Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sermon - "Transforming Faith"

This month in worship we are focusing on the theme of Transformation. It seems like an appropriate theme for the Spring. And today we are going to talk about transforming faith. I mean that in two ways. For one, I’m really curious about what it would look like for us as Unitarian Universalists to open ourselves to having a transformational experience in our religious life. I don’t mean feeling like you got a new idea, or feeling motivated to do a little better this week. I mean what would it take for us to come to church open to the possibility of leaving a different person, transformed by the sacred, filled with a new spirit of love, justice and compassion, so much so that you couldn’t help but make changes in the rest of your life. We are talking today faith that transforms the lives of individuals.
And we are also talking about a faith that is willing to transform itself to be relevant and powerful in the current world.

A couple of weeks ago in the question box sermon I was asked a seemingly innocuous question. It was “What is the biggest challenge facing Unitarian Universalism today?” Since then I have been chewing on what was at the time a very fast answer. I explained that the way we do church hasn’t kept up pace with the changes in American society. The way we do church is profoundly outdated. The committee structures, worship styles, the use of our physical space, the entire way we organize ourselves is all based on a 1950s understanding of American society. I’m not just talking about our Fellowship now. I’m talking about Unitarian Universalist churches and the vast majority of mainline churches in America. Our old model no longer fits an American society that is fundamentally different from 60 years ago.
One big difference is the availability of young women to spend volunteer hours in the church. Historically women have been the volunteer force that power churches. But women are now half of all workers on U.S payrolls and 4 in 10 mothers are either the sole breadwinner (a single, working mother) or are bringing home as much or more than their spouse. Obviously the increased opportunities for women in the workforce is tremendous. My point is, churches haven’t adapted their structure to compensate for the decreased availability of young mothers to participate.
And it’s not just the case that more women are working. Perhaps more importantly, everyone is working more hours. In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week. And it seems that adults are not alone in this trend. Last year we showed the documentary film called “Race to Nowhere.” It’s an amazing film about the frightening consequences of the excessive pressure placed on middle and upper-class children to compete and succeed. The minor research I did for this sermon has certainly raised my attention to what seems like an epidemic sense of competition and over work. But for now, suffice it to say, working people, parents, and their children across our country are completely overwhelmed with keeping their head above water.
And to top it all off, the concept of Sunday as a Sabbath no longer exists in American culture. Sunday is another Saturday. It’s one last day to do the errands, finish the homework, practice your sport, or get a jump on your email before the work-week starts again.
This congregation has an amazing 60 year history. For all the radical free thinkers we have gathered here in this community though, it’s amazing how much this institution has stayed on a particular track. A couple of big changes happened. In the early 70s the dedicated members were able to buy this wonderful building. They no longer had to meet in people’s homes or in a rented space. And then 24 years ago they were able to pay for professional ministry, albeit on a part-time basis. Other than those two major shifts, the structure has largely remained the same.
There is much to be said for a stable institution. As a minister, it’s certainly a comfort to know that this church is quite solid. We own our building. That’s an amazing accomplishment. But if you look around the country, we realize that mainline and liberal churches that aim at doing the same old thing, well they aren’t doing very well.
I don’t know what the prescription is for changing to mirror the new American society. I wish I could tell you. I don’t even know that totally changing the way we do church is necessary. But I do no that we cannot expect that individuals or families will find their way to us. It simply isn’t the case any more. If we expect to serve a wider world, beyond the incredible 90 or so people that we have gathered in our midst, we have to be open to the possibility of meeting them where they are.
I think we all agree that a church isn’t about a building that it owns. It’s not about a particular leader. It’s not about a set of shared beliefs or even the wider denomination. A church is the people that make it up, and the relationships that they have with one another. You are, all of you together are the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach. The tricky part of that is, that inviting any new people into this community, growing this church, having a church that is equipped to thrive in the next decade, means that new people come in, relationships change. If the church is the people that make it up, and you bring in new people, well then growing and I mean growing in numbers and in spirit, growing requires a willingness to change.

Change is very scary stuff, and it should be. We are talking about allowing something that we love deeply to change. My hunch is, that we also recognize that if our congregation changes, then we might have to change along with it. And I don’t know that that is such a bad thing. That is after all why we come together. That is the purpose of churches, to change people. Our mission is to change people, from the inside.
Yes, we do come here and build relationships with one another. And we come here and we do social justice work. I’m glad for that because together we can do way more than we ever could on our own. But those aren’t the only reasons we come together. If building community and doing good deeds were our only goals then we might as well become a chapter of the Lions’ Club or the ACLU. Our mission is for people to be transformed in the process of building relationships, and doing social action, and engaging their heart and mind in worship.
The mission of our church comes in three parts. And those three parts depend on one another. One part is to build community; one part is to help the world. And another part is to grow spiritually, to transform. My hunch is our ability to change and grow as a congregation is inexorably related to our ability to open ourselves to change as individuals.

One of the most valuable experiences of my recent trip to India was not on our agenda at all. In fact it was a 20minute outing that I made with a couple of other people because I felt stir-crazy in our hotel. We walked up the road a bit to visit a temple to the Lord Hanuman. The worship that we observed there was as different from Unitarian Universalism as you could get. It was around 6:00 in the evening. People stopped in the temple on their way home, as they did most nights of the week. Everyone left their shoes outside on their way into the temple. Once they got in, they reached over head to ring a gigantic brass bell, with a piercing loud klang. Then they did their thing, each of them engaged in little personal rituals to embody their relationship and devotion to Hanuman. Many rubbed the statues of Hanuman. All bowed. Some kneeled to the ground. Still others fully prostrated themselves, lying flat and kissing the ground in respect. Then on their way out. The temple priest offered each person a small bit of coals from the fire he was tending. And each person popped the bit of coal into his or her mouth.
In every way imaginable, it was the complete opposite of Unitarian Universalist worship life. What was so impactful to me was the sense of willingness that these worshipers brought with them. The bowed, knelt and kissed the ground in reverence to their God. I couldn’t help but think about the mindset that we Unitarian Universalists bring to church. Obviously, the point is not that we should copy ancient Hindu worship forms. But I do wonder what it would look like to come to our place of worship and offer ourselves to be changed by what we encounter. What would it look like to come to church with a willingness, an openness to engage both body and mind in an act of devotion. Not to Hanuman, not to me, not even to this church, but to what we each find sacred.

Offering ourselves to be moved, to be changed is scary stuff. It seems especially scary for us as Unitarian Universalists. Transformation is one of the scariest things in the world. It means letting go of a world we knew, letting go of security and being vulnerable in the world until we find our bearings. Even the good, happy life transformations can open us to vulnerability.
The last time I preached on the topic of transformation I did a whole sermon on butterflies. Transformation in butterflies obviously has an astoundingly beautiful result. But the transformation also involves a time of extreme difficulty and vulnerability. Coming out of its cocoon is the most vulnerable moment in the lifecycle of a butterfly. With it’s new brilliant colors, a newly emerged butterfly needs to spend some time inflating its wings with blood and letting them dry. It can’t fly away, or do much of anything to protect itself. A butterfly’s first experience of its new beautiful life is one of complete vulnerability to any number of predators. Some butterflies' wings may take up to three hours to dry before they can use them to fly. What a frightening way to come into a new beautiful self.
Transformation for yourself, or for an institution that you love is very scary business. A couple of our members are fond of the saying “growing old aint for sissies.” Well change isn’t for sissies either. A lot of us do what we can to avoid it.

There’s one change however that I know is going to happen. A full-on transformational actually. The exterior of our building is about to get transformed. We’ve managed to replace our sewer line, which was the necessary work. Now it’s time for the exciting stuff. We are planning on painting, changing the sign on the building, and totally reconfiguring the patio. It’s going to be a whole new, beautiful space for us to gather after service, and to welcome in new visitors.
This past year we did an amazing job coming together to raise the money for this transformation. We raised over $10,000 ourselves and had the smarts to ask for a grant to get a grant for another $10,000. The leadership of this congregation is brining about a transformation of our outside.
With that exciting change on the horizon, I can’t help but wonder if we have the potential to transform the inside as well. Will we have a face lift this year, beautifying the outside, or do we have the capacity to usher in new life, to rejuvenate, to reinspire this community? I think we can.

One of the reasons we wanted to update the outside of the building is to make it more welcoming to visitors, which is obviously an important cause. But the biggest reason why I am so excited about his change is that I want this church to feel like the home of everyone here. This place is our place. It is for everyone here. The building was painted pink over ten years ago. Some of those people are still hear. But many more have joined our ranks. This is a home for all of us, not just something that we walked into where all the decisions had already been made and all the work had been done. This is a home that is growing and changing with our contributions and our efforts. I think our transformation as a community can be more than skin deep.

Some of you Laguna Beach locals may recall having read of the Butterfly Lady in the paper a couple of years ago. The title sounds like a fairytale, but she exists. She is my neighbor. She has planted the entire garden around her house with milkweed and other flowers that attract monarch butterflies. Countless butterflies come to feed and they leave their eggs. Caterpillars hatch. And she spends hours in her garden inspecting the underside of leaves to see where they have started making cocoons. When she finds one, She gently takes it to an aquarium where she protects the fragile transforming creature until it hatches. There is nothing quite like holding a butterfly as it hatches, watching it flap its brand new wings before it’s first flight.
Often I see her out in her garden, tending the tremendous flowers and inspecting for caterpillars. Every morning, every afternoon I see here and I can’t help but be reminded of us here, and the garden that we create, this safe place where people can be transformed into their full and magnificent selves.

We all know that change is scary, transformation is hard work. But it is not a solo project. Maybe we are also responsible for creating an environment for other people to have their transformation, a safe space for people to spread their wings when they are vulnerable. Maybe, one day our church will look more like a butterfly sanctuary.
May we be a butterfly sanctuary, a garden full of lush foliage to feed our souls for the journey. May we be a safe space for our tender vulnerable wings to unfold. And may we be a place for sunshine to catch the beautiful array of colors and patterns that we each reflect. May we be a testament to all the tenderness and beauty that humanity has to reflect.


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