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In the presence of these..

This post is far longer than usual. It is actually a copy of the sermon I preached at the First Parish in Brookline, MA this morning. The occasion was a service recognizing the completion of the co-ministry of Martha Niebanck and Jim Sherblom. It was supposed to be a celebration, but of course turned into something else. Here is the entirety of the sermon:

Martha and Jim: thank you for this invitation to be with you this day. It is a privilege to help commemorate this important occasion in the life of this congregation — this congregation that I now call home, to my joy and pleasure. On this morning of all mornings, I am so grateful to have a religious home.

Though I only joined this church a few years ago, I feel like I have been with you for the entirety of this journey in ministry. You were called just as I began as District Executive in the Mass Bay District. I witnessed the joy of all of you when I conducted your start-up workshop – I heard all the high expectations and fears of not measuring up to the potential of this call. I walked with you through incredibly challenging decisions about issues of great value and concern to many. I worked with your stellar leadership as you found ways to learn and grow in vision and in strength. Looking back now on this span of time and ministry, shared ministry among and between you all, I can say with admiration: well done. Well done, all.

I had much more to say on this subject, and will come back to it again, but of course there are other things that need saying this morning. My original sermon went out the window when the world shifted on its axis on Friday.

Other things need saying, and yet what can be said?
Irving Greenstein once wrote, “Say nothing of God and humanity that cannot be said in the presence of burning children.” I found these words yesterday and they nearly brought me to my knees. What can be said in the presence of such grief and confusion and terror and anger; in the presence of those precious children, those brave teachers; what can be said that can bring the meaning they so justly deserve. Words are so wildly inadequate. And yet, and yet. We must stay in the presence of these children for this time. As hard as it is. And fumble for words about God and humanity.
We turn to our tradition for help. There we find the principles that undergird our faith. A list of words which most of the time we take for granted as relatively straight forward: worth, dignity, equity, compassion, acceptance, freedom and responsibility, peace, liberty, interdependence. All words we skip blithely past most days. But today, say them in the presence of those children. Every one of them feels like a mountain of steel to climb: worth, dignity, compassion, freedom, peace, liberty. Each of them reminders of that for which we strive, yet now feeling vast and unfathomable. Read more

People of the Covenant – Part I

Covenant is a big word these days for Unitarian Universalists. Of course it’s always been a big word for UUs, but particularly so in the last few years when we’ve been struggling for a way to define ourselves theologically. If what binds us together is not a common belief, then it is a relief to find another way to express the depth of what we mean by spiritual community.

I heard a lovely sermon yesterday delivered by my colleague Sarah Lammert, who asked us to think of covenant as being a spiritual obligation to anyone around us, not only “our” people. Indeed, how would that shape our sense of covenant if we understood it not necessarily to be that which is agreed upon by a community or between two people, but a way of being in the world?

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Instant Community

It had been a while since I was on a two propeller plane.  I was on my way to Binghamton for a regional meeting, and saw the little thing sitting there on the runway.  I travel all the time, and pride myself on being intrepid, but for some reason this one made me a little nervous.

Nevertheless I got on board, and sure enough, the little thing managed to get into the air, if a little wobbly.  I was sitting on the wing, looking out to the right, when I noticed the propellor was slowing…then stopped.

Well surely, I thought, there must be a backup engine that kicks in after take-off.  I looked to my left, and that propellor was still going.  Hmmm.  Hmmm.  The flight attendant was looking more attendant.  Nobody else seemed to notice.  Must be no big deal.  After a long five minutes the pilot came on to explain that the right propeller had failed.  Happens all the time (well, not all the time, but sometimes and its just fine).  We’ll just turn around and go back.  No need to worry.

We’re all so well-trained now to be obedient in air travel, and so we waited obediently. I saw the young mother in front of me pull her two year old son much closer.  The elderly veteran to my left smiled encouragingly at us all.  The young woman to my right suddenly turned to me and started talking about all that she noticed around her.  Instantly we were a community — attuned to one another and engaged in a common enterprise– the task of coming to terms with life, with what was most meaningful and present to us in that moment.

We made it back fine, if a little rockily.   And we sat huddled together in the terminal waiting for our next plane feeling connected and displaced at the same time.

Community can happen in an instant.  I know there is a particular kind of community that happens when people engage with one another over time and through many different kinds of experiences — people who choose to be with one another.  And then there’s another kind of community that can come when we least expect it, and are not trying to construct it.  It happens to us, and we only have two choices at that point: respond with openness or close down into our own fear.  Religious community is like that.  We can work really hard to construct our perfect version of what we want to surround ourselves with.  Or we can be open to something unexpected and unbidden that speaks to us of life’s energy at its core.  The two aren’t mutually exclusive of course, but I wonder how often we give credence to the second kind, or think about how we might respond when community happens.  When spirit is born.

Hope – finding the courage to work for something because it is good.

One of the greatest icons of the 20th century died December 17, 2011.  Vaclev Havel was a playwright, a moralist, and a President, among many other things.  The fact that he could combine all three of those with integrity should offer a sign of his extraordinary nature.

In the elegies that I’ve read of him in the last few days, what most people miss is that he was above all a theologian, even if he didn’t believe in God.  Read more