I want to say from the outset this morning that this “getting to know you” sermon will be the first and last sermon where I talk as much about myself as I am about to do. That’s not to say I won’t include personal experiences in sermons at times, but not in this same way. And I do so today with a real sense of awkwardness. It makes me think of the story of the blind date where one of the people goes on and on about their life story, and then says, “but enough about me. Tell me what YOU think about me!” That said, I do think it will be helpful to take some time to have some full disclosure up front, and I also want to offer some observations I have made about you, this congregation as well as your denomination’s tradition in general.
So let’s start there, with some of the “beautiful and new/ things/ I’m learning about you..” Now of course we need to be careful when making observations about communities because there always exceptions, but one of the things I have observed here is that you are collectively empowered and unusually capable as a congregation. Your lay leaders and members work hard and accomplish a lot of real, substantive work. Our first week visiting here back in the winter, three of your members did short sermons. These were on par with and frankly probably better than many of the ordained sermons I have heard, and they literally moved me to tears. We were here that week with friends who have since joined your congregation. After the service, my friend Frank Jacobson said, “This is what it would be like if everybody in a regular church got together and said, “Hey, I know! Let’s make this good!”
A second thing I have noticed here is that you are very hospitable- From that first morning when we walked in here as anonymous visitors, we were greeted warmly, and given lots of good information and welcome. Later, as things progressed in my conversations with the Interim Search Committee, I found them to be incredibly professional and respectful, always laying out timetables and processes, and working hard to communicate clearly and caringly. Then two weeks ago, I arrived to a carefully prepared welcome on my first morning, as well as to a beautifully redone office, and have been enthusiastically received by your numerous emails, calls and in person greetings since then, which brings me to this morning and what I am sure will be a lovely welcome reception after church, assuming, of course, that you still like me after this sermon.
A third thing I have noticed about you is that you are good communicators, saying what you think clearly, directly, to be sure, but also respectfully, and seemingly without either hidden agenda or lingering emotional residue afterwards. And that’s impressive in church culture, because churches are all too often known to be places where indirect communication, hidden resentments and plain old, garden variety gossip can create Olympic Level Toxicity
Finally, in addition to all of these fine qualities, I also notice that you are curious about the world, passionate about change and rightfully proud of your UU tradition which has always been way out front in creating and protecting spaces that value freedom of thought and serious, activist commitment to social justice.
OK, now on to the “All About Me” part-
Let me say first of all that if you are comfortable doing so, I am happy to have you call me Judy. Some of you feel strongly about the “Reverend” title, and that’s OK too, but if you are comfortable with Judy, please feel free.
What you may already have noticed about me is that I am initially sort of quiet. I need to get the feel of a new mileu before I bring my whole self forward. I tend to be reflective and do a lot of internal processing before I know what I think. So you will probably hear me say, with some frequency, “let me think about that and get back to you.”
That said, I also really like to have fun, and I believe that humor is one of the most important parts of life. Anne Lamott calls laughter “carbonated holiness” and I think it can cleanse and heal and renew like little else. On the fun front, let me also say that even though I no longer drink (basically because I drank my life’s allotment in my twenties and thirties,) I was heartened to open the church refrigerator on about my third day here and see a twelve pack of beer! I’ll admit that was a first for me at “church,” even being on the way liberal end of the continuum, and it not only made me laugh really hard, but it let me know that in general, I am probably in the right place.
Finally, by way of full disclosure up front, I need you to know that I can be just staggeringly forgetful. Please don’t take it personally if I look at you blankly when you bring up a subject we talked about just days or even hours before. It truly isn’t that I don’t value what you said, or that I wasn’t listening. There were times in my past when it might have been those things, so I’m not afraid to admit it. But at this time of my life, it isn’t that. Without burdening you with too much information let’s just say my gynecologist assures me that some of this intense forgetfulness will pass. In the meantime, my stock phrase is, “I wish you had met me fifteen years ago, when the synapses fired quickly; I was really quite impressive then.”
In terms of the deeper issues of theology and spirituality, what I hope you will notice about me is that I try to be theologically and spiritually multi-lingual. I believe GOD is the name humanity has given to that which is larger, deeper and greater than what we can ever articulate. Whether it originates within us or has a transcendent source or dimension outside of us, I don’t really care which; and to me, the name especially doesn’t matter. Spiritual community is at its best when we bring MANY names, use MANY metaphors, none of which will ever capture the totality of this radiant, vibrant, mysterious life force. A rose by any name is still a rose. God by any name is that which inspires awe and puts us in touch with our best and highest selves. It is that nameless mystery which we revere and which connects us to each other and to life, and which takes a lifetime fully to discover, and probably not even then.
Maybe one of its best names is love. I believe it is love that ultimately heals the broken places, and love not just in the emotional sense, but in a practical, action forms as well. When love works out its distribution problems, we call it justice. When love learns to listen and negotiate and compromise and meet the “other” not from a posture that is either one up or one down, but respectfully and insistently on the same level, it is called peacemaking. When loves learns to grapple through fear of differences and open the door more widely in welcome to everyone, it is called inclusiveness. When love wants to work with the earth, to respect it and care for it so that it can flourish, it is called environmentalism. When love works through our lives to give us a broader view, a deeper sense of meaning, and raises us up to a higher, deeper, wiser and more soulful version of ourselves, it is called spiritual growth.
That last one is where I make my home. While I have passion for each of those areas I just mentioned, it is that last one where I most find myself in my native land. Your own UU anscestors, specifically Willliam Ellery Channing, called it “self culture” and the transcendentalists, specifically Emerson, really ran with it, saying “the goal of the religious life is the culture or cultivation of one’s inner spiritual nature, or soul.” Now lest you think I am only a navel-gazing contemplative, I will add, as did the transcendentalists, that this cultivation of soul must manifest in outer work for social justice or it really would be navel gazing. The transcendentalists were early and empassioned abolitionists, for example. But it is this sense of what Jung called “soul making” or growing into our highest selves, what the Eastern Religions call “transfiguration,” what many today would simply describe as growing in depth, love and wholeness and then operating from there as kind citizens of the world; this is what I am about and the place from which I can best serve you.
Elizabeth Lesser, in her profound book Broken Open says it this way: “We get out of bed in the morning and begin again where we left off yesterday, attacking life as if we were waging a campaign of control and survival. All the while, deep within us, flows an endless river of pure energy. It sings a low and rich song that hints of joy and liberation and peace. Up on top, as we make our way through life, we may sense the presence of the river. We may feel a subtle longing to connect with it. But we are usually moving too fast, or we are distracted.”
It is that low, rich song which most captivates me. My ministry is first of all about staying connected to that river myself, and hopefully helping you to grow in that connection as well. And hopefully as we all do so, we can leave here on Sundays, and go back into our lives renewed to bring love in whatever ways we are best equipped and drawn to do so, both emotionally as well as practically.
In conclusion, I want to say that I was moved to read that the first of the Unitarian Universalist “sources” is, and I quote “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” Well! that gets it just right, as does pretty much everything I have read on or by you UU’s thus far! In fact, at pretty much every theological choice point from the Council of Nicea onward, I think you folks got it right, and had I been there, I would have voted right with you. So I think leading indicators are strong that this is going to be a good match for this interim period, this time that the Universe has brought us together. And I’ll close by quoting that deep theologian, Anna from The King and I who said-
It’s a very ancient saying,
and a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you’ll be taught.
As a teacher I’ve been learning —
and You’ll forgive me if I boast —
since I’ve now become an expert,
On the subject I like most.
Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me.
(And Putting it my way,
You are precisely,
My cup of tea.