A Rev. Bill Sermon: If Not Now, Tell Me When

Every year about this time you are faced anew with the annual stewardship drive.   And, unless you are on some kind of robotic autopilot, you are called to consider how much you value being a part of this community—and how much sustaining it is worth to you.  And somehow that brings me to the existential question posed by Mary Oliver:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

You might, I think, ponder that question a little because as Mary Oliver notes, we’re only going to be here a short time and where we put our limited life energy in the form of time, talent, or energy stored as money, is literally what we are betting our lives upon.  So, let me just suggest that a fantastic place to bet your life, to make a real commitment is right here.

And that leads to the second existential question of the day posed by Carrie Newcomer:  “If Not Now, Tell Me When”.  And, now is the time to commit my wild and precious life.  End of sermon.  Not really.

Twelve years ago when I was doing my ministerial internship at Skagit Valley UU, I had to do my first plea for the annual fund drive, aka the “sermon on the amount.”  I titled that sermon “Bill’s Guilt-free Sermon on Sex, Sin and the Sum.”  I guess I was trying my best emulate that hallowed tradition known as bait and switch advertizing.  And so early on the sermon contained a rather off-color story that started:  “The travelling salesman was driving down this country lane when to his amazement, he encountered a road sign that read:  “Sisters of Mercy, Convent and House of Prostitution, 3 miles.”

Now, however, I am a seasoned “Reverend” with standards of professional decorum to uphold.  So, if you want to hear the rest of that story, you’ll have to ask me after the service.  It will be interesting to see how many do.

Actually, my intent this morning is not to talk about sex or sin or even money a whole lot, at least not directly.  What I really want to talk about is the subject of commitment.  Commitment at a time of diminishing commitment.  Participation in almost every type of membership organization, from churches to labor unions to Elks Clubs is way, way down.  Commitment at a time when it’s need is screamingly, desperately needed precisely right now.

A couple of weeks ago I heard another UU minister named Emily Melchor describe a 1992 film titled City of Joy.  I went home and downloaded the movie because it seemed to contain a message I wanted to make about commitment.  It is about an American physician named Max, who becomes distraught after a young girl dies while he is performing surgery on her.  Max flees from his medical practice and takes a one-way flight to India to find what he’s not sure, inner peace, enlightenment maybe.   It doesn’t take long before he finds himself conned by a prostitute, robbed of his passport, money and credit cards, severely beaten and left lying in a Calcutta gutter.  He is rescued by Hasari, a rickshaw runner, and taken to the City of Joy which is a teeming slum of lepers and the poorest of the poor.  Recovering in street clinic in the City of Joy he meets a strong-willed Irish women named Joan who serves as a volunteer nurse.  The clinic has no doctor and very little in the way of medical supplies.

So Joan, finding out Max is a physician, begs him to help out at least until his new passport, airline ticket and money arrives.  Max demurs.  He says he is a non-practicing doctor who doesn’t like sick people.  She asks him if he believes in anything.  Yes, he replies, the Dallas Cowboys because they are consistent winners.  That’s about it.  What is the point of his trying to help in this hopeless cesspool where he could hardly make a dent?   Joan says to him:  “In this life there are only three choices: To run, to be a spectator, or to commit.”

Shortly thereafter, Max, in spite of himself, is persuaded by Hasari, the man who rescued him from the gutter, to see if he can help with a very difficult childbirth of a neighbor.  Max discovers that the baby is turned wrong and that unless he intervenes both the mother and baby will die.  Max takes over successfully.  To make a long story hope Max ends up committing and finds a community and love and purpose he had never known.  He finds a people that still have hope and joy in spite of the direst conditions.  When the local big man, known as the Godfather, doubles the rent on the space used for the clinic he organizes the people to move the clinic to a different space. The Godfather’s henchmen threaten him and tell him “Doctor, go home.”  Max returns and says to Joan:  “I will no longer be a running spectator.  Those men  ordered me to go home, so here I am.”  Finally, his new passport and money comes through and Joan tells him:  “Well now you are free to go.” His response is:  “Yes, and I’m also free to stay.  I’m grateful to be here.   I have never felt more alive.”

Max fell into a transformative community where the gifts of each are nurtured and given for the good of all.   Such communities are rare, and they are salvational, and you have one right here.  And you are free to go, to run.  And free to be a spectator.  But you are also free to stay, and to commit, and only if you do the latter will you co-create the community capable of transforming you and the larger community.

Many years ago my life was transformed and, yes I could also say “saved” at a UU church, East Shore in Bellevue.  I was about 31 and started coming occasionally mainly because I wanted my children to be brought up in a church community.  And as one does I drifted into a few committees, probably because I had a hard time saying no.  But when I gave something of myself I made friends, some really amazing people who I looked forward to seeing and hugging, and they me, and missed them when I or they stayed away.  And one day the matriarch of the congregation, her name was Marcy, not Cynthia, took me aside and said:  “I see you as one of the future leaders of this congregation and when you are asked to commit, I hope you will say ‘Yes”’.  It can be a revelation when someone sees something good in you, you haven’t seen yourself.  And so, the invitation to leadership came and I committed.

Oh, how I committed.  Somehow I fell into becoming  President of three different congregations and Minister of three others, among many other things.  A feast of names and faces and life stories and hugs to savor abd remember.  Like Max, I think the great benefit of committing is it forced me to start growing up in ways that I hadn’t had to before.   I became immersed, no longer a bystander, immersed in the three reasons we do this church thing.  You’ve heard me say them before:  It’s (1) To grow a soul (that is, spiritual deepening; (2) To love and be loved (that’s community) and (3) To help repair the world (that’s working collectively for social justice).

The best decision I made in my life, aside from committing to Frances, was this decision to commit not to run, not to be a spectator, but to commit to this faith. And, I hope that along the way I have nurtured the gifts of others I have touched so they too have found transformative experiences.

What we are inviting you to commit to here is a beloved community that is unique in Ellensburg.  It is a community whose mission and existence are grounded in a particular tradition and particular values.  This is my personal testimony.   I believe with my whole heart that our faith matters.  It matters for two fundamental reasons:  it represents a realistic promise of leaving a better world for our children and leaving better children for our world.

I do dream of a world where people respect the web of creation, humanity included.  I think it would make it better for that child who knows he or she is gay, but has found no way to share that safely in his/her community.  I think even knowing there is a religion that has a welcoming message would make a difference.  I think for that woman or young girl suffering under patriarchal abuse, even the knowledge of a tradition that promotes the inherent worth and dignity of all, regardless of gender, would be a message of hope.   Our faith matters.  Our presence in one another’s lives matters. Just ask Don, or Jim, or Vivian, or Jan.  Our presence in the Ellensburg community matters.  But, to be a continued presence  requires commitment– a commitment fueled by love in the form of your energy and financial support. If not now, tell me when.

Two weekends ago at our Regional Assembly in Portland our UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray made an impassioned call for commitment.  She ticked off the enormous challenges facing us right now.  The failing pretenses of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, the perversely inequitable distributions of wealth and resources, the priviledge of a few and the injustice towards  disfavored race, gender, nationality, and other arbitrary groupings, the despoiling of the life and health of our planet.   We have lost ground, she declared.   What will turn this around?  Only an overflowing, unconditional love of humanity.  This is no time for a casual faith.  We need communities that remind us of our humanity as we face a crisis that robs us of our humanity.  We must give our hearts fully to each other and our communities.  We must forge coalitions with other organizations in the struggle for liberation and justice; coalitions like our interfaith alliance and partnerships with Fish and Our Environment, and the Central Washington Justice For Our Neighbors that Chuck Reasons represented at the Regional Assembly. If not now, tell me when.

Religious communities – including this one are grounded in the choices of those before us – the bets they made. We know we are here because Cynthia Murray and others bet that collectively we are better off on the journey together then apart. They took action. They could have opted not to form or not build and shape this community year after year. Permanent hesitation was an option and lucky for us it was not the path chosen.

Cynthia told me several times that her deepest hope was that this congregation, her baby, would continue and thrive after her passing and she had anxieties about that. believe me.  Well you are still here, aren’t you.  For the past year and a half we have risen to the challenge of a Cynthia-less organization and somewhere she may have winced a few time but on the whole, I think she is smiling.

We have accomplished Cynthia’s base hope; we survive.  Now is the time to move to the next step of her wish, that we thrive, really be the “light in the valley” that is our official vision statement adopted in 2013; and move forward on the two primary, shared visions that came out of last years Dreamcasting exercise:  To continue and expand a ministerial presence and to address the limitations of our physical facility.

And so, as you consider your financial commitment to KVUUC for the coming year, I invite you to meditate upon the two pivotal messages my words to you turn upon: “In this life there are only three choices: To run, to be a spectator, or to commit.”  And, “If not now, tell me when?”

Then, take the leap, stretch, and really commit.  Your deepest self will know you did an act expressing love, supporting life and your deepest values.   That is what this preacher says you should plan to do with your one wild and precious life.