,

Safford, Victoria.



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