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Sep 18, 2017

Sometimes You Need a Story to Survive

as preached at the Ashby First Parish Church, September 17, 2017

I am delighted to be with you this morning. It is the first Sunday of a new church year and I have the privilege of serving as your new minister. I am looking forward to getting to know each of you, the town of Ashby, and your wider community. It is my hope that in the coming months we will learn and grow together.

I join you at the beginning of your congregation’s, and your town’s, 250th year. It has been a long way from there to here and yet any time, any moment, can be an opportunity for fresh starts or re-imaginings. The poet Dante knew this. He commenced his great poem in, as it were, the middle:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

We too find ourselves in the middle of this story we call the First Parish Church of Ashby. Thanks to the diligent work of Dorothy Wilder, we know how the story began. We know that the town voted to build a meeting house almost immediately after its incorporation. We know that the first meeting house was begun in 1771, completed in 1790, and replaced by the present building in 1809. We know that the church and town formally separated in about 1841. That was when the building was split into two floors. The top became the present sanctuary. The bottom served as the town hall until sometime in the late 1880s. We know the sanctuary was remodeled in 1927. The rooms that stand on either side of the chancel were added.

The story of First Parish Church is not merely its building. Amid Wilder’s litany of ministers and active members of the congregation, we learn that its liberals and conservatives split in 1820. The liberals became Unitarians and kept the building. The conservatives adhered to the trinity and formed the congregationalist church across the street. Evidentially, it has generally been the larger of the two congregations. Wilder indicates it was begun by “a majority of church members.” In reference to First Parish Church, she writes that its members “could not hope to belong to a large and comfortable majority.”

Reading Wilder’s history, we learn two further things about the life of this congregation. The first is that music has long been important to its members. The initial reference to music in the town’s records appears in 1768, one year after the church was founded. The other thing we learn from Wilder is that heating the building has long been an issue. She reports debates about how best to keep it warm in the winter months as far back as 1833.

Though this sketch of the story of First Parish Church leaves much unmentioned, I suspect it captures the major highlights. Certainly, the importance of music and the challenge of keeping warm in the winter were both shared with me when I met with the search committee. At least one person told that they come here largely because they love the music. I was also told that in the cold months you drain the pipes after services to make sure that they do not freeze.

The search committee did more than tell me about the Lizards in the Hayloft and avoiding frozen pipes. They brought the story of the congregation into the present. The last fifty years of congregational life are in many ways similar to the First Parish Church’s first two hundred years. Throughout all this time the congregation has been deeply entwined with the town.

Today is my third time in Ashby. The two other times I heard the same story about the congregation last fifty years. The first time was from a member of the search committee. The second time was from Pastor Ken, who serves the congregation across the street and who grew up in First Parish Church. The story centered on your former minister, Philip Zwerling.

I understand that Phil served here during the Vietnam War. He was an anti-war activist and, like many Unitarian Universalist ministers at the time, opposed to the United States military actions in Southeast Asia. He appears to have expressed his opposition in a rather imprudent manner. In 1973, I have been told, he denounced the American war effort on the bandstand in the town common during the annual Memorial Day joint service between First Parish Church and the Ashby Congregational Church. “This split the church and more than half of its members went across the street,” Pastor Ken advised me when I met him during the summer concert on the green I attended.

The congregation has yet to recover to the level of membership it had prior to Phil’s tenure. In the 1960s it seems to have had perhaps a hundred fifty members. Today it has forty or so. Listening to this story I was reminded that in our collective lives trauma leaves an enduring imprint. Much of the present political conflict in the United States can be traced back to the Civil War and through it to the twin traumatic sins of the nation’s founding: the enslavement and forced migrations of Africans to the North American continent and the genocide of the hemisphere’s indigenous peoples. Trauma can narrate our collective life, suggesting what we imagine to be possible and what we imagine to be prohibited.

In the collective life of First Parish Church, the traumatic tale of Phil Zwerling on the bandstand seems to come with a subtext. The subtext is that the town of Ashby is conservative and that if I want to succeed as minister I would probably do my best to mind that.

I wonder the truth of that subtext. Certainly, Ashby is much more conservative than any place I have lived. The majority of its votes went to Donald Trump in the last election. And yet, the story of Phil and the bandstand is hardly unique. Lots of Unitarian Universalist congregations were split by the Vietnam War. No less a congregation than Arlington Street Church suffered the same fate.

Arlington Street is one of the flagship churches of our religious tradition. Located across from Boston Common, possessing sixteen beautiful Tiffany windows that glow with an almost holy light on a Sunday morning, the congregation was for many years the cathedral church of Boston Unitarians. No less a figure than William Ellery Channing served as its preacher during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. You might remember Channing as the greatest theologian of American Unitarianism. He was the promoter of the claim that each of us contains within “the likeness to God” and the author of memorable aphorisms such as, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.”

Arlington Street split in the 1960s over the minister’s support of the anti-war movement. Jack Mendelsohn served there in the during the Vietnam War and under his leadership the congregation hosted a massive draft card burning that garnered national attention. It resulted in a famous court case that included the conviction of the pediatrician Benjamin Spock and William Sloane Coffin, Jr., then the chaplain to Yale University, for obstructing the war effort. It also resulted in significant criticism of Mendelsohn’s ministry by a number of the church’s members. In one letter he received from a congregant he was told, “such demonstrations serve only to provide aid, comfort and encouragement to North Vietnam in prolonging the war and refusing to discuss any reasonable basis for ending the conflict.” The phrase aid and comfort, you may know, is legal shorthand for treason.

Arlington Street went into crisis and decline in the decade or so following the draft card burning. In the 1970s it actually ran as a fellowship, without a minister. It struggled through the 1980s to such an extent that the physical plant fell somewhat into decay. Yet, today, Arlington Street is a thriving congregation with a Sunday morning worshipping congregation of about two hundred. It weathered its crisis and returned to vibrancy. Why? Well, the answer is straightforward. After its crisis, the congregation was eventually able to answer a simple question: what is the purpose of the church? They respond by saying, we are “gathered in love and service for justice and peace.” And then they take actions to live out that answer.

I am not affiliated with Arlington Street and I am not intending to lift them up as the paradigmatic example of twenty-first century liberal religion. Instead, I share their journey to suggest that any religious community that wishes to recover from its past traumas must be able to answer the question: what is the purpose of the church?

I posed this question to the search committee and again to the Parish Committee when I met with them. Each time I got a similar answer. Members of both committees said something like, “the purpose of this church is to survive and preserve our historic building.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this answer. It is good to keep a keep small congregation afloat. It is important to meet Sunday after Sunday and offer each other emotional support. You make a difference in the world by maintaining a Unitarian Universalist voice in rural Massachusetts at a time when religious institutions across New England are in decline. You have a beautiful building. From the outside, it is picture postcard perfect. There is no reason to suspect that placing the survival of the congregation and the preservation of the building as your mission is inadequate for your community’s near future. First Parish Church has been here for two hundred and fifty years. It will be around for sometime to come.

But, I suspect, that if we want to see the congregation move from surviving to thriving we will need to come up with a different answer to the question what is the purpose of the church than the one you have now. Survival and preservation are good for current members. We may need a new story if we want to attract new ones. What is the purpose of this church?

This is not my question to answer. It is yours. In the coming months, I plan to work with the Parish Committee and all of you to answer the question, what is the purpose of the church? It may be that you decide that your current answer is sufficient. It has served you for the past few decades. It might also be that you decide you want a new answer, one that tells a different story about the life of the congregation. That will be your choice.

I close not by suggesting my own answer to the question what is the purpose of the church but by offering words from three of the greatest Unitarian Universalist theologians of recent decades: James Luther Adams, Rebecca Parker, and Mark Morrison-Reed.

Adams: ...the vocation of… the church, [is] to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsible to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transforming power.

Parker: Good religious communities convert people to the way of life our society needs to move to: from believing that violence is redemptive to practicing justice and compassion; from going it alone to giving and receiving care from others; from isolating oneself in individualism to sharing work on behalf of the common good.

Morrison-Reed: It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

What is the purpose of this church? What story will help the congregation to survive? What story will help it thrive? May we answer these questions well.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags First Parish Ashby Unitarian Universalism Dante William Ellery Channing Jack Mendelsohn Dorothy Wilder Ashby Vietnam Philip Zwerling Arlington Street Church James Luther Adams Rebecca Parker Mark Morrison-Reed

Oct 18, 2015

Democracy as a Religious Practice

as preached at Harvard Divinity School, October 16, 2015

The sermon I am going to share with you this afternoon is a result of one of those unpleasantries with which we preachers find ourselves saddled. I speak of the assigned sermon topic. We Unitarian Universalists like to celebrate our tradition of the free pulpit. And we should, it is a worthy tradition. But one of the things that your professors might not tell you is that you do not always get to pick your sermon topic. If you serve as a parish minister you will be often burdened with a topic of someone else’s choosing. You’re stuck with all of the holidays. Christmas, Easter, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Flower Communion, Mother’s Day, come each and every year. But you also have to tend to the particular business of your congregation. Every minister I know dreads the annual pledge Sunday sermon. And what about Membership Sunday? You have to learn how to respond promptly to the events of the hour. Congregations across the United States will expect their ministers to preach about the results of the Presidential election next November.

This afternoon I find myself facing one of the assigned sermon topics that each of you who aspire to the parish ministry will face. I have to preach a sermon on one of the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our congregation in Fall River, Massachusetts invited me to take part in a series they are doing on the principles. They assigned me the fifth principle, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” And so, today I want us to consider democracy as a religious practice.

Democracy is a religious practice. At least, it is for us Unitarian Universalists. James Luther Adams, that great Unitarian Universalist social ethicist, liked to share a story that illustrates the way we practice democracy religiously.

In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. The congregation was in the midst of an effort to racially integrate. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, including some Universalist churches in the South, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.

Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we "take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.

Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about... [Jews] and blacks?’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’

Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’

‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’

‘But you have ideas, you are... a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.

At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is... Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’

Someone... suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace... how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”

Amazing grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation--or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.

Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate—probably around a ridiculous massive solid oak conference table sipping cold coffee in a room that did not have enough light and where the temperature was either too hot or too cold. Anyway, our racist friend recognized that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.

Democracy is a religious practice. Can anyone here testify to the transformative power of democracy in your own lives? Raise your hand if you have ever had an experience like our friend in Adams story, where you went to a meeting and felt afterwards, “I was blind but now I see.”

Well, whether you raised your hand or not let me testify something to you. If you enter the parish ministry or devote yourself to some kind of community ministry you will experience the transformative power of democracy. You will go to a meeting—an emotionally wrought possibly indeterminably long meeting where the coffee goes cold—you will go to a meeting and you will leave that meeting a different sort of person. But more than that, the community that you serve will be different afterwards. You will practice democracy and undergo personal transformation. You will practice democracy and help usher in social transformation.

Such a transformative experience might take place in an exciting setting over what can be cast as an important issue. You may immediately feel, “I was blind but now I see.” The transformation also might take place in a more quotidian environment. Adams’s story is set at church Board meeting. The testimonial I want to offer you is from an equally banal setting, a congregational meeting. And the transformation that I can attest to did not occur in instant. It was spread out over years.

The congregation I served in Cleveland is small and urban. Like most Unitarian Universalist communities, my former congregation voted on approving its annual budget at a congregational meeting. By the time I got to Cleveland, the congregational meeting had devolved into an unpleasant ritual. A motion would be made to pass the budget and then an argument would begin. It was always the same. One small group of longtime members would voraciously complain that the congregation did not have enough money to pay its minister. Another group of, much larger, members would yell back that the congregation had over a million dollars in liquid assets. It could afford to support a full-time minister. The vote always went the same way. More than 90% of the congregation voted to approve the budget. But the energy of the community was drained. It was difficult for us to focus our energy on anything else.

This changed a couple of years into my ministry when the congregation got a new Board chair. She was brilliant. She was experienced in leading non-profits. And she cared about the process of decision making. Between the two of us we developed a plan transform the congregational meeting. It had a free wheeling affair. People got to speak until everyone was exhausted. We got serious about parliamentary procedure. We convinced the Board to adopt a set of rules of order that required discussion to alternate between pro and con positions. Each person was allowed to speak on an agenda item one time, instead of however many times they felt like. We set up pro and con microphones. We asked people to line-up behind the microphones if they wanted to speak on an issue.

This changed the congregational meeting. It meant that the same few people were not allowed to speak endlessly in opposition, making the same points over and over again. They got their say and then we moved on. Meanwhile, I made it a point to schedule pastoral visits with those opposed to the budget during the winter holidays and in the months leading up to the meeting. I got to know them and their concerns. Soon, the congregational meeting became a space where work could be done on things beyond adopting the budget. The congregation was able to shift its focus. Yes, there was still bickering about money. But it was not exhausting. We built a lovely community garden that served local public housing residents. We hosted refugee families from Bhutan. We were a founding member of a large interfaith and interracial network of congregations working on urban and racial justice issues.

I should come clean to you. I choose a boring story to share with you for my own testimonial. Congregational budgets? Rules of order? Parliamentarians? Did you have a good nap? Did my story turn you into a somnambulistic zombie? The truth is democracy, real democracy, is kind of boring. It is usually ploddingly slow. First Unitarian in Chicago passed its resolution in the 1947. It did not actually integrate until the mid-1950s. Democracy does not offer the kind of immediate satisfaction that many crave in a consumer culture. But that is true of other religious practices. It takes time to follow a process that gives everyone equal voice. But trying to meditate your way to enlightenment or connect to ultimate being through prayer are not quick paths.

I will further admit that I picked boring or difficult readings to highlight this. A chunk of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and a passage from Fannie Lou Hamer’s moving speech “We’re On Our Way” do not usually form a part of worship fare. They are probably better suited for a graduate seminar. I imagine that you were hoping for more poetic texts, maybe a little Rumi: “Until the juice ferments a while in the cask, / it isn't wine. If you wish your heart to be bright, / you must do a little work.” Or Audre Lorde: “Quick / children kiss us / we are growing / through dream.”

Instead you got a splash of insight into the relation between a community’s perception of the divine and its polity. Tocqueville, “There is virtually no human action, no matter how particular we assume it be, that does not originate in some very general human conception of God.” Instead you got the entangling words of a modern prophet. Hamer, “we are living in a captivated society today.” Hamer reminds us that like other religious practices democracy contains both the possibility of transformation and the possibility of stagnation, even oppression. Prayer, meditation, and scripture reading cannot all be cast as universal goods. People kill each other over their differing interpretations of scripture. Meditation and prayer can both lead to self-absorption. Democracy can go awry.

In my former congregation someone once tried to get me dismissed because we did not have congregational vote to change the color of a curtain. When practiced wrong, when focused on issues that are marginal, democracy can be immobilizing. Part of the religious practice of democracy is learning to distinguish between the issues that are important to the community and the issues that are not important.

Another part of the religious practice of democracy is finding a definition for the term. It is a term that means different things to different people. As a religious practice, democracy is a process for making decisions about matters important to communal life. In a democratic process all members of the community have equal voice and either representation or a vote.

With this definition in mind, we can remember that in the United States democracy has often gone awry over matters far less trivial than the color of curtains. It has not just immobilized communities. It has destroyed lives. In this country democracy, even democracy as a religious practice, has been far too often linked to white supremacy. The clause “all members of the community” has for much of American history meant that only white males are understood to be members of the community. And this limited notion of democracy has been used to justify slavery and genocide. I picked a reading from Hamer because she reminds us that there have been mighty struggles to change this dynamic. And that religious communities have a had a complicated role in those struggles.

Take Hamer herself. She was one of the great figures of the sixties civil rights movement. She spoke truth to power. She scared President Lyndon Johnson. He once called a press conference explicitly to take the cameras away from a speech she was giving.

Hamer, you may remember, came from a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi. She encountered the civil rights movement when she was middle-aged, after years of regular involvement in her church. In fact, the only education she received after the age of twelve took place in Bible Study. In church she learned to interpret the Bible for herself and lead hymns.

Hamer’s story reminds us that religious communities themselves provide important resources for the practice of democracy. She was critical of the church and its male leaders. Yet she took hymns and scripture, she learned in church and turned them into a powerful resource for inspiring people. She took the religious resources of the church and used them in a movement to recast society, used them to cast a vision of a society that included all members in its decision-making. She sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” during protests and in jail to teach that democracy only truly exists when every human is valued, to proclaim that black lives matter.

Democracy is a religious practice. Hamer helps us recall that as a religious practice it is about manifesting the spirit of a community. She was effective because her songs and words made that spirit palpable.

Those of you are aspiring clergy must learn to make the spirit palpable in the communities you serve. So, my charge to you, my beautiful, vibrant, hopeful, powerful, future colleagues, is to take the religious practice of democracy seriously. Recognize that is a practice, a skill, in which you must engage in repeatedly, over and over, if you are ever to master it. Understand that your congregation will look to you help teach them the practice of democracy. Recall that democracy carries with it risks, that it can go deeply awry, when it is misdirected or, worse, held as province of the few. But most of all, remember that like all religious disciplines, it contains within it the possibility of transformation. So, go forth and study your congregational polity. Learn how to run a meeting. Memorize the important bits of Roberts Rules of Order. And prepare for the possibility that one night, during a long meeting, after the coffee has gone cold, you may find yourself singing, “I once was blind but now I see.”

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags democracy religious practice Fannie Lou Hamer James Luther Adams Alexis De Tocqueville congregational polity

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