Sermon: On Not Worshipping the Teapot

Revs. Kerry Mueller & Dave Hunter, Guest Ministers

Rev. Kerry Mueller
“SBNR.” You’ve probably heard the term: “Spiritual But Not Religious.” It’s the coming thing. The future of the church for the Millennials and their children. I’ve been hearing it for years.

Often it comes from young couples looking for a Unitarian Universalist minister to marry them. “We’re not religious, but we’re spiritual – very spiritual.” I understand that they are feeling nervous about dealing with a clergy person. They want to get married, they can’t relate to the standard denominations, maybe they have already been turned down in some unpleasant way because they don’t meet some requirement of baptism or belief. They’ve heard of Unitarian Universalism in a general way; they don’t know much about us, but they’ve heard that we will marry all sorts of people.

We were happy to celebrate same sex unions long before Marriage Equality became a legal reality – our evolution came a little earlier than the rest of the culture. But sometimes couples know they don’t want only a civil ceremony, to be married by a justice of the peace; they want something more. . . And so they come to me, not sure what rules I may have, trying to impress me with their sincerity about . . . something. That’s when I hear it, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”

What do you suppose they mean?

I’ve heard it from more traditional Christians as well. Some years ago I was working on an anti-racism project with Avis, a lovely, elegant woman, a sharp lawyer, an activist, an African American and a devoted Baptist. She operated out of a strong Christian faith, with all the creedal beliefs. Yet she said to me one day, “Religion won’t save you.”

Well, that surprised me. If a Baptist doesn’t believe in religion, who does? When I asked her about that, it seems she meant that what I might call “religiosity” won’t save you – not going to church or reciting prayers or repeating creeds. The trappings are not important. What saves you in Avis’ view is a deep personal relationship with the ultimate realities of the universe – which she would name as God. Not “religion.”

I have a certain sympathy with Avis’ point of view. Not necessarily her take on theology, but her direct connection with the unvarnished spiritual reality of the universe. After all, religions may be a little distant from the reality they deal with, and always subject to all the pains and difficulties of institutional life – meeting disparate needs, paying the bills, getting the plumbing fixed. They can easily become too structured or too loose, too hierarchical or too ineffective, too burdened with rules or so vague that nobody knows what they stand for. And even under the best of circumstances, everybody gives up something to live in community. A vital spiritual life is a lot more fun. It’s constantly self-renewing, a source of energy, an inspiration for engaged living. And it doesn’t need any committees to keep it going. So I, too, sympathize with a preference for spirituality over the daily reality of “religion.”

Yet I’m always a little taken aback when I hear that declaration. I am, after all, a person who has organized my whole professional and personal life around nurturing religious community within an institutional denomination. I love this religion, this denomination, this faith, even when it sometimes makes me tear my hair out. And so I want to urge us to look a little closer at the issues of religion and spirituality, and at the related questions of religious language and religious engagement.

The late liberal Protestant theologian Marcus Borg writes about the necessity of the institutions of religion.

[But] the contrast between spirituality and religion is both unnecessary andunwise. . . . Religion is to spirituality as institutions of learning are to education. One can learn about the world, become educated, without schools, universities and books, but it is like reinventing the wheel in every generation. Institutions of learning are the way education gets traction in history; so also religion (its external forms) is the way spirituality gains traction in history. Religion – its external forms – not just spirituality, matters. Its forms are the vessels of spirituality, mediators of the sacred and the way. [Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 219]

I agree with Borg. Somebody has to mind the store. Somebody has to keep the church going so that it will be there when those spiritual but not religious people need a wedding. Or when they come around later looking for a baby dedication, or religious education. Somebody has to preserve the home where we come together to work out our spirituality and to act out our faith. Without an institution, how would our values have a reliable presence in the culture? How would brilliant but isolated spiritual Millennials keep from going off the rails without a community to provide nurture and challenge?

But it is the last line of this quote of Borg’s that caught my attention and encapsulated the questions for me: Religion’s “forms are the vessels of spirituality.” I’ve been taking pottery courses for the last decade, making vessels of one sort or another. I even made a teapot recently, a dragon teapot – but because of an infelicity in the glazing process, you can’t actually make tea in it. I’ve been thinking about containers, about holding things, about decoration and utility, about structure and strength, about art and creativity. Something clicked. I remembered a little saying, a mere sentence fragment I found in Evensong, a lovely Unitarian Universalist curriculum for nurturing our spirituality:

Worshiping the teapot, instead of drinking the tea.

There it is in a nutshell, or at least a teapot. There’s the trouble with religion. Too often we worship the teapot, instead of drinking the tea. It’s so easy to get distracted from the precious tea, the thirst quenching, energy restoring, delicious tea, to get caught up instead in the virtues and flaws of the vessel, to spend all your attention on worshiping the superficial. People understand this in a deep way, and so they tell me they are spiritual, but not religious.

But this is not the whole story. Have you ever tried to make tea without a teapot? Or at least a mug? Without some sort of container, your tea will not brew and the hot water will run all over the table. It’s hard to embrace spirituality without some vessel to hold it and shape it. So drink the tea by all means. Brew it well. Try different kinds of tea, plain black tea and green tea, and exotic flavored teas. Don’t forget herbal tisane, which isn’t exactly tea but can be wonderful stuff. Share your tea with friends. Offer it to strangers as hospitality. Don’t get all hung up worshiping the teapot.

But do have a care for the vessel of your spirituality. Don’t break it. Appreciate your teapot. Did you inherit it from your great grandmother? Is it a museum reproduction? Did a friend make it for you? I’m trying again with my beloved dragon teapot. Maybe this time the glaze will work. Does it represent a year you spent in England? Does it keep the tea hot? Is it beautiful? Homey? Filled with nostalgia? Appreciate the other teapots of the world as well, even if the shape of the pot or the decor are unfamiliar. The teapot is not to be worshiped, but it holds and shapes and makes the tea available. And so it deserves its share of care and respect.

Rev. Dave Hunter
One of the things I had hoped to learn in seminary was “What is spirituality?” I had heard of it, of course, spirituality. I knew that a lot of folks considered it a good thing. But I didn’t know what it was. And I was embarrassed to ask. Asking about spirituality felt like asking about the missionary position. I figured that everyone else already knew, since that’s the sort of thing you should know, if you’re preparing for the ministry.

There wasn’t any course at Wesley Theological Seminary on spirituality, no exam questions on it, no one asked me to write a paper on spirituality. If it was covered in class, I must have missed that day. During my internship, with the UUs in Princeton, my seminary adviser pressed me to have spiritual practices. I knew what practices are, even if I wasn’t sure what made them spiritual. I told her that I played hymns every evening, and I offered to read passages from the Koran every morning, and that satisfied her.

As I see it, spirituality is not about how you feel. It’s not a feeling, or perhaps I should say, it’s not just a feeling. When people claim to be spiritual, or when people are striving to be spiritual, or more spiritual, they’re not talking about a certain feeling that they have, or that they’re looking for – or at least they shouldn’t be, if you ask me. If feelings were the issue, then the answer might be pharmacological. If feelings were the issue, the key to spirituality might be in the right drugs, or in alcohol, or in sexual gratification.

According to Benedictine monk Father Daniel Homan and his colleague Lonni Pratt, in their book Radical Hospitality: [Benedict’s Way of Love (Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 2002)], what people are looking for when they say they’re in search for spirituality is often, really, comfort. Here is how Homan and Pratt respond to the idea of spirituality as comfort.

Genuine spirituality [, they say,] seldom makes you comfortable. It challenges, disturbs, unsettles, and leaves you feeling as if someone were at the center of your existence on a major remodeling mission. Spirituality is meant to change you. If it doesn’t, it is something less than spirituality. [p. 35, edited]

For me, whatever spirituality is, it has to be tied to our experience in the world, it has to be tied to our response to the world, it has to involve relationships. Spirituality isn’t comfort as much as discomfort. It’s not feeling good; it’s doing good. It’s not about trying to change yourself, but about engaging in the world, and finding that you are changed in the process. It is about looking for the meaning of life, not through introspection, not through devising a program called “the search for the meaning of life” but by participating in life, participating fully.

For me, spirituality is related to integrity, to wholeness. That’s what the responsive reading was about. [adapted from Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004)]

Here’s an example of what I would consider a spiritual experience. It’s one of Father Dan’s stories, from the book I mentioned a minute ago. One of the families in his parish has “just had a terrible tragedy.” The son has killed himself; the mother is “inconsolable;” the father has “lost himself in a drunken stupor.” And there’s a six-year-old little sister. Here’s how Father Dan tells the story:

I went over to check on the family. The mother was locked in her bedroom. The father was sitting in a chair, completely intoxicated and basically unconscious. Their young daughter was sitting on the floor sobbing, with her frail little shoulders heaving and her eyes red from so much crying that you wondered if her little body could handle the force of all the pain. She was completely alone in her grief, not because her parents were cruel or uncaring, but because they were shattered.

I picked up the child, and without saying a word, I put her on my lap and sat in a rocking chair. I held her and rocked, while she cried for a couple of hours. A bond formed between us instantly. [pp. 138-39, edited]

Need I say that Father Dan did not set out to have a spiritual experience? As he sat rocking, he did not think to himself, “This is the most spiritual I’ve felt all week.” No, he was there to be with the family in their time of need. He was there, as it turned out, to provide the physical comfort that the little girl so urgently needed – a couple of hours of being held, of being rocked.

We don’t know what was going through Father Dan’s mind, as he sat and rocked. Perhaps he was giving the girl his full attention, practicing the mindfulness that Thich Nhat Hanh recommends. [see The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation (Beacon Press, 1987)] Or perhaps he was mentally preparing a shopping list, or brain storming possible tax deductions. I don’t think it matters.

Rev. Kerry Mueller
Held and shaped and supported by the structures and practices of his church, Father Dan was able to enter a moment of deep spirituality, giving what was needed on a human level, while being connected to the source of love and comfort in his life. Our vessel of spirituality – by that I mean both our personal credos and practices, and the community we help to nurture – helps us to brew our faith and to share the tea of spirituality in a friendly, sometimes life sustaining way. But what is that tea? How do we name our spirituality?

The heart of spirituality is being aware of your connection with something bigger than you are. Liberal Protestant theologian James Nelson calls it “the patterned ways we relate to what is ultimate in our lives.” [according to Thomas Ledbetter, 1/23/06 conversation; see James M. Nelson, Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality (2009)] That spirituality comes in many forms, held by many vessels, some of them explicitly religious, some of them brewed in secular language.

I think about my late father, Fred, who called himself an atheist. Well and good. He was deeply and passionately bound to the sources of goodness, truth, beauty, justice, compassion. He experienced these in the music of Beethoven. He raged over the state of the world and wrote papers on foreign policy, finishing one just before his final illness. He read voraciously – politics, religion, science, mysteries. . . and gardened devotedly – he took up organic gardening in the 50’s, long before it was trendy, when he knew so little about plants that he thought peas grew underground. He traveled with enthusiasm, and loved meeting new people and learning new cultures.

Fred was connected to a whole universe that was bigger than he, and he participated with passion and good will and caring intention in that something bigger. Fred was clearly a spiritual person, though he would not have used that language. And as a committed and active Unitarian Universalist, a long time supporter of our churches and elder statesman at the Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, Pennsylvania, he was clearly a religious person as well, though he called himself an atheist.

It must have been from Fred that I absorbed an understanding of the spiritual life. The spiritual endeavor is much like creating art.

You begin by paying attention to the real world or the world of hope or fear or dreams, worlds that have at least one foot firmly in the everyday world. Take some small bit of that world, focus on it and shape it lovingly towards the best, towards beauty or truth or justice or compassion. Take risks, be generous, share yourself. Focus on something precious, within yourself or beyond yourself. Engage with it – through meditation or prayer or reflective thinking and then move towards action – social justice or hospitality or compassionate care – wearing a Black Lives Matter button, gardening or writing letters to the editor or picking up trash in your neighborhood or taking part in Moral Monday, or assisting in a tutoring program. Just the things you are doing with children, youth, and adults here.

Reflect on what you have done, evaluate it with others, look at it through the lens of your deepest values, and then turn to the refreshment and renewal of your energy, reach together for the next layer of action. The whole cycle of attention, action, reflection, renewal – together it adds up to spirituality, if done with intentionality and integrity and a sense of connection.

Too often we think of spirituality as only the reflection part of the cycle, or as the acts of renewal. Journaling, art making, prayer, meditation, worship, rest – these are a vital part of our lives. We need that time apart, to connect again with what moves us towards the divine. We need time to refill the well of our creative energy, whether through music or church services or a candlelight vigil or a peace march or pep rally. But they are not the whole of our spiritual lives. We also need the active part of the cycle, to use our renewed energy to reach out once again to the world, to bless the world with our care and attention. That teapot comes in many styles, made of many materials. Some of them look religious, some secular. Some are for solitude, some for group work. All will brew a good cup of spiritual tea.

Rev. Dave Hunter
Kerry’s father might have argued with you, if you’d suggested that he was a spiritual person. My father – he’s been dead now for more than 45 years – I don’t think he would have known what to make of such a suggestion. He was an institutionalist, the kind of person every congregation, every denomination needs. Given the choice between the motivational mystical meditation movement workshop and the budget planning meeting, he would take budget planning every time.

Spirituality is often thought of as an individual matter, as opposed to what goes on in an organized religion – or even in a disorganized one. But that’s a false dichotomy. Remember what Unitarian Universalist congregations have covenanted to affirm and promote: on this short list is “spiritual growth in our congregations.” We do not see spirituality solely as an individual matter, divorced from a religious community, but more as what we strive for, as what we do – together.

Spirituality requires institutional support. Congregations, in my view, have the duty, and, fortunately, they have the ability, to encourage and challenge their members to grow in the maturity of their faith, to deepen their spiritual roots, and to broaden their religious imaginations. [Loren Mead, More Than Numbers: The Way Churches Grow (Alban Institute, 1993), p. 42]

Here’s how one congregation took advantage of an opportunity for spiritual growth. It’s not a Unitarian Universalist example, but you wouldn’t have to change much to give it a UUframework.

Donny would have loved nothing more than to lead the worship service himself, but, because of mental problems, his skills were limited. Besides, he was not ordained, and thus he wasn’t eligible.

During communion, Donny had an annoying and distracting habit of repeating the last phrase of everything the celebrant said. He had heard the liturgy so often that he had it practically memorized. Sometimes he tried to say the prayers and formulas before the celebrant did.

But how does a religious community – a community committed to compassion and hospitality – how does it deal with such a problem? Donny was not mentally equipped for extended reasoning or careful conflict resolution.

There were temptations for the group. Some no doubt wished that Donny would disappear. Some wondered about silencing him, or even evicting him. Resentment and annoyance would have made it easy to resort to criticism, avoidance, name-calling, or labeling.

The congregation wrestled with the issue for a long time. The solution was brilliant.

Donny was given one phrase in the service, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” [agnus dei, qui tolit pecata mundi] This was his line and no one else’s. At the appropriate moment, the celebrant elevated the loaf of bread in silence, and waited for Donny to say his line, which he did, with gusto and devotion. The congregation’s solution was brilliant; it was good for everyone. [Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Bethesda: Alban Institute, 1999), pp. 134-35, edited (Boers is a Canadian Mennonite minister)]

Everyone involved experienced spiritual growth. Of course, they didn’t characterize the situation as a spirituality opportunity. They saw it as the problem of how to worship properly, without compromising their principles of compassion and hospitality.

So here’s the bottom line, as I see it, if you are looking for more spirituality in your life: open your eyes and look around you. Don’t look for a mysterious feeling; don’t imagine that you have to take a pilgrimage to Tibet. You can even forget the word, spirituality, it’s only a teapot; it doesn’t matter.

But here’s what I recommend: seek justice in our nation, strive to maintain a community of compassion and hospitality in your congregation, practice loving kindness toward both family and friends and toward strangers, and take advantage of the opportunities for personal growth that obstruct your path.

Rev. Kerry Mueller
May we care for the many teapots of the world. May we cherish those teapots with which we have a special connection. May we appreciate also the teapots of others. But may we remember that they are vessels for tea, not the tea itself. And, finally, may we drink the full, rich tea of spirituality.