Finding Your Saving Message by Julie Brock
April 16, 2013 at the
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
Good morning. It is a pleasure to worship with you this morning. I want to thank Rev. Meghan for sharing her pulpit with me. She is off to general assembly, and it happens that my flight is a day later than hers, so I get the honor of being with you today. I have to say, though, I’m already getting a little excited for general assembly. This morning Gini Courter wrote on her facebook, “What would it be like to have thousands of people to sing Blue Boat Home with?” Magical! There is always something kind of magical when thousands of Unitarian Universalists gather in one place. It is so validating. We are such a small religion that sometimes it is difficult to remember that there are that many of us!
Although, according to the Pew research center, Unitarian Universalist grew 15% in the last ten years. When every other Protestant denomination is shrinking, our numbers are exploding at record rates. The folks in Boston are very excited about this. In fact the UUA has hired a full time congregational growth specialist. Her name is Tandi Rogers, and it is Tandi’s job to study all the congregations that are growing and find out what they have in common, so we can tell everyone to do the same thing. Tandi researches growth trends and presents her finds at general and regional and district assemblies, and at other business-like meetings where UU congregational leaders gather.
Amazingly enough, according to Tandi, there is one thing that growing congregations have in common across the board. Across geographic location, and starting size, and
theological leaning, and budget, and year of congregational establishment, the congregations that were growing had one crucial thing in common: They all had a clear saving message that they lived-out in the world. Those were the words Tandi Rogers used: a clear, saving message that they lived-out in the world.
When I heard Tandi say this at last year’s Pacific Central District Assembly, I was thrilled, and, if I’m honest, a little perplexed. Immediately, my mind started pondering what this meant. I mean, it wasn’t really super all that useful, because it isn’t directly actionable. It isn’t telling me to advertize a certain way or offer a certain kind of service. In fact it doesn’t really mean anything except that somehow, I understood that … actually … it means everything.
Having a saving message means that a church has a purpose beyond self perpetuation. Having a saving message means the congregation has thought about and decided on what is ultimately important in life, and advertized that their church is a place where reverence and honor is given to that ultimately important thing. And they don’t advertize it by putting their message on the order of service. They advertize by being of service in the world, making connections in their communities, and choosing pathways for the church that are about things larger than what is going on inside the church walls.
Imagine with me for a moment a UU church: a cute, smallish church with an aging population, because most people who attend that church have done so for years. Week to week the only thing that changes on the order of service is the sermon topic and the title of the hymns. The most important thing that happens from month to month is the 3rd Sunday potluck put on by the women’s circle. The sermons often discuss the latest social theory, or send support and love to the victims of the world’s latest atrocity that the congregation morns from afar and possibly takes up a collection for. It is a happy congregation, a comfortable congregation, a stable congregation. It will exist this way until it ages into oblivion.
But ask yourself the following questions: Why do they gather? How do they grow? What do they serve?
Comfort and stability are not bad things, but they have no business being the goals of a church. Church is about more than that—or it should be. Comfort and stability can be isolating; they can reduce the need for us to need one another, the need for us to save each other. Those who are comfortable lose the compulsion to seek.
Now imagine with me for a moment a church that, whatever size, is bustling, is moving. Imagine with me a church where the message each week is one that upsets at least a couple of congregants, because it is asking them to consider things outside of their comfort zone—it is asking them to change and expand. And the congregants who attend have signed on for this. Not only have they agreed to be stretched they are funding their limbering. Heavy dense questions are considered and then acted on, both inside and outside the sanctuary walls. People from all walks of life flock to this church because they understand that we can only appreciate true human potential when we see people in all their forms. And even though it is hard to be in a diverse community, people stay and work on it because they get that, in the end, it’s not about them being comfortable. It’s about how many folks are saved.
Why does this church gather? How does this church grow? What does this church serve? Which would you rather be a part of?
It is a valid question. Creating a saving message is powerful work. It is also extremely difficult work, and some churches are quite happy to remain comfortable. The work of crafting a message of salvation is particularly difficult in a Unitarian Universalist context. Most major religions do the heavy lifting for you. They have a broad saving message that is suppose to apply to everyone. Christian and Islamic faiths have a omnipotent God figure that judges how you live your life or express your faith, and it decides the status of your salvation based on that. Buddhism says that there is a state of enlightenment that can be attained by letting go of worldly attachment, and this state will save you from suffering. Hinduism also has a state of enlightenment one can reach and be saved from the cycles of reincarnation. But Unitarian Universalists don’t exactly have a message of salvation that applies across the religion. We used to. Universalism came to be as a direct reaction to a salvation theory that did not sit right. John Calvin brought about a message of predestination that said God had already decided who was damned and who was saved, and basically we should just not worry about it. Leave the thinking to the holy folks. To which our Universalist ancestors said, “Um … no that’s not it.” And an entire new religion was created.
Our ancestor felt the all encompassing love of God and knew that it was for everyone. And I think, inherently, that we still know this today. We know that every being has worth and dignity, and deserves love, justice and compassion. We might not use the same vocabulary but we’re still here, we are still gathering Sunday mornings in a church, not a social hall or library, or a political rally. We’re here in a sanctuary. So … this begs the question: What are we taking sanctuary from? From what do we need saving?
Clarence Skinner is called the father of modern Universalism, and he, along with many liberal theologians, had this idea that the only hell possible was one we created on this earth by being out of right relationship. As I observe the world around me, I find evidence for this theory every day. It seems that most every act of evil perpetrated by a human being is done so out of some kind of fear. Wars are started because someone fears the loss of power. Hate crimes are committed because someone fears their lifestyle will no longer be dominate. People fear the loss of influence and control, but it seems to me that the real fear goes much deeper than that. We covet influence and control because we are really afraid of being alone. We are terrified of facing a world where we have only ourselves for comfort, companionship, or distraction.
Our deepest collective fear as a species is isolation. That is what we take sanctuary from in this room. We come here to create a beloved community that we may save each other from isolation. We come to dwell in the presence of the all-pervading all-encompassing, many named, but never-ending love. That ever-present company that the first Universalist knew belonged to all people.
What if isolation was the thing that we ultimately needed saving from? What if being saved simply meant you truly understand that you will never be alone? Could salvation be as easy as sensing the never fading divine presence and understanding every moment that you are deeply okay? What kind of Grace could you live out if you felt that way? What amount of anger could you let go of? What kind of peace could you spread? What new and beautiful perspective on life would be opened up to you if you were immune to the deepest kind of human trepidation?
But we Unitarian Universalists are apprehensive. We are apprehensive as a people to truly engage the power of that love. For some reason it is more comfortable for us to think about saving others. We are going to save the communities that are forced to live on the margins and we are going to save the disinherited. But then it becomes us and them, and we are in a different form of isolation.
Instead of trying to save the others, what if we created a message so inclusive, so universally true that it brought folks out of their isolated states and made us come together to worship, and rejoice that we are here, and that life has an infinite possibility for beauty?
Barack Obama crafted the pithy and invigorating message of “Yes we can!” And people heard it, and they believed, and thousands flocked to the polls. Martin Luther King, Jr., believed in a world where the content of one’s character meant more than the color of one’s skin. He proclaimed it possible, and millions took to the streets. Mohatma Ghandi preached that non-violence and revolution were simultaneously possible, and countless numbers put down their arms. So what is your saving message? What do you have to proclaim that will cause the human soul to pay attention? Jerry’s story: When he was at the new-member orientation, when it was his turn to speak, emboldened by the candor of others, he proclaimed, “I don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, and I don’t believe the virgin birth, and I don’t believe in the literal resurrection, and—” About that time, Rev. Meghan interrupted him, leaned across the table, looked him in the eye, and answered, “You are welcome here.”
Tandi Rogers said that the churches that are growing are doing so because they have considered what it means to have a saving message. The ministers and congregational leaders and members have engaged that God love, they have felt the penetrating connectivity, and they have decided how the presence of such a force calls them to be in the world. They examine all of those callings, find the common threads, and name that truth. They demonstrate the veracity of that truth by turning it into a lived gospel. And all of a sudden their souls are on the line too. It is their human connection and their life mission that are in question, and, with matters that sacred, there are no people in the middle and people on the margins. There are just people, and we all need to save each other.
I don’t know what happens after this body lets go of this life. I’m becoming increasingly ok with that, because … well … I don’t’ think that I have a choice. I’m certainly not presumptuous enough to assert that I have a message that will work for all people or even for all of Unitarian Universalism. But I have one for myself. It might be cliché, but I’m kind of a first and seventh principle kind of girl. I believe that every voice is sacred, and we are all connected. And while this human container causes me to be extremely fallible, it is my life’s mission to remember that message each and every day, and each and every moment. If I could look at every person and perfectly remember that 13 billion years ago we all originated from the same single point of light, if I could keep permanently in my consciousness that we are all made of the same star stuff, that my body is our body, if I could always hold up that another person’s perspective on life is another window unto the face of God, then I would be infinite. I would disappear into the connective force that created life, no longer having use for a singular body. My consciousness would melt into a defiance of time, no longer needing to separate what was, is, and will be.
If I had to come up with a story to describe the end of time, that’s what would happen. We would all realize the depth of our connection, soften and permeate one another, and return to that original point of light with a lot of new stories to tell. Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe we got bored hanging out in eternity knowing everything, so we created this life game to keep ourselves entertained.
These are stories I tell myself from the land of maybe. But right now, we are living in the land of what is. We are watching people flock to churches that have a clear and urgent message. People have often said to me that Unitarian Universalism has a weak theology, because we don’t provide concrete answers. We are an unnerving religion because we don’t tell you how to get saved. Unnerving maybe. But weak? I don’t think so. I think it is the stronger message that our salvation lies in our own hands, that our scripture is written from our own saving messages, and that our gospel is lived through our action.
Our growth will not come from a stellar membership committee or the world’s best potluck casserole. We will grow when we decide what kind of church we want to be, when
we demonstrate what kind of people we are by considering and deciding on a saving message that we live out in the world. Because we believe in love, and we feel our unbreakable connection, every day, right now, from now on.
Blessed be and amen.