Mary Beth Writes

“Why do we attend church? Um, I can’t remember.”

There are so many reasons to not belong to or attend church - even liberal Unitarian Universalist churches.

  1. Sleeping in is lovely
  2. Who doesn’t have more to do than time to do it?
  3. Unsingable songs
  4. Overly-singable songs that turn into ear worms
  5. If you don’t go to church, you might never have to be on a committee
  6. Not giving your money away
  7. Coffee hour coffee never ever, to put it politely, tastes like Starbucks
  8. Very few people outside a church will ask you to join a choir
  9. People in the “real” world will think you are weird or pious or weird AND pious

10. Other people who go to not-UU churches will think you are similar to them – and you will look at them and in your heart you are saying, “No way, man, no way.”

11. And this: If you don’t go to a UU church you don’t have to remember why you don’t believe in the trinity.

So this is my disclaimer. Big chunks of my life have been lived as a non-church goer.

Sure, as a kid I went so much I got pins for perfect attendance– though those pins should have been attached to my parents.  They took me. There was no choice there.

Then I went to a Christian college where they wouldn’t let you eat in the cafeteria on Sunday unless you showed up in church clothes. The last time I wore little white gloves – September of 1970 - was in order to look churchy enough to get lunch.

My tales of attending or not attending churches goes on and on but I don’t have to explain to you – you have your own sagas of the sometimes ridiculous, sometimes powerful reasons to not go to church.

Two years ago Len and I started attending here; United Unitarian Universalist. No one could possibly be more surprised than me. Unitarians believe in rational thought. What, I can hear all the relatives of my childhood asking me - what does rational thinking have to do with religion?

So why are we here?

There are quite a few good reasons to be here and this morning I am going to talk about three of them.

….

Several months ago – and this is where this sermon started - I came across this recollection from Barbara Ehrenreich. Many of you recognize her name, she writes about poverty and racism in the US. 

She has a new book that is her spiritual autobiography – which is interesting since she is atheist. Her book is “Living with a Wild God” and in this excerpt she remembers an experience from when she was 17.  (I have greatly abbreviated it) She and her younger brother and a cool boy who was not her boyfriend drove hours from their homes in LA to stay with her aunt and uncle in order to spend a day skiing in the mountains.

The cool boy early on, for reasons she never quite understood, became uncommunicative and sullen. Her little brother sprawled in the back seat. In this recollection, the kids are on their way back home to LA, side-tripping through the Mojave.

“During those hours I gave myself over to the remorselessly flat desert and the familiar question: what is the point? I mean, if you tried to put it all together –the mystery of anti-matter, my mother's unending frustration, my first exposures to rock-n-roll, and all the other data coming my way – what did you get?

“The upshot after a second night of troubled sleep, following a day of unusual exertion that had, incidentally, included very little to eat, was that I entered the third day of our trip low on blood sugar but high on stress hormones.”

That night they slept in the car at the side of a road outside a tiny desert town.

“As soon as the sky began to lighten I got out of the car to walk – heading east towards where the sky was lightest. Nothing was open; there were no humans or moving cars. I moved through a haphazard assemblage of surfaces, still gray in the opalescent predawn light.

“The amazing thing about the world, it struck me then in my dissociated state, was that I could walk into it. In ordinary life, we don't make enough of this three-dimensionality. We don't pause to appreciate the softness of air and the way it parts before us. But on that morning I was sufficiently drained that it seemed astounding just to be moving forward, pulled towards the light.

“In the next few minutes, on that empty street, I found whatever I had been looking for. Here we leave the jurisdiction of language, where nothing is left but "ineffable" and "transcendent".

“But there is one image handed down over the centuries that seems to apply, and that is the image of the "burning bush". At some point in my pre-dawn walk the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.

“I stopped in front of a secondhand store, transfixed by the blinding glow of teacups and toasters. I knew that the heavens had opened but there was no way to describe it, even to myself.

“Weeks later: A friend and I were driving in LA when he asked me how the skiing trip had gone. I said something vague, which led him to start nosing around more aggressively, until at last I blurted out: "I saw God."

 

(CONTEXT IN WHICH TO PLACE THE NUMINOUS)

Here is a powerful reason to belong to a congregation. It isn’t that our liberal Unitarian Universalist church tells us there is a numinous, a holiness, a miracle out there that we can enter – in fact much of UU tradition is to be skeptical around such claims.

But we are logical and rational enough to not rule out moments that are bigger than we can understand. We are logical and spiritual enough to hold mystery open.

As happened to Moses, as happened to Barbara who didn’t make the connection then, but who went on to become a journalist passionate about the rights and welfare of the poor – a powerful experience seems, somehow – to pull us into compassion, courage and a need to be with other honest, searching, and compassionate people.

Moses saw God in a burning bush - and then Moses led enslaved people out of captivity. Julian of Norwich, some of you will remember that I preached on her life a few months ago – Julian said one of the ways to tell if a vision was from God was what it compelled you to do. A true vision eventually sends us into serving relationships with others.

Belonging to a congregation is a context in which to consider the inexplicably profound experiences of our lives.

 

(Expands our point of view)

2. My daughter – who no longer goes to church so let the hearer beware – said this to me years ago. “I go to church so that at once a week I remember the whole story isn’t about me.”

I have been very much enjoying a small book by Sarah Orne Jewett. “The Country of the Pointed Firs” was first published in 1896.

In this novella the narrator is a single middle-aged women who is a writer, who is spending a summer in a fictional Maine coast village. This writer simply tells us about people she meets and what they say about things – and we are pulled into the ordinary lives of people in the 1890’s who think the world is going too fast and important values are being lost.

In this passage I’m about to read the writer is spending an afternoon with a 90-year old retired ship captain.  He is lamenting that the day of big sailing ships is over.

 “It was a dog’s life,” said the old gentleman, “but it made men of those who followed it.  I see a change for the worse even in our own town here; full of loafers now, who once would have followed the sea.  There was no occupation so fit for just that class o’ men who never get beyond the fo’cas’le. (foks-uhl) (which is the upper forward deck).  I view it, that a community narrows down and grows dreadful ignorant when it is shut up to its own affairs, and gets no knowledge of the outside world. In the old days, a good part ‘o the best men here knew a hundred ports and something of the way folks lived in them.  They saw the world for themselves, and were some acquainted with foreign lands an’ their laws, an’ could see outside the battle for village clerk; they got some sense o’ proportion.”

Stopped me in my track, reading that. Lamenting the loss of a big world view. In 1896.

Belonging to an active, caring, reaching-out congregation is similar to belonging to a gang of sailors on a big ship slowly going everywhere. We meet people we wouldn’t meet on our own. We hear stories and learn of the challenges and cultures of others. Our world expands.

One of the most progressive institutions in the US, when they weren’t comically repressive, were the Ladies Aid Societies of nearly every church everywhere. There is a lot to fault in the patronizing judgmentalism of some of the ladies in some of these groups – but it was just as true that the place in isolated communities most likely to address social concerns of that area – were the ladies of the ladies aid. I have often wondered if the parodies of “little old nosy, gossiping, church ladies” wasn’t simply one more sexist stereotype - like all stereotypes about women – a way to take power away from real women with real lives who were doing their best to learn and act in their communities.

Just as interesting – If you are a person who has attended protests and marches– who did you meet when you were out there trying to affect change?  Probably other people from other churches. Certainly not all - but many of the most politically active adults in society are church people from liberal congregations. Because churches are where, like our Unitarian-Universalist congregation –where we listen, think, consider and act.

Churches can be a place in our busy lives where, as my daughter said – we remember the whole story isn’t just about us.

 

(Where two or three are gathered in my name)

3. (Que the deep voice and hands outstretched)

 “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Growing up in the socially-conservatively Bible-thumping church that I did – I heard this verse a lot.  Thursday night prayer meetings started with the pastor calling on it as if it was a spell that could bring down power and truth.

It was our lucky verse, our secret code, our special handshake. Are there two of three of us here? Bam, we got this.

And yet, people from my church got sick and unlucky just like everyone else. As far as I could tell, our special access to Jesus didn’t make us a whole lot different from anyone else.   

So why did Jesus say it?

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 18, starts with Jesustalking about children.  “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them and said: Truly I tell you, unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

What’s going on here? For starters, Matthew was written about 75 years after Jesus died and the guy who wrote it was most likely a Jewish person from a Christ-following sect – so his account of the life and death of Jesus was aimed at other Jews who were trying to figure out how to follow the amazing leader who died 70 years earlier.

Consider what you could and would say about Martin Luther King Jr to people who had just barely heard of him, but who were interested in being agents for change now. It’s an interesting way to think about the truth and myth we find in the gospels.

This part of the Matthew is in a section where, scholars say, Jesus is trying to prepare his followers for what he senses is coming; his own death and the persecution of his followers by the Romans. Jesus was a political-spiritual leader (like Martin Luther King). He is trying to tell these women and men how to continue their claim to their own authentic spirituality and not the organized religion that has been disempowering them for ages. He is also trying to prepare them to know what to fight for and how to carry out that fight when he is gone.

So curiously … Matthew 18 tells us how to live a Jesus-life long after Jesus is dead – and it starts with Jesus talking about children. Who is first in the Kingdom of Jesus? Who is doing the will of God? What should Jesus-followers do first, when trying to be spiritual and powerful?

Jesus’ answer is the same over and over. Start with the kids. Take care of the kids. The premier citizen in the realm of Almighty God – will be a little kid who doesn’t have a clue.

That’s pretty revealing right there, isn’t it?

And then Jesus is trying to answer their questions about how they are to be prophetic and loving and fierce when following his teachings.

Once again, Jesus doesn’t hand them a template or a list of what to do, rules for advanced spirituality or how to most properly do the work of God on Earth. Not even the Ten Commandments carved on a rock and placed in the lobby of a government building. Nothing that dogmatic or clear.

Instead, Jesus says, get two or three of you together and try to figure out how to take care of the kids. Try to figure out how to make society safer for children – and that, Jesus says – is where I will be.

Kind of awesome, isn’t it…

So why do we attend church?

Because week by week and year by year we are together here on our big old ship. We are learning about our world and its people and needs. We are encountering mystery and sharing those experiences. We are looking outwards into our community to see where the children are and how they are doing. This, all the traditions of faith say, this is holy and this is church.

 

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