Philekklesia (love of church) and Ubuntu

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In the end there are three things that matter about a church:  its past, its present, and its future.  The past matters because it’s our story and also because the past continues to shape a congregation more than you might think.  The present matters because it’s our time – our responsibilities and our possibilities define our experience as we take our turn as the congregation here, holding what we inherit and creating our own legacy in what we do and how we do it.  And the future matters because we have a charge to pass on what we have inherited, to do our best in this time and place for those next generations who will one day sit in these pews and preach from this pulpit.  And while that’s all church life on a very large scale, the actual unfolding of all this past, present, and future is actually very personal.  Individuals and families, activists and ponderers, joyful, lonely, stoic, wacky, courageous, careful, caring people.  We are defined by our time, and we define our time.  We are defined by this church, and we define this church.

Philekklesia is a word derived from Ancient Greek, Philao – from the Greek verb “to love” and ekklesia from the Greek word for “church.”  Thus Philekklesia means “love of church.”  I made it up for this sermon. I made it up because though it is not very hip to talk like this these days, we have a church worth believing in, worth our trust, our commitment, our treasure, our hopes, our selves, here together.  Worthy of love.

I’m so glad we heard Meghan earlier this morning talk about what this church has meant to her in her life, because her story of a life shaped by a church and returning to the church, resonates a lot. I was raised in the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Newton, Mass.  My parents loved, still love, that church, and were pillars for decades filled with committees and efforts and celebrations there.  My sister’s family are members there again now.  When my parents pass from this life, their ashes will be interred in funerary niches along a side wall of FUUSN’s beautiful sanctuary.  There they will rest near some of their closest friends, a few of whom are already there and it’s fitting because FUUSN centered so much of their time, their hope for the world, their belief in humankind, their living into the principle that we must do what we can for the world and for each other, and that we can best do that when we are ourselves in community that multiplies our capacities, heightens our joys, and shares our sorrows.

It was a center for me too, even as a child.  Not my only center, but a sacred center.  As a child of the church – I had total access to all the graciousness and beauty and history in those spaces.   My family loves history, my parents who were both history teachers once upon a time, but we didn’t have much personal history around us – both their families were immigrants who came with little or nothing to this country.  But at church, I could explore everywhere – I’m sure I could still find my way blindfolded.  The grave elegance of the Women’s Alliance room; the worn elegance of the nearby ladies’ bathroom down the hall; the dark, impressive wood all around the Parish Hall.  Most of all, the splendor of the sanctuary; whenever I was at church in the daytime I would walk into the dim, empty place. The sunshine would stream through the so-beautiful stained glass windows, illuminating them brilliantly there in the darkened space.  I would walk along the pews, look at all the windows, and try to decipher all the scenes and characters they held.  I would stand still and listen to the sanctuary breathing all around me, the sound of resting space, the sound of vaulted ceilings and the angels along the columns, and the choirs who have sung, and the people who have sat and the ushers who have welcomed and all the people who have entered and walked and talked and listened and thought and prayed and laughed and wept.  I would run my fingers over the carvings of the baptistery with its tall steeple, and the pulpit and podium.

Back then I had no sense that I would ever be a minister, this wasn’t about that kind of attachment at all.  It wasn’t about a sense of calling, it was about a sense of belonging – mutual belonging.  I belonged to our family, with our modest lifestyle and short history in this country.  But I also belonged to that old church, with its history and beauty and detail.  Its presence and mysteries and grand scale and surprises – they all were all what I was part of, what I belonged to.  I wasn’t really aware of all this back then, this is all unpacking and reflection that has been done much later, long after my footsteps had stopped echoing in the hallways and spaces of that sacred space.  But because my family and I belonged there, there also belonged to me.  The bell tower belonged to all of us at FUSN, including me!  I could ring the bells, could put my hands where so many hands had been and send my halting, hopeful song out to the city.  The church basement was my basement, including the unfinished, dark, cluttered spaces full of boxes I could poke into to find old glass plate images of the church and its life long before me – my church family ancestors.  The church pulpit was my intricate, carved pulpit, carved with the faces of hallowed theological ancestors. Out of my ordinary suburban existence I could see and touch art, history, heritage that were never so accessible to me in my own life.

But with all the ways the church buildings and spaces mattered to me, there was much more that I got out of it.  I was a girl who was shy and bookish and uncertain of her way in the world – even of what my value could possibly be in this big world.  What mattered most in my Unitarian Universalist upbringing is that I was told unfailingly and unstintingly at church that my value was great, there where I could rely on kindness and love and laughter, where I could rely on honoring of the questions I brought and the answers I found.  Where I was invited to teach others, where my creativity was given possibly its freest expression ever, when I taught a class in bible stories to kids much younger than me in the RE program, and then we painted a mural – with permission! – on all four walls of one of the classrooms, illustrating all the stories we loved best.  Nowadays when part of my role is to help steward our historic buildings, I don’t know that I’d ever feel able to grant someone else that particular freedom which I so enjoyed.  But that’s okay because the truth is it wasn’t really about the freedom to paint a room, it was about the faith my church had in me, the welcome the church offered me and my family from the first, the support for living that the church guaranteed us, and the affirmation that said yes, I belonged, I had a place, and the church with all its grandeur and presence and history and the vitality streaming through its spaces, all that belonged to me too, little Liz Lerner, as much as anyone else there.  My decision to become a minister in this faith was made in that building, in the minister’s office, in a meeting with the Rev. Gerry Krick, who will always be an exemplar of ministry to me in so many ways.  When I had exhausted all my earnings and savings and maxed out my student loan options attending divinity school, Gerry brought me to meet with John and Ginny Taplin, members of the church whose names I knew but had never met – and they gave me many thousands of dollars to help me stay in school and finish my ministry degree.  Always, the church and our faith taught me that me that I had value, gifts to give, that I was worthy of care and respect, and had a responsibility to find a way to manifest what gifts I had in the world.  The church – this church – still teaches that.  No wonder – philekklesia – I love this church.

Which brings me to the story about the oak trees for New College at Oxford.  This is a story that has been told and retold many times.  When people checked in with New College’s archivist, Jennifer Thorp, she told them the New Buckinghamshire estates where the trees were supposed to have come from weren’t actually acquired by the college until 1441, 70 years after the hall was built.  So it couldn’t have happened the way the story says.  In an article about the history of the story in the English newspaper The Guardian, it says the story is used as a ‘pleasant illustration of the value of foresight.’

I think it’s more than that, for two reasons.  First, did you notice – the college was acquiring forest at least within 70 years of its building – working to provision itself for the kind of timber that would be required for its future – just not right when the hall was built.

But more important, that story as it stands is much more than a pleasant illustration of the value of foresight.  It’s an inspiring example of vision, of commitment, of looking at human institutions and experience with an entirely extraordinary eye, an eye that doesn’t say ‘what do I need or want now,’ or even what ‘will we need or want down the line,’ but ‘what must endure – what must endure – centuries from now – what matters the most of what we’re doing now for what will be needed then – and what can we do, what can I do to make it so.’  What is that precious, and how does the arc of my life matter for what people will need and be sustained by, lifted by, centuries from now when life will surely be beyond my imagining – and still, people will need to be fed, body and mind, and this hall, this institution must be here, strong, relevant, exciting, for those it can nurture.

This is the kind of eye we bring, you bring, when we give to the church.  In all the scale and scope of what we do here comes down to the people who are held, saved, lost, cherished, nurtured and mourned here.

What I learned was a value that is fundamentally Unitarian Universalist, but one we don’t actually have a word for.  It’s essentially the summation of all our UU principles and purposes rolled up in one, and I was eventually taught this word many decades later in another UU setting:  UbuntuUbuntu is a Zulu and Bantu word from Southern Africa – it is a misleadingly small word with a lot of concept to it.  Ubuntu is a relational understanding: “I am who I am because of who we all are.”  I am who I am because of who we all are.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines Ubuntu this way: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”  What Ubuntu expresses, what our purposes and principles add up to, what church taught me, is this: you can’t be human all by yourself.

So much in the world isolates us, whether by intent or effect, we have all known the pain of trying to be human – it feels like – all by ourself.  Our faith, this church, stands against that.  Against all the ways people fear each other, defend against each other, and in so doing, diminish and demean each other, this church works to push and keep doors open, so that we can breathe, so that we can move, so that we can be, ourselves and each other, free.  Free to attend and respect the truths and varieties of human identity and experience, to attend and respect each other, because when we truly attend and respect each other, we are on the path to love.  When we look to the lessons of our own lives and hearts, they begin to free us, and what they free us for, mind and heart together, is love. There is, literally, no limit to what this church can do, can be, can mean.  The only limits, the only limits on us, are the ones we impose on ourselves, sometimes without even realizing it.  And we can push past any self-imposed limits – in fact, let me say, we should push past limits especially those that are so entrenched that we don’t even realize it. Our faith is not small, our church is not small, these times are full of opportunity and need for exactly the pluralism and respect and compassion that is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism – if we live into our times, bold and glad and passionate and committed, then mighty good – Mighty.  Good – things are coming.

We just sang ‘Love will guide us,’ as it it’s going to guide us sometime in the foreseeable future, but it already guides us.  Love beats at the heart of this church, keeps us working for peace and non-violence here, moves us to give sanctuary to immigrants and refugees, brings us to show up with food or rides when they’re needed, moves us to declare that yes, black lives matter, and we know that declaration means we ourselves have a lot to learn also about how to bring about a just, multicultural, multiracial community, love inspires us to teach Sunday School, and sit with each other when we are struggling or ill, even when we are dying.  Love was why this church worked so hard to push through marriage equality in this state and why our religion worked so hard for it in this nation.  Love underlies why and how we offer food and respect here at our Community Food Share Pantry and when we cook and serve food to our homeless neighbors and friends as part of our Loaves and Fishes program.  Love underlies our commitment to being a congregation that welcomes all we seek us, including – and sometimes especially – GLBTQA people and families.  Love is in the attention and respect we offer each other in the deep sharing conversations we have in our Chalice Circle small group ministry program.  There’s also more than love in those things – but love is the common denominator in all of them.  Love is in our commitment to counter a world that diminishes people all the time, instead working to live in a way that lifts everyone up. Love, and community, which we create together, and which then further creates us, deepens us, refines us in that doing.  Ubuntu. I am who I am because of who we all are.

Having said so much about why church matters, why it is unique and inspiring and critically important always and especially now, and therefore worthy of your generosity, there is only one thing left to say:  church needs, and costs, money.  There’s no way around it.  In fact this church should cost more than it does, because we cut corners all we can and that makes it really tough sometimes.  But this is a reality of congregational life, and the reality of our congregational polity is that we ourselves are responsible in this church for bringing in all the money we use to operate.  There is no hierarchy to tell us what to do and there is no hierarchy to give us money to do it.  It’s all on us.  Our money makes possible our efforts, our supplies, our staff, our vision, our needs, our education, our care, our roof, our heating systems, our cleaning and maintenance of these buildings that shelter and uplift us.  Money is an essential part – not the whole, but an essential part – of what gives our faith form and strength.  We are at an important moment in the life of this congregation, with a lot of gifts and a lot of opportunities and a lot of needs – some needs that have been starved of funding for a long time.   We’re not here to make a profit.  Our commitment is to uphold our purposes and principles, open our hearts, care for each other, welcome strangers, make justice, hold our course even when keeping our hearts open or our commitments committed feels hard or painful, when justice seems elusive or impossible, to double down on Ubuntu every time it is challenged around us or within us.  That’s a precious thing to remember right now, when so much of our struggle as congregations and individuals is to be free of those prisons of classification and judgment that falsely, evilly, infect us, confine us, divide us and demean us – demean us all.

Against all that, set the promise and gift of community, of being with each other through thick and thin, of claiming our neighbors as our friends, and strangers as our friends, we carry love and courage through our faith and declare ‘this is sacred, this is human, this is just, this is essential and we will have it redefine our world.’ Because we all long, every single one of us, you and me, we long for deep community, deep connection, deep spirit and deep faith, so that no matter what we are facing, we do not walk alone.

Ours is not a weak or meek faith and it never has been.  Our giving can be our powerful way to lean into all the history and values and promise of this church that has always called, and still calls people to joy, peace, patience, commitment, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and love.

May we blow the roof off this commitment drive.  May all that is given to this church be bold and glad and grateful.  May we claim our place in the present.  The stronger and more vital this church is now, the stronger and more vital it will be years from now, and like mighty oaks, our faith and our love will still be needed then too.  Thank you for the faith you prove and uphold, for your presence in this church that shapes us all, for your generosity and your commitment, for the precious heritage we renew and reshape and hand on, for all that you give, and all that you are.  Philekklesia, First U.  Ubuntu.  Amen.