This sermon was given to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green on July 28th, 2013. A similar version that used the Galatians 2:15-21 was given at First Christian Church of Bowling Green on July 16, 2013.
When I first started getting involved in my youth group in high school, my first major event was to go on a work trip to Appalachia. We got a handout before we went that provided the rules.
1. Work hard – no complaining!
2. Sleep hard – no staying up all night talking – you need your rest – see rule #1
3. Study hard – We were to learn about the culture and the people of Appalachia and also take part in bible studies.
4. Play hard – after the work, rest, and study, there would be fun activities.
So it was work hard, sleep hard, study hard, play hard. Easy to remember, short and sweet.
The hardest one for me was play hard – I was always somewhat serious and never really very good at games, but I was prepared. I was new to the youth group and I wanted to do the right things. In my efforts to do things right, I started practicing playing. To make sure, you know, I had the hang of it. My dad helped me to spruce up on my basketball, softball and volleyball, and I started running a mile a night to be in good shape for playing.
Some might say I missed the point, but I wanted to be good. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to be the last person chosen for a team.
Fast forward to working on the house we were building in Appalachia. I was working with Angie Smith. She had been going to the church since she was born and so I wanted to make sure to do a good job at working hard to impress her. She was one of the popular kids and I was new and unsure of myself. As we were hammering boards she said, “God, it is so hot out here. I wish we could just quit already.
My mouth dropped open. DID SHE NOT READ THE RULES?? She was complaining which was a violation of the first rule and she took the Lord’s name in vain. She violated one of the ten commandments and one of the rules of the mission trip in one fell swoop. I was disheartened. What kind of church was this anyway where people didn’t follow the rules?
And, as you can imagine, this was not the last time that I ran into a church person who was not following their own rules or doing the things that seemed right. I’m not going to ask for raising of hands, but I can bet a lot of have experienced that. Folks in church not living up to what they say is the right way to live.
In fact, I bet most of us have experienced that ourselves. We know what we should do. We know the right things to do. And we don’t do them.
So, the question then becomes, how do we respond to this with ourselves and with others? What happens when we don’t live up to what we say is right?
Many of you might have seen a recent story going around facebook this week. It was found to be a hoax, but it was very widely posted, so much so that it is a story that speaks to a lot of people. The story goes like this:
There is a new pastor called to a church. But instead of getting dressed up on his first day at his new congregation, he dresses up like a homeless man. He goes to the big church and very few people speak to him. He is not treated well. Then, when the leaders of the church announce the new pastor, the minister dressed as a homeless man comes to the front of the church and quotes one of part of the Bible: “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you have done for me.”
He criticizes his congregation for not being kind, for not being welcoming. In essence, he criticizes them for not living out their faith. I think it is easy for ministers – and for congregations – to get into that mode. They surely should have been more welcoming to the man who looked homeless in the congregation. So it wasn’t that he was technically wrong to point that out to them, but the question is if this was the best response. And not to mention maybe not a good way to get off on the right foot if it was your first day called to a new church.
The story clearly spoke to a lot of people – either in that they recognized that their church probably would have done the same thing, and, perhaps for many of us, that we may not have been one of the ones to reach out to the visitor who appeared to be without a home.
And even though that was a Christian church and I know some of you are sitting out there thinking, “So it doesn’t really apply to us…” I have been a part of enough Unitarian Universalist churches to know that we also do this well, in our own ways. Our principles and purposes and sources and our history calls us to an overwhelming task of living ethically and responsibly, loving generously, giving of ourselves, giving of our resources in a world that does not make this easy. And many of us – I would venture to say that all of us – fall short on this. And although we try so very hard to be inclusive and welcoming, we also fall short on this too.
If you listen to Unitarian Universalist sermons around the country – or read blogs – or go to UU dinner parties, there is a sense that we should be doing more. Doing better.
And this, for me, is one of the fundamental questions of the life of our faith. How do we make sense of our repeated failures to live up to our best selves? Our congregations continue to draw in mostly middle and upper middle class people and mostly white people, despite the fact that we would like to be more broadly welcoming. Look at per capita income for churches and denominations in the U.S. Unitarian Universalists are at the very top. We don’t want to let ourselves off the hook – but, at the same time, we cannot guilt ourselves or each other into a life that is aligned with our values. What are we to do?
And I want to suggest this morning that it is not even a matter of trying harder. If you think back to my church trip I went to when I was in high school, I was determined to do well enough that I would be good enough. I wanted to do all the right things – follow all the rules, try as hard as I could!
And, even though the rules of my church trip when I was young are different from the those rules that might be implicit in our faith, make no mistake that there are implicit rules in our faith. There are things that we should say and do so that we look on ourselves as good enough – or on others good enough. Try hanging out with a bunch of UUs and saying that you don’t recycle. That you don’t believe in committee work. Try saying that you are conservative or that you don’t like NPR. Or, like a dear friend UU friend of mine in divinity school, that you pray to saints. We, like all traditions, have our way of doing things, have our way of trying to do good and be good. Trying to be good enough. To save the world and/or to save ourselves.
Another possibility for understanding what church is about is that we aren’t about getting it right. That it is not about just the right theology, that we do the right social justice action, that we just get enough money so that we can then really be the church that we want, but that people come to church and want a church because we want to find a place where we are loved no matter what. Where we are cared for and okay no matter how messed up we are. And that our work is to see each other, to provide a sense of care, of safety, and to seek to know ourselves and each other. There is so often the idea that church is about trying to get life right or affirm that we are living well. That we are not like those other people. Who are hypocrites.
But it seems to me that being a hypocrite is simply part of the human condition. I think of my most deeply held values, and I pretty much am horrible at most of them. It is all I can do to summon the energy to be nice to my family and my students, to get my house reasonably clean, to show up at church sometime, to give money to a few causes I care about, and to get my recycling out the door. My clothes are probably from sweatshops. I use disposable cups all the time. I fly too much. I drive too much. If everyone in the earth consumed as much as I did, we would need three and a half planets. I live a house that is way bigger than I need to survive, while I know people are homeless. I eat more than I need, too much of it processed and too much of it shipped in from other countries with underpaid workers who are exposed to pesticides. I walk by homeless people on the street and I do not give them money. The list goes on.
Many of us try and we try and we are still a mess. We guilt ourselves and we guilt each other to try to be better, and we are still too lonely, people are still hungry, our church still isn’t as big as we want it to be, and the world is still broken.
Brene Brown is a researcher at the University Houston has spent year studying vulnerability. She did a really popular TED talk – an online video with over a million views – and has now written a few books about her research on this. She talks about this idea that we feel we are not good enough as we are, we are scared, we are vulnerable, we don’t want to be embarrassed, or rejected, so we toughen up, we hide, we get better clothes, a better car, we volunteer more, we give more money, we look down on others more, we DO MORE OF THE RIGHT THINGS in order to be okay, in order not to be vulnerable, in order for people not to see what we really are.
And what she found as she studied was that there was no way out of this need to be vulnerable in order to be healthy. To be seen by others, as we are. She actually came at this as a very tough researcher type, attempting to get away from the mushy stuff, qualitative stuff, new age stuff that you get in a lot of research. But through years and years of study, she found there was no way to get around it… to toughen up enough… to fix it. That it was part of the human condition. This fear that we are not enough, that we must do more, be better, try harder, that we have to follow more rules, that the only way through this or out of it, is by entering into it
She talked about shame was a key part of this. We are shameful about who we think we really are, so we hide it. We cover it by knowing more. Getting more. Drinking more. Sleeping with more people. By doing more right things at church. We give more money. There are a million things we do to try to be good. To be better. To be enough.
And she talks about this fear disconnection – if they know who we REALLY are – if you know who I really am – you will not love me. We will not connect. They will not want me. I am not really, if they really knew me, lovable.
We know about shame – the less you talk about it, the more you have it. And let’s be real. Church people are good about not talking about stuff, right? We come here and we nod our heads and we are dying inside. We are in a failing marriage. People don’t like us at our school, at work, in our house. There are affairs. Addictions. We are faking it. We are numbing ourselves with food. With TV. And we come to church and we nod our heads and we are DYING inside, because if they really knew us… if they really knew who we were they would not want me here.
Yet, we find and the research finds doing destructive things to numb ourselves and doing the right things to try to earn our way to goodness have not saved us. They have not made it okay. Brown points out that “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.”
Years and years of trying to doing all the right things and say the right things, and trying harder have not saved us from the pain or from ourselves or from this broken broken world. (Because I have Baptist roots, this is where I have to say, “Can I get an Amen!?”)
And although Brown’s work doesn’t focus on churches per se, I think it has great implications for our churches and for those of in the church. I suggest that her work doesn’t tell us to stop trying to be better. To stop yearning to live out our highest values or to call others to that. Yet, I think she says that call to be better, that yearning and striving and pushing must be preceded by love. By creating space for vulnerability – a space where we can see and know each other where we can authentically connect. People’s messiness that defies rationality or reasonableness. And this is hard for UUs because of our long tradition of fetishizing rationality. If we can just understand it and map it out, then we can do it, right? Yet, there is more.
The philosopher the 17th century Pascal said, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.” And to get at these reasons – the heart reasons – we must begin and return to love. Forgiveness. No matter what. No matter how unkind you are. No matter what a mess you are. No matter how lonely you feel. If you feel ugly. If you are an addict. If you are mean. Or a liar.
And we have to tell ourselves – WE are still good. You are still good.
You are still enough and the church must say that. No once and not in our mission statement and not just on Sundays and not just to each other or in our handouts but every. Single. day. Because we come here on Sundays for sustenance, but the church is us. We are out there in the world day in and day out and we have to say this not only to ourselves, but to the world.
Brown’s research found, only when we can be vulnerable in our imperfection and in our brokenness, can we connect with others. Can we be real. Can we heal and feel and flourish.
And I know that churches in general do not have a great track record for this, but I think the idea of church CAN be that we can come in, that we welcome, NO MATTER WHAT.
Does this mean we give up on trying to do better? No. But the love, the grace, the safe space of acceptance, where there is space for vulnerability, has to come first… that we cannot even come close to becoming who we are called without the room for vulnerability – to be seen and known – coming FIRST. Making the foundation.
We have to know we already have what it takes because it is already there. No amount of doing things, following rules, or numbing things or running from things, will make it work. That our souls and hearts and lives and potentials are enough now.
In order for connection to happen we have to let ourselves to be seen. We have to quit being ashamed of ourselves. That we aren’t thin enough, successful enough. That we are alone. That we do bad things. Brown calls vulnerability uncomfortable and scary BUT also goes on to say that this vulnerability is the “birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, love.”
What if people thought of churches as the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love? Where people did not feel shame, but welcome. Welcome to their whole selves. Where there is nothing you can do to be good enough, because you are already good enough?
Imagine how much more healed we would be if that is what churches were? Where we looked at the broken souls, the proud souls, each and every one of us who is putting on a show of ourselves and said – you are not your show. You are not your clothes. Or your politics, or your job. None of that. You are enough.
We try and we fail and we try again to get our minds around this kind of love which is the foundation on which we build. We can’t start with the doing. The doing can only grow once we are willing to believe that we are enough. And not only that we are enough – here in this room – but that we – as in all of us, are enough. The folks at the evangelical church or across the world. The folks down the road from us. Who we work with. Who cut us off in traffic. People that you disagree with. We are all the children of God or of the Divine Wonder whose name we cannot know.
Let us see that in each other. Let us know each other. May we see each other. And in that knowing and seeing, the connections that nourish and change and heal will come.
May it be so. Amen.
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