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

Who is Calling? — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on October 21st, 2012


There is an elephant in the room.

You might not be able to see it,

kinda like Carl Sagan’s Dragon,

but it is in the room with us.

It is an elephant that is not just with us in this church,

but is in the life of the entire movement of Religious Liberalism.

Unlike Carl Sagan’s invisible dragon that he kept in his garage,

we do see the effects of this elephant

almost every day in the life of our Unitarian Universalist faith

in one way or another.


It is sometimes the job of a minister

to name an elephant that is in the room…

to name something that is among us

that we are not talking about.

It is something we never do lightly.

I said to my wife Sandy last night,

when she asked me if I was ready for the sermon today,

that I had better be ready,

for I think I’ve been working on this sermon for about 8 years.  And, as is my practice, I want to begin with a story.


I have a friend, a Roman Catholic Priest

named Father Tim Meyer.

Father Tim is a Jesuit,

an academic with several PHD’s to his name,

and in the time that I have known him

he is a beautiful, friendly, compassionate soul.

Yet, to hear him tell it, that has not always been the case.

Father Tim has struggled with addiction

in his family and in his own life,

and twenty some years ago

he found sobriety through participating

in Alcoholics Anonymous and AlAnon.

In fact, he was so transformed

that much of his academic work and professional degrees

have been focused in understanding addiction

both in people’s lives and in their bodies.

Much of what I know about addictions ministry

I learned from Father Tim.


I remember a story that Father Tim told

during one of the addictions classes I took with him,

a few years ago.

He was talking about some of the revelations

that happened for him through the self discovery

that is part of his ongoing recovery through AA and AlAnon.

In that journey he, a Roman Catholic Priest,

began to take a hard look at what he believed about his own life, about the world, about his faith, and about God.

He described what a shock it was to him,

when he realized that the God that he believed in,

that he thought he knew well enough to share with others,

from whom he had received his own call to the ministry,

that that God just miraculously seemed to hate

all the same people that he did…


Our theme this month is vocation and call.

I’m going to spend some time next Sunday talking about vocation,

particularly a vocation for Unitarian Universalism…

today I feel “called” to that other word.  Call.

It is probably one of the most problematic words

in our liberal religious tradition.


What does it mean to be called?

Who is doing the calling?

How do we know something is a call?

Who gets to decide if something is a call,

and how is that different than something

we think would just be a good idea?

Rev. Jan and I have asked you

to be thinking about some questions

that relate to vocation and call…

Who are we? Whose are we?

To what are we called?


Many believe that to be called

requires something outside of oneself doing the calling.

This is an issue that most Unitarian Universalist Seminarians

run into in their first year exploring a “call” to the ministry.

For some the answer is clear…

they feel called by God to the Unitarian Universalist Ministry.

For others, including myself, the answer to the question

“Who is calling?” is far more complex…

and for some the inability to answer this question

becomes the first step in their choosing

to leave seminary and find another vocation for their lives.


And this leads us to the elephant…

We people of Liberal faith believe different things.

We are not a religious community

that is built upon one right set of beliefs.

Sitting on either side of each of us are people

who believe things that we don’t believe.

Sitting on either side of us this morning

are people who believe things that others among us

might think are wrong, or weird, or different,

or even challenging to things we might hold dear.

We often will say that our not having a creed,

that our not having a set of beliefs

that you have to claim to believe to be a UU,

we often say that this is a strength of who we are…

and then we avoid conversations

about our deepest values and beliefs,

I think out of fear that this is not as much

of a strength of our faith as we might like to believe.


It is an aphorism about Unitarian Universalists

that we often more comfortable talking about politics

than we are talking about what we think about God,

or what it means to be spiritual,

or whether or not we have a soul…

because we sense we probably agree more about politics

than we do about these deeper theological questions.

I once had a minister come to

our small UU congregation in Galveston Texas,

where we all knew each other intimately

as there were less than 100 of us,

and challenge us in the worship service

to name what the people sitting to the right and left of us

believed about the afterlife and the nature of God…

and for the most part we couldn’t do it…

and some of us, including me, were scared to ask.


Next week, I’m going to preach about what I think it is

that does bind us as a religious community,

even though we are not a church that is based in a creed,

or a single set of beliefs that we all share.


I love serving a community of such

a multiplicity of beliefs, ideas, and even values…

because it means that I am always

learning, growing, and transforming,

each time I meet with someone to learn

about what they believe about God,

or about the afterlife,

or about what it means to be spiritual.

I think that if I served a congregation

that was all supposed to believe the same thing,

I would get bored.  With you, I am never bored!


And yet, we have our elephant…

the reality that we often see in our congregations where,

for fear what it might mean

for us to disagree about things we hold dear,

we just avoid having the conversation.

Because we are afraid that what I believe about God

might be contradictory to what you believe about God,

we just never have the conversation.


We focus our engagement with one another on politics,

or social justice, or community life,

or becoming a better person…

and we of Liberal Faith avoid the deeper conversations

about faith, values, and theology.


Sometimes, we even avoid

having those conversations with our ministers,

because we are afraid of what it might mean

if our minister believes something

that is very different than what we believe.


Recently, after a member of this congregation

came to speak to me about some

changes to congregational policy that we are discussing,

this member had the courage to ask me

about my own beliefs about God, about spirit and soul,

and about what it means

that I’m willing to call myself a Liberal Christian.

I am always in awe of such moments

when they happen in congregational life,

because they are few and far between.


As a few of you have found out,

there is only one thing I like more

than when someone asks me about what I believe,

and that is when someone is willing

to share what they believe with me.

Not in the hopes of converting me,

but so that we know each other spiritually,

and can grow and transform together.


I preached a bit about what it means to me

to call myself a Liberal Christian back last Easter,

and I plan on engaging it again this spring

in an Adult Religious Education Class on Liberal Christianity…

so I’m not going to cover that again just now.

As a bit of a spoiler, or perhaps a tease,

when I discuss what I mean

when I call myself a Liberal Christian

with my Christian minister friends and colleagues,

they tend to call me a Post-Modern Humanist…

So it just goes to show that each of these labels

we use for what we believe

really are in the eyes of the beholder…


Instead, this morning… I think I feel “called”

to answer the question “Who is Calling?”

In other words, I’m going to share

what I mean when I use the word God…

and a bit more than that.

I’m going to share the call brought me into the ministry,

what keeps me working 65 hour weeks

as a full time parish minister and a reserve Army Chaplain.

Why I realized about 8 years ago

that I had no other choice for my life’s vocation

but to dedicate myself to this faith we call Unitarian Universalism.


Before I do… I am not expecting anyone to agree with me.

I do not believe that my answer to this question

should invalidate anyone else’s.

Many of the wisest and most faith-filled people I know

answer this question differently than I,

including our Senior Minister Rev. Jan Christian,

and part of what I will preach about next week

is how part of my living a life of liberal faith

is being able to hold what I believe

amidst people who believe differently than I,

and learn from them as they might learn from me.


I also choose to do this because I believe in ministerial modeling.

I can’t expect that others will share what they believe

about the nature of God, or the origin of the universe,

or what happens to us after we die

if I’m not willing to risk myself enough to share.

And if we are ever to get past this fear

that keeps us from engaging on these deep theological issues,

someone has to start… and I’m the one who signed up for it.


So, when I say that I am called to the ministry,

who do I think is doing the calling?

In my mind and heart I can say that

I feel called to the ministry by God…

and I know that I mean something entirely different

when I use the word God than many other people do.

I do not view God as a person, or as a discrete being.

I certainly do not mean the image

of the old grey haired man in the sky.

I do not even mean the image of God

that is implied in much of the Hebrew or Christian scripture.


Christian Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr

described the God that I feel called by in good,

dense academic language when he said

that God is “totality, inclusive of time,

conceived as a realm of meaning.”

Evolution Evangelist Michael Dowd described the God

that I feel called by as the universe as a whole,

going back to the beginning of time

and leading on until there is nothing left.

Alice Walker, in the book our opening reading came from

saw the God that I feel called by

in the trees, and the rocks, and the beauty of the color purple.

Albert Einstein saw the God that I feel called by

as a subtle spirit expressed in both the beauty of human art

and the majesty of mathematics.


Here is how I see it…

I feel called to the ministry,

to transformative work in the world,

and to being with you here in this church

by the fact that everywhere I turn

I see how everything is interconnected with everything else…

how every time I think I find separation,

just a little work shows those walls to be illusion.

I feel called to serve this world,

this earth and all the people on it because I,

and you, and the earth, and all the planets, and all the stars,

we are all part of a greater reality so vast

that my mind could never grasp it all,

even though I can see the interdependence in the parts I can see.

Ancient Hebrew scriptures called that greater reality

the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things.

Knowing I am a part of that beginning and end of all things,

knowing that I am part of this interconnected web of all existence,

I feel called to be in service to that greater whole.


I feel called to live my life seeking not my own ends,

in my own discrete self

made up of boundaries the Buddha told us were illusion…

but rather to, as best I can and whenever I am able,

see where I am connected to others,

to the stars and the plants.

To know, as Shug did, that if I were to cut a tree,

my own arm would bleed.


The greater whole of all things,

that I can touch and move through

but never come close to grasping all of it…

to me it is holy.

It is Divine… it is what I mean when I say the word God.

Not a being…  But Being itself.

Being and Becoming.

My calling, in ministry and in life,

is to serve to build the interconnections between this whole,

and to help others to see that the walls

that divide us off from this Wholeness are indeed illusion.


That is my answer to the question “Who is calling?”…

it is certainly not the only answer.

What might your answer be?

If you were to be called to something in this life,

as a person, who would be calling?

If our church is called to something in this world,

who is doing the calling?

Who Are We?

Whose are we?

To what are we called?

Please join me in a time of silence…


To What are you called?

To What is our church called?

And who is doing the calling?

Ask each other during Fellowship Hour… I dare you.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.


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