“For the Longest Time, ” February 26, 2017, Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
What I also know is that adventures are good for us. Shaking up the routine is a way of renewing our creativity, and perspective, and energy. And as precious as our covenant connections are, sometimes it’s important to try out our solo wings for a while.
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So can I just say that sabbaticals fall into the category of ‘be careful what you wish for?’ It sounds great, sure, months in advance – at last, a chance to focus on that book that people keep bugging me to write, that never seems to happen, what with next week’s sermon to be wrestled into existence, and all the institutional and personal and national crises that constitute the life of a normal congregation. I have always marveled at the intellectual productivity of my Colonial and Victorian era clergy colleagues, until I remember that they had, usually, both wives and servants! It is quite clear to me that I would have no desire to trade places with them, but I do still find the paradigm of what has long been known as the scholarly ministry to be appealing. Worship in general, and sermons in particular, are types of performance art – specific to a particular time and context and shared experience. You can record them, or reproduce the texts, but the deepest intangible resonances are never captured or replicated.
There is a story familiar to many seminary students, about a debate in a mid-century British journal of religion concerning the value of sermons. The question was posed as to whether preaching was a good use of anyone’s time – either for the preacher in preparing the weekly messages, or the members of the congregation in sitting through them. The first writer calculated how many sermons he had heard throughout his lifetime of church attendance, and suggested that since he could only recall anything whatsoever about a very small number of them, they might all have been an enormous waste of time for everyone concerned. This provoked an extended, and lively, exchange of letters in subsequent editions of the journal, some hotly defending the value of sermons, others supporting the notion that they might better be done away with. The discussion never reached a conclusion, but after about six months, one letter closed the debate. In it, the writer stated that in the course of some 30 years of marriage, he had eaten tens of thousands of meals cooked by his wife, but now found that he could not recall the menus of almost any of them. Yet he rather thought that without them, he might well have starved to death long since.
A sermon is a bit like a meal, I suppose. It is intended to give nourishment, and only incidentally to be memorable, and it is most wholesome when consumed immediately; neither its nutritional value nor its aesthetic appeal usually lasts long. A book, on the other hand – that’s a different kettle of fish. A book is a long-term storage device for wisdom and inspiration to be shared across all distances, including the generations. Maybe more like canning than making dinner, and I remember from watching my mother try that it’s almost impossible to do both canning and meal preparation at the same time. Yet both are important, and if you want summer peaches and tomatoes in February, then someone needs to set aside the time to deal with that demanding process.
Like I say, it all sounds good six months out. Then as the planning starts to get specific, you begin to realize all the particular moments you’re going to miss; the youth giving their credo statements, and the children receiving their Earth Day flowers. Music Sunday; the annual meeting. The ground breaking at the start of renovation; the first gathering with the new board members; the end of year staff party. The stewardship cottage meetings. Being part of the racism book discussions with folks from Mason Memorial, and all the other forms that our resistance to oppression will take. Just the living rhythms of a community, that are so deeply embedded in my own heartbeat that it is hard to imagine moving to a different drum, while this one continues on for a time without me. I’m confident that I will be okay, but it’s one of those “Tell me again why I thought this was a good idea” kind of moments.
What I also know is that adventures are good for us. Shaking up the routine is a way of renewing our creativity, and perspective, and energy. And as precious as our covenant connections are, sometimes it’s important to try out our solo wings for a while. The poet Rilke writes about one of the functions of love as being the guardians of one another’s solitude; at our best, he says, we do not fuse into one homogenous being, but rather commit to honor the integrity of those we love, and cherish their uniqueness by helping them have the protected space to grow into their own authenticity. “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist,” he says, “a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole, and against a wide sky.” This is certainly true in ministry, where it is easy to become so attentive to individual people and problems and projects that we stop seeing the community as an organism in itself, with its own personality, ‘whole, and against a wide sky.’ Because of the gift of this sabbatical, I will have to find a bit of clarity about who I am as an individual writer and theologian, apart from my familiar and beloved role here among you all. And you, of course, will have the same opportunity and challenge; to remember who you are as the Unitarian Universalist community of Kansas City, apart from the leadership of any particular minister.
I think this is actually good timing, although it does have its awkward aspects. But as we move through the final months before the 150th anniversary year begins, is an appropriate moment to step back and consider the continuities that for a century and a half have transcended ministerial presence, good, bad, and indifferent, in this congregation, and given it an enduring shape. And all the more is this true because the physical shape of this building is going to be changing at the same time. The bidding process is well underway, and we hope to be able to announce the selection of a building contractor soon, with beginning of construction to follow very shortly, probably early in March. There is going to be a lot of dust, and some amount of chaos around here for a while, until the next chapter in our architectural space gradually emerges. I urge you to keep in mind what we have said from the beginning – no one is going to love everything about the completed project; we hope that everyone will be pleased with something. No one is going to find all their wishes fulfilled; we hope that everyone is getting something that they have long wanted. In addition to the visible changes, we are setting the stage for the next quarter century of this building’s infrastructure, in the form of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, wiring, and roofing, and accessibility. Whenever the next capital campaign occurs, it will be able to focus on upgrades that we will see and touch, in spaces we use, thanks to all the behind the scenes work we are doing now.
So I invite you to use the next five or six months to ponder the question of who or what is All Souls, apart from the personality of a specific minister, or the structure of a building. Facilities evolve, or as in the past, burn down; ministers come and go. Something else survives and endures and is handed on; something that has both its cherished and its regrettable aspects – how would you describe that, or define it? And why does that essential identity matter in the midst of the challenges of today’s world? Not that my gospel is irrelevant, but however much you might endorse it, you are more than a platform for my voice. The most effective resistance against any form of tyranny is a community that knows who it is and what its covenant means. If you have done your work, and I have done my work, when I return, we will come together and fly.
Meanwhile, we are doing a good deal of investing in the future here at All Souls. You are investing in my long term creativity and wisdom, as well as my personal happiness and prestige in our larger movement, by giving me the opportunity to focus on writing. We are upgrading our facilities to meet not only our own present and upcoming needs, but also to create welcome for people who are not here yet. We are seeing significant dividends from investing in a part time staff position to coordinate our hospitality for visitors and new members. People are willing, and even eager, to serve on the Board of Trustees, which is a huge sign of a healthy, growth-oriented institution. We are investing our time and energy and attention and care in a vision of what this congregation can and should be, but you know and I know that along with all these gifts, we have to invest money, too. One of the biggest barriers to our leaders being able to give their full minds and hearts to the work of our mission is the constant low-grade anxiety about financial stability. Not being able to give responsible cost of living raises to our talented and dedicated staff affects everyone’s morale. It’s embarrassing to be invited to participate in local coalitions for justice action, and have to respond that we can only do it if it doesn’t involve expense. It makes the work of the board tedious and discouraging when we spend time looking for items to cut out of an already to the bone budget.
Or, let me give you the current dilemma. How many of you think that we are missing an opportunity to cultivate the future of our faith by not having a presence on the campus of UMKC or the Art Institute next door? Me too. And here’s the thing; we have a young seminary graduate who very much wants to come here, to Kansas City and to this congregation, to work with me and with you for his parish internship next year – with a focus on campus ministry outreach. Would that be a great fit, or what? But here’s the thing. Unlike our last two interns, he’s not local; he would have to move to the area. And he’s not married to a working spouse, but he still has to eat. So we would need to provide a stipend of a thousand dollars a month – for full time work with our congregation, mind you, at least a quarter of which would be campus related. Now before you pull out your checkbook, or your smart phone – which I am glad for you to do, but listen first – that $10,000 is the easy part. We could make that happen, I’m sure of it. But we have a $20,000 deficit in this year’s income that we need to cover first. Just like it’s not responsible for you or me to buy a new car or a fancy dinner if we can’t pay the rent or the Visa bill, it’s not responsible to fund an internship stipend when we don’t have the money to meet our existing obligations. So it’s not just $10,000 we need to raise, but $30,000. The good news is, we already have $6,000 towards this amount, in special contributions from folks who want to see both of these things happen; one, end the current fiscal year in the black, and two, make this unique opportunity to reach out to the young adult students all around us a reality. It would be nice, of course, if we could put the internship off for a year or two, and save up to fund the cost, but that’s not how life works. If we can’t make it possible for Jack to be here next year, he will have to go with a second choice elsewhere. We will almost certainly be able to invite another intern at some point in the future, but chances are that person will have their own specific ministry interest, not a passion for work with students on campus.
I still believe that we can do this, and that we should. For sure we should make up the shortage in the current year’s budget, even if there be no incentive but integrity. The final $10,000 is an investment in the future of both this community and Unitarian Universalism across the country and around the globe. Because even people who never join our churches, and aren’t UUs themselves, if they know about us, they send other people to us. Especially in these politically tumultuous days, it’s the public unawareness that does us in; the folks we are right for will come, if they have a clue that we are here. And one of the places that many of our previous generation got that clue, was at college. This is an investment that would pay dividends for decades to come.
One word more about money; as much as I hope we can solve this urgent dilemma, I also hope that we will dig ourselves out of this endless scarcity and shortfall. As Diann has told you, the stewardship committee will be inviting everyone to gatherings later this spring where you will be asked to reconsider your pledge commitment as we budget for the coming fiscal year. If you are living on a fixed income, or a student, and already doing all you can for All Souls financially, we are truly grateful for your loyalty and support. You can stop listening for the next couple of sentences. But if you have a choice – and especially if you are a newer member, who has not yet built the church into your regular giving – please consider making a noticeable increase in your pledge, or establishing a pledge if you haven’t already. I personally will be making a ten percent increase, and I can tell you I’m not getting a raise at my job this year. But I know how hard our lay leaders work to help our community thrive in all kinds of ways, and it breaks my heart to see them stymied over and over again by what just a handful of dollars could make so easy.
In a few moments now, I will be eager to hear your parting wishes and advice to me – come by the table and say Hi, even if you don’t need a book signed. For now, two final thoughts for you, dearly beloved. First, keep up the resistance. These difficult, painful, frightening days are what our faith is made for; it was born and raised in times when freedom and reason and human kinship were at risk, and needed fierce guarding; it’s in our bones. Don’t worry about being comfortable, for yourself or others; that is not our job, and these are uncomfortable days. Worry about being honest, and kind. Truth matters, never more than now, in the era of fake news and alternative facts. Tell the truth, out loud, to each other, to the press, to our elected officials. Don’t be afraid to disagree, but don’t become disagreeable. Stay active, and keep showing up. Keep the values of our free faith front and center. Remember all the marginalized folks who have kept on keeping on, for decades and centuries, even when they were discouraged, and profoundly tired. Nevertheless, they persisted, and so do we. Despair is a sure sign of injured privilege; don’t give in to it.
At the same time, be good to each other. Make genuine kindness a priority. Be sure that you are acting out of goodwill, and assume that others are too unless they demonstrate differently. Listen deeply, and even more deeply to those you disagree with. Model respect and compassion, even to those who can’t reciprocate, because the practice of disrespect and cruelty will injure you. Try to talk to each other more than you talk about each other. Use the structures we have created for respectful and constructive process if controversies come up; we have the technology. As Marge Piercy says,
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth,
the harvest comes.
Make love that is loving; weave real connections; build real community. Keep reaching out; keep bringing in. That’s the task, in the long season of tending and growth. Be assured, I shall return to you, and we shall know one another still; each of us will be only a little taller than when I went. And the harvest will come. But for now, life calls us on.
Copyright © Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons 2017