Online Sunday Service: Prophetic Congregations

May 10, 2020 Joint Zoom Service, UU Fellowship of Laramie/UU Community of Casper

Responsive Chalice Lighting By the Reverend Stephen Kendrick  

Our congregations freely gather to live out a democratic faith.

Every human being is holy and is called to the tasks and joys of love.

We do not limit the truth of God…but live in openness and belief in human freedom and dignity.

Our creed is kindness.

We celebrate the gift of life, and join in taking-on the sufferings of this fragile world.

We are this generation’s bearers of an eternal message, drawn from ancient springs — that truth must grow, enlarge, and glow in creative freedom.

Revelation is not sealed. It is lived anew in every heart.

And the wilderness and dry land shall be glad.

The desert shall rejoice and blossom, like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.

 Let us gather this morning to rejoice with thankfulness and joy!

Reading

And excerpt from the speech given in September 1989 by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to shocked marchers who had escaped arrest at St. George’s Cathedral after being surrounded by police and beaten with batons and whips.

Freedom is so much a part of the human makeup that it is not too far-fetched to say that an un-free human being is in a sense a contradiction in terms. The ideal society is one in which its members enjoy their freedom to be human freely, provided they do not infringe the freedom of others unduly.

We are made to have freedom of association, of expression, of movement, the freedom to choose who will rule over us and how. We are made for this…. It cannot ultimately be eradicated, this yearning for freedom to be human. This is what tyrants and unjust rulers have to contend with. They cannot, in the end, stop their victims from being human. Their unjust regimes must ultimately fall because they seek to deny something that cannot be denied.

Just show me hour hands, what are you carrying in your hands! Show me …. Your hands are empty, you’ve got nothing! Why are they so scared of empty hands? … It is important for you to know that all moral right is on your side.

Yes, you may be clobbered, as some of you have. Some are still going to be detained. Some are still going to run the gauntlet of tear gas. Some are even going to die. Did you think it was figures of speech? When we said that in a struggle there are casualties … This is real. And we have committed ourselves … to this struggle until freedom is won.

But we shouldn’t behave like those who think this prize is just a cheap little prize. The prize for which we are striving is freedom … for all of us, freedom for the those who are standing outside, freedom for them! Because, you see, when we are free … they will be here, joining with us celebrating that freedom, and not standing outside stopping us from becoming free…

Now straighten up your shoulders, come, ….  like people who are born for freedom!

Pastoral Prayer

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names

We have gathered this morning to seek comfort in the beauty of the world in which we live and in the comfort of this spiritual community.

In this our prayer, we draw upon the healing power of love as we pray for forgiveness;

For all the times we have turned away and not walked compassionately with each other;

For all the times we have not behaved humbly;

For all the times we have not feared what is terrible;

For all the times we have rested in habits which are unworthy                                    of our freedom;

For all the times we have wished for what is not good and pleasing to God;

We pray for forgiveness and for the spirt of life to live in our hearts and sustain us during times of loss and deep sadness.

And we pray with love for our elders who are still alive,

and with respect for those who live in the spirit world;

may their wisdom be sought and listened to

so the truth of the ages will inform the actions of today.

We offer this heartfelt prayer for all who have chosen to put themselves in harm’s way; may they come home undamaged from the harshness and dangers of war, returning to families and communities filled with enough love and support to last them all the days of their lives.

Spirit of Life, Source of all that is, was, and will be;

We pray for each other, especially for those who suffer from the cruelty of poverty and oppression; and that those of us who have enough, never take it for granted.

We pray for leaders who make decisions which affect people they will never see and they will never know; may they never forget their ultimate duty is to the sacred trust granted to them by the people whom they govern and that someday it will be fully realized we all are of a holy spirit.

May we find in ourselves the strength to face our adversities, the integrity to name them, and the courage to overcome them. We pray for the strength to understand and accept that which we cannot control; all the while rejoicing in life and doing the work that honors the gifts of creativity and transformation.

May our prayer this morning soothes the worries and fears caused by the pandemic making its way into every human community around the world.

We pray the courage, compassion, and ability to heal which rise and emanate from the depths of the human heart, remain strong and free-flowing so, in this moment in time, ours will be a sacred witness to the great and infinite love the human heart is capable of.

We pray for the strength to face each day with thankfulness and joy,

secure in the knowledge that what has passed was true and good and enough

and that which is to come will be peaceful and worthy and good;

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names; help us always be faithful to what we know is good and true, in this time and in all the times to come. Amyn

  • Message/Sermon: Prophetic Congregations in the Twenty-First Century

 By The Reverend Meg Riley

What relevance could the ancient word prophetic still hold for Unitarian Universalists? The term mostly bewilders us, conjuring images of wild-eyed, ranting men with long white beards holding signs proclaiming “The end is near,” foretelling apocalyptic vengeance courtesy of God the Father.

Certainly Unitarian Universalism has grown past that image. Many Unitarian Universalists would abandon the idea of the prophetic entirely. I have heard UUs speak instead of congregations that are bold, or visionary, or relevant, or vital, or justice-seeking. I like all those words, but I like prophetic more, because of its relationship to time and possibility; it draws from a place deep in our past and casts our vision around the corner into an unknown future. The word is useful when it transcends doom-and-gloom “The end is near” proclamations and instead declares, “The beginning is near!” It is useful when it calls us to create something new, even now.

This is the prophetic in the sense used by twentieth-century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, who called on us to take responsibility to see the consequences of our behavior “with the intention of making history rather than being pushed around by it.”

In this sense of prophetic, then, we might reflect on how our quirky jewel of a faith could respond to this historic moment. I have cast my lot with Unitarian Universalism not just because it is where I am called to be: I am here because, while decades of interfaith work have shown me that ours are not the only prophetic congregations, UU faith communities are some of the most creative and potentially powerful institutions in our nation. The need is great, so our understanding of the prophetic church today is an urgent matter.

Prophetic UU congregations share three central characteristics.

First, they draw from the deepest parts of Unitarian and Universalist theology, committing themselves to the wisdom of those theologies. Our work to cocreate the holy in this world is most effective when it builds on the perspectives gained by the hard experience of those who came before us. Prophetic congregations draw strength for today a through connecting to the essential insights and actions of our ancestors.

Second, prophetic congregations embody radical caring – radical in the sense of the very roots of the place  — its central mission. You sometimes hear caring, the pastoral aspect of congregations, described as the opposite of prophetic, but this dualism is false and destructive. Radical caring is both prophetic and pastoral.

Third, while drawing on our past and on caring in the present, prophetic congregations orient themselves squarely toward the future. Prophetic eyes see through the lens of hope – not hope born from naivete, or from casting our gazes away from oppression and suffering, but hope as a spiritually disciplined response to the whole, a commitment to action. Each of these three aspects deserves more explanation.

Prophetic congregations are thoroughly committed to understanding and grappling with Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist understandings of ultimate reality. Our theology is deeply incarnational: our faith and spirituality are based in earthly this-world, daily engagement with the holy. Each night a child is born is holy, we say, rather than locating holiness only in the birth of Jesus. There is a priesthood of all believers, we say, rather than salvation taking place elsewhere, after we are dead, rather salvations is found in our daily choices today, in this world. The world is not an evil, sinful place we should be lucky to leave for some pure, godly place. Come what may after our deaths, we have cast our lot with those gods and mortals committed to creating together what is holy right here in the incomprehensibly beautiful, horrifically broken, frighteningly vulnerable, miraculous place we call home.

Consider our legacy from the early Universalists. In 1803, the very first time they gathered, they affirmed that no loving God – no God worthy of their worship – would have created people in order to enslave them. They knew the living experience of a loving God, and so they rejected slavery not as a political position but as a religious affirmation. They simply stood on the side of love. Two centuries later, we struggle with the implications of that radical understanding.

To commit to creating a prophetic congregation today is to grapple with what it means to take responsibility for cocreating the holy right here on earth. This is no small demand; it is much harder than agreeing with a particular belief.

I am bewildered by those who think Unitarian Universalism is an easy faith! For us, faith is not something we own – our only real possessions, as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han says, are our actions. We believe in deeds, not creeds. We believe that God’s primary domain is here, not elsewhere, and that faith is to be known and salvation found in our daily actions, not in our proclamations about what it might be like elsewhere. That is point one.

Prophetic congregations must also be places of radical caring. A Duke University study documents that between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with whom the average American discussed ‘important matters’ dropped from three to two. Even more stunning, almost 25 percent of those surveyed said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters. The number of these folks had tripled since 1985. Also, the 2000 census revealed that 25 percent of Americans now live alone, up from 7 percent in 1940.

Given today’s cultural context, visionary churches will be places where people come into genuine, full-spirited, embodied contact with one another. We provide a healing balm when we create covenant groups, support groups, parent groups, faith development opportunities, youth groups, and other places where people can relax into real relationships with one another. Real relationships mean those that go beyond superficial or serial socializing to build authentic community.

Recently, the young people in my office insisted I join Facebook. As of this writing, I have 628 friends. I write friends with skepticism, because as much as I enjoy electronic interaction, I have never even met many of these people. Facebook is engaging enough to easily take up all my time, so that I might never sink into the much more frustrating, confounding, and rewarding conversations available only through real friendships or a covenanted partnership.

By midlife, I have figured out that every person I love is truly, deeply flawed and difficult. These people are annoying and frustrating – but they are also brilliant, beautiful, and uniquely gifted. When I was younger, I kept expecting this to change, that someday I would trade in these friends for easier ones – people who were kind and sane and purely good. Now I look in the mirror and say, “Honey, if those people existed, they would take a pass on you!”

Virtual communities cannot substitute for communion with the real.

A few years ago, I as I was l leaving for yet another business trip, I said to my three-year-old daughter, “I’ll still be here in your heart while I’m gone.” She replied, “But my heart can’t smell you, or hold your hand” At age fifty-three, the preciousness of embodiment is clearer to me that it once was. While I adore Facebook, please come lock me up if I ever confuse it with friends I can call in the middle of the night when I am consumed with terror, grief, or shame. Throw my computer out the window if I ever tell you that typing LOL (laugh out loud),, is a good substitute for sitting on the couch with a friend, howling with laughter till we cry.

Radical caring calls us to create truly inclusive congregations. Many Unitarian Universalists can name the time when, because of a deepening connection to our faith community, we were suddenly able to relax, to know that all our edges were accepted, that we did not have to choose which of our identities we could safely allow into the room. How do our congregations let people know they are in such places – especially in today’s landscape, with its variety of culture, languages, musical forms, metaphors, stories, political analyses, and other differences?

In the planes and buses and taxis that schlep me around for my job, I engage in passing conversations with a lot of people. I don’t shy away from talking about Unitarian Universalism, because I know from experience this faith saves lives. Many of those most interested in Unitarian Universalism, cross the borders of various communities. Perhaps they are Muslims married to Hindus, or Christians married to Jews. Perhaps they love someone of their own sex, but are part of a heterosexist community or culture. Perhaps they identify as transgender or multiracial.

People who cross borders perk up when they hear about our faith – this multi-metaphored place of meaning-making where we approach new frontiers and welcome new revelations each day. In my heart, I celebrate each one of these conversations, but always some amount of fear rises up as well. If my acquaintances go to a UU congregation, will they be seen as the gift they are and invited into the community of caring, or will they be ignored? Will they have yet one more experience in life that tells them there is no basket wide enough to hold them?

To be prophetic in the twenty-first century, congregations must commit to going beyond tepid, silent, ‘open door’ inclusion. They must commit to living engagement with one another, to learning about the complexities of each other’s lives, to enjoying the vitality that difference can offer. Prophetic congregations go beyond just keeping the door open – they offer genuine mutuality to all who walk through it.

            The third aspect of a prophetic congregation is a community of hope. I don’t mean optimism. There is an old joke about optimism: Two identical twins are presented on their birthday with a large room full of horse manure. The pessimist cries out “Horse manure! I should have expected this,” and he sinks to the floor and begins to weep. The optimist, though, sticks both hands in the pile and begins digging, “What do you think you are doing?” bawls the pessimist. “With all this manure,” replies the optimist, “There’s bound to be a pony in here somewhere!”

That’s optimism, not hope. A hopeful person would not pretend they had been given anything other than a room full of horse manure. But after adjusting to that dubious discovery, hope would call her to reflect on what she could do with it. She might set about converting it to biofuel, or growing a garden with it, or selling it and saving the money for a pony, or otherwise converting it to serve life’s potential.

Our congregations must be places where hope is understood as an existential choice, cultivated as a spiritual discipline, and offered through concrete forms of action. Prophetic congregations put forward multiple opportunities for existential hope to emerge from joint action – people bearing together what we cannot bear alone. Often, this begins with simple witnessing of what seems awful – with watching what gives life and what drains life, and name it in community. Then, as the Hebrew scripture tells us in Deuteronomy 30:19, it requires choosing: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”

The third element of prophetic church is choosing to act, in service of a butter future. Prophetic UU congregations are grounded in centuries-old theologies, which teach that we have the power and responsibility to cocreate what is holy. They are communities where we and others are deeply valued and mutually known. Prophetic congregations refuse to accept brokenness as a final answer, but work from realistic hope, choosing life, choosing to be a blessing.

The work that is necessary to create a prophetic congregation is never easy. We continually fall short, failing our purpose and one another multiple times. Yet unless we try to live up to our ideals, complete failure is guaranteed. At the end of my life, I want to look back and know that I gave all that I had, that my actions – my only true possession – have been gladly given and gladly received.

I want to be part of a faith that dares to dream big and to put those dreams, however incompletely realized, into action. So in case you haven’t noticed, I’m holding a sign: “The beginning is near!” As much as it ever has been or ever will be for any person of any epoch, now is the time for us to build the prophetic church.

Closing Words & Extinguish Chalice

Speak the Truth, by the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

If all you can do is light a candle,

Tell a story, or keep a promise

Just this day, one more day, every day …

Keep us strong in the struggle, bearing witness,

Seeking freedom, creating justice

Find a way, build a way, make some way …

This we pray, humbly pray, urgently pray.

Clouds of witness surround us,

Honored prophets, faithful workers, daring leaders

Speak the truth, heal the world, light the dawn …

And we journey together, in the struggle,

Make connection, find forgiveness

Through the work, through the pain, moving on …

We must build for the future peace and plenty,

Truth and justice, hope and freedom

Not oppress, or destroy …

Righteousness shines like a golden city, a mighty river,

Bringing hope, bringing peace, bringing forth joy!

In the memory of sacrifice and enduring hope – liberation!

In the dignity and worth of every soul – our salvation!

In the power of love and the human spirit – transformation!

We can change the world …