Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sermon: "Those Two Magic Words" (Delivered 5-3-09)

Since last September I’ve been working on this book. The Unitarian Universalist Association asked me to edit as well as contribute several chapters to a book of essays by ministers of growing churches in our movement. Now, you may be wondering, how does any of this relate in any way whatsoever to the theme of this morning’s worship service, that of expressing gratitude—sincere and effusive and heartfelt thanks—for all of the volunteers whose labors make our church thrive? The answer to that question is that it does not relate at all. OK, it sort of does. But, first we are going to take a big swerve.

You see, just this past week I received the foreword for this book that I’m in charge of putting together. The foreword for the book was written by UUA President Bill Sinkford. And, in this foreword Rev. Sinkford wrote something that I found extremely powerful and that caused me to completely scrap what I was planning to say about gratitude.

In his foreword, Rev. Sinkford makes this point in a lot fewer words, so let me expand on and add quite a bit to what he wrote. The point he makes is something to the effect that,
We live in a time when we are hyper-vigilant about boundaries, where pressures often lead religious leaders to conduct themselves as detached professionals. I am not at all suggesting that our insistence on boundary-setting has been misguided. The abuse scandals that have rocked so many denominations confirm how critical it is to set boundaries and to make the safety of everyone in the church, especially minors, a top priority. And yet what has been too often lost in these rigid boundaries is a powerful sense of love… love expressed by ministers to members of the church community, love shared within and throughout the congregation, and love that pours out from within the church’s walls and takes the form of ministering to the wider community and larger world. Those churches that grow and thrive are the ones that have been able to cultivate and preserve this practice of love despite a larger culture that encourages an almost clinical sense of detachment and distance.
Reverend Sinkford points out how many of our congregations, like ours, use the affirmation that begins, “Love is the doctrine of this church.” He also points out the rising popularity of a new hymn in the teal hymnal called, “Standing on the Side of Love.” (Personally, I find this song to be a hard one to sing in that it calls upon all the members of congregation to simultaneously do their best James Taylor impersonations.

Reverend Sinkford’s point is simply this: A key to thriving seems to involve the centrality of love within a church. I am not sure there is any way to prove Bill right or wrong, but I find his argument to be gripping, and even surprisingly startling. It seems so true, this idea that the foremost part of what we should be about as a church is to make love manifest. If we can’t do that, what hope is there for us?

Before you get uncomfortable, I am not going to ask you to hold hands this morning. I am not going to introduce the act of ritual hugging. I am not proposing or promoting anything creepy. I am asking: are you finding love? And, I am going to come back to what that means in a minute.

It seems to me that love and gratitude are similar in that it is easy to diminish their significance. The language of gratitude and the language of love can both come too easily to the lips.

With gratitude, there is a great paradox. Many social commentators have pointed out the fact that we live in a society that takes so much for granted, that sees human beings as means to an end, that teaches us how to want more instead of how to count our blessings, and that teaches us how to feel and act entitled. At the same time, however, we live in a society where expressions of thanks are common, although they are often superficial. Sometimes those two magic words—“thank you”—don’t quite hold that much magic. In particular, I am thinking of how often I am thanked when making a consumer purchase. “Thank you for coming, may I help you find something.” “Thank you; here is your change.” “Thank you, please come again.” In fact, and I’ve always found this curious, when I walk into a store—perhaps it is a store where everything is out of my price range or it is just a store that does not have what I am looking for—I can guarantee you that as I head for the door to leave I will hear a cheerful voice thanking me for something, I know not what. I bet if we actually kept a ledger, we would find ourselves thanked at least twenty times each day, but often in hollow ways, in ways that make us feel something less than genuinely appreciated.

It is much the same with love. Paradoxically, we live in a society that is both love deficient and where love is oddly expressed in ways that are trite and superficial. For example, social scientists point to decreasing levels of human bonding. In the essay that Peter Morales contributed to the book I am writing, he shares that, in 1985 a survey of the general population was taken where people were asked, “How many people do you have in your life with whom you can confide?” In 1985, the modal response, or the response most given was 3 people. Twenty years later, this survey was duplicated. In 2006, the modal response was zero. More than half of the American population reported that they had either not one single person or only one other person in their lives in whom they could confide.

Now, having a person in your life who is a confidant and having someone with whom you share love is not exactly the same thing, but it does point to a relationship where there is depth, trust, and authenticity. At weddings at which I officiate I often speak these words that were passed down to me by my internship supervisor Dennis Hamilton to those whom I am marrying, “We forget, as the days are spent, and we slide into comfortable habits, how powerful was the love the day we were wed. It is easy to take life for granted, and, alas, to take the ones we most love for granted. We needn't. Every day, please, take a moment to look at one another, to listen to one another. Speak what is in your heart. And don't forget to say, ‘I love you,’ and ‘Thank you.’” In those lines, love and gratitude are inseparably linked.

So, what exactly does it mean for the church to help us to discover love? There is of course the way that Peter Morales alluded to. Church can be a place for forming deep horizontal relationships, deep relationships among and between one another. In a social sense, church can be a place for making not only friends, but for forming relationships that are based on deep interpersonal intimacy. But that is not the only way.

Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to have minister meetings, 20 to 30 minute conversations, with each of the 11 youth in our Coming of Age program. In speaking with them about what being Unitarian Universalist means to them, they talked extremely frequently about acceptance and tolerance. Acceptance and tolerance, those two magic words, along with the two words “religious freedom,” hold a lot of meaning and significance for our youth. When I was between 12 and 14 years old those same words held a lot of meaning for me as well. Acceptance and tolerance are a type of love that is extended to you by the community, but it also can lead, as it so often does for so many who find sanctuary in our religious community, to a healthy sense of wholeness, self-esteem, and self-love.

In Ntozake Shange’s theatrical poem, For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuff, the girls take turns telling of the pain and hardship of growing up in the ghetto. The poem ends on a powerful note of redemption with each of the girls repeating the line, “I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.” This line is repeated over and over until it becomes a chant. Each of the girls discover her own inherent worth and dignity. They accept themselves.

It is possible to grow in relationship with others through the church and it is possible to grow in your own sense as a human being deserving of love, whether that love comes from your own sense of being worthy of it or whether that love comes from having a sense of a personal relationship with a God who loves you, like the one in which our Universalist forebears believed.

It is also possible to grow in your own sense of love for this world, to find yourself enchanted and awed with existence itself. In mystical traditions this is known as a sense of union. And it is possible to fashion your own life into a response to this sense of love for the world, a life committed to justice.

Now what does any of this have to do with gratitude, you ask? And what does any of this have to do with being grateful for our many, many talented and dedicated volunteers who served the church faithfully and skillfully this year?? The connection is made, I think, at those times when our sense of volunteering, our commitment and our service transcend getting the job done or filling a vacancy and become an act of love incarnate. I’m talking about those moments when “I love you” becomes linked to “thank you.” That is what we aspire towards. It is especially what we aspire to when we recognize that thriving churches, to go back to Reverend Sinkford’s comments, have made the practice of love central.

I suppose it is up to each of you to determine the extent to which your own volunteerism, you own service to the church, is connecting you to a sense of more profound love. It is something you have to know on your own. It is not a truth that I can speak for you. I can only say, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

And yet, I have my suspicions about some of those times when love and service come together:
There is that time when Coming of Age mentors establish a powerful and profound bond with those whom they mentor and love and service come together.

There is that time down in the religious education classrooms where there is a moment of connection between child and teacher. One year ago we took a leap in moving from one session of religious education to two which required immense levels of volunteerism on the part of our congregation. It did result in many of our key religious education volunteers spending between twenty and thirty Sundays teaching. We’ve also found that having two sessions of religious education every Sunday evens out worship attendance and this is the only possible way for us not to stagnate in our current facility. It also is respectful to our visitors with children, who come and find programming for their children instead of supervised playtime. Next year, the religious education program hopes to offer two sessions of religious education using a different model that will prevent teacher burnout.

There are so many other areas in the volunteer life of our church where service and love are linked. I think about this year’s revamped Connection Circle program and the possibilities for intimacy and transformation in those groups.

I think of our newly launched lay ministry program and the soul stretching work of our trained lay ministers.

I think about our greeting team. Their smiles and their hearty welcomes are genuine and authentic. When they welcome you, it does not feel as though you’ve walked onto a used car lot.
I will stop right there because I do not want to leave anybody out, and my sermon would get too long if I tried to mention everybody. But I could go on. I could go on.

We live in a culture, in a society, in which loneliness is far more prevalent than love and isolation is more prevalent than intimacy. And yet we also live in a culture that believes in cheap grace, in which utterances of both love and appreciation are so often rendered superficial and trite. Paradoxically, they are in short supply and they come too easily to our lips.

Perhaps we should take our instruction from words of one of really good hymns. To a beautiful English melody was set Paul’s words from First Corinthians about love. In the text Paul distinguishes between outward acts and a depth of inner feeling. The forms are hollow without the feeling. “But not be given, by love within, the profit soon turns strangely thin.” “And have not love, my words are vain as sounding brass and hopeless gain.”

We will sing that hymn in a few minutes. What Saint Paul is saying here is that those two magic words—“Thank you”—need to be linked to those three magic words—“I love you”—for them to carry force and significance and depth and profundity. It remains our task, and by that I mean the task of all of us, to grow more proficient in our speaking of the two magic words and the three magic words.

“We forget, as the days are spent, and we slide into comfortable habits, how powerful our capacity to love is. It is easy to take life for granted, and, alas, to take each other for granted. We needn't. Every day, please, take a moment to turn to one another, to listen to one another. Speak what is in your heart. And don't forget to say, ‘I love you,’ and ‘Thank you.’”

I love you. And thank you. Blessed be. Amen.