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Horizons, July/August 2000

"What makes a sermon a sermon," the new parishioner asked the minister, "and not just a talk or lecture?"

In most religious communities the answer would have had to do with proclaiming and explaining scriptural messages, with God-talk or with moral warnings. But this was a Unitarian Universalist congregation. After thinking for a moment, the minister replied, "One way or another, a sermon reminds us we are going to die."

I agree. Sometimes a UU sermon takes on a life-and-death social justice issue. Sometimes it urges us to live with passion and integrity in the finite time that is ours. Sometimes it is just a story, perhaps for children of all ages. But even a story that never mentions death has a beginning, a middle, and an end, offering a subliminal reminder of our lives' brief span.

And then there are the sermons that take on the topic more explicitly. It may seem odd to say it, but one of the things I have most missed about parish ministry while serving as UUA president is the privilege of conducting memorial services. I love the way we do them. Stories are shared. Often people say, "I didn't know that!" about the person who has died. The pattern and meaning of a life emerge. It becomes more a whole, "part of the infinite mosaic of history," as Santayana puts it, seen "under the aspect of eternity" at last.

Until then, however, our lives are more like a kaleidoscope than a mosaic. Thus it's a mistake, a premature closure, to try to assess a life too soon.

In his new book Lifecraft (Beacon Press), UU minister the Rev. Forrest Church warns that we often do this to ourselves. Trying to see our lives whole, to take a God's-eye point of view, we not only risk hubris, we run the risk, he says, that "when things go wrong, the entire screen can go dark." Instead, he suggests that we learn to see our lives as "works in progress," because that's what they are. As Nadine Gordimer writes in one of her short stories, sincerity is "never speaking from a fixed idea of oneself."

We should also be cautious in forming premature judgments about others. What may seem like their self-contradictions may be just the clashing of the few impressions or images with which we have tried to understand them, while the whole reality of their soul is far more complex than we can see. And still unfinished.

Writing in this vein, the church-growth expert Kennon Callahan observes that "just when life is about half over and all we think we have to do is stay out of major trouble until the endójust then, God calls us to a new day."

Some people in midlife learned exactly that from a class they took together on death and dying. Their final assignment was to write their own epitaph or obituary. One class member reported having had a rough time getting started, until her 10-year-old daughter volunteered to help. Her obit began: "Ms. Jane Smith, mother of the first woman president of the United States, died today at age 101, while skiing down Mt. Henry."

The epitaph voted best said only: "He knew where he was going."

So may we all. Whether or not we admit it, we're all engaged in religious living, for religion is our human response to the dual mystery of being alive now and having to die. In this refulgent summer, may we feel the glory of being alive. And may we hear the call to a new day and find a new sense of direction for human living.

Yours faithfully,

John A. Buehrens
President, Unitarian Universalist Association

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