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.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

"My Last Memo" by Rev. Tom Schade

This is it – my last memo before I get a puppy.

Tonight my older daughter will deliver a little puppy to us. A little apartment sized dog, but just a puppy. By the time you read this, we will be deep into puppy ownership. We have picked out a tentative name, but are waiting for her input when she gets here.

Sue and I thought that we needed someone lively around the house. We even wanted to have someone that we could take care of.

We are hoping that our little dog will be suitable for our living situation and life style. We realize that someone watching the way that we live, would think that a “suitable animal roommate” would be one who might put dinner on the table when we come home late, do the dishes and run errands when needed.

We will settle, however, for a friend who loves us unconditionally, and makes a sincere effort toward being housebroken.

In all honesty, I have never wanted to be one of those ministers who writes, talks, preaches, teaches and prays about his dog all the time. You know the kind that draws deep inspiration from the doings of his dog. The preacher who salts his sermon illustrations about how his dog exemplifies faithful service, and peppers his reflections with how God will always take us for a walk when we can stand it no more. Such theologizing about one’s dog or cat always struck me as a cheap ploy to appear human, and even likeable, which we all know is a slippery slope.

But now I am getting a dog, so a new revelation may be at hand. In a couple of weeks, I might be planning a dog biscuit communion for one of next year’s summer services.

But in these last few hours of pre-puppy sanity, I want to remember some of the questions that UU ministers get asked all the time:

Questions like:

  • How can a church not have a creed?
  • Is it true that you can believe anything you want and be a Unitarian?
  • Are you trying to combine all religions into one?
  • Why can’t answer a simple question like “Are you Christians?” with a simple yes or no?
  • Is it true that some Unitarians don’t believe in God? Why do they go to church?
  • Unitarian Universalism – that’s 11 syllables, what is the short version of what you believe?
  • How come there are so many Buddhists in your church?

And then there are the questions, all ministers get asked:
  • What does God want from me?
  • Will God really forgive my sins?
  • Does it matter if I go to church, if I am trying to live a good life?
  • Can I be spiritual but not religious?

You only have to come by the First Unitarian Church in Worcester once to know that our way of being religious is not a new wrinkle. We have been worshipping in the Unitarian manner for over two hundred years here and longer elsewhere.

Modern Unitarian Universalism arises out of a rich and detailed tradition of theological thinking. It is an interconnected set of answers to some of the most troubling questions in religious life, including how to sustain religion that does not become rigid, stultified and eventually oppressive to the human spirit.

If you feel the need to understand the theology and history of Unitarian Universalism more fully, you may be interested in attending the “First Unitarian School of Theology and History”.

There will be a series of classes held about every other week at 9 AM on Sunday.

We will start by listing the most troublesome theological words we know and then systematically exploring how liberal religions has approached the underlying questions.

I hope that you will be able to join us for as many of the sessions that interest you.

"Being Wrong" by Rev. Barbara Merritt

MP3 audio

First Reading: - from Psalm 51

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of your tender mercies blot out my transgression.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.
Behold, thou desires truth in the inward parts: and in my hidden being You shall make me to know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which You have broken may rejoice.
Turn away your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with your free spirit.
For thou desires not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delights not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou will not despise.

Second Reading: — from “Cry Out in Your Weakness” by Rumi (Coleman Barks, translator)

A dragon was pulling a bear into its terrible mouth.

A courageous man went and rescued the bear.
There are such helpers in the world, who rush to save
anyone who cries out. Like Mercy itself,
they run toward the screaming.

And they can’t be bought off.
If you were to ask one of those, “Why did you come
so quickly?” he or she would say, “Because I heard
your helplessness.”

Where lowland is,
that’s where water goes. All medicine wants
is pain to cure.

And don’t just ask for one mercy.
Let them flood in. Let the sky open under your feet.
Take the cotton out of your ears.

Push the hair out of your eyes.

Let the wind breeze through.

Tear the binding from around the foot
of your soul, and let it race around the track
in front of the crowd. Loosen the knot of greed
so tight on your neck. Accept your new good luck.

Give your weakness
to one who helps.

Crying out loud and weeping are great resources.
A nursing mother, all she does
is wait to hear her child.

Just a little beginning whimper,
and she’s there.

Cry out! Don’t be stolid and silent
with your pain. Lament! And let the milk
of loving flow into you.

Be patient.
Respond to every call
that excites your spirit.

Ignore those that make you fearful
and sad.

Sermon: “Being Wrong”

At long last, after 31 years of ordained ministry (and I was told on Thursday that there are now only five of us in over 1,000 Unitarian Universalist ministers who have been in their parish for 31 years), finally, I can give a sermon I feel genuinely qualified to address – “Being Wrong.” I can’t begin to tell you the research I’ve put into this topic. It goes back a long way and continues right up to the present day.

By wrong, being misguided, being mistaken; all of these acknowledgements of errant human judgments lie at the very heart of the high holy days in Judaism. As Tom told us, beginning with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah and moving to Yom Kipper, the day of Atonement, the Jewish community starts the new year with self-reflection, setting aside time for contrition, repentance and a commitment to repair what is broken in relationships and in the world. It as a spiritual discipline that all human being would do well to practice.

But the Jewish high holy days were not the original inspiration for this sermon.

An incident occurred this summer. I was in a high state of “agita,” stress and distress when I received a long-distance phone call from one of my dearest friends. Halfway through our conversation, she said something that was so inappropriate, so unhelpful, that I wanted to hang up on her.

The next day, a relative called. Again, saying something different, but every bit as disturbing. And I found myself having to restrain myself from slamming the receiver down, mid-sentence.

Later that evening, I was talking to another friend. And what a surprise! What she was telling me was unbelievably aggravating, and only a lifetime of friendship kept me on the line.

I couldn’t help but notice that I was furious with almost anyone I was talking to (and even with some who hadn’t said a single word to me.) Surely all these people I loved dearly were not in some vast conspiracy to day annoying things?

It dawned on me, with rare clarity, that my mind was giving me inaccurate information. What was wrong was the way I was perceiving reality.

Now this was a genuine crisis. Like most Unitarian Universalists, I have been taught that we can rely of the “integrity of our own minds.” We depend on our own capacity to judge true from false, right from wrong. We may even convince ourselves that we are discerning, rational, sensitive, observant and committed to clear thinking. It was a shock for me to discover that apparently none of these intellectual qualities were operational under stress conditions.

Now I’m hoping that some of you, at this point, are asking, “If the preacher this morning openly admits that she is wrong a lot, why am I listening to anything she has to say?”

Should we go immediately to the closing hymn? Instead, I would like to speak in defense of all of us who are constantly and habitually wrong. Those who occupy a pulpit, or who stand in front of a classroom, those who have been working with family and friends, those who have been wrong, who now sit in pews.

First, a Thesaurus definition: (see what the following constellation of words bring to your mind) “error, delusion, misjudgment, mistake, inaccuracy, misunderstanding, failure, misstep, blunder, stupidity, misconception, stumble.”

I don’t think many of you are having a difficult time with the definition. But how does being wrong affect our spiritual lives? We Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in original sin. We don’t believe that human beings are inherently evil. But we nevertheless might benefit from confessing that we oft times “miss the mark.” And in case you’ve forgotten a few of the details; I have compiled an “Error Inventory.”

· Did you ever accept a job that you thought would be perfect – only to discover later that it wasn’t?
· Did you ever hire someone you were sure would do a great job – and then they didn’t?
· Have you ever been blinded by infatuation and love?
· If you have helped to raise children, did you hope you could “do it right”?
· Did you believe (as I did) that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
· Have you taken a wrong turn and then gotten really, really, lost?
· Have you neglected to write a thank you, send a note of bereavement or to offer congratulations?
· Have you argued passionately with a friend, or a spouse, or a relative only to discover later that you were completely wrong?
· Do you need any more questions?

If you have been wrong a lot in your life, allow me to offer my congratulations. It means you are fully human. It means you are out here with the rest of us – trying, failing and in need of help. There aren’t any other kinds of people than ones who are “wrong” frequently.

Rumi is a little more upbeat on the condition of error than I am. He wrote from the Sufi tradition – the mysticism of Islam. “Failure is the key to the kingdom within.” So why don’t we embrace our misconceptions? Celebrate our shortcomings? Welcome our misjudgments? Because our own track record, our own errors in judgment and in practice make us uncomfortable. Mistakes usually make us feel vulnerable and afraid.

It is so much easier to focus on what is wrong with our neighbor, with our boss, with our politicians, with our spouse, with our fate, our luck and our circumstances!

Some one recently summed up the prejudice against other people’s misjudgments: “If I think it, it is true and right. If you think something, it is fake and wrong.” Pretty neatly put!

Religious wars have been fought on this conviction. We human beings are easily deluded. Jesus, in one of his rare written records of sarcasm, is quoted as saying, “Why do you focus on the splinter in your neighbors eye, when you yourself are blinded by a plank, a log, a piece of lumber in your own eye?”

Repentance is in order, now and always. Not just for the Jewish people in their days of contrition, but also for Unitarian Universalists. We are wrong a lot. What would repentance in the free church look like? I suggest we go with our strengths.

First, skepticism – only now directed not at the dogmas and rituals and doctrines of the orthodox and the fundamentalists. We need to harbor an abiding skepticism about what our own minds tell us.

Are you convinced that the world is coming to an end?

Are you certain that there is very little joy awaiting you?”

Are you afraid that you don’t have the strength to meet the challenges ahead?

Do you think that you’ve made too many wrong turns in your life?

Be skeptical. Hold your ideas and pronouncements with a light touch. Better yet, let go of your fixed and stubborn ideas about what is real and what is possible.

The Taoist, Chinese tradition teaches, “Imagining a bad outcome, adopting a fixed negative idea about what is happening – those fixed ideas are hedges against the unknown. By nature, they are oppressive and destructive. Maintaining them is exhausting.” The wisdom traditions say it is better to stay open and curious, skeptical that any of us have a clue about what will happen. We need to admit that we don’t know.

My second piece of advice for a Unitarian Universalist repentance is to take action. Action which will lead us in the direction we want to go.

This summer, on retreat, I heard someone describe two directions on a spiritual path that we can chose to travel upon – either towards separation or towards love. The speaker described the path of separation as that of pride, ego, being different (being especially cursed or especially blessed) being better, or worse than others, thinking of yourself as being alone, isolated or living apart.

He described another way, another direction, towards love, towards hope, towards unity and togetherness. Identifying with the struggle of all souls – believing yourself to be fundamentally no different than any other loved child of God.

I don’t completely understand these two directions. I know that I am tempted to wander onto the path of separation and estrangement all too frequently. But in worship, and our lives, we can repent. We can ask to be turned, again and again, in the direction of love. And we can ask that our lives be used in the service of love, rather than using our energy to divide and separate, to place ourselves higher or lower than our fellow human beings.

After exercising our skepticism, and actively turning in the direction of love, there is one final act of contrition that I believe Unitarian Universalists can take refuge in. I heard it once in a fragment of song (or a piece of poetry.) It can be summarized in these few words, “Even when it seems that you’ve done everything wrong, it can come out right in the end.” The last practice is to relax and to know that being wrong can take you where you need to go on your path to God, to truth, towards peace. This morning in Zen meditation in the Chapel, David Rynick described this as a stance of friendliness.

I close with a story narrated by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. If any of you are feeling a little sleepy about now, you might want to wake up and pay attention.

“The richest man in town was sleeping in his pew, as usual, through Sabbath morning services. Every now and then, he would almost wake up, trying to get comfortable on the hard wooden bench, and then sink back into a deep sleep. One morning he awoke just long enough to hear the chanting of the Torah verses from Leviticus in which God instructs the children of Israel to place twelve loaves of bread on a table in the ancient wilderness tabernacle.

When services ended, the wealthy man woke up, not realizing that all he had heard was the Torah reading about how God wanted twelve loaves of bread. He thought that God had come to him in his sleep and had asked him personally to bring twelve loaves of chalah to God. The rich man felt honored that God should single him out, but he also felt a little foolish. Of all the things God would want from a person, twelve loaves of bread did not seem very important. But who was he to argue with God? He went home and baked the bread.

Upon returning to the synagogue, he decided the only proper place for his holy gift was alongside the Torah scrolls in the ark. He carefully arranged the loaves and said to God, “Thank You for telling me what You want of me. Pleasing You makes me very happy.” Then he left.

No sooner had he gone than the poorest Jew in the town, the synagogue janitor, entered the sanctuary. All alone, he spoke to God. “O Lord, I am so poor. My family is starving; we have nothing to eat. Unless You perform a miracle for us, we will surely perish.” Then, as was his custom, he walked around the room to tidy it up. When he ascended the bimah and opened the ark, there before him were twelve loaves of bread! “A miracle!” exclaimed the poor man. “I had no idea You worked so quickly! Blessed are You, O God, who answers our prayers.” Then he ran home to share the bread with his family.

Minutes later, the rich man returned to the sanctuary, curious to know whether or not God ate the bread. Slowly he ascended the bimah and opened the ark, and saw that the bread was gone. “Oh, my God!” he shouted, “You really ate my bread! I thought You were teasing. This is wonderful. You can be sure that I’ll bring another twelve loaves—with raisins in them too!”

The following week, the rich man brought a dozen loaves to the synagogue and again left them in the ark. Minutes later, the poor man entered the sanctuary. “God, I don’t know how to say this, but I’m out of food again. Seven loaves we ate, four we sold and one we gave to charity. But now, nothing is left and, unless You do another miracle, we will surely will starve.” He approached the ark and slowly opened its doors. “Another miracle!” he cried. “Twelve more loaves, and with raisins too! Thank You God. This is wonderful!”

The bread exchange became a weekly ritual that continued. . . And, like most rituals that become routine, neither man gave it much thought. Then, one day, the rabbi, detained in the sanctuary longer than usual, watched the rich man place the dozen loaves in the ark and the poor man redeem them.

The rabbi called the two men together and told them what they had been doing.

“I see,” said the rich man sadly, “God doesn’t really eat chalah.”

“I understand,” said the poor man, “God hasn’t been baking chalah for me after all.”

They both feared that now God would no longer be present in lives.
Then the rabbi asked them to look at their hands. “Your hands,” he said to the rich man, “are the hands of God giving food to the poor. And your hands,” said the rabbi to the poor man, “also are the hands of God, receiving gifts from the rich. So you see God still can be present in your lives. Continue baking and continue taking. Your hands are the hands of God.”

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"Who Done It" -- Memo by Rev. Barbara Merritt

To my knowledge, I have never made the acquaintance of murderers. (There was once a homeless man who came into my office and said (and I quote), “It’s not true that I murdered all those people in Vermont.” I gave him the benefit of the doubt.)

I have known and buried far too many people who have been murdered by violent individuals, by drunk drivers, by terrible accidents. There is hardly any greater tragedy than having a life violently and abruptly ended. Sadly, those who murder themselves through suicide have also participated in the same violent assault, only against themselves rather than towards a stranger. Murder is always a horrible way to die.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that my chief means of escape this summer (and now continuing on into the fall) is the murder-mystery novel. I am astonished that such stories of the breakdown of human relationships has become my recreation, my consolation and my refuge.

I can come up with some plausible explanations. I love to read stories with happy endings. And I haven’t yet, nor do I ever hope to encounter a detective novel where the bad guys don’t get caught, where justice is not administered and where the innocent are not completely exonerated. (As my own life descends into increased chaos, it is comforting to read about a world blessed with order.)

There is a strange universalism in the Agatha Christie novels I have just started reading. Pretty much all the characters are considered “likely suspects” at the beginning. Everyone has a motive. Everyone has a secret. No one is as they appear to be. As Miss Marple explains in The Murder at the Vicarage, “Normal people do such astonishing things sometimes, and abnormal people are sometimes so very sane and ordinary.” There is something quite wonderful about following a narrative where right up to the end, the reader doesn’t know how the plot will resolve itself. (Can I travel the narrative of my own life happily not knowing how the story will end?)

Agatha Christie brings the added bonus of often making me laugh out loud as she describes the quirkiness of human nature. I am quite taken with detective Hercule Poirot’s method of finding out who the murderer is, using psychology and a genuine depth of understanding about what motivates human behavior. After spending time with Poirot, I am beginning to observe those deadly attributes of most murderers: fear, anger and arrogance.

The fear is toxic and pervasive; the murderer is sure that they cannot get what they need, that certain destruction awaits them, that they cannot trust that there will be adequate resources. The anger is almost always that of a victim: “I’ve been cheated and abused, short-changed and oppressed.” It is inevitably their arrogance that brings about the ultimate capture of the murderer. They are certain they are clever enough not to get caught. They’ve been able to justify the most violent of acts, so they also go on to justify even more reckless behavior. Their pride disables their ability to ask for needed help and assistance. (Fear, anger and arrogance are the greatest disabilities any of us face.)

Human beings seek escape from daily stress in all kinds of creative ways. Some go on board sailboats and head out onto the open seas. Some bury their heads in a good book. Some hike up mountains. Others focus on making quilts or listening to great music or weeding the garden. We seek out places where we can encounter harmony, predictability and the glorious liberation from the worries of our own minds.

On our travels we will encounter both the heights and depths of human nature. May we return to our daily lives energized, refreshed and again ready to take on the mysterious demands of our own unique existence.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Common Prayer from September 17, 2006

Out of Our Yearning

We speak to the spirit of life, the eternal.
We speak to the mysterious thread that connects us one to
the other and to the universe.
We speak to the deep wisdom at the center of our beings.
We embody the yearning of all people
to touch each other more deeply,
to hear each other more keenly,
to see each other’s joys and sorrows as our own
and know that we are not alone,
unless we create solitude for ourselves,
and even then, community awaits us.
Out of our yearning we have come
to this religious community.
May we help each other to proclaim the possibilities we see,
to create the community we desire,
to worship what is worthy in our lives,
to teach the truth as we know it,
and to serve with justice in all the ways that we can,
to the end that our yearning is assuaged
and our lives fulfilled in one another.

—Susan Manker-Seale

"Names" by Rachel Vigier -- Reading from September 17th


Suddenly it's important to know names --
the name of the waitress in the donut shop
the name of the clerk in the bookstore
the name of the teller at the bank
the name of the visitor in the elevator
the name of the guard at the door
the name of the janitor on the top floor
the names of all the old men
shuffling backgammon pieces
in the park across the street
the names of all the office workers
jostling in lines by the food carts
even the name of the park and the name
of the statue in the park covered in ash

(from "September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond", edited by William Heyen.
Silver Spring, MD: etruscan press, 2002.)

Rachel Vigier is a Canadian born poet who was living and working in New York City in September, 2001. She was injured on 9/11.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

"Between Everyone and Nobody" by Rev. Tom Schade

An MP3 audio file of this sermon is available here

September 17, 2006

Names; it is important to know names says Rachel Vigier, the name of the waitress in the donut shop, and know the name the teller at the bank. It is important to know the names, not only of these people with whom you do business, but all the names, the visitors and even the names of the old men who are playing games in the park, men with whom you have no business. It is even important to know the name of the park and the name on the statue in the park, that general from the Civil War, or that old poet, or obscure preacher.

It is important to know the names when the ashes fly.

She wrote those words in the aftermath of 9/11, but they still apply. The ashes are still flying. Every soldier and marine in Iraq, the ones who served and survived and came home, the ones who are still in hospital, the ones who came home to mourning families, they all have names. All those who died in Afghanistan, in Bali, and in Madrid, and in London, and in Lebanon, and in Israel they have names. All those in Guantanamo, and in secret prisons have names. Someday, there will a monument with the names of the US soldiers, sailors and marines who have died, but most of those other names will be not be immortalized. And the ashes are still flying.

Names like ashes in the wind; hurricanes, and earthquakes, names as light as ash, and flying away; lives like burning sparks, a bright brief flash of movement against a darkening sky.

So many names, and really, too many.

I cannot even keep all of your names, and the names of your children, straight in my head.

We have seen the Earth from the moon, and the most important word in our economic lexicon these days is “globalization.” We have seen that humanity is one species. You can now send off a sample of your DNA, just rub a swab against the lining of your cheek, and you will get back in the mail, a report that shows where you fit into the human family tree. And what the results show is that we are all “mutts and mongrels”, that nobody is racially or ethnically pure. We are not only each others neighbors, we are each others’ relatives. The phrase “the human family” is not just high-minded poetic blabber.

We have evolved from a dim past in which human beings were loyal to very small groups of other people to the beginnings of a global consciousness, a global citizenship.

We live in a time of war, and near war, and threatened war. Take these two points.

It does not take long in searching to find one of the many “security and terrorism” experts who predict that nuclear terrorism in the United States is either possible, or likely, or inevitable.

On the other hand, if you read about the concern about a war with Iran, you will read that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is considered the only feasible tactic against their alleged nuclear weapons facilities.

I would think that the use of nuclear weapons in Iran would increase the probability of the use of nuclear terrorism in the United States. Wouldn’t you?

We live in a time of war, another World War some say, Fourth Generation war, asysmmetrical war, war, and not-quite war and threatened war, and it is clear what part most of the human family, including ourselves, will play in it.

We are the collateral damage, all of us.

Watch the people of Iraq and Lebanon closely; they are showing us our future, caught in the crossfire, “collateral damage”. Homes destroyed, children killed, suddenly impoverished, thrust into the dark, our water fouled, not because of what we have done, but because someone is trying to prove a point to the government which governs us. It does not matter if we live in Northern Israel, or in the suburbs of Beirut, or in Baghdad, or work at the symbolic office building, or happen to be flying the wrong plane on the wrong day Your life may be ruined by people who do not know your name.

I am occasionally seized by a vision of a world wide movement called the CDLF: the Collateral Damage Liberation Front.

Jesus, of course, lived in a time in which small groups, the tribes, the clans, the small nations, were the limits of the human moral horizon. And in his story about the Good Samaritan, Jesus pushes his listeners beyond the small group to consider those who not in their group as neighbors. The Samaritans were outsiders, not an esteemed group, someone who were considered the other. And so, this story of the Good Samaritan is one of the foundational stories of the human effort to see itself as one family.

Are we living in the same time? Do we face the same problem?

In some ways, yes. We still struggle with prejudice, and racism and bigotry.

But in many ways, we live in a different world. All the moral and ethical high ground, so to speak, is in seeing one people, one humanity.

It is many years ago that Carl Sandburg another poem called Names. The same title as the Rachel Vigier poem, and in some ways, this sermon is about the contrast between these two poems.

Names, by Carl Sandburg

There is only one horse of the earth
and his name is All Horses.
There is only one bird in the air
and his name is All Wings.
There is only one fish in the sea
and his name is All Fins.
There is only one man in the world
and his name is All Men.
There is only one woman in the world
and her name is All Women.
There is only one child in the world
and the child's name is All Children.
There is only one Maker in the world
and His children cover the earth
and they are named All God's Children.

But can we sustain that level of universality?

We also have ways of distancing myself from others, of coming up with ways that make some other group of people’s suffering seem not so grave, to make it bearable to me to witness. What is the mental process that you go through when you see how some people must suffer? How do you, to use that chilling phrase from Exodus, “harden your heart.?”

It is difficult to be human in this world today. On the one hand we have a globalized information system which brings us pictures and images and the voices of people from all over the world. We also have a moral and ethical demand to not see those people as strangers, as the others, as people beyond our moral concern. But, on the other hand, it is still a fact that we have slots in our brains for only about 150 persons. Most people can sustain relationships with no more than 150 people – which is one reason why nobody here at First Unitarian knows everybody else.

We are trying to process global information with tribal brains.

We are not called to be more than we are. We are not called to have global consciousness, nor even to be citizens of the world.

We are called, I believe, to live in the fullest awareness of the truth of every day, to live in the fullest awareness of what is sacred about each moment, and to know the truth of the past of each moment, to live in the truth of the here and now. To live knowing that you and your mind will resist the truth of this present moment in all of its wonder and terror.

In our Jesus story today, a lawyer asks Jesus how to have eternal life, and among the things that Jesus says in response is that he must love his neighbor as himself. And so the man asks him “who is my neighbor.” And Jesus tells him the story of the man who fell among thieves on the Jericho road.

And at the end of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer “Which of the three men do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

“The one who showed him kindness.”

We know the story; we know the answer to the question. The parable of the Good Samaritan who aids the man on the Jericho road is deeply inculcated in our culture. When someone helps a stranger, we call him a Good Samaritan. We know the answer.

But I do not think that we consider the question nearly often enough. “Who is my neighbor?”

The human mind wanders. The human mind gets caught up in trivia. The human mind sees the present moment through the lens of the past, past hurts and humiliations, past grievances and troubles. The human mind is always alert to possible dangers, and the human mind is suspicious of others.

We are each engaged in a constant struggle to be mindful, to be thoughtful, to have our thoughts and actions guided by our values.

When our thoughts are wandering, we need to be able to gently and firmly bring them back to what is important. This question: Who is my neighbor? Is a question that can help us focus again.

I am asking you to consider making this part of your life: when faced with a difficult social situation, to stop and ask yourself “who is my neighbor?”.

For example, you are in our coffee hour after church, scanning the scene trying to figure out who to talk to. Ask yourself, “Who is my neighbor?” Who here, in this room, needs to be shown some kindness and some mercy?

In your work, “Who is my neighbor?”

As you walk the streets of your neighborhood, “Who has need of mercy and kindness?”

When you watch the news of faraway conflicts, “do you have a neighbor there?”

I wish to be a compassionate person; I presume that you do, too.

I have come to realize that the obstacle to my compassion is not that I don’t know what the meaning of the word is.

It is not that I didn’t pay enough attention in my Moral Theology course in Divinity School.

It is not that I am a draft dodger in the culture war.

The reason why I am less compassionate than I want to be is that I have the habit of asking myself the wrong questions.

I find myself always asking what is it that I want, what will make me comfortable, what will make me feel safe and secure.

I need new habits, and making a habit of asking myself a some new questions.

This question: who is my neighbor? This question right from the heart of Western spirituality is a place to start. I am asking you to think about it, perhaps today is a day to decide to make it a question of your own.

Friday, September 15, 2006

"A Messy Life" A Sermon by Barbara Merritt

The following was delivered at the Ingathering Service on September 10, 2006 by Rev. Barbara Merritt.

First Reading: - Matthew 18: 10-14

Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

Second Reading: — “A Lab in St. Mary’s Hospital” from A Perfect Mess by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman

A block northeast of London’s bustling Paddington Station, where squats the sooty, sprawling complex of aged, half-heartedly ornate but not entirely graceless buildings that make up St. Mary’s Hospital. Tucked just inside the hospital’s courtyard, far from the main entrance, is a small doorway that leads to a narrow spiral staircase carrying a thin stream of harried hospital staff and resigned patients. Few make it as far as the fourth floor, where an translucent-windowed door leads to a small room that in turn leads into a cramped office overlooking the havoc on Praed Street below. What light makes it through the window grime reveals that the crowded office appears to function as a laboratory. A sort of desk-cum-lab-bench running along the wall under the windows offers a variety of surfaces and bins, all of it occupied haphazardly by teetering piles of petri dishes, test-tubes lying helter-skelter on their sides, cigarettes, open books, pages of notes, newspapers and a variety of odd implements and containers.

You might guess the lab’s occupant has just stepped out, but in fact he did so three-quarters of a century ago. This is Alexander Fleming’s bacteriological lab—reconstructed from photographs and preserved as a sort of museum—just as he left it when he went on vacation in late August of 1928. When he returned on September 3, he was sorting through the clutter when he noticed that a small, ragged circle of mold had invaded one of the petri dish bacterial cultures. The staphylococci in the culture seemed to steer clear of the mold, describing a sort of bacteria-free moat. Intrigued, Fleming dragged the dish under a microscope and discovered penicillin.

Fleming probably routinely benefited from the messiness of his lab simply by virtue of the fact that not being neat saved him time that he was able to put to better use. But far more important is that if Fleming hadn’t been messy, he probably wouldn’t have discovered penicillin. Disorder created connections—that is, resonance – between the lab and world around it, as well as between the lab work and Fleming himself. If Fleming hadn’t left open petri dishes scattered by an open window before going on vacation, the mold that drifted in—possibly from an allergy lab downstairs—most likely wouldn’t have. What’s more, mess preserved and highlighted the unexpected development. Even if exposed to mold, a petri dish that had been neatly stored in a rack with many others might not have been noticed before it was cleaned. On the disordered desk, the contaminated dish with its antibacterial circular swath ended up sitting under Fleming’s nose. Of the roll that mess played in his discovery, Fleming himself had little doubt. Years later, receiving a tour of a spotless and well-organized lab, Fleming couldn’t resist delivering his backhanded compliment: “You’d never have been bothered by mold here.”

Sermon: “A Messy Life”

Entering this sanctuary for the first time, you can see the amazement on a person’s face. Your eyes go up to the beautifully symmetrical organ pipes; then your gaze sweeps to the majestic constancy of the strong classical Greek columns. You take in the elegant simplicity of the ordered pews and balconies; and finally, the perfectly balanced staircases and the graceful, quiet curves of the mahogany pulpit.

Even when we have only been away from this sacred space for a brief summer, it feels so wonderful and surprisingly comforting to enter into a room that provides symmetry and balance, order and equilibrium.

About the only thing you’ll find in this sanctuary that is really messy and unpredictable and unbalanced is us; the people in the pews and in the pulpit and in the choir loft and in both balconies.

True, the outward physical appearance of human beings might distract you. Occasionally our shoes match our belt and most of us get regular haircuts. But our lives are profoundly messy. And the world we inhabit is unpredictable, confusing and full of surprises.

Some of us try to compensate for that reality by being extremely neat, well organized and tightly scheduled.

Others of us (and I sadly confess to being in this group) have achieved an amazing consistency. We have integrated disorder; where our desks and our calendars and our attics and garages (and occasionally the dining room table) are just as messy as our inner confusion. I have never publicly admitted that I am, by nature, a messy person. (Though anyone who has seen my desk in this church will not be altogether surprised by this revelation.)

Part of the reason messy people stay in the proverbial closet about being messy is that there is a lot of shame connected with being disorganized. We might remember the rage of parents who compensated for the unpredictability of young children by demanding neat bedrooms, and high expectations of discipline. Or, you might be finely attuned to a culture that constantly tells its citizens that if your garage is not organized you are a slob, a failure as a human being and in need of professional help from an organizational team. Their judgments on our closets and basements and playrooms are not subtle. Many of our fellow suburbanites are spending between $10,000 and $50,000 in order to have neat closets. (I watch HGTV.) And a well-organized corporation is believed to be a successful corporation. A perfectly ordered filing system is supposed to bring high profits, clarity and focus.

And then, a miracle. Into this unbelievably efficient, ordered and in-control mind set a book is published entitled, A Perfect Mess. Actually, it won’t be on the open market until January 2007. But an advance reading copy made its way to my desk this summer and what a gift! What a blessing for all of us who tend towards disorder.

Written by a business professor at Columbia and a journalist, this is not great literature. It’s more a popular self-help/business/psychology book on current research that proves (once and for all) that (and I quote), “moderate disorganization is healthy, creative and often more effective, resilient and efficient than being highly organized.” Amen!

Perhaps my favorite quote is, “messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, increasing salary and increasing experience.” Who knew that messiness would become a new status symbol? The book offers to the “organizationally-challenged” a whole new vocabulary and ammunition against those who would have us clean up our acts.

For instance, I have felt chagrin when I pull up my driveway at home about the overgrown bushes and the unweeded flowerbeds. From this book I have learned to call our front yard “natural landscaping.”

I was pleased to discover that I must have inadvertently helped my children when they were young. It turns out that kids who are regularly exposed to household cleaning products are 4 times as likely to develop asthma. Here I thought I was just a lousy housekeeper! It turns out I was protecting their health. Though my husband was a bit perturbed when Robert (at the age of 3) asked us what the vacuum cleaner was. (Apparently he hadn’t seen it used a lot.)

The book praises the messy desk as a highly functional and surprisingly effective place to work. With example (after anecdotal example) it shows how not just penicillin, but all sorts of Nobel Prize winning discoveries and successful businesses have been born out of serendipitous and fortuitous environments of messy creativity.

The authors are reasonable in their arguments for the goodness inherent in disorganization. They are not suggesting that surgeons practice under non-sterile conditions, or that airplane mechanics become more freewheeling and spontaneous in their checklists. They are surprisingly insistent that the one place that ought to be neat and well kept is the interior of your car. But they have some genuinely serious advice to industry as a whole and to individuals in particular as we attempt to navigate an unpredictable world.

They offer extensive research that most “long-range plans” are pretty much a waste of time. There are too many variables, too many unimaginable changes about to occur, to ever adapt a winning strategy 10 years out. Companies that survive and thrive are those that are able to adapt, stay flexible and be highly responsive to changing markets. While many corporations continue to develop “long-range plans,” the authors argue that almost all of the successful companies wisely put such reports in the drawer, or on the bookshelf, where they sit gathering dust. It was apparently Calvin Coolidge who said, “If you see 10 troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that 9 will run into the ditch before they reach you.” The United States Marines put it more distinctly, “Plan early, plan twice.”

The book, A Perfect Mess, spends most of its time addressing the needs of organizations and business. There needs to be another book on the subject of internal disorder – on the stark truth that no matter how lovely and ordered the architecture is in this sanctuary, or how beautifully your study is organized at home, none of us live in a world of smooth sailing, predictable life plans or dependable understanding of what challenges lie ahead (or how we will meet them.)

Instead, every day we wake up to an existence which is inherently unstable, almost completely unpredictable and virtually guaranteed to deliver you a constant stream of stunning surprises.

Over the Labor Day Weekend, I attended a spiritual retreat in North Carolina with my sister. I flew into Richmond, VA at 12:50 on Friday, September 1, which just happened to be the exact time when the eye of the tropical storm Ernesto was visiting Richmond. Now this may have been a minor hurricane on the ground with winds of only 40 mph. But as we started to descend from 32,000 feet, the plane started to rattle, rock and roll, being buffeted by winds that were considerably stronger (my estimate 800 mph.) For 30 minutes I felt like a peanut being thrown about in a tin can. Side to side, up and down. Jerked around in every direction. I was so terrified I started to pray out loud (softly, but my lips were moving.) Not to worry. No one was paying attention to me because pretty much everyone in the plane thought they were going to die. It didn’t help that Jet Blue had these cute little private TV’s on the back of the seat, so that as we slowly (oh so slowly descended) I could say to my self, “now we’re only at 18,000 feet, 18,000 feet more of this violent shaking to endure. (Unless of course the wings fall off before we make it all the way down.)”

When we landed, the whole plane of passengers clapped quite loudly. We were all delighted to be alive and on the ground. The pilot came out of his cabin to say goodbye to us as we exited. He had a strange expression on his face. But his expression put in context a story I heard later that afternoon (supposedly, a true story.)

In an equally turbulent landing, the pilot came to greet the passengers as they left, expecting someone to launch an attack or a complaint. But no. Everyone was exceedingly polite and pleasant (possibly just wanting desperately to get off of the plane.) As the pilot started to relax, he saw the last departing passenger, an elderly woman, slowly making her way up the cabin, leaning on a cane. She was headed right at him. When she reached the pilot, she stopped and she asked him, “Did you just land this plane or were we shot down?”

The winds of this world can be fierce. And sometimes you just don’t know what is going to hit you next.

Maybe it’s only me, but the global, political world seems especially precarious and confusing right now. Tomorrow we commemorate 9/11, but even the pure grief that arose from that attack has become so manipulated and exploited by self-serving political interests that it is hard to know what to feel. And there is no peace in Iraq or Afghanistan or in Darfur. The gap between the rich and the poor only increases. And much of the time, we feel powerless and lost and confounded.

What we see out in the world we may also see in ourselves and in our own spiritual lives: very little certainty, not a lot of comfort or consolation, many questions and a whole lot of struggle.

There are churches and faith traditions that claim that the truth is neat, straightforward and easy to grasp. I have heard some on TV saying, “Proclaim Jesus as Lord, and you’ll never have to worry about anything else again.” I hear some of the orthodox saying, “If only you wear the right clothes and keep your lives strictly disciplined, you will be saved, redeemed and welcomed into heaven.”

But not Unitarian Universalists. We don’t offer easy answers, well-reasoned dogmatics or creedal guarantees. We say to believers and unbelievers alike, “this world is full of ambiguity.” Just when you think you’ve got something in your life figured out, it going to change. And then we say (I say), “It is a great spiritual blessing to have doubts, to feel lost and to not know which end is up.”

In the gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus seems to share that same worldview. I choose this parable of the lost sheep all the time because it so explicitly states that among all of God’s children (who are all watched over by angels), God rejoices over finding one lost sheep. (A sheep who is clueless, unable to stick with the group or take orders from the sheep dog or navigate the pathways.) There will be more rejoicing about that one messed-up, confused sheep than delight in all the obedient, well behaved, certain and self-satisfied sheep who have managed to keep good order and tow the line.

That lost souls are especially blessed appears to me to be the message from Matthew. And the Talmud from Judaism teaches us that no matter how insignificant or inadequate you might feel yourself to be, there is every reason to be hopeful. The Talmud says, “A host of angels whispers to every blade of grass, ‘Grow! Grow! Grow!’”

Whether or not you believe in angels that watch over grass or sheep, and who are whispering encouragement; it is important to recognize the human condition of being lost and unsure and uncertain as being blessed.

In this sanctuary of clean lines and majestic and balanced proportion—here we confess that our lives are unpredictable, sometimes out of control, often confusing and frequently bewildering. Here, we say that this being lost is part and parcel of every spiritual journey.

In the midst of our confusion, we choose to do two things. First, we go forward with faith. Faith defined not as, “having a prescribed set of beliefs that will provide comfort and clarity about what is to come.” But faith, as I heard it defined this summer—faith means “perseverance”, the willingness to move forward into the unknown not knowing whether today or tomorrow you will be shot down or make a safe landing. Still persevering. Taking the long view—or as I heard it put on the retreat, “in the grand scheme of things”—the creation, the creator and the creative powers will continue.” We are asked to keep our ultimate goals in mind no matter how lost we might feel along the way. This faith is also needed politically. The Chinese philosophy from the I Ching, says that when it comes to changing the world, every citizen must be faithful.

“Public officials intuitively know the minds of the people they serve. If the attitudes of the people are lax, if they are willing to sacrifice the long-term good for short-term gain, then public officials will represent them accordingly. If in their inner attitudes the people are firm in what is correct, public officials will know how they must govern. When the people are strong in their inner direction, and firm in their attitudes, evil in government, and in society can find no place in which to grow.”

We are called to be people of faith: we are called to persevere. To walk on; strong in our willingness to keep trying. In the midst of this messy existence of ours, we first commit to persevere. And then, I believe there is one more essential action. We can offer to help one another on this path. We welcome the lost soul, as well as the people who look like everything is going their way. With our open hearts and our warm greetings and our focused attention, we say to everyone we encounter, “You belong. You have something important to offer in our world. You matter.”

This work is available to all of us, all of the time.

And you may discover that an encouraging smile from you may be all a person needs to keep them going through a rough time. We human beings have this extraordinary capacity to encourage one another, to accompany one another, to comfort one another.

It is not the whispers of angels that I long to hear, but the voices of real human beings saying to us in shouts and in whispers, “You are welcome here.” Here in this utterly unpredictable universe, your spirit is meant to grow. In this messy, confusing and bewildering world, there is a place for you. Being lost is not forever. Coming together, we will find our way.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Attention Must be Paid" Memo by Tom Schade

I watched one of the worst television situation comedies I have ever seen last night. I will not name names because I try to be considerate of the feelings of others, even fictional characters.

I like TV sitcoms, because I need to take a break from the tragedies of current events and baseball. And so, over the years I have been a regular viewer of some of the best comedy series. (Still not naming names, because I wouldn’t want any of them to feel hurt if I leave off someone.)

I can still get pulled into an old episode of Golden Girls when flipping through the channels. It is amazing to me how much younger and more attractive Rose, Blanche and Dorothy are becoming over time.

The great series have interesting characters, witty writing, great ensemble acting, clever dialogue. So, one can forget how depressing and irritating a bad one is. And this one, the one I watched last night, was truly terrible, full of stereotyped characters who insult and make fun of each other, surrounding a lead actor who seemed to be trapped in his stand up comedy routine, two or three plotlines jammed together without any rhyme or reason, a laugh track too loud. Blech! It was an awful experience.

So why did I watch it?

Well, I didn’t want to watch the ABC/Disney fictionalization of the supposed errors of the Clinton administration: “The Path to 9-11.”

I had been warned that someone somewhere was trying to divert my attention. The producers of the ABC show wanted me to think about what Bill Clinton could have done, but didn’t, rather than thinking about what George Bush should not have done, but did.

So, instead of letting my attention be commandeered by political manipulators, I lavished it on a stupid sitcom. Even though I was completely aware of how brain-damagingly awful the show was, I was paying attention to it, and not ABC. OK, I have to now tell you the name of the show: “The War at Home.” It’s just too ironic.

Your attention is the most valuable resource in the world. Everyone wants it. Candidates and political parties want to attract your attention. The entire advertising industry is dedicated to developing the means to reliably get and hold your attention. The commercial entertainment industry is funded by advertisers to create art in order to compete for your attention. There is big money and power that can be won, if your attention can be gotten and held.

And yet, as valuable as this resource of yours is, you and I have very little control over what we pay attention to. It is the little lost lamb of our faculties, always wandering off on its own, straying where it should not go, running further away when we chase after it. Our wandering attention makes every task we do take twice or three times longer than it could. Sometimes, in its wandering, it does come back with something new, but most of the time, we are not creative, just distracted. I get attracted by bad situation comedies on TV.

Spiritual practices, like meditation, contemplation and prayer, are human efforts to herd the lost sheep of our wandering attentions.

Congregational worship is one such spiritual practice, an hour or so per week set aside to think about what really matters.

It is a time to reflect on how you are living your life.

· Are you embodying your best and highest values?

· Are you treating others in the way that you would wish to be treated?

· Are you wasting your time and paying attention to trivial things?

· Are you expressing the love that you have for the important people in your life in ways that they can feel?

· Are you trapped in self-pity, or paralyzed by shame?

It is true that congregational worship as a spiritual practice is led. The worship leader directs your attention to certain questions and offers particular insights for you to consider. It is not a completely self-directed process, but this has a positive value. Just like a fitness instructor in an aerobics class will push you to exercise muscles you neglect, the worship leader lures you into thinking about areas of your life that you might be ignoring. (There is another parallel between an aerobics class and congregational worship: you get a much greater benefit if you make it a habit.)

Where will you be paying attention this fall? The War in Iraq? Issues in your family life? Health questions? The midterm elections? The predictably tragic conclusion of the Red Sox season?

Why not make a habit of regular congregational worship? It might help keep all of these things in a proper perspective. So come!

And remember, if you can’t come, for whatever reason, we make a CD recording of every service. Call the church office, if you would like one sent to you.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Common Prayer by Norman Richardson

The Common Prayer for the September 10, 2006 service was written by Norman Richardson, a long-time member of the congregation. It was contributed to his EvenSong group.

O God, incomprehensible to our finite thought,
We stand in awe and wonderment of our universe,
Unable to comprehend its beginning and extent.

O Mysterious Power, hidden from our mortal senses
By the unfathomable depth and breadth of All that Is,
Let us bow in humility for what we cannot know.

O Infinitesimal Creation, far beyond our imagination
To dream of all your multifarious forms,
May we sing praises for the bounty and beauty we know.

O Force of Energy and Life, prompt us to pray in gratitude
For the Life we have been given and the chance
To make it meaningful for ourselves and for others.

O Principle of Mercy and Justice, teach us to practice
The virtues of compassion, reconciliation, and healing,
In a world fraught with fear, anger, and hate.

O Spirit of Love and Grace, make us ever thankful
For the good we receive and bestow,
And the Love we share with Everyone dear to us.

—Norman Richardson (2006)

"Here We Are" by Tom Schade; Pastoral Reflection

The following is the pastoral reflection from the September 10, 2006 Ingathering Worship Service by the Rev. Tom Schade.

It is good to be here together, is it not?

One of the good results of our practice to not have worship services here in the sanctuary during the summer, to not have a program for all ages of the children, and not have all the talents of the choir and the Musical Director all summer, is that when we return in the fall, it seems fresh and new. We can appreciate it anew and have that satisfying joy of returning.

So let us just sit for a moment and look about, in a silence, but not the silence of the silent prayer, when so many of you close your eyes, but let’s sit for a moment in an observant silence, looking around, enjoying this light, this space and these people.

Here we are.

Life is so full right now. We are all alive at this time in the history of the world. We are remembering the attacks on New York and Washington five years ago tomorrow; events that were so shocking and terrorizing then have become part of the world we know. The nation argues over what it meant and what should have been done about it; such was inevitable and even healthy. The war in Iraq continues. We are approaching an important election this fall, which is like a triple shot of expresso to the national nervous system. Everybody is talking louder, and faster, and more forcefully than usual.

And yet, the human stories of life, love, illness and death continue all around us. Over the summer here at the church, people received terrible diagnoses, and people underwent medical treatments, and people got in trouble with the law, and people lost their parents to accidents and illness and advanced age, and young people went off to college, and planned weddings, and children had birthday parties and picnics. Terrible, wonderful, frightening and beautiful, it is life.

This is the time to consider Life, your life, from all the angles. You wouldn’t change your job, or buy a car, without considering all the angles, would you? Here, we make a space and time for each of us to consider our lives from the angle of our highest and best values, from the point of view of eternity, with an eye on God, and in the context of our most private and tender dreams. Now we try to remember what really matters, and try to remember all that we don’t know, as well as what we do know and usually forget.

As we worship, we consider our lives from the point of view of this religious tradition, one that urges us to live with confidence in the love of kind and generous divinity, to be forthright and honest about our sins and shortcomings, to approach our fellow human beings with love and compassion, and to strive for justice and fairness, or as the ancient prophets said :to love mercy, to do justice and to walk humbly with God.

In this hour, may there be that comfort and that challenge for you.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

"A Killer Wallet" By Barbara Merritt

My oldest son Robert, on a brief visit home from West Africa, showed us his wallet. He said that it had killed a man in his village of Kanfarande in Guinea. As my eyes grew wide, he explained that the wallet (and his belt) had been made from the skin of a boa constrictor.

This particular snake had laid in waiting by the river. And when a man (we’ll call him “Bouba”.) came down to the river to work, the snake attacked. As is the practice of these reptiles, first he squeezed “Bouba” to death. Then the boa unhinged his jaw and swallowed him whole. Unfortunately for the snake, once you have consumed a meal that large, you can’t move for several hours.

When “Bouba” did not return from the river some villagers went looking for him. On the river bank they noticed the boa constrictor with a Bouba-size bulge in the middle. So they killed the snake and made quite a few wallets and belts and purses from his skin. Robert, as a respected teacher in the village, was presented with both a wallet and a belt.

Lifting my jaw off the ground, I re-assessed my own worries. The dangers that most of us face in America from the natural world (poison ivy, mosquito bites, hay fever) pale in comparison with life and death battles for survival in the wild. The relative security of the city and the suburbs protects us from the sudden attack of the tiger, or the deadly constrictions of a snake.

My son brought home to his family and friends a suitcase full of West African gifts and asked us to choose a few things we’d like. When I first saw a small purse make from a boa snakeskin, I shuddered. This was not my esthetic, nor my style. But after I heard the story of the wallet, I grabbed that purse for my very own. I now have it sitting on my desk. My intention is that this purse will announce to all the snakes of the world, “If you crush, hurt or swallow my child or any child of God, you will become an accessory! We will tan your hide and sew you into articles of clothing and fashion. Do not harm humanity! Go away…NOW!”

I freely concede that very few boa constrictors will be passing through my office to see their brother or sister snake fashioned into a clutch purse. But it makes me feel better. It occurs to me that there are many symbolic actions where human beings post announcements. These declarations may not change the planet, but they do serve to express our priorities, intentions and values.

Picking up a piece of litter on your morning walk does not clean all the streets and beautify the entire city. But it does improve one small section of the sidewalk. Recycling a plastic tray that held your fruit from the grocery store will not have any measurable affect on global warming. But it makes you aware that resources are finite. With our small actions we announce that we want to conserve and care for the earth.

What I love about the prospect of “In-Gathering Sunday” on September 10, at First Unitarian Church is that our corporate worship is also a kind of announcement, a “Post-it,” of values and commitments. When we assemble for worship and fellowship, we proclaim to the world:

v We are meant to be together, not alone.

v We are meant to sing and to hear wonderful music.

v We are called to be in relationship with all kinds of people: old and young, married and single, gay and straight, Republicans and Democrats, believers and unbelievers.

v We believe that narrow creeds and dogmas and doctrinal conformity will lead us away from what is true and real and sustaining.

v We believe that a spiritual search is best done in circumstances of complete freedom of mind, heart and spirit.

v We want to be of service to all.

Our announcements, symbolic and otherwise, are made in our sacred assemblies. They are also observable in the way we drive our cars down the highway. We might not always be aware, but we are constantly telling one another who we are and what we care about. One of my favorite lines from “The Book of Mirdad” puts it more poetically:

So think as if your every thought were to be etched in fire upon the sky for all and everything to see. For so, in truth, it is.

So speak as if the world entire were but a single ear intent on hearing what you say. And so, in truth, it is.

See you in church!