Monday, January 21, 2013

"Building the Beloved Community" - Sermon

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.

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