Monday, June 01, 2015

A People. So Bold. (charge to the congregation at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, AR)

Charge to the Congregation at the Installation of the Rev. Jim Parrish, UU Fellowship of Fayetteville, AR, Sunday, May 31, 2015

Rev. Ron Robinson of The Welcome Table Church, and Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, and Phillips Theological Seminary

Your charge is simple. In the words of one of our hymns, you are charged to be “a people so bold.”

I should be bold and just sit down now and let that soak in….but let me go into a little more about that charge. And before I get to the boldness part, let me start with your charge “to be a people…” Before you can act, before you can do, you must know what it means to be, together, especially in our tradition of covenant not creedalism.

To be a congregation is to be “a people”. But not just any people who happen to gather together and sign a membership book and vote on things and generally believe in the same things or same method of believing in things. That, as our  church historian and late Harvard professor Conrad Wright used to say, is not a church, not a congregation, “but a collection of religiously-oriented individuals.”  We, who honor individual conscience, must always struggle not to be a collection, but to be a congregation; for a collection of individuals will always be turned inward, anxious about each individual, making one another, our likes, dislikes, feelings, opinions, into our mission, our default mode for church. However, the more we find ourselves rooted in being a people, something more than our individual selves that will move us into mission to serve beyond ourselves--to get over ourselves, for good.   

A church is at heart not a 501c3 non profit organization with religious aims; that may be what it uses to help fulfill its reason for being, but never forget that the mere perpetuation of the organization recognized by the state is not the end itself but only a means to the deeper identity and purpose, that of making its view of the Sacred incarnate, visible, in and to the world.

So now onto the charge to be bold. Our times today of so much change, change and injustice in the world around us, change of religious landscape, requires us to be bold in order to survive and to thrive. Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, in his ordination sermon of 1841 called The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity, said the church of the first century did not do for the fifth century, and the church of the fifth century did not do for the fifteenth century, and the church of the fifteenth century did not do for his nineteenth century. Only a boldness of spirit that relies on something deeper and more permanent than church forms and personal likes and ideas can re-create the church needed for its times. And the church that did for his nineteenth century, and the church that did for our 20th century, even late 20th century, is not doing for our 21st century.

It is a privilege to be standing with you here again today, saying these things which in some ways are a variation on what I have said over the past few decades here. It has been my joy to know to some degree all of your ministers. It dawned on me that perhaps I know something of your history even moreso than many of you who might be new here these past few decades.

So my first part of the Boldness charge is to be bold and know your history, your stories for good or ill, and to know our tradition’s history of faith, for good and ill, to open up and see yourself as a People that is more than just you who are here, or you, including those not here, who are members based on bylaws. You are those who have gone before you, here and elsewhere; their presence is here; give them a voice. Knowing this about the past helps us not only to get over ourselves, but is the first step in opening ourselves up to see ourselves as part of those beyond us in the here and now, to hear their stories, and of those who may be a part of our future. Be Bold and Be vulnerable to Change. Know that Story counts, history matters.

Next, Be Bold and Encourage, Support, Require Your Leadership, and Your new Minister, to be Bold, to Lead.
This covenant we lift up today, between congregation and minister, is vital in order for you to be able to nurture and grow the other covenants we have also in the free church which you are also charged with keeping.  All of these covenant relationships remind us we are a people, are more than those who gather for worship.  Conrad Wright said that ever since the Cambridge Platform of 1648, we have had these relationships, roles and responsibilities, covenants that make up a free church. 1. that between a person and the church (symbolized today by Jim and Theresa joining the church) 2. between the church and its elected leadership, including its called minister, which we celebrate today; 3. Between that called minister and other ministers, in one’s tradition and beyond (which Phil Douglas brought on behalf of the Ministers Association); 4. Between the church and other churches in one’s own tradition and beyond (which Susan Smith brought in her greetings); But also, also, 5. Between the church and its parish, or the world around it; and 6. Between the church and God, or that Experience of the Sacred or Ultimacy which calls the church into being in the first place and gives it direction.

These covenants are themselves an interdependent web that enable our existence. When any one of them is neglected, when the bonds of any of them are severed, there is a ripple effect of added stress and fragility that reverberates into the other covenants. But the good news is that it works the other way too. Strengthen any of them, and you strengthen all of them. The more boldness and trust and leadership you put into any of them, the more the others inherently will grow.

So notice how much of what we celebrate here today will have its success depend not just on how you commit to your minister, but on how you commit to one another, to other churches, to the world around you, and to the Spirit that gives you life. And let me say it will be so easy, so tempting to just focus on the first four of those, for they are the most visible, they are the ones we try to write codes of ethics and bylaws and right relationship covenants around. They are the ones that reigned supreme when we lived in a Churched Culture. But the church that only focuses on those four will not be living its fullest, will mistake the urgent for the important, and will spend its wheels, will relive its past, will not be able to be a people so bold, especially for our new Unchurched Culture, our post-modern, post-denominational, post-congregational culture. No, it is the last two, the more externally focused covenants, which, in fact, the other four are for.  Serving The presence of the Sacred in the World is what calls the church into existence and gives it its shape. And when the world changes around it, the church must change to keep serving the Sacred in it. That takes Boldness.

So, be a people so bold, but Not for your sake--for the world’s sake. We are in uncertain, fearful, hurting times when people are shrinking their vision, their generosity, their values, their connections with others, and linking God to convenience and comfort instead of to conscience and community, to those who have made it instead of the least, the last, the lost.

A few years ago I preached the ministerial installation sermon at the oldest continuous church in our Unitarian Universalist association, the church of the Pilgrims, First Parish in Plymouth, Mass, begun in Scrooby England in 1606 and landed on this continent in 1620. The Rev. Tom Schade gave the charge to this historic congregation, and he captured well, as he does, some of this need to be bold, again and again, particularly in these times. Among the things he said was this:

There is a profound spiritual, religious, political, social and economic crisis in our country today. I won’t go through the list of problems. But the crisis lies in the fact that we cannot seem to get our hands around them; we cannot focus. Huge shifts and transformations going on all around us, but the country and the culture cannot keep up, that our thinking is skittering along the surface, distracted, like a kid with ADD in a comic book store.  And here we are, Liberal Religion, and we have not yet found our voice. We stand for some timeless truths and some rock-solid values and some fundamental commitments, we have not found our voice – a way to speak clearly to the people about how to live in these times.  We will find our voice only through trial and error, and that is the work of our ministry, and to do it, our ministers must be willing to take risks. My Question to you (he added to them, and I add to you), is this: Do you conduct your congregational life in a way that makes your minister brave? Or do you conduct your congregational life in ways that will make your minister more cautious, more nervous, more anxious and more afraid?”

And so I close my charge to you by saying this: the world, right outside our doors, needs your boldness, your trials and errors, your mistakes, your colossal failures, because the love in them will come through and will be planted and will transform the world.

I love who you are and who we are as a faith community, but I love the world out there and all the scared struggling shrinking people even moreso. Let me bring this charge, these greetings, ultimately from them. For them and from them, I say:  Let your new minister lead you in being the boldest people of them all so we have an ally in finding our boldness, and so we, too, can be “a people.”