Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon: "Goodbye from Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 6-15-14)

Liturgy for Worship

Opening Words – Otherwise by Jane Kenyon
Prayer – by Martha Munson, adapted
Reading – We Give Thanks by Max Coots
Hymns #38 “Morning Has Broken”, #15 “The Lone Wild Bird”, #357 Bright Morning Stars

Last evening I was out in Abilene, Kansas, performing a wedding ceremony for Brian Becker and Rachelle Kuntz, a young couple who’ve been attending church here at SMUUCh for more than a year. With a wedding to officiate and the drive to central Kansas and back, I just didn’t have time to write a sermon for this morning. I thought I would have time to write one while I was out there, but instead I used my time to drive a bit further down the road and stop by for a visit in Holmes’ Prairie.

It isn’t easy to explain where Holmes’ Prairie is on the map. It’s out there on the Kansas plains, west of Wichita, geographically, but well to the right of Liberal, geographically and otherwise. Just keep driving until the NPR signal fades to static and you’ll arrive at the boundary that demarcates God’s country from godforsaken country.

Holmes’ Prairie is a town that has something to say about saying goodbye. Folks have been saying goodbye to the town as long as anyone can remember. Just as Unitarian abolitionists flocked to Lawrence before the Civil War, Holmes’ Prairie was first established by a band of Unitarian temperance activists from the northeast. They even named the town after Oliver Wendell Holmes. But they wound up finding life out on the plains a little too sobering and soon packed up their belongings and left. Go west dry men. They wound up establishing a commune and winery in Northern California.

Yesterday I rambled into town and dropped by Annie’s Pie Shop on Main Street. As I suspected, the town curmudgeon, Frank Rodden, was there, keeping watch over the comings and goings and perking up his ears to whatever passes for gossip in a town where nothing ever happens. “Hello, Preacher Boy!” Frank bellowed as I walked in. “Pull up a seat and Annie will bring you out a slice of banana cream pie. I got your letter saying you were heading off to North Carolina. I was wondering if you were going to pay me a visit to say goodbye in person before you left.”

“Well, Frank,” I said, “I only make it out to Holmes’ Prairie about once a year. It’s never exactly convenient to visit, but now I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to get back this way. I suppose I could follow you on Twitter, but it just wouldn’t be the same. By the way, what could you possibly tweet about here in Holmes’ Prairie?”

Frank grinned and replied, “Preacher, we are a town with 140 characters. Real characters, too. But do me a favor will you, Preacher? When you get there to Tar Heel country you need to take a trip out to East Pokeberry. The directions on how to get there are a little vague, but I’m sure you’ll find it. And when you get there, pay a visit to my cousin Jerry. He’s a cranky old man like me with a lot of sincerely held wrong opinions. He’s especially wrong when it comes to his opinions about barbecue. You’ll have to decide for yourself, I reckon.”

“Thanks, Frank. I’ll be sure to look him up when I get there. I mostly came by this weekend because I wanted to say goodbye. And, because I’m procrastinating on this last sermon. But while I’m here, tell me a bit about the news from Holmes’ Prairie, just for old time’s sake.”

Frank started by telling me about the latest news from the Holmes’ Prairie Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, or HPUUF as they call it for short, and since they’re your cousins in the faith, I wanted to bring you an update from their congregation. Yes, there really is a UU Fellowship in Holmes’ Prairie. They have ten members, nine singers in the choir, eight committees, seven principles, six sources, and their potlucks offer five different kinds of carbohydrates and four different types of textured vegetable protein. They proudly disbelieve in all three persons of the Trinity but do believe that there are at least two sides to everything: on the one hand and on the other hand. At the heart of the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship is their one indefatigable matriarch, Mabel Pool, who herds them all like cats and urges them to live lives of faithful service in the community. Mabel is the first one to organize a protest when the town council is about to do something backwards and needs to be set straight. She’s the first one to donate a pile of controversial books to the library whenever someone starts advocating censorship. And she’s the first one to organize hot meals whenever someone in the town’s been having a tough time and needs a little help. She even makes sure the casseroles are all locally-sourced, farm-fresh, and vegan.

Restless souls particularly struggle in a place like Holmes’ Prairie. Folks with critical eyes and striving spirits tend to bump heads with the town’s plodding and slow-to-change way of life. And the Unitarians in Holmes’ Prairie tend to be the most restless of the town’s citizens. My friend Frank had needled me before about the unorthodox communion practices of us Unitarians. Like most Unitarian Universalists, the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship observes a Flower Communion in the spring and a Water Communion at the end of the summer. They also stole our idea of having a Honey Crisp Apple Communion service in the fall. They liked these communion services so much that they decided to develop even more communion rituals, especially since it’s easy to get by without a proper sermon when you do these rituals. Sundays in Holmes’ Prairie are mighty hard to fill.

This year the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship decided to close the church year by holding their first ever Complaint Communion. Instead of bringing a flower from the garden or water from your summer travels, you bring a list of your complaints and criticisms to church. In the true embracing nature of Unitarian Universalism, all complaints are welcome. You can complain about family, where you live, the weather, politics, or social injustice. You can even complain about your fellow UUs. It was an open microphone Sunday and each person was invited to share their list of everything that disappointed or frustrated or annoyed them in the previous year.

The Complaint Communion has an interesting effect on those who participate. It is hard to say goodbye to another year, to admit that you’re a year older, to face the passing days, to accept mortality. It is hard to face that we haven’t achieved perfection, that we haven’t arrived at the promised land. And the complaining functions as a kind of pushing away, pushing away others who are close to us, pushing away the realities in which we find ourselves, holding the world at arm’s length as a safety device. After everyone had shared – the service ran nearly two hours – they all tried their best to sing hymn number 304, “A Fierce Unrest,” and pledged to live in the coming year, as the song puts it, with stinging discontent, even more than in the year before.

Lately, on these sweaty summer nights, down by the barely trickling river, ripples appear on the surface of the water. A young man, still a teenager, stands on the riverbank throwing stones. Jeremy Hall was the valedictorian at the Tri-County Regional high school. In August, he’ll be off to the University of Colorado with a full-ride scholarship. He’s going further away than any of his classmates. Late at night he goes to the riverbank to contemplate the goodbyes he’ll soon have to say.

Last summer Jeremy had been invited to have the experience of a lifetime, a six-week program on rainforest ecology in Costa Rica. He’d gone and had fun and was homesick the whole time. But when he got back something had changed. His group of friends was different. Best friends now were no longer speaking, and people were hanging out in different constellations than before , and they seemed to all be dating someone different than they had been dating at the beginning of the summer. Jeremy spent half his senior year trying to make sense of all the new developments, then gave up. Now, with college orientation just a handful of weeks away, it seemed to him like he was stepping out for real. Not a six week, “See you later” but an honest goodbye, at least until winter break. Jeremy wasn’t sad to be leaving Holmes’ Prairie except he was sad to be leaving Holmes’ Prairie. But it was a goodbye for the sake of his growth. Jeremy tossed another stone and thought to himself, “These goodbyes are hard, but at least I’ll never have to say them again.” Or, that’s what he told himself.

The biggest news recently in Holmes’ Prairie has been the retirement of Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III, pastor of the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie. Old Sol is something of an anomaly, especially among Baptist preachers. His hardline Baptist theology became sun-bleached and windswept out on the plains leaving him to preach a kind of Christian existentialism that confounded most of his parishioners. But they loved him nonetheless because he could be counted on to show up when he’s needed. Pastor Sol’s theology wasn’t exactly based on the infallible glory and grace of God, but he worshipped God nonetheless, finding in humanity even less worthy of worship, and regarding the human condition, with its hypocrisies, its self-justifications, its foibles and failings, with a proper mixture of humor and compassion.

Pastor Sol had served the surviving remnant of the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie with reliability and predictability over a span of nearly three decades. His sermons had preceded him in retirement by several years.

Climbing into the pulpit on his last Sunday in Holmes’ Prairie, Pastor Sol addressed his flock, and I’m thankful to Frank for passing along to me a copy of his remarks. I think they’re worth sharing with you. Here are a few excerpts from Solomon J. Samuels’ final sermon in Holmes’ Prairie,
It’s been said that goodbyes are a natural part of life. We live by endings that give way to new beginnings, which end and begin again in time. The seasons in their course, the cycles of life that surround us, attest to this fact. As the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes taught, “There is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” But, why is it so hard for us to accept endings, to say goodbyes? They are a part of life, are they not? 
There’s a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that speaks, I think, to the difficulty we have with goodbyes. He wrote, 
“These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence… But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”
Emerson was an awfully bright guy but can be a little hard to follow at times. He’s talking about having the courage and the grace to live fully in the present moment, not longing and pining for how things might have turned out otherwise and not to worry anxiously about the future. The word “Goodbye” literally comes from the contraction of a parting blessing. “God be with ye” was shorted to “goodbye.” Adios and adieu. Leave the mystery of the future to God and take this time to be in the present. 
Submitting ourselves to endings need not mean giving up all that we’re thankful for. Indeed, we might all be truly grateful for a bounty of people while at the same time recognizing that humankind ought not to live by only one harvest. And so we might pray,
Gracious God, help us to be fully present for this moment of our lives, with the beauty of the present rose, neither lamenting the past nor despairing for the future.
Help us to have the grace to say Goodbye, simply trusting that God will be with us in days to come as God is with us even now. 
Remind us amidst moments of change that change is holy. And help us especially in this time not to look upon our brothers or sisters with eagle-eyed malice, but grant us the grace to cover each other with the mantle of Christian charity.\ 
May we have the humor and compassion to be open to our differences and even to the differing feelings that reside simultaneously within our heart. We are neither fully joyful nor fully sad, neither fully thankful nor fully ungrateful, neither entirely peaceful nor entirely restless. We are dappled beings, and, oh, the good Lord is a lover of dappled things.
Our prayers are for each other and my prayers are with each and everyone one of you.

That, my friends, is the news from Holmes’ Prairie, a small town out on the Kansas plains, west of Wichita and well to the right of Liberal. It’s a town where nothing ever happens, but if we can take a moment to slow down, breathe, and notice, we’ll be sure to find abundant lessons for our living.

Sermon: "We've Changed Each Other" (Delivered 6-8-14)

The reading this morning was written by you. Actually, it was written by the seven members of the ministerial search committee when this church opened its search for a new minister in the fall of 2002. That search committee wrote the following when asked to describe the new minister you were seeking:

“Rarely to a congregation comes the defining moment which will change it forever. That moment has arrived for this congregation as we seek our new minister. Our church is poised to grow significantly in the coming years – in spiritual depth, in commitment to the community, and in membership. To do this, we need a ministerial leader to whom we can give our hearts and with whom we can share this journey.
“In this minister we seek a voice that will preach the message of love, acceptance, hope, forgiveness, and justice. The voice that will rejoice in our children, celebrate our successes, succor us when we are down, lift us up to our duty and our aspirations, marry our children, bury our dead. We ask no more, or less.
“And just as we are not a perfect congregation, we realize that there are no perfect ministers. But there are nearly perfect sermons, and we delight in those.
“We seek a spiritual leader who can inspire or challenge us from the pulpit with provocative messages that show us new paths for individual growth and spirituality, and help us understand ourselves better. We want what we hear on Sunday morning to stay with us through the week.
“As we continue to grow in membership, we will look to a minister who is warm and welcoming to current members, as well as prospective members; who will actively promote a greater sense of community for all members; and who will actively participate in the life of the church.
“And… we hope for a minister who will love us and support us on our spiritual journey in spite of our faults and eccentricities, and whom we can support on your spiritual journey in spite of your own faults and eccentricities.
“This is an exciting and optimistic time for our church. If you find this exciting and compelling for you as a prospective minister, we welcome your sincere consideration.”

In early October, 2002, I paid a visit to the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association to meet with the UUA’s then settlement director, John Weston. Rev. Weston had had come to Boston after serving as the minister over at All Souls UU Church in Kansas City. In Boston, his job – his ministry – was helping ministers and congregations find good matches.

A week earlier I had had a successful interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, our denomination’s credentialing body, and was cleared to begin searching for a congregation to serve. I was going to meet with John to get advice on where I ought to apply. I carried with me a list of churches I was thinking about and John told me which ones he thought would be good places for me, which ones he thought I shouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, and which ones would never in a million years consider calling a 25year-old minister straight out of seminary so I shouldn’t even bother to waste my time. Then Reverend Weston said the following words, “There’s a church that wasn’t on your list but it’s one I’d strongly advise that you take a look at. It’s in Kansas but keep an open mind.” He then went on to say many good things about this church and about life in Kansas City.

I had never been to Kansas. I had never even been to the Midwest. Everything I knew about this part of the country was from what I could see from 35,000 feet. When this church posted its opening, I remembered John’s advice and took a peek, not really expecting to be interested. Then I read the words of the search committee, “Rarely to a congregation comes the defining moment which will change it forever.” I was intrigued.

Throughout the materials prepared by the search committee there was a palpable sense of energy and spirit, excitement and possibility. There was a future-oriented hopefulness that I found compelling. For example, in the materials that search committees prepare for prospective ministers to see, the last section asks the search committee to, “Describe the worst mistake your new minister could make.” Some search committees take this question far too literally. The worst mistake would be to commit a felony that devastates the reputation of our church in the community. That’s true but it conveys a low expectation of ministry. Axe murderers need not apply. Many churches tell candidates that the worst mistake they could make would be to make changes. But here’s what SMUUCh’s search committee wrote more than 11 years ago. “The worst mistake that our new minister could make would be to not show enthusiasm and energy in his or her approach to our church, the congregation and his or her position. We are eager for energy and excitement.” Wow, I thought. This was the church for me. Was it really what you wanted? I took you at your word.

In the end, I wound up applying for 15 churches in 13 states and one Canadian province, from Washington state to Georgia, from New England to Nevada. Fortunately, I had my choice of multiple places to serve, but I chose you. You were my top choice. Luckily, the feeling was mutual.

This has been a successful ministry in many ways. If you compare my ministry here to the ministries at those other fourteen congregations where I could have conceivably landed, we come out far ahead. I have to be careful when I say this, because church is not a competition. However, for the sake of comparison, only one of those 14 other congregations is still served by the minister they called 11 years ago. Numerically speaking, we’ve grown more than any of those other congregations. And, I’d take our successes, accomplishments, and strengths over anything those other churches could boast.

This morning I want to talk about some of the things that I’m most proud of from these past 11 years. I want to also talk about some of the things that have been disappointments. I want to share some of the ways in which I think I’ve changed and I want to share some of the ways in which I think you’ve changed. And, I want to share some of the things that I hope for you in the future.

When I came here I came with a mandate to attend to and to strengthen the worship life of this congregation. You were very clear that you wanted a preacher. To quote Theodore Parker, “I’ve taken great care with the composition of my sermons; they’ve never been far from my mind.” I am my own toughest critic and Anne would be the first one to tell you how I wrestle with the sermons I compose. My approach to sermons is that I try not to be boring and try not to offer you conventional wisdom, empty platitudes, or the dry talking points of all that’s boring and tedious and self-obsessed within Unitarian Universalism. I’ve endeavored to be honest with you and, as my contract with the church puts it, to “express my values, views, and commitments without fear or favor.” I will continue to do that this morning.

I’m proud of my work with many classes of the Preaching Practicum whose members have wrestled sermons into being and delivered them to their fellow congregants, and I’m proud of the worship committee’s Distinguished Guest minister program through which we’ve invited people like Victoria Safford, James Ishmael Ford, and Marlin Lavanhar to grace us in the pulpit.

Pastorally, I’ve been especially moved by the opportunity to memorialize members of this congregation’s founding generation as well as other pillars of the church. I will always treasure the privilege of officiating the service celebrating the life of Bob Neustrom, our founding president, and to eulogize other pillars of our church.

Another thing that I am most proud of in my ministry with you is the fact that this church is a healthy place for theological diversity. I’ve not had to fight worship wars with you. I’ve not had to watch my language. Nobody gets angry when I talk about God or Jesus or choose a reading from the Bible. I have to tell you, as a minister who tends more towards theism – as an increasing number of UU ministers do – I’m grateful for this congregation’s embrace of theological diversity. I think my ministry is evidence of the fact that UU ministers are focused on doing good ministry, not on trying to bring others to agreement with their own theological views.

Social justice is one of the areas I wish I had approached differently here at SMUUCh. I’ve done a lot of social justice work in my years in Kansas City. I done work around reproductive justice, with the Mainstream Coalition, and with civil liberties through organizations like the ACLU. My regret is that I often took this work on as a lone individual, rather than leading us into the work together as a congregation. I did this for several reasons. One of the reasons was that it was lonely moving here all by myself and since I couldn’t go to the UU church to make friends, a meeting of community activists was the next best place. But, more than that, my own sense of professional ethics told me that it wasn’t right to use my position of leadership to push the congregation towards working for my one particular personal passion. I felt that would be a conflict of interest. I attended organizing meetings and nonprofit board meetings, spoke at press conferences, testified in Topeka, and was flown to Washington D.C. as a featured speaker at a national leadership summit of a nonprofit organization – but when I did these things, I did them as an individual, on my own time. Our church’s model of social justice has been that any member of the church with a personal passion has been invited to start their own social justice initiative, the success of which is based on that person’s ability to recruit others to support that cause and their own willingness to keep that program going. But now, I believe this isn’t the best way for a church to approach social justice work. It is a libertarian way of doing social justice; each person should do what they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else. This approach actually disempowers the work the church might do.

In my second year as the minister here I offered an adult religious education experience called the Social Justice Workshop. Eight people signed up having no idea what it would be. I walked in and said that the role of this class is for this random group of people to discern, design, and perform a social justice project. It was an experiment. I wanted to see what would happen. Out of the blue, this group decided that they wanted to lead our church through the process of officially becoming a Welcoming Congregation, a congregation-wide learning process about how to be more welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Our church had actually attempted this process in the mid-90s but the process stalled, which had nothing to do with our intentions about welcoming and everything to do with the absence of a process for doing church-wide justice work. This group successfully brought the church through the Welcoming Congregation process. I’m tremendously proud of the work of this group.

Allowing any member with a personal passion to develop their own social justice project is a libertarian way of doing social justice work. It is undemocratic. If I had it to do over again, I would have engaged not just eight people, but 90 or 280 in a discernment process to select an inclusive social justice focus for the church. Such a focus would speak to our great longing, the community’s great need, and our sphere of influence.

I want to talk a little bit about growth this morning because I feel that growth has been at the forefront of my ministry with you. The first thing I want to say is that we’ve successfully grown from a church with fewer than 200 members to one with more than 300 during my tenure here. Our growth led us to a new building. We’ve also grown younger. When I started my ministry here in 2003, not only was I young, I was younger than every single member of this church. One of the ways we’ve changed is that as I’ve grown older, the congregation has gotten younger. We have a lot of members in their thirties and even quite a few in their twenties. This actually will require your attention as a church, because each generation approaches religion differently. This growth was noticed by our denomination and I became something of a growth wunderkind, getting invited to denominational growth summits and being tapped to edit a book about growth.

Looking back on my ministry with you, one of the things I am most proud of is attempting to bring about the type of organizational change that growing churches need. My biggest regret was underestimating how hard this is, and not pushing harder than I did or more wisely than I did or more strategically than I did to make these organizational changes a success. Trying to do church with more than 300 members is fundamentally different than trying to do church with fewer than 200. Different systems and structures are required for a church to flourish as it grows larger.

In my second and third year of my ministry here I noticed an interesting dynamic. We were adding lots and lots of new members, but very few of them were getting involved in the work of committees. In fact, as we added more members fewer members served on committees. Back in those days, we had about 20 committees and each board member was assigned to be a liaison to two or more committees. Each board meeting, the members of the board would go through a list of the different committees and each liaison would offer a summary of what each committee was doing. I noticed something interesting. For three years a liaison was assigned to the “Denominational Affairs” committee, even though there was no such committee. No chair. No members. No meetings. No projects. No activities. But it wasn’t just the Denominational Affairs committee. Other committees didn’t really exist either, or had a chair but no members, or had members but didn’t meet, or met but never did anything, or really consisted of one person who had staked out his or her own territory. By the end of my third year, though this church claimed to have twenty committees, only two or three met regularly and performed significant work. And, I also noticed that all the really interesting programs and activities and events happened elsewhere in the life of the church, not through its committees.

I had a decision to make. The board and I could bust our asses trying to populate committees and get them functioning. Or we could take a proverbial walk in the woods and think about what was going on here. I searched far and wide for insight into what was going on with our church’s structure. I found the deepest and clearest insight in the writings of Thomas Bandy, a leading expert on church systems. The board and I read his book, Kicking Habits.

Bandy says that thriving churches are characterized by having a clarity of vision, being radically permission-giving, taking risks, and being outwardly focused. Members of thriving churches are changed, gifted, called, equipped, and sent into the world. Bandy says that declining churches are characterized by institutional control and the inwardly-focused maintenance of the status quo. Members are enrolled, informed, nominated, supervised, and kept.

Thriving churches feel like a game of racquetball. [Bandy actually uses the sport of Jai alai for this metaphor.] They are fast-paced, kinetic, and there is a continuity of motion even as the ball might move at unexpected angles. Declining churches feel like a game of croquet. To accomplish anything you must jump through a complicated set of hoops, in the right order, and other players can decide to gang up on you and knock you out of the game. It is a game marked by dullness, tedium, and frustration. Earnest efforts are easily thwarted by whoever decides to play gatekeeper.

Bandy describes a church he encountered where someone proposed a great new idea. 115 members of the church spent a combined 275 hours of people’s time over ten weeks in order to say no to the idea. In a thriving church, new ideas and new ministries sometimes fail. In fact, they often fail but there is no shame in this. It is better to be the church that tries and fails than the church that bothered not to even try because that person had not jumped through all the hoops. Anyways, when I go back and read Kicking Habits by Thomas Bandy and other books he’s written and co-written, I am re-convinced that he is fundamentally right about the types of organizational systems that allow churches to thrive. I would commend him to you.

What I failed to realize as your minister is how challenging it is to transform an organizational system. The process is never smooth or linear or easy. It is not as simple as making a clear appeal to reason or rational thinking.

It has been said about Policy Governance, the system of church governance that is now pretty much standard for UU churches with more than 250 members, “It takes five years to implement, or you can try to do it faster and take ten years.”

My biggest regret as your minister is not pursuing the organizational systems recommended by people like Thomas Bandy with greater commitment, resilience, and courage, and yes, it must be said, greater diplomacy and greater communication as well.

In the parlance of Unitarian Universalism, in the last decade we’ve grown to become a “mid-sized II” congregation, whatever that means. In the grand scheme of things, at the macro level, in the midst of the universe’s vast reaches of time and space, we are small, miniscule in fact.

Life is too short for croquet. I’m not sure what to make out of Einstein’s quote about God not playing dice with the universe, but I don’t think God calls us to play croquet. Or, in the words of this congregation’s search committee more than a decade ago, “The worst mistake that our new minister could make would be to not show enthusiasm and energy in his or her approach to our church, the congregation and his or her position. We are eager for energy and excitement.”

I am grateful to have served this congregation full of fine, fine people. I’ve treasured my ministry with you. And, I will remember with deep fondness and affection those things that are worth treasuring in the finite time we’ve had.

I will remember meals we’ve shared and the bustle and boisterousness of coffee hour.

I will recall weddings performed, babies dedicated, and the dead memorialized.

I will smilingly recall laughter and play, generosity and forgiveness.

I will treasure moments of tender silence, prayers shared, music that moved us towards the depths, and the insights of poetry.

I’m proud of our accomplishments during the course of my ministry with you.