Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sermon: "Playing with Fire" Delivered 4-2-06

[I am indebted to one of my favorite UU blogs - "Peacebang" - for two aspects of this sermon. Peacebang told the story of the embarrassing error on her blog and also related the experience of the "Playing with fire" sermon illustration, an idea I adapted for this sermon.]

Every couple of months I receive one of those humorous email forwards containing embarrassing “errors” from church bulletins. You know this email, right? It’s the email in which misplaced modifiers, double entendres, ironic juxtapositions, misspellings, and various “sic” render printed announcements in the church bulletin unintentionally hilarious.

“Pastor is on vacation. Massages may be given to the church secretary.”

“Please pray for those sick of our community.”

“All members interested in sinning are invited to join the choir.”

“Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education Class will meet this afternoon. Please use the parking lot behind the building for this activity.”

“This afternoon there will be a meeting at the North and South ends of the building. Children will be baptized at both ends.”

“Next week our Pastor will preach his farewell message, after which the choir will sing, ‘Break forth into joy.’”

I’ve always wondered. Do these embarrassing blunders actually happen? Or, are they just urban church legends? Recently, a colleague of mine told of a mistake that, according to an elderly member of her congregation, had happened many years ago. The announcement asked the congregation to pray for a member who was recovering from illness. The exchange of one intended letter for an unintended one rendered the announcement so crude and base that… well, I can’t mention it from the pulpit. (Maybe if we reach our pledge goal.) But even this example offers no hard evidence. “A colleague of mine said that a parishioner of hers said...” It could be an urban legend.

And then, the other day, it happened. Every morning I take Shawnee Mission Parkway to work and I always pass that great big Lutheran Church at the corner of Nall, the one with the electronic sign that flashes Bible quotes and pithy sayings. Well, it just so happened that as I was on my way to work a couple of weeks ago, the electronic sign was malfunctioning. A segment of it wasn’t lighting up, rendering most of the Biblical passages nonsensical. That is, until they flashed up a quote from the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food. Matthew 25:35.” With part of the sign broken, the quote they now flashed was, “For I was hungry, and you gave me Matthew 25:35.”

OK, so that is not nearly as funny as, “Next week the sermon will be ‘What is Hell?’ Come early to listen to our choir rehearse.” But at least it actually happened. I saw it with my own two eyes. “For I was hungry, and you gave me Matthew 25:35”. There’s a sermon somewhere in that…

Did you know that we are the most dangerous church in America? At least, that’s what we’ve been called. Are you interested in how we got called the most dangerous church in America?

This was back in 1999 when the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly met in the Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to our arrival, officials from the Unitarian Universalist Association had a meeting with officials from the Church of Latter Day Saints. The previous year the Southern Baptists had had their convention in Salt Lake City, and Southern Baptist missionaries had passed out Bible tracts to Mormon missionaries in Temple Square calling the Church of Latter Day Saints a cult. And let’s just say that the whole thing had gotten rather tense and touchy. The Southern Baptists had not been gracious guests. Leave it to them to turn their general convention into Smackdown.

So, in light of that ugly fiasco, there was this meeting with UU and LDS leaders to talk about how we could be gracious guests, but something interesting came out of those meetings. The Mormon leaders told us something. They told us they’ve been studying you. And that we are the most dangerous church in America. Well, we would be the most dangerous church in America if we could get all of those people who agree with what we stand for committed to working for it. Most churches would envy the number of visitors who come to our churches. If they got committed, then watch out. And then, somewhat dismissively, the Mormon leader said, “We’re not too worried though.”

I want to talk about commitment. That’s the difference between giving food, and giving a verse from the Bible.

Earlier in the service this morning Dave sang the wonderful song, “The Fire of Commitment.” The lyrics were: “From the lights of days remembered burns a beacon bright and clear, guiding hands and hearts and spirits into faith set free from fear. When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze. When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way, When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within, then our promise finds fulfillment and future can begin.”

The Fire of Commitment. We say those words every week don’t we when we extinguish the chalice. What are the words we say? “We extinguish this flame, but not the light of truth, the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment. These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.” We say it every single week!

We’re playing with fire when we say it, right? Because this is not an easy faith when it is done right. Because this is not a low commitment faith when it is done right. Every week, we light our chalice and we’re playing with fire.

Who wants to play with fire? Who is committed enough to come up here and hold the chalice?

I’m going to do something silly right now. It is silly, but it is serious. This is unrehearsed. I don’t have any plants in the audience. This is playful; but it is playing with fire. I’m going to tell you about some people from our tradition who exemplify the fire of commitment. And as I talk about them, I’m going to invite one or two of you to come up and stand and hold the chalice and feel what it feels like to hold the fire of commitment.

As I call up the first person, I want to tell you about how the chalice come to be as our symbol. The symbol was originally drawn by a refugee named Hans Deutsch who escaped from Nazi Germany. The symbol was used by Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp who made two trips to World War II Europe to help evacuate Jews and intellectual and political enemies of Hitler. The Sharp’s were responsible for the rescue of between one thousand and three thousand people, including many children, from the Nazis. Posthumously, they were honored by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations.” These two Unitarians embodied the Fire of Commitment. With their faith they were playing with fire.

As I call forward the next person, I want to tell you about somebody else who played with fire. His name was Theodore Parker. He was a transcendentalist who preached a bold theology. He was also active in the abolitionist movement. He used to write his sermons in his study with a gun right by his hand. This was because at any given time, he was likely harboring runaway slaves in his home and was helping them get to Canada. He was clear that he would defend them, and his morally rooted decision, with his life if necessary. He embodied the Fire of Commitment. With his faith, he was playing with fire.

Let me call up our third person while I tell you about Susan B. Anthony. You know she played with fire. We all know her right? The leading woman’s suffragist. A pioneer for equality. Who went to jail for her audacity. Prison cell and dungeon vile did not deter her. The fire of commitment kept her warm. A Unitarian, playing with fire.

While I call up our fourth person, I want to talk about someone many of you don’t know about: Francis David. For a brief time in the 1500’s Transylvania had a Unitarian King. The King’s minister was Francis David. The King issued the Edict of Religious Toleration, declaring that none shall be harmed because of their beliefs. David taught that “We need not think alike to love alike.” The next King did not agree and had David imprisoned for teaching a dangerous religion. He rotted away in prison until his death. But his life taught us about the fire of commitment.

So far, I’ve talked a lot about stuff that took place a whole bunch of years ago, but as I call up our fifth person, I want to talk about something more recent. In the early 1990’s a report by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health revealed that high school kids who did not identify as straight were often not safe in schools. The Governor formed a commission to recommend changes and one of the answers the commission came up with was the starting of Gay / Straight alliances in high schools. This happened and it soon became normative for there to be Alliances in Massachusetts high schools. But that is not the end of the story. How did these alliances get started? As it turns out, it was UU high school youth at church youth conferences who were developing leadership and training leaders in a grass roots fashion. UU high school youth were working to start many of these groups and strengthening them. At Youth Cons, you had basically one hundred or more Unitarian Youth from various towns and fourteen and fifteen year olds were training each other and teaching leadership skills and youth would go back to their schools and make it happen. This is something my friends and I were doing when we were in high school. Fire of commitment. Playing with fire. I do not doubt that lives were saved as a result.

I do not doubt that lives were saved by the Sharps or by Theodore Parker, or that lives were made better by Susan B. Anthony or Francis David. No wonder we could be the most dangerous religion in America.

I’m talking about the Fire of Commitment. Playing with Fire. For I was religiously oppressed and you gave me... For I was a fugitive slave and you gave me... For I was denied the right to vote, and you gave me… For I was becoming a victim of genocide and you gave me… For I was at risk, and you gave me. The difference between commitment and faith is the difference between “For I was hungry and you gave me food” and “For I was hungry and you gave me Matthew 25:35.”

The idea of commitment is something that I’ve been spending a lot of time weighing recently. It is something I grew up with and didn’t, was part of my own religious upbringing as a Unitarian Universalist and wasn’t. It was something I really, truly, honestly believed – that we could be the most dangerous church in America, or that at least through taking some risks that we could change the world, start as we may by changing the entire high school experience for an entire segment of teens – make their schools a bit more civilized, a bit more tolerable, a bit more hopeful.

And so in my life I’m stretching in new directions with this idea of commitment. I don’t know if I should do this, but recently I’ve been reading a book by an author named Brian McClaren. It is a book about constructing a new kind of faith and the book involves an evolving fictional friendship between a young disillusioned pastor named Dan Poole and a man named Neil Oliver. Neil is a former minister who quit his pastorate and became a high school science teacher and becomes sort of a mentor to Dan. Neil’s name is sort a play on words: Neil Oliver… Neo Liver… New Life. The relationship transforms Dan, who is finding ministry in a conventional church unfulfilling, who feels as though the life he is familiar with has sold him a false bill of goods.

And I want to read from this book, because it will shock you. To set the scene, Neil has a family emergency and has to leave town. They stay in touch by email and Neil sends Dan to his home to send Neil some things that he needs. Neil is kind of a mystery and so Dan is kind of in his space, sort of figuring out his life and what makes his mentor tick. This is Dan’s voice (paraphrase):

“I had never gone through anyone else’s personal and financial papers before. It was a strange feeling. One of the things that struck me was Neo’s generosity. The number of organizations to which he sent money, and the amount he sent, was to me beyond all proportion. Along with the money he sent, it became apparent that he had visited many of the organizations he supported financially. His files were full of personal notes and expense reports from his travels. It was as if he had this secret life going: on the surface, Dr. Neil Oliver, mild mannered science teacher, but behind the scenes, international philanthropist with connections to an orphanage in Guatemala, a care facility for drug addicts in New Hampshire, a new church in Moscow, a Seattle-based organization trying to liberate children from the most horrible kinds of exploitation in Bangkok, to name a few.

“My estimate was that he was living on 70% of his salary, saving 5% and giving away about 25%. I couldn’t help myself so in one email I made a remark to him about his generosity. He replied back that giving was simply one his greatest joys in life. He had learned it in his church growing up where 10% was the expectation. But through the years he had found even that to be personally no big stretch and the percentage had just kept creeping up as he found other commitments and passions.

“If the new kind of faith we are building is not radically generous, it is a waste of time. We live in the most affluent culture in the most affluent period of human history. If in the midst of so much we can’t experience the joys of generous living, I think we are an embarrassment to the gospel.”

My response to this, after reading it, was right on. That is the kind of reaction that is necessary (and not just from me) if we are to become the most dangerous church in America… if we’re going to play with fire, the fire of commitment.