Worthy To Be Entrusted
I was honored to share the sermon at Lara Campbell’s ordination today with the Rev. Meg Riley. Below is my part of the sermon. Meg’s can be found at her Patheos Blog (here).
Worthy to Be Entrusted, part 1
Sermon for the Ordination of Lara Campbell, Jan 26 2014
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino
This is the first time, though hopefully not the last, that I’ve had the opportunity to share a pulpit with Meg Riley. We’ve known each other for years, though—we worked together at UUA Headquarters for six years and remain friends. We’re fierce Scrabble opponents on Facebook, too.
In fact, I love keeping up with Meg on Facebook. As with lots of people I care about but don’t get to see very often, Facebook provides us a way to keep up with the basics of each other’s lives. She sees my baby pictures, and I admire her teenager. We laugh often (and sometimes cry) about the challenges of ministry that are pretty much the same no matter the size, location or medium of the congregation. I know about her dog-toy-buying habits, the weather in Minneapolis, and her positions on the major social justice issues of our day.
But the realities of our lives? The stuff we’re struggling with? The things that really cause us pain, or make us feel hopeless in the middle of the night? Well, neither of us posts that sort of stuff on Facebook, so if we want to know it, we need to pick up the phone. Or hope we run into each other at a conference and have the time to sit down for a meal.
We live in an age where many of us, with a few clicks of the mouse, are super-connected with lots and lots of other people. Hyper-connected, even. So many people are connected through Facebook that it’s quickly becoming uncool—and I will admit that having my mom and grandma comment on my posts is sometimes a little awkward.
Last week, the middle school youth I serve as minister made a list of the social media sites they use. My mind whirled as the names sped by me—Instagram, SnapChat, Vine…they went on and on. And in each one, they pay attention to different things, to different people—each gets only a passing glance, a small snippet of time.
And as our attention to others is spread a mile wide an inch deep, the response of religious communities must help make up for what is being lost. Unitarian Universalism, I believe (and I think Meg still agrees with me here), is a faith movement capable of filling that void.
We’ve heard and said together the famous words of Universalist minister Olympia Brown, and today we rejoice that we are worthy to be entrusted with a great message—the great message of Unitarian Universalism, the great message that people of diverse beliefs can make meaning together in religious community.
Olympia Brown also entreated us to find ever new applications of the truths that are before us, so it is fitting that we think about how we must adapt if we are to have something real and necessary to offer the world. To do so, maybe we can take some inspiration from the past.
In the late 19th century, a group of Unitarian women ministers were called to pulpits in areas of the growing United States then thought of as the frontier. The Iowa Sisterhood, as they came to be known, were approved for settlement in places like Sioux City, Iowa City and Des Moines, Iowa, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, largely because no men wanted to serve these far-flung parishes. Life on the frontier was simply too difficult for most male Unitarian ministers, used to sitting in their studies and reading or contemplating theology.
And indeed, the East coast model of intellectual Unitarian congregations didn’t serve the frontier communities, either, so the Iowa Sisterhood had to invent a new way of being church. Their congregations functioned as social hubs in their communities, serving meals and convening circles for support and conversation.
They even re-thought the way our congregations’ buildings were put together. Cynthia Grant Tucker describes how the People’s Church of Kalamazoo was built under the leadership of the Rev. Caroline Bartlett in her book Prophetic Sisterhood. She writes, “…Bartlett asked her church’s building committee to start out by putting themselves in all the various family roles, imagining in succession the positions of preacher, chorister, usher, guest, teacher, toddler, sexton and cook, and then scrutinizing the blueprints from the assumed perspective of each.”
The result was a different kind of church building—one that hosted some thirty community meetings a week, and whose architecture mirrored the functionality of a beautiful home more than it did the stone-and-stained-glass building it replaced or the airy, light-filled, inspiring structures of Boston Unitarianism.
Our modern-day hyper-connectivity requires of us the same bold rethinking of church that the isolation of the Plains inspired in the Iowa Sisterhood. And interestingly, I think that the answers to both problems are similar.
Just as the Iowa sisterhood responded to their physical isolation by creating space for the depth of connection, we can respond to the shallowness of modern connection by creating communities in which people come to know real relationship.
Religious communities, that is. Religion, it is often said, comes from the Latin roots that mean “to bind back together.” And thus, the purpose of religious communities is to find the broken in our society and stitch back together the pieces.
We are not broken by our technological connections to one another, certainly. But they leave us missing things. They leave us missing the depth of relationship that allows for meaning-making in our lives. They leave us missing the realness of relationship that allows us to be vulnerable with one another. They leave us missing the wholeness of lives filled not with baby pictures and cat videos but with grief, elation, struggle, pain and ecstasy.
It is up to religious leaders to help bring those things back to our lives.
It is also up to us to create a religious movement that allows for such depth. A religious movement that allows for adaptation in the face of societal change. A religious movement that allows us, in the words of the hymn penned to celebrate the coming together of the Unitarians and the Universalists 52 years ago, to “revere the past but trust the dawning future more.”
 Tucker, Cynthia Grant. Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930. Boston: Beacon Press. p.108