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.

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.


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