Monday, November 13, 2006

Sermon: "After the Seeking, What Next?" (Delivered 11-12-06)

Brian McClaren tells a story about his daughter’s dog. The dog is incapable of returning when being called and is prone to attempting to escape. When it does escape, the only hope is to chase after it with a hunk of cheese. Faced with these competing claims on its spirit – the choice between cheese or freedom – the dog eventually elects the cheese. At which time the dog can be leashed successfully. [McClaren tells this story with much greater flair.]

This is a story about evangelism, by the way. Churches do this sort of thing all the time, running after people waving and yelling, “Cheese. Cheese.” Here are these neat and wonderful and attractive things. Then churches do a similar bait and switch. “Now, fill out a pledge card and join a committee.”

McClaren goes on to say that this image speaks to a consumption-based mentality that is dominant in our current culture. This consumption-based mentality values all of the institutions of society according to their ability to “meet my needs” or purvey goods and services that I desire. In this consumption-based worldview, all things – arts, education, government, ethics, religion – are worthy to the extent that they provide me with the goods and services I desire. Such a way of thinking excludes the idea that any of these institutions might have some other calling or purpose other than to instantly gratify me. Similarly, according to a consumption-based worldview, people “church-shop”, looking for a church that “serves my needs” and keeping an eye out for a better deal. And the secret is that this worldview will always lead to disappointment. [A member of the congregation wrote to me after the service and commented that churches that offer theological certainty are designed to appeal to consumers who want quick answers.]

When I was an intern minister at a UU church down outside of Dallas we had a couple visit the church on a Sunday when I was preaching. They smiled quite a bit, and made eye-contact with me during the service and were giving me all kinds of positive vibes. So, after the service I marched up to them and welcomed them. They beamed as they told me how wonderful they thought the service was. And the theology was just perfect for them. But they had a question. Did our church have a volleyball team? When informed of the lack of a volleyball team, they became crestfallen and sullen, “Oh, we were looking for a liberal church with a volleyball team.” We never saw them again. I fear they may be still church-shopping, looking for the perfect liberal, volleyball playing church.

This consumer-driven idea is depicted in the first of the two diagrams inside your order of service. [Sorry, web-readers.] In this diagram, the self is very, very large and views church as an object, an institution whose purpose is to meet the needs of the self. In this self-centered worldview, the self and the church occasionally can be convinced to reach out into the world, but when they do, they view the world as an object. They find it easiest to reach out when doing so will bring more people into the church thus allowing the church to do more to better serve the self.

McClaren says that an alternate way of thinking about this is to understand the self as quite small and to understand that the church plays the role of serving as a conduit for interacting with the world. This is the second diagram.

Before I explain this second diagram, I want to talk a bit about Brian McClaren. McClaren is a progressive evangelical Christian. He was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals – a list that was dominated by the likes of James Dobson and Ted Haggard. But McClaren is different than most of the other 24 names on the list because he is an evangelical Christian who is not strongly disliked by religious or secular liberals. Most have never heard of him. But, many conservative evangelicals consider him a false teacher and not even a real Christian. For example, McClaren is frequently accused of being a universalist. About this he writes that accusations “like this make me want to be an exclusivist who believes that only the universalists go to heaven – after all, they have the highest opinion possible about the efficacy and scope of the saving work of Jesus!”

[McClaren actually imagines something broader than universalism. “The old universalism pronounces that the Good News was efficacious for all individual souls after death, in heaven, beyond history. Inclusivism says the gospel is efficacious for many, and exclusivists say for a comparative few. But I’m more interested in a gospel that is universally efficacious for the whole earth before death in history.” I find McClaren to be a remarkable person. When I had the chance to talk with him about two weeks ago, I introduced myself as a Unitarian Universalist minister and he grinned and said that he had met many UU ministers who had read his books, and that we were the group with the kindest responses to his writing.]

McClaren would apply theological language that we might not be comfortable with, but I think is totally translatable for us. About the second diagram [sorry, again], we should first know that the world is full of awesome stuff. McClaren would say that the world is full of stuff that God loves. On that list, he would include mountains, rivers, plants, animals… but he also puts on that list, sports, music, movies, humor, and sex. So, whether we say that “God loves redwood trees” or “redwood trees are awesome” is just semantics. He then goes on to say that we are a part of the world, but for some reason our lives are often not lived in ways that are an adequate response to how awesome the world is. He would use the word “sin.” Some of us would be uncomfortable with this language. I would say that we get in our own way and we get in each other’s way from being in right relationship with how awesome the world is. And then, McClaren goes on to say that the proper role of the church is to be both a corrective lens for understanding our place in the world and a community of meaning for bringing the world into better relationship with itself.

Now, I am going to switch topics abruptly. This morning, I want to talk about seeking. I want to talk about religious journeys and spiritual journeys. In this church, in this Unitarian Universalist faith, we often talk about our spiritual journeys. We talk about an ongoing search for truth and meaning and talk about ourselves as perpetual seekers. This morning I want to ask if there is such a thing as finding. I want to ask whether being a perpetual seeker necessarily means subscribing to that consumption-based view of the world I just described. And I also want to ask what comes after the seeking? J.R.R. Tolkien once quipped that not all who wander are lost. The corollary to this is that some who wander really are lost.

Last week I took issue with the theology of uncertainty and incessant doubt, saying that the deconstructing of faith claims eventually needs to give way to the constructive building of faith. This week I am addressing not so much the content but the community. In fact, I would insist that the community is an enormous part of the content. I want to take issue with that consumption-based approach to religious life that is so widespread in this day and age.

There are a couple of reasons why that consumer-driven approach to spiritual life is problematic. For one thing, the approach to spiritual life that is focused on getting “my needs met” struggles in the face of the reality that disappointment plays an important role as a part of spiritual growth.

Membership in a church resembles on some level the covenant of marriage. If that seems a little over-stated, it is not. If it seems intense, it is. The tradition from which we (at least) come has always lifted up a demanding and sacred idea of membership. The comparison between the covenant of marriage and the covenant of membership seems apt.

It has been said that a marriage is not really a marriage until after the first quarrel or spat. Similarly, it has been said that one does not really understand religious community until after the first time it has disappointed you. One of my mentors likes to say that ministers are in the business of creative disappointment. Maybe joining a church is like entering into the covenant of marriage; there are grounds for divorce – abuse or irreconcilable differences. But, even when it is great, it isn’t all honeymoon.

Another way of imagining this is to think that joining a religious community is like joining a family. In fact, there is a whole field of studies, pioneered by the like Murray Bowen and Ed Friedman that tells us that congregations can best be understood according to the psychology of family systems. And like a family, going in with the attitude that it exists to satisfy my needs is not that helpful.

The nicest way I’ve ever heard this put is by the recently-deceased UU minister Rev. Clark Dewey Wells. He said, “If you find the church not meeting your needs, say hallelujah. For that means that one of your neighbors is being spoken to in the depths. And it may mean there is more in store for you as your needs change in the unfolding years ahead.”

There is a second reason why the consumption-based approach to religious community is not helpful. The reason for this is that the real depth of spirit is reached not by being the one who is served, but in being on the other end. There is a depth that can be reached only through leading, teaching, mentoring, and “elder-ing.”

Some of the opportunities that are provided here at SMUUCh for those types of experiences include serving as a Coming of Age mentor, teaching children or youth or adult religious education classes, serving on the membership committee, taking part in social action, leading a connection circle, or being a part of the caring team – being a person who visits others.

After the seeking comes mentoring. After the seeking comes leading. After the seeking comes “elder-ing.” After the seeking comes ministry, in the broadest sense of the term. And thus the paradox that rests at the center of my sermon this morning. You can seek for truth. You can seek for enlightenment. You can seek for community. But there is something you can only find when you cease to wander, cease to journey, cease to meander. There are things you can only find when you stop searching.

This morning I’ve introduced you to Brian McClaren’s idea of church (and world) not as objects to be valued for how they meet the needs and satisfy the desires of a self-interested self. But, the church as a lens and authentic community through which the self can act for bringing the world into better relationship with itself. I’ve talked about how a consumption-based worldview and lifestyle – the perpetual seeking for a better deal – actually denies the chance for the spiritual growth that comes from serving rather than from being served.

I want to conclude by offering a word of encouragement. I do believe that our community (as well as our nation) is full of souls hungry for the type of community that we try and aspire to be. Our opportunity – the opportunity for all of us here today – is to grow in immeasurable ways by putting on – or keeping on – the mantle of mentorship, the mantle of elder-hood, the mantle of leadership. The gifts of which are greater than anything we could ever stumble over on the path.