The Church of Me: How Do We Want to Be Known?

March 4, 2012
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

Once upon  a time there was a church.

And then…

And then.

And then we make up the rest.

Last weekend, a 20-something year old single woman visited our church for the first time. She hadn't been to church for a long time, having been raised Catholic and left that tradition long ago.  Full disclosure: she is a friend of mine, a sort of adopted little sister who keeps two horses next door to the parsonage.  I have known her for about a year and always extended invitations to church.  Like many young people, she had so much going on in her life, she hadn't attended what she referred to as "one of our masses" yet, but finally was able to make it last Sunday.  She went home that afternoon and posted this ebullient message on her Facebook page: "Okay so I just had a liberating experience and I'm going to come clean with all of you!  Please love me for who I am, not what I am.  Today I'm coming out!... I have found my religion and I am a Unitarian!" 

Once upon a time there was a church.  There were a lot of churches.  People attended them faithfully on Sunday mornings because that was what you did.  Christianity was America's civic religion, not a form of spiritual life for most people, but a form of civic engagement.  You affiliated with a church not necessarily because you personally agreed with its theology (if, in fact, you knew much about its theological tradition at all, beyond sitting obediently in the pews once a week), but because church membership was part of citizenship.  That part of the story is over.  When people like Justine, who were raised going to church, leave them, they feel no obligation or pressure to find another.  Those who are what we call "unchurched," have many ways to find community and spiritual nurture.  Today, certainly in this part of the country, church membership is not only voluntary, but very much a matter of choice among many choices.

No reason to fret, if we believe - and we do - that people can be morally upright, trustworthy folks without benefit of religious belief or involvement.  And so, on March 4th, as we march forth into the future, why not remind ourselves that our investment in First Parish is not about anxiety, but about love?   We welcome newcomers like Justine not because "Oh my gosh, a new person to replace the four beloved members who passed away last month." but "Yay for her, finding that sense of homecoming, belonging and excitement about a free, open-minded faith tradition that I felt when I first visited this congregation (or a UU church)!"

Once upon there was a church, and all it really was, was a group of people being human together and harnessing their sense of awe, reverence and gratitude for life into something meaningful to share with each other and to pass along to their children - a sense of gratitude that would also inspire them to move out into the world with a commitment to help and to serve.  If we have a mission statement, it would be something like that: "To seek meaning, to love and to serve."  There's plenty to do just with that as a mission statement, but yet somewhere along the way, churches started telling themselves that they should declare a major, and congregations today are under some real pressure to specialize, to be known for something.  Some of that pressure is frankly about a sense of marketing: "How will we distinguish ourselves from other houses of worship in our area?"  But that sense of pressure is also a good one, because it keeps us connected to the question of vocation.  Frederick Buechner writes this about vocation, and although he is speaking about the sense of vocation in an individual's life, we can translate it to refer to our communal sense of vocation as a church:

‘Vocation' comes from the Latin vocare (to call) and means the work a [person] is called to by God.

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self- interest.

The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done.  If you find your work rewarding, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work does not benefit others, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work does benefit others, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy with it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your [community] much either."  -Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC

Very interesting in several ways.  First, the idea that there is a difference between having a job and fulfilling a calling, a sense of deep purpose that comes from the soul, or from someplace deeper than the survival instinct or the ego.  Not everyone gets to live out of that sense.  We all know people who had a burning desire to be something or to do something with their lives that society or gender roles or finances or circumstances didn't permit, and many of us have a sense of how painful it is to know that fate.  But then, there is the idea that vocation isn't just what the individual needs, but what the world needs.  That is so important.  Buechner defines vocation as the place where your greatest gladness meets the world's greatest need, and that is what I invite you and urge you as a church to work on discerning and defining in this season together.

Earlier in the year we had a survey that helped us get a sense of you individually - where you are and what you personally need - now let's move into thinking about what the church needs to be, communally.  Where is the place where our church's greatest gladness meet the world's greatest need?  How do we program more intentionally around those things, finance those things, and communicate them to the broader community?

Some of it we do intuitively and well but I think we are at a period in our institutional life where it is time to freshly articulate our vocation and find ways to individually and institutionally commit to it.  It is not the minister's job to decide the church's vocation, but it is the minister's job to help articulate it. And so let me make one attempt this morning:

  1. I believe we are called to liberate.  Thinking about Justine and remembering how many people are longing for a religion that respects their spiritual and intellectual autonomy, I believe that we must be clear that we exist to liberate the mind and heart and spirit from systems of belief that wound and alienate people from God, from the Earth, and from each other.
  2. I believe we are called to educate.  Our book groups, Adult Learning programs, heavily-researched sermons, Bible study, occasional lectures, historic ties with the James Library and its Lyceum tradition, carefully planned and superbly taught religious education for children - these are an expression of one of our deepest religious values, which is that learning is a life-long endeavor that equips us to be more responsible citizens of the world, as well as people who are willing to be changed and challenged by lifelong discovery of fresher truths.
  3. We are called to celebrate.  As Unitarian Universalists, we have inherited a theological tradition that is hopeful and optimistic.  Our religious ancestors rejected the dreary teachings of Calvin and the notion of a vengeful Deity - hellfire and brimstone - that some still preach today.  We are grateful for life's rich diversity, ambiguity and complexity, and we know from experience that it is healthy, right and good for communities to laugh and rejoice together.
  4. Create. This is a creative community, full of artists and people who appreciate the truth and wisdom revealed by all manner of the arts: literary, fine arts, performing arts, architecture, photography, craftwork, and others.  I think the arts are a part of our mission and our calling that we have not fully appreciated or articulated as a religious value here - have not used at all in our descriptions of ourselves to the wider community.  I recommend that we do, as I believe it is a special gift of this congregation (and if you went to the Talent Show last night, you know what I mean!). We may take our talent, our love of the arts, for granted because we enjoy it so much! But again, going back to Buechner's definition of vocation as the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deepest need, does not the world need the transcendent experience of beauty that comes through the arts?  Of gathering together to contemplate something that brings us to a state of transcendence or catharsis or a sense of appreciation for what human beings can create? 
  5. Finally, I believe we are called to advocate.  This can take many forms, but this is another name for service and for public witness.  Advocacy is the name for acting our love in the world with our hands, our financial assistance, and our presence - whether through the written word or actually physical showing up on behalf of those who need our help.

At a meeting this fall, one of our church members mentioned with some pain that he had heard our congregation referred to around town as "The Church of Me."  It was an "ouch" moment, and we all understood it as a dig against us, an accusation that we are too interested in individual freedoms to serve the world in any meaningful way.  It may be that that is our reputation among some people, and if it rings true we must address it.  We cannot rest on the good works of generations gone before to earn our place in the roll call of admired South Shore institutions.  However, when I quoted the "Church of Me" remark later, a woman who has known this congregation for thirty years (but not as a member, she is connected through one of our programs), pulled me aside to tell me where that accusation came from, what its context had been.  She told me that at some point in the past, probably during the ministry of Dick Fewkes, this church had hosted a program on one of the anniversaries of Roe v. Wade  - or maybe it was Planned Parenthood - at any rate, it was an event to celebrate women's reproductive rights and freedoms.  Some in the community disapproved, and sneeringly referred to the church as "The Church of Me" because it promoted sexuality without procreation as the end.

Talk about ripped from the headlines!  We are right now in the midst of a bitter national debate about the very same subject - the same exact topic, in fact.   I don't need to refer you to the latest insult leveled by a conservative talk show host against a young woman who testified the other day before Congress about insurance coverage for contraception, because we don't use such language in this meetinghouse.  Well, by God, if hosting an event that supports women's rights has earned us the nickname "The Church of Me," I am proud to be a member of that church, and its minister.  Similarly, when we flew our rainbow flag on the exterior of the meetinghouse (and which we took down only because it got tattered in the wind, and blew off, and which we are going to relocate the rainbow flag symbol on a permanent sign when we get one) and people called us "the gay church" and said that "the gay minister made them put it up", I was proud of that accusation too (although I joked at the time that if anyone thinks that any minister can MAKE a UU congregation do what they want, they really don't know our tradition, and secondly, that as it was hard enough to find a date down in this area, I would prefer that the community didn't get my sexual orientation wrong).  Advocating can mean visiting, writing and supporting prisoners through our Partakers Program.  It can mean doing more for the Norwell Food Pantry now that our dear Barbara Meacham isn't alive to be our connection any longer.  It can be writing to legislators, working on a Habitat home, showing up to cook a meal at the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry in Roxbury.  There is a lot we have done, a lot we can do, and I believe this is a part of our vocational self-understanding and communication about ourselves that could stand to be strengthened in the immediate future.

March forth.  In the coming month, you are all invited to coffee and conversation gatherings to talk about your investment in this community.  I hope that those conversations will not be just about financial gifts, but that you will take the opportunity to talk about the church's vocation and your role in living it out.

Once upon a time there was a church.  It was, and it is still today, a random and precious collection of fascinating individuals who, of their own free will and consent, gather to access a deeper experience of life than each can find on his or her own.  And what happened next … was up to them.