Read/Watch: “Changing Church (Golden Oldie)” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
Renovation construction projects, like the one in which we are currently engaged, notoriously take longer, cost more, and cause more inconvenience than anybody anticipated they would in the beginning. Ours has been no exception. You can do all the planning you want in advance; you will always discover facts on the ground that are different from what you had every reason to believe going in. Weather will hamper you, building codes will have obscure requirements, deliveries of material will be delayed, equipment will break down. It’s all part of the process, and it’s not usually comfortable – change almost never is.
We have benefitted from exceptionally dedicated and astute leadership in our congregation throughout this project. From our first exploratory visioning processes, through fundraising and design and bidding and coordination, many people have given extraordinary time and effort to make this process happen; to upgrade and prepare our facilities for another generation of service to our community and its mission. Every person here today and throughout the past ten months has encountered personal discomfort, and disruption of our accustomed ways of gathering, working, and nurturing community in this building. I have been so gratified by the good humor and adaptability we have practiced together – our staff, our lay leadership, and the members as a whole. So far, at least, we have not been cranky with each other, or impatient with the workers, or critical of our designated decision makers, who can find themselves in a very difficult role. I applaud those folks, and all of us, for the cheerfulness with which we have coped with challenges like no heat, and no access to meeting space, and noise and dust and all the little annoyances that inevitably come along with this kind of improvement project. This is all the more true because there is not a lot of visible glamor coming out of this work. A bit of new carpet, some upgraded stairs at the Warwick entrance, an elevator, finally. But much of what we are accomplishing with all this disruption will be entirely invisible – safer wiring, more efficient and healthy heating and cooling, a reliable roof. It isn’t sexy, but it needs to be done if we are to be responsible stewards of the facilities we have inherited from those who built this church over the past 150 years, that we hold in trust for the liberal religious community of the future in Kansas City.
Of course, it is tempting to think that once the elevator is up and running, and the dust is swept away and the paint is touched up, and our resident landscapers have worked their nature magic on our torn up grounds, that things can finally get ‘back to normal.’ And that is what I want to warn us about this morning, on the day when we look ahead ratify our plans for the coming year. Friends, there is no going ‘back.’ Trying to retrieve an old status quo is an exercise in futility – first, because it can hardly ever be done, and second, because even if it could, it would be a bad idea. Like most other living entities, if a church is not standing always on the threshold of change and growth, it’s dying. Now that we are so close to realizing our vision of a sound building that can meet our needs for some time to come, we need to begin asking, what’s next? There are, of course, more issues around space in this facility; there were plans we had hoped to accomplish with this renovation that we had to set aside for the sake of cost. There is still a long wish list of how this building could be different and better, and I expect that we will cycle back to those desires in due course.
But we are about more than maintaining a building; we are about changing lives, and having an impact on the world. And it is time to start asking What does that look like now, in today’s world? We have been celebrating this congregation’s 150 year history throughout this anniversary year, and it is good to be informed by our past – it’s an inspiring story. A story of responding to changes in this city, and this nation, and this world, with changes in the mission and ministry of All Souls.
We are surrounded these days by a culture of dying church. Having an intentional spiritual community is no longer an expectation of our society; the ‘nones,’ as in ‘no religious affiliation’ are the fastest growing statistical segment; the traditional base of time and talent, as well as financial resources, that churches depended on is diminishing in today’s economy. More people are willing to question inherited religious dogma, and that is a fine thing, in my view; there is far less ‘brand loyalty’ to particular denominations. The ways of worship and community building that were comfortable to previous generations don’t work as well for the children of the 21st century. These are trends that all religious traditions and communities are facing, and All Souls is not exempt. We need to be thinking creatively about how we communicate on social media, how we invite and educate today’s children, how we witness to our values in the present political climate, how we serve the needs of single people, and older people, and families, how we learn and celebrate in authentically inclusive ways. Our congregation, like all congregations, must be about the business of re-inventing itself, or we risk fossilizing into a cultural anachronism.
We need to know why we are here, in both senses of that phrase. Each of us needs to know for ourselves why we show up here – what this community means to us, how it helps us grow, and what difference it makes in our lives. Collectively, we need to know why this congregation exists – what is its purpose, what would be missing from this city, and from the liberal religious movement, if it were not here. So I want to pose two questions this morning; questions about moving beyond making our building more prepared for the coming decades, to making our community and our institution more prepared. The second question has to do with our mission statement – which is one of the most succinct, memorable, and useful UU mission statements I am aware of. I have one suggestion regarding it, which I will come to in a moment.
But first, I wonder whether we are now ready to consider two other foundational documents, that up to this point in my ministry here at least, have seemed so formidable and even dangerous to talk about, that we have simple not dealt with them. One is the usual companion to a mission statement, and that is a vision statement. What is it that we want this congregation to become? When we think about the future of this institution, what is the best case scenario that we can imagine? If we were really doing the work that we exist to do, without hesitation or hindrance, what would that look like? As you might expect, after 35 years in this vocation, I have my own ideas about these questions, but I cannot answer them on behalf of this community. I do think that after a year spent very appropriately re-examining and celebrating our history, it would be fitting to spend some time considering with equal care our future. We must learn from, and be inspired by, the past, but merely to be about the business of replicating that past is in fact to betray it. We know that the social and institutional structures that worked 100 years ago won’t work now, but the same thing is true of 40 years ago, or even 20. “New occasions teach new duties,” counseled the Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell, and he was right. With the demands and the opportunities for the church today both unprecedented, what could we imagine? What might we hope for? This is a conversation to which we should devote as much energy as we did to the care and maintenance of our building.
The second document that we need to take up again and breathe life into, is a behavioral covenant. It is really only fair that when people join this congregation, they are given to understand explicitly what our expectations of them are. To maintain, as I have heard some people say in arguing against creating such a covenant, that “everyone knows the rules of ethical behavior,” is a claim of unexamined privilege and cultural dominance, as well as denial of reality. From civility in the halls of congress to the abusive casting couches of Hollywood, it is quite clear that there is no standard that can be taken for granted at this moment in our society. And I believe that it is a useful exercise for a community to articulate its boundaries about what is unacceptable behavior. It is not okay for members or staff to exploit the church financially. It is not okay to be sexual with children here. It is not okay to settle disagreements with physical violence. You should expect a certain level of confidentiality from those who have access to sensitive information. We should pay people what we have promised them. We should not randomly damage the building. It’s not rocket science, but it only ‘goes without saying’ if you have the expectation that everyone thinks like, and agrees with, you. Moreover, one of the many reasons that religious communities like churches exist in the first place is to call us, individually and collectively, to a higher moral standard than the rather abysmal lowest common denominator of the current public consensus. For us, that is not a biblical standard, certainly. It’s not the patriarchal Gentleman’s code, either. Nor do I believe it is Everyone for themselves, do whatever you feel like. In what ways do we want the behavioral expectations of this community to ask us to be better people than we already are? If we don’t want that, we should say so. But if we tend to agree that this is part of what a church is for, then what is it we are hoping to be urged toward by participating in this community? And, no less importantly, how are we going to practice that aspiration, and call each other back into covenant when we get absent minded about it, which is sure to happen from time to time?
I think we do this already, in certain implicit ways, but that makes it hard to be clear and confident when things get messy, and people’s feelings are on the line. The work of creating an honest and usable behavioral covenant is spiritual work that demands attention, humility, and growth from those who engage in it. I would like to think that we are now up for the challenge.
Finally, a word about our mission statement, which I have always liked, and continue to find fruitful in my own work. As I hope you recall, it summons us to Build, Inspire, and Create. To build a respectful, caring community; to inspire personal and spiritual growth; and to create a just and compassionate society. The first two lines make total sense to me; I can see how I and we can move forward toward building community and inspiring growth. The third line has come to feel a bit grandiose as I try to work with it, and if feels like the kind of thing that a group of privileged white folk would say, that we are going to create a just and compassionate society, as if ‘society’ were in our hands to shape as we like. As I have been thinking about change, and how difficult and uncomfortable change can be, it struck me that this is what we are really committing to in that last line. We may not be able to entirely create a just and compassionate society all by our little liberal selves, but what we can do is to create change toward that just and compassionate society. That way, the parallel constructions work; build community, inspire growth, and create change. And all that we do is part of that work – not just our national and international social justice efforts, but everything that helps us create change in our own minds and hearts, in our families and in our work, in the groups we gather here at All Souls, and the organizations we are part of in our neighborhoods, and our city, and our states.
Creating change is hard work; it is spiritual work. It is asking ourselves to be okay with letting go of something familiar and comfortable, so that something new and creative that we are not used to, can come to life. Change comes to us, whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, but the truth is that the time we spend sulking about change is time wasted and lost that can never be recaptured. Not the time spent grieving our real losses; that is inner growth work, and necessary to our humanity. But time spent resisting and resenting that things are not the way they used to be – that costs us dearly, and needlessly. Part of what a caring community is about in a growing church is helping each other to navigate the discomfort of change; to acknowledge our reluctance to let go of the customs that have given us meaning and comfort, so that we can offer other, different people meaning and comfort too. In that exchange, our highest purpose is found, and our greatest love is given to the world. When we commit ourselves to create change toward justice and compassion in the society around us, we are making a promise to let our light shine – the light of our greatest gifts and highest hopes; the light of truth as we know it today, and as we shall yet discover it; the light in our hearts, that reaches out to all who are in trouble or in need; the light of faith, that together with the whole interconnected web of existence, we could help to shape a better, more equitable, more honest, more honoring world for all of us.
The early American Universalist John Murray is said to have instructed his congregations to help create change in their world with these words:
Go out into the highways and by-ways of America, your new country. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them, not Hell, but hope and courage.
Each of us as individuals may indeed possess only a small light; we do not, after all, run the world, even from positions of relative privilege. That is part of why we have a church – to bring us together, to encourage us to lift up our light, and even as our world and our institutions change, to let it always shine.
Let’s rise and sing.