Seeds for the New Year – Rev. Dr. Sofia Betancourt (UUA President)

Our reading today is a winter Blessing by the Reverend Dr Rebecca Parker.

In the shadowed quiet of Winter’s light Earth speaks softly of her longing because the wild places are in tears. Come she cries to us kneel down here on the frosty grass and feel the prayer buried in the ground. Bend your ear to my heart and listen hard. Love this world she whispers distill peace from the snow and water the cities with mercy. We’ve wonder from the forest and clothe grief with beauty. Rest in the rhythm of the turning year, trace the bending arc rounding the curve to justice and vow a new to do no harm. The winter trees stand watch haloed in the last gleams of the slanting sun glory sings here. Heaven echoes the call repeat the sounding joy. Make your life an answer. Bow. Praise. Rise.

My beloved housemate and chosen family, the Reverend Dr d’vorah Greenstein has been excited about winter sewing lately. This is the practice of starting seeds outdoors in the winter months long before most of us think about planting gardens. It’s a fairly simple and practical idea. Most gardeners save plastic containers from around the house that we might otherwise recycle, and we prepare them with soil, and seeds, and lids so they can protect the potential that they house through the coldest months of the year.

Why do we do this? Couldn’t we look at beautiful pictures and Seed cataloges instead and dream of all that we might plant in the spring months? I know that that has long been my personal practice. Why would we follow what, for some of us, are the winter holidays by tucking tiny kernels of life into unlikely spaces? I’ve decided to embrace this idea of setting seed long before signs of life will be visible as a type of leaning in to the New Year.

How many of us, like me, have gotten into a habit of disparagement at the years turning? I remember holiday ornaments in 2020 that had language I probably shouldn’t repeat in the pulpit without good cause woven into these beautiful snowflakes. I think we still have a small plastic dumpster with flames coming out of the top as a representation of our disparagement and dismay with the year prior. I can’t remember if it was ’21 or ’22. Politics pandemics and ideologies have turned what I used to associate with fireworks and other Festive Celebrations into a kind of creative dismissal of all that has come to pass in the prior 12 months.

Don’t misunderstand me, I fully embrace the power of humor that allows us to laugh our way closer to hopefulness and possibility. We need need more of that. And I’m not here to censor how we keep ourselves going in difficult times, but as often happens in my life, I can hear the Echoes of my grandmother’s teachings when I get a little too comfortable in how I process all the things. She used to teach me about the magic at the turning of the year, and she encouraged me to do whatever thing I most want to spend my time on or have shaped the year to come just as the the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.

I think this is related to that tradition of kissing a loved one right at the end of the countdown. Her encouragement reminds me that even in those most difficult years of active quarantine in the face of this ongoing pandemic, there were beautiful things to be proud of that didn’t belong in the dumpster fire, for all that it made us laugh in those isolating days.

A lot of that pride for me was grounded in the ways that our congregations and communities showed up for one another, showed up for the work of justice. It was grounded in my gratitude for our religious professionals, for our lay leaders, and our Nationals UUA staff as they pivoted, and resourced, and supported us through the unknown. Most are still recovering from that non-stop labor.

Beloveds, we leaned into community care in profound ways, and I am so proud of how we continue to do so. Even as many of us, though not all of us, experience fewer restrictions in our activities than we did then. We built magical bridges, The very kinds of connections and interdependence that we continue to live into together in new ways. Those bridges between and among us require tending, as does the religious witness that we hold together in the world in common cause. In the story that I shared for today’s service, we learned about a family negotiating their relationships to one another in their day-to-day living.

In the “Bridge of Flowers” by Leia Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, she invites us to consider the beauty in how we intentionally maintain our connections to each other and invest in bringing our values to bear in the world. This unique bridge connecting people across love, across differences in how they approach everyday life, their belief systems, and community engagement still allows for the creation of beauty and magic as beauty, and science, and magic weave together a path that can be navigated by everyone. It keeps them connected to their children, to their people, keeps them connected even when stress seems to rob them of their joy.

I probably don’t need to remind you that when times were difficult and two people who loved one another profoundly gave more than they could sustainably give to maintain and support their surrounding communities, the bridge of flowers collapsed. Not only did it collapse, but some outside of their nuclear family discouraged them from rebuilding the bridge. Soraya had a ramp after all, and Kamau had an elevator. It wasn’t as if they could no longer reach each other with enough effort, but the love at the center of their living space was missing and it took beauty and magic from unexpected places to reweave the interdependence that had long nurtured that family.

I can imagine my grandmother telling those children to hold the seeds, and the dirt, and the honey, and the spores together at midnight at the turning of the year. Of course, we still have time to set intentions or to weave magic for 2024, and the purposeful naming of what we most long to turn our focus toward feels important in this story. What are you most proud about from 2023? In what ways did your congregation or community encourage you to live more fully and to all that you hold most precious in this past year? How did they surprise you? How did you surprise yourself?

imagine that the great potential of our liberal and liberating tradition could be nurtured through the coming months in something as simple as a reused gallon jug. Maybe there is soil in the surrounding area that is already adapted to the climate where you live, or maybe you have collected seeds from plants that have grown more savvy about their surroundings over the years. I believe that our Unitarian Universalist faith is uniquely suited to the work of justice, to showing up for the rights and freedom of all. We have everything we need to respond to these times, even in moments of devastation or fear, even when bombs fall, even when ideologies of hatred and separation are lauded around the nation, even when the bridge that holds our hopes and dreams manages somehow to fall. There is a power and a hopefulness in how each one of us can set our intentions for the coming year and not wait on sun, or birdsong, or better weather to do the work of new growth. Earth itself can cradle our dreaming as we gear up for all that is yet to come.

To put those kinds of efforts, that faithful living, into another kind of theological context, I want to remind us of the writings of the Reverend Kenneth Patton on the temple of beauty. I consider Patton one of our modern Universalist theologians whose draw to Universal religion was such that he theorized the idea of a religion for one world, and he worked to bring it into being at the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. This was Patton’s commitment, the seeds he planted into the great potential of our faith. For Patton, Universalism needed to be expanded. It needed to be made large enough to become an expression that included a universal humanity, universal peace, universal welfare, universal health, universal freedom, universal security, universal science, and understanding.

I can imagine him reweaving a bridge of flowers with these words from his 1964 book, “A Religion for One World,” where in trying to describe for us how we might learn to live together in community with all of humankind. He writes “This is one world, you are one humanity. Live therefore in peace and till The garden of the earth. Make your days and the years of your children a glad time upon the earth.” Patton believed that religion, when drawn beyond the bounds of any one culture, any one expression, or any one group of people, contained within it the possibility of bringing into being all that is most right in the world. So here, goodness, freedom, justice, understanding, kindness, consideration, and the dismantling of discrimination and prejudice all reach their most noble, compassionate, and complete dignity, grace, and power. It’s a lot to expect from one universal tradition, but Patton believed that the potential for this possibility lay within reach if only we could learn and find good ways to describe it and to teach ourselves how to recognize it in its echoes through human art and human culture.

Now, I know that we have learned a great deal about the dangers of trying to define one big “T” truth that is available for all people. It’s not the availability that is the issue, it’s the likelihood that one dominant group’s perspective will be elevated as the ultimate goal to the erasure of all other cultural and communal expressions. That is not what Patton is calling for. But still, we know. To hold ourselves accountable to the impact of power in those scenarios. But what I most want to hold on to from Patton’s thinking is the very practical idea that liberals need good language and ideals to describe the things that we most long to bring into being. Our very pluralistic approach to Unitarian Universalism can make agreeing on shared language difficult, and without it, it’s hard to collaborate with one another or to hold on to all that we hold dear.

For Patton, the highest ideal that we can strive for in all of our efforts is beauty. I don’t think he meant that in a temporary or frivolous or vain kind of a way. He writes that unlike goodness or truth, words that we often lift as ideals in our tradition, beauty includes the highest expression of our values. He argues that there can be truth that is not beautiful, goodness that is not beautiful, but that beauty as its core is both truthful and good. And he reminds us that every expression of beauty born of our human interconnections serves as a kind of prophetic witness to what might best heal this world. Patton calls us to build temples of beauty. For me, those would probably take the form of gardens, and to fill them with everything that will preach our greatest ideals on our behalf.

So what beauty do you most want to call into being in 2024? How are your congregations and your communities leaning into all that is most needed in this coming year? How are you helping to keep those bridges well-tended? From the perspective that I am privileged to hold as the president of your Unitarian Universalist Association, I can tell you that there is already a lot to be proud of in our efforts in community. I hear from our field staff that care for each other far beyond the bounds and the limits of Unitarian Universalism remains the bedrock of this faith. I hear from our organizing strategy team again and again, as they work with partner organizations around the country, that they are thanked for the ways that UUs serve as the dependable core of volunteer efforts for justice in their communities. I get to witness the ways in which our national-level volunteers all across our tradition give their very best to keeping the values and the ideals of Unitarian Universalism alive in the world. And sometimes I get to sit with a few of you in small groups, where I’m told again and again how this faith saves lives.

Beloveds, I’m not here to tell you what seeds to plant in the coming year. I can tell you some of mine. In this shared ministry, and with the wisdom of so many others by my side, I am tucking the seeds of climate justice into my winter sowing this year. Alongside It go the seeds of democratic strategy, bodily autonomy, and decriminalization. With your dedicated national staff I get to plant seeds of accountability in ministry and congregational life, seeds of leadership development, resource production, ministry with youth and families, and greater equity among our religious professionals writ large. Together we will continue to sow seeds that protect the most vulnerable among us, and together, we will UU the vote again in this coming year.

The garden of my dreams is born of the great potential that I know lives at the heart of this faith, and the love that we call into being at the center of it all is more than enough, more than enough to help our dreaming bear fruit. Loves, these have been challenging times, and the beauty that we bring into being together will be enough. May 2024 shower you in blessings, and may you in turn take those blessings and share them in the world. Thank you for all that you are and for all that you will yet do.

May it be so. Amen, ashe, and blessed be.