Stronger Together

October 16, 2022

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Sermon video:

Reading:                      Collaboration Reflections                   10-16-22

As a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we have been partnering with other UU congregations lately in unconventional ways. We have been connecting, associating, sharing, mingling, and collaborating with other UU congregations for a few years now. It is exciting and a little counter cultural. There is an assumption in the dominant culture that other churches are the competition. We are not behaving in that way lately.

For our reading this morning, we are invited to hear some reflections on the history of collaboration within our Cortland, Binghamton, and Athens Sheshequin congregations. We will begin with the long view beginning in Athens PA.

Part I               -Katie Replogle

Good morning.  When Rev. Darcey asked me to offer a reflection on the history of collaboration in the Athens/Sheshequin congregation, what came to mind was the similarity between what our three congregations are doing together today and what the regional Universalist Associations did in the 1800s and 1900s.  This morning I am going to share a little about the North Branch Association that the Athens and Sheshequin congregations belonged to during that time.

Universalist congregations began to form Associations about 1800.  The closest to us at that time was the Western Association, which encompassed most of upstate New York.  In 1811 two members of our Sheshequin congregation attended the Western Association meeting in Bainbridge, which is about 80 miles away.  Imagine how long it took for our delegates to travel that distance!

By the 1840s the Western Association had split several times into smaller, more localized associations.  In 1842 the Universalists in Bradford county – where Athens and Sheshequin are – formed the North Branch Association.  By the 1880s the North Branch had nine member congregations.

In the early years, the primary interaction among the member congregations was the annual meeting.  These meetings were usually three-day events which included as many as five worship services as well as business meetings.  One of the things the association did was to help congregations that did not have regular preaching to connect with a minister.

In the second half of the 1800s, as travel became easier, the North Branch congregations were able to interact more frequently.  The Association developed into a strong, supportive community.

When, in the 1880s and 90s, the Sheshequin congregation was faltering, their sibling North Branch congregations came to the rescue.  In 1880 the Towanda minister preached a sermon at Sheshequin on church organization and baptized about 30 adults and children.  In 1895, the ministers of the Athens and Towanda churches held a series of “revival” meetings in Sheshequin, which brought in many new members and got the congregation back on its feet.

By the early 1900s only four congregations remained in the North Branch.  Only one of them could afford a full-time minister.  So in 1914, the North Branch jointly called a single minister to serve all of the churches.  Shared professional ministry continued until about 1990.

Lay groups within the congregations also joined together.  In 1897 the youth groups of the four North Branch churches formed their own association.  A North Branch men’s group was organized in 1932.  And the individual Ladies’ Aid Societies evolved into a county-wide branch of the Association of Universalist Women.

The North Branch held union worship services several times a year, often with music by a “union choir.”  There were also annual North Branch picnics.

Sadly, the North Branch Association ceased to function in the early 2000s, and ours is now the only remaining member congregation in Bradford county.  But our long tradition of partnering continues in this wonderful relationship with our friends in Cortland and Binghamton.

Part II              -Douglas Taylor

Back in the fall of 2015, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cortland and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton began discussions of a formal partnership. We started simply with conversations among leaders about the breadth and expectations of such a partnership. For example, we decided to not look to become one congregation together, but to remain independent while sharing resources. At first it was a little one-sided with the larger Binghamton congregation offering resources to the smaller Cortland church. But over time, that shifted.

Much of the collaboration has happened in our experience of worship. We’ve had pulpit exchanges and we shared musical resources. Binghamton created a library of Rev. Douglas Taylor’s sermons on DVDs for Cortland to use. We also shared adult education resources such as the Soul Matters packets and our annual joint Spirituality Retreats.

When Rev. Darcey Laine began serving the Cortland church in 2018, the Athens and Cortland congregations didn’t know each other at all. And it seemed natural for Cortland to join the

multi-congregation Coming-of-Age which had started with Athens and Big flats, and has over the course of the years also included Binghamton and Ithaca. It seemed natural to invite Athens to be part of the Spirituality retreats. When the pandemic hit, the Athens and Cortland congregations started sharing Sunday worship online together every Sunday. It was during that time our Binghamton – Cortland Collaboration expanded to formally include the Unitarian Universalist Church of Athens & Sheshequin.

Even before the formal agreement, we’ve had pulpit exchanges and choir exchanges and shared classes among the three individual congregations in various ways. There was a regular Treasurers lunch among a handful of church that led to a program of peer audits. And many people have enjoyed the online classes and Small Group Ministry sessions we’ve been doing during the pandemic as multi-congregational offerings.

Today, we still plan to remain three district Unitarian Universalist congregations. But we are in covenant to support one another that we all may thrive. Today, we celebrate our collaboration and the ways we serve our Unitarian Universalist faith together in new and exciting ways.

Sermon: Stronger Together October 16, 2022; Rev. Douglas Taylor

I stumbled across this quote recently: “Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.” I have heard this sentiment from naturalists and environmentalists certainly, also from historians and physicists and systems theoreticians. “Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.” This particular wording, however, I found labeled as a quote from Buddhism. It is, of course, no surprise to you that I offer this sentiment as a religious or spiritual message. “Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.”

Our relational interdependence is a prominent feature of our spiritual existence. This is a topic I approach from the pulpit with some regularity, I know. At least in terms of how we as individuals can engage with other individuals across our individual differences. Today I would speak of how your spiritual community can be in relationship with other spiritual communities in mutually supportive ways.

It isn’t always like that. What I am suggesting is a little counter-cultural. There is a thing we do when we form groups together. We have a drive to belong that leads us to build our belonging with borders that create an in-group and an out-group. It’s hard. It’s a basic aspect of group dynamics – some people are in the group and some people are not. We love our little congregational community, we ae special and beautiful people. Being part of the group is important and means something about those of us in the group.

But it’s hard because it also implies something about those not in the group. And even when our theology calls us to honor that specialness and beauty of all the people even if they aren’t members of our group … it is still hard.

I do hope it is a little surprising to learn that Unitarian Universalists congregations have at times been a little exclusive in our groupings. We have, at times, seen each other as rivels. We would, at times, speak of how this or that minister was poaching members from other congregations. Or how a small congregation was floundering and the neighboring congregations would cluck their tongues and say “tut-tut,” but then do nothing to offer support.

The patterns are changing. But for a long stretch of time our free congregations so loved our autonomous and independent nature that we neglected our covenants of mutual support among congregations. It is a feature of Unitarian Universalism that we run by Congregational Polity – which is usually a happy side note but occasionally arises as a very important and even distinctive aspect of our way of faith.

Congregational Polity, in short, means each Unitarian Universalist congregation is independent. But it is more than that. We take this as a religious precept; not merely as an interesting governing happenstance. Just as you are free to develop your faith, freely and independently – to believe as you must; each congregation is likewise free and independent.

Now we do have an association of congregations – the UUA – and yes, there is real value to be found in our association. We have support staff and programs that help Unitarian Universalism thrive. Honestly, I and other leaders in our congregation have been in recent contact with representatives of the UUA receiving good support.

But that body, the UUA, has no authority over how a congregation runs. Other forms of polity – episcopal, hierarchical, or presbyterian – have some group beyond the gathered congregation that will determine issues such as: which clergy will serve where, what topics can be discussed from the pulpit, which justice issues are important, and who is allowed to get married, baptized, ordained, or buried with ecclesiastical blessing.

Our Congregational Polity essentially says “each congregation decides all of that for themselves.” As I say, it is usually a happy side note until it suddenly becomes very important. So, with all this independence and autonomy, we Unitarian Universalists have in the past fallen into the pattern of not offering mutual support to our neighboring congregations. We might say, for example: that other congregation is doing its own thing and we have promised not to meddle. But that is not quite what we have promised. As I say, it can be hard.

Of course, Unitarian Universalists are not the only religious group that runs by Congregational Polity. Interestingly, most of those that do in the United States harken back to an old document written in the mid 1600’s called the Cambridge Platform. 

The story behind this Cambridge Platform is interesting. A group of settlers from Europe were all in the same area of Massachusetts and decided they wanted to start a church together. They arranged to hold a year-long series of gatherings to talk about how to do that. You might think they talked about points of doctrine: what will our stance be on salvation and sin, grace and predestination? But no. In their meetings they talked about matters of civil society – how to be a community together. They were committed to be a “church gathered by mutual consent rather than by mutual belief.”

Now, these religious communities from almost 375 years ago were certainly not Unitarian or Universalist. That part had to wait a few hundred years. But the point is not what they did or did not believe, the point is how they organized their congregations. Although, it may be interesting to note: Of the 65 congregations that voted to ratify the [Cambridge]Platform in 1648, 21 are members of the Unitarian Universalist Association today. (ibid)

My point is this: we have a long, proud history of this independence. But even way back in the 1648 there was a section devoted to Cooperation Between Churches – or using the language from the document itself, “of the communion of churches one with another.” Even back then we made a point to say, “and we should help the other groups, not just our own group.” And still over the years we slip into patterns of cliquishness and isolation.

But it is like the parable of the bundle of sticks – one stick may be easy enough to break with your bare hands. But several sticks together in a bundle are not easy to break. Alone each stick can be easily snapped. But they are stronger together.

This is true. It is easy to test and verify. And yet it is counter-cultural to cooperate and collaborate. Generations of people promised to do so – making a religious commitment to supporting each other. And it is still hard to follow through on that promise.

And something significant has changed recently. Something different is happening.

If you follow news about trends in religion you may have noticed many religious communities are suffering. Attendance is down. Commitment is flagging. There is doom and there is gloom. Some religious communities, including UU congregations, are questioning how they will keep their doors open given the new reality they are facing.

Of course, we must give a nod to the context of the past two-and-a-half years. The pandemic, with the business shut downs and social distancing, has heightened our awareness of the lines of isolation and connection in our lives. This pandemic has put quite a strain on religious communities. But well before this pandemic we’ve been aware of walls of division and the harmful ways we pretend at independence. There has been a trend away from religious affiliation and attendance growing for some time. This isn’t new.

I am reminded of the wisdom from a progressive thinker and pastor Cary Nieuwhof who said that a crisis such as this pandemic “is not just a disruptor, it’s an accelerator.” The implication being that this pandemic has amplified and accelerated changes that are already underway.

I invite you to hear that with some excitement. I know there are warnings out there about how congregations need to pivot and be nimble and synergize the emerging paradigm. I’m here to be excited about how we already are. “Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.”

As we heard in the reading this morning, the Athens and Binghamton and Cortland congregations have been in this work of mutual support for a while now. Reaching beyond the usual borders of our congregational lines has helped us all remain nimble in the midst of this pandemic upheaval. We are stronger together. We’ve been sharing resources, staying in communication, and showing up online with each other over this hard time. Rev. Darcey Laine helped me remember a relevant story from India.

There was once a flock of birds peacefully pecking seeds under a tree. A hunter came along and threw a heavy net over them. He said, “Aha! Now I have my dinner!”

All at once the birds began to flap their wings. Up, up they rose into the air, taking the net with them. They came down on the tree and, as the net snagged in the tree’s branches, the birds flew out from under it to freedom.

The hunter looked on in amazement, scratched his head and muttered, “As long as those birds cooperate with one another like that, I’ll never be able to capture them! Each one of those birds is so frail and yet, together they can lift the net.”

We are stronger together.

I was talking with a few UU colleagues this weekend about all this. We were talking specifically about the ways we’ve been sharing across our usual congregational borders during this pandemic. Zoom has made so much possible. This expanding mutual support is not only happening in our little corner of the world.

I heard stories of how one colleague had people from 3 or 4 different congregations reading through the Tao Te Ching with him online weekly over the past two years. I heard about how the Saratoga Springs and the Schenectady congregations are sharing a UU the Vote campaign together; and about how the Syracuse congregations included the Canton congregation in their Coming-of-Age program. It feels very much like the Soul Matters sessions we’ve been sharing as Athens, Binghamton, and Cortland, and all the other things we’ve been doing together. All of these UUs reaching out in mutual support across their normal congregational lines. It is heartening.

“Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.” We are stronger together. Many of us participated in the class offer by John Buehrens on the history of the transcendentalists – a class made possible through the Rochester Unitarian church. One point of feedback we heard then and hear often is not about the content of the offering but about how good it is – how heartening it is – to participate with people outside our own congregations at these offerings.

We are lifting the net for each other. Alone, each congregation has been struggling, caught in the net of this pandemic. But together we help each other get free. Our sharing across these congregational borders is a blessing at every turn. The UUs in Syracuse want our congregation in Cortland to thrive. The UUs in Schenectady want the UUs in Binghamton to be strong. It is a practical example of what we call collective liberation – a theological outlook that says I am not free until my neighbor is also free. We can lift the net together.

This is will grow. This new way of sharing will continue and will bless our communities into the future. We are not alone. We are stronger together. This sometimes counter-cultural practice of mutual support will bless us in the offering and receiving. We can lift the net together.

In a world without end,

May it be so.