A sermon by Ryk McIntyre for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, June 21, 2009
I Spoke to God This Morning, and She Said "Hi!"
When I was 18 or 19, Reverend John Nichols- our recent Interim Minister, and then minister in Wellesley, Mass.- said something that made me mad. I think I complained that no one in the church responded to my request to join nor had I been invited to a recent “New Members” dinner. If I remember, John suggested that since I was going to school in Maine, maybe I should look for a church there. Whatever else was going on that particular night, John response felt distracted and curt. I swore to myself I’d never join a church, ever, and I resented John for 27 years. More on that later...
To begin, as it says in the title, I did speak to God this morning, and She did say ‘Hi!’ That’s not the point of this sermon, but when I was asked to do this, I was also asked, “Oh, and do you have a title for your sermon? Like, right now?” And that was the first thing to pop out of my mouth. My mouth and my brain have always enjoyed a strained relationship.
My UU History: I was adopted into a family that went to church in Wellesley Hills, MA. Actually my mom went, and my brothers and father went only on the big occasions. I was more like my Mom. I liked going to our church. In my late teens I discovered the youth group, LRY, and that transformed my life. Then, like many UU’s in their twenties, I wandered away from the church, exploring other religions that would at least give straight answers to a question. I didn’t always agree with them, but I liked that they didn’t answer questions with questions.
During those years I explored Buddhism, Krishna Consciousness, and Wicca, appreciating the similarities and the differences, learning what I could from each. It’s not that these faiths were a “phase I grew out of” nor are they inferior to being Christian. In fact, it was as much a surprise to me as anyone when my path lead me to Jesus. Now I could do a whole other sermon–or twenty– on the difference between my loving, tossing-money-changers-out-the-temple Rebel Jesus, and the Jesus of Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps. But this sermon isn’t about them. Above all– I don’t try to convert anybody. One of the things I love about being Unitarian Universalist, what I brag to all my friends about us is this: we are a faith with a lot of hyphens. We have Jewish-UUs, Buddhist-UUs, Zen Buddhist-UUs, Bahai-UUs, Pagan- and Muslim UU’s; I’ve met a lot of UUs that are ex-Catholic or ex-Baptist; I know Unitarians that are Agnostics or Atheists. And we all hang out together in the same mixed community on Sundays, attending Church and drinking coffee, or as I call it “Unitarian Holy Water”. I even know a few Christian-Unitarians, and there hangs a funny story.
In the Summer after the experience that led me to Jesus, I was at the LRY Star Island Conference, like every summer between 18 and 25. I attended a workshop on “Faith
and Belief”, where we all shared our thoughts on spirituality. Someone talked about Buddhism, another shared her Bahai beliefs. When it was my turn, I talked about how I had chosen Jesus as my personal savior and “life coach.” That night, some friends told me they were having a follow-up discussion in their room, after bed-check, and would I like to attend? When I arrived, I knocked on the door, someone opened it and, seeing it was me, let me in. Immediately, I was struck by how everyone was sitting in a semicircle, looking at me with grave looks on their faces. Then I noticed how the person who opened the door was now standing in front of it, blocking any exit. They were doing an intervention! “Ryk, who did this to you?” “Did they brain wash you?” “Do. You. Know. Who. I. Am.?” It took some talking them down, but I was able to assure them, kind of, that you could have Jesus in your heart and not have suffered a recent head injury.
John Nichols once told me about a web-site for Christian UU’s called the “Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship”... I guess it was that, or “endangered species” status, and the polar bears were already in line ahead of us. So why am I a Christian-UU? It’s a really boring story. And I’m not sure I could tell you, other than, in a sky full of choices, that was the signal beacon I locked onto. And I am painfully aware of the many schisms between me and most Christians, which would only makes it a longer story. I am social and politically Liberal; I believe the Bible is an anthology, and some of the writers are better– and more mentally stable– than others. I know that Jesus is the way for me, just as I know for a fact he isn’t the way for everybody. To me, Evolution is proof that it’s all part of some grand design, and analogous to Free Will. We all make choices, as individuals or as species. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. Maybe the dinosaurs were God’s way of saying sometimes Bad Things Happen to Good Species. See, God doesn’t step in every time we pray for something to happen or not happen, if He did, Free Will wouldn’t mean anything. I’m comforted by a God that is more involved in keeping planets and galaxies spinning than in intervening in sports games or lottery tickets. But I believe in a personal, creative, Loving God. That means- Fred phelps, if you’re listening, this is for you- God doesn’t hate anybody. And I believe the only thing Jesus cares about Gay Marriage... is that they are happy. And until Christianity Inc. acknowledges the “Holy Spirit” or “Holy Ghost” is actually the Goddess, then I have to infer that Jesus has two Dads. Or one Dad and one amorphous space phantom. Either way, it’s a non-traditional family and we should celebrate it.
Back to the story.
I reached my 30’s, had kids, and did like most UU’s, and started going to church again. I mean, you may question Unitarianism in your twenties, but in your thirties you bring your kids there. In my first marriage, I belonged to the First Parish, Harvard Square, Cambridge, but that didn’t work out. The marriage, not the church. When I met my Melissa and moved in with her in Providence, I lost contact with that church, mostly due to the distance faith required that early on a Sunday morning. But, sure enough, when
we had our daughter, Melissa and I wanted a spiritual community for our family, so we came here. Melissa had already been here to see a poetry reading. You all had her at Marge Piercy.
So here we were, settling in to our new church... Now, imagine my surprise and horror when I heard our Interim Minister would be John Nichols! I hated that guy! Why, I... couldn’t... exactly remember, but I knew he said something to me 27 years ago that I nursed as a resentment all these years. Clearly, he wouldn’t be a good minister! But, in one of his early sermons, addressing our search for a permanent minister, John cautioned us how “your minister will always disappoint you somehow.” He gave many examples, particularly “they may be distracted, thinking about other things and might say something in passing that seems curt, and never know they offended you”...
Well, crap. Now, by the sacred rules of the Justice League of Cool Christians, I had to give him a chance. I decided to confront him. I made an appointment to see him, told him my story... and he promptly apologized. He admitted he didn’t remember the incident, but it had clearly bothered me. And for that, he was sincerely sorry. Great. Now I was lost. I’d held that resentment for 27 years... what was I supposed to do with my life now? This made me realize how much energy I waste on negativity. Just think what could have done with all that energy, if I had put it towards a better purpose. John showed me how much forgiveness is worth, how letting go of pain or anger makes one lighter, able to move on in life. He reminded me what a Unitarian Universalist– Christian
or not– is capable of when we are at our best.
Jesus isn’t my personal savior because name-dropping Him is going to get me into the After-Life After-Party. He’s my teacher because I respect him, not fear him. And I try to emulate him, however imperfectly. When I am in doubt and afraid, I recall Jesus too doubted, that he too was afraid that night in the Garden of Gethsemane. That, despite
his doubt and fear, he simply did the next right thing. And when I am judging someone, I try to remember Jesus stressed compassion, and forgiveness, instead. Do I believe in the divinity of Jesus? The Resurrection? Do I believe he performed the Miracles spoken of? Sure, why not? Those stories are neat-o! But I find it interesting that, as magic tricks, they declined in dazzle over the series. We went from feeding hundreds to healing dozens to raising one guy. Then it was just water and wine. Almost as if he wanted people to set course not by his miracles, but by his message, and his actions. Of course, the Resurrection was a pretty good trick, but every act needs a Big Finish. As to what the after-life is like? Is there Heaven and Hell? I don’t know. I want to believe in them, but as Harry Houdini pointed out, there’s never been solid proof either way, and there’s a lot of con-men trying to sell you an agenda one way or another. Besides, Jesus and the UU Church taught me we can make a reflection of Heaven right here, every time we gather together. We call it “Community.”
When I said I spoke to God this morning and She said “Hi!”, I don’t mean to suggest that I am special, and alone hear that Voice. Anyone can, if they open themselves to it. My experience of God is not the same as yours, nor should it be. If you believe in a Father God, then believe it was He that said “Hi!”. If you believe it was Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, the Goddess, the Great Spirit, or the Giant Cosmic Wonderful Blob that UU Churches in California are fond of, that spoke, then it was He/She/They or It that said “Hi!” And I don’t want to leave out the Atheists or Agnostics because if even as they doubt or deny God, they are fully involved in the discussion of God. And She appreciates them. You can trust me on this– I’m a poet.
I made use of the wisdom of many people in writing this sermon, and I want to
especially thank Reverend Nichols, as well as Reverends James Ishmael Ford, Hank
Pierce, Minister Eric Kaminetsky, and my worship assistant, Keith Brown, for their help. No names, but one of them suggested I speak more about being a writer. So, why am I a writer, Keith? (Oops!) It’s the same as being a Christian... I have no idea. I mean, I know why I wanted to be a writer. It was to entertain and get attention and girls. And whenever I’m asked where I get my ideas, I quote Harlan Ellison, “There’s a mail-order place in Ohio. For $19.95/month, they send you seven ideas.”
Seriously, my relationship with the muse is like my relationship with Jesus... I know it’s there and it would be as hard to qualify as it would be to quantify. If my talent for writing and performing is a gift, it’s a gift that gives both ways. Poems I’ve written, like “Crazy Leap of Faith” brought together a couple in marriage who were scared to make the commitment. They heard that poem and took strength and courage from it, and took their own leap of faith. Another of my poems, the “Hamlet Rap” is taught in High Schools and Colleges across the country. And I didn’t set out to write either of those poems. They came to me from somewhere and I was honored to be the one to write them. So when I perform them, or any other poem, or sermon, I have a responsibility to be of service to the audience. I couldn’t do what I do without them, they are always the most important people in the room. They could have chosen to be anywhere else– watching TV, having dinner, seeing a movie, sleeping in on a Sunday, whatever– but they chose to be there, listening to me. This is a gift I can only keep it if I give it away
every time I perform. The gift I receive in return is I get to make people laugh and feel better, even if it’s only for as long as the poem.
So, that’s my message, which I have been privileged to share with you today. And you
can trust what I have said– I’m a poet, as well as the reigning UU Idol here at the First
Unitarian of Providence, and a father. So, Happy Father’s Day to all you Dads, your
children are the poems you are privileged to have co-write. Create well. Bless you all,
Blessed Be. Amen