QUESTIONS FOR THE MINISTER
A sermon by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
February 17, 2019
Every Sunday the children and youth of our congregation are dismissed shortly into the service to head off to their classes where they discuss anything from little creatures to big ideas. Because of this, it is tempting to think of the children and youth as being a part of something somewhat separate from “real” church. But what happens in the sanctuary on Sundays with the adults is part and parcel what happens in in our church school classrooms; but our church is so much more than Sundays in the sanctuary; it is so much more thank children’s RE, too; our church achieves its fullest expression in the dozens of ministries we offer each and every week; it is our adult religious education, our choir, AA meetings, meditation groups, clubs, and fellowship societies that meet here every week.
But that is just the church that meets within the walls. Beyond this beautiful building our church expands outward through each one of us. Our church is there when members volunteer as hospice workers, with Bigs in Big Brothers Big Sisters; our church is there with members who take shut-ins hot meals on cold days. Our church is composed of people who support their friends with cancer, their friends whose minds are fading with age; our church is also made up of people who pretend like they didn’t see you at Trig’s; it’s filled with people who like to walk their dogs and others whose dogs like to walk their people.
It takes every one of us to make this church a community. All of us are of equal importance. What is unique about this morning is that rather than dismiss our children and youth to their classrooms we invite them to stay here so that we might get a chance to celebrate a truly intergenerational service. Moreover, we turn the topic of the day over to those children and youth so that they can engage me directly. We do this because, even though I spend most of my time with the adults, I am their minister too.
This morning I will do my best to answer as many of the questions the children and youth submitted to me a few weeks ago. I make no promises that there will be any wisdom offered, but I do promise to be honest. I plan to answer in order of age, so 4K first, high school last.
So, without further adieu, the 4K-1st grade class asks, “Do you like winter? What’s your favorite season?” The short answer is no, I do not like winter. To me winter is something endured, not enjoyed. I do enjoy the sight and sound of falling snow, and I like using the snow blower the first time but the novelty goes away immediately after that. With that said, I would always prefer to live somewhere with four seasons. I love the weather in places like San Francisco and Tucson, but I expect I would tire of the weather being the same year-round. I enjoy places where you can experience winter, spring, summer, and fall. But my favorite season, since you asked, is spring.
Where I’m from, in southeastern Missouri, spring stretches on from late-February into mid-May. Growing up I loved watching as people got their gardens ready and how the air slowly warmed and filled with humidity. I love when dandelions pop up and how tree pollen turns everything a shade of green and yellow. But mostly I like spring because that’s when baseball season starts. Back home we don’t root for just any old baseball team, it’s the best team in the known universe, a team with eleven World Series championships and 17 former players in the Hall of Fame. (Only the Yankees and the Giants have more Hall of Famers than the Cardinals.) I have listened to or watched Cardinals baseball since birth. In St. Louis, Cardinals baseball brings people together. You go to a game and you see people young and old, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat. Baseball is everything America strives to be: orderly, measured, methodical, democratic, and graceful.
The 2nd & 3rd grade class asks, “How long ago was the UU church made?” This church was built in 1914, but the congregation was gathered in 1870, which means that in 2020 we will celebrate our 150th anniversary.
Historically, this is a Universalist congregation and Universalism in America dates back to the mid-18th Century. The first Universalist congregation founded in America dates back to 1781, in Philadelphia. Unlike the Unitarians who were opposed to evangelism, Universalists were very keen on evangelism and spread their faith westward throughout 19th Century, which is why we have a church right here in Wausau. As far as I can tell, this church was served by missionary-type pastors in the early years, ministers who would ride in to town and settle down for a year or two before moving on to the next mission. Evidence of our Universalism is everywhere if you take the time to notice it: it’s in our painted glass windows, our silver communion set, and altar.
I occasionally get asked what the difference between Unitarians and Universalists is and the quickest answer I have comes from Thomas Starr King who said the Universalists believe in a God who is too good to damn people, while the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.
I will say that our religious history and heritage is something I am very proud of. The Universalist Church of America was the first denomination in America to ordain women, beginning in 1863 with Olympia Brown. Other Universalists like Charles Spear reformed the prison system, Clara Barton founded the Red Cross, and Samuel Howe founded schools for the blind and visually impaired. Our religious movement, from its beginning, has always been about liberation and freeing people from bondage. Our faith proclaims God’s love as something expansive; our faith is far from perfect, but we should be proud to proclaim a faith that believes love is love; a faith that stands on the side of the oppressed. We should be proud to practice a faith that stands against discrimination and oppression; we should be proud to practice a faith that is willing to name its faults but brave enough to keep on trying, even when the haters are hate’n.
The 4th-6th grade class asked several questions, a few of which I can answer pretty quickly but one I’ll have to spend a bit of time on. The first question they want to know is “Where is the best place you’ve visited?” That would be Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I love all those seaside towns along the north Atlantic, but Portsmouth has a charm and verve I haven’t found anywhere else. They also asked what sports/games I played as a child? I wrestled from the 6th grade through the 12th and I played league baseball in the summer. I also played a lot of Yahtzee with my grandma. However, my absolute favorite game is to play pranks on my family and friends. Long before I wore a robe to work and married and buried people I may or may not have done the following:
• Duct taped my mom’s purse to the ceiling of our living room every morning for a month until she told me that she’d take away my car if I didn’t stop.
• Collected every political sign I could find over the course of two nights and put all of them in my high school girlfriend’s parent’s front yard—that relationship didn’t last very long and I still get a little embarrassed when I see her parents.
• Saran wrapped my cousin Jacob to his bed while he was sleeping and then woke him up in the middle of the night wearing a werewolf mask.
There are several other games my friends and I liked to play, but I’m not certain what the statute of limitations is in Missouri so I’ll just stop there and move on to the next question, which is: “We heard you were raised in a different faith. Why did you decide to become a UU pastor?”
You heard correctly, I was raised in the Assemblies of God faith. My parents were missionaries to several countries throughout Central America. I spent the first 17 or so years of my life practicing a very conservative expression of Christianity. In some ways I love the church of my childhood. I had a lot of friends there, met my first girlfriend there, and went on camping trips and lots of other adventures. I rejected the church of my childhood when I was about 18-years-old for a lot of reasons. I was hurt by what the faith taught, especially about people who are gay. I also experienced terrible treatment at the hands of a couple people who were leaders in the church. I would spend most of my 20s as an avowed atheist. I would go so far as to say I was a secular humanist in the mold of the American philosopher Richard Rorty, and maybe I’ll preach about Rorty’s impact on my thinking one of these days. However, in my formation as a minster, which took nine years, I began to feel what I can only describe as God. I started to pray and meditate and read the Bible. In seminary, I had several wonderful professors whose teaching exposed me to the beauty and creativity of the Bible, showing me things I was never taught as a boy. I started to understand God differently and desired to cultivate the theistic spiritual practice I enjoy today. Throughout that journey the UU church I belonged to supported and encouraged me. They welcomed me as an atheist, they encouraged me as a confused seminarian, and they blessed my ministry as a Christian UU minister.
The question why I decided to become a UU pastor is a bit tricky for me to answer; and if I’m being perfectly honest, I didn’t really decide to become a pastor, that decision was made for me. You see, for me, being a minister is a calling. In my own words, God called me to this work. It’s not only that I love being a minister, it’s the only thing I can do.
But I became a Unitarian Universalist not for anything they believe, really, but for how they practice their faith. You see, for me, God isn’t just a dude in the Bible who makes some people in a garden and causes floods and makes a banquet for me in the presence of mine enemies. For me, God is the soil. God is at a dinner party with friends. God is a hushed hospital room when the news isn’t good. God is a tree covered in Spanish moss and cells dividing and stars colliding. For me, God is life and the source of life.
In the words of Max Coots, our “church is a hodgepodge with a steeple.” Our church is filled with atheists and agnostics, Christians and Jews, Buddhists and pagans. We’ve got Catholics and recovering Catholics, we’ve got conflict avoiders and troublemakers. We’ve got Bibles and beads and tarot cards and a ceiling that leaks from time-to-time. We’ve got contradictions and strong convictions, addicts, widows, and a few cracked windows. We’ve got people who come to church 1 to 2 times per year and others who miss church only when they’re sick or out of town. I am a UU minister because we focus on the here-and-now rather than the Sweet Bye-and-Bye. I am a UU because you can travel from Boston to Bainbridge Island and you won’t find two churches even remotely alike.
I am a UU because here it’s okay to doubt; here it’s okay to change; here it’s okay to admit you were wrong. We’re not a house of saints or sinners. We are a center of learning, doubting, and change. In my mind, you’re a UU if you like our funky style regardless of whatever label you’ve chosen for yourself. Here, it’s up to you to decide what we are and will be for you. That’s what makes me a UU.
The youth in Our Whole Lives (or “OWL”) asked me if I could perform an exorcism? I don’t really know what to say to that question, but I will remind you that our Board meetings are open to anyone who would like to attend. OWL also asked if Jesus had any pets. The answer is no, there is no evidence in the New Testament that Jesus had pets, but he did cuss out a fig tree and ride a donkey once.
Okay, I think two more from the high school class should just about do it. The first question they asked is, “What is one of the most eye-opening moments of your career?” I have been blessed to be a part of so many extraordinary moments; far too many list here. And should I serve this congregation for a while I expect you will hear a few of them throughout the years. To that end, I’ll experience several more serving as your minister. Some of my best memories happened on visits to people’s homes and hospital rooms.
One of the more recent events occurred shortly after I moved to Wausau. I officiated the funeral of a man who spent his entire working life as a janitor at UW-Marathon. He married late in life and never got around to having any children. In his free time he’d volunteer as a clown at children’s hospitals and repair his neighbor’s lawnmowers and snow blowers for free. He went to every UW-Marathon graduation right up until he died; when his wife was diagnosed with cancer he transformed their living room into a bedroom and cared for her until cancer finally took her. Interestingly, this man was a registered Republican who loved John F. Kennedy and he was the godparent to three adoring ladies.
When I arrived at the funeral home to officiate the director handed me an envelope with $150 in it and a note from the dead man, who I had never met, which read, “For your troubles.” The funeral director said the man’s will instructed him to hire the local UU pastor to say a few smart words and if they weren’t able to get him then they were to play a couple John Denver songs and call it a day. As best as I can remember, there were about ten people at the funeral: the man’s best friend and the best friend’s wife, the three goddaughters, two ladies who said they thought he was their cousin but couldn’t say for sure, a guy from the University of Wisconsin, the funeral director, and me.
After a few kind words and a prayer the guy from the university told us that the dead man left all his possession to the University of Wisconsin with instructions to establish a scholarship for young women who are the first in their family to go to college; the dead man’s only condition was that the scholarship be named in honor of his late wife.
I tell you this story with the hope of proving that people who you would never expect, people who live quiet, modest lives can do extraordinary and meaningful things, which leads me to the final question: What general message do you want people to walk away from a service?
In general, I want people to know that the world has great need for their best wisdom and motives. I want people to know that they are not alone. I want good people to know that sometimes the worst will come out. The only thing worse than that is to let pride sicken you into seeing only the ineptitude of others. Everyone fails. Everyone. Everyone deserves a hand when they’re trying to get back up. I want people to know that everyone stumbles and when you do you should take it as an opportunity to look around—there might be someone who’d like to stumble along with you.
I want people to know that it’s okay to feel; that it’s okay to think; and that life is precious and as best as we can tell this is the only one we’ve got. Thank you for the questions. Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all.