“Perfect doesn’t leave a lot of room for the people in a community. What do we choose to make room for in our lives?” This sermon was preached on 2/10/19 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington.
As we enter into a new stewardship year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what our faith tradition means to me and what this community means to our little corner of the world. We heard two songs today from our choir written by the folk/rock band Indigo Girls. I asked our choir to sing those songs today because they evoke for me some of the answers to the questions of what our faith and our Fellowship mean.
When I was in high school, Closer to Fine was probably my theme song; certainly by college. The first concert I ever attended was an Indigo Girls concert – at the then named – Garden State Arts Center. My friends and I were seated outside, and I don’t think I was 19 yet. Coming of age, formative – that music blends and blurs with all that comes up for that stage of life. The pressure to be perfect, the pressure to make something of yourself, the pressure to have figured out all the things by the time your 16, the pressure to perform.
Growing up can be hard, and a song that reminds you to stop trying to find perfection, and just aim for fine, can be life-saving when you’re navigating the big challenges in life. (Show of hands) Who here has ever had to deal with “growing up?” It’s incredible, how we all go through that – for our whole lives – and each one of us secretly thinks we could have done it better somewhere along the way. It’s the sin of perfectionism. We pretend there’s this ideal that we can reach, and every foot short from it is a mar against our character, and even worse, a mar against our value as a person.
The value of a person, the value of a community – that’s what we’re talking about today.
Perfectionism kills a little bit of us inside. It disconnects us from the world before us in all its wonder and pain. We create a fall sense of self that we can never achieve, and then when we don’t achieve it, that false sense of self keeps us from staying connected to a sense of reverence for life and for ourselves. It’s when we go down the wrong path and confuse whatever is going on inside our heads and our egos with what is true and awe-inspiring in the world around us; especially when we replace that sense of reverence with this new sense of perfectionism. If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves worshipping perfection.
The world around us is always in reach. Reverence for life teaches us not to put something on a pedestal, but to relate to it with tenderness and maybe a healthy sense of trepidation. Perfectionism distances us from whatever we put on that pedestal. It can be very painful when the thing we put up there is our sense of self. We idolize what we can’t be, and then replace the good of what we are with the pain of what is not. We distance …us… from … us. In the quest for the better me, we lose who we are; we lose our birthrights.
But that quest for perfection, doesn’t only impact our own souls; it creates cycles of pain for those around us too. When we allow ourselves to adhere to impossible standards, we implicitly tell the people around us that they should be doing the same thing. When we’re overly hard on ourselves, we nurture a sick culture that encourages all around us to buy into it too. All that weird peer pressure, and projectile insecurities, that we often just call “Middle School” continues into adulthood, into our PTA meetings, into our work conference rooms, and yes, into our houses of worship too.
And here, the value of a person, is the value of a community. Perfect doesn’t leave a lot of room for the people in a community. What do we choose to make room for in our lives?
Perfectionism can be paralyzing for a community. We can start fixating on how to improve every single little thing that we lose focus on our mission, and our purpose: as a community of openness, mindfulness and reverence. Our own Fellowship’s mission recognizes that “in religious community we nurture our individual spirits by caring for one another and helping to heal the world.” We don’t come here to be perfect. We come here to live with compassion, for ourselves, with each other, and in the greater aim of building a world centered in those values – the dream of the Beloved Community. We raise our children with those values of justice, equity and compassion, and we hold one another accountable for those virtues in our lived experience. But we don’t come here to be perfect.
Perfection is exhausting. It’s the group fantasy that tells us that if we just try harder and longer, then the magical, mythical “what if” will some day come. But it probably never will – or not in the way our egos want it to come.
I see it here from time to time too in our Fellowship.
I see it with our growing, dynamic youth ministry. We had a hey-day in our Fellowship some 12-20 years ago, where we had around 150 children and youth in our school. I think a couple years before I arrived, we were down to a dozen here on Sunday morning. We can allow ourselves to get exhausted by the that shrinking of our program, and we certainly should mourn the friends who moved away, or passed on. But we can also celebrate all the new families in our Sunday school. We’ve grown back to 30 youth in our upper grades, and over 50 kids in our younger grades – in only the past 5 years. That’s a marvelous renaissance to be excited about, in an age where community is getting is pushed further and further from the center. We are a community that makes room for all ages – with intention.
And where 90% of our kids tend to age out of churches and synagogues after high school in America, Greta is leading a new ministry here where we’re seeing our emerging adults returning to our Fellowship. The last two gatherings have had 12-18 of our twenty-somethings coming back. And we heard from Alanna earlier today about the leadership she is experiencing on the national level in this work. That is something to applaud!
We can exhausted by the ideal of perfection – which might unrealistically match our memories of a 1950’s Sunday School where everyone in town still went to church. But we can also realize that in the 1950’s we didn’t have that here. It’s an ideal that wasn’t real for us. But we are – now – building strong ties in our religious education program that creates safe places for our children and youth. And that safe place may be the only safe place for some of our kids who are dealing with bullying, or coming out as gay, or who identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Unitarian Universalism is that place for so many of our kids. It’s not perfect, but as a former kid who had to come out, I can tell you that I’d rather a place that was kind and real than a place that was perfect. Perfection is exhausting; and it doesn’t make room for the people.
None of us come to religious community for perfection. We come in our brokenness, and our hopelessness, and our joy and our yearning and our striving and with our curiosity and seeking love. When we get here, we don’t judge us by how perfect we are, but how caring we are; how connecting we are; how relevant we are.
Perfection is exhausting, but community is where we come home. We’re here to do less perfect, and to do more closer to fine.
Things aren’t always easy. Religious community is made up of humans, and we’re not all perfect, we’re not all shiny all the time, and we all bring with us our personal stories of hope and pain, loss, and possibility. We step on one another’s toes, we need to repair the roof, or the window, and money isn’t always easy to find, and we certainly can’t do everything – but we grieve that we can’t do everything nonetheless. Religious community is not easy, it’s hard work. If we want easy, we can do brunch instead, or flip through the Sunday Times, We’re doing something hard here; we’re doing something counter-cultural these days. It means we’ll be uncomfortable from time to time. Discomfort sometimes is the price of a meaningful life.
I think about all the accomplishments in our Fellowship’s history building upon one another – and often only shining their benefits onto a later generation of members. Back in the 80’s when we expanded our building to build this room where we all gather, we laid the groundwork to grow in membership, but we also laid the groundwork to help the community when the need was great. The Huntington men’s shelter – HIHI – was started by this Fellowship, after a tragic death on the streets. It’s hard to say if we would have been in a place to do that ministry if we didn’t have the larger space we have now. What was started as a simple (or not so simple) grounds and capital project to expand our worship hall, 20 years later became the foundation for saving lives in the wintertime; and in our increasingly fractured nation – HIHI is also bringing us into healthier collaboration with other faith traditions in our town. In the effort to help those in need, it keeps us pushing against the crush of xenophobia and the rise of white nationalism today – we move from charity to solidarity.
As the formal start of our new canvass, this sermon is in some ways about funding the present and future of this institution. Many think about budgets, and programs, and costs and services this time of year. Others ask me, “Membership. Why should I join? What do I get for my money?” I’m not sure that’s the best way to think of membership. Religious community is not a place where we buy services. That’s a store. Religious community is a place where we make commitments; where we promise to stretch ourselves when we’re becoming complacent and where we allow ourselves to be cared for by friends and neighbors when our need is there. Where we tell each other that we’ll hold one another accountable to helping to heal the corners of the world where we work and live. And we’ll fall down, we’ll trip, and we’ll help each other back up – to do the daily work, the monthly work, the yearly work of building a more just and compassionate world. Where else do we do that work? Where else do we combine caring for the friend and the stranger alike with the work of justice?
Many lament that the broader world obviously and painfully continues to struggle with perennial issues of inequality. It feels like the same battles decade after decade. Public discourse becomes less and less civil. People seem less and less engaged. When citizens make public protest, the propaganda machines often chastises and ridicules them. With all that going on, it’s easy to feel lost and ineffective.
In part, membership here is a commitment to that work. Social justice, compassion, service, and learning constitute our spiritual exercise regimen. It’s not always going to be easy. It’s not always going to be fun. It’ll include sweat and tears from time to time. You’re not buying something; you’re promising something. Building the world we dream about takes commitment, it takes promises, it requires showing up. Presence and membership are about showing up – again and again. And hopefully, you will change along the way as you help to nurture and transform our neighborhoods into more loving places.
I believe in the healing power of the progressive religious voice. I want those voices alive, well, and loud in our public discourse. I want to foster thriving communities that protect and empower women at a time when government is trying to legislate their bodies in ways that government doesn’t attempt to do to men. I want communities that educate and train citizens about the issues of poverty in our nation, equip us to give the help we can, and strengthen our will to change the systems of oppression that make life easier for some and harder for others. I don’t believe anywhere else will do this as well, or as comprehensively. I want to do this work in a community that is not centered in politics, but in ethics, in values, in relationships. I believe in the potential of our government to do what’s right, but I don’t believe it will do so on its own. Religion at its best is prophetic. It stands up to the vice of power and says, not in my name. But we have to be here to do that.
And we’re not just about outward acts of justice. Imagine a religious home that offers its children and youth, award-winning comprehensive science-based sexuality education that goes beyond the basics of sex ed, but helps prepare our teens to deal with peer pressure, body image, and relationship building. To value themselves, their bodies, and to value the same for others as well. To learn that no means no, and that no – boys will be boys – is not an excuse or an answer. Imagine contributing to a world where our kids are raised to respect themselves and others. Imagine a congregation that teaches our children the values and strengths of different faiths in such a way that they are embraced and not feared. That is our religious education program. Even if you don’t have kids of your own – I don’t have kids of my own – imagine contributing to the formation of a healthy future. I don’t have kids of my own, but I want to live in a world where those are the kids we’re raising! That’s how we prepare our youngest generation to help heal our world. That’s not dollars and cents. That’s life-saving; that’s life affirming. That’s building a place for all in our neighborhoods and communities.
And what sets us apart the most – is the spirit at the center of our faith. Religious community is a spiritual journey, long and winding, with many choices and forks along the way. In all the great odyssey stories, the hero travels far afield only to return to where they began, and ultimately find themselves. The biggest part of the spiritual journey, that we call faith, is learning how to find ourselves again. We don’t always live as ourselves. We hide, or inhibit, or push down our hearts, our feelings, sometimes our dreams; too often our kindest or best selves. We come together here and sing every week in community – and I wonder how often our singing grabs our souls’ attention and stirs it a little more into life. Life calling to life. Stewardship is, in part, taking stock of how well we’ve connected our hearts to our purpose, and making sure it remains nurtured for the years ahead. Supporting what matters to us most.
When I say life calling to life, I mean knowing in our bones that things matter – that life and relationships matter. Remembering to live fully – to live as ourselves – as best we can; to live knowing that life and relationships matter in our bones. The religious path is one where we help one another remember that too.
I’ll close with how we began our service. In religious community, we gather to nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Our spirits are nurtured through care for one another – together. Our mission reminds us that we’re never alone; that we’re here for one another. Institutions are our bedrock in times of turmoil. We will continue to be a place of support; a place of organizing against that which defies our highest values; and a place of challenge when we fall into complacency. As we begin a new stewardship year, I encourage you to support this institution so that in the coming year and years, we can continue to be a Beacon in a world that needs more places of compassion and spirit – places that live to remind us all – we’re not alone.