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.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Who Answers Prayers" by Rev. Barbara Merritt

When I think of mosques, I remember visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul; a magnificent architectural structure with exquisite ceramic tiles and vast interior space and light. I think of beautiful minarets and graceful domes and ornate Persian prayer rugs.

Thus, I did not recognize the photograph of the mosque in my son’s village in Africa. In Kanfarandé the mosque is little more than a medium size shed with a corrugated metal roof. Here a few dozen men gather to direct their prayers to Allah. It seems that for the last year they have been praying for my son; not for him to be a good physics teacher for their children, or that his Susu (the local language) might improve. Their prayers were that this young man from the West, who knew people with resources, might somehow raise the money to pay for a water pump that would bring clean water to their village, and keep their children from needlessly dying. Robert was the only person they knew who had any contact whatsoever with the international community. So as they said goodbye to him in June, several of the village elders told him of their prayers and sent him forth into the world to do his best.

When Robert injured his knee in September his return to his village was delayed by two months. I don’t know what kind of doubts the old men entertained when their Peace Corp volunteer did not return. (Though in this part of Africa, without phones or any form of high-speed communication, there is remarkable patience when it comes to schedules.)

I can only imagine what his return to the village was like last week (because he won’t be close to an email for awhile.) He did tell me that he won’t be doing what I, myself, would want to do. The grand announcement! The triumphant return! Robert explained to me that in village culture this would be neither appropriate, nor wise. Instead, he will quietly inform his two honorary grandfathers that the financial resources have been obtained. This weekend engineers will be visiting the village to locate the well and make the preliminary specifications and equipment assessments. Because these pumps can only be drilled at the end of the rainy season, the actual work may have to wait a few weeks.

Enough money was raised so that two neighboring villages (even poorer communities than Kanfarandé) will also be receiving wells. About half the money for this clean-water project came from members of our parish. Family and friends donated most of the rest. But the truly surprising gift came from a Catholic Parish, St. Mary’s in Southborough, MA. I have no idea of how they even heard of the Peace Corp Project, but they decided that their tithe from their Sunday offering should go to this work, and they sent us a check for $225.

Imagine, if you will, Roman Catholics donating money to help Unitarians in assisting Moslems in three small villages on the West African Coast. That’s about as close to the kingdom of God as I’ve seen in a long time. Ordinary people are answering the prayers of strangers.

We all know people who prefer miracles. They worship a God who is supposed to intervene in the course of the natural world, with fire and smoke and marvelous acts. God is expected to keep the people you love from dying. God is supposed to keep the innocent from suffering. And God’s promise is to bless you and yours with good health, wealth and serenity.

When God doesn’t perform according to the dictates of the mind, when God doesn’t answer these prayers, some people lose faith. But I can’t help but wonder whether such disillusionment is not so much with God as it is an argument with human existence. We live on a planet where everyone dies, where innocent suffering is a given, and where what we want does not necessarily happen. So our frustration and anger may not actually be directed at the divine. We might just be quarrelling with reality…ordinary reality.

Here is where religion becomes interesting. In the words of Thomas Merton, the idea of God walking the earth in flesh, of God being born at Christmas in the person of Jesus, is not really a miracle story. Merton writes, “God took on the weakness and ordinariness of man, and He hid Himself, becoming an anonymous and unimportant man in a very unimportant place. And He refused at any time to Lord it over men, or to be a King, or to be a Leader, or to be a Reformer, or to be in any way Superior to His own creatures. He would be nothing else but their brother, and their counselor, and their servant, and their friend.”

And to his disciples Jesus taught that when we do the ordinary work of feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and visiting the sick we are serving God. We have also been sent to earth to answer the prayers of those in need.

This is the season when, as Charles Dickens wrote, “Let us by one consent open our shut-up hearts, and think of people as if they were our fellow passengers. Let Christmas be once more a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time. The common welfare is our business; charity, mercy, forbearance are all our business. Let us go forth while it is day and turn human misery into joy."

To that end (you are invited to bring to church):

1) Hats and mittens for the mitten tree (to be given to children at Elm Park School)

2) Long underwear (especially X-large sizes) and warm socks to be distributed to shelters.

3) Non -perishable groceries: there is currently a food shortage crisis in Worcester. On the morning of December 17th through the morning of Dec 24th we will be collecting canned goods, peanut butter, pasta, cereal, and other non-perishable items. We will sort them as one of the activities at the 10:30 a.m. Christmas Eve morning Service project.

4) A dish, or volunteer on the clean up crew. The Christmas dinner potluck, Monday, December 18th, is hosted by the Monday night at the Church "Christmas Spirituality" group and is for all ages. You can sign up on the bulletin board for specific food or tasks, but no reservations are required. Afterward there will be wonderful Christmas music, and a fire in the fireplace in the Bancroft Room. The festivities begin at 6:30 pm.

5) Your generous financial contribution at the 5:30 p.m. Candlelight Christmas Eve Service. Our collection this year will once again go to homeless children and their families in Worcester County, through the Interfaith Hospitality Network.

Any questions? Speak to either of your ministers, or to Ted Messier, Heather Souare, or Liz Gustavson.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"Tis the Season" by Revs. Merritt and Schade

“’Tis the Season”

“It’s that most wonderful time of the year,” goes the song. And it is not just the season of holiday cheer, family togetherness, sleigh bells and snowflakes on our nose and eyelashes, and chestnuts roasting on open fires, but also the season of our yearnings for peace, and goodwill for all, and Tiny Tim, shouting "Bless us All, Everyone" and best of all, figuring out what to do about the $20,000 church deficit.


That's right. It is the end of the fiscal year at the First Unitarian Church and we have to confirm that which we suspected all year long; the church spent more than it took in this year.

The church leadership has been anticipating this deficit. Very early on, we realized that the church had budgeted too little money for the transition for the Interim Director of Religious Education, (an additional $6000 was spent.) We would have very little slack in the budget in the case of any other unanticipated expenses. Every year the budget is our best estimate...and we build in contingency funds. Nevertheless, we didn't anticipate 1) that we would completely catch up on three years of overdue audits this year, costing us an additional $10,000. 2) We had two angels who contributed money to cover a major boiler repair, and a restoration of an exterior retaining wall and banking that was dangerous. But a new regime of water treatment for the boiler is costing an additional $1600. 3) members promised to try to pay unpaid 2005 pledges, but we still came up $2500 short. We knew that we would be projecting a deficit at the beginning of December; the question was how much. The way to minimize it was to do everything as well as we could.

Throughout the year, expenses were watched carefully. Some areas of church life are returning funds that were budgeted but unused. The Music Department saved significant amounts of money this last year. And our goal was to do as well as we possibly could in everything else that we could do.

Auction co-chairs Madeline Silva and Mary McAllister led us to an excellent auction in the spring which was a big help. Our Steeple Lighting fundraiser program and the spring plant sale were other successes. The proceeds from the wonderful new choir Gospel CD, as well as continued sales of the original, have earned money for the church. The assessors were more diligent than ever before about asking new members to make pledges as soon as possible. They also made sure that new members had the information they needed to make an appropriate pledge.

Two things we did not do. One, we did not restrict the Church's generosity. We continued to raise money and conduct fundraisers for other worthy causes. We had special collections for the Sudanese Lost Boys, The Elm Park Community School Children's Fund, The Carty Cupboard, UNICEF, and The Peace Corps Water Pumps project. Everyone remembers the Fabulous Fifties Floor Show which raised money for Epilepsy Research. We still intend to dedicate the Christmas Eve offering to the Interfaith Hospitality Network, (the organization through which the church provides hospitality to homeless families and children for 2-3 weeks during the year. (This year our donation will be matched, and doubled!) It is an article of faith for us that the only way to invite generosity into your own life is to practice it.

The other was that we chose not to push the panic button and talk often about the probably deficit for the year. Our plan was to take the year one step at a time; do each thing as well as possible (good Auction, good pledge drive, good fundraisers) and then see where we would be at the end of the year. Now we are at the end of the year, and the deficit is still here and still going to be a problem. We have elected to combine a final fundraiser with our end of the year appeal.

We are enclosing an envelope with this newsletter. We are asking you to make a generous contribution to close our deficit. If every member of the congregation contributed about 6% of their 2006 pledge amount, this deficit would disappear. If you are not a member, please consider making a contribution to this church this year, perhaps in appreciation of this weekly newsletter, or in gratitude for some beautiful music you heard here, or in memory of friend's funeral held in our sanctuary.

Please mail your envelope to the church office, or better yet, bring it with you when you attend services during the holiday season. Best of all, bring it to church this Sunday when Mantown, our irrepressible ad-hoc Men's Group is hosting a Black and White “Close-the- Deficit” Coffee Hour.

Whether you can give only $20...or $2,000, together we can balance this year's budget. Will you join us?