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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"A Wretch Like Me" by Rev. Barbara Merritt November 25, 2007

First Reading
Matthew 18: 23-33

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you seventy-seven times.”

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of the servant released him and forgave him the debt.

But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.

When his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy unto you?”

Second Reading
from “My Name Is Waiting” by M. Shawn Copeland

I am a child born of the union of tradition and crisis. Sorrow is my grandmother; suffering and striving my aunts; begin anew my great-grandmother. My name is waiting.

My name has lived my life under the whip, under the lash; my name has lived my life within walls, within bondage; my name has lived my life through exodus, through sojourn.

I have waited in the desert of Syria, in the streets of Egypt, in the land of Babylon. I have waited in the cloisters of France, in the rice-paper houses of Japan. I have waited in the slave ships bound for hell, in the barrios of southern California.

I have waited in the tin shanties in Soweto, I have waited in the showers of Buchenwald; I have waited in the hills of the Dakotas.

I have waited in fields and vineyards, picking cotton and beans and grapes, cutting cane. I have brought down my hoe on hard ground; I have gripped the plow firmly; I have forced fruit from the earth.

I have waited in houses—washing, cooking, cleaning. I have sheltered the orphan, welcomed the stranger, embraced the lonely. I have lived alongside pain and disease, poverty and misery, anxiety and affliction. I have pleaded and hurt; I have known the coming of despair; I have given birth.

I have waited in the journey. My throat has grown parched thirsting for truth and justice. My feet have grown bloody cutting a path across the precipice, making a way where there is no way. I have slept under gathering clouds with hope; I have rested near fresh water with faith; I have eaten and grown strong with love.

I have known blood and want and pain and joy. I have drunk water from the well; I have walked the threshing floor; I have been to the mountaintop.
I am waiting.

“A Wretch Like Me” by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

At the turn of the last century, a writer named Ambrose Bierce was probably the greatest cynic about American society in general, and human nature in particular.

He told the story of Satan, God’s archangel, and his spectacular fall from grace into Hell. Bierce used information gleaned from the Unitarian poet John Milton that Satan’s sin was much worse than mere rebellion. Satan rejected human beings. Satan thought that God was making a terrible mistake in creating such a creature.

According to Ambrose Bierce, this fallen angel was “halfway in his descent from heaven when he bent his head in thought and at last went back up to God saying, ‘There is one favor that I should like to ask.’

‘Name it,’ responded God.

‘Humanity, I understand, is about to be created. They will need laws.’

God replied, ‘What wretch?! You their appointed adversary, charged from the dawn of eternity with the hatred of their souls, you ask for the right to make their laws?!’

‘Pardon,’ answered Satan, ‘what I have to ask is that humanity be permitted to make their laws themselves.’ It was so ordered.”

Like any good story, this explains a great deal. Human laws are a reasonable reflection of human beings. Sometimes noble and inspiring and consistent and helpful. Sometimes tragically flawed, often used unfairly and oppressively, and more often, frustrating and obstructive.

At the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, it took my breath away to see the signs, laws posted by the government only a few decades ago: whites only—colored drinking fountain. And editorial cartoons where the segregationist South is portrayed as the innocent victim of an evil and bullying Federal Government.

There are times in history where we tend to look at events and shake our heads, and say, “How could they have been so wrong?” More rarely we say, “How could we have been so wrong?” But almost never do we say about ourselves, “How is it that I am so wrong right now?”

At this particular moment in American history, we may see foreign policy as wrong, and our political leaders as wrong, and domestic energy policies as shortsighted and ultimately harmful. But we tend to see ourselves as good, as well intentioned, as trying our best and hard working. We work to gain self-esteem. We hope for the respect of others.

And Unitarian Universalists adopt this optimistic view of human nature as our first principle, “The inherent worth and dignity of every human being.” This is a good principal, possibly even a great principle. It is a transformative alternative to the doctrine of original sin. We have rejected a religion of self-hatred, of shame, of belittling ourselves or others. We dismiss any theology that claims that we are inherently evil, condemned at birth or destined to fail. Unitarian Universalists for centuries have proclaimed a God of love who embraces every person, good, bad or indifferent, and we maintain that eventually every child of God will be saved: the atheist and the undecided, as well as the devout and the observant.

“And all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”(Julian of Norwich) But like every good thing, when taken to extremes, we can get into trouble. In our passion to vanquish original sin, we went way over to the other side saying, “Actually there is nothing wrong with us; we’re all good. Unitarians are just a nice, creative, engaging and wonderful gathering of folks.”

T.S. Eliot grew up as a Unitarian, the grandson of a famous St. Louis Unitarian minister. When he converted to the high Anglican Church of England, he left us with a description of the typical Unitarian church about 70 years ago.
“To be a Unitarian was to be noble, upright and superior to all other human beings. Unitarians believed that they were already enlightened. The enlightenment for them was an intellectual achievement. Unitarians were put on earth to better the lot of humanity, to be a good and inspiring example. Unitarians were expected to be dutiful, benevolent, cheerful, self-restrained and unemotional. They attended church to set a good example to others.”


Would that we could say that we’ve made great progress in embracing our complexity and our frailties over 70 years, but one glance at our hymnal will tell you otherwise. “Man is the earth, upright and proud.” We are the earth, upright and proud. “Forward through the ages, hearts of one accord, manifolds the service, one the sure reward.” And my personal favorite, and I mean that honestly, it is my personal favorite. “We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken. We’ll build a land where the captives go free.” We’ll create a perfectly wonderful world—that’s our job! And it’s not all bad to try to take some responsibility to improve the earth, even if the words to our hymns do show a little arrogance, a little too much optimism and a truly breath-taking naiveté. But sometimes when I’m preaching about how we haven’t been making much progress with “creating a perfect world”…and I search for hymns about human inadequacy and failure and defeat and need…then I discover there aren’t a whole lot of hymns on that subject.

It was pointed out to me in St. Louis at Prairie Group that whenever UUs sing Amazing Grace (as we will for our closing hymn this morning), we are given an alternative wording. There is an asterisk attached to the word “wretch” and if you look below you will see that you don’t have to claim to be a “wretch.” When you sing with your brothers and sisters in this sanctuary, you may substitute the word “soul.” That saves a “soul” like me. Please note that the word “wretch” doesn’t mean what you assume it means (terrible person, completely awful or contemptible.) The word “wretch” came from the Old English meaning: lost or in exile. We ask for grace to save those of us who are lost; those of us who are not sure how we fit in; those of us who are a “stranger in a strange world”; those of us who don’t feel completely at home. Who in our midst does not know what that feels like? Who doesn’t need grace, help and forgiveness?

UUs tend to be in our comfort zone when we are feeling successful, effective, hard working and right (progressing in the direction of becoming smarter, stronger and more evolved.) But we don’t always get to live in our comfort zone. Sometimes, lots of times, we are confronted with our need: our falling short of the mark, failing to meet our own expectations let alone the expectations of others. We are incapable of doing what we want to do. And we are not usually happy to discover just how complicated we are: good and bad—lost and found—winning and failing.

One alternative for those of us who do not wish to be conscious of all that complexity going on with ourselves is to project our shadow onto someone else. A few years ago the political far right demonized Bill Clinton. And I couldn’t understand then how they could focus so much hatred on a nationally elected leader. But now the left seems to be doing exactly the same thing with Bush and Cheney (at least I am.) It is not easy for me to remember that they are children of God, let alone affirming and promoting their inherent dignity and worth.

Another popular alternative to embracing our inner confusion is to simply try harder. We say: “I’ll be so good, I won’t need to be forgiven. I’ll be so disciplined and strong, I won’t need any grace.” For these deluded souls Jesus offered a rather harsh teaching parable. He is telling Peter that human life is not about an occasional forgiving act, but rather a lifetime of forgiveness (70 x 7.) Jesus describes a servant in dreadful circumstances (who owes a vast sum, in today’s numbers about $300,000) who pleads for mercy for this huge and unpayable debt and receives forgiveness. But then he is so unconscious of the value of what he has been blessed with, that he refuses to offer forgiveness to the one who owes him a small sum (equivalent to about $56.) That first, foolish servant only experiences the king as cruel, demanding and quick to judge and throw him into prison, when what he expects is justice. It seems that reality only appears to be merciful when you are able to plead for mercy. But when you can’t ask or when you can’t hear someone else’s asking, you will live in a prison of your own making with high stonewalls and heavy metal locks. It is our own delusions of autonomy and independence and self-righteousness that entrap us and convince us that the world is a harsh, angry and brutal realm. When we don’t know how to ask for help, when we don’t learn how to offer mercy to others, we are in prison.

The song, “Amazing Grace” offers the secret to our freedom. There is a grace that reaches those of us who are lost, who live in confusion, who don’t know which way to go. “A wretch like me” is a phrase that has two meanings. The first (and most common) is that I describe myself as a wretch—just as I would say about a “vegetarian like me” or a “blue-eyed person like me.” But there is another hidden meaning in the phrase that speaks to our mutuality. That “save a wretch like me” can mean a grace that saves someone else whom I identify with …that saves a guy named Ralph or Henry or Bill…that saves a sister named Mary or Jane or Ellen. If grace can save them (as flawed and as confused as they are) then there is some hope for me. In this second interpretation, I begin to identify with all those who are lost and waiting, those who are struggling, occasionally failing, those who ignore my feelings.

This identification with those who lose, I believe, is at the heart of the Red Sox Nation. Our recent successes not withstanding, the reason people all across the nation (and indeed around the world) root for the Red Sox is not that we are the ones that always win. It is that we went so long without winning. And now our recent success is all the more sweeter. It’s almost as if to find what we really want, we have to go some of the way on the path of failure and losing and falling short.

I must learn to see not only my own inherent worth and dignity. I must also learn to see my own inherent limitations and capacity for delusion. And we need to see those limitations in the people we live with and work with and who cut us off in traffic. We must continue to picture seeing them as children of God and forgive them 70 x 7. (Which I suppose must necessarily include the car and driver I gave a rather unpleasant and unfortunate gesture to on 495 on Friday afternoon.) We wait with all of God’s children for mercy, for grace, for the strength to continue.

We are complicated souls, every one of us. What makes us loved and loveable is not how good we are. (We are good and bad.) What makes us saved and savable is how open we are to receive the love and the mercy that is offered.

One poet in particular lived in Indian, in the 17th century. Sarmad was a mystic who was claimed by Jews, Hindus and Moslems as a faithful member of their tribe. Well now, 400 years later I want to claim his as an early Unitarian, as one of us, especially when he wrote: “Never, by God, will I pretend devotion. And no where will I beg, but at the door of Reality.” That could be our new UU motto: “Nowhere do we beg, but at the door of Reality.”

Samad wrote:
Every moment and everywhere
I am aware that your grace and forgiveness
outweigh my transgressions.
My misdeeds cannot outdo your compassion –
I am never concerned with the mercy of God.

God knows my rebelliousness and his clemency
My feet have worn these chains of selfishness for a lifetime –
I have hope for a thousand salvations
in a single act of God’s grace.

Sometimes my heart pines for the world –
Sometimes for the world beyond
My eyes well up with tears –
I am drowning in a sea of regret.
My only wish is that even for one breath –
I may not forget God –
But alas, with every breath, I am negligent.

And finally:
Every moment now, I am keeping the account –
my rebellion and your mercy.

The poets I love speak the same language. I skip ahead four centuries to end with a new poem by the contemporary poet Mary Oliver.
Lord God, mercy is in your hands
Pour me a little
And tenderness too
My need is great.

When I first found you
I was filled with light
Now, the darkness grows
And it is filled with crooked things
Bitter and weak
Each one bearing my name.

She writes: “Belief isn’t always easy. But this much I have learned—to live with my eyes open. I know what everyone wants is a miracle—kindness is a miracle.”

May you know kindness. My you offer kindness to others. And may grace save us, now and always. Amen.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Broken Hallelujah by Rev. Barbara Merritt December 9, 2007

First Reading
from Isaiah Chapter 9

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

For thou has broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor…

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Second Reading
from “A Prayer of Praise” by C. S. Lewis

When I first began to draw near to belief in God (an even for some time after) I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should “praise” God: still more in the suggestion the God Himself demanded it. We all despise the person who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence, or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Worse still was the statement put into God’s own mouth, “What I most want is to be told that I am good and great.”

It is perhaps easiest to begin to understand praise with inanimate objects. What do we mean when we say that a picture is “admirable”? The sense in which the picture “deserves” or “demands” admiration is this: that admiration is the correct, adequate or appropriate response to it; that is if we do not admire, we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers, we shall have missed something. Many objects both in Nature and in Art may be said to deserve, or merit, or demand admiration.

But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. The world rings with praise—lovers praising their beloved, readers praising their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and spacious minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works; the bad ones continually narrowed the list of books we might be allowed to read.

Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. The worthier the object, the more intense this delight would be. Praise not merely expresses, but completes the enjoyment. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good she is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch. If you hear a good joke, you must find someone to share it with.

“A Broken Hallelujah” by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

A close friend gave me a CD of her son’s a cappella group at Bowdoin College. On it there was one song I loved, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. It had vaguely religious words—hallelujah, King David and countless references to brokenness. But what I really loved was the haunting melody.
So last August through a choir member (because I didn’t have the courage to ask Will Sherwood directly), I inquired whether the choir could perform this piece. Now Will, while not being a great fan of popular music, is still a “sport.” And he agreed, and the choir agreed and we chose December 9th for its premier performance. I was a happy camper until I actually started looking at the lyrics last week. And the more I looked, the more nervous and bewildered I became.

To begin with: even though there are only a few verses, there is a lot of pain expressed—pain and failure and disappointment. And then I found some extra verses (apparently it took Cohen five years to write this song, and he wrote some 80 verses.) In one of them, he declares: “love is not a victory march. . .it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…”

Well! What exactly are we praising in this little ditty? So I thought I had best read some of what others had written about Hallelujah. In the magazine Rolling Stone, the reviewer wrote: “The dark poetic music of Leonard Cohen should be listed on the table of periodic elements. . .when you discover it, it suddenly seems as necessary as oxygen…Hallelujah is concerned with the sanctity of real life and the dangers of real love.” So far, so good.

Then in the online magazine Stylus, someone wrote: “In Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen explains Judeo-Christian theology, desperation and sex, as well as faith in times of crisis and in times of calm.” Now I’m really getting nervous.

One blogger claims that Hallelujah is “the best song ever written.” Another calls it just pop music written by a melancholic composer. Bob Dylan told Leonard Cohen that he especially liked the lines: “even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!” One blogger wrote “this song addresses the doubts and mistrusts of all relationships, from the supposed ultimate relationship between the creator and the created, all the way down to earthly relationships.” Another wrote at some length: “No other story explores as deeply the relationship between romantic love, pain, music and spirituality. Romantic love is heralded as the widest gateway to pain. The song is an ode to the brokenness that comes through love, rejoicing in the beauty of this paradox.” He continues: “The minor fall and the major lift—the fall produces a minor tone, distinguishable to the ear when it stands alone, but together with the major lift it completes the chord that pleases the Lord. And that ending lift would not be possible without a place from which to rise.” And he goes on: “The betrayed, hurt, broken lover responds not with anger, helplessness or jaded indifference, but rather with a simple and honest declaration—‘Glory to the Lord.’”

I had read just about enough! Praise in the midst of a broken world and a broken heart? Sing hallelujah in the darkest season of the year? I turned to my etymological dictionary. What exactly does “hallelujah” mean?

The word consists of two parts. The first, “hallelu” is the imperative commanding form of the word “to praise” and the last part, “jah” is an abbreviation for Yaweh. Hallelujah is the commandment to praise, not the invitation or the suggestion. It is the sacred obligation—the requirement to praise—it doesn’t matter whether you understand your circumstances to be holy, or wholly broken—everyone of us is called to sing hallelujah, and it can be a loud and happy song in a major key, or it can be a quiet, persistent melody in a minor key.

In all human circumstances, we are commanded to appreciate. Isaiah described where we stand “in the darkness.” And to people like us—imperfect, stumbling and lost—people who live in the land of the shadow of death—to such people comes a great light. And the yoke of our burdens will be broken. And unto us a child is given—someone wonderful—a Prince of Peace.

This week our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah. Long ago in the midst of a broken and devastated temple, at a time of war and defeat and oppression, the light in the oil lamps kept going. Those who light candles in the darkness of December are saying: “You win your freedom by acts of praise, with persistent courage, always appreciating what is essential, what endures.”

And the Christian tradition asks us to reflect on the ancient story of the birth of Jesus. But we are not asked to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, or in a quiet monastery of purity and calm. We are invited to celebrate in shopping malls where, it turns out, a depressed and desperate teenager may decide (with an AK47) to end it all and take out a few random innocent victims as he goes. But I don’t have to tell you that this is a genuinely broken world. Here, and in Iraq, and in the Sudan, and in Los Angeles, and in Worcester, Massachusetts in hospitals and prisons and nursing homes and in the ordinary routine of going shopping. This is the world, the reality, where “love in not a victory march.” Surely, you recognize this world we inhabit. Where no one (for very long) is a stranger to a broken heart. And we go back and forth between appreciation and disappointment, gratitude and complaint—things going smoothly and things falling apart. But what startles me, and I suspect startles many of you, is that in the midst of this realty we are called to appreciate, to celebrate and to sing with the angels: “Peace on earth, good will to all.”

Leonard Cohen himself commented on what he was trying to accomplish in his song Hallelujah. He said, “It is a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion. It is a rather joyous song.” And it is this “rather joyous song” that tells us something true about what human existence is all about. Cohen begins with King David, one of the greatest poets of all time, the possessor of the secret chord that “pleased the Lord.” This baffled King sang hallelujah, and at the very same time a woman broke his throne. Bathsheba revealed to King David his all-too human nature. It turns out that even a king who possesses the perfect pitch and deathless prose will have to come to terms with his own fallen nature.

Cohen then speaks to the believers and the skeptics, to those who accuse and to those who defend, and he proclaims: “It doesn’t matter what you heard—whether you’re singing a holy hallelujah or a broken song of praise—there is a blaze of light in every word.” And he ends the song with a most humble admission:
I did my best, it wasn’t much
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

He says when it’s all said and done; I want only to appreciate what is. I want my eyes to see and my voice to sing out in praise:
Even when it all goes wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

That is, I believe, the task of human life. That is our prayer that we may be allowed to appreciate what is.

Galway Kinnel said it far fewer words than Leonard Cohen in a poem he called Prayer:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

“Whatever is is what I want.” No longer at war with reality. No longer hoping to get through this life with your heart or your mind intact. But always singing.

December is the right time to raise our voices in songs of praise. It hardly matters what you can find to praise—the sunlight or an evergreen, candlelight or a potato latke, the harmony of the choir or the loveliness of a Christmas carol.
Sing out—it is commanded of you.

Stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on your tongue but Hallelujah.