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.
We will need to return to these principles over and over again in the months to come to give us guidance, but principles are hard-edged things; there is little of comfort to be found there. The sources of our faith are of more help: the ground upon which we walk, the wisdom from which we draw. We all probably have particular strands of our traditions to which we turn, but for me it is the Hebrew poets that speak to me when my heart is broken.
Like these words of Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. …The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day nor the moon by night. The lord shall preserve thee from all evil; he shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”
At a time of crisis these words speak to me beyond all rational thought. I don’t quibble with the theology; I don’t parse interpretations. These words don’t tell me that tragedy is the fault of God, nor that prayer to God can save us from tragedy. They tell me that God is present in all things, in the terror and in the hope, in the love and even in the hate; present as a pulse in the heart that tells us we are alive. You may find other messages from our traditions to which you cling. They all point to a common theme: we are all interconnected by love even when that love is hard to feel.
From David Whyte’s “Self Portrait”:
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods. I want to know you belong, or feel abandoned. If you know despair or can see it in others. I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you. If you can look back with firm eyes saying, this is where I stand. I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living, falling toward the center of your longing. I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat. I have been told, in that fierce embrace, even the gods talk of God.
Even when we have different words to describe the manifestation of this feeling, our tradition teaches us that what binds us all together as a people is covenant – a covenant which reminds us we are not alone, a covenant which calls upon us to reach out to one another, a covenant that holds us together as faithful people, a covenant that asks us every day how we will live with the consequence of love and sure defeat.
You remind each other of this covenant every week: “We give ourselves one unto another, covenanting to walk together as a congregation, promising faithfully to watch over one another, and to delight for love to abide in our midst.” One of the things that has been so lovely to watch in this congregation over the years of this shared ministry is the growth in how you live out this covenant. Whether you say it in everything you do, it is more manifest than in almost any other congregation I’ve seen.
From the beginning of your ministry together you decided that you would not let disagreements about how to address issues of great import divide you. Having gone through, as most congregations do, rancorous debates and scorched feelings, you sought a way to hold one another in covenant as you worked through beg decisions. You drew upon the complementary gifts of Martha and Jim and found a way to create circles of conversation that are infused with reminders of the values you hold dear. You’ve used these circles of discernment at every critical stage of your journey together and are using them right now as you move into the next phase of your journey. I have actually asked you to teach other congregations about this practice since you do it so well.
This is not just a nice way of saying you really, really know how to talk a lot! Nor is it to pretend it has always been easy or that people have not been hurt or confused or angry. Even when these constant human traits are present, you know how to create a container for them which reminds you of the common values you affirm.
I believe you are at a stage in your journey when you need to learn to take this skill and this gift out into the world. While our covenant calls us most clearly into relationship with one another, there is another dimension to covenant that asks you to consider your relationship to the wider world. And if there is ever a time that the world needs the values you have practiced it is now.
Douglas Steere, a Quaker teacher, says that the ancient question, “What am I?” inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” – because there is no identity outside of relationships. You can’t be a person by yourself. To ask “Whose Am I?” is to extend the questions far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder: Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?
We do not live our life as a congregation in a vacuum, any more than we live our individual lives in a vacuum. We must ask the questions of who we are called to be in the world at large. In my work at the UUA we are trying to learn how we can help our movement become more accessible and available to those who may be outside the walls of a congregation, and how congregations can “lower their walls” to reach out beyond themselves in partnership with their communities.
We are doing this not because we want to find more ways to add more names to the ledger of Unitarian Universalist members. If we did so that would be lovely, but our call to this work is to place our values in service of a hurting world, and if ever a world is hurting it is now. There are many who share in these values who may not call themselves Unitarian Universalists and it is our work to find them and partner with them in any way that can help bring depth to all of our souls and justice to all of our actions. It is now the work of congregations to send people out, not just to bring them into the fold.
You are in a precious position to offer the gift of conversation to the community. For conversation is what is needed – not posturing or platitudes or patronizing smugness nor righteous blaming. None of us have the answers. None of us can give the right and perfect message to the world. The best we can do is open our hearts to the conversations; conversations undergirded by love and respect, by openness and affirmation, by listening and silence; conversations which allow the presence of the holy to enter, even in the midst of disagreement and pain and anger.
You are blessed by a ministry together that has given you this gift. Take it and use it in the world. Speak of God and humanity in the presence of these:
Anne Marie Murphy
In the presence of these and all of us, speak of God and humanity. Teach it, listen to it, reach out for others in the name of all that is good and holy.