Friday, April 10, 2015

Free to be WE

The following is from a sermon I preached to my congregation in California after I had informed them that I was taking up a new calling with the Unitarian Church in Westport, CT.

"I believe that it has been the WE of all of you that has given me the faith and you the strength to journey into the next phase of life as a congregation. It is no accident that I will also receive my Doctor of Ministry degree next month, on the thesis that we can as different as each of us is; create a common theology, a faith stance to save the world from the relationships, the WE that we are. I believe that all of us have a theology that defines who we are and how we can make our world a more beautiful place. I believe that too often Unitarian Universalists are overly concerned with the horizontal relationships of meaning; giving breadth to our spiritual understandings and welcoming those who are different into our midst. Rarely do we give adequate attention to the vertical dimension; exploring how our individual and communal meanings deepen our purpose to a greater power. Giving name to those individual theologies will be part of our journey together. I am, broadly speaking, a natural theist, an enchanted mystic with leanings towards the Holy. Through my spiritual practice and luminescent experiences I have felt the presence of a power in my life much greater than me. I reluctantly call this power “God” or God/Power. However, because I also believe in the use of reason to explain the universe, I am unable to define this God/Power beyond these fleeting encounters. I do believe God/Power is made manifest through what Henry Nelson Wieman terms the “creative interchange” we have with one another. We can, and often do, create deep meaning and hope out of our relationships with one another when it seems impossible to do so by ourselves.

I believe God/Power holds an attraction that pulls each of us towards each other in what the feminist theologian Monica Coleman terms “Gods calling”. The attraction of God’s calling is therefore calling us forward into the world as agents of change and hope. And yet, my explanation for our place in the cosmos is tentative at best since God/Power exists beyond the rational. My theology rests in my belief that we are here to make our world a better place within the larger cosmological context of an expanding universe. While I can’t say with certainty that the “universe is good” I can say that we have a responsibility as co-creators with God/Power to make the universe, or at least our little corner of the universe, better. This is what I mean by the freedom you all have to become a new kind of WE.

There are theological values we can hold up in common: Hope, Love, Grace and Beauty to name a few. Whether individually or collectively, I often describe our religious tradition as “more process than product”.

Theology does not tell us what to believe –that must be determined through a careful reflection on our experience, reason and intuition – but rather what we should do with what we hold ultimately meaningful. If I believe that OUR calling is to co-create God/Power in the world, then I am equally called to create that good which I believe represents that God in the world. I am called to create a theology with a congregation that can reach beyond such relativism to the bold possibility that we are here for a greater and more unifying good than ourselves as subjective beings in the world.

You gifted this theology, this faith to me and I will take that precious gift and share it with the world.  Even more importantly you have that theology with you and you will give it meaning as you stretch into a new vision of yourselves as congregation.

It is no secret that we have suffered some deep loses over the years.  Amidst our dreams of building a new world, among the weddings performed, the babies named, and meals served, we have seen many of our most precious people die. I have conducted 52 memorial services in ten years.  By any measure that is staggering amount of loss. Most of those we bid farewell to were older but a few were younger. I remember a 43 year old woman who had just married her lesbian partner and died three weeks later. I remember Bruce Barr, a 48 year old father of two, who died of oral cancer even though he never smoked.  It is a tremendous privilege to have journeyed with these beloved ones at the end of their lives. Many of our elders are grieving that I won’t be here to journey to the end with them. But amidst all that loss I learned one more precious lesson, one more gift that is embedded in the WE.

It came from Dr. Bob Bloomfield.  Dr. Bob was a pillar of this church. A successful family physician he had done so much for us at the end of his life. He started our senior pow wow that, despite its culturally inappropriate name, has helped seniors navigate the terrain of old age with grace and courage.  Just before Dr. Bob died he and I had a long and private conversation in the hospital.  He told me he didn’t think he would survive this next surgery. I didn’t argue with him, it was a long shot. He said “I have lived a long and good life, John. I think I have done some good in the world.   But I really didn’t know what good was until I started coming back to church when you arrived.  Good lives inside the love we share with one another. Good is its own reward.  And I see now what you meant by our ministry together saving lives.  I always argued with you that it was too strong a phrase, that doctors save lives but not ministers.” I smiled. He went on “But a life is not just our bodies, a life is our happiness and our purpose. WE as a church have saved some lives, Rev. John, starting with my own.”  Dr. Bob died the next day.  WE are and always have been stronger than any ME. Long after I am gone, you will still be that WE, you dreamed you would become. So stay my dear people, stay and help make that WE together, freely now and for those hundreds who will come. Our time is precious; let us fill it with Love.  Amen.