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.

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.


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