Sermon Text as Prepared (will vary slightly from the video)
It is always good to be with you – we have a connection that dates back to the fall of 2018, when I came to visit you in preparation for a sabbatical ministry. I have since supported your Wellspring program, preached for you, and in the last few weeks provided pastoral support while Rev. Lara has been on leave. You know that I often bring messages of hope, creativity, and spiritual nourishment. And physical nourishment too, as many of you remember that I preached about pie – as I wore this beautiful stole made for me by Rev. Lara for our first sabbatical service together.
But if you came today for pie, well… that’s not this.
Because while I have been a pastor to you, I haven’t always been a good prophet. I have sometimes pulled my punches; I’ve let the truth hide under beauty and metaphor.
Instead, today, I must lean into my call. This stole…
… given to me on the day of my ordination, reminds me that I must sometimes speak plainly and lean into the prophetic … to remember that being in covenant and communion with you requires me to tell you, people that I love, the unvarnished truth.
And the unvarnished truth is this: this pandemic has unmasked a problem that has long been simmering: the rugged American individualism we so highly prize is absolutely killing our congregations and our professional staff. And if we are killing ourselves from the inside, what hope do we have of making any bit of difference in the world?
You have often heard me say that we have to get it right inside our walls if we have any hope of getting it right outside our walls – but I have never really unpacked it.
So here we go.
We know that because of this global pandemic – which is still going on, by the way (thanks, omicron)– our emotional resiliency is shot. We feel, at different times and sometimes all at once, stress, fear, anger, sickness, loss, grief, shock, and trauma. We feel queasy and uncertain and unmoored, and irritated and disappointed, with so much out of control, we turn to the things we can control. We devolve into fake fights over meaningless things, acting out of our personal desires and a sense that only we know what’s right.
The dominant culture that surrounds us teaches that control is about success, comfort, getting what we need. This is what capitalism tells us control is about – whoever has the most toys wins. We get our needs met and complain when they aren’t. We who are white, especially… and middle or upper class, especially… cannot help but think this way, because we have had, and we have been taught what success looks like. Capitalism. schooling. American history as it was taught to us – white, European American history. We often say that white supremacy culture is the water we swim in, and capitalism is the air that we breathe.
And so we approach everything in our lives – from work to relationships to hobbies to yes, even our faith communities – through this lens of capitalism, this particular way of understanding success.
Now I know that you KNOW this…and you KNOW that a faith community such as ours is not meant to be about success or control or getting what you need.
But this church is acting like it.
I don’t know if it gives you comfort, but practically everyone in faith communities in every denomination is acting like it too, so I know it’s not just an isolated problem.
But that doesn’t make it any better.
This approach to your congregation is causing harm. Harm to each other, harm to your minister, harm to your staff, harm to your congregation.
You are relying on your minister instead of sharing the ministry.
You are demanding more in a time when we know everyone is only capable of doing less.
You are forgetting that your minister – and all ministers – have gone through the pandemic too, have struggled with hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths too, have worried constantly about the people we serve, our families, and our communities. All while facing the truths of our nation and our world and all that is wrong beyond our walls.
We are not holding it together very well, and you are not helping.
Look. We who are ministers KNOW we are disappointing you. As my colleague Lydia Mulkey points out, “the pandemic [for ministers has been] all about disappointing people instead of causing their deaths.”
But your disappointment cannot be translated into performance evaluations and bottom lines. Because what that does is turn ministry into a commodity.
But ministry is not a commodity, it is a CALLING. And that’s why this feels so hard – because every criticism, every fake fight, every ‘customer comment’ shakes our understanding of the call and keep ministries from thriving. That’s counter-capitalist too, by the way, this sense of call. We have to do it because we can’t not. Too many good ministers leave ministry because their faith in the call to serve this faith and the people in it has been shaken by the demands of those who want churches to run like businesses, and employees to serve the stockholders.
That’s one of the struggles of congregational polity – it sets up a model that, at its worst, looks like a corporation serving its stockholders – a professional staff there to do the bidding and offer a return on investment to the pledging members of a congregation.
And that is killing our faith, especially when a pandemic has absolutely undercut every minister’s ability to do the kind of ministry they – and you – are used to.
This is important: we who are ministers and other professional staff suddenly had to learn skills we never had to learn before. We needed to become tech gurus almost immediately. We had to learn quickly how to hold a congregation over wifi. We had to worry about our projects and our building and your welfare. We spent countless hours holding you together, holding your fears and anxieties, helping you learn too, and then as vaccinations started rolling out, we had to become experts on epidemic safety and protocols and make tough decisions for congregations made up of babies, and children, and adults, and elders, and the immunocompromised and the suddenly unemployed and the neuro-atypical and the lonely and the angry.
And we were scared and lonely and angry too. We still are.
We know you, the congregation – and all of our congregations, have been disappointed. We have been disappointed too.
But when your anxiety and disappointment becomes a call to judgment, control and criticism, we all have a problem.
It isn’t how our faith works.
And it certainly isn’t loving.
You simply cannot say love is all we need when you don’t act in love.
This matters so much, the apostle Paul wrote perhaps one of the most famous biblical passages about it. And we are even proud of how we repeat the words from I Corinthians 13, “If I have not love, I am nothing.”
But that’s just part of it. You see, the whole point of writing about this is because the congregation he was writing to in the first century was behaving badly. They were thinking of themselves, showing their faithfulness through their success and their control, bragging about their gifts and copping a holier than thou attitude. They were measuring themselves against each other. They were seeking to control each other.
So Paul lays it out for them.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.I Corinthians 13:1-6 (NRSV)
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It is not irritable or resentful. IT DOES NOT INSIST ON ITS OWN WAY.
Love in itself is not enough.
And that’s hard, in a faith that sides with love, answers the call of love, answers yes to love, draws the circle of love wide.
We Unitarian Universalists are so convinced that all we need to do is HAVE love and we can continue to behave the way we want to. We are so convinced that all we need to do is write and occasionally repeat some affirming words in a covenant and we can continue to behave the way we want to. We are utterly convinced that it is enough to say we love and then are constantly baffled why our shared ministry isn’t thriving.
How many relationships have we seen or experienced that imploded despite one of the partners insisting ‘but you know I love you’ but having never actually committed to showing and expressing that love in real, tangible ways?
There’s a reason Paul uses the metaphor of marriage with another congregation, this time in Ephesus. Yes, it’s that troublesome “wives, be subject to your husbands” passage in his letter to the Ephesians – and god knows how many bad takes there are on that. But really, what Paul is saying to them – and us – is that to truly be a faith community, this counter-cultural thing, we must work on it and treat it with honor, the way we do our romantic and familial relationships.
We absolutely HAVE to be aware when we’re being selfish, or controlling, or bullying, or withholding.
We have to be willing and ready to do the hard work of reconciliation – of mending and nurturing.
We cannot just apologize and expect that to be the end of it.
We cannot assume good intentions if we don’t back it up with our behavior.
We cannot properly care for each other if we are constantly wondering when we’ll get ours in return.
We cannot grow and change as a community if we continue to prioritize individualism over the communal good.
We cannot in good faith witness the struggles and be good allies if we are measuring a return on investment.
We cannot buddy up to love and say we have love.
Love alone is not enough.
Love must be embodied.
Look. This is hard. You know this faith is hard – it asks much of you. It doesn’t tell you what to believe or how to follow your spiritual path. It encourages you to direct experience and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It challenges you to actually affirm and promote dignity, and worth, even to those who cause harm. It calls you to affirm and promote equity and compassion – to all.
And this work – this work I am calling you to today – is hard. It is full of challenges to the very air you breathe. It calls into question how you have been behaving – demanding the impossible, demeaning and criticizing instead of lifting up and helping. It calls into question how you have been thinking about this congregation as services you purchase instead of a way of being together. It calls into question the hurtful and harmful things you say to one another out of your own stress and trauma. It calls into question how you are in relationship to those who are in service to you, who are called to minister to you, and those who form this community.
I have no easy answers.
I cannot wrap this up in a tidy bow for you, sing a joyful song with you, affirm you and lift you up.
We rush too quickly to hope, to solutions, to answers. I know this is true of me too – I often preach in ways that leave you motivated, affirmed, comforted. I want you to be able to leave worship ready to face the world.
But this is hard work that can’t be finished at the end of the postlude.
Yes… hope will come… but we must carefully assess how we treat one another, our expectations, our choices. This is meant to be a shared ministry – utterly counter-cultural, utterly counter-capitalist. The work requires not forgiveness but repentance. It requires us to make a different choice.
It is time to make different choices. All of us. You… me…we… all of us must dwell in the hard places, those places from where the hurt comes. It is time to have hard conversations, and actually, deeply, carefully listen. Hear the struggles of your minister. Hear the pain of your leadership. Hear the trauma that infuses you, and your family, and this congregation and this community. How has your behavior or beliefs perpetuated the harm? Acknowledge it. Accept it. Make a different choice.
And then, IN love, act. Do what is needed. Lean into the challenge. Let go of control, Let go of measures of success, Let go of perfectionism and your need to be right, Let go of your selfishness and navel-gazing. Let go of bottom lines and returns on investment. Remember what church is actually for.
If you are going to be serious about our faith and our covenant, then don’t just float on a raft; put on the scuba gear and dive into the depths of relationships.
Do what is needed.
Remember, we must…we MUST get it right inside our walls if we have any hope of getting it right outside our walls.
This… THIS.. is truly the work of justice. It starts here, and now, amongst you.
I know you can do it. I have seen you do remarkable things. I know you don’t want to be harming one another and forgetting how life-saving this faith can be.
Hope does come.
Thank you so much for this powerful and timely message.