Jesus is Looking Perplexed Right Now…

Jesus is Looking Perplexed Right Now…

February 1, 2015

This is our annual Sharing our Faith Sunday, in which we celebrate our national association the Canadian Unitarian Council.

So I am going to talk about the YMCA.


Most weeks I manage to work out at my local YMCA. 

The Y I attend is in the same building as the local library.

The treadmills on the second floor look across a hallway down into a library meeting room.

For many months there has been an art display on the walls – portraits done in black and white etchings.

The portrait at the end of the row always catches my eye.

Every time I get on the treadmill I see Jesus looking up at me.

He has long black hair and a staff and giant dark eyes.

He looks unimpressed. 

As I watch Fraiser re-runs and music videos while I run, Jesus watches me.

He looks a little perplexed.

Is he wondering why so many people are running in place?

What would he would think of Canadian society?

Is he sad? Angry?  Amazed?

And I wonder what he would think of this organization founded in his name,

that has gone from preaching to pilates.

Is this what Jesus had in mind when he said “follow me”?

Begun as the Young Men’s Christian Association in London England in 1844,

The Y’s original mission was to provide safe low cost housing for young men moving into urban areas for factory work.

The early YMCAs combined preaching with wholesome recreational activities, intended to protect youth from drink, gambling and prostitution.

The YMCA was clearly meeting a need during this era of rapid urbanization.

Groups quickly sprung up all over Europe and beyond.

The first North American YMCA was established in 1851 in Montreal.

YMCA organizers had a sense that they were practicing a kind of “muscular Christianity” putting Christian principles into practice through developing healthy minds, bodies and spirits.

A world association of YMCA’s was formed; their solemn purpose the extension and expansion of God’s kingdom.

And from that beginning comes the YMCA of today, where I,

who am not young, nor male, nor Christian, go to use a treadmill.

The YMCAs of Canada have a mission to build healthy communities.

My Y has work out facilities, a gym, a pool, and a day care.

There are classes aimed at kids, adults and seniors.

There are drop in activities for youth.

Everyone is welcome.  People with various health challenges work there.

New immigrants are common.

One woman left an abusive relationship and found a safe and supportive community through her daughter’s YMCA day care.

A young man is healing after losing his family to war in Burundi because of the YMCA’s achievement program for youth.

A new immigrant from Russia gives back to the YMCA by helping newcomers after she was supported by the YMCA’s English language classes.

In other countries, YMCAs have different priorities, many still focus on low cost housing, others continue with a Christian mission, some focus on supporting new immigrants, others on empowering young people.

YMCAs make society a better place.

I believe that Canadian Unitarian Universalism can learn from the YMCA’s development as an organization.

As society changed, so has the YMCA.

Imagine if they were still handing out preaching tracts and asking young people to sign temperance pledges?

Instead, the YMCA has learnt to adapt to the needs of the moment.

In the world wars, YMCAs helped support soldiers and prisoners of war.

At other times they have created educational institutes.

The Y is flexible, each country, each city, each individual Y is encouraged to meet the needs of their particular culture and community.

They pay attention to what is happening around them,

they see needs and figure out how to adapt their system to meet them.

And despite the different approaches,

everything these organizations do still relates to the overarching mission first set in 1844: to create healthy bodies, minds and spirits.

The YMCA is a success story, an institution that has evolved and continues to be relevant to people today.

As Canadian UUs, we can learn from the YMCA system of flexibility, adaptability, and continuity.

We must learn to be flexible and adaptable to the needs of today, and pay attention to what might be needed in the future.

For the most part, our congregations are already pretty good at responding to cultural change.

What we struggle with is continuity, with an overarching vision that lasts but can be remade with each generation.

As Canadian UUs, it is time to consider our vision and direction.

What will coming generations need from us?

Times are changing and the future is uncertain.

Climate change, the disparity between the rich and poor,

Economic instability and the erosion of democracy.

Things are different now.

This gets said every generation but I suspect it is more true today than it has been in a long time.

The explosion of the human population, the changes we have made to vast swathes of the planet, technology which fundamentally changes how we connect.

Things really are different for humanity as a whole.

In many ways this was Jesus’s message to the Jewish people.

He was telling them over and over again that things were different now.

That the old traditional jewish laws didn’t work so well under the new world order of Roman rule.

That the institutions that once served God and people were now mostly serving themselves.

Jesus was telling his followers that this new society – transformed by Roman politics and technology - needed a new way of doing religion.

I think he would say the same thing today.

Back at the YMCA, I felt bad for Jesus.

He really did look perplexed, even bleak.

And it couldn’t be that he was upset by the young men’s Christian association now being open to everyone.

Jesus was a pretty egalitarian kind of guy.

I think the YMCA with its flexibility and adaptability,

with its desire to build healthy lives, is his kind of organization.

Eventually I went to see the portrait up close.

Perhaps the title would tell me why Jesus looked so perplexed.

When I got up close the picture wasn’t of Jesus after all.

It was a biker dude, with aviator glasses and a bandana and a leather jacket.

There was no title card.

And the biker dude did carry a staff. And he did look a little sad,

a little concerned about the state of the world.

So maybe it was a portrait of Jesus,

an image of Jesus for our time.

A little rough around the edges,

reminding us still to need to help one another.



As individuals we turn to this community of the chalice in a myriad of ways.

We find support for our spiritual development,

We contribute our gifts for the well being of the whole,

We give and take comfort as needed.

We celebrate the best in our lives.

And as a community, we turn to our national organization the Canadian Unitarian Council.

Again the relationship is reciprocal.

We find support for our community’s development.

We contribute our gifts for the well being of the whole,

We share our struggles and successes with one another.

The connections we make at our regional and national gatherings,

Through listserves and conference calls and newsletters

Can be invaluable to each community.

Our youth barn would not have been renovated without our greater Can UU community.

As you may know, I sit on the Board of the Canadian Unitarian Council, our national organization,

I am charged to represent the Council faithfully, courageously and creatively.

I am charged with helping all Canadian UUs strengthen and embolden our vital religious communities.

It is my hope that we continue to grow as people of the chalice,

that we find a way for the flame to blaze brightly across Canada.

And we come now to what might be, what must be,

a watershed moment in Canadian Unitarian Universalism.

This is not a good time to be part of a religious tradition in Canada.

People are walking away – possibly running away – from religion.

Numbers are dropping everywhere.

There are excellent deals to be had on lovely brick United church buildings.

People are rejecting dogma and creeds and moral strictures that don’t fit so well.

People are finding community and fellowship on-line and on their street and in their watercolour classes.

But it is my deep belief that Unitarian Universalism is a religion – not just wanted – but badly needed – in this century.

We don’t offer dogma and morality,

but a framework for living.

We offer an openness, an inclusiveness that allows people to come with their whole selves, to worship and share with integrity.

We are learning how to tell new stories for this new world.

Stories not of dominance - but of interdependence.

Stories of connection and collaboration.

We tell of a mysterious universe full of wonder.

We tell of belonging to a planet of astonishing beauty.

We tell stories about working together for the better.

Two years ago at the annual CUC meeting in Calgary,

Rev. Shawn Newton of First Toronto offered the Confluence Lecture.

He warned us of an uncertain future and called us to be truly relevant to the times in which we live.

Rev. Shawn asked us what we would do to help the people of the chalice in this time of evolution.

The board took Shawn’s challenge seriously.

We developed three priorities for the CUC: 

to focus on networking and connecting among our communities,

to develop a strong communications system,

and to foster innovation in UU communities.

We also created a statement of intentions to help guide our planning.

Finally we are working towards a new vision and mission,

one rooted in our past that will allow us to grow in the future.

This is to be a vision not just for the Council but for all of Canadian Unitarian Universalism.

We are seeking that beacon of light that will shine on our journey into the future.

Today, after the service, I will be conducting a workshop on this national vision.

Our work today will help shape and inform the greater hopes of our spiritual tradition.

The board’s deep hope is that we will find a way to name that which we hold most dear as people of the chalice.

That we will find a way to name our distinct and vital spirituality.

And that this vision will carry us forward, holding us firm to our principles and sources, as we change and adapt to the unknown, as we meet the needs of our community, as we work towards health and harmony on this precious planet.

I end with these words from writer Chet Raymo:

… any religion worthy of humanity’s future will have three characteristics. 

One, it will not imagine itself to be exclusively true but will be open to the best and holiest of each faith tradition.

Two, it will be ecological, inclusive and aware of the earth and all creatures. 

Three, it will embrace the scientific story of the world, looking for the divine in the extravagant wonder of the earth. 

This is Unitarian Universalism.  We are the religion of this new century.

Inclusive of the wisdom of faith and science, embracing the wonder of life.

May we carry our chalice flame proudly.

So say we all.


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