Sermon Lend a Heart
Copyright Sarah K. Person
Delivered: The First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough February 23, 2014
Expect that you will be cared for, and that you will be expected to care for others. This is the core of what it means to be in a congregation. Where else in our public lives do we make this kind of promise? Is it realistic to think we can we keep it in this day and age? Can we afford not to?
“Laurel Hallman, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, Texas,
tells the story of a dour, reclusive Scotsman
who was not in church for many Sundays.
His Presbyterian pastor went to visit him in his humble cottage.
When the pastor knocked,
the Scotsman opened the door and, without a word,
motioned the pastor inside.
The man indicated a rocking chair
in front of the coal fire for the pastor.
He drew up another chair for himself.
In silence, the two men sat and watched the burning coals.
After a time the pastor stood up,
took the fire tongs and
put one of the glowing coals to the side of the hearth.
He sat down again and began to rock.
Both met watched the lone coal as it grew ashen and cold.
After a time the pastor again took the tongs,
picked up the dead coal, and put it back in the fire.
Then he sat down and both men watched as once again
it burned brightly with the rest.
Without a word the pastor left.
The next week the old Scotsman was in church and
never missed a Sunday from that time forward.”
As George Kimmich Beach recounts this story,
he discerns two messages:
(1) “Each soul, like each coal in the fireplace,
(2) needs the community that keeps it alive.” And
(3) (2) “Each soul, like a coal,
(4) helps build the community that warms and sustains us all.”
What makes a church?
It is a unique social institution – a community
more than a collection of like-minded individuals.
Looking around this sanctuary,
I can tell you that there are many times
when we are definitely not like-minded,
but we want to be here anyway. Why are we here?
We can walk in the woods, and read profound books,
and watch inspirational services on demand.
We can volunteer and do our bit for society.
We can do all this and expand our spirits
without coming to church. Why are we here?
It may be that we are wired that way.
Beach offered that story of the Scotsman
in the context of what he calls the dedicated community.
He says we gather together for three reasons:
(1) our need for a deeply shared communal identity;
(2) our need to be enlisted in ends beyond ourselves, and
(3) our need for help when we are stuck in self-defeat.
I would enlarge his first point about communal identity
to include communal survival.
Our institution of church
derived from our need to stay alive and thrive
and bear that light in a sea
of vastly different beliefs, values and purposes – and often time threats.
I’d like to take that metaphor of
the light and warmth of the coals a bit further.
As many of you know, I come from an interfaith marriage
and I am in an interfaith marriage.
We have raised our children in the Jewish faith,
and celebrate all the holidays just like I did as a child.
The highest candle on the menorah is the Shamash candle.
It is used to light all the others.
It signifies the servant nature of leadership.
In this way we are reminded
that we are our best selves
when we serve as bearers of the light for others.
We are our best selves
when we connect with one another
to keep the light and warmth alive.
The servant leader is also one of the core themes of Christianity.
Like other prophets before him,
Jesus asked his disciples
to accept a new mantle of responsibility
and to make new promises, covenantal promises, between one another.
He asked them to be leaders, not by authority but as servants,
like the Shamash candle,
not as consumers of the truth
but as those who served the truth.
When the early Christians gathered
for prophesy and prayer and the breaking of bread,
they pledged that they should take care of one another as they did so.
At the same time that early Christians were electing spiritual leaders,
they were organizing how their community
would take care of itself
while it prepared for the kingdom of God.
They desired to pool their resources,
assert authority, assign responsibilities and resolve differences.
In theory and theology,
just as governing our own passions
would extend peace to our relationships;
a community living in harmony
might extend its peace to the wider world.
1600 years later, before any mention of creed or character,
the earliest church covenants in New England
promised that members
would bind themselves to walking together in mutual fellowship.
We are descendants of this ideal of church.
We have inherited this commitment
to take care of one another,
to covenant with each other to stay in right relationship
while we pursue our mission.
This covenantal connection with one another,
in all our diversity, while we seek a higher purpose
is what sets church apart from other civic activities in our lives.
A covenant is not a contract;
it is a promise we make to each other
that affirms how we will be with one another.
It reflects our needs and values and aspirations
at the same time that it assumes we will not always succeed.
There are always tensions in every human organization.
We come from family systems and experiences
that shape our decidedly strong opinions on the groups we join.
And we can be fundamentally different.
That’s what can give us a
glorious and creative diversity in all our efforts.
It is overcoming that difference
and accomplishing something wonderful that makes it interesting.
Rabbi and therapist Edwin Friedman tells us
that every individual member of a congregation brings with them
a history of families, parents,
grandparents and great-grandparents through generations.
Each and every one of us has a long history
that tells us how to act with each other.
Our personal experiences and personalities
tell us how to know
when we are rewarded, betrayed or downright confused.
When we talk to each other,
we’re talking to all that history that lies behind our faces.
It is a fact of life, in all walks of life,
that we have to learn to get along with folks
who don’t have our expectations.
I feel rewarded when I get a card in the mail.
Yeesh, everytime someone sends me a card
I know there’s a tree that’s been killed somewhere.
I like to get a phone call.
Yeesh, don’t you know how intrusive phone calls are?
I’d much rather get a text.
I like to get a slap on the back and hearing “Good job!”
Yeesh, don’t touch me!
But do tell everyone else what a fine contribution I made to the team –
preferably at a large reception in my honor.
Ugh, I hate being the center of attention.
Wow, I love being the center of attention.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
A large part of associating with others
involves bumping up against each other’s expectations
and learning what to do about it.
These tensions can be more lively in church,
because church is different from all our business and civic associations.
Organized religion has a built-in tension
by nature of its being religion and organized;
and Dan Hotchkiss has eloquently laid out the unique differences for us:
“Religion transforms people; no one touches holy ground and stays the same. Religious leaders stir the pot by pointing to the contrast between life as it is and life as it should be, and urging us to close the gap. Religious insights provide the handhold that people need to criticize injustice, rise above self-interest, and take risks to achieve healing in a wounded world. Religion at its best is no friend to the status quo. Organization, on the other hand, conserves. Institutions capture, schematize and codify persistent patterns of activity. … A well-ordered congregation lays down schedules, puts policies on paper, places people in positions, and generally brings order out of chaos. Organizations can be flexible, creative, and iconoclastic, but only by resisting some of their most basic instincts. ..The stability of a religious institution is a necessary precondition to the instability religious transformation brings.”
During my ordination, John Weston,
then director of ministerial transitions
at the Unitarian Universalist Association,
offered me the ritual right hand of fellowship.
When he grasped my right hand in his,
he also surprised me and grasped my left hand in his left,
and spoke to me while our arms were crossed.
With the right hand of sunlight and fellowship
comes the left hand of shadow and apartness, he said
and they are both inescapable aspects of ministry and congregational life. Churches are about relationship, first and foremost.
And ministry happens in that margin between the sunlight and the shadow. Ministry happens when we serve one another,
lend one another our hearts,
in the cause of the greater good
in the context of all that sun and shadow.
Staying in right relationship is not easy or straightforward.
This congregation, like many non-profits,
has adopted Robert’s Rules of Order to take care of business;
other congregations use different forms of consensus building.
Still others follow the dictates of the clergy
(I know, never in our denomination but I can dream, can’t I).
Robert’s Rules are okay for handling
the busy traffic of opinions
that fly across the table when we are trying to make decisions.
But they do not speak to relationships,
and relationships are why we have church.
What speaks to relationship is a covenant –
a promise we pledge to one another as best we can.
So what is a covenant and how does it work?
A covenant is our unique compilation
of do’s and don’ts for engaging with each other.
What is it that encourages us to participate?
What is it that discourages us?
What is it that we affirm as a congregation together?
What do we say we do not want to affirm?
How do we want to be with each other?
How do we want to be to the world?
This is not easy.
We have to be pretty vulnerable
to let one another know what makes us feel
rewarded, betrayed and confused.
And we have to respond to what someone else tells us –
even when it means we may have let them down.
Remember what Dick Gilbert says:
How easy it is in our weakness
To avoid those beside us who are hurting,
How tempting to ignore their pain,
For it reminds us of our own fragility.
We are stronger together
when we know what we really need
to build strong connections.
I invite you to join together,
as literally thousands of other congregations have done,
and create a covenant for this congregation.
It is a healthy, revealing and honest exercise.
In the coming weeks, Bob Waterman, Dave Kraemer and I
will be guiding this process.
It will take our commitment to one another to another level,
a higher and deeper level in which we tell each other:
In this human circle,
Caring is a calling,
[And]All of us are called.
All of us are called
to serve each other light and warmth
and never let our hearts grow cold. May it be so.