Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Sermon: "Faith for Religious Liberals" (Delivered 3-30-14)

Between services several people stopped me and told me that the beginning of my sermon covered the same material as the most recent episode of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’ve not been watching this show. So what can I say? Great minds think alike?

One cold, clear winter’s night, when I was eight years old, my dad got us bundled up in our coats and hats and gloves. We went outside into the dark, walked out to the middle of a frozen lake and looked towards the southern horizon. It was the winter of 1986 and Halley’s Comet was visible in the sky. My memory of seeing Halley’s comet is imperfect. My father was a physics teacher and the household expert on all things scientific. He taught us that Halley’s comet would come back in another 75 years. I was in awe of the immense distances it would travel in that time, but even more in awe by trying to imagine living long enough to possibly see it again.

When a comet appeared in 1680 in the night sky over Boston, the city’s leading minister regarded the comet with a different sort of awe. The Puritan preacher, Increase Mather, offered a sermon about the comet entitled “Heaven’s Alarm to the World.” The sermon described this comet as “a sign of God’s displeasure and a herald of some mysterious calamity destined to fall upon the Boston populace.” The next time the comet came around, in 1759, its arrival came as predicted by British astronomer Edmond Halley and was named for him. By this time, a new view of the universe was becoming dominant, a worldview that saw comets in the sky not as acts of God meant to convey a message from the divine, but as a predictable phenomenon occurring within a predictably ordered universe. Increase Mather’s sermon that the comet is a message from God stopped making sense when astronomers discovered that they could accurately predict when comets will pass by in the future.

The title of this morning’s sermon is “Faith for Religious Liberals.” This morning I’m interested in asking if and whether the word “faith” is still relevant for us as members of a liberal religion. And, if so, what do we actually mean when we use the word faith?

The story I just told about Increase Mather and Halley’s Comet implies something about the reasons it may be tempting to reject the idea of faith. It implies that faith is synonymous with a lack of understanding. At worst, faith is superstition. At best, it is a pre-modern understanding of the world. In any event, faith is something that scientific understanding will eventually prove incorrect and unsophisticated.

(When I use the term religious liberals, I am speaking to a particular aspect of religious liberalism. I mean that we, as religious liberals, are open to new wisdom, new insight, and new understanding. New learning is not threatening to us; we freely embrace the findings of science and the discoveries of scholarship. As religious liberals we embrace Galileo and Copernicus, Edmond Halley and Charles Darwin, rather than distrust them, fear them, or feel threatened by them.)

Imagine that you get sick or suffer an injury. And you have a choice of where to go. You can go to a clinic with a sign outside that says, “Faith Healing.” Or you can go to a clinic with a sign outside that says, “Scientific Healing.” As religious liberals, we’re all going the clinic that advertises scientific healing, right? Because what they’ll do is diagnose the issue with a test or X-Ray or scan and then they’ll treatment based on what the most modern scientific evidence has proven to be most effective. As religious liberals, we’re all taking the scientific healing route, right? If we choose to define faith as lack of understanding, then faith is a term that we would certainly not want to claim. But, are there other ways of using the word “faith” that we might positively claim?

As I was first preparing for this sermon a couple of weeks ago, I kind of did a mental scan of the way the word “faith’ is used. The term “faith,” unfortunately, is often used imprecisely. The word faith is often used as a shorthand or substitute for religion. An interfaith gathering is the same thing as an interreligious gathering. A person of faith is the same thing as a religious person. It is just that a lot of people tend to respond more positively to the word faith than they do to the word religion. Though they are often conflated, they don’t mean the same thing.

Faith is also used interchangeably with the word belief. An article of faith or a confession of faith means pretty much the same thing as a statement of belief.

In a piece he wrote for the UU World magazine last summer, Unitarian Universalist President Peter Morales tried to untangle the words religion, belief, and faith. Morales wrote,

We need to think about faith, religion, and spirituality in a new way. When I grew up I was taught that religion was about what we believed. What made my denomination different (and correct, of course) was our sound doctrine. We were right. This made religion too much about being right, about us and them. Too much attention then goes into defending our beliefs.

I am now convinced that “belief,” in the way we usually use the word, is actually the enemy of faith, religion, and spirituality. Let me say that again: belief is the enemy of faith. When we dwell on beliefs we ask all the wrong questions. My faith is much more about what I love than about what I think.

Understanding the etymology of the word “faith” may help us to come to a different way of thinking about the word. Indeed, it may even allow us to reclaim the word in a way that makes sense to us.

If you visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and you’ll encounter a number of European paintings depicting harrowing scenes from the Christian religion. One time when I was there my friend pointed out something about these paintings. A number of them had dogs in them. The artist had painted a dog right into the scene. As it turns out, the dogs had theological significance. Fido, my friend said. It is the word for faith, for faithfulness, for fidelity.

That’s how I remember that faith differs from belief. Dogs are faithful. Dogs are loyal, loving, devoted. Dogs aren’t belief-full. Dogs don’t have beliefs, as far as I can tell. But there is clearly a faithfulness to them. “My faith is much more about what I love than about what I think,” is how Peter Morales puts it.

In her book The Gift of Imperfection, Brené Brown offers a definition of faith. She writes, “Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” At first glance, this definition of faith is unsatisfying. Faith is equated with a lack of understanding, which is problematic. But then Brené Brown offers a reflection that suggests another level to her understanding of faith. She writes,

I’ve come to realize that faith and reason are not natural enemies. It’s our human need for certainty and our need to ‘be right’ that have pitted faith and reason against each other in an almost reckless way… We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite… Faith is essential when we decide to live and love with our whole hearts in a world where most of us want assurances before we risk being vulnerable and getting hurt.

Many of the things most worth doing in our lives are done without any assurance, without any certainty, that things will turn out well. It is like the teenager trying to summon up the courage to ask someone out on a date for the first time. But he may say no. But she may say no. There is a leap of faith involved.

When I do weddings, there is faith involved. A statistician is not called for. Imagine if a wedding ceremony included an actuarial table, an assessment based on demographics, family history, and overall societal rates of separation and divorce. What’s called for is faith. Faith, not in the sense of prediction, but faith in the sense of loyalty, devotion, and love.

Brené Brown reflects, “At first I thought that faith meant ‘there’s a reason for everything.’ I personally struggled with that because I’m not comfortable with using God or faith… to explain [things.] It actually feels like substituting certainty for faith when people say, ‘There’s a reason for everything.’”

Out on the ice. Winter. 1986. I’m 8 years old. The comet will come back in 75 years. The old view of faith sees faith as a matter of explanation or prediction. The new view of faith – faith for religious liberals – sees faith as an attitude about how to live in the world in the most loyal, loving, and devoted way possible. There are all sorts of certainties in this world, including that Halley’s Comet will come back around every 75 years or so. But much of life requires moving forward without certainty. Faith doesn’t offer an explanation for or an explanation concerning celestial events. Faith is an attitude for approaching the time you’re given once you come in off the ice.

Faith is actually about an attitude of trust, loyalty, and love with which we meet each other and the world.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Sermon: "Why Membership Matters" (Delivered 3-2-14)

Opening Words by Peter Raible

We build on foundations we did not lay
We warm ourselves by fires we did not light
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant
We drink from wells we did not dig
We profit from persons we did not know

This is as it should be.
Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.
Together we can heed the call to a ministry of care and justice.

We are ever bound in community.
May it always be so.

Reading “On Going to Church” by A. Powell Davies

Let me tell you why I come to church.

I come to church—and would whether I was a preacher or not—because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or a magazine discussion. It could too soon become too low a level. I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I must feel again the love I owe my fellow men (and women). I must not only hear about it but feel it. In church, I do.

I need to be reminded that there are things I must do in the world—unselfish things, things undertaken at the level of idealism. Workaday enthusiasms are not enough. They wear out too soon. I want to experience human nature at its best—and be reminded of its highest possibilities, and this happens to me in church. It may seem as though the same things could be found in solitude, but it does not easily happen so.

In a congregation we share each other’s spiritual needs and reinforce each other. In some ways, the soul is never lonelier than in a church service. That is certainly true of a pulpit, for a pulpit is the most intimately lonely place in the world—yet it is a loneliness that has strength in it. Perhaps this is because the innermost solitude of the human heart is in some paradoxical way a thing that can be shared—that must be shared—if the spirit of God is to find a full entrance into it.

We meet each other as friends and neighbors anywhere and everywhere, but we seldom do so in the consciousness of our souls’ deepest yearnings. But in church we do—in a way that protects us from all that is intrusive, yet leaves us knowing that we all have the same yearning, the same spiritual loneliness, the same need of assurance and faith and hope. We are brought together at the highest level possible. We are not merely an audience, we are a congregation.

I doubt whether I could stand the thought of the cruelty and misery of the present world unless I could know, through an experience that renewed itself over and over again, that at the heart of life there is assurance, that I can hold an ultimate belief that all is well. And this happens in church.

Life must have its sacred moments and its holy places. The soul will always seek its nurture. For religious experience—which is life at its most intense, life at its best—is something we cannot do without.

Welcome to March in Kansas and welcome to the more than 60 of you who braved the frigid cold and driving snow to be with us here in worship this morning. Back when I first began my ministry here, I remember choosing a hymn for worship in early December. The hymn’s words contained descriptions of wintery frost and chill. We sang that hymn that Sunday despite the fact that it was 70 degrees outside and some members had worn short sleeves to church. That spring I selected a hymn with words about spring’s flowers. We sang that hymn during a blizzard.

The section in our hymnal that deals with seasons has a distinctive New England, or at least northern, bias. Here in Kansas we can’t sing about the cool evenings of summer, as one hymn puts it. I am friends with the UU minister serving our congregation in Key West – someone has to do it! – and he’s commented to me about how the hymnal describes a cycle of nature that does not resemble the one in which he lives.

The point I’m making here is one about the cycles of life. We all go through cycles in our lives, just not all in the same way, or at the same time. As a community we come together, some of us warmed by life’s sunshine, some of us in the green time of new beginnings, some of us chilled and cold, some of us wearied by darkening clouds. This idea relates to what I plan to say about membership.

Last Sunday I preached the first part of a two part sermon series on membership. Last week I asked the question of what membership means. I began the sermon last Sunday with a story about the meaning of membership in the churches of the early ancestors of the Unitarians. They had rigorous rules about membership but then later relaxed those rules a bit when people found them too rigorous. Last Sunday I mentioned that in our Exploring Membership classes we talk about the four Ps of membership: Presence, Participation, Pledging, and Passing It On. And then I casually mentioned that we have never had a conversation as a church about what the expectations for membership ought to be, that the four Ps are more suggestions than requirements. I ended last week’s message with a dual invitation. The first invitation was to write to me and tell me what you think is fair to expect from members. What does membership mean to you? What do you think it ought to mean? Later this morning I am going to share what some of our members wrote. The second invitation I extended in my sermon last week was an invitation to volunteer to work with me on some membership related projects. Last Sunday, seven of the members of this church volunteered to help me out with membership. Right now they are making calls to current members who may not have had the highest levels of presence and participation lately. I am still looking for at least a dozen additional volunteers to help with some membership projects related to Passing It On.  This work includes developing materials and initiatives that will help promote the church in the wider community and help our members to better be able to Pass It On. Contact me if you are interested.

This morning the title of the sermon is “Why Membership Matters.” The title of the sermon assumes that membership does matter. Actually, that is an assumption. If you were to go around and ask a bunch of thought leaders and outside-the-box thinkers and paradigm shifters within Unitarian Universalism – or if you were to ask people who spend a lot of time thinking about the contemporary religious landscape of America and the future of religious institutions – a lot of them would tell you that membership is not as important. Here is what they might say:

They might say that membership is a concept that is passé. They might say it is a boring institutional word, like committee or meeting, that harkens back to ways of civic engagement that are in decline in today’s world. They might say that contemporary organizations, including churches, need to rethink how they do things in order to remain relevant.

Critics of membership might point out that the idea of membership has been harmed by consumerism. Membership was once a lofty idea, but now membership is too often confused with our identities as consumers. Membership in a church should not be confused with membership at Costco or Sam’s Club, membership at the fitness center or the country club, or membership in the frequent shopper rewards club at your favorite shopping establishment.

Those who say that membership doesn’t matter might point out that for leaders of the church, membership can become an idol, a false God that we’re tempted to worship. You hear this at denominational meetings when someone asks, almost luridly, “How many members does your church have? What’s your membership?” Membership too often becomes a number that people tend to focus on; it is how we calculate the amount in dues we pay to the Unitarian Universalist Association. It is the number that’s used to rank and categorize and evaluate churches. Focusing on membership numbers can be an idolatry, taking our attention away from other important questions: What difference is your church making in the wider community? Whose lives are being touched by the church? How are lives being changed by the church?

I think these cautionary considerations are important, but I still think that membership is important. I believe that membership matters. I want to talk with you about why I think it does. But first, before I do that, I want to share with you some of the responses I received to the questions I posed last week about the meaning of membership.

Several members wrote to share with me their ideas related to growing membership within our church. Several people wrote about the importance of warmly welcoming newer people, of members intentionally taking time to step away from their own groups of close friends and engage in a warm and hospitable way with visitors and newer members. Others wrote to me and talked about the necessity of connecting people to groups within the church. It is simply imperative, they wrote, for the leaders of groups to be devoted to reaching out, inviting people, and promoting their programs in attractive and welcoming way possible. I received numerous ideas about membership related programs and activities.

At least three different members wrote to express their uneasiness about the idea of mandating a certain level of participation. One person put it this way,

“I understand how vast the gulf can be between different people's levels of ability, and how it depends on a multitude of physical, mental, and circumstantial factors. We cannot meaningfully evaluate whether someone else is participating to the best of their ability, since we will never fully understand what they are going through. All we can do is encourage one another. We can also help fellow members with the things they are struggling with in ways that will enhance their ability to participate meaningfully in the life of the church.”

Another member wrote to me about health issues related to aging as a limitation to presence and participation. A third member wrote to me about having a very demanding career that includes extensive travel. She’s at a place, right now, where church involvement is simply a lower priority.

But here’s the thing, each of these members who took the time to write me described their current levels of involvement as fluid rather than fixed. They may not be highly active now, but there was a time in the past or there will be a time in the future, when they will be. Our lives have cycles, they said. A fourth member put it like this,

“One of the issues that we think could be acknowledged is that membership is a long-term commitment. Sometimes life allows for much participation and involvement, and at other times, life demands our time and efforts be given to other aspects of life, such as job, family, and other commitments. So taking a cross-sectional look can be misleading rather than taking a longitudinal look at peoples' involvement/participation in church.”

Levels of participation wax and wane, ebb and flow. Which is only natural and healthy.

Our lives are like this. Not only do our lives have cycles with high points and low points, but religious life, faith life, and church life contain these cycles as well. Just as our own lives have their cycles – cycles of youth and aging, cycles of work and rest, cycles of journeying and settling down, cycles of narrow focus and broad exploration – so too do our spiritual lives have cycles. The honest, authentic, engaged spiritual life has moments of gratitude, wonder, and joy as well as moments of pain, anguish, and discomfort. And, more than that, the serious spiritual life will challenge us, will force us to ask uncomfortable questions, will sometimes require tough and difficult things from us. The spiritual life has peak experiences, valley experiences, and plateau experiences. Sometimes, our faith brings us equilibrium and sometimes our spiritual lives shake us up.

It is just as A. Powell Davies writes, “I come to church… because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them… I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I need to be reminded that there are things I must do in the world—unselfish things, things undertaken at the level of idealism.”

And all of this, all of this, implies something to me about why membership matters so much. Membership matters not because of the numbers we report the Unitarian Universalist Association. Membership matters not for trying to determine who gets a vote at a congregational meeting. Membership matters as an affirmation of the cycles of our lives and the cycles of our spiritual lives.

The cycles of our lives mean that there will be times of diving in and times of pulling back, times of greater and lesser involvement. We are all at different places in the cycles of our lives. We’re grateful for our new babies, our high school youth, our young families, our empty nesters, our retirees, and our seniors. A church made up of only one group at one place on life’s spectrum would not a church make. Being a church means that we will drink from wells we did not dig and sit in the shade of trees we did not plant. Membership matters because it really does take all of us to do this well.


This idea of staying connected to a church across our life cycle reminds me of an email I received earlier this week. Earlier this week I received a questionnaire from the college I attended. The college was engaging in strategic planning work and was sending a survey to all alumni. There were a bunch of questions, but one question caught my attention. The question was about alumni giving and asked, basically, why I gave to the school as an alum. I’ve given something every single year since graduating. I’ve given even as a broke graduate student. I’ve given even when I was still paying off the student loans I had incurred. I give generously now even though the cycle of my life is very, very far away from anything related to college life.

The question about why I give as an alum was multiple choice and offered a multitude of choices: Sheer gratitude from my few years there so many years ago, belief in the mission and values of the college, a desire to pay it forward by helping others to have as good of an experience (or an even better experience) than I had, a desire to contribute to financial aid to help to make it more affordable for someone else to attend.

I’ve often thought Unitarian Universalist churches should ask for the generosity of its current active members, but also its historical members, its alumni. Did Our Whole Lives make a difference in your life as an eighth grader? Were you held during your time of loss? Did you find community when you were lonely? Were you welcomed and accepted? Were you inspired? Were you changed?

Are you grateful for the impact the church has made in your life?
Do you believe in the church’s mission?
Do you want others to have as good of an experience (or an even better experience) than you had?
Do you want to make it possible for others to be touched?

It is true that our lives have cycles. This obvious and good and healthy. And, membership, I would say, is what keeps us connected through these cycles. Membership is for now and for the future when our lives cycle back, for when others come in the trajectory of their living.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sermon: "The Meaning of Membership" (Delivered 2-23-14)

This week and next week I plan to talk with you about an important aspect of our congregational life together. I plan to talk about membership, about what it means to be a member of this church and about why membership matters. God knows this is not the sexiest topic. Which isn’t to say that these sermons are going to be boring. At least, I hope not. But this topic is important. Actually, it is more than important. It is urgent.

But, before we get to that, I think it would be helpful to say a bit about how membership was regarded by our religious ancestors. In America, Unitarianism descended from the Puritans, a fact that strikes many modern-day Unitarians as surprising. The Puritans had extremely strict and demanding ideas about church membership. Membership was reserved only for the elect, for those whose salvation was assured. In order to become a member, a person had to meet with the minister and deliver a testimony of how God had acted in that person’s life and how God had provided that person with a sign of salvation. Then the minister would judge whether or not there was enough evidence that you were among the elect and accept you into or reject you from church membership accordingly. Many of these testimonies, by the way, were actually preserved in writing. As a student I had the opportunity to read several of these spiritual autobiographical narratives. On one hand, they were fascinating. On the other hand, I’m sort of glad that this is not the way we do membership today. (Sort of.)

This very rigorous concept of membership actually worked quite well for the Puritans when they first came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It worked well because the Puritans who had set sail across the Atlantic had self-selected. You had to be really serious about your religion if you were going to choose to get on a boat and sail across the ocean and make your home among others who were also so serious about their religion that they’d decided to make this arduous journey. Requiring a personal testimony wasn’t a lot to ask of people willing to give up their homeland and move to new continent for their faith. But then something happened that began to cause problems. The Puritans had children.

Having children changed everything. As it turns out, religiosity is not necessarily passed down from one generation to the next. There is no gene that guarantees that if you are very religious, that your children will be very religious. Nurture? Well, nurture can be a crapshoot. This is obvious, if you stop and think about it. Don’t many of us, even most of us, differ religiously from our parents? Thank goodness I hear some of you saying. And, if history is any guide, our children may not necessarily hold the same religious views that we hold.

So, in Colonial Massachusetts, within a generation, there was a growing population of young people who weren’t that interested in church membership. They hadn’t experienced a profound conversion experience. This made their parents very nervous. By the 1660s the churches in Massachusetts had rewritten their rules for membership. Under the new rules, full membership was available to those who could give a testimony. Half membership was available to the children of full members. Full members could receive communion and vote on church business. Half members were allowed to be baptized. Who thinks this sounds like a smart idea? It didn’t work out well. At best, the “Half Way Covenant,” as it was called, just pushed these issues down the road. When the half members had children, would those children become quarter members? At worst it just formalized the anxieties and tensions in the Puritan system.

I share this religious history, our religious history, not to advocate for a different system of membership for us today. Rather, I share it to observe that when we begin to talk about requirements for membership, standards for membership, expectations of membership, these discussions will tend to raise anxiety. The meaning of membership may not be the sexiest topic in the world, but it may evoke strong opinions.

One of the tensions that we observe in church life is wanting it both ways. On one hand, we want there to be some rigor. We want membership to challenge us, to really mean something. On the other hand, we don’t want to be exclusive. We don’t want to exclude anyone. We want a membership of the elect, except for that we don’t. We want there also to be exceptions.

In the Exploring Membership class, for several years now, we’ve taught those considering joining the church that there are four expectations for membership. We call them the Four P’s: Presence, Participation, Pledging, and Passing It On. Presence means showing up for worship, religious education, and church events. Participation means getting involved and being engaged with programs. Pledging means supporting the church financially. And, passing it on means sharing our church community and our UU values with those beyond the walls of the church. You might self-evaluate here. How many of you are batting a perfect four for four with presence, participation, pledging, and passing it on?

So, we tell people that these are the standards. And then, we tell people not to worry. We won’t take attendance on Sunday morning. If you choose not to participate, we’re not going to kick you out. As far as passing it on goes, we have no system in place to monitor whether you do that or not and it seems like many of our members don’t, and it is OK if you’re shy. As far as pledging goes, we tend to say that we want you to give as generously as you can, but we’re hesitant to define what generosity means, and if you’re unable to give even the smallest amount, you can receive a pledge waiver from the minister, and, by the way, there is no minimum pledge.

How did we arrive at the Four P’s of presence, participation, pledging, and passing it on? Well, we just sort of made it up when we designed the Exploring Membership class. It was never a discussion that we all had together. We never voted on it. We never reached a common agreement or a common understanding. It is what we told people joining the church, but not something that for which we sought greater buy-in. Our bylaws, by the way, set a much lower bar for membership. Our bylaws simply say that in order to become a member you must be 18 years old and in sympathy with the purpose and mission of the church, that you must take the Exploring Membership class or have a good reason for not taking it, that you must sign the membership book, and that you must make an annual pledge or have the annual pledge waived at the discretion of the minister. The bylaws also state that there is no creed required for membership and that you will not be required to participate in any ceremony.

Oh, and even if you decide not to become a member of the church, we’ll still welcome you to almost everything we do as a church. You just won’t be able to serve on the board, on committees, or vote at congregational meetings. Except of course for those times when people who weren’t members have served in various leadership positions in the church.

We’re only the heirs of four hundred years of religious tension. One force pulls us in the direction of a membership of the elect, of those who have passed the test and meet the high standards. An opposite force pushes in in the direction of a membership of all, a membership that excludes no one. Where do you place yourself on this spectrum? Do you favor a more stringent and strict set of qualifications for membership? Or, are you a more lenient, easy-going type? Do you favor a high bar or a low bar for membership?

To be more universal, I would say that any fundamentally democratic institution experiences this tension between a high bar and a low bar. In our society, there is a fairly low bar to be eligible to vote. The basic requirements are being 18 years old and having a pulse. If you’re an immigrant, there is a higher bar that involves a test for citizenship. How many citizens by birth would fail this test? I am disgusted by those who plot and scheme to make voting harder, who change the rules in order to disenfranchise racial minorities, the poor, and students. But if I can be completely honest with you, each time elected officials in our state make a point of challenging the teaching of evolution I find myself sort of wishing that voters had to take an intelligence test.

The truth is that more is required of us than the bare minimum. For democracy to function we need to be active and engaged. It isn’t enough merely to be present on election day. One must also participate in the process, pledge to candidates, and pass on the word about the candidates worth supporting. Doing the minimum that’s required does not lead to a thriving democratic society.

Our democratic church is different in many ways from our democratic society. In some ways, when there is a low bar for membership it can lead to resentment. Why does the person who shows up twice a year get to vote at the congregational meeting? The lesson we should take away is the same. In a church, doing only the minimum required does not lead to a thriving congregation.

At this point, maybe you are curious and want to ask a question, “So, Thom, what has inspired you to deliver a sermon on the subject of membership? Why this sermon?”

I was inspired to give this sermon for a couple of reasons. First, the nature of this church is one of strong leadership by members. Members are closely involved in the making of decisions and in the operations of the congregation. That’s the culture of this congregation. There are high expectations of membership, especially among the most active leaders in our church. As a member-centered congregation, this conversation about the meaning of membership is an especially important conversation to have.

The second reason I’m inspired to speak on this topic is that I believe that it is absolutely urgent that we make membership a top priority in our life together as a congregation. Part of this priority has to do with membership numbers, with welcoming new members and helping the members we do have to be more active and stay connected. Part of that priority has to do with the Fourth P: Passing it on. The truth is that our move to this new building has not led to the kind of growth in membership that many of us expected. That is a reality we should all be aware of and that we need to work on together. Part of this priority has to do with deepening our understanding of and expectations of membership. It has to do with a substantial conversation about membership. We can make up the Four P’s. We can insist on the minimum required for membership in our bylaws. But, I don’t think it is up to the minister to decide what the meaning of membership is and what the expectations of membership should be. As members, you own the answers to these questions.

There are several things I’m going to ask of you this morning. The first thing I am going to ask of you is to spend some time thinking about what membership ought to mean. What are the expectations of membership? Then, I want you to communicate those ideas to me during the upcoming week. I really want a conversation. Next week, I’m going to preach on membership again and what you share with me will inform next week’s sermon.

The second thing I want from you is your willingness to work with me on some membership projects in the short term. A while ago, several years ago, there was a saying we had in this church. “Every member of the church is a member of the membership committee.” What that saying meant was that the work of membership is the not the work of the minister alone, or a handful of volunteers on the membership committee, or the members of the board. We all share this work. The work of warmly welcoming visitors. The work of greeting and including the newcomer. The work of checking on those who we haven’t seen around. The work of passing it on, of helping to get the word out about this church.

I’m going to ask you to take literally this saying about the every member membership committee. I am hoping that several dozen of you will volunteer to work with me over the next couple of weeks to do some membership related projects. You can send me an email. You can send me a text message. You can tear off a corner of the order of service and write your name on it, and hand it to me after the service. Let me know if you’re willing to work on membership.

Our religious forebears, our religious ancestors, were not successful in perfecting the membership of their churches. Thank goodness for that. What I’m talking about this morning, the ideas I’d like to initiate, isn’t about perfecting membership. Don’t worry. But I do believe that membership matters. I hope you agree. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon: "Visions of Paideia & The Politics of Public Education" (Delivered 1-26-14)

My remarks this morning are bookended by appealing to a concept from Ancient Greece. I first encountered the concept of paideia when I was a student in college. Paideia was the name given to a week-long event held on campus immediately before the start of the spring semester in which students, professors, and community members were invited to offer and attend informal classes. Despite the fact that participation was voluntary and no credit or compensation was offered, professors and students alike spent a considerable amount of time preparing lessons and lectures, and students flocked to these classes morning, afternoon, and evening in order to learn something new. It was a little like Communiversity. The true meaning of paideia defies easy definition. It can mean learning for learning’s sake. However, it would be more accurate to think of paideia as education that helps to form us as human beings. You can contrast paideia with the Greek word techne, or learning in order to master a skill. Paideia is education that shapes our lives. In Latin, the term that comes the closest is “Humanitas.” Humanities, we’d say.


This morning I am going to talk about public education, funding public education, and the politics of funding education. We are experiencing a crisis in public education funding here in Kansas. This may seem like an unusual topic to bring up in a church service. I believe I’m justified in talking about politics and public education for at least two reasons. The first reason is that this is a subject that matters. How we fund public education impacts the well-being of our children and the well-being of our communities, in the present as well as in the future. How we fund education can help determine social mobility, whether our society is one of opportunity and possibility for all or one of a growing divide between rich and poor, between the privileged and the disadvantaged. Marilynne Robinson writes, “If we educate [our children] well, we give them the means to create a future we cannot anticipate. If we cheat them, they will have the relatively meager future we have prepared for them.” Simply put, education matters and religion has a responsibility to address things that matter.

The second reason I’m justified about talking about public education is that it matters to us. We are the parents who send our children to Kansas schools, the teachers and staff members who work at Kansas schools, and the tax-payers who pay for education. We are the ones who worry about our children and grandchildren. We worry about whether or not we will be able to call our state a good place to live. I’m speaking on this topic because education matters to us and as a minister I’m called to speak about what matters to us. This morning I want for us to grow in solidarity with each other. I want us to commit to work, independently and together, to support stronger public education in Kansas.

State funding for education initially decreased under Governors Sebelius and Parkinson who compromised with the legislature on austerity measures as a result of the financial crisis and recession. These cuts have been preserved, and actually increased, under the Brownback administration, as the governor and legislature have chosen to make enormous cuts to the income tax, especially for the wealthiest Kansans, rather than restore funding for education. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, from 2008 to the present day, Kansas has cut spending on public education by 16.5%, the fourth deepest cuts of any state in our country. Only Oklahoma, Alabama, and Arizona have made steeper cuts to public education. Adjusted for inflation, we spend $950 less per student now than we did five years ago.

A lawsuit filed in 2010 challenged whether the legislature was fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide suitable funding for education. Last year a panel of judges ruled that education is, in fact, underfunded in Kansas and ordered the legislature to increase funding by around $600 per student at an annual cost of about $440 million to the state. That ruling was appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, and the decision was expected to be handed down at the beginning of this month. We’re still waiting. In fact, I’ve heard a rumor that the court may wait until after the legislative session adjourns in May to issue its ruling. A New York Times opinion piece from earlier this month stated,

If the Kansas Supreme Court orders restoration of the funding, legislators are threatening to amend the state’s Constitution by removing the requirement for “suitable” school funding and to strip Kansas courts of jurisdiction to hear school finance cases altogether. And if the amendment fails, they have vowed to defy any court order for increased funding or, at the very least, take the money from higher education.

So, that’s where we are now: A Kansas Supreme Court decision looming, a defiant legislature preparing to dig in and resist, and Kansas’ children and educators caught in the middle, trying to learn and teach in underfunded school systems.

This drama that we observe locally is part of a larger campaign designed to attack and undermine public education in our country. Indeed, it is a part of a larger movement to attack most forms of government spending, and whatever organizations, institutions, unions, and laws that are left that stand in the way of plutocracy. The unemployed are portrayed as lazy. Welfare recipients are attacked as morally deficient. SNAP recipients are called gluttonous. (Stay after the second service this morning and participate in the Harvesters “pack-a-sack” service project and you’ll see that there is nothing glamorous about receiving food assistance in America.)

Along these same lines, educators are attacked and slandered. Teachers are called  unaccountable. Teachers unions are called thuggish. Schools are said to be failing and underperforming. Last spring, a right-wing think tank known as the Kansas Policy Institute ran a series of ads around the state claiming to show that a shockingly high percentage of Kansas students were not reaching academic standards. The advertisements were fraudulent. The true percentage of students not achieving academic standards was quite small. Attacks on public education try to paint public schools as inefficient, wasteful, and underperforming. They try to get voters to support legislators who will starve public schools of funding. It is a vicious cycle. Disinvest in education. Then criticize school performance in order to justify further disinvestment in education.

Why the attacks on public education? I think the attacks have multiple and overlapping origins. But, most of the attacks simply have to do with money. Education is by far the biggest budget item at the state level. Education is paid for with tax dollars. If you don’t want to pay taxes, you don’t want to fund public education. In recent years we’ve seen enormous income tax cuts here in Kansas, cuts that have disproportionately benefited the wealthiest individuals, those who have the most and who need tax cuts the least. That $440 million that the courts ruled needs to go back into education? That puts those tax cuts in jeopardy, not to mention presenting an obstacle to the Brownback administration’s overall goal of eliminating the state income tax altogether.

Furthermore, in an age of privatization, when so many government functions, everything from prisons to Medicaid to child support collections, are being turned over to private, for-profit companies, it would only make sense that private educational institutions would want a slice of the pie as they lobby for a voucher system. It’s about money. Should those who live and work in Kansas be required, through their taxes, to provide a suitable education for all the children of Kansas? Should those of with the most wealth, the most resources, especially those who have more than they could ever possibly need, be obligated to provide more for the common well-being of all? My answer to these questions is a resounding yes!

The extreme opposite of public education for all is the idea that every family should fend for itself, that public education should be abolished and that it should be limited to those who are able to pay for it. That’s a third world approach to education. That’s not the world I want to live in. Currently, Kansas education funding laws provide for a nominally level playing field, sort of. It is actually more of a level playing field than exists in other states. The operational budget for school districts – the money that pays for teacher and staff salaries, for example – comes from the state, but school districts are able to fund buildings and technology from local resources. This raises an interesting question. Should residents of Johnson County be required to subsidize education across the state? Should every district have to fend for itself? I’m for a system that levels the playing field though I am also sympathetic to communities in wealthier districts who want to be able to go above and beyond for students, even more than they already do through booster activities, fundraisers, and private educational spending. If we let each district fend for itself, we might help some children at the expense of others across Kansas. We fall short of the obligation we have to all.

If you want to go deeper into issues of education funding, I would recommend that you get in touch with Game On for Kansas Schools. I would also recommend attending the Mainstream Coalition forum at Colonial UCC in Prairie Village on February 20th. The title of that program is Education Under Assault.

It is a lie to say that public education is failing in Kansas, or in the United States, despite what those misleading ads from the Kansas Policy Institute may say. They are simply not true. It is fair to say that public education faces challenges. But it is stupid to argue that those challenges can be met and overcome by underfunding public education and starving our schools. Money matters! A recent report from the Albert Shanker Institute concluded that school spending is positively correlated with student outcome. At the same time, the challenges that we face are not as simple as just restoring funding to education. As long as the gap between rich and poor in our country is as massive at is, as long as poverty is endemic, there will continue to be inequalities in education.

When John F. Kennedy challenged our nation by saying, “We choose to go to the moon,” he didn’t turn around and cut NASA’s funding. No, he gave it ten times as much financial support. It was a common endeavor that we paid for together, accomplished together, and celebrated together. We should regard public education in the same way: a common endeavor, a national treasure, an institution of national pride that we need to pay for, accomplish, and celebrate together. Public education is a public good worthy of our investment.

Just as there are some looney tunes who insist that we never actually went to the moon, there are some people today who hold public education in contempt. At the beginning of this legislative session, not quite two weeks ago, Governor Brownback spoke at a Christian prayer gathering held in the Capitol’s Old Supreme Courtroom. It was there that he previewed his “State of the State” address, in which he blasted the Kansas Supreme Court. This prayer gathering featured speakers from the Concerned Women of America and the Culture Shield Network, a new right-wing Christian political organization based here in Kansas. Among the prayers spoken that day in front of the Governor and legislators, was a prayer that parents would “lay down their lives” to take back control over their child’s education, and that, “children will come out so strong that we will not lose them to secular colleges.” Secular colleges? You mean like KU and K-State? You mean like Washburn, Wichita State, Pittsburg State, and Emporia State? You mean like Johnson County Community College? What utter contempt for public education. What utter contempt for higher education. What fear and suspicion of learning and free inquiry. What anti-intellectualism.


In the ancient Greek world there was the concept of paideia, an education that shapes our humanity. Not just education for the purposes of learning a specific skill, but education as formation, developing the essence of what it means to be human. Sorry, Concerned Women of America. Sorry, Culture Shield Network, but public education, when it does what it is meant to do, when it’s well-funded and given the resources it needs to thrive, is about formation. Not in any narrow, ideological sense. Not in a parochial sense. But in an expansive sense. It exposes children to the amazing insights of the natural sciences and the logic and language of math. It exposes children to foreign cultures and languages, to different worldviews, to diverse voices, and to the breadth of human diversity. It asks children to make sense of history and to learn from it, to understand our world and ourselves. It teaches children to ask critical questions and seek deeper understandings. It gives them exposure to music, art, drama, and sport. It forms children, helping them to become good citizens and productive members of society.

When education is underfunded and attacked, it is our children’s loss and our loss and our future’s loss. We can and must do better.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sermon: "Mandela and the Limits of Forgiveness" (Delivered 1-19-14)

The reading this morning is from an article titled, “Nelson Mandela: Four Acts of Forgiveness that Showed South Africa [the] Path away from Apartheid” that appeared the day after Mandela’s death in December. This article, poorly written as it is, is representative of many of the tributes to Mandela that have come out over the past several weeks.

Having spent 27 years in prison for trying to end white-minority rule…, Mandela became an emblem of peace by reconciling with the individuals who had been the instruments of oppression during his captivity.

Here are four acts of forgiveness by South Africa's first black president which pointed the way forward for a divided country to become united.

Mandela invited one of his former jailers to a dinner marking the 20th anniversary of his release from prison.
Christo Brand was a jailer responsible for guarding Nelson Mandela at Robben Island and then at Pollsmoor Prison. Speaking about the relationship which developed between the two men, Mandela said it "reinforced my belief in the essential humanity of even those who had kept me behind bars."

Mandela invited his former prison guard to his inauguration ceremony as South Africa’s president.
Prisoner warder Paul Gregory and Mandela developed a bond during his long captivity, according to the anti-apartheid icon. Gregory's "soothing presence" and "courtesy" marked him out as different to most of his colleagues in Mandela's eyes. On becoming president of South Africa in 1994, he invited Gregory to the inauguration ceremony.

Mandela had lunch with the man who tried to have him killed
Percy Yutar was the state prosecutor at the 1963 Rivonia treason trial at which Mandela was convicted of sabotage and sentenced to hard labor for life. Yutar demanded the death penalty for Mandela. In 1995, Mandela invited Yutar to dinner where they enjoyed a kosher meal. Mandela said that Yutar had only been doing his job.

And, Mandela donned the Springbok rugby jersey at the 1995 rugby World Cup final
During the apartheid era, few symbols summed up oppression for Mandela and his ANC colleagues more than the hated green Springbok jersey. At home matches, the pens in which black South Africans were made to stand were always full of fans cheering the opposition. So Mandela was making a huge statement by wearing a green jersey at the World Cup final in 1995. He presented the trophy to South African captain Francois Pienaar, sending out a strong message… that it was time to put aside enmity and become a united country.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes the cases that came to him as a lawyer serving Africans in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1950s.

It was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past eleven, a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.

Every week we interviewed old men from the countryside who told us that generation after generation of their family had worked a scraggly piece of land from which they were now being evicted. Every week we interviewed old women who brewed African beer as a way to supplement tiny incomes, who now faced jail terms and fines they could not afford to pay. Every week we interviewed people who had lived in the same house for decades only to find that it was now declared a white area and they had to leave without any recompense at all. Every day we heard and saw the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives.

Mandela is describing only a small part of the apartheid regime that dominated South Africa for a period of several decades of the 20th century, in which the racism and greed of colonialism became law. Apartheid was marked by murder, torture, and brutality, by political repression and widespread human rights violations, by theft and impoverishment, and by systemic racial oppression.

Since Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, 2013, I’ve been devouring stories and writings about his life and legacy, from his tribal childhood, through his rise as a young political leader within the African National Congress, to his twenty seven years as a political prisoner, to his release and election as the President of South Africa, to his role in helping to bring stability to a nation in which a white minority has subjugated the other 80% of the population.

As people around the world have celebrated his life and memory, Mandela has been celebrated and honored, as a leader of forgiveness, a leader of healing, and a force for reconciliation. Those memorializing him have focused on the power of his forgiveness. African-American syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts put it bluntly, “Mandela forgave. He forgave the government that segregated him to the margins of society and made him an outsider in his own country. He forgave the jailers who tried to break his body and spirit during his long incarceration. He forgave his country for hating him.”

Tributes like these are inspiring. They describe a spiritual capacity so far beyond what most mere mortals are capable of. These stories stir us. And, frankly, they’re also somewhat troubling and disconcerting at the same time. When we talk about forgiving Apartheid, one has to ask whether there are any limits of forgiveness. How does one forgive decades of systemic murder, torture, brutality, repression, theft, and impoverishment? How does one even begin to forgive?

What are the limits of forgiveness? How is it possible to speak of forgiving the Rwandan genocide? The killing fields of Cambodia? Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans? War crimes and atrocities? In our own nation’s history, what would it mean – what would it look like – to forgive the slave trade, slavery, and Jim Crow? How in the world would one even begin to think about forgiving the Native American genocide, the Trail of Tears, forced displacement, and the reservation system? Can forgiveness ever be mentioned in the same sentence as the Holocaust? Are there limits to forgiveness?

Returning to South Africa, coming back to Nelson Mandela, we’ve been hearing these stories over the past month. We’ve been hearing about Mandela inviting his prison guards to his inauguration and breaking bread with his tormentors. We’ve heard, over and over again, Mandela’s quote about leaving prison after twenty seven years as a political prisoner. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

How are we to evaluate these actions, these words? Do we find them heroic? Do we find them challenging? Or, seen differently, do we find them at all distressing? Do any of us say, to Mandela and to the South African people, you have a perfectly acceptable reason for being angry, for being bitter? Such a response is understandable, isn’t it?

At the most recent meeting of the worship team and during the most recent meeting of Wednesday evening’s sermon small group, I asked the members of these groups for their reactions to these various examples of forgiveness offered by Mandela – inviting a prison guard to his inauguration, wearing the green jersey and shaking the hand of the rugby captain, and so on. Several members talked about how moved and amazed they are by this capacity for forgiveness. One person told me about a trip she had taken to Cambodia. She engaged one of her guides in conversation and the conversation turned to the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. The genocide they perpetrated against their own people accounted for somewhere in the neighborhood of two million deaths, roughly twenty percent of the country’s population. The guide claimed that the country had forgiven and moved on. This guide obviously can’t speak for a nation, and something may have been lost in translation. But, what do we make out of a statement like that? Another member of the church I spoke with had a different reaction to Mandela as a figure of forgiveness. He said, “Call me a cynic, but all that seems like a bunch of political theater.”

In the articles I’ve read, I’ve been fascinated by a few writes who have complicated Mandela’s relationship with forgiveness. Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Bill Keller remembers spending a day observing Mandela during his presidency in the mid-90s. He recalls his surprise when Mandela sided with the wealthy owner of a chain of grocery stores over the striking workers at his stores. He paints a picture of a “less saintly” Nelson Mandela,

Another thing that stays with me from that day is that Mandela could be mean. He is celebrated, rightly so, for the strategic forgiveness that enabled him to bargain with his erstwhile tormentors and even include them, for an interim period, in his cabinet.

But to include them did not mean to love them. On my day of watching, there were flashes of entirely human rancor, especially in his acerbic asides about his predecessor and partner in history, F. W. de Klerk, who had become a deputy in the unity government. Mandela took several opportunities to portray de Klerk as a small-minded conniver… With unmistakable relish, Mandela disclosed that he had just stripped de Klerk of his authority overseeing administration of the intelligence service.

Keller presents forgiveness as an act of carefully crafted statesmanship. Elsewhere, Ron Krabill opines that Mandela’s commitment to forgiveness was similarly “strategic.”

Media coverage of his death has focused heavily on Mandela’s ability to forgive those who sentenced him to prison for 27 years for his work against apartheid and his pursuit of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. But forgiveness is part of, not an exception to, his identity as a revolutionary… Mandela supported reconciliation rather than retribution because he believed it offered the best way forward for the revolution…

We might recall that Mandela’s fiercest critics included some of his closest political allies, his comrades. They wished he would seize the property and wealth that South African whites had taken during Apartheid years and redistribute it among those from whom it had been taken. Mandela rejected this approach. He chose a path whose goal was allowing people to live together. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote of South Africa’s path forward,

Mandela’s administration would later decide against holding criminal trials for former members of the apartheid government for many practical reasons. [One of those reasons was that they knew that] after the trials, everyone would still have to live with each other. When we recognize this – that we have to live with each other, or we either have to live with each other or withdraw from the human family, forgiveness seems possible.

This quote is nothing if not practical. And that, I suppose, is the point that those articles I cited make. Mandela’s acts and gestures of forgiveness helped to make progress towards a practical outcome: a more peaceful country, a more stable nation.

So, what might we learn, what might we take away, from such extreme examples of forgiveness? When I look at Mandela, I feel like I’m watching a champion marathon runner when I myself am barely learning to crawl. The good news for us is that most of us will never be put in a situation where we are asked to forgive a genocide that we are forced to live through. We’ll never be asked to forgive our captors after three decades of wrongful imprisonment. There but for the grace of God go I.

But while it is unlikely that we will be challenged to practice forgiveness in its most extreme forms, our lives – by virtue of us being human and living with other humans – will present us with opportunities to forgive others and to ask for forgiveness. That others can run marathons does not make it any easier for us to jog around the block. It just proves it’s possible. It just proves it’s possible.

About a decade ago I read a book about forgiveness in South Africa. The book, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, was written by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist who worked with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The book is about her visits to Eugene de Kock, who had been the commanding officer of South Africa’s national police and had directed kidnapping, murder, and torture hundreds of times over, and who was sentenced to a 212 year prison sentence for his crimes against humanity. In this book, the author struggles over what it would mean to forgive Eugene de Kock. She comes face to face with his humanity. She even considers whether his sentence should be lessened and whether he should be freed.

In Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s book we also meet Peter and Linda Biehl. In the late days of apartheid, their daughter, Amy, a college student at Stanford, found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time in South Africa and was murdered by two South African youth. The parents, Peter and Linda, came to South Africa and took on the task of transforming the boys, no older than Amy, who had murdered her, from killers to constructive members of society. They took on their daughter’s killers as their own children, educating them, and turning tragedy into redemption.

What, indeed, are the limits of forgiveness?

We may not be asked in our lifetime to run marathons of forgiveness, to climb the tallest mountains of forgiveness, or to swim the widest seas of forgiveness. In our lifetime we will be given the opportunity to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Let us do what we can to take a first step, and then to take one more step.