Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Spiritual Practice of Membership — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached January 23rd, 2011


I have occasionally been using the sermons

I am privileged to bring to this pulpit

to tell some of the stories from the earliest times

of my ministry, on Galveston Island, in Texas.

Being among you, I am often reminded of those days,

because you, this wonderful congregation here in mid-Michigan,

are in many ways what I hope the congregation in Galveston

may someday become.

Part of why I was excited to come and be with you this year

was to learn from you how you made the transition

from a lay-led small family style congregation

to the growing pastoral fellowship that you have become…

so that learning from your example,

I can perhaps help other congregations

make that transition in the future.

So I have a couple more of those stories

from the Island of Galveston this morning.


One evening, while a member of the lay-led Fellowship

on Galveston Island, TX,

I received a frantic phone call from Tony,

our newly elected president of the church Board of Directors.

He called me to ask for my help.


Our long time church administrator, Rosemary,

had been taken to the hospital earlier that day,

and though we did not yet know

what was happening with our friend, we did know that whatever it was, it was serious.  Some members of our caring committee were with them at the hospital.


Sunday was just a few days away,

and we did not yet have the Orders of Service,

the newsletter mailing had not gone out,

and we were not certain when last someone

had spoken to the guest preacher.


I had worked closely with Rosemary,

because I was the church’s webmaster.

So I met Tony at the church at about 9pm on Friday night,

we got things ready for Sunday morning.

We talked about our worries for our friend.


It was touch and go for Rosemary for awhile,

and the fellowship came together

to support her and her husband Jim.

She was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer,

and there were few treatments…

but, in a miracle no less miraculous

because I understand the science behind it, she pulled through.


After some close calls, her cancer went into remission,

and she and Jim moved to Lafayette Indiana,

so that Jim could take up a position as a research scientist…

looking for a cure for cancer.


Through those weeks that Terry, our DRE, Tony, and I

managed the church, we began to realize

that Rosemary was not going to come back.

First, because of the medical treatment,

and second because this personal experience with cancer

had called the her husband Jim to accept the position at Purdue.

Through this time I began to explore

what managing a church involved,

and took on the role as the church’s new administrator.


All I could find in the church records

on how to do the work of managing the church

was a one page “Job description” from many years before.

It was a decent listing of what needed to be done,

but gave me absolutely no idea how to do any of it.

Over the next few weeks, through trial and error,

I figured out a lot of it myself, printing the Orders of Service, answering email, sending out the newsletter, …

but I could not, for the life of me,



You think I’m being melodramatic…

but for two months the Great Toilet Paper Mystery

occupied an increasing amount

of my imagination and my thoughts.

In two months, I never replaced a toilet paper roll at the church.

Never.  We did not have a sexton or a custodian.

Toilet paper would magically appear in the storage closet…

there would be fresh rolls every Sunday morning

that had not been there on Friday night…

There was always at least one backup roll

placed within easy reach.

And I, the fellowship administrator,

had absolutely no idea how this was happening.


My imagination offered me a little toilet paper elf,

who appeared in the middle of the night

to refill the rolls for Sunday morning.


My imagination offered me the unpleasant possibilities

that members were either, not going to the bathroom,

not wiping, or bringing their own TP on Sunday morning.


My favorite explanation that my imagination offered me was that,

perhaps, this was some Unitarian version

of the Christian story of the loaves and fishes…

that perhaps someone had once brought one roll of toilet paper

to the fellowship, and from this one roll came a miraculous bounty

by which all of our needs were met…


I had tried “marking” the toilet paper rolls

to see if I could tell when the elves were replacing them.

I counted each week for a month how many toilet paper rolls

were in the closet.

I seriously considered making an announcement

before Sunday morning worship…

“Excuse me, but if someone knows

how the Toilet Paper keeps magically appearing

in the bathrooms, could you please tell me”…

but I decided it might be best

to keep this little obsession to myself.


One Saturday night, as I was finishing a sermon

for Sunday morning, I realized that a book I needed

was in my office at the fellowship.

So I quickly jumped in my car

and made the quick trip down the seawall.

As I pulled into the alley behind the fellowship building,

I noticed that the lights were on.

I was sure that I had turned them off on Thursday.


As I entered and turned the corner to where the bathrooms were,

I caught the Toilet Paper Elf redhanded…

In the hallway stood one of our longest term members, Mary Beth,

with a roll of toilet paper in one hand

and a bag of other church essentials in the other.


For years, going back to when

there was not a church administrator,

Mary Beth had come into the church

on Friday or Saturday, replaced the rolls of toilet paper,

refilled the soap dispensers,

placed new paper towels in the kitchen,

and wiped down all the sinks and the counters.

Mary Beth was a sweet woman,

the chair of our Social Justice Committee,

the co-leader of a book discussion group,

and several other things.

She once infiltrated an anti-gay conference

to hand out Unitarian Universalist literature,

and got away with it because she just looked so innocent…

they did not know she was secretly an Elf, you see.

Over the next few months,

I learned that if there was something happening at the church,

and I did not know who was doing it,

it was probably Mary Beth.


I realized, standing there in the hallway,

that it was an important part of Mary Beth’s

spiritual practice of Church Membership

that she be allowed to replace the toilet paper each week.

By that act, she was being subject

to all the rest of the members of the Fellowship.


Now, please… here at UUFOM,

if we are out of toilet paper in one of the bathrooms…

please please please tell someone on the staff.

Our Sexton RG will not be happy with me

if people begin bringing their own toilet paper.


But I have seen that same spirit that Mary Beth showed,

that spirit of being in service

to ones fellow members in this congregation.

I have seen that spirit in the halls, in the classrooms,

and in the offices of this Fellowship.

I have seen members, without seeking recognition or fanfare,

spend an entire morning organizing the dishes in the kitchen.

I have seen members come in

to clean up the branches around the Fellowship.

I have seen members, without anyone asking,

re-arranging the chairs in a classroom,

not for the group they are a part of,

but because they know how the next group in the room likes to sit.

I have seen members of this fellowhsip

washing someone else’s coffee cups in the kitchen,

separating the recycling from the garbage,

teaching RE classes, serving on committees,

checking on members who are absent,

greeting visitors, serving food, leading workshops,

and doing more things in the life of this fellowship

than I could ever list on a Sunday morning.


I have seen members of this fellowship who have,

whether they use this language or not,

made their membership in this community

a part of their spiritual practice…

a part of how they live in this world as religious human beings.

From a member who took on the task

of cataloguing and organizing our collection of children’s books,

to staff members who dedicate more time to this fellowship

than is covered by their paychecks,

to a youth of this church who has offered to produce a video

not just for here, but for the entire UUA…

it is not just the minister of this congregation

for whom being here is a spiritual practice,

a spiritual discipline, and a form of ministry.


A few years ago, I embarked on a slow

and deliberate reading of the Christian Scriptures,

for the first time since I left

the Southern Baptist tradition as a teen.

What I have found in that re-reading

is that there is more of my Unitarian Universalist Faith

in those ancient texts than I would at first have believed.

Among the most profound of them for me

has been this quote, from 1 Peter, Chapter 5, vs. 5…


“Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.”


Peter, or someone from his circle, wrote these words

in a letter to Christians living in Asia Minor,

who were living on the religious margins.

Many had considered abandoning their new-found faith,

because it was hard to be on the outside

of the larger religious traditions.

He wrote the letter to give them hope,

and to call them to give hope to one another.


I was struck by the word “subject”.

Today it has a meaning similar to the word “topic” or “category”…

but at the time, to be “subject” to someone

was to place yourself in their service,

to place yourself under their orders,

to place yourself under their judgment.

Being subject to someone involves a deep level

of personal, spiritual commitment.

One was “subject” to the King, to the Prince,

to the religious leadership.

The Province of Judea was “subject” to Rome.

Sometimes this was not always voluntary…

you did not often choose to be subject to the king,

you just were…often enforced by the point of a spear or sword.

In our story for all ages this morning, a king,

to whom all were subject,

himself learned to be subject to his people.



I believe Peter said something radical with these words,

and I think it is one of the early articulations

of a concept we Unitarian Universalists

now call “right relationship”.

He called on these early Christians

not just to be nice to one another,

not just to be in service to each other,

but to be subject to one another.

To commit themselves spiritually to the needs of others.

To the needs of their religious community.


The Fellowship is a concept that needs a little attention here,

for what is the Fellowship?  Is it the building?  Is it the minister?

Is it the board of Trustees?

The answer is yes, and it’s more than these.


The Pilgrim and Puritan forebears

of our Unitarian Universalist faith

called their religious communities

“The gathered community of Saints”…

Peter described it for the early Christians as “One to another”.

We are the Fellowship… each and every one of us.

Those who have made the commitment of membership,

signed the book, and find ways to be subject to one another,

through washing the coffee cups, serving on a committee,

or greeting those who enter our doors on Sunday morning.


Even those who have perhaps not yet

become a member by signing the book,

but have become a member in their hearts

by contributing to who we are with their presence,

as well as their time, talent, and treasure.

The strength of our faith lies not in some creed or dogma,

but in the practice of living together, in right relationship,

subject to one another, clothed in humility.


This commitment to the needs of those around us

in this intentional community we call a fellowship,

this commitment that the needs of others

is as important to us as our own needs,

this is the spiritual practice of membership.


A little later this week, you will be receiving a letter

from the Stewardship Committee and the Executive Team

of our Fellowship, asking you to consider ways

that we can together support the work

and ministries of our Fellowship.

For a variety of reasons, some involving the economy,

some involving the years of transition that interim ministry brings,

some involving the passing of some of our longest term

and most dearly loved members,

our stewardship campaign has been a challenge this year.

While the campaign has gone on longer than in previous years,

we are still quite a ways away from what is needed to continue

the practice of our ministries, with one another and with the world,

in the ways we are currently practicing them.


I will not go into the details of the current status

of the stewardship campaign this morning,

and I will allow the stewardship committee to be

in communication with you about them.


What I wanted was for you all to know about it from me,

to hear it said on Sunday morning before the letter arrives,

and for us to begin thinking creatively together

how we can continue and support

our spiritual practice of membership in this Fellowship.

As we go into the coming weeks

of exploring how we can meet the needs of each other

and of our religious community,

I will be holding some events in February

to explore possibilities with you,

and the Stewardship committee and the executive team

would love to share ideas and possibilities with you.

I also want to specifically open this exploration up

not only to members, but to friends and regular visitors

of the Fellowship as well… for even those who have yet

to make a formal commitment of membership

can lead membership as a spiritual practice.


Over my years involved in leading new member groups

of our faith, I have come to a belief that many people

visit a religious community because they feel they are

in need of something, but they stay in the congregation,

they become members of a Fellowship

because they learn that, more than that need,

they have much they can give.


It is the giving of time, the giving of talent, the giving of treasure…

not out of obligation, but out of love for one another,

out of the joy that is the spiritual practice of membership.

From this giving we have a bounty,

like the story in the parables and myths of Jesus

where a bounty of loaves and fishes appeared

from the basket of one young boy,

from this bounty which comes from us

we are called to not only spiritually feed each other,

but to spiritually and physically feed

this hungry, hurting, and desperate world.


The spiritual practice of church membership,

the way we learn to give to one another,

to be subject to the needs of one another,

to deeply listen to one another,

to give hope and love to one another…

this practice we have within this fellowship is also,

I believe, the salvation of a world that is so filled

with anger, hatred, violence, and pain.

The way we learn to be in loving community with one another

should also be the way we act within the world…

and it is my belief that this form of right relationship,

of beloved community… this is the true answer and solution

to violence such as occurred in Tucson a few weeks ago.

The spiritual practice of membership here teaches us

how to spiritually be members of the world, of the human race.


Our liberal faith message to the world

will not be given in words or books,

but in deeply listening to the joys and fears of our co-workers,

or in forgiving a person who has slighted us,

in choosing not to match anger for anger,

and in serving the needs of others as well as our own.

In finding compassion for all…

including ourselves in those times we perhaps

don’t live up to our own best expectations.


The bible story of the loaves and fishes speaks of a miracle…

but like the recovery of my friend Rosemary from her cancer,

it is a miracle I understand.

A young boy gave up five loaves and two fishes,

probably all that he had for a week, much less a day.

When the people gathered to hear Jesus teach saw this gift,

they were moved.

When the meager loaves and fishes of this young boy

were passed around, they added to the baskets the food

they had with them, inspired to their own

spiritual practice of membership by the young boy’s gift.

From the gift of one, came inspiration…

from that inspiration came a bounty, and from that bounty,

the congregation was able to not only minister to themselves…

but also to the world.


I give thanks for your gifts… together they make a bounty…

and from that bounty we shall all minister to each other,

and to a hurting, desperate world.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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