Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula
January 29, 2023
Rev. Maddie Sifantus
Nine years ago this month we began our walk together, you and I. We began carving our path, blazing a trail, if you will, you and I, our living tradition here at 740 East Main Street, Santa Paula, my friends, beloveds. Five years ago on this Sunday of January when we held our Annual Meeting, I said from this pulpit when talking about “Our Living Tradition”: “We are the current carriers of the dreams and hopes and aspirations of those who founded this place in 1889—who believed enough in their vision to raise the money in 1891 to build this beautiful, now beloved building here on Main Street and to those who carried that vision forward to maintain it. We carry the dreams and aspirations of women and men through the ups and downs of the Gay Nineties, the Twentieth Century on into the New Millennium to this day.
“We are the current holders of that vision that “revelation is not sealed” and the living testament that a community can form itself around the words I John, ‘Beloved, let us love one another.’ (I John 4:7).” On that day five years, Kate English was our Worship Host. She is now our Congregation President. Thank you Kate! Today Karen Harris is my Worship Host on the day she is stepping off the Board after many years of service. Thank you Karen!
On that day back in 2019, a year before the pandemic that was nowhere on any of our horizons, before the deaths of several beloved members including board member Pat English with whom I was engaged at that time in designing focus groups on visioning and brainstorming about long range planning. And before all the other life passages we all have been through, my blurb for my sermon that day was this: “The Biblical prophet said, “Without a vision, the people will perish.” The mission of this congregation is to ‘practice inclusiveness, seek justice and foster spirituality.’ On this day of Annual Meeting, let’s begin to think about our mission and our vision for the coming year and beyond.”
That was 2019. And here we are in “the beyond”, with many aspects of our life as a congregation changed with the results of the pandemic, the addition of technology, the possibility to stay home on Sunday in your pajamas with the video off on Zoom or on Facebook when we don’t even know you are there unless you write us a message. Where meetings with the minister can be on Zoom such as our Sip and Check In With the Minister where we have regularly had attendees from Mainland China to Massachusetts to a mile away from our church building. And people can tune into Gathering the same way or join us here in the Sanctuary. Our last Gathering with harpist Laurie Rasmussen and our resident poet, Atul Ranchod, had 26 people here in person, but 70 people have either watched it live or engaged with it later on Facebook at last count. A different world. Or “a different time” as I said as the shutdown happened in March 2020. It has been a challenge for your minister to know how to navigate it, first with technology and then with setting priorities, still keeping our mission in mind which you remember is: “practice inclusiveness, seek justice and foster spirituality.” Not to mention trying to take care of myself and be a pastoral presence for all of you.
Today, as I continue our January theme of “Finding Our Center”, my blurb for this sermon was this: “On the day of our Annual Meeting when we do the business of this congregation, raising all the while our mission and vision for the future, Rev. Maddie continues to consider our January theme of “Finding Our Center”, starting from words of Joseph Campbell, said in the context of arguing for the benefits of following your bliss and seeing bliss as the north star that keeps you ‘on track’: ‘There is something inside you that knows when you’re in the center—that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam.’” I then asked, “ How do we know that as a congregation?” And I realized that I liked that image of finding what is our North Star, as individuals and a congregation.
I am a longtime subscriber to the Smithsonian Magazine. The current issue has a piece by the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Lonnie G. Bunch III, an African American man whose reflections I enjoy reading in each issue. Bunch reflects on his North Star which turns out to be the person and work of W.E.B Du Bois. He reflects in his piece:
When I was in ninth grade, I asked my dad who I should write about for a book report, thinking he would suggest Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. Instead, he gave me W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. At the time, I had no idea who or what that was—and neither did my classmates when I gave my report. Now, I realize that publication provided a North Star for my whole career. Du Bois, a prolific historian and sociologist, has long been an inspiration to me, and it was one of the great honors of my life to receive the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard University in 2019. His scholarship on structural racism shaped my life’s work by giving me a way to use history as a weapon that forces America to confront its tortured racial past and challenges us to live up to our stated ideals.
Bunch goes on to talk about a current exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt which is the Smithsonian’s design museum. It explores Du Bois’ efforts
“to prompt a racial awakening in the new exhibition “Deconstructing Power: W.E.B Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair.” The exhibition juxtaposes date visualizations from a collection created by Du Bois and his students at Atlanta University—titled the “American Negro Exhibit”—with artworks that were displayed elsewhere at the same world’s fair. That event, held in Paris in 1900 at the height of the Jim Crow era, championed technological, aesthetic, social and economic progress to a global audience—all while avoiding the driving forces of nationalism, imperialism, and the forced labor of people of color that made these celebrated achievements possible.”
This was Du Bois’ North Star at the turn of the twentieth century and continues to be Bunch’s North Star today, days when we still need this information about the “driving forces of nationalism, imperialism” and the use of people of color that make achievements and financial success for other groups possible. What is your North Star? What IS a North Star? And how can the concept of a North Star be helpful for us as a congregation about to have its Annual Meeting and for our congregation which is looking at its “long view?”
The definition of the North Star according to Merriam Webster is, “the star of the Northern Hemisphere toward which the axis of the earth points.” It is the brightest star in in Ursa Minor, at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, almost exactly above the North Pole. For our purposes today we are thinking about it as what is at our center, as we talked last week. Or that place that can help define our purpose, once we have discerned what our center is. Towards what are we pointing.
You can find all sorts of everything in this day and age via Google and other search engines. But I like the definition that someone named Michael Ofei gave on a blogpost on a minimalist vegan website (who knows there is such a thing as a minimalist vegan website). Ofei writes, “According to EarthSky, [another website which says it brings you daily updates on the cosmos and the world] the North Star or Pole Star—aka Polaris—is famous for holding nearly still in our sky while the entire northern sky moves around it.
“Metaphorically speaking, your North Star is your personal mission statement. It’s a fixed destination that you can depend on in your life as the world changes around you.
“For example, Gary Vaynerchuk has a goal of one day owning the New York Jets. This has been a lifetime dream of his and he cares deeply about it. Now his actions day-to-day are geared towards this specific goal. Whether it’s a new partnership, letting go of staff or starting a new venture, his decisions trickle down from his north star.
“Nelson Mandela’s mission was to liberate all people from the continuing bondage of poverty, suffering, gender and other discrimination.” Just as our North Star has been our mission statement (practice inclusivity, seek justice and foster spirituality) which you decided before my arrival is the lens through which you look at your purpose as a congregation. Much as we love our building, our mission does not say spend all our money on its upkeep and don’t change a thing about what it looked like in 1891. We need to change to be relevant—hence the screen we now have in our Sanctuary for lyrics and occasional videos and the tech table at the back. And hopefully before too long better lighting so I can see my words up here and you can see me or whoever is speaking whether day or night. Having the words on the screen and online do help us practice inclusivity…welcoming those who are unable to attend in person for whatever reason.
Ofei asks in his post whether finding a North Star is for everyone. He goes back to Nelson Mandela who said, “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” Finding your center—or your North Star—helps us fulfill our potential and focus what we are doing. As we come up to Ground Hog Day this coming week, Ofei comments, “way too many of us are stuck in groundhog day, and defining your north star could be a way out of it.”
So I ask you, what is your North Star?
Is it being the best parent you can be? The best grandparent? The best neighbor?
Is it providing fresh water to the world?
Is it empowering women in poorer communities, in our country or around the world?
Is it using your creativity to make something beautiful or express something from the core of your being?
Is it living a simple life?
I ask you to take a moment now to write down a word or a phrase to express your North Star, what is at your center?
[have them call out some of the answers]
I hope you will take the thoughts you have had this morning into the next week as you think about your own life…and I hope that you bring the concept of the North Star with you as we go into Annual Meeting and into taking the Long View in the coming months and years.
I end with wise words from Alice in Wonderland which I have shared before but which bare repeating:
“Cheshire Puss”, Alice began…
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”, said the cat.
“I don’t much care where….” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go”, said the cat.
As we prepare to sing one of the most favorite hymns of this congregation, Blue Boat Home, may we care which way we go. May we make the wise choices about the how and where we wish to go with our ship’s companions, so that we are relevant as we move into the future here in our beautiful building in Santa Paula and beyond in our community here in the Santa Clara River Valley. May we feel the fire of commitment to each other and our larger faith. May that fire ignite in us the passion to call us forward, all the while with the “deep assurance of the flame that burns within”, keeping our eye on that North Star.
When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul a blaze
When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within,
Then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin.
May it be so. Blessed be. Ashe. Amen.
 Our Living Tradition, UUCSP, 1-27-17.
 Smithsonian Magazine, Jan-Feb 2023, 9.
 https://theminimalistvegan.com/north-star/, Michael Ofei (2021)