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, March 27, 2007

"Called Beyond Ourselves" Sermon by Tom Schade

Called Beyond Ourselves
Sermon Tom Schade
February 4, 2007

For forty days and forty nights, the Israelites and the Philistines had squared off in the hills overlooking that valley. Everyday, Goliath had come down from the Philistine side and stood in the valley and shouted his challenge to the army that Saul had gathered. “Choose one fighter to come down and fight me, for the whole thing.” And everyday, Saul’s army quaked in fear, and no one went forward to fight Goliath.

This standoff had become a way of life. The fear that they felt had become a habit. I am sure that by the 10th day, no one thought about it anymore. “Oh, there is Goliath shouting again. No one would be so foolish as to go out there and fight this guy nine feet tall, covered with armor. You would have to be crazy to do that, because Goliath would kill you.” And given those odds, and those stakes – if we send someone out there and he loses, then we all become slaves to the Philistines, wouldn’t it make more sense to not risk the battle.”

Goliath was not going to be going away anytime soon.

Time slowed down and eventually stopped, and Saul’s armies had been stuck like a fly in amber. Fear and paralysis had become a way of life.

Goliath was a powerful man. He was nine feet tall, the story tells us, and covered in bronze armor and carried a huge and heavy spear and sword. He had also made the Israelites play his game. Instead of army against army, he wanted it to be one on one, where he had all the advantages.

And in so doing, Goliath had already won. He brought Saul’s army to a standstill. The Philistines must have been laughing up in those hills, saying to themselves. “Look, we have their whole army pinned down, and we have to do is send the big guy out every morning to yell at them.”

We all know this story of David and Goliath. It is one of the first stories that we learn from the Bible. It is an exciting story, and it is a story that appeals to young people, especially, I think, to young boys, who face Goliaths every day. It is interesting that it is not a particularly religious story. God does not smite Goliath with a lightening bolt – there are no miracles or supernatural interventions in the story. Goliath is beaten by a shepherd boy with a sling and a smooth stone. Yes, David gives all the credit to God, much as a grammy winning singer thanks God before getting around to thanking her musicians, producers, agents, lawyers and her parents.

But the story is not about the actions of God, anymore than it is a story about the advantages of slingshots over spears in combat.

It is a story about bravery.

David is a shepherd boy sent by his father to bring some bread and some cream cheeses to his brothers in the army. You might say he was the kid who delivers the bagels.

And he comes into this army that is frozen in fear, that for forty days and nights has been taunted by this nine foot freak, an army that has been slinking around talking about how good it would be for somebody, somewhere, somehow to take on Goliath. For forty days and forty nights, which is Bible talk, for a long long time.

So David says he will do it; even though it seems crazy.

Yes, he was skilled with the slingshot, and yes, he had some experience with lions and bears in his shepherding work, but mostly, he was not afraid. He was an outsider, he brought fresh eyes into the situation, and he was not trapped in the collective fear and community paralysis that had made Goliath so overwhelmingly powerful in the eyes of the Israelites.
You can see the power of the group-think that had gripped the Israelites when Saul tries to put armor on David and give him a sword. They only could think of one way to fight Goliath, and that way was guaranteed to result in defeat, which is where the paralysis came in.

Anyway, you know the rest of the story.

It would be great if all we ever faced now were nine-foot guys with big spears. Such a man might have a great career playing basketball, but he would not bring us all to paralyzed fear.

But Goliath is still out there for us.

I see Goliath out there right now in every social problem that seems too complex, with too many interconnections to ever be solved. Issues like homelessness. It’s a housing question, and a jobs problem, and a health issue, complicated by the syndromes of drug and alcohol abuse, which are frequently attempts to self-medicate the pain caused by mental and emotional disorders. And even if you were to be able to figure out the best way to attack all these inter-related problems, who has the money to do that, except the government, and how are going to raise the taxes to get the money when everybody is suspicious of homeless people, and angry at them, and afraid of that a run of bad luck could put them in the same place.

It’s Goliath, and it is fearsome, and it is becoming a way of life for us to live with persistent chronic homelessness.

It is becoming a way of life for us to live with widespread homelessness, just like it is a way of life for us to live with a health care system that costs too much and covers too few. But it is so complicated to fix a little bit at a time, but if you try to fix it as a whole system, everybody will think about the Clintons in 1993, and look what happened there. So let Goliath shout everyday.

The President comes out every couple of days and says to the Congress, “the only way you can stop my plans for Iraq is to cut off the money, and you don’t have the nerve to do it. So get used to it. You are too afraid to stop me.”

There are Goliaths in your own home and family – issues and estrangements that are so old and so complicated that they have become a way of life. There are Goliaths in your own mind: thoughts and memories where you don’t go, things that you know about yourself that you will avoid, just like you drive around certain “bad” neighborhoods, without even thinking about it.

We like to think that we are stuck where we are, in our lives, in our careers, in our personal lives, in our civic lives, because we are lazy, or self-centered, or self-satisfied. And surely do we love our comforts. We like to beat ourselves up. We would rather think that we are lazy and morally deficient than to admit that we are afraid. On the other side of our comfort zones, we know that there is a Goliath standing there, and we are afraid.

I am convinced that the reason why most white people prefer the company of other white people, and are uncomfortable in the presence of larger numbers of people of color is not that we/they don’t like people who are different. They are afraid, afraid of saying the wrong thing, even when they are trying to be nice, and looking as foolish as Joe Biden. We/They are afraid of being criticized. We/They are afraid of being a witness to someone’s anger.

There are transgender people in the world; this is just a fact. There are men who feel that they are really women and women who want to be men, and people who fall into neither gender category and wish to be accepted for who they are right as they are. For most of us, our gender is the most solid thing of our identity; we cannot imagine ourselves as anything other than what we are. For some people, this is not true. So, the world is more complicated than we thought it was.

But the presence of transgender people makes a lot of people nervous. And why? What I have found is this. When you get right down to it, it is because folks are afraid that they might say the wrong thing. Should I say “she” or “he” when I am talking about that person? That’s the Goliath who is out there, and you know it’s better to stay up in the hills and keep a low profile.

We have Goliaths right here in our church life, places and situations where we are paralyzed by our fears. We can’t do that, we won’t have the money. We can’t do that, nobody will accept that kind of change. I have had people tell me that they don’t like to approach strangers at coffee hour and greet them as newcomers. Once they did that, and the person had been a member here for 20 years. Ooops. It was embarrassing.

If you ever find yourself in that situation, I recommend saying, “well, I am so pleased to meet you then, I’m a much newer member.”

And if you are not sure whether to call a person who looks like a man wearing a dress “she” or “he”, it’s ok to ask. Everybody is kind of new at this.

We are being called beyond ourselves. David saw beyond himself, saw himself as more than he was thought of. Everyone else saw a shepherd, and maybe David in himself a future King, but mostly David saw a big guy who was defying the army of the Lord, and he saw himself as dealing with the situation.

Goliath is standing down in the valley and challenging us. We wouldn’t have wanted that situation, but there he is, and a result we have only two choices. We can deal with Goliath in some ways, or we can stay up in the hills, frozen by our fear, and waiting for somebody else to show up.

Goliath is calling us into a new moment in history. The situation in the world is very grave – we are in the midst of what will be clearly seen as a constitutional crisis someday – The President and the Congress and the Public are on very different pages regarding the War in Iraq, and there are many American and Iraqi lives all ready lost and still at stake. Some see clear and unmistakable evidence that our government is moving toward a military engagement with Iran, and that indeed, such a decision may not even be under our control.

Crucial decisions are being made, and yet, the spectacle of everyday life continues unabated, the Superbowl, American Idol, You’re the One that I Want, the adventures of Brangelina and Tomkat, terrorist threats morphing into advertising for late night cartoons. George Orwell’s comment that “to see what is in front of your nose is a constant struggle” never seemed more true.

The youth of this church are calling us beyond ourselves, setting as a goal going to New Orleans to help that stricken city rebuild. I do not think that this church has ever undertaken such a large scale act of service before. Goliath freezes us by taunting us by saying we do not have the money to do this. If this congregation doesn’t, then who on God’s green earth does?

We are called to move beyond our fears, beyond the despair into which we have turned our fears, and into the hope that we harbor. We are called to be David.

Adrienne Rich:

What would it mean to life in a city whose people were changing each other’s despair into hope?

What would it mean to belong to a church to which people brought their fears and despair, and laid them on the altar, and left carrying their hopes and commitments like flags waving?

Adrienne’s next line: You, yourself must change it.

What would it feel like to know your country was changing?

You, yourself must change it.

Though your life felt arduous, new and unmapped, and strange, what would it mean to stand on the first page of the end of despair?

A smooth stone from the bed of the stream, a sling, a shepherd, a giant falls face first into the dust. You yourself must change it. What would it mean to answer the call to be more than you have ever been, to be braver than you have ever been, to turn your despair into hope.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Lonely, No More" by Rev. Barbara Merritt January 7, 2007

First Reading: - John 5: 2-9

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Second Reading: — from “Moral Proverbs” by Antonio Machado (Robert Bly, translator)

To talk with someone,ask a question first,then—listen.
Look for your other halfwho walks always next to youand tends to be what your aren’t.
In my solitudeI have seen things very clearlythat were not true.
What a the poet is searching foris not the fundamental Ibut the deep you.
Pay attention now:a heart that’s all by itselfis not a heart.
When I am alonehow close my friends are;when I am with themhow distant they are!
I love Jesus, who said to us:Heaven and earth will pass away.When heaven and earth have passed awaymy word will remain.What was your word, Jesus?Love? Affection? Forgiveness?All your words wereone word: Wakeup.

Sermon: “Lonely, No More”

I have never understood Florida. I mean I have never grasped the appeal of a place where for five months out of the year you are faced with oppressive heat and humidity, mosquitoes, fire ants, and what I have always called cockroaches, but which Floridians have renamed “palmetto bugs.” A rose by any other name…it’s still a cockroach to me.

But my recent five-day trip to Florida for a family reunion has revised my opinion of the region, and for the first time, I believe I know why some people retire there. At least why they go to Longboat Key, a small island in the gulf, close to Sarasota and Tampa. The Key is exceedingly narrow—a five minute walk from the bay to the gulf. And on the particular street where we were staying, every house had its backyard bordered by a canal. A vast series of canals had been dug between each residential street so that every house was “on the water.”We stayed at the home of my sister- law’s parents. They had inherited a small bungalow from a grandmother. Because the location was so beautiful, most of the modest houses on the street have been torn down and replaced with large and impressive mission-style homes. Believing this was the right investment, they demolished the bungalow and rebuilt “in the Florida fashion,” fully intending to sell it and go back to their large home in Marin County, California. Instead, after living there for a few months, they decided to sell their family home in California and become permanent residents in Florida. Why? Because they loved the community.

And community is exactly what you get on Rountree Drive. In the five days I was there I met 10 of their neighbors (and most of the residents were away for the holidays.) Everyone on that road takes walks and chats along the way. As I sat out on the back balcony/deck to read a book for one hour at least five boats went by in the canal and warmly waved to me. And while most of the houses are enormous, the lots themselves are tiny (no more than a driveway space between them.) Plus the close canal allowed me to eavesdrop on all the conversations of those who live on the other side of the water (and to watch them play with their dogs and pick oranges from their tree.) It is much more difficult to feel isolated and alone in that neighborhood, than it is where there are large lawns and busy traffic and hectic schedules keep people apart, separated and completely independent from their neighbors.

There is no question that some neighborhoods are more likely to engage you in human contact than others. But I doubt there is any place on this earth where loneliness has been banished.
This condition of feeling separate, alone and not in right relationship with one another (or with God) is part of what it means to be a human being. And yes, I know there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. But what I am talking about is not about counting how many people you are with at any given moment. It is about a fundamental estrangement that is universally recognized by almost all cultures, religions and times.

Kathleen Norris wrote about a different neighborhood, the great desolate plains of the American West, where neighbors live miles and miles apart. She writes about her native North Dakota: “Some have come to love living under our winds and storms, some have come to prefer the treelessness and isolation, becoming monks of the land, knowing that its loneliness is an honest reflection of the essential human loneliness. This willingly embraced desert fosters realism, not despair.”

Most of us live somewhere in between isolation and a neighborhood that functions as an extended family. But all of us should know what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote, “Hell is the place where nothing connects.” Loneliness can be such a hellish experience—where suddenly, and sometimes for no apparent reason, you feel that your friends and family have disappeared, and you are a stranger in a strange land. Albert Schweitzer, a man who dedicated his life to being connected to his fellow human beings, said that sometimes it feels like “you could die from loneliness.”

Enter the quick fix. “Lonesome No More” was the way the author Kurt Vonegut put it in one of his book titles. It turns out he genuinely believed that churches and congregations were places for people who simply couldn’t handle the essential loneliness of the human condition. (As if being a part of a religious community could make that aspect of human existence disappear! Not so I’ve noticed…) Lord knows, we strive to be a place of connections to one another and to God, but hopefully we also are quite truthful about loneliness. Although if you look through our gray hymnal for hymns about loneliness you’ll discover, with very few exceptions, that we’re all about community, all the time…together completely, one voice, one song, one family joining, loving, forward through the ages in one mighty living whole… That’s what we’re willing to sing about.

And it’s not that surprising that we’ve become “Johnny One Note.” The culture is reinforcing the view that “togetherness” will solve all our problems. Whenever I do pre-marital counseling I am always alerted when a new, young couple explains to me that once they are married they won’t ever experience loneliness again. I always reach for one of my favorite classic books about relationships entitled, “The Mirages of Marriage” by Lederer and Jackson, and read to them from chapter six, False Assumption No. 6: That Loneliness Will Be Cured By Marriage:Lonely people who marry each other to correct their situation usually discover that the most intense and excruciating loneliness is the loneliness that is shared with another.Loneliness cannot be cured by Marriage. Loneliness is better tolerated by those who live alone; they have no expectation, and thus no disappointments.

What will cure loneliness? If you watch the advertisements on television, you might conclude that using “Chinette” paper plates will cure loneliness (by bringing you together in constant family reunions, parties and celebrations.) Apparently certain cell phone plans promise you 24-hour contact with adoring friends. Certain Caribbean islands claim that if you vacation there you will be surrounded by friendly welcoming natives. There are commercials that can bring me to tears as one touching, rapturous reunion after another is made possible through the grace of using your credit card.

Advertisers and marketers aren’t stupid. They know how to get our attention. Even if we don’t mention it in polite conversation, or at cocktail parties or at professional meetings, they know about the human condition and they attempt to use our vulnerability to sell products.

Of course you can use an endless supply of Chinette dinner plates and still feel pretty lonely at a family reunion. The persistence of our feelings of estrangement and separation and disconnection are (to a greater or lesser extent) a part of human consciousness. They will not go away, no matter the particular housing arrangements, relationships or lifestyle. So where does this longing and loneliness find expression in modern culture?

There is one song that musicologists trace back to early American songs of the 1780’s. The origin is unknown, but it’s likely home was Appalachian. Nevertheless, the song has been claimed as an African American spiritual, a Southern hymn, and a blue-grass classic.

The lyrics are simple: “I am a poor wayfaring stranger. This world is rough and steep and oft-times a place of woe, but I have a real home just over the river Jordan, a place where there is no sickness or toil or danger, and it’s there, in that heaven of connection, that I will meet my father and my mother; I’m going home.”

You won’t find this song in our hymnbook, or in any other that I know of. (Although it was in hymnals in the South in 1870.) Where will you hear it now? In Country and Western music, in pop culture, on the radio—listen to just one verse of Emmy Lou Harris singing about the universal longing for a place of connections and boundless love.

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe;
And there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.I’m going there to see my Father,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.

“I’m going there to see my Father.” I have the faith that somehow, somewhere, I’ll be home, healed in a bright land where love will be waiting.

Jesus told this story, not as a promised land beyond time and space, not as delayed gratification in a heaven far away, but rather as an experience to be had in this life—right here, right now. If you read the parable about healing carefully, while other patients waiting by the pool of Bethesda are suffering from blindness, being lame and paralysis, the one nameless man is described as having been “ill” for 38 years. And why has he been waiting for 38 fruitless years when everyone else seems to be cured except for him? He describes his own illness: I have no one to help me. I have no one to put me into the pool when its curative powers are operating. I have no one…when I try to go forward under my own power I get pushed to the back of the line. Jesus doesn’t let him continue on alone. First, Jesus listens to him, and then he speaks to him saying, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

My translation and interpretation? This cure was all about connection and relationship. In that man’s engagement with the Rabbi Jesus, he found again his health and his power—his connection to the whole. And this was what enabled him to walk.

The poet, Antonio Machado echoes this truth with simple eloquence. Waking up means (among other things) that we ask a question, and then listen—that we are seeking, not so much what makes up our egos, our fundamentally unique “I’s”, rather we are longing to be in relationship with a deep and profound you…”a heart by itself, is not yet a heart.” This is not ultimately about whether we have a lot of people around us most of the time, or very few. It is about waking up. It is about becoming aware of real and sustaining relationships.

Even after waiting for 3, or 23, or 38, or 78 years trying to get to where you need to go under your own independent power, you can wake up to something greater than yourself.

Here is my fantasy…my imagination at work. “What if”…what if everyone of us right now was enveloped and surrounded by all the joy and love and goodness and connection that we’ve been longing for and seeking our entire lives! And yet we had carefully constructed (with invisible bricks) a solid fortress around us that didn’t allow us to experience any of this reality. What if we had (additionally) put a bunch of cotton in our ears so that we couldn’t hear the words and music of love being spoken? And then put blindfolds on our eyes so that we couldn’t see our companions and all those who wanted to help us and bless us? We would say very loudly, “I am all alone …and no matter what you say, it sounds like I’m alone, and it looks like I’m alone and I feel like I’m alone.” How sad would that be!

Religious communities, like this one and so many others, exist to wake us up…to gently remind us that what we seek is nearby—closer than our own breathing. And slowly hopefully, we are persuaded to listen to one another (to take the cotton out of our ears) to see one another (to remove the blindfolds) and to realize that we have a lot of company on this steep, rough road. And then patiently to attempt to deconstruct, brick by brick, our judgments that separate us, our beliefs that divide us, our fears that move us into isolation.
In church we practice not being alone, not feeling alone, not acting alone. So that whether we are in a noisy crowd or living like a monk in the desert:
We know that we are connected.
We know that God is near.
We know that love is stronger than death.
We know that all of our wanderings will take us in the direction of our true home. Home: a place where we will wake up to the love and mercy and joy that will make us whole and complete and at peace.