Of Baubles and Juice

Audio file of Sermon, delivered at the Unitarian Church of Nashua in March 2014 

The Sermon  

“See this shiny bauble?” says the Rev. John Gibbons, the UU minister who was my internship supervisor.  His eyes sparkle, his voice is excited and playful as he lifts his hand into the air, holding that virtual bauble for me to see.  “Here’s another one!” he laughs, “And here’s a third!”  This is how John Gibbons describes his sermon style.   Then he contrasts his style with that of the preacher he most admires: his internship supervisor, Gordon McKeeman, whom he says “can turn one idea over in his head in a way that lets you see the thousand diamond glints in the idea, and take that one idea deeper and deeper and deeper.”

Think for a moment about the Christmas lights I used as an object lesson a few minutes ago.  They illustrate perfectly the point I want to make today: A sermon, or for that matter, a congregation, is really not just about the baubles or the multi-faceted idea.  It’s all about the juice!

Notice how the cord on the Christmas lights is basically tree-colored, so your attention is drawn to the lights rather than the cord.  My father believed no Christmas tree was fully clad until it had 800 tiny lights shining in its branches – with the electrical cord that supplied those lights meticulously (and with much swearing and sweating) hidden from view.  And I mean completely hidden from view!  You see, you aren’t supposed to focus on the cord or the juice delivered by it.  You’re supposed to focus on the lights – on the baubles and multifaceted things with a thousand diamond glints.

But if the juice isn’t there, the lights don’t shine, do they?

My grandmother was a life-long Episcopalian, and she never took a break from church.  Of course, I don’t mean she never missed a Sunday, just that her commitment to her church was unwavering.

Over the course of nearly 60 years of involvement with the congregation where I was baptized, she saw at least half a dozen ministers of varying gifts and shortcomings come and go.  She stayed when other members, including two of her own children and most of their children quietly left the church for philosophical or theological reasons, withdrew their support because they didn’t like a given minister or a particular decision made by the lay leadership, or stormed out in disillusionment and anger as the vestry (the governing board) failed to take immediate and appropriate action in the face of revelations that the priest who served the congregation when I was growing up had molested several of its children.

My grandmother was different from us and so many others, because my grandmother’s commitment was not to the gathered community of her congregation, or to a particular way of doing things, or to a given minister; it was, first and last, to her faith.  I don’t mean the doctrines and dogma of her religion, only some of which she believed. I mean the juice, the animating force, that which gave her life purpose and meaning.

The dogma and doctrines, the programs and people, even the ministers, these were baubles and multifaceted things with a thousand diamond glints, some bright and shiny, some fragile or false, some wondrous and deep, but her faith – her faith was the juice.  To be sure, her faith was nourished, and sustained, and challenged in and through those baubles and multifaceted things, but they were not ends in themselves.  My grandmother’s faith was nourished, sustained, and challenged in and through the commitment she maintained regardless of the institution’s strengths and its shortcomings.

So, my grandmother never “took a break” from church because she had other things she considered more valuable to do, didn’t like the current minister, or missed something when things changed, and she didn’t even consider leaving the church when it failed to live up to its own ideals, or to hers.  My grandmother never expected the spiritual journey to be easy or to her liking. Instead, she expected to face the challenges it put in her path, to embrace them as a way to grow in faith.

As an interim minister, I am keenly aware of the reality that times of transition bring changes in participation, commitment and leadership.  Indeed, some of those changes are critical for the health and future of the congregation.  Ideally, they lead to a renewed sense of commitment, strengthened stewardship and a confidence – even a faith about the future.

As a congregation, you have faithfully embraced the opportunities and challenges of your interim period.  Many of you have, indeed, grown more committed, more faithful.  You’ve embraced new ways of doing things, and you’ve nourished new gifts in your selves and others.

Individually and together, you have explored who you are as a congregation, and how your personal agendas and preferences fit into the congregation’s needs as it works to discover and fulfill its purpose.

You are renewing your commitment to living your UU values, treating each other and your ministers and staff with respect and dignity even when you disagree with them or are disappointed in them.

And now, during your annual stewardship drive, you have the opportunity to embark upon — or deepen — a spiritual discipline of giving as generously as possible of your financial resources, your time and your talents to this congregation and its good work in the world.

Embracing the future faithfully means making a deep commitment to this congregation, not in exchange for the baubles and multifaceted gems it gives you, but because you believe that this congregation represents your best opportunity to uncover – or develop a sense of – meaning and purpose in your life, or because it calls you into greater integrity with the things you say you value, or because it helps you to grow and to live into your calling in the world – as individuals and as a congregation.

This is the promise of our Unitarian Universalist congregations.  It’s why I say that I believe our congregations exist to help us grow in faith, whether our orientation is theistic or humanistic. For by faith, I don’t mean a fixed set of beliefs, but an awareness of the value in and of our own and other lives, and the ability and commitment to live in the ways required of us by that awareness, which means living not only for what we want, but also for what the congregation and the wider world need.  Faith is the juice. It’s the animating and sustaining force.

Interestingly, faith is the juice that sustains many Christians as well, despite the stereotype common among Unitarian Universalists that Christianity is all about doctrines and dogma.  I know many Christians who are not nourished or sustained by doctrines or dogma, but by the juice – their faith.  The doctrines and dogma, the practices and rituals are the baubles and multi-faceted things with a thousand diamond glints.  They are part of the structure within which Christians are nourished, sustained and challenged.  Truth be told, there are many Christians who do a better job than we do of not mistaking the baubles and ideas for the juice.

I know that my grandmother didn’t uncritically accept every belief of her church.  Because I know that she did not feel convinced of a life after this one, or the existence of heaven and hell as potential afterlife destinations, I’m pretty certain that Christianity’s central idea, that Jesus’s death on the cross would save her or reconcile her to God would have been, at the very least, beside the point, but she did articulate many ways in which her faith saved her, by giving her meaning and direction, or helping her to see it.  Her faith gave her certainty that her life, and what she did with it, mattered.  It taught her that the same was true of every other person, and so she treated everyone with respect.  It called and equipped her to make significant contributions to her family, her friends, her congregation and the wider community.  Far from limiting her beliefs, my grandmother’s commitments to her congregation challenged her to keep examining her beliefs, and to keep learning and growing in faith throughout her life.

As part of welcoming new members, my internship supervisor John Gibbons – the one with the baubles — has the strange custom of saying to new members that the moment they join, the place will be a little less perfect.  The first time I heard that, I was a little taken aback.  I wondered what he meant by it?  Did he mean that by joining, new members make the congregation a little less perfect?  Or did he mean that, as their commitment deepens, their idealized images of the congregation are likely to suffer some blows?  I suspect it’s the latter.  Indeed, I bet there’s not a single one of you who’s happy with everything in this congregation.  AND YET, YOU’RE HERE.  Today, you’re here.

We human beings are drawn in by things we think we want, by baubles and multi-faceted gems: programs we appreciate, ministers who inspire us, events that bring us together as a community, and our desire to make the world a better place.  We get what we really need through committing ourselves wholeheartedly to that which lies beneath it all.

When my grandmother was around 90 years old, she visited my spouse and me in Wisconsin, and accompanied us to our Unitarian Universalist Society for worship on Sunday Morning. I wondered what my grandmother would think of our radical faith tradition, and was surprised and moved when she quietly slipped a 20-dollar bill in the offering plate.

You see, my spouse and I had an income of at least 5 times hers, but her gift that morning was very nearly equivalent to our weekly pledge. She was a visitor, a guest, and her contribution that morning went far beyond the value of $20 to our congregation, for by making that gift, she modeled for me the kind of commitment one makes when one believes that the best way to grow in faith is to be faithful.