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

"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.


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