Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Charge to the Congregation

[On Sunday, Nov. 27, I traveled to Cedar Falls, Iowa to deliver the "Charge to the Congregation" at the Installation service of my friend and colleague, Eva Cameron, as she was installed as the new minister of the UU Society of Blackhawk County. Word is a podcast will be up soon, and I'll post it here when it is.]

Before I commence my charge to you, I want to praise you for doing something more important than anything I will say to you in these next few minutes. I want to praise you for the making the splendid decision that you have made in calling Eva as your minister. If you have not yet discovered, you will soon learn – as those of us who know her well know well – that Eva is a fiercely compassionate and fiercely intelligent human being. Among colleagues she is deeply respected. In ministry, Eva models a profound understanding of shared ministry that brings out the best of those around her. In life, Eva models an openness and curiosity. She connects easily with people from all walks of life; if you spend any amount of time around her, your life cannot help but become more connected, your soul expanded.

You have called a fine, fine minister, but I’m going to charge you to do even more. I’m going to charge you to do even more because… well, because I can. That’s the great thing about these “Charges to the Congregation”: I get to tell you what to do and with complete immunity. All of the power and none of the responsibility!

I am a life-long Unitarian Universalist, having grown up in the historic First Parish in Wayland, Massachusetts, which has gathered for worship since 1640, and as a Unitarian congregation for the last 200 or so years. Those of us who grow up Unitarian Universalist have, perhaps, a special sense for what this faith means. It is a tradition that we know from the cradle, perhaps from the womb.

Standing before you today, I can say to you that growing up as a Unitarian Universalist saved my life. When I say that to you, I’m not sure that I’m talking about being saved in a physical sense, in the sense of pulse or no pulse. And when I say that it saved my life, I’m not sure that I’m talking about being saved in a metaphysical sense either, in the sense of heaven and hell. When I say that it saved my life, I’m saying it more metaphorically. It saved my soul by teaching me powerful lessons of mercy, acceptance, understanding, hope, and justice. It taught me a way of being religious that was life-affirming instead of life-dismissing. Were it not for having grown up in this church, I am certain my life would be something much, much less than what it is.

My first charge to you is a challenging one: Be about the work of being a context in which lives are transformed, in which lives are saved. What you do here as a church matters. It matters in so many ways, known and unknowable. It matters to the person who comes in and sits in the back, who has decided to give church – or life – one last shot. It matters to the family blessed by the work this religious community does in the wider community. It matters to the person who didn’t know that a religious community could be like this, could possibly embrace him or her. It matters to the youth who grows up not scared or scarred by doctrine, and not condescending to faith either, but in the possession of a life-opening religious view.

This life-saving work is what makes you different from a country club, or a community center, or a debating society, or a half-way house for the orphans of organized religion. It is this transformation of life that makes you a faith community. Be about this work.

My second charge to you is this: Living out a life of faith will not make your life easier. It will demand more from you than you expect. My church outside of Kansas City is located on a road with many other houses of worship. As you drive West, the churches seem to get bigger and bigger. One day, prior to a meeting with a leader in my church, I drove down this road picking up stewardship literature for each church. As you move West, the asking becomes more bold and more demanding. I decided to show these pamphlets to the leader from my congregation, and their response was one of horror, “Oh, we couldn’t possibly ask like that, we don’t have Hell.” And yet, we would never say that we could not work passionately for justice because we don’t have hell. And, we would never say that we can’t help people to live ethically informed lives because we don’t have Hell. Our faith ought to demand more of us, ask more from us.

If the life of Gandhi, or Jesus, or Martin Luther King, or Theodore Parker showed us anything, it is that the authentic life of faith will require more from you than you expect. It makes your life better, not easier. The opportunity that Unitarian Universalism provides you with to build your own theology, to figure out what you believe, to debate theology – these opportunities are challenges, not conveniences. They are the first step of a long and difficult journey, not a cozy destination unto themselves. I charge you to be a church of high expectations, and high standards to live up to.

My final charge to you is to be a beacon rather than a bunker. A bunker faith is separate from the world; it is a place where you go to get away, to hunker down, to survive, to remove yourself from the winds that are a-blowing. A beacon faith, sticks out in the world. It signals where it is and what it stands for. People look to it. It shines out on the harsh and frightening world. My final charge to you is to be a beacon, not a bunker.

Let this community know who you are, what you stand for, where your convictions lie. Tell them what you are all about and tell them that you wan them to be a part of what you are all about. Invite your friends, your neighbors, your dentist, your dog-groomer to come on Sunday morning. Go out and drive around and tell Sunday morning joggers that they look tired and that you would be happy to give them a ride to the UU society of Black Hawk County. Demonstrate your presence through works of direct service and social action.

These are my charges: Be a context in which lives are saved. Live a life of faith in which more is expected from you. Be a beacon, not a bunker.

As I thought about traveling up here to charge you as your congregation begins this new relationship with your new minister, I wanted to find out a bit about you. So, I studied up on you, and I was intrigued (and maybe even a bit perplexed) to discover the symbol of the Golden Rectangle (or Golden Proportion, or Golden Ratio) that you display prominently all around the church. I'm not sure I completely understand it, but it is interesting symbolism. Now, I’m no math scholar, but I did a little research and found the equation for the Golden Ratio.

φ = a/b = (a+b)/a

So, I thought I might leave you with some equations to consider. Don’t worry, you don’t have to know math. In fact, not knowing math may place you at a distinct advantage. I charge you to remember the Unitarian golden ratio, the equation for making coffee:

Coffee = 1 tbsp. coffee grounds / 6 oz. water

I happen to believe this equation works better with pie.

1 tbsp. coffee grounds / 6 oz. water + π

I considered trying to suggest a formula for Unitarian Universalism…

U² = Σ [7(p+p) + 1819 + (√exp.)t(m+w)] / 25

… but thought better of it! (Don't ask...)

However, one equation that is important to share is this one:

f C = 10% - t%

You will notice that this equation shows that complaining is negatively correlated to tithing. As tithing approaches 10%, complaining approaches zero. Even if you don’t believe this equation, I dare you to try to prove it false.

My final equation, that I leave you with is one that I don’t know how to write, for it is seemingly non-mathematical, illogical, and irrational. It is simply this, that somehow, somehow, when a fine congregation and a fine minister come together, they make each other more than what they already are. Together they are greater than the sum of their parts.

Blessings to you as a congregation. Blessings to this new ministry. Blessings to your shared ministry, together.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sermon: "Hypocrisy is Hip Again" (Delivered 11/6/2005)

[This sermon is inspired by the writings of Doug Muder, especially the sermon version of his "Red Family, Blue Family" essay.]

Reading: James 3:1-13, 17

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by Hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. Who is wise and understanding among you… without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy?”


You can always count on a good scandal. When I decided several months ago that I was going to preach on the subject of hypocrisy, I couldn’t help but wonder which scandal would surface for my use as a contemporary sermon illustration. As it turns out, this past week would prove to be rich in scandal considering it was a week in which the adviser to the vice-President would be indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, a week in which the conspiracy and money laundering trial against House Speaker Tom Delay gained momentum as the investigation of insider trading against Senate Majority leader Bill Frist continued. And never mind the release this past week of the email correspondence of ex-FEMA director Michael Brown in which Brown, in the midst of the Katrina crisis, wrote emails cracking jokes about needing to be rescued, complaining of his difficulty finding a dog-sitter, and proclaiming, “I am a fashion god.”

I think hypocrisy may be defined as such: hypocrisy is a kind of insincerity, a claiming to believe things that you do not really believe. Hypocrisy is a kind of dissonance between our public words and private actions, between what you say should be done and what you actually do. And more to the point, hypocrisy involves a kind of tangible benefit – in which one derives honor or prestige or gain by claiming to have principles that one does not actually have.

If there is a lesson that I want for you to take away from Church this morning, it is that you should be a bigger hypocrite, because hypocrisy is hip again. Actually, that is not the lesson I want you to take away. I’ll explain this later on.

According to legend, we in this congregation have hypocrisy to thank for our being here today. And I don't mind telling this story, because it is not our own hypocrisy that we have to thank, thankfully. (The hypocrisy of others is always easier to spot and condemn.) According to legend, we as a church originally lost out on purchasing this land when it was bought by an evangelical church, whose pastor then turned around and left his wife for the church secretary, and left town with all the cash, leaving the church with a mortgage it couldn't pay and requiring them to put the property back on the market, allowing us to purchase it. How many of the ten commandments is that?

Of course, there is no commandment against hypocrisy, exactly. Hypocrisy is not a sin; it is more of an accessory, an enhancement, a bonus. The poet Matthew Arnold famously quipped, "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue." What Arnold is saying is that while vice can exist anywhere, hypocrisy can only exist when vice exists amidst claims of virtue.

Claims of virtue invite hypocrisy. My favorite example of this is the author William Bennett. Bennett, as many of you know, wrote the "Book of Virtue." It was actually called the "Book of Virtues" and, checking in at an enormous 831 pages, it clearly had a lot to say about virtues. So, it was only fitting that the man who wrote the “book of virtues” would accumulate a reported eight million dollars in gambling losses. Now, Bennett is a wealthy man. After all, it was his many books instructing people in the practice of virtue, and condemning others for their moral shortcomings, that made Bill Bennett the type of guy who can easily afford to blow eight million dollars without having to worry about how he will feed his family. He was not gambling the milk money. And lots of people lose a million or two in the casinos: Pete Rose, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, nameless business men in Armani suits... but Dennis Rodman’s autobiography is called “Bad as I want to be”, not "The Book of Virtues." Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

So hypocrisy thrives amidst claims of virtue. So, it is only fitting that it would be found most pronounced among those who claim to be the most virtuous. It thrives amidst adulterous preachers like Jimmy Swaggart, and fraudulent and adulterous preachers like Jim Bakker, and preachers like Jerry Johnston, who had the nerve to preach to his flock about not cheating on their taxes while he himself was apparently over a year behind and ten thousand dollars in arrears on taxes he owed on his half-million dollar Johnson County home. He promptly paid up though; in fact he paid up on the very same day a reporter asked him about his unpaid taxes. (Now, if Jim Bakker or Jerry Johnston had been a little bit creative, they would have found a way to skip out on taxes legally, like Rick Warren did. From 1993-1995, Rev. Rick Warren paid not one single cent in income tax on his $80,000/year salary. He found a small loop hole for clergy and made it a big loop hole. And he got away with it. Of course, he had to win a Supreme Court case in the process, but that’s what you have to do when you’re doing God’s work.)

Of course, it is not just preachers who are hypocrites. There are politicians as well. In the last national election cycle there was a story out of Virginia that didn't get picked up by the media as one might have expected. The story involved incumbent Congressman Ed Schrock representing Virginia Beach, the same congressional district where Pat Robertson resides. Now, Representative Schrock earned atrocious ratings from gay rights groups because of his support of anti-gay legislation in Congress. The incumbent withdrew from the election at the last minute when it was discovered that he had a habit of making 1-900 calls to homo-erotic phone sex lines. Now, of course, neither political party has a monopoly on sexual misconduct, just as high stakes gambling can embrace both bad-boy athletes and former members of cabinet alike. But hypocrisy, hypocrisy is the sole possession of those who confess and profess a higher moral character. It is the tribute vice pays to that higher moral character.

Now, if my aim today were to instruct you not to be hypocrites, I could recommend two different courses of action. One course of action would be to tell you to be morally pure and ethically perfect. “Be ye perfect…” And, of course, you're not going to succeed, because who do think you are, Jesus? The other course of action, to perfectly safeguard you from ever being accused of hypocrisy, is to tell you to never make any sort of moral claim whatsoever, which doesn't of course mean that you need to live life full of vice. You might just as well live a life of model virtue, just don't say that's what you're doing and don't tell anybody else what to do either.

But, that's not why I'm here this morning. I'm not here to prescribe an antidote to hypocrisy, but to invite you to become hypocrites. Because hypocrisy is hip again, it's always been. Of course, that's not really what I'm going to do.

So, when I say the word "hypocrisy" to you, what do you think of? I would imagine that what you think of is something like the Jim Bakker's and Jimmy Swaggart's of the world. Or of the religious authorities we imagine Jesus rebuking for demonstrating showy piety but living lives of ethical shortcoming. I would imagine that you think of someone self-aggrandizing, arrogant, and holier-than-thou.

But I want to see if I can't suggest a different way of thinking about hypocrisy. What if we saw hypocrisy not as the emperor without any clothes, but something different. Unitarian Universalist Doug Muder, who is a political commentator and writer on culture, faith, and politics, writes, “[The Religious Right has] a fundamentally negative view of where the world is going. The Anti-Christ is coming. Armageddon is coming. Things are going to get really bad. And so, if Tom DeLay or Rush Limbaugh or Jimmy Swaggart get into trouble -- and they have -- that just shows how strong the winds of temptations are in this fallen society. It just shows how strong Satan is in these last days, [that even those paragons of virtue could stumble.]” [Scroll down to the June 03 entry] What Muder is suggesting is that scandals, paradoxically, often have the effect of strengthening and confirming people’s allegiances to their own biases. If it is your enemy that who goes down in shame, it just goes to prove how right you were to have that enemy. And if it is your own hero is the one who succumbs, then imagine how much worse your enemy would succumb to that same temptation!

Doug Muder argues that pointing out the hypocrisies of others is to engage in ineffective rhetoric. To paraphrase, “pointing out another’s vice has no ability to change them. Displaying your own virtue is the only thing that will change them.”

Thus, my invitation to you all to become hypocrites. Well, not actually. Thus, my invitation to you all to risk being hypocrites: My invitation to you to display virtue. To display liberal religious virtue. Because pointing out another’s vice has no ability to change them, but displaying your own virtue does.

A story from our tradition: the great Universalist minister Hosea Ballou was traveling along the road and got to talking salvation with a person traveling along the road with him. When Ballou admitted that he believed in Universal salvation and that there was no such thing as Hell, the traveler asked, “But if you do not believe in Hell, why do you not kill me and steal my horse.” Ballou’s response, “Because I am a Universalist the thought would never cross my mind.”

When I talk about this church, this faith in public, people will sometimes ask me, concerned, “Well, if you don’t all believe the same thing, then how do you get along?” “If there is no Hell, then what is the incentive to do good?” I say, we get along because we respect each other even though we do not all believe the same thing. We do good not for some future reward but because doing good is its own reward.

Although I feel that sometimes we internalize this notion of inferiority. Two years ago I was driving down 87th street and I decided I would drop in to each church and pick up their information on stewardship. I had a meeting with an officer of our church and I showed that individual the brochures I had picked up, comparing their challenging message about stewardship to our more relaxed message. And the officer says to me, “Oh, we can’t possibly ask like they do. We don’t have Hell.” But we would never, ever, say, “We can’t possibly help people to live ethical, principled lives because we don’t have Hell.”

Because we do help people to live ethical, principled lives. In this congregation we have amazing families. We have astounding kindness, understanding, compassion. We have passionate commitment to causes that make the world a better place. Our teenagers grow into these fantastic human beings with ethics and vision. Our children are the ones at school who speak out when a racist epithet or homophobic insult is spoken; they are the ones sticking up for the kid getting picked on, befriending the kid who is left out. These are our values.

Doug Muder writes, “the personal is political again.” By this he means that the everyday ways we live our lives are an expression of our deepest values and that we should choose to be out-spoken about the role those values play in our lives. This means that the conduct of our everyday lives, the virtues we embrace, and demonstrate, and live-by, if articulated, are a source of influence and moral force. How we take care of each other is a source of influence and moral force. How we spend time together as a family is political again is a source of influence and moral force. How we volunteer and give and serve the community is a source of influence and moral force. How we face the tough stuff life throws at us, and get back up again, is a source of influence and moral force.

So, I invite you to risk being a hypocrite: as you live out our values in community, as you walk the walk of justice and mercy, inclusiveness and love, don’t be afraid to speak up and say, “These are my values. These are my morals. These are my virtues.”