Pursuing Excellence

Rev. Furrer preaches on what pursuing excellence here at ESUC would require of us going forward… and the manifold benefits it will generate for both our membership and the greater Bellevue community.

“Pursuing Excellence”

March 3, 2019

Mohandas Gandhi once made a list of what he called The Seven Sins of the Modern World. Sin number one was wealth without work. Sin number six: religion without sacrifice. I agree with Gandhi. And I worry, at times, about what seems like a growing cultural passion for hitting the lottery or winning big on some Reality TV show. I have dedicated my life to another model; the one we are engaged in here. Let me elaborate.

I think we have extraordinary assets in this congregation; incredible wealth, actually. But realizingthatwealth requires work. Not drudgery, mind you. Work. Meaningful and fulfilling work. This morning I want to do my best to describe that work.

What we offer here (our “product” if you will) is religion, but finding it (i.e., re-linking oneself to the interconnected web of life) requires sacrifice. Not like the sacrifices of old: human or animal sacrifice; the sacrifice, rather, of our exaggerated egocentricity whenever it gets in the way of growing together as a learning, caring, and politically engaged community.

The late novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was the 1986 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Author of over 40 books, Wiesel asked in one of them

What then is sanctuary? The sanctuary is often something very small. Not a grandiose gesture, but a small gesture alleviating human suffering and preventing humiliation. The sanctuary is a human being…. And that is why you are here and that is why I am here. We are here because of one another. We are in truth each other’s shelter.

When Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote that we are each other’s sanctuary he was not being metaphorical; we are each other’s shelter. That’s what people do; and it’s pretty much all we can do—look out for one another. Help each other deal with

  • the hyper competition and harsh ways of the world out there,
  • the hatred and callousness of some of the people and institutions we have to deal with,
  • the loneliness and disillusionment many of us, at one time or another, have felt and known.

There was a time in some of our churches and fellowships (maybe even here at East Shore) when you’d hear people say that what they liked about Unitarian Universalist congregations was how little they asked of a person. I have never understood this. It seems to me just the opposite: that we ask a lot of people. We ask people to be shelter for each other; to create a sanctuary together here where we can support each other as a community of congruence or beloved community, and where we can celebrate being human. It’s a tall order.

We ask you to care for each other; to pay attention to who is ill and who is mourning. We ask you to be a community—which is hard, especially at first, when you don’t know many people, or later, when you know one another all too well. Nevertheless, we ask you to try being a community anyway, even when it is hard. We ask you to teach one another’s children, and to help one another be good and supportive parents. We ask you to prepare meals for one another when someone is sick and cannot cook. We ask you to drive one another to the doctor’s or the hospital, and to sit with one another in the waiting room, and hold one another’s hand. We ask you to be there for one another.

We ask you (in the words of my ministerial colleague Victoria Safford) “to risk confessing your faith to each other, which first means to risk finding it. We ask you to conduct the search of a lifetime, with integrity and courage, to wrestle God to the ground and tell us in the morning who won. We ask you to abandon easy, blind beliefs and dare to discover your own questions.” It is a lot to ask, admittedly. And it’s only the beginning.

We ask you to take up our tradition of free faith and make it your own. We ask you to recognize and appreciate what a rare and fragile place churches are, including this congregation; how easily faith communities can be knocked off course or, worse yet, permitted to atrophy and limp along instead of flourish as the temples of free speech, religious pluralism, and courageous acts we all know—in our heart of hearts—they can be. When someone maligns our free tradition, calling us a bunch of freethinkers or pagans or heretics, we ask you to have the courage to rejoin their taunts, and to respond, joyously, with “Guilty as charged!” And to keep the conversation going by bringing them up to speed about our faith’s long and sacred traditions, true family values, and liberating message.

We ask you—whatever your sexual or gender orientation—to celebrate our pride in being a Welcoming Congregation. We ask you to remember that to celebrate also means to bear witness, as you did in support a November 2012 state referendum to marry whomever one loves and now—for over two years—witnessing for Black Lives Matter; and to remember that bearing witness sometimes means being assailed by the ignorant and the hateful. We ask you to celebrate and to bear witness anyway, and to do so with pride.

There are two more things we ask of you: first, we ask you to practice your religion outside of the sheltering walls of this place; not just on Sunday morning, but every hour of every day. We ask you, in other words, to begin erasing the distinction in your mind between the reflective life and the active life; between the “spiritual” and the “political.” We ask you to seek the integration of heart and head and spirit.

Finally, we ask you to run this place; not to leave things in the hands of the minister, or the staff, or the Board, or anyone else, but to claim ownership.

  • To take pride in where we meet, helping set up and take down for Sunday services and making once again this lovely sanctuary into the safe and comforting space people need and where we can find our collective spiritual center and celebrate enthusiastically all that we value most dearly;
  • To become involved in committees, help envision for them a healthy mission, and help run them;
  • To sing in the choir, play the cello, piano, or what-have-you alongside our wonderful chorus, or become a Worship Associate and help make our Sunday services happen;
  • To bring contributions of food, or help prepare luncheons from time to time after church or in connection with an Adult Religious Education class;
  • To teach or otherwise help out in our Religious Education program for children and youth;
  • To pitch in and help out in all the ways you can; and
  • To understand our bylaws and our polity—which clearly state that all authority here, and all responsibility, emanate from the laity. We ask you to buy into that.

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In many congregations, sermons on the importance of making a financial contribution are heard all the time. Here we do it once a year. Moreover, let me be very clear:  financial contributions are neither the only, nor the most important contributions we make to this place we all love. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked, “Why should all virtue work in one and the same way? Why should all give dollars? It is very inconvenient to us country folk…. We have not dollars; merchants have; let them give them. Farmers will give corn; poets will sing; [others] will sew; laborers will lend a hand; the children will bring flowers.” Let me be clear: all kinds of contributions as listed by Emerson we ask of you—and all of them are welcome and appreciated. All are necessary. All make us the beautiful and creative and beloved community we are, and continue striving to be even better at living up to.

Clinton Lee Scott was a 20th century Universalist minister and denominational leader who served prominent congregations in Los Angeles, and later in Atlanta and Boston. A signer of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, Scott shares the following story in one of his books…

And it came to pass that the time of the year was upon them when the call went forth from the Great Temple for pledges of support for another twelvemonth. And one there was who rebuked the solicitor gruffly, saying, “Get thee hence, and return not. Verily, the Great Temple seeketh money from everlasting to everlasting.” The solicitor accepted the rebuff, and said unto him quietly, “My son, when he was a child, was very costly. He was forever wearing out or outgrowing his raiment and had to be clothed anew. As he increased in stature of manhood, ever more money had I need to spend upon him. And it came to pass that the Angel of Death smote him, and he died. And lo! Now he costeth me not a cent!” And he who had rebuked him was filled with compassion and understanding, and he said, “Verily, verily, thou hast opened my eyes; for now I see that only a dead Temple needeth no money: a live Temple needeth ever more!” And he offered up his pledge, even more than he had offered in days past….

Maintaining this congregation, like feeding and clothing a child, is very costly. Like a child, East Shore is forever hungry and needs to be fed; we are forever wearing out or outgrowing our raiment and needing to be clothed anew. For we are a living congregation, not a dead one. The Mission Fund Drive Committee asks us to remember that and to offer up our pledges accordingly. They have set before us an ambitious goal: a 8.8% increase in total pledges. They feel this is required to fully fund our program and put East Shore on a firm financial footing as we shake off the turmoil and uncertainty of the last few years and refocus on fulfilling our mission.

Whether you are a member of this congregation or whether you just come on occasional Sundays; whether you come alone or with others from the same household; whether you slip in and out or are one of those who organize programs and potlucks and special events, we ask everyone, once a year, to make a financial pledge. And because “we” are, in fact, “you,” we can be neither apologetic nor coy nor subtle about this.

When Andrew Carnegie turned from industrialist to philanthropist many people, not surprisingly, began writing him letters. One, sent by his friend Mark Twain, said…

You seem to be in prosperity. Could you lend a dollar and a half to buy a hymn-book with? God will bless you. I know it. P.S. Don’t send the hymn-book, send the money.

We ask you, without apology, to send the money. All your gifts, naturally, are welcome. Few of us are farmers, able to give corn. All of us, however, can provide shelter to one another, and sanctuary. We do this, in the words of Elie Wiesel, through small gestures of kindness and support. And through offering our spirit, our reason, our compassion, our faith, our muscles, our best hope, and our humanity. And once a year we are asked to offer our money, too.

I invite you to do so generously, and as you do, to experience a miracle happening. A lot like riding again, or for the first time, a two-wheeler: it looks riskier that it really is; your body already knows the balance that’s required. We are right behind you, helping you push off; helping one another push off. Sheltering one another; making a nest, together, where shelter can be found. Learning, together, what it means to keep a living congregation clothed and fed and whole; working, together, to keep this place a source of wealth in each of our lives, and across the Puget Sound area. Sacrificing, together, that UU religion—as practiced here—might live up to its extraordinary promise and change our own hearts that we, in turn, might creatively help in changing the world. Planting hope together… stepping up, ponying up… and growing beloved community.    May it be so.     Shalom.     And thank you.