The Last Sermon
Dec 11, 2011
Rev. Art Severance

Some people are like the ship captain who, long before computers and modern communication, the story goes, saw one night at sea what looked like the lights of another ship heading toward him. He had his signal man blink to the other ship: "Change your course 10 degrees south." The reply came back: "Change your course 10 degrees north." The captain answered "I am captain. Change your course south."

To which the reply was, "I am seaman first class. Change your course north." This infuriated the captain, so he signaled back: "I am a battleship. Change course south." The reply came back, "I am a lighthouse. Change course north.”

As I said when I came, change is always difficult; the only person who likes change is a wet baby. Politicians and babies should be changed regularly and for the same reason. And now that I'm leaving, there will, once again, be change.

Bridge Over Transitional Waters, September 16, 2007
“As part of the church leadership we gather to share the ministry of this church. So we talk about herding cats, shoveling smoke, pushing a rope to explain the difficulty, yea occasional impossibility of church leadership. Yet those who have served, given of time, energy, finances, occasionally, even sanity, will tell you that it IS not only worthwhile, but incredibly meaningful. Oh, not at all times with all people in all situations, but during those times in our church life when we work together to transform each other, our church, our city, our country, our world, even and especially our God, Goddess, or Great Spirit or Spirit of Life seems to be found in the working and worshipping together in community.

Gail Sheehy, in her book, Passages, talks about the almost predictable ages when we are most susceptible to crisis, even depression. But there's good news; we can survive, even thrive!
“We are not unlike a particularly hardy crustacean...With each passage from one stage of human growth to the next we, too, must shed a protective structure. We are left exposed and vulnerable -- but also yeasty and embryonic again, capable of stretching in ways we hadn't known before. These sheddings may take several years or more. Coming out of each passage, though, we enter a longer and more stable period in which we can expect relative tranquility and a sense of equilibrium regained.”

Remember, as someone said, A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for. (William Shedd). A church is not built to be safe, either, it is also built to sail, to fly, to reach out to those who are looking for us and don't know it! It is also built by us every year to nurture us, some of us for decades, some for only months or years. Forgive us our change as we forgive those who change around us.”

I thought of listing the titles of my sermons over the last 4 1/2 years, as the last sermon and hoping that each one would strike a chord of rememberance, and it would sum up all that I've said. The problem with repeating sermons the old preachers tell us, is two concerns, one that someone in the congregation will remember that you've preached it before and will point it out to you, and the second concern is that no one will remember that they have ever heard it before! So I’ll use a few excerpts, instead.

Writing the sermon, preaching it, then getting a response is a strange experience; one is never quite sure what will happen or what people will hear, how some will interpret it so differently than others that you would think it was an entirely different sermon!
I can remember when our children were small and I would be trying to write sermon at home. there would be noise or often a distraction, and I was not always the saint you see before you today, as hard as that is to believe, though I assure you my wife will vouch for it, as will my three daughters. I did not miss the irony, either, of getting so upset about the small things while trying to impart deep wised and religious serenity to the congregation.

The discrepancy between the all too human person who is also the religious figure of the minister is a difficult tension for both clergy and lay people as all sorts of psychological projections and prior relationships so often get in the way! Look, I had authority issues with MY father, so it is natural I have “issues with authority”, and sometimes, of course, I am claiming an authority with another church leadership authority! Say nothing of certain personality types which clash. The issues of the authority of the ministry in most UU churches, I will argue, is not only unclear, but often problematic. Indeed, the issue of authority itself is a huge unresolved issue in most of our churches, also relating to how we view the denomination as well as district authority, staff, and connections.

I’ll go back to an excerpt from a very early sermon which pointed out the issue of authority and the tension between the needs of the self, and the needs of the wider community, what I tried to bring in to focus as the “beloved community” in a sermon titled “WHY WE SAINTED EMERSON, AND WHY WE SHOULDN'T HAVE” August 12, 2007

“The problem with sainting Emerson is that we saint someone who gave up on ministry and the church instead of working within. Emerson performed a great duty; he held up one's own intuition as the final authority in religion. Individualism was a needed departure from the heavy hand of conformity, both religious and social, in those days and in other times throughout our history. However, we baby boomers seem to have learned that we need to go from the "me decade" of the 70's, to the "we" decade of the 90's, when we are coming back to the church in droves as our children now start college and will probably rediscover Emerson all over again. Emerson as saint doesn't help us to grow or build any churches; instead the temptation is for a kind of self-centered religion. Indeed, the fastest growing religious organization may be the 12 -step recovery movement, and one the steps is to realize that we can't make it all by ourselves, that we are not God. For recovery, one must let go and trust a higher power, God, or the creative force of the universe, or sometimes just another human being who loves us somehow gives us strength through relationship; one must realize that to overcome an addiction, for instance, one must cease being self-reliant, or perhaps more accurately said, self-centered, and be willing to ask for help for love, for relationship, for a mirror that reflects our inner strength. We need each other. Emerson needed his family as well as transcendentalism; perhaps he could have been active in cocreating a religious community which might have nurtured him in what he needed most!”

The problem with Emerson, it turned out was that he stayed in his head and was not a particularly warm and fuzzy person; he was not an expressively loving person. So that’s not who I want as my patron saint, though he was one of my sages!

Why Church? Why Religion? Why Ministry? 8/5/07
“I believe the church/ religion/ worship should be about helping us change, help us to move, if you will, to pack up old habits, and decide which to keep and which to sell in a yard sale.

And I believe in a day of Sabbath, rest, making it holy. I also believe in a shared ministry and in keeping the Sunday morning service worshipful, even when the minister is out of the pulpit.

For a minister, Sunday is not a day of rest, but it is a day of religion, and an experience of religious relationship with that sense of the sacred, called by many names, and a sense of connection to the congregation. Why church, why ministry, why religion?
The old saying about ministry is accurate, I think, we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable

The French priest and writer, Henri Nouwen, wrote “Ministry is the profession of fools and clowns telling everyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see that life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be entered into.” And so is shared ministry.”

For me, worship and its corresponding preparation are my spiritual practice and experience, my connection with the sacred dimension, the Holy, with what or whom some might call God, with the transforming power of love which I believe is what Jesus taught. It is for me, at the heart of church and where relationships begin, are nurtured and may be; blossom. For many people, church, both in this church and in many others, church is Sunday morning worship service with preaching and ritual and music and yes, coffee hour! It is difficult, however, if for whatever reason, you do not connect with the minister or his or her sermons, personality, or whatever. I believe that another issue than many of our churches, not just UU, have to deal with is what to do when you are dissatisfied with the minister

But as I said earlier, because I never know how my sermon or how the part of the worship service I put together will be heard or felt by someone in the congregation, it is important that there always be a service every Sunday, because we never know what need might be coming to the door on the Sunday we decide not to have a service. We have visitors almost every Sunday besides of course, our own members and friends who come with different needs ourselves, and sometimes we just need to be in church, surrounded by our friends, and hear the service wash over us and comfort us. It is also important to remember how many people may be helped in ways that other people never hear about or are made public.

HELP, HOPE, & HOME
February 28, 2010
My colleague Dr. Laurel Hallman, retired minister of First UU Church in Dallas writes about why she thinks people come to our churches:

In my experience, people come to us for very simple reasons: They are broken, through divorce, or business failures, or illness. They need encouragement, inspiration, reminders about how to live meaningfully and fully in times of joy, but also in the midst of tragedy. They are worried about how to raise their children religiously, without fear... They want a place apart from their daily lives to worship, to reflect, to seek the inner self and its deep connection to God. (or what I would call, more ambiguously, the Holy) They want a place to belong in the midst of an alien world. Many come to us lonely... They want to be deepened spiritually, and stimulated intellectually. They want to serve. Sometimes this means service in the church. Sometimes they want to serve outside the church, and we help them find their place.

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow." Albert Einstein
Churches, indeed all religions, should simply be about love, kindness, help, & hope, and we should feel like we are finally home. I think that's what salvation is- the realization that the meaning of life is about love and then finding out the best way to love and be loved, to share love by working for social justice. The particularities of the religions and their sages, saviors, prophets, teachers, preachers, may come together under the commonality of the idea of a God, the force of Love, or in the case of Eastern religions, the sense of one-ness of interconnectedness and compassion for all living things.

The whole idea of church is a place, a time even, a sacred portal, a religious dimension through which we might pass to become religious people to learn how to live better lives, and the idea of keeping the Sabbath as a sacred time where we contemplate the holy, where we rest on the seventh day, where we take just one day out of 7 and how many of us can even do that? to dwell in the house of the holy, however many different ways we might interpret that!

Isn’t it strange how easy it is for us to forget that we a religious body, even if we don’t all believe in the same religion? Doesn’t that call us to treat one another “religiously”? Does the church need a behavior covenant? During this period of transition, it will be even more crucial to treat one another with the Golden rule! With what I call St. Paul’s 10 Commandments of Love!

"Forgiving the Past, Co-creating the Future" January 6, 2008
Many of us say we want to change, but then find we feel like we can’t! To a distressed person who came to the Teacher, the Teacher said, "Do you really want a cure?"

"If I did not, would I bother to come to you?"
"Oh yes. Most people do."
"What for?"
"Not for a cure. That's painful. For relief."

To the disciples the Teacher said: "People who want a cure, provided they can have it without pain, are like those who favor progress, provided they can have it without change."

At the New Years eve service, I talked about letting go of our psychological baggage (if only the airlines could lose that for us!), and that often includes resentments, anger, depression, even hatred. Actress Carrie Fisher said in her book, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Holding on to past slights, fights, etc. prevents us from a fully realized future.

It all starts with us, with peace and love in our hearts, minds, words, and actions. It starts with our letting go, with our forgiving the past, whatever we have suffered, however righteous we are in all of this.

It all starts with us, with peace and love in our hearts, minds, words, and actions. It starts with our letting go, with our forgiving the past, whatever we have suffered, however righteous we are in all of this.”

May we begin the process of healing and forgiveness. Let us begin the work of forgiving one another where forgiveness is needed, grieving where no forgiveness is necessary, and saying vaya con su dios to one another that we will go with that sacred dimension with us that I have tried in these past 4 1/2 years to nurture, to kindle, to share, to explore, to preach, yea, sometimes even to live, though all too rarely and inadequately. Thank you to those whose hearts I was allowed into and are now in mine as well; how I shall miss and remember you. Thank you to so many people in this church, especially in leadership who have given so deeply of themselves, especially the staff, Church Secretary, Donna Von Boxel, Custodian and all around helper, Richard Yukl, RE Director, Halcyon, Volunteer, but no less hard working Music Director, Marj Hill, the choir, the board, committees, especially the Committee on Ministry, sound tech and last of the mohicans, Lorna Cramer, and so many others who I shall dearly miss. I also want to thank my wife, Cathie, for being my Rock and so deep a part of who I am. I hope my memory will be one of love and laughter, of trying to build the beloved community, and of searching for the religious dimension that we seek when we gather in worship. I am sorry for the mistakes I have made, and there have been many, but I leave with love in my heart and a hope for the future that this church will thrive and grow, that I will have made a small difference, helped a few people, put some smiles on some faces, and left a lot of love behind.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. “Vaya con Dios” is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is “Go with God,” SO I adapted it to say “Vaya Con Su Dios”, “Go with your idea or interpretation of God.”

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios

Opening words The Last Sermon
The great Sufi mystic poet Rumi, writes:
There are all these religions,
So everyone can sing along.
And all these people singing,
Together make just one song-

James Luther Adams said, "By their groups you shall know them."

Martin Luther King, Jr., used "beloved community" as a metaphor for heaven incarnate.

Hallmarks of a healthy vital church: Tom Owen Towle

  1. A healthy congregation occupies holy ground; it's not a social club. It's primarily a site for seeking and spreading the sacred, "the deep way" as Sophia Fahs said. .. You should heal that part of the cosmos where you're planted.

  2. A healthy congregation welcomes all souls, including all sorts - for example the Church of the Open Door in Chicago. "Am I saved?" is the wrong question; it should be "Are WE saved?"

  3. A healthy congregation is framed and run democratically, not autocratically. Shared ministry involves rights when you become a member, rites, responsibilities and the risks. Democracy has a theological facet as well

  4. A healthy congregation CARES for its own membership. The mature congregation banks not on fixing but on serving one another; you must distinguish between caregiving and caretaking - we are not a hospital. We do this through covenant groups, support groups, kinship circles, whatever works.

  5. A healthy congregation embodies UNITY AMIDST DIVERSITY. All life choices are welcome; the challenge is to become diverse without becoming divided; you "DO" church by continually clarifying your mission.

  6. A healthy congregation balances JUSTICE and JOY. It's about balance; a healthy congregation is not comprised of grim crusaders, nor smug celebrants. Mother Teresa said, "Serving is my joy, not my duty."

  7. A healthy congregation practices the law of RESPECTFULNESS. The overarching goal of church life is right relationship, not rugged individualism; Religious education is all about respect: boundaries are kept, saboteurs are confronted, conflicts are engaged, not run from. A healthy congregation fights for impact.

  8. A healthy congregation gazes BACK, AHEAD, AND AROUND. You don't dwell in the past but you chart it. You mark transitional moments, rites of passage of the institution as well as individual. It should be trans-generational, with healthy vital activities for all ages.

  9. A healthy congregation spreads our version of GOOD NEWS. Outreach is two-pronged. There should be ongoing low-key evangelism directed at those in the larger society who harbor liberal religious leanings, and there should also be public witness on larger issues. The role of religious leader is not to BE a saint but to "equip the saints."

  10. A healthy congregation produces STEWARDS, NOT OWNERS. We are all interims, all "temps," we must pass the torch on. Stewardship is a meaningful word, it encompasses the entire sweep, from our own bodies to the environment. "Keepers of the hall" is what it originally meant. Stewards "co-shepherd" a parish for a while, on loan.

  11. A healthy congregation is wholly LIBERAL; marked by compassionate just behavior that "liberates." It is also appropriately conservative because we preserve our heritage. It is also radical because we go to the roots.

  12. A healthy congregation keeps EVOLVING. The church knows it's always reforming and being reformed, it is the change agent but also the recipient of change. Evolution is a personal and institutional aspiration as well as a biological reality. It's a JOURNEY toward wholeness; we're not a system but a movement.

  13. A healthy congregation is held in an ETERNAL EMBRACE. It is a mystical ideal; congregations never reach the promised land. You have to "keep your eyes on the prize." It gets back to the question of "Whose I am?"

Reading "Excerpts" -Last Sermon
The apostle Paul was one of the great organizers and institutionalizes of Christianity; indeed his writings were the very first of the Christian New Testament. I often argue with Paul and find him too authoritarian at times, but his most spiritual wisdom was his letter to that troublesome church in Corinth, who were always arguing about doctrine and beliefs. That passage which I use in so many weddings, because it talks about how people should behave, how they should love. It starts as I Corinthians 13:1-8, 13:

"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing....

  1. Love is patient

  2. love is kind,

  3. love is not envious or boastful

  4. love is not arrogant

  5. love is not rude.

  6. It does not insist on its own way;

  7. It is not irritable

  8. Love is not resentful;

  9. Love rejoices in the truth.

  10. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. forgives all things. Love is religions start.

TEN SUGGESTIONS FOR A HEALTHY CONGREGATION Deane Starr, Emerson UU Church, Canoga Park, CA

  1. Always be kind to one another, even if you think meanness is justified.

  2. Always attribute the best possible motives to one another, even when you do not understand one another's words and actions.

  3. Promise to one another only what you really intend and are capable of delivering.

  4. Laugh and cry together, sharing both your joys and heartaches.

  5. Be very quick to praise one another, and very slow to criticize.

  6. Defend one another, but avoid being defensive.

  7. Accept one another's gifts with gratitude; accept one another's deficiencies with grace.

  8. Do not tell one another how to feel. Remember that feelings are facts and treat them accordingly.

  9. Greet each new day with expectation and each hour of rest with thanksgiving.

  10. Let your eyes light up when you come into one another's presence.

And secondly- 13 Marks of A Healthy UU Congregation by Rev. Tom Owen-Towle retired from a co-ministry with his wife Carol from our San Diego Church: You must judge every proposed reform: does this help toward the coming of the universal community? The community church is a practical embodiment of what is holy. Theology is subsumed under ecclesiology - the growth of a soul is not of an individual but a community. The question is not "Who am I?" but "Whose am I?

MEDITATION ON FORGIVENESS
All our lives we have been told to seek that which is good, to turn our faces from the dark and toward the light, toward beauty, toward truth. But the truth is that the world is not always good. The light we seek casts shadows, and there is brokenness amid the beauty. Our world is far from perfect, as are we.

We strive to be in right relations with one another, but there are times when we are left angry or disappointed, even as we sometimes anger or disappoint others. Whether it is the harsh words said by a loved one, the loss of a friendship, the carelessness of a stranger, or the scars left by a childhood trauma, Bad things do happen.

We cannot seek Truth, Beauty, and Light without acknowledging that which is false, broken, and in shadow, for all of these exist within us as well. In this moment of silence let us remember the wrongs we have endured that we may forgive them, and forgive yet again. And in the times of music and readings to follow, let us write our resentments, give form to our grievances, and bring them forward to burn.

For like our anger, the flames may burn and destroy, but like our love, the flames may also cleanse and purify. Let us undertake the work of forgiving ourselves and each other, that we may begin again in love.
-- Rev. Thomas Rhodes

Benediction

May we go from here recharged, inspired with love of ourselves, of each other, and the world to continue the journey of the every day life, but also to find a way to help make the world a better, more loving and just place for our having lived here.
May we laugh often, and cry as we need to.
May we pray, not to avoid problems, but for the strength, inner wisdom and friends to solve them.
May we live our lives the best that we can.
May we love the best we can.
May we gather strength from holding hands.
May we be generous givers as well as receivers.
May we meet one new person every Sunday
May we invite someone to church.
May we go now in the peace which passes all understanding, and in the love that makes it all worthwhile.
A. Severance