Sunday, March 14, 2010

Interim Minister Halfway Through the Year

My church has an interim minister, one of two one-year interim ministers as we look for a new settled minister. In January, about midway through the period for this interim, the minister gave a sermon that I gather is sort of stock for an interim – an assessment of where we are, and thoughts on where we could be going as a congregation.

I was very unhappy with the sermon. Not because it was not uplifting or dynamic – not every sermon is or should be. There are also contemplative, chastising, or comforting sermons. I just think it wasn't very good, even in the context of what it was trying to achieve.

Stripping away the body of the sermon, and reducing it to its main points, the sermon said the following.

The interim minister has been here for 4 months, and has observed the following points about our congregation:
  1. Some people have said they want the church to be like a family
  2. Some people have said they want the church to have a social justice mission
  3. We have a culture of being too "nice" and avoid anything that might look like conflict.
  4. We have some (untrue) myths about our history – how big we were or not at some point in the past. Yes, we have lost members; no, we were never huge.
  5. This church has a financial problem: we are not paying our operating costs and are living off a bequest.
It finished with a reading from James 2:14-18. (Faith without works is dead.)

I may have skipped one or two points, but that would not make the above box much bigger. There were also a couple of suggestions about (2) and (5) but they were just suggestive. If the above was the entire sermon – I mean that literally – it would have short and sweet, but probably still not very satisfying.

I agree with the interim that the above are true and important. And I think they could be the launching point for a better sermon. In the next section I give my thoughts on an example.

An Alternate Sermon

A prefatory note – I quote several times from the Christian tradition. This is not common in this particular church. But we cut ourselves off from some important insights if we avoid the Bible. All of the wisdom literatures survived thousands of years, by hand copying and oral traditions, because their words held power. The early Christian writings are perhaps especially relevant because they were also struggling with what it meant to be a new kind of church.

The reading

Matthew 5:13-16
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

The Sermon

I have been at this church for four months, met with some of you in various settings, and have made the following observations:
  1. Some people have said they want the church to have a social justice mission
  2. Some people have said they want the church to be like a family
  3. This church has a culture of begin too "nice" and avoids anything that might look like conflict.
  4. This church has a financial problem: we are not paying our operating costs and are living off a bequest.
Start with number one, the desire for a social justice mission. Action for social justice is an important part of our identity and history as Unitarian Universalists. But it is not the reason for the church to exist. We are a church, not a social justice organization. There are many social action organizations in the world: the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Doctors without Borders, and many others. If all that we have is a social justice mission, then these other organizations are doing the job, and we may as well close up shop and go work with the organization of our choice. Consider one of the most important social justice prophets of the twentieth century – Martin Luther King. But I just dropped his title – he was the Reverend King. His quest for civil rights and economic justice came from a religious foundation. His person religion and his church gave him the vision and the courage to pursue his fight. Another leader, Mahatma Gandhi, was grounded in the Hindu and Buddhist concept of ahimsa – non-violence. We modern Unitarians sometimes revere the social justice movements and treat their religious foundations as incidental. I suggest that it is the other way around – truly powerful social justice movements require a spiritual foundation.

So what is a church? I suggest that one way of looking at a church is as three concentric circles.  The inner circle is labeled Individual. The next circle is Community. The outer circle is The World.

The world's religious traditions address these circles with varying emphasis. Much of what the Buddha said was about personal spiritual practice – the inner circle. Much of traditional Jewish law is about maintaining the community – the second circle. Meditation, religious education, worship, small group ministry, and pastoral care all work within the first two circles. Social action is the third circle – our vision of a just world. Our church cannot choose to work at just one or two of these levels – we must work at all three.

Without the support of the inner two levels, the third one has no foundation. When Jesus addressed the Jews of his time, he tells them that they are the light of the world – they have a message from God about justice and righteousness – and they are the salt of the earth. The metaphor of salt is important in an ancient context. We think of salt as readily available. But salt in ancient times was very valuable. The word "salary" comes from the Latin "money to buy salt with." Salt is necessary to preserve food, to add taste to food, and to replenish the salt lost from our bodies. But Jesus chastises the Jews – if you have lost your essence as salt, you cannot be a light to the world – you will be thrown out as useless. Paul makes a similar point in the letter to the Corinthians:
If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a clanging cymbal. If I give all I possess to the poor, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Without an inner spiritual life, social justice is just going through the motions.

Conversely, we cannot stop at just the first and second circles. In the New Testament letter of James, he writes:
What use is it if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? So faith, if it has no works, is dead by itself.
So our church must have all three circles – each as a foundation to the next.

The third and fourth observations are symptoms, not goals. I suggest that they both stem from the same underlying problem: we don't take ourselves seriously enough. When you care deeply about something, you get annoyed and sometimes angry when it doesn't work right or live up to its standards. Jesus was not the sweet person shown in the familiar modern Christian painting. He was a Jew, preaching to Jews, and he was angry at the condition of their religion. He frequently called the church leadership a "brood of vipers" to their face and every time he saw them coming, and he physically drove the money changers out of the temple. He was not "nice", because he cared about his religion.

This congregation has been the beneficiary of a large bequest that is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it led to a set of activities, such as an expanded religious education program, that helped to create a dynamic church. It is a curse because it lets us be lazy. We do not have to make the hard decisions on what is more important to us, and whether we are willing to contribute to it – we just dip into the endowment. It has allowed us to not take ourselves seriously. Two responses to this state of affairs are "why should I give any more money – it's there already" and "why should I give money to an organization that can't figure out its priorities." I am not a complete optimist of the "if you build it, they will come", but it is certainly true in reverse – if you don't take yourself seriously, the money certainly won't come. We have to take ourselves seriously. Who we are and what we do matters.

Our children's story this morning was Stone Soup. We can link this story to our process of working toward having a new settled minister. A new minister is not going to arrive in town, wave her hands, and suddenly she will make everything better. The young soldier in the story was not a magician. The stones in the soup are not magic. They are merely a guide and a device to encourage us to bring forth that which we already have. If we each tend our own spiritual garden, and combine our gifts together in the community, we can develop the spiritual nourishment that will be ready for other visitors who appear in our church.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

We’re Off to See the Wizard

Today I am going to talk about journeys and wizards. The vehicle for my quest is the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful movie, rich in symbolism. Like any complex work of literature, we can find multiple meanings in it as we view it through different eyes with different backgrounds. I'm going to look at it a bit differently in this sermon.

As we start out, poor Dorothy can't seem to make up her mind. There she was back in Kansas, singing about going over the rainbow. Next thing you know, a twister picks up her house and dumps it down in Munchkin Land. The first thing she says, after her understatement that "I have feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" is "We must be over the Rainbow." This should be great – she got her wish! But no, a few minutes later all she wants to do is get back to Kansas. Granted, the Wicked Witch of the West isn't helping things, but shouldn't she be checking things out a little bit in the place that she was longing to be? Well, anyway, the local Zen Master Glinda says it's pretty easy – there's a Wizard that knows everything, and it's a very simple Path – just follow the Yellow Brick Road.

So she starts off down the road, and a little bit later it isn't quite so simple: the Path has a fork in it. What's up with that – what does "follow the yellow brick road" mean when it has two ways to go? She stands there wondering.
Dorothy: Now which way do we go?
Scarecrow: Pardon me, this way is a very nice way.
Dorothy: Who said that? [Toto barks at scarecrow]
Dorothy: Don't be silly, Toto. Scarecrows don't talk.
Scarecrow: [points other way] It's pleasant down that way, too.
Dorothy: That's funny. Wasn't he pointing the other way?
Scarecrow: [points both ways] Of course, some people do go both ways

The Scarecrow must have Unitarian tendencies. Well, Dorothy and the Scarecrow get through their introductions, and he joins on to her quest to go get help from the Wizard. They dance off down the Yellow Brick Road, singing the first rendition of their travelling song:
(Choir interrupts, directed vigorously by choir leader)
We're off to see the Wizard, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
You'll find he is a whiz of a Wiz If ever a Wiz there was.
If ever oh ever a Wiz there was The Wizard of Oz is one because,
Because, because, because, because, because.
Because of the wonderful things he does…..
(Choir leader, stopping them in mid-song): Wait! What did you say? Because, because, because? You're going off to see a Wizard and the only reason you can give for this trip is "because"?
(She turns back to preacher):

Great. This sounds promising. We're off to see a Wizard whose only positive attributes are the same as Mom's answer to the three year old who keeps asking "Why?" "Because!" Just "Because," with no reasoning or evidence behind it.

So Dorothy continues onward. She picks up a couple of more seekers on her Path to the Emerald City and they suffer some misadventures. But finally they arrive. Then they have more another telling interaction about the nature of the Wizard:
[Dorothy knocks]
Guardian of the Emerald City Gates: Well, that's more like it! Now, state your business!
Dorothy: [Dorothy and friends, all together] We want to see the Wizard!
Guardian: [gasps] The Wizard? But nobody can see the Great Oz! Nobody's ever seen the Great Oz! Even I've never seen him!
Dorothy: Well, then how do you know there is one?
Guardian: Oh, you're wasting my time!

Only when Dorothy establishes her credentials by way of the talisman of the Red shoes are she and the others admitted. We find out that those in the Emerald City don't actually do any work, and even though the Guardian has let them in, they still aren't going to be able to see the Wizard. Finally the Doorman relents, and the see Oz the Great and Powerful, who dismisses them with an impossible task to prove that they are worthy – get the broom of the wicked witch.

When they return after surprisingly accomplishing this feat, he tells them to return tomorrow.
Do you presume to criticize the Great Oz? You ungrateful creatures!  Think yourselves lucky that I'm giving you an audience tomorrow, instead of twenty years from now!

Still we're being stonewalled by the Great and Powerful Wizard. But when un-curtained by Toto, the Scarecrow expresses our outrage: "You Humbug." The Wizard agrees.  Then Dorothy says "You're a very bad man", but the Wizard protests. "Oh, no, my dear. I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad Wizard." He is right.

What does the wizard give to Dorothy's three companions? Depending on how you look at it, he gives them nothing, or a great deal. He gives them three silly symbolic gifts. He most definitely does not give them a brain, a heart or courage. They have already demonstrated these qualities during their quest – it was the Scarecrow who tricked the apple trees into giving up their apples by taunting the trees; the Woodman has been emoting every chance he gets; and when Dorothy and Toto are trapped in the Witch's castle, the Lion overcomes his fear to volunteer to go in and rescue her. So the Wizard could not and did not bestow these qualities on the Three. Yet his gifts have power - they all felt like they received what they were looking for from him. So what did they receive? The Wizard comes from the culture of travelling carnival or circus, and fortune tellers. Successful carnivals, circuses, magicians, fortune tellers, tarot card readers, astrologers and confidence men have no magic. What they do have is insight into human nature. The Wizard recognizes the qualities already possessed by the Scarecrow, Woodman, and Lion, and gives them symbolic gifts that provide self-affirmation. This is not too different from what a good psycho-therapist does. There is no magic, and no one can "give" us anything that suddenly provides a brain, a heart, or courage – the most someone can do is help to provide self-awareness of our own natures. So in one sense, he gave them nothing. But he gave them self-validation – a little bit enlightenment.

Dorothy also had to reach her own bit of enlightenment – she's been able to go home all along, she just has to realize that she wants to.

So the inhabitants of the Land of Oz have it both right and wrong. Someone new came to their land that saw things differently. They decided he must be a Great and Powerful Wizard. The Wizard is not unique. We humans have a habit of creating very bad Wizards from very good men. I am going to talk about a few others.

Siddhartha Gautama delivered a message about spiritual practice. The message is both simple and deep. He gave truths and paths which can lead to a cessation of suffering and achieve self-awakening. But people could not leave that alone. The message was modified so that some branches of Buddhism became a salvation message via ritual practices. Temples and huge statues of the Buddha were erected across Asia. Nothing in the Four Nobles Truths or the Noble Eightfold Path says anything about building temples to Buddha, or chanting his name to reach paradise. The profound message of the Buddha was decorated with icons and rituals.

Jesus had another simple, radical, and hard message: love and justice. But this wasn't good enough, oh no - when his message hit the Greco-Roman world, they turned Jesus into God. Not a new God, mind you; but a mystical three-for-the-price-of-one God – the old one of the Jews, the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit thrown in to make it be a trinity. Why a Trinity? Religions seem to like threes. The Greeks had the three Fates – Clotho, Lacheseis, and Atopos, who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life. Hindus have Trimurti: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. The Christians took it one better. This Trinity somehow represented both the monotheistic innovation of the Jews with three mystically separate but not separate persons inside. It's a pretty good magic trick. The Romans took this new Trinitarian God and made it their state religion. But like any government, they decided that if they were going to have a state religion they needed to pin down what it was all about, and came up with a creed to define it. Several creeds, actually. Anybody who disagreed was a heretic.

I pondered this pattern: take a message and build it up into a religion with icons and magic, and thought hmm, not everybody does it - the Jews managed to avoid it. Oh, wait a minute, they didn't. Remember? While Moses was away on the mountain, the Israelites decided that they needed something to worship and built the golden calf. When Moses came back, he was so angry that he broke the tablets of the Ten Commandments, went through the camp the sons of Levi and killed three thousand of the Israelites, and then he had to go up the mountain again and ask God for a new set of tablets. "And you Israelites had better stay good this time - if I come down and see something like again, somebody's really going to get it.") So the creation story of Judaism has a very powerful cautionary tale against creating images and complicating the simple idea of an invisible monotheistic god. Much later, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, some Jews started down the path of giving the Ten Commandments to an iconic status – reciting them each day in the synagogue, and arguing that the Ten Commandments were the only important part of the Law. This was countered by discontinuing their daily recitation. So we see the tendency in Judaism also, but they have an antidote.

As an aside, Unitarian history also comes into this story. The original Unitarian martyrs – Francis David in Hungary, Michael Servetus in France – weren't burned at the stake because they advocated loving one another and tolerating other viewpoints. Their crime was reading the New Testament in the original Greek, and concluding that there wasn't anything in there about Jesus being God. They were killed because they denied the Trinity – they said Jesus wasn't God. This really didn't go down well with the Christian hierarchy. They thought they had settled all this back in 325 A.D. Once a church has established itself as Great and Powerful, it doesn't like people challenging the established order.

So back to the main story. In Oz, Buddhism, Christianity, and even Judaism, we see a pattern. Someone with a different, new message appears. We ignore their simple message and instead turn them into an idol, a god, or decide they have magical powers. The simple message is still there, but it has been hidden behind a guardian, a doorman, and a curtain. Somehow we humans act out this pattern over and over.
Let me introduce two terms: a "salvific message" and a "salvific figure." The word salvific means "providing salvation or redemption." Various teachers, religions and cultures have their own version of a salvific message. For example, Buddha offers a personal path to escape from suffering. Jesus offers a better way of living together with love and justice. But we often take the bearer of the salvific message and turn them into a salvific figure – and then instead of focusing on the message, we focus on the figure. I suggest that one reason we do this is that it absolves us of really listening to the message. If the person who brings the salvific message is really, truly different from us, then they are capable of thoughts and feats that we cannot achieve. We can worship them instead of listening to them. If Buddha and Jesus are different from you and me, then we can take a call to release ourselves from all cravings, or to love your neighbor as yourself, as something that only a supernatural being can achieve. If Jesus and Buddha are human beings like ourselves, their message is much more challenging – we are called to follow the same path as these role models.

My inspiration for this sermon was a series of conversations with other church members about our church's search for a new minister. It seemed to me several times that there was an attitude that things would get fixed, or we would figure things out, once we got a new minister – they would know what to do. But a minister is not a wizard. We're definitely not in Kansas anymore, and we are already part way down the Yellow Brick Road. But what do we expect from the minister? Do we expect that she or he will have magical answers to the problems that we have not figured out? What will be in those answers that we aren't already capable of? Like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, a minister can't give us anything we don't already have. I do not suggest that a church does not need a minister – it is good to have someone whose focus and training is on religious and spiritual issues for individuals and the community. But we've been doing church for a long time now; if we have been listening, we have learned some lessons already. We have already identified some issues and desires as part of the interim minister process. There is no need for these to be in limbo until a settled minister appears. As a self-governing community, we will have to address these now or later – why not do some of it now? Simply pretend that I have bestowed all of you with a heart, and a brain, and courage – that you already have.