Whose House Is It, Anyway?
Just this past week I was reading a newsletter from another congregation and noticed the sermon title was something like “Why It Matters to Our Church for the Pittsburgh Steelers to Win.” The blurb under it said, “This title was given to us by the winner of our annual service auction who paid a significant amount of money for the honor of titling the sermon. So, yes, in a manner of speaking, we are for sale.” Our UUCB Serendipity Auction is coming up next weekend, Saturday May 6th. I hope you have tickets; it promises to be a wonderful event. I will be offering a sermon topic again this coming year. Notice I am not simply offering the sermon title for you to bid on, but the opportunity to develop with me the topic for the sermon.
And so this morning, you receive the fruits of the conversation I had with last year’s highest bidder, Jeff Legget, who paid good money to select the topic and even suggested the title for us, “Whose House Is It, Anyway?” Jeff’s premise, (which is not far from Rick Warren’s premise from this morning’s reading,) is that thoughtful reflection on our foundation will lead to clarity as we consider current congregational matters. As Warren states in his book, “A clear purpose not only defines what we do, it defines what we don’t do.” (p87) It offers clarity.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that Jeff Legget chose the image of a house as a metaphor to talk about our foundational purpose. He didn’t suggest the title “What is the foundation of our church?” or “How do we address our desire to do it all, which puts us at cross-purposes?” either of which would have separated the concept he was reaching for. As someone who is relatively new to Unitarian Universalism and one of the key people involved with the Aesthetics committee, Jeff is watching to see how we sort through the decisions to change, improve, and make additions our space. It often appears at first impression for many people that a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a group of individuals without a common defining center. The unifying pieces are not obvious to most newcomers, and I sometimes suspect they are not so obvious to longer-time members as well. Jeff is watching to see how this diverse cluster of individuals comes together for the good of the community. He has some ideas about how it could work, but wants to see how we make the decisions, how we deal with our passion, how we engage the process, how we wrestle with the various priorities.
So, as we consider specific changes to our building and grounds, we could stand to keep fresh the basic reason or reasons why we have this space at all. As we consider what steps to take next into our future, we could stand to look back and see again the trajectory along which we have been traveling. As we consider these ideas for improving our house, we could stand to take a moment and ask, ‘Whose house is this?’ And in so considering we could find the clarity needed to move forward.
I had to redo my bathroom floor last year. The tiles on the floor when I moved in were the large ceramic kind that usually go on walls. Indeed, our thought is they were wall tiles, not designed to bare weight like a floor tile would. So they cracked. Several tiles, particularly those around the tub had cracks throughout. Well, tearing them out was fun, but then I saw that along tub under those tiles the floor was wet. So I had to tear that layer up too and go back to the store to learn about what material is needed for each layer of floor. Thankfully the wet and rot did not reach all the way down to the last level. The base sub-floor was still a solid foundation. So I then lay down new floorboard, leveling mix, waterproofing skin, and finally linoleum tiles. I thought it would take me a weekend when I started. It took a weekend just to tear out the wet and ruined flooring! It was almost a month before I was finished and we could use the bathroom again. And even then I had to go back and scrap up my first attempt at caulking along the tub and toilet so I could re-caulk.
Home improvement projects have a way of taking over a life. Now, I hope you are not surprised by the fact while I was on my hands and knees in the bathroom I noticed this would make a good metaphor for the congregation at some point. Noticing some cracks in the surface, rooting down and discovering the problem is deeper than originally conceived, digging all the way down to the solid foundation, slowly building back up step by careful step. Returning a short time later to check-up and adjust. I wasn’t sure if it would be a metaphor for personal relationships or for church life, and it turns out to be the latter.
The cracks on our surface in this analogy would be whatever has motivated us to consider changing things. Perhaps they are not ‘cracks’ in the negative sense of the word as though some problems have come up. Instead I would say what has motivated us to consider changing things is the Long Range Planning process coupled with the fresh paint on the walls. It has gotten us started, sparked our interest to discover what we want and what we can do. Now, it feels too close to be using a building analogy to describe the process of making changes to the building, but that’s what I’m doing.
When building a house, you lay the foundation first. In the reading this morning, Rick Warren said, “The foundation determines both the size and the strength of a building. You can never build larger than the foundation can handle.”(p86) He goes on, then, to say: “If you want to build a healthy, strong, and growing church you must spend time laying a solid foundation. This is done by clarifying in the minds of everyone involved exactly why the church exists and what it is supposed to do.” (p86)
So then, what is our foundation? Certainly it is there in the stories of our history. History is important. Where we have been, who we have been defines who we now are and in many ways determines who we can become. Who we used to be will never change; it will never not be who we have been. So it is good to be well aware of that, it is good to re-examine our foundation from time to time while in the midst of new growth. I see the value in what Jeff is asking, but it is a challenge.
Trouble is – we don’t have an easily definable foundation to examine. We don’t have an eightfold path or transcripts from the revelatory dreams of the prophet. We don’t have One person or One book or One belief that we recognize at our foundation. Iconoclasm and rebellion from the past is a common theme in our histories.
William Ellery Channing, the recognized founder of Unitarianism in America, spoke out against central doctrines of Christianity: the doctrines of the trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and human nature. He said that God was one, not three-in-one. He strongly and rationally contended that Jesus was human, human only, and in no way a part of the godhead. He fiercely challenged the belief that humans are basically depraved, flawed creatures; insisting instead that we are basically good. He based his rebellion on his reasoned study of scripture and the proof evident through the miracles. Within a generation Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker had brought sweeping reforms that altered the understanding of the miracles and of the bible as a proof-text, thus removing them from the central place they had held at the foundation of the Unitarianism.
Similarly, in Universalism John Murray’s radical concepts of God’s love lead him to speak out against the popular Christian doctrine of eternal damnation. Murray’s message of universal salvation was in direct contrast with the popular preaching of the day. Within a generation Hosea Ballou (whose birthday is also April 30th,) offered a dramatic corrective to Murray’s message that now seems like a nuance to us. Murray’s message focused on doing away with the “eternal” aspect of eternal damnation yet still allowed that there would need to be, for cleansing purposes, limited punishment. Ballou’s message focused on both the “eternal” part and the “damnation” part insisting that there would be no punishment in the afterlife, limited or otherwise. The implications of such a belief cut to the heart of Christianity because if all are automatically saved by God’s love, what was the purpose of Jesus’ death? Was Jesus even necessary beyond as an example? And are we to expect people to be good for nothing, now that the afterlife contained no element of punishment as a motivation?
It almost seems that to be Unitarian Universalist is to rebel against the core elements of the foundation! What are the basic fundamentals of Unitarian Universalism? To Shake the foundations? To rebel against the foundations! But of course, that is not it. The ground we stand on is the ground of truth; any rebellion in which we participate is done in the name of truth. The foundation of our tradition is the search for truth and meaning. In earlier days it was called the freedom of conscience. In biblical times, it was the smashing of false idols.
The religious conscience is the inner knowing that we all have. It is similar to intuition. A commitment to the freedom of conscience is a commitment to allow each person to articulate for themselves what is ultimately true and meaningful. This does not mean it is just a theological free for all. We do not believe in whatever we want, we believe as we must. We believe as our conscience demands. It is not that we totally ignore all the conclusions and answers ever arrived at and written down, it is simply that answers from the past are not the final arbiter of truth among us.
You tell me which makes more sense: believing only what an organization tells you is true, or believing what your conscience within you tells you is true. If your deep personal beliefs are about the same as the statements of faith read out at the place where you worship, then all is well. But if your conscience and the creeds of your congregation are in conflict then you’ve got an issue. In too many religious groups if there is a conflict between traditional sacred beliefs – the foundations – and an individual’s conscience, the individual must either alter his or her conscience somehow or leave the group. In too many religious groups if there is a conflict between beliefs and reality, all attempts are made to adjust reality to fit the beliefs. Here, we fit our beliefs to reality, reality changes constantly and thus so does the ground on which we find our foundation
This is what we mean by Freedom of Conscience. Each person’s way of accessing that which is holy is as unique as a fingerprint. There is not a “right way” to do it. Instead, each person has her or his way to do it. This commitment to the individual freedom of conscience was present in Channing and Murray as well as Ballou, Emerson and Parker, and me and you. This commitment to the individual freedom of conscience is present as a thread since our beginning, at our foundation. And this commitment to the individual freedom of conscience is balanced by a commitment to being in a community together. We are a community of individual seekers, covenanted to walk together. We are a community of opinionated, authority-averse, do-it-yourself-ers – yes! But we are walking together.
As we vote and prioritize the various goals for improving our space, we want a bigger room here and a second room of this type there, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of our work, the foundation upon which we build. Remembering this will clarify what we choose to do. Without the clarity we will surely try to fit everything in that seems like a good idea. Without clarity we will surely try to make as many rooms as possible into multi-purpose rooms just in case. And there is nothing inherently wrong with multi-purpose space. But if we dabble in forty different things, we might miss the opportunity to be good at any of them. If we over focus on multi-purpose, we might lose sight of the main purpose.
Whose house is this? It is our house, together; and for all those who would join us in the search for what is good and true in life. It is our laboratory and gallery, our respite and sanctuary, “the cradle for our dreams and the workshop of our common endeavor.” This congregation exists to help people deepen and connect through worship, study, service, and fellowship. May we challenge each suggested change to fit with our main purpose. May the changes we plan to make, strengthen our ability to fulfill that purpose.
In a world without end,
May it be so