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, October 27, 2006

"Believers and Nonbelievers" by Rev. Tom Schade

Memo from October 24, 2006

Last week, I went with a group of my colleagues to Rowe Camp and Conference Center for a study group for UU ministers. We gathered to review some of the findings of some of those studying the human brain, and to consider the implications that they have for organized religion. There is a field of study now known as “Neurotheology”, which inquires into how religious feelings and spirituality is processed by the brain. So we read some of the writings that have come from the scientists, and fell to the task of trying to sort out what it means for understanding the religious diversity in the world, and planning worship services, and the rest of our work.

I don’t think that we pushed back the frontiers of human knowledge. After all, most of us don’t have much of a background in medical science. I myself never advance beyond the “gee whiz” level of reaction to this kind of information. Someone tells me that there are some gazillion neurons in the brain, each making another gazillion connections to each other. Each of these gazillion neurons is programmed by genes that make up its DNA, and scientists think this gene causes the neurons to act in this way, and that gene tunes that other neuron to music of the spheres. To which I respond, “Gee Whiz! Isn’t that something? Wow!”

Of course, I believe it. I have no reason not to.

They could show me a picture of some squiggly little things, and tell me that if they turn clockwise, it that causes Methodism, while the counter clockwise movement results in Sikhism, and I would believe them. I just wouldn’t take it very seriously.

There is a serious scientific consensus that there are identifiable brain states, or patterns of brain activity, that correspond with what people experience as a “spiritual feeling.” Some analysts call that feeling “self-transcendence.”

There is something going on when people have that feeling of connection to a larger, all-encompassing wholeness. Further, there is not much difference in these brain reactions between the Buddhist, the Christian or the Natural Mystic. There is a brain process that one might call “spiritual awareness” and it is independent of any specific religious content.

In other words, there may be a scientific basis for the distinction that so many people make between “being spiritual” and “being religious.”

Even more interesting is the evidence that some people, due to their unique brain, are more prone to this feeling of self-transcendence than others. Some people seem to be more hardwired for spirituality, and most likely, religion than others. We may not get to choose these aspects of life, anymore than we choose whether we are right-handed or left-handed.

Do they mean to tell me that all those arguments about the existence of God are not likely to change anyone’s mind? If so, I am glad to find that out, since that has been my impression all along. There are those who believe and those who don’t. No less an observer of the religious spirit than St. Paul remarked that the degree of our faith was a gift from God, and not our own doing.

Another bit of information from the brain scientists clarifies this more. It appears that when we learn a piece of information, we remember not only it, but also any emotions we may be feeling while we are storing that knowledge away. If you were scared when you learned about religion, that fear will always re-surface to some degree whenever you think about religion. It only makes sense.

So what does all this mean?

I think that what it means is that whenever people gather together to have a church service, it is inevitable that everyone in the room will have their own unique angle of vision on what the group is doing. Some will be fully caught up in it; others more skeptical; and still others, quite anxious and nervous. And, most of those emotional reactions will not be under the rational control of the people in the pews.

Given that, doesn’t it take bravery to worship together? All sorts of people, in widely varying emotional states, come together to make a human connection with each other, in the presence of as much transcendence as they can countenance, and to be witnesses to each other’s struggle to live in the fullness of the truth.

There is great joy there, because while we each have our own brains, we share a heart.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

"What Happens Next" by Rev. Tom Schade

The sermon delivered on October 21, 2006

October 21, 2006

One of the things that I appreciate about our musical director, Will Sherwood, is that he plays some of these hymns with a more sprightly air. I have been with some congregations that have sung this hymn (#95 in the Singing the Living Tradition: “There is More Love Somewhere”) with a wistful, helpless air, as though we are singing about unicorns. “There are u-ni-corns somewhere, there are u-ni-corns somewhere, there are u-ni-corns somewhere, and I am going to keep on til I find one.” It’s all in a “when you wish upon a star” mode.

Here is the idea that I want to consider today: that hopelessness or pessimism is the disease of the spirit of this day and age.

We are living without hope and without a dream and in the firm conviction that we have been to the mountaintop, and looked at the valley below, and come to the conclusion that it is all downhill from here.

At every level.

At every level.

Take the national political scene: the Republicans say that we are in early rounds of a war that will last decades, a World War 3, or maybe even World War 4. Their most secular voices just say that we are in a “a clash of civilizations”. Those of a more religious frame of mind imagine an Armageddon between the one true Christian Faith, and Islam. They promise to stay the course, even though it doesn’t seem to have been very successful. The other party promises to be different, and to maybe stop making the same mistakes.

It is not my intention to get into the specifics of all the debates that divide the parties these days.

Nor is it my intention to downplay those differences; I think that very important things are at stake in the Congressional elections coming up.

But I do want to note this: this is not an election about optimism, or hopeful visions of the future.
There is no one who looks at that future of relations between Islam and the West, for example, and urges us to place our faith in a process of interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Who says that over time, we will learn more and more about each other, and that as we learn more and more, peace and cooperation will prevail.

Neither party at this time is offering a broad vision of an improved quality of life for our citizens: a vision that our cities might bloom and prosper, or that we might grow to be a more tolerant, open-minded, peaceful and encouraging society. Where are those who see some hope for the future in the amount of immigration of people from all over the world to the United States? Where are those who imagine that the advances in our medical knowledge will actually create a society full of healthier people? People are living longer than ever before, and, while we are, each one of us, in favor of it for friends, our families, and certainly for ourselves, but in general, we think that this is a terribly serious problem. Good grief, who’s going to take care of them, and support them.

This morning we read Judy Chicago’s utopian vision of the future: And Then, as our Responsive Reading. She talks about a New Eden. It is a beautiful and poetic vision: And then all that has divided us will merge and then compassion will be wedded to power (imagine that) and then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind. Such utopian dreams are frightening to me, of course, I trust no one who wants enough power to govern utopia. But today, this morning, I am even more frightened of the distance with which we hold dreams of a better world. Is Judy Chicago just being sentimental, is this just a Hallmark card, that she is describing that special world where there are unicorns somewhere that we are going to searching until we find one.

Where is today’s Walt Whitman? The poet who walks the streets of our cities and delights in all that he sees, who delights in everyone he sees.

Let me ask you to do something: imagine a better future for this country of ours. Now take a look at what you think of… how much of that vision is nostalgia? That in some ways, that things would return to better days of our history – some earlier time? Hearkening back to a time before, when everything seemed to work better, and the children were better behaved, and the world made more sense. Is the future even imaginable to us, or is the most we hope for is time travel backwards into the past?

Just think about Worcester for a moment, and our church as well. Two weeks ago there was a big article in the Boston Globe about all the investment in a new downtown Worcester, and this week, the Worcester magazine detailed how change is gathering some momentum. And yet each article mentions that it seems hard for many to believe that the this city may have a future that will be different than its past.
Can we imagine that our church might not always be a brightly lit steeple shining over block upon block of empty streets and darkened buildings every night after 6 pm? Can we imagine our church being a place where more than just a handful of people walk to Sunday services? It may well be that the church will be in an entirely different situation than it has been in the past. We have been a church that served older adults and young families, most of whom did not live near the church. We may soon be a church that is surrounded by many more young adults, without children, who are living close, and who have different needs. Can we imagine our way into a positive response to the changes that are coming? Or will we be limited by our comfort with the past?

Last week, my younger daughter, Ann, moved to Los Angeles. She was given a wonderful opportunity by the company for whom she works. A new job, more responsibility, a chance to prove her skills and talents to her employers. A new city to live in. They made her a very attractive offer, so, of course, she took it. And I was so pleased and proud of her and delighted in her success.

At least that is what I tried to project. There was another part of me that was heartbroken about the fact that she was moving all the way across the country, when I had been so happy that both of our children had been living so close that we could have a Sunday dinner together many weeks.

I realized, again, the ways that parents and children, no matter their age or stage of development, are so often at cross purposes with each other.

You see, children want nothing more than to grow up, to mature and to develop. They sense themselves as creatures becoming – yesterday they were children and tomorrow they are adults – and they want nothing more than to move ahead. Remember how insistent that you were as a child that you were a big boy, or a big girl, and not a baby anymore. How you seized on the fact that once you were past the age of twelve, you were really a teenager. How you were fascinated and attracted to the kids who were a few years older than you. A child is a creature becoming, and a child despises what they used to be and loves what they are becoming.

A parent, on the other hand, loves what their child used to be, and fears what their child is becoming. Maybe that is too strong; parents are made nervous about what their child is growing into.
Parents says things like, “I wish they wouldn’t grow up so fast.”

I don’t think that you hear very many kids say voice that particular sentiment. In most cases, they are eager to grow up and move on.

So, when my daughter, already 25, is offered a good job across the country, there is a part of me that doesn’t want her to go, doesn’t want her to grow up, but stay forever in that stage of the first few years after college. My vision of the her future cannot get beyond my nostalgia for the stage already passing.

As I said, the diversion of hope for the future into nostalgia for the past is a spiritual sickness of our day and age.

By the way, one place that you see this dynamic between parent and child at work most clearly is around the area of sexuality education. One thing that our religious movement has long acted upon is that young people deserve, need and are hungry for accurate information about sexuality, provided in the context of values and principles that they can apply in their own lives. It is so frequently true that the parents think that their children are not ready to learn about sexuality, while at the same time, the kids think that they already know everything they need to know.

Again, we can hardly imagine the new, and can muster no hopeful vision of the future, while loving what has passed away.

Remember our scripture reading today.

Finally, if I am to talk in favor of hope, let us take on the hardest case of all. Is it not true that we are each growing older, and that, if we are lucky, and avoid sudden death, we face a future of aged infirmity and a slow drift toward death. Is it not the case that there is ultimately no hope? Especially if you are one of those who finds talk of a heavenly afterlife to be so much unicorn type talk. And believe me, there are plenty of days that I share that suspicion as well.
This is why I found the words of Czeslaw Milosz so moving.

“In advanced age, my health worsening, I woke up in the middle of the night, and experienced a feeling of happiness so intense and perfect that in all my life I had only felt its premonition. And there was no reason for it. It didn't obliterate consciousness; the past which I carried was there, together with my grief. And it was suddenly included, was a necessary part of the whole. As if a voice were repeating: "You can stop worrying now; everything happened just as it had to. You did what was assigned to you, and you are not required anymore to think of what happened long ago." The peace I felt was a closing of accounts and was connected with the thought of death.”

Milosz is describing a moment of hope, a reconciliation with the process of dying that is still forward looking, letting the past go, a peace that comes from the closing of accounts.
It is a wondrous thing, to read of such a reconciliation with death, such a transformational moment, occurring so close to the end of life. I have seen the fruits of such moments in the final days of others who were dying. It is a grace that, obviously, I have not received, and, in fact, may never receive. But it is testimony of a final hope, a chance to turn toward the final future with joy.

Here, in this room, we sit in the light, and sing the hymns of our faith. Here we sit, bringing here the deeper questions of life, to confront the questions that haunt us. Here, I believe that we hope to be changed by our encounter with deeper truths.

So this is my challenge to you this morning: examine your hopes for the future, for your future, for the future of your children, for the future of this church, for the future of our country and our planet. Are you really living in the fullness of hope? Or has your hope been diverted into a sly nostalgia. Lift your eyes to the distant horizon and dare to dream dreams of greater grandeur. The future has not happened yet. Behold, says God, I am doing a new thing.

"Number Eleven" by Rev. Barbara Merritt

Memo from Newsletter, dated October 21, 2006

One of the most depressing statistics I have ever encountered in the story of the “modern church” is that no matter the denomination, the average parishioner stays five years.

While some of this is explained by job transfers, and death and illness, what is new is the dominant attitude in American culture of the consumer. This mentality looks at all services, programs and institutions as places to meet immediate needs. When needs shift, when the initial enthusiasm of novelty wears off, the consumer moves on in search of new destinations, and a never-ending variety of experiences. According to the studies I’ve read, this is true not only about people who drop in and out of religious communities. It is also true of our recreational habits, our exercise routines, and the way we furnish our homes. This pursuit of what is novel and fresh, and momentarily engaging is written large across 21st century America. Some trends must simply be accepted.

And yet at First Unitarian, we seem to be at least a little out of step. When I went this week to look for a beloved Responsive Reading from 1992, I found the names of Lisa and Barry Siciliano, and Bill Densmore, and Laura Howie, and Jennifer Bowes, and Steve and Frankie Knapp, and Cliff Browning, and Mark Lincicome, and Liz Gustavson, and David Blodgett, and Bob Shaw, and many, many more people who are front and center in today’s church.

When this parish called The Rev. Thomas Schade to be the Associate Minister in 1999, I thought it was the best piece of luck imaginable. The Search Committee including Jay Lavelle, Sara Glenn, Mary Melville and Lee Reid had managed to find a strong, brilliant, enthusiastic, mature and visionary leader who was willing to conduct his first parish ministry with an experienced senior colleague. We wrote into his contract that he had to promise to stay three years. We were aware from the start that he would receive many invitations to serve as the sole minister in other UU parishes. These invitations have occurred with some frequency. Yet seven years later, Tom is still with us. He has now served longer than two of this parish’s previous ministers


If you ask Tom, he will say that he has stayed because you are a vital, engaging, growing congregation that continues to challenge him and allow him to work at his creative best. To say that his leadership here has been invaluable would be an understatement.

Tom has been an innovator at First Unitarian, helping to develop a new governance structure, including the Lay Leadership Council, the Time for Community before the service with News from the Pews and Announcements, experiments with small group ministries, our current website and email lists. This year, he is leading a year-long program of education: The First U School of Theology and History. He has introduced the returning Young Adult service at New Years, and the early Family oriented Christmas Eve service and has organized the summer services series each year. On the district level he has been President of the UU Minister’s Association, is currently ”Good Offices” (handling crisis’s in other parishes between ministers and congregations), and has been a leader in a professional study group. At the national level, he has served as the President of the UU Christian Fellowship, is leading retreats for UU ministries, and has been asked to speak throughout the country. In Worcester, he serves on the Board of the Worcester Pastoral Counseling Center and with the Faith Group of the Central Massachusetts Partnership for Compassionate Care at the End of Life. And he was essential to the rebuilding efforts after the 2000 fire. What you haven’t seen is that he has talked me out of quitting, more than once.

It was in the summer of 2000, only a year after his arrival that Tom stopped functioning as an “Associate,” and started sharing the ministry with me. The demands of the institution required it. And because each of us has different strengths and compatible theologies and complementary styles, we have forged an effective partnership. Because this has been a shared ministry, many in the congregation, especially the Prudential Committee, have asked why Tom still carries the “Associate” tag.

On Sunday, November 12th, there will be a special congregational meeting after church to allow the congregation to vote on recognizing Tom’s important ministry among us. I am the 10th minister. I fully and enthusiastically support this congregation’s move to officially recognize The Rev. Thomas Schade as its 11th minister. There will be a listening session on November 5th, after church, hosted by the Prudential Committee. Please try to attend if you have any questions or concerns.

Variety is nice. But what a blessing it is to live in right relationship through long and fruitful years.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

“The Billion Dollar Bet” by Rev. Tom Schade

Memo from October 14, 2006 Newsletter

The Boston Globe’s Real Estate Section last Sunday ran a feature story on Worcester’s “Billion Dollar Bet”, the big plans for the redevelopment of downtown Worcester. It’s pretty exciting stuff. Many of the projects include apartments and condos, residential units, which means more people are going to be living in downtown Worcester in the future. This is good news for First Unitarian. Downtown churches are healthiest when there are people living downtown. It also appears that many of the future residents of downtown Worcester are going to be younger adults.

We live in a culture that is increasingly unchurched, especially among the younger people. But the religious impulse is still there, and so at certain points in their lives, many people go “church shopping.” More and more people want to find their spirituality without recourse to organized religion. They do not want a religious institution that offers one pre-packaged worldview for them to accept and learn.

One of the ways that we can help make Worcester’s Billion Dollar Bet succeed is to offer, in downtown Worcester, worship services where people are always welcome no matter where they are in their spiritual journey.

Our goal should be that every person in downtown Worcester, indeed in Central Massachusetts who has the smallest and most evanescent desire to “be more spiritual”, or to “be in touch with my spirituality” will know that 90 Main Street is the place to go.

They should be able to count on these facts:

  • · if they would come, they would find a room where they can sit in serenity;
  • · if they would come, they would hear beautiful and exciting music:
  • · if they would come, they would hear words that would inspire and challenge them;
  • · if they would come, they would have a chance to pray and sit in silence;
  • · if they would come, their children would be nurtured and encouraged;
  • · if they would come, they would find a good cup of coffee and interesting people who were interested in them.

Such a community center of free spiritual exploration would be a blessing to downtown Worcester, and especially, to its future new residents.

This congregation creates and sustains an uplifting and spiritually helpful worship experience every week. It is what this congregation does to meet the deep spiritual hunger that exists among the people of our city, especially among those people who no longer are connected to the churches of their ancestors. It is our joint project. It takes the work, the commitment, the cooperation and the financial support of a very large number of people, living and dead, to do it.

It is the work that we do together, to sustain one of the on-the-ground, grassroots, voluntary, covenantal, community-based, democratic organizations that are fading from our social life. These organizations will be the saving hope of our community and nation.

My question about the future is this: can we summon up the collective commitment to be excellent at what are trying to do?

We do many things well at First Unitarian Church. For example, our music program is excellent. When there is music, the instruments are in tune, the choir is rehearsed, the musical selection is appropriate and wonderful, the technical equipment will all work. We assume excellence in our music offerings. Such excellence, however, doesn’t just happen; it takes professional leadership, it takes money, and it takes committed volunteers. But the result is a gift and a blessing.

Do we do everything else with the same level of excellence? I think that we know the answer to that question.

Excellence is important. Excellence proves to people that you are serious and competent and trustworthy. And for us, excellence in what we do, and in how we do it, is doubly important. Our message to the world is that religious institutions must be democratic and covenantal and voluntary; and we undercut our message when we are so-so or mediocre.

I hope that you will join the entire congregation at the Celebration Luncheon on Sunday after the Commitment Sunday Service. It is the one time each year that the entire congregation gathers to break bread together, and everyone is invited.

At the Commitment Sunday Service, you will have the chance to make your financial pledge to First Unitarian Church for next year’s budget. I am asking you to consider pledging at a level that will enable First Unitarian Church to reach for excellence in everything we do. A First Unitarian Church committed to excellence in worship; programs, music, study and service will be our contribution to the future health of our city.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

“A Spacious Community” by Rev. Barbara Merritt

Sermon delivered on October 8, 2006

First Reading: - Matthew 5: 14-18

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.

Neither do people light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it gives light unto all that are in the house.

Let your light so shine before all, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.

For verily I say unto you, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

Second Reading: — “What We Aren’t, What We Are” by The Rev. Burton Carley

It has been noted that Charles Darwin was a chronic complainer who was at his happiest when he had something to gripe about. The story is told that one night he and his wife were guests at a banquet at which everything went wrong. The speeches were dry, the champagne was not. The food was inferior, the service even more so. Worst of all, Darwin was sitting in a draft, about which he had a phobia.

All through the evening, he grumbled and complained. When the banquet was over, the sponsor of the affair came over to Mrs. Darwin and said apologetically: “I couldn’t help noticing that your husband was terribly upset. I do hope he will forgive us. We wanted so much for him to have a good time.” “He had a wonderful time,” Mrs. Darwin assured him. “He was able to find fault with everything.”

This same characteristic may be found among us when it comes to describing our Unitarian church to those who are curious about us. It is easy to slide into a kind of negativism that focuses more on who we are not and what we don’t believe, than in positive affirmations. What makes it so easy to frame our community in terms of what we are not is that often the questions we get are about traditional beliefs that illicit either/or kind of responses, and it is easy to fall into that trap.

Here is one suggestion for avoiding that trap. Reflect on one positive reason why the church is important to you, and reframe the question. One of our members did exactly that when he spoke about coming to the realization that while religions and individuals have insight into what is true, the sole possession of the truth is beyond the claim of anyone, including our own tradition. So the meaning of membership is choosing to be with people where one is encouraged to grow in the understanding of what is true. And there is no monopoly on the truth.

The holy is not a noun that comes to us from a definition. The holy is a verb. The answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is to be found in what we do. There is no answer separate from your life and your relationships. As we create and nurture generous lives, lives that will be a blessing to others, the holy is discovered as a verb, smoothing that happens as you connect to what is larger than yourself.

Thus our church is about more than theories, ideas and beliefs. It is about covenant or relationships and how together we grow our souls. I like the way G. K. Chesterton put it once: “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”

Sermon: “A Spacious Community”

The worst TV show of all time, spiritually speaking, was also one of my absolute favorites. It aired in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s. It was called “The Millionaire.” The plots were wonderfully predictable. You’d be washing the dishes, or trying to pay bills, or vacuuming the rug when a well-dressed stranger would unexpectedly ring your doorbell and give you all the wealth your could possibly need – a million dollars – it was a lot back then, just as it is now.

The subliminal message was clear: all you need to do is to wait for a miracle to happen. You can be completely passive, uninvolved, locked up in your house and generosity will come knocking; and reality will change forever.

You’d be surprised how many people are still waiting, not just for the winning lottery ticket or the Publishers Sweepstakes, not even for money. People are waiting for love, for a revelation from God, for recognition from their peers, for self-confidence, for a new house with four bedrooms and four baths and a really big high definition TV, a place where computers never crash and where software never needs updating. At the heart of all these wish-dreams is that one day I will have delivered to me the world I want. A world where there will be no scandals in Congress, where children will not be gunned-down in schools, where wars will cease, global warming will disappear, my budget at home will balance easily and the church budget will have a surplus instead of a deficit, and the people I love will not get sick. We wait for a complete transformation of our lives and our world.

Since the dawn of time, men and women have come to religion seeking the promise of something brand new – something profoundly better. Human beings seem to have it written in our DNA that we restlessly search for an easier world than we inhabit. And one of the places we look for that is in our spiritual communities. If people come to this church (and every other church, synagogue, temple and shrine) seeking great truth, wisdom, beauty and meaning what does the visitor have the right to expect? What must a religious community provide in 2006?

This sermon was partially inspired by a true story of what the “Dream Center,” our evangelical brother and sisters are providing just a few blocks away. At a “Youth Rally for Christ” this summer, three large motorcycles came roaring down the center aisle during their worship service. I was told Friday that in the 1930’s, the evangelical Amy McPhearson also used motorcycles in worship. (There is a perverse part of me that would like to welcome three motorcycles into our sanctuary right now, one down each aisle; but I am fond of my job, and want to keep it.) Obviously in 2006, people in our culture want entertainment. And the large, very successful mega-churches provide just that. Just as box stores practice an “economy of scale” to the American consumer, “box churches” with thousands upon thousands of members, provide entertainment (including motorcycles), services and programs that are highly attractive to people looking for an engaging community.

Another effective recruitment tool for religions has been the “guarantee.” Worship with us, accept our doctrines, creeds and rituals; and we will provide you eternal salvation. Some churches even promise success at work, happy family lives, protection from illness, and angels who will watch over you and keep you from any harm. Such religious organizations believe that they will receive measurable returns from their faithfulness. Whenever I watch a person “witnessing” on TV on how this “conversion” healed their arthritis, I can’t help but wonder what the poor old man in the next pew must be thinking about the arthritis in his hip that hurts a lot. Why has God cured the other guy and not him?

Another ever-popular religious message is that with my church (or my path or my tradition) you will be receiving something unique. Religions compete in claiming to offer a radically new revelation of truth and salvation. I am always frustrated when Christians claim that their way is not the fulfillment of an ancient tradition of 1000’s of years – but a break with the past. They must puzzle over Jesus saying that he brought nothing new – not even a change in punctuation – not a new apostrophe, not a new comma – that he came to fulfill the tradition, not to change it. Religious marketers must have realized that there wasn’t any real punch in the argument of “nothing new.” So they are constantly promising “new religions” that offer new scripture, new rituals, new saints, and new ways to worship. Forget the subtleties of punctuation! “What we have to offer is a whole new way of being!” say the salesmen and saleswomen of the new church. And human minds, which are always fascinated by anything new, take the bait and go into the temples to see whether reality will, in fact, be completely different.

Religious communities welcome seekers no matter how high their expectations are, or how low. Many, many people come to religion seeking absolutely nothing for themselves; they are only looking for a good religious education for their children. And no matter whether the church you attend is orthodox or heretical, whether it is fundamentalist or atheist, whether or not the followers believe it all or don’t know what to believe; there is some work that every religious institution needs to do.

· We must offer encouragement to the human struggle to find meaning and to overcome challenges. We need to offer hope.

· We must protect and empower our children. Every child of God needs to learn that they are welcome on this earth, capable of important work, worthy of respect, dignity and forgiveness. Of course, we teach that here, but I don’t know any synagogue or church that doesn’t teach this.

· Religious communities are given sacred ritual responsibilities: to welcome children, to bless marriages and to bury the dead. We do it differently, in different houses of worship, but these sacred passages fill a deep and universal need.

· Religious communities also accompany the sick, minister to shut-ins and the elderly. We offer opportunities to serve the “least of them.” we give our time, talent and financial resources to try to make the world a better place.

In the midst of all this activity religions must perform two other essential tasks. The first, which Universalists do especially well, is to make room for the possibility of resurrection. Grace was defined by the writer Isak Dinesen in the story “Babette’s Feast” as a “general amnesty.” She wrote: “Grace, brothers and sisters, makes no conditions, singles out no one in particular; grace takes us all to its heart, and proclaims general amnesty.” No matter how difficult to the circumstances, no matter how formidable the challenges, there is always the chance for resurrection. Universalists have always maintained that all children of God are sacred and will ultimately be reconciled and welcomed and forgiven by God.

Unitarian’s are especially bad at the second task: naming the other side of the equation. The possibility of crucifixion, or as I read in a book this summer: “Don’t forget everybody gets crucified in this world.” Everybody dies, and while we are here on earth, almost all of us face tragedy, failure and heartbreak. Every religious community has to make space for suffering – for the universal human experience of the paralyzing experience of helpless anguish. You might have felt such anguish this week hearing the description of 10 little Amish girls being shot. You might feel it about Iraq. You might feel it about your own life. There needs to be time in every worshipping community where both our joys and our sorrows are acknowledged

Just as this church shares a similar work as Wesley Methodist next door and Temple Sinai and the Dream Center and the Catholic churches in the area and the new mosque; there are also some things that none of our religious communities (in my humble opinion) should be doing. They all fall under the heading: “We ought not to be lying.” The religious lies I feel are most damaging would include:

1. The distribution of religious “Easy Buttons,” similar to the ones that Staples Office Supply delivers, but this time about your “growing your soul.” Moving close to God, truth and your neighbors is not easy; never has been, never will be.

2. Spin: Join this church and together we will save the world, change the world and launch the most effective secular, social service agency ever seen anywhere. (On the side, we’ll do a little worship.). But our real work is to transform society. For the record, religious institutions, in study after study are shown to be some of the least effective agencies for social change. What we can do is offer some help to a suffering world. We can save one life here and improve the circumstances of a life somewhere else. But we should be candid about the inherent limitations of our best efforts.

3. Most importantly, no religion, anywhere, ought to be teaching demonization and hatred. There is already way too much of that in the world. To encourage blaming, ridicule, bitterness and violence in the name of a God of love is mockery. If religious institutions can lose their tax status for being politically active, perhaps they should also lose that financial privilege if they teach hatred, in any form.

4. There is one additional lie that is harder to discern, but it causes immense harm. And that is the assumption that God, truth and the world will not ask anything significant from you; that religion can be a quiet, private, passive affair not requiring too much of your heart mind and soul.

Five hundred years before Christ, the Hindu scripture, the Bhavada-Gita described the argument between Arjuna (a disciple who didn’t want to have to fight his own downward tendencies or to fight for a fairer and more just society) and Krishna, a god of love, who teaches Arjuna that staying passive and uninvolved and disengaged is not an option. Krishna says: “You are here on earth to do God’s work. Neither this world nor the next is for the one who does not sacrifice. Be a warrior and kill your selfishness and arrogance. Work unselfishly for the good of all the world. You must act! There is a war that opens the doors of heaven! Do not run from this spiritual battle out of fear or laziness or cowardice. In whatever work you do, take refuge in God, and by Grace you will find the imperishable home of eternity.”

Jesus doesn’t appear to be saying anything different when he urges his disciples to come out from hiding – to hold their light up, to realize that they are a city on the hill. With this God-given light and power our good works, our active sustained efforts, are what will bring glory to God. God’s glory is realized, not (please note) by our conformity to correct doctrine, not by our subtle theological arguments, but by what we do. Apparently that matters on earth, and in heaven. What you do today! Are your efforts making the world more spacious and welcoming and encouraging – full of light and goodness? Or are the things that you are doing to yourself and to others making the world seem smaller and narrower and harsher?

Spaciousness is best experienced, rather than defined. It is an “ah-hah” – a new and expansive realization. I sense that spaciousness whenever I watch Fred Astaire dances. You might sense spaciousness:

· When you hear a wonderful church choir.

· When you come upon an unexpected burst of brilliant maple trees in their full New England fall foliage colors.

· Spaciousness can be experienced looking out of an airplane window or by the ocean.

· Spaciousness becomes real when you thought you were at a dead end in your life and suddenly there are all sorts of possibilities.

· Zen Buddhism describes spaciousness as what can happen in meditation.

· The mystics in every religious tradition tell us the whole universe can be experienced within your own consciousness.

· Jesus said: “You are the light of the world.” You! Who knew?

Most of us want to live in a spacious and supportive environment. We want to use our energy to create a more spacious and life-giving world. But how? And the question that haunts me is, “What should Unitarian Universalists be doing?” What are the unique battlefields where we are called to be warriors? What are the particular candles that we need to place on these tall candlesticks that will offer great illumination?

I would propose that we consider three particular ways that, in this parish, we are called to “grow our souls.” They are: 1) the practice of radical hospitality; 2) seeing proportion and perspective; and 3) holiness – as a verb.

Radical hospitality: If you want to be a leader at First Unitarian of Worcester, there is really only one way to do that. Become a host or a hostess, a welcomer of all souls. A greeter. An opener of doors. Our foundational belief of universal salvation is not only about God’s welcome and reconciliation with all souls in eternity. Our universalism has to be about this life – where Buddhists and Christians and Jews and agnostics and Muslims and Methodists and every child of God feels invited and included.

The ancient Greeks have a wonderful custom that when a guest leaves his host, a ring is presented and then broken. Each takes a part. The broken ring, according to theologian Lambros Kamperidis is a symbol that “we will only become whole again at some future reunion, when separated friends through the practice of hospitality are identified in a unique and unitarian whole, expressed by the unit of the ring.” (I love when the word unitarian shows up unexpectedly.) Every Sunday, our worship needs to be a reunion. In every human encounter, we are invited to play the part of host or hostess, recognizing every stranger and every friend as a child of God.

The second challenge in building a spacious community is in the mysterious realm of proportion and perspective. Can you imagine the part you have been asked to play in this creation? If you hide your light under a bushel, you won’t know that you can provide the light that will lead a friend out of the dark! On the other hand, as you hold your candle high, remember to turn your face in the direction of the sun and notice that illumination. The city of Worcester is located on seven hills, and our church is on one of the holy hills of Worcester. But then look at the blue marble of earth from the perspective of space, and remember the mountains and valleys and oceans and galaxies, and see that we actually take up very little of the universe. Humility is not really about the diminishment of the self. It is about the constant acknowledgement of something far greater than the self. In worship we gather seeking some larger perspective to our lives. Hopefully, we are made constantly aware that our understanding of God has always been too small. We are reminded that there is much more going on than we can grasp. Life is larger and more spacious and full of great possibilities than we know.

Lastly, may this liberal religious community always be a place for verbs – for an active, moving, constantly provocative life of the spirit, where together we commit to the “growing of our souls.” Religion then becomes an amazing affair of the heart; challenging us, pushing us, blessing us, holding us up, moving us forward – where our seeking is never finished and our building is never complete.

You are invited now and always to tear down the old walls of fearfulness and narrowness and passivity. Together, we gather in religious community to create and nourish generous, nurturing and spacious lives.

"The Lawyer's Other Question" by Rev. Tom Schade

Sermon delivered on October 8, 2006

In a very familiar story told in 10th chapter of Luke, a man described as a lawyer, asks Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus asks him to remember what is required by the Torah, and they remember together that the commandment is to Love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

The lawyer goes to ask the very famous question, “But who is my neighbor?” And the story of the Good Samaritan follows, which I talked about the last time I preached, in the sermon entitled “Between Everyone and Nobody”.

But I have been thinking a lot about the Lawyer’s Other Question, the first question that he asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?

What are we to make of this question?

Does it have any relevance to us today?

I will note in passing that Jesus does not answer the question the way that the most orthodox Christians answer it – he says nothing about believing in him.

He does not quote John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, and whomsoever shall believe in Him shall have Eternal Life.”

No, he just says to one must Love God and Love ones’ neighbor as oneself.

To today’s secularly minded persons, folks with a scientific, naturalistic worldview, which includes many religious liberals, it appears to be a quaint question; one that we don’t struggle with too much. After all, the modern world has concluded that eternal life is not a real possibility. Death is final, and it is irreversible. Once you are dead, you are dead, and that is it.

At least, many of us think so most of the time.

I have to tell you, though, and many of my colleagues tell me the same thing, that a lot of people seem to have another and completely separate part of their mind, a part that is activated when someone they love one dies. And this other part of the brain, which is normally dormant and quiet, fully believes in the eternal soul, and in life after death, and indeed, in a heaven, where they believe the one they loved is now living, and where they expect to meet with them again. There was a time that I thought that this was some sort of philosophical inconsistency that needed to be resolved. Now, I just accept it that people are just like that; it’s way that we are.

People believe lot of different things about what follows death. I once attended a workshop at which the workshop leader identified some 14 different general theories of life after death, ranging from “there isn’t any” to a couple different types of reincarnation schemes, to the popular Christian versions of heaven and hell, to the classic Christian teaching of the general resurrection, to spiritualism etc. etc. Now I wish I had saved my notes from that workshop.

But what are we to make of the concept of immortality and eternal life?

Let’s start with this: In this largely secular culture, and In the absence of a clear belief in the after life, immortality becomes another word for lasting fame. Immortality is being known and celebrated long after you are dead. Immortal is a word that get mentioned at the funerals of entertainers.

The Immortals are the ones that Jesus Son of Sirach, or Ecclesticus, whom we read this morning speaks of. Let us now praise famous men. People of power and wealth and who made a great contribution to the arts.

Immortality as lasting fame. Immortality is having a line in the history books, a statue in the park and a mention in a song still sung years later.

There something about people that makes most of us very hungry for the recognition of a larger group. It seems that very few people do not have a hunger for recognition, although it also seems that some of us are really quite desperate for everyone to know us and know our name. President Bill Clinton says that he has suffered from Attention Getting Deficit Disorder all of his life, and when he said, I knew exactly what he meant.

I was going to say that we live in a culture, but I really think that one has to say that we live in a world that trades in fame and reputation.

So, you can see how immortality could become defined as lasting fame in this world.

You know, you can look at the value of everything and everybody in two ways.

One is what is it good for, what does it do, who is it. A hammer is good for driving nails. It’s good for hitting things, maybe for making something go where it doesn’t fit or want to go. That’s about all that a hammer is good for – that is the value of a hammer.

A person is good for being a friend, for thinking and talking, for the work he or she can do, for what they can think about and create.

On the other hand, somebody or something also has a value that is the measurement of what other people think that of it. Madonna can get thousands of dollars for performing in a concert. Alicia Tringale gets considerably less singing in our choir. Is Madonna really a better singer? No, but lots of people are willing to pay that much to hear her.

What is the value of hammer? Is the value of a hammer that it drives nails. Or, is the value of a hammer about $5 to $15 dollars? Because that is what people will pay for one.

Fame is the highest form of measuring people by what other people think of them. And it is a only a partial measure of the worth of a person. That is one of things that is interesting about the Scripture reading today: The author praises famous men, but on the other hand, he is aware of all those who are not famous, and he appears to be quite unsure as to whether these, the ones who are not famous, are equally worthy of praise.

Fame is not really a measure of immortality is it? How many of you recognize the name Elfriede Jelinek? And how many of you recognize the name Anna Nicole Smith? Elfriede Jelinek wone the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. I admit that I am vague about exactly what Anna Nichol Smith did to become famous, but not as vague as I am about Elfriede Jelinek, of whom I know nothing. So this is not a criticism of anyone.

Fame and reputation, the modern secular understandings of immortality are not enough. I I do not think that the lawyer’s other question was really, Jesus, you seem to be well-known, able to draw a good crowd, how do I become famous too?

There is a poem that I read regularly at funerals; so probably many of you have heard me read it: It is by Robert Hugh Orr and it ends with these lines:

They are not dead who live
In hearts they leave behind.
In those whom they have blessed
They live a life again,
And shall live through the years
Eternal life, and grow
Each day more beautiful
As time declares their good,
Forgets the rest, and proves
Their immortality.

This is a theory of immortality that I think resonates for many of us: immortality that rests on lasting influence that we have had on the lives of others, immortality that rests on the love that others carry for us. Immortality which is somehow linked to the good that we have done, and the good that is remembered about us.

If we take this definition of immortality, and use it to unpack the lawyer’s other question, his question becomes something like this:.

Jesus what must I do to gain immortaility? Teacher, what must I do to live in hearts I will leave behind? Rabbi, what must I do to live a life again in the lives of those whom I have blessed?

You see this is not a quaint question from another era, but one that challenges each of us today. It is a question that asks us to look at the effect that we are having on others, and asks to evaluate that? We will be among those of whom each day, time will declare our good, and prove our immortality? Or will we be among those whose legacy is bitter memory and pain?

Will there people whose lives are different because I have lived, and what can I do to leave their lives better.

Perhaps this question haunts me because I am passing into yet another stage of life – one that is less focused on what I can do and more focused on what I shall leave when I am done.

I have some suggestions for achieving immortality, for living again in hearts you leave behind, living a life again in those whom you have blessed. These are how I would answer the lawyer’s other question?

  1. First of all, think about what it is that you have inherited that you do not want to pass on into the future. Some of the greatest contributions to the future of the world are being made, right now and everyday, by the people who suffered cruelty, neglect, abandonment, and abuse as children and who have decided that the chain of pain will stop with them. It takes a conscious effort to not simply treat other people, especially children, as you were treated. The default is that we pass along what happened to us without even thinking about it. Yet, millions of people were spanked and beaten as children, and they will not pass that on as their inheritance. They will live on in hearts they have blessed, and live eternal life.
  2. We live in a culture and a civilization. Values like tolerance for others, open minds, respect for all people, commitment to the truth, equality of the sexes, respect for gays and lesbians: these are hard won habits of the mind that must be maintained, or they can be lost. Progress is not inevitable. What was formerly taboo can become normal over time. So much that has happened in the last few years has been the breaking of taboos: preemptive wars, indefinite detentions, secret prisons, euphemisms like aggressive interrogation techniques, warrantless wiretapping. If it is true that we live a life again in hearts that we have blessed, surely we will live on in those hearts that we have abandoned and cursed. And each one of plays a role in the maintaining of the cultural boundaries between good and evil that we will pass on, however we leave them. Part of your immortality is all of our immortality.
  3. What are the institutions and organizations, causes and, yes, churches, that you are going to bless with your living. You have the power that comes from being a powerful example of the power of commitment. More than anything else, don’t we need to have role models of people who are willing dedicate themselves to something beyond their own interests and concerns?

Finally, we approach the question of purpose: what do you believe to be the purpose of your life? Have you dedicated your life to a purpose that will bless those that you will someday leave behind?

Are you drifting through life without purpose, unreflective, not caring if your way through this world is a blessing to those whose lives you are touching.
Or have you become so discouraged that purpose and dedication are just memories?

Last May, we heard here a wonderful sermon from Dr. Peter Levine, on the power of hope when we are facing terrible challenges in life, including serious life-threatening illnesses. He offered a recipe for the kind of fierce hope that we all need. We have given away more copies of that sermon than any others in recent history.

I want to add one additional ingredient to his recipe for hope. It is this: know where your immortality lies. See yourself as living forever. Plan for it. Plan how it is that you will live on in hearts you will leave behind. Have a strategy for living on through those whom you have blessed, so you can start blessing them now.

Live your life with an eye on the ages, with an eye on eternity, with an eye on the generations that will come after you. Know your answer to the lawyer’s other question, and live to build up the world that you want to leave.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

“How Are You?” by Rev. Barbara Merritt

October 3, 2006

It can be a greeting of blessing, comfort and engagement. Someone cares about your well-being! Someone has stepped out of their own narrow frame of reference to inquire about the reality of another. Someone has crossed over the barriers that separate us to inquire about the happiness, the health and the emotional state of a friend, a colleague, a family member or even a stranger.

On the other hand, this common expression of goodwill can be no more than a formal salutation; an ordinary ritual that is meant to be brief, casual and contained. Self-revelation is not invited. Honesty is not valued. The only correct reply to this kind of “How are you?” is “Fine.” End of conversation. Unless you want to return the favor and ask the questioner, “And how are you doing?” If he or she answers, “Never better” or “No Complaints” or “Great!” you can both go on your merry way.

But what if things are not “fine”? What if you have a whole litany of complaints? What if you can barely function? Is “just fine” the only civil exchange of pleasantries possible?

A friend taught me that during times of exceptional struggle, you can answer the “How are you?” question by saying, “Taking in air.” This establishes the bar at a nice low level. “I am breathing. . .I am here. . .I am not on a respirator.” Sometimes that is accomplishment enough. As 12-step programs understand so well (with “one day at a time” or “one hour at a time”) sometimes the simple act of getting through the day is a profile in courage.

Then there are the acronyms that allow you to answer all questions about your mental and physical health with the snappy comeback “fine.” Fine meaning:

Frantic Irritable Nervous (&) Exhausted

Fully Imploding (with) Numerous Emergencies.

Finally Inseparable (from) Narcissistic Egotism.

Fearfully Incapable (of) Noticeable Enthusiasm.

Feeling Intensely Neurotic (&) Edgy.

Frightfully Inarticulate (with) Non-stop Expletives.

The more common reply, “Good” can carry its own weight, if it is understood to contain the acronym

“Genuinely Overwhelmed, Occasionally Delusional.”

Yet exceptionally gracious days come to us all. Then we can answer questions about our state of being with both “positivity” and real integrity. When we say, “I’m wonderful!” it means the sun is shining and I’m delighted to see you, and I’m feeling rather hopeful about and grateful for this day that has been given to me. And, I’m looking forward to entering in to a longer conversation.

“Greetings” were never meant to freight the entire substance of human interaction and conversation. They are rather a symbolic salute, a brief welcome, a signal that we make to each other that we are aware of another’s presence, and that we are paying attention. No matter whether we are at our very best or at our very worst, it is a good spiritual discipline to face one another and speak.

But the truth at the heart of these exchanges is that we are rarely completely inundated by either total suffering or total happiness. We are usually navigating through a complicated mix of both good and bad, fortune and misfortune, comfort and worry. Which brings me to parishioner, Jeff Bailey’s reply to me this Sunday. To the question, “How are you?” he answered with a smile, “I don’t know!” This woke me up to the marvelous recognition that all of our assessments about the quality of our existence and the meaning of our moods are transitory and limited.

Probably the only one who genuinely knows “how I am” is God. Only an all-powerful source of goodness and truth and love would have the capacity to discern where I am on my spiritual journey. Me? I don’t have a clue.

I’ll keep answering, “Fine” or “Not so good,” using countless translations and imaginations about how I think my life is proceeding. But as a Unitarian Universalist, it is good to be reminded that ultimately none of us know the truth about the mystery of our own being. How we “are” is a work in progress. And this will be true, as long as we are “taking in air.”