Sunday, April 10, 2011

None Of This Matters

This morning I delivered what might well be the first sermon of my new ministry with the good folks of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA.  Here's what I said:

Reading: On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, [and maybe we could say "religious persons generally"] sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ~ Annie Dillard, from Teaching a Stone to Talk

* * *

This . . . is a little weird.

I mean standing here, in this place, at this time, with all of you – it’s a little . . . weird. Don’t you think? I mean, this could be the first sermon of the next chapter of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church’s mutual ministry with its next settled minister. I mean, this could be . . . historic!

Which, of course, leads me to thinking that, in a way, this is a little bit like a job interview. With a few hundred people, ultimately. Kind of intimidating.

So to keep myself grounded as I prepared I focused on the reality that – no matter what else might be going on this week and no matter what the future holds for you and me – today I am a guest preacher who’s been asked to offer a sermon to a congregation of Unitarian Universalists. As such I have two opportunities – this week and next week – (and perhaps only two opportunities) to share with you some thoughts on Life’s Big Questions.

I want to begin by telling you a story, a story of the Sufi holy man Nasreddin Hodja. It is said that the Hodja was once invited to a certain city to share his wisdom. On the appointed day he entered the mosque, ascended to the pulpit, and cried out, “People of Aksehir, do you know the truth?” “No!” the people shouted, eager to hear his wisdom. “Well,” the Hodja replied, “why should I waste my time with such a bunch of ignorant fools?” And with that he left.

The next week the Hodja returned, as did the congregation still eager to hear this famous holy man. Once again the Hodja stepped into the pulpit and surveyed the gathered crowd. “Oh people of Aksehir,” he shouted. “Do you know the truth?” “Yes!” the people responded whole-heartedly, having learned their lesson the week before. The Hodja smiled. “Well then,” he said, “I needn’t tell you what you already know.” And again, he turned and left.

The third week—perhaps this was some kind of extended candidating process, I don’t know—the Hodja once more entered the mosque and once more ascended to the pulpit. Once more he looked out upon the congregation. And once more he cried out, “Oh good people of Aksehir. Do you know the truth?” It is safe to say that by this point the people were more than a little confused. Some of them halfheartedly said, “Yes?” while others called out, “No?” “Well then,” the Hodja boomed, “those of you who know tell the ones who don’t.” And with that he left the pulpit, and the mosque, and the town of Aksehir.

I’m tempted to ask you all a question.

But, really, the question’s already been asked. It’s been asked in our wider culture by the sociological trends that indicate that the fastest growing religious affiliation these days – and “fastest” by far – is “None.” The question’s been asked by leaders of our movement, and in our congregations – even, I’m sure, this congregation – who wonder why it is that we can’t seem to generate greater enthusiasm for pledging to the church (money or time) and why it seems that we can’t quite get to the place of being able to do and be all that we know we’re capable of. The question, asked in greater or lesser amounts of frustration and perplexity, is: Does any of this really matter anymore?

Does any of this – any of the things we do here on Sunday mornings – the words, the music, the space, the silence – does any of it matter? Really matter?

I think that there are probably at least two valid answers to this question, and I plan to – as we learned to say in seminary – “unpack” them both over the next two weeks. Today it’s my intention to assert that, contrary to all of the energy and effort we put into the things we do here week after week, no . . . none of it matters in the least.

And I want to be clear that I don’t say this because we’re Unitarian Universalists. It is true that while we have had a rich and storied history, today we are seen by many as little more than the but of Garrison Keiler’s jokes. You’ve heard it, I’m sure:

• What do you get when a cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Jehovah’s Witness? Some who’ll come knock on your door for no apparent reason.

• Unitarian Universalist churches can be found halfway between the Methodists and the golf course.

This isn’t new. Our opening hymn, written in 1928 by Edwin Henry Wilson, a Unitarian minister and the co-founder of the American Humanist Association, was parodied by the Unitarian Universalist minister Peter Raible in 1968. At the time there was a supplement to the then current hymnal that was called Hymns for the Celebration of Life. Raible called his booklet, Hymns for the Cerebration of Strife, and it contained this gem:

"Where is our holy church? We only wish we knew; it might be those now gathered here, except we are so few.

Where is our holy writ? We really cannot say; it gives us that for which to search, and that for which to pray.

Where is our holy one? Our answer is not clear; we've looked -- and looked -- and looked -- and looked, one must be somewhere near!

Where is our holy land? We cannot answer now; but if we find one, rest assured we'll tell the world somehow.

Why do we sing this song? What answer can we give? Faith and conviction, so we've heard, we all must have to live."
Now, I happen to think a lot more of us and our movement. I do believe that we’d have a reason to knock on doors, and I think that we have a lot more answers than the stereotype of us would suggest. And I think that for however storied our past might be, our future can be even richer.

So I don’t say that “none of this matters” because so many think so little of what we do here. No. I say it because I think that it’s important for us to confront head-on this truth: What we do here week after week and month after month doesn’t really matter.

And, after all, don’t you think that this is part of what Annie Dillard was trying to say to her Christian compatriots when she pronounced that, “outside of the catacombs,” —meaning once the initial period of martyrdom and persecution had come to an end—she finds most of her co-religionists “[in]sufficiently sensible of conditions”? (e.g., unable to deal with things the way they really are.) How else can we understand her image of a bunch of children playing on the floor “to kill a Sunday morning” as her metaphor for worship? She’s saying that we’re fooling ourselves if we think these things we’re doing here really mean anything . . . at least, the way she’s seeing them being done.

Now, if you’re thinking that this is an odd way for a ministerial candidate to greet his potential congregation, if you think that this is a surprising thing for the UUA’s staff person who focuses on worship to be saying, well, to paraphrase the late, great Paul Harvey, you’ll have to listen to “the rest” of the sermon.

You see, what I really want to say this morning is that none of this matters . . . IF . . . this is all that we do.

I can already hear you responding, “This is hardly all that we do around here! There’s Active Minds, and Covenant Groups, and the Labyrinth Ministry. There’s IMPACT and PACEM, and Undoing Racism, and the Green Sanctuary Movement. There’s CareNet, and the Councils, the Christian Fellowship, the Humanists, the Buddhist sanga, and the Pagans. There’s RE teachers and mentors, coffee makers and weed pullers. There’s the UUGuys and those UUpity women. A lot of things happen outside of the Sunday service.” (And I know . . . I left a LOT of things out!)

Yet there is a long-standing critique of the, let’s call them, “institutionally religious” – those folks who go to church (or synagogue or mosque) on Sunday (or Saturday or Friday) but who live the rest of their lives as though they’ve never even heard of Jesus (or Moses or the Prophet – peace be upon him). These folks make a sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, between their religion and the rest of their lives. These folks take where they are in their spiritual lives pretty much for granted and see their religious community as essentially that – a place for community. Sunday worship is a time for beautiful music and interesting sermons and a chance to be with our friends. But if this is all we do here, then none of what we do matters.

In preparing for this service I got to collaborate with your entire team of Worship Associates – in my previous congregations we came to call them the Worship Weavers Guild. I love this kind of co-equal collaboration. And during our exchanges Thomas mentioned that he says to his 7th graders whenever they complain that something is hard: “Of COURSE this is hard, if math was always easy then you would always be on the same level – THE SEVENTH GRADE level!!” He then asks them to stand up if they want to remain on the Seventh Grade Level for the rest of lives, and then encourages them to give what they’re working on their best shot and see what they can come up with. When I read this I was immediately put in mind of a comment made by a UCC minister friend of mine. He said that everyone in his church was content to be “children of God,” and that that frustrated him no end because he knew that God wanted them to grow up and become “adults of God.”

I’ve recently had the privilege of being able to publish a book that’s being very nicely received within our Association. In it, I suggest that our congregations ought to think of themselves as the spiritual equivalent of total immersion language schools – only for us it’d be the language of spirituality. Everything we do here, I suggest, should be focused on the purpose of helping people to deepen and expand their spiritual lives. This, I suggest, is why we’re here – to deepen, to grow, to expand.

Of course, for some of us this might raise up the question of “just what is spirituality”? I actually have an answer to this now! I was asked this last year at a conference and it suddenly occurred to me that the answer can be found within our own tradition. The great Henry David Thoreau said that he went into the woods around Walden Pond so that he could “live deliberately” and not have to look back from the end of his life to discover that he “had not lived.” This makes me think that he saw a distinction between living “life” and living “not life,” a distinction that I’d argue can be found under one description or another in every religious tradition we humans have ever developed. We are asleep and need to wake up; we are dead and need to be reborn into new life; we are living “life that is not life” and need to find out how to begin living “life that is life.”

And that, I’d contend, is what spirituality is all about – living life that is life. Or learning how to. Or both, really, because both the learning and the living are on-going works-in-progress, and unless we want to remain “children,” or stay at the “seventh grade level” we must continue to deepen and develop our capacity to be truly alive. And that’s what we need to be doing in communities such as this, or else nothing else we do matters.

There’s a great quote from the legendary civil rights leader, author, activist, and theologian, and pastor, Howard Thurman:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do that thing. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.”

“To this house we come bringing our boldest dreams,” we heard at the beginning of the service, “seeking here the inspiration and strength to make them be! . . . Strange place, this house -- here we cry, sing, laugh, hurt, dance, touch, survive, celebrate, grow, search, doubt, hope, rejoice, pray, trust, care, learn, think, wonder, be, become!” And if that becoming isn’t happening, if we allow ourselves to be content to stay where we are without expansion and evolution, then I’m afraid it’s true –none of this matters.

But if we do it, then nothing else matters. (But that’s the sermon for next week.)

Right now I invite us to rise in body or spirit, yet put our whole body and soul into the singing of the civil rights era spiritual, “When The Spirit Says Do.” (1024 in Singing The Journey)

Parting Words: If you are who you were,
and if the person next to you is who he or she was,
if none of us has changed
since the day we came in here—
we have failed.

The purposed of this community—
of any church, temple, zendo, mosque—
is to help its people grow.

We do this through encounters with the unknown—in ourselves,
in one another,
in “The Other”—whoever that might be for us,
however hard that might be—
because these encounters have many gifts to offer.

So may you go forth from here this morning
not who you were,
but who you could be.

So may we all.

~ Erik Walker Wikstrom Print this post


David said...

Thanks a lot, Erik. Now I'm coveting another congregation's pastor. ;-}

Anonymous said...

LOL... and here I was just saying to myself, "Hmmmm, sounds like something David might have said..." :D

Lynn said...

The first of many, we are pleased to be able to say!

Christine Gresser said...

Wonderful. I laughed, I cried, I felt fully alive, I felt challenged. Welcome, welcome, welcome. It is so good to have you coming to join us as our minister. Hooray!