QUESTIONS FOR THE MINISTER
A sermon preached by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
April 22, 2018
I have been looking forward to this Sunday for a while now. So, when Julie submitted the more than forty questions to me I was thrilled. Mostly, I was excited to see the kinds of things the youth and young adults of this congregation are thinking about. After reading through the questions it became quite evident that most of the best minds of this congregation spend each Sunday in classrooms. And to that end, if any of you adults ever lose hope for the future of humankind I encourage you to peek into one of those rooms and observe the wit, sensitivity, and wisdom of these young people.
It is because of them that I have hope for our world.
However, my hope comes with a challenge. For as excited as I am to answer some of these questions, I’d be even more excited if all of you young adults were standing up here this morning. I think this church would benefit from your leadership.
So, I challenge the youth and young adults of this congregation to consider leading worship here on a Sunday, in the not too distant future. I think you have wisdom to impart on this congregation. After all, this church is just as much yours as it is anyone else’s. And, truth be told, the church doesn’t belong to anyone, that’s because it belongs to everyone.
I make no promises this morning. I can all but guarantee I will not be imparting any wisdom. And if any is gleaned here this morning, you’d be well to direct your gratitude to the children.
The questions I received ranged widely. Among the forty plus questions each class chose three they most wanted answers to. There’s no time like the present, so let’s get started.
One of the questions the high school class most wants me to answer is this: “What is your most embarrassing moment, and how did you deal with it?” To be perfectly honest I have far too many embarrassing moments to pick from.
In my hometown the fact that I’m a minister gets a bit of a chuckle out of a few of my close friends. This isn’t to say I’ve committed crimes or anything of the sort. It’s laughable in the same way that my friend Joey is a divorce lawyer back in my hometown, or that my cousin Jonathan is a surgeon, or that my friend Tony is running for the Missouri senate.
It’s funny because I can easily remember Joey picking his nose and eating his boogers in Mrs. Crawford’s class, and getting sent to the office for it; and I can remember Jonathan going to the bathroom in his pants a little bit when he laughed really hard; and I can remember Tony showing off for a group of girls at a party, attempting a backflip on the trampoline, slipping off, and crashing into someone’s dad’s toolshed and breaking his arm.
One of the stories my friends like to remind me of is what happened to me on the first day of fifth grade. It all started when the girl I had a huge crush on, Jamie, came up to me and told me my head looked like a jelly bean because I didn’t know how to put gel in my hair correctly. I had no idea you’re supposed to put gel on the back of your head, too?
But my friends’ favorite part of fifth grade starts right before our first recess. As nature would have it, I had to go to the bathroom as soon as the bell rung so I didn’t hear the message that we were supposed to go out the cafeteria doors because the other path to the playground was too muddy.
So, on the first day of school, wearing a brand-new outfit, complete with a really expensive pair of Reebok tennis shoes my mom bought me but could hardly afford, I thought I could gingerly walk across the muddy path without any issue.
As luck would have it, the mud was so wet and thick that about mid way down the path the mud turned into something like quicksand. It sucked my legs down, all the way to my knees and I couldn’t get out. So, slowly, one by one, all the kids on the play ground took notice and gathered by the edge of the basketball court to watch the kid who didn’t know to put gel on the back of his head try and try to get unstuck from the mud.
The kids were yelling, “Brian, you can do it!” The teachers were yelling, “If you don’t get out of that mud you’re going to be in big trouble mister.” After about five minutes I lost my balance and fell sideways into the mud. Finally, once everyone realized I wasn’t going to get free on my own, the janitor rode the school tractor out to where I was stuck and had me hold on to a chain while he pulled me out of the mud.
Then, in front of everyone, he made me put on a trash bag as pants, like a diaper, and drove me, at two miles an hour, across the playground, covered in mud, with gel only on the front of my hair, in front of every 5th and 6th grader in the entire school. Then he took me inside and had me strip down to my shorts and sprayed me off with a hose like a dog and put me in a Kris Kross shirt that said, “The Daddy Mac will make ya Jump Jump,” and sent me back to class with flip-flops as shoes.
As a result, my mother never bought me another pair of name brand shoes. I wore Wal-Mart shoes until I got a job of my own. If there’s a silver lining to this story it’s that ever since I’ve applied gel to the back of my head first.
It’s also proof that you can be a total moron and have to get pulled out of the mud by a tractor, you can pee your pants and eat your boogers, and still you can become a minister or a doctor or a lawyer. And depending on the results of the upcoming election, you might be able to break your arm showing off for someone you have the hots for and still be elected senator.
The high school class also asked: “What is your opinion of Crocs?” For those of you who don’t know, Crocs are those rubbery half-shoe, half-sandal things. I see them wore a lot by medical staff in hospitals and, in general, by people who suffer from an allergy to having a decent fashion sense.
Really though, I don’t have a strong opinion about Crocs. That said, before I was a minister I was a corporate account representative for a large telecommunications company and one of my clients was Crocs. One of the perks of having Crocs as a client was all the free swag they gifted me. Let’s just say I’ve been known to give men’s Crocs, size 10-11, as gifts.
The high school class also asked: “Why does God let so many bad things happen?” I want to thank you all for asking me such easy questions. I don’t have a satisfying answer to this question, unfortunately. And I would caution you to be suspicious of someone who says they do. I will say this, however: People let bad things happen all the time. Moral culpability is a real thing.
The purpose and point of practicing a religion is to grow your care and concern for the world and the people in it. Whether you think God created the world or it was formed millions of years ago by rapidly accelerating particles doesn’t alter the fact that life is temporary, that the human animal is fragile, and acts according to self-interest.
Every single one of us is capable of doing good, even great things. I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate suffering altogether. But, collectively, we could do a better job preventing sorrow and pain.
Historically, Unitarians and the Universalists believed in the God found in the pages of the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, and some still do. I count myself among that group. I’m not scared to admit that I believe in God, and neither should anyone else. Being intolerant of people who believe in God isn’t very UU at all. We need to remind ourselves of that from time to time.
What I know is that the God I profess belief in is one of love and justice, and mercy and goodness. I believe in that God because I see goodness in the world. I see it in this church, in your actions, and in your concern for others. Being religious isn’t just a choice you make on Sunday mornings, whether or not you’ll go to church. Being religious is a duty, a duty to serve others, to put the needs of the many before the needs of the few, to tell the truth, to seek justice, and to walk humbly.
If you’ve read the bible, then you already know that in Psalm 8 we are told that humankind has been made just a little lower than angels. You’re free to think that the psalmist is only using heightened poetic language. But it doesn’t change the fact that humankind has the power to make the world a better place. My faith, my prayer, my belief is that we will.
I think this would be a good place to answer the question: “Why should you become a member of a church?” This question was asked by two separate classes, which I find interesting. This is a difficult question to attempt an answer, but I’ll try knowing I’ll fall short of doing it proper justice.
So, here’s my Cliffs Notes answer: You should join a church because it will enrich your life. Churches serve a higher power, which is to say that their chief concern is morality, not politics. Liberal and conservative churches need reminding of this. We’re not partisan, we’re not political, we’re not social action committees; we’re moral institutions.
If we think of ourselves as political we lose our power. What makes churches powerful is that we’re not interested in politics or money, or at least we shouldn’t be. We’re interested in growing our souls, in growing our care for the world and one another.
We don’t want people to be free so they can buy stuff; we want people to be free because people deserve to be free. We don’t want people to get access to healthcare because the democrats or republicans say so; we want people to have access to healthcare because we believe that health and wellness is a basic human right. We don’t march in the streets so we can share the pictures on Twitter or compete to see who’s the most woke; we do it because sometimes the thing that needs to be done and the change that needs to come can’t wait ‘til tomorrow.
You should join a church because it makes you work hard. A good church teaches you to think for yourself. A good church teaches that it is your human calling to show kindness, to do good in the world. And that’s just one part of why you should join a church. The other reason to be a part of a church is because churches are like families.
If you’re lucky enough to belong to a good church, then you know it’s a place where you can be yourself. Where you can tell your truth. A place you can come to when you feel like there’s almost nothing in this world worth living for. It’s a place where you can be born and welcomed to the world with joy. It’s a place you can be fed and a place where you can share a meal with others. It’s a place you can laugh and fall in love. It’s a place where you can be forgiven and practice what it’s like to forgive. It’s a place of protection when you need a sanctuary. It’s a place that will speak your name long after you’re gone.
A church is a place of reverence, of hope and memory. It’s a place of laughter and love.
You should become a member of a church because deep down we need each other. None of us will get anywhere alone. I learned that hard lesson long ago, which leads me other question they want me to answer: “What is your favorite ice cream?” I love all ice cream.
I don’t discriminate when it comes to salt, sugar, and fat. I like it in all forms: milkshakes, sundaes, sandwiches, in bowls, with sprinkles, with candy. I’ve even eaten ice cream with pickles in it and enjoyed it. I like hickory-flavored ice cream, Italian ice cream, melted ice cream, overly frozen, and, in a pinch, freezer burnt ice cream.
In St. Louis, where I moved here from, there’s a summer tradition on the north side of the city called gutter sundaes. What happens is at the end of the summer, when it’s too hot to do anything, a group of people will throw a block party, with barbeque and drinks and games; and at some point, someone will bring out a couple sawhorses and put a piece of guttering (you know, the stuff that catches rain on the side of the house) on top. Then people will scoop out all kinds of ice cream into the gutter and put candy and nuts and syrup on it; and then everyone will come over with a spoon and pick the spot they want.
I know it sounds gross but it’s really not. It’s no grosser than people eating cheese that makes noise when you eat it. Where I’m from food isn’t supposed to make noise; it might come out of a gutter sometimes, but noise is unacceptable.
Speaking of cheese curds, the 5th and 6th grade class asked me this: “What do you like about Wausau, Wisconsin, if anything?” I like a lot actually. I like all the birds here and the river that runs through town. I like that you can get anywhere in about five minutes. I like all the old houses and I love the accents people have. I like that people don’t honk their horns much. I like how much people talk about the weather. I like that people do winter sports even though I have almost no interest in them at this point. I’m just happy knowing someone is out there enjoying the freezing cold snow. I like this church very much. I like that I get to do a job I feel called to do here and serve a great and lovable collection of people.
The 5th and 6th graders also asked what my past religion was and how it affects my way of ministering. I was raised in the Assemblies of God Church. You should visit one at some point in your life. Most of the time the music is good, and the people are warm, and the sermons are spirited. It mostly affected the way I think about my vocation.
When I was growing up the minister wasn’t someone inaccessible. I’ve heard my friends share stories about being intimidated by their childhood minister, or priest, or rabbi. When I was a kid my pastor’s wife babysat my sisters and me. Ministers serve a special role in peoples’ lives, there’s no denying that. But ministers are people, too. I’m grateful I learned that at a young age.
I still look up to my childhood pastor even though we probably disagree about a lot of stuff. What I admire about him, what affected me the most was that he was and continues to be a person of incredible integrity. If anything, I learned more by watching him than anything he ever said. Now that he’s nearly 70 I see that he still adores his wife and she adores him, his children adore him, and he continues to build homes and schools for people in Central America 10 out of 12 months of the year. It’s that sense of selflessness that so inspires me. Moreover, it challenges me and gives me something to aspire to.
The 2nd through 4th grade class asked me this interwoven question that I think I can answer: “What was our official church, when was it founded, why was it built, who founded it, and who was the architect?” The organization of this church dates back to the year 1870, which means this church is almost 150 years old. In two years time, if I’m still the minister of this church, I hope we’ll have a grand celebration of that 150-year anniversary.
The building, however, was completed on October 1, 1915. The architect’s name was Alexander C. Eschweiler. In 1915, then president of the Board of Trustees, Karl Mathie, wrote this: “We wanted a church as substantial as our faith, a church of stone gathered from our own hills and revealing the beauty of a thousand years gathered out of storm and frost and heated days, with infinite patience by the Supreme Artist who so loves the world that he heaps it full of beauty and riches.”
This church was built because the founders wanted a place to celebrate the beauty and riches of this world. They wanted a place where children could run and play, where women and men could meet and debate. They wanted a place where people could hold hands and kiss and cry; they wanted a place where they could share meals and trade clothes and learn. They wanted a place where love and marriage could be celebrated, where the dead could be mourned, where sermons could be preached, and songs could be sung. They wanted a little piece of heaven right here on the corner of Grant and 5th and so they pooled their resources and built this church.
Sure, Cyrus Yawkey and his wealthy counterparts put up a lot of the funds. But there are stories of young children giving their savings to build this church. There are stories of work-a-day folks giving their life’s savings to help afford these very windows and the roof above our heads. The saying goes that it takes a village. Let this church serve as proof of that.
Finally, I’ll end with this question from the 7th and 8th grade Simpson’s class: “How do you keep yourself happy when life isn’t the greatest?”
I remind myself that I’ve been stuck in the mud, that I’ve worn a trash bag as a pair of pants. I remember that I used to put gel only on the front of my head. I take runs along the river and go bird watching. I read books and stay up late from time to time laughing and joking with my wife. I buy an expensive dinner once or twice a year. I pray. Sometimes I come here early in the morning to watch the sun rise and shine through these windows that have shown brightly for more than a hundred years.
I look around at the people who, together, make this place a church. I see parents posting pictures of their kids running cross-country races and going skiing. I see pictures of you and your families smiling on beaches and volunteering at the local food banks. I listen to videos of you playing piano and violin. I listen when your parents meet with me to tell me how they want the world for you. I watch as some of you go through that period of life when you’re embarrassed of your parents, knowing full-well that one day you’ll love them more than you can ever know.
Mostly, I come to church. And what is the church? The church lives in each and every one of you. You are the church. And, together, you’ve made it a beautiful one. Amen and Blessed Be.