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

Tilling the Fields of a Missionary Faith — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached December 4th, 2011

Unitarian Universalist Minister John C. Morgan has written about a day when, after a sermon, a member of his congregation confronted him as he left the pulpit, with a flushed face and angry eyes…

“Do not ever use that word here,” she said.

“What word?” asked Rev. Morgan.

“Evangelism!” she choked, as if the word caught in her throat. “Don’t use it again. We have newcomers here today!”

There are many words that one uses cautiously in our faith tradition… words that bring up associations for many of us well beyond the meanings that they are supposed to hold. For those of us, like me, who left deep involvement in another tradition when we began the path to Unitarian Universalism, those words often hold painful memories, or associations with things we have rejected.

I’m going to use a few of those words this morning, including the dreaded “E” word that got Rev. Morgan in trouble. In my own journey from Southern Baptist to Evangelical Unitarian Universalist I have transformed the meaning of many of those words for myself… and I want to share those meanings with you.

At twenty years old, I was a newly promoted Sergeant in the United States Army. I was a paratrooper, assigned as an Intelligence Analyst to the 7th Special Forces Group at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. I had left behind my Southern Baptist faith on the fields of the Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia … because I did not believe it was God who would keep me safe when I jumped out of an airplane, but rather my training, my fellow soldiers, and the guy who packed my chute.

In other words, I came to believe that our destiny is in our own hands, not in the hands of a Deity. I had become a Deist.

One afternoon, as I stepped outside of the Post Exchange and put my beret on my head, I saw a large man, an officer, standing around the exit shaking hands with soldiers. I knew what he was even before I even saw the cross resting where his rank should be. He was a Chaplain, doing what Chaplains are supposed to do… talking to soldiers.

The last thing in the world I, as a Deist, wanted to do was talk to a Chaplain who was probably some evangelical fundamentalist wanting to save my soul. That was ok, I had developed a way to deal with such chaplains…

As I saluted him, he returned the salute and then put his hand out to shake mine and reading my rank and nametag said “Hello SGT Pyle! How are you today?”

“Fine sir” I replied, as I stopped to talk with him. It is just not proper protocol to blaze on by an officer who wants to talk to you. “I don’t talk to Chaplains much, because I am a Deist, sir.”

Usually, the word “Deist” would send even the most evangelical missionary running away at top speed… but not this time.

“A Deist! Wow! I don’t get to meet those very often!. Let me tell you about Unitarian Universalism.” It was the first time I had ever heard those two words… Unitarian Universalism. I had indeed found an Evangelical… but one from our faith tradition.

I distinctly remember thinking that this particular Chaplain was crazy, as he described a creedless faith where Deists would be accepted, along with atheists, agnostics, Christians, Humanists and many others. A Church where it was ok to believe that God made the Universe and then left… preposterous!

Years later, when I had returned from Bosnia, a scared and scarred young man who was looking for some organization, some religion that would allow me to make meaning in my life from the aftermath and atrocities of a religious hatred inspired war that I had borne witness too, I remembered that chance encounter with a crazy chaplain, and I remembered those two words… Unitarian Universalism.

It took a couple of tries, and a couple of different Unitarian Universalist churches before I found one that became my spiritual home. That home, a UU Fellowship on Galveston Island, on the Gulf coast of TX nurtured me, held me, and eventually allowed me to hear my own call to the ministry. A call that led me to be one of two UU’s attending the U.S. Army Chaplain School at the same time Chaplain (Col) Vernon Chandler, the man who first said the words Unitarian Universalism to me was retiring from the Army after 33 years of service.

At his retirement Ceremony, Chaplain George Tyger and I had the privilege to salute Chaplain Chandler, and say “We relieve you, Sir”, to the man who first introduced me to this faith, to the faith that saved me, healed me after serving as a soldier in Latin America, and a Peacekeeper in Bosnia-y-Herzegovina.

It was ten years from when I first met Chaplain Chandler, to when I joined a Unitarian Universalist Church. For ten years, that seed had been planted in the hard pack soil of my life, the life of a political conservative, a religious rejectionist, and an angry ex-Christian. It took ten years of the experiences of my life, seeing atrocities and genocide, a divorce, two changes of career… ten years of experiences to shake the soil of my life loose enough for that seed to grow… but grow it did. All from a 2 minute conversation outside the Post Exchange with a Chaplain enthusiastic for our liberal faith.

As that seed sprouted, it continued to loosen the soil of my life… until I turned off Rush Limbaugh and Fox news, and began listening to NPR and the BBC. It shook loose the soil covering my heart until I could begin to feel a connection with those around me, and not just dwell in my own anger and pain. That seed shook loose the anger and fear I felt after Bosnia, and brought me to a vision of hope and possibility, of interdependence and inherent worth. All from a 2 minute conversation outside the Post Exchange with a Chaplain, enthusiastic for our liberal faith.

As that seed sprouted, it loosened up the rejectionist theology that was the power behind my Deism, and allowed me to grow spiritually beyond merely rejecting an interventionist concept of God. That seed was soon joined by other seeds, which allowed me to begin to explore and find a connection with Zen Buddhism and begin a meditation practice. Another seed allowed me to connect deeply with the theological ideas of Universal Salvation, of the ever-changing nature of revelation, and of an idea of forgiveness that was centered in human relationship, not in divine punishment. That first seed, and the gentle tilling of our liberal faith, even allowed the planting of a seed that called me to re-approach the Christian scriptures, not from the anger of my teens and twenties, but with the spirit of a seeker, and to find that there was still much in the lives of the prophets and in the life of Jesus of Nazareth that profoundly inspired me.

All from a 2 minute conversation outside the Post Exchange with a Chaplain, enthusiastic for our liberal faith.

When I say I believe in the saving power of our Unitarian Universalist Good News, our Gospel, I speak from the personal experience of having been saved. You see, there are a few more of those hard to use words in a Unitarian Universalist Congregation…

There are many models for the way people think about how churches, how religions work. A Rabbi named Edwin Friedman became fairly famous among ministerial circles for describing the way a congregation acts as if it were a large family system. Some of the large mega-churches have been compared to corporations, not just for their size, but for the consumerist way they do outreach and programs. Rev. Ann Odin-Heller, a fellow UU, has described churches as if they were parts of the body, where different individuals and committees fill the roles of the hands, the feet, the heart, the lungs.

I will leave it to your imagination what parts of the body she used to describe church growth, outreach, and evangelism.

I, have begun to think of churches with a different model, that of a farm.  Our gathered congregations, those of us gathered together in this church, we are the well planted, well tilled fields, that annually produce grain, produce fruits and vegetables. Some of that produce goes to address our own physical and spiritual needs, to support one another in good times and bad. Some of it goes to keep the lights on and our other operating expenses, and some of it is sent out to the world, to help meet the spiritual and physical needs of others.

We have made the commitment to practice our faith in ways that are sustainable, that keep the fields healthy and fertile. We rotate our crops, our classes, we seek balance with nature, and we realize that at times some of our fields need to be left fallow, members need to be cared for.

And, what I think is most important, we work in our fields together. We depend on each other to do the work of our churches, the work of our faith.

Thinking about this model of the life of our congregations led me to the realization that there is not one kind of Evangelism for our liberal faith, but three. Like nature, all three are deeply interconnected, and yet still distinct actions of a church or a faith in our communities and world. As I thought about Evangelism through the model of church being like a farm, these three were expressed as caring for our well planted fields, planting new fields, and clearing new ground… or Church Growth, Church Planting, and Missionary work.

Ah, another of those hard to use words… Missionary.

We often express Church Growth in terms of numbers, but actually it is so much more than this. We as a faith grow spiritually and ethically as much as we ever do numerically, and that growth is a vital part of who we are as a faith. Loosening the soil of our own lives so more seeds can grow within us is just as important to the growth of a church as bringing in new members.

As our spiritual roots grow deeper into the well tilled soil, so too will others be attracted to be a part of that growth, and we will grow numerically. It is not just about how many people we can get to come through our doors, but what they find when they arrive. How well cared for our fields are will determine how productive they are, physically, spiritually, ethically, and numerically. When they produce an abundance, we then have an abundance to share with the world.

Sometimes that abundance is shared through donations to worthy causes, sometimes through the work of our hands within our communities, and sometimes it is shared by planting new fields… or by one church providing the resources to begin another… a church plant in a neighboring town.

A few years ago I was inspired by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, Kentucky… a medium sized church with a dynamic program. What has impressed me about them has been what they chose to do with their abundance… and that was to fund, support, and plant another church in the nearby town of Frankfort. Sharing some of their ministerial services, providing some funding and expertise, they have chosen to ignore critics who undoubtedly were afraid of “losing” members, and have instead embarked on what I can only describe as an act of faith.

Their minister, Rev. Cynthia P. Cain, has said on her personal online journal that when this new congregation gets its feet under itself, she has her eyes on another nearby town that could use a UU Church…

These kinds of efforts at Church Growth and Church Planting are ones we Unitarian Universalists are familiar with, even if we sometimes cringe when people like me call them “Evangelism”. But I believe that Church Growth and Church Plants depend upon something else for their success… and that is Missionary work.

If there are two words that raise our Unitarian Universalist hackles more than the word Evangelism, perhaps they are “Missionary” and “Salvation”. I’m going to use both of them, but not I the way you might have heard them before… so hang with me…

Almost five years ago, Chaplain Seanan Holland and I, both then Meadville Lombard Students and future UU military chaplains, began to present Sunday morning Unitarian Universalist worship services for the recruits at the Naval Basic Training Center at Great Lakes, Illinois. Our travel expenses to and from the base was funded by a gift from the abundance of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, where I was later an Intern Minister.

It began slowly, with Seanan and I taking turns presenting Joys and Sorrows, a short sermon, a time of sharing, and some pastoral conversation each Sunday with the perhaps one or two sailors who came. One Sunday, after I made the hour drive up to the base, no one came to the service, and out of spite I preached the sermon to an empty room, with sailors looking in the window at me like I was crazy. It occurred to me on the drive home that I was now the “Crazy Chaplain” that I had once thought Vernon Chandler was.

Over time, it changed. At first, we began to see some female sailors begin attending our service… two, three, five. As any bar owner could have predicted, soon there were just as many male as female sailors. We were providing a time when they were not being yelled at by anyone, when they could say their first name, they could hear an inclusive message of love, hope, and possibility, and they could share that they were scared, or homesick, or that they missed someone special. Sailors began to tell us how much the service meant to them, and began to bring their friends.

Then, one day, a young woman came up to me after the service, with bright tears in her eyes and a smile on her face, thankful that her church cared enough about her to have a service for her while she was in basic training. She was a member of a UU church in her home town, who left that home to join the Navy.  It has happened many times since, and Navy Recruits and their parents who are UU’s have even begun to contact us before arriving at Great Lakes to let us know they are coming.  I even had one UU Mom lead the worship service the day her son was graduating from Basic Training.

Soon, we had 30 recruits in a service.  The ministry, under new leadership, is now averaging between 35 and 60 sailors every Sunday. Members of the congregation in Evanston, Deerfield, and Chicago are also now participating. All of them are now missionaries for our faith.

This is not church growth, as none of these young men or women will be staying in Chicago. This is not church planting, as most of these young women and men are only at the base for 8 weeks before moving on. Some of them come to Port Hueneme to become Sea-Bee’s, and eventually most will join a ship’s company and will not have access to Unitarian Universalist churches or the one current active duty Navy Chaplain who is a UU. Instead, what we are doing is clearing their field of some of the trees of injustice, prejudice, and religious fear, and planting a seed of Unitarian Universalism that can sprout in their lives someday in the future.

The same way a seed planted fifteen years ago later sprouted in me.

It does not take seminary students or ministers to do this kind of planting. All of us carry with us the seeds of Unitarian Universalism that we can share. All of us live each and every day in fields and forests crowded with injustice, conflict, strife, and religious intolerance. All of us can share our ideals, our values of Unitarian Universalism at work, at the park, among friends. Not in a “save your soul” kind of way, but in a quiet, save us all kind of way.

For I believe that we Unitarian Universalists are indeed people who believe in salvation… another of those words it is hard for us to use. We may not necessarily believe in the salvation of individual souls for some promised afterlife, but rather in the salvation of this world, in this time, for us all. The salvation of the world from racial inequality. The salvation of the world from environmental catastrophe. The salvation of the world from religious and cultural hatred inspired warfare. The salvation of the world from social apathy. The salvation of the world from economic oppression. The salvation of the world from the lack of self-worth that is endemic in the lives of so many today.

The Good News, the Gospel of Unitarian Universalism can, and indeed must save the world… and that saving message of hope, of interdependence, of inherent worth must be spread by each of us, as seeds into the soil of the lives all around us, to sprout when the soil of those lives is ready.

So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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