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.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

"The Heart of Unitarian Universalism" a sermon by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

First Unitarian Church of Worcester
Worship Service of October 21, 2007

First Reading
Matthew 5: 3-10

Blessed are the poor in spirit:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn:
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek:
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness:
for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful:
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart:
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers:
for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Second Reading
from “Salvation from Hell” by Rev. Burton Carley

The other day I was asked if Unitarians offered “salvation from Hell.” Such questions are usually hostile. However, I remembered a scene from the novel by Georges Bernanos, The Dairy of a Country Priest. The priest encounters a woman who is completely turned in on herself. She has been abandoned by her daughter and betrayed by her husband. Death has claimed her young son. With so much loss and grief her heart has hardened. So the priest urges her to unlock her hardened heart, pleading: “Hell is not to love anymore.”

I told the person seeking to trap me that indeed Unitarians offered salvation from hell, for to tuck ourselves away in a little ego-world of our own is hellish. To deceive ourselves into believing that our world is the world is hellish. To not have opportunities to be of service is hellish. To have to think alike to receive love is hellish. I said, “Yes, we offer salvation from hell.”

“The Heart of Unitarian Universalism” by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

This week I attended Berkshire Group, a professional study group. The theological focus this time was entitled “From Fear to Hope.” How do we (as individuals, as a faith community, as a country) escape the paralysis of fearfulness, cynicism and isolation and move towards courage, action and engagement?

We had one new member (one who had never attended Berkshire Group before) who was not only an ordained UU minister, but also a professional quilter. Judith had never been to Wisdom House in Litchfield, Connecticut and had never seen the kind of room we would gather in. Nevertheless, she brought a small patchwork square with autumn leaf outlines beautifully scattered and quilted on the cloth. It fit perfectly on the round table at the center of our circle. It was the focus during worship and during lulls in the conversation.
I asked her, and I ask you, “How did she know that there would be a place for her art? How did she have the confidence to enter a new group, offering something to us that was important to her? How did she know that we would need her gifts?”

When most religious scholars consider the question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” they become quickly frustrated. How can any one describe what religious liberals think, when we all think so differently? Especially when Unitarians put so much emphasis on the rational, on the abstract, on the intellectual pronouncements of purposes and principals, how can we describe this faith, to ourselves or to others? What makes us tick? What fires our enthusiasm? What allows us to endure?

This morning, I have no intention of focusing on what we think about ourselves or what others think about us. Instead, I want to consider what we do together, what we care about, what we trust, what truths call to us, what lies at the heart, at the core of our tradition.

Even if your Unitarian Universalist roots go back for generations, there is something of a mystery about this faith. Even when we disagree about so much (politically, spiritually and culturally,) we stand together in our hopefulness. Unitarian Universalism calls each of us to enter more fully into our own lives and our own strength.

If you are a relative newcomer to Unitarian Universalism you ought to be asking, “Is this my tribe? Are these people who will encourage my spiritual journey? Can this be my religious home?”

Rather than list ten doctrines of this faith or ten principals or ten beliefs that all Unitarian Universalists share, I will be attempting something different. Call them ten weird spiritual practices of Unitarian Universalists, or ten temperamental characteristics, or ten Unitarian Universalist blessings. I am not saying that any of these may not appear in other more orthodox traditions. What I do know is that these ten weird things make us somewhat unusual. They are some of the peculiar religious gifts that we celebrate and encourage. They are central to our tradition and our inheritance of over 500 years of the free faith. Even in the midst of all the frustrations and limitations of liberal religion, they keep most of us coming back. (I’m certain that I’ve left some important practices off this list. . . please feel free to reflect on others.)

The first is complexity—the blessing of complexity. While other traditions try to keep it simple (accept Jesus as your savior and all will be well), Unitarian Universalism claims that the religious journey is full of detours, switchbacks, zigs and zags, ups and downs, moments of blissful clarity and episodes of great confusion and uncertainty. Parker Palmer (a religious liberal from the UCC tradition) calls this mysterious movement “seasons.”
“‘Seasons’ is a wise metaphor for the movement of life, I think. It suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance but something infinitely richer, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all—and to find in all of it opportunities for growth.”

In the Beatitudes, Jesus captures just how wide a range this complexity embraces. You are blessed if you are poor in spirit, humble, not knowing. You are blessed when you are rich in spirit—when you are able to be merciful, when you are able to pursue righteousness—practicing right relationship. You are blessed with the privilege of grief—you are able to mourn only because you are able to love. You are blessed when you make peace—with your family members, with your neighbors, with a stranger. You are blessed in the simplest cry of your heart for your hunger to be filled and your thirst to be quenched. And you are even blessed when it doesn’t feel like you’re blessed at all—when you are persecuted and reviled for following the truth that has been given to you. Jesus describes an extremely complicated understanding of how you will find comfort in the seasons which bring you the best of circumstances, as well as in the seasons which deliver the worst.

Here in New England, we almost have a remedial education on trusting the complexity and the shifts of the seasons. Have you noticed how magnificent the autumn colors are right now? Listen to the words of Unitarian poet, May Sarton.
“It is all a rich farewell now to leaves, to color. I think of the trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of the season how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep. . . .I think of the golden leaves and the brilliant small red maple that shone transparent against the lake yesterday. . . . Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”

The first blessing is complexity.

The second blessing is the practice of intellectual humility. I believe that every Unitarian Universalist ought to be able to affix to the end of every faith statement, every political pronouncement and every commentary and/or judgment on ourselves or others the words, “of course, I could be wrong.” We have institutionalized skepticism here. Unitarians have carved out an honored place for doubt and uncertainty. Your fallible and limited assessments (and mine) are acknowledged in the liturgy, the prayers and the organizational polity of this community.

Which brings us to the third and increasingly weird blessing (especially as secular society claims that it is entirely unnecessary.) The free church says, “It is in community, in relationships that we will come to know God, truth and reality.”

Particularly, American 21st culture says, “bowl alone, shop alone, watch TV, rent a movie—go on a walk in the woods, read a novel.” The goal is autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency. But the limitations of the private imagination are considerable. When you feel lost and frightened, and at a complete dead end, you will need the help of a friend, Sometimes a single sentence can turn us back around in the direction of hope.

This process was explained in a book by William Lynch, which described “Imagination as the Healer of the Hopeless.” He wrote that we can only find out who we are and where we are meant to go in the art of “collaboration or mutuality.” He writes:
“Hope not only imagines; it imagines with. We are so habituated to conceiving of the imagination as a private act of the human spirit that we now find it almost impossible to conceive of a common act of imagining with. But what happens in despair is that the private imagination, of which we are so enamored, reaches the point of the end of inward resource and must put on the imagination of another if it is to find a way out. Despair lies exactly in the constriction of the private imagination. . . . Hope cannot be achieved alone. It must in some way or other be an act of community, whether the community be a church or just two people struggling together to produce liberation in each other. We tend always to think of hope as that final act which is my own, in isolation and in self-assertion. But hope is an act of the city of humanity meaning. . . . nothing less that that people can depend on one another.”

So life is complicated, and we are often wrong and actually don’t know all that much about reality—but we are not alone. We don’t have to depend on our private imaginations. We are in community.

Which brings me to the fourth blessing—service. Being of service to one another. The paralysis of inaction is to be overcome by doing, by action, by re-covenanting, by getting up again after we fall. Unitarians know in our bones (it is written in our DNA,) in our personalities and temperament that we were put on this earth to do certain things. This morning we contribute to a school on the other side of the world. This afternoon we welcome homeless children and their families into the church. Our choir makes beautiful music and releases a CD next week celebrating our relationships with the earth. Next week is the UNICEF Carnival. And people will be knitting and dancing and the Zen group meditates together every Monday. The list is endless because we are here on earth to serve God, to help our neighbor, to do what we can. If someone asks you to help and you can, the only answer is “Yes.”

The fifth blessing is especially weird. It has to do with our understanding of the location of the sacred, the holy moment—the ultimate and critical moment. For many of the world religions the most important moment is the day and time of conversion. For others it is the moment of death—when you meet face-to-face with God. Unitarian Universalists are taught to not look back to when we first felt called to our spiritual path. We are not taught to look forward to some future epiphany or revelation. The holy moment is now. The day that matters, that offers hope and new possibilities, is this one. Holy ground is (at the moment) 90 Main Street. This afternoon it will be wherever we are standing, or sitting, especially as we watch the Red Sox.

To review—at the core of us, we are called to be complicated, skeptical, in relationship, active and focused on the present moment and location.

The next three strange spiritual practices are about where we look for help.

A physicist colleague told me (and my physicist husband confirmed) that the whole universe is made up of only three things: matter, energy and information. Information (in this instance) doesn’t mean additional faiths, data or book learning. It means the capacity to discern patterns. The ability to organize, to understand, to grasp the way matter and energy interact. It is what happens when you click on your email and magically (in an instant) even those of us with over a thousand emails in the in-box can switch from who to date.

Similarly, our view of the world is often filtered through the patterns we impose. Depending on what part of my brain is fired up at the moment, I can (at one moment) see the world as a beneficent and beautiful place (perfect for spiritual growth and loaded with opportunities for more abundant life.) But then there is this other part of the brain—and when it is organizing information it sees mayhem and destruction, tragedy and disappointment. One of the reasons I come to church is for the music. When the choir sings in four-part harmony, we are listening to a pattern that reminds us of a deeper harmony. With melody and the thunderous chords of the organ, we are being surrounded by information that tells our hearts and minds and souls that beauty is real, that there is order and comfort and peace. We Unitarian Universalists worship together and work together in order to be reminded of transformative patterns so that we might glimpse some of the order and the beauty that flows through our lives.

And that takes us to the seventh thing we care about—stories. Stories from every spiritual tradition. Stories from secular culture. Stories we tell one another from our own lives. Stories about the Red Sox (and what a win this evening will mean.) Stories about our work, our families, our travels. Stories about raising children, about how the creation began. Stories tell us that we are not alone in the ways we struggle, the ways we search for meaning, the ways we process information and matter and energy. My hope is that you might never enter this building without hearing a story from the pulpit or from a congregant—a story that reminds you of what is important.

So we look for patterns, and we listen to stories and then perhaps the most important place we seek our understanding is in our approach to the future. As we walk out into an unknown destiny, the best Unitarian Universalists practice I know of is to remain open and curious. Open and curious. Not assuming that we know what will happen next. Some fundamentalists on TV promise that if you only believe the future will hold only abundance, prosperity and happiness. Some newspaper columnists try to convince us that the future is bleak, that the world is literally going down the tubes and that it is too late to make a difference. We Unitarian Universalists choose a middle path. It ain’t all good and it ain’t all bad—and we are willing to suspend our judgments. Instead we state our intentions to go into the unknown with the curiosity and the openness of someone who is not afraid to be vulnerable and not ashamed not to know.

The last two weird spiritual practices of Unitarian Universalists are actually more a question of temperament than of conviction.

Number nine is restlessness. We will never be content to only know what we know now. We want more truth, more love, more compassion and more clarity. If you are blessed with this particular hunger and thirst, the saints say that you will not be satisfied until you meet with God, face-to-face. The saints say that restlessness and longing are the surest signs of blessing and grace. (Don’t let anyone tell you that your restlessness is not a holy gift.)

And finally we reach number ten. Unitarian Universalists are all about free choice. The freedom to choose our own path to what is ultimately true. Our freedom is to choose who we will be in the world, who we will marry and who we will not marry. Unitarians say that it really matters how we choose to focus our lives And that our choices reveal what we value and what is ultimately important to us.

The Unitarian minister, A. Powell Davis told a story from the Native American tradition which, for me, says everything about how we conduct our spiritual lives.
“An elder Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, ‘A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, pride, and superiority. The other wolf stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside of you and every other person too. The children pondered this for some time and then one child asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf will win?’ The old Cherokee simply replied: ‘That depends on which one I feed.’”

No matter where your spiritual journey takes you today, may you find a nourishment for your soul, for the truth that will set you free. And may you know, that in the midst of your complicated, limited, confusing life—you are blessed—you are loved. The gifts you bring are essential to the well being of the world.

"Mother Teresa and the Absence of God" by Rev. Barbara Merritt

First Unitarian Church of Worcester
Worship Service of September 23, 2007

First Reading
from Psalms 42 & 88

As the deer longs for the running waters,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Athirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
My tears are my food day and night,
as they say to me day after day,
“Where is your God?”

Why are you so downcast, O my soul?
Why do you sigh within me?
O Lord, my God, by day I cry out:
at night I clamor in your presence.
I am a person without strength,
whom you remember no longer
and I am cut off from your care.
You have plunged me into the bottom of the pit,
into the dark abyss.

My eyes have grown dim through affliction;
daily I call upon you, O Lord;
to you I stretch out my hands.
Why, O Lord, do you reject me;
why hide from me your face?
I am afflicted and in agony.
Companion and neighbor you have
taken away from me;
my only friend is darkness.

Second Reading
from “Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light” edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk
(Selections from the letters of Mother Teresa)

There is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.

There is such a deep loneliness in my heart that I cannot express it.

Within me, everything is icy cold.

There is that separation, that terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God.

God is destroying everything in me.

No faith, no love, no zeal.

Heaven means nothing to me, it looks like an empty place.

Sometimes the pain is so great that I feel that everything will break.

The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains.

Lord, my God. The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one—the one You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I wait—and there is No One to answer—If there be God, —please forgive me.

Love—the word—it brings nothing. Before the work started—there was so much union—love—faith—trust—prayer—sacrifice—In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being—of God not really existing. If there be no God—there can be no soul—If there is no soul then Jesus—You also are not true.

In my heart there is no faith—no love—no trust—I want God with all the powers of my soul—and yet there between us—there is terrible separation.
The work holds no joy, no attraction, no zeal.

Holy Communion—Holy Mass—all the holy things of spiritual life—of the life of Christ in me—are all so empty—so cold—so unwanted.

I can speak to no one and even if I do—nothing enters my soul—If there is hell—this must be one. How terrible it is to be without God—no prayer—no faith—no love—The only thing that still remains—is the conviction that the work is His—And yet—in spite of all these—I want to be faithful—I only ask Him to use me.

If my separation from You—brings others to You and in their love and company You find joy and pleasure—why Jesus, I am willing with all my heart to suffer all that I suffer—not only now—but for all eternity.

“Mother Teresa and the Absence of God” by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

My favorite coffee used to be Celebes Kalossi—rich, smooth, not at all bitter—the perfect Indonesian bean to brew for the perfect cup. So what if it costs $13 a lb. in 1978? It was worth the price—until Mother Teresa convinced me to give it up. I was reading an article, back then, about Mother Teresa. And in that essay she asked all of us who did not live in slums and in extreme poverty, “Could you give up one luxury for the sake of the poor? In solidarity with those who have nothing? If you are a wealthy Indian woman with a hundred silk saris, could you sacrifice one?” I thought her logic was impressive. We who have hundreds of luxuries, could we at least be conscious of those who have so little? She didn’t even say to sell the item or send the money to the poor. But she hoped that one single symbolic sacrifice of one material object of comfort might help us to recognize all we had received and to be more generous in sharing our resources. I looked around my life, at all my various and endless attachments (and I also noticed that there was lots of other good coffee) and at that time I made a promise, “No more Celebes Kalossi.”

I have kept that pledge, but even now when I am shopping at the local coffee roaster’s and I see the freshly roasted Celebes sitting there, I mutter something about Mother Teresa. I buy something else.

I have always been a great admirer of this Catholic nun working in an enormously patriarchal system, she managed to establish a new order that was completely devoted to alleviating the suffering of the poorest people on earth. By the time her life ended in 1997, there were over 300 missions throughout the world and over 1,000 nuns and brothers dedicating their lives to this compassionate work. What I wasn’t aware of (until this new book came out on September 4, 2007) is that after she had her call, after her visions and her assignment from God to do this work, the institutional church put her off for years. There was enough discernment, beaurocratic red tape, delays and procedures that a normal person would have given up.

But Mother Teresa was not “normal.” She was stubborn, dedicated, courageous and doggedly determined. Her letters to her bishop said, “Whatever you say, I will obey.” Only when she didn’t get the answer she wanted, she simply wrote him another letter. Dozens of them. And no argument that he put forward that these things take time appeased her in the least.

I loved the stories in the biographical notes. When a bull in the street threatened her students, she was the one who chased it away. When thieves broke into the convent, she was the one who drove them out. And when riots broke out in Calcutta and hundreds were killed, she describes her response:
“I went out from St. Mary’s. I had three hundred girls in the boarding school and we had nothing to eat. We were not supposed to go out in to the streets, but I went anyway. Then I saw the bodies on the streets, stabbed, beaten, lying there in strange positions, in their dried blood. We had been behind our safe walls. We knew that there had been rioting. People had been jumping over our walls, first a Hindu, then a Muslim. . . . We took in each one and helped him to escape safely. When I went out on the street, only then did I see the death that was following them. A lorry full of soldiers stopped me and told me I should not be out on the street. ‘No one should be out,’ they said. I told them I had to come out and take the risk; I had three hundred students who had nothing to eat. The soldiers had rice and they drove me back to the school and unloaded bags of rice.”

Almost everyone is familiar by now with her extraordinary work with the poor and the dying and the suffering. She has become almost a synonym for the ideal of compassionate service. We use her name as an unreachably high standard of commitment. In her lifetime she was recognized, honored and revered.

What I never gave much thought to was her interior spiritual life. I assumed that her being a devout Roman Catholic nun meant that she and I would have very little in common. I assumed that because she once heard God speaking to her that her visions and sense of union continued throughout her life. I assumed her joyful and cheerful personality was a reflection of a joyful and rich prayer life. Like many religious liberals, I fell for the myth that those who have an orthodox faith and a creeded belief structure are blessed with a kind of comfort and solace that isn’t available to skeptics and nonbelievers.

With the publishing of her letters this fall, we discover just how wrong we all were about Mother Teresa. Not even her closest friends and confidants were aware of her internal agony. Only a few confessional priests were allowed to see what was going on inside.

The important question is being asked (sometimes quite loudly,) “Mother Teresa begged that these letters be destroyed. How can they print what is so very private? How can they violate her trust so publicly?” While Mother Teresa was explicit about her own desires concerning those letters, I am certain that she would have agreed to the decision to publish. Because no matter what she wanted, she always said to God, “If you can use me (a nothing like me) to be of service, to assist another human being—then that is all I want.” She called herself “God’s little pencil.”

Well this little pencil’s spiritual life is now being compared to St. Augustine’s Confessions and to St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. Her letters are like she was: honest straightforward, humble and generous to others. They reveal her willingness to attempt to live the words of the Lord’s Prayer—“Thy will be done.”

She summed up her life’s aspiration: To accept what God gives and to give (with a big smile) what God takes. Now most people try their best to accept what reality gives to us. But personally, when I find that reality/God or truth has taken away my health, my delusions, my wealth, my peace of mind, my plans, my congenital preferences or my car keys—I don’t release them with a big smile—I howl in protest. And I’m not the only howler. (I won’t be naming names, but you know who you are. . .)

The new book, Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light is not, I believe, as good as it should be. The editor is “on assignment!” He is selling her official sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. His commentary is all attempting to shore-up his case, and his agenda is transparent.

But her own words are stunningly direct. Her spiritual dedication is heroic and her confessions of doubt and failure are deeply comforting to all struggling souls (which means, to all of us) Christian, Jew Buddhist, agnostic, all souls. If I were to choose only five lessons to learn from the interior life of Mother Teresa these would be the five I would want to remember.

First, she was extraordinarily humanistic. She said our assignment as human beings was “to learn how to suffer and at the same time, how to laugh.” She believed that God took real form when one human being helped another. She maintained that the only way for most people to experience God’s companionship is when human beings offer compassion , care and attention. Her work was based on the premise of the inherent worth and dignity of every child of God—including the dying, the oppressed, the physically and mentally ill. When she was with the destitute and the unwanted she sensed God’s presence. She wrote about Christ in all “his distressing disguises.”

“Our poor people,” she said,
“are great people, a very loveable people. They don’t need our pity or sympathy. They need our understanding, love and they need our respect. We need to tell the poor they are somebody to us, that they too have been created by the same loving hand of God, to love and to be loved.”

Her friends described her as full of fun, down-to-earth, authentic in her presence and willing to do anything to help. After accepting the Nobel Prize, when she went to one of her missions, she would also help dry the dishes after dinner.

The second remarkable aspect of her life was her willingness to confess her limitations, her failures and her pain. Especially in this Jewish season of Yom Kipper—her cries for atonement—at-one-ment—with God are profoundly moving. Her spiritual longing was not answered in this life.

She gave up on the world and its material comforts. How fascinating to read that unlike many ascetics who choose “poverty” because wealth makes hem ill at ease, Mother Teresa admitted early on, “By nature I am sensitive, love beautiful and nice things, comfort and all that comfort can give.” Yet she chose a path of complete poverty—the lifestyle of the poorest. And then just as she began her great work, as she answered and obeyed God’s command, all religious and spiritual consolation and comfort was taken from her. The church and its liturgy became meaningless to her. Her prayer life was a disaster. Her companions gave her no solace. And from 1948 to her death in 1997, almost 50 years, the dark night of the soul did not leave her (with the exception of one month and one day, when she felt God’s reassurance.) She never doubted the authenticity of her original mystical experiences and call. Neither did she pretend that she felt God’s presence when she didn’t.

The third lesson is the paradoxical and ambiguous nature of the spiritual life. According to her experience it is possible, indeed inevitable, that if you long for God or truth or love you will by necessity be acutely aware of the absence of God and truth and love. To feel separate from God is in the nature of being in relationship with God. If this sounds contradictory and confusing and bewildering—welcome to spiritual practice 101.

She put it most eloquently. “You have no love, and all you can do is love. Sometimes I find myself saying,’ I can’t bear it any longer.’ With the same breath I say, ‘I am sorry; do with me what you will.’” “Pray for me,” she wrote, “. . . to be in love and yet not to love, to live by faith and yet not to believe—to spend myself and yet be in total darkness. Gone is the love for anything and anybody, and yet I long for God.” Even as she won the applause of the world and the respect of millions, she always felt like a failure—rejected and unwanted by God.

The fourth lesson is exceptionally difficult. She made her peace with the darkness within her. She wrote to Jesus (who she felt had abandoned and forsaken her.) “Please do not take the trouble to return soon. I am ready to wait for you for all eternity.” And after dozens of years of internal agony, she finally accepted the spiritual exile as her gift from God (a painful gift to be sure—but one that allowed her to identify with and serve those who society had rejected and declared to be unwanted and unacceptable.) So Mother Teresa was a humanist. Her confessions are breathtaking. Her experience of the holy was paradoxical and ambiguous. And she made her peace with the absence of God.

But it is the fifth lesson that I find most useful to Unitarian Universalists. She claimed that how you are feeling and what you believe are ultimately unimportant. What matters is how you act. Even in the midst of terrible despair and great spiritual pain, she went out in the world and did what she believed she was called to do. She kept her vows. She went to church. She kept in relationship with priests and bishops. She went on retreat. Apparently, she wasn’t going to let a little thing like having no faith, no love and no prayer life get in the way of being of service, founded new missions and offered encouragement and hope to those who needed the strength.

Are you thinking that Mother Teresa was a little odd, a little mentally or spiritually unbalanced, or some kind of religious aberration who just didn’t understand or grasp the reality that God really did love her (and was close by)? Or do you think that she could not accept that God wasn’t real and she couldn’t even give up the fantasy? I suggest you do a little research in the writings of the mystics. Do a literature scan of what others have experienced as they attempt to seek God and truth and reality, and to be of service to humanity. And not just David’s lamentations in the Psalms.

Rumi, the Persian mystic, wrote extensively on the heartbreak of this spiritual work.
God admits, “I grant that indeed you have become stony and locks have been put upon your ears and hearts. But we have nothing to do with any acceptance. . .our business is to do God’s will and fulfill love’s command. If God asks us to sow in a tract of a sand—we sow.” And the disciple’s response? “How should I not wait bitterly on account of God’s deceit—since I am not in the circle of those intoxicated with God? How should I not mourn, like night, without God’s day?”

Or consider Attar’s description in the Sufi classic, The Conference of the Birds. “Until the falcon reaches his aim he is agitated and distressed. If a fish is thrown onto the beach by the waves, it struggles to get back into the water. Is a lover ever patient? I have read a hundred books on patience and still I am without it.” Attar claims that eventually we will finally come to a place on our spiritual journey where we can say with certainty: “I know nothing. I understand nothing. I am unaware of myself. I am in love (but with whom I do not know.) My heart is, at the same time, both full and empty of love.” This is a perfect description of Mother Teresa’s heart and a way to understand our own hearts, our own struggles, our own journeys into dark nights that can go on for years and decades. And yet, what does that matter if we continue to seek, to serve, to be used to alleviate suffering, to call one another to the noble task of recognizing and working on behalf of every child of God?

At the very end of her life Mother Teresa said that she thought Jesus was “a bit too demanding.” But then, so was Mother Teresa. I read a part from her letter to President Bush (senior) and Saddam Husein right before the first Gulf War. One of her missions was in Baghdad.

I come to you in the name of God, the God that we all love and share, to beg for the innocent ones, our poor of the world and those who will become poor because of the war. They are the ones who will suffer most because they have no means of escape. I plead to you for those who will be left orphaned, widowed, and left alone because their parents, husbands, brothers and children have been killed. I plead for those who will be left with disability and disfigurement. They are God’s children. I plead for those who will be left with no home, no food and no love. Please think of them as being your children.

You have the power to bring war into the world or to build peace. PLEASE CHOOSE THE WAY OF PEACE.

You may win the war but what will the cost be on people who are broken, disabled and lost? In the name of God and in the name of those you will make poor, do not destroy life and peace. . . .let your name be remembered for the good you have done, the joy you have spread and the love you have shared.

We pray that you will love and nourish what God has so lovingly entrusted into your care.

May God bless you now and always.

A good closing: May God bless you now and always.

May we love and nourish what has been put into our care, now and always.


"Joy, Peace and Love" a sermon by Rev. Barbara Merritt

First Reading

from the Book of Revelations

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with all people.They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more…And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes. And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain…Behold, I make all things new. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Second Reading
A Word on Statistics” by Wislawa Szymborska

Out of every hundred people,those who know better:fifty-two.
Unsure of every step:almost all the rest.
Ready to help,if it doesn’t take long:forty-nine….
Able to admire without envy:eighteen
Those not to be messed with:four and forty.
Living in constant fearof someone or something:seventy-seven.
Capable of happiness:twenty-some-odd at most.
Harmless alone,turning savage in crowds:more than half, for sure.
Those who are just:quite a few, thirty-five.
Balled up in painand without a flashlight in the dark:eighty-three, sooner or later.
But if it takes effort to understand:three.
Worthy of empathy:ninety-nine.
Mortal:one hundred out of one hundreda figure that has never varied yet.


Two stories from Louisiana, both reported on National Public Radio. The first is about the mental health crisis going on in New Orleans since the close of Charity Hospital. A police officer described picking up a schizophrenic who was jumping on top of parked cars. He was brandishing several long carving knives and in addition to many other knives they found when they patted him down, they found nine sharp ice picks.

Because these are no longer any public psychiatric beds in New Orleans, they took him to the closest private hospital. The nurses there assured the police officer that the mentally ill man would be looked after. The police officer was gently, but firmly ushered out the door.
She went to a nearby hardware store to pick up something she needed, and when she returned to her squad car (15 minutes later) there was the same schizophrenic man walking proudly down the street. She asked him, “Did you see a doctor?” He said, “No.” He did volunteer that everyone of his knives and ice picks had been returned to him, and he walked on.

A hospital administrator is another private hospital in New Orleans explained that because that state provides no reimbursement for charity psychiatric treatments, his hospital would be out-of-business in a month if they treated the poor. A judge in New Orleans was recommending to family and friends that if someone without insurance needed psychiatric residential treatment, it was his advice that they make sure that the individual commit a crime; then they would be eligible for the only public psychiatric beds, now located in the local prison.

This is the world we inhabit.

Moving on to Jena, Louisiana, where when high school boys fight (as often high school boys do) the African-American boys are charged with aggravated assault and sent to prison—and the white boys in the same fight are put on academic suspension. You might have assumed (as I had assumed) that such overt racism was a thing of the past in this country. Apparently, it is not.

This is the world we inhabit.

If this suffering and tragedy were only found in other neighborhoods, or internationally, it would be bad enough. But the brokenness follows us home. It crops up in our own hearts, in our own families, in our own places of work.

A Boston folk singer, Bob Frankie puts it this way:
"There is a hole, in the middleof the prettiest life
So the lawyers, and the prophets say.
Not your mother, or your fatherOr your sister, or your lover
Are ever going to make it go away.”

The poet Zimborska puts it more eloquently—sooner or later 83% of us are going to be: “balled up in pain, and without a flashlight in the dark,” and 100% of us are mortal 100%.

This is the world we inhabit.

So what kind of delusion religious fantasy is being entertained in a sermon entitled, “Joy, Peace and Love”? Is it some kind of weird throwback to the 1960’s where a few brought forward the notion that “Flower Power” would bring us out of Viet Nam and restore civil rights to the marginalized? Or is this a remnant of an earlier American Unitarian optimism that proclaimed that humanity would just keep getting better and smarter and more considerate as time and history progressed? Or has your minister just spent too much time out in the sun this summer? Hopefully, the answer is “none of the above.”

The subject of this sermon arose out of a novel I read entitled, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. And the character who recited these words, an African-American woman in the early 1960’s in the deep south, had learned the phrase from former slaves. In the worst of human circumstances, in the bondage of slavery, they had recited these words, “What is bound, will be unbound. What is cast down will be lifted up. This is a promise.” This is the promise that kept people’s courage and hope and determination alive in these very harshest of conditions. It allowed, not only their survival, but it also spoke to their souls—to that part of themselves that knew they were destined for liberation, for freedom and for joy. It is a radical promise, and it is this promise that I believe is at the very heart of this liberal religious community.

When Jesus was speaking to his listeners in Jerusalem, he was not talking to people with easy and comfortable lives. They knew all about warfare and oppression and tragedy and loss. And he promised that all that was wonderful and life-giving and meaningful was meant for them: “Enter into my kingdom with joy.” “Peace I give unto you”. “This is my commandment, that you love one another.” How do these words fall on the ears of those whose life experiences have known little more than hardship, separations and fear? Hunger and thirst? Death and sorrow?

Isn’t it somewhat of a mystery that even upon the occasion of the death of those we love something in us wakes up and pays attention when we hear the promise in Revelation, another image of healing and reconciliation and peace? The words from Revelation resonate far past the rational mind. Who would not like these words to be true? “Humanity shall hunger no more—neither thirst any more—and God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain. Behold I make all things new!” Something stirs in us when we hear these words. Even if it is only that we wish it could be true. Even if it is only that we hope that it might be true.

Some religious communities are organized around creedal confessions. (Believe this, and if you do—you’ll be saved.) Some religious communities are organized around certain cultural and liturgical traditions. (Engage in this ritual—say this prayer—follow this custom and you will be saved.) What I believe holds the Unitarian Universalist tribe together is something else. It is the core human hope, that what we are created for is joy, peace and love—not in some heavenly after life—but right now. And the moments when we experience this powerful reality are more true and memorable and meaningful than all the moments of frustration and disappointment and aggravation and despair. But perhaps I need to define these terms.

Joy first. Yesterday I had the privilege to conduct the memorial service for a member of this parish. Katharine Poor would have been 88 today. She lived a long and full life and hadn’t been around Worcester for awhile. But, despite enormous tragedies, including the death of a young daughter, Katharine knew how to find joy. She wrote in her instructions for her funeral: “There is something about the generosity of a blueberry bush that is moving in a deep and primitive way.” She found joy in the blueberry bushes growing outside her window—and she wrote: “Note to self: Pay attention to music as it’s being played, to the scenery as you walk, to the person who is speaking, to the book you are reading, to the taste of food and wine, to the views at the window, and the changing light.” Her innate enthusiasm, her ability to recognize beauty and her appreciation of human beings and of life itself teaches me something about where joy is to be found. I suggest we begin with blueberry bushes and then perhaps that demanding practice of being appreciative (and grateful for) those who bless our lives.

Defining peace? If the situation in Iraq is not breaking your heart, then you are simply not paying attention. There are some ways we can engage in peace-making here at home.·
  • Scott Ritter, one of the early voices against the War as a weapons inspector, will be in this sanctuary on Thursday, September 20th at 5:30 p.m.
  • There is a Peace Group in this church.
It is my conviction that all of us are also given daily opportunities to work for peaceful resolutions of conflicts at work, at home and with family and friends (in the ongoing and perennial practice of forgiveness.) There is peacemaking to be done in the community. Each of us are called to do what we can to create a fairer and kinder world in Louisiana and in Worcester and in the Middle East.

But finding peace in our own hearts and minds and souls may prove to be the larger challenge. Consider the anguish of Mother Teresa’s interior life. Just in case you were harboring the fantasy that if you could only do more good works in the world you would be granted interior peace. Just in case you assumed that a disciplined prayer life would put your soul at rest. Just in case you imagined that completely dedicating your life to God and to the elimination of suffering would bring you contentment, make sure you read Mother Teresa’s private letters.

When it comes to peace (inside or outside) there are no guarantees or solutions. What turns out to be real are moments. Moments of peace. Moments of peace (and grace) when the choir sings—when you laugh with a friend. Moments of peace when a cool and gentle breeze touches your face—when you get a glimpse of beauty. Maybe there are more of these moments than we imagine? And our task is to learn how to notice them. Appreciate them. Receive them.

Which brings me finally to love. I read Annie Dillard’s new novel this summer entitled, Maytrees. The main characters are moved to exquisite bliss and ecstasy by love and nearly destroyed by that same love. They ponder what it means to love.“The question was not death; living things die. It was love. Not that we died, but that we cared wildly, then deeply, for one person out of billions. We bound ourselves to the fickle, changing, and dying as if they were rock.”And the husband finally figures out that love was not ultimately an “irresistible passion.” (That kind of infatuation love he claimed had a shelf life of 18 months at best.) What love turns out to be, at least according to Annie Dillard, is the “natural wish to help someone find comfort.” To care for and to comfort. This definition of love makes love not into a feeling, but to be an engaged action. An act of the will. An act, I might add, to which every human being is invited to participate in any way we can. To help others find care and comfort—the most mysterious of vocations.

Rumi, the Persian poet and mystic, claimed that if you are hungry then you can be sure that bread is real (there is something that will satisfy your hunger.) If you are thirsty, you can be sure that water is real (there is something that will quench your thirst.) It follows: if your desire is for joy, peace and love, you can be absolutely certain that you are destined to experience them. They are real. They are worth searching for. They are worth hoping for and working for. Even on those days when they seem hopelessly out of reach. Even in those seasons where we can’t see them, or touch them, or even believe in them.

Joy and Peace and Love. They are more powerful than the strongest prison. They will eventually break the shackles that hold us in bondage. Joy, peace and love will give us the strength, the energy to fight for the rights of the mentally ill, to diminish the terrible racism in our country, and to keep working for peace—external and internal. They are our rightful inheritance. They are our ultimate home and refuge.

Joy and Peace and Love. Meant for you. Meant for each of us—now and forever. Amen.