There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
I’m really honored to be joining you today for my first Sunday as your new Consulting Minister. I grew up UU, and was a student for the UU ministry back in my 20s, so over the decades, I’ve been to a lot of General Assemblies, and District Assemblies, and Ministerial Conference’s. And one thing you can count on when you go to big gatherings of Unitarian Universalists, there is always buzz about the future of our movement. Together we try to cast a vision of who we are becoming, of who we are called to be. One of my favorite presenters at such events is Galen Guengerich who serves the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. They have over 1000 members and three full time ministers. Whenever Galen gives a workshop at GA it is going to be cutting edge. There might be a full jazz ensemble providing meditative interludes. There is certainly a high tech AV system, so that when he wants to references something from popular culture, he pushes some magic button and there is perfect cinema quality music and sound, seamlessly integrated into his presentation.
Sometimes at these national events where large abundantly-staffed congregations take the lead, it’s easy to feel left behind. We are told that if we are not skillful about our presence on twitter and Facebook, we won’t appeal to a younger populous, that if we don’t use sophisticated technology, and current popular music in our worship, the millennial generation won’t feel at home. We begin to wonder if our low-tech churches are relics of a time past.
When I was a very little girl participating in the town Easter egg hunt for the first time I found the whole experience kind of overwhelming and confusing. After 5 minutes of chaos the hunt was over and I returned to my mom, probably crying, holding my basket with only one egg, Mom told me this story, which has been almost archetypal for me ever since. She said “When that crowd of children headed left, you headed right. There you were alone with dozens of eggs, but when you looked up and saw where the other kids were, you left the eggs and followed the crowd. Of course by the time you got there, all the eggs were gone, and when you came back to where you started, all those eggs were gone too. If you had just stayed where you were, you would have a basket full of eggs right now.”
I have been mulling over that story ever since. When I realize that I have been separated from the crowd, I try to ask not “how can I get back into the crowd?” but “where are the eggs around me, right now, that only I can reach?”
For the past 11 years I’ve been serving congregations that have a lot in common with the UU Church of Cortland; family size congregations who can’t afford a full time minister …or any full time staff at all really. For the past 10 years I’ve been the settled minister for the UU Church of Athens and Sheshequin which is, like Cortland, a historic Universalist church in a beloved historic building, although UUCAS was not founded until 1808, so you are a full 5 years older. I want to reassure you that this morning’s sermon is not a challenge to keep up with the crowd, to have high resolution visuals in your sanctuary or to design an App for the congregation that works with the latest smartphones. You already receive plenty of encouragement from our culture to move in that direction. Instead, let’s look at the eggs hiding around us right now.
First, let’s start with what it means to be a family sized church. I don’t have to tell you the challenges of being a small church- we live those each week. But I want to remind us of the special gift of the small church, which is relational-ity. Anyone who has ever gone to a large church knows that sometimes it can be a lonely experience. But I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt lonely at a family sized church. The very first time I went to UUCAS as a guest preacher their friendliness shone and I felt welcome. I hope that is how it was for you when you first came here. There is no chance of getting lost in the crowd in a family sized church, we know each other and we know each other’s lives. We open our hearts to newcomers and visitors. Younger generations have a lot to teach us about the rapidly evolving web of social media, but people of every age will always want a place in the physical world where they can be with people they know and trust, and where they can meet new people in a web of community.
There are other hidden gifts of being small. I hear story after story from colleagues at larger institutions about how hard it is to maintain a large salaried staff. At General Assembly a speaker referenced with a nervous laugh the emerging trend that more and more ministers will be piecing together part time and multi-site ministries. I thought to myself- well on this one at least we are ahead of the curve! When the Alban institution closed after decades of being leaders in church life, a journalist theorized that we are headed into a time when many such institutions will be closing because they have an infrastructure that is unsustainable. One thing I suspect Cortland and UUCAS have in common is that we have always used our money carefully, staying lean. We don’t confuse the success of our shared ministry with the trappings of monetary success. It’s easy to look longingly at churches with full time youth ministers and a state of the art AV system for seamless video content in worship. But when the crash happened, UUCAS had a lean infra-structure, and no debit, and a board that understood the importance of stewarding its resources carefully to keep our institution sustainable.
Our small size also makes us nimble. Before I served in Athens, I served a church of about 400 in Palo Alto, California where even after 2 years of meetings we could not begin to imagine how we could make our vision of composting church food scraps into a reality. So when I first preached at Athens, I was amazed to see a composting center, and had to find out how that had come to pass. Turns out, the children were painting compost buckets for a Sunday School lesson, and one of our members bought an extra one for the church. Now members take the scraps home whenever the bucket is used, and so composting happens.
Here’s another example: My first year as the minister in Athens a parent asked me if I could create a coming of age program for his daughter. I had been running Coming of Age programs every year or two for a decade at the various congregations I had served, and I told I’d be happy to design a program for his daughter to do by herself. Bur miraculously when we created the program, all those teenagers who’d stopped coming to church when they aged out of RE came back for Coming of Age, and teens at the Fellowship in Big Flats wanted to participate too. Both congregations jumped in to support it. It was important to the young UUs who came of age, and it was powerful to me.
Now that doesn’t mean anything we want will just happen. The following year we had no teens at all most Sundays. There was no force of will that would have made a Coming of Age program happen. It would have been like a Fish trying to go adventuring on land. Neither Athens nor Big Flats are congregations where we can promise families that every week there will be a Sunday school class for each grade level, but whenever we have a critical mass of teens, we offer coming of Age to the folks who are ready …it’s starting to look like next year may be one of those magical Coming of Age years again.
Because we are nimble we are able to respond as the moment unfolds to the needs and gifts of our community. In 2011 a flood immobilized the Penn York Valley, where the Athens congregation is located. The rains came down hard on Thursday, and by the time the streets were clear on Saturday we had to pass through a National Guard checkpoint on the way to the church to assess and repair the damage. Volunteers filled the parking lot sanitizing and drying the contents of our basement. Sunday we worshiped without power, without potable water. At coffee hour, two members wondered how we could be of more help to our neighbors. We held an emergency board meeting, and decided to open our building to folks who just needed to use a restroom, or a clean place to rest. The next day we began serving a hot lunch and all were welcome to join us in the social hall. Other volunteers delivered sandwiches to people who didn’t want to leave their work salvaging their homes or businesses. For weeks we fed and cared for our neighbors until the crowds died down, and our work helping repair the damage of the flood continued in other ways.
Another gift of this church is our location. Both Cortland and Athens are situated in the historic downtown of rural cities which have significant economic struggles. And while there are many challenges that come with that, there are abundant opportunities for ministry. I don’t yet know what that might mean here in Cortland, so in the coming months I’m counting on you to teach me. Each community is unique, with particular needs and gifts. When I ask my colleagues for advice about working in the community where UUCAS is located, I often I get advice like “you should connect with the local GLBT community center” and I think, well, I guess that’s us. “Why don’t you work with the local interfaith group?” I guess that’s us too. “What about a local humanist group.” That’s DEFINITELY us. The Penn-York Valley is what you might call an “underserved community.” The Valley NEEDS us. Folks from the valley reach out to me to marry them when they don’t know where else to go. Can I marry GLBT folks? Of course. Atheists? Naturally. Whether or not our small congregations could ever grow large enough for a full time staff, we have an important ministry in our communities. We are needed here.
That, already, is a field of eggs wider than we can ever gather in –even with all 16 members of UUCC working diligently together. So which eggs will we gather? The Anglo Saxon tradition says that each of us has a Wyrd, formed in our unique intersection of nature and nurture, of time and place. Our Wyrd, like that thread in the poem by William Stafford, is hard for others to see. Sometimes it’s hard even for us to see in the chaotic web of culture and life. So how do we discern our Wyrd, our own unique path? One strand has to be our unique Universalist history and theology. That’s what makes us different from the Food bank of the Southern Tier, or the United Way. Karl Rahner, the famous catholic theologian who influenced Vatican 2 said “Christians in the coming age must all become mystics or be nothing at all.” One of the teachers in my Spiritual Direction Training, Don Bisson, interpreted Rahner’s statement this way: “the future of the church-- if the church is going to have a future-- is how do we initiate men and women into the universal call to holiness and union with God because that’s where the world would change. Not on what denomination you belong to, or whether you are Christian or not Christian, the transformation of the world is dependent on our call to holiness.”
Rahner is saying a very Universalist thing here. He is saying that spirituality must either be at the core of who we are as a church, or we may as well close our doors. For all the folks who check off “none” on surveys about religion it is not obvious why they would want to support the Unitarian Universalist tradition or any other tradition. But the soul hunger for the depth of life, that is universal. And the capacity to seek and find that depth-- Universalists believe that this is the right and potential of each and every person. The first source of our UU tradition is: “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.” In other words, mysticism. This is the single most important thing we can offer the world direct experience of the forces which create and uphold life. Which renew our spirit.
Rahner calls this “union with God.” But we know that not all UUs, nor all those in the wider community who are spiritually hungry are comfortable with the word “God”, so let’s switch gears a bit and look at this from the psychological perspective. Don continued “We get lost if we don’t experience something deeper in us than just our superficial ego needs. We get lost. This is what Jung called soul murder.”
There is no App to feed our spiritual hunger. It is not Facebook that brings us back to the deeper self when we are lost. The reason I like, for example, to sit and hear Galen’s talks is not because of how his beautiful technology (okay, maybe a little. It is pretty cool) but it is because he has a message worth hearing. And you, you left your home this morning not because you knew everyone would be tweeting about today’s service, not because we have so many followers on YouTube, but because you wanted to experience something directly- you wanted to connect with other people, face to face, you wanted to connect with something deeper inside yourself. You wanted to connect something bigger, larger, wider --the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. And from that place of holiness, from there we can transform the world.
I believe that far from living in a time when these old Universalist churches are a historic remnant, these crossroads where our churches were planted over a century ago are filled with ministry that is calling out to us- filled with Easter eggs, if you will. The need for our Universalist tradition and for our beloved communities is so great, that an equally great discernment is needed. We have to be willing let go of everything we “should be doing” --all those ideas we hear at conferences, the ministries we witness at other churches, in order to hear our own destiny. Sometimes we need the courage to take our eyes off the crowd, to follow the thread of ministry right here where we are. This is at the core of why we gather in our UU tradition, to listen for and know our own thread, to see and know the thread we hold together as a community. When you feel lost remember, there is a thread you follow. There is a thread we follow, together.