Monday, June 15, 2015

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking Back, Looking Forward
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
June 14 2015

I love the types of jokes that start with just have a phrase and then fill in the blanks.

Looking back, I like to think of Unitarian Universalism as filling in the blanks for me. And the blanks go way back to the time in England when I was the director of religious education for the Catholic Sunday School at the American base where Wil worked. I had off and on taught Sunday School ever since I was 18, and before we moved to England in 1983 I’d been an RE teacher for the Annapolis Catholic church.

So I decided to continue teaching in the small American Catholic congregation’s Sunday School once we arrived in Yorkshire, and the next year found myself the DRE! I needed inspiration, and resources, and I found the Diocese of Leeds Religious Education Centre, which was for teachers of religious education in the Catholic schools of the diocese. It was great to find lots of things that helped me with the RE program, but the more I knew about RE curricula, the more I wanted to know about theology. I applied for a place at the local Catholic university to study theology…and when I got my degree, I got another degree, and began to teach at university level in theology and religious studies.

And that’s when the bottom fell out for me! I realized how little I knew about religion, about spirituality, and the courses that I was teaching made me thirsty to learn more. I began to learn about about feminist theology, ecofeminism, wiccan ritual, process theology…all this way beyond what my own religious experience had been to that point. I knew that I was nearly past the point of no return to my Catholic faith when I found myself celebrating a solstice ritual with the pagan chaplain to Leeds University.

And then we came back home to Augusta GA, and soon we were so dejected after trying to fit into Southern Catholic parish culture that we stopped going to church at all. I had lots of blanks to fill in: I had left my long-time teaching post which I loved, and had to face the fact that I would never teach theology again here in Augusta. I missed my colleagues and friends, and the place that had become my home. I had at least been hanging on to my faith before we moved, with a parish priest whose Celtic spirituality was supportive, but now had no desire to practice the Southern conservative Catholicism I found here…I had plenty of blanks to fill in, until I was invited to speak here at this church about my academic specialism of theology and film.

The experience of giving a sermon here, and being welcomed so warmly in this place, was amazing. And within weeks I was joining the choir, being croned by the women’s group, and within a year volunteering to run Adult Religious Education classes, and within 2 years training to be a ministry associate.

Clearly this church filled in the blanks for me; I found a home where I was free to ask questions, could try new worship experiences and hear different, challenging ideas from the podium almost every week.

I’m not the only one – many of you have walked through those doors and you thought after the first few minutes that this place is too good to be true. You thought, where have you been all my life? You thought, I have found my tribe!

Alice and Andy found this church home filled in the blanks for them when Alice became ill; specifically, the love and comfort and support that they both received in the midst of that crisis from the members of this congregation. John also will tell you that when he fell ill shortly after beginning to attend this church, he received pastoral care that made him want to give back.

Why would you come back here week after week comes unless you’ve found something that fills in the blank for you – whether it’s a song we sing or a postlude that Joe plays, an in-depth discussion at a meeting of the Limbo crowd, the chance to come up here and share a joy or sorrow, being part of the volunteer team at the Master’s Table, lunch with the Retired Old Men Eating Out?

And when your blanks are filled in, your questions answered – or at least respected and acknowledged – you regard all these people as kindred spirits. We are not all alike, we can’t say we are of like minds, but we all appreciate being here because we feel we matter to each other and we belong together.

Cathy wrote in the song she sang for our chalice lighting,

Along this
interdependent web
Of our existence
May we journey
Knowing we are one
Gathering here to seek
Gathering here to share
Gathering here to speak
Gathering here to care.”
(“The Candle of Faith”, by Cathy Benedetto)

The affirmation of community that comes, in the words of Mark Morrison-Reed, from “the connectedness…discovered amid the particulars of our lives and the lives of others… inspires us to act for justice.” He writes that “the religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done.” (#580, Singing the Living Tradition)

Looking forward, we can all know that walking through those doors every Sunday will be someone who has blanks to fill in, just like you did at one time; will you be the person they remember offering a hand to shake, making them welcome? That’s doing the work of ministry, and I am looking forward to another year of collaborating with you in that work.

Putting together this sermon wasn’t easy…because this is not an ordinary Sunday service. It has that feel of the end of the school year for me, like the last period before school lets out for the summer. We’re all a little distracted because there’s this great potluck waiting outside in the common area, and there’s the Annual Congregational Meeting with its fascinating reports, its exciting congregational votes…okay, well it does have awards, which are always nice.

But I love this service each year because it gives me a chance, before delivering my Minister’s End-of-Year Report in the Meeting proper, to thank all those people who have made this a great year for me…who have challenged me, who have supported me, who have prayed for me, who have dragged me through the rough times and floated on the clouds with me during the fun times, the happy times. I will mention in my report the highlights of the past church year…but really, every day has been a highlight of my year. I’ve said to our board president that being paid to be a minister is like being paid to eat ice cream…that may not seem such a big deal if you don’t care for ice cream! But I love ice cream, and the idea of being paid to eat it is incredibly exciting. Serving as your minister is just as exciting to me, and collaborating with members is the only way to serve, exactly because of what Morrison-Reed observes, that my vision alone “is too narrow to see all that must be seen”, and my strength alone is “too limited to do all that must be done.”

I’d like to end with a quote from Rachel Remen, who says:

          Service is not the same as helping. Helping is based on          inequality, it's not a relationship between equals. When you help, you use your own strength to help someone with less strength. It's a one up, one down relationship, and people feel this inequality. When we help, we may inadvertently take away more than we give, diminishing the person's sense of self-worth and self-esteem… Serving is also different to fixing. We fix          broken pipes; we don't fix people. When I set about fixing another person, it's because I see them as broken. Fixing is a form of judgment that separates us from one another; it creates a distance. So fundamentally, helping, fixing and serving are ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak; when          you fix, you see life as broken; and when you serve, you see life as whole. When we serve in this way, we understand that this person's suffering is also my suffering, that their joy is also my joy… We may help or fix many things in our lives, but when we serve, we are always in the service of wholeness.

Filling in those blanks that plague us, that lessen us, that frustrate us, makes us whole. We fill in those blanks in a spirit of hope, and when we fill them in we are honoring those who have gone before us. As Holly Near sings,

“I am open
and I am willing
For To be hopeless
would seem so strange
It dishonors
those who go before us
So lift me up
to the light of change.”
We fill in those blanks with the help of the Spirit of Life; we can be open and willing to effect real change, both in our own lives and the wider world, because we grow roots that hold us close and we have wings that set us free.
Blessed be, Amen.

Gaye Ortiz
June 14 2015