Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sermon: "So Few Grownups" (Delivered 5-17-09)

[I delivered this sermon at our worship service honoring our youth who completed the Coming of Age program this year.]

In the last month I had the chance to have one-on-one conversations with each of the youth in the Coming of Age program. During these chats I asked them a lot of questions and they had the chance to ask some questions back. Among the questions they had was how someone becomes a minister. This question has a long answer and a short answer. I will give you the short answer: you go to a special school that teaches you about religion and ministry; you have to do an internship, like what Anne Griffiths has done this year with us; and then, you meet with a special committee. At that meeting with the special committee, you preach a ten minute sermon and then the committee members sling questions at you for the rest of the hour. It’s kind of like the Coming of Age panel on steroids.

The story I am about to tell you is true. There was once a minister in our movement who became very successful and is held in the highest of esteem. When he went in front of the special committee to preach, he decided that he would deliver a children’s sermon. He spoke to the committee members like they were third graders. The first question the committee asked him was, “Do you always preach children’s sermons?” He responded, “I find that in our churches there are so few grownups.”

What I want to talk about this morning is the question of what makes a person an adult. How do you know that someone is a “grownup”? This sermon is addressed to our Coming of Age class: you are no longer children, exactly, but you are also not adults yet, either. And these words are addressed to the rest of the congregation because I think it is a question worth reflecting upon.

When exactly does a person become an adult? Maybe at a certain age. Maybe you become an adult when you are allowed to get your drivers license. But that means that people become adults at different ages in different states. Or, maybe you become an adult when you turn 18 and you are allowed to choose whether to enter the military or not. Or, maybe when you turn 35 and you are allowed to run for President.

We could decide to ask the law. The law says that you are an adult when you turn 18, except in cases where you commit a horrible crime. If you commit a horrible crime you can be tried as an adult even though you are not 18. So, in other words, the law might treat you as an adult earlier if you exhibit irresponsible and harmful behavior. Maybe the law is not the right place to look.

Maybe becoming a grownup has to do with an achievement. Maybe you become an adult when you finish school. But, what about all those people who engage in ongoing learning all their lives or who go back to school for a degree? Maybe you become an adult when you get to finally live on your own. But there are all sorts of people, including past presidents of our country, who have never really lived on their own, but lived off the money that their mommies and daddies gave them. Maybe you become an adult when you get married. But what about people who never decide to marry? Does that mean they are not adults? Or, maybe you become and adult when you have children of your own. Britney Spears kind of shoots that theory out of the water. [I decided not to in my sermon, but you could just as well insert Bristol Palin here as well.]

As youth, you Coming of Age graduates live in a society that gives you very mixed messages about becoming an adult. On one hand, media sends you messages telling you to grow up fast and that reaching adulthood means acquiring lots of stuff like a house and a car. The media send you images of the type of lifestyle you should live that will make you seem grownup. At the same time, adulthood is also presented as something that you should avoid for as long as you can because your job is going to suck away your soul and you will live a life full of regrets and longing.

The truth is—and listen to me here—adulthood has absolutely nothing to do with your age, or whether you can drive or vote, or whether you live on your own, or whether you are married, or whether you have children, or whether you own your own car or your own house.

Do you know how I know this? I look to some of the world’s great religious leaders. Take, for example, the Dalai Lama. Now, the Dalai Lama lives in a palace that looks like it should be featured on MTV Cribs, but it is not like his life is surrounded by stuff. Plus, he doesn’t have a wife or children. And, when he is at home in Dharamsala, his lifestyle is a bit different from the lives of most adults. According to his own homepage, dalailama.com,
“When His Holiness is at home in Dharamsala, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. After his morning shower, he begins the day with prayers, meditations and prostrations until 5:00 a.m. At 5:00 a.m. he takes a short morning walk. Breakfast is served at 5.30 a.m. For breakfast, the Dalai Lama typically has hot porridge, barley powder, bread, and tea. From 6 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. His Holiness continues his morning meditation and prayers. From around 9.00 a.m. until 11.30 a.m. he studies various Buddhist texts written by the great Buddhist masters. Lunch is served from 11.30 a.m.”
So, in other words, by the time lunch is served he has done seven hours of prayer and religious study.

And, if we use the standards by which adulthood is usually judged, Jesus meets none of the tests. As Jesus is depicted in the Bible, Jesus does not have a house or possessions, a wife or children, or even an education. His ride was a donkey. Jesus was not an adult by almost any of the standards I’ve just listed. But he was an adult.

So, being an adult must have to do with something different. And what exactly was that minister talking about when he commented about there being so few grownups? I don’t think he was talking about people’s age.

What does it mean to be an adult? And what does it mean to be an adult religiously? And what does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist adult?

There is this great quote from a book in the Bible, from First Corinthians, about becoming a religious adult that I want you to consider. It is one of the most popular passages in the Bible. In fact, it is so well known that Barack Obama quoted it in his inaugural address. I’ll read the passage and then I will offer an explanation of it.
“Love will never come to an end. Prophecies will cease; tongues of ecstasy will fall silent; knowledge will vanish. For our knowledge and our prophecy are partial, and the partial vanishes when wholeness comes. When I was a child I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child; but when I grew up I put away childish things. At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but one day we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole. There are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.”
So, what in the world does this passage mean? And why should it speak to you? I believe this passage is meaningful and it does speak to you. The passage begins by saying that our knowledge of God is incomplete and our ability to prophesy, to know the will of God, in also incomplete. Hmmm… that sounds a lot like some of your Coming of Age projects. How many of you know all the answers? It also sounds a lot like the answers given by many of the older people in our congregation when asked a question about religious truth. How many of you ever answer religious questions by saying something that resembles, “My knowledge is only partial, incomplete; I do not know for sure.”

The passage then talks about putting away childish things. But it really doesn’t say exactly what those are. But then the very next line is very interesting. It talks about how right now we only see reflections in a mirror, but one day we will be able to see more than that. When we look into a mirror, all we see is our own reflection. I think maybe the passage is saying that if our own religion is self-focused, self-absorbed, and all about us, then something is the matter.

The passage ends by saying that the only things that really matter are faith and hope and love, but love is the most important. Faith and hope and love.

This year the Coming of Age program has asked you to sort through things in your life and figure out if they are really important to you. The Bible passage says that the things that aren’t important are partial, but the things that are important are whole and complete. The things that don’t matter as much are childish, but the things that really do matter are adult.

I want to end this by giving you a lesson from our Unitarian Universalist history. Around 175 years ago there was a famous Unitarian minister in Boston named Theodore Parker. Parker was a social activist and an amazing thinker. His most famous sermon was entitled, “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” Transient and permanent are big words, but they really mean incomplete and complete. He wanted to know what matters in religion and what doesn’t really matter. And his sermon angered a lot of people because he told them that a whole lot of things they thought mattered didn’t really matter. He told them to put away their childish things and that the most important thing is, in fact, love. Does this sound familiar?

Faith, hope, and love. So few grownups have really managed to separate what’s truly important in their lives from what is not important. So, let me tell you what I think is truly important and what is not as important.
I believe that it doesn’t matter if you are right. It matters if you are kind.
I believe that it doesn’t matter if you are logical. It matters if you are loving.
I believe your actions matter more than your words, and this goes for religious words too.
I believe that keeping score doesn’t matter. Forgiving does.
I believe that you will be remembered for what you share, not for what you have.
I believe that if too much of your religion involves looking at yourself, you’re doing something wrong.
I believe that when you are in doubt, you should ask, “What is the loving thing to do?”