Thursday, February 09, 2006

Sermon: "Questions, Answers, and More Questions" (Delivered January 22, 2006)

“Question and Answer Sunday” is probably my favorite sermon of the year. How it works is that last Sunday I distributed index cards with the order of service and everyone was invited to sumbit anonymous (or, at times, nonymous) questions, and my sermon this week is an attempt to answer, or at least make reference to, as many of them as possible. I received upwards of fifty index cards, many of them with several separate questions, so if I do not answer your question, don’t feel badly. And if I inadequately answer your question, please… don’t feel badly.

Each year I seem to receive a few questions that are best answered by referring people to existing programs within the church. One person wondered about, quote, “Trying new or different formats to our Sunday services?” This person may wish to make contact with the worship committee. Or, this person may wish to come to our First Wednesdays, which will begin in a little over a week on February 1, where we will have a Vespers service with a different format each month. Another person wondered about how to tactfully invite a friend or family member to SMUUCh. I will have more to say about this question later, but this person may wish to attend the Articulating Your Faith adult religious education class to be held later this Spring.

I have noticed this year that there were fewer questions that are not really questions but rather statements disguised as questions. This year I received fewer questions like, “Why do we sing that hymn, which is one I do not like to sing?” However, this year I did receive several questions that imply a reality that may not, in fact, be so. One person wondered, quote, “There are so many hymns in this wonderful book that don’t reference God – could we sing some?” Actually, dating back to the first Sunday in October we have sung fifty hymns. Of those fifty, seven contained the word God, including one hymn whose reference to God was found in the lyrics “Some people call it evolution; others call it God.”

I always feel compelled to note several cards that, presumably, were not offered seriously. Having moved to Montana, Jim C. was not here to ask his perennial question about how the Redsox will fare next season. However, one person queried, “Where do babies come from?” Someone else wondered, "Why do human beings have eyebrows?" I don’t know the answer to that question, but it probably has something to do with evolution.

And speaking of evolution, one person wondered, given our commitment to “seek knowledge and freedom,” what we at this church can do help the general public differentiate between theology and science? My response here is twofold. First, let us not pretend for a second that this issue isn’t politicized. It’s not about scientific integrity or theological integrity for that matter. It is about political control over public education. So, if this is an issue you are concerned about, I urge you to get involved in the political system, and work for your values. Clearly, our congregation cannot be involved in candidate races. But there are groups that are. Go get involved in them. On another level though, I think our congregation can leverage our particular faith’s approach to science. I actually think that our congregation should offer classes on Evolution to the general public. We should put up a sign saying, “We teach evolution here.” We should recruit some dynamic professors, teachers, biologists and offer this to the public. In fact, this is something we’re planning to do later this Spring.

I want to raise up some of the areas in which there were multiple questions. There were this year, as there have been each year, many cards expressing a longing for greater social justice programming. One card compared the number of social events aimed at our internal community to the number of church activities aimed at the community exterior to our congregation. I want to say that I find that comparison to be a bit of a false dichotomy. I do see these in competition. I have learned that if someone is fired up about planning a picnic I ought not tell them to plan a protest, because if I do, we will have neither picnic nor protest. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

However, I will say this. My ministry is aimed at our development as religious people. I call that, in the words of the great UU minister, A. Powell Davies, “growing a soul.” And my ministry is aimed at how it is that we succeed in growing a soul. There is a part of us that can’t develop without engaging in spiritual practice, worship. There is a part of us that can’t develop if we don’t stretch our minds, learn, think. There is a part of us that can’t develop alone, that needs friendship, fun, and fellowship. But I believe there is a part of us that can’t develop if we are not involved in the demanding work of meeting those in need face to face, of courageously working for justice and social change, of taking those kinds of spiritual risks. I think without these, a part of us remains in a state of arrested development, our growth stunted.

So, how do we do this? I’ve often mused about putting bright stickers on our name tags that say WWFJ: Will Work for Justice. Then, you know who you can organize into an action project. But I do want to lift up some of what we are already doing including our work with the Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network, our environmental committee, and our current collection on behalf of homeless persons in Wyandotte County.

More questions: another theme that came up in the questions dealt with questions of tolerance. One person asked, “How can we tolerate intolerance and promote change at the same time?” Another person asked, “If you try to change someone’s mind, does that mean you don’t respect their opinion or belief?” Another wrote, “It seems we often have an us versus them attitude. Is it not our purpose to reach out with love and understanding to reach a common ground with the other side and not try to take the intellectual high ground in the arguments, which perpetuates the problem! How do we do this?” And still another person wondered what we might do when someone’s search leads them to conclude something that we find to be horrible, racist, oppressive, or worse?

I think this question confuses the issues of theological beliefs and community standards. Thomas Jefferson famously quipped, “It makes no difference to me whether my neighbor believes in ten Gods or none, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” When we say that all beliefs are welcome here and to be respected, these are the beliefs that we are talking about. Of course, here is not a place where you come to become concretized and calcified in ones beliefs, but to develop those beliefs freely and responsibly.

I have difficulty thinking of racism or anti-Semitism or homophobia or antagonism towards Christians or misogyny as a kind of belief on par with a theological conclusion about the nature of divinity. Those various –isms and bigotries are things we are not supposed to tolerate, but to confront with truth and with love. Hatred disguised as piety is still hatred, and we should no more attempt to promote hatred than we would promote pick-pocketing or leg-breaking. If truth were to lead us in the direction of bigotry and hate, I would sooner live as a liar.

To this I might add the advice that when talking about beliefs, context is all important. A debate in the classroom may be fascinating; however, at the dinner table it may be unsavory. How about asking somebody, “Do you mind if we have the type of conversation where we probe and explore those beliefs. I will try to be respectful of you as a person. Is this OK?” This is better than jumping right in; it allows the other person to prepare, which is only fair. I think some people will only listen if they feel they’ve been allowed to present their own thoughts fully and have been listened to. This is something I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

Some random questions: “Are Democracy and Capitalism inimical?” I actually know of a UU minister who before entering the ministry was a successful investment banker. He has a saying that goes something like this: “Markets tend to self-regulate in the same way that children playing in a sandbox self-regulate. Which is to say they require adult supervision.” So to answer your question, I think that democracies need to act as responsible parental figures, not practice negligence or abandonment.

Two different cards asked my opinions of (first) a book I’ve never read, “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris, and (second) a movie I’ve never seen, “The God Who Wasn’t There” by Brian Flemming, which Sam Harris contributed to. The former is a book that argues for us to get rid of religion entirely. The latter is a movie which argues that Jesus never actually lived. I don’t think it would be possible to do away with religion entirely – I think that a religious impulse is innate to human beings – and, like Jim Wallis, I would say that the best response to bad religion is not no religion, but better religion. As far as Brian Flemming’s movie goes, I know that what he says is widely disagreed with by mainstream scholars of late antiquity. But, even if what he says is true, I don’t see what the big deal would be. There are historical truths and then there are metaphorical truths. Because mice and cats do not really talk and rabbits and turtles do not really race, it doesn’t mean Aesop’s fables are not true.

One of the things I found most interesting this year in this exercise was the questions that cancel each other inadvertently. For example, one card asked “Why so much focus on dead UUs instead of the heroes of today?” and another card asked, “What was the effect of Unitarianism on some of the founders of our country?” Similarly, one card asked “What’s wrong with Kansas politics?” while another card wondered “Is optimism dead?” Actually, I think there are two things wrong with Kansas politics – at least two things that I can say without threatening our tax free status. One thing is that too few people actually vote. The second thing is that it seems to me that too much time is spent fighting on the things where sincere differences of opinion exist to the detriment of accomplishing those things about which almost everyone agrees. Figure out something that everyone agrees on and do it, and after you’ve done those things, then you can fight like hell on the rest. Is that a sufficiently optimistic answer?

The penultimate set of questions I want to answer have to do with questions about this church and this faith. “Where will Unitarian Universalism be in five years, in ten?” “What are the best two or three trends within our church today? What are two or three concerns?” “In what year of my ministry will we build a sanctuary?” Goodness gracious.

Who knows what we will see five and ten years from now? Will you even have a live human being as a minister, or will I be replaced by a hologram? One of the things that I actually imagine is a nation-wide Unitarian Universalist Youth Service Corps. It will be run like a cross between Latter-Day Saints missionaries and MTV’s "The Real World." Congregations will adopt a household of college-age students who will spend the day doing social-justice organizing in the local community and then in the evening they will live in a “reality TV” environment where the rest of the world will get to see young people changing the world. Another future-of-our-faith thing that I imagine is a greater collaboration in the coming years between the liberal religious groups of America, where Reform Synagogues, Quakers, the UCC, humanist groups, and Buddhist Sanghas join together to accomplish what they can’t accomplish alone.

Two or three best trends in our church: I think our Mission-Vision and strategic planning process, the energy on Sunday mornings, and the amazing, inspiring, and fascinating stories and talents and interests of the members of this congregation are things we should be proud of. If I had to list concerns, I would have to say the way that we are constrained to fit in our current facilities, and our need to enhance mid-week programming in order to “grow-away” from Sunday morning. That is, not to replace or detract from Sunday morning, but to create the same sense on Wednesday night and Monday night, and Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, there was one question that I found striking. One person asked, quote, “Is there an upside or silver lining to being old and infirm? If so, how do we find it?” This question probably deserves a sermon all its own. I will fully admit that my attempt to answer such a question is inadequate. How could it be adequate? A colleague of mine of some thirty years says that answering questions like these is to practice the art and ministry of creative disappointment.

Here’s the silver lining: all you’ve seen, all you’ve done, all you’ve known, all you’ve learned, all you’ve loved in all those years. To be able to treasure those things without fretting over what you’ve not seen or done, learned or loved, and not to do that would have to be unbelievably difficult not to do. Truthfully, whether there is any consolation in knowing that others face the same difficulty is something I’ve often wondered about and debated. Some would say yes. Others would say no. Like Thoreau, I would prefer to say that “if life proves mean, [then we ought] to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, or if it is sublime, then to know it by experience.”

But, to whoever wrote that card, I might say this: Thank You! For your card did me a great service and ministry. It broke an illusion that I always create for myself every year we do this question and answer exercise. The illusion is that I believe that at some point in my life (surely next year) I will have learned through experience the answers to all the questions, and then, finally, I’ll have all the answers to all the questions.

Your card reminded me of something that we all from time to time may need to be reminded of, and that is that we may never have all the answers to all the questions. Some questions we’ll have the answers to, but also always more questions after those answers.