January 29, 2021

Who is In Charge?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 1:44 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

Written version of a sermon shared with the Shoreline UU church

JANUARY 24, 2021 – WHO IS IN CHARGE HERE? –

READINGS: Ancient and Modern

The Readings today are about Who or What is in Charge. Both of them refer to a very personal deity, but our religion asserts that reality, the ultimate truth is unified, but has no singular description, no perfect name.   If you need to, listen to how these poetic, mythic, and imaginative descriptors of truth run parallel to the existential, literal, and logical. 

The Ancient Reading is from Jewish and Christian scripture, the Biblical Book of Numbers chapter 11 verses 10-17.  The setting is that the people have escaped slavery with God’s protection and Moses’s leadership, but are now wandering the wilderness.   

“Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents. The Lord (GOD) became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. He asked the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me.  If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.”

The Lord said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you.  I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone.”

The modern reading comes from “Communicating Our Faith” By the Religious Educator, Liz Jones, and the Reverend, Tom Owen-Towle. It invokes the sense in our faith that everyone carries religious authority and thus everyone is in Charge. 

“As Unitarians we hold that every unit of existence is inherently valuable and to be treated as such. We also contend that the cosmos is unitary, that reality is indivisible and whole, that God or Goddess [or Truth Ultimate] is one.

As Universalists we contend that wisdom is discoverable in every era and corner of the universe. And we assert that the only salvation worth having is communal not individual, and that all creatures are held in the eternal embrace of a loving deity, rest assured.

As Unitarian Universalists we covenant together… focusing on shared vows rather than set creeds. Our lives are ultimately measured by right relations instead of right beliefs. We promise our spiritual kin that we will comfort, celebrate, challenge, and companion one another for better, for worse, -ongoingly-. Universalist forebear Hosea Ballou caught the kernel of our covenant in 1805: “If we have love, no disagreement can do us any harm; but if we have not love, no agreement can do us any good.”

Now we will respond to the readings by singing together the very UU song, Spirit of Life. 

HYMN OF REFLECTION (CS): #123, Spirit of Life

SERMON:

These past few weeks have been amazing, filled with fear and hope. Change and resistance to change.  Personally, I cannot say how great is my relief that we now have a US President who understands the difference between being a democratically elected executive and being a politically powerful demagogue. 

American culture is a constant tug-of war between “Me” and “We,” between individual needs and shared responsibilities. A couple of days ago, after listening to an article on NPR about the baseball player, Hank Aaron, and his life of excellence, dignity and inclusion, I heard a conservative Trump supporter say, “We just want to be left alone.” At its worst, the struggle is not simply between me and we but over exactly who is included in “We the people.”  

Freedom and connection, risk and protection, continuously vie for our minds and hearts.  Attitudes of “my way or the highway,” or “victory at all costs,” surely undermine the healthy process of democracy.  So, as religious people one of our core values and promises is to “promote the rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process” in this world and I hope this recent US election makes it more likely that we can fulfill that part of our mission.

But the challenge goes deeper.  You should know, that a liberal UU congregation as well as an entire nation can be divided by questions of control and power.  All of human history and individual experience includes repeated struggles about who is in Charge.  In a cartoon I read this past week, a little boy is playing with little cars spread over the living room floor. His mom is reading in the next room.  Then, older sister comes home and trips on a vehicle. “Clean up this mess!” she demands. 

Little brother stands in response, “You’re not the boss of me.”

She tenses at this, glaring at him, so he steps back and tries to shore up his position, “I don’t have to do what you say.”

She continues to glare and balls both fists, so he looks to the next room and adds, “especially when mom is around.”

It is good to know who is in Charge, and to whom you are accountable for your actions. Although, the comic actress, Tina Fey, was interviewed a few years back and was asked, who is your boss?  She responded, “My six-year-old daughter. “Kids are definitely the boss of you. Anyone who will barge into the room while you are on the commode is the boss of you.”

IN a UU congregation the ultimate boss must be not a person, but that quality of being that is both loving and reasonable. The boss is called by many names, Spirit of Life, Compassionate Reason, buddha dharma, the gestalt of the good, true and beautiful. 

Our basic theology was summarized in the reading by Jones and Owen Towle.  It is this: the power of the good and true is found most clearly in individual lives. But the one best way for individuals to bring the true and good into their lives is through an encouraging community of people. We come closer to our goal by seeking the true and good together, and weighing the impact of their insights and choices in one another’s lives.

Thus, Unitarian Universalists trust in congregations. We have faith in congregational life.  Our polity, the way we govern and organize congregations, is called congregational polity. That means that each congregation is in control of itself, not a bishop, nor episcopate, nor district council, nor national body, or global authority. No one is the boss of us. No one can tell a congregation what it can and cannot do.  To be sure, we are bound to other UU congregations by the power of covenants, open-ended agreements about shared goals, and shared works. This church is in community with other UU congregations, and we make decisions with them about many things. But they cannot tell us what to do for and among ourselves, ever. 

So, at an elementary and practical level, the congregation is in Charge here. But notice that the community forms to invoke and serve the truth tempered by compassion, an open and transparent heart, and mind.  So, the question of how to reach that must temper all our choices. 

For example, when I was in seminary, I worshipped for half a year with a Quaker meeting in Colorado, the kind with no minister or governing board. They lived the classic ideal of Quakerism that required unanimity in group decision making. They owned a small building with a border of grass, flower-beds, and a few trees.  The climate there is arid; 16 inches of rain a year compared to our 37.  So, they needed a watering system that would keep all their plants alive instead of dying and being replaced every two years or so.  They also had a problem with individuals leaving the water on too long, both an ecological and financial issue.  So, they decided to install an automatic sprinkler system.  It only took them one meeting to discuss this idea and agree. Then they had to decide which system to buy and how much it would cost. Then they had to decide who would install it and for how much. Then they had to choose when it would be installed.  I met them, five years after they decided to get an automatic system, beaming with pride at their brand new, economical, water-smart, and healthy landscape.  But I wondered if five years was way too much time for such a decision. 

When I asked, they told me that “this was how God works.” I thought to myself, if God only took six days to create the world, why did he take five years to install a sprinkler system? Truthfully, I understood. That community valued participation in group decisions and peaceful management of conflict over being quick and efficient.

This was a small congregation, perhaps a hundred people.  In America, the average size of a congregation, in any religious tradition, is about 150 members because it is still possible for the leaders to know and talk with everyone.  When congregations that grow much beyond that size must delegate power and decisions to smaller groups within the congregation.  This takes some centralized control.  As the reading about Moses illustrates, if everyone is in Charge then no one is and one person cannot be in Charge of everything. So, we distribute power and delegate control to various responsible persons in the congregation, including the minister. 

When I was a teenager and young man, my most favorite movie of all time was Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  King Arthur is out looking for lords to join with him at the round-table to rule all of Briton. Approaching a castle, he sees a peasant on the road and calls out “Old woman!” The peasant responds, “Man.” 

“Oh, man, sorry.  Can you tell me what knight lives in that castle over there?”

The peasant responds, “I’m 37.” 

King Arthur, quite confused, asks “What?” 

“I’m 37,” The man indignantly responds “I’m not old.” 

“I did say sorry about the “old woman,” Arthur explains, “but from behind you looked…”

The peasant cuts in, “What I object to is you immediately treat me like an inferior.” 

“Well, I am king.” Arthur responds.

” Oh, King eh… and how’d you get that? By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma and by exploiting the workers…”

He later explains that the peasants have formed an anarcho-syndicalist commune where all take turns to act as an executive for the week, but their choices have to be ratified at a special meeting. My point is that a congregation does not need a king, but it is not a commune either.  In UU congregations large enough to call a minister, people must make choices about how to share ministry with that minister while also dividing responsibilities.

On common point of tension between ministers and leaders is that both have “the Congregation” as their boss.  This is problematic because a congregation is not really a person, or thing.  It exists, perhaps, in congregational meetings and gatherings, but even there it still is nothing more than the overlapping ideas of many individuals about what it is and isn’t.  The larger a congregation the more it is made up of overlapping circles, but not all of these are perfectly in communication.  Sometimes these circles have no common person between them, except the minister. 

Because of my role, I am near the center of many things.  I speak personally and work in many groups. My very job is to speak to common values, the roots of our tradition the truth that inspires us and the vision of the future that bind us. Thus, I invoke the center. But to be certain, I am not The Center. The center is the ever moving and changing overlap of many minds, and thus moves like the wind and can not be pinned down. That is why love and thoughtfulness must be our boss, to anchor our community and relationships.  

What also greatly helps such relationships is to state clearly for what each is responsible and how not to step on the work of the other.   Also, it helps to state what choices we share and exactly how we will decide together.  For example, in our congregation as in most, there is a clear difference in most people’s minds between the minister and the board of trustees.  But if you read our bylaws you will see that I am automatically a member of the board, not as a trustee but as the minister.  So, what would it mean for me to hold me accountable for my ministry?  Am I on the board or not? Similar questions arise bout the relationship between the board and committees, especially when the same people serve on both.  Does the board control committees or are committees ruled by leaders, or by the congregation? Furthermore, if I am on a committee, can I be the boss of that committee? In the end, the question is if no one is in control of everything, then who is in control of specific things and who will back that person up or hold that person to account for their work? 

When I was in my second year of ministry, the small congregation I was serving had conflict. This caused a shortfall between the proposed budget and the results of the pledge drive.  A small group of people came to the board meeting where we were to decide what to do.  I am not going into all the reasons for it, but those people came with a written proposal that I be given a six-month contract, and if the money did not come in that time, I would be let go.  My response was to tell them that a ministerial call is not a job. They had called me because they wanted what a full-time minister could do for them.  Either they should commit to having a long-term, full-time minister, or admit that they did not want a minister and call a congregational meeting to dismiss me.  Half measures would not work.  Because I was clear, a middle-aged couple spoke up. I did not know these people very well. They came to worship but did little else because they had done it all for decades before I arrived. One said that the two of them knew the congregation well enough to know they had the resources to pay me. They also said that they would lead a second round of the pledge drive.  Then they got a few others to help and the net result was that I stayed and continued to serve them for a total of eight years. 

In the end it was not me alone, nor what I said that won the day. Nor was it that couple and their leadership alone. In the end it was the whole of the congregation, working together to make shared decisions that ended up growing the congregation by 10% and helping me be a successful minister. 

So, as we put one step in front of the other and go together in the light of a new day let love be our guide and let the clear light of reason illuminate our steps.  May we be clear about who does what, realizing that in the end we must all work together in harmony. Let us be told what to do only by the clear mind and the caring heart.  Our worship Companion, Cal Spengler, will now call for our offering and we will listen to a song written in November of 2016.  As the song says, “I know you’re scared / And I’m scared too / But here I am, / Right next to you. You gotta put one foot in front of the other / and Lead with love.”