Well, my sabbatical is almost three months ago now, and I am still processing my experience. The following is my first sermon to present some of my reflections. It was presented on Sunday June 10th. There will undoubtedly be more to follow.
“The Age of Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06X5HYynP5E&feature=related
“Easy to be hard” by Three Dog Night. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCMyd8kuZvc
Children’s Story “Clouds” by Arnold Lobel
Reading “Footpath” by Nancy Shaffer.
Every fall, I offer a preaching class, and our first class is filled with excitement and fear! Everyone hopes that their sermon will be like the Age of Aquarius breaking through, and everyone is equally afraid that their sermon will crash and burn!
One of the most common things I hear, is the anxious comment, “ I have to figure out what I want to preach on,” and my answer is often surprising. I tell them that it’s not about what they want to say, because the sermon is not about them. The purpose of a sermon is to speak what our people need to hear so that we are inspired to live the mission and vision of Unitarian Universalism, which is that a free faith committed to love and responsibility saves lives and changes the world.
“Who are your people?” I ask them. “What are their growth edges, the yearnings, the taboos, the places they need to go to be faithful to our Unitarian Universalist values? Know your people and speak the truth in a way that can be heard.”
I am always struck by how focused the class is about how you are going to hear them. What if you find them uninspiring, or just plain wrong? What if they dare you and you don’t want to be dared? What if they make themselves all vulnerable and are then judged for what they say? I tell them that your reaction is not their responsibility. They have to do the best they can, and the rest is up to you. I urge them to dare you, to take risks, even at the risk of failure. Sometimes they should even be uncomfortable with their own words! Preaching is not for the faint of heart!
And that’s the first class!
Sometimes I find myself wondering, what am I afraid to say, and who am I afraid to preach to? Is it you? Actually no. I’ve been preaching to you for 7 years. We have built trust and time and relationship. The people I’m scared to preach to? Other ministers. We are the hardest audience to please because everyone’s an expert. We have made friends with the footpath of worship. In fact, we often feel like we belong to its tradition more than it belongs to us. Once you create worship for a living everything changes. You’ll sit there and think, “Oh, I would have done that differently.” Or, “Why did they choose that hymn?” Or, “Where can I get that reading?” It’s very easy to be hard and cold and proud and easy to say no.
It’s also true that most ministers are starved for worship. We don’t get to worship very often because we are creating worship for others. By the time we gather for meetings the well is often pretty dry and we bring with us incredibly high expectations and needs. The combination of that critical eye and the tremendous need means that it is virtually impossible to meet our expectations. That’s why I am afraid of preaching in front of ministers, because I know how empty and needy and critical I can be.
When I began my sabbatical, I wondered how I might engage this pattern in me. Could I find a way to turn off that critical eye and learn to just be in worship again, or, was I called to accept that I had changed and needed to change my expectations?
In Buddhism, there is this concept called non-attachment. Being attached to our needs and wants is seen as the root of suffering because you yearn for what is not, or what might be, instead of accepting what is. So, maybe my sabbatical goal shouldn’t be to try to get my worshipping needs met or to try to turn back the clock to some earlier pre-minister version of me. That was a form of attachment and would only bring me suffering. Maybe I needed to learn compassion for myself and compassion for the many preachers I have criticized and will criticize.
I can remember distinctly the first Sunday morning of my Sabbatical. My partner and I had gone to Springfield Missouri to visit family, and I decided to attend the Unitarian Universalist Church. I love this church. This was the first UU church I attended when I moved to the U.S., and I was so lonely and in so much culture shock, and the good people of Springfield UU took me and gave me a home. But I never liked their worship services! To be honest, they were lay-led when I first started attending 10 years ago. I hadn’t been back in a long time, and now they have a minister who I consider a friend, so maybe things have changed. But back then, their services just didn’t fit the way I like to worship. Every time I attended Springfield UU, I left critical and frustrated. But I also knew that I loved the people. There are so many good people there and their intentions are so good! So this time, I decided to try non-attachment. The worship was going to be what it was going to be, and if I wanted to see those kind people, I had to go with different expectations. Well, someone recognized me as soon as I walked in the door. It was so nice to be welcomed, and word got around that I was there! Truth be told, the worship service didn’t do much for me, but the service wasn’t for me. It was for the people who choose this as their congregation. What I did get was time to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in a long time. I got so many hugs and people were so happy to see me. So I didn’t get a great worship service but I got to reconnect with old acquaintances. I had a fabulous Sunday morning!
In the next three months I went to 4 more Unitarian Universalist services, 2 United Church of Christ services, and then Reconstructionist Jewish, Missouri Synod Lutheran, Metropolitan Community Church, Roman Catholic, Mennonite Brethren, non-Denominational Protestant, and I visited two Hindu Temples. I went to small churches and really big churches, traditional and contemporary services, services where the minister robed, or wore a clerical collar, or dressed casually. I sang hymns led by amateur musicians and professional musicians. I went to services where the language wasn’t English and I didn’t understand a thing, and I went to services that were in English, and I didn’t understand a thing!
On a Saturday night I walked into the Warehouse Worship Space at St. John Lutheran about 1 mile from here. The space was packed, it was multigenerational, it was high tech with big video screens and a professional praise band. The first hymn was all about being loved by Jesus. “Jesus loves me, he knows me, he sees me. Jesus is always there.” That kind of stuff. Now let me be clear, I’m a big fan of the teachings of Jesus. I preach about Jesus frequently, and often in a way that will push the buttons of many UUs. But I don’t worship Jesus. Jesus is not God for me.
As I sang words that I can’t feel in my heart, I started to get judgmental, and I thought to myself, “Open to the deeper meaning Krista. This is the part of the service where they tell you that you matter, that you’re not invisible, and that you are deeply known.” As UUs we would simply say, “You have worth and value and you are known and treasured.” As orthodox Christians, they have to say it in their theological language. Their way of saying you matter is that Jesus knows everything in your heart and loves you. The need is the same regardless of the language.
Then the minister talked about being vigilant because the devil is always waiting for his chance, and again I started to get judgmental. “Great,” I thought. “Here comes the guilt trip.” But then I thought about how I often ask you to be vigilant, to not become numb to the plight of the powerless and downtrodden. Both of us, the Lutheran minister and me, ask our people to see evil and to make a choice not to let it in your life. The Lutheran minister asked his people to stay awake to the possible danger in their own hearts, and I ask you to stay awake to the possible numbness in yours. I am reminded of our children’s story. The cloud can be castle or a flower or a cat, but it’s still a cloud. As ministers, we ask our people to search their hearts. We ask you to look for different things, but the search is still there.
Faith Church St. Louis, a mega church in Sunset Hills, is the only place I got a hug from a stranger. This young mother put down her toddler when the minister asked us to greet each other, hugged me and said with a big smile, “Thanks for being here. God bless you!” Then we sang “Our God is greater and higher and stronger than any other God and there is nothing that he can’t do, so praise God,” and I started to feel judgmental again, but then I reminded myself of that wonderful hug I got, and I saw the smile on the face of that young mother as she sang, I thought to myself, “Stay open Krista. Find the good intention. This is the part of the service where they hold out something to trust in that is bigger than we are. Bigger than our thoughts and our bodies and our daily struggles and suburbs we live in that all look the same and all the ways that we don’t feel like we are enough to meet the challenges of our world.” I thought about how awesome our hymn singing can be here, how our unified voices are bigger than any one of us. I thought about the unison affirmation that we say every Sunday, how our values are bigger than any one person, and even when we are being our most rational and reason-based, we still need something to trust in.
When 500 women, men and children filed to the front at the Catholic parish, St. Claire of Assisi, to receive the Eucharist, I thought about how we line up for stones of joys and concerns. Each ritual – Unitarian Universalist and Catholic – takes us out of our seats and up before the central symbol of our faith – for us the Chalice, for them the Eucharist. As UUs we take something and give something – a stone. Catholics offer their outstretched palms to receive the bread. Both rituals emphasize that faith is connected to our bodies. We are supposed to internalize our values, let them melt into our bodies as the Eucharistic wafer melts on the tongues of the faithful.
At almost every service people took notes. At the Jewish service the Rabbi provided copies of rabbinic teachings on the Torah reading and people wrote their thoughts in the margins. In Christian churches with orders of service, many scribbled notes in every available corner. Some churches provided notepaper and pens. At one service a woman pulled out her Worship Journal when the sermon started. She didn’t want to forget anything. In every congregation, there were those hoping to be changed, to be made whole, to heal, to find joy, and to find forgiveness.
I saw ministers make all kinds of different choices. Some ministers took the safe expected path. I saw other ministers putting their reputations on the line because they were so compelled to speak truth to justice. Some ministers spoke so those who were meant to hear could hear, and the rest remained blissfully unaware. Sometimes people all around me were nodding in agreement and I had no idea what they were agreeing with.
I experienced sermons that warmed my heart and pushed at my assumptions, and sermons that deeply unsettled me, that reminded me of all the things that are hardest about living in Bible Belt Middle America. I sang words I liked, words I didn’t agree with and words I felt indifferent about. Sometimes I felt like not singing. It felt so tempting to be hard and cold and to say no, but then I reminded myself that as Unitarian Universalists we are committed to respect for all people, and so I kept singing those offensive lyrics as a way to offer the respect I would want for my own tradition.
Shifting into a place of non-attachment helped me to accept my ever-critical eye and that bottomless well of need; it freed me to see more clearly the places where I sat and the people who I sat with and the words that I heard and the music that I sang. And isn’t this what we commit ourselves to as Unitarian Universalists, to be open to our world? We may not agree with some of what we see, but isn’t it our responsibility to try to understand, with compassion and generosity, what is inside those we disagree with, and to keep loving them?
At every worship service I stood on a footpath that has been trodden by millions. The weight of their feet, step by step, created what was before me. Even in the most uncomfortable worship service, I tried to see the work of art created of good intentions, born of the longings of generations.
The best worship services meet people where they are at and invite them to a new place. The best worship services make our whole lives feel holy, a place where the divine is silently and sometimes not so silently at work. Sometimes I couldn’t feel that holiness while the people around me were filled with it. Sometimes I got a glimpse of it, a little bit of that Age of Aquarius broke open in me.
In every worship service, I thought about you, and I missed you. I thought about how generously you sent me off on this sabbatical, wishing the best for me. I thought about what I knew of your deepest needs, your longings, the taboos you’d rather I not speak, the envelopes that need to be pushed, the hearts that need to be mended, the souls that are crying out for hope. Sometimes I wondered, who am I to dare to think that my critical eye and my empty well could speak into your hearts? I often feel so fragile and yet I am often seen as so strong, and yet isn’t that what being human is about? I saw the same fragility and strength in the communities where I worshipped, and I see it here every Sunday in you.
I sat as a stranger in worship week after week, and what I saw so clearly is that worship is a profound act of courage and faith and hope for all of us – for the minister, the musicians, the greeter at the door, people sitting in the pews, the person pouring coffee in the fellowship hall, the guests who linger wondering who will speak to them, the long timers who can be assured of familiar faces when they walk in the door. We always hold forth that hope that perhaps, this time, we might break into the Age of Aquarius and the sun will shine in, even if only for an hour!
Worship is most powerful when it is a snapshot of the reality of our lives, shot through with love and compassion. It takes the clouds that hang before us and allows us to see the many possibilities of what could be and what is.
I am so thankful for all those experiences, grateful that I found a way to begin accepting who I have become, and hopeful for continued healing and growth in myself and those I serve.
Thank you so much for my sabbatical.
Amen and blessed be.