Friday, September 30, 2005

Name in the Papers

Over the past several months, I have been volunteering with a group called "Kansans for Responsible Sex Education." If you live in Kansas and support what this group is about, take a few seconds to sign the petition!

On Tuesday, September 13 I traveled to Topeka with over two dozen participants in this campaign and testified in front of the Kansas School Board, urging them not to enact an "opt-in" policy. You can check out some of the media coverage below (not sure when these links expire):

The Kansas City Star
Johnson County Sun
The Lawrence Journal-World
The Wichita Eagle
KMBC-TV9 (Check out the video!)
Fox4 News

Sermon: "Should Religious Liberals Reconsider Paul?" (Delivered 7/31/2005)

[Two key books informed this sermon: "In Search of Paul" by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed and "A Radical Jew" by Daniel Boyarin. I've indicated places below where I've quoted/paraphrased their words by ending those paragraphs with brackets.]

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, it was announced that Peter Gomes – a bit of a celebrity professor to us Harvard students – would be giving a series of evening lectures on the subject, “Preaching on Paul.” Now the thing about being a student in Cambridge was that on any given night, you had your pick of talks from Nobel prize winners, literary geniuses, politicians, international diplomats, and experts in any field you could imagine… and somewhere in there you were expected to do your homework too. Let’s just say, “Preaching on Paul” was less intriguing to me than going to hear, say Jared Diamond or Gary Trudeau or a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

One day as I was walking through the halls of the Divinity School, a classmate stopped me and queried whether I’d be going to hear Peter Gomes’ lectures on Paul. I remember replying with the wittiest, and maybe the most arrogant, thing I’ve uttered. Would I be going to the lecture? “Oh, no, it all sounds like so much ‘what Peter says about Paul.’” But the truth was that as a UU, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever preach on Paul.

In late antiquity, a great and powerful empire dominated the western world. It was cruel and violent and unjust and oppressive – not particularly more so than other empires before or since, but oh, the scale. Its imperial reach was military, but also cultural. It imposed its culture upon others. And in many ways, this culture was cutting-edge. [Crossan/Reed preface]

This empire believed that it had God on its side. Its coins, temples, statues, roads, buildings, landscapes bore these inscriptions, “God, Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, Savior of the World.” These inscriptions described none other than Caesar Augustus. And this empire did desire to save the world, to achieve peace… but to achieve it through victory and domination. [Crossan/Reed preface]

And on the outskirts of this empire, a member of an oppressed minority religion had a powerful spiritual awakening, began to articulate a vision of a new world and a new creation. This vision forever altered the group out of which he came and eventually would threaten the empire itself. At the same time, this vision was threatened on two fronts. It was threatened by those who would bind it to a particular group, possess it exclusively. And it was also threatened by forces that would subsume it into the larger culture, to make it a servant of that culture rather than a challenge to it. [Crossan/Reed]

We might say that today we are living in late, late antiquity. In which a great and powerful empire dominates the Western world. An empire that in some ways is at the cutting edge of civilization, but that also is no stranger to violence, cruelty, injustice and oppression. An empire that flexes its muscles militarily, but also culturally. Whose leaders envision God on our side (at the very least) and who perceive a mandate to be saviors of the world, salvation through victory and domination. [Crossan/Reed]

And what word shall we hear of a different vision? What word shall we hear of a new creation? And can it be said, without binding it to our narrow possession? And can it be said, without bending it so that it becomes a servant to and an accomplice with the same imperial culture that is a disservice to it.


Saul of Tarsus was believed to have been born in the first decade of the Common Era. A contemporary of Jesus, he never actually met him. In the early stages of his life, it is reported, he participated in the persecution of followers of Jesus. Then, on the Road to Damascus, he had a powerful conversion experience, changed his name from Saul to Paul, and became an apostle. He traveled the Mediterranean, assisting, supporting, and directing the communities of Jews who were following Jesus. Paul was martyred in Rome in the year 65.

The New Testament contains twenty-seven books, of which thirteen are letters bearing the inscription that they were written by Paul. These letters, epistles, are among the most remarkable pieces of literature ever written. They are part the spiritual autobiography of a first century Jew, part theological treatise, and part advice columns. They are also among the most criticized pieces of writing ever written. Let me enumerate these criticisms, giving special attention to the criticisms of him that have come from liberal religious circles:

First, Paul has been called an inventor of Christianity, and a betrayer of Jesus and distorter of Jesus’ message. This criticism holds that Paul theologized Jesus’ teachings, over-emphasized the death and resurrection and under-emphasized Jesus’ ministry. He took the religion that Jesus practiced and made it a religion about Jesus. This is the Paul who was portrayed in Martin Scorcese’s movie the Last Temptation of Christ as a zealous defrauder, who fashions an invented Jesus.

Second, not only has Paul been called the apostle who betrayed Jesus, but he’s also been called the apostate who betrayed Judaism. In this reading, Paul’s criticism of The Law is coded as an attack on Judaism. It is true that Paul’s writings and arguments were later interpreted in a way that would lead to Jewish stereotypes, and, eventually, Anti-Semitism.

Thirdly, Paul was also accused of being racist. Paul lived in a time and society in which the owning of slaves was a commonly accepted practice. The racism accusation comes from passages like Ephesians 6, where we find the commonly referenced formula of who-should-obey-whom which includes “slaves obey your masters”, and in the letter to Philemon where Paul instructs a runaway slave to return to his master. These passages were frequently used by Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries to condone the practice of slavery in North America.

Fourth, Paul is also accused of being homophobic. Paul’s words in passages like Romans one, First Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are among the most-used by the Religious Right in their efforts to legislate discrimination against homosexuals today.

And fifthly and lastly, Paul is sexist. Wives obey your husbands it says in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5. Women, do not speak in church, it says in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.

So there we have it, Paul is a dishonest, anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, misogynist. Let’s send him away, cast him out. Why even bother to reconsider him? I believe that any reconsideration of Paul needs to begin with an open hearing of the charges against him I’ve listed above. Fortunately, it isn’t that difficult to find evidence that will lead to dismissing many of these charges and reducing of the rest. Mainstream Biblical scholarship has made these findings available to us for decades, but for some reason it has been more convenient for many to continue to see Paul as a villain to demonize rather than an ally, albeit a flawed one, to cooperate with.

The first thing to understand is that Paul didn’t write everything that has got his name on it. Of the thirteen epistles, Paul only wrote seven. Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy are not authentically Paul. Neither are Ephesians, Colossians, or 2 Thessalonians. About 90 percent of the offensive stuff that we think Paul wrote appears in these non-Pauline epistles. How do we know this? Biblical scholarship clearly shows it. One of the key tools used to distinguish Paul from non-Paul is this thing scholars call “Pauline Embarrassment.” This theory works like this: if Paul says something that dramatically challenged the dominant culture in a way that would have been embarrassing to the church, Paul most certainly said it, because somebody had to come back later and write pretending to be Paul to try to make it fit the culture. And it is embarrassing things like radical equality, like non-hierarchy that later writers tried to correct or obscure.

You want to know about Paul’s views about women? Try 1 Corinthians 16: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church, so you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you.” In other words, “Do what this woman says.” Paul then goes on to supply a list of leaders. A third of the list are women. But of the ones on the list who he singles out for special praise, half are women, including Junia. Junia is so controversial that the church tradition later pretended that she was a man, however, archeology has accounted for over 250 Junia’s living in the first century and all are women. Junia, it is said, is “prominent among the apostles.” Meaning, she had authority over the leaders of the church. [Crossan/Reed]

Or consider 1 Corinthians 7, where the advice to married couples is egalitarian, and ends with the final piece of advice, “And however that may be, let each of you lead the life to which God called you.” And if you decide to go and read 1 Corinthians, make sure to look for the passage where Paul writes to a group who cross-dress during the religious services. [Crossan/Reed]

Similarly, arguments can be made against claims of Paul’s supposed homophobia. (After all, the concept of homosexuality did not exist in Paul’s day.) So what he was writing about was not specific acts, but specific attitudes – states of egoism, self-absorption, excess, self-worship – forms of idolatry all. It is almost never specific acts that concern Paul, rather it is purity of heart. Paul is saying that sexual desire can be a cruel master. [Peter Gomes, "The Good Book"]

And arguments against his racism are possible as well. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free,” is the famous formula in Galatians 3:28.

As for his anti-Semitism, we should remember that Paul was a Jew who believed he was living out Judaism through offering a radical critique of it. His philosophy may be Greek, but his rhetoric was surely Jewish.

There might be one final thing to say about reading Paul. Reading Paul is like reading the answers to a Dear Abby column without reading the questions. They are one side of a dialogue and the other side has been lost. And the questions that we may be most concerned about are probably not the questions he is answering. I doubt the church at Corinth or Rome were asking, What do you think of women’s suffrage? Or should we adopt a marriage amendment?

So, if what I’ve argued, if the knowledge I’ve introduced, is at all plausible to you, I hope you will welcome this act of reconsidering Paul that I will attempt in the remainder of this sermon.

I believe that central to Paul’s teachings and writings was an egalitarian ideal that was a response to the non-egalitarian structure of Roman civilization and also a response to his separate status as a Jewish other. Roman civilization was highly stratified, according to gender, according to class, according to nationality, and according to religion. Paul, however, envisioned a new creation in which there would no longer be Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female. Paul was especially concerned about Jewish particularity and so attempted to open up the Jewish world to gentiles, to make what was particular universal.
However, he immediately ran into problems: were Gentile converts expected to keep Kosher, to become circumcised, to keep the law? For that matter, were Jews still expected to keep the law? And was the universal oneness that Paul dreamt of compatible with people doing differently and being different? Asked succinctly, do people have worth because of a shared common humanity? Or are we valuable because of our differences? [Boyarin]

That is the first question that reconsidering Paul helps us to better answer: What is the nature of human worth? And do we accept Paul’s universalizing answer? Or do we need to continue this work?

The second question that reconsidering Paul will help us to engage with is the question of empire, of imperialism, and our relationship to it. In Paul there is a strong wrestling with what it means to live under an imperial rule, and as a part, albeit a minority part, of an imperial civilization. As I read Paul, there is time and time again an insistence that peace needs to be achieved through Justice, not through Victory, and most certainly not through death. In this regard, Paul represents the continuation of, rather than the departure from, Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. I read Paul as being in line with Vaclav Havel who wrote, “The faithful attitude is and must be fundamentally hostile towards the notion of violent change – simply because it places its faith in violence. An attitude that turns away from abstract political visions of the future and towards concrete human beings and ways of defending them effectively in the here and now is quite naturally accompanied by an intensified antipathy to all forms of violence carried out in the name of ‘better future’ and by a profound belief that a future secured by violence might actually be worse than what exists now; in other words, the future would be fatally stigmatized by the very means used to secure it… It is not that we should shy away from the idea of violent political overthrow because the idea seems too radical, but on the contrary, because it is not radical enough.” The Pax Romana was a peace through domination and victory in the name of piety. The Peace of Paul was a peace through justice and non-violence in the name of covenant. [Crossan/Reed epilogue]

Finally, thirdly, a reconsideration of Paul will help us to further discern the relationship between ourselves as religious people and the culture – or we might say today, various sub-cultures. To what degree should our religion be a part of the culture around us? To what degree should it be distinct, set-apart from that culture? To what degree should it be counter-cultural? In Paul’s writings almost an embarrassing amount of time is spent addressing cultural practices that we may have a difficult time thinking are important. He spends an awful lot of time worrying about keeping the Jewish food requirements. He also spends a lot of time on subjects like marriage between Jews and Gentiles. But these practices are value-loaded; they are extremely important to the communities to which he is writing… because the answers to these questions are also going to be the answer to the questions of whether in the new Kingdom there will be slave and free, whether there will be male and female. And we know that the answer that Paul comes up with is going to be so troubling to others in the church that they will write letters in his name arguing for keeping the old cultural standards in place.

These are the three questions: What is the meaning of diversity and difference? What does it mean to live in an imperial time? And to what extent should the church conform to or question culture? These three questions are not ones that Paul offers perfect answers to, in fact far from it. But they were at the core of what this little church was struggling with living under the thumb of the Senatus Populusque Romanus. And perhaps, just perhaps, we might profit from asking these same questions in our little church right here smack dab in the middle of the Senatus Populusque Americanus. [Crossan/Reed]

I close with words from Paul’s epistle to the Romans:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Sermon: "The Conviction of a UU" (Delivered 8/21/2005)

[I know of at least two colleagues, Rev. Richard Gilbert and Rev. Ken Sawyer, who have preached on the hypothetical question, "If you were accused of being a UU, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"]

When I was in college, a professor of mine began a course on Judaism with the fascinating pronouncement that the religion of Judaism – its history and traditions – could be best understood by imagining that there was a central question that lies at the heart of it, a lens through which things Jewish could be comprehended. He then went on to propose that the question, at the heart of the tradition, is: "Who is a Jew?" Which is to ask, “Who is included in the covenant between Yahweh and Yahweh's chosen people?”

I was so struck by this idea that there might be a central question at the heart of each religion – a central question around which a tradition wrestles, a central question shaping discourse and understanding. I was so struck by this idea that I began to wonder if each world religion might have a question at its center.

In Islam, the question might be: "What does it mean to surrender, to submit to God?" In Christianity it might be, "What must I do to be saved?" Or, perhaps, "What does it mean to be a faithful disciple of Jesus?"

And I wondered, I wondered, what the central question at the heart of Unitarian Universalism might be... But for now, I want to ask a different question:
That different question is, "If you were arrested for being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

If you were arrested for being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you? If the attorney general launched an inquiry into those practicing Unitarian Universalism, would your name turn up? If Alberto Gonzales started files on all those suspected of engaging in "Unitarian Universalist activities" would your file be thick or thin? Would there be enough evidence to convict you?

During the nineties, there were a number of sermons preached in UU churches on this question. And the reason for these sermons being preached might have been a very, very puzzling statistical finding. Every time a research company tries to estimate the size of different religious groups in the United States - every time a poll is conducted or a random sampling is performed = the results fairly consisently estimate the number of Unitarian Universalists in the United States to be around 600,00. Which is not a large number, about the size of Johnson County. However if you add up the number of all the members in all of the UU churches in the country you get around 150,000. 600,000 estimate; 150,000 actual. Meaning three quarters of those who answered a telephone survey and said that their religious affiliation was Unitarian Universalist were not actually on the membership lists of their local UU church. If you compared us to other religious traditions, our rate of involvement may not actually be all that unusual, or all that bad comparatively speaking, but I still found and find it to be incredible. Mathematically speaking, the results of that survey would indicate that there are thirteen-hundred individuals living in Johnson County who if you asked them what religion they are, they would say “Unitarian Universalist.” Remember the question posed was not, "this is what our church is like... would you be interested in a church like this?" but rather the question is, “what religion are you?” Thirteen-hundred. I wish I had their phone numbers.

Around the time that all these conviction sermons were being preached, there also rose this interest in Unitarian Universalist identity. UU Identity meant in some way being open and public about your religious identity. Being in some way publicly visible about your faith... not having a secret religious identity that would only be known if it was leaked, as if by a Whitehouse official. "I’m not naming any names, but the wife of the ambassador is… a UU.” UU Identity… that our faith identity need not be something “top secret.”

These two trends – the trend of being open about your religious identity, and the trend of it not being enough to just say what religion you were, that there should be some evidence – these two trends had ramifications. First, the idea that if you claimed to be Unitarian Universalist, there should be some supporting evidence, indicated that being a Unitarian Universalist required some participation. If you asked someone what political party they were, and they said they were a Republican or a Democrat, but then they explained, "Oh, but I don't vote, don't support candidates, and I can't even be bothered to put a bumper sticker on my car," you might wonder, "OK... so what exactly is it that makes you that political party?" Religion might be the same way, if you said, “Oh, I’m Catholic or Baptist, but I don’t go to church, don’t really give a lot of thought to what it might mean to live accordingly…” then it would give us cause to wonder.

And the idea that you should be in some way public about your religious identity meant that there was a component of responsibility. If you wear chalice jewelry, or are open about which church you attend, you should be expected to be able to articulate or explain what Unitarian Universalism is.

Last Spring I had the chance to interview each of the members of the Coming of Age class. To each of them I asked this question: If someone accused you of being Unitarian Universalist, what evidence would they cite? The responses varied. One teen suggested they might search his home for subversive literature, like the UU World Magazine or our church newsletter. Another offered that they could find someone to testify that they went to church here on Sunday. But other teenage youth answered the question by suggesting that the evidence would be connected with something they did. And for those adolescents, the something they did almost universally resembled a daring act of inclusiveness, tolerance, and acceptance -- a sticking up for a person, or type of person, or idea, or way of living that was being mercilessly ridiculed or denigrated by their peers. (That answer swelled me with a wonderful sense of pride.)

What makes you one particular religion or another?

Is it a thing you possess -- a piece of literature, a scripture, a piece of jewelry or ceremonial garb, an icon or relic? Is a search warrant required to prove it?

Or is it a company you keep -- a group you associate with? Sort of like guilt by association.

Or is it a way you believe -- a set of doctrinal statements to accept, creeds to affirm... In order for there to be a conviction, must there be a confession?

Or maybe it is an action you perpetrate? Can I get a witness?

Or maybe it is it some combination of these, some mix of belonging and believing, some combination of deed and devotion.

Really, this morning I have indulged in a bit of wordplay. Conviction being both a judgment against a criminal and the adhering to a set of ethical values. If you were accused of being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you? And we might say, that your conviction might depend on how well you lived by your convictions.

Perhaps, in this day in age the idea of such tribunals being set up to try suspected Unitarian Universalists is too scary an idea to be joked about. We recall, for example, Michael Servetus, the sixteenth century Unitarian burned at the stake for publishing Unitarian views… or Abner Kneeland, the nineteenth century Universalist who was the last man publicly tried on the charge of heresy. And while it is very, very unlikely that anyone here will ever be put to death on account of their religious affiliation, or brought up on charges for it, we do know that we do live in a world in which many of us do have to contend with the persecutions of stand-offish neighbors, proselytizing employers, uncles and aunts with our email addresses.
Currently, though we may never be tried, though we do live in trying times, on a certain level each day is its own trial of our Unitarian Universalist convictions. In the company cafeteria do you have the strength to call foul on a racist or sexist or homophobic joke told at the expense of the dignity of another member of the human family? And do you take up the work of working for the betterment of people through action? Do you resist orthodoxies of the mind, challenging them by passing them through the fire of thought? Do you strive for difficult understanding when conventional prejudice would be so much easier? Are your values reflected, not only in the percentage of your wealth that you give to the church, but in what you do with the rest of it? When you are asked about your moral values, do you have the strength to answer boldly?

The word "conviction" in the title of this sermon is intended to have a dual meaning. I want to continue with the play on words by suggesting that Unitarian Universalists are not so much a "chosen" people, but a "choosing" people.

The concept of a “Chosen people” is a Biblical concept, referring to the particular relationship between the Deity and his people. The story is of Abraham and Sarah. Yahweh bestows the blessing of a child as a sign of blessings to come, and in exchange the descendents vow to be faithful to God and keep the commandments. It might be noted that the status of being a Chosen People is not held to be some kind of special perk. It is a privileged status, but with that privilege comes a burden. Of you more will be asked, more will be expected, you are to live by a higher standard.

In our own Unitarian Universalist heritage, there is a strand of this idea of being a chosen people. It was our forebears, the Puritans that first conceived of their errand into the wilderness as an adventure of God’s chosen people. John Winthrop preached aboard the Arabella, that the Puritans were to be as a city upon a hill, a beacon and example to the world. A Chosen people.

It has been said that Unitarian Universalists are not so much a chosen people as we are a choosing people. In publications, we frequently refer to ourselves as heretics, noting that the root of the word means, “One who chooses.” Notice, I’ve selected the word “choosing”, not “choosy”. But there is this element of discernment, of conscience and conscientiousness, of sifting, of applying reason, of probing and wondering that lies close to the heart of our faith, our chosen faith. “Since what we choose is what we are and what we love we yet shall be, the goal it ever shines afar, the will to reach it makes us free.”

I want to end this morning by suggesting that it is our ability to choose that makes us a chosen people. It is the fact that for us religion is something we choose that means that more is asked of us and expected from us. The act of choice is demanding, not easy. To choose is a burden. It would not be a burden if the choice did not matter, but it does, and therefore, it is demanding. What we choose is what we are.

As one contemporary UU has noted, “Being UU is not permission to choose to believe anything you want. It is the freedom to choose and to pursue that which you are compelled to believe.” To choose that for your own. To choose authenticity over some prefabricated doctrine.

And such a choice, such a choice is intimately connected with responsibility. Since what we choose is what we are. Responsibility and consequence and expectation. Such it is for us, this choosing chosen people. And so it that I might suggest that the question that lies at the heart of our tradition is this: “As a people free to choose, how is it that we are most wisely and responsibly use that awesome choice we are given?"

Sermon: "The Question of Evil for Religious Liberals" (Delivered 9/11/2005)

A colleague of mine recently wrote an entry on her blog on the subject of "evil" and quoted the lyrics of gospel singer, Shirley Caesar:

“Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down;
Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down;
You’ve been building your kingdom all over this land,
Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down!

The mothers are gonna pray your kingdom down;
The mothers are gonna pray your kingdom down;
You’ve been building your kingdom all in the house of God;
Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down.”

You don’t usually hear words like that in a Unitarian Universalist church. This morning I’m going to be tackling the topic of “The Question of Evil for Religious Liberals.” The fancy theological word for this is “theodicy” – the explanation of why bad things happen in the universe and what the forces and powers underlying those bad things are.

It occurs to me that religious liberals tend not to have a strong sense of a supernatural motive force of evil and ill that is at work in the world. Unitarian Universalists tend not to believe in a “Satan” lurking in the shadows. We do not think in terms of demon possession or the devil. We do not think in terms of a great Deceiver (as Jerry Johnston would phrase it) or the Antichrist (as Pat Robertson would phrase it) operating in the worldly realm that grows in power in order to overcome and afflict God’s good people. We haven’t been known to say, “Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down.”

We might even ask whether the term “Evil” should be the part of the operating theological language of religious liberals? Are we allowed to label anything as Evil? Or should we just avoid using the word, and call things “wrong” or “bad” or “not nice” or “in violation of the standards of our community, in my own humble opinion.” Is “Evil” a word that we can use to describe suicide bombers and Osama bin Laden? What about Hitler and Pol Pot? What about members of the Aryan Nation or the Ku Klux Klan? What about serial killers like BTK? Or maybe there is no such thing as an evil person, only evil actions, evil ideas?

In my own opinion, though, we can fairly use the term “Evil.” On some level it is an uncomfortable word to use. We are more comfortable expressing the ills of the world in terms of “neurology and body chemistry, in terms of socio-economic conditions and theological ideologies, in terms of social forces, family forces, ignorance and lack of education, bad parenting, oppressions and repressions, racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia.” This is analysis with which I am comfortable. This is the homework I have done!

But, it is a different sort of homework that is required in order to speak of “Evil” from a theologically-attuned position. For, when we speak of “bad” and “wrong” and “not nice”, when we speak of nurture and upbringing and social conditions and learned behaviors and oppression, when we speak of these things we are speaking as chemists, as biologists, as psychologists, as educators, as social scientists and political scientists, as political creatures, as pundits and observers – and to be fair, liberal religion has said that because these things inform our understanding of the true shape of our world and ourselves, our religion needs to be open to these teachings. But when we speak of Evil, we are speaking as something more than doctors of physiology and psychology, as scientists of culture and society. When we speak of Evil we are speaking as religious people as theologians, conjuring up an understanding of something transcendent, extraordinary. And the fact that we do not have a supernatural Satan, demon, or antichrist – a being with agency who we imagine stalks the Earth stirring up trouble and building a kingdom; since we probably do not conceive of such a creature, it becomes incumbent upon us to develop a more sophisticated theology of Evil.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with someone here at Church and I was getting very excited about preaching this sermon on Evil. That person asked why I had decided to preach on the subject. I responded that it was a fitting topic on the anniversary of September 11th. I also said that I wanted to preach on this subject because, theologically, it seems to be a topic that we do not easily think through, and linguistically, it is a word or concept many of us have difficulty with. The individual responded that he didn’t have any difficulty using the word… and it was upon hearing this comment that I really began to think about it. Because you don't want to be able to use the word too easily.

So, I began to make a list of questions I wanted for us to be able to arrive at an answer to:

What is it that makes something Evil, and not just really bad, or unfortunate, or wrong? And why does evil exist? What is the explanation for evil acts? And are there only evil acts and evil ideas or are there also evil people, “evildoers” we might say? And how does one resist evil? And then there are these big questions: what is the nature of our humanity? What does this study of evil tell us about ourselves? And what are the criteria we might apply so that our understanding is useful and helpful and true?

The first thing I might say about thinking theologically about evil is that we must always use extreme caution in not defining “evil” in a way that separates it from us or denies our own capacity for it.

The example of this that comes to mind is this scene from the Michael Moore movie “Bowling for Columbine.” "Bowling for Columbine" explores the fascination with and prevalence of violence in the United States. It uses the horrific school shootings in Columbine as way of opening up the psyche of the nation. There’s this amazing visual scene in the movie in which a citizen of the town of Littleton, Colorado is interviewed. This citizen works for a military contractor who builds intercontinental ballistic missiles. He’s interviewed standing in front of the missile he is working on, a missile that when armed with a nuclear warhead would be capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people. And this man basically says, “I’m at a loss to explain the violence. I mean, we live in such a peaceful town. We’re peaceful people. Violence is something that our community is not involved in.” There was in this interview, a remarkable lack of self-reflection, perhaps even self-denial on the part of the worker.

How different it would have been if he had said, “I construct missiles that are capable of causing the annihilation of great cities. Our nation builds them in order to threaten other families like mine on the other side of the globe, so that they are deterred from shooting their missiles and killing my family. I believe and I pray that these missiles are used judiciously, by people that have the best interest of the planet in their hearts, but it is impossible to be sure that this will always be the case. I am then a part of a system that includes threats of violence and the use of extreme force. That is a part of the world we live in, and our local community is also then necessarily a part of that world.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in Stalin’s gulags, famously said, “The line between good and evil lies in the center of every human heart, not in some abstract moral, celestial space, but right here in each of our individual collective beings.” The line between good and evil lies in the center of every human heart.
Surely, that is a daring statement. Its implications are enormous. If it is the truth that the line between good and evil runs down the center of every human heart, then what is it that stops any of us from being the Unabomber, or a serial killer, or a suicide bomber, or a white supremacist? I think that the supernatural idea of a Satan, or devil, or deceiver, or what have you serves as sort of a distancing of ourselves from the potential illness of our own human natures. It is a way of removing human agency; because the idea that human beings are themselves capable of such ill is maybe a scarier idea than the idea of the existence of the devil.

Another distancing tactic is the labeling of those who perpetrate evil as “monsters” or “inhuman.” This is done, I would think, as a denial of our own capacity for evil. A human being could never do something like that! – Surely, that person isn’t human like I am.

Yet, I find myself agreeing with my colleague, Rosemary Bray McNatt, who says that, “people are born good and with the ability to make choices. So along with our inherent goodness there is also an inherent capacity for evil.” [UU World, 11/01] Stanley Millgram’s famous psychological experiment showed that two-thirds of his research subjects would be willing to give another human being a fatal electric shock if prompted to do so by an authority figure.

A theology of Evil will necessarily not define Evil as something that we cannot be involved in. It will not label others as evil while denying that we are part of systems that perpetuate and cause evil. The 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr made a very interesting comment on the nature of evil. Niebuhr commented: “Evil is always the assertion of some interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community or the total community of humanity or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels.” I think this might be a good working definition. Evil is a force leading us to some interest that is self-centered and does not take into consideration the integrity of the whole. Evil then is the attempt to get something without regard for the effect that that getting something has on others.

Niebuhr’s definition of Evil – that of have a self-interest that causes harm to others – is also the definition of being anti-social. So, is the person who talks during a movie, the person who takes up two parking spaces, or the person who leaves their dirty socks lying on the couch an evildoer? Clearly not. But, as the action grows from inconsiderate to harmful, as the self-centeredness increases, the action approaches evil. Similarly, when those actions are combined with a bias or hatred of another race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, it becomes all that easier to commit an evil act. The theologian Gordon Kaufman said that “evil is that which destroys life or prevents life from unfolding. Evil is that which dehumanizes.”

If you’ve ever seen the documentary about the rise and fall of Enron called, “The Smartest Guys in the Room”, you know this ability to put self-interest over the humanity. There’s this scene in the movie which plays recordings of the traders on the trading floor as they manipulated the California power grid during a Summer heat wave, jacking up the prices to rake in millions of dollars of profit. The traders try to out-do themselves, contemptuously mocking the clients depending on them for electricity. One trader squeals, “Sorry, grandma just lost her airconditioning! Ha Ha Ha.”

So, evil is the placing of self-interest over humanity’s well-being. It is exacerbated by our capacity to dehumanize others. There is a third aspect, however, and that is that evil is usually systematic. Evil tends to be systematic. And these systems tend to be enormous, so enormous that we are often participants in them, even if we are only passive bystanders.

One example of this is the Genocide in Rwanda. Here you have an extremely poor country, made up of two ethnic groups, one hating the other. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed, most of them by machete, during a three month period in 1994. But that is not it, there was also a profound failure of the United Nations and the United States to intervene when hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. That too falls under the definition of asserting a self-interest without regard to the whole.

I have come this far without mentioning today’s anniversary September 11th and the attacks upon our country designed by terrorist with evil plans. Four years into the “war on terror” and with no end in sight, we might realize that it is impossible to kill everyone prone to commit an act of terrorism. A theology of evil would tell us that victory achieved through annihilation does not constitute victory.
Nor have I mentioned the Hurricane and commented upon the human acts of desperation, which can be understood, and opportunism, which is reviling, that arose in the aftermath. Similarly, one cannot speak of the hurricane without speaking of the systematic evils of racism and classism and environmental degradation that exist in our nation. The systematic disregard of the poor and the non-white that occurred not only in the days of the hurricane, but over the centuries leading up to it, creating a vulnerable and susceptible population – that is the true shame.

I want to end with the words of the Unitarian Universalist minister, Victoria Safford, “Sometimes I think I use a very subjective, subconscious barometer in reading the paper or receiving the news of the day and deciding whether some event, some action, bears the weight of that word, evil. It’s not the size of the event, nor the cruelty or self-interest of those involved, or even historical impact. I find more and more that it’s the degree of heartbreak that I feel: beyond horror or shock or sorrow, that sense of something in me has been blasted apart, a shattering of hope, a collapse (and not for the first time) of what I thought I wished was true about the construction of the world and about human nature, the eclipse of optimism by a creeping cynicism, that I begin to call ‘realism.’ Some truths there are, some news there is, that breaks the heart not permanently, but utterly for a while. The wind’s knocked out of you, the light goes out, or flickers, as the realization forms perhaps for the hundredth time: this too is part of our humanity. Evil is the only word for this. And human is the only other for this.”

What can we do? Think of the whole, resist prejudice, build a better system.

Brother we’re gonna build this kingdom up. Sister we’re gonna build this kingdom up. The world that is, is a-fallin’ down. Friends, we’re gonna build this kingdom up.

Sisters, let’s pray this kingdom up. Brothers let’s pray this kingdom up. One day we shall dwell in the house of God. Friends, let’s pray this kingdom up. Amen.

Sermon: "A Faith Response to the Real Tough Stuff" (Delivered 9/26/2005)

Two years ago, as I was just starting out as your minister, I preached a sermon on death. I thought it was a good sermon at the time. In fact, I still think it was a good sermon... well, at least I don’t disagree with anything that I said. My approach went something like this: “Death, and more precisely, dying, is a necessary and inevitable part of being alive. As a part of living, death is something that we can prepare for. And since statistics tell us that deaths rarely come as a total surprise, that means that for the majority of us there are all sorts of things that we can do to prepare ourselves. I then enumerated a checklist of things to do to prepare including creating living wills and specifying end of life wishes, settling affairs with loved ones, even communicating your wishes to your religious home… my message was this: ‘To die well requires the preparation of a well-lived life.’” [I owe a debt of gratitude to my fellow seminarian Rosemary Lloyd for inspiring that sermon.]

I don’t disagree with any of this, but upon another reflection, I think the flaw and the tragic hubris of this message was the hint of the notion that we might be saved by our doing. Unitarian Universalists are, if nothing else, doers. With James, we would boldly proclaim that faith, without works, is dead. We are empowered people: we take action within the congregation and outside of it. An Episcopalian Priest once remarked, “God Bless the Unitarians. They always show up even though they never seem to be able to explain why.” At SMUUCh, every Sunday we say that “service is our prayer” which is a good thing, except when it would really be nice if prayer was our prayer.

Let me be clear on this: it is wonderful to be around a community empowered to do good works. But the tragic hubris of such a faith is that life inevitably brings all us – well, most of us – challenges and tribulations that cannot be faced solely with a checklist of things to do.

The inspiration for this sermon was a conversation I had with a congregant who gave me permission to share his story. In 1999, his father died of a sudden heart attack. A few months later, his mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and by September of that year, she too had passed away. In the midst of such sudden and profound loss, grief, tragedy, and pain there was also a desire, a longing, a need for a religious answer. Why? How?

On top of this, the religious comments that others offered to him did not sooth and were not healing. You know these comments, these bromides: “God does everything for a reason, and you may not be able to see it, but you have to just trust.” Or, “God needed another angel.” Or, “At least they are in a better place.” Or, “God has given you this trouble because he knows you are strong enough to handle it.” Or, “This is a part of God’s plan for you.” You know about these comments and you know that for some people they seem to offer comfort and assurance, but they fail to offer you succor, even though they are offered in sincere compassion. And maybe you become envious because those for whom these sayings work seem happier and all-together and these words just don’t have the same kind of magic for you, and you long for something that will, but you’re not sure you believe it exists.

Once a Unitarian Universalist facing a scary operation and a potentially devastating diagnosis said this to me about the stress and anxiety she was facing, “I feel like I am holding an empty bag.” My challenge this morning, Dan’s challenge to me, is to say something about grief, about loss, about death, about pain, about anguish… to say something about facing the really tough stuff so that we don’t feel like we are holding an empty bag in our faith lives. How do we respond to the really tough stuff?

As Unitarian Universalists, we do not usually think in terms of suffering and hardship as being a part of God’s plan for our life. That’s not the way most of us think. But for many Christians, the idea that suffering and pain is a part of God’s plan for their life is a comfortable idea. They need look no further than the central, dominant symbol of their faith, Jesus, God, on the cross, a suffering God, in order to feel connected in the midst of despair, pain, and death. The thinking goes, “If it was part of God’s plan for his own son to suffer, than surely my own suffering is part of his plan as well.” Rationally, theologically, we Unitarian Universalists tend to reject this idea. But, what is left for us in place of this way of thinking?

So, where do religious liberals, who have difficulty with the notion that hardship is part of God’s plan for our lives, find succor when the going gets rough?
Let me say that not everybody here struggles with this. Some people face hardship, loss, pain with an attitude of “that’s life.” Life goes on. I think we can learn something from them, but I’m not sure it is possible for everyone to emulate them. For the rest of us, where is our good news? And where is the good news in our faith tradition? How do we fill our empty bag? How is it that we receive bread instead of a stone?

I want to suggest that there are three things that we can do in the face of grief: First, we can move in the direction of things that restore our soul and away from things that are destructive to our soul. Second, we can move towards community and away from isolation. And third, we can move towards an embrace of mystery and away from the need to control.

Moving in the direction of things that restore our soul and moving away from things that are destructive to our soul. I once had the privilege of visiting several times a man dying from cancer in the last days of his life. He had fought the disease for a good long while and made the conscious decision to stop fighting. Desiring to die at home and in the company of his loved ones, he began to gather around him everything and everyone that gave him joy and brought light into his life. He surrounded himself with all sorts of things that held memories and created a poster, on which visitors could write messages. Every time I visited, more and more had found its way into the room. More pictures, more books, more sentimental items, more messages on the poster. There was a sense of the sacramental in this – he was embracing the things that restored his soul.

I have observed that the those who fare the best in times of loss and pain are those people who gather around them things and people and practices that help to restore them. That may sound a little materialistic, or a little odd, but I think this is true. It can be a pet, a plant, a relationship, a hobby, an activity, a piece of music, an art, a craft, a spiritual practice - whatever it is, I find that those people who face grief the best are those who have made space in their lives for these sorts of things. I’m not talking about replacing. This isn’t about replacing your loss, distracting yourself. This is about something else: it’s about strengthening yourself around that place of emptiness. Our own life force becomes more resilient when we move towards things that restore our soul.

I think that is why people who face grief, loss, hardship turn to addictive behavior – drugs and alcohol, work, compulsive sex, destructive behaviors, risky behaviors. A hole has opened up in their life and they want badly for something to fill it, make them forget it. But the secret isn’t filling the empty space. And the secret isn’t forgetting it. The secret is having a larger wholeness around that empty, grieving space.

It is important to offer this warning though: anything can be lost. The people who manage the best, in my experience, are the ones who surround themselves with friends and family and pets and plants and arts and crafts and activities that restore the soul – but do this even though they know none of these things are guaranteed to last. Loved ones may pass away; friendships may sour; we may become too immobile or too arthritic or too weak to do those life-enhancing activities we love; our material treasures may be destroyed. We hear of athletes who suffer career ending injuries, artists who lose their vision. I think one key is finding a diversity – like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, there is a danger in having only one precious, one thing that makes you whole. I think another key is finding restoration in things that are more difficult to lose. Although faith can be lost, I imagine that in the face of loss the ability of a person to say, “The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” “Hail Mary full of grace,” “Precious Lord, take my hand,” or “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound” is a kind of restoration. What hymn, what poem, what prayer, what song carries you?

Move towards community and away from isolation.

In the Bible, the story of Job is probably the most poignant story of loss. You know the tale: a fallen angel tempts God to test the faithfulness of a man named Job, a man with wealth, success, family, and robust health. Systematically, God sends famine to his fields, levels his home, kills his family, and afflicts Job with horrible disease. What many people don’t know about Job is that a good deal of the story deals not with the relationship between Job and God, but between Job and his friends. Job's friends leave him hanging. One friend says he is bad luck. Another friend advises him to figure what he has done to incur God’s wrath, and repent for it. A third friend sees the devastation and sides with God, shrugging “Well, God is just.” His friends treat him like bad news. Job responds to his friends’ unsatisfactory advice by calling them on it. “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.” It is the type of thing we might be tempted to snap back at a lame sayings that do not give us comfort. Don’t give me those proverbs of ashes!

“Proverbs of Ashes” is also the title of a book by the Unitarian theologian Rebecca Parker and Christian theologian Rita Brock. It is a book about what really saves us in the midst of hardship and suffering. These two women argue that conventional Christianity promises salvation through the experience of violence, suffering, and the isolation that comes from being a victim. The central image of this, again, Jesus on the cross, suffering, mocked, and forsaken. Brock and Parker argue against this theory of salvation, suggesting instead that salvation is found in the community that comes together in response to violence and isolation. Brock and Parker write about their own first hand experience with abuse, depression, oppression, and violence and about the saving communities they have found or formed.

Move towards those things that restore your soul, and away from those that destroy the soul; move towards community and away from isolation; and move towards mystery and away from control.

My first experience living in Baptist-land was in 2001 when I spent a year living in Dallas, Texas. I was serving a Unitarian church, but through a hospital ministry and just being in the community I met my fair share of Baptists. And one of the things that was most shocking was the Dallas practice of making providential pronouncements about the affairs of the world. If you hit a home run, it was God who gave you the strength. If you won an election or got a promotion, God was blessing you. (And if you struck out, lost, or got fired, it was part of God’s greater plan for your life.) These kind of providential pronouncements were common. If you were in a car accident and lived, God had protected you. If you were sick and got better, God had healed you. If you didn’t survive, or didn’t recover, God was still acting, it was part of God’s plan. At a funeral, there was supposed to be a pronouncement about whether the person was saved or not.
When others found out I was a minister, I was expected to offer such pronouncements. This was something that I was uncomfortable doing. So, what I could say, I pondered, I struggled, and finally it came to me, to say, “God’s ways are a mystery.” “God works in mysterious ways.” “How mysterious are the ways of the Lord.” And although that sounds a little contrived, I was serious.

I think you’re better off not making pronouncements about the way God works. You’re better off saying what God is doing or causing. Maybe that sounds like a cop out to you. I don’t think that it is. As Roy Phillips says, "we’re living in the midst of mystery," and our response to that fact should be one of awe, reverence, and trust. We’re living in the midst of mystery and God works in mysterious ways that we may never fully understand and certainly not control. In times of grief, loss, pain, we are better served to embrace the mystery rather than bristle at it, rather than think that we can control it, manipulate it.

Find and practice what restores our soul, and do not practice what destroys it. Move towards community and away from isolation. And stand in awe of the fact that we are living in the midst of mystery, for it would be less if we could control it. May these words I have spoken, these ideas I have shared, be helpful and healing to you in times of grief and in the midst of death. Or, may they be forgotten, for something else that works. So may it be.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Sermon: "Understanding Our Changes" (Delivered 9/18/2005)

[I originally preached this sermon on 9/18/2005. In it, I expressed my belief that the church has gone through a number of changes in the past couple of years.]


This morning’s readings consist of a couple of parables. (Thanks to my colleagues who shared these with me.) First, the parable of the over-friendly dog:
Back in the days when doctors still made house calls, the new doctor in town was sent to visit a woman laid up with a fever. Walking up the driveway, the doctor saw a friendly dog on the porch. The dog jumped up and down barking excitedly, greeting him exuberantly. The doctor rang the doorbell and the family ushered him upstairs to visit the sick woman. The dog followed and with great animation, jumped up on the woman’s bed. “This was certainly unusual,” thought the man, who proceeded with the check up nonetheless. The doctor then made his diagnosis, prescribed the remedy, and made went to leave. As the man passed through the door, the family members called after him. “Aren’t you going to take your dog?” they asked. “My dog,” the doctor exclaimed, startled, “I thought it was your dog!”


The second parable: The parable of the water and the wine, the non-biblical version.

There once was a Unitarian Universalist church that annually threw a great party. The tradition of this party was for each couple to arrive with a bottle of wine. As they arrived, they would empty their wine into a great vat to be enjoyed communally. (We might well wonder about the wisdom of this, but let’s just assume this was the case.) Not everyone brought the same wine. Some folks brought expensive wines of impressive vintage. Others brought more commonplace, pedestrian wines. But somehow, the blending managed to achieve a communal average enjoyed by all, despite the differences in the qualities of the individual contributions.

It came to pass, this one year, that one member had a long week at the office, and was too worn out stop by the wine seller. He showed up empty handed, but snuck into the kitchen, filled up a pitcher, and poured it out loudly, so that everyone heard his contribution. Another member was busy with youth sports, and did the same thing. As did the member who was traveling on business, and the one who just sort of forgot. An old-time member who had done so much for the church, said, “I’ve been bringing wine for 50 years. This year I’ll skip.” And the super-volunteer, who takes on every task thrown her way, declared, “One more thing and I’m going to flip my lid.” They both furtively brought water.

One new member was unclear about the whole concept. Another one felt intimidated. They brought water as well. This being a Unitarian Universalist congregation, there were a few contrarians. One brought water, just to be different. And a social activist brought water in solidarity with the United Farm Workers boycott of Gallo Wines. That day, when the ladle was dipped, water was served.


If you have had any interaction with me in the last month, you’ve probably heard me give a plug for the sermon I’m going to deliver this morning. I’ve been talking up this sermon in board meetings and at the Seekers class; I’ve been dropping comments about it in the hallway and on the phone; I’ve been hyping it up in the all-church email. I’ve gone so far as to print up copies, which I don’t usually do. I’ve even started to call it “The Sermon” – every preacher has one they think of this way.

Now, there are a lot of things this sermon won’t do. It won’t offer an answer to the meaning of life. It won’t engage the most crucial social issue of the day. That’ll be another Sunday. Will it save your life, or save your soul? Yes, just not the usual way.

This sermon is for you whether this is your thirty-eighth year here or your thirty-eighth minute. It is for you whether you are a leader or a person who hangs around the margins.

This sermon’s goal is not principally to exhort, though there is a response I hope to generate. This sermon’s goal is not principally to motivate, though I hope it will inspire action. This sermon’s goal is not to condemn, or defend, or accuse. This sermon’s simple goal is to explain: To explain what is going on in the life of this church.

I begin with the simple assertion that this church, our church, has been through a series of significant changes in the past two years. Not catastrophic changes, not earth-shattering changes, not miraculous changes. Just significant changes: You called a new minister, me, 25 months ago, hired new office staff, formally hired a music director, employed an accompanist and a religious education assistant. You rearranged the Sunday morning schedule, added a second service, and a children’s fellowship hour, and a rotation model Sunday school, and a Second Sunday Forum, and a dedicated adult religious education hour. You built a deck on the back of Saeger House, and remodeled the space under the barn chapel. You created new committees, or re-imagined them, or dissolved them. You created new traditions, or re-imagined them, or kept old ones, or let go of them. You have begun to develop a strategic plan. Nothing catastrophic. Nothing earth-shattering. Nothing miraculous.

But there have been other changes having to do with the membership and size of this church. Over the past three years, our membership has increased by a third, surpassing the two-hundred fifty member mark. Pledges have increased by the same, and overall, the budget has increased by twenty-eight percent. Sunday morning attendance is up sixty-five percent compared to three years ago. Summer worship attendance is up 100 percent compared to two years ago, and two-hundred and twelve percent compared to four years ago!

The other day I picked up the membership book and discovered something. With the number of new members who have joined in the past two to three years, the median tenure of a current member of this church is about three years. That means we have about as many members who have been here for less than three years as we have members who have been here for longer than three years. If you have been a member of this church for more than, say, four years, you are in the minority.

This church has changed in its size, and changed in its membership, and changed in a number of non-catastrophic, not earth-shattering, un-miraculous ways. And these are all fairly obvious, overt changes. Except that they aren’t. For lots of folks, about half the congregation, the church has always been the way it is today. I remember getting calls last June when we went back to one service for the Summer. It was new families asking whether children’s religious education would be before or after the single service. “During,” I said. “What?” the families asked, startled, “You can’t possibly offer religious education during the service!”

What happens when we fail to remember that not everybody sees things the same way, is a dynamic sort of like what happened to the doctor and the over-friendly dog. Everybody assumes that things are as they are supposed to be: Somebody else is feeding it, watching it, cleaning up after it. We find ourselves needing to ask, “Pardon, is this your dog?” “Well, whose dog is it?”

The size and the staffing and the scheduling are all overt changes, but along with those changes have come some other, less obvious changes. As we’ve grown over the last two or three years, we’ve crossed a magic number. A magic number of whether the size of the group participating in the active life of the church is more than 150 or less than 150 people. In church-dynamics literature, this one-hundred and fifty barrier separates smaller “pastoral” churches from larger “program churches.” Alice Mann says that as you break through that barrier, the church will change in several key ways. First, it will need to switch from an informal, organic style to a more official organizational model. Second, it will switch from being pastor-centered, where the minister is the one to whom every request is directed, to being program-centered where various program areas operate more autonomously. And finally, this change across the 150-member threshold has asked our lay leaders to lead in a very different way. At a larger size, lay leaders are increasingly asked to develop self-sustaining groups of people and give them permission to serve the church or the world through living out their calling.

What’s so special about that one hundred and fifty number? It actually has something to do with brain function. In the book “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, we learn that “Humans socialize in the largest groups of all primates because we are the only animals with brains large enough to handle the complexities of that social arrangement. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has actually developed an equation in which he plugs in the size of the neo-cortex relative to the size of the brain and the equation spits out the expected maximum group size of the animal. If you plug in the neo-cortex ratio for humans, you get a group estimate of 147.8 – or roughly 150. [Dunbar writes,] ‘The number 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.’”

What this research tells us, is that for those of you who have been members over these years of growth, that your brain is having to deal with a totally different way of understanding what it means to be a part of the community. Our brains are having to work out and work through a different way of comprehending. Larger groups strain and eventually overload our brains, if we continue to operate with the same expectations as when the group was smaller. Our neo-cortex is structurally unable to keep doing what it is doing.

Changes. Earlier I recited our numerical growth statistics. Our membership has grown by X percent. Our attendance has increased by Y. We had to add a second service because we could not fit enough chairs in this room to seat everyone who wants to worship here. Actually, it was more severe than that: We had numerous incidents where people would drive through the parking lot, find no open space, and leave without getting out of their cars. We frequently had people try to walk in through the double doors and find such a throng of people crammed into the corridor that the visitors turned around, went back to their cars, and went home. And if you asked me whether there was pride in filling the sanctuary, whether I liked seeing 65% more faces in the pews… if you asked me whether I enjoy the compliments you pay me on my preaching, I would have to admit, that yes, I like the compliments. I like the numbers in the pews. But it doesn’t satisfy me. It doesn’t fulfill me. Our society often mistakes what feels good for what satisfies, enjoyment for fulfillment.

A wise mentor once told me that the common metaphor of a marriage to describe a congregation’s relationship to a minister is wanting. For that metaphor misses an important aspect of the relationship, the transient aspect of it. I think ministers are sometimes especially attuned to recognizing the transience of things. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We all must die. Loss and leaving and endings are facts of the world. But the awful temptation is only to remind people of their mortality at those times when the loss and leaving and ending are imminent, immediate. The difficult thing is to remember to remind people of the transience, the impermanence, of things even when no leaving is scheduled, no ending is planned. It is precisely at times like these, when you’re planning to stay for a while, that it is important to remind everyone of the fact that all ministries are transient, just as all lives are, just as we all are perfectly mortal.

When I was still in seminary and about to begin the search for a church to serve, I received a piece of tough advice. Try to serve a church that is committed to exist as an institution far into the future; avoid any church that sees itself as existing solely to please and satisfy the people who happen to be there this moment. Church is not a roller coaster you ride until you grow tired of it – and seek out some other carnival amusement. Church is something we perpetually build, to last long after we are gone, and whose final shape we will never see, because we’ll be dead and gone before it is completed. A church should last beyond our years and the only way that it will is if we see that it does.

What I’m talking about is legacy. About helping to build something that lasts. What is worthy of our love, is worthy of our love. What is worthy of our sacrifice is worthy of our sacrifice. And what is worthy of us, deserves us.
What will your legacy be? In the parable of the wine and the water, we learn an important lesson. That what we do here, how we are here, what we bring or refrain from bringing touches others. If one or two bring water, everyone will still enjoy wine. That is a sort of grace. But it is in joining together, freely, passionately, powerfully that we grow.

I want to talk about membership. And not in a signing the book or making a pledge or serving on a committee way. Those are important. But those things aren’t what membership is. Membership is being transformed, a change in heart, a life seen differently. It is being gifted, growth from this change. Then membership involves listening, discernment. How am I called? Then it is being equipped to live that call. What resources can you rely on? Where is your strength? And finally, membership is being sent to share your transformed, gifted, called, equipped life with others. This Fall, leaders in our church are re-imagining membership. They are re-thinking, re-forming, and re-structuring the Membership Committee. Part of this has already happened with a brand new Seekers Class. But that is just the beginning.

Society makes it hard for this to happen. Society gives us a message that to live a complete and full life, all you need to have is work and family. Increasingly, all people have time for is work and family. And many people have difficulty squeezing just those two in. Community, religious community, gets squeezed out. But, work and family are not enough, contrary to what society tells us. To say that they are enough is to cheat ourselves. Religious community needs to have a place because of the fact that if people don’t get together in community, life is going to be precisely what they think it is going to be. That is why we gather in committees, in classes, in fellowship hour, in connection circles. Because if you don’t get together, life is going to be precisely what you think it is going to be. It is through those that transformation happens.

Bless this church. Bless it for reminding us that life can be something other than what we think it will be. Bless it for blessing us and may we respond to this blessing by strengthening it, that it may bless others long after our transient ministries and our mortal days. Help us, if we have been here for years, to understand the meanings of our changes more fully. And, if we are new here, help us to find transformation and meaning here. If we are a leader, empower us to gather around us others called to serve, be an aid to their transformation, gifting, and discernment. And, if we are not yet a leader, embolden us to take risks and take the reins. Realizing that nobody here is capable of knowing everybody here, let us this day each get to really know one other person who we have not yet met. Share your passion with them, and they with you. Encourage each other. So that, when the legacy of this church is told, it may be said of each and every one of us, not only, “because you are here, this church is a better place,” but also, “because you were here, this church will continue to thrive in the future.”

Welcome to

Welcome! This is the blog for Rev. Thom Belote. I am the minister of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park, Kansas. We are a growing, vibrant liberal- religious community spanning the generations. It is a fantastic joy to minister to this talented, dedicated, fascinating, and diverse group of people. If you are in the Kansas City area, I hope you'll visit us.

Who is this Blog for?
This blog is written for:
+ Those actively involved in the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church community.
+ Those in the Kansas City metro-area who may be seeking a liberal religious community.
+ My friends, colleagues, former-parishioners, fellow bloggers, and the wider UU community.
+ Those who happen upon it accidentally.

What content will I find here?
This blog is intended mainly to be a vehicle for posting sermons. From time to time I will post announcements, resources, or other written reflections. Plus the occasional miscellany.

How can I support this blog?
If you live in the Kansas City metro-area, come worship with us on Sunday morning. If you happen to be passing through town, drop by for a visit.
If you are a frequent reader not in the Kansas City area, and want to support the kind of liberal religion this blog promotes, you are welcome to send a tax-deductible gift. Your gift will be used to promote the use of technology to increase the voice of liberal religion. You can send your gift to:

Technology Special Fund
c/o Shawnee Mission UU Church
7725 W. 87th Street
Overland Park, KS 66212
(make check out to SMUUCh)

Finally, I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to email me with your thoughts. My email address is: