Celebration Sunday – Rev. Kristin G. Schmidt

Fourteen years ago this July, I went to the DC Marriage Bureau to get a license so that Christian and I could get married. The District of Columbia had passed marriage equality months before in March of 2010, but it wasn’t until July that the Court of Appeals upheld the decision, and the joy among the couples who finally trusted their marriages wouldn’t be invalidated was infectious. I’m pretty sure I was the only woman in line that day planning to marry a man, and I have never experienced such happiness and elation in any government building again since. 

Just a couple years later UUCSS played a leading role in getting marriage equality passed in Maryland. And that’s just one example of how this congregation has used its gifts for a larger purpose, and it’s something I know many of our longtime members are very proud of. 

There is a long history of religious communities working for freedom. In 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote a letter while imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama for civil disobedience. Almost the entirety of his letter is still deeply relevant, but one passage in particular is especially poignant today: 

There was a time [Dr. King wrote] when the church was very powerful… In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” They were small in number but big in commitment… They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. 

Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are. 

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the [present] century. 

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. 

The world was at a decisive hour when I first began serving here three and a half years ago. In the summer of 2020 nearly everything was locked down, we could only meet online or outside, and the future of all congregations was unclear. We lost friends and loved ones to COVID, we worried how we would ever rebuild our community after everyone got out of the habit of coming to church. But UUCSS kept on keeping on. We worshiped and met and even did our auction online. The Racial Justice Task Force helped us learn about the 8th Principle, and our congregation voted to adopt it. We sponsored a family forced to flee Afghanistan. And as many churches had to shrink their ministries, lay off staff, and even close altogether, our congregation raised $1m in a capital campaign, and the long-anticipated renovations on our Community Building finally began. 

We have faced our share of challenges and setbacks, and yet this congregation has grown in strength and health. Our Music ministry is thriving, our Religious Education ministry is growing, and our staff team is strong, talented, and enjoys working together. The Sanctuary that two years ago felt so cavernous is now nearly full most Sunday mornings with visitors and longtime members alike. Six new members joined our church last week. 

[Audience Member corrects “Nine”] Nine?! NINE?! Holy smokes, I love being corrected! That’s great!

People ask me all the time if I want this congregation to grow, what my vision is for UUCSS. Of course I want UUCSS to offer a warm welcome to all in search of a liberal faith home. I believe in the mission of this congregation, so of course I want us to grow. But the number of people who sign our membership book is less of a focus for me than the ways we could expand our impact. 

My vision for UUCSS is what Dr. King wrote about in his letter. Because 61 years after he wrote it, we find ourselves at another decisive hour. The challenges we face today are many: rising authoritarianism, threats to democracy, the deterioration of education and healthcare systems, increasing warfare. The list goes on. I believe these things will shape UUCSS just as profoundly as the pandemic has. But I also believe that the way through is by leaning in, engaging more deeply, and trusting that our community will rise to any challenge we face as long as we stay focused on our mission. 

My vision for UUCSS is of a congregation focused as much on our engagement with the wider community as we are on serving the people whose names grace our membership book. My vision is of a collective of members, friends, and community partners reshaping our communities so they are more just, more equitable, and more free for everyone. My vision is of a congregation using all of our many gifts to be a thermostat, to turn up the heat on our elected leaders.

And one of our most underutilized gifts is our physical plant. This  campus is an incredible gift we were given by previous generations, but it is going to take more money than our generous congregation can pledge each year to maintain it. That’s not a failing on our part. It’s just math. It’s the impact the changing economy has had on households in a country that consistently values helping the ultra rich get richer while everyone else must make do while rent, groceries, medical care, and education all keep getting more expensive. 

But like so many things, our biggest challenge just might prove to be our biggest opportunity. We heard from Scott about how our campus has helped Silver Spring Nursery School serve thousands of children and families over the last 58 years. UUCSS could fund the maintenance of our campus while extending our impact by renting to other organizations whose missions echo our own. There is even public money available to religious communities interested in building affordable housing on their land. I wonder what possibilities that holds for UUCSS? I wonder what other non-profits we could partner with, share the expenses and benefits of our campus with, so we can use our energy to leverage our power and grow in deeper relationship with our community? 

The love and hospitality, generosity and commitment of this congregation all continue to make me so proud to be your minister. I’m glad to serve a congregation with a track record of working for justice and mutual liberation. The work on the Community Building continues, but (goodness willing) in a few months it will be complete, and we will need to begin considering how we can maintain all of our buildings while also funding ministry that changes people’s lives. We’ve reached 96% of our pledge goal with 18 households left to pledge, so y’all have done your job. You’ve pledged generously. How will we steward the rest of our collective gifts and assets? What will we bring to the table? How will we turn up the heat for mutual liberation?

As the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker has said, we must answer this question: what will we do with our gifts? My hope, my prayer, is that UUCSS will choose to use all of our many gifts to bless the world.