Monday, August 22, 2011

Sermon - "Roots and Branches"

Roots and Branches

I’d like to start this sermon with a little exercise. And, I literally mean exercise. If you are comfortable doing so, I’d like you to stand up where you are. Okay. Now I’d like you to pick up your personal belongings, your purse or hat, or whatever you have with you, and go and find a seat in the opposite area of the room. No this is not a joke. I know this is going to take a minute, but it has a purpose, trust me. So if you normally sit on this side of the room, I’d like you to move over there. And if you normally sit near the back, come on up here to the front, and vice versa. Trust me, there is a point to this little experiment. Jeff, Terry, Oakley, I want you guys up here on the front row.

Thank you for indulging me a little bit in that. This morning we are talking about making room for new growth and taking some chances. I wanted you to move for two different reasons. One, is to show you how accustomed you have probably become to sitting where you normally sit. It probably feels a little funny to be at a different place in the church. This is probably a little uncomfortable for you regulars. Visitor’s you’ll have to excuse me for just a moment.

But I also want you to notice what has changed about your experience sitting there. Maybe you are a little closer to me, and you can see and hear better. Maybe you are closer to the back where you can get the big picture view with the chalice and all. And you can see all the people in front of you participating. Maybe you have moved into the sunshine, or into a cooler spot. Maybe you’ll notice being closer to the piano when we sing later.

These little changes can make a world of difference. Especially when we have done the same thing for a VERY long time. Today we are talking about striking the delicate balance between honoring the past, the tradition, and risking growing into a new future. It’s a central challenge for churches, to honor the past and to remain relevant in a changing world, and it’s a challenge in each of our lives, as we find strength and comfort in the known, but also learn and grow into the future.

I chose our opening hymn today because it speaks to that delicate balance. It holds two different realities at the same time, leaning on to a comforting stable faith, and dreaming of a better future. Honoring a comfortable and secure faith in God in heaven, and dreaming of a better future in this life, dreaming of freedom from slavery.

The song that we sang is a really good example of the Spirituals that were created during slavery. “Come and go with me to that land where I’m bound. There’ll be freedom in that land. There’s by justice in that land. There’ll be singing in that land, where I’m bound.”

This song is obviously about the promise of heaven in another life. But the song is also about liberation in this life. It’s a song about slaves escaping to the North. This one very powerful song celebrates the solid rock of faith in God above, but it also celebrates taking a tremendous risk for a better life. It holds both realities at the same time. And it’s not unique to today’s hymn.

Other spirituals have the same dual message of hope. They are rooted in solid faith, and hoping for a very risky journey toward freedom in this life. Some people even say that these spirituals that came about during slavery taught specific ways that escaped slaves might evade capture. “Wade in the Water” It’s poetic faith language, and it is a reminder that wading through a stream or a pond was the best, perhaps the only way to lose the scent of dogs that might be sent on the chase. Another song, “The Gospel Train,” encourages escapees to stow away on the train headed North. And the spiritual “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which is also in our hymnal, is a coded map to the underground railroad. It’s number 152 if you want to check it out.

For African American slaves, and later for African American’s, music was life saving stuff. Who hasn’t been moved by a spiritual or a freedom song at some point? They embraced a permanent faith in God, solid as a rock. And they also speak of an unfulfilled dream, a promise of freedom in this life. The power in these songs comes not just from the beauty of the music. The power also rests in the dual emphasis of of roots in a solid faith, and branching out into a more promising future.

The metaphor of roots and branches that I’m speaking of today came to me through discussions of children’s religious education in Unitarian Universalist churches. As you might guess, we aim to strike a very delicate balance in those classes. For our children as well as for adults, we aim for a balance between teaching the roots of Unitarian Universalism, it’s Christian history, the Seven Principles, it’s commitment to justice, all of the stuff that is the clear foundation of our tradition, and teaching a more expansive vision of faith through various world religions and contemporary ethical concepts. We want our children to be grounded in this faith tradition, and at the same time, feel empowered to explore and expand their mind and spirit.

In discussion of religious education, the language that is used often is “roots and branches.” It’s a critical balance in developing our minds. But the idea of roots and branches also resonates with me when we talk about our wider church life, not just religious education.

We are also called to the difficult task of honoring both our roots and our branches as a congregation. We are called to honor and amazing 65 year history that has brought us to this point, and to answer the call of growing into a vibrant expansive future that is relevant in 2011.

And frankly, a part of me fears that we are in danger. Like many other churches, we are in danger of becoming a bit like a root bound plant. I’m not much of a gardener. But I do know one very important thing. If you keep a plant in a pot, eventually if that plant grows long enough and big enough, its roots will outgrow the pot. It will become root-bound. The roots of the plant will grow so dense and so tight that they tangle we will literally strangle the plant.

At a certain point, to take care of your plants, you have to go through the time consuming process of finding a new, larger pot for that plant. And you have to repot it, giving it more room and space to grow, so that those roots can once again expand and absorb nutrients from the soil, at the same time, allowing the branches to grow broader and more verdant.

Today, I want to challenge you to think of ways that you might initiate some change either here at the Fellowship, in your own lives, or both. How might you make some new room for our roots to find fresh soil so that our breaches can reach toward the light? What do you want to see happen here that is different?

Since I have been the minister here at UUFLB, I have sparked several different changes, experiments. The drum circle is the latest addition. Before that I encouraged getting these televisions to use in our worship service. And I started monthly worship themes. And I started coffee talk a few years ago. I have also experimented with adult Religious Education Classes. It’s also important to point out that I have tried some things that didn’t go over so well. One of the adult RE classes that I created was essentially canceled because it wasn’t a topic that others were interested in. And early on I tried holding a mid-week meditation group. That also didn’t last long.

This is not to give you a laundry list of my work. Remember, some of these projects failed. The point is that I have offered as much of my vision as I could. I knew that some of it would fail, but I trusted this community to be okay with that, to know that it’s not the end of the world if an experiment doesn’t go the way we had hoped.

Now I’m asking you to do a bit of the same thing. How might you make room for fresh soil and more sunlight, so that our Fellowships roots and branches can remain healthy? What do you want to see happen here? If you are willing to help, then there’s a very strong possibility that we can bring that dream into fruition. I’m inviting you to change it up, knowing full and well that it may not be perfect, it may not work at all. But trying something new is what keeps us alive.

If you have been doing the same thing here at the Fellowship for more than five years, consider stopping. Consider finding some other way to feed the life of this community. Consider letting someone else have a chance to contribute in the way that you have. Consider learning some new way of giving. Consider cracking your pot open a little bit.

This doesn’t mean stopping your involvement in church. It means find an idea that makes you grow and stretch. And doing that thing that makes you reach toward the light. You know it’s funny, if we do the same thing in worship too many times, people will complain that it becomes rote and meaningless. “That’s too Catholic,” people start to say, “reading the same thing over and over every week.”

The bottom line is, I want you doing what you are passionate about. I want your involvement at UUFLB to be something that puts a smile on your face, not something that just falls in your lap because you’ve always done it. And the same thing goes for life outside of the Fellowship. Life is way too short not to try a new adventure every once in a while.

I think Judy Shepard embodies this principle better than anyone I know. If she’s intrigued by something, she tries it. She wrote a novel in a month. She got her certification as a professional chef. She took painting classes in Europe. Those are the adventures I know about since knowing here just 5 years. The important thing is she did these things because she wanted to. Not because it was a career move, or it was expected of her. Certainly not because it was easy or what she had always done. Judy has a tremendous commitment to trying new things. It’s a spiritual discipline that we call could learn from.

And the growing and learning doesn’t stop as we age. It may change, but it doesn’t stop. Barbara made a very helpful distinction to me last week about her retirement. She said I didn’t retire from, I wanted to retire to. That is to say that she didn’t want to retire to get away from work. She wanted to retire to free herself up to do different things, things that she cared about. I didn’t retire from work, I retired to pursue the things that make my heart sing.

People often marvel and the longevity and vitality of many of our stalwart members here. More and more I don’t think it’s because they eat special diet, or exercise a certain way. It’s not about taking care of an aging body so much as it is staying engaged in the world, staying curious, staying active.

The bottom line is staying vital is about transcending the boundaries of you past. It requires pushing out into the world, into deeper and richer soil, so that you can reach new heights, stretching toward the sunlight. It’s true for trees; it’s true for us as individuals, and it’s true for us as a community.

Unitarian Universalism is a living tradition. It’s right there on the title of our hymnals, “Singing the Living Tradition.” I took this language for granted until a friend pointed out to me the powerful balance. We are a living tradition, rooted in history and reaching out to be relevant in an ever-changing world.

You often hear me talk about Unitarian and Universalist history. It’s long and rich. The history of Unitarian thought goes all the way back to early Christian community, when in 325, a dissident who questioned the doctrine of the trinity raised enough dispute within the church to bring on the Council of Nicea. The hallmark moment of Christian doctrine.
And even earlier Origen of Alexandria, one of the great church fathers began to publicly question the concept of Hell. As early as 200 AD he was suggestion Universalist theology. The historical roots of Unitarian and Universalist belief are incredibly old. We have very deep roots.

But we also are a tradition of branches. This faith that we so love is a grand experiment. That’s right, this is one big experiment. In 1961, the Unitarians and the Universlists joined together to join a brand new kind of religious community. One where you didn’t have to believe any one particular thing. You just had to come and participate, you just had to bring all of who you were and enjoy the journey with some fellow travelers.

Whenever ANYONE tells you, “this is the way we have always done it.” I want you to remember that this tradition, is in it’s very nature a grand experiment. The closing hymn that we are about to sing was commissioned in 1961 to celebrate the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists. The language if building a new kind of church was inspiring then. Let it also resonate with us today, as we continue the experiment, to try new things in our lives, to bust free of the pots that contain our roots and reach both deeper and higher than we ever thought we could.


1 comment:

  1. Good work, Kent! Informative and thoughtful. I really enjoyed reading this. Congratulations on all your hard work. Your congregation is lucky to have you! Much love, Micah