Becoming Church

by BC

“By the Almighty, I will build a church of my own to Him.  To Him do you hear?  Not to your opinions of Him nor mine nor any man’s.  I will cut off a parcel of my farm and make a perpetual deed of it in the courts, to be held in trust forever.

And while the earth stands it shall stand, free to all Christian believers.  I will build a school house and meeting house, where any child may be free to learn and any man or woman free to worship.”

These are the words of Richard Allen, echoing to us from over 200 years ago upon the completion a meeting house which is just down the road on Higbee Mill Rd, now occupied by a church that surely does not espouse the sentiment of that statement.  This is the same Richard Allen whose farmhouse stands on our property to this day – the second oldest building in Fayette County.

As the story goes, Richard Allen was a radical religious liberal for his time.  The statement itself sounds as if it were revelation from on high:  By the Almighty, I will build a church of my own to Him!  Without truly knowing Richard Allen, the confidence in his statement and the assuredness of his belief is palpable.

And upon hearing his decree, the church to which Richard Allen belonged debated whether or not they should expel him for his dangerous and liberal ideas.  By the time he spoke these words, his church was already sick of him saying that creed does not matter – only the inspiration of the soul.

According to the great grand-nephew of Richard Allen, it was, and I quote, “his pleasure and his custom to ask traveling preachers to rest under his roof as they rode hither and thither throughout the wilderness as Zion’s weather-beaten, solitary scouts.”

It did not matter what creed the preachers ascribed to, Mr. Allen would talk of religion with them, share his own views and entertain debate, and, should the traveling preacher happened to find himself here close to a Sunday morning, they would be invited to ride with Mr. Allen through the woods to preach hope to all who would listen.

This all happened right here on this property.  Countless preachers of a variety of creeds, notions, and hopes stayed in that house, with Richard Allen sitting at the dinner table, fostering dialogue when there was difference, and giving room for the good and right of religion to be shared with the brethren and sisteren in the surrounding farms and woods.

This is what gave Richard Allen’s own church offense and spurred their desire to expel him for not adhering to what they saw as the one true faith.

And so, and here is where the story is incomplete, but I imagine he told them what to do with their opinions on religion and he made a decree that his property would be a house of prayer for all.

Fast forward to the late 1950s around this time of year.  The small meetinghouse Richard Allen had built still stood on the property and his farmhouse still overlooked it.

A rag tag bunch of religious radicals, known as Unitarians, had been meeting in that small meetinghouse and came to a beautiful conclusion about their place here in Lexington, KY.  They were organized with the help of First Unitarian in Louisville, had met in three different buildings, and now were ready to keep growing.

The dreams and hopes of this gathering of Unitarians inspired them to make those dreams tangible.  Many of them mortgaged their homes, gave what they could, and the bought the seven acres we are on this very moment, along with the farmhouse that belonged to that radical religious forebear, Richard Allen.

While the irony of the original meetinghouse belonging to a fundamentalist faith does not escape me, here we are.  On a parcel of Richard Allen’s farm with his house still standing, still being used, and this property – a house of prayer for all peoples, for all creeds, so long as they share our promises, our values, our vision.  All because of one man’s devotion to religious freedom and several men and women who sacrificed immensely to see a hope realized.

The story of this place is indeed astonishing.  I look at the history of this place and I just cannot get over how everything lined up in such a way that the proclamation of Richard Allen is still true, over 200 years later.

That is nothing in the grand scheme of time and history, but for the history of this town, this place, this country, it is not something to ignore.  Did you know this story?

And if you did, do you know the implications of it?  Of all the moving pieces, of the legacy we’ve inherited, of the sacrifices that were made, and of the reality that we are standing at the threshold of discerning how that legacy will become our own and live on?

How wondrous is it that we, the Unitarian Universalists, are meeting on a parcel of land that was carved out for the very purposes of one of our principles:  to foster a responsible search for truth and meaning.

I can’t help but look at the pictures of this book – and it is available for you to look at – I can’t help but look and read off names that are familiar, look at empty farmland, see a propane tank because, yes, this was the country at one time, to see the faces of generations past in the old meetinghouse,

and know of their sacrifices, know of the journeys this place has held for our faith, and I just pause and marvel at what a gift this is.  And then I am struck with sadness, because as your minister, I have heard time and time again the question of, “Who are we?  What are we known for?”

And while I do not want to make anyone guilty for asking – there is no other way to put this, but these questions of identity are asked on this property…whose purpose and mission is older than anyone in this room:  …while the earth stands it shall stand… where any child may be free to learn and any man or woman free to worship.

The words of Richard Allen paved the way for this place to be a hope and a dream for those early Unitarians in the Bluegrass.  And by early, I mean the 1950s.  But that was the great purpose on this good earth on which we worship this day – the cultivation of learning and the freedom of faith with shared promises.

What great wonder is this that we are in the inheritors of that dream, of that story that is still being told every day that we gather as a community?

There is one detail of this whole story that I keep coming back to.  It does not sound like the greatest part of the story, though I assure you it is.  That Unitarian community, upon deciding to make their dreams a reality, mortgaged their homes to buy this property.

So great was their ambition and hope in the possibility of this community, they took upon themselves great risk to their way of living, their families, and this great experiment known as Unitarian Universalism.

And while I do not feel that the risks they took should forever be enshrined, though they should forever have our gratitude, I do believe that those risks should be a model for how we commit ourselves to the life of our communities – especially this one.  The story of this church community was not founded on navel-gazing, it was founded on generosity and hope.

What generosity have you been waiting to unleash on this place?  What risks are you willing to take to bring our story evermore alive?  I know that is a timely question of me to ask, this being our stewardship campaign for the church.

And I am not preaching in this moment to pressure you to turn in your pledge forms – but I suppose I’m wondering how we will commit ourselves again and again to the vision that was and still is the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington.  Would you mortgage your home for this place?  Would you close your eyes, jump into the abyss of unknowing, and just say, “I know what’s on the other side – and it is beautiful?”

I ask these questions because we are indeed at a point where we need to ask ourselves once more what our story is going to be.  We are at a place where the future of this place can be stronger than ever – but it requires from us a commitment that lets go of many of our personal stakes.

That is the cost of community.  You give up of the “me” and move toward “we.”  This means that disappointment is a possibility.  Disappointment in not having our personal missions for being here always fulfilled, disappointment for the gathered community interpreting its shared mission in a way that is not congruent with ours,

and disappointment when people are with us but a short time and then fade for a variety of reasons.  And the piece of this that should be underlined again and again is that disappointment is a part of the human experience.

Sometimes tragically, sometimes nitpickingly, and religious communities are not exempt from this.  But dwelling on such things does not serve us well with the great charge given us by Richard Allen for this place.

Have you decided yet?  Would you mortgage your home for this place?  And I don’t keep repeating this because we are in need of such sacrifices, but because that level of faith in the promise of Unitarian Universalism is not heard of these days.

I imagine it’s not heard of in many religious communities.  Our expectations of church are wildly different, the role of religion in society is rapidly changing, and the wider economic landscape of this country is not as it was in the 1950s.  But if not such a great financial risk, what would you give up for this community?

How have you served the vision that was, is, and will be UUCL in Lexington, Kentucky?  And this is not to say you need to make a huge sacrifice.  Though there are many represented in this room already.  But what cobwebs have you cleared away?  What odd jobs have you done?  What are the things you can claim beyond Sunday morning that have cared for our mission and, sometimes more importantly, cared for this often unruly 7 acres we are upon?

And by that same token, what have you already given?  What have you been giving for years and years?  What work has been done, what pieces of this place have you held together – sometimes with just duct tape and chewing gum – what are you called to let go of and let someone else take up the reins?

These questions of commitment are not a gentle ask.  They are a requirement of membership.  And I know that perhaps when you joined this place you may have had the impression that anything goes – but membership in a faith community requires us to give up the navel gazing and commit, instead, to the work of many, and the care of our buildings, our grounds, and our vision.

Do not mistake these things I am sharing with you as an accusation – I speak very broadly here of Unitarian Universalism.  But ask yourself if there is a shred of truth to what I am telling you – is it the same handful of people that give and give of themselves until the grave, or is that assessment wildly wrong?

I would hate for some minister decades from now to look back and say, “Oh, look, when the church was founded the people believed in this place so much they would mortgage their homes” – only to look to our current era and conclude, “And then they couldn’t muster the resolve to keep the windows from rotting away.”

We are indeed at a place where our answers to the needs of this community will shape our legacy.  The Richard Allen Farmhouse, built around 1790, is in need of our care right now – for if we do not take the needs of that place seriously in that moment, it will be more cost effective to bulldoze it in a few years.

Our support staff are still operating with program budgets from the 2008 crash – which we have recovered from now as best as possible.  Thanks Obama.  Our 7 acre property does not care for itself – and we have a property council is asking for some extra hands and time.

If it were up to me, caring for our buildings and grounds would be a requirement of membership.  And now we are at a point where we need to take our social justice seriously – BLM — and look to how we care for one another.  Sunday morning is not enough.

This is a call specifically to those of you in this room that are not in the pictures of our church archives yet – because your story is still being written here every day.  You will be the inheritors of this parcel of farmland cut off from property of a man we can never know – but who paved the way for liberal religion to have a home here in Lexington.

Everyone has or will inherit that.  It is a great responsibility – almost too great, and it requires us to take it the utmost commitment and respect, and to take it seriously or else it will pass away before us.

At the time of his living, Richard Allen did not know such a faith as Unitarian Universalism would come into existence.  He likely barely heard of Unitarians and Universalists – though I’m sure he knew of their ideas:  the goodness of the divine and humankind and the reconciliation of all things to that goodness.

However, I like to think that we are living the legacy of that proclamation he made so many years ago:  By the Almighty, I will build a church of my own…I will cut off a parcel of my farm…And while the earth stands it shall stand…where any child may be free to learn and any man or woman free to worship.”

This is our story.  And the story is not complete.  What is the proclamation we will make as a church?  What words will some minister many years hence offer to the people of this congregation that tells a story of what we are doing right here, right now, for ourselves and for those yet to come?