as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, June 3, 2018
I am mindful that we only two services left together: today, and Sunday, June 17th. After that we will go our separate ways. You will stay in Ashby and continue to nurture this precious Unitarian Universalist community. Asa and I will head to Houston. Your congregation has survived for two hundred and fifty years. I have spent a year with you. In that year I have become convinced that your congregation will endure for many years to come. The First Parish Church might be small but you have been here, on the common, for longer than the United States has existed as a nation. I suspect that your Paul Revere bell will continue to ring long after I have turned to dust.
As my ministry with you moves towards its close, I recognize that there are a lot of things that I still want to share. I will not have the opportunity to offer you even a fraction of them. Ministry is a bit like showing up at a party midway through. When you arrive you do not know most of the other guests. They are deeply involved in their conversation. You enter into the conversation. You meet people. You may change the subject some. You might tell a particularly good joke, share a special family recipe, or offer some helpful tips on gardening or animal husbandry. I have an uncle who likes to give people his formula for slug removal when he’s at gatherings. It involves spraying some mixture of beer, dish soap, and, I think, salt, on tomato leaves to protect them from terrestrial mollusks. But after the story, the joke, or the slug elimination strategy, we ministers have to leave the conservation–leave the party–midway through. You all get to stay and continue it. We do not get find out what comes next in the conversation. It goes on without us.
Knowing that this Sunday and June seventeenth are my final parts in the conversation known as the First Parish Church, I thought I would leave with some parting thoughts. This Sunday and the seventeenth I want to talk with you about the purpose of the church. These sermons are gestures towards three questions: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world? I suggested in my first sermon with you that finding answers to questions like these was necessary to sustain a vital religious community. In the years ahead, I hope that you will ask them and try to answer them.
They can be difficult questions to answer. Some years ago, I was reminded of this when I was serving a congregation in Cleveland. Alongside several of the congregation’s members, I attended an interfaith conference for multiracial religious communities. It was in New York City and featured workshops, speakers, and preachers from across the United States. One in particular I remember was a self-identified progressive Christian minister. In the space of a half dozen years his congregation had grown from a couple of dozen members to several hundred. Everyone at the conference was eager to learn his story.
He told us, “Oh it was very simple. We came up with a clear mission that was both challenging and easy to live into and then we lived into it. Our mission: Feed more sheep. Sometimes to reinforce that this is our mission I come to church dressed in a shepherd’s outfit and carrying a crosier–that’s a shepherd’s staff. We also have a couple of people who wander around coffee hour holding signs that read, ‘Feed More Sheep.’ Visitors will often come up to them and ask what the signs are about. It is a good way to welcome them into a conversation about what the church is about.”
Feed more sheep… The minister went onto explain how this slogan was rooted in both the Christian New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. Many of the people who wrote those scriptures came from pastoral communities. They did what many human communities have done. They imagined the divine in their own image. Their God became a shepherd. They became sheep. The texts that they composed are filled with the imagery of a divine shepherd taking care of an ovine flock. “The Lord is my shepherd,” opens Psalm 23. “Feed my sheep,” the Gospel of John instructs.
Feed more sheep… The minister’s point was that it was not enough merely to feed, to take care of, the existing members of the congregation. If the congregation was to truly live out the Christian message, as the minister understood it, then its members had to have an orientation towards growth. They needed to focus on bringing more people into the community to be fed by its religious message.
Feed more sheep… I heard that minister’s story more than six years ago. And his congregation’s pithy summation of its mission has stuck with me. I have to admit his metaphors do not that appeal to me. You, the members of First Parish Church, are not sheep. And I am not a shepherd. The firm hierarchy implied within the slogan runs counter to the radical equality that infuses Unitarian Universalist theology. And yet… and yet… The phrase “Feed more sheep” enabled the members of that congregation to clearly articulate the purpose of their community and the difference that it made in their lives. The slogan inspired them to start a ministry devoted towards feeding the homeless. It inspired them to work towards justice. It inspired them to invite their friends and loved ones to join with them in their efforts. And when they doubted what they were supposed to be doing they could return to that phrase, “Feed more sheep,” to recall that they were supposed to maintain an outward focus.
It is easy to be jealous of such a clearly articulated mission. And certainly, I know some of my ministerial colleagues are jealous of the authority that such a phrase grants them. When I attend ministerial gatherings I occasionally come across another clergyperson who complains that the job of a Unitarian Universalist minister is to herd cats. Cats, you probably know, are not particularly prone to herding. They each tend to want to do their own thing–chase this bit of string; go after that mouse toy.
Neither cat nor sheep herding works as metaphor for the purpose of the church. This Sunday and on the seventeenth I want to suggest two slogans that taken together might be offer a twenty first century Unitarian Universalist statement of the purpose of the church. We will cover one this week and the other next week. This week’s phrase: “We are all leaders.” Next week’s phrase: “Love the Hell out of the world.” “Love the Hell out of the world” describes what we might do when we gather. “We are all leaders” describes how we might organize ourselves.
I choose the phrase “We are all leaders” for today’s service because it is a service in which we are welcoming three new members into the congregation. I offer it as a reminder that a Unitarian Universalist congregation, especially a small congregation like First Parish Church, is run by its members. Your ministers will come and go. You, the members of the congregation, will remain tending to your sacred charge: sustaining this religious community across the generations.
I also offer it because democracy throughout the world is in crisis. It has become an almost constant truism that democratic institutions are in the decline. Certainly, in the United States there is a large segment of the governing elite that is committed to undermining democratic norms. And there are countries in Europe like Hungary who have elected governments that are essentially opposed to democracy.
One reason, I suspect, for this crisis is that many of us do not have places in our lives where we actually practice democracy or learn democratic practice. Most of corporations are rigidly hierarchical. Management makes the decisions. Workers carry them out or lose their jobs. And voting at shareholders’ meetings is based on the principle of one dollar, one vote rather than one person, one vote. Power is concentrated at the top.
Most public education systems throughout the United States do not teach democratic theory or practice. Civics education has long been in decline. According to surveys, most adults would fail a basic civics test on questions such as: What rights are contained in the Bill of Rights? Or what is the term of a member of the House of Representatives?
I certainly did not learn much about how to live in a democratic society in my public school back in Michigan. My high school history teachers generally seemed more interested in teaching us about the nation’s military achievements than its democratic norms. I was taught to honor military veterans but learned little about the veterans of the civil rights, labor, and women’s movements. They were the ones who actually struggled to expand democracy in the country so that it included people other than white males.
As a youth, I learned about democracy through my engagement with Unitarian Universalism. As an adult, I deepened my skills as part of the labor movement. In both instances, the phrase “We Are All Leaders” was crucial to my understanding of what it meant to be part of a democratic organization.
In the 1990s, the Unitarian Universalist youth movement was organized around an ideology known as youth empowerment. This is the idea that youth–with minimal adult guidance and supervision–are capable of creating programming that meets their emotional, intellectual, and religious needs. In my youth group this meant that we actually were in charge of figuring out the curriculum that we would use each year. It also meant that we joined together with other youth groups from throughout the region to put on what we called conferences–weekend long gatherings where youth created worship services, led workshops, played games, and developed a deep sense of fellowship.
I remember these as incredibly powerful events. Certainly, some of the most intense religious experiences of my life took place at these conferences. There was something about the energy of a hundred or two hundred high school students gathered together in a circle, singing songs, sharing stories, staring into the candlelight or walking out onto a field under the moon, that stirred within me a certain feeling of oneness with the universe–that experience of connection that assures me that I am somehow part of something much larger than myself.
All of the aspects of these conferences were organized in collaboration between youth and our adult advisors. We would meet as a group, decide upon a purpose or a vision for the conference, and then elected people to fulfill the roles necessary to execute that vision. The roles would rotate. One conference you might be in charge of planning worship. The next conference you might have kitchen duty. By democratically deciding what we were going to do and then rotating responsibility for doing it everyone had the opportunity to gain the skills necessary for democratic governance and leadership. And community norms and the diffusion of expertise generally meant that things got done well. If last time worship or the food had been excellent there was pressure to make sure that it would be good this time as well. And if you did not know how to plan worship or run a kitchen to cook food for a hundred people there was always someone who had done those tasks successfully who you could ask for assistance.
When I became an active lay member as adult and then a minister I discovered that our congregations and our larger religious association function in much the same way. We all have the opportunity to be leaders. When we take that opportunity we have the chance to develop skills we would not develop otherwise. At their best, our congregations are places where we learn skills to live in a democratic society. They are places where as a member you can gain experience as a public speaker by serving as a reader or leading a lay led service. They are places where you can gain financial management and fundraising skills. They are communities in which you can learn how to run a meeting and develop facilitation techniques to ensure that all of the voices in the community are heard. What kind of skills have you gained through your involvement with Unitarian Universalism? Long before I became a minister I gained many of the basic skills necessary for life in a democratic society through my participation in our faith tradition. We are all leaders.
I suspect that this might be even more true in a community like Ashby. As you all know, Asa and I live in Medford. But I understand that Ashby is still governed by a town meeting. The governance of New England towns are closely related to the governance of Unitarian Universalist congregations. This is not coincidental. This church and the town of Ashby used to be the same entity. And this church and the town of Ashby both stem from the same religious movement. It was a religious movement that believed in democratic governance of both the church and the larger society. It was not perfect and restricted who could participate in that governance for many generations. Nonetheless, that history is an example of how the democratic skills we practice in this congregation and help us to nurture democratic practice throughout society.
The other place where I have learned the skills necessary for a democratic is through the labor movement. One of the readings I picked this morning comes from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She was one of the great labor organizers of the early twentieth century. She understood that we learn to live in a democratic society by practicing democracy. As she said, “People learn to do by doing.” A lot of times, people enter a democratic organization without the skills necessary to run a democratic organization. That means that in the routine functioning of the organization people will make mistakes. These mistakes can be learning opportunities, chances to figure out how to do things differently in the future.
My involvement in the labor movement has primarily been through organizers transit workers–bike messengers, taxi drivers, and truck drivers–into independent unions. In each of these cases I saw something similar take place to what I see take place in our Unitarian Universalist congregations. People with little previous exposure to democratic practice gaining the skills necessary to run a democratic society. I have seen a worker with little formal education become a powerful public speaker. I have seen an immigrant new to the United States learn to effectively facilitate a meeting for dozens of people. And I have witnessed a group of workers come together to successfully demand that their employer give them a voice in the management of their workplace. We all can be leaders.
I picked our third reading, Carl Sandburg’s poem “I Am The People, The Mob,” because Sandburg was a Universalist who saw the radical democratic values of our religious tradition mirrored in the practices of the left wing of the labor movement. Much of his corpus celebrates the possibility of democracy to be found in the lives of masses of people. “Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?,” he asks. We can all be leaders, he wants us to remember.
This is one of the messages I want to leave you with as we move towards the end of our ministry together. What is the purpose of this congregation? What difference does it make in your life? What difference does it make in the wider world? As Unitarian Universalists the answers to these questions cannot be to feed more sheep. The answers might be, however, to nurture the democratic potential innate within all of us. The answers might be, that this congregation, like Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country, can be a place where we learn the skills necessary to live in a democratic society. In doing so we might both make a difference in our own lives and in the world.
Let the congregation say Amen.