Sunday, March 15, 2015

The First Liberal

There I was on a hot, rainy summer afternoon having finished the book I was reading and reluctant to do the waiting laundry. Procrastinating, I decided to watch a little TV. Flipping channels, I came across the Inspiration Network and as sometimes happens, my curiosity got the better of me and I found myself listening to a sermon preached by a young-looking man who seemed mighty passionate about what he was saying. Most of it I don’t remember, but one statement stood out.

He was talking about Adam and Eve and the text in the book of Genesis…something about what the Bible really says and declaring his -- the preacher’s -- authority to know the Bible’s truth and his responsibility to pass along that truth to others. This is fairly typical for the tradition of Evangelical congregations, but that is not what struck me. He was going along in what appeared to be a standard preaching format for Inspiration Network worship when he stopped his pacing back and forth across the stage to look the congregation in the face and he proclaimed, “The serpent in the garden of Eden was the first liberal!” A number of those in the congregation gave voice to their agreement and it was clear that the word ‘liberal’ was meant derogatorily, meant as an insult, meant as a link to the devil.

Rather than being angry at the slight equating liberals with the devil as so often happens by fundamentalist Christians, I found myself agreeing with him completely. But not because I, too, saw it as a bad thing, but because I thought, “Aha! proof that we, religious liberals that is, were right there from the beginning!”

The Evangelical preacher quoted the text of Genesis 2:16-17. That's where God speaks to Adam saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

The preacher then turns to a little later in the text where the serpent speaks to Eve and Adam; Genesis 3: 1-6 reads, “Now, the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” The preacher then points out that the serpent “twists to his own ends” the words and meaning of what God said. For the serpent does not lie, but tailors the truth to incite envy and desire from Eve and Adam for what would make them like God.

That is not precisely what the serpent does. He does not twist God’s words, but he questions Adam and Eve’s blind obedience to God’s commandment; he questions whether the understanding Eve and Adam have of those words is correct; he offers a different perspective, a different interpretation.

Is that not exactly what religious liberals do with all sacred text?

The serpent in the Garden of Eden was the first liberal and I, for one, am proud to claim his questioning ways for myself. This piece of biblical text causes me to contemplate not only what was lost when Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden, but what did they gain as well? Is there another way of interpreting the fall of humanity that offers us something rather than only takes away? 

Our liberal religious tradition says yes, we gained knowledge, which is never an evil or sinful thing, though it can be used to those ends; we came into the world, leaving the protective isolation of the garden for the experience of the whole existence; we were given the beauty of toiling for rewards, which often makes them sweeter. In an unkind view one could say that in Eden Eve and Adam were living like naïve children, where everything was provided and nothing was needed.

Of course, many of us long for a time in our lives like that, where all is given easily and little is asked in return; where we need only think of a thing to have our desire fulfilled. It does sound beautiful doesn’t it? But is it real? What would one strive for if living in paradise? What kind of person would you be if you did not have the experience of living in the world to form you? What would be the point of living, if you lived in heavenly paradise?

Maybe it’s my Unitarian Universalist and New England upbringing that says, work is good and accomplishments feel more significant if you’ve actually endeavored for them, but I also think the cost of paradise is too great, for the cost is our knowledge, our knowing and our learning. I don’t think many of us religious liberals would give up our ability to think and reason and question to forego death and gain immortality; to sacrifice the fruits of our search for truth, the lessons and wisdom we’ve gained or our freedom to apply reason to our convictions for a paradise of limited view.

“The common denominator of all liberalism,” writes A. Powell Davies, “is devotion to liberty…Liberalism is that which liberates. Its object is to loosen bondage, whether of the mind or of the person, whether of individuals or societies, and its motivation is the faith that human life can only reach its fullest stature through continuous liberation – through the struggle to be free.

“In religion,” he continues, “the liberal [has] stood for the unhindered use of the free mind in arriving at conviction. Truth declared to be more holy than any creed, more sacred than even the most sanctified of dogmas. [The liberal] refused to accept authoritarian ‘revelations’ which contradicted the revelation found in one’s own experience.”

This is the religious liberalism that founded Unitarian Universalism. We believe in the freedom of all people to determine for themselves the essence, nature and existence of the holy. We are a tradition whose search for meaning and truth has sent us to the sacred texts of the religions of the world. Because we believe that revelation is not sealed and delivered all at once; and is neither owned, nor determined by one body of people, clergy or laity alike, we seek wisdom from all sources of human experience and knowledge.

This is the difficulty religious conservatives have with religious liberals. Religious conservatives “seek to preserve the teachings of particular and established ideologies.” Within religiously conservative congregations, regardless of theological identity, it is about discovering, naming and holding to the truth, not to the possibility of multiple truths. When the Inspiration Network’s preacher announced to the crowd that the serpent was the first liberal, he was in fact, likening alternative perspectives with an act of the devil, with an act of evil. That is not to say he was necessarily calling religious liberals evil, but it was clear in his tone that understanding and believing differently from what he or his tradition determined the meaning of God’s words to be was not permitted and simply wrong. I have heard it said that the problem with liberals is that they only see in grey, they can’t see a clear way through the fog; meaning that religious liberals see nothing clearly, nothing in black and white, nothing to be right or wrong, that we find it difficult to claim with any certainty an idea or belief, that we are paralyzingly subjective and malleable.

A common and even understandable criticism is that religious liberals believe anything and everything. While that is far from true, we do struggle with how to maintain a unified identity while creating as few barriers to belonging among us as possible.

Though we live in a theological world of ambiguity and multiple ideas, it is the access to that variety that enriches, nourishes, and delights us on our religious journeys. For we find within the many traditions truths about ourselves.

As David Rankin writes,

  • Like the Roman Catholics, we have a long tradition –- extending back to the sun-baked desert of ancient Israel, the small rural villages of Transylvania, and the rocky shores of early New England.
  • Like the Jews, we have our heroes and heroines -- Servetus, David, and Fuller; Murray, Channing, and Emerson; Barton, Anthony, and Steinmetz -- to name only a few.
  • Like the Baptists, we have a system of democratic polity -- with the congregation as the ultimate authority, an elected Board, and a pulpit characterized by freedom of expression.
  • Like the Confucianists, we have emphasized the capacity for reason -- possessing a thirst for the fruits of wisdom and knowledge, and a reverent feeling toward the achievements of the mind.
  • Like the Hindu, we have an eclectic system of theology -- encouraging each individual to develop a personal faith which is not dependent on external demand.
  • Like the Humanists, we have our roots in the experience of the world -- as it is known through the medium of touch, and sight, and sound, and taste, and smell.
  • Like the Buddhists, we have an accent on the individual -- on the beauty, the mystery, and the holiness of each man, woman, and child – as each is a sacred vessel.

One of the greatest mistakes we can make, writes James Luther Adams, is to suppose that all religion is good, or that religion is something sacrosanct, something that should be exempt from criticism, something that can escape the wrath of God.

That is why I wholeheartedly agree that the serpent in the Garden of Eden holds the honor of the title the first liberal. For as a creation of God he understood that even what is believed to be the word of God is to be examined, questioned, turned over and around, as with all scripture, to determine the “actual range of application, intrinsic authority and dependability” of the text as A. Powell Davies puts it. It is this ability and responsibility to bring criticism to religious ideas and ideology that makes us liberal. It is the freedom to decide what the implications of a given sacred text or ritual are and what they mean to us that we are granted in being labeled liberal.

As one such liberal, continues Davies, I glory in the accusation. I am a liberal without apology, a liberal without misgivings, a liberal without regret. I am an unrepentant liberal.

And so too, was the serpent in the Garden, the one now known as the first liberal.  May it be so. Amen.

The First Liberal, a sermon delivered by the Rev Sara Ascher at 1stUUPB on March 15, 2015.

What is the Essence of Liberalism?

The question will ever be posed: What is the essence of liberalism? And so it is today. In order to answer this question we must, of course, have the courage not to over-simplify. A vital liberalism has within it tensions, struggle, a dialectic if you will. With a self-denying ordinance which disclaims finality or authoritativeness, we venture the following characterization of the essential elements of liberalism.

First, liberalism holds that nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism…In religious terms, we may say that liberalism presupposes that revelation is continuous in word, in deed, and in nature, that it is not sealed, and that it points always beyond itself.

Second, liberalism holds that all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion. It presupposes moral obligations; moreover, it is in fact operative in institutions which maintain continuity in one way or another with those of a previous epoch and order…[and] liberals recognize the necessity for restrictions on individual freedom. Moreover, they recognize that ‘persuasion’ can be perverted…All men and women are children of God. The implication intended here is that the liberal method of free inquiry is the condition sine qua non (a condition without which there is nothing) of both the fullest apprehension of the divine and the preservation of human dignity which comes from our being children of one God.

Third, being an ethical procedure, that is, purporting to be significant for human behavior, liberalism involves the moral obligation to direct one’s efforts towards the establishment of democratic community. It involves, of course, a common life which gives rise to the expression of the manifold, creative impulses of the human spirit, an expression which presupposes a cooperative life impelled by the motives of love and justice.

Fourth, liberalism holds that the resources (human divine) which are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. The divine element in reality both demands and supports mutuality. Thus the ground of hope is the…actual grace of God.

Why liberal? Because confidence in the principles of liberalism is the only effective resistant to ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side and to blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. These are the enemies of the human spirit whose dangers are threatening today.

By James Luther Adams, from The Essential James Luther Adams, as read by the Rev. Sara Ascher at 1stUUPB on March 15, 2015.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Seekers, Search, Sacred

In 17th century England there existed what was called a "lower-class heretical culture.”  The cornerstones of that culture were anti-clericalism -- not a movement against secretaries but priests --  and a strong emphasis on Biblical study, but specific doctrines that had "an uncanny persistence"; the rejection of Predestination and anti-Trinitarianism. The Seekers, or Legatine-Arians -- I’ll get to the Arians in a second -- as they were sometimes known, were a British Protestant dissenting group that emerged around the 1620s, probably inspired by the preaching of three brothers – Walter, Thomas, and Bartholomew Legate. Seekers considered all organized churches of their day corrupt and preferred to wait for God's revelation. Many of them subsequently joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

Arianism is defined as those teachings attributed to Arius, which are in opposition to orthodox teachings on the nature of the Trinity and the nature of Christ. Arianism is the nontrinitarian, heterodoxical teaching, first attributed to Arius (c. AD 250–336), a Christian administrative official in Alexandria, Egypt. The Seekers were not an organized religious group in any way that would be recognized today, not a religious cult or denomination but informal and localized. Membership in a local Seekers assembly did not preclude membership in another sect. Indeed, Seekers shunned creeds and each assembly tended to embrace a broad spectrum of ideas. Their collective witness demanded the church to be an entirely voluntary, non-coercive community able to evangelize in a pluralistic society. That sounds very familiar to us.

I’m sharing this bit of history with you so we can draw a line from early anti-trinitarianism to Unitarianism, to being a seeker. These are our roots. The Seekers were aptly named and so we too are seekers within this faith.  We spend a lot of time explaining what we believe and what we don’t  believe. The encouragement to seek the truth that individually speaks to us is likely how we found Unitarian Universalism.

How do we as seekers search for truth and discover that divine spark that is within each of us?  You see, being a seeker on a search does not only describe our journey of faith. Perhaps more important is our individual journey to the greatness within ourselves. We are granted a glimpse of that destination in these lines from poet Walt Whitman in the poem Leaves of Grass.

Would you sound below the restless ocean of the entire world?
Would you know the dissatisfaction? the urge and spur of every life;
The something never still'd — never entirely gone? the invisible need of every seed?
It is the central urge in every atom....
To return to its divine source and origin, however distant...

As seekers we have all felt that central urge to merge with the highest part of ourselves.  We are called to return to our divine source and origin.

I know what some are thinking right now. Last week we did the hokey pokey and now he just used the words divine and evangelize. If he says God I’m outta here!

When I use the word divine in the context of our journey to the greatness within, I’m not directing us toward a deity.  Rather, I’m directing us to the supremely good that lies within each of us.  Surely, this is palatable for all of us.  It is this search for the supreme good that sparks the search and inspires and encourages the seeker.  The need for whatever it may be that we’re drawn to is the yet-to-be- realized presence within us of that very thing to which we are drawn.

In the Gospel of Thomas -- yes doubting Thomas, surely one of our antecedents -- it is written

the kingdom of Heaven is within you, and whosoever knoweth himself shall find it.

The hidden nature of almost all that we do is the direct, but unseen, effect of this one great unconscious desire to search out what we believe will complete us.  We do experience contentment as seekers, but isn’t it often temporary?

Readster tells us,

Our reward may be a momentary sense of fulfillment that, in most cases, passes from sight as soon as do the temporary conditions that provided it for us.

We then return to our search. The mind that wants to know the truth of something and that’s willing to do the work required of a seeker, will inevitably find that for which it is searching; our highest aspirations are reflections of unrealized possibilities. Within each of us already dwells everything that will ever be known. Some of might need to dig deeper than others but it is there. I understand the idea of everything that is ever to be known dwells within us is a challenging idea or concept, especially for the sturdy Unitarian -- and particularly for seekers. We mustn’t forget or ignore the possibility.

I recently read a blog that listed 101 questions for self- discovery.  Self-discovery being a loaded phrase and because normally I would groan and keep moving, I was surprised when I took the bait and started reading. By question eight I was feeling a very crunchy-granola, tree-hugging, rose-colored-glasses, kumbaya-singing, daisy-wearing feeling. Those are all fine, but my personality detests perkiness, Mary Poppins, and new age balderdash.  I wasn’t able to spiritually or intellectually stomach the other 93. Yet, I remain a seeker.

It may seem a cliché now, but there's a reason mystics live alone, that spiritual people have gone on retreat for centuries. Poet Robert Weston writes about the slow days of summer, when we "might turn to examine our own lives." He calls us "unfinished clay, half-molded, that still waits on us to think what we have been and as we are still yet to become." There's a sense of promise there, an expansiveness in the idea that we may become many things yet. We may shape ourselves, and be shaped, and we may find that the new shape suits us so well that we realize we must have always been that way, in some sense. We have the space to shape ourselves, to examine ourselves, to wonder who we have been and who we might become. To wonder who we are, what we are, that we haven't yet discovered.
If you are here this morning you are a seeker. What are you seeking? What is it you're searching for?  Ask yourself these questions. If you truly accept that you are a seeker then this sermon becomes more than airy fairy good stuff.  It honors and encourages the foundation of your Unitarian Universalist self: to continue the journey, revelation is not sealed, to pay homage to individual freedom of thought and worship, to intellectually, spiritually, and otherwise search for the supremely good in yourself and in others.

Because as pop icon and drag queen RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?  Can I get an amen up in here?” Seriously though, you will call on what we are holding up this morning. You inevitably will. The search of the seeker for the sacred is a hallmark of our faith tradition and can be a wild ride. Seek, search. Let go of the notion that nothing more can be revealed. That is in opposition of our claim to holding the search for truth and meaning sacred.

Spiritual teacher Guy Finley writes:

There is a storehouse of Sanity,
A vault of Love,
A treasure of Kindness,
All bursting at their seams.

Can't you feel the pressure
To just be Light?

Don't the walls of your heart
Ache to break loose and open
The floodgates of Freedom?

You have riches untold,
But have lost the map to the upper regions of yourself
Where you are always overflowing.

So, forget this world with its intermittent streams
Whose waters begin and end.
Search out the Ocean, and stand in Her surge
Until the waves wash away the shores of your soul.

Let's seek, search, and embrace the sacred through revelation.

May it be so.

Seekers, Search, Sacred, a sermon delivered by the Rev.
CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, March 8, 2015.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Religious or Spiritual?

A few weeks ago I was at Home Depot shopping for various items for my home improvement project. I had a shopping cart full of items all lengths and sizes.

I said to the cashier "I hope all that stuff fits into my sedan!” She said, "have faith".  I almost responded by saying I am Unitarian Universalists, we are free in faith.

Have you ever wondered what does it exactly mean to be free in faith? Does it mean we are a group of religious folks who have no doctrine, liturgy, rituals or spiritual practices?

Many UUs will say we’re not religious, we are spiritual. So what’s the difference between being religious and spiritual? In many respects religion is often about who’s in and who’s out, creating a worldview steeped in “us against them.”

Spirituality rejects the dualism that speaks of them and us.
Religion is often about loyalty to institutions, clergy, and dogma.
Spirituality is about loyalty to justice and compassion.
Religion also talks about God.
Spirituality helps to make us whole.

But the two need to complement each other. Religion at its best is spirituality in community.

Historically, religious institutions that do harm are those that insist you surrender your will to them, and to God. Clergy who do harm are those who insist you worship them, rather than all that is HOLY.

When a religion insists you’re not good enough and asserts that you need to practice your spirituality according to prescribed rituals -- I don’t know about you, but I am part of this free faith because our spiritual practices are uniquely defined and communally (religiously) we believe in love, justice, freedom and the inherent worth and dignity of each person.

We have learned from many, like Sophia Lyon Fahs, who believes:
If religion is to survive in a day of advancing scientific discoveries, it must find a way to be on the one hand intellectually sound, and on the other hand emotionally satisfying.

Fahs calls for a reformation of traditional religious beliefs about human nature, the universe, and the natural world by discarding archaic doctrines, ideas, and dogma.

In other words, condemning people with a notion of sin and threatening them with eternal damnation is not going to be spiritually beneficial to anyone. But unfortunately religion is often about getting people to conform to its beliefs and dogma.

We would be better served if religion could uncover, cultivate, and support our capacity for justice and kindness, rather than dwell on our failures and imperfections.

I urge you to let go of the religious hokey pokey of the past and focus on enhancing your spirituality by discovering who you are -- who you are today or ought to be in the future. Why are you here? Know that you were created for a unique purpose.

You have an authentic spirit that needs to be cultivated by going deep within your soul to find your divine Self. There is no need to surrender or abandon the self of the past.  Instead, align your spirit with the essential core of your being.

It’s much like the hokey pokey where you put your whole self in! Some of you may be familiar with Benedictine spirituality. If you aren’t, please don’t feel bad, because neither was I until it was offered it as part of a class at Andover Newton Theological School. 

Similar to the hokey pokey this spiritual practice requires you to “put your whole self in” by truly being attentive, and obedient to the needs of your mind, body and spirit. For the most part, Benedictine spirituality has a prescribed set of rules -- 76 rules in total -- as well as a few general principles. The fundamental core belief is that such rules will lead to a life of freedom and wholeness.
In other words, Benedict spirituality is about listening to four realities:
the Gospel,
the rule,
each other,
and the world around us. 

I am not sure that this spiritual practice will lead to a life of freedom and wholeness because it seems somewhat conservative. Besides, I’m a recovering Catholic who can't stand rules. However do believe that in order to align the mind with the spirit (soul) you must engage in a figurative game of “Hokey Pokey” Like trying to do the Hokey Pokey you must listen intently and carefully to the world around you.

We often forget to take time to smell the roses and greet the strangers among us! There really is a world full of human potential but we get wrapped up in ourselves and think that we alone can do all things, we must realize how essential it is to be interconnected with all things in order to be spiritually whole.
It is encouraging to know that we have each other to rely on as well as the capacity to be spiritually whole. It is astonishing to know that we are never alone. We are all vulnerable at times so we try to stay busy in order to avoid being alone with our spirit. What I am saying is that we are constantly looking for ways to occupy our time. The busy mind and body will never be able to cultivate the spirit. 

Becoming whole involves mind, body, and spirit. We each have special gifts but most of the time we are too busy to be still long enough to listen to that inner voice. The first step towards spiritual wholeness requires listening, because by doing so you are allowing your self and spirit to join in harmony.  Second, in order to reach spiritual wholeness we must let people into our most inner circle, because those who are different from us will stretch our ability to listen, hear, and learn.

Certainly none of these tasks are comfortable, but change is never easy. Saint Benedict believed that with humility comes change. Humility comes from understanding one's place in the universe.

Finally we need an individual spiritual practice such as yoga, prayer, meditation, and nature journeys. You decide what puts your mind and body at ease to allow you to connect your whole self with your spirit.

Leave here knowing that spirituality is born in a person and develops in the person. It may be kick-started by a religion, or it may be kick-started by a revelation. Your spirituality extends to all facets of your life.

Our forebears taught us that Spirituality is chosen while religion is often times forced upon us. To me being spiritual is more important and better than being religious, because true spirituality is something that is found deep within oneself.

Amen. May it be so. Go in peace.

Religious or Spiritual?, a sermon by John Smith at 1stUUPB on March 1, 2015.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Celebrating our Heritage

This month of February is our month of stewardship. From this pulpit, I've talked about caring for that which is not ours, UUism as a way of life, and our responsibility of stewardship to preserve that way of life. Today I'd like to hold up our inheritance. What have we inherited from those who founded this Congregation, and all the others who came before us?  The Ross Room, in this building, has been newly dedicated as a record of our history. It is filled with memorabilia from our archives, most of which have -- until recently -- been hidden away gathering dust. It is a room of our inheritance.

Our story for all ages this morning was called "The Keeping Quilt." The dresses and aprons and shirts and shawls from loved ones in "backhome" Russia, were wearing out, or outgrown, so their fabrics were transformed into a beautiful quilt, preserving the stories of the people who made or wore them, and the love that went into them.

When someone is planning a quilt, they have to think about the whole project. How big a quilt? Who is it for? Are you going to reuse old clothing, or use only new fabric? Will you buy it or ask your friends for their leftovers? What patterns will you use? Are you going to make your own or use something already created? What colors do you want? How thick a stuffing do you want? Will the fabric on the back be the same as on the front? Will you hand-quilt it, or use a machine? Some of these questions need to be decided in advance, and some of them can be figured out along the way.

This month of stewardship, the final days of our campaign, is the time to examine our heritage, our inheritance, all the dresses and aprons, that make up our beloved community and think about how to keep it a beautiful, warm, comforting, and inspirational quilt.

To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves, that the line stretches all the way back. We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget; that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die.

Author Alice Walker writes: The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrow, is always a measure of what has gone before.

We honor the people who gave so much of themselves, to create and sustain the foundation of what we cherish today; we will also take the time for a little spiritual reflection on what we hope that we ourselves are bringing to birth as we live our lives here in this community.

In the Book of Deuteronomy we read:

We are ever bound in community:
We build on foundations, we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires, we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees, we did not plant.
We drink from wells, we did not dig.

These words are an ever-present reminder to us of the blessedness of the time and place we find ourselves in, and at the same time a profound reminder of the responsibility we hold to those who will follow. We sit here in worship this morning in this beautiful sanctuary, and we become part of this beloved community because someone else, many someone elses, laid the foundation, dug the wells and planted the trees. We have this place and this community so that we may have a time and place where we may "rest in the grace of the world and be free". We have this community where the beauty we love can be what we do and where we may find ways to kneel and kiss this ground. 

We have, this place, this Congregation, this very life, on loan from those who came before us, and we hold it in trust for those who will come after us. That is the meaning of stewardship -- to hold in trust.

The big question then is what are you going to do with what you have been given? How are you going to hold on to it? The poet Mary Oliver in her poem "This Summer Day" asks this question of us in the way only a poet can do. She writes:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper,
I mean the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth

instead of up and down
who is gazing around with her

enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms

and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last and too soon?
Tell me what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I know that what I wish to do with my one precious life and that is to leave the world a bit better for those who follow after me, to know I have made a difference, to keep digging wells, laying foundations and planting trees so that they will be there after I am gone. I want to care for the present while honoring the past, in order to embrace a future that is bright, has meaning and hope.

The kind of ministry I have chosen is focused on helping congregations honor the past and clarify the present so that you may embrace the future with health, strength and passion.

There is a legendary image from Africa called the Sankofa Bird. Visually and symbolically Sankofa is expressed as a mythic bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg (symbolizing the future) in its mouth. Sankofa teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward.

You have entered into the spirit of Sankofa. You have chosen to set forth in a bold new direction. You embodied the aspect of Sankofa that moves forward. I've been here nearly 20 months, watching you stretch, resist, stretch more, and embrace me in my sometimes impulsive guidance. So now what?

You still hold the egg of possibility in your mouth. Where will you take it?

Like the Sankofa bird, holding the egg in it's mouth and looking back at its past as it flies forward, you too are flying forward with a fuller and deeper understanding of where you have been and have the opportunity to better understand the people and events that are our inheritance, an opportunity to examine your heritage. It begins just beyond that door.

So imagine with me for a little bit about what the future of this Congregation might look like. In my minds eye I see a thriving liberal faith community, with exciting and varied programs, stable ministry and dedication to service and justice that is a vital an integral part of Palm Beach County.

I see -- in many different possible forms and images -- a church building that is striking in beauty and versatile in use, with lots of space for programs, worship, education and especially people. 

I hear music -- lots of music. I see a beloved community of people who live with each other in diversity with kindness, gentleness and encouragement.

I see dynamic ministry taking place both through the work of your minister and through the ministry that each one of you are doing. I see people of all ages being spiritually fed and intellectually challenged in their faith and beliefs, children, youth, young adults and students, parents, mid-lifers and elders.

In other words I see you thriving. Embrace that Future.

We build on foundations, we did not lay. We warm ourselves at fires, we did not light.  We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant. We drink from wells we did not dig.

Whatever future you envision whatever future you embrace for this Congregation will depend on the foundations you prepare today.

Stewardship means to hold something in trust, something that we have been entrusted with, and to care for it. It means holding that precious egg of possibilities as you fly forward into your future. It means honoring the past and those who have gone before us; standing firmly in the present; and, most of all, embracing the future.

May it be so.

Traditions, Achievements, Beliefs: Celebrating our Heritage. a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor delivered at 1stUUPB on Feb 22, 2015.