sermon_soulfood

Part 1

Hospitality. What comes to mind when you hear that word? What’s your definition?

Here’s one that comes from Catholic priest Henri Nouwen: “primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”

Congregations like ours try our hardest to create such a space of hospitality whatever the particular activity or event might be, but especially and above all in the experience of worship. And so we might sing

Come, come, whoever you are

or we might sing

We’re gonna sit at the welcome table!
We’re gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days hallelujah!

You can hear the stirrings of creation right in the sound of these songs—creating the free space that Henri Nouwen talks about, the free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend because it feels friendly, it sounds friendly, no one’s not invited, there’s a spot for everybody at the table, it’s time to sit down and eat…

But now I want to share with you something I found in our congregation’s archives, a letter from 40 years ago, sent to our Membership Chairman back in 1974….

Dear Mr. Chairman,

I wish to withdraw my membership from the UU Congregation of Atlanta.

Having been a member of the congregation since 1925—I do this with great regret.

But I believe that a church should be somewhat spiritual and inspirational. Not an organization so completely devoted to the development of the arts—music, drama, etc., civic responsibilities and entertainment.

Your current program of “Jazz and Poetry” for Sunday morning service illustrates my feeling for what this church now stands for. And I cannot, with conscience, completely adhere to such a program.

Sincerely,

Mrs. J. V. Rogers

As you can imagine, not a fun letter to receive… Here’s someone who’s been a lifetime guest at the welcome table, but there’s been changes (no doubt well-intentioned) and now, all of a sudden, she feels like a stranger. Things used to feel friendly, but no longer…

Do you hear Mrs. Rogers’ big feelings? She wanted marshmallows but got mushrooms instead…

Has that ever happened to you?

Now ESP is yet something else that ministers are not taught in seminary, so I can’t parapsychologically divine what was going on in Mrs. Rogers’ mind. This is always the way it is with complaints, 40 years ago or today. Unless we avoid gossip and abide by our congregational covenant, unless there is face-to-face conversation with the people who are directly involved (and only them), unless they are willing to be vulnerable with each other—UNLESS all these things happen, we can’t know the deeper issues that may in fact be the REAL reasons for the disaffection. We just can’t get to the root of the discomfort.

But I will say this: that Mrs. Rogers’ surface complaint brings to mind two different worship styles that cut across race and class and educational background and ability and on and on, that we do well to bring awareness to, as we think about what our worship is like today and how well it evokes that “welcome table” hospitality feeling….

The first of these styles is suggested by the silent meditation of a moment ago. A space that is emotionally toned-down and introverted, a space that protects your solitude even as you sit in a sanctuary with hundreds of others. What’s happening inside you stays inside you. The music therefore tends to be classical music, the sermon tends to be highly cerebral, the language and rituals feel traditional and spacious, and there is no clapping. THIS is what spirituality feels like. Inspiration happens like THIS.

But then there’s a second style, suggested by the “We Pray” musical meditation we also heard a moment ago. This second style is emotionally amped-up, not toned down. If the first style is “wintry,” then the second style is “summery.” Summer-time: meaning that what you’re feeling inside goes outside and people see it because you ARE clapping, you are swaying, you are standing, you are saying AMEN and SAY IT PREACHER, you are getting carried away. The preaching and the music and everything else in this style of service is meant to immerse you in a holistic, mind-heart-body experience, and it’s intense, and THIS is what spirituality feels like. Inspiration happens like THIS.

I suspect that the congregation, back in 1974, was trying to incorporate summery elements (jazz and poetry) into its worship, but that was a culture shift Mrs. Rogers could not abide. She was firmly in the wintry spirituality camp. Wintry spirituality is the only real kind. Don’t give me any of that summery stuff because it feels like shallow entertainment, it feels fake. So Mrs. Rogers wanted out. “I cannot, with conscience,” she says, “completely adhere to such a program.”

40 years later, the two worship cultures (summery and wintry) are still around, and they still clash. But is polarization inevitable, in which one culture sees the other as fake and they want nothing to do with each other? Or can we find a way to be MULTIcultural? Can we sit at the same worship table and still be friends, and keep on making new friends?

Part 2

Worship for Unitarian Universalists: I define it as placing ourselves in tune with positive feelings and forces like music and words and rituals and they fill our senses, they give us something specific and concrete to feel and to think, they move us, they inspire us, we are reminded of our best selves, we are changed for the better….

That’s why worship can never be like reading a menu. Not enough positive feeling and force in that. We’re coming to this worship table today with knife and fork in hand, napkin on lap or tucked into collar. We’re hungry. We want something concrete to feel and to think, we want to be moved and inspired. We want all of it.

But it’s not going to be enough just to hear our Seven Principles and Six Sources read. Reading the menu of our faith can for sure pique interest, but it won’t satisfy the sharpness of our spiritual hungers. You can’t fool hunger. We want Unitarian Universalist soul food. That’s what we want!

But now, what if some of us are, spiritually speaking, hungry for a big steak, and others of us are vegetarian and the very thought of steak grosses us out?

I mean, it would be great if we were all omnivores in our spiritual tastes. We’d all just eat anything. But in reality, I think that some of us are like carnivores, and some of us are like vegetarians. We can disagree about the specifics of what we prefer in worship THAT much, even as we completely agree on the Big Picture of our faith.

So when we come into this space, and worship sensations wash over us, that’s when our diversity over specifics gets challenging. What if the songs we sing contain meat, or the prayer that’s prayed, or the sermon that’s preached? Good for the carnivores, but what about the vegetarians? The vegetarians just can’t take such soul food into their mouths. They just can’t!

Take a certain three letter word, “God.” Some of us (the meat eaters) need to hear this word, else worship is a shallow experience. It’s like being promised a juicy hamburger but where’s the beef? “God” serves as a trigger word that reminds us there’s something bigger than our individual egos. Say the word and it activates the life force deep within, gets it flowing through our conscious lives. Exactly what that word means can be all over the map, but that’s ok, we’re Unitarian Universalists! But at bottom we know that the human personality responds to poetry and symbol and story. Good things get unlocked and released. A word like “God” can do that.

That’s the meat eaters among us. But, you know, not everyone in this space prefers meat. The vegetarians among us feel deep suspicion towards that three letter word and see it as a sign of intellectual dishonesty if not laziness. Yes, liberal theologians might have been working overtime throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to rehabilitate it, to make it useable for scientific, rational people, but we still balk. All the old, traditional connotations that have caused so much trouble aren’t going away. And don’t tell us that we should see such words as just emotional poetry. There’s lots of other poetry we can draw on, that comes with far less baggage….

So that’s the snapshot of who’s sitting around our Unitarian Universalist worship table. Carnivores and vegetarians.

Does that dish have meat in it? Does it?

There’s a whole history behind this you should know. As theologically diverse as we seem now, it was not always that way. In the 1950s we had achieved the vegetarian kind of consensus, and it lasted throughout the 1970s and even into the early 1980s. The consensus was patterned after the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, signed by thirty-four Unitarian ministers and academics (and one Universalist). “We are convinced,” said the signers, “that the time has passed for theism…. Religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows in order to function effectively in the modern world.” This is what the Manifesto said. Build a religion that “would not be shaken, even if the thought of God were outgrown” (Rev. Curtis Reese). And while, in 1933, this was a hotly contested idea in our congregations and churches, by the 1950s it had become a core ethic. God really wasn’t talked about—it was meat. We didn’t use words like “worship” or “sermons” or “faith” either because they also smacked of meat. But then, in the 1980s, when our national membership numbers saw a staggering 40% decline, leaders realized that we had become too theologically narrow. They called for a greater hospitality to religious diversity—not just vegetables any longer. Meat too. Thus in 1985 came the Purposes and Principles, which talked explicitly about how we are a Living Tradition with many sources besides humanism, including mystical traditions, world religions, our parent traditions of Judaism and Christianity, the words and deeds of prophetic men and women, and earth-based spirituality. With all of these sources, spirituality-talk and God-talk (also Goddess-talk) couldn’t help but come rushing back into our congregations and churches. And with it, trouble at the table.

Does that dish have meat in it? Does it?

Now one solution some of our congregations have hit on is this: toferky. You know, tofu that’s made up to taste like turkey. Worship has tofurkey music, tofurkey language, tofurkey atmosphere. Minimize cultural differences of any kind—wintry vs. summery spirituality, vegetarian vs. carnivore. Minimize all that. Make things generic enough to offend no one.

What do you think? Is that the kind of soul food we want to serve up?

Do you think it’s possible to create multicultural worship that offends no one?

Part 3

Several Sundays ago I was out of the pulpit, and that released me to be with our Interfaith Habitat for Humanity house build, organized by the excellent Ernie and Priscilla Guyton. I had been asked to say a few introductory words about Unitarian Universalism, so I did. Here’s a bit of what I said.

I talked about how Unitarian Universalism’s open-arms embrace of religious diversity can be viewed as an outgrowth of its historical origins in Christianity. The words “Unitarian” and “Universalist” appear in Christian history from the very beginning, and the words of Jesus and the Bible have always been powerful among us.

Then I pointed out a Biblical passage of particular power for us: Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Written by Paul, this language reminds us about how Jesus would repeatedly break religious laws in inviting exactly the wrong kind of people to sit as his table and eat with him (rabble rouser that he was). It was Jesus’ way of saying that everyone has inherent worth and dignity, not just some, and this affirmation has become our Unitarian Universalist First Principle.

And then I went on to say that over time, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Unitarian Universalists felt called to make the language of Galatians 3:28 even more open and inclusive—to say, “There is neither gay nor straight, there is neither Christian nor Buddhist, there is neither atheist nor theist, there is neither black or white and on and on, but all are one in the Spirit of Life and Love.” That’s why today we should be seen as post-Christian or more-than-Christian because we draw from many sources, we take truth from wherever truth may come.

That’s a bit of what I said, there at the Habitat build. And now the point I want to make here is that this openness and inclusivity we’re called to is not an end for us. It’s not the be all and end all. It’s a means to an end. We grapple with all the challenges diversity raises—wintry vs. summery, meat-eaters vs. vegetarians—because when we are sitting around the same table (when we can do that) the Spirit of Life is there is abundance. The Spirit of Life is whatever brings hope and renewal, it’s a sense of connection and a sense of aliveness. It’s whatever keeps people from dropping out. It’s whatever keeps people showing up with an open heart. That’s the Spirit of Life, and all our struggles with our differences have value only to the degree that they are removing stumbling blocks from people plugging in and experiencing a Spirit that frees and renews.

That’s why we want to create a free space in our worship where the stranger can enter and become a friend and no one becomes an enemy. That’s why hospitality matters.

I don’t think the tofurkey solution is going to work for us. Frankly, any kind of strategy that has as its number #1 priority “make everybody happy” feels wrong to me. Nothing can do that; there is no such silver bullet strategy; the majority of the work of happiness is in fact something we each as individuals do. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Jesus himself might be preaching from this pulpit, but what if you take mortal offense at the fact his dress is inappropriate? He’s wearing sandals! His outfit is muddy! Disrespectful! Who does he think he is?

The way forward, as I see it, is a combination of intentional worship planning and then the personal discipline each one brings to the table.

Start with the worship planning. It’s always been my commitment to creating worship that tries to be adequate to our Six Sources and to the multiple cultures of this community. So, over the course of a single 75 minute service, here’s what we might experience at our worship table. An opening song, a call to worship, and a meditation that is completely vegetarian-friendly. The sermon may contain some meat. There might be a song our choir sings that also contains meat. But, over the course of a single service, we’ve tried to diversify the dishes, because we know that the hungers are diverse, and urgent. It’s an ongoing learning curve. We’re learning.

And then, over the course weeks and months, there’s going to services that are more summery and others which are going to be more wintry. Again, not minimization, not tofurkey, but services that give you something to savor, services that are each unique and tasty. Some services you just want to get up and clap. Some services where that would be completely inappropriate. Let the tone—summery or wintry—be your guide.

As for what each of us can bring to the table: “table manners” that make for greater hospitality and less chances that anyone goes from feeling like a friend to an enemy: here’s a couple:

1. If it’s served up, you don’t have to eat it. We need to remember this one if, for example, we’re strictly vegetarian and we’ve been served up plenty of vegetables but it just so happens that the meditation of the day put a piece of meat on our plate. Please, don’t let it taint your entire experience. Don’t allow that. Just use your fork and nudge it over to the side. Keep in mind that others around the table need it to feel fed. Make peace with your dislike as part of your big picture commitment to UUCA’s overall diversity.

2. Your turn is coming. Let me tell you, when your religion draws from Six Sources, you’ve got a world of material to work with. It’s fantastic! But you can’t get to all of it in a single service or even a single year. If you feel like your particular passion hasn’t come up in worship, ask me. We might have done a year-long sermon series on it just before you arrived, but you wouldn’t know that, so naturally you’re wondering why you’re not hearing much about it. But on the other hand, maybe not. So ask anyway. I’m always wanting to hear about your passions. I love you guys and we are building Beloved Community together.

Finally:

3. Try it. OK, so we’ve just served up a dish that looks really weird. Is it meat? Is it vegetable? Can’t tell…. Smells different. Huh.

Try it anyhow.

Give it a chance—you might just like it.

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