What Do You Think Of This?

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 04/07/2013

Last January, I spent a whole week in a continuing education class for ministers.  Lest that makes you feel sorry for me, I should mention that the class was held at a conference on the gulf coast of Florida.  I could have spent more time on the beach, which was heavenly.  Instead, though, I was riveted by this course I had signed up for.

The class was called Doing More by Being Less.  I have no idea why it was called that; the title was by far the worst part of the class.  The rest of it was amazing.  It was essentially a glimpse into the entire church system – the large overarching bits and the small minutia – of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York. 

First U Rochester is a large congregation, with over a thousand members, run by married co-senior ministers, the Reverends Scott Tayler and Kaaren Anderson.  Rev. Tayler taught my class.

Now, I’ve had some exposure to large churches, the kind where they have to have an entire paid staff person, for example, just to juggle the slotting of all their church events and rentals into their many rooms.  Large churches seem so busy to me, full of activity and hubbub and action.  There are film nights and potlucks and discussions and meetings to help with this or that.  But oftentimes, I find, with large churches, there can be somewhat of a lack of focus on the things that make church church, and not just a rollicking community center.   Mostly, my large church experience has made me really very glad that I work in a small church. 

See, I want a congregation to have a focus, to spend the majority of its time working on at least one of the three legs of the stool that I consider to be good church.  I want church to be a place for spiritual development.  I want church to be a place where we care for each other.  And I want church to be a place where we do some good in the wider world. 

In small churches - at Sugarloaf too - we have limited resources, and few opportunities to do much else other than these very churchy tasks.  That’s why I like it; we have a natural centering force, because we’re small.  It helps us stay on a churchy track.  And I had thought, I guess, without really realizing it, I had thought that larger churches must automatically come with more diffusion of purpose.  But after my week with Scott Tayler, I saw things differently.

Now, some of what I learned from Rev. Tayler has to do with creating theme-based worship, the sort we’re going to try out here next year.  In our SCUU version of theme-based worship, each spring we’ll plan out, together in community, what we want to talk about through the following church year.  (Our meeting, by the way, to plan for next year will be this Thursday, and I hope to see you there.) 

Then, over the course of next year, you’ll not only hear those selected themes explored in worship services, but you’ll also have the opportunity to participate in a regular small-group discussion on the same themes.  The overall goal is a deeper level of involvement for us all, where we move away from the practice of you all just showing up here each week to hear what whoever at the front of the room has to say, and we move together towards a deeper and stronger sense of spiritual engagement.  We’ll learn from each other, and teach each other too.  I’m really excited about it.  Plan to be involved, because the more of us we have, the better it’s going to be.

That was about half of what I learned from Rev. Tayler.

But the other part that I learned from him, I haven’t talked much about as yet, until today.  The other part has to do with First Unitarian’s mission, their mission for their church and their mission in the world.  And I bequeathed this worship service with the unusual title of “What do you think of this?” because that, in fact, is what I want you to think about.

It matters what you think because when Rev. Tayler told us about his church’s mission statement, it came with a warning.  He warned us that he does not only say to his church that their mission is for their particular congregation.  Usually that’s what happens, because the Unitarian Universalist norm is that every church creates their own mission, their own singular reason for being in the world, thereby often reinventing the wheel when their next door neighbor has already hooked up a whole cart. 

But Rev. Tayler doesn’t do that.  He doesn’t stop at the walls of his church.  No, Rev. Tayler warned us in our class, he tells his congregation that their church’s mission is actually the mission of Unitarian Universalism altogether.

In that room full of ministers, let me tell you, many ears perked up when he said that.  You use your church’s mission as a mission for Unitarian Universalism altogether?  Yes, he told us, so watch out, because if one of our members heads your way, they’re going to be expecting that this is something that we all share.

Well, he got my attention with that, for sure.  I was very eager to hear this mission for all of Unitarian Universalism – about as eager, I suppose, as you might be now.  So here goes, first with an explanation.

Rev. Tayler and Rev. Anderson have noted that American society is struggling with spiritual disconnection.  They write that “[l]ooking at our own lives and the lives around us, we see people struggling against:
 •a shallow, frantic culture
 •forgetfulness about who they really are and who they want to be
 •a feeling of being pulled apart
 •a desire for "more"”

The minsters go on to write: “These common struggles leave many of us wanting to be more intentional about strengthening connections to ourselves, others and life itself. In response, our congregation focuses on three…means of connection. [At First Unitarian, w]e help each other:
 1.Listen to our deepest selves.
 2.Open to the gifts (and grace) of the world.
 3.Serve needs greater than our own.

So their mission statement at First Unitarian Rochester is this:  “Our mission is creating connection by listening to our deepest selves, opening to life's gifts and serving needs greater than our own - every day!”

And the shorthand, the catchy three-word version, is this:  Listen.  Open.  Serve.  There are even hand motions to go with it, if you’re a hand motion kind of person.  Listen to your deepest self.  Open to life’s gifts.  Serve others with needs greater than your own.  Listen, Open, Serve.

There are two angles by which to think about this, in my opinion.  The first is to ask whether or not spiritual disconnection is truly the struggle of our age.  And I have to say that I think the Revs. Tayler and Anderson have a point about this, certainly within Unitarian Universalism, if not among the broader American public. 

Think back to what they say they’ve seen in their community:  people operating within a shallow, frantic culture.  People who are trying to remember who they are and who they want to be in the midst of that culture.  A sense of being pulled apart, of not being able to focus on what matters, or of having too many conflicting priorities.  A desire for “more” – more out of life, more to work for, or long for, than just a job with more perks, or the ability to buy something new.

For me, until I heard this, I had not grouped all of these evident American troubles under one heading, and certainly hadn’t figured out what that heading ought to be called.  But First Unitarian’s “spiritual disconnection” description fits well, I think, it fits well.  And it has the added bonus of pointing towards a solution, right?  If our problem is spiritual disconnection, then the solution must be… spiritual connection.  And spiritual connecting does seem like something that churches are precisely in the right place to foster, if they aren’t doing so already.  That makes me feel hopeful.

The second angle from which to ask about First Unitarian’s mission is whether or not the method of “Listen, Open, Serve” is the best pathway to ameliorate this sense of spiritual disconnection.  Or to put it more positively, to flip it over, we should ask if the Listen–Open-Serve plan lends itself to greater spiritual connection, in church at least.

One of the things that particularly impresses me about the First Unitarian mission is how universal it manages to be without being meaningless.  That’s really hard to pull off!  There are many UU mission statements that do a great job with being inclusive, but they are so inclusive that they manage to say nothing specific about who the congregation is or what they are for in the world.

With the idea that their church’s mission is to foster connection by listening to their deepest selves, opening to life’s gifts, and serving others with needs greater than their own, I think First Unitarian succeeds in being universally  appealing and inclusive, as well as being movement-oriented.  These are actions, first of all, not just attitudes.  And they are actions that anyone can do, at any age, at any time, from any theological or developmental perspective.

I think one’s engagement with these steps could grow and grow over time, becoming richer and deeper as one goes along through life.  In short, I like this mission, this purpose for their congregation.  I imagine it serves them well; I agree that it could be the orientation for all of Unitarian Universalism.

We took a look at our own mission statement just a little earlier, so you may be wondering about it now in light of what I’ve been describing from First U Rochester. 

I like our mission statement.  It is clear and it is accurate, in my opinion. It avoids being overly verbose, which is no small thing for UUs.  It points to our particular values at SCUU, as a community of faith. 

But given what we may have learned about the mission of First Unitarian, I ask you:  Is there anything you would add to this mission of ours?  I don’t mean lots of sentences that describe us better, I don’t mean that at all.  In fact, I think this describes us well.  But is there something, even just a word, that you would add about what we DO?  What we LOVE?  What we HOPE for?  How we want to ACT? 

How about what we are FOR?

The purpose of this sermon is to get us thinking.  To get us thinking about little things, like three little words we might apply to describe our mission statement.  And to get us thinking about big things, too, like what Unitarian Universalism has to offer this struggling American culture of ours.  And this service is also to get us thinking about middle-sized things, our Sugarloaf things, the way this congregation is going to be in the middle of everything else. 

At the end of the day, it’s this middle area that matters most.  What are we, Sugarloaf, what are we going to do about helping folks navigate and improve the world we’re all running around in?  What is Sugarloaf for?

What is Sugarloaf for?  That’s what I want us to start asking ourselves.  We can come up with three words to describe it, if we want.  We can adopt First Unitarian Rochester’s mission, if that’s what we want.  We can decide that the world is actually struggling with some entirely different issue, if we want.  But churches are a particular institution created by human beings to do a particular thing, and that is to share the good news of their faith with each other and with the world around them. 

So it makes sense, Sugarloaf, at this time in our life here at church, it makes sense for us to start wondering what the good news of this place actually is.  Because there’s all sorts of room out there for our message, whatever it turns out to be.  We just need to know what it is, and start spreading it around.  That’s what church is for, spreading it around.

We do lots of church things very well here.  Being small, we’ve had no option but to stick to activities that are of the sort that a church ought to be doing.  What I’m talking about is not so much changing our ways as much as seeing our ways in a new way, if you will.  Really seeing what it is that we do in the world.  Checking in with ourselves and asking, hey, is this what we want to be doing?  Are we acting the way we hope to be acting?  If not, okay, then we should reorient ourselves.  But if we are doing church in the way we want to do it, then all we really need to do then is find a way to describe ourselves.  We need to describe ourselves to ourselves and to others.

Why?  Because when we can identify our own good news and share it with others, then our good work isn’t accidental.  It isn’t hidden or mysterious.  We don’t have to say, well, I can’t really tell you why it’s great, you’ll have to just come and figure it out on your own. No, when we can articulate who we are and why we do what we do, then everything that we do becomes infused with new purpose.  We aren’t just doing stuff because it’s there to do and we’re used to doing it.  No, we do the stuff we do because we are an important Unitarian Universalist presence in the world, and we aim to make a particular kind of difference.  That’s church.

When we are able to articulate our mission, our vision to ourselves and to the world, in clear, memorable language that is meaningful to everyone who listens and everyone who comes, then we will be a force to be reckoned with, SCUU.  We will be a saving presence in the world for those who are members and for others who interact with us.  And that, my friends, is what church ought to be.  May it be so here, with our continued love and attention.