Growing in Community
Our reading for this morning came from the book Serving with Grace by the Rev. Erik Wikstrom.
There was a moment during seminary when I almost fled from the ministry. I’ll add, this was but one moment out of several where I wanted to pack it up and call it a day – to say that ministry was not for me and that I had made a mistake, the Universe was wrong, and that I’d be better suited remaining in the world of quiet librarianship, surrounded by books, the awkward public and their peculiar reference questions, and the daily pulse of nine to five.
I’m sure everyone, while training for their particular field, have had moments of wanting to flee. Ministry is full of them. But this one was specific to me, I imagine.
It was specific to being a second year student still figuring things out, having a far too packed schedule, and working through my own spiritual immaturity. Seminary has this habit of tearing you down in the second year and building you back up in the third. Most people survive the process.
It was in the summer before I began my first congregational internship. I was sitting in my supervisors’ office and we were talking about expectations and unpacking how this internship would unfold.
He cut himself off mid-sentence, as he was prone to do, and suddenly proclaimed, “We need to buy you a preaching robe!” My immediate response was, “No thanks, I’m good.” He smiled and said, “You have to have one to be the intern here.” I insisted, “I prefer a suit.”
My supervisor proceeded to call a company known for making preaching robes, gave them his credit card number, and it was done. The robe was on its way.
Unitarian Universalism is a peculiar religious tradition in so many ways. We often say you don’t know what’s going to happen from week to week in our local expressions of Unitarian Universalism, that is, the congregation.
But it is true that this tradition does not look the same across the world. We’ve explored this a bit. There are churches this morning reading from scripture and saying the Lord’s prayer. And they are just as authentically Unitarian Universalist as all of us gathered here in Lexington, KY.
And so, too, there are churches calling the four quarters and the preacher looks like he just crawled back into consciousness after being at burning man. They, too, are also just as Unitarian Universalist. To say otherwise of either example would be an expression of our own ignorance than the truth of the matter.
Unitarian Universalism is a broad and unpredictable faith. Here in Lexington, we have the distinct privilege and curse of being one of the few Unitarian Universalist congregations in the commonwealth, and, so, we look like a delightful hodgepodge of this tradition. But I digress.
A month went by before my internship started and I arrived for a supervisory meeting with the senior minister. Sitting on the coffee table in his office was a large cardboard box addressed to the church.
I noticed the label on the box and suddenly remembered. It was the robe. My mentor gleefully opened the box. I was certain he was torturing me. Out came the long black puffy robe and he told me to try it on. I did. I stood in front of the mirror in his office wondering why I didn’t also receive my Hogwart’s letter with the robe.
Thoughts of looking like a television judge or a Puritan preacher also crossed my mind. I instantly hated it. The church I grew up in had no room for such accoutrements.
The robe I wore here up until recently was the robe my home church minister bought when he first entered the ministry over 30 years ago – I suspect he wore it a handful of times in his career. And so, I grew up thinking that male Unitarian ministers wore suits.
Those first few months of my internship I would walk around on Sunday morning feeling like I was being smothered to death by that black unbreathable piece of puffy fabric. I would get tangled in it going up the stairs, get caught on door handles and others items, and complained to my supervisor a bit too much about it.
He patiently would explain week after week, that the robe was a symbol of our education and our call to be ministers. That we were called up out of the gathered people to this particular expression of the work of the church.
And that we wore it not to pat ourselves on the back, but instead, in some weird way, to wear it so others did not have to. It took a while to let those words sink in, those reminders. I remember when I made my peace with the unbreathable fabric of the robe, though the fullness of that story is one I am not yet ready to tell.
Some stories need many years to lose their ineffability. But fast forward five years later, I remember those reminders and feel naked on Sunday morning without the symbols of the office to which I was called.
A robe to remind us that as a religious tradition, though we value individualism, and we recognize there are people in this room that will always be smarter than the clergy, we still value the learned clergy. It’s easy to forget – especially with younger ministers — that the clergy are educated to know how to run a church. Except for the dishwasher. We don’t know how to do that.
And on this robe, a stole, not just a fashion accessory, but a reminder of the yoke to service – that in coming from amongst the people, we are bound to serve as religious leaders. A lot of ministers will say the phrase, “my church,” or “my ministry,” but I often talk about the church I serve and the ministry to which I am called.
Because that is what it is all about. Being called from the pews of our churches to serve and to lead and, quite frankly, to know how to run a church so others don’t have to.
Some of you were shocked to see me in a clerical collar at recent marches. Besides looking quite dashing in it, some of you noted how Roman it looked. Lest we forget, clerical collars come to us from the Protestants, so do black preaching robes.
But it is important to know what these symbols mean. The collar means that I am clearly, obviously, visibly a clergyperson – that in the fight for justice, there are those in the crowd that will pray with us, remain calm in the rush of the storm, and remind us all that justice is as much about restoration as it is about dismantling.
But these are the visible signs of the ordained clergy. And to those that wonder whether or not Unitarian Universalism is a religion, you need only remember that we have ordained clergy. The lions club is just down the road if that’s too much to handle. My very job is religious. I would not serve here if I were the chairman of the UK Lecture Series on Clays Mill Road.
These visible signs, these pieces of clothing, are just as much a part of the ministry to which I am called as it is to your individual ministries as members of the church. I think often about when my mentor told me that we wear these things so others don’t have to – outside of making minister’s sound like martyrs to fashion —
I believe he was getting at the point that as a religious tradition that comes out of Protestant Christianity, we affirm the priesthood of all believers. We affirm that you are all called to serve this community and serve needs greater than your own in the wider world.
As Unitarian Universalists, we often smile at our individuality. We all know the phrase about how leading UUs is like herding cats. I know I can laugh at those things, too. But I also believe them to be toxic.
Yes, this tradition is about your responsible search for truth and meaning, and yes, you have worth and dignity, but no, it isn’t all about you. It isn’t just about feeling good on Sunday. Another hint that we are a religion, it’s about community. Ministers preach about this endlessly.
We did not end up here this morning by accident. We chose to be here, with people sitting next to us. We are searching for something. And yes, some of us need solace. Some of us need healing. Some of us need a like-minded pit stop on the journey before us. But, so, too, all of us should be here asking how we will serve needs greater than our own.
Last week, many of you heard three excellent reflections from lay leaders that have served our religious tradition with passion and wholeheartedness. And we shared their stories and commitments so that you might feel the stirrings of a call to service in this community and in the wider world of Unitarian Universalism.
If you don’t know where to start, the staff of this church are there to help you – we are, after all, facilitators more than anything. But if you are still not sure where you are called to serve, dwell on that question. Think, again, of your most loving hopes for this community. Therein resides your call to leadership.
Gini Courter, the former Moderator and chief lay person of the UUA, once asked three questions of all of us who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists.
- Why does the world need UU congregations?
- What is distinctive about UU leadership?
- How can congregations work together more effectively?
The first question is entirely subjective. I know my story for being a Unitarian Universalist. I know that it gave me hope as a young gay kid in a conservative culture. But what is yours? Why does the world need us? Ask yourself why you are here. What brought you here? What keeps you coming back?
What, perhaps, saved your life because of this religious tradition? I have heard many of your stories about this place, but those stories die with me in the bonds of pastoral confidentiality.
I would hope you answer those questions openly, publicly, and loudly from the rooftops should the need arise. For we are seeing why, over and over these days, why a liberal religious voice is needed in the world.
We are needed to provide comfort to the afflicted, to afflict the comfortable, to bear witness and be at the ready should the oppressed need listening hearts, and to tell a fearful world that hatred will not win the longest night, that love will prevail – as foolishly optimistic as that notion is.
But we cannot accomplish this if we do not know why we serve or if we do not invest in our leadership. What makes UU leadership distinct, question 2, is that we need to be ready to hear the individual calls to service in this room – because you are all called, call it God, the Universe, or the synapses of your brain, you are called – and for leaders to hear these individual calls and to discern how we are called together. That is how we lead.
And the clergy and staff of churches are not here to do all of the leading for you, but instead to remind you of your call often so that you never forget. So that you never forget when you witness before city council, march in a protest, confront systems of oppression, get your morning coffee, walk your dog, fall in love, or pass from life into death – so that you never forget that this faith calls you to be your best self and to find where your passions meet the needs of the world in community.
And how can we be more effective, question 3. We need to get over our individualism. As important as it is, we need to not enshrine it and worship it. Oftentimes, people ask me why Unitarians use religious language, meet in churches, have reverends, light candles, pray, meditate, sing hymns – my response always sounds smart alec-y.
Because this is a religious tradition, duh. Whoever said religion was only about God? No, we are religious because we believe in being in covenant – in promise – with one another.
We are religious because we believe in the power of community over the power of bitter individualism. We are religious because we hold to high ideals that we may never live to see, but still spend our lives fighting for, for ourselves, for the oppressed, for the world.
Where are you called to serve? Where do your passions meet the needs of the world? What is your most loving hope for this congregation? Are the answers in your mind showing images of a robe and a stole, then we need to talk. I’ll try to scare you away from that.
But truly, if you’re called to a clerical life, no amount of fear will turn you away. But it is likely most, if not all, of you are called to simple moments of service in this community. Many of you already serve. And some of you are looking for that place where you fit still. Dwell on the questions. Find where your heart is most joyful here. Follow that joy.