“Hope: The Future of the World”
Living a Visionary Life Sermon Series
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
The First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
It was a beautiful beginning. The star of stars burst into being, the world exploded into light, and the light made the stars and the planets and the stuff of life and the hope of good to be. Time started flowing out of its vase, bringing to life the ten thousand things, the monarch butterflies and the humpback whales. A neverending explosion of possibility. In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was god.i In the beginning was the light, the light of life itself. And life has been living since, Changing. Growing. Taking different shapes. Learning how to love better.
It was a beautiful beginning. A few people met at a kitchen table and planned a congregation.ii They wanted a place to talk about meaningful things. A gathering of people who cared about the world. They didn’t know anything about starting a Unitarian Universalist congregation, or any congregation. But why not? Why not?
So they met, 3 people, 10 people. Meeting in people’s homes, and then they rented a grange hall. 20 people, 25 people. Religious education for the kids. Hymnbooks to sing songs. Fundraisers and potlucks. Helping out local families in need. 30 people, 40 people.
They purchased of an empty, abandoned old stone church. The church had holes in the ceiling and holes in the floor. It had broken windows and no heat. It was, some said, impossible. It happened.
It was 1978 when we were first conceived, and 1989 when the congregation moved into its latest home, this church. In the 1990s a new hall was built so the children had a place for their religious education. It also gave the adults indoor plumbing at their church for the first time. Your first called minister, Rev. Rob Gregson, came here in 2001. Now, of course, that year is famous for 9/11, but just to give you some additional perspective, that was the year of a new website called wikipedia, three years after a new website called google. My tenure here started in 2006, the first year of a new website called twitter. It was back before there was such a thing as an iPhone, and just after a new website called youtube.
You probably remember the first time you came here; I sure do. I saw a bunch of cars here, in the near parking lot, wondered where to park, found the back parking lot. It was early evening, because I was here for an interview at a Board meeting, and the sky was immense and brilliant. Birds soared and dipped in front of a divine painting of blues and grays, and the birds touched down upon the fields, which spread out over the earth like flowing gold. Three deer could be seen in the distance. “Is this real?” I thought to myself. I walked into the Old Stone Church, through that door, and was greeted by Ralph Lee in a Grateful Dead T-Shirt. There was a long table they had brought in here, so all the Board could gather, and all the board stood up and rushed around me to greet me and shake my hand, tell me tey were glad I had come. Someone – I think it may have been Barbara – had baked brownies for the occasion. “Is this real?” I thought to myself.
It was real, and, much to my delight, you asked me to stay. That first year I was a consulting minister, serving half time with my predecessor, Rob Gregson. This is not a usual state of affairs, but it worked out great for me: I had a mentor and colleague in my first full year in ministry, and that was a great year. It only lasted one year, as it turned out, Rob decided it was time and the congregational leadership had to make a decision about their next minister. After a period of discernment, they decided to ask me to candidate here as your next minister, and now, seven years later, here we are.
During that period of discernment, I asked what you were looking for from your next minister. I asked a committee, The “Brightening Our Beacons” committeeiii which represented the congregation, and the two tasks everyone on that committee mentioned as goals for the new minister were bringing new members in to grow the fellowship, and to help build community. Based on those criteria it’s hard to say to what extent my ministry has been a success. Now, I’m not speaking out of guilt or self-pity here. I’ve worked hard here, I did the best I could, and I know it’s been a good ministry. You have loved me well, and I hope I have loved you well. I’m just saying the basic fact that the membership in my tenure has stayed about the same. And as for the second goal, building community – well, on that score I think the community has stayed strong, even gotten stronger. But I’ve learned that the primary responsibility for growing community must lie with the congregation, so the credit for building community, in the final analysis, must lie with the congregation too. I’ve done my part, to be sure, but the main reason that this community continues to be a real thing – a spirit that you can feel every Sunday, an energy of welcoming and acceptation and invitation to growth, is because you have contributed to that energy and make this community real. Every week you come to this place willing to bring your genuine self into conversation with others – willing to be changed a little bit, willing to be humble, willing to be brave, willing to be inspired to do more tomorrow than you could yesterday – anytime you come with that spirit, you will build community. I guarantee it.
It needs to be said that I began my ministry here under somewhat challenging and complicated circumstances. This is not a complaint. “Challenging and complicated circumstances” is shorthand for “it was a church,” for all churches and congregations, all communities of meaning-making, get challenging and complicated before too long.
Here are the basic facts: this congregation has limited space to grow. At the time, this particularly was true in Dodd Hall (it still is), where religious education was hampered by the noise and cramped quarters, and hospitality hour was jam-packed. We have the perfect facilities for a 100-member congregation with 25 kids, but we have been larger than that for some time, so our facilities are imperfect.
So, several years ago, when the beautiful fields surrounding this congregation came up for sale, we bought them, with a view towards increasing our facilities. To do this, we took out a loan, backed by generous members and friends of the congregation. People gave more than the experts from the UUA said we would. We had a preliminary design for a building that would house Religious education and administrative offices, with an option to build a second, larger sanctuary years down the road. But the economy crashed. And we didn’t get an influx members looking to give thousands of dollars to a new building. So we have the fields, and haven’t really done anything with them yet. They’re still beautiful.
Meanwhile, we moved to two services, to create some more space. But the attendance at the early service has lingered between about fifteen and nobody. We ended up moving back to one session of religious education, because overall children’s attendance dropped dramatically.
The kids wanted to see each other, to all be together in one goup. By and large, it seems, the adults wanted this too.
Big decisions lie ahead for this congregation. You are in the process of paying off the loans, which will become more expensive in the next few years. If not for generous donors in the congregation who forgave the interest and even the principal of their loans, we’d be paying many thousands more. It’s not a stretch to say these generous donors saved the congregation. But you’ll still be looking about 10% of the budget going toward paying off the land. And then the land will be yours, and paid for. What happens after that is up to you.
Meanwhile, back in the world…in the world, after the beautiful beginning the great light took the forms of planets and moons and stars, and on at least one planet, became alive and self-aware. The life took a million forms, and they danced together on a blue-green ball. They did a dance of death and life, lived on each other and from each other, and each form only existed because the other forms existed. No one could exist alone. And then one form of life, the human form, took the world for its own and began to change it to its will.
This is a curious time to be alive, is it not. The technological marvels of this age are almost beyond compare – except for the majesty and diversity of biological life, which is still unequalled. We have the ability to change the whole world – what we don’t know, though, is whether we could possibly survive such a change. Probably there are many changes that would eliminate us. We would not survive if we change the atmosphere to such a state it is no longer breathable, or if we ring the world with the fallout of nuclear bombs.
So many possibilities. And we are afraid. So afraid that sometimes we don’t even dare to face our fear. But if we don’t face our fear, it can’t possibly turn into courage. And even if we do face it, we need the perspective to be able to act from a place of wisdom. This may be the role of faith in the centuries to come: not to make us blind to truth by sticking our heads in the sand of dogma, but giving us the strength and courage to face the fearful truth, and to move forward in love. A true faith, a liberal, expansive, non-dogmatic faith, could do that for the world.
I know it must sound strange to tell these two stories together, the story of our congregation and the story of the world. It is peculiar to speak of global warming on the one hand, and attendance at the 9:15 service at the other. And yet, part of the work of meaning-making is situating our story within the larger story. Just as part of personal spirituality is realizing our own mundane concerns, the “to-do list” that greets you every day, the emotions of everyday events; are part of a much grander story. When we touch the fullness of life, in that space beyond fear and pettiness, we are able to say, “wow, it’s good to be alive”; when we know we are part of a story much grander and more glorious than even our imagination can conceive; and this basic gratitude is foundational for so many different spiritualities.
So before telling you my vision for this congregation, let my vision for the world. Of course, the world won’t proceed according to my vision, but we each, in our own way, need to think about just what is happening in this crazy world of ours.
So, after sifting through my own despair at what we’re doing to our planet, my despair at the ways we are capable of war, of hating each other, of doing violence to each other – I was actually found a lot of hope. There is much hope in our world today. My hope is this: there’s a chance, even some evidence, that people might be tenuously, falteringly, gradually, learning to love each other a little bit better. The love is the same as it ever was, but we might be finding new and better ways to express it. And if we do gradually learn to love each other a little bit better, there’s a chance we might learn to love the world a little bit better, too, live in right relationship with the earth. We might, in short, learn something that helps us live better. It’s not a guarantee, and I know that, living in the shadow of the Holocaust, we must not pronounce progress without caution. But it is a hope.
The ancestors of the Unitarians, half of our heritage as Unitarian Universalists, were the Puritans who came over to this country on the Mayflower. They proposed to build a “city on the hill” that would be an example of Christian love. In a sermon by their minister, John Winthrop, (which you can read online)iv love is described as being like the ligaments in a body – it connects the body of Christ, all people; unites us and makes us perfect together. In this land – new to them, anyway – they would show how the world could be if we loved one another with this love from God. Here ended the sermon. The Puritans then proceeded to begin the genocide of the Native American peoples and take part in the slave trade. Winthrop did too.v
So humility it is in order whenever we proclaim a vision. Humility, and more than that, a love that stretches beyond belief. The Puritans believed that non-Christians were less important than Christians. The love in their heart probably told them otherwise, but their heads managed to keep their sentimental hearts in check. In turns out their heads were wrong and their hearts were right. Without love, human reason is merely a list of excuses for genocide.
It is this universal love, this love that stretches out to bless the whole world, no exceptions, that is our heritage on our Universalist side. No one goes to Hell, our Universalist preached, we all return to God. In any way we are seperate, in any way that we live according the fear that seperates the world into “us” and “them”, we are already in Hell. But there is no everlasting Hell. Ultimately, we are reconciled, we are saved from that fear, and none are in Hell.
In the next century or two, we are entering into a difficult time, a time of struggle. With fewer resources to go around, it could easily be a time of war, but the ultimately struggle, as the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), teaches, is not the jihad of war but the personal, spiritual jihad, the struggle of peace. The conflicts to come may not be like World War II. In World War II, the Nazis were bad guys straight out of central casting, terrible and inhumane, to be resisted at all costs. Such bad guys keep cropping up in our world – people so twisted by hate that their only reaction to the world is violence – and sometimes they even gain power. But we have learned, through Vietnam, through our conflicts in the Middle East, that it is not always so easy to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. And when it comes to the looming environmental crisis, dividing the world into “us” and “them” is counterproductive. We all are polluting the planet, and although some believe in global warming and some do not, the solution is not war, nor is it dividing the world into “us” and “them”. That simply will not work. We need a different way to deal with the stark realities of our age.
But let me give you food for hope. There is some evidence that we are slowly, gradually, tenuously starting to live in a different way. The statistics are counter to what you might think if you’re a regular follower of the news. Ready to hear some surprising statistics?
Even with all the wars raging around the world, as a percentage of the global population, the percentage of people who die from violence in war is lower than it has ever been in recorded history. Even though there estimated to be as many as 30 million slaves living in the shadows of our global economy, the percentage of humankind living in slavery is lower than it has ever been in recorded history. And if statistics aren’t your thing – try going on the internet sometime. Ah, the internet. That repository of the inane and the terrible, the great time-waster of our age. But: crass and commercial as it might be, and although the risks of dehumanization are very real, the internet also has brought us closer together than ever before. Who would have guessed that the most watched internet clip in history would be a South Korean hip-hop video? The youth of today grow up in a very confusing time. It’s not easy to grow up in our culture, because so much is in flux. I have noticed, though, that for the youth of today the concept of “us and them” is very quickly becoming incredibly outdated. They refuse to condemn people of other nationalities, or other sexualities, or other cultures as being cast out from their circles. For all its flaws, it is obvious on the internet that we’re all in this together.
This is the context in which I want to talk about the vision of the congregation. We need to be aware of the larger questions. Because ultimately, the question isn’t “how can we grow our membership” or “how can we improve our services.” The question isn’t even “how can we be the best congregation we can be?” The question is ultimately a little bigger than that. Here is the question: “knowing what we know about the world, how can we respond in love?” We live in a confusing, complex, frightening age – and it is a time of incredible opportunity. The world is actually talking to each other. Every once in a while, we are actually listening to each other.
How ironic that, just as we face perhaps the most difficult age humanity has ever known, the world is more alive with possibility than it ever has been. These next few centuries are the age when we discover whether we can live together in love, or not live at all. The stakes are pretty high.
So now I turn to my gaze to this beautiful old stone church in the fields, and some of the most wonderful people I have ever known. And I tell you that this congregation can, and must, be an example of the world we wish to see. In the way you gather for worship, in the way you work for justice, in the way you work with each other and work with others who are different from you, in the way our members live their lives, you are an example of the world we wish to see. And that example has the power to change the world. Do not underestimate your privilige to be an example to others. You can be the city on the hill. But it’ll happen only through the way you actually live your lives. The world doesn’t need more committee meetings, more board reports, or even more sermons. What it needs is for us to express, over and over and over again, the ways in which human beings can live in peace. We need to live out the ways we can live in peace with one another and with the world.
After the service you are going to read and vote on FUUFHC’s proposed new vision. This congregation worked on the vision throughout the entire year, starting with get-togethers in people’s homes, and then a retreat together at the local firehouse. Now I may be biased, but I think your vision is utterly fantastic. It’s absolutely beautiful, I’m proud to have been a part of it. Looking at it now, it expresses so beautifully the ways we might love each other and love the world. It’s clear, it’s simple, and it’s bold.
Now the challenge, of course, will be living it. So I’m going to close this sermon with three suggestions of how we might love each other better. This is three things I invite you to think about in the years to come as you do the work of love. They are: be creative, get beyond the ego, and have fun.
First, be creative. The world is changing rapidly. This means, while love and humanity are pretty much the same as ever, the best techniques of living out that love may change overnight. This is nowhere so true in our world today as it is in religious institutions. So be creative. If the 9:15 service doesn’t work, maybe a Friday evening service. Or a mid-week service broadcast on the web. Or expanding our covenant groups to reach 1,000 people, most of whom never come on Sunday. What eventually works will probably be a surprise to all of us, so don’t get too tied to one idea. Just don’t be afraid to step a little outside your comfort zone.
Right now, Unitarian Universalism as a whole is a little bit tied to being essentially a Protestant church with freedom of belief. We tell people, “we’re so open! You can believe whatever you want here!” But culturally we tend to have all the trappings of twentieth century religion: our congregational structure, our service structure, our culture is basically twentieth century Protestant. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, twentieth century protestantism is a beautiful thing. The trouble is, when we reach out to people who are “unchurched”, who did not grow up going to Catholic or Protestant services, they tend to not understand why religion has to take this particular form, with a historic building and services on Sunday and all the things those of us who grew up going to church are used to. There’s no easy answer to this divide between those who grew up in a traditional congregation and those who grew up unchurched. To the question is how to bridge that divide, the answer is “creative love”. Being willing to be creative.
Secondly, “get beyond the ego”. I was tempted to say “sacrifice” but that is such a loaded word. Sacrifice is so often imposed from without, being told by an oppressive religion to embrace suffering and give up our dreams. That’s not what I mean. What I mean is that, once you get creative, once you come to this place with your dreams, you are going to be faced with the reality that no one has all their dreams met by a congregation. Part of the spirituality of living in community is that you do not always get your way. And you live with it. Consumerism sends out a message that as soon as you are unsatisfied, find somewhere else to be. We live in a disposal culture, an age of “if you’re done with it, throw it out.” But spiritual community is a different message. It means working on relationships. It means blessing the imperfect, and trying to make it better, rather than turning your back on it entirely. Now I am not suggesting you need to belong to the same spiritual community your whole life (how can I?), especially if you are feeling a genuine calling that you need to be somewhere else. But I mean staying long enough to make a difference. If throughout your life you change spiritual homes every year, you are not practicing spirituality, you are practicing consumerism. Spirituality means looking squarely at the ego; realizing we are frequently unsatisfied, and the world is far from perfect; and then sitting with that for a while. This is how we go deeper in life, where we learn to live beneath the shallows of a hustle and bustle life. There is no better place to learn this deepness than in a spiritual community, where we are constantly asked to sit with what is uncomfortable.
Finally, have fun. I wanted to say this in a deeper way, like, “nourish the spiritual enjoyment of everyday life”, but I think you get the idea with “have fun.” Have hope in the future, noruish that hope, but live in the present. It is so good, so good to be alive. Nowhere is that recognized more strongly than in spiritual community, where we gather to celebrate the blessings of being alive, to get to know each other better, to look each other in the eye and say “it is good to be together”.
How beautiful! How beautiful, how lucky we are to get to be in this place. Here amongst the stars, on this little planet teeming with a billon, billion lives, we get to make the most of our little lives. This is for real. Be bold; live out of love. Not because you will always succeed, but because it’s not worth being any less than fully alive. Let’s be present to each other, loving each other ever better, and be present to the spirit of love that’s connects us all.
i From John 1:1
ii Much of the congregational history is adapted by the wonderful historical record written by our founder, Vera Dodd. Excerpts of this available online at http://hunterdonuu.org/about-us/our-history/
iii The acronym was their idea, but I wasn’t complaining.