I want to share two conversations I recently had that I think so aptly frame the sermon today. The first conversation I had, was during lunch with a member talking about our upcoming pledge drive, and I was sharing information that Unitarian Universalists on a whole are less generous than members of other denominations and they responded “well that’s because you don’t threaten people with hell if they don’t give you money” And that is true, both from our Unitarian and Universalists historical theologies.
Universalists believed in universal salvation for all and Unitarians generally professed to as 19ths Century Unitarian Rev. William Ellery Channing put it in “salvation through character”. So the promise of a good afterlife in exchange for your 10% pledge is not something we could promote with integrity. The second conversation was with My son’s friend who came to visit us in Iowa recently and I invited them to come to service, and his first question was does your church have confession.
Knowing he had grown up Catholic, I told him no, but if you wanted someone to talk to about something that he had done or a decision you are struggling with, I or one of our pastoral associates could sit and talk with him. And his response was, So if I confess, am I forgiven for me sins. I told him know, it doesn’t work that way here. So now we dont promise you eternal salvation after you die, or even cosmic forgiveness in this life why should you consider being so generous with your pledge. I think it is exactly for those reasons that you should be more generous.
Because we offer no easy promises or supernatural intervention, what we do offer is a way to be part of creation. Creation of the Beloved Community, A community in the here and now that can be transformative in your life, and in the larger community. We create an environment that allows for religious and spiritual exploration so that each of you as our mission says can embrace individual searches of meaning. We create an environment and structure that allow us to live out our vision of becoming a Congregation that as our vision states
“Supports social justice and social action initiatives in our congregation and the greater community and encourages responsibility for the earth and its creatures.” And we can see the creation of this in all of our programs and social justice actions that originate from the Congregation.
The question often asked is how do we create and sustain an environment that transforms lives. Part of it is the recognition, the naming of what we are doing. Recognition of the possibilities, Recognition that ours is a religion for the type of society that exists, today in this world. a society that is fragmented looking for wholeness, a society that is tired of doctrines that don’t make sense for our day to day lives and is looking at the questions that allow us to go deep. A society that is diverse in many ways and a society searching for some form of unity. And it is not easy with diversity to come together as one.
Awhile back I read Peter Block’s book Community, subtitled the structure of belonging. Belonging, Let that word sit for a minute Be Longing. What do you long to be in the world. How do you long to be in the world, Who do you long to be with in the world. Think about what that is for you. What does it mean to be longing just to be. To exist, to be authentic to who you are, to who you are at the core of your being, shedding the grit and challenges of the world that has hardened and hidden the authentic you. To start to even recognize what the grit and challenges were that shaped who you are today. Because if you are authentic, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or someone’s differing opinions do not force us into a reactionary position, but rather allows us to be open to dialogue because we know who we are. We become defensive and argumentative when we are insecure.
Authenticity is what we strive for in this world, in this congregation and in our personal lives, and each of us is sometimes more and sometimes less successful in its application. It is why we are a people of covenant, so that when we do fall short, we can be brought back to covenant as a reminder to what our vision for our best selves are.
But I want to focus on the type of environment that fosters creativity, change, and a depth of meaning. I believe in the deepest part of my heart that the way that happens is through loving engagement. Peter Block speaks of four main things that create transformative communities. 1) Ownership, 2)having a transcendent purpose, 3)Acknowledging our Gifts, and 4)Welcoming. Ownership seems simple enough. Within our team structure teams are empowered to offer programs to the Congregation. Particularly for people newer to our religion, and maybe as well for those who have been here for a long time. Ownership requires accountability, and collaboration, and is a reminder that each of us here are creators of community.
What we create here in community is in effect the creation of our values in action.
For every program you want to want to create, Block suggests asking four questions.
"How valuable an experience do you plan for this to be?
How much risk are you willing to take?
How participative do you plan to be?
To what extent are you invested in the well being of the whole?"
There is no one right answer to any of these questions. Not everyone lives with the same circumstances, and not everyone has the same risk tolerance, but ultimately we as a Congregation are created by the programs that you create, that you participate in.
When I talk about welcoming later, yes it would be ideal if someone would just invite you (and consider this an invitation right now to invite someone). Peter Block says “We have to realize that each time people enter a room, they walk in with ambivalence, wondering whether this is the right place to be. This is because they believe that someone else owns the room.” For introverts this is harder. But I encourage you if you feel moved if you are passionate about something, if you want to better the well being of the organization with your gifts, if you want to explore how to integrate your gifts, sometimes you just have to ask.
There is risk in that. There is risk, someone will not like your idea. Or worse not listen to you idea, or even worse ask you to volunteer to help implement your idea. Thus the question, how participative do you plan to be. For someone new that can be off putting. But that is the risk. All growth, all ownership requires risks. It requires discernment from those who have already walked the path and it requires a fresh look by those who are just starting on the path. With each new person who enters our doors we are changed by their input. Nothing stays the same. This is just as hard for long term members as newer members. We are all this together.
For us to be truly transformative, we must all participate in the ongoing creation of the Congregation. It is the same way when someone is thinking about becoming a member. What do you risk by becoming a member of this congregation? To risk the safety of certainty. To risk losing simple answers to ambiguous and challenging questions. To risk anonymity, for we will ask you to share your journey with us, to risk the status quo for we will ask you to be open to others who may not think exactly like you do and we ask you to be in right relationship with them. You risk being changed, and you risk changing others.
I know people do not join a Congregation in the hopes that someday they will be blessed to make coffee for other members of the congregation (in the second service I commented that there were some in the first service who do love to make coffee for other members). But yet the coffee still needs to get made. And we all share in those simple tasks. Eventually by doing the simple tasks just the simple act of serving others, and connecting with others can makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves. And that is part of what is meant by ownership. That by your actions small and large, you become and you shape and you create something larger than just your own concerns,
You learn to care and love and create and be a part of a community and that in and of itself is transformative.
Secondly having a transcendent purpose. Clement Stone said “When you discover your mission, you will feel its demand. It will fill you with enthusiasm and a burning desire to get to work on it.” How do you want to live out your Unitarian Universalist beliefs? What are you called to do as a member of this congregation? What are we called together as a Congregation to create that would make a difference in the world? What can we create together that we cannot create alone? If we understand the what the how will fall into place. To understand this as community requires us to come together in the many ways available to build relationships with each other, to learn to get to know ourselves and others deeply and that makes answering these questions easier. Our passion in this Congregation seems to be around religious exploration, social justice and relationship building. I think just like a chair, if you take any one leg out it can not stand up. All three need each other. Explore, go deep and by going deep together you will find your transcendent purpose.
The third item is our Gifts. Usually during this upcoming time of year of the annual pledge drive, we often hear the phrase to act from a mindset of abundance versus a mindset of scarcity. And although I agree with that, I also like the questions that Block asks. He asks us to consider what gifts we have received from others here and what unique gifts have you shared with others. Or what could you share? What is unique about the gifts that we could possibly offer that is needed in the world, in this community? What is the gift that you hold in exile?
But I think the even deeper question is what is the gift we have that we don’t know about or acknowledge in ourselves. What do we risk in exploring that question. Often the thing we fear the most is the thing we most desire. We fear that deepness, that wholeness that comes with finding our authentic self, for if we reach for it and come up short, or if we find out we are wrong, we somehow think our hope our very being will be crushed. But if we know who we are, that cannot happen.
As Shakespeare said
“A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that humans should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”
Let us not fear what we hope to become individually or as a Congregation. Let us keep moving forward towards creating the Beloved Community.
Lastly I will mention briefly, welcoming or what block calls invitation. Block states “Invitation is the means through which hospitality and community are created. It is an act of generosity; a call to create an alternative future, to join in the possibility that we have declared.” It is why we say the same words at the beginning of each service so that someone who walks in here for the first time knows the baseline of who we say we are. Then our goal should be to connect that newcomer, so we can learn from each other. Every week has the possibility of new creation. Block says “In an authentic community, Congregants decide anew every single time whether to show up. If they do not choose to show up, there are no consequences.
They are always welcome. And people always have a choice to say no. Our goal is not to bend peoples arms but to welcome them with open arms, and open minds, and open hearts. Both newcomers and people who have been here 50 years. Then each person has to choose whether to engage or not. I can promise you if you risk engagement, if you risk digging in and going deep, it will be worth it, and you will be changed by the experience.
Now I know I have asked a lot of questions today in my sermon. Between now and next week when we will be having our pledge drive celebration, I ask you to think about those questions. I ask you to think about how you want to be a part of the ongoing creation of this Congregation and I want you to think about just how much you value this Congregation for yourself, (your family if you have one) and for the Quad Cities Community. I cannot promise you eternal salvation or supernatural forgiveness of your sins. But what I can promise you is that here in the present in the here and now if we all work together we can build the beloved community. If we all work together to build strong relationships we will go deep to be transformed, and if we all work together welcoming everyone’s gifts with generosity, we will create the world we dream about