Monday, January 14, 2013

"Final Blessings" -- My last sermon in Worcester

Sunday was the last time I preached at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, after some 13 years of parish ministry with them.  Below is my last sermon with them.  They had a great party afterwards, with Rockabilly Music and Barbecue sandwiches.  I was especially touched by the fact that one of the now young adults, someone who was but a child when I started ministry there, pored over many of my old sermons to find a fitting inscription for the celebratory sheet cake.  She chose these words: "We stand before Uncertainty.  Let us cultivate Hope, Generosity and Faith."  Good choice for the occasion, I thought.

Anyway, here is the sermon:


First Reading:
Hebrews 10:31-11:1

35 Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward.
36 For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
37 For yet "in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay;
38 but my righteous ones will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back."
39 But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.
11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Second Reading:
From "Faith", an essay in A Room called Remember by Frederick Buechner.

By faith we understand, if we are to understand it at all, that the madness and lostness we see around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to the last truth.  Madness and lostness are the results of terrible blindness and tragic willfulness which whole nation are involved in no less than you and I are involved in them. Faith is the eye of the heart, and by faith we see deep down beneath the face of things -- by faith we struggle against all odds to be able to see--that the world is God's creation even so.  It is God who made us and not we ourselves, made us out of God's peace to live in peace, out of God's light to dwell in light, out of God's love to be above all things loved and loving.  That is the last truth about the world.
Can it be true?  No, of course, it cannot.  On the face of it, if you take the face seriously and face up to it, how can it possible by true?  Yet how can it not be true when our own hearts bear such powerful witness to it, when blessed moments out of our own lives speak of it so eloquently?  And that no-man's-land between the Yes and the No, that everyman's land, is where faith stands and has always stood.


Those of you who have extraordinarily long memories will remember that our two readings this morning are the very same ones I used on the Sunday of my ordination here in the fall of 1999.  So long ago.  Bill Clinton was President.  The church was untouched by fire.  Two gleaming square towers stood near the southern tip of Manhattan.  A cross hung behind me while I preached.  Barbara was in something like her 16th year of ministry here.  Diane Mirick was the RE Director, and we called her the RE Director.  Will Sherwood was in the choir loft: one constant in the story. 

To prepare for this sermon, I went back and read that one.  I think I was much smarter then -- I could read my impatience in the sermon -- I wanted to tell you everything I thought I knew -- everything I had learned in seminary.  

I think I still believe everything I said then.  But there are subtle differences. 

I think then I was mostly concerned with the question: what is our faith really faith in?  I think I was seized by the line in Buechner:  “Faith the eye of the heart, and by faith we see deep down beneath the face of things -- by faith we struggle against all odds to be able to see--that the world is God's creation even so.”

The author of the letter to the Hebrews said the same thing, so long ago, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen..”

In 1999, I felt I had the need to testify to the truth of my faith.  Even though it was hard to see, after all, we are modern people, are we not? there was still some hidden way that this was God’s world, after all, that the Universe was laid somehow on a moral foundation, and living a life of reverence and morality was worth it.  And I thought, I think now looking back, that was our message, and that it would be spread by my testimony.

Twelve and half years of ministry here have shifted my understanding of my purpose.  Not that I have become a hard-bitten cynic who believes that everything just comes down to bio-chemistry and protoplasmic irritability.  

Then, I think I needed to make the equation that the ancient religious word “faith” was what so many people feel: that sense that comes and goes that life has purpose, that morality matters, that there is some deep connection between one and all.  That perception is what Paul called “faith”, and once a person cracked that code, then this world of religion makes sense -- and that a whole host of resources become available -- people have written and studies and taught about faith for centuries. 

Over time, I became less interested in cracking the code of religion for people who had little experience with its language and customs.  I still did a lot of that -- explaining every year what happened on Holy Week, trying to drag Advent out Christmas shopping into something more hopeful, indeed, just trying to explain what worship is, what prayer is.  

But over time, I became more interested in speaking directly to that state of hope, of moral purpose, that state of mind that could be defined as “faith.”  What does that state of mind ask of us?  How should we conduct ourselves to be consistent with that state of mind?  Indeed how should be live to promote and invoke and make habitual that state of mind?  There are times when it seems that the universe is singing through me -- how can I keep that song going? 

How do we make what is unseen visible? And so I turned my attention to the church, to the congregation and to the common practice we have of worshipping together.  How do we make this institution, this place into a visible, concrete, living center of that life suggested by the moments when the universe is singing through us, those blessed moments of faith.  This is the place where you meet others who share that feeling, who want to be mutually inspired to live lives of reverence and open-mindedness and moral purpose.  

My ministry, over time, became more and more devoted to trying to be an institutional leader and an inspiring preacher.  You will have lots of time to evaluate how well I did either task, but now I am moving on, and so are you. 

I have started going to, been there twice now, to the weekly celebrations of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor.  They have a wonderful pair of ministers: Rev. Gail Geisenhaner who is the senior minister and Rev. Mark Evans is the associate.  It’s a good sized congregation, 575 members, 2 worship services every week.  They do some things very well.  The congregation sings loudly and well, the preaching seems fine.  They are hard working and decisive.  The city told them that they had six months or so to stop using temporary buildings as classrooms, so they raised the money and built a new RE wing in a record amount of time.  They worry about money, a lot. 

They have some of the characteristics that I know are typical of Midwestern Unitarian Universalism -- when they sing their children out, they sing “May the Spirit of Love surround you..”  They sing the same doxology as we do, but they call it a Our Song of Affirmation, and instead of singing “Let songs of hope and faith arise” they want “songs of hope and trust to arise.”  Apparently there is an important difference between faith and trust.  Our one faux pas as visitors was at the end of the doxology/song of affirmation.  Sue and I started to sing “amen”, but everyone else was already sitting down.  Ooops. 

But the minister makes a prayer, and offers it to God, and there is that essential moment when you can feel the room enter a still and silent place, and congregation goes deep and we are worshipping together.

Our Common Work. 

The good people at the Ann Arbor church are doing the same work that you and I have done here for the last 12 and half years.  Indeed, they are doing the same work that the people of this church have been doing for the last 225 years.  In the ways appropriate to the times, of course, but the same work.  

There are about 1/3 to 1/2 of the people of this nation who share our general approach to religion.  

They believe that people, not deities, make religions, and so they are part of our many human cultures.  And people make religions as answers to the very basic human questions, about life and death, and what is fair and what is not.  Why are we here and what is the meaning of life. 

And because religions are different because human cultures are different, about 1/3 to 1/2 of the people of this country (maybe more) don’t believe that any one religion is more true than any others, or no religion at all.  No religion has a special claim upon the truth.

And they believe that what matters about a religion is whether it leads you to live a good life, or not.  “By their fruits, ye shall know them.”

These summarize a liberal approach to religion, and about 1/2 to 1/3 of the people in the United States share these beliefs.  Maybe not on a conscious level, but if you dig deep, that is what they actually believe.

Some are Christians; some are Jews; some are Muslims; some are Buddhists; some tiny few are UU’s and lots and lots don’t belong to any religious institution, at all.

At heart, for these religious liberals, their religion is life itself.  Oh, they might wrap that religion in the story, songs and tradition of one (or more) of the great religious traditions of humanity (which are, as I have said so many times, the greatest collective creative and artistic productions of humanity)  but they are looking beyond that, through that, to basic questions of life itself: how to live, how to live in harmony and balance with this mysterious universe, how to give and get love, how to be happy, how to be just.  The largest thing they know is this thing called “Life” -- there is nothing that is not part of Life.  Even death is a part of life.

And so these de facto religious liberals, this 1/3 to 1/2 of the people, especially the more spiritually sensitive ones among them, are trying to live a good life.  And they understand that to do so means living with some basic values and virtues.  

They are trying to be honest, to live in the real world, and they know that they cannot be more special than they are -- they have to be humble.  They are trying live life with a sense of reverence and they try to develop their sense of gratitude; they count their blessings.  They remain open to the possibility that something wonderful and unseen is at work in their life.  And they struggle to be, and to teach their children to be open-minded and curious about everything that comes their way.  And they want to be, indeed, they cannot help themselves but to be sensitive to injustice and unfairness and cruelty.  Indeed, sometimes it feels overwhelming to them that there is so much injustice in the world, while it seems that there is so little that any one person or small group can do about it.  

They want to live in a loving supportive community.  They yearn for community, and yet they are afraid of community.  They are afraid that they will be overwhelmed; that they will be taken over; that they will lose control of themselves to others and so they hang back. They feel too fragile and too weak.  Church people often say that the unchurched are too individualistic to join in a church community, even though they are hungry for that kind of meaning-making.  I say that they are not individualistic enough.  Loyalty to church life goes up as people get older -- why? Because the older you are, the more comfortable you are with who you are, and you are more confident that you will not taken over by others. 

As I reflect on my life, these were the aspirations that came into my life during the late 1980;s.  I wanted to live in the world as it really was; I wanted to have a human-sized life; there were times when everything sang to me (it still does at times) and I wanted a different life, which would be exactly like my life, but glowing like it was illuminated by the late afternoon sun, even on rainy days, and in the dead of night.  Like Bilbo Baggins, I wanted a great adventure, and I wanted to stay home, safe in my armchair.  I wanted to lose myself, and I wanted to preserve myself. 

Fortunately for me, I could find my way to a Unitarian Universalist church.  Oh, I know that there could be any number of places to go, but I knew the way to a UU church. 

Unitarian Universalists, you and me and the good people in Ann Arbor, are a tiny handful of the 1/3 to 1/2 people in this country whose basic assumptions about religion are liberal.  Unitarian Universalism is a church tradition, what with all these hymnals and steeples and pulpits, but we have learned to hold that more lightly.  We have evolved to be a church movement that understands that the spiritually hungry want a religion of life, itself.  A religion that comes from and inspired by life; a religion about life itself; a religion that is for the purpose of creating better lives.

The good people in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor are doing the same work as we are here.  

Which is to enact faith, which is, to use the words from Hebrews in this morning’s text, to make visible that which is unseen, to convince people that what they hope for is not only possible, but present.

Our work is to feed the spiritual hunger of religious liberals, many of whom now feed themselves with inspirational quotes, posters, facebook postings and emails they circulate among their friends. 

The work that we are doing is to make visible what they hope for.  What they hope for a way to change their lives, to form a community, and to somehow through that change the world.  

And we do it with worship, with prayer, with music, with faith development at every stage of life, and by working together in the community, and learning how to stand up for what we believe in the noisy marketplace that is our democratic society.

The good people of the Ann Arbor UU congregation are doing the same work as you are doing.  I have met the UU ministers of Southeast Michigan, and we knew each other instantly because we are doing the same work.

 We will always be together in the work that we do.

These times of parting can be emotionally difficult.  I know.  I will miss you terribly.  

But we will always be together in the work that we are doing. 

Worshipping; praying; caring for one another; building communities; witnessing to the truth of what we know.  We will be always be together in the work that we are doing.

How am I so sure?  Because Faith is the assurance of things hoped for. 

You and I may not see each other again, but I will know that you are here doing the work that holds us together. 

How do I know?  Because faith is the conviction of things unseen.  

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.

And so I end, not far from where I began....

Thank You so much for these wonderful years, they have been, so far, the best of my life.  


No comments: