A Chance to Practice What We Know

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 03/30/2014


A cute video from a cute but also surprisingly deep movie about the power of true love – I recommend seeing it if you haven’t yet. 


It’s easy enough to see this song, this scene as being simply about a somewhat unusual family trying to get their young people to fall in love with each other and get married.  On the surface, the song tells us that everyone is a fixer upper, and that’s sort of reassuring on the romantic front, or at least it’s equalizing.  I can imagine talking to people about that in premarital counseling sessions, that both partners will struggle with flaws and foibles, not just you, and not just your partner. 


I remember reading a quote from someone – gosh, I can’t remember who now – but they said whenever they were particularly mad at their spouse they would go to the bathroom, look in the mirror, and say to themselves, well, you’re no great catch either!  And somehow that would make the situation seem more tolerable.  I have to say it’s a technique that I have used myself, and I can report that it’s particularly effective if you, like me, tend towards the self-righteous.


So, a cute video about romance and what works in a partnership, right?  Or is it more?  Well, I say more, and I say more because of the section close to the end, with Mama Troll singing, that goes like this:


We’re not saying you can change him

‘Cause people don’t really change

[that’s the true premarital counseling tip, by the way]

We’re only saying that love’s a force

That’s powerful and strange

People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed

But throw a little love their way

And you’ll bring out their best

True Love brings out the best

Everyone’s a bit of a fixer upper

That’s what it’s all about

Father, sister, brother, we need each other

to raise us up and round us out

Everyone’s a bit of a fixer upper, but when push comes to shove

The only fixer upper fixer that can fix a fixer upper is True, true love


It’s this part of the song that I want to talk about today.  And whether or not it’s true that the only fixer upper fixer that can fix a fixer upper is true, true love. 


Our theme this month, remember, is What Can Unitarian Universalism Do For Me?  And the way I want to answer that question today is by saying, What Unitarian Universalism can do for you is to help you learn how to manage in a world where there are two truths: Everyone is a fixer upper.  And everyone has inherent worth and dignity. 


Eek, those are two very contradictory concepts.  If these two things are both true, how do we learn to manage it?


I had a conversation with a congregant last week who said she learned from Buddhist teaching that one ought to practice being aware of one’s foibles, without necessarily trying to change them.  But the problem with that, she said, was that then you are walking around all day being completely aware of all your flaws!  Horrifying! 


That’s a little like church, I think.  If you’re realistic, you come into church knowing that you’ll be with new people, and that people have a lot of imperfections, but you come anyway because you’re hoping for something more than a clear and full view of human faults.  Just as I’m sure the purpose of that Buddhist practice has to be more than just a constant companionship with your flaws.


When you come to church, you might be hoping to meet a few special friends that you don’t find all that flawed after all. 


You might be hoping that you can kind of avoid the human drama of congregational life and just concentrate on the wise ideas and the transcendent experiences. 


Or, you could come to church for the reason suggested in the song.  You might be hoping to engage in an experiment. 


You’ve got the everyone-is-a-fixer-upper concept on one hand, and you’ve got the everyone-has-inherent-worth-and-dignity concept on the other hand, and you might be hoping to see or create what the little troll mama sang about. 

We’re not saying you can change him

‘Cause people don’t really change

We’re only saying that love’s a force

That’s powerful and strange

People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed

But throw a little love their way

And you’ll bring out their best


What can you get from Unitarian Universalism?  You can get a chance to try out and see how a little love thrown someone’s way brings out their best.  That’s what Unitarian Universalists do, that’s what we’re for, really.  We come together to find ways to throw love at people, to bring beloved community into the lives of people, in all sorts of different ways, to see if that helps them be less mad or scared or stressed, to see if it helps them to make better choices, both on the personal level as well as on bigger scales than just our individual interactions.


Now, you might wonder why a church wants to spend so much time talking about how we act with each other, and we don’t spend nearly as much time talking about God [show Apply Broadest Definition Here sign], what God is or isn’t like or what God does or doesn’t want. 


Isn’t that what real churches do, you may secretly be wondering – don’t they talk about God?  Aren’t we cheating with our whole “theological diversity” perspective, with our whole “how do we want to BE with each other” angle?  Aren’t we cheating ourselves out of a true church experience?


I say no, Unitarian Universalists aren’t cheating when we focus on community rather than God.  Not only do I say no, but so does 20th century Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  (Ha!)


Bonhoeffer recommended that religious practitioners “adopt…what [he] called a penultimate rather than an ultimate attitude”[1] towards religious life.  You’ll remember that the word “penultimate” means the second before the last, the one before the ultimate.  In this case, the “ultimate” would be a synonym for God, that which is foundational, at the root of all of creation.


Bonhoeffer said, “Does one not in some cases, by remaining deliberately in the penultimate, perhaps point all the more genuinely towards the ultimate, which God will speak in His own time?...Does not this mean that, over and over again, the penultimate will be what commends itself precisely for the sake of the ultimate, and that it will have to be done not with a heavy conscience but with a clear one?”


The book I got this quote from, which is a book on an entirely different subject, by the way, explains Bonhoeffer’s quote by saying that adopting a penultimate attitude “means foregoing speech or action that explicitly expresses one’s ultimate faith convictions.  It involves, instead, finding penultimate ways of living out of one’s convictions, ways of speaking and acting that respect the everyday reality that we share with others in the situation who may not hold our ultimate convictions.  It involves finding common ground with them on which to work for the common good: more humane, fair, or just solutions to issues at work, in the community, or in the nation.”


Respecting the everyday reality that we share with others who may not hold our ultimate convictions.  Finding common ground from which to work for the common good. Yeah, I’d say we UUs are good at that.


Look, Unitarian Universalists run the gamut when it comes to defining the Ultimate, to defining God, including taking the stand of not being willing to define the Ultimate at all.  But at the end of the day, we probably do all agree with the perspective that I quoted in one of my very first sermons here, again from a movie, this one called You Kill Me, where the actor Luke Wilson says to a friend, “It doesn’t matter to me what your higher power is.  It really doesn’t matter - it can be the Golden Gate Bridge for all I care.  But I’ll tell you this – it’s gotta be a few things.  It’s gotta be big.  It’s gotta be good.  And it’s gotta be NOT YOU.[2]


Unitarian Universalists don’t agree on what God or the Ultimate is, but we do know a few things about it anyway.  It’s big.  It’s not you, for crying out loud, because there’s stuff much bigger than any one of us out there.  And I think we mostly can agree that the Ultimate, even if we don’t believe that the Ultimate thinks or chooses or directs or does anything on purpose, I think we can mostly agree that the Ultimate is good.  When spring comes and injuries heal and babies are born and hurts are forgiven and ways forward are found where no way could have been imagined before, we all sense that there is something good and right about the very source of life itself.


And if you come to believe that there is something good about the source of life, something good about all of creation all around you all the time, then you will find that eventually you will want to both explore and foster that goodness.  Exploring and fostering the goodness of life is a foundationally religious quest.


That’s the penultimate religious work that Unitarian Universalists do on our best days.  We try foster goodness, in our selves, in our relationships, in our institutions, in our world, because we know that the Ultimate has something to do with goodness, and we want to point us all that way.  So we foster goodness, and we do it using a tool that we call Love. 


The kind of love we use in church isn’t the sort of love that leads to best friends or to romance or marriage.  It isn’t really the sort of love you suddenly feel with a burst when you hold your new baby, or how you felt towards your parents when you were little.  The sort of love that I am talking about, and that Unitarian Universalism is talking about, and that the mama troll is talking about in the video, isn’t the kind of love that thinks you’re beautiful or smart or funny or just the cutest kid ever. 


In fact, the sort of love that I’m talking about knows you’re actually a fixer upper.


The sort of love that Unitarian Universalists use like a tool knows you’re a fixer upper, and it knows that you are inherently worthy, and somehow it knows that those two things can go together if you want them to.  This sort of bigger Love, it knows that you can make better choices when you aren’t mad or scared or stressed. 


Love is quite the tool.  It’s powerful and strange.  It isn’t necessarily for us to completely understand.  But it is for us to use.


Where else in your life right now do you have the opportunity to practice extending love to people you know are badly flawed, even broken?  Actually, let me rephrase that, because of course, you have the opportunity to extend love to broken people all the damn day if you really think about it. 


Let me put it this way: Where else in your life right now is this practice of loving the broken considered the norm, the goal?  Where else has established as practice loving people, in all their flaws, until they are able to be their best selves? 


Do you do this at work?  At the supermarket?  In your families?


Maybe?  Sometimes?  On your good days?  Do you come back here every week to be reminded that you want to learn to love people better?  Do you ever find it easier to practice loving flawed people here because you know we’re all trying to do it? 


There’s a whole world out there that needs to practice what we know, what Mama Troll knows.  We need each other to raise us up and round us out.  We can’t expect that others will be perfect, or that they will be what we want them to be, or even that they’ll try to be nice.  Actually, the world is often a very hard place, because everyone’s a bit of a fixer upper.  But when push comes to shove, the only fixer upper fixer that can fix a fixer upper is true, true love.


Knowing that, practicing that, is what Unitarian Universalism can do for you.










[1] Carroll, Jackson W.  As One With Authority: Reflective Leadership in Ministry. Louisville: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1991.  P. 110.

[2] You Kill Me (2007)