Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Cost of Commitment

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 21, 2002

Well, Pedro is back in form it seems, and the Red Sox took three out of four against the Yankees last week, and even though they were rained out in Kansas City yesterday, the Sox are still a game-and-a-half ahead in the American League East. “This could be the year,” we tell ourselves (even though we’ve said it before, many times). If things keep going the way they have been so far this season, we can expect an outbreak of “Red Sox fever” throughout the spring and summer that beckons.
But you know, as much as it surprises me to think of it, there are actually some people (maybe even some of you, perish the thought) who don’t like baseball. I am amazed. (I mean, even I-- who, as you know, did not major in physical education in college and who had to be reminded by several members not too long ago that it would not be possible for the Celtics to win the Stanley Cup this year-- even I like baseball; the love/hate relationship we New Englanders have with our Red Sox flows deep in my veins.)
Actually, I’ve even heard that some people who used to like baseball don’t go to baseball games any more. They’ve kind of “outgrown” it, I guess; it doesn’t “meet their needs” any longer. They have other reasons, too. Here’s a list I came across not too far back. It’s called “Why I Stopped Going to Baseball Games”. The first reason given is:
  • “Every time I went to a game, they asked me for money.” (Lots of money, too: fifty bucks for a seat in the grandstand. That’s obscene, if you ask me.)
There are other reasons listed, too:
  • “The people around me in the stands never talked to me.” (A fair enough complaint, I suppose....)
Then, some of the reasons get a little more “tenuous”, shall we say:
  • “The umpire made some decisions with which I disagreed.” (That’s just part of the game, if you ask me.)
  • “Some games went into extra innings, and I was late getting home.”
  • “They always played the games on weekends, the only days I get to rest.”
  • “The seats were uncomfortable.”
  • “The ballpark organist played tunes I didn’t know.”
  • “My parents used to make me go to baseball games when I was a child, so I don’t like to go anymore.”
  • "I’ve read a lot of books about baseball, so I think I know as much as the players and the management anyway.”
  • “I don’t think I should make my children attend baseball games. When they are old enough, they can decide for themselves and decide which team they want to support.”
Now, some of these reasons seem kind of silly, I know. Some of them might even be valid in some people’s minds. Who are we to judge? But I think what it really boils down to is people sometimes just don’t want to be bothered—they don’t want to commit to doing something—and so, they find excuses, seemingly deeper “reasons” for their lack of interest.
It’s all a question of commitment: When we commit to something, then all the secondary inconveniences (the high ticket prices, the inconvenient schedule, the hard benches (or pews), and so on will pale in significance to the commitment we have made.
It’s like in marriage: We weigh in our minds (and even deeper, we weigh in our very beings) all the little habits that our spouse has; the annoying gestures and figures of speech; the differences in temperament and attitude and orientation; whether he (or she) snores, or leaves the toilet seat up, or doesn’t like baseball, or Chinese food, or that she (or he) insists on watching those sickeningly sentimental made-for-tv movies. We weigh these things (and I’m talking about transitory, piddling differences here, not major breakdowns in a relationship, for which divorces might be the best solution) and if we are committed, then we know that they don’t mean very much in the long run, and we laugh them off, and go on building a life together. Our commitment gives us a keen sense of perspective, of what’s important and what’s not.
Commitment gives us numerous other gifts, too. But it costs us something, as well. For that reason, I think, it strikes our ears nowadays as a kind of old-fashioned word. “Commitment” sounds conservative to some ears, somehow out of touch, somehow as though we’re holding something back, limiting something, not letting something flower and bloom as fully as it might. Over more recent years, commitment has gotten a bad name in or culture, because commitment comes in conflict with the prevailing myth we have of how our selves develop. Our myth of the self for many years was that it was something we develop alone, out of the depths of our own being. Our culture’s first language is that of individualism; our primary archetype, I think, could well be the Lone Ranger. Our first duty is to self-actualization.
When I was in college in the 1970s, a popular slogan went: “You do your thing, and I’ll do mine, and if we should meet each other, that will be beautiful.” Now, these are nice sentiments, certainly; there’s really nothing wrong with them; they show a certain amount of tolerance and mutual respect for other people. The problem is, though, sentiments like these are kind of limited; they start the journey toward growth, but don’t follow through. In fact, it seems to me to be an awfully adolescent way to look at life; it’s stuck in the stage of self-differentiation (I on this road; you on that other one), never moving on to the next stage—that stage of life where we have to share an often-crowded road with others-- where we need to interact with others—where we need to face the challenges and the conflicts and the burdens that interacting with others will entail.
Such individualist values are at the core of our culture. And such vales, Robert Bellah wrote in his book Habits of the Heart, will never serve for creating an ongoing, just society. In order for that to happen, Bellah writes, self-actualization (questions like “What’s in it for me?” or “What do I want?”) must be balanced with the question “What is good for the community?” When we commit to being in community—any community—the church community—the baseball park community—we have to put some of our little needs and wants aside. Commitment costs us something; but when we choose to be part of something bigger than we are, we say it’s not too high a price to pay.
What makes this church what it is? What counts more than anything else around here?
Is it our ideas? Ideas are important to a church, certainly. The theology or philosophy that a church espouses distinguishes it from other churches in the community. Its faith matters; what it believes are important.
But “Social organizations that coalesce on the basis of ideology alone are brittle and transient,” Conrad Wright reminds us. “A church is not a thinking society, though it may, among other things, foster the intellectual life.” A church has to be something more than a little chapter of the National Geographic Society.
A church is about more than being attached to certain ideas.
How about ministry, then? Is that what’s most important? In all modesty (and with some relief), I don’t think so. Professional ministry is certainly an important factor in the life of a church, but it’s not the most important factor. So often, the people of a church make or break its ministry; they help it to soar, or frustrate it in its aspirations. An underlying current of any church’s history is that ministers come and ministers go. If a church is to survive, it can’t be tied too closely to a single ministry. Its light has to be able to shine on down through the generations.
No, the most important thing about its church isn’t its ideas, or its minister, or its building. The life blood of a church is its people. That might almost sound like a cliché; it’s almost a truism, even to utter it. But the funny thing about truisms is that they’re true.
(The poignancy of its truth is something that’s being grasped so clearly now by our Roman Catholic friends and neighbors: their priests aren’t their Church; their ancient and renowned institutional hierarchy isn’t their Church; they are the Church). And so are we our Church. The animating spirit of a church community is its people; it is the treasure of shared memories and shared hopes that a committed religious community represents.
    Here we restore our forebears’ dream,
    enshrined in floor and wall and beam,
    a monument wherein we build
    that their high purpose be fulfilled,
    a tool to help our children prove
    an Earth of promise and of love.
Churches are holy, mystical places, not because of any hocus-pocus or rituals that may have been performed there, but because of the living spirit of the people who have blessed them with their commitment over the years. We can come into a church that has been important to our lives over a significant period of time, and even though the building or the room might be empty, we can still hear the voices. We can almost still see the faces. We can remember the occasions. And smell the ham and beans cooking in the kitchen; and the coffee in the hall; and the candle wax on Christmas Eve; and the smell of Play Dough and old crayons in the church school classrooms.
We come into a church which we love, and to which we have committed ourselves, and because of that commitment, we are bound in an invisible garment of destiny with one another. We can remember—re-member—join together again-- with those who have come before. We can cherish the memories, and know that, perhaps more than in any other institution in our society today, churches are about being connected with other people, over time, in the fullness of their beings. Not connected in one particular role—as student to teacher, or worker to employer, or mailman to addressee; not connected in terms of what we can sell to someone or buy from someone; not connected in some small, particular aspect of our being. But connected in our whole beings to one another, just as we are. But being connected in our whole beings means being committed in our whole beings. That’s the cost of commitment, that’s the price a genuine living church requires, and it’s a high price, I know. But not too high a price to keep the precious gift of this free church alive.
    Forward through the ages,
    In unbroken line,
    Move the faithful spirits
    At the call divine…
    Gifts in differing measure,
    Hearts of one accord,
    Manifold the service,
    One the sure reward…
You know, out there in the narthex we have two tablets with the names of all the ministers who have served this church since it was founded in 1744. ( I remember that when we dedicated the newer tablet a few years back, there was an error in the program, and the “plaque” of ministers became a “plague” of ministers instead. In some cases, maybe it was; in others, maybe not; whatever…) Now, it’s right and proper that we have such a memorial stone in this revered place; the ordained clergy of a church represent important milestones along the history of its journey.
But could you imagine if we decided to have a plague—I mean a plaque--- with all the names of the dedicated lay people who have kept this church going, in good times and in bad, in thick and in thin, in sickness and in health, through all those years? Why, there probably wouldn’t be enough wall space in the whole narthex! We’d have to fill the parlor, and the stairways. We might even have to rent a billboard in the center of the square to finish the job!
    Not alone we conquer,
    Not alone we fall,
    In each loss or triumph,
    Lose or triumph all…
This church isn’t about us—any of us—in our small selves, in our little lives (though each of us is the seasoning, the life and zest, that gives the present chapter in our church’s history its savor and its sweetness).“Time, like an ever-flowing stream, soon bears us all away.” Or, as the Steve Miller Band used to sing: “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin into the future…” Each and every one of us, to one extent or another, is just “passing through” here. Our prayer is that the miracle which is our church should continue to go on, long after we are gone.
Our church is not just the here and now community of those who happen to be gathered here this Sunday within these four walls. Nor is a church just a collection of the names assembled on its membership list. A church is more than a social club; it’s more than a school; it’s more than a social action agency. It’s more than a random collection of individuals who have an interest in philosophy or religion or spirituality, or who happen to feel more-or-less the same way on this or that social or theological question.
Our church does not exist for this generation alone (though we should enjoy it while we’re here). We’re gathered as a committed community of hope and memory: past and present gathered together right here, right now, in the living, loving present. Those who came before us and those who will come after are as much a part of our church’s life today as any of us now living and breathing.
Both to those who came before, and to those who will come after, we have debts to pay. And the commitments we make to this church—and how we follow through on them—through time and energy and money—is, very simply, how we repay those debts.
Do me a favor, and take out your order of service for this morning. Look at the back, and find our church’s Mission Statement—our statement of why we’re here in this church, of what this church is for. Let’s read it now, together:
    “We, the people of the First Parish Universalist Church of Stoughton, Massachusetts, gather to create a community which encourages the lifelong journey toward personal and spiritual growth. We accept, respect, and celebrate one another's individuality, together with the common spirit of life which connects us all. Through our sharing and worship together, we hope to find peace and strength for daily living. We strive to make our faith come alive through service to others and care of the earth.”
These are our deepest ideals as a church; this is why we say we’re here. These are ideals which need to be acted out in the world, and defended, and celebrated, and affirmed, and passed down.
That means they need to be paid for, and sustained, and actualized in our lives; that means they need to be committed to.
If we stay centered on our dreams for this church, and remember why we are here, and take actions to put our mission into practice and realize our visions, then this church will be a blessing to us, and not just one more burden, one more demand, one more expense. Then, our commitment will be worth the cost.
If we choose to bless this world with our generosity—of time and talent and treasure—the generosity of our commitment—then we can liberate this church to bless our communities and our world in return.
Nothing happens if not first a dream.
But only to dream is not enough.
Build castles in the air.
But work to put foundations under them.
We have to be willing to take actions to make our dreams become real.
That means, being committed and staying committed to the institutions which live out (however imperfectly) our visions in the real world.
That means remembering the precious responsibility that now rests with each of us, and listening for the voices of those who came before, and listening for the laughter of those who will come after us, and doing what we need to do, each in our own way, to keep the precious flame of this church burning brightly through all the years that we are here—and even longer… and longer… and longer…

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