Where You Go I Will Go
Sermon for the Ordination of Karen Madrone to the Unitarian Universalist Ministry
UU Church of Greensboro, NC - June 2, 2019
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino
Where you go I will go, beloved, where you go I will go.
Where you go I will go, beloved, where you go I will go.
And your people are my people, your people are mine.
Your people are my people, your divine my divine.
Set to music by Shoshanna Jedwab, the words are from the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, from the passage in which Ruth makes a sacred promise to her widowed mother-in-law Naomi. Refusing to abandon Naomi in order to return to a land once her home, Ruth claims Naomi as family, and embraces Naomi’s God and Naomi’s people as hers.
So it is here, in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, that we choose our people. So it is here, in this Unitarian Universalist congregation, that Karen chose you as her people, and here, right here, that you chose Karen as someone you wish to ordain to the ministry.
How and why we make these choices matters.
“Your people are my people.” This text from Ruth points us to a critical decision point in Unitarian Universalist faith. There is a possibility, a potential, inherent in our religion, in our ministry, in our theology of pluralism and interdependence—a seed buried at the core of our faith. And we have to decide if we will let that seed lie dormant or if we will plant it and nurture it and grow it into a great tree.
And the decision we have to make is how our theology is lived. Where does our theology reside? Where does our theology find life?
Unitarian Universalist theology, as embodied by but not limited to the principles that our congregations covenant to affirm and promote, is a dying and dormant seed if we plant it in the individualism of our past.
If we see our theology as affirming the individual, if we understand our principles as statements of our personal worth, if we construct our congregations to be mere collections of people engaging in individual spiritual journeys, we are not doing the work of transformation that our world requires of us.
Once long ago (and also not so very long ago), covenants were designed as circles drawn to keep people out. “We covenant” implied “but not you, or you, or you, and certainly not *them*.” We created Unitarian Universalist identity by fostering a narcissistic hyper-individualism that venerated Thoreau’s solitude in the woods without remembering that he often walked the half a mile to town to have dinner with the Emersons and have his mother wash his laundry. We embraced principles that spoke to us of our own freedom and conscience without qualifying that freedom with responsibility or that conscience with process.
When theology is lived in the individual, individuals feel empowered to inject their toxicity and fragility into congregational systems. Individuals advocate for themselves in congregational systems, for their own needs, for their own theological language, and on behalf of their own religious wounds, without caring that there might be something larger, something more important, something outside of us.
We have another choice: Our theology, our principles, our religion, can be lived in relationship.
We can choose to understand that nothing we believe matters, nothing we do is real, nothing we proclaim is worth shouting, unless it comes from real and right relationship with others with whom we share a mutual accountability.
If we choose this, we are choosing fertile and warm soil in which to grow the potential of our faith.
Instead of understanding covenant as exclusionary, as defining who is in and who is out, we can see the sacred promises we make to one another as invitations to go deeper, invitations that are open to anyone who chooses to accept them.
We can choose to understand that when someone accepts our invitation to come into our circle of love and wholeness, we are changed as a result, and that such change is good. When someone accepts that invitation, the circle grows, and this growth is good.
When theology is lived in the midst of community, when it is given life as the bonds that connect each and every one of us as an interdependent web of creation, we understand our principles as living, breathing, organisms that require our care. We understand that affirming and promoting inherent worth and dignity (yours, and mine, and those of the people outside of this room) is a process, an ongoing challenge to meet people where they are and experience them as who they are.
In order for me to engage in that process, I need to make myself better. I need to listen better. I need to understand better. I need to check my fragility and my privilege and my reactivity, my defensiveness and my selfishness. I need to be accountable to others for how I live the values that we proclaim together. I need to start down a path that leads me to you, my people. So it goes for all of us.
This is harder to do than the individualist stuff. Much, much harder. But so much more worth it.
In a Unitarian Universalism where our theology is lived interdependently, we make relationships and connections central instead of centering ourselves and our needs.
In a covenant of relationship and invitation, when we say “your God is my God,” we don’t promise to give up our own theology, background, or heritage. Instead, we promise to add to it. We promise to embrace how others find and experience the sacred.
I don’t ask you to believe the same things I do, nor will I necessarily believe the same things that you do. But in the context of this community, I understand that your spiritual journey and mine are interdependent, and I proclaim that your understanding of the ultimate is worth celebrating, even when it means that my God is not central for a moment. In return, I ask that when my theology is lifted up you do the lifting, even if it’s not your theology. If instead, you tear down what I hold sacred, your claim to have chosen me will be in vain.
I don’t ask you to have the same experiences I have, nor will I necessarily understand all of your experiences. In the context of relationship, I ask that you listen to my experiences and allow them to transform you. In return, I will do the same. In an individualist theology, when I am told I’ve done something racist, I can beg forgiveness based on my good intentions, ignoring the impact of my behavior and never getting to systemic factors that made it possible. In relationship, when a person of color relates to me an experience of racism that I am responsible for, it is my task to learn, to do better, to grow, and to work to transform the system in which that act happened. I get better, the system gets better, the relationship is honored. This is our promise.
If we live our theology in connection, in relationship, we commit ourselves to accountability in our spiritual growth. We commit ourselves to one another. We claim one another as our people, and in turn we are claimed. Your people are my people, your divine my divine.
And so we turn to the matter of the day, the ordination of Karen Madrone, and ask where the theology behind this act lives. Today, you, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, will ordain Karen. You will speak words that will transform her. And you do not do this in isolation. This is not one specific and defined group of people ordaining one individual, though I get that it can look that way.
The act of ordination is a deeply relational act—with Karen, with our Unitarian Universalist faith, and with the world that she is called to minister to.
You will place upon her shoulders a stole, fashioned in the shape of a yoke that hitches work animals to plows and carts. The stole will have weight far beyond that of the fabric used to put it together—and this is a good thing.
In 2006, when I finished my ministerial internship here, Karen was a new member of UUCG. As I completed my service with you, you gave me *this* stole as a symbol of your relationship with me, as a reminder of the trust you had in me to represent you in our world. It is the stole I chose to have placed upon my shoulders at my ordination and installation the next year.
At the time you presented the stole to me, Joyce Allen, who wove this beautiful fabric and embroidered golden chalices upon it, whispered to me, “you know, Michael, that I am an old witch. There is magic woven into every fiber of this stole. Powerful magic.”
Indeed there is. I feel that magic every time I wear it. And I feel the weight of the yoke on my shoulders. It’s a good weight. A healthy weight. A comforting weight. It is the weight of your trust. It is the weight of your blessing. It is the weight of the words spoken by the congregation that ordained me—the congregation I still serve in Mount Kisco, New York. It is the weight of generations of ancestors whose investment in me made this possible. It is the weight of faith ancestors whose investment in our religion made a place for my ministry. It is the weight of people I have chosen as mine, surrounding me with their love. It is the weight of the world, whose hurts need ministering to. It is the weight of the hands laid upon me that day in 2007 when I first wore it.
This stole, like any stole worn by an ordained minister, bears the weight of relationship. It connects me to an entire web of being in which I have been asked to play a special role. It requires of me a humility and a presence that I need to be reminded to place on myself.
This stole, like the one that Karen will wear today, is a mark that I have been claimed as someone else’s people. Where I go, you will go. You ride on my shoulders. You make my ministry possible.
And when I wear it, it is a recognition that I, too, claim you as mine. Where you go, I will go, beloved. Your people are my people, your divine my divine.
Karen is among her people today, people chosen in mutual accountability over a dozen years ago. You have journeyed together, grown together, challenged each other, learned from each other. And you will go with her throughout the days of her ministry. Blessed be.