“Church Is For Losers”

“Church is for Losers”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Sunday, February 26, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts


A long time ago, when I was candidating for this ministry, before the congregation voted to call me, I met many parishioners in members’ homes where everyone had an opportunity to take their best shot, ask me questions and find out what I was made of.  And, too, I learned what you are made of.

Of all my questioners, I most recall the woman who made it clear she thought that way too much of what goes on in this church is too happy-happy happy-go-lucky trivial and trifle, too self-righteous, too self-satisfied, too self-congratulatory.  “Do you go along,” she demanded, “with all this ’Mr. Bluebird Zippedy-Doo-Dah??”  Uh, I have no idea how I responded.  “No ma’am, not me!”  I tweeted.

Later I learned that that woman’s husband had taken his own life, she had a career working with some of the most disabled of mentally ill people in the most dire of circumstances, and it would not be long before she would be severely bent but never broken by Parkinson’s.

I am the world’s leading liturgical proponent of confetti guns, disco balls, and helium-filled flying clownfish, but Jackie’s question still rings in my ears.

I’ll get around to telling you why church is for losers, but to much of the outside world and to ourselves, we present as the happy backslapping winningest of winners.

A National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI) ranks Unitarian Universalists highest among 30 religious movements in aggregate social status on “Protestant ethic variables,” which include level of education, household income, extent of home ownership, and patterns of employment. (49.5 percent are college educated and many have earned advanced degrees; we have the second-highest median household income; nearly three out of four Unitarian Universalists own their homes; more than half hold full-time jobs.)

The typical Unitarian Universalist is 52 years old; more likely to be a woman than a man; of European-American heritage; nature-oriented and living in a suburban community; politically active and environmentally conscious.

When this survey was presented to the Unitarian Universalist Association, it was pointed out that this profile is an exact match with the customers on the catalog mailing list of L.L. Bean.

Way too often, unfortunately, these attributes result in a sense of entitlement and an air of moral superiority.  T. S. Eliot’s expressed this understanding of his Unitarian relatives:

To be a Unitarian, he said, “was to be noble, upright, and superior to all other human beings . . . Unitarians believed that they were already enlightened, the enlightenment for them was an intellectual achievement. . . . Unitarians were put on earth to better the lot of humanity, to be a good and inspiring example. . . . Unitarians were expected to be dutiful, benevolent, cheerful, self-restrained and unemotional. . . . They attended church to set a good example to others.”

Psychologist Richard Kevin, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Raleigh, North Carolina, explains the same tendency:

“UUs in one-church towns are somewhat like isolated aboriginal societies who have no word for human being in their language other than the word for themselves. Such groups find the discovery of human beings who are not of their tribe profoundly disturbing.”

The UU theologian James Luther Adams calls ours and others in our L.L. Bean demographic, “the religion of the successful”:

“We [in the United States] live in neighborhoods segregated from other neighborhoods in terms of education, occupation, and income; also separated by class and pigmentation, that is, by race. The segregation of sexism cuts across all of these boundaries. In all too great a measure, the churches are a function and indeed a protection of these segregations.

“In this situation, we of the middle class are tempted, indeed almost fated, to adopt the religion of the successful. This religion of the successful amounts to a systematic concealment of and separation from reality – a hiding of the plight of those who in one sense or another live across the tracks. In the end, this concealment comes from a failure to identify correctly and to enter into combat with what St. Paul called ‘the principalities and powers of evil.’ The religion of the successful turns out then to be a sham spirituality, a cultivated blindness, for it tends to reduce itself to personal kindliness and philanthropy costing little. Thus it betrays the world with a kiss.”

Well, there.  I’ve made the case, I think, that the happy face we present to the world is the face of a winner.  Zippedy-doo-dah

From here on, however, I’m going to make the case that, properly understood, this church is for losers.

Up to now, I’ve been sort of sociological in my remarks, but that’s not really how this sermon started in my head.  This sermon got started when I realized that, lately, the very worst part of my day has been between 4:30 and 5:30 in the morning when I’m still in bed, more awake that I want to be, and feeling – too often – overwhelmed, anxious, apprehensive (I don’t want to think about, just for example, my taxes and so I obsess about them) and usually I’m down on myself for one or another stupid thing that I’ve said or done, or left unsaid and undone, but more likely said and done.

I had a long-lasting cold recently and it seemed that, between 4:30 and 5:30 all my unwanted bodily fluids thicken and congeal…and that too further chokes and darkens my mood.

Now I must be quick to tell you that I’m not looking for your sympathy and, invariably, my mood does improve when I get out of bed.  Lying in bed I can feel like Gulliver tied down by thousands of Lilliputians but arising has a salutary effect.  There’s a sermon in that observation but that’s not what this sermon is about.

What this sermon is about and what I find myself obsessing about in bed are things I’ve lost:  yes, the capital of Paraguay and probably a 1099 here or there, and a while ago I did lose my hat…but last month and for days on end I obsessed about the remote control device that guided the helium filled flying clownfish.  Yes, the stupid remote control.

You’ve heard me speak of the clownfish before.  I love that fish.  And, you know – I told you – that in January I took that flying fish to my study group at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury.  But what I did not tell you is that when I carried him out to the car to bring him home, I had the remote control in my right hand and the fish under my left arm and when I got to the car and I discovered that I had to take my luggage out of the car in order to make room for the fish.  Therefore, so that I would have a free hand to open the hatchback I put the remote control on the ground – or was it on the roof of the car? – and I took the luggage out of the back and I put the fish inside and then I got in the driver’s seat and drove merrily off, leaving the remote control…I know not where.  It took me nearly 24 hours to discover this oversight, whereupon I returned to Sudbury, retraced every step, prowled every ditch, reviewed every motion of hand and foot and fish and hatchback and luggage…motions I then reviewed in my head every morning at 4:30am for days on end, with the inevitable very depressing conclusion that the remote control is lost forever and prompting the very discouraging question, “What kind of idiot loses the remote control to his flying fish?”

Yes, it’s only a toy and, yes, I now have purchased another flying fish with another remote control but, so disgusted am I with myself that I am not yet ready even to look at it.

And about the same time I lost a credit card and in recent years I’ve lost multiple pairs of swim goggles, a pair of swim suits, a T-shirt left on a bathroom door hook in Israel…I lost some luggage and did I mention the 1099?

And when I am not awake, brooding and stewing about lost toys, I – like other ministers – am asleep and I am dreaming of lost sermon manuscripts, standing before an expectant congregation, having somehow as well lost all my clothes….  I dream of being lost in cities and hotels, mazes and mansions, lost heart, lost in space…

I brood about lost youth, lost hair, lost opportunities…losing money, losing touch, losing a step here and there.  The nine Muses, the capital of Paraguay and the state flowers were to me lost long ago.  I can brood over lost causes (remember the ERA or when presidential candidates spoke of eliminating poverty in America or hunger in the world?); I can despair of friends and family and relationships lost to distance, to neglect, to time and to mortality.

In this room, as well, are those who have lost jobs, lost houses, lost fortunes; lost health, lost confidence, lost children, lost partners; lost reputations; lost face; lost ground; lost time; lost data, lost momentum, lost luggage, lost cookies, lost marbles, lost that old lovin’ feeling, lost love’s labor, even paradise, lost our place in the sermon and, of course, we all are in the process of losing our lives.

The drunk who lost his keys outside the bar but looks for them beneath the streetlight because “that’s where there is light,” has of course, lost perspective – as with some frequency do we all.  At one time or another, we are all lost souls.

For better and worse, we lose our illusions.  The marriage that ends in divorce may shatter some illusions.

Loss of illusion, of course, is what happened to our senior youth – those 14 who returned on Friday from their service trip to New York City.  They lost the illusion that their lives are somehow unrelated to the lives of the homeless men and women they met and served.  If only for a few days they lost the illusion that theirs is merely a religion of the successful.  And by this awareness, if we did our job well, they should lose some sleep and so should we all.

This church is for losers.

“I know a man,” writes the author Elise McKay, “who killed himself because he lost his hat.  Of course they said he was crazy, but I think not.  I think he just had all the losses he could take.  He said as much as the wind lifted his hat from his head.  ‘O God,’ he said.  ‘Now I’ve lost my hat, too.’”

This morning I suggest to you that, properly understood, this church is for losers.  Human beings are, by nature, losers and thus we need one another and a place to go when we have experienced all the losses we can take and we say, “Oh God. Now I’ve lost my hat, too.”

Yes, I know: human beings are, by nature, finders as well.  But that’s the bluebird sermon, zippedy-doo-dah, the religion of the successful.

This church is for losers because, alone we inevitably are lost.  Alone our losses only mount.  Alone there are only so many losses we can take.  This church, therefore, is for losers and every one of us.

This church is where we go to retrieve our hats or learn to live without them.  This church is where we go to tame the wind or learn to love it.

This church is for losers.

Before we sing our final hymn, please take out your hymnals and turn to #443, We Arrive Out of Many Singular Rooms.  Singular rooms!  Those are the rooms in my anxious dreams, wandering lost from room to room.

We arrive out of many singular rooms,

walking over the branching streets.

We come to be assured that brothers and sisters surround us,

to restore their images on our eyes.

We enlarge our voices in common speaking and singing.

We try again that solitude found in the midst of those who with us

seek their hidden reckonings.

(Parse that sentence, would you?  … “that solitude found in the midst of those who with us seek” – because they’re lost – “their hidden reckonings”…here we get our bearings, figure out where we are – because we’re lost – where we are in the scheme of things)   

Our eyes reclaim the remembered faces;

their voices stir the surrounding air.

The warmth of their hands assures us,

and the gladness of our spoken names.

This is the reason of cities, of homes,

of assemblies in the houses of worship.

It is good to be with one another. 

This church is for losers, like you and like me.  

Closing Words

This church is where we go to retrieve our hats or learn to live without them.  This church is where we go to tame the wind or learn to love it.