Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sermon: "Home of the Human" (Delivered 3-10-13)

This morning’s reading comes from Philip Simmons’ book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life.  Simmons was an English professor in the Midwest who was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, in his late 30s.  He moved with his wife and young children to New Hampshire, where he wrote a book of spiritual memoirs on living while facing an incurable illness.  This passage comes from his chapter, “Mud Season.”

In March and early April in our town, over seventy miles of dirt roads turn to mud, and most of our driveways, too.  Paved roads are too expensive for us; we are simply too far-flung…  Mud coats the flanks of our cars, splatters our clothes, cakes our shoes.  Children here, of course, are mud connoisseurs.  In their school art classes my kids are handed sponges and brown paint and told to do paintings of mud.  After school, I meet them where the bus drops them off on the paved state road, and we walk home through the real thing.  We stomp and squish, we poke and stir, we sample textures and colors.  Sometimes it takes us nearly an hour to walk the quarter mile.  Children, so much closer to the source of life, seem in touch with their muddy origins.  From dust you came, the priests used to tell me, thumbing my forehead with ashes.  Dust, yes, but for there to be life you have to add water, and we know what that makes.

We all, of course, go through personal mud seasons, and these can occur at any time of year.  We suffer illness and depression, the loss of loved ones, failed or failing marriages, crises of faith – in ourselves, in others, in our gods.  But personal mud seasons need not be brought on by things so great as these.  Humans have a peculiar talent for misery, and lacking big reasons for unhappiness, we make ingenious use of small ones, all the bounced-check and runny-nose occasions of woe. […]

I’ve learned, though, that our need for mud goes much deeper than our need to pity ourselves.  We need the mud for what grows from it. Every mud season is a kind of death, with resurrection lying on the other side.  In the mud painting my daughter did at school, the great brown swath across the bottom two-thirds of the paper is topped with tiny, bright flowers. 

I’m fond of saying that a church is both a house of the holy and a home of the human.  In two weeks we’ll talk about the “holy” part.  This morning I want to talk about the human part.

When I talk about a home of the human, I’m reminded of Scott Alexander’s description of the church he served in Plainfield, New Jersey.  “On a typical Sunday in Plainfield, while I was waiting for the sermon to begin, I glanced around that cozy sanctuary and saw a collection of souls whom I knew to be in almost every imaginable human condition.  There was Donna, whose face bore the pale violence of the cancer that would soon take her life, and Henry, born-again and beaming from his recently successful by-pass surgery.  There was Frank, whose whole body was tight with the fear that he might lose yet another job and more of his dwindling self-esteem, and Allen, visibly delighted about another of his successful business projects.  There was Beth, whose makeup did not hide the fact that she was mourning another anniversary of the death of her only baby, and Nancy, whose cheeks were still joyfully flushed from the birth of the baby who quietly fed at her breast.  There was adolescent Ann, whose aggressive punk hairdo and excessive jewelry did not distract from her self-loathing and loneliness, and octogenarian Alice, who wore her vivid contentment with life with same brightness as her Scottish plaid. There sat newlyweds aglow in their eager entanglements, and elsewhere the newly divorced sat so obviously alone in loss and fear.”

Indeed, the church is the home of humans in “almost every imaginable human condition.”  It is a place where we bring the messiness of our lives into the messiness of human meeting.  When I say that the church is the home of the human, I mean that in several senses.

Through the history of liberal theology, and especially in humanist traditions, human nature has been said to be essentially positive and good.  Humans are capable and competent; we can solve problems and learn; we can improve ourselves.  This is a very hopeful stance.  It says that human beings are mighty.  This morning, we’re going to make the left side of the congregation the people who hold that positive view of human nature.  [Speaking to the left side.]  There is no problem you can’t overcome.  Human nature is something you can perfect. You’re powerful.  Give me a “Yeah.”

This stance can be contrasted with [speaking to the right side] the Calvinist position that says that our very nature is sinful and fallen, that we are incapable and incompetent, that our essence is nasty and brutish.  This is a pessimistic stance.  It says that human beings are miserable.  This is a position that I reject, but it is a position that is held by many in our world.  So, this morning, we’re going to make the right side of the congregation the ones who hold a negative view of human nature.  You folks believe that it is human nature to screw everything up, that anything we humans try to do is doomed to failure.  Give me an “ugghh.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we have tended to side with the optimistic, hopeful, able perspective on human nature.  A great story of human improvement and human consciousness-raising comes from the First Unitarian Church in Chicago, which until the late 1940s was segregated.  According to that church’s by-laws, only whites were eligible for membership.  In 1948, the minister of that church led a campaign for that church to change its by-laws and to end the segregation written into its governing documents.  The minister was supported by a member of the board, James Luther Adams, the famous Unitarian theologian.  At the board meeting to discuss the desegregation of the church, there was actually considerable resistance from some members of the board.  The discussion and debate lasted late into the evening, when James Luther Adams turned to the last holdout and confronted him, asking, “What is the purpose of the church?”  The question was asked several times more.  The man reflected on this question, finally relented, and said, “I suppose the purpose of the church is to get a hold of people like me and change them.”  It was nearing two o’clock in the morning and the board sang “Amazing Grace” before adjourning.

This story from our tradition is a story about the church as the home of the human.  It says it is a place of transformation where people can change, can grow, can improve.  Even the wretched soul trying to preserve a racist system is capable of redemption and salvation.

When I talk about the church as a home of the human, though, I am not only speaking about the heights that we humans can attain, our feats of compassion, creativity, or skill.  There is another meaning of human that does not refer to the triumphant transformation of the individual into a great woman or a great man but also does not cross the line into the self-loathing of Calvinism.  There is another understanding of what it means human.  It is an understanding that exists between heroic humanism and contemptible Calvinism.  It is an understanding that is best summed up in the expression, “Hey, I’m only human.”  Alexander Pope said that “to err is human, to forgive, divine.”  I would say that to forgive is also human, although, unfortunately, it is much less common than erring.

In between the concept of human as glorious and the concept of human as hopeless, there is a large, expansive middle of human as, well, as human.  A church is a home of the human.  It is a home of human error, mistakes, and foolishness.  It is a home of anxieties and obsessions, quirks, foibles, and shortcomings, hurt feelings and frustrations.  How could it not be?  It is, after all, a home of the human.

My colleague Mark Stringer is minister of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Des Moines, Iowa.  It is a fine church with about one hundred more members than we have.  Whenever Mark performs a new member ceremony at the church he tells those joining the church that they don’t become members by signing the book, by getting involved as a volunteer, or even by giving money.  They become a member the first time the church disappoints them and they decide to stay anyway.

I want you to raise your hands.  I want you to be honest if you’re comfortable being honest.  How many of you here have only had nothing but a positive experience in this church?  How many of you would say that everything you’ve experienced in this church is good?  And, how many of you have ever felt disappointed or let down, let down by your minister or by a staff member or by a fellow member of the church?

The Unitarian Universalist Association, our larger movement’s umbrella organization, has an independent committee called the Commission on Appraisal.  It is a working group of about 12 individuals, elected by the movement as a whole, and tasked with studying an aspect of our common Unitarian Universalist life that they think is of supreme importance and reporting their findings to our larger movement.  The title of their current project is, “Who’s In Charge Here – The Complicated Relationship between Ministry and Authority” and their findings, I believe, are due to come out this summer at the General Assembly in Louisville.  I think that should tell us something.  Of all the issues and of all the challenges facing Unitarian Universalists, this independent group said, “Let’s study issues of authority.”

About a decade ago, the Commission on Appraisal took on the subject of membership.  Here is a brief passage from their report.  “[Feeling let down] is almost inevitable in the course of one’s relationship to a congregation.  […] The church is a human institution and it can become all-too human. [The reality is that] institutional as well as personal failure is virtually inevitable.”  All this is to say that if a church is a home of the human, it will be not only a place of human triumph, but also a place of human messiness.

As your minister one of the curious things that I’ve experienced through the years are phone calls, almost always late in the week, Friday afternoon or even late Saturday night, from total strangers who’ve never attended our church before.  The callers would say something like, “I’m not a member of your church.  Would I be allowed to attend?”  I would explain that our doors are wide-open and we’re welcoming and we love visitors.  We’d love to have you join us.  At first, when I received these calls, I thought, “Well, that’s odd.”  Then, after the third or fourth time I got a call or email like this, I began to get curious.  I answered a bit differently.  “Of course you can come,” I’d reply, “But may I ask why you ask?”  And, then came answers that I was not prepared for.  These people would describe some kind of brokenness in their life: family dysfunction, deep-seated shame, guilt over something that they’d done.  One person told me that he didn’t think he was a good person and that churches are full of only good people and he didn’t want to expose all these good people to his failings as a human being.  Church, he said, was where God was and God, he was sure, would be offended by his presence.  How do I dare come into the house of the holy?

Because we’re also a house of the human I answered, a congregation made of people in “every imaginable human condition.”  It is a place full of human people with human stuff, human stuff they’re trying to work on and work out and work through, human stuff that, when it comes up, sometimes stings someone or hurts someone or lets someone down.  We’ve all got this stuff.  We’ve all got this stuff.  We’re people with messy lives.

The famous Unitarian minister Forrest Church once wrote, “My favorite etymology speaks eloquently to this very point.  Human, humane, humanitarian, humor, humility, humus.  Dust to dust, the mortar of mortality binds us fast to one another.  [In this way] truly we are one.”

Humus.  Etymologically the word doesn’t seem to be connected to the word hummus, that delicious, thick middle eastern spread.  But they are both messy.  Humus is dark, organic material in soil that comes from the decomposition of plant matter.

The old myths tell us that human beings did not emerge from stone, from wood, from iron ore, from clouds, from lava, or even from thin air.  The old myths tell us that we were formed from mud, from clay, from dirt and dust.  We have earthy origins, and messy lives.

Philip Simmons writes about “mud season,” as that time of the year when people feel most frustrated and despondent at the messiness of life, at what awakens after winter’s slumber.  Simmons actually writes that March in New England is the most common season for suicide.  He also says that the mud is necessary, a gateway to the swelling buds and the daffodils poking up through the muck and mire.

As humans, I reject the idea that we are incapable and incompetent.  At our best we act heroically and we even reach the sublime.  But we are messy too.  We are a home of the human.  How could it be otherwise?

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Sermon: "Generosity Without Guilt" (Delivered 3-3-13)

Call to Worship
The Sufi mystic poet Hafiz once wrote a poem that went,

All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe

What happens
With a love like that.
It lights the

We are born into a creation that is generous, lavish, and exuberant.  The rising of the sun, the air we breathe, the ground on which we stand, the life which sustains our own lives – we did nothing to deserve it.  It is a generosity of which we partake.  It is the nature of the world into which we were born.  Even though we are made of star stuff, generosity does not come as easily for us.  Rather, generosity is something that we learn, a decision we make, a habit we cultivate.

Come, let us be generous with our hearts and our minds and our voices this hour.  Come, let us worship together.

First Reading
From Making the Good Life Last by Michael Schuler

Jesus may have died on the cross, but he wasn’t willing to live on one, and at time allowed himself to be conspicuously attended to.  The Gospels are quite clear on this score.  Jesus took advantage of opportunities to feast and relax in other people’s homes and to be anointed with rich, aromatic oils.  When he felt fearful and uncertain, Jesus requested emotional support from his closest associates.  The quintessential minister, Jesus understood that it’s as important to know how to gracefully receive as to generously give.  Those who feel compelled to be always active and ‘on-duty’ may be driven more by guilt, ambition, or anxiety than true compassion.

Second Reading
From “Spiritual Practice for Our Time” by Rebecca Parker, as found in Everyday Spiritual Practice, edited by Scott Alexander.

Like all of us, I know I am at risk of forgetting or never coming to deeply know that to be a human being is to live in a world that provides richly for human life, including mine, a world that is to be stewarded, not abused.  I do not want to lose track of this knowledge.  We make our home in a world that has enough land to feed all of earth’s people and that has enough resources to shelter all of earth’s children.  If I forget this, and if I forget that my presence matters, then I fail to act as a person who blesses life and who contributes to mending the world.  I become, instead, complicit with violence, a numbed and alienated soul, who has surrendered to untruth.  This is the endangered knowledge in our culture that can be preserved by religious practices that teach us a different sense of who we are.

One of our readings came from the book Everyday Spiritual Practice, a collection of short essays by Unitarian Universalists on different spiritual practices including prayer, yoga, martial arts, gardening, and just about anything you imagine, from Art to Zen meditation.  Rebecca Parker’s contribution is mysteriously titled, “Spiritual Practice for Our Time.”  If you open the book, you find out that her essay is largely about the practice of tithing, of giving ten percent of your income away.  Now, I love Rebecca Parker’s writings and I think she is an absolutely brilliant thinker, but it has always seemed unfortunate to me that the title of this essay conceals what it is about.  It may not have been her intention, but I think this title reinforces the idea that generosity and money are forbidden topics to be only talked about in hushed tones, that deserve to be packaged in plain brown paper bags.  To be honest, I thought about titling my sermon this morning, “A Spiritual Practice for Our Time” or “Thom’s Greatest Sermon Ever.”  However, I thought better of it.  The case for generosity should not be made through trickery or deception.  The topic need not elicit guilt or shame.

This morning I’m going to talk about generosity.  I’m going to talk about money.  I’m going to talk about giving money to the church.  I’m going to talk about our larger relationship with money and a larger definition of generosity.  And, I’m going to attempt to talk about this subject without resorting to guilt-tripping or shaming or threatening.

I’ve been the minister of this church for almost a decade.  This May will be the 10 year anniversary of this congregation’s vote to call me as minister.  Next October will be the 10 year anniversary of my ordination by this congregation.  And, as I look back through my files, I realize that I’ve preached only rarely about generosity and supporting the church financially.  I suppose a cynical person might remark, “That’s why you’re still our minister.”  Through the years I’ve heard more than a few members compare this congregation favorably to the church of their childhood because I don’t stand in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday with the goal of badgering and guilt-tripping people into giving more money to the church.  Seriously, from the way some members here have described it, these types of messages were frequent and excessive in the faith homes they grew up in and they’re glad that we don’t do that.

J. Clif Christopher, a Christian author on the subject of stewardship writes, “I am often appalled when I hear television pastors talk about money and how they believe that people must give if they want to be rich, or how they must tithe or they will go to hell.  It is abhorrent theology.”  Some of us are trying to heal from and to work through that bad theology we were exposed to.

When I write a sermon, it is my goal not to be abhorrent and not to manipulate you with shame or guilt or fear.  In speaking with members of the church, I’ve learned that it’s not just those types of churches that connect guilt and giving.  Some members have told me about appeals that they’ve received from secular charities in which the ask seemed designed to make recipients feel bad about themselves if they said no.  Have you ever given money in order to avoid feeling bad, in order to avoid feeling guilty?  That is a perversion of generosity.

Someone I know once told me about serving on the board of a non-profit organization.  This member was in her twenties and was the youngest member of the board by far.  When this non-profit was facing a time of significant need, she decided to give a gift of one thousand dollars, which for her represented a sacrificial gift.  She literally had to adjust her budget in order to give this gift.  It was extraordinarily generous.  And, then, she told me, her gift was publicized and used to guilt-trip other members of the board into giving more.  “Look what she did.  Why can’t you give more?”  Even an act of tremendous generosity can become complicated.

In thinking about what I wanted to say this morning, I came up with five different reasons for why a person might give financially to the church.

The first reason that a person might give to this church is as an act of consumerism.  The purchase of goods and services.  Worship services, music, religious education classes, the services of the minister, the services of staff members, a building with electricity, a parking lot that gets plowed.  The first reason that people give is because they receive these services so they figure they ought to pay something for them.  Now, churches don’t really make it easy for those with a consumer mentality.  We don’t say, “This is the cost of a worship service.  This is the cost of sending your child to religious education.  This is the cost of an hour of counseling from the minister.  This is the cost of childcare for the event you attend.  This is the cost of a eulogy at your memorial service.”  We don’t sell indulgences.  That’s just not how we operate.

Though I am frequently a critic of approaching life with a consumerist mindset, there is a side of consumerism that maybe we ought to keep in mind.  Being a consumer at its worst can mean participating in exploitation, whether it’s supporting companies that use sweatshop labor, that promote discrimination, or that otherwise damage the world through its business practices.  Being a consumer at its best can mean spending our money with companies that have fair labor practices, support causes we care about, and practice sustainability.  In fact, many of us are willing to pay extra if we are aware of a company’s ethical practices.  A person’s gift to the church could represent informed, ethical consumerism.

A second reason people give to the church is because of an understanding of social contract.  We give to fund the religious education program even if we do not have children ourselves.  We believe that the Board Room ought to be heated, even if we ourselves do not serve on the Board.  In our lives outside of the church, we participate in the social contract through the taxes we pay.  We want there to be public schools even if we don’t have children in them.  We want there to be roads even if we do not drive.  And, actually, we understand that our lives are interconnected.  When our taxes pay for, say, biology labs in schools, we help to ensure a world with competent doctors in the future.  In a church we are just as interconnected.  The next soprano to join our choir may actually have been attracted to the church because of our work with Iraqi refugees.  We’re all interconnected.  We give to fund all the programs of the church, not just the ones we enjoy.  We’re all in this together.

A third reason people give is because they value the mission of the church outside of any benefit it provides for them personally.  Every year I make a contribution to the college I attended.  I did this even when I was paying back my educational loans.  I received a considerable amount of financial aid when I was in college, but my parents still had to foot a hefty bill.  The reason I give them money each year is not because they send me an alumni magazine.  I give because I want them to exist.  I want my college to touch lives in the ways mine was once touched.  And, I want to feel connected of that institution even though I’ve already received all the benefit from it I will ever receive.  In fact, I want it to be even better for the next students who go there.  There are actually Unitarian Universalist churches that receive significant gifts from people who haven’t been a part of the church for years or even decades.  They may now live in Kalamazoo or Timbuktu, or they may live down the road and support what we do.  In case you’re wondering, we as a church have relatively few people who give even though they no longer participate, but we do have a few.

A fourth reason that people give is not about the church, but more about their own sense of who they are as people.  They perceive themselves as blessed and practice generosity as a response to this experience of being blessed.  “I am a person who has received abundantly from life.”  I give in gratitude in response to blessing.

A fifth reason that people give is because giving is a form of spiritual practice.  Rebecca Parker quotes a parishioner of hers as saying, “I am a person who has something to give.  I am a person who has received abundantly from life.  I am a person whose presence matters in the world.  I am a person whose life has meaning because I am connected to and care about many things larger than myself alone.  If I did not [give], I would lose track of these truths about who I am.  By [giving], I remember who I am.”

If you’re keeping a list, the five ways are: giving as ethical consumerism, giving as social contract, giving as supporting the mission of the institution, giving as a response to blessing, and giving as spiritual practice.

As minister, I believe in trying to model the values I say are important.  So each year Anne and I give away about 10 percent of our incomes.  Our annual pledge to the church is $6,000 and we give additionally each year to the capital campaign.  Since returning from sabbatical in Ecuador three years ago, I’ve paid for the education of a girl whose family I met in Quito and have committed to doing this until her education is completed.  Anne and I also give to educational institutions as well as non-profit organizations that reflect our values such as Planned Parenthood.  In total, we give away 10% of our combined incomes.  The reasons that I give have mainly to do with responding to a sense of blessing, giving as a spiritual practice, and believing in the health of institutions and organizations whose missions are aligned with my values.

I share this information about my family not to try to guilt-trip anyone.  Rather, I believe that the generosity that I try to cultivate and practice is a response that is inspired by the generosity of the members of this congregation.  You are generous.  We are a generous congregation.  Our donate the plate collection a couple weeks ago sent more than $2,000 to the Interfaith Hospitality Network and each year this program gives away well over $10,000 to organizations that reflect our values.  We are a generous congregation.  A few years ago, at a time when a couple members of the church had shared that they were in danger of losing their jobs, a member handed me a check for $5,000 for the ministers discretionary fund so that I could do more to help anyone who needed it.  He told me that if I used it all, he’d be happy to give more.  We are a generous congregation.  In September 2011 we took the risk of voting to buy this building.  130 families made Capital Campaign gifts totaling $1.3 million.  The average gift was $10,000.  The median gift was $3,000.  We are a generous congregation.

At the last Board meeting, the Board approved a Supplemental Capital Campaign to help pay for this building.  The campaign does not expect that those who pledged in 2011 will increase their pledges.  We’re thankful for your generosity.  (I suppose that if you said that you wanted to increase your capital campaign pledge from 2011 we wouldn’t say no but the campaign is primarily for anyone who may not have had the opportunity to contribute to the building in the original campaign.)  The goal of the campaign is $250,000 of which $70,000 will go to pay for all the renovations that have already been done on this building, $75,000 will go to pay for items in a Master Plan required by the City of Lenexa.  That $75,000 will pay for exterior lighting, improvements to parking, planting, and landscaping, and, best of all, the creation of a community garden.  And, finally, $90,000 will go to help subsidize the cost of maintaining this building over the next few years.  If you haven’t given to this building through the Capital Campaign, we hope you will consider making such a gift, whatever the amount.  I think it is a privilege to be able to say, “I was a part of making this building happen.”

Next week we will have the kick-off of the annual Stewardship Campaign.  The Stewardship Team has selected the theme of “There’s no place like home” and will be asking for your pledges in March and April to fund the programs of the church in the coming year.  They’ve got something fun planned for next week so you definitely want to be here, and it relates to the “There’s No Place Like Home” theme.  (The pledge page for the Stewardship Campaign is now active and more information will be added shortly.)

Your generosity in the coming year will have a powerful impact.  I’m reminded of the old credit card commercials: 

The cost of continuing the Youth Advisor position: $6,000. 
The difference our youth group can make in the lives of the teens of this church:  priceless.

The cost of providing health insurance for qualifying church employees: $20,000. 
Knowing that the church is an ethical employer: priceless. 

The cost of training for Our Whole Lives instructors: $1,000.
The difference made in the life of a middle school teen by providing them with fact-based, values-based sexuality education:  priceless.  

The difference this church makes through your generosity: priceless.

Generosity means an aligning of your heart and your living.  It is a spiritual practice.  It is an invitation to a fuller life.  And, it really is a mistake to conceal that message of generosity or to be deceitful about it.  It really is a mistake to try to take this invitation to life and cheapen it with guilt and threats of fear.

If there is one thing I know about guilt, it is that guilt is actually something that comes from within.  Other people don’t have the ability to make you feel guilty unless it is something that you already feel insecure about.  One of the other essays in that Everyday Spiritual Practice book carries the direct, forthright title, “Giving.”  I like what this essay’s author, Tony Larsen, says on the subject of generosity and guilt.  He gives very practical advice.  Figure out what generosity means to you.  Is it a percentage of your income?  Is it a dollar amount?  Is it a goal of some amount more than last year.  Choose an amount that represents generosity to you, then set that amount aside.  Budget to give away.  Once it has all been budgeted, you’ve achieved your own definition of generosity and the decision to say yes or no to someone who asks for money becomes a matter of thoughtful planning, not emotional manipulation.  I like what this author says.  His advice is very straightforward
You are a generous congregation.  You inspire generosity in me.  Give not out of guilt, but out of love, out of commitment, and out of blessing. Amen.