Building FAITH in Community, Part 5:
If I were asked to sum up in one sentence this concluding sermon in our five-part series on Building FAITH in Community, I might offer the opening line from a very influential work by M. Scott Peck. To begin his book called, "The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace," Peck declares that "In and through community lies the salvation of the world."
It's significant that he doesn't say just "In community lies the salvation of the world. No, he says "In and through community " By adding that extra preposition, "through," Peck points to the deep and broad rigors of community-making as a process, something we move through. It is not a static experience, by any means. We are not just in community, we are always moving through it and its adventures, like it or not.
Which is why Hope is so important, for when you can move through anything with hope, when you have hope in your heart, you are much more likely to contribute your best gifts and receive the blessings of others from a place of positive gratitude. This giving and receiving of gifts and blessings really matters as we build faith in community. Your own hopes for the future can join with the hopes of those with whom you are in relationship, and together you can go places, fulfill dreams, make a difference.
In a very real way, it all hinges on Hope. Without hope, there will be little faith in community.
Scott Peck has also given us a helpful and hopeful definition of community, lifting up three of its primary qualities. A community, he says, is a gathering of persons 1) "who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other;" 2) "whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure," and 3) "who have developed some significant commitment" to do what the earliest Pilgrims covenanted around-which is to "rejoice together, mourn together," and to "delight in each other, and make each other's conditions our own."
Okay: communicate honestly, go deeper than our masks of composure, and commit to rejoice with, mourn with, and delight in each other, sharing the circumstances of life. I don't know about you, but that's a list which gives me great hope, even as it challenges me to build the kind of faith in community that will enable such a vision to be.
Another Scott, as in Jim Scott, the Unitarian Universalist composer of our first hymn today, said it this way: "Gather in peace; gather in thanks; gather in sympathy now and then; gather in hope, compassion & strength; gather to celebrate once again."
And so, we gather this morning to explore, one last time this spring anyway, the dynamics of what's involved in building a hopeful faith in community, our community. Some weeks ago, to begin this series, Barbara and I looked at the Foundations of community, such as Freedom, Families and Friction. Next, she portrayed our liberal religious heritage as "A Church for All Souls," and then how Interdependent we are.
Most recently, I investigated what Transcendence means in community, so that takes us through the first four letters of FAITH (F-A-I-T), and here we are, on Palm Sunday, no less, at H for Hope-Hope, "the thing with feathers-that perches in the soul," as described by Emily Dickinson.
We end as we began, in tandem, and Barbara will take over in a minute to look at what's at stake, theologically, in how we approach hope in this 21st century and why our UU communities will make a difference in the days and years to come. Then I will offer a few hopeful angles specific to us here at PB
If, as Reinhold Niebuhr has said, "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; [and] therefore we are saved by hope," then I would suggest that the things and the principles we have hope in really matter. So we best make sure that we invest our hope well, because our hopes will outlive us and carry our values into the future.
But first, here's Barbara with a closer look at the present
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Texas, Republican Tom DeLay gives his opinion about why, as the title of the article states, kids murder kids. He offers his vision of what we can and should do. DeLay begins by placing the blame squarely on what he calls " the cultural elites" and writes that " these cultural elites seem wedded to the notion that, because we are born into this world innocent and righteous, civilized society and its institutions are the corrupting agents. "
He goes on to say " unfortunately, that world view ignores human history. Simply put, the problem is within, rather than outside, us, because as the Judeo-Christian tradition has taught, we enter this world flawed and inclined to do the wrong thing. " He then suggests that because we have taken Judeo-Christian values away from such institutions as public schools, children are being raised in such a way that they are capable of killing each other.
I found Rep. DeLay's article quite interesting. It is his opinion, which is shared by many in our culture, that unless we return to a Calvinistic view of human nature we are all going to hell in a hand basket. He has a vision, yes, but it is, in my opinion, a narrow one. So, not surprisingly, I don't agree with him on most counts. However, I do agree with him on one thing. Rep. DeLay suggests that it is the removal of religious values from our culture that is causing so much violence and mistrust. On that issue, he has a point. It's just that I believe he's espousing the wrong religious values.
200 years ago our religious forebear, Hosea Ballou, wrote a powerful document called A Treatise on the Atonement. In that seminal work, he outlined the doctrine of Universalism, throwing out the mean-spirited God of Calvinism in favor of the loving God of Jesus. More important, however, he suggested that the true basis for religion should be love and hope, not hell and fear.
I believe it is the religious values of love and hope that need to return to our land not the doctrine of depravity. I would suggest that the problems in our nation stem more from our tendency to worship the gods of money and things instead of worshiping what is truly holy-our relationships to each other to our planet and to the great mystery some of us call God. Telling people they are bad won't make them better. Telling them they are loved and loving just might.
People come to Unitarian Universalist churches looking for something more meaningful than things to worship. Are we giving them what they are looking for? Are we creating communities of hope and love? Are we offering a real alternative to the material gods of our culture and the rigid God of fundamentalism?
If we are to answer those questions in the affirmative, I believe we must look carefully at what undergirds our religious communities. If universalism is to be at the heart of our religious faith how are we living that faith today? I suggest that at the heart of our faith is the doctrine of hope, a hope that stems from our belief in the inherent dignity of all people and the interconnectedness of all life. If this is true, what might a truly hope filled community look like?
As I have reflected on these ideas, I have come up with three qualities of a hopeful community that may offer a handle for us to hold onto. And they all start with the letter H.
Hopeful communities recognize that they're not perfect-that's why they have hope! They know there is always more work to do. So hopeful communities are in an ongoing process of healing. What do I mean by this? I do not want to imply that because a community needs healing it is by definition profoundly sick. I am using healing in a broader way. When we recognize our imperfections, we also have the opportunity to acknowledge the potential to change.
Throughout our history, we have been challenged to heal ourselves from any number of imperfections. For instance, when Emerson and others like him challenged the " corpse cold " Unitarianism of his day many in our faith sought to heal that rigid approach to religion by moving toward what would become the religious humanism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
We can also remember the influence religious women had on both Unitarianism and Universalism which, though initially resisted, led to an enormous healing and positive change in our movement. I could not be standing here before you as an ordained minister if it weren't for the healing which has taken place over the last 100 years.
Today, many of us are exploring how to heal the wound of racism and classism within Unitarian Universalism. We all know that such healing is necessary and right. It is also hard. But a hopeful community recognizes that healing does not come without an injury or wound first. When we are hurt but are unwilling to seek healing, our wounds may fester and our religious health suffers. If we can approach the healing process with hope, the potential is real that we may indeed be healed.
But sometimes for our healing to work, we need help. Hopeful communities are willing to accept help when it is offered and they're willing to help others when the need is there. Hopeful communities are places that recognize their needs as well as the needs of others. When we have hope we are generally filled with a positive energy that spills over into a willingness to be helpful.
The kind of helpfulness that emerges from a hope based theology cannot be an overbearing I-know-what-is-right-for-you kind of helpfulness. Rather, a hopeful community recognizes that all of us are ultimately in the same boat. If we have the means to help others we must recognize that the help we give to them is returned to us through the different kinds of help they give to us.
Our UU Service Committee is a living example of this kind of helpful and hopeful community. The help that is offered is always done so in a spirit of generosity and acceptance of each other. We trust those we are helping to help themselves and us as well. It is a mutually healing and hopeful relationship that we enter into together.
Perhaps most important, however, is the idea that true religious communities recognize that despite our brokenness, the human race and the planet we call home, are one. We are whole. To recognize this fact is to recognize one of the most important things about this world and all of us on it. We may not be perfect, we may need healing and help, but we are whole. Such an appreciation of our wholeness keeps us from separating each other into categories - I'm saved and you're not! Jaco has a sweatshirt that says it best - you can't take sides when you know the world is round.
This ideal is being lived out even as we speak at the meetings of the IMF and the World Bank in DC this weekend. There are many UUs who are protesting these meetings because of what they see as greed and selfishness on the part of many governments and multi-national corporations. There are also UUs who work for the IMF and the World Bank, who see these institutions as truly trying to make the world a better place. Wherever we stand on these issues we can agree that a religion that is hope based will nurture people who will work hard to change things for the better. Without hope, we might as well give up. With hope, we can work together to create communities that nurture spirits and bodies in positive and loving ways.
As I reflect on what our faith has to say to the world today, I can't help but return to the ideas Rep. DeLay put forth in his article. He suggests that we need to remember how depraved we are in order to teach children not to kill each other. I would like to suggest that we need to be putting our religious values into children in order to teach them that all children, themselves included, are loved and loving. Can we do that by teaching them that God hates them?! No! But we can do that by teaching them that there is always hope for each of us-to grow and change, to heal from our wounds, to be helpful and accepting of help, and to celebrate this whole earth from which we all emerge. But to do this, we need to be building strong communities of faith from which we can speak and work and help and love. We all know we can't do it alone.
I believe that the faith put forth by our religious ancestors, and still lived by thousands of us today, is truly a healing and saving faith. I want us to have more hope in our future because without such hope we will shrivel up, or worse, give up. Let us say to Rep. DeLay and others like him, you're wrong. We are not cultural elites trying to take religious values out of the world. No, we are hopeful people who seek through our faith-based communities to share the good news that all are loved thus all can love. We stand on the verge of giving in and giving up, or breaking free and soaring to a new realm of hopeful possibilities.
It won't come without hard work. We can't just have hope and think that's enough. We have to work hard, we have to help ourselves heal from the wounds that keep us from growing, we have to quit hiding our light under a bushel, we have to make mistakes and learn from them, we have to recognize our brokenness even as we celebrate our wholeness. Can we do it? Can we join together and make this world we live in the kind of community we know it can be? Can we make our own congregations that sort of community? We can, but it will take time and effort. Jaco will now share with you some ideas on how we might do just that.
Healing, help and (w)holeness are a lot of what Paint Branch UU Church is about these days. And our hope is that it can be even moreso. Let me suggest a few optimistic projections that inspire me to be hopeful about our future as a liberal religious community.
I wish the word FAITH had a "V" in it, because it would help me do what I am going to do anyway. I want to lift up high for you the value of a particular V word, a concept that we think could be a helpful and hopeful part of this next era here. I invite you to consider the word, VOCATION. VOCATION is often used in relation to a person's path, what they feel CALLED to do. (VOCARE in Latin, means TO CALL.) Many of you are following a call right now on your own life journey.
But a sense of "vocation" is now more and more frequently being sought in organizations, such as churches, which might ask themselves: "What is this church called to do and be in the world? What is our vocation as a liberal religious community?" Ask each other those questions in the days ahead, and see what you find yourselves saying.
Looking backward for local examples of this, a couple jump out at me. About a decade ago, Paint Branch heard the call, took the plunge and dedicated much of its attention to building this Meeting House. That project emerged as an important, even dominant vocation for this community, and it launched a new era that has given us a strong physical identity and centering place.
Another important community vocation for Paint Branch, as in many other UU settings, has been to pioneer the fulfilling inclusion of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people in the life of our congregation. The call to be a Welcoming Congregation was loud and now this church is a leader and a model in this important ministry.
Those of you who have been here for any length of time can probably think of a number of other efforts that would qualify as congregational vocations, times when this church felt called to do something together, go somewhere together, be something more than it had been.
Well, as Barbara and I move toward the end of our first year with you all, we sense that Paint Branch is now on the cusp of another new era, one that will define our church identity in new and exciting ways. Precisely what this movement will be depends upon the collective will and vision and process that you, the congregation members, will experience together.
For the way a community determines its vocation parallels how an individual does it: by listening deeply, imagining creatively, and feeling what is right. However, for a bunch of free-thinking UUs like us, this involves a courageous and patient process of group interaction, assessment and articulation. Well, the newly formed Paint Branch Master Plan Steering Committee will soon be asking you to step up to this challenge. (They make their first intriguing report to you tonight at the Annual Congregational Meeting.)
Meanwhile, I draw your attention, once again, to the "Statement of Purpose" printed each week on the back of your Order of Service Bulletin. This is, I think, the closest thing we have to an articulated vocation in general: Read this together with me in unison, if you will:
"The purpose of the PBUUC is to create an open, nurturing community for ourselves and our children which: encourages us to explore our values, both intellectually and spiritually; inspires us to live our UU principles within our congregation, community, nation and the world; and beckons others to join us on this journey."
Barbara and I believe that whatever accomplishes this purpose, whatever moves us along on "this journey," is a ministry of the church, from the most exalted program to the most miniscule task. If you feel called to live out this purpose, individually and collectively, then-with hope in your heart-you will inspire a vocation and probably perspire in fulfilling it.
The next era in the Paint Branch story will feature vocations and ministries that emerge from your hopes and we look forward to being among you for that unfolding. But if you're at all curious, you could imagine with me now a little of what that unfolding might look like. I've already noted a couple vocations of the past decade, so now let me briefly suggest some possible future calls that might be resonating within the heart of this congregation, themes you might decide to get really intentional about.
One possible vocation for the 21st century might be to pursue, in your own way, a deeper path of diversity. Throughout our lives are pervasive and demanding issues that arise because so many different people and species are trying to live so closely together. If Unitarian Universalism in general and Paint Branch in particular have anything to offer this planetary dilemma, it may well be as a living model, as an example of how love is embodied in a diverse environment. You might hear a call to intentionally demonstrate how our values and principles are reflected in the very fabric of our progressive church community.
Among the many dynamics in a congregation pursuing diversity as an intentional vocation is a one word call that resounds, if we have the ears to hear it. It is a rather traditional religious word, really, with wide application in our lives but not always in this direction. I'm talking about LOVE! Jesus would have us build community by loving our neighbors (i.e., our diversity!) as much as we love ourselves.
My UU colleague, Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, puts the challenge this way: "Religion asks us to be willing to be transformed by love." Scott Peck says simply that the goal of genuine community is "to seek ways in which to live with ourselves and others in love and peace." Thirty-odd years ago, the Beatles crooned wisely, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." This year, the author, cultural critic and feminist theorist, bell hooks, confirmed that truism in her new book, called "all about love: new visions." "The love we make in community," she wrote, "stays with us wherever we go."
Barbara and I believe that love is one very good way we can approach diversity, and we feel called in this direction. Of course, precisely how we live out that value is what makes the path interesting, isn't it? The ministry of loving diversity is a challenge, indeed, but a rich one.
A second vocation that might call you more emphatically into the future is one that we've mentioned before, so I won't dwell on it. But I also can't let go of it. It's a particular aspect of how diversity and love are manifest in our midst. The Paint Branch "Statement of Purpose" calls us "to create an open, nurturing community for ourselves and our children "
It doesn't say "to create two separate communities, one for ourselves and one for our children." No, we are called to build one ever-more inclusive, pan-generational community, mingling people of all ages in fulfilling ways.
In the chapter about community in bell hooks' book, "all about love," she is fiercely insightful on the subject of children. She notes how the emergence of the solitary nuclear family unit is a relatively recent (and luxurious) social phenomenon, but it has also generally proven to be, by itself, an ineffective way to raise children.
She says the jury is no longer out on this. Even amid all the hyper-activity of our culture, family isolation is at an all time high, meaning that children now generally have fewer and fewer meaningful relationships with older people outside their nuclear unit. And yet, families clearly benefit from having strong connections in wider, multi-age communities that can help support and nurture their children. ("It takes a village ")
So, we believe there could be a valuable vocation calling Paint Branch into a hopeful future of building faith in a church community for all ages beyond the excellent Sunday School that is well established here. Precisely what that looks like will be up to us, and it will take courage, creativity and leadership, but it might be a ministry of huge import.
As would a third possible ministry that might call Paint Branch further to the fore: service. Barbara touched on this as one of her H words: help. Congregations everywhere are already being called upon to become essential centers for help and service to the needy, neglected and marginalized portions of our world. If you can't hear this call to churches, perhaps you're not listening.
The Community Ministries of Prince George's and Montgomery Counties are impressive organizations that, I predict, will provide an increasing focus for the efforts of many churches to share our time and abundance with some of our brothers and sisters who struggle to find their way in this economically polarized culture. The UU Service Committee has also aligned considerable resources, both financial and human, to do the good work of service.
And there are very powerful reasons to pursue the vocation of service as a way to deepen our own spiritual centeredness, as well. Author Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who knows a lot about the meaning of life from her pioneering work in contemporary death and dying issues, closes her autobiography with this message: "I can assure you that the greatest rewards in your whole life will come from opening your heart to those in need. The greatest blessings always come from helping."
Do Paint Branch and its people hear a call to expand our service to each other and to those with whom we profess to be interconnected? This is a direction we can point ourselves, as are the other possible congregational vocations I've outlined: a fulfilling ministry of all ages and a deep, loving exploration of diversity. Barbara described how our theology supports us, how healing and wholeness surround us. These are all very hopeful opportunities, inviting your participation and dedication.
B: But hope is just that. Without movement and commitment, it languishes and gets distracted. It needs focused attention, clear articulation, realistic action. It requires some feet to move in its direction.
J: May we humbly suggest, in closing this sermon series, that to the extent you, the people of Paint Branch, prioritize this church and its ministries in your lives, we will prosper in even more magnificent ways, and in turn leave a continuing legacy of great value for those who follow us.
B: Our hope is that we may all build a sustaining faith in the PB community, as we "beckon others to join us on this journey."
J: Whatever the particular vocations we all pursue in the days and months ahead, may we draw upon the best thinking of our time to activate the best parts of ourselves, as we walk together along a path of meaning and merriment.
B: And I'll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.
J: And I'll bring a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.
B: Come sing a song with us, #346. And note that it was written by Carolyn McDade, who also gave us "Spirit of Life."
Our Universalist forebear, Hosea Ballou, taught that the true basis for religion should be love and hope, not hell and fear. How can you resist someone named Hosea Ballou?!
Love and hope will build faith in community. Our separate fires will kindle one flame.
Come, dream a dream with me that I might know your mind, for we are saved by hope-especially the hopes we share. May the salvation of the world lie in and through community.
We have gathered to celebrate, once again. Now the call is out there for us, to step forth into this day, into relationships that go deeper than our masks, into hopeful and healing possibilities that inspire us to perspire for them.
So sing in your heart of hearts and rise in the sea of tomorrow, as we conclude with our weekly dose of the Spirit of Life.
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