Answering the Call of Love (sermon)

The Unitarian Society

East Brunwick, NJ

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

Time for All Ages was the story of the change in title of the Jason Shelton hymn from Standing on the Side of Love to Answering the Call of Love to be more inclusive of all the bodies we humans have.

What if we were to paint the exterior of the building, to make it shiny and bright again?  Oh, yes, we did that this summer.

What if we were to fix the rotting wood that was letting it “rain” on the inside, over by the piano, in fact, was allowing mushrooms to grow?  What if we re-glazed the windows up there?  Or replace the windows in the TUS wing, the ones frames that would sometimes let the panes  slip down to the ground outside?  What if we were to do that?

Oh, right: we already did!  Thank you, Building Task Force, and the many others who helped, for your work in making this happen and nearly seamlessly so!


Those of you who have been around for a long time, you know that we didn’t have our nicely-sized kitchen until the 1980s, didn’t have the Montessori wing until 2000. Buildings change (though the jury is out on parking lots).  While this building has always stayed a sanctuary for many, the physical form has shifted over the years, on the outside, and even more so on the inside.

This is a “What If” sermon.  Perhaps last week could be characterized as a “what if everything goes wrong” sermon.  Today is opposite of that.  It’s a sermon that asks “what if we could do ANYthing?”  It asks, “if you didn’t worry about money, or how much effort, or whether you personally had the time, what if we did…[fill in the blank]?”  My request to you is — just for the next half hour — leave outside these walls and the walls of your mind, any limitations and notice what wild ideas spark excitement or possibility in you on behalf of this community.

Let us begin.

What if this beautiful plot of land our founders gifted us could feed anyone who might need sustenance, decades and dozens of decades from now, as the reality of food scarcity grows for more of us?  I wonder if our land could sustain berry bushes, fruit trees, or other perennial foods?  Might this be our gesture of love?

What if we put together families with young children (who naturally make noise – bless them and keep them coming back) and folks with mobility challenges (who don’t want to have to navigate our stairs inside this room – bless them and keep them coming back)? Oh, wait.  We already do that.  Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.  What if we imagined our space anew, perhaps emptying it out completely, and imaging the space based not on our past patterns and needs, but based on our current aspirations and our future needs?  What losses might we grapple with?  What aspirations might we move towards?  There used to be what seemed a permanent structure here, where these intended-to-be curtains are now – what might seem immovable, just might not be, if the will is there.

What if we met at a different time, a time that didn’t conflict with mandatory sports practice or theater rehearsals?  Late Sunday afternoons, staying for an early shared dinner – no dishes to wash at home?  This idea was raised at last month’s workshop; not by me, though I am intrigued.

What if we created a private, welcoming space for those with breastfeeding needs?  Oh, right – that need was raised and immediately, you made it happen.  It’s one of the classrooms – there’s a little sign on the window to let you know.

What if every other January we were thank all the chairs of all the unelected committees and task forces and teams, and then de-chair them?  Why stop with chairs?  What if we emptied out all those groups and then let them fill up again?

It sounds whacky, doesn’t it?  Well, for some of you, who have been serving as a lay leader for long period of time, it probably sounds like relief.  It makes me nervous just to think about – so much so that I want to be clear that I am not proposing this.  But I do wonder about it.  What might we lose? What might we gain? Can it hurt to talk about?

It is the nature of congregational life to have good-byes – congregants leave, staff leave, groups finish their lifespan. There used to be a Men’s Group here, I have heard told.  And a writer’s group.  A Green Sanctuary effort.  In the past two or so years, we’ve said the Social Justice Committee, the Knitting Group, the Book Club all stopped meeting.  I like to think of this as right-sizing ourselves and allowing a fallow time to make fertile ground for what comes next.

What if we had a flat screen that allowed us to show announcements before and after the service ended? That could allow us to show video clips or images without creating a tripping hazard with electrical cords and visual clutter with a laptop and projector? What if it didn’t ruin our Sunday morning service, but enhanced it?

What if we had a small group of people who listened to the joys and sorrows spoken here on Sunday mornings, and sent out cards of condolence or cards of shared joy, extending the circle of sanctuary beyond the time we meet in person together?

What if we were to answer the call of love, not just changing the words in a hymn, but by growing the accessibility of our space? More and more of us will have trouble navigating these few steps. There are already people for whom this sanctuary is no sanctuary for them because it is not accessible.  What if we built a ramp along that wall that allowed folks who already love it here to continue to love it as they age or as their body changes?  One of our members, an architect whose expertise is accessibility, says it’s possible.

What if we were to acquire a generator – remember last week when I preached about building “islands of sanity”?  Given extreme weather related to global warming, given how climate chaos will mean that more often there will be storms like Hurricane Michael (bless those in its direct path), there will be more super storms that directly impact our community – might we equip ourselves to be a community center?  Might we acquire stores of food and water so that if there is a last emergency, we might be one of those needed islands of sanity?  Could this be our gesture of love?

What if, given the possible threats some of us are seeing to access to reproductive health, we were to keep a stash of Plan B, the expensive oral medication that if taken within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse, stops conception?  Frankly, that is something I recently put in place and want to let you know.  It is my hope that if you know someone who has need of it, please get them in touch with me right away.  At this point, it’s a small stash that I keep, bought at a significant discount; if there is a use, I will keep replenishing it as long as I can.


You might have noticed that the sermon came a bit earlier today that is typical.  In a few minutes, after we sing our final hymn – one that I hope will remind us all that so much is possible, especially when we lean on one another – we will take the offertory and get to hear a beautiful song about being refuge and sanctuary to one another.  Then we have time set aside for you to speak with one another, forming small groups where you are seated (though you are welcome to get up and move, especially if you notice that someone is on their own and does not want to be).  Small groups of 2 or 3 or 4 – more is probably a bit cumbersome – and do some “what if-fing” of your own.  You can reflect and connect about ideas that I raised or come up with some of your own.  You’ll hear the chime ring when it is time to extinguish the chalice and bring the service to an end.

What if all that we do, we do awake and purposeful, we do as a gesture of love?

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