Mission & Incarnation
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on December 11, 2012
Excerpts from A Spirit of Fierce Unrest by the Rev. Vanessa Southern
A Lifelong Sharing, by Mother Teresa
Love cannot remain by itself–it has no meaning.
Love has to be put into action and that action is service.
Whatever form we are, able or disabled, rich or poor,
it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing;
a lifelong sharing of love with others.
You may have noticed that I am not wearing my usual robe and stole today. No, today, I am in my bright yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirt and my wildly colored stole that is embroidered with gold morning glories, made for me by one of my mentors, the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons – someone who knew me well enough to know an explosion of color is just right.
While a robe and stole are my regular uniform for worship, this outfit has become my regular uniform for when I am being a prophetic voice in the larger community. It is what I wore to Occupy Louisville, it is what I will wear when the clergy gather in Frankfort in support of a statewide Fairness law. This is my public witness uniform.
I wear this uniform today because public witness is an important part of what we as Unitarian Universalists are called to do. We are called – perhaps by God or by our moral conviction – we are called to stand on the side of love.
And it has been noticed. Honestly, I was a bit skeptical about this bright yellow color – which has replaced the original blue. Skeptical because, well, this color doesn’t look good on very many people. But it is noticeable. I was recently more conservatively attired at a gathering where I was the only Unitarian Universalist. After I introduced myself as a UU minister, someone leaned over and said “I love you guys and your bright yellow shirts. Whenever I see them – on TV or in the media, I always feel so hopeful.”
Wow. Okay! So I have embraced the bright yellow shirt and it has become my public witness uniform.
I wear it this morning, here, because this is what we are talking about today. We are talking about what we are known for. We are talking about what we incarnate – what we embody. We are talking about what we, as a church, are about.
This is the second in a series of sermons I am doing, based loosely on the song we sang a few minutes ago: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
In the first sermon, given just over a month ago, I explored the idea of our church as a garden. I talked about how before we can harvest the power, we need to have a plan. And before we have a plan, we need to know where we come from.
Do you remember? First, I said, those of us in the church need to figure out what makes us whole. What saves us. Or, in seminary terms, what is our soteriology?
This then will lead us to reflect on how we want to be in the world: what we are. Or, again, in seminary terms, what is our missiology?
Which, finally, will determine how the church organizes itself, what the plan is. What is our ecclisiology?
Soteriology, leads to missiology, which leads to ecclisiology.
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
In November, I asked each of you to reflect on where you come from – to think about what it is that brings you to First Unitarian Church. And I asked you to bring your ideas and hopes to the Finding the Future Workshop on November 20. And you did! Thank you. We had a wonderful turnout, as you heard about a few moments ago from the Refining Team. They took the results from the workshop and turned it into something usable – a draft mission statement.
After exploring where we come from, the next step in this process is missiology. To name what it is that we are about. What are we? Remember, a mission statement isn’t just a nice phrase that we create and then forget about. It helps us know how to be and act in the world. It is something that guides us in our decision making, something that we can measure things up against. For instance, if someone brought up the idea of allowing a nutrition program that feeds 30-50 lunches to downtown senior citizens each day – a valuable program indeed but one that has no money for rent – we should be able to look at our mission statement and say “Is this something that we, as a church, are about?”
What is our missiology? What are we? Or, in other terms, what do we incarnate?
Incarnation is our ministry theme for this month, and there are reflection questions in your order of service and in the December Steepletalk. Our covenant groups are exploring incarmnation as their theme this month. This is a fitting time of year to talk about incarnation because the word is used a lot when we talk about the birth of Jesus, as the incarnation of God. Special, set apart, divine.
Now, I know incarnate is not a word we hear about very much in Unitarian Universalist churches. It is a word that some of us may even be uncomfortable with, a word that might give us flashbacks to our days in a religious tradition that perhaps no longer suites us.
But our Unitarian forebearers looked at incarnation a different way. Like most Unitarians, Jabez Sunderland, writing in 1901, saw at Jesus as human. If, however, Jesus was God incarnate, he said, so are the rest of us: “Yes, God was in Christ.” he says, and then he goes on to add “If we love one another, God dwelleth also in us.” So he affirms the divine incarnation not only in Jesus but also in all humanity.
This is a much more liberal view of incarnation, and of God. Where there is love, there is the Divine. As Unitarians and as Universalists, and now as Unitarian Universalists, we have always been about seeking to incarnate love. Reason, too, but even before that, love. Oh, don’t get, me wrong – we fail at it an awful lot, probably more often than we succeed. But we keep trying – that is a thread that runs through our history.
These days, the word incarnation can also be used even more broadly: it can be a synonym for “embody.” So when we ask ourselves what we want to incarnate as a congregation, we are asking what we want to embody. Which is pretty much the same thing as asking what we want to be. The same thing as asking: “What is our mission in the world?”
As a living religious tradition, Unitarian Universalists are maturing. Though our roots go back to the early centuries of the current era, our unique faith tradition started on our current path only 50 years ago.
For much of that time, we have defined what it means to be a UU by stating what we are not. We are NOT creedal, we are NOT a faith that asks you to leave your brain at the door, we are not going to tell you you are going to hell, we are not, we are not, we are not.
As our faith tradition matures, we are learning that defining ourselves as what we are not is not only uninspiring, but is seriously insufficient.
I had the awe inspiring experience of being one of the 400 Unitarian Universalist ministers at the Conference for Excellence in Ministry that my colleague, The Rev. Vanessa Southern spoke of in our first reading this morning. “Unitarian Universalists, lifesavers, mosaic makers, bone carriers” Kay Northcutt charged us “find your greatness!”
Our greatness. Our greatness cannot be found in a list of what we are not. Instead, our greatness is what we incarnate. Our greatness is what we live, what we embody. It is what our missiology is. It is what we are about.
Finding our greatness might save us, as a church and as a faith tradition, because we will know who we are, and stop spending so much time on who we are not.
So I ask us, here at First Unitarian Church: What is our greatness? Not our historical greatness. Not our greatness of 50 or 20 or 10 years ago. What is our greatness at this moment in time?
And we now have the beginnings of an answer.
Those of you who participated in the process so far have said that part of our greatness is that we are building a compassionate community that values differences.
This is an active phrase: building. It recognizes that we may not be fully there yet, but that being a compassionate community, where all are lovable and loved, is something we strive for, work towards. And that we value our differences. Not just tolerate. Not just appreciate. We value our differences. And this will get put to the test in coming months, as we are becoming more diverse theologically, ethnically, racially and politically.
Another part of our greatness is that we are serving our community in love. This connects us to our covenant when we claim that “Love is the spirit of this church,” but it takes it a step further. Love is the spirit of this church, and it is also how we serve our neighbors. Again we have action: we are serving. And as Carol read the quote from Mother Teresa a few minutes ago, “Love has to be put into action and that action is service. Whatever form we are..it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing.”
Another part of our greatness is that we are witnesses for a liberal religion with faith in humanity. We are not content to only let our light shine here, in this building, on Sunday morning. We are called to be out in the world, loving it and wanting it to the be the best it can be. Wearing our bright yellow shirts and standing on the side of love, being seen, and trusting that we can make a difference. We have seen it already! Ripples of our witness continue to spread.
And our greatness extends into the future, as we are guiding ourselves and the next generation toward hope, love, and peace. Gandhi wisely said that we must be the change we want in the world. If we want a world that moves towards hope, love, and peace, we must learn and practice it ourselves, and teach it to our children.
In a world that tells us we are not enough, that there is something wrong with us, that calls to us to consume, oppress, and turn our neighbor into our enemy, this is how we, the First Unitarian Church, aspire to incarnate love in the long tradition of Unitarian Universalism: We are building a compassionate community that values differences, serving our community in love, witnessing for a liberal religion with faith in humanity and guiding ourselves and the next generation in hope, love, and peace.
Those of you who continue in this process may tweak the words a bit in the coming weeks, but I am confidant that the core ideals will remain. Because this is what we are, this is our mission, this is our greatness. It is a tall order. And how to we make it happen? Ahh, well, you will have to come back this spring to hear the final sermon in this series: ecclesiology, or where are we going?
In the meantime, as we sang in our opening hymn this morning, people look east. Look east, to where the sun rises. A new day is here and love is on the way. May it be so. May we make it so.