We Don't Need Another Hero
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 25, 2015
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our ancient reading this morning is from the Christian scriptures, the Book of James:
What good is it my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace. Keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
Our Modern reading is from the Day of Affirmation speech delivered by Robert Kennedy at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, June 6, 1966:
Each time a [person] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, [that person] sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
"If Athens shall appear great to you," said Pericles, "consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, and by men who learned their duty." That is the source of all greatness in all societies, and it is the key to progress in our time.
Can you tell me
Is that boy still climbing up the mountain?
Have you seen him?
Is he still making way or has he fallen down?
I can't believe it,
That he's still up there looking for the answer.
He's got a lot more courage
Than some of us will have ever found.
And it makes me feel like going up there,
Just to take him by the hand,
To make sure he's got his strength
And that he still understands.
He's the last hope I know of
For the brotherhood.
He's the last hope I know of
For the common good.
He's just one, who I can think of,
Who ever fully understood,
That all dreams, are the realities of man...
"Boy on the Mountain" These lyrics are from one of my favorite songs by a group that was called The Association, the only major national band to ever make it out of Dubuque, Iowa, where I once went to school. The song was written back in the 1960s and I have to apologize for the gender exclusive language in it. I've tried unsuccessfully a number of times to degenderize the words, but I haven't found a way of doing that without ruining the poetry. I'll hope you can hear the more universal message that lies beyond the limited, masculine references.
The song speaks to me, not of a hero in the sense of a rare individual who rises above the masses in order to save them. Instead, it speaks to me of a child, a person, any one of us who, upon the path of life, learns that we are not here in isolation, but as part of something larger than ourselves. It speaks about any one of us who learns that we are called to do our part in and for that common, larger good. It speaks about any one of us who discovers that the starting place for such a journey is having a vision, a dream of what one's place is and of what it might be. The song is not about heroism. It's about living one's life intentionally. We might even dare to say - living religiously.
My message, "We Don't Need another Hero," is really a homiletic exploration in three parts. The first regards the work of the Congregation and the relationships required within it to get that work done. This is actually where an interim minister and a congregation spend much of their time and energy during a transitional period.
You will soon be pursuing a relationship with a new minister and my hope for you is that this will begin a long-standing relationship for you with that person. And so I thought that the second part of this message should be about the relationship between congregation and minister.
Finally, I want to spend a few minutes talking about the role of heroes in our lives generally, especially about pedestals and deification. I want to think about what we make of ourselves when we make heroes of others.
The first part of this sermon came to mind just the other day. It's about how these dynamics of heroism versus participation are important in the life of a congregation - among you, the members. This is an important time for you all to think about these relationships because of the transition you are in the midst of. I want to tell you about something that I think is important to the vitality and the well-being of your congregation as you move forward. It has to do with the difference between heroes and do-bees.
To do that, we might want to recognize that, as a rule, people tend to come to a religious community for one or more of three specific reasons. They'll likely stay for other reasons, but they come initially for one or more of the following: the quality of the preaching; the quality of the music; the quality of the religious education program.
In fact these elements of congregational life are so important here that you have banded together to provide professional leadership in each of these areas. You have a long, rich history of excellence in preaching from this pulpit. Granted there may have been some rough patches along the way some years back. Still, it was excellent before and, I hear from you, it was so again these past seven years. Your music program is likewise excellent. Under the talented guidance of Fred Jodry, the music program here is the envy of any congregation who might be familiar with it.
The religious education program, under the able and dedicated leadership of Cathy Seggel, is the largest volunteer program in this congregation. In fact, it is the largest Unitarian Universalist RE program in the state and one of the very largest in all of New England.
To a significant extent, people come here for one or more of these three initiatives. You've done an excellent job, currently and over the years, in selecting professionals who can lead and help you to have and do your very best in these areas. I would be quick to point out that you brought on capable professionals though, and not heroes. You are the ones who bring your minds and hearts to worship, opening yourselves to the possibilities of transformation. You are the ones who come and open your voices in beautiful singing. You are the ones willing to be organized and prepared so that your children might be grounded in a religious education program that guides them towards finding and making meaning in their lives.
So, if these are the reasons many people come in the first place, why do they stay? Why do you stay? Studies have shown that it is primarily because of the connections that are made in the congregation. Social psychologist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, says that "...people join churches and other houses of worship, not so much in search of the sacred, but in search of sacred community."
Here, you are a sacred community that is in search. There is often a good deal of anxiety in a congregation that is undergoing a process of search for a new minister, especially when the previous minister was one who was beloved by the congregation. My hope is that, by the time the Search Committee brings a candidate before you, a few evolutions will have occurred to decrease the level of anxiety and to prepare you to be in a healthy relationship with that new minister.
My hope is that you will have successfully said goodbye to Rev. James Ford by then. You surely don't need to forget about James; I hope you never do. But you do need to let him go... as your minister. I know that you said goodbye to him personally when he left last spring. I'm talking about goodbye in a more Buddhist sense - a letting go of the expectation that you will be able to re-create James' ministry in your next ministry. Part of that letting go will be to reclaim your own congregational identity as a sacred community within your evolving narrative.
You have a number of initiatives in place and some new ones that are in the making, initiatives that promote connection and caring, here in the congregation. I'll speak more about those next week. What I want to mention now though is this: a healthy congregation does not need a hero, or a few heroes, who will do all the caring and connecting for the entire congregation. That's not a very healthy model. A congregation needs all of its members to be willing to walk along and work along with each other, engaged in giving and receiving, in order to create the beloved community that I trust we are all seeking.
This leads to the second point I want to address. You don't need to be looking for a new minister that's a hero at all. That would be a little like "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places." There are no perfect ministers out there waiting for you to discover them. Besides, heroes are incapable of creating or sustaining a congregation. If this is going to be the caring and connected congregation you want it to be, all of you will need to make it so. We don't need heroes; we need do-bees, those who are willing to do the work that you say the congregation needs to have done - willing to do the work you say the world needs doing.
The strength and the power of this congregation lies in you, its members. When the new minister comes, you won't need a hero who will make all things well and good. You will need someone capable of sharing your vision of what this congregation is and what it is capable of becoming. You will need someone to help you articulate that vision. You will need someone capable of working with you and walking with you into that vision, someone who will create the ceremonies by which you will celebrate your achievements and grieve your losses. You won't need a hero. You will need a partner, in much the same way as you need each other in partnership. A healthy relationship between minister and congregation is one of collaborative partnership.
To our final point - the role of heroes in our lives generally. This may seem to be somewhat unrelated to our previous points, but I would suggest that it is part of the same theology. There are all kinds of categories of heroes. I want to focus here on superheroes. There are superheroes like Batman, Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern and such. I leave those for you to think about on your own time.
But then there are pantheons of other superheroes that include the likes of Jesus, Krishna, the Buddha, Aphrodite, Freya, Juno, and all the others. I would even include Santa Claus in this category. This tier of saviors and miracle makers has been elevated in their hero status by a process of deification. They have been declared to be gods.
Recognizing my own potential arrogance here, I have to say that I have little regard for any god or goddess who would intervene in my life in order to make it either better or worse. I'm good with the idea that, at the center of this universe, our being is held within mystery. I'm good with the idea that love is a human potential, which may very well be related to that mystery.
But I feel that my vanity would have to far outpace itself for me to embrace the notion that there is a sentient being, or that there are sentient beings, who will, upon my supplication, gratify my greed for things, or even my desire to be protected from the natural processes that emanate from that central mystery of the universe. When we relinquish our human potential to survive and thrive, when we give that potential over to a god or goddess hero, we cede not only our strengths and character, but also our responsibility for living intentional, purposeful and meaningful lives.
If Jesus were a god, somehow other than human, I don't know how I could possibly gain anything through his experience. But if Jesus was human, fully and only human, then I can gain all kinds of benefit from his life. I can gain from his experience, not because he can save me, but because I can learn from his life things that might help me to redeem, to save, my own life.
In that way Jesus is not a hero who is in the business of saving anymore, but a role model who might help us to find our way. I don't know about you, but I need all the good role models I can get - Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa. I don't want to be saved by someone else. I want to make my life mean something because of what I'll have done with it, not because of any intercessions by a superhero-god. That could only serve to diminish any meaning I might find.
When we make heroes and deities of people - who were only people doing their best to answer the demands of their lives and times - we infuse their humanity with an energy that is an abdication of our own. I want to make something clear. I'm not rejecting the idea that being is devoid of the divine. Not at all. The Divine and Mystery are names for the same thing, as near as I can tell. What I'm saying is that no one is more closely related to the mystery, which has and holds all things, no one is more closely related to that which is divine, than you are.
And so you - and so we - are each called upon the path of life so that we might learn that we are not here in isolation, but as part of something much larger than ourselves. We are called by life so that we might learn to do our part in and for that common, larger good. We are called by life so that we might discover that the starting place for such a journey is having a vision, a dream of what one's place is and of what it might be.
Can you believe it,
That you're still out there looking for the answers?
Together, you'll have a lot more courage
Than alone, anyone ever can.
You are the last hope I know of
For the common good.
You are the last hope I know of
For all that's good.
You are the ones, who I can think of,
Who might fully understand,
That our dreams ask us to dare, dare to do... what we can.
We don't need another hero. By our acts we need only show the character and strength of our faith. We don't need another hero. We need only send forth tiny ripples of hope, crossing each other's from a million different centers of energy and daring, forming a current, which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance, which can build up the bonds of justice and community.
We don't need another hero. We need only to dream, to dare and to act. That which is divine, that which is mystery, seems to take care of itself very well. We need to be about the business of taking care of ourselves, each other and our planet. This is truly a good place for exploring such deeply religious possibilities.