Got a couple jokes for you this morning, starting with “a theology of announcements”:
Buddhism: All announcements are suffering.
Islam: All announcements are submission.
Christianity: In heaven there are no announcements.
Judaism: No one but your mother should be making announcements.
Unitarian Universalism: In the interdependent web of all announcements, each has its own inherent worth and dignity.
Since we’re kicking off our stewardship drive this morning, we need a fundraising-related UU joke—so here goes:
A Jew, a Catholic and a Unitarian Universalist were discussing how their congregations raise funds. The Jew said, “We draw a circle on the ground and throw the money up into the air, and whatever falls inside the circle we give to God.” The Catholic said, “We draw a circle on the ground and throw the money up into the air, and whatever falls outside the circle we give to God.” The Unitarian Universalist said, “We just throw the money up into the air, and figure that whatever God wants, God keeps.”
OK, would everyone now take out their wallets and throw them up into the air…
We already know that God doesn’t want the money … but our youth do. They did when this congregation’s generosity enabled a bunch of them to go to General Assembly this past summer and they got to see first-hand how they are part of a larger association of congregations more than a 1000 strong. It fired them up, they came back with a greater sense of pride about what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. That’s how you nurture future leaders in our faith and in our world!
God doesn’t need the money, but our choir does. This congregation helped it raise funds which members drew on to finance their trip to Transylvania and Hungary (what was it, two years ago?) What a powerful opportunity to see the world with new perspectives and give voice to the human spirit through music and the arts. They came back changed, and we can all know with immense satisfaction that they were ambassadors of Unitarian Universalist peace and justice on our behalf.
God doesn’t need the money, but our staff do. We love our staff for how they support the full-functioning of this congregation, from the ones we see all the time in Sunday worship and religious exploration to the ones we might not see, working behind the scenes, working in the office, working to make sure everything that needs to get done gets done. This congregation follows a standard called “Fair Compensation,” and one of the things it says is that all staff salaries need to be within a certain range, starting with the minimum and then, over a five year period, making progress towards the mid-point. The great news is that for the first time since this community declared itself a Fair Compensation congregation, all our staff salaries are at or above the minimum. For the first time, in 2013! That’s what your generosity has made possible. We still have more work to do here—some staff have been here long enough that their salaries need to be closer to midpoint than minimum, and there’s also the fact that pensions and professional expenses are way below standard—we still have considerable work to do—but let’s stop and smell the roses for a moment and celebrate this achievement.
God doesn’t need the money, but our youth, our choir, our staff do—and I could go on like this all day long. Just run down the list of all the ways that your financial gifts over the years have led to real and positive results. That’s what your financial pledge really boils down to. This is your spiritual family, your beloved community, and you are supporting what it does, what it makes happen in the world. The more you give, the more the world gets and the more you get.
We are rising to our vision, piece by piece.
That’s really the only way it happens. In our reading from today, we heard Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams say that “we deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation.” It’s just another way of saying that if we want a truly awesome UUCA cookbook, it’s not enough to wish it into existence. Each of you has got to invest 15 minutes of your time to input the ingredients of your favorite recipe into the special website that Toni and Grier Page have set up to make this whole thing possible. That’s how it happens. One recipe at a time.
I mean, as good theological liberals we don’t believe in such things as the immaculate conception, right? That there could be such a thing as a human baby without the biologically-required inception of some kind? Conception can’t happen out of thin air, and neither can congregations. Everything we want to happen, WE (not someone else, for there is no one else) must build up to, piece by piece. Everything that has already happened and that we take for granted has a past, has a story.
Let me tell you a story about the very walls of this building, how they came to be.
It has to do with a very special man named Dan Hollums, who recently passed away and I was honored to officiate at his memorial service. What I learned about Dan was amazing. He was a longtime member whose participation started back in the 1950s, on a justice note. Dan and his first wife Sarah found a group called HOPE which was an acronym for Help Our Public Education because they were looking for some sanity in a sea of segregationist madness. They started to talk to some people, and one of them had this to say in reply: “You two sound like Unitarians.” But Dan and Sarah had no idea what that was. So they checked out the congregation, and this is the 1950s, mind you, so we had a different name and a different location and a different minister. We were called the United Liberal Church, we met at North Avenue, and the minister was the Rev. Ed Cahill. “We’d been Unitarians all our lives and we just didn’t know it.” That’s what Dan once said. Back then, “the church was small, we had probably no more than fifty members…. We were a little island of liberalism in a sea of ultra hard-right conservatism. We felt like we needed each other, we had to stick together.”
And that’s what Dan did. He stuck with the congregation, stood up for this place. Nurtured it and built it. Invested countless hours. How to even begin to list the things he did. Worked in the lending library. Served in the ushering committee. Headed up the very first every-member stewardship campaign this place had ever seen—and apparently got Coe Hamling to commit to a pledge amount that was astounding for that day and time: fifteen dollars a week.
Dan is also a part of one of the iconic stories this place tells about itself. The story which has to do with our youth group and Ebenezer Baptist’s youth group doing things together. The time when the Ku Klux Klan caught wind of what was going on and they sent a message to us: don’t do it any more or else. That gut-check moment when we re-affirmed our commitment to racial integration and the inherent worth and dignity of every person no matter what their skin color was, and we went ahead. The two youth groups met. But the fathers of this place resolved to protect their children. They ringed the North Avenue building where the youth were meeting. They would defend what this congregation stood for with their bodies and their very lives. Dan was one of those fathers.
And this brings us to the very walls of this place. Back in the mid 1960s, Dan was chair of the building committee, in charge of the design of this amazing place we are in right now. His planning, his decisions—we literarily dwell within them. In the shape of this sanctuary, in the very bricks and mortar, he is like a congregational father to us all.
I can’t resist adding as a coda that Dan was asked to chair a committee to determine what the name “United Liberal Church” would be changed to, once we moved to this present location. He suggested that we go with the word “congregation” so as to ensure that our Jewish members felt welcomed, and it stuck. That’s how we got our name.
Everything we see around us already existing has a story, piece after piece coming together to make it so.
And everything we want to see for our future—it follows the same principle. There can be no immaculate conception of what’s good.
Now that image of “piece by piece,” that action, which I keep referring to: do you see how it calls jigsaw puzzles to mind? A jigsaw puzzle logic?
For the remainder of this sermon, let’s follow the logic of jigsaw puzzles and see what it might have to tell us about how we can rise to our vision as we go forward.
Start with puzzles as a team sport: dump the pieces on the coffee table, and everyone who wanders by fiddles with a few pieces, sometimes finding a match before they wander off again. By the end of the week, it’s done.
I mean, ever had that experience of being completely stuck, and then someone comes along and almost instantly, they see the missing piece?
Reminds me of a song we sing at the close of our Flower Celebration and at other times during the year:
From you I receive to you I give
Together we share and from this we live
By all means, we need the Dan Hollums of this world. Without leaders, there’s no one to bring people together and move things forward. But no one can do it all alone. He didn’t, and neither can we. It’s like that classic Zen saying: “Even the strongest finger is useless if it tries to do anything on its own.” Power comes from all five fingers and the whole hand working in concert, as a team.
Whatever your gift is, however modest you might think it to be, we need it. Without you, a piece of the puzzle is missing.
But now, consider yet another lesson of the lowly jigsaw puzzle: Doesn’t matter how many times you’ve searched for a certain piece and not found it. Keep looking—it’s there.
The attitude here is abundance and faith. Everything essential that we need is already, in some sense, within reach. A guy by the name of Jesus once put it like this: “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you.”
What would our lives be like if this was the attitude we carried around with us everywhere we went?
Well, it might be just like the one suggested by the following joke, which has to do with twin boys of five or six. (You might have heard this one before, but it’s so good, it bears repeating. Just pretend you’re hearing it for the first time!) Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities—one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist—their parents took them to a psychiatrist. First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I’d only break them.” Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. He clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”
Next time you are feeling frustrated about something here or something at home, keep looking for the pony!
Jigsaw puzzle as team sport, jigsaw puzzle as opportunity to keep the faith, and finally this: what every jigsaw puzzle needs above all: a table big enough to hold it.
Ever started your bajillion-piece puzzle, and realized only too late that there wasn’t exactly enough room for the whole operation?
What every puzzle needs—with the big picture all the little pieces come together to show—is a solid foundation that is even larger. A larger vision that supports the slightly smaller one. A larger vision that holds the smaller one secure.
Where UUCA is concerned, the slightly smaller one is what we are trying to accomplish in Atlanta right here and right now. Our five year plan, which we’re in the second implementation year of, puts it like this: We will be among the most engaging and enriching congregations in Atlanta; we will increase our impact in the larger world; we will motivate and inspire ourselves; we will have the resources to fulfill our aspirations and potential. This is big picture stuff! Each of the four aspirations contains so much! But my main point here is that we won’t go very far with any of them unless we believe in the even bigger picture, which is the foundation: Unitarian Universalism. This “post-Christian” faith embracing wisdom and truth from many sources. This ancient yet up-to-the-minute religion that points to the sacred in life and allows people freedom to understand this as their own reason and conscience dictate. Call it what you will—God, the Tao, Buddhamind, the Goddess, healthy human relationships, the creative process, Nature, Spirit, Love, Beauty—call it what you will: but know that connection with the sacred is an ever-present possibility, and that this connection heals and makes whole and releases us into peace and forgiveness and compassion. And then we channel the compassion. We act on it. Like Jesus, and like other saints and sages throughout history, we invite people of all kinds to our welcome table, where the pasta WE serve loves everybody. (I’m referring to the Barilla pasta controversy from this past week, when a Barilla executive said mean things about GLBTQ folks. Which was immediately followed up by a message from Bertolli pasta to the effect of saying, “We love gay people….”) We’re like Bertolli. Everybody counts. That’s what Unitarian Universalism is about. Connection to what is sacred in life, and compassionate action. Connection and compassion.
I don’t care how many pieces there are to the puzzle of UUCA: our Unitarian Universalist faith will always be a large enough table to hold up the whole thing. Large enough to inspire us to keep looking for the pony when times get tough. Large enough even to throw our wallets up in the air and give more than we ever have before. God doesn’t need it. But we do, for all the right reasons.