This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation — more than usual in this case. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.
The first reading this morning is from the Chuang-Tze, translated by James Legge:
“Time never stops, but is always moving on; man’s lot is ever changing; the end and the beginning of things never occur twice in the same way. Therefore men of great wisdom, looking at things far off or near at hand, do not think them insignificant for being small, nor much of them for being great:– knowing how capacities differ illimitably. They appeal with intelligence to things of ancient and recent occurrence, without being troubled by the remoteness of the former, or standing on tiptoe to lay hold of the latter:– knowing that time never stops in its course. They examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of man’s lot….'”
[Section 17. From Sacred Books of the East, vol. 39, 1891.]
The second reading this morning consists of two chapters from the Tao te Ching, or Book of Changes. This translation is by James Legge (ch. 9, 15; from vol. 39, Sacred Books of the East, 1891)
9 When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven….
15 The skilful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep (also) so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.
Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.
Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise. They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of themselves)….
This is the second in a series of sermons this month on Chinese religious texts and traditions.
I begin with the assumption that there is something to be learned from all the great religious traditions of the world, and I follow that with an assumption that we can often learn from other religious traditions and apply their wisdom to some of our problems.
Now if you attend worship services here fairly regularly, you already know that I am concerned about the decline of liberal religion in the United States. Charles Gaines, a retired Universalist minister, has shown that there are 65,000 fewer Unitarian Universalists of all ages now than there were in 1968. In that time, the population of the United States has increased by 93 million people. Considered as a percentage of the total population, our liberal faith is indeed in decline. I believe that we are in decline for all the wrong reasons, and I believe wisdom from that ancient Chinese religious tradition called Taoism has something to teach us about how to reverse liberal religion’s decline.
Actually, I believe we have no excuse at all to be in decline. Bill Sinkford, current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has pointed out that there are 250,000 people who are certified members of Unitarian Universalist congregations — and another 250,000 people who regularly report themselves as Unitarian Universalists on surveys and polls, but who aren’t part of our congregations! In addition, Sinkford says that if you look at the demographic data, there are between five and six million people in the United States today who are pretty much like us, people who are already Unitarian Universalists, but who are part of our congregations. The evidence does point to a slow decline in the numbers of Unitarian Universalists. The evidence also indicates that our liberal religion could easily be five times the size it is now.
That doesn’t mean that I think everyone should become a Unitarian Universalist, nor do I believe that everyone should become part of our congregation — I’m not like those conservative Christians who think everyone should be just like them, religiously speaking. Yet what I see over and over again is people who really want to become Unitarian Universalists, but who can’t seem to find a place in one of our congregations. These people already like our theology, they already like our liberal religion, so I know the problem lies somewhere else. And investigating that problem can lead us straight to the heart of a serious theological puzzle that has bedeviled us religious liberals for years:– the problem of religious authority.
In our religious tradition, each individual is his or her own religious authority. I, as a minister, have no authority to tell you what to believe, or to tell you how to live out your religious life. No member of this congregation — neither a member of the Board of Trustees, nor some member with power or money or influence, nor any other member of the congregation — can tell you what to believe, or tell you how to live our your religious life. You are the ultimate religious authority for yourself. Of course, this also means that you cannot tell anyone else what to believe, or how to live out her or his religious life. This also means that the congregation cannot tell its minister what to preach, or what not to preach (although you could certainly fire me if you don’t like what I preach). We don’t have bishops or popes or imams or Parsis or gurus, because we are each our own religious authority.
Having said this, it’s also perfectly clear that there are those among us who speak with authority;– those among us to whom others listen with some deference. I have seen some Unitarian Universalist congregations where a minister speaks with real authority. I have seen other Unitarian Universalist congregations where certain lay leaders speak with real authority. By “real authority,” I mean these are people whose thoughts and feelings carry real weight; these are people who can influence decisions, or who may even make decisions. Then there are other Unitarian Universalist congregations where no one person has a great amount of authority, where lay leaders and the minister and other members of the congregation all share authority more or less equally.
If you were counting, I just mentioned three different types of congregations: one type where a minister has the most authority, a second type where certain lay leaders have the most authority, and a third type where authority is shared and no person or group has the most authority. I can tell you from my own observations that each of these three types of congregation can work extremely well. And each of these three types of congregation can be just as Unitarian Universalist as the other two — in other words, I can find no theological difference between them. As near as I can tell, the only difference between the three different types of congregation is that larger congregations tend to have one minister who has the most authority, small and tiny congregations tend to have a small group of lay leaders with most or all of the authority, and medium sized congregations tend to be places where everyone shares authority equally.
And my observations are confirmed by Edward Koster, an attorney and a Presbyterian minister in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Koster got interested in nonverbal communication, and how people communicate authority nonverbally in a congregation. Drawing on the theory of meta-communciations, Koster says we can separate out the content of what we say from the relationship between the two parties who are communicating. If we just look at the relationship between two people, Koster points out that there are only two types of relationship that are possible: there’s a symmetrical relationship where the two people are equally influential; and there’s a complementary relationship where one person is clearly the boss.
I’ll give you an obvious example: in most cases, a parent and a young child will be in a complementary relationship with each other, where the parent is in the “one-up” position, and the child is in the “one-down” position. When there’s a conflict between the two of them, the parent is generally going to “win.” I’ll give you another example: my relationship with my life partner, Carol, is a symmetrical relationship. Neither one of us is the boss. When we get into a conflict, the outcome of that conflict is uncertain.
Now remember, neither of these relationships is inherently good or bad. I know plenty of good marriages and partnerships that are complementary, where one of the partners is in the “one-up” position and the other partner is in the “one-down” position. We don’t want to make moral judgments about which type of relationship is best. But we can make judgments about which type of relationship is most proper — I think you’ll agree with me that it is appropriate for a young child to be in a “one-down” relationship with his or her parent. Once you learn this concept, you’ll start noticing it at work in many of your own personal relationships — you’ll realize that you’re in a complementary relationship with your boss, where you’re in the “one-down” position — and you’ll find lots of relationships which are symmetrical relationships.
Getting back to congregations, Koster believes we can find this kind of relationship in congregations. Specifically, he found that the relationship between clergyperson and laypeople in many smaller congregations, those with an average attendance of less than a hundred, was a complementary relationship with the clergy in the “one-down” position. This makes complete sense, given that small congregations often have part-time ministers, or lots of turn over in their ministers, so the laypeople have to take on more authority. Then Koster found that the relationship between clergy and laypeople in medium-sized congregations, those with between a hundred and two hundred average attendance, is a symmetrical relationship. And — you guessed it — in large congregations, with more than two hundred in attendance, it’s a complementary relationship with the clergy in the “one-up” position. Here again, this makes complete sense, because a bigger congregation becomes so much more complex that you pretty much need a full-time, paid person to be in charge.
I don’t think I need to point out that this is a small congregation, with less than a hundred people in attendance each week. That means that I, as the clergyperson, am in the “one-down” position, and that lay leaders are the ones with the authority to initiate change. Except for one little point, this is neither good nor bad from my point of view — it’s simply that that’s the way things work around here.
Except for one little point — if the laypeople who are the leaders, the one in the “one-up” position, decide that they want this congregation to grow, Edward Koster predicts we’re going to hit a barrier when we start getting about a hundred people each Sunday. That barrier will hit us when the laypeople who are the leaders have to give up a big chunk of their authority, and start sharing authority with the minister and with other laypeople. That will not be an easy task. With all the visitors that we have been getting this year, we could reach a hundred people in worship within twelve months — we could hit that barrier within a year.
What will we do when we hit that barrier? To help address that question, I’d like to turn to the readings we heard this morning. And I turn first to the first reading, by Chuang-tze.
Chuang-tze tells us that persons of great wisdom “appeal with intelligence to things of ancient and recent occurrence, without being troubled by the remoteness of the former, or standing on tiptoe to lay hold of the latter:– knowing that time never stops in its course.” That is to say, persons of great wisdom acknowledge the past, both the distant past and the very recent past; and in acknowledging the past, they are acknowledging that the stream of time is always flowing onwards. Chuang-tze continues, saying that person of great wisdom “examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of” humanity’s lot. Sometimes things get better, sometimes things get worse; sometimes we are in times of plenty, sometimes we are in times of great want; yet the person of great wisdom remains on an even keel, knowing that life is inconstant and always changing.
This is pretty good advice for any one of us. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading Chuang-tze over the years, and he strikes me as being full of good advice. I have found that if I accept his advice, if I am able to remember the inconstancy of humanity’s lot, I am able to stay centered, stable, secure in myself. When I am able to remember to stay centered, stable, secure in myself (and I’m the first to say that I find that a difficult task), I am able to follow up on successes, and I remain clearheaded so that I can deal with the problems at hand. Getting excited by success or dragged down by failure, however, doesn’t provide any advantage at all.
So says Chuang-tze. And his thoughts are a direct outgrowth of the words of his master, Lao-tze. In the second reading, we heard similar ideas from Lao-tze, who said: “When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself.” In other words, glorying in success can lead to a downfall.
Lao-tze continues: “When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.” In other words, the wise leader is the one who pulls back from the limelight at the moment of success so that the people can say, We have done this ourselves. Lao-tze says, The best leaders look grave like a guest in awe of his host, “evanescent,” “unpretentious,” and “dull like muddy water.”
In today’s American society, we are not familiar with this idea of leadership. The politicians in Washington set the tone for us, and too often we believe that real leaders have to be authoritarian, bossy, always in control, they have to micro-manage every detail of everything. Yet we do know what it means for a leader to be unpretentious; George Washington was unpretentious; so was Abraham Lincoln. So we do know another path of leadership, a path that values humilty over authoritarianism, a path that values evanescence over micro-managing.
And Lao-tze gives us advice about how to accomplish this second, unpretentious kind of leadership. Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? he writes. Let the water remain still, and it will gradually become clear; who can secure the condition of rest? –let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.
Lao-tze often uses the image of flowing water, and that image captures something of what he’s trying to tell us. Be like water, that flows effortlessly, always seeking the lowest place. Accept that change is going to happen, and don’t resist change. We even have a saying in English with a similar idea: go with the flow.
Chuang-tze writes that persons of great wisdom “examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of humanity’s lot.” Knowing that change happens, let us examine one case of fulness, not letting ourselves be overjoyed by their success. Over the past twenty years, the fastest growing new congregation in Unitarian Universalism is Horizon Unitarian Universalist congregation in Carrollton, Texas. Founded in 1987 with 34 members, they’re closing in on 400 members with a $400,00 annual operating budget.
A couple of years ago, I heard their parish minister, Dennis Hamilton, speak at General Assembly, the annual gathering of United States Unitarian Universalists. In his talk, Dennis Hamilton said that one reason Horizon has grown is that they know their congregation changes people’s lives, and changes the world. He put it more forcefully, and I’ll read you his words:
“To grow and thrive a church must see itself as a redemptive force in the community, that its presence makes a difference. It cannot see itself as a reclusive retreat for free thinkers and rebels. Ministers need to project this vision for their congregations and members need to share in it. Even more, from individual congregations and from our denominational leadership, we need to see ourselves as the religion of the future. We cannot live in the past or find our importance in the past. As we continue to celebrate our religion through our historical leaders, and find validity by pointing to past heroes, we come to look like trust fund babies, living indolently off of past greatness. It is up to us to create our own history by being great and by being bold in our vision.” So writes Dennis Hamilton.
While he might disagree with me, I think Dennis Hamilton is saying something similar to Lao-tze. Change is inevitable. Therefore, we must let go of the past and move forward into the future. And how are we to do that? Hamilton says by accepting our role as a redemptive force in the community.
Dennis Hamilton tells us we “must see [ourselves] as a redemptive force in the community, that [our] presence makes a difference.” This means more than doing more social justice projects, although there’s nothing wrong with more social justice projects, as long as you don’t burn out your social justice committee. It means seeing ourselves for who we really are, in all our strengths and weaknesses. If we look at who we really are, we Unitarian Universalists are not very effective at doing social justice. If we compare ourselves to Habitat for Humanity, or to the Sierra Club, or to the American Civil Liberties Union, it’s clear that those other organizations do more social justice than we can — simply because that’s all they do. We do something more. We take our great theological message out into the world: we tell people that the search for truth is more important than trying to codify truth in creeds and doctrines. We spread the word that the world needs open conversations about deep questions, rather than fights and wars based on preliminary conclusions.
Which is to say, what really distinguishes us is our unique religious belief system. We make a difference in the community around us simply by living out our theological openness. Yes, it would be great if we did more social justice, but I think we should give ourselves some credit for the amazing things we already do here at First Unitarian. Our theological openness means that, unlike other religions, we allow women to be clergy — this makes a huge difference in a world that still denigrates women. Our theological openness means that, unlike other religions, we have been sanctioning religious marriages between same-sex couples for decades, and we will continue to sanction same sex marriages even if the anti-gay amendment gets added to the state constitution. Our theological openness has been moving us to the point where on any given Sunday morning, twenty percent of our congregation might be a so-called minority: non-white and/or Hispanic.
So you see, the fact that we exist at all is the most important thing we do here in New Bedford. And in fact, what we really show the surrounding community is that change is possible. When we realized that it wasn’t right to make women be second-class citizens, we changed — and it was a change for the better. When we realized that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, we changed — and it was a change for the better. Now we are realizing that a multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregation makes sense, so we are changing for the better. We are the religion of the future, and we are making a difference in New Bedford by being the religion of the future.
That being the case, our theological openness should also allow us to change by growing. If we are to grow, I think the most difficult change for this congregation will be changing the relationship between the minister and the congregation. As a congregation grows to having more than a hundred people here each Sunday, can we change so that we create a symmetrical relationship between the minister and the congregation? To do so will result in major changes in the way we do things — organization, communications, trust. It will upset ways of doing things that go back several generations.
To grow for the sake of growth is a waste of time. But I believe we should live out our new destiny as a redemptive force in our community. That means that when people are attracted to us because of who we are, we should not chase them away, and we should not allow them to slip through our fingers. If someone walks in the door of this building, it is because they need to be here — they need to be a part of our liberal faith — the need us to be a redemptive force in their lives. They need us — they need us to welcome them, to say: join us, now you’re home.
To change for the sake of changing is a waste of time. But change is inevitable, and we should be ready for it. We should not waste the huge amount of effort it takes to resist change. Chuang-tze says: “Time never stops, but is always moving on; humanity’s lot is ever changing; the end and the beginning of things never occur twice in the same way.” May we embrace change.