Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." It's a line from a song by The Who. Some of you may be thinking, “Just who does this new guy think he is?” – so I hasten to clarify: I’m not the boss. But let me also clarify: you aren’t either. So who’s the boss? Who or what is the ultimate authority around here?

In the traditional Christian churches, the answer to that question is God. Whether such an entity be imaginary or not, this has at least the salutary effect of directing the congregation’s allegiance to something worthier – or imagined as worthier -- than ego, whether individual ego or collective ego. It can be helpful to imagine.

For Unitarian Universalists, however, the ultimate authority – that to which our allegiance is directed – worthier even than the goodness of community and togetherness – is: our mission. At this church, that’s: "Grow ethically and spiritually; serve justly; love radically." That’s the boss. That’s the sheriff in these parts.

So when I say “new boss, same as the old boss,” it is literally the same. This mission is exactly the same as it was last year and the year before that. Not a word is changed. And when I say “meet this new boss” I mean that as our church year begins together, let us begin it by reintroducing, by reacquainting ourselves with this boss whom we are here to serve. Though the same as it has been, yet let it be for us new. Let it be freshly compelling. Let it be rejuvenated, sparkling and shining as washed by the waters of our coming together.

At the year’s beginning, let us take stock. How are we doing? It is our covenant, our promise, our mission, our vow: to grow ethically and spiritually, to serve justly, to love radically. Have we been? Have we been growing ethically? Growing spiritually? Serving justly? Loving radically?

However well or poorly you would say we have been fulfilling our mission, the question before us today, as it is every day, is how shall we fulfill it now? What shall we do with this day, this week, this year to grow ethically, grow spiritually, serve justly, and love radically? What is the work that your spirit longs to take up to grow, to serve, to love? What spiritual muscle toning exercises do you need?

This church is your spiritual gym for doing those exercises, strengthening the meaning, purpose, and wholeness of your life. My colleague Rev. Victoria Weinstein has written:
“If I go to the gym and people are sprawled out napping on the floor of the aerobics studio, I will think the gym management is not just remiss, but nuts. It’s no different in church. We’re all there for heart strengthening of a different kind. Leaders should be empowered to be able to say: 'Get off the aerobics floor, please. You can nap at home.' This isn’t about not loving people. It’s about being clear what congregational life is for. Napping on the floor of the aerobics studio is not part of our mission, so we won’t be addressing your complaints about the pillows.”
As we ingather for the 2023-24 year ahead, we come together to do the work of growing, serving, and loving. We are here to serve the mission, which includes serving others. You’re not here to serve me, and I’m not here to serve you – except insofar as doing so serves our mission. And I want to urge you to keep in mind that, actually, the staff is not here to serve you either, nor is your board. When it comes to our board, yes, your votes elected them, but you elected them to serve the mission, not you. When it comes to the staff, yes, your contributions provide their wages, but please understand that you’re paying them, too, to serve the mission, not you. So, as Rev. Weinstein put it, we won’t be addressing complaints about the pillows -- or anything else that isn’t about this church growing, serving, and loving. Eyes on the prize, good people. Eyes on the prize.

Tall order, but that is the mission we shoulder -- nothing less. To say that a church is a spiritual gym is not to forget that the church is also a spiritual infirmary. There are times in life when we come to church sick at heart, soul weary, broken-spirited. Before we can think about the exercises and disciplines which cultivate and strengthen our wisdom, compassion, and equanimity, we just need to be cared for. We need replenishing rest. We need salve for our woundedness, for indeed salve is the root of salvation, with which our religious forbears were particularly concerned. Yes, the church has that pastoral function in addition to its prophetic task to serve justice.

Thus the church’s role, as the saying goes, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This is not a matter of dividing people into two groups – as if the usher at the door of this auditorium sanctuary were to ask as you came in, “are you feeling more comfortable or more afflicted this morning? Comfortable on the right, afflicted on the left.” Our morning service could then direct toward the afflicted side what balm in Gilead we have – empathy and sympathy for your troubles, assurances of our help, our loving presence. Then when we talk about the injustices of the world -- the needs of the poor, the exploited, the downtrodden, the excluded – we’ll be looking at you, comfortable side. The gist of the message to one side would be “oh, you poor baby,” and to the other side it would be, “get off your butt.”

It doesn’t work like that. The truth is each of us is simultaneously afflicted with burdens while also comfortably complacent. And the messages for your comfortability are the same messages as for your affliction:

Number one, this too shall pass – grief and loss comes for all of us, and so does healing and wholeness. Whatever is comfortable in your life will pass – as will whatever afflicts.

Number two, service to others according to whatever capacity we have is the remedy either way. Compassionate service lifts us out of complacency and equally well lifts us out of despair.

A third message that Sunday services in this space will sometimes emphasize is: life and the world are beautiful, fundamentally mysterious, transcendent, and if we pay attention they will evoke deep wonder and awe. Awe is not comfortable. It pulls us from the narrowness of complacency while it also eases our grief and fills us with the vastness that makes our sadness small.

In all of these ways, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable turn out to be the same thing. So each one of us needs the gym and the infirmary at the same time. What would that be like? Well, it would be kind of like physical therapy, wouldn’t it? Physical therapy is equal parts hospital and gym -- equal parts care for your wound and pushing you to do the exercises anyway, because that’s how you strengthen and heal.

By analogy, we are in the spiritual therapy business – pushing your spirit to stretch and strengthen because that is how you heal from the wounds and the grief that your spirit bears – and how you help heal our world.

There are two things to notice, to simultaneously bear in mind, about our mission. One is that we are doing it. We are carrying out this mission – we do grow and are growing, we do serve and are serving, we do love and are loving. The mission is simply descriptive of what we do here.

Yet simultaneously we notice that we haven’t yet grown, served, and loved in all the ways that we are coming to be able to. The mission calls us forward to ever newer heights. It is not merely descriptive but also prescriptive. We celebrate what we are – and what we yet may be. We celebrate both our being and our becoming.

Let me say a little bit about each of these three. First: "Grow ethically and spiritually." Notice it says “and.” Not “or.” Our mission is both: to grow ethically and to grow spiritually.

Grow ethically. That is: develop clarity about the principles you live by, clarity in our understanding of what it means to be a good person. Growing ethically involves deepening integrity and cultivating virtues. The classic list of virtues is Aristotle’s 12: courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, patience, truthfulness, good humor, friendliness, shame, justice, and prudence. Each of those takes unpacking, and today I’m just giving you names. Cultivating virtues is growing ethically.

Grow spiritually. Here the emphasis is on meaning and belonging – big picture meaning: what does life, your life, mean? The fundamental spiritual malady is the condition of feeling that it’s all meaningless -- and that one doesn't belong. Whatever words you might come up with to answer that question, the crux of the matter is whether those words feel sufficient and satisfactory. The words I use as reminders to evoke my sense of meaning and belonging might not feel sufficient and satisfactory to anyone else – so the words are only tags for meaning and belonging of your life that is beyond all language.

While growing ethically entails cultivating all the virtues, growing spiritually entails two that Aristotle didn’t mention: equanimity, an inner peace even in the midst of turmoil – and compassion, a readiness for presence to suffering. Those are what we may call the spiritual virtues: equanimity and compassion.

This year, in the service of our mission to grow ethically and spiritually, we are launching Connection Circles. In a small group, you’ll have the chance to explore some of the key themes for growing our ethical and spiritual understanding -- significant issues on which religions at their best have always guided people to greater insight -- issues such as this year’s monthly themes:
and Hope.

Our Connection Circles are for exploring together, and spiritually growing and deepening, each in our own way. They meet once a month, Sep through Jun. You won't want to miss a single one. However, even if you miss most of your group’s meetings, you'll still find it valuable to attend occasionally. Signing up does not commit you to attend -- we just need to know which group you'll go to when you do have a chance to go.

I have been so impressed to experience the wisdom and the connection – the love, laughter, and insight – that Unitarian Universalists can offer each other when give ourselves permission and the structure for doing that. We have a whole lot more we can learn from each other than anything weekly sermons alone can convey. So I’m asking every member to sign up for a connection circle. You can sign up on line if you haven’t yet.

When you signed the membership book, you committed yourself to this church’s mission, you committed to growing ethically and spiritually and helping others grow. Our connection circles are vitals ways to do that. Friends, and visitors are also welcome to sign up.

The second prong of this church’s mission – our mission – is to serve justly. And here I draw your attention to our social justice work. We have a number of Faith in Action options. Freestore, the Iowa Trans Mutual Aid Fund are the special focus this year. We also do Compassion and Choices, Green Sanctuary, Family Promise, Immigration Justice, Legislative Action, LGBTQ Justice.

Serve justly. That’s our commitment as the people of First Unitarian Church Des Moines. It’s what we’re here for – to serve justice through taking part of your church’s social justice work.

And the third part: love radically. Love. Radically – all the way to the root. To be radical requires being unconditional. Loving radically is unconditional solidarity with all people, with all animals, with all life – indeed, even with nonlife: rocks and rivers, air and sky, sun, moon, and stars.

For this one I don’t have particular church programs to point you to. Rather, radical love is the spirit to bring to everything you do through the church, and through your life.

The world needs our Unitarian Universalist voice at the table. It needs our caring hands reaching out in compassion. Let us be ingathered, for a new year stretches before us. Let us flow together, roll on together as a mighty river, and, in the words of the prophet Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

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