Monday, September 22, 2014


Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz
September 21 2014

May this synagogue be, for all who enter,
the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.

Our opening words this morning are adapted from a prayer from a Reform Jewish prayer book, and they are sentiments that we all have in our hearts as we gather together in worship. After all, what would we be here for, if not to do as our 3rd principle asks, to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations?
The last 3 words there - in our congregations - are important, because anyone could follow their own spiritual path. One of the blessings of membership is taking on the responsibility of encouraging our members to grow spiritually alongside each other. And as members we covenant with one another. Covenants began in the ancient world as a way of contracting between rulers and their people, and they are important in Judeo-Christian history and theology. And when our religious forebears settled in this country, they kept the free church tradition alive by creating covenants such as the Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline, which was written by the New England Puritans in 1648 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is a covenant of mutual promise.

 Forrest Church paraphrased the Puritans' covenant like this:
We pledge to walk together
In the ways of truth and affection,
As best we know them now
Or may learn them in the days to come,
That we and our children may be fulfilled
And that we may speak to the world
In words and actions
Of peace and goodwill.

Reading our covenant aloud this morning, I wonder if you were reflecting on the obligation that you are asked to assume. After all, a covenant is a promise, and it’s a tool that helps us to reconcile ourselves within the community when we fall out of covenant.

Assuming good intentions is hard for a lot of people; we automatically think the worst when we hear things – usually from someone else – that a person has done. When we don’t agree with what we’re hearing, we begin to think negative or even awful things; we form assumptions that, if we were to voice out loud to that person, would quickly prove to be false assumptions. The covenant gives us a measuring stick; we can ask ourselves: when I am feeling this way, is it going against what I promised to do? Can I give this person a break, and stop assuming they are acting against my best interests or the church’s best interests?

So in our congregation, when we have a problem, when we don’t like what someone says (or what we’ve heard they’ve said), instead of fuming silently, or expressing our anger to someone else in the parking lot, we are urged to approach the person with whom we differ directly – assuming good intentions – to ask them to speak with us about what is concerning us. Using ‘I’ statements, not interrupting people when they are trying to answer your question, not judging others by what they say…these are familiar parts of a behavioral covenant, heard in meetings of a committee or the board, that many of us feel are vital to ensuring respectful communication in congregational life.

Wouldn’t it be grand if everyone everywhere lived by a covenant of right relationship? I am not saying that everyone here abides fully by the covenants they affirm…but we at least have the ability to be called back to our best selves, because the covenant exists, for us, as a living document.

Unfortunately, today I am speaking to the topic of ‘when people don’t like what you say’ because we as Unitarian Universalists need to reflect on how we deal with the feelings we – and what we say and do – evoke in people who disagree with us. People who feel threatened by our tolerance, our inclusivity, our liberal religious and creed-less faith tradition. Those who, in contrast to our opening words, do not value our invitation to all who enter our church to see it as “the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life”. They may see it, instead, as a pathway to godlessness, to immorality, to false prophets, and of course, to damnation and hell. You may well know people who think that about us; some of you may have family members who think that, and this surely weighs heavily upon your hearts this morning.

On a Sunday morning in mid-July, to use the words of Krista Taves, “something pretty scary happened at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. Members of Operation Save America, a fundamentalist anti-choice organization that (Taves says) is known for descending upon abortion clinics and making life a living hell for anyone coming or going”, showed up as if to attend the church service. During the service they began to verbally harass the worshippers and to try to push anti-abortion pamphlets into their hands. Imagine being in the sacred, silent space of meditation just as we do every Sunday following Joys and Sorrows, and suddenly hearing shouts of “Abomination!” “You are going to hell!” (

What happened next was probably not what they expected to happen, because that Sunday the church was commissioning youth leaders of the UU College of Social Justice.These young people immediately circled around the protesters and began singing. The minister asked the protesters to respect the worship space and take their protest outside, and at that church leaders began guiding them out of the sanctuary. The police were called, and they arrived ready to intervene should things turn violent. The director of religious education made sure the children were safe; unfortunately the protesters had surrounded the church and had identified the RE rooms. They pressed graphic pictures against the windows, so the children were moved to an inner room. A note was left on the classroom doors for parents so they would be aware of where the children had been taken.

The minister, according to Taves, continued with the service, preaching “about how fundamentalism offers only one path of truth, whereas liberal religion recognizes a diversity of paths, and that this offers us a significant way to engage the challenges of our world.” Once the service finished, Planned Parenthood came to escort congregants safely back to their cars.
As we know, especially from being in the Bible Belt, the radicalized anti-choice movement is supported increasingly by right-wing politicians, and feels empowered to threaten women’s reproductive rights through legislation as well as public protest. Many of us UUs are members of Planned Parenthood; some have been present to demonstrate on behalf of women’s reproductive rights. We should all know that Planned Parenthood is in the front line of protecting women’s rights and are publicly vilified for doing so.
The Supreme Court recently ruled against safe boundaries of protest, so that anti-choice protesters can engage in intimidating behavior without buffer zones, inciting violence against abortion providers and those women who choose to use their services as they are entitled to do under the law.
 The LA Times reported that eight months ago, “the man in charge of the group that invaded the Unitarian church in New Orleans, a fundamentalist Christian minister named Philip “Flip” Benham, was convicted of stalking a North Carolina abortion doctor, passing out “wanted” posters of the physician. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation and ordered to stop the harassment. Benham’s group, Operation Save America, has blockaded clinic entrances, violated the privacy of doctors and abortion clinic workers, and harassed women seeking abortions.”
But spreading their message of hate wider, they violated the sacred space of sanctuary… “or as Benham described it on his website, “presented the truth of the Gospel in this synagogue of Satan.”” (LA Times)
And as Taves says, “This protest was a violation of our sacred space, and when I say “our” I mean it.  We Unitarian Universalists are in sacred covenantal relationships of mutuality.  When one congregation is violated in this way, we are all violated.” Not only that, but the deep religious vein that runs through American civic life respects the sanctity of the sanctuary; I believe that Operation Save America did itself and its cause no favors by invading a worship space, because many Americans will be appalled at this display of disrespect for religious freedom of worship.
 After all, we reject the idea of Taliban fundamentalists enacting radical control of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even trying to stifle the right to women’s right to education by nearly killing the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzi.
The minister who led the service and kept her head was Deanna Vandiver; she calls the protesters ‘religious terrorists’ who have made us targets in the process of trying to achieve their goals by violent means. At least the confrontation in the New Orleans church that morning did not turn violent, due in large part to the non-anxious reaction of those UUs present for the service. There was no yelling or pushing back, but there was an affirmation through the actions and the voices of the young people lifted up in song. There was a naming of what was going on by the minister from the pulpit and a request to behave appropriately. Then there was action to protect the children, secure the building, and call for help.
This is National Preparedness Month. Maybe this is an appropriate sermon to preach in that case. No one wants to think that we need to be prepared for something like the sanctuary invasion in New Orleans, but there are practical things we can take away form that morning’s disruption.
 The clergy of the New Orleans churches were interviewed on the VUU, not the ABC show with Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell, but the web broadcast of the Church of the Larger Fellowship; I have put the link to the interview on our Facebook page (please like us if you haven’t already): . In that VUU episode, which is entitled ‘Defending Sanctuary’, it was noted that there was a strategy employed in that sanctuary that morning that we need to be ready to use should any type of disruption occur in ours.
First, name what is happening. I will not always be in the pulpit, so our Worship Associates also need to able to give clarity to the moment: “What is happening at this moment is that someone is trying to disrupt our service; please respect the sacred space of this sanctuary.” Rev. Vandiver herself did not at first comprehend what was happening, and before she heard the words they were using she thought the shouting was from someone who didn’t understand the congregation’s tradition of silence during meditation. So telling others clearly from the pulpit also relieves anxiety of those who cannot understand what is happening, and this could be for several occasions when there is a disruption in the sanctuary.
 The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Minneapolis has a script under the podium with several paragraphs for the worship leader to read in case someone is having a medical emergency or there is violence erupting. But with a violent disruption it is vital to be vocal about who we are; we do not tolerate violence or disrespect of our sanctuary and our congregants.
The second thing is to have a protocol kicking in, for the church leaders – greeters or board members, who know they are responsible for physically removing the people who are disturbing the service; third is to make sure everyone is safe and secure. At our church safety briefing this week, we discussed the importance of locking the kitchen door when the service begins every Sunday, a new element of safety prevention that will begin next month. Of course there will be people arriving late, but they will need to use the front entrance. Leaving the back door unlocked provides easy access to our RE wing, and even people sitting in the conversation corner listening to the service will not be able to stop someone with violent intent from entering. So that would be one less action needed to secure the building in an emergency.
 And the final step is a debrief after all the activity is over. This helps to see what can be learned from the experience but also what we can do to respond what has happened. In the case of the New Orleans disruption, they embarked on a media outreach campaign that used “this awful experience as a tool to continue changing the hearts of this nation” (Taves). You might have seen Rev Vandiver on the Rachel Maddow program. The message they want to pass on is “that religious people have diverse ways of being pro-child and pro-family, and that religious liberalism might just be where we can find the clearest embodiment of what it means to be…pro-life in its truest sense. (Taves)
New Orleans UUs feel that this incident has not created a bunker mentality where they are afraid of being under attack, but instead are driven out even more into the wider community. Their social justice committee is called the community ministry team, and that name is proving to be quite accurate. They said on the VUU that they are being seen as people of faith because of their social justice stand, and that instead of ‘defending sanctuary’ they are ‘expanding sanctuary’ to disenfranchised and marginalized elements of the wider community. Meanwhile, there has been no outcry from conservative Christian groups who usually are very sensitive to restrictions on their religious freedom of expression…and you might have heard that the office of the Democratic mayor, Mitch Landrieu, backtracked and said that in error he had issued a proclamation praising Operation Save American for its ‘outstanding service to the city of New Orleans’!

As members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the South, where sometimes we may feel isolated, we do have support even though it may seem quite lonely at times. We have a cluster of UU congregations, the closest being our sister congregation on Aiken. The spirit of the Cambridge Platform still lives in the relationship that we can continue to grow with their members. The relationship that we have with other area communities of faith, through the Progressive Religious Coalition and the Interfaith Fellowship of Augusta, is also a source of support. And we are of course a source of support to them: yesterday in meeting with the Interfaith Fellowship, I heard the Imam of the Islamic Center talk about recent threats phoned in to their center threatening on the eve of 9/11 to burn copies of the Koran. We agreed that continuing our efforts together to educate the community about faiths other than Christianity is the important work we need to do.
Our support for religious freedom is crucial to our identity as Unitarian Universalists. The price we pay for our dedication to our faith has always been the threat of violence – from the early days when Michael Servetus and Francis David paid with their lives, Joseph Priestley being burned out of his home, Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo martyred during the civil rights struggle. Even in the history of this church – for example, the creation of the Open Door kindergarten and the threats we faced – we have known the threat that liberal religion poses to prejudice and intolerance.

What else can we do but circle round for freedom? In the words of Edward Frost, “It would be far worse for us if, in our fear, we doused the fire and ran, alone, into the dark.” Let us pledge today to circle around the light of freedom, inclusion, compassion, and love that our chosen faith provides for us. 

May it be so, Blessed Be, Amen.
GW Ortiz, 9/21/2014

Monday, August 4, 2014

On Turning 60, Part 2

On Turning 60, Part 2
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
August 3rd 2014

This morning we have a special occasion to celebrate. After last Sunday’s Camp Meeting service, I wanted to pick music that would be relevant to our mature 60 years. In May I gave the first part of this sermon On Turning 60 about myself, so I figure I know what it feels like to be 60…and so some of the hymns we could have sung today for our 60th are:

            Go Tell It on the Mountain, But Speak Up
            Just a Slower Walk with Thee
            Nobody Knows the Trouble I Have Seeing
            It Is Well With My Soul, But My Knees Hurt

Well, maybe 60 isn’t so old, especially when I think of the congregations I visited in England earlier this month: Leeds Unitarian Chapel had its first services in March of 1674, and York Unitarian Chapel in 1693.
Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel, Leeds

Closer to home, Unitarianism arrived in South Carolina in 1787. The Charleston church is the oldest Unitarian Church in the South.
But even though our congregation is 60 years old, the first Unitarian congregation actually formed in Augusta in 1826 (
A meeting house was built in 1827 and a minister was called in 1830. Until 1837, the Rev. Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, whose father had designed the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, was minister to the Unitarian church in Augusta.  
Rev. Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch

But by 1837 Rev. Bulfinch was gone, and the congregation dissolved because of three reasons: internal conflict; conflict with the American Unitarian Association over its anti-slavery stand; and severe criticism from the Augusta community for the Unitarians’ liberal Christian beliefs. Following these disagreements the church, like others in the South, closed in 1840. Rev. Bulfinch later wrote a novel that was a thinly veiled commentary on his struggle with slavery, which many of his parishioners supported; soon he left the Unitarian church and became a Christian minister.
A Unitarian Church formed in Savannah in 1830 but it also experienced the same problems as the group in Augusta and by 1859 it had disbanded. The experience was so disheartening to Unitarians that, when a brash young minister of the Savannah church suggested in 1854 that a Unitarian denomination-sponsored mission group be established in the Atlanta area (specifically in Marietta), he was soundly rebuked by one of the founders of the Augusta congregation and a pillar of Unitarianism in Georgia. Dr. Richard Arnold 
wrote to the young minister saying, “No, no, Georgia is too new a country, in that section of it, for Unitarian Christianity. A few from the land of steady habits may carry it thither with them, but if it were strangled in Augusta, I have no hopes of its reviving and flourishing in Marietta, Cobb County, which twenty years since was an Indian Hunting ground. . . ” (
That’s the Unitarian experience; there were more small, active Universalist churches than Unitarian churches in Georgia before the war, but no congregations remained active afterward. ( And so for more than 100 years, until 1954, there was no Unitarian presence in Augusta.
Now, last night we had a dance to celebrate our 60 years, and Tracy Craig and Alan Totten gathered dance music from every decade since UUCA was created. And while I was looking at some of the titles, I thought some of them would explain some important points about this church that I picked out of Lyn Dennison’s paper on the first 50 years of this congregation (Lyn Dennison, History of the First Twenty Five Years of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta, Augusta, GA, 2004).
Savannah Riverwalk, Augusta

The first title is from a Bruce Springsteen song from 1979, “The River”. The Savannah River is a vital part of our history. The roots of our congregation as we know it today were planted in Aiken in 1953 with the founding of the original Unitarian Fellowship of Aiken. The Augusta Fellowship was founded in 1954, one year after the Aiken Fellowship was founded. These early Unitarians mainly were here to construct and operate Savannah River Plant, at that time the newly opened plutonium production facility. To begin with in Augusta, services and meetings were held at a local Jewish Reform temple, the Congregation Children of Israel.
The Unitarian Fellowship of Augusta, is of course, now the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta. After the Aiken Fellowship dissolved many Aiken UUs traveled back and forth across the Savannah River to Augusta for years, actively participating in the Augusta congregation.
In the year 2000, a Unitarian Universalist fellowship was organized in Aiken, with the help of the Augusta minister Dan King. (
David Bowie’s song “Rebel Rebel” from 1974 is another appropriate song title, because it wasn’t long after the fellowship formed that the small group of Unitarians began to make waves. In the 1950s and 1960s, the UU Church’s attitude towards racially integrated congregations was locally controversial. The church received phone threats when its members made statements about racial politics in the local media. This congregation was also in the 10 % of rebels who voted ‘no’ to the proposal to consolidate Unitarians and Universalists in 1961 – mainly because it had experienced growth as a Unitarian fellowship and was afraid to lose the momentum of increasing membership.
Being counter-cultural is another way of being rebellious. The Augusta UU congregation voted in 1999 to become a designated Welcoming Congregation, way ahead of its time in being a place of worship that was LGBT-friendly. (
Unlike most other churches, over the years we have made alliances with other progressive houses of worship, and we’ve developed interfaith relationships at a time in the world when it is more important than ever to pursue dialogue and not conflict.
Now the congregation is about to embark on another cutting-edge project, beginning its work on becoming a Green Sanctuary congregation, bringing environmental awareness to our own members and the wider community. The word Rebel in the South sometimes has a different meaning, more associated with the ‘War of Northern Aggression’! But there is no doubt that this Unitarian Universalist community has long been known as a bunch of upstarts who defied the status quo, whether it is race relations, LGBT rights or the lack of a Bible-belt mentality.
Augusta’s own Godfather of Soul, James Brown, sang “It’s a Man’s World”. The Augusta Unitarian Fellowship was founded in an era when women were beginning to speak their own truth to power. Women from our congregation led a small group in 1961 to start Augusta’s first integrated preschool, Open Door, which still exists on Walton Way.
Open Door Kindergarten
And nationally, after the consolidation of Unitarians and Universalists, UU women took on the sexist language of church hymnals.  Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the UUA’s 1964 hymnal, had sections titled “Man,” “Love and Human Brotherhood,” and “The Arts of Man.” Their work resulted in Singing the Living Tradition in 1993, which uses more inclusive language.
Another change that also has impacted this congregation was the rapid increase in women UU ministers—from about 5 percent in 1977 to about 50 percent today. ( So maybe the Aretha Franklin song “Sisters Are Doin It for Themselves” sums up these developments.
And speaking of women artists, Tina Turner sang, “What’s Love Got to do with It?” So far the history has been interesting, but underpinning the existence of this congregation is its commitment to love. Love for its members, for its friends, for the community, the wider world. We see examples through the years of how members and friends have gone about building what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community…and they have done it together, loyal to each other and to this covenantal congregation.
Love has a lot to do with it, Tina, and within that, relationship, as in the Beatles song “With a Little Help from My Friends” and James Brown’s “I Feel Good - I Got You”. And we do make the CSRA feel good when we add to its cultural life; we have well-respected musicians like Rob Foster and Joe Patchen, our music director, and singers in music groups like the Augusta Choral Society; we have members like Bea Kuhlke, a well-known artist whose current exhibition is getting rave reviews; we have a jazz concert series beginning next Friday that has resurrected Chamber Jazz, in this sanctuary which used to be the venue in the 1990s for jazz concerts.
4 Seasons Chamber Jazz Concert Series
In fact, maybe the only known Unitarian Universalist miracle occurred here at the Augusta Jazz Project series during that time! Here’s a little bit of history I only found out when I did a radio interview with Brenda Durant on yesterday’s Arts Weekly. Brenda told me that she used to come to the concerts here, and that one night after the concert was over all the men left before putting the room back to its normal configuration; so, even though she had a neck and shoulder problem that she’d been receiving treatment for, she and a friend picked up a piece of heavy furniture and moved it. As soon as she put it down she felt a click and her neck felt fine, no pain at all!
So, where do we go from here? Will the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta celebrate 60 years from now? Will those children who sang Happy Birthday this morning be here in 60 years as the elders of this congregation? And just as importantly, how will we spend those 60 years?
Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work: I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” I think this church should work on both…and when I think of what has made us successful, and what could cause this church to remain a vital force that draws people from all over the area and across the Savannah River, a rebellious and counter-cultural beacon of liberal religion, an inclusive community, a beloved community, a church that opens itself and gives of its values and talents to the wider world – well, I believe it comes down to risk-taking, to courage, and to a tough skin. And when I read Rev Tony Larson’s post in the Etext library this week – which I’ve posted on our UUCA Facebook page – I knew that it would form part of my anniversary wishes to each of you in this congregation:

“You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you don't like getting offended. If you haven't been offended yet, it’s only because you haven't been around long enough. In trying to sermonize on some of the issues in our lives today, I'm bound to hit some raw nerves and you'd better be ready for it. At least you know it's not personal. I care about you - and the fact that we disagree at times in no way takes away from that.
You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you're a Christian who doesn't think atheists belong here. You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you're an atheist who thinks Christians don't belong here, or Buddhists, or psychics, or pagans, or spiritualists. Remember the criterion for membership here is humane living. The rest is a matter of individual choice.
You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you want all the answers, because we don't even know all the questions.
Finally, you should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you can't stand name calling. You are likely to get it by staying here. When you tell people you're Unitarian Universalist, some of them will seize on the more sensational aspects of this church. "Oh, you're that atheist church." or "You're the people who worship flowers."
Labelling is a price that you pay and a risk you take in belonging to this church. Some people who use to be members here, decided not to take that risk. Then there are others who decide that those who label and name-call reveal more about themselves than about this church. There's bravery in the decision to stay. There's courage in not running out when you're under fire. And, if it's any consolation, Unitarians and Universalists have had a long history of being labelled and vilified - and of responding with courage that comes from faith in the human race, from the days when UU's fought that respectable institution called slavery, to their battle for women's rights to vote and their struggle for civil liberties.
You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you don't like diversity, and you should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you can't stand the name calling that will inevitably result from being a diverse church.
My thanks to all of you who have stuck it out!” (

And my thanks to you all for being here today to celebrate the wonderful legacy this church is building for the next 60 years!

Blessed Be, Amen.

Gaye W. Ortiz

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant
June 15th 2014
“Who are these Unitarian Universalists, standing around the coffee table on Sunday morning discussing last night's movie and next fall's election; reviewing the morning's sermon, designing tomorrow's education, storming over next century's oceans? Joyful celebrants of the gift of life, mixing nonsense with quest of the ages, turning secular need into concerned action, serving wine on the lawn and petitions in the foyer?” Betty Mills is the author of that well-known quote used frequently in worship, and even on the webpage of the Augusta MAINE Unitarian Universalist Community Church!

In the 1950s in Bismarck ND, this housewife revealed to friends over dinner one evening the fact that she and her husband had ‘fallen away’ from their churches. They discovered that the same was true of the people around the table…and, wishing to provide a spiritual upbringing for their children, decided to found a UU church in Bismarck.

Betty Mills became a well-known UU lay leader, writing a book about Unitarian-Catholic dialogue in 1964; in fact she was so well-known for her service to the UU faith that she remembers a neighbor lady saying, “It’s a shame that she’ll go to hell and take those four beautiful children of hers right with her.”  (See more at: She is still going strong, and just last month at the Bismarck UU Church delivered a sermon on liberal religion called “On Not Being Scorched by the Torch.”

Now, if that story about the founding of the UU church in Bismarck sounded vaguely familiar to some of you, it is probably because that very same type of dinner table conversation went on here in the Augusta and Aiken areas in the 1950s, and the result here was the same – two fellowships created by young families, who wanted to create a place where they could explore faith and provide a program of religious and spiritual formation for their children. In August we will celebrate 60 years of its existence!

To go back to the quote I began with, it’s a pretty accurate description of the sometimes quixotic nature of our members: Joyful celebrants of the gift of life – and to Betty’s phrases ‘serving wine on the lawn’ and ‘standing round the coffee table’ we might add ‘piling plates high with potluck delights’. And as much as we may look back at the morning’s sermon, we do look to the future, at next fall's election and designing tomorrow's education. What else is our ‘concerned action’, our ‘signing petitions in the hallway’ for, if not to make a better future for our world?

In fact we are a prophetic people, even as we ‘mix nonsense with the quest of the ages’, because we already ‘storm over next century's oceans’. We were ahead of the times when it came to slavery and civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights – what will the storms of the next century be, I wonder? Whatever they might be, I have no doubt that UUs will be in the midst of the struggle – ‘Gathered Here in the struggle and the power’.
So our work as Unitarian Universalists is not done by any means…but as we wind down the church year, it is the time when we can stop and look back over the last year.

It is the time for recognizing the service that many of you have provided for the good of this congregation, so that as we gear up to celebrate our 60th anniversary, we can see that we have a lot to celebrate…and top of the list of things is service – to each other, to the community and to the wider world. There is a church in England with a stone above the front door, on which it is carved: “Servant’s entrance.” Maybe we need to imagine that being carved above our door as we walk through it each Sunday morning.
The title of my sermon this morning is, Well done, good and faithful servant. It comes from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s found in a story called ‘The Parable of the Bags of Gold’. This parable is sandwiched in between ‘The Parable of the Ten Virgins’ and ‘The Sheep and the Goats’. It’s fair to say that in these three parables, the master in each of these stories comes away fairly disappointed, things don’t go terribly well.

Jesus is the storyteller, trying to teach with the help of these parables about the Kingdom of heaven, and what it will be like.

The first story has the five foolish virgins and the five wise virgins, who as part of a wedding celebration go out to meet the bridegroom with their lamps; the bridegroom, clearly suffering from an all-night batchelor’s party, has fallen asleep and hasn’t shown up. The foolish virgins have to leave and go buy more oil for their lamps because they didn’t prepare well and fill them up before setting off. Sure enough, while they are gone, the bridegroom comes, the wise virgins go off with him to the banquet, and the door is closed, leaving the foolish virgins out in the cold. The moral of the story, Jesus says, is to keep watch because you do not know the hour or the day that the kingdom will come.

On the other side of the Bags of Gold story, is the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus warns that Judgement Day will bring a separation of people, just as a shepherd sets apart the sheep from the goats. The King rewards the sheep because, as he says, “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’”
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

The goats, on the other hand get a bad rap (or even, a baaaad rap), and are cast into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. They, like the sheep, did not recognize the Lord in the least of their brothers and sisters, the difference being that the goats didn’t bother to help them in the first place.

Now we come to the story of the bags of gold, given by the master to his servants as he prepared to go on a journey. When he returns and holds them to account, he finds that two of the servants made gains on the gold, and they present the extra bags of gold to him. To each the master says,
‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

However, one servant – instead of putting the money to work for him – digs a hole and hides it, and when he presents the one bag back to his master receives a tongue lashing because he did not return it with interest. The moral, as Jesus makes clear, is that ‘whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. 

Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ His fate, like that of the goats and the foolish virgins, mars what otherwise might be a rather positive set of stories about what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.

But, is this image of the master accurate as to what God might be like? Carla Works, in her commentary on Matthew Chapter 25, draws our attention to the business practices of the master, which may seem more fitting to some Wall Street sharks that we know:

“He is a man who reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he has not scattered seed. He aggressively seeks to expand his estate and takes whatever he can wherever he can to make a profit.
He even reprimands the servant for failing to invest the money with the bankers so that he might have gained interest -- a practice forbidden to Jews as written in scripture (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-38).
The master's willingness to earn money at the expense of others challenges any allegorical interpretation of the parable that would directly correlate him with Jesus, who never acts in a manner to seek personal gain. That a wealthy landowner would behave in this manner, however, makes the story all the more compelling. 
The third slave admits that he was afraid to lose the master's money. To protect himself, he buried the talent in the ground. Although this may seem odd to audiences today, burying treasure was quite common at this time (13:44).
The master is furious. He had entrusted this servant with a portion of his property in order that the slave would use his abilities -- abilities that had helped the master in the past -- in order to turn a profit for his lord. This slave, however, was too afraid to take a risk -- even though risky behavior was part of the master's business. Instead, he attempted to secure his own well-being. In the end his unfaithfulness to carry on the master's work cost him severely (25:30).
The master expected the servants to continue his business, to take risks to make a profit, and to emulate his behavior. Two servants were found faithful, and they are rewarded. Their faithfulness had increased the master's wealth and expanded his estate.” (

Always an interesting if not bizarre jaunt into bible land, you may be thinking, but what does this have to do with Unitarian Universalists, who, although we honor the wisdom and social activism of Jesus, don’t hold to the idea of casting anyone into anything resembling eternal hell?

Well, recall how the faithful servants of the first story are spreading the Kingdom of God to the whole world by doing their good work of feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger?

This is a theme that comes up again and again in all that we do as a faith tradition when we follow our principles, when we stand on the side of love.
And it is important that we know how to explain our values to the wider world, by using the stories and teachings that the dominant Christian culture of our area understands. Just today a message from the UUA about the need for speaking up against gender discrimination says
As religious people, we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. There's not a qualifier to that command. Love one another. That is the basis of community, religious or otherwise. With so many young LGBT teens killing themselves because we are quiet in the face of societal pressure, it's for us to be more open, so that people may remain alive. With so many of our homeless youth in NYC -- over 40 percent identifying as LGBT -- it's for us to let down our tight sense of how people must look so that our kids may have a home again.
For those who follow the teachings of Jesus, or other progressive religious voices centered in compassion, we are called to care for those who are homeless, who are poor, or who are ill. I believe that also means to help ensure those conditions do not come about, and to avoid contributing to those forms of pain and suffering.”

Next week Rev. Mark Kiyimba is going to come here to speak about the importance of our UU faith. What will he see when he walks into this sanctuary and meets you, the members and friends of this congregation? In light of what is happening in his part of the world, we clearly have to live into our faith in working for the inherent dignity and worth of every person.

We can be proud of our 60 years of doing that, and we can see that the founders of this congregation invested wisely in the future of this church with their bags of gold.

This afternoon, as we abide by our covenant and as we once again make our democratic ideals come to life through the practice of our governance in the annual meeting, we can say to those assembled, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”

May we be the ones who make it so, blessed be, Amen.

Gaye W. Ortiz