Monday, January 28, 2013
“An Open Invitation”
I mentioned last week that covenant is a core component of who we are as a religious traditions. But I didn’t talk much about what that means. Today I want to talk about the idea of covenant and what it means for our relationship to this church. And perhaps more importantly, the way our Fellowship can offer an open invitation to join us on the journey.
We know a covenant is an agreement between people. The easiest point of comparison for today’s world is a contract. But a covenant isn’t so cut and dry. A covenant is more about an expression of good intentions and ongoing relationship rather than specific requirements. A covenant says that I will do my best, with the understanding that you will do your best. And though we might occasionally let one another down, we are committed to building this relationship and the institution around it.
Hopefully that reminds you of our Fellowship today. We gather together and bring what we can to share and grow. But that arrangement didn’t just come out of the lovely group of Unitarians who came together here in Laguna Beach 65 years ago. It grew out of a uniquely American religious experience long, long before.
If you can, imagine North America in the mid 1600s with un-united colonial governments and small religious groups popping up all over the place. There were some orderly Anglican churches, but also a slough of small Puritan and Congregational churches. Each one had their own slightly different theology and way of governing themselves. In 1648 the government of Massachusetts called for some sense of order amongst these churches. Remember at this time the government was still relating to the church as an organization. The government needed some framework for understanding how the churches were organizing themselves. As a response to that need, the Cambridge Platform was written.
Here is a picture of it. This document, the Cambridge Platform became the blue print for congregational polity that we still largely follow today. It included the right of each parish to call its own minister, to control its own property and funds, and to determine criteria for church membership. It’s pretty radical if you compare those rights to the Church of England.
All of those are huge pieces of church autonomy. But the piece we are focusing on today is about membership, who is invited in and who is kept out. Outside of the strictures of top-down religious institutions, these new American religious communities used covenants as the basis of understanding who was a part of their community. Covenants were written and signed by all the members of each congregation and they reflected the promises that members made to one another and to God. What I want to point out here is that the covenant was understood consistently as a promise involving God. Members of the Puritan churches committed themselves to one another, but God was the foundation of that commitment.
It is precarious to talk much about Unitarian Universalist history because the theology seems so removed from who we are as a tradition today. Some of us are comfortable with invoking God in our promises to one another. But just as many of us have no understanding or interest in recognizing God, much less grounding our commitments in God. Our beliefs today are just too varied to be summed up with the “G word”, and that’s okay.
The rest of Unitarian Universalist history, the portion most obviously produced the congregations we know today, is, a continually widening search for truth and meaning. We have accepted broader and broader sources of truth and wisdom. Today we maintain different beliefs and share one religious community. It’s quite an odd project if you think about it. What we end up with is Unitarian Universalism. We are a covenantal, rather than a creedal religious tradition. At the foundation, we rely on an agreement of supporting one another, rather than a creed that we all subscibe to. We are covenental rather than creedal.
But as we heard in the historical context, covenant is not simply a promise between people. Historically a covenant is a promise that is based on a faith, a relationship with God. I’m concerned that in a wonderful expansion of theological diversity, we have forgotten to deal with the “God” component of covenant.
Of course it doesn’t have to be the big GOD that we bring into our covenant. But it has to be something. Think for a moment about the really committed relationships in your life. They may be with your family, you children, or a career. What is the great loving compulsion that keeps you in these relationships. It is likely to be different for different people, but we each have something that drives our deepest commitment. You may not even be able to describe it; maybe you can feel it. But I want you to identify that thought or feeling that grounds your most profound relationships.
Now imagine with me what it might look like to infuse your relationship with this congregation with that same loving compulsion. What would it look like to reaffirm the role of God, or your highest ideals in your covenant with this faith-community. I am thoroughly convinced that it is time for us to make that infusion, and to make it quickly.
I told a few people this week that I was excited about writing today’s sermon. It’s not so much the details of covenant that I am excited about. I already knew most of that. What I was excited about, what I am excited about is a very new way of understanding hospitality. I realized we have been going about this conversation all wrong.
Unitarians across the country and we here in this congregation have talked about growth and radical hospitality. We have talked about how to welcome visitors and make sure that guests feel welcomed into our churches. It’s a really well intended idea of reaching out and being kind. That was the initial idea of this sermon. But this week I finally realized something. That whole conversation of hospitality depends on one very big, and very wrong assumption, the assumption that this is our church.
Last week I talked some about our mission, about why does this institution exist. Today I want to raise an equally important question. Whose church is this? To whom does UUFLB belong?
We have a Board of trustees that is ultimately accountable for the financial and legal wellbeing of the Fellowship. They are trustees, entrusted with the responsibility to carry out the mission. But they are not owners. In a similar way, I am generally responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of our community. But ministers come and go, and while I serve this Fellowship now, it is not mine with ultimate authority either.
There are a few other possible options. One is that it belongs to the founders, those who have put in the money and time building it. Though we don’t have any of the original signers of the charter with us left today. Perhaps we could say that it belongs to all of us. But today I want to pose an alternative answer. I have come to believe that our church, if it is truly to be a church, belongs to no one. It is in fact a vehicle to manifest the inherent truths that we hold dear.
This is not my church. This is not your church. We are not called to be hospitable to the outsiders, because we in fact are all guests here. We are all guests at the welcome table. The idea of hospitality is based on the assumption that some people are hosts and other people are guests. But we are all guests of this embodiment of love. We come here to celebrate, to witness, to mourn. And we help others to experience what we have found here. But no one owns the spirit of the church.
Talking about the type of community that Unitarian Universalists build, Rev. John Burens writes “It is about having the faith that we can together feed the many who are hungry – because, just like Jesus is said to have fed five thousand with two fishes and a few loaves of bread, with plenty left over, we need to operate out of an awareness of abundance, not a model of scarcity.”
We are not the most Biblically literate bunch around here, but this is a story that I think most of us are familiar with. Having only two fish and a few loaves of bread, Jesus is said to have fed five thousand people in one of his most celebrated miracles. But this miracle doesn’t rest in Jesus’ hands alone. It rests in the miracle of a community sharing together. It is a testament that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is about a church being more than the people within it.
In many ways, our Fellowship is the story of the loaves and the fishes. Like you, I have seen people’s lives changed here. I have seen miraculous relationships occur. It is a miraculous table overflowing with abundance. And the truth is, we are all guests, not miracle workers.
We are all guests to this miraculous party. And what’s more, none of us did anything special to earn the invitation to participate. The door was open and we found our way in, not because of some great talent or skill, not because we paid the price for admission. We were offered a seat just for walking through the door. The handful of us who were raised UU didn’t even have to do that. We were literally carried in.
And that my friends, is grace. Being offered a place in a community of love, a community that affirms that every soul is sacred and worthy, a community that welcomes you as you are. Being offered a place in that community is grace, a gift, an unearned and un-earnable gift. And it is a reason to celebrate.
I want to revisit the reading that we did earlier. It’s from the famous Universalist John Murray. He said “Go out into the highways and by-ways. Give the people something of your new vision. You may posses a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”
John Murray was a great evangelical. But I want you to remember where his zeal came from. It wasn’t from a mission to grow the church. In fact most of the young ministers he inspired were circuit riders. They preached their new message traveling from town to town, collecting what money they could, but never having a real church to call their home. He didn’t spread the message of the universal love of God because he wanted to build an institution. He preached it because he felt blessed, he felt like he had to respond to the tremendous grace that exposed him to the comfort of a religious message of hope and love, rather than sin and punishment.
The thing I love most about this John Murray quote, is that though it was uttered some two hundred years ago it is just as meaningful today. “Give the people something of your vision. Use your truth to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage.” Outside these walls the need for hope and courage persists today.
This is not your church. It is not my church nor does it belong to any other person. This church is here to be the embodiment of our shared ideals, an embodiment of hope and love. So don’t grasp too tightly. In the past couple of months I have been throwing around the phrase, “loving each other to death.” One of the really powerful things about this community is the love that we have for one another. But it’s my deep fear that you are loving each other to death. We are holding on so tightly to the people that are here already, we you forget that an entire town and wider community could be really changed by our message.
I’ll say it one more time. This is not your church. And it’s not anyone else’s church either. The power of this community goes far beyond the individual people. We have had the grace to be welcomed into this community of love. It’s time for us all to respond to that grace, by offering what we have found here to others in need.
Monday, January 21, 2013
Building the Beloved Community
Today after our worship service, we will hold the annual business meeting of our congregation. At this meeting you, the members will vote to elect new trustees to the Board, approve a budget, and make some adaptations to our bylaws. I know this sounds somewhat dry, but it is actually quite important, especially this year. We are facing some real economic challenges and this congregation has to make some hard decisions about how it can best fulfill its mission.
So today I want to indulge in a bit of navel gazing and talk about the life of this congregation. With this sort of meeting occurring it’s important that we gain some context for how we are doing as a congregation, and coming to a clear understanding of our mission as the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach.
That’s not an easy thing to pinpoint for a church: what is our mission, why do we exist? For corporations, they make things and perhaps more importantly, they make money for their share-holders. That’s definitely not our mission. Most other churches exist to save souls or promulgate a particular message. While we do have a message, it’s not quite so neatly defined. It’s easy to say why we do, we have worship services, and activities and pastoral care. We have this building that we take care of, but why? Why do we exist as an institution?
The Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker, tells us that liberal religion, churches like ours exist for four reasons. Equally important and interwoven, these four things constitute the mission of our faith. First, stand in opposition to forces of destruction. We come together to resist systems of oppression and exploitation that divide peoples and separate all of humanity from the earth. I call this having a prophetic voice. We exist to stand in vocal opposition to a dominant cultural paradigm of materialism, oppression, separation, and exploitation. We exist to say no those values of violence.
Secondly, we come together to provide an alternative way of being in the world. We exist to model covenantal community, the power of people freely joining in a community to share their resources for the benefit of all. This is a commitment to create the beloved community, a place of mutual respect and growth. It won’t be perfect, but our mission is to come as close to that dream as possible.
Third, we exist to create rituals that nurture our spiritual and psychological well-being. It mostly happens in Sunday morning worship, but also in a variety of other ways. We provide opportunities for transformative worship, opportunities to engage in spiritual disciplines that give shape, value, and meaning to our lives.
And finally, we exist to deepen and broaden our minds so we might better understand our world and our place in it. Religion is not all about personal experience of spirituality. It also requires some serious discernment, learning about different possibilities and perspective, so that at the end of the day, we can settle into what beliefs make sense to us.
Those are the four things Rebecca Parker says we are in the business of. In my words, I would say that our mission has four pieces: prophetic voice, covenantal community, transformative worship, and expansive education. With that in mind, this coming year I plan to focus my attentions primarily on the second piece of our mission, covenantal community.
The title of this sermon after all is Building the Beloved Community. You can call it what you will, but part of our mission is to build a radically inclusive mutually supportive community. It is what makes us who we are; it is what makes our work holy.
Rev. Tom Owen-Towel writes, “Alone I don’t stand on holy ground nor do you: ground becomes holy when we move beyond our previous biases into realms we haven’t yet ventured, trusting that sacred possibilities lie before us. Ground becomes holy when we migrate to a higher plateau that includes each of our visions but transcends us all. Ground becomes holy because of our willingness to stand together on it.” Our Fellowship becomes holy because of our willingness to transcend personal agendas and move together to a higher ground.
Every Sunday I open our worship with the words, “This hour is sacred because we make it so.” And I deeply believe that. In the same way, this building, this institution is sacred because we make it so. Not just because we imbue it with some sense of importance. It is sacred because we bless it with the holiness of our mutually loving commitment to one another.
If we are to fulfill our mission, if we are to be a sacred space, then we have some work to do in repairing our covenantal community. I’ll talk about what I think that should look like in just a minute, but for now, I want to give some context of where we stand today as a congregation and a faith tradition.
I really dislike using statistics in sermons, but I don’t know of any other way to talk about this. We currently have 85 members. And our membership is running about even year to year. Between 2011 and 2012 we had a slight increase in Sunday morning attendance by adults, and a slight decrease in the attendance of Children. In participation year to year, we are running about even. By the way, Sunday morning attendance is widely considered as the most important measure of church vitality, and the budget comes in a close second.
Speaking of budgets, you the members and friends of this congregation have committed to giving $100,000 in 2013. That is a significant increase from last year, and the highest pledged income our Fellowship has seen possibly ever. So boiling that all down, our membership and attendance has stayed pretty steady, and our giving has increased. That’s where we stand as a congregation.
But we do not stand alone. To understand these numbers it is also important that we look at our wider context. Our faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism is not really thriving these days. In fact we have been on a gradual but real decline in membership for the past decade. Along with that decline has been a significantly shrinking budget. Simply put, Unitarian Universalism is slowly contracting; our Fellowship is not.
We also need to understand the way our small congregation fits into the wider picture. We are indeed a small congregation with 85 members. But we are not unusual in that regard. Fifty percent of Unitarian Universalist congregations have fewer than 100 members. Let me repeat that, half of the UU congregations are small, just like us. We are not an anomaly, outside horse, underdog of a congregation. We are actually quite normal in size.
You hear a good deal about large UU churches because that is where most of the growth takes place in our movement. In general, large churches are growing, while smaller churches are shrinking. To be even more specific, the older small congregations are shrinking, while new ones are growing.
Where I’m going with all of this is that we are beating the odds. Our faith tradition is shrinking, and most of that loss is being sustained in older small congregations like our own. But we are doing okay.
The bottom line is, we are not growing by leaps and bounds, but we are beating the odds. We are doing something right.
We are doing something right, and I am fully convinced that we can do even better, especially when we attend to the covenantal community piece of our mission. There are a few ways that I want to help us better live into that piece of our mission.
First, we need to pay more attention to building and maintaining healthy committees in the congregation. We have a few committees that operate beautifully. I’m thinking particularly of the worship and social action committees. Then we have a few that are marginally functional, and we have a few that exist in name only. Some of these committees are supposed to be supporting core pieces of our life together. We need to pay more attention to our committees. It is still our responsibility to make sure these committees are up are running. I need your help with this.
Also, this year we need to get a better grasp of what this word covenant means. Today may be the first time some of you have heard or thought seriously about the word. But, covenant is a foundation of the history of our religious tradition and it is the basic assumption of how we are organized. It is a commitment to mutual respect and growth, a commitment to build a sacred space together, even while we let go of some of our own personal agenda. As we learn more about covenant, it is my deep hope that this year our congregation will revisit and rewrite the covenant that our members embrace.
But the work of the coming year is not all technical; it is also cultural. I preached about this a few months ago; we still some underlying unspoken differences about what we want our church to be. There is still an elephant in the room. We have two different cultures within the congregation, one focused on unconditional love, and the other focused on creating an excellent church. We have a lot of work to do to bridge this gap and to see that actually the two goals are very much the same. I only want to lift this up right now. We will unpack it in the months to come, starting next week. Suffice it to say, as we focus on covenant in the coming year some of those differences will come to the surface and need to be dealt with.
So what I have described here is a lot of work, and its not particularly attractive. It is committees and documents and studying the word covenant.
But please understand that building our covenanted community is about more than structural underpinnings of an organization. It is also about building the beloved community, modeling to ourselves and the world how we can be together in compassion.
Part of church, a big part of church is about building a place that is different from the rest of the world. The community here is based on sharing what you can. That’s what the financial commitment of pledging is based on, giving what you can. And we ask the same thing in volunteer hours and skills, bring what you can to the table.
And from those plentiful resources, we share evenly among the community gathered. I want you to hear that this is a radical way of living in the world. It is not what happens every day. It’s not the way our capitalist economy operates. It’s not the picture of accumulating personal property and wealth that we see on television. Participating in covenantal community is revolutionary. Not because it is a church, but because it is different, it is lifesaving, and its living a life that we are called to live.
Tomorrow we will celebrate a day dedicated to a great creator of beloved community, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a brilliant organizer of committees, and he held a deeply inspiring vision for the future. One indispensible part of that vision was multigenerational commitment to building the future. While I was reading up on King, I was reminded of the radical incorporation of young people in the civil rights movement. This had never been done before, inviting children to protest non-violently. It had never been done and it achieved a success that I think shocked the adult leaders of the movement. King describes the deep commitment that these children had, even defying their parents’ wishes. He writes an account hearing from one of these exchanges:
“Daddy,” the boy said,” I don’t want to disobey you, but I have made my pledge. If you try to keep me home, I will sneak off. If you think I deserve to be punished for that, I’ll just have to take the punishment. For, you see, I’m not doing this only because I want to be free. I’m doing it also because I want freedom for you and Mama, and I want it to come before you die.”
Just seven years earlier at the bus boycotts King heard from participants that they were in the struggle for their children and their grandchildren. By the time the freedom struggle hit Montgomery, the children were doing it for their parents. King knew that building the beloved community crossed not only racial, gender, and class lines, it also spanned the generations.
Church is one of the few places in our modern world where intergenerational relationships are encouraged. We do our best to create a place where young Unitarian Universalists can thrive. We actually do a very good job of it. But we have to remember that in return, those same children contribute their light to helping build this beloved community. We see this in our young men who are volunteering in our sound booth Connor, and Dale. But we also see it in the smiles, hugs, and wisdom that come from all the children who gather with us on Sunday.
Please don’t mistake this as my weighing in on our budget discussion that will come later. I personally have very mixed feelings about the budget and I’m somewhat relieved that I as your minister won’t be voting at the meeting. What I do want to say is that educating our children is not only a cost. It is also an investment in our future. And their presence is a priceless asset to this beloved community. The presence and commitment of each of you regardless of age gender race physical ability or anything else, your presence is priceless, and our future together rests our shared commitment to building the beloved community here in our midst.
Monday, January 7, 2013
The Art of Winning and Losing
This week I found myself in a little bit of an intellectual bind. It is not rare, but it was especially true this week. On Wednesday evening, some of us began a discussion group for the book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” by Karen Armstrong. We had a great talk about the role of love in compassion and the difference between helping others out of obligation and helping others out of a sense of caring. And we talked about some of the great religious traditions and teachers who illuminated the path to compassion.
The very next day, I sat down to write this sermon about engaging in competition and winning or losing with grace. I found myself forced to reconcile these two great pieces of our life, compassion and competition. I guess the simple way to look at the question is this: does the golden rule apply to competition? Is it possible to engage in competition with compassion in our hearts? It isn’t simple, but I think it is possible, and I think it is something that gets done more that we acknowledge. The question of winning and losing gracefully, really comes down to how we play the game, how we engage in competition. Do we do it to diminish an opponent, or do we do it to seek a higher purpose for everyone involved? How do we compete with compassion?
In her introduction to her book on compassion, Karen Armstong starts with a very scientific perspective. She writes about the old brain and the new brain. Old and new here aren’t about the age of a person, they are about the way that the human brain has developed over millennia through evolution. You see we still have the old portion of our brain, the reptilian self-defense mechanism. As Armstrong puts it, the old brain is only concerned with the four Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and … reproduction. This is the brain that we have in common with the simplest of animals. We have heard of fight or flight response, we know these things come at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We are animals and at a base level we are hard wired to survive in a sometimes harsh world. We have an old brain.
But over millennia we developed a “new brain” which is home of the reasoning powers. Our capacity for reason and love came with amazing physical adaptation, namely a larger head. Over time we developed larger skulls to make room for this giant brain. We even adapted the course of childbirth. Because a large head makes childbirth more difficult, humans evolved to give birth to less mature infants who would be dependent on their mothers for a tremendous amount of time, to allow the birth of a body with a head large enough for our amazing brains.
This new brain must have been a tremendous advantage to drive those changes in evolution. And in deed it is. Our new brain enables us to reflect on the world around us and to be conscious of ourselves in that world. And along with that ability to for critical thought comes the capacity for compassion.
I wanted to talk about this new brain and old brain idea for two different reasons as we talk about competition. First, is that natural selection and the survival of the fittest is so grossly misunderstood and misrepresented in conversations about competition. Social Darwinists have claimed for centuries that we are animals and we evolved to excellence through competition. They say competition is a good thing because it weeds out he week and empowers the strong. Competition is the natural order of things and it establishes a fruitful power structure and division of resources.
This is simply bad science. It is well intended, but bad science. It’s true that like other animals, we evolved through competition. But the fruit of that evolution is a capacity to cooperate, to love, and to share our resources equitably. Compassion is just as much a part of our DNA as competition is. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Fighting is no more natural for us than embracing, and competition is no more natural for us than cooperating. Nature is no justification for human oppression.
The other reason I wanted to bring up these two brains, the old and the new, is that no matter how evolved we are, the old brain never goes away. Our drive for the four Fs, our need to feed, fight, flee, or… reproduce never disappears. A part of our basic biology is an inclination to compete for resources. But look around and you will see for most of us, our basic needs for survival are more than adequately met. But we still have this desire, this passion to do something that is no longer necessary.
It seems to me, that compassionate competition, competition within some agreed upon constraints is actually a good way to navigate our way between the old brain and the new brain. It seems to me that rather than posing competition and compassion as necessary opposites, we can actually use friendly competition to build a working relationship between the old brain and the new brain.
How many of you have been, or are involved in some form of competitive sport? And how many of you have learned something about yourself through that process?
The chances are very good that what you learned was about pushing yourself to achieve more than you thought possible. I know that’s what I learned about from swimming in high-school. Yes, it felt good to win, and I was actually pretty good. As a formerly awkward non-athletic child, I actually surprised myself by how well I did. But what was even more surprising was much I could push myself to improve. Swimming is hard work. I remember being totally exhausted, gasping for air, and knowing that the in five seconds it was time to push off that wall and start swimming again, fast. But I did it; I got through it. I learned to push myself in ways that I had never known before. I had a great time in those hours and hours of practice with equally committed and supportive teammates.
What we learn through compassionate competition is an appreciation not for winning, but an appreciation for doing our best, an appreciation for excellence, and the journey it takes to get there.
The art of winning and losing really comes down to why we play the game. If we play to feel like we are somehow superior to another person, the chances are pretty darn good that in winning or in losing we will be, well, a jerk. But, if we play the game because we love it, because we want to improve ourselves, or because we like the relationships that it builds, then winning and losing with grace becomes a much more realistic prospect.
This whole topic of winning and losing well came up because of our monthly worship theme. For January we are focusing in the concept of Grace in our worship services. Grace is a huge complex theological concept, rooted mostly in the Christian tradition. Grace is all about getting a chance to do better, getting an unearned opportunity to direct our lives away from destruction and toward life. Grace is a second chance one a cosmic level.
Most models of grace come through the power of the divine to intercede in our lives and offer new opportunities. To varying degrees that makes sense. But there is a Unitarian Universalist concept of grace that I think we can all sink our teeth into. One of our Unitarian Universalist theologians talks about grace as having the good fortune to fall in love with the right thing. Rev. Marjorie Bowen-Wheatley writes that grace is falling in love with a worthy reality, not being able to help loving someone or something worth loving. Grace is falling in love with things that are worthy of our love.
Graceful competition, or graceful winning and losing then, means engaging in competition for the sake of a higher ideal than ourselves. It may be for the fun of the game, it may be for the common pursuit of excellence, or even some nobler idea. But graceful competition means loving something, not hating our opponent.
One possible goal to focus on is excellence. Not being better than another person that you are competing against, but understanding that all of those competing are aiming to be the best in their field, whatever it may be. Whether it is in sports, academia, or even democratic government, competition is used as a means to move toward and to celebrate excellence.
This sort of training for excellence is what I typically think of in the Olympics. Occasionally we get a story of personal competition between great athletes or great teams. But more than that, the Olympic games are an opportunity for the entire world to celebrate excellence in achievement. It’s about celebrating together the great accomplishments that are possible. We all know that the Olympics is supposed to be an apolitical sporting event. But I was interested to know that that has always been the purpose. In the midst of the fiercest athletic competition individuals and nations put aside personal differences to celebrate excellence. Historical records indicate that the Olympic games began around 776 BC. In that time an Olympic truce was called between city-states so that athletes could safely travel to the games. Then, as now there was some politicking involved as government officials jockeyed for public attention, but the real focus was on the athletic excellence that each nation-state sent forth as a representative.
But competition doesn’t just cultivate excellence in sports. It also is a tool for cultivating great art and great ideas. Though it seems civilized, academia is an incredibly competitive environment. To be taken serious you have to prove your ideas against the voice of those who oppose you. In the grand market place of ideas, you have to prove that what you produce is a good product, better than your peers even. We also depend on a market place of ideas for our political system. Democracy is at its core a competition of opposing ideas and a competition between different potential leaders. Different ideas or different candidates are presented to the public, for a debate, a competition to clarify which makes more sense for the good of the whole community.
Compassionate competition also has a great capacity for building relationships. If we hold in our hearts mutual respect rather than disdain for the other, a great bond can be forged through competing.
Just before I sat down to write this sermon I went to drop off my rent check with my landlord. She also went to the University of Oklahoma so she reminded me about the OU / Texas football game being played that day. This is a SERIOUS rivalry if you know anything about college football. And she said something peculiar. She said she was going to get out her OU hat and sweat shirt to watch the game, and get her five dollar bill. So of course I had to ask, “What five-dollar bill?” It’s the same $5 bill that she brings out every year when OU plays against Texas. It’s the same $5 bill that she won betting against her father. You see they had an annual tradition of watching this particular football game and betting on it. The last year they watched it before he died, she won the $5 bet. And she sill has the bill as a reminder of her relationship with her dad and all the time they shared watching football over the decades.
If we set our sights on the right thing, if we engage in competition because of a love of excellence or for building our relationships, it can do great things.
This may sound odd, but I think there is a huge lesson in this conversation for us as a religious community. We are a Fellowship, a church, a Unitarian Universalist community. We are a religious organization and we compete in a market place of ideas with other religious organizations. That’s right, we compete in a market place of ideas with other religious organizations.
And we have a very bad habit of dismissing our competitors. As Unitarian Universalists we tend to root for the under dog. We like small churches that align themselves with the oppressed. And that is a beautiful thing. But it seems to me that rather than dismissing those churches who have grown, especially the ones that are dynamic and flourishing, instead of dismissing them as somehow different, we should try and learn from what they have done to achieve their excellence. Rooting for the underdog is a fine thing. But it should never blind us from the fact that someone is winning the competition. And if they have been winning the competition consistently, they probably have some tremendous effort or skills that others could learn from.
On the group level we tend to think of those other large growing dynamic churches as somehow different and we don’t see ourselves in competition with them. And we do the same thing on the individual level. I know many of us are afraid of telling others about Unitarian Universalism. We think that that’s just not the UU way. Well for one, that’s just not accurate. Universalists were some of the best evangelizers of American religious history. Sharing the good news of universal salvation is a part of our history.
I said earlier that we compete in a market place of ideas with other religious groups. I want you to consider what it means that we typically refrain from this competition. Why do we refrain, on an individual level? Why don’t we share the truth that we have found here? Is it because we think that other people don’t need what we have found here and love? Is it because we are intimidated by another idea and we don’t stand a chance in the competition? Is it because we think our idea is too good to share with others? What is it that makes sharing Unitarian Universalism in the market place of ideas so unthinkable to most of us? I have a very strong feeling that it has to do with competition, and our fear of losing.
So to answer the question from earlier, yes, the golden rule does apply to competition. In fact it is that very rule that dictates our ability to win or lose with grace. The art of winning and losing is really the art of entering a contest with a compassionate heart, hoping not to diminish another person, but instead to mutually grow in knowledge, skill and in love.