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Be Ours a Religion...
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 1, 2015

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Theodore Parker was one of the more preeminent Unitarian ministers and theologians of the 19th Century. A good portion of his life energy was spent on behalf of the abolition of slavery and the promotion of women's suffrage. In defining our religious tradition he wrote:
Be ours a religion which, like sunshine,
goes everywhere;
its temple, all space;
its shrine, the good heart;
its creed, all truth;
its ritual, works of love;
its profession of faith, divine living.

A man was stranded on a deserted island. Years passed before he was finally discovered. When the rescue party came ashore, the man expressed his gratitude and told them how he had survived alone for so many years. The rescue party was suspicious. One of the party stated, "No one could live on this island alone for that long a time." "But it's true," the man said, "Come and see where I lived."

When the rescue party arrived at his residence, they saw three huts. "Ah hah!" they said, "here is evidence that you are not alone." "No," said the man, "let me explain. This first hut is where I lived all these years, and the third hut is where I attend church." "What then is the second hut?" they inquired. "Oh," said the man... That's where I used to go to church."

People leave their religious communities for all sorts of reasons, and that will always be the case. This is a voluntary organization and, as such, people can and will at times opt out. My prayer is always that a primary reason for that is not that they feel they were in need and that there was no one in the congregation who cared, or at least tried to help meet those needs. My hope is that a reason for leaving might not be that there was someone wishing to provide meaningful service in the congregation and that they were unable to find an outlet for their spirit of service. "Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere..." T. Parker

My late colleague Forrest Church, who served for many years at All Souls Unitarian Church on the Upper East Side of NYC, and who died not so many years ago of cancer, noted as he was approaching his own death that "Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die." I think that is surely so.

That makes a primary task of religion, of a religious community, then, to provide comfort, for sure. But also, and I would suggest equally, to provide us with challenges that can help us to grow, as well as opportunities for service that enable us to pay our rent for the space and resources we use while we are here and alive on this earth. We come here seeking comfort, challenge and opportunities for service.

To the latter point, my colleague David Bumbaugh, now on faculty at our UU seminary, Meadville/Lombard at the University of Chicago, wrote:
The business of the Church is transformation: the transformation of individual lives, of the community, of the world. Uplifting services of worship, magnificent music, creative education programs, provocative art exhibits and friendly coffee hours are not ends, in and of themselves. They are the means by which the Church serves that larger process by which lives, families and communities are transformed, so that they become more truly human and humane, more moral and ethical, more deeply meaningful. Everything we do - from worship to religious education, to maintaining our facilities - is done in service to this transforming possibility.

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit with the newly formed Caring Network, made up of the leadership of your Deacons, your Lay Ministry, your Membership Committee and your Chalice Circles. What they described to me was their desire, and what they feel is the desire of this congregation as a whole, to do a better, more thoughtful and thorough job in this congregation at meeting the spiritual, emotional and sometimes even physical needs of its members. It was their feeling, and I concur, that a culture here, at First Unitarian, in which the entire or nearly entire membership of the congregation is engaged in service to its members would promote the kind of beloved community that this church is capable of being. It was their feeling that such a culture would be as rewarding to those providing service as it would to those being served. And they recognized that those roles would be in continuous rotation among the members.

In just a few minutes you will engage in a conversation about a possible way in which this congregation might serve the causes of justice in the larger community through the Black Lives Matter initiative. Regardless of the outcome of that conversation, I hear from you that this congregation wants to be engaged in processes that promote the, "...means by which the church serves that larger process by which lives, families and communities are transformed, so that [you might strive to] become more truly human and humane, more moral and ethical, more deeply meaningful." I get that you want to be in service to the world; to a great extent that's why I want to be here with you this year, working together.

It's not practical though, to think that we can fully achieve one level of service before moving on to the next. We can't focus solely on fulfilling our own longings before we are able to hear the longings of our fellow congregants, and only then moving on to hearing those the community and so on. Needs are constantly in flux and our responses require us to be continuously fluid in addressing those needs. And so, it's more realistic to recognize that we would do well to be engaged in promoting the meeting of needs and transformation on multiple levels, all the time. That said, we aren't capable of meeting the needs of the larger spheres in which we exist if we aren't spending some of our time and energy taking care of things at home.

That's the conclusion that the Caring Network came to, two weeks ago, and what they asked me to share with you this morning. They are more than willing, they are eager, to provide an infrastructure in which the congregation can better care for itself. Of course, if their vision of a broadly shared caring is to come true, it means that you, the membership, will utilize the structures they are providing by volunteering your services, as well as in letting folks know when you are in need of them. These roles are always in continuous rotation.

In your Order of Service today, you'll notice and insert created by Janet Downing Taylor that represents both sides of this conversation. One side is a very clear solicitation for your participation. It provides you with an invitation to let your leaders know what kinds of groups and services might be most helpful to you and to the congregation. The other side is another very clear solicitation for your participation, providing you with opportunities for volunteering your services to those in need.

I would encourage you to check off as many categories on either side of this insert as you can, and then drop your insert off at the Caring Network table in the Atrium after our Congregational Meeting today. Talk with the folks there and learn how you might get to be better connected. If you can't get the form back to them today, please be sure to find some other way of getting it to them. So often, so many of us want to serve but the organization isn't there for us to step into. The organization is there, my friends. It's waiting now for you to step up to being the change that you want to see in the way your congregation does church.

You might have noticed there is no checkbox to sign up for providing meals for members in temporary need of them. This has often been quite a large part of the service coming from the Lay Ministry. We're going to try something a little different. Because this has been such a big part of it in the past, we feel that fulfilling this need really does warrant its being a congregation-wide effort. In the future, the Caring Network will proceed in providing meals with the expectation that we will all be participants. Going page by page through the directory, with deference to location, when someone is in need of meals for a few days or a couple of weeks, a member of the Lay Ministry will call to see, not if you are able to help with a meal, but what day or days would be most convenient for you to do your part. In this way, many hands will make light work, and everyone has the opportunity to serve; everyone has the opportunity to be served.

So then, may ours be a religion, which like sunshine, goes everywhere...

May each one here claim this church, today and in the time to come, as their own. May each one here come to say - this is my church, where I give and receive; where I am made more whole and have the opportunity to help make others and the world more whole.

The business of the Church is transformation... Everything we do - from worship to religious education, to maintaining our facilities, to serving one another - is done in service to this transforming possibility. Amen.