Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sermon: "Some Assembly Required" (Delivered 9-4-11)

On the one hand, my words this morning may seem a little presumptuous, a little like putting the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse. On the other hand, what I’m going to talk about – our potential move to a new location – is what many of us are thinking about. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. I beg your indulgence as I put the elephant before the horse.

If next week’s vote is to go ahead with the purchase of the Bonjour School, it will not yet be time to celebrate. There will still be the need to secure financing, to do all of the necessary due diligence. If it is the will of this congregation, then the closing date will be the day to celebrate. Or maybe it will be the date of our first service. Or maybe it will be the building dedication ceremony. Actually, all of these will be celebrations. If it is the will of this congregation. And, if all of the other inspections and negotiations work out.

But, this morning, on this Sunday before Labor Day, I do want to put the elephant before the horse. I thought I wanted to speak to you about vision. Now, let me tell you, I am a vision type of person. I am a dreamer. I am an imagination type of person. And, I could speak to you about vision. A vision of programming. A vision of being able to have dedicated space for social action non-profits with which we partner. A vision of a giant community garden, or acres of tall grass prairie restoration area with walking paths, or paved parking spaces – praise Jesus – or the ability to host meaningful events to which we can invite the community, or even adequate space for the members and programs we already have. But this morning I don’t want to so much lead with a vision of the future of this congregation. I want to tell a few stories about our history.

A few weeks ago I officiated at a memorial service for a man who had been a founding member of this congregation. A few days before the service, I met with the members of his family in the living room of Saeger House. We were joined by a close friend of the man who was also a founding member. Sitting in the living room, the old timer’s eyes glanced at the passageway between the living room and the kitchen in Saeger House. He grinned. As soon as he opened his mouth I knew the story that was going to come out. It is a story that I’ve been told many times.

When our church purchased this property more than 40 years ago, Saeger House, the white farmhouse across the way, was configured very differently. There was a wall between the living room and the kitchen. One day a group of early church members were having a workday and they got to talking. They decided that it would be nice to have an opening between the living room and the kitchen. They were fairly sure that this wall wasn’t load-bearing. The next thing you know, one of them had grasped a sledge hammer. Soon the group of guys was taking turns demolishing the wall.

The farmhouse and the barn on this property were built in 1913. At that time it was a two-hundred acre dairy farm. By the 1930s and 40s, parcels of farmland was being sold off for the development and the farmers had retired on what remained of their land. In the mid-60s they sold the remnants of the farm to a Christian Church that turned around and sold it over to us shortly thereafter. The Christian congregation had done a bit of work on the place, but not a lot. They had, however, constructed a steeple on the roof of the Barn Chapel.

Early in my ministry I was shown a picture of a group of early members of this congregation. The picture shows them standing in a semi-circle, brandishing their tools. They were standing around the fallen steeple that they had torn down, smiling like hunters celebrating the killing of a large animal. Ah, Unitarians. I heard a rumor that they enjoyed tearing down the steeple so much that one of them suggested that they remount it so they could tear it down again!

The stories of those early days are remarkable. The building was disgusting, layered with trash and manure, detritus of both organic and inorganic character.

One more story. One day maybe five or six years ago I was sitting in my office. I think I was the only staff person in that day. This is before we had a paid facilities staff person. A member had driven up and parked out of view. This was normal. I bet he was someone just doing something around the building. It was the middle of the day and I was planning to go grab a bite to eat for lunch. I went downstairs, walked out the front door of Saeger House, and found that Bob N., the founder of this church, had positioned an extension ladder against Saeger House and had climbed all the way up to the height of the upper roof, where he was inspecting the guttering. At eighty years of age! I nearly fainted. There is a reason I believe in God.

Now, let me get to what I am getting at. Did you like the stories? Good stories, right? They are kind of romantic stories in a way, but only in a certain way. But, what is romantic is not the wiring, not the gutters, not the walls, not the steeple, and certainly not the animal waste caked to the floors and walls. Do you follow me? What’s romantic is the spirit of a group of people who took a funky, ramshackle property and turned it into something inhabitable.

The basic theology of the Unitarians of those days is no longer the dominant theology of today. For them, tearing down the steeple was not a facilities project. It was religious education. We’ve mellowed a little bit. We’re not as iconoclastic as we once were. I’ve heard all the stories about the early days of this congregation and back in those days, nothing, and I mean nothing was sacred.

But, the lesson that we can take away, the lesson we can learn is this: the Unitarianism of the late-60s and the Unitarian Universalism of today have something in common. These faiths tell us that some assembly is required. Some assembly is required. In other words, our faith requires some work on our own behalf. The answers don’t come pre-packaged. The loose ends are not all tied up. Ours is not a pre-fabricated religion. There is some assembly required. Am I right?

That is why we teach a class called Building Your Own Theology. This is why we don’t teach a class called Receiving Your Own Already Assembled Theology. Because nobody is going to build your theology for you. You are going to have to build it yourself. Some assembly is required. And, we would not have it any other way, am I right? None of us want to be handed a list of answers.

In the Christian theological tradition there is a term called “works righteousness.” If you ever hear the term, it is probably being used to criticize something. In traditional Protestantism, works righteousness is rejected. What “works righteousness” refers to, basically, is the mechanism through which a person becomes chosen for salvation. And, in traditional Protestantism, you are saved by faith or by grace, not by works. But, we Unitarians have always had a side of ourselves that has emphasized righteousness by works.

(As an aside, I think you can critique this. I’m not sure that works righteousness is always healthy. There are pitfalls. For example, when I visit someone who is quite ill, a person in their last days in hospice or in the nursing home, I have noticed that the angst and agony that the person feels is connected to not feeling useful. I’ve actually had people ask me, “If I can’t do what I used to be able to do, then what good am I?” It is gut-wrenching. This is something I could say a lot more about, but for now let me say that works righteousness has a shadow side. We talk about work giving us a sense of purpose, identity, and meaning. Try visiting an old school Unitarian in a nursing home and you’ll see what I’m talking about.)

Works are very, very much a part of our identity as Unitarians. Just consider the reading from Vanessa Southern, the title piece from her meditation book This Piece of Eden. What is Eden? How do we create Eden? For Southern, Eden is something we plant and tend ourselves, affixing a sign to it that we've painted ourselves. Eden is something we create. That’s works righteousness, if there ever was. In the New Testament Epistle of James, there is the famous line, beloved by us Unitarian Universalists. “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

When the old-timer sat with me in the Saeger House living room and told me about smashing out the walls, he was not at all possessive of this work. In fact, the opposite was true. He thought it great fun, a real community builder, a humdinger of a story. Everyone should have that experience.

Our faith is not something we are handed, completely formed. It is something that we build. Our facilities will never be handed to us completely formed. They will always be something that we build.

The sacredness of our journey is not at its beginning. It is in the community that is created along the path. Out of something neglected we can create a piece of Eden.

The work to which we will apply ourselves will not involve tearing down steeples, thankfully, or cleaning out animal stalls, thankfully. There will probably be a wall or two to tear down. It isn’t time to pick up the sledgehammers and paint brushes and shovels and rakes and implements of destruction quite yet. Tomorrow is Labor Day, after all. But soon. But soon, I hope, but soon.