“Prophets and Profits: Stewardship Sunday” – The Rev. Eva Cameron

Prophets of old had it lucky, if you could call it that. God talked to them in dramatic ways, you can almost read all the exclamation points—burning bushes, stone tablets, visitation by angels—it was clear, at least for purposes of the story, that GOD was talking (and perhaps that G-O-D needs to be all in caps too!).

Life just isn’t that easy these days. We belong to a religion that tells us revelation isn’t sealed. And that leaves us searching beyond the Bible, beyond other holy texts, to the fabric of our lives. God seldom talks in CAPS and exclamation points anymore (if he/she/it ever did beyond campfire stories of some desert herds from thousands of years ago). And that leaves us wondering: just what authority should we turn to; how do we know what to pay attention to; which guru to listen to; should we pray 5 times a day to Mecca; or do bows, chanting and prostrations at the temple; or what?! Sometimes it just seems easier to give it all up and say “It’s all hogwash! Harrumph!”

Samuel Longfellow’s words read, “Lo, that word abideth ever; revelation is not sealed, answering now to our endeavor, truth and right are still revealed.” For some people, coming out of the Unitarian Universalist tradition, they’ve heard that sentiment before and have some idea about what it means; and for some coming out of a strong Christian background, they’ve got some idea about that it means, because they heard talk of “the revealed truth” over and over in reference to the Bible. But for those coming out of the ‘stay at home and read the New York Times tradition,’ that line probably means little to nothing to them!

But its kind of cool, and really one of the best things about being UU; so I thought I ought to bring it up. We UUs, both the Universalists and the Unitarians, have gone through a lot of changes over the years. Sometimes we’ve talked about Jesus and sometimes we haven’t; sometimes we’ve talked about God and sometimes we haven’t; sometimes we’ve focused on growing little bitty groups and sometimes great big churches—but one of the few things that hasn’t ever changed is this concept that ‘revelation is not sealed.’

It’s a powerful idea, that perhaps there are messages from the Ultimate out there for us to find. It makes life much more a quest. As we encounter things, we think: “Am I paying attention? Was I really getting what I was supposed to get out of this circumstance, this book, this chance encounter, this sunrise, this summer vacation, this life-long partnership, and so many other places?” The idea that there is wisdom out there, whether one sees it as a message from God, or as simply the duty of humankind to keep searching for meaning: this concept is powerful. It’s powerful for two reasons; one is that we have to seek and search all the time, not knowing where we will find a gem. And the other reason is that it grants us the wisdom, the strength, the human nobility enough to discern wisdom for ourselves. We are good enough to discern good.

Now this is where the prophets come in. Our teaching really makes you all modern-day prophets. Let’s return to the prophets of old, first. Their general message was: “Repent, or you’re doomed.” Right? At least, that’s the basic, Reader’s Digest version. Well, let’s unpack that a bit for our modern sensibilities.

So, what they tended to want people to do was to return to God and God’s teachings. They were distressed that people seemed to be running about like chickens with their heads cut off, not paying much attention to what was most important in their lives. (Starting to sound more familiar?)

The most basic teachings of God would be the 10 Commandments, right? So let’s think about what they, those prophets of old, perhaps were hoping to see out of people. They were hoping for #1—people not to disrespect what was of ultimate importance to them. This is what it means not to take God’s name in vain. It means not to take what you know to be good, and true, and right, and full of love, and turn your back on it, treat it disrespectfully, say bad things about it. And then the prophets of old didn’t want people to lie, to cheat, to steal, to steal one another’s partners, to be disrespectful of our parents, to murder.

Well, heck—we all know that this is true. That if people break these rules, they are doomed. We don’t know about afterlife, but we know that this kind of stuff makes for a pretty miserable current life. It’s pretty easy to see on the individual scale. It is pretty easy to advise a friend: “Yeah, I know it may be easy to skim a little extra money at work, but goodness, think of what it
would do to your husband and kids if you got caught and ended up in prison.” Or: “Yeah, I know that sometimes it’s tempting to consider what fun it might be to hook up with a beautiful young woman from work; but real relationships are built on trust, and you’ve got such a lovely wife, who really trusts you. Are you willing to give that all up?” I think most of us—given an individual situation of deciding about these kinds of ethical or moral decisions—would have words of advice.

What I think our religion asks of us to do is to actually take a step back from the individual and look at society. Like the prophets of old, whose clarity helped them to see that their current society was suffering from the ill effects of not connecting what they probably all really knew was good and right, they were “doomed.” And we as Unitarian Universalists, who are gifted with the teaching that revelation is not sealed, are able to look about us and see many important teachings that we need to share LOUDLY, STRONGLY, LOVINGLY with the world.

We need to be prophets—each and every one of us. Our love of scientific inquiry allows us to see clearly the damage of overpopulation from all quarters. Our brave acceptance of people whose sexual identity or gender identity differ from society’s sense of normal, has allowed us to come to see the humanness—the spark of the holy—that emanates as much from someone who is gay or lesbian or transgendered as from any one else. Our learning about educational methods and love of children has led us to be pioneers in how we teach our Sunday Schools, from indoctrination to learning how to think, morally—how to explore, religiously—how to be, humanly.

We need to be living prophets. We can only manage this task in the cradle and springboard of life in this special religious community.

When Moses bowed before Yahweh on Mount Sinai, humbled by the monumental commission he had just received from God, Moses actually tried to get out of the job: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” he pleaded.   “O my Lord, please send someone else.” But in five words, Yahweh delivered a promise which emboldened Moses, and still rings in our ears today: “I will be with you.”

The story is worth reading (Exodus 3-4)—and so is this community’s vision. It is full of challenges and opportunities for putting your faith into action. You may think about it and say: “Who am I?” or, even like Moses: “Lord, please send someone else.” But you, like Moses, can find strength in those ancient and powerful words: “I will be with you.”

To a sometimes Humanist, sometimes Theist, but always ‘thinking about it’ crowd, this ‘I will be with you,’ business may seem a bit dicey, a bit ‘old school.’ It’s easy to think of the Holocaust and think that whole bit of God being with you may not be quite right.

But I think we, as those ‘revelation is not sealed’ types need to keep seeing how the ultimate is revealed to us, and how it isn’t. This is our endeavor. Clearly, in the face of the Holocaust, what is ultimate isn’t so powerful as to change the course of human events. Some Jews say, “God wept along side us.”

So that brings us back to pondering what does it mean, this phrase: “I will be with you”? Times that I have had a sense of God being with me, some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had, have been at church, or with church members.

Once, when I was pre-teen, perhaps a dawning teenager, I remember being in our church basement. I was cleaning up a classroom with the help of another churchwoman after we had taught the younger kids. I remember we were talking here and there, as we worked, and finally we sat down at the little, short round table, in short chairs, and we talked. I can’t remember how it started, I think she asked me something innocent, but I what I do remember most was that I felt heard. I felt like I was able to say things to this woman that I had never been able to say before, things of teenage angst, things of my passions, my fears. I remember it as the first time I ever really felt listened to.

Humanists might say that what transpired between me and that churchwoman was an example of humans acting with their greatest potential. Theists might say that God was present in that moment. It is incredibly important that you figure out your own language to describe such moments, so that you can speak of them with some authenticity. But what Unitarian Universalism teaches us is that it doesn’t matter at all what we call it, only that we do call it, we do name it, and we strive to build and maintain communities that allow for just such moments to happen over and over again—moments such as these moments, where a person can feel heard, where a person can feel valuable. Because I know for me that it was incredibly powerful to feel heard. It felt like the first time ever, that I wasn’t really as invisible as I felt. It was an incredible blessing for me. And for that churchwoman, whose name I can’t even remember, I can only imagine what she felt.

As a minister, I get to listen to a lot of people sit and try and tell me something very important to them. At those moments, I feel like a midwife—like if I only can stay focused, on task, remember my lessons, my wisdom, my calm, this baby which is trying to be born on the tongue of the person sitting in front of me will come out beautifully. And it is always beautiful, just like babies that are born a bit squashed and bloodied and ungainly are beautiful—because it represents life. And as a midwife, you catch the baby; hold it for a moment, and say, “It’s beautiful,” as you gently hand them their beautiful baby. Even if the story is of deep sorrow, fierce anger, or wretched pain, the watching of someone finding words to that story is a sight to see. And when, in their stumbling around, muttering, they somehow manage to utter what is truly inside—something is born, and it is beautiful.

Unitarian Universalism asks us to be the keepers of this sacred task, of helping each other find meaning. We don’t have to think of ourselves, our church, as the only place this happens. But we are powerfully good at it. When we really sit down together and try, we who care so much about the world—so much about each other—can make incredible connections with each other—can give birth to beautiful babies.

Christina Baldwin writes: “When we live in a family, a community, a country where we know each other’s true stories, we remember our capacity to lean in and love each other into wholeness.”

As we have spent the year so far, talking with each other about our vision for this community, what I have carried away stronger than any other message, is that this has been a place that has mattered for people; And their hope, their vision, is that it will thrive so that others can experience this thing: call it grace, call it humans at their best, call it that ‘I’ll be with you’ experience, call it the ‘juice of life’—we just wish it for all of the Cedar Valley, in abundance.

I read somewhere that a Native American Medicine Man would ask the sick, “When was the last time you told your story?” He knew that telling our story once is not enough. There is too much meaning to be understood in just one telling. It’s in re-telling the story that we come to understand it ourselves. That we can love each other into wholeness.

This has been a place that has mattered for people, where they have felt loved, accepted, and could grow. It has been a place of healing, because there is space and time for them to tell their story. And their hope, their vision—our hope, our vision is that it will continue to be this place for everyone here, and for those yet to come.

As we look towards the future together, I want to affirm the past—not that every moment has been good, without pain, struggle or heartbreak, but somehow together, you have given birth to this beautiful place we are in right now—together. It’s a place meaning a community of love and justice for all kinds of people—the itty-bitty sometimes cute, sometimes terrible kiddos toddling around to the elders who’ve been around the block a few more times than they’d care to mention—but do have some wisdom to share with us about their journey.

Well, I’ve talked about Prophets—the ones with the ‘ph.’ “But didn’t you promise to talk about ‘profits’—the ones with the ‘f’ too, Eva?”—you are wondering. It’s true, I did. And besides being cute, I think this is something that merits thinking about. You know, in this consumer-based society, everything is about profit and loss. It’s the currency, the prime mover and decision-making force in our culture. And here I am talking about making a difference. And so, I need to sell you on this point, right? Because you are all enmeshed, inoculated, heck, even inculcated into this culture, right? So, let’s think about this for a minute.

It’s hard to put a value on religious experience. It’s hard to put a value on experience in general. I remember during an NPR pledge drive in Chicago, they’d always ask: “Isn’t listening to Morning Edition worth as much to you as that dollar you spend on a cup of coffee each morning?” I always wished they didn’t ask that—I never bought a cup of coffee in the morning. It was hard to make meaning of that.

But I was thinking about how to value religious experience, and I thought about that time I got to tell my story—and the many other really amazing and important experiences that happened to me at a UU church, or because of the UUs in my life.  And, I’d like to invite you to take some time this week and assess your profits; what you’ve gained. Make a list of all the things you can think of—sermons that made you think, a hug with your coffee, a phone call from someone at just the right moment, getting to share your mom’s special recipe, hearing someone lighting the chalice and saying a few words—and feel so connected to them. Only you know what your own experiences have been. Take some time, and think about them. Write them down. Make a profit statement.

Don’t just do this to think about what this place owes you, or to anticipate what you might get in the future—but do this to help make you a better prophet (the kind with the ‘ph’), because it will help you to get passionate. It will help you to remember really how special this place is, and how we want to keep that good thing going: for us, for our kids, our grandkids.

If you are new to this community and not used to giving very much to a religious community, or scared to give, because it reminds you of a restrictive, repressive past—I need you to give generously to this place, to this ministry, to this cradle of human endeavor. We need you to give generously to this ministry.

And if you’ve been coming here for years, giving what you thought you could, or maybe thought was enough, I want you to think about how really special this place really is to you, how many dreams we have for a future with more staff and a larger building, a whole bunch more people coming—not because they have to, but because they want to, they want to be part of this community of love and justice. So I need you to give deeply, too.

We will have to work together to create this dream we prophets have. We can see that this world can be a better place—that humans can live lives of meaning, and purpose, and deliberate love. We can continue to have this be a place of healing and wholeness, as we each can grow, as we tell our stories. Let’s make a difference together here is this Cedar Valley. On this day when we begin our pledge drive, let’s pledge to ourselves that we can do it. We can grow into our dreams.

Today, as you think about all there is to be done in areas of peace, poverty, planet earth, and people’s rights, take heart—and then, take ACTION.

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