Sermon Talking in Circles 20 Sep 2015
Well, the pressure is on. The other day I was looking at the results in so far of the congregational survey compiled by the Search Committee as part of the process of determining what you most value about this congregation and therefore what qualities and strengths you would most like to have in your next settled minister. Not surprisingly, the worship services on Sunday features as the single most central and important program, which I guess is as it should be for a congregation. But here’s where the pressure is on. Of those of you who have responded so far – and if you haven’t yet, please do – for 95% of you the sermon is the thing. Yes, you like singing hymns and hearing good music and having a cup of coffee afterwards and being part of a community, but most of all it seems you want to hear a good sermon, one which stimulates your mind and touches your heart and somehow sends you on your way better equipped for the week ahead. Which means, statistically, all but maybe three of you are now sitting there on your chairs, leaning forward expectantly, thinking to yourself, Okay, Usher, what have you got for me today? Give me your best shot. Meanwhile, those other three of you are preparing yourselves for a nice gentle nap. I promise I will keep my voice down so I don’t disturb you.
According to the survey, we are a pretty well educated crowd, so we are used to listening to presentations of various kinds – academic lectures, TED talks, you name it – which challenge and stimulate our minds. We like to be made to think. That’s great. It is an integral part of our religious tradition, and always has been, that the use of reason is not contrary to faith but an essential ingredient of faith. We actively want you to think for yourself, to reach your own conclusions, not to just meekly accept whatever you hear from the pulpit. Though, let me say, it is also okay, and does actually happen from time to time, for you also to agree with what I say from the pulpit. Just saying.
So, the sermon has long since been the cornerstone of the way we worship. Other traditions emphasise rituals and sacraments, and some want you to get very excited and jump up and down and perspire a lot, but it seems we like our sermons and we like them to have some meat in the sandwich. But, here’s the thing. It might be that the structure of a sermon usually means one person talking and the rest listening, but you are not an audience. You are not an audience. You are not simply a random collection of individuals, each passively hearing a spoken message. You are a congregation, and what happens laterally, from pew to pew, is every bit as important as what happens from the pulpit. You come here, not as you might go to the movies or a concert, where you pay your money and buy your ticket but then sit in your seat to watch and listen to whatever is presented without any connection with the others in the auditorium. You don’t go to the movies expecting to meet people, to connect with people. But you do here. You come here to be part of something greater than yourself. You come here to meet yourself in other people, to recognise that you and they are sharing in something deeply significant –the experience of being aware that you are alive amidst mystery and wonder, the experience of being human.
In other words, as the survey also reveals, you come not just to hear whatever I might offer from the pulpit, you come to be together. You come to be part of a community. You come to have who you are recognised and welcomed and affirmed. You come to give to and receive from each other. It is my strong contention that for each of you, the most important person in this room right now is not me, up here in front of you, but the person sitting next to you. The person who smiles their greeting to you; the person whose warmth of welcome makes you know that you matter; the person to whom you reciprocate that fundamental gift of shared human experience. We come here to connect.
“Only connect” wrote E M Forester in his best and best known novel, Howard’s End. Only connect. Above all else, reach out to connect with that which gives your life meaning and value, and reach out and establish meaningful relationships with those around you. You don’t become part of a community simply by paying the entrance fee and then being a consumer of whatever product is on offer. You become part of a community as you open yourself up to others, as you encourage and allow others to open up to you. You become part of a community primarily according to what you give, not according to what you receive.
That is true of pretty much any community, and it is certainly true of this Unitarian Universalist community of the mountains. The community is what you create.
An old story. An old man is sitting on his rocking chair on his front verandah, whiling away the day, when a car pulls up outside his gate. The driver gets out and asks for directions, saying he is new to the area. The two of them get to chatting, and the driver asks what people are like in this neighbourhood. “What are people like where you come from?” asks the old man. “Oh, they are so friendly. They just can’t do enough for you. They greet you warmly on the sidewalk and in the store, everyone helps everyone else out, people where I come from are just great.” “Yup” replies the old man. “People around here are pretty much like that too.”
After a while, another car pulls up outside the old man’s gate, and this driver also is new to the area and also needing directions. The two of them get to chatting, and the driver asks what people are like in this neighbourhood. “What are people like where you come from?” asks the old man. “Oh, they are so miserable and mean. Nobody talks to their neighbours. They squabble and fight over their boundary fences, and they don’t help each other out if they are in trouble and hardly anyone even knows their neighbours’ names. “Yup” replies the old man. “People around here are pretty much like that too.”
You are the community you want it to be.
It is a basic human need to crave affirmation of our worth. It is our first principle that we affirm the worth and dignity of all persons, and that includes our own. If you are anything like me, you want to find people with whom you can share what is real about yourself, you want you and them to be real with each other, to experience the gift of authenticity, your own and theirs. That is a gift which is surprisingly rare, but so precious when it does happen.
As a way of addressing that basic human need, this year at the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains we are promoting what we are calling Chalice Circles. Some of you know them by another name, perhaps as Covenant Groups. After the service this morning, and again on Tuesday evening at seven, there will be an hour long introduction to what Chalice Circles are, how they function, and what the benefits are of belonging to one. I don’t want to pre-empt those more thorough introductory explanations now, but I encourage you either to stay behind today or come on Tuesday evening, and let me just say this now.
My own experience of being in such groups, of various kinds and comprised of different sorts of people, has been over many years. Sometimes it has been within a group with a specific focus, and sometimes we have been brought together by some shared commonality – for example a Men’s Group I was part of for many years while living in New Hampshire. But all of my experience has been invariably rich. In a group based around a curriculum or course of study, I have certainly learned much from the content of that curriculum. But more importantly, I have not only learned about those other people in the group, their stories, their struggles, their celebrations; I have learned about myself. I have been challenged to trust and be worthy of trust; I have learned how I function within such a group. I have learned what it is to see, and be seen.
John Fox captures something of what it means in his poem, When someone deeply listens to you.
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you,
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you,
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.
The Prospectus which is now available in the vestibule lists the many different classes, courses and groups which will be offered here at UUCM this coming year. I invite and encourage you to take one, to look through it carefully, and to choose which speaks most powerfully to you and to sign up for it. If there is something you don’t see in the Prospectus which you would like to see here, then please, step up and offer it. Many of what is being offered are being offered in a Chalice Circle format, designed so that you are not only sitting next to someone else in a class, but you are deeply connecting with that person, and that connection is an integral part of the purpose of the class.
You have said in the congregational survey that there are two main reasons you come here. For the services which offer you inspiration and stimulation; and to be part of a community in which you make meaningful connection with others and feel an agency in something larger than yourself. Chalice Circles are wonderful opportunities for that deep connection. It is my hope that all of you will participate in at least one such group, that you may be part of the deeply enriching experience that they offer.
Only connect, said Forester. Only connect.