How good it is to finally be here. All the waiting, all the wondering, all the months of preparation and hard work, on both sides, and finally here we are, face to face, discerning what kind of future we may have together.
If you are a guest with us this morning, you may have realized by now that this is a special Sunday. Last fall, the Reverend Ruth Gnagey, this congregationís past minister, shared her intent to retire at the end of this church year. Since that time, this congregation has been hard at work engaging the very demanding process of finding a new minister. It involves empowering a search committee, engaging in an intensive congregational survey, developing a congregational packet to send to applicants, studying the voluminous materials sent in by applicants, telephone interviews, background and reference checks, face to face interviews, and finally, candidating week. It has taken about a year to get to this point.
And now, we are starting a week of discernment, a week in which we are engaging each other intentionally for the purposes of deciding if we are the people we want commit to. It is a time of discussion, of simply being together, eating meals together, learning each otherís stories, feeling the pulse of each otherís lives. Following the service next Sunday, this congregation will vote on calling me as their permanent minister. If that happens, come August 1st, you will have a new minister, I will have a new congregation, and we will be starting a very special and unique journey together.
I must admit, it feels rather remarkable to be in this position. You see, for the last year I have been working with the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans helping them to prepare for what you are doing right now. When their minister resigned, they called me in as an interim minister. We did some very intentional work aimed at preparing them for a settled minister. I was available for counsel and pastoral care when they were doing their congregational survey, and their interviews and their pre-candidating weekends. I supported them in preparing for candidating week, and when they had successfully called my replacement, I helped them say good-bye to me so that they would be ready to welcome their new minister this August.
So I know fairly well what it is like to be with a congregation in transition, because Iíve been the minister that held a congregation through that transition. You had Ruth holding you, supporting you this year, helping you to prepare for her departure, being a voice of counsel and pastoral care as you went about your work of finding a minister. And just as I did three weeks ago in New Orleans, last week Ruth helped you say good-bye to her so that you would be ready to welcome a new minister into your spiritual home.
So much of what has happened this year has been about preparing for this time. And what feels so remarkable to me is that I am at the other side of the process. At New Orleans, all of my work was about preparing for my successor. I did everything knowing I was going to have to clear the way for the person who would replace me. But here, I am looking into a very different future. Both you and I are here to look into a future that we might share. I keep looking over my shoulder, wondering if this is real, if this is true. I keep having to reorient, shift gears, so to speak. And I must say, itís very pleasurable. Itís a whole different way of looking at a church.
Iím wondering if there is something similar happening for some of you. Your relationship with Ruth was based on the anticipation of an end. You called her here knowing that her time with you would be short, and that the future would send you in separate directions. We are looking at each other in a very different way. You are looking for a permanent minister, someone who is going to put down roots and call this place home. Iím looking for a place to put down roots, to build a home and a family, to serve a congregation for the long haul. So I imagine, we are seeing each other in light of those hopes, and wondering, is this the place, or the person, who is going to help move us towards our dreams?
This sermon is titled ďDo you see me?Ē I chose that title because so much of what has happened in this past year, and so much of what is going to happen this week, is about the act of seeing Ė you seeing yourselves, me seeing myself, and us seeing each other.
When you as a congregation decided to enter the search process, you had to do some self-examination, looking at who you were so you would be able to discern what you wanted to become, and thus who you wanted as a minister. The search committee developed a congregational survey and held meetings and discussion groups so that you could hear what each other had to say. I was given a copy of the results, as well as the analysis the search committee developed from it, and it became clear that your decision to search for a minister meant that you had to express for yourself how you understand this congregation. The qualities you desire in the minister respond to the needs you have discerned for this congregation. How you ask a minister to prioritize their time indicates the priorities you have chosen for this church. Searching for a minister involves figuring out who you are, what you feel called to do, and who you feel called to serve.
Would it surprise you that I had to do much the same thing. The search process also asked me to see myself. I asked myself questions like, what is my theology and how do I engage people with different theologies from mine? What do I believe? What is my mission and vision as a minister? What are my dreams? Our ability to serve those who call us is only as strong as the degree of self-awareness we are willing to develop. When I was interviewed by this search committee, they had some very specific questions aimed at helping them discern if I would be the minister this congregation needed. I couldnít have answered these questions well if I hadnít done the work of looking inward and figuring out what it means to me to be minister. This is a lifelong process that I committed to when I choose this path for my life and I continued on that path when I considered applying for this position. And I will continue on that path so that I will serve well those who honour me with a call.
What we have done, each of us, this year, is not so different from what happens when youíre preparing to enter into any kind of relationship. Whether youíre looking for a partner or a job or a marriage, whether youíre anticipating the birth of a child, building a new friendship, or trying to reconcile with a loved one, whenever you prepare yourself to welcome something or someone new into your life, life will ask you to look inwards at yourselves, and it will ask you, ďDo you see yourself?Ē
Do you see yourself? Do I see myself? What might we see when we dare to go in there?
Well, one of the things we encounter will be our story, our history, those events that have deeply impacted us. We know ourselves and we see ourselves when we see our stories. Recall the story of the Warrior of the Sun and the Warrior of the Moon. Both Warriors came to that battlefield carrying their stories. They carried the stories of their loved ones, and those they had loved and lost. They carried the stories of their children and their families. Each warrior also carried the story of their people, and in that story they allowed their lives to be deeply formed by a larger story, in this case, a story of fear, violence, loyalty, and love. Our stories are likely different from theirs, but we are united in the power those stories have in the shaping of our lives. Part of the awareness that is so crucial to the welcoming of the new in our lives is to be aware of how our history, and the stories we use to tell it, shape us. This awareness allows each of us to discern when our stories are opening us up to life, and when our stories are shutting us away from life, because sometimes our stories cripple us, and sometimes our stories free us.
When the Warriors began to open their lives before the other, many things happened. It became clear that the stories they lived crippled them into a life of war and fear. It also became clear that as they told their stories there was the willingness to change that. Each wanted to live a different story so that their lives would be marked by peace and trust rather than violence and distrust. Telling their stories and hearing the stories of the other opened them up to new life.
I imagine that when this congregationís search committee conducted the congregational survey, those of you who participated had the opportunity to tell stories, either your own or stories about this church and things that happened here. You had the opportunity to share and to hear. Just like people, every church has a story, and parts of that story hold you back from what you want to be, and parts of that story free you to be what you want to be. I hope you had in this process you had the opportunity to hear those stories and to see each other anew. I hope that in that experience you were seen and understood and that you opened yourself to see and understand those with whom you share this religious community. And I hope that in the sharing and in the listening, you felt yourselves renewed and united and strengthened as a community.
As I read the voluminous packet the search committee sent to me, I got a sense of your story. I saw a story of hope and disappointment, accomplishment and pride, daring and risk, caution and fear. I saw you daring to dream, and sometimes stumbling, and then picking up and going on. I saw you stating boldly what it is you want and need in this church and in your minister, and then sometimes I saw you pull back, wanting your dreams to come true and not sure if they could. I saw you wanting change and growth, and fearing it at the same time. I saw you taking risks, and some of those risks didnít pan out, and some most certainly did. Look at this beautiful sanctuary. Even in the pictures I had in that packet, I could see what you were capable of accomplishing when you set your mind to it.
Having digested your written materials front to back, and having met your search committee, and having been in communication with many of your key leaders, I now come to you hungry, hungry to know more, hungry to see you, to know you, and to understand this congregation. I want to know your story. And so I am excited about this week. We deserve to be excited about the possibility of seeing another and of being seen. We deserve to be excited about opening wider our stories, to be changed forever in their telling and in their hearing. We all deserve to be blessed with those times in our lives. There is a deep need in each of us to be known, to be seen, and to be accepted for who we are.
One of the pillars of Unitarian Universalism is that the sacred rests in our lives. Because we do not have a central Bible, because we do not have a single God resting at the center of our religion, because we do not have an elevated Saviour to worship and pay homage to, what we have is ourselves. Our stories are our Bibles. Our gods, if we have them, rest in our hearts, minds and souls. Our Saviour is none other than ourselves and those wise ones we welcome into our lives. So, when we share our stories we might as well be opening the Bible, because this is where the truth lies.
Whenever we invite someone new into our lives, it is an opportunity for us to expand our Bibles, and perhaps revise and rewrite our Bibles. When we invite the new into our lives, when we hear the stories of those who come in, and when we share our stories with them, each of our Bibles will change because you cannot welcome someone new into your life and not be changed by the relationship you build with them.
This church changed when Ruth came here to serve, as it changed with every minister who came before her. Ruth brought her own story and it became intermingled with the story of this church and even though she is no longer with you, she will always be a part of this church and its story.
This church is also changes with every new person who comes here. So I want to thank our guests this morning, for gracing us with your presence. We do not yet know your story, but nonetheless, your story, your inner Bible, is sitting here with us this morning, and even untold, its power and its mystery and its truth hangs palpably over our heads. I hope that in time this church will come to know your story, and none of us will never be the same. How could we? How could those two warriors ever be the same after spending the night facing the eternal sky and sharing the finite details of their unique lives.
This church will be changed because of candidating week. I am bringing my internal Bible with me, and I am hoping to open parts of it before you, so you can see me. And I hope that you bring yours, and we will never be the same, regardless of the decision made at the end of this week. Our stories will become intermingled into that sacred interdependent web that is this church.
So, it is good to be here. It is good to finally see faces Iíve only seen in pictures. It will be good to speak with those of you who I know only by name, perhaps by the signature at the end of an e-mail, or a voice on the phone. I am looking forward to our week, I am looking forward to your story, and perhaps, I am also looking forward to the possibility of joining that story.
In the stories we live, in the stories we tell, and in the stories that we carry with us in our hearts, may be each of you be blessed and held in the arms of the spirit, this beloved community and our living religious tradition.