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.



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