Thursday, August 20, 2009

The entering div student's first sermon

Felling the need to post something to prove I'm still here, I am posting my very first sermon ever, which I delivered last Sunday at the First Unitarian Society of Westchester.

If you've visited my UU congregation, you'll know that I usually speak extemporaneously. This was the first time since high school, I think, that I actually wrote something out and actually delivered it that way. Here it is:

Twenty-four years ago, I had the great good fortune to hear Dana McLean Greeley preach, at the Arlington Street Church in Boston. Dana McLean Greeley was a name I heard frequently as a child: he was a famous Unitarian minister, he was the last president of the American Unitarian Association, and he was the first president of the the Unitarian Universalist Association.

When you read Unitarian history, you get involved in a very limited world, the world of eastern Massachusetts. In this small region, there are dozens of Unitarian churches. Lists of their ministers bear a family resemblance to lists of Harvard presidents and heads of the Harvard Divinity School. For a couple centuries, these Harvard presidents and school heads married the daughters of their mentors, and when their own daughters grew up, kept an eye on likely young men for them. These families gave their children triple-barreled names, like
Dana McLean Greeley
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Edward Everett Hale
William Ellery Channing, for starters.
And their last and middle names are on streets and college buildings throughout New England. In this tightly woven group, ancestry was important.

Dana Greeley’s sermon topic twenty-four years ago was, “The Heyday of Liberal Religion.” He mounted the steps of Arlington Street Church’s high pulpit with determination. He flashed his famous wide smile, but we could all see his gauntness. He hadn’t long to live, and this sermon was his final public statement on the denomination to which he had given his life. Punch lines being what they are, it will not surprise you to learn that to Dana McLean Greeley in 1986, the heyday of liberal religion was still to come.

Think of that. This child of New England, this leader of such a traditional group, who had been minister for sixteen years in Concord, the home of transcendentalism — he believed that the heyday of liberal religion was not in those 19th-century glory days, but still to come.

We have recently elected Peter Morales — a wise Latino — to our presidency. Peter Morales is a vibrant contrast to that old tradition. His parents were Mexican immigrants and he was born and raised in San Antonio. When he took the bus off to the College of the Pacific, he had never seen a mountain, the ocean, or been more than eighty miles from home. In the years between that bus trip and today, Peter Morales — always with his wife Phyllis — has lived in Canada as a manual laborer, fleeing the Vietnam draft. He has lived in Spain as a Fulbright professor. He has lived in San Francisco as the father of a small cancer patient. He has lived in Oregon as a newspaper publisher. He has lived in Peru as a Knight International Journalism Fellow. And he has lived in Colorado as a UU minister. He has lived many lives, actually. What do you suppose Peter Morales believes is the heyday of liberal religion?

He hasn’t used the word, but he strongly suggests that that heyday could be ours. But to get there, we need to rethink who we are. In our quest for diversity in our membership, we have often commented to each other how very white we are. Peter Morales is living evidence that tomorrow’s Americans will not primarily be descended from western Europeans.

In fact, Peter Morales has suggested that we UUs have our own ethnicity, and that ethnicity is New England, Boston, Brahmin, Harvard. And it’s not working any more.

Sixty years ago, my father — from an Irish Catholic family — embraced Unitarianism. One of his nieces, my cousin Brigid, once explained to me what Unitarianism meant to my father. He had grown up in Youngstown, Ohio, in a neighborhood too middle-class to have steelworkers. Its Catholic church, St. Ed’s, was the most prosperous one in a city of Catholic churches. But Youngstown had a Protestant ascendancy, based in the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. It also had a Unitarian church too, though, that was a little out of the power structure. The Unitarian church’s members were, in fact, Harvard families; they were scholars, intellectuals, teachers, readers, scientists; they were not standard people. Cousin Brigid explained to me that when my father adopted Unitarianism, he was making that heritage his own.

But now we are more than four decades past the Civil Rights Act. Americans can go to Harvard, to Yale, to Dartmouth, and be exactly what they are. They can be any race. They can be immigrants, or their children. They can be women. People no longer need to “convert” to become who they want to be. So in New England, the old, customary connections may be as sturdy as ever, but UUs across the country have moved on and are becoming something else. In fact, here in our congregation, that model was left behind long ago.

But Peter Morales is reminding UUs that we have what Forrest Church has called the gospel of Unitarianism, the good news. He believes that hundreds of thousands of Americans want what we have. They want community. They want connection. They want to know that when they walk in the door of this congregation, people will be happy to see them. They want their children to feel this kindness, this love, this concern.

I am going to read from a speech Rev. Morales gave, using his words because they are so perfectly to the point.

A few years year ago an earth-shaking research paper was published in the American Sociological Review. . . The research sought to measure changes in the close relationships Americans have. A key question in the study asked subjects how many people they feel close enough to that they feel they can confide personal information. An earlier study, done in 1985, asked the same question.

The new study was designed to measure any changes over time. The results were so shocking that the team of sociologists doing the study withheld publication for a while. They were afraid they had made some mistake in the methodology and spent months reviewing their data and procedures. But the results were real. Here are the key findings:
• In 1985, the response given most often was having three people in whom one could confide. In 2004, the response given most often was zero.
• The percentage of people who said they had no one with whom they could confide jumped from 10 percent in 1985 to 25 percent in 2004. That means that in just 20 years the percent of people who said they have no one to talk to went from one person in ten to one out of every
four. This is simply shocking.
• Almost half of all Americans now either have no one or only one person with whom they can discuss important matters. The percent of people who either have no one or only one person has almost doubled in 20 years.
• If a person has only one confidant, chances are that the one confidant is his or her spouse.
What this means is that relationships beyond the nuclear family are being systematically eliminated.

Listen carefully. Hear the cry of pain in these numbers. This study reveals a level of human isolation that is unprecedented in American life–and perhaps unprecedented in human history. Americans are lonelier than they have ever been. The close friendships that are so essential to us are being eroded at a frightening rate. One in four Americans has no close personal relationship at all. Zero.

... Let me throw just one more statistic at you. At the end of the Second World War about half of all American households had three generations in them. That means that about half of American children lived under the same roof with one or more grandparents. Today there are almost no three generation households left. The two or three percent of multi-generational households that exist are almost all poor recent immigrants. Today, one out of four households in American is a single person household. Let me say that again. One quarter of American addresses today has only one person living there.

You and I are relational creatures. We become fully human in a network of relationships. We desperately long to belong. We need community the way we need food and shelter. Yet, in our pursuit of a misguided sense of independence and economic opportunity, we have created a society that systematically rips apart human relationships. Yet our need for deep relationship never goes away.

So UUA president Morales thinks that our congregations can build a better world, at least for the people within them. How does he believe we can do this?

He says, by getting religion. Americans want a religious vision that can transform their lives. If they find it, they will be faithful to that vision. Now generally, our visitors know who we are. They do online research; they read what we say about ourselves, and for some, it sounds just right. Then they must come here, and be with us. Visitors must see and hear and feel our good news for themselves.

Now here is a point I find difficult. If I come here, to this small but sacred space where we spend our Sunday mornings together, I am coming for community. I am coming for kindness, and love, and to be with people who know my lumpy past and accept me as I am. I come here because I crave what I get here.

With everything I need to receive from this place, how can I find the time, and the strength, to give to someone else? It goes back to getting religion. Part of getting religion is being able to give as much as to receive. It’s being the person you want to meet. Part of getting religion is undertaking ministry yourself. I guarantee you that coming here to serve, as much as to be served, will make you happier.

Here’s what else can be done. If Americans no longer live in three-generation households, let’s make this entire congregation a three-generation household. How about finding a way to include in your own world, a person, or a family group, older or younger than you? You will share something special with them, and they will share with you. You will be thrilled by what happens. I guarantee that.

What else can we do? We can recognize that diversity can be broader than we’re accustomed to thinking. Peter Morales has commented on the sweep of immigration from the south and from across the Pacific. Not only that, but in the past twenty years, there has been sizable immigration from eastern Europe as well. The more those immigrants acclimate to this country, the more we can give them what they find themselves looking for. They will share with us and change us, and we will share what we have with them.

We build community here with our lay-led style. And next year there will be many Sundays without our interim minister. We have room to hear from other resources that have not been home-grown, which we rarely do.

Neither do other aspects of worship need to adhere to the old ways. Our music directors Diane Guernsey and Richard Slade are both interested in more rousing music. And how about dance? Americans have considered dance a spectator art instead of something prompted by the spirit. Joy has many faces, and perhaps that can be a new face of ours too. About 20 million people have viewed the viral YouTube video of Jill and Kevin’s wedding dance, and most of the commenters have felt the joy within the church. Let’s go get some of that for ourselves!

In closing, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on a subject that thrills me for its potential in my new ministry. I believe that this FUSW community can embrace that vision too. The good feeling in this congregation can translate into more personal ministries for all of us. We can become the change we want in the world. And we can create a new heyday for liberal religion.

©2009 Diggitt McLaughlin


Anonymous said...

awesome first sermon, from the heart!

A sociologist, and unitarian, among other things.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful first sermon, from the heart!!

From a sociologist, and unitarian, among other things.

vinnie said...

beautiful first sermon, from the heart!

vinnie said...

Beautiful first sermon, from the heart!

From a sociologist, a unitarian, among other things.

ms. kitty said...

Marvelous, Diggitt! Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

What an inspirational message...thank you for enriching my Friday.

Anonymous said...

What an inspirational message...thank you for enriching my Friday.