© Rev. Jan Christian 2011. All Rights Reserved.
May 15, 2011
On the Occasion of the Ordination and Installation of Jeremy Nickel
as Minister of Mission Peak UU Congregation
Listen to Audio Version of Whole Service (mp3)
What a joy it is to be with you on this auspicious occasion. I met both Nicole and Jeremy in the fall of 2001 when we were all students at the Pacific School of Religion and I have had the privilege and joy of walking some with Jeremy on the long and winding road to this day. And I am humbled by the privilege of getting to deliver the sermon here today. Where we are today is not a place any of us could have imagined ten years ago. And we've got some pretty good imaginations.
We gather on another auspicious occasion. It is the 50th anniversary of the merger of Unitarian Universalism. I hope that in ten years our living tradition will be changed in ways we cannot imagine today. Our lives depend on it. The lives of others depend on it.
Listening to Garrison Keillor's radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion," one would think that Unitarian Universalists are incapable of commitment or conviction or collective action. In an October 2009 show, he imagined a football game between U.U.U.U., The Unitarian Universalist United University, and Gethsemane Seminary and Seminar Center in Central City, Gethsemane Seminary being for Bible-based Baptists.
We learned that "there was no powerful will to win" among the UUs. They were just out "to have an interesting football experience and then a post-game discussion." We heard their cheer of: "Give me a U - if you want to! Give me another U - if you're comfortable with that! Give me another U - unless you have to get going! Give me another U - as long as it's approved by committee!"
After their leader prays in the huddle (and is admonished for doing so), UUUU wins. Turns out, however, they had bet their entire six million dollar endowment on the other team. Yes, they had bet against themselves.
In the football game scenario, the other team had its problems as well. The other team was told: "We're going to win. Ever hear the word win? It means to pummel, punish, destroy, flail, smash, mash, bomb, pound, spear, lance, flog, trammel, steamroll, nuke, whip, trounce, tromp, humiliate, beat, bash, crush, kill, and spank."
The entire football game description brought to mind for me two lines from the poem The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yes, there is truth in these characterizations. A UUA tag-line reads, "Many Beliefs. One Faith." But I notice we have a tendency to talk a lot more about the many beliefs, than the one faith. We say we are a covenantal faith rather than a creedal faith, but we talk more about being non-creedal than we do about being covenantal. We say our good news is that "we need not think alike to love alike," but we spend more time talking about the ways we don't think alike than about our common message of love.
I liked these freedoms of ours when I came searching for a religion. I wanted a place that would accept me as I am and that would be large enough to hold me wherever my journey took me. This radical acceptance is foundational but we must build on the foundation. The point of religion is to give us something worthy of our commitment and our conviction and of collective action. If our religion doesn't make a difference in our lives and in the world, what is the point? If our religion doesn't give our children a foundation and a touchstone and the inspiration to live generous and loving lives, then why bother?
I have been thinking about commitment for some time. I've been a Unitarian Universalist since 1991 and a parish minister since 2002 and I've seen the ways we denigrate commitment and I've looked closely at my own issues around commitment. In 2005, I preached a sermon on commitment. But only a few months after that sermon, something happened that would change my understanding of commitment. I was inadvertently put in touch with Marines who were in Vietnam with my brother, Bobby, who was killed there. Today would have been his 66th birthday. My brother was the family favorite. After his death, I wasn't sure if the center would hold or that it should hold. I saw him as a victim and I was not interested in the military part of his life or in the military in general. So to set out on a journey with these guys was no small thing.
For the first time, I gave consideration to the Marine Corps motto which is Semper Fidelis - Always Faithful. When I began this journey, I would have said that Marines and I practice a very different sort of faith. I would have said theirs is a blind faith and mine is a questioning faith, but what I found both surprised and humbled me so much that I have written about it in a book entitled Leave No Brother Behind: A Sister's War Memoir.
We taught those Marines that there is no way to separate your own well-being from your brother's. We said you are part of a living tradition that started before you were born and with your faithfulness will be here after you are gone. We taught them not to leave anyone behind. We said that the greater your rank and privilege, the greater your responsibilities. We said that faithfulness is the opposite of fear. We said that the right thing isn't always the easiest thing. We taught them to move in a common rhythm in spite of their tremendous diversity.
And many of them remained faithful to their brothers. They came home, still achingly young, and they called parents who had lost sons. They named their own sons after their fallen brothers. And as years passed and as the internet made it possible, they began to look for one another and they began to gather in greater numbers. They never gather without having a memorial service for their fallen brothers. One maintains the nearby graves of two brothers, both corpsmen, who were killed in Vietnam. One, who lost his left arm in Vietnam, drove 2,500 miles a few years ago to be at the funeral of the man whose face he first saw when he woke up from that devastating injury. One, who had never spoken about the war to his wife of almost forty years, sat down with me and with her and talked about that day, a day that has haunted him all these years. In August of 2010, at the reunion banquet, I watched as another sister of a fallen Marine was given her brother's compass which someone had held onto all these years.
It breaks my heart to tell you that the United States Marine Corps did a better job than our childhood church of teaching my brother about faithfulness and commitment and providing him a path to follow.
The answer is not less faithfulness, it's more. The answer is not less commitment, it's more commitment to an ethic of trust and love and risk. It's more commitment to finding our common rhythm. We must stay hungry for the beloved community. We must stay just foolish enough to think it is possible. And we must get committed and stay faithful to that commitment.
Doug Muder has posed this question: "At its core, what is Unitarian Universalism really about? Do we have a message we are trying to bring to the world? Or do we have a culture we are trying to preserve against extinction?"
This question goes to the heart of the matter. As he points out, if we are trying to preserve our culture, we are doing a pretty good job, if we are trying to spread our message, we haven't been too successful. I favor spreading our message. I think it is a message that can save and salve us. And to do that, I think we need to change our culture. I am not talking about embracing multi-culturalism as our goal. For me culture change of any kind must be in service to the message.
And so on the 50th anniversary of the merger of Unitarianism and Universalism, I offer what I think are eight hallmarks of a congregational culture that is ready to put message over preservation of culture.
1. Direct, healthy communication. We don't pass on anonymous criticism. We don't let people with limited agendas set the agenda. People with problems being in community don't get traction. We are ready and able to call people back to their best selves and we depend on others to see our best selves and help us live in harmony with that best self. We have covenants of right relationship to help us "walk in the ways of love" no matter how difficult the path.
2. The ability to work through conflict and stay in relationship. We expect conflict and we expect to have to negotiate differences and we have structures for doing that.
3. Clear and high expectations for members. We are not apologetic about expecting people to bring their time, their talent and their treasure to build the common good. In our movement's culture and in my generation's culture, there has been a pervasive fear of creating and articulating expectations for ourselves collectively and individually. We are afraid of turning people off, of scaring people away. What we have not talked about until recently in our movement, is that having few expectations also turns a lot of people off and causes them to leave. It leaves them adrift. It leaves us adrift as well.
4. Deep relationships with people "not like us." We must know how to build relationships in the congregation and the larger community. We often gather around positions and identities. We must be prepared to build relationships with those whose positions and identities we do not share. This means we know how to tell our own stories and to listen to the stories of others and risk being changed in the process. It has been said that we don't have a fundamental need to be agreed with but we do have a need to be heard. Listening may be the most radical act of love and it is the way to deep relationship. When I think I have nothing in common with someone, I remember that the man who knew my brother's last words lived in the same area I did for decades. I could have passed him on the street or seen him on the other side in a demonstration and not known the deepness of our connection.
5. Bold, visionary leadership. There is a huge difference in standing in resistance to the unhealthy wielding of power and in simply being against anyone in authority. We often wear our rebellion as a badge of honor. We brag that we can't be organized. And then we wonder why we aren't more powerful. Angeles Arrien points out that those who rebel against authority are often attracted to competent and effective leaders and then seek to compete with them or undermine them. When we allow this to happen in our congregations, whether to our professional or lay leaders, we guarantee our own ineffectiveness and fail to live out our mission and promise.
6. Commitment to worship. As individuals, we need practices to keep us grounded and to grow our spiritual maturity, but we also need a communal practice and for religious people, that is worship. Worship is the one thing that distinguishes us from any other sort of group or organization. We must move beyond a consumer approach to worship where people pick and chose depending on their own perceptions of their own needs or they expect to have their own beliefs and preferences reinforced in every service.
Worship is what we do together because we need to gather with the community and the community needs our presence. Gathering the community is everything. It's where we glimpse the power of the collective and of our message and where our eyes light up in one another's presence. It's where we welcome the stranger. Worship is where we learn to speak a common language and honor different languages. It's where our history is shared and created. It's where our beliefs are challenged and our faith sustained.
7. Willingness to articulate our religious values as we grapple with current issues and events. We often begin with political positions instead of religious values. We are often reluctant to speak of our values as religious. Love is a religious value, but "Standing on the Side of Love" will not always take us to the same position on issues. We are ultimately saved by one of the greatest of religious values, one we could use a lot more of --- humility.
8. Commitment to the Common Good. Our work is to find ways to bring our individuality to the community without worshipping individualism. We do not expect our personal preferences to be paramount. We expect to be called out of our selves so that we can truly know ourselves. We expect to find a common rhythm and to move in that rhythm. The sense of community so many of us seek is not a goal; it is the by-product of doing something together that we cannot do alone. And the more difficult our work, the greater the shared sense of community.
These eight characteristics are really about using our best to do our best. Because here is another heartbreaking truth about my brother and his Marine brothers: We used their very best to do the very worst.
Dear ones, I am not betting our endowment on the other team. Are you? We can be a religion for our time.
Let us stay hungry. Hungry for the beloved community. Let us stay foolish. Foolish enough to believe it's possible. And let us get committed and remain Always Faithful to that commitment.
Blessed Be. Shalom. Amen. Semper Fi.
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