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.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your observation about the need for all three concentric circles. We have a number of Buddhists, for example, who come to Unitarian Universalism for community and action, and I see some congregations who appear to thrive only through community action, which is not sustainable.