Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sermon: "Dear SMUUCh: A Love Letter" (Delivered 2-10-2008)

I need to begin this sermon with a confession. For a period of several months over this past Spring, Summer, and Fall I seriously considered ending my ministry here at SMUUCh. (Hey, I never said I was good at this whole love-letter writing business.)

I also need to tell you that if I had decided to leave, the decision would have had very little to do with you. A very large church in our movement was in search for a senior pastor and several of my most esteemed and respected colleagues serving large churches in our movement urged me to apply. They encouraged me to throw my hat in the ring. Frankly, I felt my chances were quite good.

To be honest, I was tempted. This congregation is a leading one in Unitarian Universalism. That they were offering a six-figure salary didn’t hurt either.

To be faced with this opportunity – and this temptation – led me to contemplate the role that fantasy plays in our lives. In and of themselves, fantasies are always a reality of our existence. We tend to keep our fantasies private; they’re rarely voiced in public and it is even rarer to hear them voiced from the pulpit. We all, I would guess, fantasize about jobs and careers, wealth, what kind of house we could live in or what kind of car we could drive. And, of course we also fantasize about love, relationships, and sex (or so I’ve heard.) Fantasies are a fact of life; we all have fantasies.

The question then becomes one of discernment. Is this or that fantasy a healthy fantasy to pursue or is it a destructive one to pursue? Is it worth the cost of going after it? Am I exploring this fantasy from a healthy place or from an impulsive or compulsive place? Will acting on a fantasy enhance my life and the lives around me, or will it hurt me or other people?

And then there is the truth that all fantasies are abstractions. Platonic ideals don’t really exist. There are no perfect jobs, no perfect lives, and no perfect partners. Even so, there are fantasies and dreams that are worth pursuing and ones that best remain un-acted upon. The latter are the ones that are not supposed to venture outside of our imaginations where they can be safely indulged.

In the case of this very sexy and very attractive church which I was being pressured to go after and stood a great chance to get, I want to tell you why I elected not to go after it. This morning I want to tell you why I decided to stay here at SMUUCh.

A few of the reasons have absolutely nothing to do with you. Despite the obvious temptations, that fantasy church is actually not perfect. (Fantasies do not correspond to realities.) I asked myself, “Do I really want to go back to square one, to re-live the first year or two of ministry with a brand new community or do I want to experience what the sixth, seventh, tenth and possibly greater years of ministry bring?” Also, I figure I have 35 to 40 years of ministry ahead of me. What’s the big rush?

But, more than any of those reasons, I decided not to pursue that other church because I really, truly like my ministry here. In fact, I love serving this church. I, who am often painfully slow to love, sometimes fail to express this. However, I can point to the moment where I knew for sure that I loved my ministry here. It was last Summer, in late July, on a Sunday that I was supposed to be on vacation and out of the pulpit. For most of July, the members of the Preaching Practicum class led worship. On this particular Sunday, C. was delivering the sermon. Of all the people who have done the Preaching Practicum class, I don’t think I had ever pushed anybody as hard as I had pushed C. I think that by the time C. was ready to get up in the pulpit I had read about seven drafts of his sermon and he had re-written every word at least three times. C. is tremendously bright, extremely thoughtful, and he’s got some natural preaching chops. Because of his talent, I was especially tough on him. Our working together on his sermon was intense and each draft became clearer and deeper than the one that preceded it.

So, even though I had read his sermon seven times and could mouth parts of it word for word as well as tell you how each section appeared in earlier drafts, I couldn’t stand not to be there when C. delivered his sermon. I couldn’t stand not to be there. To see the fruition of all his efforts. To applaud and celebrate the fruition of all his hard work.

That July morning, I arrived for the second service – it is always good to boost the attendance for the second service – and as I walked into church, out walked some of the folks who had lingered after the first service. As they walked out into that glorious day chatting about the service, something swelled up in my heart. I spontaneously greeted them. “So glad you are here. I love seeing you here.” At that moment something changed within me.

I want to talk about our immediate future. Six months from now we will welcome an Intern Minister to the staff at SMUUCh – the first intern we have had in 25 years. This will mark a change in my ministry; I will be actively mentoring a minister-to-be who represents part of the future of our movement. This will also mark a change in our congregational life. We will be more than a church. We will be a teaching church. Our intern will be spending a year with us learning the ways of a great church. It will also be an experiment for all of us in what it feels like to have more than one minister on staff. This is in anticipation of the day that is due to come sometime soon when we will have more than one permanent minister on staff here.

But I want to bring us back to the present day because I want to say a few words about the state of our church right now and the challenges we will face over the next few months.

One challenge has to do with our service times. Out of necessity, we have been at two services for four years. For that entire time, we have struggled with a lack of any semblance of equilibrium between the services. One service often feels crowded and the other feels empty. For us to continue to grow, we will need to create equilibrium. Beginning in June, the plan is to hold worship at two attractive times: 9:30 and 11:00. But we will also need to offer a more equal range of religious education opportunities at both services to even them out. Our leaders in religious education are rightly concerned about whether they will find enough volunteer teachers to make this expanded program work. We will need an additional 25 to 30 teachers and I have no doubt that we will find them.

The second challenge we have before us is to have an excellent stewardship drive this Spring. This year, the Stewardship Drive (Canvass) will be done in a way that is somewhat different than how we have done it in recent years. Next weekend and the following week we will be holding training sessions for over 35 members of our church who have volunteered to be visiting stewards. These visiting stewards will have face-to-face visits with most members of the church. And these conversations won’t just be about money. They will be about making connections, about talking about what has meaning and worth in our lives. A successful and robust stewardship campaign will also signify our readiness to embark on a Capital Campaign to acquire facilities that will truly allow us to be a church as great as you deserve. The opposite, a disappointing Canvass, will be a sign that we may not be ready to move forward with a Capital Campaign. [I shared my own commitment to give at this point, but prefer not to make my pledge part of the public domain.]

Like I said, I’m not that good at writing love letters. But, let me say this: I love this church passionately, intensely, and totally. I love the honor of being your minister. I love the church you are and I love what you and we can become.

This love I have for you is neither sentimental nor sugary; it is a love with nutritional value instead of empty calories. At times this love is fierce and aggressive. Like a mother grizzly bear, I am times fiercely vigilant of anything that threatens our health and vitality. I love this church too much to allow harm to come to it, so sometimes my role is to be a fierce shepherd. Sometimes this love can be demanding; it can be restless, ambitiously pushing for consistent excellence in all facets of church life. At times I probably seem petulant and irritated. It is a love that is not satisfied with less than the best in myself and can be similarly demanding of others.

But, my love is also grateful. Day in and day out I am amazed, awed by the members of this church: Your stories. Your lives. Your passion for justice. Your intellect and your wisdom. Your struggles. Your recoveries. Your courage. Your generosity. Your quirks. Your humanity.

Last November I attended a summit on growth in Louisville, Kentucky along with eleven other ministers of fast growing churches. During one of the sessions we were supposed to talk about the “nuts and bolts” of growth, what tools we had used to help achieve growth. To a person, the participants balked. What came instead was a discussion about love. We wanted to emphasize love as primary. Nuts and bolts were secondary. One minister shared about entering a congregation that had a recent history of conflict. Ashamed, they tried to hide it from her. When it was brought to light, the minister told them, “I love you anyways.” Another minister in the group told about how his heart swells with love every time he sees a multi-racial group of children playing together, or two adults, separated by four decades sitting on a bench and talking. A third talked about how it was a context of love that allowed him to grow as a minister. It is like the line from the movie As Good as it Gets starring Jack Nicholson, “You make me want to be a better person.” For him it was, “You make me want to be a better minister.” A fourth shared about loving their congregation for the congregation they could become. A fifth shared that her congregation lived with the fear that they were unlovable. When they changed that perception, life re-entered the community.

You are a congregation that is immensely lovable. Love isn’t a perfect dive but it is a fantastic leap. A leap of faith; sometimes a graceful leap. I love taking this leap Sunday after Sunday, day in and day out. I love the privilege of being your minister.