For the benefit of those who may be newer or brand new to this church and to Unitarian Universalism, I might explain to you that for this past week Unitarian Universalists across the country have been mourning a heinous and terrifying incident that happened at one of our churches in Knoxville last Sunday when a gunman entered the church killing two people and injuring six others.
The shooter’s manifesto claimed that he, among other things, harbored a deep resentment of gays and of the quote-unquote “liberal agenda.” His former wife was a former member of this church. These details explain very little. We live in a nation in which millions of people actively dislike anything that can be labeled liberal just as millions of others actively dislike things that are labeled conservative. We live in a nation in which millions of people harbor homophobic feelings. And across our nation there are probably at least as many who hold a grudge against a former spouse. And yet, shootings like the one in Knoxville are thankfully rare. No explanation suits the senselessness of this homicidal act.
For the members of this church, we who grieve for our brothers and sisters in Knoxville, there are at least two kinds of reactions that are common. One reaction is the grief reaction, the need to commiserate, to weep, to hold each other. This response includes the ritualized act of marking pain and acknowledging the suffering of those who face the trauma most acutely. A second reaction, especially when the trauma we mourn is a bigoted act of hate, is to recommit ourselves to the cause of justice, freedom, and peace for all. Which is a productive reaction, but the energy behind it can be short-lived. Any profound movement for social change – be it the civil rights movement or the gay rights movement – needs to be grounded in basic values, convictions, and commitments and not in reactivity to a specific crime, a specific incident, or even a specific political reality.
So, what I want to suggest is a middle way, a response not grounded in reaction but grounded in purposeful living: The response of continuing to live meaningfully. The doing of what needs to be done.
Last Sunday afternoon and all this week life bestowed upon us the daily gift of the chance to live meaningfully. And life gave us a to-do list of necessary things, mundane things as well as transcendent things. We ate and slept. We changed diapers and did the laundry. We drove children to their activities. We made phone calls to grandparents or to grandchildren. We vacationed. We met friends for coffee. We showed up for our volunteer commitments or worked on behalf of a local candidate in preparation for Tuesday’s primary election. We embraced, held hands, made love, played music, wrote poetry, fired pottery and pruned the hedges.
The definition of trauma is that of being so affected as not to be able to do these necessary things. Not being able to eat or sleep or do the laundry. And our traumatized brothers and sisters in Knoxville are being well-cared for.
Hardly a week goes by it seems when we don’t learn about something horrible and traumatic in the community or in our world. Over the past five years, thinking of my tenure here as minister, if it has not been a shooting at a church or at an Amish elementary school or at a University in Virginia, it has been an earthquake, tornado, or flood; a hurricane, tsunami, or typhoon; a wild-fire or mine collapse; a death of a beloved member of this church or a war in a far off land; a hate-crime or a despicable terrorist attack.
And, I find myself torn. As a spiritual leader I want to be responsive but not reactive. I want for us not to do church the way an ambulance chaser practices law. The dishes need to be washed. The laundry needs to be folded. The dog still needs to be walked and the cat still needs to be… ignored (or whatever it is that one does with cats.) And here, here at this church, we need to continue to be grounded in purpose.
Living crisis to crisis is no way to live as anyone who has lived that way can testify. Trauma can happen to any of us and when we can’t eat or sleep or function we need to rely on the care of others until we are healed. But the rest of the time it really helps if we are grounded in purpose.
Which brings me to some of remarks I had planned to make this morning: Today, August 3rd, is the third day of my sixth year as your minister. I began my ministry here on, Friday, August 1st, 2003, two weeks shy of my twenty-sixth birthday. Thinking back, I can now laugh at how ungrounded I was in the first few days of my ministry here.
That first day I arrived at the office early and earnestly and began unpacking boxes of books and papers. In the middle of the day V. came by and gave me a basket with numerous plants, two-thirds of which I managed to kill by forgetting to water them for three weeks. I nursed the surviving plants back to life and they are still in my office. They remind to be grounded and not to forget the basics. As I was preparing to leave my office that evening on my first day as your minister, the ceiling caved in. Literally. Right below me, in the Saeger House living room twenty-four square feet of plaster fell from the ceiling. I called L. and asked her, “Um, what is a minister supposed to do if the ceiling collapses?”
On the second day of my ministry, Saturday, August 2, 2003 I had signed up to play in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. Dressed in gym shorts and a grungy tee-shirt I thought there would be no harm in dropping by the church to check email on my way to the fields. I pulled into the parking lot just as the P. family was arriving for Sarah’s wedding to Ivan. Rev. Paige Getty was performing the ceremony, her last act as interim minister. It is difficult to act ministerial when you are making your first impression in your gym clothes and speaking with a family in tuxedos and a wedding dress. Later that day, I made an amazing defensive play, blocking a very hard thrown Frisbee with my front teeth. As I crumpled to the ground, my first thought was, “Oh, no… what will they think when their minister arrives missing teeth?” Luckily, none of my teeth were knocked out.
Then, on the third day, August 3rd, 2003 I came to church to worship. I intentionally scheduled myself to begin preaching on the third week of August. But I’ve always believed, from day one, that if I am in town I should come to worship, even if I am not the one leading it, because I want you to come to church if you are in town, regardless of who is in the pulpit. And so I did… and it was a little bit awkward to be greeted by several people who asked, “Is this your first time visiting us?” and to answer, “Yes, I’m your new minister, nice to meet you.” It has gotten better since then.
I knew when I contemplated what I might say this morning that I wanted my words to be offered within the context of the completion of five years of ministry with this congregation. But, I did not want to present a list of the many successes we’ve accomplished together in these five years. Nor did I want to present a list of the disappointments we’ve faced, though these are far fewer in number. And, for that matter, I did not want to make this a pep talk about the future, a recasting of our vision, a recalibration of our trajectory, a bold charge and challenge to you.
No, it was something else, something else that I wanted to say. And, it turns out that a lot of people are interested in hearing me say this. My latest invitation came from the Shelter Rock congregation on Long Island, over 700 members. Their congregation hosts an annual leadership conference for all of the congregations in the New York area and they invite leaders in our movement to offer programming. I was asked this week to be their special guest this year and come lead a program for them in early October. What I plan to tell them will sound a little like this:
Earlier, I made a laundry list of these things we do in our daily lives, because they are what we do. We do the laundry. We eat and sleep, take out the trash, recycle, walk the dog, tuck the children into bed, call grandparents or grandchildren. We volunteer. We vote. We water the plants.
And I wondered… if we have such a list for our lives, what would such a list look like for our religious lives and our church community? Perhaps, like this: We worship together. We form meaningful relationships with one another. We welcome our visitors enthusiastically. We arrive early to set up and stay until the end to clean up. We engage directly in those things that matter to us. We engage directly with those people we work alongside. We don’t pass the buck. We show care to those in our community who suffer and struggle and express concern for those we miss. We actually live our values in the world. We dwell together in peace, seek knowledge in freedom, and serve humanity in fellowship.
Now, I actually want to pause for just a minute here. And I want to go back to that laundry list of things we do in our lives. I worry that I actually may have panicked a few of you, and perhaps some of you are frantically scribbling down a to-do list on the margins of your order of service. And, I also wonder if I might not have bored some of you. Perhaps you think of laundry and plant-watering and dog-walking, child-schlepping and grocery-shopping and inside you scream… you scream and you plead to a god that you may not even believe in, “Please, tell me there is more. Surely there is more. There has to be more than this.”
And, we can have that same feeling about church, too. Another get well card to write… please. I don’t feel like coming to worship. That person initially seemed like someone who I could really share myself with and that person turned out to be tedious, or they thought I was tedious. I’ve been volunteering with that supposedly great cause for years and it is hard to see that we are doing any good. I try to meditate and I fall asleep, or I pinch myself so hard that I draw blood because the nothingness of it is just so frustrating. Where is the transcendence?
From time to time, I think we all feel like a character named Joe in a joke I once heard. Joe’s mother stood at the bottom of the stairs and called to him, “Joey, get up! You need to go to school.” Joe yells back, “I’m not going. The kids are annoying. The teachers hate me. Give me three reasons I should go.” His Mom replies, “First, the kids are not that annoying. Second, the teachers don’t hate you. And third, you are the principal and it is your job to go.”
Ministers frequently include the following apocryphal story in sermons. One day, an older member of the church asked to meet with the minister. She said, “Reverend, I’ve been coming to church every Sunday for over sixty years, and to tell you the truth, I can’t remember more than two or three of the sermons I’ve heard in all these years. Tell me, why should I bother to come?” The minister replies, “I’ve eaten meals for my entire life. I can’t remember more than two or three menus, but I still continue to eat.”
What makes the difference between a grounded life that is tedious and one that is extraordinary? I think the difference, truly, is feeling as though you have a sense of purpose. I think that being grounded in purpose steadies us, keeps us from just reacting to whatever blustery winds may blow, and keeps us from paralysis.
When I thought about what I would tell you after the completion of five years of ministry, all kinds of things come to mind. More than could fill 25 minutes, for sure. More than could fill an entire morning or even an entire weekend. But, I think the most important thing is this:
It is my conviction that the world tempts us with all sorts of things that don’t reflect the purpose of our being and those temptations uproot us from our living in a grounded way. And we need to constantly ask ourselves, both in our own lives and in the life of this church: do these things actually further our purpose, or are they frivolities and distractions? How is our purpose furthered here? Do these choices in my life reflect the purpose of my living? Am I helping this church to realize our purpose? Or, am I impeding us? What could I be doing to help us to realize our purpose?
Our purpose, to me, is clear: to be a beacon proclaiming the values of liberal religion in our community, working towards the fulfillment of those values, and within this civic circumference to be a grounded religious center that celebrates diversity, welcomes you with no strings attached, and helps each and every one of us to find meaning in our life and the courage to pursue that meaning through holy living.
That is what I call our purpose. It is what you called your purpose over five years ago, when you looked for your next minister abd ticked off a list of things you wanted to see happen: “Enthusiasm,” “Significant growth in the size of our congregation,” “Increased administrative staff,” “A stronger financial footing.” One of the things you said was that you needed someone who, quote, “Can help us move into greater involvement and presence outside our church boundaries; someone who take us out of ourselves and into the community. We need to get the message out.”
In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, racists bombed an African-American church killing four teenage girls. And the response from that church was: we will continue to work for racial equity; we shall not be moved.
Last Sunday, a gunman opened fire on a church in Tennessee, a church that stood for racial integration, for women’s rights, for gay rights, for human dignity. In Tennessee this morning they shall not be moved.
Here in Overland Park, our response as a congregation to anything and everything that distracts us from the holy work that we are about, we shall respond: We shall not, we shall not be moved, from our purpose.
[At this point in the service I asked the congregation to sing, without any accompaniment, the song, “We shall not be moved.” We began slowly and tentatively. By the fourth time, we were all together. Then we sang it again and again, louder and louder each time through. Then we stood and swayed while we sang. With the congregation still standing I delivered a closing charge.]
Let’s keep changing lives with our welcome. Let’s keep changing minds with our good news. Let’s keep changing hearts with our acceptance and our love. Let’s keep changing our community and our world one minute at a time, one day at a time, one new face at a time.
Here we are very clear. You do not need to be afraid to be who you are! You do not need to be ashamed to love who you love! Do not be afraid to be who you are! Do not be ashamed to live beautifully upon this earth. We are glad you are here. We are glad you are here. We are glad you are here. We are glad you are here.