In the sermon I delivered (and posted) yesterday I said that I'd actually written another sermon which I came to realize was not the sermon I needed to deliver. For what it's worth, here's that first version:
After coming home from General Assembly this past summer, our Director of Faith Development, Leia Durland-Jones, told me that I should watch the Sunday morning service and, particularly, to listen to the sermon that had been given by the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd. Not that much after, our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, told me that I needed to hear it – “You’ve really got to listen to this sermon!” she said. It’s really, really powerful.” That was in early July.
Well … a week or so ago, while I was home sick, I finally cued it up and watched. And they were right. Oh my goodness, they were right. I put a link to the video of the sermon – and the whole service, actually – in the insert in your Order of Service, and I strongly encourage you to watch it, because it isn’t just Nancy’s words, but her delivery – and not just her tempo, tone, and body language, but her presence as she delivered it – that makes it so powerful.
I mention all of this because in this powerful, and truly prophetic, sermon, Nancy says some really important things about just what it takes to make “a people of prophecy,” and, perhaps more specifically, what it will take to make us – Unitarian Universalists – able to live into this role.
She grounds her prophetic charge in the importance of relationship for building up our communities into places where real change, real transformation, can come about. She quotes the anti-racist organizer MickeyScottBey Jones – whom she calls “wonderful” and “deep-spirited” – as saying:
relationship is the sandpaper that wears away our resistance to change. Relationship is the abrasion that agitates enough to make a way forward. Relationship, consistent and ongoing encounter with people and perspectives different than our own - it smooths the way for the sacred, even as it rubs us raw.
There is a holy abrasion of the spirit born in deep relational encounters across differences. We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those very encounters.
Let me say that again – “We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those encounters.” You may have seen the bumper sticker that says, “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.” The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed has said, “The task of religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.” In other words, as Nancy said, we exist to facilitate these kinds of deep, real, and, yes, raw-rubbing encounters.
And yet we know [Nancy continues] that there are so many ways to hide from the discomfort inherent in a holy abrasion. There are plenty of opportunities presented each and every day in the life of the church to back away from the hard work of continually and repeatedly relating meaningfully to one another and the world.
And one of them is to insist [she says], at any possible juncture, that you get what you want out of the experience of congregational life, as if church is a short order menu and community is a product to be consumed on your terms, in your time, without making you uncomfortable or demanding a whole lot of you in the first place.
One of the ways to block the holy abrasion that brings change is to imagine that both congregational life and religious liberalism itself are contests compete with winners and losers and if we don’t get our way – well – we are wanderers, worshipers – and lovers of leaving, are we not?
Does any of that resonate with you? I can tell you that as I was watching the sermon, when I’d reached this point, I was glad I don’t wear mascara. She’d brought me to tears. There she was, behind that pulpit, speaking to a couple of thousand of us UUs, and speaking truth to us. Hard truth. Challenging truth. Truth we need to hear.
One of the ways we hobble ourselves – as a movement, and here in our own “local franchise” – one of the ways we hobble ourselves is by spending … wasting … so much of our time and energy on trying to make sure that everything is arranged just so … just so that I feel comfortable and affirmed.
When we hear – as Christina reminded us just a couple of weeks ago – that one task of the religious enterprise is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” we give a deep sigh of gratitude that there is a place like this that will offer us such comfort. We rarely, though, if ever, see ourselves as the ones in need of afflicting. As I said last week, we’d like them to change so that we can just get on doing what we’ve been doing, the way we’ve been doing it. But, as I also said last week, that’s just not the way things work.
Nancy got even more specific, and offered us language that will no doubt be used for years to come:
[T]he greatest impediment to the efficacy of the liberal church today [she said] is not the real fights and real failures we get into when we’re doing hard work – it is the fake fights [that’s the phrase!] we waste our time on while our own people and the people all around us struggle to survive.
I worry literally every day [she continued], that in this moment of utmost urgency - we, the very ones the world has been waiting for, are wasting our capacity to build change on fake fights that distract us from the work at hand.
We go over and over again who’s a humanist and who’s a theist and who got their way in what bylaw discussion and what color we should paint the church bathroom - so protected by our busyness that the real fights, the honest conversations, and the transformative sandpaper of real relationship presented to us Sunday after Sunday, week after week, slip right past us and we remain thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.
“Thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.” As I watched the video I sat there, weeping at the power of this prophetic preacher who was speaking truth to us – to me – with such love. Yet I was weeping, too, because her words were unveiling in me a deep sense of cynicism, revealing to me my own crisis of faith. “Thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.” “Thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.”
Again and again, that crowd of a couple of thousand Unitarian Universalists applauded and cheered as Nancy challenged them with hard truths. I’ve preached hard-truth sermons here, as well, and people have afterward told me how brave I was to do so, commended me for taking such a risk. Yet as I listened to Nancy do just this, I was struck by the idea that, really, there is so little risk involved. Those people in that hall that Sunday morning wanted to be challenged – they ate it up. You all want me to challenge you – I’ve also received applause and affirmation whenever I’ve spoken “hard truths with love.” We want to be challenged, but I fear that we want to be challenged because, on the one hand, we know – know in our bones – that something is wrong, and it fills us with anxiety, stress … with agita. On the other hand, though, I fear that we want to be challenged because we know – know beneath our consciousness of our knowing – that by listening to these hard truths our agitation can be assuaged, and that by affirming them we can allow ourselves to remain, “fundamentally unchanged.”
Nancy told me that when she looked out at that crowd of thousands of Unitarian Universalists from around the country and around the world and said she worries, “literally every day that [we] are wasting our capacity to build change on fake fights” that she meant exactly that. She meant that she worries about this all the time, that we, as a movement, are far too often “thoroughly agitated and fundamentally unchanged.” She told me that she understood my frustrations, but she also said that she did not share my despair.
Instead, in her sermon she’d decided to take advantage of that bully pulpit to publicly declare:
I tell you what, I’m tapping out. Right now. And I invite you to join me. I’m tapping out of every fake fight in our congregations and our movement about getting what I want or what you want or what we think we want - because in this age the stakes are too high and we don’t have time for fake fights anymore. […]
[T]he world does not need another place for like-minded liberal leaning people to hang out together and fight about who’s in charge. The world does not need a place where you or I or any single one of us is going to get what we want.
What the world needs is a movement like ours to step more fully into our higher calling - to serve as an instrument for encounter - with one another, with the holy and with the world. So that we might love more fully, and speak more truly and serve with greater efficacy, in such a time as this.
More tears poured down my cheeks, my friends. New tears. Because her faith had reignited mine; her hope had brought my own back to life. Having lived with this sermon – its vision, its challenge, its truth, its hope – I can honestly say that I feel thoroughly less agitated, and can feel the stirrings of change.