Good morning! Welcome to Hope Unitarian Church, where our mission is “seeking hope, love and justice, together in community.”
Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you are on your spiritual journey and whatever your life circumstance, you are welcome here. To all who are here this morning, Welcome Home!
Hymn: Here Together (for Gathering)
On our Music for Services page
The flaming chalice, symbol of our living faith, burns brightly. Let’s say our unison words for chalice lighting.
We light this beacon of hope,
Sign of our quest for truth and meaning,
In celebration of the life we share together.
Please join me for today’s invocation:
The planet breathes free, cleansed and rejuvenated.
The sky has turned new shades of blue and aqua.
Air is crisp, waters are clear, a paradise in the making.
Eden is returning again. Blessed be!
Please join me in reciting our living covenant:
Love is the spirit of this church
And service its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.
Prayer and Meditation
A prayer called “A Prayer for a World Facing the Coronavirus,” from the United Methodist Church, adapted.
It seems like lots of uncertainty around us.
So many people who need prayers.
Today, I pray…
For those whose health is compromised by the coronavirus or other health issues.
For those who suffer from the economic impact of the virus, in travel, manufacturing, hospitality, energy or so many other industries.
For healthcare workers and first responders, and other public servants who put themselves in harm’s way for us.
For our leaders of the world, our countries, states, and cities, as they seek to help manage this challenge
Spirit of Life, it can be overwhelming. But you tell us over and over again not to be afraid.
Show us how to rest in you. Help us turn away from our concern with self, and turn our heart, hands, and prayers toward the concern of others.
In the name of all that is holy and whole, Amen.
May we sit in silence and be one in spirit. (90 seconds.) Blessed be!
Today’s brief reading is written by Lao Tzu:
Watch your thoughts; they lead to attitudes.
Watch your attitudes; they lead to words.
Watch your words; they lead to action.
Watch your action; they lead to habits.
Watch your habits; they from your character.
Watch your character; it determines your destiny.
“Planet Earth II,” by Hans Zimmer, performed by Chris Powell. On our Music for Services page.
Concerning Character – Rev. Greg Stewart
A local Rabbi tells the story of being confronted by two litigants. After hearing out the first party, he said to the man, “You’re right.”
Then, after hearing the second litigant, he said to him, “You’re right.”
The cleric’s exasperated spouse, who had been listening to the whole case, said to her husband, “But their saying opposing things. They can’t both be right,” to which the Rabbi responded, “You’re also right.”
Being “right” in an age of relativism has its challenges. So does being “right” in a community of freethinkers such as the liberal Church.
So long as we promote the notion, “What is right for me may not be right for you,” we enable ourselves, not unlike the Rabbi’s friends and family, to all be right at the same time, opposing viewpoints notwithstanding.
This means we should all be able to embrace much diversity and experience minimal disputes among us, right? Wrong!
Relativism has always been the great hope of humankind. To “live and let live” has resounded in the hearts of pilgrims and pioneers from time immemorial.
But it wasn’t so long ago that we first head uttered the now famous mantra of Rodney King: “Can’t we all just learn to get along?” Both history and human nature tell us that the answer is no.
We cannot get along among the races, on the streets where we live, in the houses where we worship, or in the families that we create for ourselves. There are days when I cannot even get along with myself!
As a ministerial colleague said to me recently, “Forget conflict resolution! I’d settle for conflict management,” which, of course, is precisely the way to avoid both the irrationality of relativism and the archaism of absolutism.
Have you noticed the human tendency to swing too far in the opposite direction once our hopes are dashed on the path we are trotting?
Oh, don’t get cornered by either Literalists Of The Left or Radicals Of The Right and expect to come out intact. Both may assassinate your character and infuriate your community.
In the ethical and moral dilemmas we face both individually and as a liberal religious community, it is “the content of our character,” to quote Dr. King, that has the greatest impact on the decision making process.
Face it, there are situations in which we cannot all be right.
Our continual stress on “the individual search for truth and meaning,” to proof-text one of our Principles, may actually blind us to greater truths and actually contribute to the breakdown of community.
Just because we think we can believe virtually whatever we want doesn’t mean we can behave however we want. We must temper our actions with both the patience and the pastoralism that good character requires.
Many of us find it increasingly difficult to tread the fine line between right and wrong. The development and nurturance of good character face these issues squarely and shows us how to live a life of integrity, both corporately and individually.
In case you are unconvinced about my emphasis on the importance of character development in everyday life, consider this scene from the documentary, For Goodness Sake!
Here we find a mother defending her son’s cheating: “It’s very competitive out there, and if he doesn’t cheat, he won’t get into good schools; everybody else does it.”
The film then cuts to a scene of this same woman being wheeled into surgery. With a frightened look on her face, she asks the doctor, “You’re very confident about the procedure you’re performing on me, aren’t you?”
The doctor responds, “I don’t know, lady. I cheated my way through medical school.”
Perhaps this is why a previous religious education position I served called its Sunday morning program for children and youth, “Character School,” rather than Sunday school.
In a spiritual world where no one or no thing is absolutely in charge, and which also recognizes the “human fallibility factor” inherent in relativism, it is imperative that we develop the kind of character that we can cling to and rely on.
There is a famous story told of George Bernard Shaw, who once met a beautiful woman at a party and asked her if she would sleep with a man for a million pounds:
“I would,” the woman answered.
“And would you sleep with a man for five pounds?”
The woman grew indignant. “What do you think I am?” she asked.
Shaw responded, “We’ve already established what you are. Now, we’re just haggling over the price.”
So what are we as a religious community? Not “who” this time, but “what.” Do we sell ourselves to the highest bidders or does our sense of integrity prohibit us from messing around?
A community is made up of individuals. What are we to ourselves and to each other? Do we interact in ways that exemplify good character or do we prostitute ourselves to get what we want?
What are we running here anyway, a house of worship or a house of ill repute? Some of you are thinking, “Sounds like Greg has spent too much time in Nevada.”
Honestly, I thought the Mustang Ranch was a place to adopt wild horses! And I was really searching for Easter bunnies when I . . . . Oh, never mind.
If you want to know what makes for a congregation with good character, I will share from my experiences as a consultant to various congregations over the years some of the common characteristics that earn good grades.
And what applies to congregations is easily applicable to the individuals that dwell therein.
So how does a congregation get an A+ in Character?
Congregations with character share a vibrancy and excitement. Congregational life is not a leisurely pastime; instead it is a high adventure activity.
When I think of high adventure, I think of both highs and lows, both valleys and plateaus.
Church isn’t always supposed to be fun but it had better be functional. If you are only looking for fun, go to an amusement park, don’t join a church.
A congregation with character provokes more than it strokes and is not for the faint of heart.
Congregations with character give away a larger than average share to outreach efforts that serve the community.
In fact, the entire institution—its policies, procedures, and people—all are outwardly focused. It refuses to be contained in a building, however beautiful or expensive.
Instead it naturally flows into the streets where others live, bringing with it a breath of fresh air. Its parish does not end at the threshold; instead, it begins there.
There is at least as much momentum to balance the needs of the community as there is to balance the operating budget. And the relationship between the two is both understood and acted upon.
Such congregations may worship in high school gymnasiums or crystal cathedrals, but they operate in neighborhoods, not narthexes.
They constantly look for better ways to reach out and serve people who are “out there.” In doing so, they find they end up doing a better job of reaching and serving the people already “in here.”
Congregations with character are not bound by tradition, but view what they are doing as part of a continuum.
“It’s always been done that way,” is replaced by, “What’s the best way to get it done?” the latter being a question based on both past experience and future expectations.
Traditions are not ignored or scorned; but they are sometimes stretched or re-imagined in ways that encourage trust among the generations.
Congregations with character constantly re-evaluate themselves by asking hard questions like, “Are performing in holy and honorable ways?”
This becomes the driving force for all actions taken, all policies moved, seconded, and passed, all positions debated, all publicity garnered, all programs offered, all spaces allocated, and every question asked.
Yes, it takes time to be holy and honorable, but it surely takes more time to undo the damage done when the need for speed overtakes the desire for dignity.
A congregation that majors in the minors in order to avoid the big, tough questions will find itself unable to face the future with confidence.
Congregations with character do not try to be all things to all people. They tend to do very few things well, but are well known for what they do.
There exists no identity crisis, little burnout, few quitters, much passion, and a real sense of accomplishment. Simply put, these congregations would be missed if they ceased to exist.
Sometimes you just have to ask the question, “Would anybody notice if we ceased operations here? Congregations usually die out from trying to do too much; rarely do they expire from doing too little.
Congregations with character don’t try to do everything themselves, but willingly enter into partnerships that allow them to work more effectively.
Finally, congregations with character are very deliberate about taking their members to new levels, in both their spiritual journeys and their effectiveness at church.
Let’s unpack this last one a little, because if we are all not going somewhere, then what, pray tell, is the point?
If you are like me, you attend a church because what you get there is different from what you can get anywhere else. And you give there because the dividends pay off in ways that are immeasurable.
I have served churches at which the homeless were regularly given shelter.
One only has to listen to the whimpers of a baby and the whispers of her mother during feeding time to know just how formative the church can be.
And those “A-ha!” moments in our lives that occur as part of belonging to a living tradition show just how transformative we can be.
I am not the first person to observe that a spiritual journey is not an option. Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson, the liberal religious prophet that he was, wrote long ago:
“A person will worship something, have no doubt of that. We may think that our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts—but it will out.
“That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
Folks, it is time we heed the prophet’s words and not just hide behind his memory.
Notice that the act of worshipping comes before the art of becoming. Character is built by actions, not belief systems. Life provides on-the-job training: you do it and in the doing, you become what you do.
And herein lays real treasure: If you don’t like what you have become, you can do something about it, so long as you don’t give up. This opportunity to be born again and again and again may be life’s greatest gift.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his recommended work, The Ten Commandments of Character, begins his Introduction with an observation that serves as this sermon’s finale.
If you ask people what they want most from others, they will often answer “good character.”
The knowledge that those with whom we interact are kind and honorable is the surest guarantee that we and our loved ones will be treated well.
But if you ask people what they want most for themselves, they will answer, “To be happy and successful.”
In short, the reason we want good character from others and happiness and success for ourselves, is that in both cases we want what is best for us.
But what people don’t generally realize is that achieving the good things in life depends on our developing in ourselves what we want most from others—good character.
“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that.”
May this house of worship forever be a laboratory for the tests and testimonies of character development.
May we be willing to be who we already are and raise the grade of character to even greater heights. The course is ours to run. The race is ours to win.
To the glory of life!
Thank you for your continued financial support of Hope Church during the pandemic. Many congregations have had to cut events, cut programs, and cut employees. Others will never open again.
Thanks to you, we can continue to minister to members with as much personal attention as the law allows. Please keep your church staff informed of any challenges in your life, as a result of the coronavirus or for any other reason.
By faith—together—we will get to the other side.
Unison Offertory Response
Let’s read our Offertory Response together:
We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community.
Extinguishing the Chalice
Our chalice is extinguished. Please say these words:
We extinguish this flame
but not the light of truth,
the warmth of community,
or the fire of commitment.
These we will carry in our hearts,
until we are together again.
May the love that casts our fear
And the truth that sets us free
Lead us forward, together
Till the Dayspring breaks
And the shadows flee away. Amen.
Take good care of yourself and be a blessing to others!