What Is the Point?

What Is the Point?
12-4-05
Rev. Douglas Taylor

What is the point?  Why did you bother to get out of bed this morning and come to church?  Perhaps you show up out of habit, church attendance can be habit forming.  But I can imagine other possibilities.  Some of us come for spiritual inspiration and insight; some for ethical encouragement.  Some show up because they want to stay connected to friends.  Some come to grow and become better persons; some for spiritual or personal healing; and some are here to take part in the justice-making work of this community.   Likely you come for a mixture of these and other reasons.  I have owned each of these reasons at several points along the way in my own journey.  But what is it all for?  There are so many different needs met, so many purposes.  What is the main thing?

There is a delightful quote from a Methodist Bishop who said, “The main thing is to find the main thing, and to keep the main thing the main thing.  That’s the main thing.”  This is another one of those “What is the meaning of life?” questions where the answer is: “To give life meaning.” While that is true, it is just too slippery to really hold onto in a meaningful way.  There needs to be something we can point to at the end of the day to say, “This is what it is all about.”  Again, what is the point?

A long time ago there was a fellow named Micah who lived with his mother in the hill country of Ephraim. He had some extra money, thanks to his mom, which he used to buy some God. By this I mean he had a prayer building erected, graven images made, and even a Levite priest installed. Micah said, “Now I shall surely prosper!” But soon a band of marauding Danites sauntered by, six hundred of them. They knew they would need some graven images and a Levite priest when they finished their hostile takeover of the neighboring city. So they stopped off at Micah’s, sacked his prayer building, and persuaded his Levite Priest to follow them. Well, when Micah heard about this he ran after the six hundred Danites who were all armed with weapons of war and said to them: “You took my Gods that I made and my Levite priest. You have left me with nothing. I want my Gods back!” Some of the Danites replied, “You had better keep your voice down little man or some of our hot-tempered fellows will attack you.” So Micah turned and went home. No priest. No graven images. No God.

This story of Micah in the Hebrew Scriptures (book of Judges, chapters 17 &18) is sometimes cited as the example of external religion: expressed in tangible artifacts and behaviors, portable, too easily lost. This is compared with the other Micah, the big one from the book of Micah, chapter 6, verse 8: “What does God require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

This for me and many others is a mountain peak in the Bible: A definition of internal religion. So great is the contrast between the two Micahs that they are often painted black and white to say “Be like this Micah, not like the one who lost his Gods.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a UU prophet of renown, said in his essay titled, The Oversoul, “When we have broken from our God of tradition, and we have ceased from our God of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence.” Alfred North Whitehead said, in his book, Religion in the Making, “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” Micah, Emerson, and Whitehead: they are saying that your spiritual foundation is not in here (gesture around the room), but in here (gesture to body). Do away with the forms and fashions of religion, and build a spiritual center where it will really help: inside. A modern version of this comes out in the conventional wisdom that it is possible and even preferable to be spiritual but not religious: an attempt to draw out the distinction between the internal and external elements of a life of faith.

And yet, all of you have shown up here this morning.  All of you have chosen to display the external elements of your life of faith.  Why?  After all, what is the point, really, of this or any religion?  Is it, as Micah from our first story would tell us, worship paid so that a person may prosper?  Or is it, rather, as the better-known Micah tells us, about justice, mercy and humility?  Well, of course, if we put it like that the answer is obvious and simple: be like the greater Micah.  Thank you for coming, you are all excused.  Go off to the woods or sit in your armchair at home and do whatever you do in your own solitariness.  Go have your own private experience of God’s presence as a fire in your heart.  We’ll not be having any Gods built up around here; we won’t even bother for they are too easily lost.

All right, I’m getting carried away a little, but we have a fairly individualized focus as a faith community.  We do stress the internal aspects of the religious life and hold a hint of suspicion for external displays.  With our way of faith being admittedly subjective and personalized, it begs the question: why bother having a community, however loosely organized?  What is the purpose, what is the point?

I don’t know if you are aware of this, but there is a Statement of Purpose for Unitarian Universalism.  We have posters with our Principles and Purposes.  I’ll give sermons based on the seven principles and the six sources every now and then.  Church school curriculum are built around the ideas, hymnals are structured according the principles.  We have little wallet sized cards that are given out in the yellow packet we give to guests and visitors that tells our Principles and Purposes.  You knew that, right?  Oh, yeah, the Principles and Purposes!  You may notice, however, that usually when anyone mentions the Principles and Purposes they really just mean the Principles.  Many people will have a favorite Principle; does anyone here have a favorite?  Maybe #4 about the free and responsible search; or #6 about peace, liberty, and justice; #1 about inherent worth?  Do you have one that you like best?

You can look at them, let’s look at them.  They’re in the hymnal in the pages just before Hymn #1.  The page starts with, “We, The Member Congregations Of The Unitarian Universalist Association, Covenant To Affirm And Promote:” and then you’ll see the seven principles.  And under those you’ll see the six sources, or you’ll see just five sources because we added the sixth one about ten years about and this hymnal was published almost 15 years ago.  Well, on the very next page there is a little paragraph all alone.  It is our Purposes statement and it reads:

The Unitarian Universalist Association shall devote its resources to and exercise its corporate powers for religious, educational, and humanitarian purposes.  The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions, and implement its principles.

This is not a very exciting paragraph.  This is a very institutional paragraph, not something to inspire curriculum, hymns, or sermons.  Well, maybe one or two sermons.  Maybe it just needs to be revamped, if only to correct the grammar.  About half way through the paragraph it states that there is one single over-arching primary purpose, and then goes on to list all four of them.  Why do we gather in communities as we do, ‘to serve the needs of our member congregations’?  Nobody gets out of bed Sunday morning saying, “I’m going to church today to serve the needs of the member congregations.”  [Alright, maybe this morning several members of our choir said this very thing as they got out of bed to go sing at a small sister congregation in Athens PA.  But generally, …]

This statement of purpose for the Association may be helpful to the people working deeper in the institution, but it doesn’t work for me and I doubt it works for most of you.  The details of running the farm are not the reason we have the farm.  The purpose of having a church is not to manage the little details involved in running a church.  Committee meetings and pledge drives and all the other sundry accoutrements and trappings of religion are not the point.

The late Peter Fleck, in the title essay of his book, The Blessings of Imperfection, wrote:

Well, let’s be frank and admit that the church has its aggravations. The eternal and oh-so-necessary concern about finances, the annually recurring problems of balancing a budget, of finding money for repainting the vestibule, repairing the boiler and tuning the organ, the ongoing criticism of the minister’s sermons, which are too liberal for some and too orthodox for others, too pedantic for some and too colloquial for others, the endless committee meetings about the Sunday School curriculum and the propriety of social action, the persistent shortage of tenors in the choir. Who wants it? Who needs it?

The answer, (Fleck tells us,) to this question is that we…want it, because we need it. The answer is that the church…, in spite of its shortcomings, the imperfection that characterizes everything made by humans, is better… than no church.

Elaine Pagels, biblical scholar and author of many books delivered the Ware Lecture at our General Assembly back in June. Pagels, as a scholar, is often at odds with the church institution, but as it is described in one story,

…When her young son was diagnosed with what proved to be a terminal illness, Pagels found herself standing in the back of a church and deciding she needed to be there. Despite a lifetime struggle with church doctrine, she recognized that “here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child, in a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.”

The point usually has nothing to do with the accoutrements and trappings of religion, and everything to do with experiences of the holy, or with changing the world, or with salvation, transformation and enlightenment, or any number of other words and phrases we can apply.  The point is in becoming better people and making the world a better place.

A. Powell Davies once wrote “I go to church … because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them.”  Is that why you come, to be reminded of your standards?  Does our congregation help you stay in touch with your best self?

Elaine Pagels said she found the church to be a “community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.”  Is that why you show up week after week?

Micah said that all you need is “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”  Is that why you walk this path with us, in recognition of our kindred values?

John Murray’s great mission was to proclaim a religion that offered “not Hell, but hope and courage.”  Do you come to church for these reasons, for hope and courage?  Does the workaday world wear you down and dishearten you?  Is our congregation a respite for you to refuel?

Howard Thurman wrote in a prayer, “Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in good times or in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.”  Do you come every Sunday because you are committed to something Holy and our church keeps you true to that?

Anthony DeMello’s story suggests that a community of faith is like a lifesaving station on a rocky sea coast, doing our daring, radical, messy work that is ever in danger of being turned into something respectable and therefore irrelevant.  Is that why you show up?  Are you here to take part in the lifesaving work of this community?

Kathleen Norris said that church “is the one place I know where I am allowed to sing in public, no matter what my voice sounds like, and where I receive a blessing just for showing up.”  Is that why you come?  Do you come to our church because here you know you are accepted?

All these different articulations could be summed up perhaps as our efforts toward becoming better people and making the world a better place.  The purpose of Unitarian Universalism is transformation: personal and social transformation.  The task we have before us is at once monumental and yet exquisitely simple.  Indeed it can get buried in the weekly and monthly chores of making the coffee and painting the walls and tuning the organ and raising funds for the new hymnal supplement.  Yes, this place is imperfect and ineffective and bogged down by our own blindness and bureaucracy.  But there are moments when amazing things happen.  Transformation!  You’ve seen it, been through it?  The point is to become better people and to make the world a better place, and we are starting with you.

In this sacred moment of recognition and gratitude let us rededicate our selves to the great purpose for which this community exists:  Let us remember the details, the hours of volunteering, the wrangling of money from each others pockets, the debating of principle and practice, the sticky crafts and ridiculous children’s stories, the unfinished hallways, the long town meetings, the long moment of silence in worship each week, the coo of a small child, the smiles and warm handshakes, the laughter, the simple presence of good people, the shared meals, the equal exchange coffee, the peace rallies, the letter-writing campaigns, the disturbing movies that prick the conscience, the peace of a memorial service well done.  We gather to effect personal and social transformation.

Let us keep faith with our shared covenant to help one another become better people and to make the world a better place.  Let us stay open through the hurt and the promise, and remain true to our great purpose.  That is, after all, the point!

In a world without end

May it be so.

Note:  Following this sermon, Rev. Taylor suggested we share with each other the stories of how this congregation has been a transforming force in our lives.  How has it touched you, moved you, saved you, helped you to save others, encouraged you to reach out, challenged you, and/or changed you?  What, for you, has been the point? If you have a story to share, please be in touch with Rev. Taylor at dtaylor@uubinghamton.org or 729-1641.   It is hoped that these stories can be shared with the congregation through a Sunday service this coming March 2006.