The Person Next To You
This is the second sermon delivered during Candidating Week.
A wise colleague once offered me some invaluable advice about ministry. She said it rather bluntly and without explanation, but I understood her reasoning: She said, never tell anyone what you do for a living..when you’re on an airplane.
This advice is not unique to ministry. It’s not unique to airplanes either. You hear it if you’re a lawyer, a mortician, a teacher, or, really, anything. I tried to live by this advice. I wasn’t quite sure why I needed to: I enjoyed talking with people about their views on religion, learning about where they came from, and hearing their questions – just like this past week. It’s the kind of thing I live for and am called to be present to. But, still, I followed the advice. And let me tell you, it doesn’t work.
A couple years ago I found myself on a flight to San Francisco. I was all prepared to be my most anti-social self: I had a book and my earbuds. Somehow I thought those things would help. Just after take off I started digging into my book. Not long into the flight I felt a tap on my arm and the man sitting next to me asked: Are you a Unitarian Universalist? My cover was about to be blown.
The book I selected and imagined to be inconspicuous was…pretty obvious. It had a little chalice logo on the side. I put the book down and smiled, and said, “Well, actually, I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister.” The man sitting next to me sort of nodded and smiled and I thought the conversation was going to end there.
After a brief pause — he launched into a sprawling conversation with me about his own spiritual journey, his life, his hopes, the way things were unfolding for him and his wife – they were new parents, they just got a new dog, he moved back to his hometown after college, he really didn’t want to stay there.
He shared how he grew up in a small town in Texas where there were only a handful of churches to choose from. Roman Catholic, a couple different flavors of Baptist, and some other Bible churches.
As we continued to talk I learned that he had just discovered Unitarian Universalism. He, like so many others, took one of those online religion quizzes out of boredom. He had no idea what that meant. So he started looking around, digging a little deeper, learning anything and everything he could about it.
He ordered books from the UUA – which is how he recognized mine, and said he had finally found something that made sense to him. I’m sure this story, at least some part of it, sounds familiar to many of us here. Your own journey very well might sound just like this.
What he then told me was that even though he had found his spiritual home, there wasn’t a UU church anywhere near him. He was one of those hundreds of thousands of people across our country that identify as Unitarian Universalist but they either don’t want to come to an established “church” or there simply isn’t one within reach.
The hours of that plane ride flew by as we continued to talk – my book sat there unread. And we went about our ways when the plane landed. I never found out what brought him to Chicago or what was taking him to San Francisco. I will likely never see him again.
These encounters are not few and far between for ministers. Perhaps we have a neon sign above our heads that says “Talk to Me!” or we just get ourselves into trouble. But I know, too, for those of us here today, we run into people that often say that UUism sounds like something that they could resonate with.
Something they could be a part of, something they could dig deeper into. It always feels like people have just been waiting to discover us or they’ve been wondering if our movement was worth it.
So what on earth does this have to do with anything? Why are we talking about what are known as free range UUs? What does one man on an airplane or countless others that we engage around UUism day after day have to do with UUCL?
One of the first things that caught my eye about UUCL six months ago – it’s hard to believe it’s been that long – one of the first things I noticed was the hope expressed by the leadership here and by the congregation that UUCL would stop being the best kept secret in town.
It’s a phrase I saw and read and heard all those months ago, and it is a phrase I’ve heard many times this week. It is clear to me that UUCL is ready to keep moving forward and to keep engaging in ever deeper and more meaningful ways in the life of Lexington and central Kentucky.
While this week was exhausting – each day and each interaction with this wonderful congregation has affirmed three things in my mind: This is a passionate congregation, I am smitten with this place – the church, the town, the state, and, last but not least, you have had one amazing search committee.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing just how healthy and vibrant this congregation is: From meeting with the humanist group, the covenant of UU pagans – both of which still amaze me with all that they offer UUCL – it is rare to have such healthy groups in UU congregations these days.
From meeting with them to sitting down with the Penny Circle Women’s group, the Danville covenant group, the youth group, and so many more within this congregation: now at the end of this week I feel that I have gotten to know so many of you and see just how special this place is for so many diverse and wonderful people. But we still have a great deal of good work to do.
For those of you that have spent time with me this week, you know of some of the work I have set my sights on. But for those of you that haven’t been able to due to work or other obligations, I have good news: we’ve come to the part of the week where I get to tell you my campaign promises. How will our shared ministry together unfold? How will I be your minister?
As your minister I commit myself first and foremost to directing my efforts to what the congregation supports. What this means is that I will be present, as your minister, to the things that this congregation cares about. I will show up. What this also means is that a minister is never truly a one man/one woman show.
The health and life of a congregation requires the passion, time, and talents of the people. It requires volunteers, it requires your voices, it requires all of us to share in the ministry of UUCL. And I know along the way – as we figure out where we will go together, where we will engage the wider community – we will make mistakes. Especially me. As your minister I will make plenty of mistakes. I will say things you do not agree with, I will suggest things that don’t quite work, I will not be perfect. Part of the promise of Unitarian Universalism is in affirming our humanity – all of our inherent worth and goodness, all of our passions and ideas, and all of our mistakes as well.
Beyond this, I am committed to addressing your concerns about the mission and vision of this congregation. The mission of a congregation – what it unites behind, and the vision it casts is of the utmost importance. It is what engages all of us in the life of the church and it helps us carry our efforts into the community around us. I’ve heard multiple viewpoints this week around whether UUCL has a mission or if it is simply impossible to come up with one for such a diverse group.
I can assure you that while the words for the mission of this congregation may not come easy and they may not resonate – everything that is happening here, every covenant group, every humanist forum, every CUUPS ritual, every adult and child, every hymn that is sung, every pride parade we march in – all that you do reflects the broad mission of this congregation.
The core of my ministry with all of you will be around mission and vision. I envision working with your board to further empower them to be the missional body of this congregation. I want to support our RE director in the critical work that she is tasked with doing: instilling UU identity in our children and providing liberal religious education in central Kentucky.
This is also true with our music director, ensuring that she can continue to provide a strong, meaningful, and vibrant music ministry just as she has done these past two Sundays. As your minister, I will be behind the staff: I will advocate for their support, their goals, and their contributions to the mission of UUCL.
Together, all of us in this community, will ensure that we continue to take care of one another. A solid pastoral care program should be supported and nurtured in order to ensure that, in the very least, we let people in this community know that they are not alone. That they will always have a listening ear waiting for them, that we all have a community of support.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am committed to working on issues of anti- racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism. We must first look at ourselves and recognize the diversity already present here.
By doing so, we can be empowered to be effective allies in walking with the oppressed and offering support if it is asked for. As beautiful as this town is, as well as the areas of central Kentucky that I’ve seen, I know that poverty, racism, and marginalization are present here as well.
Whether or not it is a label that this congregation wants – you are the flagship church for the Bluegrass. You are the standard bearers for Unitarian Universalism in this region of Kentucky. And so the work before us is crucial. And this is something that many UU churches and churches in general do not have the luxury of.
The religious landscape across our nation is radically shifting and we are fortunate to have a vibrant liberal religious community here in the Bible Belt. We are tasked with all of these things outlined and so much more. Possibility is our best friend. What more could we ask for?
With all of these great possibilities before our community, I am mindful that I could be here working 24/7 – but I have a family and a life outside of ministry. As your minister, I will work with the congregation to prioritize our goals and also, I will take care of myself. Congregations deserve healthy ministers.
So as much as I would like to be all things to every one of you, I can promise you that that is not possible. That being said, I will always be here to listen to you, to learn from you, and to share in my ministry with all of you. It is worth noting that a healthy congregation belongs first and foremost to the people and not the minister.
So I want you to take a moment to look at the people sitting next to you. Go ahead. Take a look. These are your companions for the journey ahead – these are the people that have already and will continue to put their heart into the life of this congregation. These are the people that will be there for you just as I will.
Most importantly, all of you, are so very essential to my ministry. I will love you, I will grow with you, I will be present to you, and I will be direct with you – but, dear friends, I ask that you do the same with me. Let this be our shared promise, our covenant, starting today and stretching into the years ahead. We have a great deal of work to do – and it will be difficult, enriching, and hopeful.
It was an immense pleasure to be with all of you this week – and it is my hope that this is not the end – that we have years ahead of us as we imagine what is possible for UUCL.
Thank you, dear friends. Blessed Be. Amen.