Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
October 1, 2017
THE COURAGE TO COMMIT
By David Herndon
1 October 2017
First Unitarian Church
I have learned many things during my twenty-seven years as your minister.
Some of the things I have learned are practical skills.
Some of the things I have learned are truths about myself.
Some of the things I have learned can best be summed up like this:people are people.
There is one thing I have learned during my twenty-seven years as your minister that I would especially like to share with you this morning.It is a humbling reality.
What I have learned is how little influence I actually have over the life of our congregation.
To paraphrase the quotation at the top of your order of service:
If writing sermons with numerous footnotes that exemplify the learned ministry would do it
Let me show you my top one thousand favorite quotations
If serving as chief executive officer under a policy governance system would do it
Let me show you seven years of eighty-page annual reports
If creating innovative performing arts groups would do it
Let me tell you about the Folk Orchestra and the Family Choir and the Young Adult Spoken Word Choir
If reading books by experienced pastors would do it
Let me show you the library of books about how to do church on my shelves
If attending workshops at General Assembly and professional conferences would do it
Let me show you my collection of hand-outs, power point presentations, and three-ring binders
If going to church meetings would do it
Let me show you my collection of agendas, notes, and minutes
There are moments when one must acknowledge one’s limitations.
This lesson has become especially clear to me in the last few days as I have been in conversation with a family who are part of our church. Their story is both heroic and tragic. You are probably not personally acquainted with them because they have not attended our church regularly in recent years. In fact, it would be reasonable to say, “Look, they have not been around for years, and they probably have not contributed anything financially, so just write them off, don’t waste your time, invest your time in more institutionally fruitful ways.
But I reached out to them anyway.
In this family, the wife has had a series of chronic medical challenges for several years. Recently, she was experiencing liver failure. After investigating various unsuitable options, the husband in the family finally said, “I will serve as a living donor.I will give my wife part of my liver.”
This is the heroic part of the story. The surgery took place. And after many years of struggling against a hurricane, it seemed as though the family – two parents and three children – had finally found peace in a safe harbor.
But now here comes the tragic part of the story. Although more information needs to be gathered, the surgery for the wife apparently disclosed an unexpected and even more serious medical challenge. So just when they thought they had found peace in a safe harbor, along comes another hurricane.
I hope with all my heart that medical skill and capability and knowledge, which makes startling advances every day, can bring healing and recovery.
But bringing medical expertise is not my work.In the context of a hospital room, my work is the emotional and spiritual challenge of acknowledging limitation and finitude and transience and sometimes even mortality – that is, the emotional and spiritual challenge of living as fully as possible even when life is disappointing or tragic.
Newly reminded of the limitations faced by this family, I stand here this morning also aware of my own limited influence over the life of our congregation. One spiritually healthy practice in coming to accept one’s limitations is prayer, so I will invite you to accompany me down this path for a time.
My prayer for you as a congregation during this annual budget drive is that you will show enough generosity toward yourselves that you will meet your goal and that you will move forward with your shared ministry with the financial resources you need. I wish I had more influence over your level of generosity, but my influence is quite limited. Only you can choose whether or not you will be generous enough as a congregation.
My prayer for you as a congregation is that you will make it a priority to become more personally and more deeply acquainted with one another. I wish I had more influence over your sense of community, but my influence is quite limited. Only you can choose to strike up a conversation with someone who is new to our church. Only you can choose to expand your circle of friends beyond the people you already know and have known for years. Only you can choose to make it a priority to build stronger relationships with other people in this religious community.
My prayer for you as a congregation is that you will more deeply accept the sometimes inconvenient responsibility of providing pastoral care and pastoral assistance to one another. Steven Mead wisely observed that a congregation should not outsource its mission to staff, and nowhere in our common life as a congregation is that observation more applicable than in pastoral care and pastoral assistance. I wish I had more influence over your capacity to care for one another during the difficult and challenging moments in your lives, but my influence is quite limited. Only you can take the time in your busy lives to bring the hot meal over to someone else’s home. Only you can take the time in your busy lives to make the trip to the hospital room. Only you can take the time in your busy lives to call someone just to check in. Only you can ensure that no one in our church is forgotten.
My prayer for you as a congregation is that you will become more visibly and intentionally appreciative of one another’s devoted service to our congregation. I wish I had more influence over your capacity to express gratitude toward one another, but my influence is quite limited. I can say thank you, and I do, but when you offer service to the congregation, you are not doing it for me, you are doing it for the other people in your congregation, so you should really be thanking one another. Only you can speak for yourselves in expressing gratitude toward one another. Only you build up your morale as a congregation by paying attention to one another’s efforts and then expressing genuine appreciation toward one another.
My prayer for you as a congregation is that you will resist the temptation to become defensive when the topic of racial justice or white supremacy comes up. My prayer is that you will see these occasions as opportunities for spiritual growth, and that you will follow the lead of those among you who are more woke. Aside from the climate crisis, racial justice is THE major social issue of our time, and my prayer is that this congregation will continue to offer mature leadership, as you have done by putting up the Black Lives Matter banner, to mention just one example. I wish I had more influence over your commitment to racial justice, but my influence is quite limited. Only you can have the tough and tender conversations about your own experiences. Only you can navigate your way through difficult feelings and still remain committed to making a difference.
My final prayer for you as a congregation is that you will more frequently experience as a congregation what St Paul called the fruits of the spirit, namely, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I wish I had more influence over your experience of these qualities, but, quite frankly, it is difficult enough for me just to nurture these qualities in myself. Only you can choose as a congregation to set aside lesser preoccupations and aspirations and focus instead on cultivating these qualities within your religious community. Only you can choose to make the presence of these fruits of the spirit a central mark of your success as a congregation.
I have now acknowledged, as your minister, my limited influence over your life as a congregation. This is something that I have not always been willing to accept.
But my limited influence is not the whole story. My limited influence is actually only a very small part of the story. The real story is that as a congregation, you control your own destiny. The real story is that as a congregation, you are the ones who are able to choose what happens next in the life of this congregation. The real story is that as a congregation, you are the ones who have the power to decide, together, what your future will be. And that is true now, today, as you decide, together, how generous you will be as a congregation in providing financial support for your shared ministry in fulfillment of your mission. I wish I had more influence over your generosity, and I would be quite willing to determine your pledges and write down a dollar amount for each of you, but I don’t think you would want me or anyone else to do that, so you see my influence is quite limited. Only you can create your story. You are the people you have been waiting for.
© 2017 by David Herndon