The G Word

The G Word
preached* for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
August 25, 2013

It’s good to be back.  How many of you know what the G word is?  Very good.  Will the people who know what I am going to say please turn and face the others?….

It was two weeks after I submitted the title to our office for this morning’s sermon, that it even occurred to me that the word God begins with G, and that you might predict that I was going to speak of God this morning.    It’s a little embarrassing to admit that, considering I have a master’s degree in divinity – but I’ve been consumed by an entirely different G word lately.  It’s not Gay either, even though many of us did march in the Pride Parade yesterday.  The word that triggered the title of this sermon is Growth.  This word has been on the tongue of many who have been considering the problems with our present church building.  [If you weren’t aware, the members of this congregation have been discussing what to do about the building we’re in which isn’t accessible and doesn’t hold us all at once.]  Where is our holy church?

I’ve always been uncomfortable talking about church growth.  Growth is not always good, ask anyone with cancer.  Bigger doesn’t always make better.  The mightier are not always just. 

That other G word which I wasn’t considering may speak to a reality bigger than all of us, but God, I would argue, exists in the smaller places too.  But I’m not preaching about God this morning; I’m preaching about Growth.

At the same time I don’t think bigger is better, I also don’t think we have any right, as a religious people, to keep our good news to ourselves.  There is a whole cultural shift taking place right now where people who were raised without any church are looking for what they might call “spirit” – what some of the elders of this congregation might call “community” and what I might, with my theological education, call in a different sermon on a different Sunday, “God.”  We’re seeking something.  Otherwise, why bother going to church at all?  Traditionally, the competition with Sunday morning worship for UU’s has not been other congregations, but rather the Sunday Morning New York Times, or walking the dog.  Traditionally, people who felt at home at a UU church, didn’t feel at home at other places of worship, and would otherwise just sleep in if this church weren’t here on Sunday morning.

In fact, I bet some people saw the title of my sermon this morning, and decided to sleep in because they thought they knew exactly what the G word was, and knew what I was going to say….

I call it the G word, is to express my discomfort with the discussion of church growth.  It’s not that I don’t want this congregation to grow – I’d be happy if it did.  But that’s not what is most important to me.  I get frustrated we frame the conversation about our physical building in terms of congregational growth.   There are two reasons for this,
1)     it’s obvious to me that we have long ago outgrown this space, but more importantly,
2)    Growth in size doesn’t matter to me as much as growth in depth and spirit, growth in meaning, growth in love, growth of leadership and growth in the lives of those who call this place home. 

I know that some businesses create business plans that predict growth in their product line or services or customers – but church is not a business.  I don’t believe that we get to choose whether or not we grow.   I believe that we do our best to help those seeking something, and we grow or we don’t grow, but we have to be faithful to our message, rather than chasing people and around and trying to get them to join us.

This is where I have always felt it would be easier – not better – but easier if we claimed a common allegiance to God – because then I could say that the church is about God, and we could all agree about that, and it would be obvious that nobody is trying to grow the church for growth’s sake – it would all be for God.  But instead – and believe me – I truly wouldn’t have it any other way – instead, I have to say that we have to be faithful to our message, that we are seeking something – I have to be more nebulous and ambiguous in order to encompass the diversity of religious expression present in this congregation.

I don’t know what the solution to our building problem is, but I do know what I’d like to name our solution should we ever decide to change names.  This was the language of our former intern, Greg Martin from his last sermon.  I got to listen to it on CD this last week.  Did you know you can buy copies of sermons on CD by signing up with our sound technicians?  Anyway, Greg talked of our being The Church of All Sorts.  I really like that.  Not All Saints, like next door, or All Souls, which was the name of a second UU congregation in Lansing some years ago, but All Sorts.  I think it captures both the universalist nature of our faith, and the slightly heretical element….  the church of all sorts – much easier to say than the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing.

So, what is our message, or the something we are seeking?  besides being universalist and heretical, what good news does  the Church of all Sorts proclaim?  According to Rev. Scott Tayler,
“Unitarian Universalism is about connection.  We are a religion that see people struggling, not against our own sinful souls, but against a shallow, frantic and materialistic world that all-too-often leaves us disconnected from our deepest selves, life’s gifts and needs greater than one’s own.  Our congregations work to heal that divide by helping each other listen to our deepest selves, open to life’s gifts and serve needs greater than our own.”

Rev. Taylor talks about Unitarian Universalism as healing spiritual disconnection.  When we are disconnected from what is truly important in our lives, we need healing.  When we are disconnected from the greater purpose of our lives, we need healing.  When we are alienated from others, we need healing, or we are out of touch with our own bodies, or our own spirits, suffer from addictions, we need healing.  When we still wage wars, we need healing.  When we discriminate against the poor, we need healing.  When label some people as “illegal” we need healing, or when we dictate whom others should love, we need healing.  The Church of All Sorts helps us heal this disconnection in the world and in our lives.

Healing disconnection is the work of congregations which are small and congregations which are large, and congregations in between, such as this one.  I don’t think size is the issue. It’s not the issue, but it is an issue.  Different size congregations need to do church differently in order to succeed at healing spiritual disconnection.

Traditionally, churches have either moved to a bigger building or started another church to deal with growth.  The midsize church I grew up in, in Salt Lake City, Utah, is the parent church to at least two other congregations in Utah.  It planted the South Valley congregation in another part of the city, and then the one in Ogden, Utah. 

It helped Unitarian Universalists in other parts of the city and state, create their own churches, so they didn’t have to drive 40 miles to attend church as my family did when I lived there.  In 1979 when my family moved to Utah, there was one UU congregation in the entire state.  Now there are five.  In Utah, we know that a conservative religious climate doesn’t preclude the existence of liberal religion – in fact – quite the opposite - , it makes liberal religion all the more necessary.

Church growth has not exactly been the problem of Protestants lately.  In fact, mainstream religion, we know, is on the decline.  Unitarian Universalism, just barely, can still claim growth – and that, I believe, is because we are the church of All Sorts. We don’t just appeal to those who have always considered church a necessary institution.  We appeal to those who recognize that the church has been the source of much evil in the world as well, and those who hope to overcome that evil.  One reason I have not wanted to talk about growth with all of you, is that though I don’t think we need to grow in order to thrive, I do believe we should serve those who desperately need us, those who wish to heal the spiritual disconnection in their lives and in the world. 

I fear that we are in denial about the size we actually are, and that denial creates an unwelcoming environment for those who come seeking connection, but find no actual room for them here.

In his final sermon to this congregation, our last intern, the Rev. Greg Martin, posed some interesting questions to us all – challenging us to look beyond a single solution to the building problem.  What if we were to have branches of this church in various locations around the Greater Lansing area?  He mentioned the LCC campuses, the Hannah Center, the synagogues…  He wondered if we could remain in East Lansing AND go to Lansing…  Where is our holy land? 

Your Board of Trustees is meeting more often in this church year as we grapple with issues of identity and purpose posed by the congregation in June.  We held a congregational meeting asking people to Take A Stand – and we learned just how divided this congregation is about who we are and what is our primary purpose…..  half the people on one side of the room, and half on the other – we posed questions and asked folks to take a stand about whether or not they agreed or disagreed with a statement, and I have a powerful visual image of that meeting – with half of you standing over there and half over there….

We are not in agreement about who we are, whom we serve, and where we should be.  Instead of seeing our lack of agreement as an insurmountable obstacle, I am beginning to accept it as an exciting challenge – this is an opportunity for us to grow and mature, to get clear and purposeful,
to heal our disconnection as we seek to heal the world’s disconnection.
I saw many of you at the Pride Parade in Lansing yesterday.  What a gorgeous display of Standing on the Side of Love yellow and Grey UUCGL  t-shirts!  There are some pieces of our identity of which we are in agreement – our welcoming stance is unquestionably a part of who we are.  ‘Twas not always so, but it is now, and of that we can take great pride.
We are also in agreement about wanting to make this world a better place.  Our focus has always been on salvation in the present moment rather than in an afterlife.   Where is our paradise?  In aspiration’s sight.   We focus on this world and this moment.

Would you take a moment with me right now? 

Breathe in, and recall what it is you need like air, in order to grow and thrive and be whole?  and breathe out, noticing what is necessary to let go for your own health. 

Breathe in, accepting beauty from this world that surrounds you, and breathe out, offering your strength to a bruised and hurting world.  Breathe in peace, and breathe out love.

Ned Jackson emailed me this cartoon asking how Thich Nhat Hanh might respond to it: 

What do we want?  Mindfulness! 
When do we want it?  Now! 

Where is our holy writ?

The Church of All Sorts has a sense of humor, and a sense of humor is necessary.  A lack of humor is a sign that we’re stuck – no longer learning and growing, too serious and too caught up in our petty concerns.  When we have life in context, when we recognize our limited view of things, the world becomes a pretty funny place.  We can laugh at our foibles, our mistakes, and take risks.  I believe that in order to heal this spiritual disconnection in the world and in our lives, we must experiment and try things we have never tried before.

We intend to do just that this year in worship.  We have some new faces around here, you will be noticing in the days to come.  Julica Hermann, you already know.  She’s been a member of this church for a while, but is serving this year as my apprentice minister as she begins theological training at Meadville/Lombard Theological School.  She will be regularly seen at the 11:15 service this year, and occasionally at 9:15.   And surely you’ve noticed the man behind the piano, our new Interim Minister of Music, Kevin Tarsa.  Kevin has completed his theological education, and is with us during his year of search for a settled ministry position.  We are fortunate to have him, and he will be helping us in the search for our next Director of Music.  Frank Watkins, who has the Sunday off, will still be conducting the choir this year as he completes his graduate degree at MSU. 

Finally, next week Nic Cable will be assisting me with our annual Water Communion service.  Nic is in his final year at Chicago Theological Seminary and is our first ever George Thornton Young Adult and Campus Minister.  Longtime member, now deceased, George Thornton left money to the church for campus ministry.  Since Nic was going to be around for the next several years, we decided to spend it.  Unfortunately, the money will run out at the end of this church year, so we’ll need to raise more money if we wish to keep that position next year.

The church of all sorts will have all sorts of ministers in the next year – some in training, and some, like Kevin and me, ordained already.  It will be an exciting year.  I don’t anticipate growth in numbers this year, because I don’t know where we would put you all, but I do expect great growth in self-understanding as a congregation.  We are growing in purpose and identity, in clarity and connection.

Where is our holy church?  Yesterday, it was at the Capitol as many of us stood for gay pride.   This morning it is here and now.  Wherever we gather to fulfill the purpose of healing spiritual disconnection, that is where the church is. 

“We are a religion that see people struggling, not against our own sinful souls, but against a shallow, frantic and materialistic world that all-too-often leaves us disconnected from our deepest selves, life’s gifts and needs greater than one’s own.”

Where are we going?  Only heaven knows where we are going, but we’ll get there.  I know we will.

* Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written.  I have not edited this sermon to written form.