First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Where Love Is" sermon by Rev. Barbara Merritt delivered on January 25, 2009

First Reading: -from Song of Solomon, Chapter 8

Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm;
For love is strong as death,
relentless as the nether world
is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods drown it.
Were one to offer all he owns to
to purchase love,
he would be roundly mocked.

Second Reading: — from Inaugural Address 2009 by President Barack Obama

It is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence – the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

Sermon: “Where Love Is”

The inauguration of the President of the United States is inspiring to witness – the ordered, powerful transference of power reminds us of what the human spirit is capable of. What co-operation looks like. The high calling of citizenship.

But especially this year, I was aware of the many secret service officers walking beside President Barack Obama as he and the First Lady walked down Pennsylvania Avenue. Apparently double the normal force. Twice as many people as usual who were needed and were willing to take a bullet for their new President. They were willing to die defending the life of their new leader. And during the President’s inaugural speech, the camera focused on one African American sailor, who was standing at attention in the crowd, his rifle pointed down. This image was broadcast right at the moment when President Obama was talking about service and duty and responsibility.

Later that evening, I heard the PBS film maker, Ken Burns interviewed on TV – and he talked about Obama’s reference to hope and virtue. Hope, we have been told, has been the hallmark and calling card of Obama’s campaign. And now hope was linked with virtue. As Ken Burns noted: “Virtue only occurs in the present – and virtue is an action. Something that is embodied in the world.”

Etymologically the word virtue is about the way you conduct your life. Your virtue is what excellence, strength, worth and courage look like when you walk out into the world. It is not just the capacity to imagine value or integrity, it is the ability to apply it, to practice it. Virtue has been called a habitual excellence – an activism, an engagement that is always at play. But this is a particular kind of work, not grudgingly accepted, but seized gladly.

I hope you got to see the cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s face as he performed the beautiful new arrangement of “Simple Gifts” at the inauguration. His was a portrait in joy. Ask yourself, “Where does such a gift come from?” How does such a virtuoso (the same root as virtue) rise to such heights of musicianship and genius?”

Friends, who visited Tanglewood this fall, went to a Saturday morning rehearsal in which Yo-Yo Ma was the principal player. Usually these rehearsals last one hour. After playing once through the entire concerto with the orchestra, Yo-Yo Ma was soaked through with sweat. He announced that they would play the entire piece again, and then again. A rehearsal that might have ended at 10:30 a.m. lasted until 1:00 p.m.

My friends wondered out loud, “Did Yo-Yo Ma, arguably the best cellist in the world, need to practice?” And the answer is clearly that he seized such an opportunity gladly. It was a chance to serve, to work with his instrument and his fellow musicians. That was his privilege, his responsibility, his calling.

If you wish to play well, you will have to become fully engaged. You won’t be able to “phone in” your commitment. If you wish to love, if you wish to serve – if you want to be in right relation with your friends, your community, your church, your country, your world – you are going to have to bring all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul to the task.

There is no clearer parable in the Bible about the nature of this service, that each of us is called to give, than the story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan. You all know it. The oppressed and despised member of the racially mixed Samaritan tribe was walking down the road when he came upon a man badly beaten and robbed. And where the more privileged and prestigious members of that society had failed to assist their fellow human being, the Good Samaritan stopped and saved this man’s life – took him to an inn and paid for his stay so that he might recover.

We know the tale so well. But we don’t consider our part in the drama.

If I were to do a midrash, a creative commentary and elaboration on the parable, I would have a good time imagining what was going through the minds of those who left their fellow traveler bleeding on the road and hurried on. I would divide the uninvolved, the disconnected, the estranged and/or the cowardly pedestrians into three groups: the blamers, the distracted, and the fearful.

The blamers are always among us. They say, “Tsk, Tsk. What has society come to! Why can’t the authorities keep robbers off the road? What did this man do to provoke such a brutal attack? Surely my younger, stronger, more affluent travelers can clean up this mess! (I helped someone ten years ago, I’ve paid my dues when it comes to assistance!)” The blamers are certain that someone else must take responsibility.

Then there are the distracted. They are very busy and very important, and have schedules to keep – and other priorities. If only you knew what was on their plate, you wouldn’t dream of asking them to assist a stranger!

Finally, there are the fearful. They have just been presented with the hard evidence that there are robbers on this road. They need to rush to safety. They aren’t brave enough to stop on such a perilous journey. They need to protect the little they have (and they certainly don’t have the resources to take on the long term rehabilitation of this seriously wounded man.)

But why stop with imagining those who could not and would not help? Imagine how terrible it would have been if love and rescue came along (in the form of the Good Samaritan) and the robber’s victim rolled up into a ball and said, “I don’t trust Samaritans. Go away!” What if the injured man was a Unitarian and wanted to know whether the Samaritan was smart enough to help him, or strong enough, or experienced enough (wanting to assess the qualifications of his rescuer, rather than receive his help.) Or worse still – what if the victim of the assault had already given up hope and had shut his eyes, and withdrawn and refused to be moved or touched or carried or cared for? What a tragedy that would be, if love was there and ready to help, but the man had decided he was going to die and refused to accept any assistance whatsoever!

We have all known fellow travelers (and frequently that traveler is ourselves) whom life has beaten up. Sometimes it was our parents who delivered the blows. Sometimes we get beaten up by hurricanes, or ice storms, or tsunamis. Sometime people are beaten at work. Quite a few of us are being beaten up by this economy, and many of us are newly aware that there are robbers on Wall Street. We can be beaten by the death of those we love, by illness, or injury, or heartbreak. We can be beaten up by armed conflict or prejudice, or disabilities. And all of these forces (and many more) may appear to diminish our capacity to see love, or to accept kindness, to embody virtue, or to believe in what is true. Hardship can leave us asking only one question: “In this broken and often cruel world, where is love?” Where is the love that can rescue the oppressed or heal me? (music, a duet from the musical Oliver)

Where is love?
Does it fall from skies above?
Is it underneath the willow tree
That I've been dreaming of?
Where is she?
Who I close my eyes to see?
Will I ever know the sweet "hello"
That's only meant for me?
Who can say where she may hide?
Must I travel far and wide?
'Til I am bedside the someone who
I can mean something to ...
Where is love?

Who can say where...she may hide?
Must I travel...far and wide?
'Til I am beside...the someone who
I can mean...something to...
Where is love?

The journey on which we find out the answer to that question is often a hard journey. At least it has been for me recently. May you never be awakened at 1:30 in the morning, as my husband and I were awakened Thursday morning ten days ago, to a doctor in the emergency room of the hospital saying that our youngest child has been seriously injured in a bicycle accident, and is about to be taken into surgery. We were told that David’s injuries were not life threatening. What had happened to our 21 year old son was that a cable came loose on his bike while he was riding down L Street in Washington, D.C. He had been thrown over the handlebars going about 25 miles per hour. The face plant that resulted broke both his upper and lower jaws, fractured his nose and most of the bones in his face, and took out most of his teeth. Luckily, there was no brain damage, no danger to his eyes, no involvement of the spinal cord.

Five hours of surgery later, eight metal plates now holding his face together, and four days in intensive care his recovery is proceeding – but it will take at least a year to heal from this accident.

I drove down in the middle of the night, absolutely convinced that I would bring him home as he recovered from this horrific event. But David disagreed. And within 24 hours I understood why. He was lovingly surrounded by his apartment mates, his ultimate Frisbee team, and a collection of classmates and friends that offered him support, comfort and courage.

When I arrived in the waiting room of the ICU at George Washington University Hospital, there were ten classmates sitting in the lounge waiting to get a chance to see David. There were four in his room (even though there was a two person visitor limit in ICU) – and the parade of friends never stopped for the six days he was in the hospital. Many friends came to see David, and most came more than once.

They came because as young adults they had some important questions to ask of David (and of themselves.) What does it mean that someone young and handsome can be so disfigured so quickly? Is he OK? Would I be OK? Can I show up for him? Would my friends show up for me if something this terrible happened to me?

What surprised me, what surprised them was that David was “cool”. He was rather relaxed (and part of the credit must be given to the pain killers he was on.) But still he met his visitors with courage and humor and the assumption that they would still like him, love him and keep him company no matter how beaten up his face was (and believe me, it was bad.)

And after his well-wishers learned that, that this was survivable and that you (and your friends) are capable of a strength and a love you didn’t know you possessed; they wanted to come back to that hospital room because there was joy there – good company – life – grit. David said he was considering getting a “grill”; a set of metal teeth. His older brother walked in, and after the shock of seeing the black eyes and the swollen face and the conspicuous absence of teeth, Robert said, “Well, there is no question as to who is now the good looking brother!” And David replied, “Well, you had to wait awhile, didn’t you?”

In that hospital room I found out the answer to the question, “Where is love?” It was in those young adults and their willingness to enter the room and embrace their friend when he was broken and bruised and damaged. It became clear to me that David wasn’t coming home to recover with his mother and father. He needed to stay in Washington, D.C. where his beloved community was – where he could maintain his adult status – where he would heal and return to his life.

And now: the confession. I don’t know what David knows. If this accident happened to me, if my face had been destroyed, I would want to put a bag over my head and say to my family and friends, “I’ll see you in a year.” Because sometimes I’m afraid to be seen in public if I’m having a bad hair day. Some of us know that we are loved and whole and accepted (no matter what) and some of us don’t. But I’m in awe of David who understood that the door needed to remain open. He needed to let people in. He didn’t have to be afraid to let his friends see him just as he was. And they did rescue him. And they rescued one another. They discovered that a college friendship can be deeper and more enduring than they thought. All they had to do was show up. And all David had to do was to let them in.

Which I believe, with all my heart, is what we are trying to create at 90 Main Street. A place where love is. A place where people show up and where we learn how to let love in. A place where we are constantly reminded that we cannot be so broken that we cannot be made whole again. A religious community where your truth is welcomed and so is your neighbor’s. A congregation where we are called on to practice virtue – to act on behalf of homeless children and their families – to be community where we are given constant opportunities to remove all the rusty locks that keep others out. A place where no matter how injured we are (economically, emotionally or physically) we find here music and hope, encouragement and acceptance. And a newborn “confidence, the knowledge that God has called us to help shape an uncertain destiny.”

Together – this is not only the price and the promise of citizenship. It is also the price and the promise of discipleship.

This beloved community will not envelop you like a warm blanket or a gentle fog; especially if we have our eyes tightly shut and we are holding our breath, and thrashing out at anyone who comes near, or locking our hearts against strangers.

Love cannot force its way into our brains because love will not use violence or force to knock down our defenses. No, here we are invited to open our eyes, to open the door of our heart, to ask for help, to let other human beings close to us. We are called to gladly seize the opportunity (and the privilege) to serve.

Then we can find where love is and that “there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character” than “giving our all to a difficult task.”

One night in Washington, D.C. last week I was driving to my friend’s house after a 10 hour day a the hospital in the company of 11 of David’s 21 year old friends. I think I was as tired as I have ever been, and I became hopelessly lost. The further I drove the worse it was. I spent time in Rock Creek Park and behind the National Cathedral, and in a neighborhood with roads so twisty that I no longer knew north from south or east from west. It felt like I had stumbled into a Buddhist Hell Realm –“abandon hope, all you who seek the kingdom of Connecticut Avenue.” But as I crested a hill there was a policeman quietly parked at a corner. I drove up behind him, got out of my car, and said, “I am so lost! Can you tell me where Connecticut Avenue is?”

And he looked at me with pity and said, “Sure – lots of people in Washington, D.C. are lost! Just take this left, the next two rights, then go around the circle, take the second left, then turn right…” And then he saw my expression. And he said, “Don’t worry. Follow me. I’ll lead you out.”

What I believe is that none of us are so lost that God can’t lead us home. None of us are so broken that we can’t be made whole. The work we are called to do is a privilege – the service we can offer to one another is a blessing. And our losses and our triumphs are a part of a much larger story than we can imagine. So we sing – gladly. And we move forward – together.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"The Spirit of Adventure" by Rev. Barbara Merritt September 14, 2008

- from Psalm 46

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be shaken, and though the mountains plunge into the depths of the sea; though the waters roar and are troubled, though the mountains shake with the surging water.There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God. God is in its midst.

God shall help her, at the break of dawn. The God of Jacob is our refuge.

He will make wars to cease to the end of the earth. He breaks the bow, and cuts the spear in sunder.

Be still, and know that I am God.”

-from “A Failure of Nerve” by Edwin Friedman

The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 describes Europe as depressed. It described a civilization with little vision or hope. Referring to what they called “the calamity of our time,” the publishers actually left several pages blank so that readers could record “the rest of the events until the end of the world.”

Contributing to the general malaise was a combination of political, social, economic, and theological “downers.” Late fifteenth-century Europe, despite its glorious cathedrals, emerging artists, and developing network of universities, was a society living in the wake of the plagues, the breakdown of the feudal order, and the increasing inability of an often hypocritical and corrupt church's capacity to ring true.

There had not been a major scientific discovery for a thousand years. Then, as if suddenly, Europe is all agog. The depression lifts like a morning mist, novelty begins to shine everywhere, and the seeds of the Renaissance that had been germinating here and there for two hundred years sprout vigorously. The imaginative gridlock that had largely beclouded Europe's inventiveness for more than a millennium dissolves forever.

Europe's imaginative capacity was unleashed not by the discovery of learning, as those with a vested interest in learning would have it, but by the discovery of the new world. The effect of America's discovery on the European imagination was as though God had been hiding a piece of land bigger than the known world since the dawn of creation. The qualities of bold and adventurous leadership that enabled Europe to escape its doldrums are exactly the leadership qualities necessary for breaking the imaginative gridlock of our civilization today. The spirit of adventure must triumph over the concern for safety and certainty...

Prince Henry the Navigator was, perhaps, the first to fund research. Taking advantage of recent developments in technology, such as new rigging of sails, revised construction of ship hulls, and more refined instruments of navigation. Prince Henry began to send expeditions down the west coast of Africa.

As a result of Prince Henry's efforts, Portuguese mariners made a new landfall further south down the west coast of Africa, including the crossing of the equator and the rounding of the Cape. To appreciate the boldness of this venture and the fears that had to be overcome, it is important to realize that the distance from Iberia to the southern tip of Africa is double the distance that had to be traversed to cross the great blue sea to America. The east-west bulge of Africa is almost one thousand miles long; as one approaches the equator the North Star appears to sink into the sea (perhaps the origin of the myth that here lies the end of the world); and there is strangeness everywhere. Around Cape Bojadar at the edge of the Sahara, the red sand turns the water blood red for miles. Much further down the coast, the enormous rush of the Congo River's descent creates a condition where the surface of the Atlantic is sweet for almost fifteen miles out.
Prince Henry inspired an expedition to cross the equator, and instead of falling off the end of the Earth, everyone came back to tell their tale. The breaking of this emotional barrier was similar in what it unleashed to breaking the sound barrier, the four minute mile, or the shift to government by compact rather than divine right…”

“The Spirit of Adventure” by Rev. Barbara Merritt

Ed Friedman loved to tell stories. Here is one:

“On the third day of Creation, just before all forms of life were about to multiply, the Holy One said to his creatures: I see that what some of you treasure most is survival, while what others yearn for most is adventure. So I will give you each a choice. If what you want most is stability, then I will give you the power to regenerate any part you lose, but you must stay rooted where you grow. If, on the other hand, you prefer mobility, you also may have your wish, but you will be more at risk. For then I will not give you the ability to regain your previous form. Those that chose stability we call trees, and those that chose opportunity became animals.”

So, seeing only human beings in attendance this morning, I'll say, “Welcome adventurers! Welcome to all of you who chose risk and mobility and opportunity and moving forward on uncharted seas.”

The problem is that most of us don't describe ourselves as explorers and adventurers and great risk-takers. We assume that the Starship Enterprise is the vehicle that goes “boldly where no one has ever gone before,” not us. We go to the movies and watch TV if we want to see excitement and high risk games and heroic expeditions.

Most of us are more conscious of seeking stability, security and happiness. Most of us have fairly well-established routines. We can remember engaging in some pretty high-risk behavior when we were teenagers (even though we're in anguish when our own teenagers do the same.) But we're now adults: more mature - trying to get along, hoping that our lives might go a little more smoothly and serenely. To which Ed Friedman says, “Think again!” His recent book, published posthumously, is a stunning reframing of not only the problems of leadership in hospitals, corporations, religious organizations and families, but I believe it also asks each of us to re-examine our spiritual assumptions. This rabbi, family therapist and consultant to NATO forces and to universities doesn't have every thing figured out, or have the secret formula for turning around the management of a failing institution. In truth, I think he gets quite a lot wrong.

But its what I think he gets right that fascinates me. He was a genius, a truly original thinker. And he offers a new and bracing paradigm with which to understand our existence here on earth. His thesis is that what makes great leaders is also what makes healthy families. What allows individuals to thrive and grow is also what allows nations to thrive and grow. After decades of experience working with families, and churches, and synagogues, and hospital boards, and government bureaucracies, and multi-billion dollar corporations, he kept seeing that there was something about what health looked like that had a common denomination in all the various forms and institutions. It turns out to be a kind of courage. He calls it nerve or the spirit of adventure, and the capacity to develop one's individuality and integrity.

I offer to you a brief summary of what I perceive to be Friedman's top ten characteristics of what health (in the largest sense of the term) looked like.

1) A healthy sense of adventure - where you remain open to new un-thought-of possibilities where you're curious about what unknowns lie ahead, where you are willing to try things you've never tried before.

2) Self-differentiation - you know where you, as a person, end and where another human being begins. This is more than a strong sense of yourself as a unique child of God. He states that in his extensive work with families, the greatest gift a mother or father can give their children is when the parents have made the children least important to the parent's own sense of salvation. In other words, Friedman defines this kind of maturity as a willingness to take responsibility for one's own emotional well-being and destiny.

3) Which leads us directly to the third quality of leadership and health - the least amount of blaming. Life, at its best, is actually not about finding out what is wrong with your co-worker, or your parents, or your community. The active, effective leader is always taking personal responsibility to improve whatever circumstances arise.

4) That is possible because of the fourth quality - vision - the capacity to see, not only new ideas and new concepts, but Friedman claims that vision is actually an emotional phenomena. When everyone else seems to be screaming at you, “Don't board the ship! The equator is the end of the world; you won't be able to function in anything else but in the way but in the way we've always done it before” - a leader sees farther than the known horizon.

5) A fifth quality is an appreciation for the serendipitous - for the unexplained and the unexpected gift. Friedman is especially eloquent that when the explorers first discovered America they were quite focused on finding the silks and the riches of the Near East. It never occurred to most of them that what they found in America might be more significant, more important. Columbus died believing that he had landed, not on a new continent, but in Japan. Serendipity, Friedman says, is the best antidote for anyone that assumes we know everything already.

6) A growth response to challenge. Challenges are not the enemy, or a sign of defeat, or impenetratable obstacles. They are merely problems to engage in and solve.

7) Playfulness. If you're not having fun, you're likely to run out of energy. . .and become paralyzed by your own fears. This concept of staying “non-anxious” is one of Friedman's great contributions to leadership theory. Life is definitely going to change. Learn to move with some playfulness. Don't be afraid of mistakes. Don't forget your own resiliency.

8) Work with what is strong in you and others. Don't get manipulated and sabotaged by the weak, by the victims, by those highly reactive, sensitive individuals who are more than willing to take you on as a hostage. This requires some explanation. He uses a football metaphor. If you are trying to move the ball down the field, a strong and winning team ought not to give all its attention to the complaints of the coddled, pampered athlete. So Friedman quotes a football coach: “When I coach, if receivers complain that the quarterback throws the ball too hard, I don't go to the quarterback and tell him to let up. I tell him to throw it as hard as he can, and I then tell the receivers they had better hang on to his passes if they want to hang on to the team. If those who cover punts complain that the punter kicks it too far, I don't go to the punter and tell him not to kick it so far. I tell the punter to kick it as far as he can, and I'll try to find players who can get down the field and cover his kicks.” What is obvious in football may not be so obvious in your family. Friedman tells us that there will always be those individuals and families and systems that are “a panic, in search of a trigger.”

9) Stamina. Friedman says that life isn't about quick fixes and fast solutions. You have to be willing to stick around, and to stay close and keep at it. He offers two examples of how we've lost sight of the stamina required. “The most pernicious violence on television is actually in the story line - how the simplistic concept of human struggles 'does violence' to the nature of life. The most insidious message that children - and adults - get from the average television program is the notion that motivation is singular, that all questions have answers, that justice always triumphs, that love conquers all and that life is unambiguous.” And his second example, (I'm a bit sheepish to admit) I've fallen into personally. It happens once every four years. He writes: “There is a collective irresponsibility on the voters seeking magical, quick-fix answers to a complex range of the problems of existence. Instead of focusing on their own response to the challenges of change, those voters find fault in their political stars.” Stamina to the contrary, means you keep working even in the face of rejection and resistance. He claims if you're actually trying to change the status-quo, sabotage and push back is a sign you are doing something effective. He writes that, “No one ever moved from slavery to freedom with the slaveholders cheering them on.” There will be hardships and setbacks. Expect them. Keep going.

10) It is Friedman's tenth principal that I find most challeng-ing. He says, “To be an effective leader (or a good partner or a good disciple), there must be a willingness to be exposed and vulnerable. If you are going to cover new territory, you're going to have to stand out front. You're going to have to cross the equator. He said that not only must you not be afraid of taking up that posture, you must learn to love it.

You won't find a religious tradition anywhere that teaches that this kind of courage is not essential in the life of the spirit. The Psalmist claims that even though the earth shakes, and the mountains tremble, and one hurricane after another brings along its surging waters to our shores, we must not be fearful.

Jesus promises that if you want to follow his teachings, you will discover that even though the birds of the air have been given nests and refuges and places to rest for the night, you, as his follower, will find nowhere to lay your head.

The Buddhist teaching is clear. As Joko Beck writes, “Life is a series of endless disappointments and it is wonderful, just because it doesn't give us what we want. To go down this path takes courage.” Rumi says, “You whose fear makes you incapable of climbing this small hill on your path; there are a hundred thousand mountains in front of you. Begin now!”

But, if you are like me and not especially gifted with courage, you'll have to ask, “Why do I have to cross the equator? We've already figured out what's on the other side of the globe! There are no new worlds to discover in my time. Just a few blank pages left to fill in at the back of the book. Just a few more years. I just need to get my kids through school or get to retirement or figure out how to survive at work.”

These voices in our heads! Strong in the 1400's. Strong in the 21st century. They sing, “there are no new worlds left to discover!” Allow me to mention three. One in the world. One in this community of Worcester and one in yourself.

In the world - global warming. This is a challenge we have to meet. We have to figure out how to reduce our excessive and wasteful consumption. We have to find a way to co-operate globally. We have to take responsibility, corporately and individually. As Friedman says, “This is not about finding the right answers, right now. It is about asking the right questions” New questions - new frameworks - a whole new world - understanding to develop.

In the community. One thing we know, poverty is increasing in Worcester. Our neighbors are in trouble. This church, with Jericho Road and other volunteer opportunities, is always asking (and will always be asking): “How can we use our real strengths to bless the world? How can we be more effective as an agency of change?” Again, what are the new questions we haven't asked ourselves before, that might make a real difference?

And in our own hearts and minds and souls. Spirituality is not about finding a cozy, safe religious community where all your troubles will disappear and life will finally become predictable, comforting and soothing. (I can see, even now, how some of you might be figuring out how to make a swift exit out of the back of the sanctuary.) No, Annie Dillard is correct in that if the church is teaching what the church ought to be teaching, you ought to be wearing a motorcycle helmet when you come to the sanctuary. Because, like it or not, life is an adventure. And you will be asked to cross what looks like the end of the world - over and over again. With the death of those you love, with the changes in work and health and family. With raging oceans and trembling mountains.

Where I find Friedman most helpful is when he tells me what is blocking my passage into new worlds. What are the habits that can get me in the most trouble when I go forth onto any number of adventures? For some reason, I find Unitarians to be especially susceptible to at least three myths that can keep you stuck.

The first myth is that what is missing is more data, better techniques and new information. Friedman claims that this obsession with gathering data, this unending treadmill of trying harder to gather facts and interpretations and research, is more often than not, an avoidance of emotional risk-taking, and decisiveness, and responsibility that will result in transformation and empowerment.

The second myth (and this one really hurts) is the belief that “toxic forces can be regulated through reasonableness, love, insight, role modeling, inculcating of values, and striving for consensus through empathy, team building and camaraderie.” Ouch! Friedman says that the only way to meet destructive and fearful forces is with strength, integrity and courage. Moses was never going to convince Pharaoh with data, reasonableness or team building. He had to actually lead his people out into the wilderness. It was a dangerous and difficult journey to their freedom.

Finally, Friedman warns us that this quick fix mentality that we are so fond of (that seeks “symptom relief, rather than fundamental change”) will not serve us well. Think 40 years in the desert. Think of the 223 years that First Unitarian in Worcester has been trying to create a spiritually liberating community. Think of a lifetime of seeking to reach God and truth and reality. Come to church not to find the answers. Try to leave here asking better questions.

I've never heard better ones than those Micah asked: “What does the Lord require of thee - but to do justly? and to love mercy? and to walk humbly with thy God?”

Who knows what new possibilities lie beyond our sight and current understanding? Who knows what strength will be required of us the days ahead? All I hope is that you never lose sight of your own great courage. And that you never forget what a tremendous adventure your life has been and can continue to be. May you discover, again and again, the courage to overcome all the barriers and blockades and “ends of the world” that you encounter on your own surprising and glorious journey.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"A Heretic's Welcome" Sermon by Rev. Barbara Merritt Sept. 7, 2008


-from Philippians IV, 8

“Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”


-from “Socrates’ Defense” by Plato

The Greek poet, George Seferis wrote: “There are always but two parties, Socrates, and his accusers. One must choose.” I read to you from Socrates’ Defense as he faced his own accusers in ancient Athens. Socrates was on trial for heresy for which the penalty was death.

“I do not know what effect my accusers have had upon you, gentlemen, but my own part I was almost carried away by them—their arguments were so convincing. On the other hand, scarcely a word of what they said was true.

What did my critics say in attacking my character? I must read out their affidavit, so to speak, as though they were my legal accuser: ‘Socrates is guilty of criminal meddling, in that he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example.’”

Socrates responds by saying, “This is what I do. I go about seeking and searching in obedience to the divine command, if I think that anyone is wise, whether citizen or stranger, and when I think that person is not wise, I try to help the cause of God by proving that he is not.

Perhaps someone will say, ‘Do you feel no compunction, Socrates, at having followed a line of action which puts you in danger of the death penalty?’

I might fairly reply to him, ‘You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. A person has only one thing to consider in performing any action—that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good person or a bad one.

The truth of the matter is this. Where a person has once taken up his stand, either because it seems best to him or in obedience to his orders, I believe he is bound to remain and face the danger.

Suppose you said to me, ‘Socrates, on this occasion we shall disregard your accusers and acquit you, but only on one condition, that you give up spending your time on this quest and stop philosophizing. If we catch you going on in the same way, you shall be put to death.’

I should reply, ‘I am your very grateful and devoted servant, but I owe a greater obedience to God than to you, and so long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practicing philosophy.’

Please do not be offended if I tell you the truth. No one on earth who conscientiously opposes either you or any other organized democracy, and flatly prevents a great many wrongs and illegalities from taking place in the state to which he belongs, can possibly escape with his life...the difficulty is not so much to escape death; the real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong, which is far more fleet of foot.

If you expect to stop denunciation of your wrong way of life by putting people to death, there is something amiss with your reasoning. This way of escape is neither possible nor creditable. The best and easiest way is not to stop the mouths of others, but to make yourselves as good as you can.

Now it is time that we were going, I to die and you to live, but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God.”


“A Heretic’s Welcome” by Rev. Barbara Merritt

Where were you this summer? On a beach enjoying a cool ocean breeze? Or working in your garden? Did you travel far or stay close to home? What work did you accomplish? How playful were you able to be? Did your summer include visits with friends and family? Did you get to worship in your own way—here or elsewhere? Part of being together in religious community is sharing stories about where we have traveled outside this sanctuary.

My own summer included a family reunion in Sedona, Arizona, and some wonderful days in Maine. But the vast majority of my summer was spent in the 16th century in Europe. Not by choice, mind you. I was assigned last spring a major academic paper on The Effect of the Radical Protestant Reformation on the Unitarian Universalist Church of Today. To do that, I had to read four very long books on our history; on our founders and martyrs and original visionaries who first imagined the kind of a church where all souls would be welcomed and find encouragement.

It is not a bad idea to go back to the beginning. Ed Friedman (one of the great systems analysts) claims that the vision of the founders of any institution (or indeed any school of thought) transmit their genius and clarity through generations and centuries. It is almost like an intellectual form of DNA—replenishing over and over again. But it is not only ideas that get transmitted. There is also an emotional climate that filters through the ages, measured in the way people imagine their surroundings, take risks, self-differentiate and trust new possibilities.
Doing intensive historical research also carries the additional bonus of discovering arcane (but fascinating) details about the ordinary. For instance, the word influenza—I always assumed it was just another word for the flu—but it literally translates “influenced by the stars.” Back in the 16th century, the source of illness was believed to be astrological.

And these pulpit Bibles that sit at the front of almost every Protestant Church. I never gave it too much thought. There have been pulpit Bibles at First Unitarian Church for 223 years. (I
assumed they came with the candlesticks.) But back in the 16th century, when Martin Luther said that the basis for religious was not the Roman Catholic Church, but the Old and New Testaments, Bibles were expensive and rare. So in Protestant Churches, the Bible had to be visible and accessible so that everyone might be able to see for themselves. “Feel free—anytime.”

The churches and synagogues and temples have been trying to make truth accessible since time in-memorial. We often choose different bells, books and rituals. But all religious groups ask, “How can we share the truth we have discovered?” “How can we reach out to the larger community?” “How can we let people know that they are welcome here?” One of the questions that has arisen here at 90 Main Street is, “How we can better relate to a vital and expanding Hispanic community in Worcester?” How can our free church tradition be accessible to that particular demographic?

May I suggest that we at least might begin with the announcement that our founding, visionary, martyr, Michael Servetus was Spanish?! Michael Servetus, born in Spain in 1509, was the only man that John Calvin had burned at the stake as a heretic.

What I learned this summer was that there were literally hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in the 1500’s who were slaughtered and tortured and burned for their religious convictions. What you believed about the church, the Bible and the appropriate time for baptism would often determine whether you lived or died, whether you could remain in your home and whether or not you could continue to work.

So why does history record, focus and revisit the violent clash between John Calvin and Michael Servetus? Why did this one burning of a theologian get so much attention then, and deserve so much attention now?

Some historians believe that John Calvin was “the last great medieval mind” and that Servetus was one of the “first great Renaissance/Enlightenment minds.”

Now until my current in-depth reading, I had always thought that John Calvin was a rat-fink for burning my guy at the stake. But now, after further research, what I think about Mr. Calvin can not be said from the pulpit. Well, I can at least give you a sense of what I think of John Calvin. He was a creep, a bully, a hypocrite, a malevolent, hateful, despicable, heinous, loathsome, reprehensible, revolting, vicious child of God.

Now, I have been told that only human acts are evil. We cannot (and should not) judge the person himself or herself. But the moral philosopher, Hannah Arendt wrote that hypocrisy is, in truth, “the most hateful of vices because it desires to appear virtuous and convinces itself that it is virtuous, all the while destroying all possibilities for integrity with duplicity and lies.” She says (and I quote), “It makes the hypocrite rotten-to-the core.”

I knew since I was a child that Servetus was tortured and killed by Calvin. So Calvin killed someone in a particularly cruel way. It happens. What I didn’t know, until July, was that Calvin actively collaborated with Calvin’s own worst enemy, the Catholic Inquisition, to try to get the Inquisition to do his dirty work for him. The Inquisition was busy killing tens of thousands of Protestants (Calvin’s Protestants) when Calvin (hearing that Servetus was being held on trial by the Catholic Inquisition for heresy) sent his personal correspondence with Servetus to the Inquisition to provide conclusive evidence that Servetus should be destroyed by the Catholics. (In Calvin’s defense, he claimed that he had not personally put the postage on the letters that were sent. His first lieutenant had actually delivered the package.) This act of collaboration with the enemy would be the modern-day equivalent of George Bush calling up Osama Bin Laden and saying, “I know you’ve killed quite a few of my people, but there’s one really bad Pakastani that I think we can both agree is harmful to the order of the state. While you are in the region, would you mind killing him for me?”

Luckily for Servetus, after the Catholics had found him guilty of heresy and condemned him to die, he escaped. Unluckily for Servetus, he decided to go to Geneva. Calvin had him arrested, tried and burn. So why did Calvin hate Servetus so desperately?

First and foremost, this was about authority and the source of authority. Servetus in his writings, in his books did not just claim that the trinitarian formulation of creedal confession was not biblical. Servetus said something far more threatening. He said that neither the church, nor the state could decide what was true or false. Neither was the Bible an infallible source of truth.

For Servetus, truth rested within the human heart, mind and soul. It was the conscience that would lead us in the right direction. It was the choices human beings made that mattered.
Servetus wrote: “All seem to me to have part of the truth and a part of error, and each discerns the error of others and fails to see his own.” (Some things never change.)

But Calvin believed that allowing human beings to decide for themselves what was true and real, and what was false and in error would result in anarchy for the state, the complete destruction of the civil order, and would reduce the church to being “small and impotent.” (So, he was right on the last one.) Servetus’ humanism represented for Calvin the destruction of everything he knew and loved. And yet that was not the worst of Servetus’ sins in Calvin’s eyes.

They clashed about the nature of God. For Servetus, God was gracious and expansive and accessible—present in the individual soul. Servetus wrote, “One soul is a certain light of God, a spark of the spirit of God, having an innate light of divinity.” According to Servetus, God was to be found within and everywhere in the creation. Servetus wrote about Christ and the holy and true: “He descends to the lowest depths and ascends to the highest and fills all things. He walks upon the wings of the wind, rides upon the air and inhabits the place of angels. His place is not any particular part of heaven...he dwells within us.” For Servetus, human beings were meant to find union with God. Human beings were meant to participate in the divine nature.

Contrast Servetus’ mysticism with Calvin’s understanding of the Almighty. For John Calvin, God was distant, unapproachable, absolute sovereign and wholly other. God created human beings to be totally depraved—born in original sin and sometimes predestined to damnation. Completely determined not only in their final destination, but each soul had been either selected for salvation (or condemned to everlasting hellfire and damnation) since before the creation began. And you didn’t get to know whether you were a goat or a sheep—saved or damned until you died. The idea that God was close, loving and accessible drove Calvin “round the bend.” At the trial Calvin described himself screaming at Servetus. These are Calvin’s own words: “When Servetus asserted that all creatures are of the proper essence of God and so all things are full of gods (for he did not blush to speak and write his mind in this way) I, wounded with the indignity, objected: ‘What, wretch! If one stamps the floor would one say that one stamped on your God? Does not such an absurdity shame you?’ But he answered, ‘I have no doubt that this bench or anything you point to is God’s substance. This is my fundamental principle that all things are a part and portion of God and the nature of things is the substantial spirit of God.’”

Servetus went so far as to say that God was in children. Calvin insisted that children were completely evil. I read from the book, The Hunted Heretic, a biography of Servetus: “When Servetus declared that children could not commit a mortal sin, Calvin answered, ‘Servetus is worthy that the little chickens, all sweet and innocent as he makes them, should dig out his eyes a hundred thousand times.’” Calvin was a little twisted. I don’t think Calvin was a nice man, but I’ve told you that already.

The issue of when to baptize and christen was a big question back then. I am pleased that this morning after church (and many other times this fall) we will be welcoming little children into the world. In our christenings and welcomings and baptisms we welcome each child of God as innately good, as innocent and loved souls not as “condemned and predestined and depraved.”

Servetus was also condemned to die because he was declared to be an Anabaptist—a person who believed that one’s commitment to God had to come as an adult, as a choice, an important choice. Back then if you believed in adult baptism or re-baptism as it was called, you were a heretic and tens of thousands were killed in Calvin’s Switzerland and in Germany and throughout Europe.

To be fair, the Anabaptists didn’t just say that only an adult could commit his or her life to Christ. They said that infant baptism was satanic. There was a lot of name calling back then. And a lot of conviction that if you were on the right side of God, you would be saved and civilization would flourish. If you were on the wrong side you would go to hell, and you would destroy your church, your country and western civilization.

In the end Servetus begged for religious tolerance and as Calvin writes, “the plea for toleration was itself a confession of guilt.” So this is how Servetus died on October 27, 1553, and I quote from Fail, an eyewitness source: “Servetus was led to a pile of wood still green. A crown of straw and leaves (sprinkled with sulfur) was placed upon his head. His body was attached to the stake with an iron chain. His book was tied to his arm. A stout rope was wound four or five times around his neck. He asked that it should not be further twisted. When the executioner brought the fire before his face, he gave such a shriek that all the people were horror-stricken. As he lingered, some threw on wood. In a fearful wail he cried, “O Jesus, son of the Eternal God, have pity on me. At the end of half an hour, he died.” Servetus’ biographer, Roland Bainton adds: “Servetus might have been saved by shifting the position of the adjective and confessing Christ as the Eternal Son rather than as the Son of the Eternal God. That expiring cry was therefore one last gesture of defiance to human folly and confession to God.”

Returning to the 21st century where Servetus’ world view has triumphed—except in one arena: the source of ultimate authority. Many still consider it heretical to allow mere human beings to decide what is true and what is not—what is real and what is false. Some hold that the Bible is the infallible source of truth or the Koran. Some look to the church or the mosque or the temple.
The terrible ongoing conflict about abortion in our country is not about whether you think abortion is moral or immoral. (We are, of course, free to make our own decisions about that.) The argument between the pro-choice and the anti-choice forces are about who has the authority to make this decision to terminate a pregnancy. The anti-choice forces claim it must be mandated by the state. The pro-choice say that the decision must be made by the individual who will bear the child.

Even in 2008, Unitarians and Universalists are usually considered heretics by the orthodox, indeed by most religious people. We continue to insist on this radical principle that the source of ultimate religious authority is not in Rome or in Washington, D.C., not in bishops, not in this pulpit, not in these Bibles. The source of truth and goodness and divinity is within your own heart and mind and soul.

I hope you come here on Sunday mornings to be reminded of your own powerful spiritual center; of your strength, of your courage. Remember that what is holy holds you up day after day. In the floor boards—in the wind, in every breath you take. Because every Sunday you will be sent forth, out into the world to do what Socrates says is ultimately important, “trying to act rightly, devoting our lives to goodness.” With this gift of our own powerful and sustaining legacy of heresy, may we continue to dedicate our lives to the pursuit of truth and goodness.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Your Resurrection" by Rev. Barbara Merritt Worship Service on Easter, March 23, 3008

First Reading
John 21: 4-8

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked; and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

Second Reading
“Huckleberry Finn”
from an essay by Azar Nafisi an Iranian Professor of American Literature

A small boy named Huckleberry Finn contemplates his friend and runaway slave, Jim. Huck asks himself whether he should “give Jim up” or not. Huck was told in Sunday school that people who let slaves go free go to “everlasting fire.” But then, Huck says he imagines he and Jim in “the day and nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing.” Huck remembers Jim and their friendship and warmth. He imagines Jim not as a slave but as a human being and he decides that, “alright, then, I’ll go to hell.”

What Huck rejects is not religion but an attitude of self-righteousness and inflexibility. I remember this particular scene out of Huck Finn so vividly today because I associate it with a difficult time in my own life. In the early 1980s, when I taught at the University of Tehran, I, like many others, was expelled. I was very surprised to discover that my staunchest allies were two students who were very active at the university’s powerful Muslim Students’ Association. These young men and I had engaged in very passionate and heated arguments. I had fiercely opposed their ideological stances. But that didn’t stop them from defending me. When I ran into one of them after my expulsion, I thanked him for his support. “We are not as rigid as you imagine us to be, Professor Nafisi,” he responded. “Remember your lectures on Huck Finn? Let’s just say, he is not the only one who can risk going to hell!”

A mysterious connection links individuals to each other despite their vast differences. No amount of political correctness can make us empathize with a child left orphaned in Darfur or a woman taken to a football stadium in Kabul and shot to death because she is improperly dressed. Only curiosity about the fate of others, the ability to put ourselves in their shoes, and the will to enter their world through the magic of imagination creates this shock of recognition. Without this empathy there can be no genuine dialogue, and we as individuals and nations will remain isolated and alien, segregated and fragmented.

I believe that it is only through empathy that the pain experienced by an Algerian woman, a North Korean dissident, a Rwandan child, or an Iraqi prisoner becomes real to me and not just passing news. And it is at times like this when I ask myself, am I prepared—like Huck Finn—to give up Sunday school heaven for the kind of hell that Huck chose?

“Your Resurrection” by Rev. Barbara Merritt

On Easter Sunday, throughout the world, there are a great many people who in liturgy, song, and ritual announce that “Jesus was crucified, dead and buried—he descended into hell, the third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God. Or so states the Apostles Creed.”

In the free church, you can reject that dogma, or you can believe it completely. But whether you understand Jesus to be resurrected is not the focus of an Easter celebration at the First Unitarian Church.

What I want you to imagine is your own resurrection. What sort of ongoing life can you look forward to? If you go to hell, even just for a day or two, will there be any transformative event afterwards? Does anything important about you survive tragedy, defeat or death?

I, myself, discovered a personal immortality when I was still an agnostic in college. In my junior year at the university, I took an advanced course in the Greek philosopher, Plato. And the professor, paraphrasing Plato, said very simply, “If you identify with what is transitory and fleeting in yourself, then you will have to die. But if you identify with what is eternal in you (in a spirit of love and truth, which transcends the material body) then you will have immortality.” I remember leaving the classroom metaphorically ten feet off the ground. My imagination had been given a spacious new way to consider life and death. And I suddenly understood a new possibility; that death did not necessarily mean the end of the consciousness or the soul.

Many of us might assume that the religious imagination is something that can be safely relegated to scripture and theologies. But if you pay attention, you will discover that all kinds of disciplines are struggling with describing the nature of reality, and the possibilities that await us all.

And not just ancient philosophers.

I heard a lecture a few weeks ago where the speaker said that “ironically, it may be science that eventually may be responsible for the discovery of God.” Even now, scientists in the realm of theoretical physics are imagining co-existent realities, realms that exist apart from the material world. Scientists, who spent a great many centuries tied to a mechanistic model of cause and effect and observable data, are now saying, “Maybe there is more?” Maybe there are things we can’t measure because we have been thinking in too small and rigid a framework. (Maybe, we might consider fishing on the other side of the boat.)

How you imagine the world has a huge impact on how you experience the world.

In the gospel according to Matthew, there is one line near the end of the last chapter describing the disciples experience of the resurrected Jesus: “They saw him, they worshipped, but some doubted.” So apparently even if the risen Christ is standing right in front of you, that does not necessarily mean you are going to give up thinking about the world that way you always have. Our doubts, our fears, our habitual thinking may be hard-wired. Or perhaps we are mentally stuck, only temporarily in a particular pattern of thought. Can anything break us open to what is new and unexpected? I love the description of Jesus’ fishing lesson to his friends after the resurrection. I swear, the more I read the gospels, the more convinced I am that they were written by early Unitarians.

Jesus has already shown himself to his disciples indoors. Then, on another occasion, he has even allowed the doubtful Thomas to stick his hand through his body. John claims Jesus showed himself over and over again to his skeptical disciples; so many times in fact, that they are not even written down.

Then Simon Peter says, “Ok, time to go fishing,” After a night of unsuccessful fishing, Jesus appears to them again and speaks to them from close to the shore directly asking, “Have you caught anything?” And the disciples (who like all disciples, are as dumb as posts) are reported to have come to this conclusion: “The disciples knew not that it was Jesus.”

Now, I guess at this point, Jesus could have preached a sermon to them, or scolded them, or pointed in a vigorous manner at himself. Instead, he asked for them to do something differently, to lower their nets on a new side of the boat. Now you can just hear the rational arguments: Why change? (Same water on the left as on the right; same Sea of Tiberius; the fish didn’t bite last night, or this morning—why would they bite over there, when nothing is going on over here.) We human beings have strong convictions that we know exactly how the universe operates, and if we only keep doing what we have been doing, eventually things will improve. But Jesus says, “No, do something new.” Change your orientation, imagine that a stranger on the shore might know something that you don’t. And when the disciples moved to the other side, it wasn’t only their nets that became full of fish; their eyes opened, and their hearts awoke and they understood that there were miracles in every direction.

Easter is a story, an important story, about how all of us can see things we’ve never seen before, how we can move past the old, imprisoning assumptions, and beliefs. How the world keeps getting larger, if you pay attention.

Huck Finn is a resurrection story in this context. Huckleberry Finn absolutely believes that he will be “damned to the everlasting hell-fires” if he breaks the law and help a runaway slave. It is not his beliefs that change—he knows about hell (he’s tasted a little of it here on earth.) But he is willing to take the leap of action and say to himself “it doesn’t ultimately matter what I believe. What matters is how I act. And I love my friend Jim, and I will act on his behalf.” As Professor Nafisi observed in the second reading, “the magic of imagination creates this shock of recognition.” And from this empathy, this connection with one another, even with strangers on the other side of the globe, we may just risk hell and then find ourselves entering heaven.

It is not ultimately about what we think; it is about what we actually do.

An eloquent speaker illustrated our predicament to me recently when described a scenario something like this:
“You love your physician. You admire her skill, her devotion to her patients, and her formidable training. You consider the medical building in which she works to be somewhat of a shrine. You gently touch the threshold of the doorway as you enter, in acknowledgement of the great work of healing that occurs in the building. You listen attentively to everything your doctor says to you. You appreciate the thoroughness of her check-up, and the intelligence with which she lays out a plan for your treatment. You believe that she is the “bees knees” a stellar professional. You have faith in a noble and great physician. The one thing you won’t do is take the medicine she prescribes.”

Now, such a foolish patient can only be pitied. But you’d be surprised how many people believe that a church building is sacred ground: that one should listen to the teachings of the saints, that one should hold in very high regards the creeds and rituals and ethical teachings of synagogue and churches and temples. But they can’t quite see that it might be necessary to act differently…to change…to enter into relationships in new and transformative ways. Maybe just believing in the goodness of churches will make a difference? Maybe some one else can do the spiritual work required? Maybe I need to only admire good and trustworthy people and don’t actually have to become one myself?

Which brings me directly to the topic of Your Resurrection. Not Jesus’, not your neighbor’s, but yours.

My colleague and dear friend, The Reverend John Robinson, put it eloquently:

The congregations sing, “Christ the Lord is ris’n today.” Is!” “Today!” They do not sing “Christ was raised one thousand, nine hundred and seventy-six years ago, today.” No, they sing a present fact, a fact that is known in the human heart and spirit that opens itself to the life and wonder of this world around us. Each moment of our lives is a rebirth, if we are but awake to the living that breaks in around us each moment.

The musician listens for the pure note and tunes his or her instrument to it. All too often we hear and tune our lives to the dissonant cacophony of shouted claims around us: to earn more, to spend more, to seek the comfortable, the easier, to the shouts of the television and politicians and causes, to the warnings and fears that beset us. Too seldom do we set our tune to the clear true note which rings still within us.

But each year we are reminded that something “is ris’n,” (call it Christ or what you will), in our lives “today.” To know it we must listen, be awake to be alive.

Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, wrote that “the splendor and grace of Easter is meant to raise us, to open our imaginations.”

I don’t know what your personal resurrection means. It might be completely in the realm of the material world. Today, you might commit to be an organ donor—to give the gift of life and sight and hearing to someone who lives on after you die. Today, you might decide to give a scholarship to encourage the next generation to learn, to contribute, to have hope. Today, (or as soon as the ground thaws—say, late May) you may plant a tree, or write a check to UNICEF, or work for the political candidate that you believe can improve the world.
Your personal resurrection may be the way you get up from your pew this morning. Hopefully, with a willingness to fish in a new way—willing to take a second chance—willing to change the way you act. Deciding that, “all right then, this may just take me to hell,” but I’m willing to risk it all to help a friend, to close the distance, to make my love real, incarnate, visible, and constant. “I’m willing to keep changing.” “I’m willing to risk it all.”

The Worcester poet, Stanley Kunitz, in a few lines of his poem entitled “The Layers,” describes the lifelong journey from hell to an ongoing and constantly surprising resurrection.

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Small deaths, large deaths, great losses, small defeats; they will not be the end of you. Not when you remember that you are in the resurrection business. Always turning your imagination in the direction of radical change, real joy, and the triumph of the spirit.
When we sing together as a community about joy and resurrection, and the “triumphant song of life,” we are doing more than providing a thunderous alleluia chorus. We are also bearing emphatic witness to one another’s struggles. This is not just about my resurrection. In truth, we can’t do this resurrection work alone.

We are calling out to one another: “Have courage! Keep going! Sure, you might go to hell, but it will be worth it. Keep acting on behalf of love and hope, and on behalf of truth and goodness.” And somehow, a mystery will sustain us all. A miraculous abundance will astonish us, and we will find ourselves in the presence of God.

Today there is every reason to be joyful.

"Right Relationship" by Rev. Barbara Merritt Worship Service of Feb. 24, 2008

First Reading
from Isaiah 42 & 58

Here is my servant whom I upheld,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
Upon whom I have put my spirit,
he shall bring forth justice to nations,
I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

Would that today you might fast
so as to make your voice heard on high!
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance?
That a man bow his head like a reed,
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
This, rather is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed.

Second Reading
“Stranger on the Bus” by Lawrence Kushner

A light snow was falling and the streets were crowded with people. It was Munich in Nazi Germany. One of my rabbinic students, Shifra Penzias, told me her great-aunt, Sussie, had been riding a city bus home from work when SS storm troopers suddenly stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed, but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into a truck around the corner.

My student’s great-aunt watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he politely asked her why.

“I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’re going to take me.”

The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. “You stupid bitch,” he roared. “I can’t stand being near you!”

The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.

“Damn her,” the man shouted angrily. “”My wife has forgotten her papers again! I’m so fed up. She always does this!”

The soldiers laughed and moved on.

My student said that her great-aunt never saw the man again. She never even knew his name.

You are going about your business when you stumble onto something that has your name on it. Or, to be more accurate, a task with your name on it finds you. Its execution requires inconvenience, self-sacrifice. You step forward and encounter your destiny. This does not mean you must do everything that lands on your doorstep, or that you should assume every risk or make every self-sacrifice. But it does mean that you must tell yourself the truth about where you have been placed and why.

You don’t exercise your freedom by doing what you want. Self-indulgence is not an exercise of freedom. But when you accept the task that destiny seems to have set before you, you become free. Perhaps the only exercise of real freedom comes from doing what you were meant to do all along.

If everything is connected to everything else, then everyone is ultimately responsible for everything. We can blame nothing on anyone else. The more we comprehend our mutual interdependence, the more we fathom the implications of our most trivial acts. We find ourselves within a luminous organism of sacred responsibility.
Even on a bus in Munich.

“Right Relationships” by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

This morning it is my troublesome responsibility to report to you that there are real problems with the professional staff that serves this church. I don’t mean that among the people that you employ for the benefit of this parish there are a few difficult issues. No, there is a systemic problem that affects everyone on the payroll: full-time and part-time, professional and administrative and janitorial. Despite a very clear and well-researched personnel policy manual, the discrepancy between policy and practice persists.

It became glaringly evident last week when our sexton Jim came to me and said that he absolutely refused to accept over-time pay for additional hours worked here over the last few weeks, and that if the personnel policy said that he had to, then we needed to change the policy. Donna, our newsletter editor, refused to take President’s Day off, which is an official First Unitarian holiday, specifically named in said “Personnel Policy.” Why? Because we’ve had a number of snow days when she couldn’t come in, but worked at home. Will, our Choir Master, has put in so many volunteer hours over the years that it is ridiculous. (Just ask him how long it takes to make a CD.) Abby, our RE Assistant, is paid for 10 of the hours she works here on behalf of our kids; the other 10 hours she donates and will not accept money for. Barbara Foley, our Parish Administrator, has been woken up at midnight and come down to the church to fix the alarms. None of this is in the job descriptions.

I could go on and on. But one must ask, Rev. Schade is their supervisor! What kind of behavior is he modeling? Well, Tom refuses to take a raise, and he and Sue are among our most generous pledgers. And me? Well, I work part-time theoretically. As of 2008, I get 10 days off a month. Well, that didn’t happen in January. I only got 7. So I made a really conscientious, determined effort in February. This month I will be taking 5 days off.

Is it in the water? Are those who work here totally unaware of job descriptions, or the precarious economy, or that normal people take the vacation days that are given? Is it possible statistically to hire all work-a-holics in every position in an organization?

The answer to all those questions is, no. I have figured out who is to blame – and it is you. The congregation. When the staff at First Unitarian works with a group of people where the membership and the leadership are generous and committed with both their time and their money; when you spend your day in the company of those who serve freely and cheerfully (and with enthusiasm and good humor) it is contagious! There is no resisting the pull to help in any way you can. There is a culture in this church which inspires visitors, long-time members and those of us on the payroll. This culture is one of service.

Now in Judaism the faith community is by-in-large an inherited relationship, a covenanted body that extends through history and is passed on from generation to generation. The free church, in contrast, has been called a “chosen faith.” Most Unitarian Universalists (even those of us whose parents and grandparents were Unitarians) still imagine ourselves as being in an entirely voluntary community. We come here freely; we can leave freely; and while our children are invited and encouraged to “keep the faith,” they are under no obligation to do so.

Nevertheless, once you sign our membership book, the congregation you walk with is not custom-ordered to your particular political and spiritual preference. What you see is what you get. You are stuck with some who prefer the choir staying with the classical repertoire and some who want more gospel and jazz. In this parish there are some who will spend their vacation helping Katrina victims in New Orleans and some whose lives are already so overwhelming that they can’t volunteer for a single committee, or even attend a coffee hour. The essential question at First Unitarian is not, “What’s in it for me?” The central question is, “What am I here on earth to do?”

Good company is a powerful spiritual force. When any one person focuses his or her energy on caring for their neighbor, offering their talents and working to bring about a better world (and to be a better person) this individual commitment has a profound affect on everyone around them. And I would add, the greater the service and the love we bring, the greater the influence on our surroundings.

I will be the first to admit that a congregation is an odd setting in which to attempt to change the world. Rabbi Kushner, the eloquent author of the reading about the bus in Munich, also serves a congregation near Boston. And he writes about congregations:
“The power of congregational life comes precisely from this involuntariness of association. We look about the room and realize these people are not friends or even acquaintances; we do not agree with them about much; these are simply people we are stuck with. This generates a kind of love both more intense and more complicated than the voluntary variety. These members of our community, just like the people in our family, literally make us who we are.”

People come here to worship and to hopefully move closer to God, to truth, to reality and their own deepest sources of inner strength. This wonderful gift of being “stuck” with one another broadens our horizons and helps to develop “who we are.” And the more time you spend in “good company,” I suspect, the more you will find that you are developing a better prospective, clearer priorities and increased hope. As you engage in all kinds of relationships (congregational, work, family and friends) your aspirations naturally increase to live in right relationships, in harmony, in relationships which are sustainable, life-giving and creative. How do we go about creating such relationships? Who gets to define what is a “right relationship” versus a wrong relationship?

Through the laws of biblical Judaism, the answer is a clear one. God decides. And God issues commandments – very detailed instructions about exactly how you are to relate to your neighbor. The word “relationship” doesn’t appear once in the Bible. Not in the Jewish scripture. And not in the Christian one either. But the words “righteous” and “right” appear hundreds of times: “righteous” meaning that the nature of our interactions with our neighbor needs to be ones of honesty, goodness, excellence, virtue, and what the ancient Hebrews called “holiness.” Kushner said it beautifully. “The more we comprehend our mutual interdependence, the more we fathom the implications of our most trivial acts. We find ourselves within a luminous organism of sacred responsibility.”

Judaism is explicit on this point. What is at the heart of reality has a relationship with each one of us. There is a sacred responsibility between each of us. Especially between those of us who have been blessed with some affluence or resources: we have been given the responsibility to care for the imprisoned and those who live in darkness. Our responsibility is towards those who are burdened, oppressed, hungry, homeless, naked, and perhaps most challenging, our own blood relatives. Do that and you are promised, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your wounds shall quickly be healed.”

The modern problem with the prophets of biblical Judaism is that they “commanded.” The prophets weren’t big on “advice” or “suggestions.” They never asked, “Have you ever considered ‘holiness’ as an option?” They thundered! They demanded obedience. They said there would be hell to pay if we didn’t take care of these relationships entrusted into our care. We are many millennium away from such language. We may appreciate it as beautiful poetry or inspiring moral teaching, but we would rather participate in the life and troubles of our neighbor on a voluntary basis.

And too often we volunteer to live alone: apart, separate, unengaged, unconscious or as John Muir described us, “like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.” How have we lost our sympathy, our understanding that we are all in this together? Three ways quickly come to mind. Best illustrated by three stories.

First Story: The Black Sheep and the White Sheep by Catholic priest and writer, Anthony DeMello.

A shepherd was grazing his sheep when a passerby said, “That’s a fine flock of sheep you have. Could I ask you something about them?” “Of course,” said the shepherd. Said the man, “How much would you say your sheep walk each day?” “Which ones, the white ones or the black ones?” asked the shepherd. “The white ones.” “Well, the white ones walk about four miles a day.” “And the black ones?” “The black ones too.”

“And how much grass would you say they eat each day?” “Which ones, the white or the black?” “The white ones.” “Well, the white ones eat about four pounds of grass each day.” “And the black ones?” “The black ones eat about four pounds of grass each day.” “And how much wool would you say they give each year?” “Which ones, the white or the black?” “The white ones.” “Well, I’d day the white ones give some six pounds of wool each year at shearing time.” “And the black ones?” “The black ones too.”

The passerby was intrigued. “May I ask you why you have this strange habit of dividing your sheep into white and black each time you answer one of my questions?” “Well,” said the shepherd, “that’s only natural. The white ones are mine, you see.” “Ah! And the black ones?” “The black ones too,” said the shepherd.

And then DeMello adds, “The human mind makes foolish divisions in what Love sees as One.” The first rupture of relationship comes when we separate and divide.

Second story: appearing in a new philosophy book entitled, Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington, DC.

Melvin was dying. He was old, very old, He had seen much suffering in his life. Trudy, his wife, was seated on the edge of the bed, wiping his brow. They had lived together for more than seventy years.

“Tell me, Trudy, do you remember the Depression years when we barely had enough to get by?” he asked her.

“Of course. I remember. I was with you through all that,” Trudy answered.

“Do you remember the lean years after the war, when I was working two jobs and going to school?”

“Of course. I was with you then too, my love.”

“Were you with me when I lost my job?”

“Of course, my love. I’ve been with you. Always.”

Melvin was silent for a moment. Then he looked at his loving wife, “You see Trudy, I think you were bad luck.”

The second rupture of relationship? Blame and criticism, pushing others away and projections.
And the third relationship killer? Something called the inner tyrant—insisting that you get to call the shots, that you must be the one in control, that you get to be the judge and the jury on your own life, and everyone else’s.

This story is true. One of my nephews was asked by his mother (when he was 3 ½ years old), “Please pick up your toys now.” And he turned to his Mom with hands on his hips and said, “You’re not the boss of me!”

What happens when we get older? When adults say to God, say to their neighbor, say to their spouse, say to their boss, “You’re not the boss of me!” While no one ought to be bullied or pushed around, sometimes we take our independence so seriously that we forget that we are called to work with, to comfort and to adjust. But the little, inner tyrant only wants to have its own way.
Divisiveness, blame and arrogance all cut at the root of our connectedness with one another and with God. All of the common human failings call us to repentance. All remind us that we need to turn in new directions. Ashes and sackcloth and traditional fasting will not do. We are called in this Lenten season to return to what is most essential. And when it comes to right relationship there are three actions that can begin to heal our wounds: service, sustainability, and vulnerability.

Beginning with service. Bob Dylan wrote, “You are going to have to serve somebody…well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody!” But why stop with those two choices? You can serve your own selfish, small agenda or you can serve the Beloved Community. You can serve the least of them or the most powerful. You can serve the highest and most enduring vision you’ve ever encountered, or you can sit at the altar of your television set, and serve the gods of entertainment. When we serve and how we serve and who we serve – these are choices we make with every breath we take.

Next: sustainability. Right relationship takes us immediately into our responsibility for the environment. Once we become conscious that our well-being (and our neighbor in Africa’s well-being) has everything to do with how our resources are used and allotted. (And that there are consequences to what we eat, and how we travel and what we buy and what we throw away) then we find ourselves within a “luminous organism of sacred responsibility.” This becomes our vocation and our privilege.

And the final remedy to bring us back into right relationship would be vulnerability. A subject that I know almost nothing about. Vulnerability is the capacity to face the challenges of your life with an open heart, with trust, with a willingness to take great risks, and to move closer to everyone you meet.

It is a mystery. It happened on that bus in Munich between strangers. It may happen in coffee hour after church today. It is the ongoing miraculous decision not to be afraid, guarded, independent or alone. It is to let the marble fall away from our shining surfaces and to greet one another as just one more struggling soul whom we have the opportunity to bless.

Right relationship, that is our calling. That is our sacred responsibility. That is what will teach us to live in peace.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"A Wretch Like Me" by Rev. Barbara Merritt November 25, 2007

First Reading
Matthew 18: 23-33

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you seventy-seven times.”

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of the servant released him and forgave him the debt.

But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.

When his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy unto you?”

Second Reading
from “My Name Is Waiting” by M. Shawn Copeland

I am a child born of the union of tradition and crisis. Sorrow is my grandmother; suffering and striving my aunts; begin anew my great-grandmother. My name is waiting.

My name has lived my life under the whip, under the lash; my name has lived my life within walls, within bondage; my name has lived my life through exodus, through sojourn.

I have waited in the desert of Syria, in the streets of Egypt, in the land of Babylon. I have waited in the cloisters of France, in the rice-paper houses of Japan. I have waited in the slave ships bound for hell, in the barrios of southern California.

I have waited in the tin shanties in Soweto, I have waited in the showers of Buchenwald; I have waited in the hills of the Dakotas.

I have waited in fields and vineyards, picking cotton and beans and grapes, cutting cane. I have brought down my hoe on hard ground; I have gripped the plow firmly; I have forced fruit from the earth.

I have waited in houses—washing, cooking, cleaning. I have sheltered the orphan, welcomed the stranger, embraced the lonely. I have lived alongside pain and disease, poverty and misery, anxiety and affliction. I have pleaded and hurt; I have known the coming of despair; I have given birth.

I have waited in the journey. My throat has grown parched thirsting for truth and justice. My feet have grown bloody cutting a path across the precipice, making a way where there is no way. I have slept under gathering clouds with hope; I have rested near fresh water with faith; I have eaten and grown strong with love.

I have known blood and want and pain and joy. I have drunk water from the well; I have walked the threshing floor; I have been to the mountaintop.
I am waiting.

“A Wretch Like Me” by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

At the turn of the last century, a writer named Ambrose Bierce was probably the greatest cynic about American society in general, and human nature in particular.

He told the story of Satan, God’s archangel, and his spectacular fall from grace into Hell. Bierce used information gleaned from the Unitarian poet John Milton that Satan’s sin was much worse than mere rebellion. Satan rejected human beings. Satan thought that God was making a terrible mistake in creating such a creature.

According to Ambrose Bierce, this fallen angel was “halfway in his descent from heaven when he bent his head in thought and at last went back up to God saying, ‘There is one favor that I should like to ask.’

‘Name it,’ responded God.

‘Humanity, I understand, is about to be created. They will need laws.’

God replied, ‘What wretch?! You their appointed adversary, charged from the dawn of eternity with the hatred of their souls, you ask for the right to make their laws?!’

‘Pardon,’ answered Satan, ‘what I have to ask is that humanity be permitted to make their laws themselves.’ It was so ordered.”

Like any good story, this explains a great deal. Human laws are a reasonable reflection of human beings. Sometimes noble and inspiring and consistent and helpful. Sometimes tragically flawed, often used unfairly and oppressively, and more often, frustrating and obstructive.

At the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, it took my breath away to see the signs, laws posted by the government only a few decades ago: whites only—colored drinking fountain. And editorial cartoons where the segregationist South is portrayed as the innocent victim of an evil and bullying Federal Government.

There are times in history where we tend to look at events and shake our heads, and say, “How could they have been so wrong?” More rarely we say, “How could we have been so wrong?” But almost never do we say about ourselves, “How is it that I am so wrong right now?”

At this particular moment in American history, we may see foreign policy as wrong, and our political leaders as wrong, and domestic energy policies as shortsighted and ultimately harmful. But we tend to see ourselves as good, as well intentioned, as trying our best and hard working. We work to gain self-esteem. We hope for the respect of others.

And Unitarian Universalists adopt this optimistic view of human nature as our first principle, “The inherent worth and dignity of every human being.” This is a good principal, possibly even a great principle. It is a transformative alternative to the doctrine of original sin. We have rejected a religion of self-hatred, of shame, of belittling ourselves or others. We dismiss any theology that claims that we are inherently evil, condemned at birth or destined to fail. Unitarian Universalists for centuries have proclaimed a God of love who embraces every person, good, bad or indifferent, and we maintain that eventually every child of God will be saved: the atheist and the undecided, as well as the devout and the observant.

“And all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”(Julian of Norwich) But like every good thing, when taken to extremes, we can get into trouble. In our passion to vanquish original sin, we went way over to the other side saying, “Actually there is nothing wrong with us; we’re all good. Unitarians are just a nice, creative, engaging and wonderful gathering of folks.”

T.S. Eliot grew up as a Unitarian, the grandson of a famous St. Louis Unitarian minister. When he converted to the high Anglican Church of England, he left us with a description of the typical Unitarian church about 70 years ago.
“To be a Unitarian was to be noble, upright and superior to all other human beings. Unitarians believed that they were already enlightened. The enlightenment for them was an intellectual achievement. Unitarians were put on earth to better the lot of humanity, to be a good and inspiring example. Unitarians were expected to be dutiful, benevolent, cheerful, self-restrained and unemotional. They attended church to set a good example to others.”


Would that we could say that we’ve made great progress in embracing our complexity and our frailties over 70 years, but one glance at our hymnal will tell you otherwise. “Man is the earth, upright and proud.” We are the earth, upright and proud. “Forward through the ages, hearts of one accord, manifolds the service, one the sure reward.” And my personal favorite, and I mean that honestly, it is my personal favorite. “We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken. We’ll build a land where the captives go free.” We’ll create a perfectly wonderful world—that’s our job! And it’s not all bad to try to take some responsibility to improve the earth, even if the words to our hymns do show a little arrogance, a little too much optimism and a truly breath-taking naiveté. But sometimes when I’m preaching about how we haven’t been making much progress with “creating a perfect world”…and I search for hymns about human inadequacy and failure and defeat and need…then I discover there aren’t a whole lot of hymns on that subject.

It was pointed out to me in St. Louis at Prairie Group that whenever UUs sing Amazing Grace (as we will for our closing hymn this morning), we are given an alternative wording. There is an asterisk attached to the word “wretch” and if you look below you will see that you don’t have to claim to be a “wretch.” When you sing with your brothers and sisters in this sanctuary, you may substitute the word “soul.” That saves a “soul” like me. Please note that the word “wretch” doesn’t mean what you assume it means (terrible person, completely awful or contemptible.) The word “wretch” came from the Old English meaning: lost or in exile. We ask for grace to save those of us who are lost; those of us who are not sure how we fit in; those of us who are a “stranger in a strange world”; those of us who don’t feel completely at home. Who in our midst does not know what that feels like? Who doesn’t need grace, help and forgiveness?

UUs tend to be in our comfort zone when we are feeling successful, effective, hard working and right (progressing in the direction of becoming smarter, stronger and more evolved.) But we don’t always get to live in our comfort zone. Sometimes, lots of times, we are confronted with our need: our falling short of the mark, failing to meet our own expectations let alone the expectations of others. We are incapable of doing what we want to do. And we are not usually happy to discover just how complicated we are: good and bad—lost and found—winning and failing.

One alternative for those of us who do not wish to be conscious of all that complexity going on with ourselves is to project our shadow onto someone else. A few years ago the political far right demonized Bill Clinton. And I couldn’t understand then how they could focus so much hatred on a nationally elected leader. But now the left seems to be doing exactly the same thing with Bush and Cheney (at least I am.) It is not easy for me to remember that they are children of God, let alone affirming and promoting their inherent dignity and worth.

Another popular alternative to embracing our inner confusion is to simply try harder. We say: “I’ll be so good, I won’t need to be forgiven. I’ll be so disciplined and strong, I won’t need any grace.” For these deluded souls Jesus offered a rather harsh teaching parable. He is telling Peter that human life is not about an occasional forgiving act, but rather a lifetime of forgiveness (70 x 7.) Jesus describes a servant in dreadful circumstances (who owes a vast sum, in today’s numbers about $300,000) who pleads for mercy for this huge and unpayable debt and receives forgiveness. But then he is so unconscious of the value of what he has been blessed with, that he refuses to offer forgiveness to the one who owes him a small sum (equivalent to about $56.) That first, foolish servant only experiences the king as cruel, demanding and quick to judge and throw him into prison, when what he expects is justice. It seems that reality only appears to be merciful when you are able to plead for mercy. But when you can’t ask or when you can’t hear someone else’s asking, you will live in a prison of your own making with high stonewalls and heavy metal locks. It is our own delusions of autonomy and independence and self-righteousness that entrap us and convince us that the world is a harsh, angry and brutal realm. When we don’t know how to ask for help, when we don’t learn how to offer mercy to others, we are in prison.

The song, “Amazing Grace” offers the secret to our freedom. There is a grace that reaches those of us who are lost, who live in confusion, who don’t know which way to go. “A wretch like me” is a phrase that has two meanings. The first (and most common) is that I describe myself as a wretch—just as I would say about a “vegetarian like me” or a “blue-eyed person like me.” But there is another hidden meaning in the phrase that speaks to our mutuality. That “save a wretch like me” can mean a grace that saves someone else whom I identify with …that saves a guy named Ralph or Henry or Bill…that saves a sister named Mary or Jane or Ellen. If grace can save them (as flawed and as confused as they are) then there is some hope for me. In this second interpretation, I begin to identify with all those who are lost and waiting, those who are struggling, occasionally failing, those who ignore my feelings.

This identification with those who lose, I believe, is at the heart of the Red Sox Nation. Our recent successes not withstanding, the reason people all across the nation (and indeed around the world) root for the Red Sox is not that we are the ones that always win. It is that we went so long without winning. And now our recent success is all the more sweeter. It’s almost as if to find what we really want, we have to go some of the way on the path of failure and losing and falling short.

I must learn to see not only my own inherent worth and dignity. I must also learn to see my own inherent limitations and capacity for delusion. And we need to see those limitations in the people we live with and work with and who cut us off in traffic. We must continue to picture seeing them as children of God and forgive them 70 x 7. (Which I suppose must necessarily include the car and driver I gave a rather unpleasant and unfortunate gesture to on 495 on Friday afternoon.) We wait with all of God’s children for mercy, for grace, for the strength to continue.

We are complicated souls, every one of us. What makes us loved and loveable is not how good we are. (We are good and bad.) What makes us saved and savable is how open we are to receive the love and the mercy that is offered.

One poet in particular lived in Indian, in the 17th century. Sarmad was a mystic who was claimed by Jews, Hindus and Moslems as a faithful member of their tribe. Well now, 400 years later I want to claim his as an early Unitarian, as one of us, especially when he wrote: “Never, by God, will I pretend devotion. And no where will I beg, but at the door of Reality.” That could be our new UU motto: “Nowhere do we beg, but at the door of Reality.”

Samad wrote:
Every moment and everywhere
I am aware that your grace and forgiveness
outweigh my transgressions.
My misdeeds cannot outdo your compassion –
I am never concerned with the mercy of God.

God knows my rebelliousness and his clemency
My feet have worn these chains of selfishness for a lifetime –
I have hope for a thousand salvations
in a single act of God’s grace.

Sometimes my heart pines for the world –
Sometimes for the world beyond
My eyes well up with tears –
I am drowning in a sea of regret.
My only wish is that even for one breath –
I may not forget God –
But alas, with every breath, I am negligent.

And finally:
Every moment now, I am keeping the account –
my rebellion and your mercy.

The poets I love speak the same language. I skip ahead four centuries to end with a new poem by the contemporary poet Mary Oliver.
Lord God, mercy is in your hands
Pour me a little
And tenderness too
My need is great.

When I first found you
I was filled with light
Now, the darkness grows
And it is filled with crooked things
Bitter and weak
Each one bearing my name.

She writes: “Belief isn’t always easy. But this much I have learned—to live with my eyes open. I know what everyone wants is a miracle—kindness is a miracle.”

May you know kindness. My you offer kindness to others. And may grace save us, now and always. Amen.