Transformation through Service

Rev. Meg Barnhouse & Leadership Team
October 8, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

How will you use your gifts? What if we were able to use our gifts to their full potential, and purposefully encourage others around us to do the same?

Call to Worship
Mother Teresa

Love cannot remain by itself – it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action and that action is service. Whatever form we are, able or disabled, rich or poor, it is not how much we do, but how much love we put into the doing; a lifelong sharing of love with others.

How Will You Use Your Gifts?
by Don Southworth

One of the first things I saw on my first day of seminary at Starr King School for the Ministry in August 1996 was the official school T-shirt. On the front of the shirt was a beautiful drawing of a sand dollar. I discovered the importance and meaning of the sand dollar later that morning during our opening worship service. Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King, spoke poetically and movingly about the sand dollar’s history at the school and its symbolism for our time there. For decades incoming students have been given a sand dollar as a welcome gift in a ritual to honor the gifts we brought to the school and to represent the grace and mystery of our vocations to ministry. We were each invited to choose a sand dollar to take with us on our journeys.

With tears in my eyes, I prayerfully selected the sand dollar that I knew would be the perfect companion on my road to ministry. When I returned to my seat, and as I lovingly fondled it, my precious sand dollar shattered into several pieces and soon was nothing but sand dollar dust. I realized that this probably wasn’t a good omen for my future, so I snuck back to the basket to take another. Certain that nobody saw me, I slunk back to my seat and gently placed the new sand dollar in my pocket. Fifteen minutes later, when I went to touch my sacred sand dollar, I discovered it too was in pieces. Convinced that the Gods were telling me something about my choice to pursue the ministry, I quietly dumped my sand dollar dust into the garbage and wondered if seminary was the right place for me.

Fortunately, the T-shirt on the wall had writing on the back as well. It said: “How will you use your gifts?” Since sand dollars did not seem to be my thing, I hoped I could do a better job with that question. On that day, that question became one of the guiding lights of my life and ministry. How will you use your gifts? I have been blessed to be surrounded by faculty, friends, family, colleagues, and congregations committed to living that question with me. It is a question with the power to transform the world.

How will you use your gifts? Imagine what would happen if everyone of us committed to fully living out the answer to that question and helping others to do the same. Imagine if every person in the world overcame their doubts, fears, and oppressions and shared all their gifts.

We have the power to change and heal the world when we use our gifts to bless the world. And what better place to practice than in our religious communities, where we are encouraged to bring our unique talents, skills, passions, and dreams, and share them as widely as we can – even on those days when we feel as imperfect as a broken sand dollar.

You and I are miracles, my friends. We are packages of gifts that have never been seen before in the history of the world and will never be seen again. Our potential, our greatness, lie in how well we open our packages, our lives, and share them with other people. To paraphrase the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

Everybody can be great. Because everybody can share their gifts with the world. You don’t need a master of divinity degree to share your gifts. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to share your gifts with the world. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. (And maybe a pocket full of sand dollar dust!)


Meg Barnhouse

Let the life if lead speak for me
Let the life if lead speak for me
When I’m lying in my grave
and there’s nothing left to say
Let the life if lead speak for me

Our Worship this morning is about Transforming Lives. Two members of this congregation will speak about their own lives, which have been transformed through service within this congregation.

One of my favorite theologians is the Baptist minister Howard Thurman. He said

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Most of the church members you see participating in worship this morning are members of the First UU “Transformation Through Service” team. They are here to invite you into transformation. If you care to participate, they have interviewers who sit with you for about an hour to ask you questions about you. This morning you are invited to think about a word or two that describes a gift you bring to this community. You might be a good teacher, a listener, a builder, an idea person, a detail person, or all of the above. This program is an invitation to transformation through service, so no one is asking you to sign your gift words. They will be collected at the end of the sermon time and some of them will be read aloud so we can be encouraged by the many gifts among us.

Tomas Medina

If I had my way, we’d change the order of our mission statement. I’d swap “do justice” and “transform lives” so that our mission statement read, “We gather in community to nourish our souls, do justice and transform lives:” In my experience, that I’m about to share with you, it is in doing justice that lives are transformed.

When I first walked through the doors of First UU, three and a half years, ago. I came for the worship service, to nourish my soul.

And my soul was nourished. It felt really good to be surrounded by people who believed in the same things I did, our 7 principles, and who drew on our 7 sources to inform their spiritual journey.

When I took the path to membership class here, I was told that there was a need for ushers and that being an usher was a good way to start becoming part of the community.

So my very first act of service here was to usher. And I did it for selfish reasons, to become part of the community. And it worked.. One Sunday, while I was ushering, Rev Mari walked up to me and asked me if I was going to come to the newly formed Alphabet Soup group, for people who identify as belonging to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning community. I joined.

Another Sunday Rev Mari asked me if I was going to be part of the Adult religious education group, that was going through the new Welcoming Curriculum to help ensure that we continue to be welcoming to the LGBTQ community. I joined.

Another Sunday, Rev Mari asked me if I was going to be part of the newly formed People of Color group. I joined.

As an aside, if I just read the announcements in our order of service, Rev Mari woldn’t have had to take the extra step of telling me about all these opportunities. But I grew up Catholic and at the end of mass, the priests always read the announcements. I kind of figured if there was something I should know it’d be announced from the pulpit. That is not the case here.

Eventually, people other than Rev Mari starting asking me to do things. I became the facilitator of the Alphabet Soup Grop, I served on the intern committee for our most recent ministerial intern, Susan Yarborough. And, I’m a steward for this year’s pledge drive.

But it was my encounter with Peggy Morton, that really transformed my life, she told me about an opportunity to visit immigrant women being held in detention , at Hutto, about 45 minutes from here.

I am a child of immigrants and very much appreciate the opportunities this country has given to my family and me. For the longest time, I’ve wanted to give something back And, I’ve been very bothered by the fact that many immigrants to this country don’t receive the welcome that my parents were given when they immigrated in the 1950’s.

I began to visit women at Hutto once or twice a month All I did was converse with them, about simple things like their families back home or in the States. And, about incredible things such as their harrowing trips from their home countries to the states and the reasons why they came, which was often out of fear for their lives after seeing family members killed by gangs.

Talking with these women was humbiling. I very much admired their courage and resilience. It also made me appreciate how easy my life is because of the fact that I was born in the US, through no effort on my part.

All of the activities I’ve mentioned have been transformative for me. Before moving to Austin, I lived in NYC for 25 years. When I lived there I was a very appreciative consumer. I took advantage of much of what the city offers: theater, restaurants, night life, etc. My time at First UU has made me much more into a creator. I feel like I make experiences now as much as I consume them.

I’ve saved the most important transformative experience, I’ve had for last. This June, inspired by my time at General Assembly, our annual gathering of UUs, I took my first pro bono immigration case as an attorney. I represented a lesbian woman from Guatemala who had fled with her girlfriend because of threats made on their lives. When the women crossed the border into the US, they were caught by ICE and put into detention, aka jail, at Hutto. The girlfriend voluntarily deported herself back to Guatemal unawae of her rights to seek asylum. My client, on the other hand, did file for asylum. Though American Gateways, a not for profit organization that provides legal help to immigrants, I represented this women in immigration court. I’m happy to say that on August 23, the immigration judge handed down her decision and granted my client asylum. My client is now out of detention, living and working in Austin, without fear of being deported.

This was the single most transformative event of my life. Last year in a class I’m taking here at First UU, we were asked the question as to what is the thing in your life that you feel driven to do, that you just can’t not do. I answered that I’ve struggled with this my whole life. I felt like I should have a calling but never had one. I can now say, I have one. Using my legal education to help new immigrants to this county, is now something that I cannot not do.

Currently, I’m helping with our guest in Sanctuary, Alerio’s legal case. And it feels great to be able to provide the service that I feel called to, in the same place that I call my spiritual home. I feel whole, in a way that I’ve never felt before.

My point in telling you all this is to encourage you to move beyond just attending worship and start providing a service that you feel at least a teensy bit of a calling to. Or, if you already giving service, first of all, thank you. And secondly, if you fee so called take a leap and try something you have never done before. I acknowledge that we’re all busy and it totally normal to resist giving up more of your time. Believe me, I’ve often had that feeling myself. But, I promise you that in providing service to others your life will be transformed, in ways big and small. And just as important as the transformation, your soul and the souls of those your serve, will be nourished.

Carolyn Gremminger

So, how is serving others transformational?

My path of service at First UU has transformed my relationship with our community: from being a consumer to being a co creator. My energy has been heightened. I now purposefully try to see how I can use my gifts to become an innovator in service here and how I can connect with others to enhance our church community, and its efforts to better serve Austin and our world.

As writer Thomas Moore has said, “this process is not so much something we do, as it is something done to us”

Of course, it is important that I am clear on my motivation and attitude.

I try to enter with an open heart and mind and create a loving, accepting place for others. This effort sometimes open up new avenues inside of me.

If I draw from my Source, my Ground of Being, this enables me to have more hope and energy

“We all have a unique gift of service to contribute, and with time and persistence, it becomes apparent, by finding that “sacred service” the work that helps others and nourishes ourselves, we find how to “begin with ourselves, but not end with ourselves”- Roger Walsh

I have found that service can be transformational, when done mindfully and intentionally. There is a joyful path of service, a conscious spiritual path.

Not out of a sense of obligation, or for the ego or personal gain, not attached to outcomes.

A specific commitment to care for a need in our circles of concern.

I would like to share an example of how I was a beneficiary of someone else’s apparent path of service. I was going through a biopsy procedure, a few years ago and I was very afraid.

I did not take anyone with me to the appointment at the Hospital.

A volunteer approached me in the waiting room, and asked if she could accompany me. I agreed.

The reason it was scheduled at the hospital was due to the fact that the area to be biopsied was close to my rib cage. I decided to be a brave solder, as usual, and did not accept my doctor’s offer of a local anesthetic.

The volunteer stayed right by my side. As the procedure went on, I came to understand my doctor’s offer. The pain was intense and I was obviously distressed. The volunteer held my hand as the doctor administered the anesthetic. Tears were rolling down my face…. I grasped my helpers hand and looked up at her through my tears and said “thank you” and I will never forget her response…”there is no where else I would rather be.

This happened years ago, and I have never forgotten it. I don’t know the lady’s name, and I would guess she is a cancer survivor. I have always hoped that her act of service helped her in some way. She surely helped me that day, and I was a total stranger.

It can be an inspirational path, in service of creation, done in gratitude and can result in a more joyful experience of life.

You might find that the people you are attempting to serve can help you, teach you things.

I can honestly tell you that I have been personally transformed by my path of service here at First UU.

When I first entered these doors 15 years ago, I felt pretty lost and isolated. I now have support on my spiritual journey in community. I feel at home here.

Being a lay leader has introducing me to people and ideas that have changed my life at a profound level. I see myself in a different way today, more confident and loved. My mind and heart have been opened to a whole new realm of possibilities and hope. I now know that I am a valued member here whose talents and presence are needed. It has truly been a life changing experience.

In our community, our tribe, in the crucible for the creative, to quote Meg’s recent sermon. I experience so much fun and meaning and I have made some really dear friends through service on the Board of Trustees, cochairing the Public Affairs forum and helping out with the theater group and gallery openings.

Together we have accomplished great things…I can’t wait til the next service opportunity!!!! J

First UU is a safe place to practice new skills.

You can risk failure and be ok. Grow from the risk, in a non shaming environment. You can take a leap of faith here!

We are all in need of caring and care at certain points in our lives.

One could ask the question, who is really being served?

My reality is that I receive so much more than I give.

There are so many ways to get involved in service work here both large and small, short and long term projects and efforts.

So, if you are interested, how can you find your calling, your “Path of Service”

You could ask yourself:

What makes me come alive? What causes am I passionate about? What energizes you? What is needed?

Be open to the gifts that service can give you. The Process open up new possibilities, talents, feelings, sensitivities, a new and profound sense of belonging. It can unearth a new identity.

What we do in this life matters, for ourselves, our loved ones, and the community at large…. We can help to build a “heaven on earth”.

So, what do you say friends, let’s all work together, to continue to build Beloved Community .


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Most sermons delivered at the First UU Church of Austin during the past 17 years are available online through this website. You will find links to them in the right sidebar menu labeled Sermons. The Indexes link leads to tables of all sermons for each year listed by date (newest to oldest) with topic and speaker. Click on the topic to go to a sermon.