First Unitarian Church of Worcester

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

Saturday, 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.


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