Sunday, September 22, 2013

Building on the Foundation of our Liberal Faith: Five Smooth Stones

Building on the Foundation of our Liberal Faith:  Five Smooth Stones
Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
September 22, 2013

Hear these words attributed in Matthew 7: 24-27 to that great teacher Jesus of Nazarath:

 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practce is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

May we rest in the foundation of our souls as we breathe in and out and prepare for hearing this message.

You know – Jesus was right of course. You can’t build on sand and expect your building to hold.  But sometimes there’s just not enough rock around and you have to make your own.  And that’s what folks learned to do.  When we want to build now --- we pour a concrete foundation.   We take broken stones, and gravel and sand and cement and water – and make new rocks to build upon. 

Now we are fortunate that we don’t have to do this for our new church home.  The foundation is already there – strong and sturdy.  And we are going to take that strong foundation and use that as the base for our new home.

I’m connected with this idea of foundations and concrete.  You might say I’m cemented to this idea through my own genes. Here’s a picture of two of my relatives – now deceased. 
It was probably taken in the 40’s or 50’s at a family reunion.  The man on the left is my grandfather – Theodore Roosevelt Rogers – and the man he is sitting by is his uncle John Rogers.  Both of them were CONCRETE men!  I mean literally – that’s what they did for a living.  They didn’t have a big concrete company – they did smaller jobs with those little concrete mixers – and they did all kinds of masonry work; including elaborate plastering of walls.  I don’t know WHO taught my Great, Great Uncle John to do this work --- but he taught his nephew, my granddaddy Theodore.  That’s how it was back then – no “Ogeechee Tech.”  So granddaddy was lucky to have learned a skill that could feed his family – just barely during the depression; but they survived. 

My granddaddy was a concrete man in other ways in my life too. He was a small man – sort of a David among Goliaths when it came to people doing construction – but he was strong and skillful.  I remember seeing and admiring his biceps.  And he was a quiet man and a loving man, devoted to his family.  Although he went to his adult men’s Sunday school class on Sunday – I don’t remember a lot of “God talk” from my granddaddy.  He was kind of a skeptic.  My mama told me that he didn’t believe in an afterlife – saying, “When you’re dead – you’re dead.”  I guess that also meant that “When you are ALIVE – you should be ALIVE” – and he tried his best to enjoy life – especially fishing.  He taught my son Fred to skin a catfish when Fred was just a boy – and Fred can still outskin most folks with his Great Granddaddy’s Rogers techniques.  SO – my granddad is really a part of me --- a foundation in my soul.  His quiet love for me and others is more than a firm example of how I should live my life.  It’s something I can build upon. 

Do you have some concrete – foundational folks who are a part of you?  Maybe relatives or teachers or spiritual leaders.  You got some in your head.  Say Thank You to them!

Now just as we have family members and others who have been foundational in our spiritual development, we have folks within our chosen faith of Unitarian Universalism that have been foundational in the formation of our faith tradition.  Here is one who was a contemporary of my granddaddy Rogers – although they never knew each other. 
James Luther Adams  was born in 1901 and died in 1994.  Adams was the most influential theologian among American Unitarian Universalists in the 20th century.  I never met him, but he had taught some of my professors at Meadville Lombard – and they said his ghost was walking those halls.

Adams was a great storyteller and liked to use stories, parables, and metaphors in his teaching.  He chose the story of the Five Smooth Stones to illustrate the foundations of liberalism.  As you remember in our Children’s message today – King Saul initially had David put on all his heavy armor.  But all of this weighed David down --- and he threw it off.  Likewise, many of us were weighed down with the heavy religious armor that we were handed down --- those doctrines and creeds which bound us tight and didn’t let us move and breathe freely.  And like David – many of us have thrown those to the side.  But what do we have in liberal religion to face those spiritual giants that we do have to face.  David picked up five smooth stones – and said – “This is what I need.”  Similarly, Adams shares five smooth stones that serve as the foundation for our liberal faith.  Adams’ writing is rather dense – so his students and others often translate these words into something they believe is more understandable --- and indeed, before the sermon is over – we’ll reduce them to one word each for you to remember.  But for now – I want you to see them just the way he wrote them.

1.  "Religious liberalism depends on the principle that 'revelation' is continuous."

Our religious tradition is a living tradition because we are always learning new truths.  We Unitarian Universalists LOVE to learn – and we know that we don’t know it all and that’s okay with us.  Now where is this “revelation” coming to us from if it’s continuous?  Do we just pray and it comes?  Well, that may be true for some – but most of us rely on other sources – like authorities and the scientific method.  We are always seeking the truth.  And that’s not the kind of truth that Stephen Colbert is talking about when he shares about the word truthiness.  Do you know what truthiness is?  You can look it up.

The United Church of Christ had an ad campaign that spoke to this same concept a while back from their more theistic perspective and the words they used were “God is still speaking.”  And you know--- I think I even heard something akin to that from the Pope this week.  This liberal idea of continuous revelation is spreading.

Here’s the 2nd smooth stone.
2. "All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion."

We freely choose to enter into relationship with one another.
Adams was big on what he termed Voluntary Associations.  These were the institutions he felt could make a difference – where folks came together freely for some bigger purpose – like we are doing here today.  Adams said that "Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human." And we do it together, in relationship.  We do it together – in love! 

Now some folks think that because we don’t believe in coercing folks to join us, that we should not evangelize.  Well, to evangelize does not mean to coerce – it means sharing your good news – and that we SHOULD do.  This is not your Aunt May’s secret recipe that only the family gets to see.  Of course, Unitarian Universalism is not for everyone – but there are many folks who could find a home with us and need this liberal religious home – but don’t know about us. 

I was sharing with one of you earlier this week that this is especially important in a conservative area – where it SEEMS that everyone follows Fox News and joins the Tea Party.  But it’s not so.  There are liberal folks in the Statesboro area who want to make a difference in this community.  And joining our congregation is the best way I know to do that. 

Here’s the third smooth stone:
3. "Religious liberalism affirms the moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is this which makes the role of the prophet central and indispensable in liberalism."

Now I don’t go around telling everybody this – because the word has different connotations for many folks.  But I strive to be a prophet in this community.  That does not mean that I’m setting up a tent to tell fortunes or your future.  But I DO believe that I have a moral obligation to call out the truth – like prophets of old; especially when I see injustice and oppression.  That’s the main reason I decided to go to seminary and become a minister; to better prepare myself to prophesy!  But Adams says – and I agree – that ALL of you should be prophets.  We ALL -- as liberal religious folks – have the moral obligation to establish a just and loving community.  Now for some of you, that means speaking out, or writing letters to the editor  – for others it means teaching our children, and for others it means GIVING your time, talents, and money to this congregation which is attempting to be a vehicle for positive change. 

Our GIFTS and our willingness to GIVE are part of our foundation. (Hint – to turn in your pledge cards.)

What’s the fourth stone?
Adams says:
4. "We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation."

He’s talking about:  Agency: Good things don't just happen, people make them happen.

Our children say we are Unitarian Universalists:  people of open minds, loving hearts, AND helping hands.  It’s that helping hands part that this stone represents.  That was evident this past week as many of you assisted in preparing food and serving folks at Rebecca’s CafĂ©.  Over a hundred folks got a good meal and good fellowship because of your efforts.  And that may have made a huge difference for some folks.  And there are other ways we work in the world as well --- individually and as a congregation. 

Some folks say that “We are God’s hands.”  Well regardless or your own theology – I think you’ll have to agree that we have to do the work.  And work is a good thing!

And finally – that Fifth Stone.  Adams say:
5. "Liberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism."

He says – we got good reason to HOPE.

Even in places like Statesboro – change is a ‘comin.  In fact – we have made progress folks.  It’s easier for me to see the progress, because I’m looking over a LONG time frame – since the 50’s.  But we’re getting there.  Now as we work toward that progress, we have to do it as a dance, which means sometimes we are moving backward and sometimes forward; but stay on the dance floor.

I worry so about our political system and the lack of progress in Congress, but there is even hope there; and even hope in the Middle East.  You notice that Adams’ optimism isn’t a Pollyanna kind of optimism though. He says that the resources – divine and human -- are available for meaningful change. So the possibilities are there; and we have to be the agents of that change.

In his essay entitled, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Howard Zinn writes:  “There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.”

It can happen.  I remember when I first began working for marriage equality – and I thought – this probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but I’m going to work with others for it and perhaps make it easier for those who follow to get there.  But I’m still here – and it’s happening.  Maybe not in Georgia – but it is happening; Same Gender couples are getting legally married every day in America and our nation is recognizing those marriages. 

Our Unitarian Universalists have long loved that song with words taken from prophets of old that says, “We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken.  We’ll build a land where the captives go free, where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning, Oh we’ll build a promised land that can be. 

And folks we have the foundation we need to do it.

Here are those five stones in five verbs for you to remember!  I have these verbs written on the stones on the altar.  They are:


May it be so!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Building Our Church; Building Our Faith

Introduction to reading:
Our reading this morning comes from Hebrew Scripture --- 1st Chronicles. In the 28th chapter, King David shares with his son Solomon the plans for the temple --- the temple he himself was not allowed to build because of great wars on every side.  But now – in a time of peace, his son Solomon had been chosen to carry out this wondrous and difficult task.   In the parts that I’m reading from chapter 29, the author of Chronicles writes about a message that King David is delivering to a great assembly of all of the leaders in his kingdom.   After sharing with them the plans for this great building – the temple -- he talks a little about the resources that will be needed.  This reading is taken from Chapter 29. 

READING:  1st Chronicles 29:  1-1; 6-9.
Then King David said to the whole assembly: “My son Solomon, the one whom God has chosen, is young and inexperienced. The task is great, because this structure is not for man but for the LORD God. With all my resources (as King) I have provided for the temple of my God…(long list of treasures).  Besides, in my devotion to the temple of my God I now give my personal treasures of gold and silver for the temple of my God, over and above everything I have provided (as king) for this holy temple: Now, who is willing to consecrate themselves to the LORD today?”
Then the leaders of families, the officers of the tribes of Israel, the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, and the officials in charge of the king’s work gave willingly. They gave toward the work on the temple of God five thousand talents and ten thousand darics of gold, ten thousand talents of silver, eighteen thousand talents of bronze and a hundred thousand talents of iron. Anyone who had precious stones gave them to the treasury of the temple of the LORD in the custody of Jehiel the Gershonite. The people rejoiced at the willing response of their leaders, for they had given freely and wholeheartedly to the LORD. David the king also rejoiced greatly.

Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro

How many of you have been involved with building a house before?
How many of you would do it again?

I’ve been involved with building three of them – the first when I was just 22.  Now I know that’s way too young – but I was rushing through life.  I’d already been married five years, completed my Bachelor’s, was working on a Masters – teaching school at Sallie Zetterower and was pregnant with my first child.  My then husband Fred – now called Fred Ex – and I were living in a one room efficiency that we had shared since we married and we needed more room.  We decided rather than renting or buying a home, we would build our forever home on the piece of property where my dad’s land joined his dad’s land.  We found it on a map, walked over to it and decided that since our two family properties joined there – well it must be God’s will that we build a home there.  Of course there was not ROAD back to this piece of property.  But, my mom and dad remedied that by designing a little subdivision on that edge of his property which included a road that was deeded to the county.  That’s the road that is currently across the pond dam from the house I live in now.  We got on the list for William Powell to build it – since he was about the best builder in town at the time.  His estimate was within our range – especially since we were getting the lot free.  The house was nearly complete by the time Fred III was born.  There was one big problem though.  We couldn’t afford it.  You see – our contractor was doing this on a “cost plus percentage” basis --- and while we were building, lumber prices skyrocketed.  Plus we had added some features along the way that were not in the original budget – but weren’t that much – you know, just  for $5 more each we could have much nicer light fixtures) -- yet they added up, of course.  Plus, I had quit my job to stay at home with my baby – which was “the thing to do” at the time.  And even though Fred was working two jobs – as a teacher and a Holiday Inn desk clerk – we just couldn’t afford the monthly payments.  SO – we reluctantly decided we were in over our heads, sold the home, and moved into a small apartment. 

After living there a few years – and with two sons -  we decided to give this building this another try.  But we were going to do it right this time.  We would get a contract price from a builder so we would KNOW the final cost.  And yes, we could afford this one --- which was on another lot in that same subdivision. Of course we found out why it was so much cheaper.  The quality of the workmanship was SO shoddy.  I mean if I put a pencil down on the counter --- when I started to pick it up it had rolled down the counter because it wasn’t level.   And the lot was chose was actually too low, so that we always seem to be having septic tank problems when it was rainy.   We had decided to move to Starkville Mississippi for a year to work on our doctorates – and decided that we might as well try to SELL that house which was such a disappointment for us.  And we did!  That builder – by the way – left Statesboro shortly after that – and after getting in trouble with a lot of ethical problems. 

Now - my brother had called “dibs” on the lot where I live now.  But his wife did not want to live “back in the woods” where no one could see their new home.  So when he told my dad that he would instead like to build ON Country Club Rd --- I immediately laid claim to the beautiful lot I’m now living on – or Paradise South – as Greg calls it.  I promised my dad and myself that this would be the LAST house I built.  My sister in law Nancy Page had recently built a home and used a reasonable contractor.  But she said the reason her house really turned out well was because she was over there every day in the middle of it.  We were going to be away at school, but my mom said she could play that role for us – and she did, making sure everything was A-okay.  She followed those builders around pointing out every little possible problem.  And then after they would leave at night she would come back over with her caulk gun and caulk up any cracks she could find.  Our house is air tight.  It’s tighter than Myley Cyrus’s VMA awards pants.  That was 1978, and I’m still living there and loving it.

So what were some of the lessons I learned?
There were lots of them, of course --- but the main thing I learned is that you have to HAVE the resources for building your home or have a reasonable plan for making sure that happens – and you have to MANAGE those resources well as you build and maintain your home. 

Now – this congregation has been making good efforts for resource acquisition, allocation, and management for our new church facility.  We’re fortunate to have the gifts of land and building; a savings of $40,000 that was achieved by those who came before many of you – and was allocated for a new facility – and hopefully the opportunity to sell this current facility; also paid for by many who came before and many who are still with us.  We have also written a MOST EXCELLENT Chalice Lighter Grant which will hopefully bring us new resources.  And of course, we have the wondrous gift of a general contractor – Matt Dowling – providing his services as a gift in-kind.  We’re doing this right!  And if all goes as planned, we won’t need additional resources from you for our new facility. 

But we want to build MORE than building.  We want to build our congregation – and build our faith, our personal faith, our congregational faith, and Unitarian Universalism.  That’s why my theme for sermons this year is “Building Our Church; Building Our Faith.”  And I’m using the building metaphor as we progress on both our physical facility and our building our faith.

And today --- I’m taking those lessons learned from my mistakes and successes – and knowing that we have to have some focus on the sources and resources for building our faith. 
Ah, yes – this is indeed our annual canvass sermon – when we encourage you to consider your gifts of time, talents, and treasure for the following year.  And I stand here in front of this assembly as David did in ancient times to voice that encouragement. 

Now as a religious naturalist – I certainly don’t take the Bible as a firm authority – nor any other religious text.  I do read these texts though – and filter them through my pragmatic lens to see if there are teachings that can help me live a better life and help others to live a better life.  After David’s encouragement for resources – and the people’s giving of them that we heard about in our reading today, he shares a prayer of praise and Thanksgiving.  And there is something in that prayer that struck a chord with me.  I’ll read the passage first then share how it can harmonize with us today.  David prays:  “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you.”

Now you may wonder how someone who is not a theist identifies with that.  Well, it reminds me of something my Mama told me the other day.  We were talking about trying to stay healthy and she said --- well, I figure I’ve got to try to take care of my body because it’s the only thing that is really mine.  All of this other stuff – comes and goes.  I may have it later or I may not.  I may leave it to you all and you may keep it or not.  It’s not really ours anyway.  We just have use of it for a while – and try to do the best we can with it.  And I thought – yeah, she’s right.  It all belongs to the Universe folks.  We are just stewards of whatever comes into what we term “our possession.”  But it’s not really ours – anymore than this air above me is mine.  But we sure do use it and sometimes abuse it.  While we are stewards of these sources and resources though – it IS our decision about how we use them – or abuse them.

And I believe – one of the best things we can do with our time, talents, and treasures we have is to SHARE them.  For example, I’m so blessed to live in a beautiful place – so I try to share with all of you and really want you to come out Friday night and enjoy this space with us.  And I really believe that the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro is doing wondrous things and has an awesome future to do more for our children and youth, our members and friends, our community, and through our association with others – the World.  But we do need your gifts to make it happen.
You may say – “well, with all that seems to happen in my life, there’s just not enough LEFT to give to church.”  Well, if you are giving what’s leftover, that’s part of the problem.  Here’s where I find another good lesson that works for me in the scriptures.

There are 72 Bible verses about giving of the first fruits.  Now there are lots of interpretations of what this means and how it should be done.  Now pardon me from getting personal here – but I’m just going to tell you how I personally do this “first fruits” thing.  But from my pragmatic perspective, I like to think of it as giving to the important stuff FIRST – right after the harvest --- not seeing what’s leftover.  Now I don’t farm --- but I get a pay check each month.  Actually I get two, the one our treasurer Bill Herring sends to me for showing up and working here – and the one Georgia Southern sends me for NOT showing up and working out there.  And I’ve got my bank account set up so that when that money goes in --- before anything else goes out – a check for $600 each month is sent to this congregation. And that’s just my gift.  Greg gives separately and generously as well.  I also have other first fruits gifts I share with other organizations like the UU service committee each month.   I don’t have to see if I have enough LEFT to give at the END of the month, because I’ve followed that principle of first fruits.  And it just makes my life and my bookkeeping easier.  I’m not asking you to match my gift.  I’m in a very blessed position and I live a simple life so I can do this.  But I think that if most folks followed that principle of first fruits, you’d find it a lot easier to give more from a spirit of abundance rather than a spirit of scarcity. 

This congregation knows something about the spirit of abundance and generosity.  You all are enjoying the service in this beautiful building today because a small group of hardy souls pushed their own limits of giving with faith in the possibilities of the future.  And aren't we all so grateful.  And others of you – including Happy Hicks who left money in her will for the purpose of getting a minister – gave so that you could have a minister. We’ve had our ups and downs financially, especially now as some of our more generous givers have moved away.  We’ve had to make some serious cuts in our operational budget.  I moved from ¾ time back to half time and we no longer have a part time administrator.  But your gifts have continued and make it possible for us to do some pretty incredible things!  Hopefully, we don’t do these things from a spirit of scarcity and anxiety.  Oh, we sometimes fall back into that place.  And with an unpredictable economy, it’s a little easier to catch ourselves moving in that direction.  In today’s world, we too often allow fear to control how we live and how we give. 

But you know, we all have plenty and then some of SOME things – if not money, then perhaps other resources; our time, our talents, our hugs, our smiles, and our words of encouragement.  And I have found that I even have more MONEY to give when I adopt a lifestyle of living a little more simply.  And living more simply helps me to have more money to support the kinds of things (like the Farmer’s Market) that are important to me.  It’s another way that I can be a good steward of the resources that I have.  And that nurtures my soul, spins my zen…it makes me happy and joyful!  But as much as I like being happy, that should not be the reason for my giving.  I’m reminded of these inspiring words of Kahil Gibran in his book The Prophet. 

“There are those who give little of the much which they have - and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.
And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.”

That line is worth repeating:  “They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.”

The myrtle gives its fragrance naturally and freely.

Oh may WE give as the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.

We breathe so that our bodies may live.  We give so that our souls may live.

May it be so!