In the course of preparation for a Sunday morning reflection, such as the one you’re hearing now, the preparer utilizes various resources to embellish the message…
to add tidbit information to support a point or make the message more accessible or interesting.
I typically do this and preparations for today’s service was no different. In this case I want some facts and figures about why people go to church.
So, I did an online search in which I typed in survey, why people go to church. From there up came several options to click on, one of which was What is the main reason people go to church?
That’s pretty much getting down to it, so this was the first thing I clicked on, and the answer was..
Because worshipping God is a commandment.
It went on to say…One of the ways we keep this commandment is to meet together on Sundays to worship God and give Him thanks.
There are multiple aspects of this sentence that I find, shall we say, noteworthy, not the least of which is the overarching idea that the purpose of going to church is because it’s commanded/demanded of us.
I can’t think of a more spirit-squelching reason. So, I looked further. And found some of the things one might expect…to get closer to God, so kids will have a moral foundation, for comfort in times of sorrow.
I was hoping to see something about seeking to be changed, transformed, to tie into our November theme, which is change. And finally I got a taste of it when I saw a reason for going to church is to become a better person.
When I was considering the title for today’s service I had initially thought about “How Church Risks Change” (or more specifically, how we as individuals risk becoming changed by being involved with a faith community).
But I decided against that because saying ‘how’ something happens supposes that something is, in fact, happening.
In this case that something is change. But the fact of the matter is, going to church doesn’t necessarily usher in change.
Let’s listen to what Rev. Joan Duval has to say about the risky business of church
(Let’s pretend like she’s talking specifically about us and NCC)…
We might not automatically think of this church community as a place that is risky. In fact, you may feel like it’s the opposite of risky. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. And, it certainly is those things at times.
But, I believe that this community is also a place of risk. It is a place for taking risks. It’s a place of risk because it’s a place where we ask one another to make commitments. It’s a place where we learn together what it means and what it feels like to follow through on commitments, and where we in fact make some of those commitments together in communal action… And when we are committed, we are in danger of both making change and of being changed. We risk transformation.
At first when I read this I was a little hot and cold with it.
I loved the inclusion of riskiness, because openness, willingness to being changed requires vulnerability, letting go of whatever you’ve been holding on to for perceived stabilization, and stepping into what might make you feel susceptible.
Susceptibility that may be beckoning us, yes, but a little unsettling nonetheless.
Going up a flight of stairs without a handrail can feel a little unsafe, even though you’re making strides toward higher ground, which always sounds appealing.
But when you’re actually doing it, and you’re being required to let go of that which you rely on to keep you supposedly ‘balanced,’ (how you think, what you’ve been taught), it can feel a little dicey.
So, this general idea of riskiness of church, of faith resonated with me.
But her adding commitment to the mix didn’t so much.
I found myself thinking, ‘Being committed isn’t necessarily risky.
It reflects fortitude, yes.
Courage, resilience, determination, for sure.
But is it risky? Does being committed to something risk change?’
And then I thought about the 8th Principle.
In the UU faith tradition there are 7 guiding Principles. One could call them the Unitarian version of the Ten Commandments (speaking of commandments).
These Principles address things like recognizing the worth and dignity of every person, and the interconnectedness of all creation.
There have been 7 for years, but in the last several years there has been a movement in the denomination for an adoption of an 8th Principle, one that speaks specifically to racial justice.
In a nutshell, it calls us to renew our commitment to this work, to hold ourselves (a vastly white denomination) accountable.
Because Unitarian Universalism operates under congregational polity (where the authority lies within congregations instead of within the structure of the denomination) individual congregations are to vote whether to adopt it.
So, in the church I served we went through the process of discernment. Several congregational meetings were held, a couple Sunday services were devoted to it.
I personally was in favor of it, so large an issue is racial justice, and so in need are we of making it front and center to get at the heart of it.
We – this UU church in Louisville that had been the sanctuary church during the Breonna Taylor protests – we voted to adopt the 8th Principle.
But the vote was very close, and there were people who were adamantly against it (mostly in the name of “We already have Principles that address all this stuff.”)
Here’s where the risk/commitment/change thing comes in.
I, as the spiritual leader of that community, was committed to this cause. It required standing on one side or the other, and in my very public position, I took my stance.
It was to bring change to our congregation, forward movement to my way of thinking.
So, in the end game it passed and we became an 8th Principle church. But it cost us. Several people left because of it. One of those people, Jeff, was on my search committee that chose me to be their minister. Gone.
This commitment to change was risky, because it meant the possibility of loss, a loss which did come fruition.
This example in my life, in my ministry, helped me to understand the wisdom in the idea that commitment to change, either communally (as this was), or individually, can shake things up, and most of the time the shake up includes loss of some sort.
Let’s consider another perspective on this question of “Why go to church?” This one is from Rev. Powell Davies….
I come to church—and would whether I was a preacher or not—because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or a magazine discussion. It could too soon become too low a level. I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I must feel again the love I owe my fellow human beings. I must not only hear about it but feel it. In church, I do.
As I was reading this I got an image of us being whales…swimming along in our underwater habitat of life, but needing to ongoingly surface to get fresh air in order to live.
The difference is, the whale absolutely recognizes its need for rejuvenation and movement toward higher ground (or higher waters). Ours is a choice.
Inherent in the concept of risking change is choice. You can stay status quo.
And many church-going folks do.
I have examples of both in my own family, and each reflects how the answer to “Does Church Risk Change?” can differ.
My brother, a fundamentalist Protestant, has no patience with veering from biblical scripture that supports his conservative beliefs. He tends to assume a ‘tough love’ approach that often doesn’t allow for much compassion.
The premise for is stalwart approach? God is unchanging.
So he would quote a verse from the chapter of James that says “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
So John was talking about tough love about some issue of inclusivity, quoting the Old Testament and God’s wrath, and if God feels that way, he too should and does fall in line.
I asked him if he believed in the bible verse that God is love.
Do you believe that kindness and compassion have anything to do with love?
Do you believe that generally people are drawn toward be treated kindly.
Do you think that, as an ambassador of God, people might be more drawn to God (the bottom line imperative) if you exercised kindness instead of always leading with tough love?
Hmm. Well, yes. I’ll have to think on that one.
He took pause in those moments, but ultimately no change occurred.
He chose to stay where he was, with his hand firmly affixed to the hand rail, disallowing him to continue up the flight of stairs.
Here’s the other familial example of church risking change.
In the past year and a half my sister’s first born has been in the process of transitioning from female to a male, from Molly to Mort.
Born into a vastly conservative immediate and extended family, Mort (or Mo, as I call him) is taking his time ‘coming out’ to the family.
One of the members he has come out to is my 86 year-old Catholic mother. She too is conservative, politically (always votes Republican) , theologically (literally thinks the current Pope is a heretic).
As she’s gotten older, she speaks of looking forward to dying so she can see Jesus, but in the meantime just prays for everyone and talks frequently about loving everybody.
If you’d have asked her 10, 20 years ago how personally accepting she’d be of a person transitioning their gender, she’d have said, of course not.
But her love of God, her understanding of those three words “God is love” has allowed movement, change within her.
We recently had a conversation where were talking about the importance of her role as matriarch of the family, being an ambassador of God’s love when Mo comes out to the rest of the family (not the least of which is my brother John).
And we kept saying “This is what love looks like.”
While it’s not forefront in her mind, my mom is exercising the biblical verse from Romans that says: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
This change for my mom is big in her life. And transformation, allowing ourselves to grow because we consider the options and choose it, can come in big packages, or small every day ones.
They can arrive overnight, or they can come in pieces, in process over time.
For mom, it was literally overnight. Mo told her one day, mom was blown away and said she needed some time – a week or so to think about it – slept on it (although she got little sleep that night), got up, went to see her priest, and then called that next day to say I love you for who you are and will never not love you.
For Mom, this is what love looks like.
This is what faith at work looks like.
This is what risking transformation looks like.
And what about for you? What corners in your life, or maybe even entire rooms, could use some updating?
Lisa and I are doing a lot of work updating our new house, and as I work on it I’ll be thinking about the needs of my own internal home.
My hope for each of us is that, when we arrive every Sunday, as we’re approaching the table to pick up our bulletin, there’s a small part voice in us, conscious or not, that says,
I’m here to be vulnerable. I’m here to risk what I think I know. I’m here, willing to step over a new threshold.
This is what we mean when, in our NCC Belief Statement, we say:
We do not want simply to repeat creeds written many centuries ago by people living in worlds different from our own. We are people who experience doubt and questioning as a positive part of the journey of faith.
Before we have a chance to share some of our own perspectives as the microphone is passed, I will again share the questions we heard from our first reading from the piece called Thresholds.
How will we be renewed in these moments?
How will we be changed by this hour?
How will we be transformed through this
gathering of beloved community?
It’s time to hear some of our own answers to these questions.
1st READING Thresholds by Arlen Goff
We cross them every day.
From room to room,
from outside to inside,
and back again,
from here to there,
from anywhere to everywhere,
from age to age.
Each threshold offers an opportunity
for change, for renewal, for transformation,
from what we were and what we are
to what we can be.
In this hour and in this place,
we cross a threshold from
our day-to-day everydayness into
space and time attuned to the other,
to the sacred, to the holy,
into an awareness of new life
pregnant with possibilities.
How will we be renewed in this moment?
How will we be changed by this hour?
How will we be transformed through this
gathering of beloved community?
2nd READING Prayer for the Journey by Krista Taves
Spirit of Life and Love, God of grace and mercy, Source of all things that changes us as we cannot change ourselves
We gather this morning as a covenanted community of spiritual seekers, united by our conviction that the wounds of this world can be changed, can be healed through compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, and courage. And by healing we do not mean restored to some mythical original purity, but brought to a new place, with greater wisdom, wholeness and liberation than could have been envisioned before.
This community is on a journey from one home to another, and yet in truth we know that each one of us is on a journey, and all our journeys place us before forks in the road. These places ask us to make choices, saying yes to some things, saying no to others, grieving in what we must leave behind, rejoicing in the blessings, often unexpected, that come our way.
In these journeys, some will choose to walk with us, and some will choose another path. Some will pause for a while, withdrawing into their own places of transformation where we cannot follow. Some of these partings happen gently and lovingly, others with judgment and disappointment.
It is our calling to accept these things as a testament to our strength and our fragility, and to trust in the process, even as we fear the unknown, even as whispers of beloved memories draw us deep into our own hearts, even when we see more clearly where we have come from than where we are going. The journey asks us to keep walking.
Spirit of Life, we ask for patience, we ask for understanding, we ask for compassion, we ask for hope and gratitude so that we may welcome our collective and individual journeys with open hearts, open minds, and open hands.