as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 21, 2018
It has been a little while since I have been with you all. It is good to be back in this pulpit. The last couple of weeks I have been off leading worship at First Church’s smaller campuses: Tapestry and Thoreau. Ministering to a multi-site congregation is new experience for me. And it is still something that I am trying to figure out. My sense is that you are also uncertain about what it means to be one church in three locations.
Visiting Spring, where Tapestry is, Stafford, where Thoreau is right now, and Richmond, where Thoreau is moving to, has helped me to get a better sense of the individual needs, cultures, and aspirations of your campuses. My visits with the other two Houston area campuses suggested to me that as a congregation you are collectively struggling with the question: Who are we?
Who are we? It is not an unexpected question during a period of ministerial transition. A lot of congregational identity is formed around a congregation’s senior minister. And the departure of one often brings congregations to struggle with their identities, to ask, who are we?
Who are we? is a deeply religious question. Rephrased as who am I or who are you it is probably the most fundamental question there is. And it is a far from an easy question to answer. There are scriptures recording both the Buddha and Jesus kind of dodging the question.
In the Dona Sutta the Buddha and a brahman, or priest, engage in a discourse over the Buddha’s identity. The brahman asks the Buddha if he is one of the various kinds of divine beings that inhabit Hindu cosmology. You will have to excuse my Pali I as reconstruct the dialogue.
“Master,” say brahman, “are you a deva?”
“No, brahman, I am not a deva,” replies the Buddha.
“Are you a gandhabba?”
“… a yakkha?”
“… a human being?”
“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”
Clearly growing frustrated, the brahman queries, “Then what sort of being are you?”
To this question the Buddha gives the sort of long answer that you might anticipate from a prophet or great teacher. He explains why he is not this or that. He gives a discourse on how he has overcome the world. And then finally, he gives his answer:
Like a blue lotus, rising up,
unsmeared by water,
unsmeared am I by the world,
and so, brahman,
In the Christian New Testament Jesus is even more cryptic than the Buddha. Instead of answering the question himself he asks his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” His disciples answer the Messiah. He then says that he’s the son of man. Elsewhere he gives different information saying that he is the son of God or the Christ. But he’s never really clear on his answer to the question, Who are you?
He is so unclear that for the last two millennium people have been debating Jesus’s answer to the question: Who are you? The Jesus that many people think they know comes a specific set of texts that were culled from much larger set. The canonical gospels–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–are often interpreted as portraying Jesus as Lord and Savior in a unique way. The non-canonical gospels, texts like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary, are more easily interpreted as portraying differently Jesus. Scholar Elaine Pagels advises us that “these texts speak of illusion and enlightenment… Instead of coming to save us from sin, [Jesus] comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding.”
Who are you? When it came to Jesus, at first the early Christian church permitted people to have many answers to the question. And they argued about their answers fiercely. Three hundred years after Jesus’s execution, Gregory of Nyssa recorded that these disputes were all consuming:
Ask the price of bread today and the baker tells you: “The son is subordinate to the father.” Ask your servant if the bath is ready and he makes an answer: “The son arose out of nothing.”
Theologically orthodox Christians eventually settled the debate by proclaiming Jesus the son of God and inventing the trinity. They then kicked everyone out of the church who did not agree with them.
In giving his ambiguous answer to the question, Who are you?, I rather suspect that Jesus was intentionally being slippery. He probably would have been disappointed to learn that the church had fixed his identity and required people to believe certain things about him. He might have also hinted that asking the question, Who are you?, is more productive than coming up with a permanent answer to it. We humans change a lot over the course of our lives. I am a different person today than I was at seven, or fourteen, or twenty-eight. When I moved out of my parents house, I became a somewhat different person. When I became a parent, I changed. The same is true for you. The place you are in the cycle of life shapes will shape your answer to the question. So will your family of origin, your occupation, the city in which you live… The same is true for religious communities as well. And I will talk about that more in a bit.
Right now, let me say, I am not surprised about the Buddha and Jesus’s evasive approaches to the question of identity for it resonates with me on a personal level. Who are you?, is a question we ministers do not like. Robert Fulghum is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the author of the well-known, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” He has a whole shtick about how he has answered this question when approached by strangers on planes. He has told them he was a janitor and a neurosurgeon. Once he refused to answer the question at all but invited his seatmate to play a game with him. They would each make up what they did for a living and then play pretend. Fulghum’s seatmate declared he was a spy. Fulghum decided to be a nun.
Eventually, Fulghum admits, he grew somewhat frustrated with the question. He started responding by invoking the great artist Marcel Duchamp. When asked who he was Duchamp would reply, “I am a respirateur (a breather).” Breathing is what he spent most of his time doing so he figured it defined who he was. Plus, Fulghum points out, breathing is more about being a human and less about being defined by what you do for a living. And so often when we ask someone who they are we anticipate an answer that is closely tied to their occupation.
I will admit that when asked who I am, I sometimes try to avoid the question too. Telling people that you are a minister can make for fairly awkward, or intense, conversation at parties. People usually want to skip the small talk and get straight to something serious. What do I think about the nature of God? Does the good really exist? Do I have thoughts on the Arminian controversy? I imagine that last one is something I probably won’t be asked outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, still, sometimes I just want to talk about my kids, or my cat, or the fact that I am really excited that the farmers market near my house has squash blossoms and they’re one of my favorite foods and I couldn’t get them the entire six years I lived in Boston. Or mushrooms… I really like mushrooms. Actually, I once preached a whole sermon on how much I like mushrooms.
Who are you? When religious communities try to answer this question, it can make them uncomfortable for all of the same reasons why it makes us as individuals uncomfortable. We do not like to be fixed, defined, as this or that. And we change. The way members of First Church answer our question will be somewhat different today than it was ten years ago or twenty years or fifty years ago.
In answering this question, I think First Church has a particular challenge. After having visited all three of your Houston area campuses I rather suspect that if I asked the members of each campus, Who are you?, I would get different sets of answers.
This is reflected in the reality that all three of your campuses have different histories. If I was to ask the members at Thoreau who their most important ministers had been they would probably tell me: Leonora Montgomery, Bill Clark, Paul Beedle, and Bonnie Vegiard. Tapestry has been largely lay-led. Its members would likely tell me Joanna Fontaine Crawford. Here at Museum District, I suspect you might name Bob Schaibly, Gail Marriner, Jose Ballaster, and Daniel O’Connell. Maybe someone would mention Webster Kitchell or Horace Westwood.
There is no simple through line that unites all of the histories of your campuses. Is there a clear through line that unites your cultures? My visits to Tapestry and to Thoreau have given me the impression that both have the feel of small lay led fellowships. Museum District here has been on the cusp of becoming a large church for many years.
Who are you? is probably hard for you to answer in part because your model is unique within Unitarian Universalism. There are only about four other congregations that practice multi-site ministry. And they each practice it differently.
The Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, for example, has two campuses are separated by about ten minutes. Each week they hold an identical service at each campus. The services are two hours apart. Shortly after completing the first the minister gets into a car, sometimes followed by the choir, and dashes from one campus to the other.
The First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego also has two campuses. The majority of the congregation gathers at their downtown campus for English language services. Another group gathers at their second campus for bilingual English and Spanish services. The congregation has three full-time ministers. They take turns leading the worship at the two campuses.
The First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque calls their smaller campuses branches. They livestream their sermons to small groups of Unitarian Universalists throughout New Mexico who do not have a congregation nearby.
Only the First Unitarian Church of Rochester has a model somewhat similar to yours. They provide the staff for a nearby smaller congregation. Unlike your model, the First Unitarian Church of Rochester and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Canandaigua have remained separate legal entities.
Who are you? One of your challenges as a congregation is trying to figure out if you want to answer this question as individual campuses or as a collective entity. Maybe you want to answer the question as both individual campuses and as a united congregation. Maybe not. Maybe you need a single answer that stretches across all of your campuses.
It is not for me to tell you. As your interim senior minister, it is my job to help you ask the right questions so that you can chart your path forward as you prepare for your next ministry. By raising these questions, I hope to help you get some clarity about where you have been and where you might go. I want them to be the right questions, the kind of questions that generate thoughtful conversation and deep reflection about that essential question, Who are you?
My approach to this question is mirrored in our poem from earlier this morning, an untitled piece by the Spaniard Antonio Machado:
Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.
The poem suggests that life is a path upon which we trod with no direction, no meaning, except the one we give it. The road we travel is not something someone else has laid before us. It is our road and we create it as we move, leaving only the echo, only the wake, behind us, not a clear map for someone else to follow.
The poem inspired a famous dialogue between the two educators Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. Horton was a civil rights hero who taught figures like Rosa Parks, Martin King, Ralph Abernathy, Septima Clark, and John Lewis something about organizing. Freire was a Brazilian teacher who spent many years working on adult literacy for his country’s poor and disenfranchised. They both believed that education, and life, is not a process which leads to final answers. Instead, they thought education is a collaborative process between student and teacher where each is a learner co-creating knowledge with the other.
They adapted the phrase “we make the road by walking” from Machado poem’s because it suggested to them that the journey, the process, was the destination. No one is ever finished with their education. Just as, if we are honest, no congregation, and no person, should ever have a permanent answer to the question, Who are you?
As members of a congregation, we commit to travel along the metaphoric road of life together. And as members of an experiment in multi-site ministry, you have committed to traveling together not just as not as a single community but as three commingled communities. This is not all that different from the life of other large congregations. In fact, it is not that different from what we find here at the Museum District if we looked within. The choir and the religious education program each form their own distinct communities within the larger tapestry that is the life of the Museum District campus.
Museum District’s choir, its religious education program, Tapestry, Thoreau… each community within the congregation is going to have different answers to the question: Who are we? The challenge you face is finding answers to the question that unite all of your communities.
There are many ways you might seek the answers to this question. You might, as we will be doing during our time together, ask other questions, questions that prompt you to explore your deepest values. What do you love? Why are you here? What is your mission to the world? What values do you want to pass along to the next generation?
You might also seek counsel from others. In some sense, that is my role as your interim, to offer you my perspective, my advice, on ways to pursue the question, Who are you? during your time of ministerial transition. You may seek guidance from the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association or from other congregations that have experimented with multi-site ministry.
Marilyn Sewell was the senior minister of First Unitarian Portland for close to twenty years. During her time there the congregation grew to be well over a thousand members. She advises however we answer the question, Who are you? we ground ourselves “in love and service.” For this is what Unitarian Universalism ultimately has to offer the world: A message that we are called to love everyone–that is extend universal goodwill to all–and labor together and make our society, and our planet, better.
That message is an important one in the challenging days in which we find ourselves. The midterm elections are upon us. They are time when voters collectively attempt to answer the question, Who are we? as a country. This is not a question with final answers. It is one that shifts over time. This should be a comfort to us as we face the disappointment and the horrors of recent years. Our religious tradition tells us that is no one fixed answer to who a country, a religious community, or a person–be they First Church, the United States, Jesus or Buddha, you or I–are across time. Instead, it suggests that our answers are ever changing. We travel along in the path of life seeking justice, and creating a shared congregational life, uncertain of our exact answers because that is the only thing that has ever happened. The road is always made as we travel. We answer the question, Who are we? as we go.
As we close, I invite you to join with me in prayer:
Oh spirit of life,
that some of us call God,
and others name simply
as the force that drives life forward,
be with us in times of uncertainty,
remind us that while the path
may be unclear,
the road uncertain,
it is still our path
our track to travel,
and that we travel it better
where we are,
as a community of seekers
united in a quest
for truth and justice,
joy and beauty.
That it might be so, let the congregation say Amen.