The Question Box Sermon 2010

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The Question Box Sermon

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly
Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green
February 7, 2010

This service is offered to give members of the congregation a chance to get answers to questions that may have arisen during my first year of ministry to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green.

Q. 1: Why do you choose to wear religious vestments?

This might have been the most unexpected question I was asked. In Boston, in Massachusetts, in the New England churches, almost without exception, ministers wear religious vestments while leading a worship service or while preaching. Also while at officiating at a wedding. Also while leading a memorial service. Very few wear vestments while visiting those who are sick and in hospital, though that, too, is a function of ministry. Some wear the collar or have worn the collar: very few Unitarian Universalist ministers do now.

The vestments in this case refer to the robe (called a pulpit robe or preaching robe or Geneva gown) and the stole. The robe is an “ecclesiastical garment customarily worn by ordained ministers in the Christian churches that grew out of the historic Protestant Reformation”: the Wikipedia definition is as good as anyone’s. The Catholic vestments include a cassock. The Protestant tradition has discarded that, but the double bell sleeves with cuffs are meant to mimic the cassock. It is meant to be simple and dignified and to convey the “authority and solemn duty of the ordained ministry.” (Wikipedia, again.)

The stole is a fairly long scarf that is worn over the left shoulder by deacons and over both shoulders by ministers, priests, and bishops while officiating at the worship service.

There is a tradition of wearing the robe and the stole. Before it was a Unitarian tradition or a Universalist tradition, it was a Puritan tradition. We honor the Puritans by honoring the robe. We don’t share the vision of God that the Pilgrims embraced. Our theologies have grown in response to the Puritan tradition, not in its path. We do honor the human impulse to be religiously free that the Leiden Pilgrims struggled for and achieved. Free to express convictions. Responsible enough to form convictions.

Q. 2: What is your theme for the year?

The primary question for me and the church, this year, as I see it, is “Do we have a future together?”

Do we share values across a broad enough spectrum and on a deep enough level that we can work productively together? I think we do.

Are we serious about our joint venture to provide a rich, growing and nurturing environment for our shared spiritual growth? I am and I believe you are.

Do we share the belief that church-building is a valuable enough thing that we encourage our friends and associates to join the venture? I hope so.

Do we have a message that resonates? There are plenty of indications that we do, but this is a work in progress.

Will we feed each others’ souls? I have felt myself grow here in part because of my seminary training, in part because of the relationships we have built here together, in part in response to the challenges you have offered me. Have you grown in your spiritual development? Are we coming together as a vibrant spiritual community even more than we have been before? Those are the questions you need to answer for yourselves in your “Question Box Sermon.”

First-year ministers are told that their primary role during this time of transition is to work on relationship-building. This means, of course, to relate in an authentic way to members and friends of the church, to other ministers in town, to colleagues in the cluster and the district, and to other folks in town who are doing meaningful work on the issues we care about.

I hope and believe that we have done good work together in forging relationships of trust and respect, affection and mutual responsibility. I hope that our progress in this area has not been “work” so much as a response to our heart’s desire: we want a well-functioning spiritual community; and there is a natural response to persons we feel an affinity with.

There have been other themes to explore.

In my first two sermons I spoke about form and dynamics. This is another theme I have tried to develop. I see the world as expressing itself in terms of dynamics seeking form, rather than form that needs to be enlivened by dynamics. The orthodox faiths are characterized by their emphasis on form, by which I mean, for example, an unchanging order of service, an emphasis on ritual, Scripture readings from the lectionary text, week after week, liturgical year after liturgical year. Some people find this predictability to be reassuring; others find it to be too confining.

My personal impulse is to honor dynamics over form. I find that it is the nature of living things to come to life and that that coming to life is exciting and invigorating. I honor dynamics and seek to find a form adequate to express the dynamic in a creative way that stimulates a desire for action, honoring the impulse of life coming to life. The meaning of our experience emerges from the creative interplay of dynamics and form.

In my sermon on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., I introduced the term “dialectic” and the idea of “living the dialectic.” This is an abstract term that has several meanings. When I advocate “living the dialectic,” I am talking about understanding that things that seem to be in opposition can be enlivened by their interaction.

We live in a secular world all the days of our lives, but as members of a church, we challenge secular values. We live in a society where competition is highly honored, where it is assumed that we are competing for jobs, money, resources and opportunities. We also know that it is in cooperation that we build healthy communities. Living in the dialectic means to bring the values we hold sacred into the secular world and interacting with secular values, stimulating that part of the world in which we interact as it stimulates and attempts to change us.

Q. 3 What is the secular meaning of “religion” and “theology”?

The dictionary is nothing if not a secular document. The secular meanings of those terms, literally, are their dictionary meanings. Here are some:

Religion:

  • “A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional or ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”
  • “A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.”
  • “A strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny.”
  • “An institution to express belief in a divine power.”

Theology:

  • “The field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God’s attributes and relations to the universe; study of divine things or religious truth; divinity.”
  • “The rational and systematic study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truth.”
  • “The study and commentary on the existence and attributes of a god or gods, and of how that god or those gods relate to the world and, especially, to human existence and religious thought.”
  • “The study of religious faith, practice and experience or of spirituality”

It may be, though, that the questioner had another issue in mind: “What is the secular function of religion and theology? How do they influence the development of societies and cultures?” These questions are too broad to be given sufficient answer here and deserve a sermon of their own. Gary Dorrien’s Soul in Society addresses these issues as does the entire social gospel movement that Jan has spoken to you about. Liberal seminaries teach whole courses about the sociology of religion. I’m sure we will be investigating these issues in the months to come.

Q. 4: What do you think about our tradition of “discussion periods” following the morning’s talk or sermon?

This is a question that has come up in various forums during the year. I think we’ve spoken about it at Sunday Service Committee meetings. I know that after certain services it has come up. In social situations when the talk turns to “church talk,” it has come up.

When I spoke to you during my candidating week, I said that I honored your tradition of the discussion period because it challenges the notion that all the authority or all the knowledge or all the wisdom resides in the pulpit, the voice that comes from the front of the church. I still hold to that, but I have had some experiences that get me wondering if discussion periods are always a good thing.

In September, I spoke about “our food and how it gets that way;” six weeks later, I spoke about “Food for the Body, Food for the Soul.” Both of these sermons provoked much productive discussion that made a difference in the choices that many of us made about the food we eat and the way that we get that food. These were valuable discussion periods. Last month, we spoke about “The Spiritual Dimension of Political Leadership.” This also led to a good and productive period of discussion. Sometimes the discussion is the greatest benefit of the service.

Still, there is a difference between a “talk” that is meant to be informative and thought-provoking and a sermon which is meant to be those things, too, but also inspiring sometimes or promoting reflection and self-examination at other times. A good sermon should be seen as a work of art and should be experienced that way. Not all our works of art are masterpieces, but ministers aspire to create a Sunday morning experience which lifts the spirit or moves the soul or stirs the heart.

So, you spend your week meditating on a theme. You do your research and you write your sermon. (Raymond Chandler says that “Writing is easy. You just sit down at your typewriter and open a vein.”) You do your best to create a work of art that you hope will touch and move and provoke and stimulate your congregation and you end with a flourish. A discussion period ensues.

And someone expands upon a minor point that has only academic significance and you feel the air seep out of the room and the thing you’ve worked so hard to create is like a hot air balloon that’s developed a slow leak. That’s really discouraging for the minister, and I have to believe that it disappoints the congregation, as well. Sometimes the discussion points feel like footnotes, and footnotes are not known for their inspirational quality.

Some churches have a discussion period which immediately follows the sermon. Folks who relish discussion have a meeting room, someone facilitates and there is time to chew things over, reflect and argue points. That may be a solution. Or it may be that some weeks we include discussion if it seems appropriate to the topic and sometimes we do without discussion.

Q. 5: Dear Peter, When does the theological diversity that characterizes our congregation serve to cause disunity rather than unity? Signed, Scattered

Dear Scattered:

Ours is a non-creedal church, it is true. It has not been my experience that our theological diversity has caused disunity, though. I am not aware of any ruptures that have occurred as a result of our theological diversity. The deeper question, I guess, is does this diversity weaken us as a spiritual community or as a force working for change within the larger community?

When the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism were first adopted, they were controversial; there were those who saw this attempt to give the denomination a kind of theological and programmatic coherence as taking away from our treasured tradition of congregational polity. Personally, I was delighted to find in Unitarian Universalism a set of principles that seemed to echo my own. By the time that I discovered this religious tradition twenty years ago, I had just about given up hope that there was a spiritual home for me, so I was delighted.

As religious seekers, I believe that we are called upon to do two things: the first is to find something that binds us together in community. These things should serve to do that: the Seven Principles; our church’s mission statement; our church’s evolving sense of its vision; our statement of covenant; and the bonds we form through our experience with one another week after week in attending worship services, committee meetings and church events.

The second thing that we are called upon to do is to develop a mature faith life. Our adult education offerings are essential in providing the opportunities for each of us to learn what we believe, what motivates us, what fuels our passions, what gives us our sense of purpose and meaning.

If we take seriously the responsibility to articulate our faith, our theological diversity will do what we hope it will do: energize our own sense of self and place in the universe. It is a prime example of what I mean by living in the dialectic: the creative interchange of opinion and experience that characterizes our interaction.

Q. 6: What is the best charge you can give the congregation in order to push forward the mission of the church? Why?

When we meet on May 23 (mark your calendars) for my installation as your minister, we will, by tradition and purpose, exchange charges. The church, as a body, will formulate a charge to me as your minister to push forward the mission of the church and I will issue a similar charge to you. In the fullness of time, I expect each of us to formulate a charge that is appropriate for our circumstance.

For now, I offer you this, as my initial formulation: I charge us to complete what we begin, whether it be a new building on our campus or the capital campaign that pays for the cost of that building or a stewardship campaign that supports the fulfillment of our mission. And I charge us to be good stewards of our resources: spiritual, physical, financial, and communal.

Why? Because this is what is necessary to be a good, healthy, well-functioning church.

Q. 7: What are the three biggest “culture shocks” you’ve had to adjust to in your transition from Boston to Bowling Green?

This is a question that I am asked often in various forms. My first answer is the surprise that there has not been that much of an adjustment. I spent nine months traveling through Europe in 1980 and five months in Israel in 1981. There were plenty of experiences of cultural differences during those times, things that shook up my settled perceptions of things and allowed me to see that there is a bigger world than what we experience daily as Americans in North America.

Here, everyone speaks English, the monetary system is the same and the cultural patterns differ in ways far subtler than in Europe or on other continents.

My second answer is that there seems to be more homogeneity. I am not a lover of malls or strip malls or chain restaurants, especially, and so I look for examples of the unique which are harder to find here than in Boston and Cambridge which, to be fair, I lived in for most of my life, so I know the nooks and crannies.

Here, I find the historic downtown to be interesting. Greener Groundz is the kind of place that feeds my spirit. And in your homes where I have been made to feel welcome and have truly felt at home.

The third thing has been the pace of life. On Friday, as I waited in the parking lot of the L&N Depot to make my way through the rain to Macy’s used book sale, I and my car sat and sat and sat, waiting for cars (that seems to be suffering no obstructions) to move, please, can you just pick up the pace a bit– Can you just MOVE IT, PLEASE?

Yes, it is an adjustment for this Northern city boy to come to terms with the Southern pace of life. And yes, people are friendlier here– by a good deal. But I would not call that a “culture shock” so much as a cultural benefit.

Q. 8: Why don’t we have a hunting club?

That’s a great question. I think we should have a hunting club. I’m sure it would be the only UU hunting club in the denomination. I don’t think even the conservative churches in town have hunting clubs. And in true UU fashion, the first rule should be “No Hunting.” Cameras only. Yes, a hunting club is a great idea. Here is the sign-up sheet. Please see Susan Ammons to sign up.

Thank you for your attention. And now: the Discussion Period.

Sources

  • Wikipedia: “vestments;” “liturgical stole;” “cassock;” “religion;” “theology”
  • Dictionary.com: “religion;” “theology”
  • The Free Dictionary: “religion”

 

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