“I Am Somebody”

“I Am Somebody”
A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Given at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts
On Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Thought to Ponder

Since life may summon us at any age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.


Have any of you ever found a message in a bottle? On Monday I was at Good Harbor Beach, strolling with my feet in the waves, and all of a sudden I spotted a small clear bottle, with a cork! I don’t know about you, but it’s been a life long dream of mine to find a message in a bottle. As a kid I imagined a sailor lost at sea sending out a single message as a last resort. Help!! In my teen years I imagined love messages, bottled up and sent out to sea to bob about where all unrequited love lives. I guess I never really thought I’d find a message in a bottle in real life, but suddenly there it was amid a pile of sea weed and debris. I could see handwriting on the little white paper inside. What message would I find? Would it guide me, change me, challenge me? Why did I want this so much? This was like a message from God! Except not. And then I was suddenly embarrassed, realizing how much I wanted something. I stood there holding this little bottle for a long time, asking myself what do I want it to say to me? What message would guide me, change me, challenge me? Think on that one for a minute yourself. Imagine your own little clear, brown, green, or blue bottle in your hands. You’re about to open it. What message have you been longing to hear? Because I think that these same longings are what bring us to church.

Yesterday our entire Parish Board went to a day-long workshop led by our Mass Bay District of churches. We talked about our vision and mission and asked ourselves hard questions about where we see ourselves going as a church. We cringed at the terminology, but we began to ask ourselves, “what is our saving message?” The Cambridge UU church’s vision is multiculturalism. The Rochester UU church in NY’s mission is to be a force against greed and consumerism. What’s our unique and absolutely vital offering to the world? Our current vision and mission statement, created by so many of you a number of years back remains an excellent articulation of our covenant and goals. It can be found on the back wall of our sanctuary in full. But still we find ourselves asking, where exactly are we going?

It has become more and more clear of late that we are now a leading congregation in our denomination. Becoming a Break Through Congregation officially reminds us of that honor, and all the responsibility that goes with it. The UU World wants to study what we have done to double our membership since 1989. I think in many ways we’ve surprised ourselves in who we’ve become. I caught a mom patting her teenage son on the shoulder a day or two ago. The shoulder was higher than the top of her head. “How did that happen?” she asked. We’re like that too around here sometimes.

But now that we’ve grown a head taller, maybe we can see out just a little farther ahead or maybe there’s a kid who can sit on our shoulders and shout out our destination. Where do we want to lead the crowd? What is our new Wilderness Journey? Yesterday the board decided to make it a priority to address this question about direction and vision this year. There will be opportunities for all of us to explore and share what we discover. They invite us to wrestle with these questions within our committees, small groups and in conversation with one another. If the church were to send one huge whopper message in a bottle to all of Bedford, Burlington, Lowell, out to Amherst and Athol, over the Whites and the Rockies, float in the Great Lakes and drift to Canada, England, Transylvania, the Philippines and Uganda…what would it be? What’s our life saving message? Or what is our purpose for existence?

In John’s sermon last week he shared with us the homily he gave in the church service in Abásfalva, on our pilgrimage there. The funny thing was that unbeknownst to either of us, and without a fancy word to describe it, BOTH John and I talked about “realized eschatology” that morning. Neither of us mentioned to the other ahead of time what we might write about, and of all the topics we each could have chosen, we both picked to talk about THAT for five minutes each. Yikes, what nerds!

Eschatology is the department of theological science concerned with end times: how we make sense of death, judgment, heaven and hell. By way of addressing how our faith deals with these ideas, John and I both wrote about living in the here and now. To sum up both our homilies, living life to the fullest means being engaged in the process of becoming, rather than waiting for external and unknown forces to bring about destruction or salvation.

I believe that to be alive at all is an un-repayable gift. We walk on borrowed time, both our own, and the earth’s. We are star dust, and yet our lives matter. What if we considered the whole world to be our home, the plains and the oceans, the apartment buildings and the tiny tin shacks. What if our backyard was the Atlantic and the front porch the Pacific. When we talk about our church or even our current UU theology having a “saving message,” we are definitely not talking about being drawn out of this world into another realm. We are asking what will save us from a dominant culture of greed, indifference, a thirst for violence, and the degradation of our beautiful water planet. What if the whole world was home, a shared home, not a collection of individual homes, or people left out in the cold.

This is an excerpt from the homily I gave about realized eschatology, in the little turquoise and white church in Abásfalva a month ago.

“Last night at dinner the Bishop asked us an interesting question: “What is home?” Many of us gave answers.

“Home is where you began,” some of us said. “Our roots, the house we were born in, maybe a specific town…”

But then someone said, “No, in my house there was too much pain. I had to leave in order to feel whole. Home is where I do not have to pretend to be someone I am not.”

Another voice said “home is where I am loved, and where I love others most.”

“But this is not enough,” piped in the Bishop. “What about justice? Love and justice go hand in hand. One without the other, and neither will thrive.” True we thought.

“My father’s house has many rooms,” quoted another from the book of John. If there are so many rooms, there must be one for me. Therefore, where I am truly welcome, there I am home. Perhaps home is where I will end up when I die. Maybe the Kingdom of Heaven is like that.”

But I believe the Kingdom of Heaven is here already. We live in it and make it so.

There is a Sufi story about a great teacher named Rabia. She always taught by spiritual example. One day she was seen running back and forth with buckets of water and carrying fire on sticks. “What are you doing,” someone called out. “I am pouring water on hell, and setting paradise on fire,” came the reply.

This world we live in here and now is already a paradise garden, although of course the snake is here too. Here I am referring to the image you can see on the front of our order of service. This is the Hungarian Unitarian symbol for their, and our, faith. The snake and the dove co-exist. We create our own heaven and hell in the here and now.

Like Rabia, I believe we are here on earth to make real God’s purpose and abundance. In other words: to manifest Justice and Love. I’ve also heard it said, “the God I don’t believe in, made me for this.”

Jesus, another teacher who led by spiritual example, put it this way: “The Kingdom of Heaven is where we love our neighbors and where all life is respected.” That’s the place I want to call home, don’t you?” (Here ends my quoting of myself.)

Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens recently co-authored a book called A House for Hope . Parker is the current president for the Star King School for the Ministry, one of our two UU graduate schools. Buehrens is a former president of the UUA. In their book they talk about how we are continually shaping our theological house. By theology I don’t mean what we or you believe about God. I’m talking about what frameworks of meaning currently shape our community and culture.

Theological frameworks respond to or are involved with a particular time and space. They are responsive and interactive. They change with the times, and they change as our need to understand our environment changes.

For example, in 2005 I went as a chaplain to listen to people in the 9th ward after Hurricane Katrina. I couldn’t believe how many people were referring to the flooding and destruction as God’s righteous judgment. This was the beginning of the End Times they told me. They had lost everything they owned and often relatives too, and they were asking themselves, “was it me who’s evil, or is this everybody’s fault? Maybe God is punishing my family because of me. After all, my neighbors’ house wasn’t washed away.” In this world view, we are all caught between Hell and redemption, living in a fallen, broken and evil world. If we are good enough there will be a better place after this world is destroyed. I couldn’t help but think that they were caught in a framework of meaning that was not helpful to their situation. I tried to offer my theological perspective while using their theistic language. “I don’t believe that you are being punished,” I told them. “I think you were just very, very unlucky. I think God weeps with you for all that you’ve lost.” “Hmm,” was the usual response. “Maybe.”

Clearly, alternative eschatologies exist. Rebecca Parker’s observation of UUism today is that we currently draw from three theological frameworks: The Social Gospel Movement, Universalist theology, and what John and I were talking about – radically realized eschatology. Each can be captured in a sentence. Respectively, “We are here to build the kingdom of Heaven on earth,” “God intends all souls to be saved,” and “Paradise is here and now.”

The Social Gospel movement, rooted in liberal Protestant theology, began in the late 1800s as a response to modernity, industrialization, urbanization and capitalism. The denominations most active in supporting the movement were Congregationalists and Unitarians. In an effort to emulate the example of Jesus, proponents focused their efforts in cities. The hymns “we’ll build a land” and “our world is one world” characterize this movement. The mission of the social gospel was to address systemic poverty by feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, assisting with employment, lobbying for civil rights, offering healthcare to the indigent sick and establishing safer working conditions, educational opportunities and spiritual care for city dwellers. Sound a little like our concerns today? Those are our roots.

While the Social Gospel movement ended abruptly with the deaths of its leaders in 1918 and the end of WWI, its legacy can be seen in our current welfare system, women securing the right to vote in 1921 and organizations like the YMCA. The weakness of the social gospel movement, for all it’s goodness, is that it is will-centered. When we discover that our own hands are not enough, we can become exhausted and disenchanted. Without spiritual sustenance a purely will-centered approach to societal transformation eventually becomes brittle and thin.
Universalist theology aligned well with the Social Gospel movement. God’s all inclusive love is going to save all life. Who wants to worship a God who wants to destroy some, and save others? God’s ultimate purpose is that all life is embraced. This is a theological critique on any social system where some are privileged and others condemned. Combine this with the Social Gospel movement and you have the basis for action. We have to face that disasters on a monumental scale are happening right now. God would not want us to be turning on one another. Though at one time Universalism was a booming force in North America, the strength of Universalism is challenging to retain without theism at it’s core. Nonetheless, the basic ethical message remains. Our purpose here on this earth is to care for our neighbor as ourselves and to create abundance for all through art, vision and labor.
The third theological framework, summarized as the snake and dove in relationship, an image of paradise here and now, offers the last leg of our stool. The earth is our shared yet endangered beloved home. We are not in exile. We are not waiting for punishment or redemption at the end of time. We must live in the present, reverent and respectful for all of life. Rather than love being in the heart of God, instead the gift of love is already here, among us, between us, already realized.

What gives Unitarian Universalism the strength today to hold together these unique theologies? Rebecca Parker lifts up a healthy religious community, created across differences, which leaves room for the cloud of unknowing. What does she mean by a cloud of unknowing? Out of our Universalist heritage, comes the possibility that God needs our love in return. In other language, to what end will we pour out our power and love? What is our purpose for existence?

In 1971, Jesse Jackson spoke to children on Sesame street with the poem “I Am Somebody.” A Baptist minister, and later a presidential candidate, his message was a unique and absolutely vital offering to the world.

“I am Somebody! I am Somebody! I may be poor, But I am Somebody. I may be young, But I am Somebody. I may be on welfare, But I am Somebody. I may be small, But I am Somebody. I may have made mistakes, But I am Somebody. My clothes are different, My face is different, My hair is different, But I am Somebody. I am Black, Brown, or White. I speak a different language But I must be respected, protected, never rejected. I am God’s child!”

The purpose of religious life is that it offers us a place to be who we are truly meant to be, to put love into action, do a better job of resisting dominant culture and to call us back into right relationship with ourselves, others and the world. Jesse Jackson’s poem is like a message in bottle, tossed and worn through high seas, but hand written clear as day for each recipient who stands with arms outstretched on a lonely shore.

Maybe you were wondering about the message I found on the beach. Ok, back to the shore. Gingerly, I pulled off the cork. Tiny shells fell into my hand. The paper was damp, but legible. Curly teenage-girl writing sprawled in front of my eyes. “To: ?? Smile cuz ur beautiful!” Two hearts. (Perhaps this is a different way of saying “I am somebody!!”) It goes on: “Live life as if you will die tomorrow, dream as if you will live forever.” (Realized eschatology!!!!) “Long Beach, Rockport, MA. Text us when you find this! Love, Julia and Kerani.” Well, it’s a modern theology that’s for sure.

I leave you with these questions:
What message are you longing to hear?
Where will the church sail on our next Wilderness Journey?
Who is waiting, arms outstretched on a lonely shore?
What message will we bring?

May our discernment guide us forward.