Our Purpose

Rev. Barnaby shared two stories, one of creation and one of rebirth, that addressed the question of why we matter. Listen to his sermon here or read it below.

Reading: Stung by Bees by Rev. Victoria Safford (from “Walking Toward Morning: Meditations).

We left you hanging. There’s Rev.Safford reflecting on how we get trapped in questions of why things happened. She is fretting that she often falls into the trap just like her daughter did in trying to understand why she was stung. We know what she means because we have all been there to. Why did I get stung, sick, fired, rejected, overlooked, misunderstood – you name it. Was it partly my fault? Why did I stay silent? Why did I take so long to leave? Why didn’t they help? And here’s Victoria Safford wondering how that trap springs on her over and over again, even when she knows different questions should be her priority – questions that revolve around “What will happen next?”

I want to eventually connect the question “What will happen next” to our theme for this month: what does it means to claim we are “a people of purpose.” But let’s not rush past that feeling of being trapped trying to make sense of something that has already happened to us.

I’m not talking about evaluating what has happened to make sure we are occupying reality. Safford’s daughter is drawn to the why questions by a need to understand the world. Are bees mean? Are they supposed to sting us? She also needs to understand herself. She doesn’t believe she did anything bad playing as usual on that playground. But maybe she did something different without noticing so she replays the scene again and again. Am I to blame? She doesn’t verbalize that question in the story as Safford tells it, but I’m sure it’s there inside her. It’s always there inside all of us who aren’t narcissists of Trumpian proportions. Maybe I did something wrong.

But I’m not talking about healthy whys. Whys that wise people consider before moving forward. I’m talking about getting stuck in the whys, so stuck that we can’t effectively turn to what next questions. Here’s an example. I know it’s trivial but at least it’s fresh in my mind. My reflection this morning was originally a very different sermon and it wasn’t working. I spent all of Friday trying to figure out why, trying to figure out where the nicely written passages had gone astray and why the clever tidbits from science weren’t clicking. I was trapped in what I had done, unable to put it aside and say, “What next?’

Part of the problem was I already had your answer on what it means to say we are a people of purpose. Before I arrived in Middlebury, this congregation had examined what it had grown into and then drafted a purpose statement, which it subtitled “Why We Exist.” You can read it on our website. It starts out, “The Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society exists to spiritually nourish, challenge, and sustain people of all ages and circumstances, so that they may lead lives of meaning, integrity, and service.” There follows a lovely, thoughtful detailed breakdown of what the preamble words are intended to mean. Like any good Purpose Statement, it’s hard to find anything to disagree with. I preached about it at length a few years ago. None of you has begged to hear more and I didn’t feel called to revisit it today. But I tried to because purpose was our theme.

I exhibited various symptoms of being trapped on Friday. When I couldn’t bear more futile wordsmithing, I walked Lyra. I cleaned a toilet in an attempt to feel virtuous. I went downstairs to snack, only to experience the frustration of not being able to start in on the brownies that Michele had made for the Shabbat dinner company we expected. You laugh, but it was real frustration. A stifled craving. Michele bakes killer brownies. And what’s worse, it reminded me that we had company coming and I had limited time before Shabbat to figure out why the sermon wasn’t working.

I needed sufficient salvation. Nothing eternal. Just escape from the trap. Why the first sermon floundered no longer mattered. I had to let go. You all have a grasp of sufficient salvation: it’s a feeling of letting go of what is binding us tight in the past spacious enough for something new to break us free. It doesn’t have to arrive dramatically. It can be a moment taken to play with a pet and see it as a complete, astounding being, or to really enjoy a sunset, or to call a distant friend. Sometimes, it’s a simple apology note related to the past, but stripped of all that explaining and self-justification that rebuilds your trap. Sufficient salvation.

You’ll recall that “What will happen next?” was the question posed at the point our reading of Safford’s meditation ended. The next passage says, “Who made the world, the broken world, and why? Who made the suffering world, and why? Three year-olds and theologians can chew these tired bones all day. But for me the real religious questions open wide and holy – exciting, dangerous, urgent, comforting, sustaining – when we accept the mystery and then move on or, reverently, move in.” When she accepts the mystery, the what next question she wants to ask becomes clearer: “How now shall we live in it, you and I and everyone?” In other words, “What comes next, not just for me, but for you and me and everyone?”

Simply asking what’s next isn’t our purpose as a congregation. People don’t need to come to CVUUS for that. We have kids, friends, co-workers and bosses, not to mention partners, putting that very question to us for most of our waking hours…. and sometimes in our dreams.

This is where UU’s being a people of purpose comes into it. I want to keep this simple, but there are limits to what I can do and still be truthful.

Consider this song that hit No. 1 on the Top 40 charts when I was 15. www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzVLQTovv_g

Yes, it’s the immortal Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders singing “The Game of Love”! But there’s no nuance about gender or sexual preferences. No hint of anything other than male-female sexual union as human purpose. The part we heard gets repeated over and over. That’s the entire message. Full disclosure: as a straight, awkward 15 year-old hearing and even dancing to this song, I responded to these lyrics. The status of player in that game of love was largely fanciful for me at that time. And I was already too UU to see it as my only purpose in life, But I certainly saw it as worthy of a lot of my mental and emotional attention!

If you squint, you can see science endorsing my teenage state of mind. Just think about the lessons of billions of years of evolution. Most forms of life go extinct. The primary goal of every living individual seems to be to reproduce. Most of it happens in mammals like us through “hold me tight,” as Wayne Fontana put it.

But a bioligcal aim to reproduce shared with the most primitive micro-organisms is not what we mean by purpose. Biological aims don’t, as Rev. Safford put it, “open wide and holy” into questions of mystery. We all need a wider purpose than sexual pleasure in our lives to be fully human.

When the game of love becomes the game of ongoing relationships through sickness and health, for better or worse, in a marriage or a congregation, then it becomes more than reproductive biology. When we share an abiding search for truth and ongoing work for justice, and when we strive to extend our circle of compassion to strangers and other species, we become a people of purpose. These “why we exist” as a congregation goals are, to use Safford’s words, “exciting, dangerous, urgent, comforting and sustaining.” They enlarge what feels holy in us. The make us, in the words of an old hymn, “one in the larger thought of God.” One in the Mystery, if you prefer that name for what brings you into worship.

We become a people of purpose when play the Game of Love not for sex – wonderful though that is – but to embrace with our best selves the religious question “How now shall we live in the mystery, you and I and everyone?” That last universalist word, everyone, is the test of being UU people of purpose. It’s the one we will fail.

We will fail because of our essential aloneness. Think about the strangers sitting around you. You might think I am referring to a person whom you have never met or spoken with at coffee hour. Or to folks you could not immediately identify without their name tag. I am, but I’m also talking about the nearby person you can greet by name but do not know well enough to be able to drive them home without a GPS, and the person whose job you don’t know and whose beloved ones you’ve never met. I am also referring to the people around you whom you call friends. Even the people you know as your life partners. Name to yourself their top three sorrows from the past year. Their top three joys. Their top three fantasies and fears. I won’t ask anyone, even those irredeemably married, to testify that you and your partner know each other that well since all the data suggests I’d be asking you to lie. That’s ok. Love leaves space for aloneness.

But we UU’s don’t like to talk about aloneness. We sang “We begin again in love today” with its treatment of the “illusion of separateness” as a sin needing forgiveness. That’s a UU take on the traditional Jewish view of the beginning of a new year. And it’s not true to the spirit of Judaism, which focuses on how each individual is not prepared to go before God asking to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the year to come until they personally have sought forgiveness for their unque transgressions against others. Everyone has to do it, but you do it alone in your way.

Solitude and privacy can be spiritual treasures. UU’s easily convince ourselves we are leaving others alone out of love and respect. Sometimes it’s true. We leave them be even though we long to interrupt them and have them pay attention to us. But often we hold back because we are acting out of aloneness. We are shying away from recognizing the aloneness danger zones in ourselves or from reaching out to others who live deeper within them than they wish.

We should not be ashamed of this. The human animal, like all animals, is wired to be upset when marginalized. And it’s our instinct to be nervously alert around neighbors who appear or act marginalized. We should not be ashamed, but we should not be passive if we want to claim we are UU people of purpose. Our principles goad us to seek to be fully human in the best sense, not as much like other animals as possible. That means taking for ourselves the challenge of figuring out how we will live in this world loving not just each other, but everyone and everything.

We can imagine that, but we are too alone and self-centered to live that way for long. We are a people of purpose – holy purpose – for an instant here, a moment there. Maybe hours or even days at our best. And so we come together to practice what Reinhold Niebuhr called the final form of love – forgiveness. And then we return to asking ourselves and each other, “How now shall we live in the mystery, you and I and everyone?” It’s a question for all ages, from Victoria Safford’s three year old to the oldest among us. How gorgeous and exciting is that! What will happen next?