“Engaging with the Wider Community”
Service for Second Unitarian Church of Chicago, Illinois
August 27, 2017
the Rev. Jennie Barrington, Interim Minister
*Chalice Lighting and Call to Worship [adapted from Deuteronomy 6:11]:
“We build on foundations we did not lay
We warm ourselves by fires we did not light
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant
We drink from wells we did not dig
We profit from persons we did not know.
This is as it should be.
Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.”
First Reading: [the words of Luisah Teish]
“There are times when I look at what human history has been and I say, Oh, OK, there have always been people like us who get a momentum started and then it dies down and nothing becomes of it. And it’s a hundred years or so before those thoughts are resurrected. But there’s a little voice in my ears that insists that I continue. It insists that something really important is happening here, something that is going to have an effect here for years. Something that is going to make a significant change in the world.”
Second Reading: adapted from, “Prophets of a Future not our Own” [which was written in honor of Archbishop Oscar Romero]
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The [Beloved Community] is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the
magnificent enterprise that is [the work of that which is divine].
Nothing we do is complete… ,
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the [whole mission of our congregation nor our denomination].
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for [divine] grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Special Music: [Kimberly and MarySue]
The Morning Sermon:
“Captain’s log, Star date 45944.1. Following a magnetic wave survey of the Parvenium system, we have detected an object which we cannot immediately identify.”
Whoops. Let me back up a minute. I was supposed to start this sermon talking about the wonderful insights I have gleaned from the conversations I’ve had with so many of you, about this congregation’s values– and how we can convey those values to the wider community, so that they will live on. Those conversations have been a joy– And I look forward to having many more of them. I’ve talked with members who are doing social justice work, and welcoming and engaging new members, with board members and the nominating and leadership committee, with our consultant, the Rev. Scott Aaseng, who has worked with us on community organizing, and I’ve met with the Strategic Planning team, to begin to envision what we want 2U to be like several years from now.
These conversations have been about what is at the core of our work, here: to be a religious voice that is liberal, progressive, humane, compassionate, and accepting. Those elements are at the core of 2U’s mission, and purpose, and way of being in right-relationship with each other and our wider community. That’s a tall order and a profound mission for us all to reflect on this morning, and every day.
My favorite episode of Star Trek Next Generation is called, “The Inner Light.” In that episode, the community of Ressik, on the planet Kataan, has to distill what of their way of life they want to preserve, and has to find some way for their civilization to outlive them, for the most dire of reasons– Their sun is becoming increasingly hotter– It is destined to go nova– All life on their planet is going to cease to exist. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is the only hope they have to be remembered, and remembered well. How do they convey what is worthy about their way of life to him?
Wondering about that question, and reflecting on the conversations I’ve had about 2U’s core values, led me to reflect on four models of ways a congregation conveys its values to the larger community. They are in the book by Alice Mann called, Raising the Roof – The Pastoral-to-Program Size Transition. She is citing the work of “church sociologists” David Roozen, John McKinney, and Jackson Carroll. I offer the four models to you this morning in light of the ways this congregation has, throughout its history, lived out its mission and purpose.
The first model is an activist culture. This congregation certainly has activism in its history, including speaking up for people who are marginalized, and for environmental issues, and for racial minorities, and for refugees and immigrants. In the 1950s and 60s, this congregation’s membership was dwindling. It was served by two student ministers, who led the church in social activism in response to the political conflicts of the times, including taking part in demonstrations around the 1968 Democratic National Convention. And in the 1980s, when the church was served by the Rev. Charlie Kast, Rev. Kast and members provided help, comfort, and advocacy to people who were gay, during the AIDS crisis. Rev. Kast also officiated civil union ceremonies for gay couples.
The second model in Alice Mann’s book is a civic culture, which “promotes the public good through involvement with existing social and economic institutions.” And there are many ways that members of our congregation have influenced other institutions and organizations in this neighborhood, in Chicago, and beyond. Did you know that, in the late 1800s, this congregation once started a school for the children of immigrants? It turned into a community center, basic education and employment training were provided, as well as meals, and there was a day care center. In the late 1930s, the community center merged with the North Side Boys Club. Can you imagine ways 2U could support and collaborate with schools, community centers, and day care centers, now?
The third model is an evangelistic culture. And I know that that word does not sit well with some of you. But as I said a minute ago, in the conversations I’ve been having with so many individuals and groups, I am hearing a lot about reaching out more to the wider community. And a main way that we spread our UU message is through the way we are in relationship with everyone– our respectful way, of being tolerant and accepting of diversity. Whenever we are in the wider community in our yellow Standing on the Side of Love tee shirts, we are spreading our UU values, even if you don’t want to use the words “evangelizing.”
The fourth model for “doing church” that Alice Mann cites is the one that may feel most comfortable to you. It is when the congregation sees itself primarily as a sanctuary, in which members experience “transcendence over the trials of daily life.” Indeed, many of you view 2U as a home, a haven, a safe place, an oasis within a larger community which is troubling, a place where we do not have to pretend that we are someone we’re not, a place where we do not have to say we believe something we do not, and a place where we are among like-minded people. That’s a beautiful thing. I would even say that that is a sacred thing. And I never want 2U to lose that quality of being a safe haven. And I also believe that we can be, not just a sanctuary, but a beacon. We can keep finding was to proclaim to the wider world who we are, what we stand for, and why we are here.
Wondering about these questions also led me to recall a book I read in seminary. The book, by Christian theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, is about several ways communities of faith convey their values into the secular culture around them. So I recalled the book as being titled, “Church and Culture.” But I recalled the title wrong; it’s actually called, “Christ and Culture.” I propose, for our purposes this morning, we take Niebuhr’s models and adapt them to call them, “Unitarians and Culture.” That way we can assess how we might best make our values live on in society after we’re gone. To begin with, what does Niebuhr mean by “culture” anyway? He means that which human beings superimpose onto that which is natural; he means “language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values.” [p. 32] He calls all that the “social heritage” that we inherit, contribute to during our lifetime, and leave behind us. “Social heritage” is the result of human achievement, including “speech, education, tradition, myth, science, art, philosophy, government, law, rite, beliefs, inventions, and technologies.” [p. 33] All of these things have been created as the end result of specific values human being were trying to convey. We preserve and recreate our social heritage as a way of trying to make our values live on. The first way Niebuhr describes is people of faith against culture, i.e., viewing secular culture as suspicious or sinful– something to do battle against. This tendency isn’t normative for Unitarian Universalists. The second way we could call “Unitarians of culture.” This way, there is no great tension between the ethics of the faith community and the norms and laws of the wider community. So people of the faith community can become influential leaders in government and community organizations, and we know that Unitarians do. We could call the third way “Unitarians above culture.” That would mean we believe our principles and beliefs are what the world needs in order to be saved. Niebuhr feels that the danger of thinking this way is that a faith community becomes too institutionalized– It begins to think too highly of itself and its members– to worship them, even– Its main purpose becomes to maintain and sustain itself, rather than serving a greater good. And I think we need to be careful that 2U is not just maintaining and sustaining itself, but is also focused on serving a greater good. We could call Niebuhr’s fourth way “Unitarians and Culture in Paradox.” This may be how many of you feel in trying to speak and practice our beliefs in a time in our nation when we see such harsh treatment of people who are vulnerable due to their race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation or identity. When we Unitarian Universalists watch the national news, we see resistance and opposition to our values. Niebuhr feels the danger with the “in paradox” model is that it becomes too static. There is the danger that we will do nothing to try to change those we perceive as resistant or in opposition to us.
Lastly, we could adapt Niebuhr’s fifth model to read, “Unitarians transforming Culture.” You can tell by the slant of the writing that this fifth model is Niebuhr’s favorite. It describes a faith community with a hopeful optimistic view of secular culture. The faith community’s affirmative outlook on humanity and all life motivates it to work for justice, beauty, and truth. In Niebuhr’s conclusion, he reminds us of the larger community of souls on whose behalf we labor. He calls that community “God’s Kingdom.” He was, after all, writing in 1951. But what if we adapt what Niebuhr was trying to describe so it suits Unitarian Universalists today? Instead of “God’s Kingdom,” we can say, “Beloved Community.” Or what if we think of that larger community of souls as our long rich Unitarian Universalist heritage– all the Unitarian Universalists who have lived before, and all the ones we hope will carry on our values? Or what if we think of that community of all souls as what Karl Jung described as the collective unconscious? If we adapt, somewhat, Niebuhr’s conclusion to his book, it reads: “To make our decisions in faith is to make them in view of the fact that no single person or group or historical time is the [beloved community]; but that there is a [beloved community] in which we do our partial, relative work and on which we count. It is to make [our decisions] … in view of the fact that the world of culture –humanity’s achievement– exists within the world of grace…” [or, I might say, within the world of the collective unconscious, that place where everything of worth that we have learned and experienced abides eternally]. Might that be a way of being “humanistically religious” that our whole congregation could embrace?
Alice Mann gave us four models for living out 2U’s mission: activist, civic, evangelistic, and sanctuary. And Niebuhr has given us five choices of how to be in relationship with our wider community– But one way is not an option in his book: the congregation apart from culture. He presupposes that there is always something of a relationship. Therefore it is up to us to be mindful of how we are in relationship with people who do not share our beliefs, and how the legacy of our lives will be in relationship with posterity.
And now to get back to that episode of Star Trek Next Generation, called, “The Inner Light.” Captain Picard suddenly finds himself in the community of Ressik, living the life of a man named Kamin. He feels as if he is dreaming, but his experience is as real as his life on the Enterprise felt. His life in Ressik, which continues, day after day, year after year, is immensely satisfying. He has friends; a respected voice in political decisions; a wife and two children; work, as an “iron weaver;” and the hobbies of exploring the hillsides and charting the stars. The community is gracious, caring, and optimistic. They are agrarian, perhaps entirely vegetarian, and they celebrate the arts. Theirs is a kind and gentle way of life. Though not as sophisticated as the world from which Picard has come, they are trying to expand their scientific knowledge of why their atmosphere is becoming hotter and hotter. In defiance of the drought, they plant a tree in the town square as a symbol of hope and affirmation of life. They keep it alive by each contributing some of their water rations to it. By the time Picard, living the life of Kamin, becomes 85 years old, the drought is so severe that crops can no longer be sustained. He tells the municipal authorities that extinction is inevitable. They tell him that there is a plan to save some piece of their civilization. Throughout his life on Ressik, Picard plays a small flute. [Though in his whole former life on the Enterprise, he had never done so at all.] Doing so brings him a simple but real pleasure, helps him think through problems, and provides him with meditative time. He becomes skilled enough to write and play a haunting melody for his son’s naming ceremony. His son grows to become proficient enough to be a professional musician. Though filled with love and pride for his children and grandchildren, Picard, as the eighty-five year old Kamin, is brokenhearted that their future looks so brief. Then his family surrounds him and draws his attention to the launching of a probe. The spirits of his deceased wife and best friend reappear and explain to him that the probe is being sent into the future. The community’s hope is that it will encounter someone, a teacher, to whom they can convey what they were, and how they lived. “Oh, it’s me… [Picard says] I’m the someone. I’m the one it finds.” They say to him, “If you will tell others about us, then we will have found life again.”
Back on the Enterprise, Picard’s dream state finally ends. He emerges from it physically fine, but disoriented as to what time period he is in now. The crew tell him that no more than twenty minutes has actually passed. And they tell him that the civilization on Kataan has been gone for over a thousand years. When they open up the probe, the crew finds only a small wooden box, which they bring to Picard. He opens it to find the flute he so loved playing in his dream life. He clutches it to his heart, then lifts it to his mouth to find that he is still able to play his haunting melody.
We can only guess why the story is called, “The Inner Light.” My guess is that the increasingly oppressive atmosphere of Kataan’s world was not what matters in the end. What matters is the gifts and graces within each person. For some, that was planting or planning or cooking or studying– For Kamin it was musicality illuminated by a flute. It was only by reaching out that the Enterprise crew and the people of Ressik came to understand and empathize with each other. Since they did, all that was worthy in Kamin’s ancient world became part of Picard’s new world. It is only from reaching out to others that we learn what their inner light is. At first glance, some people’s values can seem so different than ours. But I believe we must try to reach out to people who seem to be in another galaxy than us. I believe I must keep trying to reach out to people who seem to be in another galaxy than I am. Imagine if the most important communities for Unitarian Universalists to reach out to seem to be in– “Space– the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise: its continuing mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Live long and prosper.
*Hymn #1018 “Come and Go with Me
This morning, and every Sunday this month, we are sharing our offering with UUANI, a Unitarian Universalist Advocacy Network throughout Illinois, that trains leaders to build power for congregational social action.
*Closing hymn #1064 Blue Boat Home
*Parting Words [W.E.B. DuBois, his last statement to the world]:
“One thing alone I charge you. As long as you live, believe in Life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader, and fuller life. The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the great end comes slowly, [simply] because time is long.”