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For many years I have asked what matters most to you? What matter most to you in your life? Your family? Your health? Your job? Your income? Your pet? This Church? God? The world? Over the years I have gotten some amazing answers. One woman told me that her hair used to matter most to her, she loved her hair, she wore it like a crown, like a mantle of beauty and power. And then she got cancer and lost all that hair, and now her health matters a great deal, but more importantly, what matters most to her are her two children, even more than her health. She had faith in them, faith being that word that describes what matters most to each of us. Many, many professed that the church mattered if not most, a close second. Not God as such but her manifestation in the love of those who know you and hold you, and call you friend even if they know all your faults.
I still think it’s important to ask what matters most. As individuals on a spiritual quest, we ask that question one way or another all the time. In fact, it’s at the heart of our identity as UUs. It’s what makes our theology; theology being the study of what matters most. For a long time I believed that this was a matter of head more than heart. But now, I believe it is more of the heart and the body itself. After all, why do we come here at all? Not just to hear the words or the music, we can do that from home. We come to feel the body of the One we are here. To embody each other, to be seen and touched and hugged and to do the same. We embody each other in community and that may be more important than we know.
Deciding on our theology is only part of the story of why we are here. In recent years, I ask another question alongside what matters most. I ask, To whom do we belong? Who holds our loyalty? Certainly your family? Perhaps other groups? Who keeps you? Or put another way, how do we embody each other. You certainly belong to this church, in varying degrees whether or not you have decided to become a member. We also have 30 or so regularly attending and contributing friends who I consider as belonging here. Whose are we? We are each other’s, in our keeping and learning and growing as a people. Part of that growing into each other is to care for each other. Time, talent and treasure are part of our embodiment. Let me start with treasure. My friend Father O’Malley received a phone call. “Hello, is this Father O’Malley?” “It is”
“This is the IRS. We are wondering if you could answer a few questions for us?” “I will try” answered Father O’Malley.
“Do you know a Ted Houlihan?” “I do”
“Is he a member of your congregation?” “He is”
“Did he donate $10,000 to the church?” “He will.”
Money is important but it is no substitute for our talent.
Talent… What do I mean by this? Everyone has a talent. You have a talent in the most ordinary ways. Serving others is a talent. Realizing you can make a difference just by showing up.
We embody each other; in our church and in our family. We may or may not consider ourselves as part of that family but we still belong. And yet, I don’t believe this church is a family. Families are complicated by systems of dysfunction that last for life! We have our dysfunctions here but being related for life is something we choose, families don’t get to choose. We are part of this church. We belong here. We are each other’s keepers. The real meaning of humanity, humility and humanism. And when we employ our talents to the care of others this is what we get. This is what Anna Alprin one of the founders of modern dance found out when she had colon cancer in 1972. In order to understand her ailment, she documented her own experiences and compiled the information to make her own healing process called The Five Stages of Healing. Then in 1981, she applied The Five Stages of Healing to her own life, creating a dance in which the cancer was expelled from her body, “It was a volcanic dance of rage and purgation, not unlike the dances of rage in West Africa.” At the end of the dance she collapsed and sobbed. Several months later the cancer went into remission and she lived until her late 80s. (Adapted from Wikipedia and Callings by Gregg Levoy)
We keep each other but only in the present. Sometimes we can belong to a place or a person who has been lost to us, but even that in time will fade. We belong to one another in the here and now. To embody one another is to feel their pain as your own.
And this is what an embodied ministry is: Answering the call to be each other’s keepers with the affirmative, right here and right now. You know, I occasionally hear through the grapevine that someone is upset with me or this church because they didn’t notice they were gone. I always wonder about that. How do you expect us to remember you by not being here? I mean, I don’t know. There are four hundred or so souls that belong here on a regular basis, that is they show up in one way or another, they send a check, they work for a cause we support, they write on our face book page, they make themselves known and in the knowing they are ours: they belong to us. That is the test. Are you making the effort to belong, to use your talents…? If you aren’t here, (anyone not here?), if you aren’t here, then we don’t have a clue what kind of ministry you need or can offer in return. We don’t keep attendance here (although we have been talking about bar codes recently), so occasionally if you aren’t here for a while, someone on our team will notice. We are each other’s keepers but you have to make the effort to be in that relationship; to be kept. And then there is Time. Time may be the most important part of embodying one another. This is the secret to religious communities that so many do not understand. There has been much made in recent years about being spiritual but not religious. You can be spiritual and not religious but being religious – which for me just means creating and living in community – makes being spiritual so much more meaningful. By being in community we are able to put our faith into practice. We say we care for the earth and the web of existence we are a part? When Amy Oestreicher found out that her stomach had exploded and that it was she might never eat food again, she was devastated. In time, with the love of her family and her congregation, and over 12 surgeries, she eats again. As she healed she embodied food. (“Losing Faith and Finding it Again in the ICU” OnBeing.org) As we grow in new ways here in time we embody a deeper spirit. What Frank Hall called the Spirit meeting the Bone. Isn’t it convenient to have a place where that care is embodied in touch, food, learning, laughter, gardens and each other? My friend and colleague Rick Hoyt installed as the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles; an impressive old cathedral now in Korea Town, with a membership of hundred souls serving over 5000 local residents with food, day care, health clinics and a low cost housing project they are building on a lot next to the church that most other churches would have used for a parking lot. In his acceptance to the congregation’s call Rick had this to say about the place of communities such as his and ours:
“I take this pulpit, at a time when religion in the United States is in crisis, and the future of our churches, even the best ones, is uncertain….Today the brand name, “church” has become so defiled by the abuses of the ignorant and the bigoted, so much a captive partner of conservative politics, and in general opinion so much an enemy of the vision this church has embodied throughout its history, that the idea of a liberal church has become an oxymoron, and perhaps we should begin to doubt whether a liberal church can survive…. It may be that the church itself, a worshipping congregation, a Sunday sermon, a hymn or two, may no longer be what our electronically connected, socially disconnected culture requires for salvation.
“It’s a difficult time to say yes to a job in a church, or to say yes to joining a church as a member. And in our celebration today, we would be dishonest, if we didn’t acknowledge the grey mist into which we are heading. And yet, at last, I do say yes. Yes to this pulpit. Yes to this church. Yes to the idea of churches.”
We embody each other as part of the divine in ways we can’t always see. Sharon Salzberg my Buddhist teacher spoke to a minister’s gathering some time ago and spoke about this mysterious connection of time to the larger cosmos. ‘She had sent a class of novices to practice offering prayers of compassion to those on a subway platform. These were silent prayers mind you, but the idea was you spot someone you see and you offer them a prayer of compassion while seeing them from a distance. Now you had to be careful with this in New York, because staring at someone while you are praying for them is well, a bit creepy. One young woman spotted a businessman who seemed to be very harried and nervous. Silently she started reciting prayers for him, almost immediately she began judging herself; I must be doing this wrong because I feel so distant. I don’t have a great wash of warm feeling over me. She began to doubt her choice, I mean suppose the guy was exploiting others. Still she kept at it and the man noticed her staring. Uh oh, she thought, as he walked up to her. He looked right at her and said “I’ve never done anything like this before in my life, but I’d like to ask you to pray for me. I am about to face a very difficult situation in my life. You somehow seem to have a really loving heart, and I’d just like to know that you’re praying for me.”’(Adapted Sharon Salzberg Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience pp143-144)
We embody each other in ways we can’t always see, in a connectedness that goes beyond the rational. We belong to each other and the cosmos. We belong to the interdependent web of life. The point is to let life live through us, to let love live through us. This for me is the essence of faith. It’s how we let life live through us and how we make a life worth living. We belong to the cosmos. We belong to the earth. We belong to life. We belong to each other. We may not feel that ever widening sense of belonging today, but it is there. You are loved and you are not alone. We embody each other. Amen.