Choosing Community

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18 Oct 2015 – Rev Dr Patrick T. O’Neill preaching “Choosing Community”.

This Sunday as we recognize our newest members of the Chapel congregation, we’ll ponder a bit the meaning of community and its importance in one’s life.

Choosing Community”

A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill

Delivered at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in London

October 18, 2015

Ask any parish minister and they will tell you that a New Member Sunday is always one of their favorite Sundays of the year. Ministers are secretly very proud and proprietary of the new members who join during their tenure. So I say to the nine new members and their children who joined us today, hereafter you will always be one of “Patrick’s Members” and Patrick gets automatic bragging rights over anything you accomplish here as members of the Chapel in the coming years. So, if you look around you here this morning you’ll see many of Jim Robinson’s members, and Judith Walker-Riggs’s members, and David Usher’s members – but you nine, you’ll always be Patrick’s members, and when I look at you this morning I’m filled with hope for the future of the Chapel. We must be doing something right to have such great people choosing Rosslyn Hill Chapel as their spiritual community!

That word community goes to the heart of something very rare and very much coveted by most people. It is actually one of the oldest words associated with churches. Community. The Latin root word is “communio,” as in Communio Sanctorum – the Communion of Saints, the blessed community. It was one of the first descriptions the early church gave itself.

A church community is a group of people who share a certain bonding of caring feeling for one another and a common commitment of ethical response to one another and to the world around them based on that bonding.

I submit that if we ever allow that word to be diluted, we risk forgetting its implications and the reason the church originally used the word to describe itself in the first place, and why neighbors and villagers originally used the word “community” to describe their interdependent relationship in the common challenges of daily life and survival together.

Because a church or chapel without a very deep sense of community has to examine its real reason for being. Without that, I don’t care how long a chapel has been in existence, it threatens to become but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

These days more and more, people are identifying “a sense of community” as something missing from their lives. We live in a culture in which the loneliness of isolation is now a familiar experience. Perhaps because there is less physical space between us now, we live a lifestyle which puts tremendous emotional distances between people. It’s a lifestyle that has sentenced many of our elderly to separation from their children and grandchildren; it isolates single people from family units; it removes any sense of neighborhood in the sprawling geography of what we euphemistically call “bedroom communities.” And so, people are coming to our churches today looking for, hungry for, a sense of community that is missing elsewhere in their lives. In poll after poll, that is the primary reason people give for coming into a Unitarian church in the first place. Community. A place to grow our souls: to become more graceful, more loving, more generous and wise and joyful as we grow older.

Oh, there will always be those who think that religion ought to be about formalities, about following the proper rituals, saying the proper prayers, lighting the proper fires – and then holding heresy trials for anyone who dares to think differently. I think Elie Wiesel in today’s reading is closer to the truth: religion is about appreciating our stories.

Rabbi Harold Kushner is right: you don’t come to church or temple to find God – you can find God all by yourself on a mountaintop or in your bedroom. You come to church or temple to find a congregation, to find others who need the same things from life that you need. Together, we create the moment where God is present. That moment is called communio – community – it is our reason for being, the purpose for which all this exists. Every now and again we must call ourselves back to this high purpose and this most primary of missions.

If you assume that the purpose of a church is to lead all people to a single common understanding of God, the Unitarian church quite honestly is likely to disappoint you because it will not meet your definition. For we do not see the Sacred as limited to any one single expression or any one cultural idea or anyone single Scripture. You become a member of this community, not by conformity of creed, but by affinity of spirit.

Our Unitarian community has perennially come under criticism for our resistance to the easy pat formulas of Creedalism and the exclusionary doctrines that Creedalism implies. We envision a different kind of spiritual community in this tradition. We have shaped and claimed for ourselves a broader idea of church within Unitarianism . Simply put, we operate on a different assumption of what a spiritual community ought to look like and what a church ought to be.

If you assume a definition of church as being a group of people who all believe the same things in just the same way – the Unitarian community will disappoint you. Because in our tradition we are more interested in how theologies encourage people to live and act in the world than we are in how literally a theology reads or how concisely it can be recited. And rather than search for one prevailing pathway to truth, we are generally more interested in the variety of ways people have found depth and meaning in human experience, and in the variety of ways people have sought to address the Sacred and the Numinous in life.

We see our chapel as a connecting place, an intergenerational community, allowing us to be more than any of us can ever be by ourselves alone. A place for joining in company with others, young and old, women and men, who take seriously the search for greater meaning, greater truth, greater understanding. We see our chapel as a place for connecting us and imprinting upon our consciousness a world that is seriously wounded in so many places: wounded by injustice, by ethnic and racial divide, by war and oppression, by hatred and exploitation.

We see our chapel as a vehicle for getting clearer vision and deeper appreciation of all the blessings that we share in this privileged place where we live. And chapel is for reminding us that nine-tenths of all the other people in the world have a much harder road to climb every day of their lives, and we are connected to them as well.

We want our chapel to make us think, to help us change what we need to change about ourselves, to help us learn new things and new ways. We see our chapel as a place to celebrate our loves and our accomplishments, and a place to heal our hurts and confide our fears. This Chapel is for friendship and community. Chapel is for giving the best that is in us to give. Chapel is for finding our voice in prayer and praise. Chapel is for lifting our voice in hymns every Sunday. Church is for imagining and working for a better world.

No one is a Unitarian except by free choice. We are here, all of us, because this is the spiritual community of our adult choosing, because this is where our religious journeys have brought us, this is where our personal explorations have found some locus, some grounding, and some encouragement to thrive.

Why do we choose to be members of a spiritual community? Our generation does not bring to church very different needs and problems and questions about life’s meaning, its ethical dilemmas, about family relations, about the quest for goodness and beauty and justice and peace, about the wonder of existence, or the mysterious pathways to God and to Truth.

Our generation did not invent human loneliness, or the fear of growing old, or the estrangement between parents and children, or the struggles to maintain loving partnerships. We are not the first generation to feel gratitude for the blessings and tender mercies that grace our lives; or the first to feel sadness for the loss of love, or the sting of emptiness from the death of dear ones, or sorrow for our failures of faith and broken promises of love.

At the heart of the enterprise, be it a Gothic Cathedral or a wayside chapel, be it a Shinto shrine or a plain Meetinghouse on the Green, be it phrased in fundamentalist certitude or in the open searchings of philosophical rationalism – the heart of the enterprise, the reason for all these stubborn communities of faith is the same.

These houses of the spirit are where we all come to receive beauty for the ashes of our lives, the oil of joy for our mourning, the garment of praise in exchange for the spirit of heaviness. “A path and a little light to see by…..purpose, heart, balance.”

It gets said in various ways at various times over the years. People love to analyze, characterize, criticize, compare and contrast their churches. But the truth is people build these temple communities and maintain them, join them, and love them, and call ministers to them, for the same reasons now as always. Together our vision widens, and our strength is renewed.

Why do we choose to become members of a spiritual community?

“Every soul,” wrote William Butler Yeats, “is ultimately in search of a homeplace, a welcoming place, a familiar, a familial place to reside.”

Oh, we each have the option at any time to go it alone, without religious community, of course. I’ve done that at some points in my life, been without a church home. You probably have too. And if you have, you probably discovered as I did, that the spiritual journey can be a lonely one for the solitary explorer.

And so, every Sunday I bid warm welcome to our newest members and friends. And I welcome too those of you who are only now discovering the Unitarian community for the first time. And I welcome you back, those of you who have been away for a while, for whatever reasons. We are a better chapel with you here than we are without you.

It is a verse by Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, that best expresses my own sense of connectedness to all who have been part of this chapel community in years past and all who will join us in years to come. The poet proclaims:

We clasp the hands of those that go before us,

And the hands of those who come after us.

We enter the little circle of each other’s arms,

And the larger circle of lovers,

Whose hands are joined in a dance,

And the larger circle of all creatures,

Passing in and out of life,

Who move also in a dance,

To a music so subtle and vast

that no one hears it

Except in fragments.”

Making plain the fragmentary music of our dance of connectedness, it seems to me, is exactly what we come to chapel hoping to discover– our connectedness to one another in this room, our connectedness to our wider community, and beyond that, our fundamental connectedness to the entire circle of life on this fragile and fragmented planet, and our connectedness to the grand mystery that is our source and our sustenance.