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.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Right Relationship" by Rev. Barbara Merritt Worship Service of Feb. 24, 2008

First Reading
from Isaiah 42 & 58

Here is my servant whom I upheld,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
Upon whom I have put my spirit,
he shall bring forth justice to nations,
I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

Would that today you might fast
so as to make your voice heard on high!
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance?
That a man bow his head like a reed,
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
This, rather is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed.

Second Reading
“Stranger on the Bus” by Lawrence Kushner

A light snow was falling and the streets were crowded with people. It was Munich in Nazi Germany. One of my rabbinic students, Shifra Penzias, told me her great-aunt, Sussie, had been riding a city bus home from work when SS storm troopers suddenly stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed, but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into a truck around the corner.

My student’s great-aunt watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he politely asked her why.

“I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’re going to take me.”

The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. “You stupid bitch,” he roared. “I can’t stand being near you!”

The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.

“Damn her,” the man shouted angrily. “”My wife has forgotten her papers again! I’m so fed up. She always does this!”

The soldiers laughed and moved on.

My student said that her great-aunt never saw the man again. She never even knew his name.

You are going about your business when you stumble onto something that has your name on it. Or, to be more accurate, a task with your name on it finds you. Its execution requires inconvenience, self-sacrifice. You step forward and encounter your destiny. This does not mean you must do everything that lands on your doorstep, or that you should assume every risk or make every self-sacrifice. But it does mean that you must tell yourself the truth about where you have been placed and why.

You don’t exercise your freedom by doing what you want. Self-indulgence is not an exercise of freedom. But when you accept the task that destiny seems to have set before you, you become free. Perhaps the only exercise of real freedom comes from doing what you were meant to do all along.

If everything is connected to everything else, then everyone is ultimately responsible for everything. We can blame nothing on anyone else. The more we comprehend our mutual interdependence, the more we fathom the implications of our most trivial acts. We find ourselves within a luminous organism of sacred responsibility.
Even on a bus in Munich.

“Right Relationships” by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

This morning it is my troublesome responsibility to report to you that there are real problems with the professional staff that serves this church. I don’t mean that among the people that you employ for the benefit of this parish there are a few difficult issues. No, there is a systemic problem that affects everyone on the payroll: full-time and part-time, professional and administrative and janitorial. Despite a very clear and well-researched personnel policy manual, the discrepancy between policy and practice persists.

It became glaringly evident last week when our sexton Jim came to me and said that he absolutely refused to accept over-time pay for additional hours worked here over the last few weeks, and that if the personnel policy said that he had to, then we needed to change the policy. Donna, our newsletter editor, refused to take President’s Day off, which is an official First Unitarian holiday, specifically named in said “Personnel Policy.” Why? Because we’ve had a number of snow days when she couldn’t come in, but worked at home. Will, our Choir Master, has put in so many volunteer hours over the years that it is ridiculous. (Just ask him how long it takes to make a CD.) Abby, our RE Assistant, is paid for 10 of the hours she works here on behalf of our kids; the other 10 hours she donates and will not accept money for. Barbara Foley, our Parish Administrator, has been woken up at midnight and come down to the church to fix the alarms. None of this is in the job descriptions.

I could go on and on. But one must ask, Rev. Schade is their supervisor! What kind of behavior is he modeling? Well, Tom refuses to take a raise, and he and Sue are among our most generous pledgers. And me? Well, I work part-time theoretically. As of 2008, I get 10 days off a month. Well, that didn’t happen in January. I only got 7. So I made a really conscientious, determined effort in February. This month I will be taking 5 days off.

Is it in the water? Are those who work here totally unaware of job descriptions, or the precarious economy, or that normal people take the vacation days that are given? Is it possible statistically to hire all work-a-holics in every position in an organization?

The answer to all those questions is, no. I have figured out who is to blame – and it is you. The congregation. When the staff at First Unitarian works with a group of people where the membership and the leadership are generous and committed with both their time and their money; when you spend your day in the company of those who serve freely and cheerfully (and with enthusiasm and good humor) it is contagious! There is no resisting the pull to help in any way you can. There is a culture in this church which inspires visitors, long-time members and those of us on the payroll. This culture is one of service.

Now in Judaism the faith community is by-in-large an inherited relationship, a covenanted body that extends through history and is passed on from generation to generation. The free church, in contrast, has been called a “chosen faith.” Most Unitarian Universalists (even those of us whose parents and grandparents were Unitarians) still imagine ourselves as being in an entirely voluntary community. We come here freely; we can leave freely; and while our children are invited and encouraged to “keep the faith,” they are under no obligation to do so.

Nevertheless, once you sign our membership book, the congregation you walk with is not custom-ordered to your particular political and spiritual preference. What you see is what you get. You are stuck with some who prefer the choir staying with the classical repertoire and some who want more gospel and jazz. In this parish there are some who will spend their vacation helping Katrina victims in New Orleans and some whose lives are already so overwhelming that they can’t volunteer for a single committee, or even attend a coffee hour. The essential question at First Unitarian is not, “What’s in it for me?” The central question is, “What am I here on earth to do?”

Good company is a powerful spiritual force. When any one person focuses his or her energy on caring for their neighbor, offering their talents and working to bring about a better world (and to be a better person) this individual commitment has a profound affect on everyone around them. And I would add, the greater the service and the love we bring, the greater the influence on our surroundings.

I will be the first to admit that a congregation is an odd setting in which to attempt to change the world. Rabbi Kushner, the eloquent author of the reading about the bus in Munich, also serves a congregation near Boston. And he writes about congregations:
“The power of congregational life comes precisely from this involuntariness of association. We look about the room and realize these people are not friends or even acquaintances; we do not agree with them about much; these are simply people we are stuck with. This generates a kind of love both more intense and more complicated than the voluntary variety. These members of our community, just like the people in our family, literally make us who we are.”

People come here to worship and to hopefully move closer to God, to truth, to reality and their own deepest sources of inner strength. This wonderful gift of being “stuck” with one another broadens our horizons and helps to develop “who we are.” And the more time you spend in “good company,” I suspect, the more you will find that you are developing a better prospective, clearer priorities and increased hope. As you engage in all kinds of relationships (congregational, work, family and friends) your aspirations naturally increase to live in right relationships, in harmony, in relationships which are sustainable, life-giving and creative. How do we go about creating such relationships? Who gets to define what is a “right relationship” versus a wrong relationship?

Through the laws of biblical Judaism, the answer is a clear one. God decides. And God issues commandments – very detailed instructions about exactly how you are to relate to your neighbor. The word “relationship” doesn’t appear once in the Bible. Not in the Jewish scripture. And not in the Christian one either. But the words “righteous” and “right” appear hundreds of times: “righteous” meaning that the nature of our interactions with our neighbor needs to be ones of honesty, goodness, excellence, virtue, and what the ancient Hebrews called “holiness.” Kushner said it beautifully. “The more we comprehend our mutual interdependence, the more we fathom the implications of our most trivial acts. We find ourselves within a luminous organism of sacred responsibility.”

Judaism is explicit on this point. What is at the heart of reality has a relationship with each one of us. There is a sacred responsibility between each of us. Especially between those of us who have been blessed with some affluence or resources: we have been given the responsibility to care for the imprisoned and those who live in darkness. Our responsibility is towards those who are burdened, oppressed, hungry, homeless, naked, and perhaps most challenging, our own blood relatives. Do that and you are promised, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your wounds shall quickly be healed.”

The modern problem with the prophets of biblical Judaism is that they “commanded.” The prophets weren’t big on “advice” or “suggestions.” They never asked, “Have you ever considered ‘holiness’ as an option?” They thundered! They demanded obedience. They said there would be hell to pay if we didn’t take care of these relationships entrusted into our care. We are many millennium away from such language. We may appreciate it as beautiful poetry or inspiring moral teaching, but we would rather participate in the life and troubles of our neighbor on a voluntary basis.

And too often we volunteer to live alone: apart, separate, unengaged, unconscious or as John Muir described us, “like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.” How have we lost our sympathy, our understanding that we are all in this together? Three ways quickly come to mind. Best illustrated by three stories.

First Story: The Black Sheep and the White Sheep by Catholic priest and writer, Anthony DeMello.

A shepherd was grazing his sheep when a passerby said, “That’s a fine flock of sheep you have. Could I ask you something about them?” “Of course,” said the shepherd. Said the man, “How much would you say your sheep walk each day?” “Which ones, the white ones or the black ones?” asked the shepherd. “The white ones.” “Well, the white ones walk about four miles a day.” “And the black ones?” “The black ones too.”

“And how much grass would you say they eat each day?” “Which ones, the white or the black?” “The white ones.” “Well, the white ones eat about four pounds of grass each day.” “And the black ones?” “The black ones eat about four pounds of grass each day.” “And how much wool would you say they give each year?” “Which ones, the white or the black?” “The white ones.” “Well, I’d day the white ones give some six pounds of wool each year at shearing time.” “And the black ones?” “The black ones too.”

The passerby was intrigued. “May I ask you why you have this strange habit of dividing your sheep into white and black each time you answer one of my questions?” “Well,” said the shepherd, “that’s only natural. The white ones are mine, you see.” “Ah! And the black ones?” “The black ones too,” said the shepherd.

And then DeMello adds, “The human mind makes foolish divisions in what Love sees as One.” The first rupture of relationship comes when we separate and divide.

Second story: appearing in a new philosophy book entitled, Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington, DC.

Melvin was dying. He was old, very old, He had seen much suffering in his life. Trudy, his wife, was seated on the edge of the bed, wiping his brow. They had lived together for more than seventy years.

“Tell me, Trudy, do you remember the Depression years when we barely had enough to get by?” he asked her.

“Of course. I remember. I was with you through all that,” Trudy answered.

“Do you remember the lean years after the war, when I was working two jobs and going to school?”

“Of course. I was with you then too, my love.”

“Were you with me when I lost my job?”

“Of course, my love. I’ve been with you. Always.”

Melvin was silent for a moment. Then he looked at his loving wife, “You see Trudy, I think you were bad luck.”

The second rupture of relationship? Blame and criticism, pushing others away and projections.
And the third relationship killer? Something called the inner tyrant—insisting that you get to call the shots, that you must be the one in control, that you get to be the judge and the jury on your own life, and everyone else’s.

This story is true. One of my nephews was asked by his mother (when he was 3 ½ years old), “Please pick up your toys now.” And he turned to his Mom with hands on his hips and said, “You’re not the boss of me!”

What happens when we get older? When adults say to God, say to their neighbor, say to their spouse, say to their boss, “You’re not the boss of me!” While no one ought to be bullied or pushed around, sometimes we take our independence so seriously that we forget that we are called to work with, to comfort and to adjust. But the little, inner tyrant only wants to have its own way.
Divisiveness, blame and arrogance all cut at the root of our connectedness with one another and with God. All of the common human failings call us to repentance. All remind us that we need to turn in new directions. Ashes and sackcloth and traditional fasting will not do. We are called in this Lenten season to return to what is most essential. And when it comes to right relationship there are three actions that can begin to heal our wounds: service, sustainability, and vulnerability.

Beginning with service. Bob Dylan wrote, “You are going to have to serve somebody…well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody!” But why stop with those two choices? You can serve your own selfish, small agenda or you can serve the Beloved Community. You can serve the least of them or the most powerful. You can serve the highest and most enduring vision you’ve ever encountered, or you can sit at the altar of your television set, and serve the gods of entertainment. When we serve and how we serve and who we serve – these are choices we make with every breath we take.

Next: sustainability. Right relationship takes us immediately into our responsibility for the environment. Once we become conscious that our well-being (and our neighbor in Africa’s well-being) has everything to do with how our resources are used and allotted. (And that there are consequences to what we eat, and how we travel and what we buy and what we throw away) then we find ourselves within a “luminous organism of sacred responsibility.” This becomes our vocation and our privilege.

And the final remedy to bring us back into right relationship would be vulnerability. A subject that I know almost nothing about. Vulnerability is the capacity to face the challenges of your life with an open heart, with trust, with a willingness to take great risks, and to move closer to everyone you meet.

It is a mystery. It happened on that bus in Munich between strangers. It may happen in coffee hour after church today. It is the ongoing miraculous decision not to be afraid, guarded, independent or alone. It is to let the marble fall away from our shining surfaces and to greet one another as just one more struggling soul whom we have the opportunity to bless.

Right relationship, that is our calling. That is our sacred responsibility. That is what will teach us to live in peace.


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