[This homily was delivered during a service celebrating all of the Past-Presidents who have served the Shawnee Mission UU Church. Following the homily, we unveiled a handsome plaque in their honor.]
The angels conspire to bless us, but the angels need a little help.
The following is a true story:
I moved to Dallas, Texas at the beginning of Memorial Day Weekend, 2001. The day after Memorial Day, I was to begin a summer-long chaplain residency at a Dallas hospital. Upon completing the chaplaincy, I was to begin a 9-month internship at a congregation in suburban Dallas. That first Sunday in town, the Sunday before Memorial Day, I attended church at First Unitarian, the large urban congregation in Dallas. I introduced myself to their Senior Minister, Rev. Laurel Hallman after the service. About five days later I received a call from Rev. Hallman and she asked me if I could preach at her church two weeks later.
“No,” my brain answered, “I’ve only preached twice in my life. And you’re asking me to preach at one of the largest UU churches in the country on two weeks notice.”
“No,” my brain answered, “Congregations like First Unitarian don’t schedule worship only two weeks in advance.”
“No,” my brain answered, “You have no clue who I am. I just walked in off the street.”
“No,” my brain answered, “I’m not worthy to preach at a church as esteemed as First Unitarian.”
“Yes,” my mouth answered, “I would love to preach at your church in two weeks.”
That June, beyond serving as a chaplain at the hospital and preparing to preach at First Unitarian, I was also expected to attend a weekend Board Retreat for the suburban congregation I was to intern at. In preparation for the retreat I was supplied with the minutes of the previous board meetings. The first item mentioned in the minutes was a discussion about the congregation’s $30,000 budget deficit. Uh-oh! A motion had been made that they could cancel out a third of that deficit by canceling my internship. The motion barely failed. Those who had voted to cancel my internship were named. This was very uncomfortable.
In the first week of my internship I received a call. The man on the phone, Hardy Sanders, a member of First Unitarian where I had preached weeks earlier, had called to offer to subsidize the cost of my internship. A check for $10,000 was on its way. The congregation ended the year with a surplus, by the way.
To this day, I do not know what went on behind the scenes. I don’t really care to know. I do know I am glad that I said “yes” when Rev. Hallman asked me to preach. I do know that I am glad that the motion made at the board meeting failed. And I am certain that angels conspire to bless us, but the angels need a little help from us.
There are a couple of things I could say about this story. It goes a long towards explaining why fiscal conservatives tend to push my buttons. But more than that, it is a story that I find instructive about the importance of leadership. As Unitarian Universalists, our seventh principle reminds us that we are caught up in an interdependent web of all existence. As a part of that web, all of our actions – day to day and in every way – do not take place in isolation. Our actions and our struggles cause vibrations; our splashes cause ripples. What we do or leave undone is felt widely. There are ramifications. There are consequences.
Paul Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the Twentieth Century, believed that the word “faith” had been corrupted beyond repair, and that we shouldn’t bother to use it anymore. Instead of the word faith, Tillich suggested we use the word “courage.” We would say, “You need to have courage,” instead of, “You need to have faith.” Instead of saying, “I’ve lost my faith,” people would say, “I’ve lost my courage.” And, in a church, instead of saying, “It takes faith to lead,” we would say, “Courage is necessary to lead.” It is necessary. It does take courage.
Courage is a word that we tend to understand too narrowly. If I asked people here to name a courageous Unitarian, we’d tend to think of James Reeb, the civil rights martyr. We’d tend to think of James Barrett, the clinic escort gunned down in Florida. We’d tend to think of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Olympia Brown. Or Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian minister who wrote his sermons with a gun on the desk in front of him, in the event that anyone should come to demand the fugitive slaves he was hiding, and helping to safe passage.
Prophetic courage is often the most visible form of courage. Prophetic courage is courage equal to faith. But there are other expressions of courage, other expressions of courage equal to faith.
And please don’t think I’m being melodramatic with this point. There was, I believe, a very real courage expressed by those board members several years ago who voted not to diminish the programs of the church even when the money wasn’t coming in. There is also I believe, for every officer of our church, for every steward of our church, for every trustee of our church, the opportunity to display courage faithfully and faith courageously.
During the service this morning you have heard from three past-Presidents. One had the courage to lead a brand new church at the moments of its inception. The next had the courage to lead this church at the time of its faltering, when otherwise it may have died. The third had the courage to lead as it was entering a wide-eyed time; the courage to envision that it might live into its greater promise.
The angels conspire to bless us, but that sometimes the angels need a little of bit of help from those with courage.
Today, as we honor all of the past-Presidents of this church, we lift up also all those who led, who acted with courage, who visioned, who dreamed, who showed up, pitched in, rolled up their sleeves – all those so often nameless – but especially the Past Presidents of this church, selected from among their peers. They were the ones willing to put their name on the line. Today we put their names on the wall and hold them in gracious esteem.