Monday, April 23, 2007

Sermon: "The Committed Life" (Delivered 4-22-07)

There is so much that can be said, will be said, and needs to be said about the nightmarish tragedy that struck Virginia Tech this past Monday. Those horrific events, while situated in a particular community on a particular campus in a place that most of us have never been and will never go to, have rippled and resonated and affected people all over our country and our world. On one level, the Virginia Tech shootings are sure to prompt nation-wide conversations and debates; there will be intense debates about gun ownership as well as many conversations about mental illness, treatment, and medical privacy. On another level, the shootings prompt larger existential questions about meaning, humanity, and community. I found myself remembering words spoken by the great Unitarian minister Forest Church after September 11th, who said that the idea that our lives can be made absolutely secure is a seductive and dangerous myth. The world is not secure, and while it is wise to take reasonable steps to promote safety, to live will always involve risk. And because life has inherent risk, it carries inherent meaning as well.

I’ve often wondered if years from now, if we won’t look back on the first decade of the twenty-first millennium as the decade when Americans were capable of achieving “total media absorption.” This decade began with the terrorist attacks of September 11, which introduced us to the ability to watch a news-story 24 hours per day, for weeks on end on the television. Next came the military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which similarly we were able to watch in around-the-clock fashion. Within a few years, this style of news media expanded. It is now possible to watch 24/7 coverage of the Don Imus scandal or the competing paternity claims for Anna Nicole Smith’s baby.

In his novel Infinite Jest, contemporary author David Foster Wallace imagines a form of media so rapturously enthralling, so completely addicting, that all who view it instantly forget their human impulses to work and to relate, to eat and to drink, even their need to breathe – and therefore suffer a media-induced coma, followed by a media-induced death. We’re not there yet, although sometimes I wonder if we might not be getting close.

The great paradox is this: that even when we are confronted with this world at its most tragic and traumatic, even when we are confronted with this world at its most evil and depressing, even when we are confronted with this world at its most devastating or at its most excruciatingly banal… even then, even then, life goes on and is no less meaningful.

We still need to breathe. The need to feed your children and walk your dog persists. You still need to pay the bills and do the laundry. You still need to get some exercise. And what you do in your normal life – helping the children with their homework, volunteering with this church or another charity, going to your job which is sometimes rewarding and sometimes frustrating… what you do does not, all of a sudden, become less worthy because of what is on the television. Everything changes and most things are still the same.

The great paradox is this: the world shakes but your life goes on. The ground under our feet shakes, but life goes on no less meaningfully than before.

This morning, I want to talk to you about living a balanced life. I also want to talk to you about living a committed life. Being balanced and being committed are not opposed.

And to introduce this subject I want to tell you about my day last Tuesday, or more precisely the choices I had as to how to spend my day last Tuesday. A couple of months ago I got a call from the Students for Reproductive Choice group at the University of Kansas asking me to speak at a panel on Theology and Reproductive Justice on Tuesday, April 17th. This is a group I have spoken for several times in the past. I always enjoy it and I was happy to accept their invitation. But, then I got a call from the Human Rights Campaign offering to fly me to Washington D.C. on Tuesday, April 17th to help lobby for legislation opposing discrimination against Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender people. I was to lobby representatives in the day and then appear at a press conference which would run on CNN. Then I got a request to deliver a presentation at a chapter gathering of UU ministers in Minneapolis on Tuesday, April 17th? And, then, on Tuesday, April 17th, like every Tuesday, there are all the people in this church who need to be called on, or emailed back. And, did I mention that Tuesday is supposed to be my day-off? But, the point is, all of these potential activities I had to choose from were meaningful, valuable, good.

My goal in my ministry is to try to live this ministry in a way that is committed and in a way that is balanced. That means sometimes saying “yes” and sometimes saying “no.” I said “Yes” to the honor to being asked to serve on the Executive Committee of the UU Ministers Association. I said “No” to the honor of being asked to serve on the board of the UUCF. I said “Yes” to being asked to serve on the Board of the MAINstream Coalition. I said “No” to being asked to serve on the National Board of Choice USA. It isn’t easy to say no to Gloria Steinem!

Whenever I reflect on the idea of a balanced and committed life, I recall the list created by my friend and colleague Tim Jensen about the roles a minister is expected to perform:
Preacher, Teacher, Pastor, Leader, Writer, Performer, Caregiver, Coach, Student, Scholar, Historian, Storyteller, Advocate, Mentor, Mediator, Negotiator, Entrepreneur, Peacemaker, Prophet, Priest, Rabbi, Chaplain, Sage, Mystic, Poet, Pilgrim, Spiritual Seeker, Spiritual Guide, Visionary, Organizer, Manager, Long Range Planner, Professional Expert, Organizational Consultant, Institutional Memory, Personal Companion, Partner, Parent, Trusted Friend, Philosophical Gadfly, Administrator, “Boss,” Strategist, Facilitator, Fundraiser, Expeditor, Supervisor, Servant, Shepherd, "Sheep Dog," Master & Commander, Major Idiot, Skipper, Experimenter, Analyst, Observer, Pundit, Critic, Counselor, Motivator, Devil’s Advocate, Wise Fool, Court Jester, Plucky Comic Relief, Medic, Personal Trainer, Baby Sitter, Dog Walker, Cat Herder, Snake Charmer, Duck Aligner, Weasel Wrangler, Chef, Gardener, Fisherman, Firefighter, Dishwasher, Custodian, Repairman, Jack-of-all-Trades, Quarterback, Point Guard, Relief Pitcher, Cheerleader, Pinch Hitter, Lead-off Hitter, Clean-up Hitter, Catcher, Center Fielder, Utility Infielder, Free Safety, Placekicker, Punt Returner, Bench Warmer, Water Boy, Umpire, Groundskeeper... and, of course, Juggler and Miracle Worker.

Commitment and balance. Balance and commitment. These are not necessarily contradictory, although they sometimes feel that way.

In thinking about my day last Tuesday, which was far from a normal day, there are a number of things I could mention. The obvious question, considering the five worthy activities in four different states, is which I should have chosen. You might have an opinion here. I will say that I seek to strike a balance between all my worthy activities – some time for sermon writing and study, some time for visiting, calling and counseling, some time for committees, some time for staff supervision, some time for denominational business, some time for continuing education, some time for service to the community and service to the wider world, some time for myself. I try to strike a balance, all the while trying to demonstrate a commitment to all these worthy recipients of my energy.

And what about this church? And what about you?

Coming back around to my refrain, what we do here has been made no less meaningful. What we do here continues to be important, needed, good.

This coming Thursday we will host a fantastic forum on the topic of stem cell research. We will host a panel of distinguished experts, and empower our community and each other to be more informed and more active around this issue. This is important, needed, and good. Similarly, our mission of being a religious community that involves people in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world – our mission of using our resources, facilities, and our collective energy to help promote our values and serve the community is still important, needed, and good. Our work we do to care for and support each other through hard times is still important, needed, and good. The work we do in promoting spiritual development in our children – helping them to live lives of ethical significance, conscience, and meaning is still important, needed, and good.

As ever before, the potential for us to bless each other’s lives, serve the community, and change the world is not diminished. Our efforts are still important, needed, and good. Life continues and is not less meaningful. We’re no less called to live lives that are balanced and committed.

A few minutes ago, when I made my list of all the things I could be doing on my usually busy Tuesday, the motivation was not to brag. The motivation was to remind us that the only things that limit us as a church are the size of our vision, the strength of our creativity, and the depth of our commitment. Our vision, our creativity, and our commitment.

And for us to really become all that we might become, we really need for the commitment to be shared by each and every one of us. That is the definition of shared ministry. We share fiscal responsibility for this church; we all share in the commitment to fund its vision. We share the caring ministry; to those who grieve or feel low we share the responsibility and the privilege of care, compassion, support. We share the membership ministry; when visitors come for the first time we all share the responsibility of extending a warm welcome. When we think of someone we haven’t seen in a while, we all share the responsibility to let that person know that they are missed and that they are missing something wonderful.

When commitment is shared, only then do we begin to realize the things that are possible, all that we envision and imagine and dream of – all of these, they are all made real.

Let me be clear on this: the commitments we make to this church reach far beyond you. A worship service wouldn’t be beautiful without a pianist to play, voices to sing, hymnals from which to sing, candles to light, and chairs on which to sit. A religious education program needs teachers in every classroom, and supplies in every classroom. Social justice requires strong membership. It all happens because everyone commits. When our commitments are small, the entire system is diminished. When our commitments are enlarged, the entire church is invigorated.

To put it another way, we depend on each other. We depend on one another. The ability for one committed person to shine and excel depends on the strong commitments of many others. Our nominee for President of this congregation next year has spoken at board meeting and elsewhere about one of his goals as President. His goal is 100% involvement – that every single person in this church has a place where they are involved in furthering the mission and vision of this church. I love his vision here – every single person has somewhere where they are committed.

I thank you on behalf of all your fellow congregants for making a financial commitment to this church. I thank you on behalf of all of your fellow congregants for all your commitments. Let me end by saying that what this church does and all that it will do is important, needed, and good. What we do matters and that truth is never, ever diminished.