Like a Good Neighbor, Sermon June 30 2013

First Reading: “Of the Communion of Churches One With Another,” From the Cambridge Platform, 1648, Chapter 15

Although Churches be distinct, and therefore may not be confounded one with another: and equal, and therefore have not dominion one over another: yet all the churches ought to preserve church-communion with another.

1) “By way of mutual care in taking thought for one another’s welfare.

2) By way of consultation one with another, when we have occasion to require the judgment and counsel of other churches.

3) A third way is by way of admonition, [helping us to be our best selves.] and

4) A fourth is by way of participation, where the members of one church occasionally coming unto another, and to supply ministers in place of an absent or sick minister of another church for a needful session.”

Second Reading, by Lynn Ungar 
We’re all familiar with the great lament about our isolated society. But what we tend to forget is that just as we so often choose to be isolated, so can we choose to be connected. You can put your kids in the wagon and walk to the store, waving and stopping to talk with people as you go. You can take the folks next door a pie at Christmas. You can offer to feed the neighbor’s cat while they’re away. You can go across the street and ask for a cup of sugar. You can rake leaves or shovel snow for more than your own patch of ground. You can have a block party, and turn your street, if only for a day, into a meeting place, a playground, a place for people to connect.  We choose to build fences, and we can also choose to tear down walls, to make a place for a sense of belonging to flourish, even in a society that expects us to stay apart. You can, if you so choose, fulfill the vision of the prophet Isaiah (58:12), who proclaimed that “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”

Sermon – Like a Good Neighbor
I don’t know about you, but I come to church this morning feeling both tired, and energized. We started the week with the Voting Rights Amendment’s demise, a decision based on claims that racism is an outdated notion, even while Paula Deen seems to be offering a one-woman counter-argument.

The Texas legislature, meanwhile, attempted to pass what would have been one of the most restrictive anti-choice bills in the US, only to find themselves blocked first by a female senator standing and telling women’s stories for 11 hours, and then most crucially by the mostly female public witnesses taking over the filibuster with chants and cheers and refusals to be silent.

Meanwhile back at the Supreme Court, tribal sovereignty came head-to-head with the personal heartbreak of an adoption story gone terribly wrong, and it’s hard to tell if there were any winners at all from that case.

And then there’s DOMA. In a single swift kick that we all know was built on the foundation of decades of sacrifice and courageous coming out, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is nearly dead.  Not all the way dead though, which leaves those of us in “civil unions” still not able to get married.

These are just the big headlines of the week, the backdrop that our regular lives are set against as the world moves ever on.  And those regular lives have their own unfolding. New diagnoses, new jobs, new friendships, broken relationships, broken bones, losses and gifts big and small.

Now wonder we might feel both tired, and energized.

Which brings me to the plan for today’s sermon.

Today we’re doing ecclesiology, also known as polity.  Also known as the question of how churches should organize and govern themselves.  Also known as one of my most favorite topics in all of church geekdom.

In case any of you are wondering if I maybe just made the biggest non sequitur in all of sermon history, let me see if I can connect the dots.

Here’s my proposal: All this stuff that has happened this week, and all the stuff that happens in our world all the time.  All the stuff that lifts us up and the stuff that breaks our hearts, the stuff that spurs us on and makes us want to pull the covers back up over our heads. All this stuff is fundamentally connected to this seemingly obscure topic of how we Unitarian Universalists organize ourselves.

In fact, my proposal to all of you is that the way we organize ourselves, if we fully engage with its promise and potential, is our practical everyday opportunity and direct response to all that this world might throw in the way of our vision of Beloved Community.

And to help explain why this is true, I need to take us back – 400 years or so.  To the early 17th century, when religious seekers fled England en masse not because they had a theological dispute. They had no beef with the content of their creeds.  Their concern was purely a matter of form. They believed that the spirit of truth does not flow according to an organizational chart, and wisdom is not contained in a single book or rightfully interpreted only by those at the top of a patriarchal hierarchy. And these beliefs led them to radically new conclusions about how churches should be organized and governed.

Unable to convince the Church of England to reform, they set sail for New England, where they began enacting their new vision, letting the spirit of truth flow freely and letting love guide them. They held all kinds of lectures and study groups, they chatted and debated, they testified and they founded church after church – many of which still exist today as Unitarian Universalist or UCC congregations. By 1648, they had gotten so clear on their vision that they created a treatise. What became known as the Cambridge Platform.

The Cambridge Platform is a beautiful and comprehensive document that describes everything you might imagine about how a church should organize and govern itself,
all based in this central belief that you can’t contain the spirit of love, that truth flows freely, and the best way to follow the ways of truth and love is through free gatherings of people who promise to walk together, hold each other accountable, and learn and grow according to the ways of love.

It describes what membership means, what the role of an ordained minister is, what the purpose of a church is, and even what to do when a church gets so big it overflows its building. It’s pretty remarkable how often I find myself in conversations today that mirror the issues taken up by the Cambridge Platform 350 years ago.

When the Voting Rights decision came through earlier this week, it was right after I’d read another heartbreaking story of an immigrant family being torn apart. And then one of my colleagues in the Springs was describing the families who had lost everything in the fires. And then someone in the church told me this most heart wrenching story. And then I don’t know, my kids had had an extra hard day and were impossibly cranky and short tempered and they just would not stop fighting with each other…..and everywhere I looked, things just all seemed to be verging on the hopeless.

When I find myself in this sort of place, feeling both tired and energized all at once – filled with both the sense of the goodness of the world and its brokenness, its promise and its failure to fulfill that promise – when I find myself looking for a place to pin my hopes….I place my faith in the Cambridge Platform.

I place my faith in this vision of a communion of covenanted communities described by religious seekers of the 17th century.

Which to be clear, means I place my faith in 2 layers of community. The individual covenanted community, and then the covenant between and among communities.

That first layer, that’s us. That’s the Foothills Unitarian Church. I place my faith in this community, and its promise of diverse individuals who come together freely in a promise to walk together, to hold each other accountable, to share stories and discern truth and the ways of love, and to bring more of this love into the greater world.

But there’s a second layer, equally necessary to sustain my faith. For a single congregation is not enough to meet the world in all its possibility and challenge, no matter how fabulous that congregation may be. And yes I do mean you.

But a single fabulous congregation is not enough to save this world.

We need a network of congregations, a coalition, what the Cambridge Platform calls, a communion of churches.

We need communities of practice and resistance coming together to share their visions and experiences, helping each other see what they each cannot see from their particular localities. Communions of churches to do as the Cambridge Platform outlines: care for one another, consult with each other, offer each other counsel, teach each other, call each other to our best selves, help each other out of dysfunctional patterns and infighting, raise our voices for one another, stand in solidarity, sharing in worship and learning, and practice,
holding each other up.

The world needs this great network of communities who share Unitarian Universalist values and commitments, for life is large, and time is short, and the call of Beloved Community beckons.

And yet – for some reason, this communion of congregations is just not something we are often all that good at, not something many of our churches have chosen to practice. We choose instead to remain isolated, missing out on the greater promise of our chosen faith.

Two years ago, our good friends Jill and Andy, joined the foreign service. It was a real loss to us, as they – and their two kids, precisely our kids age, all moved to Israel. Ever since they left, we say we’ve been looking for our new Jill and Andy. We joked, but it has been a real struggle. Losing them and their role in our lives was a big deal. Hanging out with them was easy and routine and unguarded.

How do you develop such a friendship? Sometimes these things just happen, but most of the time, you have to work at it. And so we’ve been trying.

In fact, we have our eyes on a family right now, a family in our literal neighborhood. Our kids play all the time, and get along great. And our casual interactions have led us to believe we as parents share some basic values and interests, but how can we know for sure?! How do we begin? Will hanging out be easy or awkward? Will they even want to get to know us? Will we like one more than the other? Will they like one of us more than the other? Reaching out from our isolation and forming those relationships we so deeply crave and need in our lives is no easy task!

“Neighbors are really just strangers who happen to live near us,” the Rev. Meg Riley reminds us. Multiple religious traditions implore us to love our neighbor as a baseline for a good life, but we might just as easily say, love the stranger. And there is nothing easy about building relationships with strangers, with loving those with whom we may share nothing in common except a property line.

And yet that property line is a tangible reminder that though we may be strangers, our lives are inescapably interconnected. We are all in this together, and the choice before us is simply whether we will live into the blessing of intentional relationship and risk forging friendship, or keep to ourselves in our isolated, individual lives.

This is what a number of us were up to last week in Louisville at our annual General Assembly, attempting to forge and strengthen relationships across our congregations. I know Eleanor led a rousing service last week all about GA, so I won’t delve too much into it again here. But suffice it to say that it is a head-and heart-spinning experience, with workshops and worship and business meetings and more chalice-related items for sale than you knew existed. And yet ultimately, the value of such a big gathering of UUs is in the relationships created and strengthened with others out there doing their best to serve our faith.

Truthfully, however, GA is not where I would recommend most of us practice this second layer of our covenant. National gatherings are expensive to get to, and are indeed overwhelming, and forging meaningful, lasting relationships can be difficult.

Instead, I suggest we start locally. Within an hour in every direction, there are four Unitarian Universalist congregations – in Laramie, Cheyenne, Greeley and Loveland.

Now perhaps you have already gotten this, but let me say it plain. Developing meaningful relationships with other congregations is often like trying to find a new Jill and Andy.
It takes a commitment of time, a willingness to get real, a willingness to share our struggles and our questions, our resources and our big ideas. And it often means we find ourselves striving to make relationships with people with whom we share a property line but seemingly not much else. And yet being a good neighbor means persisting through these obstacles to discover our hidden possibilities, our deeper goodness.

The 8 UU congregations in the Boulder-Denver area not so long ago knew each other only as strangers in close proximity. But through regular meetings of lay leaders and ministers, they have gone on to initiate shared worship, workshops, and regularly share resources to move forward their shared justice goals.

Perhaps most notably, their collaboration led to the invention of a new ministerial role in the Front Range, the Beloved Community Coordinator, a position filled by my friend and colleague Kierstin Homblette. Kierstin’s task is to help area congregations connect with one another and with local community partners, and to offer best practices in spiritually grounded Unitarian Universalist work for social change.

In turn, the congregations are able to more fully leverage their collective power and lift their collective voice in witness to the call of love in the state of Colorado. I am proud and excited to say that in the coming year, Foothills will for the first time be a participating partner in Kierstin’s work, as the Boulder-Denver congregations have invited Colorado Springs and Fort Collins to join in the communion of churches, now expanding across the Front Range. You can hear more about Kierstin’s work when she fills our pulpit on the 21st.

Looking ahead to the fall, there will be the 12th annual Standing on the side of Love worship service on the capitol steps, where we’l gather with 10 other area congregations to witness for GLBT, immigration and racial and economic justice. And there will also be a 2 day gathering of all the congregations of Colorado and Wyoming for a time of shared learning and worship and relationship building. Look for more information in your Extra and Intercom as we move closer to the fall. I’d love to see a big Foothills contingent at both of these. We are one of the largest churches in the two states – I think we could not just show up, but become leaders in this coalition building of Unitarian Universalist congregations.

There are still so many possibilities yet unrealized in living into the 2nd layer of our promises for relationships, particularly for this northern Colorado/southern Wyoming group of congregations. What ideas do you have, and how will you begin?

Life, whether in the form of the political process or by way of our every day lives, can be exhausting, and exhilarating. And through it all, our faith invites us to witness that we need not go it alone. We can choose to step out of our isolation.

We can say hello to our neighbors, we can hold a block party, we can learn the names of those who are near us and who share our world. We can reach out beyond the walls of this congregation into other communities, to learn from one another, to help each other, to strengthen our shared resolve, to struggle together, and to widen our reach and our view.

We are a part of a great network, inheritors of a great legacy and tradition of free churches walking together in the spirit of mutual love. On this week filled with promise and heartbreak, in this world with possibility and pain – let us place our shared hope in this practice of our faith. Person to person, congregation to congregation. Sharing our individual lights so to create one great flame, offering a sign of a bright new hope for all the world.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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