Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sermon: "Radical Welcome" (Delivered 10-28-12)

About ten years ago, a Christian spiritual writer named Don Miller wrote a spiritual memoir inspired by the lessons he learned about faith while hanging out at America’s most liberal liberal-arts college, a place with a reputation for its skepticism and its brazen rejection of orthodox religious views. This happened to be where I went to college, which was the reason I read his memoir. What happens in a nutshell is that the author goes there expecting to find a den of iniquity, a place oozing hedonism and heathenism, but instead he discovers that it’s his own exclusiveness, the tendency he has learned to be in judgment of others, that gets in the way of him being whole. The author introduces us to a student named Nathan, a brilliant physics student who also happens to speak with a pronounced speech impediment. Here’s what Don Miller writes,
I never thought of that [college] as an immoral place because somebody like Nathan can go there… and nobody will ever make fun of him. [But] if Nathan were to go to my church, which I love…, he would unfortunately be made fun of by somebody somewhere, behind his back and all, but it would happen, and that is such a tragic crime. Nobody would bother to find out that he is a genius. [He] has spent four years in a place where what you are on the surface does not define you, it does not label you. And that is what I love about [this place] because… there is… this foundational understanding that other people exist and they are important.
Unlike Don Miller, I also belonged to a church where what you are on the surface does not define and does not label you. One of the greatest blessings in my life is having grown up in a Unitarian Universalist church, in a liberal religious community where I was welcomed, truly welcomed, as I was, where I was treated with respect, and where my inherent worth and dignity was honored.

Listen, I just became a parent. The other day I was holding this four week old being, this mystery in my arms, and I felt so incredibly blessed by something that I absolutely knew to be true. There is a reason I chose this faith community for myself, why we choose it for ourselves, and why we’ve chosen it for our daughter. It is because here she will not be judged. Here she will be welcomed. She will not be judged if she happens to have a speech impediment or if as a teen she dyes her hair or shaves her head. She will not be judged if she expresses gender in a way that does not conform to society’s standards. She will not be judged if it turns out that she loves women or if it turns out she loves men. She will not be judged if she comes to discover that she does not believe in God, or if she feels moved to worship the Goddess. We’ve chosen this faith community for her because here there is this foundational understanding that other people exist and that they are important. We’ve chosen it because we believe that this is a value that that needs to be taught.

In our first four weeks of worship services here in our new church home we’re going to be exploring together some of the foundations of liberal religion that help to define our presence in our new community. We’ll be considering some of the core understandings of who we are and how we try to be in the world. I use the term liberal religion because we’re going to be talking about things that we as Unitarian Universalists don’t claim to have a monopoly on. We’re not the only faith tradition that practices radical welcoming. We don’t think we’re the only path to salvation. Rather, these are the values and practices that we try to live up to, that we try to embody, but that also can be found in liberal forms of thought and liberal forms of faith the world over.

In the Islamic tradition, the mystic poet Rumi writes of a welcoming friendship between a frog and a mouse.
A mouse and a frog meet every morning on the riverbank.  
They sit in a nook of the ground and talk.

Each morning, the second they see each other, they open easily, 
telling stories and dreams and secrets, 
empty of any fear or suspicious holding back.

To watch, and listen to those two is to understand how, 
as it’s written, sometimes when two beings come together, 
Christ becomes visible.

Bitterness doesn’t have a chance with those two.
Rumi is also the author of a song we often sing, “Come, come, whoever you are, Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving – ours in no caravan of despair. Come, yet again, come.” It is a song of being welcomed back, unconditionally, into reconnection. In the teachings of Jesus, welcoming the stranger is treated as a moral imperative.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus praises his disciples saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” But the disciples were confused, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you?...” We all know how Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” The outcasts of the ancient Roman Empire and of today include the poor and the underclass, racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, the physically infirm and mentally ill, and those who do not conform to dominant gender or family roles considered normative within society.

I am deeply proud of the way this church and the Unitarian Universalist religious tradition has outwitted the forces of exclusion. It seems that we strive to be the embodiment of the lesson of Edwin Markham’s short poem, “Outwitted,”
He drew a circle that shut me out, 
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout – 
But love and I had the wit to win: 
We drew a circle that took him in!
Our tradition draws the circle wide. Here in this church the circle we have drawn welcomes the full participation of women in all human endeavors, including religious leadership. We are richer for it. Here in this church, the circle that we have drawn allows interfaith couples to feel welcome. One partner comes from a Jewish background; another partner comes from a Christian background. Or, one partner is theistic and the other is humanist. Or, one grew up Buddhist and the other was raised Catholic. Here, neither partner is the outsider who doesn’t quite belong. Neither has to swear off their identity or their origin as a condition of being fully welcomed. We are richer because of our diversity and our differences.

Here in this church the circle that we have drawn welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families. We are proud to be a Welcoming Congregation. We are richer for it. Last week the Kansas City Star ran a story about a musician at a large conservative church in Hutchinson, Kansas. Did you read this story? This man was told he could no longer play music, could no longer volunteer as a church musician on account of the fact that he is gay. That church is not only poorer in music; it is poorer in spirit. It is poorer in soul. It is morally impoverished. The story went to say how this man now worships at the tiny UU Fellowship in Hutchinson, where they may be small in number, but they are rich in what it means to be human.

Here in this church the circle that we have drawn welcomes in the immigrant. Sara Sautter shared with me earlier this week that the cousins of one of our Iraqi Families will soon be coming to the United States and are being placed in the Boston area. Sara asked me for a reference of a UU minister in the Boston area she might approach about sponsoring that family. My first thought was that one UU church in the Boston area is going to be very lucky.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism tells us that each and every person has inherent worth and dignity. Other people exist and they are important. It can become easy to pay this idea lip service, to treat it casually. But, it is actually a radical idea. Your neighbors have worth and dignity. The stranger you pass on the street, the family living on the other side of the tracks, the person living in the refugee camp, the person who is filled with anger or hate or apathy: all of these people have worth and dignity. When we say that every person has worth and dignity, let me be clear that we are not saying that every idea has worth or that every action is dignified. There are words and ideologies that hurt people, that damage and wound people. There are actions that hurt, that endanger, and that cause suffering. There are words and actions that fail to honor the worth and dignity of other people.

Despite our best efforts and our intentions, we are not perfect in our welcome. There are times when we fail, both individually and collectively, to be welcoming. Welcoming is a skill developed through practice. Part of the discipline of being welcoming is listening to another person’s experiences and trusting that the other person understands their own experiences. In Rumi’s poem about the mouse and the frog, he writes, “The mouse starts laughing out a story he hasn’t thought of in five years, and the telling might take five years.” Understanding does not always come immediately. We get better at it when we commit to listening.

Before I began as the minister of this church, I served a year as an intern minister at a church in the Dallas area. As I got to know the people in that church, I learned their stories, their backgrounds, how they came to join a Unitarian Universalist church. One story in particular sticks out to me. She told me about how she had grown up in a religious tradition that had emphasized judgment, but that she had gone to college and wound up meeting and falling in love with and marrying a Jewish man. When they had children, they sought out a religious home. They tried the Unitarian Universalists.

One of their earliest visits was to attend a solstice ritual put on by the church’s pagan members. They arrived to find members of the church dressed in flowing garments, looking like extras from the Lord of Rings. She felt self-conscious in her floral print dress. She wondered, “Is it OK for me to be here?” She was greeted with a warm, welcoming smile. She described how as she entered she was stepping way out of her comfort zone. In her mind, she recalled all the judgments that the family and church of her upbringing would have passed against those types of people and against her for being there with them. And something melted in her. The realization came to her: Here it is safe to be who you are.

So may it be for us.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sermon: "The Somes and the Nones" (Delivered 10-21-12)

This morning’s reading comes from the new book by Diana Butler Bass entitled, Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.
I go to Seattle for business quite a bit.  Once, I had dinner with a coffee executive and asked him how many choices were possible in one of his stores.  He said there were 82 thousand – give or take a few dozen – possibilities for a drink from the menu. 
Americans, even those of modest means, exercise more choices in a single day than some of our ancestors did in a month or perhaps even a year.  From the moment we awaken, we are bombarded with choices – from caffeinated to decaffeinated, to flipping to any one of a hundred television station as we ready the children for school, to getting our news in print, online, or via a mobile device, to what sort of spinach to buy to go with dinner (local, organic, fresh, frozen, chopped, whole leaf, bagged, or bunched.) 
We [have] developed a choice-based society, one driven by preference and desire instead of custom and obligation.  Adulthood means picking – education, career, partner, location, goods, political party, causes, beliefs, and faith.  In a world of choice, obligatory religions are not faring well.
Of course, some people do not like choices; it makes their head hurt. Coffee, black.  They always order the same thing.  But when presented with new or different choices, many people take the chance and pick – in amazingly creative and innovative ways, which usually threaten those still following the old paths.  In religious circles, choice is often viewed negatively as a violation of tradition, a break with custom, rebellion against God or the church, heresy.  Critics assail religious choice as selfish, individualistic, consumerist, narcissistic, navel-gazing, disloyal, thoughtless.  But, if for a moment, you strip away all the judgmental religious language, it is just choice. 
The economic, social, and political world in which we live has opened up the possibility for eighty-two thousand choices at the coffee shop and probably ten times as many when it comes to worshipping God and loving your neighbor.  Some will choose well, others badly.  Some will choose thoughtfully, others not so much.  Some choose something new, others choose what they have always known.  In the end, however, everybody chooses.  Contemporary spirituality is a little like that line at the coffee shop.

Back in 1966, the cover of the issue of Time Magazine that came out during the week before Easter asked the provocative question, “Is God Dead?”  Inside the magazine, social scientists contributed articles depicting the decline and eventual demise of religion.  Today, that cover is best remembered as a lesson in humility for would-be experts on human behavior.  It has been nearly half a century since that issue of Time hit the newsstands.  Those years have seen the rise of the religious right, the mega-church movement, televangelists, and culture wars that have attempted to replace democracy with theocracy.  Religious institutions did not disappear from the American landscape.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Reports of God’s death were greatly exaggerated.

My sermon this morning has to do with the changing face of the American religious landscape, particularly about the growing percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation.  This phenomena has been discussed at some length in a new book by Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.  In the first half of the sermon I will share findings from a variety of studies of religion in America and in the second half of the sermon I will talk about what these shifts might mean for us as Unitarian Universalists.  As a person who studies religion, I’m interested in how people practice and experience their faith.  As your minister, I’m interested in how you and the people in your lives make meaning and find community.  So, as you listen, you might think about how what I say either reflects your own experiences or the experiences of those close to you.  And, a lot of what I am saying is mostly geared towards young people, people in their teens and twenties, and if you have any people that age in your life, you might think of how it might apply to them.

Last spring, a few weeks before Easter, Time Magazine released an issue with a cover story about ten ideas that are changing the way we live.  One of those ten ideas was called The Rise of the Nones.  From the Time Magazine article, “The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is the category of people who say they have no religious affiliation. Sometimes called ‘the nones’ by social scientists, their numbers have more than doubled since 1990; major surveys put them at 16% of the population.”  According to studies, some thirty percent of Americans under the age of thirty identify as “nones.”

But, there was a part of the article that I found much more interesting than the statistics.  The article introduced us to a group of “nones,” describing them this way,
In the tiny coastal town of La Misin on Mexico's Baja peninsula, dozens of American expats meet for a Sunday gathering they call Not Church.  Many of them long ago gave up on traditional religious institutions.  But they function as a congregation often does – engaging one another in spiritual conversation and prayer, delivering food when someone is sick and working together to serve the poor. 
On a recent Sunday the group, which began as a monthly discussion about a year ago, featured a sunny-haired ordained Presbyterian named Erin Dunigan delivering a sermon about tomatoes and God's call to Samuel.  (Organized religion, she told them, can be like supermarket tomatoes – flavorless and tough. That isn't a reason to give up on religion, or tomatoes, but instead to find a fresh, local version worth cultivating.)  “It was beautiful,” Dunigan says. “The people who don't want anything to do with the church or religion were the people who were leading everyone else in the service.”
So, maybe your reaction to this article is something like mine.  These people belong to a community that meets on Sunday where they come together to hold a service that is regularly led by an ordained Presbyterian.  They sure don’t sound like “nones.”  They sound like “somes.”  Or, even Presbyterians.

As paradoxical as it sounds, that is exactly the point of the Time article, and it is the point of a new book by Diana Butler Bass about the move away from religion but not necessarily away from spirituality or faith.  The Time article continues,
The hunger for spiritual connection and community hasn't gone away.  A 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked respondents whether they believed in God, how often they prayed and whether they were affiliated with a particular religion; it found that “40% of the unaffiliated people were fairly religious… Many said they were still hoping to eventually find the right religious home.” 
That resonates with Erin Dunigan, who acts as a sort of unofficial chaplain for the Not Church members.  “My sense is that for most, they're not rejecting God,” she says. “They're rejecting organized religion as being rigid and dogmatic.”
These sources paint a portrait of a sizable and growing group of Americans who are interested in spirituality, but not in belonging to a religious organization.  Only four or five percent of Americans claim to self-identify as atheists.  Sixteen to twenty percent are “nones.”

There may be a problem with these statistics.  Americans tend to over-report and misreport their religious activity on surveys.  For example, a University of Michigan study of religious participation concluded that Americans over-report their attendance at religious services by anywhere from ten to eighteen points.  The Huffington Post ran an article last month about the gap between what religious people say they give to charity and what they actually do give.  “A quarter of respondents in a new national study said they tithed 10 percent of their income to charity.  But when their donations were checked against income figures, only 3 percent of the group gave more than 5 percent to charity.”

Anecdotally, I am reminded of an experience in my life in which religious self-reporting frequently did not measure up to reality.  My wife Anne and I met through the on-line dating site Match.com.  Before we met, I had gone on a number of dates with women whose answer to the religious affiliation question didn’t match up to their actual religious affiliation.  One date claimed to be a non-denominational Christian despite holding membership at a church that was part of a normal, mainline denomination.  Others answered the religion question in a way was more reflective of their spiritual aspirations than of the reality of their religious practices.  This shouldn’t be surprising; I’m sure no other men or women would ever make any misleading statements in other parts of their dating profiles.

Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales recently wrote a blog post about the rise of the “nones.”  “The percentage of young people who claim no religious identity is skyrocketing…  This is a truly stunning rise in the number of young people who feel no connection to any religious tradition…  The great irony here is that these ‘nones’ are very much aligned with Unitarian Universalist values.  They are accepting of ethnic and sexual diversity.  They are open-minded.  They also seek spiritual community.  They present a huge challenge and a huge opportunity for us.”

To summarize these sources who write about the rise of “nones,” the phenomenon of greater numbers of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has little to do with a rejection of spirituality and much to do with a rejection of the perceived limitations of religious institutions.  In 2007, the Barna Group, an Evangelical research organization that studies religion and public life, conducted a survey among young people between the ages of 16 and 29 who did not attend a Christian church.  These young people were read a series of descriptions and asked whether they associated those descriptions with Christianity.  The most common response, at 91%, was that Christians are anti-homosexual, followed by judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), and old-fashioned at 78%.  In contrast, only 41% thought of Christians as genuine and 30% thought of Christianity as relevant.

Another interesting part of this analysis of contemporary religious practice and observance is that even as fewer Americans belong to any specific religious institution, an increasing number of Americans claim to participate in multiple faith communities.  Thirty five percent of Americans say they attend multiple places, and twenty four percent say they attend services of multiple religions.  Diana Butler Bass comments on this trend when she writes, “It might be easy to accuse these people of sloppy thinking or spiritual silliness, of participating in a thoughtless mélange of post-modern goofiness. But that would not be the case.  Their spiritual lives reflect considered choices, and they well illustrate that religious identity – as well as religious belief and religious behavior – are not static.  Religion, in all its dimensions – belief, behavior, and belonging – is in dynamic and dramatic states of transition away from what was once accepted and normal.  New possibilities and questions have opened up for all of us.”

Diana Butler Bass writes from the perspective of a mainline Christian.  The “rise of the nones” has meant a decline across the Christian spectrum, from evangelicals to Roman Catholics, but nowhere has the decline been more apparent than within traditional mainline Protestantism.  The response of many Christians to the rise of the nones has been a reaction of grief.  It has included despair, denial, worry, sadness, and even anger and blaming.  The United Church of Christ, a progressive Christian movement and our closest Christian cousins, published a rant on their denominational home page written by a UCC minister.  The piece was entitled, Spiritual but not Religious? Please stop boring me.  “Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person,” the piece went.  “You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.”

I’m reminded of that line from the reading, “Critics assail religious choice as selfish, individualistic, consumerist, narcissistic, navel-gazing, disloyal, thoughtless.”  It is no wonder that the spiritual but not religious “nones” answer back that those in the church are – what were the words again? – judgmental, hypocritical, and old-fashioned.

As Unitarian Universalists what does the rise of the “nones” mean for us?  The first thing that I might note is that Unitarian Universalism is a very small religion.  We represent one half of one tenth of one percent of the American population.  Accordingly, big changes in the culture at large don’t necessarily have a specific impact on the life of UUs or the life of this church.  If someone tells you that scoring is down in college football, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the quarterback at K State is having a bad season.

On another level, the rise of the “nones” can be seen potentially as a positive development for Unitarian Universalists.  Peter Morales seems to think that the “nones” are our type of people.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that someone who likes having eighty two thousand choices at the coffee shop might enjoy a class called “Building Your Own Theology”, or that someone who has an affinity for learning about different world religions might find our approach to be a breath of fresh air.  As a religion that does not put forward an orthodox doctrine, we offer a community where someone can feel free and not suffocated.

At the same time, I think the challenge for us is to articulate our own connection to tradition, community, practice, service, and history.  “Nice to meet you, none.  I am a some.”

Over the next four weeks, I’ll be delivering a sermon series about the foundations of liberal religion, about our particular way of being somes.  I’ll talk about liberal religion as radically welcoming.  I’ll talk about how we are a religion that is beyond belief, how we need not think alike to love alike.  I’ll talk about how liberal religion requires us to follow our own conscience, and I’ll talk about how liberal religious communities save lives.  And, we’ll be doing this all in our new church home.  The somes, despite the bad rap they get, are the builders of institutions, the creators of community, the organizers of ministries, the conveners of groups.  We get people to come together and work together.  We connect people together.

Whether it is Diana Butler Bass’ book, or the Time Magazine article, or the Barna survey, over and over again we hear that the somes think the nones are flakey, consumerist, and self-centered and that the nones think the somes are arrogant, judgmental, and condescending.  I do this work of ministry because I am convinced, because I believe, that the best antidote to bad religion is not no religion, but better religion.  But I also recognize that as a some, I am not doing my religion any favor by putting the nones down.

Hello none, nice to meet you.  I am a some.  “Tell me of despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” writes the poet Mary Oliver.  This might be the beginning of a wonderful friendship.  My response to the nones is to try to become a better some.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Sermon: "Call Me Jonah" (Delivered 9-23-12)

I might begin by offering a couple of words about the title of my sermon, “Call Me Jonah.”  Honestly, this title was the very first thing that popped into my mind a couple of months ago when I selected sermon titles for the months of August and September.  I chuckled at the title, thinking it a clever variation on the first line of Herman Melville’s great novel Moby Dick, which begins “Call me Ishmael.”  Call me Ishmael.  Call me, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is not the chosen son, but the son who is turned away, ostracized, sent to wander in the desert.  Call me the one who is forced to become an outsider.

Then I was thinking about this sermon title and it occurred to me that I didn’t think I had come up with this sermon title all on my own.  So I racked my brain and then I remembered that “Call me Jonah” is actually the first line of Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastic novel Cat’s Cradle.  “Call me Jonah,” Vonnegut writes, “not because I have been unlucky for others but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail.”  My interpretation of Jonah is a bit different.  To me, the story is not mainly about fate or destiny.  True enough, there are lots of things that happen to Jonah in the story that are out of his control, but I don’t think this is the most interesting thing about the story.

I don’t want to assume that everyone here is familiar with the story of Jonah in the Bible, so allow me to begin by retelling it.  Jonah is one of the books in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.  We believe that it was written around four hundred BC.  Jonah is one of the twelve minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible.  It’s a short book, only four chapters long and about two pages in length.

A prophet, in the Jewish tradition, is a person who has been specially selected to serve as God’s messenger.  You might think that this would be a great honor, but the messages that prophets carry are challenging and hard to hear.  The messages challenge the wealthy and the powerful, the kings and the priests who don’t like being told that they are wrong and that they will have to change.  Prophets are routinely ignored, ridiculed, and marginalized.  Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  You know that old saying about shooting the messenger?  It is a saying that is well applied to prophets.

The story of Jonah goes like this:  While Jonah was in the town of Joppa, God told him to travel to the city of Nineveh to give the people there a message.  So Jonah goes down to the port and jumps on a boat sailing for Tarshish, the exact opposite direction that he had been sent.  God is not pleased by Jonah’s disobedience and sends a storm that engulfs the boat.  The sailors get the sense that this storm may have a supernatural origin so they begin offering prayers to different deities, but the storm is relentless.  Finally, one of the sailors gets the idea that the passenger they took on in Joppa might be able to shed some light on their situation.  They find Jonah below deck, fast asleep and completely oblivious.  The sailors confront Jonah and he comes clean.  The god he worships is very powerful and getting on the boat to Tarshish was an act of direct defiance.  “My bad,” says Jonah.  And, then Jonah feels very badly about putting the lives of the sailors at risk so he has the sailors throw him overboard.  The storm immediately subsides and a giant fish comes up from the deep and swallows Jonah.

The second chapter consists of Jonah offering a prayer while he spends three days and three nights in the fish’s belly.  The second chapter ends with Jonah being spit up on land.  In the third chapter Jonah walks the length of the city of Nineveh, a large city with more than one hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants, telling the citizens of the city that they are wicked and that God plans to destroy the city.  Something very unusual happens.  The people in the city listen to Jonah.  Word of the prophet’s message reaches the king, and the king decides that the message is sensible so he declares a period of repentance and fasting.  Even the animals of the city join in and perform acts of repentance.  God sees this and decides to spare the city.

The fourth chapter is the most unusual.  In the fourth chapter we find Jonah pouting and sulking.  Jonah feels disappointed that God had decided to spare the city.  Jonah travels to the outskirts of Nineveh and sits in the desert and sulks.  God causes a vine to grow up and give Jonah shade and Jonah becomes happier, but then God sends a worm that eats the vine and Jonah returns to scowling.  The book of Jonah ends with God speaking to Jonah and telling him, essentially, to open his eyes and to grow up.

There’s a reason that I chose the book of Jonah to speak about this morning.  Right now, in late September, is the time of the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It is the tradition when observing Yom Kippur to read the book of Jonah in its entirety.  So, I figured that Jonah might be an interesting story to consider in our worship service together.

When I first learned that the book of Jonah is the text for the high holy day of Yom Kippur I was surprised.  I knew that Yom Kippur was serious and solemn but Jonah always struck me as a little cartoonish, for which I blame Disney’s Pinocchio.  I also felt that Jonah’s sulking and moping seems a little bit over the top, but this morning we’re going to treat the story a bit more seriously.

Earlier members of the Worship Team shared with us a reading written by the Unitarian Universalist minister Vanessa Rush Southern.  The story dealt with a poor Australian shepherd, Lady, that had lived its entire life divorced from her true essence and her most powerful instincts.  This dog had missed her calling.  And then, later in life, while being sent by her family out to the farm, she had this moment when she became what was she was always meant to become.  Vanessa Southern uses the word calling, an inner urge, a powerful command.  A fancier word for calling is vocation, which comes from the same Latin root as the word voice or vocal.  Literally a calling.

When we speak about our vocation, we usually speak about our job, our profession, our career.  It is our human tendency, and especially our Western tendency to equate who we are with what we do.  We might say that Jonah had a real calling as a prophet.  I mean a real calling, the voice of the Lord coming to him and telling him to go to Nineveh.  And, he actually seemed to do really well at it.  He is extraordinarily successful.  The entire city repents and the people change their ways.  Jonah presents an interesting challenge to the career counselor.  He’s clearly got a lot of talent, but not a lot of drive and he seems pretty miserable doing the job.

I think the story of Jonah is less about Jonah’s calling as a prophet and more about his calling as a human being and our calling as human beings.  The story of Jonah is the story of an estranged person who is called back into connection.  He first becomes estranged when he chooses to run away from the duty and responsibility he is given.  Next, he is estranged from his ship’s companions whom he deceives.  After these initial estrangements he is pulled back by way of the belly of a large fish.  However, by the fourth chapter we find that he is estranged from his sense of mercy and love, estranged from his sense of gratitude, estranged from his own sense of life’s purpose.  He sulks and stews in the desert on the outskirts of town and curses his own life.  He is estranged from life itself.

Earlier in the service we experienced the moving “Litany of Atonement,” written by a Unitarian Universalist minister but capturing beautifully the purpose of Yom Kippur.  “For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference, for each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible, for each time we have struck out in anger without just cause, for each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others, for the selfishness which sets us apart and alone, for falling short of the admonitions of the spirit, for losing sight of our unity, for those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness, we forgive ourselves and each other; and we begin again in love.”

The litany is all about distance, separation.  It is about how we strike out at others and push others away.  It is all about estrangement.  The spiritual practice of atonement is about overcoming estrangement by moving back towards connection.  And it is incredibly hard work.  This work of dragging ourselves back to connection is incredibly hard work.  But it is a calling both deeply human and absolutely divine.

As a minister, one of the things I see is people who move back and forth along this continuum of connection and disconnection, closeness and estrangement.  This happens in different facets of life: families, friendships, church involvement, and even in one’s connection with what is holy and sacred.  There are times when that estrangement seems impossible to overcome, when you’re being pushed away and the outcome is out of your control.  But more often, most of the time in fact, the separation is really just an illusion.  Like Jonah’s tantrum in the desert, the pouting and sulking, excuse making and the setting of unreasonable conditions, the illusion of our separateness and the source of our estrangement comes from within ourselves. 

Maturity demands that we forgive ourselves and each other and begin again in love.  Maturity demands that we not run away from our connections.  Maturity demands that we not set impossible conditions on each other, or unrealistic expectations on ourselves.  Maturity is found not in how artfully we push others away, but in how we are able to lean into others and to accept that which calls us back, pulls us back.  May you feel called back and called into your truest self.