Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sermon: "The Church Visible and Invisible" (Delivered 10-20-13)

Call to Worship
“Teach us to number our days,” wrote the Psalmist, “so that we may gain a wise heart.” (Ps. 90:12)

On a beautiful October afternoon in 2003, in the presence of the members of this congregation, and in the company of my family, mentors, and colleagues, I spoke my vows of ordination. 

There are all sorts of ways to number these days, to number these years.  I estimate that I’ve delivered more than 360 unique sermons from this pulpit.  That I’ve attended nearly one thousand evening meetings, classes, and events. 

Together we’ve lit and extinguished our chalice more than five hundred times and spoken our affirmation just as many.  We’ve sung “Spirit of Life” one hundred times, perhaps.  Dozens of times we’ve sung of letting our little lights shine, of breathing in peace and breathing out love, of roses in wintertime and blue boats home.  We may count these years in meals served, homeless persons housed, and thousands of dollars given to community organizations we support.  We may count these years in babies blessed, in beloved members eulogized, in new members welcomed or in members moved away.

How would we number our days with a wise heart?

In tears shed.  In laughter uproaring.  In friendships formed.  In forgiveness offered.  In courage found.  In hope renewed.

Let us number our days with a wise heart.  Come, let us worship together.

"The Moment" by Margaret Atwood

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can't breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round. 

Of all the things that I am, one of the things I am is a church nerd.  I hope you’ll give me permission to begin this sermon by being a church nerd for just a minute or two.  Early in the congregational tradition in New England, the tradition that would become our Unitarian Universalist tradition, the ministers of all the churches of the Standing Order convened a synod and, in 1648, authored a document called the Cambridge Platform.  How many of you have ever heard of this document?  [2% of the congregation had.]  Has anyone actually read it?  [No hands were raised?]  Well, I think we have established my church nerd credentials.

The Cambridge Platform is not some obscure colonial text.  It is actually the blueprint for the way our UU churches are organized today.  It is our Magna Carta.  It is our Constitution.  It describes remarkably well how a church like ours actually functions today.  If you’re a cynic, you might be tempted to say, “That’s the problem with Unitarian Universalism.  They’re following a how-to manual written in 1648.”  But others would say that our folly comes from not having read the directions.

In any event, a decade ago the members of this congregation came together on a Sunday afternoon and ordained me (mostly) in the manner specified by the Cambridge Platform of 1648. [Chapter IX, 1-6]  As far as I can tell, this was the first ordination in the history of this congregation; it is certainly the only ordination that anyone remembers.  The text of the act of ordination stated that you were ordaining me, get this, “into the ministry of the liberal religious tradition and to the ministry of the Church Universal, catholic and invisible, from which none are excluded.”  What the heck does that mean, you ask?  It is actually language that comes from the Cambridge Platform. [Chapter II]

Let me explain what this means.  The word “catholic” appears in its small c form.  Not the large C of the Roman Catholic Church, but small c, meaning broad, inclusive, and liberal.  The authors of the Cambridge Platform thought in terms of the church particular, meaning the local congregation, and the church universal and catholic, consisting of all those who were saved.  This means something different to us now than it meant to the original authors of the Platform.  Just as the phrase “all men are created equal” once applied only to property-owning white males, now we understand that phrase much more broadly.  As Unitarian Universalists, we understand the church universal to include all.

Similarly, the authors of the Cambridge Platform distinguished between the church visible and the church invisible.  The visible church would be this, us, with our church sign, a building, a membership book, and nametags.  It’s all the visible things that we do as a congregation, all of our worship services, programs, activities, and justice work.  It’s all the outward signs of the church.  So, then what is the invisible church?  It’s not a church with bad marketing strategy or an inaccessible location.  The invisible church consists of people with inner faith.  That is really an imperfect description.  Evangelical Christianity would call it having a personal relationship with Jesus.  Buddhism might call it cultivating Buddha nature.  We might call it deepening in spirit or having one’s heart turned.  The Psalmist refers to it as gaining a wise heart.  If what I’m describing here is a bit vague, bear with me.  The point is that the invisible church may include people who are not a part of a visible church, and vice-versa.  This is a very humbling idea, this idea that the people who are a part of the visible church and the people whose hearts have been transformed are not necessarily the same people.  I think as Unitarian Universalists we understand the difference between the visible and the invisible church.  I think we all recognize the person who goes through all the motions of outward religiosity while not having experienced an inner transformation.  So, what does it mean to be ordained into the ministry of the church invisible?  I understand it as a warning against confusing outer markings for inner truths, against confusing symbols of status for worth.

When I first imagined what I might say this morning, my thoughts first went to all the things I might say about the visible church.  Ways in which the various programs and activities and ministries of the church have changed or grown or not over the past decade.  Which areas of church life have expanded and grown stronger and which have struggled.  I thought I might challenge us all to continue to support what’s going well, fix what’s not going as well, and be bolder and bigger and better than we are right now.

But then I read my ordination vows again and realized that this was not the message that I wanted to preach this morning.  I actually feel moved to speak instead about matters invisible, about those times in our lives when we have had an experience of the holy, about gaining a wise heart.

Have you ever had an experience of the holy?  My colleague in the Twin Cities, Rob Eller-Isaacs, told me that when he asks the members of the church he serves to talk about their experiences of the holy, people describe the experience of breathing their partner through labor, or holding their child for the first time, or of smoothing the forehead of a loved one as they breathe their last breath.  I think it is fair to say that the holy can be encountered in nature, in the sense of communing and feeling a radical oneness and unity in the presence of the natural world.  Marilynne Robinson describes an experience of the holy this way, “I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.”  The experience of love can be an experience of the holy.  The holy can be experienced during sex.  Various forms of human encounter – understanding and being understood, accepting and being accepted, healing and being healed – can be experienced as holy.  Working for justice can connect us with an experience of the holy.

Have you ever had an experience of the holy?  Moments that you recall that bring tears of joy to your eyes?  Moments of powerful and transformative connection?

There are certain experiences of the holy that can be experienced in the various ministries of the church.  I had such an experience with my high school youth group.  While the holy does not have to be experienced in church, what church can do and should and needs to do is to help our hearts to become open to the experience of the holy, to help us to be receptive to these moments.  And, what the church needs to do is to help us to reflect on these experiences.  What values are present in these experiences?  Finally, what the church needs to do is to help us to practice these values in our lives, to live lives that exemplify these values and that increase and magnify the presence of these values in the world.

Twelve months ago, just a couple of tired weeks before we held our very first worship service in this building, my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world.  Holding her for the first time was definitely an experience of the holy for me.  In that moment I experienced more vulnerability than I had ever experienced in my life.  In that moment I experienced more unconditional love than I had ever experienced in my life.  The experience helped to make those values real to me.  The experience made me long to attune my life to those values in ways that surprised me.

I invite you to consider, to reflect upon, an experience of the holy in your own life.

I invite you to consider the values that were present when you had that experience.

If anyone in the congregation is courageous enough, I invite you share a value that you connected with your experience? [Members named love, peace, support, acceptance, awe, and caring, among others.]

Now ask yourself what commitments that experience inspired from you.  Consider what it would be like for the visible church to commit to expanding those values in the world, to teach us to practice those values more deeply, and to expect that we commit to making those values more present in our lives and in the world.


For the reading this morning, we heard the poem “The Moment” by Margaret Atwood.  It is a poem about developmental challenges.  It is a moment about reaching a certain place but then learning you still have a long way to go.  “It was always the other way round.”  As humans we figure out one stage of life and immediately are thrown headlong into the next stage.  Have you ever felt that way?  As soon as you’ve figured out how to crawl, it is time to learn to walk.  Just when you think you’ve got everything under control, it turns out not to be the case.  Just when you think you know all the answers, it turns out that you don’t know as much as you think you did.  Atwood’s poem teaches a lesson about humility.

As a minister I’ve had my share of learning opportunities over this past decade.  I started as minister here at the age of 25, after all.  The first challenge was how to come up with forty sermons in a year.  Then it was how to give the church what it requires but also have a fulfilling personal life.  That took a long time to figure out.  I had to learn how to be OK with not needing to be a part of everything that happens in the life of the church.  How to be OK with not having all the answers.  And how to accept my own imperfection.   I’m still working on that one.  I could go on and on.

As a congregation, we’ve had our share of learning opportunities and developmental challenges.  How to become more fully welcoming.  How to figure out a Sunday morning schedule that works.  How to do church as a portion of our membership has trended younger demographically.  How to be a credible partner in service work within our larger metropolitan area.  How to have good programs in a building that was small and inadequate, and now how to make our programs work in a building that is cavernous.  I could go on and on.

Out in the main entrance area there is a new plaque that now hangs.  It is fitting that this plaque was put up on the week of the one year anniversary of moving into this new building.  The plaque commemorates our building dedication ceremony last February, our dedication of this space to the values of love, truth, compassion, liberal faith, and social justice and to the goal of more fully creating a liberal religious presence in Johnson County.  The plaque tells us that the dedication of this building brings to fruition the congregation’s hopes and dreams, blending our history with a shining vision for the future of this free faith.

What developmental challenges do we face right now as a congregation?  Now that we’ve mostly figured out how to live in this new building and new location, I think our challenges are twofold.

Our first challenge is a challenge of inner depth.  The challenge is to articulate our experiences of the holy.  The challenge is to name the values present in those experiences, to put those values in front of everything we do, and to name the commitments those values engender.  The process of articulating those experiences of the holy and reflecting about what commitments they require us to make is a process for us to share together.

Our second challenge, I think, is to throw our church doors even more widely open.  I’m delighted for some of the events that are happening here in the next couple of weeks:  the speaker from Witness for Peace and community information session we’re hosting on the Affordable Care Act.  There is a need to announce our presence in the community in a bolder way.  There is also a need to look beyond ourselves.  The Cambridge Platform describes ways in which churches ought to relate to each other. [Chapter XV.] I think we need to be more connected in partnership and in counsel with other UU churches that are thriving and doing excellent work.

Margaret Atwood’s poem suggests that there will always be developmental challenges.  If we accept that, if we understand that there is always learning beyond our knowing, and journeying beyond our arriving, perhaps,

… Then will come the day when,
The trees will enclose us in their soft arms again,
the birds will speak once more
the towering cliffs will rise up, and
the air will refill our lungs as we breathe in peace and breath out love.

Visitor, they’ll say:
climb the hill, plant the flag, proclaim.
You belong.  You are found.