Message in a Bottle

July 19, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister


Full Sermon

Even Holy Scripture wants us to get our message right. In the Revised Standard Version, the text reads “ And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.” You see the Eugene Peterson modernization of the text in your bulletin, “Write it down in big block letters.”

The message about the message comes in the form of a revelation, one that many of us have had. By revelation, I mean something that God or Spirit or the divine – or something bigger than you -- tells you. I mean something that rises above the be sure to floss kind of instruction most of us also receive. Perhaps we went to a workshop where we were taught to make our elevator speech. Or took a self-improvement course that recommended focus in capital letters. Or developed a business plan that required articulation of the one thing your business was going to do that no one else can do. Maybe we even had a revelation, a message from the Lord, about what our message was. And then again maybe not.

Perhaps Habakkuk and Twitter should get together. I excerpted the modern testimony from a Times snark about how Twitter doesn’t seem to be able to define itself. You can read it again but basicly the expert on Twitter says Twitter has yet to define itself, even though it is more than a little profitable. If you are like me, dozens of people say to you every day the 11th commandment, “You must learn to tweet.” As is true of me and perhaps you of many of the commandments, I have yet to fully comply. Apparently half of the Twitter board of directors doesn’t tweet either. That I find comforting.

So what does it mean to get your message clear and focused? Surely it is a kind of liberation. Do this, not that. Say yes to that, not this. Make that phone call, not this one. It is a way to be less macerated, as in torn up little pieces. It is also one of the secrets to success. When you define yourself, things happen. When you don’t define yourself, others are happy to do so for you. In the last one third of my life, I am developing the goal of being a rogue, someone who lives outside their instructions long enough to feel what it is like. I have been a wife, mother, daughter, sister. I have been a pastor, pastor, pastor. I have no interest in abandoning any of those roles as they deeply satisfy me. I just want to see more deeply into myself to know if I’ve taken all the risks I could have and become as much like Tina Fey and Amy Poehlner and Amy as possible. Why do I want to be like them? Because they are women who have gone rogue. They are funny. Someone asked Amy Poehlner if she was surprised how successful her comedy had become. She answered, “No.”

Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler, Tina Fay would be welcome because there are proud women all over the place, women who aren’t ashamed of who they are or what they do.

That is what I mean by rogue. Abandoning the normal humilities about women and the normal self-refusals. It should be fun. I’ll keep you posted about its progress.

I wrote that paragraph about the rogue forging rogueness in the final third of life because I want to encourage it in you. Think of it as a witness. Can I get a wtiness? How many of you want to be focused and enjoy what Eric Ericson calls identity, that marvelous constituency over time, and also take a flyer or two or three or four? I don’t think you have to be elder to want the flyers. I think you just have to be alive, alive in a way that the Habakkuk text is recommending. You don’t just want the message. You want those who run to be able to read it and to enjoy it. You want whatever you write in big block letters to be read or seen or noticed by someone else. You want your life to matter and sometimes a clear message helps your life matter.

The biggest question I have about the message mantra – get it straight, stay focused, give it in two sentences in an elevator, etc – is why. Why? Isn’t being a large confused human or institution enough? Isn’t a little chaos and confusion good for the soul? Has the message text gone Twitter, as in just another way to make money, have impact get attention, rise above the hoard? Only in an abbreviated way? In other words, isn’t there a huge difference in why Habakkuk, the prophet, wanted the message clear and why Twitter needs to clear up its act? Twitter exists to make money. Good for them. Getting the sacred message clear is not about making money. It might make money but that is not its objective. Its objective is to help those who run to see.

Institutions have the same koans as individuals when it comes to the message. Our board is currently in a fairly serious discussion about whether Judson should try to grow as a church. Perhaps we should do a franchise in Brooklyn, since our surrounding neighborhood is gentrifying so fast that the starving and creative artist of yore won’t be next door any more. Perhaps we should get more focused and be less hybrid in such a way as to attract more adherents to our way of being church, which is, as you have read, “a church that is a little bit different and trying to make a big difference.”

There is also a group of people actively getting ready to welcome the NYU students back in the fall. Yes, they are our neighborhood. Churches just don’t get to occupy big blocks of real estate and not attend to their neighbors. It just isn’t right, much less wise, to unwelcome your neighbors by ignoring them. So we have a consensus around here about being welcoming to our neighbors, whoever they are. We have fewer consensuses about the growth business because frankly, it requires, way more self-definition than we have. Yes, we are a church. We don’t say that defensively. We are primarily a congregation and a community that tends and befriends each other especially and a couple wider circles as well as we can. We are also an arts venue and a social action venue and a place to get counseling and to do funerals and weddings and baptisms for a fairly large and unique public. Most of our weddings are interfaith, interracial, international or all three.

When we put up the message on the scaffolding – which message is intentionally multiple and hybrid and colorful and indeterminate – we had a ball doing so. Lewis Flynn and Ted Dawson finally got it right and we have had astounding success with the signage. People love it. All the mail is positive. In fact, I don’t remember one negative, although we sure were ready for them. The slogan that came true and clear was “Open in so many ways.” Why are we a church that is a little bit different and dedicated to make a big difference? Why are we open in so many ways? Because we want those who run by to receive a message, one that we think is precious. And we know we ourselves run by. We are here also to help ourselves, not just the community. Our message is not just about difference. And it is not just open. It is open and different because we have a unique view of the scriptures and of the world. We think the world is too dull. We think the world is insufficiently colorful. We think there is way too much unnecessary suffering. And we believe that coming together in community is a way to become vibrant, colorful and to suffer less. We believe in a new day, not yesterday. We believe in a new way, a rogue way, a liberated way.

So remember that group that wants to welcome the NYU students? They have to come up with a hand-out, which is to say a message. They have received an idea from an unnamed source to hand out condoms with on the condoms. Early testing – today is middle testing – says this is a great way to say hello to NYU students as it brands us in that sex positive way that our signage advertises. Others say you’d have to hand out something that women could enjoy as well. Still others say you’d have to make sure whatever chatkas we handed out would come from a Fair Trade Company. Well, you can imagine the conversations. What message would you give in an artifact or object? At least one person says that the condoms would demean the elegance of the Judson brand. She thinks they would be too small for our large Bohemian spirit. Join the conversation. It’s going to be fun.

So the scaffolding will come down in a couple of weeks. We will store it, we hope, so that we can use it another time, when we have to put scaffolding back up in a couple of years. But the need to message (is message a verb?) will last. And last and last.

There is a new book around called The Village Effect. Susan Pinker wrote it. She argues, with a mass of evidence, that the more connected people are to each other, the better. She argues that the secret to longevity is positive social relations and that they matter more than any of the health indices. I often think Judson is a village within a village and that the best things we do are the most churchy, communal and simple. Like the harm reduction kits that combine a little mission and a little fellowship. Remember that old word “Fellowship?” And do note: Keen’s cookies have been widely suggested as the thing we hand out in stead of the condoms. Write the message. Make it plain.

Maybe coffee hour and joys and concerns are our messages in a bottle. Maybe they are the time and way we make it plain that we are here for each other and for as many others as can manage to come in with something they need and something to offer. Meaning of membership at Judson: You need something and you have something to give. Maybe we are the last democratic institution and represent the last face to face democracies?

You know what a message in a bottle is, right? Or at least you may know the kind that the movies say came straight to you and that you find in a way that only you could find. Now that is a good message.

What is our message here at Judson? It is something like this: What good is a church if it doesn’t host those whom no one else hosts? We also host the hosts. Or experience bounty from time to time in worship, the amber alert kind, I once was lost and now I’m found? To have a sense that someone is looking for you all the time.

What good is a church that does blame blame, then shame, shame? Who needs it? When people say they didn’t know a place like Judson existed, I understand. There are lots and lots and lots of churches for people who want to be blamed and then shamed and who want to be told that they can get better, if they just try harder. (Nadia Bolz-Weber) We are not that kind of church. We’re not sure we can get better. We understand, for example, that addiction is a mean and powerful thing and we’d rather have people come here and say outloud, “I am in trouble and I am addicted” than put on a Sunday hat and lie to us.

George Capsis of the West Village News has been bugging me, and I do mean bugging me, to write something about how religion might be a force for good, instead a force for banal triviality. Here comes my answer. People are desperate, as in starving thirsty, parching, quaking, screaming answering for a way to manage the stress and distress of the early 21st century. You know that century, the one that doesn’t see much of a future for its gaseous self. The one that knows women and girls are part of the solution but wants to make sure they are kept protected from the kind of sexual energy that could burst them forth. The one that still thinks gay people have sex in weird ways. The one that allows banks to be what they are. Banks : the people who ever time they touch your money, you pay them. The world where it’s hard to get a good tomato. Or a human to pick up a phone. Or find a tailor that wants to deal with the cushion that your dog ate. The world where sickness doesn’t just mean pain and suffering of a bodily level but pain and suffering at the money level. “I will go bankrupt over this cancer.” Great! Just great.

So what good could a church make? It could help us find each other and take care of each other and keep the icebox of modern so called civilization (never forget Gandhi: western civilization: what a good idea.) A church could you give you a place to sing of a Sunday and not just sing the old goodies but be surprised by a range of music that reminds you of joy. You could make it a part of your week to come together and sing. Yup, we sing. You could church in a place that says addiction is not shameful or blameful but real. Silence kills. Speech heals. You could be in a place where somebody knew your name and didn’t think that life was all up to you. The famous Lutheran preacher put it this way, “Life is terrible and don’t worry, it will be over soon.” She specializes in sarcasm. We sometimes do too. But I like to say it is a spirited sarcasm, the kind that imagines a better world and desperately finds friends to hope that way too.

Where you pray and somebody prays for you and nobody really knows what that means but they are so hopeless that they pray. Where somebody visits you if you are in the hospital or fall on your ass or whatever….A place where you don’t’ have to check your intellect at the door. Where people quarrel about what happened with Isaac and Abraham on the mountain. Which of course they should.

Where you have a few drinks and a lot of good cookies and excellent parties.

Where you can dance sober of a Wednesday morning, as well. 7 – 10.

Where like Twitter and other more profitable organizations than you really don’t know what you are doing but understand that you don’t know and therefore agree to be a little fuzzy from time to time.

Where issues of message do get resolved and enough scaffolding is put up and under that you can manage another week. A place, also, where everybody has a point of view.

A place where you learn to mostly trust community as opposed to live into a life where you don’t trust community. Here is a rogue statement for you: “I am looking forward to being a burden on my family.”

What a statement and how interesting. Leaning on our family? Why not? An old man learned he had cancer. His son knew he wanted to just call it quits. The son begged him to hang on. Why? “So you can teach us how to care for people at the end. You have taught us everything else.” The old man hung on and taught his family how to care.

An old friend greeted me at a national meeting. He had been my former boss for 8 years. He said, “I know I know you but I have Altzheimers and can’t remember a damn thing.” What a mercy he gave himself! Instead of faking it, he told the truth. I then gave him several pats on his famously old bald head, and he laughed and laughed.

So why do we worry about getting our message right? So that those who run by can read it. Amen.

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