This sermon was preached at the First UU Congregation in Brooklyn, NY as Rev. Jude’s last sermon as the Minister of Lifespan Religious Education. It was also our annual Coming of Age service.
Five years ago, when I began working with our congregation, our Coming of Age youth were in 3rd and 4th grades. Some had siblings who were in High School; some had siblings who were in Kindergarten at the time; some weren’t part of our congregation yet. Five years of religious education classes on UU history, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, stories from faith traditions around the world, and roughly 35 classes on comprehensive Sexuality Education later, these youth entered a Coming of Age year working with their advisors and mentors. Some joined us later and had an intense immersion into how we do things here. By the age of 13 to 15 most of these youth have attended more religious education classes in the UU tradition than all but a few of our most dedicated adults. We don’t make “earning” the designation of “youth” easy here!
We make a big deal of entering the teenage years, because it’s really a big deal. Our newest youth are no longer children. More is expected of them here, and they now expect us to offer them more responsibility, more opportunities to lead, more freedom to explore and learn in our community. They’ve just crossed one of the big thresholds in life. The first few thresholds roughly go like this: Out of Diapers: Check. First Tooth under the Pillow: Check. First D on homework: Check. 200th argument with Parent: Check. Learned how to show-up when people expect you to show-up: Check (That last one is a much bigger deal than it might seem like right now. But believe me, showing up is half of what we’re here for in life…. And it’s not always that simple to do.) And today – making the first, best guess at … what the other half of life is all about. In our tradition, we ask our youth to begin to sort that out for themselves, rather than learn what we’ve all figured out and repeat it back to us. That’s a really good thing for us to do – because if they had to memorize all our different answers it would take them another five years before they would come of age. It might take them that long if they had to memorize all of my different answers.
I’d like to offer my own faith statement today as well. In a way, I offer a briefer version of it every time I give our benediction. The benediction you’re familiar with is an edited version of the words of the UU minister, Rev. Robert Mabry Doss – it’s #700 in our grey hymnal. “For all who see God, may God be with us. For all embrace life, may life return your affection. For all who seek a right path, may a way be found, and the courage to take it, step by step. For this is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I began using that benediction at a District Bridging ceremony about 7 years ago. I was the Adult co-Dean of the weekend long youth conference and we were coming to an impasse in how to lead the service. After all the worship planning was nearly done, I raised my hand and said, “But no one’s mentioned God anywhere in this service.” One youth responded to the affect of: Well we want to be welcoming of all beliefs, so we don’t want to put anyone off who doesn’t believe in God. … I remember saying, but some of us DO believe in God – how is that welcoming to us? It led to some really great discussions; some changes in the service; and the selection of this benediction as the close. So it’s special to me because of that story – because of the connections that were made that it points to.
But it means something else as well. It means that when I talk about God, or she talks about embracing life, or they talk about finally finding the way forward after a tough run through whatever makes the ego twinge – that we all mean roughly the same thing. I don’t mean to say that when everyone talks about God – all they mean is life embracing life. Some people have a different religion than me – in fact most people do. But when we talk about God here – at our core, we’re talking about connecting to the Holy. Not defining the Holy. Not building neat fences around the Holy. Not having tedious arguments about the specificity of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We’re talking about getting past our heads, into our hearts, and relating to that which is beyond merely our singular selves.
We’re not about our individual growth – only. We’re not about consuming the resources our pledge money supports. We’re not about thinking big thoughts – only. We’re about finding ourselves again; helping our neighbor do the same; and trying to figure out how together we might heal the places of brokenness in our lives and the world around us.
I’m at the center of my story, but I know there are a lot of centers all around me going through all their stories. I choose to find meaning in that. I choose to find value in all our connections – human, or ugly pigeon, or the orange salamander I saw on a recent hike in the woods. I get a little edgy when folks want to pin my views down for careful examination – I know the pins don’t do well for the butterflies on a wall, and they’re rough on spirituality as well. Not because the light of reason proves our faith wrong, but because too much intense heat will wither any plant.
It’s a tension between our intellectual side, and the deep-felt need for many of us to encounter a real spiritual passion. I prefer to err on the side of not drying people out. So I tend to preach about what we mean; what we’re pointing toward – and not get caught up in the details. To be honest – details that in other faith traditions would be of immortal importance. My view is this: we can talk about what exactly is going on when our community gathers for prayer after a time of silence. Calling out names held in our hearts; lighting candles in chapels, or sitting in meditation. We can talk about it, or we can experience it. We can’t do both.
There’s an inclination here to talk about what I believe exactly, but I feel that that’s outside the map that faith draws. Faith is our drive; it’s how we live, how we love, and how we dream. I really feel that the rest are details. Details that have changed a lot over my life, and I imagine will continue to change. But how I live, love and dream – I hope that continues to deepen throughout my days. And yes – as the benediction says, This is the day we are given, let us rejoice and be glad in it. For me, that’s the core of faith right there. A very hard tenet to follow all the time. I’ve failed at it a dozen times … just this weekend.
As most of you have heard by now in letter, or email, or Facebook, or our Annual Report – I will be leaving First UU after next Sunday, June 9th. Starting in August, I’ll be the leading minister at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. I’m grateful for my five years here at the congregation, and I’m definitely going to miss Brooklyn. Assuming the purchase and closing goes well on our house, Brian and I will be moving into our new home at the end of July in Huntington. I thank this community for being with me at the start of my work in the ministry. I have learned so much from you all – not that it was always easy or smooth – but I don’t think New Yorkers do easy or smooth very well – do we?
I have a lot of faith in this community. I don’t believe that Brooklyn will do everything right all of the time. You’ll continue to have some great successes – as all of the awards the congregation and members received this past District meeting indicate; as all of the work we do in the community points toward; as the radically growing Sunday attendance reflects. And you’ll continue to make some of the same mistakes. One bit of parting advice. Be mindful of how new members and newcomers get integrated into leadership and committees – or how our newest youth get welcomed. Sometimes we have a tendency to want new folks as part of our work, while at the same time insisting that they lead things in exactly the same way folks have been leading for the past 40 or 50 years. One of the ways to tell if you’re doing this as leaders is to notice if you’re on a committee that sees a lot of new people come and go – especially if they leave your team mid-year – take stock of that. Seriously. It doesn’t do us any good – and it doesn’t make our work in the world any stronger. Views, habits, styles change over the decades. Be nimble. Please, don’t be distracted by the form new leadership takes.
When I leave, I need to honor my covenant with my fellow clergy. In order to allow your next minister a real chance to develop a healthy ministry with you, aside from officiating at some non-member weddings, I will be away from First UU for a least a year after the permanent MRE gets settled. Afterward, with permission from your clergy team, I can visit. It’s not meant to be cold or willfully distant; but rather to allow the new person to be your minister, while I become another congregation’s minister. … I promise not to turn my face if we run into each other. But it does mean I won’t be talking about your RE program with the RE Council, or preaching here in the interim. It will be the new minister’s program, and I need to let go. Although when Brooklyn wins its next set of awards at another District Meeting or General Assembly, or I read about future successes in the rebuilding of Red Hook, I’ll be cheering you on from my seat.
Although I’ll not be departing till next Sunday, this is my last time in the pulpit. So I get the joy of giving out one more gift to a group of teens who are formally leaving their childhood years behind them. I’ll ask our Coming of Age youth to now please rise. Our Advisors will give them each a present now. While they’re handing them out, I’ll explain. On the back of the object is a classic quote from one of our best known Unitarian philosophers… – Dr. Seuss – from his great literary work, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” The inscription reads, “You have brains in your head; You have feet in your shoes, You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” The gift itself is a compass. The compass means a lot of things in the Coming of Age program. But I’d like to tell our youth now that although the compass always tells you which direction you’re facing, remember that you’re always the person that’s got to read it. There will be many times in your life that experts, and ministers, and politicians, and guidance counselors will tell you how things are; where you’re heading; and how to get there. Even if they’re right (and sometimes they will actually be right) you’re the one that holds that direction for yourself. You’re the one that needs to make your best decision. Just because you might know where true north lies, doesn’t mean you have to go there. For good or for ill, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
 “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss